My current cultural playlist

1. Way behind on the cult British crime saga, I’m discovering the gritty and gruesome pleasures of “Peaky Blinders,” an uncompromising gangster epic bristling with politics, razor blades, gamblers, guns, and unvarnished thuggery. 

Set in Birmingham, England, just after World War I, the Netflix series is a fearsomely atmospheric blood opera starring a rogue’s gallery of dapper gangsters with deep family roots and a hunger to stay in power. It openly, inevitably recalls “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos” and, on a knife and knuckle street level, “Gangs of New York,” with perhaps more thematic tentacles.

The show is fronted by Cillian Murphy as crime boss Thomas Shelby, whose smoldering menace can burn a hole like a bullet. One website has voted him the Greatest TV Character of All Time, a testament to Murphy’s pit bull commitment and conviction. He unnerves every time he’s onscreen, makes you shift in your seat. Pepper the grimy period setting with tunes by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and White Stripes and you get more than anachronistic friction; you get gang-banging with a boogie beat. 

2. Listening to Nirvana’s short, punchy songs, it struck me again why the band is so good and lasting: Almost lick for lick, Nirvana is as infectiously hooky as the Beatles.

And on the Beatles — my favorite band, and I’m not a hundred years old — I liked this line from “The Idiot,” Elif Batuman’s riotous novel of the head and heart: “The Beatles turned out to be one of the things you couldn’t avoid, like alcohol, or death.”

3. You also can’t avoid Marvel and its muddleheaded mayhem in the current cinema, a soul-battering bummer. But there do exist little oases floating past the aesthetic carnage, attractive indie films like the raunchy, uproarious “Zola” and my latest favorite, “The Worst Person in the World.” 

The grabby title is slyly misleading in this dark rom-com drama about a young woman who skitters between jobs and lovers while surfing life’s foibles. Joachim Trier’s prickly Norwegian charmer, ablaze with insinuating characters and sexy anecdote, is told in 12 fluid chapters, led by endearing star Renate Reinsve, who won best actress at Cannes for her intricate portrayal of a woman in flux. Hardly the worst person in the world, she’s a millennial supernova.

4. Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel “Lapvona” is grossing out reviewers with its blithe violence and panoramic depravity. (Is Moshfegh the worst person in the world?) The medieval fable, set in a village rife with plague and other misfortunes, is earning wildly mixed reviews, many of them lashing in their displeasure, even from fans of Moshfegh’s previous dark fictions (“Eileen,” “Homesick for Another World”). 

I’m a fan as well, and I’m steeling for a rough ride. I’m only on page nine, and here’s a verbal taste: “disemboweled” “heads of the dead,” “a bone sticking out through the flesh,” “animal excrement.” (Page nine.) The book, in all its gloppy mucus and viscera, came out this week — which makes it the perfect summer beach read. You heard it here first.

In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Is reading for sissies?

As a kid, from ages seven to 17, I had subscriptions to sheaves of magazines I eagerly awaited to hit my mailbox — Dynamite, Ranger Rick, Hit Parade, Modern Drummer, BMX Action, Omni, Heavy Metal, Movie Monsters and more.

Each title represented a discrete passion — showbiz, animals, rock, drums, science, bikes — and the glossy journals were bibles of my interests. I read them rapt, lapping up interviews, gossip, photos, front-of-the-book ephemera, often scissoring them to bits for bedroom wallpaper and school-locker decor. (Try that with an online subscription.)  

At about 17, I started reading the local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, with a new seriousness that went beyond comics “Bloom County” and “The Far Side.” I loved the stylish writing, current events, cranky columnists and clever critics. It was a daily feast, and each week I’d spend up to three hours poring over the overstuffed Sunday edition, an inky ritual I savored.   

I also read lots of books — “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to freak show biographies; “Slaughterhouse-Five” to Jim Morrison’s (dreadful) poetry — but that’s a given. When I was eight I read the fat paperback of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws,” and I’m still proud of it.

But is it normal, for a boy at least, to spend so much time with the written word, reading? Shouldn’t he be outside, say, throwing balls, or blowing things up?

While I hated most sports — except soccer, skiing and BMX — I was your average knee-scraping, war-playing, B.B.-gun-shooting, lizard-catching, fire-setting, doorbell-ditching, girl-crazy, grungy little scamp. 

Still, I adored words and what they imparted — ideas, information, whole worlds. I used to wade through our World Book encyclopedias and ginormous Mirriam-Webster dictionary just for fun. My best friend Gene and I wrote little books about devils, murder and other unspeakable mischiefs. We had a thing for horror.   

But did all that bibliophilia and word-love mean I was a giant wuss?

This week teacher and novelist Joanne Harris — bestselling author of “Chocolat” — said that reading is far more rare in boys than girls, for rather macho reasons:

“When I was teaching boys particularly, I found that not only boys did not read as much as girls but they were put under much more pressure by parents, largely fathers, to do something else as if reading was girly,” she said via LitHub. Boys, apparently, “ought to be out playing rugby and doing healthy boy things.”

And I reply: Can’t boys do both — reading and “healthy boy things” — like I did (and what’s a healthy boy thing, anyway)? 

