Sunday, 30 June 2013

The temptations of an e-reader

I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying an e-reader. I didn’t buy a Kindle or a Nook as neither is sold in a big way in Mumbai. I have seen just one Kindle model in retail stores and not a single Nook tablet anywhere. Amazon has now formally entered India and it remains to be seen what the world’s largest online retailer has to offer to probably the world’s most e-gadget obsessed nation.

At first, I thought I’d buy an inexpensive tablet without a “phone” or “calling” option because all I wanted was to read ebooks. I went through the lineup of tablets like iball, Dell, Sony, and Acer with 10-inch screens, selling for anywhere between Rs.5,000 and Rs.10,000 ($83 to $166). The dollar recently bummed Rs.11 ($.50) off the rupee.


Unsure of just how good these tablets were, my son convinced me into buying the popular Samsung Galaxy Tab2 with 7.1-inch screen, 16-GB built-in memory, and a calling option. He said it cost more (Rs.16,000 or $320) but it was more reliable than any other tablet on the Indian market with excellent after-sales service. I’m glad I heeded his advice. 

An illustrative picture of an
Aldiko book shelf
The tablet, backed by lots of free and exciting stuff from Android, has plenty of features that I haven’t explored yet. The first thing I asked my son to do was to download a simple but efficient ebook reader from Android and he showed no hesitation in choosing Aldiko for my proposed ebook library. It’s a terrific application and I couldn’t have asked for a more uncomplicated reader. I have now stacked up the “book shelf” with lots of copyright-free ebooks across categories I like reading, including non-fiction.

I also downloaded a couple of apps for my trivial pursuits like chess and scrabble. I haven’t played either of the two yet and I still have to get around to films and music.

An e-reader has lots of advantages and almost no disadvantages that I can think of. If there is one, then it is choosing between a real book and an ebook to read. I often find myself putting away a torn and tattered book midway for the pleasure of reading an ebook on a sophisticated device. My books in the real world are crying out to be read.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Peace amidst pandemonium

Photo courtesy: www.ibnlive.com

When it rains, it really pours. Flash floods caused by unprecedented rainfall at this time of the year have taken a heavy toll on god and man alike.

Hundreds have died, thousands are homeless and missing, and an equal number, mostly pilgrims, are stranded in the North Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, geographically, located at the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. Hundreds of houses, schools, hospitals, temples and shrines, and entire infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and railway tracks, have been destroyed or washed away by the monsoon fury. The destruction of over two-dozen bridges has cut off access to hundreds of villages across the two states.

Photo courtesy: AFP

Some of the worst-hit areas were the revered temple towns of Kedarnath and Rishikesh in Uttarakhand where most of the pilgrims are stranded. Mud and slush, caused by overflowing rivers, submerged several temples and shrines and the deities they adorned. The pictures show a submerged statue of Lord Shiva, one of the Hindu Trinity, in Rishikesh, which bore the brunt of River Ganga’s fury.

The central (federal) government has ordered its disaster management authority to carry out relief and rescue operations on a war footing. The army and air force and paramilitary forces are already assisting the respective state administrations in conducting search and rescue missions. Whatever they do, it'll never be enough.

In decades at least, neither has India’s annual monsoon struck with such ferocity nor has it rained so terribly in the month of June. With the rains usually stretching to September, people living in rural areas and along the cyclone-prone coastlines are joining their palms in silent prayer.

Will Lord Shiva open his third eye (or inner eye) located in the centre of his forehead and bring succour to the hopeless millions?

Monday, 17 June 2013

MUSIC & LYRICS

Believe by Cher (1998)

A musical treat this Tuesday for Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

“Do you believe in life after love
I can feel something inside me say
I really don't think you're strong enough, now”


Did you know that Cher released three films in 1987? They were The Witches of Eastwick, based on the novel by John Updike, Suspect, and Moonstruck. Did you also know that the American pop diva has acted in more than a dozen films and television series? I didn’t.

I haven’t seen Suspect which sounds like a good crime thriller with Cher playing a lawyer. Dennis Quaid and Liam Neeson are in the film too.

I liked The Witches of Eastwick mainly on account of Jack Nicholson and Susan Sarandon. The latter with Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer made three fine witches. Moonstruck almost put me to sleep. I prefer Nicholas Cage as a much older actor in his latter films. 

This post is not about Cher the actor but Cher the singer, and that is primarily what she is. A couple of months ago, we were at a mall when her hit single, Believe, played. The song sounded terrific on the hidden loudspeaker system. I wondered where I’d heard it before and then I remembered that I listened to it occasionally on my cellphone. What a difference it made! 

I cannot analyse the music behind Cher’s powerful, manly voice. But, according to Wikimedia, “Believe is a dance-pop song that incorporates elements of techno, Eurodance, and house music. It also uses heavy amounts of Auto-Tune, which has since become one of the song's most notable features.” 

Released in October 1998, Believe is the lead single from Cher’s twenty-third album of the same name and it has become one of the best-selling singles of all time.


For previous Music & Lyrics, see under Labels.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

BOOK PREVIEW

A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women edited by Elizabeth George (2005)

The only books I’m tempted to buy are books that are out of print or hard to find. I usually buy them in secondhand bookshops and on the footpaths of Bombay (now Mumbai). I rarely purchase new books from new bookstores though I have bought a few ebooks from Amazon. I think the last two new books I bought were The Complete Prose of Woody Allen and Flint by Louis L'Amour.

Woody Allen is one of the finest humour writers I've read. I equate his sardonic wit with that of Groucho Marx and Kurt Vonnegut. I discovered Woody Allen the writer after I read his brilliant short story ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ in Present Laughter: An Anthology of Modern Comic Fiction edited by English author Malcolm Bradbury. I purchased this hardback for Rs.100 (a little over $2) from a used bookstore.

Flint is one of my favourite western novels by Louis L'Amour. I always wanted to own a brand new copy of this book.

Last week, I visited a new bookstore and nearly bought A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women by American writer Elizabeth George. The 560-page book published by HarperCollins in 2005 is a collection of stories by some of the best-known women writers, past and present. I’m familiar with most of the 26 authors though I haven't read every one of them. There are stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Shirley Jackson, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Margery Allingham, Nadine Gordimer, Ruth Rendell, and Joyce Carol Oates.

The publisher has put out the following description for the book:

“New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth George serves up a century's worth of superb crime fiction penned by women. This veritable all-star team delivers tales of dark deeds that will keep you reading long into the night… A Moment on the Edge is a rare treat not only for fans of crime fiction but also for anyone who appreciates a skillfully written, deftly told story.”

I read a part of the introduction by Elizabeth George. It’s a superb piece of writing on crime literature and its domination by women writers.

Although I was tempted to buy this book, I did not because it would have been criminal to do so at a time when I have more than fifty used books to read. This is not counting the dozens of copyright-free ebooks, fiction and nonfiction, I have downloaded. And then there are the vintage comics and comic strips.

Multiplicity, I wish.

Friday, 14 June 2013

BOOKS

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth (1982)

If you like short stories, then I recommend this fine collection by Frederick Forsyth for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

My copy of the book.
I thought I had a clear memory of authors whose novels I read in my youth. Frederick Forsyth proved me wrong. Rather my wife did when she picked up No Comebacks, a collection of ten delightful short stories. Until then, I didn't know the septuagenarian British author had written short stories. In fact, he has written two more short story collections vis-à-vis The Deceiver (1991), chronicling the career of British secret agent Sam McCready, and The Veteran (2001), an assortment of crime stories.

At least I have read most of his best-known thrillers including The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil's Alternative, and The Fourth Protocol. Some of these novels have been made into successful films. Admittedly, I haven't read any of his novels published in the past two decades, a disservice to a very fine writer.


Mark Sanderson liked women. For that matter he also liked Aberdeen Angus fillet steaks, medium-rare with tossed heart-of-lettuce salad, and he consumed both with equal if passing enjoyment.

This is the opening line of the first story, No Comebacks, after the title of the 332-page book. It tells us the story of Mark Sanderson, a 39-year old English magnate and philanderer who is used to having his way and getting what he wants. “Whatever Mark wants Mark gets” is his self-styled credo. He leads three lives—public, professional, and secret—without scruples. This story concerns his third life, of boredom and of his desperate need to cherish and possess the woman of his dreams. He meets her in the form of Mrs. Angela Summers, a tall and handsome woman who lives with her husband on the Mediterranean coastline in Spain. She has a brief non-sexual affair with Mark. When Angela refuses to leave her husband because he needs her, Mark plots to kill him. So he hires a Corsican assassin to get him out of the way.

‘Is youse the darkie McQueen has put on the job?’ he demanded.
Ram Lal stopped in his tracks. ‘Harkishan Ram Lal,’ he said. ‘Yes.’
‘Well get in the fecking truck,’ he said.

Surprisingly, the protagonist in the second story, There Are No Snakes in Ireland, set in Northern Ireland, is a young Indian medical student called Harkishan Ram Lal who desperately needs money to complete his education. He takes up a job with a demolition contractor in Bangor and is assigned to a wrecking crew whose foreman, Big Billie Cameron, is a 6-feet and 4-inch racist brute. He hates Ram Lal on first sight and calls him a “darkie” and a “black bastard.” Ram Lal swallows the insults and the humiliation because he needs the money to complete med school. He works with quiet resentment but he doesn’t keep still. He plots revenge. He returns to India for a week, buys a venomous viper, and takes it back to England. At the demolition site, he drops it into the right-hand pocket of Cameron’s jacket where he keeps his pipe and tobacco pouch.

You might guess how both these suspense stories end. Frederick Forsyth ensures that your guess is all wrong. He is the master of the proverbial twist in the tale. He takes you by surprise in each of the ten stories in No Comebacks that are entertaining and narrated with chilling effect. I selected these two stories because I liked them the most. I'm not surprised that There Are No Snakes in Ireland won Forsyth the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story. The author's telling of the sinister antics of Harkishan Ram Lal and Big Billie Cameron deserved the honour.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

FILMS

The Dirty Dozen (1967) and 
The Devil's Brigade (1968)

This week, The Devil’s Brigade plays catch-up with Robert Aldrich’s masterpiece for Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick (William Holden) to Major Cliff Bricker (Vince Edwards) in The Devil’s Brigade: “Major, when you address me, take that cigar out of your mouth.”


Comparisons between The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Devil's Brigade (1968) are inevitable. Both the WWII films have much in common, in the main, the theme and a multi star cast, and both are based on books.

The Dirty Dozen tells the story of a secret plan to infiltrate a chateau in France and wipe out a cluster of high-ranking German officers.

The Devil's Brigade revolves around a secret plot to end German occupation of a strategic mountain in Italy.

A victory in both military campaigns will give the Allied Forces a huge advantage in the war.

While The Dirty Dozen is made up of twelve battle-hardened convicts who storm the Nazi party at the chateau, The Devil’s Brigade comprises a ragtag bunch of misfits who take over the mountain.

Both the secret missions are led by formidable and respected commanding officers played by two popular actors, Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick (William Holden) in The Devil’s Brigade and Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) in The Dirty Dozen. Both men must overcome all kinds of odds, including rank indiscipline and rowdy behaviour, to turn the men under their command into precision-guided fighting outfits.

However, in the course of training, both the Lieutenant-Colonel and the Major are soldiers first and officers second, as they treat their men as humans rather than as machines. There is also many a hilarious moment during the training process or at least until the men embark on their dangerous mission.

Where The Devil’s Brigade lacks is in the glamour quotient and dramatic pace of The Dirty Dozen.

The Dirty Dozen, directed by Robert Aldrich, is overwhelmed by a long line of famous actors that include the likes of John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland whose animated characters bring the film more alive than it already is. It’s the kind of film that would do well at the box office on the sheer strength of its cast. And I believe it did.

The Devil’s Brigade fails to match up in the celebrity stakes though William Holden holds up his end well with some fine performances by Major Cliff Bricker (Vince Edwards), assistant to the CO, Major Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson) of the Canadian contingent, and Privates Omar Greco (Richard Jaeckel), Theodore Ransom (Andrew Prine), Rocky Rockman (Claude Akins), and Hugh MacDonald (Richard Dawson).

The only common actor in both the movies is Richard Jaeckel who is point man to Lee Marvin’s character in The Dirty Dozen. He impresses in both the films.

Interestingly, The Devil’s Brigade provides a piece of history. The US army misfits team up with an elite Canadian military unit and train—and entertain—together for a mission that is originally planned in Norway but is later diverted to Italy.

