Saturday, August 16, 2014

How long? A poem by Ramabai C. Trikannad

Ramabai C. Trikannad, my late grandmother, was a writer, columnist, poet, and a deeply spiritual woman. She read a lot. Classics were her favourite. She wrote about family life and parenting in newspapers in the mid-20th century. One of her columns was called Cat 'N' Bells. She also published a book of short stories called Victory of Faith and Other Stories, 1935. I have most of her published and unpublished writings including a hardback of her short story collection. Once in a while I read her poems and stories and what she said more than half a century ago resonates with me even today. How Long? is one of her poems that I like very much. 

Inconsistent, changing — weary yet restless —
We dance to the rhythm of nature.
Hoping, fearful — lest we lose them —
We try to hold and keep the things
Our fancy rests upon.
We strive and strive — not towards the Eternal —
But for the empty shows of life.
Thus, while in silence Mother smiles and watches over us,
We jostle and struggle on.

In some quiet hour
The heart draws back from all the world.
Whence — to where? To what purpose
This fruitless, aimless hurry and rush?
How long before delusion is destroyed and freedom gained?
For a moment, for a single moment,
Before the mind drops again
Into the ever intricating web of fancies and desires,
From the solitude of the heart
Comes the cry: “O Mother! How long?”

© Ramabai C. Trikannad

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Woman on a Roof by Doris Lessing, 1963

A review of a short story by the British novelist for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

There was a fine view across several acres of roofs. Not far off a man sat in a deckchair reading the newspapers. Then they saw her, between chimneys, about fifty yards away. She lay face down on a brown blanket. They could see the top part of her: black hair, a flushed solid back, arms spread out.

© Wikimedia Commons
It’s not everyday that I read a short story that can be interpreted in different ways by different readers. A Woman on a Roof (Encounter, March 1963) is one of those stories that leaves you nowhere long after you have read it, talked about it, and argued over it. But it won’t make this story any less tantalisingly charming.

The premise is simple: three men are working on the roof of a building on a hot June day in London when they see a woman sunbathing on the roof of an adjoining building. She is almost naked.

Harry, the oldest, is forty-five years old. Stanley is young and newly married. And Tom is only seventeen.

As the three men sweat it out on the roof and at times in the basement of the block of flats, to escape the wretched heat, they can’t take their thoughts away from the nearly naked woman. At least Stanley and Tom can’t.

The characters

Harry is mature and circumspect and with a son as old as Tom, he prefers to look the other way and do his work. He humours the other two, especially Stanley.

Stanley is the loudest and most affected. He sounds annoyed with the bare woman but you know he is annoyed with himself. He tells the others that she is a bitch for no apparent reason other than that she is tormenting him. He’d rather she wasn't lying lying around naked like that, for him to see and agonise over. He is married and there is not a damn thing he can do about it. He knows it and you know it.

Young Tom is quiet and reserved even though he joins Stanley in whistling and shouting loudly across the roofs. He dreams of the naked woman every night. He thinks she is lovely and that she belongs to him. Tom also happens to see more than Harry and Stanley. He likes to think of it as a secret between him and the woman.

Tom's report was that she hadn't moved, but it was a lie. He wanted to keep what he had seen to himself: he had caught her in the act of rolling down the little red pants over her hips, till they were no more than a small triangle. She was on her back, fully visible, glistening with oil.

Final word
In the story the mysterious woman appears oblivious to the presence of the three men and their whistles and catcalls from across the roofs. Of course, she knows they can see her but she doesn't give a hoot. She sleeps half-naked on her roof through a whole week. This angers Stanley even more.

Doris Lessing, the British novelist, playwright and poet who passed away in November 2013, has crafted a very clever story. She plays around with human emotions subtly, not just those of the workmen but also those of the readers. Through the naked woman, she brings out the best and the worst in the three men, particularly Stanley and Tom, who first love her and then hate her for what she is doing to them when, in effect, she isn't doing anything at all.

Lessing holds back more than she gives and still doesn't leave the reader unfulfilled. Her prose is simple and lucid. She doesn't beat around the bush. She comes straight to the point. I liked A Woman on a Roof mainly on account of the story, which is a real tease, and the brevity of words. I'd never read anything by Doris Lessing before. This was a good introduction to her writing.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reading Habits #13: Back of the book

My copy of the book
First question

Does the synopsis on the back cover help you decide whether to read a book or not?

In my case it does if I don’t know who the author is or if I'm familiar but not quite or if I'm reading his or her book for the first time. However, I’d make an immediate exception if the book is a western or espionage in which case I couldn’t care less if the back cover was ripped off.

