Random reflections, part V

A freestyle digest of stuff — anecdotes, lists, thoughts, opinions … 

paul-rudd-headed-to-netflix.jpgIn 2007 I interviewed actor Paul Rudd at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. He was charming, funny and absurdly laidback. As he answered one of my questions he blurted out a lengthy, earth-rattling burp. “Whoa,” I laughed, “what flavor was that?” Rudd replied: “You know what’s weird? It wasn’t a flavor so much as an actual scent, like a potpourri, a mixture of peppermint and brisket. I went to (barbecue joint) The Salt Lick last night, and I ate brisket. I’ll tell you something: It was very different than my Nana’s brisket.”

51Joc3GzvtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ben Lerner’s “10:04” is a breed of intellectual masterpiece, a novel I’ve praised here before. His 2011 debut “Leaving the Atocha Station” is also remarkable, the work of a poetic brainiac with torrents to say, crackling with life observations. His new novel, “The Topeka School,” is his most acclaimed yet — and I’m not sure why. I read fully half of it, and while the writing is pristine, the thinking impressive, I got lost in the choppy, distracting narrative thread. Unmoored, I put it down, migraine emerging. Yet I’m not through with the scandalously young Lerner. I’m taking “10:04” on my 14-hour flights to and from Japan — my third communion with that radiant auto-fiction.

My list of favorite cities has shifted just-so over time, and will likely keep doing so. For now: 1. Paris (eternally tops);  2. Istanbul;  3. Tokyo (this may change after my upcoming visit); 4. New York;  5. London;  6San Francisco;  7. Sevilla;  8Amsterdam.

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Numero Uno

The New York Review of Books is hallowed home to academic think pieces about all things, from politics to poetry, by some of our most prodigious and stylish writers: Zadie Smith, Adam Kirsch, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Rachel Cusk. Why then do I find the essays gassy, tedious, enervating, as long and dry as the Sahara? Never, not once, have I read more than a third of one. (It’s me, I know.) 246x0w.jpgRightful cult classics, “John Wick” and “John Wick: Chapter 2,” starring a lank-haired, bullet-proof Keanu Reeves, are action-flick orgies, chop-socky pistol poetry of a kind unseen since the heyday of John Woo’s “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” I could barely wait for this summer’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.” And then, ugh. Grindingly repetitive (though that urban horse chase is nifty), drawn out and mired in its own smug formula — with a wider narrative scope that attenuates rather than expands the affair — this one is all diminishing returns. The film runs 131 minutes. I quit it, bored, fatigued, with 40 minutes left to go. This Wick is no longer lit.

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It’s still hard to reckon, a year after his death, that American novelist Philip Roth never won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like most awards, it’s a scam, a sham. Roth was one of the greatest, dwarfing most writers who have indeed won the prize. That he received only a single Pulitzer — for 1997’s astonishing “American Pastoral” — is itself a gross dishonor. Every once in a while this pops into my head and I get all rankled. philip-roth-e1545164284312.jpg

Gusty and blustery, a wind storm howls, churning treetops like crumpled paper, flinging acorns that pelt cars and roofs, dropping like small rocks, falling leaves twirling, the house creaking, windows rattling and Cubby the dog, shaking, leaps into my lap, where he curls into a donut, glancing up with fraught brown eyes that say, simply: “Papa.”               This lasts all day. img_0832.jpg

When I wrote about film in Austin, a particular local celebrity didn’t like me. That’s because I didn’t write super stuff about her — one Sandra Bullock. I thought she was a cutesy hack, all dimples and snorts, with dismal taste in roles. Knowing she told a colleague that she wanted my “head on a stick,” I won’t deny a small surge of pride.

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“Ms. Congeniality” —   enough said.

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.

More highly finicky reading

I’m the worst. I’m impatient. I’m mean. I’m discerning. I have taste. When it comes to books, I am ruthless. I’m even worse with movies. Most don’t stand a chance.

I have put down four books, closed them for good well before the 100-page mark, in the past two and a half weeks. Suffused with sorta-guilt — ah, not really — I swan to the next book, hoping for gems and genius. I am an optimist garbed as a very dark pessimist.

Mining this small stack I located gold — the books are by literary heavyweights, after all, and they do often gleam — but I also found fool’s gold, which I will not abide.

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The yeasty comic novel “Less” was the chintziest of the four. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year for fiction. What are you gonna do? I read, I shrugged, I shut. 

With wan humor tangled in wry, hackneyed observations about gays and straights and executed in lite-beer fizzy prose — “a quick, easy summer read,” said one critic, as if that’s a compliment — “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, reminded me of a gay-themed comedy series on HBO, one of those middling shows no one watches. The novel, says Greer, is “a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart.” Thanks, Mr. Greer, for defining “generic.”

I read some 75 pages of “Less” and I must agree with this writer who actually finished the book: It’s “chock-full of gay clichés that feel outdated, and the tone is generally one of superficial, unearned cynicism that sometimes drifts into cattiness.”

Yup. Even The New York Times, in an upbeat review, called it “too sappy by half.”

Zadie Smith writes with a magic wand; her language and storytelling gifts are things celestial (and she makes me gush floridly). I’m an ardent fan of her fiction — “White Teeth” glitters — but her 2012 novel “NW,” a typically vibrant latticework of people and place, didn’t grab me by the lapels, no matter that I don’t have lapels. As exceptional as the writing is, the story has a matte finish when I yearned for glossy. 

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Wade into Rivka Galchen’s hailed stories “American Innovations” and it’s clear why she is one of America’s hottest young fiction writers. She’s crisp, funny and fanciful, with a biting originality and a smidge of the surreal. But as much as I appreciated the collection, I put it down. I almost fell for it, then fashioned a one-word review: meh.

While there’s no shame in not finishing a book — I can’t believe people who feel they have to get to the last page even if it’s a slog — I can’t help but gulp and blush at this failure: Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer-winning classic “The Age of Innocence.”

I did not get far in the rather slim novel. I found the prose cluttered and perfumey, chokingly Austenian (though without the giggling), and fustily 19th-century for my contemporary palate. (Oddly, I loved Wharton’s 1911 “Ethan Frome.”) Wharton weaves long, highly populated sentences of lace and crushed velvet, many of them woozy and lovely.

Problem: I kept picturing doilies. 

Antidotes to these literary losers are a trio of new fiction by some of the most acclaimed women authors around: “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk, “How Should a Person Be” by Sheila Heti and “Homesick for Another World” by Ottessa Moshfegh. 

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I’m knee-deep in that last title, a 2017 collection of stories by the precocious Moshfegh, whose novel “Eileen,” a darkly off-kilter character study, impressed and troubled me — just how I like it.    

Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them. 

Some excerpts:

“He thought that the drugs we bought in the bus-depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his own genius — some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot.” 

“Our repartee would be rich with subtlety and sarcasm, as smart and funny as mid-career Woody Allen. Our fucking, like Werner Herzog, serious and perplexing.” 

“I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood.”

To me, that is dreamy writing, all at once blithely sardonic, intelligently aloof and drolly perceptive, attached to the stinger of a scorpion.

I’ll read this next. Or maybe this. No wait. What about that?

A few posts ago I crowed about the next five books I plan on reading.

Scratch that. 

Things change. Switcheroos occur. Some books work, some don’t. I close and tuck away the latter and embrace and finish the former. There’s been some tucking away going on. 

I announced on the blog that after completing the superb Siamese twins biography “Inseparable” I would take on my Amsterdam holiday Kurt Vonnegut’s darkly comic wartime novel “Mother Night.” All of that happened. 

Except: I didn’t cotton to the Vonnegut book as I was certain I would. Quite early on I found it uninviting, atonal and dry. I shut it. And became desperate. I was still in the States and my sole vacation book was failing me. 

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Discouraged yet determined, I marched to an airport bookshop, poked and peeked at a dozen acclaimed books, until I hit the staff picks display, which spotlighted Ann Patchett’s heavily praised novel “Commonwealth.” I’m not used to paying full price for paperbacks, but I popped the almost $20, grimacing and banking on the best — even while recalling that I couldn’t get into Patchett’s previous blockbuster “Bel Canto” the two times I tried.

“Commonwealth” is strong. On the whole trip, though, I read only 47 pages of it — my laptop is a serious distraction. I enjoyed the book’s humor, descriptive muscle and palpable humanity, and I planned on gladly finishing it back home.

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Then this happened: Waiting for me at home was Rachel Kushner’s new, ecstatically reviewed “The Mars Room,” which was on my list of five books to read next. It was, of all things, a library book, with a two-week checkout limit. I pounced. “Commonwealth” would have to wait.  

I just wrapped “The Mars Room,” a very good if never truly great page-turner set largely in a sordid women’s prison, much like “Orange Is the New Black,” with grim and funny detours streaking the story, including a few to the San Francisco strip club of the title. Kushner is good with grit, limning harrowing and humorous situations with a kind of streamlined tough-gal strut. And the final pages seize you hard. 

Before the Amsterdam trip, I borrowed two other titles on my list of five, Zadie Smith’s “NW” and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World,” neither of which I got around to thanks to the pleasingly time-consuming “Inseparable.” They remain fast on my reading list. 

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And yet: Dropping off “The Mars Room,” instead of getting the Smith or Moshfegh books, I got distracted and picked up two more books on my extended wishlist, Curtis Sittenfeld’s comic coming-of-age novel “Prep” and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winner “Salvage the Bones.” 

I get sidetracked in a snap when I’m around piles of books, my head on a pivot, eyes flashing, hands flipping pages, picking up and putting down volumes. So much to read, so many diversions, so many anxious postponements.

