Thursday, July 10, 2014

One Summer: America 1927

Book: One Summer: America 1927
Author:Bill Bryson
Edition:eReader on Nook
Read:  July 2014
506 pages
Rated: 3 out of 5

Bryson takes us through events which happened during the Summer of 1927, including Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight, Babe Ruth's 61 homer runs, Calvin Coolidge's actions or non-actions, and various murders and bombings.

Throughout this book, I was mesmerized by Bryson's storytelling. Each individual story was entertaining. But I kept coming back to the question of, so what? Why are these stories being told? Is Bryson weaving a tell out of all these stories? I came to conclusion that there was not any overt attempt at continuity.

But even with the discontinuity I experienced, there are some things which we can learn. First, was this a turning point in American dominance? It is not so much from any mighty action we did as a nation, but a collective feeling. Such as Lindbergh flying heroically over the Atlantic, Babe Ruth's home runs, the great financiers of Europe coming to America to discuss strategies. Even Calvin Coolidge being able to just let the nation run unattended for four plus years, these showed us that the nation could be strong and take its place among the nations.

The closest which Bryson makes to a conclusion is 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. (345) This is not a unique conclusion. Also I do not think Bryson has built the support for this as a conclusion. He certainly has given enough examples of American action during that time. But he does not build on these examples to show how he reached this conclusion beyond making this flat statement.

But for every bright picture Bryson paints there is also a dark one. Lindbergh being influenced by the eugenics movement with its sister in politics, the Nazi's. Babe Ruth's lack of morals and his alcoholism. The financiers meeting leading to the Great Depression with Calvin Coolidge not having either the foresight or the will to try to change course. With our optimism, we hide the blackness of the evil around us.

This thought was not so much had to do with the book, but a throw-away comment Bryson made. He talked about the problems of syncing film with sound. A man by the name of Lee DeForest solved the problem by imprinting the sound directly on the film The comment Bryson makes is he would have died a much wealthier man if he had been more focused on making his inventions marketable (340).  Bryson's comment caused the thought to pop into my mind, but what would DeForest spend the money on when he was dead? And then to the coorallary conclusion, we will all die, so why spend so much time chasing money and wealth instead of pursuing those things which have longer reaches into the future?

The big question I have is, why did Bryson write this book? What I found was the outlook of how to read this book. How you like this book will be dependent on how you like to walk. When you go out for a walk, do you feel satisfied by going so far arriving at a specified destination in the expected amount of time? Or do you like to doodle, wander about a bit, look at that cute little blue flower as if you have never seen it before? Enjoy the children playing in the park? And say my, what a mighty fine day we are having? If you are the later person, then you may enjoy One Summer as Bryson leads us on a trip through the Summer of 1927 by a pretty circuitous route. Such as with Lindbergh's flight across the ocean he takes us through a couple of murders in New York, how tabloids started, the politic of 1927,  and the wet weather of 1927, while not saying very much about the actual flight of Lindbergh.

But that still gets back to why did he write this book? Was it to retell stories of that Summer? I think partly yes. Was it to reveal something about that Summer? If it is, I confess, I did not see the revelation clearly. Was it to tell something about us, about Americans? If so, it got lost in the static. In the end, I was left with the stories and their supporting stories. Maybe I am trying to over-think this book. To me, it was sort of like the automaton in Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The automaton started drawing scratch marks which eventually became a picture. But with Bryson's book, I see the scratch marks, but not the picture,

When you read Bryson, you quickly realize he is more interested in telling a story and telling it well, than in an linear telling of the story. So sit down in a comfortable place, put your legs up and read the book to enjoy a good set of stories, but do not expect too much else.
Notes from my book group:

My Questions:

  1. Why did you think this would be a good book for us to read?
  2. Have you all read anything else by Bryson-we read A Walk in the Woods as a book group several years ago. How does this book compare to other books which he wrote?
  3. What did you like about the book? What annoyed you?
  4. Was there cohesion in this books presentation? If so, what was it? How does Bryson support that conclusion?
  5.  Did the way Bryson grouped stories together work for you?
  6. Which of Bryson's stories-major or minor-engaged you the most? Which ones did you think were superfluous? 
  7. What heros attracked you? Repealed you? 
  8. One of the things Bryson does in the book is to build up a hero, only to show the hero's flaws. Why does he do that? What is Bryson trying to say?
  9. Why do you think Bryson chose 1927? Why do you think he wrote this book?
  10. Did you learn  about 1927? About American history?
  11. I had a hard time trying to figure out if Bryson was saying anything significant about 1927 or American. What is your take?
  12.  What year would you have chosen? Why?

LitLovers Reading Guide:
1. Of all the stories that Bryson tells in One Summer, which one do you find most interesting—which  engaged you more than others? Which story most surprised you (e.g., President Coldidge's four-hour work day)?

2. Of all the heroes covered in the book, whom do you have the most sympathy for? Maybe Philo Farnsworth?  Which hero do you most admire?  Most despise?

3. How did Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray bungle the coverup of their murder?

4. What about Robert Elliott, America's top executioner—how would you describe him? What in his background shaped him to do his job? Would you want him as a father...or husband?

5. Bryson's trademark humor is on display in One Summer. What parts, in particular, did you find funny?

6. How much, if anything, have your learned from One Summer? If you've read Bryson's previous A Brief History of Nearly Everything, how does this book compare?

7. Is there anything about the episodes in this book that mark them as distinctly American? Is there something that links them together in a way that defines the culture of this country?

8. The book has been criticized as "light"—lacking any deeper analysis—that it's merely a collection of disparate historical anecdotes whose purpose is to amuse. Hmmm... Do you agree...or disagree?

New Words:
  • Neologisms (32): a newly coined word or expression.
  • Marcelled (41): A hairstyle characterized by deep regular waves made by a heated curling iron.
  • Pellagra (71): vitamin deficiency disease most frequently caused by a chronic lack of niacin (vitamin B3) in the diet.
  • Probity (78): the quality of having strong moral principles; honesty and decency.
  • Taciturn (162): reserved or uncommunicative in speech; saying little
  • Petulance (224): the quality of being childishly sulky or bad-tempered
  • Luxuriant (255): (of vegetation) rich and profuse in growth; lush.;  
    (of hair) thick and healthy
  • Plentipotientary (288): a person, especially a diplomat, invested with the full power of independent action on behalf of their government, typically in a foreign country
Book References:

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: On a warm spring evening just before Easter 1927, people who lived in tall buildings in New York were given pause when the wooden scaffolding around the tower of the brand-new Sherry-Netherland Apartment Hotel caught fire and it became evident that the city's firemen lacked any means to get water to such a height.
  • Last Line: She died in 2001 at the ripe age of ninety-four, the last person of consequence to this story to have lived through that long, extraordinary summer.
Table of Contents:
  • Prologue
  • May: The Kid
  • June: The Babe
  • July: The President
  • August: The Anachists
  • September: Summer's End
  • Epilogue


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