Short History of Nearly Everything

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Read by Bill Bryson.

Reason read: Bill Bryson was born in the month of December. Read in his honor.

When I first started reading A Short History of Nearly Everything I wanted to document every “history” Bryson exposed and explained. I thought it would be fun except for the fact I quickly lost track. Short History starts out simple enough: the history of the atom and an explanation of the inflation theory. In other words, the history of you and the universe respectively. Then there’s a deeper dive into the question of space, the galaxy and our place in the solar system. Somehow we moved onto inverse square law and the weight (literally) of the world. We explore volcanoes and earthquakes and the (un)predictability of natural disasters. Then there are the disasters that are not so quite natural which man insists on taking part like free diving. Then there are the bugs and so on and so forth.
Probably one of the best sections was about the struggle to make Pluto a planet. We determined we had four rocky inner planets, four gassy outer planets…and one teeny, tiny lone ball of ice.
The obvious drawback to reading something out of date is the predictions for the future are now obsolete.
what I have learned from reading Short History is not the what Bryson explains but how it’s explained. The telling is everything.

Quotes I just had to quote. Here is an example of Bryson’s humor, “Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level” (p 5), and “Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of miles to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in Wiltshire or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a pickup truck on a lonely road in Arizona (they must have teenagers, after all), but it does seem unlikely” (p 27).

Author fact: I poked around Bill Bryson’s FaceBook page. It’s pretty funny.

Book trivia: I am listening to the audio version read by Bill Bryson. Pearl may think that the book itself shouldn’t be missed, but I say the book actually read by the author shouldn’t be missed either.

Nancy said: Pearl has an asterisk next to A Short History of Nearly Everything as one Bryson book that especially shouldn’t be missed. I said that already.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Bill Bryson: Too Good To miss” (p 36).


Saddest Pleasure

Thomsen, Moritz. The Saddest Pleasure: a Journey on Two Rivers. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Greywolf Press, 1990.

Reason read: In honor of Brazil’s first emperor. His coronation was on December 1st, 1822.

When we catch up to Martin Moritz Thomsen Titus in The Saddest Pleasure he is now sixty-three years old. Depending on which review you read, Thomsen either was asked to leave the Ecuadorian farm he co-owned with partner, Ramon, or he just up and left. Either way, in the beginning of The Saddest Pleasure he sets out to travel to Amazonian Brazil via two rivers. Along his journey he tries to reconcile difficult memories of a contentious relationship with his father, while wrangling with the effects of aging and mourning the loss of the farm he shared with Ramon. He seems sarcastically obsessed with being a farmer and very reluctant to admit he is a writer because farming seems the more noble profession. In fact, in my opinion, the entire book is more of a look back at the should haves, could haves, and would haves of his life. A lot of cantankerous regret is interspersed in the memory. He calls travel the saddest pleasure, but I would say the saddest pleasure was reading this book.

Line I loved, “I have lived too long with poor people to sit now in the middle of all this jewelry and the electronic crapola and the whores and the gangsters who want to own it, eating overpriced food, listening for eight hours straight to Muzak’s plastic masturbatory music not to feel a profound disorientation” (p 21).
Here’s another, “Starved for protein, crippled by malnutrition, they have lost about 20% of their intelligence” (p 84).

Author fact: Thomsen lived another ten years after The Saddest Pleasure. I surely hope he found happiness in that remaining time.

Book trivia: Some view The Saddest Pleasure as the completion to a trilogy about Moritz’s time in the Peace Corps. Living Poor was considered book one (also on my Challenge list), and Farm on the River of Emeralds was book two. Another interesting fact about The Saddest Pleasure is that it won the 1991 Governor’s Writers Award.
As an aside, my copy of Saddest Pleasure has an amazing cover illustrated by Alfredo Arreguin.

Nancy said: Pearl said she found Thomsen’s memoir “to be utterly enthralling” (Book Lust To Go p 43). She then went on to take up considerable real estate in the chapter quoting The Saddest Pleasure, as she admits, “the book is filled with quotable lines” (p 44). Yes, yes it is.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter simply called “Brazil” (p 43).


Before the Deluge

Friedrich, Otto. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1029’s. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Reason read: Berlin has a tattoo festival every year in Berlin.

