I love Bill Bryson. His books fill almost an entire shelf of my bookcase. Every single one has made me laugh out loud. When I was in Wales last year, he had just released a new book--The Road to Little Dribbling. At the time, it hadn't been released in the United States yet, so I bought a copy at the nearest Waterstone's (the British equivalent of Barnes and Noble). It took me until this month to get around to reading it.
About twenty years ago, Bryson published a book called (in the US) Notes from a Small Island. It was a travelogue of sorts. Bryson was--and still is--an American living in the United Kingdom. In Notes from a Small Island, he traveled around his adopted country and shared his impressions. It was hilarious. The Road to Little Dribbling was intended, I think, as a celebration of Small Island's anniversary. Once again, Bryson ventures around the British Isles and shares his remembrances and impressions. (That said, you don't have to have read Small Island to enjoy Little Dribbling. However, if you've never read Bryson before, please start with A Walk in the Woods, which recounts his misadventures hiking the Appalachian Trail.)
Bryson's humor is dry, sarcastic, and self-deprecating. I laughed out loud through the first thirty pages. I giggled through the rest--often at something Bryson said, but sometimes at one of the illustrations that opened each chapter. The illustration that opened Chapter 16 was my favorite. At first glance, it's a dodo with a wicked case of body odor. Later in the chapter, though, I learned I was wrong. It's a dodo, all right, but body odor was not its problem. By the time I finished the book, I was overcome--not for the first time--with a desire to move to the UK.
We're very lucky here in Chicagoland to have Anderson's Bookshop. It's an independent bookstore--really an independent chain with three different locations--and it's been in the same family for six generations. (As an aside: A member of the fifth generation is running for Congress in my district. She's one of seven candidates--six of whom are women--competing for the Democratic nomination for the seat. The six women are all strong candidates. Our Republican incumbent is going to have his hands full.)
Anyway, one of the great things about Anderson's is the plethora of author events that they host--not just at their bookstores, but at surrounding locations as well. There's a different author appearance almost every week. This past Friday night, they hosted Stephen King and Owen King at North Central College in Naperville and I was able to buy a ticket.
I've been reading Stephen King's books since I was a kid. He's one of my favorite authors. I was giddy about having the opportunity to hear him speak. He didn't disappoint. The event was held in the college gym, which left something to be desired as a venue. The acoustics, for one, were terrible. The echo made some things difficult to hear. In some places, the acoustics were so bad people got up and left early. Fortunately, I was able to hear fairly well from my seat in the bleachers at the back, but there were things--questions, answers, parts of sentences--that I missed. On the whole, though, it was a good experience. I laughed far more than I thought I would.
Each King read an excerpt from the new book that they co-wrote, Sleeping Beauties. I missed chunks of those excerpts, but what I heard sounded good and colorful. (As part of the event, we each received a copy of the book. It's hefty tome--almost 600 pages hardcover.) From there, the conversation became informal and hilarious. Both Kings have a delightful sense of humor, with Owen's being a bit drier and more subtle than his father's. There was a lot of laughter in the audience as they quizzed each other and shared anecdotes about writing the book and Owen's life growing up as a King. My favorite part came at the end of their conversation, when Owen pulled out The Stephen King Quiz Book and tested his father on knowledge of his own work. He presented it as a test of his father's mental acuity, since his father is now 70 years old. Apparently, in their previous stop on this tour, Papa King had missed a question or two about The Shawshank Redemption. This time, he was presented with questions about his short story, "The Body"--which became the movie "Stand by Me." He earned a perfect score and raucous audience applause.
The laughter continued as Becky Anderson (bookshop matriarch and Congressional candidate) asked pre-submitted audience questions. I missed most of the questions, but managed to infer what they were about based on the Kings' answers (what I could hear of them). Over the course of the conversation and Q&A, Stephen King also shared some wise words for those of us who are writers. (I've added a few pieces of his advice as pull-quotes.)
The entire evening reinforced my impression of Stephen King as one of the most down-to-earth authors we have. (And as one of the saltiest. The man does love his curse words.) With his success, he could be a real asshole, but he didn't come across that way at all. So many professional (and not-yet-professional) writers get so full of themselves and their process--their way is the only way and their advice is the best/only advice and writing is mysterious magic that requires specific sacrifices and rituals--but King is not like that at all. Even with his success, he still seems like the hack he started out as and, as a writer who's still trying to make her big break happen, I found that very comforting and encouraging.
The best book I read in September was A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. I started it during my lunch break on a Monday. By the end of my lunch hour, I wanted to call in sick for the rest of the day so that I could keep reading.
Set in Calcutta in 1919, A Rising Man centers around policeman Sam Wyndham, a World War I veteran newly arrived from London, as he acclimates to his new home and attempts to solve the murder of a high-ranking colonial official. He faces the dual tasks of deciphering the culture of colonial India and navigating competing powers within the British government. His partner in crime, so to speak, is a local, "Surrender Not" Banerjee.
What struck me first--what enthralled me from the get-go--was Mukherjee's descriptions of Calcutta. I could not only see it, I could hear and feel it too.
Then I was drawn in to the two main characters, each challenged in his own way. Wyndham, for example, is an opiate addict--the result of injuries from his war years. He struggles to manage his cravings while simultaneously wishing for the oblivion of a high. Banerjee is caught between cultures--not entirely trusted by the British police because he is Indian and disowned by his family for working in/with the colonial government.
The solution to the mystery could have used a few more seeds planted throughout the story, but I will definitely be reading the next book in this new series, if only so I can spend more time with Wyndham and Banerjee.