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Lit Crit

It is an article of faith among local literati that L.A. is the country’s biggest book market. Judging by the crowds that swarmed the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and listened attentively to panel discussions on such topics as “Finding a Voice: First Fiction” and “Modern Epics: Ambition and the Novelist,” the believers may be correct. But on the surface, L.A. remains an utterly unbookish city. There we were Saturday, trapped in the academic theme park that is the UCLA campus, and judging from the way people looked and dressed — shorts, sweatshirts, baseball caps, ad slogans galore — we might as well have been at a baseball game or a van Gogh exhibition at LACMA. If you were hoping to see some eccentric, scholarly types, you would have been disappointed: There was very little that felt bookish even about the book festival.

Does this matter? I think it does. I once had a teacher who liked to say that artists should look like artists, engineers like engineers, students like students, and so on. I wouldn’t go that far, but confronted by a world in which people dress like walking billboards, I’m beginning to see his point. There were lots of good writers at the festival, a wealth of interesting booths and panel discussions, but the bland commercialism of the event as a whole knocked any possible romance out of it. Maybe next year the L.A. Times should put on a Festival of Crooks, because I think the criminals would dress better and attract a more interesting crowd. (Steve Wasserman would finally blend in.) They could have a Russian Mafia stage, an Italian Mafia stage and a Petty Criminal stage; seminars on toxic-waste dumping and assassination techniques; and panel discussions with titles like “Selling Nuclear Weapons” and “Fresh Out of Jail: What Next?” I’d go.

All in all, the Festival of Books left me feeling distinctly unfestive. Fortunately, Deepak Chopra was on hand to soothe my troubled soul. Standing on the Barnes & Noble open-air stage, the snake-oil salesman from the land where the cow is holy burbled away in his charmingly accented English. He was promoting a new book, How To Know God: The Soul’s Journey Into the Mystery of Mysteries, and the solution to that age-old puzzle seemed to be Get to know Deepak: He’ll introduce you.

“Death, in a sense, is merely mind-body karmic overload,” he informed the packed crowd, assuring us that the Big Sleep was nothing to get worked up about, since we were all going to have lots of other lifetimes in which to continue our spiritual journeys. In his way, Chopra was very impressive. He is a consummate New Age priest, and makes your average chaplain or rabbi look hopelessly outmoded. His words soothed like warm water on aching limbs, and at the end of his talk everyone rushed off to buy his book, get it signed, and have an up-close-and-personal moment with the Master.

After a few hours, I decided I’d had enough and went looking for UCLA’s Parking Lot 8, where I’d left my car. Two wrong turns and two trips to the Information Booth later, I finally found lots 6 and 9. Somewhere nearby, I knew, was Lot 8, but where? Behind me, to a flute accompaniment, a Native American in full feathery regalia was telling a story about a beautiful girl with beautiful skin who worked very, very hard; in front of me, animal-rights activists were protesting the horrors of vivisection and displaying grisly color photographs. I went into a parking lot whose number I couldn’t find and asked someone inside if it was number 8. He didn’t know. I decided it must be and went upstairs and found my car. Then I drove it out of UCLA, murmuring the words of an old Bob Dylan song:

I’m closing the book on the pages and the text
And I don’t really care oooh what happens next.
I'm going, I'm going, I'm gone.

A Tale of Two Shvitzes

Why would anyone want to spend time in a room heated to a temperature of 190 degrees? It’s a good question. Here’s another: Is there an animal that would willingly endure it? None, surely, but Homo sapiens, wiliest of God’s creatures. For some reason, he (or she) enjoys it.

At least some people do — devotees of the sauna, the steam room, the Russian bath, the Turkish bath, the plaitza massage and the ice-cold plunge. We like it a lot. I suspect that indolence is at the heart of the attraction, for there is something perversely satisfying about working up a sweat while doing absolutely nothing. To accomplish this goal, at City Spa in Southwest Los Angeles, all you have to do is walk into one of the saunas and sit down. In short order, you will look like someone who’s just completed a marathon. According to the Web site Sweat, a 15-minute session in a properly heated sauna will relieve you of a liter of perspiration. Of that, 99 percent will be water, with the remaining 1 percent consisting of toxins that your kidneys would normally take 24 hours to remove. Never have lassitude and health been so happily combined.

In New York, I used to indulge in this peculiar pleasure at the Russian & Turkish Baths in the East Village. The baths occupied three floors of an old brownstone, and they were small and crowded and, for the most part, coed. (For a brief period they were so intoxicatingly coed that men and women shared the same changing room, not to mention relaxation beds. A dividing wall has since been inserted.) There were four different kinds of sauna — Swedish, Turkish, Russian, along with a small steam room of no known nationality — and a small, ice-cold pool braved only by the hardiest regulars. Though relaxation was the stated purpose, the place felt hectic in the traditional New York fashion. There was a continuous stream of arrivals and departures, and an enormous custom in massage (the smell of Johnson’s Baby Oil permeated the second floor, along with some suspiciously pleasurable groans). Downstairs, in the saunas, there was a line for the showers, and more lines of people sitting, post-sauna, on benches that faced each other across a narrow passageway, next to the ice-cold pool. All in all, it was a bit like a subway car invaded by clouds of steam.

You won’t feel as if you’re on a subway at City Spa, which is much more relaxed and spacious and has a slightly decadent, Old World feel. As it says on the flier, it’s a place “where men and women go to escape from the pressures and burdens of everyday life without actually leaving the city.” (Women, it should be pointed out, can escape only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.) There are three saunas, of which the best are the Russian Rock Room, a multitiered chamber heated by stones in two large dome-shaped ovens, and the Eucalyptus Steam Room. The latter is the best for escapist purposes, for the moment you enter it you vanish — like Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca — in a thick swirl of fog. There are two levels, the upper one being so hot that those who choose it either lie down flat, inches below the hottest layer of steam, or sit hunched over with towels and gowns wrapped around their heads for protection.

If you couldn’t leave after a few minutes, it would be a miniature hell, complete with fiery bodies and guilt-racked souls sighing and groaning in dimly lit corners. (And there is something curiously penitential about the posture the body instinctively adopts in extreme heat: hunched over, face buried in hands, life force slowly dribbling away in a million beads of sweat.) But hell doesn’t come equipped with a swimming pool, and City Spa does. It’s not ice-cold (there’s a “Swedish cold plunge” for that), but it’s certainly chilly, and cools you off pronto. Every so often you will see someone who has just been taken to the limits of his endurance by a burly masseur wielding a bushel of leafy eucalyptus branches — the plaitza massage — run shrieking from the Russian Rock Room straight into the swimming pool, in which he then splashes around, howling in relief like a drunk seal.

What kind of experience you have at City Spa depends, to some extent, on when you go. On Thursday nights, a.k.a. “Russian night,” BMWs and SUVs jam the parking lot and the atmosphere is positively boisterous with Eastern European bonhomie. Everyone’s talking, but chances are you won’t understand a word, and the good vibes don’t always extend to those born west of Ukraine. Personally, I prefer the place on just about any evening after 8, when tranquillity reigns. Just a few lost souls flitting in and out of the mist, ready to do penance.