When the birthday is just an OK-day

“Death smells like birthday cake.” — Maggie Stiefvater 

My annual birthday plea goes something like this: Don’t get me a birthday cake. Please. And hold the balloons. God, hold the balloons. 

A scarcity of gifts is apt; a token thing (or two!) will do. Cash, books, booze — you’re getting warm. Otherwise, let’s dispense with festive rites, chirpy congrats and that piled frosted sugar loaf festooned with wax and flame. 

Tomorrow I sing the birthday blues with a warble and a plaint (and perhaps a banjo), a tragicomic melody pocked with twangy hiccups and gallows giggles. It’s not so much that I’m getting old. It’s just that I exist. Play in the key of D minor.

Don’t feel bad for me. Antisocial and anti-tradition, I luxuriate in birthday dread, meaning I get an antithetical kick from the “special day” than do normal people who clamor for attention, throw confetti-smattered parties, encourage conspicuous consumption and the lavishing of gifts.  

What then do I do on my birthday? I dwell on death and dying, the brevity of this vast charade, toe-curdling thoughts of cremation and the definitive absence of a higher power. (On that note, blow out the candles.) That’s part jest, but not really, because I reflect on all of that stuff daily. I wake up and see skulls. 

But the birthday is admittedly more frilly. Along with its black Grim Reaper robe, it arrives with cardboard cone hats, noise makers and other “fun” items I’d like to smoosh. It’s practically inescapable, the printed party napkins and peppy paper plates. Friend or family, someone’s going to get you.

I grew out of pointing the spotlight on me very early. As noted in the prior post, the last time I actually celebrated my birthday was on my 13th. It was a modest surprise party, featuring a new puppy, a motley gaggle of guy pals, and some very spirited doorbell ditch across the darkened neighborhood. 

It was fine, but I inexplicably never wanted to do it again. Going out for a drink or a good meal has since marked many a birthday, tiny gatherings all but foisted on me but that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s not like I slip under the car in the garage and hide on the big day. I’ve just never actively encouraged celebrations. I find them fussy and embarrassing.

People can be movingly kind and generous on my birthday, and I let them, of course. The attention is appreciated but unwanted and unwarranted, All this for little ole me?

It’s pleasant as long as we don’t go overboard. Like cake, which always seems such a waste. No one really finishes their teetering slice and most of the cake (especially the white kind) goes face down in the garbage. Talk about death.

And what’s this? Balloons. Once upon a time, they were blasts of helium hilarity, when anyone could suck and sound like a Munchkin, or Truman Capote. Now they bob in your face, buoyant environmental time bombs, all shimmery mylar and pretty poison.

I look at them, much like the day as a whole, and I think: No, really. Don’t. 

Skulls, scales, piranhas and penises

Once I was strolling down the sidewalk in a small leafy city when I almost stepped on a dead baby bird. Gruesome and heartbreaking, about the size of a toddler’s palm, the chick bore hues of hot pink and bruised blue. Its livid, bulging eyelids were sealed, its featherless body as smooth as a plum. It was impressively intact. 

After a flush of shock and pity, I did what any sane person would do. I wrapped the freshly hatched corpse in a handkerchief, stuck it in my pocket, and took it home. 

I knew exactly what to do with the sad songbird that would never sing. I took a small, squat jar and dropped the creature in. Then I filled the jar with rubbing alcohol as a cheap formaldehyde substitute to preserve the bird. It looked like the baby floating in space at the end of “2001.”

“You’re nuts,” a friend said, grimacing at my latest specimen.

“If by nuts you mean genius, then you are correct, amigo,” I replied. 

Those were the days when I maintained a kind of ghoulish cabinet of curiosities, an array of animal bits and pieces that you might see in a really good, icky museum, like the Mütter in Philadelphia or the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Jarred birth defect, Kunstkamera Museum, 2017

A minor collector of the morbid and marvelous, I was proud of my little spread on the mantel. It featured a perfect gopher skull I found in a forest that I boiled to get it ivory white; a shark jaw bought in Tijuana; a desiccated sea horse; an artfully mounted dried piranha; a skinny, three-inch coyote penis bone picked up at the wondrous Evolution Store in Manhattan; and, of course, the pièce de résistance, the newly jarred baby bird. 

All I needed were the famous bones of the Elephant Man to make my mini-museum world-class. Instead I had a penis bone. Of a coyote.

Coyote penis bones

My interest in this kind of fleshly ephemera goes back to when as kids we hunted lizards and snakes, captured frogs, tadpoles and the occasional crawfish. At the beach, we collected sand crabs, starfish and washed-up egg sacks from sharks.

It wasn’t callow mischief guiding us, but a dogged fascination with the slimy, squirmy world, our first real engagement with the natural sciences and coexistent creatures. Back then our main educational outlet for these things was TV’s “Wild Kingdom,” a show that pales woefully next to today’s über-slick “Planet Earth.” Yet it was good, eye-opening.

Even now, none of this bores me. Though I’ve since discarded my assortment of animal oddities, I love roaming the aisles and perusing the glass cases at the Mütter and the Evolution Store, gaping at furry and scaly taxidermy, jarred sharks, pickled human organs, and skulls of all species.

I’m not alone. The Mütter and Evolution are bustling tourist magnets, irresistible emporiums of the morbid and mortal, stocked with shocking notions and terrible beauty. (I just recalled I own t-shirts from the Mütter and Evolution. How could I forget?)

Meanwhile, my birthday is coming up. Here’s what you can get me, from Evolution:

Jaws in a jar. Beat that.

Dreams to die for

When I died in a dream last night, which I did, it was so weirdly serene and surreal that everything sort of meshed into a dark, enveloping calm and, refusing Dylan Thomas’ famous appeal, I went gentle into that good night. I died, and it was exhilarating. 

But is this right? Isn’t actually dying in your dreams against the rules of reverie? Doesn’t the dreamer have to live in order to carry on as the dream’s first-person protagonist and spin the id’s nonsensical narrative? Isn’t the musty lore true, that dying in a dream means you die in real life? 

Well, I died and lived to tell about it.

In last night’s dream — a nocturne of murky black and white, with wisps of color — I contracted an illness that I voluntarily succumbed to after rejecting treatment, hence, of course, my demise. As a kind of perverse medical suicide, it was anything but a violent death, lacking a crashing plane, alligator mauling or the classic tumble off a cliff and the interminable, gasping fall. 

Though I perished, I don’t consider the dream a nightmare — close, but not. It was freaky and unsettling, yet it transcended the sort of fright-scape that claws the subconscious, jolting you awake clammy and stricken. I instead slipped into a peaceful, hugging blackness, poof, gone. That’s the way to go, I thought, even as I vaporized. 

Sleep specialists wouldn’t be surprised at this cushioned departure, noting that dying dreams are anti-climactic, even strangely euphoric. “The most striking and consistent characteristic of dying dreams is their overwhelmingly pleasant content,” says one. 

As counterintuitive as this sounds, dream interpreters, who, face it, are about as credible as psychics and senators, claim dying in one’s dream signifies rebirth and life, new beginnings and personal growth. It’s like the Death card in the equally eye-rolling Tarot deck, which doesn’t symbolize death at all, but renewal and life change. 

I call bullshit. I don’t think for a second my dream death points to anything but my own compulsive morbidity. At most it denotes a longed-for escape hatch, a kind of permanent vacation, no matter if it is in Hades. 

And it obviously doesn’t denote real-life expiry, unless I’m an industrious wraith with pretty good typing skills. Dying in your dream does not equal actual death. (Then again, if you’re cast in “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” you’re screwed.)

I croaked and the show rolled on. That’s different from previous nocturnal ruptures I’ve had, which could be called near-death experiences. Those are the ones where I incur a fatal blow, jab or smash and, instead of vanishing, I spring back to life and complete the dream as a vital character, shaken but stirring. Death gets the middle finger. 

I like the other kind better. As the sleep experts attest, my dream death was tinged with quiet euphoria and surprising OK-ness. It was otherworldly, a little spooky and, somehow, exquisite. There was finality, until there wasn’t. Sometimes RIP is just REM.

An EKG? WTF?!

