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Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld

October 10, 2021

Part of the delight in Seinfeld publishing this book is his string of podcast appearances promoting it, including the enjoyable and insightful discussion with Tim Ferriss. Ferriss, obsessed with process, gets Seinfeld to talk about the grueling amount of work and persistence that goes into being a stand-up comedian, let alone one of the greatest ever. That interview pairs well with this book to paint a full picture—the behind-the-scenes work, and 45 years of the output.

Of the pressures of stand-up, he writes, “You must constantly justify why you are the only one talking, and everyone else is just sitting.” It’s a lot of pressure. And, as he says in his interviews, it is a toxic environment. Only the best and the strongest survive. “When you see a comedian with a ton of great stuff, what you’re really marveling at, or should be, is how could someone crawl on their belly that great a distance.”

This collection of jokes spans Seinfeld’s career. Some of the bits are classic. Others were left in the notebook, half-complete. But taken collectively, you can see the process in action. The famous style that starts with an observation. Even though he doesn’t actually say “What’s the deal with…?” in the book, you could start many of these jokes with that question. Look around. Planes. Cabs. Doctors’ offices. Cellphones. Relationships. Pharmacists.

He wonders if they wasted the good pilots as kamikazes or just the ones who were really bad at landing already. Why is there always a huge age gap in movie theater employees? “The girl who sells the ticket, she’s ten. Then the guy who rips it, he’s 102.” And an extended riff on cereal, including: “Where in the world do you get the balls to call your cereal Life?”

These are “ideas that come from nowhere and mean nothing,” he says. But that dismissal undersells what he’s so good at. The writing is sharp, with the jokes masterfully structured to land just right, but Seinfeld’s real skill is in the seeing. Many of the topics may be “about nothing,” but in each of his jokes he shows us that he can see something that we can’t, or haven’t noticed, in a thing we’ve all looked at a thousand times.

Another thing I really appreciate in these collected jokes is how visual Seinfeld’s language is, like when he describes the “Wicked Witch of the West finger” you have to make to hook raisins out of their box, or says he’ll think America has a weight problem when we’re all packed together coast to coast, touching like olives in a jar, or describes golf as, “Idiotic hacking through sand and weeds while driving drunk in a clown car through a fake park,” as challenging as “throwing a tic tac 100 yards into a shoebox.”

Some of his other topics:

On lunch meat. “It’s some kind of meat, and you should eat it around noon…We saw an animal, we grabbed it, we never got a really good look at it.”  

“The state flag of Florida should just be a steering wheel with a hat and two knuckles on it. And the left turn signal on from when they left the house that morning. That’s a legal turn in Florida, by the way. It’s called an eventual left. You can signal this week, then turn any following year of your life.”

The second type of “heil” you sometimes see in WWII films with Nazis. Different than the official, here’s-the-boss heil, there’s the “casual heil,” a quick wave and “heil” that feels more like a “yo.”

On horses and glue: “See that one kind of waving around? He’s out of his mind. He’ll be crazy glue.”

“You go horseback riding, the horse sees you pull up in a car. He knows you have absolutely no need to do this. I get out of a car that has 500 horsepower so I can sit on an animal that has one.”

His hate for the phrase, “It is what it is.” “I’d rather someone just blew clear air into my face.”

His favorite kind of suicide bomber is the one who accidentally blows himself up with nobody else in the area. “A Jihad E. Coyote kind of guy.”

Some of these jokes are a little old-school, and a few haven’t aged well, but that’s not surprising in a joke collection that spans 40 years. This book is a must for anyone interested in comedy (or anyone who just wants a few good laughs).

Goldenrod by Maggie Smith

October 9, 2021

I first came across Maggie Smith when her poem “Good Bones” was recommended by John Dickerson on the Slate Political Gabfest earlier this year. I loved “Good Bones” so much that immediately pre-ordered this book, released in July of 2021.

Smith is from Ohio, and her poetry has a kind of middle America pastoralism to it. Nearly every poem has a connection to nature—mostly everyday, observational. She weaves these observations together with themes of human relationships, motherhood, loneliness, and a precarious dance between despair and hope.

She questions the Divine, yet finds grace in everyday objects and moments. “They look like gifts a crow might bring a human girl, desperate to impress her,” she writes in “Talisman,” a poem about the random objects she has in her jacket pocket, gifts from her young son. An acorn, a stone, a Mr. Potato Head ear. “When I touch them, I can believe almost anything.”

These poems move sharply from the natural world to the home to the heart to the spiritual and back again, creating unlikely juxtapositions, creating an interplay between the internal and external that can feel profound and sudden but also very ordinary, the way watching your child on a swing can provoke great wonder and great fear and the biggest questions all out of nowhere. These poems feel like doors, like portals to feelings or moods or ideas, sometimes just images, but all very accessible.

I kept this book on my desk for a few months and would read a poem in the morning before I started work, because they felt grounding in some way, and one poem was usually enough to create at least a feeling of perspective, a reminder that there are important things in our everyday lives that are not what we usually spend most of our time fretting over.

