Bedtime Stories: March 2015

  • March 13, 2015

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked a few of them, and here’s what they said.











Robin Black:

I think my night table, actually a small bookcase, is a little peculiar — or, anyway, it’s on a funny timetable. I always have tons of galleys, and then, in part because I read a lot of galleys, I’m often behind the curve on books that everyone else read months, if not years, ago. But here are four on the top shelf right now.

Coming out in fall 2015, This Angel on My Chest is the Drue Heinz Prize-winning collection of short stories by Leslie Pietrzyk, and it is stunning. Everyone should be marking their calendars and setting aside time for this entirely original, brilliant, and, yes, heartbreaking look at what it means to lose a spouse at a very young age. There is a prismatic quality to the book, new angles explored, new light cast from different vantage points. It’s not to be missed.

At the other extreme of my own calendar is George Saunders’ Tenth of December, which I have still not read, but which is now in the MUST-READ pile. I have a habit of putting off books about which I’m really excited until there’s some perfect time to devote to them. Of course, that time never comes. So this is going to get worked in around regular life — and soon!

I’ve been on a Jane Gardam kick for about a year now and am keeping Old Filth nearby because it’s a great reread. It’s not only enjoyable and smart — it’s also the sort of book where I feel there are particular lessons for my work. I managed to read it through once without being too distracted by what I might glean from it in my professional role, but now I’m looking in particular at tone — how she manages to cover a full range of seriousness and humor with no seams, no jolts, so you lose nothing of what is so often present in real life: that continuum between tragedy and absurdity not often found in literature.

And finally, because I am always looking into this subject, one with great relevance in my life, and because I recently met the author (over the phone), I am dipping in and out of the excellent ADHD According to Zoë by Zoë Kessler. It’s always interesting to read about other people diagnosed as I was, in mid-life, and I find myself nodding each time I read a page, “Yup, that’s me. That was me. Yup. She got that right.” Sometimes it’s just nice to have company.

Robin Black's short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, was a finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. Of Black's debut novel, Life Drawing, Claire Messud said "[she] is a writer of great wisdom, and illuminates, without undue emphasis, the flickering complexity of individual histories​." Black has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Southern Review, and One Story, among other publications. She was the 2012-13 Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bryn Mawr College. Her latest book, Crash Course, 52 Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide, will be out from Engine Books in April 2016.  

Ted Gioia:

All the best things in life are analog, no?

So I’m still loyal to physical books, even in a digital age. I predict that they will be the next vinyl, prized by a new generation of collectors who will embrace them as the ultimate text-storage device. And they just look so bloody good!

For these reasons, you won’t find a Kindle on my nightstand. But here are the real books I have on hand:

Tales by H.P. Lovecraft (Library of America edition): I am working on an ambitious literary criticism project devoted to horror fiction — which I plan to launch on the web next year. I am reading methodically through the works of all the leading writers in the genre, from Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker to Anne Rice and Stephen King, and beyond. Lovecraft, however, may be my favorite. He has been subjected to endless criticism and even ridicule, yet he is a remarkable writer. I love those overwrought and baroque sentences!

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I was mesmerized by the first three volumes of My Struggle, and am eagerly awaiting volume four — which I expect to arrive in the mail any day now. The plot moves ahead at a Norwegian glacier’s pace, but that hardly matters. Knausgaard is a compelling figure, not just as an author but as a character. I have recommended this memoir to many people, but my wife put it down after only a few pages. There was too much dirty laundry in it, both literally and metaphorically, for her taste. But I’m planning on reading all six volumes.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. This book is sitting on my nightstand for a very bad reason: I got bogged down around page 700 and don’t have the gumption to finish it. But if I remove it, that would be an admission of defeat. I usually finish any book I start and would hate to be defeated by Lady Murasaki. I must say, in this work’s defense, that it was extremely helpful in the research for my recent book, Love Songs: The Hidden History. No other text from this period gives so much detail on romantic music and the ways it was incorporated into court life.

Real Presences by George Steiner. I still regret missing the opportunity to take a class from Steiner when he taught at Stanford during my undergraduate days. I’ve made up for it by reading many of his books. This is one of his most penetrating works and deserves to be much better known. Steiner’s emphasis on the transcendent qualities of art is a useful corrective to the flippancy and banality of so much writing on culture of recent memory.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and pop culture. His latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History (Oxford).

Heather Hartley:

Right now, I’m reading the stunning historical novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Set in Sicily in the 1860s during the time of the Italian Unification, it follows the charismatic and compelling figure of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, and his family as they face the insistent and turbulent shifts in political and social power that irrevocably alter Sicily as they know it in all of its immense splendor, contradiction, hierarchy, and disrepair. The landscapes of Sicily are by turns lush and sparse, and Tomasi di Lampedusa renders vivid and elegant portraits of an aristocratic family living in the midst of great upheaval. The Leopard distills the complex history of Sicily, and by extension Italy, through the captivating characters of Don Fabrizio, his family, and the people in his life.

A book that I turn (and return) to is The Essential Groucho Marx: Writings by, for, and about Groucho Marx, edited by Stefan Kanfer. From quips to correspondence to classic jokes to ad-libs to magazine articles, this gathering of Groucho’s writings is thorough and thoroughly delightful. The table of contents reads like a humor sketch because chapter names — such as “You can even get stucco — oh, how you can get stucco” and “I am sometimes jealous of my past” — are taken from his works.

I’m rereading Françoise Sagan’s With Fondest Regards, a slim gem of a book of sketches and portraits in which Sagan reminisces about her friends and acquaintances, including Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, Jean-Paul Sartre, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams, among many others. In addition, Sagan is just as fascinated by cities: New York makes an appearance in the first chapter; the city, in reference to poet Charles Baudelaire’s words, is “beautiful like un rêve de pierre,” a dream of stone.

On my list to read (this is the super-short list this spring): M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth and How To Cook a Wolf; Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet; and My Mother’s House and Sido by Colette.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and author of the poetry collections Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming). Her work has appeared in Slice, the Literary Review, and the Guardian. She has presented writers at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop’s reading series and her column about literary Paris, "Apéritif," appears on Tin House.  

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