March 28, 2003

Mr Loudon's England, Gloag

Loudon was a workaholic Scot w/no sense in investing or medicine. He wrote enormously on lots of things, especially gardening and all domestic design. Unusual interest in comfort & safety of all classes, several clever inventions - glasshouse frames, for instance. Gloag thinks his biggest legacy is the taste-neutral Vict. mishmash of design styles. I shall look for more on his gardening & by his wife, who was also a writer.

Update: Here's a plan for a whole farmstead, hosue and all, by Loudon; designed, among other things, to be built with small timber (like almost all US houses now) instead of masonry or big post-and-beam. Much attention to how the work gets done; lots of covered space built for drying washing or veg., windows in the sewing room, a whole complex of pits & gutters for different kinds of manure (and orchard trees in the enclosure with the barns: I wonder if the animals were let out to eat the windfalls, or if fruit was as vulnerable to theft as the animals).

If the text discussing "Expression" in the design of this cottage is Loudon's, he was certainly conscious of the "mishmash" of styles.

This circular wooden house is not by Loudon, but I had to throw it in because some of the construction details are so modernist - the cleanly-vanishing sash and blinds - and the floorplan actually looks pretty good.

Posted by clew at 06:54 PM

March 27, 2003

Queen of Angels, Greg Bear

Totally failed to draw me in. The stream-of-consciousness narration reminds me of Beat poetry I don't like, the dialogue is slow, I thought the "in Country" mind exploration was treacly, and I don't know what happens in the plots because I didn't finish. Beats me; people I usually agree with liked it fine.

ISBN: 0-446-36130-5

Posted by clew at 03:09 PM

March 21, 2003

The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein

A modern Middlemarch, consciously so; the narrator is a philosopher manqué, and conscious of most of what she thinks. She still actively makes mistakes, and the self-reflection has more quips than angst, so this is definitely a funny novel and possibly a deep one.

It's also an academic-midlife-crisis novel, and a nonobservant-Jew novel, and a Bildungsroman, but I liked the Eliot-and-philosophy best. I don't know anything about philosophy, so you should assume that the philosophizing is undergraduate. For instance, our heroine's Mr. Casaubon is a mathematician: it is not surprising that he is a 'working Platonist', someone who thinks abstractions are more real than matter. This in turn is a setup for his holding some of Plato's odder beliefs (though not the ones I would have guessed, if asked to do so).

ISBN: 0-14-017245-9

Posted by clew at 06:38 AM

Stupid Heroes and Shipboard Intrigue

A Princess of the Aerie, John Barnes

Boy, do I read schlock when I'm depressed.

This is the sequel to The Duke of Uranium, which was less annoying. The whole is set in a thoroughly settled Solar System with an array of possibly tongue-in-cheek political arrangements. Our main character is also most bearable if taken a bit tongue-in-cheek; strong, impulsive, thinks well of himself but is maybe not as bright or as trustworthy as he thinks. I enjoy King of the Khyber Rifles with that feeling; I shouldn't object to a book in which the author more plausibly allows it.

And, in the first book, I didn't. Fisticuffs, shipboard romance, intrigue among rival noble houses; as good as a bag of cheap chips. This one, however, has a heavy subplot in which a princess has our hero, also a lot of other men, conditioned through psych and drugs to be sex slaves, and it was all too gratuitous. The mean-minded repetitive sex scenes weren't either good or horrifying enough to keep me from noticing that if conditioning is that effective, much of the politicking the harem arrangement is said to support isn't necessary, including the princess' own upbringing. Once the thin edge of disbelief got in, I became more dubious about the balance of power between warships that never make habitats uninhabitable and the manufacturing societies; much confusion can be written off to the idiocy of our hero, but that's losing its charm.

Good setup among the oppressed miners on Mercury, though.

ISBN: 0-446-61082-8

Hunted, James Alan Gardner

Hunted also has fisticuffs, shipboard romance, intrigue among rival noble houses, but I was not embarassed to finish, nor yet reread, the book. His hero is stupid, but learns, changes, repents some of his actions. Also there's no carefully delineated sex slavery.

