In my time as a film critic, I often brought along my own pocket camera to interviews with celebrities, either because I wanted to or the newsroom was simply understaffed that day. I was recently sifting through some of the resulting photos — glorified snapshots, really — and plucked a few that don’t totally suck. You might recognize some of these distinguished folks.
It is dusk and the piano man slides onto his bench and begins playing in the vast hotel lobby, which is arranged with socially distanced dining tables and bar seats for a pop-up piano lounge vibe.
A sad smattering of customers eat and drink and, shhh, the piano man is tinkling his heart out, swaying ever so gently to his own one-man band. He presides over the shiny black baby grand with quiet authority, as much groovy gravitas as one can muster in a chain hotel that’s trying really hard.
What am I doing here, listening to the piano man on a frigid Tuesday evening? That’s a short, spectacularly uninteresting story, reader, so we move onto the lonely man tickling plaintive keys, which are surely moist with his falling tears.
The piano man performs sans face mask but with a natty blue scarf round his neck, evoking a Lake Tahoe lodge feel (the fireplace crackles). He should be wearing a face mask because he is not a singing piano man. He performs instrumentals of dubiously hip pop standards — “As Time Goes By,” “Moondance” — frilling the tunes with jazzy tinsel and rococo flourishes, the filigreed doodles of the creatively restive.
Without singing, this piano man (lower case) is unlike Billy Joel’s iconic Piano Man (upper case), who is implored to: Sing us a song you’re the piano man/Sing us a song tonight/Well we’re all in the mood for a melody/And you’ve got us feelin’ alright.
That’s not quite the scene in the hotel lobby bar this night. No one is making requests. No one is tossing five-spots at the resident artiste. (Where, oh piano man, is your tip jar tonight?) No one is “in the mood for a melody.” Alas, no one is listening.
He’s playing “Tiny Dancer.” He ponders his life as he does.
I am transfixed. The piano man is good. The euphony, the dexterity! Those gliding hands are mad-nuts, and he doesn’t even glance at them. He scans the near-empty room, eyes half-mast, perhaps in a self-induced fugue state. What is the piano man thinking?
I took piano lessons as a wee one. I learned exactly one song. It was 12 seconds long and had these lyrics: “Here we go, up a road, to a birthday party.” Fact: It’s the easiest piano tune ever, making “Chopsticks” seem like Chopin. I mangled it every time.
I figure if I have one more cocktail I’ll sidle up to the piano and join our hero in a duet of “MacArthur Park,” he on the keys, me out of key.
The piano man is an island, no tipsy admirers warbling along with the tunes, patrons shuffling past without so much as a knowing smile or polite nod. He is a rock of existential solitude, abandoned by rotten weather, Covid, the Tuesday night blues. He’s a street busker in a ghost town. The misunderstood genius, honored only after his tragic, Mozartian death.
The piano man as metaphor. I think we’ve heard that song before, played to the tune of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Once a former colleague and I were talking about how overrated most movies are. We were actually astonished and pretty disheartened. (“Avatar”? Christ.)
Then I took a big leap and mused that life is overrated, and I wasn’t really kidding. My pal nodded, even softly repeating my words. We traded wry grins that belied a deep sadness. We went back to work.
Funny thing is, even that sadness was overrated. Because it wasn’t quite sadness so much as bluish resignation, a minuscule sigh. Life, overrated as it may be, goes on.
Isn’t everything sorta, kinda overrated? All right, not everything. There’s family, romantic love, learning, travel, dogs, bourbon, art, Billy Wilder, anything concerning Doritos.
