Bill Bryson, Jill Lepore and Other Great Reads

In this week’s roundup of new books: an American historian goes inside the Tea Party; Bill Bryson takes us on tour of the home through history; and a magazine editor’s rides the waves with scientists and surfers.

In this week’s roundup of new books, an American historian goes inside the Tea Party; Bill Bryson takes us on tour of the home through history; and a magazine editor rides the waves with scientists and surfers.

The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American HistoryBy Jill Lepore

Everyone’s got an explanation for the Tea Party’s rise. Unemployment. Bank bailouts. The African fellow in the White House. Jill Lepore gives a different spin in her tidy package of a new book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History. As an historian, Lepore finds the cause of Tea Party well inside her own wheelhouse. Its origins, she says, have less to do with Dick Armey—or Thomas Jefferson, for that matter—than with Dick Nixon.

Lepore mingles with the Tea Party crowds in her hometown of Boston (she catches Sarah Palin’s visit this spring) and attends planning sessions for the Boston Tea Party in the Green Dragon Tavern, where the Sons of Liberty once schemed. But unlike most workaday reporters, Lepore is steeped in the history of the city and the American Revolution. Lepore knows that the founding’s history isn’t a solid thing. It’s been contested from the beginning. Not for nothing did John Adams once predict, “The history of our revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other end.”

According to Lepore’s accounting, the last time America was so hot with Tea Party fever was in the run-up to the country’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976. The pessimism and presentism which marked that occasion caused a severing between historians and the reading masses. Great public intellectuals like Richard Hofstadter were exiting the stage. Other historians, newly engaged with the microhistory that Lepore now practices, found little place for them among a public that craved a coherent, personality-driven version of American history. Into their place moved biographers who would profitably perform the task, laying the groundwork for the lessons of the past which now appears on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard. The rest is, well, history.

Tackling the present, the near present, and the far-away past in one small volume, Lepore has not only penned an indictment of the Tea Party’s crimes against history, she’s also working in the tradition of Hofstadter, helping edge the academy closer to the public arena. And remaining a card-carrying historian, churning out intricate studies like New York Burning, Lepore has continued to step outside the safe boundaries of the ivory tower. At the risk of being accused of dilettantism, she’s even tried her hand at historical fiction, co-authoring Blindspot in 2008. Now she’s given journalism a go, making the case that Lepore is a better reporter than any historian, and a better historian than any reporter.

Samuel P. Jacobs, Staff Reporter, The Daily Beast

At Home: A History of Private LifeBy Bill Bryson

Since 2007, Iowa native Bill Bryson has lived with his family in Norfolk, in a spacious former rectory built in 1851 for an unremarkable Anglican clergyman named Thomas Marsham. As English houses go, this gabled red brick Victorian is neither especially beautiful nor significant. It’s hard, after all, to compete with the medieval grandeur of nearby Wymondham Abbey or even with the ancient church to which the rectory once was attached. And even these antique structures seem rather new, perched as they are on soil dense with the detritus of England’s Roman conquerors.

The Bryson domicile may not be a likely candidate for designation as a National Trust property; but, like its current occupant, the place has an agreeable quirkiness and nearly infinite capacity to surprise. In his latest book, At Home, the author of Notes From a Small Island and A Short History of Almost Everything—among a dozen other titles—Bryson has undertaken “a short history of private life” organized around the rooms of his beloved old rectory.

The wonder is that he didn’t attempt such a book before. Readers familiar with A Walk in the Woods, his epically funny account of failing to walk the Appalachian Trail, will recognize Bryson as a man destined to remain indoors—a tumbler of whiskey in his hand, a roaring fire in his hearth, an attractive Gothic clock ticking away on his mantel. And, of course, a rapt audience at his feet.

Bryson knows himself well, and he warmed to the idea of At Home immediately. “Here was a book I could do in carpet slippers,” he says, a book “as neatly bounded and cozily infinite an old rectory in an English village.” Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. Bryson is constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone; he doesn’t need to go anywhere in order to travel far and wide: His is a capacious brain. Like some demonic schoolboy genius forever dissatisfied by his parents’ paltry explanations for the existence of this or that, Bryson cannot help but embark on a wild tear through every book that holds the vaguest promise of satisfying his apparently boundless curiosity.

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One imagines Bryson, alone in his study—a room that launches a discussion of mousetraps and bats—chafing against the interpretive limitations that afflict many of the scholarly books included in his substantial bibliography. So it is that no room in Bryson’s house is ever as it seems. Each one—from the drawing room to the cellar—contains dozens, if not hundreds, of cavernous metaphorical rooms. He finds inspiration to meditate at a dizzying but remarkably coherent pace on, among other subjects: artificial lighting through the ages; the social ties that bound servants and masters; the plagiaristic tendencies of early cookbook authors; the origins of the expression “middle class”; the suppleness of mahogany and the magic of shellac; the inferiority of Bath stone, which crumbled easily and proved the scourge of architects hired to repair the exterior of Buckingham Palace. And so it goes, and goes.

