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.

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.”