Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Key in the ignition

I hope to resume my blog posts Friday, August 1, most likely with a review for Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase, which Todd Mason of Sweet Freedom will host again this week. I'm also looking forward to posting a review of a legal thriller I just finished reading. It was a cracker of a novel. I'm glad it was just a fictional story. In the meantime, my visits to other blogs will continue.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Musings on a rainy Wednesday

The rains were late by a whole month this year but their advent in July brought welcome relief to Mumbai (Bombay) which was scorching through ninety days of Indian summer. The seven lakes supplying water to the city are at last filling up and the municipal corporation has decided to scale down the water cut in residential areas. The rainfall deficit has come down from 41 per cent to about 15 per cent. Over the next few days all eyes will be on the lake levels which used to be published in newspapers every week, like the winning numbers on a lottery ticket. So much depends on water, and on public transport and migrant labour. 

On the flip side, heavy rains cause flooding and bring public transport, so very critical in this city, to a near halt. What is worse, in my case at least, is that roadside booksellers are forced to take evasive action which means browsing under a tarpaulin roof with water dripping down your neck. The books are well protected. During this wet season I seldom buy any from the footpath libraries.

As it is, I've got plenty to read. I'm currently reading an ebook version of The Dunwich Horror, 1928, the classic short fiction by H.P. Lovecraft. It is about a mysterious and terrifying entity that haunts a small place called Dunwich, a fictional town in Massachusetts. Some of the families in Dunwich lead a life of decay and decadence. I won't be reviewing the story because I don't think I can. It is a complex tale.

Three days ago, I was on my way to the local railway station by an autorickshaw when I saw four uniformed police constables standing at a junction notorious for traffic jams. Two of the cops were sipping cutting chai, or half a glass of tea each, a third was smoking a cigarette, while the fourth was talking on his mobile phone. They were on duty. I realised that dereliction of duty is another vile form of corruption.

I'm on the mailing list of a few book sites one of which sent me a free Kindle edition of a novella called 3 a.m. (2013) by Nick Pirog. This and his other novel, Unforeseen, have received good reviews on Amazon. He writes thrillers. The description of 3 a.m. says, "Henry Bins has Henry Bins. A sleeping disorder, named after him. He is awake for one hour a day. He wakes up at 3 a.m. then falls asleep at 4 a.m. Life is simple. Until he hears the woman scream. And sees the man leave the house across the street. But not just any man. The President of the United States."

I get carried away by books that come to me this way and I'm tempted to download them on my tab, where they lie for a long time or till I rediscover them among five hundred other ebooks. Still, I feel inclined to read 3 a.m. I think someone among my blog acquaintances has already reviewed it.

Among nonfiction books, I'm rereading The Power of Your Subconscious Mind (1963) by Joseph Murphy. I'm always reading self-help and philosophy books. They enable me to get a handle on things. 

The power of thought is a penetrating and fascinating subject because there is no end to its immense possibilities, for better or worse. To be in control of our mind instead of our mind being in control of us, as is the case, is as old as the hills. Easier said and read than done. But no harm in trying, is there?


Murphy's book reminded me of a particular quote by motivational speaker Earl Nightingale who said, “Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become a reality.”

If we sit back and think about it honestly, we’ll see that most of what we plant and nourish is negative, and usually stays with us for a long time, probably a lifetime. Joseph Murphy tells us how we can reverse those long years of negative conditioning.


Note: For previous 'Musings' see under Labels.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Odd Life of Timothy Green & The Food Guide to Love

A refreshing pair of films for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

The purpose of this loosely written post is to bring these new and possibly overlooked films to your notice.

Both the films were telecast on Indian cable in the past two days. I watched the first half-hour of The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012) directed by Peter Hedges and the last half-hour of The Food Guide to Love (2013) made by Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri. The latter is an Irish film and was showcased at the Dublin Film Festival.

My impression of the family drama and the romantic comedy is that both are clean, colourful, vibrant, and feel-good fairytale movies. The kind that the entire family can watch over the weekend, the kind that probably didn't come to a theatre near you, the kind that you'd have most likely skipped even if it did, and the kind that got mixed reviews. In short, an enjoyable fare where opinions don't really matter. I certainly liked the parts I saw.

I won't review the movies as I haven't seen them completely as I hoped to. Something came up. Instead, I’ll reproduce someone else’s…


The Odd Life of Timothy Green - Walt Disney Pictures: “Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner), desperately wanting a child but unable to conceive, dream up their “ideal offspring” in a fit of whimsy and bury their wishes in the backyard. To their great surprise, the next morning, a 10-year old boy materialises on their doorstep. Dealing with sudden parenthood thrust upon them, the Green's adventures in adapting to this ‘gift’ take on unforeseen aspects as they slowly begin to realise that Timothy (C.J. Adams) is anything but a ‘normal’ child.”

The film is from Jennifer Garner's perspective. Timothy is a cute kid and has leaves growing from his ankles that a friendly botanist can’t seem to snip off.

The Food Guide to LoveBerlinale (International Film Festival of Berlin): “The Food Guide to Love is a charming romantic comedy set in Dublin about a trendsetting Irish food writer and the feisty Spanish beauty who inspires him to put his heart before his stomach in matters of love. Food journalist Oliver Byrne (Richard Coyle) is in crisis. His multimedia column on fine eating and finding a soul mate has become the hottest read in town. But his own love life is a complete mess, featuring a string of relationships which seem appetising at first but then always lose their flavour. When he meets Spanish art curator Bibiana (Leonor Watling), Oliver feels an unlikely but undeniable attraction despite the fact they have nothing in common. She’s into good causes, he’s into good food. She’s a kamikaze in love, diving head first into impossible relationships, while he is terrified of commitment. Is this romance a recipe for disaster, or has he finally found the ingredients for true love?”

Shot on location in Dublin, the Irish capital with its assorted cafes and restaurants is picturesque. In the film Richard Coyle has a beautiful house.

They sound like nice films. The posters look like book jackets.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Hell Raisers, or Saddle Pals, by Lee Floren, 1947

This review is my early contribution to Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase which will be compiled by Todd Mason at his blog Sweet Freedom this Friday.

They lived by their guns in a land where death was a way of life.

A replica of my book.
When I read The Hell Raisers (original title: Saddle Pals), the first thought that came into my head was that why can’t people leave each other alone and lead their own lives. There is enough to fill everyone’s need and greed. If that was indeed the case, Lee Floren, or most western writers for that matter, would not have many stories to tell. For, conflict between man and man, usually over a piece of land, has been the central theme of a lot of frontier fiction and that includes this 127-page novel.

In The Hell Raisers, Lee Floren casts a rich and powerful cattleman and his gunfighters and a bunch of poor farmers with no experience in gunplay on opposite sides of an open range. The bone of contention between the two warring sides is water and the vast tract of grassland through which it must flow.

The cowman is Hank Carter who owns a big ranch and a large number of cattle which he buys from rustlers. He is aided by Pinto Aggler, his foreman and sidekick who is handy with a gun. Aggler and the other cowhands, numbering no more than half a dozen, are loyal to Carter only to the extent he can pay them. Otherwise, they owe him nothing.

The thirty-odd farmers and their families are led by Ol’ Mack Orcon, a feisty old man with a goat’s beard. He was engaged in all kinds of loco schemes, from raising angora goats to starting a fish hatchery, before settling down on the grasslands near the town of Wishing Springs, Wyoming. 

© www.randrusedbooks.co.uk
Initially, all is well between Carter and the farmers. The cowman even welcomes their presence on the plains. Then, one day, Ol’ Mack digs water wells, erects derricks, and builds a reservoir for the purpose of irrigation, and starts a war between the cattleman and the farmers.

Carter and his henchmen intimidate and harass Ol’ Mack and the other farmers, with the intention of evicting them from their land. Word of the range war reaches Jess Roberts and War Dog Smith, two drifting cowboys who mean well but have a knack for getting into trouble. Jess and War Dog are old friends of Mack Orcon and lose no time in heading towards his ‘Circle in a Box’ farm and helping him fight Carter.

Matters come to a head when Carter and his gunmen blow up a derrick and the main reservoir with dynamite, resulting in loss of all the stored water and the death of a farmer. This act of violence, which is seen as a catastrophe by the peaceable but determined farmers, sets the stage for a final bloody showdown between the two groups.

The characters
The two main characters in the story are Jess, the little fearless cowboy with the brains, and his middle-aged friend, War Dog Smith, part Sioux and part French, who uses muscle to settle disputes. Jess owes Ol’ Mack a big debt for the wizened old farmer had taken him in when he was a hungry and homeless kid of twelve. War Dog had once been Mack’s range boss. Together, they form an unlikely pair as they help ‘Ol Mack take on the cunning and ruthless cattleman.

Other key characters include Matilda, an elderly spinster and Ol’ Mack’s sister who comes to live with her brother. Her domineering presence on the farm is initially resented by Mack until her housekeeping and cooking wins him over. There is a subtle romantic inclination between Matilda and the half-breed.

There is also Hammerburg, the cowardly deputy sheriff of the local town, and Parr Palm, a big as an ox but sly as a fox farmer, both of whom are in Hank Carter’s pay. They are easily dispensable.

And then there is Nellie Bly, a belligerent goat that has a lot in common with her devoted master, Ol’ Mack, who can’t stay without her. He prefers his goat to his sister.

Final word
The Hell Raisers is a tale of many parts—pride, loyalty, friendship, unity, courage, entrepreneurship, hard work, and the determination to extract peace and prosperity from a land in which the farmers have invested their sweat and money. Most of the men stay put on their homestead because they are proud to own it and, more importantly, because they owe it to their families and to their future. A future filled with nice farms, plenty of hay and good stock, and a good living. All they want is to be left in peace.

Lee Floren has a keen grasp of the frontier which is reflected in his description of the grasslands and the badlands, its old and new inhabitants, and their way of life. His writing style is reminiscent of early western fiction although Hank Carter’s and Pinto Aggler’s dialect is formal while that of Jess, War Dog, and the farmers is colloquial with many a turn of the phrase.

The novel is evenly-paced and has several lighter moments, thanks to Ol’ Mack, his sister, his goat, and his two friends. The humour does not undermine the seriousness of the plot and is, in fact, a welcome diversion from the hostilities that unfold from time to time.

The Hell Raisers is a well written novel and offers another interesting peek into frontier life. It is one of many examples in frontier fiction where new settlers run afoul of those who have already been there before them and look upon the newcomers as a threat where none may exist. I have not read many westerns with agri-based farmers as characters. They’re referred to as “sodmen” in the story. I couldn’t find the origin of the word on the internet.

The author
Lee Floren (1910-1995) was a prolific author who wrote well over fifty western novels as well as other fiction. He also wrote under a dozen pseudonyms including Wade Hamilton and Matt Harding. His stories have been published in several western periodicals of the mid-20th century.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who Murdered the Vets? by Ernest Hemingway

A look at Ernest Hemingway’s other writings for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

In Who Murdered the Vets?, a firsthand news report on the Florida hurricane, Ernest Hemingway seems to be referring to the Labour Day Hurricane which has been described, on Wikipedia, as “the strongest tropical cyclone of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season, and the most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history.” This is my understanding.

The hurricane lasted thirteen days, from August 29, 1935 until September 10, 1935, and Hemingway wrote his hard-hitting piece on its deadly impact exactly a week later, in the left-wing magazine, New Masses, September 17, 1935.

In this compelling article, the American writer demands answers to many questions: Who sent nearly a thousand US war veterans to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months? Why were the men not evacuated before the hurricane struck the Keys? Who delayed sending the ten-car rescue train that washed away between mainland Florida and Key West? Finally, who was responsible for their deaths?

Hemingway raises his eyebrows at Washington for possible answers.

After the hurricane, Hemingway travelled to the Keys and found hundreds of bodies of civilians and veterans strewn everywhere, in the sea, in the mangroves, in the shelters, in the trees, in the rails, wherever the strong winds and storm waters swept them.

In Camp Five, Hemingway talks about finding only eight survivors out of a total of 187 vets though only sixty-nine bodies are accounted for, the rest having been washed up in the mangroves and other places.

Hemingway, who was resident-writer of Key West for several years, has used his firsthand knowledge of the archipelago, its history, its inclement weather, its hurricanes and storm warnings, its inhabitants, its railroad, and its boats and harbours, to write this piece. He paints an intense picture of the deadly hurricane and its tragic aftermath, which is a testament to his personal experience and to his sublime writing. Not surprisingly, the article also reads like a short story. Hemingway often wrote articles for magazines, left leaning I suspect, given his own political ideology.

I've reproduced below two passages that reveal Hemingway’s anguish over the fate of the war veterans and others.


Who sent them down there?

I hope he reads this—and how does he feel?

He will die too, himself, perhaps even without a hurricane warning, but maybe it will be an easy death, that's the best you get, so that you do not have to hang onto something until you can't hang on, until your fingers won't hold on, and it is dark. And the wind makes, a noise like a locomotive passing, with a shriek on top of that, because the wind has a scream exactly as it has in books, and then the fill goes and the high wall of water rolls you over and over and then, whatever it is, you get it and we find you, now of no importance, stinking in the mangroves.

* * * *

You're dead now, brother, but who left you there in the hurricane months on the Keys, where a thousand men died before you in the hurricane months when they were building the road that's now washed out?

Who left you there? And what's the punishment for manslaughter now?

This has turned out to be Ernest Hemingway week for I also discovered, and promptly read, a book of poems by the writer.

The Suppressed Poems of Ernest Hemingway, published by The Library of Living Poetry, Paris, has two sections, ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ (poems from The Double Dealer and Querschnitt), and ‘Ten Poems’ (from Three Stories and Ten Poems). Each poem is dated, beginning June 1922 and ending May 1929.

Some of the poems read like limericks. I enjoyed reading many of them although there were some I didn’t understand. I got the impression that Hemingway might have written them on an impulse, perhaps for want of anything better to do, as poetry is often written. Here are the ones I liked.

Ultimately
He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry-mouthed at first,
He drooled and slobbered in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.


The Ernest Liberal's Lament
I know monks masturbate at night
That pet cats screw
That some girls bite
And yet
What can I do
To set things right?




Oklahoma
All of the Indians are dead
(a good Indian is a dead Indian)
Or riding in motor cars —
(the oil lands, you know, they're all rich)
Smoke smarts my eyes,
Cottonwood twigs and buffalo dung
Smoke grey in the tepee —
(or is it my myopic trachoma)

The prairies are long,
The moon rises
Ponies
Drag at their pickets.
The grass has gone brown in the summer —
(or is it the hay crop failing)

Pull an arrow out:
If you break it
The wound closes.
Salt is good too
And wood ashes.
Pounding it throbs in the night —
(or is it the gonorrhea)

Captives
Some came in chains
Unrepentant but tired.
Too tired but to stumble.
Thinking and hating were finished
Thinking and fighting were finished
Retreating and hoping were finished.
Cures thus a long campaign,
Making death easy.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reading Habits #12: Sex in fiction

Are you still comfortable reading about sex in fiction? I say “still” because as I grow older and possibly more mature as a reader, I find that it doesn't make a difference any more. To the best of my knowledge, I haven't read a raunchy novel in over a decade. However, I have been reading books with a touch of romance or suggestive of sexual intimacy, but nothing explicit.

One reason for the absence of any kind of titillating stuff on my bookshelf or on my tablet is the change in my reading habits, hopefully, for the better. I read more classics and vintage books now while the crime and hardboiled fiction of the mid to late 20th century and modern novels that I occasionally delve into have little or no sex. Maybe, I'm not reading the right kind of books.

This does not mean that I haven’t read my share of adult literature in my younger days. While in school, I quickly graduated from Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton, and Just William to the popular and “sleazy” novels of Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace, to the dismay of an uncle who said I was too young to read the two worthies—“Wait till you are at least twenty.
 That's four years away! Instead, he recommended A.J. Cronin and Frank G. Slaughter. I'm glad he did for I enjoy reading their books till today.

The mass appeal of Robbins lay in his stories, told in plain English, and in his next-door middle-class characters who lost their virginity no sooner they reached puberty. His A Stone for Danny Fisher where a tragic young man dreams big in a crooked world and 79, Park Avenue where a beautiful young girl is forced to become a prostitute when everyone begins to treat her like one, are among his better-known novels. Never Love A Stranger, The Lonely Lady, and Dreams Die First are also entertaining.

Wallace wrote some decent novels, too, but The Celestial Bed based on sex therapy and technique is not one of them. I’d recommend The Man in which a black man becomes President of the United States and The Second Lady, a Cold War political thriller where the KGB kidnaps the US First Lady and replaces her with a Soviet impostor. More on the latter.

Everything goes smoothly for the impostor till it’s time for the inevitable, making love with the President, who has absolutely no clue that the woman sharing his bed is not his real wife. I think initially she spurns his overtures. While the KGB has got everything sorted out, it clearly forgot to take care of that little intimate detail between POTUS and FLOTUS.

The clever “hero” on the KGB side is attracted to the captive First Lady and falls in love with her in what is a one-sided affair. But he is a ruthless professional—the state before self and all that. So to protect his girlfriend’s identity in the White House, he must find out how the President’s wife performs in bed and pass on the information to her. He does the obvious: he sleeps with her. Now the First Lady wasn't born yesterday. She loves her husband and realises that the only way to expose the fraud in her bedroom is to have sex with the KGB agent in a way she and the President never did. Throw off the enemy agent on one hand and arouse her husband’s suspicion on the other. Does it work?

If ever I've read a graphic account of sex in fiction in my teens, it’s in those four to five pages of The Second Lady which has a very ingenious, even if outlandish, plot, and an entirely unexpected ending.

Later, I read most of the titles under English writer René Lodge Brabazon Raymond’s famous pseudonym, James Hadley Chase, and discovered the deceptive covers of his crime paperbacks—semi-nudes on the cover, barely a kiss inside. What a letdown. But Chase told good stories. I liked the ones about cops the most.


Note: For previous Reading Habits, see under ‘Labels’.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

New additions to the ‘library’

It has been awhile since I added any new books to my collection of some 100-odd physical books and 500-plus ebooks. Earlier this week I bought two used paperbacks, a mystery and a western. I don’t think twice before picking up westerns. I have some two dozen of them, unread as yet. The sight of the horseback paperbacks makes me want to read them right away. I probably would have if I didn't read anything else. Among all fiction I like the cover art of western novels the most.

The two books I picked up were Only a Matter of Time, 1969, a Dell Murder Ink Mystery, by V.C. Clinton Baddeley, and The Texan, 2001, by Joan Johnston, an American writer of over forty contemporary and historical romance novels. Both are new authors for me.

Born in Devon, England, Baddeley’s full name was Victor Vaughan Reynolds Geraint Clinton-Baddeley. He was more than a writer; he was also involved in theatre and plays, films, and radio. He wrote both fiction and nonfiction including Death’s Bright Dart reviewed by Yvette at In So Many Words… Steve at Mystery File has a more detailed piece about the author.

The back of the book has this to say about Only a Matter of Time: “On Friday afternoon, the directors of Bexminster Electronics were gathering for a top secret meeting. And a few miles down the road, the inhabitants of King’s Lacey were preparing for their annual festival. No one dreamed that the weekend would be shattered by mayhem and murder. Certainly not Dr. Davie, the distinguished poetry professor with a knack for detective work.”


Dr. R.V. Davie is V.C. Clinton-Baddeley’s main protagonist who is in search of diversion in what I think is a nice little mystery about poetic justice, so to speak.

In The Texan, Joan Johnston, the New York Times bestselling author of The Cowboy, “weaves a tale of two feuding families—the Blackthornes and the Creeds—and of two extraordinary people, loner Owen Blackthorne and beautiful, headstrong Bayleigh Creed, irresistibly drawn to each other despite the desperate odds against their love.”

This is the first time I’d be reading a true romantic western with a sex scene or two. I hope it works as well as the westerns I’m used to reading which is usually about a lone cowboy or gunfighter in search of some meaning in life.


I'll finish this post with a vague thought on who I'd like to see as the two lead actors in the remake of Tombstone, 1993, should there be one. I'd like to see either Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt replace Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Jude Law or Matt Damon step into the shoes of Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Flight of the Phoenix, 2004

It’s Tuesday and here’s an entertaining desert film to back up Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Last week, I set out to watch Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix, 1965, starring James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, George Kennedy, and Ernest Borgnine.

Instead, I ended up watching its remake, John Moore's Flight of the Phoenix, 2004, starring Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Giovanni Ribisi, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Otto, and Tony Curran.

Both films are based on the novel by Elleston Trevor (born Trevor Dudley Smith). I have not read the book.

Stewart and Quaid play the lead character, Frank Towns, the captain of the ill-fated cargo plane that crash lands during a storm in the Sahara Desert in Africa and in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, depending on which version you've seen.

Frank Towns (Quaid) and his co-pilot A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) are on their way back to civilisation after picking up crew and cargo at an immobilised oil well when a mighty dust storm forces Towns to crash his C-119 Flying Boxcar in the Gobi, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The plane is at least two hundred miles off course and there are immediate casualties.


Towns is initially indifferent and is reluctant to take charge of the situation, the meagre rations of food and water, and the rudderless passengers, but relents when Kelly Johnson (Miranda Otto), one of the oil workers, pricks his conscience. 

What follows next is a lesson in team motivation and management as Towns strives to keep the spirits of his despairing passengers alive on one hand and struggles to protect his restless flock from the vagaries of the desert weather and ruthless smugglers on the other.

How they manage to get out of the desert, which can well be described as last place god made, is what makes this special effects film worth watching even though the plot is so-so. Of particular note is the way Towns brings down the plane through swirling storm and sand, in brief but terrifying moments that an artist or a photographer would capture perfectly on canvas or through a lens. The brilliant tan of the desert sand, caught on camera by cinematographer Brendan Galvin, seems to stretch forever and forms an immense backdrop throughout the nearly two-hour film.

In terms of individual performance, Dennis Quaid’s acting is along expected lines, only his films change. The actor to watch, if at all, is the reclusive Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), a slightly eccentric design engineer who builds model airplanes. He’s the guy who plays Phoebe’s crazy half-brother in Friends.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Fourth of July

I'm probably a day late, but here's wishing all my American blogger friends a Happy 4th of July!

