Slouching Toward Bethlehem (While Walking Across Campus, Staring at Their Phones)

So for many months now I’ve watched (along with most other people) the rise of Donald Trump with a mixture of bafflement and dismay, contemplating the scary possibility that he could actually be Leader of the Free World (seems bizarre, yes) in one month. I’ve even noticed the squirming goblin of this horror wriggling into the novel I’ve been writing, though painted in broad strokes, for good reason—ultimately I think Trump will be tossed into the trash heap of history, and one doesn’t need to add the dregs. Still I’m reminded of the old ad campaign for David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986): “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.”

His “policies” have been laughable to ridiculous: build a two-thousand mile wall at the (mostly desert) border of the U.S. and Mexico, ban Muslims, reintroduce “stop-and-frisk” police tactics, big tax cuts for the wealthy—the list goes on and on. But he’s the Republican candidate for President: enough said.

Sometimes it seems it’s all my friends and colleagues have been talking about for months, with one big exception I discovered starting in September: college students. I’ve also found that somewhat baffling. All the adults I know (even the children) have been talking about the election—a turning point in history, no less, perhaps the election of the first woman president—but my college students have been noticeably quiet about it. True, it’s not my position to proselytize to them about the importance of voting for Hillary Clinton, though I have urged them to vote, and to vote for an smart, sane candidate. But after I noticed the lack of discussion in before-class chitchat among the students, I directly asked my classes why. The best explanation seemed to be along the lines of “We’re over it” and “They’re both equally bad candidates,” the second statement of which I totally disagree, but hey, it’s a common opinion. The “We’re over it” response is a repudiation of our campaign system itself, for being too long and drawn-out. And the students who voiced this had a valid point: after the drama of the primaries—and for many, the supporters of Bernie Sanders’s disappointment—they feel as if it’s now a slog toward Election Day, which is, to some extent, correct.

The one unifying activity in this last month? Staring at their screens. The most common image of a college student in 2016 should be Student X walking across campus, staring at his/her smartphone, or walking along talking to the air. The media is often filled with prognostications about Millennials, most of which I find rather dubious. And even though I’m experiencing this myself, I realize how arbitrary my classes are, as any sampling of the thousands of students that make up a large university such as Penn State (population of @ 42,000!). But still: It has me worried. I quoted a William Butler Yeats poem, “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop,” in class the other day, and students looked at me as if I were being a bit loony. Yeats’s “slouching toward Bethlehem” line is so oft-quoted it’s a cliche that needs updating: Add the image of a person walking along, staring at a smartphone—right or wrong, that’s what October 2016 feels a bit like to me.

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On HBO’s Westworld: Where Humans Go for Fun, Known to the Hosts as Hell

So out of pity for my poor blog that never gets attention, I’ll download myself out of the iCloud in which I reside to report that I’m jazzed about the new HBO series Westworld. For one thing it takes me back, back in time, to when dinosaurs ruled the earth . . . . Um, wait: Nope, not that long ago. Back only to the glorious and oft-misrepresented 1980s, when I was living on Palisade Avenue in the Jersey Heights section of Jersey City, NJ, working at various editorial jobs in Manhattan (back in the day when I could see the Twin Towers from our living room window), and before cable came to our street. (Hard to believe but I think that’s true.) It was in the era of less-technology options (how we suffered! and were free, yes, free!), and our TV viewing options were either network channels or some indie stations in the NYC area. One of these stations was like Netflix only different: It’s “playlist” included about eight films (it seemed) in the late-night options, and one of those was the original Michael Crichton Westworld (1973), which starred James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as the humans, and the incomparable Yul Brynner (you have to love him for the name alone) as the bad guy robot. Crichton actually directed the film, based on his own script. (Note that in the original film, there was also a Medieval and a Roman World.) I saw it over and over again, a kind of guilty pleasure. It’s no great movie, but it’s certainly fun. Brolin and Benjamin together was a nice bit of casting, as one is the more macho type, one the more bookish (guess who survives), and Brynner as the stony-faced Gunslinger.

