Book – Notes from a small Island by Bill Bryson

I’ve been warned about reading too much Bryson. Whereas I found his memoir of growing up in middle America enchanting, this one about arriving in Britain is frustrating, entertaining and funny in almost equal measures.

I nearly gave up reading a few times but I’m not quitter; I have to keep reminding myself that he had the same level of derogatory comments about his homeland as he does about the UK, it’s not personal. Plus things have changed since 1993.

So that’s the review, here are some interesting points:I love the details about the cost of things in 1973; the pound was $2.46, average weekly take home pay was £30.11 and a colour TV £300. The last one probably hasn’t changed much.

I’m so glad that Bryson thinks as less of BT as I do. Not sure I’d have everyone who works there killed but I’d certainly get rid of the organisation.

Bryson moans about there being nothing to do in Dover (obviously) and yet just stays a few days where he enters the country, but he was young and naive then.

London is big. Yes it does appear to start at Gatwick and end just below Luton.

Possibly my favourite quote about the London underground: ‘That isn’t a city up there; it’s a Jane Austin novel’.

Yes there is no hill or indeed Tower strictly speaking at ‘Tower Hill’ but once upon a time, maybe there was and that’s the beauty of naming places after history, we still remember.

Yes I understand Bryson’s view when talking about ‘an ugly building competition’ and it would be lovely to keep all the buildings from hundreds of years ago but it’s not always possible; sometimes due to lack of upkeep but also I think London needs to have a skyline befitting its status as one the world’s leading finance centres. I feel we have the best of both worlds.

Having spent more than a decade in publishing myself, some of it in Fleet Street, I love the description of printers in the 1980s; over staffed, over paid and underworked. Of course the industry is now all but extinct due to the advanced technology.

Don’t f*** with English puddings. Fair enuff

Mr Bryson, England isn’t the only place in the world that has fog; it’s in other counties too, including America

In England, ‘ladies wait until all the shopping is bagged up before getting out their purses at the supermarket’? Not me, I think he’s talking about older people generally, bless them, not women specifically.

University Challenge – UK v USA? Interesting idea.

Bemoaning the fact that he can’t get a direct train where he wants i.e. Oxford to Cambridge. Well we can’t build a line between every city – do they have that in America? 

With Milton Keynes, my most despised place on the planet, Bryson can do his worst. All he really came up with is its ‘Built like an American mall’. He moaned that he couldn’t find the shopping area from the train station but all he needed to do is ask; it’s just 15 minutes walk after all. Aren’t all train stations built away from town centres, on account of the noise and the big long track that needs to be laid down?

There are constant references to bad food and the rain. On the former you get what you pay for my friend, England is closest to France and we’ve had French cooking (since, joined by just about every other nation) from when you still thought a McDonalds meal was healthy.

On the rain, ever been to Scotland? Or Ireland? Or northern Europe or Boston in fact?

Birmingham: there isn’t a landmark that you can identify Birmingham with. Firstly, does there have to be and secondly, ever seen the Rotunda? Or the Alpha Tower or since the book, the new Bull Ring centre with its iconic Selfridges building for that matter, amongst others. You can go off someone.

Apparently there is not an equivalent American phrase for ‘taking the pi**’, yes there is, ‘yanking your chain’.

There is a constant moan about the lack of trains everywhere he wanted to go, including the remotest parts of Scotland where we think it’s quaint they only have two trains per week. But that’s why we have a motorway system, so we have the option to drive if there isn’t a convenient train service.

I love that he says that bank cashiers open two at a time, expect when it’s busy. They only open one. Hilariously true!

Finally I love that he feels that the Brits always find humour in every situation, perhaps contradicting what he and a few Americans I know, thought originally.

6½/10 Smile factor 7½/10

Talli Roland’s novel, The Hating Game, available today

Help!
The very talented Talli Roland’s debut novel THE HATING GAME is out today and we all think it deserves to hit the Kindle bestseller list at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk .
Please help by spreading the word today. Even a few sales in a short period of time on Amazon helps push the book up the rankings, making it more visible to other readers.

