Slamming the book on these books

I’ve mentioned before that I am an impatient reader, the type who gives a book about 50 pages to hook and dazzle me before I put it aside, moving on to the next potential winner. A chronic putter-downer, I dispense with underwhelming books a lot — I’ve spurned 10 titles in the past three months — always with a gulp of guilt, a soupçon of shame, a drizzle of disappointment. Are my standards too high? I don’t think so. I simply ask: Astonish me.

A few of the books that didn’t survive my recent scorched-earth dismissals were three volumes I’ve read before and loved but wound up not being in the mood for, rather unreasonably: “The White Album” by Joan Didion and Nabokov’s twin masterstrokes “Lolita” and “Speak, Memory.” I cracked them, read some, and hurriedly (blushingly) lost interest. Perhaps it was the been-there, done-that syndrome. (I’ve read “Lolita” twice already.)


You’re catching me in the act — I’m this close to putting down Catherine Lacey’s hailed new novel “The Answers.” At page 42, I’m not bored or wholly unabsorbed, but I’m getting perilously antsy. The protagonist is drab, the setting is vague, the advancing complications not that gripping. Still, I don’t think I’m done with it — yet. Lacey’s 2014 debut novel is “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” which netted praise and awards. I picked it up. I put it down. I’m giving the author another shot. It does not look promising.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have a back up book if I toss “The Answers.” I have on order at the library Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” and Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” — both highly acclaimed literary novels by authors whose previous books nimbly enchanted. I could buy them at the local indie book store, but I’m far too fickle and fussy a reader to gamble cold cash like that. Not long ago, I spent $30 on Michael Chabon’s icky “Telegraph Avenue” — a total bust.

As shown, I’ll discard a book no matter how many laurels it wears or rave reviews it gets from critics and opining Amazon parasites. Recently, Dwight Garner of The New York Times gushed about the late J. P. Donleavy’s 1955 comic novel “The Ginger Man,” calling it a “picaresque masterwork” and so forth. So I picked it up. I read some. Then I scribbled in my journal:

“Started ‘The Ginger Man’ and hated it off the bat. Fifteen pages and I’m done. Don’t like the style, the humor, the taste and texture. Reminds me of Kingsley Amis’ brassy ‘Lucky Jim,’ which I’ve tried to read twice and couldn’t make it click.”


Then there’s the bantam-weight fluff of that satirist of suburbia Tom Perrotta, which, yes, I naturally put down. The book, his most recent, is “Mrs. Fletcher,” a comedy about a middle-aged woman who gets entangled in a web site called The novel flies along on middlebrow wings. It’s pop-lit, shorn of profundities and wisdom, though peppered with satirical observations and caustic cracks. I wanted to stick with it, and Perrotta makes the experience  easy and breezy. I liked it until I didn’t — too many empty calories, like eating marshmallows. Next!

That would be Claire Mussud’s middlingly reviewed coming-of-age story “The Burning Girl,” which didn’t burn or glow — wasn’t even warm to the touch. I loved Mussud’s “The Emperor’s Children” and admired “The Woman Upstairs.” A new simplistic style hijacks her sophisticated prose, her sink-your-teeth-into ideas, grace and suavity. It has an unbecoming YA tang.


Next up was the book I really wanted to read, Gabriel Tallent’s ballyhooed novel “My Absolute Darling,” which has been called the mightiest debut of the year, the glimmering fall must-read. It follows a rustic, rough-hewn teenage girl named Turtle and her adventures wandering about the forests and craggy coastline of Northern California. Supposedly it’s quite harrowing. I found no harrow.

I read more than 200 of its 432 pages and as ravishing, even astonishing, as the writing is — Tallent should become a nature writer; his descriptions are swooningly lyrical — a real plot, a chunky narrative, never bloomed. There’s a lot of writing going on, but little else.

Maybe I should have stuck around. Maybe I’ll go back to it. Maybe I’ll wait for the movie. Meanwhile, in the midst of writing this, I’ve made more progress on Lacey’s “The Answers.” That sound you heard was two covers going smack.


Booking the right book for your travels

My Russian visa finally arrived after an intensive, grueling process that cost half as much as my flight to St. Petersburg. It shouldn’t be so difficult, so discouraging — do they actually want visitors, you begin to wonder.


In Turkey you go to a counter first thing off the plane and buy a $20 visa sticker for your passport and you’re done. It takes 15 minutes. Syria was a bit more involved: I had to send about $100 with my passport to the nearest consulate, they stamped it and sent it back. (There was more to it than that, in my case. I had to get a whole new passport because mine had an Israel stamp, a no-no with Syria.)

But enough with the pesky visa. The minor ordeal is over, let’s hope, despite the irretrievable hideousness of my visa photo, in which I look like a low-grade Russian street gangster. I can’t get over it. The customs inspectors will probably block my entry and send me home.

On to the next level of travel planning — what book to bring for leisure reading in the airport, on the plane and wherever else down time must be occupied. This is serious. A few times I’ve taken the “wrong” book on trips only to realize at page 30 that I don’t like it and I’m then screwed until I find an English-language bookstore at my destination. (“Moby-Dick” and Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” were two of those.) A book I bought in the Amsterdam airport was Ian McEwan’s brilliant “Enduring Love” — a blind score after I purposely left the book I’d brought on the plane.


Now, instead of risking disappointment on an untested title, I stick to classics and favorites. Rather recently I brought “Franny and Zooey” to Paris, “Catcher in the Rye” to Spain (yes, a little Salinger kick), “Stoner” to California and so on. For Russia I’ve picked a novel by a Russian titan which ranks in my top two or three favorite novels of all time: “Lolita” by Nabokov. One, there’s the Russia tie, even though he wrote the America-set book in English. Then there’s the fact that it’s a known quantity of peerless quality. I’ve read it twice, and now is the perfect moment to revisit. (As queasy as I can get about the subject matter, Nabokov’s extravagant prose, so transcendent religions could be founded on it, eclipses moral squirming.)

I also assign pre-reading — homework — for my journeys. Besides the sights and practicalities of guide books, I peek and poke through histories, ransack the web and watch as many documentaries on culture and history I can find. That means a lot about the Czars, Lenin and Stalin for this vacation. Today I picked up — more like lugged — David Remnick’s Pulitzer-winning doorstop “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.” It’s thick, it’s heavy and, so far, bloody and gripping.


And my planned visit to the free Nabokov House Museum, the author’s home from his birth in 1899 to 1917, necessitated grabbing Nabokov’s celebrated autobiography “Speak, Memory,” which I read many years ago. Much of the book is set in the house, a repository of writerly ephemera, artifacts, decor, desks and his beloved butterflies.

This Nabokov jag dovetails nicely with my St. Petersburg trip. I will read part, maybe all, of the autobiography, leaving me with “Lolita” to crack in the airport in a few weeks. Meantime, I have the Remnick opus, “Lenin’s Tomb,” to hold me over, all 12 pounds of it. Reading’s a huge part of travel, I think, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s informative, transformative, and it propels you just a little bit further on your voyage with words, wit and wisdom. It enriches, expands, excites. It’s like its own whopping journey.

Life, death, brevity — quote of the day

“The world’s small, breathing denizens, its quaking congregations and its stargazers, were fools to sacrifice the flaring briefness of their lives in hopes of paradise or fears of hell. No one transcends. There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death — or birth — except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.’’  — Jim Crace, “Being Dead”


Dying is easy, writing is hard.


The quote about writing from “Death in Venice” novelist Mann has for decades been my favorite assessment of the craft, even, if you will, my mantra. I present it because just days ago in The New York Times an op-ed writer echoed it crisply: “If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” This is something I have staunchly believed, and still do. Writing’s a bitch.

