Quote of the day,via Philip Roth

“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.”  — Philip Roth, “American Pastoral”



On readers: quote of the day

I know a handful of adult humans who, without a whiff of shame or embarrassment, blithely admit they don’t read. This is not only startling to me, it’s seismically appalling.

They (our president included) don’t get the appeal, they have no use for words or language or a particular type of storytelling that is expressly non-passive, that’s indeed near-immersive. I’m trying hard not to sound snobbish about this. It’s like the sports fan whose passion eludes the non-sports fan or the punker who has no interest in Bach or Bartok. We are who we are.

This bibliophile will never understand, and trying to understand the bookless simply exhausts me.

What I am — and here I quote one of the most apt descriptions I’ve seen — is “a person who considers reading an emotionally instructive and intellectually legitimate form of lived experience.”

That’s Alice Gregory reviewing Lisa Halliday’s new fiction “Asymmetry,” which I plan to grab once I finish Evan S. Connell’s smashing 1959 novel “Mrs. Bridge.” Gregory’s account of the serious reader made me even gladder to be one and sadder for those who are not.

What they are missing is incalculable.


Want a reminder that you’re going to die? There’s an app for that

I don’t get people who don’t consider their mortality — the actual, undeniable fact that one day they are going to die, forever (because you are, reader, you are) — at least once or twice a day.

Surely that’s because I think about my death specifically and death as a brute phenomenon generally many times a day. This has been going on for years. Like since I was seven. I maintain a shelf of books about death, from “The Denial of Death” to “How We Die.” (My id is a vivid, hyperactive place. My therapy bills, exorbitant.)

Who needs a reminder of death? I wonder. It’s right there in the face that looks back at you in the mirror.

Who wants a reminder of death? my friends retort.

Apparently a lot of people, mostly millennials, do. They want a brief if pointed reminder that they are indeed going to buy it sometime. And they want it exactly five times a day, randomly. On their phone.

10We-CROAK1-blog427That’s what the new app WeCroak offers: quick, jarring jabs calling attention to users that, yup, death is waiting around the corner. With homilies like this from Herman Melville — “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried” — the 99-cent app exists expressly to galvanize consciousness, a little existential poke to nudge you into the now. And maybe to scare the holy hell out of you.

“Each day, we’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death,” says the WeCroak site. “It’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death.”

By turns soothing and somber, quotes are culled from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Charles Bukowksi, Lao Tzu and Margaret Atwood.

“The grave has no sunny corners,” goes one. (For pessimists.)

“Begin again the story of your life,” says another. (For optimists.)


(That one, for fatalists, I think.)

We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

It’s rubbish.

WeCroak’s passages are meant to put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness. In fact, hokey as it sounds, I’d say the messages are nutrient-rich food for the soul.

The benighted disagree. People have actually called the app “sick” and “disgusting.” These people are babies. They are in craven denial. No matter — they’re still going to die.

“Death never takes a wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.” — Fontaine

I don’t know if WeCroak offers that jewel, but it should.



Getting critical about critics

Good essay at Slate today titled “The Reviewer’s Fallacy,” which includes the subhead: “When critics aren’t critical enough.” When I read that line I let out a resounding if whispered Hallelujah!

The article, by the terrific Ben Yagoda (see his knockout book “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing”), discusses the rankling discrepancy between the opinions of professional critics and regular consumers of books, movies and music, and wonders why so many critics exalt so much art that just plain bites.


“Critics,” Yagoda writes, “have been charged with being offenders of a few specific types:

  • Over-intellectual nitpickers who blame works for not being what they were never intended to be: the ‘Daddy’s-Home-2’-isn’t-Molière syndrome.
  • Soft touches who’re in the pockets of studios and record labels. Most egregiously, ‘quote sluts’ supposedly craft money notices for the express purpose of being featured in display ads.
  • Chummy logrollers — a perception heightened in the social media age. In a 2012 Slate piece called ‘Against Enthusiasm,’ Jacob Silverman wrote, ‘if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.’ ”

I know the types. I reviewed films at a major daily newspaper for 12 years, and, despite some very kind accolades, I wasn’t the most popular guy in town. To many readers, I was a naysayer, a contrarian, a hard-ass (and, yes, an asshole). To me, I was simply honest, discerning, discriminating. When you saw as many movies as I saw — about 10 a week — it gets easy to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Your crap-detectors become sharper, more attuned, and your patience for mediocrity and flat-out bilge shrivels and dies. You get tough. Compromise is the critic’s kryptonite.

