Meet our new, bookish monthly column aimed at answering that age-old question: “Read anything good lately?” These recommendations will be coming from me—hello!—and a rotating cast of VF staffers (writers, editors, researchers, and more) along with people with bright brains who we’ve spoken to recently. As the daylight hours stretch expansively and early green buds pop like magic onto the trees, we have a sampler platter of longform investigation, luscious new fiction, and not one but two brilliant novels from the 1860s. As Hemingway once wrote in a letter to Lillian Ross, “Time is the least thing we have of.” Waste it not: here are some good books with which to fill yours.
The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching
What better way to kick this off than with a book about books? This one, written by the son of an antiquarian books dealer, is viscerally delightful: get it for yourself, give it as a gift, keep it close by as a dopamine-boosting alternative to scrolling through your phone. It is a compendium of bizarre and beautiful literary endeavors, with rich photographs and diverting accompanying text. A 1760 snakeskin-bound and gilded set of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained is just pages away from the contemporary work of Ben Denzer, responsible for such limited editions as 20 Slices (a fat clothbound hardcover the hue of Kraft American cheese that’s filled with individually wrapped American cheese singles), 20 Sweeteners (Splenda), and 30 Napkins from the Plaza Hotel (“self-explanatory,” writes Brooke-Hitching). A section entitled “Cryptic Books” puts on display all manner of codes and cryptograms alongside tales of treasure hunts and military campaigns, and includes a 17th century Spanish guide to writing ciphers for those with secret messages of their own. In “Works of the Supernatural” there are full-bleed images from the 1775 book The Compendium of Demonology and Magic, including fanciful and vivid portrayals of the devil chomping on “the limbs of sinners” and a friendly-looking “bat-eared demon.” There is an Edo-era Japanese scroll that shows various characters “exercising flatulence against each other, likely as satire” and a tiny edition of the Divine Comedy, with pages no bigger than an adult thumb.
Mona by Pola Oloixarac, translated by Adam Morris
If reading about a boozy writers’ conference in Sweden’s far north populated by self-important snarks isn’t up your alley, I’m afraid this one’s not for you. Happily, it is very much up mine. Mona, our narrator, is a crimson lipsticked novelist lazily obsessed with whether she or one of her fellow attendees—”the sensation of French literature” or the self-described “bestselling writer of Albanian extraction” or a Japanese poet, “impeccably dressed, all in white, with a buttoned white piqué cardigan, a small cameo poised between the lapels”—is going to receive the prestigious prize bestowed by the Swedes. Mona was born in Peru and now, “at a time when being a ‘woman of color,’ in the vade mecum of American racism, began to confer a chic sort of cultural capital,” teaches at Stanford; she gets her Valium sent from Lima and covers a bad neck bruise with a silk handkerchief. She describes the world and people around her with acid disdain: one man sports “one of those tumultuous Marxist beards that were so popular in Brooklyn,” another “[resembles] a giant toad.” And about that bruise—something terrible has happened to Mona shortly before the start of the book, something that left her coming-to on a California train platform with “her hair…stuck to the cement” and the sight of her own “shredded, livid flesh.” From that spot she got herself onto a plane to Europe and now she’s being besieged by cyber contact attempts from different men, Raoul and Antonio and Franco. Beneath her irony and glamor, one gets the sense that much of Mona’s life is spent seeking out ways to staunch different kinds of pain. The book’s end provides startling, perfect chaos, with Mona’s world ripping apart exactly in a way you think it won’t.
Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade by Nathaniel Rich
Nathaniel Rich’s electric Second Nature, comprising a collection of substantially edited magazine articles and two previously unpublished pieces, is a tour de force examining the influence humans exert on the world. “Even in the most optimistic future available,” he writes in the introduction, “we will profoundly reconfigure our fauna, flora, and genome.” The stories are populated by beleaguered heroes like the lawyer who took on DuPont; concerned community members demanding answers that various corporations are hell-bent on obfuscating; and ski town homeowners who spend two weeks at their chalet but run the lights, heating, and air conditioning all year long. There are neon details about animals and what we’ve done to them that you’ll find yourself telling your friends about on a sliding tonal scale from wild fascination to deep, visceral horror: two-headed frogs, self-destroying starfish, a poodle flying via private jet to Aspen, a bunny that glows green, mass deaths that would be at home in Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind: cows bleeding out of all orifices, deer lying down in groups “like members of a suicide cult.” The reading experience is by turns demoralizing and galvanizing, like most worthwhile things.
