Volume 42 Number 06

November 7 – November 13, 2007

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Green City: The bay-delta connection


› sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Until recently, politicians and the public tended to view the problems facing the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta levees as separate from the problems facing the San Francisco Bay. But now that human-made distinction is beginning to blur as scientists predict that rising sea levels and levee failures could have profound consequences for both ecosystems.

As wetlands scientist Philip Williams explained at the State of the Estuary Conference in Oakland last month, if the levees fail, a hole will open that will cause the northern area where the bay meets the delta (roughly from Richmond to Antioch) to fill with salt water and deepen, thereby eroding the delta’s valuable tidal marsh habitat.

This doomsday scenario has environmentalists clamoring for an increase in tidal marsh restoration efforts in the southernmost stretches of the bay, which are already home to the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project and a broader US Army Corps of Engineers effort to build levees and restore marshlands to protect property from flooding.

As Dr. Letitia Grenier of the San Francisco Estuary Institute said at the SOE conference, people aren’t the only ones who need habitat protection. The mosquito-eating Yuma bat, the California clapper rail, the least tern, and the chinook salmon are just a few of the many species that live around, fly across, or swim through the bay and the delta, and their survival depends on a mosaic of interconnected habitats.

Yet no agency has the clear authority to require that marshland marsh be restored, levees built, development prevented, and greenhouse gas emissions reduced.

In a recent report for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, executive director Will Travis notes that while the BCDC, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and the Association of Bay Area Governments are working together as part of a Joint Policy Committee, "none of the four agencies has the authority to prohibit development in flood-prone areas [or] require that levees be constructed to protect low-lying areas, and BAAQMD does not have the authority to regulate emissions from vehicles."

Pointing out that the BCDC was created in 1965 to regulate bay fill and thus prevent the bay from becoming smaller, Travis writes that his agency "is neither legally responsible for dealing with this dramatic change of conditions that is making the Bay larger, nor does BCDC have any explicit legal authority to address this problem."

That said, in an Oct. 29 report posted on the BCDC’s Web site, Travis announced that his agency "has taken the initiative to formulate a broad outline of a comprehensive strategy for addressing climate change in the Bay region and identified changes that are needed in state law so that BCDC can play a productive role in implementing such a strategy."

This strategy includes mapping flood-prone areas, ceasing planned developments in such areas, identifying property that requires protection, and identifying areas that should be allowed to revert to tidal marsh and other types of natural habitat.

"Another probable impact of climate change is that more precipitation in the Sierra Nevada will fall as rain rather than snow, and the snow pack will melt earlier in the spring," Travis writes. This will in turn reduce the amount of late spring and summer runoff into the delta, allowing salt water to extend farther into the delta than it does now.

Travis predicts that sea level rise and higher flood flows resulting from climate change, as well as earthquake risk, will also increase the probability of catastrophic levee failure. Travis also notes that "pulling existing development back from the Bay shoreline and foregoing planned development of low-lying areas can provide an opportunity to expand the restoration of tidal wetlands."

To address these challenges, the BCDC is proposing an eight-year work program with the goal of achieving environmental accountability. "Any proposed new development within the area likely to be inundated by sea level rise should be required to obtain approval both from the local government and from BCDC."

But first, the BCDC or a new regional agency will need state legislation giving it that authority — and public recognition that seriously dealing with climate change means accepting some new regulation of private property.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Feinstein’s torture cave-in


EDITORIAL Sen. John McCain — the right-wing Republican who is the only member of Congress to have been subjected to torture — has the right line on the technique that has the unfortunately innocent-sounding name of waterboarding. It’s not a complicated issue, McCain says; it’s "a horrible torture technique." McCain asks, "How can we condone this sort of stuff?"

Well, the George W. Bush administration’s candidate for attorney general seems to disagree — and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is backing him up. Michael Mukasey hedged and ducked when the Senate Judiciary Committee asked him if he thought tying someone to a board and pouring water over them to simulate drowning was an acceptable and legal practice. He insisted in testimony that he didn’t have access to the specific details of what is being done to prisoners and said that "hypotheticals are different from real life, and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical."

We acknowledge that, as Feinstein wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece Nov. 3, Mukasey is probably the best nominee that Bush is going to put forward. He’s probably better than Alberto Gonzalez. And if the Senate turns him down, Bush will simply fill the nation’s top law enforcement post with an acting AG who won’t need congressional confirmation, won’t do much to solve the paralyzing morale problems in the Justice Department, and will likely be more blindly loyal to the president than Mukasey.

