Posts Tagged ‘Western’

Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

October 4, 2013

This new novel isn’t just for Sci-Fi fans, but it should also appeal to lovers of Western movies and novels too. It is set on the desert planet of Tatooine and features the struggles of a loner outcast as he tries to live peacefully and quietly on the fringe of a ranch town. His plans go awry as he becomes involved with the lives of the townspeople and the man who wants to lead them. Obi Wan Kenobi was an inter-galactic hero during the Clone Wars, but now that The Republic is controlled by Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, Kenobi must go into hiding and change himself into a recluse. The story is reminiscent of classics Westerns, such as Shane.

Kenobi occupies an abandoned home out in the Judland wastes of the desert so that he will be able to keep an eye on the infant Luke Skywalker living with his aunt and uncle. One day he ends up rescuing a mother and her daughter from a crazed runaway Dewback (a lizard about the size of a steer). Shortly after that he comes to “the Oasis” for supplies, where the mother Annileen Calwell (everyone calls her Annie) runs the store. Strangers are not a common sight in this small town where sand is everywhere and moisture farming is one of the main occupations, so naturally the townspeople are very curious about Ben. Try as he might to keep a low profile, Kenobi is slowly drawn into helping Annileen and her family.

This Western / Sci-Fi story also answers some questions that fans may have about the years in between the more recent prequel trilogy and the original films. What happened to Obi Wan Kenobi after Anakin became Darth Vader at the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith? How did the forty-ish Jedi Obi Wan (played by Ewan McGregor at 34) age to become the seventy-something “crazy old Ben” Kenobi (played by Sir Alec Guinness at 62) in just nineteen years? I, for one, enjoyed learning the answer to a question I hadn’t even realized I was wondering about.

In addition to a great story in the Western style, Miller also explores a bit more about the Tusken Raiders and gives readers insight into a bit of their history and religious beliefs about life on this desert planet with two suns. The author also shares Kenobi’s Jedi meditations directed toward his former master Qui Gon Jinn, an excellent technique for letting the reader in on Ben’s private thoughts and worries. Other Star Wars inhabitants of Tatooine also make appearances, such as Jawas, Banthas, and Hutts – and we even get a trip to the big city of Mos Eisley. Hey, if a Western / Sci-Fi crossover could work for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, why not for Star Wars too?

P.S. Did you know that Saturday, October 5 is Star Wars Reads Day?

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True Grit by Charles Portis

March 5, 2013

True GritTrue Grit is a great comic Western, a genre that does not usually include a lot of comedy.  One of the problems I have with Westerns is that they tend to take themselves too seriously.  You might say that there is not much to laugh about in the lawless brutality of the Old West, but there must have occasionally been some funny characters and comic relief.

Mattie Ross is one of those people who takes herself rather seriously, but then she is on a serious mission—to avenge the murder of her father.  No one else in her family can or will undertake the task, but 14-year-old Mattie is more than up to it.  She hires the toughest US marshall she can find—battle-scarred, one-eyed Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn—and together they head for the Indian territory, where Tom Cheney, her father’s murderer, is said to be hiding out.

Crusty old Marshall Cogburn is not happy about having a “kid” along (and a girl at that) and neither is his new sidekick LaBouef of the Texas Rangers, who is on a mission of his own to catch the same man, wanted for the shooting of a Texas senator.  LaBouef and Cogburn try every trick they can think of to shake Mattie off their trail, but she is even more doggedly determined than they are.  Finally, they reluctantly agree to take her along.

Mattie Ross is a tough character, but she recites Scripture and aphorisms like a school marm and turns up her nose at the men’s drinking and uncouth behavior.  However, she is all heart and incredibly brave, though her inability to handle her father’s horse pistol finally lands her in serious trouble.

LaBouef turns out to be nearly as much trouble for Cogburn as Mattie is.  He’s conceited, full of self-importance, and packs a big rifle that blows away whatever game he tries to shoot with it.  Still, Rooster later has good reason to thank LaBouef’s excellent long-range marksmanship.

The action moves swiftly, and there is never a dull moment.  The posse discovers that Chaney has joined up with “Lucky” Ned Pepper, whom Cogburn has tried unsuccessfully to kill on several occasions.  There is a fine line between the lawman and the outlaw, and there is a sense of grudging respect between them.  The climactic battle between Ned and Rooster is one of the highlights of the novel.

