Friday, December 02, 2016

Five marriages

     Phyllis Rose. Parallel Lives (1983) Rose describes five Victorian marriage. Her aim is to understand how the Western ideal of marriage, which crystallised in the 19th century, worked out in practice. Her subjects are writers, not because they are a privileged class, but because a) writers leave more complete records of their thoughts and feelings; and b) they tend to be outliers, and so more aware of how conventions and ideals constrain life.
     Three of the marriages were sexless: Ruskin’s because he was disgusted with his wife’s body (he apparently expected her to look like a Greek statue); the Carlyles, because neither was much interested in sex; and John Stuart and Harriet Mill, because Harriet didn’t like sex, and Mill didn’t want to impose himself on her. Dickens was a highly sexed man, and after getting a dozen or so children on Catherine, became attracted to a much younger woman, whereupon he constructed a narrative that made him the victim of a dull and boring union. George Eliot (Mary Evans) and Henry Lewes weren’t legally married at all, yet Rose believes they came closest to the ideal of a union of equals, enjoying each other’s company, working together, talking a lot, and having good sex.
     A very interesting book. Rose examines marriage at a time when the focus changed from a social and commercial contract to a personal relationship. Mill, among others, argued strongly for this view, seeing the older version as imposing severe legal and personal burdens on women. Carlyle opposed it. Dickens celebrated it in the scenes of domestic bliss in his novels. Ruskin expected his wife to serve his genius as his parents and he thought he deserved; his marriage broke up quickly. Eliot and Lewes spent their life together thoroughly enjoying each other.
     Rose doesn’t examine how and why the concepts of marriage changed. Her narratives focus on the effects of the new ideals on these ten people. She believes that heterosexual marriage can be a good thing. She believes it’s good to disentangle marriage from the legalities that burden the partners with unequal powers and obligations. She defends what she knows will be seen as an extended gossip, because gossip is the only way in which we can get a general grasp of a community’s beliefs and values. Gossip not only enforces these values, but also raises the issues that change them.
     The result is a book that fascinates. I pitied and admired these people, who all except Ruskin worked hard to make good lives for themselves and each other. Even the Eliot-Lewes union, which was such a happy one, was encumbered with Lewes’ continued support for his wife and children. We can see how our current notion of marriage as a supremely personal relationship not only has made divorce mandatory when that relationship breaks, but has also made same-sex marriage inevitable. For if the essence of marriage is freely assumed obligations and rights, than any arrangement in which people adopt them is a marriage.
     The book also confirmed a couple of impressions I’ve had from reading Victorian literature. I don’t like Ruskin, I think his aesthetics nonsensical. He did not understand art as the product of imagination, he thought it was entirely about feelings in response to "nature", condemning art he could not understand, and writing bosh to justify his opinions. I didn’t like Carlyle’s hero worship, which entails contempt for ordinary people. His break with Mill (Carlyle didn’t believe in the equality of women) confirmed what I saw as self-satisfied pomposity. He had a strong intellect, but a limited imagination.
     Rose prompts questions. Why did the concept of marriage change as it did? Dickens’ promotion of domestic, familial bliss did not create that ideal: Dickens was a genius at expressing the as yet unarticulated ideas and ideals of his time. Mill’s writings about politics (guided by Harriet) affected the legalities surrounding marriage. But argument for legal changes won’t be accepted if it’s too far ahead of already occurring shifts in people’s thinking and feeling. Roses’ book is a wonderfully insightful and insight-prompting book, worth reading as much for the questions it poses as the ones it answers. ****

Another Lam and Cool caper

      A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner). Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967) Donald Lam and Bertha Cool agree to investigate a want ad asking for witnesses to an accident. Turns out it’s part of an elaborate plan to find a patsy for a murder. The usual mix of pretty girls as occasions for Lam’s chivalry, evil but respectable seeming perps, greed, subterfuges, and tetchy relations with the cops, etc, makes for an easy, entertaining read. The solution to the puzzle will occur to the reader before Lam explains it to Bertha. **½

