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on 7 May 2001
Bill Bryson's: "Notes from a Small Island" are about an American's love of Britain. After having lived and worked (!) in Britain for twenty years and immediately before going back to the US, Bryson embarks on a last trip around the enchanted island. His aim is to search for the true origin of his deep affection. What he finds is a country which most British people themselves have already written off. However, those of us who believe that despite all its potential insufficiencies this Britain, an enchanted and blessed island, must still be alive somewhere, will read Bryson's travel account with tremendous relief. "This Britain is still there", is the message of the book though it is not the Britain of imperial glamour ruling three quarters of the Earth! Bryson does not spare us its unpleasant traits such as the slums in the big cities, decaying seaside resorts, shortages of staple goods on Saturday afternoons and inexplicable railway fares. However, on the other side, it is the Britain of so many pleasant things that make life worth living: cricket matches on Sunday afternoons, village parties in summer, country lanes that "will dance you down to Devon"(Greeba Bridget-Jones in "English Lanes"), to mention only a few examples of why this is still an enchanted island. If most British people really look upon the development of their country in the 20th century as a "chronic failure" as Bryson puts it, then his finds reveal that they are wrong and that their attitude is probably due to a depressive mood resulting from the loss of an empire which they even "dismantled in a generally benign and enlightened way". In considering all the traits of this country whether ugly or pleasant, Bryson proves that his love is genuine. It is a love for better or worse! Therefore, for all of you who like it there too, who "like it more then they can tell", reading the "Notes from a Small Island" is a must and all the others "mustn't grumble!"
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HALL OF FAMEon 18 January 2006
A wide gulf separates the "travel writer" from those who keep journals of their rambles. The former wishes to entice you to visit the places he's seen - indeed, he's generally paid to accomplish that end. The travel journal is often a pure record of sights, events, people encountered. It is also an honest record of what is experienced. Bill Bryson writes journals of his travels. His accounts are forthright, often with scathing wit, but devoid of malice, even when deeply critical of their subjects. In this book, mainly a walking tour of England, Wales and Scotland, he writes a valedictory to his years in Britain. A delightful read, Notes provides rich entertainment with a serious look at the current British scene.
Bryson deserves full marks for courage. He walks. He covers vast distances in weather that would dismay a seasoned fisherman. He risks his life along wind-blown cliffs, looking down for surf lost in driven fog or slashing rain. No-one wet, cold and hungry can maintain their humour long. Bryson conveys his feelings with honest vigour, but veneers his stress with vivid descriptions of the environment he traverses. He struggles to make sense of British Rail [something even the natives have abandoned hope of achieving], more than once falling back on irregular bus services. He suffers a day's dogleg travel to cover a twenty mile distance because no connecting line exists. Still, he persists and is often enough rewarded to make the effort worth the time. And his descriptions of these events rewards the reader through sharing his reactions yet not pointing an accusatory finger. It's "the system" that's at fault.
As an American from Iowa, Bryson may be relied on to take a detached view of Britain. He's no royalist, but he has a strong affinity for the traditional. He admires old buildings and wants money spent to keep them intact. He grieves volubly over the supplanting of "heritage" buildings by modern steel and glass monuments to capitalism and modernity. In this vein, perhaps the best chapter is on Oxford - the town and the uni. He virtually takes you by the hand, leading you about the town, up one charming street or along "some forgotten lane." Regrettably, you emerge in a desolate square swamped by parked cars. Grungy shopping centres abound, and he [and you] find little refuge unless you choose the right pub. His anguished cry for Oxford, " . . . there is so much that is so wrong. How did it happen?" is
repeated throughout the book as variations on a theme.