But the Bush administration is winding to a close, and the damage that’s been done to the Justice Department won’t be repaired until a new president takes office. The administration’s treatment of prisoners is not only a huge problem but also symbolic of everything wrong about the way Bush and his allies view foreign policy, the Constitution, and congressional oversight. So the Senate ought to be willing to take a stand on this one and simply say that any nominee for attorney general who isn’t willing to be clear about opposing torture won’t be confirmed.

Feinstein has been awfully friendly to Bush of late; after riding Air Force One to Southern California to view the fire damage, she practically gushed about what a good person the president is. That’s not what the people who elected her expect.

Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern. Feinstein has not only voted poorly on the war but also refused to block some of Bush’s worst judicial nominees. If she can’t stand up to this administration, she shouldn’t be on the Judiciary Committee. She’s going to be around for another five years, and there’s no procedure to recall a United States senator, but her constituents can let her know, loudly, that her latest cave-in is unacceptable. There’s an e-mail link on her Web site, Feinstein.senate.gov; the message doesn’t have to be long or complex. "I vote against torture" will do just fine. *

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

I’ve been talking to the folks at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association about housing. It’s been an interesting conversation — SPUR has been known largely as an advocate for downtown development and rarely as a beacon of progressive wisdom.

But these days there are people on staff who really care about urban issues, and they aren’t always wrong. So when Dave Snyder, SPUR’s transportation person, who was formerly the director of the SF Bicycle Coalition, phoned and asked me to come by and discuss the Guardian‘s call for a new housing policy, I was happy to pay a visit.

And after talking to SPUR’s executive director, Gabriel Metcalf, and policy director, Sarah Karlinsky, I realized that we agree on a basic frame of reference.

San Francisco is in a state of crisis that threatens the future of the city. Housing isn’t just another policy issue to debate; it’s the central factor shaping the future of the city. If we do nothing — in fact, if we go along as we have been doing, building a few thousand units of market-rate housing and some affordable units on the side — we’re heading for disaster. This will become a city where only rich people can live, where a few working-class and poor folks are tolerated but the majority sentiment favors the very wealthy. It will be a city unlike the one so many of us love. The politics will be much more financially conservative. Social liberals like Gavin Newsom will be fine, but anyone who dares talk about business paying for health care or taxes supporting social programs will be irrelevant to electoral politics. As Calvin Welch likes to say, who lives here votes here.

The SPUR board has a lot of downtown types and developers, and some of them probably think it would be a fine thing if San Francisco became a city of wealthier homeowners. I don’t think the staff are of the same view. Snyder, Metcalf, Karlinsky, and I all agree: what’s happening now is simply unacceptable.

We part, sharply, when we talk about solutions. Metcalf argues that building lots and lots of housing, of all kinds — tens of thousands of units a year, bringing San Francisco to the density of Paris — will eventually bring down costs and make the city affordable again. And failing to build enough market-rate housing will just put more pressure on the existing housing stock, driving up prices even more.

That position requires a certain faith in marketbased solutions, and I’ve always argued that the economics of San Francisco housing are too unusual for traditional thinking. Luxury condos in this city are like jails and freeways: you build them, they fill up, and the problem you set out to solve is still there. The new housing downtown isn’t keeping down prices (or demand) in the neighborhoods; it’s creating its own new demand.

When I suggested that we stop building new housing for the rich until we have, say, 40,000 new units for low-income and middle-class San Franciscans, Snyder jotted down some figures and told me the price tag for that much affordable housing would be $8 billion. Actually, if some of the housing is put into land trusts and is available for purchase by middle-income people, that number drops a bit, and if you leverage state and federal money, the amount San Francisco has to raise drops again, maybe to $2 billion or so. Still, it’s a very big number.

And it’s a very big problem. And in one sense, if we don’t solve it, nothing else really matters.

Newsom kills the party


EDITORIAL It was a typical Halloween night this year in New York City: two million people in Greenwich Village, 50,000 participants in a wild costume parade, national media attention … and no real problems. Since 1973, New York has managed to handle a homegrown event that exploded into a tourist attraction in an urban neighborhood. It’s a signature part of the city’s landscape, something world famous that shows the best of the city to the eyes of the world and generates a small fortune in tourist revenue.