So I tell my doctor that I think my heart is fluttering, murmuring, skipping a beat or doing something wiggy that makes me worry I’m about to have a heart attack. I like my heart to beat to a steady 4/4 tempo — your basic rock beat — and not do paradiddles and drum solos. I want Ringo Starr keeping time, not Keith Moon. 

The doctor raises an eyebrow but is distinctly untroubled and prescribes me an EKG, or electrocardiogram, which goes like this: “An EKG measures the electrical activity of the heart. It tracks these beats and electrical impulses and tells how the heart is functioning.”

An EKG? I frown. But what did I expect? I whine about my impending cardiac arrest and suddenly I’m hooked up to an octopus of cables. Did I think the doctor would just check my blood pressure and stethoscope things away? (Yeah, a little.)

Like any sane person, I loathe medical procedures. They’re intrusive, worrisome, expensive, and they smell funny. But I quickly learn that an EKG is rudimentary health stuff, like a blood test, or a digital rectal exam (sorry). Of course I do it. 

This is what the whole thing looks like (that isn’t me, and that certainly isn’t my nurse):

The procedure is so fast and easy — 10 minutes tops — that I’d barely call it a procedure. More like a way to have some chest hair ripped out. 

Just doing it makes me feel healthier. I’m unaccountably certain the results will be peachy and I can go on living a questionable lifestyle. 

Later, the doc summons me. Things are suddenly not so glowing. Irregularities appeared on the EKG. She wants me to get an echocardiogram, which is: “a test that uses ultrasound to make pictures of your heart.” It’s what they do on a pregnant woman’s belly to see the fetus, but on your ticker.   

Terrific. Now I’m not just stressed, I’m nearly beside myself. 

And for good reason. The echocardiogram I eventually get bears unsettling news. Apparently my heart is in distress: I have a dilated aorta and a “bundle branch block” on the left side. The doctor tells me to see a cardiologist and gives me the name of one. 

I sigh, hard. What’s wrong? the doctor asks. Well, I say, you just gave me a pile of shitty news. She tries to soften the blow: At most, he’ll examine you and tell you to come back in a year, she says. I sigh again. I’m a big sigher. 

Convinced I’ll soon be getting a triple bypass, or a baboon heart, I nervously see the cardiologist, a man bald of pate and kind of soul. Why are you here? he asks right off the bat. Well, I was told I was about to die, I say, if not in those exact words.

Not even close, he says. The abnormalities that appeared are actually totally normal, nothing to worry about, now get the hell out of here and live your life. 

Amazing! I’m free! I’m healthy! My chest will not explode in the next six months! This is a huge turnaround. A new lease on life. I almost kick up my heels like a leprechaun.

And then a dark curtain drops and it occurs to me that good health is fleeting. We are all decaying, breaking down, each breath the beginning of the end. The cardiologist’s warm, mellifluous words become so much empty prattle. Sigh.

But I am undeterred. I will seize the good news and slap the heavens with a high-five. I will take it day by day, adopt a zen perspective, stay calm, reside in the moment. The proverbial bus may smoosh me, or I’ll die a shriveled twig under hospice care, age 101. Really, I don’t know what’s next, how this life thing will play out.

I know only one thing: I kinda don’t want my heart to stop. Hit it, Ringo …

A needling issue

At long last, I got my first flu shot. The transaction — their needle, my flesh and humility — happened in a grubby drug store pharmacy. The prick was quick and slick, and I didn’t even pass out. Nice work, Maggie. 

Peg me a shiftless procrastinator, a craven needle-phobe or simply irresponsible, but I was never motivated to get a flu shot. I figured as I never get the flu, why volunteer for a small agony. This, in hindsight, was naked folly. The new nature of viral contagions changed my mind lickety-split, and almost happily I rolled up my sleeve, squinched my eyes and turned my head as the pharmacist harpooned me.

Of course when I first saw the syringe, I made an exaggerated ack sound, like I was horrified of needles, which, well, I kind of am. To wit: When I was 12, I contracted mononucleosis, which is referred to as the kissing disease by hormonal middle-school gossips. Much blood was drawn from my arm, and more than once the nurse had to pull out smelling salts before my drooping body slunk to the floor. (Smelling salts are fantastic. They’ll snap you out of a coma.)

