Typing instead of griping

The natty new baseball cap I ordered from The New York Times arrived the other day, and it’s a solid accessory/hair-hider. Though gaspingly overpriced, the black cap embossed with a gothic Times logo is as plush as a teddy bear and slips on with snuggly élan. (Now where’s the New Yorker tote promised with my subscription? Does anybody actually use totes?) 

The cap came speedily, an anomalous on-time arrival. The mail’s a mess. Of seven books I’ve ordered, three have gotten lost in transit and the rest have taken up to a month to come. I’ve received four refunds. The pandemic’s to blame, and The New Yorker was civil enough to apologize for the tote delay, citing the crisis. (I so don’t need a tote.)

The crisis. Damn. We’re whipped and we never had a fighting chance. Stuffed indoors, grounded from going out to play, we are occasionally embalmed in boredom. But there are things to be done. Typing beats griping. Thumb wrestling: a reliable time-passer.

This whole topic is as tired as we are, a cliché looking for a new angle, a brand-new nag. What am I going to do, write about the dog again? Regale you with what I ate for lunch? Chat about the movies I’ve been watching? 

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    The Marx Brothers: comic chaos

Done. I’ve rewatched some Marx Brothers, riotous rapscallions of Dada-esque anarchy, and the peerless noir “The Big Sleep,” in which Bogart’s smooth, smoke-wreathed private eye falls dangerously hard for the dangerously young Lauren Bacall while on a gnarled murder case. Howard Hawks crisply directs William Faulkner’s script, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s pungent detective classic. The movie sits in my personal pantheon of bests. Likewise the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup.” (Speaking of soup, that’s what I ate for lunch.)

Outside, children shriek and gambol — my shriek and gambol days ended at 35 — their exuberant simian antics echoing through the streets and the trees and surely breaking social distancing guidelines. So what! They’re young and invincible! Barring them indoors is like corking a volcano. It’s gonna blow.

Children are not my tribe. I have none, and I’m grateful for that. I do not feel bereft in the least. Parents do not arouse envy in me. (In fact, I consider it this way: bullet dodged.) My nephews are terrific and as close to parenthood as I ever want to get. The only creature that calls me Poppa is the dog, which affirms twin beliefs that I’m part canine and he is made of magic.

After reading and a walk, it’s back to the keyboard, one of my few comfort zones. Warmth is not a comfort zone. Temperatures are rising, summer’s rottenness creeping in. People love this stuff — heat, sweat, sun — another popular phenomenon I spurn, like dinner parties, reggae and the American version of “The Office.” (I’m typing and griping.)

Which means summer hibernation will come naturally. I love A/C, loathe UV. But really, will there even be a summer, or will it just be streaming? Will people sit in wide, loose circles on patios, sliding down face masks to sip rosé and eat guac? The annual September block party — will that too be nixed? Maybe not. Eighty households can Zoom together at once, right? Surely. Hot dogs and deviled eggs, those are your responsibility.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

The 20 most alluring actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age

We love our movie stars, and I love my actresses, especially those indelible bright lights, those sirens, sex pots and sophisticates, from Hollywood’s Golden Age, roughly the 1920s through the early ’60s.

Audiences cultivate complex relationships with the actors on screen. They crush, lust, idolize, envy and hero-worship. They take these visions personally. Sometimes they want to take them home.

With today’s top actresses and starlets, tabloid tastemakers gravitate to the Jolies, J. Los and J-Laws, brassy self-promoters with wicked powers of manipulation.

But the actresses who seize my attention, the ones who have the elusive It factor, an intelligence mingled with integrity, include Rachel Weisz, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman. They recall the stars of Hollywood past, several of whom I celebrate here.

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Marion Cotillard

Despite their physical allure — not to fetishize appearances — I appreciate actresses with hauteur, poise and self-possession. They’re sassy and sophisticated, loopy and urbane, glamorous, flirtatious, demure and dangerous. They’re partiers, victims, fatales and floozies. Beautiful, blazing, but armed with multifaceted talent.

You might be shocked by the actresses I shut out, as much as I adamantly adore them: Lauren Bacall, Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn. Not even stone-cold goddess Marilyn Monroe makes the cut.

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Ann Blyth

And, with the key exception of Martha Vickers as the narcotized nymphet in “The Big Sleep,” I’ve reluctantly excluded the countless supporting performers who’ve goosed so many screwballs, soaps and noirs, like Ann Blyth in “Mildred Pierce” and Dorothy Malone, who plays the bespectacled bookstore owner in “The Big Sleep.”

Here’s a 20-strong parade of my favorite Golden Age screen sirens, my old-timey It girls. They are presented in no particular order, neither by chronology, talent or pulchritude. (Please add your two cents if you’d like.)

hedy lamarr
Hedy Lamarr: “Ecstasy” (1933), “Samson and Delilah” (1946)
louise brooks
Louise Brooks“Pandora’s Box” (1929), “Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929)
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Martha Vickers: “The Big Sleep” (1946)
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Veronica Lake“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), “This Gun for Hire” (1942)
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Ava Gardner“The Killers” (1946), “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954)
jean simmons
Jean Simmons“Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Elmer Gantry” (1960)
GraceKelly
Grace Kelly“High Noon” (1952), “Rear Window” (1954)
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Gene Tierney“Laura” (1944), “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945)
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Ingrid Bergman“Casablanca” (1942), “Notorious” (1946)
joan bennett
Joan Bennett“The Woman in the Window” (1944), “Scarlet Street” (1945)
paulette godard
Paulette Goddard: “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940)
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Carole Lombard“My Man Godfrey” (1936), “Nothing Sacred” (1937)
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Myrna Loy“The Thin Man” (1934), “Libeled Lady” (1936)
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Olivia de Havilland“Gone with the Wind” (1939), “The Heiress” (1949)
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Natalie Wood“Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “West Side Story” (1961)
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Vivien Leigh“Gone With the Wind” (1939), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
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Elizabeth Taylor“A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
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Rita Hayworth“Gilda” (1946), “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)
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Audrey Hepburn“Roman Holiday” (1953), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)
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Lana Turner“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946), “Peyton Place” (1957)