Lisa Vegan's Reviews > Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
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's review
Jul 29, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: reviewed, non-fiction, biography, humor
Read in April, 2009

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.
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Reading Progress

03/06/2009 page 1
0.31% "Not sure I'm in the mood. But I enjoy Bryson. I've always wanted to visit the UK. Do soon expect many library books but not available yet."
03/08/2009 page 68
20.99% "Want to run off and take my dream trip to England, avoiding most of the places he's describing. He can be hilarious."
03/09/2009 page 126
38.89% "Occasionally writes something I find offensive but mostly I'm getting many laughs from this very funny account. I love it!"
03/10/2009 page 161
49.69% "Own so temp abandoning for library books, 2 of 12 are in, some for book clubs, most not renewable."
03/31/2009 page 161
49.69% "Might read a bit in this until the library book I WANT to read next arrives. Too many books. I'll have to return a few without reading."
04/01/2009 page 220
67.9% "Enjoying but probably going to library tomorrow so will put this down again until I have another gap between books. If ever?"
04/02/2009 page 248
76.54% "Some books came in and this is one I can put down & pict up so putting down for now. Love it. Doesn't have to be read all at once." 1 comment
04/07/2009 page 279
86.11% "Maybe I'll finally finish this before I begin reading my next book."
02/14/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Lisa (last edited Apr 08, 2009 12:00PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan Abigail, Well, I'd look at his list of books and see what most appeals to you, but from what I've heard, I'd start with A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail .


I really liked:

A Short History of Nearly Everything .

message 2: by David (new)

David Abigail:

I liked his history of the English language best of all. He packed in an amazing amount of information in a concise, very readable, entertaining overview of the development of English. (But then, you know I have a definite weakness for books about words and language).

His travel books I can take or leave - I read this one (Small Island), and agree with Lisa's review (though I don't find him quite as funny as other people seem to). He has another one about traveling in Europe which I found quite a bit more mean-spirited - he seemed way too focused on his own creature comforts, impatient with many of the differences from home, whined about the large number of tourists in Florence etc. (Did he want them to clear out the Uffizi just for him?) - it came across as quite boorish - perilously close to the ugly American abroad stereotype at times.

Points in his favor - as Lisa noted in her review, he can indeed turn a phrase, he is attuned to linguistic oddities (always a plus for me), has a lively, idiosyncratic, broad-ranging curiosity, and can be very funny at times.

I've also read his memoir of growing up in the midwest, enjoyed it while reading it, but didn't find it all that memorable. One of his best-known books is about hiking the Appalachian trail, which many folks have recommended to me as being interesting and hilarious. But I've resisted their recommendations to date, since I hate hiking and camping with a deep and abiding loathing.

Don't know if this helps.

message 3: by Lisa (last edited Apr 08, 2009 12:11PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Vegan David, I'd love The Mother Tongue . It's been on my to-read shelf, but thanks, as you just reminded me of it, and I just bumped it up. Abigail, it does sound like a good one to read first.

Edit: Abigail, A Walk in the Woods is the one about hiking the Appalachian trail that I mentioned above. I love to hike. I don't like camping but I don't mind reading about it!

Lisa Vegan Abigail, I should have said I liked hiking because since I hurt my knees nearly 5 years ago I haven't done much at all. Terribly sorry about your arthritis. I've had arthritis from a young age also, but luckily not manifested in a way that usually prevented me from hiking.

Elizabeth, I'll have to check out The Lost Continent. Actually, the cruelty I'm thinking of in this book I don't think is cultural. I'm thinking of one thing he wrote about a boy and his parent, all of them fat, at a restaurant where he was dining. There were many other examples as well, including some of the type I think you mean. The latter type didn't bother me nearly as much.

Lisa Vegan Oh, Thanks Elizabeth. I'd been writing it as I was reading so it took a month. ;-)

Ashraks I felt exactly the way you did on reading Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. It took me forever to read with multiple sessions, and now I'm left with more than a dozen library books of which I may have to return a few.

Lisa Vegan Ashraks, Oh, I've frequently had to return unread library books. I hate that.

Michelle Gartner I could have wrote your first 4 paragraphs myself. I cringed when he got nasty with people... but otherwise laughed quite a bit and wished it was me doing the traveling.

Lisa Vegan Michelle wrote: "I could have wrote your first 4 paragraphs myself. I cringed when he got nasty with people... but otherwise laughed quite a bit and wished it was me doing the traveling."

He is funny and it did have me wanting to take a walking tour. Britain is a good choice though I'd have chosen different locations and stopping points.

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