An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Friday, July 29, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson and The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

I started reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything a couple of years ago, and soon found myself hopelessly bogged down. More enticing books beckoned, and I put it aside.
Similarly, it’s taken me at least a few months to get through David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy.
It’s not that these books are not interesting, because they are absolutely chockers with fascinating facts and interesting information. Between the two of them, I feel like I’ve absorbed a fairly large amount of knowledge. No, after a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that  the real problem is the lack of structure and narrative.
Both books start out with vague goals – it’s doesn’t come much more indefinite than a history of “nearly everything,” and you can’t get much more ambitious than attempting to nail down a whole country. Of the two, Bryson’s structure is more consistent throughout the book. Each chapter deals with a specific discipline and its history, such as geology, astronomy, and physics. David Gilmour on the other hand starts out by describing various aspects of contemporary Italy (which was utterly absorbing) and then jumps backwards and goes through the history of Italy in chronological order. His book picks up again towards the end, but the middle section dealing with events in the various kingdoms prior to unification is something of a hard slog. Of course, this may just reflect the fact that this was not a particularly interesting period of time (at least for non-Italians),
Because of the broad subject matter they are attempting to cover, these books don’t tend to go into deep analysis of their subject, although David Gilmour does make an effort in this direction towards the end. Both authors write well, with an informal tone that engages the reader. Bryson in particular has become so well know n that he could get away with a much lesser book, but I was impressed by the amount of research that he put in in order to explain difficult concepts in plain language. It must have been a monumental undertaking. David Gilmour’s book is similarly well-researched and unlike Bryson the author is familiar enough with his field to offer his own insights on some of the sources he cites.
I ended up taking these two books to the beach. They are not everyone’s definition of a beach read, but it turned out that they were perfect for the disjoined nature of summer reading. I would read a chapter, have a swim, come back and pick up where I left off. To extrapolate out, I think these books are best tackled in small chunks – to read from beginning to end is to ask for fact fatigue, when all the information starts to blur into a monotonous whole. These books deserve better than that, and if you make the effort they are truly rewarding reads.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Manhattan Dreaming by Anita Heiss

There are books that are good for you like all-bran or brussel sprouts, and there are books that are the mental equivalent of junk food – tasty, devoured in a flash, but vaguely unsatisfying (hello, Dan Brown).
In Manhattan Dreaming, Anita Heiss tries to have a foot in both camps by creating chick-lit with a message. Serious points about Aboriginal rights are disguised inside a frothy story about finding love in New York.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if the disguise was actually convincing. I wanted to overlook the constant moralising, because I liked this book a lot. But every few pages Heiss would pour a metaphorical bucket of cold water on the story by having her characters make a serious point about indigenous rights and racial equality in general. Perhaps people do have these earnest conversations in real life (although I have my doubts) but frankly I can do without being lectured when reading fiction.
So apart from the morality issue, what was my view on the book? I read it on a plane, and found it to be perfect plane reading. The characters were well-developed, and I didn’t end up wanting to shake the main character while yelling “get over it!” (always a good sign). The story was engaging, predictable to a point but not simplistic. I think Heiss has real potential as a writer.
But oh, those morals. I like the idea of an aboriginal woman in New York – the setup would have worked fine on its own to gently get the point across. But Heiss feels the need to add paragraphs like this:
“We have the same discussions back home,” I told him. “What constitutes “Aboriginal Art” and who is an “Aboriginal Artist”? It’s complex and takes the focus away from the art itself, which is problematic.”
Or, have you ever heard anyone, whatever their race, say “I hate being the exotic ‘other’?” As a line of dialogue it comes straight from a thesis and it shows.
I don’t believe that Heiss should leave the Aboriginal perspective out of her books, and I’ll admit that I learned some things about Aboriginal culture while reading Manhattan Dreaming. However, I do think that she needs to avoid lecturing readers. If her goal is putting forward Aboriginal and Indigenous perspectives, in the long run subtlety is likely to be more effective.
The verdict? I’m happy for my chick-lit to come with a message, but I don’t like to be hit over the head with it. Heiss may be a Adjunct Associate Professor but she should save the lectures for the classroom.