Bedtime Stories: June 2016

  • June 17, 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.

Bedtime Stories: June 2016

Jen Michalski:

Because I manage a literary journal, I have the pleasure of receiving tons of books every month — getting the mail is always very exciting at our house! But the stack of books by my bed comes from many sources — ones I’ve bought at readings, a trip to the Book Thing (a free book exchange here in Baltimore), yard sales, recommendations from friends, even friends’ books. And sometimes I’m just a sucker for a good cover. Here is what I’ve read the past month, in no particular order:

The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky. I’ve read this memoir, which details the loss of Lisicky’s writing colleague and longtime friend Denise Gess to cancer and also the ending of his 13-year relationship with Mark Doty, several times since its release earlier this year, and I love the organic chaos of it — not only its subject matter (Lisicky is fascinated by natural disasters and human environmental destruction), but also its organization, which is structured in very complex and also very random ways. There are 25 titled chapters divided into three parts, and within each chapter are diary entries marked only by dates (1984 to 2010), although not in chronological order. Lisicky deals with the themes of loss and grief and rebuilding in the way someone who is moving out of a longtime home picks through boxes, deciding what to take with them to the next place. It’s also a fascinating memoir of Lisicky’s mind at work as he processes catastrophes — global and emotional — and tries to claim new ways to hope.

Missile Paradise by Ron Tanner. The juxtaposition of “missile” and “paradise” work perfectly together in Ron Tanner’s latest novel, which takes place in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific Ocean, a U.S. missile test site. Tanner focuses less on the big guns of military firepower, so to speak, and provides a sardonic commentary on American imperialism, its lust for power, and its effects on the indigenous Marshallese, who basically provide slave labor to the military installation while living on a cramped, literal landfill of a nearby island, Ebeye. The novel interweaves four storylines — that of Cooper, an American game designer who sails to the Marshall Islands from the Bay Area but suffers a terrible loss en route; Art, an expat, ex-Peace Corp, Marshallese cultural liaison who serves as the novel’s bitter, self-righteous moral center; Alison, an art teacher and recent widow who discovers that living in paradise is anything but; and Jeton, a Marshallese teenager whose prospects for employment and meaning take a turn for the worse when his American girlfriend leaves to attend college in the States. There’s a lot of information and a lot of railing against the U.S. regarding its treatment of the Marshallese from World War II onward, when they captured the islands from the Japanese, but Tanner, who grew up on the Marshall Islands, never treats this work with a heavy hand. It fact, its light prose somehow lifts the beauty of the island and its 1950s-era vibe into the forefront and serves as a buffer for the terrible tragedies and decisions — by the government and by the Americans and Marshallese alike — that literally and figuratively drown them.

The Paper Girls, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (artist Cliff Chiang). Although never enough to be called a fangirl, I’ve dabbled in comics and graphic novels over the years. I was drawn to the cover of this bound collection of issues 1-5 while browsing at a comic store in L.A. Author Vaughan and illustrator Chiang describe their collaboration as “Stand by Me” meets “War of the Worlds,” but instead of boys, the protagonists are four young papergirls in the mid-1980s. Because they are out on their routes, they are the only humans not abducted by aliens one early morning. Will they find their families? Will they save the world? Although I was exposed to female superheroes growing up — Supergirl, Wonder Woman, the unfortunate but super-campy Dazzler — there was never an “ordinary” hero: a young, inexperienced girl who receives her Campbell-esque call, like Peter Parker in Spider-Man, to adventure. Although it’s great that now we have a female Jedi, Rey, in “Star Wars,” Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games,” and female Ghostbusters, it’s even greater to see these tough and real girls, the kind I may have known as a teenager growing up in the 1980s, being put in a position to save the world.

Among the Dead and Dreaming by Samuel Ligon. Ligon’s aptly titled novel begins with two deaths. What follows feels like a dream. Told through multiple first-person narrators, Dreaming begins with a motorcycle accident on Long Island that claims the lives of Cynthia and Kyle, who may have been having an affair, then seeps, like blood through a cloth, through the minds of those closest to them — Cynthia’s boyfriend, Mark; Kyle’s girlfriend, Nikki; Nikki’s daughter, Alina — before branching out like spokes into mothers, fathers, employers, even an unborn fetus. I love Ligon’s ambitious and unapologetic use of first-person narrators throughout (at least 15) to explore the hidden gaps in the life we live from our own standpoint and the totality of it all — through our families, our loves, and our unknown enemies.

