The Road to Little Dribbling–Bill Bryson (Audio)

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I loved Notes From a Small Island, so thought the audiobook of its sequel would be just as fun–and, hey, great title. England and Bryson have both aged in this volume, and neither, it seems, have become softer or gentler. I nearly stopped listening to the book several times. Bryson’s The world, once beautiful and wonderful, became cheap, commercial, and selfish. I kept going, however, because I long for a road trip across the English countryside and, eventually, Bryson stopped trying to convince us that 1980s and 1990s England was superior to the 2010s and admitted what he loved about England. In my favorite chapter he listed how many years it would take to see all of the historic churches in England if you saw one very day, how many inventions had come out of England, Nobel prize winners, etc.

Unless you like being harangued for hours, I would not recommend joining Bryson on his walks through memory lane.  Instead, check out the original.

 

notes from a small island–bill bryson

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I ordered a number of Bill Bryson books after seeing the movie based on his book, A Walk in the Woods.  His character in the movie was likable and I could see myself enjoying his sarcastic travelogue style walk through Britain.  The calendar is nearing Spring Break for the education and parenting crowd and, although my budget does not allow significant travel this year, a person can dream–or travel through a book.  So it was I chose notes from a small island from my shelf of used books ordered from amazon.

I enjoyed the first chapter.  Bryson’s memories of previous travel in Britain called to mind my own travels as a college student from a very small rural town when I set off from my summer study abroad program to travel by train to Wales, where my parents had visited when I was 8 and come home with my youngest brother en suite.  I think I was driven to discover what had been so romantic that my sane adult parents had forgotten about birth control and wound up pregnant.

I am a person raised in an atmosphere in which sarcasm was the coin of the realm and use of sarcasm at an early age was seen as a sign of prodigy.  Sarcasm’s fine edge was honed at my dinner table with good humored fun as we skewered one another’s foibles.  I appreciate sarcasm.  However, somewhere in chapter two, I became uncomfortable with Bryson’s sarcastic portrayal of people and the land.  As I read on, his sarcasm seemed less witty and more unfairly condescending and, at times, just mean without basis.

Understandably, then, I have more appreciation for the chapters and the sections in which he waxes poetic about the land and the character of the British people.  He is nearly vicious about the fundraising efforts of those in charge of Salisbury Cathedral after calling it the most beautiful structure in England.  His description of the hideous displays and calls for donations paint an image of a structure anything but beautiful (and, having visited Salisbury Cathedral on my college-student trek I echo his assessment of its beauty with more understanding for the realities underpinning the open calls for donations).  However, his portrayal of Durham Cathedral, which no one visits, is soft and alluring.  When Bryson writes as he does of Durham, I can feel again my own wonder at walking into a beautiful building or coming upon an breathtaking vista.  This is what I want from good travel writing.  The disappointments of travel are just that–disappointments.  I am not sure I need to have such a good measure of them in travel literature.  I did not skip those sections, either, because his good bits were so good I did not want to miss any that were hidden in the dross.

I recently read a brief review of his newest book on  England and perhaps that prejudiced me, as that reviewer commented on Bryson’s sarcasm and felt that it made the book nearly unenjoyable.  I have a suspicion that Bryson’s work would read better as an audio book, where tone of voice could soften or bring out the attempt at humor in the more sarcastic bits.  Bill Nighy would seem a wonderful voice for Bryson’s words.

I will read more Bryson, in part because I have already purchased several of his books, and in part because I want to return to England on the cheap on his Road to Little Dribbling.

Finished 2/24/16

The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret–Catherine Bailey

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A friend recommended this book as we were discussing my current research project and the unexpected turns it was taking.  It was, she thought, a good example of popular history that talked through the historical process.

She was right.  In fact, Catherine Bailey should have listened to her.  Closely.  This story involves secret rooms, a plotting duchess, and a family secret (and briefly a haunted castle story).  The plotting duchess is not surprising and the family secret all too quotidian once revealed.  What’s worse, the epilogue suggests all of it was for naught, which might leave a reader wondering why they had invested in more than 400 pages of reading for naught.  Even Bailey seems annoyed, as she lists the men about whom she had intended to write her book and from whose story the secret rooms had diverted her.