Still, the very question is unnerving. It’s not the most joyous thing to realize I can think of a kajillion things that are overrated, yet I’m sure you can, too. Let’s go for it. I’m totally just spitballing here:
- “The Wire”
- Johnny Depp
- most rap
- “The Queen’s Gambit”
- Sofia Coppola
- dinner parties
- all things Harry Potter
- “Twin Peaks”
- music festivals
- chicken breast
- fake breasts
- almost every Netflix comedy special
- Quentin Tarantino
- road trips
- “The Office”
- late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
- giant Ferris wheels in major cities
- “Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
- Brazilian waxing
- Dave Eggers
- year-round warm weather
- Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
- David Sedaris
- “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
- video installations
Excuse the haphazard tally; I was just getting started. I could have tossed in podcasts and pork rinds. Hell, I think I’m overrated. Put me in the top slot.
The thing with overrating stuff is how impossibly subjective it is. I can say life — or, for that matter, “Titanic” — is overestimated and there’s a 90-plus percentage you’ll disagree. Surely one of you thinks David Bowie is overrated, but I’d argue he is not, to my grave.
But subjectivity is part of the pleasure. Sports fans (grossly overrated) forever gauge teams and players in heated arguments of gladiatorially subjective rating games.
And it is a game. In Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy rattle off members of their own “Academy of the Overrated,” including Vincent van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Ingmar Bergman, formidable figures that seem name-checked just to piss off a breed of urban intellectual. (Woody himself goes apoplectic listening to them.)
As a game, cataloging one’s personal overrated (movie, food, person, book) is a cathartic kick. The characters in “Manhattan” are having a giggling ball airing their pointedly curated Academy. Tossing together my list above was fun and purgative, despite its sloppy incompleteness. (Though I did self-edit as I went. I felt some inclusions would offend sensitive readers. Like God, and jellybeans.)
Is life really overrated? Sometimes, especially when you consider sickness, loss, debt, all those Tyler Perry movies. But it’s underrated, too — getting lost in a European city, succulent bone marrow in a good restaurant, fond memories, Al Pacino roaring his way through “Heat.”
Maybe it’s an even split. Maybe life and all its facets, good and not-so good, are what make things interesting. Maybe Coldplay (overrated) and cold weather (underrated) can coexist. And maybe, really, overrating things is itself overrated.
When I was 9, “Stars Wars” was the shit. That movie and “Jaws,” two years earlier, jounced my cinematic world off its axis and into, well, outer space. (This of course happened to 95.9 percent of every kid of a certain age, so I’m sort of stating the obvious.)
I devoured “Star Wars” action figures, posters, a cool TIE fighter model, even bed sheets that were blue like the cosmos. “Jaws” — same. I was shark-crazed for about five years. I owned a real shark jaw from Tijuana, a “Jaws” t-shirt (see my About page), many shark books, and a dorky “Jaws” game, where you tried to fish junk out of a plastic shark’s mouth without his toothy smile chomping down on your pole. I sucked at it.
My grade-school teachers grew concerned about my constant drawings of sharks munching the limbs off hapless swimmers in blood-filled waters. Thing is, I’m still a bit batty about the misunderstood ocean predators, which are perfectly evolved, hyper-efficient killing machines, much like the creature in “Alien.”
But my starry-eyed view of “Star Wars” dimmed at a dramatic clip — almost light speed, let’s say. I only half-heartedly went to see 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” a movie that inspired no more expenditures on franchise merch. (By then it was a cultural arm wrestle between “Star Wars” and KISS — George Lucas vs. Gene Simmons. The latter spit blood. He won.)
Jedi jaded as I quickly became — the Force was now farce — I never did get around to 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” I wasn’t interested. I didn’t care. Hard rock and girls had hijacked any alliance to “Star Wars,” and, besides, I was obsessing over more interesting movies like “An American Werewolf in London,” “The Elephant Man,” “Alien,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Fly” and, dare I say it, Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre.
But a third “Star Wars” installment, no matter how disappointing its description, was still news — if not a cultural earthquake, then a rippling aftershock. Crowds flocked and you couldn’t help being exposed to trailers, photos and fan regurgitations of the episode in which Darth Vader famously croaks.
