Kategoriarkiv: Bryson, Bill

A couple of shorts

No, not short trousers, short reviews.

bryson_dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson moved swiftly to the top of my reading pile when my parents off-loaded their copy on us and was consumed within a few days of my getting my hands on it. No wonder, perhaps, Bryson being one of my favourite writers and Notes from a Small Island probably my favourite of his books. And in many respects The Road to Little Dribbling fulfills its promises. Here is the pure delight in travelling, especially by bus in Britain, that I so recognise. Here is the love for the more absurd aspects of Englishness. Here are the masses of odd little anecdotes and facts that Bryson is a master of. But I was, perhaps strangely, disappointed anyway. Partly because I have lamented the lack of Scotland in the previous volume, and here I was promised Scotland and then it turns out that England take up 355 of the book’s 381 pages, Wales (not that I mind Wales) 15 and Scotland a measly 11. And partly, well, in parts it feels a little… stale? It’s not that I didn’t like it, I did, but I guess I didn’t LOVE it. But lets think of happier things and quote a bit I do like (love):

I was surprised to learn that there is a system to British road numbering, but then I remembered that it is a British system, which means it is not like systems elsewhere. The first principle of a British system is that it should only appear systematic. (Page 142.)

leif_engerPeace Like a River by Leif Enger was our book circle book over Christmas, and I rather enjoyed it while reading it. However, it’s  now a month later and I find I can’t really remember what was so good about it, and though the plot is pretty clear to me, the feelings it generated have not made a lasting impression. A bit of a luke-warm recommendation, then. The book circle were split in their opinions, some couldn’t finish the book, while others, like me, were more enthusiastic.

roy_godofsmallthingsThen for our February meeting we read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and again, the reception was mixed. I found it slow to begin with, but then, suddenly, at around 120 pages, it turned a corner and after that I could hardly put it down. There is someting compelling about the way Roy takes us back and forth between past and present and the quirks of the language were wonderful, I thought.

Bluegreyblue eyes snapped open.

A Wake.
A Live.
A Lert.

(Page 238.) Some of the others struggled with keeping the characters straight, and I suppose the Mammachis and Kochammas may easily get a little muddled, but this was not a problem for me. Slight spoiler alert here: There is a scene at the cinema where Estha is abused by the lemonade man, and although it is unpleasant reading, it is also rather wonderful in the way Roy manages to write the scene from the little boy’s point of view as simply nauseating and horrible without any hint of an adult’s sexualised perception intruding on the description. I find that a rare thing.

Shakespeare: The World as a Stage – Bill Bryson

bryson_shakespeareJust before Christmas I headed to Åre by train for a day in order to pick up Box The Messenger and some yule ale. I was about to finish rereading India Knight’s Comfort & Joy, so needed to bring another book in order to have enough reading material for the journey, and so wandered in to look at my TBR shelf (there are TBR volumes all over the house, of course, but I’ve tried to collect a few of them in a bookcase in the bedroom) thinking «it needs to be something fairly light-weight…» I came out with Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare, and for a second felt a bit like Hermione («I took this out of the library ages ago for a little light reading»). However, in some ways it makes sense. Not that «light-weight» is a fair description of the book, it’s a sound piece of scholarship. What it is, though, is an easy read.

In typical Bryson-style we are taken through what is known of Shakespeare from birth to death (and a little of what happens before and after, too). What is known is so little that a bare-bones telling of that would cover perhaps two pages, so in order to reach two hundred Bryson also expounds on how we know what we know, why we don’t know more (hint: We don’t really know much about anyone from the time, in fact we know a suprising amount about Shakespeare) and rather a lot about all the stuff people have guessed, surmised, interpreted or plainly made up over the centuries. He is appropriately dismissive of those who insist Shakespeare could not have been the author of Shakespeare’s works, but takes the trouble to point out the flaws in the various theories for who else could have been, a few of which I had not heard before. And as could be expected manages to cram an impressive number of little anectdotes into the whole.

So: An easy and pleasant read that leaves you feeling like you learned something, too. Like pretty much everything else by Bryson, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. And finishing it in 2016 means I can tick off task 6 of the Book Riot Read Harder challenge, so there is that.

Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

bryson_small_islandI don’t know why I suddenly decided to reread Notes from a Small Island this time, but it was probably related to being rather clogged up with a flu of sorts (there is comfort food and then there are comfort books). Anyway, I just need to tell you all again how much I love this book. Notes from a Small Island is the book I’d have written about Britain if I were a writer. It’s Bryson saying goodbye to his adopted country before going to live in the States for a while, and it’s brimming with love tinged with regret. It’s Bryson being homesick before he has even left.

