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 modern true-crime tales to a moving novel from 2003 you might have missed. Herewith, your guide.
The Vacationers, Emma Straub
The Post family – long-married Jim and Franny, their gym rat son Bobby, and teenage daughter Sylvia – are enjoying a vacation from hell on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. To begin with, Jim and Franny are teetering on the verge of divorce after Jim’s dalliance with a younger woman cost him his job as an editor. Meanwhile, Bobby is having woman troubles of his own, and Franny’s gay friends Charles and Lawrence, who are also on hand in the borrowed summer house, are struggling with the challenges of becoming parents themselves. As for young Sylvia, she’s trying to determine the quickest way to lose her virginity. It’s a disastrous vacation, obviously, but Straub’s wry touch keeps things sunny throughout.
American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, Nick Bilton
This tense true-crime tale is a hard book to put down. It tells the incredible story of the online drug supermarket called the Silk Road, and its unlikely mastermind, Ross Ulbricht, a former Boy Scout who went by the Princess Bride-inspired online handle “Dread Pirate Roberts.” Over the course of two years, Ulbricht built the Silk Road into a $1.2 billion business with the help of the anonymizing browser Tor, the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, and a growing team of acolytes. Of these supporters, some were in it for the huge bucks, but others agreed with Ulbricht’s libertarian belief that the government shouldn’t interfere with the sale and purchase of drugs, since that interference is what makes the drug trade so dangerous. The government, of course, disagreed, and eventually Ulbricht’s organization was besieged by the FBI, DEA, IRS, and more. Author Bilton creates a vivid portrait of Ulbricht through excerpts from his Silk Road chat logs, which reveal a young man undone by his longing for human connection – and by his inability to keep his own secrets. Also nearly undone was the Silk Road investigation itself, some of whose agents couldn’t keep their hands off all that Bitcoin.
The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner
Single mom Romy Leslie Hall is on her way to prison to begin serving two life sentences for killing the man who was stalking her. (Her hapless public defender somehow couldn’t get the stalking evidence introduced at trial). Romy seems to have been set on this downbound road at birth. She was born to an impoverished, drug-addict mother and eventually, like most of her friends, became an addict herself. The novel’s title references Romy’s primary employer, a dingy strip club where simply being not noticeably pregnant gives a girl a “competitive edge.” By the time she arrives at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, Romy is actually well-equipped for life behind bars, which Kushner captures in vivid and informative detail. (Need to hide a pill in your cheek? Use a dab of peanut butter). The author’s barbed wit keeps the story from becoming too bleak, while still indicting the frequent injustices of the U.S. justice system.
Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
Don’t let the YA marketing campaign put you off – this isn’t just kids’ stuff. Tomi Adeyemi’s fantasy epic is the first volume of a projected trilogy inspired by West African cosmology. It takes place in the mythical land of Orïsha, once a truly magical place until a genocidal king wiped out the native sorcerers called the maji. Now the ruling gentry – lighter in skin tone but bereft of magic themselves –brutally oppress the maji’s remaining darker-skinned, white-haired descendents. Zélie Adebola, the daughter of a maji, wants to fight back, and finds a way to do it. She can restore the age of magic, but she’ll need a little help. This is a classic quest narrative, but it also tackles questions of race, injustice, and inequality, still the subjects of much questing in our own un-magical time.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
A man claims he has a story which will make you believe in God. It’s about an Indian teenager, Pi Patel, whose own beliefs about God encompass Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Pi’s family owns a zoo. As the story progresses, there’s a shipwreck that leaves Pi on a lifeboat with a few of the animals from the family menagerie: a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a Bengal tiger. Some of the beasts attack and kill a few of the others, ultimately leaving only Pi and the tiger, whose name, strangely, is Richard Parker – alive and in the same boat, so to speak. This exotic scenario becomes an ideological adventure, a spiritual survival story, and a magical-realist fable about the roles that stories play in our lives. When someone questions whether this story could have happened, Pi asks which version would you prefer? The tiger tale, or the one where the creatures on the boat were all too human? The better story has a tiger in it.
The Club Dumas, Arturo Pérez-Reverte
This is a book about books, and the people who love and obsess over them. The setting is present-day Spain, where Lucas Corso, a nourish rare-book hunter with adjustable ethics, is asked to authenticate a text which is purported to be a long-lost, handwritten chapter from Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. At the same time, Corso is also working for another client who is in possession of a 17th-century manual for summoning the Devil – one of only three known to exist. Corso’s client is convinced that two of these books are forgeries, and he wants to be sure that his copy is not. The book’s detective’s two cases are brilliantly intertwined, and they lead him through various intrigues, murders, and clandestine societies in Paris and Lisbon to a hallucinatory conclusion you’re unlikely to have seen coming. Very intricate, very bookish, and very clever.
Photo courtesy of Vintage Everyday