Naples, knockout

Farting thunder and crackling lightning preceded the cloudburst that tried its damnedest to drench our small tour group at Pompeii, the ancient city of dramatically preserved ruins just outside of Naples yesterday. Umbrellas aloft, my brother and I winced at each other and agreed we didn’t want lightning to blast us into human beef jerky like the displayed bodies caught in squalls of volcanic gas and ash from a spewing Mt. Vesuvius way back when (79 A.D., to be exact). 

Weather-wise, Rome was better, but Naples, Italy’s third largest city, set south and known as the country’s black sheep and mischievous scamp, might be more atmospheric, vaguely sketchy and intimately enthralling. It’s got kick and fizz.

Sure, Naples has offered lashing schizophrenic weather — enveloping sunshine, then muffling fog, then a glimmer of sun, then a 10-degree temperature drop and downpours — but it has character to burn: crazy winding backstreets streaked with old churches, lavish, looping graffiti, bristling bars, sensational food, boisterous people. And do mind that Vespa tearing down the cobblestone street bustling with fleet-footed pedestrians. 

Speaking of food I might kill for — last night’s grilled octopus and the pasta carbonara in Rome surely count — we waited about 40 minutes for a seat at the famed Sorbillo pizzeria, known for the best pies in the world and certainly in Italy. Get the basic Margherita — mozzarella, basil, zesty homemade tomato sauce and thin, chewy crust (huge and about $5). It will recalibrate your pizza expectations for life. 

But I’m not here to peddle pizza. I’m here to report that we tracked down the three (stunning) Caravaggio paintings in Naples; found a go-to watering hole, Libreria Berisio, which is a cozy working bookstore by day, heaving with volumes, and at night dims the lights and serves a boggling array of cocktails, with funky seating, including stacks of hardbacks for stools (books and booze!); and took a private four-hour city and food tour with the spectacular Gennaro. Just the three of us.   

Gennaro, who speaks with a lilting, comically tangy Italian accent and shoots off sparks of wound-up energy, whisked us along in a gust of breathtaking erudition, knowledge, information and raw charm. Food, history, literature, opera, architecture, art, politics both local and global, film, geography — he seems to know it all, an effusive polymath who makes you feel intellectually undernourished. 

But we weren’t undernourished, because Gennaro fed us a feast, including pastry, fried seafood, buffalo mozzarella, deep-fried pizza (!!), beer, Limoncello (a local lemon liqueur), pasta with meat sauce, and more. 

He’s also something of a one-man chamber of commerce for Naples, fervently defending the city, exalting its virtues with fist-shaking passion, and angrily blaming city leaders for underrating and underselling their jewel in the rough. Five years ago, he says, Naples still carried a bad rap — piles of garbage, crime, mafioso, and other underbelly lesions — but it’s enjoying a surge of respectability and much-needed tourism. He wants the world to see his native city as he does: a top draw, a world-class player, a tourist mecca. He wants it to be loved, adored, appreciated.  

Me, I already see it that way. I’m sold.

Ready for takeoff

The airport security line today was groaningly long, but it moved with ease and speed and I hardly complained about the grabby strip search. Soon enough, I was on my way to Gate C123, where I’ll be boarding a Boeing something or other to Rome, an eight-hour redeye that will land tomorrow just past the crack of dawn. 

My brother, who meets me in Rome on Tuesday, drove me to the airport. I was very appreciative until he tried to fist bump me as I got out, a gesture that isn’t really in my physical vocabulary. I indulged him, with a blush — what am I going to do, reject the fist? Then I exclaimed, Ciao! Grazie!, getting into the spirit of the trip and all. He drove off, perhaps flushed with shame.

Checking in at the United kiosk, no one asked to see my Covid vaccination card, but whatever. That’s one less micro hassle. United on its website cautioned to get to the airport early due to a possible surge in spring break travelers, the worst kind. But it didn’t seem overly crowded, and only once did I hear “bro” uttered. 

I wound up overcompensating by getting to the damn airport way too early, as I almost always do. I still, now, have a little more than two hours to kill at the gate. I’ve had an $11 beer and a $13 turkey sandwich wrapped in cellophane — airport haute cuisine. Now what?

I can get some reading done. I brought along novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’ cult classic “The Virgin Suicides,” which I read long ago and have meant to reread. So here I am, and the book holds up better the second time. 

If you’ve read it, or seen Sofia Coppola’s gauzy movie, you know it’s a suburban American gothic hinged on the suicides of five teenage sisters over one year. That sounds grim, but the story, suffused with Eugenides’ glinting lyricism and arch humor, moves with a lush, dreamy drift that’s slightly removed from reality, yet remains wise and true and fine.

