Last Update 6/25/14

The Gentle Desperado by Max Brand, Warner, 1986 (originally published in 1927)  

This is a fix up of three separate stories about the same character. A young man who grew up on tales of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill hones his riding and gunfighting skills and sets off to make a new life for himself in the West. He is so naïve that the bad guys underestimate him and against all expectations he captures a notorious cattle rustler. Soon thereafter he faces down a deadly killer and has some minor adventures before making a place for himself and finding a woman to love. Standard fare, a bit above average. 6/25/14

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848 

I hadn’t read this since college where I observed that Becky Sharp was the chief villain and Amelia Sedley the “good” girl. Reading it now, I have a considerably different reaction. Becky is indeed at times a miserable person, particularly to her son. On the other hand, given the restrictions placed on a brilliant young women in that time – the Napoleonic Era – she pretty much used the only weapons available to her. She was not born into money and was scorned by society until she outwitted and outmaneuvered most of her rivals. Amelia, on the other hand, while also suffering from the status quo, makes no effort to do anything about it, and frankly I was not particularly sympathetic to her by the time the story ends. Thackeray was, of course, making fun of his own society of the 1840s. Nor are the male characters much better off, compelled to live just as empty – and sometimes far more dangerous – lives as the females. This often has the feel of a modern novel – it is full of self referential passages and comments directed to the reader – although like most novels of its era, it has a large cast of characters and covers more than a decade.  Not a one day reading experience – I took a break around midway and read something else – but very close to my favorite Victorian novel. 6/23/14

Smiling Charlie by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1927)   

Smiling Charlie is a handsome outlaw who charms the women and outsmarts the men trying to track him down. His story is narrated by a deputy who resigns his job to work for the local cattle baron. The rancher suspects that his daughter’s fiancé has a shady past and hires Charlie to help him solve the problem, in return for which he will intercede to get his past crimes forgiven. There’s a big horse race halfway through, some romantic entanglements with an unusual outcome, lots and lots of talking, and a climax involving a gunfight. Okay, but nothing special. 6/13/14

Thunder Moon by Max Brand, Pocket, 1971 (originally published in 1927)  

First in a series about a white man raised by Cheyennes. He is the adopted son of a malformed but noble warrior who cannot find a woman to love and he is raised believing himself to be a Cheyenne, although he has a “sensitiveness of soul” not found among them, according to the author. Despite his efforts, he never quite fits in with the others his age. He is eventually disgraced because he cries out during a painful ritual – which Brand probably invented. He goes off on his own, interacts with white men, and eventually proves himself in a battle with rival Comanches, after which he is once again an honored member of the tribe. Minor but entertaining. 6/6/14

The Poe Papers by N.L. Zaroulis, Jove, 1977   

In 1895, the quite unsavory narrator of this story seeks to discover a trove of Edgar Allen Poe’s letters supposedly held by a Mrs. Richmond, who has refused all other requests to make them public. He is intercepted by the woman’s daughter who refuses to allow him to even speak to Mrs. Richmond. At first dismayed, he decides to engage in a more indirect plan. Eventually he ingratiates himself into their lives and is even allowed to take a room in their house. Intrigue and insanity follow. I had originally thought this involved the supernatural but there is no such element in it. The rapid deterioration of the protagonist is not unexpected, and he’s such a miserable person that I welcomed it. 6/1/14

The Mustang Herder by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 (originally published in 1925)

Horses are once again a major focus in this novel about a tough man from New York who travels to the West to make a life for himself. There he gets a job conveying horses through some deserted country that turns out not to be sufficiently deserted. There are rustlers and other dangers there and if he is to survive, let alone succeed, he’ll have to call upon all of his toughness and intelligence. A fairly early novel, rather uneven, with some sections that are quite well written and others that seem more like filler or the draft of a more detailed series of events. 5/27/14

The Guns of Dorking Hollow by Max Brand, Berkley, 1989 (originally published in 1927)   

Brand tried something a little different for this western. For one thing, there’s no clear protagonist. Dorking Hollow is a mining camp whose residents are frustrated because whenever they ship ore out to their markets, gangs of outlaws almost always intercept them. When they capture one of the more prominent leaders, he agrees to work for them hunting down his fellows after recruiting a few of his former comrades to help them. Although he does have a code of honor of sorts, he is brusque, reluctant to keep order, and prone to low behavior, and he’s reluctant to discipline his men. The miners begin to fear that the cure was worse than the disease. Tensions worsen as time goes on. Brand clearly admired the gunfighter despite his dubious moral standards but his readers might have entertained reservations. 5/27/14

