Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday Mix: Multi-Talented Bill Bryson

--by Hanje Richards

I just read a fantastic book by Bill Bryson. The book, his latest, is At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Best book I’ve read all year. Oh yeah, it is the first and only book I’ve read so far this year. Well, I have a feeling it is one of the best books I will read this year, and I am recommending it. I also plan to read several of these other books by Bryson during the course of 2011. Feel free to join me!

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, (born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. Born an American in Des Moines, Iowa, he was a resident of North Yorkshire, UK, for most of his professional life before moving back to the US in 1995. In 2003, Bryson moved back to the UK, living in Norfolk, and was appointed Chancellor of Durham University.

Bill Bryson is the UK’s biggest selling non-fiction author since official records began. In The Lost Continent, his hilarious first travel book, he chronicled a trip in his mother's Chevy around small town America.

Bill’s books on the English language, including Mother Tongue and Made in America, garnered wide critical and popular acclaim. Then, he turned his attention to science. A Short History of Nearly Everything was critically acclaimed, became a huge international bestseller, and won the Aventis Prize for Science Books as well as the Descartes Science Communication Prize.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life.

Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes On Returning to America After Twenty Years Away -After living in Britain for two decades, Bill Bryson recently moved back to the United States with his English wife and four children (Why? He had read somewhere that nearly three million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens – and, as he later put it, "…it was clear my people needed me…"). They were greeted by a new and improved America that boasts microwave pancakes, twenty-four-hour dental-floss hotlines, and the staunch conviction that ice is not a luxury item.

Bryson recounts his sometimes disconcerting reunion with the land of his birth. The result is a book filled with hysterical scenes of one man's attempt to reacquaint himself with his own country, but it is also an extended if at times bemused love letter to the homeland he has returned to after twenty years away.

In A Sunburned Country – This is Bryson’s 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.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Using his persona of the Thunderbolt Kid as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality – a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and of his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America - Journalist Bryson decided to relive the dreary vacation car trips of his American childhood. Starting out at his mother's house in Des Moines, Iowa, he motors through 38 states over the course of two months, looking for the quintessential American small town.
Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States - An engagingly written chronological history of the United States, focusing on popular culture and language. Bryson attempts to explain why American English is the way it is – why Americans paint the town red, talk turkey, keep a stiff upper lip, etc. He puts individual words and expressions in their social context as well as presenting well-researched and thoughtful discussions of our discovery and colonization of the New World, the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, westward expansion, the age of invention and industrialization, modern politics and war, popular culture, and the current state of American English. This is a page-turning trip across linguistic America that takes many deliciously discursive side trips.
The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way - Bill Bryson brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience, and sheer fun of the English language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can't), to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world's largest growth industries.

Short History of Nearly Everything - Bryson confronts his greatest challenge yet: to understand – and, if possible, answer – the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as his territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. The result is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it.

A Walk In the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail - Following his return to America after twenty years in Britain, Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The AT, as it's affectionately known to thousands of hikers, 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 test his own powers of ineptitude and to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings.