Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reading Habits #5: The Ten Commandments

And Apollo spoke all these words, saying, I am the god of knowledge and intellect who brought you out of ignorance, out of illiteracy, out of apathy.

The Ten Commandments of Moses
by Anton Losenko
© Wikimedia Commons
You shall have no other pursuits, neither movies or music nor chess, before books.

You shall not bow down to more than three books at a time; for we the authors of the three books would be annoyed if you leave them half-read.

You shall not take the name of the writer in vain; for the writer will not hold you guiltless for taking his name in vain but not reading his book.

Six days you shall read, and do all your writing. But the seventh day is the Sabbath: in it you shall not do any work, except read again.

Honour your books and your comics so that your days may be long upon the land of bookstores and libraries that Apollo is giving you.

You shall not tear, mutilate, fold, and dog-ear your books, nor write or scribble on them.

You shall not commit adultery and remain loyal to your books.

You shall not steal someone else’s books or buy more than you can read, nor hoard them. 

You shall not bear false witness against your fellow readers and bloggers.

You shall not covet your fellow-blogger’s bookshelf, or his books, or his blog, or his posts, or his style, or his hits and visits, or anything that is your fellow blogger’s.

Thank you, every one of you, for your very generous support through your visits and comments in 2013. The 3Cs wishes you and your families a very happy and satisfying new year; a year also filled with lots of books as well as the time and the pleasure of reading and reviewing them all through the year.

Note: For the previous four Reading Habits, look under Labels.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013: The year that wasn’t

2013 has not been a good year for reading. I read fewer than fifty books, fifty comic books, fifty short stories, and fifty vintage magazines and anthologies. I’ve done better in the past, in my pre-blogging days (who didn’t?). I liked most of the books I read.

I also ‘rediscovered’ chess towards the end of the year. Time spent on playing the game cost me a few books.

The best sitcom of the year

On the other hand, I watched more than fifty movies and sitcoms, including reruns of nearly all the seasons of Friends, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Everybody Loves Raymond, and David Suchet’s Poirot, though I reviewed fewer than that many. I’d do well to pay heed to Groucho Marx's saying, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

Instead of mentioning all the books, comic books, and short stories I read and the films I saw during the year, which doesn’t amount to much, I’ll list the ones I thought were good. They have been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.


The best book cover
Three Young Ranchmen by Captain Ralph Bonehill (1901)

The Girl from Sunset Ranch by Amy Bell Marlowe (1914)

Buchanan’s Siege by Jonas Ward (1973)

Hard Texas Winter by Preston Lewis (1981)

Blade: The Navaho Trail by Matt Chisholm (1981)

Vultures in the Sun by Brian Garfield (1987)

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

Detective Mystery
The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie (1924)

The Snake by Mickey Spillane (1964)

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball (1965)

All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards (1991)


The Trojan Horse by Hammond Innes (1940)

Hell Is Too Crowded by Jack Higgins (1962)

A Stranger in the Family by Robert Barnard (2010)

The Athena Project by Brad Thor (2011)

A Dog of Flanders by Marie Louise de la Ramée (1872)

The Hessian by Howard Fast (1972)

Tales From Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry (1987)

The Big Fix by Vikas Singh (2013)


The best short story cover
The Man Without a Country by Edward Everett Hale (1863)

The Shining Pyramid by Arthur Machen (1895)

The Mysterious Card and The Mysterious Card Unveiled by Cleveland Moffett (1896)

The Man Upstairs and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse (1914)

The Killers by Ernest Hemingway (1927)

The Draw by Jerome Bixby (1954)

The Name Is Archer by Ross Macdonald (1955)

The Book Case by Nelson DeMille (2011)


The best comic book cover
Action Comics #1 (1938)

American Comics Group: Skeleton Hand — Secrets of the Supernatural (1952)

Scream: Skywald Horror-Mood Magazine (1973)

Marvel: Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk (1981)

DC: Batman & Spider-Man (1997)

Additionally, I also read non-fiction, notably The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldrige (1967) and In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect by Ronald Kessler (2010) as well as a few books on philosophy.


The best film poster
Ants in the Plants (1940)
Posse from Hell (1961)
In The Heat of the Night (1967)
The Devil's Brigade (1968)
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
Just Between Friends (1986)
The Next Three Days (2010)
Salt (2010)
The Descendants (2011)
The Dilemma (2011)
Captain Phillips (2013)
Thor (2013)

The only plan I have for next year is to read more, especially the classics and other literary fiction, and watch fewer movies and sitcoms unless they’re vintage, superhero, animated or musical.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Stranger in the Family by Robert Barnard (2010)

A caveat: yesterday, I reviewed half a film. Today, I review half a book. Fortunately, I've’ read enough to review the British crime writer’s penultimate novel for the Robert Barnard special at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase this Friday.

‘Kidnapping’s pretty rare these days. Where did this one take place?’
‘In Sicily.’
‘Sicily? That explains it. Dicey sort of place in my experience. And what’s the information you have that you want to report?’
‘I am the child that was kidnapped…’ 

Two years ago, an Indian-born Australian businessman was reunited with his biological family in Khandwa, a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, after 25 years. He was separated from his family at a railway station when he was five years old. Later, he was adopted by a family in Australia. As he grew up he never forgot who he was or where he came from. This is a true story and it was reported widely in the media, especially since Google Maps and Facebook helped the young man find his real family.

Newborns and small children routinely disappear in India, as they do in many parts of the world. While some are genuinely separated from their families, like the five-year old boy above, others are kidnapped from bus stops and railway stations and homes and hospitals. While boys are abducted by those desperate for male offsprings, girls are often kidnapped and forced into the flesh trade. There is no official count of India’s missing children.

The separation or abduction of children is a recurrent plot theme in Indian films, particularly Hindi films made by Bollywood, which almost always have a happy ending.

It was for these reasons that A Stranger in the Family by Robert Barnard struck a chord with me. His main character, Kit Philipsons, is born Peter Novello in Leeds, England, kidnapped in Sicily when he is three, adopted and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, and returns to his biological family in Leeds at the age of twenty.

The 250-odd page novel recounts the story of Kit and his quiet but desperate quest to find out who abducted him, while on a holiday in Sicily with his family, and why. The more Kit digs into his past, the murkier it gets, as he sees a sinister link between the Sicilian mafia, his kind and doting adoptive parents and their Jewish background in Nazi Germany, and his biological father, a lawyer by profession, who brands him as an impostor and an illegitimate.

To make matters worse, Kit’s sudden reappearance in Leeds results in a rift instead of a reunion with his biological family. While his birth mother, Isla, who has long separated from her husband, welcomes Kit with open arms, his siblings, two brothers and sister, are not quite happy as they would now have to divide the inheritance in four parts. Kit wants no share of the family wealth as his adoptive parents, Jürgen and Genevieve, have left him with plenty.

All Kit wants is the truth behind his kidnapping and in search of it he casts a wide net starting with the local police station in Leeds where he has frequent interviews with Sergeant Hargreaves who is sympathetic to his case. Kit meets people directly and indirectly connected with both his biological and adoptive family in the hope that he'll learn what exactly happened twenty years ago.

A Stranger in the Family is not strictly “a novel of suspense” as claimed but it has some elements of suspense. The story, as the title suggests, is self-explanatory. There is no serious character development. Instead, the author brings out the characteristics of the various players through speech and mannerism. There is a certain aloofness about Kit Philipsons and his interactions with people, most notably his birth family. His character doesn't touch a chord as much as his plight does. Robert Barnard's writing is simple but in no way is it ordinary. In fact, his style is one of the better aspects of the book.

A Stranger in the Family falls somewhere between literary fiction and a popular novel. The book is available for Kindle, at Amazon. Recommended.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Quentin Tarantino was three years old when Django was released in 1966. The film seems to have made an impression on him. For, 46 years later, he made Django Unchained and recreated the coffin-dragging gunslinger from scratch. Except for raw courage, skill with a gun, and few lines, Jamie Foxx’s Django has little in common with Franco Nero’s Django, or the other spin-offs one of which had Terence Hill in the role. Tarantino paid his tribute to the original version by casting Nero in his film.

I missed Django Unchained when it came in the theatres last year. Then, last night, I watched a portion of the film on cable. It has all the hallmarks of a Tarantino film: bloody vendetta, insensate violence, intense dialogue, oodles of machismo, and shock treatment. I’m basing my opinion on the films I have seen, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill 1 & 2, and Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino makes fewer movies but he makes them well. He can turn reason on its head and still be convincing. 

A few observations on Quentin Tarantino's racially charged film.

I thought casting Jamie Foxx as Django was a shrewd and a brilliant move. If you grew up watching Nero as Django, as I did, it’s a bit of a culture shock to see Foxx in the role which Denzel Washington apparently refused to do. Foxx, however, steps into Nero’s shoes without effort.

In the pre-Civil War days of slavery, coloured people are treated inhumanely. White men buy slaves and whip them into subjugation often pitting blacks against blacks. The brutality of it all is unsettling. For example, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in a villainous role), a rich and cruel planter who owns many slaves, is sitting on a sofa, smoking a cigar, and watching two men fight to the death. Either one must kill the other, the final blow coming from a hammer carelessly tossed by Candie. The bloody scene was cut, as stipulated by Indian television guidelines, but I knew what was coming next.

Between commercial breaks, we are told that DiCaprio was apprehensive about the strong racial overtone of the film and particularly his character and that Tarantino had to convince him of the need for some of the graphic scenes.

Elsewhere in the film, the mean and nasty Brittle brothers strip a black woman, tie her to a tree, and get ready to whip her when Django strides up to them and shoots two of the men at point blank range. In another scene, he lies prone on a small hill and momentarily grapples with his conscience before killing a man working the field with his son.

All the white men were wanted dead or alive with a bounty on their heads.

The bounty is collected by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who, ridiculous as it sounds, is a German dentist turned bounty hunter which is obviously a more lucrative occupation. Early in the film he buys Django’s freedom but instead of treating him like a slave, he befriends him and treats him as an equal and makes him his deputy. Together, they kill many wanted men. In return, Dr. Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife from slavery under Calvin Candie. This is the key part I missed.

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained.

I have read about slavery in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, leading up to the Civil War, but I don't know enough to understand it in the context of this film. For instance, while some slaves are treated like slaves, others are treated like normal people who wear fine clothes, move around freely, sit in the living rooms, and talk with their masters. I don't know how close white and black people were in those days but Dr. Schultz and Django share so friendly a relationship as to raise eyebrows. They ride in and out of towns and ranch homes without fear of being shot in the back. The bounty hunter spends lavishly on his friend, buying him a cowboy’s attire, guns, and a horse with a new saddle. Above all, Django shoots white men without fear of reprisals. Dr. Schultz defends himself and Django by brandishing ‘dead or alive’ notices for the men they kill. But did black men actually kill white men in cold blood?

These are some of the issues that left me a trifle confused. Historically, I don't know how close to the truth some of the scenes in the film are, even if some of them are exaggerated.

Django Unchained is an action-packed western shot in the backdrop of an emotive and sensitive issue like slavery and racism. I have been told not to take Tarantino's movies seriously and that the worth of his unconventional films lies in their entertainment value. This is true of Django Unchained which also hits a raw nerve unlike the other five movies I saw.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The songs of Bryan Adams

For a change an audio-video entry for Tuesday’s overlooked films, audio and video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don’t forget to watch the video at the bottom of this post.

There are many songs that have stayed with me since I first listened to them, beginning in mid-1970s. Foremost among these is Una Paloma Blanca (or Paloma Blanca, which means ‘white dove’ in Spanish) by Dutch musician George Baker. The single was released in 1975 by his band the George Baker Selection. It was sung at most parties and school picnics.

