A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson
(Anchor Canada (Random House), Toronto?: 2004)

READ: November 2007

I'd been wanting to read this book for months now, and boy, was it worth the wait. In his Short History, Bryson explains everything from the beginnings of life on our planet, to astrophysics, natural disasters, dinosaurs, and Einstein's theory of relativity, in plain, simple language. Well-known as a travel writer, Bryson brings his particular brand of humour to these, and many other questions of scientific import. Entertaining and elucidating, it's one of those books I should have taken notes on while reading. Well-documented, and well-thought out, this is one of the most entertaining and informative reads I've had in a while. My first Bryson book, but definitely not my last.

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories edited by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories
Roald Dahl, ed.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1983)

Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1983.

READ: August-November 2007

In the late 1950s, Roald Dahl started collecting ghost stories. He was looking for the best of the best, the cream of the crop, with the intention of making a television series based on these stories. The series died after the pilot episode, but it left Dahl with an appreciation for the difficulties in finding truly good ghost stories:

The best ghost stories don't have ghosts in them. At least you don't see the ghost. Instead you see only the result of his actions. Occasionally you can feel it brushing past you, or you are made aware of its presence by subtle means. [...] If a story does permit a ghost to be seen, then he doesn't look like one. He looks like an ordinary person.

In preparation for the ill-fated television series, Dahl read over 700 ghost stories. He published this collection almost 25 years later, adding a few stories he hadn't included in his original list, and removing some others. The result isn't the scariest book ever. You can't pick up this book expecting to be scared out of your boots. Many of these stories are, to be honest, not very scary. But they are all well-written, and many of them were quite successful at making me feel fairly unnerved. A few positively rose the hairs on the back of my neck. I still think, for example, of Harry by Rosemary Timperley with a chill and a shudder. Others are just clever; for example, W.S. by L. P. Hartley and Playmates by A. M. Burrage. The bulk of the stories are from the first half of the 20th century, so the writing style may not be to everyone's liking, but overall, the stories are fairly entertaining and interesting, and it's a fairly worthwhile read.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden
Francis Hodgson Burnett
(Wordsworth Editions Limited, Ware (Hertfordshire): 1993)

New introduction and notes added in 2000. First published in 1909.

READ: October-November 2007

Though it's a classic of children's lit, I'd never read this before, and now I know why it is so highly thought of. I don't know how I missed it. What a fantastic, amazing book. You can always tell, with a really good book like this, why exactly it is the classic it became. The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox, a spoiled, selfish little girl, who is sent to live in Yorkshire with her hunchback uncle after the death of her parents in India. After discovering a secret garden, a transformation comes over her and the inhabitants of the Yorkshire mansion that perhaps can't be explained by anything other than magic. It sounds a little hokey, perhaps, but the writing is charming and sure to win you over. It charmed me from page one, and I was sad to put it down.

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa
(Penguin Books, Markham (Ont.): 1983)

First published by Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1981

READ: October-November 2007

I first read this in my second-year university course in Canadian literature and, looking for something to read on my bookshelves at my parents' house, decided it was time for a re-read.

I had forgotten how compelling a story it is. Obasan tells the story of the displacement of the Japanese Canadians in WWII through the eyes of a child. Naomi has never been to Japan, and doesn't really understand what is happening when her own family gets broken up because of the war. She has never thought of herself as different, and continues to live in some sort of denial of that fact, until many years later, after the death of her uncle who helped raise her, when she starts to become more aware of the true extent of the injustice and prejudice that had been levelled against Japanese Canadians for so many years.

To be sure, I have a better appreciation now for the Japanese culture, and also WWII events, that I did not have when I first read this. It's a really poignant story, and, given the heady nature of its subject matter, does a surprisingly good job of not being too heavy-handed, with one or two exceptions. Kogawa really captures the sense of a child, bewildered by the changes around her but, in the way of children, easily adaptable to whatever circumstances are thrown her way. The writing is very accessible, and the story, while sometimes glossed over in history books, is one that every Canadian ought to know.