Books a go-go

On a frigid fall weekday, I strolled to the library, determined to slow down my crazed buying of books by borrowing some instead, and I suddenly tripped and fell, all but face-planting on the cracked concrete. The wind swirled. Snowflakes fluttered, constellations of falling stars. I clutched my knee and whined like a baby infant. God wept.

Everything okay, I rose, did the ritual dust-off, and walked on, wearing a pinched wince on my unscathed puss. I casually looked around, praying no one saw.

At the library, I had work to do, books to seize. Recently, I had the throbbing urge to re-read “Beloved,” the Toni Morrison classic enshrined as one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. Slavery, infanticide and malevolent ghosts — fine holiday reading. Found it, grabbed it.

Oscar chatter circles Jane Campion’s new film, the spare, unsparing western “The Power of the Dog,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. For that, the 1967 book it’s based on, by the unsung Thomas Savage, is receiving renewed attention. So I also got it. (And I read it. It’s terrific — all searing psychological grit with a blindsiding twist that will snuff your dreams of ever becoming a cowboy.)

I’m hot and tepid with novelist Lauren Groff — I quite liked her novel about a utopian commune “Arcadia,” but found the acclaimed marital dissection “Fates and Furies” ordinary and wildly overrated. Still, I’m going to give her latest super-hyped novel, “Matrix,” a shot. So I got that, too. It’s a character study about a young woman who discovers love and feminist agency in an impoverished abbey in 12th century England. Sounds … intriguing?

Heading to Portugal soon, I picked up Portuguese literary eminence and Nobel Prizer José Saramago’s “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.” This isn’t Saramago’s most famous novel — that would be “Blindness” — but it’s kind of better. It’s a mash-up of the four Gospels with Saramago slyly, ironically and contempletively (and controversially) filling in the mysterious, nettling voids of those holy books. He presumes and vamps on what Jesus did in his childhood and adolescence, up to his grisly demise on the cross with a skeptic’s impish wit. I loved the book. I loved the shivery last line: “But what Jesus did not see, on the ground, was the black bowl into which his blood was dripping.” Human, all too human.      

Elizabeth Strout knows humans. Author of such intimate, character-driven novels as “Olive Kitteridge” and “My Name is Lucy Barton,” her prose is lean, literary and deeply felt, homing in on individuals, real people, with an empathic laser beam. She banishes cynicism for a rare authenticity that invites organic joy and pain. Her latest is “Oh William!” (oh, that title!), a continued riff on characters from “Lucy Barton.” Lucy and her ex-husband William reunite platonically for what’s inescapably called a journey of discovery, one with neat, homey zigzags that ring hard and true. Its humanity is unassailable, its humor wry, its imprint lasting. That’s another book I got.

I scored that day among the teeming stacks, under the florescent mists. Five books essentially for free is nothing to smirk at, and my luck seemed boundless, until it wasn’t. I couldn’t find Franzen’s latest family blockbuster “Crossroads” or John Gardner’s cult classic “Grendel” — an ironic tale told from the point of view of the aggrieved monster in “Beowulf” — or Elizabeth Samet’s “Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness” and, gee, doesn’t that sound like festive holiday reading, not unlike “Beloved”?

In my book, oh yes, it certainly does.

Books, bookings, and Bourdain

A few things banging around my head this week …  

David Sedaris has a new book out. Whoop-dee-do.

Expectedly, knee-jerkingly, reviewers have stumbled over themselves to praise the foppish funnyman’s latest collection of personal tales (often tall), diary entries, cultural observations and social sniping. 

Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, a humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll stories about his family, his husband and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides. 

Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is baldly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed, determinedly unadorned, dare I say drab. (I said it.)

Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan — I’ve been there — he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees. 

***

I’m pumped about Portugal. Barely back from Paris and already I’m poring over books and sites about Lisbon and Porto, legwork for a weeklong stay in mid-January, when I’ll probably get soaked by merciless rain (while temps hover at a balmy 58 degrees). Paris must feel like a betrayed mistress.

