Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Watchman by Robert Crais

Robert Crais is probably best known for his Elvis Cole series, and up to now, I hadn't read any of his novels. I just corrected that mistake by reading The Watchman featuring Cole's "sociopathic sidekick," Joe Pike.

Pike, owing a favor, agrees to protect a young ‘Paris Hilton’ type heiress, who is a witness in a federal investigation. Quicker than you can say Jason Bourne, they are on the run with Pike killing five assassins in the first day alone. Pike justifiably suspects a leak but who? He calls on his buddy, Elvis Cole, to do a little background investigation and begins to unravel the mystery.

A few years back, I read Without Remorse which featured the laconic Mr. Clark, who was a secondary character in Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series. It turned out to be my favorite book of the group. Of course, if Pike or Clark were continually used, it would ruin their enigmatic appeal. Even so, I'm sure I will read the next Robert Crais offering no matter who the protagonist is, because, as The New York Times said, this is a "taut, muscular... testosterone-fueled thriller." In other words: it rocks.

A special thanks to Darlene Ryan and the ladies at Poe's Deadly Daughters for sending me a copy of the book.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books: A Treasury of Great Mysteries Vol. 2

I previously reviewed A Treasury of Great Mysteries Volume 1 and for this week's FFB, I'm highlighting the second volume. The complete anthology mixes full length novels, novelettes, and short stories with excellent results. Any collection that begins with Chandler's The Big Sleep and ends with Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is definitely a four star collection. As with Vol. 1, I passed over the familiar classics in Vol. 2 and started with Carter Dickson's The Man Who Explained Miracles.

Miracles presents Sir Henry Merrivale (HM) as the last stop for cases Scotland Yard has rejected for one reason or another. His division is called "The Ministry of Miracles", which is where Jenny Holden is taken to uncover the identity of the person who is trying to murder her. Since, seemingly, no one is to gain by her death, it's up to HM and his Sherlockian skills to put together the pieces of the puzzle. A locked room, a whispering hall, a knife in back, and a ventriloquist all take center stage before the end. The revelation of the culprit is a bit implausible but the story is so entertaining that it hardly matters. Carter Dickson, writing as John Dickson Carr, has the more believable The Incautious Burglar in Vol. 1, but The Man Who Explained Miracles is great fun.

The venerable Leslie Charteris begins The Arrow Of God by stating that Simon Templar despises the detective story where the murder victim "wanders vaguely through the first few pages with the sole purpose of becoming a convenient body in the library by the end of chapter one." Amusingly, Charteris makes this first chapter a mere three paragraphs long and kills the victim at the very end of chapter two. I like the guy's style! Playboy Templar is in Nassau when supercilious and opinionated Floyd Vosper, while asleep on the beach, is killed by an umbrella shaft driven through his chest. Everybody is a suspect because Vosper had insulted everyone, including Templar. When the superintendent of police is about to accept the idea that Mother Nature was responsible, Templar asks if anyone owns a gun. This is a perfect short story. The main protagonist and all the suspects are engaging and the revelation of what happened to the victim is very well done. Charteris was a master. No doubt about it.

I was not familiar with the writing team of Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice before reading their contribution, Rift in the Loot. Eddie The Actor escapes from prison. With the help of his lawyer and another client of his lawyer, they search for 'his' $50,000 in the backyard of an old girlfriend's house. The loot was buried under a rosebush but, to their dismay, dozens of other rosebushes had been planted during Eddie's stint. A bogus cop, a genuine cop, and Poe's The Purloined Letter all figure into this story's ending. Though I didn't care for this yarn as much as the others, in the category of "they don't write 'em like that anymore", this story, though dated, has it's charm.

Volume 1 and 2 is a great omnibus of detective stories to have on your book shelf. I mentioned in last week's FFBs that I don't normally reread a book yet I found myself turning to Maurier's Rebecca and began reading, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again..."

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On writing

I'm curious... how many others work on more than one story at a time, and if so, how many? I tend to have two short stories in progress in addition to my 'great American novel', which is always under construction as inspiration strikes. I tend to read in the same manner as I write with several books at once. I currently have The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo posted on my blog as the book I'm reading, and I'm also working through A Confederacy of Dunces, The Watchman, and A Treasury of Great Mysteries Vol. 2. Just like I can't read one book at a time, I would be hard pressed to construct a lone story until completion. Does anybody else work this way?

Monday, August 25, 2008

My Town Monday: Life in West Africa

Me with Boh Cyprain in Yaounde, CameroonHere are two very different stories from Mr. Boh about the rituals for the deceased in Cameroon. One is an interesting piece on a tribal custom that is in danger of fading out of existence from a southwestern village. The other is a lighthearted look at the superstitious beliefs that haunt the living. I've included a couple of pictures of Mr. Boh and me in Cameroon (2004-05). For those of you who aren't from NY (my home state), you might not be so thrilled that I introduced my Cameroonian friend to the NY Yankees with a baseball cap.

Mr. Boh writes:
The skull ceremony in the Bamileke Land
The skull ceremony in the Bamileke land has become a famous event that most tourists have developed a growing interest in. Invited or not, most of them prefer to hang around during this ceremony with cameras to immortalise the event. Even Cameroonians who do not hail from this region witness this with a lot of curiosity.

