Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Odds and ends

Diwali spring-clean, pest control, and car servicing, which cost roughly Rs.6,800 ($110), all got in the way of watching an old movie and writing about it for overlooked films yesterday. The annual and periodic tasks carried out by hired hands, including a local gardener, also got in the way of my planned review of the two books I finished reading last week. I intend to review one of these, a Western that reads like Young Adult, for forgotten books on Friday.

A word about the hired hands. They are mostly poor migrants from the interiors of North, East, and South India who come to cities like Mumbai in search of opportunity and livelihood, and possibly a career in Bollywood as inconspicuous extras. They usually leave their families behind and send their meagre earnings home every month. In spite of the government's claim that its grand social schemes have increased employment in small towns and villages, jobs are scarce in the rural areas. This is mainly because of the decline of India's traditional agrarian economy vis-à-vis the rise of the services sector which now accounts for almost 60 per cent of the economy.

The rural-to-urban exodus is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the young men are willing to do all kinds of menial jobs for a small price, saving you a lot of trouble and hard work, and a curse because they're adding to the city's millions and its poor infrastructure.

A shoeshine boy at a local railway station in Mumbai.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The migrants do more than drive cars, autos, buses, and trucks; sell fruits and vegetables; hawk all kinds of cheap foods; deliver milk and newspapers; polish shoes, cut hair, and clean ears, do housekeeping in malls and multiplexes, in schools and offices; and wait on people in restaurants and supermarkets. The two men, who spruced up my home for Diwali next week, wash cars and maintain gardens in the neighbourhood. They did a good job. I paid them a total of Rs.800 ($13). It's handy money for the handymen. “Tell me if you have any other work. I’m free on weekends,” one of them said before leaving. For one who works 45 hours and commutes 12 hours a week, that is music to the ears.

It’s the language, you know!
Last week, I attended a daylong conference on the real estate industry and was a touch annoyed when many of the qualified speakers uttered “you know” after every few words. If “you know” is meant to replace the studied pause during a speech, then it's a poor substitute. Its misuse has more to do with the speaker being nervous or unsure of what to say next than with anything else. I have noticed this trend among Western celebrities who carry it off well that you don’t really notice it; maybe, it's the in-thing to do, you know.

Here’s another peeve: the Indian print media is keeping up with the times, mainly technology, but some things haven't changed, like using the word “indeed” for emphasis both in speech and text. Rounding up a quote, a story or an article with “Be that as it may” and “Having said that” is equally annoying. Worst of all are newspaper headlines that read “Now, pay medical cover premium in food grains!” and “Soon, retain cell number even if you move cities.” These appeared in a leading English daily, a habitual offender. I fail to see how prefixing headlines with the words “now” and “soon” can add value. They read just as well without them.

Festival of Lights
Next week is Diwali, the festival of lights, and most people in India have at least a three-day break starting November 3, when Hindus will worship Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu, the supreme god, by lighting small oil lamps within and outside their homes and praying for the health and wealth of both family and business. This is immediately followed by the Hindu New Year. The last day of Diwali is Bhau-Beej (known variously) when sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers (in August we have Raksha Bandhan [bond of protection] when sisters tie rakhi threads on the wrists of their brothers who in turn pledge to protect their sisters for life). In both cases, the brothers have to present their sisters with gifts, never the other way round.

The traditional oil lamp lit during Diwali.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The five-day festival of lights, colour, and gaiety is celebrated by wearing new clothes, lighting up the house, worshipping the deities, eating sweets, eating out, firing crackers, and visiting family and friends. The bursting of crackers and bombs with little control on the stipulated decibel levels and until late into the night makes it the noisiest festival in India and an absolute nightmare for dogs, both pets and strays, whose sense of helplessness is evident in their terrified behaviour. I know what my pet will go through. It takes the fun out of Diwali every year.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reading Habits #3: Do book excerpts influence you?

Until the last decade, Indian newspapers and magazines used to reproduce excerpts from a book reviewed by a critic, both appearing on the same page. I’d first read the extract in the small box and if I liked it, I’d proceed to the review, though most of the time I didn’t read it. The extract was enough to help me decide whether to read the book or not.

The reason I enjoyed reading the excerpts first and not the review was the author’s writing style which to this day influences my decision to read fiction, except now I also read the reviews.

While the blurb on the back of a book can goad me into reading a book, it is the opening lines or random paragraphs within that have a special appeal for me. In bookstores, I frequently riffle through a book to see if I’m going to like it. I agree it’s strange that I should choose to read a book without knowing what it is about.

Today, Indian periodicals no longer carry short excerpts. The monolithic online review factory has taken care of that. Instead, they take permission from the publisher to reproduce an entire meaningful chapter from a new book, usually non-fiction, and carry it across centre spread marked “Exclusive Extracts”. I have no patience to read it. It also puts me off the book.

