Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Book Club: The Lost Continent. Travels in Small Town America, Bill Bryson

You'll be glad to know that this post will take on less of a Book Report vibe and more of a Brief Summary of My Totally Random Opinions vibe since I can't quote from the book directly (gave my copy to Shelley while I was in Italy) and the idea of a book report is a little too homework-ish and that's boring.

When I read the title (obviously skimmed right over the sub-title), I didn't think this was going to be a book about Bill's travels around central and eastern US. To me, the US is about as un-lost a place as I could imagine. Mostly because I live in it, and am therefore able to put my finger right on it and say, "See! Here it is. The US is here. Not lost at all." But, as usually rings true, there's more to a book than it's title, cover, etc. And if you happen to read the subtitle you can bypass a lot of confusion altogether, I suppose. And then, too, it's about other things America has lost; like fit adults, safe streets for walking, taste for food that is not fast, culture in general, etc.

The "lost"-ness of the continent was about the little cities that get lost between his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa and 38 other east-ish of Iowa locales. Don't hold me to the exact states, because as I said before, my copy of this book now lives in Rome with it's adopted Italian family, eating better than all of us and learning to swear with its hands, so I'm unable to do my anal-retentive fact checking so you don't make fun of me and leave mean comments. So please, be gentle.

If you've read any of Bill's other books (Do you like how I call him Bill? Like he's my next door neighbor or something) you know the gist - he hops in the car (or on a train, bus, etc) and roams from town to town. When in town, he seeks accommodations and then goes about the town on foot to find their local pub, restaurant and tacky shopping establishment. During these standard activities he finds one million heart-stopping hilarities to comment on, while also giving himself a good rib and concluding with a summary on the town that may or may not deduce that the best thing to do in the town is to fall asleep in a hotel room while watching reruns and eating peanut butter cups.

I'll go right on and admit that this particular volume of Bill's travel stories wasn't my fave. But that's because I appear to have started with his newer stuff and worked backward. Which is kind of disappointing in the same way that turning on the WB to watch Simpsons reruns is when you realize they've caught up to the newest syndicated episode and now are starting over from #1 where Homer's voice is weird and Bart's face is all long.

But I did love Bill's description of his portly hometown women, the deadpan reviews of his father's thrifty family vacation tactics and the way he could always find something to remark upon about a town, even if it was just the wideness of their Wal-Mart aisles. I didn't find "Lost Continent" as enthralling to read as, say, "In a Sunburned Country", but that's probably because he was writing about Australia instead of Kentucky, and let's face it, I'd rather be down under than down south. Plus, everything is scarier, and therefore funnier, in Australia, and I felt a little more inclined to honk with laughter after I realized Bill's life might have been in certain danger during the writing of that book. Basically, I still found lots of funny nuggets to get me cackling in Lost Continent, but his voice was weird and I could tell his face was all long.

As a gesture of confidence in my theory I have already ordered his latest book which I anticipate to be at least as as funny as the other later works I've extra loved. And as a gesture of my proven laziness, I will note for you Bill's event calendar, and then tell you that as I'm writing this on 10/23 (pre-emptively reviewing since I finished the book about five minutes after I started book club) I'm not going to attend his 10/24 visit to SF because the mere thought of driving into the city after work makes me despondent and vaguely nauseous. And, really, I doubt he'd sign my boobs anyway.

What I will do is declare the next book in the club as his latest book (yes, the one I just ordered), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, since it's on it's way and I know I'll throw down my current read of his that is suffering from Old Simpsons Syndrome as soon as it arrives.

And if you're bored of Bill already and want diversity in your reading, I will say that our *next* book will not be a Bryson, and might be fiction. So, if you want to hang out with me and read along through one more Bryson, YAY! And if not, well, you can do a lot of things that I won't spell out for you, but one of them has a bad word it in and rhymes with bite me.

Now, for the club-ish part of this - you guys fill up the comments section with your own summaries/comments/tales of public embarrasment so that we can all regale in the joy that is a shared read. Also, vote on the book (on the right ----->) and tell us what you really think.

AND in 6 weeks time, on 12/15, let us gather again to share our comments on the newest episode of Bill's, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Oh, and Happy Dress Up Like a Freak Day.


  1. You did good kid, for being without the copy to review. Unfortunately even MY copy, inherited from you, is now GODONLYKNOWSWHERE because Aeroporti di Roma are all big frickin' IDIOTS and lost my luggage, since this book opened my season of vacation beach reading but didn't make it back with me. But, I digress.

    I'm the first to comment here since I just happen to be making my rounds of my blog feeds. Don't know how long I'll babble on. If it's long and boring, I ask your forgiveness in advance.

    Did I love this book? Yes. Did it open my eyes to a hilarious writer who manages to make wickedly biting and sarcastic observations yet somehow remain sympathetic to his subjects at the same time? Yes! Did he say all kinds of things I've thought all along but would have been way too ashamed or embarrassed to admit, because it seemed so, well, mean? YES!

