My most cherished possession as a child was a junk box. Junk box was the parental term for it; if I’d had the vocabulary, I would have called the object my “tomb of treasures” or “vault of valuables.” It was a cardboard cigar box containing rubber bands, a $2 bill, candy, a slab of plastic “prank vomit,” etc. You may have had a similar receptacle when you were young. The instinct to hoard loot starts young.
Since my box was off-limits to other people, it provided my first encounter with the concept of private property, as well as my first experience of curation, if you could call it that. Items were added and subtracted with utmost care.
After learning to read, I jettisoned the junk box for a grander scheme of conquest. Into each of my books I glued a card with the title, author and owner (me), then ordered my brothers to follow library protocol if they wished to borrow a book. Dreading retribution, they complied. And that was my first taste of tyranny.
I no longer operate a fear-based library, but remain tempted to mark my territory with bookplates. A friend recently sent some gorgeous examples that she found in a paper store in Venice. (When I die, please reincarnate me as a Venetian paper store.) The internet brims with collections of plates to enjoy. What do you think — shall we start a trend?
To open a new Lawrence Osborne book is to enter a maze of thrills from which there is no exit other than to finish the book in one sitting. Adrian is an English journalist. Jimmy is the scion of a wealthy Hong Kong family. The two met at Cambridge and bonded over the poetry of Li Bai. Now they both live in Hong Kong, where Jimmy gets involved with a young protester who subsequently vanishes, and Adrian — having developed a competing crush on the protester — can’t stop sticking his nose in places where it don’t belong.
Osborne’s novels have a material sensuality that leads to forceful cravings. After reading his earlier book “The Forgiven,” I needed Moroccan coffee served with a saucer of cardamom seeds. “The Glass Kingdom” initiated a temporary mania for skeleton flowers, whose petals turn transparent when touched by rain. I have an unfortunate history with cigars, and when a character in “On Java Road” retrieved a Cohiba from a walnut box, it took all my wits not to fire up Google Maps and search cigar lounge near me. Surely this is not what people mean when they refer to “the power of literature.” And yet it is a power of literature.
It has finally arrived: the erotic Québécois novel about labor conflict that we’ve all been waiting for. The setting is a lakeside town at the north end of the province. The characters are workers at a sawmill who perform the function of transforming trunks into boards, which in turn allows the factory a more profitable conversion of trees into money.
Querelle is the factory’s newest hire. He’s an interloper from Montreal who should be an outcast according to the laws of xenophobia that govern small towns. (No disrespect intended; I grew up in what must belong to the Top 10 Xenophobic Small Towns in America.) In addition to his suspiciously cosmopolitan origins, Querelle is gay, which is locally classified as a form of deviance. But he has a secret weapon in the form of nuclear-strength charisma that obliterates the reservations of his new neighbors.
The book is written in an icy style. Try to find a surplus adjective — I dare you. It is not for the squeamish but (or rather, and) is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year.