Hot Best Seller

Notes from a Small Island

Availability: Ready to download

After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson made the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it wa After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson made the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him. But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had for so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation’s public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyze what precisely it was he loved about a country that had produced Marmite, a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy, place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey, and Shellow Bowells, people who said “Mustn’t grumble,” and shows like “Gardener’s Question Time.”


Compare

After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson made the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it wa After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson made the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him. But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had for so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation’s public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyze what precisely it was he loved about a country that had produced Marmite, a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy, place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey, and Shellow Bowells, people who said “Mustn’t grumble,” and shows like “Gardener’s Question Time.”

30 review for Notes from a Small Island

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alissa

    Bill Bryson likes hedgerows, yelling at people, the English language, complaining, pretending to be a hiker, the fifth Duke of Portland, W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck, and himself. He tries too hard to be clever, and although you're being introduced to some interesting mental pictures ("a mid-face snack dispenser" for instance), and it's positively obvious how much he loves the English language and the art of writing, the lengths to which he goes can be tiring. The long-winded, irritating tangents he go Bill Bryson likes hedgerows, yelling at people, the English language, complaining, pretending to be a hiker, the fifth Duke of Portland, W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck, and himself. He tries too hard to be clever, and although you're being introduced to some interesting mental pictures ("a mid-face snack dispenser" for instance), and it's positively obvious how much he loves the English language and the art of writing, the lengths to which he goes can be tiring. The long-winded, irritating tangents he goes on add to this eye-clawing frustration. He seems to be bipolar, or maybe hypoglycemic, for his like or dislike of a certain village or city appears to be related to how much he's eaten or how much sleep he's had. (And please answer, who goes to see the best of England in the winter?) He is rude to a McDonald's cashier and the owner of a guest house, which I simply cannot tolerate. I have a soft spot for the Scots, and the way Bryson pokes fun at the gentlemen in a local pub is unfathomable. On top of everything else, there is very little mention of my home for 6 months, Norwich, and the closest he seems to get is a switch at Newmarket. Still, I didn't completely hate this book, and it had me laughing out loud at some points because he hit it dead on. Interesting about the hedgerows and the former Duke of Portland, too. Mustn't grumble, or so they say.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    This book combines several of my favorite things: travelogues, England, and the charm of Bill Bryson. It is the book version of comfort food. So you can understand why I instinctively reached for this audiobook on the the first day of my new job. I wanted something comforting. And humorous. And British. I was instantly gratified. Bryson begins his book about touring England by describing how intensely Brits will argue about distance and driving routes: "If you mention in the pub that you intend to d This book combines several of my favorite things: travelogues, England, and the charm of Bill Bryson. It is the book version of comfort food. So you can understand why I instinctively reached for this audiobook on the the first day of my new job. I wanted something comforting. And humorous. And British. I was instantly gratified. Bryson begins his book about touring England by describing how intensely Brits will argue about distance and driving routes: "If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, 'Well, now, that's a bit of a tall order,' and then they'll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it's better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester, or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swiveling your head in quiet wonderment ... Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it's just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the North Circular in London, and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Monday, except bank holidays when you shouldn't go anywhere at all." The whole book was immensely enjoyable. The plan was for Bryson to take a last tour of England before he and his family moved to America for a few years. (Bryson is from the States, but his wife is British.) He was going to travel mostly by public transportation, because his wife wouldn't let him have the car. (HA!) There did not seem to be a logic to his journey -- instead he went hither and thither as he desired, sometimes jumping on a bus or train if it happened to arrive while he was standing there. A few times he broke down and rented a car or took a cab, but he always gave a good reason. As someone who has not visited England in more than 15 years* (and what a sad realization it was to do the math), I could only relate to a few stops on his journey. But I still loved his meanderings and his musings. And I will continue to find more Bill Bryson audiobooks because they are just so delightful. Update July 2016 *This was a delightful re-read! I had the good fortune to visit England earlier this summer — so it's no longer been 15 years since I've been there — and decided to listen to Bryson's audiobook again. It was great to have a better understanding of where he visited, and to enjoy his amusing stories. When I have some time I'll add more to the Favorite Quotes section, because there are lots of fun ones. Highly recommended to fans of travelogues and/or England. First Read: August 2014 Second Read: July 2016 Favorite Quotes "I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is, if you ask me, far more beautiful and interesting than Paris and more lively than anywhere but New York -- and even New York can't touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world." "I spent two days driving through the Cotswolds and didn't like it at all -- not because the Cotswolds were unlovely but because the car was. You are so sealed off from the world in a moving vehicle, and the pace is all wrong. I had grown used to moving about at walking speed or at least British Rail speed, which is often of course much the same thing." "I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It's a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto, 'Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler and with some rain.' There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy with some warm/cool spells. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day -- for all I know, it may -- and scarcely ever be wrong."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Algernon (Darth Anyan)

