“The North Water”: This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Moby Dick

So Ian McGuire’s novel of 2015, The North Water, is one of the best of that decade. It’s demented and visual, a twisted contrast to such polar adventure tales such as Shackleton’s Endurance. Now it’s a miniseries of five episodes, and I can report it’s actually Pretty Good. Great acting, terrific visuals. The malevolent star of the film is Colin Farrell’s character Henry Drax. Farrell does a great job pulling off this difficult character. He’s awful, but he’s compelling. He’s real. It’s a great revisionist Moby Dick of sorts, twisted for our times.

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Day 25: On David Quammen's "Spillover": Terrific Book That Foretold Our Pandemic, Kind of

So I’ve seen various books mentioned as predicting pandemics, now that the coronavirus time is nigh, but not much mention of one of the best virus books I’ve read: David Quammen’s nonfiction book about the biology behind zoonotic diseases, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012). I read it when it first came out, and am a fan of Quammen’s work, dating back to his days at Outside magazine. It’s a terrific read, both thoughtful and technical. Some of the parts about African viruses are downright scary, including the search for the origins of Ebola and Marburg virus. It’s a good read in these trying times, Day 25 of my virus hunkering.

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Masks for Everybody! Stick 'em Up!

So my wife made me a coronavirus mask. I have the curious itch to rob a bank.

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"The Hunt" Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Bomb

So we all heard the hoopla about the notorious “anti-liberal” film The Hunt back in the Fall, causing its debut to be delayed, but it’s out now and it’s a hoot. First let me admit to being roughly in the category of a progressive or liberal, although that has a much different meaning to me than to most of the right-wing world. So theoretically I’m in the category who would find this flick offensive, but it’s so comical, so slapstick and silly, you’d have to be a dolt to get your dander up. The “elites” who are hunting the “deplorables” in the film are comical caricatures to the extreme, and the dialogue is meant for laughs. At one point an “elite” couple posing as a Mom & Pop owners of a country store slaughter three deplorables, and their store is shown to be a ruse to trick the hicks: the food items on the shelves, including powdered donuts, are poisoned. So when they’re mopping up the blood spilled after their killing spree Mr. Elite grabs a bottle of juice from the cooler and starts to drink. His wife freaks and says, “It’s poison!” He spits it out, and then she adds, “You know how much sugar is in there?” That’s how the humor tends to go. Hillary Swank plays the Queen Elite, and gets into a long catfight with the heroine of the deplorables, and you guess which one comes out on top. (The one who shares her champagne on the flight home with the flight attendant, that’s who.) I laughed out loud several times. It’s gory and campy and in that comic/horror tradition of Scream and many others. I did think the eyeball stuck to the end of a high heel shoe, which had been plunged into a deplorable, was a bit much.

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"Underwater" movie review: You think you got a big monster?

So in this time of virus lockdown and pandemic horror, let’s imagine creatures that don’t exist and have some scary fun! Or that seems to be the thinking of whoever made the new Kristen Stewart film, Underwater. It’s like Alien meets Gravity in The Abyss. There’s an enormous monster who would kick Godzilla’s ass, and Kristen Stewart in spiky blonde hair and a skimpy black swimsuit. What’s not to like? Well, it’s all a bit silly, but at times, does have its exciting moments, in that action/adventure mode. Kristen Stewart plays a character like the heroine Ripley of Alien, though she’s no Sigourney Weaver. Her absurd trek to save herself and her buddies echoes Sandra Bullock’s improbable escape-ride in Gravity, and it’s all in the deepest (but not darkest) depths of the ocean, ala The Abyss. Enjoy.

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The Great Stillness

So I’ve been calling our present stay-at-home reality the Great Hunkering (as in “hunker down”) but now I’m thinking it should be called The Great Stillness, at least in my neck of the woods. Things are quiet. The most people I see are on our Hike & Bike trail, and we keep distance from each other. Most are walking their dogs. In my last novel, The Bird Saviors, there was a virus outbreak based on the bird flu fears, named the Crow Flu (which the main characters resented, essentially because it seemed to blame birds). I didn’t use the term “pandemic” in the novel and didn’t think of it quite that way, and now I know what life in a pandemic is like. In the neighborhoods, it’s quiet. I realize city life would be quite different. The best comparison seems my Colorado home after a heavy snow.

