Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure, 1927

This is the first Hardy Boys adventure and it commences my plan to read the maiden works of authors in genres I usually read. I also offer this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

© Wikimedia Commons
Some things have stayed with me since my school days. The Hardy Boys, which introduced me to the joy of reading books, is one of them. I have read most of the imaginatively titled books. Since my teens nearly three decades ago, I have been reading the Hardy Boys off and on.

Yesterday, I finished rereading The Tower Treasure, the No.1 adventure of Frank and Joe Hardy published on June 1, 1927. Did it hold up as well as it did in the seventies? Yes and no.

Yes, because I knew what to expect and I was reading for the pleasure of it. And no, because I found the story and the characters juvenile and unrealistic, which was to be expected at my age. But it was fun.


Today, teenagers are no longer exposed to the idyllic world of Frank and Joe and their friends. Instead, they are thrown into the terrifying world of Harry Potter and his friends. The Hardy boys live with their doting parents, Fenton and Laura, in a secure and comfortable family environment. Harry is orphaned by the evil Voldemort even before he takes his first baby steps and then raised by equally evil relatives, in a cupboard under the stairs. The small ocean-side city of Bayport has been substituted by the dark and imposing Hogwarts and its dreadful secrets. Everyday thieves have made way for the Dark Lord, the Death Eaters, and the Dementors. These are the creatures that inhabit our world today. Only we call them terrorists, gunmen, and militias.

© Wikimedia Commons
With the line between the fictional and the real blurring, as often as it does, it helps to escape into sunny Bayport once in a while. My recent trip into the annals of The Tower Treasure was a pleasant experience as I retraced my youth through Frank and Joe Hardy’s maiden case—first helping their best friend Chet Morton recover his stolen jalopy, The Queen, and then assisting their father, Fenton Hardy, the famous private detective, recover thousands of dollars worth of securities and jewels stolen from the Tower Mansion owned by a rich old man called Hurd Applegate and his sister Adelia.

Frank and Joe do more than crack a robbery case. The boys, aged 17 and 16, along with their parents, show compassion towards Henry Robinson, caretaker of the Tower Mansion, and his family. Applegate charges Robinson with the robbery, fires him from his job, and removes him and his family from the mansion. Robinson, whose son Slim studies with the Hardy boys at Bayport High, is forced to leave town and find accommodation in a seedy quarter of Bayport. Slim leaves school to find a job and support his family. The detective and his sons are determined to clear Robinson's name and restore his honour and his job.

© www.hardyboys.co.uk
The Tower Treasure, written under the collective pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon and published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, is as much a story of human values as it is about solving a mystery. Those values are inculcated into Frank and Joe by their parents, Fenton and Laura. The Hardys are the epitome of a happy middle-class American family. The boys are dutiful, well-behaved, and always helpful, the cynosure of most parents. They run errands for their father and mother, attend school and do their homework regularly, and stay loyal to their friends. They are naïve and innocent in their ways. It’s what makes the Hardy Boys series still appealing for old readers like me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Anxiety attacks in films and sitcoms

Can superheroes get anxiety attacks? Apparently, they do. Tony Stark or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) gets a few of them in Iron Man 3. The billionaire-playboy experiences the nervy episodes both inside and outside his impregnable armoured suit. Inside the suit, Stark panics and feels claustrophobic and his AI buddy, Jarvis, coolly tells him that he is having an anxiety attack, like an indifferent butler announcing dinner is served. Outside of it, he goes weak in the knees and drops to the ground. The founding member of The Avengers doesn’t have a clue what hit him. In one scene, it takes a precocious kid to bring him out of it. 

Each time Stark has an episode, he is very afraid but still manages to joke about it. Those who have experienced anxiety or panic attacks will tell you that it is no laughing matter—it all seems horribly real at the time—even as those who haven’t will insist that it’s all in your head and ask you to snap out of it or, better still, out of yourself. Never easy. In Stark’s case, the attacks are probably understandable: the Mandarin has aerial bombed his hilltop Malibu mansion, nearly killing him, and he holds himself responsible for putting Pepper in harm’s way.

Anxiety or panic attacks are 21st century’s new urban malaise fuelled and driven by 24x7 stresses and rat races. So widespread and debilitating are these so-called mental disorders that they are beginning to find their way into films and sitcoms, perhaps to add a touch of perverse realism to the shows.


© www.raymond.wikia.com
In one particular episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray Barone (Ray Romano) has his first anxiety attack when he is playing golf with his brother Robert (Brad Garrett) and his friend Kevin Daniels (Kevin James). As in the case of Stark, the reason for Ray’s episode is guilt. Ray has lied to his wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), so that he can avoid household chores and run off and play golf. The scary episode has him scurrying back to Debra for comfort.

Similarly, in an episode of Becker, Reggie (Terry Farrell), the owner of a diner and friend of Dr. John Becker (Ted Danson), has a panic attack on top of the Empire State Building and the only person she thinks of calling to her ‘rescue’ is the misanthropic doctor who practices in the Bronx. Reggie breaks down because of low self-esteem, of having achieved nothing in her life, by way of money, men, and marriage.

In one scene in Three and a Half Men, Alan Harper (Jon Cryer) has an emotional breakdown, first in a library and then in a movie theatre, and his brother Charlie (Charlie Sheen) is off to see a therapist on how he can deal with the situation or more likely how he can get rid of his brother. If I'm not mistaken, Charlie also has an attack or two elsewhere in the series.

I was thinking, given their emotional insecurities, most superheroes ought to be prone to anxiety attacks. Batman instantly comes to mind. But, however funny it might seem even on screen, it’s never fun to watch someone go through a nerve-wracking episode. Not that you'd know in real life as most adult sufferers disguise it well owing to a sense of self-preservation.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Red Reef by James Reasoner, 2008

In The Red Reef, a 23-page sea adventure, Captain Thomas Larkin is racked by guilt even though he committed no crime. The master of The Red Reef is distraught with grief ever since a gale sank his ship. The shipwreck costs lives and sends Larkin, one of the survivors, into gloom. Although he can still command a ship, if he wants to, he decides to sail as an ordinary seaman, “sweating out his guilt in the blistering sun on deck” and trying to forget his past. 

But his past catches up with him. One day, as Larkin is drowning his sorrow in liquor at a port-side tavern, Giselle Beauchene, a young and sensual woman, walks up to him and asks him to take her to the spot where the ship sank. She wants to pay tribute to her father, Charles Beauchene, who was a passenger on The Red Reef.’ 


Although the deep-sea journey will not bring her old man back from the dead, Larkin reluctantly agrees to take Giselle because it will in some way enable him to overcome his guilt. Giselle hires a schooner called the ‘Gallister’ captained by a dubious-looking Scotsman named MacGreevey and the trio and crew waste no time in setting sail for the Navabutu Straits.

However, once the ‘Gallister’ reaches the graveyard at sea, Giselle reveals her true colours and her hidden motive. The morning after a night of lovemaking with Larkin, she turns on the tormented captain with a gun and tells him what she has in mind. The journey of redemption soon turns into a nightmare for Thomas Larkin.

Seasoned author James Reasoner tells a classic pulp story without much fuss. There is little description of people and places. The characters of Larkin and Giselle are well drawn. It’s short and gritty, and it has some good action and an unexpected twist in the end. I liked The Red Reef as much as I liked Reasoner’s The Man on the Moon which I reviewed on October 6. Both stories are crisp and very entertaining to read.

The Red Reef was originally published in Hardluck Stories, June 2008, but you can pick up the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Walk With Death, 2013

This Tuesday, a short but interesting docu-drama for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

© USPS
A Walk With Death is a short Civil War film made by one Logan Fulton. It is 8.56 minutes long and quite poignant. The film shows Union and Confederate soldiers at war, to the death, in what looks like a forest area. The combat first takes place with rifles, fired with deadly aim on both sides, and then with bayonets and bare hands. There is death everywhere as soldiers, in blue and grey, keep falling to the ground.

What makes the scene so affecting is the poetic narrative and haunting music in the background. The film is set to The Blue and the Gray, the famous poem by Francis Miles Finch (1827-1907), an American judge, poet, and academic associated with the early years of Cornell University. I had not heard of Finch or his poem before.

Francis Miles Finch
© Wikimedia Commons
Finch wrote the poem in memory of all those who died in the American Civil War. Its message is clear—although soldiers fight on opposing sides in a war, they are equal in death; be it victory or defeat, death spares no one, neither blue nor grey. Logan Fulton uses Finch’s poem with telling effect.

I will end by reproducing a few lines from The Blue and the Gray, courtesy National Regiment, where you can watch this short film and read the rest of the poem. The last stanza is the recurring theme of A Walk With Death.


By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray

These in the robings of glory,
Those in the gloom of defeat,
All with the battle-blood gory,
In the dusk of eternity meet:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day;
Under the laurel, the Blue,
Under the willow, the Gray

From the silence of sorrowful hours,
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers
Alike for the friend and the foe;
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day;
Under the roses, the Blue,
Under the lilies, the Gray

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Five new paperbacks

On November 3, I wrote about my visit to a secondhand bookshop (Musings on a Moody Monday) tucked away in the recesses of a glass-fronted mall not very far from my residence. I forgot to mention either the name of the bookshop or the five new paperbacks I picked up. My friend, Col Keane, who reviews novels and interviews novelists at his blog Criminal Library, wanted to know which books I’d bought. Good point, seeing as we like to know the books we buy and add to our tottering pile. 

The name of the bookshop is Bookmark whose tagline—Mark yourself with knowledge—doesn't make sense, and these are the five crime novels I added to my collection. The covers are the exact replicas of my paperbacks.

Eighty Million Eyes (1966) by Ed McBain: In No.21 of the 87th Precinct Mystery series, Stan Gifford, America's most beloved comedian, dies on camera in front of eighty million eyes. Enter the persistent detectives of the 87th Precinct.

Darker Than Amber (1966) by John D. MacDonald: In No.7 of the Travis McGee novel, the salvage consultant, who lives on a houseboat, and his friend Meyer get involved with the death of Evangeline. The woman with “darker than amber eyes” lured men onto her boat, robbed them, and threw them overboard when she was done with them.

My Fawcett edition of the novel, as pictured alongside, was printed in 1966, the year it was published, but it’s not a first edition. The back cover has a small colour portrait of Travis McGee and a black-and-white picture of JDM with a brief profile
.

The Case of the Sliding Pool (1981) by E.V. Cunningham: I have read many novels by the prolific Howard Fast but none under his E.V. Cunningham pseudonym. In No.5 of the Masao Masuto mystery series, the Nisei detective with the Beverly Hills police department investigates a thirty-year old crime after a swimming pool weakens and gives way, sending tons of concrete crashing into the canyon below, and unearths a corpse. A Nisei is a person born in the United States of parents who emigrated from Japan.

Mack Bolan: The New War Book by Don Pendleton: In No.63 of the Executioner series, credited to Wiley Slade, Aaron Hill, and Judy A. Newton, one-man action hero Mack Bolan takes on the evil Hydra who is “out to rape the world and eat it whole.” This illustrated novel is short but it has plenty of add-ons like Bolan’s combat catalogue, a gallery of characters from Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan, Able Team, Phoenix Force, and Stony Man series, and the various terrorist organisations in all four series, among other features. 

Split Image (2010) by Robert B. Parker: In No.9 of the Jesse Stone series, the last and final instalment, Chief Stone investigates the murder of a man found crammed into the trunk of an abandoned car. The corpse turns out to be Petrov Ognowski, a tough guy for a local mob boss. Stone gets involved in the high-ranking crime even as he grapples with his personal life, his failed marriage and his battle with the bottle.

I didn’t realise I had bought five series novels till I was halfway through writing this post. Since I have never read E.V. Cunningham and Robert B. Parker before, I’ll probably start with either of their novels. Mack Bolan is an old favourite and although his stories are stereotype, I never tire of reading about his vigilante war. Originally created by Don Pendleton, the series has been kept alive by other writers. The hardcore noir of Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald requires no introduction. 


