Archive for the ‘Bill Bryson’ Category


Years ago, when my wife and I were just dating, she took me on a day trip to the seaside at Brighton.  It was my first exposure to the British at play in a marine environment.  It was a fairly warm day – I remember the sun came out for whole moments at a time – and large numbers of people were in the sea.  They were shrieking with what I took to be pleasure, but now realise was agony.  Naively, I pulled off my T-shirt and sprinted into the water.  It was like running into liquid nitrogen.  It was the only time in my life in which I have moved like someone does when a piece of film is reversed.  I dived into the water and then straight back out again, backwards, and have never gone into an English sea since.

-Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling

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VignoniI am back after a wonderful two weeks in Italy.  I strolled through vineyards, forests, and countless hill-towns in Tuscany, admired palm trees, snow-capped mountains and German tourists on Lake Garda, and found unexpected quiet on Venice’s twisting, charming streets and canals.

To be frank, I am not particularly excited to be home.  I would much rather be sitting somewhere in the Veneto with a glass of prosecco or visiting a spa in Merano or maybe discovering the ancient glories of Rome.  Instead, I am back at home where it is cold and wet and I am expected to work for a living for another thirty or forty years.  Most unsatisfactory.

the-road-to-little-dribbling-115989452My wanderlust is something I live with the whole year round, though my vacations are limited to three weeks a year.  I am already plotting where to go next year.  Italy again?  My beloved Germany, perhaps?  Croatia, finally?  Dare I pluck up the courage for India?  I thought I had it narrowed down but then yesterday I read Bill Bryson’s newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and now, of course, I am desperate to go back to the UK.  One of the delights of the UK, as Bryson never tires of pointing out, is how crammed full it is of fascinating people, places and history.  London alone has more cultural sights than many countries but there are thoughtful, original museums and galleries scattered across the rest of the nation with infuriating frequency.  I am ready to go NOW and spend three or four weeks (months?) roaming about, visiting museums and galleries, walking the South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.

What I shall actually do is stay here, work, study for a demanding upcoming professional exam, and, perhaps, occasionally remember to update this blog.  I do miss regular blogging but have been so busy this year that I’ve barely had time to read, never mind reflect on my reading.  It is something I miss and I hope in the coming months I’ll be able to make blogging part of my regular schedule again.

Though I didn’t read much, and certainly not deeply, I did come across some excellent books this summer.  Girl at War by Sara Nović, about the impact of the Serbo-Croatian war on a young girl, was excellent; Uprooted, a light, undemanding fantasy novel from Naomi Novik, was a fun distraction from my other concerns; and Man Overboard by Monica Dickens was a nice, light romance about an unemployed naval officer that reminded me of how well Dickens writes from the male perspective and had unmistakable similarities to the writing of my dear Nevil Shute.

Sofia Khan is Not ObligedBut the most delightful surprise of this summer was Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (of which Kate has already written an excellent and far more detailed review).  Sometimes, books appear that so perfectly match my dream book wish list that I can barely believe they are real.  This was one of those books.  Sofia Khan is a young British Muslim woman, working in the publishing industry in London (much like her creator).  Like many young women, she is looking for love but not prepared to compromise too much.  She wants someone who shares her faith, is close to his family (though not too close – living with the in-laws is a step too far for Sofia), and believes in her feminist values.  If he happens to be gorgeous and brings the banter, so much the better.

Through Sofia and her friends, Malik looks with humour and sympathy at the way young, educated, devout, modern Muslim women approach romance.  One friend is in love with married man and, as the novel begins, considering becoming a second wife.  Another is in a relationship with a black man, something her family and community would certainly not approve of.  Sofia isn’t quite sure who she wants but she knows she wants love and marriage and a family of her own.

As someone who has never been able to connect with alcohol- and regretful hook-up-driven Chick Lit novels (or television shows, like Sex and the City), Sofia Khan is Not Obliged was a welcome change.  It offered a cheeky, intelligent, fallible heroine who, although I may not share her faith or culture, I could identify with more easily than most of the other protagonists in the genre.  Once I started reading, I could not put the book down – it’s the only thing I’ve read this year that kept me up past midnight (on a weekday, no less).  I read it thanks to NetGalley and can’t wait for the paperback to come out in January (it is available now as an e-book).

