Millions of words have been spent singing Bill Bryson's praises, so please allow me to add to them. His latest work of brilliant, comedic non-fiction, "One Summer: America, 1927," ranks among his greatest works. It's hard to think of a more insightful, more hilarious author working today.
Bryson's thesis is simple - America in the summer of 1927 may not have realized it, but it was taking its first steps as a world leader - in economics, in the arts, in sports, and in technology. Some of these developments were good, while others were reprehensible. Bryson manages to find either the humanity or the hilarity in each development - sometimes finding both.
Much of the book revolves around Charles Lindbergh's unimaginable feat of crossing the Atlantic in a plane. Today we don't think about Lindbergh much, but this event galvanized the world as no other event had previously done. Bryson writes at length about the other efforts to accomplish the same or similar feats and how many good men (and the occasional good woman) of several different countries died in the attempt. Bryson also focuses on how Lindbergh coped with being the most famous and adored person alive . . . for a time (until his pro-eugenics/Nazi sympathies became public . . . sympathies that Bryson extensively observes were shared by several "leading" intellects of the day). Lindbergh remains the heart of this dizzying book.
But by no means is Lindbergh the sole focus. Lindbergh's feat had tremendous economic consequences as it sparked the American aviation industry to unparalleled heights. Still, this was the summer of Henry Ford, who stopped work on the Model T in favor of the new Model A. This was also the summer where the seeds of the Great Depression were sown, and it was also the summer where "talkies" drowned out silent films . . . this was huge at a time when Hollywood was America's fourth largest industry and America led the world in the quantity of cinematic output (if not the quality).
1927 also saw Al Capone, arguably the greatest businessman of all time, reach his ultimate heights before crashing down. We also saw Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the New York Yankees transform baseball with possibly the greatest season ever played by an American sports franchise . . . in the House That Ruth Built with his titanic home runs. But the Yankees faced an unexpected threat in popularity thanks to Jack Dempsey's murderous fists in the boxing ring.
And then there were the huge yet somehow peripheral events such as not one but two Trials of the Century, the devastating Mississippi flood that gave Herbert Hoover yet another reason to be President, and Calvin Coolidge's shocking decision not to run for re-election. Mt. Rushmore also began construction and the eugenics movement (the belief that the elected state government could, under the Constitution, unilaterally decide to sterilize those Americans lacking the necessary positive attributes to contribute to society) gained considerable steam on both sides of the Atlantic (I'm looking at you, Nazi Germany).
And there was this little thing called the creation of television . . .
Bryson writes about all these various strands of American life, interweaving a comic, often heart-warming tale of people striving for great things and occasionally achieving them. Indeed, some of the connections are downright creepy they are so coincidental. America in 1927 was emerging as a world power and seemed poised on a new era of unbridled prosperity that will never end . . . and it came crashing down just as our most recent "New Economy" miracle failed.
If you're a Bryson fan, you must read this book. If you're not a Bryson fan, you must read this book.
Every since I found a copy of "A Walk in the Woods", I have been a huge fan of Bill Bryson's writing. "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is Science made entertaining, "A Walk in the Woods" is hilarious, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" brings back fond Proustian memories of my own childhood. Thus I was very excited to see this new book.
Bill picked out a fantastic year, 1927, a year when America was really getting to be the nation we know and love. We get to read about The Babe, Silent Cal, Lucky Lindy, Al Capone, and even "Hooburt Heever". We find out why a "Ponzi Scheme" is called that- and much, much more.
As the author says "An extraordinary number of other important things happened that summer- the dedication of Mt Rushmore, the filming of the first talking picture, the great Mississippi flood, the execution of the anarchists Sacco & Vanzetti, Calvin Coolidge's surprising decision not to run for re-election, and a whole lot more. You could make a good case, and I hope I have, that is was the most eventful summer in American history". You have Bill, you have.
Again, the author does his usual of presenting history and hard facts in a entertaining and fun manner. He brings history alive.
It's been said that some people can sing the phone book and make it sound beautiful. Bill Bryson could write the phone book and make it interesting and entertaining, not that One Summer, America, 1927 is comparable at all to a phone book. One Summer vividly explores the U.S. during a particularly entrancing time when explorers were taking to the sky, Babe Ruth blasted onto the baseball field, talking pictures were invented and gangsters were rolling in the dough, getting rich from prohibition.
One thing I've always enjoyed about certain writers such as Dumas and Dickens is the cliff hanger. I am such a sucker for them and Bill Bryson at the end of every delicious chapter let it be known that whichever character he was describing at the moment, more was coming with snippets like, 'and it was going to get worse,' or, 'little did he know things were about to change.' For some reason, I love cliffhangers. Bill ingeniously has written a book that culminates the events. Many exciting things in 1927 were happening at the same time.
This is an excellent book - riveting from beginning to end. Every time I read a Bill Bryson book I have forgotten just how wonderful he is. I think high school kids would be better off ditching their dry history courses and would learn more from reading this book. The stories would certainly have more of an impact.