Finishing the mono bit, news of my illness spread across campus, initially as fodder for racy rumors but ultimately becoming a badge of honor. Not only was I out of school for six weeks — a scholastic triumph — I returned a sort of hero, a tween Don Juan who not only got, but conquered, the mythic kissing disease. Thank you.

Today the flu vaccination is coursing through my body, a shield against aches and fevers and coughs and sneezes. But that’s only partly true. Because Covid-19 still lurks with no vaccine in plausible sight, no matter the president’s flatulent lies. And Covid is not just the seasonal flu, as our genius in chief crows. Remember this doozy? “When it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” (I need a large crowbar.) Or this, about the U.S. death toll so far: “It is what it is.” What a fella.

And now he’s pressuring his administration to approve a coronavirus vaccine ahead of the November election, before they have proof that it is safe and effective, reports, well, everyone. “The faster, the better,” Trump spouts.

It’s the stick-it-in-your-arms race: Trump rushes to produce a politicized vaccine while Russia does the same in order to burnish its standing in the nationalistic spotlight. Who can do it first? (Me first!) Are Trump and Putin kindergartners? Yes. Yes, they are.  

I’ll take a Covid immunization — when it’s thoroughly tested and certified by doctors and experts who do not kowtow to venal politicians. A hurried, premature Covid vaccine got a volunteer very sick this week. Yeah, I can wait. 

It’s been two days since my comparably inane flu shot, and I think I have the slightest sore spot where the needle poked me. Boo-hoo. This is serious stuff. I’ll be glad to get another flu jab next year, and I look forward to a safe Covid shot. I’ll be there, rolling up my sleeve, squeezing shut my eyes and turning my head in the other direction. Smelling salts optional. The shot itself: mandatory.

My freakish fixation

When am I not thinking about the Elephant Man? 

I’m not just talking about the shattering 1980 film by David Lynch (still one of my favorite movies — see my appreciation here). I also mean the actual, real-life Elephant Man, née Joseph Merrick, the hideously deformed young Brit who, with considerable luck and one doctor’s wayward compassion, went from the squalid, dehumanizing freak show circuit to become the toast of Victorian London before he died at age 28 in 1890.

Merrick has been on my mind since I was yay high. Call it odd, perverse or, well, freakish, but the creepy and offbeat have clutched me in their thrall since my youthful exposure to Universal Horror flicks, campfire myths like Bigfoot and the Moth Man, and the most enduring gift I received on my eighth birthday, the thick book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities” by Frederick Drimmer.  

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In the book, among the likes of Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Grace McDaniels the Mule-Faced Woman; the original Siamese twins; and Julia Pastrana, aka the Ugliest Woman in the World, was Merrick, perhaps the saddest story of them all. (Although Pastrana’s story is heartrending, bizarrely grotesque, and worth a look here.)

A speedy summary: In an unorthodox gesture of charity, Dr. Frederick Treves took in the incurable Merrick, who suffered from severe neurofibromatosis, at the Royal London Hospital, furnishing the sick, lost and abused sideshow veteran a dazzling new life of comfort, friends, celebrity visitors, room and board and more. Though his appearance still terrified the faint of heart, Merrick was embraced by mainstream society until his premature death. IMG_0581.JPG

(Merrick’s skeleton resides at the old Royal London Hospital, and a few years ago I visited hoping to see the bones. I was rebuffed, but I had the pleasure of the hospital’s special museum dedicated to Merrick’s life.) 

I know a lot about “The Terrible Elephant Man,” as he was billed on the road, not only from “Very Special People” and Lynch’s ravishing biopic, but from a slim paperback I bought in seventh grade, “The True History of the Elephant Man,” about which I wrote and presented a book report to my befuddled English class. 

What gets me about Merrick is his life story, one so rippled with tragedy and depravity, it curdles the soul as it breaks the heart. Living in a sooty black-and-white London of clanking, steaming machinery that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, Merrick’s old-timey milieu also enthralls (see the Lynch movie for a rattling immersion in time and place), and seems of a piece with his destitute, Dickensian plight. 