This is a great collection of poetry. I’ve ordered a copy for a friend and have also pre-ordered Maggie Smith’s Keep Moving, due to be released later this month.

Let Me Think by J. Robert Lennon

September 23, 2021

Lennon’s off-beat Pieces for the Left Hand is one of my favorite collections of short-shorts, a set of 100 stories that are clever, a little mean sometimes, and might make one ask, “Why the hell would anyone ever do this?” yet, oddly, feel completely like something someone would do. His novel Mailman lies somewhere between Confederacy of Dunces and I-don’t-know-what—Office Space, maybe? Absurd, frustrating, hilarious. Another of his novels, Castle, I liked less, but it was an interesting swing at an eerie, paranoid suspense story.

I mention these other writings because Let Me Think, a collection of shorts, short-shorts, and miscellaneous half-starts, is a mix of all of this. Stories of the eerie, where places inexplicably change, or people inexplicably change (one after dying from a rattlesnake bite then being revived) or memories disappear. Eliza Gabbert, in her book The Unreality of Memory, has an essay about how we misremember, and how dislocating this misremembering can be. She recalls a short story, “The Little Room,” by Madeline Yale Wynne, in which a character repeatedly visits the same house, yet finds a room sometimes there, sometimes not. Some of Lennon’s stories in Let Me Think share the same eerie DNA with that sort of story. Some have a little David Lynch, even.

Others of his are about miscommunication, barriers to connection, frustration, relationships failing. Conversations between couples who are talking past each other, taking cheap shots, refusing to connect in a stubborn, aggravating way that is exasperating and all-too-real. Divorce is a common theme. The banality of suburban life another.

Some of the pieces here might be called flash fiction, a term I don’t really care for. They’re a few paragraphs, maybe a couple pages. Others a little longer. I enjoy the rawness of these. Some are fully formed, others a little sketchy. Lennon released this book at the same time he released a novel, Subdivision. Possibly the novel gave him permission to put out something that sometimes feels like odds and ends. But I truly enjoyed these odds and ends.

Whitey Bulger by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy

September 21, 2021

Whitey Bulger was a crime boss for the Winter Hill Gang in the outskirts of Boston in the 1970s. Sometime around 1975, he became an informant for the FBI, providing information on a rival crime family. In exchange, the FBI looked the other way while the Winter Hill Gang went about its business, which included drug running, extortion, money laundering and murder.

In 1994, Whitey was tipped off by his FBI handler that a racketeering indictment was headed his way, so he went underground. A few years later, it came to light what kind of crimes Bulger had committed while serving as an informant, a public scandal for law enforcement agencies up and down the chain. In 1999, he was added to the FBI’s most wanted list, second behind Osama Bin Laden. But the decade that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bin Laden—and terrorism in general—became the focus of much of the FBI’s resources. Whitey, though he remained on the list, wasn’t much of a priority.

When Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, everything changed for Whitey. After 17 years in hiding, he was back at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. It didn’t take long. He was identified in Santa Monica, living the quiet, low-key life of a retiree, with his girlfriend of many years. Whitey was arrested, charged, and found guilty of a long list of crimes, including eleven murders. He received two life sentences. In 2018, hours after being transferred from a prison in Florida to one in West Virginia, Whitey was killed by fellow inmates. He was 89 years old.

Bulger’s story is ready-made for a mob film. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the excellent 2006 remake of the Japanese film Internal Affairs, is inspired by the Whitey Bulger story, with Jack Nicholson’s character as a stand-in for Bulger. This book brings the story to life and lets the true story do the work. Not only is Bulger a fearsome character, but the audacity of the FBI letting a criminal like Bulger commit murders (as long as they were still getting what they needed) makes for some jaw-dropping moments. Nobody comes out looking good in the end, but the reader gets a true-to-life crime story on par with good crime fiction.

This book was recommended on the Literary Disco podcast about crime books.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

September 19, 2021

Hitchens, the acerbic, witty, brilliant writer, public speaker and debater, spent the last eighteen months of his life contemplating and writing about the end of life. While on a book tour in 2010, he experienced severe pain in his chest and was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He had written extensively about his atheism, and such was faced with an eminent end that was, he believed, an ultimate end.

When Hitchens was diagnosed, he was on the book tour for his memoir, Hitch-22. As such, this book was not written as a memoir, but rather a focus on what was happening to him—his treatment by medical professionals, by friends, by others. And what was happening to him physically and psychologically. A man who was known for his voice, he is wrestling with what it means to literally lose one’s voice. “I feel my identity and personality dissolving,” he writes.

He refuses to give in to self-pity or to sentimentality, which might be what makes this end-of-life memoir feel different than similar books. Hitchens mentions Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, the exuberant, post-diagnosis performance (and resulting book) with the energy of a pep rally. This is not that. Nor is it the emotional grappling of Paul Kalanithi’s 2016 When Breath Becomes Air, where the neurosurgeon, who has witnessed death up close, now wrestles with its significance in a different dimension. Hitchens does little grappling, shows little doubt. The only sentimentality that creeps in comes in the postscript by his wife, Carol Blue. There we see him through the eyes of someone who loved him, admired him, was delighted by him regularly.

