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.



At it again

I succumbed. I realised a little while back that one of the reasons Fiction and I were at odds was that whatever I tried to read had one major fault: It was not Patrick O’Brian. I tried to resist starting another reread because, really, there are so many books in mnt tbr and a reread takes two months at least, two months when I don’t get to reduce the mnt at all. So I read some non-fiction, which kept me amused, but then decided that O’Brian was worth it, and now I’m half-way into Master & Commander.

I’m not given to envy, but oh, how I envy those lucky people who get to read the Aubrey/Maturin saga for the first time. I even envy my past self. Had I realised what was going on I would have savoured it more. However, a reread is no bad thing, either, I still discover new treasures (and smile in recognition at old).

The 20-book set must be one of my best book-puchases ever. Talk about value for money. I bought most of them at «3 for 2» in Worthing, and at least one second-hand – in the Oxfam bookshop i Oxford, in fact. And I read them when I first bought them in 2000 (pre-blog days), and again in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007. And my father has read them once. So with this reread we’re up to 7 reads. See why I buy books rather than borrow them?

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

I found Never Let Me Go in a basket full of paperbacks at Fretex in Ullevålsveien and thought «Surely that’s one of the 1001 books? Well, even if not it’s probably worth 10 kroner.» It was. Both.

Having seen the film Remains of the Day with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, based on Ishiguro’s novel by the same name, I guess I was expecting a similar sort of plot. You know, English realism or whatever one should call it. That is hardly how you’d describe Never Let Me Go, though. It’s another kettle of fish entirely. Very English, yes, and set in an England of sorts, but in a parallell universe (thanks be). It is going to be hard to say much about it, as if you are going to read it – and you really should – you should be allowed to unfold the premises of the setting with no spoilers from me (or anyone else). In fact, go read it now, then come back and read the rest of this post. I will try not to give too much away, but I cannot promise to succeed if I am to say anything at all meaningful.

Beautifully written, Never Let Me Go captured my attention in a way no contemporary novel has done for oh such a long time. Very, very hard to put down.

For me, Ishiguro’s greatest triumph is making Kathy, the narrator, so very loveable and human while also, somehow, subtly «other». Whether nature or nurture is the cause, one can only guess. Very sneaky (Ishiguro’s achievement, that is) in a good way.

As it is, the novel is a chilling argument, one might almost say body of evidence, in the (still) current debate.

Still reading this post? Go read the novel. I will say no more.

Harlequin Valentine – Neil Gaiman & John Bolton

A rather beautiful book, another one that came my way thanks to bookcrossing. Bolton’s illustrations are magnificent and the story is concurrently charming and haunting, just as Commedia dell’arte should be. I will have to keep this copy for a while and enjoy it again before sending it on its way (and also, probably, put it on the wishlist).

Blue Shoes and Happiness

Oh joy, oh frabulous joy! A new No. 1 book! Amazingly enough I found it in one of the local bookshops before I even knew it was going to be out, and even more amazingly it was priced so reasonably that I didn’t have to wrestle with my conscience (who might otherwise have held the opinion that one could wait until end-June when we go to the land of hops and glory, i.e. the UK). Blue Shoes and Happiness continues in the same rather brilliant vein as the previous books, and only makes you wish it were longer.

The Chronicles of Robin Hood

Possibly my favourite book of all time, and one which I reread every so often despite knowing it pretty much by heart. What kicked off this reread was that I had to make a layout about my favourite book for a challenge on, and having once got the book down from the shelf in order to scan some of the illustrations it was plainly impossible to put it back without rereading.

Used & Rare, Slightly Chipped and Warmly Inscribed

And when you’ve read 84 Charing Cross Road, what is more natural than to polish off Used and Rare, Slightly Chipped and Warmly Inscribed in quick succession?

I see from the archives that I must have neglected to record my first reading of Warmly Inscribed, which is annoying, but most of what I said for the first two hold true for this one as well – the difference, if there is one, is that larger sections of the book are dedicated to single «stories», such as that of the New England forger of the sub-title. This is in no way a bad thing, and like the two first, Warmly Inscribed is a bit of a must-read for any bibliophile.

84 Charing Cross Road

In which we sigh gratefully

Having read somewhat too much of a book I really didn’t want to read just now, I picked 84 Charing Cross Road out of a pile which is intended for RABCKs (I have another copy, obviously, but this one was at hand) to indulge myself. Oh, what a lovely feeling. This book of course, a must for any bibliophile. It is probably also a must for any anglophile, though I have a hard time imagining an anglophile who is not also a bibliophile, and so it is a bit difficult to say. somehow managed to offer me Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn as the «Perfect Partner» for Hanff (if you buy both, you get a discount). Can someone please explain to me how that happened? Is it simply because Miller is tagged as a «classic» and any classic goes with Hanff? Because, quite frankly, I fail to see the connection otherwise. If you really wanted a perfect partner for Hanff, how about this one? The ideal match, of course, would be any of Q’s lectures, but the best amazon can do is this, which he edited.

But Miller? Honestly!