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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The perpetually hilarious Bill Bryson travels to Australia in his latest adventure, where he should feel right at home among the eccentric locals. Crocodiles, insects, giant worms, and venomous jellyfish are just the beginning of Bryson's problems as he navigates the beaches and deserts of this immense, sunbaked country. Arriving just in time for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, In a Sunburned Country is comic travel writing at its best.
Bryson reveals Australia's surprising geographical and biological diversity as he braves the baking outback, hikes through the ancient rainforests, and swims along the Great Barrier Reef, always highlighting the most unusual and unforgettable people and places. "Give them a bale of chicken wire, some fiberglass and a couple of pots of paint and they will make you, say, an enormous pineapple or strawberry or, as here, a lobster," Bryson writes. Bryson does indeed visit the 56-foot monstrosity known as the Big Lobster, one of 60 such attractions found all over Australia, "like leftover props from a 1950s horror movie." Bryson's approach to Australian history comes across as wonderfully off-kilter as well. Bryson delights in the tale of Harold Holt, the late prime minister, who vanished while swimming at Cheviot Beach and was never heard from again. There is a memorial to Holt in Melbourne -- believe it or not, it's a swimming pool. Upon hearing this delicious irony, Bryson simply states: "This is a terrific country."
But Bryson is more than a literary comedian. He is a travel writer, and a great one at that. He juxtaposes those moments of intense silliness with beautiful, insightful passages: "On every side the desert lapped at the town like floodwater." One of Bryson's most profoundly spiritual moments on the trip -- for no traveler, not even the irrepressible Bryson, is immune to such moments -- is when he stands in front of Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock. Uluru is a massive red rock, at least a hundred million years old, that stands alone on an empty plain. As he approaches it, Bryson comments "somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding, hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level." Bryson explores Austrlia's incredible biological diversity, visiting a wide range of ecosystems and reporting on the unique creatures he finds. He also examines Australia's eccentric history, from its early days, when botched expeditions into the outback resulted in tragic loss of life and limb, to disastrous attempts at altering the native flora and fauna. As Bryson roams Australia's spatial and cultural planes, he leaves the reader with a strong desire to follow in his footsteps. After all, who wouldn't want to see the Big Lobster face to face?