Sunday, June 5, 2011

"I'm a Stranger Here Myself"

"I'm a Stranger Here Myself" by Bill Bryson
Published in 1999
My rating: 4 out of 5

I just finished reading Bill Bryson's compilation of weekly newspaper columns written for a British magazine about coming home to America after living in England for 20 years. The title, "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," is a very apt description of the book because it's obvious that although Bryson is American-born, he's British in culture and spirit.

The columns are mostly humorous, and alternate between self-deprecation, pointing out American eccentricities, and occasionally teasing the British audience for whom the columns were written. Bryson tags himself as kind of a bumbling idiot, and his column on getting a new computer up and running was one of my favorites. The column is written in the form of an instruction pamphlet, but says things like, "Congratulations. You are ready to set up. If you have not yet acquired a degree in electrical engineering, now is the time to do so," and "If you have not yet committed suicide, then insert Installation Diskette 1 in drive slot 2 (or vice versa) and follow the instructions on your screen. (Note: Owing to a software modification, some instructions will appear in Turkish.)" In other columns, Bryson details his incompetence in dealing with repairmen of all varieties, two different occasions in which he encountered trouble with airline travel, disastrous haircuts, difficulties with Christmas decorations and his adventures on a snowmobile, which he describes as "a rocket ship designed by Satan to run on snow."

Many of the columns deal with what Bryson (and likely his British audience) views as the eccentricites of American life. He describes the vast amount of cupholders in American vehicles, fast food drive-thrus (which I was surprised to learn don't really exist in England), the fact that Americans (even very fit and healthy ones who work out daily) seem to have an aversion to walking anywhere and would rather get in the car and drive across the street to a different store than walk. He asserts that Americans are accustomed to instant gratification ("To an American shopper, there are just three spans of time: now, tomorrow at the very latest, and we'll look elsewhere."), an abundance of choice ("I remember going to the supermarket for the first time [since arriving back in America] and being genuinely impressed to find it stocked with no fewer than eighteen varieties of incontinence diaper."), and a never-ending supply of junk food. This is all presented humorously (and often with statistics) and as an American reader, it was easy to admit that all of Bryson's observations on the quirks and uniqueness of American life were true. I laughed out loud when Bryson made a mockery of his income tax form, and nodded in agreement when he described renting a car and the rudeness of airline employees.

However, there were times when Bryson's teasing of American ways felt more like a harsh critique. These observations were mostly true as well, but these columns were on things such as excessive red tape, immigration, the ineffective war on drugs, government inefficiency and so on. When I read these columns I felt a bit resentful and angry and was thinking that Bryson spent pretty much all of his adult life in England; who is he to come back to America after 20 years and pick on the way we do things? Again, these arguments were pretty much all things I could understand and even agree with. But it's kind of like this: I have a little brother who's eight years younger than me. When I was a a kid and had friends over, he could sometimes be a bother. It was all well and good for me to tell him to go away, that he was being annoying. But if one of my friends dared jump in, I would immediately get defensive of him. It was much the same with these columns.

Overall, this book was a really enjoyable read and had many laugh-out-loud moments. I'm planning to read Bryson's other books about walking the Appalachian Trail and visiting Australia. And maybe I'll finally crack open his "A Short History of Nearly Everything," which has been sitting on my bookshelf unread since my sophomore year of college.

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