August 28, 2002

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Just silly, and I mean that kindly.

The oddest thing in the universe of this book is not that time travel works, and can change history; it isn't even that a mad scientists' invention can send people into great books. The oddest thing is that literature is as important to the people on the street as, say, sports is to us; coin-op machines perform Shakespeare soliloquies and so many people change their names to that of their favorite poet that the Tennysons, for instance, are required to wear registration numbers. Wales is independent, which is probably an homage to the guy who both declared Hay-on-Wye an independent state and made it a used-bookstore tourist destination.

Down these twee streets a character must go who is not herself twee. Tuesday Next is a noir detective, shouldering the gloom of military stupidity in her tour as a soldier in the Crimean War, facing down lost love & a complicated family loyalties (I suspect her name is a parental joke about her conception: her father is a time-travel agent too). She rises from a career as a minor literary detective when she must thwart a supervillian and his threat to kill Martin Chuzzlewit. Reckless rule-breaking leads to promotion; the whole leads to a sequel.

Posted by clew at 05:30 AM

August 25, 2002

Farewell Great King, Jill Paton Walsh

Stunningly good. I wonder how many possible novels there are in Plutarch and Herodotus; more than in Paton Walsh, I assume, but not by many nor by much. (She's written a lot more, and finished the last Dorothy Sayers novel, Thrones, Dominations.)

This one is Themistocles' story, and - what with the Greek capacity for fighting on both sides of important wars - is a vivid view of Xerxes' attack on the Greek city-states, and a brilliant one of the city-states, Athens especially, contorting themselves to deal with the threat.

It's mostly politics, and very personal politics, which gives the plot an immediate grip - not much romance; that would be a novel on Alcibiades, I guess. The voice it's told in is wonderful; both direct and sophisticated, which fits perfectly with the career of a politician who lived by unscripted speeches in front of all his peers and enemies.

Posted by clew at 06:14 AM

Never After, Rebecca Lickiss

Light fantasy - a rearrangement of a bunch of fairytales (Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstilskin, etc) into one narrative. Not Pratchett. Not awful - the joks are internal to the plot, not anachronisms, and there are some really clunky sentences in the beginning ("Its turrets and towers standing defiant though surrounded and overrun by herbage.") but either the prose improved, or the plot was a distraction, by the end.

A sequel might be a better book: the best characters in this one are also the ones who ride off into the sunset to have more adventures.

2003-04-03: Outside of a Dog gives very clear reasons for disliking Never After a great deal; I can no longer remember it in enough detail to agree or disagree.

Posted by clew at 05:58 AM

No Voice from the Hall, John Harris

Harris has spent years wandering into abandoned grand English country houses, often as they were being demolished. He began in 1946 and was seriously pursuing them - in his teens, funded by odd jobs and the dole, hitchhiking - for fifteen years. He's now an architectural historian and curator, and has apparently done much to protect country houses in England. This wasn't logrolling a career; he doesn't seem to be related to anyone who could have owned a manor; he did have an upholsterer uncle who worked in them.

The number he repeats in almost every chapter is that in 1955 a country house was coming down every two-and-a-half days. Lots of reasons; land wealth hadn't been reliable wealth since the 1870s, and the combined effects of two world wars - death duties in WWI, casual destruction when the buildings were requisitioned during WWII, and (this is my interpolation) there was an enormous disinterest in old stuff during the 1950s and 1960s, even among the few remaining owners who could afford to maintain the places.

What seems such a waste, looking at a photo of high, arched, coffered ceilings over a floor covered with broken wall-moldings and sofa stuffing, is not that the original owners couldn't afford it any more - as families go, the English rural rich seem to have had a good long run - but that all the original work to make the places was wasted. Firewood can't be the right use of a Grinling Gibbons carving; even during the war, it's hard to believe that its sale price as architectural salvage wouldn't have brought a little more coal over from the States. (But maybe there wasn't any spare shipping tonnage, and besides, bored scared troops barracked in a ballroom are very likely not thinking that far ahead. Nor could they provide provenance.)

