Archive for the Literature Category

Now In E-book: The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton

Posted in Browse on By, Literature, Now in E-Book with tags , , on September 12, 2012 by JE Cornett

One of the best things about e-books is one of the worst things about e-books — they make it so easy to find books that have long been out of print or hard to find. Bad news for used booksellers and bookstores. Bad news for me, who loves to browse through shelves of raggedy paperbacks and warped hardbacks. Good news for those readers who do not necessarily like that used book smell, and good news for books whose reputations have suffered for the fact that they’ve only sporadically been in print since their initial publication — books like Jetta Carelton’s nearly-forgotten masterpieces, The Moonflower Vine.

The Moonflower Vine  has experienced a renaissance in the past few years, all of a sudden the darling of critics and authors alike, but when I read about the book on The Neglected Books Page, it had been out of print for years. Despite being a Literary Guild selection and chosen for inclusion in that most American of institutions, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books series, The Moonflower Vine and author Jetta Carleton were all but forgotten within several years of the book’s 1962 publication.  It took me months to track down a copy of the book on Amazon, and when I did, it looked almost as pitiful as the copy in the picture above. It was well worth the wait and the fear that the book would fall apart in my hands; The Moonflower Vine is one of my favorite books, and one that deserves the bigger audience it’s likely to find now that it’s back in print, a critical success (for a second time) and available in e-book.

Here’s a synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:

On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters. Jessica will break their hearts. Leonie will fall in love with the wrong man. Mary Jo will escape to New York. And wild child Mathy’s fate will be the family’s greatest tragedy. Over the decades they will love, deceive, comfort, forgive—and, ultimately, they will come to cherish all the more fiercely the bonds of love that hold the family together.

This is a pitiful synopsis, really, making the book sound like Edna Ferber meets Danielle Steele. Carelton’s prose style is timeless, descriptive yet uncluttered, and the book is more about how our perceptions of our family breed and create family secrets than the secrets themselves.

To really get a feel for the book, here’s an excerpt:

My sisters and I used to visit them [parents] on the farm. We came each summer… these visits were like income tax, an annual inconvenience… But old as we were, our parents were still the government. They levied the tribute, and we paid it… It was a time of placid unreality. The lives we lived outside were suspended, the affairs of the world forgotten and our common blood remembered…

The sun trickled down through the oak leaves. Away off in the woods a cardinal told us what a handsome bird he was. “Pretty-bird, pretty-bird!” he said over and over. Jessica sat on a blue towel, hugging her knees… She looked like Boucher’s Diana or a bather by Renoir. But she would have laughed if I’d told her, and said Boo-shay didn’t know boo-cat, or something to that effect. Jessica was not about to pretend she was anything but what showed up in clothes–a plain, middle-aged woman, rather dowdy and in need of a girdle.

I looked at my other sister, sitting in the sunlight, brown and glossy as a warm brown egg. She was the one with enviable pigment, a dark-skinned blonde whom sunlight loved… No woman who looked like that, I thought, deserved the nature of Carry Nation. But Leonie’s was something like that. More than the rest of us, Leonie bore the vestigial burning passed down from our forebears, a hellfire breed that preached a trail through Indiana and Kentucky… She had this burning, this ax of God. But hers was a hard way, like theirs, and her defeats were many.

It’s not gilding the lily to say that The Moonflower Vine deserves as special a place in American literature as similar books by John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis or William Faulker (I’d be willing to make the argument that The Moonflower Vine is better than almost anything by Faulkner). The unfortunate timing of the book’s publication, when family dramas were falling out of fashion in the literary world, plus the fact that Carleton wrote only one more book, the less-inspired Claire de Lune, made the The Moonflower Vine the stepchild of mid-century American literature.

That e-books have given books like The Moonflower Vine a second chance at finding a wider audience is one of the best aspects of the format. And it’s beautiful, when you think of it, that a book that includes the following would have a revival in an electronic format:

“I wish Mama and Dad would put in some plumbing,” said Leonie. “Wouldn’t you think they’d want it?”

“Well I don’t know,” said Jessica. “They’ve been without it seventy years, I guess they don’t miss it.”

“They could get used to it.”

Go on, now, and buy a copy of The Moonflower Vine in whatever form you prefer.