Would you read a novel based on an excerpt? I think not.

For Reading Habits #1 & 2, look under Labels.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Action Comics #1, an anthology of comics, 1938

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

The only time you hear or read about Action Comics #1, 1938, is when newspapers report the sale of the first issue of the comic book to the highest bidder for over a million dollars, which has happened on a few occasions. Comic buffs who cannot even think of bidding for one can read this rare comic, or a part of it, online, as I did. It’s a very small consolation for one who is short of a million by several zeroes.

Action Comics #1 requires no formal introduction. Nor do Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who used it as a storyboard to bring Superman into our world. I’d never read the comic before and when I finally did, I was intrigued by a few things.

The Man of Steel, who is not known thus, has evolved by leaps and bounds from his era, the Golden Age, through the Modern Age of Comic Books. Neither is Superman’s real name, Kal-El, mentioned anywhere, which isn't surprising as his birth planet, Krypton, isn't mentioned either. He bears the name Kent even though his foster parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, are not in the picture yet. 

Superman in the comic and Superman in the 1978 movie.

Clark Kent, a reporter with The Daily Star and not The Daily Planet, is in love with Lois, not Lois Lane, who on her part is patronising towards him. She prefers his alter ego, although that isn't so obvious. When some hoodlums accost her, Kent plays it down by urging her to leave the dance hall. Lois, ever the feisty gal, slaps one of the men as Clark mutters “Good for you, Lois!” She then stomps off with the “spineless, unbearable coward” running behind her. When the gangsters kidnap her, he sheds his suit and dons his caped costume, the iconic Superman logo just a crude letter 'S'.

Among other things, Superman doesn't fly as much as he leaps in the air, climbs up the face of a building, and walks the tightrope. But he does smash cars and steel doors and takes bullets that ricochet off his chest.

I found this first issue interesting for two reasons.

One, Superman plays detective when he wakes up the governor in the middle of the night and gets him to pardon a girl minutes before she is to be put to death for a murder she didn’t commit. He leaves the real murderess tied up on the governor’s lawns.

Two, he gets involved in a family squabble when he slams an ugly looking man into the wall for beating his wife senseless.

As expected, Superman displays his feats of strength right from childhood, lifting a couch and a steel bar, racing a train, and clearing tall buildings with a giant leap. In one unit, his amazing strength is compared, scientifically, to that of an ant and a grasshopper.

While the comic is primitive by today's standards, as is to be expected, I was happy to see that the basic persona of Clark Kent/Superman has largely remained intact over the last 75 years. This is a rare treat for comic book lovers.

But did you know that Action Comics #1 is an anthology of 11 comic book stories? I did not. I have reproduced the rest of the contents below.

Chuck Dawson, a western, by Homer W. Fleming, primarily a political cartoonist whose work as writer, penciller, and inker appeared in Detective Comics, Action Comics, The Big All-American Comic Book, Classics Illustrated, Cowboy Western Comics, and Flash Comics.

Zatara, the master magician, and Pep Morgan by Fred B. Guardineer, American illustrator and comic book writer-artist during the Golden Age of Comic Books, best known for the western series The Durango Kid.

South Sea Strategy by Captain Frank Thomas, one of Walt Disney's team of animators known as the Nine Old Men. He co-authored Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, 1981, with fellow Disney legend Ollie Johnston.

Sticky-Mitt Stimson by Alger (real name: Russell Cole), another writer-artist from the Golden Age, created many of the early issues of Action Comics and Detective Comics.

The Adventures of Marco Polo by Sven Elven, who contributed artworks to various comic books including Fawcett and Centaur in the 1930 and 1940s.

Scooby the Five Star Reporter by William "Bill" Ely, another writer-penciller-inker who worked for National Periodicals Publications now famously known as DC Comics.

Tex Thompson, which was created by comics publisher-writer-editor Bernard Baily (with Ken Fitch), was a DC superhero known as Mr. America and The Americommando. He also created Spectre and Hourman.

Stardust by The Star-Gazer. I have no idea who he (or she) was.

Odds 'N Ends by Sheldon Moldoff, who died last year, was an American comic book artist whose famous characters included Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and Black Pirate (Jon Valor). He was one of Batman creator Bob Kane's ghost artists and went on to co-create other DC superheroes and supervillains like Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Bat-Mite, Bat-Girl, Batwoman, and Ace the Bat Hound.

I intend to track down some of these early comics online.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Few Good Men, 1992

For Overlooked Films, Audio & Video this Tuesday, head over to Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

A Few Good Men can be classified as an overlooked film if you haven't seen it yet. It is by no means a forgotten movie: I have seen it more than once.

