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.

Summer’s sweet cessation

When last I checked, the world was in tatters. But that’s a trifle for another day. Thing is, I have a wicked splinter in my finger and a bodacious pimple on my forehead that’s a little too Cyclopsian for shrugging off. Then there’s the boy dog, whose sphincter-sniffing flirtation with the girl cat might soon require rings, roses and rice. We remain calm. 

Summer subsides and the late-August slash Labor Day doldrums set in like a hard crust over the celebratory season. Things are dying down. Things are dying. I for one had no idea that Denise Nickerson, who played ravenous gum-chomper Violet Beauregarde in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” died in July at age 62. She and Gene Wilder — gone. Let’s hope Charlie doesn’t kick the bucket. 

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Speaking of blueberries — recall Violet inflates into a gigantic blueberry and must be rolled away by Oompa Loompas — that finger-staining fruit is my single breakfast comestible each day. I gobble them by the handful, a disgusting image but we’re all adults. They’re a summer fruit and so make a timely cameo in this post, which is sort of about the end of summer, the now, but we’ll see where it takes us. Already I’m rather lost.

It was a short summer, merciful, not too warm, and it moved with benign velocity. So glad it’s shuttering, as I look forward to crisp breezes, light coats, brisk walks without drenching humidity, Oscar-caliber movies, my Tokyo sojourn, obscenely short days — it’s 8 p.m. now and almost pitch-dark — and my usual litany of fall and winter joys.

At the cineplex, I dodged the onslaught of summer sequels and superheroes — brain-beating blunderbusses — for “artier” fare like Tarantino’s sophomoric garble “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” a shambolic misfire, and the cathartic Australian horror-thriller “The Nightingale,” a savage, soulful gut-punch of vengeance and violence. For early-summer froth, the delirious comic excess of “Booksmart” can’t be forgotten. Fall brings promise: Joaquin Phoenix as “Joker,” “Little Women” and Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

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“Destroy All Monsters”

Movie mad, I always watch films from the country I’m going to visit next. So, Japan. I re-watched the 1954 version of the original “Godzilla,” which is startlingly melancholic. (The monster dies a slow, sinking death. Oh: spoiler.) In 1968’s full-color “Destroy All Monsters,” a menagerie of kaiju creatures, from Godzilla and Mothra to Gorosaurus and Rodan, unleash murderous mayhem on the world’s largest cities. Aliens are somehow involved. Silly — and spectacular. (Lest it seems I’m just watching monster movies, I’ve also re-watched Ozu’s “Floating Weeds,” Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” and Suzuki’s “Branded to Kill” and “Tokyo Drifter.”) 

As I cut short my late-summer reading of Haruki Murakami’s timid, ultra-bland novel of youthful romance “Norwegian Wood” I picked up Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” which has more literary panache in its first 20 pages than Murakami’s snoozer has in 150.  

51pY6F589HL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgAutumn looms and I have a pair of fall novels picked out: “Doxology” by Nell Zink and “The Topeka School” by virtuosic young writer Ben Lerner, whose “10:04” and “Leaving the Atocha Station” are rhapsodic in their essayistic intelligence and gliding beauty. “10:04” is one of my favorite novels of the past 10 years. I’ve read it twice. So far. 

I admit I struggled with Zink’s acclaimed 2014 fiction debut “The Wallcreeper.” We didn’t jibe. The new book has been called her best and most ambitious, “a ragged chunk of ecstatic cerebral-satirical intellection … bliss.” I am all over that.

But first, after Morrison’s promising “Sula,” it’s back to Japan and Banana Yoshimoto’s international cult hit “Kitchen,” a bittersweet novel whose “whimsy” and “simplicity” are frequently hailed as virtues, making me wary. Those words could be code for “precious.”

Now that I’ve mentioned Japan three hundred times, it might be a good place to state why I’m really exalting summer’s end — my October-November trip to Tokyo and Kyoto. Which, lucky you, you can read more about as plans unfold.

