I'm a HUGE Bill Bryson fan. I enjoy his snark and observations and his humor just kills me. I have all of his books (not his newest as of yet) and there's only been one that I haven't truly enjoyed.
I really liked his book about the history of normal household objects (At Home) and died while reading A Walk In The Woods (about his hike of the Appalachian Trail). You don't need to read his books in order of publication, instead I would suggest by picking the subject matter that you like best.
I read I'm A Stranger Here Myself before I left to live overseas and read it again when I got back. I thought it was funny before I left...I thought it was amazingly hilarious when I got back. It's amazing how fast you can adapt to a new environs sometimes, and going back to the old normal can mess with your system. For instance, when I came back to America after a year, the new Coca-cola Free-style(?) soda mixer machine had been introduced. I had all sorts of disgusting combinations and I swear I was jittery for a week. It was a lot of soda. When I got back to Scotland and met my friend at Subway...with the four choices of soda I was kinda in a tailspin. It's that stupidly bizarre.
I'm A Stranger Here Myself details the Bryson family's return (or moving) to America after two decades of living in England. Bill Bryson wrote essays for his newspaper back home and this was turned into a book. It's an observant view of the mundane, the exciting, the ridiculous and the beloved aspects about life here. I simply cannot adore this book more.
Title: I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Notes On Returning To America After Twenty Years Away (UK title: I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Notes From A Big Country)
Author: Bill Bryson
Page Number: 304 pages (paperback)
Genre: memoir, nonfiction, travel, humor
Publisher: Broadway Books, a division of (Penguin) Random House
After living in Britain for two decades, Bill Bryson recently moved back to the United States with his English wife and four children (he had read somewhere that nearly 3 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens--as he later put it, "it was clear my people needed me"). They were greeted by a new and improved America that boasts microwave pancakes, twenty-four-hour dental-floss hotlines, and the staunch conviction that ice is not a luxury item.
Delivering the brilliant comic musings that are a Bryson hallmark, I'm a Stranger Here Myself recounts his sometimes disconcerting reunion with the land of his birth. The result is a book filled with hysterical scenes of one man's attempt to reacquaint himself with his own country, but it is also an extended if at times bemused love letter to the homeland he has returned to after twenty years away.
The book is divided into 70 short-ish chapters dealing with anything from garbage disposals to the tax system. The book begins with Bryson and his family (one English wife and four English children--a different beast entirely) move from the United Kingdom to Hanover, New Hampshire--where Dartmouth is. He details the differences and sameness of coming back after twenty years away and notes a few things that stick out immediately (to him, to me and to everyone that's ever visited me in America) about America. Free refills on soda, coffee, popcorn, etc., ice in your drink (as much as you want, as many times as you want it), garbage disposals, friendly people, etc.
His second chapter deals with the Post Office. The British Post Office was...an experience for me. I had one package stolen and a recurring problem with a mailman that tended to not deliver mail on whatever whim he felt like. I walked up to the post office in the UK and looked around in...fascinated horror. There were tax sections (seriously!), you could buy lottery tickets, do banking type things, get a TV license (still a confusing concept to me), and sometimes I could get my mail. When I mentioned to the mail person (slash TV license person) that stealing packages in a federal offense in America, they were surprised. Apparently my only recourse to my neighbor nicking my parcel was...nothing. Sure, they can take taxes from me for the lady in the castle down in London but not arrest my thieving neighbor. Ridiculous. In contrast, my local post office (a smaller, satellite office) is laid back, full of locals and the postmistress known my name. She also has the number for the federal police and can find a missing package in less than a day. I wouldn't say one is better than the other (out loud) but I absolutely related to Bryson's chapter on his musings of the difference between a UK and USA post office. The local post office downtown always has lines out the door, so not every post office here is homey.
I will say that my neighbor did return (sans package) a portion of my order...the shoes that didn't fit her feet. So she's that type of bitch.
Bryson also has a chapter devoted to the grocery store. The grocers is another normal activity, filled with wonder, that differs for every country. When I have international friends visit, they stay for weeks and we hit up the grocery store a couple of times. It's fun to see it through their eyes simply because sometimes American grocery store is filled with lots of choices. You can go to a grocers that has a pharmacy, a car mechanic, a garden center and a home goods store all attached. It can have a cafe, a restaurant, a butcher, and an ophthalmologist in residence. This is normal. For America. My grocery store has a cookery school, an organic store, a liquor store, a restaurant, butcher, pharmacy and dessert/bakery store...all attached. There is one large aisle of cereals (hundreds of options), multiple types of baked beans, a whole aisle for ice cream and a whole massive section for imported fruit and vegetables. I foolishly believed all grocery stores were like this (worldwide) and wow was it a different experience when I went grocery shopping the first time in the UK. There was selections between cereal (but not hundreds), there was one type of baked beans (Heinz) and no honey mustard. There was not a butcher attached and I needed to go to a different street entirely to get over the counter medications. I got used to shopping in the UK but who knew shopping for grocery stores could be so different and yet so similar. A plus for the UK...they deliver grocery items so when I had a cold and it was snowing...Tesco had my back. Another difference is that you bag your own grocery items in the UK. This was never explained so the first time I went through the line it was a 'standoff at the OK Corral" type situation until my flatmate grabbed a bag and started bagging the groceries while explaining that we had to do it. That seems like a load of shit to me, as the grocery store here bags your groceries and then takes them to your car and puts them in. That is not the type of service you can expect in the UK. Granted, the lady at the small Tesco store near my first flat would bag the grocery items for me...but that's because people kept trying to steal the plastic bags (the plastic bag ban was about to come into effect, so people were hoarding I think). That sounded a bit pretentious on my part... and it totally is! I got used to bagging my own grocery items (and bringing my own bags) but it was a bit different at first.
