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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Puff Piece by John Safran. Penguin Random House Australia, 2021


This is comedian John Safran’s third book. The first one, Murder In Mississippi, had John investigating the murder of a white supremacist whom he had annoyed while filming his TV series Race Relations. 

The second, Depends What You Mean By Extremist, was about racist groups in Australia. He turned up at rallies and took notes.

Both books, despite the serious themes, were very funny, written in Safran’s deadpan style of humour. Really, he didn’t have to do much. The racists in both books opened their mouths and made themselves look ridiculous.

This book does have humour in it, though not the laugh-out-loud kind, but despite the author telling  interviewers he hoped people would enjoy it, it feels, to me, at least, that the author is truly angry. He doesn’t mention a personal reason for this, no relatives who have died of cancer, but - angry.

This anger is directed at Big Tobacco, specifically Philip Morris. See, Philip Morris has a new product called a Heat Stick. A Heat Stick is supposed to be less bad for you than regular smoking but is, in fact, indistinguishable from a cigarette. 

It is competing with vaping - and John interviewed quite a few people selling vaping products in the course of the book. He also attended a vaping conference where he picked up samples. I don’t think he actually smokes, but he became hooked on nicotine toothpicks and tried out a lot of items he picked up there, over the course of the book. 

He bought some shares in Philip Morris so he could attend a shareholders’ meeting to ask questions(they wouldn’t let him into their premises when they found out he was doing a book), but when he attended the Zoom meeting, he didn’t get a chance to ask his question. 

He discovered in his investigations that a lot of health organisations had been given money by Philip Morris - in fact, he found out, to his horror, that his superannuation investments included a company that had Philip Morris lurking in their background. 

It seems to be almost impossible to avoid the tentacles of Big Tobacco. I’ll have to check out my super fund, though we were assured at a seminar that they only invest in ethical companies. 

One thing I have to say for John Safran is that he is very good and thorough at doing his research, both in his other books and this one. It’s a real eye-opener. I don’t think he could have done this as a TV comedy show. 

Definitely worth a read, as long as you don’t expect it to be hilarious. There isn’t a bibliography or list of suggested web sites at the end, but there is enough information there for you to do your own looking up.

I bought my copy at Apple Books, but you should be able to get it at your local good bookstore or on line, though.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Retro Review: The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay by Michael Chabon. London: Harper Collins, 2001

 I bought this book in paperback some time ago, started reading, mislaid it and bought the ebook. The print copy has turned up again, but I finished it in ebook. It’s quite a read! 

Two young Jewish men, cousins, work on comic books in 1930s/40s New York. One of them, Josef Kavalier, is from Prague. He is a trained stage magician and escape artist(a huge fan of Houdini) who has escaped the Nazis with the help of his fellow magicians, in a coffin holding the Golem, the 16th century clay defender of the Jews, which was still hidden away in Prague. Joe is also a terrific artist who has a great imagination. Sammy Clay, his cousin, helps frame the stories and writes the scripts. Together they create their first comics superhero, the Escapist. The novel goes through the early history of the American comic book industry, till 1954. 

I thought at first it might have been inspired by the two Jewish boys who created Superman, but they are mentioned and Joe and Sammy are asked to create something like Superman. The difference is that they get a warning against the error of handing over all their rights, so do much better financially than Siegel and Shuster! 

However, Joe and Sammy have many personal issues, even as the stories of their superheroes are read and loved by children around the country. Joe is worrying for his family in Europe, and desperately wanting an excuse to kill Germans, while Sammy has even deeper personal issues which could get him into deep trouble in 1940s America…

Interestingly, they are told not to have stories with Nazi villains, at least until America enters the war, something that did happen in the real world of comics. In fact, the characters and story are inspired by real Jewish comic book creators of the time. 

There are some delightful humorous side characters in this book, such as their bosses at Empire Comics, part of which started life as a seller of novelty gadgets. They can’t figure out how it all happened, but the comics are selling very well, so why not? 

If you are interested in a part of American Jewish history, this is not only instructional, but thoroughly entertaining. If you are a fan of speculative fiction, you will also enjoy it, though I do have to say there is only one fantasy element, the Golem; the rest is straight historical fiction. 

