Adding Surprise to Your Reading Life

Credit…“Santa Rufina” by Diego Velázquez

Hello friends,

Welcome to Read Like the Wind. If you are following this newsletter from its previous iteration, please loosen your belt and make yourself comfortable.

If you are new, welcome! (You may also loosen your belt.) I’m Molly Young, a book critic at The New York Times, and this is a newsletter of book recommendations. Each edition will include a mix of old books and new books. The goal is to inject a little surprise and intrigue into your reading life.

You will also see the letters “RIYL” after each rec. This means “Recommended If You Like,” and it is to help you quickly determine whether you might enjoy the book. To receive this newsletter by email twice a month, please sign up here. And don’t hesitate to comment or to hit up [email protected] with your own recs. I’ve found some of my favorites from readers.

That’s it! Let’s read.


“Lemon,”by Kwon Yeo-sun

Translated by Janet Hong. Fiction, October

Some of my favorite songs contain a “plot twist”: You think it’s going to be one type of song, and then, whammo, it turns into another. Classic examples include Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” Some of you may recall that the Collins plot twist was at the heart of a viral video last year that simply consisted of twin brothers filming themselves listening to the song for the first time. A viewer witnesses the precise moment Collins’s audio sorcery hits the listeners, and the pleasure is pure and true.

I mention that because this novel contains a meta plot twist. It opens with a police officer interrogating a suspect, saying things like “Your statement doesn’t add up” and “You’d better fess up,” so you think: OK, we are dealing with a noir or possibly a comment on the noir genre. But then, on Page 21, the mystery introduced on Page 1 is solved, leaving us in uncharted waters. I initially kept reading to figure out what, exactly, the book’s genre would turn out to be, which is admittedly a limited way to read a book — not unlike picking a scab to see if it is ready to freely depart or whether the underlying boo-boo will reanimate and bleed. This one (novel, not scab) slipped into a compact tale of state corruption and the interpersonal dynamics of teenagers in modern Seoul.

RIYL: “Jennifer’s Body,” the first season of “Serial,” Bong Joon Ho, eating alone in a restaurant, eavesdropping

Available from: Other Press

“Washington Square,”by Henry James

Fiction, 1880

Recently I was attempting to reorganize my books — well, that’s a lie, I was attempting to ORGANIZE my books, which had never been organized — and I found a copy of “Washington Square,” by Henry James. It’s a tiny novel, “a slip of a thing,” and was originally serialized, so it’s snappy and swift. (James’s later novels are the opposite: byzantine, subtle, even the subtexts have subtexts, etc. They are wonderful but require deep concentration.) Anyhow, I hadn’t read “Washington Square” for a decade, and happily dove into what Wikipedia calls “a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father.”

While technically accurate, that summary undersells the book. It is a roller coaster. Catherine is the daughter in question, and she is an affecting character, even if James compares her intellect to “a bundle of shawls.” The conflict between Catherine and her father centers on a scheming guy who courts Catherine for her money. Catherine’s father sees right through this gold digger, but Catherine falls victim to his masculine wiles. The back of my copy has a blurb from Graham Greene that states “Washington Square” is “perhaps the only novel in which a man has successfully invaded the feminine field,” which is offensive to all genders — but a terrific entry into the Backhanded Compliment Blurb Hall of Fame!

I’ll take the chance here to share a curious datum about James that may or may not influence your reading. One of his close friends was Edith Wharton, and many years ago I visited Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Mass. (You can take a tour! The gardens are magnificent.) Wharton built special guest quarters for James at the mansion, including an en-suite bathroom. When I visited, I couldn’t help but notice that his bathroom had no toilet. I’m pretty certain the other bathrooms had toilets, which are generally considered a staple of the bathroom genre. Was the lack of toilet something James had … specifically requested? One must ponder.

Read if you like: Meddling in other peoples’ business, “Succession,” bulldozing over hundreds of red flags in pursuit of a crush

Available from: Penguin Classics (or score a copy on eBay, like I did)

Why don’t you …

  • Grab a FISTFUL of soil, sniff hard, and then learn in unexpectedly thrilling detail why it makes you feel so ALIVE?

  • Find yourself convinced that SCIENTIFIC FORESTRY OF THE 18TH CENTURY is a profound metaphor for contemporary life?

  • IMPALE YOURSELF on the sharp point of a novel about Venezuela’s implosion?

  • Treat yourself to a DARK-AS-A-DUNGEON (but awfully funny!) Hollywood novel?

Plunge further into books at The New York Times

Send newsletter feedback to [email protected]

P.S. Pro tip: If you’re not currently seeking a book to read, you can always stash these newsletters and refer to them next time you need one. As Alec Baldwin famously said in “Glengarry Glen Ross”:

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