The original movie with John Wayne and Kim Darby is one of my favorites.  I have not seen the remake, but I hear it is good.  However, don’t miss reading the novel; it’s got all the great scenes from the original movie but with more insight into the characters.

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Panhandle by Brett Cogburn

February 28, 2013

I love a good Western, but they are not always easy to find.  Many of them tend to be rather formulaic and the ending of the story is apparent from a long way out.  Every once in a while I find one that breaks from that mold and when I do I savor it like fine wine (or a shot of rotgut).  Brett Cogburn’s  Panhandle is one of the best Westerns I’ve read recently.  On one level it’s a great story in its own right, but I also found it to be a social commentary on how people deal with cultural changes.

Panhandle is about three young cowboys who have been living the free and easy life for which cowboys are known.  No house, few possessions, and very little money doesn’t sound like such a good deal to most people.   But to a real cowboy, the opportunity to be outside on a good horse in open country is worth every penny they don’t earn.  Our three cowboys start the story by stealing horses from a band of Indians on a reservation, not the most noble of endeavors, but one that’s not viewed as a terrible crime during the period.  This was the best idea they had to make a little money during the off season, so they went for it. Remember, many cowboys weren’t hired year round and mainly worked the roundups and ensuing cattle drives. 

The trio proceeds to live the lifestyle that cowboys are so famous for living, engaging in several adventures.  Unfortunately for them, the age of the wild cowboy is quickly coming to an end and they are going to be forced to deal with the changes.  Who knew barbed wire and sheep could change things so quickly? 

Of course, any Western worth its salt will have a romance in the story.  Enter the most beautiful girl in the region, who quickly becomes a problem between Billy and Tennessee as they both pursue her.  I can’t reveal how this will end, but rest assured it makes great reading!!  If you like Westerns, but are a little tired of the same old, same old, give Panhandle a try, I hope you’ll like it.

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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2012: Sarah K.’s Picks

December 14, 2012

This year, I decided to clump my favorite “old reads” into two categories. In one, I have stories which concern themselves with the lives of women and the other is stories which play with the Western genre in unconventional ways. On one hand you have female characters who must struggle against society’s limitations and constraints on women, and on the other you have two authors who have struggled against the conventions of a dusty genre with deep-set tropes. — Sarah K.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Nowadays, most people associate the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn with hipsters and all their accoutrements, such as fixed-wheel bikes, ironic facial hair and craft foods. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Williamsburg was a hard-scrabble, working class neighborhood. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the coming of age of Francie Nolan, who lives there with her family as they struggle against poverty and the consequences of her father’s alcoholism. Though Smith wrote with a natural lyricism and was able to capture hope and beauty despite difficult circumstances, she did not flinch from realistic depictions of unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse and child predators. If you haven’t had a chance to read this classic or haven’t read it since your youth, give it a try and prepare to be charmed.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Fans of large country houses, large eccentric British families, and outsized personalities will enjoy The Pursuit of Love. Breezy, but sharp, Mitford based her portrayal on her own family and neighbors causing much pearl-clutching and gasps of outrage when it was published. The story follows the romantic misadventures of Linda Radlett as she seeks out true passionate love and adventure. Unsentimental, the book’s candy-coating of wit hides a deeper melancholy as it examines the conflict between seeking out romantic fulfillment or settling for domestic stability.

