Showing posts with label nostalgia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nostalgia. Show all posts

19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down


by Robert Lopresti

While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials...

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

21 July 2016

Summer Bites


by Eve Fisher

Movie poster shows a woman in the ocean swimming to the right. Below her is a large shark, and only its head and open mouth with teeth can be seen. Within the image is the film's title and above it in a surrounding black background is the phrase "The most terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 best seller." The bottom of the image details the starring actors and lists credits and the MPAA rating.I believe that I have cracked the reason why summer brings out the apocalypse movies, not to mention movies and TV shows about killer sharks, vampires, zombies, serial killers, Animals Gone Wild, and (I'm still waiting) Batboy. It's a distraction from the fact that summer isn't all that it's cracked up to be.  What with mosquitoes (West Nile, anyone?  Zika?), ticks (Lyme, tularemia, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever), killer heat (more on that later), and trying to figure out what SPF actually works and what pesticide won't kill you as well as the bugs, we need something where humans eventually WIN.

Especially in the country.  I live in South Dakota.  We've got a lot of sloughs, lakes, and wetlands, not to mention feedlots, and up here we're well aware that "country fresh" isn't the dancing-wildflowers-in-a-can it's cracked up to be in air freshener/fabric softener ads or romantic movies.  The truth is, some days a good deep lungful of fresh country air will make your eyes water worse than a whiff of Junior's old sneakers.  And those summer cook-outs involve a lot of slapping yourself silly in between passing the potato salad.  It's one of the many reasons that beer was invented.

But this year is lusher, greener, wetter, and more infested than ever.  And hot.  It is very hot.  As you read this, it's 98 degrees outside, and the endless square miles of corn have increased our humidity to the point where we are outdoing Mississippi.  It's stiflingly hot.  Thank God for air-conditioning.
Willis Carrier 1915.jpg
Willis Carrier,
Our Hero
NOTE:  Let us all now give thanks and praise to Willis Carrier, who in 1902 invented the first air-conditioning system.  May his memory be eternally green.  And cool.  
But to get back to infestations.  We've seen them before, especially the Great Frog Infestation back in the 90s.  Personally, I didn't mind the frogs. They were small, they moved quickly, and they tried to stay hidden.  They only bothered me when I was mowing the lawn.  For one thing, they froze as I came near, hoping (as most of us do) that if they ignored the problem (me and the lawnmower), it would go away.  I got to the point where I'd carry a small broom and prod them into moving with it while I mowed. "What did you do Saturday?"  "Swept frogs." Sometimes when they still wouldn't budge, I'd just pick them up and move them, while they expressed their gratitude all over my hands. Frogs are not toilet trained.

Pseudacris maculata.jpg
Boreal Choral Frog
Photographer - Tnarg 12345 on Wikipedia
Still, I could deal with the frogs.  If nothing else, they weren't trying to feed on me.  They probably thought I was trying to feed on them, not knowing that I refuse to eat frogs' legs or anything else that someone tells me "tastes just like chicken."  (If that's true, what's the point?)  But the mosquitoes and ticks are trying to feed on me and every other mammal in the state.  (Do you think they ever tell each other that we "taste just like cow?")  Anyway, serious inquiries have been made - mostly by me - into how many mosquitoes it would take to drain a person dry, and in my objective conclusion it's only half of what we've got.

Healthywealthy.jpgThe mosquitoes alone would be bad enough, but they're getting serious competition from the gnats.  There aren't as many of them - at least, I hope there aren't - but their bites leave golf to softball sized swellings on ears, eyes, necks, etc.  It's getting unnerving to go out in public.  Half the people I see look like they've been in a fist fight, the other half are calomine-pink, and we're all in the same blithe mood the nation was in the night Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast.  The air reeks of Deet, Skin-So-Soft, Off, and every other insect repellent known to man and we still can't stand outside more than two minutes without acting like Larry, Curly, and Moe.

