When I moved across the country recently, the final tally of books was 43 boxes worth. And that was after giving away the equivalent of about a dozen more boxes’ worth to friends and colleagues.
People who come to my house often browse through the numerous bookcases and inevitably ask me “Have you read all these?” and the answer is “I think I’ve read close to half of them, the other half are in the queue.” Every so often I’d go through an inventory of sorts of what I’ve read, what I haven’t, what I’ll read again or what I’ll always want to keep around. And then the straining task of culling what I have to admit to myself that I will never read – something I’ll do every year or so – and then boxing it up to pass along to some other book hunter by donating to the thrift store or library.
And why the thinning of the book collection? Why, to make room for MORE books gathered at those very same library sales, thrift stores, or the occasional yard sale. There’s a library sale this Saturday I’m planning on as I write this.
I came across this article today about the value of having a house filled with to-be-read books and it certainly spoke to my existence. The central idea is that all the unread books are constant reminders of everything we do not know but can learn in our eternal quest for knowledge, and I like that. The Japanese term for it is “tsondoku.” The books make us smart and keep us humble all at the same time, perfect for Yom Kippur I guess, which begins tonight. So nice timing on that article, BigThink.com!
I made a new cover for the first entry in my Professor Wagstaff mystery series. I got sick of the old one, it seemed a bit too generic. Not that I’m some sort of genius in graphic design by any means, but not too bad for a concoction of royalty-free images, eh?
You realize that this makes all copies with the original cover WORTH MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.
Click on the “Books I’ve Written” tab up top for more. I need the money.
The last of the book recommendations/reviews gathers up a bunch of material I’ve read over the last few months here and there, dealing with arts, literature or straight-up history.
Nancy Marie Brown’s The Abacus & The Cross -The Story of the Pope Who Brought The Light Of Science To The Dark Agesexamines the life of Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II. Gerbert, as a peasant monk, traveled to Muslim Spain in the mid 900s, got exposed to all the ancient knowledge compiled by the Abbasids and others, returned to France to start a school in Reims where he taught all the ancient Greco-Roman classical knowledge he’d learned in astronomy, math and the like (he may have also built astrolabes) and eventually through a myriad journey through the Medieval politics of the day mostly involving the inner workings of the Holy Roman Empire and the Capetian Dynasty of France, became Pope for a brief period. Brown puts forth an interesting thesis on how if Sylvester II and young Otto III of the HRE had lived longer, the schism of the eastern and western churches in 1054 could have been avoided, thereby changing all of European and Middle Eastern history, etc etc. It’s an interesting theory that’s tough to defend but her scholarship on the life of this dude is a fascinating dive into the way the Medieval European world worked, both in terms of the state of education and culture, as well as the politics.
Mark Lamster’s Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the painter Peter Paul Reubens follows similar lines of mixing a cultural examination of its subject (it’s a great straight-up bio of Reubens, discussing his art, the major works, and his great commercial and business success) with another dive into the politics of its era. This time it’s the Wars of Dutch Independence, and the Flemish Reubens serves as the perfect go-between to sneak messages and information between both the Spanish/Hapsburg and Netherlandish sides. They both like him, trust him… and while important powerful people & royalty pose for him, they chat in ways knowing he can pass the messages along. Not sure if he hid any coded messages in the cellulite of the female nudes he pained, but I guess we’d be getting into Da Vinci code territory going down that road.
Thomas Cahill’s Heretics & Heroes: How Renaissance Artists & Reformation Priests Created Our World is another entry in Cahill’s highly readable Hinges of History series. Cahill writes in a relaxed, breezy style, discussing the various figures he puts in the center of the catalyst-actions he sees moving civilization along. Cahill is not hiding that it’s all his opinion when he writes about Vermeer or Luther or Savonarola or anyone, really… so after a while the book becomes akin to listening to a really smart guy just talk about this stuff in a free wheeling manner. I recommend the other entries in this series as well.
Finally, a pair of similar books that are basically entertaining personal polemics, where each author cathartically releases whatever vitriol they have on assorted subjects in art and literature. Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art catalogues academic works by various professors on specific paintings that are radical way-out-there interpretations of the works in question, offering Kimball some truly low-hanging fruit to pick apart. Kimball sticks to articles by various art professors where a predetermined political ideological agenda gets put in place first, and then whatever analysis of the work can be hammered into that structure happens, regardless of any other interpretations or sometimes obvious meanings found in the works. While the book focuses on art, the same argument against the sort of garbage that turns up in far too many humanities research could be applied to numerous other areas. It kept reminding me of my own personal episode with the sort of polemicist crap Kimball rails against, back in an undergrad film class listening to the stupidest analysis of Hitchcock’s Rear Window by a semiotician overly determined to cram as much Freudian symbolism and deconstructionist twaddle into an analysis that purported to argue that Hitchcock intended for it all. I ranted about it then and, probably similar to Kimball’s experience in writing this book, enjoyed a very cathartic exercise of reproducing said rant many years later in my Wagstaff & Meatballs novel, much of which I set at a Brown U reunion.
If you want the English literature version of the Kimball approach, albeit with MUCH more straight out analysis of some great books ranging from Beowulf to Jane Austen, I listened to The Politically Incorrect Guide To English & American Literature by Elizabeth Kantor (audiobook). Good GOD does she hate Margaret Atwood & Handmaid’s Tale, and good GOD does she hate the way that book has supplanted, in her eyes, the greater books by greater authors in the canon, all for pushing the sort of political agenda Kimball also rails against. Handmaid’s Tale turns up as the go-to “why do they teach this crap?” example throughout the book, regardless of what period of lit is being discussed. But the polemics aside, there’s some nice straight-forward what-you-missed-in-lit-class discussions of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, and so forth, but Kantor also offers some very nice discussions of how to read these classics – how to deal with the language, how to approach their context, etc. which is excellent advice for anyone pursuing an interest in great literature, for academic purposes or just for reading great books and knowing them.
I’m in the middle of a major move, which means boxing up TONS of books. I’ll be spending more time boxing books in the next weeks rather than reading them. But once those boxes open, it will be back to the grind again. So, until next time…
To continue with some quick book reviews/recs, here are a bunch related to various ends of the entertainment world:
Round Up The Usual Suspects by Aljean Harmetz – had this one sitting on my shelf for years and finally got around to reading about all the behind the scenes action in the making of Casablanca, one of the greatest American films ever made. Wonderfully researched & written, with pretty much everything you need to know. Her book on The Wizard Of Oz is next on my shelf and next on my list.
The Searchers: Making of an American Legend by Glen Frankel: A marvelous piece of scholarship not only about the making of the John Ford classic film, but also an exhaustive history of the true story it was based on, that of the Comanche abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836 Texas. Frankel does a great job with the detailed history of that event, and of her family taking her back against her will after she had married the chief & given birth to the chief who would make peace. The book goes from the history to the story written about it that led to the film, and how the film altered the actual story. This appealed to my interest in history, and also provided enough behind the scenes material about one of my favorite westerns as well.
A pair of gossipy entertainments that go together are Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra by George Jacobs, and Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin. Both books follow the same basic arc – an outsider (Jacobs was Sinatra’s valet, Bushkin was Carson’s business advisor, dubbed “Bombastic Bushkin” in monologue jokes) gets invited into the inner social circle of a huge celebrity and tags along for various adventures with other celebs, drinking, sex, affairs, you name it – often being dragged along and demanded to be part of things by either Sinatra or Carson as they struggle to have friends they can actually trust when they trust very few. And in the end, both men are frozen out for some single event that the celeb can never forgive. Both books have some interesting stories and gossip (Jacobs might win in this regard, some of the throwaway things he says about various celebs are sickly funny an eye opening if true. Who knew Yul Brynner had an affair with Sal Mineo? I’ll never watch The Ten Commandments the same way again), and both are quick reads, to be sure.
More somber and certainly more pious was The Closer by Mariano Rivera, Rivera’s autobio of his life in Panama and his journey to the Yankees, leading to his amazing career as the greatest closer relief pitcher of all time. While a lot of the book gets into the baseball details, the overriding tone is that of Rivera’s enormous religious faith (he originally intended to become a priest) and how his faith interacted with his career. Some of the stories he tells of some of the heartbreaking losses I remember from my own Yankee fandom are discussed in terms of Rivera’s views on God’s overall plans for him in ways that are, quite simply, more sincere, different and beautiful than any other baseball autobio I’ve plowed through. The storyline is very matter of fact, but the big takeaway for me was how the steadiness of the guy on the mound was very much a product of that amazingly strong faith.
