In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“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 curiousity.

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.”

This year I started re-reading some old favorite books, and I had to include Bryson’s works in that category. His narrative A Walk in the Woods was the book that truly got me interested in non-fiction and sent me down the rabbit hole of learning about subjects that I never would have imagined being interested in. In the case of this book, it’s not that I was never interested in Australia, but more that I never really saw anything about it. The most that I thought I knew was that it is home to tons of things that can kill you.

In a Sunburned Country doesn’t gloss over the murderous capacity of the continent and its resident critters, but it also conveys the stark beauty of the place. From Uluru, the massive rock formation sacred to the Aboriginal people, to the beach where a former Australian prime minister was swept out to sea and vanished, Bryson’s wanderings take him to both large cities and isolated hamlets, to sweeping vistas and small forgotten corners.

What it turned out that I appreciated the most was Bryson’s commitment to learning about Australia’s history, politics, people, and culture. During his narrative, he writes about the books that he reads along the way, the newspapers he picks up, and the people that he talks to. He doesn’t shy away from touching on the plight of the Aboriginal people or the uncomfortable reactions of white Australians when the subject is raised. He delves into scientific discoveries and foolhardy ventures. All in all, Australia is a much more interesting place than its lack of prominence in the nightly news would lead you to believe.

And of course, being Bryson, he infused his narrative with his own signature brand of humor, that dry combination of American sarcasm and British absurdity. I always laugh out loud when reading about his attempts to body board with friends, or hearing his observations on some of that lethal wildlife. Learning and laughter–that’s what Bryson excels at.

Curious about the land of kangaroos and koalas? I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an excellent starting point.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Left for Dead by Beck Weathers

“In 1996 Beck Weathers and a climbing team pushed toward the summit of Mount Everest. Then a storm exploded on the mountain, ripping the team to shreds, forcing brave men to scratch and crawl for their lives. Rescuers who reached Weathers saw that he was dying, and left him. Twelve hours later, the inexplicable occurred. Weathers appeared, blinded, gloveless, and caked with ice—walking down the mountain. In this powerful memoir, now featuring a new Preface, Weathers describes not only his escape from hypothermia and the murderous storm that killed eight climbers, but the journey of his life. This is the story of a man’s route to a dangerous sport and a fateful expedition, as well as the road of recovery he has traveled since; of survival in the face of certain death, the reclaiming of a family and a life; and of the most extraordinary adventure of all: finding the courage to say yes when life offers us a second chance.”

Ever since I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, I’ve had a fascination with the 1996 Everest disaster.  It’s not only me that feels this way—if the recent movie Everest is any indication, the tale’s staying power hasn’t diminished with time.  A recent Amazon Kindle deal led me to Weathers’s memoir, which I had heard of but hadn’t read.  Interestingly, this book is less about the actual event and more about Weathers himself, what led him to the mountain, and what happened after he returned.

The 1996 climb takes up the first small section of the book, and then readers get an intimate portrait of what might drive a man to climb a mountain that could conceivably kill him.  That’s a question that many people ask when they read about what it takes to summit Everest, or see a movie about it, or a documentary.  What would drive someone to undertake such a perilous endeavor?  In Weathers’s case, it was depression.

I admire the author for talking candidly about his struggles with depression over the course of many years and how they affected both him and his family.  The book is interspersed with sections by other people in Weathers’s life, most particularly his wife, Peach.  Neither of them make any attempt to hide how difficult it was to deal with what Weathers was going through.  He himself makes no bones about the fact that he climbed mountains because the sheer physical effort drowned out the blackness that he often felt.  He’s also unflinching in admitting that he never considered asking for help with what he was feeling.

Much like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Left for Dead focuses more on the person than on the physical feat, but unlike Strayed, Weathers doesn’t appear to wallow in his issues.  Rather, he faces them with the clarity of hindsight and never lets himself off the hook for the damage that he did to those he loves.  For this, I truly admire him.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

dead-mountainIn February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened. This gripping work of literary nonfiction delves into the mystery through unprecedented access to the hikers’ own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author’s retracing of the hikers’ fateful journey in the Russian winter. A fascinating portrait of the young hikers in the Soviet era, and a skillful interweaving of the hikers narrative, the investigators’ efforts, and the author’s investigations, here for the first time is the real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.

I wouldn’t have found this book if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a daily deal on Amazon around Halloween.  And admittedly, barring a true crime book about a horrible murder, this is a good one to choose for the season of spookiness.  Nine hikers all running half-dressed into sub-zero temperatures?  Mysterious injuries?  Creepy balls of light in the sky?  Possibly government cover-up?  This story certainly has all the elements of a horror tale (especially if you do any hiking beyond a paved state park trail), with the added bonus that it actually happened and has gone unexplained for over a half a century.

