The daunting and taunting of the bulging bookshelf

Nothing in a home excites me more than bookshelves crammed and jammed with actual books, as opposed to knickknacks, tchotchkes and corny picture frames. Filled right, they are towering works of art, swirls of graphics and oceans of colors.

I love engorged, groaning bookshelves, whose heaving pulp cargo functions as stylish and classy decor, the jostling spines stringing rainbow rows of erudition, edification and entertainment. So gorgeous and seductive is a grand, brimming bookshelf, it’s almost erotic.

8536d681f28f66caa54226bbccc05e6b--bookstores-libraries.jpg

At minimum, it takes hundreds of volumes to stock an amply, aptly impressive bookshelf. It takes a collector’s fervor, an obsessive appetite for those bound squares of facts, fiction and, so often, beauty.  

But there’s this: Do we actually read all the books in these sprawling collections? Or do they act largely as pretentious decor, literary plumage that flatters the owner?

That depends, but I know I rigorously try to read every title on my shelves, as nearly impossible and as crazily aspirational that proposition is. Still, I don’t see them as frills and frippery. I simply think walls of books look amazing. (Bookshops and libraries: Platonic ideals of aesthetic glory.)

I confess I don’t read all the books I acquire. One, the quantity is too great, especially when new books keep crashing my bulging bookosphere. Two, not every book is worth reading — too many just aren’t good enough. 

So, as I’ve mused here before, I frequently dispense with books that aren’t thrilling me. The rate that I put books down at the 50-, 80- or 100-page mark is deplorable. It’s also necessary. I show no quarter.

“I own far more books than I could possibly read over the course of my remaining life, yet every month I add a few dozen more to my shelves,” writes Kevin Mims in this essay in the New York Times.

That is a sickness I know well. But mostly I’ve stopped this hoardish habit. I realize now that not every well-reviewed book or immortal classic is worth picking up.   

I used to work in a corporate bookstore — the biggest bookstore in San Francisco at the time — and, like that ravenous kid in the candy store, the one with chocolate smeared all over his mouth, I couldn’t help but accrue a gigantic book collection. It fast became overwhelming, so I kept a list on a lined yellow notepad of all the books I hadn’t yet read, planning to cross titles off as I went. Sheer folly, that.

I have since evolved and have become the prince of the partially read book. Though my shelves boast more tomes that I have actually completed, the rejects are copious. 

And then there are the books I haven’t even cracked yet, and may never get to. In his essay, Mims locates a term for this: “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku.”

That doesn’t mean your fabulous bookshelves are mere pretty repositories, ceiling-scraping storage bins. They are libraries and all that that word implies: knowledge, art, stories, journeys, lives, cracking your head open with the world.  

Says Mims:

A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. A man who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”

bb42752b8ffbeacfca9b8d5d6918ecdd.jpg

* Late postscript: I stumbled upon this nifty quote in my readings later today. It’s from “The Bookish Life,” an article by Joseph Epstein:

So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.”

How to annoy a Good Samaritan

For the first time in my life, and hopefully the last, I called 911. It happened today, though it almost didn’t happen. The injured party of two, which did not include me or anyone I know, degenerated into a noisy confusion of bickering and dithering about if I should actually make the call. 

Call it! 

No, don’t call, I’m fine! Jesus!

Annoyed, I rolled my eyes and dialed. 

I was outside the library when I heard a crash then piercing screams and old-man groans — drama and panic before a fine civic institution. A fine fall day.  

What happened was this: A woman is pushing an elderly man in one of those mini-wheelchairs, officially called transport chairs, when the conveyance hits a large uneven crack in the concrete, spins around and flips over.

The man, who’s attached to an oxygen tank, falls backward in the chair, landing on his back and bonking his head on the ground. There he is, stuck on his back, knees airborne, moaning. His elbows appear to have gotten the worst of it, and they are scraped and bloody. 

blog art.jpg
A highly inaccurate reenactment

Screaming and swearing, the woman, doughy and Weeble-shaped, tries to help him up, loses her balance, and falls on top of him, squishing the poor guy. 

Get off me!

Goddmmit! Oh! Ack! Help!

The woman, brassy and braying, tries to get up and falls on her ass on the concrete. She is screaming and cussing. I try to help her up but she’s having none of it.

