April 28, 2004

Corpse de Ballet, Ellen Pall

The preposterously fortunate heroine of this series is a bit rich; but of course some of us are in fact Fortune's favored children far longer than is fair, and she's a believable person in her improbable circumstances. The writing is mannered but not quite precious and brisks up for scenes of confrontation. More, the longueurs weave back into the plot.

Much as I have liked this and the second volume, I admire the "A Nine Muses Mystery" constraint. By Volume Nine, more series characters need to be thrown off Reichenbach Falls than not.

If it's going well, the conceit allows a tenth volume for Mnemosyne. (Or for the Tenth Muse! unlikely on current plotting, but a great scene to ring down the curtain.)

ISBN: 0-312-98010-8

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High Country, Nevada Barr

I've been increasingly worried about the physical durability of Barr's middle-aged park ranger heroine; I can believe that stubbornness and adrenaline carry her through one adventure's minor shocks, but as she gets older surely the cracked bones and pulled tendons leave cumulative damage? And she must be getting slower than the young crooks she's pursuing.

In her latest adventure she uses her age to be invisible when undercover. When the drama breaks down to violence, she half survives by stubbornness and woodscraft, against healthy but misplaced city thugs. The thugs have also learned in a ruthless school, and craft doesn't get her back home. Anna Pigeon is, clearly, briefly possessed by at least one of the Furies. This keeps her alive but is not pleasant for anyone.

Barr doesn't use the word, but I don't think there's much room for argument except about what possession 'really is'.

ISBN: 0-399-15144-3

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April 27, 2004

Outrageous Fortune, Armin Shimerman

John Dee transported to the future by lizardy aliens, fighting a zombie army and allied to a rat prince... it should be more of a romp than it is. Not really fair of me to start in Volume Two, but it's still a problem that I don't see why John Dee should be the author's choice. He doesn't quiver with life on the page, nor do I find his actions dependent on his original era.

But hey, zombie armies! More, the fake messiah lizard zombie-maker succumbs to the tragic clash of world-views that I think Dee should suffer.

ISBN: 0-671-03593-2

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April 25, 2004

Evelina, Fanny Burney

In Which a young woman, beautiful, amiable, virtuous, timid and impetuous (young enough for that to be believable):

I am new to the world, and unused to acting for myself;-my intentions are never willfully blameable, yet I err perpetually!

unjustly scorned by those who should love her most--goes into the world and marries a rich lord after no worse trouble than sneers and embarassment. You'd expect her to have eyestrain, poor thing; it's an epistolary novel; in the heat of events I once paged back to see just how much she was supposed to have written her dear friend in the course of an evening. "Having to write letters" is a white-lie escape from social quandaries, in the plot.

An ur-Regency romance, if it isn't actually too early to be a Regency... everything but the form would be absolutely normal in the (highly constrained) Regency genre today.

We were then both seated; and, after a short pause, he said, "How to apologize for so great a liberty as I am upon the point of taking, I know not;-shall I, therefore, rely wholly upon your goodness, and not apologize at all?"
I only bowed.

Several times I thought serious trouble, nearly Gothic, was being foreshadowed; but no. (I shouldn't tell you that; the belief enlivened the telltale compression of the progress-bar.)

Jane Austen had a sharper pen, of course. Burney maybe doesn't like a sharp wit; her witty woman is almost always unkind with it. The humorous character is unAustenish, a coarse and cruel sea-captain. Perhaps not a Naval captain? There are a few courtesans who I thought stood up honourably; they escort her back to her friends when she gets lost in one of the obligatory pleasure-gardens. She's mortified when she finds out what's going on, but the women have kept her safe, and they have more fun quizzing her companions than terrified little Evelina.

Odd use: But Sir Clement is an impracticable man, and I never succeeded in any attempt to frustrate whatever he had planned. 'Impracticable' as 'one who cannot be practiced upon', I assume.

Bartleby.com has a page on Burney, from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21), q.v.:

Starting from the general plan laid down by Richardson, she limits, she adds, she modifies, until the result is something entirely different.

Project Gutenberg etext #6053

(The author, from the National Portrait Gallery of the UK.)

