Thursday, March 24, 2011

Red Hot Ice by Frank Kane

And now back to our regularly scheduled paperback addiction…

This weeks pulp gem from my bookcase is Red Hot Ice by Frank Kane. Published in 1955 by Dell, this “Johnny Liddell Mystery” had a great tag line: “She was an alcoholic blond with a load of hot diamonds – a set-up for murder on the rocks.” The back-cover copy is equally smooth: “It started when he was hired as a baby-sitter to a wildcat, and stacked better than a deck of marked cards. And she had a cool $200,000 worth of hot diamonds. There was just one hitch. She used bourbon instead of perfume.”

The writing is fairly straight-forward and a little less hardboiled than it might have been. Liddell seems clearly modeled after both Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. This was grind house writing for the paperback racks that were once a fixture in retail establishments across the country. With books like this you get lines like: “Her legs were long, sensuously shaped. Full, rounded thighs swelled into high-set hips, converged into a narrow waist. Her breasts were firm and full, their pink tips straining upward.” (p.27)


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Comes the River

Comes the River
By Thomas McNulty

“The prairie river possesses a nice piece of the summer sky.
It has always been that way.”
            - Dave Etter, “The Prairie River” from Crabtree’s Woman, 1972

It whispers under the old stars like a spurned lover. It whispers and moans and slithers like an undulating snake across the land where the Potawatomi and Fox Indian tribes once roamed. Ghosts now, all ghosts, and they too whisper under the splash of starlight, restless in their forgotten graves, a whisper of dust that gives back their names to the ceaseless and uncaring night.

The Fox River begins its two hundred mile long journey near Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin and stretches down across the prairies and between the sandstone bluffs past Waukesha, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake; an eighty mile flexing stretch that spits green foam against the sandy embankments, its bottom curdling with industrial waste. Congealed chemicals, mist of poison, spray of plastic residue, the river cradles them all and becomes them, a seething and powerful force that sweeps along toward a destiny that we cannot possibly imagine.

The Fox River impregnates Illinois near the Chain O’Lakes. The lakes tolerate its presence, and the river flows onward. This then is the greater Fox Valley area and some estimates record that a million people live along the river. This is a convenient Census Bureau lie. Closer to two million people live near the Fox River. This is the Heartland, the Midwest, the land that Carl Sandburg celebrated. And these are the towns that thrive and suffer and confound themselves along the Fox River: Johnsburg, McHenry, Holiday Hills, Island Lake, Cary, Fox River Grove, Algonquin, Carpentersville, East and West Dundee, Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, Aurora, Montgomery, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, Millington, Sheridan, and Ottawa. Blue collar towns that tolerate the white collar snobs with the same indifference the lakes impose upon the river. 

From my secluded den in Crystal Lake I am but ten minutes from the Fox River, but perched on the prairie that rises above the valley and rambles east toward Leaf River and Galena. I grew up near the Fox River and I know its whisper, the taste of its metallic waters, its murky green body and its sluggish crawl under the bridge in Dundee. The fisherman cast their lines here for northern Pike, largemouth bass, catfish, and sunfish. Although environmentalists claim the Fox River today is cleaner than its been in thirty years I would not eat the fish from this river. For an environmentalist is only a fool that has been conned by the Big Boss politicos. The most dangerous people in this country are those starched shirts who carry clipboards and espouse an agenda.

At twilight the river people sit on their porches drinking beer and smoking their pipes. The sycamore trees toss long shadows in the fading light and the sound of a fish splashing after insects echoes across the summer lawns. The river pays no heed, a sluggish brute after a long journey, crawling toward the next bridge, the next bend, the next blue shadowed fork where the river people watch tirelessly, the old men dreaming of taffy apples and farm girls backstroking nude in the sunlight of their long remembered youth.

Paint the river as a metaphor; a song of the river; the river’s poem, the river’s soul. How often do you cross a river and ignore it?

On those long and lazy Saturday afternoons the summer children chase frogs splashing along the riverbank. In the distance the sound of a freight train whistle causes the crows to flap their wings and take flight cawing over the rippling green current. Poets come here to watch the water and muse on their next stanza. Lovers walk along the dandelion path and snap photographs of the ducks near the footbridge. The sunsets at the river are keepsakes, a benediction painted in shades as delicate as a lullaby.

This river carries our dreams, as do all rivers, and our dreams are harbored in the towns and cities that built themselves near the river in the hope of realizing their Manifest Destiny. The river’s whisper is an elegy for the lost American Dream, an ode for the future that still might be, a whimpering cry at the injustice of our plight. Sometimes, when the light is just right, there is something about the river that inspires us. And standing on the riverbank we pause a moment letting our mind drift along the current, entranced by the endless rhythm, and we might feel uplifted by the prospect of a bright and shining life after all. The old Victorian homes that face the river seem to shift on their foundations, curious, chancing a peek at the river as it passes endlessly and forever into the future.

