April 30, 2003

The Last Hero, Terry Pratchett

Patrick O'Brian is at least one cb, or cookbook, which we can regard as a measure of saleability of popular authors. Terry Pratchett is too, of course, and Barbara Cartland has published at least two, although they seem both to be out of print. I don't believe Frank Herbert published a vanity cookbook, but I do remember a recipe for No-Bake Spice Cookies in the "Dune Activity Book" when the movie came out.

So cookbooks are a common category, bigger than a millihelen but smaller than a Oprah. Pratchett can sell an oversized hardback illustrated with knackneed flappy-breasted old guys in scanty loincloths, and I can't think of another one of those. New unit of publishing force, right up there with the complete edited letters and notes, Tolkien, q.v.

Other than that it's an okay Discworld novel, a quick orchestral reprise of Interesting Times.

ISBN: 0-06-104096-7

Posted by clew at 01:53 PM

Rock'n'Roll Babes from Outer Space, Linda Jaivin

Boring, with sex.

Summarily: three polymorphic aliens leave their prudish planet for Earth in order to be Rock'n'Roll Babes; they land in Sydney among slackers; comic misunderstanding marks time until the final Dionysiac concert flummoxes the pursuing parental figures. I'd say it was a standard teen movie but with more sex, but I don't know how much sex teen movies are currently allowed.

ISBN: 0-7679-0165-7

Posted by clew at 01:51 PM

April 23, 2003

The Castle of the Silver Wheel, Teresa Edgerton

Good followup to The Prize in the Game. Castle... is based on later myths, possibly the Mabinogion, Welsh tales that combine very early myths and euhemerized divinities with later Arthurian and Christian stories (material that Chrêtiens and Malory tidied up into 'the' Grail stories, for instance).

Edgerton's story is mostly a romance, with a rescued maiden and witches and murder and what-all. I liked best the straightforward interior reasoning of the characters. People do odd things in the originals - Owein & Luned, Gereint and Enid and their mutual misunderstandings - and I liked the modern description of consciousness that Edgerton supplies her characters to explain their foolishness.

I think the book would be better for a less matter-of-fact attitude towards all the magic; she has at least two kinds of magic, three if one counts miracles. It's the one place where I think the characters claim to have feelings that aren't supported in the writing. Maybe she was reflecting the straightforward descriptions of marvels in the old stories, but in this book it shows up as a change of tone & in the wrong direction.

The place of the Church is odd in both Castle... and the Mabinogion. People talk about it, and act as though it were a power temporal or miraculous, but neither the Church nor any clergyman do anything interesting. Compare to, say, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, in which Mary is constantly invoked and quirkily active: when a is unjustly accused of stealing some porkchops, the porkchops are found when they begin to dance and sing; when a monk steals altar linen, Mary makes his ill-gotten undies shrink until he sees the error of his ways.

ISBN: 0-441-09275-6

Posted by clew at 04:33 PM

Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm

Hm. The plot relies too much on some clichéd oppositions for me to really like the book - male/female, forcing/adapting, space/nature, Euro-American/Native American. On the other hand, the Anglo-American woman who makes a key to the plot's puzzle doesn't get it for free in either tradition. And, most realistically, the key she thinks of comes from her understanding, as an outsider, one of the cultures she's only half in. It isn't a solution to the questions either of the cultures were working on in their own frames.

ISBN: 0-671-83336-7

Posted by clew at 03:58 PM

April 19, 2003

Scientist, Soldier, Statesman, Spy: Count Rumford, G. I. Brown

A perplexingly thin book about a perplexing man. In so short a book, I don't know why we got summaries of both the American Revolution and Humphrey Davey's career: I can't imagine an English-speaking audience for Rumford's bio that hadn't a grasp of either.

Rumford was a Loyalist Ben Franklin; he spied for England during the American Revolution, left before the war was over, and surprisingly soon was a colonel in Bavaria. There, he wrote, he would 'endeavor to unite the interest of the soldier with the interest of civil sociey', which he did by treating the common soldiers more generously, with pay and leave and education. Here he started doing research into food and warmth (to efficiently keep the army fed & clothed) as well as the manufacture of guns. Changing the uniforms to make them seasonable required setting up manufacturies; since Bavaria had a beggar problem at the time, he staffed the factories by rounduing up all the beggars in Munich - but providing them with better food, clothing, education and healthcare than jobs there usually did. This was apparently a solid success in less than a decade, both in manufacturing clothes and in reintegrating beggars into respectable working society, 'on the principle of making the inmates happy before trying to make them virtuous'.

