Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Lake District, via
 Reviewed by Christina

Published: 1995

It's about: American travel/humor writer Bill Bryson had lived in Great Britain for over twenty years- most of his adult life- when he decided to relocate to New Hampshire with his wife and children.  Before moving back to the U.S., he took a solitary farewell tour of England and Scotland.  Notes from a Small Island is his travelogue. 
(The book's wikipedia article is a really nice summary, if you're interested.)

I thought: Reading aloud to my husband in the car is one of my favorite things about taking road trips.  I love reading aloud, I love sharing stories and information and laughs with my husband, and I love discovering which books are appropriately suited to this particular situation.  Bill Bryson's writing is perfect for our needs: light, funny, and engaging, with snippets of story and history, but without a long and complicated plot.  Unfortunately, we tend to travel with several needy children; so on any given 6-hour day of driving we are lucky to get in 1-2 good hours of reading.  It took us a year to read the full 324 pages of Notes from a Small Island.

Because of our sometimes months-long gaps between reading sessions, I don't have the clear impressions that I usually do when I finish a book.  Forgive me if this review is a bit vague, but I enjoyed Notes from a Small Island enough that I wanted to be sure to mention it on the blog.  It should definitely be on your radar next time you're looking for some funny travel writing and/or an amusing way to learn a bit about England and Scotland.

So yes!  Bill Bryson travels around and describes his opinions of and experiences in various English and Scottish locales.  He throws in just the right amount of history, too.  I've seen a few reviews on goodreads that complain about Bill Bryson being crotchety, and it's true that there are times when he's hangry or hungover or tired and damp and yes, he complains and gets snippy with people.  But I don't mind the crankiness; it helps the writing ring true, and in most cases I can see where he's coming from.  Besides, the sections where he praises the many things he loves about Great Britain easily outweigh the negativity.  In 2003, BBC Radio 4 listeners voted Notes from a Small Island the book that best represents England.  And it's written by a whiny American!  I think Bill Bryson can be pretty proud of that.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: Most of us Americans have never heard of and will never see most of the places described in this book.  So Notes from a Small Island is armchair travel at its best.

Warnings: Some swears.

Favorite excerpts: Shoot!  I didn't make any notes, and there were so many witty moments I'd like to share.  I'll settle for a few that I've found from other reviews and goodreads and stuff:

“At least half the hedgerows of Britain pre-date the enclosure movement and perhaps as many as a fifth date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Anyway, the reason for saving them isn’t because they have been there for ever and ever, but because they clearly and unequivocally enhance the landscape.  They are a central part of what makes England England.  Without them it would just be Indiana with steeples.”

"What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.

All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you.” 

What I'm reading aloud to Brooke in the car nextA Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson