Essays. Travel. Nonfiction. Humor (Nonfiction.) HTML: Before New York Times bestselling author Bill Bryson wrote The Road to Little Dribbling, he took this delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation of Great Britain, which has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey..
Bryson's signature travel-writing style strikes me as a blend of three things: 1) A "game-but-hapless schlub" persona that may be the real Bryson or may be a put-on; 2) Elaborate, almost Dickensian descriptions of colorful characters and settings he encounters along the way; 3) Comic exaggeration that starts where Mark Twain went in his more unbuttoned moments and winds up somewhere on the far side of Dave "I am not making this up" Barry . . . and that, I think, is why I find his work off-putting.
Game-but-hapless schlubs and cringe comedy (in which Bryson often traffics here) are, for me, anti-entertaining. Dickens-style baroque characters with improbable names are marvelous if done well, but (again, for me) they only work if the author, and all the characters around them them, treat them as essentially normal . . . but Bryson-the-author always feels like he's waving and pointing from the margins, saying: "Look! A caricature!" I'm always up for a well-done example of the comedy of overstatement -- Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" remains the funniest thing I've ever read -- but outside of a novel it is (last time: for me) virtually impossible to carry off at book length. What's funny in a 1,000-word column or 3,000-word article goes flat in a 100,000 memoir.
If you've never read Bill Bryson, don't let this put you off. Millions of people love his books, and--statistically speaking--your literary tastes are more likely to align with theirs than mine. If, however, you've tried reading him and can't figure out why he leaves you cold . . . maybe this is why.
I haven't read a travel essay in a long time, and those I did read weren't even from this century, so this was a new reading experience. I loved it! Who knew that nonfiction could be so engrossing? (Sorry, nonfiction fans, that's just my personal bias of fiction coming out.) I will definitely be reading more by Bryson. In fact, I think if I do another book challenge, I will create a travel category. The only bad thing about reading this book was that now I want to go to England, and see all the places for myself!
I do so admire his sense of humour, and also his knowledge about everything, or so it seems. I like it that he
I learned a lot from this book about Great Britain, especially since I'm Dutch and only slightly acquainted with that lovely country.
Bryson's humor is of that variety which makes me laugh on occasion, but the funny bits here are stuck in amongst so many moments where he's behaving like an idiot, complaining pointlessly, or being a chauvinistic twit that it was hard to separate the amusing from the obnoxious. While some of anecdotes and inserted historical trivia were fascinating, I'm still not sure whether the book was entirely worth the time.
I find Bill Bryson's style of writing very refreshing, and whilst there may not be many laugh out loud moments, I find an almost constant smile on my face whilst reading
In this book, Bryson takes a journey round Britain, visiting various places both well known and obscure. Obviously the fact that I know a lot of the places is relevant and is probably one of the reasons this is my favourite Bryson travel book.
Overall an extremely good read which I would recommend to everyone.
Review: I picked this book up because I needed something fun, something light, something which could keep me engaged when I was distractible, but which didn't have an intricate plot that I needed to follow. And Bill Bryson is perfect for that, particularly Bryson's travel writing. Every chapter or two he's somewhere else, so I didn't get lost when I needed to put it down and pick it up later, but I find his writing so engaging that I could listen for long stretches without wanting to switch to something else.
Plus, Bryson's funny enough that it was able to lift my mood whenever I went back to it. This book was somewhat repetitive; it could easily be subtitled "In Which Bill Bryson gets cranky at modern architecture and the British Rail timetable system". In fact, some of Bryson's grumping is so repetitive that occasionally it was easy to lose track of exactly which little town that had replaced its historic buildings with bland glass-and-cement storefronts was currently making him wax curmudgeonish. This was probably not helped by the fact that as much as I am a cultural Anglophile, I have only been able to travel there briefly, and am not awesome at British geography. I could have really used a map with the various places that Bryson visits, or at least some of the larger ones, but that's always a problem with audiobooks. (Not that the paper version has a map either, but had I been reading it I could have at least pulled up Google Earth.)
I also wonder how well this book has aged. Bryson's trip is a portrait of Britain in the mid-90s; I wonder how much things have changed in the intervening 20 years. I only noticed one place where the age of the book was immediately obvious (to a non-native); it briefly mentions Princess Diana in the present tense. But while the fundamental nature of Britain may not have changed over the centuries, I have to believe that at least some aspects of its national character have evolved with the times. (Hell, when this was written, Harry Potter wasn't even a gleam in Rowling's eye.) I don't think that Bryson could write another book updating his impressions without retreading worn ground, but it would certainly be an interesting comparison.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, and it was a great fit for my mood at the time. It's clear that Bryson loves England, and that his frustrations are born out of that love, and that makes it a simultaneously fun and charming read. As far as his country-in-a-book books go, I think I liked In a Sunburned Country a little bit better, since it was a bit more varied, but Bill Bryson travel books are always reliably good. 4 out of 5 stars.
