In a few hours, I will cross the Pacific Ocean for the first time, on my way to a two-week vacation in Southeast Asia.
I enjoy traveling, except for the part about being in between home and where I’m going: for me, getting there is never even close to half the fun. Anyway, J and I both prepare for travel by reading, of course, but we don’t read the same things. She, being sensible and logical, read the Fodor’s guide for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to get ready for this trip. I took a different path and read The Sympathizer. Last year, for our trip to Italy, she didn’t read anything because she’s been there so many times before. And while there were plenty of traditional travel guidebooks available to me, I read The Dark Heart of Italy instead. (I highly recommend both books, by the way.)
This way, she knows all the actual sights to see and places to go, and I feel like I have an understanding – or maybe the beginning of an understanding, since you can’t get much more than that from a book – of the place based on who its people are.
At least, that’s how it worked last year. We’ll see if it works that way this time. I’ll just read the Fodor’s guide when I can’t sleep on the plane, just in case.
So today is Thanksgiving. And whether you’re a religious person or not, it’s tradition in this country to say a few words about what exactly it is you’re thankful for. Often this takes the form of going around the dinner table one by one, but if you know anything about me at all, you know that I don’t like that sort of thing all that much. Sooooo, this year I’ve decided to do it in the form of a blog post.
I’ve been thinking lately about the books I read early in my life that shaped the desire in me to write one of my own one day. In general, I don’t like to think in terms of “influences,” because I’ve found that using that term creates expectations of similarity in theme or style or whatever. (I remember when I was playing in bands in high school, it was customary for musicians to ask each other who their influences were, so that we would know what to expect from them, how to judge them, and whether or not to give a shit about them in the first place.) But I am glad I read each of these books at some point in my life, as I feel each of them contributed in some way to the publication of How I’m Spending My Afterlife, as well as to whatever’s next for me.
Also, I think it’s telling that I still have a copy of all seven of these on my shelf.
So here’s the list:
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) – I read this book in the fifth grade. I’d seen the TV miniseries (Bradbury thought it was boring) by that point, and of course the first thing I noticed was how different the book was from that. I enjoyed the sprawling, rambling narrative style of the book, which is not so much a novel as it is a series of linked stories about humanity trying to colonize Mars over the course of the early 21st century.
The Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (Douglas Adams) – My parents got me the boxed set of these for Christmas when I was 12 or 13. Adams is one writer whose influence I can often clearly see in my own work, usually when I’m trying to be funny. And no matter how hard I work on that, I will never nail it the way he did.
Devil in a Blue Dress (Walter Mosley) – Mosley’s first novel was the one that showed me that straight-up genre fiction didn’t have to be superficial and by-the-numbers, even when it did check all the required boxes. It’s an unexpectedly deep work.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (George V. Higgins) – If you want to know how dialogue can drive a story – and I mean really drive it – this is the one to read. I still love it, even if I am completely over the whole Boston gangster thing.
My Secret History (Paul Theroux) – This is my favorite of Theroux’s books. It’s a big, probably at least semi-autobiographical novel that I come back to every few years; each time, I get something new out of it.
Less Than Zero (Bret Easton Ellis) – I read this a few years after it came out, when I was in high school and before American Psycho was published. More than any other single book, this is the one that pushed me toward considering trying to really write my own stories. Of course, the down side is that everything I wrote for a couple years afterward was a straight-up Ellis ripoff, which may have contributed to my decision to walk away from writing when I was in my early 20s. So, a mixed bag there, then.
Deliverance (James Dickey) – The storyline is pretty straightforward, but the language is so elegant and poetic throughout that it belies the gruesomeness of the plot, or at least certain elements of it. I consider it one of the best American novels ever written, period.