In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

March 9, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): Compared to his Australian excursions, Bill Bryson had it easy on the Appalachian Trail. Nonetheless, Bryson has on several occasions embarked on seemingly endless flights bound for a land where Little Debbies are scarce but insects are abundant (up to 220,000 species of them), not to mention crocodiles.

Taking readers on a rollicking ride far beyond packaged-tour routes, IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY introduces a place where interesting things happen all the time. Leaving no Vegemite unsavored, readers will accompany Bryson as he dodges jellyfish while learning to surf at Bondi Beach, discovers a fish that can climb trees, dehydrates in deserts where temperatures leap to 140 degrees F, and tells the true story of the rejected Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House.

Liked:

  • There’s no question that Bryson has a terrific voice. His writing style is humorous and informative, and makes me want to read his stuff no matter the topic. I wasn’t particularly interested in Australia, yet I read this book from beginning to end. That ought to tell you something about the author!
  • I liked some of the glimpses of Bryson’s own travel habits, such as how he reads local newspapers to get an idea of what’s going on (and how he “follows” a certain story for the length of time he’s in Australia) and how he reads books while traveling to get a sense of the history of a place so he can appreciate things a bit more. I don’t do these things (I know I should, but the farthest I ever get is a Frommer’s guide), but the way Bryson shows how invaluable this research can be has inspired me to be a better traveler.
  • The information about the Aborigines was very good. I found that to be one of the more engrossing sections of the book. I had no idea they were treated so poorly (to the point that Australians didn’t even know that killing them was against the law) and that their situation hasn’t improved very much with time. The anecdote about how some Aborigines shuffle through the streets of big cities in some kind of daze due to alcohol problems or whatever was rather poignant.

Disliked:

  • It seemed that an unusually large portion of the book consisted of filler. How many pages upon pages were there of descriptions of the empty Outback? I get that Australia is a vast country filled with a whole lotta nothing between the coasts. Bryson surely didn’t need to go on and on and on about this particular fact, did he? And why would anyone in their right mind drive across that expanse in the first place, knowing that there wasn’t much to see on the journey? The only way I would have done that is if I had a luxurious RV at my disposal. Even then, I’d want to make sure I had the number of a company that does emergency motorhome repairs in case anything bad happened. Wouldn’t Bryson have been better off just flying?
  • Too much time was spent talking about the various insects, flowers, trees, and dangerous animals found in Australia. I have no objection to including some cursory information about this stuff, but Bryson again went on at length about so many different plants and animals that it got to be a bit boring. I prefer travel guides that focus on people, not plants, so I was disappointed here.
  • Bryson was downright condescending about a lot of people that he met on his travels. From hotel clerks that didn’t know enough to suit him to American travelers that fit the “dumb redneck” stereotype, Bryson seemed a bit less friendly than usual.
  • I know some people like to travel off the beaten path and all that, but he spent a whole two hours at Ayer’s Rock? Really? And a similarly short time at the Great Barrier Reef? That seems like such a waste!

Rating:

As a big Bill Bryson fan, I was somewhat disappointed with In a Sunburned Country. Though his witty writing style shines through, there is still a lot of filler to slog through — and not all of it was interesting. If you’ve been to Australia or are planning to go, then you might connect with the material in ways that I just wasn’t able to. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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