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.

Random reflections, part II

I wish I played chess, even so-so. At this point, I have zero interest in learning how. 

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The best book I’ve read this summer is the acrid novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by the regrettably named Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Terrifically observant, mordant and relevant, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” I’m too lazy to describe it. But it’s superb, and superbly smart. If you’re married, or divorced, beware. It has teeth.

It’s in the news today. Never in a million years would I want to climb Mount Everest. Or any mountain for that matter. I don’t do tents. Or canteens. Or oxygen tanks. Or death.

I booked a flight to Tokyo for late October. I’m going to eat sushi and more sushi and sip sake and Japanese whiskey and absorb on a granular level Shinjuku nightlife. I may barf.

When I was 8 I saw big white beluga whales at SeaWorld. They made me kind of sick, all bulbous and albino, their big, meaty cow tongues showing when they smiled. Many years later — last week, in fact — I saw the belugas again at SeaWorld. They still make me ill. 

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Charismatic badass and “Blade Runner” actor Rutger Hauer has just died. So, alas, has presidential impeachment. R.I.P. 

A movie my mind keeps returning to is the new documentary “Honeyland,” which is about a lone female beekeeper in the unforgiving mountains of Macedonia and her struggles with her unruly neighbors, her sick mother and the mere notion of survival. It sounds terrible. It is sublime. I could see it winning an Oscar. See trailer HERE.

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My brother and I have reservations next month at Alice Waters’ legendary Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse, where we will dine on such succulent fare as, quote, “Sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli with chanterelle mushroom and garlic brodo” and “Sonoma County duck confit with frisée, haricots verts, fig vinaigrette, garlic crouton, and sage.” I don’t know what half that means. I don’t care. I will delight, as my wallet gently weeps.

I promised I would never mention my Sea-Monkeys again. I lied. There are a half-dozen survivors, swirling through the briny tank, each one as big as Moby Dick. I hope the cats are hungry.

Too many critics and other dopes are declaring season two of the amazing Amazon Prime comedy “Fleabag” superior to season one. Wrong. Season one is fresher, funnier, wiggier, better. Season two is splendid, no doubt, and you should watch it, as it’s the best comedy on TV. I’m just saying.

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Speaking of TV hilarity, the lamest, most overrated “comedy” is “Bojack Horseman,” a Netflix show so consistently and embarrassingly unfunny, such a bizarre misfire, it just makes me tired. (If you find this show amusing, please leave a comment and explain.)

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Some years ago, my Dad took us to an incredible slew of jazz and comedy shows. A few luminaries we saw live: Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as live NBC tapings of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and, way back, “The Goldie Hawn Special” featuring then-pop idol Shaun Cassidy. The whole thing’s a head rush.

I recently bought a can of sardines. I keep looking at it, baffled and fearful.

Critiquing the critics

Great piece in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “Like This or Die” by Christian Lorentzen. He’s a critic taking aim at the soggy state of criticism, and his article is by turns scathing and amusing and devastating.

After noting that “clichés are pandemic” in newspaper book reviews, Lorentzen says “Endless lists of book recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe.” (Guilty as charged: The New York Times and New York magazine.)

He goes on:

The basic imperatives of the review — analysis and evaluation — are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?”

His sentiments remind me of the youth-pandering boosterism of Vulture and the somewhat more adult slavering of Vanity Fair, to name two obvious culprits that more often than not elect fuzzy over fulmination. They are hardly alone in hailing mediocrities like Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and “Stranger Things,” floridly overpraised series that reveal a critical desperation to like stuff.

Being honest isn’t the same as being sadistic. “Negativity is part of the equation,” Lorentzen says, “because without it positivity is meaningless.”

More from the article, which can be read here:

What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better. Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good.”

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The unhilarious “Bojack Horseman” — yet one example of a series overrated by TV critics desperate to cling onto something in the bleak crap-o-sphere.