In a nod to the pandemic — several weeks before it was real and fatal on our shores — I started reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The main character is a spoilt (not spoiled, spoilt) German guy luxuriating in an alpine sanatorium. After 200 pages, I was like, Fuck this. Nobody wants to read about some dude sweating out a possibly metaphorical case of tuberculosis in a fur-lined sleeping bag. Now is the time for books that go down like rice pudding. Now is the time for sweet, easily digested, soul-swaddling tomes. I will complete my Mann voyage another time. Today, we feast on sizzling memoirs, Hollywood novels, and deranged hippie misadventures.
Here’s a bonus nonliterary tip: Create a folder on your phone and fill it with soothing images to consult when anxiety seizes you. (My folder is titled “Soothing Images.”) Populate it with pics of baby elephants, shady grottoes, buttered toast — whatever reduces your palpitations. It’s fun to scout for images and comforting to know they await you when needed. You could even create a shared folder with friends.
Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener, translated by Jessica Powell
Nonfiction, May 5
With certain writers, it doesn’t matter what the book is about, because the brain that created it is so euphoric, so wicked, so irascibly specific, that you want to clear out a corner of your own headspace and beckon the author inside as a permanent tenant. It is for this reason that I, a person who has never been pregnant and has little interest in reproduction, can recommend a book about a pregnant lady who watches trash TV and dreams that she’s going to give birth to a monkey.
The only thing I know about the memoirist here, Gabriela Wiener, is that she is a Peruvian essayist who has written a book called Sexographies — and, honestly, that’s enough. Wiener works as a journalist in Spain. Her mind is a beautiful and unique organ. She hates going to the gynecologist because one of the instruments reminds her of an industrial orange juicer. She wishes there was a designer drug for pregnant women like ecstasy or LSD but safe. After hearing her baby for the first time, she observes: “Its heart beats like a sampler from a mentally unstable DJ.” What else can I say? It’s the sort of book you will read and pass on to your friends with a note that says trust me taped to the cover. You needn’t possess a baby to enjoy it. Having once been a fetus is sufficient.
RIYL: Roberto Bolaño’s sense of humor, changing into comfortable clothes one millisecond after getting home from work, knowing the location of all public restrooms within a five-mile radius of your body like an admiral knowing the whereabouts of his ships
Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing
The vast majority of “forgotten books” are forgotten for a reason, which is why it’s exhilarating to stumble on the opposite: a book that should have been massively famous for a hundred reasons and instead, by some historical fluke, was as brutally erased as Joni Mitchell’s paved paradise. The topic at hand is the rise of Zen in America, by way of San Francisco (of course), and a scandal in 1983 that “rocked the community” to its vegetarian core. It is also the portrait of a charismatic entrepreneur, and an examination of how an ancient Eastern practice took hold and mutated in the West.
Possibly because the author had not published a work of nonfiction before this book — novels, mostly — he brings a party bag of formal inventions to the table. I would describe the book’s structure as “fractal-shaped.” I would describe the author’s use of asterisks as “hilarious” and his deployment of rhetorical questions as “illuminating.” Caveat: You don’t need to be interested in meditating or karma or Buddhism to enjoy the book, but it helps.
Postscript: I was inspired by this book to try a muffin recipe from the Zen Center cookbook. It tasted like a normal muffin with one tablespoon of dirt added. Perfect.
RIYL: Uncanny Valley, California as a broad topic, sex scandals, home fermentation, narrative history, ancient grains, Wild Wild Country
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
There’s one exception to my “no pandemic” theme, and it is The Hot Zone. Be warned that you should read this only if you are a glutton for body horror, or if you’re in the mood for a book that will cauterize your fear of COVID-19 the way a medieval doctor might torch a lesion. The prolific blurber Stephen King described this book as “one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read.” I personally guarantee you will have a nightmare about it within three months of turning the final page. What a ride!
The subject matter is viral hemorrhagic fevers, most notably Ebola. Preston documents the way these invisible monsters mutate through humans and other animals, wending from caves in Kenya to office parks in Virginia. The prose style is “popular science at its finest.” If you like short sentences with colons, such as this one: There are plenty. Titillating phrases like human virus bomb and isle of plagues and rich monkey trader enliven the book like sprinkles in a Funfetti cake. You may want to sit on a towel while reading in case you terror-pee yourself!
RIYL: Escape rooms, police procedurals, Contagion, reading about rabies, wondering if you’d look good in one of those “plague doctor” masks
WHY DON’T YOU …
Buy an older edition of this gem on eBay because whoever designed the most recent cover should be sentenced to SIX MONTHS IN PRISON?
Read The Player if Hollywood books TICKLE your PICKLE?
Settle into a FROTHING BUBBLE BATH of Jane Gardam?
Suck on this LOLLIPOP of a memoir if you like Eve Babitz, Hollywood tales, and coming-of-age stories?
Rip through this bad boy for instant MOOD ELEVATION?
Do a little dance and MAKE A LITTLE LOVE? (Get down tonight. Get down tonight.)
Are you jonesing for the return of Mindhunter on Netflix? The Adversary will sate your healthy interest in psycho killers.
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