The flight, which cost less than a good winter coat thanks to an airline credit, is booked. Hotels, at seductive off-season prices, are booked. Two walking tours, including a Porto food tour, are booked. 

I got back from Paris exactly one week ago. I am shameless, a monster. 

Unlike Paris, London or Spain, Portugal isn’t front-loaded with blindingly spectacular sights and museums. It instead thrums with an old-world vibe, cobbly neighborhoods spread over San Francisco-y hills, views and plazas and churches and food, including unparalleled bounties from the sea, and of course the people. (My people. As mentioned before, I’m of Portuguese descent, though my ties to the country are tenuous at best. I’m a terrible ambassador.)

It’s a walking world, Portugal. I plan to amble, stomp and stagger through the country’s two biggest cities, with the very occasional — and very cheap — taxi for longer hauls. A picture says so much, and makes the heart do a jig:

Porto

***

Smarter, funnier, better looking and a brilliantly better writer — not mention an infinitely superior cook, natch — Anthony Bourdain and I still had a lot in common. 

We’re both wanderers, seekers, a little profane and rough around the edges, smart-alecks, atheists, ironists and guiltless sensualists. We’re angry, fiery and melancholic. We’re easily bothered and bored, and don’t always know what to do about it, except, in many cases, hit the road.  

And like him, for all my searching, I’m still not sure what I’m looking for. And I’m pretty sure I will never find out. Bourdain, a suicide in 2018, probably never did either.

This hits me watching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a moving, multilayered documentary about the celebrity chef, author and influential television host by gifted filmmaker Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” another masterpiece). 

Sure we had things in common, but Bourdain, in his books, shows and this remarkable movie, cuts a troubled figure, the classic brooding, almost romantic enigma who toggles manically between wonder and woe.

With his streamers of verbiage, buoyantly prickly charm, zeppelin-sized attitude (and ego), lanky strut, tats and designer shades, Bourdain was hipster as tour guide, a foodie philosopher, man of the world who was always just a little itchy in the role. He was the reluctant rock star — cynical, self-effacing — who still craved the glory, glamor, privilege and, alas, the drugs, including heroin, that came with it.

At his best Bourdain was an influencer before the term gained the narcissistic kiddie cachet it flaunts today. Before any trip, be it Toronto or Tokyo, I watch a rerun of “No Reservations” or “The Layover” to get a voluptuary’s feel for a city and nail down must-do destinations of plate and place. I’ll be rewatching his “Parts Unknown” episode about the food and culture of Porto soon enough. I trust him to steer me to the coolest and most coveted spots. He hasn’t failed me yet.

The programs, of course, are as much about the man as the places he visits. They’re about getting an earful, and a mouthful, from a dark, dazzling host who found so much joy between grumbles. He made the dangerous seem divine, just how I like it.

***

When in Paris, I always duck into the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookstore, smack on the Seine on the historically literary Left Bank, where Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Sartre tippled and typed, spinning the blank page into eternal art. 

Cramped and crowded with tome-seeking tourists, the creaky-floored shop, honeycombed with nooks, alcoves and twisty aisles, specializes in French and English language literature — no junk, just the good stuff. It’s not snobby. It’s just smart. And the English-speaking staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful, stamping your book with the store’s inky insignia. It’s a pulp paradise, the kind that makes a bibliophile go a little mad with delight and desire.

I went firmly middlebrow on my recent pilgrimage, grabbing a paperback (it’s only available in hardback in the States) of Sally Rooney’s new novel, the wincingly titled “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” I cracked it immediately, reading in bars and cafes with a Chardonnay or latte on hand. 

The Irish Rooney (“Normal People”) is a reliably breezy read, plainspoken, occasionally lyrical, but mostly succinct and pinched. Her control is impressive and her sturdy, confident voice makes you want to follow her wherever she’s going, which often includes naked people. 

I just finished the book on my return from Paris and enjoyed it. It covers Rooney’s preferred topics — love, sex and friendship, yearning and ambition among anguished millennials — with detour discussions about Marxism and life’s unfathomable purpose. (Rooney, a wunderkind at 30, is a professed Marxist.) 

