December 20, 2018 § 18 Comments
What I remember of my sister’s room growing up was her little pot pipe shaped like a troll, melted candle drippings on her nightstand, and piles of books on the floor. Tons of them. Books I could never understand because I couldn’t understand anything.
When I was 13 and Laura was 15, I begged her to explain the quotes she wrote in lipstick on her mirror.
Anais Nin: I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.
Did she mean Rambo? I would definitely remember if someone had said, ‘I must be a mermaid, Rambo’ in First Blood.
“I could explain it to you,” she said, “but I don’t think you’d get it.”
Laura made me want to be a writer out of her sheer disdain for me. So when I finished The Emperor of Shoes, I sent it to her and waited. How long had it been? Did she take a break? Go for a run? Fall down the stairs? Then the phone rang.
She loved it.
“How much?” I asked.
She said, “It’s in my top 200.”
And with those words I’ve been condemned like the Ancient Mariner to list the 199 books ahead of me. I have a PhD in English, and I don’t know if I’ve even read 200 novels. I lie awake at night counting. There are a lot of great books. But 199 ahead of me? Laura’s out of her mind.
And then I think Flaubert.
Well, shit, Flaubert is better. I’m not insane. I don’t think my book is better than Bovary. And I start feeling okay.
Then a little voice pipes up: Grace Paley. Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. Are we counting nonfiction, too?
I think my book is good…it’s timely, provocative…Proust. Zora Neale Hurston. Flannery O’Connor. That’s not even getting into contemporary authors. At some point I think I’m done. That’s it. No more authors come to mind. And then the little voice says: Fitzgerald.
I try testing out my place in the rankings just to see how it sounds. Austen, Voltaire, Marquez, Wise.
It doesn’t sound right. I try again. Woolf, Brontë, Homer, Wise.
It really just doesn’t work.
Laura still refuses to apologize. “It’s a compliment.”
Would it have killed her to say top 150?
But it’s too late.
I finally broke down and got most of her list, but she was just as obtuse and infuriating about describing these books as she was about explaining a Depeche Mode song to me 20 years ago.
Laura’s Christmas Shopping List of 199 Books that are Better than Mine (but for sanity’s sake, let’s just do 10)
#1: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
There’s a talking black cat named Behemoth. I don’t know why you’d need more than that. The devil comes to Moscow. Pontius Pilate gets a cameo. I have no idea why. Laura won’t tell me because, well, I wouldn’t get it.
#2: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
“I spilled a bottle of Mom’s perfume on it intentionally, so I could cherish it forever. She was so freaking pissed.”
Laura says the magic of the prose has worn off a little but not the smell. “The book is just a sniffer at this point. It’s also better than yours.”
#3: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
I want to point out that this is not a novel and shouldn’t be counted against me. Instead, a quick story: As kids, Laura tricked me into believing that the way Chanukah really worked was, she got 8 wishes a day for me to fulfill. Wish 1: Carry this 40-pound bag of kitty litter upstairs.
#4: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
When my agent was searching for a publisher and I was mostly in a fetal position on the floor, I asked Laura why editors weren’t buying my novel. She said, “I don’t know, but maybe consider jumping back and forth more in time. And you should probably put a shtetl in it. Yeah. A shtetl and more time travel.”
Wait, so you mean something exactly like this novel?
#5: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
“It’s about mothers and daughters. Feeling misunderstood. The story of my life. Travels back and forth in time. Which you should really consider for your next novel.”
#6: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
“I’m not going to tell you again why I loved The Sheltering Sky.” (She’s never told me.)
Quick story #2: I asked Laura’s advice on a cool outfit for my 7th-grade dance and she dressed me as Robert Smith from the Cure. It wasn’t a costume party. Everyone was in jeans and sneakers and I had black eyeliner and tight black jeans and hairspray-spiked hair. That night I forever lost sweet Betsy Bronstein to hulking blond Sam Velishka, who looked like a Polish resistance fighter from WWII.
#7: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
“Oh my god! I can’t explain every book to you.”
#8: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
“It’s about a little boy.”
This is pretty much all I got out of her. It’s about a little boy. He might stand there for 400 pages for all I know. What are you waiting for? Run to your nearest bookstore.
#9: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
She loves this book and so does Barack Obama (remember the good old days?), so I think this is a good holiday gift.
“A trilogy much better than yours. Spanning worlds. Liu’s a genius.”
“Can I get a synopsis?”
“It’s 10,000 pages. You do not get a synopsis!”
It’s about the Cultural Revolution and Aliens invading Earth. Sounds fantastic. I’m buying it for myself.
#10: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It’s about life in a Russian Gulag and it’s guaranteed to scar whoever you buy it for.
I told you Laura doesn’t know what a novel is.
#199: The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise
Spencer Wise, author of The Emperor of Shoes (Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins), has also contributed work to Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, and The New Ohio Review, among others. He is an assistant professor at Augusta University in Augusta, Ga. Follow him on Twitter @spencerwise10.