Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two Sentence Tuesday: Pulp Edition (30 June 2009)

One of the neatest things I picked up at Apollocon over the weekend was a collection of SF short stories published by Audio Text, AKA Infinivox. They recorded the best SF from 2008 and I listened to the first one this morning, "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Gardner. The story is up for a Hugo and available online.

It's a charming story filled with good characterization and a pretty big sweep, human-wise. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here's the opening twofer:
This is a story about a ray-gun. The ray-gun will not be explained except to say, "It shoots rays.
So simple. Yet, as the story progresses, there's a lot to this story, just under the surface. But the point is that you don't need to know how the ray gun works. It just does. A common theme I write about it that too often, writers think you want to know how certain things work. Isn't it good enough to know that it does and move on?

For my addition, I'm throwing up a few lines from my steampunk story. At the writer's workshop at Apollocon (discussion of the workshop coming soon at SF Safari where I'm blogging about the panels I attended), I received some good feedback. Patrice Sarath, the leader of my small group of five, liked my story but thought I should have started later in the chapter. For those keeping score, the opening sentences were these from a previous Twofer Tuesday. (If I'm not careful, I'll be submitting the entire chapter before long.) Here's her suggestion as to where the chapter really starts:
In fact, when the murderer had been thrown in his cell, Kionell remembered the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and the sweat that almost instantly dampened his palms. He had cried out to the guards that he was innocent, that there must be some misunderstanding, that he was in the wrong cell. He even reached between the bars and swiped at the retreating guard’s back. All they had to do, Kionell screamed, was contact his master, Gregg Landingham.
This, of course, brings up other questions (why is Kionell in prison at all being the first one) but I'll fix all that later. One of my fellow reviewers, after reading what Serkis did to Kionell, considered Serkis 'crazy scary.' I smiled at that as I think the same thing.

If you want more Twofer goodness, the Women of Mystery blog is the place to be today.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Forgotten Books and Apollocon 2009

Alas, no forgotten book from me today. I'm prepping for the writer's workshop at Houston's Apollocon this weekend. I submitted the first chapter of my steampunk novel, the same one from which these sentences are a part. I'll blog about it next week, probably at SF Safari.

But Patti Abbot's blog is the place to be today. Head on over there for the complete list of titles that you're going to want to add to your List.

And be sure to check out SF Safari on Wednesday, 1 July, as I participate in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. The title I'm reviewing: The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Upcoming reviews: Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Upcoming movie reviews: The Thing (1982), Up, Star Trek II

Upcoming questions to ponder: What makes a western a western?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Two Sentence Tuesday: Pulp Edition

After watching "They Were Expendable" the other night (my review), I'm still in the mood for World War II stories. Thus, I picked up Louis L'amour's Night over the Solomons (1986). I've never read any L'amour so, naturally, I start with a non-western. Go figure.

The title story was published in 1943 and, according to the author's note preceding the tale, had a bit of precognition (or coincidence) to it. The island in the story, Kolombangara, was the perfect place for the Japanese to build an airstrip. L'amour knew it from his time in the Pacific and, evidently, so did the Japanese.

Here's a twofer describing an action scene between the American hero, Mike Thorne, and a Japanese soldier. The "blade" in question is a bayonet at the end of the Japanese soldier's rifle.
"Instantly, Thorne slapped the blade aside with an open hand and moving in, dropped the other over his opponent, at the same time hooking a heel to trip him. With a quick push, he spilled him and snatched the rifle away."
What I like about this passage is the sheer amount of action contained in two sentences, especially the first. We modern writers are told to break out with short sentences to promote the action quicker. Not sure you always need to do that. L'amour does just fine his own way.

My twofer (slightly more, really) involves a supernatural western. In a bit of ironic timing, Chris over at the Louis L'amour Project, posed a question yesterday about 'supernatural westerns.' The timing is ironic since I was already working on one. So far, my two characters are contemplating a large pile of dung.
I indicated the dung pile. "I ain't never seen shit that big. What the hell kinda animal lays turds like that?"

Miller rose and spat. He tossed the wood down on the dung. The flies grew more irritated. Miller didn't care. He reached out and patted his horse on its neck.

"Not animal, Kendrick. Dragon."
We'll see where it goes.

For more twofer goodness, take a trip over to Women of Mystery.

