It is always difficult to review a Bill Bryson book, since I’m tempted to indulge in sweeping declarations (“Bill Bryson may well be the wittiest man on the planet,” for instance) and then support such bold assertions with numerous quotes from his book. Problem is, I also want to say that he is exceptionally insightful, that he sports a keen sense of the English language and its peccadilloes, and on and on. And somehow I have to fit all that into the brief space of a review. Never has this been more the case than with his latest book, At Home.
At Home builds upon his earlier work, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, this time narrowing the scope of the investigation to the everyday things found within (and about) the home: the architecture; the individual rooms; the plumbing, electrical and communications systems; the furniture. Bryson’s English countryside home is a Victorian parsonage where “nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped.” But “this old house” makes a very convenient jumping-off point for a look at topics as far-reaching as the spice trade with the Moluccas (did you know that the difference between herbs and spices is that herbs come from the leafy parts of plants and spices come from the non-leafy parts?), the Eiffel Tower (Eiffel also designed the skeleton of the Statue of Liberty, whose fragile bronze shell is a mere 1/10” thick), bat warfare (the plan was to launch up to a million bomb-laden bats over Japan at the height of WWII; when they came to roost, the bombs would go off, or so the theory went) and Samuel Pepys’ inadvertent descent into a basement afloat in human waste (“. . . which doth trouble me”).
Somehow, curiously but inevitably, all of these seemingly unconnected particulars fit together neatly within the framework of a house. As Bryson notes in the introduction, history is “masses of people doing ordinary things.” And the common house? “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
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Three newly released books remind us that history is more than just a series of big moments. It resides in the small details and in unexpected places.
Bill Bryson’s best-selling At Home: A Short History of Private Life is now available in an illustrated edition. In it, the veteran author embarks upon a detailed exploration of his house, a Victorian parsonage in southern England. We are so immersed in our daily lives that we often fail to see that a back story exists to everything around us. Plumbing this notion could be a daunting task for a writer, but Bryson gracefully transitions from room to room and anecdote to anecdote with a sharp, playful intelligence. New readers will be enthralled; returning readers will be re-enthralled and appreciate the accompanying illustrations.
There’s a joy to Bryson’s writing, as if he’s tickled and astounded by his discoveries. Take his discussion of salt: It’s a coveted and essential mineral, but the absence of salt, Bryson observes, “awakens no craving. It makes you feel bad and eventually it kills you . . . but at no point would a human being think: ‘Gosh, I could sure do with some salt.’” His infectiousness will propel readers through the book.
THE LONGEST DAY
Illustrator Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a panoramic, 24-foot-long, black-and-white drawing of World War I’s signature (and gruesome) battle. On that day, some 20,000 British soldiers—not knowing that a weeklong strategic artillery bombardment had failed to wipe out German machine-gun emplacements—essentially marched to their slaughter. Another 40,000 were wounded. We see the soldiers proceeding as if they’re going to work, laughing and yawning and waiting. Then, there’s a wave of uninterrupted terror. Men shout and wear masks of grave concern. Bodies lie in immobile stacks. Each panel is packed with the aspects of war we prefer not to see. The final one, where soldiers dig rows of graves, is a grim reminder of the misery that remained even after the battle died down. Sacco’s astounding depiction of that day is overwhelmingly moving because he captures the little strokes among the epic chaos.
STORY OF A NATION
In many ways, The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin is the ideal coffee-table book. Featuring a thoughtfully curated selection of objects from the Smithsonian’s vast collections—including Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet—the book boasts an abundance of stunning photos and short, info-packed chapters that make it easy to dive in at any point and come away with something useful. Gawk at a photo of Julia Child’s kitchen, and learn that her mainstream success was partially set up by Jackie Kennedy. Gaze upon Abraham Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat, and discover that most clothes in pre-industrial America were made specifically for an individual. What also becomes apparent in perusing the pages of The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects is that items we might dismiss as merely stuff may end up being part of our nation’s history. Fifty years from now, an iPhone could be a relic that represents a culture gradually seeing the world through mobile technology. History is in the objects all around us—not just in books.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Bryson (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir, 2006, etc.) takes a delightful stroll through the history of domestic life.
