Religion, acting, monsters and birds of prey: books read

THE FOURTH R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools by Joan DelFattore is, as I recalled, an excellent history of the subject, starting in the 19th century when Catholics began agitating against Protestant prayers and King James readings, while baffled Protestants insisted there was absolutely nothing sectarian about all that, it was just that making kids Protestant made them more America. Then follows court case after court case, which contrary to right-wing myth almost never involved atheists (more often it was Jews, Catholics, agnostics or minority sects) and definitely did not “kick God out of the schools.” DelFattore does a great job showing how the “pro” and “anti” sides often disagree among themselves, which has repeatedly derailed efforts to restore school prayer (moderates locking horns with those who think mandatory school prayer is perfectly reasonable and unobjectionable). Well done.

AN ACTOR’S WAYS AND MEANS was a print collection of several lectures Michael Redgrave gave to an acting school, which as he notes means a presentation targeted to aspiring professionals now goes to a much wider audience. Redgrave tackles questions that go back at least to Diderot as to whether the superior actor is driven by feeling or reason, whether the chameleonic actor is better than one who plays the same personality and when an actor can feel they’ve mastered their craft and whether we should take Hamlet’s advice to the players seriously. Even though I haven’t done any theater since the move to Durham, quite interesting, and I find myself debating whether some of his points can be applied to writing (I may come back to that in a later post). In any case as this was Mum’s copy from when she was 20 I’ll hang on to it.

THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST by Rick Yancey is the first in a series about a 19th century crytozoologist told from the POV of his twelve year old servant, Will. I’d thought this would be more in the urban fantasy vein but it’s more horror and didn’t really work for me; the opening scenes are bizarrely creepy, but after that the anthropophagi might as well be the monsters from Alien (they’re tough, they’re scary, they eat people). And the mentor/protagonist relationship seems kind of abusive, even given the danger of their calling. I gave up on this about halfway through.

BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY: Full Circle by Julie and Shawna Benson, Roge Antonio and Marcio Takara has Batgirl and her team (and a lot of female costars) coping with their old foe the Calculator, a disease that sickens men and Huntress’ long-lost mother. This was entertaining enough, but something about the lettering or the art or the number of word balloons made it feel too cluttered to enjoy reading as much as I should have.

And while it’s not part of anything I read this week, I’ll wrap up by sharing this striking Jack Kirby splash page from Fantastic Four.

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Send in the Marines! Or the shaolin! Or the Ghostbusters! Or the Sailor Scouts!

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944) is Preston Sturges’ screwball classic in which William Demarest’s Marine platoon discovers 4F Eddie Bracken has been lying to his mother about fighting overseas rather than disappoint her by not following in dad’s footsteps. Simple solution: the Marine fit him with a uniform and some spare medals, take him home and pass him off as a hero. Complication: everyone in town turns out to celebrate and opponents of the windbag mayor decide a war hero would be the perfect choice to run against him. And what about Ella Raines, the girl Bracken left behind, now engaged to the mayor’s son? A great comedy, and in an age where “thank you for your service” is supposed to be the automatic response to meeting anyone in the military, Sturges’ gentle mockery of soldier-worship (“Nobody knows what I did, they just know I’m a hero.”) hasn’t aged a bit. “They’ve got four bands out there — one medal isn’t enough!”

The second season of KUNG FU(1973-4) sometimes gets a lot closer to a conventional wandering-hero TV western than S1 did, but not so often it lost its distinctive charm (as noted in my S1 review, if you don’t want a white guy in yellowface as the Eurasian lead character, the charm may be lost on you). Among the memorable episodes are A Dream Within a Dream (Caine investigates an apparent murder, only the body vanishes) and Empty Pages Within a Dead Book (a vengeful Texas ranger learns the difference between Law and Justice) — and yes, the titles are definitely part of the charm. There are also some whimsical episodes such as The Spirit Helper (a young Native becomes convinced Caine is his spirit guide) and the zany two-part season ender, The Cenotaph, which includes a fight with a Chinese warlord who is emphatically not a master of the martial arts. With the TV season starting up, it may be a while before I get to my DVDs of S3, alas. ““That woman must have died of gallstones — 2,000 pounds worth.”