Thunder Moon’s Challenge by Max Brand, Warner, 1984 (originally published in 1927) 

Thunder Moon Strikes by Max Brand, Warner, 1984 (originally published in 1927)  

Two more adventures of a white man brought up by the Cheyenne to become a powerful warrior. The first consists of three shorter stories collected here that chronicle the protagonist’s search for his original family and his difficulties functioning in a world to which he is unaccustomed. He succeeds finally but with mixed results. The second title consists of two novelettes about his acceptance into the Sutton family despite the animosity of others in the area who resent the fact that he led successful raids against them in the past. When his foster father is arrested, our hero is caught between two worlds, loyalty to the man who raised him and affection for the family that made a place for him. No surprises here and there’s some repetition within the five stories, but enjoyable enough if you can ignore the implied racism. Both are quite short and together equal about one relatively short novel. 5/20/14

Dust Across the Range/The Cross Band by Max Brand, Leisure, 2000 

Two short western adventures from 1937 and 1922 respectively, almost spanning Brand’s entire writing career. The first is better written and more interesting. A savvy Easterner buys a ranch in the Old West and tries to convince his neighbors to engage in more intelligent land use, despite their insistence on doing things their own way. The other is less interesting. A fight between two friends results in gunfire and one of them runs off, convinced that he has committed murder, although in fact his opponent is not seriously injured. He joins a couple of typical villains, has adventures, and eventually is redeemed. Trite. 5/15/14

Sawdust & Sixguns by Max Brand, Ace, originally published in 1927   

The protagonist of this western novel worked in a traveling circus and developed skills with both knives and guns, as well as horseback riding and martial arts. Then he falls in love with a young woman who is en route to the Old West to marry someone else, and he decides that she is the only woman he will ever love so he sets out to follow her. That brings him to Dodge City where he is almost immediately put in danger of his life and has to make use of his various skills to avoid one danger after another. His chief enemy is a famous gambler who dabbles in illegal activities. Not surprisingly, our hero overcomes every obstacle and finds true love at last. Some of the subsidiary characters threaten to steal the show in this one for a while, but then Brand returns to his usual not very varied plot and everything works out as the reader might expect. 5/5/14

Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen, 1886   

Rosmer is a pastor who lost his faith and resigned from the church, although he still is a highly respected citizen. When he argues with his brother in law over politics – he is liberal and the brother a regressive – it ignites a feud that becomes very public. At the same time, Rosmer is adjusting to the death of his wife, who went insane and killed herself, and trying to decide how he feels about her nurse, who is herself carrying a secret involving incest and subterfuge. Rosmer eventually challenges her to commit suicide and ultimately joins her in jumping into a nearby river. It’s a very downbeat ending and I didn’t find the mutual suicide pact even remotely credible. The least satisfying of Ibsen’s plays that I've read. 5/2/14

The Making of a Gunman by Max Brand, Warner, 1984 (originally published in 1926 as Western Tommy

Harry Grant needs a bodyguard so he takes on the supposedly useless son of an old friend after hearing that he killed a veteran gunman in a fair fight. The young man in question is unsure of himself, but goes on to tame a wild horse, find a girl to love, discover that he’s more competent than he realized, and defeat some bad guys. Most of it with little help from his bodyguard. A relatively dull story whose characters show early promise but it begins to falter at the halfway mark and never recovers. 5/1/14

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, 1882   

This play involves a wealthy woman, her artistically inclined son, the orphanage she is financing, and the rather regressive attitudes of a clergyman who is assisting her in the project. He declines to insure the building, for example, because that would suggest doubt about divine providence. At the same time, a local lush whose daughter works for the wealthy woman wants her to abandon her job to take care of him, which the clergyman believes to be her duty despite the man’s bad reputation. Her employer then tells the clergyman that her late husband was not the wonderful person he was reputed to be but a dissolute libertine, and she is the one who turned their money into a small fortune. The maid turns out to be the artist’s illegitimate half sister, although neither of them knows it. Eventually the truth is out, but no one benefits from it. Rather depressing and quite controversial when it was first performed.  4/29/14