Also, who knew Heinz made baked beans? They don't do that here. Also, they make a kick ass tomato soup that can be imported from my grocery store for $5 a can (nope) or occasionally at World Market for $1.
Bryson also muses about the seeming formality and informality between the UK and USA. I can't say one is better than the other. I'm from the South, which sometimes straddles that line between the two anyways (friendly but say 'yes ma'am' and 'hullo Mr. Smith'). Sometimes the formality in the UK drove me crazy and sometimes the informality of the USA drives me insane. I don't really have anything to add but I enjoyed Bill Bryson's thoughts on the trends. For instance, he contrasts the community around the universities where he lived. (Oxford vs. Dartmouth). I hadn't thought about it until that moment but there was a guard station (where we showed ID) at my uni in the UK but at my university in America it wasn't a big deal and the community would be off and on the grounds depending on what was occurring (we had a lovely arts, theater, circus, sports and several of the professors give lectures for non-students). It's good I think to have a community that interacts with the school (it brings in money too) but goodness, game days were always rough.
In the middle of the book, Bryson talks about one of the best (eating) holidays America has--Thanksgiving. When my grandmother was still alive, we ate like kings. Fat, fat kings. My Aunt took over and has it catered from the blandest place in the state (why?!) and it's not so great. Last Thanksgiving, I actually had to work so I missed the family activity and I hit up Publix (grocery store) and got some pre-made stuff. So while working through the holiday, I got to eat yummy food (all sides!) and watch the parade, which is normally forbidden as there is some football game somewhere. It was my favorite holiday. In the UK, my American friends and I would band together, cooking different food and would meet up for a huge buffet. Sometimes we'd invite non-Americans to eat with us (depending on the amount of food we made). It was always a revelation because we were all from different parts of the states, so the food was a really fun mish-mash. My point is, I agree totally with Bill Bryson here...it is the best American holiday...and not just because the crazed Christmas season will begin the next day. I also agree that Christmas (and Boxing Day) is something that the UK does better. It could be because Santa comes "flying" in on a jet-ski where I live but there's something not quite....winter-ey about Christmas on the beach. Also, Santa looks like Jimmy Buffet here.
Another one of his middle chapters deals with an upcoming media tour. It reminded me of how many authors have official social media channels/accounts (as do publishers). You almost expect to be able to look my a favorite author's Twitter or have them comment on your Instagram when you say you like the book. This phenomenon has changed quite a bit since Bryson wrote this book (1999 to 2019). I'll have to look and see if Mr. Bryson has social media, but he does occasionally do book tours and events. He mentions a figure of about 200 authors doing tours and publicity during busy periods and since Bryson seems to be more of a "star" author than most, he seemed to get more help for interviews and travelling. I thought it was all very interesting because not everyone is honest about how stressful and hard that can be.
One of the later chapter deals with the Bryson family buying a leasehold flat in London. This was an infuriating thing I discovered when I lived in the UK. I was looking for a house to buy, after getting a job there, only to discover that I could only lease the land and buy the house. It's some sort of bullshit that made me want to throw over the government, start a proper revolution and arrest my neighbor for stealing my portable laundry hamper. There are very few houses with land (freehold) that you can own out right. Instead, you can buy a house (or flat) and then sign a lease to some Lord or Duke or Inbred Numpty for 99 years. Anyways, I wasn't buying anything after that. Just because your ancestor knocked about with some inbred weirdo on the throne (and possibly a barnyard animal) does not mean I'm renting land from you after I buy a house. Nope. Bryson glosses over this concept (as the book was mostly written for British people and they seem fine with the statue quo) and talks about shipping time. Overnight shipping is not always possible (and often...not even available). The "instant gratification" that you can get so used to here is not always the norm outside America. There's nothing wrong with that, but when furniture shopping on a limited time schedule it can all go sideways. It's perfectly reasonable to sing the National Anthem and dump some tea into the Thames after your couch takes over a month to ship out. From another area of the United Kingdom. An hours drive away. Patience is a virtue...
I do believe Bryson moved back the United Kingdom and he's absolutely produced more books in the meantime. As I mentioned, his book At Home was one of my favorite reads. He's witty, has a nice shade of snark, is ready to make fun of himself as well as situations he finds himself in, isn't mean or nasty in any critiques and has an easy prose.
I would note that with an ever connected world, several aspects that Bryson noted were typically American (and perhaps not) have made their way around the world. I didn't have to beg for ice and I received free water at restaurants (and water refills if I could tackle the waiter). That doesn't quite make this a dated manuscript, but I would assume even Bryson would now note that it's different. That's not to say that the rest of the world is becoming Americanized, because how snotty is that, but instead as it's easier to communicate globally (at a second) that there's more awareness.
The chapters are short (although it's easy to read the whole book in one setting), making it easy to break it up into many sections. There isn't a over arching unified theme to the book other than "Bill Bryson is trying out America after an absence" so each chapter basically stands on its own merits. The prose itself is casual, you feel like Bill is just writing a silly letter home about his weekly exploits, but with a more advanced style than what I could produce.
Penguin Random House's Author page for Bill Bryson, featuring his newest book The Body.
Bill Bryson's Author Facebook page
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