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on June 27, 2009
Sarah Lyall's book acts as a counterpart to the many eulogies of 'British culture' which stereotype its eccentricity as positive. Unfortunately, rather than a non-stereotyped insight into the differentness of the British, it reads more like a continual complaint. Lyall complains terminally about the British press and gossip, while sounding exactly like a gossip columnist herself. She complains about snobbery and name dropping, yet most chapters include a mention of a distinguished friend or connection.

What prompted me to write this review is that I found the book quite upsetting. I would have welcomed a book that realistically, and humorously portrayed British culture, warts and all, in comparison with American, or other cultures. But Lyall, with an anthropological background, is doing exactly what a serious anthropologist would never do: she sets up a subjective, implicit standard (her point of view is that of a consumer who expects priority of attention, takes luxury and choice for granted and sees access to private dental care, for example, as normal), then relentlessly derides Britain for not meeting that standard. The British are constantly other, alien, unfathomable and to be ridiculed. This is a shame: there are negative accounts in the book that might have appeared interesting in a more balanced, comparative context, but because anything and everything is mocked indiscriminately, (courtesy, appreciation, tradition, for example) they lose any impact they may have had.

This is a book for an American audience. As a British reader, I found the revelatory tone jarred somewhat with the lack of actual revelation. There are certainly some humorous moments, for example the long-suffering cohabitant of a hedgehog rescuer who 'prefers animals in the abstract.' On the whole, I don't think they are worth waiting for.

I stopped reading at the chapter that lists the faults of the war generation and the embedded cultural frugality that followed. The following passage, I think, is typical of the tone and style of the book. If it amuses you, then you might enjoy the rest, if you find it distasteful, you will probably not enjoy reading more:

"All that privation becomes hardwired in the system. People from the war generation are incredibly careful with their resources. They reuse old envelopes and teabags. They wear their clothes until the clothes wear out. An elderly friend of our family wore, for his entire adult life, the handed down clothes of a relative who died before World War II. According to her former daughter-in-law, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth is so frugal that she insists on using 40 watt light bulbs in all her many houses...
They care less than we do about creature comforts, such as the necessity of sleeping on mattresses purchased sometime in the last half century. Surprisingly often, Robert and I have stayed in smart houses where, when you sit on the bed, the mattress sags down to the floor, and when you lie down, it folds up like a U, propelling you both into a little heap in the center. It's not that they can't afford new beds; it's that they think it's frivolous and self-indulgent to buy them."

From chapter 12: 'Wine from weeds.'
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on May 18, 2012
Granted, I haven't lived in England for long, but even after one year of living there (and having family who have lived there for a while), it is very easy to see that this book is full of narrow-minded, hateful stereotypes about the English, and that Lyall seems to have very little understanding of what English culture and society is all about.
Really, I find it very sad if after 20 years of living in England and being married to an Englishman, this is what she thinks about the country.

To make matters worse, Lyall also seems to have a very poor ability to understand American society (which she uses as a constant comparison).

For example, at one point in the book she complains that the English are fully capable of saying to someone "I'm pleased to meet you!" when they are entirely not. She finds this very disturbing. But if you ask any foreigner who has ever lived in the US what they find most typical of American society, it is PRECISELY this: that Americans will consistenly use hyperbole, avoid confrontation, and say "good things" to avoid causing offence, while actually meaning something completely different. One of the first things we needed to learn upon coming to live in the US was that when the boss tells you that you did a "good job" on something, it could mean anything from it actually being a good job, to it being a very poor job.
Similarly, Lyall rants about the limitations of English Sexual Education - which is quite strange considering the sheer number of states in the US in which the only allowed sex education is "abstinence only".

In other words, this book is not actually about an American's perspective on England, but about the very narrow perspective of an New York journalist on a very very narrow sub-section of English society, and even her perceptions of this subsection are quite ridiculous.

