Latest News:
Feb 25, 2016: Website updated and revised.

Politely Polytheistic Paganism

He doesn't want to make too much of a point about it. He's already got two.

He doesn’t want to make too much of a point about it. He’s already got two.

Burn a raw deer haunch (hide and all) on your backyard grill and maybe he’ll leave you alone. You never know with these Keltic types, though. Green of hue and wild in nature, forever borne where whimsy carries, sometimes kind, more often savage, no different than the wild wind and storms that once blew through trees hewn long ago.

Hell Bent For Stardom: Barbara Stanwyck, Steel True

Determined to reach her goal despite terrible obstacles.

Determined to reach her goal despite terrible obstacles.

While I’ve always been a big Old Hollywood fan from my youth, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve come to appreciate some of the real greats of the Silver Age. Two male actors who serve as good examples of that are Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. I was simply too fascinated by Bogart as a kid to really pay any attention to them.

The best female example of this is Barbara Stanwyck. While she was an enduring presence in the pop culture world, probably most familiar to me from the long-running The Big Valley, popular during the antediluvian times of my youth, I didn’t really appreciate her magnificent qualities as an actress. It was only when I recently saw her films that I understood her range and force, from wonderfully timed comic performances in Xmas In Connecticut and The Lady Eve to her emotional, dramatic tours de force in such noir thrillers as Double Indemnity and The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers. I consider Barbara Stanwyck a powerful, emotional actress who was able to project personality and purpose way and above her diminutive, slight frame.

I therefore read Victoria Wilson’s exhaustively researched, lengthy biography of Stanwyck with a great deal of interest and pleasure. Stanwyck had a harrowing childhood, basically abandoned to a large extent at an early age after her mother’s tragic death, forced to live in different strangers’ homes with periodic interventions by her much older sisters, busy with their own lives and children. Like something from a corny old movie or play, she got into show business in emulation of her older sisters, first working as a dancer and then getting a big break with a small part as an actress where she excelled. She worked her way up through persistence, talent, and a hard boiled willingness to do what it took to succeed, to include dispensing sexual favors. Wilson describes in intricate detail how Stanwyck met her first husband, Frank Fay, a wildly successful vaudevillian considered by many to be the man who invented stand up comedy. Fay was the one who brought Stanwyck to Hollywood, figuring he’d conquer films just like he had Broadway. Reality intervened and Fay reacted by crawling into a bottle all while Stanwyck became increasingly more successful, scoring in one film after another, until her star far outshone his. Wilson describes Fay’s fights with Stanwyck, his increasing alcoholism and insane behavior, and, most unforgivable of all, his abuse of their adopted son Dion.

Wilson relates all these distasteful bits along with thumbnail portraits of other people in Stanwyck’s life both personal and professional, some of them highly informative, most notably about Robert Taylor, Stanwyck’s second husband. Rather than take a narrow gauge approach and focus on the personal detail of Stanwyck’s life, Wilson tries to give a broad picture, to show the actress’s life and career in the context of the United States at the turn of the 20th Century as it entered an era of unprecedented change and upheaval. Stanwyck was very much a part of that change, staking out a career for herself in the still young film industry and making a tremendous go of it. She always worked her hardest, gave nothing less than a hundred percent, walked on set knowing all her lines and everybody else’s too, and made a point of knowing everyone on the crew. Her dedication, professionalism, and talent shine through in every film she made, even pedestrian oaters.

I recommend this book highly, but with one caveat. Like I wrote before, it is lengthy, almost nine hundred pages worth and might prove to be a tough slog for someone who’s not really all that interested in so much information. I kind of nodded off myself when the author extensively described the stables Stanwyck had built on a horse farm. Still, if you’re a real old film buff, I think you’ll find that the trek is worth it.

Altered Europa Interview

A votre service, mesdames et messieurs.

A votre service, mesdames et messieurs.

In connection with Altered Europa release, my interview with Martin T. Ingham, publisher of Martinus Press, in which I opine on writing and how miserable it is, Waterloo, wormholes, and how much I like kung fu flicks:

The Frights Of Spring

Within A Budding Martini Grove

Within A Budding Martini Grove

Olives in a dirty martini are often pregnant with meaning.

“Altered Europa” Now Out On Kindle

Now available to be read for a mere $2.99!

