Officially, the Fall season is a little more than a week away. However unofficially, Labor Day kicks off the beginning of Fall in the arts. We read in newspapers and magazines about all the new films, television shows, theater, music and of course books that will be coming out over the next few months. Similar to what I did back here for summer reading releases here are some of the books currently on my list to read this fall. Continue reading “Fall Reading”
Dance marathons were phenomena that began in the 1920’s. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel is a dark tale of losers desperately attempting to hang on to impossible dreams. Just like in Nathaniel West better known novel, Day of the Locust the characters all have unreachable dreams of being in the movies. Continue reading “Depression Blues and the Dance Marathon”
One of my favorite crime writers is the late Donald E. Westlake. Westlake was awarded the title of Grand Master by The Mystery Writers of America, as well as a three time Edgar winner. He wrote over 100 novels and numerous short stories and screenplays.
Westlake was a prolific author, best known for two long running series, one featuring the dark anti-hero known only as Parker, written under one of his many pen names, Richard Stark, and the lighter comedic mysteries featuring John Dortmunder. By 1977, both characters had already made their way to the movie screen. In 1967, the first Parker novel, The Hunter, appeared under the title Point Blank (1) with Parker’s name changed, inexplicably, to Walker. The film featured Lee Marvin in the lead role. Five years later John Dortmunder hit the screen with Robert Redford in The Hot Rock.
Back in 1977, the author published a book called Enough. It consisted of two novellas, the longer of the two was called A Travesty, and the second, shorter story, was Orb. Enough may be one of the toughest of Westlake’s works to find a copy. I was fortunate enough a few years back to discover a copy at a local library. A Travesty is a dark, comic tale involving a sexually insatiable film critic, Corey Thorpe, who during a heated argument with one of his lovers accidentally kills her. Having seen too many movies, instead of calling the police, Thorpe decides to cover up his involvement in the transgression. Unfortunately, Thorpe’s lover was under surveillance by a blackmailing private investigator. Additionally, the investigating police detective takes a liking to our “‘hero,” and admires his amateur detective instincts. He’s also a frustrated screenwriter and would like Corey to take a look at what he wrote. Along the way, Corey is “forced” to commit a couple of more murders. Regrettably, for the film critic, his voracious appetite for sex does him in when he spurns the wrong woman.
Let’s fast forward more than 30 years to 1999 and the premiere on TNT of a film called A Slight Case of Murder. It’s not to be confused with the 1938 Edward G Robinson film with the same title, but a made for TV film starring William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, James Cromwell and Adam Atkin. The film is based on A Travesty and adapted for the screen by Macy and director Steven Schachter. The duo faithfully captures the humorous essence of Westlake’s novella. The film critic’s name was changed in the movie from Corey to Terry, but much of the tale stays close to Westlake’s original work. It’s smart with plenty of visual and verbal nods to the noir films it’s sending up including Terry talking at times directly to the camera (in place of a voice over). It’s filled with murders, sleazy characters and plenty of twists wrapped up in a funny script that film lovers, like myself, will especially love.
The performances by the four main actors are all of high quality, though William H. Macy gets a special nod in a role that some may find reminiscent of his Jerry Lundgaard role in Fargo. Also noteworthy is Julia Campbell’s work as Arkin’s amorous wife, whose affair with Macy leads to his downfall.
I am a big fan of two of the author’s stand-alone books, The Ax and The Hook, both wonderful satires. In The Ax, the main character is Burke Devore, a quiet company man who after twenty-five years of service becomes a victim of corporate downsizing. After two years of unemployment, his life falling apart, Burke comes up with what he considers the ideal solution, eliminate his competition by killing them off.
The Hook is a devious tale about author Bryce Proctor, a mediocre but best-selling author. Then there is author Wayne Prentice, a more accomplished writer than Procter, but his books no longer hit the best sellers list. Bryce has been going through a rough stretch including a divorce which has led to a bad case of writer’s block. To make it worst he has a deadline quickly approaching on his next book. Wayne comes up with a plan that would help them both. He’ll write the book, give it to Bryce to publish under his name, and they split the royalties 50/50. Bryce is all for it except he has one caveat, Wayne needs to kill Bryce’s wife.
Many of Westlake’s books have made it to the screen, unfortunately not always in a good way. The previously mentioned Point Blank, The Hot Rock, and A Slight Case of Murder are on the plus side. However, more often than not, there were mediocre films like Cops and Robbers, The Twin, The Split, The Bank Shot, and the awful and misguided Jimmy the Kid which was turned into a vehicle for Gary Coleman. Interesting enough, a few of Westlake’s books have been made into films by foreign filmmakers including Costa-Gavras whose 2005 film, Le Couperet, is based on The Ax. In 1966, Jean Luc Godard loosely adapted Westlake’s The Juggler (a Parker novel) turning it into Made in the U.S.A. (2) No one connected with the Goddard film, including Goddard, at the time, bothered acquiring the film rights. Westlake eventually sued and won.