© J.L.G. Ferris/Wikimedia Commons
In the picture, Benjamin Franklin reads a draft of the Declaration of Independence as the other Founding Fathers, John Adams (seated) and Thomas Jefferson (standing), listen. The number of key Founding Fathers has been put at seven which includes George Washington. The painting is by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), an American painter who famously recreated 78 scenes from American history known as The Pageant of a Nation, which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest series of American historical paintings by a single artist. It'd be worth taking a look at the others.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Q2 review: more books, fewer stories

I'm still in the thick of "closing" the special edition of my newspaper, which I mentioned in my last post. It'll have dozens of specially commissioned views and interviews of experts in the field of infrastructure in India. It is in the context of the new political dispensation in New Delhi, the result of a nine-phase general election held in April-May—the world's largest electoral exercise by the world's largest democracy. Hope has replaced despair, for now. While the articles are informative and analytical, they are obviously not as stimulating as fiction and fantasy. There are more exciting things outside of a job.

A slight respite from all the editing and pagemaking allowed for this post, a summary of books and short stories I read during the second quarter, April-June.

In the first quarter I read nine books and twenty short stories. In the second quarter I read eleven books and only seven short stories.

First, the books...


My pick of the quarter.
Crime: Public Murders by Bill Granger, 1980

War: The Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel, 1957

Espionage: Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith, 1986

Western: The Hell Raisers (originally Saddle Pals) by Lee Floren, 1988

Quasi Western: Carved in Sand by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933

General (academia): The Common Room by K.B. Rao, 2014

General (media): The Bread Line: A Story of a Paper by Albert Bigelow Paine, 1899

General (media): The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, 2010

Thriller: The Last Place God Made by Jack Higgins, 1971

Thriller: The Savage Day by Jack Higgins 1972

Classic: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, 1859

The last three books were re-reads.

And the short stories…

The Fifth String, The Conspirators, and Experiences of a Bandmaster by John Philip Sousa

Anne by Fanny Stevenson, 1899

The Intruders by Evan Hunter, 1954

Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, 1953

Love Story by Irving E. Cox, 1956

I could swear I read more shorts. Then again, maybe I did not.

If I were to do a SWOT analysis of my less than average reading during the past three months, it'd be something like this.

Strengths: Quick to start
Weaknesses: Slow to finish
Opportunities: Plenty of books, plenty of time
Threats: Other distractions, mainly movies, chess, and Scrabble

Talking about movies, I recently saw (again) Raid on Entebbe (1977) directed by Irvin Kershner (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop 2, Never Say Never Again, Eyes of Laura Mars).

Based on a true story, as any film or book about Israel seems to be, this one too has many well-known stars like Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, John Saxon, Horst Buchholz, Jack Warden, Sylvia Sidney, Robert Loggia, and James Woods. A plane with as many as hundred Jewish passengers is hijacked by militants loyal to the Palestine movement and flown to Entebbe, Uganda. Since Israel does not negotiate with terrorists, it sends commandos to Entebbe, located more than 2,000 miles away, to flush out the hijackers and rescue its citizens. The rescue op is realistic. The highlight of the film is Yaphet Kotto as President Idi Amin.

Next up is The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) made by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) based on a novel by Elleston Trevor (born Trevor Dudley Smith). I haven’t seen this one before. In between, I’ll be reading some books.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Musings on a fourth Thursday

I'm going to be awfully busy over the next ten days as I rush to “close” the anniversary edition of my fortnightly tabloid-size newspaper which completed thirteen years in May. In my case and probably in the case of every other journalist on the news desk in India, the term “closing” is associated with sending a paper or magazine to print which means writing and editing stories, overseeing production, and meeting deadlines. It has become a sort of a joke in the family. If someone invites me over for a function around the due date of my paper, the word out is, “Oh no, he can’t make it. He has his closing this week” which is met with the predictable response “Not again!” I'm secretly happy, for genuine as the reason is, it has allowed me to skip many a social gathering.

The immediate casualty of my workload is a Forgotten Books review over at Patti Abbott’s blog, Friday, and a second quarter roundup of books and short stories I read during April to June. The summary will have to wait until next weekend.

These days I’m reading more books, watching more films, and reviewing less, because I’m afflicted with what I’d like to call review fatigue.

I finished reading three nice books recently—Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith and The Hell Raisers (or Saddle Pals) by Lee Floren—both of which I started over a month ago, and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. I’m undecided on which of these to review; most likely it’ll be the first-edition western paperback by Lee Floren. It has a couple of unusual cowboy characters who get involved in a range war between simple farmers and a devious cattleman in Wyoming, and some interesting elements with regard to life in the plains and the badlands.

NetGalley has sent me Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers which I intend to read and review in July.

The six western movies I saw and wrote about in the third week of this month have had a few more companions since, in the form of The Avengers, The Towering Inferno, and The Dirty Dozen.

I’d forgotten that Fred Astaire had a part in The Towering Inferno, his last major picture, I think, or that O.J. Simpson played a young security officer in the ill-fated building. It was one of many disaster movies to come out of the seventies alongside The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Hurricane, Avalanche, and the Airport series.

I'm now looking for The Cassandra Crossing, Black Sunday, Rollercoaster, and Damnation Alley.

As you can see I have a predilection for blockbusters with lots of famous actors commonly seen in war, western, action, and disaster flicks.

The death of Eli Wallach, June 24, had me watching The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly all over again, and each time it seems like the first time.

There are a lot of memorable scenes in both the films and many of those involve Wallach. The Magnificent Seven opens with a fine musical score by Elmer Bernstein which plays in the background as Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his bandits ride into the farming village. In fact, the orchestral score plays throughout in the background. In the Sergio Leone classic, his ‘Ugly’ character, Tuco, is transformed into an ecstatic ten-year old as he runs circles around the gravestones literally in step with Ennio Morricone’s lilting score that has become a popular mobile ringtone.

