Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson

Rating: 8/10

Published: 1997
Number of pages: 350
ISBN: 0552997021

Started: 30 November 2007
Finished: 6 December 2007

Summary (taken from blurb):

The longest continuous footpath in the world, the Appalachian Trail stretches along the East Coast of the United States, from Georgia to Maine, through some of the most arresting and celebrated landscapes in America.

At the age of forty-four, in the company of his friend Stephen Katz (last seen in the bestselling Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson sets off to hike through the vast tangled woods which have been frightening sensible people for three hundred years. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing ticks, the occasional chuckling murderer and - perhaps most alarming of all - people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime's ambition - not to die outdoors.

I started this book a couple of weeks after finishing Jack Kerouac's The Town and the City. That book fired up in me a big desire to visit the US, and this book has made it even worse! Despite the dangers that Bryson gleefully points out, he paints an irresistible picture of the Appalachian Trail and surrounding countryside.

As someone who has done a bit of bushwalking, I could empathise with the difficulties faced by Bryson and Katz, particularly at the beginning of their trip. I couldn't resist reading a couple of passages out to my Dad to show him that we haven't been alone in our difficulties. The comparisons ended there though; whereas my bushwalking experiences have been limited to a couple of days, Bryson and Katz went on for weeks. How they did it I'll never know, but I know that I would love to give just a small section of this track a go. It sounds incredible.

Once again, Bill Bryson has written a hugely entertaining travel book and A Walk in the Woods is now one of my favourites of his. My only gripe is that I always seemed to reach the funniest sections of this book while reading on the train during my daily commute. When will I learn not to read Bryson in public? It's just too hard and embarrassing trying to contain the laughter.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Rating: 6/10

Published: 1915
Number of pages: 254
ISBN: 1600961940

Started: 27 November 2007
Finished: 30 November 2007

Summary (taken from blurb):

The late Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, better known as John Buchan, needs no introduction. As a teller of adventure stories he has few rivals, in fact he may be regarded as the inventor of the modern thriller, a breathless story of exciting and mysterious happenings following close upon one another. One of the most famous of these stories is The Thirty-Nine Steps, which, written during the last World War, is a vivid tale of the tracking down of an ingenious band of German spies. The tale has been made even better known through the screen version of Alfred Hitchcock.

This is an enjoyable read that requires the reader to somewhat suspend their disbelief because there are so many amazing coincidences and escapes that are so conveniently timed that it becomes a little distracting. However, because this is one of the original thrillers, I can forgive all that and enjoy it for the fun read that it was - not too heavy or taxing. Recommended.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Rating: 8/10

Published: 2001
Number of pages: 372
ISBN: 0099429799

Started: 16 November 2007
Finished: 27 November 2007

Summary (taken from blurb):

On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecelia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecelia, has recently come down from Cambridge.

By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed for ever. Robbie and Cecelia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl's imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.

This is the first novel of Ian McEwan's that I have read and it likely won't be the last. I found his writing style to be absolutely beautiful. And I've found that where wonderful writing is concerned, I'm much more amenable to forgiving plot holes and other irritating aspects of a novel, and this one certainly had a few of those.

I found the first part of the story very slow going. There was a lot of nice writing but not much actually happened until the very end. I thought that this section could have been made a lot shorter without actually taking anything away from the book. I enjoyed the second section a lot more. In the context of the rest of the story, it probably could also have been made shorter, but historically it was very interesting to me (not previously knowing much about this particular event).

Like others, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. I thought it was a bit of a cop-out. Highlight to view spoiler: I didn't like being tricked into thinking the story ended one way, only to find that it ended differently. I also think that if Briony was really trying to atone for her crime, then she should have told the story the way it really happened. I recall there being an explanation of this at the end, but it wasn't to my satisfaction.

The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac

Rating: 9/10

Published: 1950
Number of pages: 499
ISBN: 0141182237

Started: 19 October 2007
Finished: 14 November 2007

Summary (taken from blurb):

The town is Galloway in Massachusetts, birthplace of the five sons and three daughters of the Martin family in the early 1900s. The city is New York, the vast and heaving melting pot which lures them all in search of futures and identity.

Nearly a decade before the publication of On The Road, the story of the Martins' epic transformation in The Town and the City marked the first true literary impact of the founding father of the Beat Generation. Inspired by grief over his father's death, and his own determination to write the Great American Novel, The Town and the City is an essential prelude to Jack Kerouac's later classics.

I thoroughly enjoyed this epic story of the Martin's lives over the decades. I don't think I've ever read a book that has so inspired in me the will to jump on the next plane to America so I can have these experiences myself. It truly is the Great American Novel. The descriptions of characters and places are vividly portrayed and the story has all you could hope for in a great novel: it's moving, irritating, amusing, heart-breaking.

I had a little trouble identifying with any of the characters. Kerouac spends a large part of the beginning of the novel describing all of the characters in detail - so much detail that the personality traits he describes in his characters start becoming contradictory. And despite there being three daughters and a mother in the story, comparatively little time was spent discussing them and their lives compared to the father and sons. This irked me a little ('typical 1950s sexism', I thought), until I realised that this is largely an autobiographical account of Kerouac's early life. Kerouac has, in effect, split his own self into three of the sons: Peter, Jim and Francis. Maybe this is why I had trouble identifying with them.

This was Kerouac's first novel, and as such is written in a much more conventional manner than his later works. However, you can start to see his own unique style coming out in this book. It's very interesting to see. Very highly recommended.