Wednesday, September 4, 2013

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013)

One Summer: America, 1927 is more of a straightforward history than some of his previous books, but still contains that certain Bryson style, somewhat droll, interested in and always connecting bits of trivia to together, pulling the curtain back and revealing the real Oz behind whatever he's writing about.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  It was intriguing, even about subjects I'd previously read about (such as Lindbergh).  There were times towards the end of the book when the line drawn through the events was simply that took place during that particular summer without much effort in connecting them any further.  But then, Bryson's writing style is the real line drawn through and splicing together the entire summer of 1927.  Even things I thought were going to be boring - boxing for instance - Bryson is able to make interesting because he is such a damn good writer.

An example of pulling back the curtain  -- Bryson pulls the curtain back on Herbert Hoover (or gives him a tiny hatchet job).   Hoover always seems to be being rehabilitated  Regardless of what you think of his politics and economics, he just doesn't sound like a nice man:

Herbert Hoover lived to be ninety, and never in the whole of that time, so far as can be told, experienced anything approaching a moment's real joy.
His life was work.  Nothing else.
Dinners at his house often passed in more or less complete silence.  "Never was he heard  to mention a poem, a play, a work of art," wrote one observer. Instead, he just steadily accumulated wealth.
Hoover... was meticulous in ensuring that every positive act associated with him was inflated to maximum importance and covered with a press release.
To those who knew him he seemed to have no feelings at all.
His manner was cold, vain, prickly and snappish.  He never thanked subordinates or inquired into their happiness or well being.  He had no visible capacity for friendliness or warmth.  He did not even like shaking hands.
One of his closest associates remarked that in 30 years he had never heard Hoover laugh out loud.

Bryson also does something similar to Calvin Coolidge, the darling of the far right who also always is being rehabilitated as well ("No one has ever more successfully made a virtue out of doing nothing.).  But Bryson dunks Hoover far more times than he dunks Coolidge, I think.  Clearly, no love lost there.

Some examples of Bryson's fine, easy going, accessible (and sometimes droll) style of writing and making his research come alive to the reader:  "Modern baseball has a certain air of timelessness that is much cherished by its fans.  A visitor from our age transported to a major league ballpark of the 1920s would find himself, in my most respects, in entirely familiar territory.  The play on the field, the sounds of the crowd, the cries of the vendors would all be reassuringly familiar in ways that many other aspects in the 1920s would not.  (The same visitor would struggle to start a car, make a phone call, tune a radio, even cross a busy street)."  This paragraph was what drew me into caring about the baseball aspects of the book; I learned more about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and cared about them more, than I'd ever imagined.  The slightly droll Brysonian aside in parenthesis, though, that's what I particularly loved about this paragraph.  You feel like you are having a real discussion with Bryson about modern baseball, 1920s baseball, and then the entire 1920s world verses our own 21st century world.

Another look at the 1920s world, and a reminder to anyone wanting to go back to the "good old days," this time about Henry Ford's wonderful assembly line:  "Workers in Ford plants were not permitted to talk, hum, whistle, sit, learn, pause for reflection or otherwise behave in non-robotic fashion while working, and were given just one 30-minute break per shift in which to go to the lavatory, have lunch or attend to any other personal needs."  Good old days my ass.

"It was one hell of a summer."

One Summer: America, 1927One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you've read and loved Bill Bryson in the past, you shouldn't be disappointed in this new book.  It's more of a straightforward history than some of his previous stuff, but still chock full of Bryson's easy going, comfortable, sometimes droll, but always well written style. One Summer is both filled with both big ideas and events and bits and pieces of pop cultural memorabilia about the particularly eventful, forceful and quintessential 1920s year (and American year) of 1927.  Bryson's makes connections between trivia and signficant persons, places and things; this falls apart a bit towards the end, when the only narrative line drawn through several sections is the summer of 1927 (and, of course, Bryson's writing personality and/or persona).  One thing Bryson always does so well - one of the reasons I love reading him - is pulling the curtain back to reveal the real Oz; he does this particularly well when dealing with Herbert Hoover (an thoroughly unpleasant man) but Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Clara Bow, and various others all get the "Bryson" treatment.  In the end, if 1927 was "one hell of a year," this was "one hell of a book."

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