Life, in no particular order

1. I don’t do dragons. I think they’re silly. For all their fiery tantrums and wing-flapping fury, I can’t take them seriously. Humans ride on their scaly backs like they’re horsies and fly through the sky. I crack up whenever I see that. 

So needless to say I’m not watching HBO’s “House of the Dragon” or Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” big ticket fantasy orgies that by turns bore and baffle me. I don’t even know if “Rings of Power” features dragons — halitosis-impaired Smaug looms large in Tolkien’s Hobbit-verse — but I also don’t do elves or wizards, Orcs or even swords, so I’m pretty much locked out of those good times. 

But I’m not a complete dragon-phobe. My favorite dragon movie is easily “Reign of Fire,” starring Christian Bale and a bald Matthew McConaughey as gnarly post-apocalyptic dragon slayers. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s a blast. McConaughey chews on a big fat cigar throughout. There’s fire and volcanic sludge and dragons all over the place. It’s also pretty grim. And nobody rides a dragon.

2. My brother and his wife just got back from Madrid — precisely where I am headed 20 days from now. No conspiracies, no subtext, we just happened to agree that Spain’s capital is the place to be this month, this year, right now.

What’s great is that I sent the lovely couple on a sort of expedition to scope the city, suss out all the hot tapas bars and cocktail bars, the most electric neighborhoods, what sights to see and what to skip. 

And they delivered resoundingly, finding me a better hotel in a livelier area, several hip restaurants and bars, a shrine to Goya, and a slew of invaluable practicalities. Teamwork! High five! Madrid is famous for its blaring all-night carousing. You still hear people banging bongos in the street at five in the morning. I land on Halloween. I hope it’s batshit. 

3. The ongoing saga of my misadventures in sneaker shopping — the subject of a prior post — is finally winding down. I spent the summer agonizing over what shoes to get to replace my moldered, moth-eaten collection of casual kicks. 

Halt. Mere minutes ago, after I wrote that paragraph, I ordered the final pair of sneakers I will order this year. (I hope.) Just as I was getting comfortable with some slick new Cole Haans, I stumbled on a pair of rare New Balance sneaks that I fell for instantly. Now what? I put the Cole Haans back in their box (for the moment) and clicked “Place My Order” on the New Balance. 

Which means I’ve now, since July, bought seven pairs of sneakers, an unholy sum that has me and my Visa doing barfy loop-the-loops. What else: I got another pair of New Balance, two pairs of Italian-made Oliver Cabells, a cheap pair of white Adidas Stan Smiths, and some Asics that I promptly returned. Incidentally, one pair of the Oliver Cabell shoes are all but unwearable, causing oozing blisters at each step. And it’s too late to return them. My Visa is writhing.

The indulgence is appalling. I’m no sneaker-head. I don’t collect footwear. I am not Imelda Marcos. I just need a fresh fleet of shoes to replenish the worn and rejected. If the latest New Balance are good, I will return the Cole Haans. That will mean I will own only five new pairs of sneakers. One of those causes blisters. So that means four new pairs. Not so dramatic after all. But still: really?

4. Next to Michael Mann’s cop thriller “Heat 2,” a brilliant, blistering, book-form sequel to his 1995 crime movie masterpiece “Heat,” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino among other badasses, the best book I read this summer was Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” — sticky auto-fiction that giddily pinballs through its meandering idiosyncrasies. This jagged, brainy book functions with the itchy buzz of life. It’s hilarious. Awkward. Wincing. Wonderful. Yeah, life.

Narrated by a 30-ish Heti, it’s aptly described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse.” It happily recalls the sui generis first-person fictions of Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill and Elif Batuman, currently my favorite writers. They kind of drop you mid-thought into their lives, then roll on from there with chatty, funny, unembarrassed realism. The works revel in their mundanity, which becomes a kind of magnificence.

Heti’s 2012 novel was named one of 15 “remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write in the 21st century” by The New York Times. A bold but clear choice I wholly endorse. Heti has a new novel, “Pure Colour,” that I wasn’t bonkers about, but you might find worth a peek. For now, “How Should a Person Be?” is what I’m bellowing about from the mountaintop. (Me. Megaphone. A towering crag.)  