I’m already about halfway through the novel, which means I’ll probably have to buy another book for the return trip. Ah, the pleasurable perils of world travel …

Books a go-go

On a frigid fall weekday, I strolled to the library, determined to slow down my crazed buying of books by borrowing some instead, and I suddenly tripped and fell, all but face-planting on the cracked concrete. The wind swirled. Snowflakes fluttered, constellations of falling stars. I clutched my knee and whined like a baby infant. God wept.

Everything okay, I rose, did the ritual dust-off, and walked on, wearing a pinched wince on my unscathed puss. I casually looked around, praying no one saw.

At the library, I had work to do, books to seize. Recently, I had the throbbing urge to re-read “Beloved,” the Toni Morrison classic enshrined as one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. Slavery, infanticide and malevolent ghosts — fine holiday reading. Found it, grabbed it.

Oscar chatter circles Jane Campion’s new film, the spare, unsparing western “The Power of the Dog,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. For that, the 1967 book it’s based on, by the unsung Thomas Savage, is receiving renewed attention. So I also got it. (And I read it. It’s terrific — all searing psychological grit with a blindsiding twist that will snuff your dreams of ever becoming a cowboy.)

I’m hot and tepid with novelist Lauren Groff — I quite liked her novel about a utopian commune “Arcadia,” but found the acclaimed marital dissection “Fates and Furies” ordinary and wildly overrated. Still, I’m going to give her latest super-hyped novel, “Matrix,” a shot. So I got that, too. It’s a character study about a young woman who discovers love and feminist agency in an impoverished abbey in 12th century England. Sounds … intriguing?

Heading to Portugal soon, I picked up Portuguese literary eminence and Nobel Prizer José Saramago’s “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.” This isn’t Saramago’s most famous novel — that would be “Blindness” — but it’s kind of better. It’s a mash-up of the four Gospels with Saramago slyly, ironically and contempletively (and controversially) filling in the mysterious, nettling voids of those holy books. He presumes and vamps on what Jesus did in his childhood and adolescence, up to his grisly demise on the cross with a skeptic’s impish wit. I loved the book. I loved the shivery last line: “But what Jesus did not see, on the ground, was the black bowl into which his blood was dripping.” Human, all too human.      

Elizabeth Strout knows humans. Author of such intimate, character-driven novels as “Olive Kitteridge” and “My Name is Lucy Barton,” her prose is lean, literary and deeply felt, homing in on individuals, real people, with an empathic laser beam. She banishes cynicism for a rare authenticity that invites organic joy and pain. Her latest is “Oh William!” (oh, that title!), a continued riff on characters from “Lucy Barton.” Lucy and her ex-husband William reunite platonically for what’s inescapably called a journey of discovery, one with neat, homey zigzags that ring hard and true. Its humanity is unassailable, its humor wry, its imprint lasting. That’s another book I got.

I scored that day among the teeming stacks, under the florescent mists. Five books essentially for free is nothing to smirk at, and my luck seemed boundless, until it wasn’t. I couldn’t find Franzen’s latest family blockbuster “Crossroads” or John Gardner’s cult classic “Grendel” — an ironic tale told from the point of view of the aggrieved monster in “Beowulf” — or Elizabeth Samet’s “Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness” and, gee, doesn’t that sound like festive holiday reading, not unlike “Beloved”?

In my book, oh yes, it certainly does.

Books, bookings, and Bourdain

A few things banging around my head this week …  

David Sedaris has a new book out. Whoop-dee-do.

Expectedly, knee-jerkingly, reviewers have stumbled over themselves to praise the foppish funnyman’s latest collection of personal tales (often tall), diary entries, cultural observations and social sniping. 

Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, a humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll stories about his family, his husband and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides. 

Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is baldly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed, determinedly unadorned, dare I say drab. (I said it.)

Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan — I’ve been there — he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees. 

***

I’m pumped about Portugal. Barely back from Paris and already I’m poring over books and sites about Lisbon and Porto, legwork for a weeklong stay in mid-January, when I’ll probably get soaked by merciless rain (while temps hover at a balmy 58 degrees). Paris must feel like a betrayed mistress.

The flight, which cost less than a good winter coat thanks to an airline credit, is booked. Hotels, at seductive off-season prices, are booked. Two walking tours, including a Porto food tour, are booked. 

I got back from Paris exactly one week ago. I am shameless, a monster. 

Unlike Paris, London or Spain, Portugal isn’t front-loaded with blindingly spectacular sights and museums. It instead thrums with an old-world vibe, cobbly neighborhoods spread over San Francisco-y hills, views and plazas and churches and food, including unparalleled bounties from the sea, and of course the people. (My people. As mentioned before, I’m of Portuguese descent, though my ties to the country are tenuous at best. I’m a terrible ambassador.)

