Saturday, November 29, 2014

Reviewing My Own Books, Part Two: VODKABERG

I re-read my 2012 memoir VODKABERG while on various bus and train rides here in Peru in the last week. I already discussed my authorial intention in another post, but I'll share some of my thoughts on it.

Damn, that shit was dark! Maybe it seems doubly dark to me, since I was there, but it was even darker than I remembered. Like buried-alive kind of dark. A dysfunctional cast of lunatics fucking like rabbits and drinking themselves stupid between muggings in a shattered, bleak, frozen, blood-and-vomit flecked landscape. (That's how I'd pitch it to a movie studio, anyway.)

My editor hated the book and remarked on the first edit, "You're hardly in this book!" and I fucking loved that statement. The idea of writing a memoir that I wasn't really even the main character of appealed to me greatly, and that's just what I'd intended. This is a book about Vodkaberg, not about me.


I thought I did an excellent job of bringing the First Putin Era to life. People have occasionally called it tedious and repetitive in its focus on endless fucking and drinking, but honestly, that was generally the focus of life in those dark days before fast internet for a good percentage of the population.

I think I did a good job in accurately portraying those various English groupies I knew, and girls like that were probably the rule rather than the exception. And all in all (I thought) I write about the female characters in a fairly sympathetic way. I hope my affection for them (albeit an exasperated affection) came through.

And call the sex scenes anything but tedious and repetitive. The ones that are fully described range from the weird to the downright cringe-inducing. (I'd somewhat forgotten how graphic I'd gotten in describing some of the acts, and I actually found myself sort of embarrassed reading some of them.)

The writing I thought was pretty good in that it didn't call much attention to itself; it just rolled out this cast of lunatics and nightmarish landscape in clear unaffected prose. No referring to myself in the third person here, no sarcastic asides, and not much rationalizing my bad behavior.

And god damn, the ending? Just fucking wrenching.


The drunk stories do indeed become repetitive, in the middle part with Slappy; that was somewhat my plan, though I realize that's a pretty fine line to walk when you try to antagonize the audience that way. I wanted to try to make the reader think, "Jesus, stop fucking drinking so much!" -- a reaction I remember having when I read Lawrence Block's WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES -- but I think I might have carried that a bit too far in the middle and might better have cut a bit of it.

Of course the Skype transcripts with Dark Angel were a controversial addition, and I agree upon re-reading I could have probably cut about half of those out and left the important stuff. (Because there is some important stuff in there.)

From the standpoint of somebody who was there, I thought I also didn't write about my cat enough. That fucking cat kept me sane, and if I'd added that the cat was sleeping comfortably on my neck purring happily during those grey hungover mornings, it might have lightened up the middle sections a bit.


My style of writing it -- everything chopped up into two or three paragraph sections -- is perhaps also a bit controversial. Obviously that happened because I recycled blog entries, but I've always liked books written like that -- Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Andrew Vachss -- and I guess it suits my writing well enough.

There are a few times when I take my internal monologues and put them into the form of a vague conversation with other people over drinks; this trick occasionally seems a bit too obvious.


Yeah, again, I found it interesting as a time capsule. That we used to have bottled beer that cost about the same as bottled water in Russia struck me as pretty quaint. I didn't write about things like property prices; the apartment that I lived in would have cost about $25,000 to buy in 2000 and was probably worth $150,000 by 2009.


It's a real Russian novel -- a lengthy list of characters and dark and morbid as hell, an unflinching portrait of an unflinching time and place. I suppose it will be considered my Magnum Opus, and probably rightly so.

Read reviews at these links:



Sunday, November 23, 2014

Around the Fucking World in 80 Days: Lonely Planet Indeed

So I left the Sandbox at the end of July, and I went to Vietnam for three weeks to see some friends there. Then I flew into America via Las Vegas, and spent some time in America, including doing that survival hike in Utah. Then in September, I flew to Turkey to meet the Girlfriend in Marmaris.

So give or take one time zone, I literally flew around the world in 80 days. (Turkey and the Kingdom are a few hours away from each other.)

Then I got back to America for a few weeks, and then in October took off to Peru. I've been here for a month now, and I'm about to cross over the border into Ecuador tomorrow.

Colca Canyon, Inca terraces

The thing that is striking me above all else:

It's so fucking EASY now.

I mean mostly the organizational / administrative parts of travel. You can book plane tickets and hotel rooms pretty much anyplace in the world on the internet, and you can be relatively assured you'll get something up to whatever standards you happen to have. While the $10 options of 20 years ago seem to be fewer, in Vietnam and Peru, $25 - $30 gets you a comfortable hotel room of your own with all the "mod cons" like hot water and cable and wi-fi.

You can even book local bus and train tickets online. If you're ever in Peru, the Cruz Del Sur bus service is very convenient and comfortable.

I think back to the 90s. Fuck, man.

You had maybe a Lonely Planet guide book to recommend some hotel to you. If you could find the place at all, you had no assurance that they'd have any rooms, or really what the rooms would be like.  (As a matter of course, the books were about two years out of date.) You might have to spend half the day wandering around looking for hotels or hostels, during the busy seasons.

(My first backpacking trip, in Europe in July of 1992, I had so much trouble finding rooms I eventually pretty much just gave up and slept on train station floors most of the trip.)

