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

Random stuff, summer edition

I’m always jazzed when I discover a great new writer — or at least new to me — and that’s the case with American pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman. I’m not sure why, but I’ve avoided his work for a full decade (jealousy?). Then I recently read a description of one his anthologies that snared my interest. (It was surely the fact that KISS and Metallica were two of his topics.) Growing up a metalhead in the Midwest in the ‘80s, Klosterman was weaned on the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and KISS (still his favorite band, which I find outstanding). He declares KISS “the second-most influential rock band of all time,” after the Beatles. Chew on that. 

Today he writes with breathtaking omnivorousness about culture at large, from TV to Chicken McNuggets. (He also writes a lot about sports. I skip all that.) He pens novels, memoirs and big thinky pieces. He’s breezy, never ponderous or pretentious — he’s pretty much anti-pretentious — penetrating, smart as hell and equally as funny. This summer I’ve read his collections “IV” and “X.” I’m now on the memoir of his early hair-metal fandom, “Fargo Rock City.” The book is about much more than his little life worshipping bands like Poison. It’s expansive, ecstatic, packed with big ideas and witty perceptions. With Klosterman, it always is. 

I slipped in a sweaty drum session last night, pounded away for about 30 minutes to an array of vintage rock, most of which would make you blush. I performed pretty well, but not A-plus. I was thinking too much. When I think about what I’m playing, about what move I’m going to make next, I throw myself off and lose the beat. Same goes when I think about life things while I play — it derails the groove and mistakes are made, sticks are dropped. As a metal madman once screeched, “C’mon feel the noise!” Meaning, don’t think it.

It’s been years since I watched the 1996 cult comedy “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest mockumentary that, with sardonic sweetness, lampoons community theater culture and the talentless goofs who inhabit it. On a whim, I rewatched it. I cringed at what I once adored. Gags are broad, the jokes are fizzless, the parody punchless. It feels facile and off-key. That said, my love for Guest, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara remains undying. (Forget “Schitt’s Creek.” I’ll take classic “SCTV” any day.)

I got my first haircut in more than four months the other day. (A new national holiday should be declared.) It was a new place, a new barber, a guy I quickly cottoned to. We gabbed almost entirely about world travel — Turkey, Morocco, Japan, India and, natch, Paris, since that’s where I’m booked to go in October. I expressed my concern that even in the fall the world won’t be ready for regular tourist travel. He demurred. His prediction, stated with blithe confidence: All this pandemic mess will be done with in — get this — six weeks. September, he averred, and things will be back to normal, and I will easily get to fly to an all-open Paris. Maybe he was just making me feel better. Maybe he doesn’t read the papers. Maybe he’s been huffing the Aqua Net.   

I’ve rediscovered the kaleidoscopically inspired Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time,” whose title doesn’t begin to convey what’s in store for the kiddies (and rabid adults) who tune in. I can’t either. Squirting diarrhea, rainbow unicorns, a talking piñata, a verbal, shape-shifting dog and so much stuff that qualifies as unapologetically batshit that I can’t possibly smoosh it into this space. Now airing on HBO Max, each 11-minute episode — any longer and your eyes might bleed — is a heady, unhinged phantasmagoria of the surreal, psychedelic and wildly non sequitur. It’s also positive, uproarious, sad, thoughtful and weirdly timely. And it’s a damn cartoon.

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Quote of the day

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

 — “In a Lonely Place,” the classic noir novel by Dorothy B. Hughes

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Homebound, book-bound

The neighbors down the street have acquired a tiny spotted piglet and that means nothing, because that’s not what I’m here for. Just thought I’d mention it as a friendly neighborhood bulletin, despite its thoroughgoing irrelevance to anything on this page.

I’m here to talk books — books I’m gathering around me like a collective paper blanket during the sheltering in place (my least favorite term for the eternal quarantine). I have mentioned I’m ordering new and used books hungrily, and now the stacks are rising precariously. Somebody stop me. 

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Over time I’ve read three or four novels and story collections by the daring, queasily beguiling Ottessa Moshfegh, whose darkly defiant streak, which runs from addiction to murder, poop to pathologies, has never been as palpable as in her 2016 debut “Eileen.” I just gobbled up the slim novel and I’m savoring its bitter aftertaste. I wanted to be ready for Moshfegh’s much-anticipated novel “Death in Her Hands,” coming out in two weeks. Hardly a spoiler: It’s being called perverse and strange. Bring it on.  

