Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself is essentially a laundry list of distinctly American ideas, institutions and absurdities. Bill Bryson makes these things funny by bringing his British perspective to the table and illuminating the things we take for granted, such as complicated tax forms, inept postal services, and verbose waiters as purely American hallmarks. Bryson creates humor with what I view as a distinctly British style. There’s a lot of sarcasm involved, but it is all veiled with understatement that makes some blows less painful, or not really painful at all because they are clearly said with a comic and almost affectionate tone. Bryson also makes almost everything he says somewhat unreliable and unable to be taken seriously by, as he says, “shamelessly selling himself.” For example, at the end of a few chapters, after bashing on the United States a bit, he will put in something italicized that lauds the country and its citizens to win them back. An example of this is occurs at the end of the chapter on book tours, when, after lauding the British people as a sort of master race, he writes “(This was written for a British audience, of course, but I would just like to say here that American book buyers are also unusually intelligent and discerning, not to mention enormously good-looking and generous.)” (178). While this book is about America, it is definitely a British work. One of the aspects of the book that I particularly liked was that Bill Bryson’s voice came through really well. I really liked the chapter on British gardening/American yardwork because you could hear the bemused, yet cynical, and thus quirky voice that is so characteristic of Brits, or at least of the British stereotype. Bryson’s descriptions of his interactions with his wife are quite funny as well, at one point he talks about her essentially bossing him around and him complying. Bryson refers to this as a “prospering marriage.” Despite the cool attitude towards his wife, all is somehow clearly in jest and even insults don’t come off as in any way injurious.
I found the chapter on restaurants and waiters really interesting and quite funny because just like Bryson, and probably everyone else in the class, I have experienced the incomprehensible special description time after time. Because I never know what the special actually is, I seriously doubt that I have ever actually ordered a special. At two select establishments in Philadelphia however, verbosity is the last thing that the food seeker should try to practice. After experiencing the frustration of having too much description, I think Bryson would probably have a conniption fit over ordering a steak at Geno’s or Pat’s because of its oxymoronic cryptic simplicity. If one doesn’t know their order immediately at the window, he is sent to the back of the line. If he tries to actually formulate a sentence like “I’d like a cheese steak with ch…” they will be yelled at to speed it up, and most likely sent to the end of the line. This all leads to a lot of frustration for foreigners and a lot of amusement for the locals. When one orders a cheese steak, he never says the words “steak” or “cheese.” You don’t talk about peppers and onions or mushrooms. There are no adjectives in the cheese steak land that is the corner of 9th and Passyunk. The cheese steak order is two words. 1)Choice of cheese: Whiz, American, Provolone; 2) With or without onions (this part of the order is simply shortened to “wit” or “witout”); 3) (This step is optional and only recommended for expert “order-ers”) drink, which is also a one word order, such as Coke, Sprite, water, etc. To sum up, a standard order would go something like this, “Whiz wit Coke”, That is, a cheese steak with both cheese whiz and onions with a Coke to wash it all down. Now, if one can master this lingo, and spit it all out in under 27 milliseconds, then he or she is ready to order a cheese steak. It’s very similar to the chapter Bryson presents in that
It’s unfortunate that Bryson did not have a chapter on this subject, as it would have been a hell of a lot funnier and wittier than what I just wrote, but I think this sufficiently illustrates the idea that Bryson’s entire book focuses on: culture and national identity is created not by the highest aspects of a country, but rather by its peculiarities and imperfections.
Kalman’s book, The Principles of Uncertainty, could perhaps be best described as, to use my word from Liz Gilbert, “outré.” This book is bizarre and peculiar. It is simultaneously disjointed and coherent. While it often wanders off into small anecdotes, it eventually meanders back towards “the big issues.” What is it about? Well, nothing. No thing. No, rather than have one centralized theme, Kalman seems to float through a stream of consciousness about history, fate, purpose, family, death, Russia, and numerous other topics. While it is not a biography per se, it does shed light on Kalman’s background and childhood with small anecdotes and historical details of importance during it. One might say that the book is a culmination of not all, for that would be impossible, but many contributors to Maira Kalman’s identity. She includes her national background, her family background, literary figures, political figures, personal expressions of art, musical preferences, and other defining characteristics of herself and society. One of Kalman’s big messages seems to be not to take life all too seriously. Don’t think about the meaning of life, just live life and enjoy life, and it will create its own meaning. The chapter on Paris brings this philosophy to the forefront, as it rejects Nietzsche on the first page, claiming that this philosophizing will only make the individual go mad, as it did to him. The following pages are marked by images and captions, such as the “Lady” or the “Pink Bed” or “The Pink Bed Again.” Kalman’s philosophy seems to be to enjoy the beautiful and funny things that happen every day.

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