It’s a walking world, Portugal. I plan to amble, stomp and stagger through the country’s two biggest cities, with the very occasional — and very cheap — taxi for longer hauls. A picture says so much, and makes the heart do a jig:

Porto

***

Smarter, funnier, better looking and a brilliantly better writer — not mention an infinitely superior cook, natch — Anthony Bourdain and I still had a lot in common. 

We’re both wanderers, seekers, a little profane and rough around the edges, smart-alecks, atheists, ironists and guiltless sensualists. We’re angry, fiery and melancholic. We’re easily bothered and bored, and don’t always know what to do about it, except, in many cases, hit the road.  

And like him, for all my searching, I’m still not sure what I’m looking for. And I’m pretty sure I will never find out. Bourdain, a suicide in 2018, probably never did either.

This hits me watching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a moving, multilayered documentary about the celebrity chef, author and influential television host by gifted filmmaker Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” another masterpiece). 

Sure we had things in common, but Bourdain, in his books, shows and this remarkable movie, cuts a troubled figure, the classic brooding, almost romantic enigma who toggles manically between wonder and woe.

With his streamers of verbiage, buoyantly prickly charm, zeppelin-sized attitude (and ego), lanky strut, tats and designer shades, Bourdain was hipster as tour guide, a foodie philosopher, man of the world who was always just a little itchy in the role. He was the reluctant rock star — cynical, self-effacing — who still craved the glory, glamor, privilege and, alas, the drugs, including heroin, that came with it.

At his best Bourdain was an influencer before the term gained the narcissistic kiddie cachet it flaunts today. Before any trip, be it Toronto or Tokyo, I watch a rerun of “No Reservations” or “The Layover” to get a voluptuary’s feel for a city and nail down must-do destinations of plate and place. I’ll be rewatching his “Parts Unknown” episode about the food and culture of Porto soon enough. I trust him to steer me to the coolest and most coveted spots. He hasn’t failed me yet.

The programs, of course, are as much about the man as the places he visits. They’re about getting an earful, and a mouthful, from a dark, dazzling host who found so much joy between grumbles. He made the dangerous seem divine, just how I like it.

***

When in Paris, I always duck into the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookstore, smack on the Seine on the historically literary Left Bank, where Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Sartre tippled and typed, spinning the blank page into eternal art. 

Cramped and crowded with tome-seeking tourists, the creaky-floored shop, honeycombed with nooks, alcoves and twisty aisles, specializes in French and English language literature — no junk, just the good stuff. It’s not snobby. It’s just smart. And the English-speaking staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful, stamping your book with the store’s inky insignia. It’s a pulp paradise, the kind that makes a bibliophile go a little mad with delight and desire.

I went firmly middlebrow on my recent pilgrimage, grabbing a paperback (it’s only available in hardback in the States) of Sally Rooney’s new novel, the wincingly titled “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” I cracked it immediately, reading in bars and cafes with a Chardonnay or latte on hand. 

The Irish Rooney (“Normal People”) is a reliably breezy read, plainspoken, occasionally lyrical, but mostly succinct and pinched. Her control is impressive and her sturdy, confident voice makes you want to follow her wherever she’s going, which often includes naked people. 

I just finished the book on my return from Paris and enjoyed it. It covers Rooney’s preferred topics — love, sex and friendship, yearning and ambition among anguished millennials — with detour discussions about Marxism and life’s unfathomable purpose. (Rooney, a wunderkind at 30, is a professed Marxist.) 

Coming from the famous bookshop, it’s not only a winning read, it’s a fitting souvenir from that most bookish of cities.

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. 

4 for fall

1. Au revoir, France — hello, Ireland? That’s how it looks right now, especially since I’ve swapped my flight to Paris for a ticket to Dublin. So I guess I’m going to Ireland in October (insert a wee leprechaun kick). Or I think I am. The tyranny of the pandemic can upend everything, so while Ireland has relatively open tourism guidelines, things can change in a depressing snap. I scotched Paris because France’s Covid rules have become groaningly prohibitive — très crappy. I’m not torn up about it. I’ve been to Paris a few times, but this purportedly worldly traveler has never made Ireland. Frankly, it hasn’t lured me to its bucolic charms: rolling green hills, craggy ocean cliffs, mossy castles, obsession with pubs and, suspiciously, Guinness beer, minor museums and churches. It’s been on my index of non-bucket list destinations (including Australia, Iraq and pretty much anything Caribbean) until now. What clicked? The idea of something far and uncharted (and not tropical). Focusing on Dublin and, briefly, Galway, it will be a mellow journey, eight lolling days of food and drink, mild tourism, immersive history and lots of questionable Irish music. If I really get there, I’ll be lucky, charmed.

