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Long long ago, I think even when I was in primary school (so, more than forty years ago), I read The Beast Master, and it stuck with me. Not quite so long ago, I got it and its sequel, Lord of Thunder, in a single volume, Beast Master’s Planet. Both concern a future galaxy where Earth has been destroyed in the final act of a war with the alien Xik, and our protagonist, Hosteen Storm, is (as far as he knows) the only survivor of the Navajo. He is an ex-soldier, trained to have a psychic link with his animal conpanions - two meerkats, an eagle and a big tiger-like cat, and he is sent to the planet of Arzor to earn his living as a civilian.

Arzor turns out to be a sparsely settled planet whose main industry appears to be the ranching of the cattle-like frawns, carried out by human settlers in negotiation with the indigenous Norbies, who have a complex tribal structure and totem-based religion. Hosteen Storm becomes a horse wrangler. It’s basically the Old West in space, although nobody ever says that, with Storm set up as uniquely placed to bridge the communication gap between humans and natives. Basically he is a Magical Indian.

It’s also worth noting that there isn’t a single female speaking character in either book. Storm’s mother is mentioned in passing, but she is dead. The Norbies seem to be all male. Storm’s animals are female, which is interesting.

The Beast Master

Second paragraph of third chapter:
“Call in that eagle of yours,too, if you can, Storm. You’re makin’ a big impression and that can be good for us—”
Still, the first book reminded me of the magic it exerted on my mind in a Belfast classroom long ago. (I think I may have even written a book report on it.) I appreciated then the tragic burden carried by Storm as the last of his tribe, charged by his grandfather with maintaining a family vendetta (which drives a lot of the narrative) but then also caught up in both a Xik plot against the humans and the discovery of lost ancient alien tech under the mountains. The tone of the book is detached, measured and firm. The flaws are still there, but the fact is that this was an sf book featuring a Navajo protagonist at a time (1959) when the future was mainly seen as white.

Lord of Storms

Second paragraph of third chapter:
“What had he done?” Brad Quade asked.
The sequel has some string similarities to the first book (more alien tech under the mountains) but features an arrogant rich offworlder demanding that Storm penetrate dangerous Norbie territory in order to find his lost son. There’s a strong message that messing with the aliens is best left to the experts like Storm and his new family the Quades. The offworlder disregards Storm’s advice, with disastrous consequences all round which Storm has to try and put right, providing more exciting adventure. But I was not really satisfied with the end of the story, which introduced new hither-to unmentioned dangers, and then wrapped everything up rather quickly. I would not recommend it as strongly as the first volume.

Still, bearing in mind that both are books of their time, they are good reads. You can get the omnibus here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2011. Next on that list is Baptism in Blood, by Jane Haddam.

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Monday reading

Missing Adventures, ed. Rebecca Levene
Putting Up Roots, by Charles Sheffield
Brewing Justice, by Daniel Jaffee

Last books finished
The Beast Master, by André Norton
Glory For Me, by MacKinlay Kantor
Lord of Thunder, by André Norton
Who I Am, by Peter Townshend
About Time vol 8: 2007, Series 3, by Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail

Next books
Ringworld, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson
Seychelles: The Saga of a Small Nation Navigating the Cross-Currents of a Big World, by Sir James Mancham

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Yesterday I went to the Asterix in Britain exhibition at the London Jewish Museum. Actually it's much more an exhibition about the life and work of René Goscinny, who created Asterix and also Lucky Luke and the scheming grand vizier Iznogoud. Goscinny was born in 1926, the son of Jewish parants who had moved to Paris from Poland; when he was two they moved to Buenos Aires, where he grew up. He comes across as a very humorous individual - in the many photographs, he is either clearly thinking of something funny to say, or has just said it. He always identified as French, but with a special place in his heart for Argentina, which he refers to as le mien - "mine" - in one of the TV interviews in the exhibition.

Goscinny spent most of the late 1940s in New York, so he must have spoken and written English well. Here is the CV he used to try and get drawing jobs in 1948 (I've checked, and the Brooklyn address where he was living is now a vacant yard):

While there he struck up a friendship and creative partnership with Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman and Larry Siegel, the future creators of Mad Magazine, who wrote him into one of their Playboy strips (about American tourists in Paris) as a manic curly-haired waiter:

But in 1951 he went back to France and from 1959, together with Albert Uderzo, he wrote Asterix. At the same time he was an activist in and for comics, trying to raise the game of the Franco-Belgian culture to be more relevant to contemporary political issues. It's interesting that a lot of his work was for the Belgian Spirou and Tintin magazines, most notably the creation of Lucky Luke with Morris, who was a Belgian artist.

A couple of peculiar coincidences - he married his wife Gilberte on 26 April 1967, which oddly enough was the day I was born. He died suddenly aged 51, which is the age I am now. (I have outlived him - he did not make it to three months after his birthday, I am almost five months after mine.)

We are all familiar with the Anthea Bell translations of Asterix, but there were a couple of earlier not-really-authorised versions as well - one for Valiant in 1964 had Asterix and Obelix as Little Fred and Big Ed, and another for Ranger (later Look and Learn) moved the action to Ancient Britain rather than Gaul and rechristened Asterix as Beric the Bold.

