Category Archives: Reading

Some days you get the bear, some days the totem pole gets you

I’m running behind, this will have to do for today’s post. Art by Dick Dillin.#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Love and Fear: Comics Covers

First love, courtesy of John Romita — but seriously Janice, you can do better than this jerk.Then some terror, courtesy of Mort Drucker.And more terror, this time from Steve Ditko.

Cosmic terror as Gene Colan catches Dr. Strange fighting to save reality.And a somber finish, art by Mike Sekowsky.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Math, mediums, scurvy and kids: books read.

I wish I’d read HIDDEN FIGURES: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly before the movie made the basic concept — that a number of black women “computers” (originally a term for human number-crunchers) helped plot the necessary math for the space program — familiar to me. That said the details are quite interesting, going back to WW II and the military’s need for computers to help figure out the complexities of air flow and pressure in aeronautical engineering. Black women with math skills had no future outside teaching, so they seized the opportunity as a better-paid, more challenging alternative. When Sputnik made the space race a priority, many of the women jumped to NASA (I’d never realized how much precise calculation is involved in sending a capsule into orbit and landing it in the right spot in the ocean), culminating in math whiz Katherine Johnson helping review the computer calculations for Apollo 11. This an interesting slice of history, including the always amusing tech details of ancient computer tech (high-speed data transmission of 1 kilobyte a second!) though it’s not exactly dramatic: the women did grapple with sexism and racism but they didn’t have the kind of turning points that make for a character arc (that is not the book’s fault, of course).

In the opening of Walter Gibson’s THE GHOST MAKERS a seance for wealthy patrons goes wrong when someone ends up stabbed; Det. Cardona suspects the killer was anything but a spirit, but which of the attendees did it? Fortunately the Shadow is on the case, which turns out to involve a network of phony mediums pooling their resources to pull off bigger scams, like having multiple suckers invest in the same crap stock. A couple of years after Gangdom’s Doom assured us the Shadow doesn’t kill and he’s still not as murderous as I envision him, frequently shooting guns out of hands rather than killing crooks. This is a solid series entry; there’s at least one more ghost-busting tale in the series, House of Ghosts.

While Scott and Amundsen taught me scurvy was an ugly disease, I had no idea until reading SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, by Stephen R. Bown how nightmarish it was. Because the loss of vitamin C affected collagen, for instance, broken bones that had previous healed would suddenly un-knit in serious scurvy cases. This had disastrous effects on the British navy in an age when shipboard conditions could weaken even strong, healthy men but the admiralty stubbornly resisted treating seamen as anything but cannon fodder; the medical profession’s antiquated view of how disease worked made it next to impossible to think coherently about the problem. Ship’s surgeon James Lind and Captain Cook saw the light but couldn’t dent official dogma, so it was left to physician Gilbert Blane, who had not only good research but good social connections, to win the fight. A good medical history.

I presume the protagonists of Edward Eager’s MAGIC OR NOT mentioning Half Magic as a favorite book of theirs is meant to signal the new story is not in that continuity. In contrast to the blatant magic of the first four books, here the wishing well they’re using to help people is so subtle they wind up wondering if it was their imagination. Probably not (as they point out that would take every adult in town being in on fooling them), but this remains a fairly ordinary children’s adventure, not up to the earlier tales.

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Some comics covers for Tuesday

First a couple of John Romita’s romance covers. Ruben Moreira shows why doing jigsaws is a dangerous pastime.Mike Sekowsky mourns the deaths of DC’s Metal Men.Dick Dillin gives us an unusual courtroom scene.And Barry Windsor Smith gives us Conan in a scene from “The God in the Bowl.”#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Books about politics that made me think

“The religious right showed no mercy and no charity toward these groups when it had the power to impose its will, but when it lost that power, it turned to invoking the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society.” Adam Serwer on how some on the right, having failed to win that way, now reject democracy.

Rereading THE POLITICS OF UNREASON: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab confirms my memory that rejecting democracy is not anything new in America. This history of extremist movements shows there’s nothing new about status anxiety, backlash, anti-immigrant paranoia, alliances between the down-and-out and rich elitists and fear of the Illuminati (there’s at least one book out already blaming them for the Satanic pedophile conspiracy QAnon is fighting against). Reading now, it feels depressingly prescient.

