I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away

Overview

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.

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.

--Julie Carr

Jeff Stark

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

Library Journal
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.
Elizabeth Gleick
...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
Bob Minzesheimer
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.
USA Today
Flatley
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
Kirkus Reviews
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 critiques—as of the patent absurdity, "the zealous vindictiveness" of the US government's war on drugs—and 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)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385367660
  • Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Format: MP3
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Ships to U.S.and APO/FPO addresses only.

Meet the Author

Bill Bryson

BILL BRYSON's books include A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, Bryson's Book of Troublesome Words, A Short History of Nearly Everything (which earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors. Bryson lives in England.

Biography

A backpacking expedition in 1973 brought Des Moines native Bill Bryson to England, where he met his wife and decided to settle. He wrote travel articles for the English newspapers The Times and The Independent for many years before stumbling into bestsellerdom with 1989's The Lost Continent, a sidesplitting account of his rollicking road trip across small-town America. In 1995, he moved his family back to the States so his children could experience "being American." However, his deep-rooted Anglophilia won out and, in 2003, the Brysons returned to England.

One of those people who finds nearly everything interesting, Bryson has managed to turn his twin loves -- travel and language -- into a successful literary career. In a string of hilarious bestsellers, he has chronicled his misadventures across England, Europe, Australia, and the U.S., delighting readers with his wry observations and descriptions. Similarly, his books on the history of the English language, infused with the perfect combination of wit and erudition, have sold well. He has received several accolades and honors, including the coveted Aventis Prize for best general science book awarded for his blockbuster A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Beloved on both sides of the pond, Bryson makes few claims to write great literature. But he is a writer it is nearly impossible to dislike. We defy anyone to not smile at pithy, epigrammatic opening lines like these: "I come from Des Moines. Someone had to."

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    1. Hometown:
      Hanover, New Hampshire
    1. Date of Birth:
      1951
    2. Place of Birth:
      Des Moines, Iowa
    1. Education:
      B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

Mail Call

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 nice--a 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 coffee--all 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 grateful--and, 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 home--well, 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 Address--Get 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...

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi
1. Coming Home 1
2. Mail Call 5
3. Drug Culture 9
4. What's Cooking? 13
5. Well, Doctor, I Was Just Trying to Lie Down 17
6. Rule Number 1: Follow All Rules 20
7. Take Mc Out to the Ballpark 24
8. Help! 28
9. A Visit to the Barbershop 31
10. On the Hotline 35
11. Design Flaws 39
12. Room Service 43
13. Consuming Pleasures 47
14. The Numbers Game 51
15. Junk-Food Heaven 55
16. How to Have Fun at Home 59
17. Tales of the North Woods 63
18. The Cupholder Revolution 69
19. Number, Please 73
20. Friendly People 77
21. Why Everyone Is Worried 81
22. The Risk Factor 85
23. The War on Drugs 89
24. Dying Accents 93
25. Inefficiency Report 97
26. Why No One Walks 101
27. Wide-Open Spaces 105
28. Snoopers at Work 109
29. Lost at the Movies 113
30. Gardening with My Wife 117
31. Ah. Summer! 121
32. A Day at the Seaside 125
33. On Losing a Son 129
34. Highway Diversions 133
35. Fall in New England 138
36. The Best American Holiday 142
37. Deck the Halls 146
38. Fun in the Snow 151
39. The Mysteries of Christmas 155
40. Life in a Cold Climate 159
41. Hail to the Chief 163
42. Lost in Cyberland 167
43. Your Tax Form Explained 171
44. Book Tours 175
45. The Waste Generation 179
46. A Slight Inconvenience 185
47. At the Drive-In 189
48. Drowning in Red Tape 194
49. Life's Mysteries 198
50. So Sue Me 202
51. The Great Indoors 206
52. Death Watch 210
53. In Praise of Diners 214
54. Shopping Madness 218
55. The Fat of the Land 222
56. Your New Computer 226
57. How to Rent a Car 231
58. The Wasteland 235
59. The Flying Nightmare 239
60. Enough Already 243
61. At a Loss 248
62. Old News 252
63. Rules for Living 256
64. Our Town 261
65. Word Play 265
66. Last Night on the Titanic 269
67. Property News 273
68. Life's Technicalities 277
69. An Address to the Graduating Class of Kimball Union Academy, Meriden, New Hampshire 281
70. Coming Home: Part II 285
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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, May 25th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Bill Bryson to discuss I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF.

