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Politico.com is a pain in the ass.

It’s running a great excerpt detailing how Washington, D.C., grew in size and power during WWI from Christopher Capozzola’s book Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen

“America has a real capital at last,” wrote journalist Harrison Rhodes in March 1918, in the thick of World War I. Although the United States had only joined the war raging in Europe less than a year earlier, those 11 months were enough to transform American politics and its capital city. Gone was the sleepy crossroads capital with its swampy southern feel, and in its place stood something bigger, faster-paced and heftier—a city commensurate with America’s capacity to govern at home and wage war abroad.”
I wrote a comment under the Politico piece  (longer and rantier than the one below, but now lost in the blogosphere) and it was rejected. I was not deterred. But this one was rejected too.

Thanks to Politico for this history lesson too few know. It’s a reminder that WWI-critic and wise socialist Randolph Bourne’s observation that “war is the health of the state” is true — for DC as well. WWI started us down the road to our current bipartisan warfare/security/welfare/crony-capitalist state. Those WWI Democrats who worried that we’d turn into Prussia were right, except that we turned into something much worse.

As of 12:24 pm, this third attempt at commenting by me was still there:

WWI critic Randolph Bourne was right when he said “war is the health of the state.” It was healthy for DC too.

Meanwhile, while my contribution was being purged by some moron-in-charge, for the previous 12 hours, this spambot was among two spambots residing happily in the commentaries:

I just got<- paid $7500 parttime working online with a lap-top b­­­­­­­­y G­­­­­­­­­­­­oog­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­l­­­­­e­­­­­­­­­­­­­.I­ a­­m ­­­­­­­­­m­­a­­k­­­­i­n­­­g ­­­­­­­­­a ­­­­­­­­­go­­od ­­­­­­­­­sa­­la­­ry ­­­­­­­­­fr­­­om ­­­­­­­­­h­­.o­­m­e ­­­­­­­­­$­­5­5­0­0­­­­­­­­­-­­­­­­­­­$­­70­0­0/w­­­­­e­e­kL­­­ast Monday got a brand new BM­­­W since getting a check for $647­­­4 this – 4 weeks past. I beg­­­an this 8-months ago and imm­­­ediately was bringing home at lea­­­st $97 per hour. I wo­­­rk thr­­­ough this link, go to tech tab for work det­­­ail­­­

As of 12:40 my comment was removed, but the spambots remained. Maybe the screener is a robot.

route66 cover - 2 - final“Dogging Steinbeck,” in case you are among the 318,543,866 Americans who  haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, is a new genre I’m trying to popularize called “True Nonfiction.”

Half literary expose and half American road book, “Dogging Steinbeck” is the honest and accurate account of my long journey with the great John Steinbeck and his beloved work of BS, “Travels With Charley.”

It details how I discovered the truth about Steinbeck’s iconic 1960 road trip with his dog Charley and how I exposed the fraudulent nature of the allegedly nonfiction book Steinbeck wrote about his journey.

As I explain and prove at length, “Charley” is not very true or honest. It’s mostly fiction and a few lies. For every true thing you want to know about Steinbeck’s trip, my trip and his book without having to fork over a lousy $5.99 for “Dogging Steinbeck,” I’d advise going to TruthAboutCharley.com.

My book, which I swear is 103 percent true, is a literary detective story, a traditional American road book and a primer in drive-by journalism and how the media work. All from a libertarian point of view.

It’s also part history lesson of 1960 America, part book review, part Steinbeck bio and part indictment of the negligence of Steinbeck scholars who failed to discover Steinbeck’s literary deceit for 50 years and then blithely excused it as inconsequential or irrelevant after I told them about it.

Guess I should have included footnotes.

The liberals manning the New York Times editorial page liked what I learned. So did the leftward boys at “On the Media” on NPR. So did Paul Theroux, Brian Lamb and my 96-year-old Mom.

But a lot of people — especially young and/or romantic diehard “Charley” fans — don’t appreciate me for ruining the romance of Steinbeck’s flawed book. Just look at the dumb 1-star reviews on Amazon.

But sorry, Steinbeckies, what I did with my humble work of journalism has changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore.

In the fall of 2012 the book’s publisher, Penguin Group, issued a 50th anniversary edition of “Travels With Charley” that admitted that what I had learned and exposed was correct — as in “the truth.”