Apparently he's all in favor of turning these buildings into flats or retirement homes or anything that will keep enough of them up to leave historical evidence. I bet the plumbing arrangements are deeply creative.

Posted by clew at 05:51 AM

August 21, 2002

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth

This lives up to its praise; reminded me of The Gold Bug Variations, although Seth's plot and prose are more realistic. It isn't just the centrality of music, it's the whole elegiac tone of the book.

I was also tidily surprised by at least one major plot twist, as Seth had been dragging a red herring about so effectively.

Posted by clew at 08:36 PM

For Her Own Good, Ehrenreich and English

I just remembered that I have a copy of this, which is a 1978 history of professional advice to & about women. Their introduction compares the rationalist soution to the Women Question (let women and men do the same work) to the romantic one (believe that women and their work are special and outside rational cost/benefit analysis).

They also have an entire chapter on "Microbes and the Manufacture of Housework". Lillian Gilbreth, however, doesn't appear in the index.

Posted by clew at 08:13 PM

Lillian Gilbreth

Belles on their Toes, Gilbreth & Carey

The Home-Maker and her Job, Lillian Gilbreth

I ran across Belles... randomly, read it for the whimsical descriptions of the social strains between 1924 - when flappers were still shocking in most of the country - and the '50s; realized that it's the sequel to the much more famous Cheaper by the Dozen and a sidelight on the much more interesting life of Lillian Gilbreth.

Gilbreth had, in this order, a doctorate in psychology (I think), twelve children, eleven surviving, and a career in industrial psychology, design, and efficiency after her husband died in 1924. Belles... is written by two of her children and remembers a wonderful - though not easy - childhood. They were fairly poor after their father died, and Gilbreth was faced with keeping his consulting business - despite being a woman - while being a single mother of eleven. Habits of industrial efficiency, somewhat modified by her more psychological or affectionate nature, not only reduced the considerable expenses of her family but brought the children in as help, inventive and responsible help, not just expenses. Belles... makes it sound wonderful.

Some of Gilbreth's work, especially her first work, was on improving efficiency in the home. (Not the house: the home; is that an industrialist or a psychologist speaking?) She seems to have invented the 'work triangle' now understood by every simple kitchen design, on the grounds that walking far between every useful thing in the kitchen is exhausting. Her actual house must have been a big old place designed for a mass of servants, as well as children, and her redesign of the kitchen apparently worked, except that the one remaining jack-of-all-trades and bad cook hated change and insisted on putting it back as it had been. I'll probably never know if he was just cantankerous or whether there was some other efficiency that Gilbreth's redesign removed. Nor does she show wire models of movement diagrams, much less the seventeen-symbol chart with matching colors (violet hash for 'assemble', light violet H for 'disassemble', etc., for her own kitchen or any identified action. This book really couldn't have taught a homemaker to use industrial techniques on her housework, although the various timetable and reminder cards would have been useful - are likely the ancestors of daytimers and PDAs.

Since technology and feminism together made it imaginable that women could work for money without condemning their children to chilblains, rats, and food poisoning, there has been a constant, nittering, fifth column of women who make it their profession to tell other women to devote their every last erg to unpaid housework; Martha Stewart and Cheryl Mendelson, for instance. Much of their popularity and power comes from a near-solution to one of the open questions of feminism: of 'women's work', what is really useful (and, if useful, why unpaid?) and what is busywork (however glorified as sacrifice on altars of domesticity)?* Calling homemaking a science - and, for almost all women, an unprofessional and unpaid one - gives it lip service as feminism without demanding any money or time it didn't get before.

So I rummaged one of Gilbreth's early books out of deep storage at the public library; The Home-Maker and her Job, published in 1927 and chockablock with the '20s faith in psychology and progress. My judgement is still open; I quite like her definition of the goal of home life as 'happiness minutes', for everyone, and she defends the right to leisure, creativity, and usefulness of everyone. Some things that must have been shibboleths of 'good housekeeping' in her day (white covers on the beds & couches) come in for frequent questioning, on the grounds that almost everyone would rather be able to put their feet up without extra laundry than see a white coverlet. That's a sign of both reason and principle: grim modernizers assume that no-one should have a white coverlet: Gilbreth repeatedly reminds her reader to consider the actual costs and pleasures of everything in her house, and arrange it properly for their joint happiness, however peculiar.

