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.

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents by Joe Kubert and others

Joe Kubert (1926-2012) was one of the all-time great comic book artists.  The bulk of his work was done for DC Comics, including many Hawkman and Sergeant Rock stories. Joe Kubert Presents was his final series, a tribute to him by the company he’d done so much for.   Mr. Kubert was given free rein to choose which stories to do, and which other creators he wanted to share the spotlight with.  Rather than risk an announcement of the series ahead of time only to not be able to deliver (this had happened to him before), Mr. Kubert insisted on having several issues “in the can” before it was put on order forms for retailers.  The sixth issue was nearly complete when he died.

Joe Kubert Presents

The first issue leads off with “Hawkman”; this iteration is closest to the science fiction-inspired Silver Age version, but not in continuity with any previous story.  Katar Hol and his partner Shayera (Hawkgirl) are sent from the utopian planet Thanagar to observe Earth up close and determine what steps should be taken in the future.  The Thanagarians worry that the Earthlings will not mature out of their destructive behavior before they develop interstellar travel.

The aliens land in Africa, observe the wanton slaughter of wildlife and environmental destruction, and decide to visit a nearby village.  Unfortunately, this particular village sits atop a toxic waste dump; the poverty-stricken villagers have become economically dependent on the storage fees.  The villagers worry that the Thanagarians have come to stop the practice and react badly.

While I understand the good intent of the story, it really does look like technologically advanced white people lecturing primitive native Africans on proper respect for the environment.  And the Hawks destroy the natives’ livelihood and leave without considering that consequence, so their victory leaves a bitter aftertaste.

“Spit” is a recurring feature about an orphan who runs away from the orphanage and winds up stowing away on a whaling ship.  In short vignettes, he suffers much abuse, but eventually learns how to survive at sea and decides to become a whaler.  The first few chapters are in sepia tone, but the finale is mostly in full color.  One (landlubber) character is implied to be a pedophile, but is thwarted before he can do anything.

“The Redeemer” is three chapters of a series Mr. Kubert solicited back in the 1980s before he discovered he wouldn’t be able to deliver it on time.  Jim Torkan is the title character, a man who reincarnates across time and space  to gain the wisdom he will need to eventually save the human race from itself.  He is the target of the Infernal One, who sends agents to tempt Torkan from the path of righteousness, so that the Redeemer will be under his control.

The first two chapters take place in the far future, as Torkan is a scientist whose space station is invaded by murderous robbers seeking a chemical he’s developed that can control minds.  His love interest is actually an agent of the Infernal One who tries to convince him to join up with the would-be dictator to save his own skin.  The third chapter has Torkan as an ex-Confederate soldier just after the Civil War.  The story carefully avoids mentioning what the Confederacy fought for beyond “justice and right” (hint: slavery), but it was all a waste and Torkan is without purpose.  He gets involved in a treasure hunt, but at the end discovers something more precious than gold: himself.

“Farewell” was Kubert’s last Sergeant Rock story.  The son and grandson of one of Easy Company’s soldiers visit a D-Day beach and the cemetery nearby.  They discuss the possible death of Rock, but in the end it doesn’t matter if he is buried here–a piece of each soldier who fell rests with every other soldier.

“The Biker” is about a wounded Afghanistan veteran and motorcyclist who bunks down for the night in an abandoned house.  But maybe not as abandoned as it looks.  Some excellent coloring work here.

Then there are two stories written by Joe Kubert, but with art by other people.  “The Ruby” (art by Henrik Jonsson) is about bandits attacking a Himalayan temple–it turns out to be a possible origin story for an obscure DC character.   “Devil’s Play” (art by Brandon Vietti) is a Kamandi story, as the last boy on Earth battles the animal-men that have taken over the planet.  This story offers a different explanation for the Great Disaster than usual.

The series also contained several “U.S.S. Stevens” stories by Sam Glanzman, telling tales of his WWII service aboard that destroyer.  “The Figurehead” is the most interesting of these, featuring an eccentric crewmate of Mr. Glanzman’s who may or may not have had unusual abilities (it’s possible that this is a sailor’s yarn and he’s pulling our leg a bit.)  This material has been collected separately, along with Mr. Glanzman’s other memoirs.

