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Book review:
Two Bill Bryson Books

Neither Here nor There:
Travels in Europe
Bill Bryson
Paperback, 254 pp.
US $12.50

Notes from a Small Island:
An Affectionate Portrait of Britain
Bill Bryson
Paperback, 324 pp.
US $12.5

Europe travel essays - Bill Bryson

In the 1970s, a young Bill Bryson flew to Luxembourg on Icelandic Airlines and backpacked from Hammerfest, Norway to Istanbul over a four-month period. While visiting England, he met the girl who would become his wife--then spent most of the next 17 years working for British newspapers with only fleeting glimpses of the Continent. Finally Bryson reached the point where, in his words, "it was time to put things right." He decided to retrace the journey of his youth, traveling alone with rucksack and notebook. Neither Here nor There is the result of his latter-day pilgrimage: a book that blends lively anecdotes, caustic observations, and wry musings with flashbacks to his earlier Grand Tour.

Bryson doesn't mince words. Of Norwegian television, he says: "It gives you the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience." After traveling from Brig to Geneva by train, he observes:

"Everywhere there were pylons. ... The Swiss are great ones for stringing wires. They thread them across the mountainsides for electricity and suspend them from endless rows of gibbets along every railway track and hang them like washing lines on all the city streets for the benefit of trams. It seems not to have occurred to them that there might be a more attractive way of arranging things."

He can be equally blunt in his subsequent book, Notes from a Small Island, which recounts a valedictory trip around Britain before returning to his native United States. In describing how England has bulldozed more than 150,000 miles of hedgerows since World War II, Bryson writes:

"The reason for saving hedgerows isn't because they have been there forever and ever, but because they clearly and unequivocally enhance the landscape. They are a central part of what makes England England. Without them, it would just be Indiana with steeples."

Yet all isn't doom and gloom in Neither Here nor There and Notes from a Small Island. Bryson comes across as a warmer and less detached observer than, say, Paul Theroux. For one thing, he has a self-deprecating quality that makes him altogether more sympathetic than his better-known rival:

"I boarded the ship perspiring freely and with a certain disquiet. I'm not a good sailor, I freely admit. I get sick on pedal boats. Nor was I helped by the fact that this was one of those Ro-Ro ferries (short for "roll on, roll over") and that I was entrusting my life to a company that had a significantly less than flawless record when it came to remembering to shut the bow doors, the nautical equivalent of forgetting to take off your shoes before getting into the bath."

So what does either of these books have to do with your European trip? Easy: Both titles offer a refreshing change from the breathless romanticism of so many guidebooks and travel brochures. And by showing that Europe and Britain aren't as perfect as they look from the windows of a tour bus, Bill Bryson makes it easier to reconcile yourself to living on the farm again after you've seen Paree.

Neither Here nor There
Notes from a Small Island