All in all, Gilbreth is pretty traditional and apologetic in her calls for change - men & boys can like cooking, and shouldn't be prevented, but 'This book makes no appeal for "kitchen husbands" or "kitchen sons" or anything that the words imply.' It was 1927, though, so she may have been more radical than she sounds now.

There are a few things described as successes in her book that were embarassments to her children; when she lectured in one of their schools, she described the inefficiency of searching out a matching shirt-button, if you can move the collar button down to the gap & replace it with any button of the right size (since the collar button is covered with a tie - she's talking to grade-schoolers, and they're wearing ties). Her book describes all the students examining their own buttons and each other's, and seeing the justice of her arguments. Her children's book remembers the other students attempting to expose the Gilbreth boys' collar-buttons to mockery. The children also remember hiding this from their mother for a while, for fear that her feelings would be hurt.

* And, of course, who gets to decide, from a starting point in which the experience of the genders was so different that their honest preferences, democratically expressed, need not have much in common?

Posted by clew at 08:08 PM

The Ghost of the Executed Engineer, Loren R. Graham

Loren is a historian of Soviet science & technology at MIT, and winds up this (short) book not only with specifics on how incredibly stupid and destructive the huge projects of the USSR could be, but how much hope for change was burned up in them, leading directly - though slowly - to the collapse of the regime. Palchinsky was a mining engineer; he was moved to socialism by the suffering of the coal miners in the Don Basin; 88 years later the coal miners in the Don Basin stood up in the first big strike in Soviet Russia. They weren't much better off than they had been under the tsars, and both revolutionary and patriotic fervor had finally been frozen out.

Any history of the Soviet Union's engineering projects would necessarily be depressing. Even if some of its works turned out to have been sensible, they would be clogged by the failure of the enterprise as a whole. Most of them - including the most famous, enormous, pre-WWII ones, which impressed the West - turn out to have been far too expensive in human and ecological destruction, and not even to have produced as much as they could have had they been better-planned.

What raises this to the level of classical tragedy* is the ghost of the engineer. Peter Palchinsky, or Petr Pal'chinskii, as you choose to transliterate - not only had a deeper understanding of the pure engineering issues (e.g., don't build a canal that will run too shallow for the draft of your barges) but was a courageous socialist, who had been so horrified by conditions in tsarist Russia that he had argued at some risk against that regime. He was exiled to Siberia in 1906 and 1907; escaped; spent four years as a successful industrial consultant in Western Europe; had a shaky but loving marriage of comrades to a feminist.

Nor was Palchinsky's socialism at odds with his engineering. He didn't think of production as an end in itself; with human happiness, rather, as the end, he could recommend smaller locally-adapted industry over the enormous, centralized, monuments to ego that advertise themselves as triumphs of engineering. Most constantly, he assumed that the productivity of a system would be damaged by maltreating the workers in it: once because the misery of the workers counts as a cost, many times over because miserable workers probably can't, and eventually won't, work efficiently or hard.

Stalin preferred monuments to his ego and had Palchinsky convicted without trial and shot in 1928. Stalin was worried by organizations of engineers proposing technocracy- this was happening around the industrialized world at the time, although Hoover's election in 1928 isn't much evidence of conspiracy. (See also Layton's The Revolt of the Engineers.)

If Palchinsky has a legacy, it's probably a sidewise one in Western Europe, where Fukuyama's Trust describes an ideal, sometimes achieved, of continuity of interest and skill between workers and management. Lenin promoted the Taylorizing ideas of US production, in which workers are deskilled into replaceable and frequently replaced cogs; Palchinsky, as a socialist and an engineer, argued that justice and efficiency would be the same when educated workers profited by their own efficiency.

*except for the unity of time and place, etc., etc.

