September 27, 2009

Tournament of Shadows, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

"The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia"; from the 1830s to the moving present. I can't begin to summarize this, as it's an enormous thick book which is, itself, nearly a summary.

It's entertaining, as anything with the First Afghan War and the 1857 Mutiny, Madame Blavatsky and Younghusband and 'Kim' Philby ought to be. It has rhythm, derived from the repetitions and revenges of Central Asian politics. It's still, exhaustingly, relevant.

Find in a Library: Tournament of Shadows

Posted by clew at 10:26 PM

'The best way to make a small fortune...'

' to start with a large one' that you've borrowed. The Splendid Pauper certainly did, well-dressed and well-fed to the end of his days, despite borrowing so much and so unfruitfully from his friends and family and own children that he was nicknamed 'Mortal Ruin', after his actual name Moreton Frewen.

He was high Victorian gentry, the uncle of the eventual Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a second son; and his plans to make big fortunes ranged over the US (cattle ranching, silver mining, currency reform), Canada (cattle ranching, developing a new city), South Africa (mining), Kenya (land-grab colonialism), India (financial interest in proving corruption in other people's mines), Australia (mining). He was physically tough, reasonably kindly, not exactly financially honest but not nearly as much a scammer as some of his famous peers, clearly golden-tongued, well-connected, lucky in his marriage, and not even stupid about the schemes he was investing in; but he didn't make up with persistence and thrift for the capital he lacked, so the plans that did come to fruit made fortunes for other people.

His biographer winds up the story by arguing that Frewen was trapped by his emotional connection to a gentry that made its money from agriculture, when English agriculture was becoming a money-sink rather than a source of wealth. Still, some people made the jump from the old connections to the new money, and Frewen had more chances than most. His children had pretty good lives, the ones that survived the wars, and at least one of the houses stayed in the family until the twenty-first century.

The Hills at Home is fiction, the first of three novels, about a New England family down on its upper crusts, retreating to the family home pour mieux sauter. It's charming for its review of many irritatingly self-absorbed people, irritating each other; and fun in a flashy movie way for the family wealth they casually ruin to make themselves feel better (chipping the Ming vases, dragging the fur coat in the mud), and fun because they do rebound, they make clever connections and pull in favors and turn out to be more ruthless than feckless and the family fortunes bend upwards again.

If you actually found yourself near anyone like any of these people, historical or fictional, the safest plan would clearly be to attend one delightful dinner -- with your wallet left at home -- and never see them again.

Find in a Library: The Splendid Pauper

Find in a Library: The Hills at Home

Posted by clew at 07:40 PM

September 22, 2009

"All we know of history is, history repeats"

The poor in unfortunate countries are supposed to improve their lot by growing what the rich countries want to buy, right? But the failures in this plan turn up in specific histories of just about every commodity, and the basic rule that 'the house never loses' makes up more than one compelling history.

Here it is again in the current news; from the Fall 2009 issue of World Ark, the magazine of Heifer International:

The rapid increase in palm oil production - more than 280 percent in the past decade - was a calculated move endorsed by the Indonesian government to take advantage of the swelling demand and price for palm oil in the global marketplace. [...]

And, as the story spells out carefully, the farmers have to invest upfront in land taken out of other production, in planting labor, in the time for the trees to grow; the commodity markets are volatile; and therefore the farmers are more likely to go broke than get rich, over a few business cycles. Hm.

Posted by clew at 11:02 AM

September 14, 2009

Witchdame, Kathleen Sky

This reminded me pleasantly of E. R. Eddison, good heavens, without being an imitation; rather, Sky has the same flavor of treating the language and customs of (literary) Tudor England as a pile of rubble to rebuild with, without bothering much about deep commonality. It should come out as a bad costume job, but I was convinced. I liked the witchdame magic; theater and boasting and architecture, in keeping with, say, The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance without having either a classical or much of a Christian structure. There's something vulgar and Norse in it, and something from Avram Davidson's Virgil.

Find in a Library: Witchdame

Posted by clew at 10:50 AM

The Edge of Reason, Melinda Snodgrass

Deeply disappointing; it blurbs itself as 'A novel of the war between science and superstition', but the unsubtly-plumped Good Guys of science don't use science at all, or even reason, really. They depend on a magical mcguffin artifact made by a supernatural big daddy, and occasional paladins born with the ability to wield it, and yer general narrativium of suffering nobly and therefore winning. The unspeakable forces of evil, on the other hand, not only use physics but combine it with reality; and they are also better at psychology and politics.

Another blurb says 'will ... outrage true believers -- of all stripes'; the story goes on to posit that there is good Christianity, which is still a matter of dangerous belief but was invented by the good demon to spike evil Christianity. There is nothing carefully thought through in this entire plot, and I don't think it could outrage anyone more conventional than Robert Ingersoll.

Do not find in a library.

Posted by clew at 10:36 AM
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