There is a small possibility I will visit Berlin in the next year or so. It is hard to imagine the contrary Berlin of the 1920’s. Beautiful girls dressed in flapper style, kicking it up in glitzy cabarets (a la Louise Brooks, also known as Lulu) against a backdrop of war, and poverty, and influenza ravaged misery. One war was over while another bubbled just below the surface, waiting to burst forth.
The 1920’s was also a great period of scientific inquiry and wonderment. Britain and Germany had been on opposite sides of World War I, but astronomers were not concerned with that detail. Scientists on both sides were single-minded in their desire to study the eclipse. At the same time, the German government saw the benefit of using the new technology of moving pictures to show their propaganda films. Albert Einstein was in his prime.
The most fascinating thing about Before the Deluge is Friedrich’s interviews with people who could remember the height of the 20’s in Berlin. People who were aware events like if the Communists had voted in force, Marshall Paul Von Hindenburg would have never been elected to rule the German Republic. If the weather had been slightly better Hindenburg never would have appointed a young man named Adolf Hitler as Chancellor….

Quote that gave me pause: “Berlin in the winter is never a very cheerful place” (p 36). Even at Christmastime? I have to wonder.

Author fact: Friedrich went to Harvard (born in Boston).

Book trivia: There is a very cool fold out map several pages into Before the Deluge. Much better than inside the front cover of the book.

Nancy said: Pearl says, “you can’t get a better sense of Berlin between the wars than by reading Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge.” She then goes on to say it would be interesting to use Before the Deluge as a guidebook to present day Berlin. I don’t think so. Before the Deluge was first published in the early 1970’s. A lot has changed since then…

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the crazy simple chapter called “Berlin” (p 36). Imagine that.


People’s History of the Supreme Court

Irons, Peter. A People’s History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Reason read: in celebration of the Constitution.

We begin, as they say, from the beginning. The year is 1787 and the controversies of the day are slavery and racial segregation, free speech and a woman’s right to end her pregnancy. What year are we in now? Aren’t we still battling against racial discrimination? Aren’t we still fighting for free speech and women’s rights? What’s that saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same? It is disheartening to think we have been railing against crooked judges since the beginning of the Supreme Court. Its inception had a rocky start. Rutledge was deranged and Wilson was jailed for debt, just to name a few examples. It makes you realize the abuse of power really is timeless. McKinley was able to place a brilliant conservative justice with an incompetent one. Sound familiar? Fear and intimidation has not changed. Since the beginning of the Supreme Court there have been men who serve as chief justice who cannot separate personal bias from judicial duty.
On the other hand, time marches on and some things do change. At the time of writing, Irons’s world consisted of a Supreme Court that had been mostly all white and mostly all old men. We have made some strides to having a diversified Supreme Court. So…there is that. Also, consider this: in the 1920’s a woman had her own minimum wage. Isn’t that special?
I could go on and on. Last comment:Even though this is geared towards a tenth grade reader, it is an important book. Everyone should take a stab at it. If not to see where we are going, but to see where we have been.

Author fact: Peter Irons called Howard Zinn a mentor. Additionally, Irons was arrested in 1963 for refusing to serve in the military. If you were a conscientious objector, you had to have a religion to cite as your reason for not fighting.

Book trivia: for the longest time A People’s History of the Supreme Court has been used as a law and history textbook across the country.

Nancy said: Pearl called A People’s History of the Supreme Court “readable” (p 136).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Legal Eagles in Nonfiction” (p 135).


A Long Way From Home

Briscoe, Connie. A Long Way From Home. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.

Reason read: Briscoe’s birth month is Devember. Read in her honor.

Clara starts off as a nearly eleven year old slave, owned by former president James Madison. As she grows up, she struggles to conform to the polite, obedient, and subservient ways of her mother and aunts, all house slaves in the Montpelier mansion. The inevitable and imminent death of President Madison means unclear futures for all of his slaves, field and house. Whispered questions like, ‘when he finally died would they be freed?’ ‘Could they stay on the plantation, especially if it is all they ever knew?’ scatter through hallways like runaway marbles on a tile floor. Would Madison’s slaves even have a choice? What no one saw coming was Madison’s awful stepson, Todd, taking over as Massa of Montpelier. His attraction to Clara sets off a terrible chain of events and life changes for everyone involved.
This is supposed to be the story of three generations of house slaves: Susie, Clara, and Susan. Susie is barely in the story, but Clara passes on her feisty nature to her daughter Susan. When Susan is sold away to satisfy a debt, readers follow her coming of age, growth into womanhood, and emerging sense of independence.
Aside from a great character story, A Long Way From Home is a fantastic historical fiction. Events of the Civil War described in detail color the fate of the south and give the story an interesting perspective.