In a snap of energetic laziness, I skipped the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s universally lauded series The Neapolitan Novels, which kicks off with “My Brilliant Friend,” opting instead to watch the first two parts in the epic HBO adaptations (luminous, devastating). Now I’m into the third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and it makes me anxious: How much lush, moving prose did I miss by not reading the first two books? Yet another literary project materializes. 519LmMYfn-L._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_There’s a handful of hip, youngish, mostly male writers I avoid because of both their grating public images and callow, look-at-me writing (see ya, Dave Eggers). Journalist Chuck Klosterman, who specializes in rock and pop culture at large, has always made my belly twist at the teensy bit of his I’ve read in the likes of Spin magazine. He’s published loads of essay collections, like “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” and “Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas,” the latter of which I swallowed hard and purchased. Surprise — it’s damn good. With a mix of irreverence and shaggy erudition, humor and a swingingly unadorned style, the author asserts a penetrating, smarter-than-his-subjects but not condescending attitude on everyone from Britney Spears and Radiohead to Metallica and Robert Plant. A pop culture polymath, a smart-aleck with a laser-pointed pen, Klosterman is good company.

41N3Bj9x7IL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Also a delight are the words of the late David Carr, the New York Times media columnist who in 2015 dropped dead in the Times newsroom, a fact that might have tickled the celebrated super-journalist. “Final Draft,” a new collection of his writing from the past 25 years, reveals a passionate pro and consummate stylist at his best. We get reportage and ruminations on racism, personal addiction, media blowhards, personalities and the often checkered texture of journalism itself. Carr was a star. This book shows why. Unknown And now, the pig:

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High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

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Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.

Things are getting hairy

Like many people’s hair during these epic days of cyber-hibernation (cybernation?), when electronics provide disproportionate company, mine is doing its growing thing, filling out, fluffing, turning unruly and cruel and comical. It is mutating, rising like a very fine soufflé whipped up by a Michelin-star chef crossed with Vidal Sassoon.

A follicular brushfire is what we are on the verge of, and it needs to be extinguished before I’m mistaken for Angela Davis circa 1971. Obviously I cannot make a rendezvous with my hair technician — I do not reside in Georgia, thankfully — who I see once a month or so. I realize now in this moment of unsupervised hair — it plays in the street and gambols across the meadows without a leash — I could probably go longer between appointments without scaring the neighbor kids.

I worry. We are going to be locked up for a long time, indefinitely. Yet some facts. One: very few people will see me. Two: I’ll be able to join a Led Zeppelin tribute band. 

A home cut is out of the question. Just see what we’ve done to the dog. Unfortunate home-cut stories on the web give me mental razor burn. I could do the simple buzzcut, but just typing that makes me quiver. It smacks of capitulation, semper fi, and Velcro.

There used to be an extraordinarily smart and funny satirical magazine called Spy. It published for 12 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I liked it so much I bought a Spy baseball cap, black with a yellow Spy logo. I wore that thing all the time, especially on bad hair days or lazy hair days.

And so, the cap. A lightbulb dinged above my haystack of hair and I started hunting for a quality, stylish baseball cap to conceal the coming tonsorial torrent. No actual baseball team or any sports-themed cap would do. If they made writer caps — I’d kill for a Philip Roth topper — I’d be in hat heaven. 

Then I thought of publications I read devoutly, namely The New York Times and The New Yorker. Journalism merch is my catnip. I wore-out a vintage San Francisco Examiner t-shirt and, over some years, broke a set of Chicago Tribune tumblers. I still own a collection of newspaper coffee mugs, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

While noncommittally surfing the New York Times store the other day, mulling over handsome sweatshirts and t-shirts (all of them free advertising for the newspaper, I’m aware), I hit upon the black and grey logo baseball cap. A plush twill, it’s not exactly cheap; the price made me blink twice, hard. But I went for it. 

‘Cause I’m going to need it. The hair, growing like bamboo with no machete in sight, will be its own entity by June. It’s already talking back to me, acting up, not doing its chores. The modest cap should do wonders to muffle, tame and smoosh the mutinous tumble. 

Then of course a whole other nuisance will blossom: a little thing called hat head.

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                       A lot like the one I ordered

 

Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.

The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.