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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-02-03 21:13
Longbourn, by Jo Baker: a Book review
Longbourn - Jo Baker

The story of Pride and Prejudice, but seen through the eyes of the hidden class, the servants in the Bennett household.  If you are a dyed-in-the-wool P&P fanatic, this might just turn you off, because the characters in P&P are mere backstory here.  In addition, it is a somewhat moody novel, even bleak or grim in places, without the cherry-on-top happy ending that we often crave, so bear that in mind.  That said, I liked it a lot (and I am a Jane Austen reader, but not a fanatic)  and am glad to have read it, and would recommend it.

Our hero is the Bennett's downstairs maid, Sarah, an orphan who chafes at her restricted life, and whose concerns are far more pressing than when the next ball might be.  The servants have a whole world of their own "under the stairs".  There is a hierarchy of servants, and they have their own spats, and secrets, as well as kindness and hope, and perhaps a bit of romance as well.  But their days are long, unbearably long, and their labors are far more burdensome than the upper-crust Bennetts might realize.  It was interesting to me, from a historical point of view, to see the amount of dirt and mess and muck and manure (lots of that) they had to deal with, while always appearing pristine, polite, and well-coiffed.  The reader unfamiliar with what it takes to maintain an "aristocratic" home (though the Bennetts barely make the cut, as country gentry) will be surprised by the long and arduous daily tasks the servants must do, and always do invisibly, to keep the household running.  There was a reason maids often died before age 30.

Our main character, Sarah, spends a lot of time complaining about her chilblains (blisters that arise when skin is exposed to extreme cold or heat).  She is in charge of laundry, so her hands are constantly subjected to hot water and cold water, and hot irons and and cold air, and yet she must take care not to get any fluids from her chilblains onto the laundry.  Then there's the wood to cut, the water to boil, the uniforms to starch and iron, the food to store and cook and serve and clean up after... This disconnect between the leisurely life of the Bennett sisters, who chat and read, visit with others,  and play the piano, while changing clothes three or four times a day, and the stupefying struggle of their maids to just get through the workload of another day really highlights the difference in the classes.  In some places I found Sarah to be a bit TOO modern in her thinking.  By that I mean that most house servants in the Regency era knew they were servants and were, quite early on I imagine,  disabused of any ideas of moving up in society.  Sarah has a more modern outlook:  she KNOWS she can be more.  That said, the truth of the matter is, she probably cannot.

The main housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, (I loved this character)  is stern but kind hearted, and (SPOILER ALERT) towards the end when Mr. Hill dies we discover just how kind-hearted she really was. She sees in Sarah the yearnings for a larger world, and tries to help her find some peace with her lot in life, as she herself has done.  But in Sarah's eyes, Mrs. Hill has merely "settled" for less than she could have had, and Sarah refuses to do so.  The reality was, in those Regency days, crossing "up" into higher levels of society was virtually impossible.  Mrs. Hill found her love and her peace where she could.

There's a love interest for Sarah, who seems like a good hearted fellow, but he leaves, and while he is gone, there is an exotic footman she meets as well, who pursue her a bit. So, SORT of a romantic love triangle, but not really, because good guy comes back and footman graciously yields.  (Through the footman's eyes we see how narrow Sarah's life experience really is.) Honestly the romance was far less interesting to me than the feeling of peeking behind the kitchen door to see what was REALLY going on in the gentry homes of that era, all across Europe.

Recommended.  Conservative parents should be aware of the presence in the novel of a brief mention of a loving, committed homosexual relationship, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Makes for great conversations with your teens!

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review 2014-07-25 15:28
A fascinating look on human behavior and why we do the things we do.
The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives - Shankar Vedantam

Author Vedantam takes the reader through various scenarios as he discusses why some people react the way they do and think the way they do. They range from a woman's experiences with her rape and the following investigation to the 2008 election of Barack Obama to bystanders not taking action when a woman fled from multiple attackers on crowded city streets and eventually committed suicide at the end of the chase.

 

Vedantam talks about how our perceptions, unconscious thought processes, etc. work as we go through life. It was really disconcerting to read about how much of it seems out of our hands and is something that is (according to the author) is ingrained in our brains. Some of it can lead to amazing things (one person may have saved several lives by screaming they should evacuate their building during the 9/11 attacks) and sometimes it can lead to awful outcomes (the woman who died fleeing from her attacks just might have survived if someone had intervened or called the police sooner).