Rewatching the 2016 GHOSTBUSTERS remake during my Florida stay didn’t change my opinion that it’s a very worthy follow-up to the original, as “ghost girls” Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Johnson discover a seething misanthrope (if they’d made it this year, I suspect he’d be an incel) plots to raise the dead to terrify the living, Melissa McCarthy avoids a fatal high five, Mayor Andy Garcia insists he is not that mayor from Jaws and Chris Hemsworth tries to answer the phone. A shame it didn’t win over more people.  “Laborers such as you shall be spared until the end of the butchering, so make the most of your extra time.”

The third season of Sailor Moon, AKA SAILOR MOON S, uses much of the previous seasons’ formula (energy-draining monsters dominated by villains who keep failing and getting destroyed, but a bigger bad behind them), in fact too much for my taste. On the other hand, it has some good stuff, such as Chibi-USA’s relationship with the seriously ill Hotaru and the enigma of Sailor Scouts Neptune and Uranus, tougher, more mature and more experienced fighters (also lesbians, something dropped from the original US dub) who think the regular cast just isn’t hard core enough to stop the coming of the Messiah of Silence (I do like the episode in which Usagi demonstrates that silly and tenderhearted though she is, she’s still top dog on this show). I’m sure I’ll get to the remaining run eventually, even though I’ve never heard anything positive about it. What they say is true, I was naive and foolish — but I was also right!”

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Not the blazing return from vacation I’d anticipated

It seems I never return from vacation and spring immediately into writing, refreshed and energized.

Monday I decided I would take the morning off writing and catch up on various tasks: calling the electrician about why our back deck plugs didn’t seem to work, getting a car appointment scheduled, fixing a problem with our alarm system, ordering medication for a colonoscopy next month (never fun), paying my share of the bills, going through mail. That all went well. Afternoon, as work on Leaf articles has started up, I did a couple of those, and 1,000 words of fiction (starting working with some ideas from vacation).

Tuesday I was ready to start back on Southern Discomfort. But I’d scheduled a HVAC company to check out our heat pump (all good) and Plushie and Trixie completely lost their minds. There was a Dude! He came in the house! Then he did bangy things under the house in the crawlspace!

Trixie took to the high ground which wasn’t too bad. Plush Dog got up in my face. Particularly any time I tried using the computer, he just had to have my full attention. Normally I’d discourage him (I have an unpleasant whistle app on the iPhone) but as he was upset, I didn’t have the heart. Suffice to say, this used up a lot of the morning (and I’d gotten up late, too!). Then the electrician came which took up more time.

And Plushie’s eager for longer lunch walks now that the weather’s turning to autumn. That cut into my work day some too.

On the plus side, our heat pump is fine and the electrician was able to fix the problem with our outside plug. Wisp the feral cat has been using the little under-deck shelter we made for her, but it’s not good enough for winter (too open, for one thing). So we ordered a heated shelter that will work much better, but only if we can plug it in. We can, and it looks like she’s already using it.

I got plenty of Leaf work done; much as I’d prefer to devote the time to fiction, I can’t ignore paying gigs, any more than I’d ignore a day job. I got about 3,000 words done on the short-story ideas that sprang out of the trip (nothing directly tied to it, just odd thoughts like someone stealing a suitcase off a baggage carousel and discovering a horrible something inside it).

I didn’t get much done on Southern Discomfort and I suspect it won’t be completely finished by Oct. 31. I got badly stuck Thursday — the two interweaving action threads at the climax didn’t come together right — but with a little tinkering, I was able to make it work

I still have about 5,000 words to go, then to fix a couple of medical scenes based on advice from my fellow writer and MD Heather Frederick (author of the spy-cat adventure Timber Howligan). Then I print the whole thing out and read it aloud a final (I hope) time. That’s a lot to get through. But it won’t be that long now.

