January 29, 2010

Corvus: a life with birds, Esther Woolfson

Woolfson accidentally fell into living with birds in her house in Edinburgh, first doves (doves breed faster than rabbits. Anyone who knows anyone who keeps doves will be asked, someday, if they would like some excess doves) then storebought parrot-type birds, then rescued corvids.

There is some reflection of the kind that stands for 'deep thoughts' here, but most of it is reflection doing a good imitation of clear glass: just what the birds did, what the people did, what the people thought at the time. I am as sorry as Woolfson that we can't ask what the birds thought, because the evidence that the smarter animals, corvids among them, have some kind of self-image and concept of other beings' plans and intents has convinced me.

Living with birds -- 'keeping' is not a strong enough term -- is, clearly, not for the tidy. Corvids cache. They cache a little of everything they like, anywhere they can, so that the house has the residue of old squishes under all the carpets and curtains, and a hole in one wall for a rook to post long-term hoard into. I felt a little squeamish, even while I was grateful that someone was willing to live so much closer to the birds' temperament, to see what they would do.

Allowing bird behavior makes a bit more sense in a house built basically of stone, therefore less fragile and already uncomfortable:

The Glasgow house where I was brought up had, in the way of houses of the time, no heating, only inadequate fireplaces, more of them unused, and a large stove in the kitchen. The house was large, built of stone and, winter or summer, glacially cold. The possibility of installing heating was, as I recall, briefly discussed, my father's reluctance to have the Arts and Crafts panelling warped by the drying effects of central heating eventually overriding all other considerations, and so we continued to endure the almost universal experience of Scottish life of the time, ice on the insides of bedroom windows, fierce dashes from bed to clothes, the only warm piece of the anatomy at bathtime being the portion submerged. [...] I don't remember what we wore but I do remember that my father, concerned for their comfort and well-being, insisted that our dogs, three of them, wore sweaters indoors.

Someone inured to that much discomfort can live with smallish wild animals. The magpie Spike was almost too wild to live with humans, much as they loved him:

Han [...] spent time practising kung fu. [...] It became her habit of an evening, before Spike's bedtime, to engage with him in a bout of combat, an enterprise that delighted him since he was unfailingly up for a fight. She would initiate the bout by punching the air near his head, one side, then the other, just enough to enrage him [...] his the advantage in proper flight, hurling himself towards her, eyes yellow and protected, squeaking with martial fury, wings a blur and rustle of crisp, bright feather. Wham! Wham! He'd squeak frenetically, shouting random words -- 'Smike! Oy! Oy! Spikey! Hello! Hello!' -- as he attacked her moving fists, diving for her head as she leapt and danced away from him. [...] all the more strange and thrilling perhaps because of the imbalance in size of the participants, their cultural diversity, or the fact that one of them at least had failed to master the important philosophical requirements of the martial arts.

Daughter Han won international trophies, which is only just for someone with a training program you would expect of Li Po.

Find in a Library: Corvus.

Posted by clew at 11:55 AM

January 24, 2010

Mansfield Park and Mummies, Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian

This is the best of the Austen-plus-horror novels I've tried; this one is actually good if you like Austen. What most put me off Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was that I thought the author seriously disliked Austen, couldn't imagine that anyone really wanted to read it without the action scenes, didn't pay enough attention to catch the same rhythms in the interpolated prose.

Nazarian is not reverent of the original, but she is deeply affectionate and knows when she's adding anachronisms, in footnotes both arch and base. Also, vampires and mummies are plausible horror elements of the 19th century, so the seams aren't pulling across such a gap; reanimating mummies is suitable for a household that values tradition and inheritance and quiet, and vampires are all right for cads and adventuresses. ...The werewolves are just for fun, I think. Sometimes plot elements are just stuff that happens.

Why has Northanger Abbey not been pastiched? Because it is a pastiche of Gothic monk-and-murder novels to start with? But it would be a different interesting novel if the levelheaded realist was mistaken.

Find in a Library: Mansfield Park and Mummies

Posted by clew at 06:24 PM

Oh, tsk.

My other half, reading, cried 'Trollope!'. I am far fonder of Anthony Trollope than he is; on inquiry, I established that he had come across a reference to Trollope and was sharing.

The reference, though, was to a book called The Way We Behave. He quoted a passage about the brief, decisive utterances of a railway chairman. I was surer yet that The Way We Live Now had been miscalled.

