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My Failures at Book Dating

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

I am looking for book recommendations. Recent, contemporary, not unfunny. Preferably with protagonists who do research. Real scientists.

No broken geniuses. No writing of equations on Plexiglas with squeaky pens. I get why this is great for movies, though: not everyone looks as hot writing equations on a blackboard as young Russell Crowe did when he played John Nash in "A Beautiful Back," sorry, "Mind" (right).

No eggheads in thrillers, or geeky sidekicks in road trips. Just the wide-open maw of high pressure hilarity that is International Academia.

Leading up to this brazen appeal for book recommendations is the sinking sensation that I lost my magic touch. I used to be able to pick up a book at random and find something in there to please me. No more. For weeks, if not months, I've gone without a book to look forward to. Picking up my selection in the evening has become a chore. That's not what reading is meant to be like!

For illustrative purposes, here are my last three...candidates.

Obviously, I'm not referring to the books "an sich." I'm referring to their specific interaction with my mind. It's not the books. It's not me, either. It's what failed to happen between us.


The first book, let's call it Book A, is a German book set in the harsh and gritty world of hooligans. It's a good read, at least it was for me, and that in itself is disturbing, since the ambition was obviously to write a hard, uncomfortable and dark book, a story told by a wounded character whose fate, in reality, would make me cry. Yet here I sat, consuming pages of descriptions of people smashing each other's face in, of parents killing themselves, siblings killing themselves, and people making bad choices in general, and for the most part I just relished the cozy feeling of reading German. It felt like coming home.

What does it say about me that a book clearly intended to hurt and upset and trigger salvos of guilty laughter felt like a comfort read? Reading the book, I had to think of an incident here in Groningen, where "fans" of competing football teams arranged an, um, "get-together" in the city center, and were caught on camera reducing he complete outdoor furniture of the nearby bars to a pile of splinters. I looks droll on the movie, especially since they don't seem to hit each other, not really — they're destroying chairs and tables by throwing them around, and it looks like a scene from a movie, one in which extra-soft, pre-destroyed props were used.

Book A felt like this: not quite real—especially since the narrator, for all his grit, is such a good guy. You're comfortable being with him. Maybe too comfortable. He's not a nazi, he's respectful to his friends' mother, loyal to his useless father, he doesn't do drugs—and he's really good with animals.

Book B, also in German, was a poor, no: disgraceful Kafka rip-off novella about an endlessly arguing married couple (he: irrelevant aging pretentious artist, she: chattering obnoxious housewife) who are separately courting, only metaphorically, alas, a visiting graduate student, who — a fact known only to himself — is not really a graduate student. The moral of the book is: Don't marry an artist. In fact, don't marry anyone. Also, stop playing with your phone. Just get up and leave.

This brings us, finally, to Book C. I picked it up in one of these "Free Little Library" closets any self-respecting Republic of the Mind needs to offer its citizens. The title and jacket copy attracted me, as the book, a novel, was clearly set in our neighborhood. I love novels laced with settings and descriptions only recognizable to insiders like ME, so I snapped it up. Opened it while walking home. Read the opening quote, form a poem by Catullus, in Latin, translation not included. Oh my. No problem for me, fortunately, since I recognized the poem from school, and with it a glaring typo, which rendered the quote meaningless. "Tsk," I thought. (Already I'm less likable than the protagonist of Book A!)

Still carrying the book on my way home, I happened to run into Niels. I quickly unburdened myself regarding the tragic matter of the Catullus typo, and handed the book over for inspection.

"Interesting," he said, noting the name of the author. "I know her. She was in my class in school. Funny." He inspected the author photo. "I can't remember her grades in Latin."

"What was she like?" I asked.

"I don't have a lot of memories of her." But he was clearly intrigued, gathering the snapshots he could remember. The search results, offered a few days later, were sparse. "We didn't hang out with the same friends...She often went to this discotheque one village over. And she had this boyfriend..."

The main character of the book is a young woman who suffers from the fact that everyone is attracted to her. She spends the first pages of the book ditching aspiring boyfriends, being envied for her beauty by her girlfriends, and hinting at Daddy issues.

I read the book in bed, already out of a sense of duty rather than desire, since the writer wasn't exactly the next coming of Jo Nesbø. Niels watched me turn the pages. He was fascinated by the fact that his classmate had written a book. But there was nothing specific about their time at school in the book, let alone about Niels. "I grew up in Drenthe" was as far as it went.

Still, we looked at pictures together, looking for her high school Self. She was on two or three. In costume, striding across the stage in a school play. Sitting in the saddle of a heavily packed bike at the start of a trip to Terschelling.

At the beginning of the book, the protagonist is reading an essay by James Baldwin about seductive persons who are unaware of their effect on others. She immediately thinks, "this is me"— establishing both the theme of the book and the key to her own character by using the words of another. It's mesmerizingly simple.

The book quickly turns grim. Brief chapters, told out of order, about love relationships with two men. Domestic violence described in horrifying slow motion, uncomfortable scenes with friends, screaming fights with parents, unmoored childhood memories, pregnancy, abortion, separation, reconciliation, and the ongoing task of finding the timeline, in which even a dead cat becomes a much-needed clue.

The final third, when the narrator is about to separate from Man A, and Man B is about to separate from the protagonist, delivers the patches of information that are needed to comprehend most of the previous chapters. "Oh, so this was before. Oh, so they were divorced. Oh, so this was why he repeatedly hit her, and worse. Oh, that's when they went to Terschelling."

At this point, poor Catullus was no longer relevant. Google told me the writer is alive and well—and still writing.

And I am where I am.

I am looking for book recommendations. Recent, contemporary, not unfunny. Preferably with protagonists who do research. Real scientists...

They're out there somewhere...

(Below: my partner search profile picture. My bag is empty, give me books. Photo: F. A. Taatgen, not dropping the phone)

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