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The War of the Worlds (1953)

This won the Retro Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation for 1954 (awarded in 2004), beating “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century”, It Came from Outer Space, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Invaders from Mars. It performs pretty respectably in the IMDB rankings, 8th and 11th on the two systems, with Roman Holiday and Peter Pan competing for the top two slots. I have not yet watched From Here To Eternity, that year's Oscar winner; oddly enough the only two 1953 films which I am sure that I previously seen are both French, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot / Mr Hulot's Holiday and Le Salaire de la Peur / The Wages of Fear, which blew me away, so to speak. (On reflection, I must have seen Calamity Jane too.) The War of the Worlds was given a Special Achievement Oscar for Best Special Effects, but lost two competitive nominations (Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording, both won by From Here To Eternity). Here is a trailer.

Well, this film is many things, but inclusive it ain't - the only non-white character who we see is the unfortunate Salvatore, supposedly Hispanic yet with a somewhat differentaccent, played by Jack Kruschen, who is one of the first three victims of the aliens:

And Ann Robinson's role as the female lead Sylvia van Buren is basically peril monkey to be rescued by our hero, with whom she is in lurve.

The actors are not required to do much more than demonstrate dismay and consternation.

The plot is somewhat adapted from H.G. Wells' novel. Most obviously, the action is in Southern California, not Surrey; and the aliens have sinister floating machines rather than tripods, this being cinematically easier to do (though you can still see the wires sometimes if you look). We also actually see one of the aliens.

But the desperate failure of humanity to do much that is effective in the face of the alien invader, and the aliens' eventual defeat by the bathos of ordinary bacteria, are true to Wells.

And look, this film is about spectacle and threat, and it does those very well indeed. The alien machines are particularly effective, both when they slowly emerge from their spaceships and when they start to lay waste to Los Angeles.

And the breakdown of organised humanity is very effectively portrayed, includnig the desperate seeking of hope in religion:

There's an effective early scene with Sylvia's minister uncle (played by Lewis Martin) attempting to communicate with the aliens (and getting exterminated for his pains):

And I must give fair props to Gene Barry as scientist-hero Clayton Forrester, clearly the inspiration for future geeky heroes in the first part of the film before becoming rugged man of action at the end.

So much of this fed into Doctor Who - the soldiers being disintegrated en masse very reminiscent of Robot, and there's a full-skeleton Dalek-style extermination as well.

Anyway, this was great fun to watch, and while nothing can ever quite have the impact of the Orson Welles radio version from fifteen years earlier, it fairly catches the spirit of the original novel, updated to Fifties California. You can get it here.

Next up is the first actual Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1958).

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My books of 2018, and a poll

I read 262 books this year, the seventh highest of fourteen years that I have been keeping count, so squarely in the middle. (Full numbers: 238 in 2017, 212 in 2016, 290 in 2015, 291 in 2014, 237 in 2013, 259 in 2012, 301 in 2011, 278 in 2010, 342 in 2009, 374 in 2008, 235 in 2007, 207 in 2006, 137 in 2005). There were some pretty slow months when travel didn't quite allow for full enjoyment, but I've been getting back in the habit of reading rather than supping from the information firehose. Next year I'm on the Hugos again, but I hope it will eat less into my reading time than last year.

Page count for the year: 71,600 - again in the middle of the range, fifth highest of the eight years where I have kept count (60,500 in 2017; 62,300 in 2016; 80,100 in 2015; 97,100 in 2014; 67,000 in 2013; 77,800 in 2012; 88,200 in 2011)
Books by non-male writers in 2017: 102/262, 39% - a record high; not really sure why, though of course a lot of women did get Hugo nominations. (64/238 [27%] in 2017, 65 [31%] in 2016, 86 [30%] in 2015, 81 [28%] in 2014, 71 [30%] in 2013, 65 [25%] in 2012, 22% in 2011, 23% in 2010, 20% in 2009, 12% in 2008)
Books by PoC in 2017: 26/262, 10% - another record high, and the more diverse Hugos played a part here too. (17/238 [7%] in 2017, 14 [7%] in 2016, 20 [7%] in 2015, 11 [5%] in 2014, 12 [5%] in 2013, 5% in 2011, 9% in 2010, 5% in 2009, 2% in 2008)

Most books by a single author: Tove Jansson and Marcel Proust, both with 6 (previous winners: Colin Brake and Leo in 2017, Christopher Marlowe in 2016, Justin Richards in 2015 and 2014, Agatha Christie in 2013, Jonathan Gash in 2012, Arthur Conan Doyle in 2011, Ian Rankin in 2010, William Shakespeare in 2009 and 2008, Terrance Dicks in 2007, Ian Marter in 2006, Charles Stross in 2005).