There are mechanical similarities between the plots: unbelievably powerful ancient alien races, who sit in lethal judgement on the characters; enormously different competing societies easily seen as caricatures of parts of our own; scary loyal sidekick aliens; indistinguishable-from-magic technology. Gardner is just better at it, especially the ignorant narrator. (In Ascending he has a wilfully ignorant but quite bright narrator with a voice so delightful I quoted her for days.)

ISBN: 0-380-80209-0

Posted by clew at 05:23 AM

March 18, 2003

Just Wanted You To Know, Jennifer Crusie

A brisk epistolary story, written from a smalltown hairdresser to the husband of 26 years who just left her and ran off with a bank clerk. Nicely controlled changes of tone & mood from the beginning to the end. Might be the basis of a heartwarming ensemble movie aimed at the Oscars first, and then grown women and their mothers; or a raunchy filmed-on-a-creditcard movie which grown women and their mothers would still enjoy...


Posted by clew at 10:53 AM

Hearts-ease, or, Brother's Wife, Charlotte M. Yonge

In summary, a sweet young girl named Violet, married at sixteen into a rich cold family, slowly teaches all of them affection patience and Christian virtue by her own exercise of the same. She is much inspired by reminiscences of a dead fiancée of tremendous serene grace: as in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, women can be good, happy, beautiful or alive, but not all at once. Violet loses her beauty to repeated childbirth, made worse by unkindness & fiscal ineptitude on the part of her husband & the rest of his family.

The erring women of the piece are most interesting - one who has grown headstrong through isolation, two who become manipulative for or with money, a fourth who runs her reputation way too near the edge & eventually falls off. They're interesting because, unlike Violet, they make plans and carry them out despite setbacks and opposition - sometimes they change their minds. The men make plans, but have relatively simple lives (as presented by Yonge, who doesn't show us politics or economics), since they don't have the double-standard minefield a respectable woman faced. Violet is wounded when her husband does immoral or unkind things, but must be too sweet and soft to tell him so in any way; mostly she nearly dies in childbirth, & while he's flattened by grief one of the more forceful characters gives him the what-for. This reminds me unpleasantly of The Little Duke; Yonge makes much of her characters' self-denying virtue but then has to bring in an unvirtuous rescuer.


Posted by clew at 06:20 AM

Traditional Country Skills, Sheila Buff, ed.

The back cover describes this a a "comprehensive collection of farm-and-country wisdom and know-how", which is wrong. The Storey or Foxfire books are better for that; or current small farm journals or the extension service. This is mostly illustrated with catalog pages and illustrated articles from American Agriculturalist and other farm papers and journals. Except when a whole page is reproduced, with its header, the date & other useful information about the original source is usually not given.

The glue text is a useful summary of why the stuff being illustrated (cheap illos. were fairly new, too) was profitable or affordable or necessary. It concentrates on the 1880-1910 era when there was a lot of innovation but not a lot of motor power; this brief period included some of the most profitable periods of American farming, and our largest farm population. That's probably why that era remains our image of rural quaintness - there's plenty of metal stuff left over to hang on the wall, and printed material like the substance of this book, and a few people living who remember farming that way. The politics and economics that came out of those innovations are also still relevant, barely.

A few very funny engravings of prize pigs, shaped like bricks with tiny pointy feet and noses; and handsome pictures of famously un-safe cultivators and harrows drawn by improbably light-boned, curvetting horses.

ISBN: 1-58574-155-8

Posted by clew at 05:29 AM

March 12, 2003

Three Chinese Poets, Vikram Seth

Spring Scene in Time of War

The state lies ruined; hills and streams survive.
Spring in the city; grass and leaves now thrive.
Moved by the times the flowers shed their dew.
The birds seem startled; they hate parting too.
The steady beacon fires are three months old.
A word from home is worth a ton of gold.
I scratch my white hair, which has grown so thin
It soon won't let me stick my hatpin in.
--Du Fu, tr. Vikram Seth
The poets Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu were contemporaries in the eighth century C.E.; they were born in a golden age of culture and good government that ripped itself and China apart before they died. Seth gives more historical detail, and also describes the original forms he was trying to live up to. Seth likes good old rhyme and meter - his Golden Gate is a novel written entirely in sonnets, and is easy to read withal - but was aiming for translations, not new invocations of the muse: he remarks

"The famous translations of Ezra Pound, compounded as they are of ignorance of Chinese and valiant self-indulgence have remained before me as a warning of what to shun."