And the disease: The exotically gruesome, inconceivably savage affliction renders man into monster, whose corrupted flesh cannot conceal the gentle soul locked inside the twisted, tumored carapace.  

My fascination has become rather fanboy. (Elephant Man cosplay — I will have to pass.) Besides books about Merrick — including “Making ‘The Elephant Man’” by one of the film’s producers, which I just bought — I own the American, Turkish and Japanese posters of Lynch’s movie, as well as a coffee mug embossed with a period photo of Merrick looking dapper in a three-piece suit. 

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Around the time I got the making-of book, I ordered what I’ve wanted for a long time, a t-shirt of the “Elephant Man” movie. This one is a silkscreen of the film’s Japanese poster art, fusing my passion for all things Japanese with my strange Merrick mania. 

A tad zealous, perhaps. But consider that Michael Jackson famously tried to buy Merrick’s bones. He was flatly refused. I once thought that Jackson was overreaching, being the creepy eccentric he was.

Nowadays, not so much.

Quit moaning. This is how it’s going to be.

Booked on a calculated whim, the trip to Paris set for mid-October looks more and more like a comic blunder, a fool’s pipe-dream, a rash impulse buy. (The flight was so cheap, I practically had to get it.) The whole idea shrivels before my eyes as the pandemic spreads with no end in sight. Covid cases explode, fatalities rise, economies crater and global cities are in enforced lockdown — a fall Paris sojourn is, I am certain, très peu probable.

So the trip is pretty much DOA, as I suspected in a previous post, and we’ll be homebound for more months than ever imagined and stir-craziness is its own pandemic and who cares? People are dying and I could be next and I’m moping about not getting to dine on Michelin-star cuisine and missing the Christo show at the Centre Pompidou and forgoing the serial heart attacks Parisian women unfailingly give me.

There is so much more to mope about, of course, and I am an Olympian moper. Give me a large pimple, computer glitches, long hold times, an exorbitant phone bill, cruddy customer service, a mean paper cut and you will see sulking in all its ravishing splendor. It’s like out of a Bergman film.  

Now is not the time to complain and temperamentally crumble, but it seems like our entrenched culture of complaint is in full grousing, shouting swing. Everybody’s bitching about something: quarantines, Trump, lack of this and that, government overreach, face masks, being barred from the nachos plate at Chili’s. It’s a big boo-hoo carnival. I refuse to partake.

How? By keeping my über-fluffy head on straight (no haircuts! Mope!), not sweating the small stuff (I’m working on it), doing my best to ignore the White House, and trying not to weep myself to sleep about the surely dashed Paris trip.

Whining about so much picayune stuff is a luxury these days. (Paris is itself a luxury, the very definition of an obscene luxury, so buck up, crybaby.) There’s sure to be much more about which to complain, cry and caterwaul, and few of us will go untouched. As the more trusted experts are saying, this is going to get exponentially worse. So snap on your face mask, hang tight, and shush.  

It’s time to recalibrate and sacrifice. To adjust expectations and know that we’re pretty screwed. In this bonkers new world, it’s time to realize we can’t always get what we want. And we won’t.

Paris? Ha.

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Yeah. I don’t think so.

Bedlam in the belly

I either have colossal gas or appendicitis. I am enduring fantastic abominable distress right where my appendix sits with, frankly, blatant purposelessness. (The medical world still hasn’t figured out the function of the troublesome caterpillar-shaped organ. It’s the platypus of human anatomy.)

Of course I’m a tad concerned. Now is not the time to rush to an urgent care center for surgery. A certain pandemic has priority over my sword-in-the-belly pains, even if appendicitis can, in rare cases these days, be fatal. Plus, you never know about what insurance will cover and, besides, hospitals make me woozy with multi-pronged dread. All I can see in my predicament is a hot mess, but in more profane language than that. 

Getting nervous as I seized my stomach, I phoned a doctor friend, whom I hoped would ease the angst. He sort of did, sort of didn’t. Ending the call, my face bore the glacial, expressionless visage of Michael Myers’ rubber mask. The good doc said the cramps and pain could be caused by constipation. Whew. Then he added that I might require a CT scan to identify the culprit. Oof. If the pain spreads I should worry, he said; if it decreases, I’m probably in the clear. 

thats not me. i dont have a goatee and im not quite at hugging a pillow stage.jpeg
That is not me. I don’t have a goatee, and I’m not quite at the pillow-hugging stage.

