Friday, May 11, 2012

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson — 245 pgs

Bill Bryson is traveling across Europe. Many years previous, he made this same trip with his obnoxiously funny friend Katz, and as Bryson meanders his way across the continent, he treats his readers to an eclectic mix of his current travels interspersed with reminiscences of his previous travels with Katz. Europe is exactly the way he remembered it, yet somehow vaguely changed, and through his eyes, we are treated to an uproariously funny and vaguely snide journey. From Vienna to Yugoslavia, Bryson shares his joys and frustrations with the local people, the climate, and the accommodations that he comes into daily contact with. His adventures are crafty and at times inauspicious, and his revelations about the landscapes and natives give even a well traveled reader something to ponder over and smile about. He shares the absurdity, the revelations, and the sadness of these places with a sense of wonder and amusement, his voice of experience having the effect of both a caution and an encouragement. Neither Here nor There is a colorful romp into a place that few know and even fewer understand.

I've heard Bryson's books mentioned over and over again in the book blogging world. He seems to be the type of author whom you either love or hate, and in addition to writing travelogues, he's dabbled in science writing and general non-fiction. To be honest, I wasn't really sure if I would like travel writing because I didn't know if I would find it interesting or entertaining. But in discovering Bill Bryson's work, I needn't have worried so much. The man could make using a phone booth interesting and funny, and at times I couldn't contain myself when reading this book. I guess I'm sort of a funny reader because most comic writing seems to leave me tepid, and about the only author that seems to consistently make me laugh is David Sedaris. That is, until I met Bill Bryson.

Bryson starts his adventures in Hammerfest, Norway, and right from the beginning, things begin to spiral out of control when he's not listed on the flight's passenger manifest. After a hilarious and eye opening chat with the ticketing agent, I began to see just what this book was going to be like. It was going to be a slapdash romp through the European countryside, filled with a provocative peek into some of the worlds most picturesque places. It was likely to be very weird as well.

As Bryson travels to both the known and unknown stretches of Europe, he gives an account of what the land and people are like in that part of the world. He describes beautiful mountain vistas, bucolic fields and rolling hills, and marvelous descriptions of lakes and rivers. He also likes to spend a lot of time in museums, and chooses some of the more famous haunts along with some new ones: like the tobacco museum in Vienna, where he comes across a whole lot of smoking implements and ashtrays and more than a few portraits of people smoking. It was these weird bits that kept me entertained. The story of the strangely erotic portrait in France, or the graphic arts museum that seemed to hold no art—these things were the tidbits I looked forward to on each page, and though I did enjoy the sedate information on the attributes of each area, I was all about finding the funny.

Some of the things Bryson relates were totally foreign to me, such as the severely depressed economy of Bulgaria and his observations that shopping there was more like scavenging for anything that was for sale. Stores have empty shelves and sell their wares out of a crate. When the crate is empty, the store closes for the day, and people with handfuls of useless money go into insane buying frenzies over pairs of mustard colored socks. I was also surprised to find that it's perfectly acceptable for drunken businessmen to pee against buildings in Amsterdam, and that a general state of disrepair was all too common in most areas of Europe. It was eye opening for me, because I've never really been a traveler, and to get this inside look into a place that I had always considered mysterious was to get a look into a world completely foreign from my own.

Bryson doesn't always get caught up in the negatives though, and there are a lot of sections that relate the cultural bonding of travelers and natives, who truly appreciate and celebrate their differences and similarities. Bryson speaks with passion about these people and their country, and shares meals, accommodations, and conversation with them, as well as getting the scoop about places that he might not have found on his own. Of course, there are some drawbacks to mingling with the natives, especially when you don't speak their language, and Bryson wittily dissects these moments as well, sharing his perplexity with the reader in an utterly hilarious way.

I think I annoyed the stuffing out of my husband, following him around the house and reading passage after passage of this book to him, whether he wanted to hear it or not; but he often smiled and a few times even guffawed along with me at Bryson's take on Europe. I think that is the best recommendation that I can give to a book. When I pester and pester you with quotes and asides it's likely that I am having a great time with that particular book, and for those who haven't read Bryson yet, I would definitely advise picking up one of his books. Neither Here nor There was lively, entertaining and fun, and might just make you wheezy with laughter. Recommended.

21 comments:

JaneGS said...

I'm a Bryson fan, having read or listened to most of his books, but I haven't read this one yet. On my way to the library now!

Great review--I think you really captured what I love about Bryson's travel books, and the tone is the same regardless of the topic.