And of course you can dress up as your favourite characters. I went with K and J, here wearing the appropriate helmets.

You can get a bit of a sense of the exhibition here from these two promotional videos featuring Charlie Adlard, creator of The Walking Dead and UK Comics Laureate:

The exhibition only runs for another two weeks, until 2 October, so get a move on if you want to see it. It is in the Jewish Museum of London, which itself has a rather fascinating permanent display about London's Jewish history and about Jewish culture. I would certainly never have gone there if it had not been for René Goscinny, but I am glad that I did.

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A prolonged bout of man-flu meant that I had little energy for much apart from lying in bed reading and watching films over the last week or so. (Fully recovered now, thanks.) So that takes me to The Best Years Of Our Lives, winner of the 1947 Oscar for Best Motion Picture, with another seven (eight by some counts) Oscars on the night - Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Writing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, Best Music, an honorary award to Harold Russell for the role which also won him Best Supporting Actor and arguably also earning Sam Goldwyn his Irving Thalberg Memorial Award. It was the highest-grossing film in both the USA and the UK since Gone With the Wind. I had not heard of it. Russell, the only actor ever to receive two Oscars for the same role, is not depicted on the promotional poster (probably because it was his first ever film role - in fact I think his first professional acting job).

Both IMDB rankings have The Best Years Of Our Lives ranked fourth of all films of 1946 (here and here), with It’s A Wonderful Life and The Big Sleep ranked ahead of it in both cases. Poorly educated as I am in cinema, I have not seen either of them, nor as far as I can tell have I seen any other film released in 1946. Here’s a contemporary trailer, which, in a bold approach to spoilers, leads off with the wedding scene at the very end of the film.

Following on from last year’s The Lost Weekend, it’s another harsh dose of contemporary reality, as three servicemen, demobbed after the war, return to their home city and face agonies of readjustment, as do the women they love. We’ve seen two of those women before - ten years ago, Myrna Loy was the second wife of The Great Ziegfeld, and four years ago, Teresa Wright was the daughter-in-law of Mrs Miniver. Although only thirteen years apart in age, this year they are playing mother and daughter.

As usual I’m going to run through the film starting with areas of weakness. The biggest: it’s 172 minutes long, which possibly explains why it didn’t get shown much on holiday TV schedules when I was a child. It was obviously a labour of love from the director, William Wyler; I don’t really think it needed three hours to tell the three male leads’ stories.

I don’t believe I spotted a black speaking part, though there are several black extras in the background both of the army and the drugstore scenes. (This in contrast to the original text which has a mulatto (sic) barman named Nat.)

Of the three leads, Dana Andrews as Air Force vet Fred Derry is meant to be the central character, and doesn’t quite pull it off to the extent that the other two do. One obvious issue is that Fred Derry is written to be in his early 20s (explicitly 21 in the original story) and Dana Andrews was 36 in 1945. It weakens the impact of the storyline of his impulsive marriage, now regretted by both him and his wife Marie (played by Virginia Mayo).

He does get a brilliant moment at the end with the mothballed warplanes, already relics from the war that he can’t escape.

Poor Myrna Loy as Milly, who was the biggest star in the film when it came out, doesn’t get to do much more than smouldering concern about her husband Al, an Oscar-winning performance by Fredric March, and their daughter Peggy, as played by Teresa Wright, who falls in love with Dana Andrews’ Fred. March however is very good as Al, a respectable banker who only made it to sergeant in the war, and is deeply disoriented by the return to civilian life. The first hour of the film covers the first day home of the three men, and Al in particular self-medicates horrifically with alcohol, not for the last time; a call-back to last year’s The Lost Weekend.

The show is stolen by Harold Russell as Navy Petty Officer Homer Parrish, who had himself lost both his hands in the war and had become incredibly nimble with his prosthetic steel hooks, to the point of signing his name on a form and playing Chopsticks with Hoagy Carmichael's Uncle Butch Engle.

As noted above, this is the only case in Oscar history of an actor receiving two awards for the same role - the Academy decided to give him a special award, on the grounds that the members were hardly going to vote for him as Best Supporting Actor; but the members duly did so. The scene where he struggles with himself to negotiate a future with his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) is particularly memorable. (It is their wedding that the trailer leads with.)

In general the cinematography and music are good too - impressive use of depth (as you can see from several of the above screenshots), and a warm Oscar-winning score by Hugo Freiedhofer. You can find most of the good tracks on YouTube (here, here, here, here, here, here and here); this is the incidental music for the scene with Homer and Wilma.

I was really impressed by this film, and I am ranking it ahead of last year's The Lost Weekend and just behind that other great war film, All Quiet on the Western Front. You can get it here. Next is Gentleman's Agreement, of which I know nothing.