And what I saw was repellent: frenzied Muppet creatures; the unforgivable Ewoks (tiny, fuzzy Jar Jar Binkses); the grinning ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker (together at last!); and the coda’s mortifying Ewok celebration, featuring gibberish music and creature dancing (Chewbacca boogies!). And I vowed I would never watch “Jedi.” Ever.
Until I did.
This is where I admit that I watched “Return of the Jedi,” a full 27 years after it was released. It was an impulse rental, done under a cynical cloud of camp: “This is going to be so gorgeously godawful,” I thought, “that it will furnish a galaxy of perverse pleasures. I will howl with laughter at the Razzie-worthy writing and titter at the labored excesses of puppet pandemonium, including the hopelessly lame Jabba the Hutt, who reminds me of a big burp.”
My plan, alas, backfired.
The movie completely surpassed its build up of rank horrendousness. But the experience wasn’t fun or funny. In fact, the sheer naked badness of “Jedi” served as a bludgeon that beat me into one of my darkest post-movie depressions ever. I actually felt physically ill watching it, and by that satanic climax of dancing Ewoks and high-fiving heroes I had died a few deaths. To this day, I consider “Return of the Jedi” one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. (Yes, worse than “Jaws 4: The Revenge.”)
At least critic Chuck Klosterman puts a humorous spin on it: “‘Return of the Jedi’ is quite possibly the least-watchable major film of the last 25 years. I knew a girl who claimed to have a recurring dream about a polar bear that mauled Ewoks; it made me love her.”
And yet at the ever-vexing Rotten Tomatoes, the movie boasts an astonishing 82% approval rating. Opines the Denver Post: “It’s everything it ought to be — glorious, exhilarating, exciting, absorbing, technically wondrous.”
No, no, no, no and no. The movie is absolutely none of those things. Just watch this scene and try not to vomit.
It’s true that I’ve way outgrown the whole “Star Wars” dweeb-o-sphere, much as the Marvel universe is to me so much sophomoric hubbub. I’m not watching the latest “Star Wars” spinoff, “The Mandalorian,” and I have a terrible urge to squish baby Yoda’s head.
That pretty much disqualifies me from the Way-Out World George Lucas Built, and that’s fine. Who needs Ewoks and Wookiees, Jabbas and Jedis, CGI and C-3PO, third-rate mysticism and fourth-grade mythology?
And yet “Jaws,” my other grade-school movie crush, remains one of my favorite pictures ever. Its arresting grainy realism is still fully convincing. Its adult’s-eye view of human frailty and interpersonal politics makes no concessions to the popcorn crowd. So finely orchestrated are its grisly thrills, you can allow yourself to be terrorized by a 25-foot plastic mechanical shark that’s as supple as a redwood.
It helps that Spielberg is 5,000 times the filmmaker Lucas is (OK, “American Graffiti” is pretty great). But it also helps that “Jaws” is Muppet-free and doesn’t traffic in cockamamie mythos. It helps that its only creature is sincerely menacing with very high stakes, and that all of “Jedi’s” itty Ewoks would make so much tasty shark chum.
When traveling alone, my inner mind buzzes so feverishly with thoughts, words and soliloquies that I often forget myself and think I’m making a racket that everyone can hear.
But no one can hear me, I realize, and I fall back into the hermetic hum. The brain rattles in verbal commotion, synapses chatting away, echoing through cranial canyons. It’s the classic internal monologue, an incontinent loop. (Do I ever get tired listening to myself? And how.)
In countries where I don’t speak the language — most of them — I can go hours, even whole days without uttering a word. Transactions are reduced to semaphore and sign language. There’s lots of pointing. The lingua franca of a candid smile goes a long way.
Talking aloud is good and healthy. Being a mime all day can be suffocating while alone on the road. You need to air out. I’m always relieved to hear my voice stir to sonic life at the end of the day when, say, I order dinner at a nice restaurant and converse with a waiter, or, if lucky, when gabbing with patrons at the local pub.
I blush to admit I’m terrible about learning languages of places I visit. It’s pitiful, really. I’ve never used a phrase book and only bother to learn terms for “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you.” (In French and Spanish, I also know “Do you speak English?”)
And that’s always been enough (except with cab drivers, who invariably need written directions). English is so uniformly familiar around the world that I find getting by something of a breeze.
Still, those basic words — spasiba (“thank you” in Russia); proszę (“please” in Poland); bro! (“hello” in Las Vegas) — are invaluable social tools that make life easier amid the exoticism of a new land.
But there I am, tramping across jungle villages and cluttered cityscapes, locked in my own head, mostly mute but open to vocal interaction, the human touch. I can tell you there’s nothing like laughing with a local during a far-flung voyage.
When you’re going solo, getting out of your head takes an effort, as does anything worthwhile. It’s easier than you think. And the rewards are rich. Just watch as the elderly shop lady goes from mirthless money taker, pensive her in her task, to beaming with gratitude all because you simply said xiè xiè (“thank you” in Chinese ) with a smile. It’ll make your day, and possibly hers, too. Nothing is lost in translation. Everything is gained.
I’m a jaded traveler, asking much, with high expectations and a low threshold for disappointment.
So naturally I’ve at times been disillusioned during my many journeys around the world. It happens. And it’s not a terrible thing. After all, how letdown can you be by, say, Madrid, a great city that pales a bit compared to its more lustrous and colorful cousins, Sevilla and Barcelona? Not much.
In a previous post I told how I recently unpacked piles of my travel journals from cold storage after several years. Written in blue ink in black notebooks — usually on barstools after long days wending wide-eyed through cobblestone streets and spindly alleyways — the pages are filled with the magic of travel, the mirth of discovery, the shock of the new, amazing people and far-out food (like the whole cobra I ate in Vietnam).
The journals are also laced with descriptions of those isolated times when I was dissatisfied, underwhelmed or — what! — plain bored. I’ve re-read these bits with a kind of dismayed surprise: Really? That’s how I felt about Rome? Rome?
Well, yeah, on that particular day. Travel experiences are colored by everything from jet lag to daily frustrations (taxi rip-offs, getting lost, language hassles). They are mutable. What deflates one day might electrify the next.
My journals reminded me of this in bold strokes. These are some examples of thwarted expectations and little letdowns on travel’s twisty, rugged road:
In 2000 I went to Israel a hardened agnostic bordering on a true atheist. Astounded by religion and the mindset of its believers, I wanted to go to the desert nation that’s home to the big three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and see what makes them tick. Scenes from my journal:
“Today in Bethlehem I arrived at the perhaps blasphemous idea that the region is a historical Disneyland, a realm of fairy tales. ‘Here’s where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.’ ‘This is where Mary slept.’ We might as well be told, ‘This is where Snow White ate the fateful apple,’ or ‘Behold the tomb of Cinderella’s stepsisters.’ It’s psychotic that pilgrims succumb to the fanciful whims of Constantine’s mother, who randomly appointed holy designations to places here. Paraphrasing something I actually heard on a tour: ‘Here’s King David’s tomb and the site of the Last Supper, but, uh, not really, because they’re lost somewhere far below the city.’ And people eat this stuff up.”
Later I noted:
“Believers hoisting giant wooden crosses follow ‘Christ’s final footsteps’ on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. It’s maniacal, and not half as fascinating as you’d think. That’s how religion is for me now. Just silly, impossible to be contemplated in the higher regions of the mind. It absolutely fails to astonish. So this trip, which is wonderful thus far — peaceful, pleasant, edifying — is innocent of any celestial wallop, of a blinding halo glow and spiritual intervention. I am unmoved. I am unchanged.”
