Bedtime Stories: June 2015

  • June 17, 2015

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.

Bedtime Stories: June 2015

Diana Abu-Jaber:

Lately, my reading list has been oddly divided: One pile contains hard-hitting, grown-up novels set during or around wartime. On the other pile are night-time books to read to my 6-year-old.

First, the war pile.

If you haven’t yet joined the rest of us and read All the Light We Cannot See, then please, you must. Anthony Doerr’s novel is a jewel-box, full of luster and detail, concerning two children caught in the riptide of World War II. The last third or so of the book becomes increasingly, achingly suspenseful, though it’s so beautifully written that I made myself go slow, to be sure and read every single word.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, is compelling right out of the gate and brilliantly drawn. Spanning both World Wars, this story of one woman’s experiences — including an extraordinary ability to manipulate time and events — is expansive, almost cinematic in scope, leaping from moment to moment and lifetime to lifetime.

Preparations for the Next Life by Atticus Lish focuses largely on the emotional aftermath of 9/11. A PTSD-stunned vet back from Iraq and a Chinese-Muslim woman struggle to save each other, bonding through a mutual, almost magical devotion to physical strength. The book is hard, even remorseless in tone, yet makes long, entrancing sluices through the psyche.

Second, the kid’s stuff.

On the other side of the reading room, we’ve been tackling a bunch of my old favorites — or books I’d always thought would’ve been favorites — The Cricket in Times Square, Harriet the Spy, and Heidi are our three most recent reads. Next up is Anne of Green Gables

Though, obviously, these stories are written for children, each time we open a new one, I find they’re just as rich, nuanced, emotionally complex, and thrilling as the grownup novels. In reading to my daughter, I’ve come to understand that books for young people are written just as much for the parent as for the child.

Diana Abu-Jaber is author of, most recently, Birds of Paradise, an Indie Books Pick, as well as of the award-winning memoir The Language of Baklava, and the bestselling novels Origin and Crescent, the latter of which was awarded the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction and the American Book Award. A frequent contributor to NPR, she teaches at Portland State University and divides her time between Portland and Miami.


Cliff Cumber:

I love to engage reading in an organic way. What I mean by that is I discover new books to read in a natural, synchronistic way. One author's work leads to another. This can sometimes lead to a very tangled process in which I'm engaging — and I believe that's a crucial way to describe reading — several authors' works at once.

I'm a journalist and thus a writer, a poor one, and also a cynic, so I seek out writing that inspires me to be better. But first and foremost, I want to be entertained. I want to escape. I want to believe the world is a fundamentally worthwhile place and my fellow humans are worth the effort, and naturally my bedside reading reflects a drive toward the aspirational and innovative, but also that cynicism.

In other words, I love science fiction.

Every journalist — probably — has a novel brewing. I’m no different, and while I’m percolating what is sure to be an epic, universe-spanning piece of science fiction, I keep my pen nib honed by reading about writing. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is filled with gently self-deprecating advice that covers the glory and the terror of fiction writing. Her chapter on creating characters is especially whimsical, almost thaumaturgical. Take this, for example:

“[Y]ou create these characters and figure out little by little what they say and do, but this all happens in a part of you to which you have no access — the unconscious.” Lovely. She makes it seem as if writing is a compulsion over which we have no control. Which it is.

I also have Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, which I have yet to begin, by Natalie Goldberg. This was one of those books that took me a while to decide to buy. What tipped me over the edge is my interest in Zen Buddhism.

Presently, I’m in the middle of The Many-Coloured Land, an almost forgotten work in an epic science-fiction series. It’s brilliantly conceived and a challenging read, and recommended by one of my favorite inebriates, Jeff Somers, who calls Julian May’s work equal to Game of Thrones. I haven’t read GoT, so I’m not qualified to assess Somers’ claim, but I’m a huge Somers fan and am prepared to concede his points without question.

Speaking of Jeff Somers: Everyone loves an anti-hero, which is why his dystopian Avery Cates series is so entertaining, a sort of science-fiction old-school noir. Somers’ latest short, “The Shattered Gears,” is on my Kindle, and he recently blogged that he’s experimenting with releasing these brief stories one by one. Eventually, chapter by chapter (and 99 cents by 99 cents), they’ll form his latest novel.

Somers is one of those authors unafraid to build a world that he tears down, leaving his characters to steep and die in the aftermath. Except Cates. Cates is too mean to die. I highly recommend starting at the beginning with The Electric Church, which is a brilliant mash of religion, post-human transcendence, and good old-fashioned violence.

Reality can be so disappointing. Who wouldn’t love a mulligan?

It’s a concept taken to its logical extreme in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by the wonderful Claire North, whose talent belies her youth. Protagonist Harry August dies, then is reborn in exactly the same time and place, destined to repeat his life over and over again. The novel is deeper and more complex than you can imagine from that brief description. Each character is crafted as finely as an artisanally sharpened pencil, and settled in a solid, historical reality that pierces each page. August and his compatriots are drawn forward by a silent, evil gravity that forms the mystery at the book’s heart.

Once you’ve read that, read Touch, North’s latest, for a similar and equally gratifying story of body-swapping.

I follow Robert Jackson Bennett’s surrealist flow on Twitter and find his stream-of-consciousness postings mildly disturbing, which I’m sure will delight him.

Just as disturbing, if not more so, is his modernist horror epic, American Elsewhere, a genre-blending spin on alien invasion that weaves the absolute best of Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, and possibly mind-altering drugs. Bennett is quite clearly intent on pushing whatever genre he chooses far beyond the point other authors are content to write “The End.”

City of Stairs, for instance, which is a very different novel, moves into the fantasy realm with Victorian-ruled-India overtones. What underlies the story, essentially a murder mystery, is epic world-building. Bennett treats the universe his characters inhabit as lovingly as the characters themselves, and I’m elated this book, in particular, has a sequel on the way.

Cliff Cumber is the editorial page editor of the Frederick News-Post, a daily paper in Frederick, Maryland. As yet, he has failed in the field of fiction. Follow him on Twitter at @cgcumber.

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