Thursday, 31 January 2013

VINTAGE PICTURES

The cover art of Frank Schoonover

The proof of the book is not only in the reading. It is also in feasting the eyes on the cover. Particularly, if the art is by an illustrator like Frank Earle Schoonover (1877-1972).

Schoonover, one of the foremost students of renowned illustrator and author Howard Pyle, had more than 2,000 illustrations to his credit and many of these adorned the dust jackets of well-known books and magazines that included stories of Hopalong Cassidy by Clarence E. Mulford, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Blackbeard Buccaneer by Ralph Delahaye Paine. 

Hopalong Takes Command oil on canvas
by Schoonover for The Fight at Buckskin
story (1905).
Schoonover worked in his studio in Wilmington, Delaware, where he earned the title of the Dean of Delaware Artists. His art collection, pertaining mainly to the early 20th century period, is preserved at the Delaware Art Museum. The museum was founded in 1912 as the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts in honour of Howard Pyle. It celebrated its centennial last year.

According to the Schoonover Studios Ltd, “Schoonover’s subject matter included cowboys, Indians, and Canadian trappers. His forms were simple and well defined and his moods powerful. Later in his career, his style became less rigid and more impressionistic. Schoonover was also an accomplished water colourist and muralist and an avid photographer. He used photographs as references for his illustrations to remind himself of the mood and character of the models.”
 

The Golden Age illustrator was born in New Jersey, educated at Drexel University, Philadelphia, and died in Wilmington at the age of 95.

You can learn more about Frank Schoonover at Schoonover Studios Ltd and the Schoonover Fund.











Pictures: © Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Repeat offence

Worn Out: At Eternity's Gate
by Vincent Van Gogh.
© Wikimedia Commons
Since I don’t have an e-reader, yet, ebooks have not made an impact on my reading process. I still read books in physical form. The only ebooks I read on the laptop or desktop are short stories and short fiction, anything less than 50 or 60 pages, usually over two to three days. I don’t have the patience to read lengthy ebooks sitting at my desk. It is backbreaking and can lead to a stiff neck.

This post is not about the way I read books. It’s about the many authors I discovered and rediscovered in the first dozen years of this ebook century. While I cannot recollect each and every author I read over the past 12 years, I can tell you the ones who come back to me more often than others. I don’t know how that happens. My subconscious probably opens the door and allows them in.


I took a pencil and paper and wrote down, offhand, as many names of authors I could remember; authors new and old I read this century. I came up with a list of 24 names give or take a few worthy exceptions, like John Steinbeck, Brian Garfield, and Tom Sharpe.

I ran through the list of 
established authors and found that I had read several books written by most of them, with the exception of Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and Jonathan Kellerman. These are writers I discovered quite recently and I haven’t read all of their books yet. They account for a sizeable number of unread books in my collection. 

Then I placed the authors according to the genres they write in. This is what it looks like, with a subjective recommendation for nearly each of the authors. The titles mentioned are not my favourites, they are some of the books I really enjoyed.


Fantasy & SF
01. Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
02. Edgar Rice Burroughs – Tarzan at the Earth’s Core
03. J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Spy & Thriller
04. Tom Clancy – The Hunt for Red October
05. John le Carré – The Constant Gardener
06. Craig Thomas – Snow Falcon
07. Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins) – The Eagle Has Landed
08. Don Pendleton (Mack Bolan) – War Against the Mafia

General
09. John Irving – The World According to Garp
10. Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls
11. A.J. Cronin – Beyond This Place (most would vote for The Citadel)
12. Nevil Shute – None that I can think of

Crime & Mystery
13. Mickey Spillane – Not read many
14. John MacDonald – Not read many
15. Ed McBain – Not read many
16. Agatha Christie – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (so far)
17. Elmore Leonard – Not read many. I haven't read his westerns
18. Lawrence Block – Not read many
19. Jonathan Kellerman – Not read many
20. Martin Cruz Smith – Gorky Park (Arkady Renko series)

Humour
21. P.G. Wodehouse – Blandings series

Western
22. Oliver Strange – The Range Robbers
23. Louis L'Amour – Flint

Classics
24. Thomas Hardy – A toss-up between The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure. Michael Henchard (in the first) and Jude Fawley (in the second) must be two of the most intense and pathetic characters in English literature.

Who are some of the authors who have stayed with you this century? Which ones keep coming back through the backdoor? Do you let them stay?

Monday, 28 January 2013

FILM REVIEW

Posse from Hell (1961)

There’s nothing like watching a good western on a Friday night. The next day is a holiday (if it's a second or fourth Saturday in my case), and you can wake up late. I did and here’s the proof of it, for Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

In a brief lifespan of 45 years, Texas-born Audie Murphy became a national hero and a screen icon.

Murphy is hailed as America’s most decorated combat soldier during World War II. His 33 medals include the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest US military award for bravery, and similar decorations from France and Belgium. He is believed to have killed some 250 German soldiers and wounded and captured several others during the war.

After the war, the charismatic First Lieutenant in the US Army returned home to a second blazing career, this time in Hollywood where he proved his acting skills in over 40 films, mostly westerns, over a period of 20 years. He died in May 1971.
 

Audie Murphy with his medals.
I would never have known of Murphy, the war vet and son of a Texas farmer, if I hadn't seen Murphy, the actor, in Posse from Hell. Although I have read a few reviews of his western films online, I hadn't seen any of them until last weekend; not even the more acclaimed To Hell and Back (1955) based on a book he wrote in 1949 detailing his wartime experience or No Name on the Bullet (1959) nicely reviewed by Ron Scheer at Buddies in the Saddle.

Murphy, who played Jesse James in his last film A Time for Dying (1969), was before my generation which is no escaping the fact that I could have known him better through his many films. After all, I am familiar with the celluloid works of his many contemporaries like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Yul Brynner, and Clint Eastwood. I attribute my singular amnesia over Murphy to his death at the young age of 45, taking him away from public limelight before his time. Few Indians would have heard of Murphy whose films were not broadcast often on the now-extinct TCM India. 

 
Well, there is always a first time for everything. This film was written by the US author of westerns, Clair Huffaker, who wrote the book of the same name. Many of his westerns, such as The War Wagon (1967), were made into films. Huffaker appears to be something of a cult figure in western fiction.

Clair Huffaker
I caught Posse from Hell quite by chance. I was surfing YouTube for full-length western movies when this particular one, directed by Herbert Coleman, popped up. I clicked start and, in a few moments, I was transported into the middle of a broad street on a moonless night. Dark houses line either side of the street in the old western town called Paradise. Four riders come out of the shadows and dismount in front of a saloon. They enter the batwing doors, hold the saloon and its few patrons hostage, and then kill randomly. There is no escape. An angry crowd gathers outside, their guns cocked, ready to storm the saloon. The four escapees from a death cell kill the brave Marshal Isaac Webb (Ward Ramsey) in cold blood before getting away with their prize catch—money from the bank and a lovely girl called Helen Caldwell (Zohra Lampert). The killers have an evil motive: rape the girl. 

Banner Cole (Audie Murphy), the sheriff’s deputy, arrives on the scene, just in time to hear the marshal’s dying words: he wants Banner to find the murderers and recover the loot.

The deputy, as fearless as his boss, decides to organise a posse. But, before he does, he tells the whitemen bluntly that they are free to back out if they don’t have the stomach for the long and gruelling chase. Banner touches a raw nerve and a few men drop out. He then leads a six-member posse out of town whose folks think he is crazy.

The film ends in predictable fashion with Banner rescuing Helen and falling in love with her on one hand and gaining a friend for life on the other.
 

John Saxon, Audie Murphy and Rodolfo Acosta.

A few observations, in no particular order, won’t be out of place here.

1. Banner comes to rely on the lone half-breed in the posse more than he does on the whitemen. Johnny Caddo, played by Mexican character-actor Rodolfo Acosta, remains loyal to Banner and sticks with him up to the end. On his part, the deputy sheriff acknowledges Johnny’s worth and rues his death in an ambush. By a coincidence, I have been reading westerns in which Indians and half-breeds are shown in a better light.

2. The friend Banner gains in the hunt is Seymour Kern (John Saxon), a clerk at the bank, whose boss needles him into joining the posse to bring back the money. The city-bred Seymour is dressed in a suit and has never used a gun or sat on a horse before. He learns to do both in the posse. He also learns to fight fear and cover Banner when he needs it most. The posse makes a real man out of Seymour, a role that a young Saxon does justice to. 

The three-man posse takes cover.

3. Banner is as hard on his critics as he is loyal to his men in the posse which in the end comes down to just three men—him, Seymour, and Johnny—who take on the trigger-happy devils in a do-or-die spirit.

4. On one hand, the film exemplifies courage, loyalty, and friendship; on the other, it exposes the cowardice and hypocrisy of a town whose deeds fail to match its words. Most of the men who were ready to storm the saloon refuse to join the posse for fear of their own safety. When Banner rescues Helen and sends her back to Paradise, a fate worse than her rape awaits her. The town is repulsed by the “used” woman but Banner provides more than a healing touch. The attitude of the town’s people reminded me of Hindi commercial cinema with its share of taboo and social prejudice. 



Posse from Hell lacks the sophistication of a Tombstone and Audie Murphy the glamour of a Clint Eastwood, but it more than makes up with its realistic plot and characters, and a touch of humour. I liked the scene where Banner pours spirit down Seymour's butt to give him relief from saddle rash (or that's what I think it is). Seymour has never ridden a horse before and Banner and Johnny look amused as he tries to mount his. The film is a traditional western as evident from Banner’s simple attire and a rather ordinary single-gun holster, the posse’s journey through barren and hostile landscape, and true-to-life gunfights where both heroes and villains get hurt. Murphy acts well as Banner Cole who, with his soft but firm voice, good nature, and doggedness, is likeable throughout the film.

A surprise element in the film was a young Lee Van Cleef playing sidekick to the gang leader though he is barely visible in the cameo role.

A good western to watch.

Friday, 25 January 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Hardy Boys are back!

It’s down memory lane with the sleuthing brothers for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom

The first Hardy Boys mystery.
Okay, this is off the top of my head. No Google, no Archive, no Wikipedia...

Chet Morton, Biff Hooper, Phil Cohen, Tony Prito, and Jerry Gilroy are friends of Frank and Joe Hardy, teenage brothers and amateur detectives of Bayport, a fictional town in the US. They assist their father, private investigator Fenton Hardy, solve many of his cases, though most of the time they are sniffing out their own mysteries and doing a good job cracking them, often with the help of their friends.

In the books I read, then, Frank is 18 and Joe is 17 and their girlfriends are Callie Shaw and Iola Morton. Iola is best friend Chet’s younger sister. Fat Chet is to Frank and Joe what skinny Jughead is to Archie, loyal and always hungry. Like Jug, he loves food. He usually carries a weighty snack and is acutely nervous when he tags along with the brothers to find out whodunit. The boys stick their necks out and get into trouble. They always solve their cases and make their father and the Bayport police department proud.
 

