The best book review, in my opinion, is a few random samples of the type of word-banging a reader will find between the covers of the book in question. That being said…
Although Canberra is one of the largest cities in the nation and one of the most important planned communities on earth, it remains Australia’s greatest obscurity. As national capitals go, it is still not an easy place to get to.
In 1996 the Prime Minister, John Howard, caused a stir after his election by declining to live in Canberra. He would, he announced, continue to reside in Sydney and commute to Canberra as duties required. As you can imagine, this caused quite an uproar among Canberra’s citizens, presumably because they hadn’t thought of it themselves. What made this particularly interesting is that John Howard is the dullest an in Australia. Imagine a very committed funeral home director – someone whose burning ambition from the age of eleven was to be a funeral home director, whose proudest achievement in adulthood was to be elected president of the Queanbeyan and District Funeral Home Directors Association – then halve this personality and then halve it again, and you have pretty well got John Howard. When a man as outstandingly colourless as John Howard turns his nose up at a place you know it must be worth a look. I couldn’t wait to see it.
– Bill Bryson, Down Under, p. 129
The visitor’s centre was almost ready to close when I got there, and in any case was just an outlet for leaflets and brochures for other places to stay. In a side room was a small cinema showing one of those desperately upbeat promotional films with a title like Canberra – It’s Got It All! – the ones that boast you can water ski and shop for an evening gown and have a pizza because this place has… got it all! You know the kind I mean. But I watched the film happily because the room was air conditioned and it was a pleasure to sit after walking so far.
It was just as well that I didn’t require an evening gown or a pizza or water skiing when I returned to the street because I couldn’t find a thing anywhere. My one tip for you if you ever go to Canberra is don’t leave your hotel without a good map, a compass, several day’s provisions and a mobile phone with the number of a rescue service. I walked for two hours through green, pleasant, endlessly identical neighbourhoods, never entirely confident that I wasn’t just going round in a large circle. From time to time I would come to a leafy roundabout with roads radiating off in various directions, each presenting an identical vista of antipodean suburban heaven, and I would venture down the one that looked most likely to take me to civilization only to emerge ten minutes later at another identical roundabout. I never saw another soul on foot or anyone watering a lawn or anything like that. Very occasionally a car would glide past, pausing at each intersection, the driver looking around with a despairing expression that said: ‘Now where the fuck is my house?’
– Bill Bryson, Down Under, p. 130
It was quite busy. In the front entrance, two friendly ladies were seated at a table handing out free visitor’s packs – big, bright yellow plastic bags – and these were accepted with expressions of gratitude and rapture by everyone who passed.
‘Care for a visitors’ pack, sir?’ called one of the ladies to me.
‘Oh, yes please,’ I said, more thrilled than I wished to admit. The visitors’ pack was a weighty offering, but on inspection it proved to contain nothing but a mass of brochures – the complete works, it appeared, of the visitors’ centre I had visited the day before. The bag was so heavy that it stretched the handles until it was touching the floor. I dragged it around for a while, and then thought to abandon it behind a pot plant. And here’s the thing. There wasn’t room behind the pot plant for another yellow bag! There must have been ninety of them back there. I looked around and noticed that almost no one in the room still had a plastic bag. I leaned mine against the wall beside the plant and as I straightened up I saw that a man was advancing toward me.
‘Is this where the bags go?’ he asked gravely.
‘Yes, it is,’ I replied with equal gravity.
In my momentary capacity as director of internal operations I watched him lean the bag carefully against the wall. Then we stood for a moment together and regarded it judiciously, pleased to have contributed to the important work of moving hundreds of yellow bags from the foyer to a mustering station in the next room. As we stood, two more people came along. ‘Place them just here,’ we suggested almost in unison, and indicated where we were sandbagging the wall. Then we exchanged satisfied nods and moved off into the museum.
– Bill Bryson, Down Under, p. 141-142