Saturday, November 19, 2016

It's not about the cats

     Rebecca M. Hale. How to Wash a Cat (2008) Somebody should have edited this book. The author apparently used a thesaurus. Bad idea: If you don’t already know how to use a word, the thesaurus’s “synonyms” designation will mislead you. Hale apparently also wanted to create a complete first-person experience for the reader, for there are unnecessary adverbs and adjectives everywhere. The result is dilatory narration and irritating weirdness.
     The story begins with the death of the narrator’s uncle Oscar, a supposedly-lovable grump with a fixation on San Francisco Gold Rush history. The narrator inherits his antique store, and a historical puzzle. The mcguffin is a potion that mimics death, with possible therapeutic value; and a cache of diamonds. Many people want one or both. The narrator figures it out, trailing well behind the reader. Tunnels, veiled warnings, mysteriously unexplained help from strangers, etc, add melodrama. Hale (unfairly) IMO withholds information about some of the characters, the denouement contains a couple of surprises as well as solutions. Two cats wander around the story and the antique store.
     There’s a decent book inside this over-wrought mess. Trimming away about a third of the verbiage would have made this so-so book into a very good one. I think Hale self-published (via Green Vase Publishing – a green vase figures in the store-front renovation), and good sales prompted Penguin to buy the paperback rights. The book was a best-seller, I think because of the cats. It’s the first of a four book series; I trust that Hale had editors for the other three books. *½

Sunday, November 13, 2016

the Ant and the Grasshopper

In  When Republicans Take Power (Nov. 12, 2016),  Geoffrey Kabaservice writes:

“Mr. Trump will not be able to bring back the manufacturing jobs he promised, but he could put his supporters to work building roads and bridges instead.”

The notion that building roads and bridges will provide a nice large employment boost is a common misconception. Anyone who’s watched how roads and bridges are built these days knows that there are more machines and fewer people. Even the flagmen and -women who control traffic through a road-construction zone are being replaced by traffic lights powered by solar panels.

Sure, we need to repair roads and bridges, and some increases in employment will be a nice side-effect. But manual labour of all kinds has been and is continuing to be replaced by machines, machines that are increasingly intelligent, able to perform more and more complicated tasks.

What’s more, computers are replacing the professions. White-collar jobs are fading away just as blue-collar jobs did, and for the same reason: Our profit-focused economic theory and business model sees people as a cost, and so seeks to eliminate them.

The malaise of our highly technologised economy is that it produces more than we can consume, yet we operate it on the same assumptions of scarcity that worked for our ancestors, assumptions which make production morally superior to consumption. Worse, too many players of the economic game believe that accumulating stuff is what it’s all about. “He who dies with the most toys wins” is taken at face value by a surprising number of people, if we take their behaviour as evidence of what values drive their choices.

But as older people will tell you, when you’re faced with getting rid of the stuff accumulated over a lifetime, you realise what a mug’s game that was. Nobody wants the stuff that you piled up. It’s obsolete, it has at most sentimental value, but even your children want only a few pieces.

We praise the ant, not the grasshopper. We haven’t noticed that the ant is now a machine directed by a microchip.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Poison at a Party

     Rex Stout. Champagne for One (1958) A friend has asked Archie to sub for him at an annual dinner for unwed mothers, instituted by the late Mr Grantham in conjunction with his founding of a home for them. A poisoned glass of champagne kills one of the girls, Archie immediately sees that it must have been murder, but everyone else thinks it’s suicide. But since Archie repeated his claim to the police, Cramer and Stubbins must investigate it as murder. Wolfe of course wants to figure it out. The murderer and other people interfere in the investigation.
     A nicely done PI story, with Archie in fine form as investigator, and Stout giving him and Wolfe carefully considered lines about the legalities of doing and not doing what others ask them to do. I like these tales not only because of the plots, but also because of the characters. Stout is very good at dropping hints; Archie’s dry wit gives us the angle that reveals character. The ambience is very 1950s. These 60-year-old novels have become historical fiction for us. And of course nostalgia machines for those of us who were alive back then. ***

