It's almost funny to me the way each of these books manages a cliffhanger of a sort, even in such a staid style of storytelling. But this time it's aIt's almost funny to me the way each of these books manages a cliffhanger of a sort, even in such a staid style of storytelling. But this time it's a pretty big one. The whole time I read this, I was thinking, "I read this too soon after the other one. I'm bored. I'm definitely going to wait a while before I pick up the last one." And then at the end she gets you!
I do feel the epic, the something, being built up so gradually over these long stories. And I'm still puzzled by why they feel so plain, even when they are digging fingernails into the dirt and clawing up difficult stuff. Psychological insight is one of the things I enjoy most about novels, so I can't figure out why with these books I sort of feel like I'm trapped with a friend who won't stop analyzing every little thing about herself out loud; maybe not everything needs to be remarked upon, okay, friend? (Usually, I am that friend, so I don't even know.)
Partly, Elena and Lila are both so exhausting to our sympathies, I get sort of fatigued by hanging in there with their decisions and enmities and waiting out bad times. And the men. Ladies... these men. Sigh. It's realistic, but again, the experience in real life of hanging in there while people sort themselves out is not always rewarding in the moment. Afterward, sometimes. I think these might feel more rewarding later.
Quite a lot of new things go on in this book, and I liked learning about them. I enjoyed Lila's rise into computer programming (on an IBM System 3 Model 10). I enjoyed Elena's interest in feminist politics, and in the radical academia world of her sister in law. I most enjoyed learning about the student rebellions (there in Italy, but also in France) and the general terrible political chaos of this period in Italy of the late 1960's and 1970's. There is quite a lot more I think will be interesting to learn about this subject.
One of the interesting aspects of these novels to me is its portrait of the postwar generation. Even while I read the first book, which is contained almost 100% within a few blocks of the neighborhood, I felt the need to understand the bigger picture of what was happening to them in their country. You can sense that it matters in the author's arrangement of everything, even if it's not directly on the page. By the time of this third novel, this generation is fighting the wheel that it is being crushed by. That's important, and I want a better understanding of the wheel. (Helpfully, my partner has been reading on this subject lately, and read a history and analysis of Italian unity while I read this -- he recommends it for a picture of modern politics, for those who feel the need. Mostly I just made him explain the political parties to me over dinner.)
I still find it challenging that, because the author is covering so much ground with this series, even over a thousand pages of novels, the readers are tugged along so briskly. I feel like a kid being taken by the hand through a fair or a zoo or somewhere by an adult who needs to get us someplace else and won't let me stop and look. I can't get over things like, Elena gets married and has a baby all inside one shortish chapter. To others, that's the whole novel. Not this novel, I know, but I feel like I could get empathy whiplash. She changes so much so fast, and yet lingers and lingers. It's sort of disorienting and ultimately numbing to me. I wish that these books were tugging at my gut, but they don't quite make it there.
Nevertheless I'm getting on a library list for number four, you know? You know....more
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 theSo, 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....more