Don’t think I’ve forgotten. It’s been on my mind for days, weeks, almost a month. I owe you this post, a reflection on the books I did in fact bring and read on my trip to Turkey, the conclusion to my pre-departure post, ”Developing the Travel Booklist.”
What I packed: Snow (Orhan Pamuk), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz), The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Sandy Tolan), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Bill Bryson).
What I bought: The White Tiger (Arvind Adiga)
Reading in Turkey: The Reflections of a Traveling Book Whore
Things got off to a bad start. You could even say I blew it. The plan was to finish my library copy of Snow (Orhan Pamuk), a political novel fictionalizing the very real tensions surrounding religion, the State, the West, class, and gender in modern Turkey, before departure. For a variety of reasons, including my dwindling lack of interest in this depressing, humorless story, I had to purchase and bring my own copy, spending the first few days of the trip whining, “I just want this book to end.” Although it did give me some desired context for Turkey, I wish I’d gone with (and am currently reading) Birds Without Wings (Louis de Bernierres) for my ”destination-specific” book.
On the five hour bus ride from Gallipoli to Effesus, I fell in love with Oscar, the protagonist who didn’t get as much page time as I would’ve liked, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz). What can I say: some of the most inspired original sentences every written, 100 nuanced ways to describe Dominican (and Haitian) women, a plethora of SAT words, New Jersey (where a quarter of my heart lives), and in my opinion, too many points of view that read more like linked short stories than a sustained narrative. I’ve bookclubbed the shit out of this novel with friends and writers alike, and one of the aspects I remain most impressed by is the healthy infusion of Spanish. Not only is it natural for the characters, a gift offering an extra layer of meaning for the bilingual, and clear enough for monolingual readers, it also, without turning me off, made me feel a little stupid for being an American (and a Californian) who doesn’t speak Spanish — a welcome feeling.
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Sandy Tolan) – This was the “educational” addition to my travel library, and educate it did, linking together the various things I’ve read and learned about the last 50 plus years of Israel-Palestine history in one book. The vehicle is the interweaving narratives of two people, Dalia and Bashir, and the house they both call home. I thought this book of “serious nonfiction” would take me forever to read, but it took only a few days since reading it became more important than being a tourist. This book also provided me with one of my favorite travel feelings, a sensation of, “I don’t give a damn about those must-see sites; I don’t have to go to work today; I don’t have a cell phone; sex is not an option – all I need is a comfortable seat and decent lighting.”
The Lemon Tree is literary nonfiction at its absolute best — sickly researched and beautifully told. Do you have any idea how hard that is to do? I heard the author, Sandy Tolan, speak at a narrative journalism conference once, and he said that if a person is 6′ 3″ and the doorframe is 6’0″, as an author he would not draw conclusions and write the line, the person “ducked when he entered the room,” unless someone was there to witness and record that moment. While I think his adherence to “fact” is over the top (which is why I write memoir), I’m thoroughly impressed by it, and forever in awe of those who who rock the literary nonfiction world. (The Devil in the White City, Erik Larsen is another impressive one.)
I only needed a book for the flight back and had two choices left: My copy of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Bill Bryson) and my brother’s copy of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami), a memoir that might have appealed to me more if I hadn’t already read his long essay, excerpted from this short memoir, in the New Yorker. My brother, clearly and expectedly, did not put enough thought into his travel booklist. He brought too many books thinner than a slice of New York pizza, would read one in a day, and then be stuck trading it in for the best of the 6 books at the hostel exchange. And, I was kind of a dick, only willing to loan him Snow and the Bill Bryson book, which he read and kept saying, “You know, it’s about a guy growing up in the 50′s. It’s kinda funny. If you want to read a book about a kid in the 50′s, you’ll like it.” I didn’t and sorry, Bill, you are funny, and I know you’re prolific, but you gotta offer me better than a one in four chance of a good read.
I thought some good magazines could carry me home, so I searched the Amsterdam airport on my layover for the New Yorker (I also brought and read two backissues, cover-to-cover on the trip, something I never have the time to do at home. And I even brought a John McPhee essay about lacrosse from an older issue for Bro – which means I’m not that big of a dick, right?) Anyways, the New Yorker cost $15 there — seriously. So, I did something I’ve never done in my whole entire life: I bought a book at an airport.
One of the things I forgot to mention while developing the travel booklist is the enjoyment I take from perusing foreign bookstores (or airport bookstores in foreign countries, if you will) where bestseller lists, awards, national interests, and the sensibility of the reading public are different from those in America. To conclude my international reading adventure, I picked up White Tiger (Arvind Adiga), the Man Booker Prize (British Award) winning novel that seemed to be in every European tourist’s hand, written by an author who has duel Indian and Australian citizenship. The novel is a very quick read, which gives the illusion of it being a Sue Grafton paperback mystery when really it’s a darkly humorous commentary on class or caste, upward mobility, entrepreneurship, globalization and modernization in India. This book carried me home and through my first sleepless night with jetlag.
All in all, this was a very successful reading trip.