Trying to find local bus schedules and things like that, fuck, that was a nightmare back in the day. I mean you had your Eurrail Pass thing in Europe, but other than that, you kind of just had to take Lonely Planet's word for it or try to find the local bus station and stand in line and hope for the best.

Now? Easy as click click click.

Of course, plane tickets are not getting any cheaper, that's one thing. 20 years ago I flew from the US to Bangkok one way for $350; the one-way flight from Saigon to Las Vegas was $1100 (and that was the cheapest I could find by a few hundred bucks.)

Anyway. If travel happens to be your dream, these days, you have no fucking excuse at all. Get some money together and go baby go.

Oh speaking of administrative things:

Anne Sterzinger did a write-up on me and my new memoir in Takimag. Welcome if you are visiting because of that, and check out some free stuff:

Complete Collected Cartoons is FREE ON AMAZON for the next few days.

Now I'm also trying out my own e-book store at e-junkie (off-putting name though it is, it seems to work well.) I'm offering a special deal there, also, if you haven't read my first two memoirs yet -- you can buy both TO TRAVEL HOPELESSLY and VODKABERG in PDF and EPUB formats for only $5. A savings of,like 20 percent of something. (You have to use Paypal.) 


Add to Cart

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Most Normal English Teacher

So, obviously, there are a lot of stories about really fucked-up English teachers, and most of the teachers I've known were a bit off in one way or the other.

There were a few guys I would (hesitantly) define as normal that I met in Saudi, but I didn't know these guys closely. I know the guys in my office were all a bit nutty in various ways. Married men "Dating" Filipina whores, secret potheads, borderline autistics, hermit types, guys who ate only one kind of food, etc.

But I often get reviews -- especially on Amazon UK -- from these allegedly completely-professional and normal teachers of TEFL. And there's a whole body of Oxford / Cambridge books that I guess are written by "normal" TEFL professionals. (I guess ...?)

But I've worked in like ten jobs in a half-dozen countries, and I've met so very very few people I'd call normal, in the way I'd call my dentist back in America normal, for example.

So I'm reaching out to my audience: who are the most normal teachers you know?  Are you perhaps one yourself? Best "normal" teacher story wins some free books or $10 or something.

Warning: A lot of these teachers who THINK they're normal are usually the weirdest ones of all.

So I'll make a list of disqualifying traits:


  1. no teachers with fake qualifications
  2. no alcohol or drug problems 
  3. no gap year or obviously very short-term teachers
  4. no taking of anti-depressants / tranquilizers, even if medically prescribed
  5. no dating students, even if students are of legal age, 
  6. no teachers who are primarily sex tourists / looking for foreign wife or husband
  7. no dating / marriage to a local / foreign man or woman if said man or woman is 15 or more years younger (or a former prostitute)
  8. no ranting (in class or otherwise) about politics, conspiracy theories, bizarre health beliefs
  9. reasonable personal hygiene / appearance
  10. no living alone in middle-age and never going out / living alone with cats (must have at least some level of normal human interaction / socialization)
  11. no working at places where they can get away with minimal-to-no actual teaching; no lecturing / reading to the class from the book / standing there while students write during the whole class
  12. no running from debts / alimony / failed marriages / failed businesses

I've even tried to contact these various "normal teacher" reviewers through Amazon and various other ways, but I've never had any kind of reply. 

So, you know, don't be scared! Let's open a dialogue! Let's build a bridge between our cultures!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

SURVIVING TEFL: An English Teacher X Omnibus Now Available

So finally here's a bundled edition of all the books that I've written about Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Just in time for the holidays.

And as a bonus feature, my famous Fake Message Board. Buy this and save like, two or three bucks.

With a new foreword by the author, which I wrote last night and I'll just go ahead and post here: 

* * * 

Well, it’s been almost twenty years since I started teaching English as a Foreign Language. Almost four years since I first published GUIDE TO TEACHING ABROAD, and nearly ten years since I wrote the initial essays that formed the basis for that book.

Surely things have changed a lot in TEFL, right? Globalism has consumed the globe. Surely the need for English as the language of business and tourism has led to higher standards for TEFL teachers and better working conditions and salaries for them?

Ah, no. Not much. The ups are still up and the lows are still low.

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Cusco, Peru, after a year of doing an extremely high-paying job in the Middle East in which teachers were generally called up upon NOT to teach English, but merely to stand there pretending to teach while the students used their telephones under the table. (Trying too hard to force students to study inevitably got them complaining and led to lost jobs.)

My high salary did not at all match my lifestyle – I lived in a sort of grubby trailer park in an industrial zone, where we were glad to be able to still smell the hydrogen sulfide leaking from the refineries and gas-oil separation plants nearby, because we’d been warned that loss of sense of smell was an initial symptom of the neurological damage caused by it.

I came to Peru to visit a couple of friends who are working in an English language school in a large city. Their lives are jolly, with plenty of drinking, hanging out, and eating good cheap Peruvian food. They both work on tourist visas, and make less than $700 per month. They sleep on mattresses on the floor, and have no paid holidays or health insurance. Each trip to the border to renew their tourist visas contains the risk they will be denied entry.

Meanwhile, all across the globe, language schools and TEFL Teacher Training programs are flooded with applications from a generation of disenfranchised liberal arts majors who can’t find any other work in the cutthroat competitive job market of their home countries.

Yet of course, neither I nor my friends have any intention of getting different jobs anytime soon.


      You tell me. 

Welcome to TEFL 2014! Now on with the show!