The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

0

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (Photo: HarperCollins)Hello! I’m sorry that I’ve been AWOL for a little bit. For most of May and the rest of this month, I’m in the unusual position of having four (part-time) jobs. This will even out at the end of this month, but that, combined with a little bit of travelling, a birthday celebration and some family committments, has meant that there wasn’t a ton of time for reading in May.

Something I did make time for, however, was the latest offering from Sweden’s Jonas Jonasson, who you may remember as the author of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which I thoroughly enjoyed last spring. Matt and I spent part of my birthday in a bookstore, and when he noticed The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, I snapped it up right away.

Unfortunately, while its predecessor was delightfully rompy, well-paced and very funny, I felt this one fell a little flat. On Friday, I explained it to a friend as being about a third longer than it needed to be. This may be my journalistic background talking, but there is certainly something to be said for concise writing.

Like The 100-Year-Old Man, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden tells a story that sweeps through much of the mid-to-late 20th century to present day and gives more than a knowing nod to many historic and pop cultural events. We see Nelson Mandela freed from prison and elected president of South Africa; we recall Prince Harry dressed up as a Nazi and running around naked in Las Vegas. We even get a likeable heroine – the plucky Nombeko, who ascends from the slums of Soweto to save the King of Sweden. In doing so, she encounters a series of one-dimensional and largely unlikeable characters with complicated backstories. We have identical twins Holger One and Holger Two, raised by a lunatic republican father. There are also Celestine, the inexplicably angry girlfriend of Holger One, three South African Chinese women who make elaborate false copies of ancient pottery, an American suffering from PTSD, an incompetent South African nuclear engineer, world leaders, kings and many more.

There’s more plot than story in this book – in short, there is too much to follow and not enough to care about. While The 100-Year-Old Man was a fun, Forrest Gump-style romp through a century of politics and science, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is messy and complicated. It’s clever, to be sure, but there’s a lot more style than substance happening here. Light-heartedness and bright satire doesn’t save it from being a little too overdone for my liking.

Popular

0

Popular (Photo: Penguin UK)I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.

Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.

Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.

But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.

Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.

 

One Summer: America, 1927

0

One Summer (Photo: BillBryson.co.uk)Bill Bryson is probably my favourite contemporary nonfiction writer. I think I have read every single thing he’s written (even his books on spelling and grammar, which I loved). I think he’s brilliant and hilarious – and he’s got that rare ability to write across genres (memoir, travel writing, history, biography, science) without losing any of his charm in the process.

The first Bill Bryson book I ever bought was as an exchange student in the UK in early 2006. I got a gift voucher for 20 pounds at Waterstone’s for participating in a photo shoot at Bournemouth University (you can see me in the 2006-07 prospectus) and spent it on a copy of the 1995 travel book Notes from a Small Island. I think that because I was just discovering Britain for the first time myself, and Bryson’s dry, witty observations so closely mirrored my own, it resonated particularly strongly with me (There’s one part where he has trouble finding the ferry at Calais – I had similar trouble at Calais with the Eurostar and ended up in a farmers’ field.). It kind of felt like it was written for me, and at the age of 20, I was hooked on Bill Bryson.

I actually started One Summer: America, 1927 back in October, but it had to take a backseat to my practicum and a few assignment-heavy weeks at school. I wanted to give Bill Bryson the attention he deserved, so I picked it back up over the winter break. It travelled with me up to Donnelly to visit Matt in mid-December and I finally polished it off the day before Christmas.

One Summer is divided into five sections, each representing a different month in America during the summer of 1927 beginning in May and ending in September. Bryson covers Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking trans-Atlantic flight, a spectacular summer of baseball for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a sensational murder trial, Prohibition, the beginning of construction on Mount Rushmore, the lead-up to the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, the advent of talking motion pictures, the premiere of the musical Show Boat (one of my favourites, coincidentally) and a host of other events, both big and small.

What I love most about Bill Bryson is that he never dwells for so long on one thing. He turns history into little entertaining stories (which, in my opinion, is the best way to read history anyway) and his keen observations – especially when it comes to odd or humorous details – make for a great read. Like this review in the New York Times notes, Bryson has a great gift for bringing characters to life.

For example, did you know that US president Calvin Coolidge was presented with a cowboy outfit during the summer of 1927 and sometimes wore it just for fun when his workday was over? Or that the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Montagu Norman “always travelled in disguise, even when there was no plausible reason for doing so?” And then there’s this sentence, which I just loved. “Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Isn’t that great?

(The New York Times review in the link above also claims that some of Bryson’s facts are wild exaggerations. I’m not enough of a 1920s history buff to know one way or another about this, but I will say that One Summer appears to have a very extensive bibliography and reference notes that are broken down by chapter at the end of the book.)

History is almost never a light read, and I did have to wait for a time where my schedule was a little less intense to read One Summer, but it was well worth it. This would be a great gift for history buffs, social studies teachers and my dad, who gets to borrow my copy now that I’m done with it. Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, I loved it.

A Great Op-Ed and ‘The Hungry Games’

0

I’ve been quiet this week because it’s the last stretch of final projects before the fall semester breaks up, and unfortunately, school > blog. But to tide you over for a couple of days until I can post for real, I encourage you to check out a couple of Hunger Games-related things as I come down from my Catching Fire euphoria from last weekend.

The first is a brilliant and insightful op-ed from the November 25 edition of the LA Times, which highlights the fact that the latest Hunger Games tie-in products do more to harm the agenda of the trilogy than help it. I thought it was poignant and smart and well-articulated – the Capitol Couture line really bothers me because it’s so anti-Katniss – and completely goes against the anti-classist message hammered home in all three Hunger Games novels.

On a much lighter note, please also check out this amazing Catching Fire parody they did on Sesame Street – The Hungry Games: Catching Fur. The pita gets me every time.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

1

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Photo credit: Crown Publishing)Last weekend, I ventured north of Edmonton for the first time ever. Matt lives in a village about four hours north-west of Edmonton, and while I’ve travelled to many parts of the world, I’ve never driven for seven hours straight in my own province before. Or seven hours straight anywhere as the sole occupant of a car before. But Matt is awesome, I have an adventurous spirit and I like driving. So after class on Friday, I packed up my Toyota Yaris with a suitcase, a bag of books and a blueberry pie and hit the road.

This was either going to be the beginning of a very sweet romantic comedy (city girl heads north for rural weekend, brings homemade pie, charms local townsfolk, etc.) or the Worst Horror Film Ever. I must admit that I did have a “What am I getting myself into?” moment when I started seeing the signs for ‘Moose Row’ everywhere. (We actually did see a dead moose up there one day returning from Peace River, so these fears were not completely unfounded.)

But happily, the drive passed without major incident (just minor snow flurries), and for a large portion of it, Mindy Kaling kept me company with the audiobook version of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

I have mixed opinions on audiobooks. On one hand, I love, love, love Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories, as well as the podcasts of his wonderful CBC show. It doesn’t hurt that I got to meet him a couple of times when he was a professor at Ryerson University and I was a star-struck first-year student. He was always very kind. But on the other hand, I was given Eckhart Tolle’s audiobook The Power of Now by an Australian acquaintance who thought I looked ‘stressed’ during my last months in Sydney before I returned home to Canada. While it is a very useful book with lots of good ideas in it that did help during my stressful situation, there’s just something about his voice that knocks me out in about ten minutes flat. Seriously. If you can’t sleep, try The Power of Now audiobook. Works like a charm every time for me. So Mindy was a bit of an experiment.

Jen Chaney of The Washington Post describes Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? as “a breezy, intermittently amusing and somewhat unfocused first essay collection.” She’s not wrong. I liked Mindy well enough – and especially more in the second half when she started talking about putting together her play Matt & Ben and writing on The Office – but Tina Fey and Ellen DeGeneres set the standard pretty high when it comes to comedic memoir-style essays.

There were moments where I had to take a break from Mindy to put in a CD for awhile (The Tragically Hip, a live John Mayer album, the latest Serena Ryder and Jake Bugg, if you must know), but there were other times where I did a little fist pump and actually said, out loud, “Yeah, you go Mindy!” Near the end, she has the kind of observations about her friends’ relationships that from time to time, I have about my friends’ relationships (you see this, married and coupled-up friends? I’m observing you. In a completely noncreepy, ethnographic way, of course).

Mindy writes (or says, I guess, because it’s an audiobook): “I don’t want to hear about the endless struggles to keep sex exciting, or the work it takes to plan a date night. I want to hear that you guys watch every episode of The Bachelorette together in secret shame, or that one got the other hooked on Breaking Bad and if either watches it without the other, they’re dead meat. I want to see you guys high-five each other like teammates on a recreational softball team you both do for fun.”

And because I want that too, I gave Mindy Kaling a little air high five in my car. And I’m willing to give audiobooks another try.

Image