Cover to Cover

Bill Bryson brings it all back home; England's gilded monuments; and more

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Bill Bryson

Using the floor plan of his own house to give this book its structure—there’s no mistaking the American quality of Bryson’s voice, but he lives in a mid-19th-century rectory in Norfolk, England—Bryson traces the development of the mundane activities of daily life, which, in his entertaining, quickly moving account, is as compelling as the course of battles or decisions of state. Human needs have always been much the same, of course, but the meeting of them has changed far more than people might imagine. Bryson’s approach here is characteristically omnivorous, suggesting a bear stripping the fruit and leaves off every bush he can reach, and the book is chock-full of illuminating asides and witty, revealing anecdotes. What makes it all stick together, however, is the nifty way that technological change begets social change. The development of good bricks, for instance, in the late Middle Ages, allowed for chimneys and fireplaces to replace an open fire in the center of one large room, which allowed for an upper floor, which, in turn, for the first time separated masters (upstairs) from servants (downstairs). These changes strengthened distinctions among people who previously “ate, dressed, and slept together.” Upper floors were then divided into rooms, and voilà, the idea that people might enjoy privacy when pursuing certain activities was born.

Elizabethan Architecture
Mark Girouard

This wondrous book—written by the preeminent historian of British architecture, and beautifully designed and printed, crammed with more than 300 meticulously chosen illustrations and color photographs—combines sweeping range and a precise grasp of detail to illuminate houses “in numbers, richness and inventiveness unsurpassed at any other time in the history of English architecture.” Girouard pays due attention to such great public buildings as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, but his focus is perforce on the glory of Elizabethan architecture, “the intensely artificial, elaborately composed houses of great people”—and his most brilliant achievement in this impossibly rich book is his psychological and emotional sympathy with the (in many ways, alien) people who inhabited the buildings that he analyzes with such exactitude and brio.

Casa Modernista: A History of the Brazil Modern House
Photographs by Alan Weintraub, Text by Alan Hess

Ever since the Museum of Modern Art’s famous 1943 catalog and exhibit, Brazil Builds, architects have recognized that Brazil developed the first national style of Modernist architecture, an endeavor that has continued, if not always thrived, for nearly 70 years now. Plenty of books have assessed the mid-20th-century apogee of Brazilian Modernism; this opulently illustrated volume, which examines houses exclusively, takes the story up to the present, thereby highlighting the continuity of Brazil’s peculiar adaptation of the International Style. What clearly emerges is that the highest achievements of Brazilian domestic Modernism have been greatly influenced by a local aesthetic with roots deep in the colonial past. At their best, these houses marry the astringent clarity of Modernism with a sauntering and sinuous style. What also emerges, from the dilapidated state of many of these gorgeously designed houses, is that Brazilian Modernist architecture has often been wanting a certain craft and finish in its execution—a problem shared with the houses built in Tel Aviv by Jewish settlers who tried to implant the Bauhaus on the shores of the Mediterranean in the 1920s and ’30s while lacking a sophisticated construction industry. As Brazil, after a century of fits and starts, finally comes into its own as a great economic force, the aesthetic depicted in these pages—at once regional and international—is bound to exercise an increasingly powerful cultural sway worldwide.

The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages
By Robert Fossier, Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane

Here is a history that confronts the brutal—and mostly unchanging—facts of life. Fossier, professor emeritus of medieval history at the Sorbonne and the editor of The Cambridge History of the Middle Ages, explores the material and natural circumstances that ordinary people faced in the Middle Ages, and how men’s and women’s psyches and daily lives were shaped by those circumstances. Stripping away “the distorting prism of political institutions, social hierarchies, juridical rules, [and] the precepts of faith,” this is a book largely about birth and death, food and shelter, defecation and illness, sex and danger. Written in an annoyingly curmudgeonly style, and drawing on a lifetime of profound learning (and depending largely on French sources), this nearly 400-page essay (no footnotes!) is impressionistic, opinionated, sometimes distorted, and occasionally wrong. But it’s full of eccentric insights (Fossier elucidates men’s fear of women and insistence on masculine authority, and traces these characteristics to the customary age difference between man and wife, which meant that “the home sheltered a young woman of sixteen or eighteen, and an adult male ten or fifteen years older”) as it offers a jolting and shrewd way to apprehend that faraway country, the past.

God on the Rocks
Jane Gardam

Americans seem to have taken notice of the English Gardam only beginning with her celebrated 2004 novel, Old Filth. Lucky for us, she’s written a long list of other novels in a similarly piquant and economical style. God on the Rocks, first published in 1978 and a finalist for the Booker Prize, and now published in the United States, dexterously exposes the misapprehensions wrought by class, sex, love, and religion among the members of two families in a seaside town in the north of England during the interwar years. Gardam has been compared to Anita Brookner, but her view, though equally dark, is far less dreary. Few can present tragedy with such humor.