Now available to be read for a mere $2.99!

Altered Europa, the alternative history anthology from Martinus Press, is now available for perusal on Kindle. Those sufficiently familiar with modern technology to actually employ one of these devices (among whose number this alte kokker is sadly not included) can now avail themselves and learn the answers to such riddles as: What if Rome never fell? What if the USSR sent a man to Mars? Most importantly, what if Napoleon had a steam powered ram to attack the Royal Navy? You can only learn the answers to these burning, urgent questions by reading Altered Europa.

“The North Water” by Ian McGuire

Grueling work in a frozen hell for little pay with death always in the offing. Gee, how could anyone resist a prospect like that?

Grueling work in a frozen hell for little pay with death always in the offing. Gee, how could anyone resist a prospect like that?

I looked forward to reading this novel quite a bit due to its subject and the warm critical reviews it received. Although I’m the world’s cruddiest sailor (stir up the water in a bathtub and I’ll get seasick), sagas of grueling sea voyages during the age of sail have always fascinated me. The Hornblower series delighted me as a child and I also got a big kick out of Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny On The Bounty. I also read Moby Dick when I was about fifteen and even went through the long, nonfiction section of the novel where Melville described the 19th-Century whaling industry in fascinating detail (to me anyway). More recently, I enjoyed reading Nigel Cliff’s account of Vasco Da Gama’s historic circumnavigation of the African continent.

So with all that nautical lit background, I read McGuire’s North Water with much anticipation. While I think that the work is a solid piece of literature, I do have a few criticisms. Let’s deal with the positive aspects first. McGuire has a deep understanding and knowledge of the historical period about which he writes, mid-19th Century Great Britain. At the same time, he never falls prey to one of the worst temptations a historical novelist must deal with, the proclivity to include entirely too much information about a particular era to the detriment of the novel’s plot. His prose is also solid and he’s a proficient enough writer to show character rather than tell, that is, he lets the characters’ actions bring out their true natures. McGuire also has a gift for generating suspense. He effectively involves the reader in the desperate, repeated dangers faced by ordinary seamen aboard a whaling ship and does a vivid job of portraying the terrifying, body and soul destroying rigors involved in survival in an Arctic environment. McGuire is also plainly aware of the literary traditions that he works within, paying indirect tribute to the previously cited Moby Dick.

At the same time, I must say I thought the author’s treatment of his subject was rather cursory. The novel is pretty short, not much more than two hundred and fifty pages. While that leaves plenty of room to write a taut, effective narrative, it still seems rather puzzling (and dissatisfying) to have an author take on traditional, old fashioned themes (men at sea, the clash between good and evil, the essential nature of human character) and not deal with it at the magisterial, comprehensive, Olympian level of literature employed by such 19th Century masters as Hugo and Dickens. For example, while I think that the author does a good job of tracing the protagonist’s evolution from a defeated, ineffectual sad sack to a tough, determined man of the world, it seems to me that this could have been done more believably and interestingly if McGuire had allowed himself more scope.

A last point of criticism: the dichotomy between the novel’s hero, Patrick Sumner, and its villain, the harpoonist Henry Drax, often seems overly stark. While Sumner is portrayed as weak, fallible, and full of doubt, Drax is shown as always certain, in fact apparently superhuman, much like the line from the Yeats poem: “And the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.” The author does seem to intimate at several times during the course of the novel that Drax is somehow close to immortal, not subject to the regular rules of reality that usually trip up and destroy human beings. Without trying to give anything away to anyone who hasn’t read the novel, the sudden reversal of this tension at the end of the novel was rather jarring to me and detracted from the book’s persuasiveness as a work of fiction.

Despite these criticisms, I still think that The North Water is a well written, literary adventure novel that merits reading. I recommend it to anyone interested in sea literature.

Ponderosa Antho Now Out On Kindle!

Noted genius, Eufimus T. Broadsnatch, inventor of a four legged, steam driven, gigantic horse.

Noted genius, Eufimus T. Broadsnatch, inventor of a four legged, steam driven, gigantic horse.