Posted by clew at 07:05 PM

August 16, 2002

The Wish for Kings, Lewis Lapham

Lapham is a strangely Establishment anti-establishment pundit. He speaks from a comfortable seat on a pile of old money - the editorship of Harper's Magazine - and that gives him access to the oligarchy he scorns, and a length of experience that is credible when he criticizes stupidities each administration gets into for lack of an institutional memory (despite the perks of video producers, hairstylists, etc.). He could lose the editorship, though; maybe he can't afford the go-to-hell air that rebellious members of inherited aristocracies have carried into various exiles, rebellions, and meetings with the axe. Maybe it's a conscious belief that a emollient, name-dropping style, somewhat more intellectual than Condé Nast would allow, will infiltrate his damning arguments more deeply than unseemly agression could.

Still, since he's accusing our politicians, lawyers, journalists, and wishful-thinking populace of having sold our government for stupid ends and at a low price, a rougher tone would have seemed more consistent to me.

Posted by clew at 11:35 PM

A Thousand Words for Stranger, Julie E. Czernada

Another lost-psychic-falls-in-love-with-the-older-tough-guy-who-reluctantly-rescues her novel. The Liaden books are much better at the psychic-Cinderella cliché. Cherryh is worlds better at the growing-up-tough-in-the-spaceport genre in general. Czernada is not actively awful, but she uses a lot of capital letters instead of worldbuilding, and a great deal of the dialogue could be read by William Shatner, and the psychic-preying-mantis improvement-of-the-species sexual thing, and... so I didn't finish.

I may have missed great improvement, but I recommend you try this from the library, not even a used bookstore.

Posted by clew at 10:57 PM

Tales of Magistrate Bao and his Valiant Lieutenants, Susan Blader, ed.

A little background for a low taste in Hong Kong historical action flicks here. (If you want a lot of background, try F. W. Mote's Imperial China 900-1800. Furry hats, evil eunuchs of the east chamber, scholar-heroes, the peasant who founded an empire; all real.)

Back to the Tales, which are about incorruptible magistrate Bao, the heroes and gallants who do his legwork, and the scandals Imperial and petty that they unravel. I can't think of a European analogy offhand; they're too rapscalliony to be like the main Arthurian tales, and overtly too accepting that anything Bao and the gallants do is right to be exactly like picaresque collections. In the name of justice and ?gentility?, the heroes hide evidence, commit torture, steal from innocent fishermen and beat them up for complaining; if it reminded me of anything Western, it was of Don Quixote, except that the Don looked deluded when attacking innocents. Bao and the gallants are assumed to be right in their judgements even when they're sneaky in their ends.

Given that, and a stiff effort to not think "That's no way to run a justice system" on every other page, it's as fun as stories full of violence, betrayal and death can be. (Loyal servants dash their brains out to prevent giving up information. If torture for evidence is common, I guess this is more likely. Still: eurgh. Also: with my hands tied together, on the ground floor, and under armed guard, could I possibly get up enough momentum to dash my brains out? I have the awful suspicion that there're plenty of historical examples.)

There are peasant feasts, scholarly love affairs complicated by over-helpful servants getting in each other's way, beautiful imperial courtesans (Good and Bad, a matched set), a lost heir; I don't remember any actual ghosts, but I probably just forgot.

Posted by clew at 10:47 PM

How to Lie With Maps, Mark Monmonier

Oddly, this is mostly written as instructions on how to lie with maps, with only occasional sections on how to tell if a map is being used to lie to you. Anyone reasonably alert can convert one tack to the other, but it's a funny thing to read. The comparison of cartographic projections is interesting but not novel: because familiar, it's probably a good introduction with his point that all maps lie, in that they all have to suppress something. (If they didn't, they'd be exact copies of the territory.) The chapter "Data Maps: Making Nonsense of the Census" was more useful because the number-shuffling it takes on is so much the high-priest incantation of our days. "Data Maps" picks a simple example (data on televisions per household in twenty-eight adjacent areas) and shows the same data in a dozen subtly different ways. He doesn't try to teach enough statistics to explain what the different samples are showing about the data.
Posted by clew at 09:53 PM
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