The pictures, and pull, of Istanbul

Like regular human ardor, a love affair with a city is complicated — prickly, passionate, vexing, ineffable. We adore our favorite cities, which are not breathing creatures but quasi-animate entities that are unquestionably alive, pulsing and forever mutable.

When pressed, the two cities I enjoy the most intense romances with are Paris and Istanbul. Paris is my baby, but sometimes I think I love them equally. (Sorry, ma chérie.)

I fell in love with Istanbul in the spring and fall of 2008, two trips comprising some of my very peak travel experiences. There were times when I actually lost myself, and, this is spectacularly unusual, crawled out of my muzzy head, breathed a little and existed, if momentarily, in a vacuum of Edenic placidity, even contentment. I flew.

Ten years on, the country has hurtled into political tumult: multiple terrorist attacks, violent anti-government protests, an attempted coup and the burn marks of President Erdogan’s tightening authoritarian chokehold. The guidelines of a culinary walking tour in Istanbul actually state: “We are not responsible for acts beyond our control, including but not limited to …  acts of war, or other unrest caused by state or non-state actors.” Terrific.

I could boycott Turkey, but that’d be my loss. I miss the generosity of the people, the grandeur of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the majesty of the sun-twinkling Bosporus, the exquisite food, the dazzling cultural and religious breadth of East meets West. So I am returning this fall, with a two-day excursion amid the fairytale moonscapes of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia. (See them here. Ignore the festering hot-air balloons.)

These shots of Istanbul, snapped on my long-ago journeys, remind why I’m going back.

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Five irritants that shouldn’t irritate. But do.

1.  The copout final shot in the Chloë Grace Moretz LGBTQ drama “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Without resolving anything dramatically, director-writer Desiree Akhavan avoids the hard work of crafting an actual ending, letting her and her characters off the hook by sticking them in the back of a pick-up truck to literally drive off into the sunset, then: fade to black. Such open-ended fade-outs — what will happen to our beloved heroes? — are not only lazy but a rancid cliché of undercooked indie filmdom. (Wait. Was I supposed to say: Spoiler alert!)

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2.  The local wallpaper-tattooed hippie-hipster barista who, when asked how he’s doing, invariably replies, “Livin’ the dream!” (Spoken in a groovy Jeff Spicoli cadence.)

3.  Pro sports. I have no stomach for fans’ foaming-at-the-mouth, chest-thumping, near-nationalistic posturing, the players’ obscene paydays, the blanket machismo and braggadocio, the snarling, whooping competitiveness. It’s a gross, alien world that, save the occasional semi-civilized soccer match, I find revolting. Any artistry is sheer brute. I’m a bit like author Roxane Gay: “As a child, I was awkward, unathletic and uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer, something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books.” Then there’s the waspish H.L. Mencken who injects venom: “I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.” Oh goodie: Football season is upon us.

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4.  If you don’t read the weekly book reviews by Dwight Garner in The New York Times, you are missing some of the freshest, funniest, metaphor-drunk reviews in mainstream newspapers. You are, alas, culturally bereft. But I have a pet peeve (even the best aren’t immune): his unfailing penchant to quote other writers in 99-percent of his essays. Not writers he’s reviewing — that’s expected and apropos — but other writers, as if he can’t think up his own ideas. (“As Hunter S. Thompson said about firearms …,” or “To quote Bob Dylan on heartache …”) It’s a crutch he can’t relinquish. I devour his stuff, but his quotation-happy habit stops me cold. (Yes, I use quotes, too, but I’m not writing for the rarefied Times.)

5.  Middling to bad stand-up comedy specials flooding Netflix. Such jollity as the new “Demetri Martin: The Overthinker,” a depressingly anemic stand-up hour showcasing a once-hilarious comic in full sputter. Also schticking up the streaming service: Patton Oswald, who, on stage, is a peg above pedestrian; Judah Friedlander, a wan, wannabe Mitch Hedberg; the meh Noah Trevor; the slick Iliza Shlesinger, all harpy cutes; the shrill, aggressively pregnant Ali Wong (watch how she practically weaponizes that big old baby bump); and floundering fat-joker Gabriel Iglesias.

