Books are dicey gifts. I’m always anxious when I see the telltale wrapped rectangle — it brings to mind homework and the obligation to “report back” to the giver on what I thought of the material. Taste in books is hard to predict; if I barely know what I like reading, how is someone else supposed to guess?
That said, a gifted book that hits the bull’s-eye has a higher ROI than almost anything else: Give someone the right set of bound pages and you’ve changed their life forever. If you live dangerously, the risk is worth taking. I like finding cool-looking vintage copies of books on eBay, or putting together three books for someone and calling it a “boxed set,” or giving them a cheap used copy of a book and inserting a crisp $20 bill as a bookmark.
Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Kick-ass Kwanzaa, or whatever you celebrate.
Dark Wave by Lana Guineay
Fiction, September 25
A wealthy family on a private island off the coast of Australia receives threatening anonymous letters that suggest they are in danger. One of the daughters reaches out to her ex-boyfriend George, an investigator, beseeching him to come visit and clear up the situation. Murder and mayhem ensue! There is also blackmail, a cyclone, and a blunt injury to someone’s head — all infecting an elite world of well-appointed yachts and cool linen sheets and house servants offering covered dishes of foods I have never heard of.
The novel moves in fast motion, with noir rhythms and atmospherics. (Sample: “The air was hot and close, the right environment for an orchid, wrong for a hungover man. His voice was raspy. His eye bags had gone from carry-on to check-in.”) Fun and delicious. Additionally, as someone who gets enough sensual pleasure from books that I should probably be on a registry somewhere, this one tapped into all my “kinks”: a satin-matte paperback with dizzying cover art, paper stock that is almost but not quite newsprint, margins that are voluptuous without being vulgar. As Ronnie Spector once sang, “Whaa-OH, oh oh oh.”
RIYL: Kem Nunn, nautical maps, In a Lonely Place (the Bogart movie), Raymond Chandler
Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass
Fiction, December 1
If you’ve ever stopped and asked yourself, What is it like to be a hallucinating nurse in a pediatric-care unit? — and who among us hasn’t? — allow me to introduce you to Laura, the narrator of Emma Glass’s second novel. Poor Laura is operating on fumes: She can’t sleep, she doesn’t have time to eat proper meals, her partner is cruel and is probably going to dump her, and her job is a river of tears, blood, and puke.
Like Laura, the author of this novel is a practicing nurse in London, which may explain the hypnotic clarity of the book’s setting. Detail is paid to every kind of hospital ritual — the neutral ones, like distributing medication, as well as the morbid ones, like informing a parent that her child is going to die. (Laura observes a tea set used specifically to serve grieving parents: “strange, ancient crockery” that has “only ever touched the lips of those who are touched with death.”)
We follow dreamy Laura as she engages half-heartedly in a workplace flirtation and participates with indifference in office politics. The prose is incantatory and prickly, slipping almost imperceptibly into the mode of a horror story. It takes a minute to fall into the book’s rhythm, but once you do, it’ll make the hairs on the back of your brain stand up.
RIYL: James Joyce, fictional accounts of people losing their minds, the Miranda July movie Kajillionaire
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
Fiction, June 2017
Lean into this ruthless winter by cutting yourself a slice of dystopian fiction. This eerie, plainspoken Swedish novel found its way into my lap through the Google spreadsheet where readers like you provide me with suggestions. “I’m just dying for someone else to read this because it’s so weird and so good and [I] want to know if I’m nuts for loving it,” an anonymous recommender wrote, before summarizing the book’s plot: “Humans have colonized a strange dimension where they must touch and name the object around them lest they turn back into goo.”
The narrator among these benighted souls is Vanja, whose sinister job title is “information assistant.” Her assignment is to collect data about the hygiene habits of citizens from a neighboring colony, like what kind of shampoo they use, how often they scrub their crotches, and whether the regulation soap is easy to rinse off or requires feverish rubbing for removal. Vanja’s investigations turn up much more than sanitary factoids, and she discovers a citizenry enveloped in conspiracies, beset by creepy medical procedures, and terrorized by language itself. Bonus: terrific author photo.
RIYL: Declining invitations, Kazuo Ishiguro, locating a dark subtext in seemingly normal interactions, label-makers, Derrida
WHY DON’T YOU …
• Put a little ELBOW SWEAT into exploring this trove of “malaphors”?
• Enroll in a prestigious religious academy and go off the DEEP END? (I’m generally frightened of Goodreads, but a user on that site described this as “a Jewish The Secret History,” which beats any logline I could dream up.)
• Go back to your hotel and sit on the bed for hours, watching Italian TV and LIGHTING THINGS ON FIRE? (P.S. The audio version of this rules.)
• GUZZLE a flute of Champagne (or read the closest thing to it)?
• Order cream-cheese-and-banana pancakes with a side of FRIED-BURRITO SOUP?
• Perform research on LAB MICE with a wry neuroscience student?
Finished bingeing The Queen’s Gambit? Great. Now you’re primed to solve Vladimir Nabokov’s chess novel, The Luzhin Defense.
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