Book Review: Expatriate’s notes from England are witty, but repetitious

“Postcards from Across the Pond” is a collection of 64 Internet posts by Michael Harling, an America

‘Postcards from Across the Pond’

AUTHOR: Michael Harling

PUBLISHER: Book Shaker, 176 pages

HOW MUCH: $18.99


“Postcards from Across the Pond” is a collection of 64 Internet posts by Michael Harling, an American living in Horsham, West Sussex, England. A native of Columbia County, he lived in Clifton Park for 25 years and was employed by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Before moving, Harling writes, “I wasn’t planning on going anywhere; I was quite happy where I was and looking forward to many years of uninterrupted monotony.”

This changed when he took a hiking vacation in Ireland. He met Shonagh, an Englishwoman, fell in love, moved to England and got married. Shortly thereafter, he began working for a small computer company in Brighton, a coastal city near Horsham.

Our family visited England in 2003. Experiencing the cultural differences was fascinating. In the popular view, English food is poor but the beer is excellent. I found the food wonderful, the beer disappointing — making me long for a cold one at Pinhead Susan’s. I wanted to enjoy this book because of our trip, because of the great English writers I have read and because England strongly influences America.

I did enjoy Harling’s writing, which is generally well-organized and concise. I also appreciated that he respects and loves England. Even when he is frustrated by something that is different in America, he usually does not carry on like a loud-mouthed tourist. For example, when a nationwide survey describes his village as one of the most boring in England, he offers a spirited defense of the place.

Inconsistent voice

However, I was often frustrated by his inconsistent writing voice and his choice of essays. In some places, Harling writes congenially. Elsewhere, he’s cranky. The crankiness is understandable when he describes the bureaucracy, customer service in stores or the vagaries of daily commuting. However, in a noticeable number of occasions, it’s not clear what the mood swings bring to the story.

In the foreword, Toni Hargis, who also writes about expatriates, says that “Postcards” is a compilation of the best of Harling’s blog posts. While winnowing down a large body of material is essential to making a book readable, some of Harling’s choices do not work. He includes too many stories with the same conclusion: Commuting can be a challenge or bureaucratic decisions are whimsical and opaque. Instead of several former blogs with these themes, he could have consolidated the key points in a few essays.

While editing, Harling loses the chance to help the reader understand how he got to England and how he remains there. He says little about he and his wife met and how they decided to get married and live in England. But he does include a wandering essay titled “Sex and the Single Brit.”

At the beginning, Harling could have explained more about moving from one nation to another. In addition to helping the general reader, understanding the process is important, as he states, “Britain has the highest failure rate for Americans attempting to relocate.” A person might want this book to determine whether or not to relocate. Instead, he offers an essay on British and American attitudes about firearms — and leaves unmentioned a useful glossary at book’s end to decipher confusing British words.

Useful points

Nevertheless, there are witty stories and useful information here. Through the course of the book and several essays, the author does a nice job describing his village. He writes insightfully about the differences and similarities between British and American holidays. His essays on rounders, a sport with some similarities to baseball, and soccer are informative and have a dry wit. He does well with an essay about visiting France from England — and ends an essay on colonoscopies and health care with a good joke.

Harling is well positioned to write a good book on life abroad. With some rethinking, this one could reappear in a second edition, or a sequel might work better.

Categories: Life and Arts

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