At Home by Bill Bryson

June 3rd, 2023

At Home feels much more sprawling than the title might suggest—more sprawling, even, than the old parsonage in which Bill Bryson lives and from which the book takes its structure. Bryson is theoretically going room by room through the parsonage and describing the history of that sort of room (the kitchen, or the drawing room, or the dining room) or some of the objects it contains, but really he’s looking at the “history of private life,” as the subtitle puts it—though even that is a bit misleadingly narrow, as lots of interesting history of various public spheres finds its way into the book too. I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s conversational tone and its humor, and had lots of fun relating interesting facts and anecdotes from just about every chapter to my husband and various friends. Though Bryson says that the book “mostly concentrates on the events of the last 150 years or so,” i.e. the mid-1800s on (partly because that’s when the parsonage was built), it reaches much farther back than that in multiple chapters, for example in in discussions of the Neolithic houses of Skara Brae (which were unearthed by a storm in 1850) or the clothes worn by Ötzi, a man from the late Neolithic whose body was found by hikers in 1991. There were some things I knew about already (like cholera epidemics and how Joseph Bazalgette rebuilt London’s sewer system) but a lot of things I had never really considered (like: how dining tables were originally boards that were “perched on the diners’ knees when food was served”, or how smoky the upper reaches of people’s houses in England would have been in the days before chimneys/when homes just had a central open hearth—Bryson points out that once chimneys were in the picture, people could then “lay boards across the beams and create a whole new world upstairs”). There were so many interesting parts of this book that I can’t list them all, but other highlights for me included the part about laundry (which was a whole lot of work for a whole lot of servants) and the part about electricity and various forms of illumination used before electricity and the incandescent light bulb were widespread.

This is the third book by Gretchen Rubin that I’ve read (I read The Happiness Project back in 2010 and Happier at Home in 2015) and my favorite so far. In this one, Rubin talks about how an offhand remark by her eye doctor (she’s there for a case of pinkeye; the doctor mentions that she’s “more at risk for a detached retina” because of how nearsighted she is) made her think about her senses, and inspired her to want to learn about them, focus on them, and appreciate/pay attention to them more.

When Rubin writes about how she moved through the world, she says this: “I didn’t make much effort to shape my experience, and I always chose convenience over pleasure.” I think of myself as making a lot of choices to shape my experience, and I also think of myself as being pretty good at choosing pleasure. But I also, like Rubin, can find myself “preoccupied” with “plans and lists”, or stuck in habits or routines. So I was interested to read about what Rubin learned about the senses in general, and about what she did to pay attention to her sensory experiences in particular.

The book focuses on what Rubin calls “the Aristotelian Senses or the Kindergarten Senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch,” in that order; it doesn’t try to cover things like proprioception. For each sense, Rubin talks a bit about how it works (like: all the things your eyes and brain do related to visual processing, or how the senses of taste and smell are connected), and a lot about her own personal experiments and experiences, which was the right balance for me and made this a really fun read. As part of the project of writing this book, Rubin also decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day for a year, inspired in part by her love of E.L. Konigsburg’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which is such a great book), and each section of the book also includes something about what she saw or heard or experienced on those daily visits. And within each section/for each sense, there are lots of ideas for things to do to focus on or play with sensory perceptions: taking a walk and trying to pay attention to trees, or hats, or dogs; trying miracle fruit/flavortripping; taking a shower in the dark; throwing a taste comparison party where people do taste tests of different unlabeled potato chips or sodas or whatever. I really liked reading about Rubin’s sensory explorations, and about how focusing on her senses taught her things about herself and also helped her connect with others.

Quiet by Susan Cain

March 9th, 2023

Susan Cain covers a lot of ground in Quiet (whose subtitle is “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”). After starting with the idea that “where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum” might be “the single most important aspect of personality,” she goes on to explore what she calls “the Extrovert Ideal” and how she thinks it came about in the US—and how that ideal means our culture often short-changes introverts, failing to see their strengths and pathologizing their differences. In addition to talking about what introversion looks like/how introverts experience the world, she talks about other related (but not identical) traits such as “sensitivity” and shyness. She talks about introvert/extrovert relationships, and about how workplaces and schools might better serve introverts (and better make use of their talents) and offers suggestions for parents of introverted kids. She touches on the fact that not all cultures have an “Extrovert Ideal” and specifically examines the ways in which some Asian Americans, in particular, may feel at odds with America’s emphasis on extroversion. It’s a lot, and I found most of it super-interesting, though I could have done without the “here’s a story about an introvert at some historical moment” parts about Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. (Not that those people are uninteresting, I was just more interested in the studies on introversion and on Cain’s conversations with living introverted people than those biographical mini-sketches.)

