At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson 
submitted by Caren

Bill Bryson, a man of boundless curiosity, apparently enjoys ferreting out every detail about whatever catches his fancy. His early books recounted his travels, always with a humorous twist. His recent books are of a more serious tone, but full of the intense interest he brings to the material he has explored. Bryson is an American who has spent most of his adult life living in England.(During the eight year interlude he spent in New Hampshire, before moving his family back to the “Sceptered Isle”, he managed to write the bestseller A Walk in the Woods , about his experiences on the Appalachian Trail.) Now in staid middle age, he most enjoys puttering about his house and garden in Norfolk. At Home: A Short History of Private Life is loosely centered on his home, a former rectory built in 1851. As he walks the reader through the house, room by room, he ranges widely through the history of the everyday objects found therein. Sometimes Bryson seems to be wandering down rabbit trails, but he is able to bring the detours back home by chapter’s end. He is such an accomplished writer, he held my interest throughout.

The book is packed with all sorts of interesting detail, focusing on the mid-nineteenth century, but ranging far and wide throughout history to explain how homes evolved, and looking at objects found in a home and how they came to be there. While in the kitchen, he speaks of spices and of why salt and pepper achieved the place of honor on tables. He wonders why we say “room and board” and why a fork has four tines. When he looks at his fuse box, you will get an early history of illumination in the home, leading to how electricity developed. In the dining room, you will be told how different sorts of food came to appear on the table and how many servant s a Victorian home kept. In the cellar, he ponders different building materials, from timber to stone to brick. A tour of the study leads to a discourse on mice and rats and the development of traps to catch them. Entering the bedroom leads to explorations of marriage, sex and the role of women, with detours into illnesses and methods of surgery. The bathroom prompts information on the history of cleanliness and of how the toilet evolved. In the nursery we are treated to a history of childhood and in the dressing room, a history of clothing, including wigs. He wonders why jackets have several useless buttons at the cuff, and finds the answer. Bryson completes the tour in the attic with (unaccountably) a look at the history of taxation and at the theory of evolution. Phew! There is far more to the book than I have listed here. One reviewer said he thought Bryson was looking for an excuse to print every arresting bit of information upon which he may have stumbled. (His bibliography runs to twenty pages.) Perhaps so, but it does make interesting reading.

Early in the book, Bryson says the history of private life can be said to be a history of “getting comfortable slowly” (p.135). In the last pages, he points out the enormous changes that occurred during the nineteenth century, the great progress made in getting comfortable. He also notes that our life of comfort in the west consumes enormous amounts of energy. He says, “Of the total energy produced on earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years” (p.451). This book is food for thought on so many levels and Bryson is an engaging companion with whom to share the meal.

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Spray Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag by Stevie Chick 
submitted by Justin

Having read Rollins’ Get In the Van , I was looking forward to a history that focused on the early years of Black Flag. Spray Paint the Walls came through in those regards. But there was something incongruent about the early chapters. As much as I wanted to know about Keith, Dez, and Chavo, it was uninteresting and slow-paced – not a fitting introduction for a coffee-fueled hardcore band. It read like a textbook. Given the personal nature of Get in the Van, it had a lot to live up to. I enjoyed the chapter about their show at a park picnic so much that I read it twice, but found myself speeding through the first half of the book with little interest.

The intensity increases half way through. It’s such a change that it seems like a different author is writing it - possibly the result of the use of previously published information. Once the Dez era starts, though, the focus falls more on the band. The conflict both with the authorities and within the band make for an engaging history. Dukowski’s influence as a musician, stage presence, and manager was a surprise. Kira had lots of personal passages. But there was an absence of new input from most band members. The facts and figures were presented, but none of the emotion of the moment was there. Such a volatile group should have had an explosive account.

