December 28, 2004

Fast-Talking Dames, Maria DiBattista

I know why one would want to write a worshipful little-sister book about the wisecracking characters in the classic screwball movies. I think the content and tone of this one are at odds, though. A random sample of the prose:

Garbo's sublime imposture of Soviet enthusiasm seems inspired by this Bergsonian perception linking rigidity of thought with inelasticity of demeanor.

That isn't even an uninteresting thought in context (Ninotchka). The 'seems' is unfortunate, since it's not an unusual thought either.

But none of the screwball heroines would have been so cautious or so slow. I can't write a paragraph in wisecracks either, and my conclusion is that prose is the wrong format for this whole book: it should have a whole lot of film clips attached with reasoning. Even better, it would have clips of parallel scenes in 1950s or modern movies to demonstrate what was different about the great age. Pity that the copyright system currently makes that unlikely.

The other wrong note in the prose is that the content is unquestioningly optimistic about the meaning, the intent, the effect of the wisecracking heroines. This includes a Lubitsch film, and who could reasonably get unambiguous optimism out of that? There is a little mention of the stock foolish-new-bride joke to take the heroine down a peg at the end. I like the literary connection DiBattista makes between romantic comedies and the health of society in companionate marriages, but she covers movies with as much difference as A Winter's Tale to Much Ado About Nothing, and even the latter has no wisecracks from Beatrice in the final speeches.

ISBN: 0300088159

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December 22, 2004

The Ecology of Urban Habitats, O. L. Gilbert

Scraping through rubble-fields and road cuts for ecology surely doesn't produce pretty pictures, but it has all of the original naturalist's charm of fascination with living things for their own sakes. This is an English book, and I, in a city not two hundred years old, in a house considered oldish for having made it through one century, am fascinated by how urbanization eventually falls into patterns to which creatures (humans too) can adapt. Between toxins and introductions, there's been plenty of pressure. (Evening primrose may have ?speciated? developed races? since its naturalization from New World imports.)

Plaggen soils are soils made by more than a hundred years of living and manuring, which appear in cities with gardens or allotments (or livery stables, I should think); I'm delighted with the new word 'pararendzina', which seems to be what rubble becomes as it turns back into soil. Maybe only brick rubble, I don't know because most of the uses on the Web aren't in English, and it isn't in the index of either Soil Genesis and Classification or the Keys to Soil Taxonomy; both of those are US-centric, of course. We might have plenty of anthropic soils, but until we normally reuse them instead of moving to greenfield sites I guess we won't bother with fine distinctions among the rubble.

Although, mm, the Hood Canal Bridge is having to move its reconstruction staging because of the enormous graveyard found next to the existing bridge. Fourteen hundred years of known human habitation there might have changed the soil type; I wouldn't even assume it was a small habitation, since the Hood Canal without industrial inflow was so benign, so flourishing, so productive that (as my other half remarked) even we might have survived there. Was it foolish for that culture to develop art and leisure and IP law instead of industrializing to be ready for the West when it arrived? We should hope not; neither writing nor reading this is likely to defend us from aliens, should they suddenly appear in orbit, or even from epidemics, much likelier to appear with one urbanizing world.

ISBN: 0412282704

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Trawler, Redmond O'Hanlon

Hysterically funny, nowhere unkind, adventurous setting, filled with biological factods, and it ends in sight of a moral or two.

It's on a trawler, is all, a trawler based in northern Scotland but working more northerly yet, even into the Arctic Circle, even in a hurricane in January. The author is fiftyish and bookish and a bit nebbish and completely not in training; he gets there having apprenticed in the Marine Laboratory and met a doctoral student known to the trawler captain.

O'Hanlon has done some physically effortful things, and worked for years on the literary end of natural history, but working on a trawler is harder and more detailed than he was prepared for. His humor is so self-deprecatory that he probably exaggerates his unpreparedness, but maybe not: there must have been plenty. This is like most Bill Bryson, and also Frost on my Moustache, with which it shares some locations.

The intellectual unpreparedness is in trying to keep up with the incredible variety and mystery of the fish, etc., being hauled out of the deep sea; it would be hard enough to keep up with the knowledge of the trawlermen, but impossible to absorb everything the researcher says. Worse, everyone is working incredibly hard without sleep over a period of weeks, and in the sleep deprivation the conversations become both loopy and heartfelt. (They also have to be mostly made up; the author's self-described state couldn't distinguish between waking and sleeping, let alone take notes on someone else's talk.)

The sad thing is how much fish they have to throw away because the (obviously necessary) fishery management rules only give a license for one kind of catch at a time. Well, the really sad thing is that they know they don't know enough about many of their fish to be sure they aren't destroying the fisheries, which they really don't want to do; especially the captain, with a two-million-pound loan for a trawler that does this kind of fishing. None of the trawlermen seem opposed to fishery management; they object to fleets that they think cheat, but they greatly admire Iceland's cannily managed fishery, and one of them tells the researcher where, perhaps, to find the breeding grounds of a fish, because the knowledge might protect the fish in the long run.

Iceland is probably also admired for being adequately far north; there's a definite opinion among the trawlermen that admirable peoples begin where the speaker is and become more admirable as one moves north: points are probably given for living on an especially exposed and rocky coast.

ISBN: 1400042753

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December 21, 2004

Owning Up, Michelle Miller-Adams

Subtitle: Poverty, Assets, and the American Dream

My summary: Assets, not income but wealth, is what keeps people (families, communities) out of poverty; US poverty-reduction programs ignore, or sometimes rule out, asset accumulation; the US could help the poor build their own assets and become self-sustaining for less money than we spend on helping the middle-class and rich accumulate assets; there are examples of useful programs in several very different circumstances.

I'm going to back up and read the earlier books on how assets are at least as important as income, because the numbers look interestingly explanatory. First on the list is Assets and the Poor, Michael Sherraden.

The case studies were cheering, in that the projects they cover did at least some good where much was needed; they also cover widely varying assets, from house equity to community interaction to 'soft skills' to natural resources to small-business competence. Some of the principles carry over between; the successes tended to work with people who were the most nearly successful of the poor, and let them recruit others by example.

The Battle Creek neighborhood rescue did something unexpected and clever; they put work and money into raising house prices, without worrying about gentrification. Battle Creek (built mostly for cereal factories) still has a fair number of owner-inhabited houses, and not a lot of risk of gentrification, and the reasoning was that dropping house prices were causing rational owners to put less and less maintenance into their houses, as they couldn't have gotten the equity back out. Loaning money to rehabbers, and street-landscapers, reversed the cycle in at least some blocks, before all the original inhabitants sold to developers.

Overall, the book is cautious and practical and determinedly bipartisan, repeatedly pointing out how many programs there are to subsidize middle-class saving, how clearly salaried workers benefit from default saving, how helping asset accumulation leads to self-reliance and self-restraint, etc. And who could be against self-reliance?

Well... I like the summary of the post-WWII plutocratic political program being one of risk transfer. If you transfer a lot of risk to other people, you will eventually be able to buy anything else you want at a penny on the dollar when the dice come down against them; "The time to buy stock is when blood is in the streets. " Late Victorian Holocausts makes a good case that this practice is how Europe, especially England, overtook the wealth of what is now the Third World; and even some case that this was intentional. There had been, for instance, large public works for irrigation and flood management and famine relief, which were supplanted by markets in good years (when it was not too politically expensive). Their lack in the bad years left nations impoverished. There are public goods that pay off rarely and are still worth their price.


Off in metaphor land, I thought of buffered soils and delayed neutron fractions. Soils with good buffering don't change as rapidly as outside influences push them; e.g., they have stocks of nutrients or charge held in reserve. Without buffering, shocks are more often lethal to plants, which makes the whole system even more susceptible to the next shock. Nutrient stocks are obviously an asset, and they are metaphorically appropriate because they're usually built up over a long time; the fraction of organic material that breaks down most slowly is important.

On further thought, I don't think the slow neutrons are a good metaphor for assets, although they may be a second-level metaphor; a society with a sufficient number of asset-buffered actors in it is... easier to regulate? I don't think that's what Jefferson expected from sturdy independence. Never mind.

ISBN: 0815706200

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The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists, Gideon Defoe

My other half thought this was very funny, somewhere between audible laughter and uncontrollable wheezing. I don't see it at all. There's nothing mean or vicious in it, so normally I would ignore it as a random variation in taste; but I have a cautious theory that it isn't random, that its appeal is specifically to the cool and maybe to the boyishly cool.

The subject matter is traditional for boyish amusement (pirates, monkeys, dressing up like women, repetitive word-games, meeting a hero and running away) and the treatment is perfectly flat. It's all funny precisely because the author doesn't care.