The Plague Year by Lawrence Wright

September 19, 2021

If there was an award for “Best-Timed Novel,” Wright’s novel about a global pandemic, The End of October, which appeared on bookshelves right about the time you couldn’t enter book stores or libraries because of COVID lockdown, would have won it. But that was fiction. This one is the real deal.

By the time The Plague Year was released, it felt like the plague was only going to last a bit over a year. We were finally getting out of COVID. I’d had my double dose of the vaccines. Cases were on the decline. We were headed back to normal. Then the Delta variant hit. So this book is really about the first of the plague years, unfortunately. But it’s a good start.

As the title implies, The Plague Year is about more than COVID. It’s about the events that run roughly from the earliest reports of COVID through the end of January 2021. It covers the pandemic, but it also covers the racial unrest that stemmed from the murder of George Floyd and the political unrest, culminating with the Capital siege on January 6. While some might bristle if they’re expecting a book that sticks to the pandemic and steers clear of the other two topics, it would be an incomplete picture to do so. They were the perfect storm that made 2020 what it was.

Although few of us anticipated that last year would be synonymous with global pandemic, that “social distancing” would be a common phrase or that people would be fighting over the efficacy of masks, many epidemiologists have been predicting it for years. “Unfortunately, political will for accelerating health security is caught in perpetual cycle of panic and neglect…” Wright writes. There’s very little effort put into preparing for a pandemic until it’s too late. Fortunately, “one country stood above all others in its readiness to confront a novel disease—the United States.”

During the 2017 transition, the Obama administration handed off a 69-page playbook to the Trump administration, “a meticulous step-by-step guide for combatting a pathogen of pandemic potential.” It had respiratory diseases as a top risk, and specified the roles of various government organizations. It also laid out that while states need to play a key role, the federal government should take the lead in public health emergencies.

Before COVID, the Trump administration itself ran a simulation of an outbreak, and the results were eerily predictive—confusion around which government agency was running what, a shortage of PPE and other equipment, businesses and schools struggling to go virtual, and many of the other things that would come to be.

So anyone who said “nobody could have seen this coming” was either lying or not paying attention.

Wright gives the Trump administration credit for two things: closing the border relatively quickly, and Project Warp Speed—the acceleration of the vaccine development. The former likely saved tens of thousands of lives by delaying the spread of COVID, and the latter was a display of American ingenuity on par with the production ramp up during World War II.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration then bumbled away many of the U.S.’s relative advantages. Although Wright recounts dozens of still unbelievable moments of 2020 (e.g. the President wondering aloud if perhaps we could inject people with bleach as a cure) and smaller mistakes, two rise to the top.

“We’re not a shipping clerk.” 

Rather than working with the states in the early days of the pandemic, Trump fought with the governors, told them that the government was not in the business of operating a supply chain, and encouraged them to get their own supplies. This created a competitive marketplace, where states were literally bidding against each other, then sneaking shipments of PPE into the country because the federal government had also taken to inexplicably seizing and redirecting shipments once the governors managed to procure them. When Robert Kraft used the New England Patriots jet to pick up and deliver a shipment of N95 masks from China, it wasn’t just a gesture of corporate good will—Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker had called in a favor because he’d been outbid by the federal government and was desperate.  

Trump’s response was vintage Trump—petty and vindictive. As people were beginning to die at alarming rates and governors were desperate to secure PPE for front-line workers, the President began lobbing inflammatory bombs at the governors he didn’t care for. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s governor, became a top target, inciting death threats, a kidnapping plot, and a protest over her stay-at-home order. Wright draws a pretty compelling line between the militia men who showed up at the Michigan capital and those who would lay siege to the nation’s capital in January of 2021.

Anti-maskers

“I just don’t want to be doing — somehow sitting in the Oval Office, behind that beautiful, Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask — as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, it somehow, I don’t see it for myself…”
-President Trump

“Everybody was saying don’t wear a mask, all of a sudden, everybody’s got to wear a mask, and as you know, masks cause problems too. With that being said, I’m a believer in masks. I think masks are good…”
-President Trump

The day that William Henry Harrison was sworn into office in March, 1841, was rainy and cold, yet the President-elect opted not to wear a coat outdoors for his 2+ hour acceptance speech because it wasn’t very presidential. A month later he died of pneumonia. Trump’s views on masks might have drawn more comparisons to Harrison views on coats if he’d actually died in Walter Reed Hospital in early October.

It’s unclear where Trump was exposed, but he was almost certainly carrying it at Amy Comey Barrett’s nomination ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. The only two people who were not tested for COVID entering the event were the President and First Lady. After the event, in which few of the 150 in attendance wore masks, an alarming number of people tested positive, including the President, Melania Trump, Chris Christie, Hope Hicks, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins, and a handful of senators and journalists. To be sure, there were other, bigger super-spreader events, but few set as clear of an example.

