A Blogging Good Read - January

Monday, 7 January 2013

Welcome to the first 2013 edition of A Blogging Good Read!  Joining me this month are Lucy from Lucy in the Clouds and my friend Lee who doesn't blog (but you can find him on Twitter here).

Our first book under discussion this month is my choice, Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson:

I chose this because, well, I love Bill Bryson.  It doesn't matter what he writes about: I'll read it and I'll love it.  Bryson's particular genius is taking any subject and making it accessible, fascinating and best of all, funny.  I have a particular fondness for Mother Tongue because it's about the English language and I'm a words geek. This book covers pretty much anything you ever wanted to know about English - how language developed historically, the invention of words, how and why English became a language spoken across the world, spelling (and how difficult it can be), how place names developed, the differences between American English and English English, word games and a very funny chapter on swearing. If you read that list of things and think "oh that can't be possibly be interesting or funny", you would be wrong.

It's the sort of book that I can't possibly do justice to in a couple of paragraphs.  It's so full of fascinating snippets of information that you'll find something on every page that makes you go "oooh" or "really?" or just giggle to yourself.  He points out things that you've probably never even thought about before but once you've read them, you can't stop wondering why, for example, we don't ever describe someone as being ept, or shevelled. Wouldn't they be great additions to our language?

Anyway, enough wittering from me! Did Lee enjoy it?

Let me start by saying I have always wanted to read a Bill Bryson book.  As someone who has a definite preference for fiction, I have found his books never actually make their way to the top of the pile so I was very pleased when I saw one of them had been selected here. My expectations from Mother Tongue? Based on responses friends and family have had to reading his books, I felt sure that it would be a witty and entertaining read. I can happily say I found this to be true on both counts and it felt like I was sitting discussing this topic with a friend.

I was very impressed with Bryson's writing style. I like how he filled the reader in on the relevant background needed for each chapter without overloading them with facts and how this helped make it a light, enjoyable read. I was both entertained by and interested in the points this book raised; the English language is indeed a fascinating topic and its evolution over time is something that I think can often be overlooked. With Bryson himself originating from the USA it was also interesting to see how an American views some of these matters and the cultural significance of global English in the world today. With chapters titled the likes of Pronunciation, Spelling and Wordplay, I very much liked how Bryson took a wide ranging approach to his subject but in a compact, non-convoluted way. Overall a definite thumbs up.

What did Lucy think?

I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Bryson’s travel books for about half my life – I just love his gentle self-deprecating style and easy, intelligent humour. I’m also a linguist with a keen interest in etymology, so when I discovered about ten years ago that he had in fact written a book on the English language, I went out and did a most rare thing for me: bought it new from the shop straight away, full price. I devoured it, relishing every sentence and have been looking for an excuse to read it again ever since (I have so many unread books on my shelf that I did need an ‘excuse’, I’m a bit ‘on the spectrum’ like that, what can I say?) so I was SO PLEASED to see it on the Blogging Good Read book list.

Upon re-reading this book I’m again astonished about how NOT BORING it is. It’s essentially a non-fiction book about what could be quite dry subject matter even for linguists, yet Bill manages to explain everything so that you understand it and by including lots of relatable examples to illustrate his points he prevents the book becoming too theoretical and over the reader’s head. It seemed that every single page had me smiling to myself, raising my eyebrow in an “Oh reeeaallly?” manner, or pausing to tell whoever happened to be near me the latest amazing fact I had found out about our mother tongue (I’m flicking through the book now trying to find an example of an amusingly-written anecdote he’s included but I can’t – there’s just something about his writing that is so interesting and readable)… now if only I could get past the Geology chapter of his  Short History of Nearly Everything, I’m sure I’d love that book just as much! I’d also recommend Bryson’s book on Shakespeare for a similar read.

Lucy's choice was If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor:

I first read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things around eight years ago; I bought it in a charity shop after finding the title appealing and liking the cover picture of a bird in flight. It drew me in from the very first page – I think it particularly resonated with me as I was still at uni at the time, living on a terraced street in a Northern city (like the setting of the book) and I could almost imagine all the day-to-day goings-on behind the front doors of my neighbours. I chose it for A Blogging Good Read because, almost a decade later, snippets of the story remain in my consciousness, haunting me, if we want to be dramatic about it … yet no-one I speak to seems to have heard of it or the author. I must admit I checked out the Amazon reviews after choosing it and was suddenly worried, as several people refer to the ‘self-conscious’ and ‘over-stylised’ writing, but after re-reading the book I fell in love with it all over again.

