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Bill Bryson follows his Appalachian amble, A Walk in the Woods, with the story of his exploits in Australia, where
A-bombs go off unnoticed, prime ministers disappear into the surf, and cheery citizens coexist with the world's
deadliest creatures: toxic caterpillars, aggressive seashells, crocodiles, sharks, snakes, and the deadliest of them
all, the dreaded box jellyfish. And that's just the beginning, as Bryson treks through sunbaked deserts and up endless
coastlines, crisscrossing the "under-discovered" Down Under in search of all things interesting.
Bryson, who could make a pile of dirt compelling--and yes, Australia is mostly dirt--finds no shortage of curiosities.
When he isn't dodging Portuguese man-of-wars or considering the virtues of the remarkable platypus, he visits southwest
Gippsland, home of the world's largest earthworms (up to 12 feet in length). He discovers that Australia, which began
nationhood as a prison, contains the longest straight stretch of railroad track in the world (297 miles), as well as the
world's largest monolith (the majestic Uluru) and largest living thing (the Great Barrier Reef). He finds ridiculous
place names: "Mullumbimby Ewylamartup, Jiggalong, and the supremely satisfying Tittybong," and manages to catch a
cricket game on the radio, which is like
listening to two men sitting in a rowboat on a large, placid lake on a day when the fish aren't biting; it's like having
a nap without losing consciousness. It actually helps not to know quite what's going on. In such a rarefied world of
contentment and inactivity, comprehension would become a distraction.
"You see," Bryson observes, "Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I'm saying." Of
course, Bryson--who is as much a travel writer here as a humorist, naturalist, and historian--says much more, and does
so with generous amounts of wit and hilarity. Australia may be "mostly empty and a long way away," but it's a little
closer now. --Rob McDonald