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This should do to catalogue a very small library; and if it doesn't, why then, I can take advantage of the open source.

For instance, rather a small SMS application might work for saying-goodbye book checkout; it's true that standing in the front hall using a cellphone to email my own basement to update information about an object I have just physically handed someone is pretty silly, but it would amuse our friends. And it wouldn't require sticking paper or RFID to every volume, either.

Or, once they're in a database, we can presumably print a barcode for each checkout card and update loan status that way. But I'd want SMS anyhow for the embarrassingly frequent bookstore question, 'Do we have this yet?' —and the dual, suitable for use in airports and around holidays, of 'Now we own a copy, don't buy another.'

Posted by clew at 09:26 PM | TrackBack

Drakon, S. M. Stirling

More space-opera aristocrats, sforzando. These are designed to rule, by an alternate-history empire formed out of the American South slaveholders and South Africa. Homo drakensis are perfect physical machines with pheromones to reinforce their completely dominating natures; not sadistic natures, I was relieved to find, though violent. In their world they've replaced Homo sapiens with a literally subject species which is biologically happy to serve them. The remaining 'wild' humans have survived mostly by flight, and partly by technological superiority.

Me, I think that superiority is something between unconvincing and special pleading; the claim is that the gengineering destroyed some ineffable creativity in the Drakons, making them not really scientists. This is awfully convenient to the plot, as the Drakons win every other suit; it would be more likely that the Drakons secretly enjoy toying with the Homo sapiens and don't want technological superiority. Or maybe it's a subtle comment on the middle-class nature of technological revolutions. Very, very subtle, if so.

Other than that, I was interested by the ideological characterizations in our world, after the Tyger in the night is thrown here by accident. Of course she plans conquest; one wild human from her universe is here to stop her; a few humans in this world ally with or fight against her. Her most willing subjects are left-coast-leftist tropes; a Jane Fonda analogue tempted by eternal youth, and a Deep Ecology type convinced that saving the remains of Earth as a nature preserve is better than seeing Earth and humans lost together to technological poisons. (Both of the alternate-history, super-tech visitors assume that our Earth, as is, is helplessly doomed. It seems to me that the pure utilitarian argument for becoming a nature preserve would then deserve rather more consideration than it gets in the book.) There are some bribable business and gov't types who sell the goods and ask no questions; but I was rrrather hoping to meet a Bell Curve enthusiast and see what reaction s/he had to suddenly being down in the middle of the curve.

Maybe the rest of the series gets more complex, but it feels just as likely that the people-like-us conquer by some plot-gimmick trait. That would be so enormously irritating that I think I'll just stop here and imagine endings for myself.

ISBN: 0-671-87711-9

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Tales from the Crypto-System, Geoffrey Maloney

A lot like Peter Carey's short stories. SF themes, in a magic realism/'No BEMs Here'/plausible horror way; and lit'ry delineation of character, although the first-person characters seemed awfully similar to me. Nice tight storytelling.

ISBN: 1-894815-23-8

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Murder in a Cold Climate, Scott Young

Like the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow, this is set in the far North. In this case, the Northwest Territories of Canada; somewhat earlier than the Stabenows; and written in the first person, in the voice of a Native in the RCMP. I like the voice; he burbles on in his head while presenting a dry, Raymond Chandler-like tough guy image.

The mystery is OK too, with a suitably adventurous ending.

ISBN: 0-14-012336-9

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Tango Midnight, Michael Cassutt

"Classic hard SF", sensibly updated. Cassutt is a professional writer with a massive interest in the space program, so the depiction of NASA's internal politicking is probably reporting.

The fictional characters are profoundly, gloriously square; emotional without being introspective. That is, not introspective in the time-consuming, Wertherian way; they do know that their emotions may be bounding their rationality. Probably realistic for astronauts, they have a lot to do, Werther wasn't so productive.

There are human complications that wouldn't have been made so explicit in 1960s near-space stories. The square reaction is bemused and polite. It's a usable first-order reaction, and a standard of comparison for characters who are said to be gentlemen and gentlewomen but couldn't be so calm.

