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REVIEW: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Dear Mr. Bryson,

Notes from a Small IslandWhen your books are on, they’re wonderful. “Made in America,” “The Mother Tongue,” and “Neither Here nor There” are among my favorites. They’re funny, informative and a delight to read. But while “Notes from a Small Island” starts off with a bang (love the scene when you put the underwear on your head to keep warm on your first night in Dover) it unfortunately fizzles out midway through the book and ends up limping along to the finish.

What kept me reading were your delightful stories of your first and subsequent encounters with the English and getting to know your way around how things are different there, how you met your wife and her family and discovered you couldn’t understand the appeal of their favorite TV shows, your work mates, the upheaval in journalism during the 80s, wandering around Windsor with your daughter — I continued to enjoy things like this. It’s only when you start whining on about architecture that I began to get bored. Enough already. You’ve stated how you feel about how the 60′s and 70s ruined lots of historic buildings – even you agree that after a while you’re ranting and probably boring your readers. Stick to your memories of friends and past jobs and your life in England or about the people you meet on the way. Please stop with the seemingly endless complaints that there’s nothing to see in so many towns and cities if all you’re going to do is wander around after dark and go to Indian or Chinese restaurants.

I guess the premise of the book, that you were going to spend seven weeks wandering around the UK seeing the sites before moving to the US with your family, sounded better in the planning stages. And maybe if this book had been written before all the homogenized box stores and chain outlets took over the towns in the UK as they’ve done here, it would have shown a nuanced country but after a while, it all started to sound the same and I got as bored as you seemed to. C+

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

22 Comments

  1. LinM
    Sep 25, 2007 @ 18:01:45

    I’ve never read Bryson but I’ve been tempted by his book on the Appalachian Trail. I wish that you’d listed that one among your favourites. Oh well, I’ll add “A Walk in the Woods” to my request list at the library just for the pleasure of being number 1 instead of number 301 in the queue.

  2. Kaz Augustin
    Sep 25, 2007 @ 19:10:52

    I bought his book on Australia (sorry, can’t remember its name…in a box somewhere) and while his description of cricket had me in absolute stitches, he did seem to run out of puff through the middle. I started leaving the book just lying around and it took disciplined effort to finish. Maybe that’s the way he writes? Great beginning, great ending, slow middle.

  3. Bev Stephans
    Sep 25, 2007 @ 20:17:05

    I have read all of Bill Bryson’s works and agree with you on “Notes From A Small Island”. In fact, I started to wonder why he stayed there as long as he did.

    LinM, his book on the Appalachian Trail (“A Walk In The Woods”) is very good and I don’t think that you will be disappointed if you read it.

    Kaz, his book on Australia (“In A Sunburnt Country”) is better than “Notes” but it does lag in parts.

    Try “I’m A Stranger Here Myself”. It’s about his return to the States after Great Britain. How he becomes reacquainted with the USA is funny, frustrating (for him) and poignant.

  4. LinM
    Sep 25, 2007 @ 20:43:49

    Bev – thanks for the feedback on “A walk in the woods”. I don’t know where/when I first read about this book but Jayne reminded me and I have submitted a library request.

    My TBR pile overflows which seems to be the normal state of affairs for most readers who comment here. I have a love/hate relationship with a TBR pile – books don’t get the time/attention they deserve if there is clamour from the wings so I generally try to keep the pile very small. However, I am just learning how to manage my library request list and balance reading print books from the library against ebooks. Ebooks are easier for me but I’m more adventurous with library books.

  5. Rosario
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 03:35:01

    I agree about this one, definitely not his best, but it still has some very funny moments. Coincidentally, I just found a copy in a charity shop here in Nottingham, and couldn’t resist buying it again!

  6. Jayne
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 05:17:11

    Lin, a couple of friends of mine whose taste I trust have told me that they enjoyed “A Walk in the Woods” and it’ll probably be the next book of his I try.

  7. Jayne
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 05:19:20

    I am just learning how to manage my library request list and balance reading print books from the library against ebooks. Ebooks are easier for me but I'm more adventurous with library books.

    I also meant to add that I’m this way too. If I’m feeling iffy about a book, I’ll try and get my hands on a print version that’s either borrowed or that can be returned to the store if I really hate it and can’t finish it. That’s the one thing I hate the most about ebooks — once you’ve bought ‘em, there’s no getting a refund if you don’t like it.

  8. Jayne
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 05:21:48

    Rosario, I was curious about what the British themselves thought of this book so I checked out amazon.co.uk posters’ comments. And found that they seemed to match up pretty well with worldwide opinion of the book. A few loved or hated it but most like parts and thought them accurate but disliked the whingeing.

  9. Jayne
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 05:28:35

    Bev, I’ve also read his “The Lost Continent” and found it similar if not worse than this book. A reviewer at amazon described parts of it as petty and almost mean sounding and I would have to agree. I love Bryson when he’s poking gentle fun at people and places but sometimes he crosses the line and heads towards nastiness.

  10. RfP
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 09:29:45

    I remember laughing through the first few chapters of In a Sunburned Country (Australia), then losing interest.

  11. Jessica Inclan
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 12:35:50

    I love him. I really don’t quibble with what he does, but my favorites of all time is of his are: A Short History of Nearly Everything. God, so informative and interesting (I used a great deal of the info I found there about physics to help me with quantum theory and thus my paranormals). Also, The Mother Tongue about English is great. Really, great for anyone who loves words. Whatever he writes, I read. Love his voice.

