During the recent holiday I read Bill Bryson’s latest tome – At Home – and, as usual, he far exceeded my expectations. As Bill says: “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
Before we plunge deeper into the fray, I have to say that I love Bill Bryson’s work. He always manages to come over as being wildly enthusiastic about the topic in hand while achieving the perfect balance between interest and humor. His books are replete with nuggets of knowledge and tidbits of trivia, which are enhanced with his little bon mots that always bring a smile to my face (it’s not the size of your bon mots, of course, it’s what you do with them that counts [grin]).
Just to set the scene, Bill was born in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, in 1951. In 1973 he visited England and decided to stay after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital. While there he met and married a nurse named Cynthia. Bill and Cynthia moved to the USA in 1975 so he could complete his college degree. Two years later in 1977, they returned to England, where they remained until 1995, at which time they moved back to America. Then, in 2003 the Brysons and their four children travelled back across “the pond” to England, where they now live in Norfolk. Phew!
Bill has written many wonderful books. Notes from a Small Island talks about his experiences in England; I’m a Stranger Here Myself recounts his return to America in 1995; and In a Sunburned Country (which had me laughing until I cried) we follow Bill as he meanders his way around Australia. I intend to write reviews of all of these books – and his many others – just as soon as I get a free moment, but we digress…
When the Brysons returned to England in 2003, they purchased a Victorian parsonage in Norfolk, which Bill describes as “A part of England where nothing of great significance has happened since the Romans decamped.”
The underlying premise of At Home is that Bill walks us around his home explaining the history of each type of room. Along the way he covers a multitude of topics like sex, hygiene, nutrition, and the way in which people from different social classes enjoyed life (or not, as the case might be). Although mostly rooted in English history over the past few hundred years (with the occasional excursion into the deeper past), we also get a good dose of American history along with forays into European history.
In reality, Bill uses this book as a platform (or perhaps an excuse) to regale us with all sorts of historical facts, from architecture to electricity, from food preservation to epidemics, from the telephone to the Eiffel Tower, from crinolines to toilets to the spice trade and the spice islands…
Speaking about islands, one reviewer of this book on Amazon said “I always finish Bill Bryson's books with the thought that he would be the absolute top person on my list of people with whom I'd like to be stranded on a desert island.” I know just what he means.
To be honest, I think it’s fair to say that this is probably not the best of Bill’s books, but that’s only because he has set such a high standard in his other works. Sometimes he rambles on a bit and many times he wanders off-topic, but I don’t really care because I always seem to enjoy where we end up. The bottom line is that I personally really enjoyed At Home and would happily recommend it to anyone.
I love all Bryson's work. My love affair with it began when I was living in Germany in the 90s and read his comment on the dangers of German restaurants - "it's always a concern that Willi and the Bavarian boys will leap on stage and start performing. It should have been a condition of the Armistice that the Germans lay down their accordions with their arms". Anyone who can write insults in such style deserves serious praise. And the real trick is that he does it with such affection that even when it's you who is being insulted, it's hard to feel anything other than pleasure. I'm delighted that he's now Chancellor of my old University (Durham). One note though, his books about America actually come in two versions - one for the international market and one for Americans themselves, who are apparently judged to be too thin-skinned and these versions are toned down with some of the (better) insults removed. I know this because when I moved to the States, I came across what I initially thought was a whole new set of Bryson titles. They turned out to be the US versions and in starting to read them I realized they had been doctored!
Both -- I still love hard-copy books -- and I love browsing around the "bargain" section of Barnes and Noble -- but I have a Kindle with a load of books on it -- many downloaded for free -- which is wonderful when I'm traveling (I used to carry three or four books in my backpack and a bunch more in my suitcase -- now I just take my Kindle). At home I bounce back and forth between real books and the ones on my Kindle.
I don't have the book here in my office -- but one of my favorites is where he has "a meal of gristle and wiffle ball at a diner appropriately named 'Chucks'" (his actual words are much funnier -- I'll try to find the full quote unless someone else gets there first)
It's not very PC, but my favorite passage from The Lost Continent is the following:
"Iowa women are almost always sensationally overweight -- you see them at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines on Saturdays, clammy and meaty in their shorts and halter tops, looking like elephants dressed in children's clothes, yelling at their kids, calling out names like Dwayne and Shauna. Jack Kerouac, of all people, thought that Iowa women were the prettiest in the country, but I don't think he ever went to Merle Hay Mall on a Saturday. I will say this, however -- and it's a strange, strange thing -- the teenaged daughters of these fat women are always utterly delectable, as soft and gloriously rounded and naturally fresh-smelling as a basket of fruit. I don't know what it is that happens to them, but it must be awful to marry one of those nubile cuties knowing that there is a time bomb ticking away in her that will at some unknown date make her bloat out into something huge and grotesque, presumably all of a sudden and without much notice, like a self-inflating raft from which the pin has been yanked."
I really liked "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America" when he drives around reminiscing about road trips he took with his family when he was a kid.
Did you read Bryson's "Shakespeare: The World as Stage"? I would never have thought that I would have enjoyed a book about the Bard ... but this had me riveted to my seat. Its not a particularly long book but it's well worth the read.
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