Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Secret Places of the Northwoods

There are secret places in the Land of Sky Blue Water where I retreat when I grow tired of the rat race. These are the places once traveled by the French explorers who came to hunt and fish amongst the Chippewa and migrating pilgrims who marveled at the abundance of lakes, rivers and streams teeming with game. These are ancient temples of whispering pines and the eagle’s path; secret places of sunlit coves and smoky campfires and of smoldering sunsets that bespeak of old ghosts and lost tribes. 
At Camp McNulty I find tranquility with the constant sound of the wind in the pines, call of the wild loon and ever-changing colors. In the far distance I might hear an Evinrude cutting a line across the sparkling waters or the sound of a shotgun shattering the stillness in some distant glen, but mostly I hear the wind in the tall trees. I cannot help but to recall the line from Carl Sandburg who wrote in his poem “Wind Song” the line: “Who can ever forget listening to the wind go by counting its money and throwing it away?”
In these places the ancient explorers found secret bays where the fish were plentiful and they might camp for the night before continuing their journey bringing furs to the river men who in turn carried them for sale to the great cities. The scent of pine and birch are as refreshing as the cool bay where the water reflects the turquoise heavens.
The morning fog is a barrier for the uninitiated and where a man lacking in experience can easily become lost. At night we hunker down with books and journals to read by the glow of a dim electric lamp on those evenings when the power lines are working; or we tell stories around the campfire of years past and those friends and family no longer here save for a memory on the wind.
If I leave the camp at all it is for necessary supplies or a trip to the antique shops where I might find an old book by Troy Nesbit which in turn spark fond memories of camping trips from the past and a trail that was long and winding to bring me here again.

At sunset the treetops are touched by a golden light that changes into deep lavender and brings darkness to the wild trails. At night the forest is so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Black bears forage for berries and the wolves howl at the glittering stars. Reluctantly, we head for the cabin and hunker down for the night, content that the morning will bring another day of enjoyment in the calm bays and secret places of the northwoods.

All photography copyright © 2014 by Thomas McNulty

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Good, The Bad and the Infernal by Guy Adams

Every once in a blue moon I pick up a book by an author I haven’t read before and the result is rewarding. I was browsing the science fiction section at Barnes & Noble and happened across The Good, The Bad and the Infernal by Guy Adams. It’s a “weird western” and it’s good. It’s also the first in a trilogy called The Heaven’s Gate Trilogy. The second book is called Once Upon a Time in Hell, which I also purchased. I’m waiting on the third one. Although I had never heard of Guy Adams I had heard of the publisher, Solaris, based in England and with an American distribution system that seems to work. I mention this because certain British publishers are putting out some unique, imaginative fiction and I’d like to see more of it available here in the United States. The plot is reminiscent of Brigadoon (remember that great Gene Kelly movie?) with infusions of pulp-style horse-apples and gunpowder. According to the author’s “acknowledgment” page it also owes a great deal to the Italian spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. Okay, cool, the set-up had me hooked: Wormwood is a town that appears once every one hundred years, and this draws an assortment of oddballs intent on visiting the city. Elwyn Wallace, who narrates the tale, introduces us to a preacher named Obeisance Hicks, Soldier Joe, Henry and Harmonium Jones, Lord Forest and other demons, critters and other malcontents all on their way to Wormwood. Wallace has been hoodwinked into going along, although he’s told that going to Wormwood is really his destiny. The plot is solid and the writing is good, with enough imagery to allow you to see the weirdness in your mind’s eye as you read it. The first volume is a bit of a cliffhanger, so it’s good they advertised this as a trilogy. I enjoyed The Good, The Bad and the Infernal and I’ll follow up with reviews of the next two books as I read them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Art of Reading

This blog is about my favorites - new and old alike

The Art of Reading
(About this Blog)
Thomas McNulty
 My life as a reader began in 1963 when Lippincott introduced its new textbook. I had been struggling with words and failed to comprehend what I was looking at, but thanks to a fantastic second grade teacher and the encouragement of my mother, I was suddenly able to decipher the strange symbols I saw on the page. The key to all of this was the manner in which they encouraged me. I had expressed feeling bad when asked a question in the classroom, and being unable to answer it, I retreated into a shell of self-loathing. Both my second grade teacher and my mother told me the same thing: “You don’t have to like it or dislike it, just try to understand it.” They shared with me ways to sound out the words using phonetics and charts, and I was on my way. I mastered the art of understanding, which naturally lends itself to critical thinking. My approach to reading came down to an act of reading simply to understand what was being said in order for me to answer questions in a classroom. 