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Ali Wong: irritating

But let’s cool down and depart with a smiley-face emoji, tongue out, winking. Netflix tucks sparkling gems into the mix, like Fred Armisen’s joyfully sui generis “Standup for Drummers,” John Mulaney’s knock-dead “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby’s devastating “Nanette” (caveat: she may change your life), and the beyond-words brilliant “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” starring John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, whose marksman satire is so inspired and athletically sustained, you’ll be craving the most overstuffed tuna sandwich you’ve ever seen. (Watch the show. Then you’ll know.)

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Not irritating: “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” with Nick Kroll and John Mulaney

Eight books I’ll never read

Call me a masochist, a philistine, willfully depriving myself of some of world literature’s masterworks. 

I beg to differ. I’ve read wads of wonderful books and have countless more to go, including those which I call my hope-to books, meaning I hope to get around to them in this lifetime: “Don Quixote,” “Middlemarch,” “War and Peace,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” and to finally finish “The Brothers Karamazov” and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.”

The following eight novels are books I’ve either attempted to read and put down with disappointment or volumes I simply know I won’t find the time for because I’m pretty sure I’ll banish them, deflated, demanding my many reading hours back. In no order:

“Remembrance of Things Past” (1913-1927). And so our hero launches a legendary journey through his past with one bite of a tea-soaked madeleine, a journey that seems, for thousands of pages, unstoppable. Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel puts the “ick” in epic, warding off the casual reader who’d rather not commit eons to a single novel. I wish I could do it. I started volume one, “Swann’s Way,” but its famed vortex didn’t suck me in. I took a bite of a milk-soaked Oreo, but it didn’t have the same effect.

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“Ulysses” (1922). The most obvious book avoided by literary wussies, the Everest of difficult fiction, which has scuttled so many foolish takers. I’ve dipped into its brambled pages and got instantly lost and tangled in the impregnable modernist foliage. More trouble than it’s worth. While we’re at it, let’s add Joyce’s indecipherable “Finnegans Wake” (1939), another provocation for brawny brains and paragons of patience I will never read.

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“Infinite Jest” (1996). 1,088 pages of post-modern tomfoolery and intellectual acrobatics, David Foster Wallace’s cult classic daunts and taunts. Not many conquer Wallace’s brilliant, monster challenge to hip, erudite readers, with its formal elasticity, cerebral satire, and devastating commentaries on everything from television to tennis. Another behemoth that I’m afraid I can’t swallow. (Though I relish his non-fiction. Does that count?) 

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 “The Goldfinch” (2015). Adult fiction that reads like children’s literature, Donna Tartt’s old-fashioned opus is clammily contrived and wears a twee Dickensian frilliness. (It also, mystifyingly, won a Pulitzer.) I read almost half of its 976 pages, waiting for the story to grow muscle, to grow up. It’s a squishy coming-of-age tale so banal it’s hard to believe. If it was a movie, Chris Columbus would direct. (Actually, John Crowley, of “Brooklyn” fame, is directing the film. What are you going to do?)

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“Moby-Dick” (1851). I read about a fifth of Melville’s whale tale, and after a peppy start, alive with humor and heart and humanity, the slog began. I’ve heard you must muscle through, machete swinging through the anesthetizing filler and maddening digressions, and a grand story will emerge. But it’s simply too hard to focus on a crowded page when your eyes are so glazed over. 

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“Pride and Prejudice” (1813). I wrote the following here last summer: “I can’t do Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap. Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating.” Hmm, I’ll stand by that.

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“Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973). I’ve read some of Thomas Pynchon’s other novels and I am no fan. Here’s how a site described the author’s extravagant, fireworks-shooting, 760-page magnum opus: “Quantum mechanics, mass extinction, speculative metaphysics — heavy stuff. It doesn’t help that Pynchon’s style is free-flowing and flashback-heavy. This has been called the definitive postmodern novel.” I respectfully pass.

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Anything by Charles Dickens (lived 1812-1870). I delighted reading “A Christmas Carol” as a child, but since then my relationship with the granddaddy of Victorian fiction has been a frustrating failure. Every so often I will try again to read one of his bloated novels — I picked up “A Tale of Two Cities” three times before I tossed it — but they’re so fussy, so verbose, so cutesy, even, with all those belabored character names. The books aren’t light. They go down like molasses: cloying, thick and sticky.

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School sucks. ‘Eighth Grade’ doesn’t.

Her chin and forehead dappled with continents of acne — I thought I spotted an inflamed Australia — 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with rumpled long blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly-crooked and slightly bucky, will break your heart.

Kayla, played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie hit “Eighth Grade,” and she’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. 