NB that (almost) all book covers below link to Amazon.co.uk pages if you want to buy the book from them.

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Finally, which of the 262 books I read this year have you read? You should be able to take this poll using your Facebook and/or Twitter account, even if you don't have a Livejournal account. Except for the last category, they are arranged in order of popularity on LibraryThing.

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Monday and December reading wrap-up

Monday Reading

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2010 Edition, ed. Rich Horton
Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson

Last books finished
Finding Time Again, by Marcel Proust
Ergens Waar Je Niet Wilt Zijn, by Brecht Evens
Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Biography, by Mark Blake
Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
The Fate of Rome, by Kyle Harper

December Books

Non-fiction: 4 (2018 total 50)
Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers, ed. Robert Smith?
Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life, by Mark Blake
Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
The Fate of Rome, by Kyle Harper

Fiction (non-sf): 4 (2018 total 36)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin
The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
Finding Time Again, by Marcel Proust

Theatre: 0 (2018 total 4)

Poetry: 0 (2018 total 4)

sf (non-Who): 3 (2018 total 108)
Fools, by Pat Cadigan
Destination Moon and Shooting Destination Moon, by Robert A. Heinlein
Perilous Dreams, by Andre Norton

Doctor Who, etc: 0 (2018 total 32)

Comics: 3 (2018 total 28)
Saga, vol. 8, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan
A Cold Day in Hell, ed. Tom Spilsbury
Ergens Waar Je Niet Wilt Zijn, by Brecht Evens

~4,200 pages (YTD ~71,600)
4/14 (YTD 102/262) by non-male writers (Nin, Cadigan, Norton, Staples)
1/14 (YTD 26/262) by PoC (Staples)
2/14 (YTD 24/262) reread (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Finding Time Again)

Reading now
The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2010 Edition, ed. Rich Horton
Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson

Coming soon (perhaps):
Saga Volume 9
, by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
"The Queen of Air and Darkness", by Poul Anderson
Tales from Moominvalley. by Tove Jansson
Lambik by Marc Legendre
Avalanche Soldier, by Susan Matthews
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Fanny Hill, by John Cleland
Candide, by Voltaire
The World of Poo, by Terry Pratchett
Bitter Angels, by C. L. Anderson
The Life of Sir Denis Henry, by A.D. McDonnell
The Secret Lives of Garden Birds, by Dominic Couzens
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot
The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan
Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M Banks
The Ginger Man, by J. P. Donleavy
Nebula Awards Showcase 2011, ed. Kevin J. Anderson
In Another Light, by Andrew Greig
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll

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Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The researchers had collected all the Ebola data since the start of the epidemic and used it to calculate the expected number of new cases per day up to the end of October. They showed, for the first time, that the number of cases was not just increasing along a straight line: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Instead, the number was doubling like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16. Each infected person was infecting, on average, two more people before dying. As a result, the number of new cases per day was doubling every three weeks. The graph showed how enormous the outbreak would soon become if each infected person kept infecting two more. Doubling is scary!
I was a huge fan of the videos of Hans Rosling, who died in March 2017; and I write as one who generally hates vlogging (even though I have indulged in it myself occasionally). In Factfulness, the book he rushed to complete with his son and daughter-in-law when he learned he was dying, he calls on us all to engage critically with news stories and perceptions about the world - particularly about the state of humanity as a whole, most of all the developing economies. The concept of 'Factfulness', clearly intended as a close relative of mindfulness, is defined as :
the stress-reducing habvit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.
He repeatedly makes the effective point that most people - including the rich, privileged and well-informed - perform less well on a basic test about the state of the world than would a chimpanzee selecting answers at random.

