SIXTY Lit: January’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 modern memoir-poem to a classic postmodern novel circa 1979.

Hazards of Time Travel, Joyce Carol Oates

Adriane Strohl is a high school valedictorian in a dark, near-future United States. She is arrested after posing “provocative” questions in her valedictory speech. Questioning authority in any way is forbidden in this dystopian world, in which the Constitution has been suspended, the populace is kept under total surveillance, executions are televised, and dissenters can be “deleted” or “exiled.” Adriane is exiled to 1959 Wisconsin, where she’s expected to attend college at Wainscotia State, “a hotbed of mediocrity.” Has she simply been tele-transported in time, as she is told? Or is this some sort of elaborate artificial reality, as a fellow exile implies? As Adriane’s government-enforced “reeducation” gets underway, Oates begins to show us what her two eras have in common — the politics, the paranoia, the racism — and how the mental purge to which she’s subjected affects her perception of free will. All of this might sound like schematic feminism, but it’s actually more metafictional and subversively autobiographical (much of Oates’s own life is interwoven throughout). Spooky futurism.

The River in the Sky, Clive James

Cultural critic Clive James has been fighting terminal leukemia for nearly nine years now, and has addressed this somber subject in a series of remarkable poems: “Japanese Maple” (2014), “Sentenced to Life” (2015), “Injury Time” (2017), and now “The River in the Sky,” a book-length memoir-poem titled with the Japanese term for the Milky Way. Here we find the author navigating an autumnal dream-stream of thought and memory, recalling a long-dead friend, the Degas pastels that once overwhelmed his eyes with their burning colors, and the time that he danced a tango with a blind girl in Buenos Aires. A deeply humane work, and as moving as you would expect from this masterful writer.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay

Roxanne Gay once weighed 577 pounds, and she knows what people think of the morbidly obese: “They think they know the why of my body. They do not.” But Gay herself isn’t so sure, either. She tells us how she was gang-raped at age 12, and how she subsequently started to gain weight to feel bigger and safer, to create a boundary between herself and anyone who dared approach her. She talks about her search for affection, and how she sought to reframe what happened to her body in the BDSM community. This is a book about a woman who sought to break free from a cage of her own making, and about what it means to live in that cage in a daily basis, with all the attendant shame and insults. Gay is hard on the weight-loss-industrial complex (it did her no good), but she’s even harder on herself.

I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy, Erin Carlson

Any fan of Nora Ephron’s most beloved movies — When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail — will find a lot to like in this easy read, which is devoted more to Ephron’s evolution as a filmmaker than it is to her considerable cultural influence. Carlson covers the necessary biographical ground — from Ephron’s childhood to her early career as a journalist to her three marriages — before getting to her Hollywood days as a writer and/or director, and the popular rom-coms that made her famous. Who knew that she and director Rob Reiner first conceived of When Harry Met Sally… as an American answer to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage? Or that they initially wanted to give the film a bittersweet ending in which the sex ruined the friendship and the couple parted ways forever? Is that a tear in our eye?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier is an escape artist and gifted graphic-design artist. His Brooklyn cousin, Sammy Klayman, is a novelty store clerk who loves newspaper comic strips. Together, these two create a new superhero, The Escapist — a Houdini figure who comes to the aid of those trapped in tyranny, taking on Hitler before America emerges from its prewar neutrality. You don’t have to care much about the Golden Age of comics to fall in love with these magnificent characters. Their glorious storybook world, filled with danger and romance, becomes the setting for their own tragicomic adventures. This is a story so packed with wonders that it practically spills off the pages. Hugely satisfying.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino

Unlike so many other postmodern novels, Calvino’s 1979 opus is actually thought-provoking, and even entertaining. The author tells us that the book is badly bound, and consists only of the first 32 pages repeated again and again. It also appears to have been jumbled up with a Polish novel by one Tazio Bazakbal. Turns out you wish to read that novel. And so does Ludmilla, a new acquaintance who has suddenly joined us. Now, you, the Reader, and Ludmilla are looking for a book that will continue beyond 32 pages. This search leads you across eight more novels, each of which is interrupted by more problems. Meanwhile, a larger story is emerging, about forgers, censors, and revolutionaries. Do these other novels exist, or are they illusions? Might one of them even be If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler? Calvino’s book is a puzzle palace best approached in a certain frame of mind. “Relax,” he writes. “Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”

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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.