Brian Buniak gives us “Angel and the Ape”, based on the Bob Oksner series about private detectives Angel O’Day (an attractive human woman) and Sam Simeon (a cartoonist who also happens to be a gorilla.)  It’s not quite in continuity with any other appearance of the characters, but as a comedy strip, continuity was never a huge issue.  The pair are hired to prevent a restaurateur from being murdered; they do so but he is shot anyway, and they have to figure out whodunnit.  After they solve that case, a reporter gets the story of their origin (or at least Angel’s version.)  There’s an energy and attention to humorous background details reminiscent of early Mad, but sometimes the exaggerated art style can go a bit off.

If you are a fan of Joe Kubert’s art, this volume is a must-have; if you’re indifferent to that, the stories are only average, and the problematic material may knock this down a star or two for you.  I liked this very much.

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

The year is 1917, the place, somewhere in France.  British troops are dug into trenches, not too far from the German troops in their trenches.  This particular part of the front line is the location of Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson.)  Experience has taught him that the British strategy of sending men “over the top” in waves to assault the German lines just results in dead soldiers, and the captain has no interest in dying.  He hatches scheme after scheme to get himself away from the front lines, or at least delay the fatal charge.

Blackadder Goes Forth
“A war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week.”

In this effort, Captain Blackadder is badly assisted by his second, Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), an upper-class twit who believes all the propaganda about honor and glory, and the company batman (military servant), Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) who is profoundly stupid but does the best he can.  They try to outwit the mad General Melchett (Stephen Fry) who thinks that using the same tactic that has failed eighteen times in the past will surely trick the Germans this time, and Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny) a rear echelon bureaucrat who is determined to kiss up to the general in order to stay safely behind the lines.

This was the fourth and final series of Blackadder, each short (six episodes) season using mostly the same actors in similar roles in different times, as though they were reincarnations.  Blackadder himself seems to improve somewhat over the ages–his first incarnation is both very evil and stupid, and slightly lessens those qualities in each subsequent variant.  Captain  Blackadder is bright (but not quite bright enough) and his goal isn’t particularly wicked (not dying) but retains much of his ancestors’ contempt for everyone around him and skill at insults.

Many of those insults are quite funny, and there are many other laugh out loud moments as the characters react to the situations they find themselves in.  I did not care as much for the gross-out gags involving Baldrick’s cooking (he ran out of real coffee in 1914.)  And to be honest, since the show aired in 1989, rape jokes have lost much of their luster.

The treatment of World War One is satirical, focusing on the futility and loss of life it entailed, and the divide between the courage of the soldiers and the poor leadership of the commanding officers.  Some historians feel the series went too far with this, and warn that this is after all a work of fiction.

Especially striking is the final episode, “Goodbyeee”, in which the Big Push is ordered at last.  The mood turns more somber as Captain Blackadder’s plans to escape fail one by one.  Lieutenant George realizes that all his friends are dead and he doesn’t want to die himself.  Baldrick asks the obvious question, “why can’t we all just go home?” and no one can give him a good answer.  Even Captain Darling is ordered into the charge as General Melchett fails to understand that this “reward” for loyal service is the last thing Darling wants.

In the final moments, the soldiers leave the trench and go into battle–their fate is left unsaid, but the screen fades to a field of poppies, symbolic of the fallen of WW1.  It’s a bleak ending for a comedy.

The cast is excellent, and the writing good (despite some gags falling flat.)  I’d recommend watching all the Blackadder series in order, but if you have a special interest in World War One, this part stands on its own.

And now a video about poppies:

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61 edited by Ben Hibbs

The Saturday Evening Post ran weekly from 1897-1963; after several format changes, it is now published six times a year.  The Post was well known for its lavish illustrations and a combination of current event articles and short stories by popular writers.   I got this issue from the month of my birth as an early birthday present.  At the time, this magazine was printed in the broadsheet format, which is too large for my scanner–thus the truncated cover image showing only a part of Amos Spewell’s painting of tourists in Venice.

The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

To entice potential customers at newsstands, the Post front-loaded the illustrations in spreads at the front of the magazine, and each of the articles and stories continued in the word-heavy back pages interspersed with a few cartoons.  There were also many large illustrated advertisements–one for tampons is notable for not telling the reader what the product is, showing the product or saying what it’s used for exactly; if I didn’t know from the name of the product, I’d assume it’s some kind of skin cleanser or deodorant.

The Post was also known for having a staunchly conservative editorial stance, and this is on full display in an editorial expressing relief that leftist thought was vanishing from college campuses and conservatism was on the rise. “Of course, the battle isn’t over.  Queer characters still appear on college campuses sponsored by ‘liberal’ groups.”  Oh, if only they knew!

