Friday, November 30, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

Essential reading on India

How much do you know about my country? Find out by reading these books on India offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

If I were asked which books on India I’d recommend the most to someone unfamiliar with the country, I’d have no hesitation in mentioning five books which, in my opinion, represent the voice of India in terms of its social, cultural and political ethos.

These books, which comprise two fictional and three non-fictional works, collectively, are: The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru (1946); Gandhi: An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi (translated from Gujarati to English in 1940); the great epics Ramayana (1957) and Mahabharata (1958) by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, statesman and last Governor-General of India; the Malgudi trilogy by renowned author R.K. Narayan (1935, 1937 & 1945), and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1980) which earned India’s greatest fiction writer (in my opinion) the Booker of Bookers.

The list is subjective and, as with all lists, is open to debate. While I had several titles in mind, I narrowed it down to these five books because they give you a comprehensive picture of India and its colourful people and their way of life and because they are some of my favourite books by Indian writers. A lot of my knowledge of my own country has come from reading and rereading these literary works.

For now, I will stick to Nehru’s brilliant and original work.

The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru (1946), the charismatic first Prime Minister of independent India, will take your breath away, no exaggeration. For three reasons: Nehru’s command over the language, his engrossing writing style, and substance that will enrich you like few books on India will.

Writing from his imprisonment in Ahmadnagar Fort, Maharashtra, Nehru begins his discovery thus:

“It is more than twenty months since we were brought here, more than twenty months of my
ninth term of imprisonment. The new moon, a shimmering crescent in the darkening sky, greeted us on our arrival here. The bright fortnight of the waxing moon had begun. Ever since then each coming of the new moon has been a reminder to me that another month of my imprisonment is over. So it was with my last term of imprisonment which began with the new moon, just after the Deepavali, the festival of light. The moon, ever a companion to me in prison, has grown more friendly with closer acquaintance, a reminder of the loveliness of this world, of the waxing and waning of life, of light following darkness, of death and resurrection following each other in interminable succession.” 

Nehru, who dedicated the book to his colleagues and co-prisoners in the Ahmadnagar Fort Prison Camp, where he was imprisoned from August 9, 1942, to March 28, 1945, takes the reader through centuries of India’s rich cultural and religious diversity and heritage beginning with the Indus Valley Civilisation and descending all the way down to the British rule in India. 

The Discovery of India must be read along with Nehru’s other two major works Glimpses of World History and Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru.

As his daughter and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi observes in her foreword, “The Discovery delves deep into the sources of India's national personality. Together, these books have moulded a whole generation of Indians and inspired persons from many other countries.”

The Discovery of India should be a necessary companion for all Indians and Indophiles who would like to delve more into the country’s glorious civilisation and history. For others interested in world history, this book will be nothing short of a treasure.

You can download Nehru’s three books here:

The Discovery of India

Glimpses of World History

Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

FILM REVIEW

The Ross Sisters in Broadway Rhythm (1944)

This week I am taking the shortcut to Overlooked Films and Television at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom by writing about a small part of a film I have never seen before. For more gripping stuff, check out Sergio’s post on Top 20 Spy Movies over at his blog Tipping My Fedora.

My sister-in-law, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, sent me this classic musical video called Solid Potato Salad by the Ross Sisters—Aggie Ross, Elmira Ross, and Maggie Ross—whose real names, according to Wikipedia, are Veda Victoria, Dixie Jewel and Betsy Ann Ross. I have never heard of them before, but I loved what I saw. The song-and-dance sequence in this 5.14-minute video from the 1944-movie Broadway Rhythm will leave you spellbound. The Ross sisters sing for nearly a minute or so and then they do all kinds of strange things with their bodies—contortions you probably won’t see even in a circus. Check it out… 


IMDb informs you that Broadway Rhythm was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who also made Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Born to Dance (1936), Topper Returns (1941), and Ziegfeld Follies (1945). The entertainment website sums up the story thus:  “Broadway producer Johnny Demming (George Murphy) courts big-name talent for his upcoming musical show, oblivious to the talent all around him, in his family and friends. When Johnny finally lands Hollywood star Helen Hoyt (Ginny Simms) for his cast, Helen herself tries opening Johnny's eyes to the talents of his dad and sister. But Johnny remains adamant. Will his family and friends launch their own show, in competition with Johnny's?” 


If you know more about the Ross Sisters and their craft or if you have seen the musical, please don’t hesitate to enlighten me…

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A blogger’s dilemma 

A "Bookshelf with music writings" is the title of this vintage art by Italian
Baroque painter Giuseppe Maria Crespi, on display at the Civico Museo
Bibliografico Musicale (international museum and library of music) in Bologna.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s a little over three years since I started blogging and the one thing I have learnt over this period is that you have to be very focused while blogging. I started to blog in August 2009 and my posts in the first year covered all sorts of topics including current affairs, my other chief area of interest outside of books, music and cinema not to mention chess, comics and crosswords.

It took plenty of visits to other people’s blogs and websites, listed to your right, before I realised that what you need for a blog to get going, in terms of a unique selling point and incoming traffic, is to specialise in one or two areas, such as books and films. So I took my blog to the cleaners: I removed all posts that were not connected with either books or films. I write about music occasionally, under Music & Lyrics, and don’t remember the last time I wrote anything about chess and crosswords.