In the Bamileke land, when the patriarch of a large family passes away and is buried, the rest of the family waits for a few years so that the head of the corpse should completely rot away so that they can have the skull. This skull stays where it was buried until problems begin to plague the family. This is to say that where there is no misfortune in the family, there is no cause for a skull ceremony. But when problems set in, there is a convocation of all the family members from far and near by the successor or the acting family head. When all are gathered in a fixed date, the notables and village elders stand around the grave and pour out libation to their forefathers and ask that they should forgive them for whatever they might have done wrong while the youths do the digging. When they get to the corpse, only a family member gets into the grave and detaches the skull from the rest of the corpse.
With the skull in hand,the designated person carries it to the family house where an elder will now anoint it with calm wood (reddish in color like blood clots). During this anointment, he makes requests on behalf of the entire family to the departed, for example, if a young person has been sick in that family (bed ridden) within this time -- since it is believed that illnesses of such magnitude are meant only for the old -- they would be asking for the skull's intervention. This is particularly where they really think that someone has a hand in the illness. In the situation where they think the illness has been inflicted by the departed family head in response to a wrong behaviour by the sick person or any member of the family,they will still seek mercy on the part of the skull. A mistake here can include the refusal of the successor to go to bed with one of the succeeded wives because here it is considered a taboo if you inherit someone and refuse to go to bed with his wife; it means the wife is nasty to you and therefore you need to be disinherited.

When all requests have been made, they embalm the skull with some cloths and burial again takes place just as before. It must be noted that during this ceremony, the women mourn just as the day the first burial took place.

After the burial, feasting and dancing continue the occasion because they assume their requests have been met.

In the Bamileke land, burials are not done following the normal day to day calendar. There is a traditional calendar that gives room for days like "country Sunday" -- as it is called -- which is the village's Sabbath day wherein no one is allowed to go to the farm or carryout intense work and equally no corpse is put into the ground (buried) on this day. Country Sundays are usually 02 per week.

In a situation where they make a burial program for a fresh funeral and it coincides with a country Sunday, they dig the grave and put in the casket in the evening of the day before the intended burial day but they don't fill the grave with soil. The next day, they do every other thing as programmed and only fill the grave now but no digging.

Certain traditional practices are still very much observed in the Bamileke region; meanwhile other parts of Cameroon are rushing in to modernism and leaving their valued tradition to fade out.

Mr. Boh and me goofing around along the highway from Yaounde to Kribi
Mr Boh and I often exchange details about customs. I remember one time, he told me that when a child looses a tooth, the parent throws the tooth onto the roof, and if the child is fast enough to run around the house and catch it before it hits the ground, it is supposed to bring them good luck. Well, when I laughed, in good nature of course, he asked what we do in America. So with pride, I began telling him how the child puts the tooth under his/her pillow and while the child is sleeping at night, the 'magic' Tooth Fairy comes in and takes the tooth, leaving money in its place. Of course, this made Mr. Boh laugh as he said, "What a rich country you come from." I laughed some more when I realized our custom wasn't any less absurd! I reminded him that the Tooth Fairy was meant for children, but, nevertheless, it was still funny to think that we perpetuate something so silly. Anyway, here's another tale from Mr. Boh about some of his country's customs and superstitions involving the dead:

The Dead Still Feel Hungry
In the villages of Bakossi in the south west province of Cameroon, it is believed that the dead are omnipresent, here with us in every activity that we carryout. When someone dies, it is forbidden to say bad things about him or her for fear that he may strike back in anger. When someone dies, family and friends have up to three days to carry on with whatever ceremonies to pay the deceased the last respects and the fourth day the person can be laid to rest, i.e. leave the face of the earth and join his ancestors.

The story has been told of one chief in this village who died and his body was kept in a local mortuary for three days. Being a chief, it took some time to prepare for the burial ceremony as various delegations were to read out testimonies and eulogies. The night of the wake-keeping, with the corpse placed on bed at the middle of the sitting room, people started singing as they filed past around the coffin, some dancing to the music that came from the choir. Most of the space outside was taken up by different female groups and had prepared fire-sides to prepare various kinds of assorted dishes to feed the population with.

BEHOLD!! Something happened; there was a black-out in the neighborhood. Electricity went out just for about 03 minutes and within this time something really strange occurred.

The corpse that had been laid in state, well dressed and with a pair of white gloves in hands and white socks on feet had taken advantage of the sudden darkness and gotten up. The three days it had already spent without food were becoming unbearable. All the dancing, singing and preaching from men of God were only helping to make the night look much longer than chief had expected. He had expected to be gone a long time ago but here he was being preached upon etc. Once he got up from that bed, he hurriedly rushed out to one of the pots of soup the women were preparing outside and dug his hands into it pulling out most of the meat and eating it up. (The particular soup is called "Eru" and it is eaten with a paste called "water-fufu" and preparing it entails so much palm oil).

As soon as he had finished eating, he landed back on bed where he laid himself back in state. Soon power supply was reinstated but nobody could tell chief had made a move but for one old wise grandmother who came very close to the bed where chief laid and started exclaiming aloud; "Chief, so you couldn't be patient just for a few hours to await your burial before taking a bite? Now see what shame you have brought upon us". With such exclamations, people started looking critically only to discover that the white gloves chief was wearing were all stained with palm oil from the Eru chief had eaten. Isn't this funny?