The final courtroom battle between rookie lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) of the US Navy and highly decorated Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson), Commanding Officer, US Marine Corps, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, is the decisive moment in the entire film. Take this 20-minute high-voltage scene out and Judge Col. Julius Randolph (J.A. Preston) might have dismissed the court martial proceedings as a tad too boring.

Kaffee and his two assistants, Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), try all means to successfully defend the two US marines charged with the murder of a fellow marine, Private Santiago, at Guantanamo Bay. The defendants are accused of carrying out a Code Red order, “a violent extrajudicial punishment,” that Kaffee suspects was ordered by Jessup. He has no evidence to nail the colonel. As a last ditch attempt and at the risk of jeopardising his fledgling career, he puts the acerbic naval officer in the dock, in the thin hope that Jessup's military arrogance and disdain for the civilians he defends will be his undoing.

Aside from Cruise, Nicholson, Moore, and Pollak, A Few Good Men has a few more top actors in the form of Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and J.T. Walsh. But it's Cruise who steals the show with a very fine courtroom performance supported by the rest of the able cast that you can't help thinking might have been quietly told that this was his film; except for Nicholson, who is in his element as the thundering Col. Jessup. Those last 20 minutes are entirely his.

Before I leave you with the high-decibel verbal duel between Cruise and Nicholson (courtesy: IMDb), here’s a question: which other actor would have fit into Col. Jessup’s shoes? My answer: Gene Hackman. Check him out in Crimson Tide (1995) and Behind Enemy Lines (2001).

Now then, read how Nicholson cuts Cruise down to size…

Kaffee: Colonel Jessup, did you order the Code Red?
Judge Randolph: You don't have to answer that question!
Col. Jessup: I'll answer the question!
Col. Jessup: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I'm entitled to.
Col. Jessup: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!

Col. Jessup: You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honour, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?
Col. Jessup: I did the job I…
Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?
Col. Jessup: You're goddamn right I did!

A Few Good Men is directed by Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, The Bucket List) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) based on his play, of the same name, and which was apparently inspired by his lawyer sister’s proposed visit to Guantanamo Bay to defend some marines who nearly killed a fellow marine.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Of old books and dying telegrams

                                                                                                                          Photo © Prashant C. Trikannad

I usually don’t post pictures back to back. However, I couldn't resist posting this photograph I took last Sunday, of two largely secondhand booksellers in the old central business district of Mumbai. These fellows are “sitting” at the junction of Veer Nariman Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road at Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk, or Martyrs’ Square). A few more booksellers are on the opposite footpath, outside American Express Bank. They're the last of a handful of used booksellers in the area; the rest were driven out by the municipal corporation more than a decade ago. 

They sell all kinds of books including vintage paperbacks and hardbacks. The books are preserved in cellophane. Very rare books are rarely on display. They are hidden away and are brought out for regular customers or discerning readers. These booksellers know the value of their books for they seldom bargain. If you want a book, you buy it, perhaps with a marginal discount. If you haggle over the price too much, they turn their backs on you and put away the books.

If you look at the picture carefully, the third stall in line is a footwear seller whose immediate neighbour is a sugarcane juice seller (not in the frame) followed by a seller of stationery items (I think) and two more booksellers. The man with the large white sack walking along the footpath is a ragpicker or a scavenger, one of a thousand of his kind engaged in the city’s unorganised recycle trade. Every single non-biodegradable item that I throw out goes into his dirty sack, so to speak. You can enlarge the picture for a better look.

The stone facade that you see behind the booksellers is the Gothic-style Central Telegraph Office building erected by the British over a hundred years ago. A couple of months ago, India Post succumbed to competition from its virtual enemy—email, sms, whatsapp, whatnot—and officially shut down telegraph services across the country. The night before saw a mad scramble by people who wanted to dispatch one last telegram for the sake of posterity. The death of the telegram, after 163 years, made headlines the next morning. Hopefully, the old books will be around for a long time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Steamboats on the Mississippi

I received this lovely photograph of steamboats on the Mississippi River, 1907, by email. It shows hectic activity on the 6,210-km (3,860-mile) long river which rises in northern Minnesota and flows southward into the Gulf of Mexico. Steam-powered river boats carried both passengers and cargo up and down the river until the advent of the US railroad in early 19th century. Even then, steamboats continued to play a key role in trade and commerce till the 20th century. Frontier settlements came up in the Mississippi River region as well as on the vast and barren land between the river and the Rocky Mountains. Several rivers like the Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Arkansas are tributaries of this great river. The Mississippi has a rich history. It was the cradle of the Frontier.