I’ve written so long and hard that my head hurt, that I’ve become physically wobbly, a wet noodle. And compounding the physical complaints was the inexorably depressing notion that what I just spent hours extracting, exhuming, molding and crafting was irrefutable crap.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway

A journalist colleague once called me a bleeder, because I am so slow and painstaking a writer. I’ve spent six hours on a 700-word article, I’m ashamed to admit. That isn’t the norm, but it also isn’t uncommon. Every word — no: every syllable — counts.

My best friend as a writer is so rudimentary I shouldn’t even have to mention it, and that’s reading. Yet I know many writers who don’t get this. What reliably dumbfounds me is how little so many of them actually, actively read. Television has usurped reading as a cultural pastime, confused as literature as it is. I guarantee watching TV is not going to improve one’s prose skills (teleplay-writing skills, maybe). Too many would-be writers are aspiring illiterates. A fact.

As the greats have harrumphed :

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” — Larry L. King

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” —  Stephen King

26stephens-web-blog4277Done correctly, writing is work, grueling toil. It’s fun (when it’s going well), but not that much fun. Still, creating and thinking are so gratifying that it’s worth it. It takes time, hours and hours. Listen to Louis Menand of The New Yorker:

“Writing, for 99-percent of people who do it, is the opposite of spontaneous. Chattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of writing that are conventionally characterized as ‘like speech’ are usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision, calibration, walks around the block, and recalibration. … Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed.”

That’s as hard as it sounds, and, without the most gimlet-eyed editor, failure is inevitable. But we try. We do the work. We grind, grope for the felicitous simile and metaphor, strive for the perfect punctuation, the poetic stroke, the tickling aside. We do, yes, bleed. Sympathy is unfitting for such a self-involved venture. The only reward is to be read.

There’s no pride in my Jane Austen prejudice


I can’t do Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap.

Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating. I can’t comment much further since I haven’t cut a very long swath through the novel, which turned 204 this year. That’s endurance: Readers still love this book, along with other unimpeachable Austen classics, from “Persuasion” to “Emma.” She retains the mantle of literary goddess, and to cross her is blasphemy.


I’m not buying it. Neither are a lot of other readers, individuals far more distinguished than me. Charlotte Brontë, Emerson, Woolf, Mark Twain, Stephen King and Lee Child are but a few with allergies to those charming Austen tropes of money-lust, snobby class divisions, giggling and gossip, society fetes, courting and coupling, husband-hunting and, of course, life’s gilded apotheosis, heavenly nuptials.

“The one problem in the mind of (Austen),” wrote Emerson, “is marriageableness. All that interests any character introduced is: Has he or she the money to marry with, and conditions, conforming? … Never was life so narrow … Suicide is more respectable.”

I know more than I let on about Austen’s work, via literature, criticism and film. What grates is a little of the “Downton Abbey”-syndrome inflicting her work and her world, the unctuous materialism, the superficial scope of humanity, the tea-sipping, pursed-lip superciliousness. Henry James dubbed Austen’s heroines “she-Philistines,” which will be called misogynistic, namely for an author whose work is so exhaustively feminist. (I’m torn on that one. Send comments with the subject line “Jerk.”)

I must be fair. My affection for 19th-century English literature is finite. This will reveal scandalous volumes about my taste for it: I cannot get through Dickens, despite valiant essays. I’ve cracked “A Tale of Two Cities” three times — fail. Both “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield” parried my great expectations. His books are cluttered, fancy and fussy. Everything reads like a hyper, heightened children’s tale, which is why as a third-grader I so adored “A Christmas Carol.” (Donna Tartt’s cloying “The Goldfinch,” supposedly an adult novel, was so redolent of Dickens I had to put it down halfway through. My teeth hurt.)


When it comes to 19th-century novels, I pledge fealty to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education,” Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” There are others, but not many. (Apologies “Moby Dick,” of which I’ve read two-thirds. Fail!)

Speaking of Twain, I allow him, king of the caustic and our satirical sire, to encapsulate my feelings about Austen and her most celebrated novel:

“I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”


But what is Twain saying? “Every time” he read “Pride and Prejudice”? He read it more than once, or did he just dip into it occasionally, glossing passages to confirm its unreadability, as I do whenever I pass it on the bookshop shelf?