On the surface, this approach may sound dispassionate, but I think it’s vital. Reading without judging is the best approach. You can like it or dislike a story after you’ve read it, but read the book or story first all the way through with the goal of understanding it. If you understand it completely and without reservations, only then can you make a subjective decision as to whether or not you like it.
Over time I learned that in order to truthfully like or dislike something then I needed to understand it wholly. This is true for all of the creative arts. A student unfamiliar with post-war modernism in literature will struggle with The Cannibal by John Hawkes, especially if their reading has been limited and their education incomplete. A student who favors the Impressionist painters like Renoir or Monet may recoil from Jasper Johns if they don’t understand Jasper Johns.

We are living in an age of surplus information transmitted electronically and available globally. That amazing fact offers potential for the advancement of literacy, but only if the technology is applied properly and utilized by a well-meaning society. This is not idealism but fact, and the facts sadly also support the argument that civilization is in decline. The Internet has become a haven for people we collectively now refer to as Haters. The evidence of this dysfunctional and abrasive sub-set of society is visible on FaceBook, blogs, websites and, yes, even in Amazon.com book reviews. 

We have become a society where we post our prejudices, discontentment and neurosis on FaceBook on a daily basis. Complex and serious topics such as politics, economics, religion, gun control and sexuality are reduced to declarative and often abusive comments. We appear content to promote a knee-jerk reaction to media reports, particularly regarding celebrities, and we no longer care about getting all of the facts. Hatred has become chic on the Internet. 
Ultimately, reading is easy. Jumping to conclusions is easy. Nitpicking is easy. But thinking, and truly making an effort to understand something requires effort. It falls into that dreaded category of “Work” and work is anathema to a society that promotes pharmaceutical ingestion as a means to maintain your erection. Promoting exercise and a proper diet are foreign concepts to Abbot Labs or any other Drug Company who pay millions for their daily commercial advertisements on Television. Their attitude is: if you’re sad, take a pill. If you’re not feeling sexy, take a pill. If you feel dumb, take a pill. George Orwell’s spirit may be lamenting that Big Brother is all too real in the world of 2014 where opinions are formed solely on the basis of spoon-fed portions of data designed to prevent the proletariat from thinking.

Another key element in my development as a reader occurred when I was encouraged to read anything I could get my hands on, and my mother specifically told me “Ask questions if you don’t understand something, or look up the words in the dictionary.” For me, anything meant everything, and so I picked up whatever books I wanted and read them. My parents bought me a dictionary. I consulted it often. There were always books lying around the house. My grandmother favored saucy romance novels which turned out to be an education in itself, and my father liked Mickey Spillane and Popular Mechanics magazine. We had a subscription to Life magazine, too. I loved The Hardy Boys and Brains Benton, and Tom Swift. By the age of ten I had read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and a few Mickey Spillane books. Paperbacks were readily available whenever I wanted one. Of course there were plenty of comic books around. My favorites were Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Before the Sixties ended I was into Captain America, Dare-Devil and Iron Man, all of Marvel’s classic heroes. 
By no means was I a child prodigy, although my reading habits surpassed most of the kids in the neighborhood. I struggled in school for other reasons, but the books had become a fixture in my life. Literature touches people in a special way, just as music does, and I reveled in the adventures of science fiction, fantasy, westerns, romance, espionage, and even non-fiction. Since the mid-70s I have read one book per week, sometimes two. I stockpile books and I always have a stack to pull from. 