Well, I am ignorant of Chinese, and never mind self-indulgence, but I like these translations enough to learn some by heart - the rhyme & meter help - and like the poems well enough that I'm glad to have them.

ISBN: 1-85799-780-8

Posted by clew at 05:14 PM

A Country Year, Sue Hubbell

Essays on living in the Ozarks making a bare rural living raising bees for honey, written by a fiftyish single woman with more gumption than training for the job.

I liked it a lot better than the recent crop of My Year In Provence/Capri/Tuscany fantasies. It's not luxurious, and not self-pitying or self-mocking in the Betty Macdonald tradition: the best thing about the book, and what I would most like to know the author for, is plain close observation of whatever's around her. She particularly likes insects and arachnids; there are details of surprising moth-ear-mite life cycles that I don't think I'd have learned about elsewhere. (Although I have run across similar suprising news about lobster-lip symbiotes, so you never know.)

There are, be warned, essays on her dogs, old trucks, muddy roads, and reroofing the barn, and most of the essays run

  1. quotidian detail
  2. naturalist or practical complication
  3. generalization
  4. faintly sentimental, or philosophical, brief conclusion

much like Lewis Thomas' essays, which I also like. Reading them one at a time would have been better.

ISBN: 0-06-097086-3

Posted by clew at 12:48 PM

March 11, 2003

Love and the Single Corpse, Annie Griffin

Lightly written murder mystery, although the reasons for the murders are not light or taken lightly; the aging-Marin background of the series characters is the main character of the book, and comes in for a lot of affectionate mockery.

ISBN: 0-425-17612-6

Posted by clew at 06:36 AM

March 10, 2003

The Little Duke, Charlotte M. Yonge

In summary, our little Norman Duke is orphaned as a child and overcomes the oppressive French King by remembering the Christian admonition his father gave him to forgive; also because his unChristianized Norse-man cousins send a military force by longboats in his support. Yonge has explanatory footnotes in the original from her old French sources, and may be dull because she hewed as far as possible to the known history.

I've read that forged paintings often pass for a generation, after which it becomes obvious that they're forged, because they're dated by their appeal to the fashions of their actual day. similarly, despite the tough Norman upbringing of our tender Duke, the novel is sugary and dull in a specially Victorian-kid-lit way; he drops a tear but never argues with himself or his teachers, much less attempts to rebel against them. Pity, since internal debate is my favorite thing in Victorian adult literature.


Posted by clew at 07:27 AM

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

A comic butler and delusions about opium delusions; oh, and mysterious Indian gentleman jugglers, and what may be the original of the Jewel Stolen from the Head of a Foreign Idol cliché. Collins is a headwater.

And, of course, it's available for free through the good graces of Project Gutenberg:


Posted by clew at 06:49 AM

The Tomorrow Log, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

Too predictable. The good characters are too virtuous; they overcome the prejudices and cruelties of their upbringings too easily, with too few errors. They avoid both the minor errors made from confusion and the major ones normally made in the chaos renovating one's entire worldview.

The Regency manners failed to convince me; in the Liaden worlds of Agent of Change, &c., I thought them supportable; but in a different political setting, not.

As a shallow book it isn't bad, but their first ones were better.

ISBN: 189206587-8

Posted by clew at 06:02 AM

March 05, 2003

The Fractal Murders, Mark Cohen

I don't think anywhere near enough use is made of fractals in the plot of the book, and nothing at all in the form; total MacGuffin. They aren't misrepresented, but any other woo-woo technology or theory would have done as well. The depressive ex-Marine JAG private eye makes a lot more of his reading in philosophy; I hope his summary of philosophy is as reliable as his summary of fractals, because I quite liked this:
A man in the undifferentiated mode never questions the meaning of his own life or faces up to the fact that his existence is defined by the culture fate threw him into. He never recognizes his own thrown-ness, but blindly accepts the existence he has inherited.

A man in the inauthentic mode recognizes that his existence is a result of coincidence -recognizes his own thrown-ness, but simply substitutes some other role for the life he inherited. It is like a man who is born into a family of farmers and decides he's going to be a doctor rather than a farmer. He has substituted one rule for another without recognizing that both roles were created by the culture or world he was thrown into.

