Light Reading

I just found this treasure at a local used bookstore: The Petroleum Dictionary, by Lalia Phipps Boone.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.  

The Last BarrelWell, the heyday of Texas-Oklahoma well drilling is over, although you can still drive by and find those workhorse pumps attempting to get that last drop out of the oil sands below the prairie.  Mature oil fields: but back in the day, the oil patch developed its own Americanized language, which took from the world of cowboys and machinists, and then gave the language back again.  It is a language of common sense, sweat, and romance: people in love with their jobs and the way of life it represented.  And you’d have to be in love with it: it was loud, dangerous, and dirty work, in every sense of the word.

One tradition that I think derives from cowboys is the contempt for farmers: farmer’s oil, for instance, is ‘a worthless black substance resembling oil that comes from blue shale’ and farmer’s sand, is “the productive sand which allegedly would have been reached if a dry hole had been drilled further.  No doubt those farmers contemplating oil leases would have preferred those Texas oilmen to drill all the way to China.  Heck, I think today that all of the U.S. would be inclined to agree with the farmers, given that 20/20 hindsight. 

Miss Rita of BeaumontGusherMs. Lalia even mentions one pimp and two madams in her book: the gentleman is named Ben Hogan of Pennsylvania, the “Wickedest Man in the World”; the ladies, “French Kate” (of course, French) but also “Lizzie Toppling”.  So you can just imagine what she left out–in particular, the madams of Texas and Oklahoma.  I wonder who the wickedest man in Texas was?

However, you can find other sources:  for instance, this deathless oil painting decorated the Dixie Hotel in Beaumont–an establishment run by Miss Rita of Beaumont, as a matter of fact.  The painting is by Aaron Arion, and combines the 1880’s with a small nod to the flatness and vistas of Depression era muralists such as Tom Lea and Thomas Hart Benton: Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher

We don’t allow this kind of thing these days: gushers, I mean.  Once the sign of success, we have now decided that it Wastes the Product.  We don’t allow human trafficking either, but somehow that’s been harder to change with advanced technology.

Here are some excerpts from the Foreword:

To spud in, which originally meant to indicate initial drilling operations, has undergone extension to designate the beginning of any activity.  If one is starting a meal, a job, a game, or a drink, he is spudding in.

Now you also have to think that this term was a joke about planting potatoes at one point.  Sort of a way to contrast the Drill and the Shovel in the scale of human enterprise.

The nouns roustabout and bird dog have also undergone generalization.  Originally roustabout was the name applied to the laborer who assisted in the loading and unloading of river craft in the United States.  In the oil field the term is applied to several different kinds of workers.  . . .   In drilling, he may be either an unskilled laborer or a skilled one.   . . .   Needless to say, he aspires to be a tool dresser or a roughneck.  The activity of any roustabout is roustabouting.

A bird dog is a field geologist: the person who can smell out the oil and point those roughnecks in the right direction.  Nowadays, we use technology. 

What I’d love to hear, from others: what’s the slang in other languages and other states?

Fiction about the American Oil Patch:
♦ Honor at Daybreak a Western by Elmer Kelton, about Central Texas, the spudding of wells, the fights, and the human trafficking during the not-so-great Depression
♦ Mean Spirit, by Linda Hogan, about oil, fraud, and the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, set in the Harding Years of the U.S.


Vintage Cover, Ugly AmericanThe best book on effective diplomacy ever.  The best book on how to read a report promugated by a government agency, a politician, or a newspaper.  The best book on why it is important to be culturally and historically aware.  Et cetera:

Is a work of fiction.

William J. Lederer’s and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American is an easy, entertaining, fast read–and a frame story, where each chapter can be read alone and picked up later.  This novel details the fortunes of U.S. diplomats in a exemplar state, “Sarkhan”, in Southeast Asia.  The novel looks in at the embassy, the battlefield, and in reconstruction and Track II diplomacy.  “Track II” is where non-diplomats interact with the people of a host state–agricultural experts, for instance. 

When this book came out in 1958, it created an instant dialogue and outcry for a new diplomacy from the U.S.   President Kennedy used the ideas from this book to develop the Peace Corps. 

