Friday, November 27, 2015

No FFB Today

You're probably thinking I've been pretty dang lazy this past week or so, shoving up only a couple of posts. Truth is, I'm shellshocked. In a moment of madness I signed on to perfom holiday labor for a certain government agency, and it's turned my life upside down. I'm working nights, long hours and never know for sure when I'll get off. So far, I'm not finding time to put up posts before I go to work, and I'm too braindead when I get home. It's a real challenge just figuring out what day it is. I'm hoping mind and body will soon adjust, but the prognosis seems to be that things will get worse before they get better. We'll see.

Friday, November 20, 2015

FFB: THE SISTINE SECRETS, Michaelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican (2008)

In gearing up for our trip to Italy, I read a pile of books, both fiction and non. This was the most interesting, and had the biggest payoff.

The authors of The Sistine Secrets present what is apparently a pretty radical theory to explain why Michaelangelo Buonarrati (I'll call him Mike) painted some of the weird things he did on the Sistine ceiling. Are they right? There seems to be disagreement among readers, but the basic argument makes a lot of sense.

No single photo can capture the entire scope of Mike's work, but this one does a better job than most. The problem is that the ceiling curves into the walls, and even this shot is missing a couple of important wall paintings. Along with at least forty major panels, there are extraneous figures and doodads filling every nook and cranny inbetween.

The facts are these: The Pope wanted a starry sky on the ceiling itself, ringed with depictions of saints and stuff from the New Testament. Instead, Mike focused exclusively on the Old T, glorifying a lot of famous, not-so-famous and anonymous Jews - and got away with it.

And, according to the authors, he got away with a lot more than that, packing the ceiling with hidden messages and not-so-hidden insults aimed directly at the church leaders. Why? The theory goes that Mike was exposed to a lot of Jewish mysticism while attending the Medici family art school in Florence, and some of it wore off. Add to that the notion that he saw the Popes of the time as vain and corrupt despots who had lost their way, and the ceiling begins to make sense.

Over the shoulder of the prophet Zechariah is a little scamp slipping his thumb between fore and middle fingers. This, we're told, is "making the fig," the Renaissance equivalent of flipping the bird.

And here, according the authors, we see God mooning the Pope.

I'm always intrigued with paintings of Judith and the head of Holofernes. This one has two added attractions. The head is said to be modeled after Mike himself, and figures are postioned oddly to form the Hebrew letter something-or-other.

The book's drawback is that it contains few color photos, and only enough black and whites to illustrate major points of interest. I solved that by pairing it with another book featuring large color pics of each of Mike's panels.

As a result, while most of the folks funneling into the Sistine Chapel were suffering sensory overload, I had a pretty fair notion what to expect, and was able to pay attention to details. My wife and I went on a Friday night when the joint wasn't crowded and made a beeline for the chapel, where we were able to spend over an hour taking it all in and studying each panel with binoculars. It was awesome, and made the rest of the museum (with the notable exception of the Rafael Rooms) seem a big waste of space.

Stay tuned for more on the chapel's other cool attractions - Mike's Last Judgment and the strange non-Mike story cycles of Moses and Jesus.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Weird Stuff I Saw in Italy, 5: Animal Warfare

These two undated pieces by Peter Wenzel ( 1745-1829) are hanging in the Pinacotera (painting gallery) of the Vatican Museum. What they're doing there, I don't know, but they reminded me of Wild Kingdom

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Weird Stuff I Saw in Italy, 4: Calling Doctor Who!

These leaf-headed aliens (from Milan,I think) are just the type of threat you expect to see stalking the streets of the Doctor's London.

And the monstronsity below, resmembling the great granddaddy of a Dalek, is Florence's idea of a recycling bin.

"The Call of Quantrill" by Cathy Barton, Dave Para


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Overlooked Films: DJANGO (1966)

In keeping with my Italian frame of mind (did I mention I'm 25% Italian?), here's a great Spaghetti Western. This is the original  Django film, and still the best I've seen.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Weird Stuff I Saw in Italy, 3: Horses, Italian Style

Believe it or not, they do have real horses in Italy. We saw some hitched to carriages outside the Colosseum, rigged up exactly like those near the Alamo and in Central Park. But they have some peculiar ones, too.

The green stallion above sits in the lobby of the Original Murano Glass store in Venice. And the black lamp below is in a store window in Padua. I wanted the black one for our living room, but it was just a little too big for my carry-on. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Weird Stuff I Saw in Italy, 2: Old Lady Men

The number one occupation in Italy, at least near the tourist attractions, is selfie-stick salesman. Those pests were everywhere, and often outnumbered the tourists. But one of the runner-up jobs is pretending to be a gnarly old lady. These Old Lady Men are especially plentiful around the Colosseum and the Forum.

The first one I saw looked way more pitiful than this. That guy had twisted his body into a question mark and held the chipped and dirty cup quivering only an inch off the ground. But the rest, like the guy shown here, were amatuers. Unlike some, this one was smart enough to cover his hands (others had young, smooth, obviously male hands spoiling the effect), but he's cheating with that cane contraption. Could that be Joe Lansdale under the hood? Only Joe knows. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Weird Stuff I Saw in Italy, 1: The Pope's Cowboy Hat

As I mentioned yesterday, we're just back from a ten-day squint at Italy. We saw a lot of the normal stuff (which was very cool, and I'll be slapping some normal pics up here soon), but being a strange person, I was especially attracted to the strange things like this funky hat in the Vatican Museum. 