It doesn’t if I'm really familiar with the author and I have read and liked his or her books. To give you an idea, I won’t turn the book over if it is a P.G. Wodehouse, Jack Higgins, A.J. Cronin, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Oliver Strange, John le Carré, Agatha Christie, John Irving, Louis L'Amour, Kurt Vonnegut or Erle Stanley Gardner because I have read and enjoyed many of their novels and know exactly how they will tickle me.

Second question

Do you have a favourite or a memorable blurb or summary, one that you remember?

I remember only one and it has stayed with me since I read the novel when I was sixteen. Not surprisingly, it is a western—The Marshal of Lawless by British writer Oliver Strange whose ten books take you through the adventures of his hero James Green alias Sudden, the Texas outlaw. He is not an outlaw and earns the nickname because he is fast with his twin guns. The Sudden series is my favourite western.

This is what the back cover of The Marshal of Lawless says.

“Being Marshal of Lawless is plain suicide!” That's what they told the young fellow who applied for the job. They figured that anyone who had hocked his horse, his saddle and his guns to get money for liquor, was not the kind of man who could hold down one of the toughest towns in the West. But then the young stranger redeemed his guns and strapped them on. Lawless looked again. “Gentlemen, hush!” said one inhabitant. “A man has come to town!”

One of the reasons why I like James Green is because of his near flawless character. He is just, brave, honest, friendly, caring, intelligent, and a dogged fighter. His quest for two men who cheated the man who raised him makes him bitter but he doesn’t show it as he quietly goes about fulfilling a promise he made to the dying man. Nor does it stop him from going to the aid of people in the towns and ranches he visits, and making friends along the way. His deeds speak for the kind of person he is. Green is modest as he seldom reveals that he is United States Deputy Marshal. In short, he is a man who wears a badge on his pocket and honour on his sleeve.

How about you?

For previous Reading Habits, see under ‘Labels’.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The day I launched my blog

Some time in August the 3Cs completes six years. I can’t recall the date. I was a few years younger and wiser and saner. But I remember it was in 2009 that I decided to launch Chess, Comics and Crosswords with fanfare and fireworks. It was a memorable day. Someday I will tell my grandchildren about it. You tell yours.

It was a gay and festive evening. Throngs of people gathered at the seaside venue, standing on their toes and pushing and jostling each other for a glimpse of the rare event the like of which they would never witness again. Not in their lifetime, not in this century. The mayor was going to cut the ribbon and give a speech on the creative hazards of blogging. Somewhere a band played Here Comes the Blog to the music of Wedding March. The air was rent with cries and laughter. The sky lit up with pyrotechnics, confetti, and colourful balloons. Young boys and girls went around with trays of food and drinks, and distributed little flags with 3Cs embossed in red and gold. They were sold at a discount by the sponsor. This was greeted with loud cheers which soon turned to loud jeers. There was no sign of the mayor.

As time passed the crowds grew restless and they rushed forward, pushing against the ropes that held them back. The few skinny khaki-clad home guards who were manning the ropes with their little bamboo sticks couldn’t hold them back. They dropped the ropes and their sticks and ran for their lives. I took cover behind one of the giant speakers just in time as two empty coke cans and a food tray whizzed past my head.

The situation became tense and there was pandemonium. The police had to use water cannons to disperse the crowds which made them even more angry as they were already drenched from the rain. There was much cursing and gnashing of teeth. Riot police stood nearby. They wore helmets and bulletproof jackets and carried batons and shields. They looked like they meant business. They were itching to smash a few heads and break a few bones. I prayed it wouldn
t be mine.

At one point, the situation looked so alarming that an aide to the mayor who huddled next to me wondered if it wouldn’t be wise to call off the launch. He was worried about the political fallout for the mayor who was running for the chief minister’s office. I looked at him grimly and said no. I had consulted an astrologer who had assured me the day and time was just right. God knows when the next auspicious moment would come.

A police inspector crawled up to us and said the mayor’s convoy had come under attack on the road leading to the venue and there was no way he was going to make it to the launch alive. He was whisked off to a safe place, into the basement of a hospital on the corner, where he was cowering behind a car and refusing to move out even under police escort.

As I peered over the speaker, something came flying out of the air and smacked me in the face and knocked me out cold. When I came to I found myself alone in the dark and on the floor next to my computer. I looked up at the screen and read “Welcome to Chess, Comics & Crosswords!” I must have dozed off and fallen off the chair. I pulled myself up and reached for the cup of tea. It was cold. I logged off and dropped my head on the keyboard. My first post could wait.

