June 23, 2007

The Valley of the Moon, Jack London

The scenes in this are good, as one expects from Jack London, but the novel as a whole hangs together only by heroic doses of exceptionalism. On the other hand, it so perfectly figures the Californian ruburban ideal that the second half could nearly be reprinted in Sunset every year.

The first half is a sort-of proletariat drama in lower-class Oakland (1900s or thereabouts). It's more pro-tagonist than pro-labor; the best-looking young things in town meet, fall in love, marry, see their slightly more low-tone friends go to the bad, and get out of town in the wake of pitched strike and riot: "Capital everywhere seemed to have selected this city for the battle with organized labor." At this point Saxon (the heroine) and Billy are labor; he's a teamster.

They decide the city is corrupt and corrupting, and leave for a dream of 'the valley of the moon' with all of California's agricultural and scenic advantages in one place, not far from a railroad. The wandering part of the novel is a pleasant fantasy of full public trout-streams and high-class, book-learned small-holders with a lot of time to explain truck-farm profits to the vagabonds.

The middle of the book is mildly interesting for set-pieces discussing clever agricultural tricks of 'the immigrants'; grafting in Portuguese fruit orchards, drying by Chinese fruit-shippers, all so much more profitable than the lazier methods of the Anglos that the Anglos are getting bought out of the land. "Not an inch wasted. Where we get one thin crop, they get four fat crops." The protagonists are weirdly sure that this is all kind of tacky, that they as 'real' Americans deserve forty acres rather than four (acres 'free from the government', too).

Carmel is a valuable visit because they 'learn how to play': "A poet named Mark Hall had offered them the free use of a "shack," and it turned out to be a three-roomed house comfortably furnished for housekeeping. ... They paid no rent." Hall inherited money and can afford to preach democracy and fixing the system -- to which, Saxon:

If we all get into politics and work hard for something better, maybe we'll get it after a thousand years or so. But I want it now. I can't wait; I want it now. ... What we want is a valley of the moon, with not too much work, and all the fun we want.

They are advised to lease a farm, work the heart out of it, and make off with the profits -- this is explicitly described as the tactic of "the land-hungry Anglo-Saxons... It was his kind that destroyed New England. Back there, great sections are relapsing to wilderness." But they also don't want to do anything so immoral.

They adopt a camper-wagon so that she can travel with an adequate wardrobe.

There is much talk of how the soil ought to be protected and replenished, but no detail on how that should be done.

Finally they happen onto perfect land in Sonoma -- an abandoned farm, with nice neighbors and reliable water, near a railroad and a hotel boom. Inexplicably, it's affordable. There's a brief dig at the original French settler, whose land-love is "a disease", and some extremely handy setting-up advice from an independent farmer who takes quite a lot of time off her own farm to help them set up; and finally our protagonists are happy because they're going to be capitalists:

You must use your head. Let others do the work. You must understand that thoroughly. The wages of superintendence are always larger than the wages of the laborers.

Nor is this a strictly rural idyll:

As a farming investment, using old-fashioned methods, it was not worth it. As a business investment, yes; for the virtues of the valley were on the eve of being discovered by the outside world, and no better location for a summer home could be found. ... And he knew [the seller] would allow time on most of the amount.

So, yes, if land in Sonoma falls into your lap on easy terms, you can feel very good about your prospects for catering to the upper classes and to land speculation, and it might even be easy. Truly, a prototype of the Californian dream to this day.

Find in a Library: The Valley of the Moon

Project Gutenberg etext #1449

Posted by clew at 02:22 PM

June 19, 2007

The Mojave, David Darlington

Darlington tells stories, over and over, of people coming to the desert for noninterference, and then interfering with each other. Often the interference is through intermediaries, as with all the argument over what's been most, or least excusably, or finally insupportably, damaging to the wildlife in the deserts.

There's some natural and geographic history, but most of the history is human.

Find in a Library: The Mojave

Posted by clew at 04:48 PM

Passion, Jude Morgan

Another version of the Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley/Byron/Keats tangle; I'm not surprised that I can enjoy several, but it is surprising that this very realist, historical version lies so comfortably in my memory next to Tim Powers' fantastic one.

