Thursday 29 September 2011

Devouring Books: Stephen Fry in America

My love for America is well-documented and astounding. I don't always agree with the shit that some of its politicians get up to, the whole having-to-pay-for-healthcare bit, quite frankly makes me want to puke, but the land itself and its people? Love doesn't even come close to covering it. I may have only ever been to two states (and New Jersey doesn't even really count because I just saw an airport) but I want to see a lot more, and in one way- through books- I already have. I've lived through the Civil War on both sides with Jo March and Scarlett O'Hara, I've had a taste of Western life with Annie Proulx's Wyoming stories, and I can't even tell you the number of visits to New York City I've had (not including my two actual visits). The fact that I wasn't born in America is a constant disappointment to me, and I'm still looking for that elusive American husband for that even more elusive greencard (and for love! Obviously...)

It's interesting to know that Stephen Fry, as he points out in the introduction to Stephen Fry in America, very nearly was born in America- his father was offered a teaching position at Princeton, which he turned down, but what if he hadn't? It's extremely trippy to think of Stephen Fry as an American, considering that he is, perhaps, the most English Englishman I can think of (albeit an extremely left-wing, atheist Englishman, which only makes me love him the more), and honestly, the fact that he travelled around America because he loves it so much and then wrote a book about it makes me basically as happy as a book can make a person. To put it plainly, this book is Laura-crack. Not your average travelogue of a journey around America, this book has stunning photos (seriously, America? SO beautiful) and, because it's kind of a companion to a six-part TV series he made for the BBC, there is literally never a dull moment because he had to travel to all kinds of interesting places to make it interesting for the telly!

There is a part in the book for each of the fifty States, and each includes stuff like the abbreviation for the State, State birds, mottos, drinks and things like that; as well as notable people from/associated with that State. This posed a problem for me, because I initially thought they were people born in that State, leading to a lot of confusion when Tennessee Williams was listed under Mississippi (he's called Tennessee! God, those are both hard States to spell!) until I realised that actually meant he just lived there for a bit. That confusion over, the chapters themselves are amazing. The really great thing about what Fry has done is that he doesn't go to the places you would expect him to. I mean sure, he goes to Vegas, but there he finds Mormons posing for a half-naked calendar (and yet, in Utah, he doesn't see any mormons at all!) He goes to Washington DC, and, rather than seeing any politicians, meets up with the founder of Wikipedia. He visits the Ben and Jerry's factory in Vermont (which I didn't know existed before I watched the documentary, and which I now absolutely must visit) and never even sees the Grand Canyon (which I do want to see and which I once told my friend off for going to Vegas and not seeing). He sees probably more of America than most Americans, and, for the most part, has only nice things to say about every State.

I think what this book has done more than anything is made me realise just how utterly varied and wonderful America as an entire country. I mean, it's got everything. Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, desert, cities, countryside, beaches, two oceans, and I can't really think of anything in the world like Monument Valley. Where I'm going with this is that, I used to scoff at the fact that something like 90% of Americans don't have passports, the way I feel about it now is almost, why does one ever need to leave America?! I mean, everything is there, and that's just in California (probably my favourite State, even though New York is, of course, my favourite City). Of course, I'm not saying that it's not good to travel- of course it's great, Paris is really nice, Switzerland is beautiful, but what I'm saying is this: Americans could probably stay in the country their entire lives, and still not see everything it has to offer.

Back to the book, I really enjoy how clear it is that Stephen Fry loves America- his journey takes him to many different places and to many different cultures, and he has nary a bad word to say about any of them- he gently chides religion, ever so slightly mocks a man who wants to hunt for Bigfoot, but most of his criticism is reserved for himself, and that only when he looks a bit silly dressing up in, say, a cowboy hat. And that kind of thing only makes you love him all the more, and makes you want to say 'nawwww, don't be silly- you look great!' even when, it has to be said, he does look a bit silly in a cowboy hat. The only bad thing I have to say about the writing in the book, in fact, is that someone didn't do their editing job very well- there were a fair few typos that I picked up on, which just proves that I should be Stephen Fry's personal editing lady person (very official job title there) just to make this book utterly perfect. Although, did I mention? Morgan Freeman makes an appearance in it too. I think perfection was just achieved!

