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Mystery author Charles Finch gets stoned, masters Steely Dan and becomes a “candle guy”

Author Charles Finch learns a guitar solo.
Charles Finch learns a solo.
(Emily Popp)

The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Today, Charles Finch, author of the Charles Lenox mystery series, finds he likes Norah Jones, learns a Steely Dan solo, reads Kierkegaard and becomes a “candle guy.”

March 20

Today’s Friday, which marks a week at home so far. I’m with a small assortment of family members, all suddenly in possession of robust opinions about what should be for dinner, since it’s the main event of the day other than brooding and phone calls. At least based on social media, it seems as if a lot of people are handling isolation by reading long novels, but I spend my regular life reading long novels. And my usual remedies for temporary emotional decline (“My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell, for instance) seem no good now either.

Instead I’ve been listening to music and staring into space, thinking about surgical masks and food supply chains. It’s been raining almost continually in L.A. this week, which has been spooky, as if the days — already surreal — had cycled into obscure concordance with our collective emotions. I listen to unending amounts of Led Zeppelin, especially “Physical Graffiti” — an album I’ve never liked by a band I haven’t cared about in a long time, but its sheer heaviness clicked into the place in my mind where art goes when you really need it.

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin, heavy enough for coronavirus quarantine.
(Atlantic Records)
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At around 6 o’clock I go into our tiny yard here in Los Feliz, high-hedged, with chairs and a single small tree. Very carefully — the pleasure of doing a small task well — I roll a joint, then inhale from it once, albeit deeply. (Is that enough to be bad for your lungs?) The sun softens into pink and gold diffusions of empathetic color over the palm trees, the rooftops, and, trying to think of something clever but failing, I text my friends long day living in Reseda, eh?

In a quarantine diary, “Your House Will Pay” author Steph Cha reads Ivy Pochoda , watches “Iron Man 2" and “Fleabag,” and works a “Starry Night” puzzle.

March 21

On “Love Is Blind,” the signature show of the pandemic’s first week, Jessica declares that she arrived at the dating game looking for that “can’t eat, can’t sleep, over the fence, World Series kind of love.” A TikTok user then remembers something astonishing: that this is a verbatim quote from a very old Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movie, delivered by Ashley and/or Mary-Kate when the two of them were about six from the look of the clip.

Why does this feel like such an important discovery to me? I’m not sure.

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Love Is Blind
“Love is Blind,” quarantine must-see TV (before “Tiger King”).
(Netflix)

I’m listening to Norah Jones today, which seems like a sign that things are getting dark. I think of Norah Jones as the best music available in the worst category of music: songwriting that’s unrepentantly affirming, lived-in and comfortable, even when its mood is “sad.” There’s no great art without at least traces of either doubt or fury in it, which on my shallow acquaintance disqualifies Norah Jones from the start. Yet it’s also what makes the music so intensely seductive. Her songs are like entering the dream of what you hoped adult life might be like as a teenager — legible, vaguely sexy, full of coffee and sun slanting across rumpled bedsheets, perhaps a few minor regrets tempered by a basic, foundational contentment. Is this thing — this nirvana — what boomers feel all the time? If so, no wonder they’re reluctant to give it up.

Anyway, I’m not alone. A friend can’t stop listening to Phil Collins, even though it “sucks,” because, he says, it’s “amazing.” Listening to “Come Away With Me,” I realize that if I heard something that at least once was meaningful to my life — anything from Earl Sweatshirt to the Goo Goo Dolls — I would dissolve into Lucretian particles of sorrow, grief, self-doubt, love and death. Even Fleetwood Mac is too much. Can I handle the seasons of my life? Unclear!

By contrast, my friend Nathan, who’s a frontline doctor at a hospital in New York and spends his time briefing members of Congress when he can get 10 minutes away from clinic, reports that he’s added “two new jams” to his “rotation”: “I Got 5 on It” by Luniz and “Pony” by Ginuwine. So it’s possible I may be in my own head a little.

