June 27, 2002

The Linnet's Tale, Dale C. Willard

This should be loathsomely sweet, but it wasn't. It's about an anthropomorphized colony of mice and how they react to the arrival of a barn cat, and it's told by an adopted orphan linnet. It's charming because the characters would be charming if human - more than a bit Cranford - the alterations of style and society to fit mice are coherent, and it's a real plot, because it's quite clear that death is real.
Posted by clew at 08:28 PM

10th Grade, Weisberg

Lordy; awful. Imagine the Adrian Mole diaries if Mole had stupider classmates and lower ambitions and missed those by a greater margin.
Posted by clew at 08:18 PM

Tools of the Trade, Jeff Taylor

There's a glossy coffee-table shopping book of woodworking tools out; this isn't it. It has nice pictures of mostly old tools, but the essays are the body of the book. It suffers a little from a too-constant tone, as volumes of essays often do, but read separately they're charming: mostly elegies for the craft and time once condensed into woodworking hand-tools and hand-habits and rapidly lost to mass production, a fair amount about the author's family and building things with and for them, some cargo-cult shopping. Not much of the last, although it gets the pictures. If you read one essay, I recommend 'Framing Square'. It has a tidy little moral plot and a tantalizing view of the framing square as a calculating tool:
Given the diameter of a cogwheel and the pitch of its cogs, you can easily find the number of cogs with a steel square, or determine the length of a hoop around a wooden tank. Got any pulleys you would like to replace to make a shaft go faster or slower? A steel square is the answer to most calculating problems you'd encounter on a small farm in 1909.
Posted by clew at 08:16 PM

June 26, 2002

The Big Spenders, Lucius Beebe

Oh! magnificoes! Money in the Gilded Age had a really excellent time, completely proportional to the grinding misery of the poor in the same era. The poor do not get even a look-in in this book. Beebe was a tail-end of money himself, and squired the failing heirs of massive wealth around - in between some lively newspaper work of his own - and was an enthusiast of and expert on spending money. You;d think this would be irritating to read, but it was distant, sounds entertaining, and besides many of these people came to a bad end, if you need schadenfreude. (Spelling?)

"Private varnish", that is, privately owned train cars, are at the top of Beebe's list - are there any left running, do you suppose? With several maid's bells and gold-plated plumbing? (An investment in efficiency - "saves polishing".)

Interesting detail of between-the-wars travel, when money could not be pulled out of an ATM, or even most banks: In a day before American Express credit cards and traveler's checks, a letter of credit was a formidable document issued by one's home bank in the amount of a sum sequestered against it in Boston, New York, or Cleveland. This bedsheet-sized document handsomely engrossed and sealed was presented at the bank's European correspondents... who advanced what the traveler might need in pounds or francs and wrote the amount on the back of the letter of credit. It was the only known way of financing travel.

...

The opening move was to dispatch either by hand or through the post a letter to, say, Baring Brothers' main office in the city acquainting the management with one's identity, references, family and financial background, and warning of one's impending arrival with the intention of drawing against a letter issued by the Old Colony Trust of Boston, It was wise to suggest a date for the rendezvous at least four or five days in the future...

On the appointed morning the party of the first part arrayed himself as for a garden party at Buckingham Palace, braided-edge morning tail coat, black silk hat, umbrella, and wash gloves. ...

It would take until the afternoon to secure the currency from the vaults, count it, and record the serial numbers of banknotes. First there would be lunch at the Travellers' Club....Colchester oysters, Melton Mowbray pie, a cold lobster, Stilton cheese, claret, Port, and cigars followed in the ritual of the busnessman's luncheon, after which a state progress in reverse to the bank was in order.

Posted by clew at 12:09 AM

June 25, 2002

Thinks..., David Lodge

Another professor's midlife crisis adultery novel; see How to be Good &ff. Lodge has rung plenty of changes on the subject, of course, and this is perked up by amusing student writing exercises - well, I thought the S*m**l B*ck*tt parody was funny - and somewhat tentative irruptions of computing and game theory. It isn't a bad novel, but his earlier professorial ones are probably funnier, and Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2 blows this out of the water esp. as SF-themes-treated-by-respectable-litrachure-writer. (That's not a fair comparison, as Powers is generally a depth charge.) There is better female POV writing in this than in any Lodge novel I remember.
Posted by clew at 11:50 PM

The Lord of Middle Air, Michael Scott Rohan

Shares substance with The Steel Bonnets (strongly) and perhaps Avram Davidson's Virgil the Magician books, both of which I like. The writing isn't as baroque as Davidson's, nor as chewy as Border Marches pastiche can be, but is crisp and plain and moves the plot right along.
Posted by clew at 11:43 PM

June 03, 2002

How To Be Good, Nick Hornby

Another novel about a writer's midlife marital crisis (see The Beauty of the Husband), but written from the spouse's point of view, not the writer's. Much interesting stuff lightly handled; division of roles in a marriage, difficulty of switching, thought vs. feeling, Faith vs. Works, and how to be good. I also like the writing, which is light but not plain: echoes of Coleridge and Woolf used for meaning as well as sound.
Posted by clew at 07:46 PM

June 01, 2002

Junk English, Ken Smith

Mockery is a thin meal, even when one mocks the deserving. Junk English has typography like Fowler's Modern English Usage, but lacks the confidence, or was not given the room, to describe solid as well as junk English. A whole book (though short) of examples of terrible usage is a nauseating diet. Some of the cute names for classes of bad use are too cute to be useful; "People Reduction", to point out that we now read of consumers instead of people.

Some of them are funny, though: "Lack of Will", for advertising's not-actually-claims. (This is a joke about the idion as well as the meaning, unlike "People Reduction".)

If I regard this book as a extra-cranky appendix to Fowler it's a much better book. It does have some corrections to its terrible examples, and besides, it's not fair to expect anything else to be Fowler.

It could be the right book to leave suggestively around the office copier. The cover is bright orange and practically anyone might leaf through it while fiddling with a paperclip. I wonder what perpetrators of terrible prose think while they're writing it - would they recognize their errors?

Posted by clew at 03:15 AM

Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

Was there a movie made of this recently? Why was it in my consciousness? It was full of vaguely sexy events, and the female characters were unhappy for a whole varied array of reasons, but I can't actually say it was good. (I do think it was better than the last modern 'shopping-and-sex' novel I read, mostly because it had less shopping.) Things I didn't expect: '40s good girl was much more aware of sexual norms and behaviors than I thought she would be, although for somewhat clinical A-normal-women-would reasons.
Posted by clew at 02:59 AM
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