Coming from the famous bookshop, it’s not only a winning read, it’s a fitting souvenir from that most bookish of cities.

4 for fall

1. Au revoir, France — hello, Ireland? That’s how it looks right now, especially since I’ve swapped my flight to Paris for a ticket to Dublin. So I guess I’m going to Ireland in October (insert a wee leprechaun kick). Or I think I am. The tyranny of the pandemic can upend everything, so while Ireland has relatively open tourism guidelines, things can change in a depressing snap. I scotched Paris because France’s Covid rules have become groaningly prohibitive — très crappy. I’m not torn up about it. I’ve been to Paris a few times, but this purportedly worldly traveler has never made Ireland. Frankly, it hasn’t lured me to its bucolic charms: rolling green hills, craggy ocean cliffs, mossy castles, obsession with pubs and, suspiciously, Guinness beer, minor museums and churches. It’s been on my index of non-bucket list destinations (including Australia, Iraq and pretty much anything Caribbean) until now. What clicked? The idea of something far and uncharted (and not tropical). Focusing on Dublin and, briefly, Galway, it will be a mellow journey, eight lolling days of food and drink, mild tourism, immersive history and lots of questionable Irish music. If I really get there, I’ll be lucky, charmed.

2. With uncluttered elegance, the film is called “Lamb, and it will chill you to the bone. Coming October 8, it’s described by hip indie studio A24 as “Icelandic folktale on top, Nordic livestock horror on bottom,” and it flows in the vein of A24 creep-outs “The Witch” and “Midsommar.” This one, by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is about a childless couple adopting a creature that is neither lamb or human: a sheep has given birth to a hybrid animal that has the body of a baby and the head of a lamb. Watch the trailer here. It’s unsettling. It’s eerie. It’s glorious.

3. I’ll take sweaters over sweat anytime, and I cherish every cool breeze that cuts through this soggy, sloggy summer. Let’s call it a wrap. I have things to do this fall and the chaotic weather, be it soak or scorch, is proving a deflating victory for climate change. It’s time for 50s and 60s and the end of wildfires, heat waves and floods. Yes, I hate summer, but no season’s perfect. Even autumn, the best of them all, has its pesky drawbacks, from confetti storms of leaves and Mandalorian costumes on Halloween, to football and corn mazes. We can deal.

4. And we curl back to Dublin, via Irish author Sally Rooney, whose new book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” arrives September 7. A globally celebrated wunderkind for her twin novels “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” both written before she was 28, Rooney returns to her familiar milieu of middle-class millennials swirling in career, interpersonal and libidinous distress. Couplings and uncouplings of bright young things juice the story and, if her other books are any indication, things will get hot. And bothered. A Rooney fan, I’m looking for artistic growth in the new novel, her longest yet. Rooney’s not the most assertive stylist, her stubbornly lean prose tweezered of metaphor. In a 2019 post, I concluded that “Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature.” That said, they’re nourishing and human, and I’m banking on “Beautiful World” to be a frothy palate cleanser after more vinegary fare this summer. Then, for some tang, I’ll grab E.M. Cioran’s self-explanatory “The Trouble with Being Born,” and the world will sleep well again.  

The pleasures and perils of reading outside

Reading outdoors is an ambiguous business. I’m an outdoor-reading veteran, a pastime that unites something I adore — reading — with something I barely tolerate — the outdoors. 

Yet occasionally a switch of scenery is required and I’ll dust off a patio chair at a spiffy sidewalk cafe and do the old curl-up with a crisp new paperback. Way back when, I’d try to read old-school newspapers while lounging on the beach, furiously fighting the wispy pages to stay put in the seaside gales. Without fail, a page corner would poke me in the eye and a full page would slap my cheeks. Repeatedly.

That’s how reading outdoors can be ambiguous. I was reminded of this today, a partly cloudy, 64-degree afternoon, when I fancied a book and a breeze would be a peachy idea. I grabbed my reading and hit the backyard deck thinking what a clever boy I am. 

