SIXTY Lit: February’s Must-Read Book List

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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 winter-worthy tearjerker to the Pulitzer-winning works of a recently lost poet.

Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney

“All poets write bad poetry,” Umberto Eco once said. “Bad poets publish them, good poets burn them.” Charmingly, John Kenney, whose poetry here might be categorized as good-bad, has opted for publication. This latest Kenney collection is an outgrown of a New Yorker piece called “Valentine’s Day Poems for Married People,” and, once again, we find the author depicting conjugal love not as a state of extended romance, but as an occasion for dark hilarity. For Kinney, the building blocks of marriage consist of things rarely celebrated. We find long-attached mates lying in bed looking at their iPhones together, ruining each other’s punchlines, searching for Wi-Fi at a couples-counseling session, and — sadly, but perhaps inevitably — wondering if Marie Kondo’s advice to get rid of things that no longer spark joy might include your spouse.

The Source of Self-Regard, Toni Morrison

This collection of four decades’ worth of Toni Morrison’s speeches and essays about race, power, freedom, identity, and art still mirrors contemporary concerns. Two of the entries, “Black Matter(s)” and “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” address the consequences of ignoring African-American contributions to American literature and urge a reconsideration of the American canon. At the same time, in making the case for “race-free prose” in an essay called “The Trouble with Paradise,” she also considers the challenge of eliminating race-coded linguistic markers in order to achieve a “literature that is free of the imaginative restraints that the racially inflected language at my disposal imposes on me.” As you would expect, there are many political critiques, some of them evergreen (human rights, fascism) and some surprisingly up-to-the-moment, despite being written years ago (controversies about the U.S.-Mexico border).

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, Diana Gabaldon

Those who have somehow managed to remain aloof from Diana Gabaldon’s long-running series of Outlander novels could still enjoy slashing around in the narrative tributaries of this time-traveling historical epic. Among the short stories collected here are a prequel tale called “Virgins,” about 19-year-old Jamie Fraser’s adventures as a mercenary in France; a surprisingly gripping World War II tearjerker titled “A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows”; and an exercise in occult intrigue called “The Space Between.” Hardcore fans should appreciate the resourceful ways in which these stories fill in narrative gaps and intersect familiar storylines, especially in regard to the thought-to-be-dead Comte St. Germain, Master Raymond, and Lord John Grey. (“A Plague of Zombies” features a most unusual slave uprising in 1761 Jamaica.) There are minor delights in the alternate points of view and unexpected backstories assembled here — “a light literary snack,” Gabaldon writes, “instead of the nine-course meal with wine pairings and dessert trolley.”

The End of Loneliness, Benedict Wells

German-Swiss literary prodigy Benedict Wells was born Benedict von Schirach, but legally changed his surname to avoid association with his notorious grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, a Nazi war criminal and the first leader of the Hitler Youth. The author’s chosen surname is an homage to John Irving, who inspired him to write, and to his character Homer Wells from The Cider House Rules. Like that book, this prize-winning novel is also partly set in an orphanage. (While not an orphan himself, Wells — the scion of a notable but financially troubled family — did spend much of his Dickensian youth in government-run boarding schools). The story is a family saga, about three siblings whose lives are irrevocably changed when their parents die in a car crash, but it’s also a love story, exploring whether the power of memory can help one regain lost connections. In short: an honorable tearjerker.

American Primitive, Mary Oliver

The late Mary Oliver was a poet of the natural world and the ways in which its wonder could affect those unaccustomed to it. In “The Lost Children,” Oliver shares the grief of the parents of an eleven-year-old girl who has gone missing (searchers bind her bonnet, her footsteps by a stream, and the patch of ground where she slept, but also imagines a scenario in which the child simply fell in love with the hillsides, swamps, and wild streams, and abandoned civilization because she “wanted to live.” In “Cold Poem,” she observes that living requires growing cruel but honest — admitting we are predators, “taking one after another, the necessary bodies of others.” In the spare but evocative descriptions of this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, the poet invites us to live in that world, too, and possibly be saved by its wild beauty.

Sex and the City and Us, Jennifer Armstrong

Before Sex and the City became a TV show, it started out as a column in the New York Observer. More jaded and juicy than Carrie Bradshaw’s romantic musings, it also functioned as a knowing take on the society pages. Author Candace Bushnell — who used the fictional Carrie Bradshaw’s escapades to hide her own from her parents, and who had her own Mr. Big in Vogue publisher Ron Galotti — set the stage for what was to come on TV: a national platform for the modern woman, depicting her as smart, independent, and sexually enthusiastic. Adapted by HBO, SATC became the first feminist show to which women related deeply, and predated The Sopranos in launching the Golden Age of Television. In this book, author Jennifer Armstrong takes a deep dive into how and why that happened, and argues that the show’s legacy is much more than high heels and pink drinks.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Jennifer Vineyard

Jennifer Vineyard

Jennifer Vineyard is a writer and editor based in New York, specializing in culture and entertainment. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Elle, and Thrillist.