Book Beginnings Friday: Know Nothing by Mary Lee Settle

Posted in Book Beginnings Friday, Literature with tags , , on July 27, 2012 by JE Cornett

Uncle Telemachus told about water and women, how they sank a man, weak soft, tears and water, rot and win. He said so. He said, “Ifn the river don’t git ye, a woman will…”

Alright, alright. That’s three lines. But those last two were just too good to pass up.

That’s the first three lines from Mary Lee Settle’s Know Nothing, which I am re-reading after several years. It’s even better this time around, I do believe.

Here’s the synopsis, courtesy of Google Books:

Set in the decades preceding the Civil War, this third volume of The Beulah Quintet – Mary Lee Settle’s unforgettable generational saga about the roots of American culture, class, and identity and the meaning of freedom – tells the tragic tale of Peregrine Catlett and his second son, Johnny. The year 1837 brings a host of perils to the verdant Virginia valley where Peregrine, a third-generation American, is the owner of Beulah. Amid financial panic, debate over the abolition of slavery, and mounting tension between North and South, Peregrine considers freeing his slaves but believes that, with his children scattered, his only hope of retaining his livelihood rests on the use of slave labor. Tied to the land by a special bond, Johnny returns to his father’s farm but stays only until the outbreak of hostilities. As a Confederate soldier, Johnny is aware of the tragedy to come. But family ties outweigh convictions, and he ends up fighting in the war with disastrous results.

A little about the Beulah Quintet — it is a series of five novels that includes (in order) Prisons, O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, The Scapegoat and The Killing Ground. Saga is a better term for the Beulah books, which follow a sprawling West Virginia family from the English Civil Wars, through the American Revolution and the Civil War up to the miners’ strikes in 20th Century West Virginia coalfields.

Know Nothing is gorgeous, literary historical fiction, with an emphasis on literary; while her reputation has diminished in the past few years, Settle is recognized as one of the best American writers of the mid-century period.

Each book of the Beulah Quintet stands alone, by the way, so there’s no need to worry about jumping in in the middle of something if you’re interested in Know Nothing.

Know Nothing

Mary Lee Settle

Univ of South Carolina Press, 1960

So – what are you reading?

And thanks to the Rose City Reader for coming up with this great Friday idea!

E-Books Won’t Disappear — But The Way We Read Will

Posted in Book News, E-books, Internet, Literature, Media, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by JE Cornett

Don’t worry – they’re not coming for your e-books. Not yet, anyway.

The blogosphere/libraryland/readers everywhere are in a dither over Hugh McGuire’s TEDx talk about the disappearance of e-books within five years or so. There’s much weeping, wailing and wringing of hands, most of it due to a blog post  by Porter Anderson that seems to vaguely extrapolate from this TEDx talk that e-books are going to disappear into the “ego noise” of the Internet.

It’s much ado about nothing. In fact, McGuire’s presentation says no such thing, something he’s quick to point out in the blog post’s comments.  “I never said books (or ebooks) will disappear; I said that “the distinction between books and the internet will disappear”” says McGuire in the comments, and the other commenters, some of which beat McGuire to the punch, wholeheartedly agree.

Whether this TEDx talk/blog post’s viral nature speaks to lovers of print books’ need to disparage e-books, or just a complete misunderstanding of the source material is but one interesting aspect of this story. The more intriguing thing is how McGuire and Anderson both miss the whole point. The difference between e-books and the Internet is already so fine as to be, in many cases, non-existent, as anyone with a Kindle or an iPad knows well. The better question, however, is how reading an e-book, whether on the Internet, a Kindle, an iPad or even a smartphone, changes the way we read.

When you pick up an actual book, your mind may wander, but the information remains the same. Without laying that book aside and seeking out more and different information, there is no way to add value to the information as it is (unless someone has made margin notes, which is a conversation for another day). All you have is what’s before you; the viewpoint of the author is static, as is the information presented, until you manually seek out additional information. There is time, then, to absorb the information without extra-contextualization.

Reading e-books on an Internet-ready device changes the experience completely. Want to know what other readers think of the book? Go straight to the linked reviews. Come across a name you don’t recognize? Google it. Want to know more about the author? Google it. Want to highlight a section? See if anyone else has highlighted it, as well.

