Kayaking the Flathead River, Glacier National Park, Montana: What I Did for My Summer Vacation

So I feel sorry for my lonely blog in the summer months, as I’m scrambling around the country and doing various other things than spending time on the computer, but I’m back at work (and on my laptop) once again and can report that a good time was had by all—or all those I was around, at least. In June I spent two weeks up in northern Montana, kayaking (and rafting) the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, on the western border of Glacier National Park. It was lovely. Here’s a photo of the wildflowers in one of our riverside camps:

It was a cold, swift river, with the mountains looming in the distance. One of the highlights of the trip was a stopover at Polebridge, a village of sorts near the river, which has both a saloon and a bakery famous for its Huckleberry Bear Claws.

It was a hoot. We spent the afternoon playing cards and volleyball and the kids loved it, so for a “bar” it was pretty family friendly. I noticed this sign and tried to use the side door, but couldn’t find it.

Ospreys and Bald Eagles flew over our heads. We locked up all of our food at night and saw and heard no grizzlies, but at one point were serenaded by a Screech Owl. Most of the landscape looked something like this:

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Guest Blog Post on the Superstition Review Website

So the nice editors over at the Superstition Review have not only published several of my stories and a recent essay—on stuffed animals, of all things—but they have also asked that I write a guest blog post for them, which can be read here, sporting the subtitle “Anna Karenina Is a Junkie, and She’s Weeping.” It touches on several topics, including but not limited to whether we should describe emotions directly in fiction, Leo Tolstoy, Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, and John Gardner. Some of it is rather nostalgic, a flashback to the Eighties of sorts, if you’re interested. I happen to be traveling at the moment, in St. Louis, en route to Colorado, and have a stack of books I intend to read this summer, including but not limited to Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa, Callan Wink’s stories Dog Run Moon, and Mark Leyner’s memoir/novel Gone With the Mind. My only recent literary accomplishment is finishing a third reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (hence the choice of topic), which I loved, as always, but was surprised to find so many references to Anna’s morphine habit. And that she was a writer, to boot! Learn something new every read.

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On Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" and the Recent Middlebury College Brouhaha, from a Liberal Who Has Actually Read His Books

So I’ve followed with some interest (and some dismay) the recent brouhaha about Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College, that was interrupted by a student demonstration that got out of hand—labeled a “riot” by some media and commentators—and in which he was accused of being a white nationalist and a racist. I know Murray’s work fairly well, having read both Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012) and his most controversial book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Also noteworthy is that politically I’m liberal/progressive. While I don’t agree with much of what Murray claims, I do think it’s unfair to label him simply a racist or white nationalist/supremacist. The New York Times had a sober op-ed on the subject last Saturday, Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s  “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk,” which can be found here: They described an experiment in which they had various people actually read the talk and rate it as Conservative/Liberal, and how it came across by most readers as being somewhat middle-of-the-road.

The most interesting (and disturbing) angle of this story is a phenomenon I’ve noticed of late: Many people will argue with me about books they have not read but have strong, often unfounded opinions about. It’s often the titles (see under Don’t judge by) that set them off, and from which they glean the supposed thesis (and quality) of the entire book. Perhaps the best example I know is Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), published back in 2008, which I usually presage with the disclaimer, “It’s a pretty good book with a bad title.” Actually that never seems to work, never seems to deflect the knee-jerk reaction that he’s “wrong,” or that he’s “old” and “out-of-touch,” rather than his well-reasoned argument, which suggests we’re all essentially being complicit in the ordinary dumbing-down of culture and education, something that often seems rather hard to ignore (see under Trump’s Presidency).