Fenton Hardy wears a felt hat and a suit. He is a devoted husband and a caring father. I picture Raymond Burr, in his younger days, or Humphrey Bogart in the sleuth’s role. His wife, Laura Hardy, is a housewife and has a supportive role in the mystery stories. Frank and Joe have to take their permission to work on cases during school days, and even on holidays. Their cases frequently take them away from home. There is talk of finishing homework too. They are obedient boys. You really can’t miss the morals behind the stories.

I read the Hardy Boys in school, from the age of nine onward. I read over a hundred of the thick blue-spine hardbacks that had readable titles like The Twisted Claw, The Phantom Freighter, The Wailing Siren Mystery, The Sting of the Scorpion, and The Infinity Clue. The big typeface against the stark white page was easy on the eyes. The covers had striking colour illustrations usually depicting one of the key scenes from the story within. There were other early editions too but I don't remember reading any.

We were a bunch of friends who borrowed a Hardy Boys mystery a day from the local circulating library and took turns reading it, each having an hour or so before passing it on to the next impatient boy in the queue. We used a similar modus operandi to read Commando comics.

The Hardy Boys series were highly appealing to young and impressionable readers. Frank and Joe Hardy inspired young boys like me to become detectives when we grew up. For some reason, the army was another thrilling option. Neither came true in my case.

For years I thought Franklin W. Dixon was a real writer. He turned out to be one ghostwriter too many. Like the group of writers behind Carolyn Keene who wrote the Nancy Drew mysteries. The boys and the girl were created by Edward Stratemeyer who founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging enterprise (now that little bit I got from Wiki).

Since the 1980s both the YA series went through a lot of changes. The Hardy Boys were reinvented as the Hardy Boys Casefiles which, I suspect, might have been kept away from young teens because of their “adult” content, meaning a fair dose of murder and violence. Later, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were brought together in a combined series. By then, however, the series had lost its originality, and I, my interest. There were some film adaptations too. I haven’t seen any.

Now the original Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series are back, in small, compact, hardback reprints with their original cover design intact. They adorn the YA shelves in new bookstores in Mumbai. I scan the familiar titles and hold a few of the books, for old times’ sake, and I am happy that they still hold. One of these days, I am going to read a few of the books that first cultivated my reading habit.


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

FILM REVIEW

Six Days Seven Nights (1998)

A slightly different take on a largely forgettable romantic comedy directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Harrison Ford as Quinn Harris and Anne Heche as Robin Monroe, for this week’s edition of Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Robinson Crusoe stormed out of the Ziegfeld movie theatre in New York and phoned Daniel Defoe who at that precise moment was wiping Indian ink off his writing table. He was in a foul mood for he had spilled a large quantity of the infernal liquid on his first draft of Captain Singleton.

He picked up the instrument. “Hello! Who is this?” he said, sounding very annoyed.

“Mr. Defoe, sir, it’s me Crusoe, from NYC.”

The frenetic voice of his own creation at the other end startled Defoe.

“What is it, Robinson?” he asked in a somewhat measured tone.

“Mr. Defoe, sir, I have just been to see Six Days Seven Nights and it’s not fair, just not fair.”

“What’s not fair, Robinson?”

“Quinn Harris had Robin. Chuck Noland had Wilson. I had no one!” he cried.

“Calm down, Robinson. What the hell are you blabbering about? Who is Quinn Harris? Who is…Whatshisname?”

“Chuck Noland, sir, from Cast Away.”

Defoe was bewildered. “Robinson, can you be more specific? Who are these people? Did they write the two books you mentioned?”

“No sir. Six Days Seven Nights and Cast Away are not books, sir, they are movies. Quinn Harris, a pilot, is the hero in one; Chuck Noland, a logistics guy, is the hero in the other.”

“What about it? What has it got to do with you?”

“It’s like this, Mr. Defoe. Their story is very similar to mine. They were both marooned on a deserted island. Bad weather caused their planes to crash. I, myself, as you know, was the victim of a shipwreck and I almost didn’t make it to…”

By now Defoe was irritated again. He cut in, “I am not quite sure about the first part, Robinson. However, you need not remind me how you landed on the Island of Despair. You know I put you there.”

“Indeed, I do, sir. Without you I should not have become famous and come into a good amount of money and bought my own island.”

“Then what’s your bloody problem, young man?” Defoe looked down and watched the spilled ink soak up the manuscript and blot out the words. He cursed under his breath.

“Did you say something, sir?”

“Nothing, Robinson. Get on with your story.”

“Like I was saying, Mr. Defoe, Quinn and Chuck are stranded on an island, in different times, of course. But they are not alone. Quinn has Robin and Chuck has Wilson.”

“Who the hell are Robin and Wilson?”

“Oh, did I not tell you, sir?”

“I am sure you did not,” Defoe almost shouted.

“Robin is a beautiful girl in Seven Days Seven Nights, sir. She is the editor of a New York fashion magazine. She is in the plane with Quinn when it crash-lands on the island. They don’t like each other at first but seven days on the island is all it takes them to fall in love with each other.”

“Very touching, Robinson. And who might Wilson be...their dog?”

“Good lord, no sir! Wilson is a volleyball. He belongs to Chuck. He is the only friend Chuck has on his island in Cast Away.

When Defoe did not say anything, Robinson said, “Remember the two films I mentioned? You thought they were books.”

“Yes, I remember well, Robinson. Go on.” Defoe said, resigned to his fate and that of Captain Singleton. He wondered how he might revive the story of the exploits of the English pirate.