In fact, so popular was the song in India that my generation used to record it from a radio on to a cassette player, usually a National Panasonic (see picture). Those were wireless days. The two electronic systems were kept side by side and as soon as the radio jockey announced a popular number, we’d press down hard on the ‘Play’ and ‘Record’ buttons simultaneously and shush everyone in the vicinity, lest external voices lent an unwelcome chorus to the songs. Upon replay, we could occasionally hear the loud honk of a bus or the shrill whistle of a pressure cooker in the background. However, that did not spoil the pleasure of listening to the songs. Pre-recorded cassettes were expensive.

I haven't forgotten the music or the lyrics of Paloma Blanca, which partly went…

Una paloma blanca
I'm just a bird in the sky
Una paloma blanca
Over the mountains I fly
No one can take my freedom away

It’d make a nice soundtrack for a second film remake of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Paloma Blanca is one of several pop and country songs that I can lip sync well. Some others include Annie’s Song by John Denver, Nothing's Gonna Change My Love for You, first sung by George Benson and then by Glenn Medeiros, and Somebody by Bryan Adams.

Bryan Adams performs in Hamburg, Germany in June 2007.
© Wikimedia Commons

Somebody (1984) was the first Bryan Adams song I heard somewhere in the late eighties. At the time I didn’t know it was sung by the famous Canadian singer-musician who has been to India and is immensely popular. I found out only in the nineties. It was pretty much how I listened to music in those days. Just as I saw films without caring to know who directed them. The lyrics “I need somebody/Somebody like you/Everybody needs somebody” sung by Adams in his rich and raspy voice have remained with me since.

It was this bestselling single that prompted me to listen to Adams’ other songs, most notably Heaven (1985), (Everything I Do) I Do It for You (1991), and Please Forgive Me (1993). These four songs ruled on the US Billboard and the UK Singles Chart for a long time.

Everything I Do was, of course, made famous as the official video soundtrack of the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, and Alan Rickman. It was an entertaining film. The Kostner-Freeman catapult scene was funny.

I have not heard every song by Bryan Adams but out of the ones I have, these four songs I like the most. The official video of Please Forgive Me, from the album So Far So Good, is really nice, as much for the slow ballad as for the beautiful German Shepherd moving about in the recording studio. I believe the Alsatian belonged to Adams who is said to be fond of dogs. If you like pets, especially dogs, you'll enjoy the video below.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hidden treasures in book collections

David Cranmer, who writes short stories, edits and publishes the in-demand webzine, Beat to a Pulp, and blogs at The Education of a Pulp Writer, recently wrote about the discovery of an 118-year old treasure in his possession—William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice published in 1895. It’s definitely the find of the year as far as rare books in the hands of individual readers are concerned.

I don’t remember the last time I discovered a book of great literary value, buried in a trunk in my attic. Of course, I wouldn’t. I don’t have a trunk. My modest collection of books is stacked in cabinets and on shelves at home and in office. I usually give away the books as soon as I read them though I hold on to the ones I know are rare and hard to find, such as Sudden, the series of ten western novels by Oliver Strange, an Englishman who wrote about the wild west without once crossing the Atlantic, and a few original paperbacks under The Executioner series about Mack Bolan, the one-man army created and written by Don Pendleton before ghostwriters took over.

So which are some of the earliest published books in my collection? I made a random survey of the books I’d immediate access to and found nine in all and out of these the one with the highest vintage tag was The Hell Raisers, a Raw-Action western by Lee Floren (Tower Publications, 1947). The cover of the paperback says “They lived by their guns in a land where death was a way of life.” The original title was Saddle Pals. Lee Floren also wrote as Matt Harding.

My hardback copy of The Tudor Edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Quatercentenary Edition, belonged to my paternal grandfather and was published in 1965 by The English Language Book Society, also known as The English Library. It has an introduction and glossary by Peter Alexander, a Shakespearean scholar and academic and then Professor Emeritus of English language and Literature, University of Glasgow.

Old Ramon (Pennant Student Edition, 1966), by Jack Schaefer, the author of the famous western novel Shane, is a moving tale of a boy, a man, and a mighty desert. The 110-page paperback has black and white illustrations by Harold West.

The first paperback edition of Through the Wheat by American journalist and novelist Thomas Boyd (1998-1935) is considered one of the finest American novels of World War I. My Award Books Military Library edition, published in 1964, gives the reader a picture of the horror and glory of the Great War.

The oldest book in our Agatha Christie collection is What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, a Cardinal edition published by Pocket Books, Inc. in 1958. The novel was serialised as Eye Witness to Murder. This tattered copy has a facsimile of Christie’s signature and a strip advertising Lloyd C. Douglas’ famous novel The Robe on the back cover.

While I have partly read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, the one book I read from start to finish in less than half a day was Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (Scholastic Inc., 1961), the complete story of Hitler’s beginnings, his triumphs, and his downfall told in 188 pages. I have no idea why I’m still holding on to this book; perhaps, it’s for the cover.

Two titles originally published in the sixties are Carter Brown’s The Brazen and Had I But Groaned. I liked the opening line of The Brazen—“I was just sitting there in the bar minding my own business, when this guy dropped dead at my feet—and the blurb of Had I But Groaned—“An old Hag, a gorgeous Witch, and one ripe Virgin—about to be sacrificed. What more do you need for a swinging Sabbat?”

I haven’t read all of these books yet, not even Shakespeare’s Complete Works entirely, but I’m going to try and see what other early books I can come up with. Who says you got to read all the books you own?

Do you have any original or early editions of books?

Note: The covers displayed above are the ones that adorn the books I mentioned.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Book Case by Nelson DeMille

This book does not strictly fall under Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase but just in case you didn’t know about it.

Otis Parker was dead. Killed by a falling bookcase whose shelves were crammed with very heavy reading. Total weight about a thousand pounds, which flattened Mr. Parker’s slight, 160-pound body. A tragic accident. Or so it seemed.