Michael Chabon is a third generation comics fan - his grandfather worked as a typographer at a plant producing comic books, which he brought home to his son, Michael’s father, who also gave comic books to his son, Michael. What a family tradition! 

It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, which might interest you if you are a literary fiction fan. I’m not, but am glad that such a wonderful book that I found enjoyable, got an award and was short listed for several others.

You can get it in ebook or print from Amazon, or ebook in Apple Books. Book Depository also has it, in print and audiobook. 

Friday, September 03, 2021

On Bingeing On Streaming Services!

 What are some ways of coping with lockdown? Well, one way is to catch up with shows and films you missed when they came out. And we in Victoria are on our sixth lockdown! So, I’m doing streaming. 

I am now up to my fourth streaming service. I never intended this, but it happened. I started with Prime to see the wonderful adaptation of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Then I discovered there was another Neil Gaiman adaptation, American Gods, a book I loved. I intend to see The Man In The High Castle as soon as I reread the Phillip K. Dick novel. There are many other things, including some Star Trek stuff, such as Picard, written by Michael Chabon. 

And there’s Shakespeare! Well, it’s The Hollow Crown, which shows some of the history plays, even if they are cut down a bit. I’ve seen Henry IV Part 1, Henry V and am now watching  Richard II, with Ben Whishaw in the title role, and Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, doing that gorgeous speech that ends “this England.”

Plenty more, but let’s go on. My next subscription was Disney+, which has all the Star Wars material as well as old Disney movies(I finally found the Richard Todd Robin Hood, but only watched about fifteen minutes when I concluded it was truly awful. But I also discovered they had 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with Kirk Douglas as Ned Land the harpooner, and yes, he could actually sing! 

I’ve watched Chariots Of Fire, with Ben Cross, and Ladyhawke, both beautiful films, though very different. 

What I have really been doing, though, is bingeing on the Marvel movies and TV series, which have impressive cast lists and directors such as Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon. But I’ve mentioned those before, so on to the next steaming service.

That’s Apple. I’m planning, when time, to watch For All Mankind, an alternative universe in which the Soviets got to the moon first. I do love that sort of alternative universe! I read a novel by Stephen Baxter, Voyage, in which Kennedy survives and the space program goes to Mars instead of the space shuttle. A woman is the first astronaut on Mars. That would make a great TV series! Mainly, though, I subscribed because that is where I can watch the adaptation of Asimov’s Foundation. I really need to reread that before watching! 

Most recently, I have subscribed to National Theatre At Home, which shows filmed versions of plays by a Britain’s National Theatre. They did it free on YouTube during the first big lockdowns, but now it’s streaming and you can watch stuff they have performed to live audiences. Not cheap, but I have so missed my theatre subscriptions over the last year and a half! 

And there are some big names in British acting. I have just seen Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston and the multi talented Mark Gatiss. I performed that play when I was at university, playing the role of Third Citizen and a Roman standard bearer in the battle scene(I got killed after waving the flag a bit, as well as nearly choking  on my breastplate in rehearsal when I “died”), and it was fascinating to see what the NT did with it. Coriolanus, that brilliant general who is not much good at anything else, is killed in the last scene, of course, but as I recall, it ends with the person who did it saying (in Shakespearean language) “Oh, dear ! I really shouldn’t have done that, he was such a hero, let’s give him a fabulous funeral.” He is carried off with a fanfare(in our production it was “Fanfare For The Common Man”). In this production he is knocked to the ground, then strung up and has his throat cut… yuck! And no apologies or heroic funeral.

I see the Ralph Fiennes film is currently on ABC iView, and will watch that. 

I’m currently watching Antigone by Sophocles. It’s set in a government office. The Chorus are a bunch of public servants. And we have two Doctors in the lead roles, the ninth and the thirteenth! Christopher Ecclestone played King Creon and Jodie Whittaker was his niece, Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, who gets into huge trouble for burying her brother, the one who fought against Thebes. They are both brilliant, playing with their own Lancashire and Yorkshire accents, and why not? 

Next planned show will be Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature. 

Not quite as good as going to the theatre, but at least I get to see it! 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

August 31 - On This Day!

 Every now and then, I post about events and birthdays on a date, and try to include, if possible, writers and books. There aren’t too many that fit that on this date, but I’ve chosen some of interest, for your enjoyment. I hope you like them!  