Why can’t San Francisco, which by all rights ought to have a claim on Halloween as a national holiday, seem to get it together enough to manage its version of this event? Why was the city’s response simply to give up, to kill the party, to send out so many cops that the Castro was effectively in lockdown? Why spend millions to keep an event from happening while giving up on the small businesses that depend on that night’s revenue?

The scene on Castro Street on Oct. 31 was surreal; at least 500 law enforcement officers kept the barricaded streets blocked off. Anyone who so much as stuck a toe off the sidewalk was harshly reprimanded and pushed back. Local restaurants were shuttered — and the few that tried to stay open faced reprisals. The would-be revelers tried to be festive, but they weren’t given much support. Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sup. Bevan Dufty had effectively cancelled Halloween.

They did so with little public input, operating mostly in secrecy, without revealing any specific plans to anyone in the community. It was a startlingly un–San Franciscan way of doing business, autocratic and mean-spirited. In fact, Newsom’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard, was almost mocking of any community concern; when we asked if the mayor or any of his staff would be holding any press events to discuss Halloween plans or let the community know what was in store, he tersely responded, "Halloween has been cancelled."

Newsom referred to the evening as "an incredible success," and if the goals were to make sure that nobody had any fun, nobody spent any money, and the Castro District was largely dead, it’s hard to argue with his logic.

On the other hand, if you think it ought to be possible for San Francisco to host a big party without creating panic and fear — that Halloween ought to be something to improve on and fix, not utterly shut down and abandon — then Oct. 31 was a civic embarrassment.

In a city where thousands of homeless people still wander the streets, where the price of housing is driving families out of town, where the homicide rate is soaring, the fate of a party is hardly the top issue on anyone’s agenda. And it’s tempting to give up, focus on more important things, and let the city’s tradition of wild Halloween fun just die.

But this is part of a larger trend that’s been happening in this town, and it’s directly related to the gentrification that’s changing the face of San Francisco. We’ve called it "the death of fun" — anything that might make a little noise and bother some well-off neighbor, anything that might create a little mess, anything that’s just a little out of control … the folks in the Newsom administration would just as soon see it go away. These days permits for live music events are tougher to get. Street fairs are facing prohibitive fees and regulations. Dance clubs are being told to quiet down. And we’re getting sick of it.

Next year Halloween will fall on a Friday, and the Castro simply can’t shut down then. Even Dufty admits something different will have to be done, and there’s no shortage of ideas. A Halloween street fair — perhaps with a modest donation asked of anyone not wearing a costume — shouldn’t be impossible to manage. A parade, similar to that of the New York gala’s, could start in the Castro and wind down at Civic Center, thus eliminating the problems that have some neighbors up in arms. But any solution will require extensive community input, and the mayor and Dufty need to set up a legitimate community task force — now, not next summer — to start talking about plans.

Some people suggest that the mayor needs to create an office of special events, which isn’t a bad idea. But he needs to do something else first: say that he’s not dead set against fun.

Finfine Ethiopian Restaurant


PREVIEW There’s only one thing better than a mimosa brunch: a mimosa brunch you get to in time to eat. Which is not what happened when my friend K. and I attended a morning birthday celebration in Berkeley on a recent Sunday morning. Yes, we got there in time to see our friends in their pajamas — and one particularly fabulous pair of car-shaped slippers — although, alas, no matching Underoos. And yes, we got there in time for both mimosas and fantastic Bloody Marys. But we completely missed the breakfast train, as everyone was already full and lazy by the time we got our asses across the bridge.

So when K. and I left the daytime slumber party, we were famished. Enter Finfiné, an Ethiopian restaurant we happened to pass on our rambling path (read: we were lost) back to the freeway. To be fair, we were so hungry that an Egg McMuffin might’ve satisfied us. But Finfiné was so much better than melted cheese product on microwaved eggs. The Ye-Tsom Beyaynetu vegetarian sampler came with six different dishes, including savory collard greens, a spicy red lentil stew, a garlicky green lentil salad, and a chickpea concoction resembling hearty hummus. And the Ye-Doro Tibs proved to be perfectly cooked, high-quality cubed chicken in a spicy, but not overwhelming, sauce.

Plus, the combination platter featured enough food to provide K. and me with nearly two meals apiece. Show me a brunch that does that.