5. If you want to know something about me, read this tart and telling passage from Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel “The Hero of This Book”:

“Myself, I loathe having my picture taken. I have for as long as I can remember, even in the old days when you could go weeks without somebody trying. In all group shots I am not pictured. It’s beyond vanity and in the realm of superstition. I don’t like people looking at me. I don’t like being the center of attention except under very specific conditions. … I will not stop for a photo. I will not look at myself in a mirror for you. I will not watch myself pass in a plane-glass window.”

There. Now you know a bit more about me. Also, I’m not big on dragons. 

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.

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.

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.

The trip is going swell, and I haven’t even left yet

Just yesterday, Argentina lifted its Covid test requirements to enter the country. That had me high-fiving the heavens, until I realized it’s not that big a deal, just the removal of a minor headache on the to-do list of travel planning. Still, I’m very happy, as it’s one less document hassle, one less trip to the pharmacy and one less molestation of my mucus membranes. 

Even more exciting is my finding a flight to Buenos Aires in July for $200 cheaper than the flight I almost bought. And I’ve also realized the time difference between here and Argentina is a piffling two hours, which should mean minimal to zero jet lag. These serial boons bode well for a trip that was hatched just days ago. What next? I get bumped to First Class with my own personal masseuse?  

That’s all good news for this pessimist (aka: a frequently disappointed idealist), who tends to see the glass not half-full, but smashed to pieces on the floor after accidentally bumping it with a clumsy elbow, the half-empty contents gone splash. July is three months off, and a lot can happen. The world walks on rickety stilts, and banana peels abound.

For now, I’ll keep planning for the nine-day trip, while life cartwheels forth. Outside, birds tootle like madmen and the sun beats down with self-satisfied ardor. The dog grumbles at the plumber. I play drums to an old-school roster that includes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Metallica’s “Sad But True,” with B-sides of Black Crowes and Beck. 

I finally saw “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, frustrating mess (it’s a big shaggy dog licking you all over the face), led by the seductively quirky Alana Haim — and shut off the Will Smith tennis-dad vehicle “King Richard” when it failed to transcend ingratiating, made-for-TV pablum. 

I’m beguiled by the snappy, scrappy Netflix sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” whose 22-minute episodes I dip into like greasy finger snacks. And in the spirit of Argentina, I might, just maybe, watch the goopy 1997 musical “Evita,” starring Madonna as Eva Perón. 

(Fun facts: The director of “Evita,” Alan Parker, was a master genre-hopper: “Fame,” “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” “Midnight Express,” “Angel Heart,” “The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Angela’s Ashes,” and more. I once interviewed him. He was a mensch. Then I was assigned to review his new movie, “The Life of David Gale.” I gave it one star.)

But back to Buenos Aires, because that’s what really has me in its clutches. More good news on that front: I cinched a seat for in-demand steakhouse Don Julio, which is rated #34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I probably eat steak four times a decade, and since it’s an Argentine thing, I’m definitely tucking in. My chest may implode. I don’t care.

I’m sure I’ll eat a mess of foods I don’t normally eat, as I recently did in Portugal (veal, pork sausage) and Italy (beef cheek, suckling pig). I like to do what the locals do. I feel all authentic — and often horribly guilty.

To me, that’s the point of travel. Tasting the new (an entire cobra in Hanoi), witnessing the exotic (billowing funeral pyres in Kathmandu), grazing danger (being detained by Hezbollah in Beirut), meeting cool people (all those faces!).

Buenos Aires is sure to offer some of that. Places rarely fail me. And things are going well already. That thumping you hear is me frantically knocking wood.

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.

One memory launches a hundred more

There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.

Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks). 

Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …

Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.

Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.

Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”

What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich. 

Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.

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.

Paris perambulations

The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.

It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet. 

I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.

I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.  

Saddest onion soup in the world

But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished. 

Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic. 

As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.

But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary. 

Louvre

Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town. 

Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)  

Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.

The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.

Musee D’Orsay

For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death. 

As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.

She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop. 

The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right.