I’m a humble hater. I am certain “Pride and Prejudice” spills forth with aesthetic virtues: bounding wit, robust guffaws, social acuity, perspicacious wisdom. I do believe that. But I am blind to it — blinded in those first excruciating pages by the twee, twittery and bogusly confected. Austen trafficked in realism. What an insufferable reality.

Unsung culture: a reclamation

The headline above says “a reclamation,” by which I mean a reclaiming of bits of culture that have been acknowledged or acclaimed yet buried beneath indifference, ignorance or more accessible cultural detritus.

unsung |ˌənˈsəNG|not celebrated or praised; unacknowledged.

From food to film, I’m highlighting the forgotten, the forsaken and the downright dissed, retaining due respect to exceptional cultural finds.

These are the unsung. Some of them are the merely undersung — things that either had their day in the sun and were left for dead, or never got the plaudits they deserved.

Any culture buff worth his “House of Thrones” or “Game of Cards” knows where the good stuff is. So accept this as Quality Unsung Stuff 101, a nudge, some tips, a torch alighting on the unjustly obscure.


Quick: Have you seen “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “At Close Range” (1986), “Naked” (1993), “The Dead Zone” (1983) or “Tangerine” (2015) ? If not, then you have some serious, very pleasurable, movie viewing in store.

But I’m not here to discuss those under-sung films, which are largely known and well-regarded. From a sea of ignored or lost titles, I’ve tapped three under-appreciated, fairly unseen movies, the minimalist masterworks “Locke” (2014), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2009).

 * “Locke” — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates by smart phone the personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, squirmily static. It’s not. It’s gripping, utterly.


* “Chop Shop” — A small-scale drama about an orphan boy in Queens who works for an auto chop shop and how he deals with suspicions that his teenage sister is dabbling in prostitution. The writer-director, minimalist maestro Ramin Bahrani, is, like the neo-realists before him, a steadfast humanist, and this fascinating slice of grubby life brims with heart — and heartache.


* “Wendy and Lucy” —  A girl and her dog. There you have it in Kelly Reichardt’s grim but soulful tale of a homeless woman (Michelle Williams) and her faithful hound Lucy as they get by as best they can. Lucy gets lost. Drama unfurls. It’s sad, funny, and inexorably stirring. The dog, a natural, is something special. (See my full review here.)



Pop Music

Alt-rock’s embarrassment of riches in the ‘90s — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Soundgarden, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Beck — birthed its share of one-hit/no-hit wonders, from Spin Doctors to Blind Melon.

Somewhere in between it all was Jellyfish, a Bay Area power-pop band that tossed the harmonic velcro hooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, ELO, Supertramp, Cheap Trick and even, gulp, the Partridge Family into a bottle, shook it up and let it fizz all over the place. It was poppy, heady psychedelic bliss, both dreamy and driving. It sounded like Skittles.



On only two albums, “Bellybutton” and “Spilt Milk,” the woolly quartet confected soaring, careening, crashing four-part harmonies over surgical melodies and thwumping beats. The songs were so catchy and joyous that each one sounded like a hit from a bygone time. Band members looked like a Haight Street circus and their shows, like their music, were carnivalesque.

“Is Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?” a music site recently wondered. Decidedly, yes. The band was soon elbowed out by the grunge assault, eclipsed by angst, drugs and scratchy flannel — and some of the best music of the past 25 years.

An obvious Jellyfish forebear, Supertramp is hardly an unsung pop group. It sold millions of its 1979 album “Breakfast in America,” a masterpiece of jangly, sophisticated, hyper-harmonic rock that spawned four chart-topping hits like “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”


Supertramp’s 1979 smash “Breakfast in America,” which seems all but forgotten.