In-group cool requires that you know about, and maybe mention, the current right things; possibly all of that applies here but I'm not cool enough to know. The Pirates! is all mention in the use-mention difference to display cool affect, lack of affect. Pirates, monkeys, Darwin trot on and off stage but the plot runs on their accidental, not their inherent characters. Shit just happens.

The flap copy says the author wrote "to convince a woman to leave her boyfriend for him. She didn't." I'm not surprised, if she also found it a model of detachment. Nor would I be surprised if the copy is a final display of detachment and the woman abstract.

ISBN: 0375423214

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December 19, 2004

Victorian Houses, N. Rena Goff, ed.

Subtitle: House Plans, Model Homes & House Articles from Harper's, Scribner's, Godey's Lady's, &c. 1850-1900.

The first floorplan shown points up the pre-industrial condition of labor being cheaper than material:

This neat little dwelling contains only one large room or kitchen, a; a small bed-room, b; and a store closet, c. The servant is supposed to sleep in the kitchen [...]

The servant's bed takes up probably a fifth of the kitchen; the 'small bed-room' is barely twice the size of its bed. Saved on heating, I'm sure.

Were the readers of Godey's Lady's Book building small cottages for themselves, or their servants; or looking at plans for them to increase by contrast the pleasure in "A Small Villa, For A Gentleman Much Attached to Gardening"?

It is nice to have the context for Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1860s articles on rational, honorable, domestic industry, the Christian rescue of woman's profession. Clearly doomed, basically; the intermediate article on thrift, with its daily rations costed out to the penny (onions by the bushel, a Philharmonic and library subscription, servant hire; no annual budget attempted at the servant's wage) is soon drowned out by contrivances to keep up with the Joneses while decrying the (inaccessible and ) overelaborate Jones-Smiths.

The Beecher & Stowe article does fore-run Ikea, etc., by its cunning double-use furniture allowing a family to live a respectable Victorian life in a house of two rooms and a connecting kitchen. I wonder if actual people ever had a piano and two conservatories before building a bedroom with a door. If so, no wonder they wanted a sliding storage wall to screen off the bed, though I can't believe that pasting ornamental paper on it ever made it look better than makeshift.

ISBN: 0971733716

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Wrong About Japan, Peter Carey

Another slim entry in the popular category of being 'wrong about Japan'. Carey's trip there with his manga-enthusiast teenage son was too short for them to get really wound into either adult or teenage misunderstandings. There are only a few people they meet more than twice, although those meetings do offer the repeated false recognition that makes cultural displacement so excruciating.

ISBN: 1400043118

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Off Ramp, Hank Steuver

Subtitle: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere

This is not poetry or philosophy of the edge city, or the strip mall, or the cul-de-sac, but Steuver makes a game try at representing all three as a environment of sufficient age and complexity to develop poetry or philosophy. I don't know that he shows the Elsewhere would want any it doesn't get from TV. I am presumably missing the heartfelt meaning in his TV and pop-song references.

Most of the essays are medium-close biography of representative people; an engaged couple, a low-cost funeral director, an unlikely candidate for the California governorship.

ISBN: 0805075739

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The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode

The title is misleading; it seems accurate if compared to Kermode's book on the language of Shakespeare, but the Age is still only a frame in this one, used to situate short comments on the language. The result is brief and tidily laid out, but I would rather have read a whole book on the politics, or the economics, or the poetry.

ISBN: 0679642447

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December 16, 2004

Soft City, Jonathan Raban

...the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map fixed by triangulation.

A large argument! nor a provable one. Most of the book is much more specific, though, usually a precise account of the social changes afflicting the poor and grimy London neighborhoods Raban lived in as a young freelance writer in the 1970s. I should think it was nearly unreadable for a couple of decades while it was just out of date; it is aging back into interest. For the US, at least, some of the interest comes from the image of London as a city permanently decaying and being renewed block by block (fashion and mortgage rules between them froze the renewal for a couple of decades in the States). Raban's general descriptions probably fit New York a decade later and smaller cities now.

Bits I liked: several sections analyzing the minimalist, anxious style of white-paint, open-floorplan gentrifiers. A little of what Raban assumes matches a history of Victorian London:

This style is a strategy of urban disengagement; it is a deliberate renunciation of almost every possibility afforded by the city. [...] (Significantly, London is unique amongst capital cities in that its middle class regard it as a right to live in a whole house and not in an apartment.)

