Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

Bryson’s Britain – brilliant, by and by

The cover of my edition of Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

If the cover doesn't lure you in, the prose is bound to hook you, eventually.

I’m about half way through Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, book number one on my summer reading list, and, having purchased it for two reasons, it seems to have lived up to both, somewhat.

Reason one for the purchase: reviews of my first Stephen Clarke novel said he was Britain’s very own Bill Bryson. Now, I really enjoyed Clarke’s A Year in the Merde, perhaps because I was just ending my sixth week of vacationing in France as I started the novel and could sympathize quite readily with its protagonist (well, minus the bit about snagging a French mistress).  It seemed, then, that if Clarke was held in such esteem as this Bill Bryson character, then Bryson’s work ought to be spectacular.

The second reason explains why I chose Notes from a Small Island, as opposed to the more American Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods.  I’m going to be visiting the titular island in a few months, since it’s only a hop skip and a jump from Gaul, and I believe I have a standing invitation for a personal tour of London-town.  So it’s only right of me to try and understand the British before I pay them a visit.

What I am finding, in fact, is that I’m coming to understand Americans much more than the British Bryson is purportedly writing about – it reminds me of my last two trips to Europe, where I came back with a much better understanding of America, and still somewhat confused about the French.  Bryson’s book is a testament to learning through comparison, as every tidbit of British trivia arrives through American eyes.  Whether it’s finding the grass at Versailles to actually be much greener, or suffering a bout of homesickness wishing for buffalo wings and cheddar cheese (how the French can ever make a taco without cheddar still apalls me), I think I get what Bryson’s saying: [Insert country here] is great, so long as you’ve got some place else to compare it to.

As for Bryson’s book itself: the writing is witty, the plot somewhat tedious.  I get it – it’s rainy on that small island.  So you spent a couple of days (ok, most of your trip) rather wet.  Luckily Bryson limits weatherly descriptions to a paragraph per chapter (two paragraphs, max), and fills the majority of his book with quirky stories ranging from the Duke of Marlborough’s magical toothbrush to the (fake) authentic Roman ruins hidden under tarp and brush.

One complaint might be that the book dates itself: way back in 1995, Bryson began complaining about Cellphone Man, and his incessant rambling on the machine attached to his ear.  Bryson goes further to compare his current journey to the first visit he paid to each of these places, sometime in the 1970s, while dreading the impact of the presence of Korean companies in the UK in the distant future of 2010.

I want to know: does Milton Keynes still have deserted pedestrian pathways that meander about and an incredibly confusing street grid?  Must I still confirm thrice that I am, in fact, on a train to Barnstaple?  Will I still be showered with advice on how I ought to have left yesterday to get from Surrey to Cornwall?

A contemporary source confirms, yes, yes and yes.

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The (not-so-dreaded) Summer Reading List

Remember when, at the end of the semester, just as everything was wrapping up and you were getting excited about the summer, the intimidating figure of the following year’s English teacher would appear in the doorway?  And suddenly, instead of thinking about how awesome it was going to be to just hang out by the pool, or go on that trip to Busch  Gardens, you began to dread having to make it through the Summer Reading List.

I was never that kid.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I looked forward to the summer reading, and yes, even the summer journals.  I might have even, on occasion, asked for the reading list (which usually reminded the teacher that it needed handing out, which then meant getting shunned by the rest of the class…which then meant I had more time to do summer reading, since no one wanted to go to the pool with me after that ordeal).  Which means that even as a graduate, I haven’t learned not to go seeking trouble, as I’m making my own reading list for the summer.

It’s got a little bit of this and a little bit of that: some leisurely works, some “must reads” and some texts cluttered with jargon.  But they’re all books I’ve been meaning to read for some while now, and when better than during a tortoise-paced economy?

Summer 2009, here I come:

  1. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  2. A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow)
  3. Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French by Stephen Clarke
  4. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  5. The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch
  6. Strange Details (Writing Architecture) by Michael Caldwell

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