When the President came down with the virus a week later and was whisked away to Walter Reed, he received a level of care unavailable to most of the 53,000 other people who had reported new cases of COVID that day, or the 700+ who died that day. Still, the debate raged, and wearing or not wearing masks became a political statement. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people have since died because Trump stubbornly refused to simply say that people should follow the direction of the health professionals and wear a mask (if not actually set an example himself).    

Behind the scenes, source after source divulged to Wright stories of the conversations that went on, many of them heated, some of them absolutely bananas. Typically, though, they were debates between the scientists and idealogues.

Wright covers many of the issues that buzzed about the year, including the ineptitude of the CDC, the inequities in our health care system, and the mysterious origins of the virus. I attended a virtual bookstore event in June where Patrick Radden Keefe (journalist and author of Say Nothing and Empire of Pain) interviewed Wright about the book. During the Q&A, I asked if anything had happened since the release of the book that made him reconsider anything he’d written about. This was right when the debate about the origins of the virus was reheated, and I assumed he might mention that. Wright said not really, but that it would be interesting what came out, if anything, about the lab leak theories. He said he thought it very possible we would never find out for sure one way or the other where it came from. (To date, most scientists still believe COVID to have natural origins, though a lab leak from a Wuhan lab hasn’t been ruled out, and China’s obfuscation and general untrustworthiness doesn’t help.)

One of Wright’s special talents is his ability to zoom in and out, whether he’s writing about 9/11, the history of Texas, or COVID, he gives us personal stories along with the big picture. During his bookstore event, he spoke of it as being a little like casting for a film. Once he has the big-picture story, he needs to decide which people best bring it to life. In a poignant moment, he quotes one woman who had just lost her husband and was now seeing the President wave from the window of his limo. He spends quite a bit of time on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx (the Birx section is one of the most interesting, as she took off, under the radar, on a state-to-state mission to meet with as many state leaders and try to persuade them to enact mask mandates).

He celebrates the heroics of the researchers and the work around modifying spike proteins in coronaviruses to develop the mRNA vaccine, then rushing it through a 65-day FDA approval process. A wonder of medical science followed by a rare wonder of bureaucratic speed.

He also dedicates a fair amount of time to Matthew Pottinger, a veteran of the Marines who came into the Trump administration with Michael Flynn, then was one of the few remaining after four years, the deputy national-security advisor by the end of Trump’s first term. Pottinger was by all accounts level-headed, brilliant, and loyal. He was also one of the people on the inside who believed from very early on that the administration was not taking COVID seriously enough. When he arrived at a coronavirus task force meeting wearing a mask, he was instructed that masks would not be worn in future meetings. Pottinger toughed it out until January 6, 2021. He resigned after the Capital siege, seeing Trump’s response to it.

Much more will be written about 2020. This is a pretty good first pass at it. Wright is a phenomenal writer, an even-keeled non-partisan who shoots pretty straight. Though I will say, reading this back in June was easier than it probably would be now. I’m not sure I’d want to pick it up until we’re on the other side of the COVID hill again.

The Hannibal Lecter Series: Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris

September 18, 2021

Hannibal Lecter is one of the greatest fictional villains ever created. A genius, cannibalistic serial killer who helps investigators find other serial killers. Add in Clarice Starling—a strong and smart female hero with inner struggles as complex and interesting as the external conflicts—and a cast of unique supporting characters, and you’ve got some real magic…at times.  

Thomas Harris has published four books with Hannibal Lecter, resulting in five film adaptations and two spin-off television series:

Red Dragon, published in 1981, adapted into the film Manhunter in 1986, then again into a film that kept the Red Dragon title, in 2002.  

The Silence of the Lambs, published in 1988, adapted as film in 1991.

Hannibal, published in 1999, adapted as film in 2001.

Hannibal Rising, published in 2006, adapted as film in 2007.

Some of these I’d read and watched before (I’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs a half dozen times), but this time I binged all of the books and films together. A rather dark rabbit hole. I’ve seen a few episodes of the series Hannibal (three seasons, 2013-2015) but have not yet watched CBS’s Clarice (based on the week-over-week ratings, Clarice seems to be floundering).

Overall, the collection is uneven. At its best, it is cerebral, suspenseful, and the main characters have complex psyches with motivations that are alluded to but not fully illuminated. And at its best, it mixes genres, most successfully when it overlays horror conventions onto police procedural. Harris and the filmmakers involved in the adaptations achieve this brilliantly in The Silence of the Lambs and, to a lesser degree, in Red Dragon/Manhunter.

Below I give a little more on each work, best to worst.

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs film is the best of the best. It took home five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). It is the only horror film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar. It’s listed on “AFI’s 100 Best Films of the Century” list. I watched the film and the various commentaries, mini-docs and extras, and it all holds up, 30 years later. It is a must-see.

