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The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Hardcover
78 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Who was the more lost – the subcontinent or Bill Bryson?, May 27, 2016
Clutching his map but armed with no more local information than a friend may have imparted to him once during a conversation, Bill Bryson has an endearingly random way of traveling around small town America, which results in him mostly visiting places nobody in their rights minds would want to go to. Either there is nothing there worth seeing in the first place or there are a million people there combing through it frantically in the hope of acquiring mountains of tatalicious souvenirs while stocks last.

Of course, the litany of disappointment and sometimes downright misery that result serves to feed Mr. Bryson's penchant for highly entertaining kvetching, but this is no encyclopedic travel guide.

Take his description of the Gold Country in Northern California and Western Nevada. He commented that there weren't any signs of gold mining towns as he passed through the area. Hmmm. Well, he spent the night in Sonora (which is pretty, but he didn't like his motel – he should have tried the Sonora Inn Hotel) and then totally missed Columbia about five miles away, which is a fully preserved Gold Rush town with two excellently authentic Gold Rush era hotels, the City Hotel and its old theater annex, and St. Anne's, the oldest brick-built church in California. Then skipping past Jamestown and its historic center, he climbed to Jackson, not only avoiding the main street with yet another Gold Rush era hotel (the National) and one of the best second hand bookshops in America, but also skirting Mokelumne Hill and Volcano, a California historical landmark which is completely untouristy. In Mokelumne Hill, there is the Hotel Léger where the proprietor, Georges Léger, was reputedly shot dead in his bed by a gold miner whose wife he was borrowing – or should that be 'burrowing'? – at the time. Mr. Bryson then managed to glide past Sutter Creek, Amador City, and Placerville, all gold mining towns, largely preserved, although Amador City is tiny and easily overlooked, it has to be admitted.

Bill then headed for Lake Tahoe, which had been recommended to him but which he decided not to visit, thus escaping the sight of one of the three most beautiful lakes in the world, The Ridge on the peak of Heavenly with its staggering Eagle's Nest views, the David Walley hot spring pools that Mark Twain much enjoyed, and Genoa from which the early Mormon pioneers were evicted, and with one of Raquel Welsh's old bras in the local bar (she reputedly demanded that all the other girls' bras already hanging there be taken down).

He did hit Carson City, but failed to find the historic center, and neglected to turn off for Virginia City, the entirely preserved town that built San Francisco, or Truckee, a charming historic logging town. Naturally, nearby Grass Valley, which made Bowers Bourn the richest man in the world, and Auburn, next door to Sutters Mill, where the first gold was found by James Marshall in 1848, were completely out of the question.

If he had traveled up to the north of Lake Tahoe, enjoying magnificent views much of the way, he would also have discovered Cal Neva, the Mafia-owned complex fronted by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin that straddles the California-Nevada border, where Mob bosses, standing on Californian soil, because they were black-booked from entering Nevada, could discuss business with casino bosses across the room, standing on Nevada soil. Several undercover FBI agents disappeared from there to go to feed the fishes, and it is said that it was there that Sam Giancana plotted the murder of Marilyn Monroe, who tried to save them the bother by attempting suicide herself while staying there.

… And all those gems were missed within the space of about five pages of this book. On the other hand, there wouldn't have only been five pages if he hadn't missed them.

All of which is not in any way to decry the ever-enjoyable experience of spending several contented hours in Bill Bryson's company. He may be the traveler's answer to Mister Magoo, but I nevertheless couldn't wait to read the next paragraph, then the next, then the next …

Did I forget to tell you that in driving from LA into the Central Valley, he missed twenty-one Franciscan missions, the Danish town of Solvang – the home of Andersen's split-pea soup – Morrow Bay, the Big Sur and the legendary stretch of Highway 1 along the California coast, Monterey, Carmel … but managing to visit Fresno, a town that has yet to attract a single word of praise from anyone, ever? No, you are right, such information is irrelevant. It is not that kind of book.

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.09
110 used & new from $11.58

5.0 out of 5 stars The taste and smell of Britain, with even some praise for its food, May 16, 2016
The great thing about Bill Bryson is that he really captures the tone, texture and pace of Britain, that haphazard, lingering drizzle of rain, austerity and depression that seeps into your clothing and stays there until the sun comes out and you notice that much of the landscape of Britain – town and country alike – is simply beautiful.

