Books & movies to pick up while social distancing yourself

Albert Camus

Over the past week, the more I tell myself I will not live in fear or succumb to panic, the more I wonder if I’m fooling myself. Such are the unusual times we’re in.

My rule-of-thumb has been to halve whatever heat the press applies to its current hot topic—to recognize it’s in the media’s interests to double a controversial topic’s magnitude to sell more advertising. For the current outbreak of coronavirus, however, dividing by two still yields a large number.

Watching the spread of COVID-19 in near real-time on my computer screen, my thoughts keep returning to a certain class of story, ones that deal with mass disease, plague, and creeping horror.

With social distancing becoming chic and more people staying home nights, here’s a selection of books and movies that offer food for thought for uncertain times:

The Plague

Often read as an allegory of the French Resistance during World War II, it’s just as enriching to read Albert Camus’ classic as a straight accounting of bubonic plague striking an Algerian town.

The novel’s first section reads like a cribbed summary of the past three months. The town government is slow to respond to the first signs of outbreak, and then they attempt to downplay and muzzle news of the disease. The townspeople are initially detached, even sarcastic, about the oncoming epidemic. Doctors hesitate to utter its name. Only when the horror is plain is there a complete lock-down of the city. We haven’t seen food riots or looting—yet—but Camus’ depiction of citizens being shot while escaping quarantine, and paranoia stoking bigotry and violence, naturally makes me wonder which is worse: the disease or its targets.

“A good hour wasted!” the inspector sighed when the door closed behind them. “As you can guess, we’ve other things to think about, what with this fever everybody’s talking of.”

He then asked the doctor if there was any serious danger to the town; Rieux answered that he couldn’t say.

“It must be the weather,” the police officer decided. “That’s what it is.”

What does The Plague depict that we’re not seeing today? Camus’ gallows humor, for one. The San Francisco of thirty years ago would be holding end-of-the-world parties right now, and plague doctors’ masks would be the hot fashion item of the season. Instead, San Francisco went from boom town to ghost town over the course of a single weekend. Camus’ interrogation of God’s will versus nature’s blind force are scarce today too. It appears everyone’s more-or-less agreed on the science behind COVID-19, although conspiracies abound—perhaps our culture’s new religion.

“Well, I know. And I don’t need any post-mortems. I was in China for a good part of my career, and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion. The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that would do at all. … ‘It’s unthinkable. Everyone knows it ceased to appear in western Europe.’ Yes, everyone knew that—except the dead men.”

I like to think Camus’ main characters recognized the absurdity of fleas on grungy rats sending an entire city into a locked-down panic. Maybe in the future we’ll have a rounder perspective of the 2019-2020 coronavirus. Not today, apparently.

12 Monkeys

One of my favorite films. In Terry Gilliam’s near future, mankind lives underground after an unnamed virus killed five billion people and made the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. A convict is sent backwards in time not to prevent the near-extinction event, but to gather information about the virus so future scientists may develop a vaccine.

“We did it!”
(Jeff Kramer, CC BY 2.0)

As with The Plague, 12 Monkeys is laden with absurdity and irony even though the subject matter is dead-serious. The ending is ambiguous, but one reading is even more fatalistic than Camus’ novel. “All I see are dead people,” the convict mutters as he peers around a thriving 1990s America.

Then there’s the scene where the viral spread is recalled by counting off the cities it was first detected in, much as we’re talking about Wuhan, Italy, King County, and so forth. The 12 Monkeys virus was communicated quickly due to modern airline travel, which again sounds awfully familiar. Of all the titles in this list, 12 Monkeys hews closest to today’s reality.

Orwell’s war-time diaries

While not strictly about plague or pestilence, Orwell’s diaries of London life during World War II have remarkable currency. Reading his private thoughts during the London blitz are Orwell at his most claustrophobic.

Orwell records the daily despairs overheard in pubs and tobacconists, the griping over the stark wartime rationing, and his own dulled sense that he’s grown accustomed to the sound of airplane gunfire. London’s citizens black out their windows and stay at home fretting over the newspaper and beside the radio. Above all, he writes of his suspicions that government censors were holding back embarrassments on England’s progress in the war—and most likely lying through their teeth, although “there is probably more suppression than downright lying.”