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Lady in the Lake (1947)

The film version of The Lady in the Lake is considered a misfire and that’s unfortunate as it’s one of my favorite Chandler novels. It takes Marlowe outside his usual Los Angeles digs to Little Fawn Lake in search of a missing woman. The talented actor and director, Robert Montgomery, decided on an unusual gimmick -- the entire film is seen from the viewpoint of Marlowe. We occasionally glimpse Montgomery in a mirror, but other than that, we, the audience, are Marlowe. I’ve seen the film twice and think it’s better than what many critics said, but then again, I’m a Chandler fan, noir aficionado, and love just about anything from this period. Here's the trailer:

The original New York Times review: “In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen the novelty begins to wear thin. Still, Mr. Montgomery has hit upon a manner for using the camera which most likely will lead to more arresting pictorial effects in the future.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dog Day Afternoon

Early Wednesday morning, a small whine was coming from outside the building where I work. My friend, Jerry, pointed out a little puppy, sitting beside a large pipe looking pretty lonely. I rescued the pup and not even 30 minutes later, we find the mom and three other puppies, hungry and weary, and we figured the one I saved must be the runt who wasn't able to keep up with her family. Sure enough, she'd take two steps before plopping down to rest. Worried that she would be left behind if the mother decided to leave in the middle of the night, I took her home and my wife and I fed her, gave her a bath and cozy towel to sleep on. We discussed what to do and reached the conclusion that, even though it would be difficult for us, we would take her in if we were unable to find a home for her. The next day, I took the pup back to work, and found her mother still there (she had also been fed along with the other pups), and the little tyke nosed her way right back in, jumping around and playing with her siblings. I thought she would be fine for the night with her mom since she was so energized from a decent meal and good nights sleep. Sure enough, the next morning, she was again bouncing around with the bunch. The owner of the company decided to take all of them to the vet for shots and a checkup, and before the end of the day, one of the office workers asked if she could keep the pup. So, my charmer and I never got to foster the puppy, but we're very happy to know that she's going to a good home.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday’s Forgotten Books: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

I rarely reread a book. As a kid, I may have given a Hardy Boy's mystery a second go-around, but there have been few others. One book I’ve read within the last few months that I thought deserved a revisit is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which followed closely on the heels of By-Line: Ernest Hemingway.

Now, I'm not an outdoorsman and I've never been to a bullfight, so reading about hunting, fishing, and bullfighting has never really appealed to me unless Hemingway wrote about them. But Feast is not about these favorite topics of his; this is his account of his time in 1920s Paris as a struggling writer living with his wife and son in meager conditions and his encounters with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald, etc. (perhaps only Dorothy Parker's round table is comparable in terms of the sheer talent hanging out together).

Feast is on the top of my Hemingway heap, with the best parts of the book being his musings on his peers. On F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway wrote: "His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."

Beautiful, stark imagery as Hemingway contributed to the Fitzgerald myth of the doomed writer. The passages about Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were truly harrowing, and Hemingway blamed most of Fitzgerald’s downfall on Zelda. Is what we’re reading factual, partially factual or a re-write of history? Zelda and Hemingway disliked each other immensely.
“[Zelda] described him as ‘bogus’, and ‘phoney as a rubber check’. She considered Hemingway's domineering macho persona to be merely a posture; Hemingway in turn, told Scott that Zelda was crazy.” [Wikipedia]

He referred to Fitzgerald as his friend and you get a genuine sense that he cared for the man. But his fierce competitiveness left few of his author friends, like Fitzgerald, unscathed. I'm a student of his writing but I'm damn glad I wasn't a successful contemporary of Hemingway’s.

Writer and art collector, Gertrude Stein appeared to be a generous supporter of the early Hemingway and she was even godmother to his son, Bumby. The early chapters were devoted to Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, who had graciously invited the Hemingway’s to stop by their home at 27 rue de Fleurus. Stein took an interest in young talent and seemed to relish the role of nurturing them. Hemingway was no exception and she became his mentor in literature and art. However, their relationship ended abruptly when Ernest stopped by unexpectedly, overhearing an argument between Stein and Toklas, who were unaware that he had been let in by the maidservant. Hemingway wrote about the lover’s quarrel, painting Stein in an unflattering, submissive role. Ernest made a quick dash for the door as the maidservant said, “Don’t go. She’ll be right down.” His reply, “I have to go,” was humorous.

Ford Maddox Ford, author and critic, was introduced as "breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and holding himself as uptight as an ambulatory, well clothed, up-ended hogshead" and described as egotistical and jumpy.

But Hemingway could also be gracious and when describing Ezra Pound, he also shed a little more light on his own character. “Ezra was kinder and more Christian about people than I was. His own writing, when he would hit it right, was so perfect, and he was so sincere in his mistakes and so enamored of his errors, and so kind to people that I always thought of him as a sort of saint.”

Stein, Fitzgerald and Ford all preceded Hemingway in death, and one is left to wonder why he had depicted his friends in such an unfavorable manner. Perhaps ego? But he had already been heralded as the greatest writer of the 20th century at that point. Maybe he just told the facts and simply recorded history. Whatever the case, his accounts, though harsh, are equally fascinating, and it’s impossible not to be intrigued by this novel.

