Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fathers and sons

New haircut
Oliver Sacks revealed in a New York Times essay recently that he is dying of liver cancer and that he plans to devote the time he has left only to those things that enrich his life: reading, writing, and the companionship of friends; no more nightly news; but disconnecting from the world. Such as it is. And trusting the intelligence and resolve of the next generation to address its problems. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Luke Allan, Blue Peter: “Half-Breed” (1921)

Métis fur trader, 1870
Blue Pete, a Métis cattle rustler who leaves a gang of horse and cattle thieves to work as an informant for the North-West Mounted Police, first appeared in 1921 in a short story in Western Story Magazine by Canadian-born writer William Lacey Amy (later to be known as Luke Allan). That same year, the character appeared in Blue Peter: “Half-Breed,” the first of a long series of Blue Pete novels, published in both London and New York, the last of which saw print in 1954.

Blue Peter is a love/crime fiction story set on the Canadian frontier, where the North-West Mounted Police are stationed at Medicine Hat  to maintain law and order. Their main problem is a gang of horse and cattle thieves fearlessly operating along the international border with the U.S. and using the Cypress Hills, a rough patch of wooded terrain in southern Saskatchewan , to hide out (cf. Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Plot. As the story begins, Blue Peter parts company with the gang in an exchange of gunfire, meets up with a young
North-West Mounted Police Fort Walsh, 1878
Mountie, Constable Mahon, and is persuaded to work as an informant, sharing what he knows of the Hills and how they are used by the thieves to hide stolen stock; infiltrating the cowboys who work for ranchers on the open prairie, he reports any questionable behavior to the chief inspector at NWMP headquarters.

As it turns out, one family, the Stantons, are actively in cahoots with the gang. Caught in the act, two brothers, Jim and Joe Stanton, kill each other rather than allow themselves to be taken by the Mounties. Their sister, Mira, has been an accomplice in their thieving activities. She is an all-western girl, skilled as a rider and roper, pretty and independent-minded, embarrassed only by her lack of education and refinement.

Mahon, who has a girlfriend of his own, befriends Mira and helps her with the book-learning she desires. Meanwhile, grief-stricken at the loss of her brothers, Mira warms to him but holds him culpable for their deaths. In a fit of melodrama, she shoots and kills three of her four wolfhounds.

Romance. Blue Peter then comes to her rescue, offering her his cave in the Hills for shelter and his own companionship for solace. Standing trial for cattle theft, Mira is found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. As she is being transported there by train and under guard, Blue Peter comes again to her rescue, and they are pursued on horseback by Mounties across the prairie. After the two are run aground, Mira surrenders herself to save Blue Peter, now a wanted man, from arrest.

Back at the cave, he waits mournfully through the winter for her release from prison. At last, with the coming of spring they are reunited.

Adventure. The latter part of the story is devoted to the capture of the gang, as exchanges of gunfire result in Mahon’s (now Sgt. Mahon) being wounded and the arrest and/or death of the rustlers. Blue Peter is also a casualty, shot as he saves Mahon’s life. At the end of the novel, there is reason to believe that Blue Peter’s wounds are mortal and once his body is found, Mira vows to bury him there in the Hills he loved.

For his part, Mahon has a granite monument carved as a memorial to the “half-breed” who was his friend. So the novel has this melancholy and sentimental ending. But like a modern-day TV series with a season finale lacking finality, Blue Peter and Mira live on to reappear for another adventure in a sequel, the Return of Blue Pete published in 1922.

The accuracy in the portrayal of Blue Pete is debatable especially in comparison with Frederic Remington’s mixed-blood title character in Sundown Leflare (1899), who speaks in broken, French-inflected English, and possesses no particular moral character. Physically strong and a creature well adapted to the natural world, Blue Pete has no faults. He is decent to the core, loyal, tenderhearted and willing to take a risk to help a friend. Outside of James Fenimore Cooper we do not find his likes in American frontier fiction.

Blue Peter: “Half-Breed,” is currently available online at Internet Archive and in ebook format at Barnes&Noble.For more of Friday's Forgotten Books click on over to Patti Abbott's blog

Further reading/viewing:

Blowing my own horn: For an in-depth, two-volume survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain a copy, click here). 

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: new short stories

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Meds again

I feel like Hunter Thompson in the opening pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas –waiting for the drugs to kick in. I look at the pill bottles collecting on the dining room table and wonder at the mix of pharmaceuticals circling in my bloodstream. Thursday of this week I was at the UCLA Medical Center getting another infusion of Avastin and an adjustment to my intake of drugs and supplements – this time, more steroids and more antidepressants. All to deal with an undertow of counter-productive moods, lethargy, and general grumpiness. 

Lately, I’ve also been made aware of a lot of anger that comes out as I struggle with losses of strength, coordination, and equilibrium, (I am covered in scratches and Band-Aids from the last spill I took while out on a morning stroll in the desert a few days ago. Because I bruise easily now I also bear a striking display of purple blotches from wrist to elbow.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nik Morton, Spanish Eye

I know Nik Morton more as a writer of westerns. His Bullets For a Ballot was reviewed here a while ago. Spanish Eye is something else.

Nik is one of those Brits who left the dark, rainy North for the sunny south coast of Spain, which is where this collection of 22 stories, featuring private investigator Leon Cazador, takes place.

Like Henning Mankell and other writers of euro crime fiction, Morton shares what he’s come to know about crime and the criminal element in Spain, though never painting it as dark as writers of the Scandi-noir school. Against a background of social conditions in modern-day Spain, it’s petty crime mostly, systemic graft, and fraud that find their way to Cazador’s attention. Meanwhile, the menace of organized crime and mafia elements lurks in the shadows.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Knickers and twists

Today’s post may be short. We have guests coming to celebrate a friend’s becoming recently a U.S. citizen. Fortunately, my wife has the energy required of entertaining. I have been in a fog all week; at one point I was standing in a parking lot staring blankly ahead with not a thought anywhere between my ears, which, ironically, is the nearest I get to meditation in the crowded thoroughfare of neural activity that is my usual level of awareness. I assume it is the meds I’m getting as a participant in the drug trial at UCLA.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man

I wanted to like this novel more than I did. For its length (464 pages), it promises somewhat more than it delivers. I had the same reaction to the author’s The Last Crossing (reviewed here a while ago). There are a lot of ideas and food for thought in this novel about character, friendship, responsibility, Native Americans, the frontier, and U.S.-Canadian relations. But in the end it’s hard to say what it all adds up to. You can puzzle if you like over the title. Who among the novel’s male characters is the “good man”? Is there one at all?

Set in the late 1870s, partly in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan where Fort Walsh was headquarters for the North-West Mounted Police; but mostly in the frontier settlement of Fort Benton, Montana, on the upper Missouri River, the action takes place in the aftermath of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn and settlers of the sparsely populated prairie live in terror of the Sioux and other tribes who seem to be organizing under the leadership of Sitting Bull to rid the West of whites altogether.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Richard Wheeler’s blog

Richard S. Wheeler
I have been meaning to mention that Richard Wheeler has begun blogging again after a long hiatus. His most recent news is that the Western Writers of America is honoring him with induction to the WWA Hall of Fame at their next meeting in Texas. After several Spur Awards, he was already chosen in 2001 for that organization's Lifetime Achievement Award, named for Owen Wister.

A man who has characterized himself at his previous blog as a “curmudgeon,” Wheeler can be counted on for sometimes prickly opinions on a wide range of subjects: the current state of the traditional western; the proliferatrion of creative writing programs; and author input to book cover design. Informative is his story of his own long-running Barnaby Skye series. His book reviews are generous in their praise for thoughtful writing. He can also be revealing in disclosures of his personal life, his health and state of mind, looking both back and forward at a long and productive writing career.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988)

Thelonious Monk, 1947
This 90-minute documentary about jazz great Thelonious Monk began as a one-hour film for German television in the 1960s by filmmakers Christian and Michael Blackwood who followed Monk on and offstage for six months around New York, Atlanta, and Europe.

Their footage waited 20 years before finding producers, including Clint Eastwood, with budget to expand the film to feature-length. It was released in 1988, after Monk’s death in 1982.

Shooting in black and white, the Blackwoods capture the look and feel of cinema vérité- style documentary, being developed and refined at the time by the likes of Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, 1966).

Illuminating are the close-ups of Monk’s hands on the keyboard as he plays and the physicality of his performance, revealing a creative vehemence that seems at times at risk of reducing his Steinway to splinters.

We also see him as a composer conveying to his sometimes bewildered band the intricacies of a complex chord progression, while reluctant to give them specific answers to their questions. At moments, in his seemingly playful erratic behavior we see early signs of what may have become the mental illness that brought his career to an end. Watching the film is like opening a time capsule of the bebop era, and the music is wonderful.

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser is currently available for viewing on YouTube.

For more of Tuesday's Overlooked movies, click on over to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading/viewing:

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Busy, busy, busy

Two jets eastbound, morning sky
Saturday. I tune into “deep sleep” music on YouTube as I write this in an effort to quiet my mind, which runs off in all directions, determined to be busy, busy, busy. An hour of meditation goes by in its own kind of hurry this morning, while my attention was drawn to the refrigerator running in the kitchen and birds singing their morning tunes outside, slowing the mental race down a little, but hardly enough it seems to make a difference. 

The lesson of meditation is that it is so hard for an ordinary human to simply be still, not constantly and intensely on alert to every passing thought and distraction. Someone once defined information as “any difference that makes a difference.” That’s my brain on autopilot.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

More magazine adverts from 1907

Since the set of these I posted last week was a big hit with readers, I'm adding some more. The McClure's cover at the right is from 1901, a wintery scene with washed out colors and clouds of steam and smoke lifted by a wind against a gray sky.

I like that the illustration is divided into three parts, with utility poles to the right and left and straight power lines connecting them across the top. A study in verticals and horizontals that frames a snow-covered field and gives a chilly effect.

It occurs to me that The New Yorker continues this tradition of cover art today, while being full of similar content underwritten by full page ads. Big difference in the newsstand price, though. Ten cents vs. $7.99.

Here they are. Most interesting to me is the suspenseful drama portrayed in the Smith & Wesson ad. Then, for pure whimsy there's the ad for phonograph records, with the silhouette of a madcap dancer (be sure to read the copy for this one, too.)

Older readers here may recognize the Pullman porter serving up Cream of Wheat. Note also that Welch's Grape Juice is being sold as a health drink and that Kellogg's Corn Flakes cost more west of the Rockies.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

One year

Rain on the prickly pear
Today marks an anniversary of sorts. A year ago I was just out of surgery, most of a malignant tumor removed from my brain, I was yet to meet the oncologists who would get me started on chemo and radiation. Mostly I was amazed that I felt few effects from having my cranium cracked open, my gray matter invaded by a team of neurosurgeons I hardly knew, then stapled back together, soon to be sent back home.

My memories of that time are marked by the sound of cactus wrens outside my bedroom, chattering away each morning as I welcomed the new day, sometimes after an endless night of dreadful dreams and sleeplessness. I read Anne Lamott’s little book about three kinds of prayer (thanks, help, wow), which made me both laugh and cry. And I marveled at the flowering plants sent by a family friend. Here we were alive together.