Things That Happened on August 31

1422 - Henry V, that English warrior king, dies of dysentery, leaving his baby son to succeed him. He became Henry VI, but inherited some craziness through his mother, Catherine of France, and she, in her turn, married Owen Tudor, and we all know what happened as a result. Still, Shakespeare got some inspiration from it! I’m still catching up with his history plays via The Hollow Crown. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (Henry VI, Part 2) 

HENRY V. Public domain

1897 - Thomas Edison patents the world’s first film projector, the Kinetoscope. Think of all the creativity that has been possible due to this invention! 

Public domain

And a hundred years later, on this day, Princess Diana, her boyfriend  Dodi Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul, all died in a car crash in Paris. Who can remember where they were when they heard? I do! I was at home, vacuuming. 

2006 - the famous Edvard Munch painting, The Scream, stolen August 24 in 2006, was recovered by Norwegian police. Thank goodness for that! 

Some Birthdays On This Day

12 CE, that dreadful, murdering Roman Emperor Caligula. The role was played by John Hurt in I, Claudius, and wasn’t he evil! 

1741, Jean-Paul-Egide Martini, a French composer who did music for Marie Antoinette and Napoleon! Best known for Plaisir D’Amour, that break-up song. 

1834, Amilcare Ponchielli. Composer. You will certainly know him for one tune, Dance Of The Hours

1894, Albert Facey, an Australian man who wrote his memoir, A Fortunate Life, which became a huge bestseller, a TV mini series and a play. The book was a delight and showed that an ordinary person had something to say that other people would want to hear. Among other things, he fought in the Great War, and received a pair of socks knitted by a young woman he would later meet and marry. If you ever get a chance to read the book, do so! 

I’m going to sneak in one more, born on August 30, as I didn’t post about her yesterday. In 1797, on this day, was born Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, known as the mother of science fiction. Her mother was the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. We all know the story about the house party attended by two poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, and two unknowns, our heroine Mary and a doctor, John Polidori, and the challenge they took, to write a “ghost story”. Ironically, it was the two newbies who created classics while the professional poets didn’t. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which wasn’t the first vampire novel, but did create the first sexy vampire, Lord Ruthven. You can get both of these books on Project Gutenberg.

Feast day/holiday

August 31 is the feast day of Joseph of Arimathea, who is connected with the Holy Grail, and was supposed to have come to England, where he planted his staff, which blossomed.

He is the patron saint of undertakers and funeral directors, I’m guessing because he was the one who organised the burial of Jesus. 

Tomorrow is the first day of spring in the Southern Hemisphere, where I live. I will be playing the first movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, to celebrate. 

Have a great season, whether it’s spring or autumn! 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Just Finished Reading… Scandal In Babylon by Barbara Hambly. Edinburgh, Severn House, 2021

 I have been reading Barbara Hambly’s books for many years, starting with a gorgeous fantasy novel, Dragonsbane. Next I read the Darwath trilogy, which had such a nice twist at the end, then the wonderful portal fantasy series, the Windrose Chronicles, which she is still writing in the form of self published novellas, novelettes and short stories. Her wizard hero, Antryg Windrose, is basically the Doctor, something she cheerfully admits - the Tom Baker Doctor, if you can imagine him wearing cheap jewellery instead of a scarf, and settling down with his computer specialist Companion after the Council of Timelords nearly succeeds in killing him.

But she has done a lot more than fantasy, including horror fiction and historical crime fiction. The James Asher vampire series is still going. 

My favourite of her historical crime fiction so far are the Benjamin January novels, set in New Orleans in the 1839s/40s, seen from the viewpoint of a free African American surgeon and musician who solves crime. These novels have never gone downhill after 18 novels and several short stories. 

So, I know she can write whodunnits set in earlier eras. I snatched this one off Apple Books as soon as I learned it was out. Historical murder mystery? By Barbara Hambly? Yes, please! 

And yes, it was good fun. It was set in Hollywood in 1924, seen from the viewpoint of Emma Blackstone, a scholarly British woman, widowed when her American husband was killed in the Great War and brought to the US by his glamorous sister Kitty, a silent movie star. There, she works as a scenarist for the movie her sister- in-law is acting in, balances her cheque books, pays the bills and looks after Kitty’s three adorable Pekinese dogs.