According to his fourth wife, Mary, Hemingway started Feast in 1957 and was working on it at the time of his suicide; it was published posthumously in 1964. There was some controversy that she had deleted a great deal of material concerning his first wife Hadley. So who knows what the final product of Feast would have looked like had he lived. Would it have been published at all? Hemingway had left a mass of unpublished material that he never intended to see the light of day. Obviously, any writer begins a book with the intention of publishing it, but maybe he would have toned down some of the descriptions; but then again, if he had, it wouldn't be half as fun. In an age where everybody writes tell-alls and confessionals, A Moveable Feast is a great read.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Death in Paradise (2006)

I've been a fan of Robert B. Parker's Spenser since Robert Urich played the detective in the 1980s TV show. I began reading Valediction and realized, though the show was good, it paled in comparison to Parker's novel. I eagerly anticipated each March or April for the next release. When I was an MP and had just returned stateside from Johnston Island in 1997, the first thing I did (ok, maybe second or third) was run to Borders for the latest Spenser book. To my surprise, I found Parker had introduced a new series and a new character, Jesse Stone; and two chapters into Night Passage I was hooked.

When we first meet Jesse, he’s been sacked from the LAPD for drinking on duty. He leaves LA for an interview in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts and, to even his surprise, gets the job. When the police chief he replaced turns up dead, Jesse becomes aware that he's been hired as a stooge by a corrupt town board. The Stone character, a deeply troubled man who slowly battles his demons as the series progresses, is a marked departure for Parker. As of this date, there are seven novels.

Tom Selleck plays the part of Jesse Stone in the made-for TV movies. Even though the character in the novels is in his late thirties, the sixty-something Selleck skillfully plays the part, making the age difference hardly noticeable (Parker himself said that Selleck nails the part). Considering both Magnum P.I. and Parker were big influences on me as a teenager, it's great to see these two come together.

I recently finished watching Death in Paradise which is the third movie in the series. The body of a teenage girl is found floating in a local lake. The Paradise PD uncovers that the previously straight-A student's life fell apart after moving into town and attending a new school. The investigation takes a turn when sordid connections between a prominent writer/school benefactor and the Boston mob are revealed. In addition, Chief Stone and his officers are left reeling when a case of domestic violence becomes deadly.

I enjoyed everything about this movie and the series right down to the fine acting of Joe the Dog, who plays Reggie, Stone’s golden retriever; seriously, this puppy dog chews up the scenes with the best of them. These movies may take their time unfolding but the quiet ambience is never dull. I’m sure if you give them a chance, you will also enjoy them.

Stone Cold (20 February 2005)
Jesse Stone: Night Passage (15 January 2006) a prequel to Stone Cold
Jesse Stone: Death In Paradise (30 April 2006)
Jesse Stone: Sea Change (22 May 2007)
Jesse Stone: Thin Ice (2008) written by Parker, but not based on an existing novel

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Translation for Malaah

I emailed Mr. Boh asking if he could translate the word Malaah (from yesterday's My Town Monday), and he wrote back:

"Malaah" in that particular context would mean something like (Great one -, goddess) but to give its translation from the Bameleke language, it means "Mother of mothers". Malaah is in the Bameleke language but to say mother of mothers sounds foolish; it could better go with 'goddess'.

He's appreciative for all the comments in response to his post.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Town Monday: Life in West Africa

When I met Mr. Boh in Cameroon four years ago, a favorite topic of conversation was folklore and superstitions. In Mr. Boh's second guest MTM post, he discusses witchcraft which is still widely practiced in many parts of Cameroon. Boh Cyprain writes:

Malaah: WitchcraftWood carving with copper detail, from Yaounde, Cameroon

Witchcraft has been part of African society since time immemorial. When Christianity stepped in here, some Africans adopted it in full dose keeping aside their old traditional beliefs. They claimed that nothing associated with witchcraft could harm them if they stayed close to their Bibles. But, witchcraft practices have persisted and to the detriment of society. Those who are born with the gene, just like those who are initiated into it, practice purely evil. It has never been heard of a vampire who only defended the innocent from the ill-intentioned. In recent times, persons regarded as having the gift of being able to detect the truth in cases of witchcraft have been called to the BAR to help magistrates seek out the truth in cases where witchcraft have been presented before the law. This has been because magistrates have found it difficult to pass judgment against someone for lack of proof. The fact that the law now gives cognizance to this phenomenon is clear proof that witchcraft practices still exist in our society today.

There has been this Malaah phenomenon which most vampires have adopted nowadays. By this, they put on a DRACULA-LIKE attitude where they go out at night in search of human blood. As it is, they transform into very tiny human beings and they board what they call "Avion de Nuit" or the Night Plane. This night plane could be an empty tin of sardines or even an empty box of matches. Any of these planes can carry as many as 20 vampires and can fly out to great distances like neighbouring Gabon or Tchad with a common goal - to suck dry sleeping human beings. With the blood already gathered, they can now use it to perform their miracles all to their benefit. It is said that they could possibly transfer ones intelligence into some other person who was less intelligent at first and could render someone crippled if by so doing would halt his progress (e.g., a footballer). There are those who indulge in this to enable their kin achieve stardom in society. Worst is the fact that those involved tend to initiate their kids to ensure a successor regardless of their ages.