BTW, I guess it's okay that I do these Two Sentence Tuesday posts as I am, not that I'm aware of, a woman.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"They Were Expendable" Movie Review

Back during Memorial Day, I taped a bunch of war movies that I haven't yet seen. Now, I can strike one from The Summer 2009 List.

"They Were Expendable" (1945) is a terrific film by John Ford and starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne. It tells the story of a PT boat squad in the Philippines starting December 1941 and moving through the next year. Montgomery is the captain and Wayne the executive officer. The squad starts the picture with five boats (IIRC) and is trying to convince US Navy brass that the PT boat is a good fit for wartime activities, not merely ferrying messages back and forth.

As any student of history knows, the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese also attacked the Philippines. You get a sense of dread during the opening minutes of the film because you know (as well as the audiences in 1945 knew) what was about to happen. As the attack happened, Montgomery ordered his boats out of the docks in Manila Bay, away from Japanese dive bombers. His instincts proved true as his squad was the only boats still operating after the attack. I'm not sure if there were any conspiracy theories about FDR and Pearl Harbor by 1945 (that is, he intentionally kept our ships in port to provoke an attack and, thus, get the US into the war) but you could certainly see Montgomery's actions as such.

A good historical point made in the film was with Donna Reed. Not here, per se, but in the scenes, later in the film, with the officers of Montgomery's crew. When she came to dine with them--she a nurse still dressed in a one-piece khaki suit--the men stared at her googly eyed. You see, once our boys shipped over seas, most of our boys rarely saw an American woman. As one of the veterans said in Ken Burns' excellent "The War" series, the men sometimes had to be reminded of what they were fighting for. When a woman, especially an American, found her way into camp for whatever reason, the men remembered all that they needed to know.

That the movie takes place in the Philippines during 1941-42, I kept thinking "How can this picture end on a good note?" Most of the war pictures made during the war served the dual role of propaganda and moral booster. I was hard pressed how they were going to pull this one off, especially as the film wore on and the PT boat squad was ground down, boat by boat and man by man. Montgomery's crew got to see some action, none more perilous than taking none other than General Douglas MacArthur to an island with an air strip and, then onto Australia.

The closing shot of the film, the words flashed on screen, and the stirring music are worth the price of the film. According to IMDB, the film was released in December 1945, less than four months after the war ended.

Another historical aspect I appreciated with the film is how the characters operated under the giant machinery of war. Each man knew he was but a mere cog. Some cogs are more important than others and all the characters seemed resigned to their fate. there's a great, yet somber, scene with Montgomery and a superior officer. The officer explains what's what and the meaning of sacrifice (in the baseball sense). The true meaning of his words is not lost on Montgomery, the superior officer, or the viewing audience. Indeed, as the film ends, you don't know the fates of all the characters, something I found perfect for a film like this.

On the back of the DVD case, Leonard Maltin comments that this movie is one of the best all-time war movies ever made. I'm inclined to agree with him.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Forgotten Books: The History of Mystery by Max Allan Collins

(Another entry in Patti Abbott's continuing Forgotten Book Fridays. Head on over to her blog for the complete list.)

For folks like me, without the complete knowledge of mystery and crime fiction imprinted on our DNA, Max Allan Collins is a godsend. He has written The History of Mystery, a nice non-fiction book that traces the origins of crime fiction from the late 1800s until the 2000s. It's a large book, coming in at almost 12 inches square. That's perfect for what this book does best: present old paperback covers and movie art in a large canvas.

Starting with Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Collins discusses how the Pinkerton Detective Agency's real exploits gave rise to the dime novels in the 1890s and 1900s. When I read this book, I didn't realize Nick Carter was such an old character. There is, of course, an entire chapter on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (natch) until you hit pay dirt: The Pulp Fiction Chapter. Here you've got gorgeous covers of the 1920s and 1930s: True Detective, Argosy, Detective Story Magazine, and, of course, Black Mask. All the main pulp characters are here: The Shadow, The Phantom Detective, The Spider, The Avenger, and others. As a reader, I drooled over all the livid covers of these great magazines. As a writer, I wised they were still being printed.

Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner each get their own sections. With the renewed interest in Cool and Lam mysteries throughout this Forgotten Book Group, it is nice to see the duo get an entire two-page spread complete with an original cover from Top of the Heap, the Cool and Lam story reprinted by Hard Case Crime.

