Thursday, April 11, 2013

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

You guuyysss, I hate to travel. Not just like the process of being on a plane or train and smelling that recycled air and being told that I have to turn off my Nook like I'm an infant (though I do, in fact, hate those things), I hate being in places that aren't my house. I don't like not knowing where the closest Chipotle is. I don't like places that don't have Chipotle. I don't find New York magical and fun, I find it too big and everything is annoying and I just want to go home. Replace New York with any other place that isn't my townhouse in Richmond, Virginia, and my feelings are the same.

But I do like travel memoirs? They do exactly what books should do: transport you somewhere without you having to put on pants. And I love Bill Bryson, having read A Short History of Nearly Everything, so I expected this to be pithy and great and it was.


In Neither Here Nor There, Bryson travels across Europe, recreating the trek he made as a backpacking youngster (like you do). He drinks coffee at small cafes in France, marvels at how clean it is in Sweden, remarks on the declining quality of the sex workers in Amsterdam (?), gets grossed out by the piles of trash in Naples and how everyone in Austria hates you (THIS IS WHY I DON'T GO ANYWHERE), etc., etc.

You could rename this book All These People Are Exactly Like Every Cliched Joke You've Ever Heard About Them, And Are In Fact A Little Bit Worse. But The Food is Nice. Sometimes. I was taken aback several times by the complete lack of political correctness Bryson expresses about the various people groups of Europe, but he says them with such aplomb and smart-assitude (which I love) that you're sort of fine with it? Even though you're sort of not? Like, hey that was a really rude thing you just said about secretaries in Holland, but it was really funny. And I've never been there, so maybe they do spend all day sunbathing without shirts on in the park. What do I know.

So the real question for me was: is this book going to make me want to go to Europe? Yeah, no. But I wanted it to! I wanted to be pulled out of my sight-seeing laziness! But mostly he makes All The Countries sound hot and dirty OR freezing cold and also dirty and with long lines to get into the museums and a lot of good food but also a lot of shitty food and sometimes the strangers are rude. WHICH IS EXACTLY LIKE VIRGINIA WHY WOULD I EVER LEAVE.



Ok, I do want to go to Capri because that's maybe the only place he didn't make sound awful. And Amsterdam. PARTS of Amsterdam. The parts without aging hippies. And Paris. BECAUSE IT'S PARIS GET OFF MY BACK.

Three stars out of your mom.

18 comments:

  1. Had a similar experience when trying to read "Notes from a Small Island." I thought it was going to make me want to travel to England, but it didn't. In fact I was so bored I couldn't even finish the book. And I usually love me some travel memoirs. Also has discouraged me from picking up "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and "At Home."

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    1. I really like A Short History, and I won't give up on Bryson. I just won't read his travel-bits.

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  2. I really hate Bill Bryson's travel writing. I've tried a bunch of his memoirs about going places and have not liked any of them -- they're too grumpy and boring. I want travel memoirs to be more adventurous that I am and Bryson just definitely is not. But I like his other, not travel writing better.

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    1. SO GRUMPY! And so much of it is like "and then I wandered around for two hours looking for a hotel, rinse, repeat." Who cares?

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  3. I read this, I think, two years ago, and found it entertaining but nothing really special. I appreciate Bryson's honesty in the book, and some parts are interesting. I'm like you; I hate to travel (nice to meet a kindred spirit, because people look at me like I'm crazy when I say I hate to travel), and also like you, this book didn't exactly make me wish I loved traveling. Overall, I was expecting to like this more, though, especially because many people I know who have read Bryson love him. I hear his A Walk in the Woods is very good.

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    1. Yeah, I was surprised at how curmudgeonly this book was. There weren't ANY polite people in all of Europe? REALLY?

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  4. I think a piece of my heart broke off when you talked about hating travel. I love it so very much. In fact, I start feeling really weird when I haven't been on a plane in a while. But I never flew anywhere until I was 23 - a flight to Italy - and I was there by myself for nearly three weeks. It was an amazing induction to travel.

    But this book? No. Part of what irks me about those who don't travel is when they choose to expound on what other types of people are like. If you don't like to travel, that's fine. But when you spout off in ignorance, not ok. Think I'll pass on this.

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    1. You know, I think in the end he was just the same as the American tourists he makes fun of. Everything was too dirty, or too not-English, or too weird. I have problems with dirt and being confused and being uncomfortable, but I stay home. I don't write books about it so I can bitch and then call it "clever." I agree with you, it was sort of ignorant.

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  5. Have you read A Walk in the Woods? That's the only book of his I've read, but I enjoyed it. It didn't make me want to hike the Appalacian trial, but I was happy to hike vicariously through reading. Fiction set afar and abroad makes me want to travel more than travel memoirs so I've never been that interested in Bryson's travel writing. Also, you've confirmed my assumption that he's the grumbly American abroad type!

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  6. Have you read anything by Paul Bowles? His work really transports one into strange geographies... it definitely won't make you want to travel, because most of the places are TERRIFYING, but it's worth checking out.

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  7. Goodness, but I actually loved this book--sorry your experience was less than stellar. There's definitely a smugness in his stereotypes, but he's so damn funny to me that I forgive him a lot. Probably more than I ought to, but that's love for you. It is possessed of the blindness, and I love me some Bryson.

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  8. This isn't my favorite of Bryson's travel books, but I did enjoy it overall. I think part of the reason I love Bryson is that he reminds me so much of my dad, and I just want them to be BFFs and talk about things like why no one walks and how oddly awesome obscure bits of science are.

    My favorite bit of this book (as far as I can recall) was when he said something like, "His face made you realize that God has a sense of humor." IDK, I still crack up at it.

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    1. ALSO you should try his collection of short essays titled I'm a Stranger Here Myself. It sounds like it might be more of your cup of tea, though he is still quite grumpy in it. But a good kind of grumpy.

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  12. Give the man a break and give this book a READ...Unless you possess absolutely no sense of humour, you will find it quite enjoyable!

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