Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Othello - CBC Production




        If I understand Othello correctly the viewer is supposed to be enveloped in a sense of suffocation, a feeling of being smothered, as Iago’s box closes around the others, capturing them.  That doesn’t happen in this production at all, and one of the reasons it doesn’t is that the production is so beautiful.  The sets, the costumes, the cinematography, all of it – it’s excellent, even breathtaking, to the point of distraction.  (Compare the sense of asphyxiation in Trevor Nunn’s film with Ian McKellen and Willard White and the BBC film with Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins – in those we feel really choked.) 


          I’m a firm believer that the “style over substance” type of aesthetic can go a long way, and justify a lot, but it usually can’t go all the way and justify everything.  The true stars of this production are the costume designer Debra Hanson; the cinematographer Glen Keenan; the production designer Callum Maclachlan; and even the composer of the haunting theme, Philip J. Bennett.  So – what of everything else?


          I understand the necessity of time limitations in a television adaptation of Shakespeare, and I understand Orson Welles edited this work enormously also, but that isn’t justification.  Chopping this play to two hours from its true three and a half is too much.  It turns the play into Shakespeare for adolescents.  Too many key speeches and scenes have to go.  In particular the bawdy jesting between Iago and Desdemona as they leave the ship cannot be hacked off, as it gives too much insight into both of those critical characters.  The cuts hurt.


          Too: showing the corpses at the very start, and then flashing back, is a mistake.  (It was a mistake when Welles did it as well; it will always be a mistake.)  I can’t get behind this kind of re-writing of Shakespeare in any way, shape, or form.  And this isn’t the only way Zaib Shaikh re-writes.  He gives Roderigo the line “…this Muslim” (meaning Othello) at one point, which Shakespeare certainly didn’t write.  The point is reinforced by having Othello exchange his necklace (a star and crescent) with Desdemona for hers (a cross) at the beginning, when they’re married.  I don’t see anything wrong with the visual message of the necklaces, but again, re-writing the Bard, putting in words he didn’t write?  A no no!  Show, don’t tell.


          The camera here is relatively bland.  What about the acting?  Christine Horne as Desdemona and Peter Donaldson as her father are sensational; I’ve not seen earnest, wholesome goodness just ooze out of Desdemona like this before.  In the thankless role of Bianca Nazneen Contractor isn’t bad, and Ryan Hollyman looks like a great Roderigo.  No one else is a Shakespearean heavyweight, to say the least.  Compare Frank Finlay’s “Are you mad?” in the final scene to Matthew DeSlippe’s here and you’ll know most of what you need to know. 



          And yet, in spite of all these complaints, this film is aesthetically splendacious, reason enough for me to recommend it to anyone.  

John D. MacDonald: One Fearful Yellow Eye




Here McGee travels to Chicago in winter and takes on Nazis, Abstract Expressionism, bad acid trips, and a career criminal who turns out to be no match for the real heavies.  There’s also a wicked, funny parody of the sculptor George Segal.  On the downside, the novel continues the trend of almost unbearable nastiness and inhumanity to one’s fellow men and women.


Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. Glory Doyle refers herself; four years earlier, McGee found her in serious distress on the beach in Florida and nursed her back to life.  This is a recurring situation in the McGees; Skeeter in The Quick Red Fox is another example.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.   What a cast it is in this novel!  Glory; Heid; Susan; Anna; Janice Stanyard; Gretchen;  and perhaps the most memorable of all, the sexually frustrated housewife Mildred Shottlehauster. 


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  N/A here.




THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present. Fortner Geis’ many indiscretions are the cause of so much grief, and make him an easy target for the blackmailers.



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  At one point McGee thinks about Heidi “Keep this one.  It’ll keep well.  It has one hell of a shelf life.”  But then:
        “We’d better say good-bye here, Travis.”
        I tried to pull her into my arms but she begged and demanded and I gave up.  “Then answer the question,” I said.  “Why?”
        “Because I have to have my own life.”


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going. 
        “Yet in our times the thick wad of credit cards is a cachet of respectability, something more useful to me than any questionable convenience.  When a cop lays upon you the white eye, and you stand there hunting for a driver’s license as identification, and he watches you fumble through AmEx, Diners, Carte Blanche, Air Travel, Sheraton, Shell, Gulf, Phillips, Standard, Avis and Texaco before you find it, he is reassured.”


THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 
        “In one lifetime how many times can it be like that, be a ceremony that becomes so unrelated to the flesh that I had the feeling I felt disembodied in the night sky, halfway between sea and stars, looking down upon a tiny cutaway cottage, at two figures there in the theater of moonlight caught in a slow unending dance to the doubled hearted, a counterpoint in offstage drums.  But there is a time to fall out of the sky, and a fall from that height makes long moments of half-light, of knowing and not knowing, of being and dying.”














John D. MacDonald: Bright Orange for the Shroud



Bright Orange for the Shroud, like Darker Than Amber after it, is really ramping up the level of evil that McGee confronts.  Here, Stebber’s organized gang uses sex and marriage to clean marks out of their life savings; in addition, while many in the gang get their just desserts, Calvin Stebber and Debra Brown, two of the biggest offenders, get away.  Boone Waxwell is more a less a recycling of Junior Allen from The Deep Blue Good-By.  With Debra Brown MacDonald both reinforces a type of female he has employed in past novels (Lysa Dean from The Quick Red Fox, for one) and will explore further in the future. 


Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. Arthur Wilkinson “refers” himself by returning to Lauderdale and walking onto McGee’s houseboat.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.   Chookie McCall returns; Wilma Verner (instrumental in the action but never seen in the novel); Vivian Watts; Leafy; Cindy Ingefeldt; Debra Brown.  All complex and memorable!


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  The important group scene happens ‘offstage’, about a year before the events of the novel; Arthur Wilkinson was part of a partying group, as was McGee, when Wilma Verner picked him off.




THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present. Calvin Stebber and Wilma Verner have been at it for fifteen years.



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  McGee is not really involved with Debra Brown throughout the novel, and he stomps her with a serious rejection in the closing pages.  Admittedly this is not quite in this category!


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.  One example: “Forty million more Americans than we had in 1950.  If one person in fifty has a tendency towards murderous violence, then we’ve got eight hundred thousand more of them now.”



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. One example: “The billions upon billions of lives which have come and gone, and that small fraction now walking the world, came of this life-pulse, and to deny it dignity would be to diminish the blood and need and purpose of the race, make us all bawdy clowns, thrusting and bumping away in a ludicrous heat, shamed by our own instinct.”











John D. MacDonald: Darker Than Amber



As in the previous A Deadly Shade of Gold, MacDonald keeps the outrageousness at fever pitch here.  This is the first novel in which Meyer, the economist, takes an active role in helping Travis McGee with a case (though he does appear in previous novels, he doesn’t much participate).  I’m a little surprised at the way McGee and Meyer throw words like “bitch” and “wench” around here, and McGee kills a man (Griff) and leaves the body buried face down in sand, not telling anyone the details.  The severity of the crimes the prostitution ring rings up – fourteen dead – lends this novel a somewhat more lurid atmosphere than the previous McGees.  And this is the first novel in which McGee comments on race relations.

ADDENDUM: I am out of order!  Bright Orange for the Shroud is actually the sixth novel in the series, so I will get to that next; anything mistaken in the above should be adjusted accordingly.  My apologies.

Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. None here; McGee and Meyer stumble onto the case on their own in a right place, right time kind of way.  However, an old client of McGee’s, Jake Karlo, ‘refers’ Merrimay into the case.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.  Vangie; Noreen; Del; Merrimay; and there are several excellent minor portraits as well. 


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  The closest thing to this here is the cruise aboard the Mona D. 




THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.  Here the greed is particularly ugly and widespread – fourteen Johns murdered by the prostitution gang.



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  It’s totally false, and McGee means to set Del up from the beginning and hand her over to the cops, but he consistently leads her on in this manner, for example “It will be four or five days before I can wind up a few things hanging fire.  There’ll be all the time in the world to get acquainted then, Del.


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one: McGee tells us of Meyer poking fun at Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Robert Gover’s The One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding: “He had been inventing a parody of Ginsberg, entitled “Snarl,” making it up as he went along, and he had also made up a monologue of a Barnard girl trying to instill the concept of social significance into the mind of the white slaver who was flying her to Iraq, and he titled that one “The Two Dollar Misunderstanding.””



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:  When McGee sees Vangie’s dead body he recalls a poem on death by W.H. Auden, a wry meditation that he deems most appropriate to the situation.