Flash forward to October 2nd, 2016, and the debut of HBO’s new Westworld series, which seems to have one-upped the original concept. The debut is both bloody violent and conceptually fascinating. As we have advanced in our notions of what A.I. is capable of—think of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near (2006)—the stakes have risen on what might happen if we create these robots for our pleasure and amusement.

Judging from the first episode, here’s a good theory of what’s taking place in the series: the Anthony Hopkins character (Dr. Robert Ford, a bland-enough name) is the brains behind the Westworld theme park, and has become an aging, hoary god-like figure, improving his technology so that the “hosts” (what they call the robots) are not exactly machines anymore, but sentient beings, who are being tortured and raped and killed for the amusement of the “newcomers” (what they call the humans who visit the park). And as the hosts have advanced, they’re no longer so cool with playing this game. Essentially we humans have inadvertently created a Hell for robots: They do the same thing over and over again, suffer and die and love and yearn over and over again, and a glitch in the updating process has made them realize and recall their past lives, so they are beginning to realize what is happening to them, and to really feel it.

I was leery of the show when I read that J. J. Abrams was involved, as I’m not a fan, but so far it seems addictive. James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood are two of the central host characters, and both are doing a good job, while the Gunslinger role is now craggy-faced Ed Harris’s, who uses it to great scenery-chewing affect. Even the setting is rather cool, a mash-up of famous Western locales, principally Monument Valley in Arizona.

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“The Altered States of Stuffed Animals” in The Superstition Review

So I have an essay titled “The Altered States of Stuffed Animals” published in the latest issue of The Superstition Review, which can be located here. I have a fondness for TSR, as they have published some of my work in the past, and twice have invited me to do guest blog posts.

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On Ian McGuire’s “The North Water”: a Revisionist “Moby Dick,” With Echoes of “Blood Meridian” and “The Revenant”

So last week I had the gripping-if-ghastly reading experience of zooming through Ian McGuire’s new novel, The North Water. I’ll try to be circumspect in my comments here so as not to spoil the reading “fun” for others, as I do heartily recommend it. Simply put, I’d rank it as one of the best new novels I’ve read in the last few years. It’s a literary adventure tale of sorts, not for the faint of heart. At times I’m sure the gore would be over the top, or too much, for some readers, but eventually I think the power and eccentricity of the language is more important than the blood, pus, and other bodily fluids that leak or gush about on one page or another. You could certainly label it “Tarantinoesque,” but it’s smarter than Tarantino’s films, and the gore has more seriousness to it—more shocking than, say, humorous, as some of the scenes in Django Unchained (2012) are downright funny, not particularly thoughtful.

The obvious comparison is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). The story unfolds in 1857-59, and the point is made repeatedly that it’s the end of the whaling era, which figures into the plot dynamics. There’s a good vs. evil dynamic with the characters of Patrick Sumner vs. Henry Drax, although Drax is not the maniacal captain a la Moby Dick’s Ahab, and Sumner is ultimately both more fallen and resourceful than Ishmael. The North Water is less philosophical, shorter, and tighter than Moby Dick, and obviously is a child of the 21st century, as Melville’s masterpiece is a child of the 19th century. Even though Queequeg and Ishmael sleep together at their first meeting, and become bosom buddies, Melville is hesitant to write about homosexuality, which plays a bit part in the plot of The North Water. Both novels have a “mythic” feel to them, and as far as what’s realistic or not, I’d give Melville more credit there, for having actually been a sailor on a whaling ship in that era. To me that doesn’t matter. The North Water isn’t necessarily trying to be realistic, and the one work of literature that figures prominently in the background of the story is The Iliad, and that touchstone of myth is telling.

Other comparisons are to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) and the recent Leo DiCaprio film, The Revenant (2015).  The Sumner/Drax dynamic corresponds to the Hugh Glass/Fitzgerald of The Revenant, with Drax being the implacable force of blunt trauma, and Sumner being the more reflective and wronged party in this death dance. What sets The North Water apart is its archaic, elaborate language, which includes some knife-edge descriptions of the frozen Arctic seas. In that respect it more closely resembles McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is famous for its Satanic character Judge Holden, but which also owes much of its power to its baroque language and the fantastic descriptions of the desert wild lands of Mexico and the Southwest.

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On T.J. Stiles’s “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America”: a Pulitzer That Deserves It

So I’ve been a fan of both (the celebrated myth of) George Armstrong Custer and the excellent historian/biographer T.J. Stiles for many years, and when these two worlds collided, it’s not surprising that I read Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of New America (2015) when it first came out last fall. The word arrived yesterday that it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for History, and deservedly so.

It’s a great bookend for Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002). Both mainly use their subject matter as a springboard to offer a juicy, insightful vision of the American West and the Civil War era. I’ve read a number of books about Custer, with my previous favorite being Evan S. Connell’s great Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn (1984). His life has been examined and retold many times, perhaps most recently with Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010). That Stiles could fashion a great book from familiar material is certainly an achievement, but what’s more important: He offers a vision of the American West that overturns some of the stereotypes, and offers greater understanding. One of the truisms about Custer is that he was simply a fool, and Stiles gives him much more credit than that. Reading about Custer’s victories in the Civil War, you have to be impressed with his military skill. But he was complex. At times racist, he also showed kindness to freed slaves and fought for the Union. At times foolhardy, he was generally successful and brilliant in battle. You come away from Custer’s Trials with the feeling that the Little Bighorn was as much of an accident as a foolish mistake. But that’s just one battle—iconic though it is—and there’s much more to the story. One of the most eye-opening sections concerns the possibility of a military coup to overthrow Lincoln during the Civil War.

Now and then there are books/films that seem not to deserve their accolades, and it’s best not to dwell on those sour grapes—though, for an easy example, Jack Nicholson was robbed by not winning Best Actor for his knockout performance in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002). Stiles winning a Pulitzer for Custer’s Trials is a great example of when a book deserves its prize.

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Review of Dominic Smith’s “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” in the Dallas Morning News

So interested readers can find my review of Dominic Smith’s novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos in today’s Dallas Morning News here. I liked the book: quiet and understated.

I don’t really know anything about Smith, though I did cross paths with him over a decade ago, when both of us had fellowships at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin, Texas, a six-month writing fellowship gig where you get to live on a 250+ acre ranch near Austin, with no requirements other than to write. I loved my time there, where I finished Goodnight, Texas in an idyllic Texas springtime. The birding was amazing, with Painted Buntings, Golden-cheeked Warblers (endangered), Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and even a migrant juvenile Whooping Crane passing through the landscape. Barton Creek winds through the ranch, and as it was a rainy, wet spring, we were able to swim in the creek our whole time there. On my birthday I remember how we were awakened by the gobbling of Wild Turkeys in our yard. Plus we had a trio of enormous longhorn cattle that liked to come feed on the grass in our yard. We were supposed to keep them out, but had a soft spot for the great bovines. My wife actually fed them cornbread, which they liked so much they later came up onto the porch to basically knock at the door, begging for more.

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On Sonia Shah’s “Pandemic” and Antarctica’s Looming Meltdown: Drowning in a Sea Full of Germs

So a few years back I often wrote about Climate Change and its slo-mo catastrophe, especially when it seemed that we had the chance to alter our Titanic-like course toward that (melting) iceberg, but of late I’ve been more reticent, only wanting to add something to the discussion if it seemed less obvious than the mainstream blather. Today there’s a new piece in the NY Times about a scarier-than-usual scenario of Climate Change, here, and that, coupled with my having just finished Sonia Shah’s terrific new book, Pandemic, deserves a mention.

First off, Shah’s book is now one of my favs in a long list of pandemic-related books, such as John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004), John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005), and David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012). Note: Quammen gets credit for not using the word “great” in his title.

Compared to those three (there are many others), Pandemic’s approach is somewhat of a hybrid. She delves into the science of “spillover” or “crossover” zoonotic diseases that move from animal to human populations, as does Quammen, but also present something of A Brief History of Cholera, which is both fascinating and a bit disgusting. She describes SARS as well, touching on the wild animal food markets in China, and the role of bats as links between human and animal populations (pigs as well), and creates the same kind of queasiness in the reader as in watching Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), which features Gwyneth Paltrow as a kind of modern-day Typhoid Mary—not surprising, perhaps, as we should wonder about that Goop she hawks.

