Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne. But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule. Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats. Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.
Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives. Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.
Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.
In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum. We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well. But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States. Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.
One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America. Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.
The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.) Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.
Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions. (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.) A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.
Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document. He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up. His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West. Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?
There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers. This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.
There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen. I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.
Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time. They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America. That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.
And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y
Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz
By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show. Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime. Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently. And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.
This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers. And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s. But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.
This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416. The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader. (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)
Several stories are topical to the 1970s. Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances. Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City. Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.
Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up. One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.
The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia. Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father. Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.
As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.) He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior. Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems. Therefore he was going to do something about that.
Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones. Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive. And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.
After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help. (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.) After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.
Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity. (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.) Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.
This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art. On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.
Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan. (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)
Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster
In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans. That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French. France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory. But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.
President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in the Louisiana Purchase. Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there. And so he chose the men of Jefferson.
This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures. Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country. William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist. George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune. Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C, And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.
It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices. Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.
Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text. We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone. Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical. Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse. And many others.
The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time. But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.” There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments. The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds. At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion. He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.
While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello. I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.
The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through. There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land. Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.
There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes. There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.
The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs. It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory. (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)
I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.
Disclaimer: I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
Magazine Review: The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review 2015 edited by William Blazek
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) is considered one of America’s great writers, best known for The Great Gatsby, his 1925 novel (which didn’t really get much traction until after he died. He was a colorful figure, and his contentious relationship with his wife Zelda (eventually a writer in her own right) has fascinated readers and biographers for decades. Unsurprisingly, there’s a scholarly annual magazine devoted to just Fitzgerald-related topics.
This volume is dedicated to Frances Kroll Ring, Mr. Fitzgerald’s secretary during the last months of his life, who had passed away earlier in 2015. There follow thirteen articles and a set of book reviews.
“The Gilded Man in Nickle City” by Madison Smartt Bell is that author’s keynote address for the 2009 International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore, it turns out, was the city the Fitzgeralds lived in during their last doomed attempt at functioning as a nuclear family. It was also the residence of Mr. Fitzgerald’s distant relative and namesake, Francis Scott Key, best known for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This was the site of F. Scott and Zelda’s fierce battle over which of them had the right to use their joint experiences as subject matter for their novels and stories.
According to things he said at the time, Mr. Fitzgerald believed that Zelda’s attempts to create art were causing her mental state to grow worse. (Shades of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”!) He also went to great lengths to establish that he was a professional writer and she was just an “amateur.” She was just as sharp-tongued but from the fragments mentioned seemed to have a better case.
“Mending Sails by Candlelight” by Tennessee Williams is his preface to the play Clothes for a Summer Hotel, a biodrama loosely based on the final days of the Fitzgeralds. This was his last play to open on Broadway, and he had a bitter tone to his essay, which is why the New York Times refused to print it. Mr. Williams easily has the best writing in this volume, but explanatory material by John S. Bak gives context to the work. (Among other things, he points out where Mr. Williams has misquoted poetry.)
“Civilization’s Going to Pieces” by Joseph Vogel takes a look at the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby and how the story has resonance in the Obama era, especially in the areas of intersectional identity politics. There’s some interesting stuff on how hip-hop music works in the current day much as jazz did back in the 1920s, when the novel was written.
“Landscape with a Tragic Hero” by Sara Antonelli takes a closer look at Trimalchio, which was an early version of what became Gatsby (much like Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird.) It shares many of the characters and incidents that made it into the published novel, but in significantly altered order and conditions. Ms. Antonelli’s contention is that the changes are so drastic as to make Trimalchio a completely different book worth approaching on its own.
“The Muse and the Maker” by Ashley Lawson features the relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and examines what it means to be a muse, and whether their collaboration/competition was an inevitable outcome. She places an emphasis on Fitzgerald’s place in the High Modernism movement in literature and its attempt to “reclaim” literature from a lowbrow “feminized” mass market.
“Authorship and Artistry” by Christine Grogan is all about Zelda and looks at two of her stories, “A Millionaire’s Girl” and “Miss Ella”, and how the author shows improvement between the two. This is especially noticeable in the respective treatment of the issue of suicide. Also notable is that Mr. Fitzgerald claimed sole byline on the first story so he could get it published in a more upscale magazine–Zelda’s copy of the “tear sheet” has his name crossed out and hers written in.
“My Own Personal Public” by Ross K. Tangedal is very narrow in focus, dealing solely with “A Table of Contents” in Tales of the Jazz Age. Unlike the usual run of contents pages, this one gives a mini-history of each story (although some of what Mr. Fitzgerald writes is unreliable.)
“F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Harriman Rumsey” by Horst H. Kruse is a selection from his book F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of The Great Gatsby, which is covered in the book review section of this volume. A eugenics enthusiast and consumer advocate, Mary Harriman Rumsey was quite wealthy and may have been the model for one of the Gatsby characters. Mr. Kruse indulges in some speculation on that topic.
“Party-Going in Fitzgerald and His Contemporaries” by David Seed talks about the many, many party scenes in Mr. Fitzgerald’s work and compares them to parties depicted in other 1920s authors’ fiction.
“This Side of Sexuality” by Tanfer Emin Tunc talks about the subject of birth control and abortion in Mr. Fitzgerald’s work, and how his lapsed Catholicism and personal experience with Zelda’s abortions may have influenced his depictions of female sexuality. Resonant with today given the theme of women wanting control of their own bodies and being depicted as selfish for doing so.
