Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bill Bryson: My Hero!

I read my first Bill Bryson book back in the 1990s.  It was his excellent book on Britain, written from an American perspective: Notes from a Small Island - a definitive classic of the expat writing genre, in my opinion. 

Being a contrarian by nature, I had resisted reading the best-seller for a number of months beforehand, despite many friends raving about it, but once I succumbed to Bryson, I was hooked.

I went on to read pretty much everything that Bill had written up to then after that, including his fascinating book about the English language: The Mother Tongue - English And How It Got That Way.

Bill Bryson
Maybe I overdosed and read too much Bill, because later, I kind of went off him a little.  Why?  I think it was mainly because I became a little weary of his humour, which although very clever and witty most of the time, can seem a little contrived occasionally.

Anyway, I was thinking about Bill Bryson a couple of weeks back and I remembered that he had moved back to the US for a time.  I couldn’t help wondering if he’d written anything about his time back in the States.  Lo and behold, I discovered there’s a book by him called: Notes from a Big Country (published in the US as: I'm a Stranger Here Myself).  As the title implies, it’s about him trying to readjust to US culture and everyday life after spending 20 years in the UK.  I forgot any previous misgivings and ordered a second hand copy of the book straightaway.

I loved the book and my admiration for Bill was reborn!  Having been writing an expat blog for a year and a half now, it really makes me appreciate the challenges of the genre and I have enormous respect how Bryson tackles them.  He has a knack of hitting on some of the main issues for the ‘foreigner abroad’ and condensing them into a few very readable pages, with some great insights and humour mixed in – and he makes it all seem effortless (though I’m sure that it’s not).

His chapter on the differences between attitudes to humour in the US and UK was excellent, for instance.  It’s a topic that I’ve tackled myself and found difficult to encapsulate it all in a few hundred words.  Bill seemed to take the entire range of essentials and boil it down to few pages, something I might have deemed impossible if I’d not seen it done.  There are insights, witticisms, quotes, cultural context, personal anecdotes - all put together in a flowing, easy style.

There are other great writers out there, of course, but my big respect for Bill Bryson has been reborn!