If you want a much smarter, funnier and more nuanced understand of English culture, I highly recommend Kate Fox's "Watching the English."
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on August 23, 2009
A whiny, moralistic and condescending view of the British. No humor, or if it is there, is very well disguised. Save your time and money.
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on December 28, 2008
Having lived in England for a number of years, I was very much looking forward to reading this book and revisiting a country that I love via armchair. The description on the dust jacket made the book sound much like Bill Bryson's writings on England, humorous and clever. The actual book is comprised of 250+ pages of complaining of things about which anyone who has spent time in England already knows. It rains incessantly...yes, we know. The British are very reserved people who prefer to communicate by letter, and if forced to interact verbally, would prefer to limit their conversational subjects to the weather...yes, we know. The House of Lords was peopled with hereditary peers who had no true qualifications for serving in office and were often eccentric to say the least...yes, we KNOW. But where, in other writers' hands, those facts have been discussed in a way that still views England with affection, in this book, those same facts are used to make England seem like a place one would never want to visit. Reading this book made me sad and annoyed. I didn't have a problem with the writing itself nor with the facts themselves, but if the dust jacket had provided a realistic idea of what the book was actually like, I would never have bought it. It's not funny in any respect. I think the publishers owe me a refund for false advertising.
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on December 11, 2008
I kept waiting for her to lighten up and tell us something interesting but funny or at least humorous but she just went for the easy topics with the most unpleasant side of the people. Very depressing.
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on January 19, 2010
I was expecting a humorous, light-hearted read about the ups and downs of English society (I have British in-laws, thus my interest), and while I found the prose quite readable, her tone was surprisingly nasty and superior much of the time. She's definitely not another Bill Bryson, who has a wonderful author's voice -- noting negatives with affection and without judgment (try Notes from a Small Island). Ms. Lyall's book left a very bad taste in my mouth.

The opening sex chapter was too anecdotal to be taken even remotely seriously, the dental hygiene chapter just plain gross. The chapter on bad English food was full of stereotypes and a patently untrue representation of food there. (You could write the same chapter on the worst of American diner food, where's the revelation in that? And that wouldn't address the truly wonderful food that can be eaten here either!) In spite of her protestations to the contrary, she's obviously class-conscious with all her name-dropping -- at some point I just rolled my eyes at yet another mention of their country cottage, or fancy dinner parties, or this or that public/private school experience of their friends or children, etc etc.

This book gives an excessively negative picture of England, so if you're an American looking for information, just recognize that you're viewing through one person's lens, a lens that is snobby and just a wee bit angry. I would be embarrassed for any English person to read this book, just as I would be terribly offended if a British writer came to America and deliberately sought the worst of this country to bash for his or her audience. Don't buy this book! YUCK!!
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on November 15, 2009
I am a Brit who is now an American citizen. I understand fully the quirkiness of my fellow countrymen and yes Ms Lyall is accurate about some of the more annoying elements such as the rise of alcoholism. However like many other reviews I have read, I find her sarcasm a little annoying after you get two thirds into the book. She doesn't mention the good sides of the British character and for someone who has adopted her new country just like I have, she fails miserably on the impressions she leaves with the reader. Most Americans are broadly aware of our idiosyncrasies. You can thank a little "Monty Python " for that and BBC America. Ms Lyall's book is one blow after another on the negative sides of Britain. I thought it had alot of promise but was very disappointed with this. Read Brit Speak, Ameri think instead I suggest.
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on November 8, 2008
To someone who does not know the British this will provide an entertaining, if somewhat alarming, introduction to the subject. Some of the observations are spot-on (cricket and sadly, alcohol - in even small towns every weekend is like Spring Break with drunken teens rendering centres 'no go' areas for those less inebriated). However, other observations seem to be colored more by the author's own prejudices - which are occasionally, but rarely acknowledged. For example, visitors to Britain may be surprised to find most of them have (nearly) all their own teeth. Lyall would have you believe otherwise. And for someone who has married a Brit, and has two British children, a tone of laughing with her subject - rather than at them, might have been less condescending. Finally, in a breathtaking display of ignorance of how the British make tea, the jacket cover shows a tea bag being put in a cup - after a week in London (let alone a decade) every American would know they use a tea pot. While this is not the author's fault, it does betray the problem with the book - the triumph of condescending point scoring over understanding or much empathy.
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on September 17, 2010
This book is certainly NOT a good representation of modern day Britain and I found Ms. Lyall's book quite negative, subjective and very snide. I agree with the reviewer who wanted a `refund for false advertising'. I have never submitted a book review before, but after reading a substantial portion of this book (half of it), I felt the need to submit a review to say that this book is not an accurate observation of the nation - at best, it probably represents only a minority of upper middle class, white English people. Her `tone' is quite unpleasant and suggests a great dislike of the British. If she thinks that the British are as she describes, she is obviously very closeted and has no idea of the British nation as a whole.
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on October 26, 2008
I freely admit to it -- I am an Anglophile, one of those Americans who look to the English as supplying the things that Americans tend to lack at times, such as fine living, a love of literature and art, the dry humour and despite the fact that most English food is deplorable, they did come up with that sublime meal: afternoon tea. Not to mention all of that history at their doorsteps. I hope that it is a forgivable mistake on my part, but having grown up on a steady diet of BBC dramas, it might be understandable that my viewpoint is a bit skewed.