Then there’s Prague, which I visited with inflated enthusiasm in 2002. I should have known better, especially since so many blinkered Americans just love the tourist-clogged Czech capital and callow expats infest the place. I got there and sighed, writing:
“Not entirely impressed by the city. Like an Eastern Amsterdam: beautifully antiquated, charmingly European, painted with time and soot, tired but proud. And yet rather vacant. It’s all show, with a familiar, generic Euro tang. My true feelings are stifled from sleepless flights. My impressions are, for now, Cubist — fragmented, jumbled, unreliable. But, so far, a fine, sturdy European city of great charm and Old World wealth. A Disneyland-like anachronism, bursting with pastel façades and fairy-book antiquity, tourist throngs and souvenir kitsch.”
Two days later I wrote:
“I like Prague, and yet needing to write that means I’m working at liking it as much as I’m supposed to.”
On my second trip to Italy, in 2003, I revisited Florence and Rome, with a day trip to Pisa to see that teetering tower. My scribbled impressions:
“Pisa is a university town with a tower. Not sure why Italy doesn’t touch or connect with me the way Paris does. It’s less refined, more brusque. Its virile, violent history isn’t as deep and textured. It’s less intellectual, less progressive and less interesting. It’s about gelato and church.”
And about Rome specifically:
“Rome is OK. Trevi Fountain, Vatican, St. Peter’s — all numbingly familiar and inert, just there, edifices radiating gray. The city is sort of like Madrid or Berlin — popped expectations.”
What’s notable about the Italy trip is that when my girlfriend finally arrived to meet me there, everything shimmered to life with a giddy radiance. The Trevi Fountain at night was a splashy thrill, the Sistine Chapel an almost spiritual swoon. I loved my girl, and I loved Italy.
I’ve learned that the fluctuating charms of travel cannot be underestimated. They should be greedily embraced. Up, down, it’s all about the ride, the swirling ecstatic journey.
And there they were, the hirsute hillbillies and toothless terrorists who mobbed and defiled the U.S. Capitol yesterday, a cankerous confederacy of dunces, rampaging racists and whooping ignoramuses. That much cheap camouflage is never a good look.
The lowest of the low, these punks and goons are in lockstep with their pestilent potentate, whose grotesque name and rightfully imperiled title shall go unspoken.
I’m at a loss to add anything brilliant to the roiling conversation about the fatal White House-whipped insurrection. But what was it Robert De Niro famously said about the one-term racist/criminal/liar/sexual assailant?
Early on my vacation to Beirut, Lebanon, in 2008, I scribbled this in my faithful moleskin journal: “Depressed tonight, like the trip’s a mistake.”
Those are ugly, gooey words for an insatiable, solo world traveler like me, someone who practically levitates just smelling the inky pages of a new travel guide. Recently I hauled out a dusty box of journals from many journeys, randomly cracking open the Beirut book for the first time in 12 years. I was surprised at what I found, how dark it all read.
It wasn’t exactly a revelation, but it’s a bit different from memories I shared in a long-ago blog post that described the city as “beautiful but battered, regal but raw … a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.”
What stands out in the journal is how damn down I am, on the city and on travel in general, and that’s the real shocker. Yet I think it all signifies those inevitable pockets of mild dejection, loneliness, confusion and fatigue experienced during any trip, even my best ones.
“I am so precariously manic as I travel,” I wrote in Beirut after a day of jumbled emotions. “Life’s complexion switches kaleidoscopically as I journey — up, down, sideways, loops and spirals.”
Yet this was different, so much intensely bleaker than the emotional yo-yos of my usual one-man voyages, be it China, Portugal, Morocco, Japan, France, etc.
Much of it was certainly that the war-torn capital — once regarded the Paris of the Middle East for its beachside beauty and lush cosmopolitanism — felt like a tumbledown tomb, hushed and sealed off, choked in a martial pall. This despite hip bars and cafes, delicious restaurants, the prestigious American University and all the shiny men’s hair products.
I knew what I was getting into. I did my homework and sought out a place rocked by enthralling if troubled history, yet still knew how to party. (And how: the narrow, bar-lined Gemmayzeh district absolutely spills with stylish, rambunctious — and not a few douchey — revelers every night.)
Still, once there, my initial assessment was harsh: “Most of the city is a rundown wreck. Even the ‘nice parts’ are dilapidated — the Hamra district is gimcrack, mostly crumbling and derelict and spray-painted and bullet-pocked. … Beirut is an ugly city.” (I think I just lost my gig writing the Lonely Planet guide to Beirut.)
I was slipping, hard, right into the old emotional vortex, and I was confused.
“I don’t know what is happening,” I wrote. “I suppose it’s the listlessness of the place that has robbed my zest. Something big is missing. A sucking, sinking void, parts depression, loneliness (one feeds the other), dislocation, depleted expectations.”
Then I really laid it on: “This happens, and it’s fatal because it corrodes my desire to ever travel again, a crazy but not unfamiliar notion. ‘I’m through’ — that’s what I feel.”
The isolation I was experiencing in a cold city, despite interesting chats with taxi drivers and random conversations with locals in bars, was wearing. I’m far from extroverted or people-needy. But something dawned on me. I journaled, “I just need someone to talk to. My blood has frozen.” I was crying out, pitifully and most uncharacteristically.
Enter Lina, brilliant, warm, charitable Lina! The young local and I were forced to share a tiny table at popular loo-sized bar Torino Express on Gemmayzeh one night, and we naturally started talking. I learned she’s Christian, a teetotaler and speaks Arabic, French and English. She likes the heavy metal band Savatage.
Not only did she write in my journal helpful Arabic phrases, she later drove me up Lebanon’s northern coast to lovely Byblos, showed me around and introduced me to some friends. She even invited me to her small birthday gathering at a bar the next night (I still don’t know how old she is). It wasn’t a romantic thing, it was plain, extraordinary hospitality. She was a mensch, a blast of sunlight in a dark stretch.
After even more encounters with friendly travelers and locals over 19 days — I spent a week in Beirut and 12 days in heavenly Istanbul — animated with laughs and living, I finally admitted in the journal: “Meeting people is groovy.”
On one of my last nights during the trip, I met a trio of travelers in Istanbul, an hour or so during which I may have finally figured something out about travel, and life.
“I made people laugh tonight, honest extemporaneous guffaws, eye-squinching laughter,” I wrote in the moleskin. “That’s worth something. Real human connection. Meeting of minds, tickling of souls. What else is there?”
Girlfriends are great. I adore them, madly, with smashing intensity. They like me too (yo, it takes two to tango), even if they have to slalom around my prickly edges, indigo moods, slashing humor and periodic bouts of suicidal solitude. But really, no joke, I’m a blast.
Just ask some past survivors — er, lovers. One said I was “brooding and negative” (aw, thanks, honey). Another called me a “tortured artist.” And, more to the point, I was told I’m an “s.o.b.” and, shucks, an “asshole.”
Ah, romance. All flowers and firebombs.
Those Hallmark sentiments, spouted in rare snaps of high dudgeon, are the exception not the rule. I’m a good, if challenging, partner, as my exes will attest. Almost all of them remain tight friends, and at least two are undying soulmates, exceptional individuals with whom I’ve never laughed harder, shared harder, and created quirky little worlds together.
I bring this up after watching two of my favorite fractured romances, movies that either rip me up or crack me up before sending me off blubbering like an Italian widow.
In 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass,” Natalie Wood plays a sexually repressed teenager who falls for Warren Beattie’s high school jock and, in short, goes crazy. As they go their separate ways, Wood’s psychosis intensifies. Later, supposedly cured, she visits her ex, who is now married. The ending will kick your guts out.
Freighted with neuroses, Woody Allen courts a young, insecure Diane Keaton in 1977’s “Annie Hall,” the quintessential Allen love story, whose tagline is the very apt “a nervous romance.” With Allen’s overbearing hangups and egotism and Keaton’s skittish fragility, the couple’s frequently hilarious affair doesn’t stand a chance. Friendship will have to do. The last, lingering shot is almost unbearably wistful.