Moderator: Welcome, Bill Bryson! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening to discuss your new book, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF. How are you tonight?

Bill Bryson: I'm very well, thank you, and very pleased to be here.


John from East Village, NYC: Hi, Bill Bryson. I was just wondering: Were you writing these essays at the same time you were writing A WALK IN THE WOODS? Do your experiences on the Appalachian Trail figure into I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF anywhere? Just curious. I'm a big fan. Can't wait to read it.

Bill Bryson: First, thanks for the compliment. Much appreciated. And second, the columns followed almost immediately upon the completion of the hiking.


Penney from New Hampshire: The essays in this book were originally intended for a British audience, and I'm sure it has something to do with how you were able to make the minutia of American life so entertaining. Would you have written these essays any differently if it they were intended for an American audience? Would they have ever been written at all?

Bill Bryson: No, I probably wouldn't have written them any differently. Even though they were written for a British audience in the first instance, I think the observations I make apply universally. Obviously, I was writing about American things, because that was the assignment, but I could have made the same points about any modern culture.


Helen Katz from Salt Lake City, UT: Do the British understand your sense of humor? Does [Stephen] Katz understand your sense of humor? Why doesn't anyone understand my sense of humor? Oh, sorry, that's another Q&A group! Please come visit "behind the Zion curtain" (that's Utah, for you Gentiles)!

Bill Bryson: Yes, the British do seem to understand my sense of humor, bless them. And Stephen Katz (not his real name, but very much a real person) seemed to appreciate the humor very much as well. His words to me, when he read the book, were: "Aw, Bryson, it's all bullsh**, but it's very funny."


Lucy Frost from Cocoa, FL: Mr. Bryson, I've enjoyed all your books, but THE LOST CONTINENT is still my favorite. Are there any other places here in the U.S. you might be writing a book about in the future? Thank you.

Bill Bryson: I would love to write about lots of places in America. There are still many places I haven't been to. But my big project this year is writing a book about Australia, so I am afraid America will have to wait.


Jen from Jersey City, NJ: I love your travel and nonfiction books, and I just love your writing style. But have you ever considered or attempted writing a novel? Do you think you ever will?

Bill Bryson: The main thing that appeals to me about a novel would be not having to leave home. But I have never thought seriously about writing one -- at least not yet.


Laura from Indiana: Hi, Mr. Bryson. I enjoyed reading I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF very much. Has your friend Simon talked you into any more projects? By the way, I know where a Burma Shave sign is!

Bill Bryson: I've given Simon an agreement in principle to write some more stuff for him next year. Where's the Burma Shave sign? I'd love to see it.


Joy Mansinha from jmansinha@nypl.org: Are you planning to write a book after traveling in India? I can't wait to read it. More than that, I would love to be your traveling companion on this trip! I loved your book NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, especially since I was married to a Swiss and lived in CH and Germany for many years. That book helped me to survive a very lonely Christmas in Ottawa. If you are planning to be in NYC, I would love to meet you to have a coffee! By the way, I have been in Hanover; it reminded very much of the country I grew up in, Canada.

Bill Bryson: I'm afraid I have no plans, at this stage, to be in India any time soon, but I would love very much to go one day. Thank you very much for the kind words. I'm glad you found my book useful.


Patti from Cobb County, GA: For all the writing you do about folks you meet during trips, has it become a problem that these people you now meet know you and your writing and sort of "ham it up" for you? Thanks!

Bill Bryson: No, thank goodness. The only times I've been recognized were a couple of occasions recently in Australia by British vacationers. I made a television series in the UK last year, and they recognized me from that. But otherwise, I've never been recognized by anyone, anywhere, while gathering material for a book.