A man's recognition of his own thrown-ness sometimes leads to what Heidegger called anxiety. Anxiety is the result of man's realization that anything he might possibly do has already been defined in advance by the culture he was thrown into. He begins to think about death. When is unable to face up to the possibility of his own non being or nothingness, Heidegger referred to this as fallen-ness. Instead of dealing with his anxiety the man who experiences fall in this returns to the inauthentic mode.

But some that experience anxiety are able to face up to their own thrown-ness and their own death. While all ways of life are defined by the culture we inherited, each of us has to die on our own. Given that we are responsible for our own death, we become responsible for our own life. Heidegger called this care. In caring for the world, each man makes the most of his own possibilities - even if those possibilities were originally dictated by the culture he was thrown into. A man who adopts this attitude lives in what Heidegger called an authentic mode of existence.

ISBN: 0-9718986-0-X

Posted by clew at 07:47 AM

March 04, 2003

In Times of Peril, G. A. Henty

Completely politically incorrect novel, by modern standards, and sadly unsteady by its own. I have been reading Henty because Neal Stephenson's characters' defence of Victorian principles in Diamond Age seems thin to me, but relevant because the Victorians are so not dead to us - still the parents against which modernism clumsily rebels - and, of, course, there is the daily possibility of my own nation acquiring an empire in a fit of deniability of mind.

Two things were interesting about the political incorrectness; one appealing, one less so. This is a tale of two preposterously courageous young English brothers Warrener, in their early teens in the Indian Mutiny in 1857; they reconnoiter in and out of the losses, seiges, reliefs, sallies, sappings, and reconquests of about a dozen towns and cities, among them the massacred retreat from Cawnpore, the long defense of the residency at Lucknow, Oudh, and Delhi. From what I remember of trying-to-be-unbiased histories of the East India Company and the Mutiny & sequelae, some of the mutiny at Cawnpore really was disgusting by the standards of all the civilizations involved - throwing babies' bodies into a city well - and many, though not all, of the mutinous troops behaved so badly to the peasantry as to make British rule look better. Points, as it were, for the righteous anger of the surviving English, if one can forget why they were there in the first place. One can't; Henty clearly comments that a large cause of the uprising was the British (Crown or Company? I can't tell) casually breaking treaties with adopted heirs of deceased rulers, on the grounds that adoption doesn't count, which was done with no warning - ungentlemanly by Henty's standards - and with scant reason, as adopted heirs were not worse rulers than born ones, and was a total strategic error, since all the other rulers who were adopted or had adopted heirs suddenly worried a lot about the value of their treaties.

As represented by Henty - who was probably whitewashing, but I like to see the moral standards of the age in question - the soldiers who broke oaths are not worth any treaty or quarter; soldiers of neighboring states who fight against the English, and even the kings who command them to do so, have to be conquered but deserve quarter and fair treatment (respectively, their cities are not fired, and their jewels but not their women are fair plunder). Another semi-moral and semi-tactical repeated theme is that people who know they will be killed if they surrender are very hard to defeat, even if it's inevitable that they will be. Finally, there are plenty of loyal troops - the pattern seems to me to have much to do with likely internal wars if the mutiny succeeds, but natives are distinguishable only by height to Henty; no discussion of what a Musselman is likely to think of a Sikh or v.v.. Damn-all consideration given to exactly what loyalty consists of.

I don't think there's even enough consideration given to loyalty among the English; I was flobbersmacked when the brother's father, seeing the budding romance between his sons and two girls who have survived the siege at Lucknow, sums up his opinion as "It would not be a bad thing, for Hargreaves was, I know, a very wealthy man, and there are only these two girls." Never mind romance; let's have at the inheritances.