“Charley’s” introduction, first written by Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini in 1997, from now on will contain a major disclaimer warning gullible readers that the famous book they are about to read is so full of fiction and fictional techniques that it should not be taken literally or considered to be a work of nonfiction. In layman’s terms, it should be considered a work of bullshit.

Parini’s disclaimer includes this stark sentence: “It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

I wasn’t given credit for this discovery of this ugly truth. I was identified only as a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who did some light “fact-checking” (and made lazy fools of the Steinbeck scholars).

But at least from now on no 14-year-old who reads Steinbeck’s classic road book will ever be tricked into thinking it’s a true story. I hope.

15752340I have no idea why people join cults, and certainly the fear of cults as moral panic has caused its own misery (Waco being the most prominent example). But followers and leaders of Jonestown, The Family, Heaven’s Gate, and yes, the Branch Davidians themselves caused plenty of suffering. And every single survivor of these horrors that I have heard of speaks of their cults in the same fashion — they always say it was wonderful at first. They talk about how people loved each other so much.

I saw the ghastly Jonestown photos years before I learned that the members of the People’s Temple started out feeling as if they had found a place of benevolent communism and racial harmony. The Manson Family was hippie farm living for lost souls until it was stabbing Sharon Tate and painting the walls with her blood.

My mom is always skeptical about the trope of the neighbor who thought the BTK killer was just a charming fellow. She tends to think people can see who will go bad, or who always was bad, if they only look a little harder. But brainwashing works wonders, as does a mixture of kindness and cruelty and charisma. People join cults. People voted for Hitler. There’s got to be a reason, and we all endlessly wonder about the reason. Young Adult novels, with their angsty first person narratives and their action — not their “Oh my God, the suburbs are like, totally artificial, bro” whining — are a great format with which to explore why someone might give up their free will and what they do when it comes creeping back thanks to teenage hormones and rebellion.

In Gated, by Amy Christine Parker, our narrator is Lyla. Her parents, and her three friends, and the leader known as Pioneer are the main characters. Cute son of the local sheriff Cody is mostly a plot device for some serious faith questioning, but then, that’s lampshaded enough to be fairly unannoying. The whole idea there is that Lyla — “intended” toward her friend Will — has never had the pleasure of teenage attraction. It doesn’t matter if Cody is important himself, just that Lyla has been deprived of the pleasures of youth. Yes, all the teenagers in the cult are engaged to be married to someone picked by Pioneer, but this ain’t the Children of God or even the Branch Davidians. Everyone is 18 when they are married, so it’s nice and legal. But they do have an awful lot of guns! And a bunker!

Lyla, 17, and her family have been in the cult for ten years, since her older sister was kidnapped from the front yard and 9/11 happened all in the span of a week. The book opens with a demonstration of Lyla’s inability to shoot the human-shaped targets in the head and chest, and her scolding by Pioneer. (Yes, it’s Chekov’s gun-y.) Yes, well, it’s sort of silly to be unable to shoot a damn target. But we quickly learn this group is preparing for a time when they may need to shoot unworthy, desperate outsiders who may come for their supplies or to hurt them once they realize the truth — that the apocalypse is only months away.

For someone well versed in real cults and some of their disastrous endings (with or without an outside authority making things worse) the only question is how things are going to end for the group. Will it go Jonestown, Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, or Waco? Parker mixes in hints that suggest it could be any of them, upping the tension for old fogy readers like me.

Though law enforcement characters are disappointingly not at all bad, the cult itself is pleasingly gray. Most of the people Lyla lives with she truly loves, but she and they are all true believers to varying degrees. The community is rigid, but pleasant and pastoral. Pioneer is all “brothers and sisters” and mood swings between joyful and wrathful God. (Very Koresh and Jim Jones, and most every other big and small molder of minds and sapper of free wills, it seems). Some of the best bits are when Lyla questions something small about Pioneer’s teachings, but demonstrates in that narration that she has yet to even consider that maybe the Brethren, the alien-god types, have not chosen her and her loved ones. Maybe they are not at all real. Instead, it’s maybe that Pioneer didn’t need to punish Lyla and her friends so hard, but certainly the apocalypse is only months away and the Brethren are watching from above. That slow build of questioning in someone already more skeptical than average, and less willing to harm potential outsiders, works flawlessly well. I suspect there would be levels of realization like that.

