Books Read in 2015 30. Shakespeare – Bill Bryson

Genre: Biography, History

Narrative Style: third person, academic51NyyX+LRzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2007

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: This is a biography of sorts although it focuses as much on what we don’t know as what we do. Written in Bryson’s inimitable style, it is funny, informative and clever. A must read for anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare. 

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. There were a couple of reasons for this. I’ve read a lot of Bryson’s work – including Mother Tongue and A Short History of Nearly Everything as well as some of the travel writing so I knew that it would be readable and informative. And I was interested in the life of Shakespeare. I expected that we would know about him. I’m not sure why that was. It makes sense  that we would not know much about him.

So unlike conventional biographies, this is not a simple run from birth through life to death. It explores what we know about each area of Shakespeare’s life, attempts to discuss any mysteries or controversies and explains why we don’t know more.

It’s fascinating really, that Shakespeare should still mean so much to our culture and yet we can barely verify what he looked like or what he did for large periods of time. We can place him at a specific time and place only rarely. We can barely prove that he wrote the plays that take his name and that has led to a whole other academic avenue. The ‘who was Shakespeare really’ brigade.

Bryson makes short shrift of their theories. They all seem to be fabulously eccentric and it is almost a shame to have to tear their wonderfully hopeful theories apart. Bryson does this in style and this was one of my favourite parts of the book. It is almost inevitable, given the darkness that surrounds most of Shakespeare’s life that there would be those who would like to join the dots. Unfortunately, they very rarely come anywhere close to the real picture.

Bryson’s curiosity cannot be faulted and as with all his works, his enthusiasm comes across clearly and the book is a pleasure to read. In fact, at the end, I wished there was more to say. I was very sad to put it down.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Humour – A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

This was the category it took me the longest to decide on for the eclectic reader challenge. It almost seemed too obvious to pick Pratchett, Adams, Bryson, Collins, Maconie, all writers that had made me laugh out loud. At the same time, it seemed a bit risky to pick an author that I wasn’t sure of – maybe their humour wouldn’t appeal – so I decided to go for the tried and tested. Really, all of this was simply a justification for reading another wonderful Bill Bryson book.

I picked A Walk in the Woods because although I have never hiked the Appalachian Trail, I do like to hike and have done a long distance walk before so I thought I would have some empathy with what he went through.photo-3

As with all of the Bryson books that I have read, this was like being reunited with a particularly talkative old friend. The tone of the book is warm and friendly as if you were one of the fellow hikers that Bryson meets and chats to after a long days hike. Bryson is always engaging even when passing on historical detail which could be boring in a lesser writer’s hands.

Bryson, and his friend Stephen Katz, face many challenges on this walk, not least of which is their own lack of fitness at the beginning. They hit snowstorms, are assailed by insects, have maps that are dangerous in their uselessness and meet a fellow hiker so annoying that I would certainly have understood if they had murdered her in the middle of the night. In the end, they abandon her and go to spend the night in a motel.

Even when Bryson feels he is facing certain death – be it by bear, snow, sun or dehydration – he never loses his sense of humour and is quite happy to describe his own idiocy in as much detail as he describes Katz’s. He knows he is a little bit hopeless and that helps the reader to warm to him.

In the end, they do not hike the whole trail – the hundred mile wilderness at the end proves too much for them. And I must confess I was disappointed. Not because I felt that they should tried harder but because it meant the end of my journey with them, a little bit sooner than expected. A superb read for anyone who has ever donned a pair of walking boots.

DAY 26. – Book that makes you laugh out loud.

This was a difficult one. I don’t read a lot in the way of funny books. An obvious choice would have been Terry Pratchett or perhaps Douglas Adams as both their series of books have made me laugh out loud. However, choosing a single book by either of these authors was impossible. In the end, I decided on Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson which is on of the best travel guides to Britain you could hope to read.

I have read a few of Bryson’s travel books and they are all immensely photo (6)amusing but what is particularly good about this one is that I knew the truth of Bryson’s observations. Whenever I climb a hill in the Lake District, I think of Bryson puffing and panting his way up Haystacks and try and convince myself that it will be worth it when I get to the top. As Bryson knows, it always is but he describes the way you wonder what on earth you are doing when you are about halfway up perfectly.

Bryson has an easy going style which makes it feel like you’re having a chat with a good friend. I recently read A Short History of Nearly Everything and felt, at least for a short while after reading, that I understood some of the science involved, largely due to Bryson’s humorous and open style. His description of some of the early eccentrics of science and geology were truly wondrous to behold. It seems that there is no subject that Bryson could not make entertaining and funny.