Mystery comics are represented here. Besides the obvious Batman and Dick Tracy, there is Perry Mason (?), The Saint, and Collins' own Ms. Tree, among others. Agatha Christie opens a two chapter section on cozier stories, including folks like Father Brown, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the books of John Dickson Carr. Charlie Chan lands here as does Lillian Jackson Brown's Cat stories.

Once you hit the 1950s and 1960s, this is where paperback characters (Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, etc.) and those wonderfully lurid paperback covers take over the book. Again, drool commences. The ends with a section on TV detectives (Rockford, Harry-O, Magnum, and Jessica Fletcher) and some modern authors (Estleman, Francis).

All in all, if you want a nice, short (under 200pp) book with lots of fabulous covers and rare artwork, this is a good book to have. It's a coffee table book. Buy it and just set it out as a conversation piece. You'll likely find a whole lot of other people who love this stuff, too.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bette Davis, "The Star," and Modern Older Actresses

My wife and I watched the 1952 Bette Davis film "The Star" last night. Davis is my wife's favorite actresses so I'm always up for a Davis film. The plot of "The Star" shows an older actress who fears her career is over but can't accept it.

"The Star" isn't the first film by Davis with this kind of theme. I've seen "All About Eve" and there might be more. "Sunset Boulevard" is another that comes to mind. And it's all about the ladies, older actresses who suddenly find themselves too old for the parts being written. It's a commentary on aging as well as the Hollywood system.

You never hear about this from the male side of the ledger.

So here's my question: I can't think of a modern film with a theme like this. Are there any? Or did the demise of the Hollywood contract system make films like this unnecessary? And what do you think about "older" actresses nowadays and the roles they get/don't get?

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Wallander" on PBS: "One Step Behind"

Through quirks in scheduling, HoustonPBS aired the third, and final, Wallander episode last night. "One Step Behind" is probably the best of the lot (here's my take on part one) in terms of mystery content that twists and turns.

We see three young people, dressed in vintage attire, having a picnic in the woods. Enter murderer and we now have three corpses. Enter Kenneth Branagh's Kurt Wallander, who, as usual, needs a good night's sleep and a bath. He and colleague Karl Svedberg are scoping license plates on cars coming off a ferry looking for stolen cars. Boring work. Svedberg tells Wallander that his personal life is starting to impinge on his work life. Wallander all but ignores the comment.

A day later, the mother of one of the young people comes to the station demanding answers. Svedberg is the detective on the case so Wallander looks for him. He's not there. Arriving at Svedberg's apartment, Wallander finds his collegue dead.

From here, Wallander and the rest of the team start investigating their colleague's murder and the disappearance (soon to be murder) of the three teens. What marks this episode as the best of the three is the personal relationships, or lack thereof. We learn, through Wallander's tortured eyes, that he really didn't know Svedberg at all despite working with him for ten years. Niether did any of the other co-workers. Wallander ponders his own relationships and, again, realizes he has no life outside work. It's a sad commentary on modern society where walls are erected that are so strong, nothing can break them down, not even the cries of friends.

Knowing he might get in trouble, Svedberg left Wallander some clues and, when Wallender pieces them all together, even I didn't see the ending coming. Well, I saw the ultimate end coming but not the big twist. I could say that the twist is like XYZ movie but, by doing that, the entire show would be given away. It' too good an episode to do that to you.

This episode is my favorite kind of mystery: something that, at the beginning, seems so tiny and small is really just a thread of a much larger canvas. And, once at the end of the story, the main character is changed.

I enjoyed all three Wallander episodes and I'm happy they're going to make more. Here is a link to PBS's Wallander page. Have a look and see if you can't catch some of them this summer. You'll certainly enjoy them.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Forgotten Books: Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast

(This is my latest installment to Patti Abbott’s Friday Forgotten Books. Head on over to her blog for the complete list.)

I love coffee. No, not the brown, tasteless sludge you find in offices worldwide or the dreck you buy in supermarkets. I’m talking real coffee. I love looking at the beans and seeing the color of the roasted bean, knowing what kind of brew it will make. I love going to coffee stores and discussing coffee, especially the country where the beans were grown and knowing the characteristics of different regional beans and roasts. I love the smell of freshly-ground beans, an intoxicating aroma the is at once earthy and industrial. I love the dark, frothy elixir you get when you make coffee using a French press. I love looking at the surface of my coffee in my mug, catching the light, and seeing the slick oil floating on the surface. I love slurping hot, black coffee (yes, slurping) and bringing in some air to accentuate the flavor of the coffee on my tongue.