*    *    *

Thank you everyone for all your support and encouragement through my blog years!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The White Fruit of Banaldar by John D. MacDonald, 1951

An interesting story with a twist in the tail for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

The auctioning of the five planets marked the end of one part of life, the beginning of a new, for Timothy Trench.

September 1951
The White Fruit of Banaldar is a science fiction tale by John D. MacDonald and was published in the September 1951 issue of Startling Stories. It is about man’s curious nature and his innate desire to posses the very thing that is out of his reach.

Timothy Trench is a tall, young man with an entrepreneurial streak. He wants to buy the planet of Banaldar that his former employer, Transgalactic Development, is putting up for auction along with four other planets. He has a vision for Banaldar where he once worked. It is a beautiful earth-size planet with green hills, rolling seas, and a climate fit for man. After much pleading and begging he manages to raise two thousand mil-pesos from reluctant investors. The auction takes place in Mexico City, capital of the world. However, his hopes and dreams are soon dashed when he is outbid by Morgan, leader of the Free Lives, a group of seven hundred men, women, and children who live the way they were meant to live—naked.

“What are you going to do on Banaldar?” Timothy asked hopelessly.

Morgan turned. “Do? We live naked and eat berries and hunt with stones and clubs. What do you think men are meant to do? Live like this?” He included in an expressive gesture all of the glitter and bustle of the capital. “No. We live in caves and we fill our bellies and breed our children and sleep well at night.”

Timothy still has a chance of acquiring his beloved planet. As the second highest bidder he is entitled to the planet if Morgan does not develop or populate it at the end of three years.

The young man has little patience. He takes off for Banaldar almost immediately. When he lands on the planet, he finds it deserted and uninhabited. He searches far and wide but the Free Lives are nowhere to be seen. And then he sees them—hanging in clusters in five-hundred foot giant trees he thought were long dead. The Free Lives have undergone physiological changes. They are like pale fruit. They are white, soft, and bloated. They have green stalks entering the backs of their necks. Their eyes are almost closed and they look deeply contented. They sway helplessly in the breeze.

As Timothy stares in fascination at the new form of the Free Lives, one of the monster trees casts its hypnotic spell on him and begins to nuzzle him at the back of his neck and nibble at it with a million little needle-like teeth.

The White Fruit of Banaldar is traditional science fiction until you come to the end when John D. MacDonald takes you by surprise with an element of horror. I didn’t see it coming but I was a trifle disappointed with the end. As I see it, though, horror is not misplaced in science fiction, especially when you don’t know what’s out there. All in all, a nice little story told in JDM’s inimitable style.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case, 1930

After you read this don’t forget to hop over to Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom for more reviews of Overlooked Films, Audio & Video.

Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy decided that they needed a rest. They had been looking for work since 1921.

If the tagline of this classic Laurel and Hardy movie brings a smile to your face, this short film directed by old L&H hand James Parrott will have you in splits from scene one.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are sitting on the docks with their legs over the side. They are at peace with themselves and with the world. Laurel is trying to catch fish while Hardy is trying to catch forty winks. That is, if Laurel allows him to. Laurel is swinging his fishing tackle—a ball of string tied round a piece of wood—over his head, with the harmless intent of dropping it into the sea and baiting the fish; instead, he hooks it into his friend’s hat and tosses it into the water. And that is just the beginning of their troubles and our laughter.

Matters between the two friends would probably have taken a turn for the worse, if such a thing is indeed possible, if a fish-wrapped newspaper didn’t catch poor Hardy smack in the face. As he pulls the damp and smelly paper away, a news item catches his attention—Ebeneezer Laurel has just died and has left behind a vast estate. Relatives of the wealthy man are advised to gather at the Laurel mansion where the will is to be read.

Hardy, who thinks for both of them, usually with disastrous results, is convinced that Laurel is the long lost heir and that they, mind you, not Laurel alone, are going to become millionaires. He promptly throws his friend’s ingenious tackle into the water.

It’s another story that the only Ebeneezer Laurel our Laurel thinks he knew broke his neck a long time ago.

When Laurel and Hardy reach the mansion on a dark and stormy night, they are greeted by a devilish-looking butler, police detectives, and half-a-dozen claimants to the property. The chief inspector informs the pair that he had planted the notice about the will in the paper so that he could bring all of Ebeneezer’s relatives together in one place. Apparently, the rich man was murdered and the police are investigating the crime.

What follows next is the finest bit of slapstick comedy I have seen. Laurel and Hardy, already scared to death, are shown to their room, which just happens to be the one where Ebeneezer was murdered. The room is in darkness and all the furniture is covered in shrouds of white, giving the place an eerie appearance in candlelight. Our friends are convinced the mansion is haunted. In effect, they become their own worst spooks.

