Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Book Review: Battling the Clouds

Book Review: Battling the Clouds by Captain Frank Cobb

It is shortly after World War One, and two boys, both sons of majors, have come to be stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Frank Anderson’s father is in Aviation, while Bill Sherman’s stepfather is a teacher at the School of Fire (Artillery.)  Bill is new to Army life, his mother only recently having remarried, but he has an uncle in the automotive design business that built a  miniature (but fully functional) car for him.   Frank is a little envious, especially after Bill’s family gets Corporal Lee, who’s part Cherokee, to be their orderly.

Battling the Clouds

While in town one day, the two friends meet Horace Jardin, scion of the Jardin automotive empire.  Horace is boastful and spoiled, but extremely wealthy, something Frank would like to be.  That fall, all three of them wind up at the same boarding school back East, because it’s the only one that has an aviation program.  Indeed, a Canadian boy named Ernest is also attending for the same reason.

But all is not study and flying lessons.  For there’s been a robbery, with an innocent man accused.  Only a desperate cross country flight by a first time pilot can save the day!

This book is surprisingly good, better than several of the similar ones I’ve recently read, despite being written for an even younger audience.  To put it in a single word, this book has nuance.  Yes, the moralizing is rather heavy-handed.   But some of the story is told from the viewpoint of the villain, detailing how what was once a small personality flaw leads him bit by bit down the path of crime.

SPOILERS from this point on.

A nice touch is that Jardin isn’t the bad guy here.  Yes, he’s a spoiled brat, and a bad influence, but he’s not the villain.  Frank is, letting his envy drive him from using racist statements to try to turn Bill against Lee, to pawning his grandfather’s watch under an assumed name, to theft and finally assault with a deadly weapon.  He even attempts to swindle Jardin out of a perfectly good airplane with sabotage.

Bill, by contrast, is a little goody-two-shoes, who always obeys his mother and follows rules–but is naive and fails to grasp until nearly too late what’s been happening with Frank.  Did I mention they’re both twelve?

There’s some odd statements about Native Americans in the narration, but the only overtly racist sentiments come from Ernest (ignorant) and Frank (deliberately malicious.)  Frank’s also rather sexist, showing this mostly by denigrating sensible things Bill does as “like a girl” or “only a woman cares about that sort of thing.”   Bill notes that the best knitter he knows is a very manly big game hunter.

While the story takes forever to really get going (and then piles on the coincidences in the last couple of chapters) there are some gems in the meantime, like this passage:

“All through luncheon Frank thought of the money.  He went off into day-dreams in which he rescued the daughter of the Colonel from all sorts of dangers and invariably after each rescue, the Colonel would say, ‘My boy, thanks are too tame.  I insist, in fact I order you to accept this little token of my regard.’   And then he would  press into Frank’s hand six hundred dollars.  It was thrilling; and in a day-dream so easy.

“The fact that the Colonel’s daughter was a strapping damsel who stood five feet eight and weighed one hundred and sixty pounds and always took the best of care of herself in all kinds of tight places without asking odds of anyone, did not affect Frank’s day-dreams at all.  Neither did the fact that the Colonel was well known to be so close with his money that he had learned to read the headlines upside down so that he seldom had to buy a paper of a newsy!    Six hundred dollars…it would have killed him!”

I kind of want to read about the tight-fisted Colonel and his highly competent (and strapping) daughter and their adventures.   Late in the book, we also meet a farm boy named Webby, who we are told was inspired by his small part in events to become a great man.

This book should be suitable for kids (especially boys) ten and up, but with the usual caveat that parents should help them understand that the 1920s was a time with different attitudes.  (And there are now laws against 12-year-olds driving cars on public highways.)

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

Book Review: War Wings

Book Review: War Wings by Eustace L. Adams

Jimmy Deal and his squadron are Navy flyers assigned to Souilly-sur-Mer, near the Belgian border and some heavy fighting in World War One.  Ensign Deal was a Reservist before the Great War, and many regular officers resent him.  Good thing he’s one of the best seaplane aces they have!

War Wings

This is the third Jimmy Deal book, and the seventh in the Air Combat Stories series for boys.  It reads more like a series of short stories than a novel, so I suspect it was originally just that and published in a magazine somewhere before being stitched together for hardback publication.  The first story arc involves a “pretty boy” pilot nicknamed “Sister” for his movie star good looks by a nasty fellow named “Shorty.”  “Sister” turns out to have been a stunt pilot for the film industry before the war.