I just love coffee. Mark Pendergrast does too and he wrote a book about it: Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. The book opens in a place I’d love to visit: a coffee plantation in Guatemala. The intricate care Pendergrast takes when he describes the plantation literally puts you there, right next to him. From there, he takes you on a tour of time and history as he lays out the origins of coffee in Ethiopia (dancing goats anyone?) up to the modern faux coffeehouse experience of Starbucks and its imitators.

In a history we kind of know tangentially, it’s interesting to note when certain persons or things (Jim Folger, Maxwell House, Sanka) step on the coffee’s stage. Perhaps the keenest pleasure is learning the origins of certain phrases we’ve heard and used all our lives (depending on how old you are). Take Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop” slogan. According to legend, Teddy Roosevelt is said to have uttered the famous phrase that became synonymous with the brand. Who can argue with TR?

It’s not all about selling. Pendergrast also writes about the social undercurrent of coffee and the revolutionary tendency prevalent in European coffeehouses across the centuries. He relates in detail the economics of coffee growing and production, the poor conditions of the growers and the opulent riches of the sellers. Even during these slower passages where you just get numbers, it’s not boring. It’s fascinating to learn all the details of what is basically a worldwide drug.

Pendergrast closes the book by describing how to brew perfect coffee. Other than roasting my own coffee beans, he and I pretty much make our coffee the same way. Uncommon Grounds is a wonderful book for any coffee connoisseur. If you’re not yet a connoisseur, you will be by the end of this book. I recommend the book highly.

And this from a tea guy.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Lost Art of the Mix Tape

I love my iPod nano (3rd generation). I love being able to stuff 1500 songs on it, in various carefully-crafted playlists, and then hit random. It's my own DJ.

Now that summer's here, I made myself a "Summer 2009" MP3 CD. I've crammed 156 songs onto it. All of them have the feel of summer to me. I include everything from old Chicago (really?!) And the first thing I do when I put the CD into my player in my car (after rolling down the windows, mind you) is push random. Viola! Instant 'radio.'

However, there's still something to be said for the art of putting a certain number of songs together on a CD. You know what I'm talking about: taking one song into account, the instrumentation, the vocals, the tempo, and pairing it up with another like-minded song (or not, depending on how you make mix CDs). I've always enjoyed it. For the first six years of this decade, I made myself "Year's Best" CDs where I spread the 27 or so songs over two audio CDs. (Back then, I didn't have an MP3 CD player in my car.) I haven't done it in awhile and I thought I'd give it a go with my summer music. Thus, from the 156 song collection of Summer Songs, comes this specific playlist.

-Steve McQueen by Sheryl Crow - It was this or "Soak up the Sun" so I went with the guitar rock riff. And, besides, it's about friggin' Steve McQueen.

-Come to Me, Do by Chicago - The best song from Chicago 30, this sunny, summery tune will put a smile on your face no matter how bad your day is. It's like a Mountain Dew commercial. The horns are judiciously used and really make the song.

-Girls in Their Summer Clothes by Bruce Springsteen - This is the Boss in full Phil Spector mode: strings, bari sax, and a broad singing not found in Bruce's early days. You can feel the sunlight on your face with this song.

-Sister Lost Soul by Alejandro Escovedo - A mid-tempo song from arguably my favorite new discovery from last year, this features some of his string quartet work. A song you'd hear driving just after dusk any summer night.

-Slow Burn by David Bowie - The first single (do they call them that anymore?) off his brilliant 2002 album, its got Pete Townsend on guitar and a rougher edge than Bowie's other recent work. The second of my older male singer mini-trilogy who can really hold out long notes.

-The Road by Tom Jones - Tom Jones released his latest CD late last year and it's wonderful. This is a mid-tempo ballad that makes use of Jones's incredible voice. He holds back a bit which makes the tune all the much better. This is a driving-in-California song.

-Hey Eugene by Pink Martini - Another new discover from last year, this quirky tune has got some background brass and fun singing by the female lead. Definitely a late-night, post-club song when all you want to do is regain your hearing after hours in a club.

-This Life by Springsteen - Arguably, the sequel to "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," Clarence Clemons' solo to the fade-out is gorgeous. This is the kind of song you'd hear on a remake of American Graffiti.

