Between the Lines Book Club: At Home by Bill Bryson

between the lines book club logoWelcome back to Between the Lines Book Club. This month we’re reading At Home by Bill Bryson. It’s a long book, but a quick and easy read. We’ll be meeting to discuss it in person on January 27, 2018 at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM.

At Home is a nonfiction history of how and why houses are the way they are. Because of how the book is arranged, it’s easy to either read the book straight through or pick and choose chapters based on interest level. Here’s a quick rundown of the chapters and their topics:

Chapter One: The Year: Describes the year 1851, when the house was built.

Chapter Two: The Setting: The development of agriculture and ancient housing.

Chapter Three: The Hall: Covers the time when The Hall meant the entire interior of a house to the development of separate rooms.

Chapter Four: The Kitchen: Food! The development of ice as a common means of food preservation, mason jars, and cans, and the change in eating habits through the Victorian Era.

Chapter Five: The Scullery and Larder: In which being a servant was just awful.

Chapter Six: The Fuse Box: Life by candlelight, gaslight, and the development of the electric light.

Chapter Seven: The Drawing Room: The invention of comfortable furniture. Also, lots and lots of architecture.

Chapter Eight: The Dining Room: Spices, scurvy, salt, vitamins, coffee, and tea.

Chapter Nine: The Cellar: What was used to build homes in Britain and America, and why? If you have an interest in wood, bricks, stone, or cement, this is the chapter for you.

Chapter Ten: The Passage: The Eiffel Tower, The Gilded Age, the telephone.

Chapter Eleven: The Study: Mice and rats and bedbugs, oh my! Also germs and bats and locusts and lice!

Chapter Twelve: The Garden: Much architecture. The switch from formal to more naturalistic parks. The development of Central Park. The development of gardening as a hobby. The rise of the lawn.

Chapter Thirteen: The Plum Room: In which Bryson discusses Monticello and Mount Vernon.

Chapter Fourteen: The Stairs. Household hazards!

Chapter Fifteen: The Bedroom: Sex, disease, death, and burial.

Chapter Sixteen: The Bathroom: The very smelly history of hygiene.

Chapter Seventeen: The Dressing Room: Fashion!

Chapter Eighteen: The Nursery: Childbirth and child rearing is not for wimps.

Chapter Nineteen: The Attic: Darwin, economics, and the end of the parsonage era.

Enjoy, and feel free to pick and choose!

Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Cover of Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThis is history just the geeky fun way I like it!  The Time Traveller’s Guide is a non-fiction history book about Elizabethan England, but it’s written as a travel guide for time travellers.  This means that there’s nothing ponderous about it.  If you want to know the underlying causes of the Spanish Armada attacking England, you probably won’t find it in here (although the book is pretty big – I might have missed that part).  If you want to know how to greet people, and what people eat, and how to brush your teeth and where to take a dump, look no further.

The book is conversational, practical, and amazingly detailed.  Because it’s written in little sections, it’s a handy book to keep in the bathroom or by the table – places where you might want to read something really entertaining for a few minutes, although it’s certainly entertaining enough to read cover to cover.

Author Ian Mortimer has also written a Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (and a lot of other history, as well as fiction).  If only he would write a Guide to Regency England, my life would be complete.  In the meantime, I know how to avoid the plague, and how to keep myself clean (linen plays an important role) and what to wear.  I know that witchcraft was not yet equated with Satanism, but I could still be hung for it, and being a coal miner was a wretched job that usually resulted in death, while being a domestic servant usually involved rape (of the servant, alas).  I know that I will be expected to wash my hands before dinner, although not with soap.  The most depressing thing I learned so far was that infant and early childhood mortality rates were huge.  The most cheerful thing I learned so far?  Reading was wildly popular, and almost everyone could read, at least a little bit.  Surely I could feel just a little bit at home in a world where everyone loves to read as much as I do.