So what do we do about this enemy invasion?  Some people are moving down South, where they think all they'll have to deal with is cockroaches and kudzu.  (There are also fire ants and even more mosquitoes.)  Kudzu, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is a Japanese plant that some idiot imported for ground cover on poor soil.  It can't be killed by drought, floods, fire, pestilence, or famine, and it grows a foot a day.  There's a theory that it was left by UFO's on one of their human-tagging trips, but I think it's just a vicious predator.  The one good thing about it is that it can't stand severe frost, and so South Dakota is free...  until we get warmer...
Kudzu growing on trees in Georgia
Photographer - Scott Ehardt, Wikipedia

Anyway, back to solutions:

(1) Buy a bee-keeper's hat or a surplus space suit.  You'll sweat to death, but you will be bug free.

(2)  Don't go outside.  Summer is highly overrated.  It's hot, it's buggy, and people keep expecting you to do things, most of which involve a lot of work, which involves a lot of sweating, while overheated and in full sun.  What we really love about summer is our nostalgia for the days when we were kids and didn't have to do anything except go swimming and eat watermelon.  (What we forget is how much time we spent whining about how there wasn't anything to DO.)  So turn on the AC, the blender, grab a stack of mysteries - I know some very good authors, many of whom are on this site, so check them out! - and stay indoors.  All the fun, a lot less danger.

Photographed by
Latorilla at Wikipedia
(3) Raise bats.  They're quiet, unobtrusive, much maligned creatures, and they eat mosquitoes.  True, they look spooky, they only come out at night, and there are all those vampire movies...

But even if one of them does happen to transform into an orthodontically-challenged count with a bad accent and receding hairline, a little garlic and a wooden stake will take care of the problem.

The odds are good: one count vs. the swarm.
One against many.
Think about it.


11 April 2013

History is Mystery

by Eve Fisher

File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 1.jpg
Part of the mechanism in the Athens Museum
Some of you might have caught the Nova show a week ago on the Antikythera mechanism, a device from approximately 100 BCE found in 1901 in a Greek shipwreck near the island of Antikythera.  It is the world's oldest (yet found) working analog computer:

File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 6.jpg
Reconstruction in Athens Museum

and it generated complete astronomical information and forecasts:  sun, moon, planets, and eclipses, from now until...  whenever.  A very complex machine.  It's assumed the found object was a factory reproduction of an original designed by the great Syracusan mathematician, Archimedes.  In the process of discovering all of this information, the historians used all sorts of mystery-solving techniques - questions, x-rays, research, reconstructions, debates, etc. - to try and figure out what that super-corroded device was, what it was for, and how it was made.  Fascinating.  Catch the reruns, or rent the DVD.

And it explains why so many of us historians are also mystery fans/writers/etc.  Because history is all about solving mysteries, very cold case mysteries, with limited evidence, almost no eye-witnesses, and a whole lot of deduction.  Yes, a lot of people think that history is nothing but names and dates, but I can assure you that's the least of it - the historical equivalent of a GPS system, keeping you afloat in a vast sea of time.  But the real purpose for history is to find out how things got the way they are. History is all about solving the mystery of us. 

Of course, some things never change: human nature (curiosity, greed, anger, pride, love, lust, all the emotions and desires), and what comes of that human nature (the pursuit of power, pleasure, wealth, appetite, and occasionally peace). 


File:EmileFrontispiece.jpeg
Frontisepiece to Rousseau's "Emile"
Some things change dramatically, in a paradigm shift that makes it inconceivable (to us) that things were ever different:  our modern concepts of privacy, romance, childhood, individual rights, and personal comfort are all just that, MODERN concepts. Romantic love used to be considered a form of mental illness (read Chaucer).  What we call privacy used to be proof that you were either had no status or were in prison (who would ever be alone if they didn't have to be?).  Rousseau practically invented modern childhood in "Emile" (ironic, considering that he put each of his four children in an orphanage).  And most societies have always been willing to sacrifice individual rights for societal order, especially if it keeps the barbarians (within and without) at bay.