-Same Time Next Year by "Chicago" - Keith Howland, guitarist for Chicago, wrote this song about touring every summer. Jason Scheff (current singer/bassist) sings and all the horn players are here. If CHI were to write songs like this, you'd get some folks saying "Wow. Chicago's back."

-Viva la Vida by Coldplay - Jumping back to the 80s sound with this one. It's the kind of song that should have been featured in a John Hughes film when the guy finally figures out he wants the girl and is running through the city, avoiding everything, to tell her.

-Lead Me On by Amy Grant - My favorite Grant song. Period. Sure, it sounds like the 80s but it's aged well. If the Hughes film featured a female lead, this is the tune *she'd* be running to.

-Keep Talking by Pink Floyd - The opening minute or so is the kind of music you'd hear in a documentary of Africa as dawn broke over the Serengeti. The guitar work, like almost all Floyd, is the soundtrack to summer nights.

-If You're Gone by Matchbox 20 - No surprise here that I pick the most Chicago-sounding tune Rob Thomas has ever made. Gotta love that horn break.

-Hollywood Nocturne by Brian Setzer Orchestra - Oh, does this song drip 1930s LA. Bari sax solo, mysterious lyrics, and kick-ass guitar, this is a noir movie in song.

-Follow Me by Pat Metheny Group - Metheny is always airy and breezy, the epitome of summer. Here, his solo is on the synth guitar. And the vocals (no words) evoke that midday heat burning down on you.

-The Obvious Child by Paul Simon - The opening, drum-laden track from 1991's Rhythm of the Saints (follow up to Graceland), this song's lush with the world music vibe. I dare you NOT to start moving with those drums playing.

-Inching Towards... by The Howland/Imboden Project - Chicago's drummer (Imboden) and Howland made a modern fusion/rock/instrumental CD. This track features Robert Lamm on piano and Chicago's trombonist, Jimmy Pankow, playing a Latin song with rock elements. Pankow's solo is reminiscient of his early avade-guarde (yes, I'm using that word) work on Chicago III and VII and Howland's guitar work is subtle and in-your-face simultaneously. This instrumental closes out the CD and always makes me want more.

So, do y'all have some favorite albums/songs that are quintessentially summer? And do y'all still make mix tapes/CDs?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Four Movies You Can See Over and Over

Raiders of the Lost Ark
To Kill a Mockingbird
Back to the Future
A Few Good Men

Four Places You Have Lived

Houston, TX (born; current)
Austin, TX (College)
Denton, TX (grad school)
Kent, OH (my POW time, AKA grad school) ;-)

Four TV Shows You Love to Watch

Project Runway (yes, really)
The Wire
The X-Files

Four Places You Have Been on a Vacation

DisneyWorld (4x)
Legoland/San Diego
Portland, OR/Seattle, WA
Guatemala (mission trip)

Four of Your Favorite Foods

Breakfast (eggs, sausage, bacon, hash browns, toast)

Four Websites You Visit Daily

The Rap Sheet
Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine
SF Signal
Entertainment Weekly

Four Places You Would Rather Be

Caribbean beach
Southern California

Four Things You Hope to Do Before You Die

Publish more than one novel
Watch my son graduate from HS and college
Meet my daughter-in-law and grandchild/children
Go on a culinary tour of Italy and Spain with my wife

Four Novels You Wish You Were Reading for the First Time

Star Wars (novelization)
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Tag Four People You Believe Will Respond
Most already have.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fascinating glimpse into a James Bond ad campaign

Lee Goldberg, of A Writer's Life, links to a post over at Permission to Kill, an espionage blog, about the proposed ad campaign for the 1989 James Bond film, License to Kill. This was Timothy Dalton's second (and last) outing as Bond. This was supposed to be the darker Bond, something I think Dalton did well in The Living Daylights.

In light of how well Casino Royale did in bringing Bond's image back to the Fleming books, take a look at the five proposed posters (and the reasons why they weren't chosen) at Permission to Kill.

Two Sentence Tuesday: Fun Edition 2

Okay, so I'm not going to post the steampunk stuff I've posted for the past couple of weeks. I'm back to the fun story, "Lullaby." This is the story of four women, at night, with guns, about to do their job. This passage comes immediately after the last segment.

The three women joined Jamie at their strollers, pistols and silencers stowed out of sight. Instantly, they started talking about schools and teachers and principals and the high sugar content in Capri Sun beverages.

