Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Notes From a Big Country" by Bill Bryson

I picked up this book because Chris (of Chris and Jess at Park Benches & Bookends fame) loves it. (Note that Chris is British, as this becomes important later.) I chose to read this book during our road trip because I knew Bryson was a travel writer and I had the (slightly erroneous) idea that the book was about traveling across the U.S.--how appropriate, right? Plus, Chris describes the book as "a must-read for anyone with a sense of humour." Until I read this book, I thought I had one of those.

Don't get me wrong. This is an amusing book. I didn't find it quite as funny as I found my previous read, but it certainly manages to generate a few snorts'n'chuckles. However--and oh, how much I hate to admit this!--I had a problem with this book. It stems from the fact that it is written for a British reader, and the author is laughing at Americans (read: me) along with his audience, rather than laughing with us. (It didn't help that this realization was immediately followed by a chapter entitled "Sense of Humor Failure"--the point of which was that Americans don't have a sense of humor. Ack!)

Big Country is made up of Bill Bryson's newspaper columns about various aspects of life in America. Bryson is a quasi-American writer who was born in Iowa but spent 20 years of his adult life in England, acquiring a British wife and producing several children in the meantime. Everything in this book was written after he and his family moved back to the States and settled in New Hampshire. All sorts of subjects are raised in this book, from the nostalgic (diners) to the comic (Christmas decorations) to the ridiculous (tax forms) to the outrageous (classic American wastefulness).

Some of the essays--like the one about uniform blandness--were thought-provoking and provided great fodder for discussion between me and my husband during our long hours in the car (which was, of course, one of the things Bryson mocked). Others rankled slightly, since they didn't apply to me but I had to admit that I know people like the ones Bryson described. But too many of chapters mocked all Americans for characteristics that apply to few (if any) Americans I know. In the final chapter, entitled "What Makes an Englishman," Bryson writes about the good he finds in America, but it wasn't enough to make up for the rest of the book.

Maybe if I had read another Bryson book first (namely Notes From a Small Island) I might have been more accepting of the continual ribbing I received from Big Country. I intended at some point to read his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, but now that my Bryson experience has been tainted, I'm not so sure I want to. On the other hand, perhaps in that one everyone gets a fair shake.

If you are British (or really, any nationality but American), read this book. You will laugh. You will also get a slightly erroneous and stereotyped view of America, but you will have fun doing so. If you are American, just be prepared for the fact that you may cringe just as often as you giggle.

12 comments:

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Hi Kathy! Hmm, I've been an anglophile since childhood so wonder what I'd make of this book. Sounds like Bryson is not charmed by American quirkiness if he is laughing 'at us' and not 'with us'. Did you get the impression it was meanspirited, lack of knowledge, or just exaggerating for a laugh regardless of truth? How would you compare the tone to Foxworthy who makes fun of rednecks in an exaggerated way?

Sorry your book wasn't all you hoped it would be.

:o)

Priya Parmar said...

oh, i can understand. i have lived back and forth between the US and UK for sixteen years and the teasing can get rough!

Chris and Jess said...

Kathy, It's a shame you didn't enjoy reading this book, and I'm sorry you were disappointed by my recommendation.

It seems obvious to me that from the outset you took the contents of this book as a personal attack (“the author is laughing at Americans (read: me)”) which would explain why its contents upset you so much. This is a shame as I have met Bill Bryson and he is a very friendly, modest, likeable man. I don't think he wrote this book intending to offend anyone. I do not think he is 'mocking' the US or American people just making observations with his own unique brand of dry wit. The book is not any kind of attack on the US and it is a real shame you see it as such. It would be interesting to see how this book is rated on Amazon.com. Having said that I do not doubt that sometimes he exaggerates his experiences or only writes about a small section of American culture but I never take books like this too seriously, they are meant to be fun after all.

I also can't help but get the feeling from reading your review that (call me paranoid) you believe that because I am British I must love laughing at Americans and approve of literature that digs at America. This is a stereotype which is quite wrong.

As it happens I love the United States. I love American culture, TV, Music and films. I love baseball. I have visited the US and didn't want to come home. If I had my way I would be living there right now. I was in America for two weeks and not a single American was anything except friendly, helpful, polite and welcoming. My wife travelled around the US for a few months and will say the same. I had some of the best experiences of my life in the US and I intend to return there as soon as it is practical to do so. Most importantly of all; my favourite writer is an American and of my top ten favourite books more than half are by American writers.

Sadly it is true that some British like digging at Americans (as I'm certain some Americans like digging at the British) but I always disapprove of such behaviour and have challenged numerous anti-American statements I have overheard.

This response wasn't meant to belittle you or make you feel bad, just to defend my position on the book (since you named and shamed me! lol) I do realise that you are fully entitled to your opinion, especially on your own blog!

I really hope you will decide one day to give Bryson another chance.

By Chris

Kathy said...

Lesa--I definitely did not get the idea that Bryson was mean-spirited, or writing from a lack of knowledge of his subject matter (although I think there were some cases where he applied characteristics to a much broader group than is warranted--probably for comic effect, but possibly because he was assuming that what he has observed is more widespread than it is). I certainly think what he wrote was all in fun. It's funny that you mentioned a comparison to Jeff Foxworthy--that hadn't even crossed my mind--but now that I think about it, I don't know of anyone (myself included) who has gotten the feeling from Foxworthy that I got from reading Bryson, though I'm not sure why. I will have to think on that some more.

