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.

Posted in Vladimir Nabokov, books | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Bears, The West, Uncategorized, books | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.”

Posted in Politics, books/film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Horror Films, The West, books/film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

Posted in books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Cormac McCarthy, The West, books/film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in The West, books, books/film | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Birding, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Birding, Climate Change, Uncategorized, books, books/film | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment