Warning: This a rather aggressively lengthed post.
The Scene: I am now in Istanbul in the first Internet cafe that had an American keyboard. It is warm here (maybe 60) and there are more cats in this city than in every musical cast combined of the contemporary musical Cats, which is to say somewhere on the heavy side of 5 million. As I type this, a cat with one eye keeps rubbing against my leg and possibly asking me if I want to buy hand rolled cigarettes. Needless to say, I am mildly freaked out.
While obviously important, that isn’t the point of my blog.
When I decided to go on this trip, I had to make several difficult decisions, not the least of which was what books I would bring. I would be gone for four months potentially not being able to really talk with anyone the entire time except for the Big Cat, and so I knew the choices that I would make for books would dictate whether or not I would be able to find myself, especially since I planned on spending most of my time reading in a TGIFridays in Budapest. I realized, also, that I would have to lug said books across the globe and so weight would be an issue. Immediately, hard cover books and World Book Encyclopedias were ruled out. Plus, I wanted the books I would bring to say something about me and say something about the importance of reading and literature and current events on my life.
So basically, I had no choice but to leave the Nancy Drew-Hardy Boys SuperMystery #26 at home. Some of the books I brought were books I’ve been dying to read, some of them books I’ve been meaning to read and some of them I purchased at an English bookstore in Vienna. I think I ended up with something like 16. The Big Cat, on the other hand, brought one (something about a man walking across Afghanistan), but to be fair he’s also purchased two issues of Okay!, the British version of US Weekly.
Anyway, because it seems important right now as this pirate-like tabby cat again attempts to sit in my lap and lick my hand, here is the list of books I brought on this trip and the reasons why and possibly brief responses to the ones I’ve read so far.
1. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart. Reason: I like Shteyngart’s non fiction a lot and have had this book on my bookcase for upwards of a year, always meaning to read it. Plus, the guy is Russian and I am going to Russia and I believe in being knowledgeable and worldly. Verdict: The dude brings it. This book is amazing, hilarious, fast paced, informative, broadly scoped, a masterpiece. How could this be his first book? Read this. Laugh. Use the restroom. Feel slightly insecure about your own writing. Go back to the restroom.
2. Wake Up, Sir by Jonathan Ames. Reason: While doing a profile of another writer, I interviewed a very cool editor at Picador and, along with the proofs of that writers book, he sent me a bunch of his other writers books. I brought along this one based on a review on the back that called Ames “Like an edgier Sedaris”. Also, the book was pretty small. Verdict: hilarious, about a writer who has his own butler and is an alcoholic and incredibly productive at self diagnosis but not at doing much else. Again, many laugh out loud moments and great book for writers ever dreaming about the realities of working at a writers retreat (Ames bases the one in his book on a real one somewhere…get off me, cat)
3. Underworld by Don Delilo. Reason: This book is almost 900 pages paperback and I’ve never read any Delilo and I feel guilty about it. Plus, if I’m being honest with myself, then i can admit that I wouldn’t read it unless I forced myself to bring it with me. 900 pages!!! That’s like 16 Nancy Drew Files mysteries! Verdict: Truly impressive. He creates his own specific, evocative language, and it reads almost like poetry for the entire 3 million words. Also, covers something like 50 years… people like him make me feel both incredibly lucky that they exist so we get to experience their work and small and insecure. Well played, Delilo.
4. A Moveable Feast by Some Guy Who Probably Isn’t Important (Hemingway). Reason: Come on now. You and I both know why I would bring this book. Who doesn’t want to know what Gertrude Stein is really like? Verdict: Um, interesting. I am a huge fan of Hemingway and this didn’t really do it for me. Although, if you are interested in hearing about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, um, sexual proclivities…please stop reading my blog.
5. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. Reason: Richard Ford came out with a new book in his series of Frank Bascombe mid-life crisis novels and I had never read any of them and my father was like, “Why haven’t you read any of these books? Aren’t you a “writer”?” And I said, “Stop doing that quotation marks thing with your hands every time you call me a writer.” And he’s like, “How can you even tell I’m doing that? We’re on the phone.” Anyway. Verdict: Frank has some serious issues, namely his inability to make any decision without asking himself deep penetrating philosophical questions that shake him to the core. Or something. I liked this book because it made me think that maybe I’m not quite as crazy as my therapist seems to believe. And although I am not yet in my late 30s, Ford makes me seem like I know what that’s like. Actually, I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing.
6. Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King. Reason: I first read Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water in a Native Amer Lit Class in my MFA program and I thought it was one of the 5-7 best books I’d ever read. His wit is sharp, he renders things so damn accurately, i just was actually mad that I had never read any of his stuff before and vowed to read everything else. Then the class was over and I forgot about the promises I made to myself. Luckily, I happened to stumble upon this while walking past a used bookstore in NYC. It was, again, another case of my life almost exactly resembling the John Cusak film Serendipity. Verdict: Not quite Green Grass, but still, humor and childhood and Native Amer life (even though it takes place in Canada).
7. Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden. Reason: Amsden is a contributing writer at New York Magazine and I am a fan of his magazine articles, which often are fresh takes on ideas I have several months after the fact for Boston Mag. Plus, he’s a young guy with the charmed benefit of having the New York Times write an article about going out with him in New York (“A Night Out with David Amsden: Oh, to be a Bold Faced Name”), which makes me kind of hate him, kind of want to be him. Verdict: The book took me an hour to read, tops, and covers a teen growing up in the 80s and 90s and is very, very autobiographical, even though it is a novel (I only say that bc a closing scene in a restaurant is almost exactly like a nonfiction essay i think he wrote for Nerve.com). It’s a fine book, but I’ve been reading such hot shit, it didn’t have much of a chance.
8. The IRA by Tim Pat Coogan. Reason: I was going to Belfast and wanted to be informed about the conflict in N. Ireland from something else besides the film The Patriot Game starring Harrison Ford so I picked up this tome in an English bookstore in Vienna. It’s almost Delilo long. Verdict: Delilo long, none of the narrative arc, all of the millions of words. I still am not done with it, and it has some very interesting parts about the conflict, but essentially it is a history book and I feel like I’m doing homework when I read it. Not always in a good way.
9. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. Reason: See The Russian Debutante. Verdict: Oh man, more history? What am I trying to do, educate myself? To be fair, some very interesting facts and stories about how St. Petersburg was formed and the crazy, hedonistic parties aristocrats in Moscow used to throw, and lots of stuff on all the Russian writers, which sort of gives me a frame of mind for both places, but ultimately won’t help me sort out where the TGIFridays is. Also Delilo long. Not done with this one, either. Helps me fall asleep.
10. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. Reason: Sorry, but I like hip-hop. I can’t help it; I grew up in an upper middle class suburb and was obsessed with basketball. Conversely, and perhaps just as infuriatingly, I also like country music. I blame that on spending my childhood in Texas. Either way, Jeff Chang won the American Book Award for this history of hip hop and I like to pretend that I know about things that I like. Verdict: Just started. So far, so good. Using a strong font, that i like. Might be Georgia. I’ll keep you posted.
11. The 27th City by Jonathan Franzen. Reason: I read The Corrections and loved it and that does play a big role in why I picked up this book, but mainly, I just want to be able to say, “Well, actually, I prefer some of Franzen’s more obscure work.” in a faux English accent and actually sort of know what I’m talking about, when people I don’t like bring up The Corrections. Honestly, am I really this petty? Verdict: Yes. I am. (Book remains unread).
12. Glamorama by Brett Easton Ellis. Reason: Am I the only mid-twenties male writer with embarrassing facial hair who hasn’t read any Easton Ellis? I mean I actually lie and tell people I’ve read American Psycho but I’ve only seen that part of the movie when he is tanning nude in his apartment and puts on Genesis. Wait, that didn’t come out right. Verdict: Unread
13. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Reason: I love the book Motherless Brooklyn and heard this was almost as good. Lethem is a genius. I think I could marry his work and be moderately happy. Okay, maybe I’m starting to lose it a little. (Oh my God. Not joking, the cat is licking the side of the computer monitor, and I seem to be the only person in this full Internet cafe moderately fazed by this.) Verdict: Meow.
14. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Reason: Falls right into the “Are you f*cking serious, you’ve never read that and you write for non-fiction for magazines?” genre. I found it in my mom’s basement and its small and yellowed and inscribed “Chris (my mom’s name), Lot of good times. Julie.” I have no idea who Julie is or what these good times were, I just hope they weren’t happening while she was pregnant with me. Verdict: I don’t think anyone wants to know what their parents did in the late 60s, early 70s.
15. Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala: Reason: I picked it up in Vienna. About a boy caught up in an unnamed West African nation’s civil war, I read the first page and knew I would want it. Electrifying Prose. Plus, the author is 24. Verdict: Unread, but probably next on my list.
16. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. Reason: This one is sort of cheating, because I read it a year or two ago and The Big Cat actually bought it out here, but I want to read it again because of Obama’s recent choice to run for the Dem nomination. I remember being jealous of how clear and solid the prose was, and impressed that any politician (or honestly anyone that wasn’t primarily a writer) could put forth such a coherent, well-written book. Or at least I think that’s what I remember thinking. I can’t remember anything right now because the Jack Sparrow cat is licking itself in private places on the chair next to me. I desperately need to get out of here.
Okay. Wow. That’s a lot of stuff. I’m not sure why anyone would get to the end of this post, other than to find the post a comment box and unleash expletives about making them read something as interesting as my book list, but, hey friends, come on. I’m in Turkey.
But you’re (probably) not. So go write, publish, and get wealthy. Then call me.
ps- Progress has been made in the “Kevin can’t seriously be this inept” quest to respond to reader mail. I now understand that the word dot signifies the . in the emails. If cats weren’t attempting to ruin my life, I’d even respond to questions right now. Blame the cats.