I’ve said it before, but the thing about Bryson’s love for Britain is that he loves it the exact same way I love it, quirks and idiocies included. He even seems to share my opinion on certain national heroes:

I watched out for Tintern Abbey, made famous, of course, by the well-known Wordsworth poem, ‘I Can Be Boring Outside the Lake District Too’

(Page 149.) He also travels a bit like I prefer to do if circumstances allow, letting his destination be decided by chance or by whim, going to Wigan because a bus for Wigan comes past just when he’s got The Road to Wigan Pier in his back pocket (page 230). As good a reason as any, if you ask me. I once went to Preston with a friend just because we wondered what a place sharing a name with the cyber dog in Wallace & Gromit: A Close Shave could possibly be like. I don’t think we had any great epiphanies, but we had a grand day out.

And that’s something I’ve mentioned before as well, but Bryson actually really seems to enjoy travelling, including the less glamorous bits, like waiting for a bus or getting caught in the rain. He seems to acknowledge and accept that it’s all part and parcel and imparts the same feeling to the reader, making you really want to just get up and go somewhere, anywhere (though preferably Britain, it must be said).

And he’s funny. It’s definitely the sort of book you shouldn’t be reading in public if snorting at books in public embarrasses you.

The big event in Thurso, according to civic records, was in 1834 when Sir John Sinclair, a local worthy, coined the term ‘statistics’ in the town, though things have calmed down pretty considerably since.

(Page 325.) So this is my love letter to a book that is a love letter to a place I love. I might have come to the conclusion that I’d rather live in Norway, but that is as much a practical decision (I like my family and would like to see them more than twice a year, for example). It’s been fourteen years since I left Britain, and I still get pangs of «homesickness» quite regularly and start to wonder if there isn’t some way of moving there again that would magically work on a practical level (I need a teleporter, that would solve all of my problems).

Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fêtes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it.

 

 

One Summer: America, 1927 – Bill Bryson

bryson_1927Trying to get through the backlog, so this will be short. Though, looking back, not as short as my review of At Home which read in its entirety: «If anyone can tip me off about other authors who are as good at collecting, organising and relating anecdotes as Bill Bryson, please, please do.» Which is pretty much true for One Summer as well.

What can I say? Bryson has picked an interesting year and presents interesting stories in interesting ways. His anecdote-collecting skills have not waned and besides the usual suspects (Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, amongst many others) are lots of people I’d never heard of (well, ok, that might not say much, but bear with me) with stories that are definitely worth hearing. Such as Carrie Buck, who was sentenced to being sterilised on the grounds that both she, her mother and her daughter were «imbeciles», and that they should not be allowed to reproduce. On the whole the chapter on eugenics is particularly chilling, perhaps even more so with hindsight, knowing what was to come in Europe a few years later (mind you, some of the atrocities carried out in America, such as agains Carrie, were bad enough, even though fewer people were affected).

Ending on a happier note, I quote:

When tabloids became the rage, Macfadden launched the Graphic. Its most distinguishing feature was that it had almost no attachment to truth or even, often, a recognisable reality.

(Page 51.) Much like some of our more popular tabloids nowadays, then.

 

 

Smakebit på søndag: Made in America

madeinamericaJeg tar nok en pause fra U- og leser litt i Bill Brysons Made in America, om hvordan amerikansk engelsk utviklet seg til å bli slik det ble. I dag skal jeg være så orginal at jeg serverer en fotnote som smakebit:

Why the -s termination rose to prominence is something of a mystery. It came from northern England, a region that had, and still has, many dialectal differences from the more populous south, none other of which has ever had the slightest influence on the speech of London and its environs. Why the inhabitants of southern England suddenly began to show a special regard for the form in the late sixteenth century is unknown.

(side 25) Språk er gøy.

Flere smakebiter finner du hos Flukten fra virkeligheten.

Another roundup

Not to be avoided, obviously.

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith – charming.

The Rune Blade Trilogy by Ann Marston, consisting of The Kingmaker’s Sword, The Western King and Broken Blade. Engaging, well worth the time. My one gripe, if you can call it that, was that I’d have preferred to stay with the same protagonist throughout the trilogy. But I suppose that’s more of a «the books were too short» kind of complaint, which isn’t neccessarily a bad thing. Picked up the whole set as bookcrossing copies and have been meaning to release them, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Must see about picking up further books from Marston.

One of our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde. A delight as usual, even more twisted than its predecessors, though I’d hardly have though that possible.

At Home by Bill Bryson. If anyone can tip me off about other authors who are as good at collecting, organising and relating anecdotes as Bill Bryson, please, please do.

That Old Cape Magic and The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. Both quite magical in a very everyday, humdrum sort of way, if that makes any sense. Confirms Russo, again, as one of my all-time favourite authors.

And that’s mostly what I read during the holidays. Now, what did I read between March and July I wonder? Think, think, think.

———-

Update number 1: Well, of course, I reread the whole Harry Potter series. That took a couple of days.

Update number 2: The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I’ve never read any of the Chalet School books before, and found this copy by chance so thought I’d try it. It’s niceish. I’ll probably buy more from the series if I come across them second-hand, but I doubt I can be bothered to search very hard.