I miss the days when I borrowed just one book from the library, read it over a couple of days, and went back and borrowed another. There was a simple pleasure and a quiet satisfaction in reading like that.


Source of JDM cover: www.johndmacdonaldcovers.files.wordpress.com

Friday, November 7, 2014

Hemingway in Space by Kingsley Amis, 1960

Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

© Creative Commons
The absence of humour in science fiction, apart from his liking for the genre, appears to have prompted Kingsley Amis to write Hemingway in Space in the December 21, 1960, edition of Punch. The story was published in the satirical magazine as part of a series of parodies.

This is the impression one gets after reading American-Canadian sf writer Judith Merril’s introduction to Hemingway in Space which she included in her anthology 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F a year later.

“One of Mr. Amis's sharpest criticisms of science fantasy in general was the lack of good humorous writing in the field. From the examples he cited, and those he did not, I suspect we do not always laugh at the same jokes. Not always; at least one exception (and probably several more) appeared in the series of parodies published in Punch last year,” Merril noted in her 1961 Dell anthology.

I'm relatively new to sf and especially humour in sf. I didn’t see it either in the title, Hemingway in Space, however amusing it sounds, or in the story which reads like any other sf tale.

The story is set around Mars. Philip Hardacre, the main character, a young man and his annoying wife Martha, and Ghlmu, an old, grizzled two-headed Martian, are hunting for a space monster with their Wyndham-Clarke blasters. The monster is xeeb, a large and ferocious creature prowling that part of the galaxy. After spotting the phosphorescent creature, Philip insists on stepping out into space without his Martian friend. He takes the young man along with him. In the end, however, Ghlmu is killed while saving Philip and the young man.

Other readers might see humour in the story where I didn’t; perhaps, in the dialogue between Martha, “the boring, senseless bitch,” and Philip and Ghlmu, whom she and her husband hired to take on the monster. Philip Hardacre can’t stand her and would gladly get rid of her and xeeb together. In the story Earthmen and Martians seem to be friends and Venus is inhabited. In short, it’s a decent sf story.

The 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F contains more than thirty short stories. Other writers include Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Arthur C. Clarke, Howard Fast, Anthony Boucher, Isaac Asimov, Henry Sleser, and Brian W. Aldiss, among others. It also includes an essay ‘How to Think a Science Fiction Story’ by G. Harry Stine, ‘The Year in S-F’ by Judith Merril, and ‘S-F Books — 1960’ by Anthony Boucher.

If you’d like to read just this story, you can click here.

In his biography The Life of Kingsley Amis (2006), writer and academician Zachary Leader has described Amis as “the finest English comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century.” Amis has parodied sf on more than one occasion, including in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960) where he looks at the genre in a lighter vein as well as in Something Strange, a short story that first appeared in Spectator (1960) and later in his first collection of stories My Enemy's Enemy (1962). Clearly, I need to read more sf humour by Kingsley Amis.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

120 Banned Books

As the title suggests, 120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature by Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald and Dawn B. Sova (second edition, 2011) is a comprehensive analysis of 120 books that have been "banned, suppressed, or censored for political, religious, sexual, or social reasons across 20 centuries and in many nations" along with a detailed censorship history of each entry followed by a list of further readings.

The 120 books in the four categories of suppressed literature have been banned over 2,000 years and include contemporary fiction like Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Most of the banned books are well-known titles and are read to this day.


In India, books have been periodically banned, pulled off the shelves, and pulped—at times by the publishers themselves—to suit political and religious interests. There have been protest marches, acts of book burning, and vandalism. 

The more you ban something, the more people are likely to go looking for it. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of literary censorship. Banning a book is the best way to ensure that more people read it. It draws your attention to the "offending" book which otherwise you might have never heard of or never intended to read. The ban is soon forgotten, but not the book.

