Occupational hazards of the novelist

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.”

— Olga Tokarczuk, from her Booker-winning novel “Flights,” a luminous series of human and existential journeys revealed in shards and fragments. A supernova of imagination and intellect.

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The Polish author won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

One of those grab-bag blogs filled with mad miscellany

— In New Orleans next month, I’m forgoing the vaunted National WWII Museum for the more mischievously skeevy Museum of Death, a labyrinth of the gross and ghoulish and other alliterative G’s (ghastly, grisly … ). Body bags, coffins, car accident photos, Manson family ephemera, cannibalism — and, well, I’m making a poor case for my mental stability. Why not do both museums? Because I’m booked for a cemetery tour (I know, I know), a paddleboat cruise on the Mississippi, a French Quarter tour and a hop through the Dixie Brewery, which is $5 compared to the war museum’s nearly $30 entry, which is twice as much as Museum of Death tickets. And, really, aren’t both museums monuments to mortality in their ways? (Plus, I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan.” It didn’t go well.)

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— People slap flashy stickers and decals all over their laptops, without realizing the machines are not skateboards and are anything but billboards of hip. A Dell? Fine. A Mac? Plain vandalism.

1hFFNNJHOVyul0OLXpKgpcKM2MOF6S_large— Best movie from the ‘70s I recently re-watched: rattling rock melodrama “The Rose,” starring an atomic Bette Midler, shrill and crazy, on a Criterion DVD. Directed by Mark Rydell, the tipsy tragedy, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s hasty flame-out, was shot by storied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the feral concert scenes from lens legends Conrad Hall, László Kovács and Haskell Wexler. Toni Basil choreographed Midler’s bestial gyrations. The movie, a buckling downer, holds up rapturously. (Watch it with “A Star is Born.” Discuss.) 

— I saw the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie, “The French Dispatch.” My eyes bled. My mind sizzled in its teeny brain-pan. Once upon a time, Anderson was one of our most exciting young filmmakers (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore.”) He’s now one of our most exasperating. And cloying. And irritating. And incurably cutesy.

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“All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.” — Burt Lancaster, philosophizing in 1957’s otherwise poky “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Sometimes I wonder: Am I a gunfighter?

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— I liked but didn’t love Oscar history-maker “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s catchy Korean comedy-thriller-horror flick. It swept the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, which I’m all for. But the movie doesn’t explode. It’s not “Crash” or “Green Book” bad, somehow and embarrassingly snatching top honors — not even close. It is, simply, the most overrated movie of 2019. I placed it #8 on my top 10 list. It is very good. And I am so happy it shut-out “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” patently one of the year’s worst films. For those who haven’t seen “Parasite” but have followed its triumphs, I’m afraid some shade of disappointment is possible. 

Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is one of the sharpest art critics I’ve read, and one of the lushest, most literate prose stylists around. Gifted as he is, he still says things like, “I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself.” He adds, “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.” It is humbling.

—  This is the most poignant line I’ve read in a book in some time: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s from Jenny Offill’s deep and droll new novel “Weather.” I also liked this: “I’m too tired for any of it. The compromise is that we all eat ice cream and watch videos of goats screaming like women.”

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— Winter is fast receding. Son of a bitch.

— I noted above that “Saving Private Ryan” and I had a dubious relationship upon its 1998 release. As a full-time movie critic, I gave the summer blockbuster two stars out of four. I recently located my love letter to the film, part of which reads:

“The World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ begins with a screen-size image of the American flag. The banner ripples in the breeze with patriotic solemnity, as John Williams’ score puffs its chest and gives a stern salute to our tear ducts.

“Dissolve to a scene of soft-focus Americana plucked from Norman Rockwell, featuring a family borrowed from a life insurance commercial. As this ideal of scrubbed, middle-class solicitude walks quietly toward a white cross in a military cemetery, the screen fairly creaks with labored pathos. You start to wonder if you’re watching a parody of a Steven Spielberg movie.