I think this is the only work of poetry adapted to become an Oscar-winning film - Glory For Me was MacKinlay Kantor's 276-page blank verse response to Sam Goldwyn's commission for the screenplay that became the film. The second paragraph of the third section, reflecting Fred Derry's experience, is:
(It’s hard to think that you are young when you are seventeen.
It’s hard to think that you could ever be just seventeen,
When you look back from twenty-one,
And know that you have killed a hundred men or more.)
The biggest change made for the screen is that the original Homer had PTSD and brain damage affecting the motor system on one side of his body; when Russell appeared on the scene, the character's disability was changed to the physical loss of his hands. Having said that, the character arc is pretty similar, though more dramatic, with Homer attempting suicide with Fred's gun and Wilma then talking him round to continued life, with her support.
She held the book
Squeezed precious in her hands.
“About a man ... he used to be like you.
He wrote this book himself—a man named Carlson.
And I’ve read Helen Keller, too. But Carlson knows
Just how it feels to be like you,
And worse. He crawled around;
He couldn’t walk, and he was born that way.
That’s how he got the title for his book,
He calls it ‘Born That Way.’ You see,
It’s better, Homer, if it happens to you late:
You have a pattern formed. He says
You have to re-establish it—the pattern.
All the motions that you make,
You have to will them—think them out.
And you can do it, Homer. Yes, you can.”
In general the poem has more drama (perhaps even more plot), though one early and significant divergence is that Fred and Marie decide their marriage is over the night he gets back, rather than trying to make a go of it as they do for most of the film. He is far from blameless - he has had several love affairs during the war, including one with an aristocratic Englishwoman, and he hits Marie when he discovers that she has been doing the same.
“You file for the divorce,” he said.
“It’s easy in this State. I socked you:
That’s enough. But don’t you spend too much.
Look—here’s a hundred bucks—”
He brought some money out
And counted off five Twenties.
“That’ll be enough.
It’s all you’ll get from me. No alimony, babe.
And do it quick. And if you don’t
I’ll go myself, and file, and tell
Just what I found when I came back—”
And Fred and Peggy get somewhat better closure than on screen (in that they definitely bonk, but in a poetic way).

The poetic form allows Kantor to sum up the point of the story with a vivid metaphor, much more so than is possible on screen:
WHEN YOU come out of War to quiet streets
You lug your War along with you.
You walk a snail-path. On your back you carry it—
A scaly load that makes your shoulders raw;
And not a hand can ever lift the shell
That cuts your hide. You only wear it off yourself—
Look up one day, and vaguely see it gone.
You do not see yourself in malformation.

The men and girls who have no shells
Of War upon their backs—You count them well deformed.
You recognize the other snails by eyes or ribbons;
You speak your perfect language to their ears,
And they to yours. You look with solemn eye
On those without a shell. You do not scorn,
You do not hate, you do not love them for it.
You only say, “They have no shell.”

With other snails you crawl the quiet street
And wonder why you’re there,
And think of folks who aren’t.
You polish up your shell for pride
Until you tire of it.
And one day it is gone if you are wise.
You can get it here.

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Doctor Who: The Visual Dictionary

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Two Hearts
Time Lords have two hearts and a binary vascular system, which enables them to survive major accidents and many physical and temporal shocks that would kill a human being. They also have a respiratory by-pass system that enables them to survive without breathing for some time.
This is a very gorgeous catalogue of the concepts of New Who; not much more to say about it except again to emphasise that it looks very nice. My copy is from after the first Matt Smith series, ie the first five series of New Who, but at this stage you would be better to get the updated version.

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Second frame of Lesson Three:
I picked this up on a whim, and I have to say that I wasn’t hugely impressed. It’s a story of a future radiation-raddled England literally flooded by rising sea levels (there is an effective frame showing Trafalgar Square awash) and under threat from religious fanatics threatening to take over the government, opposed only by one brave biker girl and her assorted companions. I found the politics heavy-handed and the prose rather simplistic, and the monochrome drawing style didn’t appeal to me at all, giving little room for chatacter or setting to be properly explored. There are a wealth of literary references, particularly to the Bible and Blake, but the depth of these didn’t make up for the lack of surface polish for me. If you like, you can get it here.

This was my top unread comic; next up is the Doctor Who collection A Cold Day in Hell.

