Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wednesday's Western: Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine

Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine occasionally devotes an issue to westerns, and the current issue is a fine example.

The works of western author David Lavender are discussed in detail in an article by Jerry Bartholomew, with pictures of dustjacket art and a listing of current market prices.  I had read Lavender's history of Bent's Fort, back when it won the Spur Award, but I had no idea that he had written so many other fine books, both history and fiction.  Lavender's work was lauded by A. B. Guthrie, jr., and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  He even wrote a rather conventional western novel under the pen name of Ralph Catlin.

Also in this issue is a long interesting article on Howard Fast's The Last Frontier (North Castle Books) , Mari Sandoz's Cheyenne Autumn: An American Epic, and John Ford's transformation of the history into film.

Back in February, 2008, Firsts devoted an issue to "The Books of Texas" and featured Elmer Kelton's The Time It Never Rained on the cover.  Inside are articles by Bill Hanrahan and Robin H. Smiley and on the works of Kelton, Benjamin Capps, John Graves, Gail Caldwell, and many others--some of them little known gems.

The September, 2010 issue featured works pertaining to George Armstrong Custer, the works of western novelist Ernest Haycox, and many other fine features.  The books-into-film segment in this issue was The Stalking Moon based upon a book by that sadly neglected author of western novels, Theodore V. Olsen.  The life  and other works of T. V. Olsen are also discussed.

Firsts can sometimes be ordered from Amazon, and you can directly subscribe or order back issues from their website, at this link.

Friday, March 25, 2011


This is a tag-along to the Friday's Forgotten Book series, with the blogs of many fine authors featuring little known gems and sometimes forgotten classics.  The links to their blogs is at this link and going back a week at a time, you can trace their previous selections.  Donald Westlake's THE FUGITIVE PIGEON was well reviewed by James Reasoner two years ago this month, at this link, and mystery authors Bill Crider, Randy Johnson, Ed Gorman, Patti Abbott, and the usual suspects comment on the review.

The door of Henry's lunch-room opened and two men came in.  They sat down at the counter.

"What's yours?" George asked them.

"I don't know," one of them said.  What do you want to eat, Al?"

"I don't know," said Al.  "I don't know what I want to eat."

These are the opening lines of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers," an eleven-page story written mostly in dialog and very short narrative sentences.  Ellipsis is all around, but the situation of being confronted and bullied by strangers is universal and it is not hard even for school-boys to fill in the blanks.

In the noir 1946 movie adaptation that starred Edmond O'Brien, Burt Lancaster, and Ava Gardner, the story is fleshed out one way.  Don Siegel did a different version later in 1964 with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, and the Criterion Edition has many extras, including interviews and essays by director Paul Schrader, authors Jonathan Lethem and Stuart M. Kaminsky, and other fine features as well.

Donald E. Westlake's novel,  THE FUGITIVE PIGEON,  is another fleshing out of Hemingway's story, in a different and very original way.  The two hit men come in to the Rockaway Grill and badger Westlake's protagonist, Charlie, who tells it in the first person.  The protagonist has kept the grill open past closing time in order to see the end of High Sierra, on a television behind the counter, the movie ending with Bogart being shot in the back.  It is his uncle who is named Al, and he is the nephew, the pigeon.

If you're anywhere near as old as I am, you probably studied Hemingway's collection, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, which includes "The Killers."  I don't know if they teach it in universities these days.  But Westlake's protagonist seems to have read it, for after three pages of this Hemingwayesque dialog, he thinks:
"Life imitates art.  And yet I'd bet neither one of them had ever read Hemingway."
Then one of the men takes a card out of his coat and slaps it on the counter.  The card is reproduced in the book, a black spot with Charlie's name on it.  More Hemingwayesque dialog follows as Charlie tries to figure out what it all means.

But all of us readers of a certain age recognized the card from Walt Disney's version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.  It is the black spot given by the pirates to the marked man, the condemned man.  Westlake might well have quoted Stevenson's text in the epigraph, but instead he gave us:

"He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him." --Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
There are many rifts on postmodernism in the book and Westlake must have had great fun in the writing of it.  I was amazed to read his account of the difficulty he had in getting it published.  Some undergraduate ought to take it on as a thesis.
Life imitates Art, and Art returns the favor.  The black spot and the X marking the spot have their historical connotations in Robert A. Prather's historical study, The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John Silver.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that he wrote the novel for his step-son, but Prather shows that Stevenson's wife and former husband had ties to the silver of Jonathan Swift's legend and that, more over, there are many more connections between the legend and the novel than scholars have previously thought.  He loses me a chapter where he tries to sure up his arguments with details on the Masons and Da Vinci-cryptic codes, but the documented Robert Louis Stevenson family history along with that of the mines and the maps is indeed interesting.  Amazing, I should say.