How would you rate his performance in the two movies where he is said to have overshadowed both Yul Brynner and Clint Eastwood and the others? I don’t think he stole the limelight from Brynner, Buchholz and company as much as he did from Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in their respective films.

I’ll end this post by recommending one of Eli Wallach’s last films, The Holiday (2006), a nice little romantic comedy. Born in the second year of World War I, Wallach was 91 when he made this film. How is that for a perspective?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Superman, 1978, and Superman II, 1980

A different take on the mother of all superhero films for this Tuesday’s edition of Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.


This is not a review of Superman or its sequel directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester, respectively. Rather, this post looks at two specific scenes in both the films which invited ridicule from a lot of viewers in India, including me and my friends. I saw the films in my teens and I recall emerging from the theatre absolutely spellbound—Hollywood had made a real man fly not just through earth's atmosphere but through infinite space without any strings attached.

Everything is spot-on about Superman I & II (though the plot in the sequel was too weak as to be really convincing), except for a couple of scenes that took some of the shine off the films. Both scenes take place in the end.

In Superman, the Man of Steel is distraught with grief when he finds Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) buried alive in her car, the result of an earthquake triggered by a nuclear explosion set off by the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). What happens next is almost unbelievable: Superman flies and flies around earth at hundreds of times of the speed of light and turns the world, or time, back to pre-quake. He returns to earth in time to see Lane alive and out of her car and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), his best friend at The Daily Planet, making his way towards them. Superman had saved Olsen earlier. All's well again.

That one scene, turning the time back, is the stuff of science fiction, but it defies logic in the movie even though it can be argued that Superman is a product of that genre. It raises so many questions that you don't know where to begin. For instance, Lane remembers the earthquake and going under ground and while she is visibly flustered she seems okay with it, and since there has been no nuclear triggered earthquake, why does Superman hand Luthor and his sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) over to the police? Superman knows Luthor is a criminal, in fact, “The greatest criminal mind of our time!” as Luthor brags, but what’s the charge. Am I missing something here?

I thought the scene was silly and Richard Donner lost his way. I'm sure Donner must have toyed with several endings. Sadly, he settled for one that didn't work in what was otherwise a technically brilliant film with excellent music by John Williams. 

In Superman II, Lois Lane is hyper when she finally discovers, over Niagara Falls, that Superman is actually Clark Kent, her bespectacled and bumbling colleague at the paper. Superman, ever the magnanimous and self-sacrificing hero, decides to put his girlfriend out of her misery: he kisses her and erases her memory of him as Superman. When she opens her eyes, she sees Clark Kent and not Superman before her and, I think, she straightaway orders the poor fellow to fetch coffee or something. Again, all’s well that ends well.

With that one scene, Superman proves that he is also Supergod. Although there can be no limit to his superpowers, I can stretch disbelief only so much.

Thirty-six years on Christopher Reeve remains the ultimate Superman/Clark Kent as I've known the kryptonian of the comic books. In 2006, Brandon Routh bravely stepped into those famous red boots, in Superman Returns, but there can be no comparison with Reeve—in coat or cloak, Routh looked the same as Clark Kent and Superman. I'm surprised Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) didn't see the close resemblance.

While we’re on Superman, it’s one of three movies whose catchy soundtrack has stayed with me since my teens, the other two being Jaws and The Omen. Turn off the sound and you’ll see what I mean.

Friday, June 20, 2014

99 Novels by Anthony Burgess, 1984

This anthology by the English writer is considered “neglected” by some which makes it a suitable entry for Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

© www.anthonyburgess.org
As a rule, I don’t publish lists of novels or short stories I read or come across in an anthology or collection. However, I'm making an exception in the case of 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939 by Anthony Burgess.

Neither do I have the book and nor have I read it, but I'm excited enough to share it with those who didn’t know about it until now. I read about it online and I'm ashamed to admit that I've read less than half of the ninety-nine novels which, according to the late English writer and composer, were the best since 1939. Worse still, I have not read anything by Burgess himself, not even A Clockwork Orange.

The anthology covers a forty-four year period between 1939 and 1983. Fiction of the fifties and sixties finds pride of place in the author’s personal choice of books.

Burgess, who was a prolific writer, reader, and reviewer of books, was comfortable with all types of authors including “practitioners of well-wrought sensational fiction” like Irving Wallace, Arthur Hailey, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett.

© Simon & Schuster
He once revealed in an interview that the book was originally commissioned by a Nigerian publishing company and that he wrote it in two weeks. You can listen to the interview at Wired for Books.

I'm tempted to reproduce passages from his introduction to 99 Novels but that would be neither here nor there. Instead, you can read it at The New York Times where Anthony Burgess gives his reasons for choosing the books he did. It makes interesting reading. The book is available at Amazon.

The 99 novels, sorted by year, are given below, courtesy Wikipedia. The author has kept himself out of his own list.