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The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Entre la couleur grise et douce d’une campagne matinale et le goût d’une tasse de chocolat, je faisais tenir toute l’originalité de la vie physique, intellectuelle et morale que j’avais apportée une année environ auparavant à Doncières, et qui, blasonnée de la forme oblongue d’une colline pelée — toujours présente même quand elle était invisible — formait en moi une série de plaisirs entièrement distincts de tous autres, indicibles à des amis en ce sens que les impressions richement tissées les unes dans les autres qui les orchestraient les caractérisaient bien plus pour moi et à mon insu que les faits que j’aurais pu raconter. À ce point de vue le monde nouveau dans lequel le brouillard de ce matin m’avait plongé était un monde déjà connu de moi (ce qui ne lui donnait que plus de vérité), et oublié depuis quelque temps (ce qui lui rendait toute sa fraîcheur). Et je pus regarder quelques-uns des tableaux de bruine que ma mémoire avait acquis, notamment des « Matin à Doncières », soit le premier jour au quartier, soit, une autre fois, dans un château voisin où Saint-Loup m’avait emmené passer vingt-quatre heures, de la fenêtre dont j’avais soulevé les rideaux à l’aube, avant de me recoucher, dans le premier un cavalier, dans le second (à la mince lisière d’un étang et d’un bois dont tout le reste était englouti dans la douceur uniforme et liquide de la brume) un cocher en train d’astiquer une courroie, m’étaient apparus comme ces rares personnages, à peine distincts pour l’œil obligé de s’adapter au vague mystérieux des pénombres, qui émergent d’une fresque effacée. Between the soft grey light of a morning landscape and the taste of a cup of chocolate I instated all that was distinctive about the physical, intellectual and moral life I had taken with me to Doncières about a year earlier and which, blazoned with the oblong shape of a bare hillside — always present even when it was invisible — represented a series of pleasures that were utterly distinct from any others, incommunicable to friends in the sense that the impressions, richly interwoven with one another, which orchestrated them were more typical of them for me, in an unconscious way, than any facts about them I could have related to others. From this point of view the new world into which I had been plunged by the morning mist was a world already known to me (which only made it more real) and forgotten for some time (which restored all its freshness). And I was able to study several of the pictures of misty landscapes acquired by my memory, notably a series of 'Mornings in Doncières', including my first morning in the barracks there and another in a nearby country house where I had gone with Saint-Loup to spend the night: from the windows of both, when I had drawn back the curtains at dawn before getting back into bed, in the first a cavalryman, in the second (at the narrow margin of a pond and a wood, all the rest of which was engulfed in the uniform and liquid softness of the mist) a coachman polishing a harness strap, had appeared like those rare figures, scarcely visible to the eye — forced to adapt itself to the mysterious blur of the half-light — which emerge from a worn fresco.
And so Marcel heads back to Paris, to the glittering salons of Duchess this and Princess that, but a society that is also being riven apart by the Dreyfus case. (Which Anne Applebaum chillingly referred to in an article about contemporary European politics last week.) There are two big set-piece dinner parties here, which occupy almost half of a very long book between them, and Proust does rather well at showing both the snobbishness of the upper classes and his own inability to push back against it as he perhaps felt he should, partly because he is agonising over his own love affairs and infatuations (mostly with women - Albertine returns - but inclduing a fairly overt bromance with his friend Saint-Loup). Somewhat lower marks, I’m afraid, for punching down at the comical servants and their funny ways of talking. But this is good solid stuff. I have reached the half-way point, and you know what? I’m a lot less intimidated by it this time round. You can get it here.

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Five Moomin books, by Tove Jansson

My regular reader knows well that I am slightly obsessed with the great Finnish writer Tove Jansson, whose Moomin books I enjoyed as a child and whose more mature fiction I have equally enjoyed in recent years. (And I also marvelled at her father’s statues of her.) So I have returned to five of the Moomin novels - not all, and a slightly arbitrary choice - to see if the magic remains. And, by and large, it does, as I will explain below.

I must, however, register a serious disappointment with my Puffin editions, bought in 2017. Each has a boilerplate biography of Tove Jansson onside the front cover, stating that “She lived alone on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, where most of her books were written.” This completely erases her partner Tuulikki Pietilä; they were together for fifty years. It wasn’t really OK for Puffin Books to print this untruth in 1967, when they first published Comet in Moominland, and it is definitely not OK now. I hope that they will amend this as soon as possible for future printings.

Comet in Moominland (1946)

Second paragraph of third chapter, with chapter header illustration:
‘We’ll try to find out where this nasty piece of work is, and then try to stop it coming here,’ he [Moomintroll] thought. ‘But I’d better keep this to myself, because if Sniff got to know he’d be so frightened that he wouldn’t be of the smallest use to anybody.’ Out loud he cried: ‘Up you get little animal! We’re starting now!’
This was the first full Moomin novel, pubished in 1946 but written in the shadow of war, and it’s not too difficult to see the metaphor of the world-altering disaster threatened here in the shape of a comet aproaching the Earth. Against this ominous background, Moomintroll, who is the central character of most of the Moomin books, along with Sniff (who fulfills a younger sibling role) and Snufkin (the Best Friend) go to the Observatory to ask advice from the Astronomer. On the way they make friends with two more siblings, the Snork and the Snork Maiden. After a series of adventures (including a dragon and a carnivorous tree), they get to the Observatory and there the Astronomer nonchalantly informs them that there is no hope - the comet will destroy everything. They return home across a devastated landscape with scurrying refugees, and at the last moment as they prepare for the end, all comes right and the world is saved.

This is bleak and scary stuff for the young target audience, and I remember being chilled by it as I first read it. At the same time there is always a sense that Moominmamma and Moominpappa will provide security in an uncertain world, the tale is told with plenty of humour, and time is found for parties and good food and drink (mostly coffee of course). It is beautifully illustrated by Jansson herself (as are all the Moomin books). It’s clearly an early work - rather episodic, despite the grim over-arching narrative, and without the attention to character that we would get later on. So I think a younger child would enjoy it most, but there is plenty for us grownups too. You can get it here (not the lesbian-erasing Puffin edition).

Finn Family Moomintroll

Second paragraph of third chapter, with chapter header illustration:
”Unpardonable!” exclaimed the Muskrat unwinding the rug from his legs.
I think this is my favourite of the books. It is the only one that has the nuclear Moomin family (mostly) on home base, their lives interrupted and enlivened by a new element - so it combines Farah Mendlesohn’s immersive and intrusive modes of fantasy. The disruptive element is the Hobgoblin’s Hat, which Moomintroll, Snufkin and Sniff find in the first chapter. The Moomins use it as a rubbish basket at first, and only gradually realise that it transforms everything that it put into it - including Moomintroll himself, until his mother recognises him and her love transforms him back. The Hat also transforms words from the dictionary into creepy crawly creatures.