X indeed marks the spot, and God save the mark.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wednesday's Western: MAVERICK

maverick:  a, someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action; b, an unbranded range calf, sometimes used to refer to adult cattle, particularly lone steers of an independent or wild nature; commonly, unbranded, irregular: independent in behavior or thought.

The word was derived from the legend of the no-brand brand of  U.S. cattleman Samuel Maverick.  The name became widely famous  due to a comedy-western television series created by Roy Huggins that ran from September 22, 1957 to July 8, 1962 on ABC and featured James Garner, Jack Kelly, Roger Moore, and Robert Colbert as the poker-playing traveling Mavericks (Bret, Bart, Beau, & Brent).

The success of the series depended on its humorous non-conformity to the standard television westerns of the 1950s.  The Mavericks were also mock-existentialists, pretending to care only for their own interests but constantly drawn into situations where they worked cons for the common good, often winding up broke themselves in the process (except for the $100 bill pinned to the lapels of their coats), and then moving on to the next game.

Ed Robertson wrote what will probably be the definitive history of the series, with a forward by Roy Huggins himself.  Huggins also ghosted Poker According To Maverick in the persona of Bret Maverick.
The concept of maverick was appropriated by the Republican Party during the last Presidential election,  with Sarah Palin calling Senator McCain a maverick, then McCain at first denying it (even though the subtitle of his own ghosted book had previously proclaimed him as such).  The media then immediately picked up the term as a buzz word both cheerfully and sarcastically, depending upon the partisan agenda at hand, thus making it a political cliche, devaluing the word and the concept behind it in the process.

Unrecalcitrant academic westerner Owen Ulph wrote his history and defense of the concept in The American West back in 1966.  It was subsequently published in his book of essays entitled The Fiddleback.  Besides detailing the history of the usage of the term, he explains why it was the maverick steer instead of the mustang which became "the distinctive appellation applied to the independent, irrepressible individualists."  Here is just a small sample of his flamboyantly ranting style:

"The maverick is not a recluse or a reject from organized community life as a consequence of his personal psychoneurosis.  He is an independent spirit who avoids becoming bogged to the saddle-skirts in conventional disregard and contempt of atrophied institutional morality...a creative, integrated, compulsively self-reliant personality type with which the West, factual and fictional, was as speckled as a spotted hound.'

"The mutations in the term maverick and its ultimate extravagant transfiguration into the concept of 'the Maverick' is only a single instance in which skirmishes between romantics and realists mask a basic conflict between ethical and material values within a society.'

"Which brings us to the cream of civilization's jest.  Settled in debilitating, easy-payment-plan comfort, the remnants of their shrunken minds transfixed by a square of jittering glass, the pitiable, spineless, sniveling, sycophantic slaves of the Gorgon-headed establishment revel in the antics of saddle tramps who are never gainfully employed, bonanza-ing rancheros whose fancy spreads miraculously operate themselves...Spellbound audiences thrill to the chivalry of noble mavericks who...always upholding principle over expediency and reaffirming the face of the grinding tyranny of a corrupt law and the apathetic gutlessness of an ossified community.'

"These same audiences, fatuous and fragmented, return to their respective offices, practitioners as well as victims of the vices they had vicariously deplored and hissed the evening before.'

"Throughout densely populated, suburban Squalidonia, the maverick is a hero as long as he confines his heroics to Stultavision, Blatherania, and Disintegral Paperbacks.  But whenever he is so indiscreet as to materialize and venture into the lush pastures of the current establishment, he is hazed off to forage with the wild cattle as soon as possible. . .Such ambivalence, characteristic of the psychosis of nostalgia, betrays the confusion, self-deception, hypocrisy, and absurdity of homogenized establishmentarian society.  Rotten as the old corrals may be, they will hold as long as some ornery critter can be prevented from taking it into his skull to give them a try.'

