The Thomas J. Watson Library might be the quietest place in New York City. You can hear a person’s stomach rumble at a distance of 20 feet. This jewel is found inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and features a staggering array of rare manuscripts, monographs, pamphlets, letters, journals and so forth. To gain access, you simply register for a free library card online and fetch it in person. Easy. (Well, easy if you’re in N.Y.C. If not, check out the library’s Instagram for a steady drip of riches.)
I initially joined because I thought it would be fun to create a “themed” section of my garden containing herbs used in medieval medicine — wormwood, hedgenettle, etc. — and wanted a crack at primary, or at least secondary, sources. In the process I picked up many useful poison recipes. And in a moment of unrelated whispering with a fellow patron, I was recommended the Patrick Süskind book below — proving, once again, that libraries are the ultimate serendipity machines.
Jonathan Noel is on the other side of 50, and has spent recent decades enjoying a period of “total uneventfulness.” An upsetting childhood left Jonathan with a mania for monotony, and he wishes that no events should intrude on him other than death, which is the sole event he anticipates because it signals the end of all other events.
Jonathan’s island of security is wrecked on a Friday in August by the titular pigeon. The unassuming bird appears outside his apartment door one morning. It does nothing other than blink, yet it lights a fuse of mental chaos within Jonathan. He imagines the pigeon attracting other pigeons, and those pigeons mating, resulting in a bird siege that will blockade Jonathan’s quarters until he is forced to hurl himself out a window.
A blurb on the back of my copy describes this as “a bizarre story about a nobody,” and compares it to Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground.”
Read if you like: Agota Kristof, Thomas Bernhard, shrinking from the nihilistic abyss of existence, William Blake
Available from: Check the library or your used bookshop of choice (online or otherwise)
Many years ago, a travel magazine sent me on a cruise for an assignment. It was tremendously exciting. At the buffet there were rolls shaped like a frog, with a mouth cut into the bread so that you could insert butter and/or make the frog “talk” by manipulating the upper and lower halves. Every surface on the ship was wipe-clean. Other than an outbreak of norovirus, it was an idyllic voyage.
The underbelly of the cruise experience is the backdrop of this novel, which is about a woman who begins working on a ship after her marriage implodes. When we meet Ingrid, she has been aboard the same vessel for five years, rotating through jobs: caterer, croupier, gift shop worker, librarian, manicurist. One day she is selected for a “mentoring program” (cult) led by the ship’s captain, named Keith. Keith asks Ingrid to do some very bad things. She performs these diabolical acts in what seems like a Xanax daze but is actually just her disaffected personality.
I love books and movies that take place largely within a vehicle, whether it be a plane (“Con Air,” “Non-Stop”), boat (“Dead Calm,” “Moby-Dick”), bus (“Speed”), train (“Unstoppable,” “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3,” “Murder on the Orient Express”) or car (“Locke”). The nesting of a physical container (vehicle) inside a conceptual container (movie/novel) devised by a human container (director/author) is often a recipe for fun.