The jogger, a middle-aged man with a ring of hair around his head and enough hair on his back for a rug, entered the spotlight of the streetlamp and glanced at the four women. His huffing was ragged and wet.When he saw the women, he changed his posture and puffed out his chest a bit. The effect looked like a gorilla trying to run a marathon.
Again, slightly longer than two sentences but what the hey. Who's keeping score?

I'm still listening to The Lies of Locke Lamora so I can't isolate just two sentences. Might finish by next week so be looking for the review.

For more Two Sentence fun, Women of Mystery is the place to be today.

Monday, June 8, 2009

William Dietrich Interview

As part of my review of The Dakota Cipher at New Mystery Reader, I conducted a short interview with William Dietrich. You can find it here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

New SF Story at Beat to a Pulp

Over at Beat to a Pulp, "Six Bullets for John Carter" is the weekly punch. It's a great tale. For my take on it, head on over to SF Safari. Then go read it. Read it now!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Batman and Robin #1

For those of y'all so inclined, I've posted my review of the new Batman and Robin comic book over at my SF blog, SF Safari.

And tune in tomorrow for something special...

Friday, June 5, 2009

D-Day, Exercise Tiger, and "Foyle's War"

Talk about timing. My wife and I, just two nights ago, watched the final episode of BBC's excellent series "Foyle's War." The episode, "All Clear," took place in May 1945 as V-E Day approached. The secondary plot involved an American colonel and his attempts at seeking mental revenge against a member of the British signal corps. The first clue was a cover of Life magazine with a Tiger's face on it. As a historian, I wracked my brains trying to figure out what that might've alluded to. When the true subject of the photo was revealed, I had to admit I never knew about Exercise Tiger.

Turns out, a lot of other people didn't either. Exercise Tiger, conducted on the south coast of England, was a live-fire test run for the Utah Beach portion of the impending D-Day invasion. On 28 April 1944, German E-boats stumbled upon the American GIs and their practice. The Germans attacked and 749 soldiers died, the worst lost of Americans (at that time) in one event since Pearl Harbor. The US Army and government kept it secret and the survivors were also ordered never to speak of the events of Exercise Tiger. Most followed orders. It took nearly fifth year for the truth to trickle out.

It's ironic timing that I watched that episode of "Foyle's War" mere days before an article at MSNBC about Exercise Tiger. Take a few minutes and read it. Be sure also to watch the 1994 Today Show story (on page 1) that interviews some of the survivors and the British gentleman who ultimately discovered a Sherman tank on the sea floor. That tank now serves as a memorial to the men who fell that day.

In some ways, June 6 should be remembered by everyone. Coming so close after Memorial Day, it can sometimes get overshadowed by the larger holiday except in years that mark significate anniversaries. We just passed the 60-year mark in 2004 and tomorrow will be 65 years since democracy literally triumphed over totatalianism. If it weren't for the men and women of the Greatest Generation, our world would be quite different. That they did their duty is a testament to all of us and they always deserve our respect, honor, and, most of all, our thanks.

In the not-too-distant future, there will no longer be any World War II veterans or D-Day veterans living. If you know a veteran--of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, or Iraq--be sure to thank them for their service. But especially thank those elder vets. We just can't thank them enough.

Forgotten Books: Red River Campaign by Ludwell H. Johnson

(Today is the non-fiction edition of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten books. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

Today, a forgotten book about a forgotten campaign in a war that will never be forgotten.

If you ask anyone what was the largest campaign in the American Civil War that took place west of the Mississippi River, the response would probably be “There were battles west of the Mississippi?” True, they were not as famous as those in Virginia or Tennessee or Pennsylvania but they were important. In fact, you could probably argue that the Red River Campaign, the Confederacy’s last major victory, delayed the end of the war a year.

Ludwell H. Johnson’s book, Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War, is THE book to read on the subject. To date, there hasn’t been another one mainly since Johnson got it all in a book just under 300 pages. He details all the reasons the Union saw for waging the campaign. The year 1864 was an election year and President Lincoln thought that if he could get Louisiana back into the Union by November, he could count on their votes. Northeast Texas and Shreveport, Louisiana, were major sources of armaments and supplies for the Confederacy. A Union strike in these regions would remove that threat. Cotton was something the Confederacy had in abundance. The Union feared that the CSA would sell the cotton to Europe and, thus, gain much needed funds. Then there was the French in Mexico. Lincoln and his military strategists didn’t want any foreign power to reinforce the South.