I would like more supporting evidence about that, and comparisons to orphanages and workhouses and settlement houses earlier and latr, because he seems to have been rather ahead of his time.

It wasn't popular with the powerful in Bavaria. Back in England, he published his research into effective nutrition and heating. He also had a complex and never restful private life, not very private and overblessed with extramarital children. He had money partly because he invented useful things: better lamps, stoves, fireplaces - including the damper - pressure cookers, institutional kitchens. Not only did he want food to be cooked well and at a low expense in fuel, but he thought out how to make the vast kitchens comfortable and efficient for the cook. That was way ahead of its time, though not before need. Also: portable field stoves for armies; drip-pots for coffee; and an awful cheap recipe for breadline soup. Not even the coffeepot is the foundation of his fame; that's because he proved the kinetic, vs. the caloric, theory of heat, by observations from boring cannon.

With these successes, and philanthropical intent, he set the foundation of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (applied science) but he still wasn't a master of politics, and it was soon left to others. Rumford dwindled into an unhappy marriage to Lavoisier's widow and died in France.

I want to know what he actually thought of people, because it is much less clear from his biography than most. It seems odd that he was socially so attached to the nobility while pursuing the comfort of soldiers and servants. Did he get, or get away with, the latter because he was an American and therefore not an aristocrat? Did he sleep with everyone, but only the noblewomen published their letters about it? Was he kindly to the poor to make the lower orders stronger cogs, or because that was the other form of social interaction he was good at, or what?

Baking-powder isn't mentioned at all, although his name and silhouette are on Rumford baking powder. It's just the sort of thing he might have invented, in order to have biscuits with coffee for five hundred, and it seems a proper honor that the baking powder gets the name because its inventor once held the Rumford Chair for achievements in science and cooking.

ISBN: 0-7509-2674-0

Posted by clew at 03:28 PM

The Lobster Chronicles, Linda Greenlaw

Small-town fishing troubles, New England to boot; and the difficulty of finding a sweetheart when you see only a few of the merely forty people who live year-round where you do. Good plain rueful writing about a life I'm never going to try.

Also full of fishing economics and politics, with no suggestion of an Answer to it All.

ISBN: 0-7868-6677-2

Posted by clew at 03:00 PM

Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, Pat Murphy

It's only meant to be a divertissement, I think, a silliness with Quantum as its excuse - and Narrativium too - but I don't think it was funny enough, or eerie enough. Nothing awful about it; too many pages between the good bits, is the worst I would say.

ISBN: 0-312-86643-7

Posted by clew at 02:54 PM

The Prize in the Game, Jo Walton


For a modern fantasy novel, this has a solid quantity of wierdness (oddity or fate, choose your meaning) not explained away into hex-paper boredom. I also liked the characters, except the ones no-one could like. And there is plenty of excitement and romance, not damaged by the foreshadowing granted by this being sort-of a telling of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, q.v.

The Táin itself is much much wierder. "His face and features became a red bowl: he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek from the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. " Nor is that a monster - it's the handsome hero. Enormously high body-counts, lots of poetry, and women who do interesting things.

The modern novel sorts out a fair amount of the magic and religion into systems that make the duels-and-herding life less awful; there is a limit on population growth, many of the wounds taken in the constant battles can be healed immediately, the most important laws are enforced by the gods; or nearly everyone believes they will be, which is nearly as useful. Some books make this twee, as though heroism were imaginable but dirty hair weren't. Walton's builds a prelapsarian or Silver Age society, one in which the fates play with humans but without loading the dice first. (Her earlier books are later in the history of this world, and see its rules rearranged.)

How much magic (or indistinguishable technology) is needed to make a set of rules seem fair is a measure of something, the harshness of the rules, say. For instance, The Stone Canal handed just enormous capabilities to the system it described without convincing me that it would be a pleasant system for most of its inhabitants. ...I very faintly recall that someone in the 19th century wistfully wrote that if only food production could really keep up with population, the problems of the world would dwindle, since of course it does the rich no good to hoard more food than they can eat. (File that under: technical solutions do not suffice for social problems.)

ISBN: 0-765-30263-2

Posted by clew at 02:20 PM

April 17, 2003

Extravagance, Gary Krist

Nice conceit; the same plot - names, events, conversations - happens in London in 1690 and in New York in the 1990's. Instead of showing each event in each century, Krist tells it as a single linear story with flickering back ground and dress.

