Notes from Abroad: Good Bathroom Reading
Seoul, South Korea: A few months ago, J and I decided to move from Boston to Beijing via a three-month backpacking trip throughout Asia. Currently, we’re stuck in South Korea, waiting for our work visas to come through so we can high-tail it to Beijing, a process that hinges upon the efficiency of Chinese beaurocracy. So it’s safe to say we’ll be here for a while.
Throughout our travels, I’ve probably spent a quarter of my time scrounging for English-language books that aren’t by Agatha Christie or Paulo Coelho. An easy feat in Bangkok, but a tall order in the smaller mountain towns of northern Laos or Vietnam.
It doesn’t help matters that I’m a picky reader—if the first sentence is longer than three lines, forget it. If the word “well” or “nowadays” is used in the first paragraph, I’m through. If there’s no dialogue for the first three pages, or there’s an elaborate allegory about a dying garden or a pool of gasoline, I generally throw the book against any available flat surface in disgust.
I don’t see anything wrong with this—books have too much influence over your personal development to take the task lightly, which is a more flattering way of saying I’m easily poisoned by bad writing. Maybe it’s irrational, but I fear if I read too much of it, I’ll no longer be able to tell the difference.
That’s not to say I’m a total purist—I’m open to very creative nonfiction, but it has to be up to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down or Confederates in the Attic standards to make it in my book. Even if it’s supposedly a memoir (which I’m suspicious of anyway), it has to feel like fiction.
I wish I could say my judgmental reading style isn’t a reflection of my personality, but I think my friends would disagree. Some (not the ones I like) would say it’s a perfect fit.
But I can’t help it. I just want to be in the middle of a good book—not the tenuous beginning, and not the bittersweet end. Sometimes, I make the final 20 pages last a week just to prolong the inevitable search for a new book and the risk of infiltration.
My father would chalk my reading style up to my poor work ethic and habit of quitting everything since I was three—iceskating, the clarinet, multiplication—but I prefer to focus on my highly-refined sensibilities.
If I do miraculously manage to get through the first chapter, and I’ve decided that I could have written it better, the book’s a goner (though it does wonders for my self esteem and invariably leads to a rant about “publishing these days”). But if I’m awed, if I’m swooning, I’m like a mother bear with her cub. Don’t you dare come near.
Luckily for me (though I can’t say my ever-understanding travel companion felt the same), this trip has seen some pretty great books. First, I found The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields in a hostel in Ho Chi Minh City. I started reading it on the bus ride to visit the CuChi tunnels, and decided to stay on the hot, sweaty tour bus while J got off to shoot AK47’s and climb through manholes. We all agree who got their money’s worth on that one.
Next, I traded in for Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth in Xi’an, and again, forewent a day’s journey to the world’s largest buddha to sit in the hostel courtyard and “catch up on my reading.” It was a matter of priorities.
In between, there were some mediocre books—The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, for one, which prompted multiple mid-chapter rants about realistic dialogue, but which I finished because, in the end, I’m still a sucker for narrative. Then I found Waiting by Ha Jin, which seemed the perfect companion for an overnight train through China. I spent the entire 16 hours awake in a sleeper car with a headlamp. When we finally arrived in Lijian, I practically had bedsores and slept through the next two days.
So all was going well, and I was feeling sufficiently sated in the literary department when we arrived in South Korea. Since we weren’t sure how long we’d be there, J and I rented a bedroom from an English teacher from Kentucky off of Craigslist.
Turns out, “1 cozy bedroom” meant a laundry room with a twin mattress and one pillow, which explains the miraculously good price, but not why he hadn’t taken the garbage out in a month. We were on the outskirts outskirts of Seoul. Our guidebook didn’t even mention the province, and unless we were hitching a ride with a tractor, there didn’t seem to be any public transportation.
We’d been trying to partake in the whole “good karma” traveling thing, and were trading in or giving our books away. At this point, the only books we had with us were The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon (already read, pretty good), and a Korean Lonely Planet from 1995 (not useful).
Kentucky dude, a home-schooled Nazarene Christian, did have a bookshelf. I’m sure he’s a very good person, but I can’t say the selection gave me fond feelings for him at the time: The Grip of Grace, Life After Homeschooling, and The Purpose-Driven Life. I half-heartedly flipped through The Grip of Grace, but it struck out on my criteria, not to mention my moral compass. I put it back, defeated.
Then I went to the bathroom. Lo and behold, sitting on top of the beautiful, scum-covered porcelain lid, the unthinkable: The Love Wife by Gish Jen! I squealed.
We spent the rest of the day in the apartment. J watched YouTube while I blissfully attacked the book—think overprotective mama bear. We’ve been here a week now (thanks, Chinese Embassy!), and the book is so good, I refuse to finish it. I’m reading a paragraph a day. You know how I hate endings.
Jen Garfield is from a suburb of Chicago and was a recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Karamu, The Wisconsin Academy Review of Sciences, Arts and Letters, and Salamander, and she is an occasional book reviewer for Bookslut.com. Her chapbook, Excuses for Happiness, is forthcoming from Pudding House Publications. Former poetry editor of Prick of the Spindle, she now lives in Beijing, where she has unwittingly eaten jellyfish and liked it.
© 2008 prickofthespindle.com