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At Home: A Short History of Private Life
At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.58
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars At Home... in England, November 20, 2010
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As history lesson's go, Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life has a lot going for it. When, after all, is that last time you looked at a fuse box and wondered where it came from? Bryson's thesis, which is that everything you take for granted in your home is the result of a major historical change is right on. I loved reading about the history of lighting, for example, and the reasons why people continued burning candles even after lamps were in common use. Bryson's indepth discussion of pepper debunks a lot of old myths (that pepper was popular mainly because it masked the taste of rotten food) and his interesting explanations of diseases caused by vitamin dificiencies will open a lot of eyes.

But one thing you should know about this book is that it is very, very England-centric. Bryson does explain this when the discusses the wide use of servants (even at the height of servant use they were never as common in the United States) and the effect that America had on the export of ice, but he much of the rest of the time he seems to forget that he's got a pretty big American audience reading the book. While he goes on and on about Mrs. Beaton's housekeeping books for example, he leaves out the influence of Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School on cooking in the United States. Particularly tedious to Americans might be the extensive discussion of Great Houses, the assumption that it was almost impossible to do certain things yourself (such as laundry) when in fact Americans were doing these things.

Bryson seems to like areas where Americans were something like the British. He spends a fair amount of time on the Great Houses of the new rich in America at the end of the 19th century, and spends a bit of time on all the intermarrying that went on between Americans and British aristocrats. He seems to think that 500 wealthy Americans marrying British aristocrats in one year was a huge number--which it was for the British. For the Americans it was a drop in the bucket. Most important the lives of these extremely wealthy people are not nearly as interesting as the day to day home lives of average Americans. Unfortunately Bryson doesn't seem to agree.

Bryson's writing on American Great Houses contains one weird error. When discussing the Vanderbilt mansions Bryson describes the way buildings were torn down and says that "By 1947 all had gone. Not one of the family's country houses was lived in for a second generation."

Well maybe not lived in but certainly not destroyed. The Breakers, the most famous of the Vanderbilt country houses can be seen in Newport,RI and hosts thousands of tourists each year.

A great part of American home tradition does come from England. (As the product of two English grandparents) I know that more than most. I just wish that Bryson had specified in the title that he was talking, for the most part, about England. I have a feeling that many European readers may agree with me, not to mention those from Asia and Latin America.

Actually the book made me wish that Bryson would write another book, this one about America and the development of the American home. In the meantime I encourage one and all to dip into a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods for a window into how a Wisconsin family prepared for winter in the late 1870s.

I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections
I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections
by Nora Ephron
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.44
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever, funny, insightful but short, November 14, 2010
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Once again Nora Ephron gives us the chance to pretend we are her best friend and that's a great thing. Nora Ephron is one of the great essayists around. This book, like I Feel Bad About My Neck, is full of pithy observations about life at age 60 something in New York City. Ephron's merciless observations on growing older in the 21st century can't help but delight. (The way that Google, for example, has become the savior of aging dinner companions who can't remember the movie titles.)

There's an awful lot to laugh about in this book and as with her previous books, I loved every minute of it. But when it was done, I felt sad. Ephron has so much, but she seems depressed. She's wealthy and the excitment of living in NYC, while clearly dear to her, is not new. She's still on top of her game writing and directing movies, and yet there seems to be little that thrills her about that. (She barely mentions Julie & Julia.) Ephron badly misses her best friend Ruthie, who passed away and worries about her other friends. There is a strange essay about an annual Christmas dinner among friends where the hostess takes away Ephron's traditional assigned task of making dessert. The hostess's behavior is so odd that you can't help but wonder what else there is to the story--or what the hostess's reaction is going to be when she reads and extended chapter in a best selling book, about taking the job of pie maker away from Nora Ephron.

I couldn't put this book down, but it is very, very short and I finished it in a day. "I wish it were longer," is generally a great thing to say about a book but this book really should have been longer, 100% longer, to justify the price. Had it been a reasonable length, I would have given it five stars. If you love Nora Ephron, and I really do, keep that in mind.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 16, 2010 7:37 PM PST

Elmer Blunt's Open House
Elmer Blunt's Open House
by Matt Novak
Edition: Paperback
28 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars A wordless book that is fun for all ages, October 30, 2010
Elmer Blunt's Open House still sits on my study bookshelf, though my youngest child is seventeen. I plan to have it around always.

