In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson

>> Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Can you believe Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country was the only book I could buy in JFK airport, on my way back from Tokyo? I was so hopeful when I arrived there, because very recently I'd watched that Tom Hanks movie, The Terminal and I hoped there actually might be a similar bookstore in the airport (if it had been a quarter of the size of the one in the movie, I would have been ecstatic). All I could find was a chain of stores called Hudson News which had the crappiest book selection I've ever seen. Absolutely nothing that interested me, only this one :-(

Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.
This is going to be an extremely short review (or, at least, the parts I write are going to be short). I have the perfect test you can use to decide whether you should buy this book or not. Read the following short excerpt. This is from the very early parts of the book. It starts on page 11 of my TPB edition:

...I had never been to Sydney other than on book tours, so my acquaintance with the city was based almost entirely on cab journeys through unsung districts like Ultimo and Annandale. The only time I had seen anything at all of the real city was some years before, on my first visit, when a kindly sales rep from my local publisher had taken me out for the day in his car, with his wife and two little girls in back, and I had disgraced myself by falling asleep. It wasn't from lack of interest or appreciation, believe me. It's just that the day was warm and I was newly arrived in the country. At some unfortunate point, quite early on, jet lag asserted itself and I slumped helplessly into a coma.

I am not, I regret to say, a discreet and fetching sleeper. Most people when they nod off look as if they could do with a blanket; I look as if I could do with medical attention. I sleep as if injected with a powerful experimental muscle relaxant. My legs fall open in a grotesque come-hither manner; my knuckles brush the floor. Whatever is inside—tongue, uvula, moist bubbles of intestinal air—decides to leak out. From time to time, like one of those nodding-duck toys, my head tips forward to empty a quart or so of viscous drool onto my lap, then falls back to begin loading again with a noise like a toilet cistern filling. And I snore, hugely and helplessly, like a cartoon character, with rubbery flapping lips and prolonged steam-valve exhalations. For long periods I grow unnaturally still, in a way that inclines onlookers to exchange glances and lean forward in concern, then dramatically I stiffen and, after a tantalizing pause, begin to bounce and jostle in a series of whole-body spasms of the sort that bring to mind an electric chair when the switch is thrown. Then I shriek once or twice in a piercing and effeminate manner and wake up to find that all motion within five hundred feet has stopped and all children under eight are clutching their mothers' hems. It is a terrible burden to bear,

I have no idea how long I slept in that car other than that it was not a short while. All I know is that when I came to, there was a certain heavy silence in the car—the kind of silence that would close over you if you found yourself driving around your own city conveying a slumped and twitching heap from one unperceived landmark to another.

I looked around dumbly, not certain for the moment who these people were, cleared my throat, and pulled myself to a more upright position.

"We were wondering if you might like some lunch," my guide said quietly when he saw that I had abandoned for the moment the private ambition to flood his car with saliva.

"That would be very nice," I replied in a small, abject voice, discovering in the same instant, with a customary inward horror, that while I had dozed a four-hundred-pound fly had evidently been sick over me. In an attempt to distract attention from my unnatural moist sheen and at the same time reestablish my interest in the tour, I added more brightly, "Is this still Neutral Bay?"

There was a small involuntary snort of the sort you make when a drink goes down the wrong way. And then with a certain strained precision: "No, this is Dover Heights. Neutral Bay was"— a microsecond's pause, just to aerate the point—"some time ago."

"Ah." I made a grave face, as if trying to figure out how we had managed between us to mislay such a chunk of time.

"Quite some time ago, in fact."

I'm giggling helplessly just by rereading this, but obviously, sense of humour is very personal, so you might be completely unmoved by it. If so, Bryson might not be for you. Don't worry, I won't hold it against it. My sister doesn't get him, either (she still hasn't forgiven me for giving her one of his books to take on a backpacking tour of Europe. Literally, she still complains about having had to lug "that boring book" all through Spain, France and Italy), and I love her anyway. But if you are laughing, you should get this book. Actually, you should get any Bryson, because this is very representative of his sense of humour.

And of course, it's not just humour. In a Sunburned Country is chock-full of fascinating tidbits and portraits of Australia, each more incredible and more interesting than the other. And best of all, Bryson's love for the country and its people just shines through in his writing.

Now I'm eagerly awaiting his next book, coming up in October: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid


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