Strange to have left this unfinished for so long whilst knowing how likeable it is. It's a guilty-pleasure history book: full of fascinating factoidsStrange to have left this unfinished for so long whilst knowing how likeable it is. It's a guilty-pleasure history book: full of fascinating factoids and inferences about every day human behaviour in the past - the kind of thing that could inspire a teenager to do a history degree; however, if gathering evidence for an essay, you'd need volumes like those in the bibliography, as there are no footnotes, and this is obviously just popular narrative history to be devoured like a story.
Last year I started the book again and got so incensed by the Goodreads reviews from Americans who wanted special contextual footnotes or re-writing just to explain British things them, that I had to put the book away. We - and the rest of the world - are bombarded with American books all the time and we're expected to work out references to Peeps and brownstones and baseball arcana. How come they can't manage it the other way round? Also, I bet they haven't seen the TV series because Lucy Worsley is lovely, and how can you criticise her?
In the meantime, I trained myself to read fewer community reviews. This has been a good thing.
I'd love to say the book is practically perfect, but there is the odd error, or example of out of date research. For instance, it was known by 2011, at least in some quarters, that the 'rushes' on the floors of medieval halls were woven rush mats, not just a lot of loose stalks scattered. Also, there are a few things - details of modern every day life, like those that bothered the American reviewers - which look like personal perceptions: I don't think galingal, hake or whiting are particularly obscure (I was too- frequently served the two latter as a kid), and I'm of a similar background and age to the author. I really liked the moments of authorial intrusion, details about her life and flat, because I'm a fan, and anyway those make a lot of sense in a TV tie-in book - but they may not be so welcome for those who are unfamiliar with a writer. It would have been nice to see proportionally less, on royal households, and - whilst there is some - more on the middling sorts and lower orders; but this can't really be helped given the surviving evidence and typical audience interest. My preference would have been to exclude the material on America and include mainland Europe instead, but no doubt the publishers had an eye on likely markets. (Who will only say irritating things on the internet about their product anyway.)
The assertions that disgust and shame were 'new' emotions, which became prevalent in Britain only in the early modern period, make me want to do research. In psychology these are considered core emotions common to all cultures; however it would be far from the first time that psychologists had asserted that a contemporary norm was an absolute. I've no idea who's right without digging around in a lot of textbooks and journals.
I was surprised how much I learned, nonetheless. I figured because I'd known for years about things like the ancient pattern of humans probably having two sleeps on long winter nights, that everything else would be cosily familiar. I didn't used to know that the term 'cloakroom' was used for loos because an ammonia-rich environment was a good place to hang your medieval robes so as to discourage pests. Or there are things I should have deduced, maybe once did but had forgotten - e.g. that it might have been preferable to be a medieval servant rather than a peasant because you'd have access to better food. It would be possible to write down a couple of dozen such factoids. (Maybe I'll add a couple more later.) And a small personal mystery has been solved; most of my life I thought 'quilt' and 'duvet' might be class-marked words for the same item, Mitford style, although no-one else had ever said so. I secretly resented having to say 'duvet' more and more often so people knew what I was talking about. Given what this book says, my word preference probably just means my family were early adopters of the things known in the 70s as 'continental quilts', whilst the word 'duvet' became popular a little later, never feeling like the 'right' or original term to me.
The reflections of the remarkable number of ways in which tastes and opinions have revolved over the past 1000 years were nice to have, and I was surprised to see future projections so much in line with my own casual thinking on how environmental issues, the end of oil and the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics might change homes, in some way perhaps becoming more like the past. I was instinctively comfortable with these sections, whilst also thinking I'd have framed them a little more conditionally and cautiously if writing them down, and added supporting evidence. But then, like the narrative of a contemporary TV documentary, the publishers clearly weren't aiming for an academic presentation.
This has always been a nice book to browse - odd chapters throughout the book were entirely familiar when reading it from cover to cover these last few days - but it was great to read the whole thing finally. It may not have quite all Worsley's exuberant presence that a TV series has, but to make up for it there's more information....more
Like Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002), it has a pre-lapsarian naivety: stories of middle-class white AMeh. An 00s word for a very 00s book.
Like Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002), it has a pre-lapsarian naivety: stories of middle-class white Americans who, before the crash, rarely worry about money, and who go on holiday to exotic locations and stay wrapped up in their own worlds. A narrative that is embarrassingly honest and likely accurate, but would be unfashionable and frequently vilified online now - especially as it doesn't actively signpost embarrassment and guilt as much as one is supposed to. One could argue that Eggers' writing career has followed that modern therapeutic maxim (that isn't right for everyone, for sometimes these things aid each other simultaneously): deal with your own shit before trying to help others: his early books looked at self, family and friends of similar backgrounds, then he moved on to big political, sometimes global themes.