    So, without my copy, I am unable to refer to the page I specifically dog-eared to go back to, that page where he goes off on Kmart shoppers. Creepily accurate. And how would I know? Well hell, I've shopped at Kmart too. But I wonder, do the Kmart shoppers in question see themselves as we and Bill see them? If they were to read this book, would they identify with their description and be offended? Would they even read this book? Who knew Kmart could breed philosophical reflection? Only in this book.

    All I have to say is, BB is brave. No way would I go driving around middle America sleeping in motels, buying a 6 pack to take back with me as I seek my nightly entertainment of bad reruns on TV. That's why I'm glad he's there to do it all for us and live to tell the tale.

    Now I'm off to order my book for next month. It's a book club double-feature!

  2. Your description was excellent. I have to admit, I had a really, really hard time finishing this thing. I finally did so this morning. For a read about travels in America, I much prefer Charles Kuralt

    Don't get me wrong, Bryson had me laughing out loud on several pages, and some of his descriptions are magic...but overall it was a 'I-was-bored-and-this-country-is-stupid (that's why I live in the UK)' kind of deal, and that pissed me off. I mean, you can't really judge people so quickly. People who appear tacky may be the salt of the earth. And I'll take a guy willing to do the Chicken Dance at Oktoberfest (not that he mentioned that) any day over a curmudgeon like this guy.

  3. I want to thank you for recommending this book. I had never heard of or read Bill's books (I think he IS my neighbor..lol) and I enjoyed it.

    I have to give him props for mentioning North Dakota! I am sorry to say though, that there is no Amalgam in North Dakota, but who cares. We got a mention!

    OK, the whole KMart part I had to smile. He hit the nail on the head on that one. KMart, Walmart, they are all the same and for some reason the worse people seem to congregate there...there I said it. I think Bill is rubbing off on me!

    I have taken many a road trip in my life. Cross country twice and once with my Filipino in-laws. So I can relate to everything he said about being stared at and feeling like someone is going to shoot you. My Dad was a "thrifty" person too and we stayed in some seedy-ass places. I am no stranger to Motel 6 either. Basically, reading his experiences traveling throughout small town America gave me the opportunity to relive my own experiences and there is nothing more beautiful than going through life's memories, and if it makes me laugh out loud, even better!

    Thanks for providing me with laughs when I needed them most. I am logging onto Amazon to order my next book now!

    Happy Halloween everyone and I hope you don't get any cavities!

  4. I am only about 100 pages into this thing, but I love it. His writing is funny, his observations about misspelled highway signs make me roar and his ability to describe midwestern women as safari animals is incredible.
    I will say, however, that his snotty attitude does get a bit old after a while. I start feeling like the cool kid in the class is picking on the special needs kid.

  5. ALL: So nice to hear conflicting reviews. It's MUCH more a real book club than the one I was involved in with local people who could hardly bring one comment to the table during our book club "meetings". Not that they weren't fun, but there was no book involved. We changed the name of our "meetings" to "Eating and drinking while gossiping about whores at work." It suited us better.

    Hope to see you all for Round 2. And for Round 3, I promise, new author. Shake it up! (Ferrall fans? Anyone?)

    Shelley - I, too, am glad that someone is willing to drive to some of the more boring corners of our country to relive tales of six packs and peanut butter cups in ratty hotel rooms. Glad you're on board for the double feature. I think this will be better.

    Barb - I agree, he gets a little pedantic. That's why I tend to favor his more recent stuff. He sort of tones down his, "Brits rule" attitude, too. Brave enough to work through another Bryson?

    E&I - I love that it had you laughing! That's the reason I keep going back for more. There's little I love more than a book that makes me cackle like I do with Bill.

    Kelli - Yeah, I had the guilty, burning in hell for making fun of idiots who know no better, feeling a couple times, too. But, in the end, I'm evil and I know people make fun of me too - so I see this as breaking even. Immature? Yes, I think so. Come again, won't you?

  6. ok, so yeah. I'll admit it. I'm a HUGE slacker and uh, yeah, I didn't read the book this month. I did read it a few years back, but most memories of it have drifted out of my cluttered brain.

    I'm totally on board for the next book. (But don't be surprised if all my book club comments are exactly like this one, 'cause I suck and I forget how fast a month goes by.)


[2013 update: You can't comment as an anonymous person anymore. Too many douchebags were leaving bullshit SPAM comments and my inbox was getting flooded, but if you're here to comment in a real way like a real person, go to it.]

Look at you commenting, that's fun.

So, here's the thing with commenting, unless you have an email address associated with your own profile, your comment will still post, but I won't have an email address with which to reply to you personally.

Sucks, right?

Anyway, to remedy this, I usually come back to my posts and post replies in the comment field with you.

But, if you ever want to email me directly to talk about pumpkins or shoes or what it's like to spend a good part of your day Swiffering - shoot me an email to finnyknitsATgmailDOTcom.