Chess and crosswords are still two of my favourite pastimes. My father taught me chess when I was in first standard (grade) and showed me how to solve and compile crosswords by the time I was in the eighth. We used to put our heads together and solve the challenging London Times cryptic crossword that was popular among journalists in India. We also compiled crosswords for our respective newspapers. Later, my wife and I solved 
concise and cryptic crosswords in various newspapers. These were trivial pursuits but they were immensely satisfying. 

I still read and collect comic-books, which I have categorised under books. I write about comics as often as I remember to, though I haven’t posted anything of consequence lately. 

Our limited bookshelf is like a chameleon: it changes colours depending
on what we’re going to read in coming days. The rest of our books are in wall cabinets,
in the attic, and in my office cabinet. The little black box on the extreme right is
the router (wi-fi modem). Photo: Thayn P. Trikannad

Today, I post almost entirely about books and films and, in my view, it poses a new dilemma, one I hadn't noticed till the other day. Take books, for instance. Owing to my wide interest in fiction, I tend to read all kinds of books and across all genres with the exception of romance, especially the Harlequin type. I once picked up a novel by Barbara Cartland out of sheer curiosity because she was hugely popular in India, in the 1970s and 1980s. It didn't click. The grand dame of historical romances holds the Guinness World Record for the most novels—23 in 1983—published in a single year. 

I have gone off track...

Most of the blogs I visit are dedicated to specific genres, in the main western, detective-mystery, crime and suspense, war, horror, and sf and fantasy, and they are doing a terrific job. Click on any of the blogs on the right and you’ll see what I mean.

My question is: do you think reviewing books across genres keeps away readers who are inclined to visit genre-specific blogs like detective-fiction? Am I at a disadvantage when I cover all fiction?

To give you an idea, between September and November I reviewed books from seven different genres and this is what it looked like…

Western: Saddle on a Cloud by Frank C. Robertson & The Lone Deputy by Wayne D. Overholser

Espionage: Journey Toward Death by Amos Aricha

Thriller: The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty

Mystery: The secret Adversary and The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Crime and Suspense: Cape Fear (The Executioners) by John D. MacDonald

Horror: Anthologies: Best Ghost Stories, The Haunted Hour, and Devil Stories by various authors

Comics: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes’ Cookbook

If you’re strictly into, say, detective-mystery, which appears to be the running flavour among many bloggers, would you hop over to my blog and read the above reviews? More importantly, would you come back?

I hope you do…

Thursday, November 22, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

Saddle on a Cloud (1952) by Frank C. Robertson

I’m on a western-fiction roll and here’s one more to add to last week’s The Lone Deputy by Wayne D. Overholser for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Pattinase and Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Drift Wood, framed for cattle rustling seven years ago, returns as foreman of the Flying M ranch owned by his friend, Doc Egan, to clear his name. But, Drift has a fight on his hands…

My copy of the book
Drift Wood to his friends, Driftwood to his enemies… Either way, the hero of Saddle on a Cloud has been a drifter for seven years, framed for rustling and banished from the town of Idanha where he and his three friends grew up. One day, he decides to return “home” to help his old friend, Doc Egan, fight against rival outfits led by Hoke Guyer, a brute of a man who wants to take over Doc’s Flying M ranch at any cost.

Doc and his wife Edith, and their two little children, live in fear as Hoke accuses Doc of stealing his cows which his men force on to the Flying M range as a nasty pressure tactic. Backing the big, hulking man are his crooked foreman Bish McCarty and hired gun Latigo Spence and nearly all the members of the cattlemen’s association who believe Doc is a rustler. There are a few ranchers who believe he's innocent and keep away from the shady events that unfold at regular intervals.


(Bish McCarty) spoke quietly, “You were told to stay away from this country, Drift. You made a big mistake by coming back.”

“It’s a free country, Bish; hasn't anybody ever told you?” he queried easily.


Standing between Hoke and his wicked aim is fast-gun Drift Wood and his two other friends, Ev Clayton, an Englishman and a gambler, and Bert ‘Teach’ Thackeray, a carefree cowpuncher who works with him on the Flying M.

While Drift is looking out for Doc, his own back is covered by Ev and Teach, and together the four childhood buddies take on Hoke Guyer, owner of the Big G, and his cronies. 

Frank C. Robertson
But, is it really all that simple? Not when Drift finds out the “treachery” of one of his friends and “blackmail” to boot. It comes as a huge shock to the honest-to-goodness cowboy who would rather face his enemies unarmed than live with the bitter truth that his closest friend could have prevented his frame-up and ostracism seven years ago and saved Doc Egan all his troubles now.

Saddle on a Cloud is a test of character of the major players—the good people—in the story who, apart from Drift Wood, Doc Egan, Ev Clayton and Teach, include Doc’s wife Edith who feels safer with Drift around; Bish McCarty’s sister, Clover, who is in love with Drift; Dolly Fannin, a tobacco-chewing cowgirl whose father keeps his distance from Hoke Guyer; Kitty, Ev Clayton’s beautiful sister and Drift’s love interest; Dee Walker, owner of the Bull Corral saloon who's behind Drift with his shotgun; and Ben Larkin, a well-liked and respected black man in the Flying M outfit who swears allegiance to Drift.