    Newsflash: I have a new entry into my Top Ten Authors (past and present) that I would like to invite to a night out at the pub for a session of heavy drinking and tall tales. Bill Bryson, with his sly humour and irreverent atitude towards tourism, is a strong contender for the top position right after my first experience of travelling in his company through the twisted back lanes of historical hamlets of his cherished island. Being both a personal journal and a travel guide, his Notes have been Newsflash: I have a new entry into my Top Ten Authors (past and present) that I would like to invite to a night out at the pub for a session of heavy drinking and tall tales. Bill Bryson, with his sly humour and irreverent atitude towards tourism, is a strong contender for the top position right after my first experience of travelling in his company through the twisted back lanes of historical hamlets of his cherished island. Being both a personal journal and a travel guide, his Notes have been voted as the book that best represent Britain to the world. I believe the praise is well deserved. The secret of Bill Bryson success is easy to discern from the pages of this journal: He fell in love with the island from the first moment he landed in Dover in 1973, and his enthusiasm is as fresh and as catching two decades later as he prepares for a farewell trip before returning to America. Everything that lay before me was new and mysterious and exciting in a way you can't imagine. England was full of words I'd never heard before - streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha bacon, serviettes, high tea, ice-cream cornet. [...] I spent a long day wandering aimlessly and happily along residential streets and shopping streets, eavesdropping on conversations at bus-stops and street corners, looking with interest in the windows of greengrocers and butchers and fishmongers, reading fly-posters and planning applications, quietly absorbing. Sometimes it takes a long trip away from home or the perspective of a stranger to make you realize the beauty of the land and of the people around you, and Bill Bryson is for me the best kind of guide possible. He shares my love for walking, an impulsive nature that can change routes on the spur of a moment, and equal interest in the highbrow amusements of historical monuments or art galleries and the popular amusement parks and drinking pubs, for the statistical trivia and for the scandalous bit of gossip about the local worthies. There is something awfully exhilarating about riding on the top of a double-decker. You can see into upstair windows and peer down on the tops of people's heads at bus-stops (and when they come up the stairs a moment later you can look at them with a knowing look that says: 'I've just seen the top of your head') and there's the frisson of excitement that comes with careering round a corner or roundabout on the brink of catastrophe. You get an entirely fresh perspective on the world. Time and time again the words that describe the places, the people, the cuisine and the culture of Britain turn into a song of joy at the chance to witness the marvels of his adopted country. Not even the constant bad weather (roughly about two thirds of his out of season journey by my count) can keep his buoyant mood down for more than one evening. Inevitably, the next stop on the railway line or the next hill to be climbed will bring back the cheerful hiker who likes to remind the reader to count his blessings and be happy to be alive, to be healthy and to live in a peaceful period of history that makes lonely travelling an attractive proposition. Beyond the headland, the path climbed steeply to Ballard Down, a taxing slog for an old puffed-out flubba-wubba like me, but worth it for the view, which was sensational - like being on top of the world. For seven weeks in 1994, Bill Bryson will try to rediscover Britain from the southern Downs to the last desolate northern moors, travelling alone on foot or by public transport, a decision that I will let him explain with his usual mix of militancy and self-deprecating humour: Motorized vehicles are ugly and dirty and they bring out the worst in people. They clutter every kerbside, turn ancient market squares into disorderly jumbles of metal, spawn petrol stations, second-hand car lots, Kwik-Fit centres and other dispiriting blights. They are horrible and awful and I wanted nothing to do with them on this trip. And besides, my wife wouldn't let me have the car. With great enthusiasm comes also great indignation at the carelessness and disrespect for the heritage of Britain, as witnessesd in the ugliness of modern cement office blocks, proliferation of cars and highways, loss of diversity and globalization, mass tourism and the trivialization of history. In a way, Notes from a Small Island is also a snapshot of a world in danger of being swallowed up and zombified into a characterless, generic shopping mall. It gets me a little wild sometimes. You have in this country the most comely, the most parklike, the most flawlessly composed countryside the world has ever known, a product of centuries of tireless, instinctive improvement, and you are half a generation from destroying most of it for ever. and, What made Weston feel familiar was, of course, that it was just like everywhere else. It had Boots and Marks&Spencer and Dixons and W. H. Smith and all the rest of it. I realized with a kind of dull ache that there wasn't a single thing here that I hadn't seen a million times already. and, ... it was wonderful to be in a great ecclesiastical structure so little disturbed by shuffling troops of tourists. When you consider the hordes that flock to Salisbury, York, Canterbury, Bath and so many other great churches of England, Lincoln's relative obscurity is something of a small miracle. Speaking of shopping malls, did you ever go shopping with you better half? If so, you will know what the author is talking about: Shopping is not, in my view, something that men and women should do together since all men want to do is buy something noisy like a drill and get it home so they can play with it, whereas women aren't happy until they've seen more or less everything in town and felt at least 1500 different textures. I have a small suspicion that Mr. Bryson had more on his mind than the perils of shopping with his wife when he decided to travel alone through the island. How else can one explain the detailed descriptions of going every night to the pub and sampling the best the Island has to offer in terms of draughts and dark ales and strong spirits? After all, a serious tourist guide must study and include details about the nightlife attractions of the places he visits . Case in point: on his very first day in Britain in 1973, our young author decided to go watch an R-rated movie called "Suburban Wife Swap" in order to improve his language skills and his knowledge of local customs. Which is another reason to trust his judgement on worthy travel spots :-) Now the second rule of excessive drinking (the first, of course, is don't take a sudden shine to a woman larger than Hoss Cartwright) is never to drink in a place on a steep slope. I thought about mentioning some of the places described in the Notes, and what makes them memorable, but there are too many tempting propositions and Bill Bryson does a much better job than me in selling their charms to the readership. I confess I have never visited England, and if anybody asks me what is my favorite holiday destination I will still answer without hesitation : Paris! Even after 15+ visits, it is still my first choice for a visit. But Bill Bryson's small island is making a compelling case for a revision of my priorities. If I were hard pressed to choose only one of the hundreds of interesting places mentioned in the guide, I think I would settle for Liverpool. It might not be obvious why, at first or second glance, what Liverpool offers more than the Lake District or the Cotswolds, but I grew up with the tales of Jules Verne and Joseph Conrad, and more recently Douglass Reeman and Patrick O'Brian, and I always dreamed that one day I will embark for a voyage around the world's blue lanes: Once there was infinite romance in the sea, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum captures every bit of it. [...] J. B. Priestley called them the greatest constructions of the modern world, our equivalent of cathedrals, and he was absolutely right. I was appalled to think that never in my life would I have an opportunity to stride down a gangplank in a panama hat and a white suit and go looking for a bar with a revolving ceiling fan. How crushingly unfair life can sometimes be. The rest of my review is a series of footnotes and little details that reinforce the good impression and the fun I had on my travels with this incredible guide. Do you know what the most important quality of a tourist is? Curiosity: Why do they call it a grapefruit? Why do the British call them jumpers? Why do they call them milk floats? They don't float at all. Why do we foot a bill rather than, say, head it? Why do we say that our nose is running? (Mine slides). Who ate the first oyster and how on earth did anyone ever figure out that ambergris would make an excellent fixative for perfumes? Do you know how to prepare for your trip? Read as much as you can about the places you are going to see (and write about): I spent a little time watching the scenery, then pulled out my copy of Kingdom by the Sea to see if Paul Theroux had said anything about the vicinity that I might steal or modify to my own purposes. what sort of equipment you need for your trip? The fun begins well in advance of the actual departure: I can spend hours looking at rucksacks, kneesocks, compasses and survival rations, then go to another shop and look at precisely the same things all over again. (I wonder what his wife thought about men and their shopping habits now?) Are you worried the locals and the other tourists will laugh at you? It's better to be ready for anything than wet and cold, so relax, and enjoy the view: I remember when I first came to Britain wandering into a bookstore and being surprised to find a whole section dedicated to 'Walking Guides'. This struck me as faintly bizarre and comical - where I came from people did not as a rule require written instructions to achieve locomotion - but then gradually I learned that there are, in fact, two kinds of walking in Britain, namely the everyday kind that gets you to the pub and, all being well, back home again, and the more earnest type that involves stout boots, Ordnance Survey maps in plastic pouches, rucksacks with sandwiches and flasks of tea, and, in its terminal phase, the wearing of khaki shorts in inappropriate weather. Is it worth your time and effort? And then, just as I was about to lie down and call for a stretcher, we crested a final rise and found ourselves abruptly, magically, on top of the earth, on a platform in the sky, amid an ocean of swelling summits. I had never seen anything half so beautiful before. 'Fuck me,' I said in a moment of special eloquence and realized I was hooked. Why would you go to a place on the map that everybody seems to run away from? (view spoiler)[ ... you might learn some dirty war songs: This fucking town's a fucking cuss No fucking trams, no fucking bus, Nobody cares for fucking us In fucking Halkirk No fucking sport, no fucking games. No fucking fun. The fucking dames Won't even give their fucking names In fucking Halkirk. (hide spoiler)] When is the journey ended? when you have seen everything the world has to show you. In other words, never: ... and returned to the station feeling simultaneously impressed and desolate at just how much there was to see in this little country and what folly it had been to suppose that I might see anything more than a fraction of it in seven flying weeks. The good news is that Bill Bryson has already written a sequel The Road to Little Dribbling and that I have already ordered two more of his other books - the one on hiking through the Appallachians, and the one on popular science. I must thank all my friends here on Goodreads who recommended this author to me. Little Dribbling, here I come: >><<>><<>><< ... about that Top Ten Fantasy Drinking Buddies, my list right now looks like this: 1. Sir Terry Pratchett 2. Spider G Robinson 3. Bill Bryson 4. Connie Willis 5. Bohumil Hrabal 6. Douglas Adams 7. Carl Hiaasen 8. Tom Robbins 9. Thomas Pynchon 10. James Crumley It's a work in progress.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Adrian

    I first read this book back in the late 90s, 20 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. This is my first re-read, and it was enjoyable, as good as the first read ? Hmm, probably not (which was a little disappointing), but still fun. I shall write more thoughts anon but shall leave you with Bill’s thought “ Hae ya nae hook ma dooky ? “ Ok, so in the last couple of days I have been thinking about why this was a tad disappointing, and I think it was because it was 20 years old, and it was really of its ti I first read this book back in the late 90s, 20 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. This is my first re-read, and it was enjoyable, as good as the first read ? Hmm, probably not (which was a little disappointing), but still fun. I shall write more thoughts anon but shall leave you with Bill’s thought “ Hae ya nae hook ma dooky ? “ Ok, so in the last couple of days I have been thinking about why this was a tad disappointing, and I think it was because it was 20 years old, and it was really of its time. It was about Britain 20 years after he had arrived in the UK, but it was also 20 something years old, and that really showed. As someone who lived through the 90s, and even the 70s I loved the book originally and laughed my fao, at an American championing and challenging us Brits.Now though this feels a little dated, we have moved on, and some of our cities have been regenerated and some have probably degenerated as well. I have this vague memory that he has written fairly recently a new critique of Britain and I will be interested in reading it as soon as. All of that said, this is outrageously funny, as Bill is very perceptive about us Brits, and most of us like nothing more than people pointing out our quirks in an admiring manner. He lived here for 20 years and so was almost an honorary Brit and this comes across in the book, his love of living here, and how much he was going to miss moving back to the States.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Cecily

