Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Spinners’ Book of Fiction (1907)

Living in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake, Ina Coolbrith (1841–1928) lost her home and a priceless personal library in the fire that consumed the city. With her interest in the arts and her connections in both San Francisco and New York, she had helped found the Overland Monthly with Bret Harte and encouraged the careers of Jack London and Isadora Duncan among many others.

Following the quake and fire, Coolbrith's friends, including California writer Gertrude Atherton, helped out with financial support. A collection of stories, The Spinners’ Book of Fiction was published with all proceeds to go to Coolbrith. Sixteen Bay Area writers contributed to the anthology, as well as several illustrators and artists. 

Here are a few samples:

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mystery Road

Bit of a switch today. This “western” takes place in the outback of Queensland in modern-day Australia. Its central character is an Aboriginal police detective (Aaron Pedersen) investigating the murder of an indigenous girl whose body is found near a highway used by long-haul truckers.

He gets little cooperation, least of all from his sergeant (Tony Barren) and fellow officers. One of them (Hugo Weaving) seems suspiciously involved in what amounts to a toxic plague of local criminal activity, including teenage prostitution and a meth lab.

Pedersen has returned to home turf after a ten-year absence, making tentative connection with an ex-wife (Tasma Walton) and their daughter (Tricia Whitton). Neither reveal much interest in reconnecting with him. The ex-wife is a drinker; the daughter is clearly in harm’s way.

Home turf for Pedersen is a flat, arid landscape that could pass for West Texas. A drive along the dusty streets of his hometown may take one past scenes of police officers frisking teenagers spread-eagled against fences and cars. Animosity by whites toward Aboriginals is undisguised, as when a ’roo hunter (Ryan Kwanten) greets Pedersen with an icy exchange during a routine call at the young man’s cabin.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Chemo sabe

Morning sky
I’ve been sick this week. After a five-day cycle of chemo, my energy level is depleted, and I have no appetite for much of anything, including food. I realize how easy it has been to take alertness and lucidity for granted, as I am reacquainted with bone weary fatigue. I lie down on the bed and feel muscles from head to toe sighing, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Tiredness I learn again is not like lowering the lights with a dimmer switch, or turning down the volume on the radio. It’s about loss of interest in whatever sensory input there is from one’s eyes and ears. The space where thought takes place becomes a cloud chamber; sleep beckons. While I know the experience is temporary, maybe 4 – 5 days, I begin wondering how long I could go on like this.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Andy Adams, Campfire Tales

William H. Hudson collected these 51 stories told by cowboys around the evening campfires in four books by Andy Adams (1859-1935): The Log of a Cowboy (1903), A Texas Matchmaker (1904), The Outlet (1905), and Cattle Brands (1906). 

By the rules of trail drive storytelling, they are factual, as actually happened, and without exaggeration. Storytellers were not allowed to be boastful or to be interrupted.

The collection makes for an entertaining read, as subject matter ranges over all sorts of topics, and stories are told with a certain cowboy attitude that brings them to colorful life.

Andy Adams, 1904
Among a few of my own favorites: 1) an account of a marathon of “bear sign” (i.e., doughnut) making, 2) Bat Masterson supervising a fractious crowd gathered for a public speaking event, 3) a case brought before Judge Roy Bean, 4) an explanation for why the Chisholm Trail forks as told to a gullible new man, and 5) a dispute between a disagreeable trail boss and his riders over the count of a herd.

First published in 1956 by the University of Texas Press, Andy Adams’ Campfire Tales was reissued in 1976 by the University of Nebraska Press, with an expanded and informative introduction. The book is currently available at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Further reading/viewing:
BITS review, Andy Adams, The Outlet, Part 1, Part 2

Image credits: Adams’ photo, The Critic, 1904

Coming up: TBD

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Wanted: Dead or Alive, (1958-1961)

In 1958, Steve McQueen emerged after some minor TV work to star in three seasons (94 episodes) of the CBS TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. There he developed the screen presence we came to expect of him in one dramatic role after another, from The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Junior Bonner (1972) and a final western, Tom Horn (1980). 

