November 29, 2003

The Guardian Columns 1998-2000, Julie Burchill

I don't know how much of this was enjoyable because British commentary culture is different from US commentary culture. is our mischievous desire to see the rich and powerful debagged for the hell of it that makes British society so much less craven, so much more irreverent than that of others across various ponds.

First thing I liked: no mimsy mouth. Burchill actively mocks practically everyone in terms that would alarm several of the extremes of US social style. It seems to me that she really does mock people only for what they have chosen to do with their good luck, not for what they've managed to do with their bad luck, which goes beyond the trope of "only for actions under their control". Leaves plenty to mock, too.

Another oddity is that she's a fat, happy, randy, working-class ex-drug-addled punk-partygoer. In her summary, No university, no proper job, just straight from school to being rude for a living. At least she's clear that most of the strengths of journalism are, in fact, rudenesses.

Sample use of this history:

Like his friend Bowie...[John] Peel advocated ceaseless shagging and substance abuse as the road to the palace of wisdom. ... I don't blame Peel, Bowie and Douglas for changing their minds. But I do blame them for rubbing our collective noses in the fact that the rich and famous can walk on the wild side and still return to the domestic fold when it suits them, whereas the young and poor need only stray off the straight and narrow once to be trapped in a cul-de-sac of sorrow.

The essays were tight enough that I didn't mind reading them all together as a book, which is unusual. Most of them have a one-sentence summary about three-quarters through, lots of which I marked to quote, but it might be better to summarize her positions in case you want to go agree or argue with them yourself. Something like: French misogynistic, therefore disgusting. Sports fans too often likewise. Fashion a cush job. Enjoying sex when you're young and beautiful is A-OK, and so is enjoying it when you're not. Aggression is under-regarded as a creative force. Everyone needs both work and love to be happy, and these should include money and sex as corollaries. I have had and contnue to have an enormous amount of fun. My parents were wonderful, as is the working class in general.

A representative online essay lays out her opinions as a fat feminist, disagreeing with rather a lot of the others. Here's a calm, measured counterargument to a Burchill defense of cocaine, and a much more damning dissection of Burchill's importance as either a journalist or a feminist. And, O Fates, a fax flamewar between Burchill and Camille Paglia. Paglia in general is almost equally abrasive, but Burchill gets it on points for attacking more sacred cows. (via)

ISBN: 0-75284-380-X

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Warchild, Karin Lowachee

My other half remarked that this was trying to be a C. J. Cherryh novel and not quite making it, which is pretty well true but not at all damning. Not damning, first, because I enormously like most Cherryh novels and would be happy to see her polis throw out colonies; second because this is a first novel and Cherryh has been writing for decades.

The parts that are Cherryh-like are the really horrible circumstances into which the young hero falls. Civilizations are locked in deadly battle, both sides want his allegiance, and he painfully learns that neither side is wholly good or wholly bad and - maybe worse - that he doesn't often guess correctly as to who is what. It's like Rimrunners with more idealism to lose.

The prose is plainer, the dialogue less sinewy, than Cherryh's. Or maybe less forced; matter of taste. The only place I think Lowachee really needed to do more work was in the alien society, which is far too much like an Edwardian view of feudal Japan (all the philosophy is alien, all the economics human). I was massively unconvinced by the human sympathizers becoming masters of an alien sword-form in two generations, for instance; especially when the aliens are described as being innately swift and graceful, and the humans are half a generation from space travel.

I do wonder if Japanese SF automatically uses Great-White-Fleet-era images of the West for its boil-in-bag alien societies. Anyone want to make an argument from anime?

ISBN: 0-446-61077-1

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November 25, 2003

The Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton

Distributed Proofreading and Project Gutenberg have provided a plain-text version of this classic of mid-Victorian domestic competence and social uneasiness. As its title-page now says,


Comprising Information for the





She argues that domestic comfort has commercial competition¹, and therefore a housewife needs to be even more competent than in the past. The details of what a good under house maid should do were probably pored over by the women who couldn't afford a housemaid at all.

