Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Anglo Files

Sorry, I can't take credit for this pun. It's the title of a book by Sarah Lyall, a reporter for The New York Times who was posted to London in the early 90s (she was interviewed on NPR about the book last fall). Lyall approaches her subject, the British, from what I would describe as a faux-anthropological approach. Anne picked the book up after hearing the NPR interview, deciding it would be good background reading for our stay here.

I read the book after we had been here for a few weeks already. Parts of the book are very humorous, and I found myself laughing out loud. But the more I read, the more I discovered that what she had written was not an accurate portrayal of the British people and life here, but really a caricature of those subjects. The chapters exaggerate all the stereotypes of Brits - the fascination with hedgehogs (a chapter that Lena particularly liked), the propensity for bad teeth, the "stiff upper lip." She apparently bases the book on much of the reporting she's done for the Times while based in London (she married an upper-class British writer, which is in part why she had moved here), along with her own general observations.

My problem with the book is that she presents everything monolithically. Our experience is that the British people and society - at least as represented here in London, and we recognize London is not representative of the whole country - are incredibly diverse. The caricatures she paints do a disservice. I recognize I'm basing this on only one month here, but I can see already that her brush is very broad.

If you're looking for some good laughs, then read the book. If you're looking, however, for a book that is just as funny and I think a more accurate portrayal of a foreigner's perspective on a different land, then get one of Sean Condon's books. My 'Dam Life is a hilarious portrayal of the time Condon - who is Australian - spent living in Amsterdam with his girlfriend. And his book Drive Thru America describes a road trip he and an Aussie buddy took across the States. Think Borat, only more realistic.

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