BooksOfTheMoon

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

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

By Robert M. Pirsig

Rating: 2 stars

I wasn’t hugely enjoying this book, even before I hit the thirty missing pages in my volume. Well, not so much missing, as mis-printed. Instead of pages 360-390(ish), I had two copies of pages 330-360. Although, to be honest, after I finished cursing, my second emotion was one of relief that I didn’t have to wade through another 30 pages of turgid philosophy, interspersed with some moderately interesting travel stuff and more interesting father/son and self-reflection.

The book is structured as a travelogue where the main character and his son travel round bits of the US, pontificating about Quality while trying to reconcile himself to the person he used to be before a nervous breakdown and court-enforced ECT. Frankly, the latter was a lot more interesting than the former. The bits about our protagonist reflecting on his previous life, which he has abstracted out into a separate persona he calls Phaedrus, along with his strained relationship with his son, make for an interesting character-driven plot. However, the large chunks of philosophy that he throws in make for the opposite. While I can sort of see what the author was trying to say about Quality (with a capital Q), I really don’t think he needed so many words to make his point.

Maybe the missing thirty pages would have made all the difference. Maybe I’d have been thunderstruck and be pontificating that this was the greatest book ever written, but somehow I doubt it. Now I’m in a quandary: I certainly have no intention of keeping this volume, but how can I donate it or give it away to someone in the full knowledge that there is a chunk missing. Am I going to have to *gulp* throw it away?? It goes against all my bibliophile instincts, but then so does giving it away, knowing it’s incomplete. Either way, its stay on my shelves will only be temporary.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099786405
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1974

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

By Iain Banks

Rating: 4 stars

Let me say at the outset that I know nothing about whisky, and, indeed, am teetotal. However, this book, ostensibly about that liquor, is not really anything of the sort. Banks is invited to travel his native Scotland “in search of the perfect dram”. And so we set off, touring distilleries, with lengthy detours to discuss Great Wee Roads (GWRs) and his passion for cars and driving, generally; anecdotes from his past (including the infamous urban climbing at the Brighton WorldCon, which I had always thought took place in Glasgow); ramblings about the second Gulf War; and a general enthusiasm for Scotland.

This is probably the closest that Banks ever came to writing his memoires or to autobiography, and it’s a pleasure to read. I didn’t know Banks, but I met him a few times, and had the pleasure of buying him a drink at a wee con once. The book reads exactly as I remember him talking. Excited, enthusiastic and full of joie de vivre. I’m still astonished and shocked that a man so full of life died so suddenly when so (comparatively) young.

So don’t read this as a guide to whisky. Read it for a mighty enthusiasm about it, and enjoy the ride around Scotland in the company of some of Bankie’s pals, in his fun cars as you’re laughing down a GWR somewhere in the Highlands.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099460275
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2003

The Dark Tourist

By Dom Joly

Rating: 4 stars

In this book, Dom Joly (someone who I had vaguely heard of, but didn’t know much about since I really didn’t like Trigger Happy TV) records his experiences as a “dark tourist” – someone who travels to places that have been the sites of death and misery. Of the sites he visits (Iran, sites of assassination in the US, Cambodia, Chernobyl, North Korea and the country where he grew up, Lebanon) the chapters on Cambodia and North Korea were probably the most interesting. The former took him to the Killing Fields and recounted his various bizarre experiences and describes how the Pol Pot regime still overshadows the country, while the latter showed just how control-freakishly bizarre that the country is.

Joly is an entertaining companion on the journeys and despite my distaste of his brand of humour I quite enjoyed his narration of his trips. He feels, and is able to convey, a deep interest in the places he visits and you can’t help coming to share that interest, even if you’re as uninterested in actual travel as I am.

I think the weakest chapter in the book was the one on Lebanon, the country of Joly’s birth and early raising, during the civil war. Although there is historical baggage attached to Lebanon and Beirut, Joly’s description of its current state is entirely positive and there seems very little “dark” about it. This chapter is more a reminiscence for him than dark tourism. But apart from that, a thoroughly intriguing read of some places where I would never consider visiting (so I’m glad that someone else has).

Book details

ISBN: 9781847376954
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year of publication: 2010

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

America Unchained

By Dave Gorman

Rating: 4 stars

Is it possible to travel from one coast of the US to the other without giving any money to The Man? This is the question that Dave Gorman posed to himself after a tour of the States where he was taken from one identical hotel room to another to perform. So to counteract this, he decides to start in LA and travel to New York using only independent motels, diners, grocery stores and, most problematically, gas stations.

I find Dave Gorman a very entertaining writer, and this book had me laughing out loud at several points. In saying that, I do sometimes feel somewhat guilty at laughing since I feel that I’m laughing at a man who has some genuine psychological issues. Half way through this book, he has a bit of a breakdown. Like he did in Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure. Like his obsessive search for namesakes in Are You Dave Gorman. I do worry a little about the man, but this didn’t prevent me from enjoying this book too much, whether it’s his director Stef’s obsession with mashed potato, the night they stayed in a beagle-shaped B&B or his bemusement when he starts researching the Mormons in Salt Lake City. There’s enough good humour and genuine enthusiasm in the man to make you care about his journey. Even when he is being an idiot.

Book details

ISBN: 9780091899370
Publisher: Ebury Press
Year of publication: 2007

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

A Mad World, My Masters: Tales from a Traveller’s Life

By John Cody Fidler-Simpson

Rating: 3 stars

This volume by the long-term BBC correspondent is mostly anecdotes from his working life, with each chapter covering a theme, such as travel, villains etc. Simpson comes across as someone who enjoys the finer things in life, but is happy to forego all of them if it gets him a story. I’m not entirely sure if I’d like the man himself, but there’s no denying that he’s a good raconteur, with many stories to tell from his long and interesting career.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330355674
Publisher: Pan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2000

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

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