Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.

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

A needling issue

At long last, I got my first flu shot. The transaction — their needle, my flesh and humility — happened in a grubby drug store pharmacy. The prick was quick and slick, and I didn’t even pass out. Nice work, Maggie. 

Peg me a shiftless procrastinator, a craven needle-phobe or simply irresponsible, but I was never motivated to get a flu shot. I figured as I never get the flu, why volunteer for a small agony. This, in hindsight, was naked folly. The new nature of viral contagions changed my mind lickety-split, and almost happily I rolled up my sleeve, squinched my eyes and turned my head as the pharmacist harpooned me.

Of course when I first saw the syringe, I made an exaggerated ack sound, like I was horrified of needles, which, well, I kind of am. To wit: When I was 12, I contracted mononucleosis, which is referred to as the kissing disease by hormonal middle-school gossips. Much blood was drawn from my arm, and more than once the nurse had to pull out smelling salts before my drooping body slunk to the floor. (Smelling salts are fantastic. They’ll snap you out of a coma.)

Finishing the mono bit, news of my illness spread across campus, initially as fodder for racy rumors but ultimately becoming a badge of honor. Not only was I out of school for six weeks — a scholastic triumph — I returned a sort of hero, a tween Don Juan who not only got, but conquered, the mythic kissing disease. Thank you.

Today the flu vaccination is coursing through my body, a shield against aches and fevers and coughs and sneezes. But that’s only partly true. Because Covid-19 still lurks with no vaccine in plausible sight, no matter the president’s flatulent lies. And Covid is not just the seasonal flu, as our genius in chief crows. Remember this doozy? “When it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” (I need a large crowbar.) Or this, about the U.S. death toll so far: “It is what it is.” What a fella.

And now he’s pressuring his administration to approve a coronavirus vaccine ahead of the November election, before they have proof that it is safe and effective, reports, well, everyone. “The faster, the better,” Trump spouts.

It’s the stick-it-in-your-arms race: Trump rushes to produce a politicized vaccine while Russia does the same in order to burnish its standing in the nationalistic spotlight. Who can do it first? (Me first!) Are Trump and Putin kindergartners? Yes. Yes, they are.  

I’ll take a Covid immunization — when it’s thoroughly tested and certified by doctors and experts who do not kowtow to venal politicians. A hurried, premature Covid vaccine got a volunteer very sick this week. Yeah, I can wait. 

It’s been two days since my comparably inane flu shot, and I think I have the slightest sore spot where the needle poked me. Boo-hoo. This is serious stuff. I’ll be glad to get another flu jab next year, and I look forward to a safe Covid shot. I’ll be there, rolling up my sleeve, squeezing shut my eyes and turning my head in the other direction. Smelling salts optional. The shot itself: mandatory.

Melting ice cream dreams

I feel bad for the old ice cream truck fella, an icon of hearty Americana who once, back in “Leave it to Beaver” times, was known as the Good Humor Man, and who now is definitely not in a good humor.

Yet here he is, making the rounds at 3:30 each afternoon without fail, rumbling through the neighborhood, tinny tunes jangling from a rusted rooftop megaphone, the Pied Piper of Popsicles. Are those tear stains on his cheeks?  

These are mournful times and, unsurprisingly, the traveling ice cream business is way down, what with parks closed, or only slowly reopening, and the pandemic pandemonium roiling unabated. I hear the music and look out to see two or three tykes clamoring at the truck window instead of the bevy that used to get all Wonka-Bar crazy for the latest frozen thingamajig. 

It’s almost painful watching the face-masked driver handing out melty treats to the wan crowd. What once took a frantic 15 minutes or more is now a few-moments pause, a hiccup with the motor running. (Melting? Maybe my heart.)

Better days for the ice cream man.

What I also notice is how the truck’s musical tootling has changed over the summer. Going from upbeat circusy music, this might be the only ice cream truck whose jingle is by Beethoven, namely “Für Elise,” a strangely moody tune to play from a Day-Glo magnet for giddy children.

