May 24, 2004

Working in a 24/7 Economy, Harriet B. Presser

Wrong title; there's more about the (more vital) subject of how to fit anything other than work around the schedules enforced by the '24/7' economy. Two main points; first, that 24/7 is self-reinforcing: when one big factory or call center is open all night, support businesses start running later and later shifts, until much of a city is all-hours. Second, it's self-reinforcing for working families, as the poorest parents are most likely to work different shifts (to avoid paying for daycare), and this is hard on the people, and their marriages, and possibly bad for their chances of promotion; so they never can afford daycare.

Like Divergent Paths, this book is crammed with statistics. I only skimmed this one, so my summary is feeble and untrustworthy. Also, I think these stats tell less clear a story; in specific cases there are odd hiccups about what combination of traits correlate with a given outcome. Much of the data is really trying to find out what happens at home with parents in shift work; who sees the kids awake, who does the housework, whose schedule wins. These are messy numbers, as there are so many possible schedules, and the parents' philosophies or ideologies have much to do with who does what.

One of the most depressing results is that most nonstandard-hours-working mothers report that they aren't doing it because the schedule has an advantage for them, but because they couldn't find better employment. This is part of the pattern of making service and culture work paid instead of familial; restaurant and care-facility work is still very female, low-paid, and ill-scheduled. (It was already so when done by not-married-yet female servants for other women in houses owned by men, of course.) I was hoping for the labor principles that once insisted on a 40-hour workweek and the surety of old age without poverty to hold out longer. I wonder whether we could actually afford to pay useful service work—I think so, but it's true that we don't know since we've never tried it, but we ought to if the attempt is anything but goofy. I sure notice that the political will for those labor principles vanished like water into sand when the possible franchise for them extended. And if we don't hang together, we shall all hang separately.

ISBN: 0871546701

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The Well of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

This third volume is weaker than the second, by exaggerating the weaknesses the second has when compared to the first. It's still an amusing book, but it isn't worth reading twice.

This is a pity, because the weakness that annoys me is a lack of character development in the main character, and I quite liked her in the first book. Nor should she be so unconvincing; much is happening, she considers and acts; if I outline her behavior in the course of the book it looks like a character arc; but I didn't see more than the outline in the actual novel. It's crowded out by jokes about Generic characters.

Next's memory is being damaged by an malicious and personal enemy, and writing soliloquy on top of that and the plot would make this a very good, a Philip K. Dick-ambitious, novel; again, I am more critical this time because I remember the first novel doing a better job with the same challenge.

The literature-world also moved me less this time around; I felt as though the plot was mostly a game to get between set pieces, for instance Miss Havisham telling off Heathcliff. It's a great idea as a set piece, and wasn't wholly unconvincing, but unfortunately stood out from most of the rest of the book. (My other favorite scenes also had Havisham in them. Possibly I would have liked this book to be about her instead, with Next as a supporting character. Next could rest and recoup and be the plucky student who needs expository dumps.)

It's filed with the SF in my local bookstore. Same generally? The jacket fuzzes it as "fantasy/detective", and I wonder if some of its popularity comes from having that SF fizz but being lit'ry instead of skiffy. After all, it mentions Serious Authors, so it can't be just pulp, eh? But it could be decaying into a franchise of exquisite middlebrow appeal, mentioning classics but living in the genres.

ISBN: 0670032891

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The Accusers, Lindsey Davis

Davis and Falco are back at the top of their form. Falco and Helena's charm is more evident in this novel than the previous one because this novel relies less on their charm. There's a great deal of plot here, tied into legal and political knots. Motives are tangled, kindness thwarted, lives cut short. Lumps of exposition are patiently stirred into the gravy of intrigue.

The ultimate villains are so villainous that they become rich successful politicians. This is, like murder itself, entertaining when fictional.

ISBN: 0892968117

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May 17, 2004

The Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells

Anthony Trollope frequently assures the reader that everything will turn out well enough for his heroines. Wells, contrariwise, begins after the death of all the favorite characters from The Death of the Necromancer, and better, subtitles this one "Book One of the Fall of Ile-Rien"; Ile-Rien the loved home of the heroine.

