Tuesday, February 18, 2014

One Crazy Summer

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a fun and interesting look at America in the 1920s, but specifically the summer of 1927. It is remarkable how much happened in a few short months:

"Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singer was filmed. Television was created. Radio came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. President Coolidge chose not to run. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Mississippi flooded as it never had before. A madman in Michigan blew up a school and killed 44 people in the worst slaughter of children in American history. Henry Ford stopped making the Model T and promised to stop insulting Jews. And a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before. Whatever else it was, it was one hell of a summer."

I've always loved history, and Bryson does a marvelous job of weaving together different stories and putting events in context. For example, Prohibition was still going on in 1927, but Bryson goes back to 1920 and explains how it came about. Or take the story of Charles Lindbergh. Before Bryson covers that first famous flight to France, he gives a brief history of aviation and explains how deadly and dangerous it had been. Those kinds of details really make the book fly, if you'll forgive the pun.

There are so many interesting stories in this book, but here are the Top 5 Things I Learned from One Summer: 

1. That Henry Ford was an ignorant jackass. "He was defiantly narrow-minded, barely educated and at least close to functionally illiterate. He did not like bankers, doctors, liquor, tobacco, idleness of any sort, pasteurized milk, Wall Street, overweight people, war, books or reading, J.P. Morgan and Co., capital punishment, tall buildings, college graduates, Roman Catholics or Jews."

2. How ridiculous Prohibition was, and that it lasted for 13 years! "The 1920s was in many ways the most strange and wondrous decade in American history, and nothing made it more so than Prohibition. It was easily the most extreme, ill-judged, costly, and ignored experiment in social engineering ever conducted by an otherwise rational nation... It made criminals out of honest people and actually led to an increase in the amount of drinking in the country."

3. That Babe Ruth was a hot mess. "The most brilliant, headstrong, undisciplined, lovable, thrillingly original, ornery son of a bitch that ever put on a baseball uniform."

4. How widespread bigotry was. "Of all the labels that were applied to the 1920s -- the Jazz Age, the Roaring 20s, the Age of Ballyhoo, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense -- one that wasn't used but perhaps should have been was the Age of Loathing. There may never have been another time in the nation's history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason." 

5. The incredible impact that American films had, especially after talking pictures were created. "Moviegoers around the world suddenly found themselves exposed, often for the first time, to American voices, American vocabulary, American cadence and pronunciation and word order. Spanish conquistadores, Elizabethan courtiers, figures from the Bible were suddenly speaking in American voices — and not just occasionally but in film after film after film. The psychological effect of this, particularly on the young, can hardly be overstated. With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American humor and sensibilities. Peacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world."

I listened to 70 percent of this book on audio CD, and then my car CD player broke. While I enjoyed finishing up with a printed copy, I did miss Bryson's voice. If you like audiobooks, I highly recommend his narrations.

I've lost track of how many Bill Bryson books I've read, but it's never enough. I love his humorous and clever style, and I hope he keeps writing for several more decades.

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