Off the Shelf

v25n2_offtheshelf-onesummercover

Brilliant nonfiction work celebrates greatest turning points in recent American history

I have been a fan of Bill Bryson’s work since I first read The Lost Continent 25 years ago. In the intervening years he has written more than a dozen books and I have followed him on many journeys, for it has been as a travel writer that Bryson has made his reputation. His warmth and humour are always on prominent display but his insatiable curiosity is what draws us in. He can make connections between people and places that make them come uniquely to life and his sometimes awkward interaction with them just adds to the gentle self-deprecating style that is pure Bryson.

In recent years, Bill Bryson has augmented his travel tales with forays into Shakespeare’s world, a dictionary of troublesome words, the incredible Short History of Nearly Everything and an examination of life on the home front. His most recent book One Summer, America 1927, combines all the elements of Bryson’s wit, passion for storytelling and intelligence to produce a work that’s funny, charming and packed with information about one summer that was to prove incredibly monumental.

Any fan of baseball or boxing will be intrigued by the Yankee’s run that summer, or by the account of the Tunney-Dempsey fight and the lead-up to it. But it’s for aviation fans and the race to cross the Atlantic that the real treat awaits. Charles Lindberg and his accomplishment are the backbone of this book. Still, there are many deeply researched digressions as well: the build-up to the Great Depression; the birth of “talking pictures”; the invention of television; the presidency of Coolidge; and, the plan to carve Mount Rushmore. They add to the sense of frenzied energy that fills this book. An epic book about an epic period in American and World history.

Latest installment in mystery series
offers great read in short space

Spirit of Steamboat Let me introduce you to one of my favourite fictional lawmen, Walter Longmire. This slim novella marks the tenth Walt Longmire story and although it is brief, Johnson packs a great yarn into its 146 pages. Over the course of the first nine Longmire stories, Johnson fleshes out the broad shoulders of our eponymous Sherriff and the cast of supporting characters. These books are detailed studies of western life but are universal experiences told in a humorous voice that can ratchet up the suspense in any scene. Longmire is big and tough, a fan of Shakespeare who’s also a crack shot, a former high school football star, college graduate and Vietnam Vet. In short, a very interesting man. (If you want to be a purist, you should really start at the start and read The Cold Dish but I warn you, these books are addictive.)

Spirit of Steamboat begins on Christmas Eve with the arrival of a beautiful, mysterious stranger …so far, so clichéd, right? Her insistence that she’s met Walt and his predecessor Lucien Connelly mystify them both until she utters the word “steamboat” and that unlocks a torrent of memory. Johnson then takes us back 25 years and unfolds the story as an extended flashback. With precision and economy of language, we are buffeted and bounced along on a harrowing, white-knuckled flight in a vintage WWII bomber, crewed by the then newly-elected sheriff Longmire and his former boss Lucian. They fight Mother Nature’s fury, the mechanical failures of a very old aircraft, and the pressure of the clock as time is as precious as their cargo.

This little book will get the adrenaline flowing and I bet you will read it in one sitting. I also wager it will make you read another Walk Longmire story, perhaps all of them.

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