For reasons that are uninteresting I wound up on Martha’s Vineyard alone for a few days this past month, staying at an obscure inn that offered a free breakfast of “hard-boiled egg, waffles, blueberry bagel, or all three.” (This is why I love obscure inns: You get direct access to the petty affinities and prejudices of the owner.) After harvesting my breakfast (all three, sir!) on day one I learned that another of the owner’s prejudices was against thin-skinned wimps who can’t deal with the elements. In other words, all the rooms were unheated.
The problem was, this wimp had simply not packed enough clothes for an unheated room. And I had to stay in the room because nothing else was open and I was supposed to read a bunch of goddamn books for this column. First I tried to propose the temperature as an ascetic challenge: What would it be like to read for hours in a 47-degree enclosure? Turns out, annoying. I filled the bathtub with hot water and boiled myself in it, which worked until the hot water ran out. I jogged in place, which worked until the couple below me asked me to stop. I read in bed, which worked until I fell asleep. In the end, I alternated spurts of reading with endless trips to the inn’s communal coffee machine (maintained at an uncharacteristically infernal temperature) and vivid fantasies of chopping the bed frame into firewood.
All of which is to say, this month’s crop was produced in the kind of (mild) discomfort that neither you nor I might normally associate with a cozied-up book session. But I can’t tell if it made a difference.
Straight From the Horse’s Mouth by Meryem Alaoui
Fiction, September 1
If the idea of a “female Moroccan Henry Miller” makes your antennae wiggle, have I got a book for you. Straight From the Horse’s Mouth is a debut novel that was published in France a couple years ago and has now been translated into English for our enjoyment. It’s about a 34-year-old sex worker named Jmiaa who lives in Casablanca with a young daughter from a previous marriage that ended (and, in fact, began) poorly.
Rather than summarize the plot, I will quickly quote from a French review that, having moseyed through Google translator, achieves the task better than I could: “[Jmiaa] rides men without comment, it’s her job, which she hides from her mother with whom she is still in contact … She does not work in palaces, nor in parties … [her] clients are truck drivers, rotten cops, street vendors who stink from their mouths … Sometimes her story becomes funny, because she has a sense of humor and spares no one, especially herself.”
All correct, and stated as only a Frenchman could. Jmiaa has a mix of universal problems (like her ex-husband) and ancient problems (like the social opprobrium attached to the world’s oldest profession) and contemporary problems (like losing her cell phone). When she gets scouted by a random Dutch movie producer for a role in a film about sex work, it seems like only disaster could ensue. But Jmiaa is a brazen character who refuses to be Acted Upon By Society or exploited by potentially mercenary entertainment executives. By the end of the book I was laughing, crying, and Googling “sexy djellaba online sale.”
RIYL: Orange Is the New Black, Leïla Slimani, reveling in crudeness but also in tenderness, Charles Bukowski
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar
Fiction, April 2019
A question I’d like to ask an economist is: When you buy a book that you subsequently read in a single sitting, does that represent a better or worse return on your investment than if you stretched it out to last a few weeks? I mean, if you purchase a whole cake and eat it in one session, the cake experience will be ruined by subsequent gastrointestinal angst. (So I’ve heard.) If you read a whole book in one session there are no ill effects; but is the quantity of entertainment diminished? Or is it amplified?
Too late, in this case. I read The Ash Family in a day. It begins with Beryl, an aimless 19-year-old whose mother convinces her to go to college. When it’s time to actually attend the school, Beryl abandons the idea (teenagers!) and meets a mysterious stranger at a Greyhound stop, who invites her to join the utopia where he lives with a few dozen others. What most people would interpret as a flaming bouquet of warning signs strikes Beryl as cool. (Again, teenagers!)
She is lured to the mountains of North Carolina, where commune members herd sheep and grow kale. Instead of taking antibiotics for infections, they apply poultices. They are not permitted to talk about the past or use store-bought soap. They collect and eat roadkill. Reading and writing are prohibited. TV? Forget it. iPhones: absolutely not! Beryl yearns for a “a wild essential life” — one more connected to nature and less obliged to participate in capitalism or eat foods such as pumpkin-spice Cheerios. In this case, an essential life turns out to involve coercion, theft, violence, and homemade napalm. Will young Beryl escape the eco-cult? Does she want to? Is it truly desirable to — as the New Hampshire license plate puts it — “Live free or die”?
RIYL: Dr. Bronner’s soap, wondering if you could ever join (or perhaps lead) a cult, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, learning how to fix things by watching YouTube tutorials
A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo
Fiction, October 13
Our unnamed narrator is a Chinese woman who moves to London to get a Ph.D. at King’s College. To complete her graduate fieldwork, she proposes a trip to an industrial village in Southern China where a chunk of the population has learned to replicate paintings by Western artists — Renoir, Picasso, Pollock, Kandinsky, Matisse, Chagall — which they sell as reproductions. From an anthropological standpoint, the narrator is curious about how and why an entire village would spontaneously acquire both the skills and ambition to do this. But when she visits, the painters are totally uninterested in her interest. “It’s an ordinary tradesman’s job, why do you want to waste time recording me?” one of them asks, literally yawning as he dabs color on a Monet. Another painter churns out Mona Lisas and dries them with a hairdryer. When the narrator commissions a da Vinci for $50 (this one), its painter uses an iPhone photo for reference.
The narrator’s studies are the milk in this milkshake; the ice cream is her relationship with a German-Australian landscape architect who corrects her English and frequently makes her feel like a peasant, though neither habit seems to bother her. They live on a boat together. The reading experience is a little like wandering through a garden: discursive, picturesque, quiet, teeming with life. The press materials describe the book as being written in “fragments” but that makes it sound slapdash, which it is not. It’s a love story, albeit one suited to people who generally find love stories tacky.
RIYL: Roland Barthes, Sheila Heti, W.G. Sebald, folding clothes while listening to a podcast, traveling alone
WHY DON’T YOU …
Romp in the great green field of YOUTH?
Try and FAIL to turn the pages of this eerie page-turner fast enough?
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do to escape the EXPLOSIVE VIOLENCE AND PRIVATION gripping your country?
Summit MOUNT SCHJELDAHL and send me a postcard when you reach the top?
Give yourself the HEEBIE-JEEBIES with a steely whodunnit?
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE (of education)?
Instead of twiddling your thumbs while awaiting the next Tana French novel, twiddle your brain around The Butchers’ Blessing: also Irish, also eerie, also blood-soaked!
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