The usual Sunday crowds drifting to and fro, perambulators, cycling clubs, people exercising dogs, knots of young men loitering at street corners, with not an indication in any face or in anything that one can overhear that these people grasp that they are likely to be invaded within a few weeks, though today all the Sunday papers are telling them so. The response to renewed appeals for evacuation of children from London has been very poor. Evidently the reasoning is, “The air raids didn’t happen last time, so they won’t happen this time.”

His diaries ring of today’s self-quarantines, the lines at the supermarkets, the daily sense of uncertainty, and each morning checking the Web knowing the infection numbers will only be rising. Our government is now holding public health meetings in secret. At least our press is free enough to report that much.

There are days Orwell sounds resigned to England being overrun by the Nazis, and there are days when he’s even more apocalyptic. Orwell, ever the Socialist, grimly cheers himself up by predicting the end of the war would trigger a workers’ revolution and the end of capitalism. It’s an unusually millenarianist moment for the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, and one where his predictive powers failed him.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The 1956 thriller is a classic of Red Scare film-making. The 1976 remake with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy is creepier and—improbably—campier. Extraterrestrial spores quietly rain down on Earth to infect humans while they sleep. One by one, humanity is replaced with emotionless, purposeless clones.

The 1956 original is interpreted as either a caution against Communism or anti-Communism, making it the ultimate McCarthy-era open text. The 1976 remake is on several lists of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers, yet it’s even less politically-charged than the original. As with my suggestion about The Plague, what if both were simply viewed through the lenses of infection and contamination?

When the aliens are perfect clones—when an infected person is outwardly healthy—it’s impossible to know who to be wary of, and so people rely on less reliable and less noble signals to judge unclean. By the middle of Body Snatchers, every major and minor character who comes into the shot leaves you asking, “Are they—?” There’s the awful hesitation these days when people shake hands. There’s the dismalness of watching people scurry away from a blown nose or a sneeze.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy’s plea for everyone to listen and see what’s coming sounds eerily like the health care professionals who warned the public of the coming epidemic, especially those who were censored or warned about spreading rumors:

Paranoia—fatalism—taboo—absurdity. I’m not claiming this list will cheer you up. Perhaps it’s helpful to see people at their best and worst when fear is spreading like a disease. Maybe it’s comforting to know we’re not the first to experience this dread. There’s a light, even if it’s not the end of the tunnel.

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Updike’s rules for reviewing books

In John Updike’s Picked-up Pieces, he expounds on his personal rules for reviewing books. I’m quoting them here to remind myself of this hard-won wisdom as well as to share with others:

John Updike
John Updike
  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. … Review the book, not the reputation.

I write reviews on this blog. Have I followed Updike’s commandments? Most are familiar to me in a hazy internalized way, even if I’ve not formalized book reviewing rules of my own. I confess guilt to giving away the ending of at least one book (a mystery novel, no less). And I could probably do better in my reviews with quoting the source material.

We live in a time of constant media negotiation. We’re not consumeristic readers any longer. With the Internet we’ve all become critics. Film review sites allows moviegoers to pan movies, even pan them before they’re released. We’re saturated with media and we’re saturated with criticism too. Updike’s rules may serve a newfound purpose: A way for us to judge criticism rather than accept it uncritically.

Airplane book for a long flight: Bloodline of the Holy Grail

Bloodline of the Holy Grail by Laurence Gardner

What faulty thinking twenty years ago compelled me to pick up this doorstop is lost to me today. With no reading material on hand, in a Munich airport bookstore and facing a direct flight back to the United States, I probably thought Laurence Gardner’s beefy Bloodline of the Holy Grail (1996) was making the best of a bad situation.

Airport bookstores and newsstands are, by and large, a waste of time for me. Most of them stock novels riding high on the New York Times bestseller list, self-help guides, business books for business people looking to maximize their potentialities, and a smattering of classic thrillers perpetually in-demand. (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo books seem to fit this last category.) I rarely find a book worth reading among their stacks, but that hasn’t stopped me when I’m desperate for a way to pass this time midair.

Bloodline of the Holy Grail fits the bill as a long-flight read due to its sheer bulk. Chewing through its four hundred and fifty pages to pass the time on a red-eye is a solution…assuming you’re willing to suspend critical thought and rational consideration.