Last month a Cameroonian television channel "CANAL 2" broadcasted on its news 02 kids of ages of about 11and 07 who gave testimonies of how their grand mother has constantly sent them mystically at night to go and suck out blood from neighbours with the latest one being the sucking of blood from one of their cousins (just as young as they) rendering him crippled. There was contention shown in the family as the mother of the lad was shown pleading on camera with the grandmother to only help make the son walk again. These kids gave their confessions as to their innocence and pleaded with the public to forgive them as they never knew what they were doing. They said they had accepted to carryout these mal-practices because their aunt had promised they were going to be very rich in the future and were going to own their own cars.

The Malaah phenomenon presents itself as a church with its members dressed in immaculate white and go barefoot. One practice almost terminated the market of paper towels here as it was believed that they went around peoples dust-bins collecting already used napkins and getting the rubbish from it to get the owners hooked up; if you used it to wipe sweat from your face, they would in turn extract the sweat from the towel and use it against you the same way they do with the blood. This made almost everybody to either stay away from using paper tissue or dropping it beyond the reach of anyone.

Wood carving from Yaounde, CameroonIn the neighbourhood of Mbankolo here in Yaoundé, there was this old lady who piloted a night plane all by herself and went around sucking blood from neighbours and the plane crash landed on someone's roof. Since it was almost morning (daylight), she was unable to take-off again (because this practice doesn't agree with day light) and gradually she started turning into her normal human body and started crying out for help. She was so old she couldn't get down from the roof by herself. The neighbours recognizing who she was sent for the son who by this time was struggling to write out an announcement for the radio concerning the missing mother whom they couldn't find in her room that morning. Arriving the scene the son felt so insulted to find the mother on the roof and to hear what she was saying in her confession. She said she usually follows a team but since she was too thirsty that night and the rest of the associates weren't going out, she had braved it to pilot the plane. The son in annoyance left before a ladder was brought to help bring down the mother and was promising to send out every belonging of the mother before her return to his house.

Recently, a bunch of Malaah church members were dispersed by the police at TSINGA (the main junction to the presidential palace in Yaoundé) on their way to the presidency. They claimed it had been prophesied that it's only their powerful prayers that could help make President Biya to flee the palace. On their way they met police men with instructions to beat mercilessly and arrest its leaders for motives of unauthorized demonstration and unpatriotic practices.

Next week -- The Dead Still Feel Hungry
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Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter, was the very first narrative film and became the prototype for the American western. Porter used state of the art techniques including parallel editing, pan shots, double exposure composite editing and on location shooting. This western was filmed in New Jersey and Delaware and produced at Thomas Edison’s studio.

Porter based the movie on a 1896 story by Scott Marble and was inspired by Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch who, in 1900 Wyoming, separated a mail car from the rest of the train and blew up the safe holding $5,000 cash.

In the final scene, a man aims a gun into the camera and shoots, which caused audiences of the time to leap in fear. This scene has been used for effect in other movies like Tombstone and paid homage to in Goodfellas.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Luke Short stories on film

After reading Ride the Man Down by Luke Short, I became interested in films adapted from his work. Ride was made into a movie in 1952 with Brian Donlevy. Other films included notable names like Robert Mitchum in Blood on the Moon (1948), and one of my favorites, Veronica Lake, in Ramrod (1947). Has anyone heard of this movie? I love the tagline, "...until the devil put a woman there!" Here's the plot summary to Ramrod from IMDb:

A cattle-vs.-sheepman feud loses Connie Dickason her fiance, but gains her his ranch, which she determines to run alone in opposition to Frank Ivey, "boss" of the valley, whom her father Ben wanted her to marry. She hires recovering alcoholic Dave Nash as foreman and a crew of Ivey's enemies. Ivey fights back with violence and destruction, but Dave is determined to counter him legally... a feeling not shared by his associates. Connie's boast that, as a woman, she doesn't need guns proves justified, but plenty of gunplay results. -- Written by Rod Crawford.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Dark Knight

I am now officially an older moviegoer according to Monday’s USA Today. Dan Fellman of Warner Bros. says, "We're starting to get those older moviegoers who maybe see three or four movies a year. They never rush to see a movie, and now that they can get a seat, they are coming out."* Yep, that's me, though honestly if my charmer had not wanted to see The Dark Knight, I probably would have passed altogether, but we went and I came to a new revelation. But first, the movie. It was great, the best Batman ever and I've seen them all. The acting was outstanding, and though Heath Ledger gets a lot of attention, Aaron Eckhart as Two Face and Gary Oldman as Commisioner Gordon are equally on the mark. Supporting cast of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman round out a who's who of top notch actors. A decided improvement over the cast of Batman and Robin of a decade ago. The movie was indeed dark maybe a little too much so for the 4 and 8 year-olds I saw in the audience, but for a Batman fan who likes his Caped Crusader a little more Frank Miller than Adam West, this was dark to a T. My only small gripes, the movie was 30 minutes too long and Christian Bale's Eastwood-esque gravelly voice as Batman was a little too distracting. These are minor complaints, because honestly, this was a well done film.

My revelation is I'm bored with the Batman rehashes. Each time they reboot these movies, we are introduced to the villains as though we've never met them. If the producers and directors think younger audiences need a back story to catch them up to speed, I disagree. Who hasn’t grown up watching or reading Batman in some form, for example, with Nicholson as the Joker and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. These kids know the villains, we all do. Do us a favor and not waste time reintroducing the entire mythology every decade; let's just jump right into the action with some fresh material.