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Six Puzzles for Nero Wolfe

     Rex Stout. Triple Jeopardy (1952) & Three at Wolfe’s Door (1960) 6 novellas, nicely plotted, with the usual rather nasty motives of twisted love and money. Archie Goodwin makes a good narrator, he’s not too full of himself, he has a dry sense of humour and, like Wolfe, a strong moral compass. His wide circle of friends, acquaintances and cops helps him produce the clues that Wolf needs.
     Here, the murders involve arsenic at a special gourmet dinner (cooked by Fritz), a dead body in a taxi (driven to Wolfe’s door), a lasso doubling as a hangman’s noose, a poison-spiked vitamin pill, a newspaper apparently read by no one, and a knife in the back (observed by a pet monkey). Great entertainment for any Nero Wolfe fan, and pretty good for anyone who likes a gently witty send-up of the hard-nosed PI genre.
     Stout’s books are occasionally re-issued, but can also be found in better 2nd-hand book stores. There’s an on-line fan club: ***

Friday, October 21, 2016

Three lads on a quest

     The Quest (2002) [D: D. Jason. David Jason,  Hewell Bennett, Roy Hudd] Coming of age story shown as a flashback beginning when Charlie rear-ends Dave at a stop light. He invites Dave to his retirement party, a at which Ronno, the third of the “three musketeers” also shows up. This sets off a round of reminiscences of their trip up north to the Lake District on motorbikes, in search of girls. It’s Charlie, the shy, soft-spoken one, who gets a girl, or rather, she gets him, but she rejects him later when he persuades the other two to go to Blackpool where she lives. A nicely done study of horny adolescent males. The girls are of course much wiser, and know perfectly well how to handle the lads. The movie ends with the men leaving a pub and agreeing to get together again.
     Part two begins with Charlie receiving a phone call from Sondra, an old flame. He’s on a ladder fixing the roof, and falls. When Dave and Ronno visit him in the hospital, we see the flash back to the lads’ trip to the Isle of Man, this time to ride the TTC course. But Charlie really wants to find Sondra, whose mother has other plans for her daughter and has forbidden the romance. This movie is much piecier than the first one, there’s no solid central narrative line, things just happen. Charlie of course discovers that Sondra isn’t really interested in him, in fact she’s a little tart, but a nice beauty pageant contestant takes an interest in him, etc. When that episode falls apart, three older women pick up the boys, but the desired rendezvous is kiboshed by the landlady of the B&B at which the women are staying. So that’s that.
     There’s a part three, which I don’t have. I recorded these two parts on VHS years ago from TVO. I’m tossing the tapes, but decided to see what was in this one. If you like mildly amusing, nostalgia-inducing movies, you’ll probably like The Quest. It’s resolutely male point of view is unusual. **½

A Stale Raisin

    M. C Beaton. Agatha Raisin and the Curious Curate (2003) A potboiler, written in a flat, unobtrusive style, better plotted than narrated, with cardboardy characters just colourful enough to carry the plot. Even Agatha Raisin fans will find this tale below average. The plot is about the only thing that kept me turning the pages.
The new curate, Rev. Tristan Delon, is too beautiful for words, and a narcissistic charmer who specialises in separating susceptible women from their money. He gets his comeuppance, as does his murderer, who is as nasty a piece of work as Tristan himself. Agatha’s new neighbour, a crime story writer, helps her detect, but the spark is missing, and he leaves the village at the end of the story. Enough twists to keep you guessing, perfunctory updating of various back stories and tying up of loose ends. I think the series is wearing Beaton down. Her forte is comedy and cheerful satire, but there’s not much of that on offer here. *½

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Not really about trains

     Louis L’Amour. North to the Rails (1971) Tom Chantry comes West to buy cattle for his future father-in-law. His father was killed many years ago, after which his mother moved East, and raised him as an anti-gun pacifist. First thing: Tom fights a guy and wins: he’s trained as a boxer. He buys the cattle and starts north with French Williams as his trail boss. But meanie outlaws, just plain mean men, and sneaky thieves of one kind or another interfere. There’s also a cousin of Williams who wants the money; she teams up with two especially nasty types. Tom fights a Kiowa, but doesn’t kill him, and later his father’s history with the Kiowa adds to his winning hand. Anyhow, the tale ends with a gunfight, and great gobs of poetic justice.
     Not L’Amour’s best work, but a well crafted entertainment that any fan of Westerns will like. Chantry drives his herd to the railhead, which has moved further west, which will improve his profits **½