Saturday, August 30, 2014

African Game Trails by Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails is a wonder to behold. Originally published in 1910, this massive book recounts the eleven months Roosevelt spent hunting in Africa (from April, 1909 until March, 1910) and reads like a cross between a pulp fiction adventure and a scientific encyclopedia. My interest and continued fascination with this book stems from my appreciation for great sportsmen and great writing, both of which are embodied by Roosevelt’s extraordinary life. In these ultra-sensitive times, with special interest groups condemning and vilifying both hunters and firearm owners, Roosevelt certainly appears as a monster. This is unfortunate, because Roosevelt was among the last of the great adventurers, and I am stating this emphatically without owning a political agenda. On the other hand, Roosevelt’s popularity is at an all-time high with both political parties embracing whatever tenuous connection they can exploit to our country’s 26th President. Roosevelt is fascinating and compelling; but still quite human and possessing the flaws of any man. Placing him on a pedestal is something I won’t do, nor will I whitewash him. In fact, his views on race relations are disappointing. Still, Roosevelt commands my attention. He was an avid reader and a skilled writer. His accomplishments in creating the National Park Service are well documented. His visage graces Mount Rushmore as it should, alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Writing his introduction to African Game Trails in Khartoum on March 15, 1910, Roosevelt set the tone for this extraordinary adventure: “But there are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm. There is delight in the hardy life of the open, in long rides rifle in hand, in the thrill of the fight with dangerous game. Apart from this, yet mingled with it, is the strong attraction of the silent places, of the large tropic moons, and the splendor of the new stars; where the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting.” As you can see, Roosevelt made the effort to find those words to convey his love of “the silent places” and each page of African Game Trails is a testament to that effort. He wrote like a poet, and in fact, carried with him to Africa  a complete library that included the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Homer and Spenser, and Bret Harte, John Milton, John Keats, Mark Twain and Robert Browning among others. Roosevelt loved literature. African Game Trails was profusely illustrated with photographs from the expedition, all of which are reprinted in the facsimile edition published by Cooper Square Press. There is also a great amount of scientific documentation included as part of Roosevelt’s determination to catalogue and document every facet of his adventure for the benefit of science. I think African Game Trails is my favorite of Roosevelt’s many books, but as you will see, he wrote a few other amazing books which I’ll discuss soon.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Assignment to Disaster by Edward S. Aarons

Here’s one that goes way back to 1955 although I didn’t discover the “Assignment” books until much later. Assignment to Disaster was the first of a series featuring CIA operative Sam Durell. Appearing just two years after Ian Fleming’s James Bond made his debut, the Durell books might be the first competing American agent. Edward S. Aarons wrote all of the books in the series with the exception of a few by his son after his death. I have a fondness for Durell’s first adventure. This book is a non-stop roller-coaster ride of suspense and action. This is one of those paperbacks that I pick up now and again just because it’s so good. Durell is assigned to find scientist Calvin Padgett who is believed to have gone rogue on the eve of a missile system test called Cyclops. Durell hooks up with Padgett’s sister, Deirdre, who happens to be luscious, frightened and alone. He has four days to figure it all out, but meanwhile somebody is after Padgett and wants him dead, and they want Padgett’ sister, too, and Durell gets in the way. The chase leads them all over the country – from Washington DC down to the Louisiana bayou – and by the time you’re finished reading this one you should be as exhausted as Sam Durell. There are over forty books in this series, often featuring some good vixen artwork on the cover, 1960s style. I haven’t read them all, but when I see a missing title in good shape and at a low price I usually pick it up. I’ve never been disappointed.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bomba the Jungle Boy in the Swamp of Death by Roy Rockwood