"Present-day existence is hopelessly schizoid.  Nobody really loves Big Brother, and inside the most timorous conformist a smothered rebel cringes in fear.  The discrepancy between our ideals and daily realities is manifest in the fascination with which even intelligent people view western fantasies depicting the achievement of social justice by maverick heroes who ride roughshod over all obstacles and 'put things right,' and the silent despair most of us suffer at the shoddy compromises and degrading sell-outs we incessantly endure.  How else is it possible to account for the fervid popularity of a novel and film such as Shane?'

"Sophisticated critics insist that no mature person takes Westerns with their maverick heroes seriously--their popularity being attributable solely to their escapist entertainment value.  It is a simple explanation that eliminates necessity for considering them critically and also allows one to enjoy them without admitting to complete infantilism.  But this explanation is unconvincing.'

"Much western myth and legend can be described as 'hokum' and its defenders contend that it is a hokum we cannot do without.  The hokum does not consist of the inner nature of the myths and legends, but in their crude distortion.  The ideals behind these myths were present long before the western frontier.  The frontier provided another historical theater in which they could find expression.'

"What elevates Shane to the status of literature is that the ideals retain plausibility and purity in the eminently human course of the action and do not cease to carry conviction under the impact of a conventionally dramatic plot structure.  These same ideas remain valid even though the frontier has gone."

If you like this style, you should read the entire essay and Owen Ulph's other books as well.  He wrote about mavericks at the time the Ford Motor Company was coming out with the car by that name.  The American West ran its Ford Maverick advertisement in the same issue, a caption under the picture saying that it was available in the colors "Anti-Establishment Mint, Freudian Gilt, and Thanks Vermillion."

This is just one of the many things mentioned by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, his study of how corporate materialists sell the image of individuality to the masses, Americans choosing material appearances instead of intrinsic inward values time after time.  All of which goes to prove Owen Ulph's point.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE ONE-EYED MAN by Larry L. King

This is a tag-along to the Friday's Forgotten Book series.  The links to the others in the series are available at the website of author Patti Abbot or one of her deputies, at this link.
The One-Eyed Man by Larry L. King, first edition published by the New American Library, New York, 1966.  The Signet paperback edition, scanned above, was published in December, 1967.

First epigraph:  "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." --Anon.

Second epigraph:  "Do you think I am trusty and faithful?  Do you see no further than this facade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?  Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?  Have you no thought O dreamer that it may be all maya, illusion?" --Walt Whitman

I prefer a reading in the spirit of the second epigraph, though the author does not defend it this way.

Excerpt:  "It has been a while since the day when we whoosed through the boondocks, stopping to pump the hands of the back country jackdaws and feeling the first swift currents of their discontent, with Collie spraying his waste water among the tall stalks, and bending into the sweet melon, and cheerfully baiting Bo.  It has been a while, and tired bones record the passing."

"The sun has beamed down on rooftops a thousand mornings and the winds have promiscuously changed course, and pious prayers have been shouted over the uncaring forms of the dead.  Our mudball has turned among the stars, and beasts have prowled the fields , and time has cracked into the old patterns of split seconds of joy trailed by eons of sorrow."

"Later on, the goddamn historians will get hold of it.  They will fix the past in the hard glare of twenty-twenty hindsight and go conjuring up visions and assigning motives as though they had a special license for the purpose, and all the time they won't have a clue.  They will see the indelible tracks in the endless desert and chart the winding curves of the main path, but miss the subtle signs of struggle on the trackless rocks and the dead-end cakewalks along the hidden side trails."

"History is just a bunch of spooked people hoo-hawing around, straining a guy to stay ahead of those hairy hounds of horror Cullie used to talk about.  Hoping they won't be bayed down and treed.  Historians forget the black X of chance.  They honk up the notion that everything was planned, was willed and done for a reason.  The old wheel of fortune keeps spinning in worn grooves and the X of chance falls wantonly on the squares, and about all any mother's son can do is ride with the play."

 The opening (and just about any passage your read in this novel) immediately conjures up Robert Penn Warren's 1947 Pulitzer Prize winner,  All the King's Men.  King thought his book a tribute and an updating of Warren's original work, but a novel to stand on its own.  Pre-publication blurbs were gathered from respected authors.  John Kenneth Galbraith called it "the best political novel since The Last Hurrah."

It was timely, a novel about the end of the segregated south and with it any vestiges of the states rights movement.  The novel was well promoted and big things were expected of it.  A major book club made it an alternate selection.  But it did not sell well.  Most reviews were negative, and a lot of reviewers thought it a bad parody of All The King's Men.

