Jun 1 2013

Book Reviews: Below Stairs, Murphy’s Law, American Savage

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

Below Stairs

I loved this book. I picked it up because I’m going through a bit of Downton Abbey withdrawal, and it supplied exactly what I feel like that show is sometimes missing: a realistic view of the inequalities of the old aristocratic class system. But I didn’t expect that the book would be so fun.

Margaret Powell was born in 1904, took her first job in a laundry at the age of thirteen, and went into service as a kitchen maid a year later. She stayed in service for many years, eventually working her way up to the position of cook. So she’s kind of the “Daisy” of the house, except incredibly bright and incredibly funny. Her memoir is written in a breezy, conversational style peppered with fascinating anecdotes and witty commentary. It’s snappy, smart, and utterly engaging from start to finish.

Murphy’s Law

Mystery’s not my genre, for the most part, but my mom recommended Rhys Bowen to me on the grounds that I adore Dorothy Sayers. (Actually, she recommended a different series, but I got confused and picked this one up by mistake.) The thing is, Sayers was writing her own time period: her books have a marvelous period texture that’s utterly authentic. Below Stairs is wonderful for the same reason. By contrast, Bowen has obviously done some research, but the sensibility of her characters is very modern, and ultimately the historical setting feels thin and unpersuasive, at least to me. Mystery fans might find more to enjoy.

American Savage

And pivoting quite abruptly to the modern day: Dan Savage’s new book is largely a rehash—or a summation—of the themes he deals with in his column and his in blogging for the The Stranger. There are chapters here that cover sexual politics (ethical non-monogamy, the science and activism of bisexuality, sex-ed in schools) and politics-politics (Obamacare, the It Gets Better project, the fight for marriage equality) as well as a few personal essays. The personal material is the freshest, and I found it enormously sympathetic, especially Dan’s account of being at his mother’s bedside during her final moments. Still, there’s not a lot here that will be new to his regular readers.