“Well, Mr. Defoe. You see, both Quinn and Chuck spent far less time on their islands than I did…Quinn a mere seven days, Chuck just four years…and yet they had someone to talk to, someone to fall in love with. I, on the other hand, spent twenty-seven years in isolation on the island, not a soul about me and only god in heaven.”

The line between New York and London went quiet for a few seconds.

“Are you still there, Robinson?” Defoe asked at length. He could hear deep sobs at the other end.

“Yes, sir.”

“Look Robinson, I am sorry. But you were not alone. I gave you animals...let me see, a dog, a couple of cats, sheep, goats, some fowl, and Friday.” Remember him?”

“I do, Mr. Defoe, you also gave me savages. Remember them?”

“I do, Robinson, and you lived to tell me about it.”

Monday, 21 January 2013

Short Story: Arthur Machen (1863-1947) 

The Shining Pyramid

“I hate a mystery, and especially a mystery which is probably the veil of horror.”

Arthur Machen was a Welsh author and mystic who wrote short stories and short novels about the supernatural, fantasy, and horror. 

Most of his fiction beginning with the novella The Great God Pan (1890) is considered to be a classic. His reputation as one of the world’s most influential writers of horror has been confirmed by many who followed in his footsteps, including Stephen King, who is believed to have called The Great God Pan “Maybe the best (horror story) in the English language.” I have learned that this story, which I haven't as yet read, was criticised for its “decadent style” and “horrific and sexual content.” However, it didn’t stop Machen from writing more of the “degenerate” stuff.

Machen was quite prolific between 1890—when The Great God Pan first appeared in Whirlwind magazine before its publication as a book four years later—and 1936, the year he wrote at least one short story and a novella. He was then 73.

His short story, The Bowmen (1914), is widely believed to be the source of the ‘Angels of Mons’ myth during WWI. The myth pertains to a group of angels who protected British troops in the Battle of Mons at the start of the Great War. Later, this and other similar stories were published as The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915).

Most of Arthur Manchen’s leading stories and novellas have been compiled into two volumes titled Tales of Horror and the Supernatural. Volume I & II have five and nine stories each. I have provided an index towards the end of this post.

I read just one story The Shining Pyramid (1895) in Volume 1. In this story, Dyson, a London-based writer and wannabe detective, accompanies his friend Vaughan to his country home surrounded by “ancient woods” to help investigate the sudden appearance of four mysterious objects and several eyes along the garden wall of the cottage.

The four objects made out of flints exhibit a curious pattern which, according to Dyson, represents the four signs of the Army, the Bowl, the Pyramid, and the Half-moon. Together, they make up an arrowhead and indicate something far sinister than meets the eye. Vaughan is scared. He realises that the signs are not the handiwork of school children passing by his house every day.

Dyson is convinced that the flint arrowhead is pointing toward something. His investigations take him and Vaughan into the deep and ancient woods, to a bowl in the earth, an infernal cauldron stirring and seething with horrors beyond imagination.

The Pyramid of Fire, as Dyson calls it, also solves the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful village girl called Annie Trevor who, a month before, had passed that way on her way to an aunt’s house and never came back.

“I don't regret our inability to rescue the wretched girl. You saw the appearance of those things that gathered thick and writhed in the Bowl; you may be sure that what lay bound in the midst of them was no longer fit for earth.”

Arthur Manchen writes in a style reminiscent of the period he lived in. The prose is smooth and uncomplicated but rich in substance. There is no urgency about the dialogue between Dyson and Vaughan: they might as well be conversing in a coffee house. Yet, neither the prose nor the dialogue diminishes the graveness of the horrific situation as it unfolds. The author’s description of the underworld in the bowl, the Pyramid of Fire, is not too explicit or macabre, but it’s enough to ignite your imagination. A sample:

“Then, it seemed done in an instant, the loathsome mass melted and fell away to the sides of the Bowl, and for a moment Vaughan saw in the middle of the hollow the tossing of human arms. But a spark gleamed beneath, a fire kindled, and as the voice of a woman cried out loud in a shrill scream of utter anguish and terror, a great pyramid of flame spired up like a bursting of a pent fountain, and threw a blaze of light upon the whole mountain. In that instant Vaughan saw the myriads beneath; the things made in the form of men but stunted like children hideously deformed, the faces with the almond eyes burning with evil and unspeakable lusts; the ghastly yellow of the mass of naked flesh; and then as if by magic the place was empty, while the fire roared and crackled, and the flames shone abroad.”

Verdict: highly readable and highly recommended.

Index to Tales of Horror and the Supernatural: Volume 1 & 2

Volume 1

1. Introduction by Philip Van Doren Stern
2. Arthur Machen by Robert Hillyer
3. The Great God Pan (1894), novella
4. The White People (1904,) novelette
5. The Inmost Light (1894), novelette
6. The Shining Pyramid (1895), novelette
7. The Great Return (1915), novelette

Volume 2

1. The Novel of the Black Seal (1895), novelette
2. The Novel of the White Powder (1895), short story
3. The Bowmen (1914), short story
4. The Happy Children (1920), short story
5. The Bright Boy (1936), novelette
6. Out of the Earth (1915), short story
7. N (1936), novelette
8. Children of the Pool (1936), short story
9. The Terror aka The Terror: A Mystery (1916), novel

Most of these stories are available online.

Friday, 18 January 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Trojan Horse by Hammond Innes (1940)

This week Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett's Almanack of Mystery, Adventure and the Wild West is doing the Friday’s Forgotten Books honours usually handled by Patti Abbott at Pattinase or Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.

“Deed-boxes make good coffins.”