Raban goes on to say that his gentrifiers are buying not just real-estate but the idea and practicality of neighborliness; "Community is becoming an increasingly expensive commodity". I wonder how that played out over thirty years. Community doesn't seem like a commodity that would stay bought.

There are many sections on surface, and style, and style communities and signals, and even on what kind of shopping is neccessary to maintain style; part of the argument is that the size and motion of cities requires them. Raban manages to discuss all this with very few brand-names or shop names, and only loose descriptions, which is probably why it's still readable; but I think the descriptions are specific enough that someone who was an adult in the '70s would know what he was talking about. (White-painted Moroccan birdcages were stylish? Ouch.) The birdcage chapter also summarizes Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which categorized the street masses by their occupations and access to materials; but Raban divides his contemporaries by what they buy. I am never much impressed by claims that consumer identity has explanatory power; sumptuary laws date back at least to ancient Rome, so consumer identity can't be new and thus doesn't automatically explain whatever new thing is under discussion; but it may be that sumptuary laws and consumer identity are an urban phenomenon. (That would make David Brooks urban; a laughable concept from my vantage, or a cheerful one if it means urbanity is really winning, or a depressing one if only the shallowest parts of urbanity are winning. On the other hand, Mayhew evidently divided all people into the Settled and the Wanderers, and explained urbanites rich and poor as being Wanderers, and nearly subhuman to boot; no side of this argument is new.)

Of course, I like his description of Moroccan birdcages as the use of culch in fashion, or possibly the use of fashion to keep the culch-pile well churned.

Raban only leaves London twice in this book; once while visiting Cambridge, where he is surprised by the isolationist attitudes (and tax policy) of each district of Boston; and horrified by its effects in, for instance, Roxbury, which (I guess) wouldn't have fallen so far in London, because London recognized itself as a city and connected all its parts. After all Raban's outsiderness and observation, after his praise of London's contingency and privacy, after his despair in his youth not fitting into villages and small towns that weren't playing at conformity, Roxbury moves him to a moral opinion, phrased with remarkable lack of vanity: "More than anything else, I would like, sometime, to be a capable citizen."

We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret helplessly in a synthetic wilderness of our own construction. We need—more urgently than architectural utopias, ingenious traffic disposal systems, or ecological programmes—to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.

ISBN: 1860461077

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December 04, 2004

The Seasons. Spring, James Thomson

There are lofty reasons to enjoy reading old books, but it's also nice to run across yet another of the minor allusions made by Dorothy Sayers. (I realize there are annotated anthologies, but I feel it only counts when I meet something on, as it were, its own terms in the wild. It's like a birder's life-list.) For instance, in The Parent's Assistant:

Delightful task! to rear the tender thought,--
To teach the young idea how to shoot,--
To pour the fresh instruction o'er the mind,--
To breathe th' enlivening spirit,--and to fix
The generous purpose in the glowing breast.

I can't remember when Wimsey quotes that, but it will come to me. More from the same poem:

     An elegant sufficiency, content,
Retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books,
Ease and alternate labour, useful life,
Progressive virtue, and approving Heaven!
          The Seasons. Spring. Line 1158.

Thomson is compared to E. A. Poe, although A. C. Swinburne comes to my mind. Thomson wrote poems of Gothic gloom in modern setting, including The City of Dreadful Night, which is gloriously purple prose, roiled and shot with black and curdled red:

We bow down to the universal laws,
Which never had for man a special clause
Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate:
If toads and vultures are obscene to sight,
If tigers burn with beauty and with might,
Is it by favour or by wrath of Fate?

And Thomson lived 1834-1882, note you; that's out of a mechanistic, very faintly evolutionary, probably shocking run of stanzas.

The Castle of Indolence has a modernism of its own: there was a 19th c. solitaire card game with the same name. The game version of the poem, ha. Maybe Studio Foglio will put out a deck.

"The City of Dreadful Night" is Project Gutenberg etext #1238; more poems are kindly provided by the Vasthead.

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December 02, 2004

Voyage of the Shadowmoon, Sean McMullen

One of the inconveniences of being middle-aged is the difficulty in finding a good triple-decker fantasy novel to revisit the comfort they gave when I was fourteen. I suppose it's like petrochemicals: it didn't occur to me in my youth that I was mining decades of writing, E. R. Eddison and Mervyn Peake through Ursula Le Guin and all, the best of threescore years and ten. Between their natural rarity and my now-non-fourteen-year-old tastes (Anne McCaffrey used to make me happy) I don't even finish most first volumes any more.