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I kept wincing, re-feeling those awful transitional days, the insecurities, the free-floating dread, the fluttering anxiety — and the irrepressible excitement of the new.

But that’s not the movie’s point. “Eighth Grade” isn’t about me and my cohorts’ feathered hair, terrycloth polos, flared corduroy Levi’s and those giant combs hanging out our back pockets. Or the flubbed first kisses and mortifying social fumbles. 

As Owen Gleiberman puts it in Variety: “The beauty of ‘Eighth Grade’ is that it’s highly specific and generational. It’s the first movie to capture, in a major way, the teenage experience of those who have only existed on this planet during the digital era.”

In other words, it’s not about us geezers and our times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, like my niece, who’s exactly in Kayla’s fashionably beat-up sneakers. She’s 13. She’s glued to her phone. I wish her good luck.  

It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, I truly believe, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow stronger after each posting. 

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For all the bracing, spot-on scenes in Burnham’s dynamic debut — the movie is really a 90-minute reel of the smashingly real — I picked out my favorite midway through. Kayla is alone in bed at night and she’s surfing a kaleidoscopic stream of videos, social media, Instagram and whatever kids sift at no attention-span speeds. The music, playing loudly on the soundtrack, is sublime.

It’s the most affecting use of Enya’s 1988 harp-heavy hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” I’ve ever heard. The scene actually redeems the woozy, New Agey song. Lush, lyrical and frenetically up-to-the-minute, the sequence is a masterpiece of visual-aural agreement. It weirdly moved me, and it encapsulates the undeniable artistry, the tender emotional truth of this excellent film. For a brief moment, Kayla soars. 

See the trailer for “Eighth Grade” HERE.

Of mouse and man

It’s hot outside, I’m hot, the dog is hot, the backyard plants are hot, and that reminds me, I need to water them. But not until it cools down, around dusk, say. Then that luxuriant jungle of exotic flora will get a soaking and gratitude will beam from the firmament.

A heat wave they’re calling this. It’s only 93 degrees right now but, coupled with sopping humidity, it feels like cruel triple digits. Within a minute of stepping below the blazing skies and into the muggy soup you break a sweat, rivulets down the cheeks, puddles in the small of your back. It’s disgusting. Right, this isn’t New Delhi or Bangkok, but still. Anyone who says they like this weather is either a liar or a twit or both.

Speaking of delightfulness, I recently destroyed a mouse. I did not want to, but my conscience got the better of me. So I held it by its gummy-worm tail and dunked it in the toilet and held it there until it drowned. It took fewer than two minutes, if that. Still, it made me kind of sick.

Why such horror? Thank the accursed cat, the tubby charcoal-gray tom with the white Hitler mustache. There he was, playing with a squirming, grievously wounded mouse, brown with a pink belly, in the dining room. It was the natural world in action, a realm Woody Allen, noting the pitiless animal food chain, dubbed “an enormous restaurant.”

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One might applaud the cat for capturing and maiming a crafty little house mouse, a ravaging rodent. I’m not giving ovations. I’m known for protecting and pampering animals, a latter-day St. Francis sans the amazing tunic, sneaking the dog table scraps and keeping sweet, smart rats as long-term pets. I rescued a baby squirrel from the maw of a snarling cur and a mauled bird from a godless outdoor cat (the bird didn’t make it).

And so I snatched the writhing, oddly bloodless mouse from the cat’s paws, carrying the creature by its silken tail. I wanted to save it, take it outside and let it scamper to freedom.

It scampered, but sideways, in a corkscrewy dance, clearly in pain and despair. It got away, crippled, ruined. I went back inside, crestfallen, wishing I had put it out of its misery. I figured it’d be out there, suffering a slow death for hours, maybe days.

Hours passed before it struck me to go and look for the mouse in the summer blaze. I promptly found it. It was motionless, hopefully dead. But when I touched it, it spun again in corkscrews, its whole body knotting in pain. This would not do. I pinched it by the tail, took it to the bathroom and snuffed what was left of its tiny life.

It was fast, but horrible. I held it moments longer than necessary to make sure the poor animal was out, gone. Then I carried the still, matted body back to the yard and set it behind the shrubs and covered it in mulch. I only wish I had done that five hours earlier.

These things aren’t simple. Even a mercy killing is troubling, against my nature. Pesky vermin — big deal, you say. Big deal, you bet.

Yet there’s no moral here. I don’t like what I did. Not one bit. But I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.

