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

ISBN: 076790382X
ISBN 13: 9780767903820
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

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.

Reader's Thoughts

Az

Bill Bryson grew up in Iowa, then spent twenty years in England. He has returned to the U.S. with his British wife and children. I'm a Stranger Here is selections from his newspaper column which chronicles his experiences. Some of them are funny, like "Dying Accents" and "The Best American Holiday". Others, particularly anything is which he tries to mock the writing style on instructional booklets, electronics, the government (I'm all for mocking the government, but he just doesn't do it well), are overreaching and dull. He also has the annoying habit of showing off a keen sense of understanding, both of general topics and the English language, and then goes on long rambling paragraphs about how he doesn't understand anything.

Miranda

Having thoroughly enjoyed A Walk in the Woods and At Home, I expected to feel the same way about this book, and I was not disappointed – or, if I was a little disappointed, it wasn’t enough to keep me from giving the book four stars. Some authors you just feel compelled to reward regardless of the gradations in their output. I admit this is a somewhat lazy and less than honest style of reviewing, but I am sure I’m not alone in this practice, or in feeling this way about Bryson. Besides, the disappointment stemmed mainly from the structure of the book, and only because I didn’t know what it was beforehand. I’m a Stranger Here Myself is a collection of columns, written by Bryson for a British newspaper between 1996 and 1998, after he and his family moved from England to a small town in New Hampshire. Each addresses a peculiar facet of American life, or just life – Thanksgiving, doing taxes, aging. Each is short and pithy and relayed in Bryson’s uniquely self-deprecating style. (“…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.”)One could see how reading these columns one at a time, as columns are meant to be read – having a burst of Bryson to look forward to every week – would be wonderful. Laid one right after the other, they start to be a tad much, perhaps because Bryson does have such a particular voice, and the same turns of phrase and kinds of theme show up repeatedly in his work. Apart from that, seeing as this book was written in the late ‘90s, by a then-middle-aged man who is clearly a bit old-fogey-ish by nature as it is, all of its many complaints about This Modern Life are laughably dated. Personally, that didn’t really diminish my enjoyment. To read Bryson’s laments on the difficulty of programming his VCR or setting up a computer, or his tributes to the vanishing American diner, or American drive-in, or American motel, was like – well, it was like reading my dad. (Who also loves Bill Bryson, of course.)And truthfully, it’s not like what he’s written about here is any less true now than it was back then. Small towns are an (increasingly) endangered species, flying is an enormous pain in the ass, and Americans do all they can to avoid walking or spending time outside a climate-controlled environment. It’s just that these are no longer new and interesting ideas; the world has grown accustomed to these things and moved on to more current issues like cyberbullying and paleo diets. In my obviously biased opinion, taking I’m a Stranger Here Myself exactly for what it is, it’s still four-star-worthy.

Sandy Wood

I previously thought Bill Bryson must be the smartest person in the world when I read (and loved) his remarkable book "A Short History of Nearly Everything" which is a masterpiece. Just to check out his style I read "I'm a Stranger Here Myself". He grew up in the US but spent 20 or so years in England and then moved back to the US. This is a series of short 4-5 page vignettes he wrote for an English weekly newspaper about re-introducing himself to the US and our culture. What I did not realize is that he is fantastically amusing and I spend most of my time laughing out loud as I read his vignettes. To make it even more personal he moves to Hanover, NH where I lived and raised my family. He constantly refers to familiar places like Lou's, Occom Pond, Dartmouth, Norwich, etc. which enhanced the experience for me but isn't crucial. He is an outstanding observer who questions in a very witty manner all the quirks in our life. There aren't many books with laugh out loud moments every few pages but this accomplishes that feat. Try it out!PS: The only reason it doesn't get 5 stars is that it is a compendium of vignettes and therefore doesn't seem quite like a true book to me. (And if you haven't already read "A Short History or Nearly Everything" please do and be prepared to be blown away.)

Mia Friel

This is the first Bill Bryson book I have read, which, I am told, was a mistake. I know several people who consider Bryson one of their favorite authors and they all seem to agree that this book is not a good "ambassador" for the rest of his work. This book is a collection of newspaper articles that document his move from England to the United States. Most of them explain his bewilderment toward American culture and customs and often longs for the "simplicity" of the British lifestyle. I was originally under the impression that Bryson was British himself, until I discovered that he was born in Des Moines and moved to England at 24. He has spent the same amount of time in both countries, but it seems like he prefers to consider himself British. That's weird. The articles are funny and short, which make for a quick read. At times, however, his humor was a bit over the top and somewhat whiny. I am excited to give Bryson another chance with his highly recommended "A Walk in the Woods" but I would not suggest this book to friends.

Beverly Zearley

I really enjoyed this book. It is not something I would normally pick, but really glad I did. Bill Bryson is a great author, very funny ;)

Cara

This is the first Bill Bryson book I have read and I found it laugh out loud funny. My husband was given it as a christmas gift and when he started reading it kept reading bits out to me because he thought they were so funny. We gave up on that approach and started reading it together and both loved it. Some of that might have been that we have just moved back to Australia from the US and enjoyed the reminders of some of the more quirky aspects of US culture that we miss, and also could relate to some of the frustrations he experienced in moving back there. This has inspired me to check out some of his others books which if the reviews on here are to go by should be even better than this.

