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.

 

One of those grab-bag blogs filled with mad miscellany

— In New Orleans next month, I’m forgoing the vaunted National WWII Museum for the more mischievously skeevy Museum of Death, a labyrinth of the gross and ghoulish and other alliterative G’s (ghastly, grisly … ). Body bags, coffins, car accident photos, Manson family ephemera, cannibalism — and, well, I’m making a poor case for my mental stability. Why not do both museums? Because I’m booked for a cemetery tour (I know, I know), a paddleboat cruise on the Mississippi, a French Quarter tour and a hop through the Dixie Brewery, which is $5 compared to the war museum’s nearly $30 entry, which is twice as much as Museum of Death tickets. And, really, aren’t both museums monuments to mortality in their ways? (Plus, I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan.” It didn’t go well.)

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— People slap flashy stickers and decals all over their laptops, without realizing the machines are not skateboards and are anything but billboards of hip. A Dell? Fine. A Mac? Plain vandalism.

1hFFNNJHOVyul0OLXpKgpcKM2MOF6S_large— Best movie from the ‘70s I recently re-watched: rattling rock melodrama “The Rose,” starring an atomic Bette Midler, shrill and crazy, on a Criterion DVD. Directed by Mark Rydell, the tipsy tragedy, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s hasty flame-out, was shot by storied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the feral concert scenes from lens legends Conrad Hall, László Kovács and Haskell Wexler. Toni Basil choreographed Midler’s bestial gyrations. The movie, a buckling downer, holds up rapturously. (Watch it with “A Star is Born.” Discuss.) 

— I saw the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie, “The French Dispatch.” My eyes bled. My mind sizzled in its teeny brain-pan. Once upon a time, Anderson was one of our most exciting young filmmakers (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore.”) He’s now one of our most exasperating. And cloying. And irritating. And incurably cutesy.

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“All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.” — Burt Lancaster, philosophizing in 1957’s otherwise poky “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Sometimes I wonder: Am I a gunfighter?

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— I liked but didn’t love Oscar history-maker “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s catchy Korean comedy-thriller-horror flick. It swept the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, which I’m all for. But the movie doesn’t explode. It’s not “Crash” or “Green Book” bad, somehow and embarrassingly snatching top honors — not even close. It is, simply, the most overrated movie of 2019. I placed it #8 on my top 10 list. It is very good. And I am so happy it shut-out “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” patently one of the year’s worst films. For those who haven’t seen “Parasite” but have followed its triumphs, I’m afraid some shade of disappointment is possible. 

Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is one of the sharpest art critics I’ve read, and one of the lushest, most literate prose stylists around. Gifted as he is, he still says things like, “I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself.” He adds, “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.” It is humbling.

—  This is the most poignant line I’ve read in a book in some time: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s from Jenny Offill’s deep and droll new novel “Weather.” I also liked this: “I’m too tired for any of it. The compromise is that we all eat ice cream and watch videos of goats screaming like women.”

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— Winter is fast receding. Son of a bitch.

— I noted above that “Saving Private Ryan” and I had a dubious relationship upon its 1998 release. As a full-time movie critic, I gave the summer blockbuster two stars out of four. I recently located my love letter to the film, part of which reads:

“The World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ begins with a screen-size image of the American flag. The banner ripples in the breeze with patriotic solemnity, as John Williams’ score puffs its chest and gives a stern salute to our tear ducts.

“Dissolve to a scene of soft-focus Americana plucked from Norman Rockwell, featuring a family borrowed from a life insurance commercial. As this ideal of scrubbed, middle-class solicitude walks quietly toward a white cross in a military cemetery, the screen fairly creaks with labored pathos. You start to wonder if you’re watching a parody of a Steven Spielberg movie.

“Actually, it’s an inadvertent self-parody, for this is a Spielberg movie, his latest and most contrived attempt at serious adult filmmaking. Despite its unflinching (almost desperate) depiction of battlefield carnage, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is marred by mawkish indulgence and counterfeit drama, Spielberg’s twin weaknesses. The man can’t help it: He lards the film with freeze-dried sentiment, tingle-inducing declarations and cello cues. The considerable gore is largely separate from the main story; it’s a bombastic stage setter.”