Update numer 3: Karin Lindell, better known as Ketchupmamman, of course. I even registered it on Bookcrossing before passing it on. Her blog is hilarious at times and thought-provoking at times, which is a good mix. The book follows along the same lines, and is highly reccommended as a present for any new parents.

Neither Here nor There

I’m in the middle of (at least) two other books, really, but Bill sort of snuck in. Neither Here nor There is in Bryson’s inimitable and delightful style and I was glad to finally get around to rereading it.

Notes from a Big Country

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While ill, I was looking for something to read that wouldn’t be to taxing and found Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country to fit the bill exactly. I’ve read it before, of course, so I knew it would. The nice thing, you see, about Bill Bryson, is that his writing is lightweight while at the same time he seldom makes the glaring mistakes (either gramatically or factually) that makes me fume at the edges when reading other authors’ works. Notes from a Big Country is highly entertaining and was a nice counterpoint (though sometimes making exactly the same arguments) as some of the other books on the USA I’ve been reading lately. It also has a nice echo of my own (increasingly problematic) homesickness for Britain, which can only help the comforting feeling of relating well to the author’s point of view – crucial for this sort of book, methinks.

Notes from a Small Island

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It’s not been that long since I last read Notes from a Small Island, but I suddenly got the urge to reread and decided that it would be a good idea to do so when I could look forward to setting foot in Britain within a few weeks. Reading this sort of book at other times will just make me profoundly «homesick».

There’s not much to say that I haven’t said already. I love this book. I want Bill Bryson to go back and spend more time in Scotland. After that he could tackle larger parts of Wales. This would make me very happy indeed. As it is, I will have to be content with quoting:

Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fêtes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it.

Notes and natives

brysonIn which we look for travelling companions.

Following Faintheart, I succumbed and reread Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, despite the fact that very little of it concerns Scotland (Scotland being the topic I’m supposed to be covering). It really is an excellent book. I think one of the reasons I like Bryson som much is that he’s as batty about Britain as I am. And in precisely the same way, too. We may complain about the plumbing (or ask «What plumbing? You mean they have plumbing?») and we may be bewildered by bus queues and picnics on the beach in a gale, but we love even the plumbing and the queues and the picnics, simply because Britain wouldn’t be Britain without them. (Cue the librarian walking into a B&B and exclaiming with delight: «Look! Separate taps for hot and cold water!» though if someone suggested she install such a system at home she’d be horrified, naturally, just think of the impracticality!) Which doesn’t mean that Bryson likes every place he visits, and it certainly doesn’t mean he doesn’t say some pretty cutting (though mainly quite funny) things about people and places, but at least you get the feeling that, on the whole, he actually likes travelling. What a nice change from Mr. Jennings.

I then ventured on Native Stranger, my other haul from amazon. This one is written by a Scot (his name, in fact, is Alastair Scott), and is as much an examination of how history has affected the Scottish mind and the Scottish landscape as it is about travelling, as such. I learnt a lot. On the whole, a very interesting account, but again, I found something lacking. I have no reason to think that Scott did not enjoy his trek, he seems interested in the people and places he meets, but the contrast to Bryson is there: he doesn’t convey any enthusiasm to the reader. Bryson can make me want to go places I had never even contemplated before. Having read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, only a strong dose of self-discipline kept me from packing my bags set off to walk the Appalachian trail just as soon as I could find a travel agency willing to sell me an airplane ticket. In fact, I was this close to just up and walking there, I was in Detroit at the time and it seemed like the experience would be worth a walk across a couple of states…

So I guess maybe that’s what I am missing. I am missing the ability in the author to make me sigh «I wish I were there too!» Not, like Jennings, «I wish I were there instead!» I want the author to give me the impression that I would like him/her as a travelling companion, and I guess a measure of enthusiasm is one of my prerequisites for travelling companions. And with that in mind, statements like these put me off:

«Lunchtime would se me turn Viking, invading a grocer and pillaging milk, pies, cheese, bananas and Mars Bars; and stocking up with Cup a soups, tuna and spaghetti for the evening. My diet seldom varied. Since I began travelling the taste of food has ceased to have much importance and my tolerance for monotony usually lasts a journey.»

Fine, so food isn’t the be-all and end-all (at least, interesting food isn’t) of life in general or travelling in particular, but one of the joys of travelling is to sit down to a good meal at the end of the day, with a good companion (a person or a book, I don’t mind either way). Or to have a picnic consisting of slightly dry bread and flat fizzy water on a cliff in a downpour. The food doesn’t have to be good, but it has to be part of the experience. I don’t know. Somehow, that one comment about food set the mood of the whole book for me. I never got in tune with the author after that.

Still, as a grounding in Scottish history and modern sensibilities it was a good read, not to be sneezed at.

Bill Bryson, if you ever read this (I don’t know why you should, but if you do), please, please, please write a ‘Notes from a Small Island 2’, and spend a little more time in Scotland and a little more in Wales.