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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: Ideal books for summer's short bursts of attention

Jeff Simon

Here is an authentically modest proposal. Or so I think anyway.

Let traditionalists encourage people to read novels during the summer, whether "chick lit" or otherwise. By all means, all who want to do so should recommend Tolstoy or Proust on vacation or "the sex and shopping" fantasies of Judith Krantz, who died recently -- still beloved -- at the age of 91.

Let's admit, though, that summer is a good time to read in pieces -- 5, 20, or 30 pages here, 10, 40 or 50 pages there. If you need to slather lotion on a 6-year-old's back, by all means do so with impunity.

So here is my usual mildly eccentric list of some books that might be perfect for summer. They mostly meet the piecemeal needs of summer, but they're witty and entertaining as can be as well, sometimes, as provocative and edifying. They're cultural nourishments for the brain that knows that distraction is inevitable. If you want to read while on vacation, why not try these?

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution

By Emily Nussbaum (Random House, 384 pages, $28)

I would submit first-rate critics are not only ideal for summer reading, they are also -- when their subject is television -- utterly crucial to American civilization in the 21st century. They can get folks through infested TV schedules without missing the stunning stream of "peak TV" regularly upon us in the tsunami. Nussbaum won the Pulitzer Prize for her criticism in the New Yorker in 2016. I would submit to you that, for my taste, her passing weekly affections can be a wee bit errant, but she is a terrific writer with an attitude delectably all her own.

When the subject is #MeToo, she has written some of the best pieces still available. Her father, Bernard, was a prominent attorney for decades in, among other places, the highly visible Southern District of New York State and Bill Clinton's White House.

Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder

By John Waters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 572 pages, $27)

I can personally testify under oath you can have a great time reading this flying across country to Los Angeles. It wasn't exactly Waters' intention all those decades ago when his lead performer Divine, turned dog droppings into a cinematic meal, that he would turn out to be one of mainstream America's most distinguished and venerable "others." But that's what happened once "Hairspray" combined with Baby Boom nostalgia and triumphant camp to become a Broadway smash and cultural landmark.

Waters' putative intention in these essays and pieces of memoir is to instruct willing readers in how to become a "filth" elder like him by being as offensive as humanly possible. At the same time, that you somehow, of course, become weirdly beloved by most. The secret about Waters only his dedicated readers know is that if you actually take the trouble to read him in circumstances like this, he isn't nearly as mainstream-friendly as people pretend he is.

Which only makes his achievement now in his 70's that much more delightful.

Anthony Bourdain Remembered

(Ecco, 208 pages, $35)

This is a fine fan's memorial book, full of adorational pictures and quotes from fans intermixed with bits and pieces from the figure who defined his mission in books and on TV as telling people "to move. As far as you can. As much as you can. Across the ocean or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. It's a plus for everybody."

What writer Brian Donahue says about Bourdain in New Jersey will ring true for those who remember Bourdain in Buffalo for Travel Channel purposes. "Bourdain found beauty in places the rest of the world saw as most screwed up. Bourdain nailed Jersey as I knew he would, and so New Jerseyers experienced sweetly something people in Kenya, China, Singapore, and the scores of other places Bourdain visited: the relief and joy of seeing your sacred story told right."

Wild and Crazy Guys

By Nick DeSemelyen (Crown Archetype, 330 pages, $27)

The subtitle is "How the Comedy Mavericks of the '80's Changed Hollywood Forever." The dustflap promises "drugs, sex, fistfights, webbed toes, and [Bill] Murray being pushed into a swimming pool by Hunter S. Thompson. What's not to like?"

Unfortunately, that smug rhetorical question for the sake of promotion actually has quite a few lengthy answers, but if you're one of those who measure humor as the distance from Chevy Chase and Bill Murray to Eddie Murphy, you'll find this history of post-"Lampoon" and SNL cinema attentive, scholarly and information packed. A book for those who take the original "Ghostbusters" seriously. If not, not.

Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan

By J. Hoberman (The New Press, 396 Pages, $28.99)

Another, much smarter, book about '80's movies.

Hoberman, in the Village Voice, was one of the more brilliant film critics of the past half-century, with a particular acuity dealing with the things movies reveal about politics and vice versa. This ends a trilogy of books about movies and politics taking much from Hoberman's superb weekly work. It's not film criticism, he explains, nor is it history. It is, rather, a "chronicle in which political events and Hollywood movies are folded into each other" and "illuminate what -- in 1980 -- writer [Norman] Mailer termed America's 'dream life.'"

The title, of course, comes from that line from Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry movie "Sudden Impact," which Reagan quoted to intimidate would-be marauders the way Colonials did with flags that read "don't tread on me." American political sanctity and virility will not be besmirched.

As for Reagan and Trump, Hoberman writes, "Reagan's movie was America -- or rather America as it imagined itself. Far less cornball, Trump's movie is Trump, as America imagines him."

The Lady in the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick

By Mallory O'Meara (Hanover Square Press, 320 pages, $26.99)

The kind of story that feminists will, no doubt, make impossible in time. I.e. the person who created "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" in Jack Arnold's classic B-movie horror film was Millicent Patrick. But "no woman had ever designed a monster for a major motion picture before." And "the head of the makeup shop, a man named Bud Westmore, wanted the recognition." He pulled her from jobs she was on when the film opened and he got the credit and cancelled all her future work at Universal.

This is about one inspired and dogged fan and critic's search for the rest of one woman's no-longer-anonymous life. What O'Meara says about her search: "Millicent Patrick's story is sadly not unique in the way that it was buried under an avalanche of misogyny and jealousy. There are countless stories like this for women working any jobs on a film crew. These stories are happening today. They've always happened. Make people recognize how pervasive is the problem -- that's the first step in fixing it."

White

By Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf, 251 pages, $25.95)

Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales

By Oliver Sacks (Knopf, 274 pages, $26.95)

What we have here for some of us are polar opposites on the spectrum of literary likability: the final volume collecting an affecting miscellany of pieces by Sacks, one of the most beloved of literary and scientific polymaths of the past half-century, as well as the first piece of non-fiction by Ellis, onetime literary "brat packer" and author of one of the least liked works of our times, "American Psycho." Ellis is a writer whose self-presentation almost seems sometimes on the page to touch the outer fringes of reality TV or the WWF.

It would be nice, believe me, if Ellis could be dismissed without a thought, but he can't. What he says about provocative social media and a "culture at large that seemed to encourage discourse" while its "social media had become a trap and what it really wanted to do was shut down the individual."

Writers of Sacks' idiosyncratic brilliance and esoteric concerns are seldom as beloved as the physician. His book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" was turned into an opera by composer Michael Nyman (who first applied the word "minimalism" to music) and his book "Awakenings" was made into a hit film by Penny Marshall starring the late Robin Williams in the lead role playing Dr. Sacks.

Sacks' unregenerate humanism was as compelling as his scientific nature was infectious in his prose. In his slivers of memoir here, we're told his "first love" was the pedagogy of a high school biology teacher who was nevertheless "narrow-minded, bigoted, cursed with a hideous stutter (which we would imitate endlessly) and, by no means, exceptionally intelligent." Sacks died at 82 in 2015. The neurologist tells us here that there is a difference between "longevity and vitality. ... Human beings may be physically and neurologically healthy but psychically burned out at a relatively early age. If the brain is to stay healthy, it must remain active, wondering, playing, exploring and experimenting right to the end." As, in his books, did Oliver Sacks.

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