For previous Vintage Pictures, see under Labels.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Draw by Jerome Bixby, 1954

This Friday, George Kelley takes over the reins of Forgotten Books from Patti Abbott. You can check out the links to many reviews of early and not so early fiction at his blog

Stories of the old West were filled with bad men who lived by the speed of their gun hand. Well, meet Buck Tarrant, who could outdraw them all. His secret: he didn't even have to reach for his weapon...

Illustrations by William Ashman
Buck Tarrant was a terrific shot, once he got his gun in his hand. Until then, he could only dream of taking Billy the Kid and “Wild Bill” Hickok and being the fastest gun from Mexico to Canada.

“He couldn't draw to save his life.”

And then one day something happens. Tarrant is practicing in front of a tree, pretending the tree is Billy the Kid, crouching, fumbling, drawing, shooting, when Joe Doolin, a local cowhand and narrator of the story, comes along on horseback. Mimicking the folks in the little town in Texas, Doolin pokes fun at Tarrant and nearly falls off his saddle when out of nowhere he sees the gun in the hands of the “bony runt of about eighteen.”

“I swear, I hadn't even seen his hand move, he'd drawn so fast! That gun just practically appeared in his hand!”

The story appeared in Amazing Stories,
March 1954
Suddenly, Doolin finds himself at the receiving end of Tarrant’s Peacemaker and his foul mouth. The terrified narrator knows he is a goner. But, the no-good kid with bulging eyes, a wide mouth, and buck teeth has other plans: he wants revenge against the townsfolk and he wants to prove he is the fastest gun alive. He orders the cowhand to run into town and tell Sheriff Ben Randolph that he, Tarrant, is coming for him.

The sheriff, who had collared the wayward boy on a few occasions, has two choices—he faces Tarrant or he gets out of town. Randolph decides to confront Tarrant. He is brave and quick on the draw but is he a match for the wild and reckless ‘gunman’?

That afternoon, Tarrant, looking ugly and fearsome, rides into the deserted town and goes into the Once Again Saloon for some free “likker” and a little fun at the expense of Menner, its owner, who had turned him out a couple of times. He uses the poor bartender’s ears for target practice.

“You know,” Buck said, grinning at how Menner's fear was crawling all over his face, “I can put a bullet right where I want to. Wanta see me do it?”

The twist in the tale comes in the form of Jacob Pratt, a professor of psychology who is passing through town on his way to San Francisco and, unlikely as it may seem, is at that moment sitting in the saloon nursing a drink. He finds out the reason behind Buck Tarrant’s newly-acquired speed with the gun: telekinesis. Tarrant thinks his gun into his hand and thinks it back into its holster.

“He just thinks his gun into his hand?”
“Faster than anyone could ever draw it?”
“Inconceivably faster. The time element is almost non-existent.”

If you want to know what happens to the gunfight between Buck Tarrant and Sheriff Ben Randolph, then you should read this very unusual 7,114-worded story. It’s fast-paced and entertaining all the way to the end.

Final word
Jerome Bixby has written a story with a time-tested theme, of a half-crazed cowboy who desperately wants to prove he is the deadliest gunman, and added a scientific element to it. The author’s work in science fiction may have inspired the tale. If Bixby meant to experiment, then he succeeds very well. He doesn’t tell us in which year or period the story is based. Given the setting, I'm assuming it is well before 1890, the year the term “telekinesis” was officially coined. In that sense, The Draw is before its time. Either way, the story is improbable but imaginative and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

About the author
Jerome Bixby (1923-1998) was an American short story writer, editor and scriptwriter. However, he was best known as a science fiction writer. Below are five important things about Bixby.

Photo source:
1. He wrote short stories, including sf and westerns, under his own name as well as pen names like D.B. Lewis, Harry Neal, Albert Russell, J. Russell, M. St. Vivant, Thornecliff Herrick, and Alger Rome.

2. He was the editor of Planet Stories and Two Complete Science Adventure Books.

3. He wrote the 1953 story It's a Good Life which became an episode of The Twilight Zone and was later included in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).

4. He wrote four episodes for the Star Trek series and co-wrote the story for Fantastic Voyage (1966), the classic sf movie based on a novel by Isaac Asimov.

5. He completed the screenplay of The Man From Earth in his final days. In 2007, it was made into a film, produced by his son Emerson Bixby and directed by Richard Schenkman.

You can read more about Drexel Jerome Lewis Bixby at Wikipedia, sfsite, and Weird Fiction Review. Todd Mason has often written about the writer at his blog Sweet Freedom.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What’s in a meme?

Etymology: derived from the Greek mimëma, ‘something imitated,’ by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976.