The Book Case by thriller writer Nelson DeMille is a short fiction about the mysterious death of Otis Parker, the owner of the Dead End Bookstore in New York. As the opening lines reveal, Otis, a bearded man in his early sixties, is killed when a loaded bookcase directly behind his desk falls on top of him. Detective John Corey of the First Precinct Detective Squad finds the bookstore owner “sprawled, splayed, and flattened on his collapsed desk,” his body half on the desk and half on the floor, but with his brains still intact.

John Corey, who has his own detective series, is almost convinced that Otis’ death is an accident until he discovers that the chocks or wedges that held the bookcase upright against the wall are missing. He smells murder.

The detective begins to question three people directly linked to Otis Parker—his young and good looking wife Mia, her lover and a not too successful crime writer Jay K. Lawrence, and a very nervous employee called Scott. He leaves out Otis’ part-time clerk Jennifer and his nameless ex-wife who are never in the picture.

Corey uses an old trick in police investigation—lying to the suspects and pitting one against the other—to ferret out the truth from Mia, who hated her husband and his store and dreamed of an inheritance and a new life with her lover; Jay, who gives her the plot idea but develops cold feet and sleeps with his publicist for an alibi; and Scott whose greed for money and lust for Mia gets the better of him.

“Cops, as I said, are allowed to lie. Half the confessions you get are a result of lying to a suspect.”

Final word
The Book Case (2011) is a light and quick read with just the right touch of suspense, and some humour. The writing style is easy and conversational. Detective Corey is a likeable character who thinks on his feet, is not hard on the suspects, and is determined to nail the murder accused, without ado. I liked the plot. Now why didn't I think of writing this story? Too late. I look forward to reading more books in the series.

The Dead End Bookstore is a nice name for a bookstore. It specialises, ironically, in crime fiction that includes both classic crime novels of Chandler, Sayers, Christie, Doyle and others as well as contemporary authors like Brad Meltzer, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille, and others—who, as Detective Corey observes, “make more money writing about what I do than I make doing what I do.”

© www.nelsondemille.net
The author
Born in New York and living on Long Island, Nelson DeMille’s earliest books were NYPD detective novels. His first major novel was By the Rivers of Babylon (1978). He is a member of The Authors Guild, the Mystery Writers of America, and American Mensa. He has written over thirty series and standalone novels and contributed short stories, book reviews, and articles to magazines and newspapers. I gleaned this from Nelson DeMille's official website.

The Book Case, one of five short fiction works by the author, is available for Kindle at Amazon.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sexist ads?

This week I received an email containing over a dozen vintage advertisements that must have appeared in newspapers and magazines in America many years ago. A brief introduction said: "Do you remember seeing any of these ads? Can you believe there used to be such ads!" I scrolled through the images and found some of the most sexist ads I'd seen. I'm thinking: were there any protests when these ads were published? Or were they simply laughed off because they weren't meant to be taken seriously? Or am I missing something? In our world, today, ads like these would be unthinkable. There is another lot which I'll post some other time. For now check these out and if you know something, let me know.

For previous Vintage Ads, look under ‘Labels’.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Richie Rich, 1994, and The Parent Trap, 1998

Since I’m currently in the pre-production stage of a special issue of my newspaper, which goes to print Friday, I thought of missing Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Besides, I haven't seen, for a long time now, any films that merit serious inclusion in the Tuesday meme. But then, I remembered the two films I saw again recently—action-comedy True Lies (1994) directed by James Cameron and family-comedy Richie Rich (1994) directed by Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality)—and decided that the temptation to participate was too strong to ignore, whatever be the film.

This post is strictly not about True Lies, an action film about secret spies, a cloak-and-dagger adventure between a husband-wife, nuclear terrorists, a kidnapped girl, and a good dose of humour. The antics of US secret agent Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his wannabe secret agent wife Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis) are comical. Art Malik, the Pakistan-born British actor who plays Salim Abu Aziz, head of a ragtag bunch of clumsy terrorists, joins the party that also includes spy sidekick Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold) and skirt chaser Simon (Bill Paxton).

One liners too many: “You're fired!” Arnold Schwarzenegger
tells Art Malik before firing the missile.

In one ludicrous scene, Schwarzenegger takes off vertically in a US fighter plane to rescue his daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku) who has escaped from Malik and is hanging precariously from a giant tower crane high above ground. She drops down on to the nose of the plane and clings on to its windshield. Malik follows her swiftly and jumps on to its wing. A brief duel ensues before Malik finds himself hooked to one of the missiles. He looks, rather stupidly, at Schwarzenegger who has no qualms about firing the missile in the direction of a terrorist chopper hovering nearby.

True Lies is a downright silly movie, but very entertaining.

This post is really about Richie Rich and The Parent Trap (1998), the latter directed by Nancy Meyers (The Holiday). The two films are about two kids who must “rescue” their parents in two different situations.

In Richie Rich, Macaulay Culkin plays the poor little rich boy who must rescue his parents, Richard Rich (the affable Edward Herrmann) and Regina Rich (Christine Ebersole), from a scheming Rich Industries’ executive Lawrence Van Dough (John Larroquette) who is after the family vault, predictably, hidden away in the Rich version of Mount Rushmore called Mount Richmore.

As a kid I loved reading Richie Rich and other comics from the Harvey stable like Casper, Hot Stuff, Little Lotta, Wendy, Little Dot, Spooky, Little Audrey, and Sad Sack. Over the years I have formed a certain image of most comic book characters. So I wasn’t surprised when Macaulay Culkin as Richie Rich, Jonathan Hyde as his butler-bodyguard Cadbury, Michael McShane as Rich scientist Professor Keenbean, and Stephi Lineburg as his girlfriend Gloria failed to convince me. Dollar, the Rich dog, was okay. Irona, the robot-maid, was missing. The plot reflected the stories in many of the comics where Richard Rich is kidnapped by his enemies only to be rescued by Richie Rich and Cadbury with help from Professor Keenbean and his outlandish gadgets.