Fortunately, the internet has proved to be a sensible counterweight to the uninformed debate on banning of books. You can download and read the victimised books even as those who force censorship on the reading public are arguing about the merits of the ban. Modern writers whose books are banned in some quarters or regions of the world have found a way to get back—they make their books available online and often free of cost—proving the old adage that the pen continues to be mightier than the sword.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Reader, 2008

Todd Mason has all the links to yet another week of Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at his blog Sweet Freedom.

I have got into the habit of watching the last half-hour of a film on cable and then reading all about it on the internet. The Reader is one such movie I saw by accident last week, and I'm glad I did.

This film is set over three different periods after WWII. In the first period, a young Michael Berg has a short but passionate affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), an uneducated German woman old enough to be his mother. Then, some years later, the law student is shocked to see her in court where she is standing trial for Nazi war crimes and is sentenced to life in prison. Finally, the fully grown Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) revives his relationship with the ageing Hanna by sending her audio cassettes of classic literature, especially Homer’s The Odyssey, which he used to read out to her during their affair. Michael records each classic in his own voice and soon Hanna comes to cherish and listen to the cassettes in her grey cell. Then comes the day when Hanna is to be released and the jail warden calls up Michael because he is her only contact and relation in the outside world.

I’ll use two words to describe the parts of The Reader I watched and read about—touching and heartbreaking. Kate Winslet is outstanding as the elderly grey-haired Hanna Schmitz, probably in the role of her lifetime—she won an Oscar for best performance—while Ralph Fiennes is dapper and dignified as Michael Berg, the single father of a teenage girl. He inhabits all her three worlds—their affair, the court trial, and her last days. And while he is confused about his feelings for Hanna through much of the film, he doesn't give up on her.


Stephen Daldry directed The Reader which is based on the novel Der Vorleser (1995) by German lawyer and writer Bernhard Schlink. In 1997, Carol Brown Janeway translated the book into English under the eponymous title.

Slow moving, but recommended.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Musings on a moody Monday

There is a crowded place called Irla some 4 km from my home in northwest Bombay (Mumbai) and on either side of the main street are retail stores selling everything from smartphones to electronic gadgets, dry fruits to household provisions, jewellery to saris, and clothes to footwear. Many of these stores are “custom notified” which means the goods (or contraband, in earlier times) are sold at lower rates, though, I don’t see how that matters now that India has opened up its economy, well almost. They only accept cash.

On the pavements outside these air-conditioned stores are a line of hawkers who sell fruits and vegetables, flowers and garlands, and ready-to-eat snacks the city is gastronomically famous for. Their trade is illegal but years of physical presence on the footpaths has earned them the right to stay put and shove pedestrians on to the road.

Beyond the hawkers and along the kerb are cars, two-wheelers, and autorickshaws double parked and causing traffic jams. Tempers and tantrums are traded freely. But man and machine co-exist although human and vehicular traffic moves at a crawl.

It was into this cacophony of horns and hoots that my family walked into Sunday evening, to visit a bookshop we hadn't been to for more than two years. The shop is located in the back of a depressing mall. Once inside the bookstore, however, my eyes lit up and my spirits soared as I confronted hundreds and thousands of books spread over a vast area. 


Actually, it wasn't a bookshop; it was more like a dumping ground for paperbacks and hardbacks shipped from the West. Many of the books had stamps of their American distributors. There were all kinds of books, including popular and bestselling fiction by the likes of Grisham, Koontz, Cruz Smith, Deaver, Highsmith, Baldacci, Kellerman (husband and wife), Nesbo, Cornwell, King, Patterson, Rice and so on and so forth. The books were sold at Rs.50 (less than a dollar) and Rs.100 (more than a dollar). They were dusty but brand new.

I shot past this humungous heap of novels and made my way to a section that screamed Rs.20 (less than 50 cents) in bold letters. There I picked up my kind of books—five less-than-200-page paperbacks—one each by Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald, E.V. Cunningham (Howard Fast), Don Pendleton, and Robert B. Parker. I was satisfied with my lot but I was disappointed I didn’t find more.


My daughter bought Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001) by Laura Hillenbrand. The book is loosely based on the real life story of the thoroughbred champion race horse, Seabiscuit. She had seen the 2003 film version of the book starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper. It was a good choice and I hope to read it in future.