I suspect our fraught racial climes have affected the ice cream man’s tune. He used to play the hokey folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” which goes like this. Some argue that the song, which confectionary vehicles nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s grossly racist. Revisionists refute that. 

Not Wu-Tang’s badass RZA, who’s updating “Turkey in the Straw” with a hip-hop twist. CNN reports: “RZA came up with a new ice cream truck jingle because the old one was used in minstrel shows.” Last month, Good Humor even ordered all ice cream truck drivers to stop playing the outmoded number because of its sullied history. 

As if the nameless driver doesn’t have enough woes without the cursed and forever corny “Turkey in the Straw.” The children disperse wearing ice cream lipstick, scampering back to homebound quarantines or kicking balls in the street. I picture our quiet hero despondent, driving off with his forehead resting on the steering wheel, enduring the same few bars of Beethoven’s old melody played over and over on something between a strangled street organ and a broken music box, with that creepy carnivalesque tang.

The music echoes down the block and through the trees, an earworm for the dwindling masses, calling out: eat me

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

Life’s an itch

This is not a pleasant post, far from mouthwatering, streaked as it is with pus, scabs and blood. If you’re looking for pixie dust and gummy bears, you’re way off, and I suggest you head to, oh, cutecatvideos.net or marthastewart.com. Giddiness awaits.

You know what eczema is? It’s not heavenly and I’ve got it hellishly. Not rampantly, but not mere diaper-rash dapples either. Mine’s mid-grade, enough for me to finally visit a dermatologist and to repeatedly try to saw my legs off with a cheese knife. The vile rashes are largely confined to my legs, with the random breakout on my arms and hands. Scaly fingers — the best!

Unsightly if not quite repulsive, the fleshly malady — “in which patches of skin become rough and inflamed, with blisters that cause itching and bleeding” (thank you, Webster, for that subtle description) — resembles a mild poison ivy rash. And it itches with fury and hellfire.

The condition is nothing new to me; I’m just electing to whine about it now, here, for your delectation. I’ve endured eczema eruptions sporadically since my wee years, when my parents slipped socks over my hands at bedtime so I wouldn’t rip open my flesh and bleed all over my “Star Wars” sheets while sleeping. 

I only bring it up because this bout is strange and strangely intense. Without dwelling on the oozy, crusty details, I’ll just say it’s a spectacular nuisance, keeping me up nights with feline scratching frenzies and poorly lit attempts to slather lotion over the seething inflammations, like putting out a blaze. Additionally, I’m ruining pairs of summer shorts, some of which have become polka-dotted with rude little blood stains. (Spray ’n Wash has some splaining to do.) 

I never dreamed I’d seek professional treatment for simple eczema. For months I’ve stubbornly tried to master the misery with over-the-counter remedies whose healing powers have proven distinctly underwhelming. There’s the Gold Bond Eczema Relief lotion and some wimpy 1% hydrocortisone creams — both mighty letdowns. The proof is in the ragged tissue under my fingernails.  

Nearly everyone, on the web and in person (including my new dermatologist), recommended I take an antihistamine for the itching, namely Benadryl. So I did. A lot. The other night, over the course of several hours, I popped eight Benadryls, a feat that might get me into the Guinness Book of World Records, or at least a spot on “Jackass.” Benadryl is a well known sedative, too, and most people I know plunge into a coma if they take more than one. But I am, alas, immune to the soporific powers of this allergy curative. A stiff Scotch will have to do.

Sometimes the big guns must be marshaled. The dermatologist meeting was quick and to the point. Besides urging me to take antihistamines, the doctor prescribed Betamethasone Dipropionate cream, described as a “strong corticosteroid,” which means, I hope, that it contains healing superpowers of uncommon righteousness. Corticosteroids come with myriad side effect warnings, from acne to glaucoma, but I’m going for it. Besides, I don’t think I’ll get acne or glaucoma on my legs.