Disbelief is not something I lend easily to film adaptations of cartoons and comics.

In The Parent Trap, two twin girls, Hallie Parker and Annie James (Lindsay Lohan), are living separately with their divorced parents, Nick Parker (Dennis Quaid) and Elizabeth James (Natasha Richardson) in America and Britain, respectively. The girls, who have never been with each other since birth, meet at camp, discover they’re twins, and plot the grand reunion of their parents. They exchange places but their parents don’t know it.

There are some nice moments in the film; for instance, when Grandpa Charles James (Ronnie Stevens), the mother's father, and Chessy (Lisa Ann Walter), the father's maid, discover, separately, that the girls have switched places or when they play a nasty little prank on Meredith Blake (Elaine Hendrix), their father’s girlfriend, in order to drive a wedge between the two.

The Parent Trap is a delightful family drama. What worked for this film was the cute and precocious character of Lindsay Lohan and the on-screen chemistry between Quaid and Richardson who, as parents, decide to bury their past for the sake of their “innocent” girls. A nice, feel good movie.

I’m waiting for an opportunity to see the original version of Walt Disney’s The Parent Trap (1961) starring Hayley Mills as the teenage girl in a double role and Mitch Evers (Brian Keith) and Margaret ‘Maggie’ McKendrick (Maureen O'Hara) as the parents.

It’s sad that the once famous child stars, Culkin and Lohan, who set out to "rescue" their parents in the films, have since needed to be rescued in real life.

Back to work.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Nelson Mandela: 1918-2013

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

© Debbie Yazbek/AFP/Getty Images
The news of Nelson Mandela’s death, at 95, on December 5, was all over the internet. But, as with all major news, you haven’t read it till you have read about it in the papers next morning. There is no need for a separate tribute or obituary on South Africa’s legendary freedom fighter. The headlines across the front pages of Indian newspapers in English said it all. Comparisons with Mahatma Gandhi, that other apostle of peace, were inevitable.

The Mahatma of our times is forever free
The Times of India

‘He was a giant among men’
Hindustan Times

Nelson ‘Gandhi’ Mandela passes away
The Tribune

Mandela leaves heart in darkness
The Asian Age

A giant of forgiveness
The Free Press Journal

‘Mandela has gone up there to sleep with the angels; it's time for him to rest’
DNA (Daily News & Analysis)

© London Herald, February 11, 1990
Mahatma of our time
The Telegraph

Without Mandela
Indian Express

Peace icon Mandela is no more
Deccan Herald

A legend departs
The Hindu

Work done, Mandela bids adieu
The Pioneer

Anti-apartheid icon Mandela passes away
The Assam Tribune

Nelson Mandela was a wise man whose words were filled with wisdom. Of all his sayings, I found this profound—“In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” It spoke of the 27 years he spent in prison, under apartheid, from which he emerged to become a free South Africa's first black president.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Killers by Ernest Hemingway, 1927

This is my contribution for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“What are you going to kill Old Andreson for? What did he ever do to you?
“He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us.”
“And he’s only going to see us once,” Al said from the kitchen.

A classic story never dies. It lives on long after it is published and its writer has passed away from this world. The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell (1924) and The Killers by Ernest Hemingway (1927) are just two examples of short stories that continue to enthral readers and viewers through early and modern adaptations retold via stories, novels, plays, films, and even comics. For instance, James Hadley Chase borrowed the basic premise of Richard Connell’s story for his 1969 novel The Vulture is a Patient Bird (1969), reviewed here. At the time it didn’t occur to me that I'd read it somewhere before.

The two short stories are so well written as to inspire the reader to try and write in a similar fashion. Those who write short stories know that writing one is not as easy as it seems. In Hemingway's case, you have to be a miser with words and generous with the narrative. Just as he was in his short story The Killers first published in Scribner’s magazine in March 1927 (see below) .

© www.library.sc.edu
The iconic writer is so annoyingly sparse with words that it’s a wonder there is a story at all. But that was his greatness. There is little description of the two mobsters, Al and Max, who walk into Henry’s lunchroom in Summit, a crime-infested suburb of Chicago, looking for a big Swede called Ole Andreson. They want to kill the former heavyweight prizefighter when he comes in for his daily supper. The hitmen are wearing derby hats, silk mufflers and gloves, and are hiding sawed-off shotguns under their tight overcoats. They look like twins and they're menacing in a quiet way.

While Al and Max wait for double-crosser Ole Andreson at the lunch counter, they order ham and eggs and bacon and eggs, and make fun of its owner, George, and the food on his menu, his black cook, Sam (who is referred to as “nigger”), and the only other diner, Nick Adams (frequently teased as “bright boy”). There is no description of George, Sam and Nick, or their thoughts and expressions, or their state of mind. But you know they're scared of what’s going to happen. If there is any description at all, it is to be found in the dialogue between the five characters, Ole Andreson, and his landlady.

A scene from the 1946 version of The Killers.

There is history behind this short story, just as there is history behind nearly every story written by Hemingway. Reading about it on the internet, I found that the writer lived in Chicago for a while. The city was under prohibition and organised crime was rampant. Summit was ruled by the mob. Those were the days of Al Capone. And a real boxer called Andre Anderson was killed by real gangsters, which formed the basis for this story. While Hemingway had intimate knowledge of gangland crime, he conceded that he left out most of it: “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2,951 words,” he has been quoted as saying.

Prohibition probably got to Hemingway, a heavy drinker, more than the gang wars. He sort of ridicules it in The Killers.

Women protest in Chicago.
“Got anything to drink?” Al asked.
“Silver beer, Bevo, ginger ale,” George said.
“I mean you got anything to drink?”
“Just those I said.”
“This is a hot town,” said the other. “What do they call it?”

Hemingway was in his late twenties when he wrote the story and I'm not sure if he was already drinking a lot at the time.