When Signet came out with the paperback (scanned above), the cover promoted a smokey vision of a couple about to have sex--which has almost nothing to do with the book.  When the author protested to his editor, he was asked, "Do you want to sell any books or not?"

In Larry L. King's memoir, None But a Blockhead: On Being A Writer,  King discusses the writing of the novel and tells of a party he and his wife were invited to at the home of authors Willie and Celia Morris.  The guest list also included Robert Penn Warren, King's "hero of heroes," his wife author Eleanor Clark, husband and wife authors William and Rose Styron, and the historian C. Vann Woodward.

After King met Warren, the two engaged in conversation about books.  King said that there were many other books that he would like to write, but that he thought himself too unworthy, having so little formal education.  Robert Penn Warren replied:

"Well, if you thought you understood very much about anything I doubt whether you'd be successful at the creative process.  I've always found that I write to learn, as much as I write to tell or to instruct."

"I don't believe a writer is having a creative experience when he merely tells.  There should be in the writer's work a great seeking."

Earlier, King's editor had sent the galleys of The One-Eyed Man to Warren and received the terse reply, "It looks like your new writer has been writing in my sleep."  At the dinner table later that night, King's wife brought that up, embarrassing both Warren and her husband.  Warren acted gentlemanly throughout--"Oh, my, how ungenerous of me!"--and both authors apologized to each other.  In his memoir, King admits and regrets the degree to which he channeled Warren's great novel.

King also recounts the efforts of actor Dan Blocker--who played Hoss on the television western, Bonanza--to produce and star in a movie adaptation of The One-Eyed Man.

King went on to write The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and many other works.  Yet King's forgotten first novel is valuable for its historical insights and humor and, indeed, in its artifact reminder of the once unrepentant and segregated South, now happily gone with the wind.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday's Western: THE DAY THE COWBOYS QUIT by Elmer Kelton

My copy of this western treasure is not the first edition, though it shares the same dustjacket illustration.  It is the TCU hardcover reprint with the new introduction by Elmer Kelton.  He then wrote:

"When The Day the Cowboys Quit was first published in 1971, one critic declared that it was out of character for cowboys to strike and that therefore the novel was a transparent attempt to place modern-day labor-management problems in the context of a western."

Not so, Kelton wrote:  the novel is based on historical incidents, including the actual cowboy strike, and more generally upon the inroads that  laissez faire capitalism made upon the individual freedoms of the historical cowboy.

Traditionally men joined up with an outfit on a handshake agreement, were loyal to it and in turn earned the trust of those who ran it.  Cowboys owned their own horses and tack, were allowed to run their own stock in the company remuda, with the hope of one day having their own spreads.  Such men partnered up to larger outfits, and they drove their cattle together to markets.  "Howdy, partner," was more than just a catch-phrase.

The western cattle industry prospered to the point that it attracted rich easterners, who bought up the bigger ranches.  "The elevated status of the cowboy was not recognized by many of the newcomers, who saw him as no different from their employees in a shoe factory or a cotton mill.  They began imposing rules of employment which took away freedoms and privileges the cowboy had regarded almost as a birthright."

They denied cowboys the right to own their own stock, including the owning of their own horses.  No longer could the cowboy ride off seeking a better deal elsewhere, for he rode the company horse and if he should quit, he was stranded and afoot--dependent upon the company for his transportation, and thus for his next meal.

The value in the traditional cowboy arrangement was that a man took pride in his horsemanship; he did a better job breaking and training his own horses to work the cattle, and thus took more pride in his work.  All of that now disappeared with the poor choice of stock the company insisted upon.  The western code of trust between owner and employee vanished, and cowboys were treated as chattel, as numbers on a ledger.  Although those who worship laissez faire do so giving lip service to freedom for all, just the opposite is the goal.  What they really want is control.

Americans admire the western rugged individualist and the maverick small businessman on the screen or in novels; but in real life, laissez faire capitalism encourages big business to collude and stamp them out, to destroy them at every turn.

This was Elmer Kelton's first literary western and the first to appear in hardcover.  His characters are well drawn, and his dialog is superb.  All of his previous westerns were shoot-em-ups, higher quality than most maybe, but still written to the same pulp formula.  His later novels were of finer stuff, and I'll be writing about them some wednesday soon.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau: Philip K. Dick's Tale of Bureaucracy

Yeah, I know.  The film is very different from Philip K. Dick's 1953 story entitled "The Adjustment Team," but the film keeps the main plot idea of the original:  that events are nudged this way or that to keep the world on course by a cosmic bureaucracy.  Some might say, by God's Bureaucracy.

