Review: "In a Sunburned Country" by Bill Bryson

  • Posted on: 5 March 2017
  • By: TedG

Seven book group members braved the bitter cold and lack of pizza (The Rivers was unexpectedly closed) to discuss Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and select next year’s reads. Fortunately, the lack of pizza was compensated for with free beer (complements of Irv and John), which helped lubricate the conversation. The donated beer did not give Irv and John a leg up in the next year’s book selection process, but was greatly appreciated. 

About Bryson's book: this is a cleverly written travelogue about Australia, punctuated with lots of local and obscure Australian history, almost all of it interesting. Several folks thought the book would have benefited with the addition of better, more extensive maps and pictures. Scott and John had been to Australia and found it charming and fascinating, and most said they would be interested in visiting the country, in part based on Bryson’s observations. 

Some of our observations:

As above, more maps and pictures would have been helpful to orient the reader since Bryson was constantly on the move. 

We all really appreciated the history snippets. One in particular about an early Australian aviator who was the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean, fly east to west across the Atlantic, etc. He holds many record “firsts” but is virtually unknown outside of Australia.

Bryson is also a keen observer of the flora and particularly fauna of the country, noting that the country has more species of poisonous snakes (8 of the top 10 world’s most poisonous, I think), huge poisonous and aggressive spiders, the world’s most poisonous jelly fish, killer birds like Emus with blades, and of course salt water crocodiles. He seemed to dwell on these a lot. 

The range of towns and cities was astounding, from huge, urban Sidney to Alice Springs to small, 100-person towns in the middle of the desert. But Australians, wherever they lived, seemed to be uniformly friendly, open, laid back and interesting. 

Most of us enjoyed his writing, though a few thought he went on and on too much in a few areas.  But all thought he was a thoughtful, sensitive, and humorous observer of almost all aspects of the country. However, he was critical of the Australian’s treatment of the Aborigines. In his conversations with white Australians, Aborigines were mostly ignored, virtually invisible. This aspect of the culture perplexed Bryson and, for that matter, his readers.

We had an interesting conversation about the origins of the Aborigines, who had populated the continent for 60,000 years. How did they get there? What motivated their early ancestors to leave their original island homes? 

Ratings for the book were fairly high in terms of readability, interest and likelihood of reading another Bryson book (yes, no, maybe). Among the seven in attendance, plus nine who forwarded their ratings, Bryson scored an average of 4.4 for readability, 4.2 for interest, and all but one person would definitely read another of Bryson’s books (the one person said “maybe”). 

About the next year’s books. These are our selections thus far, along with the scheduled meeting dates on which we will discuss them:

March 2: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

April 6: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

May 4: The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck

June 1: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

July 6: Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides

August 3: A Separate Peace by John Knowles

September 7: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

October 5: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

November: No meeting scheduled, as we will be reading the long and profound Wallace Stegner book, Angle of Repose.

December 7: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner