Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Delights of House and Home

At Home by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have a brain crush on Bill Bryson. I find his books entertaining, insightful and delightfully humorous. "At Home" did not disappoint, giving a fascinating, rambling, Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink view of world history.

The book is structured into chapters based on the different parts of a house, such as the kitchen, the drawing room, the cellar, the bedroom, etc. In the introduction, Bryson explains that he and his wife moved into a former church rectory in a village in eastern England, and some odd quirks of the Victorian house piqued his interest. Soon he was investigating why things are the way they are, and he shares some interesting stories of yesteryear. For example, why are salt and pepper the two main spices on a dining table? How was cement discovered? Who decided how stairs should be sized? When was the fuse box created? Why is there a telephone in the hallway? And on and on, covering dozens of inventions and events.

One of the many things I liked about this book was the wide variety of topics discussed and how briskly Bryson moves through them. If he hits a subject you don't care for or one that you already know about, just wait a few minutes and he'll move on to something else. For example, during the chapter on the bathroom he discusses various cholera epidemics in England and who figured out that contaminated water was the problem, which is a subject I'm familiar with having read the excellent book "The Ghost Map." So I waited patiently for Bryson to summarize the cholera info, and very soon he was on to discussing how London's sewer system was developed. Brilliant!

The book is wonderfully well-written -- as all Bryson books are -- and to try and pull good quotes is an exercise in retyping most of the text. But here are a few tidbits:

"It was unquestionably a strange world. Servants constituted a class of humans whose existences were fundamentally devoted to making certain that another class of humans would find everything they desired within arm's reach more or less the moment it occurred to them to desire it." (from The Scullery and Larder)

"Salt is now so ubiquitous and cheap that we forget how intensely desirable it once was, but for much of history it drove men to the edge of the world." (from The Dining Room)

"To the unending exasperation of the Chinese authorities, Britain became particularly skilled at persuading Chinese citizens to become opium addicts -- university courses in the history of marketing really ought to begin with British opium sales -- so much so that by 1838 Britain was selling almost five million pounds of opium to China every year." (from The Dining Room)

"The real problem with beds, certainly by the Victorian period, was that they were inseparable from that most troublesome of activities, sex ... To avoid arousal, women were instructed to get plenty of fresh air, avoid stimulating pastimes like reading and card games, and above all never to use their brains more than was strictly necessary." (from The Bedroom)

"So Whitney's [cotton] gin not only helped make many people rich on both sides of the Atlantic but also reinvigorated slavery, turned child labor into a necessity, and paved the way for the American Civil War. Perhaps at no other time in history has someone with a simple, well-meaning invention generated more general prosperity, personal disappointment, and inadvertent suffering than Eli Whitney with his gin." (from The Dressing Room)

And on the first time that someone successfully drilled for oil in 1859: "Although no one remotely appreciated it at the time, they had just changed the world completely and forever." (from The Fuse Box)

I listened to "At Home" on audiobook, but I was glad to also have a print copy available to flip through because the printed book contains numerous photos and drawings of things referenced in the text, such as the Stone Age structure of Skara Brae, the famous Crystal Palace in 1851, the Eiffel Tower under construction, and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. There is also an impressive list of references for anyone who wants to do further research. 

This was the first time I've heard Bryson's voice. He is from my home state of Iowa (which has been humorously discussed in several of his books), but he has lived in England for so long that he's developed a charming accent. Bryson is a marvelous narrator and I hope to listen to his other books on audio, even ones I've read before.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a whimsical look at history.

A Whale of a Disaster Story

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book was so engrossing that I felt as if I had worked on a whaling ship and had survived a disaster at sea. 

In 1820, the whaleship Essex was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when a massive whale rammed the ship not once, but twice, sinking it. The crew had to scramble for provisions and escaped into three boats. They set sail for South America, which was nearly 3,000 miles away. They soon ran out of fresh water and food, and eventually resorted to cannibalism. Only eight men out of 20 survived. This tragedy was so famous in the 1800s that it inspired Herman Mellvile's novel Moby Dick.

Nathaniel Philbrick is a skilled writer of history, weaving together the details of the disaster and providing context to both the whaling industry in the 19th century and the island of Nantucket, which was considered home to most of the crew. Philbrick also considers the psychology and emotions of Captain George Pollard, First Mate Owen Chase, Cabin Boy Thomas Nickerson and of other crew members. The leadership style of Pollard is especially interesting; Philbrick compares him to other captains and explorers and wonders if some lives could have been saved if Pollard had been more authoritarian.