As a screenwriter, Westlake was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1990). He also wrote the screenplay for the original The Stepfather film which was adapted from a short story he wrote with co-writers, Brian Garfield and Carolyn Lefcourt. For a full list of Westlake’s film credit’s check here.
If you like reading crime fiction and have not read Donald Westlake, get down to your local independent book store or anywhere books are sold and start catching up. If you like hard boiled fiction, the Parker books written under the name of Richard Stark are must reads. On the lighter side are his John Dortmunder books. Dortmunder is a cool, criminal mastermind, brilliant at planning heist. Unfortunately, his luck is not as good as his talent. Inevitably something always goes wrong.
(1) In 1999, Point Blank (The Hunter) was remade as Payback with Mel Gibson in the lead role. Once again Parker’s name was changed again, this time to Porter.
(2) Wikipedia Donald E. Westlake.
My thanks to author Carol Balawyder for the wonderful review of DEVIOUS TALES, my short story collection.
There’s a saying in writing: make every word count or at the very least have every paragraph/scene be relevant. This can be argued, especially for the novel where there is room for sub-plots and leisure strolls through gardens and having tea with a favorite aunt. Not so for the short story. Short stories are (generally) tight, concentrated and condensed.
John Greco’s latest collection of short stories, Devious Tales has all the technical markings of this form and Greco skillfully merges his skill as writer and photographer in these twelve snapshots of life.
His stories are also highly influenced by his passion for noir film and fiction. His short story Late Night Diner reminded me of the rural diner in James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and I immediately associated his story The Organic Garden to one Stephen King could have written because of its macabre and conniving ending.
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When the 2016 best books of the year lists were compiled, Ruth Franklin’s biography of author Shirley Jackson was conspicuously listed on many of those lists; you couldn’t help but take notice. Jackson, if you are unaware, is best known for her novel The Haunting of Hill House, and her short story The Lottery. The book is extremely well researched with Ms. Franklin given access to many of Jackson’s journals, drafts, notes, letters, and more than 50 unpublished works as well as interviews that she did during her career.
At the time Jackson was growing up, and later as an adult, she lived in a world where men were the dominant force. She came from a prominent family living in the San Francisco area. Her father was an upwardly mobile businessman who rose to CEO in his company. This eventually led to relocating him and his family to Rochester, New York. At the time, Shirley was still in her teens. Her parents travelled in the upper class circles of the community. Unfortunately, for Shirley, she was not born the petite feminine debuntant her mother’s world encompassed. Shirley was high-strung, creative and untidy. She would spend much time alone, with books, and her thoughts. Her relationship with he mother was a lifetime of emotional abuse even after she became a successful author. Shirley would forever be the outsider no matter where she lived. She married Stanley Hyman, a brash professor, noted literary critic, writer for The New Yorker, and serial philanderer who like her mother emotionally abused his wife. He also taught, encouraged, dominated and infuriated her.
Unlike many women from her time, Jackson had to manage both a family life; husband, a house full of kids, and a professional career, in this case as a writer. This duel existence was still a rarity and was frowned upon by many who believed a woman’s place should only be in the home. Franklin examines both sides of Jackson’s life, and how each of these separate worlds would influence the other. Jackson would extract many incidents from her private life finding both the humorous and darker side of what a women’s world was like in mid-20th Century America. Many would make their way into her novels. It was not always a pretty picture. This is understandable considering her rocky relationship with her own mother, the fact that she was married to a serial philander, and the problems she sometimes faced in the various communities where they lived with neighbors, especially after the publication of The Lottery. In Bennington, Vermont where they moved after Stanley accepted a teaching position at Bennington College, they were met with suspicion by the residents whose families went back generations. Going to the grocery store or gas station was an ordeal as neighbors viewed them with distrust and misgivings.
While Jackson is best remembered for her psychological horror tales, I was surprised by her range when I discovered she had many jobs writing humorous semi-autobiographical family stories for women’s magazines. These stories were eventually compiled in two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.
Like most people, Shirley Jackson was a multi-layered individual, and Ruth Franklin’s book digs deep into many of these layers; her loneliness, dispair, successes, humor, disappointments, and her demons which would eventually catch up with her.
Sam Fuller’s gritty Korean War film, The Steel Helmet, will be on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday May 27th (4:30pm ET) as part of its annual Memorial Day Weekend tribute. Despite being over 60 Yeas old, the film is quite contemporary in its view of the high cost of war. Gene Evans, Steve Brodie, Robert Hutton and James Edwards star in this under the radar film.
You can read more about it in my book, Lessons in the Dark, available at Amazon.
Here is an excerpt…
“Fuller has filled the screen with brutal battle scenes presenting one of the harshest views of the realities of war. Bloody, horrific and deadly. The men are dirty and scared. There are no heroes and no cowards, just men trying to survive and survival is precarious. Fuller’s Americans are multi-cultural, from different backgrounds, filled with misfits and offbeat characters. From John Wayne’s patriotic war films to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), we have seen the unit composed of the misfit, the hotheaded kid, the kid from Brooklyn, the kid from the mid-west, the pacifist and so on. What makes The Steel Helmet unique is a coarse quality that filters throughout separating it from the others” – Lessons in the Dark
With the unofficial start of summer less than two weeks away, it’s a good time to take a look at some of what’s out there to read while you are at the beach, pool or at home with your air conditioning turned up high. Here are some books that are on my list to read this summer.
