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Thursday, January 27, 2011

What I'm Reading: At Home

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeAt Home is the latest book by Bill Bryson.  It came out late in 2010, and I got to it as soon as possible.  Bill Bryson is not only one of my personal go-to authors, but he is also one of my sure bets for any reader who wants a "good read."  Bryson is also a sure bet in audio when he reads his books.  Generally, I avoid authors who read their work, but Bryson is a huge exception to this rule.  The personal tone he adds to his texts translate well when he reads them.  Also, due to his lifetime of traveling and years of living abroad, Bryson has an interesting accent that I find charming.

At Home is a unique work.  Bryson uses the rural English home which his family now lives in as the basis for a sweeping look at "private life."  He uses the home, originally built as a parsonage in 1851, as his literal guide.  The chapters are arranged around rooms and the outdoor space of the home.  Using his personal home as a starting point, he tells the history of how homes were constructed, how rooms were placed, and what life was like during the 19th century (mostly) in these homes.  But in true Bryson fashion, he does not stay within the confines of the home, and the book sprawls into nooks and crannies as far flung as Darwin's family tree, the discovery of bacteria, and English religious history, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Appeal: This is a book for people who like to see how seemingly small things are interconnected.  In this case the personal and intimate home and how it was changed by and changed society.  He throws facts at us at one after the other, leaving little time to recover before the next round comes.  But he is playful and humorous.  The reader is encourage to just hang on and enjoy the ride.  It is the details, Bryson's easy going style, and the shear mass of facts that readers love about Bryson.  All of that is here in At Home.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  history, casual, fun

Readalikes: At Home is very much like the microhistories of Mark Kurlansky and Simon Winchester.  All of these authors take something small and show its influence on the entirety of history. Specifically, At Home reminded me of Kurlansky's The Big Oyster.  Both are grounded in the 19th century, both have a focus on food (Bryson's chapters on the kitchen and the dining room were the most memorable to me), and both sprawl a bit far from their centers at time.  If you do not like gobs and gobs of details that could go off on 5 page tangents, do not read Bryson, Kurlansky, or Winchester. Speaking of those tangents, they work very well in the audio format also.

Bryson's ability to teach without preaching, combined with his ability to wow the reader with tons of interesting facts without seeming like a know-it-all (basically his casual but informative tone) is also reminiscent of Tony Horwitz.  Try A Voyage Long and Strange.

Bryson is also funny.  His sense of humor comes through as he describes how we have chosen to build our homes and live in them.  For example, Bryson tells us how the dining room used to be nowhere near the kitchen.  This is odd, but he raises it to humorous by then describing the great lengths people went through to get their food to table while it was still hot.  Indoor rail cars, anyone?  This ability to be informative, humorous, and, at times, irreverent, can also be seen in the nonfiction of Sarah Vowell(Assassination Vacation) and Mary Roach (Stiff).

Fiction suggestions are tough.  Like much of what Bryson writes, At Home is a book that will appeal to many readers, but for so many different reasons.  In my opinion, fiction writers who have a similar quirky and  humorous tone to Bryson, who like to cram a lot of information about history, time and or place into their novels, and who also tend to appeal to a wide range of readers are Jasper Fforde (fantasy), Connie Willis (science fiction), and Matthew Pearl (mystery).

Finally, I have seen Bryson compared to Mark Twain in a few different places.  I can really see that.  Try A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court for its similar time period and sense of humor.

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