Monday, October 4, 2010

Stephen Fry in America

Stephen Fry in America: Fifty States and the Man Who Set Out to See Them All
© 2008 Stephen Fry
314 pages

While I am not familiar with Stephen Fry's work,  his reputation for humor and science advocacy  lured me me into checking this book out. Fry introduces himself as someone who has always regarded America with a certain affection, having 'almost' been born there and having wondered since the age of ten what his life would have been like had he been in the United States.  When invited to do a series on America, he opted to take a tour of each of its fifty states over the course of nearly a year, meeting the people and finding the 'real' America from the cozy confines of a black London taxi.

Fry gives the obvious tourist attractions a miss, preferring to beat the bushes and immerse himself in people's lives and local cultures, especially music. His direct approach takes him up in a hot-air balloon, on a tour of a body farm, into a coal mine, and into the depths of a submarine.  Few tourists would make the ruined Lower Ninth Quarter or spend a night with the homeless, but Fry does -- and his celebrity allows him to access people and places far removed from poverty. He chats with Ted Turner at the Turner Bison ranch, hangs around with Morgan Freeman at the club Freeman owns, and participates in making an Oscar award. Most of the landscapes he visits are awe-inspiring, and the publisher indulges its readers with two-page landscape spreads.

I checked out the book in part because I wanted to witness an outsider reacting to America as he experienced it, and Fry provides reaction in abundance; reaction is the heart of comedy. Like Mary Roach, he plunges head-first into humiliating, awkward, and sometimes dangerous situations for the experience. The book isn't all humor and rapt awe: Fry is honestly trying to get a handle on what America is, and concludes that understanding America means understanding the regional cultures. In general, Fry finds trends in urban geography unsettling (commercial strips and chain stores ruining downtowns) and American cheese disgusting, but is constantly impressed by the nation's energy and optimism and ends the book a bigger fan of American than when he started.

Although the book is chiefly aimed at the BBC's audience, Americans will find plenty here to enjoy. Fry is entertaining, and his journey reveals some things I never knew myself -- like that Alaska is still influenced by its original status as a Russian colony,

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