The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Group follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates as they navigate relationships, careers and motherhood in the mid-1930s. Think of this as the Depression-era, Girls or Sex and the City. Considered scandalous upon publication in 1963, many of the themes in the book pertaining to sex and its complications are fairly tame by today’s standards. However it’s compelling to read this and see the similarities and differences in the “women having it all” discussion that American women continue to struggle with. A fascinating aspect of the book is the section centered on new mother, Priss and the proto-mommy wars into which she gets sucked. Yes, the breastfeeding versus formula debate existed even then.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Reminiscent of the tone and style of Charles Portis’ True Grit, The Sisters Brothers tells the tale of Charles and Eli Sisters, as they pursue Herman Kermit Warm at the behest of the Commander, a powerful tycoon who wants to cash in on Warm’s chemical formula for finding gold. The book is narrated by Eli, a reluctant murderer who is plagued by self-doubt, yet stays in the business to remain close to his reckless and callous brother. DeWitt uses deadpan formalized 19th century vernacular as a gateway to melancholy dark humor, and his portrayal of lonely, woebegone Eli is the highlight of the book.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Not for the faint of heart, Blood Meridian follows the bloody trail of ‘the kid’ as he joins a violent band of mercenary scalp hunters as they tear through the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico during the mid-1800s. A meditation on the nature of violence, embodied by the grotesque character of the Judge, McCarthy explores the myth and reality of the Westward Expansion. What elevates this book from merely a laundry list of gratuitous acts of violence is McCarthy’s piercing, hypnotic prose and surreal imagery.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

July 23, 2012

O Pioneers! is a beautiful novel with a cast of unforgettable characters who seem to move and breathe and have a life of their own.  The novel is written in very economical and poetic prose; scarcely a word seems unnecessary or out of place.  As a backdrop to this moving tale, there is always the landscape of the Nebraska plains, vividly described in every mood and weather, a land so challenging and compelling that people give their very lives for it.

John Bergson’s dying words to his sixteen-year-old daughter, Alexandra, are “Keep the land.”  Recognizing in her, his oldest child, both the will and the intelligence to keep the family together and farm the homestead, he commissions her to oversee this difficult task instead of her brothers.  This book is the story of Alexandra’s efforts and how they succeeded—or failed.  She is a person of remarkable calmness and strength, the still center around which the other characters move—her three brothers, her neighbors, her servants.  If she is guilty of hubris, we want to forgive her; so much has fallen on her young shoulders so early in life.

What greatly complicates her task of “keeping the land” is that not all her family thinks it can, or even should, be done.  Lou and Oscar, the oldest of her brothers, look askance at her far-fetched schemes.  Alexandra puts her hope in her youngest brother, Emil, who becomes the beneficiary of the success and prosperity she at long last achieves.

For all her virtues, Alexandra has the tendency to see all those around her as fellow taskmasters, almost tools, committed to making a living from the land.  So much of her energy and attention goes into this task that she does not see the tragedy taking shape before her.  Cather uses third person narration, allowing us to see the thoughts which each character hides from the others.  Even so, the painful denouement almost took my breath away; I did not see the tragedy coming until it was upon them.  Yet, in hindsight, it all makes sense.

After the devastation, Alexandra is left to make of her life what she can, and here again she rises to admirable heights.  She becomes a fuller and wiser person, less sure of herself and more humble.

The various meanings of “keeping the land” resonate throughout the novel.  As Emil reflects, in spite of all we do, some things grow and some do not:  “It was like that when Alexandra tested her seed corn in the spring . . . From two ears that had grown side by side, the grains of one shot up joyfully into the light, projecting themselves into the future, and the grains from the other lay still in the earth and rotted; and nobody knew why.”  Some survive the test and some do not, and pondering the “why” of it all is what makes this novel so haunting and so unforgettable.

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Shavetail by Thomas Cobb

July 20, 2012

Shavetail presents a realistic and riveting look at life in an isolated Army outpost in the Arizona Territory during the war against the Apache. Thomas Cobb’s portrayal of camp life as boring, dirty, and brutal is probably very close to the reality. Cobb has done his research, and it is a delight to see his inclusion of historical sources at the end of the book.

The characters are quite compelling. Ned Thorne, the 17-year-old recruit running away from his past is a fine protagonist. When he finds the diary of Mary, a settler abducted by the Apache, her voice adds another dimension to the story. Captain Robert Franklin is heroic and action-oriented, which contrasts oddly with his bouts of depression. His lifelong friend Lieutenant Austin is more interested in publishing reports of new species of flora and fauna than soldiering, and is weirdly solicitous of Franklin. Donovan the trader shrewdly anticipates the wants and needs of his clientele, and shows up like clockwork on payday with his liquor and prostitutes to relieve the soldiers of their money. The mule driver Obediah Bricker is sadistic and cunning, a veritable master of manipulation with a philosophical bent. I find the preoccupation with the odd relationship between Franklin and Austin a bit tedious. Austin’s ramblings remind me of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. I would rather have seen more about the camp and activities of the soldiers instead. Yet the sheer unpredictability of the story makes up for this.