“Actually, it’s an inadvertent self-parody, for this is a Spielberg movie, his latest and most contrived attempt at serious adult filmmaking. Despite its unflinching (almost desperate) depiction of battlefield carnage, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is marred by mawkish indulgence and counterfeit drama, Spielberg’s twin weaknesses. The man can’t help it: He lards the film with freeze-dried sentiment, tingle-inducing declarations and cello cues. The considerable gore is largely separate from the main story; it’s a bombastic stage setter.”

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Save me, Private Ryan.

It’s cold. Let’s read.

Books and movies. I do a lot of both during the hibernating winter months. I’ve plowed through some good books so far this season, with more to come …

Stripped-down realism is so refreshing. That’s what Elizabeth Strout’s cold-water splash “Olive, Again” delivers in the return of the author’s forever-stubborn, wryly splenetic septuagenarian Olive Kitteredge, reluctant heroine of the eponymous, Pulitzer-winning novel from 2008 (“Olive Kitteredge”). The matte finish of ordinary life somehow glistens in these prosaic pages, as Olive and her kin and the locals of small Crosby, Maine, get on with life with all the grace they can muster. Amid the deceptive, lulling ordinariness emerges Olive, who gives just about everyone a pain in the ass. 

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“God, Olive, you’re a difficult woman,” says a suitor. “You are such a goddamn difficult woman, and fuck all, I love you. So if you don’t mind, Olive, maybe you could be a little less Olive with me, even if it means being a little more Olive with others. Because I love you, and we don’t have much time.” The truth as prod — perfect.

Unfailingly elegant, with literary punch and panache, Christopher Isherwood’s classic 1964 “A Single Man” follows George, a gay, British, middle-aged English professor in suburban Southern California, as he manages life after the death of his partner. Solitude reigns, though George experiences symphonic emotions, from fury to attraction, all in finely wrought descriptives. Called a “lyric meditation on life as an outsider,” the novel is at once explosively alive and exquisitely melancholy. 

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In Kevin Wilson’s quirky, arguably gimmicky, new novel “Nothing to See Here,” the main attractions are 10-year-old twins who self-combust when stressed or agitated. Right: they go up in flames. Yet the young author doesn’t belabor the peculiarity, mingling a heavy heart with a breezy tone that depicts events in buoyant deadpan. And while the conflagrations are certainly a metaphor for something, I’m not sure what that is. (Wilson’s fires are more light than enlightening.) 

When the twins’ caretaker Lillian first witnesses one of their freak shows, she shakes off the shock and mildly observes, “Then, like a crack of lightning, she burst fully into flames, her body, a kind of firework, the fire white and blue and red all at once. It was beautiful, no lie, to watch a person burn.” 

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The book is clearly some fun, though it’s braided with furrowed, moving passages about taking care of people, avoiding pain and erasing past hurts. “How did anyone keep this world from ruining them?” Lillian wonders. “I wanted to know. I wanted to know so bad.”

Garth Greenwell’s fawned-over “Cleanness” is more than its homoerotic parts, excuse the imagery, though it certainly is that, too. This novel (or is it a story collection?) sketches a psychosexual character study of an American teaching in Bulgaria, sifting through his cluttered past of intimacies. We see (smell, feel) it all in a journey of desire, love and loss.

This follow-up to Greenwell’s adored “What Belongs to You” falters a bit in a cluster of sex scenes dominating the final stories. It becomes repetitive, fetishistic, rather dull. And yet you don’t give up, because the writer knows exactly how to lull you, with a masterly, agreeable control that’s never pushy.

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On the nightstand now: The brand-new “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood” by crack showbiz historian Sam Wasson. Propulsive prose, staggering detail and wise reflection turn this history into a 3D pop-up book of period L.A., pinballing from the Manson murders and its impact on hot auteur Roman Polanski (who would, of course, helm “Chinatown”), to the creative relationship between Jack Nicholson and screenwriting eminence Robert Towne and the very seeds of SoCal noir. And that’s just up to page 70. 