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It’s like a fly in your chardonnay, except this really was ironic!

So Monday the 8th I flew down to Fort Walton Beach for Dad’s 90th birthday. During the Atlanta stop, TYG texted me there was a hurricane on the way, providing irony #1:  I no longer lived where hurricanes were a constant occurrence, but I’d made a conscious choice that put me in the part of one.

Still, I wasn’t that worried about Michael. It was just me, no TYG, no pups, no need to fear damage to our house. And after Florence proved milder than expected, I wasn’t worried much by the terrified TV warnings. Which shows that even a hurricane veteran like myself can get overconfident; Michael really did come in as a Category 4 and the damage it did to Panama City and other communities east of us (a couple of them are no longer there) was horrifying.

Still, here at my friend Cindy’s house (which she shares with her sister and my sister) everything was fine. Irony #2 was that Durham, by contrast, got hammered. Internet outages, much to TYG’s frustration, and then the power went out Sunday night and stayed off for 12 hours. Plushie completely freaked at his schedule being off and the sudden darkness. It’s probably just as well TYG couldn’t go, as the dogs would then have been at the dog boarding facility, in the dark, with no power, and alone for at least part of the time.

The worst I suffered was that the hurricane disrupted my plans to catch up with people and I didn’t see all the friends as I’d hoped. I still had a great time hanging out with family; I haven’t seen Paige since my wedding, and she’s now 24 (she can buy beer. I feel old). We had Dad’s dinner at a restaurant on the beach, played a marathon game of rummy and a round of Goofy Golf. It was a great trip.

Sunday I came home without any problem.

Below: a frog I found on Cindy’s window the day before Michael hit. I’ll post some more fun photos from the trip soon.

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Copyright, trademark and writing links

A writer says that Amazon can outsource sales of your book to a third-party seller, which means no Prime shipping and possibly a higher price. Another writer looks at the drawbacks of embedding Amazon links in your blog posts.

Some freelance markets are outsourcing their payroll to companies that offer to advance writers their pay early, in return for a slice.

Writer David Mack talks about balancing realism and spectacle in his magic system (something I discussed here).

Harlan Ellison reminds us that we’re entitled to get paid, and not in exposure.

If the content of a website is illegal, is it covered by copyright? In one Israeli case involving porn piracy, the court said yes, but as the content was illegal, the plaintiff got no damages.

The Wickeds mystery-writing group discuss characters surprising them.

If you’re in a legal matter involving your online comments or posts, taking them down prematurely could get you in trouble.

Will a new law make it easier or harder for musicians to get compensation from streaming-music services?

The alt.right turned Pepe the Frog into a mascot. The creator is using copyright to fight back.

Publishers often don’t fact-check books (gotta say, McFarland does well on that).

Do you ever feel that writing fun, fluffy fiction is a waste of time in this era? It isn’t. Reading it is good too (“I don’t want these books dismissed as silly and trivial, when for many readers they are profoundly emotionally restorative.”)

Roger Ebert: ” “When I think about the kinds of movies that make me cry, that make tears come to my eyes, I usually don’t think about sad films. Sad films, I sort of just look at it. It’s movies that are about selflessness, that are about sacrifice, about humans that believe in the good of the human race that sometimes move me.” Courtesy of Fred Clark.

And here’s a Jim Aparo cover showing us the power of fiction creators to alter lives. Er, something like that.

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Cover art Wednesday

“Improbable, yes! Interesting, very!” What a good tagline.

I think she’s supposed to be sexy but the eyes make her look like a pod person.

One by John Schoenherr

A thriller cover by Peter Stevens. Black Mask was the a-list for mystery fiction back in the 1930s.

It’s not selling sex and sin, it’s in the Bible!

And VIncent di Fate’s wrap around cover for the first Riverworld book. A nice job capturing the disparate elements of the series.