2. With uncluttered elegance, the film is called “Lamb, and it will chill you to the bone. Coming October 8, it’s described by hip indie studio A24 as “Icelandic folktale on top, Nordic livestock horror on bottom,” and it flows in the vein of A24 creep-outs “The Witch” and “Midsommar.” This one, by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is about a childless couple adopting a creature that is neither lamb or human: a sheep has given birth to a hybrid animal that has the body of a baby and the head of a lamb. Watch the trailer here. It’s unsettling. It’s eerie. It’s glorious.

3. I’ll take sweaters over sweat anytime, and I cherish every cool breeze that cuts through this soggy, sloggy summer. Let’s call it a wrap. I have things to do this fall and the chaotic weather, be it soak or scorch, is proving a deflating victory for climate change. It’s time for 50s and 60s and the end of wildfires, heat waves and floods. Yes, I hate summer, but no season’s perfect. Even autumn, the best of them all, has its pesky drawbacks, from confetti storms of leaves and Mandalorian costumes on Halloween, to football and corn mazes. We can deal.

4. And we curl back to Dublin, via Irish author Sally Rooney, whose new book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” arrives September 7. A globally celebrated wunderkind for her twin novels “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” both written before she was 28, Rooney returns to her familiar milieu of middle-class millennials swirling in career, interpersonal and libidinous distress. Couplings and uncouplings of bright young things juice the story and, if her other books are any indication, things will get hot. And bothered. A Rooney fan, I’m looking for artistic growth in the new novel, her longest yet. Rooney’s not the most assertive stylist, her stubbornly lean prose tweezered of metaphor. In a 2019 post, I concluded that “Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature.” That said, they’re nourishing and human, and I’m banking on “Beautiful World” to be a frothy palate cleanser after more vinegary fare this summer. Then, for some tang, I’ll grab E.M. Cioran’s self-explanatory “The Trouble with Being Born,” and the world will sleep well again.  

Happiness is relative

Every once in a while a writer says something that has you nodding like a madman in agreement. I’ve been reading essays by Meghan Daum, and much of what she writes strikes a mean, piercing chord. Far from negative, Daum trades in an admirable candor, some of which is rimmed with bile but is mostly benign and boldly human.

Take this paragraph from her collection “The Unspeakable.” It could have — should have — been written by me at my most exposed. And though it makes her sound morose and malcontent, she is not. She’s merely describing how some people see her — including, sometimes, herself.

“Clearly, I am a killjoy. Clearly, I have problems with pleasure, with letting go. Surely, I am an unhappy person. I do not enjoy most activities that are commonly labeled ‘fun.’ Moreover, I’m weary of ‘happiness,’ both as a word and a concept.”

Daum grazes dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life) and hints at anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). But, like me (mostly), this isn’t quite accurate. Daum lives big and loud and gulps life, in all its pitiless unpredictability. She’s a humanist, not a pessimist, even if unhappiness creeps in with unsettling frequency.

Philip Roth, ranked

Good, bad, worshipful, scandalous — writer Philip Roth is making boldfaced headlines again, four years after his death. His largely acclaimed new biography and its author Blake Bailey are under fire, while publications like The New York Times are issuing fresh appraisals of his almost 30 novels and memoirs, like this and this.

This longtime Roth fan joins the chorus. I haven’t tackled all of his books but I have read his most celebrated titles, from “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) to “Nemesis” (2010) and many in between. What follows are my five favorite Roth novels, with an obligatory postscript about a glaring omission.

 1. “American Pastoral” (1997) — Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner may be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s deep, thorny, complex, timely and so rich with perception and wisdom — communicated in ferocious, passionate prose — that you’re stuffed after each sitting. But it’s not difficult. Tracing the life of one Swede Levov and his daughter’s radical political terrorism in 1968, “Pastoral” gradually becomes an epic tragedy about recent American history and our hero’s inevitable descent. A biting, indelible masterpiece.  

2. “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) — Raunchy, stylized, rip-snortingly funny and  aggressively profane, this cathartic gush of undiluted id is Roth at his sweatiest and most swinging, a big bite of eros that “shows off his linguistic verve and his unparalleled ability to stare unblinkingly into the psyche of a depraved scoundrel,” raves one critic. Winner of the National Book Award, this feverish, in-your-face opus isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. What it is: crudely sublime. 