These people remain loyal to Drift whose appeal lies in his innate capacity to shoulder the burden of his suffering friends, Doc and Edith, even if it might get him killed. Therein lies the appeal of the book.

The 188-page novel by Frank Chester Robertson (1890-1969), an American writer of dozens of westerns, short stories and newspaper articles, keeps you absorbed from the beginning to end. The story is written in an easy style, which I suspect is a Robertson trademark (this being my first novel by him), and plays out a lot in the country where the rival outfits of Doc Egan and Hoke Guyer hustle cattle onto each other’s range. There is almost a romantic quality about the way fearless cowboys like Drift Wood, armed with a six-shooter, stand their ground and take on a group of enemy riders trying bulldoze their way onto somebody else's range. Drift would rather defuse the tension with a spoken word than with a quick draw of his gun.

“Keep it down, Bish,” Drift cut in. “You’ll get the second slug. I’m tired of fooling with punks like you and Phil who ain’t neither one dry behind the ears.”

This is the kind of stuff I like reading in a western and Robertson tells it really well. While reading Saddle on a Cloud I couldn't help wishing I was there on the range, watching from a safe distance and away from the possible line of fire. I wondered what range wars or conflicts were like in the real Wild West, and how realistic their depiction in western novels. I'm sure it can’t have been fun.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

FILM REVIEW

Fargo (1996)

Todd Mason will have the links to many Overlooked Films and Television over at his blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check them out.

Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand): So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.

“Now you see me, now you don’t” is how I’d describe actors like Francis McDormand. I first saw her in Mississippi Burning (1988) as the wife of a county deputy sheriff who batters her for helping two FBI agents in their investigation of the murders of civil rights activists. At that time I didn’t realise she was McDormand. I must have been engrossed in Gene Hackman’s hardnosed character, especially the part where he takes a razor blade to her husband’s throat in a barbershop.

It took another film, Fargo, to bring her back into the narrow confines of my memory. Between these two movies and especially since the Coen brothers’ 1996 film I might have seen McDormand in some of her other ventures, though I don’t remember any, not unless I run through her filmography. I haven’t done that so far, perhaps after I post this piece. 


What I liked most about Fargo, superbly written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, is McDormand’s character, small-town police chief Marge Gunderson, particularly her way of speaking with a slight expression on her face and a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. I read, somewhere, that her distinctive speech, where the words are delivered slow and long, is reminiscent of the prevailing accent in the Midwestern state of Minnesota, the winter setting of the film. For instance, Marge often responds with “yaaa, yaaa!” emphasising on the vowels. You kinda like the way she talks.

A very pregnant Marge Gunderson is woken up from slumber, so to say, to investigate murders on her turf, the result of a kidnapping gone wrong. Of cheerful disposition, Marge leads a quiet and contented life with her husband Norm Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch) who is supportive of his wife and her job in a rather unassuming way. 


Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who works for his rich father-in-law’s car dealership, is steeped in debt and in a last-ditch effort to get out of his financial crisis decides to have his wife kidnapped so that he can milk her father for a hefty ransom and clear his dues. He hires Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to carry out the task on the condition that there would be no bloodshed and, above all, his wife would come to no harm.

However, the kidnap caper does not go as planned and soon bodies start piling up and it’s not long before Marge begins to sniff around Jerry’s office and asks him questions that make him more awkward and uncomfortable than he already is.
 


There is nothing pretentious about Fargo. The two main characters, Marge and Jerry, are ordinary people, but opposites: one is driven by her values and ethics, the other by his greed and ambition. The film rolls at an easy pace as police chief Marge Gunderson investigates the murders in a quiet and matter-of-fact manner, in what could be deemed as a realistic setting for a crime thriller. Although seasoned actor Macy gives out a fine performance with his bungling act, it’s McDormand who walks away with the honours—she won an Oscar for her role (as did the Coens for best writing and screenplay). This is her film.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Lone Deputy by Wayne D. Overholser, 1991

It’s Friday and time for another Forgotten Books edition at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Price Regan stood alone, as terribly alone as a man could be, but that was the cost of being a lawman.

My copy of the book
The story of The Lone Deputy by the late American western author Wayne D. Overholser reminded me of the stories I used to read in pocket-sized cowboy comics, known as Cowboy Western Comics or Western Picture Library. I still have a few of the latter, with colour art work on the covers and black-and-white illustrations inside.

Typically, you have Marshal Price Regan maintaining law and order in a small town called Saddle Rock, Colorado, and doing a good job of it too. His problems, however, don’t lie within the town, which is eyeing its own county, as much as they do with the three neighbouring ranches—Rocking C owned by Cole Weston, Broken Ring belonging to the Mohawk brothers, and Bridlebit run by family man Red Sanders. Their spreads are located on either side of the Yellow Cat Creek which empties into Elk River.

The biggest spread of them all is Weston’s Rocking C that stretches for miles to the south, on the other side of the river. Being the first cattleman to occupy the vast land near Saddle Rock, Weston also behaves like he is the law of the land.


The three ranch owners, in cahoots with politically inclined banker Barry Madden, are bent on running poverty-stricken settlers out of Yellow Cat, particularly the very crooked and ugly faced Walt Cronin who is accused of stealing their cattle. Cronin manages a store and saloon that caters to the harmless settlers who are mostly into farming. 

