On the Film "Annihilation": "Stranger Things" Meets "Arrival" on Acid

So I’ve been seeing a slew of films lately, including The Shape of Water (much fun, including weird fish-man sex) and The Florida Project—which deserves a post of its own—as well as Gary Oldman’s magnificent work of scenery-chewing, The Darkest Hour, but since those are generally well-known by now, a few words about last night’s debut film, the scifi slash horror pic, Annihilation, which opened this weekend. Here’s a link to the New York Times review of it, fairly on-target, here. I also saw a review blurb that claimed it was “the most intelligent alien movie since Arrival,” apt enough. Essentially the storyline follows Natalie Portman into a no-man’s-land (apparently somewhere in Florida, natch) where an iridescent wall surrounds a lighthouse and swamp near which an asteroid landed, a zone that keeps expanding and might well encompass the entire planet. It’s called the Shimmer. Natalie plays Lena, a biologist/professor at Johns Hopkins, whose husband, Kane, was a member of a military team who entered the Shimmer to investigate it, from which no one returns (he’s the first, kind of). Hence the tagline: “One way in. No way out.”

Natalie enters the Shimmer with three other less-important characters, who function a bit like a trio of odd-women-out, like an unfamiliar ensign in a Star Trek episode when they beam down to an alien planet and somebody has to die to ramp up the drama. Jennifer Jason Leigh, always a favorite of mine, plays the other more-important character named Dr. Ventress, who is a psychiatrist and leader of the expedition. Once inside the Shimmer things go wrong quickly and you wonder why they don’t hightail-it out asap. At times it comes across as an unintentionally funny camping trip: On the first morning they wake up in their tents it appears they’ve already been there three to four days and have no memory of it whatsoever. (When Lena returns to the government-types who are monitoring the Shimmer, they’ve apparently been gone quite awhile (for months), and are asked “What did you eat?” I quipped to my daughter, “Snacks?”)
She doesn’t remember any of it, but the story gamely goes on to reenact this experience inside the freaky alien swamp, complete with attacks by a giant alligator (indigenous to Florida, yes) and a giant mutant grizzly bear (indigenous to British Columbia?).  Much of this part of the story seems straightforward horror, complete with bloody gross-out moments and sudden body snatchings. As the game group of five women tromp around the mutant Florida with assault rifles (which, after Parkland, has a sinister-ironic ring to it) they always seem to be “stopping for the night,” willy nilly. (When it seems like an odd camping trip, you wonder: Did they bring s’mores?) The visuals are stunning, replicating a world in which the DNA of all plants and animals appear to be merging, going through a prism, and creating hybrid/mutant plants, animals, and psychiatrists to boot.
The ending suggests Arrival (2016) if it had taken a wrong turn—more like, say, the underrated Life (2017). There’s certainly some Stranger Things vibe in the Shimmer, though without all the teen angst and silliness. My own beef with the film concerns its monochromatic tone, which contrasts to the hallucinogenic colors and images of the cinematography. Natalie Portman’s facial expressions waver and morph from frown to quizzical stare to quizzical frown. She’s fine but ultimately the emotional timbre of the film is one-note. Scifi fans will likely love this visually trippy film, and I suspect it’s destined to be popular on streaming, just for the shimmery images alone. With the paranormal vibes and gun-toting cast of five women, it’s like a somber, moody version of that Ghost Busters remake.

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The Waste of Gadgets: a Quick Look at Nicholson Baker's "Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids"

So the first thing I should note about Nicholson Baker’s excellent Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids (2016) is how funny it is. He’s got a keen eye for the absurdities in contemporary education, the unintentional comedy of teacher’s lessons, and the wackiness of a high-school class as seen through the eyes of a somewhat-addled substitute teacher. The story takes place in 2014, when Baker decided to take a stab at being a sub. He’s not doing this for money, one would guess, as he’s an acclaimed fiction writer, but he wisely doesn’t explain much: He just starts narrating his experience in classes, in which he spends an inordinate amount of time fussing with his student’s gadget problems: “Devin was poking fruitlessly at his iPad. ‘It’s blocking my Google Doc,’ he said. His screen had a popup message on it: VIRUS SCAN WARNING. I told him to work on paper” (246). Even when things are working correctly, Baker questions whether what they’re studying is worthwhile: “So much of what Mrs. Painter was required to teach was pseudo-knowledge—lists of tongue-embrambling Greek- and Latin-rooted words like prokaryotic and heterotrophic and halophilic that were perfect for tests because they were hard to remember. This was torture by word list. The uglier the word, the better, because it more efficiently showed who was willing to commit gobbledygook to memory and who wasn’t” (273).
Substitute was a best-seller for a time and is hardly an obscure title I’m dusting off for your attention, but was relevant this week in a news mention of Maine’s policy of providing an iPad for every student, and how it has not improved test scores one bit. I’m not surprised. It’s funny/sad how the students struggled every day to handle their gadgets, all the while wasting time when they do function, on frivolous fun such as gaming, watching Youtube videos, taking pictures and selfies, and probably worse. With the recent school shooting in Florida there’s a great deal of scrutiny on the structure and safety of high school education, and Baker’s book makes it sound like a frustrating waste of time and energy.