His tour completed, he returns to his family in preparation for a return to America [he's now in New Hampshire - not Iowa - a telling point]. His British home in Yorkshire seems unsurprising in view of his travails in the South. He likes the North's warm-heartedness, although he admits it is manifested only over a long duration. He adores the scenery, but has never had to make a living from that land. His favourite town names are Northern ones and he'll leave with more than mild regret. Yet, at the end of this book, as he declares his bliss at returning to Yorkshire, one cannot but wonder whether the long journey was worth the effort [other than to produce the book]. Because this book is a journal of a pilgrimage, it fails to entice the reader to duplicate it. Bryson's superb wit and descriptive powers hold you to his side as he journeys. But on closing the pages, this reviewer felt no compulsion to emulate the tour. There are other places that appeal more and Byson's otherwise admirable account doesn't evoke a desire to divert from them. A wonderful book to read, but only once. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 24 October 2004
You know, it takes a foreigner to really see the idiosyncracies of another culture. Bill Bryson has caught the essence of the British character, and has that rare gift of being able to take the mickey out of us without causing offence. This is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. I'm on the way to the bookshop to see what he has to say about other places. If I have any criticism, then it has to be that he did not spend enough time in Scotland, visiting more Scottish places and gently extracting the Michael. Please Bill, another volume on Scotland. Surely the Scots are eccentric enough to give you material for a book ? I say that advisedly..........I'm a Jock myself ! :o)
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on 28 January 1999
I haven't been especially impressed by the TV serialisation of the book currently being shown in the UK, but a friend recommended the book as a much better prospect. During an otherwise miserable (and painful) week lying on my back in a hospital bed, Bill Bryson took me on a magical tour of the British Isles. We visited places both familiar and not-so-well-known to me, but all the time my experienced guide eloquently captured the spirit of the British people, our enigmatic traditions and strange little ways, and he even managed to mention the peculiar-sounding village where I live. This book is truly one in a million, and anyone with even the slightest affection for the British Isles and the peoples of this realm will find instant gratification and endless giggles in this wonderful tome. Pure Escapism. By the way, I'm not on a commission!!!!
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on 5 June 2000
If I wasn't studying this for my A-Level English, I would have enjoyed it even more than I did! Bryson's use of language and his continuous list of examples, adds to the enjoyment and overall readability of the book. His cameo portraits-especially the unforgettable Vince-create a clear and accurate view of the people that surround us daily. This book is a definite Laugh-Out-Loud and with true-to-life events and situations- multi-storey car parks (chap 4)-I actually found myself crying with laughter! Although very funny and witty 'Notes From...' becomes very repetitive after the first 15 chapters, with Bryson desperately trying to get second/third laughs out of already-made jokes. At some points the humour can be very dry and offensive-Parkinson's Convention-but generally it is witty and crude. A definite read for a good laugh, but avoid studying it in depth-it takes the fun out of it!
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on 6 April 1999
I read this book during an extended period (12 months) working in Arizona. Having travelled extensively in my homeland, I found many of the comments Mr Bryson makes to be so true of my own experience. I laughed, smiled and maybe even wept as I was reminded of all the good (and occasionally not so good) things about Britain. Whilst Mr Bryson presumably wrote this book for his fellow Americans, much of the humour seems to be of a more English type, perhaps reflecting the darker more bleak humour of northern England where Mr Bryson lived for so long. The only thing that prevented me giving this book a 5 was that it made me homesick for the green hills and "dark satanic mills" of my beloved Lancashire (although reading "The Lost Continent" on returning to England did not provoke similar feelings for the USA).
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on 13 November 2001
I'm a Japanese University student living in Osaka. My first encounter with this incredibly hilarious book was when I first visited a book shop in England with my Host Family,who also loved Bill Bryson's books. As I am Japanese, I thought I'd never be able to finish reading it especially at first browse. But the thing is that this book was so funny and tempting, in a way he described those places in England, that I felt like studying English throughly. It was a sensational feeling to have found myself laughing out loud wherever I was. However, not a lot of Japanese are familiar to the very best author of this superb book, because unfortunately, there isn't a translated version of his book available here. Having said that, nowadays, there are so many avid readers of his books here in Japan!
Everyone to whom I have recommended his books so far told me that he or she would love to pay a visit to England!! It is very good for anyone in any countries to read! As I have once studied at the University in England for a year, everytime I read a part where some familiar names of the places that I've visited are mentioned I couldn't help missing them... This isn't only a memorable book to me but also,without a shadow of a doubt, the book that deserves to be read by millions!
