Review: Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

Review: Notes from a Small Island, Bill BrysonNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Published by William Morrow Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 338
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson, the acclaimed author of such best sellers as The Mother Tongue and Made in America, decided it was time to move back to the United States for a while. This was partly to let his wife and kids experience life in Bryson's homeland, and partly because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another. It was thus clear to him that his people needed him. But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of modern-day Britain, and to analyze what he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite, zebra crossings, and place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey, and Shellow Bowells. With wit and irreverence, Bill Bryson presents the ludicrous and the endearing in equal measure. The result is a social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain.

I have a little announcement. I picked up this book because my sister and I are planning a trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland in the summer of 2024.

Excited GIF

I thought reading a Bryson travelogue would be a lot of fun and add to the anticipation, especially as Bryson wrote it upon leaving the UK for the US (he now lives in the UK again)—I was expecting something a bit more wistful. I also thought he might travel to some of the same places on my itinerary and offer some insight.

Itinerary map for trip to the UK and Ireland

I’ll begin with about four days in London, travel by train to Edinburgh and spend a day there, then travel to Liverpool (stopping by Kendal on the way), spending an evening in the city. The next day, we’re off to Wales with a stop (and picture opportunity) in the village of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch. We will take a ferry to Dublin and spend several days in Ireland, including Blarney Castle, the Ring of Kerry, and the Cliffs of Moher.

Sadly, I was a bit disappointed with this book. I suppose it isn’t Bryson’s fault he didn’t write the book I wanted to read, but given the enjoyment Bryson’s other books have offered, this was a bit of a letdown. He purports to love the UK, but he spent pretty much the entire book complaining about it. It bothered me that a lot of his complaining was due to his poor planning as well—he was downright rude to a few customer service professionals as well, and that never sits right with me. I suppose one thing that bothered me was that Bryson was privileged to be able to travel across the entirety of the UK, something I have dreamed about doing for over 30 years, and he didn’t appreciate it. I liked parts of the book and even chuckled a few times (hence 3½ stars), but overall, it’s not one of Bryson’s best.

A bit of an unrelated coda: I will probably read a lot of other books in anticipation of this trip, but I’m not sure I’ll include Bryson’s sequel to this one.


Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill BrysonIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by Random House on January 4, 2000
Genres: Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 11 hours 54 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiosity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

After an aborted attempt at reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North* by Richard Flanagan for the Book Voyage Challenge (a book set in Australia or New Zealand), I decided to check this title out from the library. I had previously read Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue with mixed results, but I had heard this book was pretty good, and it was. I learned a lot about Australian history and natural science, none of which I knew. Bryson makes the point that we forget about Australia, and I think it’s a valid point.

I found his chapters on the indigenous population to be most interesting. Is there a place in the world where an indigenous population has been treated with a modicum of respect? I’m sincerely asking. What happened to Australia’s Aboriginal population is very similar to what happened to the indigenous population in the United States.

I was also fascinated by Bryson’s description of Australia’s natural features and wildlife. I’m not sure if he has convinced me to visit Australia or steer clear! Of course, Bryson’s characteristic wit makes for a fun read. It made me want to read more of his books, especially those that deal a bit with travel (I checked A Walk in the Woods out from my library). Bryson makes an effort to see as much of Australia as he can—even places that it sounds like many Australians don’t necessarily see. He has a deep curiosity and a wonderful way of drawing the reader into that curiosity.

Bryson narrates this audiobook, and he is a good narrator—many writers are not necessarily good at reading their work. If you do read it, I recommend the audiobook with the caveat that you might find you want to look up some of the text. It was a much more enjoyable read than I was expecting. My only concern is that at times, Bryson seems a bit glib. It was hard to read his concern for the Aboriginal population summed up like this:

If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues, all I could write would be “Do more. Try harder. Start now.”

So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.

No one is asking Bryson to solve a problem that is centuries in the making. Obviously, no one person can resolve systemic racism alone, especially as a visitor to another country, but deciding not to see it is remaining complicit. This book is now about 20 years old, and I wonder if Bryson would write that last sentence again if he wrote this book now (not that we can excuse him for writing it then). I am glad he spent some pages discussing Aboriginal issues and history, but this book is not the book to really learn about Australia’s indigenous population. Bryson’s curiosity only went so far.

Where he shines is in his self-deprecating description of his traveling fiascos (not being able to find a room, staying in bad hotels, getting an egregious sunburn, freaking out over the local fauna). As long as he keeps it light, this is a fun read. Bryson’s gift is making the reader feel like they’re traveling right along with him, and this was a pretty good trip.

*I was really hating this book. I disliked every single character, and the story was not grabbing me. I feel a little bad since the author was basing it on his father’s experiences in World War II, but there it is.


Booking Through Thursday: Traveling with Books

House of Seven Gables

This week’s Booking Through Thursday prompt asks “When you travel, how many books do you bring with you? Has this changed since the arrival of e-books?”

How many books I pack for trips depends on how long I plan to be gone. I usually just take one because I don’t often find time to read on vacations when I take them. However, I took my Kindle on my most recent trip to Salem. I took no other books. My travel reading packing has definitely changed since ebooks. For one thing, I was able to download Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables the day I visited the actual house. In fact, if I had taken my Kindle with me to visit the House of Seven Gables itself, I could have downloaded the book at the actual site and might have begun reading it in the beautiful gardens next to the house. I might not pack actual books for trips ever again. My Kindle is much lighter, and packing it instead means I can actually take more books than I otherwise would be able to take. Also, if I decide on a whim to read something else, I can download a new book in about a minute. Can’t beat it.

I found some bookish news you might be interested in. Related to e-books and travel is Attributor’s finding that e-book piracy is on the rise. Probably not a huge surprise to folks with e-readers. For the record, all my books are either free titles or legally purchased books (in case you were wondering). I think maybe Kindle’s closed format (not allowing ePub formats, for example) probably prevents piracy, but you can still load them with PDF’s, provided the books have been made available in that format.

LitWorld wants to help one million children learn to read by 2014. You can help! In related news, and Amazon are working together to digitize African books and provide access to e-books by African readers and e-readers for students in Ghana. Nice to see folks pitching in to increase literacy and also to help make reading easier and more accessible.

photo credit: danahuff