2000; 304 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Non-Fiction; Anecdotal Humor; Travel. Overall Rating : 9½*/10.
Australia. The land that time forgot. Also the land that the rest of the world forgets about. Most people’s knowledge of Australia begins and ends with kangaroos, koala bears, boomerangs, and maybe a weird-looking opera house. Can you name their Prime Minister? Their ruling party? Any of the Australian states?
But Australia is a fascinating, exciting place. There are so many plants, animals, and geological formations that are found there and nowhere else. So in the late 1990’s, Bill Bryson made several trips there, to get to know the country and to write a book about it. In A Sunburned Country chronicles his adventures Down Under.
What’s To Like...
The book is divided into three sections – one for each of Bryson’s three visits. The first was a train ride across Australia, from Sydney to Perth. The second trip was by car, and covered all the major cities in Australia’s southeast quadrant. The third trip, also by car, ventured into Australia’s smaller cities, and the interior. There is a map at the front of the book. Bookmark it (Kindle) or dog-ear it (book); you’ll be referring to it frequently.
Bill Bryson’s activities in any given city can be habitual. Find the parks and walk through them. Find the museums and walk through them. Find the used bookstores and browse through them. Find the pubs and restaurants and eat, drink, and be merry. Find the hotel and enjoy or endure the amenities. This could get tediously repetitive in the hands of a lesser writer, but Bryson's storytelling is superb, and I never was bored with any of his tales.
There are also numerous and humorous “asides” as Bryson becomes immersed in the local culture. You’ll be mystified by the game of cricket; amused by the rabbit infestation; and amazed by just how many ways the fauna, flora, land, and sea can kill you in Australia.
But Bryson also tackles more serious topics. It may be amusing to envision the predator-less rabbits running wild across the outback, but the devastation they and other imported plants and animals did to the indigenous landscape is both irreversible and borderline criminal. The small amount of forested area is rapidly being depleted (Australia is the world's #1 exporter of wood chips). And even more critical is the way the aborigines were, and are, treated. Heady stuff; not very funny, but Bryson’s insights of such issues are quite thought-provoking.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Antipodean (adj.) : the parts of the earth diametrically opposite – often used of Australia and New Zealand contrasted to the Western Hemisphere. More generally, (anything that is) exactly opposite or contrary.
On my first visit, some years ago, 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 minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me. (pg. 3)
“Dining room’s closed, mate,” said one of the two guys at the bar. “Chef’s crook.”
Crook means ill.
“Must’ve ate some of his own cooking,” came a voice from the pokies alcove, and we all had a grin over that.
“What else is there in town?” I asked.
“Depends,” said the man, scratching his throat thoughtfully. He leaned toward me slightly. “You like good food?”
I nodded. Of course I did.
“Nothin’, then.” He went back to his beer. (pg. 182)
“I tell you, Barry, he was farting sparks!” (pg. 92)
The wit in In A Sunburned Country is topnotch; the narrative is totally entertaining; and the book can also stand on its own as a Tour Guide for anyone contemplating a vacation in Oz. It is also obvious that Bill Bryson researched the subject matter thoroughly. My only advice would be to read it in bits, to keep it from feeling repetitive. There are only so many ways to describe the summer heat in the desert outback.
I read very little non-fiction (maybe one book a year), because the books are often dry and boring. So it was refreshing to read something from this genre that entertained from start to finish, while still giving me a much better picture of Australia. I still can’t tell you who the Prime Minister is, but I am now able to tell you at least a half-dozen ways to easily meet your demise there.
9½ Stars. Highly recommended.