The book also introduces Thingumy and Bob, an enigmatic pair who share a special language and have a secret that they are reluctant to share with anyone (but which brings them danger from the Groke and the Hobgoblin). They are generally interpreted as Tove Jansson’s version of herself and the first woman she loved, Vivica Bandler. In the end their secret is revealed, and it turns out all right.

The whole story wraps up very nicely, with the inevitable party. I think this would be a good introduction to the Moomin books for a reader of any age who was not sure where to start. You can get it here.

Moominsummer Madness

Second paragraph of third chapter, with chapter header illustration:
”We simply can’t take the whole drawing-room suite,” said Moominpappa.
The Moomins get washed out of their house by a flood; Moominmamma and Momminpappa (and a host of other small creatures) take refuge in what turns out to be a theatre - initially to their total bemusement, because they have no idea what a theatre is; but it doesn’t stop Moominpappa from writing a play. Meanwhile Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden have been separated from the rest of the household and have a series of edventures culminating in a jailbreak with th neurotic Fillyjonk.

(The Snork Maiden’s brother seems to have been written out.) This book possibly draws most on Tove Jansson’s own somewhat Bohemian upbringing. Her father was a famous sculptor, her mother was an artist too; and she herself had a strong attraction to the theatre (Vivica Bandler was an actor) and was closely involved with the stage adaptations of the Moomin stories in her lifetime. But here she is at least partly laughing at herself, and looking at the theatre through the eyes of characters for whom it is completely new.

It’s played for laughs a bit more than the other books (though there are a couple of rather sad characters, to offset the jollity). You can get it here.

Moominland Midwinter

Second paragraph of third chapter, with chapter header illustration:
Every so often they struck, and now and then the alarm clock went off. It comforted him. But he could never forget the one terrible thing — that the sun didn't rise any longer. Yes, it's true; morning after morning broke in a kind of grey twilight and melted back again into the long winter night — but the sun never showed himself. He was lost, simply lost, perhaps he had rolled out into space. At first Moomintroll refused to believe it. He waited a long time.
This is my second favourite of the books. Moomintroll wakes up in the middle of winter, while the rest of the Moomin family are hibernating, and must get to grips with a familiar lanscape made alien by snow, and new neighbours and friends. Chief among these is Too-Ticky, a warm yet slightly enigmatic character who is generally interpreted as Tuulikki Pietilä. In her first conversation with Moomintroll, she concludes: “All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.” (Original Swedish: “Allt är mycket osäkert, och det är just det som lugnar mig.”) I love this so much that I used it for my Christmas emails last year.

There are some bleak and sad bits here too - the squirrel and the Groke; the dog Sorry-Oo and the skiing Hemulen. But in the end it’s a story of renewal and reassurance. You can get it here.

Moominpappa at Sea

Second paragraph of third chapter, with chapter header illustration:
’Who would have thought they could be so ferocius,’ said Little My, full of admiration.
Another misleading title (though this goes back to the Swedish original), as the story concerns not just Moominpappa but the entire family and various associates, heading off to an island for a summer adventure. A lot of this is obviously drawn from Tove Jansson’s own warm experiences of the islands, both as a child and as a guardian of children, which she also used in her lovely The Summer Book.

At the same time, it’s also a story about passions and aspirations - Moominpappa wanting to get the lighthouse working again, Moomintroll investing emotional energy in the sea-horses who do not care about him at all.

I’m not especially a sailor or a fan of roughing it in an isolated location, so it doesn’t gel for me as much as the earlier books, but there is still a lot of magic. You can get it here.

As I said at the beginning, I was really glad to revisit these. I have a couple more on the shelves which I will get to in due course.

The Moomin books came to the top of my pile of unread books acquired last year. Next up is The Name of this Book is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch.

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Monday reading

Who I Am, by Peter Townshend
Beast Master’s Planet, by André Norton
About Time vol 8: 2007, Series 3, by Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
Glory For Me, by MacKinlay Kantor

Last books finished
The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett
The Lost Weekend, by Charles L. Jackson
Moominpappa at Sea, by Tove Jansson
The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust
Dark Satanic Mills, by Marcus Sedgwick, Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins and Marc Olivent
Doctor Who: The Visual Dictionary, by Neil Corry, Jacqueline Rayner, Andrew Darling, Kerrie Dougherty, David John and Simon Beecroft

Next books
Putting Up Roots, by Charles Sheffield
Brewing Justice, by Daniel Jaffee
Missing Adventures, ed. Rebecca Levene

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The Zomerfeest

This was actually two weeks ago, but I was excitedly posting about Jeremy Thorpe that day. The annual Zomerfeest in our village has been getting more sophisticated over the 17 years we have been living here; it started with a barbecue and a bit of music, and has become one of my unmissable events of the year. The highlight this year was a Sunday lunchtime concert by Mechelen band Selene’s Garden, with this vibrant cover of “Billie Jean”:

It was a nice end-of-summer weekend, which had started with a Saturday walk up the plateau and back down the river valley.