Possibly because Mrs. Beeton wasn't brought up a housewife, she researched and wrote a compendium that isn't just full of detail and instruction but is usefully laid out, sort of like an O'Reilly Nutshell handbook - it starts with an Analytical Index, with pointers given not by page-number but by section-number. I suspect this made it easier to collate and update. (It was certainly easier to adapt to the plain-text version, which is just as well - the layout was complex; sidebars, inline illos., different type sizes and faces².)

This is a wonderfully informative book if you read nineteenth-century literature. It has, for instance, a table of the usual yearly wages for two dozen servant's jobs, with or without particular benefits and expectations[21]; the legal standing of the I.O.U., and which feints to disavow one would or wouldn't stand in court[2723]; a summary of the fiscal responsibility of a woman in and out of marriage[2725]; details of what outer garments a lady sheds during what kinds of courtesy calls[27]; recipes for cleaning cloth[2267], mending china[2331], preserving food[822]; and historical side-notes and jokes, so that Bay-leaves have one culinary entry warning about use and overuse[180], but another that begins with a recipe for a fish sauce[512] and ends with a poetic essay:

THE BAY.--We have already described (see No. 180) the difference between the cherry-laurel (_Prunus Laurus cerasus_) and the classic laurel (_Laurus nobilis_), the former only being used for culinary purposes. The latter beautiful evergreen was consecrated by the ancients to priests and heroes, and used in their sacrifices. "A crown of bay" was the earnestly-desired reward for great enterprises, and for the display of uncommon genius in oratory or writing. It was more particularly sacred to Apollo, because, according to the fable, the nymph Daphne was changed into a laurel-tree. The ancients believed, too, that the laurel had the power of communicating the gift of prophecy, as well as poetic genius; and, when they wished to procure pleasant dreams, would place a sprig under the pillow of their bed. It was the symbol, too, of victory, and it was thought that the laurel could never be struck by lightning. From this word comes that of "laureate;" Alfred Tennyson being the present poet laureate, crowned with laurel as the first of living bards.

That's a typical leap; one is toddling along in the cookie-recipes and gets a archaeological reconstruction of the spread of cereal grains after the Deluge, or the provision of water to the metropolises of the ancient world. Miss Nightingale's opinion of strengthening digestible food might turn up in the baking section or next to the Invalid's Cutlet[1865].

I haven't tried any of the recipes, but they look well-thought-out. Most of them have heading for ingredients, mode (instructions), time, average cost, volume or servings produced, and when the recipe is seasonable. In honor of Patrick O'Brien and the wholly decent movie, I might try Aunt Nelly's Pudding[1224], which seems to be as much treacle as suet. There's even a recipe for portable soup[180], if I want to spend more than twenty hours cooking.

URL: Versions ending "-8" are in ISO-8859-1, the others are in US-ASCII.

¹ From fancy saloons, for instance, or men's clubs, as discussed in Consumer Society in American History: A Reader.

²Yes, I did a little of the gruntwork. Love me now, avoid the rush. I am really impressed by whoever did the post-processing to smooth everybody's attempts at the gruntwork into one usable text; the credits given are for Jonathan Ingram & Sandra Brown.)

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November 24, 2003

The Silver Gryphon, Gary Turner, Marty Halpern, eds.

I picked this up for the Kage Baker 'Mendoza' story, which was good, as were the rest in their range of genres. The writing-styles also differ bracingly. On my scale of taste, all were writerly enough to improve on mere plot, without being so mannered as to distract from it. I could even have done with a bit more mannerism, as I like a bit of overwrought prose.

R. Garcia y Robertson's "Far Barbary" reminded me a lot of the picaresque sections of Quicksilver. There's a travelling mercenary soldier who gets a large share of clever female company, for reasons he rarely understands, and a habit of cross-cultural analysis that tips from the insightful to the snide.

