Friday, September 27, 2013

Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

This is only the second Bill Bryon book I've read, the first being A Walk in the Woods, which I read three years ago. Bill Bryson lived in England for 20 years after marrying a British woman, and before moving to the United States, he took a 6-week trip traveling around Britain and chronicling his trip. I read this for my book group, and we had a great evening discussing the book, especially as we have a British woman in our book group. It's a love story to Britain--even though it was published in the mid-1990s, so much still applies. Here are some memorable thoughts from the book:

  • The charming way the British react to tea and a plate of biscuits: "ooh lovely!"
  • Bryson writes about how unfortunate it is that communism was left to the Russians instead of the British, who "clearly would have managed it so much better." He talks about their ability to go without, how they are great at pulling together in the face of adversity for a perceived common they "queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets, and sudden inconvenient shortages." He goes on about how they are "comfortable with faceless bureaucracies, tolerant of dictatorships (as Margaret Thatcher proved), will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or delivery of a household appliance." They have a "natural gift for making excellent, muttered jokes about authority without ever actually challenging it...they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low...most of those above the age of 28 already dress like East Germans. Britain would have done it properly, taken it in stride, with good heart, and without excessive cheating."
  • He says that the British are easy to please: "They have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their own happiness. Easy to their pleasures many of their treats are cautiously flavorful...they are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake...offer them something genuinely tempting (a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates), and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest throshold is vaguely unseemly. 'Oh, I shouldn't really...'"
  • In the late 1980s the European Union issued a directive about standards of ocean-borne sewage on beaches, and nearly every British seaside town failed to come anywhere near the minimum compliance levels. So instead of cleaning them up, the Thatcher government decided that Britain would not have any "beaches." Nowadays, they are labeled beaches, but they still have a serious sewage problem. I'll remember this next time we go to a British seaside!
  • One of my favorite anecdotes was when he visited a pub in Glasgow and couldn't understand a thing the bartender was saying...such as "D'ye hae a hoo and a poo?" "D'ye nae hae in May? If ye dinna dock ma donny." "Doon in Troon they croon in June, wi' a spoon."
I actually enjoyed the anecdotes and thoughts about Britain and the British more than the traveling bits. Bryson gets a bit grumpy at times, but it's clear that he really loves Great Britain. He ends the book with this:

“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but,' people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.
What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Speaker of the House of Commons to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.
How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.
All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you.” 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs

I finally got around to reading this book, one of the grand one-year experiments that I am fascinated by. (I actually first read the book that Jacobs' protege wrote, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.) After reading the entire encyclopedia from start to finish during one year, A.J. Jacobs spent a year of his life trying to follow as many biblical tenets as possible. As a secular Jew, he didn't really know much about the Bible, but this made him an especially objective participant in trying to follow the bible's many rules.

One of the first things I was delighted to discover, a few pages in, was that A.J. Jacobs consulted a number of biblical and theological experts during his journey...and one of the subject matter experts he consulted several times was Rev. Eldon Richards, a retired pastor who calls himself a "pastor out to pasture," and who happens to be the mentor and friend of my own Lutheran pastor. So that was very exciting! Pastor Eldon says all sorts of inspirational things such as (discussing that some people will not take him seriously in his quest, because he's not a practicing Jew or Christian): "You just have to tell them that you have a hunger and a thirst, and you may not sit at the same banquet table as them, but you have a hunger and a thirst. So they shouldn't judge you."

Jacobs focuses most of his year on the Old Testament, since it does have more rules, and only a few months on the New Testament. He cataloged a long list of archaic commandments and laws to follow. He stopped shaving his face and cutting his beard, resulting in this unruly hair growth:

He and his poor, long-suffering wife were trying to get pregnant again during this biblical year, and the task of being fruitful and multiplying was made more difficult by the fact that he couldn't touch her for several days after her menstrual period. (I think I would have gotten so fed up with him during that year that it would have taken any romance right out of the marriage!) He carried a little stool around everywhere he went so he wouldn't have to occupy the space where a menstruating woman had previously sat. One of the best anecdotes in the book was when he returned home one day to be informed that his (menstruating) wife had sat on every single sitting space in his apartment, just to annoy him! 

