Wednesday, July 31, 2013

‘Those were the days my friend’

I have published fewer posts this month because of my preoccupation with things which at this point seem more exciting than writing, like reading for the hundredth time all the Asterix and Tintin comics, watching standup comedies on YouTube and The Big Bang Theory, Mind Your Language, and reruns of Friends on television, and experimenting with my new tablet which has become something of an addiction. 

In between these pursuits I have been reading both books and ebooks, though at a slower pace, and listening to music. Hans Zimmer, REM, Peter Frampton, Richard Marx, and Tears for Fears are the current flavours. Next week it will be someone else.

Of the standup comedies I watched, two standups had me laughing all over the place. One was Jim Carrey's mimicking tribute to Clint Eastwood at the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1996 and the other was Ray Romano's parental jokes delivered at a show before Everybody Loves Raymond was beamed into our living rooms. Click on the links and have a good laugh.

Towards the end of his five-minute act, Romano tells us why, given a choice, he'd like to go back to being a three-year old rather than a teenager as most people want to. Apparently, one day he was driving his then three-year old daughter, Alexandra, when he caught her looking out of the car window for 15 minutes, “staring at nothing” in particular. When he asked “Ally” what she was dreaming about, she said, “Candy.” 

"Candy!" Romano cries out in his familiar nasal voice. Do adults ever sit back and dream about candy? What would the middle-aged version of thinking about candy be like? No spoilers. Again, open the link and see for yourself. To the uninitiated Everybody Loves Raymond was based on Ray Romano's life.

The candy of Ally's and our childhood reminded me of the simple pleasures I derived in my own. I came up with 10 things I enjoyed as a kid. Some of these are gone while others are still around, in new avatars that don't look or feel the same.

Rubik’s Cube was a challenge and a frustration at the same time. In spite of studying dozens of DIY booklets carefully, I never got it right. It would raise my blood pressure if I tried it today.

The Phantom cigarettes were the only ones I ‘smoked’ in all my life. They tasted good. I didn’t need nicotine patches to kick the habit. The ‘cigarettes’ simply vanished.

The jigsaw puzzle of the world map got me hooked into the atlas and finding out the capitals of various countries became a pleasant and an educative pastime. I find the atlas as engrossing as a murder mystery.

The Meccano set gave me the earliest indication that I wasn’t cut out for the construction or equipment industry. Everything fell apart. A few nuts and bolts would be missing each time I put away the set. I had better luck building a pyramid against a wall with a crisp, razor-edged stack of cards.

The jumble, which many Indian newspapers by an act of compassion still carry, was fun to solve. Grandparents were fond of it too. It used to appear in the Sunday papers and my English teacher in 7th standard (grade) got us to crack the jumble in his class first thing Monday morning. I used to top the class because I’d solve it over the weekend. He didn’t know that, of course.

What were the “candies” of your childhood or early teens? 

Note: The headline is a popular line from the sentimental song by Mary Hopkin.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Five overused words

On July 24, Allied Authors, one of Wisconsin's oldest writing collectives, published an interesting article on five overused words—Then, Also, And, Said, and Was—that "fledgling writers" like this blogger use more than necessary. The piece was written by David Michael Williams, a fantasy/sf writer and Allied Authors member. You can read it at Allied Authors or on the author's website where it first appeared on June 20, 2013.

Out of curiosity I checked the number of times I'd used the five words on this entire page. In 14 posts, not counting this one, I used "Then" 10 times, "Also" 12 times, "And" 308 times, "Said" 3 times, and "Was" 16 times. 

How many "times" does that make?!

A simple Ctrl+F tells me where I'd overused the words "Then" and "Also." I'm okay with the count for "And" as it appears almost everywhere including in words and terms like "Land," "Laurel and Hardy," "England," "Mandrake," and "Demanding." The numbers for "Said" and "Was" across 14 posts seem fair.

The next time I proofread my copy I'm going to keep a finger on "Delete" and ensure that I don't overuse it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Vultures in the Sun by Brian Garfield (1987)

A replica of my copy of the book
They hired a town tamer named Ethan Scott, a coldly efficient gunfighter with a dark reputation. Everyone knew that some blood would be shed before there could be peace. The only question was, whose blood would it be?

Any writer who has authored more than seventy books including nonfiction requires no introduction. Like Brian Garfield (74) who has not only been a prolific writer but has also redefined the way fiction is written. He has brought a refreshing style to many popular fiction like western, thriller, espionage, and mystery. There is a perfect balance between his stories and characters. If you haven’t read his books yet then I suggest you should. Garfield is a very good writer.

