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Short Takes

‘If Walls Could Talk,’ ‘The Richer Sex,’ ‘The Bully Society’

IF WALLS COULD TALK: An Intimate History of the Home

By Lucy Worsley

Walker, 351 pp., illustrated, $27

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Pity the servants of King Henry VIII, one of whose jobs was to stack the eight mattresses upon which the monarch slept, then “roll upon them to make sure that enemies had hidden no dangerous daggers inside.’’ Beds and bedrooms, as this entertaining history makes clear, were frequently the site of both birth and death - including murder, though Henry VIII managed to avoid regicide by hidden dagger. Lucy Worsley, a curator and historian, guides us through several centuries of everyday history (mostly English, though American as well) by describing what went on in people’s houses: how our ancestors ate, slept, cooked, and raised children, as illustrated by the material culture they left behind. The individual details have the power to stun: Who knew, for instance, that wealth inequality and poor dental habits led in 18th-century London to a “short-lived craze for live tooth transplantation’’?

More broadly, though, the story of how people lived in private provides a rich texture to times we often understand only through their public faces - thankfully, Worsley surveys both rich and poor domestic situations, from the medieval peasant’s one-room cottage to Hampton Court Palace, where the kitchen wing comprised a complex of 50 rooms, including a pastry house, spicery, wet larder (for fish) and dry larder (for grain). Even more intimately, she chronicles the development of undergarments for both men and women, including “a detour into the curious history of the pocket.’’ Despite a somewhat forced argument that economic and energy crises will bring back domestic arrangements lost in the process of modernization - composting toilets, for instance, and multipurpose great rooms - Worsley is a thoughtful, charming, often hilarious guide to life as it was lived, from the mundane to the esoteric.

THE RICHER SEX: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family

By Liza Mundy

Simon & Schuster, 327 pp., $27

“[I]f the story of the 20th century was women entering the workforce,’’ Liza Mundy writes, “the story of the 21st century has been men departing.’’ Increasingly, she says, women are snagging the high-paying, recession-proof jobs while men languish in dying industries, less educated, and increasingly less employable. Marshalling an army of statistics and studies, Mundy narrates what she sees as an evolving revolution not only in the demographics of the workforce, but in the way we see marriage, home, and family. The old paradigm - what Mundy calls the “bargain’’ - in which women traded beauty and fertility for men’s status and earning capacity, “warped the relationship between the sexes.’’ Yet even this family model - in which one partner worked and the other took care of children and the home - was never as ubiquitous or inevitable as some assume. Aside from the rich, “families often were dependent on more than one earner,’’ Mundy points out; the shift toward women increasingly out-earning their husbands didn’t upset a natural order so much as follow naturally from social and economic developments over the past century.

The question now is how will men and women adjust to a new paradigm, often one in which the husband opts to stay at home with the kids: with fear and resentment? Or with excitement over a new sense of flexibility in gender roles? Yes, Mundy says, and yes. Some of the women she interviewed in the course of her research described husbands who felt emasculated by their wives’ bigger paychecks. One told Mundy that, after her husband had cared for their children while she worked, she found herself “respecting him less as a man.’’ Another, poignantly, spoke of feeling what Mundy calls “a classic breadwinner’s emotion’’ - “knowing that with your work, and your absence, you are buying for your family members the opportunity to be together and to thrive.’’

THE BULLY SOCIETY: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools

By Jessie Klein

NYU, 303 pp., $29.95

Luke Woodham, who shot and killed two fellow students ( and wounded seven others) at his high school in 1997, left behind a note explaining why he did it. “I killed because people like me are mistreated every day,’’ he said. In opening her study of the relationship between school shootings and bullying, Jessie Klein doesn’t seek to absolve or excuse the perpetrators, but rather to explore and understand why they exploded. Too often, she writes, commentators link school shootings to violent video games, music, or other media, ignoring the obvious role played by the shooters’ immediate environment. “What occurs in schools themselves,’’ she asks, “ . . . that causes so many students to become unhappy, anxious, depressed, and motivated by rage?’’

After studying the 166 school shootings on record between 1979 and 2009 and interviewing dozens of students, Klein, a former school counselor who now teaches sociology and criminal justice, forms a coherent, heartbreaking narrative of how bullying works. With athletes and affluent students at the top of the heap, and anyone considered poor, unattractive, physically imperfect, or otherwise different at the bottom, “[t]he school hierarchy punishes everyone,’’ she argues, because the only sure way to avoid being bullied is to take part in or passively accept the bullying of others. The prose is at times repetitive in the academic vein, and some readers will object to Klein’s thesis of an adult bullying society, but any parent will agree when she says, “growing up shouldn’t have to be quite so hard.’’

Kate Tuttle can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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