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.) Long a hotel of the literary sort, SIXTY has decided it’s high time we guide our guests towards tomes of note. From canonical classics to modern literary thrillers, our contributor Jennifer Vineyard will be selecting six books for you transport yourself with every month. Herewith, our inaugural list.
The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin
Chloe Benjamin’s second novel asks us to consider not only our mortality, but the way in which our perception of fate shapes our lives. On a sticky summer day, four siblings go to visit a psychic. Each is given a prediction: the date of their deaths. Varya is promised a long life, and proceeds to devote it to researching longevity. Daniel has been told he will reach his forties, so he takes a job as a military doctor sending other men to their deaths. Klara, who’s been told she’d live through her twenties, becomes a stage magician whose signature illusion is very dangerous. And Simon, who’s been told he will die young, runs away to San Francisco, where he can live openly as a gay man. Benjamin isn’t really interested in whether the predictions turn out to be correct; she wonders if believing in them gives them power. Does Simon take more risks because he thinks he’s going to die young, or does he die young because he took more risks? Equal parts adventure tale and philosophical inquiry, The Immortalists invites us to defy death – and truly live.
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco’s medieval detective story uses Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as models for his learned monk, Brother William of Baskerville, and William’s novice assistant, young Adso of Melk, who narrates the story. Together, these two investigate a series of mysterious and bizarre murders in a remote Benedictine abbey – one of which involved a monk being dumped head-first into a cauldron of pig’s blood. Resolving the mystery leads the reader through a labyrinth of theology, heresy, superstition, rationalism, semiotics, and more – because the story isn’t just about a case; it’s about a book. In other words, this is an intertextual feast, one you might want to pair with Eco’s delightful PostScript to The Name of the Rose, and possibly a Latin dictionary on the side.
My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent
Tallent’s wild-child protagonist, a fourteen-year-old girl named Turtle, is practically feral, but she’s also an unforgettable heartbreaker. She’s wayward in the the tradition of Huck Finn and Scout, but she has also internalized the misogyny of her survivalist father Martin, to the point where she mistakes her passive reactions for consent. All of Martin’s brutal teachings – pull-ups with a knife pointed between Turtle’s legs, marksmanship lessons beginning at age six – taught her how to fend for herself and live off the land, and when she rescues two lost high school boys, they’re deeply impressed: “We think she might be a ninja!” The boys are happy residents of the real world, but Turtle’s life is a horror story, and it will take all the skills her father taught her to survive him.
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
Grace Marks, a real-life domestic servant who was convicted of helping to murder her employer and his housekeeper/mistress, was a considerable scandal in 19th century Canada, giving off whiffs of both adultery and class warfare. The case has been previously recounted – with some degree of fabrication – in Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings. But in Margaret Atwood’s hands, the story becomes a hybrid of postmodern historical fiction and traditional mystery. Grace tells us everything about her in great detail… everything except the murders themselves (of which her memory falls short). It’s the old question: can there ever be a single “true” story, or is the “truth” inherently ambiguous? The question of whether Grace is guilty or innocent – a murderer or a victim, a liar or a truth-teller, sane or insane – becomes less central as the story proceeds. As it turns out, Grace contains multitudes.
You, Caroline Kepnes
Caroline Kepnes’s debut novel is told from the perspective of completely unreliable narrator, a monologue directed towards a predator’s object of desire. Bookstore clerk Joe Goldberg becomes obsessed with aspiring writer Guinevere Beck, and starts stalking her, hacking her emails, monitoring her text messages, and relentlessly controlling her social media so he can date her. Astonishingly, he does. (After killing off his rivals, of course). Joe is dangerous, but Kepnes’s prose is so disdainfully clever, you end up rooting for the psychopath. A Talented Mr. Ripley for the Tinder generation – it’s addictive.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
The sheltered orphans of Hailsham have a curious upbringing. Their school teaches them to stay healthy, to express themselves, and to never break the rules, even the unspoken ones. And so when they discover that they’re clones being raised to serve as organ donors, they quietly accept that, too. Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle, understated story focuses on how three friends – Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy – see the world, or, at least, what they can understand of it based on limited experience, and how they spend their time, or what little time they have left. You’ll be enraged on their behalf. You’ll want them to fight their fates, to protest, to resist. They won’t. The science fiction framework becomes incidental, because, in the end, we see how we are them. Faced with the sheer hopelessness of our own mortality, none of us feel we get enough time.