A trip that’s up in the air

This is the book I just ordered:

Big and bold it announces “Buenos Aires,” and you can gather from it that Argentina’s capital is in my sights for my next destination. The nerve, the gall, you might huff, considering I got back from Italy a mere four days ago. But see, I’m a greedy globe-trekker, scheming my next move on the plane back from my latest journey like a cheating lover. 

Buenos Aires wasn’t on my bucket list. Though I almost went years ago, I’ve never been to South America. As I was decompressing after my flight home from Rome, I was chatting with a woman, a friend of a friend, whose entire life is an unbroken blur of world travel. She asked where I was off to next and I had no answer. I really didn’t know. I just knew it would happen in the fall, my prime travel season.

I told her I never travel in the summer because of the heat and the crowds, and she, a veteran of Argentina, suggested Buenos Aires. Below the equator, our summer is their winter, of course. I could go in July and luxuriate in 59-degree temps in a jacket and jeans. And it’s the off-season, so crowds are thinner and prices cheaper. I was on my computer researching the city within minutes. 

I was taken. Infused with Spanish, Italian and French colonial influences that lend it a lusty European sheen, yet still boldly Latin, the city of 13 million people is famed for a dizzying eclecticism that runs from its architecture to cuisine, including ubiquitous beef steaks and flowing Malbec. Street art animates facades, baroque cemeteries lure the living, and, if you’re into it, clubs smolder with tango. (I’ll watch the dance, but not partake, lest I cause an international incident.)

It’s all enticing until you shop for flights, which run a stroke-inducing $1,200 to $1,300 in July. Argentina also requires you to buy travel insurance to cover any hypothetical Covid treatments. That’s in addition to a negative Covid test, proof of vaccination and some other minor paperwork. 

That’s the downside. The upside is stylish and affordable boutique hotels (I already have one picked out), 15-minute taxi rides costing $2.50 USD, dinner with a full bottle of wine for $10, free museums, jumping cafe and bar cultures and, by most accounts, loopy, lively people. I’ll tell you more when my book arrives. 

Buenos Aires is Spanish for “fair winds” or “good air,” and isn’t that nice. It’s not certain that I’m going there; I’m thick in homework and investigation. I’m vetting this city that seems magnificent on paper, and might be even more so in the flesh. I’ll see where those fair winds carry me.

P.S. If you don’t think I’m already pondering my fall voyage, you are grossly ill-informed. Scotland? Iceland? Poland? Peru?

Italy finito, beautifully

As I write this, 35,000 feet in the sky on a jet back to the States from nine fine days in Italy, I’m swollen with that cruddy reverse homesickness in which you miss the place you visited instead of your actual home. Rome and Naples were wonderful and I wasn’t ready to leave and I wanna go back. I’ve got the home-bound blues.

Still, my last rueful day in Rome was brilliant, quite literally — balmy mid-60s, cloudless, cerulean skies, sunglass weather. The kind of conditions that make people dress way too skimpily for the actual temperature. I was perfect in jeans, a light jacket and t-shirt. The guy in the short-shorts and tank top, not so much. 

Especially if he wanted to get into the Pantheon, the almost 2,000-year-old Roman temple turned Catholic church, where modest dress is a must. Leaders, popes and artists, including Raphael, are buried in the cylindrical building, which is famous for its oculus (or big hole) at the tip of its dome, shooting down a thick beam of sunlight like a celestial Bat-Signal.

Our lovely tour guide in Naples told us he gets chills whenever he enters the shrine. I did not get chills, but I was aptly awed by the ambient beauty and unimaginable feats of engineering. So often in Italy, if you regard your surroundings for just a moment, astonishment floods in and you wonder what hit you. It’s called the sublime.

I didn’t care if I found it or not, but fate planted an unmistakable sign in front of me — a literal street sign — so I ambled over to the vacantly majestic Trevi Fountain, where mugging selfie dolts and preening sun-worshippers congregate on days like this, as if Nicola Salvi’s pompous 1735 fountain is a swimming pool or the beach and not just a glorious repository for Bernini-style sculpture. I do respect this extravagant splash machine, but it’s a brief pitstop, not a gawk spot, despite its iconic role in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” a personal favorite. 