Forbes reports that boys are way behind girls in reading comprehension and writing skills, because “reading and writing are stereotypically feminine endeavors, and boys tend to avoid anything that’s remotely feminine. In other words, it’s just not cool to read, because reading is for girls.”

This is clumsy and reductive (and offensive) reasoning, more fitting for the playground than a hard, rational study. Reading is for girls? You don’t say.

What then to make of all the wildly famous male writers overpopulating the literary canon who have (unjustly) eclipsed their female counterparts? Call Hemingway or Mailer a wuss and see where that lands you. 

I don’t doubt that girls read more than boys; I’ve seen it borne out. If it’s because boys are discouraged and intellectualism is deemed unmanly, then we have a real societal problem. I don’t have the answers — just my umbrage — but if you have any thoughts, please comment.  

I know many bibliophobes, people, almost all male, who would never think of strolling the living, fragrant stacks of a bookstore, or simply pick up a book for that matter. To me, they’re the wussies, un-evolved, willfully ignorant, with the vocabulary of third graders and the critical thinking skills of a hubcap. I don’t trust adults who don’t read. Philistinism is a cultural crime.  

World travel has largely usurped my juvenile need to start fires and catch lizards, but I still read at a mad clip and write as much as I can. Call me a sissy. I’m having a ball.

Sick daze

Well, I got it. Or it got me. Whatever. It’s my turn. For Covid, that is. 

Some crabby cold symptoms — the usual gunk: light cough, wet nose, swimmy head, a generalized ick — proved to be the real deal today. A test said so. My achy-breaky body bears it out.

Now what?, I wonder. First, I’ll be isolating for five days. Then I’ll take another test. Meantime, lots of fluids, rest, crushing boredom, gratitude that I haven’t lost my taste or smell (yet!), and some reflecting on how foolish I was to think I was impervious to the virus, as I took all the precautions — two rounds of shots plus a booster, regular mask-wearing, mega doses of arrogance, etc. Small irony: I was slated to get my second booster this afternoon. 

They say most of us will get Covid, so I don’t feel completely singled out and picked on (mmm, yes I do). Still, it’s a drag. I’ve had to rearrange my schedule, cancel appointments, and, sorely, I will miss a public reading of one of my brother’s stellar plays. Plus, I have a wee dry cough that sounds like a choking Munchkin.

Reading. I’ll catch up on some reading. I’m already waist-deep into a re-read of Richard Ford’s beautifully observed 1986 novel “The Sportswriter.” A piercing slice of contemporary realism, the book is tinged with rue and humor and grit, and profoundly meditative about the everyday struggle. It’s oddly comforting, despite the sting. 

On deck is “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s brand-new sequel to her hit novel “The Idiot.” Like its predecessor, critics adore it (“This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations” — NYT) and the way it sweeps you into a bright young woman’s woolly world of self-discovery. (That’s all I got. I haven’t read it yet.)

I can get all philosophical about contracting the virus, or not. It’s plain as day, and because it’s physical, intellectualizing it, cataloging the myriad ways the body betrays us, is just so much wheel-spinning. So far, the malady feels like a mild head cold — every so often I wonder if I really even have it — and I’m banking on it staying that way. 

Covid can kill you, but so can the flu, or a drive to the pharmacy. I know lots of people who’ve had it and each one pulled through famously. So I’m not too tangled up about it. Everything will be just fine … right?

As the lead in “The Sportswriter” says, “Sometimes I’m afraid … It’s natural to the breed.”

Books, actually

So let me bore you silly and tell you that I’m currently re-reading Joseph Conrad’s slim epic “Heart of Darkness,” a smidge more than 100 pages of nightmarish adventure up the African Congo, rife with colonial violence and brushes with death, and co-starring a renegade colonist named Kurtz who’s apparently gone mad in the jungle.

It’s been decades since I’ve read the classic novella, which of course inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam phantasmagoria “Apocalypse Now,” back when ELO and C-3PO held cultural sway. And it felt about right for a revisit, don’t ask me why. 

(No, ask away. Okay, I needed a shortish book to hold me over while I wait for a copy of the new Michael Cimino biography. A mysterious figure, Cimino directed the Oscar-winning Vietnam drama “The Deer Hunter” and the catastrophic flop “Heaven’s Gate,” both right about the time of ELO and C-3PO.)  

Before re-picking up “Heart of Darkness” only yesterday, I was hopscotching between three books: Tove Ditlevsen’s mesmeric memoir “The Copenhagen Trilogy”; humorist Lindy West’s caustic movie reviews, “Shit, Actually”; and cartoonist Roz Chast’s lauded memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” 

Ditlevsen’s “Trilogy” bundles three smallish memoirs — “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency” — in a single volume, and the cumulative effect is powerfully poignant. She traces her life in the 1930s and ‘40s, from about age 6, when her interest in poetry flowered, to her twenties, as a young mother and successful author addicted to painkillers. The prose is clean and unflinching and recalls the transfixing autofiction of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Lindy West is the opposite of Ditlevsen — tart, messy, sophomoric, fueled entirely by pop culture punch. Her rambunctious movie reviews aren’t primly unfurled; they’re yelled in a neon hailstorm. Mainly they’re plot synopses with running commentary festooned in ALL CAPS, promiscuous italics and serial exclamation points (because they’re funny in bulk!!!!!). It really is like she’s yelling at us.