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Review of Francisco Cantu's Memoir "The Line Becomes a River" in the Dallas Morning News

So my review of Francisco Cantu’s The Line Becomes a River, a memoir about his experience working as a Border Patrol Agent, appears in the Dallas Morning News today, and can be found here. It’s a good book, thoughtful and rather low-key, compassionate and remorseful. Cantu humanizes both the migrants and the border patrol officers trying to catch them. It’s a thoughtful balance to such films as Sicario (2015) or The Counselor (2013), which offer nightmarish visions of the Mexican border—inhabited mainly by the drug cartels and the law enforcement meant to stop them—making everyone involved seem guilty. The Line Becomes a River offers almost the opposite: It doesn’t make everyone seem innocent, but portrays the migrants and the border agents as trapped in a cycle determined by the tangled history of both the U.S. and Mexico, by the economics of both countries, and by the casual racism that is part of the tragedy. Other factors also exacerbate the problem: Climate Change is making the desert conditions hotter and dryer for the migrants, and harming some of the agricultural areas the migrants are abandoning. The controversy about building a border wall and the DACA debate loom in the background, creating a greater sense of urgency and timeliness for Cantu’s story.

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On Why I Read Dan Brown's "Origin": Or My Adventures as a Consumer of Best-Selling Drivel

So I was recently having dinner with a best-selling writer—a bit of literary socializing before said writer gave a reading on our campus—and we had reached the point of small-talk detailing what books we’d been reading. This is often the moment in which it’s de rigueur to cite some obscure 18th century Japanese masterpiece or latest international gem such as Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (which is what said visiting writer mentioned).

I shocked the table by confessing I’d recently read Dan Brown’s Origin. Two of the women were quite simply aghast (a cool word I don’t get to use as often as I’d like). One asked, “You didn’t pay for it, did you?” (The book was No. 1 on the NY Times’s Best-Seller list when I read it, and yes, I did purchase an ebook.) Another woman seemed personally offended I would read such a thing, as if I’d confessed to having intercourse with a pig (consider Black Mirror’s notorious  “The National Anthem” episode). She also maintained that she would not read such a book for fear of it contaminating her own prose. To which I say, “Well, la-dee-da.”
Their outrage at my having read Origin—or any other book, for that matter—smacks of literary snobbism and a lack of intellectual curiosity. It also seems rather funny, in a way: No, although I agree that Dan Brown’s prose can be laughably bad and flat-footed, I’m not afraid it contains some kind of bad-prose virus that might infect me, like the current flu going around (which on the contrary has).
So why did I read Origin? I was curious, for one thing. First I should mention I’ve read The Da Vinci Code, which I will defend with the backhanded observation: “It’s not as bad as the movie.” And I’ve read Inferno, which also involves technology run amok, and has some cleverness in its ending. Origin, in a similar key, promises a techno revelation, a scientific breakthrough of sorts, one that will “change the world,” and after which we’ll never be the same. I guessed rightly at least part of what that would entail, though I can’t say I received any satisfaction from that “guess,” as one does when you figure out the culprit of a murder mystery. Why not? The novel is so clumsy, half-baked, and slipshod that by the end, I was wondering much the same as my dinner companions, only with less literary snobbishness. Without giving everything away (granted: that doesn’t really matter), I’ll just summarize the ending of the novel as suggesting Computers are powerful and important. Yes, they are. And no doubt A.I. will continue to expand and affect our technology and our culture. But not in the silly, overhyped way Brown imagines. He seems a bit dim on how digital culture is affecting the world, and at one point imagines a world in which most of the population is glued to their gadgets 24/7. Some people certainly are, but not everyone. The whole plot line is too meaningless to explain, but I will mention my favorite character was Winston (named after Churchill), a kind of A.I. male (but do computers have gender? can they go trans?) who steals the show from the “human” characters who seem like badly stitched together  mouthpieces for fairly humdrum “ideas.”
Ah well. Ultimately I’ll defend my lively literary curiosity to read such books, but Origin was, as my dinner companions guessed without reading it, pretty awful. Spectacularly? No. I’m sure there are many worse, that I just haven’t read yet. (I’ll try to get around to them soon!) It was just awful. Which makes me wonder about many of the novels on the best-seller lists: It’s an achievement we (writers) all yearn for, but often the books on the list are considered “awful” in one way or the other. One observation: Origin, in keeping with most of the other Dan Brown books I’ve read (at least I can make statement with some kind of authority, as opposed to those who think these best-sellers are so beneath them that they refuse to peek inside the pages), is 1) easy to understand, 2) fast-paced, and 3) comforting, ultimately, in its vision of a digital future. We should all be so lucky.