“Narrative Authority and Competing Representations” by James Stamant sounds much drier than it is. This essay covers the Pat Hobby stories Fitzgerald wrote in his last years, satirizing Hollywood with a hack scriptwriter as the main character. Hobby tries to do as little work as possible, caring mostly about getting the credit so payments will keep coming in.
“Master and Model” by Steven Goldleaf is about Saying Goodbye to Sally by Richard Yates, an author whose career had some parallels to Fitzgerald’s. The story is a fictionalization of Yates’ experience in Hollywood in which the main character makes those parallels even more direct.
And “Scott Fitzgerald As I Knew Him” by Jace Gatzemeyer takes a look at three “secondary memoirs” (where the focus is not on the writer, but on the writer’s relationship with a more famous person) to determine if these are of any use to Fitzgerald scholars.
All of the articles have footnotes ranging from dry to nearly as long as the main text, as well as helpful bibliographies for further study.
This magazine will be of most interest to the serious F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, and college students in the appropriate literature classes. Check to see if your local college library has a subscription.
One final note: I look forward to seeing the scholarly article about Mr. Fitzgerald’s namesake character in Bungou Stray Dogs, who gains superpowers by wasting money.
Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan
This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors. The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.
The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution. The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him. In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)
There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror. The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce. Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.
Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone. I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable. I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.
Content issues: Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise. “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.
This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price. However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling. There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough. The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.
Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years. Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet. It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.
Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke
This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland. Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.
But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon. Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well. Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband. The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.
The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children! But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business. He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.
Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.) There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.
Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration. In this last category is the increasing influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways. Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.
Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative. The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating. Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.
The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English. (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.) There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative. In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive. (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)
The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.
Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.
Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Once, Mars was a place of mystery. Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky. Were there canals filled with water? Bloodsucking tripod operators? Beings that had never fallen from grace with God? Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.
Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative. The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad. It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians. In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.
The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been better prepared. But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.
Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets. In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars. (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.) One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress! There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book. Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.
Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless. “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code. He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451. As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.
Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation. “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home. He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.
Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them. Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story. Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written. After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.
One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.
Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through. Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long. And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.
Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.
The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.
Book Review: Behind the Forgotten Front, a WWII Novel by Barbara Hawkins
Like many red-blooded American men after Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Harry Flynn joined the Army to fight the enemy directly. But the Army has a lot of jobs to fill, and his excellent handwriting gets Harry posted as a supply officer in a backwater post in India. The Japanese have taken Burma (now Myanmar), cutting China off from supply by the other Allies. Therefore, a road must be built from India through Burma to China. Or at least that’s what the brass think should be done. Harry is unconvinced–this road seems to be killing more Americans than the Japanese ever did.
The CBI theater of World War Two is relatively obscure in American media compared to the European struggle against the Nazis or the Pacific campaign. So this historical novel was a good change of pace, shedding light on an area I am unfamiliar with.
In the early part of this story, Lt. Flynn is cynical about his superiors, bored with his humdrum duties, and willing to take dangerous steps to fight against what he sees as a doomed strategy. About a third of the way through, Harry is reassigned as the supply officer for Merrill’s Marauders, a combat unit sent well into enemy lines to take out certain targets that will make it easier to build and use the road. Then he sees plenty of action!
Probably the best parts of the novel are the descriptions of things that happened in real life, taken from the author’s research (there’s a reading list in the back.) I’m a sucker for the gritty details of long marches and miserable weather.
Harry is not a particularly likable person, though he gets over his period-authentic racism pretty quickly. (He’s smart enough to realize it’s a bad idea to antagonize the “Negro” troops, while a designated bad guy isn’t.) He does some things that put people in unnecessary danger, and probably kills at least one innocent bystander when a sabotage plan goes awry. Some flashbacks establish where he got his sour attitude from, but don’t justify his actions.
There’s some salty language (perhaps not enough given the setting) and discussion of the factors that lead some women into prostitution. Lots of violence, of course, with vivid description of the smells.
One character is built up as important in the first part of the novel, then vanishes with a “whatever happened to?” at the end; many other characters have on-page deaths.
The Kindle version I downloaded has a number of spellchecker typos, most commonly “lightening” for “lightning”–it’s an older copy so these might have been fixed by now.
Recommended for readers who want to know a bit more about a relatively obscure part of WWII, and aren’t up for reading straight-up military history (because that can get pretty dry.)
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.
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.
“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/
Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch
Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry. (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.) It was digest-sized and relatively thin. Let’s look at the contents!
“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss. He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.) Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear. This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from? Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?
Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out. Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)
Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell. He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.
“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work. For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do. This extends to writing as well. Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors. Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim. And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.
Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place. Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene. If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.
“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times. His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits. His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates. He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying. Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced. It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people. There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story. (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)
“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible. He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope. It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle. There is an attempted suicide in the story.
“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life. These planets are exceedingly rare. It looks, however, like this one might be ideal. Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….
In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species. The twist ending is suitably bizarre.
“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective. See how long it takes you to figure out which one!
“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system. Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed. But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence. There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.
“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager. He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray. Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold. The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.
The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith. This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.
Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.
There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s. He declined to have his real name published for security reasons. Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years. Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction. (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)
The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective. Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.