There were lots of books by writers I wasn't familiar with and I hoped that I didn’t leave behind some really good ones that deserved to be read.

Apparently, I did, for on my way out I spotted an espionage novel called Dagger (1984) by William Mason who turned out to be William W. Johnstone, a prolific American author of western, horror, and survivalist novels. You can read about him and his work here and here.

This is what Dagger is about.


The time for project Eagle-Fall has come—and that means that the President of The United States is going to die. The Secret Service is on alert, but not all the President's men can be trusted. Somewhere a traitor is waiting to strike, and when he does, Dagger will be ready. War hero, ladies' man, soldier for hire, Dagger is the one man who knows the meaning of the word survive, the one man who knows the international spy network like the back of his hand. He knows every agent in the world…except the one who is out to assassinate the President!

I could have kicked myself. Hopefully, Dagger will still be there when I revisit the bookshop; hopefully, soon.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dan Brown to visit India next week

Bestselling author Dan Brown last visited India when he was eighteen years old, probably as a tourist.

“I visited India when I was 18 years old and became captivated by the people's warmth and the mystical beauty of the landscapes. I have always dreamed of returning to India and am very excited to do so now,” Press Trust of India quoted him as saying.

© Penguin India
Thirty-two years later, Brown is coming to India to deliver the eighth Penguin Annual Lecture on November 10 in Delhi and November 12 in Bombay (Mumbai). He will speak on codes, science, and religion.

Dan Brown is one of many western authors who are immensely popular in India, thanks in the main to the film adaptations of his novels The Da Vinci Code (2003) and Angels & Demons (2009).

He is not the only author who became popular in India because of movies based on his books.


Not many Indians knew J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) till the film version came to the theatres in 2001. Since then, people lined up outside bookstores on day one to grab a copy of the next installment of Harry Potter, like scrambling for tickets to the first day, first show.

The one western author who is much loved in India, and has been for more than three decades, is British writer Jeffrey Archer. He has been a regular visitor to the subcontinent which still reads his novels.

Dan Brown will join an impressive lineup of past celebrity lecturers that include columnist and author Thomas Friedman, diplomat Chris Patten, economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

There is considerable excitement over Brown’s visit to India and his lecture at Crossword, a leading chain of bookstores. Facebook and Twitter are agog with the news. I think the lecture is by invitation only in which case a lot of his fans are going to be left disappointed.

His lecture should be interesting in view of India’s ancient history and tradition with symbols, art, science, and religion. I wonder if he’ll speak about them in the Indian context or, better still, announce that his next thriller is set in India.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

When books make a fashion statement

Recently, my good friends David Cranmer and Tracy K. reviewed Ray Bradbury’s Death is a Lonely Business on their blogs. The book got me thinking about books that were fashionable to read when I was young, rather halfway through college. It was cool to mention them, like dropping names of famous people you knew. These books set the benchmark for the quality of books you read, didn’t read or should read. They made a fashion statement.

I can recollect twelve such fascinating books.

01. Death is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury, 1985

02. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe, 1985

03. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, 1969

04. The World According to Garp by John Irving, 1978


05. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, 1961

06. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, 1974

07. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury, 1975

08. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960

09. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, 1957

11. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, 1957

12. The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, 1951


I have not read the bottom four books yet. Each of these books has an attractive title and is considered a literary masterpiece, some intellectually entertaining and stimulating. Every one of them is worth reading and in some cases more than once. The stories are as unusual as their titles and written by some of the finest authors in the history of fiction. I have always liked the sound of all the twelve books. Stacked on a bookshelf, they’d really look good.

Which books were fashionable to read in your youth?

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Day Time Stopped Moving by Bradner Buckner, 1940

Another sf entry for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase which is being hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom today.

All Dave Miller wanted to do was commit suicide in peace. He tried, but the things that happened after he'd pulled the trigger were all wrong. Like everyone standing around like statues. No St. Peter, no pearly gate, no pitchforks or halos. He might just as well have saved the bullet!

