Day 1075: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

One of the most enjoyable features of Bill Bryson’s travel books is his curiosity about everything and his willingness to go off on wild tangents. At Home is his attempt to inform himself and us about the objects of ordinary life, using his own home as a base for his explorations. But really, it’s his excuse to go off on tangent after tangent.

For example, his chapter on the cellar—he organizes his book by the rooms of the house—takes us to the building of the Erie Canal which takes us to the development of hydraulic cement then to the use of building materials in the United States versus England, a short history of Sir John Nash’s career, and so on. In fact, the contents of this particular chapter seem to have little to do with the actual room, except for the cement.

In reference to other rooms he discusses the history of various foodstuffs, the use of certain pieces of furniture, cemeteries, the history of how human mortality is treated, and even the history of gynecology. As always with Bryson, his comments can be amusing and the observations enthralling. If you like learning interesting little facts, this is the book for you. My edition was the illustrated one, which is full of fascinating photos and other pictures.

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Day 1073: Middlemarch

Cover for MiddlemarchBest Book of the Week!
The first section of Middlemarch is concerned with Dorothea Brooke, an ardent but naive young woman who only wants to take part in something good. She thirsts for knowledge and wants to help with something important.

One trait of Dorothea’s that is physical as well as metaphorical is her shortsightedness. As her sister Celia tells her, “I thought it right to tell you because you went on as you always do, never looking just where you are and treading in the wrong place. You always see what no one else sees; it is impossible to satisfy you; yet you never see what is quite plain.”

Dorothea in her youthful ardor and intelligence attracts the attention of Mr. Casaubon, a cleric and scholar in his fifties who has been laboring for years on a work he calls “The Key to All Mythologies.” Dorothea decides it would be an honor to marry Mr. Casaubon and help him with his great work. And she does so, despite the admonitions of her friends and family.

It is while Dorothea is on her honeymoon in Rome that we meet other important characters in the novel, for Eliot subtitled her novel “A Study in Provincial Life.” There are the young Vincys, Fred and Rosamund, who have both been indulged by their wealthy parents. Fred has been raised to expect a fortune from his crusty old uncle, Peter Featherstone. Concerned at first only with leading the life of a gentleman, he has quit his university studies and fritters away his time. He would like to marry his childhood friend Mary Garth, but she won’t have him until he sticks to something.

Mr. Lydgate is a new doctor in town. He hopes to reform medical practices and make some significant discovery in medicine. Although he feels he cannot afford to marry for some years, he has not reckoned with Rosamund Vincy, a beautiful but self-centered young woman.

He also starts out by harming his chances through some outspoken comments and a too close relationship with Mr. Bulstrode. A wealthy businessman, Bulstrode is involved with the local hospital. But he likes to be in control of all his charities and is inflexible in his religious views.

In Rome, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon re-encounter Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s second cousin. Mr. Casaubon has been supporting Will financially through his studies after Will’s grandmother was disinherited from her family because of her choice in husband. Dorothea, in trying to befriend Will, does not see how much Mr. Casaubon dislikes him. That dislike is to have repercussions for Dorothea’s future life.

Eliot masterfully acquaints us with the problems and politics of this provincial area. Her characters are unforgettable, rich and human. There is a strong feminist sensibility, as Dorothea finds that everything she tries to do is balked because she’s a woman. And class is also an important theme. I continue to feel that Middlemarch is one of the best books ever written and was happy to have it chosen for me by the Classics Club spin.

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Day 1062: Today Will Be Different

Cover for Today Will Be DifferentI so much enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette that I was really looking forward to Today Will Be Different. That said, this novel bears many of the same characteristics as the previous one while lacking its originality of expression.

Like Bernadette, Eleanor Flood is also a once-successful professional who is now leading a depressed life as a Seattle housewife and mother. At one time she lived in New York and was the animation director for a successful cartoon series. After the series was cancelled, she agreed to move to Seattle for ten years for her husband’s career as a hand surgeon and sports team doctor. She has been depressed because of her alienation from her sister, Ivy.

The morning of the story, she wakes up determined to do better. Soon she notices that her husband, Joe, is behaving oddly. She thinks she has a lunch appointment with an annoying friend only to realize it’s with a man she once fired from her show. And her eight-year-old son Timby is faking illness to get out of school.

When Eleanor takes Timby to Joe’s office, she finds that he has told his employees the family is on vacation. Where is Joe and what is he up to?

One of my issues with this novel is how most of Eleanor’s problems get solved in one day. Of course, this novel is meant to be light and funny, so something like that has to happen. I guess it’s more my problem with a whole genre of fiction. Still, I felt sympathy with Eleanor and liked most of the characters. I missed the zingers about Seattle from Bernadette, which I understood even though I have only been there a few times. Instead, Semple replaces this kind of thing with Eleanor blaming herself for her New York sense of superiority.

So, a middling review for this one.

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Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerBest Book of the Week!
The Home-Maker, which was published in 1924, was certainly a radical novel for its time. It has themes that resonate even today, although in some ways it is dated.

Evangeline Knapp is one of those super housekeepers whose home is always immaculate. When we first meet her, she has spent hours scrubbing a grease stain on the floor. But she does not love her work, and her unhappiness creates an atmosphere of tension in the house. She continually picks at her children for not meeting her standards, and everyone is afraid to upset her.

