Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Back to Bill Bryson

now finished: I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson 
next up: returning to the A-to-Z literary blog project top half with my second 'L' 
current audio listen: The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn

Bill Bryson is one of those authors that I heard about a lot before I actually read anything he's written. Between being bandied about The Savvy Traveler all the time and the many books of his I shelved at Borders, I spent nearly a decade knowing about him before finally (in 2006) reading A Walk in the Woods, which made me laugh out loud, recommend it to a ton of people, and start planning to hike the Appalachian Trail (in roughly that order). I was sold and had high hopes for my next Bill Bryson, which I just completed.

I picked up I'm a Stranger Here Myself at a used bookstore in Phoenix while I was trading in old books to downsize my possessions before heading to Mexico. I thought it might be good for me right now: the whole traveler/returning to the U.S./being unsure about one's home country/quirky observations about life seemed like what I was in the mood for.  It actually took me a bit to get into it because it's a collection of a few years of columns he wrote after moving from England, where he'd spent basically his entire adulthood, to New Hampshire. I think I really enjoyed the fever pitch to which his hilarity can build in a continuous narrative when I read A Walk in the Woods, so I had to readjust myself to the concept of short dose nuggets that wrap up every few pages.

Once I had adjusted, though, I blew through the book, and even laughed out loud (on the Queretaro city bus!) a bunch of times. I had some particular favorites: "Your Tax Form Explained," "The War on Drugs," "Lost at the Movies" (about how much summer blockbusters suck), and without a doubt "The Cupholder Revolution."  Funny story: the car that we are driving here in Mexico a few days a week right now for our English teaching gig (you know, the stick shift?) is actually about as amenity-free as a car can get (I mean, seriously, no radio? No RADIO?!?!!) and several of us have mentioned more than once that if we could add one feature to the car it would be cupholders.  It's just who we are! We as a species have obviously evolved to the point that we expect, no, we need to have our coffee or juice with us to swig while driving. Bill Bryson's essay backs this up. I particularly loved the part about Volvo having to rethink its formula for success when it discovered that what the U.S. consumer really wants is a cupholder.

In the end, though (literally and figuratively the end), his address to the graduating class of such-and-such high school in New Hampshire might have become my favorite. I really, really like his advice! So much that I am going to share some of it here:
  • "Nearly all the people you encounter in life merit your consideration. Many of them will be there to help you--to deliver your pizza, bag your groceries, clean up the motel room you have made such a lavish mess of. If you are not in the habit of being extremely nice to these people, then get in the habit now." 
  • "There is nothing worse than getting to my age and saying, 'I could have played second base for the Boston Red Sox but my dad wanted me to study law.' Tell your dad to study law. You go and climb Everest." 
  • "Don't make the extremely foolish mistake of thinking that winning is everything. If there is one person that I would really like to smack, it is the person who said, 'Wining is not the main thing. It's the only thing.' That's awful. Taking part is the main thing."
  • "Don't cheat. It's not worth it. Don't cheat on tests, don't cheat on your taxes, don't cheat on your partner, don't cheat at Monopoly, don't cheat at anything."
    -----from "An Address" pp. 283-284 in I'm a Stranger Here Myself  by Bill Bryson, Broadway Books 1999.
 Awesome, right? That stuff, in the penultimate chapter, would have won me over even if I hadn't already warmed to the book.

The only problem is how often he refers to the United States as "America" (including, you will have noted, in the title).  Ugh. Such a pet peeve of mine. He has several wistful moments in this book about "small town America"/Main Street and the like, plus a bunch of times where he contrasts "America" with England. You could argue that those are two of the less invalid ways of applying "America" to the U.S., but still. No. Anyway, that's just the minor flaw I feel compelled to point out. (I'm well aware many of you won't notice/won't care.)

I particularly liked the New Englandness of this book, by the way. I have spent a lot of quality time in New Hampshire, right where his little tales are set. I miss my life in Boston, even though I needed to change some things about it, and I did, and it wasn't a mistake to do so...but still, I had a great life those years in Boston. So, Bill Bryson made me think! And laugh! What more could I ask?
Final grade: B+  (Appropriate, methinks, for Bill Bryson)

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