Good signs: I have no fever. While deep breaths hurt, I can walk with minimal discomfort. And, after chewing Gas-X and popping Advil, I woke today with far less pain than the excruciating night before.

But I’m not out of the woods, and there’s this reminder from one of those frightening medical sites: If you don’t get treatment for an inflamed appendix quickly, “it can rupture and release dangerous bacteria into your abdomen.”

So I remain in a wait and feel pattern. It’s a delight.

Déjà vu has smuggled itself into this picture. As a kid, I had unreasonable hypochondria, leading to near hysteria when, at 7, I felt a sharp pain in my left side that I swiftly self-diagnosed as appendicitis. For hours I curled up tearfully in my parents’ empty bed and envisioned horrors of surgery and gloom and, naturally, death. (Never mind the appendix is on the right side.)

This is different. This bears signs of something moderately serious. It’s painful and fraught with the unknown. I’m not sure where the symptoms point to: hospital, surgery, gastrointestinal earthquakes, the all-clear thumbs up? As I type this, pangs besiege my belly. Something must be done.

* Update: On Easter Sunday, I elected to go to urgent care and get a CT scan at the urging of the doctor friend. After blood tests, a urine sample and the fairly harrowing CT scan (aka CAT scan, all whizzing machinery and sci-fi shivers), it was discovered I indeed have minor, early-stage appendicitis. This normally requires in-and-out surgery, but the surgeon suggested I stay away from COVID-slammed hospitals and prescribed an oral antibiotic regimen, two pills a day for a week or so. The non-surgical treatment is increasingly common for appendicitis, he and my doctor told me, and quite effective.

I grinned widely. Hell, yes, I thought. Hell, yes.

The blessing of boredom

Get outside.

The experts speak this as an imperative. The words throb with anxious urgency.

GET. OUT. SIDE.

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They urge us to recess from in-house isolation, get fresh air and do brisk exercise near home. It is health-smart, holistic and good for the body, mind and, if possible, social maintenance, though the latter is rife with rules: keep a six-foot spread between bodies; no physical contact; wear a face mask (we all look ridiculous, like third-rate bandits); spray hissing mists of Lysol® all around, including on your friends, who will thank you later. Or not.  

About all that’s left in outside activity, besides risky trips to the store, is a lone jog, a bike ride or a walk with a fellow homebound relative through the apocalyptically empty neighborhoods of Coronaville, whose population, once robust, plunges by the day.

So there I am, taking a stroll about our idyllic, all-American hood, which is suddenly shrink-wrapped in dread. It’s a breezy 60-something degrees with hazy, semi-blinding sunshine. Blooms and petals swirl everywhere, polka-dotting streets and sidewalks, celebratory confetti for spring’s arrival.

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I wear burgundy track pants and a burgundy hoodie, looking like a tall glass of pinot noir, something I wish I had with me to offset the tedium of aimless ambling. But Cubby the unflappable fur ball is with me (pandemic, shandemic, he woofs) and we walk up the hill, to the thriving rose gardens, him stopping, sniffing and tinkling every two feet, doing the one-leg-in-the-air thing, a kind of yoga that instills both wonder and winces. (Is this Downward Dog?)

We are not alone. I count six other mutts and their masters walking about, puttering and peeing, shouting across the way to waving friends who are well over the prescriptive six feet apart. The gist: Be well, take care, say hello to so and so! Oddly, I hear no one say, This sucks! Spirits are high. We are the healthy ones, strolling in the sunshine. For now.

Despite the fine weather — I strain to call it that, for spring is my second least favorite season — it’s time to go back inside and resume being a stolid, musty homebody who reads, writes, sees movies and does a bit of what you’re looking at. As boredom overtakes outside, it’s time for a new brand of boredom inside, one filled with sighs and gripes and yawns and, in those precious moments of clarity, a reasoned muttering: Thank heaven.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_