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Nutcrackers, Sadism and Accounting

“Lezende jongen,” by Frans Hals

Which brings us to another seasonal tradition. One online dictionary defines a “beach read” as “a book you can take on holiday, which is good enough to keep you engaged but not so serious it will spoil your holiday.” This is so vague they might as well have told us a beach read is a “rectangular object made of pulped wood printed with text.”

I’d argue that a beach read is “any book that accommodates wildly inconsistent levels of focus.” For example: Does it hold up to sober morning scrutiny while forgiving sun-dazed afternoon torpor? Can you look away from the page and observe a boogie boarder getting tubed, and then shift your gaze to a lady blasting this version of “Proud Mary” from a Bluetooth speaker, and then return to the book with zero penalty? Can you read it before and after a responsible four-ounce serving of Nutcracker?

Suggestions below — and more to come — for supplementing your vitamin B(ook) intake.


Fiction, 1980

A friend handed me this book and explained that the main characters were a “Swiss sadist and a guy who works at a chocolate factory.” No further coaxing was necessary. The sadist is Dr. Fischer, who has made his fortune by inventing a toothpaste called Dentophil Bouquet and now lives in a lakeside mansion near Geneva.

To entertain himself, the doctor invites wealthy acquaintances to dinner and humiliates them. The guests put up with this abuse because they are rewarded with expensive party favors — an emerald necklace, a gold lighter, etc. The doctor ramps up the debasement at each party, trying to calculate the precise exchange rate between human dignity and jeweled trinkets. What drives him to do so? A line from “Philoctetes” comes to mind: “Once men have learned to hatch evil crimes, they cannot help but be criminals again.”

Read if you like: Roald Dahl, gambling, Lawrence Osborne, escape rooms, the Luis Buñuel film “The Exterminating Angel
Available from: Check the library or your used bookstore of choice

Fiction, 1999

The year is 1990. The city is Tokyo. The narrator is Amélie, who shares a name and several characteristics with the novel’s author. Young Amélie works in the import-export division of a Japanese corporation that buys and sells French tires, Singaporean soda, Canadian optical fibers and everything in between.

What does she do, exactly? Hard to say. Even the smallest task ends in failure. After Amélie serves coffee in a meeting, a manager berates her for speaking Japanese: “How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language?” He then orders Amélie to stop understanding Japanese. When she protests that such an order is impossible, the boss replies: “There is always a means of obeying.”

She is reassigned to accounting — an “eternal tunnel of torture” in which all numbers coagulate into an “opaque magma.” Soon she is demoted to cleaning the toilets. This is a hypnotic tragicomic novella of corporate life. Read it and cackle if you’re on vacation from the office — or read it and weep if not!

Read if you like: Steve Martin movies or books, the banality of dejection, mischief, undermining your boss
Available from: Macmillan

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