Review of Jack E. Davis’s “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea” in the Dallas Morning News

So last Sunday my review of Jack E. Davis’s The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea appeared in the Dallas Morning News, and can be found here. It’s a terrific book about the Gulf of Mexico, on the shores of which I grew up.

I compared it to Simon Winchester’s Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories (2010)—is it just me, or is that title a tad long? That puts Jack E. Davis in good company: Simon Winchester is one of the few nonfiction writers I follow enthusiastically, as I’ve been a fan of his ever since reading Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded (2003), which was a bestseller, for good reason: his descriptions of Krakatoa’s eruption and the historical research are both harrowing and fascinating. At one point the beaches of Krakatoa burst open and lava began pouring out into the sea, well before the actual explosion of its volcanic cone, which was famously a sound heard over a thousand miles away.

In high school I lived in a rickety wooden house on the shore of Copano Bay, north of Rockport, Texas, and could see heron and egret nests from our upstairs porch. Our pier stretched out into the bay, and I could swim and sail virtually every day of summer, except for the time spent frying and boiling shrimp at my parents’ seafood restaurant. I miss it. My mother used to say we were “born with sand between our toes,” and I think she’s right. The shores of the Gulf haunted me for years, so much that I had to write my own novel as a kind of homage to its effect on me—Goodnight, Texas (2006).

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One Big Monkey: “Kong: Skull Island” Is

So my daughter and I are fans of the original, classic King Kong (1933), and have seen the other remakes, with the most recent Peter Jackson version being the least favorite, while the Jessica Lange/Jeff Bridges version of 1976 being pretty good, but still a pale imitation of the original. Then along comes Skull Island and you can tell the filmmakers watched all the previous versions and decided, “We need to make Kong bigger.”

That they did. He’s so big he couldn’t climb the Empire State Building, because it would only take a few steps. (They don’t end up in New York City anyway, in defiance of Kong protocol.) So you might ask: Is it good? Not really, but it’s lively. Is it better than the original? No, but it is a bit of movie fun. Mainly it’s a money-soaked entry in the hundred-million-dollar Action/Adventure genre, in which there is no real thought and/or plausibility, but things look really cool. Kong fights the Skullcrawlers, big lizard things, and when I say big, I mean Really Big. Like how does Kong even eat? He would need half a jungle a week just to get his daily caloric intake. Brie Larson plays the love interest, supposedly a feminist version, in that she’s spunky and doesn’t faint or cower like Fay Wray and Jessica Lange, but then again, her role isn’t all that important. She was great in Room (2015), but now she appears to be making one comic book super hero embarrassment after another (upcoming movies include Captain Marvel and Avengers), and raking in millions, no doubt. Tom Hiddleston is her hunky man, and he mainly preens and looks mildly annoyed as Kong or the Skullcrawlers kill off his companions. The star of the show is actually John C. Reilly, who is always good, and who will go down in history as the unlikely star of Walk Hard (2007), one of the funniest music-satires ever made. He pretty much gets all the funny lines and mugs for the camera with real flair and wit.

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On the Film Version of Kobo Abe’s novel “Woman in the Dunes” & the Passing of Robert Osborne

So I’m sorry to say I just heard the news that the great emcee of Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne, has passed away at the age of eighty-four. He was like the Walter Cronkite of Old Hollywood classics. He always introduced himself at the start of a film intro, “Hi, I’m Robert Osborne,” and had a great knack for being both a fan, supporter, and comrade-in-arms. He wasn’t a critic in the style of Siskel & Ebert (thank god), but more of a friend of the films he championed. TCM won’t be the same without him. But it’s still a surprisingly good venue for watchable films. Last weekend TCM showed the 1964 classic film version of Kobo Abe’s novel Woman in the Dunes (1962), which managed to recreate the surreal beauty of the novel in cinematic form—not an easy achievement. It’s the kind of film they call hypnotic: long-duration shots of sand dunes and sand shifting, the hapless Japanese widow trapped in her hovel constantly shoveling sand, having to prop an umbrella over the dinner table to keep the sand out of their food. At one point the eerie beauty of her sand-covered nude body is heightened by the black-and-white cinematography as the disturbed, trapped teacher-man looks on. (He goes to this seaside village to study insects and is trapped in a dune-pit, forced to live with the widow, whom he eventually gets pregnant, and when he can finally escape, he chooses not to.) Their fates are an obvious riff on the Sisyphus myth, but so particular and specific, and culturally unique, that it doesn’t feel shopworn or trite. I’d like to think that Robert Osborne chose Woman in the Dunes personally, a last thumbprint on the content of Turner Classic Movies.