I did a reverse commute to Mr. Bryson; I moved from Britain to the USA, so I am, as ever, intrigued as to what he sees in the place. The quick answer seems to be delightful scenery, a plethora of historical monuments close to wherever he happens to be standing, good beer … and that's about it. According to him, most of Britain is closing down and the British themselves are habitually caustic and miserable, unless they are engaged in doing something silly, in which case they get really happy about nothing much at all, but maybe there is something in that social perversity that appeals to him too.

At the end of the book, I started playing the game of where Mr. Bryson should really live, as I sensed, for him, Britain is a kind of faute de mieux. I moved from Hull – which he didn't bother covering in 'The Road to Little Dribbling,' preferring to visit the even grimmer Grimsby instead – to San Francisco, but I don't think SF would be right for him either: There's not enough pickle to tease his critical taste buds into action in this easy-going, liberal, dress-down, smarten-up kind of place (which reminds me that Branston pickle is one of the few things I would miss about Britain if a shop didn't sell it five blocks away). New York? Well, there are certainly plenty of rude and dismissive people in New York for him to grumble about, and plenty of stories for him to relate, possibly even some dumbing-down ones on the Upper East-side, but overall I would guess New York is too aggressive and frenetic for his shambling ways. Certainly not LA. Maybe Chicago. My wife reckons Napa, but despite the fact that he has lived more often than not in rural bald spots, I see him primarily as 'urban coffee shop guy,' the one who likes to settle himself down in a comfortable chair with a book and a coffee (or beer) and something to nibble, until he becomes restless, at which point he jumps up and takes a walk in the garden or nearby streets, the garden or streets being those of Britain in this case.

Bill Bryson is the ultimate clubbable raconteur, and in 'The Road to Little Dribbling' he has done Britain proud. Many a travel writer plays the 'funny little foreigners' card, as when a British Victorian gentleman encounters a Hottentot and relates the incident at a dinner party on his return home, but Mr. Bryson doesn't do this. He remains warmly observational and at times admirably tight-lipped, yet low-key admiring – very British, in fact. Perhaps he has found his home after all.

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe
The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe
by Douglas Rogers
Edition: Hardcover
38 used & new from $7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A lot to think about, April 21, 2016
As another review of this book said, its huge strength is its sympathy for everyone. It is a true book of forgiveness.

Which is as it should be because the story of Southern Africa continues to be a grim one, especially if you are black. Amid tales of woe about living under the current regimes, we should not forget that the consistent sufferers for centuries in this part of the world are the people whose ancestors have been living here for some 50,000 years, not the other lot who have invaded the place over the last few hundred. While those whites who have remained may be scared, they are rarely living in corrugated iron shacks without food or running water, dying of AIDS. Nor are they being killed; tales of thousands of white farmers being murdered in their beds are complete nonsense. No human rights organization can find any evidence of this phenomenon whatsoever.

Obviously Douglas Rogers approaches this story from a white perspective because that is what he is. However, despite quoting some somewhat dubious facts - that white farmers were being murdered in their beds and that white farmers only owned 14 percent of farmland in Zimbabwe when Mugabe took over, for two - he does have an ear for everyone, their considerable tribulations and their minor triumphs. To what extent this openness is owed to the fact that he is living in the U.S. now, I don't know. I have rarely come across such an inclusive attitude in Britain, or among white Zimbabweans and South Africans, from whom the story is almost uniformally that Southern Africa was a paradise of civilization until the indigenous people decided to run the place themselves.

So, congratulations to Mr. Rogers for writing a much more sympathetic and intelligent story than one mostly hears from this part of the world, and a really exciting and fun one too. May everyone concerned enjoy less interesting times in the future.

Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome
Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome
by Robert Harris
Edition: Hardcover
58 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, and a little scary, April 6, 2016
I see that one of the very few negative reviews here complains that 'Conspirata' is too historically accurate for its own good when it could have been a potboiler with half the accuracy and twice the swashbuckle. What is the point? he asks. He might as well have read a history book.

That may be the best description of 'dumbing down' I have ever read. Don't bore me with your oh-so-accurate portraits of the key players when the most powerful country in the world tumbled from a fragile democracy into a 400 plus year dictatorship; give me Danielle Steele!

