Book Review: attractive unattractive americans

attractive unattractive americans
If you travel abroad, “attractive unattractive americans” is worth a look.

American travelers trying to pass themselves off as Canadians is an old story. I’ve seen them with Canadian flags sewn onto their backpacks – but I haven’t heard them going so far as to claim to be from Moose Jaw or pepper their speech with an "eh" every few sentences.

That’s because there’s still a perception that the world doesn’t like Americans – that people from other countries think we’re loud, impolite and dumb.

Author René Zografos tries to get a handle on this in his book attractive unattractive americans: how the world sees america.

I should mention a little problem up front: Some people from the Americas might have a problem with the title. As a friend from Brazil likes to say, he’s an American, too. I see his point, so I would’ve called it how the world sees the united states.

attractive unattractive americans
A Canadian, or a faux-Canadian?

Zografos – who has an interesting half-Greek, half-Norwegian background – sets an interesting and nearly impossible task for himself here. He seems like the kind of guy who’s a great conversationalist. You’d want to run into him in a bar or a cafe and hang out with him. He clearly is good at getting people to chat with him, and at preserving the essence of what they say.

People from a long list of countries gave Zografos their thoughts on the United States and its people. Ultimately, I can’t see any clear-cut conclusion. I didn’t really expect him to reach one, though. I just expected to be entertained by the journey.

I also expected a few surprises along the way. Well, the people Zografos interviewed delivered. I was particularly shocked by some of the sweeping generalizations. More than a few people wrote off everything about the United States and rejected the possibility that there’s anything good about it – crude pursuit of wealth, crude language, crude dress (one person painted a picture of the entire United States running around with its pants collectively sagged).

I completely expected the United States to take its lumps in this book. I didn’t expect some of the criticism I saw, but I expected a good bit of it. I really enjoyed how one person skewered how the U.S. is addicted to superlatives – we love everything and think everything is awesome. And yes, we’re definitely way too oblivious to what’s happening in other countries.

There are a few things that caught me off-guard that I just can’t agree with:

  • Scandinavian and Nordic seem to think they’re cold and unfriendly. That’s their perception of themselves. Well, my Scandinavian and Nordic friends, this visitor doesn’t think so at all. From Iceland to Finland, people started conversations with me. They were quick to help with directions. Maybe they’re not as ebullient as Australians -- they’re more chill and relaxed. But they’re still genuinely nice. I have nothing but good to say about Scandinavian and Nordic people.
  • Speaking of friendliness, people from the U.S. have a reputation for friendliness. Some of the people interviewed for attractive unattractive americans accurately perceived that much of it is reflexive but insincere politeness rather than friendliness. I could probably write a book that deconstructs American friendliness for what it really is. That’s not to say we don’t have genuinely friendly people. But they’re the exception.
  • There’s also a perception that the United States is optimistic. I definitely question this. There was a time when each generation was expected to be more prosperous than the previous generation. Those days are over in the United States, and we know it. We lag behind the rest of the world in health care and paid time off (sick leave, vacation time, etc.). More of us work part-time and are mired in student debt. We’re over-caffeinated, overworked, overfed and over-tired. So, what reason do we really have to be optimistic?

Overall, I had fun reading attractive unattractive americans. I think future editions could use some improvement, though. One of my big quibbles is the book’s organization. I’d get into the flow and just be reading and reading -- and I’d lose track of who’s speaking. Between long interviews and short quotes from people he’s met, Zografos interjects with some ideas and opinions of his own. Sometimes, I had to backtrack a few pages because those transitions could be far more effective. That could be a design issue in the book’s layout. But it could also be solved with the author making a better effort to craft a more distinct voice.

If you travel, attractive unattractive americans is worth a look. It might help you realize a few things about yourself and your home country, and I see some learning opportunities that will help you connect with people you meet when you travel. And that is true no matter where you’re from.


5 Books to Help Survive Long-Haul Flying

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Bookmark No Crocs Allowed

I’m convinced that I’m one of the few people on the planet who enjoys long-haul flying. It’s nice to settle in and make a plane my home for 15 hours, especially if I’m headed someplace cool. While aloft, nobody can text me. I’m immune from telemarketers. That means I have a great sanctuary to enjoy some reading.

If you’re planning a long-haul flight, let me give you five suggestions for books that can make the flight a lot better.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)
– This is a masterwork of speculative historical fiction. It’s funny. It’s moving. It’s creative. You’ll follow Biff, the Robin to Jesus’ Batman, through the childhood, missing years and eventual death of the Son of God. The first time I read this book, I laughed so hard that people at coffee shops thought I was going into convulsions.

The Underdog (Joshua Davis) – The author of this great non-fiction piece has mommy issues. He’s spent most of his life trying to please his former beauty queen mother. This leads him on a quest to be the best at something … anything! He takes up backward running, bullfighting, extreme sauna and more as he struggles to be more than a bespectacled data entry clerk.

Bad Monkeys (Matt Ruff) – This is a twisting, turning mash-up of cyber-spy thriller with the very real possibility that the protagonist is simply off her rocker. Jane gets arrested and claims she is part of a super-secret group that aims to rid the world of incorrigible evil. But is she actually that evil? A crazy and unpredictable book.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Mary Roach) – Roach is one of my favorite authors for non-fiction ponderings of life’s mysteries. Her latest tackles sex, and how researchers have poked and prodded the world’s oldest deed through human history. Any author willing to shag her husband in an MRI tube for a book deserves my props.

Slam (Nick Hornby) – Hornby is one of the few authors who’s both ubiquitous and genuinely deserving of his success. In Slam, he writes about the perils of teenage relationships and pregnancy without sounding preachy. He also presents a neat plot device involving 16-year-old protagonist Sam and a Tony Hawk poster. Hornby is also a master at writing in the perfect voice of his characters.

Count on these five to get you through a transcontinental flight with your sanity intact.