Our local library has a shelf for "staff picks." These are books that are not brand new (these are shelved in a different place, divided into sections for fiction, large print, and non-fiction), but are usually not really old either. Last week Bill and I went to the library and he headed up to the fireplace room to read some magazines and newspapers. I dropped off some book donations and placed some magazines in the exchange rack, then wandered over to the "staff picks" shelf, where I suddenly found that a few books were leaping off the shelf and into my hands. This always happens. I am never sure how exactly, because I seem to go into some kind of wonderful trance as soon as I enter a library. This time, I ended up with a few books I had never even heard of--one was about this guy who was miserable and decided to write 365 thank -you notes in a year. It was pretty good--a memoir organized around his growing realization that maybe if he did not always look for the black cloud behind the silver lining, he could be a happier person and in the process enrich the lives of others as well. Bill is reading it now. He tends to be someone who is always looking for--and finding--the black cloud. I am a silver lining kind of gal, so I suppose we balance each other out.
Yesterday I read the Penelope Lively book that also came home with me. I have read some of her fiction in the past and enjoyed it, but this was a work of non-fiction. She was writing about large social issues of the 20th century in Britain and Europe--class structure, WW II, gender issues, rural/urban divide, changes in Russia, etc--but she did it using her grandmother's large country home and the items that were in it as jumping off points. So in a chapter about a sampler that her grandmother had made, she talked about her grandmother's amazing needlework skills, but also about children who had been evacuated from more urban areas to the rural ones during World War II (the sampler contained images of these children). A chapter about utensils contained a bit about her family history as purveyors of a certain brand of silver cleaner and other househiold cleaning products, but also a discussion about how households have changed and how her own daughters and granddaughters had no idea what some of the silver utemsils were supposed to be used for.
I found it a fascinating book. This is probably not surprising, since it included most of the topics I am interested in--social institutions, class, gender, religion, women's domestic labor, and life stories. The book is called A House Unlocked and I had never heard of it until it jumped from the "staff picks" shelf into my hands at the library last week. I am glad it found me!