BooksOfTheMoon

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 3 stars

The idea of this book intrigued me – a history of private life. I was expecting a social history, of how families and homes have changed throughout history. This wasn’t that book. Instead Bryson uses the rooms in his home as a jumping off point for random dips into (almost exclusively British and American) history. As another review put, it’s mostly just a collection of entertaining random facts. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I do feel that there’s a missed opportunity here to write the book that I had hoped this would be.

So Bryson takes us through the kitchen and scullery (a chance to talk about servants and their relationships with their employers), the drawing room and dining room (talking about how dining and food have changed and comfort respectively), the passage (goodness knows), the bedroom and bathroom (a lot of pain here, as medicine, surgery and hygiene are discussed; disappointingly little sex) all the way up to the attic, which is an excuse to talk about Charles Darwin and in which Bryson tries to make us feel sorry for rich landowners because they get taxed. Diddums.

Bryson spends a lot of time with architects and big houses (unsurprisingly for someone who used to be president of the Campaign for the Protection for Rural England) and I did learn about the Gilded Age, a period in American history that I previously wasn’t aware was A Thing. But mostly, the collection of names, dates and facts went in one ear, briefly amused me and went out the other. I doubt I’ll retain very much knowledge from this book.

So, in my opinion, this book was a missed opportunity. It was entertaining enough, but not the book it could have been. On the other hand, that book is still to be written, and I’m ready to read it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781784161873
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2010

The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 2 stars

I loved Notes From a Small Island, and I desperately wanted to love this as well. There are flashes of brilliance, and Bryson is still an excellent travel writer when he’s got something to talk about, but so much of this book comes across as a curmudgeonly old man railing at change and bewildered by the modern world. Partly, you’d expect something like this from the former president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England but partly it comes across as just mean-spirited (for example, an anecdote about how Bryson helped a young worker in a bookshop deal with a mentally ill patient is spoiled by her dismissal as “four foot nothing and practically spherical”).

Supposedly, Bryson is roughly following his imaginary “Bryson Line” (the furthest you could travel in a straight line across Great Britain without crossing salt water), but he meanders so much that the line is pretty much worthless. He also spends most of his time in the south of England; Wales and Scotland are dismissed with a single chapter each and the north of England gets a handful towards the end of the book.

There are still the amusing asides and historical anecdotes for which much of Bryson’s writing is famed, but this is most definitely not vintage Bryson. I wonder if this is explained when he says in the prologue that his publisher has been trying to get him to write a sequel to Notes From a Small Island for years. Is this a book that Bryson just didn’t really want that much to write, but felt pressured into it? I wouldn’t bother with this, stick with Notes From a Small Island or Down Under if you want to read good travel writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552779838
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2015

One Summer: America 1927

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 stars

In this book, Bryson’s aim is to show us how much went on in the summer of 1927, and his thesis is that this was an astonishing summer for America, where world-changing events all collided. It makes for a very entertaining read, but I’m not entirely sure that I agree that 1927 was as extraordinary a summer as he makes out. I’m sure that cases could be made for other years, other seasons and other countries, but this is the year that Bryson has chosen and I’m happy go with him on the trip through it. Starting from June of that year, he picks a couple of major players, Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth, and winds the rest of the narrative around them. That’s not to say that they dominate the book, but Bryson uses them as touchstones and jumping off points to discuss other events.

Something that this book does get across is just how different a world that America of 1927 was. This is a world before television, where even radio is only just emerging as a medium. Prohibition is in full swing and eugenics is a respected science. There were literally thousands of newspapers and millions would turn out to see a man who had flown an aeroplane across the Atlantic ocean.

Bryson also touches on the somewhat random nature of celebrity and notoriety as he describes the vast amount of newspaper attention given to the sash weight murder case, which was dull and obvious compared to other crimes of the era, but seemed to completely grip the nation.

Babe Ruth is one of the two principal protagonists of the narrative, and while I was interested in the earlier segments, describing his youth and personal life, the latter segments are mostly breathless recitals of numbers, apparently related to baseball. As someone who has little interest in sport and no knowledge of baseball, this left me a little cold. It’s a good thing, then, that the other principal of the book, Charles Lindbergh, has a more interesting story.

Bryson writes with a light touch and witty, engaging style that makes this book easy to read (excepting the sporting numbers) and it succeeds as a narrative history covering a single summer in a single country. Its importance for me lies in the fact that that country was America and this book goes some way to describing events that made America the confident leader of the world that it became during the 20th century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552772563
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2013

Down Under

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 5 stars

Bryson is on top form in this book which documents his adventures in the Antipodes, from crossing the continent in style on the India-Pacific Railway to pledges with his travelling companion about the fair distribution of urine should they get trapped in the outback. Bryson is endlessly fascinated by the continent of Australia and his joy in exploring it comes across very clearly in this book. He loves the people and the country and his descriptions of both show it. He also describes the sheer absurdity of the country, from carelessly losing a prime minister (he walked into the sea and never came out again) to the fact that someone may have detonated a small nuclear bomb in the north of the country and nobody noticed.