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O Gulag, My Gulag: On Daniel Beer’s “The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars”

So I’m a sucker for Russian literature, and while I was recently reading a biography of Leo Tolstoy written by his daughter—Alexandra Tolstoy’s The Life of My Father (1953)—I had to set it down when I heard about this just-out tome, Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (2017), which I couldn’t resist. Published by Knopf and debuting in January, around the same time our nation began reeling from the Manchurian candidate slash “so-called” President Trump, its timeliness and relevancy is part of the draw. A hefty five-hundred pages long, it’s not a light read, but the fact that I finished it is also testament to its quality and fascinating material.

Ultimately The House of the Dead is a plaintive, tragic story of heartlessness and paranoia, of thousands upon thousands of political prisoners and common criminals cast into the rough wilds of Siberia, their ankles bound in chains, their heads shaved on one side, with little warm clothing, horrible food, and pathetic shelter for a century of steady abuse. It was an outrage for intelligent and compassionate Russians, and Beer quotes and references two of nineteenth-century Russian literature’s masters—Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky—who witnessed the privations firsthand. I’ll warn the reader some of the material is not for the faint of heart. The conditions inside the actual prisons were brutal to the point of being sickening, but the ordinary conditions of life outside the physical prisons were gruesome enough. There’s a quote about Siberia being a “vast prison without a roof,” which seems accurate, but doesn’t do justice to the contradictions of this political expedient slash social experiment: the Russian government essentially seized and populated the lands of Siberia with settlers and with political prisoners, and the two populations intermingled very uneasily. Settlers wives and daughters were raped and murdered by “vagabonds”—essentially gangs of escaped prisoners who roamed the countryside, but could not make it all the way back to Mother Russia, otherwise known as Europeanized Russia, west of the Ural Mountains. Most of the prisoners had to walk there, from seventeen hundred to over two thousand miles, all the while their legs were in chains, tramping through bitter snow and ice in winter, heat and humidity in summer. They were sent east  from the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the Ural Mountains, and after the Urals passed a famous obelisk which marked the boundary between Europe and Asia. Here’s a famous painting that marks that point:

“Farewell to Europe!, 1894, former exile Aleksander Sochaczewski’s painting of his fellow Polish rebels of 1863 taking leave of Europe at the Siberian Boundary Post. The painting now hangs in Poland’s Museum of National Independence in Warsaw.”

It’s a terrific book, and has a political moral in tow: While the Czars exiled political prisoners out of fear of a popular uprising against their harsh policies, they created a crucible for the Bolshevik revolution by congregating those exiles all in one vast place. In recent Trump rallies the crowd shouted “Lock her up! Lock her up!” (referencing Hillary Clinton, of course) and bumper-stickers that read “Hillary for Prison, 2016.” There’s much talk in Op-Ed pages about Trump’s slippery slope of race-baiting and insistence on repeating lies, and we should heed the lessons of history when confronting the mendacity that emanates from our current government.

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“Captain Fantastic”: Matt Ross’s Ode to Life Off the Grid

So I caught the indie-hit Captain Fantastic (2016) recently, and after my post not long ago about adventure stories gone wrong, this is a paean to adventure as a lifestyle choice. It’s also something of a genre mixer: adventure tale + psychological realism + family saga + vehicle for eco scenery chewing. Viggo Mortensen is the star, and carries the adult side of things, while his six precocious kids are the real charm of the film.

It’s set in the Pacific Northwest, and opens with a scene in which the family, face-painted and somber, ambush a mule deer for dinner. They’re living in the woods, completely off the grid, sometimes like a primitive tribe, in renunciation of the consumer-culture whoredom that is mainstream culture. There’s much to like about this little gem, which is at turns disturbing, silly, raucous, somber, inspiring, dignified, and rambunctious. I was impressed to learn it’s the brainchild of actor/writer/director Matt Ross, who plays to perfection the devious tech-billionaire Gavin Belson in HBO’s Silicon Valley, and who also played Alby Grant, the tortured closet-homosexual polygamist in HBO’s Big Love. The moment in which Viggo’s kids ask questions about sex and end up reading The Joy of Sex is arch, squirmy fun. The plot roughly revolves around the family adapting and grieving over the suicide of Viggo’s wife and the kids’ mother, and traveling out into mainstream America to confront their history, her legacy, and the limits of home-schooling. I’d qualify it as a comedy, but Viggo Mortensen does a great job in the most tragic moments as well.

