Friday, November 7, 2008

I'm A Stranger Here Myself - Bill Bryson


1999; 288 pages. Genre : Comedic Narrative. Overall Rating : B-.
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Bill Bryson returns to the USA after spending 20 years in England. He buys a house in rustic, Newhartesque New Hampshire, and shortly thereafter, a journalist friend talks him into writing a weekly article for a British magazine called Night & Day; loosely themed around readjusting to American life. IaSHM is a collection of 70 of those articles.
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What's To Like...
It has the typical Bryson dry, self-deprecating humor. Since they are weekly articles, all 70 chapters are essentially the same length - about 4 pages each. The topics vary widely, so if one doesn't float your boat, be of good cheer, you'll shortly be reading about something completely different.
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It is obvious that Bryson reads a lot, and oftentimes that spawns the weekly topic. You will learn things like the origin of Drive-In Theaters, and that computer hackers successfully breached the Pentagon's security systems 161,000 times in 1996. He's possibly the only person I know that can write four pages about cup-holders (in the car and on the PC) and keep you interested. To appreciate that, try putting out four witty pages on that subject yourself.
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What's meh...
While you'll catch yourself laughing out loud at times while reading IaSHM, this is an easy book to put down. The problem isn't Bryson; it's the format. Being limited to four pages means none of the articles have any depth. One of the chapters deals with inherently good- and lousy-sounding words. Kewl beans and something I'd really enjoy, but just as soon as the chapter got rolling, it was done.
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The other format problem is the weekly deadline. It must be difficult to be newsworthily witty once a week, every week, for several years. What do you do when your Muse takes a couple weeks vacation? Some of the topics seem to suffer in this manner.
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Uncle John, you have competition...
It took me a lot longer to get through IaSHM than I anticipated. After reading a half-dozen chapters in one sitting, they all start to blur together. I think it would be better to use this book as a Bathroom Reader. Alas, that's counter-productive for 5-Squared purposes. We'll give it a B-, and recommend that this not be your introduction to Bryson.
I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away
By: Bill Bryson
Amazon Price: $14.95

7 comments:

Amanda said...

I think a collection of essays must be difficult to read straight through. Like reading through a collection of short stories. Each is complete, and thus a full stop. It's like reading X-number of books, only they're tiny. I imagine that'd be the problem with this book. I find the same problem with magazines, lit journals, etc. That's why I like journals like One Story so much - one story, delivered every three weeks. Yeah.

hamilcar barca said...

precisely. ironically, i was looking for a quick, easy read, before working thru a 580-page classic lit opus. yeah. that didn't happen.

Amanda said...

Which opus?

hamilcar barca said...

The Grapes of Wrath. this one will take me a while.

Amanda said...

Have you started it already? I thought it was going to take me awhile, and it only ended up taking me three or four days. I guess I got into the rhythm of it right away. It helps to have relatives who came from the OK area during the depression - a lot of the feel and language and attitudes were very familiar.

hamilcar barca said...

after two nights, i'm on page 80 or so. Joad's returned home and they just hid out in the cottonfields so that the sheriff wouldn't catch them. very well-written IMO. Steinbeck has a gift for stringing words together masterfully, much like Plath did in The Bell Jar.

Amanda said...

Jen, you said it better than me, and I'm going to try to paraphrase what you told me back in April when we read the Grapes of Wrath - When reading this book, it's a little discouraging for a writer, because it's so well written. Every sentence, every word, is perfectly placed, and I know I will never be able to write that well.

I guess I should save this for the discussion on your review...