ISBN: 1-930846-15-0

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Ars Poetica, Clay Reynolds

The narrator is a poet, but we don't get his own poetry; rather, his quotations of great metrical poets, stuck onto the history and rationalization of his career as a total arse, a manipulative, untrustworthy, malicious, arrogant, self-pitying failure to the end.

He claims that poetry made him do it, by way of drink and fornication. Academic politics are the likelier poison. The Invisible Adjunct mostly talks about how destructive nasty academic power games are to those who don't quite master them; here's a moral tale or the horror of winning.

It wasn't too squeamishly painful to read, though; there's a lot of distance between the reader and any of the characters.

ISBN: 1-881515-48-6

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Flame, Hilari Bell

Sturdy young-adult heroic fantasy, and not quite standard. It's set in a high-medieval nation ruled by a caste of aristocrats, based on ancient or mythical Persia. Hrum, imperial Rome, is about to invade and the disorganized nobles on their splendid horses have barely a clue how unprepared they are.

The novel twist is that several of the young protagonists are not aristocrats, and are more or less consciously attracted to the equal rule of law in nations controlled by Hrum. Since these characters are quite young, and are moreover living through personal and national tragedies, their feelings and actions with regard to the conquerors veer wildly about.

One youngster is most aristocratic, a sulky hotheaded snobbish young woman who manages to be barely likable to the characters around her. Clearly she has a lot of personal charm, and will probably Learn and Grow in the rest of the series. Maybe she won't; Bell has already put in one completely tragic scene where heroic logic required, and she didn't foreshadow it any too heavily, either.

ISBN: 0-689-85413-7

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November 12, 2003

Bridge, Church and Palace in Old London, John E. N. Hearsey

This isn't as good a book as Old London Bridge. It doesn't tie its three subjects together at all well, has few anecdotes that aren't in Home, and doesn't have much storytelling sense of how history was changed by the buildings, or people affected by them. Also, worse illustrations.

Query: what is a Chapter House? the kind attached to a cathedral? I've read the Barchester novels and I still don't know. The Cathedral of Salisbury says:

The Chapter House was the meeting place of the Cathedral clergy or Dean and Chapter who sat on the raised plinth seating, the east end reserved for the Dean, Precentor, Chancellor, Treasurer and Archdeacons and principal officers. The head marking the Deanís stall has a triple face, sometimes said to represent circumspection - one of the qualities needed in a Bishop. (Some however say it is the Master Mason looking at his completed work). The name 'Chapter' derives from the practice of reading a chapter of the Bible at their meetings.

An entertaining banking precedent, from Hearsey:

A curious legacy left by this Bishop to the cathedral was a thousand marks to be put in a chest kept in the treasury, from which a poor layman might borrow £10 against a suitable pledge. The Dean and principal canons could borrow £20, the Bishop between £40 and £50, and noblemen and citizens £20. The loan was valid for a year, and if the pledge was not redeemed after that, the preacher at Paul's Cross would declare that it would be sold in fourteen days' time. The chest had three keys: one ket by the Dean, the second by the eldest canon resident and the third by the Warden of the Old Fabric.

Cavendish's The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, which gives descriptions of banquets in York Palace, later Whitehall, sounds like source material for E. R. Eddison's Fish Dinner in Memison.

Hearsey, John E. N. Bridge, Church and Palace in Old London. London: John Murray, 1961.

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Passage, Connie Willis

I've been helping someone nurse at a deathbed. I'm not good enough to not distance and intellectualize, and of course it's books I use. Passage comes frequently to mind, for the increasing confusion and fragmentation of narrative, and the repeated SOS. SOS. Disaster.

It's my grandfather; he's ninety-three and got a lot done in his life. He was remarkably hale until a month ago, and was fairly pleased about his achievements. The very last thing he took up, when he admitted that power tools and the backhoe were getting beyond him, was braided rug making, and he came up with what might be a new technique. He wrote down instructions: I'll scan and post them in a bit.

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November 06, 2003

Memory, Linda Nagata

Wonderful heroic fantasy, in a thin veil of 'hard SF'.

I do not mean insult, although I know some people would take it so. I don't care, in speculative fiction, whether the unlikely powers are coherent with modern science or not: I care whether they're internally consistent. It helps if they don't provide too many deus ex machina or machina ex deus.

That brings us back to Memory; there are divinities and avatars, illimitable wealth, insidious dangers, a wounded world and a mad goddess - a quest across lifetime and chasms - really, heroic fantasy. Slghtly Jack Vance, and as in much Vance, the world runs on something like science - in this case, nanotech sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. Which is in its extravagances delightful, like the swoonier descriptive scenes from Yeats or Keats or Swineburne, but as with Vance's novels, the heroic quest is the better part.

I liked lots of techniques in the writing. They probably have names I don't know: the reuse of terms common now for clever futuristic devices, in ways that only slowly become clear; in fact, the uses of the items themselves only slowly become clear. But, however nifty, the supertech doesn't suddenly appear to get over difficulties we had been led to think insuperable challenges to our heroine. On the contrary, the most impressive capabilities are usually described in the heat of the action as the devices finally prove insufficient to the adventure. And this, of course, is how we experience most real technology: by the time we're running it flat out we usually need more than it can do.

I liked the language, too; precise and very slightly archaic, which fits the half-understood high-technology world on both its sides. And the young heroine leaving home is neither insipid nor dislikeable, and yet is a credible adolescent.

ISBN: 0-312-87721-8

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November 04, 2003

Death & the Jubilee, David Dickinson

A fine amusement, a thriller/mystery novel set near the end of Victoria's reign - Irish nationalists plot to fire on the parade; German ones plot the comeuppance of the whole empire. No glaring historical anachronisms, but no glorious writing or historical insights, either. And the main character wasn't very interesting, although it seems to me he should have been, a Victorian gentleman should have been more passionate and more conflicted about working as a detective and a spy. This is the second novel; perhaps the character-development happened in the first, with his marriage.

The other problem is that the writing, compared to high Victorian standards, is both bland and imprecise. Most is.

ISBN: 0-7867-1110-8

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The Jupiter Myth, Lindsey Davis

Poorly bee.

The plot is another competent exercise of the tough-guy detective schtick, Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean (and what Chandler said then about the duchess applies, too!). Corrupt Roman London instead of corrupt Daly City; but beatings, racketeering, secrets in warehouses.

Falco now has a wife (the duchess) and children and they travel with him; in my favorite scene he pauses to help his small daughter nurse a poorly bee back to health. Actually, this leads a bit to the development of the plot, I think it made the reckless old-flame gladiatrix even more reckless.

Davis explains, in an endnote, how many of the places and incidents she puts in Roman London are plausible, given recent archaeological discoveries there, but are not nor are meant to be accurate precursors of the real remains. The London Bridge appears, of course; at this time a shaky rebuild of the one lost to Boudicca.

The dedication sounds like a translation from Latin:

Now look here; you had better not expect half a page of sentimental guff. If you are a treasure and an inspiration and a dear friend who has suffered a year of stress, I shall certainly not say so. This is a British dedication, after all!

ISBN: 0-89296-777-3

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A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Not as funny as Bryson's other books, e.g. Neither Here Nor There, but it had funny bits in his patented gormless-adventure style. I was a bit distracted all through by the mildness of his response to the environmental damage he decries; Jeremiads would have been out of character, but surely he could have summoned more mockery to the cause.

ISBN: 0-385-40816-1

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Sherlock Holmes and the Seven Deadly Sins Murders, Barry Day

Muchly more of the same - not an extension of the Holmes world like The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but a new old Holmes story.

ISBN: 0-9537659-5-4

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