A local beer, a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich, and a cappuccino later, I headed to the Vatican for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum, a riot of artistic riches. Our tour guide barely made it on time, and my mood was starting to curdle. But she materialized at last, a petite Italian who used a plush Woodstock doll dangling from a stick in lieu of the boring old tourist-group flag for us to follow amid the crushing, claustrophobic crowds (many of them terrible teenagers, lolling, laughing and leering). 

She gave each of us little radios with ear buds so we could hear her literate narration of highlights in the museum. But the contraptions were on the fritz, all buzz, fizz and crackle — sonic flatulence that drowned out her spiels about each grand piece of art, from writhing statues of men and lions and Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” to the visual commotion of Michelangelo’s peerless Sistine Chapel ceiling. The works spoke for themselves.

As we finished, I asked the guide for the nearest taxi line, and she warned me to be careful with them, that they quote outlandish prices and don’t use the meter. And so it was. I approached a driver and told him my address and he promptly said it would cost 40 euros because of, you know, that zany Tuesday traffic. I scoffed and said, “You’re crazy,” and he responded, “You’re crazy.” Genius.

I hailed a passing cab, got in, and paid 14 euros back to my hotel, where I wound down, went out and ate pasta, sipped wine, and, reflecting on the past nine days, sighed: perfetto. Which in English translates simply as: damn

Roamin’ Rome

Monday, shaking off a sleepless redeye flight and some wretched jet lag — both cruel and not recommended — I strolled around my hotel neighborhood in Rome, which sits in the shadow of the Colosseum, that 2,000-year-old stadium of sport and slaughter. (I’d tell you about the tour of it I was signed up for, but I was turned away because I wasn’t carrying my Covid vaccination card — since I was expressly told I wouldn’t need it — and that’s a lesson learned. I think I handled it well. I stormed off in a hissy.)

I hit a wine shop and picked out an eight euro bottle of red, then walked some more and stumbled upon two crumbling basilicas of God and grandeur. Naturally they’re festooned with stunning artwork, from grim statuary to crackling frescoes that make the shrines vibrant museums in their own right. Cool and dark, they emanate that dank churchy smell that’s as singular as old books. I wish I could bottle that funky perfume. 

My brother came a day later, Tuesday, and we’ve been strategizing for weeks about what to eat in Rome and Naples. The cities are lousy with pasta and we’ve vowed not to settle for only that and the ubiquitous pizza. Our sights, and bellies, are set on fresh seafood, veggies (eggplant parmigiana, thank you), charcuterie, risotto, roasts and more from the Italian smorgasbord. I plan on gaining 75 pounds. Tonight is the cutting-edge Osteria Fernanda — creatively plated, self-consciously contemporary Italian food — and I expect nothing less than the orgasmic …  

Several hours and a nine-course tasting menu later, we are sated. And euphoric. It’s the kind of feast where your eyes roll back and superlatives involuntarily pour out at each course, like the “eel with marinated Campari vegetable, acid rice sauce, soia and umeboshi” or the “venison cannelloni with black cardamom and forest wine.” It sounds fussy — I can barely pronounce some of the ingredients — and it is. But sometimes you have to go for it. We did and the rewards were golden.

I’m leaving a lot out — the churches, the museums, the astonishing new Ai Weiwei sculpture, suspiciously inexpensive sushi and a fall-apart sandwich seemingly made half of mayonnaise — but I have a question to ask: Where are all the bars in Rome? 

Try as we might — our efforts are bold and valiant — we cannot locate a single bar bar for a simple nightcap. Wine bars are plenty and some touristy eateries offer trendy cocktails, but where do you get a neat Scotch in this burgh? It’s a conundrum we plan to unravel. It’s getting serious. 

We finally asked a taxi driver about this and he said, “Rome is a museum. It’s not Milan.” And we laughed knowingly. When we got to our hotel we went to the itty-bitty “bar” there and each ordered a neat Scotch. We still have sleuthing in our plans. We go to Naples on Thursday, then back to Rome, which has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Paris perambulations

The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.

