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 collection of essays by a writer on writing to a dystopian thriller that deftly blends genres.
Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
Two stressed-out families – one now, one post-Civil War – live in crumbling houses on the verge of collapse, which they cannot afford to repair. The modern family includes a magazine editor who has lost her job, a professor who has lost his tenure, a Trump-supporting senior citizen who has lost his health, a son who has lost the mother of his child, and a daughter who seems to have lost her direction. The 19th century family includes a teacher who risks his position (and the means to support his social-climbing wife, her sister, and their mother) by instructing his students in actual science instead of Creationism. But it’s his delightful neighbor, Mary Treat (based on the relatively unknown and underappreciated real-life naturalist mentioned in Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants), who brings the story to life, whether she’s flat on the ground studying ants, tending to her tarantulas, or allowing a Venus flytrap to nibble at her finger. By the time one of the characters decides to write a biography on Treat, you’ll wish it already existed.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee
This moving essay collection explores how the writer’s life is somewhere on the page, even in novels. Chee writes about his time as an exchange student in Mexico, the death of his father, his career as a professional Tarot reader and cater-waiter, becoming an activist and losing a lover to AIDS, attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and, afterwards, desperate for cash, writing what he thought would be his easy book, Edinburgh. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.) Writing that debut novel – inspired by his own sexual abuse by a choir director – and confronting why it wasn’t a memoir is what helps him provide the rest of the writing (and life) advice here.
Less, Andrew Sean Greer
Arthur Less is staring at 50 and he feels adrift. As an author, he is “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered,” and as a lover, he worries he’s “too old to meet someone.” His much younger ex-boyfriend is getting married to another man, and to avoid the wedding Arthur runs away to attend a series of international literary events and writing seminars. It’s one disaster after another, of course, but so funny – filled with witty observations about life and travel and the endless love of language. In his writing course – called “Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein” – Arthur assigns his students to write opening sentences for books they’ve never read. He’s hilarious and endearing, and maybe the sort of teacher you’ve always wished you had.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, edited by Glory Edim
This is an engaging anthology of essays celebrating black literary achievement which asks the contributors to share when they first saw themselves in literature and how that affected their self-definition. Tayari Jones (An American Marriage) celebrates the work of Toni Morrison. Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing) explores why she felt cheated by her favorite childhood book because it wasn’t narrated by a little black girl. Barbara Smith (Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology) explains how the works of James Baldwin saved her during the 1950s. An attractive book to dip in and out of, although the temptation is to read it straight through.
The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway
Geek nirvana. A teeming novel filled with mimes, ninjas, and pirates that is both a genre mash-up – fun, in other words – and serious literature. What else? It’s a deftly-plotted dystopian thriller about war, capitalism, societal collapse, and an experimental weapon that can break down the boundaries between the real and the impossible. It’s also about reckoning with the slippery terrain of a rather fascinating friendship between two opposites. It’s a wild ride, with many tonal shifts and even more digressions – and a fabulous twist that will change your understanding of, well, everything.
The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1986-2017, Martin Amis
Over the course of a 45-year writing career, Martin Amis has fought – as the title of his 2001 essay collection had it – The War Against Cliché. Amis’s language is always in search of renewal, always fresh and then fresher. In his latest collection, he brings us wonderfully turned reports on Philip Larkin, Iris Murdoch, and Saul Bellow (“Compared to him, the rest of us are only fitfully sentient”) and on the end-of-life decline of Vladimir Nabokov (“Writers die twice: once when the body dies and once when the talent dies.”). He meets John Travolta for some reason (“close-set deep-blue eyes that remind you of the phrase ‘undivided attention’”). He is horrified by the 1997 death of Princess Diana, hounded to her doom by paparazzi in a Paris tunnel (“It makes your shins shudder to imagine the atrocious physics of the impact…”). And he marvels like so many others at the existence of Donald Trump. (“He really does remind you of the original Narcissus, the frigid pretty boy of Greek myth who was mortally smitten by his own reflection.”) Anyone in search of good company can find it here.
Header photo via Flashbak