Bedtime Stories: March 2016

  • March 29, 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: March 2016

Kathryn Aalto:

Over this last fall and winter, I spent three months in the U.S. giving lectures and promoting my latest book, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood. You can probably imagine how moving from hotel to hotel, flying out at 5 a.m., and giving lectures in different cities nearly every day was exhausting. It's such a relief to sleep in my own bed again and return to the bookish friends on my nightstand. 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Novels and essays in which people experience the landscape on foot interests me. Walking landscapes is one of my obsessions as a writer. It's also a big part of how I spend my time. The most recent addition to my nightstand, this novel should be at the bottom of my pile. Instead, it's on the top. The story involves a man who leaves his wife hoovering her house and embarks on an unexpected walk across the country. It came to me via a woman I met in Boston at one of my events. I could see she was engaged in what I was saying about walking in England and how it led to writing The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh. A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, had great freedom as a child in the natural world and was a lifelong walker. 

The Outermost House by Henry Beston. I first read Beston's book, a chronicle of a season on Cape Cod, 20 years ago. It's one of those classics which has never left me. I like to pick it up and read bits when I need to recalibrate my mind around my own writing. I consider myself an essayist and nature writer, and his strong command of language with a talent for telling detail and vivid sensory impressions reminds me how to do it right. You may be familiar with his oft-quoted, "Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science." 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; illustrated by Inga Moore. A book I greatly love and read over and over to my three children. Heavy in nostalgia with the pastoral England as the setting, the tales of the anthropomorphized animals are so endearing. There's good-natured Mole, with his Italianate garden; Rat, who loves leisurely river life; Toad, who is spoiled and obsessive and prone to crazes; and Badger, the wise hermit who hates society. I'm particularly fond of the atmospheric realism of the edition illustrated by Inga Moore. It's a book for impromptu snuggles before bedtime, and the teenagers still adore it. 

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. If your book was #7 in Travel on the New York Times Bestseller List, you would want to read the #1 book. I've read four Bryson books and have only just started this one. It's a hoot. I laughed seven times before I was on page four, which is problematic while drinking ale in a pub full of strangers. I'm studying the way Bryson crafts his writing and approaches his subjects as my next book or two will be about expat life in England from a different perspective. The backstory: My family left our 20-acre home in the Pacific Northwest nearly a decade ago. My partner got his dream job, I got an ulcer, and our children got English accents. We thought we would like to live a chapter of our lives abroad. It sounds idyllic, but was totally excruciating. I'd left my farm, family, friends, job, community, nation, and culture. I couldn't understand half of what Devonians were even saying. Miraculously, I stumbled upon a book on walking public footpaths. Before the jet lag wore off, we had clocked in about 20 miles. And those adventures have continued. 

The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and Human Imagination by Richard Mabey. I met British naturalist Richard Mabey at the Garden Museum's Literary Festival last October, where we were both giving readings. This is the first book I've read of this natural philosopher who is considered one of the most prolific nature writers today. I've known he is skilled at weaving human and plant history, and look forward to beginning this one.

Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of The Natural History of Selborne by Richard Mabey. A perfect book for an upcoming speaking engagement I have at the Gilbert White House in Selborne. A pioneering ecologist, White is considered the father of nature writing, and his observations of swifts at his home in Selborne are seminal. His The Natural History of Selborne was in Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, as well as on Darwin's bookcase aboard The Beagle.

Kathryn Aalto is an American landscape historian, designer, teacher, and writer living in Exeter, England. For the past 25 years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. She is the author of two books, including the New York Times bestselling The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015) — a People Magazine Book of the Week and featured on National Public Radio — as well as Nature and Human Intervention (2011). As a writer, she has a special interest in the geography of childhood and literary landscapes. Reviews of her latest book appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. She speaks to libraries, historical societies, schools, and garden and civic clubs around the world on the natural history of Ashdown Forest, nature writing, and garden design.

Sarah L. Kaufman:

Life is precious, as my current reads remind me. Maybe that’s the task of every book. Or maybe it’s just what I’m seeking now, as the season of cat-shedding and show openings sweeps in with a new to-do list. The books stacked up beside me address the mess and promise of existence, and keep me happily procrastinating.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m devouring this novel by the German writer hailed as one of Europe’s brightest literary lights. Erpenbeck writes with a light, sensitive touch while she conducts a fantastic experiment: imagining how a woman’s death would affect those around her if it happened at different points in her life. What if she died in infancy? How would her family cope? What if, by the randomness of chance, she dodged that early danger only to perish later in childhood, or as a young adult? There’s an irresistible tension at work here between the tenderness of Erpenbeck’s voice and the cruelties of fate she devises. There’s also unflinching honesty, and that’s the real pull. When my daughter was a toddler, I watched in helpless terror as she fell from a boardwalk some 10 or 12 feet onto the sand below. She landed unharmed, but the thought of what might have been still haunts me. Reading The End of Days, I feel the author is spinning my own story forward.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner. Delving into our primate past for my recent book, The Art of Grace, was so much fun, I’m eager to sink into this acclaimed account of scientists studying Galapagos finches as they struggle to survive. I’m also aiming to head off a heartbreak. Every spring, wrens move into our birdhouse and raise darling little fluffballs that fly away just as soon as we fall in love with them. I’m hoping a philosophical perspective might make the whole routine hurt less this year.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. I’m a former copy editor, though “former” is imprecise; you never truly get that kind of passion out of your system. Having flipped through a few pages of this tribute to grammar obsessives, I’m looking forward to a nice long cuddle. Norris, a New Yorker copy editor, writes like a good friend: “Nobody knows everything — one of the pleasures of language is that there is always something new to learn — and everybody makes mistakes.” (Guilty. I’d rather rewrite than wrestle with who or whom.) She’s also got an entire chapter on obscenities, which I turned to first.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. Because there’s no sating my appetite for outsider lit.

Sarah L. Kaufman is author of The Art of Grace, a celebration of the essential virtue of grace and an exploration of how it leads to connection and fulfillment. She is also the Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic of the Washington Post, where she has written on the arts, sports, and culture for more than 20 years. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @SarahLKaufman, and read more about her at

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