Weston, who has gunslingers protecting his back round the clock, is the de facto ring leader and the most evil of the lot, though the Mohawk brothers, Tom and Joe, offer him stiff competition. Weston and Madden “order” Regan to get rid of Cronin and the other nesters and rustlers failing which they would settle the matter their way. And they do just that, as Regan refuses to do their bidding until he has strong evidence against Cronin and the others.

The Lone Deputy is the frontier story of a lone man who must fight a lone battle against the wealthy and powerful ranchers. All Price Regan has on his side are his badge and his gun, his conscience, an indomitable spirit, and his girl Laura Madden. Perhaps, they are more than enough for the brave marshal of Saddle Rock.

“With no more backup than his shadow, Regan would fight for what he knew was right—even if it meant gunning down every last one of Weston’s hired killers.”
 

Wayne D. Overholser (1906-1996), author of more than seventy western novels and winner of the Spur Award as well as the Western Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, has written a classic western adventure. The 189-page western novel is a pleasant read, on account of the author’s simple narrative style and a credible story that gives you both sides of frontier justice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Skyfall: The maturing of James Bond

M: Are you taking me hostage? 
James Bond: You could call it that. 

 
On Monday night, I saw Skyfall with my wife and a dozen-odd people scattered around the 300-seat auditorium. People were playing musical chairs, switching their designated seats with the empty ones for a better view. We stayed put in ‘E’ row from the rear: the view was clear. There were no latecomers after the credits had rolled or after the interval was over. The theatre was nearly empty and the twenty-third James Bond flick would've looked the same no matter where you sat.

Except for Bond, Daniel Craig’s third outing as the famous British spy. He is different in Skyfall, more vulnerable, more appealing, and more convincing than he is in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Much of it has to do with his boss M, the head of MI6, the British intelligence service, who casts a long shadow on Bond and everything he does in the film, and vice versa.

Bond’s mission is closely entwined with the safety of his commanding officer, played by Judi Dench in what is, unarguably, her best Bond film ever. Forget her previous six roles as M. Get a load of her in Skyfall.

007’s mission—to retrieve a computer hard drive encoded with classified details of undercover NATO agents in terrorist organisations—leads him to his nemesis, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent turned rogue.

A rogue not of his own making, he says, rather forced to become one by M who let the Chinese have him for a few years. Silva, who sports golden hair and laughs in an insane way, comes back to avenge his incarceration and torture. He takes out a few MI6 agents, destroys a part of MI6 headquarters in London, and then comes after M, nearly killing her at an intelligence committee meeting.

Silva is M’s past and he is haunting her present. Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a former lieutenant colonel in the British Army and Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, is forcing her, with political persuasion, to retire gracefully, because her computer system and her position in MI6 have been compromised. But the formidable M stays to fight Silva with her most trusted agent by her side.

Skyfall is as much about M as it is about James Bond. Director Sam Mendes gives M a wide berth in the film, as wide as the sweeping and breathtaking landscape of Scotland and its cloud-capped hills—the scene of the final battle between Bond and Silva that plays out in Bond’s family estate, Skyfall.

The destruction of Skyfall is reminiscent of the destruction of Wayne Manor in Batman Begins and you wonder how much of it influenced Mendes, especially since both Bond and Wayne were orphaned at a very young age. However, unlike Bruce Wayne who vows to rebuild his family home brick by brick, 007 looks back at his burning estate and mutters that he never much cared for it. He turns around and follows Silva who is following M into the dark night.

M never says so in any of her films but there are enough hints to suggest that James Bond is her favourite agent. Her concern for Bond’s well-being has been all too obvious in the previous six films. In Skyfall, M takes her strictly businesslike relationship with Bond to a new and personal level—that of a “mother” and her favourite “son” who swears to protect her with his own life. You know he’s doing a job he’s trained for, and die if necessary, yet you can’t help thinking there’s more to the two than an intel head and her most trusted agent.

If I were to describe Skyfall in one word, I’d say, as the British would say, bloody brilliant and if I were to rate the film on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give it a respectable 8. The film scores well on most aspects we have come to associate with a Bond film, right from the time the credits roll to a smorgasbord of kaleidoscopic colours set to a great theme song, Skyfall, by English singer Adele. Noted American composer and conductor Thomas Newman sustains the musical narrative of the film with some fine background score. Unlike in his previous two films, Craig’s Bond also delivers some notable one liners in this, a throwback to the days of Roger Moore.

An 8 out of 10 does not mean Skyfall has no shortcomings. There are plenty of those too. I’ll mention some.

One, the jaw-dropping fight scene between James Bond and mercenary killer Patrice on the roof of a speeding train somewhere in the Turkish highlands should mark out 007 as a superhero, which, in a way, he is, more so in the last few movies in the series.

Two, the blonde-haired Javier Bardem as Silva is far from convincing. In spite of the ominous nature of his mission, a terrorist plot against MI6 and its chief, Bardem fails to move you in the way that his Anton Chigurh does in No Country for Old Men. He talks too much and laughs too much though I have a hunch his villainous persona will pay off, especially among his fans.

And three, you wonder why James Bond whisks M away to his dilapidated hideout in Scotland with few weapons and improvised booby traps as his only defence against Silva and his men who are, intentionally, put on their tail. You’re thinking, “Bond, you could have taken M anywhere in the world!”