If I can boil it down, his first key message is that things are better than they were, but that should not deter us from making them better still. In particular, humanity is healthier, more prosperous, safer and more peaceful than it has ever been, and the greatest improvements have been made in countries which were desperately poor decades ago and have caught up since. BUT, his second key message is that news reports naturally concentrate on the drama of failure and crisis, so it's easy to get the impression that the world is going to hell; improvements are generally gradual (not always - there is the striking case of the recent decrease in birthrate in Iran, for instance, which of course received no international media coverage) while disasters, epidemics and wars fit the news cycle. HOWEVER, thirdly there is a real climate crisis, but we must be careful not to exaggerate it; the facts themselves are worrying enough, without resorting to worst-case scenarios or irrelevant issues (and he has plenty of cites for those).

I find this all very attractive. If we are looking for a framework to push back against fake news, Rosling's fact-based approach is a very good place to start. but also, if we are trying to get to grips with crises (of which climate change is clearly the most drastic), it's very helpful to be able to point to the progress that has already been made as well as the further steps that are demanded. Certainly I find it easier to be motivated by the thought of building on previous good work than the notion of crusading against an inevitable fate.

Rosling's skill at visual and verbal presentation is very sadly missed. Here are several of his shorter videos, and here are several of the longer ones by him and colleagues. I found it very difficult to choose just one as illustrative, but here's his TED talk in Qatar on the relationship between religion and fertility rates. (Spoiler: he doesn't think there is much of one.)
Highly recommended. You can get it here.

This was my top unread non-fiction book. Next on that pile is The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan.
Second paragraph of third chapter:
A few entries earlier, though, [in Roger Taylor's April 1970 diary] the group was considering another name, Build Your Own Boat, for which Roger had designed a logo. The drummer shook his head at the memory. 'Thank God that idea was abandoned.'
A kind relative, having seen my review of Bohemian Rhapsody, decided that I needed this for Christmas, and she was right. It's not terribly deep - a 200-page survey of Freddie Mercury's life and career, lavishly illustrated, doesn't have a lot of space to get into profound analysis of what he and his colleagues were trying to achieve with their music, but to Blake's credit he doesn't pretend to be doing anything more than running through the high points (and low points) and giving a few pointers to what else was going on. And the pictures are gorgeous; the camera loved him, and even in the snapshots of his pre-fame personality he rather glows.

The book's account of Farookh Bulsara's childhood was pretty interesting. The whole world knows that he was a brought up as a Zoroastrian in Zanzibar; it was news to me that he had attended boarding school in India (demonstrating yet again that the Indian Ocean is a corridor, not a barrier), and then when the family moved to London, their new home was not quite two km from the hotel where we held the most recent 2019 Worldcon planning meeting. I never came close to seeing him live, though some people I knew the summer I worked in Germany did go to the 1986 Mannheim concert (and complained about it, and I have to agree that in the footage his voice is clearly under strain).

Anyway, if I wanted to find out more about his life and work, I'm sure there are more comprehensive sources; this pretty much scratched my itch, and entertained me with the photographs as well. You can get it here.

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Second frame of third section (Gert's new boss is explaining the school philosophy to him):

School principal: I believe that in this school we are doing a reasonable job of preparing* the boys and girls for the challenges of the adult world.
They are sweet children, most of them anyway... You know how it is at that age, you're finding out where the boundaries are, and at first they'll try and see what you will let them get away with. You just have to show them that there are limits.
* The verb "klaarstomen" actually implies much more energy than the simple English “to prepare”, suggesting that the preparations are steam-powered. It is mainly used in edcuational contexts, sometimes as an equivalent of "to cram", but that would not have been correct here.
This won the first Willy Vandersteen Prize for the best Dutch-language comic of the previous two years (annual since 2014). It also won a Prix de l'Audace at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, and an Eisner nomination (for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art), in 2011). I thought it was really good.

