The best book club I ever joined was one that reads exclusively from two categories: Bestselling books from several years back, and books set in the place we happen to be traveling. We meet whenever we want, read whatever we want, and eat whatever we want—mostly milk chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s.
I am also the only member of this book club, which is either brilliant or terribly sad. I was beginning to think it was the latter until one morning in July, when, sitting on a dock at a small alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada, I realized how incredibly happy I was to be reading The Goldfinch at that moment, stuck with our heroes in Las Vegas, when all the other, self-respecting book clubs had read it four years ago, when it first came out.
If you haven’t read The Goldfinch, welcome! This is a safe space. You could call it a coming-of-age story (“bildungsroman,” if you’re nasty), and it is, but it’s also a philosophical treatise on the value of art, family, and New York City. Young Theo survives a terrorist attack at an art museum, and takes something more from the scene than what he arrived with. The best part of the book is Theo’s fever dream year in the near-empty suburbs of Las Vegas with his Russian friend, Boris, who has to be played by Adam Driver in the eventual film version. That section alone is worth the price of admission. Don’t tell me if you didn’t like the book, or if you think I’m dumb for reading it four years after its release. I had fun reading it, and this year, fun reading was hard to come by.
The only other truly fun book I read in 2017 was We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union, everyone’s best friend in every truly good teen movie of the ’90s. Union is much more forthcoming about almost every aspect of her life than in most celebrity memoirs; as a life-long and self-proclaimed B-lister this may be because she has less to lose. She talks frankly about her sexuality as a teenage girl growing up in northern California; about being one of only two black girls at her mostly upper-middle-class high school; and her surprise at having to code-switch when she returned each summer to visit family in Omaha. She deconstructs her first marriage with an incredible amount of honesty and responsibility, and her chapter about wanting to get pregnant and having had “7, maybe 8” miscarriages after many rounds of IVF was heartbreaking, as was her account of her family’s response to her rape by a burglar at the Payless store where she worked. It’s not Marcel Proust, but then again, I’ve never really liked Proust.
Traveling through Turkey and Georgia this spring, I was eager to read some books by local authors, so when I found Motherland Hotel by Yusuf Atilgan at a bookstore, I picked it up. Set in Izmir, a port city on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the titular hotel is run by Zeberjet, whose family ran the place before him. He has no nearby relatives or family of his own, but spends his days attending to the work of running a small hotel, including a daily tryst with the sleeping housekeeper, who seems to have halfheartedly agreed to being used in this way. That all comes to an end when Zeberjet falls in love with a beautiful guest, and his obsession over her causes his days and his world to constrict to an impossibly small pinprick. He keeps the guest’s room in just the order she left it, turning out paying customers in case of her return. His descent into madness is precipitated by unexpected sexual behavior, revealing traumas from his past, and a terrible (metaphorical) claustrophobia that shuts off any possibility of a meaningful life. It’s a strange read, immersive and Kafkaesque, and hard to forget.
Prospero’s bookstore in Tblisi is enough to drive any reader to max out her credit card. I was limited by the size of my suitcase to one or three new books, and so I chose The Knight in the Panther’s Skin carefully—it was a beautiful edition but sizable, hardcover with beautiful illustrations. The book is an epic poem, written by the 12th-century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, (his fame is still great enough that the central avenue running north-south in Tbilisi is called Rustaveli). In this poem, two best friends (Tariel and Avtandil) go in search of Nestan-Darejan, the Helen of Troy-ish figure who was actually modeled on the Georgian Queen Tamar (a woman so badass she was occasionally referred to as “King”). In Lyn Coffin’s translation of the poem, which is essentially Lord of the Rings meets The Once and Future King with a dash of the Biblical book of Esther, we encounter a weeping knight wearing a panther’s skin (“Lost in his grief he wept, and knew not that any stood near him”) who seems to disappear into thin air. Avtandil spends three years searching for him, and finally finds him living in a cave. This is Tariel. Together, they set out to find Nestan-Darejan.
Strangely, the book takes place entirely outside of Georgia—Rustaveli sets it in Arabia, India, and China—but commentators have found in Knight an entirely Georgian vision of the world. I’m not entirely sure what that means, except that in Georgia I found the most sweeping sense of world history—the earliest hominids to be found outside of Africa were found there—alongside a warmth of spirit that was not disconnected from the warmth of appealing food, which Knight also celebrated.
My book club of one is finishing up the year with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, a book that reminds me both of Graham Greene and Joseph Heller, which is a perfect combination. There is some, um, imaginative use of squid, conflicted feelings about the protagonist’s homeland, and a lot of wandering questions about when a place really becomes home. It’s a perfect book for the end of a year that has seen me asking much of the same. Til next year!
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