Thursday, January 27, 2011

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away, by Bill Bryson

The description of I’m a Stranger Here Myself depicts the observations of the author returning to America after 20 years abroad. Considering one good friend was an expatriate for many years and another was born in Europe this seemed a selection aimed right at my book club. While the discussion was lively as always, it largely centered around frustration at the misleading premise.

Bryson is an obviously talented writer, and his style of observational humor gets off to a great start by examining the national pastime. “What is the difference between baseball and cricket? The answer is simple. Both are games of great skill involving balls and bats but with this crucial difference: Baseball is exciting, and when you go home at the end of the day you know who won.” Other winning vignettes look at the legal system—“Allied with the idea that lawsuits are a quick way to a fortune, whether deserved or not, is the interesting and uniquely American notion that no matter what happens, someone else must be responsible.”—and our eating habits: “Obesity is a serious problem in America (well, serious for fat people anyway).” Unfortunately this collection of newspaper columns doesn’t stay on topic.

While subjects such as “Being sprayed by a skunk is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to you that doesn’t bleed or put you in the hospital” are damn funny, there isn’t anything here that relates to the promise of the title. The narrative titled Your New Computer purporting to be the installation instructions for a new PC literally had me laughing out loud. “At each prompt, reconfigure the specified path, double-click on the button launch icon, select a single equation default file from the macro selection register, insert the VGA graphics card in the rear aerofoil, and type "C:\>" followed by the birthdates of all the people you have ever known.” I’m absolutely positive this is what my mother hears when I try and explain how to update her virus software! Again, though, while amusing it has nothing to do with how America has changed over the past few decades or how it differs with other parts of the world. I think I’d have thoroughly enjoyed this book if the publisher had written the blurb differently. Disappointing.

I did violate one of Bryson’s Rules for Living though: “27. All reviews of the author’s work will, with immediate effect, be submitted to the author for correction and helpful revision before publication.” Oops. :)

First Sentence:
I once joked in a book that there are three things you cant do in life.

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