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 novel written behind bars to a nervous breakdown of the literary sort.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
Really, what is the point of getting out of bed in the morning? The nameless 24-year-old narrator of Moshfegh’s latest novel has never found a satisfactory answer to that question. And being bored, she has decided to purposely become addicted to some very heavy medications (Maxiphenphen, Valdignore, Silencior, Prognosticrone, and Infermiterol) and the sweet oblivion they bring. She just wants to hibernate – her dream drug would let her sleep her life away round-the-clock for months at a time, becoming comfortably numb – but the trouble is, as out of it as she manages to become, she keeps doing stuff, having adventures somehow, going to the bodega or going clubbing in a daze. We follow this woman around New York from the summer of 2000 to 9/11, and anyone who lived here then will recognize some of the nightlife real estate: Tunnel, Centro-Fly, and Luke+Leroy. Is this girl a parody of privileged white women sleepwalking her way through life? Is she a feminist hero, passively resisting capitalist society? Is the key to recharging our souls lucid dreaming? Let’s sleep on it.
Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
The year is 1830, and a boy named George Washington Black – “Wash,” for short – is a field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation called Faith. Then his owner, Erasmus Wilde, gives him a new job: assisting Wilde’s oddball brother Christopher, or “Titch,” as he’s called, a scientist, explorer, and covert abolitionist. In the wake of a tragedy, Wash and Titch embark on a grand journey, setting forth one stormy night on a hot-air balloon, then crashing on a ship bound for America. From there, they continue north to Canada, where Wash throws in with a friendly naturalist and his mixed-race daughter. Eventually, Wash makes his way to London, Amsterdam, Morocco, always searching for a place he can feel he truly belongs. The book is a swashbuckling adventure and intellectual quest that reflects on both freedom and slavery, as well as the guilt of personal freedom in a time of tyranny.
Lake Success, Gary Shteyngart
Hedge-fund titan Barry Cohen is worth more than $2 billion, but one day he decides to give up the easy life, and heads off down the highway in a Greyhound bus. Why, exactly? Well, maybe because his wife has taken to calling him “soulless” and his three-year-old son has just been diagnosed with autism. Or maybe it’s that subpoena he fears from the SEC – something about insider trading. Or maybe he’s just having a nervous breakdown. Or maybe America is. Shteyngart is a master satirist who’s averse to despair, and Barry’s huge left life turn is wickedly fun to witness.
Cherry, Nico Walker
In 2012, Nico Walker was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. He wrote this book while incarcerated. He claims that it’s not a memoir, but its bleak verité tone feels autobiographical. We follow his stand-in protagonist from college dropout to Gulf War GI to cheating (and cheated-on) husband and, finally, to full-blown heroin addict. To support the habit he shares with his wife, he starts robbing banks. (Fun fact: royalties from this book are being used to pay them restitution.) Walker’s fictional character sees all of this as a love story, and himself as a hopeless romantic. But it’s a harrowing tale, and Walker’s protagonist might not make it out alive. Walker himself, however, is due out in 2020.
Rock & Roll Woman, Meredith Ochs
“Women in Rock” is a weary cliché – there have always been women in rock, arising quite naturally, thank you. What music journalist Meredith Ochs has done here is round up 50 of the fiercest female players, from vintage rockabillies like Wanda Jackson and hippie icons like Janis Joplin to pre-punks (pioneering all-girl hard-rock band Fanny), post-punks (the Go-Go’s) and just plain punk-punks (the Runaways) and interspersed their stories with those of various riot grrrls (Kathleen Hanna) and ladies of the aughts (Karen O and St. Vincent). This is a book made for quick dips – no long-term commitment necessary.
Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones (A Targaryen History), George R.R. Martin
Feel like you’ve been waiting forever for The Winds of Winter? Well, you’re going to have to keep waiting. But this handsome, 700-page tome offers an entertaining way to pass the melancholy hours. Much of the history of Westeros that’s mentioned glancingly in the A Song of Ice and Fire saga – Aegon’s Conquest, for example, and the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons – is detailed here, in what Martin says is the first entry in a planned two-volume set that he likes to think of as the GRRMarillion (Tolkien fans will get his little joke). This is not a novel, but a history, told by the Archmaesters of the Citadel and by others who are not always in agreement. And that’s half the fun: the less official the source, the more salacious the tale.
Photo courtesy of Wellcome Collection