But where’s that record now? FM radio and the general public seem to have forgotten it, paying excessive deference to the Billy Joels and Led Zeppelins. If not unsung, “Breakfast in America” is an example of the under-sung, a victim of cultural amnesia. Stream it sometime. The pop perfection you’ll hear is kind of overwhelming.



For food tourists and inveterate foodies, it’s by now hackneyed to actively consult career food adventurer Anthony Bourdain on where to go and what to eat when you get there. But that’s just what I did before a recent London trip. Watching one of his shows in which he prowls London for the tastiest, highest quality dishes, I took notes and underlined what he called his favorite plate — his “death row” meal — the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John in the East End.


My bone marrow feast, London.

Though you can find it on many fine-dining menus — it was rather trendy a few years ago — bone marrow remains an unsung specialty that repels the squeamish and excites daredevil palates. At St. John the bone segments were hot, the oily, meaty marrow even hotter. There’s a special way to eat marrow, and the server carefully tells you how. With a thin scooper, you scrape out the marrow and, like brown-pink butter, spread it on crusty bread, top with chunky salt granules and parsley sprigs. Excavating the marrow isn’t always easy. Eating the delicious protein is.

Japanese ramen, that soupy, slurpy noodle bowl, is a longtime favorite, but lately I’ve been almost exclusively forgoing the broth, opting for liquid-free ramen called mazeman, which still, despite growing popularity, hovers in the sphere of the unsung yummy. I rarely see people ordering it at my go-to ramen spot, safely sticking to the traditional hot soup.


Without broth, ramen is like a bowl of zesty, hearty pasta, thick, seasoned noodles topped by a medley of meats, veggies and a shiny soft-boiled egg. You mix it all up and an umami tsunami emerges, dangling between chopsticks.

The dish is lionized in season two of the fine Netflix comedy “Master of None,” when Dev (Aziz Ansari) has it for the first time. After his second bite, he exclaims, “You know what? Fuck broth!” I must concur.



“Stoner” is a stunner. John Williams’ 1965 novel, tracing the wearied footsteps of professor William Stoner, was reissued in 2006, and, despite a surge of attention, remains, alas, relegated below the unsung heading.


A shame, because the writing is surpassingly exquisite, the characters and place crackling with verisimilitude, the emotional dividends reverberant. Though Stoner is quite the sad sack, locked in an unsatisfying job, fissured marriage and the shackles of a deep existential malaise, the book is too splendid to be depressing.

Also unsung: Nicholson Baker’s ridiculously cerebral satire of the everyday “The Mezzanine” — something of a cult item — and Richard Yates’ devastating marital drama “Revolutionary Road, which, despite being a Leonardo DiCaprio film, seems woefully overlooked as literature.

And, as I’ve mentioned a few times here, seek out Eve Babitz, especially her zesty ’70s novels, freshly reissued, “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Sex and Rage.”



It seems only elite travel scribes and savvy globe-trekkers talk much about the resplendence of Istanbul, one of my very top cities, a paradisiacal world of ancient mosques and prayer-swirling minarets, exotic eats, riotous bazaars, deep-dyed tradition, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.


My Istanbul, 2008.

Straddling the best of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s distinctly Middle Eastern tang and cobblestoney Old Europe patina is singular. It has seas and waterways and tall hills cluttered with colorful buildings, both old and breathtakingly modern. The whole city braids the new and the historic, and the result is the exhilarating essence of truly transporting travel.

If you can blot out the hypothetical perils and hypocritical politics, Jerusalem is a delirious fount of history and culture. Nudge aside the vexing fanaticism infesting the Old City — actually, spectacles of devotion, like a Christian pilgrim hauling a giant cross down the Via Dolorosa, are pretty enthralling — and suddenly you’re in a Disneyland of the devoted.

The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem — it’s all utmost fascination, even for this unbudging agnostic. Short bus rides away are Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. The volume of history, religion and culture is gobsmacking. I’m going back.

