Books, movies, threads — a summer medley

Some things I’m reading, watching and wearing as the hot months satanically descend …

Mieko Kawakami is big in Japan. And her fame is spreading globally with verve and velocity. Called a “feminist sensation,” the writer is best known for her big novel “Breasts and Eggs,” and she’s gleaning renewed praise for her just-released fiction “Heaven.” 

She’s good, really good, and I’m drinking her work up in chugs and gulps. I read the slim “Heaven,” a taut drama about middle-school bullying laced with philosophical echoes (think Nietzsche), in two days. And I’ve made it half-way through the 400-page “Breasts and Eggs” in the same amount of time. (And, yes, the title makes total sense.)

Kawakami is a deceptively simple read, limning pressing social issues in prose of polished glass. The crisp writing rattles with ideas about female body image (ever thought of bleaching your nipples?), donor pregnancies, family secrets and teen torments. It’s frank, funny and squirmily real.

Japan’s preeminent novelist Haruki Murakami experienced “pure astonishment” reading “Breasts and Eggs,” a best-seller in Japan that’s become a controversial feminist talking point, flagged (flogged?) for its graphic discussions of bodily ownership among two women and a teenager. The grumblers? Mostly men.

In the new book, “Heaven,” a boy with a lazy eye is tyrannized at school — he’s forced to eat chalk once he sticks it up his nose, for starters — and befriends a girl outcast, making a dweeby, beleaguered duo that’s not going to take it anymore. “Heaven” ends hellishly. It’s unsettling, it’s shocking. And it’s near-perfect.

The trailer for the new Netflix movie “The White Tiger” is frenetic, hyper-stylish, abundant and ambitious. It presents a messy, modern India of epic proportions, with glitz, guns and girls. 

Which is confounding considering the film’s writer-director is the great Ramin Bahrani, who’s earned arthouse cred for wondrous micro-budget dramas like “Man Push Cart,” “Goodbye Solo” and “Chop Shop,” a gritty miracle that Roger Ebert named the sixth-best film of the 2000s, while hailing Bahrani as “the director of the decade.” I agree.

Based on the rollicking Booker-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, “White Tiger” is conspicuously Bahrani’s biggest film to date, inviting comparisons to staunch minimalist Chloé Zhao, who’s making a Marvel blowout after this year’s hushed Oscar-winner “Nomadland.”  

I haven’t seen it yet, but Bahrani’s zesty crime drama looks to have the heft, the dazzle, of something new and career-altering. I’m aching to see what this indie miniaturist and unswerving humanist does with the novel’s byzantine riches.

When shopping for clothes, I wait till August, when, as they say, the fall collections land: blacks and beige, layers and long sleeves, boots and beanies.

It’s not even summer and already I’ve plucked attire with a defiantly wintry flair, including a thick New York Times sweatshirt — black with a brash Gothic “T” across the chest — that complements the tasteful Times ball cap I bought last year (no, I will never wear both together; there’s only so much the world can take).

Call me a walking billboard, a corporate hussy. Actually, I’m just an ink-stained fiend for crack reporting, crackling prose and kicky Gothic fonts. I love newspapers in general (see my newspaper coffee mug collection, Chicago Tribune to the Austin American-Statesman, Gothic type both). The Times is tops. I wear its merch with pride.

That’s right, it’s barely summer and I’m buying cold coverings. Like the knitted crochet slippers from Russia I bagged at Etsy (see this post). They’re made to look like classic black and white Nike running shoes. They’re goofy. They’re funky. They’re walking punchlines. The photos alone bust me up. That won’t be the case when my feet freeze off.

I’ve acquired lighter weight clothing, too, including two movie-themed t-shirts: one of cerebral creep-out “The Witch,” featuring an eerie prancing goat on the print; and a simple black T elegantly screened with “A John Woo Film” in English and Chinese.

This film wonk also snatched a pair of A24 socks, A24 being the thriving boutique outlet releasing cult hits like “The Witch,” “Midsommar,” “The Florida Project,” “Moonlight,” “Eighth Grade,” and a raft of other extraordinary indies. The socks are grey and too long, and the company logo looks stitched by elves. But I like them.

A24 socks. It’s come to this.

I love this book title: “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.” Sold! 