    After 20 years in England, Bill Bryson decided to tour Britain in 1995 by public transport over ~6 weeks and write a book about it. HUMOUR There are snippets of great humour and insight (“a young man with more on his mind than in it”; “carpet with the sort of pattern you get when you rub your eyes too hard”; in Liverpool, “They were having a festival of litter... citizens had taken time off from their busy schedules to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier bags to the otherwise blan After 20 years in England, Bill Bryson decided to tour Britain in 1995 by public transport over ~6 weeks and write a book about it. HUMOUR There are snippets of great humour and insight (“a young man with more on his mind than in it”; “carpet with the sort of pattern you get when you rub your eyes too hard”; in Liverpool, “They were having a festival of litter... citizens had taken time off from their busy schedules to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape”, and an amusing anecdote of him asking for directions having forgotten he was wearing pants on his head). But as the book progresses, they become fewer as the amount of repetitious moaning increases. For a self-confessed Anglophile, he often seems to dislike the place, though the weather gets off surprisingly lightly, especially given that he made the trip in late autumn. BRYSON HERUMPHING The lack of trains in remote areas is a particular bugbear, but what I don't understand is his outraged surprise - he'd lived in and travelled around the country for 20 years! He argues that they shouldn’t have to be profitable because traffic lights, drains and parks don’t. And at a practical level, he often changes his mind about where he's going once he's on the station platform or even on the train itself (i.e. after he should have bought a ticket), yet he never mentions encountering any problems with ticket collectors etc. Modern architecture and urban planning are his other pet hates. He bemoans the homogeneity of high streets full of chains (rather than family shops), yet is annoyed at the lack of 24 hour opening and gives Marks and Spencer so many favourable mentions, I wondered if they sponsored him in some way. ME HERUMPHING Readers are treated to endless descriptions of hotels and stations, but without enough comment about actual people (with a few notable exceptions: Mrs Smegma, a lunatic in Weston, and an ancient train buff), which makes it increasingly dull. Mind you, the way he chose his wife is described in very detached terms, so maybe he’s just not really a people person. On the other hand, he occasionally throws in gratuitous expletives, which don’t fit the general style of the book. However, the worst offence is the lack of index or map – both of which should be essential in any travel book (an index for any non fiction book). Overseas readers might also appreciate a glossary, as it's clearly written for an audience who, if not English, are at least familiar with the country. THE GOOD BITS But there are plus sides, and Bryson is at his best when he goes off at a tangent and riffs on some unexpected topic. He explains why the British would have coped well under Communism (good at queuing, tolerant of dictatorships (cf Mrs Thatcher) and boring food). He throws in potted history about the founder of Sainsbury and his mansion (but doesn’t bother to find out why it was left to rot) and the fact that the bicycle pedal was invented in Scotland. He points out that Manchester has no motif (that’s why I find it so forgettable!), the US has no equivalent of “taking the piss” and that while US soaps are about glamorous people who can’t act, British ones are the opposite. Rather than extolling the innovation of the tube map, he suggest tricks to play on tourists e.g. by getting the tube from Bank to Mansion House (1 change, 6 stops) to end up 200 yards from where they started. Best of all, he delights in words: the odd and romantic place names, the differences in usage between the US and Britain and the florid language of menus. He ponders replying in kind and requesting “a lustre of water freshly drawn from the house tap and presented au nature in a cylinder of glass”! CURATE Overall, it’s like the famous curate’s egg: “parts of it are excellent”. I think there's a good book struggling to get out, but it needed a decent editor to make that happen.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Vegan

    It took me forever to read this because I was constantly picking it up and putting it down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it’s one of those books where it works to read it in this way, and I read so many other books during the times I took breaks from reading this book. Sometimes I just don’t like Bill Bryson as a man. There’s a smattering of things he writes that are cruel, crass, and otherwise makes him unappealing to me, and he sure drinks a lot of beer, but the nasty material It took me forever to read this because I was constantly picking it up and putting it down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it’s one of those books where it works to read it in this way, and I read so many other books during the times I took breaks from reading this book. Sometimes I just don’t like Bill Bryson as a man. There’s a smattering of things he writes that are cruel, crass, and otherwise makes him unappealing to me, and he sure drinks a lot of beer, but the nasty material is a tiny minority of the book’s content. He’s basically a likeable and interesting guy who is an explorer, much of it done via walking, and he has a refreshing sense of what constitutes adventure. He’s a skilled writer. He’s very, very funny; I laughed out loud and chuckled many times. I’ve always wanted to go to Britain so for me this was a bit of armchair traveling. Unfortunately, much of this book made me wish I’d visited the place (and most other places) at least a few decades ago. Bryson makes clear the homogenization that’s taken place at various British locales, and this book was written 15 years ago so who knows what he’d say now. I’d still love to go but I’d skip some of his destinations. He also writes much about the history of his destinations and I found most of the information fascinating. One thing that tickled my funny bone is that when he was in one small English town, he saw the old “This is Cinerama” movie, a movie I remember from my childhood, and brought me right back to the United States of America. I hadn’t realized the movie was already old the first time that I saw it, but I do remember loving that film and other Cinerama movies. There’s a glossary of English (vs. American English) words in the back of the book. Given that I’m a bit of an Anglophile, I already knew the definition of most of the words, but having it in the book was a fun touch.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Marti

    Ambling know-it-all wanders around the UK, complaining about architecture, getting drunk, finding delight in little, and generally having a hard time deciding where to eat (always Indian or Chinese in the end). It paints a pretty depressing picture of the UK, when I think his intention was the opposite. Plus, I really liked his book about traveling through continental Europe, so I don’t know what happened here. Also thought the scene where he tells us how fat people eat was insulting, to, well, Ambling know-it-all wanders around the UK, complaining about architecture, getting drunk, finding delight in little, and generally having a hard time deciding where to eat (always Indian or Chinese in the end). It paints a pretty depressing picture of the UK, when I think his intention was the opposite. Plus, I really liked his book about traveling through continental Europe, so I don’t know what happened here. Also thought the scene where he tells us how fat people eat was insulting, to, well, fat people. He also takes a few cracks at the elderly because he says they like to complain—but pot, kettle, black. He really comes across as a curmudgeon in this one, but I kept reading because at least I was learning a little bit about Britain. (A very little bit.) I wanted to smack him after he refuses to pay 14.50 for a hotel breakfast, then can’t find anywhere in town to eat, then starving, staggers into a McDonald’s and proceeds to go off on a poor minimum-wage employee when he asks if he’d like to add an apple turnover to his order. It's McDonald's, Bill. That's what they do.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Paul E. Morph

    I wasn't sure how much I'd get out of reading a book about my home country written by an American... but it turned out to be a joy. I hadn't realised, until I read the book, that Bryson had lived in the UK for many years. It gives him a rather unusual perspective on the place and makes for interesting reading. It also helps that I enjoyed his sense of humour. It's a little morbid at times; he makes a joke about the Zeebrugge ferry disaster at one point that a lot of people may find to be in bad t I wasn't sure how much I'd get out of reading a book about my home country written by an American... but it turned out to be a joy. I hadn't realised, until I read the book, that Bryson had lived in the UK for many years. It gives him a rather unusual perspective on the place and makes for interesting reading. It also helps that I enjoyed his sense of humour. It's a little morbid at times; he makes a joke about the Zeebrugge ferry disaster at one point that a lot of people may find to be in bad taste; but I'm not easily offended, so it didn't worry me too much. I laughed quite a bit while reading this book and, as I read about half of it out walking myself, that lifted my spirits and helped me stay the course. (I'm desperately trying to shift some of this excess weight I've been carrying around for years, so I'm trying to do a 90 minute walk every day. It seems to be working; I've lost about 28 lbs so far...) On occasion, he portrays himself in a less than sympathetic light, being downright rude to various customer service folks across the country who were only doing their jobs as the company they're working for asks them to do it. Here's a tip for folks out there: if you have received bad service from a customer service employee, please feel free to complain. If you have a problem with a company policy that the employee has absolutely no control over, ask to speak to their manager; don't be a complete fucking arsehole to the poor bloke/lass who is only doing their job. If you do that, it's YOU being a shitty human being, not them. To Bryson's credit, he usually realises he's being a dickhead on these occasions; usually when it's too late to do anything about it. Anyway, it was a real pleasure to see the UK through Bryson's eyes for a while. It almost had me feeling patriotic for a second... but then I slapped myself in the face and started thinking like an intelligent human being again. I'll definitely be reading more of Bryson's work in the future.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    "One thing I have learned over the years is that your impressions of a place are necessarily, and often unshakably, colored by the route you take into it." - Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island It is really hard not to like Bill Bryson's travel books. Actually, it is hard not to like his dictionaries, travelogues, or explorations of: the Universe, the home, Shakespeare, etc. He is, essentially, our Falstaff. He stumbles from bus to train, from pub to pub, from city to city exploring Britain on "One thing I have learned over the years is that your impressions of a place are necessarily, and often unshakably, colored by the route you take into it." - Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island It is really hard not to like Bill Bryson's travel books. Actually, it is hard not to like his dictionaries, travelogues, or explorations of: the Universe, the home, Shakespeare, etc. He is, essentially, our Falstaff. He stumbles from bus to train, from pub to pub, from city to city exploring Britain one last time before he and his family leaves. Bryson's insights and digressions are always amusing. I believe this book sits in time (and in form almost) next to one of his other great travel books A Walk in the Woods. They share a similar Brysonesque tone and lightness. Again, I would bring back my Falstaff comparisons. Bryson uses humor, self-mockery, and a slight sneer to convey information and truth. One of the "truths" that Bryson pushed heavily in this constructed memoir (there has to be a better term for writing about an event that is designed to be written about). He is pissed that the Brits don't take better care of their heritage. They spend little money on their parks, seem to let their beautiful architecture get torn down, and seem apathetic to hedge rows. Bryson would argue that the Brits are almost blind to their own beauty. They are too close. Sometimes it takes a stranger (and a fool) to whisper the truths you KNOW are true, but are just to close to see.