“The river of your life flowed from a more distant source than you suspected. It rises still, a devious flood between green banks of summer. It is there forever, tracing a prophecy across the earth.”
            - Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County

FOX RIVER PHOTOS: (from the top scrolling down) from the footbridge off Water Street, East Dundee; thicket near the Algonquin overpass; off Water Street and across near the Route 72 bridge, March 19, 2011.

Friday, March 18, 2011

New Camera Moon Shots

I'm experimenting with my new camera - a Canon Power Shot SX30IS, 14.1 Mega Pixels.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy Saint Patrick's Day Tommy

In memorium Thomas Sullivan, 1959 - 2002
I had a pint for you tonight Tommy, just because.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ruminations From McHenry County # 2

“… that endless middle-class cycle of choices that are no choices at all.”
- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice, p. 38.

Begin with light. The way the light turns the cold, barren fields into a jumbled pallet of color. The remaining patches of snow seem like visual anomalies against the rich browns and frosted gold of the withered cornstalks the plow had failed to harvest. And since it is March again you might celebrate this coming spring with a pint of Guinness in honor of the dead.

Here in McHenry County rising taxes and decreasing property values have come to epitomize the legislative corruption that has earned Illinois a place among the top ten politically corrupt states in the Union. GOING OUT OF BUSINESS signs are commonplace. Of course, a populace of apathetic voters who have failed to connect-the-dots have resulted in both political parties the continued ability to wallow in greed. 

I drove from Crystal Lake to Elgin noting the empty storefronts and the look of disillusionment on the faces of all those I passed. I don’t recall seeing one smiling face at this, the hour of the Sunday bells. Long forgotten are the pioneers that forged this nation with an idea of Manifest Destiny, and hard work. We are part of the land we inhabit and it works its magic on us, too, and its influence is just as easily spread as that of the critic who has reached a large and willing audience. Cold is the weather, scorn in your brow, despair in your eyes, the grave is your destiny.

This is March in Illinois: brutal and unrelenting, stiff as a corpse, as shame-faced as a Catholic priest in a brothel. I would enjoy a populace movement similar to that we have seen in Wisconsin where the peaceful demonstrators are loudly and passionately telling the elected officials – No, this is not why we elected you. We have had enough! This we have seen in Egypt and in Libya, with varying results; the point is never to relent to a damaged and corrupt political mechanism and acts of civil disobedience are, quite frankly, the foundation of this country.

But from this land came an ideology that should never be surrendered to the false prophets of gloom. This land and its people – eternal, struggling against the odds and making headway – this is, I believe, the dream that still flourishes. Its flame has not been extinguished. If nature is uncaring then we shall conquer our fears and forge a new tomorrow; and our children’s children will reap that harvest. The elements of naturalism, uncaring though they may be, are not without its bounty. 

This is March in Illinois: a step away from something else, at the brink of the shadow’s edge and waiting for the sun. With spring will rise the next generation, this year’s model, and we’ll wait patiently, biding our time, the eager literati amongst the archives of forbidden knowledge.

I speak of new cities and new people
I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.
I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,
            a sun dropped in the west.
I tell you there is nothing in the world
            only an ocean of tomorrows.
            a sky of tomorrows.
I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say
            at sundown:
                        Tomorrow is a day.

- Carl Sandburg, Cornhuskers

PHOTOS: A frozen Crystal Lake looking west from the main beach; The Frontier Family bronze sculpture by Trygve Rovelstad, Elgin riverfront; building on Spring Street in Elgin; Grove Street in Elgin – empty storefronts.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Three Paperback Gems from the 70s

This weekend I picked three old paperbacks from my bookshelf to highlight.

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria by Lin Carter – This 1976 paperback was the first Thongor novel. Clearly meant to evoke Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Carter’s Thongor was a sword and sorcery hero that would have been right at home in the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. Carter was an excellent writer and this short but exciting adventure was one of my favorites from the Swinging Seventies. Other Thongor novels included Thongor and the Dragon City and Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus.

Death’s Deputy by L. Ron Hubbard – This 1970 paperback was a reprint of Hubbard’s classic 1940 pulp story, and it’s one of his best. A cross-genre air adventure and fantasy tale, this beautifully written and heartfelt novel tells the story of flight lieutenant Clayton McLean who continues to survive where others might perish. He’s a man that wants to die but knows that he can’t. It’s a timeless morality tale from the Master Storyteller’s typewriter.

The Deep Range by Arthur C. Clarke – This early 70s reprint of Clarke’s 1957 novel is one of his best but sadly forgotten today. This is hardcore science-adventure, literate and compelling and perhaps just a tad implausible. But who cares. Clarke was so good with this type of novel that if you can find a copy you’ll be swept along with the action. Deep sea adventures couldn’t get any better than this.

All three of these books are currently out of print although I believe Galaxy Press intends on reprinting Death’s Deputy in a few years. If you are looking for some retro adventure these three classics will surely satisfy your appetite for adventure.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Alan Sillitoe: Post War Disillusionment, Beat, Angry and the Retro-Bohemian Nostalgia

I have a friend who believes – and not without justification – that after the final bomb falls and what we know of civilization is reduced to a heap of glowing rubble, what survivors may crawl across this battered earth will seek not only food and shelter but the comfort of books.

