Review 1308: Notes from a Small Island

Cover for Notes from a Small IslandBill Bryson had been living in England for about 20 years when he and his family decided to move back to the States. Before he left, he decided to take a seven-week trip around England, mostly using public transportation. Notes from a Small Island, published in 1995, details this trip. He interrupts the journey occasionally to tell stories about how he came to England on vacation and stayed.

Bryson is always an entertaining tour guide, because he is voraciously curious about everything and has lots of obscure stories to tell about the places he visits. His sense of humor is sometimes juvenile but often amusing.

In this book, he takes a winding route through the country that includes more obscure or unusual destinations than the common tourist stops. During the trip, he comments on the things he likes and dislikes, particularly his disdain for the number of historical buildings that have been torn down and replaced by ugly modern ones.

I found this a particularly interesting route, because Bryson visits as many places of little distinction as he does others, sometimes spontaneously hopping a train or bus to an out-of-the-way destination. So, we hear about thriving communities as well as those that have not fared as well. This, by the way, is also a hallmark of his later book about traveling in England, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which he revisits some of the same towns and reports on how they have done in the intervening time. In many ways, the books together are sort a of sociological and historical study rather than travel books, but always entertaining.

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Day 1075: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

One of the most enjoyable features of Bill Bryson’s travel books is his curiosity about everything and his willingness to go off on wild tangents. At Home is his attempt to inform himself and us about the objects of ordinary life, using his own home as a base for his explorations. But really, it’s his excuse to go off on tangent after tangent.

For example, his chapter on the cellar—he organizes his book by the rooms of the house—takes us to the building of the Erie Canal which takes us to the development of hydraulic cement then to the use of building materials in the United States versus England, a short history of Sir John Nash’s career, and so on. In fact, the contents of this particular chapter seem to have little to do with the actual room, except for the cement.

In reference to other rooms he discusses the history of various foodstuffs, the use of certain pieces of furniture, cemeteries, the history of how human mortality is treated, and even the history of gynecology. As always with Bryson, his comments can be amusing and the observations enthralling. If you like learning interesting little facts, this is the book for you. My edition was the illustrated one, which is full of fascinating photos and other pictures.

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Day 923: The Road to Little Dribbling

Cover for The Road to Little DribblingBest Book of the Week!
The Road to Little Dribbling is only the third book I’ve read by Bill Bryson, but it is the one I’ve most enjoyed. It is a follow-up to one of Bryson’s most popular books, Notes from a Small Island (which I have intended to read but have not), upon its 20-year anniversary. Both are about travels in Britain.

In The Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson draws an imaginary line between the two farthest points on mainland Britain and takes expeditions to some of the places on either side of the line. His line begins in a minor southern seaside town named Bognor Regis (where, oddly, I began my first visit to that country) and ends in northern Scotland at Cape Wrath.

The things that make Bryson’s books stand out are that he has many humorous observations to make and he is endlessly curious about everything. So, he has lots of stories to tell about the places he passes through, some of them personal, some historic, some scientific. He is also skillfully descriptive of beautiful scenery.

A recurring theme in the book is the impact of austerity measures on national landmarks and scenery. Also related to the economy is the growing dereliction of some of the towns he passes through. But he makes it clear that there is still much of charm and beauty to be seen and that many places are thriving.

I always enjoy Bryson’s comments about the lack of basic knowledge among some of the general public, because I have observed indications of that with dismay. I just recently viewed a video of Texas college students who were unable to answer basic history and political questions such as “Who won the Civil War?” or “Who did we get our freedom from?” but could answer every question about celebrities. I suppose this should not be surprising, since for the past couple of years my husband and I have observed that watching “NBC Nightly News” is now more like watching “Entertainment Tonight” than actually watching news.

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Day 492: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Cover for The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is billed as a memoir, but it is even more a collection of information and odd facts about 1950’s America, each chapter headed by a strange newspaper clipping from the time. This book is one of nostalgia similar to the work of Jean Shepherd, the humorist whose works centered on a slightly earlier time and author of the books that spawned A Christmas Story.

The memoirs bear many similarities to Shepherd’s, possibly because of the similarities in the imaginations and predilections of young boys, although Bryson’s continue on into the 1960’s and lose a lot of their innocence as the boys become obsessed with gaining glimpses of naked women and stealing beer. I’m guessing that a lot of the humor, with its emphasis on body functions and pranks, would be more amusing to men than to women.

Still, I found the book mildly funny. It turns out that I am roughly one month older than Bill Bryson, so I can vividly remember many of the things that Bryson relates as curiosities, clambering under our desks for the absurd air raid drills, for example, or going to view model air-raid shelters. Bryson grew up in Des Moines, a much bigger town than my own, so his memories are a little more urban than mine.

One place where my memory differs from his is in his repeated assertions that the Russians would never bomb Des Moines. When I was in the seventh grade, I distinctly remember being forced to watch an “educational” film during which we were informed that our town was among the top three bombing targets in the country (which is, of course, absurd, but we believed it). My subsequent informal research (occasionally asking people) has lead me to believe that every school child in America was told the same thing.

Readers Bryson’s age can take a brief look back through time in an afternoon of light reading. Younger readers might be surprised at some of the tidbits Bryson has uncovered, but they were no surprise to me.

Day 114: A Walk in the Woods

Cover for A Walk in the WoodsIn A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson recounts his attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail. After living in England for years, Bryson has moved back to the States, and he decides to reacquaint himself with America and try to get into better shape by walking the trail. To his surprise, an old friend named Katz, a reformed drug user, decides to come along.

Bryson is an amusing writer. He mixes interesting facts about the trail and information about the environment with stories about who he and Katz meet and what happens to them. I was particularly struck by how two such mismatched companions not only did not kill each other but actually treated each other considerately.

The two out-of-shape and inexperienced hikers start out with far too much equipment and then as they continue, Katz begins throwing things out, including the food. It seems they make just about every mistake a couple of neophyte campers can make, except being eaten by bears.

They run out of time after walking a few hundred miles of the trail in the south, and Bryson’s attempts to finish the trail devolve to what he can accomplish by driving to different portions of it and hiking on long weekends. But the longer hike that the two of them take is the meat of the book.

A few people have criticized the book because Bryson didn’t actually manage to hike the entire length of the trail. I think they are missing the point of the book, which is about friendship, about the interesting things that happen on the trail, and the history of the trail itself. In fact, few people do manage to complete the entire length of the trail, from Maine all the way to Georgia.