Bill Bryson is an American writer, originally from Iowa. For twenty years he lived in England with his British wife and their four kids. In the late 90’s, they decided to move to the States, and he settled in the town of Hanover, New Hampshire where Dartmouth college is located. Bryson was asked to write a weekly column for a London newspaper on living in the U.S. Seventy of those columns have been assembled into the book, I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away.
Anyone who thinks that living in a small town in New Hampshire is dull (like my teenage daughter) can learn from Bryson that life can be interesting if you just look at it the right way. Each column is a sardonic look at a slice of life in America. One week it might be his observations of the U.S. Postal Service versus the British post. The next it could be an observation of American supermarkets. Just about every situation that one can think of he’s found the humor in. The column about how the woods in New Hampshire tend to swallow airplanes and entire towns does have me a bit worried, though.
Bryson also makes humorous observation on some of the quirks of our life. Have you ever wondered who would have to call a 1-800 number on the side of a package of dental floss in the middle of the night? Things we see all the time and never really pause to think about are a source of endless amusement for Mr. Bryson, and his writing brought the amusement home to me as well.
The humor in I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away has a distinct British style to it, despite the fact that Bryson was originally from Iowa. His witty observations put day to day life in a different perspective than usual. Little factoids such as the fact that the Pentagon’s computers were hacked 161,000 times in 1995 or that the FAA is privatizing services at his local airport’s control tower but can’t tell him the name of the company taking it over are in the category of things I don’t know if I should laugh or cry over. Have you ever really thought about the safety demonstration and escape plans the airlines have? Bryson does here and points out the absurdity of having a floatation device for a flight completely over land, when that compartment would be just perfect for the carry-on he has no other room for.
It’s these little annoyances of life that many of us (including myself) have experienced that Bryson manages to turn into a witty column and sometimes a comment on our society. That, and breakfast pizza.
Another point that makes the book interesting is that in choosing to settle with his family in Hanover, New Hampshire instead of a big city like Boston or even Manchester, he’s looking at life in small-town America. The humor recounts movies and television shows which have depicted this quirkiness before, and Bryson’s humor at the quirkiness of small town life is tempered by the fact that I could tell he was really enjoying his life. As he’s lamenting the loss of small-town character to the bigger box-stores and national chains, it’s evident that he’s frustrated by what many say is the homogenization of the American experience – you can eat at the same dish at the same restaurants in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. Bryson savors the individuality and independence, yet stops short at condemning those who spend all day traveling from parking lot to parking lot instead of getting out of their cars and walking. It’s the ability to draw the line before his writing starts feeling insulting that makes this one of the best commentaries on American life that I’ve ever read.
Nothing is really off-limits in Bryson’s world. He pokes fun at himself in the supermarket, at the car-rental counter, on an airplane, or in the garden. He gets in jibes at American immigration policies, the drug laws, and our tendency toward laziness and excess. Some people who feel there are absolutely no faults in American society or culture might not see the humor, but I found it hilarious.
If there’s one complaint I have it’s the few columns where Bryson translates instruction booklets (in one case for computers, in another case for a tax return) into his own brand of humor. These I breezed through as the entire column is a one-trick pony of sorts. They are the weakest of all his columns, and although they aren’t horrible they just aren’t up to the rest of the collection.
The collection of columns is reprinted in this book in the same sequence they appeared in the Night & Day magazine in London. Occasionally Bryson refers back to something commented on in a previous column, but for the most part each stands on it’s own, making it perfect to read at times when I get interrupted frequently. I read the book over a few days sitting by the pool. It’s 2-3 page snippets were the perfect length so that I could put the book down in between and pick it up again later on. There were many days I would laugh out loud and have to read sections of the book to my husband.
I would highly recommend I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away to anyone. it’s not tedious at all, so you don’t need a great deal of patience to read it – just a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at American society and culture. The book is currently being passed around our house, and I have friends (in New Hampshire) who are also eager to take a peek.
Categories: Book Reviews
Currently reading A Walk in the Woods – my husband loves it but I’m only lukewarm. I liked In a Sunburned Country better. Maybe I’ll have to check this one out!
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I enjoyed A Walk in the Woods. It was his later work that left me flat.