The prose is all basic, but YA-serviceable. It’s superior to the later Hunger Games novels, but not as interesting as the more flawed 5th Wave. Lyla herself isn’t a terribly compelling character, but then, perhaps she hasn’t yet become one due to her upbringing. Making her both solidly brainwashed and sympathetic is a hard narrative task, but Parker pulls it off well. Lyla’s friend Marie is also similarly deftly drawn. Marie is both a stauncher believer and more prone to small acts of rebellion (sneaking out with the boys, smuggling in verboten Coca Cola) than her friend. Lyla’s dad is clearly struggling with belief, whereas her mother, it is implied at the end, may never recover and go back into the world. They both commit unforgivable betrayals, but they both care about their daughter. They are credible people. They are good people who suffered, and began to believe something stupid, then wrong, then evil. You can make a whole life out of what’s been poured into your head from people who swear they know everything, and you are a cipher for their will — or the will of alien gods who have been telling you their will, depending.

The tension in Gated builds admirably towards what becomes an early deadline for the group to hide in the bunker and await the end. The ATF and police come, though Lyla sees almost none of it. The bunker is closed. Pioneer goes even more mad; and I have to say, I prefer either a true-believer villain, or one who knows exactly the evil he does (shades of The Operative in Serenity). A con man or someone enjoying the process of evil is no fun.

The very end (spoilers) is relatively happy. Only a few of the cult members die. And the final scenes are of Lyla and Will (not intended for marriage anymore, but friends again after his disbelief in her) staring at the stars with the other members of the group on The Day, waiting to make very sure that an apocalypse doesn’t come. This has shades of the Great Disappointment, but it’s more a melancholy moment of crumbling belief combined with hope that the real world might be worth living in after all. (Apocalypse averted is also important as a theme — hell, it’s the whole damn Cold War, now that I think about it.)

Gated is a satisfying picture of the types of people who need someone to follow, and then do so at the cost of their own lives. The strangest thing about it is how true it is to varying degrees for so many people in the world. There are people waiting for the end of the world every day, because they’re bitter or because the Messiah had tarried long enough. And there are many, many individuals who are quite keen on other individual wills being subservient to that of someone who knows better. Most people may not be alien doomsday cultists, but everyday nationalism and statism and much religion seems to be a difference in degree, not kind.

8282Some years ago, I was in Borders when I saw this new cover for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. I hated it on sight. Out of the Little House series of children’s books based on Ingalls Wilder’s childhood (and at least co-written by her daughter, libertarian Godmother Rose Wilder Lane!), only The First Four Years rivals this one for bleakness. Though still a children’s book, The Long Winter is basically about seven months of frozen hell in 1880s South Dakota. A memorable passage describes Laura being weak and stupid from hunger as, again, the snow piles outside endlessly and everything is grim and awful.

Now, the familiar to me Gareth Williams cover is also too sweet-looking for the fight for survival plot of the book. But at least it’s old, and it suggests a story that is older still — it is sweet, demure, and not 2014. (The first edition of the book might have had the best cover, actually. It feels dark.) The family of photo-real people laughing uproariously as they huddle in their cabin is weird. It is telling little 10-year-olds that yes, there’s nothing different in this book! You won’t even notice that it’s set 150 years ago. They are just. Like. You.

51G4Cuyx9YLThe Ingalls family wasn’t like you and I. I grew up homeschooled by libertarians. My parents’ home was initially in the country, but now it is almost suburbia. There is still a bubble of farmland, though. Not to mention my parents’ nearly 12 acres. All of that, and I still always knew my life wasn’t the same as the Ingalls. And that was the damn point. My life also wasn’t Caddie Woodlawn’s, or Anne Shirley’s, or the damn spoiled Boxcar Children’s. And that is why I wanted to read their stories of pioneer life, of being a dreamy Canadian orphan, or just living in a boxcar and cooking wonderful-sounding vegetable stew and getting all your dishes from the dump. I wanted to read about different lives — girls who hid escaped German soldiers, or little mischievous Scandinavian children going to school. Why would I want a heroine or hero who was too relatable? (This was another reason “playing house” baffled me. Building a fort was naturally different. And playing school was a novelty for me, but not most kids. What the hell was “house”?)

TheLongWinterA libertarian railing against potentially-sensible marketing, yes I know it’s silly. And maybe tricking kids into reading historical fiction could lead to them liking history. But it itches at me to see this kind of thing, this laziness, and this belief that children can’t possible suspend disbelief enough to realize that there were times that were not now, and those times had people living in them who were very different in many ways.