Not a perfect trick. The 1690s speech was neither quite florid nor quite earthy enough, compared to Oronooko, e.g. I think the religious and political background of the late 17th century would have been more present to even a callow young man.

ISBN: 0-7679-1330-2

Posted by clew at 11:07 AM

April 10, 2003

Death at Wentwater Court, Carola Dunn

It's a fine little 1920s mystery, 'Arry, with toffs and Scotland Yard and the Modern Woman and all. Hand me another.

Has anyone written Death 'Twixt Wind and Water yet? in which Harriet was going to immortalize Peter in the turn-up of some worm's cuff? Google says fanfic has taken it up, but the links thereto are dead.

Update: but I did find the Invisible Library catalogue of imaginary books known only from their mention in existing books. Fforde, look out.

ISBN: 1-57566-750-9

Posted by clew at 01:12 PM

The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke

Okay children's fantasy/mystery/adventure story, but I don't think it's as good as The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which is a close analogy. That might be because I'm too old to read either now, but I still think there should have been either more or less magic in Thief Lord.

ISBN: 0-439-40437-1

Posted by clew at 06:50 AM

April 09, 2003

Oafing About

Four books about travelling through Europe, written by men who fail to achieve, or attempt, subtlety or suavity.

Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson

Bryson is the sweetest oaf; he's foolish & sometimes insulting, but not deceptive, and not even unkind. He makes tremendous mockery of the wierd customs of foreigners, but loves travel, lives to be a foreigner, is evidently tremendously happy just to see all the different ways civilizations have adopted to deal with common problems, or invented problems peculiar to themselves.

Sometimes a nation's little contrivances are so singular and clever that we associate them with that country alone - double-decker buses in Britain, windmills in Holland (what an inspired addition to a flat landscape: think how they would transform Nebraska), sidewalk cafés in Paris. And yet there are some things that most countries do without difficulty that others cannot get a grasp of at all.

Bryson is funny with both cases. He's unbelieving when describing how stupid assigned seats in a nearly-empty theater are, or how stupid he himself is when faced with a dog, a hill, a choice between rail stations. He's also enormously happy when describing something that works well, whether it's medieval and untouched or as new as this morning; and he drops his hyperbolic style a few times a book, when discussing something morally grave.

If I ever plan a European vacation again, I should reread this book for its mentions of minor and beautiful cities.

ISBN: 0-552-99806-0

The Grand Tour, Tim Moore

Moore's first travel book, Frost On My Moustache, was belchingly funny. I hear other people enjoy it too, and I look forward to getting my copy back.

This one has a good frame and a bad frame. The good one is his history of Thomas Coryate, an unsuccessful social climber - but very powerful walker - who wrote the first of the many many English Grand Tour books, and got no respect at home for it. Moore finds a couple of plaques to Coryate in obscure villages, and is repeatedly impressed by how far Coryate went & how much he was mocked for it; Coryate comes off as an inspired crackpot.

Moore would probably like to be an inspired crackpot, and in his first book he was - following a square-jawed, stiff-upper-lip aristocratic scion on his historical path North. Moore is none of these; comic failure ensues. In this one, he buys an ill-running Rolls Royce and a velvet suit, with some intention of playing the Grand Tour dandy, but has no fun. It moves him to excuses and makeshifts, which are a little amusing in an unsympathetic way, but too artificial to be really funny.

ISBN: 0-312-28156-0

A Cook's Tour, Alan Bourdain

This one is disorganized: it's putatively about the search for the perfect meal, or maybe for the author's past, or maybe for what will look good in an hour on TV with no background given. Bourdain mostly ignores the TV stuff, and mocks bad food and feeble people as he did in Kitchen Confidential. So, several visits to dangerous places with excellent to gory cuisine; a couple of grand feasts in wildly expensive, world-famous restaurants. When writing about the first, he's more about the people; about the second, more about the food. He should have been more analytical about the peasant food and the expensive people - that would have been rarer.

His visit to "Where Cooks Come From" was sweet. It's a region, even a few towns, in Mexico, which (network effects) is producing way more than its share of professional sous-chefs and chefs, classically but not formally trained in Continential cooking. Fifteen years ago they were completely exploited; now some are immigrating, and more are better paid, and that's where cooks come from; and they eat well at home, too, although it seems that the women cook in Mexico and not in the States: no fusion cuisine.