Next up is a fellow called “the Crab” for his sour disposition; turns out he’s got a personal grudge against German submarines, which he is finally able to do something about.  After that, Jimmy is dragooned into service by a half-mad admiral who won’t take “no” for an answer.  They wind up flying a German fighter plane to an Allied base, complete with a captive German ace!

The final section has Jimmy become a Navy “observer” on the Army’s front lines as Admiral “Bulletproof” Bullitt prepares a set of rail guns.  Jimmy is lucky enough to run into his old college buddy “Poison” Lee.  Most of the characterization in this bit is a feud between tiny Lieutenant Lee and the massive Private Gluck, though at the end they put their enmity aside to stop a German tunnel.

This is pretty good stuff; the author served with the Ambulance Service and the Navy in the war, so he sells the combat scenes nicely.  The characterization is a bit simplistic, and the story that introduces the Admiral runs on a string of wild coincidences that even Jimmy can’t quite believe actually happened.

Modern readers may be put off by the use of feminine nicknames to denigrate soldiers, but it is entirely in period.  Parents may want to talk to young readers about the sexism involved in that.  Actual women are only mentioned; our heroes’ leaves are left to the imagination.

This is better than some of the similar books I’ve been reading, and recommended for air combat buffs if you can find it.

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

“Doll Face” Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a burlesque queen who wants to move into Broadway productions.  When slightly snobbish producer Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley) scorns her audition because Doll Face isn’t “cultured”, her manager Mike Hannegan (Dennis O’Keefe) comes up with the idea of making her seem more accomplished by having her write an book.

Doll Face

The problem there is that Doll Face has no idea what to write, even if she were lettered enough to try.  Mike assures her that this will not be an issue, as he will hire a ghost writer to help her create an autobiography.  This writer is top-seller Frederick Manley Gerard (Stephen Dunne), an intellectual who loves lofty vocabulary and has no interest in burlesque.  He does, however, take an interest in Doll Face.

Frederick turns out to be willing to fudge the facts considerably to make Doll Face’s biography more interesting (moving her birthplace from Brooklyn to Arden Hills, for example.)  His smooth talk and kindness also make him a strong contrast to the overbearing and uncouth Mike.  Cynical and sarcastic friend of the main couple Chita (Carmen Miranda) sees where this is going and tries to head it off to no avail.

In a subplot, singer-songwriter Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to woo showgirl Frankie Porter (Martha Stewart), who only has eyes for Mike, who only likes Doll Face.

Mike tries to cancel the autobiography when he thinks enough publicity has been  milked out of it, Doll Face disagrees, and they quarrel.  When a bizarre coincidence makes it appear that Doll Face and Frederick are having it on, Mike dumps Doll Face.  This leads to misery for everyone, but the show must go on….

This 1945 musical was based on the play Naked Genius by Louise Hovick (better known to most of us as Gypsy Rose Lee.)   The name change was one of the many alterations required by the censors; the burlesque seen in the film is toned way down (though there are still some risque costumes on the ladies by the standards of the 1940s.)  There’s a brief mention of World War Two in one of the songs.

The music is quite good, and Perry Como is terrific as a singer to no one’s surprise.  There’s a couple of especially good lines, too.  “Do you always swim with your top hat on?”  “Only in opera season.”

Less good, especially by modern standards, is Mike.  He engages in “playful” aggression towards Doll Face, and advises Nicky to beat Frankie up, or at least threaten to, to gain her affection.  (Sadly, threats of force are shown to work on Frankie.)  Mike also prefers to do all the thinking for the couple, and gets sore when Doll Face decides otherwise.  This makes Frederick much easier to root for as a love interest, despite him having some controlling tendencies too; he at least will let Doll Face have her head.

Chita Chula is mostly in the story for her big number “Chico Chico (from Porto Rico)”, but is not portrayed stereotypically by the script–the character could have been any ethnicity.  And she scoffs at the idea she’s anything like Carmen Miranda.

The script is rather lackluster, but the musical performances are good, so it’s an enjoyable watch outside the cringeworthy bits.  If you’re watching it with younger viewers, you may need to talk to them about the kind of boyfriend Mike is and why that behavior isn’t appropriate.

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