I enjoyed Velocity a few years ago, but many of these short stories I found quite boring. I used to really like Eggers (also Heartbreaking Work - evidently right for the 'loved-it-at-the-time' tag) and remember saying, possibly not on here, it might have been on a creative writing course pre-GR, that he perfectly captured how things feel and I wished I could write that way. I read about half of How We Are Hungry in 2011 and was fairly impressed then. Now I find it mostly flat and detached emotionally, and characters are dull because they're rarely interested in anything except themselves, family and friends, and express it in a numbed, ordinary way. Which is at least fast to read. They're still working out how they feel about everyday stuff in a late-twenties way - a noticeably bad fit for the characters aged 40+, whose voices rarely sound like they are that age. Currently, Richard Powers is the author who fits ... how I see life, which isn't quite the right phrase, and anyway the very idea of writers fitting your life or outlook at certain points sounds like something from a rubbish, wanky MFA in a comment thread: but emotions and experiences in Powers' fiction are more vivid than in early Eggers, and he and his characters are fascinated by complex topics outside themselves.
Stuff I did like in How We Are Hungry: -'Your Mother and I': a father, probably 40ish, is reminiscing about life to a pre-teen kid, except he and his wife literally 'put the world to rights' as one can only do in daydreams. Some of it's big stuff, other little personal irritations. It's charming and unexpected, and it clicked with conversations I have with friends about stuff we wish we could change. Quote: About then, we had a real productive period. In about six months, we established a global minimum wage, we made it so smoke detectors could be turned off without having to rip them from the ceiling, and we got Soros to buy the Amazon to preserve it. -'Naveed'. A girl, twenties presumably, realises she's about to sleep with her thirteenth person and resolves to pull a fourteenth ASAP so her 'number' won't be 13 and she won't have to hear jokes about a 'baker's dozen' and so on. Her expectation of judgement was a shame - in my circle that wasn't a big number at all, and no one was judgemental about that stuff anyway, [who are these people who are still like that and young and not religious?] so being on '13' for as short a time as possible was simply superstition - but it was one of those funny little internal thoughts that one never expects to see in writing. - 'Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly'. Really should be bracketed with the dull stories about Americans on exotic holidays. But more interesting personally as it's about mountaineering & trekking, stuff that, if I were fit and well, I'd rather be doing in my spare time than sitting about on GR - albeit in less environmentally fucked ways than this expedition. I liked the mundane accounts of things one usually hears in a different style and with more drama in non-fiction, and attention to experiential details that those writers either ignore or are too seasoned to have to deal with in the first place. - 'After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned'. Depressingly titled story, but actually rather exhilarating even where the circumstances don't ring true. Told from dog POV (Kafka inspiration?). Hint: the two events are years apart. - I marked the only two things that made me laugh. They make me sound like a bit of a sicko, but anyway. She wanted to open umbrellas in the faces of cats, make them scurry and scream. Wot? And a little less bizarrely: The problem is that Fish has never had a fascination with people who try to kill themselves. Maybe if he took more of an interest in the concept, Adam wouldn't keep trying to prove how intriguing it is.
Elsewhere, it does one of two things that really annoy me in fiction just now. At least the collection doesn't contain any dreams or fortune telling scenes that come true. (Will someone PLEASE write more stories in which they don't.) But there are characters who say they know what will happen in a new friendship, e.g. I knew then that I would get her a job where I worked, that she and I would become closer, that I would know the things I want to know about her. I tend to know instantly if I like people IRL, so that basic feeling I've no problem with - but this stuff, no. And it's getting boring the frequency with which it appears in books. There are more interesting ways for writers to show their working if they want to do some meta reveal of their storyboard. Like 'Notes for a Story of a Man Who Will Not Die Alone' - cool plan structure, which half reminded me why I used to like Eggers. A mis-step though to make the man a retired ob-gyn (it's hard for a male one not to seem a little odd, and anyone who'd had much to do with healthcare would see dying as a messier and less predictable business than the character does). The plot was kind of charming along the lines of Dave Gorman / Danny Wallace projects, but I wondered if I would have noticed ten years ago how crashingly egotistical the character's idea was; now that realisation spoilt the potentially endearing nature of the piece. In both its good and bad points it seemed remarkably of its time.
I only read this because I'd started it in the past - and it's short. Not sure I'd recommend it for anyone other than Eggers completists. ...more