The larger question is, how does reading a book that is basically a living thing differ from reading what many laughingly call a “dead tree” book? It’s a question that’s already been asked and answered of the e-book’s next of kin, the Internet.  Way back in 2008, The Atlantic‘s Nicholas Carr began to worry that the Internet was affecting his ability to read and digest text in an article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid“. While 2008 does not seem to be eons ago, it pre-dates the e-book frenzy that began around 2010-2011, so much so that Carr does not even mention e-books to any degree in the essay. Yet the conclusion he draws from his online reading habits mirrors almost exactly what McGuire forecasts in his TED talk:

When the [Internet]* absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the [Internet’s] image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed.

This recreation of the e-book in the Internet’s image is what McGuire is extolling as the e-book as Internet’s biggest virtue, and what, as Carr has already discovered, is the biggest difference in the way we read even ten years ago and the way we read now.

But is it indeed a virtue? The examples that McGuire and Anderson use are hardly relevant to most e-book reading; while the majority of Amazon’s e-book sales are fiction and creative non-fiction, McGuire and Anderson cite a YouTube interactive Bible and an online version of  the 1912 journal of Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole that’s linked to Google Maps. The best thing about the Google Maps-enabled Scott journal, according to McGuire? It’s “a beautiful web experience.”

Is a beautiful web experience what we want, when we reach for a book? Do we want the same type of added-value, extra-context information that we get from a web page? Is that even good for us?

Carr references developmental pyschologist Maryanne Wolf’s  Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain extensively in making his argument that Google and the Internet are (or already have) changing the way we read:

… the style of reading promoted by the [Internet], a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, [Wolf] says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The idea that the Internet was changing the way we think so disturbed Carr that he expanded his article into a full-length book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In the book, Carr states something that is intriguing, if the line between books and the Internet is indeed blurred:

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

If you’re ready to dismiss Carr and Wolf as hysterical doomsayers, don’t do so just yet.  As a reader, can I learn to recognize symbolism if it’s highlighted and pointed out to me? Can I derive understanding from a chunk of text when it’s diluted by links to ever more information? Or will I, as Carr noted that he already had, simply skim the text, jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, never actually absorbing what the author is saying?

As someone who’s already noticed the same changes in reading habits as Carr has, I’m not sure I want to read books the way I read the Internet. I want a literal disconnect, when I read. I want to be absorbed by the text, not continually distracted. This is coming from someone who loves to read annotated non-fiction, the original hyper-textualized text; when I read non-fiction, I expect additional information. When I read creative non-fiction or fiction, I find it intrusive.

McGuire’s vision of a world where e-books are the Internet is frightening to me. We’ve already reached a stage where simply choosing to read the print book instead of the hyperlinked, added-value version may be threatened. E-book sales on Amazon have already surpassed the sales of printed books, and Amazon is quickly gobbling up print and e-book publishers, including one that caters to libraries. Many books are being published in e-book format only, leaving a reader no other choice but to read the e-book.

As e-books overtake printed books, and e-books become Internet, our reading becomes Internet reading, as well. Do we want the old way of reading to disappear? And can stop it?

*In each instance where you see [Internet], I’ve substituted for Carr’s quaint use of “the Net,” out of fear that you, reader, are already a victim of the type of reading he and Wolf are concerned about. “The Net” functions as hypertextualization that will have you laughing aloud as you fondly recall the days when the Internet was known as the “World Wide Web” and “Information Superhighway.”

Browse On By — What I’m Loving This Week

Posted in Browse on By, Literature, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2012 by JE Cornett

Source: today.msnbc.msn.com via Jeanna on Pinterest

Mostly I love Carla Kelly this week.

Also, I love my Royksopp, Air and Band of Bees stations on Pandora. Perfect background music for writing and reading by the way, interesting enough to keep you engaged, but unobtrusive. Go make your own now.

Someone at Yahoo had the brilliant idea of gathering a bunch of writings by classic rock journalists together in one place and calling it Rock’s Backpages. All the usual suspects are there, like Barney Hoskyns, Al Aronowitz and Chris Salewicz and here’s an awesome piece on George Clinton that will make you wants to get funked up.

I lurk around The Bookshelf Muse all the time. If you write for fun or profit, it’s well worth a few wasted minutes of time.  This particular post about how to write males expressing emotion versus females was fascinating for me.

