The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

The Lost Continent cover

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson is subtitled Travels in Small Town America and it was first published in 1989. In fact this book is probably something of a nostalgia trip for anyone who knows any of the areas mentioned, I imagine things have changed quite a bit in the almost 30 years since he wrote it. I believe that Bryson recently said that in his earlier books he set out to be very amusing and aimed for two laughs on every page, but he has now become more relaxed about his writing and less needy for laughs.

I really enjoyed this book although I am of course reading the laughs with a pinch of salt and allowing for exaggerations, however I had a look at the Goodreads comments and most of them seemed to be by disgruntled Americans who maybe are not very good at laughing at themselves. As we Brits have the most fun laughing at ourselves I find that difficult to fathom, but for that reason I’m wary about recommending this one to people in the US – who may suffer from a sense of humour by-pass.

Bryson comes from Des Moines and as he says – Somebody had to. At the beginning of this book his father had fairly recently died and it set up a nostalgia for the past and the roadtrips that his family went on during holidays, so he decided to revisit some of the places, beginning in the East. He’s on the trail of the perfect US small town, but suspects that such a thing doesn’t exist, a place where kids still go about on their bikes and throw newspapers on lawns (that has always seemed bizarre to me).

Unsurprisingly he discovered that the touristy places are best avoided as they’re too busty and tend to be tacky – but we all knew that. He mentions that Cleveland is disgustingly polluted, and that a river there had so many chemicals in it that it caught fire and burned for four days! He says it has improved a lot but, given that the present President has apparently allowed people to start dumping who knows what in rivers again – it won’t be long before rivers, lakes and wells are poisoned again.

He mentions that when he was in Times Square only two of the forty or so electronic adverts were for American products, the writing for US industry was literally on the walls. One thing that he really missed was the Burma Shave signs – nostalgic things like that will speak to Americans I suppose, but he is of course speaking about things that non-Americans have no experience of.

I’ve only read a few of Bryson’s books but as I recall they’re written from the perspective of a foreigner in England/Britain and US readers seem to have been very happy to laugh at the quirkiness of those crazy Brits, but weren’t so happy when the spotlight was turned on them. He mentions that the first thing an American asks a foreigner is ‘what do you prefer – America or your home country?’ and are always very disappointed when the person prefers home, but why wouldn’t they?!

When Bryson turns to the West he’s really out of his comfort zone and finds that the people there are not nearly as friendly as the Easterners. This is completely opposite from Britain, folks in the west here are always much warmer and more friendly. But maybe those Westerners just didn’t like his accent much. Bryson gets much jollity from southern accents in particular. It seems like America is really an amalgamation of different countries with very different ways of living, and indeed some people thought that he was foreign and he was complimented on his English! Maybe he had lost his Iowa accent after being in England for a few years.

He liked a town called Bloomsburg, a small college town not far from Gettysburg, but it seems that it was just about to be ruined by developers. He loved Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Mount Vernon. He said at one point that all of the towns in the south were nice, mentioning Macon, Selma, Columbus and Savannah.

This is an interesting and fun read, even if you’re never likely to visit any of the places mentioned, and the information is way out of date.

Books, books, books ….

At the moment I’m reading two books, which isn’t like me, I tend to concentrate on one book at a time. But I bought Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent – Travels in Small Town America in a charity shop the other day and started reading it on the way home. So I’m reading that one downstairs now while I have my morning tea. It’s a fun, light read.

Upstairs (bedtime and afternoon reading) I’m reading The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn. It’s a readalong for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and I’m way ahead with this one as it’s scheduled for sometime in March. I’m enjoying it although at the moment I’m thinking that some of the sea-faring parts could have done with being a bit shorter.

I’ve finished reading Chatterton Square by E.H. Young, an author I had never read before despite having the book for years (Virago). I loved it but that’s a readalong on Undervalued British Women Novelists 1930 – 1960 so I’ll blog about that one within a couple of weeks. Have you read anything by E.H. Young?

The Silver Darlings is a library book, I’ve only just bought the Bill Bryson book and I made the mistake of popping into a north-east Fife library that I don’t normally visit today, and the upshot of that is that I came out with The Z Murders by J.Jefferson Farjeon.

So my great intention of concentrating on my own book piles has like most plans – gone to hell in a handcart, and although I compiled a list of the first ten Scottish books I intended to read for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge – and the second Scottish book didn’t even appear on that list, it did however jump out at me from a library shelf, and I just couldn’t ignore it. For me libraries are a bit like those shops that have a mish-mash of stuff for sale, end of lines and last year’s stock such as TK Maxx. If by chance you see something there you want then you had better buy it, or borrow it if you’re in a library, because you just might never see it again.

There’s no cure for it you know!

Links from the Guardian Review

It’s a wee while since I shared some links from the Guardian review section with you, but I think you might be quite interested in some from this week’s edition.

Firstly there’s an article titled Charlotte’s web by Claire Harman which you can read here. It’s about Charlotte Bronte and her crush on Paul Heger which inspired her to write Villette.

There’s an article here by Bill Bryson. Can you believe that it’s 20 years since he wrote Notes from a Small Island?

You can read Mark Lawson’s review of Ruth Rendell’s last book Dark Corners here.

Read Melanie McGrath’s review of Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus novel Even Dogs in the Wild here if you’re a fan.

Christobel Kent has reviewed Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling here.

Last but not least there’s an article by David Mitchell about Ursula K Le Guin and her Earthsea books which you can read here. I didn’t read the Earthsea books until I was an adult and I really got into the series, which is more than I can say for Tolkien’s books, so I was glad to read that Mitchell is a fan of Le Guin.