He talks about the history of the places he visits and uses visits to museums to go off on tangents about the people and objects he finds. He follows in the footsteps of some of the pioneers and expeditions that opened Australia (insofar as a country that size ever can be “opened up”) and you can sense the shaking of the head as he describes how incompetent some of those early explorers appeared to be.

And he seems endlessly intrigued by the sheer quantity and quality of flora and fauna of Oz that are deadly. From the box jellyfish that can cause the most indescribable pain a man could feel to the spiders that have enough venom to kill a man in seconds, Australia is blessed (or cursed) with some of the most deadly creatures on Earth. And Bryson takes a perverse pleasure in describing them, in great detail, both to the reader and to any travelling companions he might have at the time. But that just adds to the joy of the book. He is relishing the absurdity of the whole thing and writes so lightly and humorously that you’re left chuckling about things that should rightly leave you aghast.

The one thing that Bryson touches only lightly upon is the state of the Aborigines of Australia, their past treatment by the settlers and their current haunted, downtrodden emptiness. But amidst this, he also points out another absurdity of this continent-country: that recent research has shown that the Aboriginal people came to Australia over 40,000 years ago! That they had a civilisation capable of producing sea-going vessels that long ago is incredible and a story that is still full of mysteries.

In total, this is a marvellous book from a man who has a real eye for the world around him and a humorous touch with a pen (or keyboard, as the case may be).

Book details

ISBN: 9780552997034
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2000

A Walk in the Woods

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 stars

Written when Bryson and his family were back in the States, this book charts his attempts, with his friend Katz (last mentioned in Neither Here Nor There) to walk the Appalachian Trail, a hiking route that stretches along the entire eastern seaboard of the United States, taking in over two thousand miles.

I really enjoyed this book. I had approached it with some trepidation since a friend had said that she didn’t like it, despite being a Bryson fan, but I found it funny, informative and entertaining. Unlike Neither Here Nor There, I felt that Bryson enjoyed his journey, despite his moaning, and any anger he had was directed at the mismanagement of nature by the US authorities, and which is slowly being wiped out by industrialisation, mismanagement and plain inattention. A great read.

Book details

Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 1998

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: Travels through My Childhood

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this (somewhat embellished) autobiography of Bill Bryson, about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the ’50s. Bryson describes a world seen through the eyes of childhood, a world where everything is shiny and the future is just around the corner. A world where everything is good for you (including cigarettes and radiation), that has traditional locally owned shops (including ones with atomic loo seats) and where things can generally be blamed on Lumpy Kowalksi. Occasionally life outside in Adult World is alluded to, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and some of the less scrupulous activities of the CIA are alluded to, but they never intrude too deeply into Kid World.

The 1950s are a deeply nostalgic time for the US as a whole, they were richer than ever before but hadn’t yet gained the cynicism that wealth brings. It was great time to be growing up, and Bryson guides us through that world in his own warm, beautifully written way in no less vivid detail than in one of his travel books.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552772549
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2006

Neither here Nor there: Travels in Europe

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 2 stars

Despite having enjoyed several of Bryson’s other books, I couldn’t really get into this one which was about his travels in Europe, roughly following in his own footsteps from 20 years earlier. It was well-written and quite witty but it took me most of the book to realise why I didn’t hugely enjoy it. I think I didn’t enjoy the book because he didn’t enjoy the trip. He spent a lot of time moaning and this affected the tone of the book. I just wished he’d either find something to enjoy, or just pack up and go home.

He started off well, with a good amount of detail and good cheer and described the locations and people skillfully, but as it went on, you could feel him getting listless and this came through in his writing. I’d look up some of his other work (eg Notes From a Small Island) rather than this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552998062
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 1992

Notes from a Big Country

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed this collection of columns that Bill Bryson wrote for the Mail on Sunday for several years while he was living in the US. It’s insightful, thought-provoking and, above all, very funny. Bryson provides a great commentary on his native land, always counter-balanced by his wife and children who were experiencing it for the first time. It’s also interesting to see how the trends of the America of a decade ago are slowly reaching the Britain of today.

Book details

Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 1999

Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 5 stars

This was a fantastic book. Bill Bryson gives us a look at Britain from the perspective of an outsider, but one who really loves this country. His traipse around Britain before he returns to America for a couple of years is poignant and always very entertaining. Okay, so he has his rose-tinted glasses firmly on and at times presents a very Olde Worlde picture of the country, but it’s done with such love and affection that you don’t mind

Book details

ISBN: 9780771017049
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Year of publication: 1995

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