It does make me wonder how well QAnon will work out in the long run, given the authors argue that truly powerful conspiracy theoies require both a Shadowy Cabal and Vulnerable Targets (e.g., the Papacy and Irish Immigrants or the Elders of Zion and American Jews); does a conspiracy identifying prominent Democrats and Tom Hanks as the face of the Satanic Pedophile Cabal do the trick? I guess we’ll find out.

LICENSE TO HARASS: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech by Laura Beth Nielsen looks at how the law handles panhandling, racist street harassment and sexual harassment, and how victims think it should be handled. Nielsen finds that even most victims aren’t in favor of restrictions for reasons ranging from freedom of speech to fear of being seen as a victim to cynicism about the law, favoring instead options such as not letting it get to you or talking back. Except, as she points out, harassment victims don’t talk back and do indeed let it get to you.

The point that stuck with me is that Nielsen’s surveys show targets of panhandlers feel much less harassed than if someone throws the n-word or a sexist come-on (regarding the undead sexist cliche that women are criminalizing harmless compliments, women report far more offensive than innocuous cat-calls) yet it’s much more widely regulated. If yelling “suck my dick” is free speech, if regulations have to be content-neutral (i.e., you can’t simply ban sexist or racist speech — as the book reminded me, you can’t even ban cross-burning completely) why is it okay to have content-specific bans on people saying “please give me money?” She concludes it’s because this is the type most likely to affect high-ranked white men, if not directly then by driving people away from businesses (women altering where they go and when to avoid harassment doesn’t trigger the same worries. Big surprise). Probably the best argument I’ve seen that unrestricted free speech works in favor of the established hierarchy.

THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS was a 1978 essay by Czech dissident, playwright, political prisoner and later president Vaclav Havel about the nature of dictatorship and the role of dissent. I read it last year hoping it would give me some insight into our current political moment (it did) and how to fight it (not much help). Havel argues that the Eastern Bloc dictatorships of his era are “post totalitarian,” a thing apart from the military dictatorships of the past. The old-school totalitarians simply seized power through brute force; their government had no real roots in the country or the culture, or any ideology beyond the will to power. The Communist states, by contrast, draw on their nations’ pasts — Russia’s pre-existing tendency to authoritarian government, for instance — and they’re rationalized by ideology that explains whatever they’re doing is justified and righteous. “The center of power,” Havel says, “is identical with the center of truth,” which does indeed sound like the Age of Trump.

In such a setting, and given the increased ability of the state to crush the opposition, Havel sees dissidents as the best shot at destabilizing the regime, not because they represent a rival political force (“Why was Solzhenitsyn driven out of his own country? Certainly not because he represented a unit of real power, that is, not because any of the regime’s representatives felt he might unseat them and take their place in government.”) but because simply by writing, saying and doing the things they want to do, they create cracks in the government’s vision of reality. While I can see how that works — just by walking around being normal people, gays undercut the myth that they’re some monstrous regiment of perverts — I’m not sure it translates into anything I can practice in my own life. An interesting essay, nonetheless.

All rights to cover image remain with current holder.

 

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2021: The first cover post.

One by Powers.I believe this one is too, though it’s more realistic than his usual.This one by Robert Stanley gives Tarzan too perfect a hairstyle. They were modeling him on screen Tarzan Johnny Weismuller.Y the Last Man apparently had a predecessor. Art is uncredited; I’ll bet the story is a lot more sexist too.Another uncredited cover. I like the look.I don’t have credits for this one either, but it looks interesting.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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From Pellucidar to prep school: books

When I first read AT THE EARTH’S CORE years ago, I hadn’t yet read Edgar Rice Burrough’s earlier Princess of Mars and didn’t realize how much they resembled each other. Like John Carter, David Innes enters an alien world — Pellucidar, the land inside the hollow Earth — and becomes enslaved by an alien race. Just as John Carter alienated Dejah Thoris at first by defending her without claiming her as his wife (on Barsoom, that implies he sees her as a whore), David Innes does exactly the same thing when fighting for Dian the Beautiful.

That said, this is a fun book to reread. Innes finances an experimental mechanical mole designed by inventor Abner Perry, but it locks up on its maiden voyage and doesn’t stop drilling until the pass through the Earth’s crust and enters Pellucidar. The perils here include dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, various types of man-apes (in one of Burroughs’ racist moments Innes compares one trace of monkey man to black Africans) and the Mahars, a race of telepathic reptile women (they eliminated their menfolk after developing the secret of parthenogenesis) that preys upon humans. In one scene Innes watches them engage in a ritual feast and seeing their hypnotized prey stand there, letting the mahars rip them apart, is chilling.