Then the real mercantilism of the family comes up. They know they're going to take part in the conquest of the palace of the King of Oude; the contents of the palace will be lawful booty; and in the conquest of Delhi, the troops got a lot of jewels & so forth, but sold them for a drinks' worth apiece in the flurry. The Warreners cannily take as much of their pay in gold coinage as they can, so that they can buy up loot at the famously optimal - "blood running in the streets" - time. Now, this is not the chivalry that issues a dying flame in Beau Geste; much more Company than Crown. What really bothers me as a failure of internal standards is that they are knowingly outsmarting their own troops, as well as their brother officers. This especially bugs me because one of the brothers is an accidentally-detached navy man, and the navy was supposed to award even the lowest seaman a small but clearly defined share of all prizes. Do they have a moral qualm? yes; but it consists entirely of how they are to divide the enormous profits among the three of them. And finally, after a dashing last battle around, into, up, & on top of a huge domed tomb, one son is wounded badly enough to have to leave the service; but all possible family problems are averted when the father marries the widowed mother of the Lucknow girls, and the girls marry the brothers, so all the money stays in the family, see, and they retire to a pleasant square in London. At least Henty didn't wound one son in the thigh to avert arguments about primogeniture, but maybe his audience was too young to understand.

I wouldn't be dismayed by historical people mustering out and surviving on loot; it was a ungenerous society and a hard service. I'm amazed that the pop fiction of the time, the images of what a young lad was to grow up & sublimate, was so cheerfully open about ranking money above inconvenient national service as soon as the immediate peril was past. I wonder if that led more to the rise or the fall of the Empire.

But, as a final guilty pleasure, I really recommend the escape in the bear's skin and the fakir's hair. It still isn't Kim - the whole novel shows how Kipling was a better writer & a stouter moralist and a shock to the comfortable sensibilities of his age, however unregenerate he is to ours.

ISBN: none on this copy, an 1895 edition from the public library, now in storage but checked out every year or so (dated slips left between the pages). It is probably still in print for sale.


Posted by clew at 11:46 PM


Cryptonomicon doesn't have any interiors to its women. This is a pity, as Stephenson's satire is most effective and kind when showing flaws from both the inside and the out. It's also a pity because the tragic freedom fighter Glory would have had a really interesting inside story, especially in parallel with the tragic Marine Bobby Shaftoe (silver buckles...); and their descendant Amy is not reliably distinguishable from a Barbie doll with a sneer and a big knife. YT had insides; so did her mother, who was unromantically not just a Mom but a petty government official. Clearly Stephenson can manage it. I hope he didn't take it out to write a saleable airplane book, or at least, that the next one will be saleable even with more perspectives.

Dunnett's Lymond novels are still fun, but the period dialogue now sounds a lot more first-half-of-the-twentieth to me, and less gloriously sixteenth. On the other hand, as I read plenty of the originals after tracking down a Dunnett quote, I am still in her debt. (And 1920-1950 are falling into the past enough to have a quaint charm.)

ISBN: 0-380-97346-4

ISBN: 0-7126-0386-7

Posted by clew at 11:08 PM

It's Only Too Late if you Don't Start Now, Sher

The main burden is a sociobioFreudian one, that we are driven by the terrors of infancy until we're eight, and by mating drives from twelve to forty, and that midlife crises are not caused by the view forward into the abyss of death, but by the hollowness of the view backward across our driven youth. She improves on sociobioFreudianism in a stroke by cheerfully announcing that once our reproductive capacity starts to fade, the hormonal imperatives fade with it and we become freely human and can live according to reason or the higher passions.

The book was longer than its argument, helped out with quotes from clients-and-assorted-reading. (At least one quote is from an airline magazine, and another is X-as-quoted-in-pop-Y, and a third has Nelson Mandela using the word "fabulous" of people, which doesn't sound probable to me but what do I know.) She also has many free-associate-on-paper exercises, which I didn't do.

Her descriptions of what one might like to do in one's second life are stereotypically Balsamic Dreams retire-to-a-vineyard, in most cases, but she does defend a lot of just hanging out, gives examples of work that rewards worldly altruism with happiness, & tries to deflate the more imaginary or commercial idylls. I was surprised that she didn't mention moral imperatives much in deciding what true dream would define a life's work; contrarily, at least a chapter is devoted to detaching people from unnecessary obligations. I think a guideline as to how to decide which obligations really are necessary to you would have fit well into the rest of the self-inquiries, and would have balanced out the vineyards.

ISBN: 0-385-31505-8

Posted by clew at 11:08 PM
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