No religion to be found in Betting On Myself By Steven Crist, Crist’s autobio of how he journeyed through a journalism career to buying the Daily Racing Form and transforming it into the more modern version it is today. He also discusses his own history of betting the tracks, starting out back in his Harvard Lampoon days going to the Suffolk Downs dog park with fellow Lampooner George Meyer, who’d go on to be one of the big wheels on The Simpsons and clearly the source of Santa’s Little Helper. Crist, the son of film critic Judith Crist, also wrote a book called Exotic Betting, where he delves into all of his methods of pick 6 and pick 4 combos at the track – a wonderfully helpful book to me in figuring out my own betting strategies whenever I handicap the horse races. Crist was one of the best pick 6 players out there (although I’m FAR too cheap to bet all over the board like he did). Betting On Myself focuses more on his myriad journey through the publishing business, and his ups and downs in doing so. Since his theories were so helpful to me improving my own performances at the track, I found his autobio very interesting.
From time to time, I enjoy listening to George Noori’s late night radio program, Coast To Coast AM, which he inherited from Art Bell many years ago. It’ll depend on who the guests are, and Noori has a cast of regulars who turn up on the program frequently. A lot of the show is devoted to UFOs and abductions and bigfoot and numerology and alternate nutritionists and the like, but every now and then he’ll have on someone like theoretical physicist Michio Kaku or people who have researched some historic oddities to the nth degree, and I’ll let it play into the wee hours as I fall asleep.
This was my introduction to Robert Lanza & his theories of Biocentrism when he or some other acolyte of these theories whose name escapes me turned up as a guest one night. I very much enjoyed listening to a pair of audiobooks by Lanza,Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness & The Illusion of Death (the “illusion of death” was the hook for me, after spending a lot of years reading all sorts of material on Buddhist/Hindu ideas on reincarnation and their relation to some concepts in theoretical physics), and The Grand Biocentric Design: How Life Creates Reality. Lanza’s theories can be boiled down to the idea that consciousness is an eternal force that has created our reality, as opposed to the other way around – a universe is created and life evolves, reaching sentient consciousness. While Lanza develops and defends his ideas by discussing ideas based on quantum theory and other scientific concepts, I found his entire approach to be very spiritual – without directly mentioning any specific religion, Lanza’s theories amalgamate numerous concepts and ideas from across major world religions on the nature of reality and our place within it as thinking beings. Whenever he talked about the eternal nature of a universal consciousness, I kept thinking about Charlton Heston coming down from the burning bush in The Ten Commandments and telling Zephora and Joshua how God was “the light of eternal mind.”
So if some off-the-charts genius cosmology professor and Moses are on the same page, who am I to argue?
In any case, it was all fascinating listening, prompting a lot of thought and a sense of wonder. I suppose there are two sides to his consciousness theories as related to “the illusion of death,” since Lanza’s theories very much align with Eastern reincarnation beliefs that our consciousness but not our persona will recycle throughout time (although Lanza goes into fascinating detail about how time itself is a human concept & may not actually exist as we think about it. I’ll have to work that into Phigg & Clyde at some point, I guess.)
Another frequent topic on Noori’s radio show explores theories around ancient civilizations and their technological achievements. Frank Joseph’s Ancient High Tech: The Astonishing Scientific Achievements of Early Civilizations leaves out alien theories and explores in wonderful detail the actual scientific achievements of ancient civilzations across the globe, from compelling evidence of engineering, architecture, use of electric batteries, naviagation, and so forth. While Joseph argues some ideas that are not widely accepted (to put it mildly) by scientific and historic consensus as stated by experts (although that world has not looked very good in recent times, eh?), most of his scholarship is factual history and discoveries sitting in various museums worldwide. Much like with Lanza, listening to this book got me thinking a lot and wondering a lot, so it did the trick. And since I’ve always loved the theory that the Great Pyramid is not a tomb but instead is actually an ancient version of a Tesla Tower (someone tell Moses), hearing Joseph’s extensive analysis and defense of this idea was very entertaining.
Finally there was Synchronicity, Science, and Soulmaking: Understanding Jungian Synchronicity Through Physics, Buddhism, and Philosophy (audiobook) by Victor Mansfield, the late Colgate U. professor of physics and astronomy who spent more time teaching concepts of Tibetan Buddhism, and this book on Jungian synchronicities and their relation to both Buddhist ideas and theoretical physics was an uneven but mostly interesting listen. Mansfield provides assorted anecdotes from his students describing synchronistic events from their own lives, while offering his own analysis of the concepts related to an interwoven collective consciousness with Middle-way Buddhist ideas and concepts from quantum mechanics. Lanza’s work focuses on very similar ideas, so grouping them together was a good way to get my mind in the right mode to work on the next Wagstaff book.