It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet. 

I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.

I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.  

Saddest onion soup in the world

But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished. 

Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic. 

As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.

But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary. 

Louvre

Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town. 

Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)  

Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.

The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.

Musee D’Orsay

For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death. 

As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.

She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop. 

The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right. 

I plan for Paris. Covid laughs.

Last fall, Paris went kaput. That is, my planned trip to my favorite city was scrapped with a muscular assist from the pandemic. Covid, that magnificent killjoy, effectively squelched the October vacation, along with so many of your precious plans to get out and live life freely and safely. 

Woe is me. I know this is a first-world, big-baby complaint, but actually I’m not complaining. The trip was doomed from the start, founded on chutzpah and delusion. The pandemic would pass by October. Right. What a dope.

But I couldn’t resist the $430 round-trip flight bought last spring and the airline’s policy of crediting the ticket if trips were cancelled by Covid. Considering how grim everything was, it was sort of win-win.

I used that credit yesterday when I decided, rather rashly as usual, to take another shot at Paris in the fall. It cost a little more money, but the price was still right. Eight days in mid-October, starting where I left off during my last visit in fall 2015. 

Paris is slowly stirring from its Covid coma, when life was hamstrung by onerous rules and restrictions that made visiting pointless, if you could even get into Europe. I’m banking on more normalcy in the next few months as cafes, museums and bistros cautiously unlock their doors. (Alas, Notre Dame remains closed to worshippers and tourists after the blaze of 2019.)

Notre Dame, fall 2015

Must-dos: Musée d’Orsay; Musée Picasso (essential); Musée de l’Orangerie; citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies in Paris); Centre Pompidou; and the skull-crammed Catacombs.

This time, my sixth in Paris, I will skip my beloved cemeteries: the lushly rococo Père Lachaise and the more classical Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, which together house the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, François Truffaut, Susan Sontag, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Balzac, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Why visit cemeteries? Because they’re haunting and beautiful and, in Paris, they’re like strolling walks of fame for artists and intellectuals.)

Centre Pompidou, 2015

The Parisian foodie experience is paramount, and I have several places in my crosshairs: the peerless Frenchie; Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand; Buvette; and famed falafel joint L’As Du Fallafel in the Marais. For cocktails, it’s the vaunted Little Red Door — named one of the world’s 50 best bars for seven consecutive years — also in the Marais.

This all sounds super on paper, like most vacations do. The planning, the reservations, the advanced tickets, the accommodations (Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais), the raw, giddy anticipation. But it’s a crap shoot.

I’m all in. I’m ready to split this burgh for a few days, sip wine on the Seine, see an old Eric Rohmer film, walk the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, skip the Mona Lisa, and be blown away by the city’s exuberant beauty. Again.  

I don’t know if I’ll actually get there. But I’m making a bid for it. For Paris, and for life. 

Stuff this

The taxidermist was having none of it. 

On assignment for a midsize city newspaper, I was interviewing the local taxidermist, a Mr. Martinez, stuffer of critters, asking him about his life’s calling: 

How did you arrive at upholstering bobcats and mounting them in hissing, menacing postures? 

What’s the taxidermy process? Do you only use the animal’s skin?

Is it bloody? Does it stink? 

That kind of crap.

Growing bored by Martinez’s predictable answers and feeling stifled in his stuffy workshop — a matchbox cluttered with mounts, models, skins and dead, static animals in dubious attitudes — my mind drifted.

Though I knew the answer, I asked Martinez if he could taxidermy my long-passed pet rat Phoebe. Sure, he said without a blink, though with a wink, as if a common eight-inch rodent would present any challenge.

Then, scanning the room’s carpentry, tanning and painting gear, I waxed inspired. Could you, I asked, stuff my best friend Ian and mount him in a fearsome pose, like an agitated grizzly? Martinez smirked, but he hadn’t heard my full pitch.