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Tokyo

Yet so much is great about fall, not just a fleeting vacation. Autumn is coming fast — the calendar says Sept. 23, but we all know it starts on Labor Day — sucking summer back into the gooey abyss from whence it came. Japan, new books, new movies, new weather — all good and well. But fact is, fall is its own prize. It’s all fine, shimmery sublimity.

Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

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The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

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My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

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A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

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Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

Sally Rooney’s growing pains: watching a novelist mature

Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel “Normal People” is soft, stingy with lyricism, psychologically wispy, and not altogether gripping. I like it (I do!), but it isn’t an essential read, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the drooly commotion surrounding its recent arrival. I’d give it an ambivalent B.

Rooney wrote this and her prior, similarly vaunted novel “Conversations with Friends” before she was 28, and both books betray the Irish author’s — here the grizzled elder clears his throat — youth and callow inexperience in love and literature. 

In the latter instance I mean she is a plain, safe, lukewarm stylist, who, while honing a palpable personal voice, lacks the assertive confidence, the prosey musculature of a more seasoned writer. Rachel Cusk she is not.

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Yet the author’s inexperience in tracing the contours of youthful relationships, both romantic and platonic, has also proven her strength, even her selling point. She understands her young characters, their collegiate insecurities and romantic gamesmanship. It has earned Rooney the title of the “first great millennial novelist” from a magazine that should know better.  

“Great” is too strong a descriptive. Rooney’s feathery comedies are decidedly not great. They are good, quite good. Greatness isn’t hers yet. As one publication said of “Normal People,” it is “in some ways like the slightly less impressive follow-up album by a beloved band.” Another called it a rush job.

Still, the sycophantic likes of Vanity Fair imbibe the buzz: “The Church of Sally Rooney started to form around the release of her first novel, ‘Conversations with Friends,’ in 2017. Heralded by everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Zadie Smith, Rooney immediately became Someone You Need to Know About.”

It’s the hype-machine in clanking action, unctuous celebrity journalism at its finger-licking gooiest. (Church? Sarah Jessica Parker? “Someone You Need to Know About” in Gen Y caps? Certified bull-bunk.) Elsewhere, some genius crowned Rooney “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.” We can never unsee that.

“Conversations with Friends” and its hasty follow-up “Normal People” are sharp-eyed comedies of manners set in and around Dublin, lightly plotted stories about struggling twentysomethings looking for love, college scholarships, jobs and purpose. Also coming into vigorous play: literature, class frictions, social jockeying and plentiful sex. 

Her dialogue is naturalistic, stripped down, never fiery or memorable, cutting or discernibly clever. The books are light on their feet, fitfully sparking to life with taut passages and startling scenes of social discomfort.  

They are breezy and easy books, eons from the thorny ruminations of Philip Roth or plush poetics and thematic heft of Toni Morrison. They’re more like Anne Tyler lite. 

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Amid stubbornly lean prose, literary beauty is scarce. Two passages in “Normal People” poked me in the eye for their uncharacteristic flair: “The sky was extremely blue that day, delirious, like flavored ice,” Rooney almost effuses.

Only 12 pages later, she again swoons over the amazing azure of the heavens: “The sky is a thrilling chlorine-blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk.”

But she’s just playin’. Her allergy to the florid is concrete. Typical sentences, surgically removed of metaphor, run more like this: “Lorraine covers her mouth with her hand, so he can’t make out her expression: she might be surprised, or concerned, or she might be about to get sick.” That, reader, is on the more colorful end of the Rooney spectrum. 

Last week “Normal People” crashed the NYT bestseller list at No. 3. Maybe it deserves it. I enjoyed it for all my nitpicking. Yet I wonder who reads Rooney with the avidity of Sarah Jessica Parker or Zadie Smith (who at Rooney’s age was already a true literary giant). 

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. I give her a B, for now. Though the promise she shows tells me that grade may rise with each new book. We read and watch. And hope.