In the lively letters to the editor section, comments on an article about Bobby Darrin reveal changes in our pop culture, with people being shocked or pleased that he was willing to share personal opinions with the press even if they didn’t match the public’s desired stance.  One letter writer asked why an article on “Presidents in Retirement” did not include FDR.  The editor waggishly replies that the place that man retired to is not on the reporter’s regular beat.  There’s also a couple of letters on segregation, responding negatively to a previous letter writer’s suggestion that since Southerners didn’t go to Northern states to demand segregation, Northerners should reciprocate about desegregation.

Let’s look at the contents.

“The White House Insiders” by Stewart Alsop is a look at President Kennedy’s political staffers (all men, all white-one had a black deputy) and how they helped him keep on top of what was happening in the country and the world.  It goes into detail about JFK’s management style.  The only top staff name most younger readers are likely to recognize is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but Henry Kissinger is briefly mentioned as a second-stringer.

“Death of a Demon” by Rex Stout is part one of three of a Nero Wolfe mystery novella.  The sedentary detective is briefly engaged by a woman who wants to show him the gun she will not use to shoot her husband.  That’s…kind of suspicious, and when the husband turns up dead from a bullet wound, some questions are raised.  Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s leg man, is pretty sure the woman didn’t do it, but there are gaping holes in her story.  It’s certainly an intriguing beginning!  Happily, this story was included in Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout, which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.

“How the Doctors Saved Chicago’s Burned Children” by Alice Lake is a look at how St. Anne’s Hospital dealt with the victims of a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958.  95 people died immediately or in the aftermath, but this story concentrates on the survivors.  Part of the credit for St. Anne’s quick and organized response goes to disaster preparedness they had undertaken after a fire some years before had caught the hospital unprepared for multiple victims.  There are details of the treatment s used and updates on a couple of the survivors as of mid-1961.  One of the treatments tried was using blood transfusions from recovering adult burn victims in the hope that their blood had antigens against “burn toxin.”  (From the little I could find, research into this treatment has shown scant evidence of effectiveness.)  For more on the fire, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Angels_School_fire

“Handsome Samaritan” by Phyllis Duganne is a story about an airline pilot driving to vacation in Florida when he stops to help some stranded motorists.  One of them is a very pretty woman, but he’s supposed to be meeting his fiancee.  The pilot comes to realize he is much more compatible with this new woman who is more interested in who he is than who she can make him become.  I found this story uncomfortable, and skimmed to the end.

“The Poacher” by Gene Coghlan, set in Depression-era North Dakota, has two brothers growing up on an isolated farm, and using traps to earn a little pocket money.  One brother is laid up with a broken leg, and the protagonist takes advantage of this to claim that a fur animal was caught in one of his traps, rather than his brother’s.  Presumably he learned a valuable lesson about life, but the conclusion pages are missing from my copy.  Unfortunately, Mr. Coghlan doesn’t seem to have any books in print.

“The Case of the Comical Banker” by Harold H. Martin, profiles Mills Bee Lane, Jr., then president of the  Citizens & Southern National Bank in Atlanta, Georgia.   Known for a jovial style (unlike the stuffy conservatism usually associated with bankers of the period), his business acumen turned the C&S into the largest bank in the South.  You may be more familiar with his nephew, Mills Bee Lane III, who became a famous boxing referee and TV judge.  Lane, Jr. was credited in the article for jumpstarting tobacco farming in the Atlanta area when cotton took a dive in the market.

“The Meaning of the Eichmann Trial” by T.S. Matthews was published about halfway through the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.  (He was found guilty and hanged.)  The article talks a lot about the trial conditions and the thoroughness of the Israeli court system.  “Israel means to show the world that, in the British phrase, ‘justice is not only done but seen to have been done.”  It also talks about the character of Israel as a country, and its people.  The trial took place in a newly built suburb of Jerusalem, because at that time the Old City was in the hands of Jordan.  This is a very moving article, and I think the best in the issue.

“Cop with Camera Eyes” by Thomas Walsh features a police detective with “photographic memory”, if he sees something, and it’s important to him at a later time, he will remember it clearly.  It triggers when he notices the same person in the crowd three times during a date he’s having with his new neighbor.  After safely returning his date home, The cop ambushes this tail.  Surprise!  It’s a federal agent!  Seems the attractive foreign lady is suspected of being a Communist spy.  Reluctantly, the cop agrees to keep an eye on the girl he has come to adore, but then she vanishes–and for the first time, the cop’s memory fails him at a critical moment.  Can he crack the case before innocents are killed?  It’s a pretty good story; I don’t know if it’s ever been reprinted, but Mr. Walsh’s Nightmare in Manhattan is considered a superior mystery novel and that you can find.

