2022. It was the year of the continuing pandemic, the year of dramatic weather, the year of gratitude, of comfort food, of appreciating small details and big moments, and finally the year of being able to get back together with friends and family. It was also the year of the recommended book. It’s so wonderful to hear so much buzz about favorite book lists and recommended reads these days all from a variety of different outlets. They’ve popped up in the usual places – bookstore emails, cooking magazines and blogs but also in unsuspecting places this year too – podcasts, garden centers, even our grocery store had a section of books dedicated to staff picks. Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we have our own favorites to recommend too.
For a long-time on the blog every December, I shared a batch of books that I discovered during the year that helped fuel research for a recipe or give context to a blog story or a shop item. Then that list seeped out into other months with other recommendations, because the reading is always happening and so many books swimming on my desk, on my nightstand, on my dining table set their hooks. Sometimes it was a book about a specific person, a surprise, like Bette Davis. Sometimes it was atmospheric like the novel Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange and sometimes it was a gathering of memories about a place that made the past come to life in the present like meeting the Durrells in My Family and Other Animals or the Chamberlains in Clementine in the Kitchen. Sometimes it was even books published so long ago that they came back as new-to-the-world anniversary editions like the 1959 novel Mrs. Bridge, about the midcentury suburban home life of everywoman, India Bridge.
It’s been three years since our last book recommendation list, but I’m excited to say that our end-of-the-year wrap-up includes this tradition now taken up again. So whether you are traveling this week, and need something to read on the train, on the plane, or in the car, or you are taking a few days off to relax and wind down your 2022 festivities, I hope this list will add some interest to your December days.
Not all these books are brand new to the publishing world this year. The oldest one debuted in 1992 and the most recent was published just this past April (2022), but they were new to me so perhaps they will be new to you as well. This year, they each happen to center around the idea of home and the occupants in it. There are grand palaces, a rustic second home, a 1600s-era house passed down through generations, and a new old house ready to be revived. There are famous names attached to a few, and a long lineage attached to another. There is one house that’s continuously under construction the whole way through and then there is another house that’s patched up here and there with thoughtful consideration drawn out over generations. Through these books, we travel. To England, to Italy, to Connecticut, to Massachusetts, and then back again to England. These are family stories, personal stories, and cultural stories, but above all, they are human stories that connect us to places and people we call home. I hope you find them as fascinating as I did. And I hope they spark a conversation or two once read over a meal shared. That’s always how we like to talk about books around here.
Let’s take a look at this year’s favorites…
Living in A Foreign Language (2008)
Fans of the tv show, L.A. Law will know Michael Tucker and his wife Jill Eikenberry. They were regulars on the show for eight years spanning the 1980s-1990s in career-defining roles that still get them noticed around town. Michael’s memoir, Living in a Foreign Language, is about his purchase of a centuries-old farmhouse called Il Rustico in Italy’s Umbrian countryside just outside of Spoleto. Flanked by olive groves and herb gardens, it was initially intended as a second home to supplement but also maybe swap Michael and Jill’s L.A. lifestyle. Only there is one hitch. Jill wasn’t looking to change much about their life in Los Angeles.
When Michael, an unapologetic house collector, sold his wife’s dream home in Big Sur, seemingly on a whim, he tried to convince her that Italy was the answer for the next chapter of their lives. Jill, not quite as swept up in this international escapade as her husband, eventually, warms to the idea of prosciutto for breakfast, of afternoons spent in Italian language classes, and of nightly dinner parties with new friends. Michael on the other hand is all in, right from the beginning. Not knowing the language, not knowing the real estate market, not knowing anything about maintaining ancient stone houses or the country they sit on, Michel jumps in feet first with enthusiasm and a wine glass in hand.
Traveling back and forth between Italy and the U.S., Michael spends much of his adjustment time by himself, getting to know his new house in Italy while Jill is back in California. He is confounded, disoriented and enchanted by everything. He feels the heat of the sun, the twinkling light as it shines through the olive trees, the step at the top of the stairs where centuries of dwellers have walked before him. He hears the melodious Italian accents but cannot fully understand them. He doesn’t know where to deposit his trash or service his car or handle the necessary day-to-day tasks that defy international boundaries. But that is of little consequence. He’s in Italy. Realizing a dream. And really that’s all that matters. In one lovely paragraph in particular, he states his desire for this new adventure in this new land. To immerse himself in the circadian rhythm of time and place. There at Il Rustico, he didn’t want to douse the house with his L.A. energy, his American expectations, and his forced agendas. He wanted instead to fall in step with the natural rhythm of his surroundings. To experience the house, the property, the country, as it was not as he wanted it to be. Isn’t that a lovely sentiment?