Most readers identify the American novelist and screenwriter with the Death Wish series, his most prominent work, and Hopscotch, the Edgar Award winning spy thriller. There is nothing wrong with this. Every author is known for one or two major works. For instance, think Frederick Forsyth and you’re thinking The Day of the Jackal; think Kurt Vonnegut and you promptly mention Slaughterhouse Five; think John Irving and you tick off The World According to Garp; think Joseph Heller and you’re picturing Catch-22; think John le Carré and you remember The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; think Robert Ludlum and you point to the Bourne trilogy, and so on and so forth.

I consider Brian Garfield to be one of the finest writers of frontier fiction, for his westerns like Tripwire (1973) and Apache Canyon (1986), and Buchanan’s Gun (1968), his single contribution to the Tom Buchanan series created by William Ard, all of them under the pseudonym Jonas Ward. Lesser-known books usually draw my attention to an author’s work. While I haven’t read every book by Garfield, I can single out the Russia-centric suspense novels Kolchak’s Gold and The Romanov Succession (both 1974), which I have read, and The Paladin (1980), a WWII novel in my possession and waiting to be read. A lot of good things have been said about this novel.

Vultures in the Sun is one of Garfield’s latter-day westerns. At 149 pages, it tells the story of dreaded Arizona gunfighter Ethan Scott who is hired by the wealthy mine owners of Lodestar to eliminate a gang of outlaws led by Henry Dierkes who have been hijacking their monthly payrolls and ore shipments.

Guy Murvain and Tom Larabee, the two largest mine and land owners, stand to lose the most in the large town divided, down its middle, by the respectable and the seedy. While they hire Ethan Scott, they don’t bargain for his ways: the gunfighter, sporting a black moustache, deep-set eyes and two guns, stares at his opponents till they’re provoked into drawing first and dropping dead in the ensuing gunfight. The bodies soon pile up. Dierkes loses men but not the will to confront his old enemy.

Matters come to a head when Ethan Scott fires at Tom Larabee and breaks his gun arm in defence of his “friend” Krayle MacIver, owner of the largest saloon in Lodestar. Guy Murvain realises he might have bitten more than he can chew. He tries to tame the town tamer by demanding the gunman’s loyalty towards the mine owners, but in vain.

“No man can hire my loyalty. My loyalty is to myself alone. What you've paid for is not loyalty but the performance of a job—and I’m performing that job. Mr. Murvain, when I took the job it was with the understanding that I would clean up the district—my way.”

Ethan Scott cleans up Lodestar his way, in a style reminiscent of Tombstone, except he does it alone with both his guns blazing.

Most westerns have a predictable storyline; the difference lies in the way they’re told. Garfield is a past master at this. He weaves the all-too familiar plot into a tight narrative with an equal share of clean prose and dialogue that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end. The description of the town of Lodestar and the hostile terrain of Peacock Gorge, the hideout of the toughs, an essential part of every western, is kept to a bare minimum.

The dialogue between the lead characters is straightforward. The characters, apart from Ethan Scott and the others, include Krayle MacIver, an old acquaintance who endears himself to the gunman; the beautiful Marla Searles, a partner in MacIver’s saloon and Scott’s former girl; Nita Matlock, who runs a café and MacIver’s love interest; and Sheriff Eugenio Castillo, who casts his lot with Henry Dierkes before fleeing the town. There is a quiet vulnerability about each of the unique characters, particularly Scott who much as he'd like to refuses to change his hard and impersonal existence, because the gun has made him what he is.

“I didn’t make the rules, Marla. But I've had to learn them.”

One of the milder westerns I've read in recent times, Vultures in the Sun is nonetheless a stark portrayal of hardened men in an unforgiving land called the frontier.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Reading Habits #1: 5 Questions

Q. How do you review a book? Do you take notes as you read the book and then review it? Or do you read the book first and then write about it from memory?
My answer: I don't take notes as I read because I don't know how to. The first and last time I tried I almost wrote down the entire book. I didn't know what to leave out. Taking down notes, for a book review or a newspaper report, is an art. I have better luck with the latter.

Q. Do you jump descriptions of places and landscapes and read just the operative part?
My answer  Never, not even if the lengthy descriptions threaten to put me to sleep. I can sail through a detailed sketch of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the Mojave Desert or the Savannah with ease. The first dozen-odd pages of Hawaii by James A. Michener is a good place to test your patience, or the lack of it. An uncle of mine used to read westerns inside of an hour: he'd only read parts with action and dialogue and skip everything else.

Q. Are you equally comfortable reading a physical book and an ebook?
My answer  Both work for me though one disadvantage in an e-reader is that you can't flip back pages as easily as you can in a paperback. Sometimes I need to go back a few pages to reacquaint myself with a character or incident, especially since I read three books at a time. With an e-reader you don't know how far back to go.

Q. Do you read books by the same author back to back?
My answer  I often have, with P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance; but same-author books can get monotonous. I have recently put an end to this practice. Now I read authors 2, 3, 4 & 5 before going back to author 1.