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The West Is Burning: On Michael Kodas's "Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame"

So after having owned a home in Custer County, Colorado (Go Wildcats!) for fifteen years and having been a frequent visitor to the Rockies since 1978—the year of my first trip to Yellowstone—I’m both fascinated by and have a fear of forest fires. In 1988, the infamous year when most of Yellowstone National Park was burning—the park was closed, a half-million acres burned, or about two-thirds of the park—I was backpacking in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming, south of Yellowstone: I remember once hiking to the top of a ridge to watch the alpenglow on nearby peaks, and seeing flaming trees on a ridge not too many miles distant. At the time I wasn’t very worried, considering the fire to be too far away; since the winds were light and not blowing in our direction, we thought the flames were actually rather pretty. How naive I was. That was then: Now my feeling is more like the tagline from the old Jeff Goldblum film The Fly: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Why the change of heart? I recently read Michael Kodas’s new book of nonfiction, Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame (2017), for one thing. But the thirty years that have elapsed since my afternoon on a mountainside in Wyoming have been the grand time of Climate Change, and things are considerably worse now than they were before: more heat, more fuel, more catastrophe. This winter, for instance, southern Colorado is in a serious snow drought, and if relief doesn’t come in the spring (which of course we all hope for) the conditions will be rife for another wicked fire season.
Simply put, Megafire is an excellent and at times frightening book. Kodas describes the causes and particulars of fires throughout the West, from Texas to California and Idaho, and features several Colorado fires in great detail, including the Four-Mile Canyon Fire and the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 (which burned several hundred homes in Colorado Springs). Overall he presents the idea that our forest service policy of fire suppression has led to hotter, larger fires, and the popularity of homes in the mountains (like mine!) makes the public at more danger than ever before. The scariest passages describe how fast a fire can move and “blow up,” most often triggered by high winds, which sometimes shift unexpectedly. I’ll give the book this praise: It’s changed my thinking about forest fires. They are common in the West and I’ve been driving by them, and choking on their smoke and ash, for years, but after reading descriptions of people surrounded by fire with no escape route, I’ll be extra careful next time I encounter one. The Yarnell Hill Fire of Arizona (July of 2013) frames the book, as begins with a description of its aftermath, and then ends the book with a description of exactly how it happened, and how nineteen firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. It’s a sobering story, and one that deserves to be told, and read. You feel for the firefighters, and for their families.
Unfortunately, politically things have also gotten worse: It’s an outrage and a travesty what the Trump administration has done to the EPA—in only one year!—and Trump’s ridiculous assertion that Climate Change is a “hoax” serves as a reminder to the triumph of stupidity in the 21st century, our so-called Information Age. That Trump seems not only to ignore but to be actively hostile to West, the part of the U.S. most vulnerable to the blistering effects of Climate Change, is an additional embarrassment and shame. I’m glad that Michael Kodas has written Megafire, a kind of wake-up call for protection of our western forests.

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Review of Kent Haruf's "Our Souls at Night" as Tribute to the New Film Version Starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford

So two years ago Kent Haruf published his last terrific novel, Our Souls at Night, which I reviewed for the Dallas Morning News, and as a tie-in and tribute of sorts, the DMN has republished my review today, which can be found here. The film version out now on Netflix, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, feels a bit truncated at the end, but it has its charming moments, such as when Fonda asks Redford to sleep with her, to which he says, “I’ll think about it.” Both veteran actors look a bit glam for the roles of Haruf’s homespun, authentic people, but that’s Hollywood. One can hardly blame the producers for opting for much-beloved, aging stars to inhabit these roles. Fonda seems more eager than I imagined Addie to be, and while Redford is spryer than I imagined Louis, he does a good job of matching Louis’s laconic nature, with long pauses in the dialogue: He’s a man of few words. It was filmed in the small town of Florence, Colorado, which is near where I have a home in the state, and is a hardscrabble town that I pass through often. Bruce Dern also has a role as something of a small-town jerk, and is completely authentic in his own way, and it’s good to see him in another role in this golden age renaissance.

