Friday, September 16, 2016

Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, by Ted Geltner

I always sensed in Harry Crews’ writing a fundamental insecurity. I guessed that it stemmed from his upbringing as a sharecropper’s son from Bacon County of South Georgia. Class insecurity left him prone to other insecurities—his biographer describes his resentment of people with PhDs, for example.  He had been turned down by the University of Florida creative writing graduate program and completed an MA in education instead, which qualified him for college teaching jobs. He blamed himself for everything that went wrong in his life, including the drowning death of his four-year-old son and the failure of his marriage. He wrote for a decade before he was able to publish his first story.  Crews must have seen his life as a continuing struggle, with the world pitted against him.  It always seemed to me in his work that he was not only trying to prove himself but that he was also trying to shock, to put it all out there in your face--his embittered and alienated darkness and world view, freakish characters, grotesque violence and humor, and despairing sensibility. In his personal life, these insecurities took form in drug dependency, horrific alcoholism, and general dysfunction.  Crews’ alcoholism was crippling.
In the biography Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, by Ted Geltner (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2016) offers up a number of reasons for the kind of writer Mr. Crews became. It is an amazing story, and Geltner has done a thorough job of tracing the life from Crews’ ancestors to his death. This is not a literary biography: it does not dwell in detail on the work, it does not offer extended interpretations of the fiction, though it does generally summarize plot details and gives information about how the novels came to be written.  What it does do is provide a thorough account of the life of the man who wrote the work and of the circumstances that produced him. Geltner lays the facts out in fascinating and sometimes gruesome detail. His book is well written, insightful, intelligent, and a major contribution to literary studies of the 20th century South.
Geltner explains how Crews developed a considerable reputation in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s—such writers as Joseph Heller expressed admiration for his work.  Elvis Presley wanted to portray a film version of the main character of Crews’ novel The Gypsy’s Curse (1974).  He was befriended by Madonna and Sean Penn.  Penn wanted to film Crews’ novel The Knockout-Out Artist (1988) but never managed to do so.  By the end of the last century, however, with changes in the publishing industry and in the general cultural environment, he found himself without a commercial publisher.  Today many of his novels are out of print. 
Given the violence, the bizarre and often grotesque characters, the sexual excess, and the overall misanthropy of his work, it’s not surprising that Crews today is languishing.  This biography suggests, by the mere fact of the anguished and incredible life it recounts, of the books that life produced, that we should revisit Crews’ writing.
As a college professor at the University of Florida, Crews frequently missed classes (especially later in his career) and slept with as many students and many women in general as he could manage. “Predator” doesn’t seem an inappropriate label. As Geltner notes, most of his faculty colleagues were willing to look the other way or to make excuses for him.  He would not survive long in the current world of higher education.  Geltner doesn’t make excuses for Crews and instead simply reports what were apparently the facts. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World, by Zeese Papanikolas

I don’t see American Cakewalk (Stanford Univ. Press, 2015) as a systematic study.  Obviously, it covers some of the same territory as Louis Menand’s American Metaphysical Club, but with a different method and different goals.  While Menand traces the development of American intellectual thought from the mid-19th century forward, Zeese Papinokolas argues that some of the greatest American writers and thinkers and artists developed from colliding and conflicting cultural forces, and that their attempt to navigate these forces, to walk their own cakewalk, enabled them to become what they became.

Papanikolas’ choice of the cakewalk as the organizing metaphor of this book works well enough, but it is an entirely arbitrary choice.  He uses it, cleverly, too cleverly at points, to build his discussions of the ghost dancers, of Dickinson, of Henry and William James, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Thorsten Veblen, Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Mingus, and others.  These are the figures he has chosen to illustrate his thesis, but they are entirely arbitrary choices.  I find his discussion of them interesting, sometimes entertaining, and forceful—sometimes overbearing.  The conclusions he reaches aren’t always convincing.

His prose is strong and forceful but it has a tendency to run away with itself.  He has a tendency to summarize or paraphrase some of the people he writes about—I found this especially so in the chapter on Stephen Crane—where he literally paraphrases several of Crane’s stories.  I’m not sure what this achieves, except to take up space.  I have to say that as learned and widely read as Papinokolas seems to be, I don’t trust his method.  He doesn’t cite opposing views.  He doesn’t allow for opposing readings.  It’s not that he insists on his own readings—he just doesn’t seem interested in alternatives.  I think he has brilliant insights, but his book seems at points contrived and manipulative.  I don’t think he necessarily takes us to the heart of his subject.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate this book if you aren’t familiar with the figures he writes about.  I wish I knew more about ragtime music, Jelly Roll Morton, and Charlie Mingus, for example. One virtue of the book is that it introduces to unfamiliar readers writers and artists whose work is worth seeking out.  The chapter on Emily Dickinson was especially good.  And I recommend especially Henry James—the older you are, the better you can appreciate him.  He’s not for 25-year olds.

One conclusion a reader might take from this book is the idea that the strength and power of American experience comes from its diverse populations of people, cultures, and influences.  This view is contrary to the notion that the American nation is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon or even more generally European in its origins.  This is a point to consider in this year when American diversity is cited as a danger to American power and so-called greatness.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Black Hole Blues and other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin

The interest of Black Hole Blues and other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin (Bodley Head, 2016),  comes not from the discussion of gravitational waves and colliding black holes but from the drama of colliding human egos.  I’ve sat on academic committees for forty years, in one role or another, and have always been disturbed by how inefficiently they function, or dysfunction.  Intelligent people with good ideas don’t always work well together.  The problem is not characteristic of the academic world alone—based on what I’ve read about research and management and problem solving in other walks of life, it is endemic and probably an inherent aspect of the human condition.  Black Hole Blues chronicles the history of the scientists who came together in uneasy collaboration to conceptualize and develop the technology that made possible the detection of gravitational waves for the first time in September of 2015.  Levin examines each of the major scientists in turn, especially Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, Ron Devers.

The history of the development of LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is a fifty-year history of dysfunction, ambition, vision, and hard work--of gradual and stuttering progress towards developing a concept, building the first devices, convincing others (university administrators, the National Science Foundation, Congress) to fund it, designing and building and rebuilding the devices that made the final detection.  Levin explains, briefly, the science surrounding gravitational waves and laser interferometry, but her focus mainly falls on the human drama of LIGO—those of us interested in academic gossip and university intrigue will appreciate this aspect of the book.  Levin makes clear her belief in the importance of LIGO and gravitational wave detections.  She explains concepts clearly—she’s a physicist at Barnard College of Columbia University, so she understands them. But the book falters in conveying this importance to the reader in a convincing way.

In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, by Beth Shapiro

In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton University Press, 2015), UGA graduate Beth Shapiro has written an interesting account of the current state of affairs regarding the cloning of extinct animals.  Shapiro’s interest in cloning extinct animals is not so much the result of her desire to bring them back as it is to restore the ecosystems they once inhabited.  She has been a member of projects devoted to cloning mammoths and passenger pigeons.  Her research as an associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, mostly involves studying ancient DNA and other genetic information to understand the lives of ancient organisms such as mammoths, horses, pigeons, and even humans.  Her book reviews current cloning science, speculates on what might be done with animals who are successfully resurrected, wonders whether bringing them back might be a bad idea, and investigates the possibility that GMO laws might complicate such work.
The disappointing aspect of this book (given the title) is Shaprio’s contention that cloning of mammoths will probably never occur.  Cloning is possible only when perfectly preserved genetic material is available for implanting in a host egg. Even in totally frozen remains of mammoths, cells have died and DNA has degraded. I have always wanted to see extinct animals brought back to life.  The first Jurassic Park film fascinated me.  Shapiro shows that the science which was the basis for the film was mostly erroneous (amber doesn’t preserve DNA). Time’s arrow inexorably points forwards.  Time travel to the past isn’t possible.  Recovering species lost to the past is highly unlikely. It is sad to know that cloning may never be used to bring back ancient extinct species.
Cloning requires DNA, and the DNA of mammoths degraded so quickly after their deaths that it can now be recovered only in small fragments.  Shapiro is doubtful about efforts now underway to find mammoth DNA in frozen mammoth carcasses still being uncovered on the Siberian tundra. An alternative path to resurrecting extinct mammoths is genetically engineering the genome of closely related animals—such as Asian elephants—in order to produce offspring with the traits of mammoths—such as hair and resistance to cold.  The mammoth genome has been reconstructed. Selective breeding of closely related species could also be used to “bring back” extinct species.  These animals would resemble mammoths but not actually be mammoths, though they could live in the environments mammoths once inhabited.  Interestingly, Shapiro notes that land has been set aside in Siberia for a “Pleistocene Park” where mammoths and other resurrected animals might live in an ecosystem resembling that of thousands of years ago.
Shapiro suggests that genetically engineered mammoth-like creatures could be produced.  But why invest the time and expense of creating them when the real need is to preserve the current natural environment that is endangered by pollution, excessive development, global warming, and other human-caused factors?  I’d like to see a mammoth, yes, but I’d especially like to continue to see the wildlife that is now in rapid decline.  It would probably be far less expensive and complicated to ensure that lions and elephants survive than it would be to resurrect mammoths.

