[I've been
In A Sunburned Country

I rarely laugh out loud when I read, but this book had me giggling on public transportation. It was my first introduction to Bill Bryson and I carried the hardcover book all the way to Australia and back even though it was a library book. This book recounts a trip Bryson took to Australia before the Sydney Olympics. As he travels over on the plane it occurs to him that he has no idea of the Prime Minister’s name and uses this as a metaphor throughout the book about all the things we don’t know about Australia. That, and how many things here can kill you.

A lot of the things we don’t know about Australia, according to Bryson, are weird trivia bits. Australia has the only wild herd of single humped camels in the world. It also has penguins. An Australian Prime Minister once disappeared off the coast while swimming. His body was never found. Bryson goes overland to many places that many short-term visitors to Australia will only dream about. He drives out to Uluru and back in a day because he forgot to make hotel reservations in advance. He takes long drives into the desert and relates what he is seeing out the window at the same time as he is telling stories of people who wandered out into the Outback and died there. He talks about wildlife, sports, drinking with the locals and the weird little attractions that just barely make the pages of the tour guides. I felt, after reading this book, that I was coming to Australia with at least some advance knowledge of where I was going, and why people were there, which was very helpful.

Made in America

After finishing this chock-full-of-word-trivia book by Bryson who wrote one of my favorite books of last year In A Sunburned Country I’ve decided that I like Bryson talking about Bryson even more than I like him talking about anything else. So, to say that this book was a disappointment would be wrong, but it wasn’t laugh out loud funny and the things that I found so delightful about Bryson as a writer were less evident in this book. On the other hand, that’s the absolute worst of it, and that’s not too bad.

Word fans will die when they see what Bryson has in store for them. He traces the history of the peculiar language we call English and other people call AMERICAN English from the very beginning settlements on the continent up until the weird PC era of the 90’s. He discusses where a lot of slang comes from, dispells common myths about word origins and has weird factoids you are pretty much guaranteed not to know on every page. I read this book at about the same time greg was reading about the Gettysburg Address in one book and while we watched the PBS documentary about the history of New York City and both segued uncannily into what I was reading. Bryson’s humor, though not as always-apparent as it was in his other book, is still present and keeps some of these chapters from turning into dull recitations of history. I’ve learned more from this book than possibly any other book in the past few months, now if I can only remember all of it...

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away

I’ve just been devouring Bryson’s books lately. This one is a compilation of columns that he wrote for a UK paper after returning to the US from 20 years abroad in the UK. He comes back to the country he grew up in and is charmingly confused by many of the ways in which US and UK cultures are different. He writes up these little observations in newspaper-column length and sends them overseas where they amuse British readers. This is easily one of the most readable of Bryson’s books, though sometimes that’s at the expense of some of his herculean trivia expositions. He talks about American customs and traditions like decorating the house for the holidays, arcane income tax hurdling and sending your kids far away to go to college.

The book is at its best when it details the weird little differences between US and UK culture and weakest when it’s just talking about the US because, well, I already know about the US. I am not this book’s intended audience at some level though I enjoy it just the same. The book drags when Bryson seems a bit too much like Dave Barry and goes with the “I’m just a dumb man and can’t button my own shirt” easy laugh. It’s still funny it’s just not as smart as Bryson usually presents himself. There are many pleasing reflections on New England life which, since Bryson lives about 30 miles from here, rang very true to me. As an interesting sidenote, he was writing these columns at about the same time as he was working on A Walk in the Woods, his story about walking the Appalachian Trail. As such, every now and again he’ll mention the writing of that book in this book. Since I am reading both of them at the same time, it adds a weird little jolt of recognition “hey, he was just talking about that trip in the other book!” that makes this short collection of essays seem even more relevant and current.

A Walk in the Woods

Greg and I read this book out loud to each other in the evenings over a period of several months. Bryson is a bit hard to read out loud. He’s a great writer, very smart with words and wordy with sentences. However, much like this trip he takes, in fact, he tends to ramble all over the place making you read ahead three words for every word you read out loud. We both loved this book. Bryson starts down South determined to get to Mount Katahdin in Maine by the end of the season. He both does and does not accomplish this. Along the way he spends time with an old friend, learns way too much AT history and even gets himself in a bit of shape.