ISBN: 0-765-30645-X

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April 20, 2004

Made from Scratch, Jean Zimmerman

Subtitle: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth

I was ill-disposed to believe in Zimmerman's good intent, or clarity of thought, can't tell, after page 3:

A woman named Elrina lived with her husband in a small wooden shack in the corner of the back lot behind the house, and she helped out in the kitchen. Mostly, though, my grandmother herself dished up the stewed tomatoes, chicken-fried steak...

If you're claiming to honor the work of taking care of a family, it's insufficiently generous to extend honor only to your grandmother, giving her the credit for dishing out the food (that Elrina had cooked?). If it's honorable work, Elrina gets her share of the honor. The lady of the house doesn't get moral credit for work done by someone else.

I think Zimmerman wasn't actually playing that game, although it's so familiar from nineteenth-century social engineering that I also don't think she should go that close. I think Zimmerman's problem is that she hasn't really decided how she wants to live (she's guilt-stricken by SAHMs, gourmet neighbors, etc.), she doesn't have Laura Schenone's capacity to live imaginatively in two contradictory understandings, and she didn't digest her source reading well enough.

I found it difficult to credit her scholarship after p. 58, when she claimed that Homer was the scribe of the Odyssey as the Brothers Grimm were scribes of folktales. Less clunking error: it's all very well to go swimmy about Hestia's honor as the ancient goddess of the hearth, but do remember that she was knocked out of the Top Twelve to make room for Bacchus. Nor am I convinced by the interpretations Zimmerman puts on plausible facts; she seems to take 19th. c. discussions of the woman's sphere at face value. E.g., p, 84, by 1916 there were 17,778 home economics college students, most wanting to teach home economics, compared with 213 in 1905. This is not great evidence that seventeen thousand women wanted to practice, or preach, the home arts. It's great evidence that they wanted to be paid. And if the time she cites as rich in the home traditions wasn't good enough to justify them for themselves, it's not good justification for them in ours.

I quit reading somewhere in her introduction of first-stage feminism. I'd rather reread her sources. The rest of this is really not a fair review, since I just flipped through the last two-thirds of the book.

It seems to me that she wants to justify taking the time to make her family surroundings pleasant by imbuing them with all the grandeur and importance of goddesses and cultural transmission. But Etheldred of The Daisy Chain could explain why that doesn't work; if you're devoted to taking care of other people, you can't send in a bill explaining how you want them to reward you for it. (You can if you're doing it professionally, of which more later.)

I also don't recognize her narrative of what monobloc feminism wanted women to do. She seems personally to have swung from wannabe groovy hippie teen-hood to 1980s careerism to her current state of doubt. I know more feminists who combined interesting work with whole-grain bread-baking from the start, and don't have to have a midlife crisis about it. Besides, Schenone again was more interesting about generational attitudes towards traditional women's work.

There's the ghost of a book on how to arrange the very survival of non-market activity in here. Zimmerman says, repeatedly, that everyone needs to do some of the housework, that we have to value the work of caring and maintenance and cleaning up, because (my summary) not doing so will lead to environmental, health and labor-market disasters. Works for me, but previous go-rounds have indicated that no degree of sententious belief in the sanctity of the home was sufficient to defend the homes of the poor from the garbage of the rich.

I was totally unconvinced by her assumption that buying professionally made food doesn't involve caring, even if it's just as good as you would have made yourself. For one thing, remember Elrina. Think of the good wife in Proverbs, or any cheesemaking farmwife. They fed many people; they cooked or oversaw cooking for the spinning maids, the hired hands. Cooking is a skilled art as well as drudgework, so there's always good reason to let the best cook cook for everyone; and the best cook cooks with care and attention even if she's selling the result. Maybe we should be thinking about how to recognize love and care whether they're paid or not.

I'm sorry I didn't get to Zimmerman's chapter on sewing and needlework, because I have been cynically wondering whether the current fashion for knitting is a feeble attempt at self-sufficiency before the Depression hits, or preparation for the anti-women's-rights backlash. When I'm not cynical, I find it adequately explained by the starvation of the senses that indoor life and cars and mass production have given us. Making anything is better immersion in several senses at once than shopping can be.