FINFINÉ ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT Mon. and Wed.–Sat., 5–10 p.m.; Sun., noon–10 p.m. 2556 Telegraph, Berk. (510) 883-0167, www.finfine.com

The Guardian Iraq War casualty report (10/30/07)


For a breakdown of the positions that relevant politicians are taking on the war in Iraq, visit the slate.com link below. 36 U.S. soldiers were killed this month, which means at least one U.S. soldier was killed for every day that passed. Click here to view.

Casualties in Iraq

U.S. military:

3 U.S. soldiers were killed today by a roadside bomb, bringing the total of U.S> soldiers killed this month to 36, according to Reuters.

4,113: Killed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq 3/20/03

Source: http://www.icasualties.org/

: Died of self-inflicted wounds, according to http://www.icasualties.org/.

For the Department of Defense statistics go to: http://www.defenselink.mil/

For a more detailed list of U.S. Military killed in the War in Iraq go to: www.cnn.com

To view a breakdown of U.S. military casualties by state of residence, click here.

Iraqi civilians:

654,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.

98,000: Killed since 3/03

Source: www.thelancet.com

75,971– 82,776: Killed since 1/03

Source: http://www.iraqbodycount.net

For a list of recent events that have resulted in Iraqi casualties, visit :

For first hand accounts of the grave situation in Iraq, visit some of these blogs:

Iraq Military:

29 Iraqi policemen were killed by a suicide bomber yesterday, according to the New York Times.

30,000?: Killed since 2003

Source: http://www.infoshout.com


200 journalists have been killed since the start of the war in March 2003 through August 2007, according to Reporters Without Borders.


Read a first hand account of how Iraqis are being treated when attempting to enter Jordan for a vacation.

Border policies are tightening because one million Iraqi refugees have already fled to Jordan and another one million to Syria. Iraqi refugees who manage to make it out of Iraq still can’t work, have difficulty attending school and are not eligible for health care. Many still need to return to Iraq to escape poverty, according to BBC news.

2.2 million:
Iraqis displaced internally

2 million: Iraqis displaced to neighboring states

Incessant violence across much of Iraq’s central and southern regions has forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes every month, presenting the international community with a humanitarian crisis even larger than the upheaval aid agencies had planned for during the 2003 war, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ estimates.

U.S. Military Wounded:

28,171: Wounded from 3/19/03 to 8/31/07

Source: http://www.icasualties.org/

The Guardian cost of Iraq war report (10/30/07): So far, $464 billion for the U.S., $58 billion for California and $1 billion for San Francisco.

Compiled by Paula Connelly

Here is a running total of the cost of the Iraq War to the U.S. taxpayer, provided by the National Priorities Project located in Northampton, Massachusetts. The number is based on Congressional appropriations. Niko Matsakis of Boston, MA and Elias Vlanton of Takoma Park, MD originally created the count in 2003 on costofwar.com. After maintaining it on their own for the first year, they gave it to the National Priorities Project to contribute to their ongoing educational efforts.

To bring the cost of the war home, please note that California has already lost $46 billion and San Francisco has lost $1 billion to the Bush war and his mistakes. In San Francisco alone, the funds used for the war in Iraq could have hired 21,264 additional public school teachers for one year, we could have built 11,048 additional housing units or we could have provided 59,482 students four-year scholarships at public universities. For a further breakdown of the cost of the war to your community, see the NPP website aptly titled “turning data into action.”

For more information on what the war is costing the United States, visit the American Service Friends Committee website here.




By Shalom Auslander

Riverhead Books

320 pages, $24.95

It’s possible that one of the 613 commandments in the Torah is "Thou shall not read Foreskin’s Lament." Which of course means read it. If you’ve got the time, read it twice, once from right to left. You’ll still laugh. It’s that funny.

Shalom Auslander’s memoir of life as a black sheep in a black hat picks up where his first book, the short-story collection Beware of God (Simon and Schuster, 2005), left off, taking a well-hewed ax to the image of the Almighty. But unlike God bashers du jour Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, Auslander believes in the pie maker in the sky. And as his worn punch line goes, it’s been a real problem for him.

It was a problem while he was growing up in the Orthodox community of Monsey, NY, where he developed a penchant for pornography and junk food. It was a problem throughout his teens, as he padded his résumé of sin with lots of pot smoking and shoplifting. And it was even more of a problem, years later, after his wife became pregnant with their first child, a son no less. Having a family aggravated Auslander’s deep-seated religious paranoia. God, the wrathful stalker who smites first and asks questions later, was surely going to murder his family. It would be payback for years of vioutf8g the laws of Judaism. As his second-most-tired punch line goes, that would be so God.

