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.

 

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La's Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World, Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is known for his series, such as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the 44 Scotland Street books, and the Sunday Philosophy Club Series.  I’ve picked up one or two from the others, but my mother and I particularly enjoy and share the 44 Scotland Street series with each other, which I first started reading when I was on maternity leave with my first child.  For the most part I enjoy McCall Smith, his books offering little slice of life vignettes, and providing light, pleasurable and easy reading.  I especially appreciate the way that he can sketch out a character with just a few lines, using just a brief spotlight on their activity or thoughts to provide an insight into who they are and allowing you to fully appreciate the person.  An author who is skilled with characters is a treat to read, and can often tell a whole story within a paragraph.

Unfortunately, I don’t think La’s Orchestra Saves the World, a rare stand alone piece from McCall Smith, plays to his strengths.  In the story, Lavender (La) goes to college in the years before World War II, where she is pursued by and quickly marries a man who soon runs off with another woman.  His family, embarrassed, takes care of La and sets her up in their country home, where she lives throughout the War helping with a local farm, meeting a Polish refugee, and creating an amateur orchestra from the community that brings people together and saves the world.  Near the end of the book, the Cuban missile crisis has recently ended and, with the Cold War in full swing and the threat of nuclear war hanging over everything, she reconvenes the orchestra with a concert for peace.

My mom loved this book and recommended it to me since I play violin and piano and am generally in favor of concerts for peace and other corny things like that.  However, this book just didn’t work for me.  I rather enjoyed the beginning of it, which was mostly painting a picture of La as a smart woman who wants to accomplish things but is not particularly driven to break from the mold in the 30s, which I found a rather poignant portrait indeed.  However, once she moves to the country, once the war breaks out and the story begins, it rather drifted away from me.

For one thing, the book felt slight.  McCall Smith’s books are, to a great extent, slight, little appetizers that you might read before digging in to a meatier novel.  But while that is suitable in something like a 44 Scotland Street novel, it didn’t seem to work in a book about war and peace and love where we never get below those surface sketches of the characters.  On a similar line, there really wasn’t much of a story.  The orchestra takes its time in getting there, and then doesn’t do much.  The number of characters in the book is low, and then there are suddenly these many, many people who play in the orchestra and turn up for its reunion concert when nothing has really been done to show how this has impacted the community before.  There are people referencing the orchestra throughout the book, for sure, but the old maxim of show don’t tell holds here as well as in most story telling endeavors.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World is pleasant enough, but I felt like it was floating above the surface of a story without ever settling in.  I never understood how the orchestra saved the world, or even just the small corner of it that it was meant to affect, and i just never felt the there there.  I suppose I’ll stick with the series from here on out.