Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Review Post, 12/10/10

Bill Bryson - At Home

Bryson is an American, living in Britain, who has a history in journalism. He is a keen observer of human behavior.  Further, he is clearly a voracious info-vore - he devours information. Bryson's great talent lies in presenting this vast accumulation of information in a clear, fantastically readable, and utterly enjoyable way, filled with humor and intelligence.
This book, in that regard, is no different from his earlier work. As always, Bryson writes with exuberance and verve. His goal here was to write a history of the world without leaving home - to use the lens of ordinary household objects (like his salt and pepper shakers, or his telephone) to investigate the history of how we got to where we are now.  He flits from topic to topic, covering everything from prehistoric settlements (and the early archaeologists who investigated them) to the use of steel in architecture; from the Columbian exchange of goods and diseases to the efforts by doctors to make basic medical procedures safer, and through all manner of things in between.

For the most part, this book is delightful, but a little exhausting. Bryson does jump around a lot, and if you're not ready for it, his writing style can take a little getting used to. This is especially true in a book like this - his travel literature tends to be more focused, because of the strong narrative thread of his travel. Further, while Bryson jumps around only a little within each chapter, the jumps between chapters are quite a bit more dramatic. One chapter will be on formal dining, for instance, and the next is on the development of indoor plumbing, and the next on fashion. This does make it easy to read chapters out of order, and Bryson seems to have anticipated this, by including references to material he has covered in more depth earlier in the work - "so and so, you may recall, was the focus of chapter x", and the like.

Some caveats. For those who are squeemish about the fauna we share our modern habitats with - from the microscopic (bacteria) to the decidedly macroscopic (rats) - the chapter on The Study might be a bit much. You could probably skip it without damaging the book overly. Second, Bryson is a journalist. He is a very good writer, and he does extensive research (his bibliography is quite long, for instance, and his full notes are available online), he is not a historian, and so some of his presentation is a bit sensational. This makes the book sparkle, but scholars might want to consult Bryson's sources rather than rely on his rendering.

All that to one side, this was a remarkably good book, entirely readable, and well worth picking up.

Pierre Pevel - The Cardinal's Blades

This is, as I mentioned when I picked it up from the library, the first English language publication for Pevel, who is French. This work hearkens to the works of Dumas. It is a story of love and hate, revenge and betrayal, spies and musketeers, swashbucklers and dragons.  The dragons are actually mostly off stage - the Spanish court seems to be ruled by reincarnated ancient dragons, but we never actually see any of them. In fact, one might be permitted to ask if the dragons were entirely necessary. In the end, I'm not entirely sure. I quite enjoyed the book, it was a lot of fun, and the dragons certainly didn't take anything away from my enjoyment, but the fantasy was very low key - perhaps this is a reflection of the difference between fantasy in France and fantasy in the US.

The book was lovely - full of sweeping cinematic battle scenes involving fencers leaping across rooftops and jumping out of windows, truly the best sort of swashbuckling fiction, and exactly what you would expect from a book which borrows from Dumas. The periodic touches of historic exposition - such and such was constructed by this king for this purpose, and so and so was designed to do this and that - very nice, and not too heavy.

I have only two complaints.  First, the book was a little slow, for all that it was quite well plotted. This may, again, reflect the difference between popular fiction in France and in the US, and the pace was certainly not a deal breaker, but understand that the book was not a page-turner. Every once in a while, it tipped from slow enough to appreciate the writing craft to too slow - clearly a fine line.  My second complaint is that, in the last major battle, the use of capital letters to indicate shouting was a little off-putting, and probably unnecessary. Had Pevel used this technique throughout the book, it may well have been unreadable. Thankfully, it was only in the last few chapters.

Despite that, a perfectly fine book, and I would happily read more.

In a similar vein, I will recommend The Cardinal's Heir by Jaki Demerest - there are entirely too few books about musketeers currently on the market, and so it would be remiss of me not to bring this one to your attention while I have the chance.