As I said, The Dark Knight is superb but maybe I need a new hero. And what good timing with The Watchmen coming out next year – something new at the flicks I haven't seen before. Of course, like an old fart, I'll check it out in its 4th or 5th week.

*This quote was taken from the printed copy of 'USA Today'. The online article had a slightly different quote

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Town Monday: Life in West Africa

Boh CyprainFrom 2004-05, courtesy of the government, I had an enjoyable eleven month “vacation” in the capital of Cameroon, Africa. Part of what made my stay in Yaounde memorable was local resident Boh Cyprain, who started out as one of our team’s drivers and quickly became a close friend of mine.

I previously mentioned in my Hemingway post that I could identify with being away from home during the holidays but when Mr. Boh and his wife graciously opened their home to my wife and me, it was one of my more touching Christmases, sharing it with his family.

Mr. Boh and I have stayed in touch through email and he'd send me blog entries when I was posting news links and dispatches on (the now near-defunct) Axiom Report. If you have never used the Internet in certain parts of Africa, it can be frustrating with slower than slow connection speeds where it takes five minutes to load a page. But even so, Mr. Boh would go to the local Internet cafe and spend hours typing in bits of news and stories about local traditions from his country. And when others told me they were to busy to blog for the AR, I will always remember his selfless dedication, driving through a riot torn Cameroon last March to report to us on his country’s status.

I thought it would be interesting to share some experiences from Cameroon for this week's MTM. Mr. Boh writes:

Shopping In Cameroon

Cameroon, like many other African countries, is blessed with fertile land and a hard working people. Its markets are usually stuffed with all varieties of food stuff and very natural too. Every morning you find wagons carrying food from villages into town to help feed its hungry populations. Women carry their bags with varied food menus of the day hoping to satisfy their families.

Bustling streets of Yaounde
Easy shopping in Cameroon warrants a broad knowledge of its market situation. A common market scene here is usually very noisy and busy and demands a lot of caution because you are taken away first by the freshness of its products and the anxiety with which the traders all rush into you to persuade you to buy. It is only normal if someone looses his temper because a trader pulled him or her brutally by the arm to persuade him to buy from her. In such confusing areas, do not be surprised after negotiating the price of your article not to find your wallet or let it not puzzle you when you get home to find that the machandise you bought has been changed and no one will be willing to listen to your complaint even when you go back to where you bought it.

Street vendors and small shops line a narrow alley
Negotiating the prices requires a lot of talking because the prices are never fixed. They change with the person who shows up to buy. For instance, prices are high when the person buying has a car and the prices get higher yet if it is discovered that you are an expatriate and as if that wasn't enough, prices sky-rocket when you are of the white colour. Shopping with a Cameroonian alongside you makes things alot easier for you because they identify themselves by the common market language known as PIDGIN (this is just broken English at times mixed with some broken French). It is the business language in Cameroon (Cameroon is a bilingual country with French and English being the official languages). Usually, most business persons quickly get annoyed with Cameroonian escorts because they don't give the seller a chance to be able to dupe their clients. TIPS are a common phenomenon here because escorts expect to be given some tips as a sign of appreciation for a job well done and even waiters in a bar expect to find something in the little saucer from which your change was served after you have left the place.

Peddling the goods
It is important to recommend here that if someone wants to do shopping here, he or she should hand all the money he has to his escort because pick pockets will only go for the expatriate and not the Cameroonian. This is if the escort is a trusted one.

Street children are also another aspect to look out for when you shop here because you will find a bunch of them willing to carry everything you buy just to accompany you to the road side to pick a taxi. They do this genuinely just for a tip but keep your eyes away from him for 10 seconds and your bag is gone; handle your wallet carelessly too and you won't find it when need arises.

Next week -- Malaah: Witchcraft
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Banacek (1972-1974)

"I love it when a plan comes together." Mention that phrase to nearly anyone my age and Col. John "Hannibal" Smith from The A-Team springs to mind. Most kids at the time were caught up with the antics of tough-guy Mr. T or "Howling Mad" Murdock, but my money was on cool, commanding Hannibal, played by George Peppard in the now iconic role. Hannibal was a leader with a genuine sense of fun, a grin that conveyed mischief and an ever-present cigar.

Peppard was born in 1928, the same year as my father, and looking back at clips of Hannibal mowing the enemy down with M16s and jumping out of helicopters, it’s hard to imagine my old man making those same maneuvers at that age.

I recently watched Peppard as Thomas Banacek, a suave Polish-American insurance investigator living in the exclusive Beacon Hill section of Boston and solving locked room mysteries. Banacek was an egotistical yet likeable character, smoking fine cigars and flaunting an expertise on the more elegant things in life, and Peppard played the character to precision.

The most memorable moments of the show are when Banacek spouted off in every episode, "There's an old Polish proverb that says..." and then continued with such pearls of wisdom as: “...a truly wise man never plays leap frog with a unicorn,” or “...only someone with nothing to be sorry about smiles at the rear of an elephant...”

The show was a success, but interestingly, Peppard quit because of the entanglements from a divorce, not wanting his ex-wife, Elizabeth Ashley, to get a chunk of his earnings. And with that, as quickly as it began, Banacek was over.

My charmer and I were hoping to follow this up with more Peppard, but there aren’t a whole lot of choices. The actor made a strong film debut in The Strange One and early roles like Home from the Hill, but he seemed to peak with 1961's classic Breakfast at Tiffany's.