Dave Miller pushed with all 
his strength, but the girl was an 
unmovable as Gibraltar.
Imagine a scenario where everyone and everything has come to a standstill, where nothing is moving, where there is no trace of motion or emotion.

Imagine a place where people are in suspended animation, where fires burn without smoke, where doors don’t open, where liquids have turned solid, where pebbles can’t be kicked, where a blade of grass supports your weight.

Imagine a world where all life, animate and inanimate, is frozen like a statue.

Now imagine yourself in just such a place where you are the only living soul and yet you know you are not alone.

It is in this surreal and terrifying world that drugstore owner Dave Miller finds himself after he “commits” suicide to teach his wife, Helen, a lesson. 

October 1940
This short story by sf writer Bradner Buckner reminded me of a silly game we used to play as kids, where you pointed to a friend and blurted out, “Statue!,” and the friend would freeze where he was until you said “pass” and allowed him to get on with his life. After a while it got on everyone’s nerve.

Dave can’t say “pass” and bring the human statues back to life. Instead, his only hope is fellow survivor John Erickson, an elderly, half-bald, eccentric scientist whose experiment with a time machine has gone horribly wrong, and a friendly police dog called Major.

Like Greylorn by Keith Laumer, which I read and reviewed last week, this story was an easy read although Buckner offers a scientific explanation for the immobilised world as well as the working of the time machine known as impulsor. It all went over my head.

Erickson pursed his lips. We are somewhere partway across the space between present and past. We are living in an instant that can move neither forward nor back. You and I, Dave, and Major—and the Lord knows how many others the world over—have been thrust by my time impulsor onto a timeless beach of eternity. We have been caught in time's backwash. Castaways, you might say.”

The 1956 issue
The premise of the story, where time stands still, has been done before, in books, films, and television including, I believe, The Twilight Zone series.

The Day Time Stopped Moving can be described as science fiction, horror, and supernatural rolled into one. It’s a nice little story although I have no idea who Bradner Buckner is. I didn’t find anything on him online. The name could be a pseudonym for a famous sf writer. I leave it to you to enlighten me. The story appeared in Amazing Stories but there is some confusion over the year of publication, 1940 or 1956, so I have reproduced both the covers.


Illustration source: Project Gutenberg

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reading Habits #15: The bitter taste of my tablet

I didn’t see any movies over the long Diwali weekend, and regrettably, will have to skip today’s Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. But I’ll be heading over there to read other contributions.

© Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, my mind is troubled by something else—the grim possibility that I may have to use my tablet sparingly or not use it at all for some time. It all depends on how my fingers and hands behave, on the pain and the stiffness caused by holding the tablet in my left hand and using my right forefinger to flip apps and pages.

The tablet is sleek and it weighs a bit, which I realised only after my fingers started aching. The pain and stiffness goes away if I don't use the tablet for a while. That seldom happens. The lure of the tablet is too strong.

Doctors have a term for pain induced by prolonged use of gadgets and electronic devices like tablets, smartphones, and laptops—RSI or repetitive strain injury. They label everything, don’t they? Like jam bottles. They warn me that if I don’t take preventive action now, then I'm heading for chronic pain—in my hands and fingers due to my tablet and in my neck and back due to my laptop and desktop computer.

Apparently, placing your tablet, iPad or laptop on your lap is no solution for you are still holding the gadgets by your hand, using your fingers, and stretching your neck and back like an ostrich.

The last thing I want to do is carp about my carpal and replace my Samsung tablet with my doctor’s tablet.

So here’s what I plan to do: I’ll go back to reading my yellowed and dog-eared secondhand books. The current ratio is one physical book for four ebooks, which explains my stiff neck and fingers. I’ll try and reverse the order. That way I can keep the orthopaedic away and put off arthritis by a few more years.

But do I hear the ophthalmologist already knocking?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Smokers Corner: the old sentimental bookshop

This afternoon, I was to meet my wife for lunch near her office in South Bombay, not far from my own. Since I reached early I thought I’d visit an old book haunt nearby called Smokers Corner. I hadn’t been there in over two years. I was saddened by the state of one of the city’s oldest secondhand bookshops, located in the foyer of a five-storey building.