ISBN: 0-684-86959-4

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April 18, 2004

Growing Clean Water, B. C. Wolverton, Ph.D., John D. Wolverton

The elder Wolverton was a NASA scientist and is an environmental engineer. Indeed, this book is published by his engineering company and is a tacit advertisement for their work, case-study by case-study. They don't mention any of the competing designs, let alone the homebuilt oddities. For homebrew or humor, try The Humanure Handbook. If you're wondering how your small town can improve its municipal water-treatment system, though, the dead-earnest prose won't be a drawback; it sounds like an educational filmstrip. (I think that's a professional requirement for aerospace engineers. The book dedication implies that he was thought dangerously exuberant at NASA.)

One photograph of sewage treatment lagoons looks much like the next to me, but I did enjoy the discussion of which plants do good phytoremediation in theory, and which survive in practice. Native ones survive. So does water hyacinth. Water hyacinth is famously invasive, and this book doesn't discuss how to cultivate it in your treatment lagoons without guaranteeing its perpetual presence in all your other waterways. Maybe it's already ineradicable, and we might as well plant it somewhere useful.

The discussion of how many contaminants are becoming common in water is sadly familiar. Phytoremediation of heavy-metal and radioisotope contamination can't be the whole answer (you have to harvest the contaminated plants), but it's cheering to think that biological wastes can be more effectively managed than they are. There's a plan in this book for treatment of both water and air coming off a CAFO, which is one extreme need; and a optimistic comment that even a dense city, say, Sydney, could stop dumping sewage onto its beaches by building a skyscraper treatment plant. First sludge digestion would happen in the basement. The methane produced by that would be used to pump the result up to planters at the top of the building, and the water would switchback through increasingly clean swamps in each story, emerging as limpid as a Wordsworth stream. Alarming thing to go up in one's neighborhood, I admit, but not logically more alarming than pouring it untreated onto the rivers and beaches.

Unstylish as it is, I find this much more convincing than the cherryblossom posturing of Cradle to Cradle.

ISBN: 0-9709791-0-X

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Libraries in the Ancient World, Lionel Casson

Sumerian and Akkadian libraries were utilitarian and hard to organize; Greek ones were literary and slightly better catalogued; Roman ones bilingual, mostly literary, and perhaps too much given to showy architecture instead of investment in books. The Library of Alexandria was probably as good as its myth. Early Christians were unusually attached to the codex instead of the scroll, but not uniquely so.

And, although this book is packed full of details supporting that summary, it's a short book. We know of libraries by accident. A clay-tablet one survived the fire and abandonment of a palace; likewise scraps of one were preserved at Pompeii; but libraries take so much maintenance that they die easily. Some are known to have existed only because a letter in another town refers to borrowing a book or scribe from the lost one.

This would be less unnerving if the libraries had been only elitist, little-used buildings, but that doesn't seem to have been true from the Hellenic period on. Bequests were made to provide libraries, books, teachers for whole towns; in at least one case, the bequest provided for teaching both boys and girls. We know people read for fun (antique potboiler novels are tremendously, thunderingly bad). They were built next to the Forum, in Rome, to be useful; and built into the baths and gymnasiums, to be popular. But if cities are an epiphenomenon of population, then libraries are an epiphenomenon of cities, and even more fragile.

There's nothing about ancient Chinese libraries; they're entirely outside Casson's remit. Fair, but frustrating.

ISBN: 0-300-08809-4

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April 15, 2004

Ustandic Kanhaplohumults

This is not an essay on Ustandic Kanhaplohumults.

It is a tyro's comment on the naming system in US soil taxonomy. It's little-endian; the final syllable "ult" is the strongest determinator: all the other parts are defined with respect to the parts to their right. A big-endian system, 'Ulthumhaplokan andust', seems more convenient to me, and more in keeping with the nomenclature for species. I wonder why we have the little-endian one. It's only loosely the case that soils are most likely to occur near their taxonomic relatives.