The war between genre fiction and literary fiction continues to wage, but no one said it better than Daniel Abraham, who, in the guise of genre literature, wrote this lovely letter to mainstream. As in stream of Diet Dr. Pepper coming out your nose.

Sometimes, I just like to see cats in tiny hats. What — you don’t?

Now I’m going back to reading genre fiction while listening to Royksopp and stopping periodically to think about hats for cats.

Where You Find It: Baby Alligators and Bibliographies

Posted in Biography, Literature, Magazines, Movies, Music, Non-Fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2012 by JE Cornett

Dana Andrews and Anne Baxter on the set of “Swamp Water.”

The argument could be made that the best non-fiction acts as a funnel, winnowing down into an expertly pieced mosaic the information the sources about the subject present. And the quality of the finished work is, of course, a direct reflection of the quality of the sources.

The bibliography of a well-researched book is a work of art in and of itself, acting as both a road map to the finished book and a treasure map to a voracious reader.  Consider the case of Swamp Water, Hollywood Enigma by Carl Rollyson, and Vereen Bell.

One of the best sections of Hollywood Enigma, Rollyson’s biography of actor Dana Andrews, covers the 1941 film Swamp Water. It’s an obscure film despite its pedigree as one of the first American films by renowned French director Jean Renoir. I’d never even heard of the film, nor did I know that the source for the movie was a novel by an all-but forgotten author, Vereen Bell.

Bell, a Georgia native, began his career writing for religious and juvenile magazines. He worked briefly as an editor of American Boy/Youth’s Companion before returning to Georgia to try his hand at freelancing. During the late 1930s, he sold outdoor stories to Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, and wrote two novels, Swamp Water and Two of a Kind, that first appeared as serials in the Post.

Swamp Water, the story of a boy and his prized hunting dog finding trouble in the Okefenokee swamp, was published as a novel in 1940 by Little, Brown. The book was an instant success — a second print run was ordered a month after the first. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, Bell sold the movie rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for $15,000, which is where the story gets even more interesting.

A quick turnaround for a purchased property like Swamp Water was not unheard of during the studio era  of film-making, but Swamp Water might have set a new standard for speed. The film was in theaters by 1941, no mean feat when one discovers, as I did via Hollywood Enigma, that the movie was filmed on location in Waycross, Georgia.

Renoir, new to Hollywood and riding on his reputation as one of French cinema’s best-known directors, insisted that a portion of the film be shot in the Okefenokee. In June, 1941, Renoir, along with Dana Andrews who played young Ben, the dog who played Trouble (and his trainer), and a small crew, descended upon Waycross for filming. Locals appeared in the film as doubles for male characters, and the Okefenokee played itself.

Rollyson’s account of the filming led me to some fascinating information about the film and its premiere, the best of which appears on the Georgia Encyclopedia. As Megan Kate Nelson writes on the entry for Swamp Water:

After the Hollywood crowd left, Waycross residents began to campaign to host the movie’s premiere. They besieged Twentieth Century Fox executives with requests, and even sent Darryl Zanuck and others live baby alligators with tags affixed to their necks saying, “Even the gators in Okefenokee went to the premiere in Waycross.” Zanuck gave in and notified Lamar Swift, manager of the two movie theaters in Waycross—the Ritz and the Lyric—that he could have the premiere, slated for October 23, 1941. Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge declared the day of the premiere “Swamp Water Day” in the state, and Waycross merchants decorated the streets and their stores. A parade, special dinner, and wagon-ride preceded the premiere. Vereen Bell was the guest of honor.

What I sought, in seeking all this information about Swamp Water, was more information about Bell. As someone with a degree in English with a concentration on early 20th-century Southern American literature, I was embarrassed that I had to learn of Bell’s work — and the peculiar history of Swamp Water — in a biography of a film star.

Bell’s relative obscurity, however, may have less to do with popular neglect than with tragic circumstance. He wrote one more novel after Swamp Water before enlisting in the Navy at the outset of World War 11. In 1944, at the age of 33, he perished at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

But my discovery of Bell is the beauty of a great bibliography. The best bibliographies demonstrate an author’s struggle to understand his subject, to make sense of the subject in terms of both the immediate and as a part of a larger whole. As he struggles, he casts wider and wider nets around the subject, nets that may drag in seemingly unrelated, but important information.