Skyfall may not be the best Bond film ever but it is the best of Daniel Craig’s three Bond films. A terrific entertainer.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

VINTAGE PICTURES

The age of Dickens

Dickens by Leslie Ward
In the Literature & Books section of The Booklovers Magazine No.1 Vol.1, January-June 1903, published by The Library Publishing Company, Walnut Street, Philadelphia, USA, Andrew Lang presents a fascinating study on Charles Dickens. Lang (1844–1912), who was a Scottish poet, novelist, literary critic, contributor to the field of anthropology, and best known as a collector of folk and fairy tales (courtesy: Wikipedia), dissects Dickens and his writing with a fine-tooth comb. The article has a few interesting illustrations of the celebrated English writer from Portsmouth. 

Among many things, Lang says...


After the original sketch by "Spy"
"The century in which Dickens lived and wrote has gone where the roses go. He died before young readers now alive were born. His world is not their world ; many conditions of life have altered ; opinions have changed; some manners and customs which he knew are scarcely recognizable. "The great divide" between the age of Dickens and ours is the railway cutting, as Thackeray said. Dickens' first and best novels deal with the old stagecoaches and the life of the road, though he lived to suffer in a great railway accident. Criminals, in Dickens' time, were publicly hanged for the edification or amusement of the crowd. When he visited America for the first time, slavery was a flourishing institution in the Southern States. Any American by reading Martin Chuzzlewit will perceive that, even allowing for wild, exaggerated caricature, the world has changed out of knowledge since the youth of Dickens."


"I have a tenderness. One who is still so happy as to have all of Dickens unread before him had probably better begin with David Copperfield. If he does not enjoy this delightful book, it is likely that he had better abandon his researches into Dickens. The story, as every one knows, is partly autobiographical."











An etching by Theodore Joyeuse
"After Copperfield, Pickwick ought to be read. Dickens never again wrote such a book—nobody has ever written such a book; but some readers may prefer Copperfield, which contains more story and plenty of ' the love interest." After reading these a man may go on with confidence."











Original Pickwick cover with Dickens autograph

Saturday, November 10, 2012

BOOK BUYS

Death Lives in the Mansion by Douglas Locke

The dead join forces against the living—Helen Peters stands alone in a world falling apart... 

I have no idea who Douglas Locke is though I'm assuming he is an American writer who has, in fact, written two other novels, The Drawstring and The House of Two Wives. I picked up this 256-page 1967-novel from a secondhand bookstore. It appears to be a thriller set in an old, seemingly haunted, mansion and revolving around Helen Peters and her patient Lyman Harpur who is being murdered before her eyes. Can she save him from his killer whose identity she can only guess? I haven't read the paperback yet though the blurb on the back cover suggests a gripping suspense drama in the big house that echoes with weird voices during the night.

Here's what it says...

"Someone—or something—wanted Lyman Harpur to die...die in agony! Helen Peters watched her patient in his trance and knew that his soul was suffering the torments of the damned...and the medical doctors could do nothing to save him! Their science belonged to the lost world. Yet Helen knew that Lyman Harpur was being murdered vefore her very eyes...and the would-be killer was his wife! But which wife? Was it beautiful Phoebe, current mistress of the mansion in the French quarter of New Orleans—beautiful and vindictive Phoebe? Or was it Celeste, the first Mrs. Harpur—Celeste, who was dead!"

What do you think? Have you heard of this author or read this book?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW 

Journey Toward Death (1983) by Amos Aricha

My contribution to Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books over at her blog Pattinase is a suspense novel about the making of the Israeli mafia in America written by a noted Israeli writer.

Mossad’s Nimrod. Tough, brilliant, he is the arrowhead of this treacherous mission, a man marked for death... 

Nimrod Eden is a former commando in the Israeli Defence Forces, who fought during the Yom Kippur War, and is now a freelance agent for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, in New York. Nimrod listens to western classical music on his Walkman, while running long distance every morning. He speaks fluent English, seldom carries a gun, and moves around with an attaché case with a tape recorder inside. He seldom records the conversations of sources and suspects without letting them know. Nimrod is soft spoken, often sentimental, and experiences fear like everyone else. He has a habit of patting down his mop of hair and usually has a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

A lieutenant-colonel in the intelligence wing, Nimrod may not seem like the battle-hardened Mossad agent you hear about in spy fiction. But he is every inch the tough and intelligent secret operative you read about in espionage thrillers.

In Journey Toward Death, by Israeli writer and painter Amos Aricha, the secret agent from Manhattan is called upon to investigate the mysterious liaison between an Israeli immigrant David Biton and Arab and North African delegations to the UN, ranging from Egyptians, Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Tunisians, and Moroccans.

Mickey Katz, the security chief for the Israeli delegation to the UN, deems it a high-risk security issue and pulls out all stops to get to the bottom of it. He sends in Nimrod whose investigations take him from New York to Los Angeles where he uncovers a sinister trail of conspiracy at the heart of which lies a brutal war for control of the drug market of the entire west coast.

Nimrod soon finds out that Biton’s secret meetings with the UN delegates are linked with his desperate bid to become the new drug kingpin in California. He was earlier the uncrowned king of the Israeli mafia, the Beit Dagan and Bat Yam gangs, and later mastermind of the drug racket in Europe before the powerful West German dealers and the Chinese mob forced him to immigrate to America where he tries to establish a new drug mafia.
 

