Tag Archive: Review 15

Not At Home

I hit a bit of reading ennui these past two weeks, and I seemed too stuck to get out of it. It all started when I picked up Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life in the hopes of having a nice light read (this all started about two weeks ago.) It became anything but- more of a tedious slog.

To be fair to Mr. Bryson, I tend to love his books. I found both A Walk In the Woods and In a Sunburned Country both wonderful and hysterical.  I loved his random, slightly loopy style, and often when reading the books I would laugh out loud. This is why I chose At Home for this moment–I felt the need for something light and refreshing. The book itself wasn’t terrible, and at times it reads quite well and recovers some of Bryson’s usual humor and fun, but as a whole it was a big letdown. I think this is because I came into it with high expectations for humor, and also different expectations as to what the book would actually be about. Both were dashed in the process, and because of this my reading slogged along, badly. I had trouble finishing the book. I even emailed with Joseph to ask what to do about it. He kindly suggested I just not finish it and move on to another book, which was tempting, but I found myself with this psychological burden. I had to finish the book– just so I could get past it.

So the premise of Bryson’s book is to use a house (specifically his, an old rectory in England) as a gateway into looking into people’s private lives. Okay– I thought this sounded good. The book is broken down into chapters by room– The Hall, the kitchen, the bedrooms, etc… and in each chapter he gives a sort of  exposition on something related to the room (in the case of the Kitchen, he talks about the spice trade– in the case of bedroom he address both diseases and sex– in the case of the nursery, child mortality– etc). Most of his research centers on British homes of a considerable size (meaning comfortably middle-class and up— he’s not talking about crofter’s cottages here) with an occasional foray over to American great houses (Monticello, Mount Vernon, etc.) Along the way you get a jumbled history of everything, including toilets, cosmetics, brickworks, greenhouses, if it’s in a house, it is here.

Parts of the book are quite interesting and entertaining. The section on the Hall for example, was interesting. Bryson points out that it used to be that the hall was basically a house– everyone lived there, slept there, ate there- etc- few people had their own bedrooms in the medieval period– only the rich. So you would bed down in your Hall, with your servants, and dogs and whatever else- it was usually filthy and stank, but that is how you lived.  And when you think about it, the Hall existed in America in a humbler form– the log cabin (one big room- although Americans tended not to live with their livestock– just a guard dog or pet cat.)  I felt that in that chapter I learned something interesting and true to the form of the general book. The problem is that Bryson does not stay true to  form. In some of the other chapters like “The Drawing Room” he discusses architectural history– fine– but what about the Drawing room? What did people do in their drawing rooms? How did they furnish them? How come we do not use them anymore? In the section the Cellar he addresses building materials– what does that have to do with Cellars? Yes, we get how cellars kept food cool, but an exposition on perhaps the problems of preserving food, refrigeration, or oh heck, people’s use of cellars in America to escape tornadoes would have been more relevant.

I think what annoyed me so much about this book is not that it was badly written (it isn’t.) Or that it is a bit random (I am used to Bryson’s randomness– I like it)– it was that it was really inconsistent and I got no sense of what the main theme of the book was. For instance–in A Walk in the Woods Bryson, among other things, makes a plea for the saving of America’s natural wild lands. It is a love-letter to the wonders that make up the Appalachian Trail. In this book I get no sense of an overall purpose, and I think that is why this book seems so rudderless and hard for me to get through. It also was nowhere as funny as his other books.

All of this, of course, is just my personal opinion. I am a big Bryson fan, but I think this book is just not up to par with the others that I have read. But I did finish it and now I am moving onwards in the land of reading..

Ciao for now,

Bookish C


Reflections of a Pedro Pan Kid

“The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me.”  With those words Carlos Eire begins the moving story of his childhood in Cuba, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy.  The incident that changed the world was, of course, Fidel Castro’s successful overthrow of the Batista-led Cuban government in January, 1959, and the change was a dramatic one.  The Revolution confiscated property, redistributing it to “the people of Cuba,” and would eventually tear children from their parents, as it did to Eire and his family.  Though he and his brother were eventually reunited with their mother, the last time they saw their father was the day they were put on a plane at the ages of 11 and 14, exiles from their homeland.

The majority of the book does not, however, dwell on this painful memory, but rather relates numerous tales from pre-Revolution Cuba.  Eire does not tell a linear story, but rather gives vignettes from his childhood, often interrupted by digression upon digression, as one memory leads to another, sometimes resulting in a lengthy trip down a rabbit hole, other times teasing the reader with hints of what is to come.  Through it all, Eire weaves a beautiful tapestry of Cuban life in the late 1950s told with poignancy and humor, often at the same time.  His was a childhood filled with eccentric characters and games that would make twenty-first century American parents swoon: a family whose house had a zoo of sorts, including a pet monkey that once bit Eire on the arse and a mynah bird trained to shout obscenities; a game that involved throwing rocks at one another, as the boys’ carefree father looked on, bemused; trying to blast a lizard into orbit with an enormous firecracker (a paltry English word for the explosives known in Spanish as cohetes, “rockets”); chasing after a pesticide jeep on their bicycles, grabbing on to the bumper, and hanging on for a ride, despite the DDT spewing forth from the truck.  These and other stories reveal the recklessness and zest for life that dominated Eire’s youth.

Other stories provide a fascinating snapshot of the melange of religious beliefs in the Cuba of the 1950s: a housekeeper who threatened Eire with voodoo curses if he should rat on her; a father who believed himself to have been Louis XVI in a previous life and his wife Marie Antoinette; the Christian Brothers who warned their students about the fires of hell and the dangers of dirty magazines at the age of 8.  Eire himself has a lively sense of the supernatural, but he’s not above discussing such matters with more than a touch of humor.  Take, for instance, his correction of Dante’s vision of hell:

“Dante was so wrong.  At the lowest point, at the nadir of the ninth circle of hell, Satan will be sharing eternally cold space with treasonous brownnosers who abandon their principles and do what is wrong for the sake of a good grade, or applause.  And these brownnosers will have to lick Satan’s razor-studded butt forever and ever, with their tongues.” (232)

Perhaps the most profound and moving aspect of the book, though, is Eire’s reflection on death in the last chapter, a reflection he gives in the context of describing his final day in Cuba.  Referring to that day as his first death, he notes, “There are many ways to die.  Only one kind is final, of course.  But before that one pulls you under, many others come along, like waves at the shore” (375).  If you read his story, you will understand what he means, and perhaps marvel, as I did, at his resilience in the face of such trials.  Perhaps you will also see the various deaths in your own life and resonate on some level with his experience.

I decided to read Waiting for Snow in Havana in part because my own mother emigrated to the States through the Pedro Pan program, probably around the same time that Eire did.  The book gave me a fascinating glimpse into the world of her youth and a deeper appreciation of how difficult this move must have been, a kind of death.  But as Eire asserts (and, indeed, shows through this beautifully written book), “Dying can be beautiful.  And waking up is even more beautiful.  Even when the world has changed.  Especially when the world has changed” (382).  Whether you have an interest in Cuba or not, I highly recommend this book, for the humor – I laughed out loud numerous times, for the deep insights into the human condition, and for the elegant prose.

Fifteen down, (at least) thirty-seven to go.


UPDATE: In the small world category, it turns out my mother knew Eire and his mother when they lived in Chicago!