The point of this book is in the parallels to, and differences from, various political systems in modern times, not least the American one, and in the smell and taste of the key players described in a way that will be missing in a straight historical account which will be constrained by the laws of evidence from telling the likely truth.

The whole of this trilogy is superb. Carry it under your arm as you watch the 2016 US election. Who might be playing Crassus, for instance (as a hint, there are probably two of them)? Who gets to play Clodius, the patrician who is slumming it to get the popular vote? Is there a Caesar in the house, a man of overarching ambition? I am having a bit of a problem casting Pompey, though. I think he was knocked out early in the primaries or maybe he thought of running as an independent and decided against it - yes, that would have been he.

Do not doubt that this tale of power-hunger, pride, chicanery and sheer merciless brutality could make for anything other than a fascinating book.

Border Songs
Border Songs
by Jim Lynch
Edition: Hardcover
85 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Resonant, atmospheric writing that addresses some big issues of the day, March 23, 2016
This review is from: Border Songs (Hardcover)
'Border Songs' is set on the border between British Columbia and Washington State, which is not an area I know anything about. The border itself seems to be somewhat disputed but is generally described by a ditch in this locality, a ditch and border that everyone is trying to sneak across as drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and, occasionally, terrorists.

Nobody really knew what to do with Brandon, who is a at least a partially autistic gentle giant with a gift for art and managing livestock, until his father signs him up for Border Control where his intimate knowledge of nature and his eye for the minutest of details make him a huge success at spotting and apprehending transgressors.

So what is the book really about?

Firstly, I would say it is about the social importance of even the most minimal of borders or barriers. Living a few yards apart, the Canadians have a jaundiced view of their American neighbors and vice-versa.

It is also about the futility of the drugs war and immigration laws, and how they are subject to political fads - at one moment (this moment, in fact) appearing all-important and at other moments appearing completely stupid.

It is also about law and order, and about how even the most law-abiding of citizens will cut corners and break laws if the law is stupid enough and the rewards high enough.

Finally, it is about how someone with old-fashioned interests (the natural world) and old-fashioned attitudes (an intense eye for detail) can, under some circumstances, outsmart even the latest technology. Related to this, it is also about the loss of relevance of the old-fashioned, rustic world to urban priorities that care not at all whether a piece of land farmed for generations is used for livestock, raspberries, leisure or drug production - whatever the use, it has to be economically sustainable and that is it.

For a book that appears to be so gently-flowing and quirky, it actually packs quite a punch as a microcosm of some of the big issues afflicting society. It also shows how, if you create sympathy for a key character, you can make the reader cheer him/her on over activities you would normally be opposed to or lack all interest in. I especially loved all the references to birds found in the area and some of the descriptions of the legal and regularity technicalities farmers have to observe were a bit jaw-dropping.

This is a book that creeps up on you both in terms of the characters and the importance of the story being told. I have certainly put down many a book recently that had great characters and a compelling story line, but at a certain point I asked myself, 'So what?' and stopped reading them. I never even considered dropping this book halfway through. It felt important and was important, in its quiet, unmelodramatic way.

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Majesticum, March 18, 2016
I came to 'Imperium' via 'Dictator,' which I am obviously going to have to read again after 'Conspirata / Lustrum' which I have just ordered. I did Roman History and Cicero so many years ago that it was called Contemporary Politics in those days, and that is exactly how these books feel, making them excellent reads for the year 2016 in the U.S.. The topics then and now include the corruption of money in politics, the existence of nefarious backers trying to buy seats to back their strategies for self-enrichment, the ability to manipulate the media, whether one of the candidates turn into a dictator, the fear of mob rule etc..

Definitely page turning, definitely fascinating, and I would add the adjectives elegant and worthwhile. When you close this book, you will feel you have done yourself a huge favor.

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.60
144 used & new from $4.92

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Turncoat, March 12, 2016
As a Brit, I don't know much about the American War of Independence. If it is taught in British schools now, it wasn't when I was there, and understandably Americans celebrate the outcome rather more than Brits do.

So this was an excellent, detailed, human account to bring me up to speed with events around Boston that helped foment the war. Worse, I spent the entire book as a traitor to my country on the side of the Patriots. Nathaniel Philbrick kept assuring me that most people were torn between their loyalty to the British crown and their love of their new land, but I spent my entire time while reading this book hoping that the Americans would win.

