Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

I love Bill Bryson. His great natured goofy commentary on anything and everything makes him a charming companion to explore almost any topic alongside. Neither Here Nor There lets the lucky reader tour continental Europe will Bill, from the frozen northern reaches of Scandinavia to the overcrowded bazaars of Istanbul. Along the way, you get to watch Bryson drink a lot of beer, fantasize about various Euro-lasses, and take a lot of trains.

You also get a fine history-lite commentary on many of the cities he visits.

Bryson is, simply put, a treat to read. He feels like a friend, and one whose opinion on nearly everything you’d be eager to hear. His everyman’s tone masks his interest in the erudite, and his sense of humor neatly disguises all the education he’s able to slip in to every work.

Great, fun stuff!
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Another recommendation by (soon to be Dr.) KMK. As a fellow Word Worm, she gets my geekish infatuation with the OED and tales of a lexical nature.

The Professor and the Madman tells the tale of an unlikely friendship between an Oxford lexographer who is the leader of the efforts to build the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary, and an American Civil War veteran who is his greatest help, despite being confined to a lunatic asylum for being, um, crazy. The creation of the OED alone is a fascinating story, involving, as you might imagine, nearly seven decades and hundreds of thousands of word citations and sources. As the definitive compendium of English language usage, the OED is much more than just a dictionary; it’s a fantastically ambitious scholarly undertaking which comprised the life-work of many of its contributors.

The book is short and peppered with OED excerpts for various relevant words. It’s also, paradoxically a bit too long, as it becomes frequently repetitive, and often delves into detail that is so beyond irrlevent as to not even serve to provide texture. It seems clear that the core notion was a good one, the tale itself interesting, but that most everything can be said in about thirty pages.

Overall, this is a fun pop-history of the founding of the OED, and a compassionate look into the lives of two men who were deeply involved in its creation.
The Damnation Game by Clive Barker

“It wasn’t difficult to smudge sexuality into violence, turn sighs into screams, thrusts into convulsions. The grammar was the same; only the punctuation differed.”

Somehow, this quote nicely sums up what makes Barker’s writing unique. It’s the most sensual, overtly sexualized horror I’m familiar with. The Damnation Game takes the Books-of-Blood era Barker style and turns it into a horrific, full-length beast of a novel. It is quite simply the most evil book I’ve ever read, and absolutely not for the faint of heart. Virtually no taboo is left unexplored, and the vile and loathsome are paraded across every dark corner of London and post-war Warsaw.

The plot is detailed but fairly simple: a gambler makes a Faustian deal.

Bonus points for: the coolest necromancy I’ve read in a novel, some truly disturbing stuff, including the first use of the word “autocannibalism” that I’ve ever read.

At nearly five hundred pages, The Damnation Game is meaty enough that it takes a bit of effort to get through, but if you like your horror and perversion raw and wriggling, then it’s a fine ride.