She LOVES!!!! 1993’s “The Fugitive” and rates movies — from “Face/Off” (a misunderstood masterpiece she direly underestimates) to “Harry Potter” — on how they stack up to the Harrison Ford thriller.

“‘The Fugitive’ is the only good movie. We didn’t need any more movies after ‘The Fugitive,’” she gushes. “We don’t need any movies before it either. We should erase those.”

That would be funny if it wasn’t so wrong. I’ve always thought “The Fugitive” was one of the most overrated movies of the ‘90s. But she’s obviously exaggerating for comic flash and bratty button pushing (right?). I’ll give her this: The title of this book, “Shit, Actually,” is also the title of her scorched-earth review of the barfy, saccharine rom-com “Love, Actually.” Good show.

Yet ultimately West is so insincere and strenuously flip that you can’t tell what she really likes or loathes for all the jokiness. She’s a little Andrew Dice Clay-esque — it’s hard to tell where schtick ends and truth begins.

You’d know these characters anywhere: the nervously quivering bodies, gaping grimaces, dark rings around the eyes, skinny arms and big heads. Roz Chast draws consummate depictions of raw, buzzing angst — humanly and hilariously — with squiggly lines that look like she has a bad case of the shakes. Why’s she so rattled?

Well, life to begin with. That’ll do it. But in her 2014 memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” Chast, the longtime New Yorker cartoonist, tackles the dreaded situation of “an only child watching her parents age well into their nineties and die.” Oof. Grim.

And funny. Because it’s true. Chast, for all her squirms and squiggles, draws and writes with unvarnished precision about the tragicomedy of becoming your parents’ caregivers, when the roles reverse. You could say she goes straight into the heart of darkness, and finds bittersweet laughs.

But I digress

Another installment of haphazard thought doodles, six hors d’oeuvres that I’m too lazy to whip into full meals. They’re presented numerically, but that’s just for looks. Rest assured, each item is equally trivial. 

1. In a thud of disappointment, I put down a book today that I had great hopes for — I hate that. Brandon Taylor’s story collection “Filthy Animals” just won the prestigious Story Prize for best book of short stories, so I snatched it up, cracked it, and eventually let out a blustery sigh of resignation, thinking, Pshaw. Not dreadful but not great, Taylor’s sexy social realism traces the romantic exploits of young LGBTQ+ couples, which is no longer novel yet still refreshing. His writing is spare and precise, but it’s also facile and shallow, sanded to a sterile remove. Physical descriptions trump psychological and emotional depth. Taylor’s stories have been compared to the light and prickly millennial sexcapades of Sally Rooney. Fair enough. But she’s sharper, cuts deeper. Has fangs. 

2. Cubby the über-pooch is doing fine, thank you, and he’s watching me as I type this, so things are sort of meta. I look at him back and see that his fuzzy Ewok face has striking human attributes. Like his eyelashes, which I rarely notice, are almost as luxuriant as Tammy Faye Bakker’s big, fake, bat-wing lashes. And his lower lip is like a little man’s with black lipstick. And his bottom teeth are just like tiny baby teeth. OK, now I’m starting to get creeped out.

3. Not creeping me out are the warm sentiments I received on my recent birthday, especially the nice words from one of my dearest exes, who wrote, “Our time together is one of my favorite chapters in life, for sure.” For three and a half years we had a blast, traveling Europe — Paris, Italy, Vienna, Istanbul, Greece — going to concerts, movies and plays, carousing and canoodling, and I’m thankful she’s still in my orbit. We were sweet and snarky. Here’s how she signed off: “Write me back, asshole! And have a very Happy Birthday.” Aww.

4. After quitting “Filthy Animals,” I grabbed the even more acclaimed “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” a collection of three memoirs by late Danish author Tove Ditlevsen, which comes wreathed in panting praise and strewn with confetti. Written from 1967-71 and embraced by a new generation of readers and critics, the memoirs, “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency,” have been hailed a masterpiece, “the product of a terrifying talent.” Having just started the book, my opinion of it is at best embryonic — the writing is stupendous — yet I’ve tweezed a piercing line from the early pages: “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.” That both chills and cheers me.

5. Once when I was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a young girl was selling sunscreen on the roadside. I asked her how much and she gave me an absurdly high price. I blurted, “You’re crazy!” She hissed back, “You crazy!” Just two weeks ago in Rome, I approached a taxi driver and told him the address to my hotel. “Forty euro,” he said, as if he wasn’t trying to blatantly fleece me by a full 25 euro. “You’re crazy,” I scoffed, to which he replied, “You’re crazy!” I really need to come up with a new line.

6. The latch on the back gate has broken, so the fence no longer makes a catching noise, it just sort of swooshes shut. That means you can’t tell if someone is coming or going. A ghost might as well be walking in. Or a serial killer.

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.