After recently tearing through two new novels — “Whereabouts” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk, both ethereal, psychologically astute gems — I’m onto the Ralph Ellison classic “Invisible Man,” which even in its early pages is searing. Propulsive, savage, uncompromising — perfect for a glimmering spring day.

I lasted about 25 minutes out there. The clouds kept stubbornly shifting, sealing off the sky for jacket-ready cool, then opening to a sunscreen-ready radiance. Hopscotching moods, it was atmospheric ADD. 

I sniffled as puffs of wind released flurries of pollen over me, and my bookmark fluttered into the fresh, fragrant mulch. The chilly breezes, swaying shrubs and twisting trees, sent me back inside with grumbling memories of beach vs. newspaper. 

Mother Nature was playing with me, smudging the border between winter and spring, which had its calendrical kick-off March 20. (Summer — insufferable with its perplexing pleasures — arrives June 21, an annual day of mourning.) How else do you explain today’s crazy, veering temperatures? Nature knows how to confound. Watch how she drives meteorologists bat shit.

And she knows how to boomerang me back inside, onto the cushy Eames chair, body gently reclined, feet up, “Invisible Man” in hand, and not a mote of dusty golden pollen to spur the sneeze and wheeze.

This tiff with the elements isn’t over, and its history is rich. Just last week I was reading the Rachel Cusk novel on the deck in fine balmy air, the only irritant a black hairy bumblebee the size of a condor that decided it wanted my friendship. It buzzed and bothered; I swung and swatted. The encounter was a truce.  

I coulda been killed out there. What next while I’m reading amidst flora and fauna, burly bumblebees and erratic skies? Rabid chipmunks? A biblical hail storm? The next-door neighbor trying small talk over the fence? (I’ll take rabid woodland animals over that.)

Summer’s thermal terrors are fast coming and I will spend most of the hot months indoors, hands on the latest talked-up book or dog-eared classic. Inside it’s dark and dank, the only breeze wafting from A/C vents, the only deluge the torrent of words I’m reading, the only vicious creature a scruffy terrier mix named Cubby, who can be effectively disarmed with a hearty belly rub or a good Jack Reacher thriller. Much like me.

Writing relentlessly

Joyce Carol Oates has written roughly six-thousand books. I’ve read one. I’m currently working on number two, a slim novel titled “Black Water.” Boy is it boring. Dry and colorless as a sun-baked cow skull. It’s not even trying to pull me in. It’s stingy like that.  

“Wonderland” is the other Oates book I read, some time ago. Unlike “Black Water,” which runs 154 pages, it’s unmistakably Oatesian, meaning it’s fat, multi-chambered and densely populated. It’s also pretty great, an epic family drama spanning generations that quakes with urgent, thrumming incident. It’s known as one of her best books and was a finalist for some big award or another. 

Oates is famously prolific. I call her relentless. Her torrential output, starting in 1963, includes 58 novels, numerous plays and novellas and several volumes of short stories, poetry and nonfiction. The novels are rarely anorexic. They are epics pushing 500, 700, even 900 pages or more. When I see her shelf in bookstores, I quietly scamper past. 

That’s why I picked up the acclaimed “Black Water”: it’s a finger sandwich next to the author’s standard ten-course feasts. A modern retelling of Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous Chappaquiddick incident, the book toggles through time to trace a young woman’s life and death by drowning in a Toyota that crashed upside-down in a lake.

The novel purports to be a scathing statement about women who are tragically drawn to powerful men, which I suppose it is. But that doesn’t interest me, at least not right now. It doesn’t help that Oates’ breathless, jagged prose feels awkwardly stylized, hardly the case with the lyrical “Wonderland.”

A force of nature, Oates is the epitome of a writing machine, matching the creative incontinence of Stephen King. She poops out literary doorstops with boggling regularity, making her contemporaries look downright slothful. I’m not knocking it. It’s something to envy. To be so productive would be miraculous, if exhausting.

