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.
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.
Went to a blogging Meetup at the Spyhouse Coffee Shop today. This was put together by Cam, who is a web developer and does not have a blog just at the moment.
We discussed our motivations for wanting to meet up, possible meeting places (Spyhouse has rules against moving furniture so is likely to be out in future) and meeting topics. The next meeting is the first Saturday in July on the St. Paul U of M campus.
I didn’t get everyone’s URL, but here are the ones I did:
https://indahs.com/ A travel and photography blog. Her latest post is about the Oculus train station in New York, but the scuba diving pictures are perhaps the best feature.
http://www.scottcarvings.com/blog/ Woodcarving! The latest post shows before and after pictures of some holiday carvings.
http://www.jack-bench.com/woodworking-blog/ The Jack-Bench is a DIY woodworking bench that this fellow sells plans for. Over the last year, he collected a number of interviews with woodworkers from across America, and the latest post is about a fellow who does pen blanks.
If I missed you out, please comment with your blog URL below!
Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology edited by Terry A. Garey
Poetry related to the various genres of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) is pretty common. You can see samples by ones or twos in many magazines and spec-fic collections. But full hardback anthologies of speculative poetry are rare. So Rune Press in Minnesota brought out one in 1991, and I recently got my hands on a copy.
The slim volume features eleven poets; the only name I recognized immediately was Ruth Berman, who starts the volume and has a couple of nice pieces involving the Oz books. From her “Wizard’s Road”:
Home in Omaha at last
It was hard to believe
In a probable world.
To be honest, most of these poems are the modern free verse stuff I don’t fully understand, and don’t know good from bad. There are a few exceptions with more formal rhyme and scansion, and one attempt at a rare Welsh form called a “toddaid.” It’s not very good, but I appreciate the poet’s effort to stretch. I did like Roger Dutcher’s “The Smart House” about an AI-run domicile that learns from other houses’ mistakes.
The book ends with John Calvin Rezmerski’s “Challengers”, a memorial to the Challenger disaster of 1986. I do not know if the poem moved me of itself, or because of my lingering sorrow over the event.
As is often the case with poetry, those who are trained in its ways may enjoy it much more than I. It is, I understand, quite rare, so you may have trouble tracking down a copy.
Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson
Four men come to the house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when the man who owns the house, Thomas Carnacki, summons them for dinner. They ask no questions, as they know Carnacki will wait until his own good time to tell them a tale of his adventures. And because he is a ghost finder, that tale will be worth waiting for.
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was a sailor and physical fitness instructor before taking up writing and becoming best known for his weird tales. The Carnacki stories were written between 1910 and 1914, when Mr. Hodgson enlisted in the British Army during World War One. Only six of them were published during his lifetime (he died at Ypers) with the remaining three first appearing in the collected edition in 1947.
Carnacki is very much in the Sherlock Holmes tradition of the cerebral detective, examining the evidence with the best scientific methods known to him. Sometimes the menace turns out to be merely human trickery, sometimes it is truly supernatural, and then again sometimes it’s both! Other than that, the stories are formulaic–the four friends arrive, everyone has dinner, Carnacki tells his tale, there are a few clarifying questions, and then the guests go home.
Carnacki is interesting as a ghost finder, as he’s terrified of ghosts and supernatural phenomena, and readily admits it, even as he confronts these phenomena. It’s suggested in one story that fear makes you more sensitive to the spirit world–someone who knows no terror might not even notice ghosts! He also uses both eldritch lore and modern science like photography and vacuum tubes to battle the supernatural.
The collection begins with “The Thing Invisible” in which Carnacki investigates a haunted dagger that seems able to strike on its own with deadly force. This story was also in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. It ends with “The Hog”, a tale of sheer horror as a man’s dreams turn out to be a direct conduit to the Outer Monstrosities. The latter story would be a good source for artists seeking horrific imagery, but becomes overlong with the special effects sequence.
