Southern California, where I live, has been suffering through a prolonged drought. We've been asked to cut back on our water consumption, rates from the water company have been rising, people are converting lawns to ugly but "tolerant" landscapes, and even many religious leaders have called for fasting and prayer for an end to the drought. Yet, in the years I've lived here I've also seen the rain coming down in buckets for days or even weeks on end. I've had the pool filled to overflowing with rain and the backyard flooded, and seen torrents rushing in the gutters and filling intersections. The skies can be very fickle.
Water is an essential element for humans. Too much or too little can be devastating, but when it's just right we all get along happily. But a book about rain? What would you write about? Cynthia Barnett found exactly what to write about in Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, a fascinating look at the effects of rain on the landscape, civilization and societies, and our culture. She starts at the beginning of the planet, when the rains filled the oceans and compares Earth's history with that of Venus and Mars. She talks about our efforts to live with it, including the invention of the rain coat – the mackintosh – in Scotland, and how Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings are notoriously leaky. Thomas Jefferson tried to measure the rain at Monticello, but unfortunately built his home atop a hill and far from the sources of water down in the valleys. Mankind has also tried to control the rain – everything from rain dances to cloud seeding and even burning witches who supposedly had meteorological influence. Villages in India extract the scent of rain (which is different depending upon the soils where you live and other factors) and bottle it. Rain has even seeped into our culture, becoming part of art, literature, and music.
Barnett has a wonderful voice in her writing - other reviewers have called it "lyrical" – that makes this a pleasant read. I wondered how such a seemingly mundane topic could be made to fill a book, but it didn't take me long to be sucked into it and unable to put it down (the chapter on biblical floods and praying for rain was probably the 'driest' for me – yes, pun intended). I was even surprised to see a favorite song, "How Soon Is Now" by the Smiths, be discussed in it – Morrissey is from rainy Manchester and he's used a Bo Didley "rain riff" to evoke the drenched streets of his home (or something like that – I'm not musically intelligent enough to have understood it quite as well as I wish I had). But I really enjoyed this book – even had to be on guard from my father-in-law who tried to borrow it after reading a few pages. (I rec'd this book from the bloggingforbooks program.)