Quote of the day: on writing

“Understood: language would end up falsifying everything, as language always does. Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about — these are the only writers I want to read anymore, the only ones who can lift me up.” 

from “What Are You Going Through,” the brilliant brand-new novel by Sigrid Nunez

Fall reading officially begins … now

A Big New Book is being released tomorrow: Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults, the follow-up to her celebrated four-book Neapolitan Novels (“My Brilliant Friend,” etc.) that’s been awaited with clammy palms and mild hyperventilation around the world. They call it Ferrante Fever, the passion with which readers embrace her Naples-set, fiercely feminist fiction. In fact, so beloved and famous are her novels, of which I’ve only read two (heresy!), I will go into no more detail about their glittering renown. 

As reclusive and elusive as Sasquatch, Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and an impenetrable cloud of anonymity, so thick even her tireless English translator has never met her (him? they?) in person. The tenacity with which she preserves a faceless non-identity, shrouded in maddening mystery, makes Ferrante a sort of Banksy of literature. She’s been touted for the Nobel Prize, and we wonder how that would work — a fashionable no-show à la Bob Dylan? Does it matter?

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The publication of “The Lying Life of Adults” (which charts the thorny coming of age of a teenage girl) has been called the “literary event of the year” by those New York magazine types, and lots of slobber has soaked its impending release. 

I haven’t read the novel yet — I have a copy on hold, he panted — so I can’t say much more about it without paraphrasing the publicity notes and that will put all of us to sleep. When I finally crack it, I’ll share. 

Meanwhile, about the excellent book I just finished today … 

I have great faith in the tastes of London-based blogger Jessica, a native Ohioan who writes the funny and fascinating — and on the rare, lucky occasion, riotously scatological — Diverting Journeys. So when she recently reviewed the freak show history “The Wonders: The Extraordinary Performers Who Transformed the Victorian Age, I promptly grabbed a copy. A fellow enthusiast of the creepy and freaky — from baroque cemeteries to carnival sideshows and babies-in-jars museums — Jessica writes, “I genuinely loved this book. It was so fun to read, and was the perfect combination of cultural and medical history.” 

51Nh9MINwEL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Agreed. Author John Woolf weds sharp scholarship and anecdotal color about some of the most popular human oddities of the 17th to 20th centuries with accessible and mesmerizing verve. Some of the abnormalities are digestible — dude, you’re like the size of a Cabbage Patch Kid! — while others rattle: the rampant racial exploitation marring the sideshow circuit truly sickens. 

A “Wonders” sampling: the woman with a blimp-sized derriere and an XL labia; the original Siamese Twins (slaveholders, they), who both married and had like fifty children; an array of dwarfs who thrived as playthings in Europe’s royal courts; and two of my all-time favorites, Julia Pastrana, billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World, and Joseph Merrick, the eternally doomed Elephant Man. (Actually, Pastrana was also doomed. You cannot believe how she winds up.)

These are stories of amazement — you keep wondering how? and why? — and, too often, searing heartbreak. This book somehow manages not to shatter you, not by shirking facts, but by maintaining a tempered, dignified humanity that cleaves to historical reality. Shudder if you must. 

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Julia Pastrana

Random stuff, summer edition

I’m always jazzed when I discover a great new writer — or at least new to me — and that’s the case with American pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman. I’m not sure why, but I’ve avoided his work for a full decade (jealousy?). Then I recently read a description of one his anthologies that snared my interest. (It was surely the fact that KISS and Metallica were two of his topics.) Growing up a metalhead in the Midwest in the ‘80s, Klosterman was weaned on the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and KISS (still his favorite band, which I find outstanding). He declares KISS “the second-most influential rock band of all time,” after the Beatles. Chew on that. 

Today he writes with breathtaking omnivorousness about culture at large, from TV to Chicken McNuggets. (He also writes a lot about sports. I skip all that.) He pens novels, memoirs and big thinky pieces. He’s breezy, never ponderous or pretentious — he’s pretty much anti-pretentious — penetrating, smart as hell and equally as funny. This summer I’ve read his collections “IV” and “X.” I’m now on the memoir of his early hair-metal fandom, “Fargo Rock City.” The book is about much more than his little life worshipping bands like Poison. It’s expansive, ecstatic, packed with big ideas and witty perceptions. With Klosterman, it always is. 

I slipped in a sweaty drum session last night, pounded away for about 30 minutes to an array of vintage rock, most of which would make you blush. I performed pretty well, but not A-plus. I was thinking too much. When I think about what I’m playing, about what move I’m going to make next, I throw myself off and lose the beat. Same goes when I think about life things while I play — it derails the groove and mistakes are made, sticks are dropped. As a metal madman once screeched, “C’mon feel the noise!” Meaning, don’t think it.