So I grabbed this buzzy novel by Rivka Galchen, released this week, lured by the chatty euphony of the title and Galchen’s rep as a literary wunderkind. I’m still on “Breasts and Eggs,” so I’ll get to this soon, tackling what’s billed as a harrowing and humorous tale of witches and hysterical fear in 1618 Germany. (“The comedy that runs through the book is a magical brew of absurdity and brutality,” says the Washington Post.)

Also on my hypothetical IKEA nightstand, all cheap and rickety, is David Diop’s slim war drama “At Night All Blood is Black, winner last week of the 2021 International Booker Prize. The Franco-Senegalese author specializes in 18th-century French and Francophone African literature, and the novel was shortlisted for 10 French literary awards. 

A wrenching description that makes you want to ball up and hide:

“Peppered with bullets and black magic, this remarkable novel fills in a forgotten chapter in the history of World War I. Blending oral storytelling traditions with the gritty, day-to-day, journalistic horror of life in the trenches, Diop’s novel is a dazzling tale of a man’s descent into madness.”

A perfect beach read, no?

The pleasures and perils of reading outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter not so easy

We rummage about the day, seeking a good book, ambient pleasures, deep meaning (why is that dog squatting so?), and a fine, frothy whiskey sour. The last first, please.

The days are long, the books are long — like the 600-page Mike Nichols biography I just polished, with joy — and the drinks are long, or, more precisely, tall. Either way, pour. Now. 

Temperatures are amping to the mid-60s, heralding spring’s ominous simmer and summer’s damp, gaseous inferno, both of which, I need not tell you, I abhor. (I only partly exaggerate when I say my favorite utterance is brrr. My second favorite: “I’ll get that.”) 

For some, who I will surely offend, today is all about the embarrassing folly of Easter (Jesus, the great escape artist — a Holy Houdini!), celebrating that boulder-rolling feat of celestial sorcery so magnificent it befits a children’s picture book, ages 2 to 5. And, somehow, the whole zany thing — the tomb, the missing body, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit (insert spit-take here) — boils down to Cadbury’s ooze, Peeps’ chews, synthetic grass and ham. 

What would Jesus do? Probably puke, like most of us.

So hallelujah. Now onto cursing: It’s a sunshiny Sunday, blue and bold and obnoxious, just what everybody delights in, because isn’t life one grand fairyland, dusted in gold, roofed with rainbows and burbling with birdies? 

Actually, it is pretty nice out, for now. I just dread when the sun-worshippers get greedy, Mother Nature listens, and everything gets hot and ruined. (Dear October: Step on it.) Look, get your unflattering beach garb, go to the tropics and leave the rest of us alone. 

Travel. Now? Right. I should be in Paris. But while I’m freshly vaccinated for Covid, France is redoubling its pandemic shutdown. The place is a festering contagion and no one’s going in or out. I bought a flight to Paris in March 2020 for an October trip, and we know how that ended. We sit. We wait. We read 600-page artist biographies. 

Or we read (and re-read) short story collections, like Joy Willliams’ delectably edgy “The Visiting Privilege,” Tobias Wolff’s comfort-foody “Our Story Begins” and the tough, granular realism of Richard Ford’s “Sorry for Your Trouble.”

Art saves. Sort of. I have a birthday coming up and no book of short stories will blunt the bite. Yes, I’m at the point when birthdays make you scrunch up your nose. I’ve been doing this for years; the last time I actively celebrated my birthday was age 13. I believe in getting older as much as I believe in Christ’s Penn and Teller routine in the desert. 

Started as a random riff, this is turning out to be my annual jeremiad about changing seasons, warming and wilting. This week I add a year, perhaps finally becoming an anachronistic artifact, shriveling like a vampire in slashing shafts of sunlight.

I need a flotation device in this sea of self-pity. More to the point, that whiskey sour is sounding pretty terribly perfect right about … now

Fur, feathers, and folderol

On the About page of this blog, I caution that my writings here are “forever random and rambling.” Rarely has that been so true than right now … 

*  *  *

The Tao of Cubby 

Cubby, the über-mensch of mutts, scurries across the wood floor, his nails recalling the tip-tap of a typewriter. (If only he could actually type. That would save me tremendous carpal tunnel distress.) 

He is fleet, balletic. Though he resembles a gray Oscar the Grouch — bodily bedhead, articulate brows — the dog is chipper and civil, venting frenzied yaps only when evolutionarily expected (read: Amazon). 

Cubby is also mindful and meditative. He follows the flow of the universe and the whiff of tacos. Part Chinese sage, part Scooby-Doo, he adheres to the Taoist tenets of simplicity, patience, compassion, and the canine tenet of raw sirloin. 

Spiritual but godless, Cubby finds solace in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” — self-deception! free will! — but not in Scripture. He likes to quote Socrates: “I am the wisest dog alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

For Cubby, things just are. Why this, why now? As Cubs might say, Because. Just because.

*  *  *

In anticipation of Easter, a short tale featuring baby chicks

When I was five, we had a pair of baby chickens, a female (yellow) and a male (black). They scuttled around our backyard and slept in a wood and wire coop, also in the backyard. The birds were strictly decorative. We had no intention of consuming their flesh.

One night a possum tried to get the chicks. Hearing the ruckus, my Dad went outside and our black Lab followed, charging and half-killing the hissing marsupial. Distressed by the injured animal — drama in suburbia — Dad tried to put it out of its misery using a broomstick (why not a spatula, or a straw?). 

He failed, unsurprisingly. The possum was either unconscious or playing dead. Because the next morning the creature was still moving in the garbage can in which it was placed. A man sans a plan, Dad left it there to die on its own, to the collective horror of his family. 

Soon after, we gave the chicks to a cousin who cared for them on his sprawling farm. I’m sure they were delicious. 

*  *  *

Speaking of chickens …

Braided with wisdom, wit and woe, Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” is a deceptively slight novel about a woman caring for a small brood of chickens as she copes with the personal tragedy of a miscarriage. 

Not sold? Be, because Polzin’s debut is sublime. It’s steely, and gentle as a breeze.

The chickens are both main characters and peripheral walk-ons in this compact book, so don’t fear a poultry-centric story. In fact, there’s not much of a story at all. Deeply contemplative and minutely observed — à la Jenny Offill (“Weather”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) — Polzin limns her nameless narrator’s life with by turns clinical realism and dazzling impressionism. There is much to learn about chickens, and life.

The precision of the prose, so nipped, tucked yet vital, is a marvel. Even the chicken passages, with their homely brown eggs, scratch feed and scaly feet, are poetic reveries. A human- and chicken-scale miniature, “Brood” loses none of its emotional texture next to its lo-fi humor. It’s one of the most lulling and pleasant books I’ve read in a spell. 

*  *  *

The larger worth of small talk

Strolling down the sidewalk, you run into an acquaintance — someone you know only faintly, yet well enough for a stop and chat; say, your mechanic or a few-houses-down neighbor — and you find yourself beaming hello, how are you, and before you know it things have devolved into vapid chitchat, the dreaded small talk.

Small talk eats the soul — the empty jawing about weather, work, kids, traffic, assorted gossip and platitudinous pleasantries. Defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters,” small talk reeks of the banal, the trivial, the sort of airy transactions saved for your Uber driver, that guy you went to high school with and haven’t seen in years, or the faux-cheery barista you encounter each morning. 

Still, while it can be painful, what with the groaning predictability of the exchanges, small talk serves a purpose: it fills the dead space we all fear. It’s a buffer, prosaic padding, a time-killer of minor moments that would otherwise be awkward, excruciating, or both.

Words. They will save us. No matter how crudely utilitarian.

Writing relentlessly

Joyce Carol Oates has written roughly six-thousand books. I’ve read one. I’m currently working on number two, a slim novel titled “Black Water.” Boy is it boring. Dry and colorless as a sun-baked cow skull. It’s not even trying to pull me in. It’s stingy like that.  

“Wonderland” is the other Oates book I read, some time ago. Unlike “Black Water,” which runs 154 pages, it’s unmistakably Oatesian, meaning it’s fat, multi-chambered and densely populated. It’s also pretty great, an epic family drama spanning generations that quakes with urgent, thrumming incident. It’s known as one of her best books and was a finalist for some big award or another. 

Oates is famously prolific. I call her relentless. Her torrential output, starting in 1963, includes 58 novels, numerous plays and novellas and several volumes of short stories, poetry and nonfiction. The novels are rarely anorexic. They are epics pushing 500, 700, even 900 pages or more. When I see her shelf in bookstores, I quietly scamper past. 

That’s why I picked up the acclaimed “Black Water”: it’s a finger sandwich next to the author’s standard ten-course feasts. A modern retelling of Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous Chappaquiddick incident, the book toggles through time to trace a young woman’s life and death by drowning in a Toyota that crashed upside-down in a lake.

