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One of the great things about Bill Bryson's books is his ability to grab your attention and draw you in to find out what odd fact he's going to come up with next. So I hadn't even got through the introduction when he came up with the gem about why all churches in Norfolk appear to have sunk into the churchyard (they haven't; it's the churchyard that has risen 3 ft or more because of the number of bodies buried there, which if you do the maths of how many people live in a parish, how many die each year, and how long the churchyards have been there is not so remarkable. And keep on reading to find out just how many bodies were buried in urban cemeteries in the Victorian era - quite astounding). He is also a great debunker of accepted truths - for instance, there's a lot of interesting comment about the widely accepted view that most food, especially bread, was adulterated with all sorts of disgusting and probably toxic substances. Bryson refers to somebody who tried baking bread with all these supposed adulterants, and showed that what was produced was actually inedible, with the exception of alum, which, he points out, if used in small quantities actually improves bread, and is also used nowadays as an additive to many products.

So once again I read this through with great enjoyment and picked up lots of little nuggets of the odd and the interesting. Having said that, however, I did find that I had a sense of deja vu about this book; many of the anecdotes it contains seem to have been recycled from some of his other books (I think that I can recognise quite a lot of them from "Made in America" for example, where they were hung about a framework of American language, rather than around the structure of his wanderings from room to room of his house in Norfolk). And there is rather a lot of anecdotage about very large houses in America which seemed to not have a great deal to do with history as seen through the lens of humble domesticity, which is what I thought the theme of the book was intended to be. Anyway, given the man's prodigious output (this is getting on for the same size a "A Short History of Everything") it wouldn't be surprising if he recycled some material.

But these are minor bits of carping, really, and if you are a more casual reader of Bryson probably won't affect you. It's an entertaining and informative book and well worth the reading.
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In his phenomenally successful `A Short History of Nearly Everything', Bill Bryson presented a panorama of scientific and technological theories and discoveries, keeping rather closely to his brief. The title of the present book and the introduction suggests that he is going to repeat that exercise for the `home and private life', using the rooms in his own house, a Victorian rectory in rural Norfolk, as the pegs on which to hang the story. But a reader expecting to find a history of the evolution of the modern house and its contents will be disappointed, because the threads that link the rectory rooms, the names of which are the chapter headings, to the contents of the book are sometimes very tenuous indeed.

In the chapter headed `The Study', such a reader might reasonably have expected to find discussions of such things as the evolution of books in the home, or the history of cabinets of curiosities and other study furniture. Not a bit of it. In the Bryson rectory the room called the study is what most of us would call a junk room and for some reason is the only room where mouse traps do their job. This is the `excuse' for a review, that is the whole chapter, of rodents and creepy crawlies in the house, including a long discussion of the important role of bats in the ecosystem and brief history of man's attempts to eradicate them! This is an extreme example, but all the other chapters are full of digressions.

Does this mean that this book is therefore a failure? Not at all. As in `A Short History of Nearly Everything', the chapters are crammed full of interesting facts and amusing anecdotes written in Bryson's relaxed witty style that he has honed to perfection in his popular travel books. (The research has been vast - the selected bibliography is 28 pages long with a `full bibliography' available on the web.) They meander so far from their source that it is remarkable that somehow he manages to conclude each by returning to the rectory room that triggered the narrative. This is a light, but not lightweight, book, that can be read at one's leisure, because the chapters are essentially independent of each other. I greatly enjoyed it and if you accept that the book is not exactly what the title might imply, it would make an ideal summer holiday read.
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on 4 October 2011
I feel a bit of a meanie giving this book three stars as it's really not a bad book. But with Bill Bryson's name on it, I was expecting something better.

The biggest problem with this book is that it doesn't seem to know what it is. By that, I mean that I'm not sure that Bill Bryson really knew what the core idea (as opposed to the structure) was, and the publishers seem unsure as how the book should be presented and marketed. What it certainly isn't is "a short history of private life", which is the cover strapline. Having just finished it, it seems to be more like a history of house and garden in the UK/US with the focus up to the mid 19th century, when Bryson's own home was built.

The book takes the form of a tour through Bill Bryson's country rectory, room by room, giving us a history of how that area came to be. Some of the connections are tight - the "garden" chapter is about gardens and the "nursery" chapter is about childhood, but others are rather tenuous. Within these chapters, peopled with fascinating and eccentric characters and their stories, for the most part entertainingly told, there is plenty of interest and I can't imagine anyone reading this through without having at least one or two "aha!" moments. I did find, however, that the latter chapters of the book - bedroom and bathroom especially, seemed to lapse into an adult version of "Horrible Histories" - as if Bill Bryson had raided the school library and spiced the nastiness up with a sprinkling of adult material.

