Book Review: “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” by Bill Bryson

Time is a little wonky, but sometime within the last…year? I went downtown Chicago and was actually downtown, not just rushing to Union Station to catch a train to see family, but exploring downtown guided by a new friend.

It’s bizarre returning somewhere you haven’t been in so long and I found myself constantly trying to figure out where I was. “Oh that looks familiar.” or “I remember this!” and “I don’t have a clue where I am.” Which is a fascinating experience for oneself but probably quite weird for anyone around you not in the same boat.

Thankfully the person I was with knew where they were going because I did not. But after getting over the initial weirdness of being in Chicago I realized with a bit of melancholy all my old haunts might be gone, that I wouldn’t run into old friends randomly on the street since most have moved away. In the midst of all my favorite things, trying new (to me) cafes and restaurants, walking along the river (why didn’t I do that more in college when I lived so close?), and poking around stores I didn’t know existed that might’ve been decades old or just a few years, I got a book recommendation.

“I’m a Stranger Here Myself” by Bill Bryson was recommended as I talked, as one little cousin of mine has told me with a degree of utter exhaustion, ad naseum, about Korea and the oddness of being back.

I genuinely enjoyed “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” even though it took me four months to read. Which as a kid who was reading and checking out new books every day from my local library kind of hurts to admit. And it’s not due to content, it’s due 100% to being busy and not having any “found time” for a commute since I work remotely from home and am mostly a hermit crab.

I had to go hunting around the library trying to figure out where they’d keep such a book and finding it a little past all the books on American wars and presidents without much else similar around it. It was printed in 1999 and is a collection of essays written for publication in British columns starting around 1996, a time when the author (a midwesterner born in Iowa who’d grown up in the states) and his family (British) moved to the United States after he’d lived in the U.K. for 20 years.

There’s something comforting in this book in knowing that no matter what, returning home from living overseas for most of your adult life is bizarre. That you inevitably struggle with language, even British English to USA English. In my case, talking to my aunt about something, speaking Korean, catching the blank look on her face and switching to Japanese because for the life of me I can’t remember the word in English but I know that she remembers enough Japanese to understand.

“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 inadequete 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.”

“Coming Home”

While I don’t remember a time when gas station road maps were free, I know that feeling. And while this was being written I was a small child and it’s fascinating to see how things have changed and how quintessentially things have stayed the same. I know what it feels like to stand somewhere and know how to do something but not how to do it here.

I know how to find a good doctor, or at least a decent one, in Korea but it took me nearly 2 years possibly 3, just to figure out American Health Insurance (still don’t get it), get some, and go through the daunting task of asking doctors:

“Do you take my insurance?”

To a usual “I don’t think so but let me check… is it gold? Silver? Platinum? Are you group A1? E7?”

No matter how hopeful it seemed, it was almost always “No.”

If I got an occasional “Yes,” that led to the next roadblock which was “Are you taking new patients?”

Because that wasn’t a thing in Korea. I could just show up and wait and someone would see me. Didn’t matter where I went. It’d be better if I’d made an appointment to ensure there was a doctor I wanted to see but if not I could come back on the day they were in.

As for the doctor here in the states who said yes to both things, well more accurately their receptionist said yes to both things; we still haven’t met and won’t until next year because that’s how things work in the USA apparently.

Essentially I know how to be an adult, an independent adult, just not here. And that is a huge part of this book. Looking at American things and thinking oh wow how neat or oh boy what a mess because it’s strange to see these things again. But from decades and decades earlier. Like, for example, he writes about the diminishing of small-town America and the influx of Walmart, something I remember from when I was little, the first Walmart coming into the nearby city, and how slowly that small city died off. It’s fascinating to see those historical clues in statistics for the time and exaggerated humor.

By which I mean it’s nice to see that while I fight with Grammarly at work as it tries to get me to change a work-related term to UFO (completely unrelated) or something like “much easier” to “harder” that he’s also complaining about the same thing albeit a little differently.

For this, column, for instance, for Internet is suggestested internat (a word that I cannot find in any dictionary, American or British), internode, interknit, and underneath. Fax prompted no fewer than thirty-three suggested alternatives, including fab, fays, feats, fuzz, feaze, phase and at least two more that are unknow to lexicography: falx and phose.

“Lost in Cyberland’

Thanks to the internet which has worked out some kinks since the mid-90s (and of course come up with new ones) I was able to look up what those words his spell checker recommended instead of the words given. Internat is French for a boarding school. “The falx was a weapon with a curved blade that was sharp on the inside edge used by the Thracians and Dacians and, later, a siege hook used by the Romans.” (Wikipedia) and Phose is a “subjective visual sensation (as of light or color)”-Merriam Webster.

I suppose it goes to show that spell checkers will be weird about everything no matter how much technology has advanced and include words you’d never expect it to know.

He also writes about the confusion of taxes, insurance, and love for old-school stuff like motels and drive-in theaters. He writes about all the options available in the United States for any given thing and the overwhelming amount of choice, the politics of the time, the worries over the climate, and all sorts of odds and ends. He writes a lot about the small college town on the East Coast where he ended up moving and the house he bought. (Ah the jealousy that one could afford one in the early 90s).

Really, he ponders a little bit of everything, for each of his 70 or so columns adjusted (somewhat) for a novel and American audience. Something that adds maybe a bit unique to me, bit of comfort since all my teachers essentially told me over and over how things can’t be published twice, that companies don’t like to do it, and yet here is a book of that. It makes me…less nervous in a weird way about prose.

Some of the stuff he writes is fake, like real sounding gibberish about taxes, law, or the insurance you deal with when renting a car but some of it’s real and fascinating.

“Here’s a fact for you: According to the latest Statistical Abstract of the United States, every year more than 400,000 Americans suffer injuries involving beds, mattresses, or pillows. Think about that for a minute. That is almost 2,000 bed, mattress, or pillow injuries a day. In the time it takes you to read this article, four of my fellow citizens will somehow managed to be wounded by their bedding.

“Well, Doctor, I Was Just Trying To Lie Down…”

I’m sure these statistics have changed, and I’m sure there’s cause for the numbers, but it’s kind of interesting to ponder about. And there’s so much of that in the book. To the point that I want to read his other books. Which is so bizarre to me because I think that means this is the first collection of essays I’ve actually enjoyed. I feel like I finally kind of understand why people line up for so long to see authors like David Sedaris unrelated to doing it for a school assignment.

The majority of my non-fiction books are reference books like: cookbooks, travel guides, floriography, nautical curiosities, how to care for bonsai (Don’t ask how that’s going) and writing related odds and ends.

The essays collections I own are a rarity left over from school and studying prose or needing to hunt down “literary events” that were friendly to people under 21+ that I could write about for a grade. Or a growing amount of them are essay collections about grief that my aunt keeps kindly passing to me that I haven’t been able to bring myself to open.

I suppose it gives me hope and comfort in a way I wasn’t expecting when it was recommended. I wasn’t expecting to find myself laughing out loud in a way that I thought was rare and only found in Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams novels. And I wasn’t expecting to feel inspired to dust off my blog and say hey, this book is good, because I got so tired of writing about books I didn’t enjoy.

It makes me think of the prose class I took in college that I absolutely hated and how if this type of collection of essays had been handed to me, but one more accurate for where I was then, I think I might’ve actually enjoyed it more. I would’ve been more inspired, the way I feel now. So you might see me dust off this blog again and write more about the oddities of being back stateside while I look for my notebook from Italy that I can’t seem to find, in the hopes of returning to our regularly scheduled programming.

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