Wednesday, October 7, 2009

CATCHING UP ON BRYSON

In 2008, I added two more titles to my growing list of favorites by the irresistible Bill Bryson:

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID: A MEMOIR (2006). This is Bryson's hilarious account of growing up in Iowa, in the 50's and 60's, a very touching walk down Memory Lane.

SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS A STAGE (2007). Bryson says in his introduction that the world doesn't really neeed another book on Shakespeare, but I say that the world can always use Bryson's unforgettable version of any story there is to tell. Full of information and truth.

Over the years, I have worked my way through every single one of Bryson's highly entertaining, lovable, memorable books. He is one of the very few authors, living or dead, of whom I can say: I've read them all!

Small Island; Liverpool, England:
NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND AN AFFECTIONATE PORTRAIT OF BRITAIN (1995). This was my first Bryson book, read appropriately enough when I was in England for Christmas 1996. Bryson begins:

"There are certain idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that British summers used to be longer and sunnier. Another is that the England soccer team shouldn't have any trouble with Norway. A third is the idea that Britain is a big place."

Just to make good his point, as I was reading this book, my British mother - in - law looked over my shoulder at the title and said, "What small island?" Of course, she's thinking Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, maybe the Isle of Man -- certainly not Enlgand! I had to laugh at Bryson's accuracy and, yes, his infectious affection for the Small Island.

I was so smitten with this book that I did something I rarely do anymore -- I read it again! Now that life has begun to feel so short, re-reading seems like such a luxury, but this study of the once and future island, with its quaint towns and charming place names, is worth it. The second time through, I kept the British road atlas handy and mapped out Bryson's entire journey chapter by chapter. That was fun! Immediately after finishing it, I picked up his previous travelogues, all new to me, and read them in quick succession:

NEITHER HERE NOR THERE: TRAVELS IN EUROPE (1992)

LOST CONTINENT: TRAVELS IN SMALL TOWN AMERICA (1990)

Lost Continent, Colorado:
Although I am clearly a devoted Bryson fan, I must issue just two words of warning: testosterone poisoning. The raunchy frat boy humor gets old fast, but I tolerate it in his case because he is just so darn smart and funny (kind of the way I can overlook Erica Jong's soft - core porn because otherwise she's telling such a good story; she can be over the top at times but always very wise).

In LOST CONTINENT, for example, you might relish his descriptions of the Midwest, admire his wit, and then feel like giving him a good slap for making crass sexist remarks. E.g.,

"Above all Iowans are friendly. You go into a strange diner in the South and everything goes quiet, and you realize all the other customers are looking at you as if they are sizing up the risk involved in murdering you for your wallet and leaving your body in a shallow grave somewhere out in the swamps. In Iowa you are the center of attention, the most interesting thing to hit town since a tornado carried off old Frank Sprinkel and his tractor last May. Everybody you meet acts like he would gladly give you his last beer and let you sleep with his sister. Everyone is happy and friendly and strangely serene."

Why doesn't his editor just cross those sexist lines out when Bill's not looking? They add nothing to the value of his writing, but he just can't seem to resist. Still and all, he's such a funny guy that somehow I always find it in my heart to forgive his crass remarks. I was living in Philadelphia when I read LOST CONTINENT, and unfortunately, parts of town were just as bad as Bryson's descriptions: there were plenty of poorly kempt citizens idling on the streets, the local government was corrupt (though not our man, Rendell), and the sorry MOVE incident was still haunting the city. But also, as Bryson points out, it was fun there, Fairmont Park is lovely (in parts) and the city is full of cool historical stuff and great residential neighborhoods. Plus, there has been some recent urban beautification: while Rendell was Mayor, there was a lot of public building done in the arts & theatre area, and our subsequent Mayor John Street removed all abandoned cars and towed them to the junk yard. Still, property taxes were off the charts and ever on the rise, a constant drain on the spirit (not to mention the pocketbook!).
Lost Continent, Philadelphia:

I loved the part when he goes to visit his old friends Hal & Lucia Herndon and looks in all their closets! Lucia was one of our favorite Philly columnists, and after reading that she was an old Iowa friend of Bryson's, I harbored a little fantasy that one day I would meet Lucia, she would invite us all over for a picnic or something up in Mt. Airy, and the Brysons would just happen to be in town and they'd stop by also! Too bad we moved away before that happened!

MOTHER TONGUE: ENGLISH AND HOW IT GOT THAT WAY (1990): British English.

MADE IN AMERICA: AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN THE UNITED STATES(1994): American English. And good honest American history, no whitewashing. Should be used, along with Steve Tally and Sarah Vowell, in every U.S. History Class.

A WALK IN THE WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL (1998). In 2000, I sent this one as a present to all three of my brothers, hoping to turn them into Bryson fans. It worked! One of them wrote back: "The guy from Dartmouth writes in the style of 'Dave Barry meets Academia.' And that's a good thing."

In one memorable scene, he encounters a big harmless moose all alone, getting a drink in the woods and decries the seasonal practice of moose hunting: "there is just something deeply and unquestionably wrong about killing an animal that is so sweetly and dopily unassuming as a moose. I could have slain this one with a slingshot, with a rock or stick--with a folded newspaper, I'd almost bet--and all it wanted was a drink of water" (242).

Descriptions like that show me that Bryson is such a genuinely decent human who shares so many of my values, despite the occasional obnoxious sexual innuendo. In all of his books, Bryson is taking a walk somewhere--a value I definitely share--and he never fails to lament the pedestrian - unfriendly nature of current residential and retail development--a sorry state of affairs that I too wonder about every time I try to run an errand on foot rather than by car.

I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF (1999) After 20 years in England, in 1995, Bryson brought his family to live in New Hampshire. This book describes his process of relocation and repatriation. My brother David, after reading WALK IN THE WOODS (see above), went immediately to his local library and checked out every Bill Bryson book available; he says: "In the first chapter or two of STRANGER Bryson has already hit on many of the things that I also experienced upon my return to America [after living 20years in Germany]. He went to the hardware store looking for yawl pins and got anchors. I went looking for duebels and got anchors. Fun in a disorienting sort of way. . . . Bryson's wit is acerbic as well as very observant. . . . making amusing and trenchant observations and being paid for it strikes me as a true dream job . . . very cool indeed."

IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY (2000) & BILL BRYSON'S AFRICAN DIARY (2002), completing his travels across the globe.

BRYSON'S DICTIONARY OF TROUBLESOME WORDS (2002): A very strict little rulebook indeed!

SHORT HISTORY OF PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING (2003): I think the title pretty much says it all. After traveling around the world, Bryson sets out for infinity and beyond. Fascinating, as usual, but even moreso. Magnificent is more like it! A short history it may be, but NOT a quick read! It took me all of January, February & March 2005 to read this amazing celebration of human life as a tiny speck in the vast, vast cosmos of possibility. Certainly puts things in perspective!

As my friend Diane said, after listening to the book on tape: "Enthralling. While listening to him, I look around me simply amAZed that we're even here, walking around, you know?" Exactly! How much more incredible do we need life to be?

" . . . you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. . . . That you are able to sit here right now in this one never-to-be repeated moment, reading this book, eating bonbons . . . [here I omit testosterone poisoned passage]. . . doing whatever you are doing--just EXISTING--is really wondrous beyond belief."

This cosmic insight could easily be a paragraph right out of SHORT HISTORY, but in fact it's out of NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND (120 - 21) and captures perfectly the joie de vivre that enlivens every book Bill Bryson writes. As my brother David explains so succintly: "Bryson really notices the small things that make the big things big."

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