Indeed, the former title doesn't appear in Trollope bibliographies; looking for it with Trollope on Google returns a link to the business text my other half is reading, and then a reference from a business paper probably quoting the business book.

Other half says they've also made an error of fact in a discussion of technology. There are highfalutin theories of corporate governance, but I begin to worry about the simple case of not checking one's assertions.

Find in a library: Corporate Governance, Robert A. G. Monks, Nell Minow.

Or, better, read The Way We Live Now, Project Gutenberg title #5231.

or, if you're pressed for time, here's a cartoon on the subject form 1874...

Posted by clew at 05:57 PM

January 18, 2010

Camp Fire Girls novels

There was a Camp Fire Girls novel at my grandparents' when I was small, and I don't know how many times I read it -- it was a perfect story for a young girl, with a lot of the plot devoted to practicing skills and courage, and a little bit of improbable events and grown-up social obligations. I'm sure it has formed my whole understanding of women and modernity; Alcott's Little Women had many of the same rhetorical ideals that the Camp Fire girls did (Work, Health and Love) but even Jo didn't achieve the independence that the Camp Fire novels were describing a generation later.

For those of you who haven't read any: the Camp Fire Girls coalesced from 1910 to the 1920s, hot on the heels of the Boy Scouts; there are relations by siblinghood or marriage between the YMCA and the American Scouts and the Camp Fire Girls (and the authors of The American Boy's Handy Book and The American Girls Handy Book). The CFG practiced artistic, academic and domestic skills, but the books -- and the imagery -- concentrate on actual time camping, just girls in the woods, with their Guardians. I don't know what earlier group managed as much freedom for women. (Some camps clearly had a male manager; often they were run by a married couple.) Entire novels (How Ethel Hollister Became a Camp Fire Girl) concentrate on how a girl persuades her family to let her do something so shocking and newfangled. One of the common arguments is that a girl as competent as a Camp Fire girl will be a better wife and mother, but in the Fire they definitely value independence for itself.

A lot of the stories have girls escaping, or rescuing each other, from True Crime dangers. Camp Fire girls can outsmart dangers that innocent or flirting girls run into.

For instance, Bessie is pursued by someone who is going to 'adopt' her and keep her imprisoned as a farmhouse-laborer, if only he can get her across a state line. The innocent must have felt this as an exaggeration of the fear of doing nothing but housework, with no respect; the less innocent, as fear of kidnapping for sexual purposes ('across state lines'); I kept reading it as a memory of the slave/free states, when state lines meant that much for many.

That plot was in the middle of a continuum from realistic troubles to plots that would do Mary Pickford proud. I liked the plot in The Torch Bearer of a very, very timid girl, never praised or helped at home, earning her first health honor by walking to the nearest hamlet and back; but she has to walk past a settlement of the poor, who jeer at her as she cringes past them on the way; but, arriving at her goal, she gains courage, and on the way back they shout something friendly. Was it jaded tastes that eventually required 'heiress kidnapped and held in a lakeside tower' (The Camp Fire Girls at SchoolM) or 'gypsies kidnap good girls for ransom' (The Camp Fire Girls at Long Lake). Eventually Camp Fire Girls serve in the Red Cross, and build wireless stations, and fly planes; I haven't read The Banner Campfire Girls as Federal Investigators, but there is explicit overlap with the Nancy Drew series. The Campfire Girls of Roselawn doesn't seem to have any organized Camp Fire girls in it, which might be why it doesn't occur to the girl chums to rescue a girl being forced into a car until it is professionally important to a lawyer.

The most annoying trope is how much racism gets built in to balance, I think, the radical feminism. The first infuriating thing is that the Camp Fires were very explicitly using Native American -- they say Indian -- imagery, costume, even language, with a lot of cod-Longfellow poetry; but it could not be more clear that there aren't any actual Native Americans there. One of the better novels opens with a canoer saying to herself "It sounds like an Indian call, but I'm sure those were not Indian voices." There are references in the more egalitarian novels to 'girls of every shade of complexion', but I'm pretty sure those are shades of European. Of course, in the 1910s, it was liberal to accept working immigrant girls from Eastern Europe or Italy or even Ireland into the same social circles as Anglo-Protestants. Like Maria Thomson Daviess, these novels are pushing to extend sisterhood across class lines, and a little across cultural lines, but they aren't risking race lines.

There is at least one academic treatment of this; and a defense of the Camp Fire Girls on the grounds that one of their founders was a Sioux of impeccable credentials in two cultures.

