February 29, 2004

Love Elixirs, Titania Hardie

Subtitle: Titania's Book of Romantic Potions

As I don't have Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, and violets are blooming in my backyard, and the first recipe in ...Elixirs was for sweet violet wine; why not? Especially as one doesn't have to ferment the wine, only make a syrup to add to wine; pretty close to an online recipe from a Sephardic grandmother.

Four cups of fresh violets is a copse's worth; I got one cup, about half an ounce, and reduced the recipe accordingly. (Hardie calls for 4.5 oz. fresh or 1 tsp. dried, which oughtn't be equivalent. I think 1 oz. dried is likelier.)

The syrup is fragrant enough, and is an eerie slate-blue, which I approve of in a natural comestible. I had some left over after filling a bottle, so I boiled it harder to see if I could make candied violet blossoms. (Perhaps this experimentation was inspired by all the Viola odorata I'd tasted already. They're delicious fresh off the plant.)

Could I? yes and no; I'd have done better had I looked up basic hard-candy instructions (in Joy of Cooking) before I'd used half the remaining syrup.

The first problem with candying violets is that sugar hot enough to turn into hard candy will shrivel the violet, although they're still purple and recognizable. At the jelly stage, the flowers are more attractive, but I didn't have enough to fill a jelly-jar so I don't know how it would keep. (Would it need a boiling-water bath, or would the sugar content and temperature of the violet jelly sterilize the fresh violets well enough?)

My experiments were truncated because I forgot how rapidly candy goes from 'hot enough' to 'far too hot', especially when you only have a quarter-cup of syrup. The two tablespoons of recognizable candy drops I got right are violet-scented, and shade through a range of violet and purple; when it all foamed up and crystallized it turned pale brown, and the caramel flavor overrode the violet.

The violets sieved out of the original tisane were quite tasty, too, and there's a medieval recipe using them to make a pudding. Personally, I wouldn't use the saffron, however authentic. (I bet not having any was authentic, too.)

What I might do when violets bloom in the spring... common crocuses, purple with yellow-orange stamens, are also in bloom. I might check whether common crocus stamens are toxic, and use them to garnish a violet pudding, without mixing them in.

Saffron crocuses bloom in the autumn. Autumn crocuses also bloom in the autumn, and aren't crocuses, they're Colchicum spp., named after the island Medea came from - they're poisonous in every part. Careful.

ISBN: 0-7683-2497-1

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February 28, 2004


Sodium or potassium bicarbonate. Baking soda, or sometimes what puts the fizz in soda pop.

I've run across references to 'health ruined by salaratus', though alas I've lost my original quote - Yonge, maybe, writing of persons so unfortunate as to be forced to live in US boardinghouses? Or, for instance, in Godey's Lady's' Book and Magazine, "Saleratus Destroys the Teeth". More seriously, Ellen G. White (1860s and later) warned against it, recommending fruit and varied whole grains in the diet instead.

So; really dangerous? It would be an easy sell as a nervous superstition; it was a new invention, with a bright halo of Progress and a trailing umbra of Risk. It was the easy way to make bread, the poor household's way, the way used by an unfeminine woman who did something other than tend the proofing yeast or beat biscuits with a mallet. Very suspicious. And of course it might have been badly manufactured, or promoted for reckless uses.

The use of soda ash for bread is said to be a New World invention, indeed a pre-Columbian one. And, as far as bread goes, the most famous use currently is probably Irish soda bread. Well set to fret nineteenth-century nerves, that combination of Native American and Hibernian history.

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Dora Deane, Mary J. Holmes

Subtitle: or, the East India Uncle.

Dora is too virtuous to really do anything, even when repeatedly and obviously wronged; so most of the interest in the book comes from the villainess. Unfortunately for us, the villainess isn't very effective, and indeed could hardly have squashed anyone stronger than Dora.

In two senses I wrong Dora in saying that she doesn't 'do anything' - she works like a drayhorse and studies like a young Lincoln and is kind to everyone around her. It would, from inside, be a very tiring life. Yet all her virtue never directly moves the story, though everyone who wrongs or helps her is moved by her virtue. In another sense, Dora isn't stupid, and something has to have been going on in her psyche to make her so obedient in such circumstances - I find it very unlikely that she couldn't have known how her cousin was wronging her; a novel of soliloquy might have told us that she wouldn't know the painful truth. But, still, not the novel actually here.