  10. 5 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    Mr Bryson has an entertaining line of patter, a nice, wry humour and he works very very hard to endear himself with the reader. Look, I'm a regular guy from Iowa who sometimes gets really narked at owners of undisciplined dogs and thinks hedgerows are A Good Thing and cars aren't. But that doesn't quite compensate for the fact that this is basically a catalogue of towns, hotel rooms and meals in restaurants - an amusing catalogue, but a catalogue all the same. Where BB gets right up my nose is w Mr Bryson has an entertaining line of patter, a nice, wry humour and he works very very hard to endear himself with the reader. Look, I'm a regular guy from Iowa who sometimes gets really narked at owners of undisciplined dogs and thinks hedgerows are A Good Thing and cars aren't. But that doesn't quite compensate for the fact that this is basically a catalogue of towns, hotel rooms and meals in restaurants - an amusing catalogue, but a catalogue all the same. Where BB gets right up my nose is with his quaint idea that Britain should have remained in a seventies time warp, preserving all those quirky little British things like red pillar boxes and old-fashioned red telephone boxes merely, it would seem, because they appeal to regular guys from Iowa. Has it escaped his notice that even British people now have mobiles, and no longer need to use smelly phone booths and, oh wonder, now write e-mails or post updates on social networks, which renders pillar boxes surplus to requirements, no matter what colour they are? And I got heartily sick of his rants about modern town architecture, he sounds like Prince Charles with a less annoying accent. I'm sure that Britain is not always a model of sensitive town planning, but what does he expect? Filling station forecourts with mock-Georgian carriage gates? Boots the chemist with all its products in brass-handled mahogany drawers? Ask those Thurso ladies he met taking the six am train for the four hour trip to Inverness to buy knickers and get their hair done. I bet they'd rather have a bland, glass fronted Marks and Spencer in Thurso, even if it did spoil the appearance of their lovely little self-sufficient community.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    Easily my favourite Bryson book and one I happily recommend as a light hearted introduction to Britain. Bryson is the perfect coffee and a doughnut writer. You can read him while concentrating on your coffee and it will pass your time pleasantly, maybe you won't gain anything from this exercise, no wisdom, no insight, no sudden new understanding but he won't cost you anything either (view spoiler)[ apart from an expanding doughnut packed body and mindNotes from a Big Island is the epitome of his Easily my favourite Bryson book and one I happily recommend as a light hearted introduction to Britain. Bryson is the perfect coffee and a doughnut writer. You can read him while concentrating on your coffee and it will pass your time pleasantly, maybe you won't gain anything from this exercise, no wisdom, no insight, no sudden new understanding but he won't cost you anything either (view spoiler)[ apart from an expanding doughnut packed body and mindNotes from a Big Island is the epitome of his art - the collected, USA themed, journalism that he wrote when he returned to America after a spell living in the UK (view spoiler)[ before bouncing back to the UK (hide spoiler)] . Short, easy reading, and mildly comforting, even if lacking in nutrition for the hungry brain. In this book I've always particularly enjoyed his recollections from his first visit to the UK and his reflections of working in newspapers in the pre-Wapping days. There are some nice vignettes of editors shocked to discover the people who were working for them, the arcane process of collecting expenses - which with careful consideration could be worked out to be more than the weekly wage, and the terrible days when this all came to an end as a legion of sun tanned Australian accountants descended on the newspaper office with forensic thoroughness to assess the true level of wear and tear on pencils and to count the stock of typewriter ribbons. (hide spoiler)]

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ben Babcock

    Since I moved to England this fall, I haven’t done too much travelling around the country. I’ve been to London a couple of times, neither of which I did much that could be described as a touristy; the same applies to my trips to Cambridge. I went up to Scotland during the half-term and had a good time there, but I’m looking forward to visiting a few other places around the UK. Until I do, travel writing like Notes from a Small Island will have to serve to whet my appetite. Bill Bryson is a brilli Since I moved to England this fall, I haven’t done too much travelling around the country. I’ve been to London a couple of times, neither of which I did much that could be described as a touristy; the same applies to my trips to Cambridge. I went up to Scotland during the half-term and had a good time there, but I’m looking forward to visiting a few other places around the UK. Until I do, travel writing like Notes from a Small Island will have to serve to whet my appetite. Bill Bryson is a brilliant writer. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favourite books. Bryson has a deft touch to description that makes him an apt writer of non-fiction; he manages to make something that could be dull and make it come alive through anecdotes and humour. I knew he had done some travel writing, a genre that’s been on my mind while teaching AS Literature. So I picked this up during a trip to Waterstones and settled into what I hoped would be a very unique perspective on Great Britain. Bryson didn’t grow up here but has lived here for decades. Preparing to move back to the United States with his family, he tours the island one last time. The result is certainly unique, but not in the way I wanted. The prologue chapter is every bit as brilliant and entertaining as I had hoped it would be. Bryson relates his first days in England, in 1973. He describes butting heads with the formidable Mrs Smegma, the proprietor of a boarding house and perpetually disapproving of whatever Bryson does. He reminisces about his youthful awe over the differences between Britain and the United States, and it’s a delightful prelude to the beginning of his tour of the country twenty years later. I’d be exaggerating if I said that the book goes drastically downhill after that strong start, but it would not be wild hyperbole. Notes from a Small Island suffers from two chief defects. Firstly, as I noted above, Bryson is a brilliant writer—and, unfortunately, he knows this. Secondly, it turns out that his reactions to various places in Britain are very similar and often involve a lot of unfavourable comparisons to how things used to be. Bryson’s wit often seems to get the better of him here. Of course, there are plenty of moments when that humour works well and livens up what might otherwise be a mundane description of his travels through Brighton or Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it often seems like his humour is there to distract us from the fact that he isn’t actually talking about the particular place in question. There are segues into sexist ruminations on the differences between men and women (and he himself labels at least one such episode as sexist, as if that somehow excuses it). At least twice during visits to Chinese restaurants he makes comments that are, if not racist, then culturally insensitive. Such moments were enough to make me feel uncomfortable, particularly because I had so wanted to find this book funny. And throughout the book, he manages to portray himself as a short-tempered, intolerant, rude person who would probably make a terrible travelling companion. To be fair, he seems to be aware of these shortcomings and occasionally even apologizes for them. But he also seems to labour under the delusion that this makes him even more interesting rather than less. The second defect concerns how Bryson describes the way the places he visits have changed over the decades. In almost every case, he manages to point out how development and change has ruined a city. He laments the arrival of indoor shopping malls and the slow destruction of Britain’s hedges. He complains about the motorways, about the rail system, about the distribution and diversity of restaurants. It wouldn’t be so bad if each successive chapter weren’t just more of the same. It’s as if he set out not just to tour Britain but to find as much fault with it as possible in order to justify his relocation to the United States. For someone who claims to love the country—and he does make several keen observations in favour of Britain and its people—he spends a lot of time sounding like someone who doesn’t want kids on his lawn. It’s not all bad news. There is charm to be had in Notes from a Small Island. Bryson shares in common with certain humour writers that talent to transform what are assuredly mild incidents in their lives into wild, slightly absurd anecdotes that nevertheless have the ring of truth. These otherwise excellent moments are spoiled by how repetitive Bryson manages to make the book feel. After the first few chapters, the novelty has worn off. As I approached the end of the book, I was paying very little attention to what he was actually saying, because it felt like more of the same. Notes from a Small Island doesn’t replicate the sense of wonder and enjoyment I derived from A Short History of Nearly Everything. It doesn’t quite give me a sense of the country in which I’m living either. Instead, it’s more like a catalogue of Bill Bryson’s unfavourable experiences across Great Britain. It’s occasionally funny and occasionally charming but not the encomium of travelling through Britain that I want or need.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Stacy