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"Ad Astra" Review: Killer Baboons, Moon Buggy War Zones, and Space Travel as a Walk in the Park

So I caught the new Ad Astra film last night, and in my best snarky Bill-Murray-as-Film-Critic-on-SNL mode I’ll quip: It’s like Apocalypse Now meets 2001: A Space Odyssey with a spritz of Alien. I’ll confess I’ve never been a big Brad Pitt fan (him pretty boy syndrome, me jealous) but I thought he was excellent (though I liked him even better in the climactic scene of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), stoic and believable as a emotionally damaged astronaut struggling to land a spaceship on the fly, while he hunts his Dad to save humankind, among other things.
The setup: sometime in the near future, the planet is in great peril. (Isn’t it always?) War is ongoing and pervasive—in the Arctic, among other places, as well as on the moon (Thanks, Trump!). An antimatter thingamajig/glitch is threatening to destroy our solar system, and NASA or its ilk blames Brad Pitt’s father, Tommy Lee Jones, who is far, far away, trying to contact other intelligent life forms. (To see if they support impeachment, perchance? Glad it’s not Clint Eastwood in that spaceship.)
It would be a crime to give away all the secrets of this film, but I’ll offer this praise: It’s full of surprises, most of them good. You don’t really know what’s going to happen from one scene/event to the next. It does a great job of withholding explanations, but giving the audience just enough info to ground us, while filling the story full of mystery. At times I laughed when you weren’t supposed to, but perhaps that’s me. (For instance, when Pitt says, “Hi, Dad,” to Tommy Lee Jones, gritty and full of astronauty gravitas.) The ending was a little gooey for my tastes, true. And it makes a trip from here to Neptune and back seem slightly longer and more difficult than one to Disneyworld from Chicago, but so it goes. If you like space movies of a thoughtful nature, such as Interstellar (2014) or Arrival (2016), you’ll dig it.

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Shocking Bird Population Decline as in The Bird Saviors

So for years I’ve been reading about and studying Climate Change (though I do find Global Weirding to be witty and accurate), for various reasons, some of them personal of course: I have a daughter who will live in this overheated-up world long after I do, I own a home at the foot of an abandoned/defunct ski resort in Colorado—its abandonment due at least in part to the decline of snowfall amounts it traditionally received, and am acutely aware of the increased fire danger in the Rockies. My novel The Bird Saviors concerns the lives and loves of two people who are studying bird population decline, a field biologist and his assistant. Some of the species they were studying include Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks, two lovely bird species common to the area around my home (both favoring grassland or prairie habitat). This week the New York Times featured an op-ed (here) and a separate piece about a Science magazine article (here) about the shocking decline of bird species throughout the country. It’s not simply Climate Change that is the root of a bird population decline of roughly 30% (the main theory is it’s due to habitat loss), but there’s a complexity of causes here: Climate Change is part of the reason for the habitat loss.
I’ve noticed it firsthand. In my Colorado neck of the woods, the Wet Mountain Valley, we used to drive past prairies and ranch land where it seemed there was a Meadowlark (with its beautiful, liquid song) on every fencepost: Now you hardly see any. Same is true for many other species. (It seems the American Kestrel population has dropped off the map as well: The Bird Saviors ends with an image of a Kestrel—a small, lovely hawk.) I’ve been too busy with other writing projects to keep up the Sisyphean task of blogging about Climate Change (it’s in the background of all my current fiction; it’s part of our world), but I keep reading about it. Most keenly I’m understandably exasperated/disgusted by our government’s inability to do anything about it, or by its outright idiocy, such as Trump’s attempt to ban California’s attempt to raise emission standards or his turning the EPA into an agent of environmental destruction.

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Herman Wouk Died at Age 104: His Novel, "The Winds of War," Is Relevant Today

So I keep meaning to get back to my blog, but one thing or another always intrudes: new stories and chapters to write (a new story titled “The Wall” will soon appear in The Antioch Review), grass to mow (Thursday), a hike in the woods (yesterday). This morning I just read of the death of Herman Wouk in the NY Times (here), a novelist I read oh-so-many years ago and whose books I still remember fondly, especially The Winds of War (1971), which I read in my early years, soon after the book was published.

