Customer Review

255 of 283 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bill Bryson - Home sweet home, 27 May 2010
This review is from: At Home: A short history of private life (Hardcover)
"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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Comments

Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 21 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 May 2010 17:57:11 BDT
Mike Church says:
Great review. Thank you. (I was going to buy it anyway!). That said, don't you miss Bill's travel books? I wish he'd get out and about again.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 May 2010 19:57:35 BDT
Dreamteam says:
Lovely review thank you. You have more than a little writing talent yourself.

Posted on 29 May 2010 20:19:58 BDT
Bungliemutt says:
Yet another great review - particularly in the debunking of the pseudo-intellectualism of 'A.L.' Kennedy and her ilk. I really enjoy your music reviews as well, often deciding there is no point wasting my time in trying to better them, before I groan and realise it's you that's written another one! Keep up the good work.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 May 2010 11:11:24 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 May 2010 17:05:45 BDT
Red on Black says:
Dear Mike, L E Smith and Walter

Many thanks for your very kind remarks.

Mike - I think Bryson's travel books are all top notch and you are right I do miss his insights into different countries. That said I must admit that this new niche he has found seems to suit him equally well and on a wider front I am with him 500% when it comes to his current campaign against litter.

L E Smith thanks for the feedback it is much appreciated as are your many comments on other reviews. I will try to answer some of them in due course.

Walter please do not let me put you off penning a review I would hate to hog any pages with my random musings and have in turn enjoyed your reviews not least since you pointed me towards the most astounding "Christmas" album of recent years by that great undiscovered talent Thea Gilmore and equally saw through that awful Yuletide bilge that Dylan put out last year.

Regards R o B

Posted on 1 Jun 2010 08:31:21 BDT
M. Cameron says:
Love this review; thanks. Short History of Everything is my 'desert island book' and I look forward to reading this one. Also interested to know the origin of 'red on black'.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Jun 2010 22:48:44 BDT
Last edited by the author on 2 Jun 2010 12:24:14 BDT
Red on Black says:
M Cameron

Many thanks for your very kind comments. Red on Black comes from the first time I walked into the Tate Modern and saw one of Mark Rothko's pictures drawn from a set known as the Seagram Murals (I have a picture by Rothko as my Amazon "signature" but the one I love works only in landscape and is actually called Black on Maroon (1959) which doesnt work quite aswell as Red and Black as a moniker!). Sorry this is sounding like pseuds corner and im rambling. Thanks again and glad you enjoyed the review

Cheers R o B

Posted on 2 Jun 2010 11:41:20 BDT
What a great review! I am a long-time fan of Bill Bryson and am half-way through this book at present. It's wonderful. Byson's style is as comforting as a hot cup of tea on a cold day and he is a skilled writer.

I also miss his travel books, though!

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jun 2010 19:45:47 BDT
Red on Black says:
Thank you very much Mrs Collins for your positive comment - I think the the get "Bryson to write a travel book campaign" is gathering force.

Cheers R o B

Posted on 4 Jun 2010 09:39:02 BDT
bilko79 says:
Wow, aren't we a bitter little fellow... Just loved how the first 300 words of your review have nothing to do with the content of the book you're reviewing. I can't help but think that a "top 100" reviewer who clearly loves sharing their opinion about the world is just a tad envious of those in that "enclave for a certain type of literary genius" who get to be on the telly. The reason why A L Kennedy gets to be on the telly is cause she's actually written something other than Amazon reviews!!! I'm no apologist for Kennedy or for that matter the Review Show but it just comes across as bitter when you start a review like that.

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Jun 2010 10:02:49 BDT
Last edited by the author on 5 Jun 2010 07:58:57 BDT
Red on Black says:
L Parsons or Bilko 79 (which one is it please as you seem to having an identity crisis?)

I am not certain whether you saw the programme but Kennedy's comments were aimed both at Bryson and more importantly readers of Bryson, hence my comment. Indeed another reviewer on the programme made a far more robust defence of "At home" and Bryson than what I consider to be a rather polite "dig" that I put in this review (and as they say "if you dish it out, then should expect to take it).

At one point "AL" managed to bring "Mein Kampf" into the discussion as an example of mass selling popular literature, implying god knows what. That said I hugely respect her for forcefully expressing her views and in return I have expressed mine to discerning Amazon readers who are perfectly entitled to shoot them down in flames if they disagree. Certainly A L Kennedy has written books and well done her, but the whole point of the Amazon review system is let "Joe and Josephine public" express there views which are equally valid as anyone else who puts pen to paper.

As for being bitter I would describe myself as more old and treacherous but huge thanks for your free diagnosis and your comment.

Cheers R o B
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