Editor's Note

When a Tale of Torture Is Oddly Relaxing

Reading a novel—no matter how gruesome the plot—is one way to relax during Houston summers.

By Catherine Matusow May 25, 2017

0617 editors note book cover mcuxhk

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is dark, but surprisingly hard to put down.

Image: Shutterstock

I’m always looking for good book recommendations, usually of the novel variety—the thicker and juicier, the better to sit back and savor, getting lost in the story and forgetting the things that stress me out. For me, there’s no better way to chill out than with a good read, no matter the subject.

So when a friend recently mentioned she’d had a hard time putting down Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I ordered it immediately, and dove in soon after it was delivered to my door. She hadn’t revealed much about the plot, and the book, though much decorated and discussed, had somehow escaped my radar. I went in with zero expectations beyond the hours of entertainment that awaited me, although perhaps the cover should have been a tip-off.

The novel began as a coming-of-age tale about four college friends trying to make it in New York, a familiar setup. But somewhere along the way, it took a dark, dark turn, focusing its attention on one of the characters, Jude, who had been abandoned as a child—left in a garbage bag next to a dumpster—raised by monks, and endured staggering sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

When I told my husband about it, he grimaced. “Why would you want to read about that?” he asked, before going back to his Rockets game. It was hard to explain why exploring the torture chamber of Jude’s past was exactly what I wanted to do after a long day at work.

The details were revealed over the novel’s 720 excruciating pages, cut with lightness that made the horror all the more horrible and, at regular intervals, long descriptions of the incisions Jude made in his body, which he needed to perform, the character explained, to deal with his pain. I loved every transporting sentence.

So, there I was, lounging in the backyard with my book and icy drink, crying when I learned the unthinkable things that happened to poor Jude after he ran away from the monastery. There I was, curled up on the couch with my dogs, crying again when, trying to hitchhike to college, he was kidnapped and tortured. And there I was, tucked into bed before lights out, crying some more when, searching for relief, Jude burned the skin off his own body. What can I say? It was relaxing.

“Are you still reading that horrible book?” my husband asked, bewildered. I couldn’t pay him to pick up A Little Life, he said. I shrugged. Personally, I don’t find studying basketball stats to be a great way to take a load off, but hey, to each his own.

I fully expect Amazon orders of the novel to skyrocket after this note to readers is published. But on the chance the story’s not your cup of tea either, this issue is packed with other ways to stay calm and indulge yourself—including not only our favorite, more traditional summer reads, but much, much more—as we Houstonians face down, and conquer, another summer in Bayou City.

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