 

A lot of what Vedantam isn't really new--much of his information (he readily admits) has been documented and reported on over the years. He concludes his book talking about this in a broader scale, citing studies that show how people will often be very generous when the need is very focused (a dog that had been inadvertently abandoned during a sea rescue or a single child who needs cancer treatment), yet people will stand idly by when genocides on a mass scale occur or when faced with an epidemic of starving children.

 

Although I had read much of what he discussed in various news articles and what not, it was fascinating to see this gathered into one single book and made me think about my own biases and attitudes. Wouldn't buy the book, but it's worth reading if you have any interest in how the brain works and how it shapes our perceptions.

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url 2014-03-09 21:00
Is True Equality Achievable?

 

Yesterday I wrote about feminism’s ultimate goal: equality. But after reading J.W. Orderson’s novella Creoleana and short play The Fair Barbadian and Faithful Black (review to come), I’m questioning whether equality in all things is actually achievable.

‘no society can exist without subordination’ – Judge Errington, The Fair Barbadian and Faithful Black

 

Continue reading 

Source: literaryames.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/is-true-equality-achievable
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review 2012-06-12 00:00
Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America
Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America - Barbara Jensen This book is an interesting combination of a personal memoir and an analysis of theoretical and sociological studies addressing class issues in the US. The author is a psychologist who grew up in a working class family and due to her education and job has “crossed over” (her terminology) to the middle class. Her experience seems to be primarily rooted in the Midwest. She writes about class bias in the US, mainly as it effects school children and patients in counseling but as to others as well. The author’s theory is, “the most common form of classism is solipsism, or my-world-is-the whole-world, what I call class-blinder. The inability to see beyond one’s own world. The unspoken assumption is that everyone could know these things but that some are too primitive or unevolved to want to know.. Solipsism is often accompanied by judgments of taste: another form of classism. ‘Oh my God, she had plastic flowers and the couch was orange plaid! So tacky ….’ ” One of the characteristics of people in the middle class, posits the author, v. working class, is that work and careers are the center of the middle class adult’s life, rather than working to live – a career defines a life. “For middle class people like me, too often, work is our life. Not only is this lonelier, it leads to problems like workaholism and emotional devastation if one loses one’s jobs.” I for one can completely identify with this. My career and its demands swallows everything up; it seems like my family revolves around my job demands. But when I visit with family and friends where I grew up, this concept just seems so foreign to them. I can’t help wondering who has it better? Class is something I think about a lot. I work in a career that has me surrounded by upper middle class and upper class individuals. Most of my colleagues and clients came from this kind of background and married someone from a similar background. I live in an economically diverse community, to a certain extent but again the majority of people I know and who I socialize with are upper middle class and came from that type of background. I grew up in a small rural factory town and while my parents are professionals, there is no real segregation in such a small community. Everyone knows and socializes with everyone else. I thought that was normal growing up – but I learned quickly in college and in my professional career that what I thought was routine is not normal for other people. Most of the people I know, their only exposure to working class America is through movies or when they hire someone to do work for them. And unlike most of the people I know from college, grad school or law school, I married a working class man – our family straddles multiple lines and categories. Thus, going in to the book I felt very sympathetic to this author’s position and role. I started this book with high hopes and looked forward to new revelations. I am not sure it brought me new revelations, but it definitively helped me identify my own class judgments and prejudices. The analysis of theory and sociological studies is very well done. Ms Jensen posits some interesting ideas concerning how middle class and working class families socialize their children in very different ways and that American schools are set up to be institutionally biased in favor of middle class children. She writes that working class parents socialize their children to survive in a group and work with other people as a group; whereas, middle class parents socialize their children to be focused on themselves and be an individual. For example, “middle class children were trained by their parents to name, hold and retrieve content from books and other print materials. They were further taught (1) to ask questions frequently; (2) to expect answers they can understand; (3) to answer questions themselves; and (4) to elaborate.”Her observations and summaries are interesting stuff. They made me think and continue to make me think about my role, my family and how we fit into American society. I think it is worthwhile for most middle class and upper middle class people, particularly educators, health care workers and counselors to consider how class bias and class structure influences their way of thinking and approaching people. Ultimately though, I thought the memoir sections were not well written and didn’t add much to the story. If it was entirely memoirs, I would have rated this book around 2 stars. In the end, I skimmed these parts. The personal narrative should have been edited significantly or written with a different tone. I do think that this book is worth the read to encourage readers to think about class, how so much judgment and disdain is built in to our daily thought process and ideas for changing this. So much of what we consider to be racism and xenophobia is tied into class as well. This book was enlightening to me and provided my husband and I a lot to discuss. Coming from such a different background he often has very different ideas on how our kids should spend their free time and this book opened my eyes to see his point of view.
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