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“The Americans”: A New Reality TV Show Starring Melania and Donald

So FX has a series titled The Americans, now in Season Five, in which a pair of Soviet spies are masquerading as a married American couple. I’ve always liked the female lead, Keri Russell, who was in the charming indie movie, Waitress, back in 2007. She makes for a terrific spy, which is fun . . . as long as it’s fiction.

As fact—even “alternative fact”—the result isn’t quite so funny. (Okay, just a little bit. Lampooning Donald is like Ham on Wry.) Maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to have the sneaky suspicion that what we’re experiencing with the U.S. presidency right now is more like a reality-TV version of the show, with worse acting—note Donald’s creepy handshake of the Japanese PM, Conway’s shameless hawking of Ivanka’s “products” on Fox News, the Orwellian doublespeak foaming out of the mouth of Sean Spicer. I mean, look at this picture: Doesn’t Melania look like a Cover Girl spy, a Victoria’s Secret version of the Angela Lansbury spy-mom/puppeteer in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)?

Melania is doing her best to remind us all of Boris & Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle fame, right? Or Helene, Pierre’s devious wife in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869). Hear the voiceover? A Russian accent hissing, “You stupid Americans. We steal country out from under your nose, and laugh at you. Ha ha ha! Welcome to gulag, Yankee pig dog!”

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“The Sailor’s Gift”: Short Essay in the Dallas Morning News

So as I noted in my previous post (The Goodwill Genius: On Discovering Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister) I actually wrote the “wrong” essay for my editor at the Dallas Morning News, remembering it only to be about a book that changed my life. The idea of the prompt, however, was supposed to be about a book given as a gift—in the spirit of the Christmas holidays, natch. Once I realized my mistake, I wrote another essay, which can be found here. (I’ll also post the text of it below.) It’s all true, and involves a high school student who was expelled from school for an entire semester (that miscreant would be, um, me) befriended by a literary sailor (oddly enough, I’m pretty sure his name was Bill, my own name). In the essay I mention two books—Larry Mcmurtry’s In a Narrow Grave (1968) and James Kirkwood’s P.S. Your Cat Is Dead (1972).

Kirkwood is most famous for writing the Broadway hit A Chorus Line, but P.S. Your Cat Is Dead is actually quite fun, and was an eye-opener for a high school kid, especially one who was waiting tables at his parents’ restaurant as he waited to be allowed to return to high school (which he never really liked anyway, but was smart enough to realize that, whether you like it or not, you have to finish high school; it’s a rule). Among other things, P.S. Your Cat Is Dead features a gay burglar tied up and held hostage by a (possibly/probably) gay tenant whose apartment he was burgling.

Larry McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave is a horse of a different color, and is obviously more appreciated by Texans or those interested in Texas culture (read: Texans). I was never a huge fan of McMurtry’s novels, but I liked the early ones the best: The Last Picture Show (1966), Leaving Cheyenne (1963), All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972). I remember the funniest essay being a kind of ethnographic analysis of Texas sexual mores and practices, including the ranch kids’ habits of bestiality. I remember thinking: Not in my neighborhood they don’t.

For the full (and short) essay, see the text below. I never saw the sailor again. I hope he never sank.

The Sailor’s Gift to the Kid

Bearded, sunburnt and gentle, his long hair in a hippy ponytail, clothes spattered with paint and sealant, every day the sailor would come into my parents’ honkytonk café for lunch, and I would take his order and chat. Our café, aptly named The Tall Tale, was off Fulton Beach Road on the Texas coast, a couple blocks from the boat basin, where he worked. He was building a trimaran sailboat with the ambitious, starry-eyed goal of sailing around the world. The year was 1974. I’d been kicked out of school that Fall (which is, as they say, another story) and had time on my hands. He was a nice guy in his twenties, adventurous and educated, with a Master’s degree in literature from the University of Texas—where I wanted to go, if they ever let me back in high school. You could say our lives were headed in different directions, his up and mine down, and we hit it off in a Luke-Skywalker-and-Yoda way. He turned me on to several books, including James Kirkwood’s “P.S.: Your Cat Is Dead,” a zany comic novel published a couple years earlier, which opened my eyes to a world of lit quite different than, say, high-school favs such as Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” Around Christmas the sailor gave me a paperback whose jacket featured an image of a cowboy boot decorated with the lone star emblem of the Texas flag, the first book I was ever to read by the author Larry McMurtry—“In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas.” I was already a wannabe writer but had read more books about life in New York or Paris than Texas, and McMurtry’s little gem showed me even the salt-marsh prairies beyond my back door could be as interesting as Greenwich Village or the Left Bank. One day I looked up to find the sailor gone. Just like that, his boat was finished and he sailed away. But he left a note for me to keep reading and writing, and I’ve come to think, in the odd way common enough in real life, that he made a difference in mine.—December 2016

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The Goodwill Genius: On Discovering Vladimir Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister”

So back in December my editor at the Dallas Morning News asked me (and other contributing writers) to pen a brief essay about a book I’d been given as a gift some time in my life, and I actually wrote two. The first one turned out to be a mistake, in that I neglected the “gift” angle, and only remembered the essay prompt to be about a book that changed my life. When my editor explained it didn’t quite fit the prompt, I wrote another. Here’s the first one, about one of the great writers of the Twentieth Century.

The Goodwill Genius: On Discovering Vladimir Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister”

On the dusty shelves of a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas, circa 1979 (in the dimly lit rear of the store, by the flyspeck shelves of plastic toys and dented cookware), I came across a book I’d never heard of by a writer I’d never heard of, and without fanfare or fireworks, it changed my life. It was Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Bend Sinister, first published by Holt in 1947, but due to the success of Lolita (1955), reissued in the Sixties. The paperback copy I bought for fifty cents includes Nabokov’s supremely haughty and gently comic Introduction, in which he urges readers not to make comparisons they will obviously make, and admits, “The title’s drawback is that a solemn reader looking for ‘general ideas’ or ‘human interest’ (which is much the same thing) in a novel may be led to look for them in this one” (xii). I only bought the book because I liked the garish, trippy cover—shades of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”—and because the novel begins with one of the greatest descriptions of a puddle ever written: “An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky. Surrounded, I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves have stuck. Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size.” I love the use of oblong, tentacled, and spatulate, as well as the alliteration of “dull dun dead” and “fancy footprint.” It reminds me of a review of The Bird Saviors I received years ago by a petulant twit who argued I “used too many metaphors.” Which was said about Nabokov by various critics, otherwise known as other nitwits.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I learned to write by reading Nabokov—all his books, several times. Bizarrely, after thirty-seven years and several lifetimes, I still have that dog-eared copy of Bend Sinister, which has now lost its cardstock covers, front and back, yet has my quaint, loopy signature on the first page, a physical scratching of my life so long ago, put there as a marker in case it, or I, ever got lost.—December 2016

Tomorrow I’ll post the other essay, the one that did make it to press.

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On Adventures Gone Wrong: Stephane Gerson’s “Disaster Falls” and Jason Kersten’s “Journal of the Dead”

So I stumbled upon a book that touches close to home for me, as a naturalist who drags his young daughter with him to various outdoor locales seething with both beauty and danger, filled with the confidence and aplomb that would perhaps be best summed up with the phrase: “It’ll never happen to me.” The book is Stephane Gerson’s nonfiction/memoir Disaster Falls: A Family Story (2017), about a whitewater rafting trip on which he eight-year-old son died. (You can find the New York Times review of it here.)

It’s actually one of my greatest fears: doing something foolish that would result in a child being injured or dying, which is why I wrote my story “Letting the Dog Out” years ago, which is included in my book of stories The White Tattoo (2002). To make a short story even shorter: in “Letting the Dog Out” a man accidentally runs over a child. How could you live with yourself after that? In the particular circumstances of my short story, I really don’t know. To quote T. S. Eliot’s poem “Gerontion” (1920): “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” It would be catastrophic. I don’t think I could go on. And I think this awareness guides my behavior, directly and subtly.

“Letting the Dog Out” features an auto-accident of sorts, but the synopsis of Gerson’s book is quite another thing, and hit home for a number of reasons: I’ve taken my daughter whitewater rafting many times now, starting when she was two (!!), and have rafted the Green and Colorado rivers in Utah, as well as the Gunnison River in Colorado, and Disaster Falls unfolds on the Colorado River at the Colorado/Utah border. Its drama hinges in part on the boy’s parents taking him into harm’s way, with tragic results—a risk I’ve taken many times. Although Secretary of Education nominee/dimwit Betsy DeVos may worry schools need guns to protect themselves from grizzly bears, I can report that I’ve taken Lili backpacking in Yellowstone National Park a half-dozen times now, most recently last summer to Heart Lake, armed with nothing more than a can of pepper spray. For me Yellowstone is no less than a spiritual center of North America, and one of my favorite backcountry areas to visit, but it comes with serious danger: grizzlies. I’m always a bit nervous about this, and am inveterate reader of grizzly lore and grizzly attack stories. Last summer I read Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone (2014) right before our trip—which has the rather surprising info that many more people have died falling into hot springs in Yellowstone than have been attacked by grizzlies.

But do I worry when I take her into Yellowstone’s backcountry? You bet. I worry. Last summer I was awakened in the middle of the night by what sounded like a large animal snorting outside my tent, and immediately went into action, waking up all my camping companions (two families) by shouting, “Bear! Bear! Everybody up!” (It later turned out, to my chagrin, that I was probably awakened by one of my campmates’ loud snoring.) I always keep the pepper spray handy, knowing full well that there are many situations in which it would not be of much help. Do I want my family to end up like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant (2015)? I do not. Here’s my intrepid camper at Heart Lake, doing her best Tom Hardy imitation.

But . . . what? Should we stay home? Stay inside? Take up needlepoint, jigsaw puzzles? Or for my daughter, the glorious online seductions of AnimalJam and Minecraft? You can guess where I’m going with this: I love the outdoors and know the calculated risks of backpacking in grizzly country. Or whitewater rafting, during which you have to deal with the complex dynamics of rushing water. Three things stand out about the boy’s tragic death in Disaster Falls: It was the first day of their rafting trip; they tried something too risky for their skill level; and they weren’t comfortable with what they were doing, seemed to be trying to push themselves beyond their limits. It’s easy for me to say those are all mistakes, but I’ll also say I don’t judge the family one bit. It’s the old saw: There but for the grace of God go I.

For those who are captivated by these “adventures gone wrong” tales, Jason Kersten’s Journal of the Dead (2003) is a heartbreaker. It basically describes the mystifying tragedy of two college friends, David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian, whose overnight camping trip near Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico turned into a survival ordeal, one that ended with Kodikian stabbing Coughlin to death. Although there were theories about other motives, the truth of what actually happens seems fairly evident, through a preponderance of evidence: the two young men became disoriented, were lost in the desert, could not find the way back to their car, ran out of water and started to die of dehydration. Coughlin urged Kodikian to kill him, to put him out of his misery, and Kodikian did so. It’s bizarre, horrible, inexplicable . . . but true. And I should note this biographical tie-in: The incident took place in August 1999, and that semester I was teaching at Penn State. (Note that Kodikian grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia.) Talking to a writing class one day, I mentioned reading about the story in the news, and one of my students explained he knew Raffi Kodikian, and that Kodikian was a good person. I think that personal recommendation is what led me to read  Journal of the Dead when I came across it, years later.

Ultimately Kersten’s description and analysis of the tragedy is both dramatic and sound. If there’s a connection between the tragedies of Disaster Falls and Journal of the Dead, it’s that both tragedies occurred in part due to the people being unfamiliar and new to what they were doing: In Gerson’s book it was whitewater rafting, and in Kersten’s it was desert hiking and camping. I’m going to continue adventuring in the West, and am already making kayaking and backpacking plans for next summer in Utah and in Grand Tetons National Park (grizzly country!), and although I’ll try to be as careful as possible, I know there will be risks. Still, adventure is worth it. Life itself is a risk.

Here’s my (then) nine-year-old daughter, Lili, paddling her own kayak last summer (going solo, upon which she insisted) at String Lake in the Grand Tetons National Park.

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On the National Embarrassment of President Trump: “The Manchurian Candidate” Meets “The Bad Seed”

So waking up to the nightmare of a Trump presidency (who really wants to look at this guy for four more years?), I’m reminded of two great classic films: the original Manchurian Candidate (1962) and a quirky predecessor, The Bad Seed (1956).

Trump is a hybrid of the two. He’s got the Russian backing of Raymond Shaw (played with great coldness by Laurence Harvey, opposite the nervousness of no less than Frank Sinatra) and the temperament of Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormick)—the adorable, jealous brat who kills the little Daigle boy because she wanted the medal for penmanship that he won. Like Rhoda, Trump carries a grudge, and like Raymond, he’s a homegrown American who plays into the Russian’s hands.

I was glad to see my second home state, Colorado, didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. Not that it’s much consolation. In the words of Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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