A sliver of Joyce Carol Oates’ output

But such churning industry casts a light on the idea of consistency: how many of those piles of books are really, truly good? Surely a lot, or the author wouldn’t be the celebrated bestseller she is. Yet there’s probably a mountain of misfires there, too, which perhaps dilutes such voluminous achievement. 

In a 2015 essay, King himself confronts the notion “that prolific writing equals bad writing,” citing a truism in literary criticism that goes “the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.”

He’s rightfully a little defensive, having published some 60 novels since “Carrie” in 1974, including four very thick books in a single year. As a writer, King is admittedly, and unashamedly, possessed. 

He insists it can’t be helped, that once his creative ideas catch fire, there’s no quenching them. “I never had any choice,” he says. “There were days when I literally thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane.”

That must be the case with Oates, an artist so overcome with ideas, she has to put them down before they devour her, for good or ill. Her well-publicized work ethic is austere, regimented and, yes, wildly fertile. King writes: “I remember a party where someone joked that Joyce Carol Oates was like the old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” 

Most good writers work painstakingly — they “bleed,” as Hemingway said — which tends to produce a modest yield. Take Donna Tartt (“The Goldfinch”), who’s written three novels in 25 years. The books were smashes, and she is fabulously rich, but Tartt might represent the other side of the equation: by taking few risks, rarely publishing, can you call yourself a bold and vigorous artist?

Then there’s filmmaker Terrence Malick, who represents both sides. In 25 years, he made only three films, all masterpieces, including “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” Then, starting in 2005 with the sublime “New World,” he went on a tear of productivity, making almost a film a year that returned six back-to-back stinkers that he’s yet to recover from. (Let’s not even start with Woody Allen’s late, lame film-a-year output.)  

There’s a cautionary tale in there somewhere. It seems moderation — not too slow, not too fast — is the way to dole out one’s art. Still, if Oates, as the party wag cracked, “had so many children she didn’t know what to do,” I wouldn’t mind being that old lady who lived in a shoe, writing and creating and making magic by the ton, no matter how imperfect. We should be so lucky.

College, the great mind-blower

In my first semester of college, Marlon Brando blew open my bitty blinkered brain.  

I was 18 and watching the actor at a small on-campus screening of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ torrid fever dream of a play. I was mesmerized, disturbed, rattled. 

Who is this guy? I wondered. What is this guy?

I had seen Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” on VHS, but this was different. This was the young, bristling Method actor, a radical of modern performance, searing the screen with unseen naturalism — a combustible churn of physical and psychological muscle, animal charisma, brute sexuality and roiling menace. 

He was a new kind of screen male. He hollered and knocked things over. He was sensitive, a raw nerve. He was scary, feral. He was gorgeous. He was hideous. He was fantastic.

This, I thought, is what college is about: revelation, learning, getting gobsmacked by the greats. All at once, in that Brando bombshell, was a liberating feast of ideas and culture. The very next day, I borrowed a Brando biography from the library. I craved more.

A curious kid at a university in a wildly diverse, culturally rich city, I gulped it all, from Hong Kong action flicks to Zippy the Pinhead comics. In a city of famed seismic activity — yes, San Francisco — Brando was one of the first icons to rock my late-teen world.   

Brando, smoldering

He wasn’t alone. Other cultural forces who uncorked my brain included, in no order: Beethoven; Sartre; the Marx Brothers; Shakespeare; Freud; Stanley Kubrick; the Beatles (I’d always known their music; I just didn’t know their music); Orson Welles; Buddha; Nietzsche; John Waters; Dalí; Bogart; Buñuel; Kafka; the Ramones; Fellini; Charlie Chaplin; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

(Woke alert: I realize there is only one woman and, save for Buddha, exclusively white people on the list. This is just before I fell for Toni Morrison, García Márquez, Miles Davis and all the rest. As it’s the past, there’s very little I can do to remedy the situation.)