Bloodline is a repackaging of the more widely known Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), the sprawling pseudo-historical conspiracy theory disguised as academic research. The bare-bones outline of Holy Blood, Holy Grail was lifted by Dan Brown as background for his thriller The Da Vinci Code (2003), which resulted in a lawsuit against Brown. Laurence Gardner undoubtedly cribbed Holy Blood for Bloodline as well, although toward different ends.

The books are premised on the idea that Jesus did not die on the cross, but was rescued by his followers and resuscitated without the knowledge of his Roman executors. The notion of Jesus surviving his crucifixion is not new. What’s new is to weaponize it into an attack on these books’ favorite targets. In the case of Holy Blood, it’s the Catholic church. In the case of Bloodline, it’s the British royal family.

According to both books, Jesus survived his crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene, raised a family, and anonymously died of natural causes. Mary and children sailed to France and established what became the Merovingian dynasty—that is, the foundation for all major royal lineages in Western European. You read that right.

Bloodline spins out of control from there, as though it wasn’t reeling fast enough. To connect Jesus’ bloodline to the major European monarchies, Gardner rewrites two thousand years of Western history with a horse-breeder’s attention to genealogy. He even injects into his pseudo-history figures of Biblical and Arthurian legend, presenting them as living, breathing persons instead of the fiction they are. The Holy Grail on the cover of the book? Gardner drops the canard where the word San Greal is a corruption of Sang Real (royal blood), another longstanding bunk theory unsubstantiated by the historical record.

Up to this point Bloodline tracks closely to Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I was not aware of the latter book when I was on my flight. Although I bought into none of Gardner’s hogwash, I was thoroughly impressed with his conviction and persistence. It’s much like Oliver Stone’s JFK, another ripping yarn I relish in repeated viewings whilst my intellect whispers in my ear: Factually, this is all crap. Years later, when Da Vinci Code became a hot ticket, I was convinced Dan Brown had ripped off Laurence Gardner, not knowing Gardner had, in turn, ripped off the earlier source. Lots of pigs have fed at the trough of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

On my flight I found myself thumbing ahead, skipping page after page of Gardner’s tedious and picayune revisionism. Like the high-minded JFK conspiracy theory books of the 1970s, Bloodline is chock full of footnotes and references to historical research. And, like those JFK conspiracy books, the tornado of references serves to obscure the questionable, if not dishonest, interpretation of that material.

HRH Prince Michael James Alexander Stewart
Michel Roger Lafosse

Bloodline comes to a crashing conclusion when it declares the current royal family of Britain are illegitimate throne-bearers. Gardner announces the proper King of Scotland (and direct descendant of Jesus Christ!) is HRH Prince Michael James Alexander Stewart, a Belgian named Michel Lafosse who contends he’s the head of the Royal House of Stuart, a lineage otherwise considered extinct. With only a few more pseudo-historical yoga poses, Gardner proves Lafosse should be the King of England as well.

That’s it. This entire four hundred fifty page book is an argument claiming some bloke is the rightful occupant of Buckingham Palace. Gardner concludes with a frosty condemnation of democracy and pining for return to a proper constitutional monarchy.

Author Laurence Gardner liked titles almost as much as Lafosse. Gardner was “Chevalier Labhran de St. Germain” and “the appointed Jacobite Historiographer Royal”—all bestowed upon him by Lafosse, who also showered invented titles on himself. The moment one learns of this incestuous relationship between the king and his genealogist, the ulterior motivations behind this turd of a book crystallizes before your eyes. The Guardian scoffed at this circle jerk of title inflation as a “web of imposture,” an elegant phrase to describe a sad and delusional fraud.

Bloodline of the Holy Grail is the most exhausting shaggy dog story I’ve ever read (and I’ve read Tristram Shandy, the shaggiest of them all). It may also be the most ambitious vanity project ever published. To plow through so much dense mud and be handed such a smelly egg in the final pages almost led me to throw the book out the plane window as we were landing.

