Category Archives: books

Americans criticizing Brits

I occasionally take some flak for my criticism of the locals and their traditions, but I invite anyone who thinks I am critical to have a go at the new book “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British” by Sarah Lyall. Some of it I have found very informative, like the chapter on the reform of the House of Lords, which was well researched and full of amusing commentary. But some of the other chapters are remarkably harsh to the point of being downright vitriolic. The writing is quite good, as one perhaps might expect given the author’s status as a London-based writer for the NY Times. A few interesting tidbits, excerpted from a review:

“We look to the future; they look to the past,” she writes. “We run for election; they stand for it. We noisily and proudly proclaim our Americanness; they shuffle their feet and apologize for their Britishness.”

Her analysis on this subject is the best I have read yet, because it attacks the reasons behind the attitude. And I did laugh out loud when she commented on Britain as a “formerly industrialized nation” particularly given my past complaints about the lacking engineering culture here in the UK.

“Brits,” she explains, “are supposed to pretend that achievement comes without effort; boasting is the height of poor manners. It makes you seem aggressive, ambitious, self-regarding, puffed up — verging on American.”

I’d say as an American expat working in Britain this is potentially the biggest minefield I’ve encountered. The path to success in the states is paved with shameless self-promotion. This is probably the path to career suicide in the UK.

But the tone of the book is best summarized in a much more biting review:

In the 19th century, Britain ruled a global empire while its aristocratic leaders swaggered around boasting that great nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

In the 21st century, Britain has no empire and needs all the friends it can get.

The Anglo Files will not encourage many to sign up. Sarah Lyall’s “Field Guide” leaves you in no doubt of why the British lost their empire while simultaneously raising questions about how upper-class twits could have acquired one in the first place.

Personally I found it funny in places but overall a bit too harsh. The first few chapters made for very difficult reading, and I did not find most of it as helpful or explanatory as the Kate Fox classic “Watching the English”. There are many books on moving to the UK from the US, and this is probably mid-way down my list of suggestions, but not at all a necessary “field guide” so much as a bitter ‘memoir’ of the author’s personal frustrations.

Expat Books

I have claimed that no book has helped me more in my adjustment to life in the UK than Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” and I stand by that assessment. However, I do also love to read less scholarly books about travel and relocation, and I just finished a few. I refer the reader back to my favorite travel memoirs, which still stand–these new kids on the block (ha! everything old is new again) are nothing compared with my classics.

  • “Our own piece of Paris” by Ellie Nielson. A mildly amusing tale of an Australian family’s quest to find the perfect apartment in Paris. They have all the money in the world and a quite surreal lifestyle as far as I can tell. Two stars out of four.
  • “La vie Parisienne” by Janelle McCulloch. The book is beautifully produced and seems promising until it’s read. The author is affectatious and irritating at times, but the late chapters on the expat life are some of the truest words I have seen in print on this experience. One and a half stars of four.

The odd thing about both of the above-mentioned books is that the concern Aussies in Paris, which is also the subject of Sarah Turnbull’s “Almost French” from my original list (which are all four stars). What I really need are more wry commentaries on Americans trying to live in the UK, where on earth are they?

Three things

And these three things are not related and I’m not going to pretend that they are!

Thing 1: This book, “Rules, Brittania” looks like fun.  I’ll have to grab a copy and see what I’ve been doing wrong these last (almost) two years.  When you search for it on Amazon you get a bunch of other guides for expats living abroad, including recent editions of both London and England specific books.  Now why on earth did it not occur to me to look for something like this BEFORE I actually moved?  Oh the heartache I could have saved.  It makes me feel remarkably naive.

Thing 2: In amusing UK-US visa news, Boy George was denied a US visa for concerts this summer.

Thing 3: I apparently was reasonably lucky that my transatlantic flight on 14th June was NOT one of those much affected by the controversial presidential visit that went through Heathrow that weekend.  My flight was slightly delayed but we actually landed on time due to a huge bird (first time I’ve been on a 747 on the transatlantic route!) and a wicked tailwind.  But how stupid, just because the prez was going to dinner at Windsor Castle the British Airports Authority did not  mind disrupting the travel plans of 40,000 paying consumers?  Priorities, people.  But oh how very British, bending over backwards for the rich and famous at the expense of everyman.

Travel guide buyers beware

I have had the argument over best travel guide book many times with people who are loyal “Lonely Planet” afficianados.  I have only twice had a normal Lonely Planet book and I hated them in both instances;  I am now quite loyal to the glossy and colorful DK Eyewitness guides.  I am nothing but bemused at the article on today’s BBC about a Lonely Planet writer who did all sorts of wild things while working as a travel writer including writing about places to which he had not been.  IMHO that’s easier with the Lonely Planet guides than with others since they’re so dry and dull.  But even more interesting is the note at the bottom of the page:

Lonely Planet is 75% owned by BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC.