Turning the pages of Elmer Blunt's Open House brings back all the fun of sitting with little ones. It's is a funny, clever story with illustrations that adults will enjoy. You can "read" it over and over and still find something new in the pictures. The fun is in the details of the action, and the hilarious childlike expressions on the animals' faces. Elmer leaves his house the way most of us do when late, coffee cup out, breakfast things in disarray. He accidentally leaves his door open and neighborhood animals come and use all of his things. They are are surprised by a burglar and hide. But when he finds them he is so shocked by the animals that he runs away. All of this sounds pretty routine, but the personalities of the animals in this book are wonderful and detailed and the fact that the author could write such a wonderful book, without one word of print, is amazing.

This book is a great gift for new parents, who will get a kick out of it even before their new baby is able to follow along.

A Journey: My Political Life
A Journey: My Political Life
by Tony Blair
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $30.17
319 used & new from $0.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique political memoir, October 17, 2010
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I've read a lot of political memoirs, but I have never read a book, by a head of state, that was quite like this one.

Tony Blair's book , A Journey: My Political Life is the most personal book by a former prime minister, president or world leader, that you are ever likely to read. Every story, every event is couched in his feelings about the event. Blair tells readers what made him happy, sad and yes, scared. (He hated Question Time, and even now feels a weekly twinge at the time he would have been heading in to face the Opposition in parliament.)

In this American edition, Blair does his best to educate American readers about the realities of the parlimentary system and the recent history of the Labour Party. Most Americans have probably forgotten the huge revolution of "New Labour," the group that modernized the old party. To get a sense of how old fashioned and out of step old Labour was consider that in 1990 the platform of the party still included nationalization of English farmland. And, as Blair rightly points out, Old Labour was sometimes the best thing that the Tories had going for them. Nothing like pointing to Soviet inspired ideas in the Opposition platform to get everyone voting Tory.

Blair's memoir is strikingly personal however and he can be very, very funny. His comments that no world leader should have teenagers (they are like a bomb waiting to go off)and the country's surprise when his 44 year old wife became pregnant (The Prime Minister has sex! With his wife!) are artless.

One thing I loved about this book was Blair's generosity to his staff. More than not he takes the blame for problems and praises those around him.

Blair likes Americans and one thing I liked about Blair was his ability to separate personal differences from political ones. Yes he had things in common with both Clinton and Bush, but he had some differences too. But he likes Americans, likes the optimism, likes the respect for individual accomplishment, that we often take for granted.

This is a book that Blair wrote himself. Its not as polished as some of the big political memoirs written with ghost writers. Blair does go on a bit longer on some things that you want. But overall this is a unique autobiography that should not be missed.

How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food
How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food
by Mark Bittman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.86
129 used & new from $1.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Soup to nuts, October 11, 2010
Lets say you don't know how to cook, or you know how to do a limited number of dishes. (What I call the amateur with the "specialty." I-can-cook-I-make-great-spaghetti-sauce syndrome.) Lets say you've been faking it, but you really are not sure how to make poached eggs or good roast chicken. What's your first step?

I have a suggestion. Get yourself at least one good general cookbook that assumes you know absolutely nothing about cooking.

How to Cook Everything is exactly this kind of book. Mark Bitterman's receipes will be interesting enough for experienced cooks but the directions are clear enough for newbies. Using this book you can learn to make bread or jam. But you don't have to. You can just learn to make decent soup, roasts, steaks and salads. He really will teach you everything, so you don't have to worry too much about not knowing the lingo. Just make sure and read the initial introduction and the introductions to each chapter.

Mark Bitterman has a good sense of what people like to eat these days so unlike some of the more traditional general cookbooks (Fannie Farmer, Joy of Cooking), you get a selection of easy to make modern meals (like tacos) along with things like beef stew.

Having said that, I have to admit that I like this book very much but don't quite love it as much as my traditional books which I would recommend to suplement this one.. It won't actually take the place of my Fannie Farmer or my Basic Cookbook because it seems less rooted in the traditions of American cooking. Bitterman is great at the variations that make up today's cooking but when it comes to the classics, I find myself turning to those older books which explain not only how to make things like Johnny Cakes but their origins.

Having said that this is a good book to have around if you suddenly want to learn to make pancakes, or banana bread or if you want to find a variation on the boring stew you have been making for years. Buy it as a present for newlyweds or your college grad leaving home--then tell them to have you for dinner!

Waiting for "Superman"
Waiting for "Superman"
DVD ~ Geoffrey Canada
Offered by Mediaflix
Price: $9.86
41 used & new from $3.12

103 of 131 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We have to be our own Superman, October 10, 2010
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This review is from: Waiting for "Superman" (DVD)
In Waiting for Superman, David Guggenheim's riviting documentary about America's school systems, he asks the question many parents have been asking. If our teachers are central to the performance of a school, how can we reconcile poor performance with an uncritical view of teachers? Are bad schools only in slums? Can children brought up in poverty excel in school?

Waiting for Superman is not an attack on teachers. If anything its a testament to the critical importance of good teachers. Guggenheim's research shows the amazing effect that good teaching can have on a very large population of students. But he also presents the corallary. Just as good teaching saves lives, bad teaching destroys them. And unfortunately Americans have allowed a system to develop where good teachers get no rewards and bad teachers are almost never fired. The problem is not necessarily spending. We have more than doubled our per student expenditures since the 1960s (even adjusting for inflation) and are turning out graduates who are not college ready.

Guggenheim follows the history of American schools showing how up until the 1970s American public schools were the best in the world. He shows how the lack of global competition made us look awfully good. Unfortunately schools need to be better then they were fifty years ago, when they were expected to turn out high school classes where 20% of the kids went to college. Nowadays schools need to turn out graduating classes where just about everybody is ready for a four year college--and very few school districts are doing it. To make the story hit home, Guggenheim profiled several students waiting to get into Charter Schools, schools which are run by different rules than most public schools, and have a history of success. Watching these children observe the lottery that will determine whether they can attend, will break your heart.

He also profiles Michelle Rhee, the take-no-prisoners Superintendent of the Washington, DC school system. As someone who lives right outside of DC, I have watched Rhee and applauded loudly as she has taken on every special interest that holds back education in Washington, DC. The movie showcases her wins in improving DC test scores. Unfortunately it misses the final chapter of Rhee's career, the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who put his own career on the line, in the interest of the children of Washington, DC. Rhee's future in DC is unknown but the incoming Democratic candidate for Mayor, who will run unopposed in November, supports many of the practices that Rhee fought. As Rhee sadly points out, much of this problem is adults not wanting to confront other adults.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 5, 2014 1:34 PM PDT

Master and Commander (Aubrey-Maturin)
Master and Commander (Aubrey-Maturin)
by Patrick O'Brian
Edition: Audio Cassette

5.0 out of 5 stars The start of a wonderful voyage-Simon Vance's narration is stellar, October 6, 2010
Master and Commander is a very good book, but it starts off a series that's a masterpiece. That's what every reader or rather reader/audio book listener, should keep in mind when beginning this very long series.

In Master and Commander we are introduced to two unforgettable characters, the charismatic, talented and sometimes hopelessly naieve Captain Jack Aubery, and his brilliant, kind and loyal friend, Stephen Maturin who is a spy for Great Britain, a surgeon for Jack Aubery's numerous ships, naturalist and author.

The story starts a bit slowly, or perhaps it is not so slow, as different. O'Brian was uncompromising both with his historical detail and with language. For the first two or three books of the series you may find yourself skimming over nautical language and simply following the plot. As time goes on, and you learn more and more about the customs of the sea and the ships, you will follow better.

Simon Vance's narration of this book is a gift and is every bit as masterful as say, Jim Dale's narration of the Harry Potter books. Every character in this 20+ book series has a distinct voice. Over time you recognise not only Jack and Stephen but each of their shipmates and the many people who touch their lives. The accents which go from several of the English of England, American English, Scottish English, Irish and a range of foreign accents are amazing.

I liked this book, but I loved this series. Master and Commander is the start of a great sailing journey.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 29, 2012 9:18 AM PDT

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Widescreen Edition)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Russell Crowe
Price: $4.99
556 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Like a fabulous illustration of the books, September 21, 2010
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There are not many movies that actually enhance the reading of a good book, much less books, but Master and Commander does exactly that.

Patrick O'Brian's Aubery-Maturin series is the kind of literature that sucks you in and won't let go. While telling the story of a charismatic British Naval sea captain and his ships surgeon, O'Brian recreated the whole world of the 19th century British seaman. But as wonderful as those books are with thier nautical language and exciting stories, you can't imagine what you don't know.

In this wonderful movie Peter Weir brings the world of Aubery-Maturin to life. You see it all--the farm animals, the men covering the ropes, the Marines in their red coats actually seated on deck. You see the ocean and the fragility of the ship HMS Surprise. You see the midshipmen, children by our standards, with men's responsibilities, risking their lives.

This is a movie to watch, and watch again. I loved every minute of it, and see something new every time I see it. Its a long movie and yet, I can't help wishing it were longer. I don't know if Weir ever considered making a sequel. I know I would love to see one.

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour
Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour
by Lynne Olson
Edition: Hardcover
28 used & new from $11.93

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Far from home, watching the world explode, September 10, 2010
Few people remember how hard America tried to stay out of World War II. Even as Hitler moved from country to country, many Americans, our Ambassador to England Joseph P. Kennedy in particular, were determined to keep us out of the fray. But as horrible was watching Hitler's progress was, it was Germany's bombing of London that finally got our attention. And it was Hitler's bombing of London that had us focusing on Europe first, even though the attack on America came in the Pacific.

A small, influencial group of Americans in England influenced America's decision to support the British. They knew each other but did not always get along. Citizens of London describes how Harry Hopkins, Ed Morrow, Ambassador John Winant and Averell Harriman urged Roosevelt and the Americans to come to England's aid and then worked for America, with Churchill, to defeat the enemy. It also describes how the personal relationships between Churchill and these men affected their influence and their careers.

The tensions in the group and ruthless machinations of some (like Harriman) make for interesting reading. Who would have thought that stodgy old Averell Harriman (remembered by most adults as the guy who negotiated the shape of the table with the North Vietnamese at the end of the Johnson Administration) would turn out to be such a rake? Who would have thought that two members of Churchill's family, his daughter-in-law and his daughter, would be having affairs with two of American's representatives? And who remembers, John Winant, America's now almost forgotten ambassador, who delights us as he walks the streets of London greeting people and offering help after a terrible raid.

Citizens of London takes the always riviting story of British courage and tenacity during the War, and combines it with stories of the Americans who loved England and got to play a part in a unique time in history. Its a terrific book.

The Rules of Work, Expanded Edition: A Definitive Code for Personal Success (Richard Templar's Rules)
The Rules of Work, Expanded Edition: A Definitive Code for Personal Success (Richard Templar's Rules)
by Richard Templar
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.17
56 used & new from $4.85

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Excellent rules but poor explanations and examples, August 15, 2010
If you are an experienced professional looking for a way to give some good advice to a relatively inexperienced colleague, the Table of Contents in The Rules of Work is probably going to "wow" you. I know it wowed me, because it covers many, many things that people need to learn when they first enter the workforce. Knowing how to fit in, knowing how to be one jump ahead on your work, knowing not to gossip and not to complain are all areas where work is significantly different from school.

Unfortunately the execution of the book is fair to poor. On any given topic the author has provided a bland, know-it-all kind of statement, on issues that can be truely challenging for the uninitiated. For example, on the topic of "Never Disapprove of Others" the author instructs the reader not to openly disapprove of things like peers drinking at lunch. Okay, that's probably good advice. But what about situations where not going along puts you in the dog house with your co-workers? How does the savvy professional deal with an office culture of drinking at work--or even of covering up mistakes? Integrity is seldom as simple as this author makes it sound.

Although the advice is good, the explanations and advice are not backed up with research. What is worse, the author repeatedly uses himself as an example of how to do just about everything. Unfortunately the author is not familiar with the Rule of Work that says
when managing or advising, NEVER use yourself as the example of ideal behavior. Not only does it indicate you have no independent knowledge of the topic, it makes you sound like a stuffed shirt.

The Table of Contents really is outstanding though

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