In practice there even seems to be a weak middle-endian use, tacking "loamy, mesic" on after the taxonomic description.

Funny how non-English my reversed version sounds to me. Not that the original is really trying to be English. It's picking roots from several languages, including maybe Japanese and Latin-ish English, and fitting them into a sort of pidgin loosely based on scientific Latin. On the third hand, making it an obvious pidgin saves us from worrying about treating terms as though we were writing in Latin.

And now I should get back to actually contemplating Ustandic Kanhaplohumults, and weathering and water reactions in general. For the curious and precise, see an introduction to the soil orders. I am finding it difficult to write an accurate summary of what this soil would be, because the taxonomy is written in a chain of if-elses, so what defines the Kanhaplohumults is first not having the conditions that define the three Great Groups of Humults that are defined earlier, and second having the weak kandic horizon from which they get the "Kanhaplo". Computer code to navigate the Keys to Soil Taxonomy would be very easy to read; English prose doing the same is lengthy and confusing.

The tests on which the code does or does not jump include the degree of weathering of the soil; what kind of chemical activity its clay supports, and how that clay has washed through it; an implication (or requirement? I'm still a beginner!) that there's additional, volcanic parent material; and the seasonal pattern of rainfall. Other soils might have even more diagnostic criteria.

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Modern Times, Ancient Hours, Pietro Basso

Subtitle: Working Lives in the Twenty-first Century

I couldn't get through the style of this, so I don't know what I think of the argument. The style seems fervent and allusive, full of what I suspect are specialized usages of some academic field. They're half of them distinguished in quotation-marks, which was perpetually jarring to me, as I automatically interpret those to suggest that others had falsely claimed the word as true. In context, I believe they mean to distinguish a sense shared between the author and the reader and not with some third party. I was adrift, neither the intended reader nor the defensive third party.

The point of the book, I think, is that workers are working longer hours with less autonomy. There are some numbers, comparisons between some stages of the past and different industries and industrialized nations, but they aren't as clear as those in Divergent Paths. (The scope of Modern Times... is so much larger that cleanly comparable statistics might not exist, so it's not very fair of me to prefer the narrower book so much.)

Translated & edited by Giacomo Donis

ISBN: 1-85984-565-7

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April 06, 2004

New Grub Street, George Gissing

A whole novel about authors with no sample of their writing in it. I doubt Gissing was avoiding the challenge; his aspiring London authors aren't especially aesthetic, they talk about the shocking or saleable content of their work, not its style. Gissing's own prose is plain, the conversations conventionally novelistic.

The other convention is that those who have money, or are ruthless enough to fake it, win success; the others starve, die of consumption, or commit suicide. I was continually struck by their assumptions about the labor opportunities in London. It's not surprising that writing was the only chance at independence for women, but it was surprising that the possible incomes for men were so discontinuous. Clerks could support themselves, but couldn't afford weekly clean linen for a wife; and it was widely assumed (by the characters) that once a woman had descended to the unwashed, she was no longer respectable, and therefore she and her husband couldn't expect to rise again. One of the nicer characters assumes that he will never, not possibly, be able to marry, because he will never earn enough money to support a wife, much less children.

I don't know whether this all-or-nothing labor market was the actual case, or whether Gissing's contemporaneous readers would have seen it as self-defeating stupidity in the unworldly characters, or what. I think it was mostly the case, though. It fits Donald J. Olsen's description of Victorian London as a giant class-sorting machine, and goodness knows people who preached about contentment in the class to which God has called you had a great excuse to combine against pay raises for the less blessed.

Another convention in novels of the era was that big new money came from the manufacturing towns. See North and South, for instance. There was manufacture in London too, but provincial society had less strength to shut out new men. Someone must have sifted thousands of wills and worked out how much this was really true; To Find. Probably combined with theories of center vs. periphery. The center is not where everything is made, but where everything is made into money; or as Making Light says, of the New New New Grub Street, Your agent lives in New York so that you don't have to.

It was surprising (back to New Grub Street) that the successful writers made so much money; newly cheap and popular printing, or editorships subsidized by rich patrons or wives. Dickens and Scott did earn themselves handsome incomes.