Concerned largely with the making of a quintessential masterwork of ‘70s film, the book promises to be “the defining story of the most colorful characters in the most colorful period of Hollywood history” and is being compared to classic, unflinching making-of studies “The Devil’s Candy”and “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” 

Already, I’m gripped.41O2b3Fog0L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Reading, a loner’s sport

I read in bars. It’s spectacularly geeky behavior, but as I often haunt bars alone, white pages peppered with black typography make excellent company. If it’s early and bar seating is available, I’ll even brazenly crack my laptop at a corner stool and read and write. I haven’t spilled a drink on the laptop yet, knock on formica.  

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I don’t know many loners (why is everyone so umbilically peoplely?), so my bar-book habit isn’t totally understood. Once, while I was relaxed and swimming in words, a colleague razzed me for reading The New Yorker in a neon-drenched corner of a Texas dive bar. I told him to buzz off and returned to an exceptionally chucklesome Shouts & Murmurs. Not exactly high drama, but the point is: Some just don’t get it. 

And I get that. If I wasn’t such an insatiable reader — I bring reading material everywhere (I even read a book on line at Disneyland) — I’d regard someone with a book and a beer in a bar as exotic, or sad, possibly pretentious. “Reading a book seems to say: ‘I’m going to be here all evening, drinking this one light beer, so please rescue me from a lifetime of loneliness before I go home to the cats who will someday eat my corpse,’” quips The Daily News.

Funny. But what that misses is what a bold gesture reading alone in public is, and not a piteous one. Bar readers know they appear out of place, irretrievably nerdy, kind of lame. But they also know what they’re doing: enjoying two of their favorite things — words and wine; Tom Wolfe and Tom Collins — in a refuge away from home, where, despite the hermetic aspect of the reading experience, one is still surrounded by the healthy buzz of other beings. The book (or magazine or newspaper), after all, can easily be put down — unlike phones with most people, who are truly and perversely debilitated by their devices. 

“The person at the bar reading a leather-bound copy of ‘Great Expectations’ isn’t pathetic,” Thrillist avers, helpfully. “They’re mysterious and brooding and potentially full of more intricate webs of life-challenging secrets than a YA section at Barnes & Noble. All this is diminished if you are reading from an iPad. Or anything by Dan Brown.” (Those last two lines are funny because they’re true.)

And yet another critic of sipping a White Russian while nipping some Dostoyevsky on a barstool calls reading in bars a “standoffish, even hostile gesture. It signifies that you have little interest in celebrating or commiserating with your fellow patrons.”

So what and boo-hoo. And anyway, that writer’s observational faculties are comical at best, foolhardy at worst. A “hostile gesture” — reading? Maybe if you’re poring over “Mein Kampf,” “Dianetics,” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But a book can be an invitation, a conversation starter (especially if you’re reading any of the above titles). And it beats people-watching or glazing over the Times Square spread of LCD TVs. 

Unless it’s you and your child cuddled in bed, or an author appearance at a bookshop event, reading’s a solitary experience. A book, a beer and I. That’s why I’ve never understood the allure of book clubs (note the smooth segue to our next topic), those small-talk nightmares all about chit-chat and socializing and rarely about the book selected by an unreliable committee.

I already have a long list of books I really want to read without being assigned something I might kind-of sort-of want to read in a circumscribed period of time. In other words: homework.  

“Nearly everyone who’s been in a book club has a bone to pick with them,” writes SFGate. “Big personalities dominate the discussion. You’re expected to read a thousand-page brick in a single month. The books you pick are too literary, or not literary enough. Janice didn’t pitch in for wine and cheese.”

So there is this: As part of a verifiable “introvert revolution” springs the Silent Book Club, an actual book club often called “Introvert Happy Hour.” It started in San Francisco eight years ago with two gal pals reading together in a bar. It now boasts 180 chapters worldwide. 

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“The concept is simple yet revolutionary: Members meet up at a bar, a library, a bookstore or any venue that will host them. Once the bell rings, silent reading time commences. After an hour, the bell rings again,” NPR writes. 

