Sunday, May 24, 2009

Notes from one small island to another...

Notes from a Small Island is a book I was meant to read. Days after I'd picked up a copy at a used bookstore in Pattaya, another copy appeared in a care package from a friend (thanks B!). I figured the most appropriate way to start this book was by taking it to my own small island - Ko Samet. Let me tell you, the islands could not be more different!

For his last hurrah after spending 8 odd years living in Britain, Bryson decides to take one last trip around the island. Relying heavily on public transportation, he visits big cities and obscure towns.

Ooooh lovely.

Bill Bryson is one of the most hilarious writers I've read... he is simultaneously one of the most boring travelers I could possibly imagine. I alternated between arguing with his outlook on travel & life in general, waiting in vain for the book to get 'interesting', and laughing out loud at his observations of mundane British life. "When the program finished.... Mrs. Smegma came in with a tray of tea things and a plate of biscuits... and everyone stirred friskily to life, rubbing their hands keenly and saying 'ooh, lovely.' To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage."

The main issue I take with Bryson is his travel philosophy. He has a tendency to pick his travel destinations somewhat whimsically and then gets annoyed when there is limited transportation to these out of the way little towns and villages. He rarely spends more than a day or two in a given place; falling into the bus-backpack-beer-bed trap. He doesn't make much of an effort to interact with the locals. He doesn't eat local specialties, opting for Chinese food more often than not.

He also seems to have a very set idea of what and importantly when a city should look like. He's nostalgic for a charming, cobblestone, Dickensian Britain... one that probably never existed in the first place. He decries the encroachment of chain stores like Boots and Marks & Spencer into old market squares...and turns his nose up at 'tourist' attractions. But then he gets irritated when certain towns close up shop in the evening and he's left without a decent place to get dinner. He never seems to grasp that most cities can not be judged by their value as day trip destinations alone. Some cities are just places for normal people to live and work and have families and watch TV and do their everyday not-all that-charming activities. Most workplaces are not built to be shown off on the pages of Architectural Digest.

As far as his explorations go... he's more than a little ambitious. I couldn't keep track of the number of cities he visited, let alone absorb any meaningful details about any of them. I think to enjoy this book you must have lived or at least traveled extensively in Britain. Then it all becomes one long inside joke. But as an outsider looking in, nothing he says really inspires me to visit any of these places. Which is odd because England and Scotland are on the top of my 'must visit' list.

Despite my issues with Bryson, I nevertheless found myself bursting into laughter almost every time I picked up the book... so clearly, he's doing something right. I think it's his whole understated manner, his amusement at the mundane, and well, his writing style that I like so much. So very much, in fact, that when I went to Ban Phe to trade it in at the secondhand bookstore I picked up Down Under - his book about Australia. But first, perhaps, I should read something a little more exciting. ;)

TAG: Code Watermelon


d said...

i've only ever read two things by bryson: 'a walk in the woods'—about his trip with a friend up the appalachian trail, and the one about his travels in europe—which i forget the name of.

both had me laughing my ass off the entire time.

he's a funny dude.

Sarah Nopp said...

Have you read the travel books by Pete McCarthy? I like his a lot. Road to McCarthy is my favorite, and I like his philosophy. Much more exploring, more in depth. Good funny reads, like Douglas Adams.

Bezzie said...

My sister's reviewed three of his books on her blog...and they kind of match your review. Except she doesn't think he's all that funny. Since we seem to have similar ideas of whats funny, I probably won't be catching up with Mr. Bryson any time soon.

Rebel said...

d -yeah, it's almost embarrassing, I'll be sitting there quietly reading in the coffee shop then randomly bust out laughting.

sarah - no I haven't but I'll have to put him on the list. I think I've seen The Road at the bookshop here.

bezzie - yeah, I mean, it comes out of the blue but the rest of his writing, while good, doesn't always hold my attention.

Michael5000 said...

I didn't know this book existed, but I'll read it for sure.

(p.s., I'm behind in my reading again.)