Waxing [Literarily]: One Summer [Bill Bryson]

It was on a sunny Saturday in Vancouver, BC that I embarked on two history-learning journeys: (1) starting ‘One Summer’, Bill Bryson’s book on the exciting summer of 1927; and (2) Dan Carlin’s ‘Hardcore History’ series on ‘The Wrath of the Khans’, the telling of the Khan dynasty of warriors.

Though the histories here are different in so many ways, one struck me. Carlin, a man who has dedicated a lot of his time to his podcast (each episode is over 90 minutes and very well researched and rehearsed), he constantly asserts to his audience that he is not a historian. Bryson, on the other hand, makes no such claim.

Now there’s no great reason to dive into the legitimacy of Bryson’s historical book or takes — and I don’t think he would stand a strong ground in that regard, his own ‘About‘ page says nothing of the sort and instead focuses on his travel series. Yet, the detail is important to note in a reading of One Summer.

The book itself is fun, as are most of Bryson’s works. Its engaging, easy to digest, and full of quips from the author on histories great ironies. He spends most chapters talking about large events in the American landscape, and usually circles back to one of his main characters — Babe Ruth, Al Capone, a couple from Long Island wrapped in a media-focused murder case, Al Jolson, Charles Ponzi, and, most of all, Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, himself, takes up a good chunk (maybe 30%) of the book, with even more devoted to the now-marginalized characters of aviation history happening in 1927. That time, that summer, of course, marks the time of Lindbergh’s awe-inspiring flight over the Atlantic — and the insane publicity tour that followed. It hints, as well, perhaps one too many times, at how much Lindberg disdained this AND at the terrifying future that he would face because of his fame.

The book is meant to show the reader just how eventful the summer of 1927 was. And there’s no denying that. Bryson, at other moments, seems to want to take that historian’s leap forward and postulate on the legacy of the summer. Indeed, this is where a history book really can make its mark — putting events into context and defining futures and/or cultural narratives by pinpointing origins or centerpoints. Bryson, however, balks at doing this. He offers ideas at some points (one example would be the meeting of financial minds in 1927 and the effect this might (or might not) have had on the 1929 crash), but does not take them to their limit.

In this way, Bryson probably protects himself from self-classifying as a historian (and charting terrains he is probably not comfortable going), but also lets down a historically-minded reader. Instead, we get a roster of happenings, an understanding of timeline, and anecdotal offerings. But that’s all. One cannot take the broader view of American history (or even early 20th century American history) and confidently identify 1927 as much of an epicenter after reading this. It, in short, does not offer anything past the closing of its pages other than story.

This, perhaps, is Bryson’s goal and that’s fine. it becomes a lighter look on history. And perhaps its best looked at like this — anyone looking to know when these events (Lindbergh’s flight, Ruth’s homerun record, Ponzi’s scheme, The Jazz Singer, Sacco and Vanzentti, etc…) collided (and the other events colliding with it), might want to peruse these pages. Anyone looking to learn more about these, and what they meant, might want to look for a deeper book.

Still enjoyable, just light. The way summer probably should be. 

Waxing [Literarily]: Travels with Charley {John Steinbeck}

There’s been much debate on the reality of what happened with John Steinbeck in 1960. His book, Travels with Charley in Search of America, details some (of his/not his) journeys through that year and came out shortly before the revered author won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The journeys published involves a trip around the country in a large van, with a dog that takes on a character of his own. The subsequent investigations have painted this as untrue. Journalists stake claim of its impossibility. The Steinbeck camp supposedly hasn’t exactly back it up as true, but won’t do anything to wound the reputation of one of American’s native scribes.

The question is: does it matter? For journalists and literary historians, it does. For readers, it does not. Unless you decide to take Steinbeck’s words as gospel for the land — a point he himself refutes, resists, and rustles with during the entirety of the book. For the reader that pays attention, this becomes evident and the “truth” no longer matters. It, like all of its ilk before it, is a story.

