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Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country Hardcover – October 14, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Humorist Queenan calls this account of his 2002 trip to Great Britain "an affectionate jeremiad," conveying both his emotional ambivalence and displaying his favorite rhetorical device, the oxymoron. The West End musical We Will Rock You is "triumphantly cretinous"; a village woman is "belligerently harmless"; the museum curator wears an "ecstatically sober dress," etc. More broadly, contradiction is basic both to Queenan's humor and to his love-hate relationship with the British. He loves their "arch phrasing, infectious understatement and delightful euphemisms," just as he hates when all that posturing culminates in "the twit," that "master of rehearsed eccentricity." As with many travel accounts, one learns more about the traveler than about the locale. Queenan is a connoisseur of bad art; he can endure roomfuls of bad paintings at the Tate, just to make naughty remarks about the "insidious" hairstyles of yesteryear. Madame Tussaud's? It's "insufficiently absurd... nowhere near as bad as it ought to be." Conversely, he's thrilled to book a room at Durham's 500-year-old castle, complete with ghosts and a view of the cathedral. Indeed, the "American Dream," as Queenan explains it, is to stand on a fog-swept London street, watching the bobbies and dodging the double-deckers. As he says, there "isn't anything in the world better than riding a London double-decker bus." Hand-sell to the tweedies?
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Who knew that Joe Queenan--who years ago called the English "pasty-faced, mean-spirited, stingy, badly-dressed, anal-retentive, unfriendly, unadventurous, unimaginative people"--could bring himself to write this book-length love letter to the "mother country." Perhaps his English wife of 25 years finally softened him up. He fights the Joe Queenan fight: railing here against Paul McCartney, Pre-Raphaelites, Cats, English haircuts and public transportation, Fergie, Chelsea football supporters, Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook, and more. But the complaints are outnumbered by Queenan's love of a nice cup of tea, England's circuitous roads and stone houses, its writers (Swift, Dryden, Pope, Boswell, Samuel Johnson), its domestic niceties, and its "ebulliently shabby pubs." Queenan's is not a quickie romance; nor is this book an afterthought. It is written with the depth and detail of someone who's paid attention to his subject for a long time. Alan Moores
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Queenan obviously has great affection for Britain, even as he is not averse to criticizing the culture for what he feels are its faults. This affection shows through in many passages, from the chapter on British literature to the wonderful day he had after taking a spontaneous late-night train ride. He's also very complimentary about the British customs, such as always offering a guest something to eat. Sometimes the affection shines through the writing, even when he's criticizing. Other times, he just comes out and says it.
Queenan covers a lot of topics in this book ("It is not a travel book per se, as travel books are dull.") Instead of doing the typical travel book style, he talks about various aspects of British culture as they relate to where he goes. He begins by discussing the British as a people, starting by saying that the term "British" has no precise meaning. He gets into a discussion about national identity and then morphs into the different ways that the British treat their legends, compared to Americans. This is embodied in his quest to rehabilitate Paul McCartney. Queenan goes on a tour of Beatles country, taken by a rather unique cab driver who makes Queenan's day with wild stories, but he ends up altering Queenan's view of the whole thing. Included in this chapter are asides about British cathedrals (one of which he visits to get the "cultural compulsories" out of the way before doing the things that truly interest him).
This is just one of the examples of the fluid way that Queenan writes. He can go off on a tangent occasionally, but he always ends up relating that tangent back to what he was talking about in the first place. It's truly marvelous to see him start off talking about weird British history and then moves on to a story about Paul McCartney. He can begin talking about the wonders of Scotland and then quickly go off on British theater as he takes in a play in Edinburgh. He even refers back to previous books, as he references both Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon (when he talks about something not sucking as much as he thought it would) and True Believers (where he reiterates a story about a rugby match). This time, he didn't insult anything that I really like, but even if he ends up doing it, he writes with such panache that you can't help but laugh with him anyway. There are plenty of acerbic comments that aren't about the British, too. He has quite a few references to Americans ("By contrast, even the most appalling Americans are comfortable with themselves. Americans don't mind being appalling."), but also the French, Japanese, and others. Of course, he saves most of his comments for the British. In fact, one of his chapter titles is "10 Things I Hate About Britain. No, Make that 20." Even most of these, however, are things that I would think a lot of British people probably hate too, so it's not a slam against the people.
The most interesting thing about the book is that you just might learn something as well. Queenan talks about history, giving some facts that not everybody may be aware of. He visits a number of historical sites (one of my favourites was his visit to a piece of Hadrian's Wall), and in so doing gives some historical insight to the whole thing. Any true historian will already know most of it, but it would still be informative to those who haven't really paid much attention to history. He does the same thing for almost everything British, which informed me a lot too. I've never been to Britain (though I'd like to go someday), so I loved hearing about all the different places Queenan went. He wasn't afraid to go into the less touristy spots, either. He went to a concert put on by an Eagles tribute band, Talon, and actually had some nice things to say about them.
The cover of the book is a nice homage to Abbey Road, with Queenan fulfilling all the parts (of course!). I hesitate to admit that the pun in the title completely flew over my head until I was almost done with the book, but now that I have noticed it, it's very clever. All in all, the book is quite a treat. It's less acerbic than some of Queenan's other books, so even if that has turned you off of his books in the past, you might want to give this one a scan at the book store. Even so, it's still as witty as any of Queenan's other books, and I'm finding that I like it more and more as I think back on it to write this review. With more love than I'm used to from Queenan, I think Queenan Country is probably among his best.
Anyway – great topic, appreciate the sarcasm and grouchiness, agree with much of what he has to say, but … please buddy, this ain’t your master’s thesis. Write it like you’d talk about it. And if you really talk the way you write? No holiday invite for you. The turkey puts us all to sleep. Your droning words are not needed.
Queenan loves the idiosyncrasies of the Brits, as do I. By the way, if you do, also, check out Willie Donaldson's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages. The compiler of that tome, William Donaldson, would have been a perfect subject of one of the entries.)
This won't be for everyone, but while Queenan takes the "Mickey" or "piss" out of the Brits, he really does love England, and bemoans the fact that there are places he has yet to visit.
Lucky me, though, since unlike Queenan, I haven't had to stop drinking, since pubs are such a wonderfully enjoyable part of British life.