Alkatraz

A wonderfully poignant collection of Bryson's published news paper article. After twenty years in England, where he married and had his children, Bryson returns to America to an interesting version of culture shock. We follow him over a few years worth of articles as he reeducates himself with the strange ways of Americana. Everything from a day at the beach to children leaving the nest, Bryson shows us his world, both intimate and familiar. His style is humorous and quirky, a lovely mix. You can see Queen's English as well as American English in his writing, a trait I rather enjoy. He is at times annoying with his views, as an old man on his front porch, but then he's no spring chicken. Some of his writing are silly and happy memories from childhood, or experiences with his own children. Other occasions show his profound disappointment in the difference between England and America. One gets the feeling that, while he is a patriot, he's also a "red coat". The articles are all short, a few pages at most, and makes for a quick read. I would definitely recommend this book to, well just about anyone.

Elizabeth Wright Korytkowski

I have kept reading Bill Bryson, however after this book I think I'm going to have to admit that he's something akin to winter snow: the first one is magical and fantastic, and then after that it all just goes downhill. Bill Bryson has never been able to recreate the excellence of "A Walk in the Woods"- which was the first book of his that I read. That book blew me away- witty, thoughtful, entertaining, and dreamily wonderful. Probably one of the best books I've read these past 10 years. So I sought out others of his books hoping to be transported by that same magic: 'In a Sunburned Country' (ok), 'Notes from a Small Island' (painfully bad), 'Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid' (oddly lame), and now this one. Nothing seems to even remotely compare.I'm a Stranger Here Myself is a compilation of short essays he wrote which were published in a British newspaper and document his ponderings upon his return home (after 20+ years) to the US. Understanding that the audience for the original tales was the British masses (and not a US reader) does nothing to lessen the mediocrity of his storytelling. It's all just feels like he's 'mailing it in.'I'd rate this one not as good as the Sunburned Country, but definitely better than Small Island and Thunderbolt Kid-- however the bar between all of these 4 books is relatively low. My real recommendation is: read 'A Walk in the Woods' and then just pretend that this was all that he wrote. You'll be much happier with this strategy.

Regency Girl

Although I did find the humor a bit over the top in places, it didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying this book. It is laugh-out-loud funny at times. The fact that I spent an extended period living across the pond myself just made the book that much funnier to me, as I found myself nodding (and laughing) and saying "Yep. So true" to many of Bryson's observations.

Emily

I liked a couple of Bryson's more serious essays in this collection - the ones about Western consumerist culture and sustainability issues. There were a few too many essays in this volume that used similar literary devices and turns of phrase to mockingly describe confusing aspects of American life. The wordplay is fun, but it can get old after a while. Other than that, the writing was pretty good and I laughed out loud more than I yelled at the CD player.

Robert Beveridge

Bill Bryson, I'm a Stranger Here Myself (Broadway Books, 1999)At funtrivia.com, one of the (many) ways a quiz can go from a relatively high ranking to "very poor" between the time I start and the time I finish is a factual error that causes me to get a question wrong. Research is a beautiful thing.Half of me is willing to give Bill Bryson the benefit of the doubt; the other half is ready to excoriate him on what may be a false impression. I'll attempt to keep it reserved.Bryson's column "The Waste Generation," about two-thirds of the way through I'm a Stranger Here Myself, starts off with a statistic that's quite simply wrong ("One of the most arresting statistics I have seen in a good while is that 5 percent of all the energy used in the United States is consumed by computers that have been left on all night." Wrong; a computer and a monitor, left on twenty-four hours a day, together consume approximately a dollar's worth of electricity per month. The computer is one of the most energy-efficient machines on the planet today). The American home computer revolution happened while Bryson was out of the country, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It would have been nice, however, had he mentioned his source.A forgivable error, perhaps, though basing a whole column on it is rather disturbing. But the part of the column that bugs me is farther down: "I have glanced out hotel room windows late at night, in a variety of cities, and been struck by the fact that lots of lights in lots of office buildings are still burning... why don't we turn these things off?... Why, after all, go through the irksome annoyance of waiting twenty seconds for your computer to warm up each morning when you can have it at your immediate beck by leaving it on all night?"Two different questions with two entirely different answers, but Bryson goes on to turn it into a discussion of American wastefulness with its natural resources. He may be reaching the right conclusion, but if so, he's doing a 180 from where he started. To answer the latter question first, in modern computers with the Energy Saver features (which do nothing of the sort) turned off, it takes less power to leave a computer on all night than it does to shut it down and start it up. (To address another point he makes in the same passage, it's also more efficient to leave cars running for short periods rather than turning them off and back on. Any electrical appliance requires something of an electrical security deposit to get started, just like an apartment renter has to put down "amount of monthly rent times three" or somesuch in order to move in.) The former answer takes longer, but the short answer is that the Federal government, during the 1974 oil crisis, was taking out full-page ads in various magazines (I used to see them on a regular basis in Time) telling us that leaving lights on all night in buildings is what we SHOULD do, because electric lights give off heat, and at the time it was cheaper to heat a building by leaving its lights on and cranking the gas heat down six degrees or so. That situation went away with the end of the fuel crisis, of course, but the government never took those ads out in time.Here's where I get a little wonky with Bryson. The subtitle of the book is "Notes on returning to America aftetr twenty years away." If the number is, in fact, twenty, then Bryson was in the country when the Government was running those full-page ads. And thus, given that he's all too well aware of the average Joe's lack of common sense, he could have come to the same conclusion by poking fun at the fact that the average Joe never stopped leaving the lights on all night after the fuel crisis was over. But he doesn't.Humor is a wonderful thing (and let me hasten to say that there is a good deal of it here), but one of the prerequisites for humor of any sort should be that's it's based on fact. The humorist is, in many cases (and certainly in this one) using humor to get a point across, and doing so with factual errors leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Factual errors by ignorance leave less of a bad taste in my mouth than factual errors by design. That's what I see in this essay, and it makes me wonder how many others, with circumstances with which I'm less acquainted in this book, are founded on the same sleight of hand. Perhaps one error shouldn't taint my view of a whole book, but I can't help it. After all, when an expert witness admits he falsified one fact in one trial that changed the outcome, how often do you think he'll be getting called to testify after that?I try to give Bryson the benefit of the doubt for most of it, because his heart's mostly in the right place, and his brand of humor is the understated, easy kind that resides at the top of the humor heap. But I'll never be able to read another word of Bryson's without the 1974 energy crisis in the back of my head. ** 1/2