I also love the details of what life was like over the several decades they cover. When Bessie and her friends are escaping from a kidnapper and his rural Fagin, they cross what seems like half the state on the trolleys; the lines obviously run well into the food-producing countryside, as well as connecting the cities, and many people make their regular market or shopping or school trips on them. The domestic beauty the Camp Fire girls make is so obviously the 'Craftsman', naturalist style, rather than the delicate Victorian style, that I wonder how much the Camp movements fueled the change in aesthetic styles, even styles of dress. Also, the careful enumeration of color-coded doo-dahs to be made or earned or purchased is awfully familiar; the Elks and Masons and Oddfellows bought even better ones.

There is an excellent bibliography of Camp Fire Girls novels at the Memory Book of Alice Beard. Many of them are available online, and she has linked to them.

I still haven't found the story I read so often as a child. I think the girl I loved most was called George, and she longed to be as brave as a heroine, and eventually was; exhausted herself to unconsciousness rescuing someone else.

Posted by clew at 08:05 PM

January 16, 2010

The Fat and the Thin, Emile Zola

While the fat character in a modern novel is usually being reprimanded for being unable to live up to the expectations of bourgeois society, the fat characters in this novel are being reprimanded for living up to the expectations of bourgeois society.

I was hoping for more details of how nineteenth-c. Paris was provisioned, since the story is set in the food markets (with little idyllic bits in the nearby truck farms). There are a lot of details, I suppose; vast semi-public cellars of cheese, butter, fowl, everything; but so much of it is taken for granted... Food seems to be very efficiently used, as in Farmers of Forty Centuries, and for the same reason: so many people are poor that every scrap and broken meat can be sold for some tiny, scrabbling sum. Also, good wives and daughters spend a lot of time making leftovers edible.

Project Gutenberg file#5744, The Fat and the Thin; originally, Ventre de Paris

Posted by clew at 09:18 PM

Futurist Stories, Margery Verner Reed

The plots of these little stories are straight up "Next week East Lynne!", but the paragraphs are very short and the sentences incomplete. They would work as the narratives for graphic novels, or films, or music videos; succesfully futurist, then.

HER voice sank almost to a breath.
I PLACED you in his cradle.
AN intolerable silence.
I LOVED your father
YOU never knew that he was a Portuguese nobleman.
DID you ever hear of Madeira, she asked sharply
IT was there that one by one all the passions of love--hatred--revenge
had torn my heart. He married and came to England--I followed--repulsed,
MY only weapon against him--was to contrive--the death--of his little
BUT to kill a child--
SHE caught a shuddering breath.
I COULD not--
I HID it securely.
ONCE again I visited Madeira. On the steps of the Church I stabbed my
enemy among the flowers in that land of beauty--a crime to darken its
SO you belong to me--
YOU owe me much--
ALL that you can pay.
THE little sum of money he had in the Postal Savings rose into his
mind--and gave him amazing steadiness
HIS voice sounded loud and full in his own ears
YOU lie! he shouted suddenly.
YOU lie! you fiend! Come into the daylight.
HE was tearing his mind free from the influence of the place, the
shadows--the possessing voice of the woman.
SHE crouched back toward the door.

Project Gutenberg file#30374, Futurist Stories

Posted by clew at 09:07 PM

Mountain Meditations, L. Lind-Af-Hageby

I did not think this book was mostly about mountains; it was mostly about how everyone else who says they like mountains like them in the wrong way. Artists are too detached, and climbers are too hearty and instrumentalist, and the people who actually live in them usually don't appreciate them properly. This seemed like a poor temperament to consider 'some subjects of the day and the war', so I didn't go on.

Project Gutenberg file#29277, Mountain Meditations

Posted by clew at 08:54 PM

The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin

Of course this is mostly about the biology Darwin observed on his trip; it is absolutely amazing how much he observed -- geology nearly at its birth, fluid mechanics and its use by organisms to eat and disperse, the variation of species... but also all the people he met. It is profoundly obvious that he was of the egalitarian, liberal Wedgewood temperament. He admires the dashing horsemen of South America, but only when their gallantry extends to middle-aged native women; he is furious at the exclusion of a talanted black officer in a nowhere in the grasslands.

Also, when learning to use the bolas, he brings down the horse he's riding at the time.

Project Gutenberg file#944, The Voyage of the Beagle

Posted by clew at 08:32 PM

The Whole Family, twelve authors.

