Tag Archives: Bill Bryson

‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson started as a travel writer and then moved into writing about science. In this one he travels through the human body. Bryson does an incredible amount of research into complicated things and then casually talks about them as if he’s giving you directions to the corner store. He can be very funny, in a gentle self-deprecating way (a quality that has no doubt flourished by living in the UK) and he makes the facts entertaining.

For me, learning more about our inner workings, system by system, produced amazement and wonder–he does make science understandable. We seldom stop to thing about all of the wonderful things that are going on while we slouch unawares on the couch, munching popcorn, until something goes wrong of course. His chapters on germs, disease, and microbes read like a thriller, and leave you feeling as many aches and pains as a first year medical student! But because this book is  a long one, and not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as some of his other books, I would recommend the audio version, read by the author himself–he has an amusing American accent with a telltale British twang.

I really like Bryson’s books. They are always a pleasant journey that leaves me with greater general knowledge and an appreciation for the topic he has tackled. I have especially liked his travel books about Great Britain and Australia, and his book called At Home which discusses how we as a society became comfortable. His funniest book is A Walk in the Woods about hiking the Appalachian trail with his fat friend, which also became a movie with Robert Redford. A Short History of Nearly Everything is about the universe and ourselves. It is an awesome adventure into the realms of human knowledge. If you read that one, make sure you get the special illustrated edition.

‘The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

The Road to Little Dribblingstarstarstar
“When England is lovely there isn’t any place I would rather be.”

Twenty years after travel writer Bill Bryson published his hugely successful and endearing book Notes from a Small Island, comes more of the same. More interesting anecdotes, amusing stories, mini tirades about how stupid people can be, and way more absurd and trivial things than you ever wanted to know about parts of Great Britain. Some people find his books laugh out loud hilarious while others just don’t seem to have their funny bone tickled at all–they actually find this trivia king’s keen descriptions and facts rather boring. I am definitely in the chuckle camp, annoying fellow housemates and train companions with sudden snorty outbursts and guffaws. In fact, because I know my merriment is frowned upon, it makes me want to laugh more, like in church when stifled sniggers threaten to explode.

Bryson clearly loves the British countryside and the British people whenever they don’t exasperate him. He is a rather rambling guide, this time roughly focussing on what he calls the “Bryson Line.” A straight line drawn on land from the north to the south of this island nation (from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath). It is this line and its ‘thereabouts’ that determine his route in this book, although how Cornwall fits in I’m not quite sure. I also failed to discover where Little Dribbling is unless it referred to what he did with the first sips of the many pints he consumes along the way. I probably missed it and will likely be called a ‘ f***wit’ by Bryson himself for my stupidity (there are a variety of words he likes to use when he’s annoyed and that is one of them).

I do love travelling with Bryson. It is of course more pleasurable to read about a place that is familiar to you, so the parts of the book where I had not been, were not quite so engaging, except for being useful for making notes for my UK bucket list. Bryson, who once was American, has now signed on for good to this country that he loves, becoming a citizen as well as a resident. True grit has now become true Brit.

Author Feature: Bill Bryson

Bill BrysonBill Bryson is a travel writer who can educate and inspire but also make you choke on your coffee with bursts of laughter. His kind of humour just tickles my funny bone and I end up annoying people who are around me when I’m reading. So ironically I actually avoid his books when I’m travelling on trains or airplanes, because of the curious looks I get when I snort and snigger. He is also very impressively knowledgeable and an absolute King of Trivia. There is a wealth of information in his books about so many things that you would never have known before and will likely never need to know again…but it’s all so interesting!

Recently I reread two of his travel books because I went to Australia and decided to reread his book “In a Sunburned Country” (‘Down Under’ UK title). Bryson’s travel books are far more enjoyable to read upon your return when you can understand the jokes. When you travel to a place, take along a Frommer, Lonely Planet, or DK guide to show you where to go and what to see. Then enjoy Bryson’s anecdotal account when you get back and you can relive your trip with his entertaining commentary. However, it is a bit of  a toss up because it might be nice to know some of his facts when visiting a place.

When I moved to England in 2010, a friend gave me ‘Notes from a Small Island’ (as well as a teacup and a brolly….smart friend!), which I decided to wait to reread until I had lived here for two years. That was the right thing to do. I was rewarded with the enjoyment of a lengthy couple of chapters on the Windsor/London/Virginia Water area where I live, and could now knowledgeably chuckle along and nod my head about things like sticky toffee pudding, Marmite, zebra crossings and relief roads, and actually know what he was talking about. My biggest hurdle is still the pants/trousers thing. Pants are undergarments here, like knickers, and trousers are what I would call pants. Can’t seem to get the hang of that one yet, but give me another couple of years and I just might.

‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is a science book for non-scientists, for everyman who is interested in the science of the earth, space and time.  Only get this book in its lavishly illustrated edition and let it find its place on your coffee table or in your restroom reading rack. He has  other travel books on America, a book about Shakespeare, and even a biographical account of his childhood years in Iowa called ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’.  At Home is  a great historical account of private life and  how we have gotten ourselves comfortable over the centuries. In it he uses the rooms of a house as an outline to describe how everything from the flush toilet to household electricity came to be. Bryson is American but moved to England because he married a Brit. They have lived in both places. He has two websites, one based in each country.

Bill Bryson US Website
Bill Bryson UK Website

A Walk in the Woods‘A Walk in the Woods’

This is my favourite and in my opinion is the funniest of the travel books. He hikes the Appalachian trail with his fat friend Stephen Katz. They get into all sorts of troubles while backpacking and trying to survive, including running into bears and rednecks.

In a Sunburned Country‘In a Sunburned Country’ (US title)
‘Down Under’ (UK title)

Bryson points out that 80% of all the plants and animals that live in Australia, exist nowhere else on earth. This may be part of the reason it is such a unique and interesting place. The place names in Australia are also amazing, if you could learn to pronounce them. We stayed in a suburb of Sydney called Wooloomooloo – where else can you find a word sporting no less than 8 o’s?!? Incidentally, it is a wharf area within walking distance of Sydney’s main attractions, recently revitalized with trendy restaurants and boutique hotels. It used to be a navy slum with nothing but drunks, sailors, and drunk sailors. Bryson was very afraid of all the poisonous snake and spider species on this island continent – a disproportionately high amount, in his opinion. We did stay in a mountain resort where the guests were advised not to walk barefoot in the grass at night!

Notes from a Small Island‘Notes from a Small Island’

This is an affectionate portrayal of Britain. Since Bryson has lived for many years in the UK, he knows it from the inside out. He clearly loves the place and its people and captures subtle nuance in the British personality. Americans are fascinated by Great Britain because it is both alien and familiar. Many have traced their origins to the place, and because the language is the same, well nearly, it is an easy place to visit and move around in. And there is so much history – the moss and stones practically ooze the ages. One reviewer said this and I think it is true. “Bryson is not entirely uncritical of his adopted nation (and that’s the fun part), but he’s never nasty – and it’s plain that his enthusiasm for England and all things English comes from deep in his heart.”

‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson

Recently on a training tour through the Windsor Public Library, a fellow volunteer recruit commented, with a bit of annoyed confusion, that the Bill Bryson books were in  Non-Fiction. I suspect she was hoping to point out an error! She was amazed to realize that many of his books were about Travel and should be where they were. She had always found them so hugely entertaining, she had expected to find them in Fiction!

‘At Home’ is a short history of private life. If you are a history, etymology, or trivia junkie, this book is for you. Bryson found himself living in a large Victorian parsonage in England and decided to write a book about how people slowly got comfortable. He uses the rooms of a house as an outline to describe how everything from the flush toilet to household electricity came to be. Although I missed the laugh-out-loud humour of his travel books such as ‘A Walk in the Woods’, this is a light hearted approachable sort of history which Bryson is known for. And many of the tangents he goes off on leave you wondering “where did he ever learn about this stuff?” There is a vast impressive bibliography at the end of the book, so clearly he did his research.

The bathroom is an opportunity to talk about hygiene, the garden about lawn mowers, the kitchen about nutrition,  the nursery about children, the bedroom about sex, etc.  Did you know that US became more powerful than Canada because of the Erie Canal? Forks were invented with two tines and because they were so dangerous, they were improved to have only four. The most perilous part of the home is not the bathtub, the knives in the kitchen, or the fuse box, but the stairs! Some of his discoveries are surprising – the average kitchen cloth houses way more bacteria than the toilet seat!

Some of the chapters left me wondering why there would be say, a discussion of the Eiffel Tower in The Passage chapter, or a discussion of mice and mousetraps in The Study. But I can forgive Bryson for these tangents. His book is entertaining and educational. It’s also totally unnecessary to read this book from cover to cover. By all means, keep it in The Bathroom or The Bedroom and read random chapters out of order.