Thank you so much!

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About THE HATING GAME:
When man-eater Mattie Johns agrees to star on a dating game show to save her ailing recruitment business, she’s confident she’ll sail through to the end without letting down the perma-guard she’s perfected from years of her love ’em and leave ’em dating strategy. After all, what can go wrong with dating a few losers and hanging out long enough to pick up a juicy £2000,000 prize? Plenty, Mattie discovers, when it’s revealed that the contestants are four of her very unhappy exes.
Can Mattie confront her past to get the prize money she so desperately needs, or will her exes finally wreak their long-awaited revenge? And what about the ambitious TV producer whose career depends on stopping her from making it to the end?

Coming soon in paperback. Keep up with the latest at Coming soon in paperback. Keep up with the latest at www.talliroland.com

Book – Dear Fatty by Dawn French

I read another book, indeed a memoir that I wish I had thought of first. Perhaps I’ll do it in five years when everyone has forgotten this one. Having said that, obviously my books won’t get anywhere near the coverage that Dawn French gets so I can just nick the idea.
Dawn French’s memoirs are written in letter form, each one is a chapter written to different people who have meant something in her life. Superb.
Ms French of course is extremely funny lady but life as we know is not always a bundle of laughs. What struck me most were the letters to her Dad who committed suicide before she had even started college. I didn’t know about that and some of those chapters have the inevitable shadow of sadness but still with an air of cuteness.
Admittedly, my eyes really picked up about a third of the way through when I read Ms French spent a year in New York, still in the dangerous late 1970s, when New York was NEW YORK. She won a place on a programme, due mainly through a teacher’s encouragement of her to join debate clubs and the like so she studied out there, living with different families. If that doesn’t give a teenager confidence I don’t know what will.
The photographs testify to the author’s slimness in those days but she talks of loving her food and we can’t begrudge her that. The Dear Fatty in question appears to be the equally brilliant Jennifer Saunders. What a fantastic pair of comics they have been since they were first plucked for the Comic Strip series as the token women. And they still innovate and amuse now.
There are also frequent letters to her best friend (BF) her mum, her daughter, her nieces and nephews and various members of her family along with an ex boyfriend or too. And there’s the ‘fan’ letters to David Cassidy and the riotous, more recent letters to Madonna.
Finally she writes beautifully to her, sadly now ex-husband, Lenny Henry, only one mind, their life was and is private a fact that I love.
Read if you like memoirs and/or if you have a sense of hilarity.
8/10
Inspiration factor 9½/10

Book – Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

New York Times food critic

The more I read of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs as a food critic at the New York Times after being headhunted from the LA Times, the more I compare her work to those of other food critics.

Ruth Reichl Food critic ex NY Times

AA Gill by no means lavishes praise on all the restaurants he visits for the Sunday Times but does he go to the length that Ms Reichl does to disguise himself? Will he visit the restaurant several times in different guises over the course of many months in pursuit of the honest restaurant review?

It stands to reason that when a restaurant critic books a table, he will receive the best service and be fed the best food the head chef can muster. I cannot imagine local newspaper critics being anything other than idols in the eyes of restaurant owners (although I’d love it if they do go in disguise). The free publicity resulting from a decent review is worth more than any advert that can be bought.

Ms Reichl writes about taking on the persona of the lady she disguises herself as, with the help of an acting coach, a friend of her late mother’s. She talks of the character taking over her personality once the wig goes on. Together they create Molly, the former school teacher, mother of two who comes to New York every few months for shopping and theatre visits.

Each of these characters even has their own credit card or otherwise the USA’s premier food critic carries a lot of cash with her for the types of restaurants she reviews, even in the early 1990s.

There’s Betty, Emily, Brenda, Chloe and Miriam – her mother, all visiting New York’s newest or finest restaurants with her family, her colleagues or her friends, each in on the act and playing along. The difference in her treatment when going as an overweight, older tourist to going as her swish powerful self accompanied by her husband or young son is palpable. I guess the people who continue to go to these high and mighty establishments after knowing the service ‘Betty’ received don’t care how other people get treated.