Bauerlein’s and Murray’s controversial books both begin with a kind of built-in disclaimer for the most damning “data”: Bauerlein begins with a rave about the smart kids, the overachievers, who are effectively using digital age tools to advance their careers, education, and interests. “Great! Lucky us!” would be the natural retort to those introductory remarks. I can also add that I have excellent students who fit his model to a T. But then comes the “controversial” part: Beyond the overachievers, the effects of digital distraction are exacerbating the know-nothingness of many teens and college kids (and all other adults as well, I would add). The easy formulation is: “If you can look it up, why bother knowing it?” Some argue that our computers are becoming an extension of ourselves, in a good way: As if your ubiquitous laptop is itself an external brain. I rather like that idea. But it doesn’t make me ignore the validity of some of Bauerlein’s argument.
Murray’s books are much more trouble-prone: In The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) he discusses the variation in IQ scores along racial lines, which is fraught (obviously) with danger, and critics have rightly called into question his own metrics and use of statistics. For one thing, he notes the fact that IQ tests are very uncommon now, so that the tests he’s relying on are greatly outdated, one of the most substantial data sets coming from from the 1940s, I believe. So instead he talks about “proxies,” such as the SAT, ACT, and other general academic tests, but those are not the same thing as IQ tests.
That’s a fundamental flaw is hard to ignore: We have no real data on, say, how the entire population of the U.S. would do if each citizen took an IQ test in 2017, or even if, say, each 5th grade student took the test. That’s a good reason to doubt his methodology, and to find the book unconvincing. But the real reason critics find the book repugnant is even the suggestion that we analyze IQ through racial categories, so in his much-more convincing book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012), he avoids the racial divide and instead focuses solely on “white” America, which makes him a target for the obvious reasons: It can be seen to be arguing for a kind of white nationalism. Actually the book is a lament of sorts—for traditional family values (another loaded term, that)—for the decline of Working Class America, and a convincing argument about the serious repercussions of class divisions and the decline of egalitarian values. It makes some excellent points about the Great Divide that characterizes U.S. society and culture in the 21st century. Some of the statistics are a bit shocking, on the order of Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s recent study about the rise in overdose deaths affecting U.S. mortality rates negatively, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century” (with a title like that, what’s not to like?).
I tend to be a skeptic of all statistics, and found many in this book questionable. But I don’t think he’s making them up out of the blue. He might be cherry-picking, a flaw that’s quite common, but generally he seems thorough. For instance, he notes the high unemployment rates of working class, non-college-educated white males, and how, without gainful (and rewarding) employment, they can become a detriment to society, vulnerable to dependence on drugs, crime, and all that jazz: Put another way, they might vote for Trump! Elect a strongman/goon to Make America Great Again. (Which is, I think, part of what happened in November 2016.) You’re out of work, and become vulnerable to specious rhetoric, to the idea that all we need to do is build that wall and things will be peachy, to encourage the illusion that working-class stiffs will get their jobs back, even if no robots are coming over or under it.
Ultimately I can’t defend Murray as not being a racist or white nationalist, for the reason I don’t know all his work well enough, or know him, for that matter—but I can argue that we should know the books we’re condemning, and what they actually say, rather than be lured into the same type of knee-jerk condemnation used against so-called “liberal elites”—for instance, the kind that was used against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

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On the Film Version of Dave Eggers's "The Circle" and a Nod to Cormac McCarthy's Essay "The Kekule Problem: Where Did Language Come From?": From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

So I’m not in the habit of beating dead horses (though I did once write a scene in which a couple got romantic while leaning up against one, but that’s a different story), and I don’t bother to review or comment upon every movie I see (such as Boss Baby, which I saw weekend-before-last, and actually had its funny moments), but I can’t let the much-anticipated film adaptation debut of Dave Eggers’s The Circle pass without a blink. I’ve taught the novel a couple times now and am a fan of it, kind of: Although the prose seems rather utilitarian in general, Eggers captures a zeitgeist snapshot (screenshot?) with it, and overall the obsession with metrics and the takedown of digital hooey is clever fun. When I heard that Tom Hanks would be playing Eamon Bailey and Emma Watson the star role of Mae Holland I actually had high hopes for the film, thinking it might even be better than the book, in which at times the characters seem pretty flimsy: The Circle is essentially a novel of ideas, big on plot and short on character. Cool with me. Not every book has to be the same thing. The luminous, lyrical novel is itself overrated. The Circle is in some ways a 21st century satire, a digital romp, and does that quite well. Now to the film version.

