Book Review: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island by Bill BrysonThis is a book I read for my real-life book group. Several of us have a special connection with England and we were curious about this book, in which the author travels around Britain and remarks upon remarkable things he comes across.

Notes from a Small Island: What it is about

The publisher says: “After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson took the decision to move back to the States for a few years, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him.

But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation’s public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite, a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy, place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey and Shellow Bowells, people who said ‘Mustn’t grumble’, and Gardeners’ Question Time.”

Notes from a Small Island: What I thought

This was a very enjoyable travel story. I lived in England for many years and recognised so many of the situations and habits. For people not familiar with Britain, some things will not ring a bell. But the gist of the story will be clear anyway.

There were a lot of funny moments in this book of the laugh-out-loud quality. Especially Bryson’s visit of a Glaswegian pub was funny. He didn’t understand the accent of the men there at all however hard he tried.

This book gives a really nice insight in Britain with all its quirks and its funny and friendly people. A fun to read, and to chuckle over.


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (very good)

Number of pages: 400 (Dutch edition)

First published: 1995

I got this: from the library

Genre: non-fiction, travel

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Wordless Wednesdays: Visit To Turnhout, Belgium

Turnhout CastleTurnhout Castle

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Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian SmithIn this travelogue (2010), Julian Smith follows in the footsteps of 19th Century explorer Ewart Grogan through the East of Africa. Both men expect to marry the woman of their life at the end of the journey.

Crossing the Heart of Africa: What it was about

Ewart Grogan was a penniless university drop-out when he met the beautiful Gertrude in 1898. She was rich and her stepfather didn’t like the idea of her marrying this good-for-nothing man.

Grogan did manage to extract the promise that if he could travel from the South Cape of Africa to Cairo in the North, and come back alive, he would be allowed to marry her.

And so he went. On the way he endured the most terrible hardships and not only he. With him were his uncle and a varying number of natives. They lost people through illness, swamps, and cannibals and Grogan was ill with malaria and other diseases almost constantly.

Julian Smith, the author, heard about Grogan and, as travel writer and adventurer, wanted to undertake one last solo trip before his marriage to his long-time financee Laura.

His journey was rather easier than that of Grogan, as he traveled mainly by car, bus and bicycle, but it was still a struggle to get from one place to the next.

The book is built up with some of Grogan’s journey followed by that of Smith’s report of the same leg of the journey interspersed with the story of how Smith met his girlfriend and the struggle they had before he finally agreed to get married.

There are also some pictures (in black and white) of Grogan and his journey and photographs taken by Smith.

Crossing the Heart of Africa: What I thought

I liked it but didn’t love it. I do enjoy a good travel story but I had some problems with this one (and still enjoyed it a lot!):

First of all, Grogan’s story was fascinating: traveling through uncharted territory where wild animals lived and some of the natives reportedly cannibals! But I think Smith stayed too close to the original diary of Grogan and it never became a story that I was drawn into. It probably would need a bit of dramatizing for that to happen and Smith didn’t (want to?) do that: he stayed with the facts as he knew them.

I also thought Smith threw in a little too much background information, where the balance between interesting and that’s enough, now was sometimes towards the latter.

Thirdly, Smith’s own journey was quite a lot more high-tech than Grogan’s. He traveled with much less adversity and a lot of the troubles that he came across were to do with other people or were psychological, but not physical, like in Grogan’s story. To me, he seemed a bit of a cheat for not traveling on foot the way Grogan did.

Aw, this comes from a person that would never, ever want to travel in East Africa! It does not interest me and it sounds scary. But a book about a topic that doesn’t really interest me but still entertains me, is a book well-written.

My final problem was maybe with the romance of Smith and his girlfriend. To an outsider like me, who reads the story because of the travelogue that is promised on the cover, the story of how he met and kept his Laura isn’t all that important.

And still… Yes, I did like the book. Whereas the photographs in the center of the book didn’t do much for me, I absolutely LOVED the cover. The writing was very good and the story of Grogan was in all an interesting story of a 19th Century man traveling the length of Africa with a foldaway bath tub and several bottles of Worcestershire sauce.

Rating: 4/5

I got this book: for review from Harper Perennial

I read this in: English, the original language

Number of pages: 328

First published: 2010

Genre: travel writing, non fiction

See also: this review by hikebiketravel from a traveler’s point of view and this review by book blogger bibliosue

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten TroostI read this book as part of the Book Read ‘Round the World event, organised by Carin from A Little Bookish. I was the fourth person to read it, after Carin, Carly and Carina, and the book was still in great condition.

Lost on Planet China: What it is about

Maarten Troost, a Netherlands-born Canadian living in the USA, goes on a trip to China. Initially he feels totally at a loss in this very foreign country where few people speak English while he can’t speak or read Chinese, and where his preconceptions turn out to be quite incorrect.

He had not expected the constant fog, from air pollution, or how busy it would be (everywhere!). A foreigner is treated as a source of extra (overpriced) income and any polite queuing for taxis or tickets is non-existent.

He travels through quite a large part of China, and also visits Tibet, by various means of transport.

After some time, he starts to feel more at home and learns to deal with the Chinese and their way of treating foreigners.

Lost on Planet China: What I thought

Although I don’t have a particular interest in China, I very much enjoyed reading this funny travelogue about China.

The writer is quite an experienced traveler, but initially he felt as lost in China as I imagine I would be. I liked the way he described the cities he was in: the crowds, the air pollution and the size (we’re talking big, big cities!).

I also very much enjoyed his attempts at ordering food that he would be happy to eat. He did manage, by accident, to order live squid (I think it was) and jelly fish. Which he then graciously ate.

While the (historical) background information about China and the places he went to was interesting, I much more enjoyed the descriptions of his interactions with the people.

He is not a great fan of travel groups, and I found him a bit snobby about this. However, he does acknowledge this himself and he realizes that not everyone would want to travel solo through China. He actually finds that by joining groups every now and then, he may see some (touristic) sites that he otherwise would have found hard to get to.

If you want to experience China without actually going there, this seems a great book. It is funny too, and the only complaint I have is that there aren’t any photographs. I would have loved to see a picture of some of the places he went to.

Rating: 4/5

I got this book: for the Book Read ‘Round the World event, from Carina in Canada

I read this in: English, the original language

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