I first heard of the word “meme” (pronounced as meem) after I started blogging in August 2009 and subsequently enrolling in two memes—Tuesday’s overlooked films, audio and video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom and Friday’s forgotten books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

While I haven't always been a regular participant, I have connected with lots of interesting people (and intrepid bloggers) who are. Their knowledge of films and books across genres has enriched my own. For me, this has been the biggest reward of a meme, not just the ones I'm a part of but even those where I’m not. Sometimes it does well to sit back and read what others are talking about. Another benefit is that it makes you disciplined, both as a reader and a reviewer.

What exactly is a meme? The internet is flush with definitions that say more or less the same thing. I selected five sources that gave five slightly different meanings.

Common definition: A meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. It acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.

Richard Dawkins: Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

Urban Dictionary: An idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media).

The online dictionary also describes meme, in blogspeak, as an idea that is spread from blog to blog.

InternetSlang: An idea that spreads like a virus by word of mouth, email, blogs etc.

The above two definitions are the ones I'm most comfortable with as I can tell others easily.

The Free Dictionary: A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

Then there is another thing called “internet meme” which, according to Wikipedia, is “an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet, as with imitating the concept. Some notable examples include posting a photo of people in public places or uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.”

I see little difference between a meme and an internet meme.

My basic understanding of a meme is that it refers to the collective imitation or replication of a specific idea, a theme or a concept in which players or participants are free to choose their topic or subject provided it corresponds with the idea, theme or concept as specified.

For example, under Friday’s Forgotten Books, a meme now in its sixth year I think, you are free to review any book so long as it is, indeed, forgotten, as in a rare or vintage mystery that you seldom hear or read about. Here “forgotten book” is the idea, theme or concept.

A meme, also known as a challenge on some blogs, takes a different turn when, say, a particular book or author is specified. Patti Abbott recently hosted Patricia Highsmith for FFB where you had to review only books by the American author. Ross Macdonald is up next, on November 8.

There is a slight twist in the meme, however. Even when the idea and the topic are specified, you can still broaden their scope to suit your taste. For instance, if you couldn't read and review a novel by Patricia Highsmith, you could still write about her in other ways, say, an essay, a short story review or a compilation of quotes. I did something like that for the Georges Simenon FFB on July 20, 2012. I couldn't find a single book by the iconic writer, so I did the next best thing: I wrote about my futile search for Georges Simenon. In this sense memes afford leniency but that would depend on the promoter of the meme. Patti and Todd have been extra generous.

I'd also like to think of a meme as a domino effect, in the positive sense of the term. Now after all that I hope I haven't got my meme wrong. What are your thoughts on this acculturation?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ants in the Plants, 1940

A classic animated feature film for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

“He's a menace, he's a brute, he will scoop you with his snoot.”

One of the joys of watching an animated film like Walt Disney’s The AristoCats (1970) or The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) in theatres, in the 70s, was the short cartoon clips that were often shown before the start of the film. They were like the appetiser before the main course, the small cup of steamed and salted corn before the large bag of popcorn, samosas, and coke.

Ants in the Plants, a classic animated short film by Max and Dave Fleischer of Disney rival Fleischer Studios, is about a bustling colony of brave and enterprising ants who find strategic ways to fight a pesky anteater hell-bent on devouring the ants with his periscopic snout. The ants work with military precision: they fight, suffer casualties, retreat, regroup, and eventually fall back on their “Sewer Side Squad” to drive away the enemy.

This 35mm Technicolor film has been labelled as a “war allegory” because of its emphasis on tactical preparation for a war.

Ants in the Plants is a cute little animated film. Its appeal lies in its old-style animation and its 7.32-minute length as opposed to its modern cousins like Antz (1998) and The Ant Bully (2006).

Click here to watch the film, again.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Westerns in my library

Every one of the westerns in the picture is crying out to be read. They’re sitting on one shelf of a wall unit sharing space with an army of Chinese-origin Laughing Buddhas, other classics and general fiction, and some curios. 

Laughing or Smiling Buddhas are supposed to bring good luck to those who keep them at home, but they've to be gifted by someone. They have been lucky for me, I guess, for I bought each of the secondhand (and tattered) western novels in the picture for Rs.10-20 (less than 25 cents). 

Click and enlarge for a better view. 

Some of these notable westerns are authored by Matt Chisholm, Jack Schaefer, Jory Sherman, Luke Short, George G. Gilman, Wayne D. Overholser, Loren D. Estleman, Dirk Fletcher, Jonas Ward, Giles A. Lutz, Peter Field, Louis L’Amour, Frank C. Robertson, Max Brand, Romer Zane Grey, and Robert J. Randisi. I haven’t read these particular books but I've read others by these fine authors. I have a few more stored elsewhere.

