Monthly Archives: August 2011

‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson

Recently on a training tour through the Windsor Public Library, a fellow volunteer recruit commented, with a bit of annoyed confusion, that the Bill Bryson books were in  Non-Fiction. I suspect she was hoping to point out an error! She was amazed to realize that many of his books were about Travel and should be where they were. She had always found them so hugely entertaining, she had expected to find them in Fiction!

‘At Home’ is a short history of private life. If you are a history, etymology, or trivia junkie, this book is for you. Bryson found himself living in a large Victorian parsonage in England and decided to write a book about how people slowly got comfortable. He uses the rooms of a house as an outline to describe how everything from the flush toilet to household electricity came to be. Although I missed the laugh-out-loud humour of his travel books such as ‘A Walk in the Woods’, this is a light hearted approachable sort of history which Bryson is known for. And many of the tangents he goes off on leave you wondering “where did he ever learn about this stuff?” There is a vast impressive bibliography at the end of the book, so clearly he did his research.

The bathroom is an opportunity to talk about hygiene, the garden about lawn mowers, the kitchen about nutrition,  the nursery about children, the bedroom about sex, etc.  Did you know that US became more powerful than Canada because of the Erie Canal? Forks were invented with two tines and because they were so dangerous, they were improved to have only four. The most perilous part of the home is not the bathtub, the knives in the kitchen, or the fuse box, but the stairs! Some of his discoveries are surprising – the average kitchen cloth houses way more bacteria than the toilet seat!

Some of the chapters left me wondering why there would be say, a discussion of the Eiffel Tower in The Passage chapter, or a discussion of mice and mousetraps in The Study. But I can forgive Bryson for these tangents. His book is entertaining and educational. It’s also totally unnecessary to read this book from cover to cover. By all means, keep it in The Bathroom or The Bedroom and read random chapters out of order.

‘Gift from the Sea’ by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This book was written for women, but men, don’t let that stop you from buying it. It would be a great gift for a friend/mother/sister/wife/daughter, and after you have given it, try to sneak a peak at it yourself!

Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote ‘Gift from the Sea’ before I was born, yet it still has fresh insight for today. Written during a vacation on the beach, Lindbergh shares wisdom and reflects on the shape that women’s lives and relationships take amidst the pressing demands of family and career, and how to find balance and recharge when overwhelmed. Generations of women have enjoyed learning in her unsentimental, contemplative beach classroom, with shells as object lessons.When life’s troubles and stress have beaten you down, read these meditations and let them return you to the calm rhythm of waves lapping on the beach.

Anne was an interesting woman. Married to famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, she had 6 children, one of whom was kidnapped and murdered. She herself was a pilot and adventurer, but you would never know that from reading her book (and indeed I didn’t!). She writes from an inner strength and doesn’t include many personal details.

In one chapter she talks about learning to want less and enjoy fewer things, dropping the acquisitiveness that we so often suffer from. “One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.”

On  a personal note. This book was given to me by a dear friend whose name was Meredith. Her name means “the sea” and she was a marine biologist. The ocean was always her place for restoration when life got her down. She now walks on the beaches of an eternal shore. She was a gift to me.

‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ by Marina Lewycka

You get to choose your friends, but not your family. This is a funny and wise human story about family that is very readable, and, you get to learn a little about tractors along the way!  There are all kinds of collisions in this novel, none involving farm vehicles. There is culture clash, a generation gap, and sibling rivalry. There is the poignancy of caring for the elderly and how (understandably) fiercely the aged resist giving up their independence.

Two feuding sisters, Vera and Nadia, must band together when their elderly father decides to marry a young Ukrainian immigrant less that half his age. Is he being used by this buxom young lady to achieve immigration status, or is this more than a marriage of convenience? The sisters are bound and determined to figure it out, even if it means working together.

Underneath the hilarity of the main story, there does lie a sobering undercurrent of how what a family has suffered or endured in the past, does affect who they are today. The history we get from our family stories is a rich heritage we would do well to pay close attention to.

A couple of noteworthy things I learned about the author which will make sense if you read the book – she was born in a Ukrainian refugee camp in Germany, and she has written several non-fiction books about caring for the elderly.

Author Feature: Dr. Seuss

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”  Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss books play with sounds and language. What has made him famous are delightful rhymes that roll off the tongue paired with clever illustrations. Enough said, everyone knows Dr. Seuss. But did you realize that Dr. Seuss is also a pithy philosopher?  Many of his books are modern fables that teach as well as entertain and are rather more geared for adults, or as they say “children of all ages”. Some things are just ageless and timeless.

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” Dr. Seuss

By the way, Dr. Seuss’  real name is Theodore Geisel. I love the story about how he started writing children’s books. His editor at Random House wagered that he wouldn’t be able to write a children’s book with no more than 50 different words. Giesel’s creativity won the bet with ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ and 10 years of other books followed, forever changing the landscape of children’s picture books.

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” Dr. Seuss

The Lorax (the earth is a global concern and unless we take care of the environment, we are in deep trouble)



Oh, the Places You’ll Go (an encouraging graduation speech which makes a great graduation gift )



Horton Hatches the Egg (it may seem like a silly story about an elephant hatching an egg, but it’s really about faithfulness and how it pays off in the end)



Horton Hear a Who! (no matter how small, all are important and can help to make a difference)



Yertle the Turtle (when we try to gain power without recognizing the people who help us,  we will just fall apart)

Gertrude Mc Fuzz (who learns to like herself, just as she is)

The Big Brag (about how silly we look when we boast)

The Sneetches (mostly about tribalism, but could lead to an interesting discussion about fashion and how we want to be like others, and how still others make a lot of money from that)


You’re Only Old Once! (A book for seniors about the aches and pains of aging!)

‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

Marina is a pharmaceutical researcher who goes to the Amazon to investigate the death of her colleague. The book begins with many questions that keep you turning pages. Who is this Dr. Swenson and what is the research that she is doing deep in the Amazon? Why is Vogel willing to pay so much to keep her out there and why is everyone so afraid of her? With more questions than answers, and against her better judgement, Marina embarks on a journey that will change lives forever.

Before you read ‘State of Wonder’, I recommend listening to an interview she has with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. The author, who is an amazing speaker and very funny, reads a section that is guaranteed to whet your appetite for the book. Click on the website below and scroll down to find either the short version (20 min) on the June 20 show, or else the full conversation below it. You’ll catch all the funny bits in the short version, but not the full reading of the snake story which comes at the beginning of the long interview.
The Next Chapter

Ann Patchett has done it again! Just as compelling as her award winning ‘Bel Canto’, she has created an exotic story that you will not soon forget!

Side Note:  Did you ever wonder why the online bookstore is called Amazon? Too bad, no snake story here, but  there are actually two reasons. It was first called ‘’ but the founder thought that sounded too much like “cadaver”. Also, at that time on the internet when people looked to Yahoo for listings, Amazon would put them at the top of the alphabetical list!