My Favorite Books This Week: The Escape From New York Edition

Yesterday morning started with me still in New York, a little to my surprise and chagrin. I’d tried to leave the night before, but I got tired and a little lost in the dark. I tried to get on the GWB, and ended up somehow in Fort George. It seemed like a very bad and obvious kind of omen, considering how many times I’d left New York before, so I called a friend and stayed one more night down in Soho, in her loft over the Burberry store.

In her loft you felt like you were in old New York, and then downstairs on the street you knew you were not. We stayed in the loft and it felt a little like we were insisting on the old city. We watched a Bollywood movie called Doom 2 while I ate a bowl of angel hair pasta, and then we went to bed.

I woke up early to move my car, and then I packed it and kept driving, and soon I was in the East Village, at Mud, having this coffee, the coffee that before I found it, I’d been looking for my whole life. On my lap was Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You. I quickly read 100 pages. I discovered it last week at Three Lives, where I always go when I’m in New York. Every time I visit, I ask them, What do you like? and then I usually buy it. This time they liked the Jim Shepard stories, Like You’d Understand Anyway, and as I reached for it I saw the Cameron novel right next to it, and then bought that instead, because I love Peter Cameron, though Jim Shepard is also excellent.

Peter’s novel is about a boy who doesn’t want to go to college, and instead wants to buy a house in Kansas and just read what he wants to read. People are trying to stop him and it makes him feel desperate. There’s a passage where the narrator’s grandmother says she wished she could have gone to Sweetbriar, where the girls didn’t read a book and could keep their horses in their dorm. I remembered my first arts colony stay at the VCCA in 1998, across the road from Sweetbriar, we were told we had library privileges, and so I went into the library and checked out books. Some had never been checked out, and some had, though not for 30 or 40 years. In their campus bookstore I found a paperback copy of Frank Conroy’s first book, Stop-Time, the 1.95 edition from 1962. It had never been purchased, all those 36 years, and still had a ‘please restock’ card in the back of it.

I felt like I’d arrived after some mysterious force destroyed all the readers and left just the books. I brought the book to the counter, where I noticed a ‘50% off all paperbacks’ sale sign, and the clerk rang the book up at .98 cents. I left, amazed.

Clearly there were once women at the school who did read. As I sat in the cafe, drinking the perfect coffee, I thought of them hiding books under their saddles, and then, perhaps, discovered, and their kind not admitted for the last 40 years.

I stayed a little longer than I might have at Mud, reading the Cameron. The moment felt like a kind of shelter and I didn’t want to leave it. On the street outside, the opposite was true: my black 1994 Geo Prism was collecting a parking ticket.

Inside it was a copy of War and Peace, the new translation of the complete edition, bought in a fit of something like lust at 192 Books on Sunday (they also urged the purchase of the Jim Shepard). Also a copy of Marie Ponsot’s Springing: New and Selected Poems, signed for me at the PEN Beyond Margins reading last Monday.

I closed the novel and returned to the car, where I discovered that crimes are more expensive in Manhattan than in Brooklyn: the parking ticket, for the same offense, was 20 dollars more. I got in the car and this time was able to get out of the city.

Those are my favorite books this week.


  1. Last Cameron I read was Leap Year and I was enthralled with it. I recommended it to everyone, but I doubt they received the same satisfaction that I did.

    Glad you made it out of the city.

  2. How is it that you and I are always reading the same novels? I am loving this novel. I used to have a crush on Peter Cameron, though I’ve never met the guy. I had just read “The Weekend,” which was recommended to me by someone I REALLY had a crush on, and my friend Clare was a student of Peter’s when he was teaching in Vermont. “He’s so nice,” she said–and that was it, I was smitten.

    Postscript: I now know that Clare says this about a lot of people, though that should not, in your mind, reduce the weight with which she delivers it.

  3. I finished it already and passed it along to a friend. I finished it in two days. I loved it. And I loved the last line.

    As for why we read the same books, well, maybe this is that Vonnegut bit, about how we’re on the same team and we have to figure out what that team is and what we’re supposed to do.

    I hope the answer is read and write. And eat pancakes with maple syrup.

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