(A version of this modernizing should be awful, but isn’t when you look up the history of it is the anti-corset/proto-feminist dialogue by Marmee in the 1994 Little Women film, as well as the anti-slave dialogue by Meg. You think it’s just an awkwardly shoe-horned in piece of 1990sness, so that the audiences won’t be totally bewildered and alienated by the archaic and pious characters. Turns out, the real Louisa May Alcott grew up in a family of radical intellectuals who palled around with Henry David Thoreau and were mad enlightened. Indeed, the reason the last half to last quarter of the book Little Women is so inferior to the beginning is that Alcott was reluctantly goaded by her publisher and fans to marry off the heroically spunky Jo. I like Little Women a lot, I yearn for the Little Women that might have existed in a different market, written by a more honest Alcott.)

Along these same lines, I didn’t even read the Babysitter’s Club books (mostly because their subject matter seemed unbelievably boring), but I was deeply annoyed when I read how they were to be updated for modern readers. Ten-year-old girls can’t be expected to understand that once there were not iPhones, but cordless phones. That there were, shit, I don’t know, scrunchies and those weird saddle-leggings, not jeggings and whatever the fuck tweens wear now in their hair. There were even typewriters for writing on instead of computers. Holy fuck, the children’s heads will explode if we keep that in.

Many kids are not going to spend their entire tween and teen years mooning about the past with aching fascination as I did. That’s fine. But is it necessary to coddle them too much when they’re faced with the reality that yes, these books are from the past? Is it necessary to remove mentions of perms, as they apparently did from the Babysitter’s Club books?

(It also disappoints me that the American Girl books and (painfully expensive) dolls have moved so far into modern, boring stories. The whole point was girls — from plain WWII-ready Molly, to sassy colonialist Felicity, to runaway slave Addy — who were from a different time in American history. Overly tidy history, life lessons, standing up for what you believe in, potentially-anachronistic girl power!)

773514Now, an ironic twist on this complaint is when books are misleadingly old-fashioned in their packaging. The paperback covers for L.M. Montgomery books are all thematically similar: raised lettering, cursive, beautiful heroines staring out to sea, or at something distant. They look soothingly pastoral, but also a bit soppy. And they’re not 1984, nor were they meant to be anything too hard or masculine or sad. But Montgomery, best known for Anne of Green Gables, does not have the reputation for wit — even sarcasm! — and poignancy that she deserves.

Anne Shirley of Green Gables was sweet and bouncy and carrot-red of hair, but Emily Byrd Starr, who only got three books to Anne’s eight, was a much more realistic heroine (though Anne did grow up to worry that her husband was cheating on her with a sexy blonde). An orphan like Anne (what star of childhood fantasy books isn’t?) Emily has writer ambitions. She has a creepy relationship with an older man who, Forever Young Adult is not kidding here, kind of grooms her to be his lover. She spends the entire third book in the series being horribly depressed in what feels like a relatively modern fashion. (Montgomery suffered from this as well, and it was recently revealed that she actually died of suicide in 1941).

And through it all, Emily is often funny. And though she writes romantic descriptions of the landscape that try my patience on occasion, Montgomery is an amusing narrator as well.

And you would never, ever think this if you looked at the covers of her books.

Train_stuck_in_snowSo, yes, romantic lady writers of the teens and ’20s are secret humorists, and pioneer days weren’t as jolly as they might seem. People — both fictional and real — were not the same as they are now, and neither was society, culture, technology, or expectations for certain individuals. Yet, in books that are 80 or 150 years old, you can kind a relatable, understandable, humorous, same kind of spark that exists in characters and in people today. That’s why both history and literature are magic and enough to save me from misanthropy forever more. But that also means folks should leave the damn ’80s perms alone, and marketers shouldn’t imply through a cheap, hacky cover that a seven month winter was just as much fun as sitting inside and watching the latest cat clip on Youtube.

Seriously, this was the winter Ingalls Wilder was writing about.

04_top10postapocalypticbooks1Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, we have a guest post written by Brian Martinez! His topic is the completely wonderful, eerie, horrible, stayed-up-until-dawn-to-finish-it novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Martinez advises that those who wish to remain unspoiled might want to stop here.