For unhinged nightlife, try suave, seaside Beirut, where taxis cram narrow, bar-riddled streets and well-attired revelers roar and carouse. During the seven nights I was there, I hit both bustling, elbow-jostling bars and cozy cafes. The partiers were friendly, the drinks strong and the troubled city’s old sobriquet, “Paris of the Middle East,” seemed fitting again.



Many of you will think I’m nuts for this one, but I really do believe Chris Elliot’s wacko ’90s sitcom “Get a Life” was underrated, unloved, misunderstood and, of course, completely unsung. I also believe it was a giddy Dadaist exhibition of minor genius. All right — full-on genius.


Elliot — balding, tubby, irretrievably nerdy and awkward (and weird as hell) — played Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived above his parents’ house. He had a best friend, went on the occasional, entirely improbable date, took his first driver’s test, built a submarine in his bathtub and nurtured a mordant enmity with his best friend’s wife founded on hilarious fusillades of sarcasm.

The show, which didn’t last long on Fox (surprise!), operated on an alien wavelength that either annoyed or enraged viewers who didn’t get it. There was a pinch of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic DNA in the show’s ambient absurdism. But mostly it was Elliot’s screwily non-sequitur sense of humor that shaped “Get a Life.” Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” etc.) was a contributing writer on the program, if that helps explain things.

mv5bzwjhogfizwmtyty5ni00ngu1lwe5owitnza5nthknwuwyzc4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynta4nzy1mzy-_v1_uy268_cr30182268_al_.jpgThis one’s a no-brainer: “Freaks and Geeks” had Judd Apatow producing and starred Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Martin Starr. The whip-smart dramedy about outlier high school cliques, the stoners and the nerds, captured school days more incisively, humorously and humanly than any work of art since “Dazed and Confused.”

And because it was so good, it was naturally cancelled after 12 episodes, in 2000, only to mushroom into a cherished cult darling that reliably makes magazines’ “best TV shows ever” lists. Unsung? This one’s pretty sung.


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.”



At a nervous book reading, Nicholson Baker talks writing

I met author Nicholson Baker at a reading of his collection “The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber” some time ago on Haight Street in San Francisco. For me the reading was a sustained 60-minute symphony of emotional unease, toggling from pity, to giddiness, to gleeful recognition, to awe, to depression, to tiny elation, to a momentary lapse into eye-watering hero worship. After the event, as he signed a stack of his books and a framed picture of him that I brought, I told him I thought his work was “astonishing.” I don’t regret it, because I still believe it.

We landed front row seats in the children’s books section, rubbing elbows with Curious George and the kid with the purple crayon. In my lap were Baker’s new book, as well as the novels “Room Temperature,” “Vox,” “The Fermata” and his 1988 debut “The Mezzanine,” which remains my dearest Baker book, an uproarious, undisputed marvel of pointillistic insights into life at its most mundane, consumeristic and miniaturistically magnificent. Aglow with prosy pyrotechnics, it’s the one book I tell everybody to read.

The nifty 2011 reissue cover

(He’s published at least nine books of fiction and non-fiction since then, some of them, including the quietly hilarious novel “The Anthologist,” rather wonderful.)

Baker entered the store, very tall and visibly anxious, and slinked into the back room. Jonathan Pryce’s teetering, disheveled, hand-wringing wreck in the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” came to mind, and I felt sorry for the man, believing he was perhaps prodded with a long rake by Random House into doing such public readings.

When he first appeared at the podium, his face rapidly changed expressions, almost all of them on his broad red forehead. His entire face was an agitated, chafed pink-magenta, due to psoriasis, the skin affliction he shared with his late literary lodestar John Updike. (See Baker’s marvelous “U and I,” a profound and comical meditation about his tormenting Updike obsession.)


This tall, frail man filled me with pity; my favorite author, my linguistic idol, quivering up there and my expectant probing eyes contributing to his discomfort. But then he opened the book, complimenting it’s nice “minty green” cover, and began to read. With a sudden surge of surety, he read the title essay and told the gathered crowd that he wrote it in 1982, at age 25. (Twenty-five! Envy gnawed me and my heart sank.) He said he decided on non-fiction essays because, also at 25, he had written a couple of short stories that ran in The New Yorker (25!), and after the third one he ran out of ideas.