There's something particularly American-seeming about the plot's resolution. When the villainess is found out, the virtuous scheme to make her humiliation most complete.They don't write to tell her 'All is discovered', or go to meet her in the armor of righteousness. Instead they lead her on to make more of a petty fool of herself. One of them even travels and introduces himself to her incognito, to give her more rope. It doesn't seem gentlemanly to me. It's not that she deserved better treatment, but that they shouldn't have delighted in tormenting anyone.

Project Gutenberg EBook #6352

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Aurora Floyd, M. E. Braddon

Aurora Floyd the heroine is black-eyed and reckless; there her fascination of the reader stops, as she never says anything eloquent. It's good to find a reckless heroine in Vic lit, though. She does get to do something, and then some more foolish things to fix the first one. One might well ask, Can You Forgive Her?, and Braddon's answer is Yes, and in more than one possible way.

Aurora has two virtuous suitors, one proud and intellectual, one unthinking but greathearted. Not only does she marry the right one, but the other - they were schoolboy friends - helps pull Aurora out of her preposterous difficulty. My favorite thing was the undemonstrative friendship between their very different characters.

The only grit to my modern sensibility was that their friendship and kinship didn't make the courts suspicious, when they discover evidence to exonerate Aurora. All her witnesses are relations, and two-thirds of them are landed gentry, and it would have been a perfect frame-up of the villain... Oh, well; Wilkie Collins might by a stretch have written that novel; M.E. Braddon didn't. (You or I could, since the public domain really is public. At the moment, anyway.)

URI: http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/braddon/menu.html

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February 26, 2004

The Complete Strangers in Paradise, Vol. 2, Terry Moore

WWI maiden with a motorcycle: Frank Reynold line-drawing from a 1919 Punch

Oooh, melodrama. Murder, mafia, mourning, mayhem, mysticism... it all worked for me except the music for the melodrama. The lyrics didn't scan cleanly enough for me to 'hear'
an accompaniment to the story (see V for Vendetta for perfect execution, of course).

The drawing is extremely realistic, more than in what else I've read of the series. There's a "Gibson girl" drawing hanging in one of the rooms Moore draws. The frames that reminded me most of Gibson's style were of a male detective's naked back, though (p. 137). Maybe that's just me, or maybe there's more intervening, mm, cultural tradition between Gibson's Modern Girl and Moore's cheesecake sketches. The cover to #8 really makes me think of Maxfield Parrish's "Girl on Rock" specialty, too.

ISBN: 1-892597-06-3

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The Island of Bicycle Dancers, Jiro Adachi

This has an ending about as grim as it could be, and still be happy. The survivors are tidying up their lives with regret, without permanent attachment to the lost.

Double cultural background for that practicality; working-class immigrants to New York, and New York bicycle messengers.

ISBN: 0-312-31245-8

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February 23, 2004

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

Written in the voice of an autistic fifteen-year-old. I found it modestly interesting as a psychological novel about autism, and more interesting as an exercise in prose. I suspect there's plenty of emotion-consciousness in the choice and ordering of subject matter that wouldn't really have been produced by the narrator, but scene by scene the exacting detail, confusing foreground with background, is convincingly odd.

A.S. Byatt wrote Still Life as an experiment in writing without metaphor (and didn't continue the experiment). One of the main characters in that is autistic or nearly, now I think of it.

ISBN: 0-385-50945-6

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February 19, 2004

Araminta Station, Jack Vance

This has a less predictable story than early Vance (say, The Demon Princes) and rather less surreal prose and scenery.

The cultural background is a multiplanetary, generations-old ecological group which has decayed from its original cause, has long dispensed bureaucratic entitlement by inheritance leavened by meritocracy, and is increasingly vulnerable to the temptation to become an aristocratic estate. The idea that each form of government carries the seeds of its own decay is old, of course, but given the recent Nature Conservancy embarrassments this is timely - though it was published in 1988.

ISBN: 0-812-55709-3

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Usagi Yojimbo: The Shrouded Moon, Stan Sakai

Straight-up plot, the adventures of a virtuous ronin and his heart-of-gold lowlife friends. The ronin is a rabbit and his grouchy sidekick seems to be a rhinoceros.

The drawing style uses both Western and Japanese idiom, including Mad Magazine style goofy reaction shots and one-vanishing-point street scene perspective.

ISBN: 1-56971-883-0

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February 17, 2004

The Bug, Ellen Ullman

Ullman does write about what programming is like, and why it drives people and drives them crazy. My other half and I probably gave away a dozen copies of Close to the Machine to puzzled friends and relatives (I bet they read it, too: I used to disingenuously add, "It's the programming we find so compelling. The sex scenes are a San Francisco thing.")