Occasionally caused by allergic irritations, eczema mostly attacks for no good reason. As a little kid, chocolate triggered my eczema, so I had to eat that entirely lame chocolate substitute, carob. (By around 9, though, I was all about M&Ms and Reese’s. Hence a new affliction: cavities.) 

Here’s something. Last night was my first go with the powerhouse corticosteroid. I applied it as directed and went to bed. Around 4 a.m. I awoke with both hands clawing the treated regions. Itchy as ever, I took some Benadryl (for a total of seven that night), hoping it would blunt the pain and knock me out. Mission: failed. I was up all night, writhing. 

Still, I will keep at it, slathering white cream on red rashes, seeking a miracle. This is a process, it will take time, and I’m just scratching the surface.

Shop till you flop

Oh, the quarantine is wonderful. I read, I write, I drum, I shop, I gaze at the floor. There’s my epitaph.  

The shopping’s the perilous part, even though most of what I buy online are essentials I’d get at the store anyway: vitamins, shampoo, mountains of books — exhilarating. My purchases run in the $10-$20 range, except for the drum kit I mentioned in a prior post, which cost twice as much as my October ticket to Paris (that trip: never gonna happen). 

Recently I went for another big-ticket item, if not super big-ticket. I bought some fashionable duds: expensive jeans, classy pants that, per historical weather patterns, I won’t be able to wear with a hint of comfort until late September. (For now I wear shorts. I do not like shorts. I look absurd in shorts.) 

So I’ve sported the new jeans around the house, duly admiring them — the slim fit of the raw Japanese denim, the pleasing inky-blue hue, the so-called 4-way stretch, which means a dash of boingy material is stitched into the crunchy denim for optimum comfort, making unnecessary the small ordeal of “breaking in” fresh denim, which often requires rocks, whips and a blowtorch. 

Buying stuff is a two-pronged sensation. It’s electrifying, scouring products, comparison shopping, finding gems, clicking “Place Order,” waiting for the arrival. Yet it’s all so fleeting. When it’s over, item delivered and in my hands, I die a little death, deflated, which is exactly when I should light up a post-coital cigarette.

But the more expensive items — the drums, the jeans, the cursed Paris flight (which was purchased in April) — resonate much more than, say, a three-pack of Colgate. Not because they’re pricier but because they are on a patently superior echelon, more novel, more enduring, more exciting. I love the drum set, I love the jeans, I love Paris. 

None of it will save me. I shop, therefore I am — shrug. That’s claptrap, plain melodrama. At best I’m a half-hearted shopper in normal times, avoiding the antiseptic zombie shuffle of Muzak-y malls and largely being dragged numbly through shops and boutiques even in hip consumer hives like New York’s SoHo, an area I do like.

But stuff must be bought, from boxer briefs to Benadryl. And — why not — the occasional pair of rocking blue jeans. Yet the lockdown shouldn’t make us spendthrifts, but indeed the opposite: penny-pinchers. Dire times, etc. I’m working on that. Meanwhile, that sound you hear is me clicking my way down a rabbit hole of unbridled acquisition.

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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A step backward for Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite structures in the world. A chunky, imposing cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-public-museum, flanked with four rocket-like minarets, a bulky beacon doused in faded hues of pink and salmon, the famous building shares the same lush Istanbul peninsula as the nearly-as-glorious Blue Mosque. Almost amazingly, the edifices sit directly across a palm-lined park from each other, a spiritual and architectural bonanza. 

So it’s with slack-jawed dismay that I read this about the treasure in today’s newspaper:

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.

“The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.”

Erdogan, on an Islamist tear, is, like another aspiring authoritarian, a crackpot. And today’s move on Hagia Sophia is culturally criminal. 

More from the article:

“Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.”

Below are some of my photographic memories of the holy site, aka Ayasofya, where you can see the exotic marriage of Islam and Christianity, including walls of crumbled majesty, their layers peeled back to reveal vibrant Christian frescoes and mosaics from 537 AD, as well as gigantic round panels emblazoned with Arabic script perched from atop the basilica. For years, it was the world’s largest interior space. It is spellbinding.