Readers here may remember that, among western actors, Randolph Scott is a favorite of mine, but Steve McQueen is a close second. It may be that the two of them have some things in common—not the least of which is a particular brand of coolness in their style. Physically they are obviously different. Scott is tall and lean and carries himself with what you could even call elegance. McQueen is shorter, with a compact build. When he walks, he strides.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

View from the plateau

Desert walk with clouds
A year ago at this time I had cancer and was three months away from knowing it. This week we saw my oncologist, who had looked at my latest MRI and greeted us with “Good news!” The tumor on the right side of my brain has remained stable, and though it’s hard to tell, what’s still visible in the pictures may be no more than dead cells left from radiation while a cloud of swelling still lingers. While my blood count is good enough to allow another five-day round of chemo, the steroid I’ve been taking will be reduced again by half with the eventual goal of reducing it to zero. Meanwhile, monthly MRIs will happen only once every two months.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Glossary additions

Just in…25 more words for the Glossary of Frontier Fiction. These are from Wilson M. Hudson’s collection of Andy Adams campfire stories.

big auger = the big boss. “I’m not afraid of any man in your outfit, from the gimlet to the big auger.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

Black Book = the Texas Rangers’ list of fugitives, published annually. “We looked the ‘Black Book’ over afterward for any description of him. At that time, there were over four thousand criminals and outlaws described in it.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

bobble = jerky, jumpy movement. “We had several bobbles crossing that strip of country; nothing bad, just jump and run a mile or so, and then mill until daylight.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Judy Alter and A. T. Row, eds., Unbridled Spirits

This anthology is not quite the book I expected. Subtitled Short Fiction about Women in the Old West, it leads the reader to expect stories written by women, and a wide selection of them. But besides those writers most easily named (Mary Hallock Foote, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Mary Austin, and Dorothy Johnson), there are almost no women whose fiction would surely qualify them for inclusion here.

To name just a few from the early decades of frontier fiction: Molly Davis, Florence Finch Kelly, Mary Etta Stickney, Frances McElrath, Elizabeth Higgins, Marie Manning, B. M. Bower, Eleanor Gates, Caroline Lockhart, and Kate Boyles.

Instead, the editors find room for one of their own stories (Alter’s “Fool Girl”) and beef up the rest of the book with stories by male writers, which happen to include female characters. These are actually okay, especially Elmer Kelton’s “The Last Indian Fight in Kerr County,” Owen Wister’s “Hank’s Woman,” and Elmore Leonard’s “The Tonto Woman,” but they hardly help showcase the generally under-appreciated work of the many women who have taken pen in hand to tell their own stories of the Old West.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Old time radio, Gunsmoke

William Conrad
I grew up on radio in the 1940s and early 1950s, and I have come to think of these years before TV as a golden age of storytelling. It did not require the cheap tricks of TV to hold an audience’s attention, just voices, sound effects, and a little music between scenes.

For me, CBS radio’s long-running series, Gunsmoke (1952–1961), is the best example. It opened the listener’s imagination to a gritty, sweaty, dusty Old West that the TV series approximated but never quite matched. It had a tone and attitude that was often moody and downbeat. Its central character, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, was a weary officer of the law, drawn more directly from the school of hardboiled crime fiction than he was the handsome, patiently congenial and family-friendly man behind the badge TV gave us.

The two Dillons. I like James Arness’s Dillon. He is a likable guy, a basically easy-going man with a ready smile, yet always ready when needed to use his authority in the service of law and order.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Angle of repose

Angle of repose
I would not know the meaning of this term were it not for Wallace Stegner’s novel of the same name. I think of it whenever I pass along a narrow roadway cut from a rocky hillside where I sometimes walk in the desert. 

The road was once planned, I gather, for access to lots for houses with high views of the valley below and the mountain range beyond. Now the shelf of exposed granite is crumbling and spills into a slope of debris that’s held in place by gravity—at an angle of repose—until more rock falls and new instability urges a new state of rest.

All of this is a roundabout way of talking about time. As each day passes, I cross it off the desk calendar where I keep track of doctors appointments and bills to pay. Above on the wall is a battery-powered clock that ticks off the seconds. Meanwhile, out in the desert I am witness to geological time in the exposed layers of rock strata and twisting ravines. Everywhere I am reminded of this adventure of being human and how, more than ever after 72 years, it is linked to time’s coming and going.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Coming: A Glossary of Frontier Fiction

OK, I have completed, proofed, polished, and sent off Vol. 2 of How the West Was Written. (For more about Vol. 1 and how to get your copy—published by Beat to a Pulp Press and at a hard to beat price—click on the book cover in the left sidebar.)