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, 1882  

The tension between two brothers is at the center of this play. One is an artistic type, recently returned from exile full of optimism for the future. The other is the local mayor, who is mired immovably in the past and resents anything that hints at change. It could almost be a commentary on contemporary American politics. The artist discovers that the town’s mineral baths, which are its main tourist attraction, are actually polluted and unhealthful. The play also says something about denial of science since some of the townspeople refuse to believe the analyses that show the water is unhealthy. Predictably public opinion turns against him and he concludes that majority opinion is the greatest threat to freedom. Excellent play and very timely. Change a few details and you have a contemporary play. The more things change… 4/27/14

Outlaw Breed by Max Brand, Pocket, 1957 (originally published in 1926)   

When Phil Slader was twelve years old, he walked onto the Newell ranch and was befriended by the owner, although there was conflict with the two children. After he disappears, they learn that he is the son of a famous outlaw, now deceased. Until he ran away, Phil had been watched over by his father’s killer, Magruder, who claims it was a fair fight despite the boy’s skepticism. Magruder convinces him to come back and ten years pass in a couple of pages. His life is disrupted again when another outlaw, Lon Kirby, robs the local bank. He also encounters the Newell family again, and not surprisingly the daughter becomes his romantic interest. Once again we have the unrideable horse ridden by a compassionate man, one of Brand’s trademark situations. After various adventures, Phil sees Kirby hiding his loot. Kirby catches him but reveals that he was a friend of Phil’s father, and that he knows Magruder murdered him. What follows is predictable. He avenges his father and gets the girl. Slightly above average. 4/24/14

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen, 1892  

The title character is a successful architect with an eye for younger women, who frequently reciprocate. His secretary is secretly in love with him despite her betrothal to his draftsman. His wife is mildly estranged from him because of his frequent infidelities. A young woman from his past reappears just as events are grinding toward an explosion. She convinces him to overcome his fear of heights and climb a tower, from which he falls to his death. The builder’s sanity has been obviously questionable from the outset – he believes that he can call upon supernatural entities to affect the world in his favor and he feels guilt about some of the consequences. Although the play was largely panned when it was first performed, it remains one of his more interesting works. 4/23/14

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, 1890 

This is one of Ibsen’s two best known plays. The title character is a spoiled, snobbish woman who recently married an academic who was raised by his aunt and who recently was chosen over a rival to win an award, although the latter has now written a moderately successful book in their field of study. Another woman has just left her husband to pursue the writer’s affections. Hedda, however, is dissatisfied with her husband and also has designs on the writer. The writer is still in love with Hedda. The writer gets drunk and loses the manuscript of his new book. Hedda’s husband finds it and gives it to her, but she destroys it and – jealous of the writer – encourages him to commit suicide. She later kills herself after an acquaintance suggests that he knows about her involvement in the first death. The play has been interpreted at times with Hedda as a sympathetic character, alienated from society and seeking personal freedom, but it’s hard not to accept her as the villain of the piece, although none of the other characters are particularly admirable. 4/16/14

The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen, 1884 

This is a rather depressing play in which we are shown that revealing the truth isn’t always a good thing. A young man discovers that an old friend whose father was disgraced has married a woman who used to serve as maid in his own house. He knows that she had an affair with her father and after struggling with the issue for a while, tells his friend that his wife was not a virgin when they married. This eventually leads the friend to believe that their daughter may not be his, and the delicate balance in his rather odd family is fatally upset. The daughter, who is going deaf, finally commits suicide and the young man who initiated the string of tragedies is dismayed to discover that the truth should probably have been left concealed. Idealism sometimes is its own worst enemy. 4/12/14

Mystery Ranch by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1928)   

After a wild night on the town, John Templar finds himself in jail but his exertions result in high paying job offers from the local sheriff, a pair of saloon owners, and a local rancher. The rancher wants a bodyguard because some unknown party has made at least two attempts on his life. Although the blend of western and detective story is rather clunky and contrived, it was an attempt to vary a bit from his usual story line and Templar also varies a bit from Brand’s usual line of heroes. He’s frequently terrified and unsure of himself, although he always manages to rise to the occasion. About average Brand but with some interesting twists. 4/11/14

The Blue Jay by Max Brand, Pocket, 1978 (originally published in 1926) 