The book is good at getting us from pre-history to the 19th century but it fizzles out there. I'd love to read Bryson's take on the developments in home life in the 20th century and up to the present day. But maybe this'll be the subject of his next book.
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on 26 October 2010
First, the negatives. This book is billed as a "Short History of the Private Life". The premise is that Bryson takes you on a tour of his house (a Victorian rectory) room-by-room, chapter-by chapter and enlightens the reader with a history of the private life within the context of such room. Oddly Bryson fails to achieve this on two levels. Not only are the chapters barely reconcilable to the rooms they represent (e.g. a history of building materials for the Cellar; Victorian archaeologists for the attic)but also it seems lots of the material has very little to do with the 'private life' at all. Instead the reader is faced with a rambling history of anything that takes Bill's fancy. As such, I was left better educated on the history of Whaling, the science of ageing a tree by counting it's rings (dendrochronology), outbreaks of Cholera in London, and so on.

On the plus side, it was all very interesting and Bryson's writing is lively and entertaining. His digressions often left me wanting to read up more on a particular subject or individual. That being said, on finishing you are left with the feeling that you have been slightly conned into reading a completely different book to the one you were expecting.
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on 15 March 2011
Bill Bryson is a big favourite in this house. Our bookcases are festooned with his works. I have learned much about my own country, about his country, about Shakespeare, and more.

I have laughed a lot, I have pondered a lot and I have admired this man a lot.

I have to be honest about this book. I did learn some fascinating facts, but the rambling, all-over-the-place nature of the book was tiring. I do not remember laughing, either.

The ultimate test is ..will I re-read? After all, I go back to his other stuff for a treat at intervals, even though have read it before.
Truthfully, I do not think I will get the urge to pick up this up again in the future.

Sorry. (But I WILL buy his next book.)
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Is there anything Bill Bryson isn't interested in? He moves from one subject to the next with equal amounts of genuine enthusiasm. And we're not talking about just the really remarkable stuff - a lot of what gets Bryson going seems quite mundane. Mousetraps, for instance. Once he has you hooked, you too realize that even mousetraps are pretty fascinating after all.

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 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.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 28 May 2010
Having found his name attached to a number of diverse products this is Bryson's first "proper" book since the short history of nearly everything. Well he has made a fine attempt to fill in some of the gaps and has produced a fine, if eclectic, book. The premise of using fixtures and fittings around the home as a means of opening a discourse on a myriad topics is a novel one and one he pulls off as only he can. Sure there is a scattergun approach to this, how could there not be, but using the home as the focus of the many topics up for discussion here keeps the narrative on track and means that you are drawn from subject to subject without a jarring note.

This is not what one could call a "learned" tome, it would never be described as a deep read, but is all the better for it as it is such an absorbing read. It is such a simple idea I only wish I had thought of it first - or could write a hundredth as well as Mr Bryson.

Quite remarkable really.
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on 2 August 2010
Once more Bill Bryson comes up with a very readable and enjoyable book. I entitled this review as 'not quite what I expected' as this sums up my feelings as I read this tome. The book had been advertised as a history of homes and the articles found therein but it wandered around many other aspects of history with Bryson's home, a former rectory, used as a frame to hang whatever subject the author wanted to write about. I did find some of the, more relevant, information very interesting. For instance Bryson attacks the idea that a country parson was a poor man, which is an idea often peddled by the sons and daughters of clergymen in the 19th century. A little digging by Bryson reveals that an income of nearly half a million pounds per annum, converted into today's values, is closer to the mark. This makes perfect sense as the substantial dwelling house, upon which this book is based, was once the home of a single clergyman who had caused it to be built. He must have rattled around in its spacious interior, alone apart from a housekeeper. Certainly not a house of a poor man and a home beyond the aspirations of most of the modern population of the UK.

Readers new to Bryson will enjoy this wander around the history of the commonplace but I felt I had to mark it with only four stars for two reasons. The first is that some of the interesting details are re-cycled from earlier works of the author. The other reason is that I expected a though provoking book on why we use rooms as we do, how the furniture and artefacts contained in our room evolved over time, and so on. The book wanders about a little too much for my liking but, as with all Bryson's work, the book is well written. Not as thought provoking as 'Brief History' and not uproariously funny, as his travel books. My verdict is good for readers new to Bryson but slightly disappointing for those who have read his earlier books.
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"At Home - a short history of private life" is the new and excellent book by the great Bill Bryson. It was recently analysed on the BBC's "The Review show". For those of you who have not seen this TV programme it has become a enclave for a certain type of literary genius who interpret the stubborn refusal of the great British public to buy any of their books as a ringing endorsement for them to criticize those who manage to sell more than ten copies. In this case one Alison Kennedy who must be really incredibly clever because she insists on being called by her initials A. L. Kennedy which of course is sure sign of a proper intellectual.