Oh! My knee! Aaaah!

Yadda yadda yadda. 

She’s fine, a marvelous drama queen.

By now she’s really getting on my nerves, cussing and yelling at her supine companion whose head almost cracked open like a melon.

He, on the other hand, is calm and good-natured, with a crinkly sense of humor, even though he’s on his back on the concrete, knees in the air, tubes up his nostrils. He sort of looks like Hyman Roth in “The Godfather II” or Grandpa from “The Munsters,” except with a constellation of age spots across his olden face. 

He asks me to place my foot under his head as a cushion and I do. It’s a ridiculous scene. She repeatedly swears she will sue the city. She takes a picture of the guy on his back. Don’t take a picture! he yells. 

So I call 911 and the dispatcher keeps me on the line, asking a zillion questions about what’s happening, if the old man is on blood thinners (he is) and other questions I have no answers to. I can barely hear because the woman is screaming and swearing the whole time. 

Can you call 911 for human obnoxiousness?

The aggrieved twosome looks — and acts — like a married couple, though she seems to be in her late 50s and he in his late 70s, early 80s. Daughter and father is more likely. Either way: a nightmare.

The EMS arrives apace, sirens wailing, lights twirling. Taking a final gander at the squabbling duo and circling medics, I saunter off, irritated, into the library. The guy is still on his back. She’s still squawking.

I check out “Apocalypse Now.”

Pushing for Paris

I once knew someone who actually said this when I mentioned that my favorite city is Paris: “Huh? Even Munich is better than Paris.”

Deathly silence.

Munich?

Munich?

Thunderstruck, I retain this memory with terrible clarity. I crossed that person off my Christmas card list. 

(Now, nothing against Munich. Munich is neat-o. I thoroughly enjoyed Munich, if I didn’t fall in love with it. I like beer. And cuckoo clocks.)

When I was in Amsterdam in May, I was on a boat tour through the lovely canals and, coaxed by the pushy skipper, I was evidently dumb enough to say the city was beautiful, much like Paris, wherein the whole boat, about eight people, groaned, “Whoa! Amsterdam is waay better than Paris.” Murmurs and whispers ensued. (Oh, those awful French people, groused a ditzy Brit, echoing the laziest cliché in the history of world travel.)

I had to, first, snuff my indignation, then muffle my bemusement, then muzzle my laughter. Were they serious? Amsterdam is gorgeous and fun and historically and culturally robust, but it doesn’t hold a flickering little paper match to the overwhelming majesty of sprawling, art-encrusted, haute cuisine-infused, history-convulsed Paris, which boasts its own sinuous canal in the knockout, 483-mile Seine and all of its inviting, ancient quays. 

eiffel-tower-priority.jpg

The last thing Paris needs is some doltish American offering injured and angry apologias for the grand, gilded metropolis. Paris stands supreme, proudly independent, unimpeachable, a dazzling European peacock, plumage in full splay. Perhaps not everyone’s favorite destination, it remains high up, cleanly above Munich and Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam, which I adore for so many reasons, over Munich, for the record.)

Central Paris, that masterpiece of urban planning, conflates the antiquated and the contemporary for stunning treelined strolls. Magnificent parks, gardens and cathedrals stipple the cityscape and some of the most august art repositories in the world — Musèe d’Orsay, the Louvre, Musèe de l’Orangerie, Musèe Picasso, Centre Pompidou — unfailingly spellbind. Food, fashion, film — Paris is a throbbing epicenter for it all.

IMG_0625.jpg
Musee d’Orsay, November 2015

But we know this. Here I am describing, a mite defensively, the patent pleasures of this great city. All of it world-renown. For a reason.

While Paris preens and beguiles, some of my other eternal boldfaced cities include New York, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Krakow and stately Istanbul, where I return this month, giddily. 

Reader: I’d love to hear about your favorite travel spots. Drop names in the comments section and be as brief or windy as you’d like. I’m curious if Paris makes the cut or not, or if I’m crazy, and if I’m overlooking other star locations, be it Botswana or Buenos Aires. Type away … 

Idle thoughts about our human duality

Eric Idle, one of the great Monty Pythonians, spoke in yesterday’s newspaper to say this: “I think I am an optimist by day and a pessimist by nighttime.” 