1930s

1939 – Henry Green – Party Going (1939)
1939 – Aldous Huxley – After Many a Summer (1939)
1939 – James Joyce – Finnegans Wake (1939)
1939 – Flann O'Brien – At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

1940s

1940 – Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory (1940)
1940 – Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
1940 – C.P. Snow – Strangers and Brothers (1940)
1941 – Rex Warner – The Aerodrome (1941)
1944 – Joyce Cary – The Horse's Mouth (1944)
1944 – W. Somerset Maugham – The Razor's Edge (1944)
1945 – Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited (1945)
1946 – Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan (1946)
1947 – Saul Bellow – The Victim (1947)
1947 – Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano (1947)
1949 – Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day (1949)
1948 – Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter (1948)
1948 – Aldous Huxley – Ape and Essence (1948)
1948 – Nevil Shute – No Highway (1948)
1948 – Norman Mailer – The Naked and the Dead (1948)
1949 – George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
1949 – William Sansom – The Body (1949)

1950s

1950 – William Cooper – Scenes from Provincial Life (1950)
1950 – Budd Schulberg – The Disenchanted (1950)
1951 – Anthony Powell – A Dance to the Music of Time (1951)
1951 – J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
1951 – Henry Williamson – A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951)
1951 – Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny (1951)
1952 – Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man (1952)
1952 – Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
1952 – Mary McCarthy – The Groves of Academe (1952)
1952 – Flannery O'Connor – Wise Blood (1952)
1952 – Evelyn Waugh – Sword of Honour (1952)
1953 – Raymond Chandler – The Long Goodbye (1953)
1954 – Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim (1954)
1957 – John Braine – Room at the Top (1957)
1957 – Lawrence Durrell – The Alexandria Quartet (1957)
1957 – Colin MacInnes – The London Novels (1957)
1957 – Bernard Malamud – The Assistant (1957)
1958 – Iris Murdoch – The Bell (1958)
1958 – Alan Sillitoe – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)
1958 – T.H. White – The Once and Future King (1958)
1959 – William Faulkner – The Mansion (1959)
1959 – Ian Fleming – Goldfinger (1959)

1960s

1960 – L.P. Hartley – Facial Justice (1960)
1960 – Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy (1960)
1961 – Ivy Compton-Burnett – The Mighty and Their Fall (1961)
1961 – Joseph Heller – Catch-22 (1961)
1961 – Richard Hughes – The Fox in the Attic (1961)
1961 – Patrick White – Riders in the Chariot (1961)
1961 – Angus Wilson – The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
1962 – James Baldwin – Another Country (1962)
1962 – Aldous Huxley – Island (1962)
1962 – Pamela Hansford Johnson – An Error of Judgement (1962)
1962 – Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962)
1962 – Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire (1962)
1963 – Muriel Spark – The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
1964 – William Golding – The Spire (1964)
1964 – Wilson Harris – Heartland (1964)
1964 – Christopher Isherwood – A Single Man (1964)
1964 – Vladimir Nabokov – The Defense (1964)
1964 – Angus Wilson – Late Call (1964)
1965 – John O'Hara – The Lockwood Concern (1965)
1965 – Muriel Spark – The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
1966 – Chinua Achebe – A Man of the People (1966)
1966 – Kingsley Amis – The Anti-Death League (1966)
1966 – John Barth – Giles Goat-Boy (1966)
1966 – Nadine Gordimer – The Late Bourgeois World (1966)
1966 – Walker Percy – The Last Gentleman (1966)
1967 – R.K. Narayan – The Vendor of Sweets (1967)
1968 – J.B. Priestley – The Image Men (1968)
1968 – Mordecai Richler – Cocksure (1968)
1968 – Keith Roberts – Pavane (1968)
1969 – John Fowles – The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)
1969 – Philip Roth – Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

1970s

1970 – Len Deighton – Bomber (1970)
1973 – Michael Frayn – Sweet Dreams (1973)
1973 – Thomas Pynchon – Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
1975 – Saul Bellow – Humboldt's Gift (1975)
1975 – Malcolm Bradbury – The History Man (1975)
1976 – Robert Nye – Falstaff (1976)
1977 – Erica Jong – How to Save Your Own Life (1977)
1977 – James Plunkett – Farewell Companions (1977)
1977 – Paul Mark Scott – Staying On (1977)
1978 – John Updike – The Coup (1978)
1979 – J.G. Ballard – The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)
1979 – Bernard Malamud – Dubin's Lives (1979)
1979 – Brian Moore – The Doctor's Wife (1976)
1979 – V.S. Naipaul – A Bend in the River (1979)
1979 – William Styron – Sophie's Choice (1979)

1980s

1980 – Brian Aldiss – Life in the West (1980)
1980 – Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker (1980)
1980 – David Lodge – How Far Can You Go? (1980)
1980 – John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
1981 – Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981)
1981 – Alexander Theroux – Darconville's Cat (1981)
1981 – Paul Theroux – The Mosquito Coast (1981)
1981 – Gore Vidal – Creation (1981)
1982 – Robertson Davies – The Rebel Angels (1982)
1983 – Norman Mailer – Ancient Evenings (1983)


This list goes on my tackboard.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A week of western films

This Tuesday, a festival of western movies for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

With my home computers giving trouble I was pretty much off blogging last week. The break gave me a chance to do what I rarely do nowadays—watch western films. I saw six in all, one for each day of the week, well almost. These were Hour of the Gun (1967), Three Men from Texas (1940), The Five Man Army (1969), The Hills Run Red (1966), The Magnificent Seven (1998), and Unforgiven (1992).

The Magnificent Seven is actually a television series that ran from 1998 through 2000. It starred Michael Biehn, Ron Perlman, and Eric Close. I saw the first episode of the first season the theme of which was the same as the 1960 John Sturges classic. It’s worth a look.

For now, I’ll give you my impressions of the initial three movies.


Hour of the Gun is a very well made film about Wyatt Earp (James Garner) and Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) who take on crooked rancher Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) and his hired guns. In spite of his stature, Ryan doesn't have much of a role, somewhat like his cameo in The Dirty Dozen. It's Garner and Robards all the way.

After Tombstone (1993) this was only the second Wyatt Earp movie I saw. Garner and Robards are vengeful but milder versions of Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer although the end result is the same. One of the things that struck me about Hour of the Gun was the differences between Garner and Robards over how to fight Clanton. It’s all very quiet and never heated. But Robards, in spite of his alcohol-induced ill-health, stays close to his friend often at risk to his life.