My friend is still alive, I told him. Is that a deal-breaker? Martinez snorted, shook his head and pondered how his lab’s chemical fumes had affected me. Surely he thought I was delirious. Or just dumb as a mounted wildebeest head.

But I really did wonder if he could taxidermy my dear pal Ian, a generous fellow with good skin and, hairy as a chimp, would look splendid posed in a loincloth, hunting a saber-toothed tiger in the Neolithic period. I picture this scene amid a Serengeti landscape in a diorama in a musty natural history museum. That, I think, is where Ian belongs. You’re welcome, bud. 

No and no, said Martinez, squashing the dreams of this faithful friend. Adds award-winning taxidermist Katie Innamorato: “It’s illegal to taxidermy or mount a human being in the U.S. While I’m sure it’s possible, the end result doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Human skin discolors greatly after the preservation process and stretches a lot more than animal skin.”

Gross.

You want gross? Ogle this:

That’s from the site Bad Taxidermy, a cheeky celebration of botched stuff-and-mount jobs, from the whimsically warped (a kitty fastened with giant angel wings, dangling from the ceiling, its face a mask of open-mouth terror) to the near-blasphemous (a quacking duck head popping out of the butt of a surprised baby lamb).

As Bad Taxidermy and its competing site Crappy Taxidermy illustrate, it’s simple. 

There’s good taxidermy:

And there’s grotty taxidermy:

From macho hunter displays to Victorian curiosity cabinets, taxidermy rarely goes out of fashion. Two books — “Crap Taxidermy” and “Taxidermy Gone Wrong: The Funniest, Freakiest (and Outright Creepiest) Beastly Vignettes” — are taxonomies of the mutilated and misbegotten, the bungles and blunders. Horrible hilarity ensues.

What is taxidermy, exactly? Real fur, jagged antlers, feral poses, glassy doll eyes and wholesale creepiness come to mind. (Also: reprehensible game hunters and their appetite for machismo-fueled slaughter.)

Essentially, says an expert, “taxidermy is a mix of many disciplines — sculpting, woodworking, sewing, painting, carpentry and tanning, to name a few.”

It’s a grisly craft. “The animal is first skinned in a process similar to removing the skin from a chicken prior to cooking. Depending on the type of skin, preserving chemicals are applied or the skin is tanned. It is then either mounted on a mannequin made from wood, wool and wire, or a polyurethane form.”

I’m of two minds: I absolutely hate the idea of killing creatures for egomaniacal trophies. The other part of my brain revels in the freakish Frankenstein concoctions sprung from twisted artistic souls, Gothy individualists in black, with scads of tats and a penchant for playing Bauhaus while making taxidermy scenes of iguana tea parties.

My pal Mr. Martinez is a more traditional practitioner of the taxidermy arts. As his workshop attests, he goes for big cats, woodland animals, spindly deer, exotic game and other heartbreaking visions. 

So he won’t stuff my friend, got it. Maybe if I modify my specifications so Ian could still be prepped and mounted without breaking any laws. Maybe if Martinez does something less human and more on the hybrid side — a hint of Dr. Moreau, say.

Maybe, just maybe, we can settle on this:

Books, movies, threads — a summer medley

Some things I’m reading, watching and wearing as the hot months satanically descend …

Mieko Kawakami is big in Japan. And her fame is spreading globally with verve and velocity. Called a “feminist sensation,” the writer is best known for her big novel “Breasts and Eggs,” and she’s gleaning renewed praise for her just-released fiction “Heaven.” 

She’s good, really good, and I’m drinking her work up in chugs and gulps. I read the slim “Heaven,” a taut drama about middle-school bullying laced with philosophical echoes (think Nietzsche), in two days. And I’ve made it half-way through the 400-page “Breasts and Eggs” in the same amount of time. (And, yes, the title makes total sense.)

Kawakami is a deceptively simple read, limning pressing social issues in prose of polished glass. The crisp writing rattles with ideas about female body image (ever thought of bleaching your nipples?), donor pregnancies, family secrets and teen torments. It’s frank, funny and squirmily real.

Japan’s preeminent novelist Haruki Murakami experienced “pure astonishment” reading “Breasts and Eggs,” a best-seller in Japan that’s become a controversial feminist talking point, flagged (flogged?) for its graphic discussions of bodily ownership among two women and a teenager. The grumblers? Mostly men.

In the new book, “Heaven,” a boy with a lazy eye is tyrannized at school — he’s forced to eat chalk once he sticks it up his nose, for starters — and befriends a girl outcast, making a dweeby, beleaguered duo that’s not going to take it anymore. “Heaven” ends hellishly. It’s unsettling, it’s shocking. And it’s near-perfect.

The trailer for the new Netflix movie “The White Tiger” is frenetic, hyper-stylish, abundant and ambitious. It presents a messy, modern India of epic proportions, with glitz, guns and girls. 

Which is confounding considering the film’s writer-director is the great Ramin Bahrani, who’s earned arthouse cred for wondrous micro-budget dramas like “Man Push Cart,” “Goodbye Solo” and “Chop Shop,” a gritty miracle that Roger Ebert named the sixth-best film of the 2000s, while hailing Bahrani as “the director of the decade.” I agree.

Based on the rollicking Booker-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, “White Tiger” is conspicuously Bahrani’s biggest film to date, inviting comparisons to staunch minimalist Chloé Zhao, who’s making a Marvel blowout after this year’s hushed Oscar-winner “Nomadland.”  

I haven’t seen it yet, but Bahrani’s zesty crime drama looks to have the heft, the dazzle, of something new and career-altering. I’m aching to see what this indie miniaturist and unswerving humanist does with the novel’s byzantine riches.

When shopping for clothes, I wait till August, when, as they say, the fall collections land: blacks and beige, layers and long sleeves, boots and beanies.

It’s not even summer and already I’ve plucked attire with a defiantly wintry flair, including a thick New York Times sweatshirt — black with a brash Gothic “T” across the chest — that complements the tasteful Times ball cap I bought last year (no, I will never wear both together; there’s only so much the world can take).

Call me a walking billboard, a corporate hussy. Actually, I’m just an ink-stained fiend for crack reporting, crackling prose and kicky Gothic fonts. I love newspapers in general (see my newspaper coffee mug collection, Chicago Tribune to the Austin American-Statesman, Gothic type both). The Times is tops. I wear its merch with pride.

That’s right, it’s barely summer and I’m buying cold coverings. Like the knitted crochet slippers from Russia I bagged at Etsy (see this post). They’re made to look like classic black and white Nike running shoes. They’re goofy. They’re funky. They’re walking punchlines. The photos alone bust me up. That won’t be the case when my feet freeze off.

I’ve acquired lighter weight clothing, too, including two movie-themed t-shirts: one of cerebral creep-out “The Witch,” featuring an eerie prancing goat on the print; and a simple black T elegantly screened with “A John Woo Film” in English and Chinese.

This film wonk also snatched a pair of A24 socks, A24 being the thriving boutique outlet releasing cult hits like “The Witch,” “Midsommar,” “The Florida Project,” “Moonlight,” “Eighth Grade,” and a raft of other extraordinary indies. The socks are grey and too long, and the company logo looks stitched by elves. But I like them.

A24 socks. It’s come to this.

I love this book title: “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.” Sold! 

So I grabbed this buzzy novel by Rivka Galchen, released this week, lured by the chatty euphony of the title and Galchen’s rep as a literary wunderkind. I’m still on “Breasts and Eggs,” so I’ll get to this soon, tackling what’s billed as a harrowing and humorous tale of witches and hysterical fear in 1618 Germany. (“The comedy that runs through the book is a magical brew of absurdity and brutality,” says the Washington Post.)

Also on my hypothetical IKEA nightstand, all cheap and rickety, is David Diop’s slim war drama “At Night All Blood is Black, winner last week of the 2021 International Booker Prize. The Franco-Senegalese author specializes in 18th-century French and Francophone African literature, and the novel was shortlisted for 10 French literary awards. 