Adam

I've read or read parts of two other Bryson books, and I found this to be inferior to both of them, which was a disappointment, considering that learning what foreigners (or quasi-foreigners, in Bryson's case) think about the U.S. is one of my favorite subjects. It's not one unified narrative, but a compilation of columns he wrote for a British newspaper about his life when he returned to the U.S. after spending 20 years abroad. Bryson's breezy, casual style is easy and fun to read, but there are times in this where he seriously dips into Dave Barry territory, using exaggerations so broad as to be too far removed from reality to be funny to make obvious points (Customer service is annoying? Computer manuals are confusing? No way, man, you read my mind!)Not a criticism against the book, but it's also kind of interesting how dated a book just a little over a decade old can be sometimes. It's almost quaint how he raises objections to having to present a photo ID to travel on a plane.Also, a memo to Bill and every other east-coast-based writer: Please stop extrapolating specific experiences to the whole country. Not every American house has a basement and a screened-in porch.There's still some good stuff in here, but I had really hoped for more insight and less fluff.

Ryan Newfell

I find myself quoting facts and stories from this book so much that I should be citing Bill Bryson is conversation.

Logophile

At times, I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe while reading a couple of these essays. Bryson amuses me a great deal. Though I lived in Italy only three years, rather than Bryson's 20 in England, that experience has fundamentally shifted my perspective on some peculiarities of American life and I found myself nodding appreciatively regarding some of Bryson's observations.I found his attitude about his native land in this book so much more appealing than in Lost Continent, his travelogue of the US. America has flaws, many of them, and some are quite large, but it is also an amazing land with wonderful people, and it was nice to see Bill Bryson shared many of those highlights with his British readers.

Ob-jonny

This is a hilarious take on modern-day America from the perspective of someone who came from living in the UK for many years but who grew up in America. Reading this is like discovering how the ordinary things about the US are actually bizarre and funny. The phenomenon of eating yourself sick on holidays is not something everyone does in the world. I didn't know that people were so much more polite in American than in Europe. Waitresses in the US pretend to enjoy their work. He was amazed at all of the free food and coffee offered at various business that we take for granted in America. They never charge for little things here like they do in the UK. Also, it's funny how people don't walk anywhere in the US like they do in Europe. The author has the unique experience of experiencing the 50s and 60s in the US and then coming back after 20 years to be completely disoriented and knowing only outdated ways of life in America. Here is a funny quotation about this experience:"Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking from a long coma. Time, you discover, has wrought changes that leave you feeling mildly foolish and out of touch. You proffer hopelessly inadequate sums when making small purchases. You puzzle over ATM machines and automated gas pumps and pay phones, and are astounded to discover, by means of a stern grip on your elbow, that gas station road maps are no longer free. In my case, the problem was intensified by the fact that I had left as a youth and was returning in middle age. All those things that you do as an adult—take out mortgages, have children, accumulate pension plans, take an interest in the state of your guttering—I had only ever done in England. Things like furnaces and storm windows were, in an American context, the preserve of my father. So finding myself suddenly in charge of an old New England house, with its mysterious pipes and thermostats, its temperamental garbage disposal and life-threatening automatic garage door, was both unnerving and rather exhilarating."

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