The protagonist of this moderately interesting western served two years in prison essentially for rough housing. Released, he decides to straighten out his life, although he is soon involved in a questionable business arrangement with the same man who arrested him originally. Along the way he makes friends with a young Mexican boy and becomes aware of a gang of crooks working in the area. The boy helps the man fight the bad guys, and frequently seems the more mature of the pair. Comparatively low key compared to most of Brand’s other novels, with a bit more effort at characterization though it’s still pretty sketchy. 4/7/14

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, 1879 

I hadn’t read this in many years and had only a vague recollection. It’s about an irritatingly domineering husband and his pliant but quietly rebellious wife. He is unaware of the fact that she has secretly been saving money to pay off a loan she took out to give him a vacation, claiming that the money had come from an inheritance. He thinks she’s a spendthrift and an airhead but she has actually been paying the loan back. Unfortunately, the man who holds her note knows that she forged the co-signer’s name and he wants her to intervene with her husband, who is about to fire her. Ibsen was ahead of his time in disparaging the arrangement by which wives were simply transferred from their father’s care to that of their husband, pampered in an insulting way that stifles their own personal development. This is probably his best known play, and for good reason. 4/5/14

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving, Andor, 1976   

This is a collection of short stories by the first American to support himself as a writer. The title story should need no introduction, and it holds up remarkably well despite its age. So too does Irving’s other classic, “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man kidnapped by fairies. “The Specter Bridgegroom” seems to be a traditional ghost story, but is rationalized at the end. Most of the remaining stories are anecdotal, slow moving, and overly narrated. “The Adventure of the German Student” is the only real horror story. A young man finds a woman wandering the streets of Paris and only discovers the following day that she had been guillotined shortly before he encountered her. “The Devil and Tom Walker” is a rather routine deal with the devil story. Irving's better stories are deservedly classics but his minor stuff is exactly that. 4/3/14

Blue-Eyed Devil by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2010 

The last of the Virgil Cole western novels has our two heroes back in Appaloosa, where a crooked sheriff with unrealistic ambitions wants them out of town because he sees them as rivals for power. When the sheriff finds himself opposed by an influential rancher – whose son Cole killed in a gunfight – it’s not clear who’s on which side for a while and the introduction of a band of Apache raiders upsets the balance of power even further. Parker finished off the subplot about the traumatized teenager in this one, but Cole’s relationship to the woman he loves is as uncertain as ever – but none of Parker’s heroes have a settled romantic life. Pretty good but I wasn’t unhappy to see the last of Cole and Hitch. 4/2/14

The White Wolf by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1926)   

Dogs, generally with wolflike characteristics, figure frequently in Max Brand’s western. This short novel, though packaged as a western, brings the dog to the forefront and is told primarily from its viewpoint. Although tamed by a human, it returns to the wild for a series of adventures with other dogs and wolves. I’ve never been particularly fond of animal stories, even the best of them, and this isn’t one of the best. It’s not really a western either. Something of a departure for the author, but not in a productive direction. 3/28/14

Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters & Seymour, An Introduction by J.D. Salinger, Bantam, 1963   

Two long stories about the Glass family, the last book Salinger published before becoming a recluse. The first is narrated by Seymour’s brother, who shows up for his wedding only to find that Seymour has jilted the bride. In the aftermath, he is caught up with the maid of honor and other friends of the bride in a decidedly unpleasant but interesting interlude. The second is a rather rambling examination of some aspects of Seymour’s personality and history, but I’ve never cared for it as much as the rest of Salinger’s work and my opinion remains unaltered with a third reading. Rumor has it that there will be new books by Salinger published by his estate starting next year. I am very curious to see what they might be like. 3/27/14

Brimstone by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2009   

Third in the Virgil Cole series. He and his friend Everett and his troubled girlfriend Allie stop in the small town of Brimstone, which is the battleground between a militant and unbalanced pastor and a saloon owner with a private army of outlaws. About the same time, a mysterious Indian begins killing people from ambush and leaving a cryptic arrow behind. It’s obvious almost immediately where the conflicts are going to become violent and sure enough, more than twenty people will die violent deaths before the book is over. Most of the tropes of Parker’s contemporary work can be found here – the young woman who needs protecting, the noble gunman who puts honor above money, etc. – though some are subtly altered to fit the circumstances. This is a fairly short adventure but there’s never a dull moment. 3/26/14