This active and willing involvement in reading doesn’t make me better than those that don’t read, or those that read less than I do. It doesn’t make me a genius and it doesn’t make me an expert on anything. What it has done is add quality to a lifestyle that involves using my mind as often as I use my muscles. It also makes me a minority when it comes to assessing a book. I dislike very little of what I read, primarily due the aforementioned habit of reading to comprehend it first. Often, it’s best to simply read and understand a book as “it is what it is.”
Of course there are many books and authors that I don’t enjoy. The difference being that I am unwilling to waste my time ranting about things I don’t like because I find life rewarding and fun, and there are more things to enjoy, and I prefer to concentrate on the good things. But as an example, it is fashionable to judge authors based upon their politics or religious beliefs, as we all saw happen recently with a certain popular author whose stated opinion on homosexuality made the media outlets happy because it provided them a ratings bonanza every time someone clicked on the headline, which went viral on the Internet. That author is entitled to express his opinion in a free society without being harassed for it. Disagreeing on something is no excuse to promote hatred. I am a minority because I am attempting to refuse participation into this constant negative whining that occurs on the Internet.
Note that I used the word attempting. Readers of this blog are aware that I have publicly criticized David Bret and the late Charles Higham for their spurious books about Errol Flynn. My intention is that such criticisms are the exception rather than the rule. We all have the right to our opinion and we should indeed feel free to express ourselves when it’s appropriate to do so, but having the right of free speech is no excuse for bad manners through public displays of imbecility. 

The words critic and criticize derive from critique which is a manner of evaluation through presumably intelligent discussion. The Internet is full of self-proclaimed experts on every topic imaginable, many of whom thrive on promoting their prejudices under the guise of criticism. I suspect that most negative reviews are written by people with an agenda. Often it’s because they are jealous or hold a grudge against the author, or perhaps they are what they appear – miserable people without lives who take pleasure in saying nasty things about successful people. This holds true for mainstream reviewers as well as the usual assortment of chimpanzees who so gleefully post their hate filled reviews on Amazon.com. 

My experiences in life have taught me that one good book can change someone’s life for the better. I say that because it happened to me, and I have spoken to people who tell me they have experienced the same thing. The authors of these books are widely different, representing a cross-cultural community. If writing is an art form, then so too is reading because we are participating in an intellectually creative action.  
The first author I met was Marguerite Henry, author of Misty of Chincoteague and Brighty of the Grand Canyon. She was appearing at a local theatre to help promote the film version of Brighty of the Grand Canyon. So that would be the summer of 1967. She had a table of books to sell and I was short the cash. I never got an autographed copy, but I remember she was kind and loved talking about horses. She looked like she could be anyone’s mother or sister. 
Over the years I have met many authors and collected many books. I have met famous authors and unknown authors and I have read great books and not so great books. The key here is that I also enjoyed reading the not so great books. I formulated my own opinions on what I liked, and once I understood it I began picking favorites. This blog is about my favorites, new and old alike. Thank you for joining me in this literary journey. Most of the public (and private) comments I receive regarding this blog are positive. Comments are welcome at: taekwonmcnulty@yahoo.com or under each topic.
            Meanwhile, there’s an amazing world out there waiting for you.
            Feed your brain.

Copyright ©2014 by Thomas McNulty

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Terror in the House by Henry Kuttner

Sub-titled The Early Kuttner, Volume One, Haffner Press has produced a book that I understand is already out of print. I’m not surprised. Haffner Press books are all collector’s items. Terror in the House reprints Henry Kuttner’s early stories, from 1936 to 1939. I can’t imagine what volume two will be like, but you can bet I’ll buy it. This beautiful hardcover sold for $40, a steep price in these challenging economic times. I paid it because this is Henry Kuttner, after all. Over forty stories are collected here, including the legendary “The Graveyard Rats” from the March, 1936 edition of Weird Tales magazine. Each story in this collection are gems of moody, gothic horror. And for once the stories are as good as the titles: “Bamboo Death,” “It Walks by Night,” “Coffins for Six,” “The Dweller in the Tomb,” “My Name is Death,” and “The Bells of Horror” and all the rest are pure pulp fiction. Kuttner’s stories are seething with creepiness. Think of them as being the pulp version of a 1930s Universal Pictures horror film – slithering fog, screams in the night, a grinning skull, the stark silhouettes of rain-swept trees, or the cobwebbed archway of a haunted castle. Sure, it’s cornball and contrived Halloween stuff, but that’s why we read them. You’ll pick your favorites here, and the stories I mentioned are my favorites although I enjoyed them all. Many of these stories are among the finest horror stories written in the last century. Haffner Press has already published other Henry Kuttner volumes, and these are his collaborations with his wife, C. L. Moore. I’m eagerly awaiting volume two of the early Kuttner. Terror in the House makes for a perfect introduction to Kuttner’s work, and although this 2010 edition is out of print, copies are available on Amazon and ebay. Henry Kuttner – and this book – deserve a wide audience.