Principia Ponderosa, the Weird Western/slipstream anthology from Third Flatiron, is now available on Kindle through Amazon for the very low price of $3.99. The anthology features seventeen stories that combine elements of the Western with other literary genres, including steampunk, fantasy, occult, and horror (my story definitely belongs in the steampunk category). That story is The Great Man’s Iron Horse in which the spirit of the Magnificent Curmudgeon, W.C. Fields, once again fulminates for your amusement. Everyone should purchase the antho for their reading pleasure. You will definitely enjoy it. As for my immediately preceding puffery, let me close with an appropriate Fieldsian quote:

“You can fool some of the people some of the time — and that’s enough to make a decent living.”

Anyone interested in reading the antho may click on the link below:

The anthology's cover

The anthology’s cover

Review – “Somewhere In The Night, Film Noir And The American City” by Nicholas Christopher

Darkness, the city, and a young woman either in danger or a danger to others.

Darkness, the city, a young woman in danger.

Humphrey Bogart is my favorite actor and has been since childhood. While I couldn’t really have explained his appeal when I was young, the actor’s persona still spoke to me, the sardonic voice, the open contempt for authority, and most of all his roles as a lone wolf against the system, someone with the intellect to see the rot and the guts to fight against it even though defeat was likely if not certain. This all adds up to a fairly good summary of one type of noir hero or antihero, a man thrown onto his own resources either by chance or due to his own nature, opposed by a treacherous, all powerful, all controlling system with the woman he loves as the one most likely to betray him.

It was an easy transition from my youthful Bogart admiration to a fascination with noir films, one of my favorite genres (Westerns, of course, taking first prize). I therefore read this book with no little interest. The author is an academic, novelist, and poet with a number of publishing credits. Somewhere is his workmanlike analysis of the noir aesthetic in films. Christopher does a good job of tracing the genre’s roots and antecedents from the hard boiled prose of Dashiell Hammett to the influence of German Expressionist movies. He also makes interesting points about the survival of noir beyond its golden age of the ’40’s and ’50’s with discussion of more recent films such as The Usual Suspects where he notes that, although filmed in color and set in the contemporary world, they still deal with noir themes like treachery and individual helplessness in an urban environment.

In undertaking such analysis, like many academics, Christopher succumbs to the temptation of trying to derive universally applicable insights from his topic. While I think he’s correct in saying that noir represents more than a film genre, that it’s also a way of perceiving, I’m also wary of grand generalizations that are derived from the study of pop culture, which films admittedly are to a very large extent. Christopher also makes a few pop culture errors along the way that nitpickers like myself find somewhat annoying, e.g., he states that Lenny Bruce died of an overdose of speed when it was heroin, but this is a minor cavil. When Christopher sticks to the main topic, noir films, his analyses are incisive and authoritative. He starts with one of the best, most archetypal noir films, Out Of The Past, and also does an excellent job discussing other classics such as Night And The City, The Killers, and Kiss Me Deadly, possibly one of the most deeply cynical films ever made. My only reservation about this facet of the book is the fact that there were so many more films and actors he could have discussed. I think that any book about noir films should at least mention The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, a morally ambiguous film that remains somewhat disturbing to the present day. While Bogart figures fairly prominently in the book, he still doesn’t get enough attention. The same goes for Kirk Douglas. In fairness though, I must admit that any book that dealt with all that in addition to the ground covered by Christopher would be more like 600 pages than about 250, the length of this book.

I recommend this book to anyone generally interested in films of pop culture and to those specifically interested in noir.

Review of “Lumen” by Ben Pastor

A Promising Theme Unsatisfactorily Explored

A Promising Theme Unsatisfactorily Explored

I originally had high hopes for this novel. The author, Ben Pastor, writes historical novels with a focus on WWII and the Roman Empire, two eras that greatly interest me. I enjoy and admire fictional works that bring a past era vividly to life. One author who has consistently done a terrific job in this respect has been Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther series about a detective in Nazi Germany before and during the war. When I learned that Italian-American author Ben Pastor has written several highly praised novels, also set during WWII about the crime solving efforts of a Wehrmacht officer, the aristocratic Martin Bora, I was definitely intrigued and set about hunting for her books until I eventually found a used copy of Lumen.

