Bedtime Stories: November 2014

  • November 6, 2014

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked a few of them, and here’s what they said.

Bedtime Stories: November 2014

Chris Bohjalian:

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. I’m a big fan of Amis, especially such masterpieces as Time’s Arrow and The Information, and I am finding this one jaw-droppingly good — even by the very high bar I set for Amis. His return to Auschwitz is wrenching, a portrayal of hell that is haunting and human and…absurd. A devastating glimpse into vapidity and evil and one very randy Nazi’s attempts to seduce the commandant’s wife.

Armenian Kesaria/Kayseri and Cappadocia, edited by Richard Hovannisian. This book was a gift from my friend Khatchig Mouradian, a Genocide and Holocaust scholar. He gave it to me because we had just learned that my Armenian great-grandfather was a renowned 19th-century troubadour and poet from Kayseri.

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck. This one’s a galley that will be published next May. I like Robuck’s work a lot — and I’m a fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, I’m looking forward to this novel immensely.

Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of 17 books, including nine New York Times bestsellers. His work has been translated into over 25 languages and three times become movies. His novels have also been named Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon. His most recent novel is Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Bohjalian lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

Tayla Burney:

My stack of books has outgrown my nightstand, so instead it’s housed on the hearth of the non-working fireplace in my living room (in addition to a virtual iteration on Goodreads). The odds I’ll get through the tottering piles there soon might be low, but they’re good for hiding dust bunnies in the meantime.

A few of the titles that recently made it into the “finished” column include a pair of novels I might not have normally have picked up. Fiction about World War II doesn’t usually draw me in, but the fact that All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr had a plot centered on radio piqued my interest and made me pick it up, and I’m so glad. The story of two young children caught up in the turmoil of war is tightly wound, with short chapters and swift pacing that build the sense of urgency underlying the plot. The characters are richly drawn, and it's a fascinating story of choice, duty, and the nature of love in a time of war.

Second is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, who I had a chance to hear about — and from — at BEA this year. Normally, post-apocalyptic-dystopian-future-type stuff isn’t my bag, but Mandel’s talk about her troupe of Shakespearean actors and musicians making their way through North America after a fast-moving virus ravages the world’s population made me curious — a curiosity furthered by her thoughtful comments on what we can learn from our world by considering what might happen to it when many of us are gone. It’s a haunting novel, made all the more eerie by recent headlines.

In the realm of nonfiction, it’s a little embarrassing to admit it took me this long to get to it, but I recently read Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. It’s alarming, thorough, and heartbreaking. (And if you’ve not read Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, do, because it’s concrete proof that truth is often stranger than fiction.)

Back to fiction. I’m stingy with my five-star reviews on Goodreads. If you’re not Dickens, Austen, or Harper Lee (or Anthony Marra or Simon Doonan), good luck. But Neverhome by Laird Hunt was such an achingly beautiful book that it earned every star and then some. With spare prose, Hunt manages to create bold characters whose experience of the Civil War does not hew to the familiar.

Finally, Faithful Place wound up in my hands because when I went to retrieve the copy of Tana French’s latest novel, The Secret Place, I had on hold at the library, someone had absconded with it. In the mood for a good mystery (raised on Nancy Drew, I often am), I picked up French’s earlier novel and am glad I did. Rare is the mystery writer capable of creating not just an immensely readable novel, but one interwoven with a compelling and raw family drama. It’s also so very evocative of Dublin that you feel you know the place better for having read it, and I love fiction that gives the sense of actually experiencing a place. (I’m also a fan of Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, which does the same for Sweden with a lighter touch.)

Now we’re caught up to what I’m currently reading:

The Secret Place, because the second time’s the charm. Imagine “Mean Girls” as a gritty mystery set in Ireland. By which I mean it’s glorious.

And one collection that has taken up residence on my actual nightstand is The Complete Sherlock Holmes. If I’m into something too heavy for pre-slumber reading (or, more likely, have left whatever I’m reading downstairs), I’ll spend some time with Holmes & Watson, which is always a good time.

Up next, I just got my hands on The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel, a brilliant writer whose long-form work in the “Thomas Cromwell” trilogy I’ve really enjoyed. Short stories are one of my favorite formats (Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove are standouts), so I’m looking forward to Mantel’s collection.