As Laurel and Hardy prepare for bed (they wear their night clothes under their suits), they see ghosts everywhere, in the howling of the wind, in the cat that darts across their bellies, in the bat that hides under their white blanket and takes to the air with it, in the wooden clothes rack that Laurel inadvertently drags through the hall. Each ghostly episode is followed by a fresh round of terrified screams both from Laurel and Hardy and from the assorted guests who run helter-skelter and fall over each other, to the irritation of the police inspector and his gun-toting men.

The film seemingly culminates with the real murderer, a man disguised as a woman, and his accomplice, the butler, luring all the guests one by one into Ebeneezer’s office where a trapdoor swallows them. But then, a film about Laurel and Hardy must end with Laurel and Hardy and it does so in a nice little anticlimax. You won’t see it coming.

If you like slapstick comedy as I do, then this film is for you, for there is no one better at it than Laurel and Hardy. They mean well even if they are not “there” most of the time. Their humourous appeal lies in their utter innocence and in the acceptance of their lot, as they chase one dream after another with little more than a smile to gain.

Highly recommended.

Incidentally, in 1934, MGM released Oliver the Eighth whose plot was loosely based on this film.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Adventure of the Dying Detective by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1913

“He's dying, Dr. Watson,” said she. “For three days he has been sinking, and I doubt if he will last the day.”

November 1913
In The Adventure of the Dying Detective, the famous sleuth of 221B, Baker Street, London, is very ill and dying from a rare eastern disease. At least, that is what his landlady Mrs. Hudson and his friend Dr. Watson fear. As would his readers who may be forgiven for their initial startled reaction to Holmes' dire state.

Watson is especially horrified when he finds his friend confined to bed and ailing from a disease he didn’t know Holmes had. The detective is delirious and incoherent and his face is pale and gaunt with bones sticking out of it. His sickly appearance sends a chill into Watson’s heart.

Lest we forget, Holmes is a master of disguise and he uses it most effectively to divert Watson’s attention from his real purpose—to expose Culverton Smith as the man who murdered his own nephew, Victor, by injecting him with the same virus that has apparently made Holmes sick.

Smith is an expert in tropical diseases, including the one afflicting the detective, and he has already tried to kill Holmes in a similar manner. Only the sleuth knows about it.

Holmes in his bed.
Holmes is secretive and ingenious as he instructs Watson to summon Culverton Smith to his house at any cost, ostensibly to cure him but in reality to unmask him in a final showdown.

I liked Watson’s role in this story. He shows his worth as a true and loyal friend when he doesn't ask too many questions and does exactly as Holmes bids him to do. Admirably, Watson is not upset when Holmes summons another doctor to cure him or when Holmes speaks to him in a brusque manner and orders him around. 

In the end Watson realises why, as his dear friend solves Victor’s murder and his own attempted murder from his so-called deathbed. 

The thing with Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction is that, having tasted one, you want several more helpings of his well-crafted stories.

The Adventure of the Dying Detective was first published in Collier’s Weekly Magazine in November 1913 and subsequently in The Strand Magazine in December 1913. Later, it formed one of eight stories in His Last Bow collection. The short story is available free online.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Famous Monsters’ Film Fantasy Yearbook, 1982

Todd Mason, who hosts Friday’s Forgotten Books in place of Patti Abbott, will have more knowledge about this magazine and its background.

March 1982
If you like watching horror, fantasy, and science fiction movies, then you’ll like this annual yearbook on some of the famous monsters brought to life by Hollywood.

The 1982 edition of Famous Monsters’ Film Fantasy Yearbook looks at the “creatures” in eleven films, namely Raiders, Titans, Superman II, Halloween II, Dragonslayer, The Howling, Friday the 13th II, Wolfen, Excalibur, Outland, and Werewolf. The cover image is awful while inside the text is clear though the pictures are hazy.

Famous Monsters was one of several horror-fantasy-sf magazines launched by James Warren who founded Warren Publishing in 1957. Over the next twenty-six years, until 1983, he published magazines like After Hours, Creepy, Eerie, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Help!, Spacemen, and Vampirella. The last of these, reproduced below, has cover art by the legendary Frank Frazetta who was noted for his fantasy and sf artworks as well as covers of books and comic books, posters, paintings, and LP record albums. I just read about him.

No.1, September 1969.
Cover art by Frank Frazetta
Warren’s initial publications, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Monster World, were edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, an American collector of science fiction books and movie memorabilia.