Auslander plays the alienation and theological abuse (his wife’s words, not mine) for laughs, defiling his religious upbringing in ways that will win him friends and enemies in equal measure. But his paranoia — the idea that God will get him and his family — casts some very dark shadows over the book, not so dismal as to ruin a good time, but grave enough to bring the story to its supplicant knees. Still, Foreskin’s Lament is a romp — relentlessly unrepentant and irreverent. Auslander may be a weak man and a bad Jew, tempted by tits and traif, but he’s a better writer for it. Here’s hoping he has enough raw material for future laments over other parts of the body. (Scott Steinberg)


With Steve Almond

SF Jewish BookFest

Sun/4, 12:45–2 p.m., free

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Kanbar Hall

3200 California, SF

(415) 292-1233, www.jccsf.org


Written by Percy Carey; illustrated by Ronald Wimberly


128 pages, $19.99

While reading Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm, Percy Carey’s graphic-memoir debut, it comes in handy to know a bit of the backstory — such as the recent controversy surrounding Carey, a.k.a. MF Grimm, and his former artistic partner MF Doom, onetime tight collaborators who have fallen out publicly through dis tracks. Familiarity with the innovative rapper’s street life–meets–transcendence flows is also a plus. Readers who come to Sentences fresh may be taken aback by Carey’s grittiness and what seems to be an argument that people don’t really change — they either calm down or die.

And yet Sentences, more HBO drama than MTV interview, will get you in the end. As we follow Carey, a gifted rapper but a natural fighter, from a rebellious Upper West Side youth through drug dealing, a paralyzing gunshot attack, and harsh jail time, he never stops believing that hip-hop is the most positive outlet for his particular type of raucous energy. And when he finally makes it — albeit in a wheelchair — starting multimedia label Day by Day Entertainment, we are right there with him.

Ronald Wimberly’s black-and-white artwork calls to mind Paul Chadwick’s careful inkings in Concrete (Dark Horse), with its use of shadows and silhouettes to emphasize emotional relationships. Although Wimberly has worked on fanciful Vertigo titles such as Swamp Thing and Lucifer, Sentences proves he has a knack for human antiheroics. Carey’s wandering storytelling style fits perfectly with the fluid, figurative scenes, which depict an urban reality full of countless ups and downs: watching a friend get set up by the cops; losing at the MC Battle for World Supremacy; standing face-to-face with Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, laying dreams on the table. When Carey presents his journal-style thoughts, the result is weirdly intimate, as when he admits that "in the end, it was my own stupidity that sent me to prison." Carey is usually less gushy, but be prepared: even the shoot-outs are heartfelt. (Ari Messer)


By Brian Bouldrey

Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press

296 pages, $26.95

If narratives are like hikes, best begun in lighthearted whimsy before the climb to bleak summits and bracing vistas both earned and unexpected, then Brian Bouldrey’s narrative of a hike, Honorable Bandit: A Walk across Corsica, could well be a model of its kind. The book recounts a journey by foot that Bouldrey and a friend made a few years ago across the enchanted Mediterranean island (ethnically Italian but politically part of France) where Napoleon was born. And while the tale is full of vivid detail about the expedition’s joys and travails (soaked shoes, crowded tents, sharp rocks, bad weather, wild boar, comically strange fellow travelers, the occasional glass of local wine), it also becomes, through a series of interpolated "why I walk" personal essays, a meditation on its author’s life.

Bouldrey (a former Guardian contributor) spent his young adulthood in the plague-ridden San Francisco of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the loss of a beloved to AIDS plainly still aches. Serious walking, then, is an occasion for remembering and reflecting and also, in its very meanderingness, a form of redemption: we save ourselves simply by making the effort to do so. Although most pilgrimages end up at some holy site, the literary value and interest of any pilgrimage has less to do with the destination than with the getting there, and in this sense Honorable Bandit joins a long line that begins with The Canterbury Tales.