Sound familiar? If it does, you have probably read this author’s novel Bride Of  The Rat God, which has pretty much the same characters with different names, except the dogs, which have the same names, quite deliberately. The main difference is that there aren’t any fantasy elements in this one. It is a straight whodunnit, in which Kitty’s unpleasant ex-husband is murdered in her dressing-room while waiting to have a Word with her, possibly involving blackmail. And guess who is the obvious suspect? 

 It seems this will be the first in a series called Silver Screen Historical Mysteries. I have no idea whether the next novel will feature the same characters, but I will be reading.  

Unfortunately, Bride Of The Rat God, a delightful novel, seems to be out of print, though it’s still available in audiobook. There is a sequel, short story “Castle of Horror”, which is available in ebook, one of the self published stories the author has been posting online. But you don’t need to have read Bride Of The Rat God to enjoy this new novel. There is the same flavour of fun and colourful cinema history, with a different focus. 

Very much recommended and available in ebook or print, in all the usual places. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Of Fan Fiction And Villains

Many years ago I had a friend who was into fictional bad guys. She was writing fan fiction with heroes such as Darth Vader and Dracula. She lost interest in Star Wars when she found out that Vader was Luke’s father - no doubt because this put him on a possible redemption arc(it did). But her fanfic Vader was not horrible. The Sith were a people rather than a part of the Dark side of the Force(in all fairness that hadn’t been established yet) and his armour was a cultural thing, not something keeping him alive. He became a matriarchal Queen’s lover, only possible because he could get out of his armour.

Dracula, who couldn’t really get a redemptive arc, nevertheless wasn’t too horrible and got a job as a crewman on the Enterprise. He didn’t murder anyone, which might have caused him problems, just took a sip of blood now and then from female crew, who didn’t know he was a vampire and thought he was just cuddling them. Better still, he got to sleep and work at the same time as everyone else because he was in space. 

You might have noticed that her villains were not really villains any more by the time she finished with them? Nevertheless, her fan fiction was great fun. I still have those fanzines on my shelves and wouldn’t part with them.

I have lost track of this friend, who doesn’t even appear in a Google search any more, but I can’t help suspecting she would not be too keen on the fact that these days everyone seems to be into baddies. It’s more fun when you get to be a fan of Darth Vader while everyone else is into Luke, right? 

Another friend was writing fan fiction about Space Commander Travis, the villain of Blake’s 7, who had done some dreadful things, but was, all the same, a tragic figure.

The thing is, there are baddies and baddies. Travis is all very well as he was, despite all, respected and cared for by his men, even in canon. But I can’t imagine anyone writing fanfic from the viewpoint of Sauron, can you? That would take some doing! And Sauron was, once, more than a red eye in the sky…. 

His predecessor, Morgoth, was not a team player from the start, let’s face it. He was singing his own tune while the rest of the Valar were doing a celestial chorus. (See the opening of The Silmarillion). I suppose this is easier to argue about. “He is an individual! He is different from all those Valar sheep!” But I suspect no one has written any Morgoth fan fiction either. He is just too prone to being disgusting and living in horrible places.

I’d just like to slip in here that I can’t understand why Dark Lords live in such dreadful places. Why would you bother gaining power if you have to live in Mordor?  In fact, British SF writer Peter Hamilton wrote a children’s novel in which the Dark Lord’s brother gets fed up with it all and leaves the dark land to live in a posh London flat, where the children find him watching football on a big screen TV. 

Villains now have a tragic back story or at least have a possibility of redemption. Even the Marvel villain Thanos thinks he is the good guy(and in the animated series What If…? he is a good guy, a likeable member of the reformed Ravagers crew, who still thinks the genocide thing is a good idea, but has been talked out of doing it)

I suppose the question is, can you see it from their viewpoint? In one of my published short stories, “Five Ways To Start A War”(in the anthology Light Touchpaper, Stand Clear, published by Peggy Bright Books)* part of the story is seen from the viewpoint of Eris, the Greek goddess of mischief, sister of the war god Ares. Eris is the only god not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis(as in the Greek myth) - with good reason, as she starts trouble wherever she goes. She argues that it’s her job to cause trouble. So, she causes trouble anyway, with that golden apple marked “For the most beautiful” which more or less causes the Trojan War. I like to think that, in this story at least, there can be a little bit of sympathy for her. After all, Athena and Hera don’t have to do what they do when Aphrodite wins the apple - and Hera, especially, makes sure the war happens even when Helen refuses to run off with Paris. All Eris does is show she knows the personalities of the three goddesses and use that.