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on 6 February 2005
This book marked my personal introduction to Mr Bryson, and it catapulted my in the realm of fanhood immediately!
I read it while travelling around the USA and it felt appropriate because of the huge number of American Anglophiles I met on my journey. I wanted to understand what evoked such fondness in the heart of an American for a Country I loved but was frankly glad to be turning my back on for a while, I wanted to experience what Americans saw.
Mr Bryson was the perfect tutor for wrestling with this unfathomable fondness I saw again and again, indeed he helped me to understand my very British disbelief in it's existance and my blinkered cynacism. His Juorney explores the beauty and splendour of Britain, as you would expect. Equally he demonstrates a humour laden fondness for all aspects of the British Psyche, the kind of stuff that as a Brit you could miss. The kind of stuff that as a Brit are foibles and quirks which are bread and butter, unquestioned irritations and means of dealing with the emotional world which are painfully avoidant but engrained in us and passed on.
My journey with Mr B, raised my interest in parts of my own country I had never seen but also raised my awareness of just how odd, silly, humouress and at times damn irritating the British psyche can be. Not that Mr Bryson sees it this way, he even seems to display a fondness for those jobsworthy, unhelpful, dyed in the wood characters with an innate suspiscion of all things "foriegn", the kind of characters make such a strong component of the British Tapestry.
Insightful, engaging, tear jerkingly accurate and succint with humour that needs prior medical recommendation (it's that good!; you really should have a crack at this book. I don't recommend, however, reading it when the lights go down on a night flight!
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on 26 April 2016
To start, I have to say this is the first Bill Bryson book I’ve ever read so I can’t compare to any of his other work. To begin with, I was really enjoying this book, he had some interesting stories about each place he went (mainly from living in those places during the 80’s) and I was eager to continue reading. It started to go downhill about a quarter of the way in when Bill starts travelling to places he’s never visited before, Bill basically sets out with no planned route, doesn’t check timetables, when he does he leaves everywhere too late to make the bus/train he’s aiming for, then has to go somewhere completely different, then complains it wasn’t what he was expecting! Basically repeat this twenty times and you have an outline of the book.

Bill also complains about the prices of things, a lot. There is a section where he visits a museum (I think it’s a museum, I can’t be bothered to look through the book to find out) who charge £1.50 entrance and then want £2 for a guidebook. Obviously this is too expensive for Bill, who then goes on to complain that he doesn’t know what anything is due to not having the guidebook!

If you want a free version of this book, you can get this by simply visiting the Trip Advisor website, typing in a random British place, say Chepstow, selecting a variety of hotels, bars and restaurants, then click to view all one star reviews. Here you will find ridiculous complaints ranging from things being too expensive (£2 for a guidebook for example), the weather not being good enough and the buses not running from two completely random places quite as often as the reviewer would like.

I also really went off Bill when he shouts at a fast food worker who basically asks the breakfast equivalent of “would you like fries with that?” Is this not an expected question in every fast food restaurant in the world? A question which the staff are told to ask and who can not just decide they’re going to stop asking it? If it really bothers you that much, at least ask to speak to the manager rather than taking it out on the poor kid who’s just trying to serve you your egg Mcmuffin! When Bill wakes up the next day he remarks that he’s in a great mood, I then expected to see a line about how he went back to the fast food restaurant to apologise for his appalling behavior the previous morning. He doesn’t of course, I mean honestly!
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on 29 April 2002
I made the mistake of reading this book on a crowded airplane and later wished I hadn't! I'm not fond of drawing attention to myself in public, but I couldn't help laughing when reading it. Neither could I help reading the particularly good bits to my travel companions. It must have sounded good to them because, when I'd finished it, they all asked if they could borrow my copy!
Bryson is witty and very funny, and his observance of some of our little 'peculiarities' is remarkable and very amusing. I've now read nearly all of his books. I've re-read this one many more times than I really should have but each time is as good as the last.
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