Book review: Bryson’s Swiss jokes aren’t so funny

Neither Here Nor There is a travel memoir by Bill Bryson about his travels throughout Europe. Bryson, for those who may not be familiar, is the author of multiple non-fiction books, and is well-known for his travel memoirs about Europe, Australia, Great Britain and the US.

Having previously read In a Sunburned Country and thoroughly enjoyed it, I had high hopes for Neither Here Nor There. 

While I did enjoy the first chapter about his journey up to Hammerfest, Norway to see the Northern Lights, I ended up finding the book too predictable after the first few chapters.

The plot for each city goes like this: gets off train, checks into hotel, walks around city centre, [insert cultural jokes here], gets hungry, eats dinner, goes to sleep, and then repeats the same experience in a different city the next day

Having gone to over 20 cities, it gets a bit depressing after awhile. I found it surprising how he never made an effort to meet any locals or other travelers throughout the whole trip, but rather, seem satisfied being in ignorant bliss of his surroundings and passed his time by making jokes, particularly aimed toward the Swiss.

Examples:

Q: What do you call a gathering of boring people in Switzerland?
A: Zurich

Q: What is the best way to make a Swiss roll?
A: Take him to a mountaintop and give him a push.

One thing I do appreciate is the truthfulness in his descriptions. Unlike other travel memoirs, he doesn’t perceive everything under a “magical” light. Particularly with Europe, where it’s fairly easy to write about how cultured and attractive everything and everyone is, he opts instead toward describing public washrooms in Paris, the depressing abundance of porn in Cologne and how the strippers in Amsterdam are a lot less attractive than they used to be.

In between criticizing Japanese tourists, he certainly seems to have a distain toward the Germans. Take this passage for example, describing the present Belgium battlefields after the Battle of the Bulge:

“Germans who had once slaughtered women and children in these villages could now return as tourists, with cameras around their necks and wives on their arms, as if it had all just been a Hollywood movie….one of the more trying things about learning to live with the Germans after the war was having to watch them return with their wives and girlfriends to show off the places they helped to ruin” (74).

While this book was published in 1991, and therefore highly likely that it was written before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I find that his harsh opinions makes this book an uneasy read. I mean, one moment he’s talking about sausages, and the next, he’s making a joke about Hitler.

After finishing this book, I doubt I’d recommend it to any of my friends. Although, if you’ve recently had  your heart broken by a European, the jokes in this book will probably cheer you up temporarily.

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8 Comments

  1. January 28, 2011 / 4:23 am

    hehe I love your review! Didn't think I'd be reading it until you mentioned "if you've recently had your heart broken by a European"…

  2. January 28, 2011 / 10:38 am

    Michelle! You're exactly the type of person I'm looking for to give me feedback on my book about Eastern Europe!

    I enjoyed Bryson's book – I'm a big fan of his. But I agree it wasn't his strongest work. I wish he interacted more with the locals. That's what I've tried to do in my book.

    You can delete this link if you want, but perhaps it will be useful for you or others: http://francistapon.com/ee

    P.S. I found you through your comment on Dave's site.

  3. January 28, 2011 / 1:26 pm

    Brenna – Aww…I'm sorry to hear that 🙁 Dont worry, it's the start of the new year, and someone great will come along soon enough! 🙂

    Francis – I'd love to read your book about Eastern Europe! I just checked out your blog, and wow, you're so accomplished! Hope your books are selling well! I'd love to write a travel book someday!

  4. January 29, 2011 / 2:36 am

    I found BB better in small doses. That way I wasn't continually annoyed that the books seem to be all about him – smart arse comments are all very well, but even they wore a little thin after awhile as I started to suspect their presence was just to show how witty he was.

    But what would I know! He sells millions!! And I don't …

  5. January 29, 2011 / 10:20 pm

    Barnes – In a Sunburned Country is great! Never got to finish it though…I was still reading the book when I broke up with my Aussie boyfriend and couldn't bring myself to read two more chapters about what a wonderful country Australia is, haha.

    Red Nomad Oz – In his other book In a Sunburned Country, he mixes hiistory really nicely with his memoirs so it wasn't so centered around him. I know what you mean about the "all about me" factor in travel memoirs though…it's like Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love. The "me" factor was way too much for me in that book!

  6. February 1, 2011 / 1:25 am

    You're right we don't have any right to put jokes on other culture but respect them because that is what they are…

  7. phillip
    July 1, 2013 / 1:24 pm

    I recently told my wife I would finish this absolute piece of shit book just so I could write some reviews on it. First and foremost, his writing style is incredibly amateurish. The contexts lacks depth and history which one should come to expect from a classic traveling book. Instead it is filled with complacent rhetoric that any middle aged condescending traveler would have if you looked down on most attributes of European people. It lacks any excitement and experiences that any other common traveler would encounter excluding his one initial trip to Hammerfest. There is no special “Kerouac” experiences or personal accomplishments. I walked here, I did this, I drank a beer, I complained, and I had racist thoughts…

    I was glad I bought this at a second hand store for less than one USD. However, I feel cheated and wasted several hours of my life. I am an American living abroad in Germany. Bryson neglects to interact, to learn the history and the culture, to be anything other than an adopted smug Englishman. If he learned anything about the Swiss and Germans, he would come to realize his image of them is diluted. I will never read another book of his and I recommend no one else to waste time and money on this unappreciative work that seems as if it was self published to feed his one overly sized ego.

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