It’s been years since I watched the 1996 cult comedy “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest mockumentary that, with sardonic sweetness, lampoons community theater culture and the talentless goofs who inhabit it. On a whim, I rewatched it. I cringed at what I once adored. Gags are broad, the jokes are fizzless, the parody punchless. It feels facile and off-key. That said, my love for Guest, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara remains undying. (Forget “Schitt’s Creek.” I’ll take classic “SCTV” any day.)

I got my first haircut in more than four months the other day. (A new national holiday should be declared.) It was a new place, a new barber, a guy I quickly cottoned to. We gabbed almost entirely about world travel — Turkey, Morocco, Japan, India and, natch, Paris, since that’s where I’m booked to go in October. I expressed my concern that even in the fall the world won’t be ready for regular tourist travel. He demurred. His prediction, stated with blithe confidence: All this pandemic mess will be done with in — get this — six weeks. September, he averred, and things will be back to normal, and I will easily get to fly to an all-open Paris. Maybe he was just making me feel better. Maybe he doesn’t read the papers. Maybe he’s been huffing the Aqua Net.   

I’ve rediscovered the kaleidoscopically inspired Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time,” whose title doesn’t begin to convey what’s in store for the kiddies (and rabid adults) who tune in. I can’t either. Squirting diarrhea, rainbow unicorns, a talking piñata, a verbal, shape-shifting dog and so much stuff that qualifies as unapologetically batshit that I can’t possibly smoosh it into this space. Now airing on HBO Max, each 11-minute episode — any longer and your eyes might bleed — is a heady, unhinged phantasmagoria of the surreal, psychedelic and wildly non sequitur. It’s also positive, uproarious, sad, thoughtful and weirdly timely. And it’s a damn cartoon.

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Quote of the day

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

 — “In a Lonely Place,” the classic noir novel by Dorothy B. Hughes

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Homebound, book-bound

The neighbors down the street have acquired a tiny spotted piglet and that means nothing, because that’s not what I’m here for. Just thought I’d mention it as a friendly neighborhood bulletin, despite its thoroughgoing irrelevance to anything on this page.

I’m here to talk books — books I’m gathering around me like a collective paper blanket during the sheltering in place (my least favorite term for the eternal quarantine). I have mentioned I’m ordering new and used books hungrily, and now the stacks are rising precariously. Somebody stop me. 

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Over time I’ve read three or four novels and story collections by the daring, queasily beguiling Ottessa Moshfegh, whose darkly defiant streak, which runs from addiction to murder, poop to pathologies, has never been as palpable as in her 2016 debut “Eileen.” I just gobbled up the slim novel and I’m savoring its bitter aftertaste. I wanted to be ready for Moshfegh’s much-anticipated novel “Death in Her Hands,” coming out in two weeks. Hardly a spoiler: It’s being called perverse and strange. Bring it on.  

In a snap of energetic laziness, I skipped the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s universally lauded series The Neapolitan Novels, which kicks off with “My Brilliant Friend,” opting instead to watch the first two parts in the epic HBO adaptations (luminous, devastating). Now I’m into the third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and it makes me anxious: How much lush, moving prose did I miss by not reading the first two books? Yet another literary project materializes. 519LmMYfn-L._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_There’s a handful of hip, youngish, mostly male writers I avoid because of both their grating public images and callow, look-at-me writing (see ya, Dave Eggers). Journalist Chuck Klosterman, who specializes in rock and pop culture at large, has always made my belly twist at the teensy bit of his I’ve read in the likes of Spin magazine. He’s published loads of essay collections, like “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” and “Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas,” the latter of which I swallowed hard and purchased. Surprise — it’s damn good. With a mix of irreverence and shaggy erudition, humor and a swingingly unadorned style, the author asserts a penetrating, smarter-than-his-subjects but not condescending attitude on everyone from Britney Spears and Radiohead to Metallica and Robert Plant. A pop culture polymath, a smart-aleck with a laser-pointed pen, Klosterman is good company.

41N3Bj9x7IL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Also a delight are the words of the late David Carr, the New York Times media columnist who in 2015 dropped dead in the Times newsroom, a fact that might have tickled the celebrated super-journalist. “Final Draft,” a new collection of his writing from the past 25 years, reveals a passionate pro and consummate stylist at his best. We get reportage and ruminations on racism, personal addiction, media blowhards, personalities and the often checkered texture of journalism itself. Carr was a star. This book shows why. Unknown And now, the pig:

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A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

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Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.

The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.

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_

Occupational hazards of the novelist

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.”

— Olga Tokarczuk, from her Booker-winning novel “Flights,” a luminous series of human and existential journeys revealed in shards and fragments. A supernova of imagination and intellect.

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The Polish author won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.