Friday, October 18, 2013

'One Summer: America 1927' by Bill Bryson

18 October 2013

Bill Bryson write two kinds of book – the travelogues which detail his first-hand encounters with countries, communities and people across the world, and his extensively desk-researched explorations (of Shakespeare, science, domestic life etc). I think my favourite Bryson is his childhood reminiscences 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid' (reviewed here in 2007) which (just about) fits into the second category. I particularly enjoyed his ability to conjure up the characters of a different era. So I was looking forward to Bill Bryson's new book 'One Summer: America 1927' which looks at five remarkable months in which America changed the world. Reading 'One Summer: America 1927' as an unabridged audio book, narrated by the author, I was initially a little underwhelmed. While there was nothing wrong with Bill Bryson's narration, I had just finished listening to the stunning performance of Julian Rhind-Tutt reading Jonathan Coe's novel 'Expo 58' (reviewed here in September 2013) and I'm afraid anyone would have sounded a bit flat after that. Also Bill Bryson's excessive use of statistics is particularly hard to take in without seeing the numbers in front of you. But once he got beyond the statistics and started to build pictures of the key individuals in his story I became gripped. The summer of 1927 in America was witness to an amazing array of events and an incredible cast of characters. Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. In baseball Babe Ruth was breaking every record in the books. The boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney drew the largest crowd to any sporting event ever. The lazy President, Calvin Coolidge, (about whose death Dorothy Parker would later ask “How could they tell?”) decided not to run for office at the end of his (unelected) term while future President Herbert Hoover built his reputation co-ordinating the relief effort after the great Mississippi flood. Al Capone presided over an empire of corruption and extortion in Chicago. Henry Ford ended production of his Model T and embarked on a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to create a rubber-producing city in the Amazon (Fordlandia). And talking pictures arrived with Al Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer'. It was quite a summer. Bill Bryson takes us chronologically through those summer months – with digressions to fill in the before and after to many of the stories. Lindbergh, Ruth and some of the other main protagonists provide overarching narratives which hold the book together. It's a powerful evocation of an era of prohibition, gangsters, anarchist terrorists, adventurers and celebrities. 



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