Q. Do you read a book from start to finish or do you pick up another book midway?
My answer  Since I read three books at a time I can't afford to be bored and pick up a fourth or fifth book. However, I'm tardy in finishing the classics. It took me over a month to read up The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I remember forgetting all about Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I picked it up again six months after I started reading it and found I hadn't even reached page 200.

What are your reading peeves?

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Fast Forward (1985)

Todd Mason has the links to this Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at his blog Sweet Freedom.

"When you've got one shot at the top you've got to move."

I saw Fast Forward, a musical dance drama directed by Sidney Poitier, in the cinema hall in the late eighties and the only thing I remember about this film is some good music and some terrific dancing, a lot of it on the streets of New York. There was something contagious about the way the group of youngsters danced wherever they could, even along the wayside, keeping step and rhythm with the blaring sounds from an old music system, a two-in-one I think.

I don't recall the story or the actors but I remember liking the movie a lot. Fast Forward was a simple film and streets ahead of the technically superior dance films that came later including the more recent Step Up.

The synopsis on IMDb says, "Eight young people from Ohio who are dancers, come to New York, to compete in a major talent competition. But when they get there, they learn that they have to wait some time before they take part in it. So they try to do their best to survive in the Big Apple before competition, and get some lessons about the real World." If you want to know more, read this article at Wikipedia.

I don't know how Poitier came to direct this film. It'd be interesting to find out. Try and see Fast Forward if you can. You'll enjoy it.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Ten animal comics I grew up with

Off the top of my head, these are some of the animal comic books that I read as a kid, and still do, as one who has never really grown up. I've left out many such as Jughead's old English sheepdog, Hot Dog, which I don't recall reading as a separate comic. 

Then there is Tintin's terrier, Snowy, and Obelix's Gaulish dog, Dogmatix, in Asterix comics, but they didn't have comics of their own. Come to think of it, Dogmatix did have a small comic book of his own.

I have left out animals from comic strips like Fred Basset, Marmaduke, Hobbes, Garfield, and Dennis the Menace's Ruff, perhaps, in another post.

I can't help thinking I've left out some obvious names. If you can think of any, let me know.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Racism in Phantom and Mandrake comics

I offer this post as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books which Todd Mason is hosting at Sweet Freedom in place of Patti Abbot who usually does the honours at her blog Pattinase.

A childhood without comics is like a newspaper without the comics page.

Phantom—The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die and Guardian of the Eastern Dark—and Mandrake the Magician—who gestures hypnotically—are considered racist comics by many and for more than one reason. Personally, I've never read them with prejudice. To me they're just comic books, to be read and savoured.

I'm sure Lee Falk, the American writer, director and producer who created the famous heroes, never meant the comic strips to be racist. Mandrake first appeared in 1934 preceding Phantom by two years. I think he wanted both the strips to be original and appealing and popular, which they have been over 70-odd years of their existence. Over the years the comics have gone through a few changes.

However, the racist implications in both the comics are unmistakable. 

The Phantom reads out to Guran. I have no idea what.

Initially, Phantom’s abode, the Deep Woods, was located in Bengali, probably a reference to Bengal in eastern India. It all started when a band of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood attack the ship captained by Christopher Walker’s father somewhere in the 16th century.

The 20-year old lad witnesses his father’s brutal murder by the pirates in the Bay of Bengalla (which, I think, is Bay of Bengal) and takes an irreversible oath on the skull of the killer-pirate.

"I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms! My sons and their sons shall follow me."

Christopher Walker thus became the first Phantom. We are now reading the adventures of the 21st century Phantom, known to us as Kit Walker, married to Diana, who works for the UN, and with twins, Kit and Heloise.

The portrayal of the Singh Brotherhood (not that it exists) as thieving and murdering pirates raised objections in India, prompting Lee Falk to take Phantom out of Bengali and transport him to a far-away jungle near Denkali in Africa. I don’t know how far this is true. I believe Bengali (originally Bengalla) was supposed to be a fictional country located near India, but the similarities between the two are all too obvious.

The racist charge doesn't end there. The young Christopher Walker, the sole survivor of the pirate attack, is washed ashore on a Bengali (or Denkali) beach and is saved by pygmies of the dreaded Bandar tribe, the poison people, who nurse him back to health. Now the pygmies are the only people who know that The Ghost Who Walks is a mortal with a long line of Phantom ancestry. Believing him to be the Man Who Cannot Die, the other jungle tribes worship the masked hero and even bow before him. He is treated like the lord of the jungle. He is their messiah, their saviour, their guardian. His every word and wish is their command. Phantom, of course, treats them with respect and kindness. 