A replica of my book.
There are two kinds of WWII stories: those about the actual war between the Allies and Germany and those revolving around it. The Trojan Horse falls in the second category and, while it does so, its outcome—were it to succeed—would have been no less significant than an open conflict on the battlefield.

In his fifth novel, British author Hammond Innes creates a peripheral war that is as frightening as the real thing.

Franz Schmidt is a shabby old Austrian Jew and a brilliant engineer. He discovers a special light alloy and decides to build a prototype of a new diesel engine that will give any air force vast superiority in the air and a sure-fire way to win the war.

When Hitler invades Austria, Schmidt flees to England on a false passport and with the engine design in his head.

In England, Schmidt lives with his dead wife’s family at Swansea, Wales. His brother-in-law Evan Llewellin, an undercover British agent, offers him money and a workshop where he builds his diesel engine. What he does not know is that the Nazis are already hot on his trail. Llewellin is killed and Schmidt is framed for the brutal crime.
 

On the run from Scotland Yard, Schmidt approaches Andrew Kilmartin, a famous criminal lawyer of London, and pleads for help. The 42-year old barrister is initially reluctant to believe Schmidt’s story till he reads about Llewellin’s murder in the papers. He decides to defend Schmidt but the old man vanishes without a trace.

This is where the story begins.

Kilmartin is a combination of a legal eagle and a private eye—his sense of justice evenly matched by his thirst for reckless adventure. With nothing more than a mysterious sealed envelope left with him by Schmidt, the attorney starts investigating the engineer's disappearance and his fantastic claim that the Nazis are after his invention.

Over the next 100-odd pages Kilmartin, with the help of his close friend and studio photographer David Shiel, unearths a sinister conspiracy involving a powerful banker and shadow minister, Baron Ferdinand Marburg, who connives with the Nazi-controlled Calboyds Diesel Company to steal Schmidt’s diesel engine from under the nose of the British government. He also meets Schmidt’s beautiful daughter Freya, also an engineer, and falls in love with her. The novel ends in a high-octane drama on the high seas.
 

British author Hammond Innes
The Trojan Horse is a page-turner in spite of the author’s obsession with the details. In fact, it is the details that make this 190-page thriller gripping.

For instance, in a 19-page chapter titled Lead on, Sewer Rat, Hammond Innes takes you through London’s filthy rat-infested underground sewer system that Kilmartin uses to escape from the vault of Marburg’s bank where he has been imprisoned by Nazi gangster Max Sedel. Just before that, the attorney has spent agonising hours lying in a foetal position in a deed-box that nearly becomes his coffin.

The author’s description of Andrew Kilmartin’s claustrophobic and nauseating experience, with Nazi agents in hot pursuit, is so vivid as to make the reader relive it. The book owes its unsparing details to the author’s proclivity for six months of travel and research and six months of writing.

The conspiratorial and anti-establishment tone of the novel, with its Nazi sympathisers and collaborators in Britain (and in America), is reminiscent of many fictional and non-fictional books that came out during and after World War II. Hammond Innes, an ex-artillery major and a yachtsman, gives the reader an unusual insight into one such anti-national plot which, in real time, could have had serious implications for Britain's war against Germany.
 

“Once I nearly panicked. Only the dial of my wrist-watch saved me. It was a friendly face and gave me courage.” 

Hammond Innes, author of some thirty novels, has a clean and imaginative style of writing. He does not confuse you with too many characters. The main ones have names and faces, the rest are nondescript. The emphasis is on the plot and suspense on every page. It builds up slowly and, like a locomotive, gathers speed and then races towards the climax, one that I did not quite 
anticipate.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The world through a View-Master

On July 23, 2012, I did a small post on the century-old stereoscopic viewer, the “modern version” of which, Ron Scheer of Buddies in the Saddle reminded me, was the View-Master which came with circular picture discs, each containing over a dozen colourful images of animals, cartoons, and other themes. The pictures were sharp and clear and gave out a 3D effect. You went click, click, click…till you went full circle and returned to the first slide. 

© Andrew Hazelden

I thought of the View-Master again while writing about Beautiful People yesterday. The animals in the documentary reminded me of the picture disc of animals that I used to look at through my View-Master. The colour of most of the View-Masters I saw in childhood, including my own, was red while others were in blue.

The View-Master, which belonged to the family of special-format stereoscopes, was introduced by Sawyer's Photo Services in 1939, a few years after Kodachrome colour film which gave us small high-quality photographic colour images. The View-Master reels, as they were known, were thin cardboard disks containing seven stereoscopic 3D pairs of small colour photographs on film. You can read more about it here.

The View-Master held a strange fascination for me then, as the Samsung Galaxy Note does now. One was a simple and satisfying childhood indulgence, the other is an extravagance I can do without.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

FILM REVIEW

Beautiful People (1974)

How many of you remember this beautiful film? It's my choice for Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom where you’ll find many other entries.

Some folks call them animals.

I have rarely seen an animal programme on television without humans in it. There is always an intrepid wildlife adventurer or photographer in close pursuit or lurking somewhere. I find this rather annoying. Just “shoot” the animals doing whatever they are doing. Keep the narrator and the music on but, for goat’s sake, keep off the savannah!

That’s why I liked Beautiful People (originally known as Animals Are Beautiful People) made by Jamie Uys, a South African filmmaker. There isn't a soul in sight on the Namib Desert where the animal documentary is shot. Only lots of beautiful animals on a vast and picturesque landscape exposed to the four elements of nature.
 

I saw this film a few years after it was released in 1974 and again in the nineties, but I don’t remember much. There are all kinds of animals, small and big, including a tiny dung beetle that doesn't seem tiny when it rolls a ball of dung all the way into its hideout, though not without hilarity.

As I read about Beautiful People on the internet, I rediscovered that it is, in fact, a funny documentary. In one scene around a watering hole animals quench their thirst and end up intoxicated, only to wake up with a hangover the next morning. The water gets fermented every time the fruit from the surrounding trees falls into the water hole. 

Beautiful People, narrated by radio icon Paddy O'Byrne, is largely a one-man show: Jamie Uys not only wrote, directed and produced the film, he also took care of the editing, cinematography, and the music score. The cinematography is quite something as Uys captures the naked beauty of the desert land whose only inhabitants are the animals and the trees. Like the painstakingly shot wildlife scenes you see on television, Uys had to wait long hours to get the right footage of the animals and the way they cope with the harsh and unpredictable conditions of nature. In the end the sun rises, as it always does, and everything is back to normal.

Beautiful People earned Jamie Uys (below) the Hollywood Foreign Press Association award for best documentary. He deserved it. I would have given him another one for The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), one of the finest slapstick comedies of the 20th century I have seen (my review). He plays the Reverend in a cameo role. He also made The Gods Must Be Crazy II (1989) which didn't hold as well. Sequels rarely do. 

What makes this film extraordinary is the complete absence of special visual and sound effects and human encroachment, not counting Uys behind the camera. He did well to leave the animals alone.

Friday, 11 January 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Man Without a Country 
by Edward Everett Hale (1863)

Here’s an amazing story for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books at her blog Pattinase, not to be confused with A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (2005).

“He cried out, in a fit of frenzy, ‘Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!’” 

And Lieutenant Philip Nolan, the young and intelligent Union army United States Army officer, never does hear a written or spoken word of the country of his birth until his ignominious death.

To be sentenced to spend the rest of your life, a little over a period of fifty years, on the high seas, is a fate worse than life in prison. To spend it without hearing the name of America even once during all those years at sea is doubly cruel.

It was the price Nolan paid for his impulsive outburst against his country before Colonel Morgan, the president of the court, who was trying him and a close acquaintance, Governor Aaron Burr, for treason during the Civil War. In a fit of rage Nolan wished he never heard of America again, a wish Morgan granted him without hesitation, if only to teach him, and other American citizens, the lesson of a lifetime—love and cherish your country. The harsh sentence, we are told, has President Jefferson’s consent. 

The author in 1988. © Project Gutenberg
Edward Everett Hale, American writer and minister, has naval officer Frederic Ingham narrate Philip Nolan’s remarkable story, the 56 years he spent at sea, hopping from one ship to another, boarding up with new commanders and sailors who carry out the judge’s order in letter and spirit.

Nolan’s life aboard the naval ships are filled with many a poignant moment. For example, the “inmate” is treated well and has access to everything that a normal prisoner does except for one thing—the word ‘United States’ or any reference to the country is not to figure anywhere, in writing or in conversations. Thus, just as Nolan is reading an interesting piece of news, he suddenly finds a gaping hole in the paper. The officer assigned to him has cut it out because of a reference to America on the other side of the page
. There is no end to the levels of censorship.

The young officer, however, endears himself to the sailing crew by making himself useful on board, by showing them how to handle a gun or use artillery, reading Shakespeare, teaching them dance steps, explaining mathematics, inculcating a love for reading books and, in one instance, serving as a Portuguese interpreter aboard a dirty little schooner filled with slaves.

As Nolan grows old and sick, the magnitude of his sentence begins to sink in and he pines for information about his country, even grows to love the land he once hated so much. Then, one day, he repents in total surrender, crying out aloud before his last commanding officer, Danforth, who takes pity on the sick old man and tells him all that has happened during the course of a half a century.

“Pray, what has become of Texas?” 

As Frederic Ingham, the narrator, tells us: “The reason he had never heard of Texas was that Texas and her affairs had been painfully cut out of his newspapers.”

Nolan dies a hero, his father's badge of the Order of the Cincinnati pressed to his smiling lips. Before he goes, Nolan tells Danforth to bury him at sea for “it has been my home, and I love it” and requests a tombstone either at Fort Adams or at Orleans, his epitaph reading:


“In Memory of PHILIP NOLAN, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.”

I am sorry if I have given away more than I should have. It’s that kind of a story where you say more in spite of saying little. But fear not, there is much more to this 30-odd page account that could pass off as a short story or short fiction. For instance, the speculation whether Edward Everett Hale is telling a true story, whether the inspiration for it was the exiled anti-war pro-Confederate Ohio Democrat, Clement Vallandingham, whether the characters including that of Nolan are real, whether the events immediately preceding Nolan’s trial and sentencing actually happened, whether narrator Frederic Ingham really was a retired officer of the United States Navy, and whether The Levant, the last ship Nolan sailed on, was the same corvette that sailed from the Port of Honolulu in 1860 and was never heard of since.
 

Hale keeps you guessing on all these aspects though there are several other interesting elements of the Civil War that you will enjoy reading and as you do, you will learn much about that tumultuous period in American history.

The Man Without a Country, which was first published anonymously in The Atlantic in December 1863, the year Philip Nolan died, has been adapted for films several times including a silent movie in 1917 and a three-act radio play in 1977. The story, now termed as a classic, made a big impact on America, in the sense that it influenced Americans into supporting Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Preserve the Union’ declaration and turned many against the secessionist Southern states. Apparently, Hale intended for the story to swing the tide in favour of the Union.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

VINTAGE ADS

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises, the first full novel by Ernest Hemingway, was published in 1926 by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, the pioneers of publishing in America. In the second half of the 20th century, Scribner was taken over by Alfred A. Knopf, Jr's Atheneum Books in 1978, merged into Macmillan in 1984, and was finally bought by Simon & Schuster in 1994. The latter has retained the Scribner imprint.

The advertisement is simple but spot on about Hemingway's literary career. It says: "— and with this book Mr. Hemingway's sun also will rise, for this is a novel able to command the sharpest attention even in a season so crowded with good fiction. The publishers advise you to be very much aware of this book from the start."

According to Wikipedia, the dust jacket of the first edition of The Sun Also Rises was illustrated by Cleonike Damianakes who used a Hellenistic design (characteristic of the classical Greek civilisation) intended to tastefully suggest a quasi-sexual theme. 

The novel is about a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona to watch the bullfights. Hemingway was a keen bullfighter himself and there is a nice black-and-white picture of his fighting one in Pamplona, Spain. The first edition consisted of 5,090 copies and sold at $2.00 per copy.

On Cleonike Damianakes, the illustrator, I have drawn a blank so far. And I haven't read the book yet.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

FILM REVIEW

Batman (1989)

Todd Mason has all the links to Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at his blog Sweet Freedom. Recommended: Movies: The Amazing Spider-Man by James Reasoner


Batman is often not pictured without his costume in comic-books unlike other superheroes like Superman or Spider-Man. The caped crusader is usually lying in wait above the dark and foreboding shadows of Gotham City’s crime-infested streets and buildings. The man behind the mask is a different picture: he is a young handsome and reclusive billionaire with thick wavy hair. This is my image of Bruce Wayne, at least in the Batman comics from the 70s onward.

I, therefore, did a double take when I first saw Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s first movie adaptation of Batman. Everything about the big-budget film was right—the bat-suit, the bat-mobile, the bat-cave, the bat-butler, the Joker, except for Wayne himself. As an actor, Michael Keaton did well; as Bruce Wayne, he stood out like a sore thumb. He looked nothing like he did in the comics.


Michael Keaton and Kim Bassinger in Batman

A lot of people liked Keaton (born Michael Douglas) in the first technically brilliant superhero movie since Richard Donner created magic with Superman in 1978. A part of that magic lay in the fact that the twin roles of Clark Kent, the bumbling and bespectacled reporter, and his alter ego, Kal-El or Superman, fit Christopher Reeve perfectly. A more suitable actor has not been born to play the Man of Steel. Brandon Routh was unconvincing in Superman Returns (2006) because, as Clark Kent and Superman, he looked the same. 

But this is about Batman… 

Michael Keaton in Batman
Six years later, in 1995, Joel Schumacher hit the right note by casting Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever, a perfect match. Why Schumacher did not persist with Kilmer in Batman & Robin (1997), I have no idea. The role went to George Clooney, of all the people in Hollywood.


The Michael Keaton-Bruce Wayne mismatch can, in fact, be likened to the Tobey Maguire-Spider-Man disconnect. Check out the 70s and 80s Spider-Man comics. 

Fortunately, Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne is not as significant as Michael Keaton the Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 film. The caped crusader is quite awesome in his snazzy bat-suit and bat-mobile as he takes on Gotham City’s nemesis, the Joker or Jack Napier, essayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson. The Joker—the result of a chemical accident and looking nothing less than a freak—shoots the crime boss and takes over the crime syndicate, threatening the citizens of Gotham with a dubious chemical called ‘Smilex’ that causes anyone who uses it to die of laughter and a permanent grin on his or her face. 



Val Kilmer in Batman Forever
Jack ‘The Joker’ Nicholson is the redeeming feature in an otherwise ordinary plot revolving around Batman’s fight against injustice and keeping Gotham City and his girlfriend, Vicky Vale (Kim Bassinger), safe from the likes of Jack Napier and his freak show.

Over the years the Batman films have evolved, both artistically and technically, with Christopher Nolan’s 21st century offering of Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) starring Christian Bale who, in my opinion, is second-best to Kilmer’s Batman.

All in all, an enjoyable series but I still like the comics more.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Stamp of a Writer: Louisa May Alcott

Most of the quotes below have been compiled from Louisa May Alcott's books including Little Women, Jo's Boys, Work: A Story of Experience, Moods, and Behind A Mask (or A Woman's Power) which was originally published in 1866 under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.

"Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable." 

"I am she; come in, friend; I am glad to see thee," said the old lady, smiling placidly, as she led the way into a room whose principal furniture seemed to be books, flowers, and sunshine."

"A pleasant little scene. Bella working busily, and near her in a low chair, with the light falling on her fair hair and delicate profile, sat Miss Muir, reading aloud. "Novels!" thought Sir John, and smiled at them for a pair of romantic girls. But pausing to listen a moment before he spoke, he found it was no novel, but history, read with a fluency which made every fact interesting, every sketch of character memorable, by the dramatic effect given to it. Sir John was fond of history, and failing eyesight often curtailed his favorite amusement. He had tried readers, but none suited him, and he had given up the plan. Now as he listened, he thought how pleasantly the smoothly flowing voice would wile away his evenings, and he envied Bella her new acquisition."

"I like good strong words that mean something."


"I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream."

"That is a good book it seems to me, which is opened with expectation and closed with profit."
 

"If all literary women had such thoughtful angels for husbands, they would live longer and write more. Perhaps that wouldn't be such a blessing to the world though, as most of us write too much now."

"I strolled about, enjoying myself, till I got into the library, and there I rummaged, for it was a charming place, and I was happy as only those are who love books, and feel their influence in the silence of a room whose finest ornaments they are."