Another unique feature of Pellucidar is that with no day and night — the inner-Earth “sun” is a gaseous ball at the Earth’s center that provides constant, unchanging illumination — time ceases to exist. It turns out it’s a purely mental construct; while Innes escapes the Mahars and has multiple adventures, Perry has dinner, sleeps and wakes up, thinking less than a day has passed. There are other nice touches, such as a reclusive culture where your manhood is measured partly by the number of secret routes out of the village you can memorize.

The story does have a better framing sequence than Princess had. It opens with Burroughs meeting Innes after he’s returned from Pellucidar. ERB helps equip him for the journey home, but it’s unclear whether David made it before the neighboring Arabs attacked. Although Burroughs set up a telegraph relay for Innes to communicate with the outer world, we learn in the ending that a sandstorm has wiped out the landmarks in the area; he has no way to find the telegraph and learn if Innes made it back to Pellucidar or not (something resolved in the sequel, of course).

Edited by Kevin McCarthy, “THEY’RE HERE …” Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute proved just as useful for Alien Visitors as it was when I was writing about the film for Screen Enemies of the American Way. One article, for example, points out that no matter what interpretation you put on the ’56 film — anti-communist, anti-conformity, anti-consumerism — it’s success isn’t because of the underlying message but because aliens replacing everyone around you (and you’re next!) is an inherently creepy concept. The assorted essays cover Jack Finney’s career (they paint his nostalgia for the 19th century with affection I don’t share) and interview with Kevin McCarthy (remarkably entertaining), backstage stories on the first three films (this came out right after the 1993 Body Snatchers) and pondering about what the various films mean. Good, though it has its share of dud entries as well.

As a kid, Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books — about J.C.T. Jennings and his best friend Darbishire and their experiences at Linbury Court Preparatory School — were among my very favorites, reread endlessly. So for Christmas I asked TYG to buy me an omnibus edition of the first four novels, then I spent Boxing Day reading Jennings Goes to School. Here the two protagonists arrive at school, meet the rest of the future cast, learn school slang, play soccer, run away from school, write a mystery novel (“All you have to do is think up some characters and a plot.”) and unintentionally send in a false fire alarm. Buckeridge’s flair for comedy, Wodehouse-style writing and incomprehensible kid conversations (“Isn’t it lucky I’m not him, sir?”) is as much fun as I remember. I was surprised, looking Buckeridge up online, to learn that this was actually written in the 1950s as I assumed them to be contemporary when I read them 15 or so years later. But from the point of view of a pre-teen boy, I guess the world hadn’t changed that much.

#SFWApro. Cover by Roy Krenkel, all rights remain with current holder.

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2020: not my most productive year

And I can’t even blame the pandemic: after all, I was working at home long before the Trump Virus made it a life-saving option. TYG working from home has in some ways made my work easier, as I don’t have dogs all day. I do, however, get randomly called to take over dog-car for her when she gets busy or Plushie gets fidgety, but it’s still mostly a win.

Nevertheless, I didn’t get anywhere near as much done as I’d anticipated. Partly that’s because pandemic stress did slow me down the first two or three months. Plus Undead Sexist Cliches took much more time to complete than I’d planned (Which is typical. Nonfiction always eats into my fiction-writing time). Redrafting Impossible Takes a Little Longer did too — so much more that I didn’t get beyond four chapters in, though they’re much better chapters. I finished two short stories, submitted shorts 27 times, and sold three (two of them reprints), none of which met my goals. And I fell just a few hundred dollars short of my income goal for the year, due to Leaf work stopping in early December. But I did finish Undead Sexist Cliches, and I’m almost done with Questionable Minds; I’d wanted them finished and published, but I’m still pleased to know they will be done soon.

Plans for travel and for local social events didn’t happen, obviously. Neither did a lot of my personal goals for doing stuff with TYG: she had some ultra-demanding personal projects going on the first couple of months of 2020 and by the time they wrapped up, we were hunkering down at home. The brightest spot of the year for us, though, was her working from home and discovering she not only liked it, she could be more productive even when dealing with dogs. So she’s not going back. It’s much less stress for her, no time spent driving to work, and having added help with the dogs is easier for me.

I donated more money this year, and contributed regularly to a local food bank. Didn’t do as much to contribute to the commonweal as I’d intended to, even so; I’ll work on doing more in 2021.