Somehow manages to write about his time in the UK in a very sympathetic light, whilst simultaneously making fun of the people and places. Think he needs to give Cambridge another go on a sunny day though!
Coming back to this review, just want to add that
Notes From a Small Island is a travelogue. After living in England for almost 20 years and before moving back to his native USA, Bryson took a seven-week trip around Britain - from Dover in the South to John O'Groats in the North - in order to "analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about" this small island. The book gets off to a brilliant start, with Bryson recounting his first arrival to England on a ferry from Calais to Dover and his first experiences with British culture and people. This first encounter is written beautifully and Bryson fulfills the promise of the quote from The Times on the front cover: "not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts". But then something goes terribly wrong.
It is obvious Bryson loves Britain. He also loves the British people and their sense of humour. Appropriately, he mimicks that sense of humour in the way he tells his story. However, he misses one important, indeed crucial, aspect of the British raison d'etre: the understatement. Just like a typical American (and I apologise for the generalisation) he overdoes it. Page after page, city after city, Bryson whines and moans about things he does not like. At first, it is funny and somewhat endearing; very quickly it becomes tiresome and annoying. Very quickly I was asking myself: how can Bryson love Britain as much as he says he does, if he feels so much is wrong with it? I guess it is OK to be critical of the subject of your infatuation, but it is quite another to bash it around mercilessly and endlessly.
Here are some random examples:
... Lulworth wasn't anything like I remembered. Its central feature was a vast and unsightly car park, which I had quite forgotten, and the shops, pubs and guesthouses along the street to the cove were dusty and looked hard up... (I) made a small, heartfelt vow never to return to Lulworth as long as I might live (pp. 125-127)
Exeter is not an easy place to love... there seemed to be no reastaurans in Exeter... Exeter was in a foggy glooom that didn't do anything for its appearance (pp. 133-135)
There are certain things that you have to be British or at least older than me, or possibly both, to appreciate... I'm not saying that these things are bad or boring or misguided, merely that their full value and appeal yet eludes me. Into this category, I would also tentatively insert Oxford (p. 152)
My gripe with Oxford is that so much of it is so ugly (p. 154)
I didn't hate Milton Keynes immediately, which I suppose is as much as you could hope for the place (p. 176)
Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well (p. 196)
My problem with Manchester, you see, is that I have no image of it, none at all (p. 224)
And so on and so forth, ad nauseam. I avoided quotes about how miserable Bryson felt because of the weather, the food, the service, the trains, the architecture and God knows what else. I think you get the picture.
Interestingly, in the concluding chapters of the book, as Bryson tours Scotland and the northernmost areas of the British Isles, the tone changes and the mood is palpably more positive and upbeat. Alghouth he does not stop the whining completely (I suppose that would be too much to ask for) it does get considerably smaller and further apart. Perhaps it was the indecipherable Scottish accent that made him less angry at everything and everyone. Or perhaps he was just happy to be getting close to the end of the trip and being put out of his misery.
I still think Bryson is a good storyteller and I believe I will be reading more of his books. I just wish Notes From a Small Island would not have been my first dip into the world-famous Bryson travelogue books. The bad taste will remain with me even if his other books do turn out to be less annoying.
What he poked fun of (a shortlist):
fat people (fat shaming a family at a restaurant and staring so much they moved tables)
Asperger's (a trainspotter widower he met was too excited about trains apparently)
Lewis Carroll (described him as a "poor perverted mathematician" when pedophilia was only rumored never proven)
Parkinson's (need I say more?)
The only good things that came out of this is that I'll probably visit Warwick Castle and Snowshill Manor in the future...and I'll never read anything else from Bill Bryson.
For another viewpoint, check out the critique of A Walk in the Woods by Mary Jean Ronan Herzog entitled "Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods" in the Journal of Appalachian Studies Vol. 5 Issue 1.
Athe only funny line I heard was when he explained why he was taking public transit because his wife wouldn't let him take the car.
Throughout, Bryson affects a cunning naiveté, constantly putting himself down as if by accident, both during his tour and while reflecting on his earlier life in Britain. For example, here is his fond reminiscence about the moment, during an internship at a mental hospital, when he first laid eyes on his future bride: "At the far end of the room, there moved a pretty young nurse of clear and radiant goodness, caring for these helpless wrecks with boundless reserves of energy and compassion — guiding them to a chair, brightening their day with chatter, wiping dribble from their chins — and I thought, This is just the sort of person I need."