I'm with you on the pestering people with quotes, too :)

If you want to try another Bryson, consider an audio version in which he reads his own stuff. He does it perfectly and enhances the humor because he knows when to pause.

My favorite of all his books is still In a Sunburnt Country, about Australia.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Oh I didn't know about this one! I love Bryson and do the same thing about following my husband around and reading him passages! LOL Must get this one!

Steph said...

Before things got really dire with my dissertation and I was still able to read a little bit here and there, I picked up Bryson's book on Australia and started to read that. I liked that I could just read a chapter here and there without worrying about keeping track of a narrative and I would still be entertained and learn something too!

I know some people have complained about Bryson's sense of humor, but I thought he was very funny. He has that wry, slightly snide (as you so accurately put it!) sense of humor, that is the kind I tend to like. I think as much as he pokes fun of things, there is a legitimate affection for them underneath it all. As I've actually done some traveling in Europe, I'd be interested to see how much Bryson's experiences line up with mine!

Darlene said...

Geez, where have I been? I've never even heard of Bryson. I guess I'll have to give him a try one day.

Ti said...

My first book of his was A Walk In the Woods, read over a summer beach trip and it was so funny, and so good that it made me take up hiking. Seriously! I bought all the gear and did it for a year!

I then read about three other books but I can't remember them like I do Walk.

Nymeth said...

My experiences with Bryson include BOTH love and hate, as I loved his Shakespeare bio but wasn't crazy about Notes from a Small Island :P I definitely want to give him another try, though, and this sounds like a good one to pick up.

Brooke said...

Bryson is another one of those authors I've neglected to read. I think I want to love him so much that I'm afraid to actually begin one of his books. What if I don't like it? You've done an excellent review and made this book sound like so much fun. I might just have to start reading his backlist here!

Suko said...

Wonderful review! This "travel guide" sounds both laugh-out-loud funny, and interesting. The descriptions of you reading to your husband tell me a lot about the quality of the writing in Neither Here nor There. I'm sure reading Bryson would further stimulate my wanderlust and make a believer out of me!

bermudaonion said...

Bryson is laugh out loud fun to me too! Excellent review, as always.

Jenners said...

YAY!! I looooove Bill Bryson and I knew you would too if you read him. He can make ANYTHING interesting. He just has a world view that is delightful, and I'd follow him anywhere. Lucky for you, he has a ton of books to delight in. And the one you read isn't even one of his best!!!!

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

I keep meaning to read one of his books and try him out - especially when I need a good laugh; but I just never get around to it! My daughter has a couple of his books, loves him and has pestered ME about reading one of them...I'm off to take both of you up on that challenge!

Trisha said...

I have a love-hate relationship with travel writing that I've never really been comfortable with. Some of it is just so fantastic, straddling that line between personal and universal; others are so overly personal that the "travel" portion gets lost; and still others are so dang boring I can't wait to put them down. Bryson has always been relatively positive for me.

Jenny said...

I've never read anything by Bryson. It's great when you find an author whose sense of humor you really like and relate to though!

Kaye said...

Finally home from “the big trek north” and wanted to pop in and wish you a Happy Mother’s Day!! Hope you have a wonderful day, Heather. {{hugs}}

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

Happy Mother's Day Heather! I hope your day has been simply amazing!

Beth F said...

This is one of the few Bryson books I haven't read yet. Both Mr. BFR and I really like him.

Bookfool said...

I've had Neither Here Nor There sitting on a shelf for at least 15 years and still haven't read it. So glad you've discovered Bill Bryson. I adore his writing. Like you, I've chased my husband around to read passages from his books. It was unfortunate that we couldn't locate our copy of A Sunburnt Country when Huz was preparing to go to Australia (but now I know where it is -- it's one of my favorites, BTW). Great review!

Harvee Lau said...

I've enjoyed Bryson's books and this one sounds as if it would not be an exception. Must look this book up to see what he thinks of Europe!

Aarti said...

Woohoo! Happy belated Mother's Day to you. I admit that this is a Bryson book I started and didn't finish. I am not sure why. I think because he seemed a little unkind to Katz. But I could have just not been in the right mood. I really liked Bryson's book on Australia- it was super fun :-)

Jenny said...

I'm a Bryson fan, but not unreservedly. I think he can sometimes be dismissive of awesome and important stuff, but man, he is a funny writer.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've never been disappointed by Bryson. My favorite was his audio version of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. (I'm about the same age as Bryson, and so much he said about growing up resonated with me.

Just added this one to my list -- thanks for the great review.

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