Bedtime Stories: April 2015

  • April 14, 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.

Bedtime Stories: April 2015

Louis Bayard:

It’s actually pretty terrifying, the ziggurat of books on my nightstand. Should it ever choose to fall on me, there’s no telling what I’ll look like when the rubble is cleared.

Some of the books I will almost certainly never read (e.g., Guns, Germs and Steel, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow). Some (Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, the last two-thirds of Infinite Jest) I may someday get around to. Some (Beloved, Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis) shouldn’t even be there because I read them long ago — yet there, mysteriously, they remain.

And, oh, yeah: a handful of parenting manuals or, as I like to call them, “exercises in masochism.”

Here are four titles that, through some kind of reverse peristalsis, have ascended to the top of the pack:

Family Furnishings by Alice Munro. A student once asked me why Munro is my favorite living writer, and I said it’s because her work doesn’t even feel like writing to me; it feels like life. I believe every word she writes — utterly, unquestioningly. One of the things that strikes me in rereading some of her finest work is how prodigal she is with her gifts. A story like “The Love of a Good Woman” or “Child’s Play” or “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” has enough character and incident for a full-length novel, but Munro gives us just as much as we need and no more. Which, of course, is why we keep coming back.

Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew. Now that I don’t have to review them anymore, I’ve pretty much stopped reading celebrity memoirs, but this is an exception. Mulgrew (lately enjoying a career renaissance with “Orange Is the New Black”) spends relatively little time describing the Famous People I Have Known and more time charting her life’s deep, dark currents — especially her moving efforts to find the daughter she gave up for adoption.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Since I’ll be recapping the miniseries for the New York Times, I’ve been quietly re-familiarizing myself — and marveling again at how purely entertaining it is. As with Munro’s work, you buy in completely, and you get the treat of seeing Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn rise from the ashes. It’s as if they never left.

The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb. I had only known this story from the extraordinary Robert Mitchum movie, but in the course of researching a YA novel, I came upon another Grubb novel, Fools’ Parade, and I was so taken by its weird gothic-socialist tragicomedy that I’ve been a groupie ever since. To the best of my knowledge, Grubb’s work never really departs from his native West Virginia, but it contains multitudes all the same.

The author of, most recently, Roosevelt's Beast, The School of Night, The Black Tower, The Pale Blue Eye, and Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard has been nominated for both the Edgar and Dagger awards and has been named one of People magazine's top authors of the year.

Emily Jeanne Miller:

I generally read a few books at a time, with no system or unifying principle beyond my personal whims, which I would have described as eclectic and varied until I drew up this list and noticed a distinct theme: the inner and outer lives of creative types, especially writers, and especially those strongly tinged with existential angst. Currently in my queue:

Book Three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m halfway through. When I first read about these books, six autobiographical novels, I thought they sounded tedious. I do love a series, though, and despite my misgivings, I picked up Book One for a long plane flight and couldn’t put it down. I was, and am, entranced by the intimate tone, the Nordic settings, and mostly Knausgaard’s worldview, which at times hews so closely to my own I’m positive he’s voicing — albeit extremely elegantly — my own thoughts. I’d be very happy if I always had an unread volume of My Struggle sitting by my bed.

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. It’s the third volume in a trilogy called The Neapolitan Novels, the first two of which, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, I’ve just finished — and adored. These are utterly transporting books that chronicle the complicated, peaks-and-valleys friendship between two Neapolitan women over many years. Like Knausgaard’s narrator, Ferrante’s is an aspiring writer who, like Knausgaard’s, shares her name — Elena, in Ferrante’s case. Also like My Struggle, one of Ferrante’s novels’ grand themes is how writing simultaneously shapes and is shaped by a person’s life.

The Journals of John Cheever. I’m constantly dipping in and out of this book, which I started while I was reading Blake Bailey’s excellent Cheever biography (Cheever: A Life, which I highly recommend). Cheever is one of my favorite writers, and his journals display the same near-alchemy with language and extreme pathos of his fiction, but without the structure, so they’re very engaging. Cheever’s world, though, can be relentlessly bleak, which I suppose is why I tend to pick up The Journals intermittently instead of reading them straight through.

Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life by Richard Meryman. I picked this book up at a show of Wyeth’s work at the National Gallery, here in DC. The show featured his many paintings of windows, which was a fascinating way of seeing how he went about seeing the world. His paintings convey such a specific sort of sadness; after seeing the show, I wanted to learn more about what kind of man he was and the life he led.

And last but not least, “The Largesse of The Sea Maiden,” a Denis Johnson short story that was in the New Yorker last year. I tore out the pages and stapled them together and I reread it now and then. Johnson is another favorite of mine; his language always surprises and delights me, no matter how many times I’ve read a particular piece. Best of all, reading him makes me want to write.

Emily Jeanne Miller’s first novel, Brand New Human Being, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012. She lives and writes in Washington, DC, which is also her hometown.

Shannon Morgan:

I always have more books on my nightstand than I have time to read; always print books because I can’t sleep if I stare at my iPad past 9 p.m. The books on my nightstand are usually a mix of genres, from children’s books and young adult to literary fiction and nonfiction.

I’m 45 pages into A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, but I had to return it to the library. So, while I wait for it to be available again, I borrowed a stack of young adult and middle grade novels, for…research purposes. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I want to get a better sense of middle-grade books before I try to write one, so I’m starting with this Newberry Medal winner. The premise of two kids creating their own imaginary world in the forest near their homes seems like one I would have loved as a kid. As an adult, I’m not that captivated by the story (yet), but I appreciate the writing.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. We recently watched the movie version of this science-fantasy novel on Netflix, and both of my children loved it. So, now I want to read the book to them. I just wish we’d read the book first.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King. This author was recommended to me by another YA author, and this Michael L. Printz Honor Book has been on my GoodReads list since September. It’s about a teenager who knows a secret about her late best friend. I’m finally making time to read it.

Shannon Morgan is the author of 100 Things to Do in Washington, DC Before You Die. Sample pages are available for download for free at

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