    I only got about a third of the way through this book. I was giving Bill Bryson one more chance to impress me, but he didn't quite do it. I would recommend this book for anyone who has lived in England, as many of the references in the book would escape someone who has not spent much time there. However, I was just never pulled in by his narrative. I felt like Bryson writes with a perennial smirk on his face, laughing at his own cleverness as he pens various turns of the phrase. But a few funny I only got about a third of the way through this book. I was giving Bill Bryson one more chance to impress me, but he didn't quite do it. I would recommend this book for anyone who has lived in England, as many of the references in the book would escape someone who has not spent much time there. However, I was just never pulled in by his narrative. I felt like Bryson writes with a perennial smirk on his face, laughing at his own cleverness as he pens various turns of the phrase. But a few funny sentences here and there, sprinkled with snarky comments and occasional self-deprecation to balance out the outwardly directed criticism do not add up to something that keeps me interested enough to read the whole book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Best Eggs

    Quite an entertaining book. Bryson is at his best when presented with oddities and eccentricities he can describe to, what he seems to presume anyway, a foreign audience who will be all agog at such just how different the British are. Its quite amusing to have our foibles pointed out by an American anyway, so this British person at least, enjoyed the book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    I studied for a summer in Bath, adore Wimbledon, and I am a huge fan of Shakespeare and most of literary canon which can be defined as British Lit, so I think I've always had a special place in my heart for the UK, particularly England. Also, this was introduction to Bryson and I was enchanted with his witty and slightly snarky prose that teach and amuse simultaneously! A favorite moment: hiking in a rainstorm and reaching the summit to find a cadre of Brits huddled together eating soggy sandwic I studied for a summer in Bath, adore Wimbledon, and I am a huge fan of Shakespeare and most of literary canon which can be defined as British Lit, so I think I've always had a special place in my heart for the UK, particularly England. Also, this was introduction to Bryson and I was enchanted with his witty and slightly snarky prose that teach and amuse simultaneously! A favorite moment: hiking in a rainstorm and reaching the summit to find a cadre of Brits huddled together eating soggy sandwiches, apparently quite content. Bryson has a way of softly poking fun at the quirks of a culture and its people, but also presenting it all as charming and rather wonderful. I recommend this book to anyone who has traveled or plans on traveling around the UK as well as anyone who is an anglophile...you won't be disappointed!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Martin

    Britain viewed through an American's eyes. Although both the British and American speak English, their words and cultures are hilariously different. A quick look at the local magazines at a boarding house I'd intended to turn in early, but on the way to my room I noticed a door marked RESIDENTS' LOUNGE and put my head in. It was a large parlour, with easy chairs and a settee, all with starched antimacassars; a bookcase with a modest selection of jigsaw puzzles and paperback books; an occasional tab Britain viewed through an American's eyes. Although both the British and American speak English, their words and cultures are hilariously different. A quick look at the local magazines at a boarding house I'd intended to turn in early, but on the way to my room I noticed a door marked RESIDENTS' LOUNGE and put my head in. It was a large parlour, with easy chairs and a settee, all with starched antimacassars; a bookcase with a modest selection of jigsaw puzzles and paperback books; an occasional table with some well-thumbed magazines; and a large colour television. I switched on the TV and looked through the magazines while I waited for it to warm up. They were all women's magazines, but they weren't like the magazines my mother and-sister read. The articles in my mother's and sister's magazines were always about sex and personal gratification. They had titles like 'Eat Your Way to Multiple Orgasms', 'Office Sex - How to Get It', 'Tahiti: The Hot New Place for Sex' and 'Those Shrinking Rainforests - Are They Any Good for Sex?' The British magazines addressed more modest aspirations. They had titles like 'Knit Your Own Twinset', 'Money-Saving Button Offer', 'Make This Super Knitted Soap-Saver' and 'Summer's Here - It's Time for Mayonnaise!' Fun at the Hazlitt hotel Hazlitt's is a nice hotel, but the thing I like about it is that it doesn't act like a hotel. It's been there for years, and the staff are friendly - always a novelty in a big city hotel - but they do manage to give the slight impression that they haven't been doing this for very long. Tell them that you have a reservation and want to check in and they get a kind of panicked look and begin a perplexed search through drawers for registration cards and room keys. It's really quite charming. And the delightful girls who clean the rooms - which, let me say, are always spotless and exceedingly comfortable - seldom seem to have what might be called a total command of English, so that when you ask them for a bar of soap or something, you see that they are watching your mouth closely and then, pretty generally, they return after a bit with a hopeful look bearing a pot plant or a commode or something that is manifestly not soap. It's a wonderful place. I wouldn't go anywhere else. Communism - British style It has long seemed to me unfortunate - and I'm taking the global view here - that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have managed it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those above the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right. Please understand I'm not saying that Britain would have been a happier, better place under Communism, merely that the British would have done it properly. They would have taken it in their stride, with good heart, and without excessive cheating. Appreciating life British style I used to be puzzled by the curious British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies - 'well, it makes a change', 'mustn't grumble', 'you could do worse', 'it's not much, but it's cheap and cheerful', 'it was quite nice really' -but gradually I came round to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier. I remember finding myself sitting in damp clothes in a cold cafe on a dreary seaside promenade and being presented with a cup of tea and a teacake and going 'Ooh, lovely!', and I knew then that the process had started. Before long I came to regard all kinds of activities - asking for more toast in a hotel, buying wool-rich socks at Marks & Spencer, getting two pairs of trousers when I only really needed one - as something daring, very nearly illicit. My life became immensely richer. The unbelievable building of Stonehenge I was particularly interested in the Stonehenge Gallery because I was going there on the morrow, so I read all the instructive labels attentively. I know this goes without saying, but it really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took 500 men just to pull each sarsen, plus 100 more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk 600 people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside, muscle it into an upright position and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party'!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that. Bill discovers the actual floor of an ancient Roman house I knew that I was in the villa. In one of the relict chambers, the floor had been carefully covered with plastic fertilizer bags weighted with stones at each corner. This is what I had come to see. I had been told about this by a friend but had never really believed it. For underneath those bags was a virtually complete Roman mosaic, about five feet square, exquisitely patterned and flawlessly preserved but for a tiny bit of fracturing around the edges. I cannot tell you how odd it felt to be standing in a forgotten wood in what had once been, in an inconceivably distant past, the home of a Roman family, looking at a mosaic laid at least 1,600 years ago when this was an open sunny space, long before this ancient wood grew up around it. It is one thing to see these things in museums, quite another to come upon one on the spot where it was laid. I have no idea why it hadn't been gathered up and taken away to some place like the Corinium Museum. I presume it is a terrible oversight, but I am so grateful to have had the chance to see it. I sat for a long time on a stone, riveted with wonder and admiration. I don't know what seized me more, the thought that people in togas had once stood on this floor chatting in vernacular Latin or that it was still here, flawless and undisturbed, amid this tangle of growth. What Rubbish I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a featival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier-bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought colour and texture to pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in rubbish bags. Animals need more protection than children Did you know that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed sixty years after the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and as an offshoot of it? Did you know that in 1994 Britain voted for a European Union directive requiring statutory rest periods for transported animals, but against statutory rest periods for factory workers? How's the weather? It's a weather forecast from the 'Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto: 'Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain.' There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy with some warm/cool spells. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day - for all I know, it may - and scarcely ever be wrong. Art for Art's sake in one of the salons I noticed that there was a man, accompanied by a boy of about thirteen, who didn't need the labels at all. They were from what I suspect the Queen Mother would call the lower orders. Everything about them murmured poorness and material want - poor diet, poor income, poor dentistry, poor prospects, even poor laundering - but the man was describing the pictures with a fondness and familiarity that were truly heartwarming and the boy was raptly attentive to his every word. 'Now this is a later Goya, you see,' he was saying in a quiet voice. 'Just look at how controlled those brush strokes are - a complete change in style from his earlier work. D'ye remember how I told you that Goya didn't paint a single great picture till he was nearly fifty? Well, this is a great picture.' He wasn't showing off, you understand; he was sharing. I have often been struck in Britain by this sort of thing - by how mysteriously well educated people from unprivileged backgrounds so often are, how the most unlikely people will tell you plant names in Latin or turn out to be experts on the politics of ancient Thrace or irrigation techniques at Glanum. In a pub in Glasgow unable to speak the local dialect... The barman appeared, looking unhappy and wiping his hands on a tea towel. 'Fuckin muckle fucket in the fuckin muckle,' he said to the two men, and then to me in a weary voice: 'Ah hae the noo.' I couldn't tell if it was a question or a statement. 'A pint of Tennent's, please,' I said hopefully. He made an impatient noise, as if I were avoiding his question. 'Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?' I'm sorry?' 'Ah hae the noo,' said the first customer, who apparently saw himself as my interpreter. I stood for some moments with my mouth open, trying to imagine what they were saying to me, wondering what mad impulse had bidden me to enter a pub in a district like this, and said in a quiet voice: 'Just a pint of Tennent's, I think.' The barman sighed heavily and got me a pint. A minute later, I realized that what they were saying to me was that this was the worst pub in the world in which to order lager since all I would get was a glass of warm soap suds, dispensed from a gasping, reluctant tap, and that really I should flee with my life while I could. I drank two sips of this interesting concoction, and, making as if I were going to the Gents', slipped out a side door. Britain - an amazing country What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bee and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a naval hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course. How easily we lose sight of all this. 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. We may never go to Britain, but we can thank Bill Bryson for bringing Britain to us. Enjoy!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Trudie

