Currently at both your local Barnes & Noble and the online store, you can take advantage of a special offer of three paperback books for the price of two. I always like these deals, because they help me rationalize buying myself two presents so I can use the third as a gift for someone else. Under great duress, I've even bought two books for other people and graciously accepted only the third for myself. I'm a great guy.
The current book list offers a great selection of light non-fiction (biography and baseball books), popular "pop" history (two books from Simon Winchester and Havana Nocturne, which I reviewed here) and even some popular "hard" science and macro-history like Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. Frustratingly for me, I've read most of the books, so buying them is out of the question. On the up side, reviewing them is not.
I was particularly pleased to see a nice selection of books from Bill Bryson, a man who's written about Shakespeare, walking the Appalachian Trail, traveling in Europe and Africa, the differences between British and American English and, dauntingly, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is just that. I remember picking up his books in the mid-1990s when he seemed like a wonderful secret. Most people hadn't heard of him, but when you met people who had, they couldn't resist quoting their favorite lines at you. I kept a copy of one of his books on the coffee table in my dreadful apartment and, just by leaving it out there, wound up getting probably half a dozen friends to buy their own copy. (Such is the immediate engrossing fun of most Bryson.) Then some jerk stole it. (See? Engrossing.)
The book in question, which is on the 3-for-2 list, was Notes from a Small Island, Bryson's loving farewell to England. Bryson came to England from the American midwest, intent to vacation and explore, bumming around in that way that students do. Instead he fell in love with a woman, married her and stayed for 20 years. When we meet him, he tells us this story and explains that he's about to take his family back to the States, to try to give his kids a dual experience growing up as Britons and Americans. This book represents his valedictory trip around his adopted home, beginning by approaching the white cliffs of Dover and ending at the northernmost point of Scotland.
Bryson travels by British Rail, by bus and, armed with topographical maps, on foot. He cheats and stays at home for a bit, skips a few bits of country here and there, but for the most part he tries to hit the highlights. Nobody can really capture a whole country in a single book, and Bryson smartly doesn't bother. Instead, he uses his travel deadlines and "if it's Tuesday this must be Cornwall" pace to indulge a lot of comic scenes.
The first comic scene establishes the tone of the book and many of the social themes he returns to. He begins with his initial arrival in Dover, decades back. He's tired and hopelessly American. The episode unfolds to reveal a nightmare of cultural misunderstandings. He spends the night in a boarding house filled with cartoonishly oddball English stereotypes. The pepperpot-shaped matron of the house, the honkingly loud old veteran, the man with one of those unintentionally funny English names like (this is Bryson's guess) "Bertram Pantyshield." The woman running the boarding house gives him detailed instructions on what to do with "the counterpane." Coming from a land of blankets, comforters and bedspreads, he assumes she's referring to an arcane window device. Of course, he screws up. He makes all the mistakes he possibly can. Welcome to England.
The mistakes and unexpected moments make for some of the best parts of the book and allow for one of the best treats about Bryson books—subtle, slipped-under-the-door cultural observations. At one point, he sits frozen and soaked to the bone in a café and coos, "Oooh! Lovely!" over a cup of hot tea, a thoroughly English gesture he's learned during his long stay in the country. Without fanfare, he observes that communists really missed the boat. If they'd ever wanted their ideology to catch on, they should have tried it on England first. Why? Because: The English seem to have a genetic predisposition to form queues for anything, without prompting. They're used to going without and making-do. You can cake their legs with mud, freeze them half to death and thoroughly soak them, and at the end of all of that, they'll coo, "Oooh! Lovely!" because of a cup of hot tea.
Other observations are more provocative. Bryson loathes the "new town" of Milton Keynes, a concrete-and-tunneled creation of 1960s planning that reflected little of the character of English cities. He's also stridently American where it counts. While staying at a bed and breakfast, he overhears a couple obnoxiously running down America and Americans and bristles until he can take no more. They deplore Americans' inability to use the King's English, and Bryson sensibly notes that Americans haven't had a king for two centuries. But of course the couple has accidentally blundered right into his wheelhouse, since by this point Bryson's written two books about the unique features of American English and the historical evolution of English in England. He says that Americans have made many valuable contributions to the English language, one of which is the word moron, then leaves before becoming further discomposed.
Still, it's obvious that he loves England, enough to adore its flaws and preemptively miss them. Some snippiness aside—his is a long trek, and he's often inconvenienced and tired—Notes from a Small Island is his love letter to a home he's about to lose. It isn't his home by birth or upbringing but one he chose as an adult, one that made him feel confused and terrible during his first 24 hours but which he came to cherish anyway.
American readers will be able to re-explore a place they visited or discover a place they've never been. Englishmen and Scotsmen will be able to see their countries through eyes that are informed and fond but still somewhat foreign. The latter might have more to disagree with than the former, but Bryson's overall goodwill is unmistakable. He knows he's leaving, and this is his testament. Between the borders of a page's field is a place that, for him, is forever England.
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