The Barnes & Noble Review
Bill Bryson is a man caught between two countries. After living in England for 20 years, Bill Bryson returned to America and found himself in a foreign land of microwave pancakes and garbage disposals. Bryson, author of the bestselling A Walk in the Woods, began writing a weekly newspaper column about life in America for a British publication, Night & Day. This column evolved into I'm a Stranger Here Myself, a hilarious portrait of America in all its bizarre glory.
Bryson's sketches of the quirks, hassles, and joys of American life are witty and vivid, and contain a delicious irony in that the American author is writing a travel narrative about the strangeness of life in America. ATMs, pay phones, and automated gas pumps are all sources of confusion and potential embarrassment for Bryson -- and, for readers, gales of laughter. His piece on junk food is one of the best, complete with a frenzied Bryson grabbing packages left and right from grocery store shelves. In his litany to junk food, Bryson fantasizes about sugary breakfast cereals, spray can cheese, breakfast pizza, and all of the unhealthy things his English wife never brings home. He later changes his tune when his wife forces him to actually eat all of the junk he bought.
As a travel writer, Bryson's eye is finely tuned to the small things that distinguish one place from another. In I'm a Stranger Here Myself, you get a glimpse of the essence of America through these small details. The friendliness of using first names, the absurdity of long PIN numbers, the mysteries of the hardware store -- for Bill Bryson, it means home.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Bill Bryson is a man caught between two countries. You can even hear it in his voice a lilting British accent with American undertones. After living in England for 20 years, Bill Bryson returned to America and found himself in a foreign land of microwave pancakes and garbage disposals. Bryson, author of the bestselling A Walk in the Woods, began writing a weekly newspaper column about life in America for a British publication, Night & Day. This column evolved into I'm A Stranger Here Myself, a hilarious portrait of America in all its bizarre glory.
Bryson's sketches of the quirks, hassles, and joys of American life are witty and vivid. ATMs, pay phones, and automated gas pumps are all sources of confusion and potential embarrassment and, for listeners, laughter. His piece on junk food is one of the best, complete with a frenzied Bryson grabbing packages left and right from grocery store shelves. In his litany to junk food, Bryson fantasizes about sugary breakfast cereals, spray can cheese, breakfast pizza, and all of the unhealthy things his English wife never brings home. He later changes his tune when his wife forces him to actually eat all of the junk he bought.
As a travel writer, Bryson's eye is tuned to the small things that distinguish one place from another. In I'm A Stranger Here Myself , you get a glimpse of the essence of America through these small details. The friendliness of using first names, the absurdity of long PIN numbers, the mysteries of the hardware store for Bill Bryson, it means home.
There are two sorts of columnists worth reading. One is the expert -- someone like Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, a guy who's breathed music for 30 years and knows more about the subject than Billboard does. The other kind is simply fascinating -- someone like Louis Lapham of Harper's Magazine, who can make a connection between Louis XIV's court and Reagan's cabinet one month and write on cultural commodification the next.
Bill Bryson, the author of the set of columns collected in I'm a Stranger Here Myself, is neither fascinating nor an expert. He's an American who wrote travel books and newspapered in England for 20 years before returning to New Hampshire with his wife and family in 1996. He's also the author of the 1998 bestseller A Walk in the Woods, a travel diary that details his aborted attempts to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
The best parts of A Walk in the Woods worked because not much happened along the trail; in order to fill in the holes, Bryson became something of an expert, studying and researching people, flora, fauna, history and park politics. There's none of that rigor in I'm a Stranger Here Myself, a coattail collection of columns, originally written for the British magazine Night & Day, that examine the minutiae of American life in neat four-page chunks. In one piece the subject is a small-town post office on customer-appreciation day; in another it's the tedium of highway driving. Nostalgia accounts for several essays about motels, drive-in theaters, small-town living and the beauty of Thanksgiving.
An editor of mine once told me that any writer you give a column to sooner or later ends up writing about television; he believed that writers are lazy people who would rather turn on the idiot box than get out of their bathrobes and report. Bryson starts writing about television in his third column. (He misses coming home drunk in England and watching lectures on Open University.) That column sets up a trap that he falls into for the rest of his book: Almost all of his subjects come to him. An article in the Atlantic Monthly becomes a column about the ludicrous drug war; a box of dental floss works itself into a confused meditation on consumer warnings and born worriers; a catalog prompts a thousand words on shopping. His laziness is contagious: If you read several columns in one sitting, you get to the point where you start skipping over weak leads ("The other day something in our local newspaper caught my eye"; "I decided to clean out the refrigerator the other day").