There is the story.  Bailey came to Belvoir Castle to tell the story of the men of the Midlands who fought and died in the trenches of WWI.  The secret rooms began the flirtation and the meticulously archived letters and artifacts of the 9th Duke of Rutland, the man who died in those spare secret rooms, completed the seduction.  Readers should not invest in this book for the story of Rutland, whose childhood sorrows and young adult dramas are different only in time and degree of privilege from most of our own.  They should invest because Bailey, almost inadvertently, tells the story of a historian’s love affair with the past and passion for a historical puzzle.  In the early chapters, Bailey keeps us focused on both her path and the duke’s emerging story, but, as the duke’s story unfolds, her path fades into the background and the duke’s story takes over.

Publishing is a business and readers are fickle buyers.  I get that, which is why I forgive the bogus haunted castle in the subtitle and the melodramatic cover art.  But readers are fickle lovers, too, and they expect satisfaction in the end.  Bailey should have mirrored her seduction of the reader with her own seduction by the archives.  Use the glamour of the castle and the family to draw us in, then ensnare us in the puzzle and let us share in the satisfaction of solving it, of having chosen to follow the duke’s story rather than the story that brought her to Belvoir in the first place.  Then we could close the covers satisfied, satiated, rather than disappointed and slightly empty.  Maybe then she would not feel herself as if her noble goals had been hijacked for an unworthy subject.

Is it worth the read?  Yes, but don’t go into it thinking that you are reading a great mystery with all the expectations that genre entails (and that the jacket blurb promises).  Read it with a keen eye to how she tracks down the story and appreciate the way in which she pulls the puzzle together.  The Secret Rooms:  The True Story of a Privileged Family, a Persistent Historian, & the Unsung Archivists.  Just a suggestion.
Finished 6/23/14

The Last Queen of England–Steve Robinson

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I love great books, but I also love those books that I can wolf down and enjoy for all of their naughty empty calories, like a bag of Cheetos or potato chips.  This is one of those salty snack books.

If you’re a Dan Brown fan, like I am, this book is fantastic.  If you’re looking for something innovative, maybe not.  Jefferson Tayte is an American genealogist in London for a conference and to see his friend, Marcus, a big-whig genealogist recently retired from the National Archives.  Tayte does not wear tweed, but tan, suits.  Marcus introduces him to Jean Summer, an attractive divorced historian specializing in the British royalty at the dinner that precedes Marcus’ murder and sets the plot in motion.  What was Marcus working on about which he was so secretive at dinner and how was it connected to his being gunned down outside the restaurant?  Got the formula?

The puzzle concerns the British family’s royal tree, particularly at the time that the dynasty changed from the Stuarts to the Protestant, but distantly related, Hanovers after Queen Anne’s death in the seventeenth century.  Whatever Marcus had discovered seems to have caused his death, as well as the death of several others across the city, and the dead bodies start piling up as Tayte and Summer, assisted by the faithful loner DI, Fable, suss out the details.

In solid Dan Brown style, the duo traverse London and end up in familiar London sites as well as some less familiar.  They discuss construction and re-construction dates and decode some ahnentafel, binary numbers that stand for places on a genealogical table.   Because Tayte is a silly American, he requires history 101 lectures from Summer, who can then educate the reader on the Stuarts and Hanovers and the Jacobite rebellions of the seventeenth century.  What she does not supply, some students of hers do, and this was the one cringe-worthy portion of the novel, where history geeks are presented as rebels for challenging the text books.  That is what all good historians do, especially graduate students in history trying to carve their niche in the dialogue of interpretations that is history.  No historian believes history is a set of facts to be memorized and canonized  in anonymously handed down textbooks.  Historians write those books.

That small irritation aside, the novel was a fun read in terms of pacing, likable protagonists, and fun travelogue descriptions.  Jackson has a series of Jefferson Tayte novels that are probably worth a look if you enjoy this type of novel.

Finished 8/30/15