Obviously I think you should read this book. Everyone should read this book. It's a weird thing when you feel patriotic for a country that's not your own, but I kind of do for America, and this book sort of makes me feel homesick for a country that's never been mine. Even if you are American, you can probably learn some new things about your country, and feel immeasurably lucky to live there. If you get the opportunity to see the documentary, then I definitely recommend that too- 6 straight hours of Stephen Fry ambling about America being lovely? Perfection! In the spirit of travel and America-loving, I've decided to list the top ten States I'd most like to visit (let's keep in mind that I want to see them all) because, although Stephen Fry doesn't play favourites with the States, I definitely do! So, my top ten, right now:
1. California
2. Montana
3. Utah (for Monument Valley)
4. Illinois (Chicago)
5. Maine (Stephen King land! [no that's not a theme park])
6. Washington (Seattle/Nirvana-land)
7. Tennessee (Dollywood!)
8. Louisiana (New Orleans)
9. Vermont (Ben and Jerry's factory)
10. Hawaii
So, fair readers. Good calls? Do you want to make a case for your State? Or, do you want to offer me a place to stay (you definitely do!) Have at it in the comments.

Note: I left New York off the list only because I've been there twice. But, seriously- NYC is my favourite place in the world, so far!


  1. I need to read this book. Coincidentally, I wish I had been born English or French. Not that living in the States is bad persay, but you know, grass is greener and all that. I'm also glad that Maine made your top 5.
    Can you imagine a Stephen King theme park? That would be the most frightening place ever.

  2. Yes! Come to Chicago! You can stay on my couch. ;)

    The main thing I've heard from friends overseas who've come here is that it's hard to realize how huge the country is. Especially since England's something along the lines of the size of Florida. :D But YES, I love how varied things are. Makes me all proud and whatnot. Plus we have our weirdass state vs. national thing, so people have these loose allegiances to the state they live in, but yet we're all Americans? It gets complicated in my head.

    There's a book I'm reading now called State by State, which is a series of essays about each state, talking about how they're different. They're all written by different authors. Totally interested in Stephen Fry's take, though.

  3. Having lived there for almost a decade, I'd say Boston is worth a visit. Especially if you make your trek to Stephen King land eventually :)

    You might be interested in Bill Bryson's Notes from a Big Country (or I'm a Stranger Here Myself. Same book, different title). It's a bunch of columns he wrote for Day & Night magazine about America

  4. @Jenn- I'm up for switching nationalities, for reals! There is literally nothing in England though, so have fun with that :). Stephen King land would literally make me die of horror, so I definitely wouldn't be able to go there- but it would be sort of cool hehe

    @Alice- YESSSSSS! I am so there. England is soo teeny weeny, I feel like Florid might even be bigger... and I know it's 1/5 the size of Texas and that's just one state! The crazy hugeness of America! State by State sounds really good too, I'm so clearly going to have to read it- Stephen Fry's book/documentary series is super awesome (obviously I think so) and you should definitely find them and revel in his posh English love of the US hehe

    @Red- I am interested in Boston, it just sort of got missed off my list because I didn't necessarily think the rest of Massachusetts was that interesting... And while I sort of feel the same about Illinois, Chicago kind of sounds cooler to me (ARGH, so many offensive things in one sentence!) But yes, Boston! I definitely am interested in that Bryson book now- I have quite a few of his books but always pass over them for something else which is very very bad. So, yeah.

    Yay America, basically guys. I should have so written this review for the fourth of July and just renounced my allegiance to Great Britain at the same time...

  5. Boston might be cooler than Chicago...but soooo many annoying college students. We're more of an atmospheric city than a 'there's lots of cool stuff to do here' city. Although I guess the Art Institute's good, and our architecture's supposed to be all differenty downtown. But Boston's got a TON more history.

  6. You know we really need to be Swedish!

  7. Alice is right, the college kids are super annoying (saying this, having been a Boston college student). Avoid Boston between Sept 1 and Nov 1. That's when it's the worst. Especially avoid Boston on Sept 1. It's like the entire city moves that day so there are just traffic jams and crap on the sidewalk everywhere

  8. @Frances- My love for Sweden comes very close to my love for America, I wouldn't even like to choose a winner... but I'd take either nationality right now!

    @Red and Alice- I don't massively need history from a city because, please, my whole country's crawling with it... it's kind of exhausting. I feel like college kids are annoying anywhere really, especially when they're new- although I, of course, wasn't annoying AT ALL as a student... I'm basically going to say that NYC is better than both Boston and Chicago with absolutely nothing to back me up and wait for virtual things to be thrown at me... hehe