Of course, it’s a certain type of story — it’s a travel story. And with many of the travel stories of our days, it reads as more of a collection of essays comprising a story, than a story from someone like Steinbeck’s production. By the end, it’s not the story (man rides around the nation) that matters, than the conclusions it reaches or questions it proposes.

The story’s plot is simple. Steinbeck puts himself in a van and journeys America — a country he so often is billed as representing. But for all of his truth in fiction, so he claims, what is the real truth that lay undiscovered? Trips through the Northeast, the Great Plains, Montana (he loves Montana), and down the West Coast are meant to bring that. Each larger area gets a chapter — each chapter filled with a character or three meant to represent that area in some, sometimes totally stereotypical sometimes atypical, way.

The story is nice, if not overdone. The real strengths of Travels is in its witticisms — which is to be expected from Steinbeck. At varying times, Steinbeck, elder in age and wise in experience, leaves bits of wonder along his journey, found or already known. These are the jewels of the book, and perhaps the jewels of journeying at large. It’s a short collection of gains that make up a wholly intangible growth.

Some examples he leaves you with:

We value virtue but we do not discuss is.

It’s bad to have one’s myth shaken up like that

It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it.

You get the picture. Steinbeck drops these in his book like you’d find truck stops punctuating the highway on the long stretches in the middle of the country. They’re his resting thoughts, the truths that stay in the wind somewhere even as your van passes by.

For a travel book, particularly one of such a long drive, Travels is short. It reads quickly and can feel like a shifting dream (assuming that others dream of spending time with Mr. Steinbeck like this author). It’s not the kind of deep, penetrating book that he has elsewhere in his oeuvre, but it’s a fun romp that filled the author with substance in his elder years. And it wasn’t the substance of fictional characters in fictional places. Or perhaps it was. And perhaps it never mattered. Substance is not reserved for the living and it’s not reserved for one fixed place. If you go searching for it, you’re bound to find it, like America, it just comes in bits and pieces, littered in  small towns and big cities.

Waxing [Literarily]: William Boyd’s ‘Waiting for Sunrise’

I was looking for books that took place in Vienna shortly after the turn of the 20th century. I had read the LA Times book review of Franzen’s Kraus Project and was particularly interested in his assertion that “Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology (telephone, telegraph, the high-speed printing press) has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.”

I hadn’t thought that another time in history might echo what we’re experiencing now. I wanted to dive in. And I wanted to start with fiction.

Some searching led me to William Boyd’s 2012 novel Waiting for Sunrise which obviously wasn’t the best for my project (only the book’s first third takes place in Vienna) but it seemed an easy read and I had never read a book by Boyd.

I dug in. I rather enjoyed his bit taking place in Vienna. It did give some of the cultural overview that I was looking for — what with the charm that Franzen mentioned and psychotherapy being all the rage. There’s one cheap bit where the main character, Lysander, runs into Dr. Freud, but we’ll excuse that.

The Vienna part paced nicely. It introduced a love interest, some shady characters and a psychotherapist, all tying Lysander to Vienna while he had a woman waiting for him back in London (his home). Of course, too, he was there to solve a problem of, well, not being able to get it up — so we have some personal strife to add to the drama.

And drama we get as the Vienna part comes to an end. Lysander is accused of rape of his new Viennese mistress and love interested and he must flee thanks in part of the shady character he met earlier. Alright, alright, a little more a thriller than I bargained for — but I should have expected that with Boyd.

The rest of the book dives into WWI London (and Geneva for a bit) and some politics surrounding that. There’s a spy plot, more drama added as the Viennese love interest finds herself in London and a whole lot of belief that needs to be suspended as the plot unravels.

Fine. It had been a while since such an easy read (in terms of the depth of the text) found its way into my  hands and I think all in all I rather enjoyed it. Boyd has some lines, certainly has the ability to tell a story and resolve it as quickly as it needs to be (it’s only a few hundred pages) and still give some reasons to empathize with Lysander.

Overall prognosis: Ehhh, why not? Wouldn’t suggest it, but wouldn’t tell you to put it away later.