    Ah, so Bill and I had a break-up around the middle part of this book. He was getting on my very last nerve with his sudden unfriendly outbursts to dogwalkers and jolly families enjoying cream buns. It was also rather tiresome, this carping about architectural eyesores. I get it, I do, but after a while one rather does think that the author would like Britain to return to the halcyon days, circa the late 1800s when no one had yet had the effrontery to tear down hedgerows or build shopping centres Ah, so Bill and I had a break-up around the middle part of this book. He was getting on my very last nerve with his sudden unfriendly outbursts to dogwalkers and jolly families enjoying cream buns. It was also rather tiresome, this carping about architectural eyesores. I get it, I do, but after a while one rather does think that the author would like Britain to return to the halcyon days, circa the late 1800s when no one had yet had the effrontery to tear down hedgerows or build shopping centres. He may well be right. However, it becomes tedious to read, no matter how many funny stories it is sandwiched between. Bryson can be extremely witty (I know I have greatly enjoyed many of his other books) and has a knack for ferreting out extraordinary little factoids and anecdotes and fondly poking fun at the British identity. It by turns had me giggling and then wanting to throw the entire thing against a wall in frustration, particularly when I felt he purposely went about things in the most difficult way possible. I know this was written on the cusp of the internet age but surely a few planning sessions with a guidebook may have prevented all these dire public transportation mishaps and running slap bang into attractions closed for the off season - unless your plan is to write a travel book in which case it is all grist for the writing mill. I decided to return to this book after reading about Britain in Ali Smiths Winter which is set in the early part of 2017. It seemed very quaint to come back to Bill here ambling about at a time before we had all our current woes. It made me powerfully nostalgic for the late 90s. Even if, going by this book, all that is to be found outside of London for dinner is curry, bad Chinese and the occasional Haddock and peas ? Despite my complicated relationship with this book I am interested to see how Britain has changed (in Bills eyes) in his more recent The Road from Little Dribbling which I might need to take in small doses. I am predicting more architectural hand-wringing.

  18. 4 out of 5

    James

    ‘Notes from a Small Island’ and ‘Neither Here nor There’ are Bill Bryson’s early travelogues concerning his journeys through Britain and other European countries respectively. Both of these books are the strongest and the funniest of Bryson’s earliest work and undoubtedly established his reputation (at that time) as a travel writer and commentator of repute, producing engaging and very entertaining travelogues. Now very much the Anglo-American (having lived at times in the UK and now holding dual ‘Notes from a Small Island’ and ‘Neither Here nor There’ are Bill Bryson’s early travelogues concerning his journeys through Britain and other European countries respectively. Both of these books are the strongest and the funniest of Bryson’s earliest work and undoubtedly established his reputation (at that time) as a travel writer and commentator of repute, producing engaging and very entertaining travelogues. Now very much the Anglo-American (having lived at times in the UK and now holding dual UK/US nationality) Bryson writes here very much as ‘a young American abroad’ – with all the cultural and language based misunderstandings that predictably ensue. Whilst all this could certainly have been trite, pedestrian and clichéd as well as probably unfunny and verging on the xenophobic, what Bryson does here though is very much far from that – the joke more often than not is on him and just as importantly, the jokes are more often than not very funny. What also comes across in addition to the humour, is the open mind and love (although admittedly occasionally hate) that Bryson has for travel and exploring other countries and cultures. Bryson’s more recent books are now no longer limited to the ‘travel’ genre and have been of varying quality; he still however produces some great reads every now and then (most recently see: ‘One Summer: America, 1927’) – but this was where it all started.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Zoe's Human

    Maybe it's because I've worked for 25 years in customer service, but listening to some middle-class dude complain about trivialities is not my idea of entertainment, it's work. In the main, the book was okay. There were some hilarious bits, however, much of the humor was in the form of grousing, which is not to my taste. I was thinking it was going to be a 3-star book as some bits dragged, but then . . . at page 274, so close to the end, I hit this: In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into Maybe it's because I've worked for 25 years in customer service, but listening to some middle-class dude complain about trivialities is not my idea of entertainment, it's work. In the main, the book was okay. There were some hilarious bits, however, much of the humor was in the form of grousing, which is not to my taste. I was thinking it was going to be a 3-star book as some bits dragged, but then . . . at page 274, so close to the end, I hit this: In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into a crowded McDonald's, waited ages in a long, shuffling line, which made me even more fractious and impatient, and finally ordered a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin. "Do you want an apple turnover with that?"asked the young man who served me. I looked at him for a moment. "I'm sorry," I said, "do I appear to be brain-damaged?" "Pardon?" "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I didn't ask for an apple turnover, did I?" "Uh . . . no" "So do I look as if I have some mental condition that would render me unable to ask for an apple turnover if I wanted one?" "No, it's just that we're told to ask everyone, like." "What, you think everyone in Edinburgh is brain-damaged?" "We're just told to ask everyone, like." "Well, I don't want an apple turnover, which is why I didn't ask for one. Is there anything else you'd like to know if I don't want?" "We're just told to ask everyone." "Do you remember what I do want?" He looked in confusion at his cash register "Uh, an Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee." "Do you think I might have it this morning or shall we talk some more?" "Oh, uh, right, I'll just get it" "Thank you." Well, honestly. That's just not funny. Subjecting an employee to shaming sarcasm because you're having a crappy day isn't my idea of humor. It's not even my idea of being a basically acceptable human being. I read a bit further on to see if the author ever expressed any sort of awareness that the scene above describes an overbearing bully belittling a employee in the middle of a rush for executing their job as required by their employer. He didn't. There were some good laughs in the book, but nothing that could make up for my disgust at this. In particular given that it was preceded by another bit where he totally blows up on some poor hotel clerk, this seems likely to be pattern behavior. I gave the hotel scene a pass since he owned some chagrin for that one. But this, this is completely unacceptable behavior. If you aren't bothered by this, you are part of the problem. I DNFed shortly after this scene even thought there were only 37 pages left. I'm so disgusted by what I just read that I feel faintly queasy.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dish

