Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Monster snowstorm happening here--hope I get this posted before the power goes out. (If the formattings a bit wonky, Blogger seems to be having issues today. Or maybe it's me.) Anyway, time to huddle by the fire and be thankful for indoor plumbing. Don't forget to click the link for great reviews--one of which is of SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS with a fun interview by Sarah Laurence!

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 2010

Bill Bryson is the enemy of silent reading. I defy anyone to get through more than five pages of AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE without feeling compelled to read some paragraph aloud to whoever else is in the room. For example:

Country churches in England look like they’re sinking, but really the graveyards are rising. A typical churchyard has accumulated some twenty thousand corpses, one buried on top of another.

When Thomas Edison first wired a section of Manhattan in 1881-82, “horses behaved skittishly in the vicinity until it was realized that leaking electricity was making their horseshoes tingle.”

“Originally, the joists in English terraced houses ran from side to side and sat on the partition walls between houses. This essentially created a linear run of joists along a block, heightening the risk of fires spreading from house to house. So from the Georgian period, joists were run front to back in houses, turning the partition walls into firebreaks.” Because the joists had to rest on interior walls, this determined the layout and uses of rooms in urban households for generations to come.

In the 1700s, British colonial law and the realities of markets and transportation meant that Americans had to order manufactured goods from England even if the raw materials came from here. In 1757, George Washington’s order included snuff, sponge toothbrushes, salt, raisins, almonds, mahogany chairs, tables, Cheshire cheese, marble, papier-mache, wallpaper, cider, candles, twenty loaves of sugar, and 250 panes of glass.

Bryson is the author of A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, among many other books. He has a questing mind and must live for research, judging by the twenty pages of bibliography. Best of all, he has a puckish sense of humor and loves to tell straight-faced tales of eccentric aristocrats, misguided inventors, and eight hundred Thames daytrippers drowning in raw sewage in 1878.

The book’s organizing principle is a tour of Bryson’s home in England, a former rectory built in 1851, stopping at various points for a discussion of issues related to drawing room, scullery, or fuse box. The topics addressed in each chapter are wide-ranging: The chapter on the bedroom covers bedding types and syphilis, but also the evolution of medical care and attitudes toward death.

Every time I interrupted my Dear One with some new gem from the bowels of history, I found myself exclaiming: “Whatever made him decide to look THAT up?” The answer, I guess, is that the guy loves both to read and to entertain. His books do not give the impression of being planned, somehow—reading this one is not like listening to a well-reasoned discourse with a sweeping conclusion at the end. This is visiting your favorite sweater-clad scholar for afternoon tea, getting yourself invited to drinks and dinner, and staggering home delightedly at midnight.

Did you know the Aztecs made salt by evaporating their own urine?

A word of remembrance: Novelist Diana Norman, who also wrote as Ariana Franklin, died January 27. She wrote the MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH series of historical novels set in the time of Henry II—they were my entry in this review club a while back. They are marvelous, and I’m desolated that there won’t be any more. I plan to get my hands on the ones she wrote under her own name and suggest you do the same. RIP, Ms. Norman.


Rose said...

This sounds like such a fun read, Ellen. I can see myself reading these quirky anecdotes to my husband as well. I'm glad I'm not much of a salt-user:)

Congratulations on your new book! I really enjoyed your interview with Sarah and think your book would appeal to many young people.

Sarah Laurence said...

It was fun getting to know you and your writing!

So true about Bryson being laugh out loud funny. My son, husband and I are all fans. Terrific teaser – I enjoyed the cool facts and how you described the reading experience.

Quite a storm here in Maine today!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Bryson's books are fun and this one sounds fascinating. I enjoyed his travels around Britain, Notes from a Small Island. Hope the snowstorm isn't too awful. This has been a bad winter for much of the country.

walk2write said...

I was glad to meet you for the first time at Sarah's site. Your profile description of having overcome decades of self-effacement with the blog got me chuckling. Good luck with sales of your new book. And stay warm. I admire you Mainers! Oh, and the Bryson book sounds like something my husband would enjoy reading.

Ellen Booraem said...

The sky's lightening here, Sarah, so the storm must be close to over. My goodness we have a lot of snow--we had a couple of feet before this even started. Love it.

Linda, I listened to a couple of Bryson's books about England/Europe, and I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF about his (apparently temporary) return to the US. He's marvelous in everything he writes, isn't he?

Thanks for the congrats, Rose and walk2write!

Stacy said...

I think this is the second time I've read a review of AT HOME and thought, "I should read that." Perhaps I should read that. :)

Congrats on your publication!

Sarahlynn said...

A compelling challenge and hook right up front! What a fabulously well-written review.

Congrats on your new book! (My sister is getting it for her birthday next month.)

Barrie said...

Ellen, I read Bill Bryson's SHAKESPEARE. Fantastic! Here's a link to the book trailer for AT HOME:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BuRGQignvU

And I really enjoyed your interview and reading about SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS on Sarah's blog!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

That book sounds fascinating, and I could see myself quoting bits of it to my husband. I'd always be wondering...what prompted this question?

Congratulations on the great reviews you've had on your book so far...it sounds as if it's a terrific read!

kaye said...

I enjoyed you post very much, this sounds like a fun book to read and share. thanks so much for stopping by.

Francesca said...

I love Bill Bryson - in fact, At Home was the first book I ever bought for my Christmas Kindle (Kristmas Kindle? Christmas Chindle? Eh, not so much). I also knit socks (and other stuff) and now I'm in the 'reviewers of Small Persons with Wings' club.

I also write about fairies, small and obnoxious as well as large and pretty.

Mmm. Feels like serendipity to me!

Hope you're not entirely snowed in up by you, but I'm pretty sure that's a vain hope.

Ellen Booraem said...

Oh, Barrie, I forgot about SHAKESPEARE--I read that, too, and loved it. He's just got such a down-to-earth attitude toward everything...all gods have clay feet.

Hmm. Francesca, perhaps we are twins separated at birth. (Although I'm sure I'm old enough to be your mother, at least.)

Jenn Jilks said...

Nicely done.

Another to add to my list!

Thanks for visiting my book review! I'm a bit behind.; Don't know where the time goes! [Volunteering... :-)]

StarlingUK said...

The joists in my house ran side to side, and that house was Victorian!

Ellen Booraem said...

Well, a Victorian's house would never DARE burn down! :-D