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Notes from a Small Island / Notes from a Big…

Notes from a Small Island / Notes from a Big Country

by Bill Bryson

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The Complete Notes combines Bryson's 1995 book Notes from a small Island and the 1998 compilation of his weekly columns about the US called Notes from a Big Country. Of the two, Notes from a Big Country is vastly superior as Bryson excels in aperçus and slapstick. He is the attention deficit disorder generation's travel writer who, as he reveals in one column, has to enlighten an audience which knows "pretty nearly nothing" about Britain. Having read his Notes from a small Island, his audience will not be much better informed but at least entertained with many a chuckle.

Bryson is a creature comfort person. He likes nothing more than being well fed, warm and cozy in a safe environment. It is a bit of a puzzle why he chooses to expose himself to the harshness of traveling. Combined with his being a cheapskate, much of his slapstick situations develop out of him purposely putting himself into a bad situation. Does he really expect stellar service from a B & B charging less than 20 pounds per night? Or intelligent conversation from a McDonald's temp? His Iowa country bumpkin stick gets old rather fast. The strange thing is that, having gone all the way to reach the places, his visit most of the time consists of having a break, eating, drinking and checking into his hotel. The places and attractions only get a passing mention. His lamentations about the state of British public transportations are certainly warranted. The United Kingdom invests five pounds per person in rail infrastructure. Germany spends 20, France 31 and Switzerland 50, which closely matches the traveler's experience. The real nightmare in Britain, however, is bus (or coach) travel, with a bewildering number of operators and uncoordinated timetables at extortion prices. Only the British world championship in keeping a stiff upper lip and bearing any burden silently prevents an uproar (In Switzerland, a two-hour rail breakdown triggers a national debate.). Bad service, often with a lump of passive aggressiveness, is an unfortunate British habit, best exemplified by the TV series Fawlty Towers (which Bryson does not mention, probably with his US audience in mind). In contrast, the British devotion to their heritage and museums is unmatched in the world. In Notes from a small Island, what you learn most about, are the quirks and foibles of Bill Bryson.

Notes from a Big Country, in contrast, is really about the strange place that is called the United States of America and its peculiar customs, rules and quirks. Bryson with his insider-outsider perspective offers a masterful and funny compilation of American life that might be even of interest to Americans themselves. ( )
3 vote jcbrunner | Feb 12, 2011 |
Bryson covers the US and the UK in one volume. Admittedly, my favourite is Notes from a Big Country; I find the article format easy to jump into and it's written about the US for Britons. I liked Notes from a Small Country in places, but the regular chapter format meant that the ideas weren't as distilled in Big Country. Nevertheless, a good collection. ( )
  Tselja | Aug 17, 2010 |
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