I adored my school. It was an institution that showed scant regard for sports and frats. (I sort of felt sorry for our neglected little football team, but not really.) It was the kind of liberal arts college where August Coppola — brother of Francis Ford Coppola and father of Nicolas Cage — was Dean of Creative Arts and the city newspaper’s erudite pop critic taught my History of Rock ’n’ Roll course. 

Protests were big — pro-Palestine, anti-apartheid. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played the stamp-sized Student Union for five bucks a head. Director Sydney Pollack gave a seminar on filmmaking. Free movie screenings abounded. You barely needed class when almost everything around you was an education.

Take the campus library: nerdy, for sure, but a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of intellectual stimulation. There I’d watch esoteric documentaries, listen to concertos and symphonies and pore over rare books. It was all part of this teen’s great game of cultural catch-up.

And isn’t that what college is, a way to get young minds up to speed on the world, culture, history, life? It’s about my freshman geography professor dismissing the Bible as a book of fairy tales and the above rock history teacher expounding on the lush productions of Phil Spector, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

It’s about watching bad improv groups perform in the dorms and serving as Opinion Editor on the fiery campus newspaper. It’s about eating falafel for the first time and meeting Allen Ginsberg at a reading of “Howl” at City Lights bookstore.

College as entrée to life’s rich pageant, untrammeled exposure — that’s how I took it. There were city museums and concert halls — at 19, I got a student subscription to the San Francisco Symphony — the Haight-Ashbury, its own mad cultural-historical corridor; movie theaters like the Castro, Red Vic and Roxie; plays at ACT and the Magic Theatre. Not to mention the cultural cornucopia awaiting just over the bridge in Berkeley.

I got my first good camera as a freshman, styling myself a shutterbug about town, a wee, wannabe Weegee. I got deeper into my drums, soaking up sophisticated masters like Steve Gadd and Terry Bozzio, learning to kick things up while toning them down. 

It was all about finesse, those early college days, about forging newly freed passions into a prismatic worldview that made sense to me. And it began with a revelatory sensation that was balled-up in the raw, sweaty brio of Marlon Brando.

Not for a moment has that novel feeling stopped. Once launched on the journey of discovery, you’re pretty much stuck. College lit a fuse; the explosions keep on popping.

Books — visas to new vistas

I’m greedily tearing through “Interior Chinatown,” a tangy cultural satire by hot young writer Charles Yu. I’m savoring the book’s poppy humor, clever screenplay format and edifying critique of what it’s like to be Asian in America (bluntly: assimilation’s a bitch). The novel, which is also a scathing indictment of racial stereotyping in Hollywood, won this year’s National Book Award. It probably deserves it.

As I read, plunging into a world both comic and caustic, ordinary life churns on. I pop a mild tranquilizer (tranquility, wee), the snow melts into puddly archipelagos, the washing machine sloshes, the small gray dog curls up like a sow bug on the couch. These are not distractions, though I sometimes get sidelined by looking forward to my next book, no matter how good the current read is.

Like: 

  • “The Trouble with Being Born,” a collection of acrid aphorisms by E.M. Cioran, who calls birth “that laughable accident.” (Wait, did he write this for me personally?) 
  • I’ll revisit Virginia Woolf’s hypnotic “Mrs. Dalloway,” inspired by a recent essay extolling its literary radicalism. Not a simple read, Woolf challenges audience assumptions, and rewards them with rapture.
  • I’ll also take a second dip into “Sex and Rage,” Eve Babitz’s raffish auto-fiction, whose subtitle, “Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time,” is a brazen come-on. The book’s so saucy, such unfiltered fun, and the writing so ablaze, resisting it would be dumb self-denial.  
  • Then there’s “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn, a rollicking freak show saga told by an albino hunchback dwarf. Echoing with the bearded lady’s cackle, this exotic family comedy has been called “a Fellini movie in ink.” Nirvana. 

It’s trite to note how reading has risen during the pandemic. That’s almost a year now of increased literary calories. And, gulp, plump we get. If you’re braving the prolix Russians, you’re assuming even more brain girth. Conversely, if your diet is J.K. Rowling, you could be anorexic. (And the knuckle-draggers who boast they don’t read? Mind rot — enjoy!)