According to internet sources, the story is based on a book of the same name by American novelist and historian Robert H. Adleman and Col. George Walton, a member of the brigade. It is a fictionalised account of the First Special Service Force, the joint Canada-US World War II commando group under Col. Robert T. Frederick.

The film was shot with the 3rd United States Army Special Forces Group at Camp Williams, 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, and battle locations on Mount Jordan, both in Utah, and on location in Italy. Apparently, producer David L. Wolper found it cheaper to film in an Italian village rather than build an Italian set in America. The US Department of Defence is also believed to have provided 300 members of the Utah National Guard to play soldiers in the battle scenes.

Andrew V. McLaglen, who directed The Devil’s Brigade, appears to have a liking for multi star cast films as evident in at least two other war films The Wild Geese (1978) and The Sea Wolves (1980), the latter shot in my backyard in Goa where I spent my childhood, and two westerns, The Way West (1967) and Bondolero! (1968). I have yet to see the last mentioned.

The Devil’s Brigade is a fairly entertaining film in spite of its striking resemblance to The Dirty Dozen in more ways than one.


In case you missed — War movies worthy of World War II (December 13, 2011).

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

When books are a rewarding experience

“As the wind howled, it seemed to be the very soul of the land.”
— A line from Hard Texas Winter

Westerns are one of my favourite categories of books. I read them with an air of anticipation. There is excitement with every turn of the page.

I also enjoy reading westerns because of their historical backdrop as the stories are mostly set in and around the Frontier and the Civil War years.

For instance, the story of Hard Texas Winter (1981) by Preston Lewis begins just six months after the end of the Civil War.

Morgan Garrett, a former Confederate soldier crippled in the war, is riding from Alabama to Santa Fe in New Mexico in search of work and a new life. Tired and hungry in the bitterly cold winter, Garrett decides to spend the night at Crossrock, a small nondescript town in Texas.

On his way there Garrett meets former Union soldier Big Bill Murphy. When Garrett asks the massively-built man the way to Crossrock, Murphy replies with unconcealed contempt for the former Reb, “Just ‘bout two miles the way you’re headed, Johnny.”

I found out that ‘Johnny’ was the nickname given to Confederate soldiers by their Union counterparts during the war. That and "greyback," in reference to the grey uniforms the Confederates wore, were used in a derogative fashion.

Garrett enters the town’s only functional saloon wearing “a gray greatcoat with the faded gold braid in a double knot that signified a captain’s rank” and his useless arm hanging by his side. The saloon is empty save for the saloon owner and his wife and five men sitting in a far corner of the room. They mean trouble.

As the men leave the saloon, one of them deliberately knocks off Garrett’s greatcoat from the chair onto the sawdust-covered floor.

He says, “Oh, I’m sorry, soldier boy…but just a little bump and that coat fell just like the whole Confederate army.”

Garrett sits quietly and swallows the insult. He is in town only for a night, for some food and a warm bed, and he doesn't want trouble.

But gun trouble finds him.

All this action takes place in only the first few pages of the novel and there is already enough reference to the Civil War. In a way it brings the one-time foes, Morgan Garrett and Bill Murphy, on the same side of the battle in Crossrock.

I’m waiting to read the rest of the story as, I’m sure, it continues to unfold in the backdrop of the war.

As I said, there is never a dull moment in a western, a very enriching and rewarding exercise for me. Do you feel the same way about certain genre of books?


For Forgotten Books this week, head over to Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

FILMS

The Phantom (1996) and Daredevil (2003)

A couple of superhero films for this week’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Kristy Swanson and Billy Zane in The Phantom.

I am a purist when it comes to cinematic versions of superhero comics. I often have reservations about the actors selected to play the mighty roles. They’re all very good actors but they often fall short of both character and appearance as humans, and as I know them in my comic books. For instance, Tobey Macguire looks nothing like the wavy-haired Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comics. I don’t care what they look like behind their masked outfits.

Here’s more food for the speech bubbles…

I’d cross out Michael Keaton in Batman and George Clooney in Batman & Robin, Billy Zane in The Phantom, Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man series, Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, Brandon Routh in Superman Returns, Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth in Thor, and Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk in The Avengers. That doesn't leave out many.

Ben Affleck in the Daredevil.

