I haven’t written many book reviews on here recently, something I’ve noticed and do want to do something about. In a perfect world I’d write a review of every book I read, but obviously that doesn’t really happen. I read a lot and mostly these books aren’t particularly note-worthy. They’re fine, don’t get me wrong, but by the time I’m finished with them I’m usually ready to move on. I don’t generally write reviews unless the book was particularly long, forcing me to spend more time with it than I generally do, or else there was something about it that I particularly liked or didn’t like. I’d like to put a little widget on here to note what I’m currently reading at any one time, but I’m lame and haven’t been able to figure it out. (Help? Someone? Anyone? Is this even possible?)
One author that I haven’t actually mentioned on here before but who I’ve read before and enjoyed is Bill Bryson. I’ve read both A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Big Country and found them both very funny and interesting. I bought Notes from a Big Country to read on the plane and ended up snorting in amusement a little bit too often for me or my neighbour’s enjoyment. There is nothing more annoying than someone who keeps laughing at their reading material. To that poor man, I apologize. I did try to keep it in.
So the next time I had a plane trip, I headed over to the bookstore to pick up another Bryson book. I figured it’d keep me entertained and hopefully get the eleven hour plane ride looming in my future over with quickly. I ended up with The Lost Continent mostly because it was the only book they had that I hadn’t read yet. However, as you eagle-eyed viewers probably spotted already, I didn’t actually read it on the plane. Instead I decided to carry the book around the Amsterdam airport for the pure enjoyment of making my carry-on bag as heavy and unwieldy as possible. I’m VERY good at this and actually make a habit of it every time I fly. You never know, I might actually WANT three books at different times of the trip.
Since I had my own personal movie screen attached to the seat in front of me (I LOVE THESE by the way) the book didn’t get read for quite awhile. After I read our latest book group book, The Lost Continent managed to drift its way to the top of my reading pile. Hey, why not? I thought. I could go for some amusement. Well I ran into a bit of a problem.
You guys? Bill Bryson is kind of a dick.
Now trust me, it pains me (PAINS ME!) to say this. I can’t say how enjoyable I found Notes from a Big Country. I actually laughed so hard at times that I started that silent laugh that only really annoying people do (thanks for that mom). I looked like a dork, in public, because I found his book so funny! I found him clever, self-deprecating, not at all spiteful in the slightest!
Unfortunately, this book is not that book. I was seriously only about twenty pages in before I got a little bit uneasy by how negative and sarcastic he was. Bryson was travelling across the U.S. to search for the perfect ‘American Small-Town.’ He hadn’t lived in the U.S. for at least fifteen years, but wanted to rediscover America. He wanted to find the perfect town that was depicted in old movies. I think maybe the slight problem with that goal is that Bryson based his entire expectation of his trip on old movies and television. Which are, um…FICTION.
He basically spends the entire book bitching and moaning about how nothing ever meets up to his expectations. Everything is ugly and dirty and filled with tourists. Every village is only catering to tourists or lazy, fat Americans who only ever want cheesy, touristy things. Nothing is ever picturesque enough or colourful enough (damn those trees that just won’t turn the right colour!) or has the right ‘feel’ even though he’s basing his expectations on televisions shows that were popular precisely because they presented a fiction that could never actually exist. It’s called ESCAPEISM for a reason. I felt like throwing the book across the room in disgust many times, while screaming ‘complaining about a place over and over is NOT a travel book!’ Of course I didn’t. I soldiered on, because I am one of those people who find it incredibly difficult to put down a book without finishing it.
I could have put up with all the sarcasm and snarking except for one slight issue. After reading this book, I’ve come to believe that Bryson has not met a stereotype that he doesn’t like. He never passed through a single poor area without identifying exactly what type of poor person inhabited it (Black, Mexican, Native American, hey even good old white people are poor, fancy that!). He managed to deride people of all descriptions: southern people, poor people, Mexicans, blacks, Native Americans, fat people, old people, disabled people, gay people, there was even a tribe of native South Americans that he mocked in passing. It made the whole book distasteful. Was it necessary to describe a Native American as a ‘genuine, hungover, flabby-titted Cherokee Indian in war dress’? Or describe Truman Capote as ‘a mincing little poof’? Or how about when he described F.D.R. as a ‘cripple’? I’m not the most P.C. of folks, but I found this all pretty offensive.
It all just seemed like such a cheap shot, as a way to make people laugh by pandering to stereotypes of the lowest sort. How is it funny to describe all Native Americans as poor and drunk? Or to pronounce all people from Oklahoma as ‘backward undereducated shitkickers’? I just felt like rolling my eyes in disgust when Bryson arrived in Mississippi and was disappointed to find out that lynch mobs weren’t trolling the streets with burning crosses in tow. And wow, look at that! It’s a black nurse and a white nurse! Look, they’re TALKING to each other, while actually RIDING IN THE SAME CAR TOGETHER! My god, hell truly MUST have frozen over.
Incidentally, this book has a quote on the back saying that this was the book ‘that first staked Bill Bryson’s claim as the most beloved writer of his generation.’ I mean come on. REALLY?!
Seriously guys, am I insane? Am I turning into one of those bleeding-heart crazy liberal social workers who finds offence at everything? But honestly, who can read this and not be a bit offended:
(after overhearing a woman discussing her husband’s difficulties finding a job) Only the day before in Maine I had been in a McDonald’s offering a starting wage of $5 an hour. Harvey must have been immensely moronic and unskilled – doubtless both – not to be able to keep pace with a sixteen year old burger jockey at McDonald’s. Poor guy! And on top of that he was married to a woman who was slovenly, indiscreet and had a butt like a barn door. I hoped old Harvey had the sense enough to appreciate all the incredible natural beauty with which God had blessed his native state because it didn’t sound as if He had blessed Harvey very much. Even his kids were ugly as sin. I was half tempted to give one of them a clout myself as I went out the door. There was just something about his nasty little face that made you itch to smack him.
Wow, making fun of poor people. How HILARIOUS. But he’s also just ignorant. At one point he says ‘In America, to be white and impoverished really takes some doing.’ Actually, no. It doesn’t. Not by a long shot. As a woman who works with very poor people all the time, it’s much much easier than you’d imagine.
I could go on and on with the quotes, but the whole book just disappointed me. It made Bryson appear uninformed, closed minded and bigoted, which I know he isn’t. At least he doesn’t appear to be from the previous books I read. I double checked the copyright and found out this book was written in 1989, which may explain some of it. We’ve either become much more aware of stereotypes and offensive language or else I’m personally getting overly sensitive. I’m not too sure which one it is. If anyone else has read this book and had a different view, I’d love to hear it. I’d have to say that I’d hesitate to pick up another book by Bryson, unless it’s been written in the last few years.
(Just as an aside, I’ve had Notes from a Small Island sitting on my nightstand for awhile now and I picked it up immediately after finishing this book just to see if my opinion of Bryson had changed after this book. So far, I’ve found it just as amusing and enjoyable as the first two I read! So what IS it about this particular book? I have no idea. It’s a mystery.)