The Cold War was still a thing when I came of age in the 1980s, but by then it had taken on a slick Hollywoodized gleam, captured in movies like WarGames and Red Dawn and even (God help us) Rocky IV. The closest I came to a nuclear holocaust was losing my last city in Missile Command. It never felt as palpably close as it must have in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Joe McCarthy looked for Communists under every rock and typewriter, and schoolkids practiced “duck and cover” drills in case the Russkies unleashed the Big One. That was the Cold War observed by Walter M. Miller, Jr., who went on to write a series of novellas, first published in science fiction magazines, that became A Canticle for Leibowitz. Published in 1960, and a winner of the Hugo Award, it is one of the definitive novels about a post-nuclear apocalypse. I first read Canticle in high school and have re-read it several times since, and it has not lost its power to evoke both laughter at humanity’s foibles and sadness at its prolific and horrifying talent for self-destruction.

Miller himself participated in some of that destruction, serving on a bomber crew in World War II, and taking part in the bombing of an ancient monastery allegedly being used by the Germans for strategic purposes during the battle of Monte Cassino. The experience helped shape the focus of his novel: a monastery established in the aftermath of a major nuclear war, dedicated to preserving what scientific knowledge remained after the so-called “Flame Deluge” had destroyed most of it. The monastery’s founder is Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer who, like Miller did following World War II, converted to Catholicism, and made it his mission to save any books and documents he could find, which became the “Memorabilia” and the monastic order’s raison d’être.

The central theme of Canticle is the cyclical nature of human history — its birth, rise, eventual destruction, and rebirth. It starts a few hundred years after an event common to many religious mythologies: a creator-deity, pissed off at its creation, triggers some type of calamity (usually a flood, or “deluge”) to wipe the known world away, aiming to rebuild it better than before. In Miller’s novel, it’s humankind who sets off the Flame Deluge to scrub the world clean. It leaves behind few survivors, many of whose descendants suffer from horrible genetic mutations due to radioactive fallout. Others, blaming advanced technology for allowing nuclear weapons to proliferate, begin the “Simplification”, a mass destruction of books and other stores of knowledge, hence Leibowitz’ desire to protect as much of these materials as possible. He is eventually martyred for his cause.

Canticle is told in three acts, each separated by about 600 years; the first, “Fiat Homo” (Let There Be Man), is analogous to the beginning of a new Dark Age, where the church is the main cultivator of knowledge, and guards access to it jealously; much of the population remains uneducated, focused on daily survival. Life is a Hobbesian experience, brutish and short. The second section, “Fiat Lux” (Let There Be Light), is a renaissance period, as the church slowly opens its Memorabilia to the outside world, inevitably bringing it into conflict with the rise of increasingly secular city-states (in particular, Texarkana, ruled by the ambitious Hannegan). After Hannegan proclaims that his city is no longer subject to rule from New Rome, the church excommunicates him, declaring he no longer possesses the moral authority to rule. Finally in “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let Thy Will Be Done), civilization has reached 20th-century levels of technology and beyond, with starships and human colonization of space — and again, nuclear weapons. The Flame Deluge ultimately has not changed the course of human history; it just set the mile marker to zero.

Dom Zerchi, the abbot of the Order of Saint Leibowitz in the final act, comments on this apparent futility, after a retaliatory nuclear strike (“Lucifer has fallen” in the vernacular of the time) has wiped out Texarkana:

“What’s to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder’s been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there’s no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier. Evil, on evil, piled on evil….And Christ breathed the same carrion air with us; how meek the Majesty of our Almighty God! What an Infinite Sense of Humor–for Him to become one of us!–King of the Universe, nailed on a cross as a Yiddish Schlemiel by the likes of us. They say Lucifer was cast down for refusing to adore the Incarnate Word; the Foul One must totally lack a sense of humor! God of Jacob, God even of Cain! Why do they do it all again?”

Zerchi is my favorite character in the book. Bold, acerbic, and world-weary, he gamely stands on the foundation of his church’s doctrine even as the world literally explodes into chaos around him. Of the abbots chronicled in the novel, he is the most at odds with the state. When a doctor employed by the “Green Star” relief agency (the book’s analogue to the Red Cross) arrives at the abbey to assess victims of the nuclear attack, Zerchi enjoins him not to recommend voluntary euthanasia for any of his patients, no matter how grim their prognosis. He has some choice words for the government’s approach to dealing with nuclear disaster instead of preventing it in the first place:

“The very existence of the Radiation Disaster Act, and like laws in other countries, is the plainest possible evidence that governments were fully aware of the consequences of another war, but instead of trying to make the crime impossible, they tried to provide in advance for the consequences of the crime. Are the implications of that fact meaningless to you, Doctor?”

