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Bookshelf: 'At Home,' 'Cranford' on audio

After publishing the wide-ranging "A Short History of Nearly Everything" in 2003, Bill Bryson was casting about for a smaller subject for his next book. He decided to look no further than his own house, a Victorian parsonage built in 1851 in the English village of Wymondham. The result: "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" (Random House Audio, 14 CDs, $25).

Although he was born and raised in America, Bryson has spent much of his adult life in England; he now resides in the county of Norfolk, where he is the chancellor of Durham University. Bryson is a peerless observer of American and British mores, and in this book, which he narrates himself, he casts a bemused eye on the annals of domestic life.

The focus is both narrower and broader than the subtitle promises. Bryson structures the book around the rooms of his house, but he uses them mainly as jumping-off points for things that interest him. For example, his tour of the kitchen centers almost entirely on the introduction of ice as a preservative. He mentions cans and jars but never the much older methods of smoking, pickling and salting; a reader might assume that food simply was not preserved until the mid-18th century. Nor does he say anything about stoves or ovens. Apparently they're not as interesting as iceboxes.

Then again, he manages to work in lengthy exegeses on the Eiffel Tower, the Erie Canal and how, in 1834, the first draft of Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution was accidentally burned by philosopher John Stuart Mill's maid. (Bryson presents a convincing exoneration of the maid and lays the blame at the feet of Mill's mistress, Harriet Taylor.)

See - you're already interested, aren't you? A better subtitle for "At Home" would be appropriate for any Bill Bryson book: "Another Collection of Things I Find Fascinating and You Will, Too." This guy is incapable of being boring.

The book is frequently laugh-out-loud funny - a history of private life isn't far from a history of human folly - but underlying the author's good-natured japery is this unavoidable corollary: Humans never really do figure it out. We just stumble forward making fools of ourselves.

Bryson makes a big deal of how very dark our homes were before electricity, and he uses as an illustration a passage from Elizabeth Gaskell's Victorian novel "Cranford" (BBC Audiobooks, six CDs, $29.95):

"Now Miss Matty Jenkyns was chary of candles," Cranford's narrator writes. "We had many devices to use as few as possible. . . . We only burnt one at a time. As we lived in constant preparation for a friend who might come in any evening (but who never did), it required some contrivance to keep our two candles of the same length, ready to be lighted, and to look as if we burnt two always."

This image, of a woman simultaneously economizing and keeping up appearances, is emblematic of the gentle, bittersweet humor that suffuses "Cranford." Mrs. Gaskell (as she is always called) is not so widely read today as her contemporaries Dickens, the Brontës, Thackeray or Trollope. (She has found fame on "Masterpiece Theatre," where Judi Dench and company have starred in the TV series based on "Cranford," as well as "My Lady Ludlow," "Mr. Harrison's Confessions" and "The Last Generation in England.")

The plot of "Cranford" certainly doesn't sound like much: a series of anecdotes taking place over the course of many decades in the eponymous fictional town (modeled on Knutsford in Northwest England). Our narrator, nameless until near the end of the book, is a frequent visitor to town and is a good deal younger than most of its inhabitants. Everyone in Cranford seems to be an old lady. None of them has much money or does anything much but visit and gossip, and yet from these seemingly humdrum elements, Gaskell crafts an engaging and sometimes gripping story.

The most sympathetic of the ladies is self-effacing Matty Jenkyns, she of the candle conservation, who has endured a lifetime of effacement by her imperious older sister, Deborah. Her social circle includes Miss Pole, a small-minded gossip; Mrs. Jamieson, the most well-born of the ladies, and Martha, Matty's maid. All of these characters - and scores more - are brought vividly to life by actress Prunella Scales, best known as Sybil from the BBC sitcom "Fawlty Towers." The combination of Mrs. Gaskell and Mrs. Scales brought me to laughter and, occasionally, tears.

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