One Summer transports the reader to the lively summer of 1927. You'll be amazed by some stories, saddened by others, encouraged-and all the while, entertained. While you are entertained, you learn so much more about familiar people and important but unfamiliar people. This is a must read! I would have read this book in one sitting if I could have. One Summer is hard to put down, but whenever I picked it up, I was thrust back to the summer of 1927. When the end of the book came, it was hard to leave.
Bill Bryson is an author who makes history come to life. I have always enjoyed his work, and I ended up reading One Summer (400+ pages) in a little over a day. Like many of Bryson's other works, this book just captured my imagination from the opening page and held onto it throughout.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* I had never really considered 1927 to be all that special a year, but this book made it seem to be one of the most interesting patches of American History. Bryson does a masterful job of interweaving Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, the stock market, prohibition and a few other topics into a single narrative. In doing so, he points out a number of relationships that I sort of knew, just forgot to think about. For example, I was surprised to realize that Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic before soundtracks were added to pictures.
* The book is full of facts that I had never read before. I never knew that Zane Grey earned more than ten times the amount that F. Scott Fitzgerald ever made from writing, or that Grey led a life that would have shocked most of his fans. The book is full of such facts and observations, and I enjoyed reading them.
* Bryson captures a personal side to many of the people in his book. I had never appreciated how much of a social misfit Charles Lindbergh really was, and can only imagine the pain that years of being a A-list celebrity caused him. It seemed like the man couldn't brush his teeth without a parade and speeches. Similarly, it was amazing political scandals, Hollywood gossip and shady business dealings are as common in the 1920's as they are today.
* The book takes a broad view of topics, and manages to touch on just about everything that seemed important in either the 1920's or today. Sports, movies, radio and television, crime and punishment, thrill seekers, technology, business, law and politics are all interwoven throughout the book.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* I am not really a fan of the format of the book. Bryson likes to tell relatively simple narratives, but branch off at every opportunity into the background or other related details of some part of the story. It makes the text somewhat hard to follow, and it is not easy to keep the chronology straight as you read. The end result is the book appears somewhat disorganized and haphazard in its organization.
* There are many details of events covered that I had never read before. I read a lot of history, so this either suggests a book that is either very well or quite poorly researched. Normally I would spot-check a few references, but the proof copy I had does not have the references listed.
* Bryson has a habit of stating opinion as fact, and of simplifying issues beyond what is reasonable. For example, he lays the blame for the Great Depression solely on a decision by the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates in 1927. I would agree that it didn't help the situation, but the economic collapse of the US had many factors leading up to it. It is inaccurate and overly simple to blame any one action.
=== Summary ===
The positives far outweighed the negatives, and I very much enjoyed this book. It is written in a fast-moving and easy-to-read style, and made excellent summer reading for a history fan like me. At first I was concerned that 1927 was just not all that interesting a time, but the book touched enough different areas, and crossed into other time periods, so it ended up being enjoyable and relevant. I'd definitely recommend it to any history buff.
I have read almost everything that Bill Bryson has written and am a great fan of his works. However, recently, including this book, he has diverted from his humorous roots to a more straight-laced view of the world.
This book documents the summer of 1927 and the lasting effect it had on the United States of America. All of the passages are interesting but to say that they have the zing, flash and humor of the past works would not be truthful. Bryson seems to have let the humorous observer fall to the wayside and has become a straight sociologist.
If you are interested in this time frame or the topics covered, I would recommend this book as a comprehensive review of an important time in the history of the USA. If you are looking for the humor of past works, it just isn't here.
on October 29, 2013
Someday, somebody is going to write a history of the year 2013, and it is going to be just so embarrassing. I probably won’t be around to read it, but just imagine what somebody born in 2037 is going to think of us poor schlubs stuck in 2013, with our primitive smartphones, non-flyable cars, and endless, grinding commercialism. I figure the future history books are going to look back on this year with the same sort of mockery and contempt that we reserve for the polyester fashions and unappealing music of, say, 1977. There’s going to be a whole chapter in the book on Miley Cyrus and what twerking was, and I am just sick thinking about it.
To his credit, Bill Bryson doesn’t engage in a lot of mean-spirited mockery about 1927 in his new book. ONE SUMMER focuses primarily on the prominent Americans of that time and their experiences from that summer, most of whom (with the notable exception of Henry Ford) come off looking much better than the celebrities of our time do now. To be sure, 1927 was full of all sorts of ridiculous (not to mention dangerous) nonsense, but Bryson looks back on it with clear eyes, not impeded by nostalgia or hero-worship, trying to tell the important stories of the people who others looked up to.
ONE SUMMER is dominated by the figure of Charles Lindbergh, who famously flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean and landed in Paris as the most famous man in the world. Aviation is a dominant theme here, but as Bryson points out, that’s what people were interested in; the New York Times ran aviation stories on its front page for weeks after the Lindbergh flight. Lindbergh appears to have been the only man skilled enough at the time to have made the flight --- Bryson delights in pointing out the shortcomings of the other pilots vying to cross the Atlantic at the same time --- but piloting an airplane is a vastly different thing than dealing with the literal crush of the public trying to get their hands on you and your airplane. Although Lindbergh took off on a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour of America after his heroic flight, he appears to have been totally exasperated with the public relations side of things.
