June 28, 2010

The Story of the Soil, Cyril G. Hopkins

I'm interested in several of the sub-themes of this book, but the story as a whole was almost unreadably dull. I will summarize, in case someone else can be saved the trouble of reading the whole thing.

Overt story: young man armed with the new soil science checks out olf tired farmland while looking for a cheap farm to put back into good heart. Meets farmers' daughter, courts her, carries her off to be a farmwife.

By line count, most of the book must be the hero reciting tables of soil nutrient content and plant nutrient use... table after table after table of values measured east of the Mississippi. He is mostly speaking to a family of Southern farmers (Virginia?), who are suffering genteel poverty not just because of the waw, but because their land has 'worn out', as it does. The hero explains the need for additional nitrogen, and the inadequacy of merely recycling animal manures, and the use of clover; and winds up worrying about the long-term national need to maintain stocks of phosphorus. All of this startles me as evidence that we've known for yonks, since much much earlier than any of our conservation laws, that we were running agriculture on a literally unsustainable basis; and even why; but it's always the next generation's problem.

The other half of the plot is the rapprochement of the North and the South, mostly by admiring Southern women and vilifying or pitying blacks. I think the race descriptions are trying to be as generous to blacks as they can without losing a white Southern audience, but they're pretty awful all the same.

Project Gutenberg: The Story of the Soil

Posted by clew at 07:59 PM

American Notes, Rudyard Kipling

Kipling went through the Territories and States west-to-east, going home the long way from India after he had earned his first fame. The British liked descriptions of America, especially ones that weren't too fond.

Kipling liked parts of the States, mostly the San Francisco women who liked him (he implies that they like him a little too much, or show it too easily, or something); and the enormous salmon in Multnomah. He really, really doesn't like the American tendency to self-praise, whether or not he thinks it justified.

Project Gutenberg, American Notes

Posted by clew at 07:37 PM

Many Cargoes, W. W. Jacobs

These cargoes come with what we call baggage. The stories are all set in the minor merchant marine, mostly up and down the Thames and sometimes across the channel, and most of them are about minor romantic entanglements or contests of pride among the sailors.

The details of living aboard would probably be interesting, but they're mostly taken for granted instead of described.

At Project Gutenberg: Many Cargoes

Posted by clew at 07:24 PM

Stover at Yale, Owen Johnson

Should he join Skull and Bones? Is this elitism healthy at Yale? What will make the father of a charming girl approve of him? Can he be an intellectual and an athlete? If he tries to stop his classmates from debauching townie girls, will they all be angry?

This is a minor classic of worrying about joining the right social group. Moves smoothly, kind of charmingly quaint, mostly annoyingly (if authentically) adolescent.

ManyBooks link: Stover at Yale.

Posted by clew at 07:18 PM

Jack Harkaway's Boy Tinker Among the Turks, Bracebridge Hemyng

I think these boys' adventures are where Nick Harkaway got half his nom de plume, but man, the one I found online was dull and annoying. It seems to be a middle volume, but still. Jeez.

Bracebridge Hemyng is an even better name.

In Project Gutenberg, two Jack Harkaway novels.

Posted by clew at 07:06 PM

Three surprises in old books

Endymion is more plain fun to read than I expected, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a lot less fun. It's extra surprising how much they reminded me of each other in their settings.

John Keats' poem was a thumping failure when published, and isn't thought much better of now; it's about the shepherd Endymion who loves the moon, and how many travails he has to go through for them to live together. It's poetry, yo, it rhymes, there are classical allusions, and yet, stuff happens; there's even character development and conversation. It's a fair criticism that the imagery and plot has at least as much to do with 19th c. England as with antique Greece, but that's poetic now too; has much of the same charm that the beautiful set dressing derived from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea has. There's a whole section in a curse-maintained undersea cavern, which was strangely like the whole interesting part of Jules Verne's bafflingly uninteresting adventure novel.

Why is the Verne so famous? Is all the good stuff in the the sequels? It's written from the perspective of the single least interesting character, who is too single-minded to find out anything about his smarter, braver, more interesting host Captain Nemo, let alone his smarter, braver, funnier, more interesting servant Conseil. Nice imaginings of the undersea world, but hey, we have undersea webcams now.

John Keats, Endymion

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Posted by clew at 06:53 PM

June 22, 2010

Terrible court decision on copyright

Court Says It's Okay To Remove Content From The Public Domain And Put It Back Under Copyright. It's in a series of appeals, so we might not be doomed yet, but if Congress and the courts ignore the GAO and the First Amendment -- and non-centralized value, for that matter -- in favor of RIAA, the MPAA, increased control, and profits for a few, then the ratchet will keep strangling the public domain.

Posted by clew at 11:59 AM

June 21, 2010

John Masefield, John Masefield

Masefield is between Tennyson's high flights and Millay's pseudo-natural speech. All the poems have good readable stories, and they are never painful to read, and some stanzas or couplets are delightful; but the whole sinks like a comfy hammock between the earlier and later greats.

So having fought the Pentland War and won
A name through Britain and a peace secure
He felt the red horizon cast her lure
To set him hunting of the setting sun
To take a ship and sail
West through the grassless pastures of the whale
West to the wilderness of nothing sure
But unseen countries and the deeds undone

It helps that Masefield wasn't scrupulous about sticking to any close version of the stories, so one gets several Tristan-and-Iseult stories with different characterization and indeed plots (and Arthur letting Kai get in trouble for trying to keep Tristan from protecting a royal pig is excellent, like a scrap from The Once and Future King). Tristan's Singing has a chunk of saved-by-Nature that I found affecting, like mild Coleridge. Simkin, Tomkin and Jack is almost steampunk.