Chris, I think you're right in saying I took the book as a personal attack (well, actually the word "attack" might carry somewhat stronger connotations than necessary for my purpposes--it's not like reading this book felt like reading hate mail or some jihad manifesto . . . but maybe I can just get by with saying I took it personally). Maybe part of the reason Bryson bothered me and Foxworthy doesn't is because I get a "you Americans" vibe from Bryson whereas with Foxworthy it's "us rednecks." Not that Bryson doesn't make fun of himself in parts of the book, but in the parts where I felt like he was denigrating America, I don't feel like he included himself in the group.

I know you "lol'd" your comment about me shaming you but I hope you don't really feel that way--whenever my book choices come from another blogger (as long as I can remember who it was) I like to link to them in hopes of sending readers their way--I wasn't intending to shame you at all.

I have the feeling that (in general) other people in the world think Americans as a group are fat, lazy, rude, selfish, wasteful, war-mongering and stupid. (Did I leave anything out?) :) I'm probably mostly basing this thought on opinions expressed by my nephews who have lived in Germany their whole lives. On the other hand, I also see that even those who feel that way about Americans in general don't generally feel that way about individual Americans. But I felt like Bryson was perpetrating those stereotypes, albeit in a gentle (never mean-spirited) way. Someone from another country who doesn't know America the way Chris and Jess do might take some of those stereotypes more seriously than Bryson intended. I'm glad to hear, Chris, that you don't take books like this too seriously, as they're meant to be fun. That gives me hope that the majority of Bryson's non-American readers read his books the same way as you. I am also very glad to hear that you have had good and enjoyable experiences with the US! And, in hopes of easing your paranoia, I never really had the idea that Brits are commonly America-haters (I reserve that more for the French and Germans, and--to a much greater extent--the majority of the Middle East). ;)

Thanks for commenting!

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Kathy-- that is exactly what I was wondering when I mentioned a Foxworthy comparison (or any comedian-- he is just the one who popped in my mind)-- there is a big difference between 'you Americans' and 'Us rednecks/Americans'. I haven't read the book but I find this interesting from a writing angle-- a few months ago, I wrote a comic post about my local hick newspaper-- hysterical to me-- and I thought it was obvious that I was poking fun but appreciative/charmed at the same time-- but a colleague was offended-- so was the problem the writing or the audience? In this case, knowing the person, it was the audience. ;o) Humor is so subjective though and with no vocal inflection or body language on the written page it doesn't always come across as the writer intended.

Back to Bryson: Out of curiousity, I checked amazon like Chris suggested. Notes had mostly positive reviews but the American release 'I'm a stranger here myself' had very mixed reviews. So neither you or Chris are alone in your views. How is that for diplomatic?! ;o)

btw Kathy, I'm going to email you a snippet of one that I think you'll find interesting.

Jessica said...

LOL dont you love it when a book brings in a good debate ;)I actually read notes from a small Island and found it terribly boring, he was talking about places I have been too and the English mentality and I spent the whole time thinking 'yeah I know this so what'

btw that 'naming and shaming' comment was a joke, we were quite happy for anyone to quite us ;)

Amanda said...

I read A Walk in the Woods years ago and thought it was very funny. In that book Bryson mostly made fun of himself. Now I think I need to read this one to see if I am offended or tickled. :)

In a Sunburned Country was pretty good too, especially if you want to hear about Australia.

Kathy said...

Mandy and Lesa, I would love it if you got the chance to read this book, because I'd be very interested in hearing what you think of it! (I hope I haven't caused you to expect to be horribly offended by it, because it's not that bad, and I'd hate for you to come back and tell me you don't know where the heck I'm coming from.)

Jess, I do love it when a book encourages debate! (As long as I can manage to avoid insulting anyone.) :) I'm intrigued by your comment about finding Notes from a Small Island boring--now I wonder if I might find it more interesting? I've never been anywhere in the UK and I'm not sure what I might know about English mentality (how much can you learn from Agatha Christie anyway?) so what was old hat for you would probably be new . . . shirt? for me. And--very relieved to hear you don't really feel shamed. ;)

Booksnyc said...

I think this book was published in the US as "I Am A Stranger Here Myself" - if so, I really enjoyed it! I guess I didn't take offense at his commentary on America and its residents because he is American so it seemed self-deprecating to me. He also pokes fun at the British in "Notes From A Small Island". Having read both, however, I think he does favor the British over the Americans!

Great post!

Kathy said...

@Booksnyc--just this past week I compared the table of contents (at bn.com) for both books and found there were quite a few differences! Stranger has 11 chapters that Notes doesn't, and Notes has 19 that Stranger doesn't! Of course, since I haven't read Stranger, I don't know whether perhaps most (or even all) of those 11 chapters appear in Notes under a different name, but certainly there are 8 chapters in Notes that don't appear in Stranger! One of which is about Americans not having a sense of humor, another of which is about how stupid American schoolchildren have become! But that's OK. I'm a duck, and it has rolled off my back.

tricky dick said...

I am not an american citizen and not a mother tongue english, but really I cannot understand how this can be perceived as an anti-americanwol assault. What Bryson criticizes is the new USAwol as compared to the one he left behind in his twenties. This transpires throughout the book, I think. And the sad note, though not clearly stated, is that he knows that this wol is going to impose itself in the rest of the western world, as it happened since USA won the IIWW.

Kathy said...

I didn't perceive this as an anti-American assault. I felt mocked, bot not hated or attacked.