We saw a real beaver dam:

The nature walk was led as ever by local guru Ernst Gülcher.

Back to Sunday, and the main business of the village barbecue:

In a corner, kids were making bird boxes. It’s never too soon to learn how to use a hammer.

In another corner, a local artist was drawing caricatures for a small fee.

And the M-City Ramblers were performing bluegrass among the throngs:

On the lawn, more kids were selling off old toys and games at knockdown prices - one of the ways that the Zomerfeest marks the passing of the years.

One of the loveliest aspects of the Zomerfeest is that local artists exhibit their work in village homes and gardens. These are mostly sclptures, as the painters are rightly leery of having their work “all over the internet”/ Note particularly the creator of the last four.

Finally, a somewhat sombre note. The whole Zomerfeest depends crucially on volunteers, and in our first few years in the village, an American neighbour, married to a Belgian, was one of the its guiding lights. That is, up to 2006, when she was murdered by her husband. A bench on the Feestplein commemorates her memory, but I guess the Zomerfeest itself does that too.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

Along with the films that won the Oscar for Best Picture, I am going to watch Hugo and Nebula winning dramatic presentations when we get there. 1946 is the first year where I hadn’t already seen the Retro Hugo winner for that year (released in 1945, the same as The Lost Weekend). The previous years were: 1939 (The War of the Worlds), 1941 (Pinocchio and Fantasia) and 1943 (Bambi).

Although there are four earlier winners of a Retro Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, the 1946 Retro Hugos were the first to be given out, on the 50th anniversary of the 1946 Worldcon in 1996. (The 1939, 1941 and 1943 awards were made 75 years on, in 2014, 2016 and 2018; and we will do 1944 Retro Hugos next year in Dublin.) The other finalists were Blithe Spirit, The Body Snatcher, The Horn Blows at Midnight and House of Dracula. IMDB users also rank The Picture of Dorian Gray ahead of the others. I have not seen any of them - in fact I had not seen any films made in 1945 at all until I watched The Lost Weekend a couple of days before The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I am a huge fan of the original Oscar Wilde novel, and it’s delightful to see it transformed to the screen so faithfully - not so much interms of plot, but in terms of aesthetic. The film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, partly on foot of the eponymous portrait, the only moment of colour in the black and white film:

But also I enjoyed very much watching Angela Lansbury, aged 20, in her second screen role after Gaslight, stealing every scene she is in, clearly recognisable as the future star of Murder She Wrote.

And George Sanders is having a blast as the Oscar Wilde character, Lord Henry Wotton (on the left here with Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray and Lowell Gilmore as the painter Basil Hallward; this was the peak of both their careers):

The uncredited narrator is Sir Cedric Hardwicke, often carrying the story while Hatfield is acting silently agonised as Gray. He threw me a bit in the first sentence by pronouncing “secretive” as /səˈkriːtɪv/ instead of /ˈsiːkrətɪv/, ie with the stress and long vowel in the second syllable rather than the first. Polls of my followers on both Twitter and Facebook indicate that this is a minority choice.

More negatively, what is striking is that just as with The Lost Weekend, the gay elements of the original are very much downplayed. It’s not as bad as The Lost Weekend - Hurd Hatfield is I think definitely coded as gay - and one of the delights of the film is that Dorian Gray’s debauchery is deliciously hinted at rather than shown - but it’s another example of erasure.

Even so, I enjoyed watching it. You can get it here.

The next Retro Hugo for Dramatic Presentation went to Destination Moon, in 2001 for 1951.
Back to my Best Picture Oscar sequence, after the summer break, and it’s The Lost Weekend, which also won Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay, losing out on Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Music and Best Editing. It was also one of 11 films that won the Grand Prix at Cannes that year, and only one other film since has managed the Cannes/Oscar double. (Marty, which I have not otherwise heard of; we’ll get there in 1955.)

The two IMDB ratings rank The Lost Weekend 8th and 3rd among films of 1945, behind Spellbound and Brief Encounter in both cases. I confess that I had not seen a single other film released in this year. (I have since watched The Picture of Dorian Gray, for Hugo completism.) Here is a trailer, which interestingly leads with the fact that it is based on a best-selling book.

The Lost Weekend is about alcoholism, and the mess that it makes of the lives of alcoholics and of the people around them. Don Birnam, the central character played by Ray Milland (a Welshman successfully sounding American, and winning an Oscar for this performance), desperately and degradingly struggles to get cash to buy booze, having given his brother and his girlfriend the slip for the weekend.

To start with the bits I didn’t like so much, and work upwards. First, in the book, which I’ll get to below, the protagonist is very definitely bisexual, and reflects on his affairs with both men and women. No hint of this whatsoever survives to the film. It’s one of the most blatant examples of gey erasure that I have seen. There is a character, Gloria, played by Doris Dowling, who is clearly a sex worker, or at least as clearly as the Code would allow.

Jane Wyman, who was at the time married to fellow actor Ronald Reagan, is very good as Don’s girlfriend Helen and gets a lot of great lines. (Her mother is played by Lilian Fontaine, whose two daughters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland also appeared in Oscar-winning films, Rebecca and Gone with the Wind.) But Helen’s storyline is one of standing by her man, no matter how awfully he behaves. In fact her relationship with Don is deeply toxic and controlled by his addiction.