Israeli author Amos Aricha
Photo: 
www.artphotoisrael.co.il 
His investigations take Nimrod all over Los Angeles, particularly to the Israeli pockets in downtown Hollywood, in the Valley, on Pico Boulevard, and businesses on Fairfax—all Biton’s territory—and right in the midst of a bloody war between Biton and his men and the established mafia families of the west coast, in particular a man called Mike Billeti who controls it all.

Nimrod Eden must get to the bottom of the conspiracy before Biton or Billeti (you don't know who) finally succeeds in their attempts to eliminate him.

This is the first time I have read about Israeli immigrants and the Israeli mafia in America, one of the main reasons why I enjoyed the novel. The other is the presence of the Sakhara, an old woman who claims to have psychic powers and travels all the way from Beit Dagan, Israel, to Los Angeles with her niece, the beautiful Dalith, to prove that Biton, the youngest of her four sons, is not a murderer.

Journey Toward Death moves at a slow pace with very little action in the initial two hundred pages. Aricha’s prose is simple and engaging. The plot is uncomplicated and the narrative weaves in and out of the lives of various Israelis, friends and foes alike, as Nimrod Eden tries to unravel the truth. I picked up the novel because I’d never heard of Amos Aricha before and also because the blurb on the back cover promised high suspense. It lived up to my expectations.
 

Amos Aricha is a well-known painter, author and playwright from Israel. His other novels include Hour of the Clown, The Flying Camel, Spymaster, Phoenix and Fenice, the last two he co-authored with Eli Landau. Phoenix is apparently his most famous book. 



Tuesday, November 6, 2012

FILM REVIEW

Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957) 
or Two Eyes, Twelve Hands

This Tuesday, for Overlooked Films & Television at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom, I’m going to get off the Hollywood bus and hop on to the Bollywood bandwagon and write about an award-winning black-and-white classic Hindi film. Don’t forget to check the other entries over at Todd’s blog. 

The “two eyes” belong to a kind jail warden and the “twelve hands” belong to six dreaded convicts.

The jailer, Adinath (V. Shantaram), takes the dirty (half) dozen under his wing in a valiant effort to make virtuous
men out of monsters and rehabilitate them in civil society. The police officer takes the paroled men to an old farmhouse in the countryside and orders them to work on the fields and do odd jobs around the place. Adinath joins them in hard labour and together they produce a rich harvest. 


Do Ankhen (two eyes) Barah Haath (twelve hands) is the touching story of one man’s belief in, and compassion for, six convicted murderers. The jailer is aware that the odds of reforming the prisoners are high and so are the costs of failure. He is undaunted and determined to succeed because he knows what he is doing is right. 


The men are shabby, unkempt and unruly and look like they are straight out of a medieval horror film. They appear mentally unstable and in one scene even beat up the jailer. The twelve hands don’t have even a modicum of decency as they appear to lust after Champa (Sandhya), a street vendor who sings her way from one village to another, and exhibit traits of anger and greed that is common to their lot. The men even try to escape but return to their ramshackle dwelling because the jailer has finally made his way into their hearts and they in turn have learned to respect him.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath, directed by V. Shantaram, who was one of India’s renowned directors, ends on a tragic note. By then, however, the jailer has succeeded in his mission. 

Actress Sandhya as Champa in the film. 

Shantaram, who, in real life, married his co-star Sandhya, kept the moral of the story simple—man is inherently good and even if he strays, owing to adverse circumstances, it’s never too late to bring him back on the path of righteousness and make a new man out of him.

The story, screenplay and dialogue are by G.D. Madgulkar, a noted Marathi poet, lyricist, writer and actor. Marathi is the official language of the western state of Maharashtra of which Bombay (Mumbai) is the capital city, and home to Bollywood. 

Adinath (Shantaram) gets a shave from one of the convicts.

Typically, the film also has some good songs, with music and lyrics by Vasant Desai and Bharat Vyas, both well known names in the film industry. The most popular song is Aye Maalik Tere Bande Hum, which loosely translates into Oh master, we’re your servants, sung by the Indian nightingale Lata Mangeshkar. The song, rendered by Champa in the film, is actually a paean to the love and respect that she and the six men have for jailer Adinath.

One of the noteworthy elements of Do Aankhen Barah Haath is the cinematography by G. Balkrishna who has shot portions of the black-and-white film against a stark backdrop, a sweeping landscape. If I remember correctly, in one scene, the convicts are making their way through barren land and there is absolutely nothing around them except for the dilapidated house. The filmmakers didn't bother too much with the lighting as many of the scenes are in contrasting shades of black and white. It gives the impression that Shantaram made his film only with a camera, seven actors, and a rundown house in the middle of nowhere.
 

The film's pre-release in 1957, apparently, received a “cold response” from Bollywood stalwarts but as Usha Prabhatkumar, Shantaram's daughter-in-law, was quoted by The Times of India as saying, “Do Aankhein Barah Haath touched the nation's chord as it revolved round the universal concepts of love and brotherhood.”

Fifty-five years later, the Indian cinemagoer still feels a deep kinship with V. Shantaram’s classic.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Stamp of a Statesman: Jawaharlal Nehru

The following quotes have been excerpted from Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru (1941), which the first Prime Minister of independent India dedicated to his wife Kamala Nehru. His prose in this book as well as in his other two major works, The Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History, is mersmerising.