Each chapter of this is by a different author, in the first-person voice of a different member of the 'whole family', as they annoy and assist each other and absorb a newcomer. It isn't an exercise in subtle characterization in any of them; it's more as though they chose the three-word, easy to sell description of each character and went for easy wit instead. It might be a television show; catchy, a little bit catty.

The father / William Dean Howells -- The old-maid aunt / Mary E. Wilkins Freeman -- The grandmother / Mary Heaton Vorse -- The daughter-in-law / Mary Stewert Cutting -- The school-girl / Elizabeth Jordan -- The son-in-law / John Kendrick Bangs -- The married son / Henry James -- The married daughter / Elizabeth Stuart Phelps -- The mother / Edith Wyatt -- The school-boy / Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews -- Peggy / Alice Brown -- The friend of the family / Henry Van Dyke.

Project Gutenberg file #5066, The Whole Family

Posted by clew at 08:12 PM

The City of Dreadful Night, James Thomson

"The city is not ruinous, although
  Great ruins of an unremembered past,
With others of a few short years ago
  More sad, are found within its precincts vast.
The street-lamps always burn; but scarce a casement         40
In house or palace front from roof to basement
  Doth glow or gleam athwart the mirk air cast.
The street-lamps burn amid the baleful glooms,
  Amidst the soundless solitudes immense
Of ranged mansions dark and still as tombs.                 45
  The silence which benumbs or strains the sense
Fulfils with awe the soul's despair unweeping:
Myriads of habitants are ever sleeping,
  Or dead, or fled from nameless pestilence!

Pure quill. Perhaps someone will illustrate it, or at least use it in extensive chapter headings for Felix Gilman's next novel.

Project Gutenberg file#1238 The City of Dreadful Night

The Afghan Wars, 1839-42 and 1878-80, Archibald Forbes

There must be a book explaining how the last couple wars in Afghanistan were unlike the previous ones, but it might be short. I'm sure it would get reviewed in Foreign Affairs, though; 'this time it will work.'

Project Gutenberg file#8428, The Afghan Wars

Posted by clew at 07:49 PM

The Crisis, Winston Churchill

(Not the Winston Churchill who became a Prime Minister, incidentally. ) A novel of the Civil War, built around the young man who comes down from the North beforehand and is horrified by slavery; but the South is represented by gallantry and tradition. Well, both sides get to be gallant, but the South has better hats.

Project Gutenberg file#5396, The Crisis

Posted by clew at 07:42 PM

The Lamp in the Desert, Ethel M. Dell

A classic romance -- the solitary and proud sister of a poor officer comes out to India, is scorned by the station wives, strikes sparks off the inscrutable Captain Monck. Etc etc. Angst ensues, verandahs, jungles, resolution, all what it says on the tin.

Project Gutenberg file #13763, The Lamp in the Desert

Posted by clew at 07:28 PM

The Doomswoman, Gertrude Atherton

It's not unusual for succesful hegemons (or colonialists or whatever) to get romantic and swoony about the people they've replaced. Indeed, it often seems like the final mark of conquest. This is a Californian novel about how the last Spanish-Californians in the country were very good at the 'good life' but not practical or, you know, thrusting; so that the best of their young men looks forward to becoming part of the States. There are lots of scenic picnics and dances and flashing eyes on the way.

Gertrude Atherton eloped with the man who developed Atherton, but most of her life was a career writing novels modern, scandalous, fantastical or all three; she was an allegory of the development of California, herself.

Project Gutenberg file #12270, The Doomswoman

Posted by clew at 07:19 PM

Pink and White Tyranny, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Here's an early feminist argument against legal divorce: it would be unfair to the weaker sisters, who would find themselves abandoned and go to the bad.

Beecher Stowe loads the dice; the frivolous and greedy wife doesn't go completely to the bad while married, and her husband and daughter become only better in character for meeting the burden laid on them, and the woman the husband should have married isn't destroyed wihtout him, etc. God, Beecher Stowe argues, tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, who benefits from the bracing exposure.

Project Gutenberg file #12354, Pink and White Tyranny

Posted by clew at 07:08 PM

Far to Seek, Maud Diver

I suppose this was the Far Pavilions of its day, but it doesn't tickle my id as well. The young people have more interesting moral challenges -- this is set around the 'Mesopotamian' war (WW1), and has nationalism and the New Woman as Questions -- but the author is solidly for Englishness and motherhood, and not surprising interpretations of either.

Project Gutenberg file #15704, Far to Seek.

Posted by clew at 06:53 PM
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