THE RUSSIA HOUSE is the British intelligence branch that discovers a high-ranked Soviet scientist has contacted a British publisher with a blistering book that reveals the entire USSR military establishment is a paper tiger; the scientist wants the publisher to tell the world the news, the Russia House (and the CIA) want the publisher to turn him into a source. This is a very talky book—at least the first third is heavily oriented to interrogations in cloistered rooms—but LeCarre makes all that heavy conversation completely readable (though I can’t imagine, and will probably never watch to find out, how they turned it into a movie). Surprisingly upbeat on the publisher’s fate, compared to the usual innocent caught up in LeCarre’s spy games.
LONDON FOG: A Biography by Christine L. Corton chronicles the legendary London pea-soupers that resulted from a mix of London topography (like Los Angeles, it’s a low lying city compared to the surroundings), industrialization and population growth (a running problem for years was that nobody wanted to restrict householders’ use of coal so all fixes were half-hearted) combining with natural fogs. This is as much a literary history as a history, recounting how writers from Dickens to Christina Brand have used fog as a symbol of alienation, apocalypse, moral collapse or simply a way to allow brazen crimes to happen unseen and then the post-Clean Air Act writers turned it into an often-exaggerated nostalgic detail (Corton notes that very few Sherlock Holmes stories involved fog, and Jack the Ripper killed on clear nights). Good, although I think I’d have liked more true accounts and fewer literary bits.
CEREALIZING AMERICA: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford is an entertaining account of how health reformers such as Dr. Kellogg developed breakfast cereals as an alternative to salt pork and similar morning fare, then spread the gospel by advertising (“Up to that point, advertising was considered unsavory as it was primarily used for patent medicine huckstering.”), the creation of some of the early spokes=characters such as Sunny Jim and an Uncle Sam, and then the somewhat guilty expansion into presweetened cereal (which was rationalized as a health move, as it would discourage kids from spooning sugar into the cereal bowl. There’s also a long, nostalgic list of the advertising icons of my youth including Sugar Bear, Quisp, Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula and such forgetten cereals as the calypso-influenced Day-O and Ooops (“The premise was that due to an accident in the factory none of the cereal shapes looked alike.”) and lots of details about making cereal (puffed rice and puffed wheat were puffed by firing them from modified artillery). Fun and informative, though ending in 1995 it doesn’t cover the recent slump in cereal sales or the growth or organic and other specialty products.
ESSENTIAL IRON MAN 3 starts well with Archie Goodwin assuming the reigns from Stan Lee (the changeover actually came in the previous volume) but goes down hill after Ally Brodsky takes over (I’ve compared the two writers here) and ends with Gerry Conway, who was a long way from the good writer he became. Along with adding new villains such as Midas, Firebrand and the Controller (on the George Tuska cover left, all rights with current holder), Goodwin also took the radical step of replacing Tony’s damaged heart with an artificial one; gave Tony his first serious love interest, though not a great one (Janice Cord has no purpose in life other than to be helpless, fall for Tony, then die tragically); and in a throwaway bit in one issue, introduced Howard Stark, Tony’s father. This was a minor retcon at the time (the first suggestion Tony wasn’t a completely self-made man) that’s now much more important due to the sliding time scale of the Marvel Universe: as Tony put on the armor in the early 21st century, Howard can provide the same technical genius in earlier years (as in the Peggy Carter TV show). A really mixed bag of stories, but the Goodwin stuff made it a worthwhile investment.