Books, actually

So let me bore you silly and tell you that I’m currently re-reading Joseph Conrad’s slim epic “Heart of Darkness,” a smidge more than 100 pages of nightmarish adventure up the African Congo, rife with colonial violence and brushes with death, and co-starring a renegade colonist named Kurtz who’s apparently gone mad in the jungle.

It’s been decades since I’ve read the classic novella, which of course inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam phantasmagoria “Apocalypse Now,” back when ELO and C-3PO held cultural sway. And it felt about right for a revisit, don’t ask me why. 

(No, ask away. Okay, I needed a shortish book to hold me over while I wait for a copy of the new Michael Cimino biography. A mysterious figure, Cimino directed the Oscar-winning Vietnam drama “The Deer Hunter” and the catastrophic flop “Heaven’s Gate,” both right about the time of ELO and C-3PO.)  

Before re-picking up “Heart of Darkness” only yesterday, I was hopscotching between three books: Tove Ditlevsen’s mesmeric memoir “The Copenhagen Trilogy”; humorist Lindy West’s caustic movie reviews, “Shit, Actually”; and cartoonist Roz Chast’s lauded memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” 

Ditlevsen’s “Trilogy” bundles three smallish memoirs — “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency” — in a single volume, and the cumulative effect is powerfully poignant. She traces her life in the 1930s and ‘40s, from about age 6, when her interest in poetry flowered, to her twenties, as a young mother and successful author addicted to painkillers. The prose is clean and unflinching and recalls the transfixing autofiction of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Lindy West is the opposite of Ditlevsen — tart, messy, sophomoric, fueled entirely by pop culture punch. Her rambunctious movie reviews aren’t primly unfurled; they’re yelled in a neon hailstorm. Mainly they’re plot synopses with running commentary festooned in ALL CAPS, promiscuous italics and serial exclamation points (because they’re funny in bulk!!!!!). It really is like she’s yelling at us.

She LOVES!!!! 1993’s “The Fugitive” and rates movies — from “Face/Off” (a misunderstood masterpiece she direly underestimates) to “Harry Potter” — on how they stack up to the Harrison Ford thriller.

“‘The Fugitive’ is the only good movie. We didn’t need any more movies after ‘The Fugitive,’” she gushes. “We don’t need any movies before it either. We should erase those.”

That would be funny if it wasn’t so wrong. I’ve always thought “The Fugitive” was one of the most overrated movies of the ‘90s. But she’s obviously exaggerating for comic flash and bratty button pushing (right?). I’ll give her this: The title of this book, “Shit, Actually,” is also the title of her scorched-earth review of the barfy, saccharine rom-com “Love, Actually.” Good show.

Yet ultimately West is so insincere and strenuously flip that you can’t tell what she really likes or loathes for all the jokiness. She’s a little Andrew Dice Clay-esque — it’s hard to tell where schtick ends and truth begins.

You’d know these characters anywhere: the nervously quivering bodies, gaping grimaces, dark rings around the eyes, skinny arms and big heads. Roz Chast draws consummate depictions of raw, buzzing angst — humanly and hilariously — with squiggly lines that look like she has a bad case of the shakes. Why’s she so rattled?

Well, life to begin with. That’ll do it. But in her 2014 memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” Chast, the longtime New Yorker cartoonist, tackles the dreaded situation of “an only child watching her parents age well into their nineties and die.” Oof. Grim.

And funny. Because it’s true. Chast, for all her squirms and squiggles, draws and writes with unvarnished precision about the tragicomedy of becoming your parents’ caregivers, when the roles reverse. You could say she goes straight into the heart of darkness, and finds bittersweet laughs.

But I digress

Another installment of haphazard thought doodles, six hors d’oeuvres that I’m too lazy to whip into full meals. They’re presented numerically, but that’s just for looks. Rest assured, each item is equally trivial. 

1. In a thud of disappointment, I put down a book today that I had great hopes for — I hate that. Brandon Taylor’s story collection “Filthy Animals” just won the prestigious Story Prize for best book of short stories, so I snatched it up, cracked it, and eventually let out a blustery sigh of resignation, thinking, Pshaw. Not dreadful but not great, Taylor’s sexy social realism traces the romantic exploits of young LGBTQ+ couples, which is no longer novel yet still refreshing. His writing is spare and precise, but it’s also facile and shallow, sanded to a sterile remove. Physical descriptions trump psychological and emotional depth. Taylor’s stories have been compared to the light and prickly millennial sexcapades of Sally Rooney. Fair enough. But she’s sharper, cuts deeper. Has fangs. 

2. Cubby the über-pooch is doing fine, thank you, and he’s watching me as I type this, so things are sort of meta. I look at him back and see that his fuzzy Ewok face has striking human attributes. Like his eyelashes, which I rarely notice, are almost as luxuriant as Tammy Faye Bakker’s big, fake, bat-wing lashes. And his lower lip is like a little man’s with black lipstick. And his bottom teeth are just like tiny baby teeth. OK, now I’m starting to get creeped out.

3. Not creeping me out are the warm sentiments I received on my recent birthday, especially the nice words from one of my dearest exes, who wrote, “Our time together is one of my favorite chapters in life, for sure.” For three and a half years we had a blast, traveling Europe — Paris, Italy, Vienna, Istanbul, Greece — going to concerts, movies and plays, carousing and canoodling, and I’m thankful she’s still in my orbit. We were sweet and snarky. Here’s how she signed off: “Write me back, asshole! And have a very Happy Birthday.” Aww.

4. After quitting “Filthy Animals,” I grabbed the even more acclaimed “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” a collection of three memoirs by late Danish author Tove Ditlevsen, which comes wreathed in panting praise and strewn with confetti. Written from 1967-71 and embraced by a new generation of readers and critics, the memoirs, “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency,” have been hailed a masterpiece, “the product of a terrifying talent.” Having just started the book, my opinion of it is at best embryonic — the writing is stupendous — yet I’ve tweezed a piercing line from the early pages: “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.” That both chills and cheers me.

5. Once when I was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a young girl was selling sunscreen on the roadside. I asked her how much and she gave me an absurdly high price. I blurted, “You’re crazy!” She hissed back, “You crazy!” Just two weeks ago in Rome, I approached a taxi driver and told him the address to my hotel. “Forty euro,” he said, as if he wasn’t trying to blatantly fleece me by a full 25 euro. “You’re crazy,” I scoffed, to which he replied, “You’re crazy!” I really need to come up with a new line.

6. The latch on the back gate has broken, so the fence no longer makes a catching noise, it just sort of swooshes shut. That means you can’t tell if someone is coming or going. A ghost might as well be walking in. Or a serial killer.