Saturday, December 31, 2011

Western writer inspiration, no. 18

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Sitka, Alaska, c1888
Prospector Edward Schieffelin, founder of Tombstone, Arizona, c1880
Rogers Pass and Mount Carroll, British Columbia, 1887
Knowles Canyon, Colorado
Charleston, Arizona, 1885
Calgary, Alberta, c1885
Wagon Shop, Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1889

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Budd Boetticher, Commanche Station (1960)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

Here's another in the ongoing series, Murals of Los Angeles County. This celebration of diversity in a city with no ethnic majority can be found at Union Station where commuters (glimpsed at bottom of photo) connect between trains and the many bus and shuttle systems that serve the city.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Budd Boeetticher, Commanche Station (1960)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ted Kooser, Lights on a Ground of Darkness

Given the brief shelf life of books today, a book published in 2005 probably qualifies as “forgotten.” Ted Kooser, despite his credentials, may well be unknown by many here in the blogs. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and former U.S. Poet Laureate, Lights on a Ground of Darkness is a short, tenderly written memoir of the writer’s family.

A book like this, full of family stories, always intrigues me, for I come from a similar ancestry (German Lutheran immigrants) but hardly a single story to commemorate it. There seemed to be a code of silence about the past among my forebears. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention, which is just as likely.

Kooser’s memoir is structured mostly around his maternal grandfather, a farmer in Iowa, who operated a full-service gas station after his retirement in the Mississippi River town of Guttenberg. He was a man who lived into his 90s despite being a smoker and eating a diet that included sandwiches laced with lard. There’s also Kooser’s disabled uncle, Elvy, born with cerebral palsy and living at home.

Kooser has a poet’s eye for detail, and the stories and vignettes come to life with a vividness that’s sometimes startling. Moving back and forward in time, he anchors the flood of memories to a summer evening in 1949 at his grandfather’s house next to the gas station, when Kooser was ten years old. There family members gather for weekly pinochle.

Instructive for any writer is the way Kooser navigates the waters of emotion and sentiment. The dominance of hard-boiled and noir writing today makes distant company for a book that takes the greater risk of honoring everyday life and taking on themes like loss and the relentless erosion of time. The shadows and darkness in his writing are told of simply and not sensationalized.
Ted Kooser's hometown, Guttenberg, Iowa.
The title of the book originates in a quote from Scots poet Edwin Muir. “Our memories of a place, no matter how fond we were of it, are little more than a confusion of lights on a ground of darkness.” The bitter-sweetness of that observation about the way the past is remembered occurs over and again in this book. It is balanced against a motif of generations of irises, blooming anew each year.

The Dead about an evening gathering in James Joyce’s Dublin (and John Huston's wonderful film adaptation) has a similar ring of poignance. Beneath the everyday surface of lives being lived, there are loss and sadness that are sometimes crushing. Yet people persevere with home-grown humor and a quiet dignity.

It’s the tone that’s missing in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where the attitude is more like satire. And it’s what annoys me about that program. Keillor affects a warm regard for small-town midwestern life while making light of it—when he’s not making fun of it.

The achievement of Kooser is that he is able to honor the lives of very ordinary people. They are the ones left behind by the flight of their more gifted, moneyed, intelligent schoolmates to college and the City—the audiences who laugh knowingly at Prairie Home Companion. Not to mention the New Yorker readers who are amused by Roz Chast’s cartoons.

Kooser tells of their lives with an honesty that makes readers realize they are no different. Illness and age will find them, dreams will gather dust, and one day they will be no more. Only as memories of those who outlive them, for a while, and then not at all.

Lights on a Ground of Darkness is currently available at amazon (paper and kindle), AbeBooks, and alibris. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase. Thanks to my wife for putting this one under the tree for me this Christmas.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Maria Ampara Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don (1885)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BITS top 10 westerns in 2011

I was over-energized posting top-ten lists last year, and I’m keeping it simple in 2011. Below are the ten western films I most enjoyed viewing and reviewing during the past year. Click each title for a link back to the review.

Coming up: Ted Kooser, Lights on a Ground of Darkness

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tom Mix, Sky High (1922)

What a thrill this must have been for moviegoers in the early 1920s. Mix and director Lynn Reynolds go out for high adventure in the most spectacular canyon of all, Grand Canyon. Not only is there plenty of action up and down the canyon walls and in the water, but an airplane is worked into the story, with breathtaking aerial footage.