The best story is “The Whistling Room”, a story that starts with a seemingly harmless haunting that becomes much more disturbing by the end as we learn just what exactly the whistling is. The least effective story is “The Find”, a change of pace that has no supernatural elements even as a distraction. A second copy of a supposedly unique book has surfaced and Carnacki must learn if it’s genuine. The case is resolved in a summary to the main suspects, which is summarized for Carnacki’s friends.
The writing is a bit old-fashioned and there’s a bit of genteel sexism. We learn little of Carnacki’s past, involving him living in a seaside house with his mother as a young man, apparently inspiring his career. And of the four guests, the only thing we learn is that one of them has studied magical science, apparently in the theoretical model only.
This is a nice little collection of spooky tales, which I would recommend to fans of old-fashioned ghost stories.
Last Wednesday, I went to an event titled “Bloggers Get Social”, which was held at a Davanni’s in Edina. Getting there was the first hurdle, as it started at 5 P.M. and I got off work at 4:30 several suburbs away. I found an express route that worked on paper, but when I got to the bus stop, discovered I’d left my paper with the route number and the address of the Davanni’s back in the office. Fortunately, I was able to work out which express bus out of the dozen that serve that stop it was by elimination.
Next problem: When I got on the bus, I discovered that there were no schedules for the route on the bus–I knew one of the cross-streets where I had to get off, but not the other. And everyone near me was firmly attached to their headphones except one lady who had no idea where that cross-street was. The good news was, it was the very first stop the express made in Edina, and the Davanni’s was clearly visible from the side of the bus I was on. I was there only about fifteen minutes late!
Of course, that meant that the other attendees had already clumped up into tight groups at tables, so I was at a loss at first. Good news, though, Davanni’s put on a nice spread for us, showcasing their variety of party foods. Their party room space is also very nice. https://www.davannis.com/location/edina/
The organizers of the social night were the folks from the MN Blogger Conference, which next meets at Concordia University in Saint Paul October 16th, 2016. http://www.mnbloggerconference.com/ After the owners of the Davanni’s gave a nice speech about the history of the restaurant and how their employees have helped build their menu over the years, a couple of other latecomers joined my table, and the organizers reminded everyone to switch tables every so often so that we would meet different people.
I still think I missed about half the bloggers there, but did manage to give out all the business cards with my blog info on them. Not everyone had cards, but I did manage to get some. In no particular order:
Faces of TBI: This site is about people who have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury, both survivors and those who have passed on. The author is Amy Zellner, writer of Life with a Traumatic Brain Injury: Finding the Road Back to Normal. Her most recent blog post is an appearance by Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith in Concussion) coming up in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota. http://facesoftbi.com/an-evening-with-dr-bennet-omalu-minneapolis/
Stacie Sayz So: A lifestyle blogger, a lot of her posts seem to be about beauty products from an affordable perspective. But Stacie’s not just about product reviews! Her most recent post is photography tips to enhance those pictures that come with your blog posts (I mostly cheat and just scan the book cover.) http://www.staciesayzso.com/2016/02/how-i-stepped-up-my-camera-game-for-my.html
Kale & Ale: Another lifestyle blog, this one about healthy eating and drinking. Lots of recipes and gardening tips! The latest post by author Valerie Dennis is about her trip to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and the nice places she found to eat there. http://kaleandale.com/2016/02/15/old-san-juan-puerto-rico/
Jen Jamar is a content strategist and social media manager, which is the kind of person I want to consult if I ever try to monetize this blog. (Read me now while there’s still no ads 🙂 Her latest post is about a recent social media management tool update that looks scary, but probably is nothing to panic about: http://www.jenjamar.com/yoast-3-0-1-heres-what-to-do-instead-of-freaking-out/
Donna Hup writes about small town Midwestern life: cooking, entertainment, travel and especially trucking! Her most recent post is about a…unique…charity run she participated in for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. Lots of fun pictures! http://donnahup.com/my-first-cupids-undie-run/
Paul Lundquist doesn’t have a blog as such, but is an advertising and commericial photographer if you can afford to commission the best pictures of stuff for your blog. You can find a portfolio of his work at http://paullundquist.com/
I also remember a fellow doing something called Lifemap which will be a site that allows members to put pins in maps of places they’ve been and write about their experiences there. I don’t think it’s in full production yet.