As a writer without ideas, you become an editor, Baker went on. He applied at The Atlantic Monthly and told the fiction editor he wanted to see more stories replete with metaphorical language, dense, tangled forests of word vegetation, the kind of stuff he writes.

The Atlantic editor asked if Baker knew that writers are supposed to write every day. Baker’s reply: “N-no.” Now, he said, he writes daily, mostly “journal things.” He carries an 8½-by-11 sheet of paper folded to the size of a Camel box on which to jot thoughts, descriptions and whatever springs to his febrile mind.


Baker writes about 1,000 pages a year, and most of it is awful. “What is worth writing about” he said is the toughest thing about writing. With a facetious twinkle, he said “The Mezzanine” is the only novel in history with four pages of continuous footnotes. Why footnotes, which appear in many of his books? Because his sentences become too attenuated, stretch to the breaking point, with too much space between noun and verb.

Writers, he said, stop writing each day when the writing starts getting really bad. So the next day you have to face the last shit you wrote. When it’s that time, he plays Suzanne Vega extremely loud to drown out the re-writing of the leftover shit. When he’s finished, he returns to silence and begins fresh writing.

Book readings are like rarefied mini-salons, enriching and, if you’re lucky, enlightening. You get to meet your heroes, interrogate them, get a glimpse inside their minds, see what they look like beyond their blow-dried jacket photos. I’ve attended swell readings by Lorrie Moore, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen and, as a sweaty-palmed teen, Allen Ginsberg at San Francisco’s fabled City Lights Bookstore.


But my favorite reading is still the one by the wry, shy Baker. He was the funniest (DeLillo was so serious), the warmest (Moore was downright frosty), the most self-effacing about himself and his art (Franzen’s, well, Franzen) and the most self-conscious (Chabon, the cheery nice fellow). He was as good as Ginsberg, who was a gigantic spirit, radiating a Buddha’s benevolence and inclined to chat you up when he signed your copy of, in my case, “Howl.”

Of course he was hugely different than Ginsberg, too. Baker was the introverted version of Ginsberg’s enveloping holy hippie. But he also chatted amiably with me when he signed all my books. He thanked me for reviewing “The Fermata” in the newspaper I worked at. And he thanked my brother for asking a question during the Q&A session. And then he said something I thought was immeasurably kind. Looking at me modestly, even diffidently, he said, “Good luck with your writing.”

Six books I didn’t put down this summer

I’m an impatient reader. I get excited about reading a particular title, I crack it, read it, and allow it 50 pages to regale me. If I’m not enthralled or at least engaged by page 50, that book is going down. I can’t say how many books I’ve stopped reading at the mid-century mark. The humanity.

This summer has proven good for reading — fruitful, satisfying, nourishing. I think I’ve only put down two books, always apologetically. (As in all my breakups, it’s me, not them.)

One I did not cast aside was Elizabeth Strout’s mellow novel “Anything Is Possible,” a chiseled gem that’s really a collection of nine interconnected stories, deeply soulful snapshots of life, love, loss and more, whose subtlety has an easy-listening vibe.51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

I journal a lot. And in May I wrote that Strout’s book is “freeze-dried minimalism, pared and spare, miniaturist portraits so easy to read and follow but practically toothless. They don’t leave imprints, marks. Delicate as bird bones, the prose lacks the prickle and sparkle I’m drawn to — listless, not lifting — yet it still holds me.”

That sounds harsh, but I enjoyed “Anything Is Possible” — I gladly finished it — even though I hardly remember a thing about it, and I almost forgot I’d read it altogether. I guess anything is possible.

