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Seven Books I Love, part six–Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book six…Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems by David Rakoff

A bitingly funny grand tour of our culture of excess from an award-winning humorist.

Whether David Rakoff is contrasting the elegance of one of the last flights of the supersonic Concorde with the good-times-and-chicken-wings populism of Hooters Air; working as a cabana boy at a South Beach hotel; or traveling to a private island off the coast of Belize to watch a soft-core video shoot—where he is provided with his very own personal manservant—rarely have greed, vanity, selfishness, and vapidity been so mercilessly skewered. Somewhere along the line, our healthy self-regard has exploded into obliterating narcissism; our manic getting and spending have now become celebrated as moral virtues. Simultaneously a Wildean satire and a plea for a little human decency, Don’t Get Too Comfortable shows that far from being bobos in paradise, we’re in a special circle of gilded-age hell.

My first acquaintance with David Rakoff wasn’t on paper, it was through the NPR show “This American Life,” to which he regularly contributed.  I loved the stories he told there so much, I went out and bought Fraud (and eventually his other books).  Rakoff is a masterful storyteller and his essays, whether on the page or the radio often made me think as well as laugh.  Listening to him tell his stories and reading his work has made me a better storyteller.

I almost picked Fraud instead of Don’t Get Too Comfortable. “I used to bank here, but that was long, long ago” is about Rakoff’s early battle with Hodgkin’s disease which, when it came back years later, killed him.  You can here him tell that story here, or read a transcript of that episode of TAL, including the essay here.  I strongly encourage you to listen to him tell it rather than just read it.

I actually have all of Rakoff’s work as audiobooks as well as ebooks because he narrates them, and the way he tells a story is just…priceless.

Rakoff is the kind of storyteller who makes you want to sit at their feet and beg for another story, and another, and another. I try to savor each story, but find myself instead bingeing because his prose is so gorgeous. He’s also unashamedly cynical, but not cruel. Bring your dictionary–Rakoff doesn’t scrimp on the big words.

In the end, I chose Don’t Get Too Comfortable because it opens with his essay about becoming an American citizen (Rakoff was originally Canadian), and has several other gems that just barely beat out Fraud. In Love It or Leave It, Rakoff explores his ambivalence about US citizenship and why the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11 and the suspicions leveled at foreigners have led him to bite the bullet and apply for citizenship instead of contenting himself, as he had for a few decades, with his green card.

Question 87 of the citizenship test is “What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?’ The answer formulated by the government itself, is “the right to vote.” As we file out of the room, I ask someone who works there where the voter registration forms are. I am met with a shrug. “A church group used to hand them out but they ran out of money, I think.”

I don’t go to the post office to them have to buy my stamps from a bunch of Girl Scouts outside, and if the Girl Scouts are sick that day, then I’m shit out of luck. A church group? Why isn’t there a form clipped to my naturalization certificate? It is difficult not to see something insidious in this oversight while standing in this sea of humanity, the majority of whom are visible minorities.

I haven’t voted since I was eighteen, when I cast a ballot in Canada during my first summer back from college. It’s not that I take voting lightly. Quite the opposite. Living down in the United States where the coverage of Canadian politics is pretty well nonexistent, I have never felt well-enough informed to have an opinion. But even if I had made it my business to stay abreast of things–going to the library to read the foreign papers in those pre-Internet years–after a certain point, I no longer felt entitled to have a say in Canada’s affairs, having essentially abandoned the place. I suspect this is going to happen for the next little while every time I have to do something unmistakably American, like cast a ballot in a non-parliamentary election or go through customs on my U.S. passport, but standing here on line, I am stricken with such guilt and buyer’s remorse, overcome with a feeling of such nostalgia for where I came from, with its socialized medicine and gun control, that it is all I can do not to break ranks and start walking uptown and not stop until I reach the 49th parallel.

This feels appropriately prescient as we endure an immigration crackdown under another, worse, president.

There is also a story about the last flight of the Concorde versus Hooters Air, an essay that starts off by discussing Martha Stewart’s arrest that really explores Rakoff’s own love of DIY and his visit to Martha Stewart Living, and in Whatsizface Rakoff asks two plastic surgeons to tell him what is needed to fix his normal face. He is underwhelmed by an all night scavenger hunt. He is consistently dry and honest as he shares his stories.

I believe, but am not 100% sure that these essays all appeared in other media before being collected together. I certainly heard several on This American Life before I read them.

There are four Rakoff books, and Don’t Get Too Comfortable is my favorite, followed by Fraud. If you too have a sardonic, dry wit, I can’t recommend him enough. Worth noting that a curious thing keeps popping up in reviews–if you like David Sedaris, you may not like Rakoff, while I am the other way around where I find Sedaris occasionally witty but have a strong preference for Rakoff’s work.

One caveat–some of Rakoff’s offhand comments, particularly about women have not necessarily aged well in the intervening 15-18 years since their writing and are somewhat offensive in the era of #metoo

Don’t Get Too Comfortable is 11.99 on kindle, but I’d almost encourage you more to buy the audiobook if you’re only going to consume it using one form of media.