Bryson tries to make up for his reportorial torpor with jokes, as if he thinks we're more likely to enjoy a few strung-together paragraphs about barbershops if there's a zinger about Wayne Newton's hair at the end. He also relies on several crutches to get him through his weekly deadlines. Having returned to the States, he trades in the English smirk at absurdity for cudgeling exaggerations -- "help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign" -- and he wraps almost every piece with a tacked-on paragraph that
To be fair, he's occasionally funny. (In a story about snowmobiling: "The next thing I knew I was on the edge of the New Hampshire woods, wearing a snug, heavy helmet that robbed me of all my senses except terror.") And in a few columns -- one on sending his son off to school, another about why autumn leaves change colors -- he actually invests either himself or his resources enough to give the work emotional or intellectual ballast.
Those moments are dismally few. When Bryson's editor at Night & Day persuaded him to write a column on American life for a British audience, he probably imagined something like Alexis de Tocqueville channeled through Dave Barry. What he got instead was the observational humor of a second-rate Seinfeld leafing through the mail in his bathrobe. -- Salon
After living in Britain for 20 years, humorist Bryson (A Walk in the Woods, LJ 4/1/98) moved his family back to the United States and settled in a small New Hampshire town. His British editor convinced him to write a weekly newspaper column about his impressions of America. "Mostly I wrote about whatever little things had lately filled my days--a trip to the post office, the joy of having a garbage disposal for the first time, the glories of the American motel." This book is a collection of those pieces, charting Bryson's progress "from being bewildered and actively appalled in the early days of my return to being bewildered and generally charmed, impressed, and gratified now." While featuring his trademark humor (fans find Bryson hysterically funny, while others think he's snide and sarcastic), I'm a Stranger Here Myself seems a bit slight and choppy. Because of Bryson's popularity, this will be in demand, but steer first-time readers to Notes from a Small Island (LJ 4/1/96) or The Lost Continent (LJ 7/89). [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/99.]--Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
San Francisco Chronicle
Bryson has never been wittier or more endearing than in these pages....Painfully funny and genuinely insightful.
...Bryson [has] found his shtick, and he's sticking to it....Bryson's America is often wonderful but bewildering in all its vast, commercialized contradictions....The saving grace...is that even when Bryson attempts to crack old chestnuts...he can be a genuinely funny fellow....pleasingly cranky...
The New York Times Book Review
I'm a Stranger Here Myself is...like being in stop and go traffic with a bemused, entertaining writer...[He] finds most of his material in encounters with modern life.
In [this] wonderfully droll book...Bryson sets hes tart pen to chronicling the absurdities and virtues of the american way of life...Mr. Bryson is unparalleled in his ability to cut a culture off at the knees in a way that is so humorous and so affectionate that those being ridiculed are laughing too hard to take offense...But in addition to all the fun he pokes at Americans, he also writes with true warmth about the kindness of his neighbors...It should be said that a familiarity with the British way of doing things will help readers truly appreciate some of the funnier jokes. But most of the time, Mr. Bryson's barbed punchlines hit their mark.
The Wal Street Journal
Waggish observations on everyday life in the US from bestselling Bryson (A Walk in the Woods, 1998, etc.), a guy who can find the humor in a bag of hammers and, often enough, the lesson too. Returning stateside after decades in Britain, Bryson was tapped to pen a weekly column for the British Mail on Sunday about life in America. What he offered was not a vast systematic picture, but rather quick sketches to reveal what unnerved and exhilarated him upon his return, what appalled him and what made him happy. And that is just what he delivers with these two-to-four-page broadsides, the revelatory minutiae that distinguish the US from all other countries. Take running shoes: "If my son can have his choice of a seemingly limitless range of scrupulously engineered, biomechanically efficient footwear, why does my computer keyboard suck?" He wants to know why a letter in the name of a certain toy company is reversed"Surely not in the hope or expectation that it will enhance our admiration?"or whether the executives in that company carry business cards saying "Dick _ Me." There are snorting jabs at the post office and car mechanics and hardware salesmen and, in particular and at length, his own moronic behavior (like "wrapping a rubber band around my index finger to see if I can make it explode" to test his body's tolerance of extremes). While this collection of almost six dozen pieces has a broad streak of guffaw-aloud humor, there are also occasional, spot-on critiquesas of the patent absurdity, "the zealous vindictiveness" of the US government's war on drugsand a lone, touching item on sending his eldest son off to college that is so unexpected and disarming itcomes like a blow to the solar plexus. Truly and beguilingly, if you are a jaded resident of the USA, Bryson can rekindle your wonder and delight in the life and land around you. ($75,000 ad/promo; author tour; radio satellite tour)
From the Publisher
"Painfully funny and genuinely insightful...Bryson has never been wittier or more endearing."
San Francisco Chronicle
"Wonderfully droll...Bryson is unparalleled in his ability to cut a culture off at the knees in a way that is so humorous and so affectionate that those being ridiculed are laughing too hard to take offense."
The Wall Street Journal
"Bill Bryson makes writing look too easy."