Final word
As you read The Killers you'll mentally play it out on a black-and-white cinema screen. It's that kind of a story, fit for a low-budget noir film.

In fact, there are two full-length movies, made in 1946 (directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O'Brien) and in 1964 (directed by Don Siegel and starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Ronald Reagan). The 1946 version had Charles McGraw as Al and William Conrad as Max. Besides, there are at least four short films including a student film in 1956 made by Andrei Tarkovsky and others. Having never seen any I don't know how true the films are to the short story.

It’s a real talent to be able to narrate almost an entire story as a conversational piece and still retain all of the suspense intact. Ernest Hemingway was a past master at this storytelling.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Dame Maggie Smith

A fleeting look at the English-born grand dame of Hollywood for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Minerva McGonagall has all but erased my memory of Maggie Smith’s earlier films, some of which I have seen though I don't remember much. Close your eyes, think of Maggie Smith, and up pops her image as the stern but kindly transfiguration professor and head of Gryffindor house at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

I recall her, rather vaguely, in Death on the Nile (1978) and A Room with a View (1985), almost entirely in the Sister Act duet (1992 & 1993) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), and absolutely everything about her place in Harry Potter’s Voldemortised life. I’m scratching my head over Gosford Park (2001), though.

Dame Maggie Smith was already 67 when the first Harry Potter movie came out in 2001 and a decade older when the two-part film of the seventh in the series was released. Richard Harris, who was slightly older than Smith, died after playing Dumbledore in Harry Potter 1 & 2, making way for another Irish-born actor Michael Gambon, ten years his junior. Maggie Smith, however, continued to lend her distinguished, albeit underrated, presence to the popular franchise till the end. She was overshadowed by the others and most especially by Alan Rickman who played Severus Snape, arguably the best character in the entire series.

Today, Maggie Smith is 79 years old and in spite of health issues is still going strong, delivering fine performances as ever. She is set to appear in a film called My Old Lady (2014) with Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas. She is also expected to reprise her role in the as-yet unannounced The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 along with Judi Dench, Billy Nighy, and Richard Gere. The first part, set in India, was a very nice film and I recommend it to those who haven't seen it.

The earliest Maggie Smith movie I can recall is The V.I.P.’s because I remember liking it as much for the story as for the multicast. Smith plays Miss Mead, a young secretary to Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor), a cash-strapped businessman from Australia who urgently needs funds to prevent a hostile takeover of his tractor company. They are stuck at London airport, en route to New York, along with an assorted group of rich travellers with their own seemingly intractable problems.

There is Paul Andros (Richard Burton), a brooding tycoon desperately trying to prevent his wife Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) from running away with Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan), a casanova equally desperate to whisk her away; wealthy filmmaker Max Buda (Orson Welles), who is vexed by tax problems, and Miriam Marshall (Linda Christian), his actress and muse; and the Duchess of Brighton (Dame Margaret Rutherford) who has her own reasons for leaving the London fog behind.

Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith 
Miss Mead doesn't say much in the film but her actions as a loyal secretary speak louder than her words would have. She approaches Paul Andros, rather tentatively, with a financial proposal and is taken aback when the distraught tycoon, after realising why she is doing it, signs his chequebook and hands it over without a word. His generosity is guided by a simple philosophy: of what use is his wealth when he is about to lose his love, at least it can help the devoted secretary win something for her charming boss. Miss Mead is clearly besotted by Les Mangrum, the gentleman-employer.

What I liked about The V.I.P.’s were Maggie Smith's separate scenes and dialogues with Rod Taylor and Richard Burton. They lent a nice touch to a story largely characterised by human foibles. I also found Maggie Smith's character more appealing than Elizabeth Taylor's. 

Note: Yvette Banek has written an excellent review of The V.I.P.’s over at her equally excellent blog In so many words… Click on the link to read the review.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Big Fix by Vikas Singh, 2013

Review & Interview

“There’s twenty lakhs in there,” said the conduit. “As a gesture of goodwill, I’m going to let you keep it. There will be more later, if you do what I tell you. Fail me, and I’ll send another bag to your family, this time with your head in it.”

No other sport captures the imagination of an entire nation as cricket does in India. Football enjoys that distinction on a global scale. More than half of the 1.60-odd billion cricket fans worldwide are in the subcontinent and the bulk of these are in India, where cricket is a religion and cricketers are worshipped like gods. Curiously, while cricket has been the subject of academic and biographical books, it has never had a formal run in fiction, until Vikas Singh decided to score one. He may have set a precedent.

The Big Fix by the Delhi-based journalist is a fast-paced thriller that plays out both on and off the field, inside and outside the stadium. There is cricket, the game itself, played with familiar passion and intensity, a betting syndicate run by the mafia, unscrupulous businessmen, tainted players, a high-profile murder, and a police investigation.

The story is narrated in first person by its two principal characters, Shaurya Chauhan, the skipper of Capital Cavaliers, and Mitakshara, a dauntless crime reporter, in the backdrop of an explosive cricket championship called T20 and spot- and match-fixing scandals that threaten to derail the Cavaliers’ chances of winning the trophy.

In a Twenty20, the official term, each side with 11 players bowls a maximum of 20 overs of six balls each. The team that scores the highest wins the match although even scores can lead to a tiebreaker. The high scoring and electrifying nature of the game has endeared it to millions of cricket fans. T20 teams consist of players from around the world. It is the fastest and most advanced form of the game as opposed to the equally fast scoring 50-over ODI (one-day international) and the traditional five-day Test match that purists insist is the only way to play the game. The Indian Premier League is the official T20 championship in India. Held annually, the nearly dozen teams are sponsored by corporate houses and film stars with the tacit support of political bigwigs on one hand and punters and bookies on the other. The game is a money-spinner.

A T20 cricket match is a batsman’s dream and a bowler’s nightmare. A batsman doesn't just hit the ball, he bludgeons it, like in baseball or Quidditch. Shaurya, a top-order batsman, is struggling with his form and is easy target for opposition bowlers which puts his captaincy under a cloud. An in-form teammate is waiting to step into his shoes and lead the Capital Cavaliers. The explosive batsman almost gets his wish as Howard Jensen, the popular South African coach of the team, tells Shaurya to step down and let his teammate captain the remaining matches.