Shah is not one to shy away from descriptions of unpleasant bodily fluids spraying forth here and there, and makes you aware of just how germs can be transmitted in both the past and the present. In fact, that’s what makes her story so powerful: She describes the cholera and Ebola outbreaks of the last few years, and explains how they’re both symbolic of our changing times, and particular.

Shah is skilled at describing the “particular” conditions that lead to various pandemics. One of those that’s affecting us now and will no doubt continue in the future is Climate Change. We’re heating up the planet and causing animal populations to move into new areas (one of the central theses of Kelly’s book about the great plague outbreak of the 14th century). It’s a fast, brutal read, and will make you think twice about taking that antibiotic for a sinus infection: if you do, your body could become inured to its effects, and you may need it for something much greater in the future.

It’s enough to scare you from ever venturing out into that germ-crowded area known as “public space.” I should also add that the Climate Change scientists responsible for this new study are at Penn State, my home turf as well. And lastly, my novel The Bird Saviors touches on both Climate Change and pandemics, as shadows behind the people.

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Monsters Within & Without the Bunker: On “10 Cloverfield Lane,” Which High-Fives “The Revenant,” With a Nod to the Original “Cloverfield”

So I was amused by the original Cloverfield (2008), with its cool poster of the Statue of Liberty and tagline: Some Thing Has Found Us. It’s no great film or anything—kind of a Heineken ad spliced with (the film version of) Stephen King’s The Mist (2007)—but it gets major bonus points for misdirection and sleight-of-hand focus: For the first half hour or so, you think it’s just another somewhat-dopey “relationship” flick, the kind of breakup story where the male’s best friend says, “She’s too good for you, man!” then it isn’t. It takes place on party night in New York . . . cool and easy, until something starts to happen. They look out the windows, see skyscrapers on fire, mayhem erupting. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, I’ll stop there, and just add that when the monsters arrive, they’re pretty wicked. And it follows the breakup story throughout, keeping that cinema verite/handheld video cam silliness going the whole time, and pulls off an odd mixture of relationship/disaster/alien invasion trifecta, reminiscent of one of my favorite horror fiction writers, Stephen Graham Jones, who has a new novel coming out in May, published by William Morrow, btw, Mongrels.

Flash forward to March 2016, and along comes this new movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane, which outdoes the original, but should most definitely be identified as not being a sequel. As they say in the land of Oz, “It’s a horse of a different color.” Again I’d hedge my praise with “It’s no great movie,” but greatness should be a pretty high bar to clear, and I’ll add it’s way wicked fun. I expect I’ll be watching this one again and again on DirecTV. It also has a twisted tagline: Monsters come in many forms. The film’s main focus (and star) is Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who does a great job, and at times resembles a somewhat stressed-out Natalie Wood, followed by John Goodman as Howard, a great big bear of a man keeping her locked-up in his doomsday prepper bunker. Goodman makes the movie (and the role) come to life, lumbering around in his sloppy enormity, audibly breathing like a dragon with emphysema, and being just creepy and just kind enough to keep you guessing. John Gallagher as Emmett is probably the most likable character, and I was bummed when he departed the storyline.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say this is one that pulls off some clever slam-bang plot twists and turns, and gets visceral from the outset—a horrendous car crash scene that jolts you from the get-go. But then it lulls you to rest for a while, with its Fifties Oldies jukebox backing up a montage of them playing Monopoly and doing jigsaw puzzles, and then ramps up the tension once again. Late in the film there’s a moment that parallels The Revenant‘s over-the-topness, specifically when Leo DiCaprio spends the night in the dead horse, gets up in the morning, crawls out of the carcass, and walks away: When I saw that in the theater I quipped to my friend, “Another day at the office.” 10 Cloverfield Lane is actually more fun/less misery than The Revenant, though I suppose I’ll still give The Rev status as better film, if only because that grizzly bear attack scene rocks.