Like so many Baby Boomers, I became acquainted with Bomba first through the 1960s television airings of the Johnny Sheffield films from the early 1950s. The books were originally published in the 1920s as part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate of books for Juveniles (these days called “Young Adult”). The Bomba films were popular and Grosset & Dunlap publishers reprinted part of the series in 1953 to cash in on the film’s success. These are the ones I collect, but only when I find copies with the dust-jacket in good shape. They average between $15.00 and $20.00 with a clean dust-jacket. The Swamp of Death is seventh in the series and typical of them all. Roy Rockwood was an pseudonym used by the Stratemeyer Syndicate and included multiple authors. John William Duffield is generally believed to have written all of the Bomba books. Bomba is a young boy’s version of Tarzan and trivia buffs love to mention that Johnny Sheffield played “Boy” in the Tarzan films and then Bomba in films when he was older. What’s missing, of course, is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s incredible imagination. The books are easy to read, nothing spectacular, but still entertaining. They do contain (according to some critics) racist undertones but I don’t recall anything blatant. Obviously, cultural viewpoints have changed since the 1920s. Years back when I was working the Hollywood beat I contacted Sheffield requesting an interview for a magazine. I had already been warned that Sheffield was a hard-case who cut his teeth in California real estate after his film career ended He wanted lots of money to even look at people, and as such his reputation as someone who wanted money became something of a running joke on the nostalgia convention circuit. Hence, there is a noticeable lack of comprehensive interviews of Sheffield on record. To be fair, he did make some convention appearances and allowed a few interviews, and I’ve been told that he was “real nice.” Of course, when actors are charging money for autographs being “real nice” is part of the game. My letter came back with Sheffield’s scrawled note to me: “I don’t work for nothin’ pal, do you? – Johnny, Boy, Bomba.” I was surprised he didn’t invoice me for the autograph. But I don’t begrudge Sheffield his attitude. I’ve met plenty of Hollywood personalities for whom an acting gig is no different than a factory job – do the job, cash the check and don’t look back. I liked Sheffield as Bomba (Sheffield died in 2010). The films are still fun to watch. He was good in the role, but Bomba films and certainly the books have gone the way of Route 66. Today they are simply a point of cultural trivia. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Classics Illustrated # 121 Wild Bill Hickok

I haven’t posted much about comic books but I thought I might do so going forward. I stopped collecting in the late 80s but I still have 25 boxes crammed with goodies of all types. Classics Illustrated # 121 Wild Bill Hickok dates from the 1960s (originally published in July 1954) and even has my name scrawled on the bottom front page because we kids would swap and read each others books. This, along with the film The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper, was my introduction to the legend of Wild Bill Hickok. I love the artwork in this one, credited to Sal Trapani and Medio Lorio and scripted by Ira Zweifach according to several on-line databases. This is pure mythic Hickok, playing fast and loose with the basic facts, and that’s fine with me. The story covers the basic arc of Hickok’s life and sets a tone that this impressionable kid has never forgotten. Hickok appears invincible here but the poignant ending made it clear that he was mortal after all. Classics Illustrated comics are easy to acquire and often in great condition. It takes a certain type of collector (usually nostalgic old coots like me) to pick these up. Super-Hero comics are far more popular but I liked a lot of these Classics Illustrated titles. Most of them were adaptations of great literature but as the series progressed they incorporated historical figures such as Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Robin Hood and others. The series has been reprinted multiple times and I believe the current reprints originated in England.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Alien Earth and Other Stories, ed. By Elwood and Moskowitz

This great 1969 Macfadden-Bartell paperback is a personal favorite because it introduced me to several wonderful writers. Compiled by Roger Elwood and Sam Moskowitz, Alien Earth and Other Stories reprints nine classic pulp stories. First up is Edmond Hamilton’s superb Alien Earth and its classic opening line: “The dead man was standing in a little moonlit clearing in the jungle when Farris found him.” (NOTE: Hamilton’s name is misspelled as “Hamiliton.”) He wrote dozens of great stories, and that includes his stint on Superman comics in the swinging Sixties. Robert Bloch’s The Past Master is next, so this was the first Bloch story I read. The third story, Rain Magic by Erle Stanley Gardner, is a forgotten classic. Owing much of its structure to a A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Gardner’s Rain Magic is still a lively and fun piece of adventure writing. I’ve loved Rain Magic since I first read it here. This is followed by Ultimate Melody by Arthur C. Clarke and so this was my introduction to the legendary Clarke. Clifford D. Simak’s The Loot of Time is a masculine pulp piece; followed by Ray Bradbury’s Doodad. Some years ago I contacted Bradbury about Doodad because it is seldom reprinted. In his letter he told me that Doodad was one of his lost stories and that since I mentioned it he would try to include it in a future anthology. That never happened and Doodad has slipped into obscurity. It’s a great, short piece of science fiction. A. E. van Vogt’s Automaton is next, followed by Andre Norton’s The People of the Crater, another favorite. The last story is Isaac Asimov’s Franchise. You can see from these superb tales that editors Elwood and Moskowitz knew their material. The cover art by Jack Faragasso lends the book its nifty sci-fi mood. I was hooked. These writers are my favorites to this day, along with others that I encountered at about the same time. This paperback is easy to find and I recommend tracking it down, for all of the stories, but specifically for the hard-to-find Rain Magic and Doodad.