Bedtime Stories: July 2016

  • July 27, 2016

What do book lovers 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.

Cara Black:

This summer, since I’m not going on vacation physically, I’m en vacances, as the French say, via bedtime travel. Specifically, international crime fiction set in European locales. That trip to Germany, well, it’s through the pages of a book. My son’s girlfriend, who lives in Leipzig, is here visiting, and she got me inspired to hunt out Krimi — crime novels — by German authors.

She told me that Germans love detectives, thrillers, and police procedurals, and a lot of that is due to “TATORT,” a German-language police-procedural television series that has been running continuously since 1970 with some 30 feature-length episodes per year, the longest-running German TV drama. Each episode is set in a different city — Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich — and it’s a tradition, according to my son’s girlfriend, for friends and families to gather at home or in bars and watch “TATORT” on Sunday nights. A crime bonding experience…who knew? So I was thrilled to discover German authors — all new to me — and find their books.

The first author, Jakob Arjouni, of Turkish descent, wrote the Detective Kayankaya series, with the detective's status as the son of Turkish immigrants giving a fresh twist to the tradition of the investigator as an odd one out. Many are set in the seedy side of Frankfurt. In his first book, Happy Birthday, Turk!, Arjouni introduced Kayankaya with an eye for social and historical detail that was entirely his own. Kismet, which followed, deals with the consequences in Europe of the Balkan wars, while his next, One Man, One Murder, won the German Crime Fiction prize. The final Kayankaya book explores the limits of free speech and religious tolerance as the private eye protects an author under a death threat from Islamists at the Frankfurt book fair. Sadly, Arjouni passed away a few years ago, while only in his 40s, but how prescient his stories are.

In a lighter vein are the Inspector Montalbano books. This series, by Andrea Camilleri, is set in Sicily, and food, humor, the land, and the irrepressible Sicilian spirit are front and center. Yet Camilleri smuggles into his detective novels critical commentaries on his times, albeit with humor. Every summer, I look forward to a new adventure with the grumpy gourmet Montalbano and his team at the Questera police HQ. Montalbano lives on the seafront, swims every morning before espresso, and has a soulful side when it comes to women and his long-suffering girlfriend, Lidia. Such a fan am I that, last year in Sicily, I actually visited Montalbano’s “home” on the seafront (the one used for the TV show, anyway).

One of my favorites, which I’ll re-read this summer, is The Terra-Cotta Dog (his second after the debut The Shape of Water) from 1996 when, chasing down a Mafia crime, Montalbano finds a cave with symbolic artifacts and the bodies of two young lovers hidden since World War II. Investigating the crime, Montalbano must find residents who lived at that time during the devastating bombing at the end of the war and try to piece together who the lovers were and what implications their deaths carry today.

So what country next? I feel like visiting Finland — not the saunas with birch-slapping branches and healthy Finns, but the darker side. I read Kati Hiekkapelto’s first book, The Hummingbird, last year. It was published in the U.K., and a blog, MrsPeabodyInvestigates, raved about it. The Hummingbird was nominated for a Petrona Award; it’s a dark noir in the Scandi theme dealing with real issues of immigration in Finland today. The author, I discovered, was a punk singer, crime writer, and special-needs teacher for immigrant children in Finland. The main character in The Hummingbird is Anna Fekete, a Hungarian who fled from Serbia and became a policewoman in Finland. This year I met Kati (she’s as awesome as she sounds) on a panel we did together at the Bay Area Book Festival, and I got to gush and grab a copy of The Defenceless, the next in the series.

Cara Black is author of the New York Times bestselling Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series (which has been published in German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew). She received a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris, and several nominations for Anthony and Macavity awards. Her latest Leduc novel, Murder on the Quai, came out last month. Black lives in California.

Rufi Thorpe:

Currently on my nightstand is a ball of dog hair and a Pokémon sock. My 1-year-old likes to play a game called “sock of power,” wherein he puts a sock on his hand and makes a buzzing, zapping sound and chases us around as we shriek and shout, “Sock of power!”

There is also a dog-eared copy of a Canadian version of a book that will come out in the U.S. in January 2017 called The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes. It is on my nightstand because I keep turning to it. I do not know how a book manages to be so deeply funny and so sad and so terrifying and so beautiful all at once. It is about two brothers escaping Hungary in 1956, and if that sounds like a book you’ve read before, you have never seen it like this. You have never seen the violent upheavals of the 20th century this luminous and human and silly and profound. At one point, the older brother, Attila, complains to his little brother about the drab, boring color of semen. “It doesn’t say how important it is, how exciting, how it makes babies, humans, soldiers, beauties, love, courage, heroism… ‘Give me something more,’ I would have said to the Lord. ‘Color isn’t everything. Give the little sperms horns, or feathers.’” I wish I could quote the entire book for you. Point being, you should pre-order it immediately.

Also on my nightstand is Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty, a book about two best friends. There has been a torrent of books about female friendship in the past few years, and I feel like that is important, is good, is a sign of change and cultural growth. Alam’s Rich and Pretty is really psychologically insightful, and the prose is dazzling. An utter pleasure to read.

I’ve also been re-reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which is really a must-read for any writer (or reader, for that matter). It is just fun to read along with such a masterful reader as he points out how an author is doing what they are doing. Especially useful for understanding different forms of narration. His enthusiasm for literature itself carries the book.

Last but not least is Lindy West’s Shrill, a collection of essays exploring her own life, body consciousness, fat shaming, feminism, and internet trolls that is as funny as it is insightful. I’ve really become a Lindy West mega-fan. Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I would have become if she had been writing when I was still a girl.

One Christmas, when I was maybe 15, my family decided to exchange non-monetary presents, and my grandmother wrote me a 30-page account of her life as a letter. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “I wonder what I could have been in life if I had known a girl like you when I was young. You are so wild and unafraid and smart. And I think that maybe if we could have been friends, things would have turned out very differently for me.”

I feel the same way about West and Roxane Gay and all these essayists who are pioneering and modeling new ways for women to be in the world. In the end, I am violently optimistic. Things were incalculably better for me than they were for my grandmother, who was born in 1914. And I like to think about what my granddaughter will think of the world, what possibilities will be open for her. I like to think of how limited I will seem to her because her world will be so much bigger that I can’t even imagine it.

Maybe this seems overly optimistic given our present political situation. But Trump is not the future. Trump is just the sound the bigoted world makes as it feels itself dying and giving way to something new.

Rufi Thorpe is the author of two novels. Her debut, The Girls from Corona Del Mar, was longlisted for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her new book, Dear Fang, With Love, was published in May. Thorpe lives in California with her husband and two sons.

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