Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the second volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history manga (I have already reviewed the first and third.)  This volume covers most of what Americans call “World War Two” and the Japanese call “The Pacific War” as they had already been at war with China for years by the time the rest of the world went to armed conflict.

Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944

As with the other volumes, the author covers not only national and world events, but his personal experiences.  Mr. Mizuki depicts himself as a dreamer who puts little effort into school or work, being expelled from both, but enthusiastically pursues whatever knowledge catches his interest.  When he is finally drafted, Mizuki is also an incompetent soldier (much like the American Sad Sack) who blows his chance at a relatively cushy spot as a bugler and instead is shipped out to Papua New Guinea.  (His gentle nature does, however, allow him to make friends with the natives.)

Having bit by bit become a military dictatorship, and with the Soviet Union looming on its doorstep, the government of Japan felt comfortable allying itself with Nazi Germany (and then Fascist Italy) against their common foe.  Japan was then confused when Germany made a non-aggression pact with Russia (and they followed suit) only to invade the Soviet Union a year or so later.  Meanwhile, the Japanese military continued trying to liberate/take over their neighbors in the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.

Japan was also beginning to run out of vital war supplies like steel and oil, and their biggest supplier, the United States, was turning increasingly hostile.  The U.S. government, led by president Franklin D. Roosevelt, cut off the supplies.  Japanese ambassadors did try to negotiate, but the American idea of compromise was “give up all territories you seized in war, and we’ll sell you just enough to keep the lights on at home.”  Understandably, the Japanese military government found that offer insulting at best.

And so Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Japanese attacks across the Pacific territories of the Allies.  At first, the Japanese scored victory after victory.  Given the nature of some of the colonial governments, in certain places they were even greeted as liberators.  (Though most soon learned that the Japanese had no intention of allowing them true independence.)  However, this had two bad side effects.  First, many in the Japanese military began suffering from “victory disease”, believing that the Japanese forces were invincible and the war could be won easily.  Second, instead of demoralizing the Americans into giving up as was the plan, the attacks instead stung the complacent public into patriotic fervor and willingness to do whatever it took to beat the Axis.

As the war wore on, the United States’ superior production capability, advanced technology and ability to read Japanese codes turned the tide.  The Japanese government, led by Hideki Tojo, decided to just flat out lie to their citizens by never admitting setbacks or defeats.  Increasing rationing and crackdowns on free speech told the Japanese public that things were going badly, but they had no idea how dire the war had become.

The Japanese army is depicted as brutal, with soldiers suffering constant physical abuse from their superiors (who were physically abused by their superiors and so on.)  In this volume, young Private Shigeru gets the worst of this treatment.  Our protagonist misses out on comfort women only by virtue of being too far back in the line when the brothel closes to evacuate.  There’s also some body function humor.

The Bataan Death March is depicted as less a deliberate atrocity than the result of horrific failure of logistical planning.  And Shigeru’s brother off-handedly does something that will later get him tried as a war criminal.

There are footnotes explaining some military terms (some so basic as to seem silly, but perhaps the equivalent Japanese terms might be unfamiliar to young readers) and extensive end notes.

The volume ends with the mission that will eventually lead to Shigeru Mizuki losing an arm.

As with the other volumes, Mr. Mizuki’s art varies between his usual scratchy,cartoony style and more “realistic” depictions.  Some of the war scenes make it clear he could have done straight-up war comics if he’d so chosen.

Highly recommended to those interested in learning about World War Two from the Japanese point of view, and fans of Shigeru Mizuki’s other work.

And here’s a song about Rabaul, the airfield Shigeru was stationed near.

Book Review: Three In One

Book Review: Three In One edited by Leo Margulies

According to the introduction by the editor, this book came about because there were three long science fiction stories in the to-publish pile, too long for short-story collections but too short to be their own paperback.  The cover by Emsh is a good choice with the three intelligent species cooperating in some vacuum-suited endeavor.  It doesn’t precisely match any of the stories inside, but gets across the ideas of “three” and “science fiction” nicely.