Like all historical novelists worth their salt, Pastor has done extensive research. She ably evokes the Polish city of Cracow in the early days of the Nazi occupation after the invasion of September 1939 with awful weather, human misery, the persecution of Jews, and the increasing tightening of Nazi control over the Polish people. The author has no little skill at characterization as well. Martin Bora, the protagonist, is a well rounded, fully fleshed character, understandable and empathetic. The same applies to other figures in the book like Bora’s sort-of ally, the American priest Father Malecki, and even to such odious Nazis as Colonel Schenck. They act and speak like believable human beings.

Where Pastor fails, especially in comparison to Philip Kerr, is in her ability to generate suspense and tension. The premise for the novel would seem to provide a sufficient basis for these purposes. A revered abbess, a nun renowned for sanctity and visions, is found shot dead in a convent. Anxious to solve the crime before political tensions erupt in heavily Catholic Poland, the Werhmacht assigns Martin Bora to investigate. Despite this initially promising set up, Pastor doesn’t seem able to create much in the way of drama. I never felt particularly involved in Captain Bora’s quest to solve the murder. A subplot involving Bora’s boorish roommate (see my wordplay?) also didn’t do much to ratchet up tension for me. This is in marked contrast to Kerr’s work. I’ve read every Bernie Gunther novel and have always been consistently pleased and gratified to find that each one was a riveting read. This is a particularly neat trick on Kerr’s part, since an experienced devotee of the series knows beforehand that Bernie Gunther will always survive at the end. It’s what Gunther must do to survive and what happens along the way to him and others that engages the reader’s interest. This is in marked contrast to Lumen.

The other Martin Bora novels may be more interesting, but I don’t feel much motivation to seek them out after reading this one. In other words, I don’t recommend this book. Readers interested in effective, good historical fiction about WWII would do much better to read Philip Kerr. As always though, I leave it to the reader to make her or his own decision.

Tsarist Suspense – “The Winter Queen” by Boris Akunin

Fandorin as portrayed by Oleg Menshikov in the 2005 Russian film, The State Counsellor

Fandorin as portrayed by Oleg Menshikov in the 2005 Russian film, The State Counsellor

I started the Fandorin series with the second novel, The Turkish Gambit, and followed with this one, the first, The Winter Queen. There are currently thirteen published Fandorin novels with three more planned by the author. Akunin is actually a nom de plume; the author’s real name is Gregory Chkhartishvili and he is Georgian, not Russian. This minor point aside, Akunin is well steeped in Russian literary traditions, holding novelists like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in deep reverence. Like his predecessors, he has a deep interest in human character, in what ultimately makes people tick. This interest in fundamentals underpins and buttresses his detective fiction.

While I don’t want to disclose any spoilers, I don’t think it would ruin the novel for anyone to say that the story begins with an apparently pointless suicide of a fashionable, wealthy young college student by means of spinning the chamber of a revolver with only one bullet in it. This is, of course, the melodramatic cliche known in America as Russian roulette, which Akunin ironically refers to as American roulette. In the face of this senseless tragedy, it’s left to young Erast Fandorin to find out what lays behind the death, a bottom rung civil servant/detective with little to offer beyond a good education and charming manners. Despite this unpromising start, there’s more to Fandorin than meets the eye and the protagonist earns the reader’s admiration and liking with his dogged persistence, cool courage, and keen, observing intelligence. Mystery and intrigue abound as Fandorin tracks down and identifies members of a radical secret society with a dangerous journey to London that almost results in his death. The first novel comes to a dramatically satisfying conclusion on a tragic, typically Russian note that reminded me very strongly of a James Bond novel (I won’t reveal which one because, again, I don’t want to spoil things for any potential readers).

The Fandorin novels are immensely popular in Russia, having sold millions of copies and with several films made from them. This is understandable since they are intensely romantic, filled with larger than life characters while still being well grounded in historic fact. Cavalry officers are bold, ready to risk all on a turn of the cards or a duel at dawn. Like Tolstoy’s Natasha, women are proud, gracious Slavic beauties, so full of charm and kindness as to turn a man’s head upon first sight. The 19th century Russia of the Tsars, a subject of continuous, intense interest to Russians even during the Soviet era, comes to life in Akunin’s capable hands, an ancient, rigid, highly stratified culture with startling juxtapositions of progress and backwardness.

I recommend this book and the other Fandorin novels, most of which I still haven’t read. These novels should prove enjoyable reading to anyone interested in Russian history or literature or for those who simply enjoy a good, well thought out mystery.