And, in my spare time, I read.

Elmore Leonard – The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard (2004)

Elmore Leonard wrote westerns before his famous crime fiction; he claims he tapped into the popular market as “practice” on the road to becoming a real writer.  I’d say he was onto something before he was even aware of it.  In this collection of thirty westerns written and published in the 1950s, Leonard fearlessly explored his vision of the Arizona landscape and the people who populated it during the 1880s. Typical to the genre,  his tales are full of gunfighters and lawmen, cowboys and Indians, landowners and prospectors, but Leonard worked beyond clearly defined distinctions and took on such heady issues as race relations, addressing conflicts and intolerance between whites, African Americans, Natives, and Mexicans with a careful sensitivity.  Leonard also scrutinized gender roles, and to my pleasure, his female characters are independent and strong, not mere kitchen maids and simpering wives.    Above all, the heroes and heroines of these tales face incredible adversity and inevitably achieve success in a clutch. The oppressed, the abused, the challenged, the untried – all are rewarded for their efforts, for their attempts to dig themselves out of their situations and strife.   Characters such as Steve Brady in “The Longest Day of His Life,” are young and inexperienced in their chosen professions, and as their stories unfold, they gain wisdom and insight.  Against seemingly impossible odds, men like Pat Brennan in “The Captives” (film title “The Tall T”) manage to thoughtfully scrape their way out of death and prove that it’s not always brute force and guns that make the difference.  In “Man with the Iron Arm,” a wounded cavalry officer named John Lefton reaches rock bottom, only to be – oddly enough – pulled up by a bully.  In “The Kid,” an abused young boy of uncertain heritage is rescued by a kindly stranger.  In “The Tonto Woman” a woman cast out by her husband after returning from captivity is given strength and esteem by a Mexican outlaw.  In perhaps the most humorous story of the collection, “Under the Friar’s Ledge,” an American doctor named Struggles (yes, that’s symbolic) saves the life of Juan Solo, a man with very valuable information concerning a certain silver mine.  How the two men elude a band of thieves intent on reaching the treasure is certainly creative, if simple.  In “The Rancher’s Lady,” a widower seeking a new wife gets more than he bargained for.  In “Hurrah for Captain Early!” the heroic status of an African American soldier is questioned.  In my favourite story, “The Colonel’s Lady,” heroine Amelia Darck suffers kidnapping at the hands of a violent Apache man, and her courage and strength when faced with rape and death is simply incredible.  I like how Leonard’s women are not merely objects – they may be treated thus by some characters, but they always emerge with dignity and grace.  They always gain the respect of (and occasionally the heart of) the main male character as well as the reader.   Westerns are romantic, after all!

Oh, and “Three-Ten to Yuma” is in here, too – I haven’t seen the purportedly excellent movie, but I surely intend to now.  The story is quietly, perfectly, deftly drawn, and the tensions between all of the characters are thrilling.

***

Seth Grahame-Smith – Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter (2010, audiobook)

And, now for something completely different.   You can never accuse Grahame-Smith of an unoriginal and uninventive plot.  (Damn, I wish I had thought of this!).   Apparently America’s greatest president kept a secret journal in which he recorded his activity as a killer of vampires…who knew?  Told with great seriousness using historical references (complete with footnotes that were a little irritating on the audiobook, but likely not a problem if actually READING the story), the modern-day narrator gives an account of Abe’s careers, both as a political mastermind and as a secretive slayer of the scourge that had infected the United States during the time of the Civil War.  Excerpts from the president’s journal lend rollicking personality to the work, offering insights into Abe’s life:  his adoration for his mother, who died when he was very young; his dislike for his father; his working life and rise to political activism; his first tragic love; his eventual marriage and births of his children; and above all, the countless murderous acts he committed to rid his beloved homeland of the pestilence that threatened to overrun it. 

In an interview that the publishing house stuffed onto the end of the audiobook, Grahame-Smith is supremely casual about the amount of real research he actually did for this novel, making the whole process seem just tossed off, but, in truth, the care he took to lend this story plausibility and possibility is astounding.  It’s an utter pleasure to…ahem…devour.

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