Tag Archives: Bill Bryson

Classic Travel Lit 4: Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Destination: England

Book: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (audio book reviewed)

I’m playing catch up with some travel classics.  With the exception of Bruce Chatwin‘s Patagonia, I had not read the highly recommended classic travel literature that I have talked about this week.

Many travelers list Bill Bryson‘s Notes from a Small Island(1996) and In a Sunburned Country(2000) among their favorites for a travel library. When World Hum listed Bryon’s Australian book as one of the best travel books, writer and editor Tom Zwick groused in the comments that Bryson writes about himself rather than about the place to which he travels.

My library had the audiotape of Notes from a Small Island, so I decided to find out which faction I agreed with (travel-writer Zwick, or seemingly the rest of the travel-reading world). I was happy to start with England rather than Australia, because I’ve been to England (although briefly) and my only time in Australia involved changing planes.

In the book, Bill Bryson takes a farewell tour of Britain.  He had lived the expatriate life for many years before he and his British wife decided to move to America with their children. I found Notes from a Small Island to be charming and packed with the kind of detail that helps make the unfamiliar become at least understandable.  The addiction to inane TV shows, the mysterious enthusiasm for bland desserts, the belief that their island is far away from any other land mass, became endearing in Bryson’s telling. Rather than being bored with hearing about his own experiences, actions and reactions, I felt that he deepened my understanding of the people he met along the way.

For the most part he skips the obvious tourist haunts–no Anne Hathaway Cottage, for instance.  And although he does wander through Oxford, he does not recommend a visit. Instead he heads for places that have some personal meaning for him.  Yes, he’s weaving in his memoir and taking us along to places that he chooses for his own sometimes random reasons.  But doesn’t any travel narrative do that?

I sat with my spiral-cover large-scale Michelin road Atlas of the British Isles in front of me as the audio tape played, and followed his route from Dover to Wales and then through Scotland to the farthest north tip of Great Britain.  What fun it would be to literally follow his footsteps, perhaps skipping the things he found painfully ugly and pointless. On the other hand, it would be equally amusing to visit those places and see if he missed any redeeming features.

Bryson loves the English people, despite his making fun of their most un-American habits. He loves London, although he spends very little time talking about central London. (The City) I wish that he would do a guide just of London.

Notes from a Small Island brims over with statistics about population density and number of passenger trains, but he frequently apologizes for these factual diversions.  My husband lost patience with the longish introduction which is all about Bryson and his newspaper jobs before he actually got on the road.

But if you are truly looking for a book to inform you about England and inspire you to travel to lesser known parts of the small island, then read Notes from a Small Island.

(Photo by Phil Leftwich, from Flickr, Creative Commons license)

When you read a travel narrative, are you put off by the writer’s own, perhaps dull or painful, experiences? What do you think of Bill Bryson? Does he add to the traveler’s experience? Let us hear from you.

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Australia in books and Movies

Australian Sunset by Reto Fetz

Australian Sunset by Reto Fetz

Destination: Australia

Books: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Conversations at Curlow Creek and Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Mike Cadogan, the commenter known as sandandsurf came up with a site for people looking for books about Australia and two specific books.

Cadogan recommended Bill Bryson’s  In a Sunburned Country.  Bryson is a favorite of many, but was dissed in a World Hum conversation as someone who talks about himself rather than the place in question. Travel writer Tom Swick says, “As a glimpse into the modus operandi of a travel writer, In a Sunburned Country is rather revealing. As a travel book, it’s a disappointment.”  As a travel writer, myself, who was once skewered by Tom Swick in a rejection letter, it is nice to know I am in such august company as Bill Bryson.

A website with a comprehensive list of Australian literature, (literature by Australian authors) can provide browsing for weeks, but I would like some more guidance on which of these authors provide a good sense of place and a feeling for the country. Anybody have some specific recommendations?

Mike particularly recommends, The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf. Malouf is a novelist and poet and was short listed for the Booker prize for Remembering Babylon, like Curlow Creek, set in the 19th century in Australia. Sounds like a very good choice, as he is praised for his sense of place.

Photo by Reto Fetz “SwissCan” from Flickr, Creative Commons License

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Top 5 American Road Trip Books and The List

“A genuine road book should open unknown realms in its words as it does in its miles. If you leave a journey exactly who you were before you departed, the trip has been much wasted, even if it’s just to the Quickee Mart.” William Least Heat Moon in Roads to Quoz.

home 003While you could fill a library shelf with American Road Trip books, the outstanding American road trip books would fit on the nightstand.

Everyone lists:

Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck

Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I would agree with those who also list:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

To follow Travels with Charley, San Jose State University Center for Steinbeck Studies suggests

Sideways by Rex Pickett (2004) (and the movie of the same name)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Loop Group, by Larry McMurtry (2004)

I Dream of Microwaves by Imad Rahman (2004)

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957) (also named 7th in 10 best travel books of 20th century by International Society of Travel Writing)

American Nomads by Richard Grant (2004) Continue reading


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