Deep stuff…. this must mean the next installment of book reviews will be about trivial nonsense, so stay tuned!
Since I’m too lazy to write long individual reviews of a bunch of books I’ve gone through recently, I thought instead to compile them into a series of short blurbs like I did with some movies earlier. A bunch of these are audio books, since it makes my inevitable two hours daily in my car more worthwhile.
I don’t drive anywhere, I just sit in my car and listen to books. Just doing my part to SAVE THE PLANET.
Anyway – I’m always ready to go back in on the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theory every now and then, and I can recommend a bunch of interesting books in this general area, as well as a couple I threw in there that analyze Shakespeare’s works in interesting ways.
Let’s start with Who Wrote Shakespeare? By John Mitchell, which evidently is sports talk guy Dan Patrick’s favorite book. Mitchell goes through a nice rundown of all the major authorship theories (Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford) as well as some others, and mostly winds up in the Oxford camp. His history of each candidate is readable and interesting, and makes a nice intro for people beginning to look into some of these theories.
If you want a well argued pro-Stratford-man-Shakespeare counterpoint, check out Contested Will by James Shapiro (audiobook), a Columbia prof of English lit who offers a wonderfully detailed history of how the authorship controversies developed, first in the nineteenth century with the Francis Bacon theories, and later with Oxford, Marlowe and others. But what really makes Shapiro’s book worth reading is how well he discusses the world of English theater and the nature of the professional writing life in Elizabethan times, and how a lot of the supposed illogical factoids on Shakespeare himself actually fit in well with how many of his contemporaries worked, published, earned money and the like. Shapiro must reject a lot of the idea that “all writing is autobiography” that drives many of the alternative author theories in order to arrive at his own arguments for Shakespeare himself, and even though I’m a doubter that Shakespeare wrote the material himself, I think Shapiro’s arguments describing the realities of Elizabethan playwright life are very compelling evidence.
Another book pursues a bona-fide mystery in the Shakespeare biography – what happened to his personal library? He must have had a large number of reference books for the material he wrote, especially since so much of it was based on earlier histories or classical plays. No evidence of a Shakespeare library exists anywhere, and he left no books to anyone in his will. Hmmm. So in Stuart Kells’ Shakespeare’s Library, (audiobook) Kells explores the history of the people who went searching for clues as to what happened to all those books, or whose books he may have actually used in his works (a patron? who knows) but this, again, winds up interweaving with the authorship question since the lack of this library casts doubt on Shakespeare as the author himself. Kells mostly writes about associates of his that follow the Henry Neville authorship theory (very well outlined in The Truth Will Out by Brenda James), but always comes back to the idea of hunting down evidence of the books themselves.
I liked Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay (an argument that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic sympathizer, evidence in his work, etc.), so I checked out her later book Shakespeare & The Resistance, (audiobook) where she offers a wonderfully detailed analysis of his early successful poems “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” arguing that both poems are thinly disguised attacks on Henry VIII’s dissolution of church property & Elizabeth’s illegitimate reign over England. Asquith concludes her book with a nice description of the Essex Rebellion, arguing that Shakespeare was a supporter of the attempt to “Richard II” Elizabeth, basically. Not sure if I agree with her, but fascinating stuff.
I also enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare & Politics, (audiobook) where the lit prof author of Will In The World organizes an intersting analysis of many Shakespeare plays (mostly histories and tragedies) by categorizing the types of characters that surround tyrannical figures – bad kings, bad emperors, bad Greco-Roman main characters, etc. The only place I thought it broke down was in his final chapter on “Coriolanus” where the book becomes more along the lines of Greenblatt & Politics rather than Shakespeare. Greenblatt tries repeatedly to compare Coriolanus to Trump and the section sounds like a tangential rant during a college lecture of some tenured prof venting his own politics in front of passive undergrads. The Coriolanus-as-tyrant arguments are certainly sound, but they can be pinned to practically any American or foreign politico of your choice if you cherry pick whatever you don’t like about them. And that ought to be the point, since it was certainly Shakespeare’s. Since it came at the end of the listen, it took something away from the earlier chapters where Greenblatt sticks to the texts themselves and offers a very nice overall analysis of the way political commentary relating to Elizabethan and Jacobean times turns up in Shakespeare’s plays.