Only a few things were too obviously made-for-TV; snake-eating, and a vegan potluck in California. I think his criticisms of the logic of wealthy Cali veganism are only slightly more coherent than their subject, and equally heartfelt, and a big detour into global politics and economics; won't go there. It is righteous of him to criticize the vegans for being terrible cooks of vegetables. But the cheap shot is in aiming at vegans in California after he spent so much time eating in Southeast Asia. Buddhists (and possibly others, but I know about the Buddhists) have a long tradition of really excellent vegetarian or vegan cuisine, a coherent philosophy about it, and a much closer view of the human suffering that Bourdain - incoherently, IMO - adduces as something that trivializes vegetarianism. I wouldn't expect him to give up haggis, but he shouldn't cheat, no more than a vegan polemicist should discuss Tyson chickens as though they were the only imaginable meat supply.

ISBN: 0-06-001278-1

Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, Paul Fussell

It's been so long since I read this that I need to reread it to blog it ('s why I started booklogging in the first place!). As a placeholder, what this is really about is the delight that travel to poorer countries afforded male homosexuals from Britain between the wars. There's at least one reference to 'boys' of Greece or Sicily, etc., that is right squicky whether it refers to actual children or to adult-enough-for-consent men who were 'boys' because poor and foreign.

This would, I suspect, have been a better book if it had been more consciously about its sexual matter; like Sultry Climes, for instance. One trap his avoidance lays for him is a cross and incoherent dismissal of female writers who would otherwise qualify, although he does quote Rebecca West and Freya Stark on particular subjects. (The dismissal is from my memory and maybe imaginary; there are index entries for particular writers, but not for 'women, pooh-poohing'. No index entry for Gertrude Stein.)

The other comparison that makes this book suffer is, of course, to Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, which everyone should try who likes Tolkien or - drat, I've forgotten the title - lovely, lovely young men in English country houses, TV miniseries years ago, angst, not "Upstairs, Downstairs", starts with 'B' but isn't Barchester Towers either - well, never mind that attempt at pop culture references. The Great War and Modern Memory is about literature and reality, horrible reality and imagination, WWI, poetry, homosexuality, and suffering.

ISBN: 0-19-502767-1

Posted by clew at 05:15 PM

Futuretrack 5, Robert Westall

This is a much better YA novel on 'bad education as an implement of dystopia' than Higher Education. It is clear throughout how the destructive system benefits enough people to keep it stable; the hero-narrator isn't so dim at the beginning that his further education is incredible; and different virtues of many layers of the damaged society get acknowledged.

ISBN: 0-688-02598-6

Posted by clew at 10:33 AM

American Arts and Crafts Textiles, Ayres, Hansen, McPherson, McPherson

Mostly a coffee-table book with pictures of pillows, curtains from preserved Arts and Crafts houses, designs published by embroidery companies and art magazines. Few of the pictures are big and flat-aspect enough to use directly as patterns.

The text is gently informative on many heads: development form Victorian mores, relation to settlement houses, invention of new flosses and dyes, how to use & launder old textiles.

I think it's a pity there aren't more clothes represented; there are many contemporaneous illustrations of Arts and Crafts clothing, but they are awfully romantic and it's hard for me to guess what people actually wore. It isn't surprising that fewer dresses have survived than dresser-cloths, but it's a pity the survivors aren't shown on mannequins; they're kind of shapeless, and I wonder whether they were drapey and Pre-Raphaelite or boxy and proto-modernist.

ISBN: 0-8109-0434-9

Posted by clew at 10:25 AM

April 06, 2003

Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks

Subtitle: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

A cheering and melancholy book. Well balanced; hard to summarize.

Sacks' family was large and thoroughly scientific - both parents doctors, and many many aunts uncles and cousins were scientists, inventors, chemists, mathematicians, all over the world. His immediate family lived in London in a big Edwardian house, which they seem to have kept full of people: four siblings; the home-surgery needs of his parents; an aunt who lived with them; and many relatives who stayed for a while between peregrinations, of widely varying ages and styles and obsessions. Good thing the house had all those rooms closed off from each other (now horribly unfashionable) to allow inhabitants their peculiarities without getting up each others' noses. Well, some of Oliver's chem experiments got up everyone's noses, but with anough ventilation they weren't lethal.

But this house was in London and Oliver was six when the Blitz began; he was sent away to a hastily invented and unusually cruel boarding school. Four years later, when the school was disbanded, he came back somewhat detached from people but deeply attached to chemistry and numbers. The child's-eye narration of learning chem by recapitulating its history is the bulk of the book.

His much more reticent mentions of the pains of a war childhood, and of not studying what one's parents hope, are clear but secondary. Other issues; Englishness and internationalism, before and after the war, more or less affected by the Sacks' being Jewish. Neighborhoods, different attitudes towards child & material safety, the sensuous appreciation of an intellectual subject.