    It was hardly surprising to discover that the first book I finished in 2008 was one of my comfort re-reads. For these are the books I treasure, in the absolute certainty that whenever I feel bored, depressed, tired, lonely, miserable, or just over-whelmed by daily life I can pull them out and indulge in the healing power of the written word. And Bill Bryson's “Notes from a Small Island” must be recorded as the ultimate comfort re-read for an expat Brit; providing on every page diversions that ar It was hardly surprising to discover that the first book I finished in 2008 was one of my comfort re-reads. For these are the books I treasure, in the absolute certainty that whenever I feel bored, depressed, tired, lonely, miserable, or just over-whelmed by daily life I can pull them out and indulge in the healing power of the written word. And Bill Bryson's “Notes from a Small Island” must be recorded as the ultimate comfort re-read for an expat Brit; providing on every page diversions that are fascinating, enlightening, humourous, or just plain nostalgic. I must confess that in general I find Bryson's travel writing merely mildly entertaining, and inferior to his other non-fiction. Notes from a Small Island is the one, outstanding exception. Bryson finds his true metier and calling when he is explaining to the British what makes them British, and why he adores them. Bryson rants about things which deserve a rant such as preserving hedgerows, the petty annoyances of driving, the money spent on national parks, British attitudes about American English, and hideous modern architecture. He treasures the things which should be treasured: queuing, politeness, puddings, or three dozen English people having a picnic on a mountaintop in an ice storm. He's widely knowledgeable and well-researched in Roman history, utterly insane and reclusive members of the gentry, pit painters, cursed homes, Victorian industrialists, and the numbers of motorboats registered on Lake Windemere. He's a talented comedian, turning every little story from his past into a humourous gem. He's (mostly) aware enough of his own personal character flaws – grumpiness, irrational disklikes, shyness on public transport – as to be able to make fun of them. And best, he’s so full of wonder, curiosity, and joy. He's curious about placenames, linguistics (why did they call it a 'grapefruit'?), the potato marketing board, psychology, gender differences, and the timetabling abilities of the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway. From the underpants-clad-head at the start, to the Seattle-Carlisle railway at the end, I know I can open this book anywhere and find something entertaining, edifying, or enlightening.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kris

    This book is 30% random information about Britain, 10% witty humor, and 60% Bryson constantly complaining about what he thinks is wrong. At first the reading was amusing, and there are good passages that contain great cultural observations from an outsider's perspective, but Bryson is a biased, self-absorbed liberal, and his narrow-minded perspective often gets in the way of what could have potentially been a greater book. True, clever little observations about various iconic landmarks gave the This book is 30% random information about Britain, 10% witty humor, and 60% Bryson constantly complaining about what he thinks is wrong. At first the reading was amusing, and there are good passages that contain great cultural observations from an outsider's perspective, but Bryson is a biased, self-absorbed liberal, and his narrow-minded perspective often gets in the way of what could have potentially been a greater book. True, clever little observations about various iconic landmarks gave the prose a lighter feel, but they became merely the sprinkles upon a disappointingly dry and tasteless text. Bryson randomly skips over, or writes one boring paragraph about, certain towns he visits and doesn't happen to like. I was looking forward to learning all about the culture and quirks of different places in Britain and its people, but Bryson's rants ended up as an annoyingly preachy, mediocre diary. I was hoping for another The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, and was disappointed; but, determined to finish it, I did appreciate the parts where I actually learned something. I definitely will read more of Bryson's books, simply for his unique, if random, perspective. But I think I'll ere on the side of research over personal accounts. ---- Later Update: Now that I've read more of Bryson's "researched" books, I feel I should go back to reading his personal accounts! If his research is just as biased by his personal opinions, why not just read the opinions for what they are? Humph.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Connie G

    Bill Bryson, originally from Iowa, had lived in England for the last twenty years. When he and his wife decided to move their family back to the States, he took a last trip around Britain. Except for a few days, he took only public transportation and hiked for seven weeks. Bryson traveled to Dover, London, the southern coast, then headed north through England, Wales, and Scotland, then back to his home in North Yorkshire. I especially enjoyed the beginning and the end of the book, but thought the Bill Bryson, originally from Iowa, had lived in England for the last twenty years. When he and his wife decided to move their family back to the States, he took a last trip around Britain. Except for a few days, he took only public transportation and hiked for seven weeks. Bryson traveled to Dover, London, the southern coast, then headed north through England, Wales, and Scotland, then back to his home in North Yorkshire. I especially enjoyed the beginning and the end of the book, but thought the middle bogged down a bit as he hit some unremarkable villages off-season in the rain. Although he carried rain gear, he never mentioned an umbrella. The poor guy was constantly getting caught in downpours walking unfamiliar streets in search of a hotel or a cafe. Bryson is one of those men that almost never asked townspeople or the hotel receptionist for directions or recommendations for a restaurant. Then he complained when he had to eat Indian or Chinese food again after wandering around for hours looking for a restaurant. Bryson's writing was humorous, poking a bit of fun at the British while also exhibiting very warm feelings for them. Like Prince Charles, he rants when beautiful old buildings are replaced with modern concrete cubes that don't blend in. The book was originally published in 1995 for a British audience, then published in the States a year later. He used lots of British expressions I hadn't heard before, but I just went with the flow instead of looking them up. Although this book wasn't quite as funny as A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, it still had plenty of humor. Bryson also had moments when he enjoyed the simple things in life--a beautiful view, a warm cup of tea on a chilly day, and reuniting with his wife and four children in his beloved Yorkshire.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    Bryson, true to spirit, makes you laugh at everything about the place and fall in love with the place at the same time. No wonder for years the Brits have considered this the most representative travel book about themselves. Full review to follow.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Katie Lumsden

    I enjoyed this - a fun look at Britain and British life, a little out-dated now but thoroughly funny and insightful throughout.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Travelin

    Predictably, practically useless as a metric for tourism in England. Bill is in such familiar territory that he unfurls his self-centred self in full, spending whole pages describing the organizational skills of his favorite hotel and insulting anonymous people who crossed him 20 years ago. Still exceptionally written, funny and accidentally informative at times. Two examples of of great insightful humour: 1) He spends a paragraph describing how the English would make perfect communists, loving to Predictably, practically useless as a metric for tourism in England. Bill is in such familiar territory that he unfurls his self-centred self in full, spending whole pages describing the organizational skills of his favorite hotel and insulting anonymous people who crossed him 20 years ago. Still exceptionally written, funny and accidentally informative at times. Two examples of of great insightful humour: 1) He spends a paragraph describing how the English would make perfect communists, loving to queue, not complaining, etc. 2) He describes how a Chinatown begins with a huge Chinese arch and quickly gives up. Bill, this is your first book I stopped cold. I admit that central Edinburgh can be an empty pretentious place, but you seem to blow into every British city, insult the fat people at McDonalds for eating in front of you and then blow out again. Edinburgh doesn't have more to offer than that? Stay away from travel books please. It's remarkable that I simply abandoned your tour of American small towns, leaving it under The Magus in my hotel room. No matter how strongly I'd love to see Americans ridiculed with style, you might just end up making them sound bullied somehow.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lizzie

    So, about a month ago, I moved to England from the U.S., to London. (Recently enough that it still feels a little bit preposterous to say.) One of the things we had to do, in packing our suitcases, was select which books we'd carry with us for the next several weeks and which would travel the long way inside a shipping container. If my count is correct, we brought 16 books with us, and this was one of my picks. I like Bill Bryson and I figured this would be fun to read as a new resident of Englan So, about a month ago, I moved to England from the U.S., to London. (Recently enough that it still feels a little bit preposterous to say.) One of the things we had to do, in packing our suitcases, was select which books we'd carry with us for the next several weeks and which would travel the long way inside a shipping container. If my count is correct, we brought 16 books with us, and this was one of my picks. I like Bill Bryson and I figured this would be fun to read as a new resident of England, as a sort of joking but genuine guide to people I'd like to get to know, as well as to some places I'm eager to visit. As soon as I started reading, though, I found that I wished I had done it another way: I got the sense that I didn't much agree with him at all, and wish I had read this instead after accumulating some years of my own, when I'll be able to articulate why. This book is 20 years old (indeed, it's been so long, he is about to publish a sequel) and in many ways that makes it a really interesting historical perspective on modern England. Bryson settled in the U.K. in 1977, two years before Thatcher came to office, and he decided to leave (and wrote this book) in 1994, four years after she was ousted. The outlook from where he sat, in the mid-90's, was bad. So the book, then, is positively drenched in this pessimism, the hope lost that anything kind or fair or reasonable will ever be restored to the country, because the government is stone broke with no end in sight. In quite a lot of the places he visits, Bryson basically observes that everything is stupid now, and surely only going to get worse, before it ultimately disappears altogether. It's extremely sad. I'm curious whether the sequel will be interested in addressing the discrepancies between these expectations and the realities of British life in these past 20 years (a majority of which he's spent as a resident again). The country Bryson moved away from in 1995 isn't one I'd have been eager to try living in. But in 2015, on balance, I feel optimism. It isn't Bryson's dated facts that prevented me from enjoying the book, though. There are other things about its 20 years' age that really no longer flatter him. The negative, cranky character he casts of himself is incredibly unpleasant. He writes as an observer of absurdities, but really he is doing almost nothing but complaining about people and places and things until I could hardly stand it. I nearly tried to keep count of the rants that began "Now here is something I've never understood," or "I have simply never seen the appeal of," etc. I guess that these are funny to some readers, because they're sure written as if they're a hoot. He also both repeats and contradicts himself a lot, and I started to think he didn't really have principles about anything, but just liked to hear himself opine. But often, there's something so much darker and weird about it: he'll say the nice hotel receptionist has a brain the size of a bean, he'll call someone's wife stupid for no reason, and he'll spend a full page talking about the eating habits of overweight people as if they are cartoon zoo animals. (If you think I might be overreacting, read that, I mean it. Make sure you make it to "their chins glistening with chocolate." It's a disgusting way to describe people, satire or no.) And for goodness sake, for someone spending a solid 7 weeks as a full-time tourist in order to write this book, he sure has some kinda disdain for tourists, doing the exact same things he's doing -- it's just that they're being mindless buffoons about it, of course, and he's gonna get paid. I couldn't get past this mean-spirited attitude, however much self-satire was sometimes involved, and it impacted my enjoyment of the entire book. There's a dated quality to Bryson the narrator that just doesn't gel with a contemporary tone. I kept thinking about the "typical 90's dad" brand of humor, the Dave Barry and hapless sitcom sorts: the way he talks about his wife here as if all she cares about is shopping and the car, but calls her lovely all the way through so it's all fun. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I'm deciding that I only really dislike "1995" Bill Bryson, in particular. However, this is also the first of Bryson's travel books I've read, and humor and travel are genres that rely wholly on the author's personality. I'm a little warier than I was before. I'm not sorry I read this, and it did make me laugh, and I did make a nice list of places I hadn't heard of before that I'd like to visit myself: Virginia Waters, Corfe Castle, Snowshill Manor, Welbeck Abbey, Morecambe, Near Sawrey, Durham. Bryson and I share a love for seeing a nice old house. And I think, soon, we'll probably share a love for this funny old country.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Eric_W

