Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Richard Matthews
Published by Books on Tape on October 17, 2003
Genres: History, Nonfiction, Science
Length: 17 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-half-stars

Bill Bryson has been an enormously popular author both for his travel books and for his books on the English language. Now, this beloved comic genius turns his attention to science. Although he doesn't know anything about the subject (at first), he is eager to learn and takes information that he gets from the world's leading experts and explains it to us in a way that makes it exciting and relevant. Even the most pointy-headed, obscure scientist succumbs to the affable Bryson's good nature and reveals how he or she figures things out. Showing us how scientists get from observations to ideas and theories is Bryson's aim, and he succeeds brilliantly. It is an adventure of the mind, as exciting as any of Bryson's terrestrial journeys.

I have read quite a few Bill Bryson books this year. I enjoy his comic voice, which is evident in this book, though not as strong as in the other books I read. Partly, it’s the subject matter. Still, he manages to explain some complex topics in an accessible way and be entertaining at the same time. I was reminded in particular of my courses in anthropology, astronomy, and weather and climate from college as I listened. I was surprised I remembered so much.

The book might be a little out of date. I think it was originally published in 2003, and I have a whole grown-up son living in my house who was published the same year. As such, given the scientific nature of the book’s topics, I believe some of the information to be out of date. For example, Bryson asserts in the books that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did not breed and even argued that the results might be similar to a mule (!). Well, I’m not sure when scientists discovered that’s not true, but the current prevailing thought is that they did, and not only did they, but many people the world over carry Neanderthal DNA. That was one example that I caught. It’s tricky because what we understand and the science behind it changes all the time.

Still, this was an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is not Bryson, but he’s great.

four-half-stars

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill BrysonShakespeare by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0061555347
on October 23, 2007
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Length: 5 hours 28 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

If you’ve seen my most recent reviews, you might have noticed I’m on a bit of a Bill Bryson kick right now. I had been wanting to read this book for a while, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t moved it from my TBR pile to my reading pile. The other day, I had to put a hold on an audiobook I wanted from the library, and I figured I’d see if I could listen to this one instead, especially as it is short. Yesterday, the book I had put on hold became available to check out, so I thought I should try to finish this book up.

Did I learn anything new here? Well, not really, but that’s only because I’ve read a lot about Shakespeare. I’m no expert, but I have been teaching his plays for over 20 years, and I have taken coursework in addition to the reading I’ve done. I think the average casual reader would learn quite a bit.

Bryson is by no means a Shakespeare scholar, but what he writes in this slim book corresponds with what I have learned from others. The book’s brevity and humor might make it more accessible for some people interested in learning more about what we can know definitively about William Shakespeare. The truth is, we know quite a lot, particularly for a man of the sixteenth/seventeenth centuries. He’s one of the most dissected people to have lived, and unlikely new discoveries are sometimes made. Bryson recounts a few of these in the book. He carefully veers away from speculating when we don’t really know—which is refreshing because people fill in the gaps of our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life in some really strange ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for what it was meant to be: a brief biography based entirely on what we know about William Shakespeare.

five-stars

Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill BrysonA Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Published by Broadway Books ISBN: 0767902521
on May 4, 1999
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 9 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

Back in America after twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes—and to a writer with the comic genius of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings. For a start, there's the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the walk. Despite Katz's overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants, he and Bryson eventually settle into their stride, and while on the trail they meet a bizarre assortment of hilarious characters. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud hike. Bryson's acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America's last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration, A Walk in the Woods has become a modern classic of travel literature.

After finishing and enjoying Bill Bryson’s book about traveling Australia, In a Sunburned Country, I wanted to read A Walk in the Woods. I have taken up walking myself, and while I harbor no desire to walk the Appalachian Trail, I understand the joy a good walk can bring. This book really brings together a few different elements. On one level, it’s the history and ecology of the AT. It’s also a travelogue, which I expected after reading In a Sunburned Country. However, what I didn’t expect (not having read reviews) was that this would be a buddy story. Bryson is accompanied on his journey—his old friend Stephen Katz joins Bryson’s hike and threatens to walk away with the whole narrative. I’d love to know Katz’s reasons for wanting to walk the AT with Bill Bryson, but I’m glad he went.

My largest problem with the book was the narrator wasn’t Bryson. He also mispronounced a few proper nouns, which always bothers me. There are more than a few Deliverance references meant to be jokes, as well. That old stereotype wears very thin after a while, but I felt Bryson was attempting to rationalize some of his anxiety; I’m not sure to what extent he really believes those stereotypes.