Find in a Library: John Masefield

Posted by clew at 12:27 AM

Foreign Mud, Maurice Collis

While Imperial China had a tea monopoly, it was also nearly closed to trade, and may (this is never clear to me) may not actually have wanted much that the West could then manufacture at the prices the West would charge. England was powerfully addicted to tea, and didn't have an infinite supply of the silver (and fur) that China did admit to wanting. Therefore England, through, for, or as the East India Company, grew and processed opium in India and ran an illegal pirate trade into China. By the 1830s, opium was even illegal in England, or mostly so, and both opium and unregistered foreign trade were illegal in China.

So two great empires, with very few interpreters, met in Canton in circumstances that embarassed or angered both of them. The official Chinese stance was still that all foreign nations naturally wanted to pay them tribute. This was not the official British stance, but they were working up to the belief that foreign nations didn't really have the right to have their own laws if it inconvenienced or embarassed anyone English. England sent an eminent and ignorant emissary; Canton had, briefly, an honest and active governor who attempted to stop the opium trade; Jardine maneuvers them into offending each other irreparably. The British navy demonstrates British naval superiority, China is dumbfounded and remarkably ineffectual, soon there is the Anglo-Chinese war that opens China to foreign trade and eventually topples the Ch'ing dynasty.

The Parliamentary debate was nearly the Melian Dialog -- among Palmerston, Macaulay, Gladstone (and lots and lots of other speakers). Everyone admitted, more or less, that the opium trade was wrong; but a sixth of the government revenues depended on it, and besides, the honor of the British flag was at stake, and it was probably the fault of the Chinese anyway. The final vote was comfortingly close, but they voted for war. That's rather a lot of the glory of the British Empire, there; a sixth of the government revenue, the fortunes of great commercial houses, based on an opium trade no-one would actually defend.

Collis himself joined the Civil Service in 1911 and mostly worked in Southeast Asia. This history slides easily from a what-it-was-like introduction moving up the river, to accounts of diplomatic records and terrible meetings. Collis does not want to write the story with a villain. Jardine still comes across as a villain; a lot of the rest of the English as merely fat-headed, though. One odd comment, perhaps directly observed; Collis thinks the two sides failed to take each other seriously because even the translators spoke pidgin, which cannot be taken seriously.

Of the many ironies, one is that the very idea of the British Civil Service seems to be descended from early contact with the mandarinate. Samuel Johnson, in 1738, admires the system in which any official could "advocate a reform or deplore an evil", in which that was regarded as their duty; Johnson further praises the Emperors who "scorn'd to exert their Power in defence of that which they could not support by Argument." By the 1830s, it's not clear that the Emperor has a clue what's going on, because bad news is not allowed to travel upwards. Chinese policy is still not cruel to the foreigners, rather tries to rule like stern loving parents, first frightening and then soothing their clients. Bumptious post-Napoleon England got angry and then pushy in reaction: "They would rather fight for a bad reason than bow before the attempted intimidation of a people for whom they had come to have nothing but an amused contempt."

The only beautiful thing that seems to have come out of the opium trade is the design of the opium clippers, smaller faster sleeker and more profitable than even the tea clippers, the last perfection of sail.

Find in a Library: Foreign Mud, Maurice Collins.

Posted by clew at 12:12 AM

June 13, 2010

Horses of Heaven, Gillian Bradshaw

Like most of Bradshaw's protagonists, the heroine starts this novel more than half defeated; in her case, by being a princess of a wealthy land married to a king. She wants to be a world-renouncing Buddhist instead, not tied into 'the burning house' that is the world. Then things happen to make her life more difficult in a traditional storyish way; wars and diplomacy and a love triangle. I'm not sure the ending can be justified internally, given that it's a novel in which theology is true; a profoundly syncretic theology, as should be right on the Silk Road.

I did like it as a psychological study of a bad arranged marriage -- like A Winter's Tale. It also attacks the question of why Central Asia seems to have kept so little from Hellenism, even though we know Greek cities outlasted Alexander by generations. (I thought that was a question posed by Cosma Shalizi, but I can't find it in his notes.)

Find in a Library: Horses of Heaven

Posted by clew at 10:17 PM

For All the Tea in China, Sarah Rose

One Robert Fortune, a naturalist and explorer, went on two illegal trips into China to gather tea cuttings, seeds, and workers so that the East India Company could grow good tea in India and break China's monopoly. This required some subterfuge, although not as much as you'd think, as Fortune hired two servants who knew he was travelling illegally but didn't turn him in. It required more science, mostly the newish Wardian cases -- small greenhouses -- in which plants could survive transport by sail through inimical climes. People had been trying to collect global gardens for hundreds of years, but the Wardian case made it possible.

So the East India Company got stronger, China got even weaker, and cheap tea with milk and sugar powered the army and the manufactures of Great Britain, because boiled water with caffeine in it prevents diseases as well as beer and wine do, but leaves workers more effective. All of these are interesting stories, but I think I've read all the parts about everything but Fortune in better versions elsewhere, and one can read Fortune's memoirs themselves online. This is a smooth enough light summary if you're new to the story, but it's not particularly vivid. The discursive bibliography is interesting.

I was surprised to read that Chinese porcelain was packed to protect the tea shipments, and not the other way around; in a museum of the VOOC, the porcelain is buried in tea in tea-chests, but Rose says it lined the hull and provided some waterproofing.

Find in a library: For all the tea in China

Robert Fortune, Two visits to the tea countries of China and the British tea plantations in the Himalaya, available from the UHongKong libraries.

Posted by clew at 07:45 PM
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