Best summer reading (so far)

The damn summer is nearing its damn end and I still have at least two books I want to finish before autumn (dear, dear autumn) introduces its cool, dry resplendence. I will tackle Jamie Quatro’s debut novel “Fire Sermon” and Nick Drnaso’s ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist.

It’s been a fine summer reading-wise, with lots of pleasantly prickly fiction. I’m noting the best books I’ve read during the moist months so far. (Some of these blurbs, where noted, are recycled from prior blogs, but you won’t remember anyway.)

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Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary Outline trilogy, starting with “Outline” in 2015 and concluding with “Kudos” this year, presents a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the rather circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people, and it’s cerebrally and queerly enthralling. Restless and ruminative, each book is short, about 250 pages, and you can start with any of them. (I think “Kudos” is my favorite.)

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A beautiful, privileged young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pills and pharmaceuticals, and we don’t quite know why. It is the cusp of 9/11 and the only people in her life are a mean sometime-boyfriend, a sort-of best friend and the indifferent fellows at the corner bodega. She’s a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent. Yet, as good as it is, it’s not as fine as Moshfegh’s …

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She types with talons, and it’s beautifully thorny, particularly in these indelible tales. As noted in a previous post: “Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them.” I’d read them again in a (skipped) heartbeat.

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I again quote a previous blog post: “This smashing debut by Tommy Orange is a novel of ambient beauty as well as a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire.” Look out for this one to sweep some prizes.

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A funny, wry and almost gnomic novel about love, marriage (and its dissolution) and raising an inquisitive daughter in Brooklyn. So singular, it’s hard to describe, this brief, breezy book is rife with wisdom, borrowed (the Stoics to Kafka) and original. It’s a pure delight, a glittery gem, in which epiphanies and head-nodding observations abound. It seems to introduce a new fiction form, and it’s a sort of masterpiece.

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Again, from a prior blog post: “Amie Barrodale’s ‘You Are Having a Good Time’ is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.” A rare find, a dissonant joy.

Scoping out the right reading specs

I am going blind. 

Not quite, but sometimes it feels like it. 

Like when I’ve been reading and writing all day and, by dusk, the words start blurring on the page in an inky soup and I have to hold the book or laptop back till my arms are fully outstretched before me and the writing is a ways from my eyes, as if I’m appraising a rare gem or sacred artifact.

I feel like Old Man Grumpus, wondering in a grizzled, quavering voice: What’s this say here, Ma? I can’t see the gobbledygook dancing before my eyes. What does “yipdoodle jippy jo” mean?

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It’s a tragedy. I’m used to having 20/15 vision. (That, incidentally, is very good, beating 20/20.) I don’t know what I have now, but I still don’t require everyday prescription glasses. I can read signs from miles away. Yet my up-close reading vision is slowly slipping, degrading, clouding up — and costing me money.

I acquired my first piteous little reading glasses (+1.25 power lenses) at a drug store in 2008. They were cheap and hideous gold-wire doohickies and within months they fit lopsided on my face. I looked like Jerry Lewis after a pratfall. I still wore them, rocking the homeless look.

Then my reading vision got fuzzier, mossy, and I graduated (er, devolved) to +1.50 power lenses a few years ago. These specs still work fine, until, that is, my eyes, after hours of reading, strain and blur. I like the glasses, stylish black and white, made by a respected readers brand, with a commensurate price. But it’s time to move on and up. My eyeballs are working too hard just to type this. 

So I have ordered, with a fleck of rue and despair, +1.75 power reading glasses. Lens power goes as high as +7, so I remain pretty low on the spectrum. The transaction isn’t without some distress, knowing that the precious orbs are steadily deteriorating. The only consolation is that these new specs flaunt a sleek stylishness and subtle audacity. They are a glossy blue and black — living on the edge.

hemingway-4617-black-blue__87137-1510853853.jpgFriends and family either cluck or cackle whenever I’m without my glasses and I need to read something, from a menu to a price tag. I’ve actually flagged down employees in grocery stores to read food labels for me because I am absolutely adrift in an optic fog. Some people joke that I should get a granny chain for my glasses to dangle around my neck. That’s not a funny joke because it might be a reality rather soon. Amid all the mirth and mockery, all I can think is: old man!

But this old man is about to be the proud owner of some hot specs (blue!), a minor if critical development in the history of my readers that you might just call … visionary.