Atop one pile is How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, whose advice is terribly useful. This slim volume has been on my list for a while now and, yes, there’s irony to be found in the length of this list and this volume’s inclusion on it.

Topping another stack is Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest because fashion is fascinating — I’m a believer in the notion that clothes tell you a lot about someone — and the stories of people who create and design it intrigue me. Schiaparelli came to the attention of many with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Spring 2012 Costume Institute exhibition, “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” and I’m eager to learn more about her in this bio, which happens to be by a DC resident. 

And given the dreary news cycle we’ve been mired in, it’s been too long since Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling’s books made me laugh so hard I alarmed fellow Metro riders, so I’m looking forward to Yes Please by Amy Poehler. She’s among the women continually proving they’re just as funny as (dare I say funnier than) men, thank you very much.

Finally, I am so excited for the “Olive Kitteridge” miniseries coming to HBO that rereading the novel by Elizabeth Strout may become a priority. Frances McDormand is so good, there’s hope this might be a rare case in which the screen version is as good as the book.

So, now that I’ve shared my reading pile with you, find me on Twitter at @taylakaye and tell me what you’re reading!

Tayla Burney is a producer and de-facto book editor for “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” a live magazine program that highlights news, political issues, and social trends of the day, on WAMU 88.5 FM in Washington, DC.

Paula Whyman:

In recent weeks, the term “tsundoku” has been making its way around the internet. Tsundoku is an informal Japanese word for a person who lets books pile up everywhere, but doesn’t read them. Basically, a book hoarder. I’d like to know the word for a person who lets books pile up everywhere, but ends up reading most of them eventually. Because that would be me.

Or at least, there’s still time.

I’m supposed to include on this list the books that are by my bedside. But, in fact, there are stacks of reading matter (books and journals) in every possible place where I might decide to read something: the kitchen, the den, the bedroom, the office, the bathroom…the car…my handbag… I like to think this is because there are so many great books to be read.

Or perhaps it’s just a cry for help.

At the moment, because I’m writing a novel, I’m reading short story collections primarily. When I’m writing stories, I tend to read novels. I hope that makes sense to someone.

Here are the collections I’m reading now, along with those I plan to read next, and those I find myself rereading frequently, plus sample lines from each book.

Reading now:

The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant. “In the back yard is a makeshift cage, an oval of chain-link with a chicken-wire roof. Inside the alligator straddles an old kiddie pool” (from “Lizard Man”).

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. “She holds the Barbie gently, almost tenderly, at the waist with two fingers and lights the Bic under the long yellow hair” (from “I Know What Makes You Come Alive”).

Reading next:

By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente. “Sasha’s birthday fell on a Wednesday, and though her parents gave her a present, its string and paper meant to be torn away at once, almost ten days have passed and still she has not opened it” (from “Latchkey”).

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook. “They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and smell his clothes” (from “Moving On”).

Rereading into perpetuity:

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. “As the doctor who diagnosed her now fully remissioned cancer once said to her, ‘The only way to know absolutely everything in life is via an autopsy’” (from “Real Estate”).

All Things All at Once by Lee K. Abbott. “She was Betty Porter, a being as much of magic as of muscle, and I who I ever am — Heath ‘Pokey’ Howell (Junior), banker, Luna County commissioner and, as events will prove, the dimmest of sinners, male type” (from “Ninety Nights on Mercury”).

Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones. “Cassandra embraced Joyce, took Joyce’s blouse in two fingers, shook it and wanted to know why she wasn’t showing at two months ‘like all the other cows’” (from “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed”).

“The Man Who Loved Islands” by D.H. Lawrence. (I often reread this particular story as it appears in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by A.S. Byatt.) “There was a man who loved islands. He was born on one, but it didn't suit him, as there were too many other people on it, besides himself. He wanted an island all of his own: not necessarily to be alone on it, but to make it a world of his own.”

Each story in each of these books is a world of its own, an island where you can reside, briefly, if you choose. I recommend the experience.

Paula Whyman's fiction is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Quarterly, and has appeared in journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, Five Chapters, Gargoyle, the Gettysburg Review, and Writes of Passage: Coming-of-Age Stories and Memoirs from the Hudson Review. Paula has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, VCCA, and the Studios of Key West, and she was named a 2014 Tennessee Williams Scholar in Fiction by the Sewanee Writers' Conference. She lives in the Washington, DC, area, where she is working on a novel.

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