The Border Bandit by Max Brand, Ace, 1982 (originally published in 1926)  

A tale of riches to rags and back. Oliver Tay is an effete Easterner who travels to the remote southwest to claim an inheritance. Almost immediately he is kidnapped by a Comanche slave trader who sells him to the owners of a silver mine. There he survives against the odds and predictably becomes a two fisted fighter who eventually escapes accompanied by a local bandit leader. Although he does not want to be a bandit, he stays among a group of them long enough to observe their techniques and learn how to use a revolver. Eventually he is drawn to help his comrades, although their prey at the time is as bad or worse than the outlaws. Back in civilization, he discovers that he was believed to be dead and that a fortune hunter married his mother to get his hands on the inheritance. He also runs into trouble with the slave dealer again, and naturally begins a mild romance with a local girl. Conflict with the Comanches heats up but the fortune hunter convinces the local authorities that Oliver is provoking them. This is one of Brand’s better novels although it goes on for a bit too long before all the bad guys – and there are several of them – get their just desserts. 3/20/14

Resolution by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2008   

This is the second Hitch and Cole western. Hitch takes a job as bouncer at a saloon and finds himself in the middle of a three way battle between two ambitious and ruthless men and a group of desperate ranchers. Cole shows up to visit after his wife runs away and decides to stay until things resolve themselves.  Halfway through, one of the rivals gets killed, but other matters complicate things including an abusive husband, their employer’s acquisitive impulses, and the town’s need for a source of law and order. Gunplay follows, lots of people get shot, and it feels like a Spenser novel in disguise. Not bad though.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, Bantam, 1964   

I was quite impressed with this when I read it during the 1960s and was curious to see if I would like it as much now. “Franny” is a short story about the title character who goes to spend a weekend with her college boyfriend but who has been going through a phase where she thinks everything is phony and artificial and meaningless, and she can’t stop making sarcastic or derogatory remarks. The boyfriend, Lane, is no prize – a conceited, intolerant snob whose personality is designed to aggravate her and cause further conflict. Ultimately she faints and it is clear that she is undergoing stressful religious and philosophic doubts. The longer piece takes place a few days later. Franny is home, undergoing an emotional crisis, and her mother prevails upon her brother to talk to her about it. Their argument is so abstract and self important that it shouldn’t be gripping, but somehow it is.  Although I suspect that it made such a deep impression on me when I read it during my college years, when most of us are likely to have somewhat similar doubts about the meaning of it all, it caught me up again, if not quite so firmly. 3/7/14

Single Jack by Max Brand, Pocket, 1953 (originally published in 1926) 

This is one of Brand’s best westerns, even though it re-uses some of his familiar themes, like the wolf-dog bonded to the hero. Single Jack is a young professional criminal who relocates to the Old West where he is befriended by the Apperley brothers. One Apperley is a prominent rancher who is engaged in a feud with a local man who controls much of the town and who heads a gang of rustlers. The younger brother is a tenderfoot lawyer who blithely decides to beard the bad guy in his own lair by sending his minions to prison – a sequence of questionable logic since the other bad guys make up the jury and the judge.  Eventually he gets shot and Jack goes after the killers, gets them, gets arrested, gets acquitted, gets the girl. Predictable but fun and better written than most of his other  stories from this period. 3/2/14

Trouble Trail by Max Brand, Warner, 1974 (aka Desert Showdown, originally published in 1926) 

Dickon was left to die in the desert, but he was too stubborn and survived. He also has a price on his head and a persistent sheriff on his trail. He’s not a bad sort however and he meets and falls in love with a nice girl. Eventually he clears his name by capturing the real bad guy, but only after a good deal of wandering around aimlessly. Brand was being paid by the word and many of his novels show clear signs of padding. His figures are not as much larger than life as they were in his first few books, which suggests he was no longer trying to do anything ambitious. The result is inoffensive, but bland, and much lighter weight than he was capable of producing.  2/24/14

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, Bantam, 1964 (originally published in 1953)   