She is not quite an enabler, but I would hope that a remake of the story today would look a bit more sensitively at how those who love addicts can sometimes make matters worse. Also, of course, because this is a Hollywood film and the conventions must be observed, Don is redeemed by the strength of her lurve. “We're both trying, Don. You're trying not to drink, and I'm trying not to love you.”

Among many memorable scenes, the segment set in the alcoholic ward of the hospital stands out for its bleakness - Frank Faylen as Bim Nolan, the nurse who explains to Don just how bad his situation is. “We had a peek of your blood. Straight apple jack. 96 proof. ... You're an alky. You'll come back. They all do. Him, for instance. Shows up every month. Just like the gas bill. ... You know that stuff about pink elephants? That's bunk. It's little animals. Little tiny turkeys in straw hats. Midget monkeys coming through the key holes. See that guy over there? With him, its beetles. Come the night, he sees beetles crawling all over him. Has to be dark though.”

Other memorable moments include the La Traviata performance where Don becomes obsessed by the drinks on stage during the Drinking Song; the desperate search for an open pawnbroker on Yom Kippur (the Irish pawnbrokers close in solidarity with the Jews, who return the favour on St Patrick’s Day); and Don’s hallucination of a bat flying around his room that then attacks a mouse.

I finally have to note the use of the theremin in Miklós Rózsa’s incidnental music, two decades before Star Trek; it gives an amazing otherworldly feel to Don’s alcohol-dazed perceptions.

This is a grim film to watch, but I think also a great film. I am ranking it fourth in my list so far, behind All Quiet on the Western Front but ahead of You Can’t Take It With You. You can get it here.

Next is The Best Years Of Our Lives. I know nothing about it.

The book of The Lost Weekend, by Charles L. Jackson, is apparently solidly autobiographical. Second paragraph of third chapter:
He listened to the ’phone. It rang six or seven times and then stopped. He closed his eyes, relieved.
It’s as grim reading as the film is grim viewing, tight third throughout, vividly realised, and without the film’s happy ending.

As noted above, Don Birnam is bisexual in the original novel, but firmly straight on screen; in the book, his ambiguous sexuality is part of the root of his addiction - which of course rather ignores the fact that in real life, many alcoholics are entirely secure in their sexual identities; but I guess Jackson had to tell the story he himself knew best.

The penultimate section of the book has Don hallucinating at his girlfriend Helen’s apartment, rather than his own - this gives a stronger sense of displacement, and of course reinforces the point that when he does get home he starts drinking again, ending the book in the same place he started, only worse off.

Several of the great visuals of the film (including the opera scene) were written for the screen and were not in the original book. The passage in the hospital is memorable in a very different way in the book - the nurse, Bim Nolan, hints at seducing Don as part of his treatment, though Don is not really interested either in being seduced or in being treated. (In fairness this is hinted at on screen, but it is text rather than subtext in the original.)

As I said, it’s a grim read, but you can get it here.

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The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett

Second paragraph of third chapter:
He had the advantage of surprise, but that was short-lived. In the matter of strength and reflexes he was as near animal as a man can reasonably be, but the creature he fought with was in its own element. Stark grappled with it and it shot upward from the water like a tarpon, breaking his grip. He saw it briefly above him in the cluster-light, outstretched arms shaking diamond drops, body girdled with foam. It looked down at him, laughing, and its eyes were like pearls. Then it was gone in a curving arc that drove it beneath the surface. Its form was manlike, except that there seemed to be webs of skin in odd places, and the head was earless.
A planetary fantasy, Brackett’s first after a ten-year hiatus, published in the mid-1970s but really belonging to an earlier decade. Our hero, Eric John Stark, lands on the planet Skaith to seek his mentor Ashton, who has disappeared; he himself was raised by primitives on Mercury before Ashton rescued him and educated him in the ways of humans. (His name on Mercury was N’Chaka, which is suggestive.) On his quest northwards he runs into one well-written peril after another, aided sometimes by Gerrith, daughter of Gerrith, whose vision is that he will destroy the regime of the Lords Protector. (Guess what happens at the end?)

Brackett’s earlier stuff (or at least what I have read for Retro-Hugo purposes) was better, but this is still not bad if pulpy, and frankly much better than the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels which inspired it. But it’s curiously out of place in 1974; The Dispossessed, published the same year, a planetary romance much more in tune with the times, won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and I think most people would agree that the voters got it right. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2014. Next on that list is Earth Girl, by Janet Edwards.

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Vurt, by Jeff Noon

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Yeah, sure! And the king was in his counting house, counting out his money. No doubt. Except that we'd just trashed a week's dripfeed on five lousy Blues and a single done-it-already Black. Sure, The Beetle could sell some low-level Vurt to a robo-crusty. Or maybe I could persuade Brid to sing some smoky songs in one of the locals, me on keyboards and decks, but the shadow-cops were everywhere. Most pubs had one, broadcasting from above the Vurtbox, shining inpho all over undesirables. Those inpho beams could match a face up to the Cop Banks in half a nanosec.
Winner of the 1994 Arthur C. Clarke Award, beating among others Ammonite by Nicola Griffith and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I had not read it before; people seem to either love it or not love it, depending on how close to original publication they read it. It’s set in a near-future Manchester, where the protagonist and his friends are habitual consumers of Vurt - possibly a drug, possibly a virtual game, possibly both - which is absorbed by oral intake of feathers of different colours. The style draws both on Philip K. Dick and cyberpunk, with a bit of Hero’s Journey in there. I found it particularly interesting that the key figures are all crusties, a 1990s subculture that I had completely forgotten about until now. (Are there any still around? I see from Wikipedia that it meant something different in North America.)