I am definitely an introvert, so a lot of the stuff about what introversion looks like and feels like was not a surprise to me, but it was nice to feel validated in my own feelings and experiences. Like: school and summer camp are not generally designed for introverts. Or like this statement: “Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book.” Elsewhere in the book Cain says this about stimulation, which, um, yes: “Over-arousal doesn’t produce anxiety so much as the sense that you can’t think straight—that you’ve had enough and would like to go home now.” (File under: how I feel at some point in the day whenever we go to an outlet mall.)

My husband is more of an ambivert (as he puts it, he used to think he was an introvert, and then he met me) and I had fun sharing various snippets from this book with him, like a story about an introvert/extrovert couple where the introvert wife is “always happy to see” her husband, “but sometimes she’d rather sit next to him reading than go out for dinner or make animated conversation. Simply to be in his company is enough.” Or that introverts “like to focus on one task at a time,” “tend to dislike conflict,” and “often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” (Yes, yes, and yes, and this is why I like having a job where a whole lot of my day involves written communication.)

I wasn’t aware of the existence of this book until I found a copy in a little free library near home, and as far as memoirs by musicians go, Carrie Brownstein’s is still my favorite, but I’m glad to have read this too. Beth Ditto talks about her childhood in small-town Arkansas, and growing up in a family and in a place where “the legacy of abuse is made so normal you feel you have to move halfway across the country to come out from under the spell of where you’re from.” Judsonia, where she grew up, outlawed dancing long before Beth was born; she writes about how her Aunt Jannie “used to sneak down to the river, to a chained-up shed that hid a forbidden jukebox.” At some point when she was a kid, they had MTV, but that was taken away too; she talks about how a friend who had lived in Louisiana for a while recorded from MTV onto VHS tapes and brought them back. She remembers watching videos by “Hole, Veruca Salt, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Alanis Morrisette” on those tapes, and then getting into Riot Grrrl. She talks about realizing she was gay and not knowing what to do with that, in the place where she lived; she writes about moving to the Pacific Northwest (first Olympia, then Portland) and starting Gossip, and working as a touring musician/working minimum-wage food-service or retail jobs between tours, when Gossip was first starting out.

There’s a lot of heavy stuff in this book, from the beginning on, but there are moments of hope and possibility from the beginning too. Ditto writes about her Aunt Jannie sitting in the living room in her bra and underwear: “Entitled to her own body, entitled to its comfort, entitled to live in her home as if it was hers.” She writes about her mom not letting people say the n-word in her house, and not having guns around: how she “fought violence, racism, and sexism in her own ways, in the small spaces where she was allowed control as a single mom in 1980s Arkansas.” And she writes about the possibilities that come from friendship, and especially the possibilities that come from music: that feeling, in high school especially, that every musical “discovery was a treasure that could save your life, that made you more understandable to yourself.”

I’d been vaguely meaning to read this book since it first came out in 2015, and only recently learned that an updated edition was released in 2021; I figured I might as well finally check it out. This book is maybe more firmly in the self-help genre than I was expecting, and some of the metaphors (sexuality as garden, certain brain structures/systems as an “emotional One Ring”) were either cheesy or hard for me to follow, but there was enough interesting/useful information for me to be glad I did finally get around to this. I appreciate that this book does not assume heterosexuality or monogamy, and, metaphors aside, I mostly like Nagoski’s writing style, which is approachable and generally clear.

It was interesting to read about the changes in how sexual response has been conceptualized/understood over the years, from the “four-phase model” focused on physical phenomena that was formulated in the 1960s by Masters and Johnson (excitement/plateau/orgasm/resolution) to Helen Singer Kaplan’s “triphasic” model from the 1970s (desire/arousal/orgasm) to the “dual control model” that was “developed in the late 1990s by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft” (the brain has an accelerator/it also has brakes; flooring the accelerator is not particularly useful if the brakes are still engaged). It was also interesting to read about stress and the idea that our bodies and brains are, in evolutionary terms, good at dealing with intense stressful situations with a clear beginning, middle, and end (like: being chased by a lion) which doesn’t really help in modern life where in general “our stressors are lower intensity and longer duration.” A key point in this section is about the need for “completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state” rather than “self-inhibition”, which can involve “stopping the stress response midcycle.” Other highlights: spontaneous desire vs. responsive desire and the fact that many people experience both at different points in their lives, and some surprising-to-me stats like the fact that “80-90 percent of women who masturbate typically do so with little or no vaginal penetration” (I would have guessed a lower number for that!) and that “approximately 30 percent of women experience nocturnal orgasm” (I would have guessed higher!).

