I am home sick with Penny today, so let's get two more book reviews out of the way!29. Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor
, Rosina Harrison.
Thanks to kore
for the timely recommendation, this was a nice companion to #28, Below Stairs
, though where Margaret scraped for decent employment and was desperate to escape via marriage, by contrast, Rose, who came from a similarly impoverished background, held far higher ambitions and achieved far more (the obvious answer to the obvious question is, yes, education and social capital: Margaret left school at 13 and had no connections or advice beyond "don't tell them you worked in a laundry, everyone knows laundrymaids are sluts," but Rose stayed a number of years beyond that and moreover had an unpaid apprenticeship at a tailor's shop, and Rose's parents were driven enough to make this happen financially and to give her solid advice on how to actually become a lady's maid, no mean feat for someone living in poverty). Rose goes in short time from a young lady's maid (a position which entailed being something between a seamstress, international diplomat, travel agent, nursemaid, fashion consultant, etc) to lady's maid to Lady Astor, Extremely Rich Person, which is about the highest status job in service, for one of the highest status women in Britain. Lady Astor was one of the early female MPs and had an active political life until just after WWII; she was also a pretty terrible human being to Rose, insulting, tempestuous, condescending, mean, though eventually they worked out a sort of truce where Rose would boss Nancy around as much as vice versa. They were like best friends, if your best friend was your (poorly) paid devoted servant, and like an old married pair in their cyclical rages and manipulations. For some reason Rose has this crazy blissful temperament and it never bothers her, or not much. My favorite part of this book was the more in-depth description of life between and among the Astors' various palatial residences, all the entertaining and backroom scandals and the regimented service rituals, including bits of interviews with older servants who talk about prior times that were even more formal. Also, she became closer to her employer after weathering the firebombing of Plymouth, her whole description of wartime was very intimate; she illuminated something else, too, which was how wartime improved servants' conditions not only because of labor shortages, but because the bombings forced formerly-aloof mistresses to take refuge in the belowstairs world, where their scrimping habits were more obvious, to themselves and to guests. Rose was fairly ambitious, in that her entire reason for going into service was to travel widely (which she did in spades with the Astors), and that within the restrictive norms of the times she managed to accrue substantial leeway and respect both above and below stairs; all that, however, and she apparently never received a raise from Lady Astor, despite asking, except once, and she received maybe one afternoon off per week, far less than others in service, and yet seemed to like it that way. In general there was a bit of Stockholm wafting around, but as a portrait of employment, lowerclass upward mobility, richesse, and class portraiture, this was a fantastic book and I recommend it highly.30. Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives
, Annie Murphy Paul
How did I come to pick up this book? I only know it showed up in my request queue at work. Paul is a decent science writer, though the conceit of each chapter being a month in her own (second) pregnancy wasn't quite as awesome as it could have been. I had one big quibble with this book: it was very quickly obvious to me that she was solidly on the OB side of the birthing spectrum, and indeed at the end has a scheduled c-section, and she wasn't that interested in looking at research that challenges this model of care, focusing more on other kinds of interactions, such as those in diet, mood, environmental chemicals, drugs, genes vs epigenetics vs nurture, etc. For someone whose metanarrative was pretty persuasive on the idea that the gestation process is more responsive, reciprocal, subtle and sensitive than we may think, where does that reciprocal sensitivity go during labor? She seemed to breeze right by the scheduled c-section, which to me said, okay, this is not a book for me, so I admit to skimming at times. Still, her review of plastics research galvanized me (pun intended?) to get rid of a bunch of plastics, be more vigilant about avoiding fire-treated pajamas, things like that. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so optimistic about a pop sci book; it is still interesting stuff, but I feel I've picked up a good deal of the same conclusions just from reading the odd research finding, over the past couple years, you know, mom media radar. And honestly, as weird as it is, I found Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mothers and Others
a more useful primer than this, though perhaps it isn't fair to compare the two writers there. Both are writing, in some ways, about prior eras of drastically incorrect science. But most of Paul's findings (and she is summarizing, obviously, not drawing new conclusions) are in the category of stuff we mostly already know about, whereas Hrdy's stuff is more squarely outside the realm of modern western practices. In any case, yes, still a very unfair comparison, but oh well. Go read Hrdy, ignore this one, unless you are somehow still convinced that plastics are utterly safe, pollution is no big deal, vitamins are stupid, etc etc.