No heroic coders in The Bug; one doomed coder, a tragic victim who makes everyone around him miserable too. I've read a review that couldn't see him as a tragic figure, because, I think, the reviewer didn't imagine how compelling programming can be. If not seen by The Light That Failed, he's really quite repellant. No worse than the poet of Ars Poetica, though.

I don't know if you need to have been a programmer or a poet to read this as a tragedy. You probably do need to program a bit to see that it's a classic fair mystery, very like the Golden Age ones with train-tables and floorplans of the country house. I was delighted when I decided she'd pulled that off in pseudocode instead of a time-schedule. Neither the story nor the mood depend on 'getting' the mystery; both are like The Gold Bug Variations, allusive and sad. "I alone am escaped to tell thee"; "I wish I were what I was when I wanted to be what I am now".

ISBN: 0-385-50860-3

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A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss

Like Liss' later book, this is a noir mystery with a MacGuffin of the markets. The Conspiracy of this one is in London, during the ever-green madness of the South Sea Bubble.

There's an interview with Liss at the end of this version of the book:

Nevertheless, it has long been my theory that the Bubble shaped the British novel, which emerged in its modern form around 1740 (this is an arguable point, but I'm sticking to it). These mid-century novels are preoccupied with the sudden loss or the sudden appearance of wealth because the novelists came of age during the period of the Bubble and its aftermath.

Marriage and inheritance still count for a lot. Also; French novel, John Law, how connected?

Liss started writing fiction as a doctoral student in literature, which I should think means he'll never run out of interesting material to mine. For instance, the hero of this novel is not only an ambivalently Anglicizing Jew, but a boxer (as was the Amateur Gentleman). Daniel Mendoza was a real Jewish boxer in England; famed, scientific, determined.

For a year, for no good reason, my household got the Ringside boxing-supplies catalogs and newsletters; there was an essay once on how to coach someone into courage; a chancy process of never setting them up for too painful a failure or too easy a victory. Very pastoral, despite the violence and potential brain-damage and, oh, class struggle also evident.

ISBN: 0-8041-1912-0

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February 13, 2004

SOS at Midnight, Walker A. Tompkins

A tract in praise of the manly and All-American virtues of ham radio, much in the style of late Tom Swift or early Hardy Boys novels, and with gear description on about every third page.

"Gear porn", said my nearest Extra-class ham, who wasn't gripped by the plot.

It was first copyright in 1960, and was republished in 1980, slightly updated. This is both charming and hilarious. The opening pages introduce timid, frail rich boy Spud Kleveland, and his campus hero Tommy Rockford, varsity fullback and high-school ham-club president:

Such hero worship embarassed Tommy. On the gridiron he could ignore the adulation of the teenage girls in the stands. In his favorite classroom—the electronics lab—he could maneuver a soldering iron through the complicated innards of electrical equipment with as much aplomb as a master surgeon. But as an artist—well, Spud had him beat all hollow.
"Let's go hang this, huh?" Tommy said, escorting Spud up the corridor. "Spud, I've often wondered—why haven't you taken up ham radio?" As president of the high school radio club, Tommy felt that every normal boy should share his unbounded enthusiasm for amateur radio.

Off they go to catch the Purple Shirt Gang, armed only with high technology and the wits of honest hams.

ISBN: 0-87259-500-5

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February 10, 2004

Seraphita, Honoré de Balzac

I'm not going to finish this. Swedenborgism has failed to grip me, no matter how many semiprecious stones and loving angels are in its description. I'd rather read Swinburne.

It's Balzac's contribution to SF, though. The mysticism is very like what fantasy authors often try to convey, jewelled cities and all. If regarded literally, the spirits are as hard to explain as any incomprehensible aliens. Even Sweden itself seems to have been completely unfamiliar to Balzac or his expected audience: he describes skis and fjords - "skees" and "fiords" in this venerable translation - as though no reader could possibly have heard of so strange an environment.

The person whom Minna had addressed as Seraphitus threw his weight upon his right heel, arresting the plank--six and a half feet long and narrow as the foot of a child--which was fastened to his boot by a double thong of leather. This plank, two inches thick, was covered with reindeer skin, which bristled against the snow when the foot was raised, and served to stop the wearer. Seraphitus drew in his left foot, furnished with another "skee," which was only two feet long...

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley.