If nothing else, it was a good compilation and a timely publication, with Keith Morris’ band “OFF!” gaining popularity, and Black Flag worship taking hold amongst another generation. I would like to have read more about the extended band “family.” Black Flag had so many offshoots and related bands that I think it really could have demonstrated the influence and community of the music. I also wonder if the British author’s distance from the US may have created a certain noticeable distance from the information. Everything from his description of Hermosa Beach to his incorrectly referring to the Misfits as a California band seemed a bit phony. But I suppose that all of the insiders are probably pretty sick of talking about the same thing after all of these years, so maybe it takes an author from another country to objectively document such an intense bunch of people.

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M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker 
submitted by Luke

Welcome to the 4077 or the Natural Double as the men and women of the Medical Army Surgical Hospital call it. All of the hero’s are here: Trapper John, Hawkeye, Duke, Hotlips Houlihan, Frank Burn, Radar O’Reilly, and the Colonel. MASH tells the story of three young army doctors in Korea who have to figure out a way to survive the hypocrisy of war – they save the lives of soldiers, only to see them sent back out to be killed again.

This book follows in the footsteps of “ All Quiet on the Western Front ” and “ Catch-22 ” as 20th century works that show the fallacies of war, but with a streak of dark comedic virtue. The classic scenes are all found in the book, the Pros from Dover, the incomplete suicide of Walter Kosciusko 'Painless Pole' Waldowski, the ringer football game, and more martini mornings than can be named. This is the book that inspired the movie that inspired the TV show that became an American institution.

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Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar 
submitted by Jennifer

I was unfamiliar with Martin Millar before a copy of The Good Fairies of New York showed up at my library. But since it came highly recommended by Neil Gaiman, who stole my heart with Coraline and Stardust , I decided to give it a try. What happens when exiled fairies of the British Empire land on the streets of modern day New York? Well, chaos ensues, romance blossoms, and a few dreams come true.

Millar’s urban fairy adventure had me laughing out loud on the first page. The Scottish fairies Heather and Morag have arrived hung over and disoriented in boorish Dinnie’s Fourth Street apartment. Bad tempered Dinnie spends his days playing violin badly, watching trash TV, and drinking beer. He also dreams of finding a girlfriend…

Across the street resides the ethereal, artistic Kerry, who is seriously ill with Crohn’s disease. Dinnie wants to court the lovely spirited Kerry, but is too cloddish to go about it without fairy intervention. Morag and Heather fiddle and play, and amidst the musical and magical mayhem, Dinnie and Kerry are drawn inevitably together.

The hilarious plot machinations lead eventually to a showdown between New York’s fairy clans. As the conflict escalates, Kerry’s condition deteriorates, Dinnie nearly destroys his chances with her, and things are looking grim.

But wait! Fortunately for everyone, a bit of fairy magic, a little music, and a wee drop of whiskey can set many things aright. Millar’s book left me wishing for a sequel, and thinking that just maybe there’s something to be learned from the good fairies.

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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen 
submitted by Debbe

Recently I returned from a road trip to Boston, Hartford and other New England destinations. I toured homes owned by Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Paul Revere and John and Abigail Adams and their descendents. I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and the 1st presidential library set up to honor our 6th president, John Quincy Adams. I also spent time on The Freedom Trail, touring Colonial Revolutionary Boston.

The destinations were a constant reminder of the truths our early forefathers and mothers “held self evident.” When I mixed them with authors like Twain and Stowe, who challenged the lack of freedom caused by slavery and its aftermath, I again was reminded how important the freedoms set forth by the First Amendment have been to the development of these United States.

When on a road trip I always take along an audio book or two to pass the hours on the Interstate highways. It was not consciously on my mind that Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, by its title alone, would be a perfect choice. I chose it because the New York Times labeled it “a masterpiece”, the Washington Post called it the “brilliant, maddening novel” and Oprah chose it for her book club. All of that meant that people would be talking about this book at the library, and my opinion is talk they should. Albeit lengthy it is a fascinating depiction of life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It’s theme of personal freedom, and how the choices we make can lead us to embrace or relinquish that freedom is well worth discussing. I’m going to add my name to the list of those who are highly recommending this book. However it is your right to read or not to read and that is a freedom you should cherish.

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