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.

Babitz feast: A tart spread of her writerly wit

41cxwwrD0ZL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The book I’m having the best time with right now, the one that swings with a driving lyric beat, glitter and spunk, is Eve Babitz’s “Sex and Rage,” a midsize book with a kingsize subtitle: “Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time.” (Why are subtitles so long yet explicate so little?)

Published in 1979, this inebriating, semi-autobiographical novel of L.A. sun and New York fun, of boozing and book publishing, was reissued last month after an overdue Babitz revival was set loose by Dwight Garner’s rave review in The New York Times of her ebullient memoiristic novel “Eve’s Hollywood”.

Babitz, so young, jazzes her already pungent prose with piquant similes and pinging metaphors, snarky observations and laughing surprises that rush you along, flowing and splashing. She’s an effortless, evocative dazzler, both tragically hip and self-deprecatingly down to earth.

Currently in the thick of “Sex and Rage,” I’ve plucked a few chewable excerpts that reveal a stylist’s stylist:

*

“In the hurricane, the waves were fifteen feet high and roared like lions and volcanoes.”

*

“Gilbert’s apartment was furnished by his landlord in cocoa-brown threadbare fifties’ Modern with a cocoa-brown shag rug and stucco walls, which had been swirled into a pattern so life would be more interesting.”

*

“He smelled like a birthday party for small children, like vanilla, crêpe paper, soap, starch, and warm steam and cigarettes. Anyone would have liked being hugged by him.”

*

“She had heard that an artist was ‘any white person over twenty-five without health insurance.'” 

*

“His voice was icy but cordial, a combination she had never remembered hearing. It was sort of like Montgomery Clift trying to be mean.”

*

“He was built like a lizard or a saluki. He was narrow and ancient-looking; his skin looked like papyrus, five thousand years old but not wrinkled, just from another age — from an age before they knew about chocolate or Dante or Charlie Chaplin.” 

*

“This wave would grow larger and larger, sucking in its cheeks, and, unable to contain itself, finally it would break, thundering with a passion so ruthless that nothing in its way prevailed. To surf such a stampede you had to be alive with balance, for the speed welled up beneath your feet, blooming faster and faster, as the green glass smashed into foam, throwing you into its tangoed embrace. If you lasted and kept on your feet, the wave unrolled until finally it exhausted itself, spent upon the wet shore, softly uncurled like a baby’s smile.”

*

“She felt as though she’d been in front of a firing squad that had changed its mind.”

*

“Max’s laugh was like a dragnet; it picked up every living laugh within the vicinity and shined a light on it, intensified it, pitched it higher. It was a dare — he dared you not to laugh with him. He dared you to despair. He dared you to insist that there was no dawn, that all there was was darkness, that there was no silver lining … He dared you to believe you were going to die — when you at that moment knew, just as he did, that you were immortal, you were among the gods.”

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Babitz