“It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap,” Yagoda quotes sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon as saying, promptly agreeing with him: “It’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.”

As a persnickety reader, finicky TV watcher and choosey filmgoer I emphatically concur with Sturgeon and Yagoda’s furrowed-brow attitude, which is one of frequent disappointment, confusion (people actually like this rot?) and exasperation. Being a Negative Nelly can be a lonely spot. For instance, I’m not crazy about the acclaimed series “Stranger Things.” The stance has made me few friends. I think even the dog is angry at me.

Critics, Yagoda argues, are often suckers. They “fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic Stockholm syndrome. They experience so much bad work that they get inured to it. They are so thankful for originality, or for a creator’s having good or arguably interesting intentions, or for technical proficiency, or for a something that’s crap but not crap in quite the usual way, that they give these things undue credit. You see this in reactions to Coen brothers films.”

Love that Coen brothers dig. Yagoda’s article is well worth a look — the link is in the opening graf of this entry — and includes trenchant quotes about softball criticism from George Orwell and Elizabeth Hardwick, who says, “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”

Still searching for a really good book

It pains me to stop reading a book I’m not fully enjoying, not wholly invested in, but I do it so often it’s hard to make a case for any actual suffering. So, OK then: it doesn’t really pain me to put down a book I’ve already read 100 pages of. What pains me is the time I wasted on mediocrity, which — mediocrity, that is — is about the worst thing ever.

So onto books I recently sealed shut far before they reached the final page — all of which are highly acclaimed novels, and some are even scorching hot titles of fall 2017. My credo: Never trust the bestseller list, and feel no guilt spurning award winners.


I waited long and pantingly for Jennifer Egan’s new historical epic “Manhattan Beach,” because: 1) I’m a fan of her earlier novels “Look at Me” and the Pulitzer-winning, unfortunately titled “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” and: 2) the new book marched in on a drumbeat of salivating hype.

Fail. “Manhattan Beach” isn’t bad, it’s just not great. This is Egan’s first foray into a more stately, time-tested form — the historical novel — and it’s a bit of a trudge. She’s usually more the bouncy stylist, a lot more fun, orange zest. She’s a maestro, sure, but I had to put down this eye-glazer about a third of the way in. Want a synopsis, raves, an excerpt? Go here. I can’t deal.

Two other much-exalted novels I couldn’t cozy up to due to their overarching tepidness were Celeste Ng’s family drama “Little Fires Everywhere” and Elif Batuman’s girl-goes-to-college dramedy “The Idiot.” The stories are undercut by soft, cooing voices, a bourgeois middle-brow blah, despite daintily turned phrases and surgical control. Fatally, they are short on wisdom, philosophy and epiphany. There’s no crunch.


Slightly better is Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a tough, Faulknerian, mixed-race odyssey through rural Mississippi that’s very much of this racially attuned American moment and all that. Yet I found the drama ordinary and obvious. “Sing” didn’t sing.

So I picked up — and soon put down — “The Group,” Mary McCarthy’s celebrated 1963 novel about a bevy of privileged young white women making their way in a gilded New York City (it was a huge influence on Candace Bushnell, creator of “Sex and the City”). It’s a period piece, set in the 1930s, and it feels dusty. Cluttered and clammy, the fine stylist McCarthy’s tale is a dense compendium of social mores, money, neuroses and debutante gleam. It’s claustrophobic with cattiness.

Looking for another book, I considered reading Murakami’s “Kafka On the Shore.” And then I remembered how precious and irritating his “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” was in its forced, flatulent fancifulness.


I soon stumbled upon a suggestion, the high-flying 1990 British satire “The Buddha of Suburbia” by Hanif Kureishi, which has been called “raunchily, scabrously brilliant.” I’ve cracked it and I am happy to report I’m enjoying its comic kineticism just fine.

Yet I don’t think it will outclass the last book I finished, about a week ago, the short novel “LA. Woman” by Eve Babitz, my go-to gal last year for swooning fiction (I polished five of her books in 2017 with swooshing alacrity).

Soaked in sunsets and squalor, glamor and grit, “LA. Woman” traces the squiggly trajectory of a young Jim Morrison groupie through the titular city with a constant stream of poetics and epiphany. It’s funny and mean. It’s about Los Angeles. And life.

I gobbled it up in a gulp, like a gumdrop.

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 MILFateria.com. 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.