notes from a small island–bill bryson


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


More Ketchup Than Salsa: Confessions of a Tenerife Barman–Joe Cowley (eBook)

confessions of a tenerife barman

This book was a super deal on Amazon and the concept intrigued me–quit your day job and buy a bar on a tropical island and let the zany adventures ensue.  Cowley’s travelogue/escape memoir offers fun stories and interesting commentary on life as an expat as well as our forays into paradise as tourists.  Cockroaches are supporting characters who seek refuge in every crack and cranny of Joe’s Tenerife bar.

Joe and his girlfriend, Joy, were hawking fish in a nondescript British town.  When Joy returned from a vacation in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, with a scheme to borrow money from Joe’s stepfather, go into partnership with Joe’s brother, Dennis,  and his girlfriend, Faith, Joe is first intrigued, and then alarmed at the idea of leaving his comfortable routine.  Faith is reluctant and Joe counts on her to get him out of this without having to be the bad guy, but Faith is ultimately persuaded to give it a go, even when it requires a quickie marriage to Dennis in order to obtain a word visa.  Joe and Joy evade the law, move to Tenerife, and put Joy to work without marrying.  Ultimately, Faith loses faith in the dream and returns to the mainland.  I would have liked to have heard more about how this all turned out for Dennis, but that plot line is not a major focus of Joe’s confessions.  Getting to know the locals is, however, as is learning to navigate the rules of a growing bureaucracy flush with cash.

This is a fun read in terms of content, but is self-published and really needed further copy editing.  I can overlook the occasional error (those are even showing up more regularly in work put out by respected publishing houses), but this eBook contains several plurals formed with apostrophe s and similar common errors.  A paragraph about the author at the end of the work suggests Joe is working on further books.  I would not mind hearing an update on the Tenerife bar’s adventures, but I do hope to see some of these basic errors removed in part two.

Finished 8/11/13