“Is Nature Getting Neurotic?” by Corey Ford is a humor piece about how over-complicated gardening and landscaping have become, requiring the homeowner to employ multiple specialists and expensive treatments just to keep the lawn alive.

Art by James Bama for "In the Best Interest of the Service."
Art by James Bama for “In the Best Interest of the Service.”

“In the Best Interest of the Service” by Walt Grove takes us inside an Air Force base.  A major must make a difficult decision because of the need for unit cohesiveness.  A rescue chopper pilot is being accused of cowardice by one of his crew members.  This is complicated by the officer being a Negro, and the crew member being a white man from the Deep South and the type of person who nowadays would be decrying “political correctness.”  He doesn’t mean any harm by the N-word, he claims, so why shouldn’t he use it?  But that does raise the stink of possible racism.  Oh, and the chopper pilot is the major’s best friend on the base, so there may be the question of favoritism.  Who will be getting transferred out?  The resolution  to the situation may be a little too convenient, but is satisfying, and inspires the major to take some steps in his personal life he’s put off too long.  Mr. Grove wrote several action books about pilots, but it doesn’t appear any are currently in print.

“Comeback of the Giant Turtle” by Bern Keating is about efforts to increase the population of the green sea turtle (so called because of its distinctive green fat deposits inside the shell) in the Caribbean.  Despite these and other preservation efforts, the green sea turtle remains an endangered species.

And finally, “The Big Swindle” by Clarence Budington Kelland is part 5 of 6.  Twins Pet and Pete Du Chillon have finally come of age, and are attempting to make sense of what their guardian, Mortimer Norton, has done with the family company.  It seems all sorts of shady shenanigans have been going on!  The twins have some sort of scheme to expose the truth, involving a phony foreign prince and double-bluffing the man who runs security for Du Chillon Industries.  This installment suffers from coming in the middle of the story, but I think it’s also a pretty bad story.  Pet and Pete, as well as their beloved grandmother, are the sort of people who the author tries hard to convince us are very witty, but come off snide instead.  The funniest bit for me was one of the supporting characters denying the possibility of a “twins threesome” in such a way as to make me think he’s thought waay too much about the topic (and also never mentioning sex because this is a family magazine.)  Mr. Kelland is largely forgotten, but once was popular enough that Harlan Ellison called him out by name for lowering the tastes of the American public.

There’s also short poems (amusing but forgettable), jokes and cartoons.

This was a fun look back at a moment in time just before I was born.  Copies of the Post in bad condition can be found relatively cheaply; issues in excellent condition, or with stories by top authors, will set you back considerably more money.  Also, you can visit the website of the current magazine: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Book Review: The A-Z of You and Me

Book Review: The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or received.  As an ARC, there may be changes between the review copy and the final product.  (In specific, the “book club questions” section at the back was not finalized.)

The A-Z of You and Me

Ivo is in a hospice with kidney failure.   While he is definitely dying, it may take weeks or even months.  To help Ivo keep his sanity, night shift nurse Sheila suggests a game.  Naming a body part for each letter of the alphabet, and telling a story about it.  Ivo starts with “Adam’s Apple” for “A”, remembering how he learned the story of that name, and continuing on to…that would be telling.

Most of the stories pertain to Ivo’s ex-girlfriend Mia (the “you” of the title) and their small group of acquaintances:  Ivo’s sister Laura, her sexy friend Becca, Ivo’s best friend Mal and his other mate Kelvin.   Slowly we learn pieces of their past together and why Ivo and Mia split up.

This is a first novel from British author James Hannah, and has apparently been successful enough in his native land to warrant an American release.  There are some Briticisms in the language used that might require readers unfamiliar with  British culture to check the internet.  Interesting, then, that the title actually works better in American English.

The structure of the novel means that we get dribs and drabs of information as the time frame of Ivo’s memories and his present day experiences in the hospice skip about.  In some cases, we see the consequences of actions well before we learn what the actions were.  Readers who prefer a straightforward plotline might feel frustrated.

