A couple weeks ago I was at the airport enjoying a $13 beer and awaiting a delayed flight. The restaurant across from the bar had a slogan painted at the entrance: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE GOOD TO EAT GOOD FOOD. Interesting. I loved the implication that a bad person might be hovering outside, evaluating her soul, wondering whether she was allowed to penetrate the threshold and order a veggie burger with a 100,000 percent mark-up. I loved that slogan so much I will pirate it for this newsletter:
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE GOOD TO READ GOOD BOOKS!™
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Fiction, May 11
Recently I went to Rockaway Beach in Queens and (accidentally) positioned my towel ten feet from a guy who was, to use the technical term, tripping balls. He lay on his back doing snow-angel motions in the sand, forming a perfect replica of the Vitruvian Man. Then he made kitten noises and smiled at the sky and manipulated his T-shirt into a sun visor. When I departed he was rolling around like a 7-Eleven hot dog, twirling his fingers sensually. It looked fun and I hope he had a nice trip and is doing well. I mention this because Rockaway Beach is full of interesting people, and it’s rare that a book is powerful enough to distract me from, say, a set of teenage triplets drawing a 30-foot-long penis in the sand.
But The Plot did the trick! The premise is: A failed novelist is teaching at a non-prestigious school, where he meets an annoying student. The annoying student confides in the novelist that he’s devising a masterpiece with a plot so original that it will blow minds across the globe. Then the student dies. With hardly a whisper of a reservation, the failed novelist uses the dead student’s plot idea to write his own book, which — true to the dead student’s prediction — becomes a mega best seller. Everything is groovy until the novelist receives an email: You are a thief. Imposter syndrome has never been so thrilling! Undoubtedly I missed all sorts of beach action while consuming these breezy pages — and I don’t even care.
RIYL: Prime Suspect (the cop show with Helen Mirren), Gone Girl, wondering whether you’re wicked or just averagely flawed
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen
Fiction, June 8
“A really great book will foster the delusion that it was written specifically for you and nobody else.” I wrote that line down months ago without attribution and now, when I paste it into Google, nothing comes up. But whatever the source — and I hope someone will email me so I can cite accordingly — it applies to this book about an independent “witch” living in 1619.
When we meet her, Katharina is an old widow (falsely) accused of supplying a local woman with a potion that has caused the local woman to become barren and insane. The reasons for Katharina’s persecution emerge in wisps as the tale progresses. The inhabitants of her small German village are antsy to locate a scapegoat for their woes. They’re also bored, and instigating a witch trial is, of course, a time-honored way of creating drama. Plus, Katharina is handy with herbal remedies — a skill once popular among local youth suffering from raging STIs that is re-evaluated, in light of her legal troubles, as a dark art.
The real cause of Katharina’s plight, though, is that she is fairly annoying and comically stubborn, like a 17th-century female version of Larry David, and these qualities escalate her minor setbacks into mortal catastrophes. I would be lying if I said that the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme didn’t provide an enchanting mental score as I giggled my way through.
RIYL: Poultices, Barbara Pym, muttering under your breath, scampering, Wise Child
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
It is so hard to describe my favorite books. Often they invoke a purely affective and/or physical response: palpitations, dyspnea, the temptation to reevaluate all life choices. I read The Sense of an Ending initially at a rapid pace and, upon completion, restarted it right away.
This novel is only 165 pages and I think it’s best to go in blind, but I will glancingly summarize the plot. An English boy named Tony has a group of friends at school. One of them dies under opaque circumstances. Later, Tony is bequeathed the diary of the dead friend, and discovers that little of his past is exactly or even remotely how he remembers it. In order to ward off accusations of being a bozo I should note that this book was published ten years ago to enormous acclaim, and many of you have surely beaten me to it! I invite the rest of you to join me in swooning.
RIYL: Ian McEwan, Geoff Dyer, falling prey to your worst impulses, the concept but not the reality of cold showers
WHY DON’T YOU …
• Summon your CHESS BRAIN to engage with the plot wizardry of Phil Klay’s novel about recent conflict in Colombia?
• DIVIDE YOUR LIFE into BT and AT epochs: Before Toews and After Toews? Start with Women Talking, my all-time favorite of her novels!
• Find out what precariously employed AUSTRALIAN MILLENNIALS are up to?
• Time-travel to RURAL PUNJAB circa 1929 and get married to an anonymous guy?
• Test whether your threshold for books about English WINGNUTS is — like mine — limitless?
Go rogue and pair your summer vacation with what might be the least beachy book on earth: a Henry James novella about a minor furniture dispute!
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- Intimacies and 9 Other Reads I Can’t Get Out of My Head