Plot. The situation in the story is unfortunately still topical 90 years later. Tom is a Deputy Inspector of Immigration, watching the US-Mexico border for illegal entry. This time around, it’s Chinese sneaking in, and we see him detaining a car full of passengers who turn out to be Chinese men dressed in women’s clothing. He ties a rope to the car and takes them into custody. All in a day’s work.

Next we learn that a couple of crooks have brought in 200 “chop suey eating Chinamen” along with a fortune in smuggled jewels and laces (yes, laces). Where they cross the border is not clear, but for unknown reasons they’re holed up in a camp at the bottom of Grand Canyon.

Tom gets an assignment to infiltrate the operation and learn who the kingpins are. There’s not much of a mystery to be solved. Tom finds out what he needs to know in short order and there’s only the matter of authorities to be notified and arrests to be made.
Tom Mix and Eva Novak
Also smuggled into the story is a romantic interest for Tom. A young woman, Estelle (Eva Novak), recently graduated from a “fashionable seminary” in Chicago, arrives at the Grand Canyon to summer with her guardian. Little does she know that her guardian is one of the alien smugglers. Affronted by the fresh advances of a male companion, she ventures into the Canyon alone and gets lost.

On an unofficial walkabout from the camp, Tom chances to meet her just as she falls from a ledge into enough water to get her soaked to the skin. He carries her, unconscious, to a ledge in the canyon wall where he provides her with blankets, a change of clothes, and some food to keep soul and body together. They picnic on crackers and sardines before turning in for the night.

Tom’s absence from the camp is noted, and he and Estelle are discovered by two of the villains. Tom is captured, fighting about 15 men until he's tied up and told that he can look forward to being drowned in the Colorado River. But he escapes, cutting his ropes with the sharp edge of a sardine can.

Mix in flight
The rest of the film is a series of chases on foot and horseback, fistfights, and not a few daring stunts. Tom (or his stunt man) scales up and rappels down canyon walls like Spiderman. The most spectacular stunt involves climbing down a rope and hanging suspended from under a biplane, finally dropping with a splash into the river.

Tom. As in Just Tony (reviewed here last week), Tom lights up the screen with his presence. Unlike the lugubrious William S. Hart, Tom is eager, athletic, and quick with a smile. Not much in the way of a ladies man, he can get playful when a woman is around. He hangs a blanket for Estelle to step behind while she changes clothes, and though his back is turned you know he’s aware of her draping over it the garments she’s taking off.

Eva Novak, 1924
Far more respectful and well mannered than the young cad who tries to steal a kiss from her, Tom waits until the last minute of the film to reveal his feelings. When her guardian asks Tom to look after her while he does time in federal prison, Tom says he’d happily look after her for the rest of her life! Then he joins her at the edge of a cliff and politely kisses her before the fade to black.

Just 50 minutes long, Sky High was one of the six to nine Tom Mix feature-length films produced every year during the 1920s until the introduction of sound. It is currently available and streamable at amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Ted Kooser, Lights on a Ground of Darkness

Monday, December 26, 2011

Progress report

Owen Wister
Have you ever started out on a project that just kept growing? A year and a half ago I got the idea I’d like to read the novels of the writers who helped invent the western. There was Owen Wister and Zane Grey, and a gap of about a decade between them. I figured there was maybe a dozen writers at the time trying their hand at cowboy westerns. It would not be a big job.

Acquiring a few reference books, like Tuska and Piekarski’s Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction and Geoff Sadler’s Twentieth-Century Western Writers, I found there were a good deal more than a dozen. The notion of a “cowboy western” also enlarged until I was considering any fiction set in the West. Western writers of the time were also telling exciting stories about mining, railroading, and engineering projects. Cowboys sometimes figured in them; sometimes not. So the notion of a “cowboy western” got fuzzy and then kind of leaked away.

The period I was looking in expanded, too. There were more western writers than I expected to find who were publishing before Wister. If you think about it, there were “westerns” to be read from almost the beginning of American fiction. From the days of the first white settlements, there was always a “West” out there beyond civilization. I arbitrarily chose to draw the line at 1880.

At the other end of the period, I came to see WWI as an important watershed and chose to stop with 1915. That was also the first year after The Virginian that a western novel reached the annual top-ten best seller list at Publisher’s Weekly. It was Zane Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger. (His The U.P. Trail would go to no. 1 in 1918.)