It was a rich seam of bookish stuff in the Review section this week as far as I’m concerned anyway, the above is just a selection which interested me most. I hope you enjoy some of it too.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes From a Small Island cover

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson was first published in 1995. In it he tells of the grand tour of Britain which he took just before he left Britain with his wife and family. They were going back to his homeland the US for a time, to give his children the experience of living in his homeland.

I found this to be an amusing read, in fact Bryson now says of his earlier writing that he felt he had to have a laugh a page, which he just about has in this one. There are some parts which are quite hilarious, and others which are quite depressing.

For me it was a bit of a reminder of some of Britain’s past, such as the mayhem of the Thatcher years and all the industrial strife. It’s all history now, they study it in school!

The book begins with those sorts of pub conversations which I was amazed to witness when I moved down to the south of England, they might be still taking place for all I know. Those ones where men of a certain type witter on about the best way of getting from A to B – bizarre, and I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Over the last few years Jack and I have been doing road trips around Britain too, so I had visited a lot of the places which Bryson visited. I was surprised that he wasn’t all that enamoured with either Oxford or Cambridge. He can be a bit sniffy about modern buildings. He wasn’t at all impressed with Cambridge with its market place surrounded by concrete buildings, I wonder if he meant the art deco ones which we admired. He should have taken a closer look at the market too as it has great secondhand book stalls, I bought several, including a hard to find Angela Thirkell.

He does however love Durham and I agree with him on that, it was a big surprise to me how lovely it is – and nobody ever mentions it as a place to visit.

When Bryson gets to Scotland he’s surprised that it feels like a different country from England and Wales. I’m always amazed when people say that, I find it weird that they would think that Scotland should be just like England, with worse weather. He had some trouble understanding people in a pub in Glasgow, which is fair enough as I had no idea what two men from Fife who I happened to overhear talking today were saying, and I’ve lived in Fife for donkey’s years.

It isn’t all humour, there are some important observations too, such as the fact that the north of Britain has lost over 100 times the amount of jobs which the south of Britain has. He wondered what was going to happen to a country which had got rid of most of its industries, it worried him.

Of course we know now what happens when there is very little in the way of opportunities and work for people, it’s a disaster for the economy and for society. I could go on about that problem for a long time.

Bryson went back to America with his wife and young family after this book was published but they didn’t stay there long. It seems that England is where his heart is. I’m looking forward to reading his next book which is due out in the Autumn.

Reading Update and Anthony Trollope

I’ve been busy continuing my journey through Anthony Trollope’s long list of books, I’ve just finished reading Rachel Ray which I started to read as Karen @Books and Chocolate is having a bit of a Trollope bicentennial event next month. You can still sign up for it here. I surprised myself by romping through the book much faster than expected, I really liked it but I’ll write about it later, meanwhile I’m thinking about which Trollope to read next, any suggestions?

I’ve just begun to read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. He’s in the south of England and so far everything which he is talking about is particularly English, so his observations are much like mine were when we moved down there. Why do English men talk constantly about roads and the best route to take from A to B? It’s a mystery. By coincidence there’s a Bill Bryson interview in Saturday’s Guardian review, you can read it here if you’re interested. A follow up to Notes from a Small Island is being published in the Autumn.

Single novels (the ones in bold are the ones I’ve read so I’ve still got a lot to go.)

The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847)
The Kellys and the O’Kellys (1848)
La Vendée: An Historical Romance (1850)
The Three Clerks (1858)
The Bertrams (1859)
Castle Richmond (1860)
Orley Farm (1862)
The Struggles of Brown, Jones & Robinson (1862)
Rachel Ray (1863)
Miss Mackenzie (1865)
The Belton Estate (1866)
The Claverings (1867)
Nina Balatka (1867)
Linda Tressel (1868)
He Knew He Was Right (1869)
The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870)
Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (1871)
Ralph the Heir (1871)
The Golden Lion of Granpère (1872)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874)
Lady Anna (1874)
The Way We Live Now (1875)
The American Senator (1877)
Is He Popenjoy? (1878)
John Caldigate (1879)
An Eye for an Eye (1879)
Cousin Henry (1879)
Ayala’s Angel (1881)
Doctor Wortle’s School (1881)
The Fixed Period (1882)
Kept in the Dark (1882)
Marion Fay (1882)
Mr. Scarborough’s Family (1883)
The Landleaguers (1883)
An Old Man’s Love (1884)

Chronicles of Barsetshire

The Warden (1855)
Barchester Towers (1857)
Doctor Thorne (1858)
Framley Parsonage (1861)
The Small House at Allington (1864)
The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

Palliser novels

Can You Forgive Her? (1865)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke’s Children (1880)

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Big Country is the first Bill Bryson book which I’ve read, I’m wondering just how it has taken me so long to get around to him? I’m reliably informed by Joan@ Planet Joan that in the US this book is titled I’m a Stranger Here Myself. The book was first published in 1998 which means that in places it is a bit outdated and quaint, because sadly the UK often ends up copying the mistakes of the US, such as people trying to sue folks for the daftest of reasons. It also reminds us just how massive the US is compared with the UK. I learned from this book that it isn’t at all unusual for aeroplanes to crash – and never be found! Planes as big as Lear jets, not just wee two seaters, mind boggling.

This book which is made up of newspaper columns which were mainly published in the Mail on Sunday I think, is a hoot and perfect bedtime reading, in fact anytime you have a spare few minutes you could dip into this book to cheer you up, whilst you’re waiting in a queue maybe!

The topics are wildly different, so never a dull moment. Here are just a few of the titles:
Coming Home
Our Friend the Moose
Drowning in Red Tape
Why No One Walks
A Visit to the Barbershop
Where Scotland is, and Other Useful Tips

I’ve heard that Notes from a Small Country is also hilarious so that’s the next one in my sights. Does anyone have any other books by Bryson they can recommend?