One of the details that is fascinating is that Pollard and the crew decided to try to reach South America, when they knew they were closer to several islands. They had heard legends about cannibals on the islands, and were afraid to go there: "Only a Nantucketer in November 1820 possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance and xenophobia to shun a beckoning (albeit unknown) island and choose instead an open-sea voyage of several thousand miles." 

The book includes several pictures of what the Essex looked like, including a sketch from one of the survivors. Even though it was just a drawing, it was chilling to see a giant whale take aim at a ship. There are also several maps, including one featuring the entire voyage of the Essex: It left from Nantucket island in New England, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, then all the way down South America, around Cape Horn, then up the western coast of South America, reaching the Equator and then heading west, deep into the Pacific Ocean. 

The sheer distance and magnitude of the journey boggles the mind. Nowadays we get grouchy if our Internet speed is too slow, or if our airplane flight is delayed a few hours because of weather. Reading about the patience, planning and fortitude required to survive such a journey -- even without the shipwreck -- is truly astounding.

Now I am hooked on Philbrick and want to read all of his books.

The Turtle Boy

The Turtle Boy (Timmy Quinn #1)The Turtle Boy by Kealan Patrick Burke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Timmy Quinn and his best friend Pete meet a strange boy near a pond in the woods, their lives spiral out of control. What secrets does the Turtle Boy harbor?

This was another freebie from Freebooksy.

The Turtle Boy is a short story about eleven year-old Timmy Quinn and the odd kid he meets by a pond during one of those endless summers of youth. It's a coming of age tale that could have easily been written by Joe Lansdale or a young Stephen King.

It's a short story so there's not more I can reveal than that. However, I will say that the lesser known Chekov's Turtle rule is in full effect.

If you're a fan of coming of age tales, snapping turtles, creepy ass kids, and like free short stories, give this a read. I'm not ordinarily a fan of short stories but this one is the best I've read in a long time. Five out of five stars.

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The Library: The Complete Series

The Library: The Complete SeriesThe Library: The Complete Series by Amy Cross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A college student named Claire is kidnapped and wakes up in another world, that of the world-spanning Library. As she looks for her way home, her only company is an aging soldier named Vanguard and Tom Sharpe, the man who kidnapped her. Can she find her way back home? And who are the mysterious Forbidders?

This showed up in my FreeBooksy email one morning. Since it started life as a series of Kindle serials and I've been contemplating doing a serial myself, I read it for equal parts research and entertainment value.

Thoughts from the halfway mark:
The world Amy Cross presents is a very compelling one. Imagine a Library the size of a planet with a bizarre ecosystem of magical creatures living within. Claire, the heroine, is in denial at first but gradually comes to accept her surroundings. Her companions Vanguard and Tom Sharpe prove to be much more complex than originally thought. The mythology of the world unfolds in easy to digest courses.

The whole thing has a Labyrinth vibe from the beginning and what's not to like about the Labyrinth? Muppets, David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, it's practically the perfect 1980's fantasy movie. However, this story is darker and reminds me of The Neverending Story at times. And Michael Moorcock.

Still, it's not all Goblin Kings and M. C. Escher drawings. It's a little on the repetitive side but that's probably owing to it's episodic origins. Also, I'm not very keen on the present tense and both of the 1st person viewpoint characters use it. There was a bit of Claire's backstory that came out of extreme left field but I'm giving Amy Cross the rest of the book to vindicate herself for that. Other than those things, it's beans on toast.

At the finish line
The battle against the Forbidders and the incursion of the mysterious Darkness kept the story going at a pretty quick clip. The story took a lot of unexpected twists and turns, some of them I enjoyed, others I found questionable. I guessed Claire's final fate quite a while before it happened but there weren't a whole lot of other directions the story could go in. I was also a fan of Vanguard by the end of the tale even though I found him pretty uninteresting at the beginning of the tale. The conclusion reminded me of Stormbringer, the Dark Tower, and the Neverending Story. It was quite satisfying.

All in all, I'm glad for the time I spent reading The Library. It had its ups and downs but should appeal to fans of 1980's fantasy movies like the Labyrinth and the Neverending story, and books like Michael Moorcock's Elric series and also Neil Gaiman's work. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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