What made the project doable at all was the purchase of a nook and the availability at Barnes & Noble of nearly every book I was looking for at .99 or free. So far, I have read the first novels or story collections of 48 writers, starting with Mary Hallock Foote’s The Led-Horse Claim (1883) and ending with George W. Ogden’s The Long Fight (1915). Meanwhile, my TBR pile of early westerns has kept growing.

The light was at the end of the tunnel a week ago until I got my hands on a copy of Nina Baym’s Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927. It’s an old story, and we know how male writers took over the genre of western writing. Women, it turns out, were also publishing volumes of fiction about the West. I’d found a few of them before now: B. M. Bower, Mary Austin, Kate Boyles, and Carol Lockhart. Now I’ve got a bunch more. Which is a lot of reading, but definitely cool. I like the idea of a more balanced picture.

So I am now miles away from the book I’ve been putting together about these writers. There’ll be about 75 of them when I’m finished. Maybe a year from now, you’ll hear me shout on the western wind, “I’m done!” In the meantime, I’m enjoying this project even more now than before, and I continue to believe I’ll be pleased with the end result and that readers and writers of westerns will find it fun and informative reading.

I’d be interested in hearing stories by anybody else who's had similar experiences.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Tom Mix, Sky High (1922)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Photo essay: Los Angeles Public Library

On this Christmas Day, I'm devoting the space here to my favorite place in all of LA. I've posted some pictures here before. Last week, I had a couple hours to explore further, and in the spirit of the season, I'm sharing these cell phone pics with you. Happy holidays, one and all.

View from the top of the atriium. Art hanging from the ceiling.
About 1,800 books in the western section. Here's Elmer Kelton.
Wall murals with romanticized versions of California history.
More wall murals
Christmas tree and glossy marble floor.
Chandelier with lighted globe in the center; amazing ceiling.
Annenberg Gallery with Hollywood memorabilia.
Annenberg Gallery, movie poster.
Movies and music; big as Blockbuster inside.
Exhibit of old maps of Los Angeles
Adult Literacy Center

Coming up: Tom Mix, Sky High (1922)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Western writer inspiration, no. 17

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Territorial University at Norman, Oklahoma Territory, c1897-98
Sioux encampment, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, November 1890
Teacher and children, sod schoolhouse, Woods Co., Oklahoma Territory, c1895
Steamer Bessie, Rio Grande River, Fort Ringgold, Texas, c1890
Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses, Oglala Sioux, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 1891
Wooden jail house, Wyoming Territory, 1893
Broadway Street, Round Pond, OkIahoma Territory, 1894

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Photo essay: Los Angeles Public Library

Friday, December 23, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

Here’s another in the series “Wall Murals of LA County.” This one can be found in downtown LA on Grand Avenue at Fifth on the side of the AT&T Building. A full view of it is blocked by its neighbor, The Gas Company. Walk along Fifth to Olive Street, and you can see the rest of it (below):

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat’s Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Tom Mix, Sky High (1922)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves

A slender plot-line for its 400+ pages, this novel set in the reservation and ranchland of central South Dakota glows with intensity at each turn. While your desire to know what happens next presses you onward, you pause along with the author to reflect on the thoughts and feelings of the characters who are pulled into the flow of events that begins with the purchase of a horse and leads inevitably to the burning of a house.

There are humor, suspense, family drama, surprises, ironies of all kinds, a smoldering romance, conflicts, animosity, suspense, farce, triumphs and sorrows in Meyers' novel. And all is woven around a continuing meditation on moral complexity and finally the great difficulty of doing the right thing when there are deep emotions, conflicting points of view, and only degrees of violence and loss to choose from.

The four young men at the center of this story, two Indians, a cowboy, and a German exchange student, each bears a legacy of history that pulls them together in the single effort to rescue three horses. Meyers makes them come to life vividly through action, thought, and dialogue. Around them is another dozen or so characters, just as carefully drawn and revealed through illuminating flashes of incident. And as in the author's other work (Light in the Crossing, The River Warren), there is the continuing presence of the landscape and the seasons, as summer turns to autumn and snow-driven winter.

South Dakota, Needles Highway overlook (CC) Vladsinger
Especially interesting is the characterization of the young cowboy, whose ancestry in American literature dates back to Owen Wister's Virginian. Here is that same set of values, courage, pure-heartedness, and self-containment, 100 years later, set in conflict with a cunning villain. It is moving to learn what has become of him.