Book One mostly introduces the story, with a hand of likable and independent characters and more eerie settings than they have time to explore. The villains are flat, but they have airships. (Why, in our age, so many dirigibles?)

Only the style of interior monologue given to the heroine jarred me; first, it's much more slapdash and modern than her loosely-Edwardian world and dialogue. Worse, it reminds me of Buffy or Lois McMaster Bujold pastiche, or cute romantic murder mysteries generally (examples page 33, 73, in fact most of Tremaine's thoughts set in italic). Most perplexing, these stagy little bits aren't needed; both the knowledge and the emotions they call out are perfectly clear in Well's prose and dialogue.

On the other hand, Vita Sackville-West's novel Challenge is authentic Edwardian adolescent adventure angst, and I have given up reading it at all; the characters are even more annoying at length than they would be flip & brief. Pity, I like her The Edwardians.

ISBN: 0380977885 (The Wizard Hunters)

ISBN: 0380003597 (Challenge)

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elephas maximus, Stephen Alter

Not a sweepingly organized book, but as every scrap in it relates to the Asian elephant in its habits, biology, conservation, or its appearances in history and myth, it's nowhere a boring one. Alter is just perfectly charmed by elephants.

ISBN: 0151006466

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The Warden, Anthony Trollope

Every time I read this, I'm surprised that no-one in The Warden proposes to extend Hiram's bequest to more of the poor of Barchester.

The plot revolves around a medieval bequest, leaving land and the income from it to support twelve poor old men, two nice buildings for them, and one clergyman in charge. In the succeeding centuries the town has grown, and the land is now providing urban rents, not cow-pasturage. The increased profit has all been absorbed by the clerical position, which is now somewhere between very comfortable and a luxurious sinecure. (Henry George's motives become clear.) Several scandals of the kind were current in the day, sometimes involving startling wealth paid to a clergyman who didn't do any of the work of his cure. Trollope leaves those cases to novelists of sentiment and sensation; the Warden of this novel is a mild, absentminded but inarguably good man, and the meat of the story—as I see it—is how the habits of Church and society have made it easy for a good and generous man to profit hugely without thinking about who profits less; and how less good and absentminded men stand behind his virtue as behind a scrim and defend their less loving behavior (and greater profits) in the name of his virtue as well as the Church's honor.

Trollope is more inclined to honor money and rank and tradition; I think he means it when he writes that no-one can walk through various calm and elegant gardens and not think it fitting that bishops should be rich.

Trollope accordingly has most of the indigents in the hospital fire up with the hope that they'll get a 'hundred pounds a-year' as their share of the flourishing bequest. I don't really see that twelve virtuous indigents deserve it less than one virtuous precentor, but their cupidity is clearly thought both comical and ungrateful in their time.

(In the next novel, Parliament amends the bequest to build a second hospital for twelve indigent old women, who get slightly less per day than the men do; and provides for a matron for the women's side, who gets £70 a-year; this halves the Warden's income to more than £400 a-year, not counting the value of his lovely house. Parliament had read the sentimental and sensational novels, one assumes, but wasn't radical about it.)

Project Gutenberg text #619

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May 13, 2004

Darwin's Ghost, Steve Jones

Jones has kept the order of the argument in The Origin of Species but updated all the interior chapter matter with current biological and geological examples. He even keeps Darwin's descriptive sub-chapter headings and chapter summaries. It's about right for an ambitious hammock read, and suggests Further Reading (both books and papers) at the end.