His preference for rough and tumble roles in big budget films resulted in him being eclipsed by large ensemble casts, and scheduled blockbusters like The Blue Max, Tobruk and Damnation Alley never quite took off. Also, Peppard's battle with the bottle sidelined him for a number of years while filming a string of forgettable clunkers.

Still, with credits like Tiffanys, Home from the Hill and The A-team, Peppard had a good run. Maybe it’s time to return to Peppard's most famous role. I can still quote the opening from heart. In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped...

Friday, August 8, 2008

Forgotten Books Friday: By-Line: Ernest Hemingway

My pick for this week’s Forgotten Books is By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (1967). This compilation highlights Hemingway's work from 1920 to 1956 as a correspondent for the Toronto Star and contributor to magazines like Esquire and Look.

By-Line is perfect for the Hemingway aficionado who’ll revel in discovering many of his later story concepts and other excerpts were introduced in his early work. Poring over his "news stories", it's clear how different he was from, say, an Edward R. Murrow type. Hemingway had no qualms about blurring the line between news and imaginative writing and inserting himself into the proceedings.

His dispatches for the Toronto Star Weekly from 1920 ran the gamut of news reporting. A Free Shave chronicled the mundane experience of, you guessed it, a free shave at a barber college (you can picture Hemingway rolling his eyes when handed this assignment). Plain and Fancy Killings, $400 Up was a biting piece about American gunmen being exported to kill in Ireland, which is more in line with what we'd expect from Hemingway.

His North American Newspaper Alliance dispatches during the Spanish War are another highlight of this collection. Whereas most newsmen were focused on what they assumed was the bigger picture of battles, generals, diplomats, etc., Hemingway’s articles turned attention to the common man and everyday life. In Tortosa Calmly Awaits Assault he even writes about the land:
“Artillery was picking up a little now. Two came in at a fairly useful place, and, as the smoke blew away ahead and settled through the trees, you picked an armful of spring onions from a field beside the trail that led to the main Tortosa road. They were the first onions of the spring and, peeling, one found they were plump and white and not too strong. The Ebro delta has a fine rich land, and, where the onions grow, tomorrow there will be a battle.”

Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter is an amusing Esquire article from 1935. A young wannabe writer, who Hemingway described as "a tall, very serious young man with very big feet and hands and a porcupine haircut", went fishing with Papa in hopes of learning what it would take to make the cut. Hemingway began dispensing advice on authors to read. Names like Twain, Crane, and Tolstoy, and when the budding writer asked how he can train himself, Hemingway replied:
“Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.”

A personal favorite because I've done a lot of traveling myself is Christmas on the Roof of the World. He recorded his travels with his wife through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy before ending up in Paris for the holidays, which by then had taken its toll on the weary couple:
“The boy and the girl were homesick. It was their first Christmas away from their own land. You do not know what Christmas is until you lose it in some foreign land.”

Hemingway has always been considered along with Dashiell Hammett a huge influence on early pulp with his sparse, descriptive prose. In this anthology, you’re witness to the creation of that unique writing style and also the birth of a legend. If you’re not a fan of the man who’s considered the 20th century’s greatest writer, then there's probably nothing here that will change your mind, but if you enjoy Ernest Hemingway's work, there are many hidden treasures worth checking out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

High and Low (1963)

I discovered Japanese cinema when I worked at The Video Shop in Dryden, NY the same year I began college in the early 90’s. Late one night, when two customers were fighting over a VHS copy of Curly Sue, I noticed people were never coming to blows over Cinema Paradiso or Babette's Feast in the foreign film section. That’s when the colorful cover of Ran directed by Akira Kurosawa jumped out at me, and I borrowed the tape.

A brilliant film, Ran, based on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear, was Kurosawa’s last epic. I continued to seek out more of his work, learning he had also adapted Macbeth into the movie Throne of Blood, but perhaps what I found most surprising was that some of my favorite movies as a kid were based on Kurosawa films: The Hidden Fortress (Star Wars), The Seven Samurai (The Magnificent Seven), and Yojimbo (A Fistful of Dollars).

Interestingly, the man who inspired so many western remakes was himself influenced by Hollywood noir:
Kurosawa stated that a major source for the plot [Yojimbo] was the film noir classic The Glass Key (1942), an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1931 novel. In particular, the scene where the hero is captured by the villains and tortured before he escapes is copied almost shot for shot from The Glass Key. [Source: Wikipedia]

High And Low, like Yojimbo, also got its inspiration in western hardboiled, loosely based on King's Ransom, an 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain. In High, Toshiro Mifune plays a wealthy businessman, Kingo Gondo, faced with paying an outrageous ransom when his chauffeur’s child is mistakenly kidnapped instead of his son. The kidnappers learn of the mistake, nevertheless, they still demand the hefty payment which will bankrupt Gondo.

When Gondo initially believes the kidnappers have his son, he is willing to pay any amount to get him back, but, when he realizes the mistake, he begins to recant. Grappling with the choice, Gondo knows that paying up will ruin him financially and refusing to pay will destroy him spiritually. His wife reminds him, “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity.”

The film from beginning to end is gripping with the first part taking place almost entirely in one room. The middle is weighed down with police procedure but then a plunge into Tokyo’s underworld is electrifying and the film builds to a thrilling climax as they set a trap for the main kidnapper.