For these reasons and more, Union general Halleck planned for an invasion of eastern Louisiana in the spring of 1864. The plan called for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to take 30,000 Union soldiers up the Red River to Shreveport then west to Tyler, Texas, and Marshall, Texas. Accompanying him was the largest Union navel force ever assembled west of the Mississippi. What could go wrong?

For the Union, everything. The vastly outnumbered Confederation army, under command of Richard Taylor--the son of President Zachary Taylor--retreated along the stagecoach road until he stopped his men, turned, and attacked the Union forces at Mansfield. The narrow road didn’t allow for Banks to bring his forces to bear and the Confederates routed the Union. A day later, at Pleasant Hill, the same thing repeated itself. A few days later, a portion of the Confederate army broke off and high-tailed it north to Arkansas and engaged another part of the Union invasion force. In all cases, the South beat the North.

All of these details and so much more is in Johnson’s book. He provides maps of all the battles so you can get a sense of where and how the armies faced off against each other. I’ll admit that prose isn’t as riveting as, say, James McPherson, Stephen Ambrose, Joseph Ellis, or David McCullough. The bibliography is extensive and includes many primary sources and unit histories.

Speaking of unit histories, the main reason I know this book so well is that I wrote my Masters thesis on the 14th Texas Infantry, one of the members of the Confederate army. The men of my (I’ve taken to calling them “mine” since I studied them back in the 90s) regiment all lived in northeast Texas so they actually accomplished what they set out to do: defend their homes from invasion. And, yet, they still lost. Made for a more interesting thesis despite its convoluted title: “The Best Stuff Which the State Affords”: A Socio- and Economic Portrait of the 14th Texas Infantry in the Civil War. Really, it is.

Ludwell Johnson’s book was the Bible when I researched my thesis. It’ll tell you all you need to know about the Red River Campaign, a truly forgotten story of the Civil War.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Old Time Radio Show Catalog

Don't know if y'all noticed but there's a new link over on the right. It's the Old Time Radio Show Catalog. It's a website you can get lost in. There is so much to look at and explore. The coolest thing is the "Daily Download," a sample of what was on the air on This Day in History.

A week or so ago, Jon, from OTRCat sent me an e-mail, said he'd read my blog, and wondered if I'd consign to post a link to his website here. I said yes and then prompted him into a short interview. I'll post that in a second. But first, a little about me and my own experiences with OTR.

My parents grew up in the 40s and radio was their primary medium for stories and news. By the late 70s, OTR was making its way onto cassettes and my parents bought their favorites. It was here, really, that I got my first taste of Abbott and Costello, The Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, and Sherlock Holmes. I really, really loved this old stuff. And, truth be told, the history aspect of these recordings probably contributed to my passion for history.

I memorized so many of these episodes that we had. What I particularly appreciate is the non-visual (natch) of these stories, letting us listeners fill in the gaps. Now, don't get me wrong: I love the spectacle of film and television but there's something special about being told a story. It's one of the reasons why I love audiobooks so much and get most of my news via NPR.

One example about the difference between print and OTR. The Basil Rathbone adaptation of "A Scandal in Bohemia" is one of my favorite Holmes episodes. If you remember the story, Holmes signals Watson to start his portion of a ruse by raising his hand. Well, you certainly can't do that on radio. So, Holmes has a vocal cue for Watson and the listeners. It's a little touch but one that's necessary.

I forgot which version of Abbott and Costellos' "Who's on First?" routine I have. Since I listened to it over and over, it is the one by which I measure all subsequent versions.

Enough about me. On to the interview.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got interested in old time radio.

I've been collecting and trading old time radio shows for years. While living in Los Angeles, I remember fondly sitting in my car after a long commute to hear the end of a show on late night Radio Drama Hour AM radio. At that time, trading old radio shows was primarily done on open reels or cassettes (which were expensive to collect and any sizable collection quickly filled up rooms!) With the advent of MP3 technology and entire stack of recordings or season of shows could now fit on a single MP3 CD (up to 50+ hours). OTRCAT.com (Old Time Radio Catalog) began in 1999 primarily as a trading website to expand my personal collection from the golden age of radio, but I began offering copies of my collection for just $5.00 so everyone could listen to these incredible shows. The website has remained a family business and represents thousands of hours of research and work. With vintage photographs of the stars and studios, OTRCAT.com visitors can read detailed descriptions about the old time radio shows and radio stars while listening to their choice of thousands of full episodes online. We offer a 'daily downloads' section which offer a different broadcast of the day through radio history (from the last 50-70 years).