This also seems to have been true of Calvin Coolidge, who spent the summer of 1927 camped out in South Dakota, from which he transmitted a characteristically terse message indicating that he would not run for re-election in 1928, and said all of five words at the following press conference. But it was emphatically not true of Babe Ruth, who led the “Murderer’s Row” of the 1927 Yankees, who swept through the American League like a harvester in a cornfield. And it was also not true of the guy who sat on a pole in Newark for the better part of the month, or any other thrill-seeker or attention-getter from the time that you can think of, or even those you never heard of.
Suffice it to say that there was a whole lot going on in 1927. Bryson thinks you should know about it, and is willing to tell you if you just sit back and listen. The best way to enjoy the book is to just let it all wash over you, to let Bryson’s masterful narrative voice tell you the stories, one after the other, sometimes stacked one on top of another, sometimes jostling for space like impatient passengers trying to board a train. There are so many stories to tell, and there is at least a temporal connection between them. Anyway, you’re not doing anything else, so just sit down and let Bryson tell you about Herbert Hoover and what he was up to.
ONE SUMMER works very well on a narrative level, but not so much as a book of history. Bryson has a very loose framework for the tale, which means that he goes back and forth between different stories, without much in the way of a discernible pattern. (The reader is often introduced to a character or a theme, and then Bryson explains that he’ll get to whoever it is later.) When Bryson fixates on a theme, though, he piles on every bit of relevant backstory that he can find --- including the tidbit that Charles Lindbergh’s father had a slightly different middle name than he did. This is fine storytelling, but it makes the book seem unfocused and wandering at times. However, the real problem with the book is that Bryson isn’t adding anything to the story of 1927 except his own voice and talents. There’s no room in his breezy, airy style for analysis or even original thought.
If you are looking for an omnibus look at 1927, ONE SUMMER is not a bad place to start; it’s wholly entertaining and occasionally delightful. However, all that reading it did for me was cause me to look at other books in my library that cover the same time frame --- particularly the wonderful LAST CALL, Daniel Okrent’s history of Prohibition, and RISING TIDE by John Barry, about the disastrous Mississippi River flood of that year. ONE SUMMER is a good starting point for anyone looking into the 1920s, but there are many more comprehensive works out there for the serious reader.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds
on November 22, 2013
Outstanding book by one of the great writers of our time. Mr. Bryson once again has performed painstaking, meticulous research about the events of the summer of 1927, as well as background leading up to these events. He seamlessly weaves the the progression of those events throughout the book and also offers his own keen insights.
Bill Bryson deftly gives us an entertaining, in-depth look a the giant, blockbuster parade of monumental events (Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Herbert Hoover, the Great Flood, Jack Dempsey, the rise of Hollywood cinema, the invention of TV and the Model T Ford, to name some) that hit the world stage in the summer of 1927.
Bryson's ambitious thesis is that 1927 was the turning point in American culture that defined America (taking the place of Europe) as the world's center or cynosure, if you will. America became a place of larger than life spectacle, sweeping international cultural influence, technological and economic dominance, celebrity worship, Hollywood blockbuster, and the American vernacular. These forces would leave their imprint on the American personality to this day.
There is a yin and yang in Bryson's portrayal of American spectacle. On one hand, America foists its grand ambition for greatness on the world in the likes of Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic to world applause (the celebration of Technological Ascent), Hollywood captures the world's imagination, Babe Ruth literally saves baseball, Al Capone finds his demise.
But there is a dark side accounted here. Bryson calls 1927 "The Age of Loathing," which is to say it was the age of racism, tribalism, raging anti-Semitism, and eugenics.
The most ugly account is that of icon Charles Lindbergh, an unapologetic supporter of Hitler. Lindbergh's sympathies spelled the demise of his hero worship.
Bryson peppers his book with salacious, grotesque, ironic, humorous anecdotes of larger than life principals who had sordid affairs, out of wedlock children, bankruptucy and other accounts that give us the full, never idealized rendering of 1927.
I really loved this book. It has all the entertainment quality of a quick-paced TV documentary, yet it is intellectually satisfying without being didactic. Highly recommended.
on November 24, 2013
Judging by the bibliography and index, BB has excelled himself yet again by producing a wonderful exposé of a period in history, which has such importance to us today. In this instance, his writing is fluid but does not have the customary quantity of wit, possibly just as well because many of the events that took place in 1927 America were not funny at all. In fact, I was very surprised at his frequent - well, I counted 5 occasions - us of "enchanting"; not a word I associate with BB. But the one liners are still there and as usual, make reading any book of his an absolute joy. I learned a great deal from this book. If only BB had been my history teacher at school.
on November 24, 2013
Bill Bryson's narration of this fascinating study of the seminally important events in the (extended) summer of 1927, brings covers events in politics, inventions, economics, sports, crime, inventions, business which impacted not only America's future but the world. He deftly covers some background material and seamly flows into his current topic and then carries the story forward. It's a fun and educational read, often a real page turner, and well recommended.