Davanni’s handed out gift bags, which contained Davanni’s glasses and a do-it-yourself Valentine treat kit. Their regular dessert bars with small pots of frosting and sprinkles so you could customize them for your sweetie. Thanks, Davanni’s!
I got a ride back to the big city from a fellow who works for Blackeye Roasting, a cold press coffee brewer. He was giving out samples of their product. Alas, I don’t like the taste of coffee, but here’s their website anyway: http://www.blackeyeroasting.co/about/
Sadly, I got a raging cold the next day, and hadn’t felt up to writing about the experience till now.
Please visit some of these folks, and in the comments, mention your favorite blog that needs more visitors!
Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler
I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do. Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years. Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works. This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors. Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.
There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off. (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.) Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories. Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.
There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short. They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.) Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people. Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”
There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)
The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality. “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful. Most of the bad stories are extremely short. Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.
There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories. “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me. Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.
The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)
Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales. Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like. (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)
Comic Book Review: Poseurs written by Deborah Vankin, art by Rick Mays
Jenna Berry is a Jewish-Cherokee teen living in a downmarket part of Los Angeles. Her mother is a hard-drinking legal secretary who has been dating a string of pretty boys, and they’re always on the verge of poverty. When Mom’s shoplifting costs Jenna her part-time job, Jenna needs a new way to make money so she can pursue her avocation of photography.
As it happens, Jenna’s got a look that makes her a good fit for a job as a party guest for rent, making Los Angeles events appear even more prestigious than they already are. Jenna hasn’t quite mastered socialization, but she does make two new friends. Pouri is a “parachute kid” from Taiwan who was sent to the United States for an education, but her guardian has bailed, and she prefers partying to studying. Mac is a whitebread kid from suburbia with a habit of trying to create new slang; he’s a busboy, so works the same parties Jenna does, but at a lower payrate.
Parties are fun, but Pouri’s made some poor life choices, and now she’s getting threatening texts. Also, it’s crunch time–she needs to pass her SATs or her parents will force her to come home to Taiwan for an arranged marriage. Pouri comes up with a wacky plan, and then something goes drastically wrong. Can Jenna save the day?
Deborah Vankin is a Los Angeles Times writer covering the culture beat, so presumably well-versed in the party scene. This is her first young adult graphic novel (I see that it may also have been published under the title Insta-Life.) Rick Mays is an experienced comic book artist, working in black and white here.
The theme of the story, as indicated by the title, is that the characters are pretending to be people they’re not, or projecting an image. Even Mac is trying to seem more cool by spouting nonsensical slang. Only when the characters start being more honest with themselves and each other does the plot resolve.
If anything, the depiction of the party scene seems a little sanitized. Pouri drinks, but Jenna doesn’t, and there’s no other drugs, and no sex. Presumably this is to stay in a “Teen” rating. Senior high students should be okay, but parents of younger readers may want to talk to their kids about some of the behavior modeled by the protagonists.
This is a good first effort by Ms. Vankin, but the characterization is a bit thin, and there’s a bit too much fourth wall breakage, so future works by her should be better. The art works very well with the subject matter.
Manga Review: Case Closed Volume 56 by Gosho Aoyama
Quick recap for newer readers: Shinichi Kudou (“Jimmy” in the US version) is a teen genius detective. He runs afoul of a mysterious criminal organization, but their assassination attempt instead causes him to shrink to a childlike appearance. To conceal his survival from the organization, Shinichi poses as Conan Edogawa, ward of inept private detective Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his teenage daughter Ran (Rachel) who happens to be Shinichi’s love interest. Conan continues to solve crimes, though it’s harder to get people to listen to a small kid. See my previous review for more.
The volume to hand is #56. The first story is “Engagement Ring?!” which guest stars Detectives Sato and Takagi, and their slow-moving romance subplot. Sato is suddenly wearing a gold ring on her left hand’s ring finger, and Takagi wasn’t the one who gave it to her. The crime this time is the suicide (or is it?) of a mystery writer that Kogoro was supposed to participate in an interview with. That writer also had a ring that turns out to be an important clue. The case is also complicated in that Sato is one of the few police officers who’s noticed that “Sleeping Mouri” doesn’t move his lips when he gives the real solution, so Conan must figure out other ways to lead the police to the answer.