Like all bureaucracies, it bumbles along and mismanages, and in the film, more enlightened individuals have to subvert the dictates of the bureaucracy in order to accomplish its goals.

The Adjustment Bureau is a romance with some interesting elements of fantasty.  We liked it very much and recommend it.  After we came home, I logged on and read the reviews.  Seems to me, whether people enjoyed or hated this film depended mostly on their worldview.  Those with fixed ideas on the nature of the cosmos seemed to dislike it, even to hate it.  Both evangelical Christian Republicans and atheist materialists tended to trash it.

The links to the original story by Philip K. Dick are provided at the Wikipedia page, at this link.   It was written during the paranoid years of the 1950s, a time which is well described in Emmanuel Carrere's conjuring of the man, I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick.  Carrere's epigraph is the Philip K. Dick quote:

"I am sure, as you hear me say this, you do not believe me, or am sure that I do not believe it myself...but please take my word that I am not joking...Often people claim to remember past lives; I claim to remember a different present life.  I know of no one else who has made that claim, but I rather suspect that my experience is not unique; what is perhaps unique is that I am willing to talk about it."

In the above quote, Dick seems to believe in Nietzsche's Myth of Eternal Return, or a string of universes slightly ajar of one another as in the old TV series, Sliders - The First and Second Seasons.

The Adjustment Bureau takes a different slant, the perspective that most things are written, like a script the actors work from.  Free will allows the actors to ad lib their lines, as Matt Damon playing the politician does in his speech at the beginning of the movie.  The controlling bureaucracies, both at the material level and at the higher surreal level, object to such nonconformist deviations from the script.

On the way home from the movie, my wife pointed out some deeper aspects of the shots--and there is splendid camera work throughout.

The movie uses its bathroom scene
the surreal way Stanley Kubrick would. The lights and the mirrors are strategically placed.  And some Cormac McCarthy scholar needs to draw a parallel with McCarthy's use of bathrooms, especially as in No Country For Old Men, and perhaps in comparing the jakes in Blood Meridian to the head scene in Full Metal Jacket where the dual identity of Private Pyle (both as kid and as Judge) meets his fate.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: KILL YOUR DARLINGS by Terence Blacker

Kill Your Darlings  by Terence Blacker, first American hardcover edition published by St. Martin's Press, New York, 2001.  It was published the previous year in Great Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

I was reminded of this forgotten comic gem by Declan Burke's recent blog, at this link, discussing the flak over the tentative title of his next book, Kill Your Babies, which was suggested to him by Raymond Chandler's musing over comments originally made by William Faulkner.  Faulkner said that, as a writer, you must sometimes "kill your darlings," your favorite bits of prose, when editing your own work.

A number of other writers have subsequently picked that up as a title, including Max Allan Collins in his 1984 bibliomystery about a lost Hammett novel.  The title in Terence Blacker's noir thriller carries a double meaning and jells well with the irony within.  He doesn't use it as an epigraph, but he uses it well in the concluding chapter.

His novel has no epigraph, in fact, but there are numerous quotes throughout the text which might serve, including these from page 16:
"The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art." --Bernard Shaw.
"Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise.  There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon.  Perhaps Louis Althusser was enacting a necessary axiom or lyrical proof, when on the morning of November 16, 1980, he throttled his wife." --George Steiner
"I believe that all those painters and writers who leave their wives have an idea at the back of their minds that their painting or writing will be the better for it, whereas they only go from bad to worse." --Patrick White
These quotes serve as foreshadowing, forearming the reader for the comic noir that lies ahead.  And Blacker's humor gets blacker as he goes along.  In places the novel made me think of the dark parts of John Cheever's Falconer.  That dark.  But unlike Cheever's novel, there is comedy here as well.

The protagonist is a fine writer whose talents are unappreciated while the inferior work of others gets rewarded every day.  He devises a scheme to achieve recognition, but as with any Faustian pact in which the ends justify the ethical hedging of means, things wryly go awry.

And the writing is superb, loaded with insights and humorous asides and gossip about authors.  In my opinion, this forgotten novel ranks up there with James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale: A Novel and Francine Prose's Blue Angel: A Novel and so many others that now spring to mind.  Academic noir ought to be recognized as a separate genre.  Down these dark halls of academia a writer must go who is himself not mean.