Hannibal Lecter is a forensic psychiatrist—or, at least, was before he got thrown in jail for eating people—and both Graham and Starling have plenty of skeletons in their closet that Lecter can tug on. “Quid pro quo,” as he says to Starling. She trades answers about her childhood, giving Hannibal access to her psyche in return for clues about her case. This sets up a psychological danger that is as riveting as the action scenes.

Both The Silence of the Lambs and its prequel, Red Dragon, keep Lecter—the most interesting character—locked up for the majority of the story as he guides the investigators (Will Graham in Dragon; Clarice Starling in Lambs) in their pursuit of other serial killers. It’s a smarter version of the horror film technique of withholding a clear visual of the monster until late in a monster movie. It helps build the tension—what you imagine in the dark is always scarier—and keeps audiences leaning in. A bit of delayed gratification that, in this form, works in the cinema as well as on the page. We hear the stories of Lecter’s violent crimes, but it’s hard to square those atrocities with the sophisticated, calm man behind the glass of his cell. When he eventually escapes, we feel the requisite terror, but we also feel the sadistic delight of an audience that’s been waiting for this moment, like when the dinosaurs inevitably escape in Jurassic Park. Let’s see what this thing can do.

The triangulation of investigator / serial killer on the loose / Hannibal Lecter as an evil but necessary collaborator makes the plots of these two installments the most successful in the series. It’s good in Red Dragon. It’s near perfect in The Silence of the Lambs. The vulnerability of Clarice Starling is cranked up—she’s not only female in a man’s world, but she’s also a trainee. Her inexperience and vulnerability are exposed early in her first meeting with Lecter, whom she has been sent to interview at the mental hospital. She attempts a clumsy segue, and he condescendingly puts her in her place: “Oh no no no no. You were doing fine.” He is in full control, and she is naïve, in way over her head.

These interview scenes, where Clarice visits Lecter in the dank basement of the mental hospital and they talk through the glass, are a masterclass in filmmaking. The characters reveal themselves to each other (and to us) bit by bit, with fantastic dialogue and subtle acting. Anthony Hopkins looks directly into camera instead of the more conventional off-camera sight line of a dialogue scene, a creepy effect that puts us in Starling’s shoes. And Foster’s self-conscious reaction as she fights to keep her composure after Lecter exposes her inexperience is fantastic.  

These scenes also contain a sexual metaphor—the innocent virgin flirting with an experienced, dangerous man. Clarice is exposing herself, psychologically undressing for Hannibal the Cannibal, attempting to use her inner secrets to lure him out, to get what she needs from him, without completely giving herself away or ceding control. He’s after what’s inside her mind. He wants to know everything about her. She knows this. We know this. It’s this psychological/sexual dance that makes these scenes feel so perilous.

One interesting tidbit from the DVD extras—Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins only did one table read of the scene beforehand and had no opportunity to chit-chat before or after. They both admitted to being somewhat intimidated by the other, which they say might have actually helped create the awkward tension in this scene.

Beyond being a great story with great characters brought to life by great actors, Silence’s thematic exploration of gender roles is powerful and deftly integrated throughout.

Clarice, a woman hero in a typically masculine role, is constantly the victim of subtle and overt sexism, from judgmental stares of the agents she works with to the clumsy propositions of men like Dr. Chilton, the head of the asylum that holds Lecter. To survive, she has to be strong physically, but even more so mentally.

Starling is willing to engage in the quid pro quo with Lecter, but it is an uneven arrangement. She reveals to Lecter personal details—like that she lost her father at a young age—in exchange for information about Buffalo Bill. She gives Lecter revealing, personal information that puts her in danger. He is doing it for the titillation. The information he trades is of no personal sacrifice to him. This uneven exchange of personal information for professional gain is analogous to a professional environment where a woman is rewarded for—or even expected to—employ her personal charms or sexuality if she is to advance professionally.

We see this dynamic later, at a funeral home in West Virginia, when Clarice brings out her hometown, West Virginia accent to address the group of men and get them out of the room: “Excuse me, gentlemen, ya officers and gentlemen, listen here now…” She deftly employs her background as a local, her female charm, and a certain degree of deference to the gentlemen in the room. “Go on now and let us take care of her,” she tells them. Notice, as she is delivering this line, the look up and down she gets from the officer in center of frame. She is bearing this sexism, these judgmental eyes, to get the job done.

Clarice lost her father when she was young. The significance of this resurfaces several times in the film in the form of flashbacks, after she initially reveals it to Lecter. It’s an important element, because it provides context for the dualling father figures who guide her in her case: Hannibal Lecter, brilliant but evil; and Jack Crawford, her boss, kind but old fashioned. They are both also using her, manipulating her for their own needs. She willingly engages in the exchange with Lecter, and she knows she needs Crawford’s support if she is to climb the ladder at the FBI. So she plays the role he needs her to play—the young submissive female agent. But she isn’t shy about speaking her mind to him, most prominently when, after he has dismissed her from a room of male police officers during an investigation. In the car later, he brings it up in a semi-apology and attempts to shrug it off as “just smoke.” “It matters,” she says. “Point taken,” he acknowledges.

