Welcome to Read Like the Wind, a new Vulture space for discovering books and other reading. I am thrilled to audition as your bookmonger. Picture a whale coursing through the ocean straining water through her baleen, maniacally sieving tons of material for the iotas that provide nourishment. I am the whale, and these recommendations are our plankton.
I will recommend new books, and old books, because I don’t know anyone who selects reading material on the basis of release dates. Some of the recommendations are not for books, but for articles or podcasts or other deployments of language. You’ll occasionally see the acronym RIYL, which stands for “Recommended If You Like.” Purchase links go to indie bookstores, but there is also a link to Amazon, so the choice is yours. (Remember that you can also find nearly all books for free at your local library.) You are welcome to recommend me a book in turn; I will try anything once. Sign up here to get my picks delivered to your inbox once a month.
And now to the books!
Doxology by Nell Zink
Fiction, August 27
Nell Zink published her first novel when she was 50 years old, and for a decade the only person who read her fiction was an Israeli pen pal with the terrific name of Avner Shats. When she was profiled in 2015, it was noted that Zink lived in an apartment with no refrigerator because she regarded refrigeration as “unnecessary.” These factoids are representative of Zink as a person and a writer: She is almost heroically intriguing. If you feel trapped in your life and yearn to see how someone else did it differently with few resources, head over to Google and type “Nell Zink interview.”
Since Zink apparently torches most of her writing, it’s hard to know how many novels she has written, but Doxology is the fifth one published in the conventional format, with blurbs and a copyright page. It tells the story of two devilish and carefree youngsters in 1990, who conceive a baby who is born and almost immediately falls off a table during a moment of neglect. The baby is fine. The parents, who live in New York, do their best on a minimal combined income. A third character, their friend Joe, is afflicted with something called Wilson’s syndrome, a contested medical condition that may or may not be the cause of his buoyant personality and musical gifts. Joe becomes a rock star, a tragedy occurs, and the story shifts to Flora, the baby who fell off the table and grew up to become a Green Party activist.
If someone gave a novelist the assignment to “write a rivetingly plotted book that incorporates all of the above plus Ian MacKaye, overgrazing in Ethiopia, higher education, computer programming, and tenant rights,” I’d say, “Impossible!” — and yet here it is.The book is 416 pages long and there are zero throwaway sentences. It also contains possibly the best definition of good sex ever committed to paper. I won’t spoil it. It is about 60 percent of the way in.
RIYL: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, After Hours, Helen DeWitt, Flipper (band not dolphin), Barbara Browning
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
Nonfiction, April 9
This is a blend of self-help, philosophy, manifesto, and nonfiction magical realism — all genres that I either tend to dislike or that don’t exist, but which here congeal into an exhilarating page-turner about the internet, work, leisure, space, time, social media, and (unfathomable though it may seem) more.
Read it for the suspense of figuring out how the magician performs her tricks. Or read it to take a dip in her glorious generalist’s brain, which flows from John Muir to Epicurus to communal-living experiments of the 1960s. And then keep reading it for the book’s medicinal effects: Your desiccated attention span will be rehydrated, your anxiety soothed, and your senses of time, space, leisure, flowers, and (unfathomable though it may seem) more will be reframed. The ideas are substantive and the tone is calm, kind, and penetrating, like a doctor with an excellent bedside manner telling you that you’re going to die if you don’t change your lifestyle yesterday.
RIYL: Jaron Lanier, the Whole Earth Catalog, Rachel Kushner, siestas, public parks, taking a mild hallucinogen and going to an aquarium
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Fiction, September 24
Danny Conroy is seven years younger than his sister, Maeve, who is part surrogate parent and part oracle. Their mother has mysteriously disappeared. They have a malignant stepmother and their father is an icicle; when one of his children sobs, he responds by stating, “You have to stop.” The family lives in a Philadelphia mansion called the Dutch House, which was infested with raccoons when their father bought it from the bank and is now restored to its former ballroomed and gilded-ceilinged glory.
At a young age, Maeve and Danny experience a reversal of fortune involving estate law. Drama ensues. Sometimes I enjoy reading sentences that have gone through an author’s mental paper shredder and require piecing back together by a reader, but I also enjoy sentences like the ones Patchett writes, which go from point A to point B by the straightest possible route. This is an author who specializes in extremely legible yarns.
RIYL: Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, novels about siblings who band together against the world or their stepmother
WHY DON’T YOU…
Play 3-DIMENSIONAL CHESS (which is the best number of dimensions) with a novel that takes place at a performing-arts high school and pulls off a “whoa, dude” plot twist in high literary form?
Dive into a book about a teen boy in rural Indiana who lives in a world of PRECARITY and opioids and Twitter?
Enjoy Rich in Love if your funny bone needs a good RUBBING and your heartstrings need a deft TUGGING?
Verify the seemingly impossible fact that a mere slip of a novel is described — accurately — in one of its blurbs as the “ASIAN TEMPEST”?
Slide into a book that’s like Mad Men but if Don Draper were a middle-class MOM IN KANSAS CITY with a relatable personality?
Impale yourself on the definitive account of what happened after America turned its (our) lethal attention away from IRAQ?
Pair Succession with Martha McPhee’s novel Dear Money: a satirical plunge into the world of deluded, money-obsessed mini-Machiavellis!