It's a story in three parts. First, Gert throws a party in his attic apartment; all his old friends have come in the hope of catching up with Robbie, the most popular chap in the class. Lots of views of stilted conversation through the empty chair where Robbie is not sitting. In the second part, Robbie works his charm on lonely Noemie, who casts her inhibitions aside for some wild sex with him. And thirdly, Gert catches up with Robbie after checking in grayly and anonymously for his new job as a school administrator, and their relationship is laid much more open to us as readers than to them as characters. Robbie's favourite night club, Disco Harem, lurks in the anecdotes told by guests in the first part, and is the setting for most of the second and third parts; it is lushly realised and almost qualifies as a character on its own.

The extraordinarily expressive watercolour art (see here for some sample frames) is what puts this album a cut above the usual Flemish reality comic (which I tend to enjoy anyway). Here are the guests filing up the stairs to Gert's party, for instance:
And the graphic story medium, done well as it is here, can catch nuances of characterisation that the printed page cannot (look for instance at the faceless silhouette of the principal as he talks to Gert). I strongly recommend this. You can get it in Dutch here and in English here.

I may try and read the other Vandersteen Prize winners. Amoras vol 5: Wiske is on my list anyway as I have been working through that series. Unfortunately the 2011 winner, Terug naar Johan, by Michiel van de Pol, seems to be out of print.

Finding Time Again, by Marcel Proust

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Ma longue absence de Paris n’avait pas empêché d’anciens amis à continuer, comme mon nom restait sur leurs listes, à m’envoyer fidèlement des invitations, et quand j’en trouvai, en rentrant — avec une pour un goûter donné par la Berma en l’honneur de sa fille et de son gendre — une autre pour une matinée qui devait avoir lieu le lendemain chez le prince de Guermantes, les tristes réflexions que j’avais faites dans le train ne furent pas un des moindres motifs qui me conseillèrent de m’y rendre. Ce n’était vraiment pas la peine de me priver de mener la vie de l’homme du monde, m’étais-je dit, puisque le fameux « travail » auquel depuis si longtemps j’espère chaque jour me mettre le lendemain, je ne suis pas ou plus fait pour lui, et que peut-être même il ne correspond à aucune réalité. À vrai dire, cette raison était toute négative et ôtait simplement leur valeur à celles qui auraient pu me détourner de ce concert mondain. Mais celle qui m’y fit aller fut ce nom de Guermantes, depuis assez longtemps sorti de mon esprit pour que, lu sur la carte d’invitation, il réveillât un rayon de mon attention, allât prélever au fond de ma mémoire une coupe de leur passé, accompagné de toutes les images de forêt domaniale ou de hautes fleurs qui l’escortaient alors, et pour qu’il reprît pour moi le charme et la signification que je lui trouvais à Combray quand passant, avant de rentrer, dans la rue de l’Oiseau, je voyais du dehors, comme une laque obscure, le vitrail de Gilbert le Mauvais, sire de Guermantes. Pour un moment les Guermantes m’avaient semblé de nouveau entièrement différents des gens du monde, incomparables avec eux, avec tout être vivant, fût-il souverain ; ils me réapparaissaient comme des êtres issus de la fécondation de cet air aigre et vertueux de cette sombre ville de Combray où s’était passée mon enfance et du passé qu’on y apercevait dans la petite rue, à la hauteur du vitrail. J’avais eu envie d’aller chez les Guermantes comme si cela avait dû me rapprocher de mon enfance et des profondeurs de ma mémoire où je l’apercevais. Et j’avais continué à relire l’invitation jusqu’au moment où, révoltées, les lettres qui composaient ce nom si familier et si mystérieux, comme celui même de Combray, eussent repris leur indépendance et eussent dessiné devant mes yeux fatigués comme un nom que je ne connaissais pas. My name being still on their lists, my long absence from Paris had not prevented old friends from continuing faithfully to send me invitations, and when upon my return I found, alongside one to a tea-party given for her daughter and son-in-law by La Berma, another for an afternoon reception to be held the following day at the house of the Prince de Guermantes, the melancholy reflections that had assailed me in the train were not the least of the motives advising me to go there. There is really no point in depriving myself of the life of a man of the world, I told myself, since the famous 'work' which I have so long hoped each day to begin the next day, is one that I am not, or am no longer, fitted to, and perhaps corresponds to no reality whatever. In fact this reasoning was entirely negative, and simply removed the value of the counter-arguments which might have put me off going to this society concert. The real reason I decided to go was the Guermantes name, for so long out of my mind that when I read it on the invitation card it re-awakened a ray of my attention which was to lift from the depths of my memory a section of their past, accompanied by all the images of seigneurial forest and tall flowers which had then accompanied it, and took on again for me all the magic and significance which I used to find at Combray when, as I passed by on my way home, in the rue de I'Oiseau, I would see from outside, like dark lacquer, the stained-glass window dedicated to Gilbert the Bad, ancestor of the Guermantes. For a moment the Guermantes had once again seemed completely different from the rest of society, not to be compared with them or with any living being, even royalty, creatures sprung from the impregnation of the sour and windy air of the sombre town of Combray, where my childhood was spent, by the past, visible there in the narrow street, at the level of the stained-glass window. I had wanted to go to the Guermantes' house as if that might have been able to bring me closer to my childhood and to the depths of my memory in which I saw it. And I had continued to read and reread the invitation until the letters composing that name, at once so familiar and so mysterious, like that of Combray itself, rebelled, regained their independent life and reorganized themselves before my exhausted eyes into something like an unknown name.