Three In One

“There Is No Defense” by Theodore Sturgeon takes place in a far future when the races of the Solar System have devised a weapon so fearsome it is only known as the Death.  This won the war against the Jovians, but so horrified everyone that there is now a complete ban against it, sponsored by the interplanetary Peace organization.

Now an invader ship has entered the system.  It will not communicate.  Its movements are seemingly random, as are its attacks with the power to slag small moons.  Its defenses seem to make it immune to any normal weapon, and it retaliates instantly and overwhelmingly to any attack.  And this is just one ship, presumably a scout for the main invasion.

It appears that there is no choice but to un-ban the Death, regardless of the damage to the Peace movement’s ethical standing.  But what if the invader is immune to the Death?  What then?

The story fudges on the difference between pacifism and passivism (as a lot of stories not written by pacifists do), but does show respect for the pacifist’s point of view.  The invader’s secret will be more easily guessed by modern readers than the characters in the story, I think.

“Galactic Chest” by Clifford D. Simak is contemporary to 1956, when it was published.  A Midwestern reporter chafes at his daily assignment of writing puff pieces for the Community Chest (a charity organization, forerunner of United Way; you may have seen the Monopoly cards.)  He wants to become a foreign correspondent and cover international stories!

The newspaper editor (nicknamed “the Barnacle”) doesn’t seem to be helping, sending our protagonist off on a series of stories that seem to be wild goose chases.  Finally told point-blank by the Barnacle that good reporters find their own stories, the reporter looks again at those and other incidents and notices a pattern.  A pattern reminiscent of brownies (the creatures, not the confections.)

This light-hearted story is closer to fantasy than science fiction, just substituting aliens for elfin creatures.  A couple of the “helpful” things they do come across as disturbing (they are okay with euthansia), but overall it’s a happy ending.  The main characters drink heavily (a bartender supplies a clue to what’s going on), and it’s strongly implied that the reporter and his love interest engage in hanky-panky before marriage.

“West Wind” by Murray Leinster is set in Eastern Europe of the then near future, though country names are very carefully not used.  Igor is a proud citizen of a small, militarily weak country.  They have atomic power plants, true, but their neighbor to the east has actual atomic bombs, enough to turn Igor’s country to glass.  The country to the east is large and militarily powerful, and has already bullied Igor’s country into ceding over one of its provinces to them.

Now the eastern nation has demanded another border province.  The President of Igor’s nation has agreed to cede this province as well, without a shot fired, just all the citizens evacuated.  The President did warn that any soldier entering the province would be doing so at their own risk, but that was a bluff, right?

Igor is incensed.  He knows full well that the aggressor nation will not be satisfied with this bite of territory; they will soon find some excuse to demand more, or even invade outright!  Igor decides to hide from the evacuation teams with a radio transmitter (he’s a news broadcaster by profession) so that he can send messages back to his people to shame them into resisting the invaders.

Igor doesn’t even get one broadcast off before he’s caught by the invaders and arrested as a spy.  As the only living resident of the province, the eastern nation believes he must know something about what the President meant in his speech.  Igor makes up some stories under torture, but he has no clue whether or not the veiled threat was a bluff, or what trap could possibly have been laid.  The only comfort he has is an old nursery rhyme about the West Wind protecting his homeland.

There are some evocative scenes in this one, from the solitude Igor faces in the abandoned province, to a chilling calculus as the eastern dictators decide how many of their own troops need to die to make their planned invasion look like a fair fight.

The reveal itself seems unlikely given advances in our knowledge of that field of science; to quote Morbo, “it does not work like that!”

This is mid-level work by a trio of excellent authors, worth looking up if you are a fan of any of them.  It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted recently so try used book stores and libraries.

 

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

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.

Manga Review: Gimmick!

Manga Review: Gimmick! Story by Youzaburou  Kanari, Art by Kuroko Yabuguchi

Studio Gimmick doesn’t look like much from the outside–it’s a two-man operation by Kohei Nagase, special effects makeup expert, and his stuntman friend Kannazuki.  But if you need their skills, and have nowhere else to turn, you may be able to hire them to help you.