I want a spinthariscope.

ISBN: 0-375-40448-1

Posted by clew at 03:52 PM

April 03, 2003

Four more by Yonge

Friarswood Post Office, Charlotte M. Yonge

This is of a genre reduced in frequency: How to Die Well, also how to accept a good death. There must have been an even more heartrending genre about having a beloved die outside the state of grace. especially in any theology that requires specific acts from a consecrated hand. I can't think of any examples, though.

Yonge tends cautiously against the novelistic convention of virtue belonging to the gently-born. The characters most virtuous under duress in this story are petty village shopkeepers and a foundling.

URL: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=4296

The Lances of Lynnwood, Charlotte M. Yonge

Medieval adventure, suitable for youths and gently nurtured females to read. I liked it much better than The Little Duke, because the eventual success of the fatherless hero depends on his virtue and cleverness and that of his friends, not on his virtue and the unvirtuous cleverness of his friends.

It's a little interesting to see what set a 'medieval' scene for Victorians. Horses don't interest them much: horses were still normal to them, as were peasants, I suppose. Windows without glass or curtains come up in Yonge a lot; so do unrefined table manners. I would expect the details of religious observance to be more titillating. but Yonge doesn't describe them with anything like the detail in Friarswood Post Office. Maybe she would then have been walking the fencerails between being too fond of ceremony, and therefore Papist, or too scornful of them and therefore Non-establishment.

URL: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=4364

Abbeychurch: or, Self-Conceit and Self-Control, Charlotte M. Yonge

Ah-a; he first novel in which I could guess why a friend of mine is a Yonge fiend. It's roughly equivalent to Little Women. Most of its charm is in the affectionate mutual pestering of sibs & cousins, one of whom is clearly our Authoress in youth. They are startlingly fond of telling over historical precedents to each other, especially those of virtuous knights, and in the original language. I see that Yonge's medieval romances may have been written for girls, not boys.

The morals of self conceit and self control are still usable, allthough the boundaries one tries to keep one's self in have changed. I couldn't enter in to the view of obedience to authority as a higher virtue than any other: it clearly made it too easy for those with the authority to make of their errors and internal contradictions into other people's problems.

Even on a more frivolous level, I don't understand Younge's theology. There is one scene with an unacceptable embroidered cushion which horrified all the well brought up characters but made no sense to me. I couldn't tell if St. Augustine was wrong, or cross stitch was unacceptably not Early English, or if sitting on an image of a saint was wrong, or what. I wonder what it meant to Yonge's original readers.

URL: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=4267

The Young Step-Mother: or, A Chronicle of Mistakes , Charlotte M. Yonge

Lots of vicars, who are a genre of their own in Vic. lit.

My ability to swim along in the mores of a different time did not survive a clear description of an abusive marriage without any belief that the sufferer's family should or could help her:

'Does her affection hold out, do you think?'

'Oh, yes, the spaniel and walnut-tree love, which is in us all, and doubly in the very woman. It is very beautiful. She is so proud of him and of her gilded slavery, and so unconsciously submissive and patient; but it is a harder life, I guess, than we can see. I am sure it must be, for every bit of personal vanity and levity is worn out of her; she only goes out to satisfy him; dresses to please his eye, and talks, with her eye seeking round for him, in dread of being rebuked for mistakes or bad French.

The reference is, "A women, a spaniel, a walnut-tree: the more you beat them, the better they be."

URL: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=5843

Posted by clew at 02:32 PM

April 01, 2003

Higher Education, Charles Sheffield & Jerry Pournelle

Earth is a Riders-of-the-Purple Wage sort of setup, with the schools used mostly to opiate the masses under pretense of not damaging any child's self-esteem. Our idiot young hero pranks out; his sole chance at a job is an asteroid mining firm, which is all Tough but Fair about teaching last-hopers Real Math and Reading because otherwise Space Will Kill You, Kid.

I found that a bit creaky; the setup on Earth was so bad that I thought it unlikely anyone coming out of it could be taught as much as they were taught and as quickly. Also, the setup on Earth was so bad that it wasn't clear why it was stable; no-one at all seems to profit from it. When I was particularly unconvinced by it, the whole thing smelled like old geezers complaining that things aren't now what served them well in their youth, pass the port and Stilton.

However, our loutish hero is being sent back to Earth later in the series, and maybe he will understand more or at least have more explained to him, which in turn might make the setup more politically plausible.

Posted by clew at 12:58 PM
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