Now living in a 19th-century church rectory in Norfolk, England, the author decided to learn about the ordinary things of life by exploring each room in his house. In each, he finds the stories that make up this discursive romp through British and American life of the last 150 years. The hall, a large barn-like space with an open hearth, was once the most important room in the house. Indeed, the smoke-filled hall "wasÂ the house" until the introduction of chimneys, which allowed houses to grow upward. In the kitchen, Bryson discusses such matters as canning, refrigeration and the serial plagiarist Isabella Beeton's hugely successful Book of Household ManagementÂ (1859), which guided homemakers into the 20th century. In the bedroom, the author considers masturbation, syphilis and Victorian advice on how women could avoid arousal by not using their brains excessively. Aspects of other rooms prompt Bryson to relate stories about the spice trade, the rise of cities, Chippendale furniture, the servant class, kerosene, Gilded Age excess, home gardening, epidemics, mousetraps, electricity, arsenic-laced wallpaper, bats, Central Park, fabrics, water cures and the many ways in which people fall down stairs. He traces the derivation of domestic terms, such as ground floor (bare earth floors), the drawing or living room (originally the "withdrawing" room) and boarders (from dining table or "board"); describes the building of homes from Monticello and Mount Vernon to George Washington Vanderbilt's 250-room Biltmore in North Carolina; and offers wonderful anecdotes, including that of Lord Charles Beresford, a famous rake who, confused by weekend crowding at a country house, entered what he thought was his mistress's bedroom, cried "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" and leapt into a bed occupied by the Bishop of Chester and his wife. In a sense, Bryson's book is a history of "getting comfortable slowly," and he notes that flushing toilets were the most popular feature at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851.
Informative, readable and great fun.Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Popular nonfiction writer Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything), an American-born UK resident, uses his home--a former Victorian parsonage--to explore how the contents of the rooms--in both his and others' dwellings--are reflections of our history. Changes in how we cope with hygiene, sex, death, sleep, amusement, nutrition, and various manufacturing and service trades all leave legacies on the domestic front. Looking at so many aspects of quotidian culture, Bryson understandably risks leaving out some parts, unlike microstudies such as Mark Kurlansky's Salt. Concentrating on the last 150 years of industrial society, thus including those advances showcased at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the year his house was built), he often wanders back several centuries. The digressions can be overwhelming, especially as the chapters do not provide clear organization. A dedicated wordsmith writing in a colloquial style, Bryson evidently enjoys his musings and trusts that his public will do the same. VERDICT Readers might best use this anecdotally constructed book by dipping into, rather than methodically reading, it. Its eclectic, ambulatory arrangement will delight many but baffle others. Bryson fans will want to read it. With a bibliography listing print sources but no websites and no endnotes. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/10.]--Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress[Page 118]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Bryson (A Short History of Everything) takes readers on a tour of his house, a rural English parsonage, and finds it crammed with 10,000 years of fascinating historical bric-a-brac. Each room becomes a starting point for a free-ranging discussion of rarely noticed but foundational aspects of social life. A visit to the kitchen prompts disquisitions on food adulteration and gluttony; a peek into the bedroom reveals nutty sex nostrums and the horrors of premodern surgery; in the study we find rats and locusts; a stop in the scullery illuminates the put-upon lives of servants. Bryson follows his inquisitiveness wherever it goes, from Darwinian evolution to the invention of the lawnmower, while savoring eccentric characters and untoward events (like Queen Elizabeth I's pilfering of a subject's silverware). There are many guilty pleasures, from Bryson's droll prose--"What really turned the Victorians to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing"--to the many tantalizing glimpses behind closed doors at aristocratic English country houses. In demonstrating how everything we take for granted, from comfortable furniture to smoke-free air, went from unimaginable luxury to humdrum routine, Bryson shows us how odd and improbable our own lives really are. (Oct. 5)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.