While the gunfights in Hour of the Gun are nowhere as loud and violent as in Tombstone, the two versions made by John Sturges and George P. Cosmatos respectively are mirror images in many ways. Garner, 86, is quiet and unsmiling and rather daunting on screen. In my opinion both films are a classic.

Next up was Three Men from Texas directed by Lesley Selander. Renamed as Ranger Guns West, the film is one of many adaptations of stories based on Hopalong Cassidy, the fictional cowboy created by American author Clarence E. Mulford.

Cassidy, once again played by William Boyd, is a clean-shaven and mild-mannered Texas Ranger who refuses to take up an assignment to rid a California town of a bunch of outlaws because he is nearing retirement. Instead, his partner, the impulsive Lucky Jenkins (Russell Hayden), goes in his place and soon finds out that he has bitten more than he can chew. Fortunately, a crooked trail that Cassidy is following takes him to the lawless town where he finally teams up with Lucky and the cowardly buffoon California Carlson (Andy Clyde), and some bandits led by Pico Serrano (Thornton Edwards), to restore law and order.


Andy Clyde stands out with his noisy act in this limited action western film.

I saw The Five Man Army in my school days and haven’t forgotten it since. Big man Bud Spencer (born Carlo Pedersoli) remains a favourite comedian along with his Italian compatriot Terence Hill (Mario Girotti). Together, Bud Spencer and Terence Hill made several comedy films including spaghetti westerns—one used his fist, the other his brain, and all hell broke loose.

Terence Hill does not star in this Italian production made by Don Taylor and Italo Zingarelli. Instead, with Mesito (Bud Spencer) are Dutchman (Peter Graves) who hires him and three other men he knows equally well—Capt. Nicolas Augustus (James Daly), Samurai (Tetsurô Tanba), and Luis Dominguez (Nino Castelnuovo)—to rob a train.

Each of the men has a specialised skill: Graves (planning and plotting), Spencer (fists), Daly (dynamites), Samurai (knives and swords), and Luis (guns).


The Five Man Army is set during the Mexican Revolution. Dutchman leads his ragtag team on an ambush of a heavily-armed train carrying $500,000 in gold that belongs to the Mexican army. In return, he promises his men $1,000 each as reward. Once the gold-laden coach is successfully diverted, the men want more than their promised share, but Dutchman turns the tables and says the gold is to be used to buy arms and ammunition for the revolutionaries. The four men are taken aback and accuse him of betrayal. Dutchman then reveals that although he is a white man he supports the cause because his wife, a Mexican peasant, was killed by soldiers.

The Five Man Army may not hold up today because it lacks the technical superiority of latter-day westerns and the plot is so weak as to seem implausible. The armed soldiers fall like nine pins and the men take over the canon-secured train quite effortlessly. That said, there is a lot of action and comic moment in this spaghetti western that many consider a cult film. For me the key highlights are the music by Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and, of course, the irrepressible Bud Spencer. 


However, watching Bud Spencer without his lifelong friend and co-star Terence Hill beside him is like watching Oliver Hardy without Stan Laurel, or vice versa.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Common Room by K.B. Rao, 2014

‘The Common Room’ is a novel of atmosphere and seeks to evoke the ambience of a small town college. The old Principal is retiring, and a few contenders and pretenders flex their muscles before jumping into the fray. The members of the common room look on with some curiosity, and not a little anxiety. Everyone has a big question: who is going to replace the old bandicoot? — Back of the book

The Common Room, the debut novel by K.B. Rao, a retired college teacher in Goa, India, chronicles the lives of a motley group of professors who teach at a college in the town of Akadamipur. However, as the eponymous title suggests, the story does not play out in the classroom but in the common room where the teachers discuss in not so hushed tones who among them will replace Old Man Joshi as principal of the Chairman Bhulanath Shet College, known as ‘The College’ to some and as ‘Bullshit College’ to others.

Although The Common Room has a theme, it is actually a collection of interconnected stories narrated by one of the professors who, while choosing to remain anonymous, sees his colleagues for what they are and hears what they have to say about this, that, and the other. Balding and not far from retirement, Prof., as he is known to all, has a “curious disposition with an overactive imagination and an inclination towards the gentle art of gossip.” He does not act, he only reacts, he says, and in spite of being in the thick of it, he doesn't have much of a role to play.

Prof. is an insider who prefers to know what’s going on from the outside. He is like a sounding board against which his peers bounce off their thoughts, their ideas, their theories, their dreams, their fears, their inhibitions, and their resentments. They engage him with intermittent gossip and juicy tales. Through all this Prof. is an amused witness to all that is said and left unsaid. His is a quiet and mature influence on his colleagues both within and outside the common room.

As you read about the everyday lives of a rather idiosyncratic bunch of teachers, through the eyes and ears of the narrator, you wonder why Prof., who is not even a remote contender in the scheme of things, ought not to be the next principal of the Chairman Bhulanath Shet College. After all, he is a veteran of the common room, he is popular among his colleagues who seek out his modest company, and he has a good head on his shoulders.

So who replaces the old bandicoot finally? Just as you narrow down the contenders to one or two of the teachers, K.B. Rao pulls a rabbit out of his hat and ends the story on an unexpected note, much to the chagrin of the more formidable of the contestants.

There is no plot and no intrigue in The Common Room, but there is plenty of atmosphere in this lighthearted and humourous story about a place that most of us, either as academicians or as students, are familiar with. As K.B. Rao told this writer, “The Common Room is supposed to be a novel of atmosphere, a gentle satire on academia.” Well-written and engaging, I found this 247-page debut novel a nostalgic read in many ways as it took me back to my own college days. Recommended.

The Common Room is published by Frog Books, an imprint of Leadstart Publishing Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, and is available at Leadstart and Amazon. My review copy was sent by the author.