Author Donnie Eichar went on a personal quest to find answers, burning through his own savings and leaving his girlfriend and child behind on two different occasions to go to Russia and hunt for the truth.  Does he find it?  Well… not really.  There are tons of theories about what happened, and by the end of this book, Eichar’s theory actually comes across as the most likely, even if it does sound like something out of science fiction.  Obviously, we can never know what really happened that night in 1959, but with recent advances in scientific inquiry, I think that Eichar comes as close to the real story as we’ll ever get.

And the author does a good job of investigative journalism, considering how very cold the case is (in more ways than one).  He intertwines three narratives–that of the hikers, that of the rescue teams, and his own trek into Russia–to paint as complete a picture as possible of the circumstances surrounding the event and its aftermath.  The sections following the rescuers are especially gripping, because they intersect with the secretive Communist regime and raise questions that would be ludicrous in any other setting but are understandable here.  For example, why was the lead investigator so certain that the mysterious balls of light spotted around the time of the deaths key in understanding what happened?  And why, after a hush-hush trip out of town, did that same investigator forbid any further delving into, or even talk of, those lights?  It’s like a spy novel come to life… and again, this all actually happened, so it’s even more thrilling.

In the end, you won’t get anything truly definitive from this book as far as an answer to what happened to the Dyatlov group, but you will get a compelling picture of living in Communist Russia, hiking in an era with less high-tech gear than we now have, and of the efforts that it takes to solve a decades-old mystery.  I think this book is a worthy addition to the shelves of those who enjoyed Into Thin Air and other book in this genre.

This book was a personal purchase.

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The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

the-road-to-little-dribbling“In 1995 Bill Bryson got into his car and took a weeks-long farewell motoring trip about England before moving his family back to the United States. The book about that trip, Notes from a Small Island, is uproarious and endlessly endearing, one of the most acute and affectionate portrayals of England in all its glorious eccentricity ever written. Two decades later, he set out again to rediscover that country, and the result is The Road to Little Dribbling. Nothing is funnier than Bill Bryson on the road—prepare for the total joy and multiple episodes of unseemly laughter.”

I make no apologies about my love for Bill Bryson’s writing.  His blend of dry British humor, love of odd facts, and storyteller’s sense of timing combine to make, for me, something pretty close to perfection.  And his newest book is more of the same, showcasing his observations of a Britain very different from the one he first encountered in Notes from a Small Island.

One of the things that first drew me to Bryson’s writing was his humor.  I think some of it comes from the tendency of Brits to employ that wacky, off-the-wall sense of what would be funny.  Think Monty Python and the things they pulled on their TV show and in their movies.  But some of it seems to be specific to certain British print humor–I’m thinking of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams–wherein the author channels that wackiness into turns of phrase that sound absurd and yet are instantly recognizable as true or accurate.  It makes for some marvelous imagery, and rarely a chapter goes by in which I don’t dissolve into a giggle fit over something.

I also love Bryson’s sense of place.  What I mean by that is, he has this magical way of ferreting out the oddest bits of history concerning locations or time periods or the people in them, and then weaving it into his narrative.  You’d think that it would become boring or rambling, but it doesn’t.  Instead, you get this sense that absolutely everyplace has a forgotten history just waiting to be unearthed, and if you just look hard enough, you might find it.  Whether it’s the twisting streets and side-alleys of London or the broad sweep of the coast near Brighton, you can’t help but want to go there and see these wonderful places for yourself.

Bryon is a little bit more curmudgeonly in this book than in previous ones.  He’s never held back on acerbic observations, but in this book it’s a bit more on display.  Some of this is the nature of the book itself: the author is revisiting places that have gone through tremendous amounts of change and economic upheaval, and it’s natural to think “Yeah, but back in MY day…”  Mostly it’s tempered with his humor, but there’s a note of wistfulness here, a note of disappointment, that so much has changed.  At one point, he sums up the situation succinctly by saying that the things that make England so charming (old churches, hedgerows, etc.) add nothing to the economy and are therefore in danger of being swept aside.

And yet, the love of his adopted country is still evident.  He may at times think that it’s silly, or misguided, or plain weird, but he still loves it.  And that’s what I like to see most–I want to see that love in his stories so that I can get a bit of that vicarious pleasure.  With luck, I’ll visit England one day myself, but until then, I’ve got no better tour guide than Bryson and his stock of tales.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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