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Saturday, 22 July 2017

Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Bryson is known for his humorous yet informative books detailing his travels. Down Under is no exception as he explores Australia’s vast emptiness by foot, road, and rail, going on detours to find locations of events of interest, even when the locals seem to have lost all memory of them. He is baffled by the attraction of creating oversized models (giant lobsters, big apples, you name it, they’ve made it) alongside roads, yet finds that after hours of seemingly endless driving they become all the more appealing, and enjoys the quirks of the culture that find such things worth creating.

He is constantly alarmed by the many dangerous creatures lurking in the sea and on-land, and the blasĂ© attitude the Australians have toward them. He notes their eagerness to reassure, and the almost inevitable following gruesome or disastrous story. Reluctant as he is to come face to face with many of the native species, he does make clear quite how remarkable the wildlife is. Undisturbed by humans, organisms have had the freedom to evolve in ways not possible in other parts of the world. Australia is unique in the volume of species only known to reside there (and the many still undoubtedly left to discover). One of the overarching feelings of the country gleaned from the book is the power of nature, and humans’ vulnerability to it. Whether it be tales of the many lives lost in trying to find routes through the desert, or of the most experienced of divers vanishing in its waters, it is abundantly clear the humans are at the mercy of nature.

Bryson enjoys engaging with Australians, finding them generally friendly and with a wicked sense of humour (he found it particularly telling of their character that they named a swimming pool after a Prime Minister who met his end through drowning). One aspect of the attitudes he meets there that he struggles to get his head around is the treatment and opinions directed toward the Aborigines. After being startled on numerous occasions by the popularity of such views he finds himself sitting in a café watching the world go by, feeling a sense of injustice for the disheveled Aborigines who seem all but invisible to the rest of the population. Eventually, he reaches the sad realisation that he begins not to notice them either. That is not to say that he does not care however, detailing the wrongs inflicted on them by past generations.

He seems to think fondly of this oft-neglected country, and leaves with a sense of sadness that he will not hear much of their current affairs once he is outside of it. A highly enjoyable read that brings the diversity, vastness, and character of Australia to life.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

What Would Mary Berry Do?, Claire Sandy

Marie Dunwoody tries to do it all – maintain a happy marriage, raise three children, and run her own dental practice, a vocation to which she is devoted. She manages an impressive juggling act of her responsibilities, but when she is told at the last minute by her twins that she’s meant to be baking a showstopper for their school fair she feels she has failed, having to resort to Mr. Kipling Fondant Fancies. Her humiliation is reinforced by her seemingly perfect neighbour Lucy’s beautiful creations outshining her meagre offerings.  The fair proves to be transformative, however, when Marie happens upon a copy of Mary Berry’s Complete Baking Bible. She vows to become more like Mary, and in consequence, to her mind, a better mother.

Her ambition soon becomes something of an obsession as she battles her way through simple sponges, the threat of the challenging croquembouche, which she has promised to make for a friend’s wedding, constantly hanging over her. Keen bakers will feel a sense of familiarity in the frustrations and satisfaction in attempting to produce a perfect bake, and relish in the humour of Marie and her husband Robert’s split allegiance when he becomes a devotee of Paul Hollywood. The book is not all light-hearted Bake-Off references and collapsing cakes however, dealing with the pressures of marriage and parenthood, and the contrast between appearances and reality. It is this which makes the book unforgettable and drags you into the lives of the inhabitants of a small suburban street.

Marie’s son Angus is besotted with a girl he has only ever met online while completely ignoring the affections of his neighbour Chloe, the future of the dental practice is threatened by the opening of a rival across the road, more concerned with aesthetics than quality dental care, Robert’s job is hanging in the balance, and Lucy’s perfect life is a constant frustration. It all feels very real and relevant.

Through her baking endeavours Marie’s perspective begins to change and neighbourhood scandals are discovered. All the revelations may not be a total shock to the reader, but it is the journey that matters, and you find yourself becoming quite attached to the characters. A feel-good book accurately portraying the day-to-day challenges and triumphs of a modern family. This was something of a diversion from my normal reading habits, but one that I’m very glad I took.