Mandrake and Lothar
Lothar, the black prince, is to Mandrake the Magician what the Bandar tribe and its present-day leader, Guran, are to the Phantom. Lothar, a classic image of Mr. Universe, is Mandrake’s man Friday, sidekick, bodyguard, and troubleshooter. In reality, he is the magician’s best friend and confidant. A quiet man with impeccable integrity, Lothar does what Mandrake tells him to do, including thumping the bad guys when the need arises. He lives with Mandrake in his high-security mansion, Xanadu, and their respective girlfriends, Princess Narda from Europe, and Princess Karma, a black African model.

I first read Phantom and Mandrake comics in school. At that time it never occurred to me that both the crusaders against crime were white or that their friends were black. I read the comics in all innocence. I still read comics except now I also see them through tinted eyes. I don't let it bother me. I read comics because I love reading them.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Books I read in the first quarter

The first quarter results (April to June) of books I read indicate an average of five books a month, not exactly a healthy balance sheet. During the period I read a total of 17 books. This included five non-fiction. I also read many comic books.

In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect by American journalist and author Ronald Kessler was particularly fascinating.

It offered an inside look at how the Secret Service—the men who would take a bullet for the President—functions in every department starting with its origins under the Department of the Treasury more than a hundred years ago to its present-day avatar under the Department of Homeland Security; the rigid ways of the USSS management, the surprisingly high attrition rate within the ‘force’ and the reasons for it; the protection of America’s first family as well as other important dignitaries and what it entails in terms of mind, men, money, and machinery; and hundreds of interesting anecdotes and juicy tidbits about Presidents and their families from JFK downwards. There are too many to mention here.

But guess which two Presidents were most popular with Secret Service agents? The two Bushes and their wives, Barbara and Laura, who treated the wired men in dark suits and dark glasses with respect and understanding.

In the President's Secret Service told me two things: in spite of being an elite security force, the Secret Service cuts corners that puts the President and other protectees at risk and the job of a Secret Service agent is by no means glamourous as one might believe it to be. The book engages as well as entertains the reader even if its contents can be interpreted as being highly contentious.

Elsewhere: I was disappointed with my reading in two areas: classics and detective-mystery. I read only one of each in the entire quarter when I hoped to read two of each every month. I still have three quarters to try and make up. I also plan to read more humour than I do beginning with James Thurber’s wit.

Here then are the 17 books I read in the last three months. Only 10 of these books, including Kessler’s, have been reviewed or written about in this space.


01. Tales From Firozsha Baag, a collection of 11 short stories about the ethnic Zoroastrian (Parsi) community in Mumbai, by Rohinton Mistry, the award-winning India-born Canadian writer
02. No Comebacks, a collection of 10 short stories with a twist in each plot, by Frederick Forsyth

Spy Thriller
03. The Athena Project by Brad Thor
04. Chameleon Kill, the fifth novel in the The Terminator series, by John Quinn
05. The Iron Tiger by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson)

06. Hard Texas Winter, a western by Preston Lewis
07. Breakheart Pass by Alistair MacLean

08. In the Heat of the Night by John Ball
09. The Snake by Mickey Spillane

10. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

11. The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

12. The Man Upstairs and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse


13. In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect by Ronald Kessler

14. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist monk and author

15. Renewal: A Little Book of Courage and Hope by Eknath Easwaran, spiritual teacher who founded the Blue Mountain Centre of Meditation in California

16. India To-day (1913) by Oliver Bainbridge, an author and lecturer from Australia

17. Rediscover the Power of Positive Thinking, a revised version of The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, minister and author

Monday, July 01, 2013

No salt in Salt (2010)

The White House has unimaginable layers of security with Secret Service personnel trained for nothing short of a war guarding it from both within and outside. Yet, “rogue” CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), disguised as a male Russian army captain, walks into the world’s most famous residence like she was walking into her own house, shoots her way through the seemingly impregnable fortress, and manages to go down to the bunker where agents are guarding the President. In the bunker, her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), who is the real spy, knocks the President unconscious and uses his hand to try and activate the codes that will launch nuclear missiles in the Middle East. Jolie and Schreiber spend several minutes having a tête-à-tête and fighting and shooting each other, even as the President lies comatose on the floor and elite commandos try to blast their way into the bunker. All this happens in the bowels of the White House.

I thought the entire scene, in fact the entire film, in spite of the slick production and death-defying action, was silly and over the top and not even remotely realistic. Besides, I couldn't figure out whether Jolie’s character was a good guy or a bad guy. Nonetheless, with women like Salt, you don't need superheroes.

Salt reminded me of another technically-brilliant film with a more or less similar theme: the Mission: Impossible series, especially Ghost Protocol (2011), which I saw with some disbelief last week.

I have seen only three films of Angelina Jolie including the equally silly Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and The Tourist (2010), the latter mainly for Johnny Depp, and heard her voice in two others, Shark Tale (2004) and the Kung Fu Panda films. I watched Salt on cable because nothing worthwhile was going on. I didn’t realise it would be as insipid as the rest of the fare going on at the time.