Bryson leaves little unexplored, however cursorily, least of all the foibles of human nature. What would a book by Bryson be without riotous, devastating remarks about those long since dead? Here he is on Queen Anne, apropos of 18th-century gluttony: “Although paintings of Anne always make her look no more than a little fleshy, she was in fact jumbo-sized—‘exceedingly gross and corpulent’ in the candid expression of her best friend the Duchess of Marlborough.” And there is more: “When she died, she was buried in a coffin that was ‘almost square.’”

In lesser hands, At Home surely would have been a tiresome catalogue of anecdotes and arid ruminations. The book is anything but these things—not at all the guilty pleasure that Bryson’s mellifluent prose and high-spirited humor may at first suggest to uninitiated readers. In fact, as Bryson firmly understands, At Home belongs to a distinguished scholarly tradition with roots in the works of Philippe Ariès, Fernand Braudel, John Demos, Simon Schama, and Lawrence Stone. Their books on the history of private life—about childhood, cleanliness and filth, the heart of the English country house—have dramatically altered our collective sense of just want history really is. Bryson’s debt to these historians is amply acknowledged. His grasp of their findings—together, of course, with his own considerable insights—lend At Home a pleasing intellectual heft and credibility that it would otherwise lack.

In this immensely learned and hugely funny book, Bryson draws attention to what all of us tend to forget, steeped to the gills as we are in the ordinariness of our lives and indifferent to the rooms in which they unfold. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a word wasted, or one anecdote too many. If At Home couldn’t be any briefer than it is (at a decidedly not “short” 500 pages), you’ll often wish that had been longer: Bryson is never funnier than when he takes on the past.

Kirk Davis Swinehart, Professor of History at Wesleyan and Contributor.

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean By Susan Casey

Susan Casey’s last book, The Devil’s Teeth, was about a outpost off the coast of San Francisco where biologists go to study the area’s alarmingly plentiful great white sharks. In The Wave, she roams the globe in search of a different kind of sea monster, giant waves, and the people who surf and study them.

Surprisingly it turns out no one fully understands how ocean waves work. Tides, currents, wind, the shape of the ocean floor, and other waves all interact in a way that makes waves almost impossible to predict. Satellites and supercomputers have dramatically improved scientists’ understanding of ocean dynamics, but the best models are still dangerously crude.

Casey, the editor of O magazine, talks to a range of experts, everyone from physicists and oceanographers to actuaries and marine salvagers, and they all end up scratching their heads at the ocean’s behavior, especially its tendency to throw up rogue waves quadruple the height of the surrounding ones.

These scientists’ work is fascinating, and Casey presents it clearly and dramatically, but it’s the fact that the best research keeps running up against dead ends that most heightens the sense of power and mystery surrounding waves. Creating this sense of awe, more than giving a synopsis of the current state of wave science, is Casey’s aim. So it makes sense that her other major guides to waves are people who have a more intuitive relationship with them: big-wave surfers.

Casey follows the surfers as they fly around the world in search of the biggest swells and watches as they use jetskis to sling each other onto enormous waves. As she talks to surfers about the waves, the scientists’ statistics on amplitude and velocity are brought to life. One powerful wave in Indonesia, breaking in three feet of water above a jagged reef, is a “wood chipper,” another, 60 miles off the coast of San Diego, breaking above a 5,000-foot underground mountain, is “a moon landing,” and one near Carmel “lunged open in a maniac sneer, spitting foam and tangled rafts of kelp,” while “boils, seething disturbances in the water that indicated a shallowly hidden obstacle beneath, burbled up all over the place.”

In fact, the waves are in some ways more distinct characters than the people who surf them, who blend together in their general awesomeness. With rare exceptions, the surfers are described as possessing remarkable humility, good cheer in the face of danger, and selfless concern for one another. Maybe this is because big wave surfing is self-selecting: You wouldn’t last long if you were arrogant and selfish, at least within your cadre of teammates. Or maybe something about the starkness of the conflict between man and nature makes more nuanced characterization difficult. In any case, knocking The Wave for shallow characterization is like complaining that Michael Crichton uses stand-ins and archetypes. It’s not that sort of book. It’s a nonfiction thriller, and Casey moves between scenes of mortal peril and sublime havoc and scientific exploration in a way that leaves you disappointed to leave one scene just for the paragraph or two it takes for the new one to get started.

—Josh Dzieza, Editorial Assistant, The Daily Beast

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