Bedtime Stories: May 2021

  • May 21, 2021

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


Ethel Rohan:

I recently dreamed that books overtook my house and ousted my family and me. We four stood on the sidewalk across the road from our sunshine-yellow home — shivering in the moonless night, clutching the front of our bathrobes, and watching the property crumble like it was on fire.

Only it was the dark silhouette of book towers that filled the windows and not the glow of climbing, lashing flames. The dream ended with our golden home not burned to ashes by any blaze but burst at the seams by the impossible bulge of books and collapsed to rubble amid a plume of dense, choking dust.

Suffice to say I have some anxiety about the amount of books I possess and the increasing shortage of space for them. In particular, I anguish over those teetering To Be Read piles on my nightstand. I also mourn the sheer number of unread books among the various paper hills in our home, knowing and bitterly regretting that I’ll never get to them all.

And yet I keep amassing, for books are my treasure, and I intend to reward as many of their creators as possible — if not by reading their work, then at least by putting it on display and making it a part of my home. My existence.

This is proving to be a bonanza year of brilliant reading, and we’re only in May. So, I’m spoiled for choice as to where to begin with what I’ve read recently, what I’m currently reading, and what titles I have queued up on my nightstand, breathing next to my head as I try to sleep, whispering, coaxing. To whittle down the impossible number of books I could highlight here, I’m going to focus solely on debut titles published in this powerful year of the universal number five.

My latest read was The Angle of Flickering Light, a taut, moving memoir by Gina Troisi. Troisi’s control of language, emotion, telling detail, and structure is striking, as is her remarkable restraint and elegance when depicting a cruel past marred by familial and romantic toxic relationships, and her previous punitive relationship with the self. This memoir of erasure and reclamation is testimony to the best and worst in us, and the extraordinary resilience and empathy of its author.

Staying with memoir, next up on my nightstand is Wait for God to Notice by Sari Fordham. If it proves to be anything close to the quality of Fordham’s essays and online presence, which are rich with wit, wisdom, grace, and social consciousness — particularly with regard to environmental activism — then I’m guaranteed a terrific read.

Another debut memoir I’m eager to get to is The Guild of the Infant Savior: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book by Megan Culhane Galbraith, which has received gorgeous blurbs and especially entices me with its blending of skilled narrative and evocative art (I’ve seen and read excerpts). Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran came highly recommended and received rave reviews (the title alone had me hooked). And Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner can’t help but deliver at the highest levels. Have you read her essay of the same title? Go ahead, gift yourself.

As for what I’m currently reading, I’m several chapters into Right Back Where We Started From, the just-out debut novel from Joy Lanzendorfer. It’s an historical saga set in California that largely spans the Gold Rush and Great Depression and portrays three generations of ambitious, vengeful women. I’m totally caught up in its lush world and driven characters, not least because, as a girl, I dreamed of moving to Hollywood and becoming a famous actress, but mostly because I love sweeping, women-centered novels that transport me through place and time and offer up secrets, betrayals, family fractures (I’m all in for fraught mother-daughter relationships), hidden identities, and buried truths.

The next novel I can’t wait to get my greedy eyeballs on is Here Is a Game We Could Play by Jenny Bitner, a bisexual love story with librarians, poisoning, and aliens (really, do we need any more of a lure than that?). The fantastical novel is receiving glowing and starred trade reviews, and even before its official publication date went into a second printing.

I’m similarly fascinated by books and TV/movies sparked by true events, especially cultural milestones seared in our memories and imaginations. So, I’m eager for The Lockhart Women by Mary Camarillo, with its premise of a mother and two young-adult daughters struggling to survive financially and emotionally against the national backdrop of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, with its disturbing themes that hit all too close to home.

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy is also calling impatiently from my nightstand and might just summersault to the top of the nearest pile — I mean, again, another killer teaser: “Orphan Black meets Margaret Atwood in this twisty supernatural thriller about female power and the bonds of sisterhood.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise satisfying read of the year so far is you don’t have to be everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves, because I don’t read a lot of poetry. Yet I was wowed by this wonderfully inclusive, imaginative, gorgeous, fierce, and vital anthology edited by Diana Whitney, illustrated by three diverse artists, and featuring 68 brilliant poets, including Amanda Gorman, Sharon Olds, Kate Baer, Mary Oliver, and Melody Lee. I’ll leave you with these last, glorious lines from Ada Limón’s poem in the anthology, “How to Triumph Like a Girl”:

that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.

Ethel Rohan is an award-winning essayist, novelist, and short-story writer. Read an excerpt in LitHub from her latest book, In the Event of Contact, winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize (May 18, 2021). Raised in Ireland, she lives in California.

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