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, including a famous short story that inspired a stunning SIXTY shoot with photographer Samantha Bloom. Herewith, your guide.
“The Swimmer,” John Cheever
Neddy Merrill embarks on a suburban version of an epic quest – to swim the eight miles from the house of his friends to his own, via a long series of swimming pools. The journey takes longer than he imagined. Is it a full day? Two seasons? Several years? It’s impossible to say, because this is no ordinary journey but an allegory, rife with allusions to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. (A fine literary game: spot the King Lear references). During Neddy’s swim (or passage through the social structures of the suburban landscape, or path from past to present), he gradually grows old and weary, and his once optimistically casual approach to life gives way to despair and exile. Neddy, of course, is not just one man. He represents a certain breed, a certain class, a certain postwar generation – and his story is a slippery one.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, V.S. Naipaul
Naipaul’s death last month at age 85 was a significant loss for literature, although the Nobel-winning author’s many detractors probably won’t miss him. This 1981 bestseller, a compelling blend of travelogue and deep reportage, is Naipaul at his perceptive best. It chronicles a seven-month journey the author made in 1979 and 1980, amid the rise of Islamic fundamentalism following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, through Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Iran itself. Naipaul surveys each of these countries through the eyes of a worldly intellectual, born in Trinidad, of Indian descent. He was looking for the meaning of “Islamization.” Whether he found it remains a subject of some debate.
The Power, Naomi Alderman
Thousands of years in the future, a young male writer struggling to be taken seriously reaches out to a friend, a respected female author, for some advice on the book he’s just written. (Her name, by the way, is Naomi). The writer’s book is a historical novel about how men once ruled the world long, long ago, and it’s based on archeological evidence. But wait – through this book, we actually enter a world that, while very much like our own, is populated by young girls and women who have discovered a hidden power – an electrical power, in fact (it shoots out through their fingers) – that now frees them from their male oppressors and triggers a revolutionary gender realignment. Cue thought experiments.
Calypso, David Sedaris
Sedaris is a funny guy, and in this tenth collection of witty essays, he’s especially funny about things that are often no laughing matter. The second of these pieces, for example, called “Now We Are Five,” is about the suicide of his younger sister Tiffany. (A later essay finds her haunting him still). Also on Sedaris’s agenda: his late mother’s alcoholism (“Why Aren’t You Laughing?”), Donald Trump’s election (“A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately”), and the conversations he no longer needs to have with his father (“The Comey Memo”). Not to mention his quest to feed a tumor to a turtle. Seriously.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
This first novel in Highsmith’s five-volume Ripliad finds the charming young weasel Tom Ripley setting up shop in Italy to pose as an old college acquaintance of wastrel rich kid Dickie Greenleaf. Dickie naturally doesn’t remember Tom all that well, but no matter. Ripley doesn’t want to make Dickie’s acquaintance; he wants to become Dickie, and take over his life of wealth and leisure. This of course means that Dickie must die, which, in Tom’s view, is no big deal. Highsmith’s chilly tale of unsavory secrets in sunny Italia was turned into a superb 1999 movie by director Anthony Minghella (although his Ripley’s kills aren’t as premeditated), and the author extended Ripley’s exploits into four more books: Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley Under Water. Read this one and chances are you’ll get to those as well.
Zone One, Colson Whitehead
The word “zombie” does not appear in this book, but quite a few “skels” do. The term is short for skeletons, and there are two kinds: the stragglers, who continue repeating the routines of their former lives (office drones forever stationed at the copy machine, tourists forever wandering in Central Park), and the predators, who are… quite hungry, actually. Lower Manhattan is considered “Zone One,” largely purged of the undead by the Marines, and by volunteer teams of “sweepers” who are cleaning up the stragglers so that the living can take back the crumbling city. Sounds like a typical zombie story, right? In the hands of Pulitzer nominee Whitehead, it’s anything but. Which is not to say it’s devoid of zombie satisfactions. Not at all.