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As the resident artist at EcoHealth, I pen verse these days inspired by the specter of future pandemics; for my dissertation at Amerika-Institut of LMU München, where I edit a weekly circular on poetry, I'm anatomizing the prosody of E. A. Robinson's sonnets—I also teach English, tutor composition, and lead a literary circle.

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4 May 2016: Amerikahaus Literary Circle


I'm a Stranger Here Myself/Notes from a Big Country
by Bill Bryson

Discussion Questions

1.  Did you read the book (to completion)?  If so, did you enjoy it?  Why, or why not?

2.  Bryson's project--to document a cultural homecoming--was published serially in the U.K. over a period of two years.  How effectively does this work (to say nothing of the genre) of light, observational humor translate to us (as readers of columns en masse)?

3.  What characteristics--or, to be less generous, stereotypes--of Americana can be distilled from Bryson's columns?  What factors delimit Bryson's range of reflection?

4.  Like Chaucer or Woody Allen, Bill Bryson seems to relish his polished role as the hapless, though witty, buffoon.  What did you make of the voice of the narrator? 

5.  Bryson is extraordinarily prolific; he also exhibits a native curiosity, for he's written a wide range of books (from, say, the linguistic evolution of the English language to Shakespeare's biography to a general history of scientific thought).  What evidence of just such an inquisitive and restless mind did you find in these columns? 

6.  Every writer exhibits stylistic tics--Hemingway favored monosyllabic words and run-on, compound sentences; Vonnegut enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the punctuation mark we call the colon.  What mannerisms of prose and rhetoric did you detect in Bryson's columns?

7.  Factoring in that the book is some fifteen years old, what does Bryson get culturally right?  What does he get wrong?  Would you recommend this book to someone interested in learning about the United States?  Why, or why not?

8.  Perhaps the most intimate column is the final own, wherein Bryson details his upbringing in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s.  Yet even here, where his mother has a role and comfort foods are catalogued, there seems to be a deliberate depersonalization to the anecdotes, resulting in a kind of slipshod banality.  Is this by design?  Must humor always dispense with the personal?

9.  Imagine if you were to return to your hometown after a twenty-year absence:  If you were on an assignment to reflect on the experience, what would you write of?  How would you write of it?



"I'm a Stranger Here Myself"

A collection of columns by a lazy writer makes for lazy readers, too.

A review by Jeff Stark (Salon, 19 May 1999)

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 Lewis 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 riffs on an earlier joke.

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.



Notes from a Huge Landmass

Bill Bryson returns home and finds an abundance of everything, especially absurdity.

by Elizabeth Gleick (The New York Times, 30 May 1999)

You've got to hand it to Bill Bryson: he's found his shtick, and he's sticking to it. Humorist, author, columnist -- the persona he has so successfully developed for himself is that of the slightly hapless nice guy with, fortunately, an edge of impatient common sense. In America, he's best known for his 1998 best seller, ''A Walk in the Woods,'' an account of his abortive attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. And in Britain, where he lived for two decades, his gently mocking ''Notes From a Small Island'' has been on best-seller lists for so long that it raises the question, if the island is so small, how can there be anyone left who hasn't bought this book?

If ''Notes From a Small Island'' was his charming farewell valentine to Britain, ''I'm a Stranger Here Myself,'' a collection of columns written for Britain's Mail on Sunday about his re-entry into America, reads a bit more like an S O S. Bryson's America is often wonderful but bewildering in all its vast, commercialized contradictions.

In 1995, after living for many years in a Yorkshire village, Bryson decided to return to the United States with his English wife and four children. He plopped his family down in Hanover, N.H. (for no reason, really, other than ''it seemed an awfully nice place''), and set about the business of getting reacquainted with his native land. ''I was as dazzled as any newcomer by the famous ease and convenience of daily life,'' he writes in his opening column, remarking on ''the giddying abundance of absolutely everything,'' and particularly ''the curiously giddying notion that ice is not a luxury item and that rooms can have more than one electrical socket.''

Even without reading on -- and even if one is sitting far from America in a room desperately in need of a few more electrical sockets -- one can pretty much imagine what follows. One has, in fact, heard the gist of many of Bryson's observations about late-20th-century America from one's older relatives, who did not need to leave the country to become bewildered. Catalogues sell the strangest things. Why don't human beings answer telephones anymore? Or walk anywhere anymore? You can be a Bryson fan -- and I am, really -- and still think that these particular columns might best have been left to their original foreign audience. People who have lived in the United States more recently than the mid-1970's have already recovered from their astonishment that there is a breakfast cereal called Count Chocula.

There are also a few too many columns in which Bryson takes an amazing statistic and breaks it down so as to make it more amazing: ''Every year more than 400,000 Americans suffer injuries involving beds, mattresses or pillows,'' he writes, adding that ''in the time it takes you to read this article, four of my fellow citizens will somehow manage to be wounded by their bedding.'' And he should probably avoid joking about his own career, as he does when he adds one more item to a list of advice for high school seniors: ''If you write for a living, never hesitate to recycle material.''

The saving grace, however, is that even when Bryson attempts to crack old chestnuts -- the utter unintelligibility of tax forms or computer manuals, say -- he can be a genuinely funny fellow. Spoofs of ridiculous menu descriptions are by now a hallowed subgenre of comedy (e.g., the ''pig's foot marinated in juniper vinegar served on a buckwheat pancake'' offered in an Elizabethan pub in ''Shakespeare in Love''), but he proves there is still a little life in that dead horse yet. ''Tonight,'' Bryson's waiter enthusiastically announces, ''we have a crepe galette of sea chortle and kelp in a rich mal de mer sauce, seasoned with disheveled herbs grown in our own herbarium. This is baked in an inverted Prussian helmet. . . . Very delicious; very audacious.'' To which Bryson yearns to respond, ''Just bring me something that's been clubbed.''

The best columns are those in which the author discards his hapless persona and allows his natural impatience and intelligence out of their cages. His advice to the graduating high school students, with that one exception noted above, is lovely, while his ''Rules for Living'' -- 1. It is no longer permitted to be stupid and slow. You must choose one or the other'' -- are pleasingly cranky, as are most columns taking on petty-minded bureaucrats. A column about how large America is and how few people actually live there turns into an illuminating jab at United States immigration policies and should be required reading for politicians.


Moving to another country -- even in this age of instant media and high-speed travel, and even as Europeans bemoan the increasing Americanization (that is, the ahistorical, hypercommercial sameness) of the world -- proves like nothing else that they really do do things differently ''over there.'' Individually, many of Bryson's columns highlight these differences hilariously. But consumed all at once -- and, to be fair, speaking of commercialization, this compilation was probably not the author's idea -- I'm a Stranger Here Myself'' is a bit like eating cotton candy: the first bite is novel, a bite once a week a treat; but the whole sugary mass forces one to stop and think, hey, what's actually in this stuff, anyway?

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