What seems to be a straightforward rescue mission to find Mary ends up as a Western “heart of darkness” sort of foray, with the elusive Apache leading the soldiers into a strange encounter with a Mexican patrol that ends in a burst of numbing violence. The ending is surreal and unexpected. Shavetail is an exceptional and entertaining read, especially for someone with an interest in the time period.

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Doc by Mary Doria Russell

November 14, 2011

The Western is supposedly dead.  If not dead, then certainly dying.  Mary Doria Russell has not heard the news though, and I for one, am happy she hasn’t.

Doc brings us the back story of Dr. John Henry Holliday, otherwise known as Doc Holliday, or simply “Doc”.  While legend and lore tell of his exploits in the shootout at the O.K. Corral, Russell envisions a Southern gentleman, suffering from the brutal disease of tuberculosis, attempting to be a professional dentist in the Wild West.

If you are looking for a retelling of what happened in Tombstone you may be disappointed.  I say “may”, because I don’t really think you will.  Doc takes you back to the Dodge City days, where Holliday meets the Earp brothers and begins their famous friendship.  Russell delves into Holliday’s long relationship with the prostitute known as “Big Nose Kate” and creates an entirely believable history for these ruthless gunmen that leaves you appreciating her skill as a storyteller.  I enjoyed Russell’s character creation because she made no one perfect, but likeable all the same.  She brings texture to every storyline by pulling in bits of information about the Buffalo Soldiers, the Civil War, the court of Maximilian I in Mexico, dental practices of the time period, the early politics of Prohibition and many other interesting tidbits.

Having never read Russell’s other novels, I can’t say how this compares, but I’m definitely looking forward to trying them now.

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Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

October 27, 2011

I’m not from the West by any stretch, so much of the history of the West is not really my history. But perhaps no other genre feels so authentically American as the Western. Fictional gunslingers following the Code of the West are America’s version of the knights errant, and the storied conflict with the American Indian tribes of the Plains, however perverted by bias and prejudice, has reached epic status in our mythology.

The popular images of the Western and its stock characters are far better understood than the history which spawned them. We have gone from glorifying the cowboy and demonizing the Indian to vilifying the American settler and whitewashing the Native American. Each pole can be both victimizing and patronizing, but neither is all that rooted in reality. This history does a great job painting that reality as accurately as possible with all its inherent drama.

The Comanches, according to the book, were the deadliest enemy faced by Europeans and Americans in the New World. They were the world’s greatest horsemen, excellent marksmen and masters of a terrain the European descended peoples found terrifying. The Spanish were utterly defeated and the Americans were brought to a standstill. The Comanches nearly depopulated great swathes of land equal in area to most states. There was no answer to their ferocity and mobility until the Americans learned, with the essential aid of allied Indian tribes, to attack the Comanche on their own terms with superior technology.

However, it’s not the dates or battles that stand out in this history. It’s the clash of cultures and the colorful people who rose on both sides that make this history so enjoyable, if unpleasant at times. Two cultures, the Americans and Comanche, are shown at the point of their meeting and throughout their inevitable war. The humanity of both sides is shown, but humanity is not always pretty. Each side was prone to savagery as well as courage. Guilt was shared by all, and cruelty provoked cruelty. Rape, torture and the murder of children in front of their families are frequently mentioned. Readers will find their sympathies shift with each episode as the passing of the Comanche way of life is given its tragic due. The history is true, and so is the drama.

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

April 1, 2011

If you saw the movie No Country for Old Men, you may have been intrigued by the dark figure of Anton Chigurh, a man with seemingly no conscience and a thirst for violence.  Yet that movie’s dark themes, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, seem almost childish compared to the carnage of McCarthy’s earlier novel, Blood Meridian.  This is a visceral and unrelenting book, depicting the travels of a group of outlaws in the American Southwest in the 1870s.  Yet where most treatments of this time period glamorize violence, McCarthy provides an unflinching look into depravity and chaos.

