Bedtime Stories: April 2019

  • April 17, 2019

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.


Sandra Newman:

I've been in a phase where I keep starting books and then getting blasted out of them by a work tsunami and then, somehow, when I wash up on dry ground again, I'm reading some other book. I mean, I used to just read one book faithfully from beginning to end before starting the next book, but somehow, being overworked seems to make that impossible. Some of the books get weeded out, and I never finish them, but here are the books I'm currently reading that I'm definitely going to finish:

First, there's Elizabeth McCracken's Bowlaway, which is a book about bowling and/or everything, permeated by a spirit of magical realism or slipstream (though I think we all quietly stopped saying "slipstream" at some point?), which is perhaps not magical realism but a worldview about how humans process experience. The main thing, though, is that the writing is just next-level wonderful.

It also has a great gentleness of spirit about it, a kindness in every move it makes, but also a wild elemental quality; it's a little like sleeping in a cave curled up with a wise old lion. So I've actually just finished Bowlaway, but it's still fresh enough to feel like it belongs here. I mean, I keep vaguely looking forward to reading it and then realizing and feeling cheated.

I've just started Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's Sketchtasy, which is this crazy-beautiful book of the orgiastically real type about (this is from the back cover) "the perils of queer world-making in the 1990s," and it's maybe a little like what Kerouac could have been like if he had actually known anything.

I've also been gradually reading through a bunch of Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy/historical novels, which are really terrific and also an interesting genre experiment, because they're basically historical novels about Renaissance Italy and Byzantium, etc., and the history is mostly accurate, but at some point, he decided he didn't want to be responsible for the fidelity to detail of the historical novel — or maybe he just wanted to be free to add fantasy elements when he feels like it — so he transposed them to a different world that has two moons, but basically has the same history and geography as Renaissance Europe.

Like, the one I'm now reading is called Sailing to Sarantium, and it's about a city that is uncannily like Byzantium under an emperor uncannily like Justinian, to give you an idea. Anyway, they're really great and also a very good thing to read when you're exhausted from a work tsunami.

And I'm just coming to the end of a very odd and magical 1920s novel called The Green Parrot by Princess Marthe Bibesco, which is one of those strange books by women that was left behind by the march of history but seems almost to have been improved and sharpened in its obscurity. I mean, it's so specific and peculiar and seemingly unaware of social norms.

It's about a daughter of wealthy Russian aristocrats raised in Biarritz whose family is blighted by a romantic tendency to brother-sister incest; she herself only once feels romantic love, as a child, for a green parrot which one day escapes its owner and lands on her arm, but then is lost to her forever…and so on. Anyway, I still have a few dozen pages, and I think I'm going to be recommending this one for a long time.

And finally, I'm re-reading Mohsin Hamid's Exit West because whenever I teach novel writing, I do an outline of a really great novel, and specifically one that's beautifully constructed. Exit West is also just a great political novel — an example of how fiction is not just suitable for political purposes, but actually may be the most powerful way of making a political argument.

Oh, and finally, finally, there's a biography of the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, which I'm pretty sure has never been translated into English, so it's probably pointless to include it here, but everything about my relationship to this book is pointless. It's supposedly written by the Russian oligarch Pyotr Aven, who has also supposedly written many other books about contemporary Russia, all of which I'm pretty sure were written by a ghostwriter.

I got it out of the library when I was planning to write a book about a Russian oligarch, and I started it and it was really pretty fascinating, and I thought, "Could this really be by Pyotr Aven, because it's convincing in a weird way, like only another Russian oligarch could have this take on these despicable events," but my Russian is rusty, so it took me forever to even read the prologue, and I kept renewing and renewing the book, and in the meantime, I decided not to write the Russian oligarch novel.

But I can't quite bring myself to give the book back to the library because I suspect it's really interesting. So I keep renewing it and renewing it. I've had this book for over a year now, and I may have it for the rest of my life. And I think there's something about this kind of book, “The Books We Never Read,” like maybe they also teach us things about life because we think about them for years and keep imagining what's inside them, and there's value in that, too.

Sandra Newman is the author of, among other books, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, Cake, The Country of Ice Cream Star, and, most recently, The Heavens. (Click here to read the Independent’s review of The Country of Ice Cream Star and here to read our review of The Heavens.)

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