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 an exploratory journey into how desire in celluloid impacts real life, to an iconic novel destined, one day, for the silver screen itself.
Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire, David Thomson
David Thomson is a formidably knowledgeable and charmingly eccentric film critic and Old Hollywood chronicler, and in Sleeping with Strangers, he attempts something characteristically provocative – a history of desire on the silver screen, both hetero- and homosexual. Thomson, an Englishman long based in San Francisco, argues that the invention of cinema for the first time gave men license not just to look at beautiful women, but at beautiful men, too. Thus his subject here: “beauty on screen, desire in our heads, and the alchemy they make in the dark.” His movie-land inquiries range from the sad, sexually ambiguous Rudolph Valentino (who once challenged a homophobic newspaper editor to a duel) up through golden-age character actors (Clifton Webb, Ernest Thesiger) and directors (James Whale, George Cukor) to Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo, and… Burt Lancaster? (Well, maybe. Who knows?) Thomson has none of the salacious tone of the true gossip shark; he clearly loves most of these people. He relates Cecil Beaton’s claim to have had an affair with Gary Cooper, revisits the evergreen Cary Grant perplex, and contemplates the very straight Laurel and Hardy as emblems of “the comedy of marriage.” As for his own life, he says it was “ruined” by seeing Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 – a movie that “made me a prisoner of desire.” Read this one in bed.
On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee
This is the story of Fan, a pregnant teenage girl who leaves the relative safety of her techno-agrarian labor colony B-Mor (once Baltimore) to search for her missing boyfriend. But it’s also the story of what the left-behind people of B-Mor – the collective narrators – imagine has happened to Fan. She’s a folk hero to them, and their community was forever changed by the ongoing elaboration of her legend, which became at first a form of solace and then a call to action. In these imaginings, Fan has a series of picaresque adventures as she explores the rigidly stratified world beyond B-Mor and finds herself repeatedly menaced by people hoping to profit from her existence. Chang-rae Lee’s fable also raises questions about class disparity, social stagnation, and the commodification of people, but in an engaging way. It’s a page-turner.
The Border, Don Winslow
Don Winslow’s epic drug-war trilogy, which began 14 years ago with The Power of the Dog and continued with 2015’s The Cartel, reaches a weary, battered conclusion in The Border. Art Keller, the half-Mexican DEA agent who spent decades of his career battling Adán Barrera, the merciless godfather of the Mexican drug trade, has now been installed in the top ranks of the U.S. drug agency. Barrera is dead, so it’s said, but the criminal empire he oversaw lives on – and America’s endless War on Drugs continues. As with all of Winslow’s meticulously researched crime novels, The Border is filled with distinctive characters and often appalling violence. A clear point of view, too: like Winslow himself, Keller has come to realize that “the drug problem” is rooted on both sides of our southern border, and that its tentacles now reach all the way to Washington, D.C.
Improvement, Joan Silber
Silber’s elegant novel works like the Turkish tapestries a few of its characters sell, with disparate strands becoming interlocked in a complex pattern that becomes evident only upon completion. One adventurous American woman, Kiki, marries a Turkish carpet dealer, and during her stay in his country encounters a group of German antiquities smugglers. Later in life, that American woman has a niece, Reyna, who gets involved with a separate group of smugglers – this time trying to traffic lesser-taxed Virginia cigarettes into the higher-taxed New York – with fatal results. Through multiple points of view, we see various characters grapple with hard choices: whether or not to cheat on one’s partner, to enter a life of crime, to atone for past mistakes. Improvement makes subtle art out of the ripple effects our decisions have on others, even the people we’ve never met.
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez
This is a man’s world, and the gender data gap has consequences – some amusing, some annoying, some life-threatening, as detailed by writer Caroline Criado Perez, who hunted down such an abundance of them, it’ll make you furious. Just a few to get you started. Office temperature standards set around the metabolic rate of the average man, resulting in most offices being too cold for women. Speech-recognition software which is 70 percent more likely to accurately recognize male speech. Medical data from studies done on men used as if they applied to women equally, despite the variances in immune systems, hormones, body fat, size, and other determining factors. Car safety tests which don’t account for women’s measurements or seating positions, resulting in women’s higher likelihood of being moderately to seriously injured or even dying. Essential reading.
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
One of the more accessible Joan Didion stories is her 1970 tale of Maria Wyeth, an adrift former actress who lives in a psychiatric institution. Before Maria’s hospitalization, she had experienced many nervous breakdowns (brought on by a toxic marriage and an illegal abortion), and coped with her meltdowns with compulsive driving at high speed. (A successful merger from the Hollywood freeway onto the Harbor freeway – involving a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic – could give her a dreamless sleep.) We glide in and out of Maria’s head through different points-of-view, and start to understand her sad glamour, her mental disarray, her lonely disenchantment, her nihilism. A like-minded friend, BZ, chooses suicide; Maria chooses to “keep playing,” even if she believes the game is meaningless. Didion’s cool, detached prose is a treat.
Header image: Film still from Play It As It Lays