It starts out well, actually, with Emma Watson trapped in a crummy job in a crummy office, until she gets a call from her (basically unidentified) friend Annie (played by spunky Karen Gillan), saying she’s got her an interview at The Circle, a high-tech company that seems a mash-up of Apple, Google, and a spritz of Facebook. After a (somewhat amusing) interview she’s quickly hired and plunked in front of a screen as a worker bee in Customer Experience, which one would normally rank as a menial position, but in the upside-down, digital world of The Circle seems right up there with Chief Glib Officer or some such executive position—although I realize even the term “executive” is soooo Twentieth Century. The funniest scenes unfold in the first half, such as when Mae gets upbraided by the company’s social media minions, and when the screen is overlaid with comments by the multitude of users on Mae’s “transparent” feed, when she’s wearing a camera and going about her daily routine, with millions of watchers: You might wonder why anyone would watch her life, but people do kookier things, right?
Around halfway through the film, things go downhill. The novel does a nice job of accentuating Mae’s descent into digital narcissism and isolation when she wonders why, now that her life is fully “transparent,” no one wants to talk to her anymore: She seems clueless that people don’t want everything they do and say seen by the rest of the world. There’s a great moment that mirrors the pitfalls of social media when all the “real” people in her life avoid her, but she basks in the adoration of distant, online “friends,” and spends hours liking this and liking that, humble-bragging whatnot, and basically living in her own digital bubble. The film tries to handle some of that scene, and does it badly. Suddenly her friend Annie, who got her the job in the first place, avoids her, but it’s not exactly obvious (as far as I could tell, trying to judge it just by what’s on the screen, and not based on what I already knew from the novel) why.  We’re meant to witness her soul being sucked into the digital world vortex, and that’s where the film falters: The Circle’s corporate bigwigs, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), both become sinister villains, basically trying to tie poor Nell to the tracks, 21st century-style, by making it mandatory that everyone have a Circle account (Mae is the one who actually suggests it, sensitive gal that she is), and usurping the power and role of government itself. The worst move of all, however, concerns the completely redone ending.
The novel’s climax occurs when Mae’s old boyfriend, Mercer—an ostensibly sane person who is slightly overweight and hugely anti-social media, played in the film by skinny slacker-dude Ellar Coltrane—kills himself, hounded by social media Circlers, driving his pickup off a bridge and plunging to his fiery—or, as my Utah rafting friends say, “super crunchy”—death. I was surprised in the first reading of the novel, in that I thought the Circlers would all be chastened by Mercer’s death and mend their ways. I liked that they didn’t. Mae is then offered a way out of the Circle world by the mysterious (I know: extremely corny) Ty, one of the Circle’s creators, who has realized its dire implications and misuses. You think she’s going to see the error of her ways, and instead she punts, and turns Ty into the other Circlers, cementing her place as a good digital drone. It was a surprise move, and generated a nice twist: Mae chooses greed and power over Ty’s airy promises of a life-less-stressful, more adventurous.
Cut to the film version, in which Mae, with the help of Ty (John Boyega, miscast), exposes the hypocrisy and mendacity of Bailey and Stenton, and they, as the “bad guys,” turn off the power to the auditorium, when she exposes all their secret email accounts and nefarious doings—a move that makes them seem digitally illiterate. She gets to be smug and “right,” blaming it on the big guy. We (social media users and film goers) can bask in the knowledge that this isn’t the regular user’s problem, just the bigwigs. (All that narcissism and hate-liking on FB isn’t your fault, it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s, for creating Facebook in the first place.)
This corny “message” is a reverse of the novel’s implications, in which Mae is seduced into digital shallowness because she’s shallow to begin with, and the Circle’s much-vaunted algorithms amplify her worst impulses. The film’s corny climax is an obligatory nod to the “power of the internet”—if, of course, used well. Yeah, right. In reality social media’s most recent political triumph is electing our Tweeter-in-Chief, who would brush off Mercer as just another “loser” we should be glad to be rid of. It’s a total copout, a cheesy Hollywood ending, Mae learning the error of her ways and somehow, with Ty’s help, exposing the sins of Eamon/Tom, although those “sins” seem vague in the movie. John Boyega as Ty is pretty awful, his role trimmed down to a nub, and it doesn’t really make sense that he would pull this final switcheroo on Mae’s bidding, considering she’s essentially a nobody who happens to be on camera.
The final moment of the auditorium scene is beyond preachy and corny: When the lights go out in the auditorium full of people, right after Mae has told them she’s releasing all (her bosses) emails, all the audience members hold up their phones, providing illumination: A thousand points of light! Let’s take a selfie together!
Then it fades into one final mystifying take, which recreates the beginning: Mae is kayaking on a deserted lake, and suddenly a drone appears above her, presumably recording her smiling, smug face, and it’s meant (I think) as a triumph of the little guy over the corporate monsters. Yet it still reveals an obsession with appearances—you can’t just live, you have to live onscreen, and look good while you’re doing it—and Emma Watson’s obviously heavily made-up face is another nod to airbrushed pseudo-reality. See? You can use the digital tools and have an adventurous life, right? (Sorry about hounding you to death, Mercer, but gosh don’t I look great in this kayak?)
On the other hand, a few days before I saw The Circle I read, out of the blue, a new essay by no less than Cormac McCarthy, published April 20th in the journal Nautilus, here, titled “The Kekule Problem: Where did language come from?” I can’t sum this up in a jaunty sentence or two, but suffice to say it’s a curious piece about the role of the unconscious in logical thought, inspiration, creativity, and language. Part of its charm lies in his musings about how the unconscious “knows” without (or transcends) language. There’s a touch of the sublime in it. Which is a nice thing to find, in our digitized world.

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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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