Some years ago I read A Short History of Nearly Everything and was completely unable to comprehend why people like Bill Bryson. I found the book to be dull and tedious and not at all funny. (It may actually be an enjoyable book for people who enjoy the history of science, but I am not one of those people. Terry Pratchett, however, did like it. Odds are he is right and I am wrong.)
I had thus sworn off Bill Bryson, privately convinced that the zillions of people who liked him were fools and that I alone possessed discerning good taste. But then Citizen Reader decided to host a talk on two nonfiction titles, Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes. (Have you read either one? Join the discussion!)
It took me less than a page to join the ranks of the zillions of fools. Really, less than a page. I snickered in paragraph two, page 1, chapter 1:
“I passed the time on the long flight reading a history of Australian politics in the twentieth century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me—first that Australia could just lose a prime minster (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.”
Snickers aplenty followed that second paragraph as Bryson made his way through Australia’s major cities and no inconsiderable part of the hot deserted bits in between. Bryson has a droll perspective on things, a knack for timing and delivery, a weakness for puns and wordplay, and a tendency to get himself in situations that are awkward, ridiculous, or dangerous in a funny sort of way. (I actually snorted—literally snorted—in the scene where his life is threatened by two violent dogs. It is really quite funny.)
As Bryson documents his travels through the continent, his admiration for Australia shines through. Bryson does poke fun at the culture (any country that is home to a combination pet-store/pornography-store deserves a gentle teasing), but his travelogue brings out some of the best Australia has to offer— its peculiar history, its breathtaking scenery, its unexpectedly fascinating politicians, and its hospitable people. I recommend this to anyone who loves Australia or armchair traveling or, failing that, anyone who enjoys a good laugh.
Check the WRL catalog for In a Sunburned Country