I take this to mean that life’s workaday gunk, from headaches to the headlines, and the daily news cycle, that cataract of informational sewage, from Trump to pathologically unfit Supreme Court nominees, poisons him in a most unpleasant manner. 

That he undergoes a sort of icky Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde binary: By day he’s merry old Eric Idle (Jekyll), getting along hunky-dory, and by night, fangs sprout, thick hair unfurls on his hands and face, and his disposition waxes decidedly splenetic (Hyde).

Fredric-March-and-Mr.-Hyde
Mr. Hyde, left, and Dr. Jekyll — same fella, different moods

For all that, Idle is evidently not a morning person. He says: “I can’t stand talking to people before lunch. I don’t think anybody civilized does.” (Hear, hear!)

I relate, to an extent. I am not a morning person. It takes a couple of hours, and at least one caffeinated elixir, for the early-hour crust to peel away, the nocturnal fog to burn off, my voice to clear from hoarsey to honeyed, my mood to shift from monosyllabic zombie to socially functional, with a possible grin if you’re really nice.  

It’s like the transformation of the Wolf Man back to a regular bloke, while we’re trading in Universal Horror metaphors.

But Idle and I differ in that I am a pessimist by day and an optimist by night — polar opposites. I arise and experience the day as Hyde — hairy, harried — and then I cool off, wind down and digest the day’s doldrums and distress during the dark. I relax, anxiety dissipates, I operate in a less pressurized space, though I must say I miss Hyde’s chimpanzee orthodontics and senatorial eyebrows. 

I rise in a murky mood. And, though it improves quite quickly, pessimism hovers over me during the daytime, an existential pall, a storm cloud poised to spit angsty, acid raindrops. I’m a little tense and the day’s news buffets me and only mixes me up more, stirs the pessimistic pot, which is really more like a cauldron, black and bubbly.

And then! The sun ducks, darkness falls like a stage curtain on the woozy light, and I slowly unwind. I once asked a therapist why this was — why my mood and my whole being gets, well, better at night. He had an answer that I cannot recall. It was some time ago. Bummer. I think it’s something about letting things go. Work is over. The night is yours. A splash of vino is poured. Fists unball.

I googled this phenomenon with imperfect results. All sorts of reportage about morning people vs. night owls popped up, but none of it addressed mood and state of mind, optimism vis-à-vis pessimism, focussing more on sleep habits, insomnia, and other folderol. There’s much about how some at night get droopy and others get galvanized, staying up later than the snoring household.

That’s not what I’m on about. It is noontime as I type this, warm, partly cloudy, just like me — warm and partly cloudy. Darkish thoughts percolate, I’m a little clenched, my forehead is a map of (mostly innocuous) worry. I am Mr. Hyde to Eric Idle’s enviable Dr. Jekyll.

But our roles will switch as the day progresses. Idle is slowly being filleted by life’s slings and arrows, so that by nighttime he will curdle with negativity. I’m already a wreck, lucky me. I’m Dracula (another Universal Horror allusion, you’re welcome), miserable in the sunlight, a goddam barrel of monkeys by night. We do what we can.

Radiance of the pet rat

If you want to see a rat drink beer, click HERE. I’ll wait.

That’s Becky, my long-ago pet rat, whose both alarming and comical omnivorousness knew no bounds. Seriously: zero. 

She’d chomp broccoli, rubber bands, towels, chickpeas, cheese, books, dog food, t-shirts, pizza, gecko lizards and crawly cockroaches. She’d guzzle wine and the above beer. 

IMG_2471
Becky shares pizza with a pal.

She once bit into a small tube of Super Glue. In a miraculous stroke, the glue was so old it had evaporated. The alternate results would have been grisly, even fatal, I’m certain.

Rats, like honey badgers, don’t give a crap.

But they are as smart, sweet, social, endlessly curious and affectionate as any animal, be it a dog, cat, piranha or wildebeest. 

They play and wrestle, come when called, chill on your shoulder, build crafty nests from newspapers and less innocuous sources (like the fluffy guts of your sofa or that pricey box of Q-Tips), play fetch, groom with OCD avidity, swim, delight in belly rubs lying on their back, and so much more. Oh, and hoard. How they hoard. Hide all small valuables. (Becky stole my watch once. It took days to find.)

They’re like super pets that delight, entertain and nourish the heart and soul. As I’ve quoted in these pages before, rats are “cleaner than cats, smarter than dogs.” Whoever said that is just about spot-on and probably lives with a thousand rats and the authorities are onto him or her. A reality TV show is coming soon.

IMG_1385
Becky going head-first into the glass, tippling a fine (cheap) cabernet.

Pets hold spiritual qualities with their power to elevate and expand one’s being. But, like dogs and cats, rats do it with a special, irresistible elan, magnetism and downright adorableness. Still, it’s different. For one, they don’t fart.

With their silky, curling pink paws (tiny starfish), twitching whiskers, itty-bitty tongue and translucent ears, gently nibbling buck teeth and enormous hearts, they’re lovable buggers.

Those thick wiry tails that whip around, made strictly for balance, are something else. The creatures squeak in pleasure and, science has proven, giggle like little girls. When treated right, Prozac they don’t need. (Though they’ll eat that as well.)

Like sharks, rats are exquisitely evolved specimens. Get this: They can collapse parts of their skeleton to squeeze under doors and through tight cracks. I’ve seen it. They are quicksilver with fur, superheroes with a super power, lacking only a cape and a ridiculous moniker.

IMG_1359.jpg
Still life: Becky

An image I cannot shake: Becky drinking wine by dipping a paw in the liquid and licking the paw, like a cowboy drinking from the Rio Grande after days without water. (Her boozing was judiciously supervised — I only let her get a nice taste.)

And yet … well, rats will obliterate you. With a life-span of an average of two and a half years, they desert you far too quickly. They become your best friend and then, like a relationship gone bad, they end it, they vanish. They die. Usually it’s a respiratory disease or, more likely, cancer. It rips you to shreds.

Becky’s death was excruciating. I spent a lot of time and money on her, all of it beautifully worth it. Still, she had to go. She’s probably tearing up heaven, nibbling angel tunics, nesting in holy beards, gulping sacred wine. Being a worthy rat, not giving a crap.

P1010152
RIP Becky

Istanbul’s citywide kitty corner

Goddamm cats. 

All over Istanbul, they ramble and climb, pounce and shinny. These homeless street beasts tackle each other in play; hiss and strike in combat; scrounge and scavenge for the next meal. They barge into shops and curl up in chairs and beg for food at sidewalk cafes with various degrees of rough-hewn etiquette (claws, paws and purrs).

000e4198-800.jpg
From the film “Kedi”

Most importantly, they insinuate themselves into the homes and hearts of many of this huge city’s denizens, soft souls who often regard the felines with an almost spiritual gravity, spurring the occasional display of soggy sagacity: 

“Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t,” a cat-lover says in “Kedi,” a documentary about the thousands of stray cats of Istanbul. “Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will.” 

I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means.

“Kedi” (cat in Turkish, though it sounds a lot like kitty) is a well-received film from last year that lavishes the love — there’s not one hater in the whole picture, no one shooing away a cat with a broom — on Istanbul’s famed felines. It feels like a short film stretched taffy-like into a 79-minute feature that’s at once indulgent and superficial, while pleasant and lightly informative in an ingratiating PBS sort of way.   

Someone in the movie declares the homeless kitties are the city’s soul, but on my few visits to Istanbul I saw far more stray dogs than cats. Like this winsome fella, who became my pal for nearly a month:

P1020788.jpg
Istanbul, 2008

Still, I certainly saw many cats, such as this leery pair of scrappy, well-fed survivors:

P1030495_1.jpg
Istanbul, 2008

In “Kedi” cats inhabit rooftops, cardboard boxes, markets, cemeteries, trees and awnings, and the film paints artful visions of the kitty stars, from Bergmanesque close-ups to whisker-level Steadicam action of running, jumping and chasing (mice beware).

The cats comprise a motley array, and I expect to see the kitty cavalcade when I return to Istanbul next month — toms, calicos, tortoiseshells, mamas nursing their babes, cats with patterns like a painter’s palette, or, one of the stars of “Kedi,” a female hellion dubbed “the neighborhood psychopath.”

fat cat.jpg
From the film “Kedi”

Inevitably, kitty characters and personalities emerge, inescapably anthropomorphized. “It’s so fascinating,” says a simpatico fishmonger of the cats who not so mysteriously follow him around. “They’re just like people.”

