Sunday, April 29, 2012

DNF: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson


After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson-- bestselling author of The Mother Tongue and Made in America-decided to return to the United States. ("I had recently read," Bryson writes, "that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another,so it was clear that my people needed me.") But before departing, he set out on a grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.

Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.

I'd like to start by saying that this "Did Not Finish" is not nearly so harsh a critique as it may seem.  The book wasn't at all bad, and there may be lots of wonderful material just a few pages past where we stopped, but we found ourselves growing bored with the book and decided that time's too precious to waste on something you're not really enjoying.  (Also, Donald thought it might be fun to read our next "together book"-- The Hobbit-- before the movie comes out later this year.  Since neither of us were particularly enjoying Notes, why wait?) 

A few further comments:

-- It felt very obvious that this book was written for a British audience; he even uses British terminology and turns of phrase.  (But maybe that was my imagination...)  We had expected (and would have preferred) to see Britain from an outsider's point of view.  Instead, by the time Bryson wrote the book, he'd apparently lived in England so long (nearly 20 years?) that in some ways he had ceased to be an outsider at all!  The portions of the book told from his newcomer's perspective (from way back in the 1970s) were better (in our opinions) but were also, sadly, few and far between (at least, in the part of the book we read).

-- Some of Bryson's jokes probably went right over our heads, because they did seem aimed at English readers.

--  Reading about how various English locales had changed from the time Bryson first new them (in the 70s and early 80s) might be more interesting to people who actually know the places firsthand.  There's a certain degree of relevance to anyone, since similar changes happen almost no matter where you happen to live... but the particulars grew tedious for us. 

--  I may try to finish the rest of the book at a later date.  It may be one of those books best read alone-- which is a shame, because when Bryson's anecdotes are funny, they're great for reading aloud. 

--  I'm surprised (now that I'm looking at some reviews on Amazon) at how many people seem to feel that Bryson is being mean-spirited in his treatment of the British and that the book is the result of an out-pouring of pent-up resentment and annoyance.  Really?  I didn't get that impression at all (again, from what I managed to read).  If anything, I felt that he possibly preferred England to the United States... *shrug*

--  I think my next Bryson read will be In a Sunburned Country (about Australia), because it and A Walk in the Woods (which Donald and I read together years ago), seem to be his most generally favored books.