The Work of Wolves is currently available at amazon, Abebooks, Alibris, and for kindle and the nook. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Tom Mix, Sky High (1922)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Photo essay: Union Station, LA

My commute twice a week takes me through this car-dependent Los Angeles landmark, Union Station. It’s a cheerful, benign place compared to the fierce charm of Grand Central Station in New York, which I used to commute through twice a day 25 years ago.

Built in the 1930s, it had a checkered past even before construction began. Voters narrowly passed a measure to level the existing Chinatown to make way for it. Today there’s a pleasant tranquility about the place, even when it’s busy. Maybe except for the man near me in the waiting room whose sandwich was stolen the day I took these photos.

Waiting room
Colored marble main aisle in the Waiting Room
Among several food vendors, See's Candies
Roomy, leather cushioned seating in the Waiting Room
Patio and garden area with fountain, just outside
Outdoor cafe with colorful tile bench seating
Waiting Room with entrance to trains, decorated for Christmas
Gardens with birds of paradise on the other side of the station
Travelers shop with hanging monkey dolls

Coming up: Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tom Mix, Just Tony (1922)

Appearing in over 300 movies during his career in Hollywood, Tom Mix made this film in honor of his horse Tony. In its 58 minutes, the film tells of a wild mustang also named Tony who has lived with his band of horses in the Nevada deserts. There he is observed by a cowboy from Utah, Jim Perris (Tom Mix), who hopes one day to be Tony’s owner and "pal."

Captured by a man who mistreats him, Tony is saved from further harm by Jim, who has come to town for a rodeo. His giving the horse-abuser a thorough pounding in the dusty corral is appreciated by an observer, the pretty Marianne, recently returned from an Eastern college.

Marianne’s father owns a horse ranch, whose stock is being driven off by his shady foreman. Jim helps Marianne buy four new mares by preventing Tony from losing a race at the rodeo, and Tony eventually escapes back to the desert. As the foreman and his cowboys go after the wild horses with guns, Tony retaliates by stealing away the four new mares.

Marianne hires Jim to capture Tony, promising the horse to him if he’s successful. The foreman tries to interfere, but Jim is able to catch Tony in a trap. He ropes and rides him, bucking bronco style, until Tony finally throws him, knocking the cowboy unconscious. Remembering how Jim had saved him once before, Tony takes an interest in the man's welfare and follows him back to his cabin.

In an exciting finish, as Marianne and Jim are dodging bullets while being pursued by the ranch hands, Tony comes to the couple's rescue. Together they ride on his back to safety at the ranch. There Jim settles an old matter with her father and instead of returning to the desert to roam free, Tony decides to stay with Jim.

Tom Mix, 1919
Just Tony was adapted from the novel Alcatraz by Max Brand, which had appeared as a five-part serial the same year in Country Gentleman. The film was shot at Lone Pine in the Sierras of central California.

Pitched to a young audience, the movie is wonderfully unembarrassed in its sentiments. Talking to Marianne, Jim professes his love for Tony and his hope that Tony will some day love him. Rescued from abuse, Tony receives from Jim’s gentle hand the “first caress” he has ever known.

Tony is indeed a wonder horse, chewing through ropes, opening gates, and taking down fences. If we can believe the inter titles, he even has human thoughts. Concerned for Jim’s welfare when he’s waylaid by three bad men, he sees Marianne arriving and thinks, “A woman. More trouble.” 

Mix is a warm, athletic presence before the camera. In his gigantic hat, wide leather chaps, and handsome shirts, he comes close at times to disappearing inside his outfit. Apparently doing at least some of his own stunts, he leaps over fences, rolls down a steep sandy bank, and rides the sunfishing Tony until he is thrown off.

The photography is often scenic, with snow-capped mountains in the background as horses and riders race across sagebrush flats, deserts, and wide rivers. Scenes from a rodeo include a parade, rough stock events, and a thrilling horse race.

Director and scenarist Lynn Reynolds is credited with 81 films during a Hollywood career cut short in 1927, when he took his own life during a party being held in his honor. Included in his credits are numerous westerns, including film adaptations of Henry H. Knibbs’ Overland Red (1920), Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1925),  and B. M. Bower’s Chip of the Flying U (1926).

Just Tony is currently available and streamable at amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves