There are few companions quite like a book, especially when on the road. (Aren’t books, really, the ultimate trip? Between their pages, an escape hatch – the mind’s getaway of the highest order.) A hotel of the literary sort, SIXTY makes sure to guide its guests towards tomes of note. This month, our contributor Jennifer Vineyard selects six must-reads, from a bizarrely entertaining satire to an innovative take on a true-crime tome.
Early Riser, Jasper Fforde
Winter is coming, and in the alternative world of Early Riser most of us will be hibernating through it, bulked up by overeating and tranquilized by the dream-suppressing designer drug Morphenox. A select group called the Winter Consul Service remains awake to safeguard the rest of us ’til spring. This is good, because there are many dangers, from roaming groups of marauders to the Morphenox itself, the side-effects of which can turn people into zombie-like Nightwalkers, no longer good for anything but slave labor. At first, this adventure may seem impenetrable — Fforde’s delightful wordplay and his famously imaginative world-building can be overwhelming. But eventually a gentle satire about social control and capitalism emerges, whimsical, witty, and wonderfully weird. Anyone who loves Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett might want to curl up with this one.
There There, Tommy Orange
A multigenerational group of 12 American Indians (as they call themselves) plan to attend an ethnic get-together called the Big Oakland Powwow. Some want to honor their history and identity, others to win the cash prize in a dancing competition. But one cohort is planning to execute a robbery using drones and 3D- printed guns. All of these characters are flawed in very human ways. They are drug dealers, alcoholics, estranged sisters — some lucky, some luckless. All of them are trying to figure out who they are in a country to which their people no longer have a claim. Ratcheting up the sense of national injustice, there’s also a ten-page history of Indian massacres, which is devastating.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
When interning at a Louisiana law firm, the author came across a taped confession by Ricky Langley, a child molester and convicted murderer who was facing the death penalty. The tape stirred painful memories from Marzano-Lesnevich’s own childhood. “Suddenly, I wasn’t 25 anymore,” Mazano-Lesnevich writes. “Suddenly, I was a child, and I could feel my grandfather’s hands on me.” Utilizing 30,000 pages of court documents to create multiple perspectives on the case, and blending her personal trauma with the stories of Langley and his victim, Jeremy Guillory, the writer dissolves the lines between true-crime journalism and memoir to haunting effect. The book would have benefitted from interviews with the subjects (Marzano-Lesnevich visited Langley once, but doesn’t report the conversation.) Still, the questions raised here about complicity, forgiveness, and competing versions of “the truth” are freshly compelling.
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
Celestial and Roy, a young black couple still trying to figure out their union after more than a year of marriage, are suddenly torn apart when Roy is falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to a long prison term. Can their lopsided relationship — she comes from money, he doesn’t — somehow survive? Can love letters, prison visits, and the sharing of old buried secrets sustain their connection, or is it fated to fray? Jones explores the complex intersections of race, class, and criminal justice to explore the depths of commitment and the caustic effects of wrongful incarceration. Deeply compassionate, and beautifully written.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories, Denis Johnson
The author died of liver cancer shortly after he’d completed this collection, which makes the stories even more moving. There are meditations on mortality, madness, and redemption as well as hauntings, hallucinations, and human connection, all beautifully composed. The best entry is the tragicomic “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” in which an obsessed poet tries to dig up Elvis Presley’s corpse because he’s convinced Presley was murdered by Colonel Tom Parker and then replaced mid-career by his twin brother Jesse, who was thought to have been stillborn. But Elvis is still with us, it turns out — read on.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Inspired by the gender-switching Tiresias in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and by Michel Foucault’s Herculine Barbin: Memoir of a 19th Century French Hermaphrodite, Eugenides has written a comic epic tracing the journey of an intersex gene through the bloodline of a single family, told from the perspective of the final inheritor of this gene, Calliope Stephanides. Classified female at birth, Callie begins at age 14 to develop feelings for a fellow student at an all-girls school, but then learns something surprising about her family’s genetic history (which turns out to trace back to incestuous immigrant grandparents). She later adopts a male identity — Cal. But the book is about more than just sexual evolution; Cal’s transformation is national, racial, historical, emotional, and intellectual. It’s a story about the construction of identity, and about how language cannot always capture humans in all of their complexity.
Photo courtesy of Linh Nguyen