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Dread, Lust and Russians – The New York Times

In the previous issue of this newsletter, I asked readers about their preferred lighting setup for book consumption — and was amply rewarded. Emails poured in. Hundreds of emails! I enjoyed picturing each correspondent in the setting they described: reading by headlamp in a tent in the wilderness, nibbling butterscotch candies while beaming an illuminating neck lamp at their chosen text, or traveling with a solar lamp that resembles a gleaming gemstone. Thanks to all who wrote for providing the gift of free consumer reportage!

Wishing you a well-lit New Year,


Winter got you down? Bust out this mind-altering novel, which centers on a criminal trial closely resembling that of the Menendez brothers, who were convicted in 1996 of murdering their parents. Seth is a magazine writer who has flown from New York to California to profile a vacuous celebrity while simultaneously working out his fixation on what Indiana calls the “Martinez brothers.” Jack is Seth’s former lover, JD is a popular radio host, and the three spend their nights at a cocktail lounge called the Black Light among meth-addled Hells Angels and bewigged drag queens and boozy actresses who are in the third acts (possibly even the epilogues) of their careers. It’s Los Angeles circa 1994: a Bosch painting in neon colors; a place where it’s possible to get strangled by a puppeteer in a basement dungeon or smile at Matthew Modine in the Chateau Marmont elevator or eat a piece of fatty tuna while someone tells you that you have “a really negative, pessimistic aura.”

Indiana has the kind of ruthless comic intelligence that I cherish in my friends and fear in my enemies. There’s no better describer of people (one guy is “a slice of pathos”; a woman’s hair is “ratted up like the high note of a show tune”) or conjurer of dread and lust. Reading “Resentment” is one of very few times recently that the phrase “Great American Novel” has obtruded on my thoughts.

Read if you like: Kathy Acker, being in the grip of an obsession, Patricia Lockwood, Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”

Available from: MIT Press

Nonfiction, 2010

This book has the distinction of being among the lowest-converting recommendations I’ve ever delivered (people’s eyes glaze over when they learn of its subject matter) but the highest rate of positive feedback among those who persist in reading it. I’m not sure if relaying this datum to you counts as reverse psychology or regular psychology, but there it is.

“The Possessed” is accurately subtitled “Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” We start our voyage in Palo Alto, where Elif Batuman is a grad student at Stanford, and then follow her across the globe and into the heart of the Slav sensibility, answering questions such as “Was Tolstoy murdered?” and “How does it feel when an Uzbek woman paints a unibrow on your face?”

In Saint Petersburg, Batuman visits the reconstruction of an ice palace where a Russian empress once forced a pair of jesters to marry. In Turkey she travels to a city called Tokat, which means “a slap in the face.” In Tashkent she watches a monkey eat a boiled potato. You will collect many interesting facts as you journey with Batuman; for example, that Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world, and that the other is Liechtenstein. Liking Russian literature is not a prerequisite for enjoyment of “The Possessed,” which is worth reading just to find out how such a statement could possibly be true.

Read if you like: Sherlock Holmes, wearing a big shapeless coat, reflecting on your plight, the comedy of Tim Robinson

Available from: Penguin Random House

  • Smash your heart to smithereens with a Douglas Sirk-worthy melodrama / mystery about PARTHENOGENESIS (you heard me!) set in 1950s suburban England?

  • Watch with GROWING CONCERN as a charming Princeton-educated fellow goes into finance, watches 9/11 on TV, and becomes radicalized? (Or DOES he?)

  • Dip intoCassandra at the Wedding” if you believe, as does the narrator of this novel, that BRANDY is a superior beverage to SCOTCH because it is more “twisty”?

  • Sink to the floor in despair after you finish this mystery and then dramatically resurrect yourself à la MICHAEL MYERS IN “HALLOWEEN when you realize the book is even better on second reading?

    Plunge further into books at The New York Times

    See past editions of Read Like the Wind

    Friendly reminder: Check your local library for books! Many libraries allow you to reserve copies online. Send newsletter feedback to RLTW@nytimes.com.

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