So almost exactly a year ago I made available my book VODKABERG: NINE YEARS IN RUSSIA, a memoir about my time in a riverside provincial city during the early-Putin era.
AND THE CROWD GOES WILD!
It's my second best-selling book, slightly behind SPEAKING ACTIVITIES; and it's currently my most highly rated, with 4.3 stars on Amazon. Reviewers hail it as "enjoyable," "entertaining," "hilarious dark fun," and "full of useless personal information."
(I certainly can't disagree with the last one.)
Actually I was expecting a lot more negative reviews; would you be surprised if I said that I deliberately tried to make the book seem depressing, disturbing and seedy? See, I purposefully set out to write a book that was the opposite of all these "happier abroad" foreign sex brag-fest books that are out recently.
My editor didn't like the book at all -- where were the blithe internal monologues, the breezy pace, the snappy sarcasm and the flip tone of the last book, TO TRAVEL HOPELESSLY?
People often described the first book as 'light" and "easy" and it was -- so I wanted the second book to be different, to REALLY get into the dark side; I was thinking in terms of books like AMERICAN PSYCHO and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, as well as of course Charles Bukowski's WOMEN, for my inspiration.
(Wow, $2.99 Kindle edition for WOMEN? That's a deal, jump on that if you haven't read it.)
I found some notes that I wrote, in a somewhat vain attempt to explain to my editor what I was trying to do:
- Depressing statistics about Russia will be interspersed throughout the book, and the frequent terrorist attacks throughout that time period will be mentioned, just to keep a generally apocalyptic air
- Descriptions of places will usually concentrate on abandoned buildings and vomit;
- All sex acts will either be incompletely described, perverse, or unsuccessful, to emphasize the dis-satisfaction of it all
- All often as possible, people, especially women, will be "followed" in the book up to their marriages, to emphasize the feeling of life passing the narrator by
But of course as one colleague told me, when I expressed surprise that anybody would decide to be an English teacher after reading my stuff: some people aren't afraid of gross and sordid, they're afraid of boring. He suggested that the tedious Cambridge and Oxford books about the theoretical aspects of English teaching probably put off far more people than my gross anecdotes.
Some people have said that it's "plotless" but I definitely planned it to have, if not a plot, than at least an arc; the first half of the book sees my erratic blossoming into the Most Eligible Bachelor in Vodkaberg, and the second half sees me burning out and failing miserably while trying to deal with adult-type responsibilities: my Director of Studies job at the school, mentoring younger teachers socially, and of course my floundering attempts to have a real relationship with Almond Eyes.
A structural (editorial?) issue that was controversial was the inclusion of the text messages from Pterodactyl Girl and the IM conversations with Dark Angel: my editor hated the text messages from Pterodactyl Girl, and my beta reader recommended against the IM conversation with Dark Angel, on the grounds that they were difficult to read and didn't add to the story.
The texts with Pterodactyl Girl were included mostly for surreal comic relief during the mostly depressing second half; and I included the text messages with Dark Angel for a number of reasons:
- To show how internet communication was replacing face-to-face communication even in provincial Russia
- To give an authentic voice to a Russian girl, rather than just my reports of what they said, and particularly to a Russian girl who could usually get the better of me
- To show the "expat syndrome" from the other side of the fence -- i.e. Dark Angel going abroad where SHE can be popular because of her nationality.
Anyway I'm glad people like it. I think it is, if nothing else, a fairly honest expression of my state of mind and the atmosphere during that time at that place. Back in English Lit class one of the first thing they taught me is that authorial intention doesn't matter much, so I guess I shouldn't worry too much.
My favorite review is this one:
X is like a Buddhist monk in reverse. He pursues unenlightenment, but the humbleness of it, the shining truth, might paradoxically lead him to salvation. Or not.
NEW EDITION ... ?
So how could I improve upon it for a new edition?
I'm thinking a new edition with pictures. Everybody likes the pictures, right?
Or perhaps it would be better if I just released a separate book, VODKABERG IN PICTURES? With cartoons and all those titty pictures everybody likes so much as well as my artistic studies of abandoned buildings and such?
Feel free to weigh in with an opinion in the comments section.
Anyway, that's actually a project for the fall; in the next few weeks I'm going to be publishing GRAMMAR SLAMMER. I'll also be doing a better-organized edition of SPEAKING ACTIVITIES with an index and probably some new activities, a new edition of SURVIVING ABROAD with interviews, and perhaps an expanded edition of TO TRAVEL HOPELESSLY with more stories.