Of the two books I grabbed, I chose first to plunge into the poverty-stricken, pre-Katrina, Mississippi-set “Salvage the Bones.” So far, it is rapturously evocative, the prose raw and earthy and exquisite, the narrative quivering and propulsive.

Here is Ward’s description of a pit bull giving birth to puppies:

“Skeetah grabs the puppy’s rear, and his hand covers the entire torso. He pulls. (The mother) growls, and the puppy slides clear. He is pink. When Skeetah lays him on the mat and wipes him off, he is white with tiny black spots like watermelon seeds spit across his fur. His tongue protrudes through the tiny slit that is his mouth, and he looks like a flat cartoon dog. He is dead.”

If “Bones” eventually chokes — that’s far-fetched — I’ll do what I am wont to do: put it down and move on to the next title. But what will that be? “Prep” or

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Even with two books before me, I said screw it and ordered Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “Spring,” a slim new memoir arriving in the States bubble-wrapped in effusive plaudits. The book is “poignant and beautiful,” a critic says. “Even if you think you won’t like Knausgaard, try this one and you’ll get why some of us have gone crazy for him.” (I’ve read five of his books and have gone crazy for him.)

“Prep” or “Spring” — I’m betting on the latter. Or will yet another title crash my consciousness and hijack the show? Likely.

Book fiends I know are afflicted with this disease of ravenousness, of greedy insatiability, of jonesing for the next fix. Books as lifeblood. Beats baking. Beats sports.

The saga continues, so much pulped wood before me, no end in sight. It’s an embarrassment of riches — words, language, poetry, morality, mortality, love and loss. And, as that, it’s a crazy blessing.

The next 5 books I’ll be cracking open

Far before I’m done reading a book, I know firmly what volume I’ll be cracking next. I keep an ever-replenished list of titles. Something is always ready, waiting, like the upcoming course at dim sum. 

As I wrap up “Inseperable,” the excellent new biography of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, I know what’s next. I’m taking a worn paperback of Kurt Vonnegut’s archly prophetic classic “Mother Night” (1962) on my trip to Amsterdam next week. Vonnegut’s breezy cynicism, swirled with empathy, a hesitant optimism and measured absurdism, feels just right for airplane reading.

After that, 10 books weigh down my list. But half of them get to jump the line. These are the next five books I’m plunging into:

516B2M5L8XL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read three of Zadie Smith’s fine novels — “Swing Time,” “On Beauty” and, the best of the bunch, “White Teeth” — so I’m revved for “NW, her acclaimed 2012 tragicomedy about a slice of London and how its human patchwork intersects and interacts. The intellectually rangy Smith has a sorcerer’s touch, conjuring crowded, complex stories that can be mesmerizing jumbles: granular, moving, funny and expansively human.

If Rachel Kushner’s wildly hailed fiction “The Flamethrowers” didn’t blow me away, it was still a fresh, propulsively entertaining epic about a young woman whose love of motorcycles, art and action hurl her on a picaresque through boho New York and radicalized Italy. In her new novel, the hotly awaited “The Mars Room, Kushner pinballs from the pitiless realities of a women’s prison to those in a San Francisco strip joint and beyond for a seedy and violent, harrowing but humorous skip through sordid demimondes. Raves wreathe the book already. “Heartbreaking and unforgettable … it deserves to be read with the same level of pathos, love and humanity with which it clearly was written,” gushes one reviewer.

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Our Shakespearean laureate, that lord of the Bard, Harold Bloom lasers in on one of the canon’s preeminent tragic figures in “Lear: The Great Image of Authority, a thin but typically volcanic volume that’s part of a series of portraits, including Iago, Falstaff and Cleopatra, titans all. Lear, fallen monarch, disgraced father, receives the full Bloomian treatment, a richly personal, prickly and cerebral exploration of the character and his enduring mythic stature.

Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, totally evaded my radar. I’m not even sure I’d heard of the novel until it cinched the award this month. I know so little about the bounding satire that I quote here from the dust jacket:

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“Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.”

OK, I’m hooked.

A writer friend of mine won’t read Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction, citing a gruesome quotient of blood and bodily fluids. I don’t know what she’s talking about because I’ve never read Moshfegh. Her stories “Homesick for Another World” have been called “eerily unsettling … almost dangerous, while also being delightful, even laugh-out-loud funny.” Characters are “unsteady” and the “grotesque and the outrageous,” a la Flannery O’Connor, “are infused with tenderness and compassion.”

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She has “a big mind, a big heart, blazing chops, and a political acuity that is needle-sharp,” crows the publisher. “The needle hits the vein before we even feel the prick.”

I think my friend is crazy. This sounds amazing.

And on things bookish, I finally discovered a well-tread site fully worth your while: Literary Hub. Brain-cracking interviews, essays, reviews, profiles — I won’t go on about it; just check it out.