I’m beginning to understand what life must be like for people involved with writers. Readers may not be so bad because a book by the bedside may simply mean a chapter or two before sleep, sex or slex. But bedside books are a warning if your lover is a writer. Not only is he cheating on you with Collette, Miguel Cervantes and a pervert like Henry Miller, but he’s taking them to bed for an ink-stained orgy. He has already found the love of his life and she’s older than sin (or younger than a preteen), smells like dust and may have a horrible case of the bookworms.
Well rest easy potential future bedmates, for it turns out I can’t commit to books either. The problem is that ever since my first novel came out I’m rarely home more than five months a year so bed is wherever I’m crashing at the moment. Right now it’s in Harlem’s historic district, right across from the Morris Jumel Mansion, where George Washington lived, in a brownstone that Louis Armstrong or/and Malcolm X used to live in. With ghosts like these sharing my space I had to raise the standard of the books nearby.
At this bedside most of the books are new because well, I buy books like some people buy meth and even on this trip, an “I’m only here to teach, not buy” trip I’ve already racked up 27 books. Nearest to my bedside (shall I describe the bed?) is Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956-1998. I have never in my life heard of Zbigniew Herbert, nor have I ever in my life bought a book of poetry. But Herbert’s book was one of the most stunning covers I’ve seen in a long time and as an occasional practicing Graphic Designer, I do buy books based on the cover. Worse than that, I redesign covers I don’t like (Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Orham Pamuk’s Istanbul come to mind). I had no intention of actually reading the thing until I came upon this:
People ran to the shelters
He said his wife had hair
In whose depths one could hide
Now I can neither go to bed nor leave it without reading Herbert first.
Below Herbert and suffering from my unfair attention span is Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Michiko Kakutani loves it and she usually hates everything, so now I’m wondering if there’s something wrong with the novel. I believe that if you spend too much time looking for bad, you forget what’s good, but that’s just me. Below that, Andrew Hussey’s Paris the Secret History, the latest in my rather recent but still quite overpowering non-fiction fetish. My big dream literary project is, funnily enough a non-fiction book about the first 500 years of Kingston. Who knows when that’s going to happen. Below that, fire breathing novelist Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio. Alarcon, easily the star of the recent PEN Conference has penned a novel that would have made Roberto Bolaño very jealous or very proud.
Speaking of Bolaño, that’s him at the foot of the bed with three of his best: By Night in Chile, A Distant Star, and his masterpiece, The Savage Detectives. I think I’ve finally cured my addiction to magical realism. No surprise, Bolano was a sworn enemy of M.R. to the point of eviscerating Marquez in the press, and combating Isabel Allénde to the point where she cursed his corpse. He and his friends also had the habit of interrupting establishment poets by screaming poetry of their own. Of course he’s near my bed, hell if it weren’t for potentially unsightly paper cuts, I’d sleep with the book.
As for the rest:
Rolling Stone’s 40th Anniversary issue. Interesting set of interviews about rock and roll past, present and future. And an uncanny past and present and future it is given that not a single interviewee is black. Granted this is the same magazine that recently joined the tired and easily unproven “Rock and Roll started with Elvis” bandwagon a few years back so this oversight, while unsurprising still sucks major ass.
A stack of New Yorkers, some of which I’ve read cover to cover! I’m proud of myself.
—Robertson Davies’, Deptford Trilogy, which my friend Bill raved about so much that I bought six of his books. Turns out the bastard never even finished one.
—Junot Diaz’s The Brief Life of Oscar Wao (Galley). Some people have been waiting for this novel like the second coming of Christ. I know, I know, it helps having really good friends, so don’t hate, haters.
—Don Delillo’s Falling Man, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Helen Schulman’s A Day At The Beach, Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar To The Country, Jess Walter’s The Zero, Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows On The World, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly close. This fall I’m teaching a lit course on 9/11 And The Novel so I’m surrounded by books on or inspired by this still surreal event. I have a feeling that Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist might be the best (Kakutani calls it “stunning”). Lord knows John Updike’s Terrorist is the worst. If you have a suggestion please leave a comment.
— Andre Aciman’s Call me by Your Name and Allan Hollinghurst’s The line of Beauty. I’m now convinced that unless the guy or girl is Latino, only gay guys can write sex that’s actually sexy. I don’t care who’s getting busy, as long as I never have to read another sex scene from Updike.
—Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale (!!!) in hardcover (!!!!!!!). Don’t hate, haters.
—Robert Fagles’ translation of The Aenid, which I might never actually read, but it does look rather fetching beside my translation of The Odyssey, which I have read.
—Don Delillo’s Libra, because I’m finishing an ‘interim’ novel about Jamaican politics and need to find a better way to structure it. This may be the most cleverly plotted novel about an actual event that I have ever read.
—Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain and The Professor of Desire. I’ve been hating on Roth for no other reason than the unconditional love he gets from critics. I dismissed him as one of those American artists, like Bruce Springsteen that only Americans understood. Or rather I’ve hated him for the sole reason that he’s loved and now I’d like to think that at 36 I’m finally shedding that last remnant of artistic immaturity that young people mistake for irony. You should see how many Roth novels are in my Strandbook.com shopping cart. Maybe it’s time to give Darkness On The Edge Of Town a good listen.
—Richard Hawkins’ The God Delusion, as funny as the hell he’s clearly on his way to.
—Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, just because.
—Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million, a book about one man’s search for his family that perished in the holocaust that wins your heart then breaks it, over and over again.
—Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica. I’ll confess it, I don’t read many women novelists and those women tend to be Gaitskill, Susannah Moore, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Jeanette Winterson, Francine Prose or dead. I like novels on a grand scale and have very little use for books with a small, intimate focus. That means neither of the Annes, Tyler or Beattie. Ever. Gaitskill is fearless in a way the writers are just simply not, not anymore.
—Jeanette Winterson’s The Weight, Alexander McCall Smith’s Dream Angus and Victor Pelevin’s The Helmet of Horror. I’m fascinated by Canongates’s Myth’s Series. I’d love to write one but Canongate thought my first novel was slow and boring so I doubt that I’m on their wish list.
—Tony Judt’s remarkable Post War and Roger Osborne’s Civilization, which chronicles the history of the west in a remarkable 500 pages. Such a good read that I overlooked that this was yet another book insisting that western civilization was all the mattered, despite the fact that for a good 2000 years ‘western civilization’ was an oxymoron.
And yet this is only about half of the books I have strewn on, beside or within the periphery of my bed. This might also explain why there’s no other human sleeping in it.