SEROTONIN By Michel Houellebecq (Translated By Shaun Whiteside)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27
You might recall this French author with a somewhat difficult surname for American readers. His last novel Submission was a tsunami that flooded the literary world. Like a Damian Hirst art shocker, Submission made its mark by charting the eventual Muslim takeover of France. In his newest novel, Serotonin, he shocks mightily again.
Houellebecq presents the reader with his trademark narrator: a depressed Everyman. That is, an average (though particularly well read) middle-aged guy more or less searching for The Meaning.
Florent-Claude Labrouste, former agricultural scientist, takes the escapist plunge and quits his job and apartment. Heretofore, he’ll quest for ex-girlfriends (he treated shabbily) and search out the Holy Grail–that is, Camille, his lost true love. Along the way, he’s given to darkly philosophical ponderings on death, love, and aging.
Houellebecq is maestro at creating the literary tizzy–and publicity for his books. Representing the antithesis of the #MeToo movement, he pulls expected tricks out of his author hat. The narrator’s Japanese girlfriend, with a penchant for canine bestiality, is only the warm-up act for a scathingly witty (the author is French, after all) scenario. Soon, Florent-Claude becomes a meta-voyeur (hint: symbolism for our age?), when he trains his binoculars on a middle-aged pedophile filming an underage girl who happily prances around sans panties. The girl is already a willing performance artist, prematurely conditioned to perform for the lens.
Armed with a pure heart and a prescription bottle of Captorix anti-depressants, Florent-Claude, our rather unchivalrous knight in tarnished armor, sets out for his lady love and perchance to heal the wounds of his modern soul.
DEAR EDWARD By Ann Napolitano
The Dial Press, $27
Inspired by the true story of a young boy who was the sole survivor of a plane crash, Dear Edward beautifully and realistically fictionalizes what has to be one of the worst imaginable scenarios a person could survive. I read this several weeks before the recent helicopter crash in Los Angeles, and I’m putting a special warning on this recommendation — if that is causing you distress, skip ahead to our next book, and please find a puppy to boop. Unless you want to add more fuel to the fire, and well… here’s some gas.
The plane crash kills Edward’s parents and older brother, as well as 183 other passengers, and the nation is riveted with his story as the only survivor. He not only has to deal with the loss of his entire family, but also must find his new place in a world he does not know, with relatives he rarely saw before the crash. And he’s a really quirky little dude.
It sounds like emotional trauma porn (I mean, can you even imagine?), but one of the reasons I loved it so much is Napolitano does not play into that trope. Sure, the subject matter is horrific, but she handles it so deftly, like Edward is just this regular teenager trying to figure out who he is.
LONG BRIGHT RIVER By Liz Moore
Riverhead Books, $26
A nail-biter of a thriller disguised as a deep dive into the opioid crisis? Sign me up. I tore through this book.
Two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds as adults. Kacey lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. Her sister Mickey walks those same blocks on her police beat. Kacey goes missing at the same time a string of murders happen. Mickey is obviously concerned and goes on a one-woman mission to find Kacey before she ends up dead.
Thinly describing plots of mysteries isn’t my strong suit because I really want to blurt out the ending, but believe me when I say this is a really great book. Not only is it sharp, but it really shines a beacon of light on addiction and our country’s biggest drug crisis.
Out of Print Books We Love…
By Helen Mitsios
If vintage clothing and recycling/reclaiming is in, then why not books too?
No reason not to download a free one from Project Gutenburg, or buy a used hard copy for under $10, or sometimes $5.
BYRON By Frederic Raphael
A Cardinal Book published by Sphere Books Ltd., Great Britain, 1988
Before Lord Byron was famous for his poetry, he was infamous for his sensational lifestyle. Shocking his contemporaries was no small feat, given that England’s libertine upper class of the time were themselves no slouches in the practice of sex, drugs, and classical music.
Byron, written by Frederic Raphael, is a fascinatingly erudite biography, rendering Byron as charismatic on the page as one imagines he was in person. Full of classical references—the lingua franca of the Late Romantic trinity Byron, Keats, and Shelley—the book is penned with utmost devotion, stuffed with mesmerizing minutiae on Byron’s life. And what a life it was!
No Byron biographer can resist speculating on the reason for the poet’s brooding unhappiness. Raphael makes the case that it was Byron’s club foot that irrevocably marked the poet’s spirit with a depressive stain. Byron saved his true heart for his soul-brothers and lifelong male friendships, but this didn’t stop him from seducing women, claiming he’d conquered hundreds and inspiring the poem “Don Juan.” He slept with his half-sister Augusta, and he also bedded men and boys—code-naming boys “Hyacinths” in letters to friends. To his wife, he committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting sodomy. She said no, didn’t forgive him, and made sure to let England (and the world) forever know.
One short-cut way of understanding Byron might be that he was a modern man struggling to throw off the shackles of the Old World. As Raphael puts it, Byron wanted “declaration of independence from all programmatic proprieties.” The poet worshipped at the shrine of emotions — for him they were imbued with cosmic significance. He wished to experience each emotional moment to the fullest. Call it mindfulness, if you will. He was a man ahead of his time.