Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Down Under

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. From Down Under:

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... (I'm looking at you, Pat!) 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.



DesLily said...

aww crap.
I don't need another book on my wish list! (although I will watch in used book stores for it)..highly unlikely to find as when I did find a walk in the woods the salesperson said "i was damn lucky! bryson books disappear the same day one is brought in!)doh.

ok.. amazon wish list *sigh*

DesLily said...

...called by any other name?

Val + the Girls- BK +CK said...

oooo a fellow Galaxy Quest fan...Alan Rickman creases me up in that and Sigourney Weaver..well nuff said.

Must get the Bill Bryson ...I could have words with you about a certain person's responsibility for a rather long book list...cough,cough,but as it's a lovely list .. I better thank you (what my oh will say is another matter):0)

Marg said...

As an Aussie that last sentence gave me warm fuzzies! I have been meaning to read this book for ages to see an outsiders view of us!

Kailana said...

I own several Bryson books, but I take forever to actually read him!

Cath said...

Pat: It's as good, if not better, than A Walk in the Woods.

What's called by any other name? Down Under? No I think that's a universal title.

Val: I adore Galaxy Quest, never tire of watching it and laughing at all the sci-fi nerd jokes. Even though I am one. LOL

Sorry about that. *cough* The library perhaps? Of course I'm not sure how close you are to a town...

Marg: Oh... as an Aussie you really should read this one. Though be prepared for him to poke gentle fun... as he does with all countries he visits. But mainly he just adores Australia the longer he stays. LOL.

Kelly: If you have Down Under I can highly recommend it.

lifeonthecutoff said...

We must have similar senses of humor, Cath, I"ve laughed so hard I need a change of clothes. I loved "A Walk in the Woods" and have one or two Bryson's sitting around here gathering dust, but, will be on the lookout for "Down Under".

DesLily said...

could it be this?


fiction-books said...

Hi Cath,

I find that books, television, or films, that have comedy in them, tend to leave me cold and completely unimpressed.

I have just started to become interested in 'cozy' mysteries, which are a little tongue-in-cheek and slightly humorous, although it took me some time to recognise the humour for what it was and is still not a genre that I could stomach reading constantly.

We have a couple of Bryson books on the shelves, but I don't think that either of us have ever opened the pages. My dad has read a couple of Bryson's, but argued that one was very much like another, so he didn't want any more of them.

Hubbie and I have a similar aversion to much of the humour around, in all its various guises, so we seldom disagree on what to watch, or read. We do however, both enjoy stand-up comedy, from a quite eclectic mix of international acts.

I think the only exception and time we really disagreed about a book, was the Jeremy Clarkson book whch he bought to read on holiday a couple of years back. There is no way on earth that I would have even read the synopsis for it and to be fair to Dave, he didn't want to read any more of the series, than the one book!!!

Nice post and I am ashamed to say, that the cricket comments did make me smile, although I do enjoy watching the game.


Susan said...

Oooh Galaxy Quest! Wasn't that a really fun film! I have to see that again soon.

I'm now checking my shelves to see if we have this one by Bryson. We have several of his travel books, I really enjoy his humour. I love what he said about cricket! lol

Cath said...

Pat: I'll check that out in a minute...

Penny: I understand you completely when you say how hard you laughed. I'm exactly the same. Down Under is well worth searching out.

Yvonne: I think we're opposites. Bryson's books appeal to my sense of the ridiculous and bizarre. Whereas a lot of stand-up comedy leaves me a bit cold. Not all. I really like Sarah Milligan, Michael McIntyre, Dara O'Briain and a few others. But some of the new wave of comedians think they're funny and they're just not.

I do however completely agree with you about Jeremy Clarkson! LOL.

Susan: Oh yes... Galaxy Quest... hugely funny. I think you need to be able to laugh at yourself and that movie makes me do just that. I need to watch it again soon too.

Hope you have Down Under on your shelves. I just picked up The Lost Continent from the library so am very happy about that.

When you're ready, let me know when you want to start The Morville Hours.

Nan said...

Over here it was called, In a Sunburned Country, and I think it is his very best book (I haven't read all but the best of what I have read). Tom and I still quote from it. It's the creatures down there that freak me out. Huge spider webs on trees as you walk down the street! Poisonous snakes! Sharks!
That's my humor, too. Most jokes leave me just like Alice in the Vicar of Dibley. I am too literal. :<) Physical humor makes me laugh. When Tom recently told Margaret that he fell (not hurt), she immediately asked, 'did mum laugh?' I have a reputation. Even when things happen to me, there's a laugh inside me.

Nan said...

I should have noted Fawlty Towers. I laugh just thinking about episodes.

Cath said...

Nan: Yes, I rather think Down Under might just be Bryson's best book too. I'll have to reserve judgement until I've read a couple more but really DU has everything. He must have done a massive amount of research for it, although he gives you the feeling that he just read books along the way! Yes... it's the amount of deadly creatures that freak me out too, but I also find them strangely fascinating.

Oh yes... Fawlty Towers. Still very funny, even after all these years.