Thursday, 10 December 2015

"At Home: A Short History of Private Life" by Bill Bryson - December 2015

In "At Home", Bill Bryson takes his readers on a tour of his Victorian, ex-vicarage, Norfolk home. Taking them from room to room, readers learned about the history of the specific room they found themselves in, and the everyday items within it. The reading of any random chapter revealed the depth and width of research that the author had undertaken, which he offered readers in a clear, often amusing and never patronising way: Bill Bryson wears his knowledge lightly, but transmits it in an entertaining style.

Particularly enjoyed was the way that the author seemed to, in an Eddie Izzard manner, “wander off-theme”. In the chapter headed The Passage, one learned that by “the early twentieth century, 10 per cent of all British aristocrat marriages were to (wealthy) Americans”. Why should that snippet of information be there? There was a link and it was fun following it as it was learning the origins of certain words; read this book and one will learn, amongst a myriad of things, the origin of "curfew" (from "couvre-feu", covering up the fire for the night).

The reading group all agreed that this book was an interesting, informative and well written read. One member found the book fascinating and insightful on life and the way people lived it. Everyone enjoyed the book, even if a few found it rather long. This particular reader, however, could have had a larger helping of the book, so pleasurable and erudite did she find it.
By Jasmina

"Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow - November 2015

This was a brilliant, exuberant book, stuffed to the gills with literary references and all sorts of knowledge. This wasn’t a light fluffy meal to digest quickly, this was like chomping on a nutrient-rich power bar that packs every element you need to survive. It took most members of the group weeks to read it, and it also wasn’t easy to read it for long periods of time, because you had to give your brain a rest!! Saul Bellow’s brain gives us this extraordinary collection of information, almost as if he was wordily chronicling every thought his great head churned out during a mental breakdown – on speed. He stayed witty and funny and with a twinkle in his eye throughout his sprawling story of Charlie Citrine (himself) trying to love, to live, to write, to be left alone, to be entertained, to live up to his ideals, to come to terms with his shortcomings; to cope with love, money, and the thought of death. It was a wonderful ride just to listen to the author seemingly randomly rambling on. (Of course it wasn't random at all). The story of Charlie Citrine’s life was almost incidental to his musings on eternal life, life after death, the love he feels for his girlfriend Renata and several other women, his soul, his attraction to unsavoury characters (Chicaco criminals, shady lawyers…), his admiration for his mentor Von Humboldt’s work – and his concern for his friend’s descent into poverty and madness. Bellow manages to pack so much into his book: critiquing and analysing of capitalism in America… sending up and dismantling religion, criminality, and American culture (in literary circles and otherwise) with his wit…

A couple of things stuck with members of our group: The lively description and sheer hilarity of Citrine’s dealing with the gangster Cantabile, who basically kidnaps Citrine, abuses and ridicules him, while Citrine seems to be willingly following his lead – out of curiosity and maybe boredom more than fear, it seems. Another scene was the casual brutality of a husband punching his wife at a party, suspecting her to cheat on him, without anybody at the party reacting to this.

We felt that Bellow’s characters were always slightly embellished, caricatured, to make a point, but always so wonderfully and lively described, that we couldn’t help be enchanted by them. A great literary feast.
By Cordula