Wisp was a big success. She’s gone from occasionally coming in the door to eat and get petting to coming in and snuggling on the couch. Last weekend we brought her in late in the evening and left her downstairs all night; I wasn’t sure she’d be happy with that, but it turned out fine. We’re still some ways from making her a permanent indoor cat (we’d like to do that — much safer for the birds) but maybe it’s not as impossible as I was starting to think. In any case, she’s definitely part of our family now: like Plushie and Trixie she has her own Christmas ornament.

And I did accomplish two personal goals. In 2019 I got out of the habit of baking bread regularly so I set myself a goal for 2020 of baking at least twice a month (including muffins and scones). I succeeded. And for the first time since moving up here—okay, and a long time before that—I cleared all the new books out of my to be read shelf. Yes, I know, that just means I’m not buying enough books, but seriously, having a book sit on my shelves for three years before I get to it just annoys me. We’ll see if I can keep up in 2021. Total books read, 214, if you’re wondering, including about 40 percent graphic novels.

Despite the disappointments—all those submissions and only one new story sold?—this was overall a good year for me. Even with all the things I missed, like visiting my family and friends in Florida, it turns out TYG, writing and our pets can keep me pretty happy.

Still I’m ready for the vaccine, though it’ll be a while before TYG or I get a dose. Ready for Trump to be gone. Ready for 2021.

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Last cover post of 2020!

The year may have sucked but these covers are cool. First, two by Powers.

Robert Foster creates one of those “I don’t know what’s going on, but I want the book” covers.An uncredited horror one. Gervasio Gallardo provides a typically weird but beautiful coverHis cover painting for Patricia McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld isn’t weird but it’s definitely beautiful.

Another Earle Bergey showgirl cover, for Leigh Brackett’s novel.

Leo and Diane Dillon contribute the next one.Lawrence Stern Stevens does a great cover that makes me want to grab this up.A Gerald Gregg mystery cover.And one by the great Virgil Finlay#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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I’m a tough audience

Back at the start of the year I wrote about how I never get excited any more about the cool new books coming out. There’s simply so much good stuff coming out and so much already out I haven’t read, that “oooh, more books!” doesn’t do it for me. Even being selective doesn’t help — I’m not even sure how I’d go about selecting so it’s better to just pick at random or on impulse.

Another aspect of that, I think, is that I’m a much tougher audience than I used to be. Harder to please. More critical. I can still get lost in a good book and read happily all the way to the end, but I’m also more likely to downgrade it as stuff I’ve seen before, same-old same-old, and such. It made me think of Eric Flint’s comment that there are two kinds of specfic readers: the ones who want a good story, well told and the ones who are fed up with that. The latter kind want tropes subverted, metafictional commentary, literary style and substance.

I’m definitely in A more than B — I read for a great story, though that can include political criticism, metafiction, literary style, diversity and so on. But I can sort of understand the view of the hypothetical B reader that there’s nothing new under the sun and I’ve seen it all already. Except that doesn’t stop me enjoying a well-told tale or rereading my stockpile of Silver Age comics with pleasure (there is, obviously, nothing new under the sun in comic books of the 1960s). Paradoxical, huh?

Part of it is also that piling up more books than I read just seems wasteful; much as I like buying books, if I can’t get to them, what’s the point? Comics play a role, too: there’s lots of great stuff available and I’ll often spend my spare cash on a TPB rather than a novel (even with comics, though, I can’t afford to buy everything good).

I think all of this is one reason I don’t follow series with any fervor any more. It used to be I’d buy the new Harry Dresden paperback (they started out that way) whenever it hit the shelves, budget be damned (no wonder I had money troubles). The new one came out this year but I’m not rushing to buy it; I’m looking forward to it but not the way I used to. I buy my friends’ books mostly when I see them at cons. I’m often as happy rereading old stuff that I’ve forgotten rather than buying new.

Perhaps it’s partly age, one of those things where the passion of youth slowly ebbs to gentle embers. And it’s partly money: as part of a two-income family with TYG I’m much better off than I used to be, but expenses are higher (dogs need a lot of meds) and my freelance income, while steady, isn’t so steady I can just blow it on fun stuff.

While obviously none of this rises to even a first-world problem, I do kind of miss the all-consuming enthusiasm of my youth.

#SFWAPro. Covers top to bottom by Mark Mariano, Richard Powers and Jack Gaughan. All rights remain with current holders.

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