Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

December 21, 2013 

Nonfiction

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times

Lucy Lethbridge, W.W. Norton, 385 pages

Fictional Downton Abbey is supposed to be one of the grandest houses in England, but the servants steal the show on the smash television hit. In her fine new social history, Lucy Lethbridge examines the peculiar lot of these iconic figures of British culture. “The idea of the perfect servant – silent, obsequious, loyal – is a central component of the many myths of England’s recent past,” she writes. “Servants underpin the ideal, never quite attainable, of a perfectly ordered life.”

Lethbridge writes with sympathy about her subjects. Employers could be benevolent and onerous at the same time. One housemaid recalled that the women she worked for weighed the contents of her vacuum cleaner – “a cup and a half of dirt was considered a job well done.” Yet the service was a doomed enterprise in the 20th century. Both World Wars exposed women to alternative forms of employment. After the Second World War, crushing levels of taxation all but forced most of the grand houses to shut down. Some of the duties Lethbridge describes are downright silly – shoelaces and newspapers being ironed – yet there is a haunting poignancy to her account.

Newsday

Fiction

Brown Dog

Jim Harrison, Grove Press, 526 pages

Jim Harrison introduced the character Brown Dog in his 1990 book “The Woman Lit by Fireflies,” a collection of novellas. The novella seems ideally suited to the misadventures of this shambling savant, who is driven less by intention than by impulse but manages to move forward all the same. Harrison’s 36th book, “Brown Dog” gathers the five novellas he has published about the character and adds a new one, creating a novel in installments that traces the arc of Brown Dog’s life.

Beginning with his discovery of a perfectly preserved dead Indian in the freezing waters of Lake Superior and ending with an unexpected reconciliation, it is a book about family, about place, about what matters and what will never matter, about the rigors of a changing world.

Los Angeles Times

The Tilted World

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, William Morrow, 320 pages

It’s been eight years since Hurricane Katrina, yet novels about the catastrophe keep bubbling up. “The Tilted World” deals with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Though Katrina isn’t mentioned by name, parallels between the two are hard to miss.

On Good Friday 1927, the swollen Mississippi River burst the levees near Greenville, Miss., eventually spilling enough water to cover an area equivalent to Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The world’s fourth largest flood on record disproportionally uprooted African-Americans in the Delta, who fled the region – and the Republican party – in droves. “The Tilted World” saves the Great Flood as a set piece for its climax. In the end, this book speaks volumes about hope and ingenuity in times of disaster, delivering a warning that those who won’t heed history’s lessons are bound to repeat it.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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