I was not really blown away by the book, as so many readers clearly were when it first came out (including the Clarke judges, who in my view should have gone for Snow Crash). Cyberpunk isn’t really my subgenre, Dick did the Dickian bits better, the characterisation is rather flat, and in the set-up, the state rather implausibly seems to have little contact with the alternative scene of our protagonists (when in fact you’d expect police and welfare agencies at least to be keeping a wary eye and at worst to be complicit in the supply of dubious substances). I found it rather dragged, despite its relatively short length. I can see why some people liked it, but it didn’t really work for me. Still, if you like, you can get it here.

Next in my list of award-winning books is Larque on the Wing, by Nancy Springer.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
While Latin was used throughout the West, Greek remained the lingua franca of all the eastern regions. Until the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire employed both ancient languages. Administrators sent from the West to the eastern half of the empire were often issued with wordbooks giving the Greek equivalent of Latin words and explaining local terminology. Translation from Greek to Latin was largely the work of Christian scholars who wanted to make the Scriptures and theological writings available to westerners. Much less Latin literature was rendered into Greek. Most of Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and Horace, for instance, remained unknown to monoglot Greek speakers. Most well-educated men, however, were bilingual. Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330-92 or later), a native of Antioch who identified himself as a Greek and a soldier, wrote a history of his times in Latin which documents the campaigns of Emperor Julian. He also brilliantly evoked the beauty of ancient sites, such as the temple of Sarapis in Alexandria, levelled by Christians in 391, or the Forum of Trajan in Rome.
Gibbon very unfairly neglects the Byzantine Empire, and Judith Herrin here argues for its rehabilitation as a vibrant civilisation in its own right, until it was dealt a deadly blow by Western Christianity in 1204 (and yet still survived another quarter of a millennium). She avoids doing a straight historical narrative, instead concentrating on different aspects of Byzantine politics and culture, arranged roughly in chronological order; there is an early chapter on the Hagia Sofia, a late chapter on Trebizond and the other post-1204 splinters. I felt that the risks of this approach did not quite pay off - there ends up being some repetition between chapters, and the whole thing seemed a bit unmoored from a firm timeline. Of course the risk of going the other way is that you would get too much into the dynastic politics of the people at the top, to the neglect of the rest.

Speaking of the people at the top, I had not appreciated that several women ruled the Byzantine Empire in their own right, or that two of them responsible for ending the two spells of iconoclasm. And having complained about the weak connection to the passage of time, I must say that I was very satisfied with the book’s treatment of the shifting geography of the Byzantine empire, particularly the account of how the Ravenna mosaics came to be in Ravenna. Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors will be enlightened by this book, which may be better absorbed chapter by (short) chapter, rather than reading through in a few sittings. You can get it here.

This was both the top unread book on my shelves by a woman, and the top unread non-fiction book. Next in those piles are The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells, and Who I Am, by Pete Townsend.

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So, the Boundary Commission’s report is finally out, as already discussed by Mick and commentators here. As ever I have done some number-crunching; details below but here are the headlines.

At Westminster level, five currently DUP-held seats are squashed into four - East Londonderry is replaced by the new seat of Causeway; most of North Antrim becomes Mid Antrim; South Antrim is split several ways, and the new seat with that name actually has more of the old Lagan Valley in it; the old Strangford largely becomes Mid Down. North Down loses Holywood to East Belfast but takes in the Ards Peninsula.

This means that the DUP lose one of their seats (effectively the old South Antrim). But on the raw numbers, this is compensated by the large number Ards Peninsula voters added to North Down, who may not be very helpful for the small majority of Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon - though it should be noted that she argued for that change herself, and as she was not a candidate in the Peninsula last year, we don’t know what result she would have got.

At Assembly level, the abolished Antrim seat takes with it, in theory, two DUP MLAs and one each from the UUP, Alliance, and the Nationalists (probably the SDLP seat which was narrowly and unexpectedly won in Lagan Valley last year). But enough Unionist voters go into West Belfast to create a notional gain for the DUP from Sinn Fein, and the shift of voters from the old East Londonderry to Causeway is probably enough to deprive the SDLP of another of their unexpected wins last year, likely also to the benefit of the DUP.

So I project last year’s vote onto the new boundaries to give the DUP 28 seats out of 85 (no change), SF 26 (-1), the SDLP 10 (-2), the UUP 9 (-1), Alliance 7 (-1) and the Greens holding 2, with the TUV, People Before Profit and the independent MLA Claire Sugden holding their single seats.

These numbers of course must be considered as only a rough guide to the new political landscape. The one thing that is certain about the next election is that voters will vote differently to the way they did last time. How differently? Only time will tell.

And that, of course, assumes that these boundaries ever come into force in the first place...

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