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Spiders, Archaeology and Brain Confetti

¡Feliz Año Nuevo! Doesn’t it feel fabulous to be an entirely reborn person with flawless habits, unbroken willpower and a rose-tinted view of the future? Oh, that doesn’t describe you? Me neither.

I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions, but on Jan. 4, I did have the bright idea to microwave a day-old croissant for 20 seconds, and the result was transformative enough that I vaguely committed to doing it again some time, so let’s call that my 2022 resolution and move on to the books.


“After a while I began to have an uneasy feeling of being observed. I am very sensitive to observation, and often have this feeling not only in the presence of human beings but in that of small animals. Once I even traced the source of it to a large spider whose mysterious eyes were fixed upon me. In my experience the spider is the smallest creature whose gaze can be felt.”

I’m tempted to stop here with a simple remark: “After reading the above quote, you should know whether or not you’d like to spend 250 pages with the architect of such a statement.” But I’ll go on. The observer’s name is Jake, and he’s a young schemer who tomcats around London causing problems and forming one corner of a love rectangle. “Under the Net” was the first novel produced by Iris Murdoch, a confirmed graphomaniac and philosopher whose many books aren’t typically as concise and comic as this one — so if you’re Murdoch-curious, it’s a fine place to start.

Her novels vary thrillingly in quality, but all are laced with existential insights and devastating commentary on marriage, and they are populated by characters who say things like, “To put it briefly, my life has been ruined.” Also, in one book, a man’s hair is described as “the color of an undimmed chestnut.” Been pondering that one for years.

Read if you like: David Lodge, antics, courting disaster, Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers”
Available from: Penguin Random House (also widely available in used bookshops!)

Picture an ancient Roman fellow bending angrily over a thin sheet of lead, inscribing on it a curse dedicated to his enemy and then rolling up the sheet like a taquito and depositing it down a well or in a tomb. This practice — the creation of “curse tablets” — is a well-documented phenomenon, with photographs and translations of tablets available online. One characteristic example that I found, composed in the third or fourth century, contains two separate curses directed against a greengrocer named Babylas. The anonymous curse-writer begs the gods to “drown and chill the soul” of the “lawless and impious” greengrocer, fill him with “evil misfortune” and murder all of his livestock. (One has to wonder: What did Babylas do?!)

I learned about this form of antique trolling from “The Latinist,” a novel about academic misbehavior among classicists at Oxford. It would have taken me a single night to read the book except that I kept pausing to pursue tantalizing nuggets of information, ranging from choliambic verse to amputation practices of yesteryear. It is a cleverly plotted adventure about an American student who falls prey to the schemes of her malevolent adviser — a tale of passion, suspense and archaeology. (That’s what I call a “triple threat”!)

Read if you like: “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (book or film), Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” chess, campus novels
Available from: W.W. Norton

  • Experience the sensation of your brain exploding into RAINBOW CONFETTI with a memoir of unparalleled novelty and virtuosity?

  • Slip into your wooliest cardigan and face an ICY BLAST of aphorisms and essays by E.M. Cioran?

  • Start your AGATHA CHRISTIE career here, if you haven’t sampled the cozy delights of this mystery master? Do not read anything about the book before you begin. Not a word. (A selection of Christie novels are also in the public domain to read for free.)

  • CLENCH EVERY MUSCLE IN YOUR BODY SIMULTANEOUSLY (not for medical reasons, but from suspense) as you join three teenagers at a jihadi training camp on the edges of Mosul?

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