It is quite a book that keeps you in suspense when you know exactly what the outcome was from the start and when you cheer for the other side.

City of Thieves: A Novel
City of Thieves: A Novel
by David Benioff
Edition: Hardcover
117 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars but many of the better Holocaust books concentrate on the prevailing Jewish humanity in ..., February 12, 2016
There is not much point critiquing a novel that has already been reviewed over a thousand times with an average 4.6 points, but it really is entertaining.

I read it because the guy in Books Inc on Union Street, San Francisco, refused to let me leave the bookshop without it. That has never happened to me in a bookshop before.

You could say that writing a relatively light-hearted novel about the WII Siege of Leningrad is about as appropriate as a drop-your-pants farce set in Auschwitz, but many of the better Holocaust books concentrate on the prevailing Jewish humanity in the extermination camps rather than on the Nazi horrors, not least the works of Primo Levi, and this is somewhat in the same vein.

I don't even know if this is historical fiction. I am sure this has been discussed somewhere, but it really does feel like it is based on a true story because the premise is so quirky, and anyone who lived through WII had pocketfuls of ridiculous -but-true stories.

Because of the tone of the book, it is a delight to read, but if you had to live the story itself, it would be horrendous. Many people lived tales similar to this and we get to enjoy them in the comfort of our homes because resilient people - and you have to have been resilient to survive the Siege of Leningrad - prefer to turn tragedy into comedy.

So, enjoy it. You almost certainly will.

Dictator: A novel (Ancient Rome Trilogy)
Dictator: A novel (Ancient Rome Trilogy)
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $13.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Politics as they are today, without the guns, February 3, 2016
Philosopher and psychologist George Kelly argued that there are as many dimensions to the truth as there are minds to perceive them, so it is always a pleasure to revisit a well-known story from a new angle - in this case, the transformation of Rome from a Republic, to a Dictatorship, to an Empire through the eyes of one of Rome's greatest orators - Cicero.

Cicero is the classic insider politician - a Teddy Kennedy, or a Newt Gingrich, or a John Boehner - but, for all his good sense and rhetoric, he finds himself wrong-footed by generals and armies. It is the classic case of whether the pen is mightier than the sword; well, not immediately, but maybe in retrospect.

The great thing about politics in ancient Rome is the balance between the power of persuasion vs. the power of the sword, and the fact that the balance swings between the two on an almost daily basis, which is what makes Robert Harris's story desperately exciting.

And then there is the question of beliefs vs. pragmatism. To what extent should anyone stand on their principles rather than go with the flow, which is tough if there are several flows?

Cicero also addressed the question as to whether it was so bad to die - his answer, not really. So you die for a belief in a cause which may well lose in practice, but overriding virtue is better than base pragmatism.

Except that Cicero was both somewhat Macchiavellian and Stoic, by turns. He liked being the smartest politician in town and also the one on the highest philosophical ground, the one position tending to undermine the other.

The power of Robert Harris's book is that a tranche of Roman history is viewed through the filter of a man with magnificent beliefs, undermined by pragmatic realities, undermined further by the fact he doesn't have the balls to raise an army of his own to enforce his principles.

This is as almost the perfect critique of politics, where, in the end, 'politics' mean power.

The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Hell beyond hell, January 16, 2016
If this is an accurate picture of North Korea - and from what I know about China and the Soviet Union it probably is - hell will come as something of a relief to its former inhabitants.

The overriding question has to be: Why don't people fight back, especially as they know the regime will almost certainly kill them in the end? It is only a matter of time.

I suppose the answer is that we are better at believing in the most improbable of hopes than in hard-core statistical probabilities.

That some crazy, fat slob can force his people to torture and kill each other while he lives a life of luxury is disgusting. That other countries allow said slob to build a nuclear capability is baffling. Except that the answer to both questions is China.

I am guessing that China is the ultimate reason why the West is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria too. One day there will be a showdown with China and the West's weapons had better be battle-tested.

And so brutality creeps from arena to arena ...

This is a book that is stunningly written but the implications of it are stunning too, and not in a good way.

There is a scene where the torturers apply excruciating pain to a protagonist, not to gain information, but simply to break him. That is a complete microcosm of the experience of living in North Korea as it is detailed here.

Read this book and despair, which is no excuse for not reading it.

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