"Christie loved books; and the attic next her own was full of them. To this store she found her way by a sort of instinct as sure as that which leads a fly to a honey-pot, and, finding many novels, she read her fill. This amusement lightened many heavy hours, peopled the silent house with troops of friends, and, for a time, was the joy of her life."


"Some stories are so familiar its like going home." 



Note: For 22 previous Celebrity Stamps, look under Labels.

Friday, 4 January 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Penguin Book of Comics (1967)
by George Perry and Alan Aldrige


For the new year’s first Forgotten Books at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom and Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase, a glimpse into the magic world of comic books.

We think in pictures; we dream in pictures.” 

I can recollect every single comic book I have purchased over more than three decades. Some more than others because those are the ones I am especially fond of. I had to wait a long time before acquiring them. Collecting comics is like collecting stamps: you have to be patient. You don’t have to find them, they will find you.

For a long time, I wanted to own The Penguin Book of Comics that I had heard so much about. If I wanted to, I could have arranged for the purchase of the volume. I didn't because I knew it was waiting for me, somewhere, not very far from home. And it was, one day, under a dusty and used pile of books and magazines on a footpath in downtown Mumbai, once famous for secondhand books. I bent down and picked up one of the finest specimens of used comic books I had ever come across. It cost me only Rs.100 ($2). A good number of years had passed between my desire to own the book and the time I actually owned it, but it was worth the long wait.

Published in 1967 by Penguin Books, the 272-page soft volume was the most creative, imaginative, and authoritative chronicle of British and American comic books of its time. Forty-five years and countless number of comics and compendiums later, this Penguin continues to hold its head high. The “slight history” of comic books has been devised by two Englishmen: writer and editor George Perry who wrote the text and artist and graphic designer Alan Aldrige who did the amazing cover art and illustrations.

The Penguin Book of Comics begins with a fine essay on the evolution of comics from the Paleolithic or stone age and what they can give us, looks at the tradition in Britain and the revolution in America, analyses the rise and fall of comics in the mid-20th century in context of Dr. Frederic Wertham’s damning thesis and the comics code, and the influence of comic strips and comic books on other popular culture and entertainment like art, films, and television.


The essays are interspersed with hundreds of images and illustrations starting with the first known pictures by man some 30,000 years ago to all the comic-strips, illustrated newspapers and magazines, and comic-books known to you and me, right up to 1967. I don’t think the authors left out even a single picture or comic-strip between the two extremities of time. Immense study and research has gone into the making of this book.

If I were to mention some of the comic strips and comic books, I wouldn't know where to begin or when to stop. Nonetheless, I will refer to some of the rare and forgotten ones, such as, The Yellow Kid, Katzenjammers, Alphonse and Gaston, Happy Hooligan, The Two Pickles, Chuckles, The Funny Wonder, The Firefly, Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, Chips, Thunderbirds, Puck, Buster Brown, Pogo, Krazy Kat, Barney Google, Gasoline Alley, Tillie the Toiler, Betty Boop, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, Skippy, Jane’s Journal, Buck Ryan, Flook, Tiffany Jones, and Male Call. Ring bells?


Every one of these comic strips and comic books were created before my time and yet I can identify with many of them, thanks in part to my enthusiasm for this delightful medium and in main to copyright-free content on the internet. The Penguin Book of Comics is an absolute must for any comics buff. You won’t find a better comic book encyclopedia. 

I started this post by recalling how I came to possess a near-mint copy of this book and I will end it by recounting a similar experience with another book—the 256-page hardback DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes (Bulfinch, October 1995) by the late Les Daniels, a renowned historian of comic books.

Some years ago, I discovered the DC book in a swanky new bookstore, selling at a discounted price of Rs.450 ($9). I resisted the urge to buy it mainly because I could put the money to better use. Two months later, I bought it from a roadside seller not far from where I had purchased The Penguin Book of Comics, for Rs.125 ($2.5) and in mint condition.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The spooky art of Ronald Clyne 

The first thing that caught my eye about Witch House (1945) was the dust-jacket. I have never read anything by Evangeline Walton (1907-1996), the pen name of Evangeline Wilna Ensley, an American author of fantasy fiction.

The dust-jacket has an illustration by Ronald Clyne (1925-2006), an American freelance designer and graphic artist who earned his reputation by creating more than 500 LP covers for Folkways Records. In fact, Clyne defined the style and look of most of the covers of the music company, which was founded by Moses Asch and which mainly recorded folk, world, and children’s music. In 1987, Folkways Records was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and is now part of Smithsonian Folkways.

Witch House, an occult horror story set in New England, was published by Arkham House, a publishing enterprise founded by American writer and anthologist August Derleth. He popularised several categories of books, especially fantasy and supernatural, horror, and science fiction. He gave good friend H.P. Lovecraft his first big break.
 

Evangeline Walton with the first edition of
The Virgin and the Swine, 1936, republished as
The Island of the Mighty by Ballantine's Adult
Fantasy series in 1970. 
© Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Clyne was a regular at Arkham House and his art is stamped on the covers of a number of books published by the company. Among the many things I learned while compiling this piece is that Witch House was the first full-length novel published by Arkham House and it was one of the earliest books listed in the Library of Arkham House Novels of Fantasy and Terror. 

Evangeline Walton has written many novels and short stories and is best known for her Welsh Mabinogi tales. According to Wikipedia, “The Mabinogion is the title given to a collection of 11 prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts. The tales draw on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, international folktale motifs, and early medieval historical traditions.” Sounds interesting.

Note: For more book covers, see under Labels.