Well, that’s my story, anyway. But I don’t think anyone would write Eris fan fiction, not even me! 

In Star Trek fandom, the Klingons were favourites and got their fanfic, even when they were supposed to be the baddies, well before we got to meet Worf and realise they were just people, good and bad. I treasure a badge I bought years ago, at a convention, which read “Kill A Klingon For Christ”, which I wore to annoy my friends who were so terribly serious about it all. (Good grief, I just Googled that in case there was a photo, and found a web site “Klingons for Jesus”! Talk about serious!)

So why do people write villain fan fiction at all? 

I suspect it’s female fans who just want to hug (male) villains with tragic pasts and help them be better, and if they suffer, great! It always has been. Hurt/comfort fiction has been a thing ever since I can remember, and I have been reading fan fiction since the 1970s, and wrote it for a long time(never hurt/comfort, which made me cringe). Hurt/comfort is where two characters are put into a horrible situation and one of them looks after the other, who is suffering from bad wounds from which he - usually a he - may or may not recover. I’ve heard one writer at the Melbourne Writers Festival talk about her hurt/comfort fantasy novel, so it’s not only fan fiction. 

I have recently visited out of curiosity and found 161 stories based on the Loki series, only a couple of months since its release, and guess what? At least half,  judging by the blurbs, were hurt/comfort, the rest were romances. 

Bless the fans! 

*If you are interested in this anthology the web site is selling the print edition discounted as a lockdown special. or you can buy it in Kindle.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Just Finished Reading… From Krakow To Krypton: Jews And Comic Books by Arie Kaplan.Jewish Publication Society, 2008


This book is the main reason I’m into Marvel these days, trying to catch up with the films since it’s a bit late to catch up with the comic books it mentions. As a child, about the only comics I got to read were DC’s Superman - with a friend, because my mother wouldn’t let me read comics at home.

I had to order it on line from overseas, but don’t regret the effort. It’s a detailed history of US comics and the role Jewish artists and writers played in it. I did know about some Jewish comic book creators - for example, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the two Jewish boys who created Superman, and Rene Goscinny, the French writer of the Asterix comics. 

What I didn’t know was that American Jewish artists pretty much founded the US comics industry, when antisemitism prevented them getting jobs in commercial art. Oh, there were comic books around, but they were mostly compilations of newspaper comic strips, nothing newly published and certainly not new characters and stories. 

The story starts early in the 20th century and goes right through to the present day, including Neil Gaiman and Sandman(okay, he is British, not American, but he is Jewish). 

The Jewish illustrators and writers often changed their names. You probably know about Stan Lee(changed from Lieber), but there were quite a few others, such as Jack Kirby(changed from Kurtzberg). I’ll leave you here with the Wikipedia entry for those characters created by Kirby, with others such as Stan Lee and Joe Simon(another Jew, born as Hymie Simon).

If you are a comics fan or watch the movies,you will recognise quite a few of the character names. 

Did you know the satirical Mad Magazine was created by Jewish cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman? I didn’t till I read this book. 

It’s pretty thorough, including underground comic books, and graphic novels such as the classic Maus - which was once on the Year 12 curriculum at my school, by the way.  

It also discusses Marvel and DC characters whom the authors considered Jewish, though they only occasionally had a story where the character said they were. 

The most obvious one is Magneto(X Men) who was a Jewish character, no question about it, but there are others who are mentioned in the book, which also includes snippets of the comics. 

The book is colourful and entertaining, full of fascinating information I really didn’t know before. 

Well worth ordering! It’s easier to buy in ebook than print at the moment, both on Kindle and Apple Books, but there are some print copies available from Book Depository. 

There are other books on this subject, and I have a few I’m still reading, so I will get back to you with more reviews when I finish them. 

So, what do you think, readers? Any comic book fans out there?