Next up is “The Witch Legend Mystery” which is loosely based on the story of a lost traveler who seeks shelter with a kindly old woman overnight. He wakes up in the middle of the night due to an odd sound, peeks into the next room, and sees that the woman is actually an onibaba (anthropophagous demon granny) who is sharpening a knife in preparation for butchering him.
In this case, both the Detective Kids with Doctor Agasa, and two “hosts” and their client separately find themselves stranded near a mountain hut, and reluctantly taken in by the scary-looking old woman who lives there. (A “host” is a handsome man who entertains women at a nightclub, getting them to buy drinks and expensive trinkets for them.) The client winds up dead from a slit throat. Was it the old woman, who one of the children saw sharpening a knife in the dead of night, or someone else?
The remainder of the volume is a series of connected stories that deal with the Eisuke Hondo subplot. This mysterious youth is clumsy, but perceptive, and seems to be connected to the supposed missing (actually comatose) Rena Mizunashi, newscaster and associate of the Black Organization. Conan’s Osakan counterpart Heiji Hattori (Harley) has discovered someone who may have know Eisuke’s father; also there’s only one known photograph of the man. But when Conan, Doctor Agasa, and Ai (English name Anita, another survivor of childification) go to check that photo–it’s missing!
That problem resolved, Conan has some new clues. Then Ran suggests visiting a friend of the Mouri family who is a huge Rena fan, to see if Eisuke really is her brother, as the photographs would suggest. Conan and Sonoko (Serena) tag along, and Conan solves a bank transfer scam case on the way. But news footage of Rena only confuses the issue–she apparently can’t be Eisuke’s sister, and the boy’s motives are still murky.
It’s nice to get some plot movement, so this is one of the volumes to pick up if you’re most interested in the “myth arc.’ Otherwise, it’s got a couple of decent mysteries that are typical for the series.
Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter edited by Mary François Rockcastle.
This is the latest volume of Hamline University’s annual literary magazine, which I picked up at the Rain Taxi Book Festival. The subtitle comes from one of the poems in this issue, “Is This What Poets Do?” by Elizabeth Oness. Thus the theme is effectively what cannot be changed, and what people do about that.
The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t understand and thus cannot evaluate the quality of. One might well ask why I keep reading literary magazines, as they inevitably go heavy on the modern poetry. I don’t have a good answer for that. “Suckling” by Jenna Le does have some interesting pink milk imagery, and “SS Eastland Capsizes in the Chicago River, 1914″ by Renny Golden tells a fairly coherent story. “Frank’s Nursery and Crafts” by Bao Phi is a tale of bad customer service possibly exacerbated by racial prejudice, and would have worked about as well in prose as far as I can tell.
The interview by Katrina Vandenberg and Taylor (Doc) Burkhard is also about poetry, as the subject is Detroit wordsmith and slam artist Jamaal May. He talks about how he structured his first book.
From the fiction section, worth noting is “Duotone Portrait of a Dragonfly” by R.T. Jamison. It’s the story of a brief affair between a Japanese art student and an American otaku (fan of Japanese pop culture), interspersed with marks used in traditional print-making. “As You Are Now” by Jeff P. Jones is a story set during a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie that has lost the ability to interpret its senses. It’s only able to feel alive again when it is eating the living, but that soon passes.
The best of the “creative non-fiction” category is Paul van Dyke’s “Goomey and Aflow”. An Iraq War veteran and a Somali refugee bond over their experiences as soldiers and names that are unpleasant enough no one will bother to insult you further. They may be beaten down, but not permanently. “The Café Book” by Charisse Coleman imitates the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon with lists and random thoughts.
The photography section is random and nothing particularly stands out. There’s also a longish essay on “Mood Rooms” which is apparently cut down from an even longer piece. It’s so-so.
There are two book review columns, one of which is all modern poetry books and largely impenetrable to me. The other one is supposedly about books of essays, but half of the books discussed are actually more modern poetry, which I think is a cheat.