When I first read this ten years ago, I wrote:
Well, I've done it: finished the final volume of the Penguin set of À la recherche du temps perdu, a year and a half after starting them. Like the previous one, I found the last volume very lucid and involving; I wonder if this is really the case, or just reflects my increasing comfort level with Proust's prose? It's quite a break with the previous volumes in some ways, chronicling the effects of the 1914-18 war on France, on Paris, on the places the narrator loves and on his social circle; then an accidental encounter with a gay brothel; then a fifty-page reflection on memory while the narrator walks upstairs from the courtyard to the Guermantes' party; then further meditations on age, on death, on what has happened in the previous volumes and on what drives the narrator to write it all down and turn it into a book. It is very satisfying, and now I want to go back and read it all again (though I may read the Alain de Botton book first).
I read the six books in six months this time, and to be honest I feel that slightly rushed the job; it would have been a bit better to savour the whole experience. I agree with my earlier self that the last volume is very approachable - we still have endless parties, but the author has grown up and is working through what this means for life, and the closing pages are very reflexive indeed. Given this year's cenetenary commemorations, it's interesting to note how the first world war happens here as a change of background rather than a series of events (the death of Saint-Loup perhaps being the only specific war incident reported).

But now that I'm a bit more familiar with the great modernists than I was ten years ago, I am struck by the extent to which À la recherche du temps perdu is a diversion rather than a foundation for what came after (or at least what I have read of what came after). I'm glad to have read it (twice), but I don't think I'll do this again. You can get this volume here.

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A Cold Day in Hell, ed. Tom Spilsbury

Second frame of third story ("Crossroads of Time", written by Simon Furman, art by Geoff Senior):
(This frame is the first appearance of the Marvel character Death's Head outside its original environment in Transformers comics. In the story, the Doctor shrinks Death's head from its original giant size using the MAster's Tissue Compression Eliminator.)

This is a collection of the first eleven Seventh Doctor comic stories that ran in Doctor Who Magazine issues 130-150, from late 1987 to mid 1989. Four of the stories were written by Simon Furman, the others being by Mike Collins (scripting for a change), Grant Morrison, John Freeman, Dan Abnett, Richard Alan (actually DWM editor Richard Starkings) and John Carnell together, John Carnell on his own, and Alan Grant; five different artisis are credited for the second last story, "Follow That Tardis", a sort of jam session for Marvel UK, including Kev Hopgood, who is co-credited on two other stories (with different artists each time). It is all monochrome, which somehow I didn't expect.

Given the reputation of all of those involved, it's good solid stuff, though I found the representation of the Seventh Doctor himself a bit iffy. In the first story, the Doctor says farewell to Frobisher and acquires a non-human companion, who lasts only to the second story, and otherwise travels alone. Possibly the most fannish of the stories is "Planet of the Dead" by John Freeman with art by Lee Sullivan, where the Seventh Doctor encounters first Adric, Peri, Sara Kingdom and Katarina, and then his own previous incarnations. The one I liked most was the fairly understated "Culture Shock", by Grant Morrison with art by Bryan Hitch, in which a demotivated Doctor finds a renewed sense of purpose by helping an alien life form.