How to Clone a Mammoth is an excellent book.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Man Who Would Be King

Watching The Man Who Would Be King (dir. John Huston, 1975) some fifty years after its making was uncomfortable.  When I first saw the film, in the 1970s, it was an exciting tall-tale adventure about two down-and-out British army veterans who find a remote corner of Afghanistan and set themselves up as kings.  They go there intending to take advantage of the unsophisticated natives, to become wealthy, to achieve power and prominence when they can find it nowhere else.  Kipling’s story, written in 1888, the basis for the film, portrays the two men as far more ragged and scrofulous than they appear in the film, where Sean Connery and Michael Caine play the lead roles.
What has happened since 1976?  Thirty-five years of western involvement in Afghani wars that shows no sign of ending.  The rise of terrorism on a global scale.  A gradual shift in how westerners view their place in the middle and far east, and in the world in general.  A developing awareness on the part of westerners of their position in other parts of the world as outsiders, intruders, imperialists. 
What we didn’t see clearly in this film in the 1970s is the fundamental presence of western imperialism and colonialism.  Watching the film in 2016, that perspective is inescapable.  It becomes almost impossible to sit through the film.  Dravot and Carnehan can aspire to take over the small kingdom of Kafiristan because of their belief in the ignorance of the easily misled natives.  They can spin lies and tell tales and be easily believed.  They have rifles when the natives do not.  As they mount their campaign, they can shoot down Kafiristanis, in large numbers, without any hesitation or compunction or regret afterward.  It’s a story told entirely from the western perspective, crafted entirely for a western audience.  We’re not asked to think about the victims of this enterprise.  We’re not asked to sympathize with the Kafiristanis or to consider the wrongheadedness of these two venal British adventurers.
Do the story and film express any awareness of the impact of the events they relate on the native Kafiristanis, who are bilked and tricked and murdered?  Not much.  The story and film work only because they expect the readers and audience to experience the story from the western, British, imperialist perspective.  Yes, as a reader of literature and viewer of films I am supposed to suspend my disbelief, my moral and political attitudes, and engage the work on its own terms—but that’s hardly possible. The discomfort I felt with this film also likely explains why Kipling is a writer of diminishing relevance.
At least Dravot goes to his death with a firm, imperturbable British resolve.  He’s not sorry for what he and Carnehan did.  He’s just sorry they got caught.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gods of Egypt

Why Gods of Egypt (dir. Alex Proyas, 2016)? This is not a film one should go to for knowledge of Egyptian history or mythology.  Nor should one expect to find in its 126-minute duration good acting, narrative skill or logic, interesting ideas, or much of anything else.  It is a celebration of DGI special effects rendered with limited imagination.  Somewhere deep in its foundation is the story of two brothers, one jealous of the other for the place of favor his father has given him.  Unhappy brother kills father, defeats other brother, takes over as king.  There’s something to be made from such a plot, but it’s not made here.  For the most part, the actors in this film are people whose names don’t ring a bell.  Exceptions are Gerard Butler (who plays Egyptian god Set) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays Egyptian god Horus). 
How do you get up each morning and look yourself in the mirror knowing that you appeared in a movie such as this one?  Is it the money?  Surely it’s not the privilege of appearing in a work of any merit. There’s none of that here. Does the attraction of appearing in any big money Hollywood production overbalance the shame and humiliation one ought to feel over an association with this work of inane and artless drivel?  Gerard Butler has appeared in some films of note.  What explains his presence here? 
Let's be honest: I am the one who should feel shame and humiliation over having paid money to rent this film, not to mention shame and humiliation for having wasted 126 eye-glazed and mind-numbing minutes watching it—and admitting to it here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Good Dinosaur

The strength of The Good Dinosaur (dir. Peter Sohn, 2015) is the setting: lush landscapes, towering mountains, sparkling sky.  It’s tempting to imagine that the background of the film was taken directly from natural scenes of the American west, adjusted appropriately for this animated feature.  The dinosaurs, however, make up for the realistic scenery.  They are big eyed and mostly non-threatening reptiles, and the main character, the good dinosaur of the title, is cute and doe-eyed.  They’re Disney dinosaurs. This is an alternative universe dinosaur film.  The huge asteroid missed the earth, and sixty-five million years later dinosaurs continue to thrive.  They have taken up farming and buffalo-herding. The film has a familiar plot: the little dinosaur is jealous of the achievements of his older siblings, so he must prove himself in order to leave his mark on the family silo as proof of his worthiness.  When his father is killed in a flood and the little dinosaur is swept downriver, he has his chance.  He makes friends with a childlike humanoid who begins to follow him around.  The humans aren’t highly evolved, at least yet, and they’re wary of the dinosaurs, who consider them pests.  Humans can’t talk, though the boy in this film seems capable of abstract thought, as they say.  So, this is a coming of age film, a buddy film, and a search for home film.  My favorite scenes involve the tyrannosaurs, who instead of eating other dinosaurs have become buffalo herders.  It’s the Jurassic American west, the search for a dinosaurian American dream.  Would I recommend this film for children?  In one scene a huge fly has his head bitten off, and in others the dinosaur or his human friend is threatened, and the overall separation of the dinosaur from his mother and siblings would disturb younger children, so I guess not.  But I liked it.