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Reviewing my notes on books I have yet to review (an increasingly staggering number), I came along this delightful description of Joseph Paxton from At Home by Bill Bryson.  I adored this book and keep inserting trivia from it into daily conversation but, of all the amazing characters Bryson profiles, Paxton was by far my favourite.  What didn’t he do in his life? 

Paxton was a wonder.  Born into a poor farming family in Bedfordshire in 1803, he was sent out to work as an apprentice gardener at the age of fourteen; he so distinguished himself that within six years he was running an experimental arboretum at the new and prestigious Horticultural Society (soon to become the Royal Horticultural Society) in West London – a startlingly responsible job form someone who was really still just a boy.  There one day he fell into conversation with the Duke of Devonshire, who owned neighbouring Chiswick House and rather a lot of the rest of the British Isles– some two hundred thousand acres of productive countryside spread beneath seven great stately homes.  The duke took an instant shine to Paxton, not so much, it appears, because Paxton showed any particular genius as because he spoke in a strong, clear voice.  The duke was hard of hearing and appreciated clarity of speech.  Impulsively, he invited Paxton to be head gardener at Chatsworth.  Paxton accepted.  He was twenty-two years old.

It was the most improbably wise move any aristocrat has ever made.  Paxton leaped into the job with levels of energy and application that simply dazzled.  He designed and installed the famous Emperor Fountain, which could send a jet of water 290 feet into the air – a feat of hydraulic engineering that has since been exceeded only once in Europe; built the largest rockery in the country; designed a new estate village; became the world’s leading expert on the dahlia; won prizes for producing the country’s finest melons, figs, peaches, and nectarines; and created an enormous tropical hothouse, known as the Great Stove, which covered an acre of ground and was so roomy within that Queen Victoria, on a visit in 1843, was able to tour it in a horse-drawn carriage.  Through improved estate management, Paxton eliminated ₤1 million from the duke’s debts.  With the duke’s blessing, he launched and ran two gardening magazines and a national daily newspaper, the Daily News, which was briefly edited by Charles Dickens.  He wrote books on gardening, invested so wisely in the shares of railway companies that he was invited onto the boards of three of them, and at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, designed and built the world’s first municipal park.  This park so captivated the American landscape architect Frederich Law Almsted that he modeled Central Park inNew York on it.  In 1849, the head botanist at Kew sent Paxton a rare and ailing lily, wondering if he could save it.  Paxton designed a special hothouse and – you won’t be surprised to hear – within three months had the lily flowering. (p. 9 – 10)

And then he designed the Crystal Palace, making use of structural techniques he had pioneered in the building of glass and iron greenhouses.  What a fascinating and productive man!

The book is full of wonderfully eccentric and influential characters like Paxton, particularly gardeners, which suited me perfectly.  Want to know how much a Victorian vicar was paid?  What famous breed of cattle we might have gone without if James Boswell hadn’t tossed his familial responsibilities to loaf around London and write Life of Johnson?  What staggering percentage of crops grown world-wide originate in the Americas?  Ostensibly, this is the history of household life and everything that influenced it.  In practice, that basically means it is a history of pretty much anything Bryson decided he felt like writing about since everything, in some way, shape or form, has an impact on how your house looks, what is stocked in the pantry, and what hangs in your closets.  ‘Houses,’ as Bryson says at the beginning of the book, ‘aren’t refuges from history.  They are where history ends up.’ 

I loved this book beyond measure and it was well-worth the five month wait I had to endure for a library copy.  But it just so happens that I have a credit at my favourite bookstore that is exactly equal to the price of this book and I am carefully judging just how much I want a copy to house on my shelves.  It is just the kind of book I could see myself dipping in and out of in years to come.  In the weeks since I read it, I’ve already thought back to it so many times and longed to read favourite trivia-ladden passages aloud to my equally trivia-obsessed family.  Really,  it would be a service to the whole family to have a copy of our own.   I have to think of them, you know.  I’m quite considerate that way.  (And not at all self-serving).

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