September 06, 2002

The Third Policeman, Brian Nolan (aka Flann O'Brien)

Why is this not more famous? If nothing else, it should be a recognized stepping-stone for readers who find the leap from James Joyce's Dubliners to Ulysses too big.

Resting before me like a tame domestic pony, it seemed unduly small and low in relation to the Seargeant yet when I measured its height against myself I found it was bigger than any other bicycle that I knew.
Posted by clew at 04:43 AM

Lost in Japan

Too Late for the Festival, Rhiannon Paine

Fear & Trembling, Amélie Nothomb

Paine worked for a few years in Japan without having planned to; friends at HP Japan offered her a job as a technical writer. Maybe that's why she isn't embittered by having totally failed to fit into or even reliably figure out Japan or the Japanese. She barely learned the language, found out about various social taboos after having broken them frequently, and - more than once - describes something compelling that she stumbled across by accident.

Nothomb's book is autobiographical fiction. It's wonderfully short. The literary purity of having hardly any plot, but a lot of emotional reaction, is perfectly comfortable at novella-length; a lazy dinner could probably include the telling, and might. What plot there is is Failure to Adapt to an unfair corporate structure, despite speaking the language fluently. She wanted to be accepted, thought she knew how, & failed because of it; completely unlike Paine's accidental friendships.

Posted by clew at 03:58 AM

Beastly Tales, Vikram Seth

These are tales retold in rhyme, and it's glorious. They are also sardonic, funny, and full of morals, but the best part is the sound:

Praying may help us - who can tell?
But they, of course, have gods as well.
I would endeavor to maintain
Our plans on a terrestrial plane.
Posted by clew at 03:34 AM

September 04, 2002

Slave in a Box, M. M. Manring

A case-study of a deeply creepy classic of advertising. The title refers to the 'Aunt Jemima®' brand of pancake mix, still sold by Quaker Oats.

The editor and millworker who bought a bankrupt flour mill in 1889 had aspirations in marketing, not culinary brilliance. They wanted to distinguish their flour from bulk flour by selling it in printed cardboard boxes, which in turn were only a decade old. They came up with the recipe themselves; while wondering what to call it, the editor went to a blackface minstrel show, picked the name 'Aunt Jemima' out of a cakewalk song which had been written by a black musician fourteen years earlier. The cooks and the logo were all originally white men, borrowing images of free labor and (to be generous) nurturance. Manring discusses the transferences and inversions and masks that made this likely in the post-Civil-War US; there are lots, but the catchiest one is that the lifestyle of the prewar Southern rich (pastoral, sensual, irrational, symbolically feminine) was marrying the wealth of the (mechanized, modern, rational, symbolically masculine) North. The examples of actual ad campaigns (illus. by N.C. Wyeth) have three themes: the reconciliation of Northern and Southern men after the war (no white women around); the leisure of antebellum life (Colonel Higbee had female guests and staff, but no wife or daughter of the house); and the helpless little new bride who would lose the love of her husband if her pancakes don't improve. The worst one has Aunt Jemima feeding Confederate officers to help them back through enemy lines.

Presumably the first two campaigns expected the probably-female shopper to imagine herself as the missing mistress of the plantation. She must have been dreaming of having someone else do housework: from 1890 to 1910 white women's participation in the labor force rose and the number of domestic servants declined. That is, more women were doing more of their housework in less time, as standards of housework went up. Some of that was possible because equipment improved; some was an attempt to use up the 'extra' time women no longer spent in the family business or farm, without sending them out to another business or farm. (See The Home-Maker and her Job and For Her Own Good.) They would probably have bought pancake mix just because it was quick and edible - there were campaigns aimed at camping Boy Scouts with just that theme, and no Old South - but it's likely that they bought a lot more to stay on top of the racist, sexist, labor-theft imagery wrapped up in Aunt Jemima.

Black publications recognized the insult at least from 1919. Ad surveys of black consumers established in the '20s that they loathed the image. The NAACP ran protests and boycotts into the 1960s, when Quaker Oats was still hiring women to act as Aunt Jemima on tour. Quaker Oats has now changed the image slightly - she went through a period of being a working grandmother, and is now not very visible on 'her' own website, which announces The Aunt JemimaŽ Brand has a reputation for quality and is used by millions of moms and dads who take pride in preparing hot healthy breakfasts for their families.. Manring has a reasonable circumstantial argument that the offense the Aunt Jemima image still causes is balanced, commercially, by a (to be generous) unthinking racist pleasure in the image.

The copyright on this book is not held by its author, but by the Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia. Is that an increasing trend? If popular works are owned by for-profit corporations, and scholarly works by academic corporations - legaly nonprofit, but just as interested in perpetual revenue streams - when will anything come back in the public domain so that the can resuse and rework what we call 'our' culture? If there had been a real Aunt Jemima, who held the copyright and trademark in her own image, her heirs might have a different view of how to sell pancakes. They would have had, for instance, an image of female strength and competence, not just hard work and servility. Unfortunately, advertising speaks of love and pride but it sells with fear.

Posted by clew at 06:05 AM

September 02, 2002

London War Notes, Mollie Panter-Downes

Every other week, from September 3, 1939 to May 12, 1945, The New Yorker published a report from Panter-Downes in London. Especially in hindsight, these are startlingly balanced, wry, and calm; not just about the raining death and dearth of allies, but about the petty irritations and larger moral questions.

Posted by clew at 12:57 AM

My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950, Thomas C. Jepsen

The beginning of the story is that telegraphy was so new and strange that women worked in it, independently, when women could work outside the house at little else. The end of the story is that telegraphy was old tech eventually, and by then women had been resigned to repetitive jobs and smaller wages, though not without a good fight.

Jepsen is wonderfully thorough in detail in discussions of women telegraphers and: women's wages generally; the Civil War; colnizing the West; culture-shock moralizing in all directions; the centralization of the new industry; deskilling telegraphic jobs; international comparisons; and reflections in popular culture. More, probably, but I remember those. The writing is slightly cut-and-paste repetitive, a though it had been several magazine articles.

The list of high- and low-culture 'telegraph' works is great. Strauss wrote a "Telegramme" waltz! (Opus 318.) W.D. Griffith made The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and her Trust. The Hazards of Helen filmed 119 episodes between 1914 an 1917; Fritz Lang made Western Union; actually, that sounds awful, although Jeppson says it "partially redeems itself through its depiction of authentic telegraph equipment". This seems unimportant now, when there's a more-or-less-officially-fantasy genre for every grade of wish-fulfillment violence, technical aptitude, sexuality, and gender. Imagining it after reading a Charlotte Yonge novel is hard, though. Women's fiction in the nineteenth century mostly offered a choice between suffering in moral silence until the Virtuous Man rescued you, or suffering in moral silence until you died of it and someone felt remorse. Sometimes a woman went Bad, which is to say sexual, not larcenous, and later died, possibly of remorse, but the idea of leaving town on the next train for a job has to have been a big old breath of fresh air. (Am I wrong? Send me counterexamples.)

Posted by clew at 12:48 AM

September 01, 2002

Head Over Heels, Judith Cutler

Another midlife academic love crisis novel! I didn't expect one; the other Cutler books I've read were more murder-mysteries and much less character-driven.

This one is silly in its outline - aging rockstar attracted to headmistress his age - but sly in the mechanics; she's boondoggled into keeping a layabout but beautiful niece, the rockstar comes by in pursuit of the niece, niece is so surpassingly irritating and bad-mannered that the charms of the headmistress are shown off.

There's also a mystery plot, but even that has a lot more to do with Who should date Who than not.

Posted by clew at 11:24 PM
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