Another book I read in college, and am re-reading in anticipation of the new Salinger material supposedly coming soon. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a portrait of a man apparently shell shocked during World War II who finally commits suicide. Two former college roommates reveal their unhappy lives to one another in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”  A high school girl finds herself sympathizing with a classmate she didn’t care for after being exposed to her brother and his friend in “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”.  “The Laughing Man” is one of my favorite stories. A group of young boys are present when their adult friend has a disastrous breakup with his girlfriend and it is reflected in an episodic story he has been telling them. A young boy has a confrontation with racism in “Down at the Dinghy,” my least favorite in the collection. ‘For Esme – with Love and Squalor” also deals with a man stunned by his experiences during the war. There’s an unfaithful wife in “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” recounts a young artist’s correspondence with a talented nun. The final story, “Teddy,” is arguably SF as a prodigy predicts his own death. The bare descriptions here don’t begin to convey the quality and texture of the book, which is among my favorites. 2/16/14

On the Trail of Four by Max Brand, Pocket, 1975 (originally published in 1925) 

Hugo Ames, one of Brand’s honorable outlaws, finds a man dying of gunshot wounds in his remote cabin. Before he can learn more, the wounded man is killed from ambush, but Ames decides to track down the four men responsible. In short order there is a confrontation and he kills one of the men and wounds a second, but the other two escape. He learns that they were hired so he decides to go after whoever paid them instead, which involves an elaborate impersonation. Despite the somewhat muddied motives in all this, the first half of the book is quite good, but once he reaches his goal the story meanders and wallows and I barely made it to the end. 2/10/14

The White Cheyenne by Max Brand, Warner, 1979 (originally published in 1926)   

In a break from his usual pattern, Brand tells this story in the first person. The protagonist is a member of a well established Charleston family, of which he is almost foredoomed to be the black sheep. After killing a man in a duel, Terry Rivers moves progressively westward to escape the law. Eventually he reaches a lawless town where he hears of Lost Wolf, a white man who rides with the Cheyenne and who strikes terror into even the most hardened gunslinger. Naturally our hero falls in love with the first young girl he meets, daughter of the local minister. Predictably he also meets Lone Wolf, they become friends, he discovers a lot about the Cheyenne and about himself, ends up with the girl. The first half is quite good but it runs out of steam along the way. 2/5/14

Donnegan by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 (originally published in 1921) 

This one is an extremely disappointing western about a tramp who has a series of adventures in the Old West, none of them particularly exciting or original. Eventually he becomes something of a gunman, develops an arch enemy, is in and out of trouble, meets a girl with whom he falls in love, nearly dies in the climax, and is given a new lease on life in the final chapter. None of this is very interesting and the prose is heavily padded throughout. It’s hard to believe that this was written about the same time as some of his best work, particularly the Dan Barry novels. I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the end. 2/3/14

The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertold Brecht, Black Cat, 1966 (originally published in 1947)   

I remembered this, correctly, as a very complicated play that actually consists of three separate though interlocking stories. First there’s a prologue in which two groups of people argue over control of a fertile valley. Then there’s a woman who carries off the son of a deposed ruler during a violent civil war, and finally there’s the story of what happens in the capital city where corruption and injustice dominate for a period of time. There’s a very large cast of characters and enough plot for a substantial novel. The prologue was often omitted in the US because the characters are sympathetic communists. The story itself is based in part upon a classic Chinese story. Brecht was never among my favorite playwrights, but this was my favorite of his plays. 2/2/14

Tales of Secret Egypt by Sax Rohmer, 1920  

This collection opens with “The Yashmak of Pearls”, an adventure story in which a British conman tries unsuccessfully to outsmart an Egyptian and steal some jewels in a rather clever little tale that reminded me of Robert E. Howard. The next five stories involve some of the same characters. “The Death Ring of Sneferu” is about a cursed ring from a pyramid, and although the deaths that follow are explained rationally, there is a genuine clairvoyant involved. An encounter with a mysterious woman almost costs our hero his life in “The Lady of the Lattice.” A clever thief almost scores a coup in “Omar of Ispahan.”  Our protagonist tries to steal the formula for a rare perfume in “Breath of Allah” and helps a friend escape a fiendish plot to force him to commit suicide in “The Whispering Mummy.” These related stories are actually quite good. The remaining stories involve other characters. “Lord of the Jackals” is a mild and not very good story about a desert dweller who can command the jackals. There’s an attempted jewel theft aboard ship in “Lure of Souls” and an adventurer seeks to loot a village in “The Secret of Ismail” and barely escapes with his life. These are the two weakest stories in the collection. “Harun Pasha” is a cute story about a man impersonating a powerful Egyptian. “In the Valley of the Sorceress” is the best in the collection, and the closest to actual fantasy. A series of problems plague an archaeological site which may be magical in origin. The final story is “Pomegranate Flower,” is a minor piece about a storyteller. 2/1/14