This book was particularly fun to listen to as I walked, and I especially enjoyed hearing about some of the places I was more familiar with—the segment on Mount Greylock was interesting to me, as I have visited it and remember seeing everything he described. I imagine it would be fun to read this book while hiking the AT. I learned a great deal about the AT, and I also learned more about ecological concerns facing conservationists today.

five-stars

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill BrysonIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by Random House ISBN: 1415920737
on January 4, 2000
Genres: Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 11 hours 54 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars

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 curiosity.

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.

After an aborted attempt at reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North* by Richard Flanagan for the Book Voyage Challenge (a book set in Australia or New Zealand), I decided to check this title out from the library. I had previously read Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue with mixed results, but I had heard this book was pretty good, and it was. I learned a lot about Australian history and natural science, none of which I knew. Bryson makes the point that we forget about Australia, and I think it’s a valid point.

I found his chapters on the indigenous population to be most interesting. Is there a place in the world where an indigenous population has been treated with a modicum of respect? I’m sincerely asking. What happened to Australia’s Aboriginal population is very similar to what happened to the indigenous population in the United States.

I was also fascinated by Bryson’s description of Australia’s natural features and wildlife. I’m not sure if he has convinced me to visit Australia or steer clear! Of course, Bryson’s characteristic wit makes for a fun read. It made me want to read more of his books, especially those that deal a bit with travel (I checked A Walk in the Woods out from my library). Bryson makes an effort to see as much of Australia as he can—even places that it sounds like many Australians don’t necessarily see. He has a deep curiosity and a wonderful way of drawing the reader into that curiosity.

Bryson narrates this audiobook, and he is a good narrator—many writers are not necessarily good at reading their work. If you do read it, I recommend the audiobook with the caveat that you might find you want to look up some of the text. It was a much more enjoyable read than I was expecting. My only concern is that at times, Bryson seems a bit glib. It was hard to read his concern for the Aboriginal population summed up like this:

If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues, all I could write would be “Do more. Try harder. Start now.”

So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.

No one is asking Bryson to solve a problem that is centuries in the making. Obviously, no one person can resolve systemic racism alone, especially as a visitor to another country, but deciding not to see it is remaining complicit. This book is now about 20 years old, and I wonder if Bryson would write that last sentence again if he wrote this book now (not that we can excuse him for writing it then). I am glad he spent some pages discussing Aboriginal issues and history, but this book is not the book to really learn about Australia’s indigenous population. Bryson’s curiosity only went so far.

Where he shines is in his self-deprecating description of his traveling fiascos (not being able to find a room, staying in bad hotels, getting an egregious sunburn, freaking out over the local fauna). As long as he keeps it light, this is a fun read. Bryson’s gift is making the reader feel like they’re traveling right along with him, and this was a pretty good trip.

*I was really hating this book. I disliked every single character, and the story was not grabbing me. I feel a little bad since the author was basing it on his father’s experiences in World War II, but there it is.

four-half-stars

Birthday Books 2008

My parents, in their infinite wisdom regaring gift giving, have made it an annual practice to give me a bookstore gift card for my birthday.  I nearly let the month go by before I shared my purchases this month with you.

This year, my selections were heavy on the Shakespeare, probably due to the fact that I took a class on teaching Shakespeare through the Folger Shakespeare Library in June.

I only hope I get a chance to read it all soon.

I started a reading group at my school.  I was surprised by the reception!  We have a good 15 interested teachers, which at my school is approaching half the faculty!  We are reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  I need to get started on that one or I won’t be ready for our first meeting.

The Mother Tongue

I finished Bill Bryson’s book about the English language, Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, a couple of days ago.  It was at times an entertaining read, and I think anyone who is interested in the English language or teaches English might want to read it.  I found the chapter on the development of English from Old English to Modern English particularly interesting.  Bryson’s wry observations about the strangeness of English are peppered throughout the book.  However, he does rely a bit on the same few scholars (Otto Jesperson and Mario Pei come up a lot), and I felt that the book became less interesting as it went on to the point that I had to force myself to finish it (I’d gone too far to go back).

The biggest problem I had with the book, however, is that it is now dated in the age of the Internet.  The book was published in the early 1990s.  Since the book was published, English has become even more essential for world business as it has become the language of most of the Internet.  As I read the book, I couldn’t help but feel it needs to have a new edition with Bryson’s analysis of the Internet’s impact on the development of English.  Without such an analysis, it doesn’t feel complete.