Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: At Home


I would follow Bill Bryson anywhere. I have followed him on the Appalachian Trail, into the universe, across America, through England and all the way Down Under. He does not fail to delight readers — even when he stays home.

In At Home, the furthest he goes is to the roof.

Bryson literally strolls through his home in a quiet English hamlet, pondering who has come before (and literally how many there are still there, in body if not in spirit) and how they created the space around them.

Many students of history know the kitchen was often separate from the rest of the house, but how it evolved from a sure-fire death trap to today's modern amenities is worth the trip alone. In the kitchen, Bryson considers food and ponders why we eat what we eat — and who in their right mind would think [fill in the blank here] was a good idea for the plate? From wheat to corn, from meat to dairy, from spices to grain, Bryson ponders what we eat, and how it came to be on our plate, rather than in a bog, blowing in the breeze, or hoofing it in a wild pasture.

Another fascinating room is the, ahem, boudoir. It's not nearly as tantilizing as one would expect. It's more so. Honestly, from women's rights to privacy, from where people to slept to how they did (or didn't) sleep, and with whom — if you didn't think about it before, you can't help but ponder it now.

Nothing is too small: from salt to bedbugs, from lighting (inside and out) to laundry, from wheat to bread. In Bryson's hands, nothing can be small: why are salt and pepper the most popular condiments? Where and how did modern archaeology begin? Where did servants sleep? How could people navigate roads, or even the inside of their house, with a single tallow candle?

In contrast, nothing is too big: take the Crystal Palace Exposition, where glass is king and the toilets were nearly as popular as the rest of the expo. Even the entire English vicar situation is easily understood, and we walk away grateful for the Church of England, landowners and country parishes.

Bryson's deft touch makes every single chapter of this non-fiction tome delightful, educational, thoughtful, shocking, mournful, interesting, respectful, bawdy and just plain fun. Please, please read it — and let me know what you think.

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