"A cross between de Tocqueville and Dave Barry, Bryson writes about today's America in a way that's both trenchantly observant and pound-on-the-floor, snort-root-beer-out-of-your-nose funny."
San Francisco Examiner
"Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud."
Read an Excerpt
One of the pleasures of living in a small, old-fashioned New England town is that it generally includes a small, old-fashioned post office. Ours is particularly agreeable. It's in an attractive Federal-style brick building, confident but not flashy, that looks like a post office ought to. It even smells nicea combination of gum adhesive and old central heating turned up a little too high.
The counter employees are always cheerful, helpful and efficient, and pleased to give you an extra piece of tape if it looks as if your envelope flap might peel open. Moreover, post offices here by and large deal only with postal matters. They don't concern themselves with pension payments, car tax, TV licenses, lottery tickets, savings accounts, or any of the hundred and one other things that make a visit to any British post office such a popular, all-day event and provide a fulfilling and reliable diversion for chatty people who enjoy nothing so much as a good long hunt in their purses and handbags for exact change. Here there are never any long lines and you are in and out in minutes.
Best of all, once a year every American post office has a Customer Appreciation Day. Ours was yesterday. I had never heard of this engaging custom, but I was taken with it immediately. The employees had hung up banners, put out a long table with a nice checkered cloth, and laid on a generous spread of doughnuts, pastries, and hot coffeeall of it free.
After twenty years in Britain, this seemed a delightfully improbable notion, the idea of a faceless government bureaucracy thanking me and my fellow townspeople for our patronage, but I was impressed and gratefuland, I must say, it was good to be reminded that postal employees are not just mindless automatons who spend their days mangling letters and whimsically sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba but rather are dedicated, highly trained individuals who spend their days mangling letters and sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba.
Anyway, I was won over utterly. Now I would hate for you to think that my loyalty with respect to postal delivery systems can be cheaply bought with a chocolate twirl doughnut and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, but in fact it can. Much as I admire Britain's Royal Mail, it has never once offered me a morning snack, so I have to tell you that as I strolled home from my errand, wiping crumbs from my face, my thoughts toward American life in general and the U.S. Postal Service in particular were pretty incomparably favorable.
But, as nearly always with government services, it couldn't last. When I got home, the day's mail was on the mat. There among the usual copious invitations to acquire new credit cards, save a rain forest, become a life member of the National Incontinence Foundation, add my name (for a small fee) to the Who's Who of People Named Bill in New England, help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign, and the scores of other unsought inducements, special offers, and solicitations that arrive each day at every American homewell, there among this mass was a forlorn and mangled letter that I had sent forty-one days earlier to a friend in California care of his place of employment and that was now being returned to me marked "Insufficient AddressGet Real and Try Again" or words to that effect.
At the sight of this I issued a small, despairing sigh, and not merely because I had just sold the U.S. Postal Service my soul for a doughnut. It happens that I had recently read an article on wordplay in the Smithsonian magazine in which the author asserted that some puckish soul had once sent a letter addressed, with playful ambiguity, to
HILL JOHN MASS
and it had gotten there after the postal authorities had worked out that it was to be read as "John Underhill, Andover, Mass." (Get it?)
It's a nice story, and I would truly like to believe it, but the fate of my letter to California seemed to suggest a need for caution with regard to the postal service and its sleuthing abilities. The problem with my letter was that I had addressed it to my friend merely "c/o Black Oak Books, Berkeley, California," without a street name or number because I didn't know either. I appreciate that that is not a complete address, but it is a lot more explicit than "Hill John Mass" and anyway Black Oak Books is a Berkeley institution. Anyone who knows the cityand I had assumed in my quaintly naive way that that would include Berkeley postal authoritieswould know Black Oak Books. But evidently not. (Goodness knows, incidentally, what my letter had been doing in California for nearly six weeks, though it came back with a nice tan and an urge to get in touch with its inner feelings.)
Now just to give this plaintive tale a little heartwarming perspective, let me tell you that not long before I departed from England, the Royal Mail had brought me, within forty-eight hours of its posting in London, a letter addressed to "Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire Dales," which is a pretty impressive bit of sleuthing. (And never mind that the correspondent was a trifle off his head.)
So here I am, my affections torn between a postal service that never feeds me but can tackle a challenge and one that gives me free tape and prompt service but won't help me out when I can't remember a street name. The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there is nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights to take away from a morning's outing, but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I'm happy.
Now if you will excuse me I have to drive to Vermont and collect some mail from a Mr. Bubba.
(Some months after this piece was written, I received a letter from England addressed to "Mr. Bill Bryson, Author of 'A Walk in the Woods,' Lives Somewhere in New Hampshire, America." It arrived without comment or emendation just five days after it was mailed. My congratulations to the U.S. Postal Service for an unassailable triumph.)