Certain books, hence, are in high demand. I’m having a hell of time getting my mitts on Maggie O’Farrell’s award-winning historical fiction “Hamnet,” a speculative study of Shakespeare’s complex marriage, his young son’s death from the plague, and how that loss might have led the playwright to make his immortal “Hamlet.” The slavered-over tome is out of stock at (boo, hiss) Amazon and on back order at the local indie shop. All 66 copies in the county library system are checked out.

It can wait. I have the above books on queue, with a few other titles earmarked. You can never run out of choices, even if it leads you to reread a book or three, which is how you know you’ve struck a great one, like my current pleasure “Interior Chinatown,” a contender for a later revisit.

Literature is like another book, the passport. It slings you aloft, carries you to far-flung places. In these cloistered days, reading is the safest, most satisfying way to get out of your space, the claustrophobic chambers of the solitary mind. While we can barely leave home, books are effectively the new travel, transporting — and transcendent.

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

In the grip of one-click commerce

It’s hardly an original phenomenon, that of the quarantined individual occupying some of his time — right, much of his time — transfixed by the latest goodie or gadget at an online store. Screen shopping (analogous to window shopping) or actual shopping (analogous to pulling out the plastic) are, at least for this laptop-leashed homebody, becoming a thing, and I’m sort of going broke. 

I’m “just looking,” gawping, craving, yearning and, oops, placing the cursor on the final button in the series that begins with “Items in Cart” and running through “Billing Information” and so on. These days, I’m all about the Place Order click. The little quiver it fires through my synapses triggers a delicious squirt of endorphins. 

That tiny physical gesture, which can amount to a giant fiscal gesture, is the point of no return. The order is in. The store has your digits, which will show on your card only when the product ships. (That is egregiously untrue. The moment I click, my card is invariably, simultaneously charged.)

Actually, it’s not the point of no return, because return policies are mostly generous and convenient. Indeed, I am the Cancellation King, the agitated avatar of buyer’s remorse. So often I will order something at night and the next morning, in a stomach-clenching panic, hastily cancel the order. I do this with ridiculous regularity. The folks at Amazon probably don’t even process my orders anymore until a good 48 hours have passed. 

I’m not just treating myself to stuff during this flirtation with errant shopaholism. Besides tons of books, the only “fun” purchase was a rather pricey electronic drum set, which is only frivolous if you think a lifelong hobby and creative discipline is frivolous, and I don’t. It’s fun, but it’s also enriching and therapeutic, even cathartic.

This week’s acquisitions from online retailers include: an iPhone stand for the drum kit (longish story), a comfy cushion for my rock-hard drum stool, a pair of my favorite drum sticks, and two boxes of V8 juice, eight big bottles in all. 

(I labor under the wholly unreasonable conceit that this vegetable juice is the secret elixir for humanity’s immortality. Which is nuts, because I don’t even want to live forever. Yet I do want to combat agonizing disease and retain glowing skin. And so: V8, voluminously.)

Some other recent orders: at least 20 books (separately); toothbrushes (which were so bad I got an instant refund); hair goop; bar soap; exfoliant; a pair of green shorts; three caps (emblazoned with logos: The New York Times, Metallica and, dear reader, Gnashing); and film t-shirts (Scorsese, “The Elephant Man,” Columbia Pictures, RKO Pictures, A24 Films).

A few things I cancelled: socks, batteries, floss, reading glasses, stacks more books. 

Most of my purchases are, to my mind, essentials. These aren’t reckless sprees; they’re well-considered Covid consumerism — even if I did finally cave and sign up for Amazon Prime, a dark and foreboding development that can only lead to incalculable folly.

Buying stuff is invigorating for about 20 minutes, like a drug, and then you come down and feel fried and deflated. But then the buzz returns: delivery day!

Or, if you’re me, you place an order, marinate some, then dash and click cancel, like it never even happened. Negation — sometimes that’s the best shopping experience of all.