At the height (or trough?) of my reading funk a couple of weeks ago, I had the luck to bring home Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
I really enjoy Bill Bryson. Although he's an American, he's married to a British woman and currently lives in Great Britain, and I think he's got a particularly British and whimsically dry sense of humor. (Which is, of course, my very favorite kind of humor.) He's best known as a travel writer, but he also writes history books, most of which haven't set my world on fire. I couldn't get through his earlier bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything.
But this book was in the right place at the right time. Bryson currently lives in a former rectory that was built in 1850-1851, and as he describes the building plan for his house, room by room, he also shares broader historical tidbits: in the chapter on the hall he explores how heating and stove technologies developed; in the chapter on the bathroom he talks about sewage treatment; etc. He packs a lot of history in one volume, discussing ancient Briton settlements on one page and Victorian attitudes toward relaxation, sex, and child-rearing on the next.* And he does it all in typical Bryson style:
"When [George] Washington moved to Mount Vernon in 1754 after the death of his half brother Lawrence, it was a modest farmhouse of eight rooms. He spent the next thirty years rebuilding and expanding it into a mansion of twenty rooms...He fussed over every detail. For eight years during the Revolutionary War, through all the hardships and distractions of battle, he wrote home weekly to inquire how things were going and o issue new or modified instructions for some element of design. Washington's foreman wondered, understandably, whether this was a good time to be investing money and energy in a house that the enemy might at any moment capture and destroy...Luckily the British never reached Mount Vernon. Had they got there, they almost certainly would have spirited off Mrs. Washington and put the house and estate to the torch." (p. 301.)
Bryson at his best just has such a nice light touch with nonfiction. I'm glad I found this book when I did; I needed a good, interesting, but not particularly heavy read. Mr. CR read the whole thing through as well, which is rare--he doesn't start a lot of nonfiction, and he finishes even less.
*A friend of mine opined that the book was a bit too all-over-the-place for her, which I completely understood, but I think that's the aspect of it that appealed to me. The last few weeks my mind has been all over the place, so this book nicely matched my mood and interest level.