I don't know about the title, though... there are passions aplenty, but they all founder on the reef of money. It's not just the women who suffer the more the less they have 'five hundred pounds a year and a room of [their] own'. The men, no matter how artistic, are almost all warped by their desire for inherited or patronage money. Not all:Keats is born too poor and dead too soon to live for expectations. I can't tell how much of this is just a bad gamble on the quick payoff, and how much is because inherited money is more respectable in a way they haven't rejected with sexual and political respectability, and how much because working for a living was even harder in their day than ours.

Morgan's prose is delightful -- tremendously varied -- Caroline Lamb has a Mad Scene during a waltz, and it is subtly in triple-time; propulsive, dizzy, intoxicating. Her interactions with her family are little plays. The Marys exist in careful reasoned prose, Augusta Byron in slightly imagist thoughts, often a little behind events.

For those who can't remember -- the ending is not as tragic as it seems, through most of the book, that it must be.

Find in a Library: Passion

Posted by clew at 04:39 PM

Think!, Michael R. LeGault

Instead of logically criticizing our feel-good society that will not reason (which is what the book claims to be doing), LeGault uses anecdote and assertion to explain that we should feel good about ourselves and sort of pretends to reason. Well, I was skipping faster and faster as I got more and more exasperated, there may be evidence in here somewhere, but it's thin on the ground for the first few chapters. Definitions of what's being discussed are thin or missing; for instance, 'our' society is apparently the US, but that's not cited so much as implied by, say:

Europeans are in effect barred from a truly rational, free-thinking inquiry by the entrenched political special interests of their societies.

And that's a very funny sentence, coming after the claim that

...this country's environmental regulations, as embodied in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and numerous other pieces of legislation, are the most stringent of any industrialized nation.

because our Clean Air Act is terrifically hamstrung by the special interest we have in cheap coal. So is Europe's legislation, I should think, indeed that of all the industrialized nations; but figuring out who is more stringent is actually hard--I've just spent an entertaining but inconclusive thirty minutes trying to define a total 'environmental stringency' and then measure US and EU standards on it, and I have last terms' climate-modeling seminar as a good base to start with. I would say the US is more stringent about particulates -- 'the US' wins because of California -- and the EU about CO2; but the two places don't really measure quite the same thing, and exactly how some of the 'voluntary agreements' with automakers are supposed to be counted is even weirder.

But it seems to me that Singapore knocks all the other industrialized nations out of the running. Of course there are rationalizations, e.g. we were only supposed to 'count' big countries, or countries with governance 'like' that of the US; but rationalizations that invert the sense of a true-false statement annoy the heck out of me, and are unforgivable in a book preening itself on clear thinking about uncomfortable topics.

Other bits of poor thinking: on p. 45, he is accusing the 'wired set' of wanting us to 'mothball the written word'; a peculiar accusation for a medium that produces this much prose; and, even worse, the evidence he does adduce against visual (or audible?) media is that we don't have 'time to stop and reflect upon the issues, to question and explore'. But digital representations of plays, etc. are exquisitely available for pausing, rewatching, reworking, and making extended hypotheses and counter-arguments to. The evidence and the claim don't line up. The next argument, that popular movies appeal to faculties other than reason, seems true but is circular.

On page 56, he quotes a "Gestapo-like, motherly dictum", which is a surprising comparison, except that he's trying to be against yob movies and the nanny state at once; still, claiming that mothers are Gestapo-like is a very emotional claim for which he offers no evidence. Chapter 3 disdains our collective or egalitarian intelligence, and uses GM's troubles as a sign, but doesn't explain why it's Japanese companies, in a culture more explicitly consensus-friendly, that are picking up GM's market-share. And on page 71 he describes GM as 'the ultimate government project', that is, unaccountable and without incentive; I suspect that 'government' is as loaded a word for his audience as 'Gestapo', and again, there's no reasoning given for using a statement that's literally false. Still, the interesting question if you're thinking about the role of government and accountability is why the Japanese companies were a counterexample, when they are so deeply intertwined in their government.

It seems to me that this is a polemic encouraging white US men to assume the virtues of their predecessors (not in the sense Hamlet used 'assume') and take back everything they used to have; it's disguised as a paean to reason. Of course I might be wrong, but since no terms are actually defined, my assertion is not disprovable.