Even when the subject itself seems shallow, the sources that make up the finished product may have delved deeply into aspects that are not readily apparent. Nowhere is that more true than in non-fiction about American film and film stars; movies were so pervasive in the culture and sociology of the first half of the 20th century that almost any well-researched book on the subject unearths a wealth of diverse, fascinating sources.

Even a scant bibliography can be a thing of beauty. Non-fiction and biographies of early silent film figures and 1960s-1970s era musicians, for instance, are often thin on contemporary print sources; as emerging forms, few major publications covered early silent film or rock music. The best contemporary reviews, interviews and articles about 1960s rock music were often found in music magazines and small regional papers that didn’t survive the era, and these magazines and papers are sometimes as intriguing as the biography subjects themselves.

Take this Ellen Herst article about the parallels between Charles Manson and folk musician/ostensible cult leader Mel Lyman. The article, found in an online bibliography about Lyman, was taken from Boston After Dark, a precursor to The Boston Phoenix and its many offshoots. A Wikipedia entry about The Phoenix reveals the much more interesting story of The Real Paper, which was formed by displaced/disgruntled writers from The Phoenix.

The bibliography can be a book’s best aspect, surpassing the quality of the writing or the subject. Such is sometimes the case with Greil Marcus’ books; while Marcus’ books themselves are wildly uneven, but almost any of his books are worth buying for the bibliographies alone. Marcus may not always pull the rabbit out of the hat, but the hat is full of tricks, any of which may be better than the rabbit itself.

Bibliographies are so valuable to me that I sometimes wonder what’s missing. What did the author come across, during his research, that didn’t make it in? What information that disproves the thesis/did not seem important/was too vexing to parse is missing? What didn’t the author discover about the subject?

Depending on what the reader knows about the subject, this can change the perception of the book itself radically; while researching a project about author Caroline Gordon’s Penhally, I came across two books by the same author that should have included Gordon’s fiction in a discussion of the way the Virginia Cavalier ideal shaped Southern literature. The author’s complete omission of Gordon raised troubling questions for me — did the author’s research somehow fail to turn up Gordon’s fiction, which could be the sign of poor research, or, as a male author, writing mainly about other male authors, did he simply discount Gordon’s contributions? The answer may be simpler; upon further investigation, I realized that the books were written before widespread use of the Internet, and in a period when most of Gordon’s fiction was out of print.

If the Internet itself is the ultimate bibliography, it’s one without context. A Google search for “dana andrews biography” will turn up a lot of stuff and nonsense about Andrews’ most popular films and aspects of his life, but few that I explored feature any mention of Swamp Water, much less Vereen Bell or his writings. And that, ultimately, is what makes the author-created bibliographies a much better jumping-off point for learning. Instead of relying on the (questionable) intelligence of an algorithm, you rely on the dogged pursuit of an author to learn about his subject. That’s never a bad place to start.

Rediscovered: Theodora Keogh

Posted in E-books, Literature, Paperbacks, Rediscovered, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 3, 2012 by JE Cornett

The mid-century novelist Theodora Keogh’s disappearance  from the popular consciousness demonstrates the difference between books and literature, best-sellers and perennial favorites. Popular fiction – and nonfiction, for that matter – is rarely classic fiction. For every John Updike or Cormac McCarthy, there are dozens of Taylor Caldwells and Cynthia Freemans whose books, for better or for worse, sell well during their era, but are largely forgotten within just a few years. The fact that these books slowly fade from our literary memory is not necessarily an indictment of their quality (although in many cases, it is). Rather, it’s the confluence of several factors: a style that falls from popularity, an author whose momentum is lost, or a subject that seems dated within several years of publication.

Any combination of these factors have acted on Theodora Keogh’s books over the years. Her writing is elegant and modern, even if the pulpy subjects of her books — adolescent girl’s adventures on the mean streets of New York, bored housewife takes brutal lover…

Never mind — let’s read the publisher’s blurb on the back  of Keogh’s The Other Girl:

“She came to Hollywood looking for the answer to the strange hunger in her blood. But not until she met Betty, the tantalizing, voluptuous slut, could she put a name to the passion that was consuming her. The tragic drama of their encounter unwound against the sordid backdrop of Hollywood’s prostitutes and procurers, misfits and rejects–and then exploded in a shocking, and inevitable, climax. “

