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_

Brilliant bite-size books

I might be a tad late on this, but I’ve just discovered the marvels that are the mighty, mini hardbacks of the Picador Modern Classics series. I’ll be brief, out of breathless excitement and, well, what can I possibly add to the unadorned fact that these books exist and that, from what I can tell, there are only 12 titles available in this novel (pun, intended) format?

So, like the books themselves, I will be compact. 

But I repeat, with a shill’s enthusiasm, I am enamored of these brilliantly itty-bitty books, which are about the same dimensions of an iPhone 11 — if thicker, more paper-y, less glassy (and, alas, devoid of Siri’s seductive, dulcet tones). 

At less than six inches tall, the books are made for pockets, but they are still chunky, quality hardbacks, running about $16 list. They’re so adorable and beautifully designed, they’re practically edible, or at least highly collectible.

I just finished Christopher Isherwood’s devastating novel “A Single Man” in the Lilliputian edition. (My review: radiant.) Now I’m re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical 1980 masterwork “Housekeeping.Rarely do I get the urge to make a phone call on it, as mostly I’m wholly aware it is a book.

Other titles in the Picador collection include Denis Johnson’s masterly, evergreen stories “Jesus’ Son”; Joan Didion’s indelible essays “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”; Jeffrey Eugenides’ breakout novel “The Virgin Suicides”; Michael Cunningham’s shrewd reinvention of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “The Hours”; and Susan Sontag’s landmark study “Regarding the Pain of Others.

That means there are five more worthy titles to check out in the series. Do so HERE.

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How to annoy a Good Samaritan

For the first time in my life, and hopefully the last, I called 911. It happened today, though it almost didn’t happen. The injured party of two, which did not include me or anyone I know, degenerated into a noisy confusion of bickering and dithering about if I should actually make the call. 

Call it! 

No, don’t call, I’m fine! Jesus!

Annoyed, I rolled my eyes and dialed. 

I was outside the library when I heard a crash then piercing screams and old-man groans — drama and panic before a fine civic institution. A splendid fall day.  

What happened was this: A woman is pushing an elderly man in one of those mini-wheelchairs, officially called transport chairs, when the conveyance hits a large uneven crack in the concrete, spins around and flips over.

The man, who’s attached to an oxygen tank, falls backward in the chair, landing on his back and bonking his head on the ground. There he is, stuck on his back, knees airborne, moaning. His elbows appear to have gotten the worst of it, and they are scraped and bloody. 

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A highly inaccurate reenactment

Screaming and swearing, the woman, doughy and Weeble-shaped, tries to help him up, loses her balance, and falls on top of him, squishing the poor guy. 

Get off me!

Goddmmit! Oh! Ack! Help!

The woman, brassy and braying, tries to get up and falls on her ass on the concrete. She is screaming and cussing. I try to help her up but she’s having none of it.

Oh! My knee! Aaaah!

Yadda yadda yadda. 

She’s fine, a marvelous drama queen.

By now she’s really getting on my nerves, cussing and yelling at her supine companion whose head almost cracked open like a melon.

He, on the other hand, is calm and good-natured, with a crinkly sense of humor, even though he’s on his back on the concrete, knees in the air, tubes up his nostrils. He sort of looks like Hyman Roth in “The Godfather II” or Grandpa from “The Munsters,” except with a constellation of age spots across his olden face. 

He asks me to place my foot under his head as a cushion and I do. It’s a ridiculous scene. She repeatedly swears she will sue the city. She takes a picture of the guy on his back. Don’t take a picture! he yells. 

So I call 911 and the dispatcher keeps me on the line, asking a zillion questions about what’s happening, if the old man is on blood thinners (he is) and other questions I have no answers to. I can barely hear because the woman is screaming and swearing the whole time. 

Can you call 911 for human obnoxiousness?

The aggrieved twosome looks — and acts — like a married couple, though she seems to be in her late 50s and he in his late 70s, early 80s. Daughter and father is more likely. Either way: a nightmare.

The EMS arrives apace, sirens wailing, lights twirling. Taking a final gander at the squabbling duo and circling medics, I saunter off, irritated, into the library. The guy is still on his back. She’s still squawking.

I check out “Apocalypse Now.”