My prized collection of westerns is the Sudden series by the late British author Oliver Strange who wrote about the Wild West and his hero James Green alias Sudden, the Texas outlaw, without ever once crossing the Atlantic.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

‘Wonderful Tonight’ by Eric Clapton

A few days ago, I was watching an episode of Friends in which Monica proposes to Chandler and then Chandler proposes to Monica and then the two lovebirds hold each other and gently rock in the candlelit room as only the music of Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight plays in the background. That’s when I rediscovered this beautiful song, actually a ballad, though I wouldn't know the difference between the two. It forms part of Clapton’s 1977 album Slowhand.

According to an article at Wikipedia, Clapton wrote the song about Pattie Boyd, a model, photographer, and author, while waiting for her to get ready to attend a party hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney.

“For years it tore at me. To have inspired Eric, and George before him, to write such music was so flattering. Wonderful Tonight was the most poignant reminder of all that was good in our relationship, and when things went wrong it was torture to hear it,” said Boyd, who was first married to George Harrison and then to Eric Clapton.

For previous Music & Lyrics, see under 'Labels'

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Hell Is Too Crowded by Jack Higgins, 1962

Patti Abbot has all the links to Friday's Forgotten Books at her blog Pattinase.

“I’d have followed you to Hell if necessary,” Brady said.

“But Hell is too crowded, my friend,” Davos smiled gently. “There was never anything of a personal nature in this affair, Brady.”

Hell Is Too Crowded is a murder mystery which is interesting because Jack Higgins, the best-known pseudonym of British writer Harry Patterson, doesn’t write many of them. He usually writes spy and war thrillers in which the main characters are kind mercenaries, tough and battle-scarred, idealists with a fatalistic view of life, loners with little hope of any kind of redemption.

Matthew Brady has none of those characteristics but the structural engineer from Boston, Massachusetts, isn’t the kind of hero you'd normally find in a Jack Higgins novel. He is, in fact, a normal person who has been drinking to forget the woman who dumped him and ran off with his money. Standing alone on the embankment of the Thames in England, cut off from all human beings, Brady tries to make sense out of his life, when an attractive woman called Marie Duclos runs into him in the thick fog, apparently trying to get away from a stalker.

As gracious as all of Higgins’ heroes are, Brady is instinctively protective of her and accepts her invitation to spend the night at her place. He kisses her, has a drink, and passes out. When he opens his eyes, he finds himself in someone else’s nightmare—framed for the grisly murder of the French woman, a known prostitute.

“Her clothes had been ripped and shredded from her body. She sprawled there wantonly, her thighs spattered with blood, but it was the face which was the ultimate horror, a sticky, glutinous mess of pulped flesh.”

Inspector Mallory and Detective Gower of Scotland Yard take the half-dazed and half-drugged Matthew Brady into custody and it’s not long before he finds himself condemned to spend the rest of his innocent life in Manningham Gaol, a maximum-security prison.

Now Brady may not be anything like Sean Dillon or Paul Chavasse, the ex-IRA turned British agents and two of the author’s most famous heroes, but what he has in common with them is plenty of guts, a fighting spirit, a penchant for stupid risks, a brazen attitude, and the knowledge that he could be going down a one-way street.

Unbelievably, Brady escapes from Manningham and begins his hunt for the man (or men) who framed him. I found it slightly reminiscent of Andy Dufresne's escape from the Shawshank State Penitentiary in The Shawshank Redemption.

There hasn't been a Jack Higgins novel that doesn’t have a lovely girl in it. Anne Dunning, the daughter of Harry Dunning who worked with Brady on a dam project in Brazil, crops up out of nowhere and joins him in his quest. Their love is unspoken. Together, they unearth the truth behind the frame-up and discover why Brady was made scapegoat. The book is less than 120 pages, so I have given away very little.

Final word
Hell Is Too Crowded sounds like the title of a hardboiled noir paperback. It isn't. It’s a simple and uncomplicated story of a man who is at the wrong place at the wrong time. It has been done before. There is plenty of action thanks mainly to Brady’s knack for getting into trouble. The end is predictable though it's not always so in some other novels of Jack Higgins, who has written this one in his characteristic mild-to-moderate style. A decent read.

My previous reviews of Jack Higgins novels:

1. The Keys of Hell, 1965
2. The Iron Tiger, 1966
3. A Fine Night for Dying, 1969
4. A Prayer for the Dying, 1973
5. Storm Warning, 1976

Monday, October 07, 2013

Stand-up comedy by Jim Carrey and Ray Romano

A little something different for this Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio & Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

I'm a sucker for stand-up comedy. I enjoy watching stand-up comedians deliver clean, witty, satirical, and intelligent lines on stage. I wonder how they do it. Do they speak impromptu or do they rehearse? I assume it's a little of both: they practice first and then speak extempore. I also wonder if stand-up comedy is an in-built thing, a gift you were born with, a talent you inherited through your genes.

