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Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
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Notes from a Small Island (1995)

by Bill Bryson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Bill Bryson's Complete Notes (1)

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I first read this in eleventh grade in high school, after randomly picking it off a list our English teacher presented to us in the hope it would be some kind of desert island tale. The island in question, of course, is actually Great Britain; Notes From A Small Island is a travelogue covering Bryson’s “valedictory tour” around the nation he made his home for nearly twenty years.

Any Australian growing up naturally develops a sort of hazy idea of what the UK is like, in the same way that anybody anywhere grows up with a hazy idea of what the US is like, but Notes From A Small Island probably filled in my mental map a bit more than Harry Potter or Monty Python films. Bryson travels by train across the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales, filling the pages with his usual wit.

I had never had a biscuit of such rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a budgie to strengthen its beak.

At the Old Times building on Gray’s Inn road, the canteen had been in a basement room that had the charm and ambience of a submarine and the food had been slopped out by humourless drones who always brought to mind moles in aprons.


Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are early on, when Bryson sprinkles his modern-day trip around Britain with memories of his early life there in the 1970s and 1980s, such as when he was involved in the Wapping dispute:

How odd, I thought, that a total stranger was about to pull me from my car and beat me mushy for the benefit of printworkers he had never met, who would mostly despise him as an unkempt hippie, would certainly never let him into their own union, and who had enjoyed decades of obscenely inflated earnings without once showing collective support for any other union, including, on occasion, provincial branches of their own NGA. Simultaneously it occurred to me that I was about to squander my own small life for the benefit of a man who had, without apparent hesitation, given up his own nationality out of economic self-interest, who didn’t know who I was, would as lightly have discarded me if a machine could be found to do my job, and whose idea of maximum magnanimity was to hand out a six-ounce can of beer and a limp sandwich.

These anecdotes dry up later in the book, and Notes From A Small Island loses some of its lustre as it becomes simply a journey through Britain’s hotels, restaurants and train stations. Bryson’s tirade against modern architecture also becomes tiresome, even for a reader who agrees with him entirely, as I do. Although on the subject of agreement, I was interested to see that apparently even in the 1990s there was popular backing for the bizarre idea that upon the Queen’s death, Prince Charles should bow out and pass the throne directly to the younger, more attractive and more popular Prince William. I agree with Bryson:

It seemed to me to miss the point. If you are going to have a system of hereditary privilege, then surely you have to take what comes your way no matter how ponderous the poor fellow may be or how curious his taste in mistresses.

Bryson’s attitude towards Britain can sometimes be overly sentimental. It’s clear that he loves this country, to the point where he sometimes verges upon British exceptionalism. It is utter nonsense to argue that people in other countries don’t know how to queue, or that they don’t laugh or smile as much the British. I sometimes wonder how much of this perceived difference between nations in the English-speaking first world (Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) is due to generational differences – since kids in today’s generation all grew up watching the same American TV and spend plenty of time on the internet speaking to people from all over – and how much of it is due to the fact that people who think there are vast differences between the US and Britain have never been to, say, China or Africa.

Notes From A Small Island is a solid Bryson book. Like many of his other books, it can become repetitive and focus a little too much on the banal experiences of travel, and if his sense of humour is not your cup of tea than you might find him cynical or ill-tempered. But I enjoy him a fair bit – it’s easy, funny reading. ( )
1 vote edgeworth | Aug 13, 2014 |
I very nearly didn't finish this after about the sixth time Bryson arrives in some British town, gets to his hotel, finds it or the staff lacking in some way, walks outside, finds the town or the people or the food lacking in some way, eats a subpar meal, goes back to the hotel, goes to bed, gets up, complains about the breakfast, wanders around the town some more finding things to whine about, lather, rinse, repeat. It all got to be annoying after not very long. Eventually I guess I got into the rhythm of it and didn't mind so much, and I did finish the book, but it proved rather more of a slog than I wanted.

Bryson's humor is of that variety which makes me laugh on occasion, but the funny bits here are stuck in amongst so many moments where he's behaving like an idiot, complaining pointlessly, or being a chauvinistic twit that it was hard to separate the amusing from the obnoxious. While some of anecdotes and inserted historical trivia were fascinating, I'm still not sure whether the book was entirely worth the time. ( )
2 vote JBD1 | Aug 10, 2014 |
When I started this book I was laughing at his spot-on descriptions of everyday scenarios. He has an ability to describe a situation so you could mentally visualize the setting…. as if you were right there. Here is a writer who brought England into my home, vivid imagery of places we visited as well as lovely accounts of English villages we have not been fortunate enough to see on a vacation.

Bryson had the good fortune to live in England for almost 20 years of his adult life. He met and married an Englishwoman when he was working at a hospital. Once he and his family decided to move to the USA, Bryson made a 7 week tour of England, Wales and Scotland. He hiked, he took buses and rented cars in this quick walk-about, all the while journaling the sights, and his impressions/opinions about various towns, histories and the people he encountered. This book is a result of those journal observations.

That being said, there were a few disappointing passages which revealed Bryson as arrogant and condescending. While I won’t say it ruined the book, it made me sad to know the image he portrayed as ugly American. Usually we don’t include antidotes and stories that place us in a bad light; I know I don’t. Surprisingly he relayed a story about verbally abusing a McDonald’s counter clerk.