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Story Behind the Story: Who Watches the Watchmen?

So along with the 10 Atoms for Peace stories published on Big Pulp, I sold them two stories that never went up (they paid, I’m not complaining). Who Watches the Watchmen? and Cover Stories see daylight for the first time in Atoms for Peace.

The central character of Watchmen, Kate Meara, wasn’t even in my early drafts of Brain From Outer Space. Instead, I had the head of TSC security, Falconi, taking an interest in the suspicious nature of what was going on, and whether it implied Steve was corrupt or a ceecee (carbon copy, an alien duplicate of the real Steve). A couple of drafts later, it occurred to me that having the head of a national organization watching this one case — they had no way to know how important it was — didn’t make sense. I turned it over to his assistant, a heavyset (Camryn Mannheim is the physique I have in mind) Irish-American woman. Then I wondered why I even needed Falconi. Eventually I dropped him and made Meara the head of just the one base’s security, which made it more plausible she’d have time to focus on Steve.

When I started writing the Atoms for Peace stories, my unconscious asserted itself. Instead of the hefty, motherly-looking woman, I suddenly saw her as small, bony, younger, and plain (“horse-faced” is the adjective some people use). And in a wheelchair. Which was a good idea of my unconscious, I think; while I show several people with scars or prosthetics walking through the story, I didn’t have any in lead roles. Though I decided rather than a victim of some invasion or mecha, Meara had lost the use of her legs due to polio.

As the previous 10 stories took us up to the start of Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t want to go past the time of Instruments of Science. So I told Meara’s story from 1955 up to the “present.” At the start, she’s at low ebb. Boston-born daughter of union leader “Big Mike” Meara, she’s bright, capable, does a lot of office work for dad, plays chess with Senator John F. Kennedy when he visits (Big Mike delivers a lot of labor votes). However she’s married to a faithless cheat, separated but can’t get an annulment, as hubby is in tight with the diocese. JFK, who was instrumental in setting up the Technology and Science Commission, suggests a fresh start: work as the assistant to Donovan, security head of the TSC’s southwestern branch. Kate accepts; if only because it gets her out of Boston winters. And the new Veterans Access Act guarantees the base will have ramps and elevators — after all the craziness of the Invasion and the kaiju, the need for an ADA-style law became obvious.

In California she meets the stiff-necked Donovan who warns her security must be totally detached. No friends. Nothing to compromise your objectivity. She meets Johnny, a handsome young man Donovan hired to push her wheelchair around (she quickly explains she’d rather steer herself), and Nate Strawn, the chief of Science Investigations. And over the next four years, deals not only with conventional security risks but the growing threat of ceecees and alien mind-controllers. When the threats get personal, it turns out Kate has more friends than she realizes …

I think Kate turned out well as a character. She’s an enthusiastic, skilled chess player who interprets life in chess terms, hates smoking (too bad she’s living in a time when tobacco is everywhere), and while it’s only alluded to briefly, is part of a small disabled community. Unlike most of my cast, as she’s a good Catholic and still married, she’s chaste. I know “disabled people are sexless” is a stereotype, but it felt right (I do establish she’s able to “perform the act,” as they used to say). If not, my bad.

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Real men rape, professor says

“If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex,” according to business professor Mitchell Langbert, dismissing the allegations against new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, AKA Justice Gang Rape.

This is not a startling claim from a right-winger. Scott Adams has expressed similar views and economics professor Steven Landsburg once said he’s not sure why raping an unconscious woman is wrong. They don’t always grab attention outside the blogosphere, but coming during the Kavanaugh hearings, this post did. And the implication Langbert has done something in this line himself resulted in a wave of outrage, online criticism and calls for firing. Like most people who say they want to be provocative, Langbert immediately cringed and blustered when it turned out he’d actually provoked people.