It takes a lot of courage and confidence to stand up before a live audience, babble non-stop, and make them laugh. What happens if you know your jokes are beginning to fall flat and you're losing your audience? Do you reach for the flask of whisky in your pocket?

Everyone has a good joke to tell but not everyone can tell a good joke. Most of us have at one time or another told a joke to family and friends and met with embarrassing silence. Now imagine that on a much bigger scale.

One of the reasons I also like watching awards ceremonies like the Academy and Golden Globe are the speeches by the presenters and winners, particularly those who have a proclivity for humour, like Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Sacha Baron Cohen, Hugh Laurie, Ray Romano, Jennifer Lawrence, and Adrien Brody. Their speeches are a form of stand-up comedy too.

Surfing the internet for some good stand-up comedy, I came across two short nineties clips on YouTube. The first is Jim Carrey’s tribute to Clint Eastwood at the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1996 and the other is Ray Romano’s jokes at a talk show appearance long before Everybody Loves Raymond.

Both are very funny, especially Carrey with his imitation of the man with no name. Romano excels with his parental humour. Take a look below.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Library Anxiety

This is the first time I have come across the term Library Anxiety. I discovered it quite by accident on the website of the Luria Library of Santa Barbara City College, California, which hosted a national library week. I was intrigued by its theme which read as follows:

“Have you ever been intimidated by the thought of asking a librarian a question? If so, you’re not alone. Thousands of people around the world have Library Anxiety, avoiding libraries for a variety of reasons: time constraints, uncertainty about a librarian’s ability to meet their information need, fear of looking unintelligent for not being able to find information themselves, and more. Some people may simply be overwhelmed by the vast amount of information libraries provide through electronic databases and the library’s collection itself, not knowing where to start in the information search.”

The Luria Library assured students that the National Library Week would be “the perfect time to leap over the hurdle of Library Anxiety and learn more about what your library can do for you.” 

Students at the Library of Congress.
Photo source:
I thought it was a very innovative reaching-out programme for students. It showed that the college cared for their well-being.

In the past I have been a member of private libraries as well as the British Council Library and the American Library in Mumbai, but I have never experienced Library Anxiety. I recall going up to the librarian(s) often and inquiring about the availability of specific books or reserving those I wanted to borrow. Librarians are by and large friendly people. I suppose that is because they spend the entire day among tons and tons of lovely books, which is not to say that their jobs are less stressful.

Apparently, Library Anxiety is an issue and is linked to other forms of anxiety and stress. The Washington State University, which offers counselling services, describes Library Anxiety as “a real and prevalent problem for many college students. Very basically, Library Anxiety is a fear of both the library space, which can be seen as overwhelming and confusing, and of the process of using the library to find materials.”

The American Library in Mumbai.
Photo source:
In fact, the WSU Libraries – Guides has listed four common signs and symptoms of Library Anxiety: fear and uneasiness with the physical space of the library, often related to how big the library is; fear of approaching a librarian or library worker to ask for help; fear that you are alone in not knowing how to use the library; and feeling paralysed when trying to start library research.

I haven’t been to a library in nearly two decades and I haven't met anybody who felt anxiety in one, so there’s not much I can say. Do you have anything to share on this relatively unknown phobia?

Friday, October 04, 2013

Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe?

First things first. I have neither read the book I purchased four years ago nor seen the film I read about subsequently. I found this book in a cupboard while looking for some other book and couldn't wait to write about it. 

Originally published as Someone Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe, 1976, this 239-page novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons is a comic-murder mystery. Someone is killing Europe’s most famous chefs "in a manner that reflects their most famous dishes." For instance, the lobster chef is drowned. Even more intriguing is that the recipe for each dish is given in the book. 

This is what the back cover of my 1979 Coronet edition (above right) says, “While the world’s sexiest cook prepares her ‘Bombe Richelieu’ for dessert at Buckingham Palace, a connoisseur criminal who makes Jack the Ripper seem like a vulgar amateur is serving up the bloodiest master-caper ever conceived. An outrageous mixture of liberated pleasure and gourmet violence sizzling with surprise-a-page suspense…”

And here are the first lines of the book: “Lacquered to perfection. Crisp skin. Warm moist pancakes. Spring onions and sweet bean sauce. Yes. If he were to leave London immediately, within eighteen hours he could be in Peking.”