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On Alissa Nutting's debut novel "Tampa": So Bad She's Good

So as a decidedly intermittent blogger (occasional blog-poster?) I feel ambivalent to weigh-in on most of the controversial news items and issues of the “day,” such as Harvey Weinstein’s sins, Donald Trump’s daily stupidities, or the blown-out-of-proportion NFL-player protests—but for the record: Just let them kneel or raise a fist or whatever? What? We’re going to force allegiance to the flag, like some kind of Soviet state? Has Putin won here too? Answer: Kind of. Part of me wants to maintain at least some modicum of originality, and only post about something that seems outside the mainstream blather. Which bring me to praise a novel I’d never heard of, and which at first I thought was the literary equivalent of a Skinemax B-movie: Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa (2013).

First off, the novel is undoubtedly very raunchy, and through much of the story, borderline laugh-out-loud funny. I might argue it vies for the award of Great Comic Sex Novel and falls short, but it comes close enough (no sex pun intended) that we have to give at least one of those slow-clap applause moments, such as after the teenage valedictorian rebels in front of the whole student body with her speech that shocks everyone, and only one acne-scarred dweeb rises to offer a standing ovation. For those interested I won’t give much away and spoil the fun, but I have to say Celeste Price, the novel’s seriously horny “heroine,” is wicked fun. She’s trashy and smart and “so bad she’s good.” The novel appears to be based in part on the much publicized case of Debra Lafave, but Celeste becomes a mythic teacher-monster, like some Greek Goddess Gone Wrong, half lesson-plan high-school teacher, half hyper-sexual zombie. It’s tawdry, smart, and daring. What’s not to like?

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Review of Gabriel Tallent's "My Absolute Darling" in the Dallas Morning News

So my review of Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel, My Absolute Darling, appears in the Dallas Morning News today, and can be found here. The marketing of this novel seems odd: The combination of its sweet title, the brightly colored branches and needles of the redwoods (it’s set in Northern California) on the book jacket and the glowing blurbs (one of which mentions the book’s “humor”) makes it seem the book is being presented as something of a love story. But the actual plot line is about a beer-guzzling, crazed loner of a father raping and abusing his much-put-upon daughter, a rough-hewn teenage girl. It’s a tough story, and by the end, resembles more horror than coming-of-age—a hybrid of sorts. That’s not unusual (the hybrid nature), and writers—such as Stephen Graham Jones’s in All the Beautiful Sinners and many others—have done this masterfully, though I think it’s usually acknowledged in the presentation of the book. I was surprised while reading it, noticing that great discrepancy between the book the ad copy presented and what it actually was.

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Hurricane Harvey Hits Home Town, Like I Predicted in "Goodnight, Texas"

So my misspent years in high school were dithered away in the Texas coastal town of Rockport, which appears to have been the epicenter of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall last night. Back in 2006 Unbridled Books published my novel Goodnight, Texas about just such an event, which back then had many similarities to Hurricane Katrina, but which I wrote before Katrina actually happened. I better not write anything about a nuclear war with North Korea. (Just kidding!) This novel was the first of a loose trilogy in which the novels are linked by a focus on landscape affected by Climate Change, with the second two being set in the drought- and fire-prone Southwest, particularly Colorado, where I live when I can, and The Bird Saviors was the second of the novels, with the last novel being my current project, which is in the final stages of editing.

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In the Country of "No Country for Old Men" and On the Trail of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian": What I Did for My Summer Vacation

So late July found me (and my family) in (mythical) Cormac McCarthy country, at the Three River Petroglyph site near Three Rivers, New Mexico, which is a cool (and hot) place to be. We camped there for three days, watching thunderstorms that evoked these lines from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear” (47).

The petroglyphs are impressive. On a hot afternoon, we hiked along a ridge above the plains or “malpais,” which figures directly in Blood Meridian, and the petroglyphs (or some of them, at least) are believed to have been made by the Jornada Mogollon people a thousand years ago. Animal figures predominate, as this example of a raven and a Bighorn sheep attest, complete with arrows in the sheep:

Next week I’ll be giving a lecture at the Cormac McCarthy Society’s annual convention, on a comparison of Cormac McCarthy’s and Leo Tolstoy’s views of history, so in a way you could argue I was doing research.

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