Contrast that breathless litany with an excerpt from the book:

Almost everyone wore pompadours that year, especially around Hollywood.  Even the men seemed to have a stiff upward swirl on their front locks in timid but stubborn imitation. It was 1946 and World War II was pronounced over.  The West Coast, the sprawl of suburbs around Los Angeles seemed especially suited to this uneasy peace. The crack of atomic doom was like a ringmaster’s whip, forcing to a prance both young and old alike. But Marge did not feel a part of these frantic posturings. No pompadour for her… looking down now on the scurrying women she felt a wave of contempt for those female bodies…

Ah, you know Marge’s contempt does not bode well. After all, you’ve read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, so you know that a hard nut like Marge is never going to coming to any good.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lurid nature of many of Keogh’s books, the author is going through a renaissance of sorts right now. For some inexplicable reason, all of her books are available on Amazon in ebook format for $1.00 each.

There’s a schizophrenic quality to Keogh’s printed output that makes it easy to see why her best fiction was neglected, while the freak-show pulp books fell by the wayside. Keogh writes with a strange, sometimes uncomfortable intensity; an everyday exchange between two young girls in Meg takes on huge proportions, while in the excerpt above from The Other Girl, Marge establishes herself as a less-than sympathetic narrator within the first chapter through her contempt and coldness toward other women. In the best of Keogh’s books, such as Meg and Street Music, this quality in her writing makes for indelible portraits of ordinary people in bizarre circumstances. But this quality lends itself all too well to the type of pulpy sensationalism that Keogh often wrote, like The Other Girl, The Mistress and The Double Door. Because Keogh was an artist of her type, the line is sometimes so blurred, the veering between ugliness that’s real and ugliness for ugliness’ sake so whiplash-inducing, that she produced a couple books that are either genius or pure trash — The Fascinator is one of these.

Ostensibly the story of a rich New York housewife who falls in love with the Fascinator of the title, a famous sculptor (named Zanic, no less), The Fascinator could almost be a companion piece to The Feminine Mystique, so striking is the similarity between Ellen, the protagonist, and Betty Friedan’s middle class housewives consumed by their ennui. Yet it wouldn’t be a Keogh book if there weren’t disturbing, predatory elements to Zanic that sometimes push the book into pulp territory. In this way, it’s almost an inspiration to The Feminine Mystique, predating that book by ten years (The Fascinator was published in 1954), and unwittingly giving Friedan a cautionary tale for all the bored women whose good educations and bright imaginations have led them into adultery and dissolution rather than careers or creativity.

Keogh authored only a handful of books between the publication of Meg in 1950 and her final book, The Other Girl in 1962. While it’s doubtful that her rediscovery and republication in e-book format will vaunt her books into the American literary canon, Keogh is nonetheless worth reading.

Book Review: If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley

Posted in History, Literature, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 12, 2012 by JE Cornett

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is the kind of book that’s perfect for reading during your lunch break or while waiting at the doctor’s office — light, engaging non-fiction full of obscure facts and entertaining history that’s great for passing the time without wasting it.

The author, Lucy Worsley, is a chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity organization responsible for such British treasures as the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens.  In If Walls Could Talk, Worsley employs the trivia gleaned from her work to a history of each room of the home and the way these rooms have evolved in use and appearance throughout history.

An excellent example that encapsulates the scope of If Walls Could Talk is Worsley’s description of the humble bedroom closet over the course of several centuries. Since the bedroom was, for centuries, a combination office, library, sitting room and sleeping area, closets often served as a private area where one could pray, read or study, and store art, valuables, or other items not intended for public viewing. Only as the bedroom evolved to a more private space did the closet evolve into mere storage space, or, as Worsley points out, disappear altogether, as the closet did in many British homes from the 17th century to the late 20th century.

Worsley covers each room in the home in such a manner, exploding square footage into the larger historical and social context. A discussion of the bathroom includes the history of indoor plumbing in Britain, while the history of the bedroom includes everything that went on in the bedroom, from sex to childbirth to medical treatments.

If Walls Could Talk is the best example of non-fiction-as-entertainment. Trust me when I tell you that it will be ages before you look at your closet or flush your toilet without thinking of this book. Which is a good thing.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

By: Lucy Worsley

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Walker & Company

U.S. Release Date: February 28, 2012