In 1978, Ted Kotcheff (of First Blood fame) made a film starring George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, and Robert Morley. It had music by Henry Mancini. The film was released as Too Many Chefs in the UK.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

For actual reviews of Forgotten Books this Friday, go to Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

R.I.P.: Tom Clancy, 1947-2013

Tom Clancy at Burns Library, Boston College, in November 1989.
Photo: Gary Wayne Gilbert/Wikimedia Commons

Tom Clancy was one of my favourite authors of spy thrillers. His Cold War novel, The Hunt for Red October, tops my list of those of his books which I have read.

His novels were technically brilliant and technologically superior. In this regard he was ahead of all his peers. In fact, he was probably the only one to write the way he did. Frederick Forsyth and John le Carré are known for writing highly researched novels but mostly in a non-technical way.

Clancy was a fearless writer. For instance, in Red October, he took the reader into the bowels of a submarine and not only explained how it worked but also compared it with rival U-boats. Going into a sub is one thing, writing about its nuts and bolts is another (I don't know if Clancy actually went into one). My knowledge of a submarine is restricted to its periscope and torpedo. I know what the two things are used for but it was Clancy who explained in some detail how to look through the first and fire the second.

The author of several entertaining thrillers like Patriot Games, Red Storm Rising, and Clear and Present Danger had a large number of fans in the US and other world militaries including, I suspect, secret admirers in the then Soviet (now Russian) navy.

As far as spy thrillers go, Tom Clancy was in very good company. He is part of my list of 10 of the best writers of espionage books. I have mentioned the other nine below, along with titles of novels that I think are their best. Actually, I like all their work.

01. Tom Clancy – The Hunt for Red October

02. Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins) – The Eagle Has Landed

03. Don Pendleton (Mack Bolan) – Continental Contract

04. Frederick Forsyth – The Day of the Jackal

05. Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone

06. John le Carré – The Russia House

07. Ken Follett – Eye of the Needle

08. Len Deighton – XPD

09. Craig Thomas – Firefox

10. Donald Lindquist – The Red Gods

Of all these writers, the last two, Thomas and Lindquist, have been forgotten. I recommend their books to those who haven't read them.

Books I read in the second quarter

Actually, that should read Books I didn’t read in the second quarter. Unlike in the first quarter, April to June, when I read 17 fictional and non-fictional books, I read only six in the past three months, averaging a poor two books a month. I didn’t read much because I didn’t feel like reading. You don’t have to scroll far down the blog to find out the ones I did.

The only book I read but didn’t review was A Dog of Flanders (1872) by English author Marie Louise de la Ramée. The short fiction, published under her pseudonym Ouida, is the beautiful and touching story of a poor boy and his bighearted dog. There is history behind this story which has been adapted to film thrice. I think there is an animated version too.

Of the remaining five books, I enjoyed reading The Girl from Sunset Ranch by Amy Bell Marlowe (1914), Vultures in the Sun by Brian Garfield (1987), and All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards (1991).

As always, I read comic books including Action Comics #1 (June 1938) where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduce Superman to the world. The rather immature storyboard didn’t hold up but that is to be expected in this digital world of comics. I read the comic book online though I wouldn’t mind owning the rare comic worth millions of dollars.

So if I didn’t read books in my spare time, what did I do? I have been watching Friends all over again with the family. We are now in Season 6 where Monica proposes to Chandler. I think it is one of the best sitcoms to come out of the nineties. It has plenty of good humour. I also like its central premise about six friends who stick up for each other. It gives you a nice feeling.

I’m hoping to read more books in the third quarter, from now until new year’s eve. Let’s see how that comes out.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Concrete Jungle, 1982

A little-known B-movie for Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

In the days before videocassette recorder and video cassette and colour and cable television, I watched films in the theatre, often alone. I saw all kinds of films, mostly bad films; so bad, in fact, you’d have to be really frantic to go to a theatre to see them. One did this sort of thing in one’s adolescence, when one is rudderless.

Even after all these years, I can’t get over the fact that I actually saw The Concrete Jungle made by someone called Tom DeSimone and starring Jill St. John, Tracey E. Bregman, and BarBara Luna. I have no idea who they are.

I don’t know if I went for this film because I thought it was about urban construction but I do remember that it made me squirm in my seat. I dislike films involving frame-ups and innocent victims doing torturous time in prison usually at the mercy of the evil warden and a bunch of depraved sex maniacs. The repeated rape of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), an otherwise brilliant film, had me squirming too.

You might think the girl-on-girl action in The Concrete Jungle would raise testosterone levels in a 15-year old. It didn’t because I was scared silly. Since then, I have seen few sick films, like The Exorcist (1973), again brilliant but sick.

Around the time I saw The Concrete Jungle, I also saw two other films in the theatre, one about heaven and the other hell—Jesus Christ, a documentary, and The Day After (1983) that some people thought was a porn film. It was, in fact, about the devastating effects of nuclear war.

As I said, I saw all kinds of films back then. Did you?