I don’t know much about these magazines and chanced upon this hundred-page free yearbook at Archive. You can read more about Warren Publishing at Wikipedia.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Key in the ignition

I hope to resume my blog posts Friday, August 1, most likely with a review for Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase, which Todd Mason of Sweet Freedom will host again this week. I'm also looking forward to posting a review of a legal thriller I just finished reading. It was a cracker of a novel. I'm glad it was just a fictional story. In the meantime, my visits to other blogs will continue.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Musings on a rainy Wednesday

The rains were late by a whole month this year but their advent in July brought welcome relief to Mumbai (Bombay) which was scorching through ninety days of Indian summer. The seven lakes supplying water to the city are at last filling up and the municipal corporation has decided to scale down the water cut in residential areas. The rainfall deficit has come down from 41 per cent to about 15 per cent. Over the next few days all eyes will be on the lake levels which used to be published in newspapers every week, like the winning numbers on a lottery ticket. So much depends on water, and on public transport and migrant labour. 

On the flip side, heavy rains cause flooding and bring public transport, so very critical in this city, to a near halt. What is worse, in my case at least, is that roadside booksellers are forced to take evasive action which means browsing under a tarpaulin roof with water dripping down your neck. The books are well protected. During this wet season I seldom buy any from the footpath libraries.

As it is, I've got plenty to read. I'm currently reading an ebook version of The Dunwich Horror, 1928, the classic short fiction by H.P. Lovecraft. It is about a mysterious and terrifying entity that haunts a small place called Dunwich, a fictional town in Massachusetts. Some of the families in Dunwich lead a life of decay and decadence. I won't be reviewing the story because I don't think I can. It is a complex tale.

Three days ago, I was on my way to the local railway station by an autorickshaw when I saw four uniformed police constables standing at a junction notorious for traffic jams. Two of the cops were sipping cutting chai, or half a glass of tea each, a third was smoking a cigarette, while the fourth was talking on his mobile phone. They were on duty. I realised that dereliction of duty is another vile form of corruption.

I'm on the mailing list of a few book sites one of which sent me a free Kindle edition of a novella called 3 a.m. (2013) by Nick Pirog. This and his other novel, Unforeseen, have received good reviews on Amazon. He writes thrillers. The description of 3 a.m. says, "Henry Bins has Henry Bins. A sleeping disorder, named after him. He is awake for one hour a day. He wakes up at 3 a.m. then falls asleep at 4 a.m. Life is simple. Until he hears the woman scream. And sees the man leave the house across the street. But not just any man. The President of the United States."

I get carried away by books that come to me this way and I'm tempted to download them on my tab, where they lie for a long time or till I rediscover them among five hundred other ebooks. Still, I feel inclined to read 3 a.m. I think someone among my blog acquaintances has already reviewed it.

Among nonfiction books, I'm rereading The Power of Your Subconscious Mind (1963) by Joseph Murphy. I'm always reading self-help and philosophy books. They enable me to get a handle on things. 

The power of thought is a penetrating and fascinating subject because there is no end to its immense possibilities, for better or worse. To be in control of our mind instead of our mind being in control of us, as is the case, is as old as the hills. Easier said and read than done. But no harm in trying, is there?

Murphy's book reminded me of a particular quote by motivational speaker Earl Nightingale who said, “Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become a reality.”

If we sit back and think about it honestly, we’ll see that most of what we plant and nourish is negative, and usually stays with us for a long time, probably a lifetime. Joseph Murphy tells us how we can reverse those long years of negative conditioning.

Note: For previous 'Musings' see under Labels.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Odd Life of Timothy Green & The Food Guide to Love

A refreshing pair of films for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

The purpose of this loosely written post is to bring these new and possibly overlooked films to your notice.

Both the films were telecast on Indian cable in the past two days. I watched the first half-hour of The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012) directed by Peter Hedges and the last half-hour of The Food Guide to Love (2013) made by Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri. The latter is an Irish film and was showcased at the Dublin Film Festival.

My impression of the family drama and the romantic comedy is that both are clean, colourful, vibrant, and feel-good fairytale movies. The kind that the entire family can watch over the weekend, the kind that probably didn't come to a theatre near you, the kind that you'd have most likely skipped even if it did, and the kind that got mixed reviews. In short, an enjoyable fare where opinions don't really matter. I certainly liked the parts I saw.

I won't review the movies as I haven't seen them completely as I hoped to. Something came up. Instead, I’ll reproduce someone else’s…

The Odd Life of Timothy Green - Walt Disney Pictures: “Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner), desperately wanting a child but unable to conceive, dream up their “ideal offspring” in a fit of whimsy and bury their wishes in the backyard. To their great surprise, the next morning, a 10-year old boy materialises on their doorstep. Dealing with sudden parenthood thrust upon them, the Green's adventures in adapting to this ‘gift’ take on unforeseen aspects as they slowly begin to realise that Timothy (C.J. Adams) is anything but a ‘normal’ child.”