Ivo’s made some rather poor life choices; among other things, he’s abused drugs, made doubly unsafe by his being a diabetic.  It’s also clear that his friendship with Mal had become toxic well before Ivo figured this out.  Mal is laddish in the negative sense:  rowdy, immature, rather sexist and casually insensitive to his and Ivo’s girlfriends.  He also enables Ivo’s drug abuse because he can’t quite understand the seriousness of possible consequences.

Mia is a little harder to get a handle on, as we see her through Ivo’s rose-colored memories.  She’s a swell lady, apparently, though perhaps her decisions were also not the wisest.

As a result of previous events, Ivo has been pushing people away–we learn that he’s worked at a garden center for a couple of decades, but never directly see or hear from one of his fellow employees.  Now, at the end, with his world shrunk to the hospice, he has to learn to reconnect.  Even with people he never wanted to see again.

The writing is competent, but I think the story would better suit people who like the slow reveal/not much actually happens sort of contemporary literature.

Content:  In addition to drug abuse, there’s rather a lot of rude language, particularly in flashbacks to Ivo’s teen years.  If you’re new to British slang, you might even pick up some new naughty words.  This is very much a novel about adult concerns, so I would not recommend it below college age.

Overall, this is a decent first novel, which I would recommend to folks who enjoy the idea of telling a story through an alphabet game.

Book Review: Infinity Five

Book Review: Infinity Five edited by Robert Hoskins

This is the fifth and last (so far as I know) of the Infinity series of science fiction anthologies from Lancer Books.  As mentioned in my review of Infinity Two, they’re heavy on the New Wave style of story, free to have sex scenes and rough language (but not yet skilled at their use) and experimental storytelling styles.  The opening editorial mentions that SF has become a respectable genre for adults, but I’m not sure you could tell from this book.

Infinity Five

SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to be giving away some of the endings.

“The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” by Robert Silverberg starts us off with one of the more experimental pieces, Short fragments from different stories cobbled together around the reminiscences of an avid science fiction fan who has a recurring nightmare about possible futures.  It feels like Mr. Silverberg just grabbed random pages from rejected stories to fill out the length.  At the end, the nightmare becomes reality, and the fear vanishes.

“In Between Then and Now” by Arthur Byron Cover is about two immortal and nigh-omnipotent beings that have been fighting since they can remember.  One of them has a realization that his feelings have changed, but the other isn’t quite ready to accept this.

“Kelly, Frederic Michael: 1928-1987” by William F. Nolan is another “randomish fragments” story.  Mr. Kelly is dying on an alien planet, and his mind slips back and forth.

“Nostalgia Tripping” by Alan Brennert has people listening to oldies radio, except that what precisely the oldies are, and the history that created them, keeps changing.  It turns out that time travel has been invented and harnessed solely to change history to create these new “oldies” because 2003 is just that bleak.  An interesting concept, but perhaps wasted on such a short story.

“She/Her” by Robert Thurston is about telepathic aliens whose planet is undergoing first contact with humans.   Among the new concepts the visitors have brought with them is the significance of gender, as the humans innocently try to fit the aliens into their stereotypes.  This is actually a decent story with a good try at thinking in alien mindsets.

“Trashing” by Barry N. Malzberg goes back to trippy as an assassin attempts to kill a madman who is spreading riots and disorder.  Or is that really what’s happening?

“Hello, Walls and Fences” by Russell Bates is about an artist, or maybe an engineer, who’s asked to do something he finds repugnant by a wealthy man.   Unfortunately, he’s got a wife to feed (this was back when most married women were expected not to have jobs) and his solo work doesn’t sell, so at the end he has to accept the rich man’s job.  We never really find out what the process is or why the artist/engineer doesn’t like it.

“Free at Last” by Ron Goulart moves towards the silly.  A man with a Wide Open Marriage in 1992 is cheating on it by having a secret affair with his invalid aunt’s nurse.  Wide Open, of course, means no secrets.  As part of this, he’s also concealing that his aunt is already dead.  However, the man from the U.S. Department of Transition, which provides free funerals for all American citizens, is getting suspicious.  This one has a lot of extrapolating Seventies California goofiness into the future.  It’s maybe the best story in the issue.

“Changing of the Gods” by Terry Carr, on the other hand, takes a bitter approach to extrapolation.  It is a future where all the mainstream religions have collapsed, to be replaced with the Ancient and Apostolic Church of Christ, Pragmatist.  Yet they still have Fifties style ad agencies.  Sam Luckman is a creative type for one of those agencies, which has been chosen by the Pragmatists to create an ad campaign for “family control” to battle the hideous overpopulation of the world.  Luckman’s personal life is in the toilet, and his disgust with youth-oriented culture and the betrayal of his closest relatives boils over into the advertisements he creates.

