In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryBill Bryson is one of those authors whose work I really should already have read, but I’ve never managed to set aside the time to devour his backlist.  A few years ago I used a couple of plane flights to read his hefty A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is not short but is indeed about nearly everything, and I was like, yes, more please!  And then… nothing.  So when my husband and I finally took our honeymoon (renamed our honeymoonaversary as we took the trip for our 5-year wedding anniversary [omg we’re old]) to Australia, I said to myself, hey, I’m pretty sure Bill Bryson’s got a book for that!

It’s almost fifteen years old at this point, and some of the trips he talks about happened even earlier than that, but it’s still a pretty good read for anyone making their way to the antipodes. I ended up reading it in pieces over several flights to, from, and within the country, so I had a chance both to see how my opinion and Bryson’s compared after visiting a city and to get a tantalizing sneak preview of a future stop.

In a Sunburned Country was definitely a more fun read than the seven million travel guides I had pored over in planning our trip, but I would probably not follow along in Bryson’s steps walking miles and miles to see not very much or driving to the middle of nowhere to see tiny, barely used museums or spending what is apparently a large amount of time getting drunk in pubs. Looooots of drinkin’ goin’ on. Although, if I had a job that paid me to travel to Australia on a regular basis, I might be convinced about those museums.

What I found really useful in the book was Bryson’s take on Australian history. I knew the very basics — prison colony, gold rush, rugby — and Bryson covers a lot of that, but he also takes care to point out the most peculiar aspects of the history and culture, and that’s always way more fun to know about. There was much giggling and making the husband pause his in-flight entertainment so that I could say, “Hey, did you know, there was a sailor who sailed straight between Australia and Indonesia and managed never to see Australia at all?” or “Hey, did you know, Australia could totally have been a Francophone country except the French got there a couple days too late?” or “Hey, did you know, there’s like a zillion spiders in Australia and they all want to EAT YOU ALIVE?”

Scott did not appreciate some of these facts.

Bryson also notes some less-exciting things, like the fact that the Aborigines have had rather a rough go of it since the Europeans came and ruined everything; in a depressing bit of serendipity I read about the fact that Aboriginal children were more or less kidnapped from their homes just days before Scott and I found ourselves wandering an exhibit about the places these kids were kidnapped to, including a video wall showing the apology made by the government in 2008, which is two years after the first time I visited Australia and also just six years ago.

But all that gloom and doom is tempered with stories like Bryson’s attempt at boogie boarding off the coast of Sydney with some friends and very nearly getting killed by a jellyfish, a story made so much better by the fact that one “friend” wrote an account of the event that, let’s say, somewhat differs from Bryson’s, and Bryson saw fit to include said account in this book.

A plus plus, fantastic, would read again, but will probably attempt to read a different Bryson sometime in the next four years. At this rate, I’ll have them all read probably before I’m dead?

Recommendation: For travelers to Oz and those who appreciate dry humor and tiny museums.

Rating: 8/10

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

This is probably a weird book to be my first introduction to Bill Bryson, seeing as how I understand him to be more of a travel writer than a science writer. But I can’t say no to a book about science, can I? No, no I can’t.

Bryson covers all sorts of scientific knowledge and endeavors, from astronomy to physics to biology to geology to those crazy guys way back when who studied all of these things at once! And he does it very accessibly; he explains things in simple language and breaks down numbers like 1025 to 10 trillion trillion, which I thought made a lot of sense. Of course, after you see enough of these numbers, and enough of Bryson’s segues to the simple language, you can get a bit tired. But focus on the fact that you’re getting the DL on how crazy those scientists are, and you’ll be much happier.

One thing that really bothered me was Bryson’s lack of footnotes… I mean, he had some descriptive ones, telling you more about a particular person or concept, but he didn’t have any that related directly to his facts. When I got to the end of the book, I realized that he has endnotes, sort of, that provide the sources for at least some of his more interesting facts, but by the time I got there I couldn’t remember what pages and sentences I had questions about! Highly disappointing.

And, for a book that’s meant to help answer questions of why scientists believe things, there are a lot of facts that are just presented as truth without any real reason why, especially in the archaeology and paleontology sections. Bryson does often mention that these facts are estimates and guesses, but I was left with a sense that everything was made up for funsies and I’m not sure that’s what I was supposed to think.

However, for all the problems I had with the presentation, I did learn a lot of new things I didn’t know before and I certainly have a stronger interest in learning more about these various sciences than I did before, so Bryson did a good job, there! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in science (but probably not to anyone who really hates it).

Rating: 7/10
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Rhinoa’s Ramblings

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