Funny and thoughtful and really well-written, I read this book over the summer during our New England heatwave, which means it’s great if you are looking to warm up this winter given Michael’s descriptions of the pastoral beauty that is Italy in all its warm and welcoming ways. While reading, be prepared to be hungry for all foods Italian. You’ll never crave prosciutto and pasta more after reading about all those Italian dinner parties. If you need a great recipe for authentic Italian tomato sauce, try this one.
Martha Stewart’s New Old House (1992)
Martha Stewart’s fourteenth book, New Old House, might have been published thirty years ago, but it’s still as fresh and captivating as the day it debuted back in 1992. It tells the story in words and photographs of how she renovated Turkey Hill, her most well-known home and where so much of her content, inspiration, homesteading and presentation skills were fine-tuned before she moved on to other places and other properties.
Built in Connecticut in 1805, Martha takes readers month-by-month through the process of not only historically and accurately restoring Turkey Hill but also making it a place where she could live, work and dream into the future. In true Martha fashion, she’s meticulous in her every effort and her recording of it, sharing her processes for each detail from window reglazing all the way to landscaping. It’s fun to see how the house transforms under her care. This book is also a great guide for anyone who is fixing up an old house of their own, as she offers lots of expert tips and guidance on how to tackle specific issues relating to antique properties.
How To Be a Victorian (2015)
I first picked up this book because I thought I might learn more about antique dishware, serving practices, table settings, and kitchen life in general. What unfolded instead was a complete history lesson in all the details of day-to-day Victorian life.
Beginning at daybreak and taking readers through an entire twenty-four-hour period of life in Victorian England between the years 1837-1901, this is a nitty gritty, detailed account of the routines of men, women, and children. Sparing no detail, historian Ruth Goodman covers all aspects of the day starting first thing in the morning with feet on the floor. Addressing each person one by one – men getting out of bed, women getting out of bed, servants getting out of bed, children getting out of bed and the processes they each go through to begin their day based on different socio-economic levels, this book is fascinating from page one. Full of insights, fun facts, and history, Ruth shares an honest, accurate, unflinching and oftentimes unromantic look at what Victorian life was really like, from how they washed their faces to how they served their soup. From fashion to finances, bathing to beauty routines, leisure activities to work, religion to education, medicine to mechanic marvels, all gets covered here.
At times funny, insightful, thought-provoking, sad, disturbing, and always engrossing, there are fun facts galore lining every page. Some of my favorites include the topic of corsets and how women were so accustomed to wearing them from girlhood through all of their adult years that their spine relied on them completely for proper posture. Take a corset off of a Victorian woman who had worn one for most of her life and you’d see that her spine would have been like jelly, flopping around like a limp rubberband unable to keep her upright on its own. As it turns out, all those muscles surrounding her spinal column never had to put forth any effort to hold her up with a corset in place, so they weren’t strong like our backs are today.
More fun facts await. Women were the ones who bathed the least, children the most, and then men. Women thought it was too revealing, too improper to be naked in a tub even inside the privacy of their own homes amongst their own family. Up until the late 1800s, children were thought of as little adults, with no societal understanding of their developing brains, emerging personalities, growing bodies or the importance of playtime. Everyone drank beer every day, kids included because water was viewed as unsanitary. The more money a Victorian household brought in, the bigger the breakfast, with most households on average consuming just beer and bread or tea and toast in the morning. Eggs, sausages, pancakes, toast with butter and jam, were luxuries that were mostly afforded to the middle and upper classes, but even then breakfast was a lighter affair. As a result of the industrial age, the air from factories that hung around bigger cities like London was so fallow with fog, smog, and pollution that sight was limited to just a few feet ahead.
The hardest parts of the book to read were about the kids, sometimes sent to work as young as three or four but mostly between the ages of seven and twelve, to work in factories or in domestic service to help feed their families and support their parents. Since they were viewed as little adults, no one was much concerned with kids making friends, developing their imaginations or getting educated. Disease ran rampant. Children were the most vulnerable to illness and death. Many of the factories offered meals to their employees so they could work longer hours (usually 10-12 hours a day) which was attractive for parents since it was less mouths to feed at home and a guaranteed meal for the financially challenged.
During this era, there was no thought to nutrition until the early 1900s, so most Victorians subsisted on a diet of bread, tea, and beer. Vegetables weren’t even considered for their nutrient values in any way until dietitians, nutritionists and sanitary kitchens came into the conversation in the early 1900s. Food was on everyone’s mind all the time. A large majority of Victorians were hungry throughout much of their lives. Cleanliness played a factor in the success of a long life. Really I could go on and on about all the interesting details packed in here, but then I’d spoil the book for you. As Ruth stated, most of us in our modern world have a very glossy, romanticized version of what the Victorian era was all about thanks to movies and novels that pull from the glamour of the era but not always the grit.