Bouldrey has for some time been among our cheeriest bards of sorrow. As in an earlier collection of essays, Monster: Adventures in American Machismo (Council Oak Books, 2001), he is candid about his griefs and losses without descending into self-pity over them, and his sense of the ridiculous never fails him. He is especially sensitive about his Americanness, to his being "a representative of the prevailing power" in a restive Europe. He doesn’t want to be outed as a Yank, and at the same time he is impatient with his native land and its bizarre Francophobia: "And you Americans," he thinks, "you have only one kind of mustard — and you call it French’s!" Vive les moutards. (Paul Reidinger)


Nov. 13, 7 p.m., free

Get Lost Travel Books

1825 Market, SF

(415) 437-0529, www.getlostbooks.com


By Adrian Tomine

Drawn and Quarterly

112 pages, $19.95

Ben Tanaka, the protagonist of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings, is an ambitionless Berkeley cinema manager who attributes his outsider status not to race but to his being "a nerd with a bad personality and no social skills"; his girlfriend, Miko, is a successful organizer of an Asian American film festival who resents Ben’s attraction to Caucasian women. Every conversation between the two becomes an argument, and Ben sees every argument as a personal attack on him. So it’s with some relief that the two "take a break" while Miko’s in New York, leaving Ben free to pursue a pair of blonds.

But the girls he idealizes turn out to be just as flawed as he is, as revealed by one’s earnest but ridiculous art projects and the other’s passive-aggressive cruelty. Even Miko proves to be a hypocrite, shacking up with a "rice king" designer in Manhattan.

Compiled from the past three issues of Tomine’s Optic Nerve comic, Shortcomings isn’t all heartache and betrayal. There’s subtle comedy in small details like Crepe Expectations, the name of the café where Ben holds venting sessions with his friend Alice, a wisecracking womanizer, as well as moments of outright hilarity, as when Miko’s new white boyfriend (sorry, I mean half Jewish, half Native American) busts out a defensive karate stance when confronted by Ben on the street. And Ben’s recurring tirades about how shitty a place New York is (Tomine recently moved from the Bay Area to Brooklyn) might even be a nod to Woody Allen, the ultimate geek-cum-lothario whose wit, charm, and, above all, ability to laugh at himself are passable currency for his own shortcomings.

The thing is, Ben doesn’t seem to possess these qualities, except perhaps when courting the ladies, and we don’t get to see what he was like before his relationship went sour. So is he a sarcastic but sweet loner in need of understanding, or is he a superficial, insensitive creep who deserves a life of rejection and loneliness? Ultimately, Shortcomings is an honestly told story about the ugly end to a relationship that isn’t that black and white. (Hane C. Lee)


Conversation with Glen David Gold

Nov. 14, 7 p.m., free


1644 Haight, SF

(415) 863-8688, www.booksmith.com

Visual presentation and signing

Nov. 15, 7 p.m., free

Cody’s Books

1730 Fourth St., Berk.

(510) 559-9500, www.codysbooks.com


By Jane Austen and Charles Dickens


192 pages, $16.95

Jane Austen wrote her History of England when she was 16, in 1791, and she intended it to be read aloud at home. Her sister, Cassandra, drew pictures for it. These have not been reproduced in Ecco’s new edition of the history, one of several odd choices here. Various collections of Austen juvenilia include this work, and Algonquin Books published a facsimile and transcription in 1993. Why wouldn’t her fans just buy one of those? And why is her history twinned with an excerpt from Charles Dickens’s 1851–53 A Child’s History of England?

Austen’s recent pop-cultural upsurge no doubt explains this volume’s publication. And David Starkey makes a plausible case for reading both histories in his introduction, an apologia that’s longer than Austen’s entry. But he’s less convincing regarding their appearance in one volume, and Dickens’s inclusion calls to mind the useless (but equally space-consuming) footnotes T.S. Eliot provided to make The Waste Land book length. His contribution here covers a shorter period than Austen’s (although they both end with Charles I’s reign), and it’s hard to imagine Dickens devotees not searching out the complete text.

This book, then, seems suited primarily for the dabbler in English literature or history. Austen ascribes her work to "a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian"; the first two adjectives certainly apply to Dickens. The description is tongue-in-cheek, but the approach it suggests does allow these authors to write with, as Starkey says, "freshness and wit," producing unforgettable scenes and characters. Although Austen’s work is a satire of boring contemporary histories, it is amusing enough to spark the interest of a modern reader in the period she covers; meanwhile, Dickens’s was written for his Household Words journal and was meant to appeal to a broad audience — and was used in British schools until the 1950s. These writings make history interesting and even entertaining, and whatever they lack in scholarship can be picked up elsewhere. Whatever its failings, Two Histories has the potential to be an excellent gateway drug. (Juliana Froggatt)