If Nobody… is set in one street and tells the stories of its residents on one particular afternoon at the end of summer. Their stories are at once without detail or specifics, yet pick up tiny gestures and elements of everyday life which usually go unnoticed. We get to know these characters intimately without necessarily knowing their name, age or job. There’s no real ‘plot’ to speak of. The book builds gradually to a slow-motion crescendo in the last few pages (not so gradually that you lose interest - on the contrary, the small anecdotes of the characters’ lives had me completely absorbed and I gobbled up the whole thing greedily), where a dramatic and fast-paced event is exquisitely captured in that kind of slow-motion way we all experience in real life, for example when watching a glass of red wine tumbling to the white rug, but being unable to do anything about it.  I love If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things as much for its beautiful poetic prose as for the fact that it serves as a reminder that every face you see in the street has a history, thoughts and feelings every bit as intricate and meaningful as your own.

Did I like this book?  I'm still not entirely sure.  I certainly appreciated all the good things about it - Mc Gregor's writing is quite hauntingly beautiful in parts and the style, although very different, is perfect for the story and the characters it describes.  A straightforward linear narrative wouldn't have worked nearly as well and it's the pace and framing of events that creates the very unusual and special atmosphere of this book.  It's ultimately about one very specific moment on one very specific day but it was the level of minutiae and background detail that brought the characters springing to life that made this book stand out above the ordinary.

Yet my appreciation of all these things never developed into anything warmer.  I suppose it was just lacking that bit of emotional connection for me.  A book doesn't have to be fantastically well written to touch me but all the technical skill and ability in the world can't make me love a book, and I didn't love this one.  It was good, but somehow I don't feel particularly inspired to pick up anything else by him or to keep this on the bookshelves to read again.

What did Lee think?

I have wanted to read this novel ever since it was selected as one of the
Bloomsbury 21 series of books. Had I seen it in a charity shop I'm sure I would have picked it up and taken it away for a holiday read before now, but for some reason this was never meant to be, so I was also very pleased to see it included here (that's 2 for 2!!). There were many things I liked about this book.  What was instantly noticeable was McGregor's style of writing which gave a basis towards the description of events and places, before giving clear impressions of his characters which built up as the chapters evolved. This was further impacted by McGregor's decision not to refer to his characters by name, yet he still conjured up a very clear impression of each individual within this group.

I liked the shift from the seemingly present day, to a fairly recent past when an event had happened which had bound these characters. I also very much enjoyed the multi-layered narrative presented and how the reader was provided with a sense of all these characters. I don't think I am giving too much away to say the event in question was a tragedy and the book does not shy away from giving you this impression, which helps the novel to build up to a tense suspension in the lead up to this event. When the inevitable tragedy does take place, McGregor writes an utterly compelling and utterly tragic description of this event and the responses of all those involved and impacted and I found this very affecting. I liked how it dealt with the reality that bad things do happen to each and everyone, but people find a way to keep going, to still see the 'remarkable' in life. McGregor's focus on the normality of life's events and its 'remarkableness' was one of the things that appealed to me most in this book, and how people do need to take the time to appreciate life for the things that we can have, and to see the remarkable nature of the things we take for granted, especially when things can and do change in an instant. This book left the best impression a writer can make on its reader, in that upon finishing I instantly wanted to go track down other examples of his work - which I fully intend to do starting with his next novel So Many Ways To Begin.