The Criterion Collections always add great bonuses and this dvd is no exception. It includes a rare Mifune interview from 1981 and a contemporary interview with the actor who played the kidnapper. The movie's US and Japanese trailers are included plus "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create".

If you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, this is a good place to begin. I also recommend Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Throne of Blood. Kurosawa, who mixed Eastern and Western techniques, was a Picasso of directors, a true stylist of the medium. You will not be disappointed

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dillinger's Death

Last week, The Tainted Archive had a great post on whether Billy the Kid lived to a ripe old age. It reminded me of a similar write-up I did for the Axiom Report back in February on John Dillinger, though not as in-depth as Archive. Borrowing heavily from Wikipedia, here's my old post...

After reading Stephen King's The Death of Jack Hamilton (1991, Needful Things), I decided to look on the net for historical accounts of depression era gangsters, Hamilton being a minor player in the infamous John Dillinger gang. I followed a link to a profile of Dillinger and was amazed to learn about the controversy surrounding his death. Apparently, there were a number of people who doubted that the man killed outside Chicago's Biograph Theater in 1934 was even Dillinger. The evidence came from these observations:

--Some people who knew Dillinger and viewed the body didn't recognize him, with even Dillinger's own father claimed, "That's not my boy!"

--It was noted that the eyes of the corpse were brown, but police records described Dillinger's eyes as grey.

--The body showed signs of both a childhood illness that Dillinger never had and a rheumatic heart condition that would have prevented him from playing baseball in prison and enlisting in the Navy.

--Suspiscions were again raised when it was revealed that the pistol on display at FBI Headquarters as the Colt semi-automatic Dillinger had drawn on agents was manufactured five months after his death.

--In 1963, a letter from "John Dillinger," Hollywood, California and a photo of an aged man was received by the The Indianapolis Star but the newspaper gave it little

I've never been one to put a lot of faith in conspiracy theories, like some others in this case:

--Dillinger's sister, Audrey, positively identified the body by a childhood scar on his leg. Others who viewed the body may not have recognized him due to the plastic surgery he'd had or the death masks that damaged the face.

--Multiple sets of fingerprints taken from the body by the FBI had characteristics the same as Dillinger's.

An interesting piece of trivia that gave rise to many a legend about Dillinger's well endowed nature came from grainy newsprint copies of a photograph of the corpse covered by a sheet with a 'tent' in a rather inauspicious place. Turns out, it was just an arm stiff from rigor mortis.

Maybe some of these answers will be revealed in next year's Dillinger movie directed by one of the best, Michael Mann, and starring Johnny Depp.

Monday, August 4, 2008

My Town Monday: The Rayne Continues

Many POW camps were located throughout Louisiana during WWII, including Camp Ruston which was one of the largest camps in the United States. Photo: Louisiana Tech University Digital Library.It seems like there's no end to Rayne, Louisiana's charming trivia. In earlier posts, I highlighted the town's unique obsession with frogs and a cemetery that made Ripley's for facing the wrong direction. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to local residents, Jerry and Josette, about another interesting facet to the town. Jerry explains...

As told by my father-in-law, Harold Hoffpauir, who lived his entire life in Rayne except for his tour of duty in the Navy during the Korean War.

During WWII, there was a POW Camp in Rayne. According to what I was told, it would be near where the Frog Festival Grounds are now; adjacent to I-10.

My father-in-law and one of his good friends, upon hearing about the German POW Camp, became curious and were anxious to see what a German soldier looked like, as they only knew what they heard on the radio and read in the newspapers. They rode their bicycles out to the camp. When they arrived, there were soldiers guarding the prisoners. They talked to one guard and he allowed them to peek through the fence to see the POW’s. They were stunned to see that they (the prisoners) looked like ordinary people. They had envisioned that the prisoners were some sort of “beast-like” creatures, based on what they had gathered from the media and their own imagination. While there, another soldier (dressed differently) drove up in a jeep. He must have been some type of U.S. officer and made the boys leave immediately. My father-in-law said that the officer then started chewing out the soldier who had allowed them to peek through the fence. He told me he could still hear the officer yelling for a long distance as he rode his bike home.

It should be noted that my father-in-law was about 13 years old at the time. There were over 279 prisoners held in Rayne [link to photos]. It should also be noted that Rayne was probably strategically selected, as the nearby village of Robert’s Cove was settled by German immigrants who even in the mid 20th century spoke primarily German. Robert’s Cove today is bilingual and holds an annual German Fest.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Guard Duty

Crew members from the Coast Guard stayed at the hotel recently and "docked" three boats in the parking lot. The men were sharp dressed in their BDU uniforms and high and tight haircuts. For a brief moment, I remembered what it was like to be an MP and I sorta missed the old days and the camaraderie. Then I saw the crew walking away leaving one lone guy to guard. He reached into his upper left shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of Menthol cigarettes, counting to make sure he had enough smokes to make it through the first shift. The first and last shifts aren't too bad but the blocks of time in the middle really disturb one's sleep. I smiled and clenched my wife's hand as we walked back to the room. I don't miss it that much.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Dance of the Duck

Denise and I spend a fair amount of time at the park, and I finally taught this duck to dance for a piece of bread. He also now sings a mean version of Peanut Butter Jelly Time.

Put your right foot in and shake it all about!