My relationships have bits of both films — possessiveness, craziness, big laughs, deep-dish neuroses, breakups and friendship. They have no boozy “Fool for Love” abuse, or bat-shit “Fatal Attraction” obsession. They are earthbound, boring to some; glorious fireworks spectaculars to those involved.
I’m lucky to have dodged real drama, yet love isn’t always pretty. An otherwise sweet, sane woman shattered a glass on my bedroom floor in blind fury. (I told her I wouldn’t have dinner with her family on Christmas — smash!). Another one dumped her beer on me with extreme prejudice. But these are aberrant episodes in my relationship history, teensy scars I can look back on lightly. What’s a soaked, sudsy shirt between sweethearts?
I don’t want to date a deranged Natalie Wood from “Splendor in the Grass,” and I have dated a Diane Keaton from “Annie Hall,” who yielded almost too much fun to describe. But life isn’t the movies and love isn’t easy. Just ask my exes. They’ll tell you. Believe it all.
I’m greedily tearing through “Interior Chinatown,” a tangy cultural satire by hot young writer Charles Yu. I’m savoring the book’s poppy humor, clever screenplay format and edifying critique of what it’s like to be Asian in America (bluntly: assimilation’s a bitch). The novel, which is also a scathing indictment of racial stereotyping in Hollywood, won this year’s National Book Award. It probably deserves it.
As I read, plunging into a world both comic and caustic, ordinary life churns on. I pop a mild tranquilizer (tranquility, wee), the snow melts into puddly archipelagos, the washing machine sloshes, the small gray dog curls up like a sow bug on the couch. These are not distractions, though I sometimes get sidelined by looking forward to my next book, no matter how good the current read is.
- “The Trouble with Being Born,” a collection of acrid aphorisms by E.M. Cioran, who calls birth “that laughable accident.” (Wait, did he write this for me personally?)
- I’ll revisit Virginia Woolf’s hypnotic “Mrs. Dalloway,” inspired by a recent essay extolling its literary radicalism. Not a simple read, Woolf challenges audience assumptions, and rewards them with rapture.
- I’ll also take a second dip into “Sex and Rage,” Eve Babitz’s raffish auto-fiction, whose subtitle, “Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time,” is a brazen come-on. The book’s so saucy, such unfiltered fun, and the writing so ablaze, resisting it would be dumb self-denial.
- Then there’s “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn, a rollicking freak show saga told by an albino hunchback dwarf. Echoing with the bearded lady’s cackle, this exotic family comedy has been called “a Fellini movie in ink.” Nirvana.
It’s trite to note how reading has risen during the pandemic. That’s almost a year now of increased literary calories. And, gulp, plump we get. If you’re braving the prolix Russians, you’re assuming even more brain girth. Conversely, if your diet is J.K. Rowling, you could be anorexic. (And the knuckle-draggers who boast they don’t read? Mind rot — enjoy!)
Certain books, hence, are in high demand. I’m having a hell of time getting my mitts on Maggie O’Farrell’s award-winning historical fiction “Hamnet,” a speculative study of Shakespeare’s complex marriage, his young son’s death from the plague, and how that loss might have led the playwright to make his immortal “Hamlet.” The slavered-over tome is out of stock at (boo, hiss) Amazon and on back order at the local indie shop. All 66 copies in the county library system are checked out.
It can wait. I have the above books on queue, with a few other titles earmarked. You can never run out of choices, even if it leads you to reread a book or three, which is how you know you’ve struck a great one, like my current pleasure “Interior Chinatown,” a contender for a later revisit.
Literature is like another book, the passport. It slings you aloft, carries you to far-flung places. In these cloistered days, reading is the safest, most satisfying way to get out of your space, the claustrophobic chambers of the solitary mind. While we can barely leave home, books are effectively the new travel, transporting — and transcendent.