Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: Notes From a Small Island

I will now be reviewing books on this blog. It’s not so much a passion for a new genre than a need to keep my memory from simply erasing the contents of a book 3 months after reading it.

For instance people often ask if I’ve read so-and-so book and I nod enthusiastically because I have a vague memory of having extracted a lot of joy from it. Then that person might go on to say, “The character of Dorothy Waldorf Kent is so well developed - like the time she runs away with a married man abandoning her husband of 12 years only to find that this married man is an old git and farts even louder than her previous one. Remember?” This will leave me completely mystified because neither will I remember anything about old gits and farts; nor will the name of this adulterous Mrs. Waldorf Kent set off any bells.

It is to rectify this situation that I am now going to write book reviews and here I begin with Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island.”

The Times blurb on the cover of my book warns that this is “Not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts” and I am glad that I didn’t take it out of the house because I found several loud snorts essaying forth quite involuntarily.

The small island Bryson is on is the British one and in this book, travel writer Bryson criss-crosses the foggy, rainy country from John O’Groats (this is really a place, not a person) up in Scotland to Exeter and Bournemouth in the south. He is on a long trundle through the country to rediscover it before hauling himself and his family back home to vast America.

Bryson’s observations on Britain are often quintessentially American. He likes his gratification instant and his logic cold. But as a resident of North Yorkshire for many years Bryson also knows the country really well so his disdain or sheer delight at the idiosyncrasies of Britishers has complete credibility. Like the time when he says that Communism should have been left to the British instead of the Russians who we all know botched the whole thing up. He says Britishers would have done it properly because all the conditions are right. They like “going without, queing up indefinitely and accepting with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing and bland diets” among a host of other things.

Bryson tickles with his wonderfully keen eye for little detail. He has the ability to entertain while being utterly bored out of his skull himself. He does not leap from one grand adventure to the next. Instead he delights with his gift of making everyday observations about fellow diners in dull restaurants, empty town squares in quaint British towns, long train rides and several other mundane things that all travelers need to do to get from one destination to the next.

Through his eyes, Britain emerges as a funny, silly, grand and wonderful place. In the early part of the book Bryson is mostly in places he doesn’t take a shine to – criticizing everything from Oxford’s awful new buildings to crusty old Britishers who love dissing America. But as the weeks go by and he wanders from one town to the next, all the quirks of the British system and way of life are brought alive in the most hilarious sketch I’ve read in a long time. About Britain, Bryson concludes, “What a wondrous place this was – crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree.” Makes you want to immediately pack your bags and away to Her Majesty’s blessed plot.


Anonymous said...

I can associate with the awkwardness of participating in a conversation where I know I have read that book but little more stays in memory... And I am sure this is a nice way of letting the essentials from a book stick!

HRV said...


As for the peoples of that rainy island, one doesn't know whether to like them very much or not, depending on where you stand on their little stint in our sunlit land.

Anu said...

I also write book reviews to remember the impression book left on me just after reading. It is interesting to read your own reviews after few years, they do make you smile...:-)

Nagesh.MVS said...

Very very good post.

Work From Home

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Thanks Nagesh!

Anuradha - smile or cringe in my case :-)

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