I confess that I haven't gone through the Panini comics collections very systematically, but theyare all of decent quality, and maybe I should. You can get it here.

This was my top unread comic; next on that list is Troll Bridge, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran.

Perilous Dreams, by Andre Norton

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Though she was not seated in an easirest which would automatically afford her slim body maximum comfort, she hoped she gave the woman facing her the impression she was entirely relaxed and certain of herself during their interview. That this . . . this Foostmam was stubborn was nothing new. Itlothis had been trained to handle both human and pseudohuman antagonism. But the situation itself baffled her and must not be allowed to continue so.
I'm sorry to say that I completely bounced off this Andre Norton novel, particularly disappointing given how much I enjoyed the Beast Master novels when I reread them a couple of months ago. Somehow I never quite got to grips with the setting or what was going on; it is about shared dreams and a dreamed reality, but I didn't really understand it or get the characters sorted out in my head. Probably I was just too tired in the pre-Christmas rush. If you want, you can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2014. Next on that list is Terry Pratchett's World of Poo.

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Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Among them was a very dark-skinned Jesuit who had some Indian blood, the face of a satyr, large ears glued to his head, piercing eyes, a loose-lipped mouth that was always watering, thick hair and the smell of an animal. Under his long brown robe the boys had often noticed a bulge which the younger boys could not explain and which older boys laughed at behind his back. This bulge would appear unexpectedly at any hour—while the class read Don Quixote or Rabelais, or sometimes while he merely watched the boys, and one boy in particular, the only fair-haired one in all the school, with the eyes and skin of a girl.
Classic erotica short stories, varying quite a lot in length, subject matter and (frankly) appeal. The story of "Elena" takes up more than a quarter of the book; I actually found the following story, "The Basque and Bijou", the most interesting as the two named characters try various things to different degrees of satisfaction. A lot of erotica is single-themed to the point of monotony; this certainly isn't.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016, my top unread book by a woman and my top unread non-genre fiction book. Next in the first two of those categories is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; my top unread non-genre fiction book is now Fanny Hill by John Cleland.
Second paragraph of third chapter:
None of his classmates laughed. Or even smiled.
Particularly recommended for readers of ten and up (or advanced readers of eight and up), it's a mystery story somewhat in the manner of Lemony Snicket but not as baroque; our protagonists, two misfit schoolkids, find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving an archive of smells and the legacy of two magician brothers. I gave the whole collection of five books to a young relative last year on a friend's recommendation, and she enjoyed them enough that I felt I should give the first one a go myself. I'm not going to rush to read the rest, not having regular reading company of the appropriate age. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that list is The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy.

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Second frame of third chapter:

Bookblogging has been a bit slow of late, partly due to end-of-year exhaustion, but also I have rediscovered Civilisation (for the iPad, in this case) and it's proving as big a temptation as it was when I was last really into it twenty years ago.

Anyway. Nice to get back to the world of Saga, where our protagonists, renuited, are dealing with being exiles on a hsticle world while looking for gynaecological services. Some surprisingly heavy stuff here about abortion, seriously and sensitively approached, with also some more information about what is going on with the supporting cast away from the main timeline. I have got volume 9 as well, and will read it soon but won't write it up until its Hugo status is resolved one way or the other.

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I did something tonight that I haven't done before; I walked two kilometers through the woods to the ancient chapel of Our Lady of Steenbergen for Midnight Mass. (I'd been there for Midnight Mass once before, but that time I drove.)

It's a rather nice ornate Baroque building, dating from 1652, replacing a structure built in 1606 near a much more ancient holy well (which supposedly confers good fortune in romance to those who drink from it). A group of concerned local citizens (or, in ancient terms, a confraternity) is responsible for keeping it all going, with support from the Government of Flanders.

The chapel has regular weekly prayer, but Mass is celebrated there only on a few occasions in the year - a candle-lit celebration on 2 February; an open-air Mass and procession on 1 May; another open-air Mass and procession on 15 August; the feast of St Hubert on 3 November, at which animals are ritually blessed; and the Midnight Mass for Christmas.