The film is from Jennifer Garner's perspective. Timothy is a cute kid and has leaves growing from his ankles that a friendly botanist can’t seem to snip off.

The Food Guide to LoveBerlinale (International Film Festival of Berlin): “The Food Guide to Love is a charming romantic comedy set in Dublin about a trendsetting Irish food writer and the feisty Spanish beauty who inspires him to put his heart before his stomach in matters of love. Food journalist Oliver Byrne (Richard Coyle) is in crisis. His multimedia column on fine eating and finding a soul mate has become the hottest read in town. But his own love life is a complete mess, featuring a string of relationships which seem appetising at first but then always lose their flavour. When he meets Spanish art curator Bibiana (Leonor Watling), Oliver feels an unlikely but undeniable attraction despite the fact they have nothing in common. She’s into good causes, he’s into good food. She’s a kamikaze in love, diving head first into impossible relationships, while he is terrified of commitment. Is this romance a recipe for disaster, or has he finally found the ingredients for true love?”

Shot on location in Dublin, the Irish capital with its assorted cafes and restaurants is picturesque. In the film Richard Coyle has a beautiful house.

They sound like nice films. The posters look like book jackets.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Hell Raisers, or Saddle Pals, by Lee Floren, 1947

This review is my early contribution to Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase which will be compiled by Todd Mason at his blog Sweet Freedom this Friday.

They lived by their guns in a land where death was a way of life.

A replica of my book.
When I read The Hell Raisers (original title: Saddle Pals), the first thought that came into my head was that why can’t people leave each other alone and lead their own lives. There is enough to fill everyone’s need and greed. If that was indeed the case, Lee Floren, or most western writers for that matter, would not have many stories to tell. For, conflict between man and man, usually over a piece of land, has been the central theme of a lot of frontier fiction and that includes this 127-page novel.

In The Hell Raisers, Lee Floren casts a rich and powerful cattleman and his gunfighters and a bunch of poor farmers with no experience in gunplay on opposite sides of an open range. The bone of contention between the two warring sides is water and the vast tract of grassland through which it must flow.

The cowman is Hank Carter who owns a big ranch and a large number of cattle which he buys from rustlers. He is aided by Pinto Aggler, his foreman and sidekick who is handy with a gun. Aggler and the other cowhands, numbering no more than half a dozen, are loyal to Carter only to the extent he can pay them. Otherwise, they owe him nothing.

The thirty-odd farmers and their families are led by Ol’ Mack Orcon, a feisty old man with a goat’s beard. He was engaged in all kinds of loco schemes, from raising angora goats to starting a fish hatchery, before settling down on the grasslands near the town of Wishing Springs, Wyoming. 

Initially, all is well between Carter and the farmers. The cowman even welcomes their presence on the plains. Then, one day, Ol’ Mack digs water wells, erects derricks, and builds a reservoir for the purpose of irrigation, and starts a war between the cattleman and the farmers.

Carter and his henchmen intimidate and harass Ol’ Mack and the other farmers, with the intention of evicting them from their land. Word of the range war reaches Jess Roberts and War Dog Smith, two drifting cowboys who mean well but have a knack for getting into trouble. Jess and War Dog are old friends of Mack Orcon and lose no time in heading towards his ‘Circle in a Box’ farm and helping him fight Carter.

Matters come to a head when Carter and his gunmen blow up a derrick and the main reservoir with dynamite, resulting in loss of all the stored water and the death of a farmer. This act of violence, which is seen as a catastrophe by the peaceable but determined farmers, sets the stage for a final bloody showdown between the two groups.

The characters
The two main characters in the story are Jess, the little fearless cowboy with the brains, and his middle-aged friend, War Dog Smith, part Sioux and part French, who uses muscle to settle disputes. Jess owes Ol’ Mack a big debt for the wizened old farmer had taken him in when he was a hungry and homeless kid of twelve. War Dog had once been Mack’s range boss. Together, they form an unlikely pair as they help ‘Ol Mack take on the cunning and ruthless cattleman.

Other key characters include Matilda, an elderly spinster and Ol’ Mack’s sister who comes to live with her brother. Her domineering presence on the farm is initially resented by Mack until her housekeeping and cooking wins him over. There is a subtle romantic inclination between Matilda and the half-breed.