The book is only about 300 pages, but can be hard to get through.  The plot appears redundant at first – simply an endless series of violent encounters in the desert.  Thus, the attraction is the writing.  McCarthy’s prose is simply timeless and has rightfully been compared to great epic writers of the past like Faulkner and Melville.  His descriptions of the desert his characters traverse are high poetry and he has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gorgeous, striking metaphors.  And for a book without a lot of typical characterization, McCarthy has nonetheless created one of the most striking characters in literature in the form of The Judge.  The Judge is a far more nightmarish version of Anton Chigurh, a seven-foot tall, bald man who is highly intellectual and literary and yet leaves nothing but violence and devastation in his wake.

Blood Meridian is not the kind of book you would bring to the beach for some light reading.  I will readily admit that it times it was so overwhelming that I had to take a break and try to read something else.  But if you can cope with the unsanitized depictions of violence, this is truly impressive art – it will make you think about the nature of war and human conflict, and you may not like the conclusions you will reach.

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The Gunslinger by Stephen King

November 5, 2010

This week has marked the one year anniversary of our book-a-day blog.  And, believe it or not, in a whole year of blogging book suggestions, we’ve not yet written about any books by one of the most prolific and masterful writers of our time, Stephen King.  Living in Maine, where many of his books are set, Mr. King is, of course, best known as a Horror novelist with books like Carrie, Cujo, The Shining and Salem’s Lot to his credit.  He has won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America 9 times, including an award for Lifetime Achievement, and many other awards as well.     He’s also known for having many of his novels and short stories adapted into movies,  notably Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile.  And, as great as all of those books are, many fans agree that King’s “magnum opus” is his 7 volume Dark Tower series,  which took between 25 and 30 years to be completed.  (King took more than twelve years to write the first novel, which was published in installments in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, so it’s hard to say just how long the writing process took.)   King’s inspiration for the series comes from Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”  although he has said that other influences were The Lord of the Rings, the legend of King Arthur, and the movie The Good, the Bad and the UglyThe Gunslinger is the first book in that series, and introduces us to Roland Deschain, the last in a long line of knightly protectors known as Gunslingers.

Roland lives in a world like ours, but his world has “moved on” and resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland, which is slowly crumbling apart.  Roland is in pursuit of the man in black across the desert, and believes that the man in black has information that can help him on his ultimate quest to reach the Dark Tower – believed to be the nexus of all universes.  He stops at the house of a farmer, who agrees to put him up for the night, and through a flashback Roland relates the most recent part of his quest through a town called Tull.  I’ll try not to spoil the story, but will just say that because of the man in black the entire town ends up turning against Roland, and he barely escapes with his life and his mule.  After telling the story Roland’s mule dies and he must continue his desert journey on foot.  Along his quest, Roland also meets up with a boy from our world, named Jake, who has somehow crossed over into Roland’s world after being hit by a car in ours. A few more flashbacks illuminate a bit more about Roland’s background while he and Jake make their way out of the desert and toward the mountains – where Jake begins to fear for his fate.  Does Roland eventually catch up to the man in black?  What will happen if and when he does and how will this impact the rest of Roland’s quest?  This novel (and the series as well) is part Western, part Fantasy quest, part Horror, but ALL King.

Jake is not the only person from our world to be drawn into Roland’s world, as the next book is title The Drawing of the Three, in which Roland must bring three companions from our world into his to aid him on his quest.  The series as a whole is extremely satisfying, and one of the most appealing aspects (aside from King’s engrossing writing style) is the fact that King weaves characters and references from many of his other novels throughout the Dark Tower series.  So, fans of some of King’s other novels will also enjoy re-discovering those characters here.  (Here’s a list of those connections,   but be forewarned of spoilers.)  I first discovered the series on audio book narrated by both George Guidall and the late Frank Muller.  The series is also being adapted into Graphic Novels, which tell the story in a different order than the novels, beginning when Roland was much younger.  Comic Book Movie has announced that there is an official release date for Ron Howard’s movie and television adaptation of this series.  The plan is to release a feature film, and then a season of a television series will continue the story until the next film is released, and so on to complete the tale.

Find and request The Gunslinger in our library catalog to begin your own quest for the Dark Tower.


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