We have two cats. They’re just like people: indifferent, solitary, narcissistic, wise, wily, incessantly hungry, jerks.

Yet in “Kedi” the humans are like grandparents who spoil their charges. A shopkeeper compares a kitty comrade to one of his children as he brushes her fur while she looks off into heavenly ecstasy. Another man compares the company of cats to the soul-soothing power of prayer beads.

Our cats provide the soul-soothing power of pooping, crotch-licking gremlins.

Taking care of these furry street urchins is, they say, their duty. They are cat custodians, and for many of them the animals supply a divine connection that is healing, curative and therapeutic.

How is this possible? one may ask. Cats purr and meow, but are otherwise as mute and inscrutable as the Sphinx. They scamper off a lot for no damn reason.

“I imagine having a relationship with cats must be a lot like being friends with aliens,” muses a dreadlocked woman in the film. “You make contact with a very different life form, open a line of communication with one another, and start a dialogue.”

As someone who talks to the animals, from cats to rats, I love that.

(“Kedi” stuff, including trailers, can be seen here.)

Biting into a tangy ‘Cherry’

The novel I’m reading now, “Cherry,” is gritty, witty, dirty, funny, grim — and marvelous. Compulsively readable, the rollicking fiction introduces in debut author Nico Walker a natural dynamo equipped with a dazzlingly fresh voice that has a compelling, troubling croak in it. It’s scratchy, a little hoarse, and it sings with a hard rock crunch. 

Almost universally acclaimed, “Cherry,” out this summer, is tough, streetwise and gruesomely war-torn. It is ugly, scabby — drugs, crime, graphic combat violence — yet lovely still, bristling with heart, candor and raw youthful love that throbs unvarnished truth. What emerges is a pungent, probing snapshot of America today, what has been dubbed “(perhaps) the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.”

61wgnjuctll-_sx331_bo1204203200_.jpg

I’m just over half-way into it, so my take on the book isn’t fully formed, but early impressions beguile. Walker traffics in autofiction — like his narrator/antihero, he was a 20-year-old medic in Iraq, pulled bank robberies and battled a heroin habit — so he knows of what he writes. (Walker, 32, boasts a remarkable backstory: He wrote “Cherry” from prison, where he remains.) 

“‘Jesus’ Son’ meets ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in a breakneck-paced debut novel about love, war, bank robberies, and heroin,” notes the publisher.

So far the narrative sizzles with combat action and battalion buffoonery among low-level fuckups, not the slick, seasoned pros of, say, “The Hurt Locker.” The war reportage is colloquial and harrowing; the prose lean and sinewy and almost drolly unsentimental. 

“Cheetah was driving. Cheetah was a shitbag. He was big into Faces of Death and what was almost certainly child pornography. He would buy all the stupid gaudy knives the haji shops sold and mount them on the plywood wall above his bunk. He was driving that morning, and I thought it was stupid since he wasn’t even a grunt. He was the lowest ranking of three supply POGs in the company, and he wasn’t even good at that because he kept getting himself Article-Fifteened for being a moody knife-pulling shitbag.”

Walker’s “language — relentlessly profane but never angry — simmers at the level of morose disappointment, something like Holden Caulfield Goes to War,” says The Washington Post, accurately.

The protagonist’s romance with a girl back home leavens the drama at this point in the novel. Yet meanwhile there is this: unflinching combat that seems as vital to the story’s realism as any of it, and with which I will leave you. Hang tight:

“I said, ‘Where are the casualties?’ He said, ‘They’re all dead, you fucking asshole.’ I looked again at the body of the gunner. He was burned away, scrap of IBAS clung to his torso, legs folded up, femurs and tibias and fibulas with black tissue, arms melted, body eviscerated and lying on its guts, face gone, head a skull. The smell is something you already know. It’s cooled in your blood. The smoke gets into every pore and into every gland, your mouth full of it to where you may as well be eating it.”

No matter how horrible that passage is, it feels strangely and totally essential. “Cherry” is like that: so uncompromisingly true, it rattles you awake.