There is also Hammerburg, the cowardly deputy sheriff of the local town, and Parr Palm, a big as an ox but sly as a fox farmer, both of whom are in Hank Carter’s pay. They are easily dispensable.

And then there is Nellie Bly, a belligerent goat that has a lot in common with her devoted master, Ol’ Mack, who can’t stay without her. He prefers his goat to his sister.

Final word
The Hell Raisers is a tale of many parts—pride, loyalty, friendship, unity, courage, entrepreneurship, hard work, and the determination to extract peace and prosperity from a land in which the farmers have invested their sweat and money. Most of the men stay put on their homestead because they are proud to own it and, more importantly, because they owe it to their families and to their future. A future filled with nice farms, plenty of hay and good stock, and a good living. All they want is to be left in peace.

Lee Floren has a keen grasp of the frontier which is reflected in his description of the grasslands and the badlands, its old and new inhabitants, and their way of life. His writing style is reminiscent of early western fiction although Hank Carter’s and Pinto Aggler’s dialect is formal while that of Jess, War Dog, and the farmers is colloquial with many a turn of the phrase.

The novel is evenly-paced and has several lighter moments, thanks to Ol’ Mack, his sister, his goat, and his two friends. The humour does not undermine the seriousness of the plot and is, in fact, a welcome diversion from the hostilities that unfold from time to time.

The Hell Raisers is a well written novel and offers another interesting peek into frontier life. It is one of many examples in frontier fiction where new settlers run afoul of those who have already been there before them and look upon the newcomers as a threat where none may exist. I have not read many westerns with agri-based farmers as characters. They’re referred to as “sodmen” in the story. I couldn’t find the origin of the word on the internet.

The author
Lee Floren (1910-1995) was a prolific author who wrote well over fifty western novels as well as other fiction. He also wrote under a dozen pseudonyms including Wade Hamilton and Matt Harding. His stories have been published in several western periodicals of the mid-20th century.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who Murdered the Vets? by Ernest Hemingway

A look at Ernest Hemingway’s other writings for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

In Who Murdered the Vets?, a firsthand news report on the Florida hurricane, Ernest Hemingway seems to be referring to the Labour Day Hurricane which has been described, on Wikipedia, as “the strongest tropical cyclone of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season, and the most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history.” This is my understanding.

The hurricane lasted thirteen days, from August 29, 1935 until September 10, 1935, and Hemingway wrote his hard-hitting piece on its deadly impact exactly a week later, in the left-wing magazine, New Masses, September 17, 1935.

In this compelling article, the American writer demands answers to many questions: Who sent nearly a thousand US war veterans to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months? Why were the men not evacuated before the hurricane struck the Keys? Who delayed sending the ten-car rescue train that washed away between mainland Florida and Key West? Finally, who was responsible for their deaths?

Hemingway raises his eyebrows at Washington for possible answers.

After the hurricane, Hemingway travelled to the Keys and found hundreds of bodies of civilians and veterans strewn everywhere, in the sea, in the mangroves, in the shelters, in the trees, in the rails, wherever the strong winds and storm waters swept them.

In Camp Five, Hemingway talks about finding only eight survivors out of a total of 187 vets though only sixty-nine bodies are accounted for, the rest having been washed up in the mangroves and other places.

Hemingway, who was resident-writer of Key West for several years, has used his firsthand knowledge of the archipelago, its history, its inclement weather, its hurricanes and storm warnings, its inhabitants, its railroad, and its boats and harbours, to write this piece. He paints an intense picture of the deadly hurricane and its tragic aftermath, which is a testament to his personal experience and to his sublime writing. Not surprisingly, the article also reads like a short story. Hemingway often wrote articles for magazines, left leaning I suspect, given his own political ideology.

I've reproduced below two passages that reveal Hemingway’s anguish over the fate of the war veterans and others.

Who sent them down there?

I hope he reads this—and how does he feel?

He will die too, himself, perhaps even without a hurricane warning, but maybe it will be an easy death, that's the best you get, so that you do not have to hang onto something until you can't hang on, until your fingers won't hold on, and it is dark. And the wind makes, a noise like a locomotive passing, with a shriek on top of that, because the wind has a scream exactly as it has in books, and then the fill goes and the high wall of water rolls you over and over and then, whatever it is, you get it and we find you, now of no importance, stinking in the mangroves.

* * * *

You're dead now, brother, but who left you there in the hurricane months on the Keys, where a thousand men died before you in the hurricane months when they were building the road that's now washed out?

Who left you there? And what's the punishment for manslaughter now?

This has turned out to be Ernest Hemingway week for I also discovered, and promptly read, a book of poems by the writer.