Jacobs in full biblical regalia
Some laws, of course, were impossible to follow (such as sacrificing animals and offspring!), although he gets as close as he can to doing these things. He (sort of) stones an adulterer, dresses all in white, writes the Ten Commandments on his door frame, gets a slave intern (the aforementioned protege, Kevin Roose), tries to discipline his son more effectively and honor his parents, does what he can to avoid lying, tries to stop coveting other people's things (a constant challenge), wears clothing without mixed fibers, changes his eating habits, circumcises his sons (not just because of the experiment, but mostly because of his Jewish heritage), tithes 1/10th of his income, visits the Holy Land, consults with many spiritual advisers, explores a wide variety of biblical rule-following traditions (Amish, hardcore creationists, polygamists, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.), and prays and meditates, among other activities. 

At first it felt like he was just going along with the motions, but eventually he actually felt something when he would pray. He wasn't sure what exactly, but something: 

“I'm still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance.” 

Throughout this experiment, Jacobs proves the point that you cannot really understand the true spirit of the Bible simply by following rules and laws. I felt that the focus on the New Testament was seriously lacking in this book...along with the words and actions of Jesus that instruct us to love our neighbors, practice radical compassion, care for the poor and downtrodden, and stand up for justice. 

Here's an example: one day he and his wife ran into an old college acquaintance of hers in a coffee shop. After they had caught up for several minutes, the woman mentioned getting the families together again in the future. Jacobs, called to be totally honest and not lie, flatly said he wasn't interested...he already had enough friends and he doesn't want any new ones. His wife, of course, was horrified and embarrassed. Part of me wished I had the guts and honesty to speak this kind of thing aloud (because I must admit that I have often thought this myself--I am very selective about my friendships!), but on the other hand, would this have been what Jesus would have done? No way. 

Even though Jacobs recognizes that life is sacred in the end, he doesn't really seem to grasp the prophecy of Jesus through his little experiment. But maybe that is the point after all. The bible, taken at face value and literally, is worthless without the spirit and grace flowing throughout it.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)
The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith

Unless you've been sleeping under a rock, you'll know that this is the latest book, a debut mystery, by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Its protagonist is Cormoran Strike, a private investigator who lost his leg while a soldier in Afghanistan. A bit of a tragic figure, he has just broken up with his manipulative, cruel, but beautiful girlfriend. He owes tons of money and is living in his office.

Cormoran is hired to figure out whether supermodel Lula Landry really killed herself, or if she was murdered. He, along with his temporary secretary Robin, dabble in the world of fashion designers, druggies, and movie producers, most wealthy and competitive. Editor David Shelley apparently first read the novel without knowing of its true author and expressed surprise that a woman had written the novel...she writes from a man's (and a soldier's) perspective that well.

I was reading out examples of classically British English to my British husband all through this book. So glad they didn't try to edit it to suit American audiences. I suspect that some American readers might not understand every single word or phrase without looking things up...just fine with me. It's truly a London novel, too.

J.K. Rowling is a master, and she deftly handles this detective genre, just as she did middle grade/young adult fantasy and literature (The Casual Vacancy). I will definitely be reading her next Cormoran Strike novel!

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last StandMajor Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

This book was my book group's selection for August. Major Pettigrew is an old-school English military man, of the type we wouldn't typically find in the United States. He insists on being called "major," even by civilians. As a widower and father of a shallow, materialistic son, he doesn't seem to have much purpose in his life until he finds late-blooming love.

The object of his affection is a Pakistani shop keeper in his small village, Mrs. Ali, also a widow. Of course, the narrow-minded villagers, along with Major Pettigrew's and Mrs. Ali's own family members, do not think very highly of their blossoming relationship.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand has been described as Austenesque, and I would agree with that. Two unlikely lovers, humorous (and horrifyingly obtuse) situations and people in the midst of serious issues, and exquisite storytelling. We had an interesting discussion at my book group meeting about how English this story was...the English woman in my book group didn't necessarily agree, but I think many things about the story are quintessentially English. Perhaps it's just a matter of a small English village--even our American small towns are not quite the same way--or the class structure so firmly entrenched in English culture and history.

Although Major Pettigrew starts out as an uptight English snob, he evolves during the novel.

The ending seemed a bit far-fetched, but I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it!