Gimmick!

Gimmick! is a shounen (boys’) manga with a focus on “practical” (as opposed to computer-generated) special effects and makeup.  Kohei and the friends he gathers over the course of the series use their tricks and cunning to help people in trouble.  We eventually learn  that Kohei learned his craft in the Hollywood studio of the legendary J.T., but returned to Japan after he was tricked into helping the U.S. government get America into the Iraq War (which led to the death of his best friend) and J.T. disappeared.  He still cherishes the special silver makeup spatula J.T. gave him.

In the volume at hand, #9, the finale, the true identity of Kohei’s nemesis, the man with the black spatula, is revealed.  We learn the enemy’s motivations and why he uses special effects for evil, and Kohei must overcome his guilt to face the Black Spatula in a final battle.  After that, there’s a coda chapter which I found overly sentimental, and a flashback to the first time Kohei was put in charge of special effects makeup for a movie.

To be honest, I liked the earlier volumes better, with their caper plotlines and twists.  As the series wore on, it became more contest-oriented, and the final makeup tournament lasts most of three volumes.

The art is at its best when depicting the makeup, and can be a bit sketchy otherwise.

Overall, it’s an okay series, but I can see why it only lasted nine volumes.  Check your library.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Comic Book Review: Boxers & Saints

Comic Book Review: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Disclaimer:  I received this boxed set as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Boxers

Little Bao is a farm boy who loves the Chinese operas performed at the spring festivals every year.  But one year a foreign devil, a missionary, appears and disrupts the festival, destroying the image of the Earth god that protects the village.  Disaster follows soon thereafter, both for the village and for Bao’s family.

Bao comes to hate the Christian missionaries and their foreign backers, as well as the “secondary devils”, Chinese who have converted to the Christian faith.  The government is in the pocket of the foreigners, but eventually Bao becomes part of a liberation movement, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.

Saints

Four-Girl is an unwanted child, a fourth daughter who is so unwelcomed by her own family that they don’t even give her an actual name.  Called a “devil”, she resolves to become the best devil she can be–and this leads her to Christianity.   In that community, she finds things she never had before:  cookies, compassion, acceptance, and the ability to choose her own name (Vibiana) and purpose in life.

It’s too bad that the Boxers are going around killing all the Christians.

This pair of graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang, creator of American Born Chinese, are set during the Boxer Rebellion (primarily 1899-1901)  and are reflections of each other.  Both Bao and Vibiana find themselves unable to accept their circumstances, and rebel in different ways.  These counterpart viewpoints cross over during their stories, showing that events have more than one interpretation, and the cruel ironies of incomplete information.

Bao and Vibiana also both have spiritual experiences,  Bao channels Ch’in Shih-huang, the first Emperor of China, who turns out to be a very demanding ghost.  Vibiana has visions of Joan of Arc, who encourages the young woman to seek her own path, but whose final fate foreshadows the ending of both stories.

As these books are fictional versions for the young adult audience, historical events have been simplified somewhat. to fit into the narrative.   No side ends up the “good guys” however.  The Harmonious Fist has high principles, but not everyone in their group keeps all of them, and even Bao finds himself committing atrocities.  Father Bey, an antagonist in Boxers, is a more sympathetic character in Saints, but his judgmental nature and bluntness cause more than one  bad outcome.

Trigger Warning:  Bao’s brothers bully him initially, though they come to respect him later.  Four-Girl goes through years of emotional abuse, ending in a cold-blooded act of physical abuse that drives Vibiana away from her family forever.

These graphic novels cover a period of history that most Westerners are likely unfamiliar with beyond a brief mention in World History or the Yellow Peril literature of the early Twentieth Century.  They are best read back-to-back, and now come in a boxed set for that purpose.  Parents should consider reading these with their young adults to discuss some of the more difficult subject matter, and checking out the Further Reading in the back which lists more scholarly looks at the history.

Overall:  Very good, and well worth a look.

 

 

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