Eventually the doctor does break his promise, recommending that a young woman and her child, both suffering from severe radiation poisoning, visit the euthanasia camp down the road from the abbey. This sets up yet another confrontation between Zerchi and his novices and the state agents protecting the “mercy camp.” It is clear the Church can no longer reconcile the natural laws which “bind men to Christ” and the laws of man, who allow nuclear holocaust and then sanction death for those unlucky enough to survive. But as the Church views itself as eternal, by then it has already made plans to continue its existence off-world, if need be.

If this sounds like an exigesis more than a review, perhaps it’s because Catholic doctrine and imagery permeate Canticle. As an atheist I will not pretend to have any deep understanding of Roman Catholic teachings, but I still find Miller’s exploration of them fascinating. The Church of Canticle is an eternal force in the world, changing little from one age to the next. Miller liberally uses Latin throughout the story, even though the real Catholic Church had begun to abandon its use in everyday liturgy shortly after the novel’s publication. It gives a strong impression of traditionalism which helps ground the dynamic rise and predictable fall of civilization. Miller leavens it all with humor and sharply witty dialogue. Even though the technology of Miller’s future world seems overly mechanical and unimaginative by today’s science fiction standards, it readily fades into the background, bringing into focus what really matters in the book: its ideas.

In each era of the story, the monks of Saint Leibowitz and their leader struggle with the temptations of the world while maintaining their devotion to Christ and the mission of their order. Miller confronts them with some tough questions — What is the nature of humanity? How does one recognize the inherent dignity of other humans? What moral authority grants states the power to govern? Will science and technology ultimately set humankind free, or enslave it and eventually, condemn it to destruction?

To his credit — and the reason why A Canticle for Leibowitz remains such a powerful and affecting novel more than a half-century later — Miller never answers these questions definitively, save perhaps the last. The nuclear explosions which light up the horizon at the end of the novel is Miller’s affirmation that humankind is doomed to self-destruction. It proved a sad foreboding of the author’s own life. According to author Terry Bisson, Miller faded from the science fiction scene following the release of Canticle, and had alienated himself from fans and fellow writers, as well as his own family. Suffering from depression following his wife’s death and his own health issues, Miller committed suicide in 1996 (a grim irony given the passionate opposition to suicide in Canticle’s third act). He left behind an unfinished novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which was completed by Bisson and published the year after Miller’s death. There was no happy ending for Miller, nor for humankind in Canticle — but its story may yet begin again.

Brian Martinez is a full-time software developer, part-time blogger, and donktastic poker player. He lives in Denver. He blogs at The Libertarian Standard and his own site, A Thousand Cuts. Follow him on Twitter as well.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, the subject is the new movie How I Live Now, and the 2004 young adult novel upon which it is based. It is a story of war, moving to a new country, and why sometimes you just need to sex up those relatives who catch your eye.

Apocalypse cinema or television (or even books) lives for the money shot — be it grand destruction of a famous monument, or a more humble bit of well-written or captured horror. The movie How I Live Now has two types of sequences, the bleak and the bucolic. It does them both very well, but in the end, though it’s better than the Meg Rosoff YA novel upon which it is based, the movie falls apart for similar reasons. It’s as flimsy as its anorexic, neurotic heroine, and though it tries to find a hard-ass center, there just isn’t much to it.

In each medium, 15-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a cold New Yorker. She is sent to  her cousins’ in England to get her out of the way of her father and stepmother. She killed her mother at birth, and therefore has issues. Meanwhile, war is looming, not that any teens give a shit. Upon arrival (in the book), she drops her American ‘tude approximately four minutes after meeting her wood sprite cousins. In the movie, this include annoying Issac who precociously drives at 14, scrappy Piper, sevinish and a bit of a Mary Sue, and Edmond, the dreamy, disturbingly attractive cousin. Yes, Daisy and Eddie hook up. Yes, it’s a little weird. But it wasn’t the dealbreaker for me that it was for, say, this io9 writer. It just isn’t enough to be the whole heart of the story, except, too bad, it is.

