The chain of command sometimes rattles more than at other times.

The chain of command sometimes rattles more than at other times.

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Monday morning writing joke: “programming language”

The programmer’s wife tells him: “Run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, get a dozen.”

The programmer comes home with 12 loaves of bread.

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Book review: John D. MacDonald Before Travis McGee

Book Review: John D. MacDonald Before Travis McGee – WSJ.

There’s a special kind of poignancy—amounting at times to pure excruciation—in seeing a great writer get famous for his worst books. When people bring up John D. MacDonald, they are almost always thinking of the dopey series of adventure stories he wrote about a Florida beach bum named Travis McGee. Ignored and forgotten are his early novels, 40 of them, which he poured out in one decadelong creative rush in the 1950s—thrillers, crime dramas, social melodramas, even science fiction—that taken together make him one of the secret masters of American pop fiction.

John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald

There is some hope that the situation may be about to change. Random House is engaged in a major effort to make almost all of MacDonald’s work available again. Inevitably, pride of place is being given to the McGee series, now reissued in spiffy trade paperbacks—all 21 of them, written between the early 1960s and MacDonald’s death in 1986, identifiable by their cutesy color-coded titles (“Darker Than Amber,” “Dress Her In Indigo,” “Pale Gray for Guilt”) as though they were a noir-inflected line of designer paint chips.

They were meant to be commercial products, and their main appeal today is nostalgia. They’re a kind of mausoleum of postwar American machismo. McGee is the classic wish-fulfillment daydream: an idler on a permanent vacation, who lives on a houseboat on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He is tanned, ruggedly handsome and muscular; irresistible to women (something about his rueful romantic melancholy and his preference for athletic, commitment-free sex); and intimidating to men (in the late and feeble “Free Fall in Crimson,” where McGee should by rights be filling out membership forms for AARP, his superior masculinity awes and humbles a motorcycle gang).

In novel after novel, nobody ever bests McGee, nobody ever seriously challenges him—though the bad guys do sneak up behind him and knock him unconscious so many times you wonder if he needs a neurologist on speed dial. Meanwhile, the action keeps grinding to a halt so McGee can vent his opinions on contemporary life: the best power tools, the perfect cocktail, the proper way to set up stereo speakers, the menace of air conditioning in grocery stores. These opinions are notable mainly for their unconscious philistinism—as when the perfect dinner menu proves to be this staccato bark: “medium rare, butter on the baked, Italian dressing.” No real man in those days ever ate anything but steak, potato and salad.

But then there’s the rest of MacDonald’s oeuvre. Random House is issuing these in a jumble of paperback reprints and e-book exclusives, but at least they’re there, and no longer need be scrounged out at ruinous prices from the secondhand market. These are the books MacDonald did before he invented McGee, when he was trying out every conceivable pop genre of the postwar market, from soft-core sex comedies to psychological horror.

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Photo finish Friday: “Morning glory”

Dark blue Morning Glory

Dark blue Morning Glory

Light blue Morning Glories

Light blue Morning Glories

Morning glory, what’s your story?

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Hiaku to you Thursday: “The kiss”

Your lips renounce me. /

Still, I kiss their feathered tips. /

The edges of flesh.

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Writing tip Wednesday: interview with Ursula K. LeGuin

The otherworldly and utterly Portland Ursula K. Le Guin

by Sue Zalokar

“Well, imagination is based on experience. The way everything in the world is made out of the elements combined in endless ways, everything in the mind is made out of bits of experienced reality combined in endless ways. So a child’s imagination deepens with living, with wider experience of reality. And so does a writer’s.”
–Ursula K. LeGuin


Ursula K. Le Guin started writing when she was five and has been publishing her work since the 1960s. Throughout her career, she has delved into some of the most insightful, political, ecological and socially important topics of our time. She has created utopian worlds and utopian societies. She boldly challenged gender barriers by simply doing what she was born to do: write.

Her first major work of science fiction, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” is considered epoch-making in the field for its radical investigation of gender roles and its moral and literary complexity. At a time when women were barely represented in the writing world, specifically in the genre of Science Fiction, Le Guin was taking top honors for her novels. Three of Le Guin’s books have been finalists for the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and among the many honors she has earned, her writing has received a National Book Award, five Hugo Awards and five Nebula Awards.

In Paris in 1953 she married Charles A. Le Guin, a historian, and since 1958 they have lived in Portland. They have three children and four grandchildren.

After some correspondence, Le Guin invited me to her home to talk. I arrived bearing fresh-picked berries from Sauvie Island. She took me into her study and showed me the view she had of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin

Urusula K. Le Guin: It was the biggest thing I’ve ever seen and I don’t want to see anything that big again. It was just inconceivable. It was kind of overcast in the morning, after the eruption, but (before that) the clouds were burned off and there was this pillar of – it looked like smoke – but it was really mostly dirt being blown upward by the heat of the eruption. I think it was 80,000 feet. It was awful and beautiful and it went on and on. The column, it moved very slowly. You could see it sort of swirling and there was lightning in it, striking all of the time. It was something else.

Sue Zalokar: I can only imagine. I don’t know much about the history of the eruption. Did you have much warning?

U.K.L.: There was lots of warning. The mountain had been rumbling and shaking and dumping black matter on her snow all spring. It was really bad luck. They thought she’d gone into a sort of a quiet phase and so they told people they could go that weekend to their cabins, run in and get their belongings out. Well, that was the weekend she blew. So that’s why there were 60 to 70 people killed. You can’t predict a volcano.

I got really fascinated with the volcano. About a year and few months after the eruption, the whole mountain was called “The Red Zone.” You could go part way up and then above that, you had to have a permit to go in and the only people that were going in were loggers dragging dead trees out. The roads were destroyed, there were just logging roads. Me, a photographer and an artist, got a permit to go in (to the Red Zone) as a poet, a photographer and an artist.

S.Z.: Awesome.

U.K.L.: How about that? I hardly ever pull strings, but we pulled a few and we got a day pass into the Red Zone. We drove around in this awful, unspeakable landscape of ash. Nothing but ash and dead trees. And the trees, just like grey corpses, all pointing the same direction where the blast of the eruption blew them down.

Well, imagination is based on experience. The way everything in the world is made out of the elements combined in endless ways, everything in the mind is made out of bits of experienced reality combined in endless ways. So a child’s imagination deepens with living, with wider experience of reality. And so does a writer’s.Twenty-five years later, a few years ago, I went back to that same area, which they thought would take at least 100 years to come back and regrow. It’s all green. There are trees coming up and flowers blooming like mad, birds, deer, elk. That mountain, she makes herself over and over. It’s quite a story.

S.Z.: Was there a specific piece of writing that came out of that experience in the Red Zone?

U.K.L.: Yes. I wrote poems called “In the Red Zone” and I wrote a piece with the same title.

S.Z.: What distinguishes experience from imagination in writing and is one more essential to the process of writing than the other?

The rest of the interview at:

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What's next? Sucker punch?

What’s next? Sucker punch?

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