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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 June 2013
Just as Alistair Cooke's deceptively laid back, meandering "Letters from America" used to draw me in by some subtle magic even when I was a teenager, so A.A.Gill's mirror images of these hooked me from the outset, before disillusion set in. Since I have always thought of Gill as unable to resist an acerbic barb at someone else's expense, I was surprised by the lyrical style of the opening pages in which he begins by describing his fading family ties with the States to which some of his ancestors emigrated, including "the Yorkshire cowboys".

Like Cooke, he often commences a topic in an oddly intriguing place, as for "Guns" where he describes how Civil War guns used by the slave-owning South were sold to the French, captured by the Prussians, sent for use by African troops in German colonies, fell into British hands and ended up displayed in the Imperial War museum. The chapter on "Speeches" begins: `The last word Abraham Lincoln ever heard was "sockdologising", this being from a line in the play he was watching when assassinated.

Although most of the topics interested me - skyscrapers, philanthropy, evolution i.e. creationism, to name a few, I was frustrated by Gill's frequent wandering into successive marginally relevant fact-laden digressions. So, I could only cope with this book in small doses, returning to pan for a bit more gold in the perhaps self-indulgent muddle of his thoughts.

Whereas Cooke apparently always saw himself as a journalist, Gill comes across to me as an essayist, which means that perhaps he is generally more concerned with form than substance. So, he can end the chapter on guns with a clever fantasy in which guns acquire a power and personality of their own : "The guns want us aware, they want us fearful, they want us to want them" - which is of course entertaining but nonsense. Yet the development of Americans' attachment to their guns is not explored very fully.

Cooke's aim was "to explain in the most vivid terms the passions, the manners and the flavour of another nation's way of life". By contrast, Gill's ideas often seem half-formed, even when stated emphatically, since an unusual take on topics tends to seep away into subjective rambling. A final question is whether Gill's letters' would come across better if read aloud, like Cooke's.
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on 24 January 2015
AA Gill presents in this book a series of essays about America. Unlike some of his collected journalism which are short pieces Gill has a chance here at a more extended and developed form. I don't think it always works in this case though and found some passages pretty hard to disentangle the meaning of, - I found them a bit convoluted. The best bits of the book are when he tries to put forward a strong or defined opinion as you find in the chapters "harvest", "sex", "loneliness" and "stupid". In "stupid" for instance he argues against the commonly held view that Americans are stupid by then going on to list the number of Nobel Prize winners from the USA and highlighting its enlightened constitution. In "loneliness" he paints a picture of how the massive scale of America and its immigrant roots mean that there is a loneliness to American life, where people are continually upping and moving elsewhere. At best very thought provoking - a mixed offering on the whole though.
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on 28 September 2012
Beautifully written as ever, but what do we learn from Gill's America? We learn that he has a family connection, emigrants that he stayed with in his youth and is still in touch with today. We learn that he has a Smith and Wesson revolver on his writing desk, symbolic of that great and terrible nation. And, we learn that he always loves New York because he once loved in New York.

This is no massacre, as his The Angry Island was on the English. But, neither does he shy away from America's faults: he snipes at its belligerence and its inequality.

America was once a blank slate. It was where a clapped out Europe spilled out to forge a new nation, where no hidebound preexisting order would block an individual from 'making it'. From the first tough frontiersmen to the Pilgrim Father refugees to the waves of economic immigrants, America is a land in flux. Gill points out that the future culture of America is being shaped and will be increasingly shaped by its Asian and Latin American immigrants. Probably, change from this quarter will shape the wider world's future too.

The book's subtitle inverts the title of Alistair Cooke's famous series of radio essays. We read interesting connections and learn more about Gill's place amongst columnists. It is Cooke who introduces Vintage Mencken, his selection of H.L. Mencken, America's finest ever columnist. Gill notes that essayists divide between Montaigne's restraint and Mencken's pyrotechnics. Montaigne meanders while Mencken goes for the jugular. Cooke is in the former camp. Gill, in the latter camp, describes Mencken's rise and fall; he focuses on Mencken's career-peak report of the Deep South's Scopes trial, where Darwin battled God for admittance to the school system.

As usual with Gill we see with fresh eyes. We Europeans and Americans are now much the same: Europe has learnt from America, while America has spent that mass human capital which it took from Europe. Gill expects that his transatlantic family correspondence will die with him and his generation. One great experiment is over, and a new adventure just beginning. Modernisation, shaped first by Europe and then by America, will continue to transform the wider world. Consider Asia's emergence; think of China. Again we, who once dominated, will wail and wow at new ways of thinking and behaving. And again we in Europe, but also in America this time, will have change forced upon us.
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on 5 July 2015
Some reads are a question of subject matter, some a question of author. This falls in the latter category simply because of AA Gill's sheer and seemingly unfaltering ability to entertain, illuminate and examine. The subject matter in this case is America and Gill does not disappoint, having read most of his output, this comes as no surprise. If a probing and unbiased look at the 'Land of The Free' through the eyes of a man with a gift for language interests you, you are unlikely to find better.
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on 2 October 2015
One of the many things I enjoy about A.A. Gill is that you don't always have to agree with everything he says, but he always has plenty to say and he always has something incredibly interesting to say and you are always learning from him. This is a learned, well researched book that throws up countless titbits, information and facts that will have you looking at The States in a different way. The chapter on Germans was particularly enlightening and thought provoking.
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on 6 November 2013
Mr Gill is an awesome scribe. This book is so perceptive as well as witty.
The Americans are so misunderstood, in ignorance - this creates the reality.
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on 31 August 2013
As usual, A.A.Gill delivers. This is a thoughtful read and very enjoyable. It was purchased as previously owned and was in very good condition..
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on 3 August 2013
witty , sweeping mix of facts and anecdotes as well personal observations .
Clever and funny writing by this brilliant author.
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on 19 July 2014
A very enjoyable read and different book to what I would normally read gave me a better knowledge of America .
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on 16 September 2014
The usual excellent, evocative and irreverent stuff you expect from Gill - I loved it, you will too
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