P. 226:

Lungfish are living fossils: animals with an agile and creative past the nowadays have sunk into conservatism. Long ago, they slowed down, and they have stayed unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, while their relatives moved on.
Bone contains many cells, all with a nucleus. The hard material squeezes each one so that its size is a measure of how much DNA it once contained. Early in lungfish history, the size of the cell nuclei—and the amount of genetic material—began to creep up. Soon, the animals had hundreds of times as much as did their relatives. As it did, evolution slowed. Now, the lungfish are stuffed with DNA (most of it with no apparent function) and their evolution has stalled altogether. The fit between DNA content, a lethargic lifestyle and evolutionary sloth is widespread. To copy that chemical takes energy. Bacteria are speedy and have no excess genetic material, while salamanders, torpid as they are, are filled with DNA. Plants, too, have a close fit between habit and nucleic acid content. All weeds have small genomes, while more established plants are packed with DNA and can take a month to make a single egg cell. Whether an indolent life allows the amount of genetic material to build up, or whether the extra dose itself slows down evolution, nobody knows.

Spam is very expensive.

Or, if you want to haul around some lengthy archaic information yourself, you could have the Project Gutenberg edition of On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection. Whether it will delay your reproduction by even a month, I wouldn't say.

ISBN: 0375501037

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The Lady of the Sorrows, Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Not as good as the first book in the trilogy, mostly hampered by its language. Our heroine has left the lower classes for the Court, and Dart-Thornton's version of formal language is tangled without period, which does not convince as the courtesies of a thousand-year-old dynasty. There's plenty of panoply, some probably Burgundian some suggesting Versailles, but strings of rare words are not as lovely as strings of pearls.

The book also has some plot problems common to second volumes—worst, that many dramatic events were so strongly foreshadowed in the first volume to be a letdown now—but plenty of plot to go on with. And, when it slows, the characters tell each other classic folktales, and there's a bibliography of sources in the back.

ISBN: 044652803X

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May 03, 2004

Grow Your Own Chinese Vegetables, Geri Harrington

Evidently the mainstream US didn't know about snow peas in 1978. This from a Northeast gardening book, so maybe they'd made it into common diet on the West Coast already; but good gracious, what persistence of ignorance over gusto.

Harrington gives gardening advice, simple recipes, and amusing factods for a couple score Chinese vegetables (some could equally be counted as Japanese or Middle Eastern or African, but she seems to have fallen in love in a Chinese cooking class). Many of the vegetables are now easy to find in any Seattle grocery, and the gardening advice is slightly wrong for our climate, but it's a good minor document for that shift in American eating which I think of as Escape from the Iceberg Lettuce.

I was actually looking for Asian collard greens. I didn't find one here, but that faithful and ancient Brassica could have travelled that far.

ISBN: 0882663690

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Eat My Words, Janet Theophano

I like the idea of collecting receipt books, manuscript or published, and deducing what one can from them about the last four or five hundred years of social history. I wish this particular attempt had had either more direct quotations from the sources, or a more sweeping theory. I expect it's a useful academic book, but the refrain of being neither able to prove nor to disprove a pattern as suggested in the work of [lastname], [date] wasn't any too gripping. (For instance, that an upper-class woman who wrote down a servant's recipe might have been respecting the servant, by treating her work like that of a friend; or might have been arrogating the cook's intellectual property.)

Some of the excerpted work was fascinating, usually by contrasting expectations of Femininity with a vivid experience of it. Elizabeth Raffald left service in the 18th. century, married a market gardener, became a commercial success running something very like a deli (meats, portable soup, sweets) and published The Experienced English Housekeeper, which was not the last of her successful enterprises. We don't seem to know as much about Mrs. Abby Fisher, who survived slavery and became a caterer and cookbook author.

There were also notes left in family or personal collections of recipes, suggesting sometimes how much the author enjoyed cooking and recipe-keeping, or sometimes how unsuitable and onerous it was.

ISBN: 0312233787

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The Ill-Made Mute, Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Good fluff. It has a glee of inkhorn words; enough slodging through the scullery and striving middle class of a cod-medieval world to quiet The Tough Guide to Fantasyland; and the grace to not only borrow enthusiastically from folktales, but to put in a bibliography.

Lots of the source books have pre-1923 publication dates; work for Project Gutenberg.

ISBN: 0446610801

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