Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
Discovering Bill Bryson
On the fast train, known as "sneltrein" in Dutch, to the ancient town of Alkmaar in northwest Holland, I took out a new book to read. It's an old paperback from my neighbour in London (not the one who lent me "Tulip Fever").
"The Lost Continent: travels in small town America" is Bill Bryson's first novel. What a page-turner it is! I became instantly absorbed in his writing, which is sarcastic, witty, and luridly funny. In an age of political correctness, Bryson is the ultimate non-conformist.
So engrossed was I that I completely forgot to admire the flat green landscape of this part of the Netherlands where most areas could easily be under sea level. As the train approached Amsterdam Centraal, I briefly looked out, reluctant to tear my eyes away from the book.
Meanwhile I tried very hard not to burst out laughing like a mad woman. In fact, I squirmed in my seat.
His first paragraph says it all: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." Des Moines is pronounced "de moin" with the silent French "s." Elsewhere in America, towns named after their more famous counterparts are pronounced in the most unusual ways - Cairo (kay-ro) and Athens (ay-thens), for example.
Bryson, an American whose wife is British, found countless ways to describe the Americans he met on his extensive road trip, including "abundant rolls of flesh made him look as if ... inner tubes beneath his shirt", "hugely overweight woman in pink shorts", "clammy and meaty in their shorts and halter tops... like elephants dressed in children's clothes", and "time bomb ticking away in her that will ... make her bloat out into something huge and grotesque."
When he told an inquisitive waitress that he was from Great Britain, she remarked, "Well, for a foreigner, you sure speak good English."
By the time I arrived in Alkmaar, which is celebrating its 750th birthday (today), I was totally inspired by Bryson. How was he able to relate such an interesting and irresistibly funny account of his travels to some of the most boring places in America, while I, living in some of the most interesting places in Europe, can't even make myself laugh?
I learned two things from this train ride.
One, read things that make me laugh. I absolutely love his style. I forget everything that's been bothering me lately. I become alive. Why haven't I discovered Bill Bryson sooner? Why have I spent so much time reading technical books that put most people on this planet to sleep? And if I could choose, why not spend my time laughing rather than crying, moaning, complaining or engaging in any of those "sad, tragic, and bittersweet" activities? Forget Harlequin romance novels. Forget Chinese tragedies. Welcome Bill Bryson!
Two, I've got to get more of Bill Bryson's books.
If this is only his first book, others must be even better. I just can't wait. Thank you, David, for introducing to a new world --- the world of humour and travel writing!
Here's a question Bryson posed early on. It caught my attention and gave me food for thought.
Which is worse?
1- to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted
2- a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored
I went from number two to number one in less than six months. The most exciting thing in my life this week is, without a doubt, discovering and reading Bill Bryson's "Lost Continent."
11 June 2004 Friday
Related entries & links:
Bill Bryson - official site
History of Alkmaar (English)
Reaction from reader about Bon Journal:
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