I had no idea about that one, shall have to investigate further.  Regardless, their little disclaimer aside, this is one of the most read articles on the BBC website today. 

Not since the Boston tea party?

OK, I have to admit it, I seem to have missed the Harry Potter boat entirely.  I have not read the books and I have not seen the movies. Yeah, everyone tells me to jump aboard the bandwagon, but that would interfere with my own preferred reading materials (at the moment “Kate: The Woman who was Katharine Hepburn” by William J. Mann, highly, highly recommended!)

I was, however, quite puzzled and bemused to find that the uproar over an early review of the book, published in the NY Times, seems to have re-invigorated the ages-old feud between the US and the UK.  Who knew that dribbling information about the latest in a series of childrens’ books could ignite the same sort of fury as the events leading up to the revolutionary war!  I quote:

“The New York Times review said its copy was purchased from a New York City store on Wednesday.

A Bloomsbury spokeswoman called the review “very sad”, adding that there was only one more day to wait until the official release in book stores around the world. Twelve million copies of the book have been printed for the U.S. market alone.

She likened the events in the United States to the Boston Tea Party, a protest by American colonists against Britain in 1773.

‘But over here it is blockades as usual, with the embargo being enforced unflinchingly and without exception by all our customers,’ she said.”

Perhaps we are taking Harry Potter just a little bit too seriously?

Books in the genre “travel memoir”

I just finished re-reading one of my favorite books, “An Italian Affair” by Laura Fraser. I am literally on my third copy of this; I had ‘loaned’ out the previous two. I was reading it recently for two reasons, (1) this new copy came courtesy of my sister when she visited earlier in the merry month of May, and (2) I am finally going to visit Italy for the first time, in about six weeks, and I am starting to get really excited about that trip.

This book is my very favorite of three books I love in this genre of “travel memoir,” all three of which involve a single woman travelling alone in Europe. Here are my one sentence summaries:

  1. Laura Fraser, “An Italian Affair,” An American divorcee meets a French art professor in Italy, and meets him for romantic interludes in different cities around the world over the course of the next few years.
  2. Sarah Turnbull, “Almost French,” An Australian woman spending a year travelling meets a Frenchman in Bucharest and eventually moves to Paris to start a life with him.
  3. Alice Steinbach, “Without Reservations,” An American divorcee meets a Japanese man in Paris and meets him for romantic interludes in different cities around the world over the course of the next few years. (There’s a sequel, “Educating Alice” with the continuing adventures)

In all three cases, I read the books before I had ever even visited Europe, so on some level these were fantasies and on some level they became slightly prophetic when I started travelling alone in Europe. (Except that I never managed to meet either a handsome French or Japanese man along the way…) In all three cases there was an obvious romantic component but the real and primary themes of the books were self-discovery. Although I have optimistically gone on to read other books in this genre (Italy and France seem to be particularly well-represented) I have never found another that I like as well as these three.

America and the Creationist Museum

Just when I start to feel safe in identifying as an American in the UK, something comes along to make me cringe. The big news from yesterday concerned the opening of a “Creationist Museum” in Kentucky in the US. The idea that there is sufficient support and resources available to encourage such an effort–the museum is listed as costing $27 million and that’s a lot of money in any currency–is somewhat shocking given the pure propaganda context of the place. The whole thing plays into the hands of those who wish to dismiss Americans as nuts in general and American Christians as strange outliers in the developed world. There are shocking statistics about the way that American society as a whole does not actually benefit from religion, and although I take most social science research with a grain of salt, I think there is some scope for serious thought here.

In a strangely timed coincidence, I was at a discussion last night concerning the book, “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (which is probably the book mentioned at the close of the article). The book has gotten mixed reviews but been very popular, and I do plan to read it when time is available (perhaps on an upcoming long-haul flight). It seems to me that there is a decent point made by Dawkins about the religious indoctrination of children and I suspect (but don’t know for certain) that this is a major factor in things like the Creationist museum. A strange sort of peer pressure in the US makes it not just okay to believe in things like this (young-earth pseudo-science) that contradict common sense, science and experience, but also mandatory to demonstrate these “values” publicly and boldly–with a $27 million Creationist museum as a good example of money that could have been better spent on something to help with the actual ills in American society.

Update: See a nicely complementary piece on the Onion.