For this installment, I’ll throw in a tangentially related book I also listened to, A Hidden History of the Tower of London by John Paul Davis, (audiobook) an exhaustively detailed history of the Tower, its construction and renovations/additions, and every. single. major. execution. EVER! inside its walls. After a while, I wondered how there could be any Brit nobility left since all they did was kill each other, chopping heads off and good ol’ drawing and quartering. I guess that’s what happens when you have to wait hundreds of years for Jamie Oliver to come along and teach you how to cook.
Someone painted this on a fence where I parked in downtown Ventura today.
It was like getting a message from God as to the meaning of my life.
Especially after I ordered fish tacos for lunch & got a double order without realizing it until they handed me the tray.
Did I acknowledge the mistake and have them take one order back?
I ATE THEM BOTH.
Because…. as the fence says….
Anyway, I trekked to Santa Paula & Ventura today for a nature walk of sorts through library sales and thrift stores, mostly looking for books. Call it my reaction to going to a gigantic estate sale I saw advertised, featuring pictures of over 10,000 (yes, that’s right) books for sale… the vast majority art and music books since the sale was for some old jazz musician… and when I got there, a handwritten sign reading “All Books Have Sold, Sorry” greeted me.
“Yup, some guy brought a truck this morning and bought ’em all,” the guy told me.
I HATE EVERYTHING.
So, compensation today. A nice leisurely drive for a bunch of different stores.
Got a couple of nice cookbooks – another Rick Bayless Mexican book (Mexico One Plate At A Time), a cuisine I really ought to cook more often authentically. I’ve cooked from a couple of his other books and the results were decent, so why not. Also an autographed Chinese cookbook from some restaurant in San Francisco – The China Moon Cookbook by Barbara Tropp – that won me after I read through some of the rather elaborate recipes, but found recipes for Chinese dishes I’d certainly order off the menu that I know I don’t have in other books.
Also a pristine illustrated hardback of a book I’ve got in beaten-up paperback form, Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World along with a tell-all about the art world book – Tales From The Art Crypt by Richard Feigen.
And then, my PSYCHIC MOMENT – for no reason at all while shaving this morning, I thought of Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes, the collection of nonsense writings he published at the peak of his hot-streak-rise back in 1979 – and I found a first edition of it in a thrift store today and figured that the cosmos was telling me to buy it.
How else did the cosmos communicate with me? Well, for absolutely NO reason, two of the thrift stores on my carefully mapped-out and Yelp reviewed list were closed today, and another one was simply GONE, replaced by a ballet studio. BUT – as I drove down those particular streets back in my route, I spotted ANOTHER thrift store that was NOT on my list and stopped in….
…. and it was run by a Cat rescue and adoption charity!
No store cat, unfortunately, but I gave ’em a nice donation and told them to KEEP HELPING KITTIES.
And now I’m home, so it’s back to drinking and sports.
I hope you’re enjoying your weekend. And I hope you’re helping kitties.
I just finished getting through My Life In The Mafia, a 1973 confession by Vincent Teresa, who’d been a major player in the Patriarca organization before turning government witness. Spotting it in some thrift store one day reminded me how my parents had a copy of it for years and I’d neglected to pack it up with whatever I wanted to save from the widdle house I grew up in when I moved out west and everything got packed up, sold or trashed.
Teresa, through writer Thomas Renner, recounts his life in the mob and the various scams and crimes he’d committed over the years. Mostly stolen goods, bookmaking, loansharking and some stock and bond scams. A lot of the crimes he committed are truly dated – the various forms of check cashing and bank fraud would be nearly impossible now.
But in a story about his time in prison before turning informant, he relates a tale involving Carmine “Lillo” Galante. Lillo, a Bonnano family capo, basically ran the mafia section of the Lewisberg federal prison they dropped Teresa in for his securities fraud activities. And much like we saw in Goodfellas, mob guys have different prison lives than the rest of the population, to a degree. Lillo’s prison job was to run the greenhouse, where he grew his own vegetables and set up a nice grill for cooking the steaks and such regularly smuggled in for him.
And don’t put too many onions in the sauce, etc.
Teresa tells a story where Lillo kept 3 cats as pets inside the greenhouse and in his general realm. Evidently some strays had gotten into the prison yards somehow, and Lillo decided to adopt them.