Daisy has a relatively endearing run-off sentence style in the book. But her narrow eye becomes less appealing — and much more contrived — after the fourth time she conveniently decides to ignore an adult’s explanation for what exactly the fuck is going on with this war business. Her obsessive focus, useful in surviving, if not contextualizing, is turned into an acknowledged character trait in the movie (basically OCD), but anything from her view still feels shallow and myopic.

The book just rakes on the cliches of the faeryland of England. There are more cousins there, and the cliches are divided up between them. Eddie has the mysteriously telepathic powers. He just gets Daisy, man. His twin, melded into him for the movie, is the obligatory strong, silent, and Dickon-esque type. And yes, I could choose to see this as so deliberate an homage to The Secret Garden that it is acceptable. But I can’t. If only because all that English shit was so appealing to me as a tween, I can’t. Edmond has a falcon, for fuck’s sake. I can’t stand it. He speaks to cows. The Secret Garden plus nukes sounds great. Why don’t I buy it?

The movie initially seems more promising — tightening things, and letting the loving, but not syrupy shots set the scene. And the English cottage is falling down, and there are dishes in the sink. Piper is a dirty-faced, solemn, kind, but human ginger, not a pixie making every soldier fall in love with her. The war situation is not treated quite as much as an excuse for playing Lost Boys as it is in the book. And the moment when we know something is wrong is treated with the gravity required . The paradise of a day at the swimming hole, during which Daisy begins to accept her God damned magical surroundings, is stopped by a rush of wind, darkening skies, and falling ash. We don’t even see the mushroom cloud. Little Piper, of course, calls it snow. It gives the necessary chill down the spine, and it gave me false hope that the movie was going to get away from the book more than it did. But again, if you want your doom and gloom money shots (and I do), the movie does come with that.

They survive. And still have a good time for a bit. Daisy burns her pass to go back to America because Eddie is now her whole world. But soon enough, scary soldiers (still British, though) come to separate the two boys and two girls. And that’s it for the plot, really. It’s all Daisy and Piper being shoved away into a creepy old English house, being sent to sort potatoes on a farm, and planning their escape back to their home. In some ways, the movie’s choice to ignore some of the details of the book make it better, or at least less maddening that Daisy has no questions about what the hell happened to her new country. The shots of wrecked countryside seen flickering through her window when she and Piper are taken are effective, showing enough for horror, but not enough for clarity or contrivance that she doesn’t see the whole picture.

But it’s still too little. There’s an enemy, at one point they “take [a] checkpoint.” A neighbor boy is shot, in the head, and is actually show still alive on the ground for a few seconds, groping in the mud. Same with the eerie details of a downed plane — the first object Daisy and Piper see is of an oxygen mask lying in the woods. Shudder. And the same with the moment when Daisy has to dig through a pile of bodies to make sure it’s not her cousins. It’s flawlessly-crafted, in the vein of the opening of the pilot for The Walking Dead, but much starker. Yet, it’s still just a nightmare moodpiece. (This is a problem for apocalyptic fiction — that dread is unsustainable — and why it so often delves into survivors sniping. And why the fiction that doesn’t do that is something special.)

Too many sad pop songs over beautiful landscape. Too many montages. How I Live Now doesn’t commit the unforgivable sin of putting conspicuous music over its worst bits, but the filler feels like all music sometimes. The frantic, whispered voices in Daisy’s head that were supposed to represent her OCD and anorexia worked better than I would think. I appreciate that she didn’t warm up and become hero mom figure to Piper like she did in the book, but some sign of caring about the red-headed moppet wouldn’t have been amiss. Ronan is good, the Brits are all decent. Nobody is stilted, but nobody is exceptional.

And though the lovely cinematography of the movie makes the book’s flimsy plot seem more substantial, it had the same endless problem. I want to know more about the war. And I want more than a teenager falling in love with a place and her cousin, then being taken away, and having to walk back for a week over broken landscape. Piper and Daisy seem exhausted, in book and movie, but I still want to say, dammit, have you not seen Rabbit-Proof Fence? You pansies think a week of walking in England is bad? Somehow, again in both mediums, the characters treat the situation too heavily and too lightly. And nobody ever asks what’s going on. I don’t care how hot your cousin is, I don’t care you much you miss him, you take the time to fucking ask an adult who nuked London.