Underground by Will Hunt

December 28th, 2022

In the nine chapters of Underground, Will Hunt talks about his personal fascination with underground spaces and their larger historical/cultural significances in various places and times through history, from caves where Paleolithic people painted images or created sculptures to NYC subway tunnels and the people who explore them and/or write graffiti in them. He travels to the world’s oldest known mine (an ochre mine in Western Australia) and crosses Paris underground (in a chapter that made me grin for many reasons, not least because one of his companions for that trip was someone who is an acquaintance of mine). He talks about the experience of being lost underground, and the experience of being alone in the dark zone of a cave. The book is a great mix of personal experience/reportage and research on various historical aspects of underground exploration, and it’s pleasingly wide-ranging in more ways than just the geographical span it covers. Hunt talks about microbiology and a theory that life may have originated underground rather than on our planet’s surface; he talks about neurobiology and altered states of consciousness; he talks about ant nests and underground cities; he talks about the first known map of a cave. Black and white images throughout add to the narrative, and I like the way that Hunt writes, which is often lyrical in a way I find very satisfying. Like: “The underground is our ghost landscape, unfolding everywhere beneath our feet, always out of view.” Or: “In a realm of palimpsests, the graffiti from spray cans of cataphiles obscured smoke streaks from torches of seventeenth-century quarry diggers, which obscured fossils of ancient creatures embedded in the limestone.” Or, when he’s talking about Wilgie Mia, that ochre mine: “it felt like the place where red began.”

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

November 13th, 2022

Savage Gods is a book about writing and a book about being stuck and a book about trying to figure things out. Kingsnorth writes about how he and his wife, Jyoti, bought a house and some land in Ireland because he wanted to feel connected to a place, and because he thought “that the work of being in a place would still [his] unquiet mind” (7). As it turns out: wherever you go, there you are, and if you’re a writer with a tendency to be very much in your head, you will probably still be very much in your head even if you are also doing the physical work of planting trees and tending to fields and growing food. Kingsnorth fantasizes, sometimes, about a bigger change of place, a bigger change of self: “I would like to live on the Grand Canal. I would like to drop all of this and move to Venice with Jyoti and change my name and wear a linen suit every day and wander the streets and drink strange orange drinks in little bars down crumbling alleyways and gaze up at huge Tintorettos in dark old churches, forever” (96). But he doesn’t, or at any rate hasn’t yet. What he has done is written this book, which is partly about the specifics of his life (his sense that his old way of writing no longer serves him, his reactions against his father and his father’s values, when he was younger, and how he feels when his dad eventually takes his own life) and partly about how he conceptualizes the mid-life moment he’s in, which he describes in the context of a talk he heard by Colin Campbell about the idea, in Botswana, that “the first half of our lives is fire, the second water” (32).

My husband read this book a few years ago and loved it, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it, too, though it wasn’t exactly what I expected. I was expecting more about Kingsnorth’s daily life in Ireland, and I liked the moments when he writes specifically about the place he’s in and his experience of it—like at the start of the book when he talks about the field he’s sitting in and describes it as “a long, thin field, grass and dock and plantain and ground ivy, hedged in with thorn and sycamore and elder” (4). Or when he talks about trying to “resist the impulse to catalog” but admits that he’s “been making a list for three years of all the birds that visit our land in the course of the year” and then gives us the “edited highlights”: “Wagtail. Bullfinch. Dunnock. Wren. Collared dove. Robin. Long-tailed tit. Goldfinch. Swift. Swallow. Blackcap. Coal tit. Willow warbler. Sparrowhawk. Fieldfare. Pheasant. Heron” (28). But I ended up liking the other aspects of the book, too, in part because Kingsnorth’s writing, at the sentence/phrase level, is really really satisfying.

Before reading Nineteen Reservoirs, I knew a little about the Croton reservoir system that brings some water to New York City—I knew there used to be a reservoir where the New York Public Library at Bryant Park is now, and I’ve walked up the spiraling stairs of the High Bridge Water Tower (and across High Bridge itself), and I’ve seen the Croton Dam. But I knew almost nothing about the “six great reservoirs” constructed between 1907 and 1967, to which Sante devotes the bulk of this book. Sante writes about how and when those reservoirs were built, and about the villages and farms and houses and lives that those reservoirs displaced; she writes about the way the city used eminent domain to acquire land, and about the often protracted claims processes for compensating people displaced by the reservoirs’ construction. She also writes about other factors in the conversation around water supply and water usage: I had no idea, for example, about the decades-long debates about installing water meters in New York City residential buildings, from the time of Boss Tweed onwards.