Time to move on to the next project, a glossary of frontier fiction, which covers the same years, 1880–1915. As I read more from this period, I continue to add words, phrases, and their definitions. Here is the current crop from recent reading:

Bill = reference to a Wild West show, as in Bill-show, Bill-show cowboy, Bill-horse. “You she’d have seen Rusty Mikel, Miss, the time his Bill-hoss turned a flip-flop onto him.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

charro = a Mexican horseman or cowboy, typically one wearing an elaborate outfit, often with silver decorations, of tight trousers, ruffled shirt, short jacket, and sombrero. “In their motley uniforms, regulation khaki or linen alternating with tight charro suits and peon cottons, they were exceedingly picturesque.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Chemisettes, 1850
chemisette = a woman's garment of linen, lace, or the like, worn, toward the end of the Victorian era, over a low-cut or open bodice to cover the neck and breast. “Under pretense of admiring the hand-made lace edging on the girl’s chemisette, she managed another peep and saw the leather worked with Gordon’s monogram in gold.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

calzones = breeches, pants. “It appears that he had only has dirty cotton calzones to be buried in, so his wife begged a worn white suit from Mr. Benson.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)

Willa Cather, c1912
Willa Cather was a fine writer, with a special take on what it was like to grow up in a small town on the plains among descendants of immigrant homesteaders. The Song of the Lark tells of a young woman, Thea Kronborg, with a talent for music, who as the daughter of a minister finds friendship and approval not among her peers but among older men: a railway brakeman, the town doctor, and a piano teacher. They coach her through childhood and into adulthood, encouraging her to develop her musical abilities.

Plot. Cather follows her heroine to Chicago to study with a pianist, who discovers that she has an even greater talent for singing. Eventually, she goes to Germany to train as an operatic singer, and by novel’s end, she has been cast in roles that have her drawing enthusiastic audiences at the Met in New York.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Legend of the Reno Brothers

Review and interview

Given the fascination that outlaws hold for Western fans, it’s surprising that so little is known about the Reno Gang. While the stories of the Jameses and Youngers and Billy the Kid are common knowledge, the train robbing Reno brothers of southern Indiana are unknown outside of a couple of Hollywood movies, Rage at Dawn and Love Me Tender, the former a vehicle for Randolph Scott, the latter a showcase for the emerging talent of a singer by the name of Elvis Presley.

As we learn in this recent documentary film from historian David Distler and his colleagues, the Renos are credited with having pulled off the first peacetime train robbery in history. They were also the brains behind a post-Civil War crime wave that ranged over several states and enlisted a band of 100 or more lawbreakers like themselves.

There’s little one can say to romanticize or excuse their often violent and brutal exploits. The Pinkerton agency was hired to bring them under arrest, and the story might have ended there, except that neighboring communities, particularly Seymour, Indiana, took their criminal rampage personally. Abetted by a crusading local newspaperman, they organized a vigilance committee intent on sidestepping due process.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mood swings

San Jacinto, Palm Springs
A week after the last five-day round of chemo and the four days of fatigue that routinely follow, my energy levels are mostly back to the new normal. I am not sleeping away the afternoons with an unread Kindle somewhere beside me, or the dog on top of me.

So I scheduled two appointments, long postponed, one with an ophthalmologist; another with a dentist and oral hygienist. My mood had been fluctuating like the stock market, hitting some bruising lows, and I enjoyed meeting new people and giving my usual reply to “How are you?” with my usual “Happy as a clam.” 

No doubt it’s an act, my playing the cheerful cancer patient, but it fools me, too, and that’s more than enough excuse for the duplicity. My dark mood lifted and was gone. The stock market could sink like the Titanic.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Herman Whitaker, Over the Border (1917)

Recently I reviewed the movie based on this novel, 3 Bad Men (1926), and I was curious how one had been adapted into the other. Surprisingly, the underlying plots of both are recognizably similar. Three rustlers give up their lives of thievery when they decide to come to the aid of a young woman whose father has been killed.

Realizing that she would benefit from marriage to a better man than any of them, they go out and find one for her. Circumstances then arrange themselves in such a way that all three former thieves, now fully reformed, give up their lives to protect the young couple as they are all pursued by murderous villains.

The big difference between the two stories is that the original, in Herman Whitaker’s novel, takes place entirely in Mexico, during the revolution (1910–1920). The movie version is set in Dakota Territory, where a wagon train arrives at the town of Custer to await the opening of Indian lands to settlers, and the villains are a corrupt sheriff and his henchmen, intent on acquiring a map to a gold strike.