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They Eat Horses, Don’t They? “The Revenant” v. “Backcountry”: A Tale of Two Bears, With Nods to Peter Stark’s “Astoria” and David Roberts’s “A Newer World”

So I’ve been getting caught up on some of the Oscar-bait for this year, as in watching Matt Damon’s improbable space rescue in The Martian, and seeing The Revenant in a local theater, where I laughed and made too many jokes for some of my fellow film-goers, but nobody complained. I feel slightly sorry for the (overhyped) Backcountry now, as The Revenant puts it to shame, featuring what I’d rank as the No. 1 Best All-Time Bear Attack in film. It’s so gruesome I was squirming and wincing in my seat. And the comparison of the two films: the direction of Backcountry comes across as clumsy, foretelling the bear’s attack too much, as typical of the standard horror-film cliche treatment. (Perhaps they’re all trying to follow Hitchcock’s famous advice about suspense, but few ever pull it off the way Hitchcock did.) In The Revenant, even though you know it includes a bear attack, you don’t see it coming until whammy, it’s there, in your face.

But the bear attack is just one episode of the grim, 2 1/2 hour film. An arduous experience, best lightened by humor. (At times it flirts with comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s epic/gruesome Western, Blood Meridian.) Coincidentally, I just read a book about the early fur trade established by John Jacob Astor—Peter Stark’s Astoria (2014), which covers the period ten years before this event (The Revenant is based on the Hugh Glass historical legend), and is a terrific read. I’m a fan of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery journey, and Stark’s book about Astor’s plan to found a fur-trading empire on the coast of Oregon takes place only some five-six years later.

Plus this fall I read another book about Kit Carson—David Roberts’s A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and the Claiming of the American West (2000), which also deals with the “Mountain Man” era of the 1820s-40s. With this nonfiction background, I would say that the filmmakers were generally realistic. Tom Hardy’s garbled way of speaking is actually somewhat accurate, in that observers noted that Mountain Men tended to have odd speech mannerisms, from being isolated for months at a time. There’s some unrealistic “camping” details (they always seem to have fires burning without having to constantly feed them wood), and Leo DiCaprio would probably just freeze to death when he climbs out on that snowy bank after fleeing the Indians by swimming a river in winter, but that’s beside the point.

Of the three films—the two others being The Martian and Backcountry—yes, The Revenant is the best, though I suppose I’d rate all three as being worth watching. I don’t know if I’d say The Revenant is Best Picture good, but it is so grim it’s almost funny. I was cracking jokes with a friend in the theater and laughing at inappropriate times. At one point DiCaprio crawls out of a dead horse’s corpse, gets dressed, and walks away, and I quipped, “Just another day at the office.”

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The Year Without a Winter: Two Centuries Later, a Climate Switcheroo

So some years back I read a good book titled The Year Without a Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History (2013), by William and Nicholas Klingaman (that name makes you wonder: or are they really Klingons?), which is basically about the climate chaos wrought (wrought? I never get to use that word anymore) by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. It’s a good climate-change read, making a convincing argument for how this weather event/anomaly—which led to famine and cloudy/cold weather in the northern hemisphere (1816 also being known as “18-Hundred-And-Froze-to-Death”)—affected politics and culture as well, particularly (or most obviously) with the development of the Gothic literary genre via Percy Bysshe Shelly, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dr. Polidari, and Lord Byron giving monster-birth (“It’s alive!”) to Frankenstein and a popular vampire tale.

So how tidy it is that two centuries later we’re witnessing The Year Without a Winter. I’m currently living in Pennsylvania (and have been here, off and on, when I’m not in Colorado, for twenty-one years) and have never experienced such a warm winter. (I know it’s an El Nino year, right. But still.) People were jogging in their T-shirts and shorts last weekend. (A rather unlikely scream here: “It’s so horrible I can’t take it!”) Actually, it is rather nice. But pretty poison. I’ve read and have written about climate change for many years now (drought figures prominently in my last novel, The Bird Saviors, set in the American Southwest), and all our national efforts have amounted to squat, though I give President Obama credit for at least trying. God forbid one of the Republican know-nothings get elected. I cringe when I hear that Marco Rubio is somehow “better” than all the others: He’s made a point recently to thump the bible as hard as he can, and to warn that climate change mitigation will ruin the economy (which is nonsense, really), but even if it does hard the economy, what’s worse? Some economic adjustment or climate chaos?

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