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After nearly two decades in England, Bill Bryson returned to the country of his birth. Gathered here are 18 months' worth of his "Mail on Sunday" columns about that strange phenomena, the American way of life, in which he brings his bemused wit to bear on one of the world's craziest countries.
"Here's a fact for you. According to the latest "Abstract of the United States", every year more than 400,00 Americans suffer injuries involving beds, mattresses or pillows...That is more people than live in greater Coventry. That is almost 2,000 bed, mattress or pillow injuries a day. In the time it takes you to read this article, four Americans will somehow manage to be wounded by their bedding."Fans of Bill Bryson will know by now that this is the kind of completely useless information that gets him excited. In fact, you are unlikely to read anyone else who derives quite so much pleasure from meaningless statistics. If those statistics are about the USA (Bryson's homeland) or his adopted England--or even better, comparing one to the other--then he is in heaven. And it is not only the uselessness of the information that interests him, but also the fact that Americans spend millions of dollars and hours each year collecting such data together.
Though not a match for his earlier success of Notes from a Small Island, Notes from a Big Country takes a good second place. It collects together more than 18 months worth of Mail on Sunday columns which Bryson wrote between October 1996 and May 1998 after he and his English wife and children returned to the US and settled in New England. The only thing that outshines his amazement--and sometimes, outright dismay--at the way American society has changed while he's been away, is his English-born family's instant embracing of transatlantic culture.
A word of warning: reading Bill Bryson is not a spectator sport...you are invited-- in fact, compelled--to marvel at how the nation that "has the largest economy, the most comfortably off people, the best research facilities, many of the finest universities and think-tanks, and more Nobel Prize winners than the rest of the world put together" could be the same nation where "13 per cent of women...cannot say whether they wear their tights under their knickers or over them. That's something like 12 million women walking around in a state of chronic foundation garment uncertainty." This is Bryson at his best, and though not every column inch hits the heady heights of underwear distribution, there are enough laugh-out-loud moments to keep you satisfied.
Detractors of Bryson's work complain all his books are the same, yet dedicated followers cite that very uniformity of style and subject as the reason they return, book after book. Anyone disappointed by A Walk in the Woods (Bryson's account of hiking the Appalachian Trail and not his best book) will have their faith restored by Notes from a Big Country-- here Bryson returns to his favourite subject and the simple, journalistic prose that makes his wacky facts and observations instantly accessible.
Bryson does not pretend to deliver an intellectual treatise on the state of mankind; instead he offers one man's take on how humanity lurches from one day to another--ironically through the kinds of details he mocks others for collecting. --Lucie Naylor
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