Terence Blacker has his own wikipedia page, at this link, and it lists this novel but doesn't say anything about it.  I have not yet read any of his other books, but it's about time I did.
Forgotten Book Friday is a national holiday, or should be, observed by the collected authors and bloggers on their own blogs, organized by author Patti Abbot, at this link, and many other little known gems are to be found by backtracking the friday links.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wednesday's Western: THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE by Dorothy M. Johnson

INDIAN COUNTRY, by Dorothy M. Johnson, first edition hardcover, published by Ballantine Books, New York, 1953.  Jack Schaefer, the author of SHANE,  wrote the introduction in the original hardcover.  A. B. Guthrie, Jr., author of THE BIG SKY and the script adaptation for SHANE, wrote the introduction to Steve Smith's biography of Johnson.

At first, it might seem unlikely that Dorothy M. Johnson had the background to write such influential western stories, but write them she did.  They were creative and original and several of them became the basis for fine movies.  In my opinion, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount Centennial Collection) was easily the best of them.

 Reading her short story today (after seeing the 1962 film many times over the years), you are keenly aware of the many fine scenes that were added later for the movie.  For instance, there is the scene in the diner, where Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) trips Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), making him drop the steak.  Valance and his toadies erupt in laughter, and Valance stands over Ranse threatening him, telling to pick it up, Dude.  The moment is stretched out in tension, and then Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) stands up and says, "That was my steak, Valance.  You pick it up."

Thus the tension is ratcheted tighter as Valance and Doniphon appear about to draw on each other.  One of the toadies tries to pick up the steak for him, but Doniphon quickly reaches out with a kick and his boot catches him in the teeth, knocking him out.

The tension is finally broken up by Stoddard who picks up the steak ranting about the stupidity of men trying to kill each other for no reason.  The scene works beautifully, but it is not in Johnson's original story.

Yet the basic story is there, the motif of brute force versus the law, the dark side of freedom being the liberty to do violence.  A play on words evident at the first showing of the movie, long ago when black and white movies were usually minor films--and even those fast disappearing.  Back then the Gene Pitney song was popular, the meaning of the title and the main surprise in the film evident in the lyrics, examined in retrospect.

The cast of the movie was extraordinary.  Besides the strong trinity of Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin, engaging performances were also given by Edmond O'Brien as the alcoholic newspaperman, Vera Miles as the torn romantic love interest, and Andy Devine as the comic relief--the baffoonery of the local law.  Even Liberty Valance's toadies were played by fine western actors--Strother Martin (The Wild Bunch) and Lee Van Clief (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly).

Johnson's two collections of short stories are still very good reads.  She was an influential female pioneer of the literary western.  It's surprising that she is not more celebrated today.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: Of Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Time

"Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it. " --Terry Pratchett.

I'm not a bit surprised that most of the known universe is darkness--dark matter and dark energy--and that it's still a mystery to us.  Yet I've enjoyed reading about it in two new books, Richard Panek's The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality and Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

Both authors are scientists but have devoted their time to writing about science, and I'm glad they have.  Richard Penek is the less technical of the two, coming up with quasi-literary metaphors at will, it seems, and drawing out human interest stories to give the lay reader a stake in the narrative.

Greene's previous books are Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, and The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.

Great titles, right?  Even more impressive are some of his chapter titles.  For instance:  "Endless Doppelgangers: The Quilted Universe" and "Black Holes and Holograms: The Holographic Multiverse."  I've read all of these books and all of these chapters, and although I may be no closer to the answers then I was before, I can still muse over some of the entertaining theories.

Richard Panek uses this simple quote from Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time as his epigraph:

"I know," said Nick.
"You don't know," said his father.

Looking back, the degree to which the ancient Greeks have been proven right is amazing, yet the older we get, the more we realize how fast and how far we have come, in our time.

"Science historians note that before Thomas Edison, light and fire were the same thing; after Edison they were separate.  The same can be said of time and place."

"Before the railroads created Standard Time zones in 1883, and international time zones were adopted the next year, time and place were one." --Howard Mansfield, Turn and Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart.

Mansfield's charming and intelligent book of essays was published last year and it is about the different ways we have experienced time and place and how quickly our understanding of these concepts has changed.  This was my first book by Mansfield but it won't be the last.  I've now sent for his The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age.