The next day Jensen is found unconscious in his hotel room with an injury to his head and the last person he met was Shaurya. The finger of suspicion points at the captain of the Cavaliers and the Delhi Police Crime Branch comes sniffing like a bloodhound. Matters get worse for Shaurya when his comatose coach eventually dies.

Who killed Howard Jensen and why? Was it Shaurya Chauhan? Was it one or more of the players with links to bookies and the mafia? Or was it someone influential with a sinister plan of his or her own?

Final word
The Big Fix is a finely crafted whodunit that keeps you guessing about the identity of the suspect and his or her motive until the end. In the midst of it all Vikas Singh entertains you with a ball-by-ball account of some exciting cricket, which is central to the mystery, even as Shaurya regains more than just his form with the bat. He also finds Mitakshara, the beautiful reporter with a hidden agenda of her own.

I know next to nothing about baseball but if a baseball fan had written this novel, I’d have enjoyed it, just as someone unfamiliar with cricket will find The Big Fix a racy story with a little humour.

The author
Vikas Singh, Resident Editor of The Times of India, Delhi, loves cricket and reading. The “self-confessed word addict” is already working on his second novel, “a Woody Allenesque romance” as he told this blog in an engaging interview (see below). He has also co-authored a brief history of knowledge titled The Know of Things. Vikas lives in Delhi with his wife and daughter.

The author spoke to the 3Cs in an email interaction organised by his publisher, Westland Ltd, Chennai, which sent me a review copy of The Big Fix. A Kindle edition of the book is available at Amazon for readers abroad. I have split the interview into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author. Over to Vikas Singh...

‘Hardly any fiction is written about a game
packed with drama and thrills as cricket’


Prashant C. Trikannad: How do you relate to cricket? Did you play the game or are you a fan like millions of Indians?
Vikas Singh: Like most Indians, I passionately love cricket. I've played the game a lot for fun, though not at any serious competitive level. However, luckily for me, my job (I’m Resident Editor of The Times of India, Delhi) allows me to interact a fair bit with cricketers and support staff. I've also had the opportunity to cover some of the most memorable moments of Indian cricket, including India’s victory in the World Cup, Sachin Tendulkar’s double century in an ODI and, most recently, his very emotional 200th Test and retirement (India-born Tendulkar is a cricket legend and the highest run-getter in the history of the game).

You have written the cricketing aspect of The Big Fix like a professional cricketer right down to the last ball and the last run. How well do you know the game?
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to spend some time talking about the technical and mental side of cricket with players like Sir Viv Richards, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, and Yuvraj Singh, and I also get to interact regularly with sports journalists. Plus, there have been tons of autobiographies and other books by cricketers, all of which I’ve devoured. All those insights came in very handy while writing The Big Fix.

Author and journalist Vikas Singh 
Photo: www.thedesijourney.blogspot.in

What prompted you to ground your debut novel on cricket?
I had always found it strange that hardly any fiction is written about a game that is so inherently packed with drama and thrills as cricket. There have been many outstanding non-fiction works, but good novels based on cricket have been few and far between. The honourable exceptions include Chinaman and The Zoya Factor, but even they didn’t really provide the cricketer’s perspective. As a reader, you don’t get to inhabit the players’ minds during those tense last-ball finishes. Why do some players thrive under pressure, while others crack? To me, that’s one of the most fascinating mysteries of cricket.

Simultaneously, there have been lots of real-life controversies. There was Bob Woolmer’s dramatic death in the 2007 World Cup, and the conviction of three Pakistani cricketers for spot-fixing in 2010. Last year, India TV did a sting operation which seemed to show some little-known players openly discussing fixing. And, of course, this year there were allegations concerning S. Sreesanth and other players from Rajasthan Royals. I thought if I could combine the on-field action with an off-field whodunit, it would make for an interesting book. So that’s what I set out to do. How far I succeeded is for readers to judge.

Did you meet with current or former cricketers, senior police and cricket board officials, and sports journalists to research for your book?
Yes, though for obvious reasons, they prefer to stay off the record. The one police officer I've mentioned in the acknowledgements is Satyendra Garg, who’s now IG, Law & Order, in Arunachal Pradesh, but was in Delhi while I was writing the book. He spent a lot of time explaining investigation procedures and techniques to me, though we didn’t specifically discuss the fixing case since he wasn't involved in those investigations. Incidentally, I’m part of a panel discussion on December 7 at the Times Literary Carnival with Neeraj Kumar, the former Commissioner of Delhi who actually led the investigations. It’s a session that I’m really looking forward to.

How much of the events in the story are based on real betting incidents in the cricketing world?
I’d say about 50 per cent is based on stuff that actually happened, or was rumoured to have taken place, while the remaining 50 per cent is pure imagination. It’s up to readers to figure out which is which!

The novel is told in the present tense and Shaurya Chauhan and Mitakshara, the two main protagonists, narrate their individual stories in the first person. Do you think readers would be comfortable with this approach?
I certainly hope so. The way I visualised the book, there would be two parallel storylines–one, the cricketing action, and two, the investigations and finally, they would converge at the climax. I was keen on Shaurya’s perspective because I wanted to make sure that the cricket part of the story didn’t get relegated to the periphery. But there was no way Shaurya could have known about all the stuff going on in the investigations, so you needed another point of view. It could, of course, have been the chief investigator’s perspective but having Mitakshara allowed me to bring in a romantic angle.

Have any cricketers read The Big Fix? If yes, what did they think of it?
Former India player Deep Dasgupta tweeted that he loved the book. Another former India player, Aakash Chopra, tweeted that if you’re into cricket, The Big Fix is a must-read. I really like reading Aakash’s columns, and I think he explains the technical nuances of the game better than anybody else, so I was quite thrilled that he enjoyed the book. Leading cricket websites like cricbuzz and cricketcountry have praised the book, as has Wisden India. And yes, some players who are currently playing have told me that they enjoyed reading the book, but are reluctant to say so publicly since some rather powerful individuals are being probed right now.

