Sunday, November 30, 2014


Turkey shopping
I have been drifting this week in a kind of fog, drawn in directions that seem of import for a while and then dissolve into something more like aimlessness. Fatigue or the early onset of depression, I can't tell. The oncologist has prescribed an antidepressant, on the recommendation of the Cancer Center's psychologist. The pharmacist tells me it will take two weeks to take effect. I'm not sure what effect to look for. In two weeks without an antidepressant, I would have gone through multiple mood changes anyway, for better or worse. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Barbara Angle, Those That Mattered (1994)

Mining is a frequent theme in early frontier fiction, though few writers actually take us into the mines, where the work is done. One notable exception is Mary Hallock Foote’s The Led-Horse Claim (1883). Though miners were fiercely superstitious about women in mines and the bad luck their presence there foretold, Foote sends her female protagonist below ground, to experience a netherworld of darkness and isolation where men toil in the dangerous extraction of gold, silver, or copper.

More common are stories about mining communities and their social life centering on a favorite saloon or among the wives of the miners. Two novels, A. B. Ward’s The Sage Brush Parson (1906) and Mrs. Wilson Woodrow’s The New Missioner (1907) recount the affairs of clergy in their midst.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Western movie themes

A change of pace today at BITS—a baker’s dozen of western movie and TV themes. Click through on any of the titles and give a listen at YouTube. Feel free to mention any you would add to the list.

For this week’s posting of Overlooked Movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Image credit:
High Noon poster, Wikipedia

Coming up: TBD

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Morning sky
Change of pace this weekend as I recovered from a four-day “chemo hangover” (fatigue, no interest in food). An apartment mate from undergraduate days who has retired to Palm Springs rode his Vespa over to spend a couple days and nights as a houseguest. My wife, meanwhile, took a much-needed break from caregiving and met up with a friend for some R&R in Los Angeles.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Robert J. Conley, Quitting Time (1989)

This short novel is a curious cross between a standard western and an Agatha Christie murder mystery. The central character, Oliver Colfax, is something of a range detective, with a license to kill, should he be so inclined. But he’s grown weary of the work that has been his livelihood and is looking to retire from being a gunman for hire. It is, as he says, “quitting time.”

Considering a job for a Colorado cattleman who believes he is the victim of rustlers, Colfax travels to a small frontier town, drawn in part by the opportunity to see a touring theater company perform Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Agreeing with the cattleman to find out who, if anybody, is rustling his stock, Colfax gets to work and determines before long that a gang of cowboys at a nearby camp are the only likely suspects.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Not many viewers will ever have seen this as having connections with frontier fiction or the western, but they are there. The young Jack Nicholson plays the black sheep of a cultured family of musicians. Trained as a classical pianist, he has long ago left home and lives as a drifter, taking jobs and then moving on, as he explains, to “get away from what gets bad if I stay.”

He is currently working as a roustabout in oilfields not far from Bakersfield, California. He has a live-in girlfriend (Karen Black) with musical aspirations of her own—to be a country and western singer. (There are Tammy Wynette songs on the music track.) His best buddy (Billy Green Bush) is married, but the two men happily drink nights away, or they hook up with a couple of unattached females (Sally Struthers, Martina MacGuire) that Nicholson meets at a bowling alley.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom

Autumn grasses and blooms
Cancer has me rather knocked out of orbit, and I’m trying to let go of some old behavior patterns that once offered me some stability. Or I thought they did; now it could well be that they were just holding me back. There is a tenseness across the shoulders that’s easing, and I am less in the thrall of worry when familiar reassurances of health, predictability, and order are no longer handy to lean on.

Still, to keep from awfulizing, I fall back at times on an old mantra: “Everything’s working out beautifully.” The alternative is to be constantly anticipating the worst, which robs the present of the strength it gives to live each day for what it’s worth.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

B. M. Bower, Jean of the Lazy A (1915)

Jean and Lite
This was B. M. Bower’s 15th novel, and like her The Phantom Herd a year later, it draws on her knowledge of the movie business. Sixteen-year-old Jean Douglas, the title character, is a no-nonsense daughter of a Montana rancher, Aleck Douglas, who in the opening chapters is wrongly found guilty of murder and sent to prison. With the help of a ranch hand, Lite Avery, she spends the rest of the novel finding the real killer.

Help also comes in the form of a movie company from Hollywood, which hires her as the stunt double for the leading lady of an action-packed western. Able to ride, rope, and shoot with ease, Jean also contributes ideas for making the film more realistic. Before long she is dreaming up scenarios for a Perils-of-Pauline style serial, with herself in the starring role.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Sunrise sky
A portal I passed through this week has surely been another stage of accepting my mortality, which has continued to be largely an abstraction for me until now. I am beginning to let go of an expectation that I can persist in a routine of reading, writing reviews, and blogging, while actively participating in an online community of like-minded virtual friends.

In recent weeks, as the latest round of chemo has slowed me down again, I have become aware of the effort required to do all that. I have been surprised by a falling off of interest in reading and a diminished ability to write coherently and at length about books and films that I can relate to what has been a focus of my blog—frontier fiction as it originated and continues to evolve and flourish.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Kim Zupan, The Ploughmen

One reader has compared this novel to No Country For Old Men because of a murderous central character, John Cload, who brings to mind yet another dark work of fiction The Silence of the Lambs. Cload is more than a little like Hannibal Lecter, as he befriends a deputy sheriff who keeps him company from outside his jail cell through long, sleepless nights and escorts him to and from the county courthouse where he is under trial.

The deputy, Valentine Millimaki, has been encouraged by the sheriff to learn what he can about Cload that might help in the trial. But besides a single killing, for which there was a witness, the deputy remains unaware that Cload has bodies buried all over the rough Montana country along the northern shores of the upper Missouri River.

Not more than marginally interested in Cload anyway, Millimaki has troubles of his own. Cload correctly senses that they are woman troubles. As a schoolboy, Millimaki once discovered the body of his mother, who had hanged herself in a barn on the family farm. Now, his young wife has left him, weary and depressed by life in a backwater Montana town.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jenny Shank, The Ringer

Review and interview

Frontier fiction did not end with Louis L’Amour. Its themes and issues continue among today’s writers who place their stories west of the 100th meridian. Jenny Shank’s The Ringer is a fine example of how the frontier, despite Frederick Jackson Turner, has never really closed.

Set in modern-day Denver, this novel takes up two topics that date back to the origins of frontier fiction: the use of deadly force in law enforcement and the conflict between whites and the region’s ethnic populations, especially Spanish-speaking inhabitants who have long lived in the lands of the Southwest, taken in conquest by the U.S. government from Mexico.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Kinda blue

Morning sky over the foothills
Another birthday came and went this week. I am now 73. With that development, my driver license expired, and I am reminded of how my first reaction to cancer was the determination to keep my independence. But that was not quite to be. I soon discovered that the brain tumor, surgery, and/or radiation have affected my depth perception to the extent that it is now hazardous for me to drive a car. I’m even dangerous with a shopping cart, as I found on a recent trip to Trader Joe’s when I took a corner too short and brought down part of a display of canned goods. (I thought that only happened in the movies.)

I have had to give up the independence that driving has given me since I was 13 or so, when I first took the wheel of a pickup on the farm. I’m now chauffeured to doctors’ appointments by my wife, which is okay for me but adds an additional responsibility for her as an already overworked caregiver. I sometimes ride shotgun on trips to the post office and for groceries, so she can stay behind in the car while I run inside.