Once read, it makes a non-foreign service public almost instantly literate in foreign affairs.  One thing to note: the word “ugly” covers a lot of ground, starting with an overweight & oily political appointee as diplomat to Sarkhan and ending with an engineer who’s physically unattractive but a man of techniques and skills.

Anyway, below the jump, there’s one phrase per chapter showing the lessons given in the book.  The main thing is to read it, laugh, weep, and get mad–and let it get you thinking. (more…)

Guaranteed not to be a regular feature, the quote of the day:  but here’s a nice one.  I have no idea where it comes from.

There was a time when the seas seemed endless and the sky vast enough to swallow any of the mistakes and errors of man.  The world used to be big and men could afford to be small.  Now the world is small and men must be big. 
                                                               –Elliot Richardson.

From time to time, I go back to Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s A Woman of Independent Means (1978, still in print) for a spine stiffening, resolution-building experience.  This epistolary novel is a character study of Elizabeth Alcott Steed, born in 1889 and dying in 1973.  The letters are completely one-sided, with only the correspondence of its heroine recorded.  Yet there is plenty of food for thought on both sides of the envelope, as you sympathize with Mrs. Steed at one letter, and with the letter’s recipient in the next.  Overall, the book describes the absolute best that a woman could achieve during the era in which she lived–because Elizabeth Steed made the most of every opportunity.

This is a woman who was liberated by confidence and money to embark upon a life rich with experience: learning and travel, children and friends.  Her self-centeredness (muted occasionally with some near-servile social-climbing) is admirable as the source of her adventurous spirit.  It is also appalling in its sometimes insensitivity, and, since this vanity is not aimed at the reader, frequently funny.  Often conflating her own self-interest with the interest of others, she is often the agent of a better destiny and sometimes its barrier. 

Terborch, Woman Writing Letter, 1655After marrying her childhood sweetheart, she pitchforks him into business with a loan, and not a gift: it turns out that this prod to the love of her life was a success and the making of him, and she continues to prod everyone in her life to achieve equal success on the terms she has decided best for them.  At the end of World War II, for instance, she writes her son to tell him acidly that things have changed in his absence, and his dictatorial ways toward his wife’s use of the car will have to change–given that his wife has been driving Red Cross supply trucks for the duration.  Her daughter receives two telegrams while at Princeton: the first asks, “shall I send your blue chiffon for the spring dance”; the second informs her “that black velvet is inappropriate and the chiffon is coming”. 

As in real life, the comic and irritating come with the grave and profound.  Letters also detail the loss of her first husband to the 1919 world flu pandemic, the near-bankruptcy of his life insurance agency through lost leadership and increased number of influenza claims.  At this juncture, Mrs. Steed is a heroine, unable to let the company founder because it is her late husband’s legacy of work; because she empathizes with other widows in her same straits; and because she is willing to undertake absolute financial responsibility for the company.  This ability to take control shows in her ruthless management of her German housemaid’s life at the same time: a woman to admire, certainly, but perhaps not to live with comfortably.  The next year she loses her eldest son.  We are left in no doubt that these cause suffering for her, and yet she continues to live life as fully, and as literately, as possible. 

Through the entire novel, one is struck by what is admirable next to its converse quality: in Bess Stead’s life, and in the society in which she lived; in the opportunities that families give and withhold to one another, because each person cannot fail but to be themselves; and above all, a kind of blessing upon embracing one’s limitations and faults as well as one’s virtues in order to have a life well lived.  The last letter of the book we understand as Mrs. Steed’s last letter: in disjointed phrases, she indicates her happiness with her new great-granddaughter and writes:  “Not to be afraid [is] all you have to teach.” 

This book is based upon, but not limited to, the life of Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s own grandmother.  What a wonderful read it is!  It is a lighthearted way to understand American aristocracy, particularly that outside of New England; a cultural commentary on life in the United States in the twentieth century; a primer for understanding the motivations and experiences of the wealthy but not famous; and, for any income bracket, what it means to live life on one’s own terms.

This week I review two books by Robert Heinlein:  a short-story collection, The Man Who Sold the Moon (New York: Signet/New American Library, 1951) and a full-length novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (New York: Tor/Tom Doherty & Associates, 1966).  All of the stories concern aspects of political economy: in one tale, inventions, alternate energy, cartels;  in another, transportation networks, unions, and security; insurance, and dangerous technology.  The role of a military or military-like cadre appears to be, in these stories, necessary to keep his invented transportation system running (not to mention the nuclear pile).  Therefore these stories aren’t all models of libertarianism, but the main story is at least about the triumph of an enlightened but somewhat stained capitalism.

Magazine Cover, 1952The centerpiece of the short story collection is indeed one novella and one afterpiece about Delos D. Harriman, a visionary, dreamer, chiseler, and scalawag: or, a Captain of Industry, the man who indeed sold the moon.  In Harriman’s tale, we are allowed to consider the development of space exploration, particularly the settlement of the moon, by private sources rather than government agencies.  Since a novella is only 100 pages, you can bet that private enterprise is a heck of a lot more efficient than NASA; but that’s not so much the point as the methods and character it takes to build great enterprise.

D.D. Harriman has a thwarted dream and a consuming passion; in a more meritocratic world, he would have been able to go to engineering school.  Instead, he bootstraps his way through business without B-school creds, with a combination of great ideas and unbridled confidence.  Once he obtains a critical mass of money and connections, he sets his firm to work on his dream: going to the moon.  The re rest of the novella details the way he manages to finesse the political and financial barriers in order to get there. 

He purchases, for nominal funds, the rights of states under the moon’s orbit; he flimflams the diamond consortium into believing that the moon will hold many diamonds, and then extorts money from the cartel in order to withhold that supply; he sells product advertising rights to the moon, and then sells the concept of not using them: essentially gaining millions for nothing.  Last but not least, he runs interference for his “talent” so that bureaucracy functions as the servant of R & D, not the other way around.  And in the end, the moon becomes a thriving colony with regular trading routes to earth.   

I consider The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be Heinlein’s true masterpiece.  The moon has become an international prison colony for a Malthusian-beset Earth, and the real ethnic melting pot of mankind.   The Lunatic Rebellion (“Free Luna!”) follows closely the events of the American indepencence, only with a combination of  an anarchist Argentinian, Chinese businessmen, one stacked blonde revolutionary (this is Heinlein, after all–many of his heroines are genius-IQ Betty Grables), a French nobleman and the pragmatic and anti-government black-Russian-engineer amputee as founding fathers. 

Like D.D. above, these criminals/revolutionaries steal, evade, use public relations, and judicious applications of force to obtain their ends.  Along the way, you get to ponder on the ways that economic development, etiquette, and social institutions like marriage rise up as responses to environment–and a look at a weary police state.  In the end, the narrator, Manuel, notes that freedom and democracy can also be manipulated–and that democratic freedom often becomes little more than the freedom to tell others what to do.

Both are definitely worth your time.  

And as Mannie would say: Tanstaafl! (no such thing as a free lunch).

What I read this week to no externally worthwhile purpose: romantic plots, herein reviewed with Men’s Fashion Notes.  That way, maybe both sexes will enjoy this post.  I kind of doubt it though. 

French, 1720'sTwo romance novels, both by Mary Balogh:  Thief of Dreams (1998) ; and Heartless (1995), both New York: Jove/Penguin Putnam and I think both out of print. 

Both are set in Georgian period, before the French revolution.  If you were poor, you were constantly taking off your hat to people of greater rank; and if you didn’t have a hat, you tugged your forelock and kept your eyes down.  If you were rich, you had to kiss your papa’s emerald signet ring upon leaving his presence.  Art history teaches that courtiers had to be in constant “pose” or “attitude”: to show a graceful curve with one’s body and to walk with a mincing step: see above.  At any rate, it is great fun and a kind of culture-bending experience to read about men who wear lace, makeup, patches, silk brocade, and bows–carry jewelled swords, fans, and enamel snuffboxes–and say things like, “By my life, the roses pale next to your beauty.” Underneath the dandyism, they were predacious barflies and gamblers.  All you have to do for confirmation is read 18th century French novels.  In these novels, however, the underlying character of the hero is not completely given over to dalliance–just enough for entertainment purposes.  And it must have been fun: it took the guillotine to change men into the drab suits they wear today.

Beau Brummel, ca. 1800Beau Brummel set the taste for English fashion to way understated: clean linen, many baths, no ruffles, and an expensive simplicity.  I read two books set in that time period: Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax (1959) and Venetia ( ).  Both of these books are such old friends I don’t even have to start at the beginning any more.  Ms. Heyer is the most wonderful writer: she can plot.  The books are little machines that just keep you riveted from one event to the next, and laughing all the way to the end.  Her characters are all different in personality and language.  Such craft.  After reading them for plotting tips, I realized that its the comic characters that create the situations of plot in many of her books,: runaway children, staggeringly vain ingenues, testy, nerd-like scholars, and empty-headed fops.  But not always: in both Ajax and Venetia, the hero has an outsider’s view of social norms (even though he is conversant in all of them) and they use the humorous perspective to endure absurdities of daily life.  Yet Hugo Darracott in Ajax and Damerel in Venetia are totally different persons.  Hugo uses humor to fool everyone and insinuate himself into the center of control and leadership, while Damerel has used humor to distance himself from anything that would fit him for his inherited milieu.

On the Strut, ca. 1790Likewise, they dress differently.  According to Heyer, there was a signature look from each of the tailors as well: Stultz more ornate, with exaggerated shoulders and nipped waists, beloved by the dandy set; Scott, for military neatness and understated ease (that’s Hugo’s style, and for the best since he is huge) and Weston as the ne plus ultra for the sportsman and rake–simple, but with intense fit and a certain sheen.  I think the guy in red to the left is a Stultz (kind of like Claude in the Unknown Ajax, only Claude hovers somewhere slightly beyond the Stultz idea of propriety–a fop).  Brummel was a Weston, or perhaps Weston’s ideal. In Ajax, Vincent wears Weston, and carries no ornaments save a snuffbox and a quizzing glass.  In Venetia, the hero is Damerel, and I always imagine him as a sloppy, dissolute Weston; but Venetia’s Uncle Hendred is also a Weston–formal and plain, neat, trim, and exuding underlying quality. 

Calvin KleinSkipping forward about 180 years in both fashion and courtship styles, much less writing styles: I read Susan Isaacs’ Any place I hang my hat.  (2004).  NY: Scribner/Simon & Schuster.   Amy is unhampered by corsets but still hampered by family: not for social status, as she has risen above a difficult background to become a physically-fit, attractive, Ivy-League educated New York journalist.  Yet these accomplishments don’t erase the difficulties of growing up without a mother or father, and being raised by an erratic grandmother.  The plight of one minor character in search of family ties spurs her to investigate her own past, and with it, her emotional distance from others.   This book is clearly Amy’s, and I love her and the language she speaks: but John stands as the emotional standard.  He’s no doormat, either: he has a reality-based emotional health that can call it quits when it’s not working out.   The new hero is without a valet: he goes to the gym instead.  John wears t-shirts instead of neckcloths.  But he’s a hero all the same. 

I recommend them all–your beach reads for the week.

Grace Livingston Hill (1865-1947) wrote Christian Romances from approximately 1887 through 1949.  (Okay, after 1947, she had a little help).  I can’t say I’ve read them all, but I’ve read a good many.  They fit right in with today’s prosperity Christianity, and I get a cynic’s guilty thrill out of all of them.  The three below capture some of her ideas on surviving the Great Depression with gentility.  

 April gold (1936).  At the death of the breadwinner in the backdrop of the Depression, the son and daughter each find jobs, fall in love with well-off people, enjoy wholesome meals, do a little gardening, and begin a Ministry in the abandoned factory side of town.  Pretty much defines heart-warming.

The gold shoe (1930).  Three virtues of a young girl: she knows how to pack her clothes in a suitcase; she gives photos of herself at Christmas; she falls in love with a minister who has a shoe fetish.

Book Jacket

Mystery flowers (1936).  Diana Disston’s father marries Helen, a woman who more properly belongs in hard-boiled crime fiction.  The betrayal of her mother’s memory propels the “winsome-faced” girl into a waitress job, an attic apartment, crackers for dinner, and Bible study.  Evil is adequately rewarded by the death of stepmother on yacht; love comes with the anonymous delivery of white carnations; the goodness of Scots blood in America, particularly among the servant class, is extolled.

I find Mystery Flowers especially problematic for its renderings of good, evil, and mercy, rewards here on earth going to the virtuous, oh, and the gender relations described by that pat-on-the-head when Diana faces a more advanced moral dilemma.  Here’s the specific excerpt:

That evening she talked [Helen’s death] over with Gordon [her virtuous intended].

“Didn’t I tell you that God would work it out in His own way?” he said gently.

“Yes, work it out,” said Diana, thoughtfully, sadly.  “He’s worked it out for us of course, and made the way easy for Father and me.  But I’ve been thinking about Helen.  Gordon, I never thought about people that way before, until after I was saved.  But I keep thinking that Jesus died to save Helen as much as He did to save me.  God loved Helen, and sent His Son to die in her place, too, and I’m quite sure she never thought anything about it.  I’m quite sure she wasn’t saved.  Gordon, I keep thinking that I did wrong to go away.  I should have stayed here even though it was hard.   . . .   But now I’m practically sure she must be lost.  And I can’t think of her laughing to God! I don’t think she laughed when the boat went down!  I know she was frightened!  Poor Helen!”

 (. . . .) “I know, little girl,” he said, “but you can’t tell what may have happened between her soul and God at the last minute, even in the twinkling of an eye.”  (etc).

Even a few of the Christian book reviewers find her work just a little overdrawn: teaching too much about evil and with Christian heroes that are altogether too handsome.  I guess we just can’t work those miracles in real life.

Ms. Hill has her own Web site, put together by a fan.  And I’m a fan of sorts: I just enjoy viewing that certitude from the outside.

Photo:–dustcovers for vintage books. . . .

Just in the last week: it gets better as you go along:

Not recommended:
This week I broke down and read a used People Magazine about the Nursery of the Stars: Brad and Angelina Pitt-Jolie, or whatever they style themselves.  I predict in 20 to 30 years a rash of tell-alls from the kids:  Bradley Dearest, perhaps?  Although he doesn’t look like the whack job in that relationship.  I don’t know for sure; I don’t want to know, either.

I read The Jane Austen Book Club, insofar as I was able.  Just way too many good-hearted neurotic women in it–and only one dilute-personality man to balance it out.  If I want to read a book where men don’t have any impact, I will just re-read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. 

In much the same manner, I read Greg Iles’ The Footprints of God.  This book mixed politics, suspense, a poor understanding of physics, a poor understanding of law enforcement, testyria (that would be the male equivalent of hysteria) the life of Jesus and New Age religion–an unusual mixture.  However, the next time I want to read about an educated and accomplished female supporting character that acts like a doormat, I will just pick up a Tom Clancy.

Good reads:
At last, a balance between the sexes: I read Angels Fall by Nora Roberts.  Both the hero and heroine have a nice anti-romantic romance going, and seem like real people.  Heroine Reece is trying to rebuild a life after traumatic events; anti-hero Brody doesn’t put up with anything traumatic.  There’s only two bad things: first, the villain’s character was perhaps not emphasized/foreshadowed adequately.  Second, the use of the word “fist” over and over did not work very well, seeing as how it is a stock metaphor for Ms. Roberts as well as part of the name of the town.  I’ll re-read it, I’m sure, but I wish Ms. Roberts had listened to her editor and named the town Angel Falls instead of Angel’s Fist.

I re-read for perhaps the 56th time Joan Wolf’s Lord Richard’s Daughter, which is a Signet Regency Romance about two aristocrats with unconventional, dysfunctional upbringings and a taste for adventure. I love Joan Wolf ‘s Signets because she is understated, calm, and presents daring moral dilemmas.  In one of my favorites of hers, the hero kills off the heroine’s husband and marries her the next week–and it just seems inevitable and right.  These more daring J. Wolf Signets are all out of print.  You’ll have to go to, say, ABE books to get your shabby copy.

Recommended in particular
Then in the literature/mainstream fiction category, I read Ken Haruf’s wonderful novel,  Plainsong.  The title refers to the terrain of Eastern Colorado as well as the life there, the way of speaking–and the elegaic clarity of the prose.  Eight main characters tell the story of a town and way of life that will seem almost foreign to urban dwellers.  The wide-open setting helps show the effort that people must make in order to connect with each other; where they forgive; and where they draw the line.  This alone would take it from the prairie to the universal landscape, but there is much more.  This is the one you should pick up for the weekend.