 3. “The Human Stain” (2000) — A dean of a college faculty is ousted after he makes a loaded, if ultimately benign, remark interpreted as racist. He holds a shocking life-long secret close to his vest in this, “one of Roth’s most complex moral conundrums,” which came out during similar dramas unfolding in academia and beyond. The book bristles with Roth’s fanged moralism; the writing is poignant, alive, uncompromising. 

4. “Operation Shylock” (1993) — What could have flopped as an elaborate literary stunt winds up one of Roth’s richest masterworks. “His best use of autobiography and his most incisive use of meta-techniques,” a critic writes, “the novel pits Philip Roth against an imposter, a man going around using Roth’s name and identity to proselytize about the necessity for Jews to return to Europe.” Crazy, but that’s its brilliance. Roth’s facility with form proves, again, formidable, his wit and playful intelligence on dazzling display.

 5. “Everyman” (2006)— A meditation on “one man’s lifelong skirmish with mortality,” this slim book, part of a quartet of late shortish novels, marks Roth’s return to the profoundly personal following the speculative politics of “The Plot Against America.” Haunted by death, the protagonist looks back on his life, from childhood, marriage and divorce, to old age and sickness, all the while reflecting on the inevitable — his own impending demise. Bracingly elegiac.

P.S. About that other famous book everyone so adores, the one in which the hero masturbates with a piece of liver: Don’t overestimate the frenzied gimmickry of “Portnoy’s Complaint,a worthy early volume (1969) whose onanistic perversities, both smug and farcical, fuel the novel’s shrill pitch. I like this ribald coming-of-age comedy well enough, but it’s more exhausting than exhilarating, minor Roth at its most breathlessly attention-hailing. It made him a literary star. 

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?

The pleasures and perils of reading outside

Reading outdoors is an ambiguous business. I’m an outdoor-reading veteran, a pastime that unites something I adore — reading — with something I barely tolerate — the outdoors. 

Yet occasionally a switch of scenery is required and I’ll dust off a patio chair at a spiffy sidewalk cafe and do the old curl-up with a crisp new paperback. Way back when, I’d try to read old-school newspapers while lounging on the beach, furiously fighting the wispy pages to stay put in the seaside gales. Without fail, a page corner would poke me in the eye and a full page would slap my cheeks. Repeatedly.

That’s how reading outdoors can be ambiguous. I was reminded of this today, a partly cloudy, 64-degree afternoon, when I fancied a book and a breeze would be a peachy idea. I grabbed my reading and hit the backyard deck thinking what a clever boy I am. 

After recently tearing through two new novels — “Whereabouts” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk, both ethereal, psychologically astute gems — I’m onto the Ralph Ellison classic “Invisible Man,” which even in its early pages is searing. Propulsive, savage, uncompromising — perfect for a glimmering spring day.

I lasted about 25 minutes out there. The clouds kept stubbornly shifting, sealing off the sky for jacket-ready cool, then opening to a sunscreen-ready radiance. Hopscotching moods, it was atmospheric ADD. 

I sniffled as puffs of wind released flurries of pollen over me, and my bookmark fluttered into the fresh, fragrant mulch. The chilly breezes, swaying shrubs and twisting trees, sent me back inside with grumbling memories of beach vs. newspaper. 

Mother Nature was playing with me, smudging the border between winter and spring, which had its calendrical kick-off March 20. (Summer — insufferable with its perplexing pleasures — arrives June 21, an annual day of mourning.) How else do you explain today’s crazy, veering temperatures? Nature knows how to confound. Watch how she drives meteorologists bat shit.

And she knows how to boomerang me back inside, onto the cushy Eames chair, body gently reclined, feet up, “Invisible Man” in hand, and not a mote of dusty golden pollen to spur the sneeze and wheeze.

This tiff with the elements isn’t over, and its history is rich. Just last week I was reading the Rachel Cusk novel on the deck in fine balmy air, the only irritant a black hairy bumblebee the size of a condor that decided it wanted my friendship. It buzzed and bothered; I swung and swatted. The encounter was a truce.  

I coulda been killed out there. What next while I’m reading amidst flora and fauna, burly bumblebees and erratic skies? Rabid chipmunks? A biblical hail storm? The next-door neighbor trying small talk over the fence? (I’ll take rabid woodland animals over that.)

Summer’s thermal terrors are fast coming and I will spend most of the hot months indoors, hands on the latest talked-up book or dog-eared classic. Inside it’s dark and dank, the only breeze wafting from A/C vents, the only deluge the torrent of words I’m reading, the only vicious creature a scruffy terrier mix named Cubby, who can be effectively disarmed with a hearty belly rub or a good Jack Reacher thriller. Much like me.