This volume is a good way to get a broad view of what the Midwestern literary community is up to, and if you are into modern poetry, I think you will enjoy it much more than I did. I should also note that the 2016 volume is accepting submissions through December; aspiring writers might want to give it a shot.
Comic Book Review: The Golden Age Starman Archives Volume 1 Written by Gardner Fox; Art by Jack Burnley
Wealthy playboy Ted Knight has somehow harnessed the cosmic energy of the stars in his Gravity Rod. As the world moves to war, he decides that the best use of this technology is to become a costumed superhero, taking the name Starman.
Like many characters created during the Golden Age, Starman did not have an origin story as such, (Roy Thomas gave him one decades later); in the first story Ted Knight has already been operating as Starman long enough to have convinced FBI chief agent Woodley Allen to trust him and for his fiancee Doris Lee to be used to his excuses for slipping away. According to Jack Burnley’s introduction to this volume, this first story was not written by Gardner Fox, and is the only one he substantially revised, inserting a villain he named Dr. Doom (and editorial changed for unknown reasons to Dr. Doog.)
The story itself opens with America in a panic as electrical components suddenly heat up, causing electrical outages, fires and explosions. The FBI is called in on the case and Agent Allen decides this is a job for the Starman. Bored playboy Ted Knight is having dinner with his fiancee Doris Lee in Gotham, one of the unaffected areas when the rod in his pocket starts vibrating. He claims not to be feeling well, but Doris opts to stay for the food she ordered while Ted leaves. A blackout happens, which makes it even easier for Mr. Knight to switch to his Starman outfit.
Conferring with Agent Allen in a cabin outside the city, Starman is informed that the Secret Brotherhood of the Electron is behind the attacks. The FBI can’t locate them, however, as their communications and transportation have been wrecked by the Brotherhood’s electrical control device. Starman’s Gravity Rod is immune to outside control, and can trace the energy to its source in a mountain stronghold.
Inside the stronghold, most of the Brotherhood is ordinary criminals, but Dr. Doog has stolen the Ultra-Dynamo from a Dr. Davis by means of his hypnotic powers. Starman’s rod protects him from hypnosis, and Doog apparently perishes in one of his own death traps. Starman seals the mountain just to make sure.
The stories tended to be formulaic, but reasonably entertaining individually. Starman’s most frequent foe was The Light, a mad scientist who had been laughed out of the scientific community, and developed a shrinking ray (which gives off a hot bright light) to get his revenge. He returned twice, each time with a different scheme. The most iconic villain, however, was the Mist, an elderly man whose head appeared to be floating on a moving cloud. He’d developed an invisibility formula for use in World War One, but been turned down by the government for unknown reasons. Having perfected it, he turned to crime.
The most out-there villain was Cuthbert Cain, a sallow, puny-looking fellow who had combined an advanced knowledge of photo-electric energy and black magic; he could capture the will of anyone he photographed. The story also had one of the best covers of the series on Adventure Comics #66.
Jack Burnley had been a sports cartoonist before going into comic books, and had a style well-suited to the superhero genre, with dynamic poses and framing. But Starman never broke out as a major character. Part of this, I think, is that Ted Knight wasn’t a very compelling character. This hypochondriac made Clark Kent look like a dynamic man of action, and was so dismissive of Doris Lee that at one point the writer makes her explain that he’s much more likable off camera, thus her continuing to put up with him.
As Starman, Ted is fairly generic–his inability to use his powers during the daytime did add some suspense, but the combination of square-jawed virtue and battle wisecracks was shared with over half of the other costumed characters being published at the time.
There’s some period ethnic stereotyping. This may have been the inspiration for Roy Thomas making Starman particularly anti-Japanese in his All-Star Squadron series.
At the time this compilation was published, a modern Starman series featuring Ted’s son Jack Knight was being run with creator James Robinson. I highly recommend it.
As for this book, the art is good, the writing is decent, and it has rare stories. Recommended to Golden Age fans, those who enjoyed the Robinson series, and people who have a good library near them.