Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

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

Great Historical Coincidences

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

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

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

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1 edited by John Locke

Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) was a newspaper reporter who decided to try his hand at writing fiction.  As it happened, he turned out to be very good at it, making a huge hit with his most famous character, scientific detective Craig Kennedy.  He became America’s most popular detective story writer from 1910-1920, and continued to do pretty well thereafter (despite a bankruptcy when a man who’d commissioned a  bunch of work failed to pay) until his death.  Mr. Reeve also worked on films and radio, and did true crime reporting as well.

From Ghouls to Gangsters

This first volume is a collection of short stories; the second volume has non-fiction by and about Mr. Reeve.  The first story appears to be his first sale, “The Cat that Didn’t Come Back” (1907), a gruesome but comedic tale of a man attempting to dispose of a cat’s corpse.  The majority of stories are about Craig Kennedy, a professor of chemistry who decides to use his knowledge of science to solve crimes.  He’s assisted by newspaper reporter Walter Jameson, the Watson-like narrator.

We begin with the 1910 story “The Case of Helen Bond.”  A man has died of a heart attack, but the fact that his safe was burgled the same night casts a suspicion of foul play.  Mr. Kennedy uses a primitive type of lie detector (and his brain) to crack the case.   The professor owes a great deal to Sherlock Holmes, but is considerably less eccentric.  In the Holmes tradition, the reader is not given all the clues, but must wait for Mr. Kennedy to sum up the case and how the science plays in.

That story was published in Cosmopolitan, but Kennedy stories appeared in many places, including Boys’ Life (which introduced a young nephew for him) and Country Gentleman.  By the 1930s, Mr. Reeve’s stories mostly appeared in the detective pulps, and took on a more “gangbusters” feel.  He was also beginning to reuse plot beats from earlier, out of print stories.

The science in some of the stories is a bit dated, particularly the case that’s solved by Freudian dream analysis.   As well, period ethnic prejudice pops up from time to time.  Mr. Reeve appears to have been progressive in his views of women for 1910, but some bits look odd from a modern perspective.

Mr. Reeve wrote several stories with female protagonists as detectives, including medical Dr. Mary Mannix and “secret agent” Clare Kendall.  One of the latter’s stories closes out the volume, “The Royal Racket” (1935).  Clare helps identify two corpses, and is then asked to advise a young couple that suspects some of their new social crowd might be less than honest.   The two cases are of course connected.

The Boys’ Life story “The Polar Flight of the ZR-10” (1924) is notable for not being so much a mystery as a speculative fiction story.  The title dirigible is being used to test a transpolar flight route between America and Europe, and finds a long-lost colony of Vikings.  The mystery subplot arises from a “beat the Reds” race that feels more 1950s than 1920s.

Overall, the stories are good, if mostly dated, and demonstrate Mr. Reeve’s ability to write to a specific magazine’s intended audience.  Most of the earlier stories were heavily edited for book publication to make them pseudo-novels, and the later ones have never been reprinted before, which makes this a good collector’s item for detective story fans.

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4 edited by Mort Weisenger

Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are two of the most enduring characters in comic books, thanks to being attached to the one and only Superman.  Lois appeared in the first Superman story in Action Comics #1 (1938), a snarky but skilled reporter who initially had little use for Clark Kent but admired the mysterious superhero.  Jimmy appeared first in the radio adaptation in 1940, first as a copy boy and then as a cub reporter/photographer, being brought into the comics proper in 1941.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 4

As popular supporting characters, they appeared often in Superman’s stories.  In the 1950s, they got their own continuing series, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.  As you can tell by the titles, Superman was the co-star of each of these series, appearing in every story.  Eventually, the series, along with Supergirl and some other Superman-related characters, were merged into an anthology comic titled Superman Family.

Jimmy’s stories often centered around him suddenly gaining a superpower, a special advantage, or undergoing a weird transformation.   He would figure out some way of using this, until he got cocky and needed Superman to bail him out of the resulting trouble.    Other stories revolved around his falling in love with women who almost invariably weren’t going to stick around.  His most frequent love interest was Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister, who was much less invested in the relationship than he was.

Jimmy had an ultrasonic signal watch which he could use to summon Superman in case of trouble, though the watch itself often caused trouble, or Jimmy would misuse it.

Lois also got temporary superpowers often, but her stories focused much more on her relationship with Superman.  She often tried to trick him into marrying her or discover his secret identity.  She also met quite a few men that were ready to marry her right away, though all of them turned out to be flawed in one way or another.  Often Lois was pitted against Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s childhood friend as fierce rivals and best friends.

Sadly, the period where Lois initially got her own series was also when she reached the nadir of her characterization.  Back in the Golden Age, she’d been independent and often gotten herself out of fixes before Superman could rescue her.  Her personality hadn’t revolved around her love of Superman nearly as much either.  Early Silver Age Lois was too often a “damsel in distress” and came off shrewish.  (She remained a crackerjack reporter, though.  Half of the danger she got in was because of her successful investigative journalism.)

It’s no wonder that Superman often played mean pranks on Jimmy and Lois to teach them a lesson.  Sadly, those lessons never stuck.

It is important to remember that these stories (this volume covers 1960-61) were aimed at children, who were expected to only read comics for a few years.  Thus plotlines were often recycled as the previous readers weren’t going to notice, and the status quo remained as steady as possible so that the experience was consistent no matter how many issues you might have missed.  They were never meant to be read all in a row by adults.

Some standout stories in this volume include “Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity” which has an appearance by Congo Bill and Congorilla (Bill, a “great white hunter” , could swap minds with a golden gorilla); “The Curse of Lena Thorul” the first appearance of Lena, who was Lex Luthor’s long-lost sister (and later became one of Supergirl’s supporting cast); and several “Imaginary Stories” peeking into possible futures where Lois Lane and Superman finally get married.

Supergirl and Krypto also pop up a few times; as this was during the period when Supergirl was Superman’s “secret weapon”, she has to be careful that neither Lois or Jimmy realize what’s going on or who she is.

There is period sexism (a couple of stories mention that married women are discriminated against in the job market), hussy-shaming (“slut” was a word you couldn’t use under the Comics Code), fat-shaming, and a general attitude of lookism even by the good guy characters.

All that said, these are fun stories with inventive ideas, often having more plot packed into eight pages than many modern superhero comics do in eight issues.  Highly recommended for the nostalgic Superman fan, moderately recommended for other fans (check your local library.)

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