Laura from varnavis@bellatlantic.net: How has your success changed your life?

Bill Bryson: It made it much, much busier!


Prion8 from Los Angeles: Hi, Bill. How are you? I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed A WALK IN THE WOODS. Keep them coming.

Bill Bryson: Thank you very much. I can't afford to stop -- I've got two kids in college!


Blake Wintory from Fayetteville, AR: Mr. Bryson, how is I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF different from THE LOST CONTINENT?

Bill Bryson: In a lot of ways. For one thing, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF is made up of a lot of short, self-contained essays. THE LOST CONTINENT, on the other hand, was a single narrative. Also, I've mellowed considerably!


Tim from Hartford, CT: What are your three favorite cities in the world? Just a curious fan...

Bill Bryson: That's a tough one, but off the top of my head, I would say London, New York, and Sydney.


Bubba from Vermont: You grew up in America, so I imagine your early writing style originated here. But having spent so much time abroad, would you say your writing style has become British? Now that you're back here, how would you describe it?

Bill Bryson: I'm not consciously aware of any particular geographical leanings in my writing, but obviously I must have been influenced by the fact that I've spent roughly one half of my life in America and one half in Britain.


Moderator: Do you have any books you've been saving up to read this summer?

Bill Bryson: RESURRECTION DAY by Brendan DuBois. I haven't even looked at it yet, but somebody told me it's really, really good. I'm just about to read THE SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin. And THE FATAL SHORE by Robert Hughes again as research for my Australia book.


Stan from New York: Hi, Mr. Bryson, I'm a big fan of your work and would like to ask if you feel that you've ever gone too far with your humor -- if you think you've ever crossed the line from humorous to hurtful. I'm thinking specifically of the passage in NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND where you rather ridicule a family of fat people who are dining at a table near you. I have to admit that I found that passage a bit over the top and even a bit malicious, compared to most of your work, and I wonder if that passage or anything else you've written ever caused you any regret.

Bill Bryson: The danger with humor is that you always run the risk of pushing it too far. I'm sure I've done that lots of times, possibly even with the family you refer to (but they did take the last dessert.


Adam from Bedford, NH: I live in New Hampshire myself and was wondering if you get any inspiration from the state.

Bill Bryson: As a matter of fact, I do. Sometimes when things aren't going well, I'll go for a walk in the woods near where we live, and that always helps.


Keith Lawson from Cyprus: Bill, thanks for excellent reads, but where do you get your route directions from? Everybody knows that neither the A30/A303 nor the A361 should feature on any route from Surrey to Cornwall...it is far better to go by..... P.S. I may be living in Cyprus, but I'm from another small island.

Bill Bryson: [laughs] Can you repeat that in much more detail?


Laura from Indiana: Hi again. The Burma Shave sign is by a little town in Indiana. I thought it was funny, so I took some pictures.

Bill Bryson: Thank you, but I could do with a tiny bit more guidance.


Jill McDermott from Florida: Who are your favorite British contemporary authors? American contemporaries? How do our current tastes differ?

Bill Bryson: I don't get to read a lot for pleasure, because so much of the reading I do is connected with work. But bearing that in mind, among British authors, I particularly enjoy reading Redmond O'Hanlon, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes. Among American writers, I enjoy Anne Tyler, Cormac McCarthy, and John Irving. But my favorite of all these days is the Irishman Patrick O'Brian.


Philip from Denver, CO: Why do you think so many Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens? And more importantly, do you believe these accounts to be true?

Bill Bryson: [laughs] I have no idea, and no.


Ty Pennington from Indiana: When you were returning to America, did you consider settling anywhere other than where you live right now?

Bill Bryson: Yes, we thought about lots of possibilities and decided more or less arbitrarily on New England, because it's a nice region, it's a beautiful area, it has a good choice of attractive communities, and because we decided that we wanted four seasons.


Moderator: Thank you, Bill Bryson! Best of luck with your new book, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF. Before you leave, do you have any closing comments for the online audience?

Bill Bryson: Thank you very much for tuning in and for reading my books. It's been a pleasure.


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