Warnings for on-screen incest, pedophilia, castration, body horror.  Also casual homophobia: “homosexual rapists” are said to haunt restrooms.  This is all meant to shock, but just comes off as trying too hard.   One begins to understand why Mr. Carr normally was restricted to editing.

“Interpose” by George Zebrowski has Jesus snatched from the Cross by cruel time travelers.  Jesus is also an alien, not that it does him any good as apparently all his powers were withdrawn for the Crucifixion.

“Greyworld” by Dean R, Koontz is a full novella.  An amnesiac man who is probably named Joel wakes up in a suspended animation pod in a deserted laboratory.  After some wandering around, he runs into a faceless man and passes out.  When Joel awakens, he’s still amnesiac, but is now in a New England country house with his hot wife and distrustful uncle-in-law.  Several more layers of reality ensue.  It’s similar in many ways to Keith Laumer’s Night of Delusions, which I reviewed earlier, but has a more stable (if highly implausible) ending.

“Isaac Under Pressure” by Scott Edelstein wraps up the volume with a quick joke story about unusual genie containers.

Overall, this collection has not aged well, and is only worth seeking out if you collect one of the authors whose story hasn’t been reprinted elsewhere.

 

 

Manga Review: Dream Fossil

Manga Review: Dream Fossil by Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010) was an acclaimed anime director, making a handful of movies (including Paprika) and one television series, Paranoia Agent.   His themes of confusion of dreams and reality, and madness lying just below the surface of society, made his works fascinating.  He also spent some time as a manga creator, creating several stories in the 1980s before going into anime full time as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira).  This volume collects his short works.

Dream Fossil

The lead story is “Carve.”  After a war polluted the old places of habitation, most of humanity moved to “The City”, a haven of high technology.  However, when a minority of humans started developing psychic powers, they were kicked out of The City, and scrape by in the now less toxic old cities.  Sculptor Kei and his female friend/model Ann notice that Specials are starting to disappear from their neighborhood.  Are The City people up to something?

The fifteen stories cover a range of genres.  There’s a couple of baseball stories, some slice of life, a samurai thriller, and some more speculative fiction.  The characters tend towards the realistic, even if the circumstances are often bizarre.

One standout is “Kidnappers”, about a car thief who discovers that he has a small child in the back seat.  He wants to get the kid back to the parents, but doesn’t want to go to jail for swiping the vehicle–and the actual kidnapper is after him too.  The main character is well drawn as a bad person, but one that doesn’t want to be that bad.

There’s also  “Waira”, the samurai thriller I mentioned.  A feudal warlord has been betrayed by his vassal/brother-in-law, his troops massacred, and now he and a handful of surviving followers are fleeing through a mountain forest in the middle of the night.  The brother-in-law and his troops pursue, but their guides warn them that the mountain is haunted by a murderous creature named “Waira.”  Who will survive?  The nature of Waira comes as a bit of a surprise–it’s so out of place that it might as well be supernatural.

I can really spot the Otomo influence in several of these stories.  The art and writing are decent, but Kon doesn’t sparkle here the way he does in his animation work.  A couple of the stories are photocopied from magazine appearances as the original art is lost; this affects the print quality.

The last story in the volume is Kon’s debut work, a two-parter titled “Toriko” (prisoner).  It’s very YA dystopia.  Yuichi, a teenager, lives in a future society ruled by implacable robot police, and in which you must have your identity card ready at all times for any transactions or even just walking down the street at the wrong time.  When he and his friends break curfew, they are remanded to The Center for “rehab” to become “productive citizens.”  Good thing Yuichi managed to snag a weapon!  Downer ending, depending on your point of view.

In addition to a few color pages, there’s also an interview with Susumu Hirawara, a composer who worked with Satoshi Kon on musical scores for the anime projects.  (One last film, Dreaming Machine, is being slowly finished.)

The intended audience varies, a couple would be suitable for young readers, but overall this anthology seems to be seinen (young men’s.)  Several of the stories have lethal violence, there’s some nudity, underaged drinking and smoking, and one story has an attempted rape.

Fans of Satoshi Kon’s other work will want to own this anthology; others will be better served by checking it out via library loan.

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