The Quiet American, Graham Greene
I was 20, living in Cambodia, working for an English-language newspaper, where I met my wife. Those years, this Greene — one I’ve reread more than probably any other — was all about the thrill of a life on the edge, and the serious costs of believing in something despite what it might to do the people around you. Re-reading the book years later, when I was an editor in New York, those same pages were a reminder of how provincial the big city could be, and the massive gulf between Southeast Asia and the Lower East Side in terms of what constituted a normal life. In Beirut, the book felt subtler — an older man’s meditation on a failing body, what a greying mind needs, and how fragile we all are in the end.
Journey to Nowhere, Shiva Naipaul
I could list any number of the more famous of the two Naipaul brothers’ books here — Mimic Men, for instance, is one of my favorites, and would have been perhaps as funny and insightful as Albert Cossery’s masterful sendup of strongmen, The Joker — but instead I write about a book given to me by a friend from Cairo: the tattered edition of younger brother Shiva’s investigation of the Jonestown Massacre, Journey to Nowhere. Some say Shiva was the more talented brother, until he died of a heart attack. I read this thrilling investigation when I had become embarrassed by my heritage and privilege — the monstrosity of airing my opinions on Saudi Arabia, for instance, when the world would probably prefer to hear from actual Saudis on the subject. Shiva’s wry posture and his confidence, strengthening as he slashed through Guyanese jungles or hunted interviewees in San Francisco, seemed to argue that it wasn’t a complete waste of time to do something uncomfortable.
Still Points North, Leigh Newman
One of the hardest parts of living abroad, whether beside a war or not, was how that distance from home affected a life-long effort to understand oneself. At a time when I felt so far away from my friends and family, when I didn’t get what America was or whether I’d ever know again how to come home, I read this very good memoir about place and identity by Leigh Newman. Sensing at once that she was a fellow spirit, I was riveted by the first half of the book, when Leigh recalls being a travel writer and a New Yorker and the kind of person who felt most at home in the middle of nowhere, half out the door. Coming to terms with the fact she’d been raised between homes in Baltimore and in Alaska, Leigh recalled unnerving but amazing memories of swashbuckling across the wilderness with her father, then strained dinners in a row house with her mother. The idea of a father dragging a blond girl around the bush or a mother busy but trying both unnerved and helped me, suggesting perhaps that Beirut was just a blip in a much longer story — and that eventually our daughter would forgive us.
The Reenactments, Nick Flynn
One of the most formally daring, stylistically beautiful, and thematically enlightening books of the last few years, trying as it does to capture the situation of having Robert DeNiro star in a move about your life — based on a book you’ve written, in this case Nick Flynn’s stirring, gorgeous 2003 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City — The Reenactments is a series of short chapters, en masse a portrait of the chaotic, poetic, frantic efforts of one of our best writers to understand his world, and to give both his life and ours more meaning by documenting that search. For its ambitions to capture thought and emotion and the structure of how our minds seem to work, Flynn’s book was a marvel, and a wonderfully humbling example of how to create something enduring from a time so fleeting. Without Flynn, I might not have had the balls to write about a day at the playground with as much determination as I did the day a bomb exploded.
You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt
By the time I agreed to review this novel, I knew we were on our way out of Beirut, and I was hoping a book about America and Russia would help me understand the strange country and lifestyle I was leaving behind, or at least a few things about the life back home to which I was going. Plowing through chapters, the power of Holt’s storytelling was somewhere deeper than either, in that her book grappled in complex and haunting ways with mental illness as a response to a world gone wrong, how our choices reverberate for years to come, and the difficultly of ever escaping what appears to be one’s destiny.
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses , Lucy Corin
By the time we lived in Los Angeles and our shipping container from Lebanon arrived, we ripped through boxes with sharp knives — exposing old shutters we’d scavenged from an alley, lamps from Yemen, oil paintings from Iraq — and we were both more than ready to get in the container and go back. In a parking lot in California, I sat in my old armchair, as close as I could get to what felt like our real home. Doing what I could, I cracked open the bizarre and astonishing stories in Lucy Corin’s new collection. Struggling to appreciate the stack of hydrogen peroxide that was on sale for 88 cents a bottle at a Wal-Mart in America, I clung to the first sentence of one of her mind-melting short-shorts: “At the buffet I responded in the way I thought this guy wanted me to respond.” Riding down the beach, haunted by the idea we should never have left Lebanon, I read: “Boats are in trees. Photocopiers are on the beach.” Driving to Beverly Hills, en route to a big meeting, I though about this line: “No one saw her jump from the city’s tallest luxury rental apartment building.” Weighing whether or not to take a job offer, it was this one: “Postapocalypse, we were all still racist and clamoring for scraps of gold.”