It’s essentially a book about World War II that doesn’t focus on the battles and and the long arc of the war circa 1941-45, but in the incremental build-up to the war starting in the late 1930s, focusing on the personal lives of the people who became caught up in it, and played some kind of role, even if it’s only a familiar one of being a citizen in a country at war. As I remember it, part of his vision was that the world stumbled into this war, not taking the danger of Adolph Hitler seriously enough until it was too late. It’s more subtle than many historical novels, and I put it in the company of a more recent historical novel, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (2008), which is about the Boston police strike of 1918, and so much more. I certainly hope this is just a fear and not a prophecy, but at times it feels we’re currently living through a phase of stumbling into another great war, by stoking the fires of too many hotspots at once—North Korea, Iran, Russia, you name it. The meltdown of government in Venezuela is symbolic of how things can go bad in a short time and for reasons much of the world is ignorant of. You want a good book that’s symbolic of our times, and a great read of human dimensions, read his best book, The Winds of War, though he’s also known for The Caine Mutiny (1951), which was made into a classic Hollywood film that features Fred McMurray in one of his great roles, as a somewhat sinister writer. R.I.P., Herman Wouk! Since he lived to the age of 104, he no doubt had a long, great life.

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Imagining Storm & Fire: Hurricane Harvey, "Goodnight Texas," and The Prediction of Fiction

So a year ago, on August 24th-25th, Hurricane Harvey crashed into the Texas coast, roughly equaling, in monetary damage, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Based on my novel Goodnight, Texas, you could say I predicted it: I imagined and wrote about a similar storm hitting the Texas coast, and how it would affect the people, all busy with the personal squabbles of a resort town slash fishing village in a time of dramatic climate change. It describes a world of seafood cafes and shrimp boats, suntan lotion and salt spray, enveloped by the charm of the sunny, windy Gulf. And for all of William Faulkner’s famous concern with the past, in the 21stcentury I think this is now what novelists often do: Imagine a future to understand the present.
Although I’ll attest to not having a prophetic bone in my body, I do obsess on what might happen in the coming years—where we’re headed, what dangers lurk in the near-at-hand. Storms are on the horizon, as usual: My family originally hails from Galveston, and some of my ancestors perished in the epic Storm of 1900, which is best described in Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (1999). I’ve weathered several hurricanes: Carla frightened us in my earliest childhood years and Alicia struck my parents’ home in the 1980s, flooding the first floor of my parents’ home with four feet of water. In the early 2000s I got the idea to set a novel in a coastal town that gets hit by a powerful hurricane, disrupting the characters’ lives and showing how life-changing events happen when you’re not looking. When Hurricane Harvey arrived last year it made landfall at Copano Bay and the tiny community of Holiday Beach, where I once lived—a sun-bleached neighborhood of houses on stilts, where we would sneak into the community swimming pool to cool off in the warm Texas nights.
While Nostradamus is known for his poetic prophecies, I think of myself as more of a futurist, in the great tradition of others such as sci-fi masters like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and even Cormac McCarthy, whose apocalyptic The Road (2006), with its cannibals and blasted landscape, we all hope never comes to pass. The method of Eugene Linden’s nonfiction The Future in Plain Sight (1998) is right up my alley: Pay attention to the world and try to guess where things are going. You’ll be wrong some of the time (ask the Peak Oil doomsayers, for one) and probably right some of the time. I’m now a fan of the BBC/Netflix program “Black Mirror,” which does exactly that. Watch the “Nosedive” episode from Season 3 and consider how close we are to this mix of smartphone and surveys/ratings dominance morphing to a world turned upside-down.
On a recent morning in my home in southern Colorado, I stepped out on the balcony to check the fire smoke. In this 21stcentury climate-changed world, it’s a daily ritual. Especially in June, which tends to be our hottest, driest month. About 50 miles south of us raged the Spring Fire, near Fort Garland, Colorado, at over 40,000 acres. For days my eyes burned, my sinuses stung with the smell of burnt trees, and we all suffered a lingering dread of where the fire might turn.
Now my new novel, The Donkey Woman & the Invisible World, features a plotline that involves a horrific fire descending upon a Colorado town. I see it less as predicting the future than keeping my eyes open.
One of the scariest books I’ve read in the last year was not a horror novel, but Michael Kodas’s nonfiction Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame (2017). It describes people like myself, with hideaway homes in the mountains, being unaware of how fast fires can rush upon them, especially when driven by wind. One of the things novelists do is imagine what awful things could happen and disrupt the gentle or chaotic flow of our ordinary lives, as a way to confront both our fears of what’s to come and our love for what we have. But one thing that Goodnight, Texas and my last novel, The Bird Saviors, do not forget: “This too shall pass.” Life goes on. The Texas coast is bouncing back from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Yes, I’m afraid of megafires and losing my home. And I have to admit that during drought years, like this one, it often feels as if it will never rain again. But here’s a prediction: It will.

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