“Other than that, there are no rules. Liberated from the orthodoxy of traditional book clubs, participants can bring whatever they’d like to read and chat about anything, before and after the designated reading time.”

Yes, but, it’s still a club, and I’m not partial to organized bodies, be it team sports or religion. So this one, despite its fresh, sensible rules, will have to be a pass. I simply don’t understand why strangers feel the need to congregate and read together. 

People are needy things, squeezed by social pressures and expectations, FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome, and other insecurities. For me, loneliness isn’t the goal; solitude is. I extract myself from others for a while, book in one hand, beer in the other. Call it eccentric. Call it snooty. I call it peace. I call it bliss. 

A writer’s journey from journalism to fiction to television

One of the best books I read last year was the pungent novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Studded with surgical social perceptions, mordant laughs and vibrating relevance, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” If you’re married, or divorced, beware: It has teeth.

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I attended a recent discussion and Q&A with Brodesser-Akner, led by one of her editors at The New York Times Magazine and complemented by a full house of admiring readers. The discursive confab was funny, at times boisterous, always sharp.  

The author is well-known for her smart and sassy celebrity profiles in the NYT Magazine. Among her most famous, and infamous, subjects are Bradley Cooper, Tom Hanks and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some interviewees have not been taken by her resulting articles, but, as a one-time celebrity profiler, I had to applaud when she said that she couldn’t care less what her subjects think of what she’s written about them; she cares only what her editors and her readers think. Truth first, feelings second. Or even sixth. 

Brodesser-Akner’s novel — a smash bestseller, award-winner and named a best book of 2019 by numerous publications — is being turned into a TV series for FX that she is writing with utmost fidelity to the source, she says.

With a showy, dimply smile, big laugh and swift, expansive wit, Brodesser-Akner regaled some 100 fans, chatting about her book’s characters and motivations, responses to the novel, the jump from journalism to fiction, family, parenthood, marriage and TV writing.

Some snippets:

 — “I always just wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to make my money writing. I went to film school because I wanted to be a writer and that program had no math or science requirements, which fit my educational criteria. I fell into journalism when I found out after college that they didn’t just hire you to write screenplays. I looked in The New York Times, which used to have a robust jobs section, and there was a job there for a magazine called Soaps In Depth. And I got a job there. A year later, because of my tremendous productivity and my rapport with my subjects [she laughs], I was approached by a larger soap opera magazine.” [From there, she contracted with GQ and the Times.]

About writing personality and celebrity profiles: “You come in with the stakes being pretty low. Profiles have been so done to death that all you have to do is make sure they’re true, and then you can experiment with them. It’s like what they say about chefs and roast chicken: When chefs all get together they make for each other roast chicken, because that’s the thing you’re supposed to show from this place of plainness what you can do with it. And that’s how I think of profiles: the roast chicken of journalism.” 

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On midlife, a looming theme in the novel: “Midlife is pretty shocking. I did not know how confusing it would be at this particular age. It’s like a second adolescence. But at least when I was an adolescent I thought I knew what I was doing. Now I know enough to know that I don’t. And there’s the constant strains of contentment and being distraught being in line with each other. It’s the way I feel about the suburbs. I can walk down the block and think, ‘This is beautiful. Wait, what kind of person finds this beautiful?’ That’s middle-age for me.” 

About turning “Fleishman is in Trouble” into a nine-episode TV series: “I am writing it now, and it is very hard to write television. They want it very faithful to the book, at least for the first season. They talk about a second season because that’s all they can do. That’s all TV executives do. They’re sharks; they can only swim forward. They want it to mimic the book as much as possible, which sounds easy and it is not. What’s hard about it is if you think about what my specific skills are — when there is no story, I can still write a story. I came to prominence on a story about Nicki Minaj in which I went to interview her and she remained asleep for the duration. I wrote 6,000 words about it. It was a rollercoaster.”

On going from magazine to fiction writing: “Magazine to fiction writing was amazing. Because the book was like a profile — that’s how I kept it in my head, it’s just a long profile that I’m making up. The hardest part of it was, whereas I think I’m a decent observer of people, to make people up and then have to observe them is to kind of deny what is so amazing about people, which is that they always contradict themselves and they’re unpredictable. Whereas creating something is to make up a series of predictable things.” 

“When I decided to write (the novel), I had this gut feeling of: ‘Oh, this is the one.’”

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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Random reflections, part V

A freestyle digest of stuff — anecdotes, lists, thoughts, opinions … 

paul-rudd-headed-to-netflix.jpgIn 2007 I interviewed actor Paul Rudd at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. He was charming, funny and absurdly laidback. As he answered one of my questions he blurted out a lengthy, earth-rattling burp. “Whoa,” I laughed, “what flavor was that?” Rudd replied: “You know what’s weird? It wasn’t a flavor so much as an actual scent, like a potpourri, a mixture of peppermint and brisket. I went to (barbecue joint) The Salt Lick last night, and I ate brisket. I’ll tell you something: It was very different than my Nana’s brisket.”

51Joc3GzvtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ben Lerner’s “10:04” is a breed of intellectual masterpiece, a novel I’ve praised here before. His 2011 debut “Leaving the Atocha Station” is also remarkable, the work of a poetic brainiac with torrents to say, crackling with life observations. His new novel, “The Topeka School,” is his most acclaimed yet — and I’m not sure why. I read fully half of it, and while the writing is pristine, the thinking impressive, I got lost in the choppy, distracting narrative thread. Unmoored, I put it down, migraine emerging. Yet I’m not through with the scandalously young Lerner. I’m taking “10:04” on my 14-hour flights to and from Japan — my third communion with that radiant auto-fiction.

My list of favorite cities has shifted just-so over time, and will likely keep doing so. For now: 1. Paris (eternally tops);  2. Istanbul;  3. Tokyo (this may change after my upcoming visit); 4. New York;  5. London;  6San Francisco;  7. Sevilla;  8Amsterdam.

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Numero Uno

The New York Review of Books is hallowed home to academic think pieces about all things, from politics to poetry, by some of our most prodigious and stylish writers: Zadie Smith, Adam Kirsch, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Rachel Cusk. Why then do I find the essays gassy, tedious, enervating, as long and dry as the Sahara? Never, not once, have I read more than a third of one. (It’s me, I know.) 246x0w.jpgRightful cult classics, “John Wick” and “John Wick: Chapter 2,” starring a lank-haired, bullet-proof Keanu Reeves, are action-flick orgies, chop-socky pistol poetry of a kind unseen since the heyday of John Woo’s “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” I could barely wait for this summer’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.” And then, ugh. Grindingly repetitive (though that urban horse chase is nifty), drawn out and mired in its own smug formula — with a wider narrative scope that attenuates rather than expands the affair — this one is all diminishing returns. The film runs 131 minutes. I quit it, bored, fatigued, with 40 minutes left to go. This Wick is no longer lit.

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It’s still hard to reckon, a year after his death, that American novelist Philip Roth never won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like most awards, it’s a scam, a sham. Roth was one of the greatest, dwarfing most writers who have indeed won the prize. That he received only a single Pulitzer — for 1997’s astonishing “American Pastoral” — is itself a gross dishonor. Every once in a while this pops into my head and I get all rankled. philip-roth-e1545164284312.jpg

Gusty and blustery, a wind storm howls, churning treetops like crumpled paper, flinging acorns that pelt cars and roofs, dropping like small rocks, falling leaves twirling, the house creaking, windows rattling and Cubby the dog, shaking, leaps into my lap, where he curls into a donut, glancing up with fraught brown eyes that say, simply: “Papa.”               This lasts all day. img_0832.jpg

When I wrote about film in Austin, a particular local celebrity didn’t like me. That’s because I didn’t write super stuff about her — one Sandra Bullock. I thought she was a cutesy hack, all dimples and snorts, with dismal taste in roles. Knowing she told a colleague that she wanted my “head on a stick,” I won’t deny a small surge of pride.

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“Ms. Congeniality” —   enough said.