On the flip side of Starling—a woman trying to break into a man’s world—is the villain, Buffalo Bill. His real name is Jame Gumb, and when it’s first mentioned, the odd name “Jame” is dismissed as a bit of carelessness on the birth certificate. But thematically, it matters. “Jame” is a hybrid, halfway between James and Jane. As we will discover, Mr. Gumb longs to become a woman. He has applied and been rejected for several sex change operations. Hence, he is working to create a suit from the flesh of real women.

The Silence of the Lambs took some flak from LGBTQ+ groups for its portrayal of Gumb as a freak, criticizing it for reinforcing the stereotype that transvestites and transexuals are psychologically damaged or dangerous (a la Psycho). The book elaborates more than the movie, as if anticipating this criticism, and makes a point to say that Gumb is not a real transexual and that, in fact, most transsexuals are not in any way violent. Still, it’s somewhat controversial, and Harris walks a fine line (maybe crosses it) again with a character in Hannibal.

This issue of gender roles and gender fluidity in The Silence of the Lambs is ripe for deep analysis. But even if a viewer just wants a great, edge-of-your-seat thriller and wants to skip the film school theories, Lambs delivers. It works on all levels. The novel is also very strong. There are a few nuances in the novel that are cut from the film out of necessity, but in general the movie is very faithful. I’d recommend both.

Red Dragon / Manhunter

The novel Red Dragon is great. Francis Dolarhyde, aka “the Red Dragon” (his name for himself), aka “The Tooth Fairy” (the name the tabloid press has given him), has already killed two families, sneaking into their homes on full moon nights. Now, as the next full moon is approaching, Will Graham, the retired agent responsible for putting Hannibal Lecter behind bars, is asked to consult on the case.

Dolarhyde is weird enough to feel authentically psychopathic. Abused as a child and now hyperconscious of his looks, he believes he is commanded by the Red Dragon, a creature in a William Blake painting. He, like Jame Gumb from Lambs, is on the verge of a transformation (or so he believes).

The Red Dragon novel is very much worth the read.Michael Mann’s 1986 film adaptation, Manhunter, is good, but is a stylistic product of the 80s.

The 2002 film version of Red Dragon, starring Ray Fiennes, Ed Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins, is not a terrible film. It’s well-made and well-acted, but it’s completely unnecessary and feels like a studio milking a franchise.

Speaking of which…

Hannibal and Hannibal Rising

The two stories that follow—Hannibal and Hannibal Rising—lose the balance. Hannibal wobbles, and Hannibal Rising tips on its head, but they essentially do it by committing the same mistake in different ways—in an attempt to dial up the menace and horror, they reveal too much. In the graphic nature of the plots and the execution of the films, they show the violence, the gore, the blood and guts. They move from suspense punctuated by shocking moments of violence, to over-the-top graphic violence and physical (not just psychological) sadism. It is a shift from Jaws to SAW. The result is sometimes schlocky, sometimes exploitative, sometimes laughable, sometimes just a little disappointing.

Hannibal, the much-hyped follow-up to Lambs, finds Clarice Starling trying to apprehend the still-on-the-run Lecter before one of his former patients, our new psychopathic villain, is able to capture the doctor. There are a few wonderful moments, but this attempt to make Hannibal a hero by creating an even greater evil, and some of the plot moves that make Hannibal seem more like James Bond than an aging psychiatrist, all feel like Hannibal’s superstardom has gone to everybody’s heads.

Ridley Scott, who I think has a special love for wrathful filmmaking, finds plenty of material here. The book is gruesome, and Scott seems to revel in leaving nothing to the imagination. He does, however, fix a very controversial ending to Harris’s novel. It’s a rare example of a filmmaker correcting a major plot point.

Julianne Moore plays Starling, and while I like Moore, she’s no Jodie Foster in this role. Overall, Hannibal the book is better, but it feels as if the whole thing is approaching the shark, if not quite jumping it yet.

That would be where Hannibal Rising comes in. If you’re a fan of the series and have exhausted everyting else and are hungry for more, then maybe you’ll find something in Hannibal Rising. To me, it exemplifies what I call the Boba Fett effect. The more light you shine on a mysterious character, and one who is loved partly because they are mysterious, the less interesting they become. Boba Fett was one of the best, coolest secondary characters in the original Star Wars films. When they came back for the ill-fated second trilogy, they dedicated much of the second film to Boba Fett’s background, and it was sinful. It almost ruined Boba Fett. Hannibal Rising doesn’t ruin the Hannibal Lecter character, but it gives it a good go.

In this prequel, we find a young Hannibal as a part of a royal family, living on the Eastern Front at the end of World War II, as the Germans are retreating and wreaking havoc as they pull back from the Russians. They have lost the war and are in a pretty foul mood. Hannibal, a lovely, caring boy, witnesses some terrible things and yada yada…Hannibal the Cannibal. This backstory was fine as a few subtle allusions in Hannibal. As a full story, it becomes absurd. To the point earlier about the successful mixing of the police procedural with the horror genres in the first two books and films, here we get horror mixed with a kind of Steven Seagal revenge story.

