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At Home: A Short History of Private Life Paperback – October 4, 2011
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“Delightful. . . . Bryson’s enthusiasm brightens any dull corner. . . . Hand over control and simply enjoy the ride.” –The New York Times Book Review
"An exuberant, shared social history. . . . Told with Bryson's habitual brio. . . . A personal compendium of fascinating facts, suggesting how the history of houses and domesticity has shaped our lives, language, and ideas." -The New York Review of Books
“A treasure trove. . . . Playful, yes, but Bryson is also a deft historian.” –Los Angeles Times
“If this book doesn’t supply you with five years’ worth of dinner conversation, you’re not paying attention.” –People
“Bryson is fascinated by everything, and his curiosity is infectious. . . . You can take this class in your pajamas—and, judging by the book’s laid-back, comfy tone, I have a sneaking suspicion that Bryson wrote much of it in his.” –New York Times Book Review
“The experience of reading a Bill Bryson book is something you don’t want to stop—a pip and a spree and, almost incidentally, a serious education. And never tiresome, for Bryson has the gift of being the student and not the tutor.” –Washington Post
“At Home is both insightful and entertaining, leaving a deeper appreciation of the stuff of home life that will never again be viewed as mundane.” –Seattle Times
“Readers who enjoyed Mr. Bryson’s apparently inexhaustible supply of nifty facts in such previous books as “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (2004) or “The Mother Tongue” (1991) will be happy to find the author’s pen as nimble and his narrative persona as genial as ever.” –Wall Street Journal
“Bryson serves up a rich banquet of utterly fascinating and sometimes horrifying facts of where and how people have slept, eaten, made a living, built homes and monuments, frolicked, traveled, given birth and been laid to rest.” –Bookreporter.com
“Its lasting impression is the author’s delightful, boundless curiosity. . . . The best nonfiction illuminates what we found impossible to see without it, and perhaps more so than any of his other wonderful books, At Home proves that Bryson writes some of the very best.” –"The AV Club," The Onion
“Bryson writes with his usual slyly sassy humor. . . . The result makes for reading that charms as it informs.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Reading Bill Bryson is like having one of those friends around who’s always discovering something new—some pastime or place or piece of information—and can’t wait to breathlessly pass it along.” –Dallas Morning News
“Deliciously informative. . . . A treasure trove of facts in an engaging history of how we once lived.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch
“At Home is terrific. Bryson is a brilliant writer.” –The Charlotte Observer
“Bryson is the ultimate fact-filled uncle. . . . A delightful book filled with humor and astonishing facts.” –Vancouver Sun
About the Author
Bill Bryson’s bestselling books include A Walk in the Woods (now a major motion picture starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte), Notes from a Small Island, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, A Short History of Nearly Everything (which earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, At Home, and One Summer. He lives in England with his wife.
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Maybe Mr Bryson should take some decent care of what has happened before the British Empire -boom! boom!-(like the Roman Empire, Middle Age and the Reinassance, just for the Western world), which has NOT - I repeat, NOT at all- been completely transpassed to the British or American way of life.
It would be even better if he could correct the title of his books and insert "Anglo Saxon", just to limit the giant explosions of hilarity that his books provoke here in continental Europe.
One name might wake Mr Bryson up: JULIUS CAESAR who, by the way, used to have a fantastic private life, also during his (non turistic) short but intense and constructive period in the Brutish Islands.
There's no point looking for a theme to At Home, even though it's nominally a social history of the home, specifically Bryson's home, a former rectory in Norfolk, built in 1851. Going from room to room is just an excuse for Bryson to expound on whatever he finds interesting. It might be best to take the book as a series of loosely connected magazine articles or short essays. You can skip around without losing the thread, because there isn't one.
Most of the history is Victorian, but there are side trips to the prehistoric Britain, 19th century America, and the recent past. This is not an academic book, so there are no footnotes, which is a shame. Although Bryson usually credits sources within the text, now and then he makes an outrageous statement without attribution. One that had me scrambling for some supporting evidence was a claim that Elizabeth I admired, then scooped some silverware into her purse at dinner in a nobleman's house while on her annual royal progress. Even more remarkable was a statement that one third of all women in London aged 15-25 in 1851 were prostitutes. Really?! After browsing through the lengthy and excellent bibliography, I found the instruction to go to Bryson's website for notes and sources, but found only that they are "coming soon."
Chances are you won't be interested in everything that takes Bryson's fancy, but no worry. If you find your attention waning during a discussion of furniture varnishes, it isn't long before he's off to vitamins or Thomas Jefferson's wine collection or Ötzi the Ice Man.
I'll admit that I might have skipped this book if Bryson's name wasn't on the cover, and wondered if it could have been published at all without his name and popularity. His early works are still my favorites, more or less in the order they were written. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America still makes me laugh, so does Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, and Notes from a Small Island, and I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away (Notes from a Big Country). I expect I'll continue to read just about anything Bryson writes, but I have to agree with some other reviewers who look forward to his travel writing more than his excursions into weightier topics.
First, it's nearly humorless. One can't read In a Sunburned Country,A Walk in the Woods, or I'm a Stranger Here Myself without laughing until you cry at least a few times, and snorting in amusement often enough that you think twice about reading in public. This book, though, had a handful of lines that might provoke a quirk at the corner of your mouth, and that's about it.
Second, it's not at all what it claims. Despite repeated assertion that this book is about how all history ends up in the home, it's much more an exercise in History Through the Lens of the Home. Most chapters have nearly nothing to do with the room to which they're linked. The chapter on the Larder is entirely about servitude in England. The two are linked only in that the larder is one of the rooms typically visited only by servants. The chapter on the Garden, possibly the most tightly coupled example of chapter room and topic, dabbles briefly in the history of artificial fertilizers, but then spends the majority of its words on parks, public and private. In no chapter is there a round-up at the end where Bryson links back what, exactly, Olmstead's plans for Central Park in New York City have to do with a home's garden, and there's not even a pretext of assuming the latter at all affected the former. I'm still not clear on why the Drawing Room was coupled with a vast survey of British architecture.
What we're left with is a scattered history of mostly the past few hundred years and mostly England, though with a solid dose of United States, some continental Europe, and a smattering of the rest of the world. It's interesting, sometimes fascinating, but also undirected and repetitive. For example, two chapters discuss architecture extensively.
And then, of course, the dwindling descriptions of the house and rooms themselves. At the beginning of the book, there are often several paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter explaining what the room is. Most of us haven't heard of a Larder, and while we may know that those big open residences of the old days were called Halls, we may not really think of a hall in a modern house as a sort of stripped down shrunken version of the same. By the end, he doesn't even bother. The chapter on the Attic contains no description or explanation of the room's heritage. These, along with the repeated references to Mr. Marsham, the clergyman who built the house, attempt to link the somewhat random bits of trivia into a narrative but end up just feeling a little bit tacked-on.
Mr. Bryson goes to great pains to link bits of historical trivia - making sure we remember that the man involved in pushing England to recognize and protect its ancient sites was a descendant of a man mentioned in a previous chapter who fell down a well - but doesn't expend a fraction of that effort doing what he stated was his intention: showing how history ends up in the home.