From page 302:
“Lillo had three cats, and they ate better than most of the prisoners. Every morning they had pure cream for their breakfast with an egg beaten in it. The cats were sort of a symbol of freedom to Lillo. He used to say ‘At least they can get outside – they go outside the wall.’
The hacks almost never came to the hothouse, and when they did, it was just to be sociable. None dared tread on Lillo. I remember one problem came up with a hack because of Lillo’s cats. It was a Friday, and we were having fish in the prison dining room. Lillo sidled up to me and said “You’re not eating your fish, are you Fats?”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t eat that crap.”
“Well, I want to take it for the cats,” he said. He walked up the row to the hacks and announced “I’m taking Vinnie’s fish.” Then he put it in a plastic bag with his own fish. The hack didn’t seem to mind, so Lillo sort of added insult to injury. “Those cats are pretty hungry. I’ll take two pieces.”
The hack was standing behind the row where the prisoners went through the food lines to eat at the tables. “Hey!” he shouted at Lillo. “You can’t take two, only one to a man.”
Lillo turned around. He gave him a look that froze him in his tracks. “Hey, I said I’m taking two or three pieces for my cat.” His voice was low and soft, but he had ice at the end of his tongue.
The hack stared back at him. “I said you can’t take them,” he snapped.
Lillo’s eyes narrowed, and that sneer of his looked worse than ever. His voice was soft, but it was menacing, It made my blood run cold the way the words came out. “You got kids at home?” he asked.
The hack looked startled. “What?”
“I said, you got any kids at home?” Lillo said again. “You want to see them?” He sort of paused for effect, letting the words sink in. The hack seemed to nod. “Good… then shut your mouth.” Then Lillo took five pieces of fish slowly, one by one while the hack looked, and he put them in the plastic bag. What he said he meant. He wouldn’t have hurt the kids, but the hack would have an accident one day in prison. He wouldn’t have lived to see his kids, just because of a couple of lousy cats. But that was Lillo. No one defied him.
Museums teem with stuff like this, don’t they? Puffy semi-idealized bodies floating on clouds, gazing at each other lovingly under the warmth of a rainbow, surrounded by mythological figures and cherubs and naked torch bearing babies riding lions drawing a chariot…. Good God, it sounds like a party at Kevin Spacey’s house.
Rubens was a master at this classical baroque style, with prolific production of mythological and allegorical scenes. Rubens catalog is over FOURTEEN HUNDRED pieces. This dude WORKED.
And not only at painting, either – he spoke six languages and got very chummy with a lot of the royalty he worked for and painted. And you know, when people sit for portraits, they chat about stuff. And when royalty and ministers and the like chat about stuff to people they think are just artists, they reveal all sorts of inside-court knowledge and even state secrets, especially if the artist charms it out of them.
Which is exactly what Rubens did. He worked as a spy and diplomat all over Europe while at the same time enjoyed the successful life and reputation of being one of the top artists around.
So the other day when I had some free time, I dropped into one of my more preferred dumpy thrift stores and came up with a copy of The Searchers: Making of An American Classic, which looks like it’ll be an interesting read for a buck and a half. Granted, most of it is not about the making of the film (one of my favorite old westerns) but about the true history story that inspired the film: the Comanche kidnapping of Cynthia Parker and how she became one of their tribe, becoming a wife and mother, including a son who became a Comanche chieftain before her Uncle found her after years of searching & took her back against her will.
The film takes that set-up, with Natalie Wood kidnapped and Uncle John Wayne searchin’ and searchin’, while giving us John Ford’s version of the settlement of the west and what sorts of bigotries and barbarities cleared the way for what is presumably a more civilized nation.
So I thought I’d offer one of the kind of American western paintings that inspired a lot of Ford’s imagery – in terms of landscape, character and even lighting. Frank Tenney Johnson’s Pony Express gives us a wonderful night time view of the western wilderness, with a set of mail riders departing from a very lonely looking stone outpost, the kind that’d turn up as a safe stopover for Ford’s Stagecoach passengers, or contain some creepy would-be bushwhackers like Futterman’s general store in The Searchers.
Johnson was mostly known for works like this, where he painted cowboys by moonlight. He gives us a wonderful cloudy moonlit sky against the weak competition of the glowing lamps from inside the outpost. I love the reflection of moonlight off the body of the big brown and white horse in the lead, too.
WHADDYA WANT ME TO DO, SPELL IT OUT FOR YA? DRAW YA A PICTURE? DON’T EVER ASK ME ABOUT IT AGAIN!