Still, Bloodline stands as the missing link between Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code—a historical thriller presented as dry fact, opening in the ancient Holy Lands with a botched crucifixion and culminating with a modern-day secret king denied his crown. If Gardner had been more entrepreneurial-minded and abandoned his penchant for toffee-nosed honorifics (“Prior of the Sacred Kindred of St. Columba”? “Attache to the Grand Protectorate of the Imperial Dragon Court, 1408”?), he could have pumped Bloodline into a full-blooded 1990s thriller and beaten Dan Brown to the winner’s circle by nearly a decade. After all, the public has shown a bottomless appetite for Bible conspiracies and Holy Grail histories. How many metric tons of trees have been ground to pulp to distribute this sort of crap worldwide?

Recommended for a long flight? Go reread The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo instead. Better yet, read Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ to involve yourself in the life of a Jesus more fragile and human than any conspiracy writer could devise.

The Drifting Paige reviews Bridge Daughter

The Drifting PaigeBook blogger The Drifting Paige recently published a flattering 5 out of 5 review of Bridge Daughter. To quote:

This is an incredible scifi novel that bridges (ha) the gap between religion and science. It is so emotionally superb and is not overhanded with any of the themes … Nelson achieved the nigh impossible. You learn and grow with Hanna, you come to understand the world she exists in and the choices that she has to make…

I would suggest this novel to everyone- it is intelligent, gripping, and hard to put down. … Nelson is a tried and tested author, and I genuinely suggest his book to all scifi and high fantasy lovers.

Read the entire review (which masterfully avoids dropping a single spoiler) at The Drifting Paige. If you haven’t already, download a preview of Bridge Daughter at Amazon.

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Publishers Weekly reviews Bridge Daughter

Publishers WeeklyPublishers Weekly has reviewed Bridge Daughter and I couldn’t be more pleased. An excerpt:

Nelson … smoothly realizes a provocative alternate present seen through the eyes of naive adolescent Hanna Driscoll. … Hanna is an engaging protagonist, and her thought-provoking story blends action, introspection, and social commentary in a stark but indirect critique of efforts to control female bodies and restrict reproductive rights.

I’m honored to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly, negatively or otherwise, and such positive comments are more than welcome. Read the entire review, and if you’ve not picked up a copy of Bridge Daughter, you can start by going here.

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Tasty review of Bridge Daughter at The Hungry Bookworm

The Hungry BookwormThe Hungry Bookworm posted a foodie review of Bridge Daughter earlier today. Hungry Bookworm combines book reviews and cooking in a rather delightful way, offering recipes that complement the book or its subject matter. Blogger dreammkatcher paired Bridge Daughter with Lemon Zucchini Pancakes, an interesting choice considering the role pancakes (and flapjacks!) play throughout the novel:

A strong character, I found myself sympathizing with Hanna and rooting for her until the very end. The morning her mother forces her to make pancakes for breakfast, it becomes clear things are shifting for Hanna. Later on, pancakes are on the table again as her life takes another unexpected turn.

I’m sure Hanna made traditional breakfast pancakes, but since I decided to make them for dinner, I opted for a more savory recipe – Pancakes with a Heart of Gold. An apt name, I think, as Hanna counts on the goodness of many along the way.

It’s a great concept, pairing recipes with books. Read the whole wonderful review, and if you make these savory pancakes, I hope you accompany the meal with a setting of fresh-picked flowers.

Bridge Daughter is available at Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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Review of Bridge Daughter and interview with Jeanz Book Read ‘N’ Review

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonSandra “Jeanz” of Jeanz Book Read ‘n’ Review has posted a wonderful review of Bridge Daughter. She also graciously interviewed me about the book, both its background and inspiration as well as the future of Bridge Daughter as a book series.

From her review:

Would I want to read another book in the series? Yesss! I would read the next book now if I could. In my opinion this book genuinely is a strong start to a potentially brilliant series. so I definitely want . . no need to read more.

Would I want to read other titles by Jim Nelson? I will certainly take a look at anything written by this author, especially if it is more like titles similar to this.

And from her interview with me:

What made you chose a Sci-Fi, dystopian genre?

The genre kind of came and found me. This is my first science fiction novel. When the inspiration for bridge daughters hit me, it came as a surprise—where did that come from?—but I wasn’t shy to explore the idea. I was a huge fan of science fiction when I was young, although I shifted away from it in my twenties. Today writing science fiction feels a little like returning to my home town.

Read the entire review and interview at Jeanz’ web site. You can follow Jeanz on Goodreads. And, if you haven’t already, order your copy of Bridge Daughter now on Amazon.