URI: Project Gutenberg etext #1432

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The Amateur Gentleman, Jeffery Farnol

One web-interview says that Jack Vance has cited Farnol as an influence. If Vance got atmosphere and plotting out of this novel, he squeezed the turnip harder than I could. It's an okay tale of an (improbably fortunate) young man making his way into and out of Regency London high society, and he makes friends in all walks of life. The language isn't anything very particular - neither George Meredith nor Georgette Heyer, to bracket it by high taste and low. The heroine speaks in hyphens, and tick-tocks between unthinking hauteur and melting idiocy.

Florence King sums up that particular romance-novel tic in two words I can't remember; "suddenly/swooningly"? Very dull feature of plot, since it happens instead of anything one might call 'character development'. Virginia Woolf somewhere refers to the high song, the high note, something, of the romantic effect of Tennyson's Maud. I think Woolf is thinking of the (subtly done) version of the same game. All that's left for my ear is the high whine of a mosquito.

URI: Gutenberg Ebook #9879

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Pagan Holiday, Tony Perrottet

Subtitle: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists

The classical world took advantage of the Pax Romana¹ to develop an enormous tourist circuit through cultural, religious, historic, and sensual locales. Perrottet and his girlfriend toured such ancient sites, reading the ancient travel reports before they went - and reporting ancient graffiti on the surviving monuments. One thread of the book is how similar the ancient crowded, annoying, middlebrow experience was to the modern one. I would have liked lots more of the quotations from the ancient authors.

A second thread, which has at least half the wordcount, is a typical humorous traveler's tale. Although good of its kind, the kind isn't rare.

A third thread runs through the pictures, but not the text. The Victorians rediscovered the same tourist routes, with even more appetite for classical precedent. Perrottet doesn't say much about them, but many of his pictures are, for instance, highly romantic Alma-Tadema paintings. He also uses stills from 1950s and 1960s movies (quite awful) and some of his own photographs (quite good; more at the book's website.)

Originally published as Route 66 A.D.

ISBN: 0-375-75639-6

¹ Pax Romana or Pax Romanum? Does one mean a peace of Roman character, and the other a peace for the Romans? Not the same thing, said the soldier to the local. Must look up.

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Murder at Shots Hall, Maureen Sarsfield

Another Rue Morgue reprint. I'm dubious about the mystery plot, and maybe the romance, but the combination of postwar English village cozy and Gothic horror is quite good. The grue rises naturally from the cracks in the cozy.

ISBN: 0-915230-55-0

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The Complete Strangers in Paradise, Vol. 1, Terry Moore

The covers are too close together. They're also too far apart; the reprints of comics in-jokes, accessory drawings of animal-headed cheesecake and pectoral men, emphasize only the clichéd parts of the main story.

ISBN: 1-892597-05-5

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February 08, 2004


Anonymous 4 last night were as pitch-perfect as usual¹, making a mockery of professional singers with electronic tuners. My ears ached slightly at the end, as though the music had been making the small bones resonate directly. (They must have destructive resonant frequencies, yes, the malleus, the incus, the stapes? Or is that a fiction I inherit from Gödel, Escher, Bach?)

Milton mocks rhyming verse so: rime being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age - and I had lazily assumed that no verse in Latin rhymed, that rhyme was a barbarous² invention literally. But the thirteenth-century Latin conductus use a lot of rhyme:

Ave nobilis
comes utilis
in via
mentes erige
cursum dirige
per hec invia.

Milton specifically says Virgil's verse didn't rhyme, and I am left lazily wondering if any classical Greek or Roman verse did, and then whether there are any living languages whose speakers don't enjoy rhyme.

If you want a non-lazy answer, attend languagehat.

¹ I heard them once when one of them was clearly sick. Their technique was, if anything, more impressive without perfect production.

² Although that's "not speaking Greek" to the Greeks, and "not Greek or Roman" to the Romans. Can't think of a precise word; 'modern' is too loose.

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February 04, 2004

Printer's devils, scanner's drivers

Ick. Scanning books to OCR will be punishingly slow if the driver (TWAIN driver? Imitation Photoshop plugin? whatever) remains flaky. I was fine with having it not installed by default, although the Readme installation instructions were not helpful. But it gives me fits that the software connection fades in and out.

And enough stuff has now been sold me with sleazywillfully optimistic compatibility assurances that I don't even want to buy the driver-upgrade CD for the scanner I did settle on, although that is the most likely fix, and it's not terrifically expensive. Compared to the scanner and an upgrade to the OCR software, not expensive; but the HP website doesn't list what's been upgraded, or for what OSes, so it also might not be at all useful. And (huff) really, they ought to be able to pull that info out of their fixed-bug database.

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