Telling quotes, “These days, no one wearing a skirt at Montpelier ever slept alone when Mass Todd and his buddies were around” (p 70).

Author fact: According the back flap of A Long Way From Home Briscoe is a descendant of the slaves on the Madison family plantation. This story is her story.

Book trivia: I could see this made into a movie. It has an important story to tell so why isn’t it a movie?

Nancy said: Pearl said to consider A Long Way From Home for the reading list when considering African American fiction written by women.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “African American Fiction: She Says” (p 16).


In the Wilderness

Undset, Sigrid. The Master of Hestviken: In the Wilderness. Alfred A. Knopf. 1962.

Reason read: So. I had this pen pal from Norway. We never met in person but became friends because of a mutual love for Natalie Merchant’s music. It was fun.

So. When we last left Olav Audunsson his wife, Ingunn, had finally died after a super long illness. Left alone with two children, a biological daughter, Cecelia, and an adopted son, Eiric, Olav struggles to rebuild his life. He is still overshadowed by immense guilt about past transgressions. Additionally, throughout The Snake Pit Olav was not well liked by his community. He didn’t make an effort to belong in any way. Now, awash in grief, Olav is drift in more ways than one, prompting him to travel to London, England for a bit. Upon his return he agrees to foster the young daughter of a dying friend. It’s this act which brings Olav back to life. This is enough to spur Olav on to fight for his homestead; to risk life and limb in a bloody battle against the Swedes. This might be somewhat of a spoiler alert, but Olav survives the bitter war but is gravely wounded in the face. His disfigurement lends Olav a somber grace he has not felt before.

Quote to quote, “He saw now it was not his suffering that destroyed the happiness of his life – a man may be happier while he suffers than when his days are good” (p 196). Amen.

Author fact: Undset was actually born in Denmark even though she is one of Norway’s best loved novelists.

Book trivia: In the Wilderness is the penultimate book in the Master of Hestviken series.

Nancy said: As with other books in the Master of Heskviken series, Pearl called In the Wilderness a masterpiece.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Norway: Land of the Midnight Sun” (p 162).


Aguero Sisters

Garcia, Cristina. The Aguero Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Reason read: December is the best month to visit the Caribbean. I thought I had removed the “best time to travel to [fill in the blank]” but I guess not.

The Aguero Sisters starts with a bang (pun totally intended). Ignacio and Blanca Aguero are a husband and wife naturalist team, slogging through the Zapata swamp shooting specimens for a U.S. based museum. Suddenly forty-four year old Ignacio turns the gun on his wife and pulls the trigger…The mystery of what really happened in the swamp on that day in 1948 doesn’t become clear until much, much later.
The rest of the novel follows the lives of Ignacio’s adult daughters and their very different lives. Constancia Aguero Cruz lives in New York, married to a tobacco shop owner with a daughter in Oahu and a son in Morningside Heights, New York. She has been kept apart from her sister in Cuba for as long as she can remember, but she doesn’t really know why. Reina was only six when her mother died. She still lives in Cuba as an electrician and mechanic and has many passions, seducing married men. She has a daughter, Dulcita, in Madrid, Spain. Interspersed between this current-day, third-person narrative is Ignacio’s first person account of his life, starting with remembering his parents, Reinaldo and Soledad Aguero. Through his accounts, the history of Ignacio and his daughters becomes clearer and clearer, like sediment settling in the bottom of a glass of murky water once the agitation of stirring has stopped.

Line I liked, “Reina stares out the window for hours trying to make sense of the density of stars” (p 39). Me too, Reina. Me too.

Other lines worth mentioning, “she is the first to admit she has a low threshold for disorder” (p 27), “My sense of smell is heightened by hunger” (p 205), and “A confidence in her walk is what gives birth to lust” (p 233).

Author fact: Like her characters, Garcia grew up in Havana and New York.

Book trivia: Garcia does a fantastic job fleshing out the characters of The Aguero Sisters. So much so that I felt it necessary to take notes on all the details.

Nancy said: Pearl included the Aguero Sisters as one example of wonderful novels being turned out by Cuban emigres.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Cuba Si!” (p 68).