    Jessica

  12. Belinda
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 14:22:04

    I haven’t read any Bryson since Lost Continent because I agree with Jayne, his humor has a tendency to turn mean-spirited. I prefer Tony Horwitz by leaps and bounds.

  13. Jessica Inclan
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 15:15:34

    You know, I don’t remember the meanness. The Short History doesn’t seem to have that.

    Jessica

  14. Anji
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 15:22:52

    I’ve only read his “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and I really enjoyed how he made the science interesting without overwhelming you with facts or theory. Doesn’t seem to have that whining/meanness, and remains interesting to the end.

  15. RfP
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 16:21:20

    Travel writing is autobiographical, so it’s a tricky balance between “me me me” and reporting, and between commentary and experience. Also, so much depends on where they went, and whether the author took one rushed trip (so her impressions depend on random chance) or spent longer in each place.

    Some writers seem to simultaneously turn mean and fire their inner editor. I haven’t read any Bryson that I would call mean, but I’ve read some boring Tony Horwitz (also some good Horwitz). I find it difficult to recommend travel writers across the board–usually I have a couple favorite and a couple un-favorite books by each author.

    I’ve enjoyed every Jonathan Raban travel book I’ve read. Paul Theroux’s earlier travel books were wonderful, but later he went through a long period of mean-spirited, boring blather. (I feel similarly about Michael Crichton–and actually his autobiographical book Travels was where I first saw him turning self-important and boring.)

  16. Laura Florand
    Sep 27, 2007 @ 03:29:09

    I really enjoy Bill Bryson. I’ve been reading A Short History of Nearly Everything for some time now. (I lost it halfway through, and only just found it again a couple of days ago. I might need to work on organizing my house a bit more.) I don’t remember Notes from a Small Island very well, but A Short History is fascinating, smart and funny and I’ve been learning a lot. You might like it.

  17. Jayne
    Sep 27, 2007 @ 05:15:24

    Okay, looks like “A Short History” will go on my buying list. Thanks for all the recs for it.

    It does seem like I’ve had the most trouble with his travelogues. Except for “Neither Here Nor There” but maybe that’s because he goes so many different places (In Europe) that he didn’t get bored.

    Laura. I’d love to see what you have to say about what he said about the French. I seem to recall him stating that Parisian drivers seem to wait until you try and cross the street then deliberately aim for you!

  18. Katie
    Apr 16, 2008 @ 19:25:54

    In my opinion, Bill Bryson’s books, while some are stronger than others, represent a fairly realistic view of traveling. I love traveling, but I’m not going to feel like an unending stream of educational museums and tourist attractions. Sometimes, a traveler honestly just needs a meal at the end of a long day. And he generally bounces delightedly back the next day, so I think it’s completely unfair to generalize that he
    “complains endlessly that there’s nothing to see. . .if all [he's] going to do is wander around and go to. . .restaurants.” I don’t think that’s an accurate representation at all.

    I think Bryson strikes an almost impossible balance between being completely hilarious and being intelligent and apt. He can do “low” humor and “high” criticism almost effortlessly, and, while this book is not my favorite, it would rate an A from me.

  19. Jayne
    Apr 17, 2008 @ 05:06:47

    When I hear someone’s travel stories, I don’t mind hearing them grumble -a little – about the things that went wrong. As you say, that’s part of traveling. However, I don’t want to be trapped on the sofa all evening listening to seemingly nothing but complaining. I start eyeing the door and making up excuses to leave if that’s all I’m going to hear. Perhaps he didn’t whinge as much as I remember. Maybe I was so numb by the end that this was all I was hearing anymore. But it sure seemed like it and it was boring to me. That’s not what a travelogue is supposed to be.

  20. Gavin Jackson
    Nov 07, 2009 @ 16:13:20

    I’m glad I’m not alone – with only 30 pages left, I simply could not finish this book – this was the first Bryson book I tried to read, and I agree with previous comments that it started off well, but it turned into a whinge fest. I don’t think he is a particularly nice guy, and maybe if he focused more on the positive aspects of the destinations that he traveled to (and probably dug a bit deeper than simply going to the local shopping centre before moving on, or even interviewing some of the locals rather than arguing with the hotel manager) I would have found it a more engaging read.

    And if public transport really is that bad, seriously get a rental car and stop your complaining. Also, why force yourself to use public transport when you have absolutely no interest in the history of it (as demonstrated in the chapter where he goes to a train museum/enthusiasts store – even as a non train lover I found his attitude offensive).

    Like previous readers, I ended up looking for excuses not to read this book – not a pleasant experience.

  21. Jayne
    Nov 08, 2009 @ 05:56:52

    It’s two years since I read this book and I’ve yet to read another Bryson book because of it. Which is a shame, really, but my mind can’t help but shy away when I remember how disappointed I was with it. I need to pull out his book “A Walk in the Woods” and give it a whirl.

  22. Mel
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 14:28:25

    My son, aged 14, was not only forced to read this book in his English class but to write in a similar style as well!
    He has just finished his composition. He wrote a beautiful piece but his tutor was not pleased with it. In his teacher’s opinion Bill Bryson always balances things out in the same paragraph in order not to offend!
    It seems what he calls gentle criticism my son sees it as sarcasm and meanness.
    Having not read the book myself, I thought I might find a clear perspective here but I guess NOT…
    I’m glad I’ve found the site though 

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