What I love is learning the lengths a truly professional food critic goes to make sure we the reader reads accurate information about the restaurant’s service, not just about the food they give to their most important patrons.

Interweaved with the descriptions of the relationships the author formed during her time at the New York Times makes this a very personal account. Oh and if unlike me you enjoy the cooking and not just the eating, recipes are included.

Fascinating

8/10   Inspiration factor 8½/10

Garlic & Sapphire by Ruth Reichl

Book – The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Generally speaking, if a book appears on the Booker prize list I stay away from it. I find it hard to concentrate on reading (on anything) at the best of times and if a whole paragraph is used to describe how a cup is chipped and why that is significant, my mind wonders off to all the cups I have, the ones, I have broken, the special ones picked up on my travels…..

Darn it; I’ve used a whole paragraph to describe why I can’t concentrate.

Having said that, I enjoyed this story and if I understand it right, it’s about 3 gentlemen; Libor who is twice as old as the others and recently widowed by the love of his entire life; Samuel, also widowed although not the same kind of relationship due to his philandering and Julian.

The story is told through Julian’s longing to be a Jew or sometimes even thinking he is one. Unlike his two married Jewish friends, he has remained a bachelor despite fathering two grown up children with whom he has virtually no relationship. The book tells each man’s stories of their relationships, their friendships, their career choices and their Jewness.

Julian is constantly agonising as by no means has he lived a pure life and is paranoid that it will all end prematurely anyway. He has skipped from job to job and pays particular high disregard to his former long term employer, the BBC (I’m guessing there’s something the author was trying to tell us). He now works as a lookalike of any celebrity that is male and of similar build it seems, whereas his more driven friends are a hugely accomplished; author/TV star respectively and their retired teacher.

It is actually a very good read – well obviously it is; it’s in the short list for Booker Prize and I’m glad I read it.
I imagine you will be too.
7/10 Inspiration factor 7½/10

Book – The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson

Following what I think is excellent advice I’m on a mission to read 10 travel memoirs before writing my own. Not that mine are all travel, but there is fair chunk of voyage talk half way through writing the first draft of the book and it is a memoir.

I’m amazed in all the books that I have read in the last 48 months there has not been one travel memoir. Maybe Stuart Maconie’s Cider with Roadies counts or Kerouac’s On the Road?

In any case, I have heard a lot about Bill Bryson’s work and on more than one occasion have been tempted to pick a book up but alas always when there is a big pile waiting for me on the coffee table.

So now that I’m happily forced to do so, I pick the Thunderbolt Kid first. Strictly not travel, it’s about Bryson growing up in 1950’s middle America and centres on his family and school life. Well that’s all there is as a kid. He writes about his uber-forgetful mother, a terrible cook and not exactly maternal but somehow still doting. He writes about all the kids, the ones he picked on and the ones that picked on him. Then he talks about his father and this for me is the most enthralling part.

It turns out the late Mr Bryson senior was a sports journalist of some note, who stayed with the local paper, The Register, despite offers from the big boys. He also spent chunks of time away from home covering baseball games and I’m not sure if they would do that now. It’s just gorgeous to see how well he was rated by his son and touching for him to quote some phrases.

His mother also worked for the same newspaper as Bryson senior but his recollections are only of her being out for coffee, for lunch or forgetting that he was going to meet her at the office despite them having regular Friday ‘dates’. This in the days where he can stroll into a big office building and right up to her desk,

Inevitably in the American 1950s, despite young Bryson not experiencing that much himself during his tender years, he talks briefly about racism and details some local events of needless deaths.

However, the book is mostly uplifting and amusing starting with the anti communism stance of the counties leaders, a world away (or is it?) from the America of today where permission has been granted to build a mosque near the site of the old Twin Towers.

It’s about the era when everything changed; TV came, cars became a regular fixture, women could work as long as they were home makers too, missiles weapons were being tested without recognising the damage done and money was seemingly in plentiful supply. Anything was possible.

What a fantastic time to grow up.

8/10    Inspiration factor 9½/10