And some things change all the time, especially fashion and beauty, which are simply exercises in the verb "to change". 

Where does technology fit into this?  Well, I couldn't help noticing that, even on Nova, the scientists were constantly amazed at the complexity of the Antikythera Mechanism, and the ingenuity of the ancients.  And this is a classic example of one of the two great biases that historians face, within themselves and within their students/readers/society:
BIAS # 1.  Time is an arrow, leading to us, and we, right now, are living in the best of all possible worlds at the best of all possible times, and anyone in the past who didn't live the way we do, especially in terms of morality, government, technology, and religion, were stupid, not to mention just plain wrong.  A major subsection of this bias against our ancestors' intelligence is all about technology.  I cannot tell you the number of people who say, well, if the ancients were so smart, how come they didn't come up with the technology of today? The answer is to consider where and how technology was used in the ancient world:
    File:Rome Colosseum interior.jpg
  • WAR:  Greek fire; gunpowder; Archimedes and his war machines (first laser prototype; the Archimedes Claw).
  • TIMEKEEPING and ASTRONOMY:  Chinese paper and compasses, originally used for timekeeping, astronomical observations, divination, and prayers; the Antikythera Mechanism, used for timekeeping and astronomy; water clocks, mechanical clocks, etc. 
  • ENTERTAINMENT:  Look no further than the Roman Colosseum, which used a huge amount of technology of all kinds to present battles on land and sea. 
  • PUBLIC HEALTH:  Flush toilets and sanitary systems of the Indus Valley (Harappa, 26th c. BCE), Knossos (18th c. BCE) and other ancient civilizations; public baths (Indus Valley, Greece, Rome,Ottomans, Japanese).
        Sounds pretty modern to me...
    • NOTE:  I'm well aware that time only moves in one direction (at least in this brane), but it's far more like a tree, with multiple branches and twigs and stems and leaves, than an arrow. There have been societies and civilizations that have vanished completely off of the face of the earth. There are echoes everywhere of things and people that were, but left no trace. And even if they leave a trace, no explanation. Not everything connects. History is full of red herrings. 
The other major bias is the exact opposite:  

    File:Leonidas I of Sparta.jpg
BIAS # 2.  We are a degenerate and weakened species, and things used to be much better, back in... well, the Greeks believed in a Golden Age before their own Age of Iron; the Hindus for millenia have believed we are in Kali Yuga, the age of the demon; and today a surprising number of people like to tell me how much better things were in the 1950's (and I suppose they were, if you weren't a woman, gay, black, or other minority). 
    • NOTE:  Just to show how dangerous this bias can be, a classic work of nostalgia history is Plutarch's (ca. 46-120 CE) "On Sparta", in which that violent, anti-education military slave state is presented as the ideal civilization, strong, brave, and free from the corruptions of commerce and money.  Obviously, Plutarch had an axe to grind.  But very few people even think about that.  Because he himself is an "ancient writer" a lot of people swallow everything he wrote as if it were absolute truth, not paying attention to the fact that he wrote almost 500 YEARS AFTER SPARTA'S DEMISE.  That's the kind of thing you have to look out for.  And part of the reason yes, you do have to know your dates... 
My general analysis of bias holders is that the first is primarily held by the young and/or successful; the second is primarily held by older people and/or those who feel throttled by present-day culture (whatever the present day is).  My other great observation is that either bias gives you a perfectly logical reason to ignore the past.  They both imply that we can learn nothing from the past, either because we are absolutely superior or infinitely inferior.  Either way, we are on our own.  Me?  I know that everyone who ever lived were just as human as I, and the basic lesson of the past is that, until human nature changes as completely as fashion or song stylings, history is going to continue to be the same damn thing over and over again.  We'd better start paying attention.