In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Still one of my all-time favorite books, period.
I first read In a Sunburned Country ten years ago, and loved it (and folded over page corners like folding was a new skill that was going out of style).
On rereading, which was actually a listen to the audio version read by the author, I still found this love-story to a country to be very, very funny, as well as enchanting, thought-provoking, melancholy, and wise.
What I love about Bryson’s voice is how he’s able to make you laugh really hard-truly-this book should come with a warning label for those who dare to read it in public: “This book WILL cause sudden and unexpected outbursts of laughter which may appear especially unusual if you are in the middle of jogging on a treadmill with a serious expression on your face.”
But also, underneath the humor, Bryson speaks with wonder and curiosity about the world around him. He notices the gigantic lobster sculpture, as well as the Sydney Opera House, he notes the absurdity that frequently accompanies our adventures, historical, and present.
Bryson seems, at heart, to deeply like the world around him, and the people in it. I highly recommend In a Sunburned Country to anyone interested in Australia, travel, or learning something new. Perhaps even more importantly, I’d rank this in my top ten list of books to read when you’re feeling sad. It will brighten your day.

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Extreme Food (May 2015) by Bear Grylls

Extreme FoodExtreme Food by Bear Grylls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers for my review copy of Extreme Food: What to Eat When Your Life Depends on It, by Bear Grylls.
Extreme Food, the latest book by ex-special forces, nature/survival enthusiast, and television personality Bear Grylls, is a fast, fact-packed read that offers survival information that anyone can benefit from.
As a sometime viewer of Grylls’ nature shows (usually when my dad or brothers have it on television), and someone with an abiding, but rarely deeply explored interest in the natural world, I especially enjoyed the parts of this book which dealt with the basics of food as a source of energy in a survival situation, edible (and toxic) plants, and how to track animals.
I found the sections on making traps, hunting, and preparing a kill more disturbing, and so skimmed those sections. I do, however, think that the information presented therein seemed like a useful introduction to techniques that could save one’s life.
I found the sections on edible/toxic fungi, as well as all the edible creepy crawlies and extra-dangerous animals (think snakes and scorpions) to be fascinating reading from a “bizarre foods” perspective, but anything I was about to try to apply to my own life. I also didn’t enjoy some of the pictures in the middle of the book, which included gratuitous shots of Bear eating bloody animals.
In his introduction and afterward, Grylls states that this book is meant as an introduction to survival concepts which can save your life. His hope is that this book will increase readers’ interest in, and sense of empowerment about, survival techniques, and that it will encourage readers to investigate further.
Read in this context, I think that Extreme Foods pretty much hits the mark.
Overall, I’m really glad that I read Extreme Foods. I learned something from it, and am inspired to learn more, and in that way, I’d call this latest book by Bear Grylls a great success.
This review can also be found Goodreads and Facebook.

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Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester

Georgette Heyer's Regency WorldGeorgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yesterday I wrote an absolutely brilliant review of this novel. A mind-blowing, Pulitzer-prize worthy, emotionally moving and poetic once-in a-lifetime review.
And then I tried to insert a link and deleted the whole thing.
24 hours later, with my literary masterpiece floating somewhere in cyberspace, I have dragged myself out of a deep depression, and will try to write again about Georgette Heyer’s Regency World.
This time, my goal is simply to write a review that I do not delete. So please, lower your expectations accordingly. :p
All joking aside, this nonfiction book is great, something I would recommend to all fans of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, or anyone who wants to know more about the time period in which their stories take place.
It was only recently that I realized that Jane Austen’s books are set in a much earlier time period than the work of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot. Austen’s novels are firmly rooted in the brief but brilliant Regency period, which lasted from 1811 to 1820. The other authors mentioned all wrote during the Victorian era which followed, a time known for its repressive morals, constrictive clothing, and increasing industrialization.
As someone who often wishes that there were a real Austenland (minus the flamboyance of the film) that I could visit, I loved reading all about the Regency era in Jennifer Kloester’s book.
Georgette Heyer’s Regency World is set up in easy to digest chapters, with subjects such as class, fashion, food, and transportation. It also contains lovely black and white illustrations by Graeme Tavendale.
I enjoyed some chapters more than others; for example, I was less interested in those dealing with business and the military. But I can’t fault Kloester for including information which gave a more well-rounded picture of this time in history. My favorite chapters dealt with fashion, women’s lives, and “who’s who” in the Regency.
I wish Kloester had included more detail about fashion, religion, music, and how women spent their days. But all in all, this book was a wonderful place to start when learning about the Regency era.
Just as the title suggests, this author frequently mentions characters and storylines in Georgette Heyer’s novels, showing how they relate to the historical Regency.
As someone who is primarily interested in learning about the Regency era itself, I could have done without these examples. But anyone who is a fan of Georgette Heyer will undoubtedly enjoy how Kloester inserts these fictional references.
All in all, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World lives up to its title, and is a well-researched, clearly written, fascinating introduction to the Regency era. Highly recommended.

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England as You Like It by Susan Allen Toth

England as You Like ItEngland as You Like It by Susan Allen Toth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stumbled upon England as You Like It by Susan Allen Toth at my local library, a battered, slightly outdated (1996) gem of a travel book that has inspired and delighted me.
Toth is a writer who celebrates her life-long love affair with England, and in this book (one of several on that subject) she gives practical advice about how she plans her trips, as well as including brief, informative chapters on some of her favorite discoveries along the way.
Toth subscribes to a “thumbprint” idea of travel, which entails staying in one place, often at a self-catering cottage, for at least a week at a time, and then exploring the nearby countryside by car and on foot.
Her book, although sometimes outdated in its references and research methods, is a treasure trove of information. Although Toth recommends researching accommodation through the mail, or by telephone, where present day travelers would often turn first to the internet, her concept of travel, as well as her suggestions for places to visit, are still invaluable.
The most important nuggets I took away from England as You Like It are these:
1. Something doesn’t have to be famous, the “best” (whatever that means), or flashy, to be special. Therefore, when planning a trip, don’t worry about hitting all the “don’t miss” sites in the area. Doing this will only make you feel rushed and crazy. Instead, pick a place that calls to you, stay there for a week, and make it your temporary home. When you stop looking for perfection, you may notice treasures you would otherwise have missed.
2. Maps are your friend. (Ordnance surveys are great, and since I happen to love looking at maps anyway, I plan to order some online and peruse them before my next trip.) Detailed/different types of maps can be helpful especially when you are traveling in the countryside, where paths or roads may be poorly marked. My recent trip to England put paid to this theory, when a taxi driver familiar with Wells was unable to find a bed and breakfast a few miles outside of town, even when we gave him the address.
3. Gardens are great. I want to make sure to include plenty of wandering in gardens in my next trip.
4. After reading England as You Like It, I have added East Sussex (home of the real hundred-acre wood of Winnie the Pooh fame), and West Dorset (where, I was happy to learn, the amazing show Broadchurch was filmed) to my travel wish list. Now I just have to decide between those and the coast of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, Devon, and Northumberland!
5. England as You Like It re-inspired me to write down my own travel experiences. I very much enjoyed reading Toth’s memories, even as she recounted seemingly ordinary events like walking through a wood full of bluebells, or visiting a swannery.
As noted above, Toth has written many other books, including My Love Affair With England. Her books are the kind that I like to read in short bursts, with a pen in hand so I can make notes about places that she mentions which I find especially intriguing. I’d recommend England as You Like It to anyone, really, whether you are an Anglophile, or love travel, or simply feel like learning something new.