"AL" highlighted that her feeling of reading "Home" was "like having someone being sick in your head" and further "smart" little comments were liberally thrown into the discussion. The burdens of being so intellectually superior must weigh heavy and as for us poor deluded Bryson fans well hanging is too good for us! Indeed it is with great humility for me as ordinary mortal to disagree with this giant of the literary scene particularly since my academic achievement barely stretches beyond a 25 yard breast stroke certificate and I must admit I had never heard of "AL" until that point. But on reading "Home" the only thing in my head was to marvel at Bryson's humungous research and regret the general failure on the instructions to my brain to cease enjoying this book so much that I kept smiling like an idiot processed by the demon of Gordon Brown's rictus on my very long train journey today.

The greatest ideas are the simplest and Bill Bryson has managed in his new book "At Home," to take a quiet meandering thought and turn it into a wonderful book. In short it is an exploration of the "stuff" we have around us and "a look through all human life through a domestic telescope". It's so obvious but Bryson has the consummate skill to take this basic concept and turn in into a fascinating book characterised by his lovely warm humour and on times he is so dry he should change his surname to Martini. Chapters range from memory jerkers like "the Scullery and the Larder", "the Passage" (which also includes an appreciation of the engineering of the Eiffel Tower in Paris!) and a new one on me "The Plum Room" which turns out to be Bryson's drawing room in his old rectory in Norfolk named after the Cluedo Figure.

Having Bryson around is a bit like having a great friend you have never met. In times of recession, the public finances going to hell in a hand basket and Cardiff losing in the Premier play off's to Blackpool, Bill Bryson is an author who provides an enclave to which you can turn and switch off the madness of the modern world. He sells books by the bucket load largely because he is such a bloody good writer. His little book on Shakespeare resulted in me actually enjoying reading the bard for the first time in ages and every trip I make to the USA I am accompanied by his irreverent "Notes from a Big Country" to get me in the mood and laughing like a drain. Indeed I shall now look up the origins of that term.

Bryson is a populist and proud of it. He has an enviable gift to state things clearly even when they are complex and do it in a prose which is a joy to read. In this book he sets out for your delectation the evolution of the lawnmower invented it appears by one Edwin Beard Budding in 1830, the origin of the door, the triumph of salt and pepper and Benjamin Franklin's development of the "air bath". He also kills a number of myths not least that the surname of Thomas Crapper the inventor of the modern toilet was not the source of a common term for human waste.

Throughout the book Bryson's accumulated facts are very illuminating and joyously worthless. Thus you learn in the 19th century that "New York harbour once yielded so much sturgeon that caviar was sent out as a bar snack". That the "Quenchuan language of Peru still has a thousand words for different types or conditions of potatoes" When he combines this with his dry wit he is unstoppable, hence his telling but hilarious observation on beds that 'When wood-shavings and sawdust make it into a top-10 list of bedding materials, you know you are looking at a rugged age'.

Bryson's history would be a nightmare for academics since he rambles off in all directions like a walker without a map and yet going off on a tangent holds no fear for the great man. You to as the reader can "jump" into this book at any point and pluck from it factoids and anecdotes that you will be able to dine out on for months. And always Bryson (just like Billy Connolly) has that gift to somehow take all this chaos, jumble it around but eventually return to the starting point with coherence and bravado. So don't listen to "AL" for "At Home, a short history of private life" is a joy and an absolutely inspired treat.
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on 10 November 2010
At Home: A short history of private life
You know the game; you can to invite 8 famous people for dinner, dead or living, but they must be, or have been, real. I find that this list wavers once in a while, but the first person on the list is always Bill Bryson (with both Attenboroughs, for sure).
At Home is more of a 'Made In America'(my desert island book) than a 'Walk In The Woods', but is none the less pleasurable for that. Bill takes us on a tour of his ex-rectory home, through each room and, while doing this, he takes us through our history, linked (however tenuously) to each of those rooms.
The standout chapter was (no surprise here) The Bedroom. I laughed out loud at some sections, but as is his way (and his skill), within a couple of paragraphs, he will have wiped the smile from my face and made me realise that the bedroom was not always a place of delight.
Much like the people, things and places Bill describes in this book, he too has become a national treasure (despite his roots). There is not a wasted or unresearched paragraph in this book and it will need a second reading to let some more of the facts inside sink into an already full brain.
The bounty of knowledge shared in this book is immeasurable and, if I had my way, it would make it onto the school reading lists; by law! The sad thing a is that, certainly where I live, the kids will more than likely not read them and yet they are as relevant to them as to they are to middle aged men like me.
Read the last couple of papagraphs, they say it all. They sure as hell scared me.
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