I like the historical context around water usage in New York City that Sante provides, like the fire risk posed by periods when a lack of water meant that “pipes lacked sufficient pressure to serve the upper floors of buildings” (5) or how before the bigger reservoirs west of the Hudson were built, the city had “$150 million worth of dry goods sitting uninsured in warehouses because the water supply was inadequate for putting out fires” (35). The text about the reservoirs themselves is full of facts and figures—how many people were displaced, how many bodies needed to be moved from cemeteries and reinterred elsewhere, how many gallons of water a reservoir holds, how much water the city was using per day at a certain point in time, how much different people in different villages were compensated for their land. All those numbers (and the dates of the reservoirs’ construction) won’t necessarily stick with me, but this book was worth reading to gain some awareness of the big-picture history here. I also loved all the historical maps and photos that Sante includes with the text, and the color photos by Tim Davis from 2020 that are included in the epilogue. (And the epilogue itself, with its looser/more poetic prose, is really pleasing to me—like when Sante writes that “the water reflects clouds that appear to come from an old-master painting, and the scene is so primordial the dam in the distance just looks like a piece of tape on the canvas” (162).)

On a personal note, this book also prompted me to learn some family history: I thought I remembered a story from my childhood about my maternal grandmother’s dad working on the Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island; I also thought I remembered that my maternal grandmother was born in New York, and I wondered if her dad worked on any of the reservoirs in this book. I asked my mom and she said she thinks my grandma was born at Brown’s Station; this photo that Sante includes in the book of a camp school at Brown’s Station for children of reservoir workers predates my grandma’s birth by 5 years, but I think her dad probably did work on the Ashokan.

This book is definitely an academic text rather than a general history of the subway, and as such I’m not really the intended audience—and the fact that I read this while home sick with covid probably doesn’t help with my retention of the subject matter. But I nevertheless enjoyed this study of “how the daily transit experience” (in New York, after the subway opened in 1904) “was involved in shaping modern urban life and subjectivity.”

I probably liked the straight-up historical aspects of this book the most, like the descriptions of the subway’s opening in 1904, including a passage about the cheering spectators who watched as “the train approached the viaduct over Manhattan Valley between 122nd and 133rd St. and then emerged from the depths.” I liked learning about/thinking about aspects of the subway I hadn’t previously considered, like the fact that when it opened, to get in a passenger bought a paper ticket from one person, then gave it to another person to tear, like a ticket for a play, or the fact that, as Höhne puts it, “There was a conscious decision to leave elements like steel girders, rails, and control units exposed in order to demonstrate the structure’s sturdiness and technical perfection.” It was also interesting to read about the “abundance of visual signals” passengers had to deal with in an era of different subway operators and non-standardized maps and signage. And the chapter about complaint letters (on topics ranging from sanitation issues to violence on trains or in stations to slow/unreliable service) and how the complaints were dealt with provided an interesting way of looking at the subway and its issues in the 1960s.

Built by Roma Agrawal

May 30th, 2022

In the fourteen sections/chapters of Built, Roma Agrawal explores various aspects of structural engineering and the built environment, sometimes from a personal perspective and sometimes from a more historical one. Early in the book, Agrawal describes her background: she initially went to university to study physics, then fell in love with engineering and became a structural engineer; she’s designed buildings, bridges, and more, and was part of the team that designed the Shard in London. Throughout the book she uses her personal experiences and historical examples as a way to talk about the issues that engineers in general have to consider on various kinds of projects. So for example, she uses her “first project after leaving university,” which was “the Northumbria University Footbridge in Newcastle,” as a way to discuss beams, columns, struts, and trusses, and how they help structures deal with the forces on them, after explaining that “a major part of the engineer’s job is figuring out how structures can withstand the manifold forces determined to push, pull, shake, twist, squash, bend, rend, split, snap or tear them apart.” Elsewhere in the book she discusses building materials, from clay and brick to iron, steel, and concrete; she also talks about things like the challenges of transporting fresh water and human waste to and from buildings and cities. I particularly liked the chapter about protecting buildings from fires and the chapter about bridges (which features five very different examples of bridge construction, from different times and places), but really every chapter contained a lot of interesting things, even if I already knew about some of them (like Emily Warren Roebling’s role in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, or Joseph Bazalgette’s design for London’s sewer system). And there was plenty that was new to me, like the concept of “self-healing concrete” containing “tiny capsules of calcium lactate” and bacteria that can make calcite to fill cracks, if the concrete cracks and water gets in, or like the work done to stabilize the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City (which had been settling unevenly over the centuries), or like the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, which lifts boats and connects canal systems.