The young man asked if he’d like an apple pie with his order and Bryson went off on him. Bryson asked if he thought he was brain damaged and ranted. How rude! Anyone who has ever had to endure a fast food job knows you are sometimes required to suggest another menu item to the customer. Any adult (most especially a visitor in another country) that would berate a young person publicly doesn’t sit highly in my book. It’s more than rude, it’s being a bully.

I abhor the idea of the reputed “ugly American” and it embarrasses me when my fellow countrymen make asses of themselves when vacationing abroad. Sadly, this is the reputation that sticks. We aren’t all bombastic, pompous idiots!

So, overall the tone of the book (with the exceptions of two boorish incidents) was a detailed travel journal, one man’s opinion and observations on his trek around Great Britain. It’s full of good information about the tourist places as well as gems on villages off the beaten track. Overall a funny read but I don’t think I will see if he behaves in Australia and pass on that book I was planning to read.

For a foodie inspiration, I recall the signs Put British Pork on Your Fork when we traveled there on vacation.

Pork-on-fork

While I am not serving pork from a British source, we do shop locally and buy meats from locally raised animals. This pork tenderloin came from Jones Country Meats, just 25 miles from home in southern Georgia. Would you like some Apple Brandy-Glazed Pork Tenderloin?

Full review and a lovely photo of Apple Brandy Pork Tenderloin may be found here: http://novelmeals.wordpress.com/2014/... ( )
2 vote SquirrelHead | Feb 19, 2014 |
On the cheerfulness of the British people:
".... I followed some rickety wooden steps down to the beach. The rain had stopped in the night, but the sky was threatening and there was a stiff breeze that made my hair and clothes boogie and had the sea in a frenzy of froth. I couldn't hear anything but the pounding of waves. Leaning steeply into the wind, I trudged along the beach in the posture of someone shouldering a car up a hill, passing in front of a long crescent of beach huts, all of identical design but painted in varying bright hues. Most were shut up for the winter, but about three quarters of the way along one stood open, rather in the manner of a magician's box, with a little porch on which sat a man and a woman in garden chairs, huddled in arctic clothing with lap blankets, buffeted by wind that seemed constantly to threaten to tip them over backward. The man was trying to read a newspaper, but the wind kept wrapping it around his face.
"They both looked very happy - or if not happy exactly, at least highly contented, as if this were the Seychelles and they were drinking gin fizzes under nodding palms, rather than sitting half-perished in a stiff English gale. They were contented because they owned a little piece of prized beachfront property for which there was no doubt a long waiting list and - here was the true secret of their happiness - any time they wanted, they could retire to the hut and be fractionally less cold. They could make a cup of tea and, if they were feeling particularly rakish, have a chocolate digestive biscuit. Afterward, they could spend a happy half hour packing their things away and closing up hatches. And this was all they required in the world to bring themselves to a state of near rapture.
"One of the charms of the British is that they have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their happiness. You will laugh to hear me say it, but they are the happiest people on earth. Honestly. Watch any two Britons in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. It won't be more than a few seconds. I once shared a railway compartment between Dunkirk and Brussels with two French-speaking businessmen who were obviously old friends or colleagues. They talked genially the whole journey, but not once in two hours did I see either of them raise a flicker of a smile. You could imagine the same thing with Germans or Swiss or Spaniards or even Italians, but with Britons - never.
"And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why so many of their treats - tea cakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys - are so cautiously flavorful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting - a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box - and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarrented and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly." pp. 78-79
1 vote | maryoverton | Jan 18, 2014 |
Armchair travel. Author lived in England almost 20 years. Humor is enjoyable. He could leave out the swearing and sex and it would be even better. It is a glimpse of England, written as a farewell. He travels by foot and public transportation. ( )
1 vote Kristelh | Nov 16, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bryson, Billprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bauer, JerryPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Case, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McLarty, RonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pék, ZoltánTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roberts, WilliamNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ruschmeier, SigridTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilde, Suzan deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais.
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Book description
Bill Bryson, although living in Yorkshire, England, was born in America, and after deliberation with his wife, decided to move back there. Before departing, however, Bryson travelled one last time around England, from Dover to Liverpool to John O’Groats, keeping a record of his experiences. The result was Notes from a Small Island, a book filled with trains, tea-rooms, and (mostly) polite, amiable people.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0380727501, Paperback)

Reacting to an itch common to Midwesterners since there's been a Midwest from which to escape, writer Bill Bryson moved from Iowa to Britain in 1973. Working for such places as Times of London, among others, he has lived quite happily there ever since. Now Bryson has decided his native country needs him--but first, he's going on a roundabout jaunt on the island he loves.

Britain fascinates Americans: it's familiar, yet alien; the same in some ways, yet so different. Bryson does an excellent job of showing his adopted home to a Yank audience, but you never get the feeling that Bryson is too much of an outsider to know the true nature of the country. Notes from a Small Island strikes a nice balance: the writing is American-silly with a British range of vocabulary. Bryson's marvelous ear is also in evidence: "... I noted the names of the little villages we passed through--Pinhead, West Stuttering, Bakelite, Ham Hocks, Sheepshanks ..." If you're an Anglophile, you'll devour Notes from a Small Island.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:55 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Before returning to America after spending twenty years in Britain, the author decided to tour his second home and presents a look at England's quirks and its endearing qualities.

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