Rather more memorable books I’ve read this season abound. Here are five great ones:

Michel Houellebecq’s award-winning novel “The Map and the Territory” is all brawny brain, yet brisk and entertaining, pretty brilliant and laced with slashing erudition. France’s literary bête noire, Houellebecq’s reputation as an Islamophobe, misogynist and racist precedes him, so I braced for acrid ugliness. But this is a relatively mild story about the meteoric rise of a young artist and all the traps and trappings of an obscenely priced art market, and, for an extra twist, the murder of a writer named Houellebecq, whose portrait he had painted.


Art, love, money and death are shrewdly explored and a sparkling literary flair survives the book’s English translation. It’s pungent with sharp, funny insights like this:

“It’s impossible to write a novel … for the same reason it’s impossible to live: due to accumulated inertia. And all the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors.” 

And, on a more harrowing note: “As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase.”

From one despair to another: Matthew Klam’s mordantly funny “Who is Rich?” hurls its title character Rich Fischer, a washed-up cartoonist, into paroxysms of lust, existential turmoil and the maw of marital decay. Here’s Klam on the latter topic:

“It was just the usual struggle to stay in love, keep it hot, keep it real, the boredom and revulsion, the afterthought of copulation, the fight for her attention, treating me like a roommate, or maybe like a vision of some shuddering gelatinous organ she’d forgotten still worked inside her.”

41OvV2OwvWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_A tart entertainment, this wincingly lifelike novel starts out breezily but deepens by the chapter with sometimes devastating insights, keen, unsparing observations on family life, marriage, infidelity and children, who he regards as wondrous, but also soul-killing and disappointingly mundane.

Bitter and despairing over his shambolic life, Rich spirals into a hell of his own mind. By the last 30 pages, he’s quaking on the edge. Love kills. Yearning destroys. But light does beam in:

“How do you do it? How do you span the nothingness? Through love, through music, through art, through the sharing of food, fucking and experiences.” 

Billed as a novel, Eve Babitz’s crackling “Eve’s Hollywood” reads like a rollicking, site-specific memoir, pulling readers on a picaresque through Los Angeles and the author’s precocious and prickly teenage mind.

In this unsung classic, first published in 1974, Babitz is our beautiful, privileged tour guide, leading us to druggy parties, the Watts Towers, a favorite taco joint, encounters with rock stars, bums and bohemians.


Babitz’s prose is casual poetry, jazzy here, plainspoken there, always direct and evocative with smells, colors and emotions. She’s like a kid scrawling in a scrappy journal, her memories of parties and privilege unfurling with a blasé panache. She possesses the eye of an adolescent anthropologist, at once callow and cutting, seeing through it all.

Renata Adler’s “Speedboat” also blurs the border between novel and memoir, but more radically than Babitz’s book. Almost structureless, the story’s protagonist, journalist Jen Fain, hopscotches urban America, bumping into life and experiences in jagged, kaleidoscopic impressions. The fragmentary scraps, fragrant and alive, aren’t woven into a narrative tapestry, more a crazy-quilt, and that’s made the 1976 novel an influential cult item among writers like David Foster Wallace.


Partway through “Speedboat,” I noted in my journal: “Not sure what it’s about, or if it is, as it seems, slices and episodes of a journalist’s peripatetic life.”

I was right, but journalist Guy Trebay, writing in the book’s afterward, nails it: “By turns journalistic, diaristic, aphoristic, always episodic and mordant, ‘Speedboat’ is a novel made up of a series of sharply observed miniatures rendered aslant.”

That’s my kind of book.

Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” is one of those canonical masterpieces that no one has heard of. Published in 1919 but distinctly modern in tone and themes, this fine fiction is a cycle of 22 interlinked short stories limning more than a dozen characters’ lives in confining small-town America.

51ivP9BjP5L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In patient, pellucid prose, Anderson plumbs work, religion, morality and the loneliness and isolation of life in fictional Winesburg. I found the quaintness of time and place relaxing and gently engrossing. The stories possess a simple sublimity, and taking my time through its pleasures was a joy. It’s a fast, clean read that isn’t without dramatic and emotional punch. A hushed knockout.