Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Books, movies, threads — a summer medley

Some things I’m reading, watching and wearing as the hot months satanically descend …

Mieko Kawakami is big in Japan. And her fame is spreading globally with verve and velocity. Called a “feminist sensation,” the writer is best known for her big novel “Breasts and Eggs,” and she’s gleaning renewed praise for her just-released fiction “Heaven.” 

She’s good, really good, and I’m drinking her work up in chugs and gulps. I read the slim “Heaven,” a taut drama about middle-school bullying laced with philosophical echoes (think Nietzsche), in two days. And I’ve made it half-way through the 400-page “Breasts and Eggs” in the same amount of time. (And, yes, the title makes total sense.)

Kawakami is a deceptively simple read, limning pressing social issues in prose of polished glass. The crisp writing rattles with ideas about female body image (ever thought of bleaching your nipples?), donor pregnancies, family secrets and teen torments. It’s frank, funny and squirmily real.

Japan’s preeminent novelist Haruki Murakami experienced “pure astonishment” reading “Breasts and Eggs,” a best-seller in Japan that’s become a controversial feminist talking point, flagged (flogged?) for its graphic discussions of bodily ownership among two women and a teenager. The grumblers? Mostly men.

In the new book, “Heaven,” a boy with a lazy eye is tyrannized at school — he’s forced to eat chalk once he sticks it up his nose, for starters — and befriends a girl outcast, making a dweeby, beleaguered duo that’s not going to take it anymore. “Heaven” ends hellishly. It’s unsettling, it’s shocking. And it’s near-perfect.

The trailer for the new Netflix movie “The White Tiger” is frenetic, hyper-stylish, abundant and ambitious. It presents a messy, modern India of epic proportions, with glitz, guns and girls. 

Which is confounding considering the film’s writer-director is the great Ramin Bahrani, who’s earned arthouse cred for wondrous micro-budget dramas like “Man Push Cart,” “Goodbye Solo” and “Chop Shop,” a gritty miracle that Roger Ebert named the sixth-best film of the 2000s, while hailing Bahrani as “the director of the decade.” I agree.

Based on the rollicking Booker-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, “White Tiger” is conspicuously Bahrani’s biggest film to date, inviting comparisons to staunch minimalist Chloé Zhao, who’s making a Marvel blowout after this year’s hushed Oscar-winner “Nomadland.”  

I haven’t seen it yet, but Bahrani’s zesty crime drama looks to have the heft, the dazzle, of something new and career-altering. I’m aching to see what this indie miniaturist and unswerving humanist does with the novel’s byzantine riches.

When shopping for clothes, I wait till August, when, as they say, the fall collections land: blacks and beige, layers and long sleeves, boots and beanies.

It’s not even summer and already I’ve plucked attire with a defiantly wintry flair, including a thick New York Times sweatshirt — black with a brash Gothic “T” across the chest — that complements the tasteful Times ball cap I bought last year (no, I will never wear both together; there’s only so much the world can take).

Call me a walking billboard, a corporate hussy. Actually, I’m just an ink-stained fiend for crack reporting, crackling prose and kicky Gothic fonts. I love newspapers in general (see my newspaper coffee mug collection, Chicago Tribune to the Austin American-Statesman, Gothic type both). The Times is tops. I wear its merch with pride.

That’s right, it’s barely summer and I’m buying cold coverings. Like the knitted crochet slippers from Russia I bagged at Etsy (see this post). They’re made to look like classic black and white Nike running shoes. They’re goofy. They’re funky. They’re walking punchlines. The photos alone bust me up. That won’t be the case when my feet freeze off.

I’ve acquired lighter weight clothing, too, including two movie-themed t-shirts: one of cerebral creep-out “The Witch,” featuring an eerie prancing goat on the print; and a simple black T elegantly screened with “A John Woo Film” in English and Chinese.

This film wonk also snatched a pair of A24 socks, A24 being the thriving boutique outlet releasing cult hits like “The Witch,” “Midsommar,” “The Florida Project,” “Moonlight,” “Eighth Grade,” and a raft of other extraordinary indies. The socks are grey and too long, and the company logo looks stitched by elves. But I like them.

A24 socks. It’s come to this.

I love this book title: “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.” Sold! 

So I grabbed this buzzy novel by Rivka Galchen, released this week, lured by the chatty euphony of the title and Galchen’s rep as a literary wunderkind. I’m still on “Breasts and Eggs,” so I’ll get to this soon, tackling what’s billed as a harrowing and humorous tale of witches and hysterical fear in 1618 Germany. (“The comedy that runs through the book is a magical brew of absurdity and brutality,” says the Washington Post.)

Also on my hypothetical IKEA nightstand, all cheap and rickety, is David Diop’s slim war drama “At Night All Blood is Black, winner last week of the 2021 International Booker Prize. The Franco-Senegalese author specializes in 18th-century French and Francophone African literature, and the novel was shortlisted for 10 French literary awards. 

A wrenching description that makes you want to ball up and hide:

“Peppered with bullets and black magic, this remarkable novel fills in a forgotten chapter in the history of World War I. Blending oral storytelling traditions with the gritty, day-to-day, journalistic horror of life in the trenches, Diop’s novel is a dazzling tale of a man’s descent into madness.”

A perfect beach read, no?