Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

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Published: 2015

As you might already know, I am an avid fan of Bill Bryson. I reviewed his book One Summer and since then have read three of his other books (during my hiatus period) which were all equally as good. I love how he’s able to make even the most science and technical books (such as The History of Nearly Everything) fun and engaging. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout and he makes things that I never thought I would be interested in, very fun to read about.

You could therefore appreciate my excitement when I decided to treat myself to this book. I loved the premise of it; Bill Bryson traveling around the UK stopping at different locations throughout the country and reviewing those places, along with a few rambles about the current affairs, some random unknown infamous people and just his general thoughts. I already appreciated his humour and I was curious to know where he would stop on his journey and get his musings on life in the UK. Likewise, I was hoping to use this as inspiration for any future road trips throughout the UK, thinking he might stumble upon and highlight some little gems that aren’t as obvious.

The book started off in Bryson’s usual happy-go-lucky attitude and humour. We first covered the south of England, and it included a few interesting points about London. The one thing I absolutely loved was the foreign perspective he had on the UK – felt right at home to me. He’s actually born and raised in Iowa, of all places, but has lived and worked in the UK for over twenty years. I loved how he pointed out the oddities that he encountered in the UK about it’s culture, because these mirrored me feelings and thoughts about the UK too. Take this quote for example:

“The most dismaying loss, I think, is of front gardens. People seem strangely intent on getting their cars as close to their living rooms as possible, and to that end have been ripping out their little front gardens and replacing them with service areas so that there is always a place for their cars and wheels bins. I don’t quite understand why they are permitted to do this since nothing more obviously ruins a street.” (88)

I totally agree with him, and since reading this bit have brought this up with my friends and have just noticed it more in real life which is really neat for a book to resonate with you like that.

Likewise, throughout the book, he highlighted some shocking and poignant aspects about British culture as well as the changing attitudes. For example, he highlights the importance of keeping green belts instead of building semi-faster trains between late cities:

“The first and most dangerous charge routinely laid against the green belt is that it isn’t actually all that special, that much of the land is scrubby and degraded. Well, you decide. According to a study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, green belts in England contain 30,000 kilometres of footpaths and other rights of way, 220,000 hectares of woodland, 250,000 hectares of top quality farmland, and 89,000 hectares of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. That sounds to me like things worth keeping.” (164)

This rant is great because he not only highlights his opinion but also provides supplementary facts to back up his thoughts. I always appreciate when authors do this as it makes it much more poignant, instead of an author just going on about what they think. So this explains why this book has earned the 2 stars that I had given it.

Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse for Bryson as the book goes on.

His rants stop being well thought out, and rather turn a bit pessimistic and confusing. He visits some towns and complains how devoid of people and tourist they are and how sad that is, but then also complains about the “thriving” towns for being overpopulated and too crowded. He doesn’t really express what the happy medium is for him which makes him just sound grumpy and irritable.

There is also a lot of repetition and I feel like he just rushed the second half of the book. He provided little interesting facts about the town and kept just repeating himself. He also described the types of shops that the town had open, i.e. cafes, restaurants, pubs, grocery stores etc, in great length, which was fine as the high street is reflective of how “well” a town is doing, but he could have been more creative about talking about other elements as well. This way they all blended into one for me and he failed to provide any interesting insight.

He also completely dismisses some towns and cities as being not worth his time without giving them a chance which I found a bit annoying. For example, when he arrives into Manchester all he can manage to do is grumble about having to pay 30p to use the loo (interestingly he doesn’t highlight that the same principle applies throughout many central stations such as London Euston). He literally dedicated an entire paragraph about that. From that paragraph he just launches into a another rant, this time about the food tax which he happen to experience when at Manchester Piccadilly. That lasts about 5 paragraphs. The only other thing he mentions about Manchester:

“I had decided already not to stay in Manchester. It was a Sunday and I couldn’t face spending a Sunday evening wandering around a dead city centre town.” (390)

I found this to be very dismissive and parochial view on England’s second biggest city.

Lastly, based on his extensive rants and “thoughts”, he doesn’t sound like the person I envisioned him being. He comes across pompous at times, and is often irritated. He has a handful of outbursts when things don’t seem to go his way, or he privately thinks some pretty awful things about people. The first few times it’s funny, but because of how often he does it, it comes across as pompous to me, for example:

“I had a sandwich and a cup of tea in the cafe and was feeling so benignly pleased with the whole experience that I didn’t bitch even privately to myself that the sandwich was a little dry and cost roughly double what, in a reasonable world, it should have. Well, maybe I did bitch inwardly just a little, but I didn’t say anything grumbly to anyone and that is surely a mark of progress.” (273)

I don’t really see the point of highlighting that repeatedly throughout the book. It made him sound like an awful person, whether someone deserved it or not. This alongside his other behaviour actually made him sound quite pretentious and it did ruin the book for me.