This presents an intriguing image: Man, alone and bestial, reduced to scavenging to survive, will seek books for wisdom, enlightenment and perhaps entertainment. But ultimately those survivors will be seeking answers to questions they may be unable to articulate. The decline of western civilization is fodder for doomsday prophets, crackpots, zealots, and emotional malcontents. The pessimistic view popularized in Cormac McCarthy’s nightmarish The Road stands in uniform alignment to the lessons of history which literature has recorded for humanity’s benefit. This brings us to Alan Sillitoe whose 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has stood the test of time.

Hailed as a product of the “Angry Young Men” movement in British literature (a phrase that Sillitoe scorned) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was ostensibly a novel about a working class rogue named Arthur Seaton. Of course it was much more than that. It is a character study, a piece of social commentary, a slice of modern British history, all in addition to being a rousing good semi-comic-tragic yarn. At the time of its publication the much vaunted “Beat Generation” was underway here in the United States and these literary movements were a product of the post-war alienation and discontentment felt by working class people in both countries.

The Beats, with Alan Ginsberg (whom I met once and immediately despised) and Jack Kerouac, struck a chord with disaffected youth who capitalized upon the Bohemian culture they experienced through the works of Henry Miller whose previously banned books were finding a new audience with the Grove Press editions in the late 1950s. Miller’s influence, and that of George Orwell, combined with the Beats to help create a new wave of literature that would continually metamorphose and adapt throughout the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. A detailed discussion of these elements can be tabled for another day, but suffice it to say Sillitoe’s work also struck a cord. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was his first book.

“Ay, by god, it’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clocks to bits.”
            - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, p. 220.

Arthur Seaton’s destiny has been fashioned by the world that pushes him in a direction he finds unacceptable. “Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, dragged up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter.” (p.239)

Arthur Seaton’s anger jumps from the page. Sillitoe was one of several writers who documented the post-war disillusionment that spread throughout British and American culture. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has resonance today, perhaps its bite is even sharper now that we’ve seen this endless cycle in world politics where the masses are beaten down, but the Arthur Seaton’s of the world refuse to give up. Seaton is not a likeable character, but he is a sympathetic character. Reading the book again after many years I couldn’t help but wonder of the millions of Arthur Seaton’s today, and what novelists of the future live among them, surviving against the odds to one day perhaps write a book as meaningful as Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Photos: 1958 Signet paperback and 2010 edition from Vintage International

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

John Grant, Jr., The Iron Brigade and the Battle of South Mountain

My great, great, great grandfather John Grant, Jr. was born March 3, 1841 and died on June 10, 1912. He was a member of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry, a unit in the legendary “Iron Brigade.” He was wounded in the leg at the battle of South Mountain on September 14th 1862. The wound resulted in his leg being amputated. He was discharged on April 2nd 1863.

His brother Charles was a member of the 50th Wisconsin Infantry. His brother Robert was a member of the 13th Wisconsin Infantry.

These sparse facts have been pieced together by several family members who at various times had tracked and documented their genealogy. As John Grant, Jr. was my grandmother Mary’s grandfather I recall her talking about him many times. The family legend has it that Abraham Lincoln visited Grant in the military hospital and presented him with a daguerreotype as a gift. I saw this daguerreotype many years ago at a family reunion and its present whereabouts are unknown. Although a daguerreotype of President Lincoln was clearly passed on from generation to generation, I have not been able to verify that Lincoln visited the wounded from the 7th Wisconsin Infantry after the Maryland Campaign. After Lincoln’s death daguerreotype’s were widely distributed and cherished as mementos of the Great Emancipator and it’s possible it came into Grant’s possession years after the war. History is elusive, and legends grow in the telling. Anything is possible.

Grant’s leg (or possibly his foot) was wounded at Turner’s Gap near South Mountain. The wound was so severe that his leg was amputated. Amputations were common for severe wounds but quite often the surgery resulted in death from blood loss. Grant was indeed fortunate to have survived both Turner’s Gap and his leg wound.

The photograph shown here depicts a peg-legged Grant with his wife Mary Ward some years later. The second photograph is Grant’s obituary from a 1912 Wonewoc, Wisconsin newspaper.

Grant’s unit, The Iron Brigade, was also known as “The Black Hat Brigade.” Members of the Iron Brigade distinguished themselves at Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg,, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The battle at South Mountain where Grant lost his leg was a bloody precursor to the battles that followed.

Anyone with additional information regarding the 7th Wisconsin Infantry’s activities at Turner’s Gap, or clarification on the Abraham Lincoln military hospital visit are encouraged to contact me via email: Please note that if the words "Please" and "Thank you" are not in your vocabulary, or if you are rude, your email will be marked as spam.

Incidentally, John Grant, Jr. was not directly related to Ulysses S. Grant.