I can't think of an analogy to energy dependence and smog and global warming. Perhaps without the soft path of fantasy I'd have only read pastorals, in the original Latin.

I wanted to know how this story turned out, although in hindsight it isn't as coherent even as it seemed at the time. The oddest disjunction is that the plot is gory and awful, but the author and most of the characters are bouncy and good-natured. In the course of events, these opposites combine by having almost all the deaths rather quick; people die by beheading, or having their spines severed, or by sorcerous flash-combustion. They don't die of gut wounds or infections or third-degree burns or anything smelly. This seems like a healthy absentmindedness on the part of the author, if not outright intentional.

There is a second volume, but this one ends pretty well as a finished book. The ends aren't tied up but they're no looser than they were at the in medias res start of the picaresque.

ISBN: 0312877404

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Nobody Loves a Centurion, John Maddox Roberts

Neither the best nor the worst of the various ancient-Roman-mystery-series. This particular volume, the sixth, joins Julius Caesar in Gaul near the beginning of the famous military campaign.

The main character is a basically lazy young scion, who likes solving mysteries out of some combination of pissiness, generosity and curiosity.

ISBN: 0312320191

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The Parent's Assistant, Maria Edgeworth

I liked the stories in Tales and Novels, vol. II better; I wonder if these were written earlier or for younger children.

The introduction might be the most interesting part, because it's a defense of her theories of what stories will make children good. If I recall correctly this was a radical idea in her day, that children were not born good or bad, that reason could lead to virtue in all the classes. The Edgeworths were early in the attempts to make childrearing a science:

Indeed, in all sciences the grand difficulty has been to ascertain facts--a difficulty which, in the science of education, peculiar circumstances conspire to increase. Here the objects of every experiment are so interesting that we cannot hold our minds indifferent to the result. Nor is it to be expected that many registers of experiments, successful and unsuccessful, should be kept, much less should be published, when we consider that the combined powers of affection and vanity, of partiality to his child and to his theory, will act upon the mind of a parent, in opposition to the abstract love of justice, and the general desire to increase the wisdom and happiness of mankind.

The idea of making childrearing a science sends my mind, at least, towards John Dewey and social engineering and Brave New World. Maria Edgeworth had to appeal to comfortable English phlegm in the face of the then-recent experiments of the French Revolution, but I suspect her of sympathy with, at least, greater social mobility than her society had:

The question, whether society could exist without the distinction of ranks, is a question involving a variety of complicated discussions, which we leave to the politician and the legislator. At present it is necessary that the education of different ranks should, in some respects, be different. They have few ideas, few habits in common; their peculiar vices and virtues do not arise from the same causes, and their ambition is to be directed to different objects. But justice, truth, and humanity are confined to no particular rank, and should be enforced with equal care and energy upon the minds of young people of every station[...] In a commercial nation it is especially necessary to separate, as much as possible, the spirit of industry and avarice; and to beware lest we introduce Vice under the form of Virtue.

And finally she deals with some questions still current in arguments over suitable children's entertainment; should we scare them with evil, tempt them with unreasonably happy endings, what?

Were young people, either in public schools, or in private families, absolutely free from bad examples, it would not be advisable to introduce despicable and vicious characters in books intended for their improvement. But in real life they MUST see vice, and it is best that they should be early shocked with the representation of what they are to avoid. There is a great deal of difference between innocence and ignorance.
To prevent the precepts of morality from tiring the ear and the mind, it was necessary to make the stories in which they are introduced in some measure dramatic; to keep alive hope and fear and curiosity, by some degree of intricacy. At the same time, care has been taken to avoid inflaming the imagination, or exciting a restless spirit of adventure, by exhibiting false views of life, and creating hopes which, in the ordinary course of things, cannot be realized.

None of the actual stories are as lively as "Lame Jervas" and his continent-crossing, social-justice engineering career. There are a couple of school stories, including one about the foolish introduction of party or faction spirit into a private school; not Slytherin vs. etc., but maybe a faint forerunner. My favorite was "The Little Merchants", which is about the commercial ventures of Neapolitan children; Edgeworth makes survival by scrap-picking seem rather cheerful, and her hero finally makes good by asking to have a carpenter's rule explained to him and eventually becoming an architectural illustrator hired by the rich English who come to see the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Project Gutenberg etext #3655

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