It’s a bit of a shame because I was really looking forward to reading this book. I’m not sure if his first Notes from a Small Island book is any better, but I felt this one didn’t live up to my expectations so I am in no hurry to find out. I also feel like I know the author better, but not sure it does him any favours for me. By the end of the book, he sounded like an old grumpy man that wanted a platform to rant about how terrible the country is and how it’s going to the dogs. Not really the type of read I particularly choose to read! The only other positive thing I could say about this book, is that I got in on offer so only wasted about £2.95 and half a day of my life reading it. I think that’s a loss I am willing to take.

 

Q: Have you ever been disappointed by one of your favourite authors? If so, who were they and what disappointed you?

 

 

Book Review: Danubia- A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder

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 Published: 2013

I’ve been working through this book for the past two and a half weeks, and to be quite frank I read 75% of the book in three days. Why did it take so long for me to get into it?

I think there are a couple reasons. One, it is non-fiction so it takes a bit more focus on my part, especially when dealing with the Habsburg decades of rule, hence I can’t skim pages. True, Simon Winder makes clear that he is choosing to focus on a handful of monarchs instead of drowning the reader with names and titles spanning over multiple centuries. That I could appreciate. Nonetheless the reader must focus on each phrase to make sure that you don’t miss a key name-drop of a person and then get lost for the next 10 pages (I think this is what happened to the first 25% of the book and the reason it put me off a bit.)

What could have made this book so much easier to read is to have photos of the main monarchs discussed. Aside from a couple of maps at the beginning and the blurry pictures at the beginning of every chapter, the book lacked visual images to compliment the writing. There are several very strong paragraphs by him, that have me really intrigued, yet when he’s discussing artists instead of trying to describe a painting or place for a few pages, he could have just put in a photo.

The biggest reason why it took me so long to get into this was also because I had juxtaposed it with the brilliant One Summer in America 1927 by Bill Bryson. And to be honest, he is no Bill Bryson. This is not to say that it was a boring, draining read. Not at all. And the author did try to add some unconventional person touches into the book to make it lighter, like this passage:

“I realize with a chill that this section could go on almost indefinitely and it would be possible to bludgeon the reader with items from page to page of my notes, which should perhaps just be quietly binned.” (456)

I did really enjoyed the topic, and it was such a relief to come across a book about central Europe instead of always reading about WWI, WWII, French, British and American history. Certainly, I will go further with this, and there are several intriguing characters that I would like to spend some time reading up on thanks to this book.

Verdict: I can’t think of a better book for central European history in English as this, however, not as awestruck as I was with Bill Bryson’s non-fiction writing.

Review: One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

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Published: 2014

“Now suddenly America was dominant in nearly every field- in popular culture, finance and banking, military might, invention and technology.” (562)

The year that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. Charles Lindbergh becomes the first man ever to complete a non-stop flight from New York to Paris. Television is created. Al Capone enjoyed his last year of eminence. Mississippi flooded like never before. Countless of absolutely amazing feats were accomplished or born out of the year 1927 for America, that would greatly alter the future for the whole world. Bill Bryson does an incredible job in creating a gripping, enjoyable and delightful read about a period that I personally knew very little about. His writing style is just impeccable and he knows exactly what to reveal and when.

As you may or may not know, besides my degree in English Literature, I also have a minor in History. It was this combination of literary genius, humour and historical fact was what attracted me to this read. I was a bit hesitant; primarily worried by the prospect of reading 600 pages of just facts with little connection. That hesitation disappeared immediately, as I noticed a clear narration of the book being established from the offset. He focuses a lot on aviation, a theme that comes up at every section of the book, but done in such a clever way as to help you understand the grand scheme of things happening in that year. The author does a wonderful job of bringing a variety of sides to every person discussed from the time period: the good, the bad and the ugly. This assures me that I can trust that I am getting multiple sides to one story, something every historian strives toward.

The book gives you a proper snapshot of the season in which America took a big step towards a more modern world. It’s truly a captivating read filled with biographies, lots of humour, and absolutely shocking details about the way of life, while still maintaining integrity. There is a full bibliography spanning many pages that allows you to get more information on the subjects he has discussed and an index at the end, useful for refreshing your memory of anything you may have missed/forgotten.

Vedict: I honestly could not put this book down, no matter how hard I have tried. It made me realize just how far not only America, but also the world has come. His writing style is engaging, and easy to follow making it a great book to read over the summer and fitting for just about any reader that is even remotely interested in history and people in general.

Are there any narrative non-fiction works that you have enjoyed particularly? I want to know 🙂