The informed observer will note that three of those dates are pretty close to the ancient Celtic festivals of Imbolc/St Brigid's Day, Beltane and Samhain, and 15 August is only two weeks displaced from Lúnasa. My sneaking suspicion is that the site of our chapel has been a venue for seasonal religious celebration for a lot longer than Christianity has been in these parts.

Christmas is of course the interloper, historically speaking, but possibly the most popular of the five. Tonight the chapel was crowded out - probably many of the congregation, like me, had not been to an act of worship for a very long time. For an hour, I put aside my reservations about organised religion and enjoyed being part of a community tradition in my adopted country.

A choir of three women led the singing. Here they are with the Dutch translation of Stille Nacht / Silent Night (I was in the balcony, having arrived late):

And then I walked home again through the woods, flooded by moonlight to the point that I didn't need to use up my phone battery to light the way.

Merry Christmas, all.


Monday reading

Second last of these for the year

Finding Time Again, by Marcel Proust
The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2010 Edition, ed. Rich Horton

Last books finished
The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
A Cold Day in Hell, ed. Tom Spilsbury

Next books
Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth won the Oscars for Best Motion Picture and Best Story of 1952, and was nominated in three other categories, Best Costume Design, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. This is a rather low tally; in particular, I'm struck that none of the cast was nominated in the acting categories. (Though in fairness the same is true of last year's An American in Paris, and also for Grand Hotel, All Quiet on the Western Front and Wings back in the early days.) The other contenders for Best Motion Picture were High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man.

IMDB ranks The Greatest Show on Earth 8th (popularity) and 9th (number of rankings) for the year. At the top of both leagues is the only other film from 1952 that I have seen, Singin' in the Rain, one of my personal favorite films, which got a princely two Oscar nominations. (Best Score, and Best Supporting Actress for Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont. It didn't win either of them.) Others that I have not seen and are ranked ahead of The Greatest Show on Earth on both systems are High Noon, The Quiet Man and Ikiru. Here's a contemporary trailer:

I came into this a bit uneducated; I have seen none of Cecil B. De Mille's other films - not The Ten Commandments, not Sunset Boulevard - and on top of that, watching on a small screen means that you lose out very much on the experience that first time viewers would have had. This was part of the reason it left me somewhat cold, and it's going near the end of my table - ahead of Mutiny on the Bounty, because it's more spectacular to look at, but behind Gone With the Wind because of lack of plot and decent acting.

Whitewashing: I know this may be getting tedious of me, but it's now nine years since we had an Oscar-winning film with a speaking part for a black actor. Literally the only black people visible in two and a half hours are those putting up the Big Top 53 minutes in. Otherwise it's an all-white affair. Several of the circus acts are based on non-European cultures, but performed entirely by white performers.

Plot: The film juggles (see what I did there?) two quite different core themes - the spectacle of the circus, and a romantic triangle between the three lead characters (with a couple of wrinkles, one of which is rather good). This means intrusive voiceovers at the beginning, the end and various points in the middle explaining to us why the animal cruelty and cultural appropriation we are seeing is so important, interspersed with heaving bosoms and glowering glances between the main protagonists. It's really all laid on pretty thickly; no subtlety here. I have to admit I sometimes sympathised with the little girl in this frame:

The leads: I've mentioned this already. I found the three main characters melodramatically written and unimaginatively acted. The worst of the three is Charlton Heston as circus manager Brad, who glowers and smoulders in every scene; it's not at all obvious why he and Holly are attracted to each other.

Just as one-note, but a bit less annoying, is Cornel Wilde's sexy trapeze artist Sebastian, who does play a convincing charmer of women. Apparently Wilde was terrified of heights, so it's just as well that his character gets injured and has to take time off from performance - though he seems game enough.

The most annoying of the three in terms of acting is Betty Hutton as Holly; every line is delivered with much drama and sighing. However I'm cutting her some slack because she does some genuinely impressive acrobatics, rather more than Wilde, which must have been a real strain.

