Bedtime Stories: Aug. 2016
- August 24, 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.
Due to my job, most of my reading time is spent on novels. When I read for bed or on long travels, I inevitably turn to nonfiction. My goal is to better understand the world around me, and I find no better way of doing so than by reading about lives lived. I am constantly looking for the threads that bind us, spread out as we are, across demographic and geographic divides.
Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant. Bageant wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus — an examination of the cultural and voting tendencies of his hometown of Winchester, Virginia — using the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry as the backdrop. It was relevant in the elections before 2004 and has been, perhaps, even more relevant in all of the subsequent elections. Bageant’s analysis, especially of those who may well be voting against their best interests, is blunt, insightful, and should be mandatory reading for everybody. There’s an important discussion to be had in America. We do all we can to talk around it, but have yet to address it head on.
The Bible. I didn’t grow up in a religious environment. The older I got, the more I realized that if I wanted to have meaningful conversations with some people, it was important to know where they’re coming from and what shaped their worldviews. For the last few years, I’ve made a point of reading the whole Bible, sometimes straight through, sometimes stopping to focus on singular sections like the Sermon on the Mount or the Book of James. I have made similar approaches with other religious and spiritual texts like the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching. I’ve found the Stephen Mitchell translation audiobooks of the last two invaluable.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I had to read Steinbeck in high school and college. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about then. Some of it, no doubt, was due to a limited attention span. But some of it was also because I didn’t know enough about history to understand the context and the questions being raised. I can’t remember why I picked up East of Eden this time around, but it was magical. It’s layers on top of layers on top of layers without ever getting too precious for its own good. It is epic in the way that almost makes that word meaningless in common usage, and the writing is free with the brush and blunt with the hammer. It is a singular work of sustained magic. I keep it close, and The Grapes of Wrath nearby, too. It is secular and holy, as massive as the Bible itself and, with its mythology and wise men, as religious.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. I frequently revisit Krakauer’s books, especially Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven. Krakauer’s ability to get into the marrow of a story and to draw parallels with other historical events is mesmerizing. It goes beyond connecting dots. It’s connecting the dots and then coloring between the lines. He’s not afraid to raise uncomfortable questions about ethics, motivation, and character. Under the Banner of Heaven is, on the one hand, about the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then it is the hyper-personal story of a murder committed by adherents to an offshoot sect of Mormonism, the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (an offshoot of the larger church with a heavy schism occurring along plural-marriage lines).
The Last Season by Eric Blehm. The other Krakauer book I mentioned, Into the Wild, changed my approach to nature and how healing it can be as a salve against modern life. After reading Into the Wild, I went right into other stories about people trying to find something in nature. I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I read about Shackleton, about Everett Reuss, learned about the insane feats of rock climbing Alex Honnold does, most notably in Yosemite. One of the people responsible for changing my view of all things nature is author Peter Brown Hoffmeister, whose novel Graphic the Valley, also set in Yosemite, is a favorite of mine. So when I came across Eric Blehm’s story of a National Park Ranger who grew up in Yosemite and later disappeared in the Sierra Nevadas while on the job, I knew I’d found a book written for me.
Ben LeRoy is publisher of Tyrus Books. In his spare time, he travels the backroads of America, consumes a lot of baseball, and works on a series of novels he can’t quite get right. He has written for the Huffington Post, Eephus, and a variety of other print and online publications. He is founder of the Be Local Everywhere Project. Ben lives in Madison, WI, and can be found online at www.benjaminleroy.com.
Within weeks of arriving in the U.S. from Israel for our summer-long visit to New Jersey, my mom forwarded me an email from the local library that announced their annual book sale fundraiser coming up. The sale lasted three days — I showed up and left each day with a pretty huge haul. Paperbacks, mostly. A mix of fiction and nonfiction, some poetry thrown in, and a few vintage cartoon books, cookbooks, and magazines to pass on to my kids. (Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, Mad, a Pillsbury cookbook from the sixties.) Of course, even before the sale, I had 15 books already waiting for me on the bed in the guestroom of my mother’s house — books I had ordered from independent publishers, mostly, and had shipped to her in advance of our arrival.
“How are you going to get all those books back to Israel?” my mom has asked too many times to count this summer. “I’m going to read my way through them,” has been my response. “Also, I noticed some empty shelves in your basement.” At this, my mother always frowns. Her basement is already the repository for two large trunks of my childhood ephemera, not to mentions boxes belonging to my two brothers who live nearby.
But, as promised, I have read my way through at least a third of them. Some books I’ve passed on to the tiny free library at the nearby park, and some I’m keeping to bring back to the library on Kibbutz Hannaton, where I live. This summer, I’ve read new poetry from Katie Schmid and short stories by Jared Yates Sexton, both published by Split Lip Press, as well as the hybrid flash fiction/memoir/lyric essay The Voyager Record: A Transmission by Anthony Michael Moreno.
Even after the three-day book sale, I’ve managed to drag my kids every Saturday this summer back to the library. There, I discovered Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation, another hybrid work that’s both cultural critique and memoir. In that same category, I just finished Wasting Time on the Internet, a critical (read: serious) but fun (read: accessible) look at our social-media habits by poet and conceptual artist Kenneth Goldsmith. In advance of an author interview I conducted, I also enjoyed the fascinating Mot: A Memoir by Sarah Einstein, which recounts her experience traveling on the road with a homeless veteran.
Whenever I visit Words Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ, near where I used to live, I always pick up some poetry, as they can be counted on to carry a good selection. This time, the purchase was Nick Flynn's My Feelings from Graywolf Press, which was a haunting yet extraordinary read. (Flynn is also on Instagram, and I’m into his photography. It complements his poetry. Check it out.)
Right now on my bedside table is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a book that has been recommended to me many times. Before I wrote my memoir, I was working on a book of linked short stories. Every time I tried to explain the concept, others would say to me, “Oh, have you read Olive Kitteridge?” Now, I know why. I’m halfway through this beautiful book, the type of which I someday hope to complete, if I ever return to that project. (Not that I’m implying it would by Pulitzer Prize-worthy like Strout’s!)
Strout’s language is gorgeous. I’m one of those Instagrammers who snaps shots of words on the page when they move me, and I’ve already uploaded a passage of hers. But what I really admire is how she’s managed to skillfully and gracefully weave the character of Olive into every story, and how we learn more and more about Olive simply by her presence, even as a secondary character. Strout has a gift for mining the depths of human character and emotions, and then accurately portraying them on the page. She’s a writer’s writer, someone to study.
Jen Maidenberg is an American freelance writer and editor living on Kibbutz Hannaton, Israel. Her creative-nonfiction column, “My Time, Your Place,” appears bimonthly in District Lit. In addition to her creative writing, Jen is a journalist reporting on literature for the Times of Israel and other outlets. She was recently named a finalist in the 2016 Autumn House Press full-length-book contest for her lyric-essay memoir, ‘Til I Am.