How do you find all these old and vintage recordings?

I've created network of collector friends which has gradually grown over the year via the internet.

What is your transfer process from analog to a digital format?

We have a dedicated PC hooked to an open-reel and cassette deck. We record the shows, cut and edit them with a sound editing program called SoundForge, and then encode the shows to MP3 format.

You have thousands of shows at your website. Do you have any personal favorites?

There are lots to like, but star-studded mystery programs such as SUSPENSE are hard to beat. X MINUS ONE is an all-time favorite radio program which adapted short science fiction stories by Bradbury and other sci-fi authors. Other programs such as Groucho Marx's YOU BET YOUR LIFE (a comedy quiz show) always make me chuckle and I have to admit I've listened to the full seasons of Jack Webb's DRAGNET many times through. There are a lot of gems in the comedy, drama, and even westerns with top-name stars of the day.

With the advent of podcasting, do you see storytelling in the style of old time radio making a comeback?

I think there is definitely a resurging interest now that the many shows are readily available. Increasingly people are opening up their personal collections (and many once thought lost recordings have surfaced in recent years). While OTRCAT.com is dedicated to the classic radio shows (primarily from the 1920's – 1959), I know there have been some recreation and quality new radio drama style programs produced in recent years, much of it abroad.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Book Review Club: Star Trek: Countdown

I'm participating in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club today. Since my entry, the graphic novel Star Trek: Countdown, is science fiction, I've posted it on my SF blog, SF Safari. Head on over there and take a read. You'll also find the link back to Barrie's blog and all the other folks who are participating this month.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Old Cemeteries

Over the weekend, my wife and I got out of Houston and headed west to a golf resort in New Ulm, Texas. It's about an hour from our house but feels farther. After two days of the course kicking our rears up one side of the greens to the next, we took a drive. It's your typical northern gulf coast area: lots of open space, barbed wired fences, and cows. This is Texas, you know. You've also got low, rolling hills, something you don't have in Houston.

We stopped at an old cemetery in Frelsburg, Texas. For those of y'all that don't know, central Texas is the place many German and Czech immigrants settled in the early to mid 1800s. You can see it in the town names (Frelsburg, Schulenburg) or things like the Spoetzl Brewery, the home of Shiner beer, just about the best thing to drink on a hot Austin night when your a student at The University of Texas.

I enjoy visiting old cemeteries and looking at the names and birth/death dates. My historian self quickly gravitates to the military men and women. I like to discover if the soldiers lived through their war or if they survived and lived a long life knowing that they did their part. What surprised me in this little cemetery was the grave of a young man who died in Iraq but who was also in the Pentagon on 9/11.

Another thing that is never surprising in old cemeteries are the grave markers of children. There were more than a dozen graves of children who didn't live out a year, some of whom lived a day or two. One precious child didn't even live out the day. I got to wondering about how difficult live was for nineteenth century folks, whether or not they were immigrants. As a father, these things get to me. As bad as it can be in 2009, we have it so, so easy compared to them.

What struck me as incredible was the grave marker of a person who was born in 1793. Think about it: when he was born, George Washington was alive and president. George Washington! And to think that this man immigrated from Europe to Texas and died here but not before fathering children who went on to make more children, all the way up to the present day. It provided a real connection with the past.

Just wanted to share some thoughts about our history and our connections with all that came before us. We are not islands. We are all part of this earth and humankind. Sometimes, it's easy to forget that, what with our souped up cars, headphones, and alarm-systemed houses, all things that block out life and other people. Sometimes it takes a visit to the past via a cemetery to help us all remember where we all come from.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Wild West Monday #3

Today is Wild West Monday, an effort started by Gary Dobbs who writes The Tainted Archive blog. He sums it all up nicely in this entry. It's an effort not only to bring back the western but fast, quick reads that entertain just as much (or better?) than the latest TV or movie. It's something I've lamented about before, especially when it comes to SF and fantasy. And it's what Hard Case Crime and Gabriel Hunt books (my review of Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity here) are all about.

But westerns are the theme today. So go on: head on over to your local bookstore and library and ask about westerns. Get them to create a section if there isn't one and buy some books if there is one. As a Texan, westerns are part of my DNA. Make it part of yours.