The Hannibal and Hannibal Rising books and films are interesting if, like me, you’ve gone into this world and just want more of the characters, or are curious enough to want to light up all of the dark corners, but otherwise I’d say they’re not worth the time investment.

All in all, this is a classic series. Silence of the Lambs is the best place to start—amazing overall.  Then go to Red Dragon/Manhunter. If you’re still hungry for more, Hannibal may make you lose your appetite. Hannibal Rising is likely not the dessert you’re looking for. Perhaps one of the spinoff shows. Based on the ratings, Hannibal is probably the better bet.

The Kid by Ron Hanson

September 15, 2021

Ron Hanson wrote The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was adapted into an underappreciated 2007 film. I knew the film, but didn’t realize it was based on a novel. Then I was listening to Reading McCarthy, a new podcast about Cormac McCarthy scholarship, and Ron Hanson was mentioned as a writer of thoughtful westerns. I’m still going through a western phase, so I decided to check it out.

The Kid is a work of historical fiction, based on the life of Henry McCarty, aka William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. Like many western characters, the fact that “Billy the Kid” is a household name is probably unwarranted based on the exploits of the actual man, but it’s a good story nonetheless. Orphaned at 15, Billy found plenty of mischief as a youngster, then fell in with a vigilante gang who, though deputized under the auspices of bringing order to the area, stirred up serious trouble all around Lincoln County in the New Mexico Territory, circa the 1870s. Some of their deeds were probably justifiable by old west standards, some decidedly less so. I was surprised at how much of the story felt familiar, but then realized it was because my brother and I watched the Young Guns movies—in which Emilio Estevez plays Billy—a few hundred times as kids.  

An enhanced photo of Billy the Kid, circa 1880.

Hanson has a knack for colorful descriptions of action, such as this snippet from a gunfight:

“Brewer fired but just hit the wooden frame. It fanned out like so many pencils. After waiting a little behind the timber, he lifted up to fire again, but Roberts had seen where the first shot came from and was aimed, his .45-caliber carbine bullet striking off pine before hitting Dick Brewer in his blue left eye and detonating his handsome head.”

Likewise, the dialogue is laced with fun western idioms, as when one hungry character notes that he’d “take right kindly to getting greasy around the mouth.”

Overall, this is a fun read. A fairly straight-down-the-middle western, but based in considerable historical research. So both the casual western fan as well as the historian might find it enjoyable.

Creativity by John Cleese

September 14, 2021

This breezy, delightful book was the first I’d checked out of the library in over two years (thanks, COVID). But beyond that, it’s just a delightful read. Who wouldn’t find a thing or two to learn from Cleese and enjoy the learning? Much of what he covers here is basic, as creative practice goes, but the points are made with wit and charm. I took three pages of notes.

He covers the role of the unconscious, the phases of creative thinking (what he calls the hare brain and the tortoise brains), how to get unstuck, and how to get feedback. Overall, a worthwhile read.

Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

September 12, 2021

“We define ourselves in the stories we tell, the people we honor, and the enemies we choose. As we age, learn and live, we change the stories to reflect our evolving understanding of the world and what it means to us.”

The first part of this quotation, from the final chapter in Forget the Alamo, is not controversial. The stories we tell, the events we celebrate in our holidays, the people we put on monuments—those choices define our culture. The second part—that history is alive, should be continuously examined and reconsidered—is less agreed upon. People might say that we should get history right, but in practice people like the version of history that aligns with their beliefs, veracity be damned. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of people more devoted to their own self-mythology than Texans. So it’s not surprising that Remember the Alamo, which re-examines and myth-busts one of the foundational moments in Texas history, struck a big, Texas-sized nerve upon its release in June of this year.

The story of the Alamo is one of the myths at the heart of Texans’ belief in their own exceptionalism, exemplary of the Texan spirit. In 1836, the story goes, a group of American heroes, including William Travis, Davey Crockett and James Bowie, surrounded and greatly outnumbered, nonetheless fought valiantly and ultimately sacrificed their lives against an army under the command of Mexican President General Antonio López de Santa Anna, thus buying enough time for Sam Houston to muster his forces to defeat Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Towns, streets, schools, lakes, counties, ranches, city buildings and horses across Texas are named for Travis, Crockett and Bowie, and the Alamo legend. Over the years, a slew of films, shows, comic books, books, toys and coonskin caps have buttressed this legend.

The only thing is, the authors of Forget the Alamo say, much of that story is not true. Unlike most historical events, which are mythologized with the passage of time and the retelling of the story, the Alamo story started off as a piece of propaganda, concocted from the beginning to protect the morale of the U.S. troops and settlers engaged in the Revolution. Because the truth was not so inspiring.

The authors dissect the legend from a few different angles, first deconstructing the myth itself, then getting into the various fights over the legend (the state of Texas has worked furiously to protect the traditionalist telling of the Alamo story, and actively fights any attempts at revisionism), then diving into a strange, extended aside about the Alamo artifact collection of Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins).