Project Gutenberg #1709

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April 03, 2004

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, Laura Schenone

Subtitle: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances

Schenone can hold two contradictory ideas at once, which is vital to her project. She writes about the most common and emotional and conflicted food, how everyday cooking was forced to change in the huge waves of migration and innovation that have shaped the US. The three common elements are cheapness, and class-consciousness, and the ties to traditional life through traditional food. This is not a history of the luxurious and thought-out local cuisines of our nation. Still, Schenone can find something good to say about almost everyone and almost every food. (Plantation mistresses don't get a sympathetic word, but JELL-O brand gelatin does.)

The main story is nothing I haven't read elsewhere, but it is a brisk connected introduction to its subjects. To summarize the historical arc: Immigrant women were, first, desperate to find anything to feed their poor families with; second, obliged to cook the old dishes as a duty to keep the old ways alive. Less-recent immigrants got sniffy about the uncouth, smelly food eaten by the new (or native) people; food became an element of indoctrination, more or less benign (e.g. Settlement Houses, more, vs. Indian schools, less). Women's sphere of work got much smaller as manufacture moved out of the house. Women finally moved out of the house, leaving no-one to do thoughtful cooking. How that void will be filled is still not clear—is Alice Waters the anomaly, or are Lunchables?

The best thing in her writing is a willingness to describe the good and the bad that women found in each condition, and a gusto to imagine what it was like and to look at what happened next.

She starts with samp, considers how English and African food traditions had to adapt to the different grains in the New World. (Boston brown bread is an English steamed pudding with New World corn and rye and triangle-trade molasses.) Considers the energy and self-respect of women who went out on week-long gathering trips, as many Native Americans did, or controlled the dairy, as Englishwomen did. She has more sympathetic imagination about what this was like long ago than is pukka scholarly, but her imaginative descriptions are clearly set off with "Perhaps..." or similar. She also found an authentic log-wide hearth to study cooking at, and relished the athleticism of heaving the hot logs and huge pots, kicking the embers, testing heat with a twig or her hand.

A recurring feature of her half-nostalgia is that immigrants were often too poor in the Old Country to eat its cuisine. In the States, they weren't preserving 'the way it was' as much as 'the way it should have been'. It would be interesting to work out how much culinary practice went back from the US to the various old countries, once they'd caught up and the whole world had enough to eat. I need to properly read and cook from A Mediterranean Feast, which goes into alarming detail about the poverty around the Med.

Schenone clearly likes to eat and cook, without pretending that it isn't work. This keeps the last section, on modern food, from coming to a clear conclusion, but it also keeps her from being preachy. She isn't happy about the current US diet or the lack of time that drives it, but after writing the whole dairying-to-war-work history she doesn't assume it's going to stay the way it is forever, as long as we remember that we have to do something about it sometime.

ISBN: 0-393-01671-4

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April 01, 2004

Peregrine's Progress, Jeffery Farnol

More Farnol fluff; more varied in action than The Amateur Gentleman but not as extravagant in form as The Geste of Duke Jocelyn.

Hero Peregrine is neither big nor strong nor clever in the ways of the world, but goes a long way on being a nice man and a gentleman. He's remarkably unstuffy for a gentleman of the period, willing not only to live with a tinker but to marry an orphan raised by the Zingari. She's not so feeble as Farnol's upper-class heroines; teaches him knife-fighting, steals them dinner; I think she's taller than he is when they meet. By the end of the novel she's been adopted by a lord and given all the polish of one who sings for the Crowned Heads of Europe, etc etc. (It is escapist fiction.) Peregrine wrestled his angel and virtuously lost when he encouraged her to follow her education before marriage, surrendering his chance to appear to her as Perseus to Andromeda, as Thrones, Dominations puts it.

I am reminded a little of Marie Curie's saying that she couldn't have done research either as a Polish woman in Poland or as a French woman in France; as a Polishwoman in France, she could never quite be a lady, so doing something as unladylike as research didn't shock everyone around her into resistance.

(I should check the last two attributions but am lazy & hurried.)

Project Gutenberg etext #7059

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