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Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American FortuneEmpty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I would like to thank Goodreads first-reads program for my review copy of Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Empty Mansions is a meticulously researched nonfiction book that also manages to be fascinating and thought-provoking.
Coauthored by journalist Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr., Empty Mansions recounts the life of heiress Huguette Clark, born in 1906 to the copper baron and multimillionaire William Andrews Clark. The story of the Clark fortune is interesting in part because until recently, it was lost to history. Although W.A. Clark was the contemporary of businessmen like Rockefeller and Carnegie, the way he chose to structure his empire, as well as the actions of his descendants, mean that the great fortune of the copper king has diminished over time.
So Empty Mansions is partly a story about history; it chronicles the life of W.A. Clark, a pioneer and advocate of the American dream, who moved west from humble beginnings in Pennsylvania to make his fortune in copper in Butte, Montana.
W.A. was born in 1839, when the long-distance telegraph was still a recent achievement, and the Lewis and Clark expedition an inspiration as the young boy’s bedtime stories. In his lifetime, W.A. would participate in the American gold rush, lose relatives on the Titanic, and experience the first World War. W.A.’s daughter, Huguette, lived to be 105, and thus, in her lifetime, she was witness to such disasters as the Santa Barbara Earthquake of 1925, World War II, and world politics leading up to 9-11, not far from where she lived in New York. Between W.A. and Huguette, the reader is given a personal account of nearly 200 years of history.
As well as being a story with global reach, Empty Mansions is also a personal tale. It follows the Clark family, showing how they created, and were shaped by, great wealth. Huguette, in particular, became a recluse, withdrawing almost completely from society after her marriage in 1928. Though she would live for over 80 more years, her honeymoon photo would be the last public image of her displayed while she was alive.
Although Huguette retreated to her opulent New York City apartment, and then, for her final years, to a hospital room, she continued to maintain meaningful human contact with close friends, her lawyers, nurses, and a few select relatives. She was shy; she chose to remain hidden, but she lived an full life nonetheless.
Huguette was first and foremost an artist, obsessed, from childhood onwards, with dolls and dollhouses. She later became fascinated with Japanese culture, as well as with the French fairytales of her childhood. She commissioned detailed and accurate dollhouses of scenes from stories and from history, and took great pleasure in designing these beautiful things. Huguette was also an accomplished painter, and a lover of music.
Through interviews with people who knew her (many of whom had never met her in person) the authors put together a comprehensive picture of Huguette’s life. Empty Mansions is nonfiction, but as the authors suggest, there is so very much material that they are able to work with, in the form of photos, letters, bank statements, and interviews, that this book is able to evoke a very real sense of Huguette as a person.
Moreover, the records that the authors used often speak for themselves in intriguing, and sometimes, disturbing, ways. As can be expected, as the heiress of an immense fortune, Huguette was attended throughout her life by businesspeople, physicians, nurses, friends, and family, whose motives have sometimes been called into question. Huguette gave huge monetary gifts to her longtime nurse, Hadassah Peri, writing her checks for thousands of dollars sometimes more than once a day. She was also repeatedly importuned by hospital officials to donate vast sums of money in ways which have been interpreted by some as close to blackmail.
Finally, at 456 pages long, this hefty tome also contains a variety of photos, and copies of letters and interviews. As a side note, the audio version of this book contains recorded telephone interviews between Huguette and her cousin, co-author Paul Newell. These extras in the written book, as well as the audio version, add insight into Huguette’s life, and into history.
In the end, I really enjoyed reading Empty Mansions, in part, because it gave me a fascinating, “insider’s” view, into almost 200 years of American history. But even more than that, I appreciated reading about Huguette herself. This woman, quiet, shy, and unique, was an heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in American history. But she was also, separately from that, a very special person. Her letters, her art, and the memories of those who knew her, demonstrate that she was kind, passionate about art, appreciative of beauty, interested in the world around her, and deeply connected to those whom she trusted and loved. I am glad that Huguette’s story has been recorded. While the Clark family fortune made may fade, Empty Mansions means that Huguette Clark will be remembered.

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