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March 22

I finally manage some writing. I also find two things I can read for more than a few minutes. One is an advance copy of “The Night Fire” by Michael Connelly. He’s one of three mystery novelists I’m strict about never missing, along with Tana French and Gillian Flynn. The second book is a collection of critical essays about Kierkegaard. (Sorry.) He was an odd duck. He walked around Copenhagen in unusual clothes. His crucial contribution to philosophy was to introduce subjectivity as a major problem, probably an insurmountable problem. For centuries, men — only men, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel — had been building tremendous cathedral-like thought structures about what the objective world was. With Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, that faith in the possibilities of rational construction maybe started to come to an end. A first step toward deconstruction.

It occurs to me that fiction in our time has followed a curiously similar trajectory. Around the turn of this century, we had sweeping, synoptic novels that offered sure-handed explanations of the gleaming new-millennium world: Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan. Then, in the 2010s, there was a quiet but determined retreat from that certainty; the genius of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante is that each seems to write only what they can be sure they feel.

Now it’s as if they sensed something — even as if they predicted this pause in society. No American has lived through a moment when our basic social systems were less stable. We’ve broken down our old notion of dignity, politics and work too far to pretend they’re viable any longer. Seeing Dr. Fauci speak can momentarily elicit in me a hope that this will shake us back into some basic collective reliance on reality and expertise. But the true lesson of 2016 onward, in fiction and politics alike, is that none of us know anything about what any of us will do.

In a coronavirus quarantine diary, ‘The Other Americans’ author Laila reads ‘The Bell Jar,’ recommends Kiese Laymon’s ‘Heavy’ and watches ‘Devs.’
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March 23

The news of deaths and severe illnesses accelerates. I read them all as closely as I can. It feels like my useless duty. Since I know I won’t be listening to Norah Jones forever, I have to concede to myself that in actuality the most significant development in my personal sense of aesthetics is probably that I’ve become a “candle guy.” It’s a humiliating turn of events. I’ve never understood the appeal of them before now — profligate, at best inoffensive — but just after the shut-in I found a three-wick candle and decided to give it a whirl. Now I’m obsessed. That particular candle had an extremely light lavender scent. A long search leads me to an almost identical three-wicker on Etsy, which I quickly buy. It’s called “Calm the F--- Down,” unfortunately, but you go to war with the army you have.

Norah Jones
Singer-songwriter Norah Jones.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

March 24

An awful day, edgy and wrong. The stock market takes on a new interest for me since I’m apparently being asked to murder people based on how it’s doing. I spend most of the afternoon teaching myself the solo from “Peg” by Steely Dan on guitar. Really I just want to GO SOMEWHERE. I’d pay an amount of money I’m hesitant to admit to sit at a crowded coffee shop and work for an hour. ($50.) I tweet: “It occurs to me in hindsight that I should have opened a Chipotle franchise in my house before all this started.” It gets mild engagement.

I text with Wülf, a friend who loves candles, lit mostly while listening to vinyl in his dim, comfortable, smoke-hazy apartment, confessing that I’ve become a candle guy. He shoots back: I’ve started doing day candles. I feel better.

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March 25, 2020

Terrence McNally has died of complications from coronavirus. He was 81.

My wife and I have been meaning to read a long book together for a while, and this afternoon we take turns starting “Middlemarch.” I haven’t read it since college. I’d forgotten how much smarter George Eliot is than I am, which is a salubrious feeling. I mention to Emily that all of last week’s rain means everything’s filling out in green, the tree in our little yard included. She noticed the same. I think both of us were anxious about what this city would turn into when all the stores were shut and people had gone home, but at least in our neighborhood it’s mostly seemed to mean that people are digging out their rollerblades. Very few scooters, however, she observes.

For a moment it occurs to me that we’re finding a rhythm in the quarantine. Then I remember that these signposts of adjustment — absorption in fiction once more, the birds singing more loudly than usual in the silent streets, nearly getting hit by several different rollerbladers when you go for a run — are not so much hopeful as neutral, factual, for the simple reason that, even leaving aside the relentless acceleration of heartbreaking news, we still don’t yet know the most important fact: where the road they’re marking goes.


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