Monday, December 24, 2007

kookaburras and wombats and cassowaries, oh my!

Well, because I'm the worst lit major ever, I think this may be the first time in the months since I started this blog that I'll be reviewing a book! In full disclosure, I've actually not quite finished it yet, but as I'm just a few pages to the end and leaving on a jet plane verrry soon, I'm going to go ahead and share my experience with Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country. This is one of the dozens of books I've been meaning to read for years now, and I'm glad I finally did.

I've been to Australia about a dozen times now, and I could never claim to "know it well." Many of the trips were made when I was young, and we often have gone just to Sydney. Bryson's books recounts his journeys around the Boomerang Coast (Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Surfers Paradise, Brisbane) which I'm familiar with (except for Adelaide), as well as his jaunts further north to Cairns, Darwin, and inland to Alice Springs. The book begins with his journey on the Indian Pacific railroad from Sydney to Perth, and later concludes with his journey north from Perth up to Darwin again. And that is basically all of - indeed, beyond - Australia that is Westernized. It's an enormous country with huge expanses of unlivable desert, and Bryson travels almost entirely around the perimeter (sometimes in fits and spurts, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends).

Except for his journey from Darwin to Alice Springs, and on to Uluru, Bryson does not venture into the great, arid unknown, and he could hardly be expected to! His travel diary is broken up with anecdotes gathered from the wealth of research Bryson has done about the continent, most focusing on the trials of the outback and the fascinating stories of those who have tried (occasionally successfully) to brave it. The book does a fantastic job of paying attention to the natural boon that is Australia (flora, fauna, climate, the Great Barrier Reef, etc.), in between pleasant stays in the country's few metropolises. Though he barely spends any time in Brisbane, and never really mentions Tasmania, the book is surprisingly complete, encompassing a country so vast, young, and unknown, in a way approachable to most readers.

By the midway point of the book, I must say Bryson's voice was grating on me. It has the sort of air of someone quite above average intelligence dumbing himself down for a grateful audience. He clearly possesses an encyclopaedic brain, but overuse of terms like "antipodean," "raffish," and "At [name of town], the only town worthy of the name..." kept my eyes rolling. Also, when my 9th grade english teacher told me not to use "you" in my writing, I thought it too stiff of a rule. I realize after reading Bryson, that it is in fact judicious to be conservative with it, at least. You know. Of course, I still kept wanting to turn the page to find out more of what Bryson could teach me, so really, who am I to complain?

I'd be interested to hear him talk more candidly about the actual Australian people, though. He studies the Aborigines with wonder, and honestly discusses the racial/social problems that do pertain, but only touches upon discussing them like people. It's clear he's not racist, and does sympathize with them, but I'm surprised he didn't just refer to them as "natives" sometimes. As to the rest of the Australians, he admires their "cuteness," which gets a little tired, though I can't say I disagree with the fact that a people characterized by a society halfway between England and the U.S.A. is quite charming.

All in all, I was impressed by Bryson's respect for the ancient wonder that the huge landmass is, and I'm looking forward to returning to the Boomerang Coast with the extra knowledge that I now have.


Mike Spoodles said...

happy x-mas, kat!

Kat said...

happy christmas, spoodz!