Lester Knapp works as an accounting clerk at a department store and hates every minute of it. He is not earning points with the new management for his dreamy demeanor or love of poetry. Although he is a good husband and father, he is perceived by his community as ineffective and a poor provider. Early on, we learn that he did not get a promotion he was hoping for, and his family will continue to be poor.

A terrible incident forces the two Knapps to swap responsibilities after Lester is injured. Lester takes over the household and child-rearing while Evangeline gets a job in the department store. Her new employers are struck by her energy and dedication to her work, while Lester’s patience with the children makes everyone’s temper and health improve. Everyone learns to adjust to a certain level of messiness.

The idea of swapping roles was much more controversial at this time, so much so that the novel is forced into a shocking conclusion. That was the only thing I didn’t like about this novel, which is touching and compassionate in its view of its characters. However, there probably wasn’t a better way to resolve the situation at the time.

This is a fascinating novel for its time, exploring the ideas of roles for the sexes and how well they actually apply, what happens when a person has no challenging life’s work, and so on. The novel’s themes are applicable to today, even if the times would not require such a resolution.

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Day 1031: A Country Marriage

Cover for A Country MarriageMary Springer marries George Strong even though she hardly knows him. She has been raised with the idea that a good marriage is her only option in life, and George is a good catch. His family owns the farm of Summerleas, and even though he is not the oldest son, she will be provided for. What Mary doesn’t know is that someone else wants her new husband, Annie, his brother Tom’s wife.

Mary has other surprises in store. She is not to live at Summerleas after all, because the farm will not support the two youngest sons. Instead, she and George will live at dark, damp Keeper’s Cottage. Also, George has only one idea about their intimate life, and it doesn’t include affection or companionship.

George is also involved with a group called the Radicals, who are working for better pay for farm laborers. But they use extreme tactics, like destroying farm machinery and burning hayricks.

This novel conveys the difficult life of rural workers in the early half of the 19th century and covers an important issue of the times. I sympathized with Mary’s plight, but felt that some of her behavior later in the novel was completely out of character.

At some point, the plot devolves into a focus on two illicit love affairs. I didn’t find this plot line interesting, nor do I care for three-page-long sex scenes, although some may think they’re romantic. Goddard has given this novel a subtitle “A Summerleas Novel,” so she seems to be planning a series about the family. I didn’t have enough interest to continue, however.

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Day 1021: Mariana

marianaAt the opening of Mariana, Mary hears that her husband’s ship has struck a mine and that there were many casualties. Her phone is dead and it is nighttime, so she must spend the night convinced her husband is dead. She goes back in her memory to her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood to consider how her life began.

As a young girl, Mary lives for her summer vacations at Charbury, her grandparents’ home, and it is Charbury she first remembers. Charbury means her wonderful room at the top of the house, her pony, and lots of running around with her cousins. In particular, this means Denys, with whom she is infatuated. Dickens’s descriptions of Charbury are delightful.

In the fall, Mary reluctantly returns home to the small flat where she lives with her mother and uncle, a largely unemployed actor. Her father married beneath him, but since his death Mrs. Shannon has insisted on her independence, and the small family struggles along. Certainly, her upbringing is unusual, because her mother and her brother are on the Bohemian side, although certainly affectionate guardians.

This novel follows Mary as she grows up and through her various relationships in her youth. We are pulled along by our interest in her and our curiosity about who she marries rather than by the plot. This novel is romantic without being a romance novel as such. Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter, and she certainly inherited his ability to tell a tale.

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Day 955: Family Roundabout

Cover for Family RoundaboutBest Book of the Week!
It is 1920, and the Fowler and Willoughby families are about to be united by marriage. The Fowlers are an old county family, now getting a little shabby, while the Willoughbys are forces in the town, wealthy but not so genteel. Up until now, the families have held apart, but in this generation there are friendships between the children. Now, Max Willoughby, good-natured and charming, will marry the determined and managing Helen Fowler.

The two families are headed by widows. Ever since she married her husband, Mrs. Fowler has hid her true self, whom she wryly refers to as Millicent, behind a façade of vagueness and stupidity that she calls Millie. Although she never seems to make a decision or take charge of anything, everything seems to get done they way she wants it.

Mrs. Willoughby is made of sterner stuff. She manages everything, including the family business and the lives of her grown children. When she tries to manage Mrs. Fowler over the wedding, though, it’s like pushing jelly around. Everything gets done, just as Mrs. Fowler wishes it to. From the beginning of the marriage, Helen is more like Mrs. Willoughby’s daughter than Mrs. Fowler’s.

Endpaper
Endpaper for the Persephone edition

Other future partnerships seem foreseeable from the wedding. Anice Fowler gets engaged to Martin Newbolt, a poor but intellectual young man who works in his uncle’s book shop. We can see trouble ahead because of Anice’s unspoken rivalry with Helen. The youngest Willoughby, Oliver, finds himself attracted to his young sister Cynthia’s best friend, Judy Fowler, who is looking beautiful and grown up at the wedding. Then there is the already married couple, Peter and Belle Fowler. They have a young daughter, Gillian, but things are not looking good for them. Peter is sensitive and mild-mannered, but Belle is a self-centered, temperamental beauty.

Family Roundabout follows the fortunes of the Fowler family and some of the Willoughbys through almost 20 years, until just before the war. Although it has many characters, I found myself deeply interested in their lives and problems. This is a compelling novel about the everyday lives of ordinary people, with an ending that eerily contrasts what we know about the coming war with what the characters don’t know. Although I don’t usually lose this perspective with fictional characters, it made me wonder what happened to them next.

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