Bedtime Stories: December 2015
- December 18, 2015
What do literary types have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked a couple of them, and here’s what they said.
I suppose I should start by saying that there is always a pile of New Yorkers on my nightstand. Is it hopeless to imagine that I will one day be caught up? On to the books:
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. Like many others, I’ve been captivated by Ferrante’s series, the so-called Neapolitan Novels, about a deep and complicated lifelong friendship between two women. After reading this fourth and final book, I am ready to start again from the beginning. I have my own emotional ties to the city — my mother went to college there only a few years before the story of Lenu and Lila begins, and when I was growing up, I had good friends there. Ferrante’s writing is tumultuous, filled with energy and emotion. Reading her can be a little exhausting. But also rewarding. I love the way she captures the gritty chaos of the city and also (over the course of the series) a changing Italy. The translation by Ann Goldstein is brilliant and beautifully renders the colloquialisms and rough Neapolitan dialect.
Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, sent me looking for more of his work. He is such a lyrical writer, and this memoir about a year spent in the Eternal City was everything I hoped it would be — funny, poignant, precise. He is officially there (with his wife and newborn twins) on a fellowship to write All the Light We Cannot See, but his progress on the book is continuously sidetracked by the wonders and trials of new fatherhood and by the splendor and daily rituals of Rome. His descriptions of the place are at once spare and dazzling, verging on poetic: “What is Rome? Clouds. Church bells. The distant pinpricks of birds.” I have been to Rome countless times, but Doerr’s words make me see the city anew.
Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith. Let’s just say I am in awe of Alexander McCall Smith. How can any writer be both so prolific and so good? Smith is best known for his The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but the 44 Scotland Street books are my favorite. They chronicle the ordinary lives of a group of people in an Edinburgh neighborhood. Sounds…ordinary. But the characters are well drawn, and Edinburgh itself is one of them. The books are lighthearted and easy to read (perfect after a long work day), and filled with sharp wit and gentle humor, with a touch of pathos stirred in.
Yogurt Culture by Cheryl Sternman Rule. I am not only a writer of cookbooks, I am also an addict. They fill most of the bookshelves in my house and are stacked on the floor here and there, including by my bed. I don’t particularly care for celebrity cookbooks or books by celebrity chefs (there’s a difference) or, for that matter, food-TV people. I look for books that are enduring, that have depth, and in which the author has a genuine curiosity for and understanding of the subject. It practically goes without saying that the recipes should work (not always the case, alas) and the writing should shine. That’s why I love Rule’s latest book. She starts with a seemingly simple subject — yogurt — and takes you on a global tour of how it is used (and loved) in kitchens the world over. With stops (in the form of essays) in Eritrea, Greece, India, Israel, Pakistan, and beyond, Rule’s writing is sharp and sure. And best of all, her recipes work. I’ve never been one to buy a cookbook based on pictures, but gorgeous photography has become more or less a requirement in cookbook publishing. And Ellen Silverman’s photos in this book are just right — light, luscious, contemporary, and thoroughly enticing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the works of my favorite author, Margaret Atwood, whom I’ve been reading since the early 1980s. I am either reading or rereading something by her at any given time. Her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy is wild (or is it)? Stone Mattress, a recent collection of stories, is wickedly wonderful. And The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most chilling books I’ve ever read, more relevant now than ever.
Domenica Marchetti is the author of six books on Italian home cooking, including The Glorious Pasta of Italy, The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, and Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian. Her seventh book, Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions, will be published in June. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @domenicacooks.
Between ordering and recommending books and scheduling events for the store, there’s a lot that I need to read — and probably should’ve finished by now. My bookcase of unread titles (yes, an entire bookcase; I’m the worst) lives right next to my bed. Which is maybe a little masochistic, but it does make it easy to grab a book I’ve been meaning to get to when I’m too lazy to get out of bed. I try to reserve bedtime reading for books that I want to read rather than books I ought to read, and right now there’s the stack sitting on top of the bookshelf that I’m particularly excited about:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Every bookseller has at least one book that she’s loath to admit to not having read yet. Doerr’s beautiful, ambitious, bestselling novel is mine. “All the Light We Cannot See is a deeply moving story about a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy in World War II France with rich and vivid language.” This is what I tell people who ask about it, because reviews have told me so. But I can’t wait to finally read it myself so that I can stop parroting enthusiastic reviewers.
Alex + Ada Volume II by Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna. I love tearing through an entire graphic novel before bed. It’s very satisfying and always makes for weird dreams. I recently finished Alex + Ada Volume I and I’m about to start Volume II (and now there’s a Volume III to look forward to). The story revolves around the two eponymous characters, one of whom is a human and the other an AI robot (the theme of artificial intelligence allows for a great exploration of what it means to be human). Vaughn has a light touch in storytelling, and Luna a spare, clean style that complement each other perfectly. Also, Vaughn and Luna are local to DC, which is extra exciting.
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon. This one is actually a re-read. I discovered the Icelandic writer Sjon a few years ago through his novella The Blue Fox and immediately devoured his other two books. This one takes place in late medieval Iceland. Jónas Pálmason, our eccentric narrator, has gotten himself exiled to a little island for his “heretical tendencies.” Sjon reveals Jónas’ story of tragedy and adventure bit by bit, like an old man recalling memories one by one. Brilliant, funny, and unusual, it has really rewarded a second reading.
Near and Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel by Heidi Swanson. I’m not sure how many people will be able to relate to this, but I love reading cookbooks in bed. There’s something deliciously decadent about savoring the ingredient list, ogling the photos, and imagining executing the recipe perfectly at an elegant dinner party (well, I can dream). Cookbooks are also something you can dip in and out of, learning a little each time. Near and Far is awesome for a straight-through read because Swanson pairs lots of stories from her travels with the recipes. It also continues her tradition of including gorgeous photography for a delightful mix of memoir, art, and cookery.
Anna Thorn is general manager of Upshur Street Books in Washington, DC.