This book isn’t quite, as the back cover blurbs call it, “hilarious.” There are some pretty funny parts, definitely worth chuckling over, but just when you think you’re in for a rip-roaring good time, Bryson will tell you the stories of what happened to the American Chestnut tree, or discuss hikers who have been murdered, or how development is encroaching on the rest of Americas wilderness, and you sober right up. This was a perfect read for when we had to sit inside and look out at the freezing Vermont landscape and just try to remember what a tree smelled like, or a long walk felt like. Bryson’s practically a neighbor and I was suprised how much his perception of much of this area is not unlike my own. Definitely one of the best books of this year so far.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

This book was fun and I learned stuff from it. Bryson has an incredible knack for explaining fairly complicated topics using metaphors that make sense but at the same time don’t talk down to you. He’s also a master at doing this without trotting out too many cliches. So, you learn new things, or you even learn about thing you may have already known about, but in new ways and with new and interesting trivia. He’s well read. He doesn’t just rely on secondary sources to flesh out his tales of astronomy and biology, he talks to scientists, he reads books about them, he goes to archives and looks through papers.

Above all, he’s funny. You wouldn’t think this was a necessary part of learning about DNA, approaching it with a sense of humor, but it helps. He has a tendency to anthropomorphize his subjects, so he gives feelings to the DNA and insight into the black holes he discusses. Bryson starts by talking about the beginning of everything with the Big Bang and the solar system and winds up talking about the end of everything with cautionary tales about extinction and the survival of our species. He’s good at scale. He has a tendency to explain large amounts of time or very tiny things by lining them up against something you already know about. He’s very fond of clock metaphors, so that when he’s talking about the evolution of the species that eventually became homo sapiens you get a real sense of just how long things like that took. The only thing that is bad about this book is that I am done reading it. For even the mildly curious or the slightly scientifically interested: go, get this book, you will not be disappointed.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

This is Bill Bryson’s tale of how he came to live in the UK and met his wife, told as reflections during a walk through a lot of the English and Scottish countryside. My UK geography is terrible, so I may not have this all down correctly, but Bryson goes to a lot of nifty little towns and writes about what he finds there, occasioanlly interpersing these details with stories about his first trip to England when he was a young man. It’s a fun collection of trips with a little travelogue tossed in for good measure. Not as out and out hilarious as some of his other books, but still a great read and made me want to take a trip to England.

The Granta Book of Travel

This book probably took me the better part of a year or maybe even two to finish completely. It was not just a book about travel -- with some amazing long essays by a lot of writers you’ve heard of -- but it was my travel book, tosse dinto my backpack when I went places and did things. As such it was a great companion on a random bus ride or plane trip but was also often left behind when I’d be someplace more interesting than even a terrific travel book.

This book contains a number of very dissimilar essays about travel that are all lumped under the loose heading of -- essays written by people who were not at home. There are a few people searching for deposed dictators, Bill Bryson talking about being in and leaving the US, and a very poignant story by Christopher Hitchens who discusses entering Romania and going to Timisoara the day after the Ceasecus were assassinated which was personally quite interesting to me.


This book was an Iditarod version of Bryson’s Walk in the Woods: guy who is in really over his head decided to do a really complicated thing and write about his process. I felt bad for his wife, though I’m not sure if I should have (maybe projecting?). Nice to read a winter book in the dead of summer, good to get to know the dogs and read stories about the remote wilderness of Alaska. Paulsen is a bit of a cipher--not only in this book, but in life in general if Wikipedia is to be believed--and this book ends weirdly and abruptly, though my understanding is that his story doesn’t.

How to Hike the AT

Got this book from a friend and while I wasn’t expecting it to be A Walk in the Woods (Bryson) I did expect a little more in the way of personal anecdata along with all the packing lists, post office lists, flora and fauna lists, potential injury lists and planning lists. Upshot: it might be useful (though outdated) for someone making a real AT hike plan, but for me, who was just curious, it was a little too dry.