A wrenching description that makes you want to ball up and hide:

“Peppered with bullets and black magic, this remarkable novel fills in a forgotten chapter in the history of World War I. Blending oral storytelling traditions with the gritty, day-to-day, journalistic horror of life in the trenches, Diop’s novel is a dazzling tale of a man’s descent into madness.”

A perfect beach read, no?

Camera vs. camera

Confessions of a caveman: I’ve only been using my iPhone as a full-fledged camera for the past five years. Moreover: I’ve only had a mobile phone since 2010. Before that: strictly land lines. Living in the Pleistocene epoch is terrifically underrated.

I never thought I’d need a cell phone (raucous laughter), especially one with a camera. Since 2006, I’ve owned a perfectly snazzy, distressingly pricey digital camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, acquired for my world travels. 

With its professional Leica lens — as thick and round as a small stack of poker chips, not one of those budget pinholes — the camera separates itself from most Best Buy point-and-shoots. It also boasts manual capabilities, a 4x optical zoom, 10.2 megapixels and a 16:9 widescreen, among other visual gymnastics. It fits in my palm. It’s a good camera.

On a whim, I recently took the Lumix out of storage — that’s how resoundingly my iPhone camera had dethroned the fancier shooter: it was in storage. I had an itch to take more pro-grade photos and reacquaint myself with my trusty travel companion and its battery of bells and whistles.

Before I knew it, I was the greedy shutterbug I once was, seeking beauty and the bizarre, fascinating faces, stunning architecture, and getting in the crouch-and-shoot stance demanded of dogs and children.

First, I made portraiture of Cubby, a study in nappy nobility:

The cat, sleek and skittish, was next:

Outside I snapped this, whose boldface signage is probably telling me something:

Now some iPhone shots, taken in Tokyo, Paris and Istanbul:

OK, so the little Queen of Hearts-sized iPhone appears to beat the pants off the Lumix in this demonstration. And my phone is ancient — a good five years old, perhaps a model 7. But the comparison isn’t quite fair. I’ve walked about six blocks over a few days with the Lumix taking pictures, while I traveled many years and thousands of miles with the iPhone, capturing exotic, iconic locations. Of course I have a similar stash of fine Lumix photos snapped in Japan, India, Texas and beyond, like these shots taken in Nepal, Beirut and Turkey, respectively:

There’s really no contest. Both contraptions take quality pictures. I prefer the Lumix as my main device — it feels like a real camera, for one. iPhones do not. They feel like Kit Kats. I find them unwieldy, tricky to aim, and the shoot button elusive and unreliable. Still, they produce knockout shots that get increasingly superior with each new model. And they handily fit in your pants pockets. 

The Lumix, comparatively, is a Land Rover to the iPhone’s Prius. But it’s not all that bulky. Like I said, I can grasp it in one palm and jam it in a coat pocket like a pack of cigarettes. It’s eminently portable. 

I’ll keep using both shooters for different occasions, the iPhone when I’m traveling ultra-light, the Lumix when I have more room and want more pictorial effects. Not sure which one wins, but it appears the race between cameras is the very picture of a photo finish.

Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.

A step backward for Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite structures in the world. A chunky, imposing cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-public-museum, flanked with four rocket-like minarets, a bulky beacon doused in faded hues of pink and salmon, the famous building shares the same lush Istanbul peninsula as the nearly-as-glorious Blue Mosque. Almost amazingly, the edifices sit directly across a palm-lined park from each other, a spiritual and architectural bonanza. 

So it’s with slack-jawed dismay that I read this about the treasure in today’s newspaper:

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.

“The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.”

Erdogan, on an Islamist tear, is, like another aspiring authoritarian, a crackpot. And today’s move on Hagia Sophia is culturally criminal. 

More from the article:

“Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.”

Below are some of my photographic memories of the holy site, aka Ayasofya, where you can see the exotic marriage of Islam and Christianity, including walls of crumbled majesty, their layers peeled back to reveal vibrant Christian frescoes and mosaics from 537 AD, as well as gigantic round panels emblazoned with Arabic script perched from atop the basilica. For years, it was the world’s largest interior space. It is spellbinding.