Gender: Comes out rather better than you might have thought (though not helped much by Hutton’s performance). A consistent theme is women asserting their rights to make their own choices, including Hutton’s character’s choice between the two men she is attracted to. The costumes are spectacular rather than salacious.

The supporting cast: Having grumbled about the leads a lot, I will say that the next rank are much much better. The standout here, possibly the best part in the film, is James Stewart (who we saw 14 years ago in You Can't Take it With You) as Buttons, a clown who turns out to have a tragic secret in his past, which is why he never takes off his make-up. His sidekick in the film, Emmett Kelly, is playing himself as one of the main performers of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (Buttons' nemesis, FBI Agent Gregory, is played by Henry Wilcoxson who we saw ten years ago as the vicar in Mrs Miniver.)

Gloria Grahame as circus performer Angel also stands out, and gets most of the best lines in the film, culminating with "Listen, sugar, the only way that you can keep me warm is to wrap me up in a marriage license." (Lyle Bettger, as her jealous boyfriend Klaus, not so much.)

Music: Lots of decent enough songs, not too taxing and featuring of course the title piece. (Some dubbing, particularly where Betty Hutton is apparently both acrobatting and singing at the same time.) There is a great cameo moment when Dorothy Larmour, playing Phyllis (another solid supporting role) is performing in the big top, and in the audience we see her co-stars from the "The Road To..." films, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, eating popcorn.

Cinematography: Even a grinch like me has to admit that the actual circus scenes are filmed very well, and must have looked really really good on the big screen. Apparently the film as a whole was tremendously well received back in 1952 and its winning the Oscar came as little surprise. There is, I must admit, a truly spectacular scene near the end when the circus train actually crashes.

This was not one of my favourites, and the fact that it did so well, and Singin' in the Rain got nowhere, does not dispose me kindly to that year's Academy voters.

Next up is From Here To Eternity, which I will possibly combine with the Retro-Hugo winning George Pal War of the Worlds. I'm twenty-five Oscar-winning films into this project now; at this rate (which I may not necessarily sustain) I'll be up to the present day by the end of 2021.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)


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My year on social media: Facebook

The last of six posts about my media and social media profile this year (previously: traditional media, Instagram, LinkedIn, Livejournal, Twitter).

Facebook remains dominant among my social group, despite its well-publicised problems and issues. It takes some effort to delve into the metrics to find the most liked, commented and shared posts of the year, but here they are.

My most shared original content (not that the content was originally mine, but I'm pretty sure that I was the first to post it to Facebook in this form) was this grumpy October post about Boris Johnson and engineering:

My most commented post, with an amazing 170 comments, was this innocent-seeming meme which I linked to in January.

The second highest numebr of comments was on my gloomy post about the future of Brexit this monthL

My most liked post by a long way was about my appearance for the second year in the list of top 40 #EUInfluencers. I think the photo really helped.

The second most liked post was for B's 21st birthday in June.

U's 16th birthday picture, in a locked post from yesterday, is close behind though.

Facebook remains at the top because of its accessibility and dominance. But from the top, the only way is down.

My year on social media: Twitter

(Fifth of six posts: see also traditional media, Instagram, LinkedIn, Livejournal, and Facebook.)

My most successful tweet of the year, topping the metrics for impressions, engagements, retweets, replies, media views and media engagements was a clip of Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President of the European Commission, laying into Nigel Farage:

My most liked Tweet was a report from Peter Capaldi's Q&A at London Film and Comic Con, where, in case I didn't mention it, I had a great time. This also had the most hashtag clicks and detail expands of any Tweet this year:

The Tweet that got me the most clicks through to my own user profile was, perhaps not surprisingly, the one in which I recommended a lot of other people more famous than me:

The Tweet with the most URL clickthroughs was my LJ post about the leaked Boundary Commission proposals in January:

The Tweet with the most permalink clicks (due to the peculiar tweeting style of the person I was arguing with) was a rather pointless exchange with a Eurosceptic:

The Tweet that got me the most new followers (a glorious five) was this mini-thread about how Brexit could have gone differently:

I used to use a proprietary sevice for analysing the impact of my Tweets, but it went out of business, possibly because Twitter's own analytics are rather good.

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