The novel purports to be a scathing statement about women who are tragically drawn to powerful men, which I suppose it is. But that doesn’t interest me, at least not right now. It doesn’t help that Oates’ breathless, jagged prose feels awkwardly stylized, hardly the case with the lyrical “Wonderland.”

A force of nature, Oates is the epitome of a writing machine, matching the creative incontinence of Stephen King. She poops out literary doorstops with boggling regularity, making her contemporaries look downright slothful. I’m not knocking it. It’s something to envy. To be so productive would be miraculous, if exhausting.

A sliver of Joyce Carol Oates’ output

But such churning industry casts a light on the idea of consistency: how many of those piles of books are really, truly good? Surely a lot, or the author wouldn’t be the celebrated bestseller she is. Yet there’s probably a mountain of misfires there, too, which perhaps dilutes such voluminous achievement. 

In a 2015 essay, King himself confronts the notion “that prolific writing equals bad writing,” citing a truism in literary criticism that goes “the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.”

He’s rightfully a little defensive, having published some 60 novels since “Carrie” in 1974, including four very thick books in a single year. As a writer, King is admittedly, and unashamedly, possessed. 

He insists it can’t be helped, that once his creative ideas catch fire, there’s no quenching them. “I never had any choice,” he says. “There were days when I literally thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane.”

That must be the case with Oates, an artist so overcome with ideas, she has to put them down before they devour her, for good or ill. Her well-publicized work ethic is austere, regimented and, yes, wildly fertile. King writes: “I remember a party where someone joked that Joyce Carol Oates was like the old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” 

Most good writers work painstakingly — they “bleed,” as Hemingway said — which tends to produce a modest yield. Take Donna Tartt (“The Goldfinch”), who’s written three novels in 25 years. The books were smashes, and she is fabulously rich, but Tartt might represent the other side of the equation: by taking few risks, rarely publishing, can you call yourself a bold and vigorous artist?

Then there’s filmmaker Terrence Malick, who represents both sides. In 25 years, he made only three films, all masterpieces, including “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” Then, starting in 2005 with the sublime “New World,” he went on a tear of productivity, making almost a film a year that returned six back-to-back stinkers that he’s yet to recover from. (Let’s not even start with Woody Allen’s late, lame film-a-year output.)  

There’s a cautionary tale in there somewhere. It seems moderation — not too slow, not too fast — is the way to dole out one’s art. Still, if Oates, as the party wag cracked, “had so many children she didn’t know what to do,” I wouldn’t mind being that old lady who lived in a shoe, writing and creating and making magic by the ton, no matter how imperfect. We should be so lucky.

Rating life, and everything else

Once a former colleague and I were talking about how overrated most movies are. We were actually astonished and pretty disheartened. (“Avatar”? Christ.)

Then I took a big leap and mused that life is overrated, and I wasn’t really kidding. My pal nodded, even softly repeating my words. We traded wry grins that belied a deep sadness. We went back to work.

Funny thing is, even that sadness was overrated. Because it wasn’t quite sadness so much as bluish resignation, a minuscule sigh. Life, overrated as it may be, goes on.

Isn’t everything sorta, kinda overrated? All right, not everything. There’s family, romantic love, learning, travel, dogs, bourbon, art, Billy Wilder, anything concerning Doritos.

Still, the very question is unnerving. It’s not the most joyous thing to realize I can think of a kajillion things that are overrated, yet I’m sure you can, too. Let’s go for it. I’m totally just spitballing here:

  • empanadas
  • “The Wire”
  • Johnny Depp
  • most rap
  • “The Queen’s Gambit”
  • Sofia Coppola
  • dinner parties
  • all things Harry Potter
  • “Twin Peaks”
  • sports
  • music festivals
  • celebrity/celebrities
  • chicken breast
  • fake breasts
  • almost every Netflix comedy special
  • Twitter
  • zombies
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • road trips
  • “The Office”
  • late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
  • giant Ferris wheels in major cities
  • “Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
  • Brazilian waxing
  • Dave Eggers
  • Prague
  • politicians
  • “Vertigo”
  • year-round warm weather
  • Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
  • David Sedaris 
  • convertibles
  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
  • video installations

Excuse the haphazard tally; I was just getting started. I could have tossed in podcasts and pork rinds. Hell, I think I’m overrated. Put me in the top slot.

The thing with overrating stuff is how impossibly subjective it is. I can say life — or, for that matter, “Titanic” — is overestimated and there’s a 90-plus percentage you’ll disagree. Surely one of you thinks David Bowie is overrated, but I’d argue he is not, to my grave.  

But subjectivity is part of the pleasure. Sports fans (grossly overrated) forever gauge teams and players in heated arguments of gladiatorially subjective rating games. 

And it is a game. In Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy rattle off members of their own “Academy of the Overrated,” including Vincent van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Ingmar Bergman, formidable figures that seem name-checked just to piss off a breed of urban intellectual. (Woody himself goes apoplectic listening to them.)

As a game, cataloging one’s personal overrated (movie, food, person, book) is a cathartic kick. The characters in “Manhattan” are having a giggling ball airing their pointedly curated Academy. Tossing together my list above was fun and purgative, despite its sloppy incompleteness. (Though I did self-edit as I went. I felt some inclusions would offend sensitive readers. Like God, and jellybeans.) 

Is life really overrated? Sometimes, especially when you consider sickness, loss, debt, all those Tyler Perry movies. But it’s underrated, too — getting lost in a European city, succulent bone marrow in a good restaurant, fond memories, Al Pacino roaring his way through “Heat.”

Maybe it’s an even split. Maybe life and all its facets, good and not-so good, are what make things interesting. Maybe Coldplay (overrated) and cold weather (underrated) can coexist. And maybe, really, overrating things is itself overrated.

Books — visas to new vistas

I’m greedily tearing through “Interior Chinatown,” a tangy cultural satire by hot young writer Charles Yu. I’m savoring the book’s poppy humor, clever screenplay format and edifying critique of what it’s like to be Asian in America (bluntly: assimilation’s a bitch). The novel, which is also a scathing indictment of racial stereotyping in Hollywood, won this year’s National Book Award. It probably deserves it.

As I read, plunging into a world both comic and caustic, ordinary life churns on. I pop a mild tranquilizer (tranquility, wee), the snow melts into puddly archipelagos, the washing machine sloshes, the small gray dog curls up like a sow bug on the couch. These are not distractions, though I sometimes get sidelined by looking forward to my next book, no matter how good the current read is.

Like: 

  • “The Trouble with Being Born,” a collection of acrid aphorisms by E.M. Cioran, who calls birth “that laughable accident.” (Wait, did he write this for me personally?) 
  • I’ll revisit Virginia Woolf’s hypnotic “Mrs. Dalloway,” inspired by a recent essay extolling its literary radicalism. Not a simple read, Woolf challenges audience assumptions, and rewards them with rapture.
  • I’ll also take a second dip into “Sex and Rage,” Eve Babitz’s raffish auto-fiction, whose subtitle, “Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time,” is a brazen come-on. The book’s so saucy, such unfiltered fun, and the writing so ablaze, resisting it would be dumb self-denial.  
  • Then there’s “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn, a rollicking freak show saga told by an albino hunchback dwarf. Echoing with the bearded lady’s cackle, this exotic family comedy has been called “a Fellini movie in ink.” Nirvana. 

It’s trite to note how reading has risen during the pandemic. That’s almost a year now of increased literary calories. And, gulp, plump we get. If you’re braving the prolix Russians, you’re assuming even more brain girth. Conversely, if your diet is J.K. Rowling, you could be anorexic. (And the knuckle-draggers who boast they don’t read? Mind rot — enjoy!)

Certain books, hence, are in high demand. I’m having a hell of time getting my mitts on Maggie O’Farrell’s award-winning historical fiction “Hamnet,” a speculative study of Shakespeare’s complex marriage, his young son’s death from the plague, and how that loss might have led the playwright to make his immortal “Hamlet.” The slavered-over tome is out of stock at (boo, hiss) Amazon and on back order at the local indie shop. All 66 copies in the county library system are checked out.

It can wait. I have the above books on queue, with a few other titles earmarked. You can never run out of choices, even if it leads you to reread a book or three, which is how you know you’ve struck a great one, like my current pleasure “Interior Chinatown,” a contender for a later revisit.

Literature is like another book, the passport. It slings you aloft, carries you to far-flung places. In these cloistered days, reading is the safest, most satisfying way to get out of your space, the claustrophobic chambers of the solitary mind. While we can barely leave home, books are effectively the new travel, transporting — and transcendent.

Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.

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