So I suspect, was author Sarah Lyall's when she married an Englishman, moved to London, and started a family.

The book opens with an introduction of Ms. Lyall's invitation to visit an ancestral pile out in the countryside, and have a picnic with the resident Earl and his family. Picturing one thing, Sarah got something quite different -- and discovered something important about British self-confidence among the aristocracy. The rest of the book follows fairly closely in the same vein.

An early chapter looks at the British system of politics, and the fact that most politicians have big mouths, and a culture that looks at women and minorities as not quite equal as the rest of us, a problem that is exacerbated by the occasional bit of tipple -- tipple meaning an alcoholic lunch followed by a reception where the alcohol flows freely. While some of the stories related in here are funny, there's something really wrong underneath. Which led me right into the next chapter -- that of the British and alcohol.

One chapter really caused me to wince, and that was the one on the British and when they go drinking. Alcoholism is on the rise, and especially binge drinking. Toss in a cheap airfare to say, Prague, along with cheap beer, and the Brits turn into people who are loud, drunk to the point of unconsciousness, and exhibiting behavior that most of us wouldn't dream of doing in public. Add in sport, and suddenly the reason for rioting in stadiums with tragic results becomes clear. Not exactly a shining moment.

The entire question of Class is addressed next, with the way how it's determined not by how much money you have as the Americans do it, but how you speak. Are you U or non-U? seems to hover under every conversation, and while no one is really ill bred enough to blurt out the obvious answer, somehow it's known nearly instantly. And currently, it's the word 'toilet' that is used as the benchmark.

And the book continues on in this vein, looking at some of the more bizarre behaviours of the English, such as the House of Lords, the validation of Marmite as an actual food substance, the eccentricities of the Angle-Grinder Man (his hobby was to dress as a blue and gold lame clad superhero, freeing drivers whose cars had been booted), the appalling state of British Dentistry, and of all things, hedgehogs.

Towards the end, I started to see some of the humour buried under the sarcasm and the somewhat superior tone of this American interloper. She finally begins to see why the British are like this -- survivors of adversity, able to do without in the worst of conditions, and determined to keep their own ways and ideas, despite the continual onslaughts of American consumerism, globalization, and the weather.

But there something rather mean at the center of this one, and one that turned me right off of the author as observer. There's a whinging whining tone to her story, that hints at can't you just go on get with rest of us? attitude that I found pretty condescending. And in turn the British look at the rest of us as rather lazy, crybabies who are spoilt and overindulged. I can't argue with that one either.

While I did enjoy reading this, it's not really a book that I can recommend with any enjoyment either. Lyall seems to be determined here to find out the very worst about the British, and haul it all out in front of the rest of us, waving it about and shrieking See! See! They're just as rotten and snobbish and uppity as you think they are! Never mind that the British have show great tenacity in the midst of chaos, have created some of the most beautiful art and poetry that the world has seen, or literature that has endured through the century -- very little of this aspect is shown, and to be honest, it's sad.

I have a feeling that for as long as Ms Lyall resides in the UK, she's going to be feeling a bit of an outsider, looking in and never quite grasping the why as to she's not invited in. That's too bad, as her writing is indeed witty, and very entertaining; it's what she is saying with it all that makes it such a muddle.

Overall, this is a three star book. Not bad, not good. Just average. Perhaps this book should have been titled The Anglo Phobe.
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