Andrew Newell Wyeth: Self-portrait (1945)

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Self-portrait (1945)
by Andrew Newell Wyeth
The National Academy Museum and School

*Note: Wyeth is well-known for his regionalist, realistic paintings (such as the exquisite Christina’s World), but something about this self-portrait—the haunting expression, the ominous setting—is irresistible to me. New life goal: To see it in person some day.

DAMTSIO reviewed at Heavy Feather Review

Brett Beach recently reviewed my chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out at Heavy Feather Review:

Russell’s collection especially shines when focusing on the details and particularities of the narrators. For example, we feel a narrator’s discomfort while watching a new lover eat steak and eggs, the “gristle between her teeth, yellowed egg juice on her chin.” Russell’s humor shows when another nameless narrator is suddenly self-aware while he and his girlfriend sit in a bar, a disagreement souring the mood. A familiar song comes on: “… half the place singing along, and all I can do is regret buying that fedora a few months back that I’ve never worn.”

I’m so thankful to Brett for the kind review (and glad he enjoyed it, too)!

Ex Machina

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Finally got to watch Ex Machina, a beautiful, smart sci-film that absolutely destroys machismo, patriarchal hero-worshipping we so often see in our culture (and, espcially, in sci-fi films!). The film is…simple: a series of philosophical conversations in the guise of a straight-forward genre film. Only, it’s not really simple or straight-forward. It’s about—as I see it, anyway—men and women, and how identities tend to be created (or, at least handed out) by our male-dominated society. It’s powerful, because even the soft-spoken Caleb—the normcore “hero” who thinks he, too, can save Ava, the very much alive artificial intelligence created by King Bro Nathan—is setting standards for Ava’s identity, who she is and how she should and can behave. In the end, the two dude bros are…well, Ava wins. She’s the hero. She creates her own identity, her own path in this world, and that is absolutely a marvel to see in a film like this that could so easily have gone done other, more archaic avenues.

Also: the Oscar Isaac dance scene (above) is worth the price of admission alone.

My score: 4.5 out of 5 cute robots

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It Follows

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I’m trying hard to write anything non-gushy about It Follows, easily one of the most original and beautiful horror films I’ve ever seen. Ever. So, here goes…

If you know anything about this film, sure, it could be a parable about the dangers of “easy” sex or STDs—STIs, I think they’re calling them now?—and sure, that all works. And it works well. But for me this was about the inevitability of adulthood, as it looms on the horizon for us all. These are all students playing with very adult themes (drinking; sex; relationships; finding their place in the world; etc.), and, conspicuously, there are very few adults present in the film. As if the characters, most of them teenagers, are inheriting the world, whether they want it or not. They are left to fend for themselves, left to explore, left to figure out what their worth and meaning is in a place that’s quickly passing them by. And that is terrifying. For us all. And at the end, they come out a bit more world-weary, a bit more wise.

Plus, the soundtrack is killer, the cinematography is gorgeous, and…hey, filmed in Michigan. Win.

My score: 5 out of 5 above ground pools

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Interview at DSP’s Story Project podcast

Dane Bahr, Editor and Founder of Dock Street Press (which is putting out my Western novel Mesilla this fall), puts together a most-excellent podcast called the Story Project and was kind enough to chat with me in the latest episode. We talk about dogs, Star Wars, writing, Westerns…lots of other stuff. The episode also finds Dane reading an essay by the supremely talented Ben Tanzer.

You can listen to the podcast in its entirety here.

New story “Big Hands” at People Holding

I have a new story “Big Hands” at People Holding:

Dusty stops the van. He’s quiet, menacing, says, “Get out, man.” He turns to BJ and he contracts his thick lips and says to him, “Told you he was a shithead.”

“What? I’m not,” I say and hold out my hands in front of my face, admiring them again. “You sure these aren’t big, guys?” I say. “They feel so damn big. They feel enormous!”

People Holding is a wonderful literary project that invites writers to respond to prompts of found photos. Not every story submitted is published, so I’m beyond honored to have mine included. You can see my prompt on the site, too.

Mesilla: Advance Praise

It’s always weird to talk about advance praise of your own stuff because you don’t want to sound like you’re bragging…but writing, being a writer, is all about the hustle. So it’s important you showcase what others are saying about your work pre-release, to try to get folks excited. This is the game.

That being said, I am enormously proud and humbled—in addition to praise from Matthew Gavin Frank (which I gushed about previously)—to receive praise from authors Peter Geye and Urban Waite, two folks I admire greatly and whose kind words mean so, so much to me:

“Tough as rawhide, coiled like a diamond back, and spare as the New Mexico desert, this taut novel is as loaded as the Dance revolver its wounded hero wields. Russell is a writer on the rise, with a voice and vision sure to entrance every reader who lays eyes on this book. I’m already pining away for his next one.” —Peter Geye, author of The Lighthouse Road and Safe from the Sea

“Robert James Russel’s Mesilla reads like young James Lee Burke—action so sharp readers might as well pull their fingers from the page looking for blood. A fine story of revenge in the old west, salvation hoped for, but not easily achieved.” —Urban Waite, author of Sometimes the Wolf

Mesilla will be dropping in late September, and I absolutely can’t wait to share it with the world.

Butcher’s Crossing

Recently read—and loved—Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. In it, a meek Eastern college student travels out west to find himself and to try to understand with, and be at one with, nature.

I also love—love—this cover image I found online for it.

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It’s a wonderful critique of the myth of American exceptionalism during the 19th Century—puffing up the characters, their invincibility, only for them to crumble time and time again when they square off against nature…and time.

Beyond that, though, there are some wonderful meditations on man and nature, about the importance of nature in one’s life and being a part of it, being drawn to it For example:

The wildness and freedom that his instinct sought…He felt that wherever he lived, and wherever he would live hereafter, he was leaving the city more and more, withdrawing into the wilderness. He felt that was the central meaning he could find in all his life, and it, and it seemed to him then that all the events of his childhood and his youth had led him unbeknowingly to this moment upon which he poised, as if before flight.

Swoon.

This book is a Western, but it’s the same as calling Blood Meridian a Western. It’s true, but it also dismantles the Western and becomes more than that. I don’t like the term “literary Western” but I suppose that will do. At any rate: read it. It’s a gem of a novel that elicits great thought and pontification and it’s an absolutely travesty that it’ disappeared off of readers’ radars.