"(Toward Freedom) was written entirely in prison, except for the postscript and certain minor changes, from June 1934 to February 1935. The primary object in writing these pages was to occupy myself with a definite task, so necessary in the long solitudes of jail life, as well as to review past events in India with which I had been connected to enable myself to think clearly about them. I began the task in a mood of self-questioning and, to a large extent, this persisted throughout. I was not writing deliberately for an audience, but, if I thought of an audience, it was one of my own countrymen and countrywomen. For foreign readers I would probably have written differently, or with a different emphasis..."

"Letter writing and receiving in jail were always serious incursions on a peaceful and unruffled existence. They produced an emotional state which was disturbing; for a day or two afterward one's mind wandered, and it was difficult to concentrate on the day's work."

"My main occupation (in jail), however, was reading and writing. I could not have all the books I wanted, as there were restrictions and a censorship, and the censors were not always very competent for the job. Spengler's Decline of the West was held up because the title looked dangerous and seditious. But I must not complain, for I had, on the whole, a goodly variety of books." 

"The only books that British officials heartily recommended were religious books or novels. It is wonderful how dear to the heart of the British Government is the subject of religion and how impartially it encourages all brands of it."

"I was well up in children's and boys' literature; the Lewis Carroll books were great favorites, and The Jungle Books and Kim. I was fascinated by Gustave Dore's illustrations to Don Quixote, and Fridtjof Nansen's Farthest North opened out a new realm of adventure to me. I remember reading many of the novels of Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray, H.G. Wells's romances, Mark Twain, and the Sherlock Holmes stories. I was thrilled by The Prisoner of Zenda, and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat was for me the last word in humor. Another book stands out still in my memory; it was Du Maurier's Trilby; also Peter Ibbetson. I also developed a liking for poetry, a liking which has to some extent endured and survived the many other changes to which I have been subject."

"It is a little absurd to discuss this question of freedom of mind in prison in India when, as it happens, the vast majority of the prisoners are not allowed any newspapers or writing materials. It is not a question of censorship but of total denial." 

"In Lucknow Jail I used to sit reading almost without moving for considerable periods, and a squirrel would climb up my leg and sit on my knee and have a look round. And then it would look into my eyes and realize that I was not a tree or whatever it had taken me for. Fear would disable it for a moment, and then it would scamper away."

"Reading was my principal occupation during those winter days and long evenings. Almost always, whenever the superintendent visited us, he found me reading. This devotion to reading seemed to get on his nerves a little, and he remarked on it once, adding that, so far as he was concerned, he had practically finished his general reading at the age of twelve!"


"Sometimes I would weary of too much reading, and then I would take to writing. My historical series of letters to my daughter kept me occupied right through my two-year term, and they helped rne very greatly to keep mentally fit."

"From sunset to sunrise (more or less) we were locked up in our cells, and the long winter evenings were not very easy to pass. I grew tired of reading or writing hour after hour, and would start walking up and down that little cell four or five short steps forward and then back again. I remembered the bears at the zoo tramping up and down their cages. Sometimes when I felt particularly bored I took to my favorite remedy, the shirshasana (a yogic exercise) standing on the head!"

"Travel books were always welcome records of old travelers, Hiuen Tsang, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and others, or moderns like Sven Hedin, with his journeys across the deserts of Central Asia, and Roerich, finding strange adventures in Tibet. Picture books also, especially of mountains and glaciers and deserts, for in prison one hungers for wide spaces and seas and mountains. I had some beautiful picture books of Mont Blanc, the Alps, and the Himalayas, and I turned to them often to gaze at the glaciers when the temperature of my cell or barrack was 115 F or even more. An atlas was an exciting affair. It brought all manner of past memories and dreams of places we had visited and places we had wanted to go to." 

"One extravagance which I have kept up will be hard to give up, and this is the buying of books."

For previous Celebrity Stamps, see under Labels to your right.
BOOK PREVIEW: Fantasy

Memoirs of the Moon Dragon by D.W. Middleton

Ripped out of his home world and transformed by the Source of Life itself, Waldo is plunged headlong into an epic saga of good versus evil.

Australian writer D.W. Middleton spins an "enthralling tale of magical adventure" in his new fantasy novel In Memoirs of the Moon Dragon: The Maligrandé and the Source of Life published by Trafford Publishing of Bloomington, Indiana, USA.

The novel chronicles the adventures of two friends, Waldo and Maidrag (the moon dragon), who, together, "complete the Source of Life, which bestows upon Waldo powerful gifts from the elements of earth, water, fire and air. As Waldo and Miadrag set about their quest to recover the Great Book of Knowledge, they soon discover that once they have it, they will be pursued by their evil counterparts, the Salimandé and the sinister Red Dragon, who has but one desire: to be rid of them once and for all!"

Middleton says: "Memoirs of the Moon Dragon demonstrates how the power of love conquers all manner of disastrous circumstance, and that love being the essential element of the Source of Life, will find a way to restore all things good to the world."

The 138-page novel was published on May 10, 2012, and is available in Perfect Bound Softcover (B/W) format and the price is $14.53.