The Iron Trail by Max Brand, Warner, 1976 (originally published in 1926)   

Brand creates one of his brainier heroes in this pleasant short western. Eddie is a con man with scruples – although they aren’t always clear. After escaping a local sheriff, he falls into the company of two outlaws and manipulates them into killing each other so that he can take the substantial amount of money they’ve stolen, a device he used almost exactly in one of his earlier novels. Eddie piously decides to send back enough to cover the pension of the widows of the guards killed in the robbery, which is nonsensical since the money would not be used for that purpose and ignores the fact that those same widows might have had money stolen in the robbery. He ends up doing nothing because a posse arrives and decides that he killed them both and therefore must be a terrific gunfighter. Lionized, he is invited home by the bank president, who just happens to have a pretty and eligible daughter. Unfortunately, an old crony shows up and threatens to reveal all. The novel gets very talky at this point and for quite a while thereafter. Then the brother of one of the dead outlaws comes looking for vengeance and a lawman who knows his real identity isn’t far behind. Good in the early chapters, slow for far too long, and with an average ending. 1/31/14

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Bantam, 1964 (originally published in 1951)

Like everyone else in my generation, I read this in high school. Sixteen year old Holden Caulfield has just been kicked out of his fourth boarding school. Rather than go directly home for Christmas and face his parents, he decides to spend some time in New York City, renting a room and trying to pick up girls in bars. His irreverent opinions about everyone he meets were strikingly offensive at the time, at least to many adults, and the book was quite controversial. It apparently still is since in 2009 it was one of the most challenged books in schools and libraries. This is basically a story about loneliness, alienation, and teenage angst. I enjoyed this immensely the first time around and I suspect even more so this time. One of those enduring books that speaks to many generations. 1/25/14

Tenderfoot by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1924)   

This was not one of Brand’s better novels. The protagonist is a rather slow witted young man who turns out to be stronger and more powerful than anyone else he encounters, even though he never realized it and worked as a clerk. The opening chapters are in fact more than mildly preposterous and in some cases physically impossible. He interferes in a bank robbery and one of the bandits is killed, which leads him to incorrectly believe that he is a criminal, so he decides to join a gang of outlaws. Various unlikely adventures follow before he realizes the truth and his life returns to something like normal. This is possibly the weakest Brand I’ve ever read. 1/23/14

The Shadow of Silver Tip by Max Brand, Leisure, 1994 (originally published in 1922) 

The town of Silver Tip would be the setting for several Brand westerns, starting with this early one. Silver Tip is a refuge for outlaws and since most of Brand’s heroes are outlawed at some point in their lives, it’s not surprising that several of them should visit. The local sheriff is trying to bring order to the town when he learns that the Shadow is back. The Shadow is a mysterious outlaw known to have been wounded two years previously who swore revenge on the men who unsuccessfully trapped him. Tom Converse is a young man with little experience who comes to Silver Tip looking for adventure. Like many another Brand hero, he saddle breaks an unbreakable horse. The horse, as it turns out, is identical to the one ridden by the Shadow, and Converse finds himself the target of men determined to kill him on the mistaken assumption that he is the famous and dreaded killer. He realizes who the real Shadow must be but can’t convince anyone that he’s telling the truth. The Shadow also turns out to be have a good side and we see part of the story from his viewpoint. There’s a pretty girl, of course, and jail breaks, gunfights, daring escapes and chases, and most of the other tropes of the western. The plot structure resembles that of a cliffhanger serial. This was one of Brand’s more ambitious novels and despite some failings here and there, one of his best. 1/20/14

Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2005    

This was the first in Parker’s western series, and right off the bat I’m going to mention that the copyediting is awful. “Road” for “rode”, “mute” for “moot”, etc. At another point we are told there are four people in a group, but there are actually five. The story is told by Everett Hitch, who is backup for a legendary lawman named Virgil Cole. He and Cole are hired to free a town from domination by a local gang of thugs organized by a rancher who engineered the murder of their predecessor. After some initial confrontations, they arrest the rancher and for a while they keep the gang too cowed to rescue him. Their life is complicated by Cole’s infatuation with a treacherous woman.  This was pretty good although despite the setting it sometimes felt like a Spenser novel. 1/19/14

