Bedtime Stories: January 2020

  • January 16, 2020

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.

Bedtime Stories: January 2020

Jennifer Chiaverini:

I delve into a lot of history and biography when I’m researching a new novel, but when I read for pleasure, I prefer historical fiction. Yet I’d never limit myself to a single genre, not when there are so many wonderful books of all kinds just waiting to be discovered.

I’m especially drawn to books that feature intriguing protagonists involved in fascinating historical events in an era or region (or both) different from my own. And since I knew almost nothing about the history of Finland, Scandinavian immigrants in the Pacific Northwest, or the logging industry of the early 20th century, Karl Marlantes’ novel Deep River, which I began a few weeks ago, met those criteria perfectly.

Deep River is a compelling, breathtaking saga of three Finnish siblings who flee conflict and deprivation in their homeland to embark upon new lives in the wilderness of southern Washington State. While Aino Koski’s two brothers risk life and limb in the exciting, lucrative, but extremely dangerous work of logging in magnificent old-growth forests, she confronts great risks of a different sort as a political and labor organizer. The siblings’ pursuit of independence, prosperity, and love unfolds in a richly detailed narrative with an abundance of unexpected twists and turns along the way, much like the vast rivers that flow through their adopted country.

After Deep River, I chose a contemporary novel, America for Beginners by Leah Franqui. This novel, too, is beautifully detailed and features a transformative journey to the United States. Pival Sengupta is a wealthy, very traditional Bengali widow who defies all expectation and custom by traveling alone to the United States in order to find her beloved estranged son. She believes Rahi is dead, but she holds on to a faint hope that this was only a cruel lie told to her by her cold and unforgiving husband, who had severed all contact with their son after he came out to them in a fraught long-distance call from California.

With her obdurate husband no longer able to object, Pival books a flight to New York and a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, the pace deliberately slow to give herself time to prepare for her reunion with her beloved son — or her introduction to his lover, if her son is truly gone. She travels with an inexperienced tour guide — a recent immigrant from Bangladesh who had never before ventured beyond New York City — and a struggling young actress hired as her female companion for modesty’s sake.

A tenuous and unlikely friendship develops as the trio encounters both wonder and ugliness along the way, and before they reach their separate destinations, each confronts the complicated nature of family, prejudice, the immigrant experience, and the pursuit of the American Dream.

I finished America for Beginners a few days ago and promptly began The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. Her stunning, heartbreaking, yet redemptive novel Station Eleven describes the collapse of civilization after a global pandemic and is one of my absolute favorite books, as any novel that features a symphony and a troupe of Shakespearean actors traveling through the post-apocalyptic Great Lakes region was destined to be.

Since Mandel’s next novel, The Glass Hotel, won’t be published until March 2020, I decided to read one of her earlier books while I wait. Now I’m thoroughly caught up in the lives of these characters, a group of high school friends — the titular quartet plus siblings and significant others — who, with a few exceptions I won’t spoil, parted company shortly after graduation.

There’s a disgraced journalist who discovers that he may be a father and resolves to track down the daughter he never met; an aspiring jazz musician whose once-promising career is derailed by crippling doubt and drug abuse; a young, single mother desperately fleeing the meth dealer she robbed of more than $100,000 — and that’s only in the first half of the book.

The tone is apprehensive and suspenseful, and I can’t wait to see how the friends will be drawn back together — because it seems inevitable that they will be — and what will happen when their lives intersect again.

At the top of my To-Be-Read pile is The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell. She’s been one of my very favorite authors ever since I read The Sparrow more than a decade ago, and since then, I’ve eagerly anticipated every book that followed, savoring the richly immersive worlds of Dreamers of the Day, A Thread of Grace, Doc, and Epitaph. Russell’s newest historical novel is inspired by the true story of Annie Clements, a courageous young woman who, as a 25-year-old in 1913, became known as America’s Joan of Arc for organizing a strike against a copper-mining corporation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

I wonder if Annie would have found a kindred spirit in Aino of Deep River?

Here’s hoping my TBR pile and yours will forever be replenished with more excellent books like these!

Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of multiple historical novels, including Resistance Women, Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace, and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, as well as the acclaimed Elm Creek Quilts series. She has also published six collections of quilt patterns inspired by her fiction.

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