The Palace Papers (2022)
We discussed this book in our weekly email newsletter for the shop (join us here) a few weeks ago, but it was so interesting I wanted to be sure to include it here as well. Between the debut of The Crown in 2016, the death of Queen Elizabeth, this past September, the handful of royal recipes we’ve made for the blog here, and here and the new documentary series just released by Meghan and Harry, I’ve been really fascinated by the Windsor family and their long-lasting dynasty.
Since so many books have been written about the royals over plenty of decades it can be tricky to find ones that aren’t gossipy or loaded down with hearsay and conjecture or so full of faraway historical information that they become unrelatable. The Palace Papers changes all that. Written by award-winning journalist Tina Brown, The Palace Papers offers an insightful look into the lives of the modern royal family by connecting relationships, behaviors, situations and circumstances together to create a complete portrait of how and why royal members act, live, love, and work the way they do. Beginning with the parents of Elizabeth and Philip, Tina traces the family’s lineage forward to wind up with Harry and Meghan at the end, weaving together critical moments in history that directly affected the family’s relationships with each other and the world. Conducting over 100 interviews and taking her over 10 years to write, Tina captivatingly connects all the details that string together these immense lives. There is the long-standing love affair with Camilla and Charles, the relationship with the press that Diana strategically maneuvered, the behind-the-scenes moments of Queen Elizabeth following 9/11, the genial acceptance of the Middleton clan into the royal fold, the rise of Meghan’s career, and Philip’s creative get-away-from-ita-all space where he spent much of his senior years. All these details make the royal family (from page glance at least) seem both relatable and normal given the circumstances that they have all grown up in.
It can be difficult to understand the complicated life that each member of the family leads or has led, particularly Queen Elizabeth, but Tina does a great job of humanizing their actions while also giving readers a peek behind the closed doors of an institution few will ever get to see. With a journalist’s eye for detail and a novelist’s ability to craft nuance, Tina paints a picture of the royal family that is honest, raw, fallible and human above all else. It’s a big book (592 pages) about a big story set against a big backdrop, but by the end, you can see that each person is just trying to navigate life the best way they know how just like the rest of us.
Red House (2005)
Last but definitely not least, as this was my most favorite book of the year, Red House tells the story of the longest inhabited house in New England. Built in 1647 in Massachusetts, the Red House has always been known as home to generations of the Hatch family for three centuries. Until one day it was not. Sold in the 1960s to the Messer family, this is the story of a house in both modern and historical times as told by Sarah Messer, whose parents purchased it away from the Hatch hold and gave it a second life.
Weaving back and forth between modern day and the past genealogical lineage of facts and faces, history comes alive on each page. Poetic, lyrical and with a great talent for description, Sarah masterfully ties the past with the present to completely redefine the meaning of home, showing how that definition changes with each occupant century by century, generation by generation.
Through births, deaths, weddings, fires, famine, war, peace, prosperity and purpose, the Red House evolves, gathering stories, outliving owners, and making an everlasting impression on the landscape where it stands. Beautifully written and complete with photographs that help illustrate the stories, I want to tell you everything about this book and nothing about it so that you’ll be as equally surprised and delighted by the contents inside.
Having said that, Red House encompasses a lot of different interests for a lot of different types of readers. Themes run the gamut from history, romance, familial bonds, architecture, biography, preservation, women’s history, fish-out-of-water, and coming-of-age storylines. There are stories about antique handmade brides’ towels, about wills, documents and photographs, about letters detailing human joys and maladies. There are stories of the ten years the house was a flower farm, a disaster, a day camp. Stories of people who wanted the house, and stories of people who didn’t want it. There are stories of critters, of ghosts, of construction projects that have been a part of the house’s fabric since the 17th century. There are cocktails on the back lawn, faulty electrical lines, mosquito-riddled nights, papery walls and unnerving questions proposed by the historical society. There’s the history of Two Mile (the enclave where the house rests), the history of the white house next door, the history of Sarah and her siblings. There’s so much! But I’ll stop now so that I won’t give it all away other than to say it is definitely a must-read for any old house lover.
Anna Quindlen once wrote… “books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.” I love that. How true, especially in this case. I hope you find some new and exciting material here in this list of home and history books. If you encountered any extra special books this year please share their titles in the comments section, and of course, if you read any of the recommended books above please share your thoughts.
May the rest of your 2022 be full of engaging stories. Cheers to great books and great writers!