Source: Trafford Publishing

Friday, November 2, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

The Ninth Configuration (1978)
by William Peter Blatty


It's not easy to read an entire book every week and review it every Friday but I try not to miss out on Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase. Here's my modest offering for the week that coincides with the release of Skyfall across India. People say it's the best Bond film ever but as someone on the train said, “How is that possible? Craig is so short, just two inches taller than me.”

“Robert Browning had the clap and he caught it from Charlotte and Emily Bronte.”
A second man, angry, bellowed, “Cutshaw, shut your mouth!”
“He caught it from both of them.”
“Shut up, you crazy bastard!”
“You don’t want to hear the truth.”
“Krebs, sound Assembly!” the angry man ordered.


My tattered copy of the book
Over the past fortnight, I couldn't finish even one of the three books I’m currently reading because of personal, albeit non-critical, issues. I'm thirty-eight pages into A Son of the Circus by John Irving, a little over half into the 146-page The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist (1971), and I have just read the opening pages of a virtually unknown suspense novel I hope to review next Friday.

In a post on October 14 I’d mentioned that I would finish Blatty’s short fiction in another two days. Since then, however, I have managed to read only a dozen pages. That means, technically, I've no book to review for FFB this week. Of course, I could write about any one of the many novels I read over the past few months, or even years, but I'd have to scour the internet to refresh my wafer-thin memory. That's no fun. So what I'm going to try and do is give you a partial review of Blatty’s psychological thriller mixed with a strong dose of philosophy. I know that’s not much fun either but at least it’s something.

The Ninth Configuration, originally written by Blatty as Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane! in 1966, is the outrageous story of twenty-seven decorated military officers who are interned by the Pentagon in a secret installation, “a grotesque rotting mansion,” in the remote forests of the Pacific Northwest. All the men are seemingly crazy for no apparent reason and when they talk sense and nonsense at the same time, you can’t help wonder if they really are mad or if they are only pretending.


In walks Colonel Hudson Stephen Kane, a brilliant Marine Corps psychiatrist, who is assigned by the Pentagon to treat the patients at Center Eighteen. Kane is cool as a cucumber as some of the inmates—the lead characters in the story and particularly the highly animated former astronaut Captain Billy Thomas Cutshaw—unleash their verbal missiles at the new commanding officer in his office and in his quarters. He refuses to keep the doors locked because “ They've got to be able to see me whenever they need to.” 

Kane studies their case files and listens attentively to their crazy voices, each increasingly making less sense than the next, and you don’t know who is humouring whom.

Here are some instances…

When Colonel Richard Fell, the medic, walks into the office without wearing his trousers, Kane asks him, “Do you plan to get dressed?” To which Fell replies, “How the hell can I get dressed when Lieutenant Fromme won’t surrender my pants? You don’t want me to rip them off!”


Or when Kane asks Cutshaw why he aborted his moon mission, the ex-astronaut answers: “Why should I? What the hell’s up there? When Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain, did he ever dream that he’d find America? All he ever dreamed about was compasses. Idiot starts out looking for India and then plants the flag on Pismo Beach.”

Lieutenant David Reno is adapting Shakespeare’s plays for dogs including his own, called Irresponsible, which bolts into Kane’s room and starts licking his shoe. When Kane asks Reno if it’s his dog, the latter shouts back, “Does he look like my zebra? Christ, what the hell’s wrong with you people?” He looks at the dog and says, “He’s ten minutes late for rehearsal. Now out!”


When Kane asks another inmate, Price, why he wants his flying belt back, Price says with acid hostility, “I want to play Tinker Bell in drag in a fungoid production of Peter Pan, All right? Are you happy? Now, where the hell is it?”

Blatty tells us that the forerunner to these delusional military personnel and their delusional rants is Nammack, a captain in the USAF, who, while piloting a B-52 on a bombing run over Hanoi, abruptly stands up in the cockpit and claims he is superman with superhuman powers. Nammack cannot be cured without Kryptonite, it would seem, and he is soon followed by scores of officers who manifest sudden mental disturbance even though none of them has a history of mental or emotional imbalance.


If the inmates of Center Eighteen are absolutely crazy, as you are given to understand, their commanding officer is not above suspicion either. In fact, there’s something decidedly fishy, and chilling, about Colonel Kane: it involves a recurring nightmare about his past, something that happened in Vietnam, possibly a nervous breakdown he suffered during the war, and involving a person by the name of Killer Kane.

Cutshaw may be a loony himself but he is convinced that Kane is more crazy than he is.
 

The Ninth Configuration, which received critical acclaim, starts out as a farcical comedy but the plot soon gathers a serious tone as Kane’s past catches up with him. I have enjoyed the book so far because of the strong element of humour, however whacky, not to mention the philosophical debate that Kane has with Cutshaw over the idea of God and the divine plan. It’s a well-written novel and the initial dialogues between Kane and the “mad” officers will make you laugh as you visualise the absurdity of the comic situations.

I’m hoping to read the rest of the book this weekend and find out why the twenty-seven men are behaving like lunatics or what secret Kane has up his sleeve. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, though. Now, did I say a partial review!


Incidentally, William Peter Blatty wrote, directed and produced the film The Ninth Configuration in 1980 where Stacy Keach (known for his Mike Hammer roles) is Colonel Kane and Scott Wilson (of In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood fame) plays Capt. Billy Cutshaw. I haven’t seen the film but my natural choice for Cutshaw’s role would have been John Cassavetes or Telly Savalas. Get the picture?