The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.

 

*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.

 

A Walk in the Woods

walk in the woodsA Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

I have previously mentioned that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  After living most of my life without realizing that it was empty, I read A Short History of Nearly Everything five or six years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since.  And while much of his writing these days seems to be “highly amusing encyclopedia[s]” such as Summer, 1927, Bryson’s original start was in travel writing, and even these old books hold up remarkably well over time.

A Walk in the Woods is Bryson’s second book and covers his attempt, with a similarly middle-aged and out-of-shape friend, to hike the Appalachian trail.  Bryson’s irreverence, humor, and, well cantankerousness is on full display in this book.  It’s a fun piece of escapism on one hand, as I think there’s a good chunk of us who would like to chuck everything for weeks or months on end and hike through the wilderness.  On the other hand, it was also a refreshing reminder that, well, there’s a reason we as a species decided not to spend all of our time hiking through the wilderness and invent comfortable mattresses, indoor plumbing with hot water, and air conditioning, instead.  Not that I’m against being outside–to the contrary, I actually quite enjoy walks in the woods.  Just that sometimes I appreciate someone who is honest that prolonged walks in the woods can sometimes suck and sometimes they kick your ass.

Personally, though, my favorite thing about Bryson as an essayist is what an excellent job he does of weaving bits of information in and out of the main story.  He’s really quite talented at this piece, a bit that not everyone handles with such dexterousness, and his diversions and historical bits and pieces are some of my favorite parts of the book.  I was particularly interested in his contrast of walking the Appalachian Trail with going on a walking holiday in Europe, where it’s quite common to walk in and out of pleasant little towns, “nature” being not entirely separated from day to day life.  Believe me, the topic of separating or integrating nature is one that comes up on a semi-daily basis when studying environmental policy, so I was interested in seeing it laid bare with a much less philosophical and policy-oriented discussion, just a civilian pointing it out so to speak.

All of the trail trivia in general was interesting to read, though.  Bryson and his friend give up on the trail in Virginia, and he begins doing short day or overnight hikes through the rest rather than doing it in one fell swoop, and that’s where there’s a lot more of stories about the towns by the trail, how it was decided where it would go, all of the other day hikers as well.  The story of Centralia, PA, and it’s long-burning coal fire was one I’d heard before, but I didn’t realize it was so close to the trail.  And living in the DC metro area, of course I had to enjoy his perception of places like Front Royal, the main entry point to the Shenandoah for most of us living by DC.

This isn’t a life changing book, by any means, but still one that is a quick and enjoyable read.  I suggest always carrying a Bill Bryson book close by in case of unforeseen delays in a waiting area or on a train or airplane, and as it’s considerably slimmer than Summer, 1927 or A Short History of Nearly Everything, this is probably a good choice to keep nearby in your backpack or purse.  You’ll thank me the next time your doctor keeps you waiting.

One Summer: America, 1927

One Summer: America, 1927  by Bill Bryson

There are a handful of writers who can write anything at all and I will eagerly and happily devour it.  Kurt Vonnegut , Sarah Vowell, Margaret Atwood, and Bill Bryson are among them.  So of course I was very excited to read One Summer: America, 1927 about (sort of), all of the events of, well, the summer of 1927 in the United States of America.

The book has gotten mixed reviews from others.  The Guardian, in an overall positive review, said the book “seems curiously slight…. rather like reading a highly amusing encyclopedia,” and I would tend to agree there.  The book jumps around between different stories and threads including, but not limited to, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic and the many failed attempts by others, Babe Ruth’s record setting summer, Sacco and Vanzetti and the many other anarchist attacks at the time, Henry Ford and all of his Henry Ford-ness, Mt. Rushmore, prohibition and Al Capone, and one of the worst floods in US History.  Other than that they all happened at more or less the same time, there’s no real reason that all of these things should be written about together.  Two items in particular, Alvin Kelley’s flagpole sitting record, and a notorious murder case, seem particularly shoehorned in.  They exist in the book because they existed in 1927, but other than showing that the US has always become obsessed with random crimes, even before Nancy Grace, they hardly seem of interest now.

A few points in the book particularly caught my attention, though.  For one thing it discusses Fordlandia, one of the most amusingly bizarre and ill thought out projects that has ever been attempted.  Henry Ford decided to make his own utopia in the middle of Brazil which would provide him with a rubber plantation (vertical integration!) and where he would import his own unique ideas of how people should live healthy and productive lives.  He decided that he could will this into existence without learning anything Brazil, rubber, city planning, transportation of goods, or, how people actually worked.  I fell it’s a good cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that a Great Man’s Will can accomplish anything.

Another benefit of this book is that the United States as a whole could probably use a lot more historical memory.  Even though I was aware of Sacco and Vanzetti, and that there were many fascist and communist groups popping up the world around in the 1920s, I wasn’t aware the extent of terrorist attacks within the United States.  Small bombings, threats, attempted assassinations of even local politicians–this was, if not uncommon, at least not unusual in the United States at this time.  Given current events, and how much we seem to want to be terrified and feel we’re at a unique existential threat to our way of life, it was rather clarifying.  This is hardly the most dangerous time in our history, and we could have conceivably devolved into the fascism that arose in Europe.  I find it handy to keep track of all of the different scares we’ve had in our nation’s short history.

And one piece that was entirely new knowledge to me concerned prohibition, Al Capone, and Mabel Walker Willebrandt.    Never heard of her?  Neither has anyone.  But she’s actually the person who took down Al Capone by pioneering the use of tax law to catch criminals.  I’m not sure I’d agree with her work too much, given she was responsible for finding ways to enforce prohibition, but she’s still a quite interesting person.  She broke barriers for women and given that she was the one most responsible for not only catching, but stopping, some of the most notorious gangsters ever, I think she should get a bit more play.  Anyone want to write a script about prohibition or the roaring 20s?  Because forget Rex Banner, we need to feature Mabel Willebrandt.

The great thing about One Summer, though, is that there are enough digressions, tangents, side avenues, and, true, dead ends, that anyone who is mildly interested in thinking about things will find something to catch their attention or cause them to approach an bit of information in a new way.  Some of those things might be wrong (there were a few errors that have been noted by others), but overall there will be enough new correct trivia to either make you think, or at least make you better at Pub Trivia night.  Those of us who enjoy Bryon’s “highly amusing encyclopedias”, and I enjoyed A Short History of Nearly Everything quite a bit, will probably skip happily through One Summer  as well.  If you are the type who gets easily frustrated at pointless stories, though, this one might not be for you.