    Before returning to his native United States after a sojourn of some twenty years in England, Bryson decided to take a trip around that "small island." The hysterical comments in this book are the result. The British loved it so much it was a best-seller for months, and they turned it into a TV series. The book even includes a glossary of English terms. For example, do you know the difference between a village and a hamlet? One is a small town where people live, the other a play by Shakespeare! B Before returning to his native United States after a sojourn of some twenty years in England, Bryson decided to take a trip around that "small island." The hysterical comments in this book are the result. The British loved it so much it was a best-seller for months, and they turned it into a TV series. The book even includes a glossary of English terms. For example, do you know the difference between a village and a hamlet? One is a small town where people live, the other a play by Shakespeare! Bryson is certainly not your average travel writer - as anyone who has read my reviews of his other books knows - and despite his often scathing wit, it's never done with malice, even when very critical of a subject. What astounds me is Bryson's vigor and willingness to put up with all sorts of cold and wet weather. He made his trek during the off-season, i.e., late October, not an especially delightful time of year in Britain. He did not take a car, relying solely on buses and British Rail, a decision that often forced him to make long, out-of-the-way walks of as far as twenty miles, either because schedules didn't coincide, or the irregular bus did not run during the off-season. He delightfully intermingles political commentary with travelogue. He visits Blackpool, for example, where there are long beaches - that officially don't exist. "I am not making this up. In the late 1980s, when the European Community issued a directive about the standards of ocean-borne sewage, it turned out that nearly every British seaside town failed to come anywhere near even the minimum compliance levels. Most of the bigger resorts like Blackpool went right off the edge of the turdometer, or whatever they measure these things with. This presented an obvious problem to Mrs. Thatcher's government, which was loath to spend money on British beaches when there were perfectly good beaches in Mustique and Barbados, so it drew up an official decree -- this is so bizarre I can hardly stand it, but I swear it is true -- that Brighton, Blackpool, Scarborough, and many other leading resorts did not have, strictly speaking, beaches. Christ knows what it then termed these expanses of sand -- intermediate sewage buffers, I suppose -- but in any case it disposed of the problem without either solving it or costing the treasury a penny, which is of course the main thing, or in the case of the present government, the only thing." Then there's British Rail. On his way to Manchester, "we crept a mile or so out of the station, then sat for a long time for no evident reason. Eventually, a voice announced that because of faults further up the line this train would terminate in Stockport, which elicited a general groan. Finally, after about twenty minutes, the train falteringly started forward and limped across the green countryside. At each station the voice apologized for the delay and announced anew that the train would terminate in Stockport. When at last we reached Stockport, ninety minutes late, I expected everyone to get off, but no one moved, so neither did I. Only one passenger, a Japanese fellow, dutifully disembarked, then watched in dismay as the train proceeded on, without explanation and without him, to Manchester." No Bryson should be left unread.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Asghar Abbas

    I got this book by mistake and almost didn't read it. But I'm glad I did. Because The Crown . Now I realize the two got nothing to do with one another but Netflix sure knows how to jack you up. Despite the fact I despise monarchy of any sorts. Good book this , do read it.

  29. 5 out of 5

    BAM The Bibliomaniac

    Delightful stodgy British accent on audio version

  30. 4 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been to England, nor have I even met a great many English people in person. Yet like so many Americans, for my whole life I have been quietly enamored of British culture. Monty Python, The Beatles, John Milton, “English Breakfast Tea” (which I imagine is not what the English call it), Mr. Bean, Indian Pale Ale, the custom of tea and digestive biscuits (which I came to love during my time in Kenya), pronouncing schedule with a “sh” at the beginning—all of these ha Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been to England, nor have I even met a great many English people in person. Yet like so many Americans, for my whole life I have been quietly enamored of British culture. Monty Python, The Beatles, John Milton, “English Breakfast Tea” (which I imagine is not what the English call it), Mr. Bean, Indian Pale Ale, the custom of tea and digestive biscuits (which I came to love during my time in Kenya), pronouncing schedule with a “sh” at the beginning—all of these have convinced me that the British really have it together. So as a kind of substitute for actually going there—which I earnestly hope to one day—I happily picked up this book, in order to learn more about this distant beacon of sarcasm and silly walks which has so enriched my life. Putting aside Bryson’s wonderful writing for a moment, I must say that he makes for an odd travel guide, to say the least. For someone who seems constitutionally cheerful and genuinely happy, he can be astoundingly misanthropic. Bryson loves everything about humans except humans themselves. He can get lost in local history, spend hours gazing at splendid architecture, comb through maps with rapacious glee, wax poetic about museums and tourist attractions—and yet every time he comes into contact with an actual person, he is exasperated beyond words. Each interaction he relates in this book, whether he was talking to someone on a train or asking for directions, ends with him thinking or saying something rude and insulting. He even indulges in some rather violent fantasizing about people who only cause him a minor inconvenience. The man is not gregarious. The result of this tendency is that you “meet” very few Brits in this book. By way of compensation, Bryson gives you a marvelous picture of the English public transit system, if that’s what you’re looking for. It is indeed rather ironic that at one point he says something incredibly disparaging about train enthusiasts—considering it a sign of insanity to be interested in trains—but fills up so much of this book complaining about trains, as if that’s any more interesting. Bryson will also describe for you the nicest and the ugliest buildings in the major cities of Great Britain, as well as relate his adventures eating Chinese food and sleeping in hotels. In short, the focus often strays from his topic to banalities and needless bitching. Having recently read In a Sunburned Country (called Down Under in the UK), published 5 years after this, I can tell that this represents a more immature phase in his writing. At the very least, this book could have used more vigorous editing. Despite all these flaws and shortcomings, I still had a great time reading this travelogue. In the early chapters especially, Bryson’s infectious love of the English language is on full display, as he rattles off lists of made-up English locales. There is also much autobiographical information here that I found charming. He tells us of his first arrival in England, and how he met his wife; he tells us of his days as a newspaper editor and of Murdoch’s takeover. And as usual, Bryson is adept at finding quaint, odd, pleasing bits of local history. But most of all I just enjoy seeing the world through Bryson’s curious and curiously misanthropic eyes. He is a delicate man, very sensitive to his surroundings, so it’s always a pleasure watching him notice things, little things, that I wouldn’t normally observe. Considering all this, perhaps I should say that he’s not such a bad travel guide after all.

Add a review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Loading...
We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By using our website you agree to our use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.