Find in a Library: Think!

Posted by clew at 04:19 PM

June 17, 2007

The Tent, Margaret Atwood

On retellings:

Listen, I said. None of this sounds like me. It doesn't exactly call out. How about getting me a job in the plot factory? I think I'd be good at that. What? he said. He sounded alarmed. I'd get the hang of it really fast, I said. I could make up some new plots, or give a twist or two to the old ones [...] What I was really thinking was, I'd be able to rope off a main character or two for myself. Fulfill my childhood dreams. Or I could do a whole plot with nothing in it but exotics. Exotics wall to wall. Then I'd be the main character for sure, no question.

This is a little book full of minuscule essays which are didactic, but avoid the lumbering predictability of most didactic work, since the point is right there right away instead of heaving earnestly into view.

The illustrations are little and angular too, with bird-beaked people very like some of the figures in The Space Child's Mother Goose.

Find in a Library: The Tent

Posted by clew at 12:31 AM

Monkey, Wu Ch'eng En, translated by Arthur Waley

Waley's translation might be better English than it is a perfect translation, but I wanted the swing of the story, which I got. It is almost repetitive - Monkey leaps about aggrandizing himself, with surprising success except when the Goddess Kuan Yin pulls the rug out from under him - but not quite; because Monkey learns and changes.

I don't know that he actually learns ethics, but at least he learns that he can't outsmart the Goddess of Mercy; which is in practice very similar.

The desires which he must restrain are for violence and food (and fancy clothes). No sex? (Not a bonobo, then?)

The most relevant essay I found suggests that there are several similiar, or precursor, tales in which the Monkey figure is a seducer; but that this Monkey isn't, being a Buddhist tale.

Still, the Monkey who eats and dresses up but does not swive seems rather more possible to me in a peasant tradition than a protagonist who is mad about sex but not food. (The Fall of the Kings dropped my disbelief in its archaic king-magic because there wasn't enough about food.)

Find in a Library: Monkey

Posted by clew at 12:18 AM

June 16, 2007

Spinners, Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

An elegant, tragic retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, explaining who that little bent man was, and how he gained the power to spin straw into gold, and why he wanted the child of the miller's daughter.

Find in a Library: Spinners

Posted by clew at 11:52 PM

June 13, 2007

Stable Isotope Ecology, Brian Fry

Now my subject, but the narrative is really not my style. Personalizing the isotopes makes it harder for me to remember how their differentiation works, because when they are described with anything like velleity it confuses my picture of the completely un-willed processes that fractionate isotopes. All of this book is anthropomorphized, and the characters who are people to start with get extra cute nicknames; it is the opposite of credentialist, which is good, but I found it distracting.

My mental frame bent out of true when, for instance, thinking of isotope fractionation through cell stomata. The plant cells do have something like velleity, do expend energy to act on a biological need for more or less H2O or CO2, but nothing actually cares which isotope comes in; it happens, reliably, but un-willed.

On the other hand, for the many people who don't remember anything outside a story with intent, such a metaphor is probably useful. The glee Fry exhibits in describing the ecosystem problems untangled by isotope studies ought to pull people in. The equations one needs are there, carefully boxed and explained; and the examples are broken down into very simple comprehensible parts, which I am grateful for.

Find in a Library:Stable Isotope Ecology

Posted by clew at 03:17 PM

June 03, 2007

Indiscretion, Jude Morgan

Morgan writes delightfully, particularly dialogue which one can imagine people actually saying (certainly saying to themselves, on the staircase, on the way out). She refurbishes the Regency novel without 'rethinking' it. There is nothing about the plot that isn't true of terrible genre novels. The heroine is poor and plucky, knows more than she is supposed to at her age but less than she needs to in her station, tries to protect her friends when it is not at all clear how, and finally achieves safe harbor in a good engagement.

Still, it's giggling-aloud funny, and the characters were real (not, perhaps, realistic; slightly Dickensian). My only regret is that now it will be harder to enjoy fluff written by worse writers.

WorldCat (Find in a Library) for Indiscretion

Posted by clew at 01:56 PM
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