Defense #1: there’s nothing wrong with exploring sexuality as a teen: “As long as there is no coercion or violence, it’s not a crime.” Which is true, but as Ford’s account involves coercion and violence, how is that relevant? The post claims Dems and feminists are exaggerating harmless incidents and turning them into “assault” but Langbert doesn’t provide any examples (if he thinks Kavanaugh is example #1, he’s really off-base).

Defense #2: Langbert was writing satire — “It is intended to be taken in the same light as Swift’s claim that Irish children should be eaten” — but dumb liberals took him seriously! If that’s the case, then Professor Langbert shouldn’t quit his day job because satire isn’t his strong suite. It’s true the ending sentiment (“In the future, having committed sexual assault in high school ought to be a prerequisite for all appointments, judicial and political.”) is way over the top, but otherwise there’s nothing outrageous enough to be satire. Multiple republicans have asserted that what Kavanaugh is charged with is just teenage horseplay, or compared him to lynching victim Emmett Till. Langbert’s accusation the Dems are “the sissy party” isn’t out of line with mainstream Republican sentiment either.

More to the point, what is he satirizing? Saying that rape and assault should be required for government positions sounds like a satire on Kavanaugh’s defenders, but Langbert’s on the same side as them. If he’s trying to satirize the accusers, he blew it — he’s making the same arguments about how overblown the attacks are as every other Republican. If he’s satirizing the Democratic view of Republicans, well it didn’t come across that way. And if it takes this much work to tease out, well, the joke’s not funny.

Defense #3: Liberals are mean! Liberals shut down opposing viewpoints! Groupthink! Feminists! Socialism on campus! Pretty much the standard cliches of the right winger under fire.

Perhaps Langbert really thought he was being satirical. However, I’ve seen “I was just being funny!” used too often by jerks who clearly weren’t being humorous to buy this entirely. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that he hoped to antagonize people just enough that he’d get tagged as “controversial” or “provocative” and thereby get some intellectual dark web cred.

If so, he miscalculated. If he thought he was writing biting satire, he miscalculated. If he thought there’d be no blowback, he miscalculated.

I shall now play the world’s smallest violin on his behalf.

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Technicolor, immortals, a princess and superheroes: books and graphic novels

I knew the word “technicolor” in my teens but vaguely thought of it as meaning just in color, instead of black and white; GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR: The Movies’ Magic Rainbow by Fred Basten explains why Technicolor was once a name and a company to conjure with. While some movie makers had been interested in filming in color even back in the silent days, the tech just wasn’t there. The Technicolor company developed the first color movie that was anywhere close to visually satisfying, then went on to refine their process until we got the vibrant colors of films such as The Wizard of Oz. This required not only overcoming technical challenges but uncertainty about whether there was enough public interest to justify the money, and makeup and set decorating professionals who weren’t sure how to work in this medium (several female stars resisted doing color films because they’d got their B&W look perfect). Interesting.

NO LESS DAYS by Amanda G. Stevens is a Christian fantasy about David, an immortal (with unusual restraint he’s less than two centuries old) bookstore owner who witnesses a YouTube daredevil surviving an apparently fatal stunt — is it possible he’s also unkillable? It turns out the daredevil is indeed another longevite, but David now has to deal with one of the others killing to protect their secret; whether to share the truth with the woman he’s fallen in love with; and how his immortality can possibly fit into God’s design. This is a warm, non-judgmental Christian fantasy (and after so many evangelicals endorsed Brett Kavanaugh it’s nice that Stevens takes consent and abuse issues seriously) but after the intriguing opening it slowed down and got way too talky to old me.

PRINCELESS: Make Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and multiple artists has Princess Adrienne continuing her efforts to rescue her sisters (all locked in towers by Dad until handsome princes can rescue them) while dealing with issues including her kinky hair, other characters’ same-sex relationships, and dwarven gender roles. This didn’t hold me as well as other volumes, partly because it’s been so long since I read one (I don’t remember the characters in one subplot at all) and it’s a bit heavy on Social Issues For Younger Readers. However I really loved that when Adrienne’s dwarven sidekick tells her grandfather she’s become a smith in defiance of dwarf tradition, he’s cool with it (it’s really amazingly rare to have fantasy characters bend on proper gender roles).

