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Australia - kangaroo

Down Under - Bill Bryson

It seems that what I really like in books is humour. If an author can make me laugh, he or she has me for life. The trouble is, it's rare. Often, what other people think is hilarious I'm simply not impressed by at all. Which makes me realise that sense of humour is a very personal thing and what makes one person laugh will not necessarily have another rolling on the floor in hysterics. I'm a huge Terry Pratchett fan for instance, I find his way with words very funny and it's all connected with how clever he is with said words. My husband is not at all smitten with Pratchett, thinks the humour is forced - which it might well be - and just doesn't get it. He is not alone.

For me an author rather similar to Pratchett is Bill Bryson. It's not necessarily what he says... but how he says it.




This led to a fond recollection of other near-death experiences with animals, of which Australians always have a large fund - an encounter with a crocodile in Queensland, killer snakes nearly stepped on, waking up to find a redback abseiling on a thread towards one's face. Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country's dangers are vastly overrated and that there's nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dash-board and bit him in the groin, but that it's OK now because he's off the life-support machine and they've discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.

To me, this is funny. Very funny. Okay it's also a clear example of black humour and shouldn't be funny at all, but it is. It makes me wonder which nation this kind of humour represents. Bryson is American but is also very much an Anglophile. To me his writing style doesn't seem to be overtly American but perhaps the drollness of his humour is. I know that the way Americans put things makes me laugh a lot, their turn of phrase... often just a couple of well chosen words can have me in fits.

More from Bryson, this time on cricket:

After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players (more if they are moderately restless). It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.

See? Wonderful... although I am in no way a cricket fan and perhaps if I was I might not be quite so tickled by the several further pages of comment he devotes to the sport. (On the other hand I *am* a Trekkie and still adore the movie, Galaxy Quest...)

Bryson just seems to hit the spot for me and Down Under was just a glorious read, every bit as good as my erstwhile favourite by him, A Walk in the Woods.

I'm not going to say a huge amount more. Basically he went off to explore Australia in the late 1990s. It's a massive country but he explains that the vast majority of the country is uninhabitable, being mostly desert and bush-country. He explores the Australian psyche but feels he never really gets a handle on that, though he seems to love Australians regardless and you can see why.

There is much about the history (both white and Aboriginal) of the country which I found absolutely fascinating. The various explorations by white men are absolutely rivetting - their bravery but also stupidity. Some of the stories sound like they come from 'Boy's Own' type of books and are fictional. Not so.

There's also a lot about the flora and fauna and how each of those is more dangerous in Australia than anywhere else in the world. I'm sorry to say I enjoyed far too much the many stories about how people have come to grief in the country - abandoned on the Great Barrier Reef (!), lost in the outback, killed by crocodiles, attacked by box jelly-fish - one PM dived into the sea and was never seen again. The list is endless and, for me, totally fascinating: luckily Bryson thought so too so I'm not a the only blood-thirsty weirdo.

What I would say is if you know nothing about Australia and would like to then this book would be an excellent place to start. It's a gem to be honest. The copy I read is a library book but if I see it in a charity shop anywhere I'll grab it as I want to own a copy of my own. I'll let Mr Bryson finish this review:

Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn't have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn't need watching, and so we don't. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.

Comments

I also find myself chortling out loud at some of Bryson's writing. I remember one long road journey back from Stansted a few years ago with the children when they were teenagers when I played the talking book of "Neither here nor there" which is his book about travelling round Europe. We were all absolutely caught up in it and laughing frequently, the journey went by in a flash and it remains a favourite of mine for long journeys.
"Down under" is on my bathroom bookshelf on the basis that I can pick it up, open it and find something interesting and often amusing to read for however long I can hide in there for! It will take a while to get through all of it but the pleasure is just spread out!
Oh, Neither Here Nor There is excellent. Remember the bit about buying a loaf of bread in a Paris bakery? I nearly did myself a mischief laughing. Fun way to read Down Under! It's so good I want my own copy now because, as you say, it's easily a dip in and out of sort of book. I now have The Lost Continent from the library and if that's good I may have to buy that too. LOL.
I've never read Bryson (my loss, by the sound of things), but I love Terry Pratchett so much that I re-read his books when I'm feeling too depressed to watch television (not surprising, given the general level of programming these days, now that I think of it), and I always end up feeling much better.

Robert Benchley and James Thurber are both long dead, but their essays (especially Benchley's) can still put me in stitches. I think it's the dry, deadpan quality of the writing that starts off in one direction, then suddenly takes an unexpected turn that makes a certain amount of sense, but is ultimately absurd and ridiculous! In an amiable and witty fashion, of course. Like P.G.Wodehouse, or Monty Python.
I think you would like Bryson's writing. Down Under was particularly good, not just because it was funny, but also some of the historical stories of what people got up to in Australia were absolutely rivetting. 'Dry, deadpan' is exactly it. I'll look out for Benchley and Thurber, the former I've not heard of. One you might like too is Chain of Curiosity by Sandi Toksvig, a book of her newspaper columns. Very funny.