Suleiman Botawala, who founded Smokers Corner in 1959 and who also owned the building, passed away a few years ago. He was an old pro when it came to fiction. He knew his books and their authors as well as he knew his own date of birth, maybe even better. Journalists and artists frequented his shop. He was proud of the books he offered. A large part of my nineties collection came from Smokers Corner. He could spot a serious book reader from the book requests he got. The last time I met Suleiman, he lamented that the present generation did not read books. He was always busy tidying his shelves and replacing books. It was a reassuring sight. 

Now his family is running Smokers Corner but it’s no longer the same. The ‘bookish’ atmosphere is missing. There is no pattern to the books on display. Worse still, there is no one to talk books with. The place is managed by hired hands. I think a part of the books died with Suleiman Botawala.

The sight of empty bookshelves must be the reason why I didn’t feel like buying a first-edition illustrated hardback of The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987) by Australian writer Colleen McCullough, famously known for The Thorn Birds (1977). The book was in mint condition and cost Rs.50 (almost a dollar). On my way out I spotted a few good books, both paperbacks and hardbacks, and I might go back there someday, especially since I confirmed that the bookshop wasn't closing down.

Back in office I read about The Ladies of Missalonghi on the internet and instantly regretted not buying it. The novel, set in the small town of Byron in the Blue Mountains of Australia just before World War I, tells the story of Missy Wright and the Hurlingford family. It is said to resemble The Blue Castle (1926) by L.M. Montgomery. Since I have read neither, I can’t say anything. The cover art and the black-and-white illustrations inside are by artist Peter Chapman.

Next time I visit an old bookshop, I leave my sentiments behind.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Greylorn by Keith Laumer, 1968

A very readable and enjoyable sf novella for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“Giving me your opinions is one thing, Kramer,” I said. “Mutiny is another.”

My search for a variety of ebooks in the public domain often throws up delightful surprises. Greylorn (1968), an sf novella by prolific science fiction author Keith Laumer, is one of them. It is also the best sf tale I have read so far this year.

The title of the story refers to Lieutenant Commander Frederick Greylorn, a courageous and enterprising military officer in the World Government on earth.

The planet is crawling with a plague, called the Red Tide, which has devoured most of the landmass except North America and a strip of Western Europe, and all of the sea. The alien organism has developed resistance to chemical and biological weapons and is evolving rapidly and is increasingly making earth a toxic dump.

As humans face extinction, Greylorn convinces the governing council to allow him to set out on a space expedition to seek help from a distant colony known as Omega World. With no assistance coming from the other established colonies, contacting Omega is the only option left. There is just one problem: it has never been explored before.

Into this alien and uncharted space, Captain Greylorn commands his mighty armed spaceship, Galahad.

Greylorn knows the voyage is fraught with high risk. What he does not know is the impending mutiny on board, which tests all his skills and resources to the limit and reveals the strength of his character in the face of adversity.

The rest of the story tells us how the brave officer overcomes the mutiny almost single handedly, successfully deals with a hostile alien vessel, and returns to earth with his mission accomplished.

I liked Greylorn because it was easy to follow. There is very little technical jargon though the author shows his superior knowledge in that area, probably the result of his tenure in the USAF. The all-male story is packed with action as Greylorn and the mutineers move rapidly from one time zone to another, one scene of action to another. The narrative is taut and the writing is clear. 

Keith Laumer (1925-1993)
© Wikimedia Commons
ManyBooks, from where I downloaded this ebook, says, “In this story (Keith Laumer) displays the finesse, artistry and imagination of an old pro. Here is one of the tightest, tautest stories of interplanetary adventure in a long while.” I agree with this assessment.

American author Keith Laumer has been described as “one of the best hardcore science fiction writers of all time, the master of time travel and alternate worlds” on the website dedicated to his memory. He is known for his Bolo and Retief series as well as time and space travel and alternate-world adventures like The Other Side of Time, A Trace of Memory, The Time Bender, The Long Twilight, Time Trap, Dinosaur Beach, and The Infinite Cage.

You can read more about the author here.