The Suppressed Poems of Ernest Hemingway, published by The Library of Living Poetry, Paris, has two sections, ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ (poems from The Double Dealer and Querschnitt), and ‘Ten Poems’ (from Three Stories and Ten Poems). Each poem is dated, beginning June 1922 and ending May 1929.

Some of the poems read like limericks. I enjoyed reading many of them although there were some I didn’t understand. I got the impression that Hemingway might have written them on an impulse, perhaps for want of anything better to do, as poetry is often written. Here are the ones I liked.

He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry-mouthed at first,
He drooled and slobbered in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.

The Ernest Liberal's Lament
I know monks masturbate at night
That pet cats screw
That some girls bite
And yet
What can I do
To set things right?

All of the Indians are dead
(a good Indian is a dead Indian)
Or riding in motor cars —
(the oil lands, you know, they're all rich)
Smoke smarts my eyes,
Cottonwood twigs and buffalo dung
Smoke grey in the tepee —
(or is it my myopic trachoma)

The prairies are long,
The moon rises
Drag at their pickets.
The grass has gone brown in the summer —
(or is it the hay crop failing)

Pull an arrow out:
If you break it
The wound closes.
Salt is good too
And wood ashes.
Pounding it throbs in the night —
(or is it the gonorrhea)

Some came in chains
Unrepentant but tired.
Too tired but to stumble.
Thinking and hating were finished
Thinking and fighting were finished
Retreating and hoping were finished.
Cures thus a long campaign,
Making death easy.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reading Habits #12: Sex in fiction

Are you still comfortable reading about sex in fiction? I say “still” because as I grow older and possibly more mature as a reader, I find that it doesn't make a difference any more. To the best of my knowledge, I haven't read a raunchy novel in over a decade. However, I have been reading books with a touch of romance or suggestive of sexual intimacy, but nothing explicit.

One reason for the absence of any kind of titillating stuff on my bookshelf or on my tablet is the change in my reading habits, hopefully, for the better. I read more classics and vintage books now while the crime and hardboiled fiction of the mid to late 20th century and modern novels that I occasionally delve into have little or no sex. Maybe, I'm not reading the right kind of books.

This does not mean that I haven’t read my share of adult literature in my younger days. While in school, I quickly graduated from Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton, and Just William to the popular and “sleazy” novels of Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace, to the dismay of an uncle who said I was too young to read the two worthies—“Wait till you are at least twenty.
 That's four years away! Instead, he recommended A.J. Cronin and Frank G. Slaughter. I'm glad he did for I enjoy reading their books till today.

The mass appeal of Robbins lay in his stories, told in plain English, and in his next-door middle-class characters who lost their virginity no sooner they reached puberty. His A Stone for Danny Fisher where a tragic young man dreams big in a crooked world and 79, Park Avenue where a beautiful young girl is forced to become a prostitute when everyone begins to treat her like one, are among his better-known novels. Never Love A Stranger, The Lonely Lady, and Dreams Die First are also entertaining.

Wallace wrote some decent novels, too, but The Celestial Bed based on sex therapy and technique is not one of them. I’d recommend The Man in which a black man becomes President of the United States and The Second Lady, a Cold War political thriller where the KGB kidnaps the US First Lady and replaces her with a Soviet impostor. More on the latter.

Everything goes smoothly for the impostor till it’s time for the inevitable, making love with the President, who has absolutely no clue that the woman sharing his bed is not his real wife. I think initially she spurns his overtures. While the KGB has got everything sorted out, it clearly forgot to take care of that little intimate detail between POTUS and FLOTUS.

The clever “hero” on the KGB side is attracted to the captive First Lady and falls in love with her in what is a one-sided affair. But he is a ruthless professional—the state before self and all that. So to protect his girlfriend’s identity in the White House, he must find out how the President’s wife performs in bed and pass on the information to her. He does the obvious: he sleeps with her. Now the First Lady wasn't born yesterday. She loves her husband and realises that the only way to expose the fraud in her bedroom is to have sex with the KGB agent in a way she and the President never did. Throw off the enemy agent on one hand and arouse her husband’s suspicion on the other. Does it work?

If ever I've read a graphic account of sex in fiction in my teens, it’s in those four to five pages of The Second Lady which has a very ingenious, even if outlandish, plot, and an entirely unexpected ending.

Later, I read most of the titles under English writer René Lodge Brabazon Raymond’s famous pseudonym, James Hadley Chase, and discovered the deceptive covers of his crime paperbacks—semi-nudes on the cover, barely a kiss inside. What a letdown. But Chase told good stories. I liked the ones about cops the most.

For previous Reading Habits, see under ‘Labels’.