The Weak Spot by Lucie Elvin
“When I’m angry it is often a sign I am trying to work something out,” muses the narrator of Lucie Elven’s debut novel, a taut fable set in a “thin-aired, close-knit” European mountain town reached by funicular, where a ravenous beast, the townspeople say, once devoured its victims head first. The unnamed new arrival has come for a training position at a pharmacy where customers are looking for all kinds of cures (they “came in with a fever, then told me about a fight”) under the tutelage of enigmatic, politically ambitious Mr. Malone. From the outset there is an ominous rumbling beneath the surface of the story—“even on such a blue day you could tell this sky had a knack for breaking into storms”—that something wicked this way comes. When it does it’s form is insidious, conniving, and in keeping with the book’s disquietude. In the meantime, even the mundane task of ordering furniture on the internet takes on a hallucinatory, fairytale quality: a well-priced set of chairs turns out to be dollhouse-sized, but before returning them the narrator arranges them in various rooms, a tiny study in Wonderland logic. “I found this very funny,” she tells us, “and had to sit down on the side of the tub.”
Lightning Round: A grab-bag of recent favorites from the VF staff—and a few people we find fascinating.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
I am an Anita Brookner obsessive, and recently I reread her 1984 Booker Prize winner, Hotel du Lac. At 184 pages it is, like its heroine Edith, slim and correct, with a backbone of steel. Edith, a romance novelist, has been (somewhat) amicably exiled from her London home to this Swiss hotel to think over some recent tumultuous events in her life. The immense pleasure of this novel comes from our experience of Edith’s powers of observation, chiefly deployed on her fellow guests. Brookner slays with understatement (e.g., about one of Edith’s friends, “She was a handsome woman of forty-five and would remain so for many years”) as she examines the intersection of solitude, friendship, and passion.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Kantor and Twohey’s expose on Harvey Weinstein’s abuse in Hollywood is widely-known, but the behind-the-scenes details of the investigation—unspooled in this captivating memoir—are thrilling and new. In addition to revealing how they gained the trust of key figures close to Weinstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists write compellingly about the sisterhood that grew among the women who, sick of being silenced, decided to take a sizable risk on truth.
Nobody Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Lockwood captures the deeply ironic comic sensibility of being extremely online and then, when the narrator’s niece is born with a rare condition, sensitively describes a break with it. As our foremost Twitter poet—whatever that means—Lockwood delves into the tender contours of love and grief when the world seems beyond repair.
Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson
The memoirs and biographies of fascinating women have long helped me find direction when I’ve been at my lowest. Stories like Cicely Tyson’s Just As I Am help provide perspective and reassurance that life is not linear; you can take many routes to success and live it on your own terms.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Three Brooklynites—one trans woman, one pregnant cis woman, and one detransitioner—try to decide if they should co-parent together. It’s a great premise, but the book’s ambition goes beyond introducing a “mainstream” audience to a subculture: by plumbing the depths of her characters and their social worlds, Peters presents the messy work of forging identities and families with an astonishingly light touch.
On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Constance Garnett
This 1860 novel about educated youth coming of age in Russia just before the Crimean War is about global and personal politics as well as love and society—and it’s also very funny. Criticized at the time for not going far enough (read: being heavy-handed) in its leftist politics, it now comes off as more audacious (and honest in its limitations) than more celebrated political novels.
Long Live the Post Horn!, by Vigdis Hjorth
Who would have thought a novel about bureaucratic changes to the postal service could be at once gripping, inspiring, and politically revolutionary? This funny and charming Norwegian novel will have you investing in stationery so that you can send stirring words to your own distant friends and family!
Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins
Collins’s most famous works are the Dickens-adjacent mysteries that pioneered the sensation fiction genre of the 1860s, but his earlier books are delightful in their own right. His dark page-turners with ample comic relief plow the scourges of the Victorian psyche: secrets and shame. Hide and Seek, from 1854, has plenty of both, and a trifling title to boot.
The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever by Mark Frost
I won my first U.S. amateur two weeks ago. But I’m in the bad flight, 16 to 19 handicap. I was the best bad golfer. I’m trying to put a TV show together about golfing with my boys Lamorne Morris and Evan Jonigkeit. You’re paired up with strangers for four hours playing a game and you talk about everything. I’ve had breakdowns on golf courses.
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