Lee's choice of book was Letters from a Lost Generation, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge:

I read this in my late teens and it had a very profound impact upon me. The book is a collection of letters sent from five young people during the First World War: Vera Brittain, her fiance Roland, her younger brother Edward and their two friends Geoffrey and Victor. All of the men were sent overseas to fight the war while Vera acted as a nurse here in the UK. One of the things that stood out to me upon first reading this book was the inclusion of Vera's point of view as I feel these experiences can be often lost when they are purely portrayed from the male point of view. By using first hand letters, the reader is given a clear indication of events as they unfold, noting the delays in exchanges that caused Vera concern and worry. On first reading I was impressed by the editing job Bishop and Bostridge did with this book, and still found this to be the case. It did not feel like they'd butchered these letters for their own narrative purposes, instead carefully constructing a logical, expressive version of the events and not shying away from expressing the true horrors sometimes faced. I found the descriptions within these letters gave a clear impression of those writing them, the different relationship each of the four men had with Vera and how some could express their concerns or worries more.

As with all things WW1 related there is a clear sense of tragedy and sadness in this book, there can be no shying away from that. I did not find this book lost anything in re-reading and I was as deeply affected as I was first time round. I hope people will still take the time to read this and other similar books though as it is really important these events are recorded and shared. If it was up to me I would have this book in classrooms across the UK. We owe so much to those who have fought for the liberties and freedom we have today and the expressing of that gratitude should never be forgotten.

The first time I read this book was when I was on holiday in Bruges.  More specifically, when I was visiting Ypres, Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood and Tyne Cot cemetery. Being there whilst reading this gave it such a level of additional poignancy that I spent most of the time crying my eyes out. It didn't hit me quite so hard this time round but it's still one of the honest and saddest books I own, just by sheer virtue of the content and the raw, powerful immediacy of the letters it contains. If you don't know the fate of the five people involved then I won't go into details here but if you know anything about the horrors of WW1, you'll know that it's unlikely to all end well.

The thing that I remember being really struck by on my first reading was the intelligence and expressiveness all of the letter writers, especially when you bear in mind just how young they all were. That quality was just as much in evidence when I picked the book up again. They're all quite stunningly articulate for teenagers!

There are a lot of WW1 related books out there. You can take your pick from fiction, non-fiction, poetry, weighty military tomes, books written during the war or years or even decades later. I sense this is one of the best but it's definitely one of the truest.

Unfortunately Lucy had a nightmare trying to get hold of this book and despite buying it 6 weeks ago, it still hasn't been delivered. And she couldn't get a copy from her local bookshop in time either, so she wasn't able to review it. I hope you find it easier to get hold of a copy if our reviews have interested you!

A great big thank you to Lucy and Lee for joining in this month. In February I'll be back with two different bloggers and we'll be reading Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.


  1. Thanks for organising this Alex, I really enjoyed it despite the (ongoing) book stress. If anyone wants to buy Letters from a Lost Generation DO NOT get it from Play.com marketplace thingy. I'm hopefully going to get a refund and then will be buying it from somewhere more reputable, because it does sound brilliant... I too visited Ypres a few years ago and anything to do with war has had an added poignancy for me ever since. I totally agree with Alex about how articulate they are for such young people - I'm always astonished when I realise that poems such as The Soldier and Dulce et Decorum Est were written by men in their early twenties.

    I'm glad I wasn't the only one chuckling away to myself for Mother Tongue and pleased that neither of you hated my choice!! :)

  2. I always enjoy these review posts. I have If Nobody... in my pile of books to read, it's been there for a few years now but it's just been bumped up nearer to the top. As ever Mother's Tongue and Letters From also sound like books I would enjoy. If only I could do nothing but read for a few months I could catch up!

  3. Ooh I love war books, I'll definitely be looking for this one! And I gotta get more into Bill Bryson, I read one of his books about two years ago then forgot all about him, oops! The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is one of my favourites, can't wait for next month :)

  4. That Bill Bryson book is going straight onto my Amazon wishlist. I'm also a massive words geek :) xx

  5. Looking forward to taking part in a future instalment :)

  6. I do love Blogging Good Read, and love the note at the bottom on what you're reading next so I can get ahead and look them up. That Bryson book is straight on my wishlist too.

  7. I love Blogging Good Read too. I've read Mother Tongue and loved it. I have If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable things, and it made me want to shove it further up my to read list,and the last book sounds right up my street. If only I weren't on a total book buying ban it would be being hunted down immediately.

    I'm impressed with myself that the three books for next time are all ones I've read. I feel rather smug about that for some reason!


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