I have been a big admirer of Robert B. Parker’s sparse style for many years. Since his death Ace Atkins has primarily taken over writing his Spenser series, and doing it with the same sharp dialogue and flavor as the master. Little White Lies is the latest.
Just published, Dennis Lehane’s latest has been getting rave reviews. I have to admit, I have not read any of Lehane’s earlier books, however from what I have read, Since We Fell, is a bit different from his previous endeavors. That’s fine with me, since I am coming to him with fresh eyes.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin came out in September of last year. It’s been on my read list since I read the many positive reviews. The book made both the New York Times and Washington Post notable picks for 2016.
I have been reading, and listening to Michael Connelly a lot lately. Watching Amazon’s fantastic Bosch series sparked my interest to dig into Connelly’s backlog of work. Not one disappointing read yet.
The Wrong Side of Goodbye is Connelly’s latest Harry Bosch novel (published 11/16) which I still have not read. Coming in July is The Late Show with a new character, Renee Ballard, a once on the rise detective, now stuck on the night shift.
In June, Hard Case Crime will publish legendary crime novelist, Donald Westlake’s Forever and a Death. The backstory on this never before released work is fascinating. About twenty years ago, the producers of the James Bond films hired Westlake to write a story treatment for a new Bond film. The treatment was never used due to political concerns at the time with China. Westlake took the story and turned it into an original novel which was never published during his lifetime. It’s seeing the light of day for the first time.
Stuart Woods’ Stone Barrington is a guilty pleasure. Barrington is one of those characters who has it all: looks, money, beautiful women and influential friends. He also manages to get himself in plenty of trouble, but not before buying another house, he has at least five, and bedding just about every woman he meets. The books have varied in quality lately, but are light fun reads.
Three film related books on my shelf that sound like absorbing reads are Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic and Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca. Being an admirer of both films, these books are making me salivate. You can read a review I wrote on High Noon here.
Last but not least on the film front is Dan Van Neste’s new biography of Ricardo Cortez which is a must read.
Hemingway’s Cats – This book came out in 2015, but it only recently came to my attention while I was doing some research about authors and cats for a future post I am looking to write. The macho Hemingway love animals and had a special affection for cats. Throughout his life, from childhood to his suicidal end, the author had cats in his life. Author Carlene Brennan chronicles the felines in Hemingway’s life in words and photos.
Holcomb Bridge has been a secluded and romantic make out spot for the local teenagers for many years, but that changed one late night.
Photographer Derek Shaw’s life changes in both good and bad ways after he meets Karen, the new love in his life, and her two kids, Gerald and Amanda.
Late Night Diner
Some people like working the over night shift. Others need to. It gives their demons and nightmares a place to escape.
Smart Like Dillinger
Love, even in old age, can take an unforeseen turn.
An Almost Perfect Woman
Judy was perfect…well almost. She did have one little problem.
For young Bobby Smithfield there are some lessons you never recover from.
The Organic Garden
A bad marriage and an organic garden make for a delicious mix of ingredients that will make your garden grow.
An Office Romance
Office romances can be great; they can also be bad. However, sometimes it’s just what you need when your life is about to take a deadly turn.
The Anniversary Surprise
As Brad Hollis discovers, surprises do not always turn out quite as you anticipate.
The Old Man
Young Billy Atwood becomes friends with an old man who lives in his apartment building. Their relationship is short lived, but for Billy there’s an unexpected twist of fate.
A Merry Little Christmas Gift
The holidays can brings out the worst in everyone, and does in this Christmas treat.
Can old lovers come back and haunt you? Well, not if they are dead…or can they?
Libraries are sanctuaries for learning. They are storage facilities filled with knowledge providing precious resources for current and future generations. Many books and periodicals no longer available anywhere else are preserved in libraries. Libraries are essential research conduits for writers, doctors, business people, scientist and just about everyone else. They are also on the frontlines against censorship.Bette Davis fights censorship in Storm Center
Today, libraries are not just for books and periodicals. Today, libraries have audio books and movies available for loan. They provide free classes on computer training and other educational opportunities. They present art exhibits, film showings, author presentations, talks, and a multitude of other programs for adults and kids. Libraries are a central part of your home town.
The first modern day public supported library opened in Peterborough, New Hampshire back in 1833.
Don’t let local politicians ever tell you, when they want to cut funding, libraries are not essential. Today, more than ever, they are a fundamental fabric of each and every community.
The first two images below are of the New York Public Library (main branch). It’s the second largest in the world.
The following photographs are of two small libraries in quaint New England towns.
Southwest Harbor, Maine Library
Hancock, Vermont Library
Use, support, defend and fight for your library!