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.

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. 


“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. 


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.” 


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.


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_

Six books I didn’t put down this summer

I’m an impatient reader. I get excited about reading a particular title, I crack it, read it, and allow it 50 pages to regale me. If I’m not enthralled or at least engaged by page 50, that book is going down. I can’t say how many books I’ve stopped reading at the mid-century mark. The humanity.

This summer has proven good for reading — fruitful, satisfying, nourishing. I think I’ve only put down two books, always apologetically. (As in all my breakups, it’s me, not them.)

One I did not cast aside was Elizabeth Strout’s mellow novel “Anything Is Possible,” a chiseled gem that’s really a collection of nine interconnected stories, deeply soulful snapshots of life, love, loss and more, whose subtlety has an easy-listening vibe.51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

I journal a lot. And in May I wrote that Strout’s book is “freeze-dried minimalism, pared and spare, miniaturist portraits so easy to read and follow but practically toothless. They don’t leave imprints, marks. Delicate as bird bones, the prose lacks the prickle and sparkle I’m drawn to — listless, not lifting — yet it still holds me.”

That sounds harsh, but I enjoyed “Anything Is Possible” — I gladly finished it — even though I hardly remember a thing about it, and I almost forgot I’d read it altogether. I guess anything is possible.

Rather more memorable books I’ve read this season abound. Here are five great ones:

Michel Houellebecq’s award-winning novel “The Map and the Territory” is all brawny brain, yet brisk and entertaining, pretty brilliant and laced with slashing erudition. France’s literary bête noire, Houellebecq’s reputation as an Islamophobe, misogynist and racist precedes him, so I braced for acrid ugliness. But this is a relatively mild story about the meteoric rise of a young artist and all the traps and trappings of an obscenely priced art market, and, for an extra twist, the murder of a writer named Houellebecq, whose portrait he had painted.


Art, love, money and death are shrewdly explored and a sparkling literary flair survives the book’s English translation. It’s pungent with sharp, funny insights like this:

“It’s impossible to write a novel … for the same reason it’s impossible to live: due to accumulated inertia. And all the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors.” 

And, on a more harrowing note: “As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase.”

From one despair to another: Matthew Klam’s mordantly funny “Who is Rich?” hurls its title character Rich Fischer, a washed-up cartoonist, into paroxysms of lust, existential turmoil and the maw of marital decay. Here’s Klam on the latter topic:

“It was just the usual struggle to stay in love, keep it hot, keep it real, the boredom and revulsion, the afterthought of copulation, the fight for her attention, treating me like a roommate, or maybe like a vision of some shuddering gelatinous organ she’d forgotten still worked inside her.”

41OvV2OwvWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_A tart entertainment, this wincingly lifelike novel starts out breezily but deepens by the chapter with sometimes devastating insights, keen, unsparing observations on family life, marriage, infidelity and children, who he regards as wondrous, but also soul-killing and disappointingly mundane.

Bitter and despairing over his shambolic life, Rich spirals into a hell of his own mind. By the last 30 pages, he’s quaking on the edge. Love kills. Yearning destroys. But light does beam in:

“How do you do it? How do you span the nothingness? Through love, through music, through art, through the sharing of food, fucking and experiences.” 

Billed as a novel, Eve Babitz’s crackling “Eve’s Hollywood” reads like a rollicking, site-specific memoir, pulling readers on a picaresque through Los Angeles and the author’s precocious and prickly teenage mind.

In this unsung classic, first published in 1974, Babitz is our beautiful, privileged tour guide, leading us to druggy parties, the Watts Towers, a favorite taco joint, encounters with rock stars, bums and bohemians.


Babitz’s prose is casual poetry, jazzy here, plainspoken there, always direct and evocative with smells, colors and emotions. She’s like a kid scrawling in a scrappy journal, her memories of parties and privilege unfurling with a blasé panache. She possesses the eye of an adolescent anthropologist, at once callow and cutting, seeing through it all.

Renata Adler’s “Speedboat” also blurs the border between novel and memoir, but more radically than Babitz’s book. Almost structureless, the story’s protagonist, journalist Jen Fain, hopscotches urban America, bumping into life and experiences in jagged, kaleidoscopic impressions. The fragmentary scraps, fragrant and alive, aren’t woven into a narrative tapestry, more a crazy-quilt, and that’s made the 1976 novel an influential cult item among writers like David Foster Wallace.


Partway through “Speedboat,” I noted in my journal: “Not sure what it’s about, or if it is, as it seems, slices and episodes of a journalist’s peripatetic life.”

I was right, but journalist Guy Trebay, writing in the book’s afterward, nails it: “By turns journalistic, diaristic, aphoristic, always episodic and mordant, ‘Speedboat’ is a novel made up of a series of sharply observed miniatures rendered aslant.”

That’s my kind of book.

Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” is one of those canonical masterpieces that no one has heard of. Published in 1919 but distinctly modern in tone and themes, this fine fiction is a cycle of 22 interlinked short stories limning more than a dozen characters’ lives in confining small-town America.

51ivP9BjP5L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In patient, pellucid prose, Anderson plumbs work, religion, morality and the loneliness and isolation of life in fictional Winesburg. I found the quaintness of time and place relaxing and gently engrossing. The stories possess a simple sublimity, and taking my time through its pleasures was a joy. It’s a fast, clean read that isn’t without dramatic and emotional punch. A hushed knockout.