July 2024
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Review: Notes from a Big Country, Bill Bryson

After twenty years in England, Bill Bryson and his family moved back to his native United States, for reasons he can’t quite fathom.  To his surprise, his country has changed a lot since he last lived there.  Even though he isn’t particularly inclined to write a newspaper column about it, his friend asks him to, and his essays are published weekly.  This book is a collection of some of these essays, on topics ranging from the tax system to sports to garbage disposals.

I’m on a bit of a Bill Bryson spree these days, so I picked this book up without really thinking about it.  I found its quality to be more variable than the first two books of his I read, but overall it was still very enjoyable.  Bryson’s humor is excellent and he makes even the most mundane exchanges into passages that have me giggling away, to the extent that my husband asks what’s so funny and is, I suspect, now eager to get his hands on one of Bryson’s books.

The funniest passages were easily the ones that I have had experience with.  This book is now quite dated; it was published in 1998 and so all of the essays are from before that time.  As a result, things in America aren’t the same as they were, but I can remember a lot of this from my childhood.  The catalogues, for example; it did feel at times like we got a catalogue for everything under the sun without ever actually asking for them.  Plenty of trees were wasted for this purpose, but some of the products in catalogues were delightful and exciting, even if I can’t actually remember ever ordering anything out of them.

Some of the sections didn’t work quite so well; these are generally the few that don’t consist of actual anecdotes but are just him trying to demonstrate the absurdity of things like tax forms.  There are also some outdated ones which no longer strike the right note, like his comments on computers.  Overall, though, these are only a few pages long so they don’t detract too much from the overall humor of the book.

It’s also best to approach this knowing that mostly he makes fun of Americans and American things, but as he seems to do this with everything, it didn’t bother me.  It just amused me because most of it was true and his style of writing makes it clear that nothing is really an insult at all.  It’s just, for the most part, a very amusing book about American culture.

Notes from a Big Country is not quite a travelogue, but it’s an entertaining look at America through a former expat’s eyes.  Despite the few off notes, if you like Bill Bryson’s books, you’ll enjoy this one too.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


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