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Save me, Private Ryan.

It’s cold. Let’s read.

Books and movies. I do a lot of both during the hibernating winter months. I’ve plowed through some good books so far this season, with more to come …

Stripped-down realism is so refreshing. That’s what Elizabeth Strout’s cold-water splash “Olive, Again” delivers in the return of the author’s forever-stubborn, wryly splenetic septuagenarian Olive Kitteredge, reluctant heroine of the eponymous, Pulitzer-winning novel from 2008 (“Olive Kitteredge”). The matte finish of ordinary life somehow glistens in these prosaic pages, as Olive and her kin and the locals of small Crosby, Maine, get on with life with all the grace they can muster. Amid the deceptive, lulling ordinariness emerges Olive, who gives just about everyone a pain in the ass. 

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“God, Olive, you’re a difficult woman,” says a suitor. “You are such a goddamn difficult woman, and fuck all, I love you. So if you don’t mind, Olive, maybe you could be a little less Olive with me, even if it means being a little more Olive with others. Because I love you, and we don’t have much time.” The truth as prod — perfect.

Unfailingly elegant, with literary punch and panache, Christopher Isherwood’s classic 1964 “A Single Man” follows George, a gay, British, middle-aged English professor in suburban Southern California, as he manages life after the death of his partner. Solitude reigns, though George experiences symphonic emotions, from fury to attraction, all in finely wrought descriptives. Called a “lyric meditation on life as an outsider,” the novel is at once explosively alive and exquisitely melancholy. 

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In Kevin Wilson’s quirky, arguably gimmicky, new novel “Nothing to See Here,” the main attractions are 10-year-old twins who self-combust when stressed or agitated. Right: they go up in flames. Yet the young author doesn’t belabor the peculiarity, mingling a heavy heart with a breezy tone that depicts events in buoyant deadpan. And while the conflagrations are certainly a metaphor for something, I’m not sure what that is. (Wilson’s fires are more light than enlightening.) 

When the twins’ caretaker Lillian first witnesses one of their freak shows, she shakes off the shock and mildly observes, “Then, like a crack of lightning, she burst fully into flames, her body, a kind of firework, the fire white and blue and red all at once. It was beautiful, no lie, to watch a person burn.” 

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The book is clearly some fun, though it’s braided with furrowed, moving passages about taking care of people, avoiding pain and erasing past hurts. “How did anyone keep this world from ruining them?” Lillian wonders. “I wanted to know. I wanted to know so bad.”

Garth Greenwell’s fawned-over “Cleanness” is more than its homoerotic parts, excuse the imagery, though it certainly is that, too. This novel (or is it a story collection?) sketches a psychosexual character study of an American teaching in Bulgaria, sifting through his cluttered past of intimacies. We see (smell, feel) it all in a journey of desire, love and loss.

This follow-up to Greenwell’s adored “What Belongs to You” falters a bit in a cluster of sex scenes dominating the final stories. It becomes repetitive, fetishistic, rather dull. And yet you don’t give up, because the writer knows exactly how to lull you, with a masterly, agreeable control that’s never pushy.

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On the nightstand now: The brand-new “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood” by crack showbiz historian Sam Wasson. Propulsive prose, staggering detail and wise reflection turn this history into a 3D pop-up book of period L.A., pinballing from the Manson murders and its impact on hot auteur Roman Polanski (who would, of course, helm “Chinatown”), to the creative relationship between Jack Nicholson and screenwriting eminence Robert Towne and the very seeds of SoCal noir. And that’s just up to page 70. 

Concerned largely with the making of a quintessential masterwork of ‘70s film, the book promises to be “the defining story of the most colorful characters in the most colorful period of Hollywood history” and is being compared to classic, unflinching making-of studies “The Devil’s Candy”and “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” 

Already, I’m gripped.41O2b3Fog0L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_