One of the aspects of the Texas Revolution that is objectionable to purists, though fairly incontrovertible, is the role of slavery as an impetus for the Revolution. In the 1830s, Texas was still a territory of Mexico. While the central Mexican government generally welcomed settlers from the United States, because those settlers provided a buffer against Comanche raiding parties, they were less welcoming of the institution of slavery, which was outlawed in Mexico. Many of the settlers, though, were coming to Texas to grow cotton—an enterprise that necessitated slave labor to be profitable. “Texas as we know it wouldn’t exist without slave labor,” the authors write, something that doesn’t jive well with the image of the Texas Revolution as a noble war.

Similarly, purists object to any sullying of the three men at the center of the Alamo story— Jim Bowie, William Travis and Davy Crockett. But the truth is, these heroes were not quite as noble as John Wayne, Disney, or many of the other Alamo storytellers would have us believe. Bowie was a slave trader, Travis a land swindler fleeing a murder charge, and Davy Crockett was a failed politician (after gaining fame as a frontiersman).

And the trio’s final stand in the face of overwhelming odds, where Travis famously drew a “line in the sand” (likely did not happen) and they all fought bravely to the end, well, much of that didn’t happen. From a military standpoint, the stand at the Alamo was foolish. With ample warning and opportunity to escape, along with the knowledge that the approaching Mexican force greatly outnumbered them, the decision to stay and fight may have been brave, but it was also certainly a blunder. And evidence suggests that, unlike the 1960 John Wayne film that shows him going down swinging, Crockett surrendered and was executed.

All of this is to say that the myth of the Alamo got a lot wrong. Which is completely understandable, even justifiable. It was wartime propaganda. And yet, the myth has persisted. We know that Crockett surrendered partly because of the journals of a Mexican soldier, José Enrique de la Peña. You can read his first-hand account of Crockett’s surrender, torture and execution on page 53 of his published journal.

When we consider other perspectives, when we get away from the white-washed propaganda of the Alamo myth, we get closer to the objective truth. And this is where it gets interesting. Because although we are nearly two centuries removed from the actual events, there is still a lively fight between the revisionism like this book and the traditionalists, who insist on the original version of the Alamo story, no matter how disproven.

It’s one thing to hang onto myths that make us feel good. When it comes to Santa Claus, sure, let’s all believe. But when it comes to Santa Anna, particularly in our history classes, we should probably try to get it right.

Who wouldn’t want to get it right, right? Some big-name Texans, apparently.

I’m a member of the Writer’s League of Texas, which is mostly workshops and lectures about writing stuff. Back in July, the WLT sponsored a virtual event in partnership with the Bullock Museum in San Antonio, in which the authors were going to discuss Forget the Alamo. I had my ticket, was excited, had listened to the audiobook and was ready to go. Then our cowardly, ignoramus governor Greg Abbott and his fartwad sidekick Dan Patrick got word and, afraid of the truth, had the event cancelled.

I take some solace in the fact that the move seemed to blow up in their faces, as banning books usually does. There were about 300 people confirmed for the WLT book event. After the controversy surrounding the cancellation, Remember the Alamo shot up the New York Times bestseller list.

It’s baffling to me that people would choose to be ignorant, but there’s nothing new about this. And nothing new about politicians who regularly crow about “cancel culture” being first to jump in and cancel culture they don’t like.

The bigger problem is when it comes to the history textbooks, and there is a battle there, too—has been for forty years when it comes to the Alamo, specifically. In the big scheme of things, it’s probably not a huge deal if kids believe some fabricated story about a single battle, but if that’s the case, then why are we teaching history at all? If we can’t commit to reevaluating the history we teach as more facts come to light, then we are committing ourselves to being an ignorant people.

That, to me, is what this book is really about.

The aside about Phil Collins, in this light, is an apt metaphor. Listening to it, I was wondering why the authors were spending so much time on it. It was funny, but seemed trivial. Phil Collins, the great British pop singer, is a major fan of the Alamo story. So much so that he amassed an impressive collection of artifacts over the years. Then he donated them to have a museum created in San Antonio. Only, when experts started examining the artifacts, quite a few of them were of dubious origins (e.g. the original Bowie knife, from Jim Bowie himself). Plans for the exhibit were put on hold. Collins seemed fairly non-plussed by the revelations, and nobody thought he was trying to pull a fast one—he just didn’t didn’t care enough to do the work to ensure the authenticity of some of these artifacts. He liked the story.

The Alamo saga continues, as detailed in this Texas Monthly piece from June, some adapted from the book. It’s all a little silly, but it’s also important. In a world where people will deny something that happens in the full view of thousands of cameras, it’s not surprising that folks are prone to fighting over something that happened two centuries ago? Control the narrative, everyone knows by now. And if you can be the first to get the narrative out there to people who want to believe it, it’s likely that no facts are going to ever change their minds. Myth-busting don’t come easy.