Do you think your novel will be of interest to readers in the non-cricketing nations?
Well, the South Asian diaspora is present in virtually every part of the world, so I’m sure the book will find readers even in countries which aren't usually associated with cricket. Of course, even if everybody who likes cricket reads the book, that’s a fairly large audience by itself!


I cannot help this question: is the character of Howard Jensen based on the English-born cricketer and international coach Bob Woolmer who died in 2007 under mysterious circumstances in a hotel room in Jamaica?
Well, the circumstances in which Bob Woolmer died certainly acted as a catalyst for my imagination. Of course, it was finally concluded officially that he died of natural causes, but conspiracy theorists remain unconvinced. Bob’s death was a terrible tragedy for his family and the world of cricket, and I have absolutely no desire to trivialise it. But it did act as a starting point for the book, though I have to say that the personality of Howard Jensen, and the final explanation in the book for his death, bears no resemblance whatsoever to Bob Woolmer and his life.

Can you put a real name or face on Shaurya Chauhan or is he an imaginary character who resembles one or more Indian cricketers?
About 50 per cent of Shaurya’s characteristics are a mixture of some of my favourite cricketers. The balance 50 per cent comes from my imagination. I can name the players but I think it would be a lot more fun for readers if they figured it out for themselves. It’s not particularly hard, really.

In the book Shaurya Chauhan comes across as a perfect specimen of a human being. Is his flawless character meant to send a message to a game tainted by match fixing scandals as well as to its many practitioners?
I don’t think he’s flawless. He’s stubborn and argumentative, and often loses his cool, much to his regret. As a captain, he tends to be authoritarian and takes some rather risky decisions, like plucking a teenager literally out of nowhere and throwing him straight into a big match. But yes, he’s clean and untainted by fixing. When I was writing the book, I met many people who told me they had lost interest in cricket because of the numerous fixing scandals. In a sense, the book reflected my angst as a cricket lover, particularly because I know that there are still some players who’re fiercely devoted to the game and will never stoop to unethical practices. I wanted Shaurya to symbolically represent these players.

Incidentally, I was very tempted to throw in one line at the end, where Shaurya looks at a bookie kingpin seated in the audience and winks at him. That would have given the book a real O’Henry-kind of twist in the tail. But it would also have been a betrayal of the character of Shaurya Chauhan and everything he stands for. So finally, I went with the present ending.

Mitakshara, the second major character in your novel, has the scoop of a lifetime but her feelings for Shaurya prevent her from writing her story and although she is around until nearly the end, I thought her role ended abruptly. Can you talk about her characterisation?
Well, you will get to see a lot more of Mitakshara in my next book, in which she really comes into her own. Obviously, I’m biased, but I do think that she’s one of the feistiest female characters you’ll encounter. She’s smart, sassy, loyal, and affectionate. And she has a strong sense of fair play, which is why she doesn’t break the scoop to begin with, because she doesn’t want Shaurya to be condemned even before he’s had a chance to prove his innocence.


Vikas, how long did you take to write The Big Fix? Can you briefly take me through your writing process? For instance, how many words did you write everyday?
From the time I wrote the first line of The Big Fix to the time I wrote the last line, it took me exactly 43 days. I guess the story must have been bubbling away at the back of my mind for a while, because once I actually sat down to write it, it just flowed. I have a slightly weird work day, in the sense that I go into office in the afternoon and stay till well past midnight, so I had kept the mornings to write. I gave myself a target of writing about 500 words every day. But on most days, I found myself doing about 1,500 words. For me, the hard part was not the writing but forcing myself to stop!

I assume your next book is a suspense thriller called Another Time, Another Place. Would you like to tell me more about it?
My working title for the book was Love And Other Terrors, though I think we’ll finally publish it as Another Time, Another Place. It’s a Woody Allenesque romance that suddenly transforms into a thriller, with a terror plot thrown in. Yogi Mehta, who gets a one-line reference in The Big Fix (on Page 207), is one of the major characters. And, of course, so is Mitakshara. It’s not exactly a sequel to The Big Fix, because there’s no cricket involved, but it takes Mitakshara’s story forward and some other characters from The Big Fix also pop in and out of the book.

What kind of books do you read, in what genres, and who are some of your favourite writers?
It’s a long, eclectic list and includes John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro (I was delighted she won the Nobel this year, though I was hoping that Murakami would get it), Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Conn Iggulden, Rick Riordan, George RR Martin (please God, don’t let him die before he completes the Game of Thrones series), JRR Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, P.G. Wodehouse, Larry Gonick, Neil Gaiman, and Lee Child (Jack Reacher is one of my favourite literary characters, though having Tom Cruise play him is a mistake IMHO. I’d like to see Cruise and Hugh Jackman switch roles, with Cruise playing Wolverine and Jackman Reacher. That would be a much closer match to the original physical descriptions of the characters).

According to your profile, your house in Delhi has more books than furniture. What is your private library like?
It tends to change quite a bit, because every few months, when it becomes hard to find seating space for guests, I give away lots of books to friends, colleagues, libraries, and NGOs. I try to make sure that I match the books to the tastes of the people who are getting them–I want the books I give away to find loving homes. Though, some old favourites stay with me–mostly books written by the authors mentioned above.

Finally, what do you think of current Indian writing in English?
There’s obviously a very strong literary tradition of Indian writing in English. Among the authors who’re currently active, I have a lot of admiration for Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Amitav Ghosh. But I'm also delighted to see the emergence of a new generation of very interesting, commercially successful Indian popular writers. Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi top the list, of course. But people like Piyush Jha, Madhulika Liddle, Anuja Chauhan, and Ravi Subramanian are pretty readable too.