City of Boys: Stories by Beth Nugent. Nugent’s first collection, published in 1992, does have a dated feel (right down to the inexplicable mid-1980s cover art of my edition). Her stories are long, Raymond Carver/Peter Cameron-esque sparse, and simmering, from a time when it wasn’t unusual to have fiction published in places like Mademoiselle (is that even a magazine anymore?). However, they are a nostalgic reminder of the entrapment we endured before the digital age allowed us to escape online and become whomever we wanted; when suburbia, strip malls, and emotionally detached, chain-smoking parents were the moats between us and the people we hoped to be. We can’t (or aren’t allowed to) write like Nugent anymore, and yet her themes and characters still haunt us, like the wrong turn in our past we’ve convinced ourselves is the sole culprit in our current impasses. Or, to quote Nugent in the title story: “You are my sweetheart, she says, and if you leave me, you will spend all your life coming back to me.”

Jen Michalski is author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water (QFP, 2016) and The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc, 2013), and two collections of fiction (From Here, 2014, and Close Encounters, 2007). Her work has appeared in more than 80 publications, including Poets & Writers. In 2013, she was named “One of 50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the managing and founding editor of the literary weekly jmmw and host of a fiction reading series in Baltimore called Starts Here!

Ken Pisani:

There’s nothing like a new book by your favorite author, a happy event made too infrequent by the demands required of it, just like your favorite team winning the World Series (sorry, Cubs fans). I stumbled across Richard Russo about 20 years ago when I picked up The Risk Pool in paperback simply because I liked its cover and the implication of danger in its title. Immediately upon finishing, I went back for Mohawk, Russo’s debut, and shortly thereafter, I was thrilled with the release of Nobody’s Fool. And then I had to endure that long wait between books familiar to all who suffer the burden of a favorite author.

Russo writes like no one else and without condescension about working stiffs with the bluest of collars — keenly observed characters just trying to get by — and he does it with both poignancy and humor. His latest, Everybody’s Fool, revisits the indelible denizens of perhaps his breakout work, Nobody’s Fool. Fools still abound, although the star isn’t the irascible Sully of the original but a minor character (and Sully nemesis), the beleaguered Officer Raymer. Russo mixes mystery, comedy, and heartbreak as a grieving Raymer investigates the identity of the man for whom his wife was leaving him when she fell down the stairs (“like a slinky”), breaking her neck. Every character in the pages of Everybody’s Fool seems trapped by destiny, and it's a pleasure to watch them alternately struggle with and accept their fates.

Here’s the rest of the current stack I face with daunting anticipation:

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I admit with some embarrassment that this has been sitting on my nightstand since Christmas, when my wife bought it for me on the basis of its cover blurb by Meg Wolitzer, whose The Interestings had me reading passages aloud when all my wife wanted was a good night’s sleep. Having also landed on numerous “Best Book of the Year” lists, Fates and Furies will also no doubt keep us both up when I finally get around to it. (I know: Stop doing that.)

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. I can’t wait to dive into this one. Published in 1888, it’s the tale of a time traveler that pre-dates H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine by seven years, while predicting the innovations of radio, television, credit cards, and shopping malls in the “socialist utopia” of the year 2000, where “crime, war, personal animosity and want are nonexistent.” If only.

Difficult Men Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin. Once exclusively a consumer of fiction, I had resolved to read one nonfiction book a year; like most resolutions, it’s one I’ve failed to maintain. But I’ve broadened those rare nonfictional forays from autobiographies of the famous to include historical works sometimes written with a novelist’s skill, like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Although Difficult Men offers only fleeting fame and modest historical significance, it has more bombast and ego than one might expect of the disparate, flawed (and, yes, difficult), genius sociopaths who mined morally challenged protagonists into a new golden age of TV drama.

Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel by Jules Feiffer. A former cartoonist myself, I’ve loved Feiffer since his later days at the Village Voice, where he satirized human foibles in deep, funny pieces with a richness that belied his sketchy style. Aided by a twisty plot, his characters remain just as rich in this pulpy noir that’s both familiar and subversive.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I almost never go back to books I’ve already read — there aren’t enough days in an hour, after all. I’ve had this on my bookshelf since high school, when I was “into” the Grateful Dead and, um, “Kool-Aid.” It still bears my teenage scribbles — name and homeroom — on its yellowing inside cover, and part of my interest in revisiting this culture-defining freak-out is to recall that carefree teen who found the trippy antics of an earlier generation so intoxicating.

You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers. My father recently finished Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, which might just as well have been based on Dad’s own life as an architect facing the same frustrations in building projects in Saudi Arabia for the same elusive king. Dad enjoyed it immensely, and despite the difficulty in replicating that art-imitating-life experience, I wanted to give him another work by Eggers, whom I’ve serially enjoyed across A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is the What, and Zeitoun (while The Circle awaits on my iPad). But instead of giving him any of those, I selfishly bought him one I had not read so I could enjoy it myself on its return. And here it sits, waiting, with the others.

Ken Pisani writes for film and television. His debut novel, AMP’D, a Los Angeles Times Bestseller, was recently published by St. Martin’s Press; it presumably waits its turn on nightstands across America. Follow him on Twitter at @kpsmartypants.

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