Well that escalated quickly, didn’t it?
"Rommel?" "Gunner Who?": A Confrontation in the Desert by Spike Milligan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Spike Milligan is one of those legendary comedians who gets namechecked by lots of comedians I admire, and I’m aware of his role as a co-founder of The Goons, but I’ve never actually seen much of his stuff, and I haven’t read any of his books. So when I found this in a charity book sale, I figured it was a good excuse to try him out.
This is Volume 2 (of 7) of his WW2 memoirs, covering January to May 1943, in which his artillery unit arrives in Algeria and fights its way to Tunis. It’s a mix of embellished diary entries, fake dialogue between Hitler and other Nazi officials (and occasionally Churchill, Mussolini and others), drawings and humorously illustrative photos (many of them not actually from WW2). And I’m not really sure what to make of it.
On the one hand, there’s a lot of funny bits, and the slapdash, jumbled narrative (such as it is) conveys what it’s like to be a soldier on the ground without the benefit of a bigger picture of what’s going on. On the other hand, I’m not really a fan of war memoirs, though they’re better when they’re funny. Still, I think Milligan didn't strike the right balance between refusing to take the war seriously and conveying the seriousness of what it was like to be in the war. (The casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the time doesn’t help, although at least it’s honest.) I don’t think this will put me off investigating Milligan further, but I don’t think I’ll be checking out any more of his war memoirs for awhile.
Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is Isaac Asimov’s first novel (although, confusingly, it’s the third novel in his Empire series), and I’ve always wanted to read it, as I really enjoyed Asimov’s Foundation series and his robot novels. The premise is also pretty good: an unspecified nuclear accident suddenly transports innocent bystander Joseph Schwartz into the far future in which the Galactic Empire has been established and Earth – regarded as a barbaric radioactive backwater – is run by the Society of Ancients that believe (contrary to all scientific evidence) that humankind actually originated on Earth.
The story follows Schwartz, an Earth scientist named Dr Shekt (who has developed a machine to help humans learn faster) and an archaeologist named Bel Arvardan who is visiting Earth for research purposes – namely, to prove that the Society of Ancients are right, only to eventually discover that Earth is planning to rebel against the Empire (again), and this time they might win.
Which would be great, except Asimov’s writing here is disappointingly clunky, with sudden and jarring shifts in viewpoint, clumsy foreshadowing and sometimes terrible dialogue, all of which proved rather distracting for me. His handling of the one primary female character, Shekt’s daughter Pola, also hasn’t aged well. There are some good scenes, and Asimov’s attempts to address issues like racism and bigotry are admirable. But this was a letdown for me – not least because I know he could write far better than this.
The Complete Yes Minister by Jonathan Lynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Yes, Minister is probably one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, not least for its smart writing and savage-yet-subtle political satire. That said, when I saw this in a charity book sale, I only hesitated because I didn’t know if I just wanted to read the show scripts. But this omnibus (which covers all three seasons of the series) isn’t just scripts, but all the shows rewritten as short stories in the form of Minister Jim Hacker’s recorded diaries, along with other memos, BBC transcripts and interviews to cover bits of the show that Hacker wouldn’t have been able to talk about as he wasn’t present at the time.
As such, this collection offers not only a different presentation of each episode, but a lot of bonus material – the equivalent of DVD commentary and extras – in the form of backgrounders, context, some explanations of British govt terms and acronyms, and plenty of witty commentary from the “editors”, among other things. So I learned a lot, and also got a deeper sense of the three main characters – Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Wooley (who I always assumed was the main character, for some reason – it seems I may have been mistaken there). Still, it’s arguably a better experience to watch the show than to read it, especially when it comes to the dialogue pacing and performances of Paul Eddington, Derek Fowlds and Nigel Hawthorne that really made the show such a delight to watch.
Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Robert Heinlein was doing YA sci-fi decades before YA was a thing, and this 1951 novel is regarded to be one of his better works. As it happens, this was the first Heinlein book I ever attempted to read, but despite being 13 (a.k.a. the target demographic), I didn’t finish it – mainly because I was only just getting into sci-fi novels and my expectations had been set by Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, which is totally unfair, I know, but did I mention I was 13?
The premise is a good one – the human colony on Venus stage a rebellion against the Earth-based Federation, which makes life complicated for teenager Don Harvey, who lives on Earth but has dual citizenship thanks to his parents being from both planets. With war looming, his parents instruct him to join them on Mars, but Don’s journey gets complicated fast as events unfold and he finds himself under suspicion of being a spy – especially after an old family friend asks him to deliver a package to his parents.
The story itself is okay and goes in a direction I didn’t quite expect, although – like a lot of Heinlein – it hasn’t aged too well in terms of science (i.e. Venus having a breathable atmosphere) and cultural stereotypes (i.e. the bit about Chinese immigrants on Venus). And for my money, at least, Don Harvey is one of Heinlein’s typical “rugged American individualism” characters that I find a bit annoying, although his naïve ideologies do get a walloping by reality. Anyway, I can see why 13-year-old me didn’t get into it. 53-year-old me thought it was all right, but I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking I’ve read enough of him for the time being.
Tall Tales by Al Jaffee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you know Al Jaffee’s name at all, it’s probably because you read Mad Magazine on a fairly regular basis at some point in your life. Like me. One of the many things Jaffee did outside of Mad was a newspaper strip with a unique gimmick – a vertical format rather than the usual horizontal or four-square panel format. The strip, “Tall Tales”, were one-shot visual jokes that took advantage of the format. It ran from 1957 to 1963, and this book collects what Jaffee thinks are the best of the lot.
Most are pretty good, some are laugh-out-loud funny, but I mostly got a kick of the gimmick itself and how Jaffee made maximum use of it to create a gag. Some of the humor is dated, but if you’re a fan of Jaffee or a comic-strip aficionado, I’d highly recommend this.
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