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: Family Business by Mark Waid, James Robinson and Gabriele Dell’Otto has a woman who claims to be Peter’s long-lost sister recruit him to wrap up one of their CIA parents’ last missions, involving a stockpile of Nazi gold guarded by a mecha. This is good fun, though the sibling angle is obviously a ruse (not the first time, either — a supposed sister turns up in the Revenge of the Sinister Six novel trilogy).

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Our heroes have always been bad guys: Movies and TV

Hank Pym forces ex-con Scott Lang to become ANT-MAN (2015) and reclaim Pym’s shrinking technology before former protegé Darren Cross can use it to create Yellowjacket, the ultimate killer. While I didn’t care for the drawn-out origin in Doctor Strange, this takes almost as long and it works, perhaps because Scott’s character arc is stronger. The cast includes Michael Douglas as Hank, Paul Rudd as Scott, Evangeline Lily as Pym’s daughter Hope and Corey Stoll as Cross (the villain from the first Scott Lang Ant-Man story). A real winner — I’ve rarely seen a film do so well with shrinking special effects.“I’m just destroying everything that gives your daddy’s life meaning.”

Errol Flynn’s classic THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) made a double-bill for both Ant-Man and last week’s viewing of Sherwood. Rewatching the story shows why Robin endures as a legend and symbol — the fight against tyranny and corruption and 12th century England’s 1 percent is probably always going to be relevant. Plus Flynn’s laughing swashbuckler makes being a rebel and an outlaw look like the most fun in the world. Alongside Flynn we have Basil Rathbone’s sneering Guy of Gisborne, Claude Raines coolly evil Prince John, Una O’Connor as a flirty servant, Alan Hale as Little John and Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck. Olivia deHaviland plays Maid Marion who like countless movie heroines has to be awakened by the hero to what’s right (you could also look at it as checking her Norman privilege). Given I just finished a book about Technicolor (review tomorrow) I was very aware of how gorgeous the movie’s colors are. “You’ve come to Nottingham once too often!”

THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996) which starts with Geena Davis as a school teacher afflicted with amnesia for everything beyond the past eight years — why that’s right, the missing years do contain a dangerous secret! It turns out Davis is a CIA hitwoman who’s unwittingly believed one of her cover identities is the real her — and she’s regaining her memories with the help of sleazy PI Samuel L. Jackson just at the point her former bosses are up to something very nasty (“Budget cuts? Is that what this is about?”).

This is a wildly over the top film (the protagonists take damage that would kill anyone without healing factor), but it’s also thoroughly entertaining. While Bourne Identity would be a logical double bill, the clip of 1973’s The Long Goodbye shown on TV makes me think that would make sense as well (even though I hate it): another story of someone faking their death, and Elliott Gould’s seedy PI, matching Jackson’s. With G.W. Spradlin as the president, David Morse as a sadist (“A woman is never as beautiful as when her face contorts in pain.”) and Craig Bierko as a smirking nemesis. “I was busy coming up with that ham sandwich line.”

After a disappointing fifth season, THE AMERICANS managed to finish its run with a bang. It’s a year or two after S5; Paige is now a spy in training, Philip’s working full-time at the travel agency (which is slowly collapsing) and Elizabeth, spying without him, is beginning to crack under the strain. Now with the US/USSR START arms-reduction talks in progress, the KGB assigns Elizabeth to spike negotiations if Gorbachev gives away too much; Oleg returns from the USSR to ask Philip to stop her. Will the marriage survive? Will Stan finally catch on to what his neighbors are up to? Will Paige find happiness? This leaves enough loose ends I wonder if they have a sequel in mind, but it’s still excellent. “You’re my best friend — the only friend I’ve had in my whole shitty life.”

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