Those I’d tick right are Christopher Reeve in the Superman series, Val Kilmer in Batman Forever, Ben Affleck in Daredevil, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men series, and Chris Evans in Captain America and The Avengers.

I’m not surprised there’re more nays than ayes.

Those who swing both ways are Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern, Thomas Jane as the antihero in The Punisher, Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/The Thing in The Fantastic Four, because he is permanently cursed with his “orange rocky appearance,” Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider, Ron Perlman in Hellboy, and Thomas Haden Church as Flint Marko/Sandman in Spider-Man 3.

Two masked superheroes I like quite a lot are Phantom—man who cannot die—and Daredevil—the man without fear. They’re both appealing as comic-book heroes.

So, I was a bit disappointed with the choice of Billy Zane as the jungle hero in Simon Wincer’s The Phantom. The only thing that worked in Zane’s favour was his broad smile. It was the smile of the Phantom.

The ghost who walks and guardian of the eastern dark dons a suit, assumes the name of Kit Walker, and travels to New York to track down a wealthy but crazy man called Xander Drax (Treat Williams) who will overcome anything, or anyone, to possess three magic skulls that will give him unimaginable powers. He takes the Phantom’s girlfriend, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) hostage, guarded by Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones in a semi-villainous role).

The story was average and more or less in keeping with many stories in Phantom comics. Zane’s appearance as the Phantom was not convincing at all though he tried hard to fit into the purple-coloured body-hugging suit, sitting astride Hero, his majestic white stallion, and Devil, his brave wolf, by his side.

The Phantom’s masked appearance in 2013 would have been more cutting edge, like Christian Bale’s Batman. Unfortunately, there is no Phantom movie on the cards.

If you have read Daredevil comics, you’ll know that Ben Affleck was born to play blind lawyer Matt Murdock in the film version directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Everything about Affleck, either as Murdock the lawyer wearing a suit and dark glasses and carrying a blind man’s cane or as Daredevil in a crimson body suit and mask with twin canes, his deadly weapons of choice, was perfect.

Daredevil is more human than the accidental superhero he becomes (the consequence of a mishap with toxic waste that renders him blind but gives him superhuman vision and other senses) as he pursues his father’s killer and arch enemy, the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), and his hired assassin, Bullseye (Colin Farrell). An excellent superhero film.

Like The Phantom, the makers of Daredevil aren't thinking of a remake of the man without fear. I’m hoping Steven Spielberg buys the rights to the ghost who walks at least.

Monday, 3 June 2013

VINTAGE COMICS

The Freedom Train

Freedom Train by Howard Lockhart Fogg, an American artist
who specialised in railroad artwork.

Freedom is fought hard and won. In a novel concept, America ran the Freedom Train from 1947 through 1949 to remind its citizens not to take their freedom, as enshrined in the principles of liberty and democracy, for granted. Two years after the Second World War ended, Attorney General Tom C. Clark mooted the idea of the Freedom Train so that Americans did not forget the sacrifices made by the country and its people during successive wars. The idea was approved by President Harry S. Truman.


Christened the Spirit of 1776 on September 5, 1947, the Freedom Train travelled over 37,000 miles through more than 300 cities in 48 states for 413 days, capturing the imagination of Americans wherever it went, as did the distinctive red, white, and blue colour scheme of the locomotive. 


What was significant about the train was that it carried the original versions of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Truman Doctrine, and the Bill of Rights among other rare documents and artefacts.


The bicentenary of the Freedom Train was celebrated in 1975-1976 when a similar locomotive called the American Freedom Train toured the country.


The historic journey was captured in popular culture including comics which, admittedly, first caught my attention. Until then, I didn't know about the Freedom Train, a fascinating piece of America's history.


Saturday, 1 June 2013

MUSIC & LYRICS

Funkytown by Lipps Inc

There are some songs that stay inside your head forever. Songs that you'll find yourself humming for no rhyme or reason several years after you first heard them. Funkytown by Lipps Inc. is one song that has refused to go away. Written by Steven Greenberg and performed by Lipps Inc, the 1980 disco hit was sung by Cynthia Johnson. I have no idea who these people are but I enjoyed their music, especially the very funky beat of Funkytown, from the album Mouth to Mouth. It was a big hit in many countries including India. Check it out below.



For previous Music & Lyrics, see under Labels.