Larramee’s Ranch by Max Brand, Pocket, 1968 (originally published in 1924) 

This was quite a change of pace for Brand. His hero is a bookish young man with a bad leg, no money, and no experience with firearms. When he sets out to make his fortune, he has no real prospects but through a series of bluffs he outwits a killer, faces down a town bully, declares his intentions of marrying the most wealthy and beautiful girl in town, gets unjustly accused of committing several robberies and murders, and makes a considerable bundle of money for himself. There are the usual Brand touches as well. He befriends a dog that is at least partly wolf, and he is the only person who can ride a wild stallion. The approach is clever but the execution is not up to the story line, which seems forced and sometimes almost silly. 1/16/14

After the Fall by Arthur Miller, Bantam, 1964 

I originally read this a long time ago and didn’t remember much of it except that it was believed to be based in part on Miller’s relationship to Marilyn Monroe. It’s actually rather difficult to follow and I suspect even more so when performed, because it doesn’t lay out events chronologically and there are times when it lapses into almost surreal symbolism. The story involves an introverted intellectual’s mental anguish about the nature of his current romance. A psychological drama is particularly difficult to bring off successfully in a stage play but Miller does as good a job as anyone. Not my favorite of his work but worth re-reading. 1/14/14

The Gambler by Max Brand, Berkley, 1987 (originally published in 1924)   

Tom Corcoran is a professional gambler who plays square with honest men and cheats the cheaters. When he survives an ambush by one of the latter, he agrees to carry a message to the dying man’s son. The boy, Willie Kern, is a hellion living in a town that is virtually without law. There he is the outcast among his age group, but he’s clever and good with his fists and so far has managed to avoid getting hurt. Corcoran begins to think about settling down with the boy and his mother, but first he runs into trouble with a local gang of crooked gamblers. He also crosses path with the town’s most powerful businessman who doesn’t like competition for the land of the woman they are both courting. Corcoran is subsequently framed, escapes, and eventually proves his innocence with the aid of the wayward boy. No surprises but a good story. 1/12/14

The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Bantam, 1959 (originally published in 1952)

I hadn’t read this play, based on the Salem witch trials, since high school, where it most definitely was not taught as a parody of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which it most certainly was. Much of it is historically accurate though Miller obviously fills in the gaps from his imagination. It’s just as relevant today, but I confess that I didn’t find it as well written as my memory had it. Serves just as well as an indictment of some of our present politicians and other public figures as it did during the 1950s. 1/10/14

The Man from the Wilderness by Max Brand, Warner, 1981 (originally published in 1925 as Mountain Made 

This is something of an oddity for Brand because the hero is an overbearing, obnoxious conman who seduces women for their money and considers himself better than the rabble among whom he travels. A group of men capture him, whip him, and one mutilates his face so that he won’t be able to attract women any more. He shoots the latter – not fatally – and escapes into the wilderness where he is believed dead until he returns, determined to track down everyone who wronged him. There has been a change, though, and as the story unfolds he discovers that he isn’t as clever as he thought, and that he know values the opinions of others. The man who mutilated him is honestly contrite – which didn’t ring true – and since there’s a blind woman in the story, it’s pretty obvious that he’s going to end up with her. A bit of a change of pace, but no better than average overall. 1/7/14

The Smiling Desperado by Max Brand, Warner, 1974 (originally published in 1924)   

Dan Cadigan is an undistinguished young man who bothers no one until he is pistol whipped by a feared gunman. When warned that sooner or later the gunfighter will come after him, Cadigan decides to act pre-emptively and track him down. First he spends months training to use a gun. Satisfied, he locates his quarry, who is now head of a small gang, two of whom decide to test Cadigan themselves, and do so unsuccessfully. The usual Brand tropes follow. He tames an untamable dog/wolf, falls in love at first sight, is framed for a crime – two crimes actually – that he didn’t commit, becomes a fugitive, clears his name, and finally confronts and defeats his adversary. Slightly above average Brand. 1/3/14

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