Review of Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder, by Holly Tucker

Cover of Blood WorkI’m due to donate blood again this week (yay?).  In honor of the fact that I can save a life during my lunch hour and get a cookie for it, I read the non-fiction book, Blood Work.  Guys, this book is so, so gross – but it’s also so, so good!

This book tells the story of the first blood transfusion experiments, in England and in France (most of this book involves France) in the seventeenth century.  It centers around the efforts of Jean-Baptiste Denis to successfully transfuse blood between animals of the same species, and then from animals to humans.  When Denis attempts to cure  Antoine Mauory of insanity, and Mauroy dies, Denis finds himself involved in a murder trial that determines the future of blood transfusion experiments for the next one hundred and fifty years.

I love books that tell me something about history and/or science in an entertaining and accessible way, this book fit the bill perfectly.  It’s amazing how many things find their way into this book – realistic automatons, philosophy, a pirate doctor (!), domestic violence, the Plague, the Great Fire of London, politics, dungeons, wars, mythology, science, and lots and lots of intrigue.  The steampunk crowd needs to check out the possibilities of expanding from the Victorian Era backwards into the seventeenth-century – it was an insane time and one in which science was a fad among the rich.  The framework of the murder mystery keeps the book moving quickly despite the large amount of information being conveyed.

You need to know that this book is page after page of horrific cruelty towards animals and not a little cruelty towards humans.  I was too fascinated by the story to be depressed – but not too fascinated to be appalled.  This was the age of dissection and vivisection, a common belief that animals could not suffer and had no souls, and horrific treatment of women, the poor, and the insane.  The book does not shy away from describing these horrors.

The last sentence of the book says, “Transfusion has become a gold standard in treating a broad range of illnesses and injuries, from chronic anemia to blood loss from trauma and surgery – so much so that it is impossible to tally the number of lives that have been saved or improved by the procedure.”  One of those lives has been mine, and I’m very grateful to those who donated blood for me back in my medically turbulent childhood days.  If you’d like to donate blood, check out these sites to get information, find a blood drive, or make an appointment:

The American Red Cross


BTW, if you live in California and you donate through Bloodsource this summer, you can get a free ticket to the California State Fair.  Bonus!

History’s Hidden Heroes: Nilakantha Somayaji

illustration of children holding hands around the worldThe first step in educating yourself is to admit ignorance – and I am woefully, horribly ignorant.  This was made abundantly clear to me today when I was googling stuff and came across the name, “Nilakantha Somayaji, Indian Astronomer”.

It was then that I realized that, although if pressed I would probably assume that there must have been astronomers in India’s extremely lengthy history, I could not name a single one.  This is embarrassing.  However, I hate to waste a good case of embarrassment when I can turn it to a greater good, so watch for this blog’s new monthly feature on scientists and others who were been neglected by my Californian high school text-book.  I’m calling this feature “History’s Hidden Heroes”, but I’m aware that just because a person’s history isn’t well-known in the United States doesn’t mean it’s not well-known elsewhere.  It’s been hidden from me, specifically, and I want to un-hide it.

So, who was Nilakantha Somayaji?  He was born on this date, in 1444, and he seems to have lived about a hundred years – impressive!  He was a mathematician and astronomer of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy.  As the name suggests, this school was located in Kerala, India, and was at its greatest between the 14th and 16th centuries.  Nilakantha Somayaji wrote a treatise on astronomy called Tantrasamgraha.  This treatise also contains many of his mathematical equations.  A more detailed description of the contents of Tantrasamgraha can be found at this article by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson.

As a layperson and as someone who is math-phobic, it’s difficult for me to grasp or sum up the work that Nilakantha Somayaji was doing, but I think I can safely describe him as having done considerable work towards deepening understanding of how the solar system was organized and how it moved.  He also made significant contributions to algebra, geometry, and calculus.  Certainly his life shows us what amazing intellectual work was being done in India during his lifetime.

Who shall we talk about next month?  Got a favorite hidden hero?