The description of this one, I believe, dated it sometime in the mid-1800's, meaning the Pope was sporting it around the same time such hats came into fashion in the Old West. Somewhere in the same hallway I spotted a painting of a Pope wearing one like it, but since he was not riding a bucking bronc or brandishing a six-gun, I failed to photograph it. A subsequent search of the book The Vatican: All the Paintings failed to turn it up, making me suspect the title is a lie. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Forgotten Books: MURDER WEARS A HALO by John Evans/Howard Browne

This book was published in 1997 by Gryphon Books (in what I assume was a small print run) and promptly forgotten. But that was the second time it had been forgotten.

“Murder Wears a Halo” made its first appearance in the Feb. 1944 issue of Mammoth Detective, then lay wasting away for 53 years before Gryphon got hold of it.

Why? I’m not sure.

Howard Browne is fondly remembered for his four Chandleresque Paul Pine novels (Halo in BloodHalo for Satan, and Halo in Brass by John Evans, and The Taste of Ashes under his own name). Among his other novels is If You Have Tears, which he once referred to as his “James M. Cain book”.  Well, I’d have to call Murder Wears a Halo his James M. Cain/Erle Stanley Gardner book.

For the first half the novel, Browne is in Cain mode. Chicago pulp writer and nightclub denizen Don Hearn meets 18-year-old Loa, lovely, innocent, and straight off the farm, who is obsessed with writers - and he in turn becomes obsessed with her. Their relationship is on-again/off-again, and Loa goes out with other guys, but that’s really all that happens. No crimes are committed. There isn’t even a mystery.

Then, precisely at the mid-point, everything changes. Another writer (who writes for the slicks) is killed, and Hearn and Loa take a backseat to a Perry Mason-like attorney named Edicott Overend (End Overend).  The rest of the book is a Mason-style courtroom drama.

Both halves of the book are good. Browne’s writing is tight, smart and consistently entertaining. I read the whole thing in a day, and my attention never flagged.

But what makes this novel really special is that the narrator is a pulp writer. How many books can you name, written by a top-notch pulp writer, where the hero is also a pulp writer?

The first half of the book (the Cain half) is packed with pulp talk. Don Hearn talks to the reader about his writing, he and his friends talk writing, and when the girl Loa comes along, he discovers the subject of writing makes her dreamy-eyed - so he talks about writing even more.

Some of the pulp talk is clever and thinly disguised. Hearn sells a couple of stories (“Blood on the Sun” and “Sunken Sub”) to a mag called Argonaux. At one point the shows Loa a copy of Sleuth Stories, “a Green Star weekly of the Mooney line,” where his story “Death in Brass” is featured on the cover. The cover blurb reads “Also stories by Hugh Sale, Burt B. Cave, Richard Collier and others” (I’ll let you transpose those for yourself). Later, he sells a story called “Guns Along the Hudson” to Mammoth Detective, and mentions other real writers and magazines, so the line between fiction and reality is blurred.

But that’s not all.

When Loa starts asking serious questions about writing, Don Hearn holds forth on the business of being a pulp writer. And while this is technically a fictional character talking, it’s clear Howard Browne is giving us the real lowdown on what it’s like, and what it takes to write for the pulps.

At the time this story appeared in Mammoth Detective, Browne was assistant editor for the magazine (a novelette, featuring series character Wilbur Peddie, skip tracer, appeared in the same issue under Browne’s name). He also had editorial duties at Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures.  So when it came to pulps, he knew what he was talking about.

For those of you who’ve read this far, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that this book is not easy to come by. I don’t own a copy myself. I read the story in Mammoth.

The good news is . . . there’s enough serious pulp talk here to put together a short memoir/how to piece of Howard Browne's views on writing for the pulps. One of these days I hope to do that.

P.S. Does anyone know where/why Browne got this fascination with "Halo" titles? This story predates the three Paul Pine "Halo" books. And I have another Mammoth with a novelette called "Halo 'Round My Head", also predating Pine. The mystery is - I found no reference to a halo in Murder Wears a Halo. I suppose the girl Loa could be thought of as angelic, but the point is never pressed. The title just seems to make no sense.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moments in Paperback History: LanceCon '86 (Part 1)

Art Scott took so many photos at the 1986 LanceCon (as always, here in Portland) that I'm splitting them into two posts. Above: Larry Paschelke, Lance himself and Greg Phillips.

Cap'n Bob's shirt. He might be in the picture, too, but I can't tell. I'm blinded.

Dick Wald (right) caters to some of the California gang.

Dale Goble doesn't just collect paperbacks, he reads them. Weird.

Bruce Taylor and Paul Palmer.

Larry does his James Dean impression.

Half of Bob Stewart, with three others you know.

Me doing my Duck Dynasty impression.

One of many weighty discussions.

"Hey meester. Wanta buy a feelthy book?"

Misters Napier and Goble lurking in the shadows.