Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nonfiction Review: One Summer: America, 1927

We are big fans of Bill Bryson at our house. His memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, was outstanding – informative, warm, and hilariously funny. So, when I heard about his latest book, One Summer: America, 1927, I was looking forward to reading it. I was glad when one of my book groups chose it for our November selection. Turns out, though, that I had a strange like-hate relationship with this book!

The concept for this nonfiction book is unique: Bryson focuses on one summer in American history, 1927, when a lot of interesting, historic, record-breaking things happened within a few months’ time. So far, so good. The chapters of the book run from May through September, each one covering a month’s events (roughly – there’s a lot of overlap), with one particular focus for each:
May: The Kid (Charles Lindbergh)
June: The Babe (Babe Ruth)
July: The President (Calvin Coolidge)
August: The Anarchists
September: Summer’s End 
It was definitely a fascinating time in America. Lindbergh made history by being the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Babe Ruth set a record for 60 home runs in a single season. The Mississippi River flooded and sent a wave of destruction across the middle states that still has not been outdone today. The gangster Al Capone controlled Chicago. The first “talking pictures” arrived in movie theaters, forever changing the world of cinema. And the seeds of the upcoming Great Depression were sown.

It’s a lot of ground to cover in a single book, and that is both the attraction and the problem. The book is packed full of fascinating facts, but there is a bit too much there to wade through. His organization of the book – by month – is another problem because events don’t unfold simply like that but are convoluted and develop over time. The result is a book that rambles quite a bit, jumping from one topic to the next at a rapid-fire pace that sometimes makes your head spin. As an example, in the first section, he starts out with Charles Lindbergh aiming to cross the Atlantic. He plans to land in Paris, so that takes Bryson off on a tangent about the American Ambassador to France. He happened to be going to a tennis match the day Lindbergh arrived, so then he goes off on another path, all about the tennis match and the players in it.

My husband laughed at me because I alternated between complaining about the book and reading interesting facts and tidbits out loud to him! So, yes, it’s frustrating and too long, but it’s also fascinating at times. I missed my book group meeting due to illness and had to decide whether or not to finish the book. I waffled back and forth on that – itching for some fast-paced fiction – but ultimately, I did keep reading right until the end of the Epilogue. I definitely learned a lot, but it was a struggle at times.

Our book group mostly felt the same way I did about it – that it was interesting but also too long and jumped around too much. Most people enjoyed the beginning the most and lost patience as they got further into the book. Some skimmed after a while. I find that really hard to do (I suppose it’s the perfectionist in me), but I did start skipping the boxing and baseball sections at some point. The average rating out of 10 in our group was around 6.5. There was one person in the group who rated it a 10 – the only one who’d actually been alive in 1927! She enjoyed reliving her childhood and remembering those momentous events.

458 pages of text and another 50-some of notes at the end, Doubleday

NOTE: If you want to read Bryson at his best, try The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid too, but I think I will skip this one for now. At 458 pages I don't think I'd finish this one, though the subject matter does sound interesting.