Of course, the real Bill Bryson is not as clueless as the persona he uses in his books. He is, however, a genuine Anglophile, and his writing has an English flavor. The book seems to be directed as much toward British as American readers. (Since reading it, my wife and I have adopted "Oo, lovely!" as an ironic catchphrase.)
I'm not quite sure whether Anglophiles will be more likely to enjoy or resent this book. As a moderate Anglophile, I thought it was fun, except at moments when Bryson began sounding like the Prince of Wales whinging on about soulless modern architecture. Two or three such lectures might even have been endurable, but I think there were at least six, each as humorless as the last. Ah, well, it was still worth it. The book would probably reward a second reading.
Any Australian growing up naturally develops a sort of hazy idea of what the UK is like, in the same way that anybody anywhere grows up with a hazy idea of what the US is like, but Notes From A Small Island probably filled in my mental map a bit more than Harry Potter or Monty Python films. Bryson travels by train across the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales, filling the pages with his usual wit.
I had never had a biscuit of such rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a budgie to strengthen its beak.
At the Old Times building on Gray’s Inn road, the canteen had been in a basement room that had the charm and ambience of a submarine and the food had been slopped out by humourless drones who always brought to mind moles in aprons.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are early on, when Bryson sprinkles his modern-day trip around Britain with memories of his early life there in the 1970s and 1980s, such as when he was involved in the Wapping dispute:
How odd, I thought, that a total stranger was about to pull me from my car and beat me mushy for the benefit of printworkers he had never met, who would mostly despise him as an unkempt hippie, would certainly never let him into their own union, and who had enjoyed decades of obscenely inflated earnings without once showing collective support for any other union, including, on occasion, provincial branches of their own NGA. Simultaneously it occurred to me that I was about to squander my own small life for the benefit of a man who had, without apparent hesitation, given up his own nationality out of economic self-interest, who didn’t know who I was, would as lightly have discarded me if a machine could be found to do my job, and whose idea of maximum magnanimity was to hand out a six-ounce can of beer and a limp sandwich.
These anecdotes dry up later in the book, and Notes From A Small Island loses some of its lustre as it becomes simply a journey through Britain’s hotels, restaurants and train stations. Bryson’s tirade against modern architecture also becomes tiresome, even for a reader who agrees with him entirely, as I do. Although on the subject of agreement, I was interested to see that apparently even in the 1990s there was popular backing for the bizarre idea that upon the Queen’s death, Prince Charles should bow out and pass the throne directly to the younger, more attractive and more popular Prince William. I agree with Bryson:
It seemed to me to miss the point. If you are going to have a system of hereditary privilege, then surely you have to take what comes your way no matter how ponderous the poor fellow may be or how curious his taste in mistresses.
Bryson’s attitude towards Britain can sometimes be overly sentimental. It’s clear that he loves this country, to the point where he sometimes verges upon British exceptionalism. It is utter nonsense to argue that people in other countries don’t know how to queue, or that they don’t laugh or smile as much the British. I sometimes wonder how much of this perceived difference between nations in the English-speaking first world (Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) is due to generational differences – since kids in today’s generation all grew up watching the same American TV and spend plenty of time on the internet speaking to people from all over – and how much of it is due to the fact that people who think there are vast differences between the US and Britain have never been to, say, China or Africa.
Notes From A Small Island is a solid Bryson book. Like many of his other books, it can become repetitive and focus a little too much on the banal experiences of travel, and if his sense of humour is not your cup of tea than you might find him cynical or ill-tempered. But I enjoy him a fair bit – it’s easy, funny reading.
One thing you readily pick up on in Bryson's work is his disdain for sterile locations that have no thought for their beauty. If buildings and lots are built over historically significant locations, and even more horrendously out of concrete, you get that he's not happy. Having visited England, but simply traveled a bit, I 100% understand his thoughts on "civilization" and how we put towns together. The well thought out buildings, cathedrals, hedgerows, and historical landmarks make a place and give it the charm we yearn for. Enough said.
Bryson has exhaustively backed up his information about the cities and towns he visited with some of the history that went along with it. In some cases, I had been where he discussed, so I was much more interested. In others, I had never even heard of them, so I was less interested. And in a final few more, I've wanted to go visit, so I paid a bit of extra attention. In short, there is a lot of information that can take his books from a "fun read" to a bit of a travelogue.
I really do enjoy Bryson's writing style and have grown to trust his knowledge about the places he writes. I appreciate that he digs in and talks about the infrastructure, a bit about the food he ate (only from time to time), and the people he encountered. Even if I haven't been where he is talking about, I feel like I'm tagging along. For this travel buff, that's always a very good thing!