My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The columns in Bill Bryson’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” were written in the late ’90s, a time when Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” and the Clinton sex scandal reigned supreme. And yet, reading it in 2016, what’s eerie is how much of it is still topical. Or, perhaps, timeless.
Bryson, the author of “A Walk in the Woods” and “A Short History of Everything,” had spent the previous 20 years living in the UK. At some point, he writes, he and his wife started batting around the idea of coming to live in the States. Bryson was uncertain; he’d grown up in Des Moines. What could he gain? His British wife, however, was all for the idea. Eventually they came to America, and these columns, written for a UK newspaper, offers Bryson’s amusing takes on feeling out of place in the land in which he grew up.
Not all of the book has aged well — partly because Bryson himself can come off as a crank. His essays on computer installation instructions, mushmouthed bureaucracy or repairmen could have been written by any middle-aged man who preferred things as they used to be. Bryson’s usually winning humor, in these pieces, seems gratuitous.
But sometimes he hits a nerve. In one piece he wrote about Congress giving the Defense department $11 billion, despite the fact that the DoD has problems accounting for its previous billions. Sounds all too familiar. In another, he complains about the rigid ID rules in American airports, and how UK airport personnel were generally much more understanding. Given the post-9/11 security theater we now cope with, I find the piece both ironic and unrealistic. (It should be noted that Bryson was living in Hanover, New Hampshire, from which he presumably had to fly to either Boston, Albany or Hartford if he wanted to get anywhere, and I couldn’t help but think of Mohammed Atta starting his journey in Maine on 9/11.)
He also has columns about downtowns fading, thanks to Walmart, and the fact that it’s almost impossible to walk anywhere in America, given our car culture. Some of that’s changed, but his points are well taken.
Bryson is almost always an agreeable (one of his favorite words) sort, and so I’m agreeably giving the book 4 stars, though it’s probably closer to 3 1/2. He can be probing when he wants to be, and when the situation calls for it. Sometimes these columns didn’t call for him to stretch, and so he didn’t; but the ones that do elevate the rest of the book. Now, someone send him someplace unfamiliar.