One Summer by Bill Bryson

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Title: One Summer: America, 1927
Author: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: 2013
Genre: nonfiction, history

The Premise

From Goodreads:

The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed in Le Bourget airfield near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, the titanically talented Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record, which would culminate on September 30 with his sixtieth blast, one of the most resonant and durable records in sports history. In between those dates a Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her corset-salesman lover garroted her husband, leading to a murder trial that became a huge tabloid sensation. Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days—a new record. The American South was clobbered by unprecedented rain and by flooding of the Mississippi basin, a great human disaster, the relief efforts for which were guided by the uncannily able and insufferably pompous Herbert Hoover. Calvin Coolidge interrupted an already leisurely presidency for an even more relaxing three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The gangster Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through a gaudy and murderous reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. The four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression.
All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927, and Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

I listened to the audiobook read by the author.

The Good

  • Bill Bryson is an exceptional, nimble storyteller. He manages to weave together a half dozen main threads (Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth, Sacco and Vanzetti, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge’s presidency, prohibition) while also touching on important events and trends in the worlds of politics, literature, film, sports, etc. He manages to provide enough background for this American who hasn’t taken a history class in nearly two decades to understand the context of these events without getting bogged down in too many details. All that, and he’s occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
  • Bill Bryson is an above average audiobook reader. That sounds a bit like I’m damning him with faint praise, but truly good readers are few and far between, particularly when it comes to an author reading his or her books. His performance is witty and warm and strangely soothing. Also, I swear he almost starts to laugh at one point because what he’s discussing is so ridiculous, and that’s all kinds of charming to me.
  • Bill Bryson understands my need for random trivia.
    • Exhibit A: Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon named Rebecca.
    • Exhibit B: Calvin Coolidge’s son died of a blister. (Super sad, but still… a blister! Modern medicine is the best).
    • Exhibit C: The Model T was the first car of importance in America to have the driver’s seat on the left-hand side. Why? Chivalry, or something (so the ladies could step onto the sidewalk rather than the muddy road).
    • Exhibit D: “Henry Ford had the additional distinction of being the only American mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s memoir of 1925.”
  • Bill Bryson is here to remind you that it everything wasn’t better in the past:
    • Exhibit A: Apparently, everyone was a biggot. Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were both horrifying anti-semites. Every other person of note seems to have been a racist. The Ku Klux Klan had a big revival. Everything was awful.
    • Exhibit B: The government has always dysfunctional. Calvin Coolidge was the laziest, nappingest president ever. Prohibition was just about the stupidest thing any government has ever done.
    • Exhibit C: You think JFK or Clinton was the worst, most philanderingest president in office? Check out Warren G. Harding and his 20-something girlfriend’s tell-all bestseller.

The Bad

  • It’s kind of boring. He goes on a lot of digressions, and they’re not going to interest everyone. For me, that actually makes the book sort of perfect to listen to because I tend to be doing something else while I’m listening and it allows my mind to wander for a bit. Having those primary threads run throughout the book helped though because I’d zone out while listening to him talk about banking, and then all the sudden we’d be back to Babe Ruth and I’d be in.
  • This is another “not bad for me, but bad for some” point: this is pop history. If you’re a proper history nerd, I suspect that this book isn’t going to make the grade.

The Verdict

4/5 stars. Recommended for Bill Bryson fans, nonfiction audiobook listeners, casual history nerd, and people who want to understand why America is so weird and dysfunctional.

 

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