Bedtime Stories: October 2021

  • October 26, 2021

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.

Farah Ali:

Nine Shiny Objects by Brian Castleberry. I was drawn to this book for so many reasons: seekers; unidentified flying objects; history. It is a book about a wide cast of people at different intervals in time. They are all connected to each other directly or indirectly. Older characters appear in successive stories, and the whole effect is that of looking at a large tapestry containing scenes joined by thin threads.

They all want the same thing: a utopian existence. As the stories progressed, I felt like the people in them — chasing this idea which felt increasingly nebulous. Two things became apparent: It is hard to stop believing that at the end of a long struggle there isn’t a tangible reward, the realization of the dream; and that all seekers, in essence, are also escapists.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut; translated by Adrian Nathan West. History, science, obsessive seeking, fiction — there is no one way to talk about this work by Labatut. The quickest and easiest description that comes to my mind about this phenomenon of a book is that, like the electron, which defies a neat definition, it portrays the set of characteristics that the reader needs to see. That can mean whatever you want it to.

In an interview, Labatut said some extremely profound things: that fiction is needed to give context to the laws and discoveries that science declares. That, without fiction, it’s all meaningless. Is that what drove the mathematicians and physicists in this book? A search for meaning, an innate search for God? A singularity that would unify all the theories and present a tangible whole? And then what?

We don’t yet know the answer to “and then what” because those who came close to that moment when clarity began to burn inside them stopped and withdrew; some would say they went mad. Maybe one has to court madness to obsessively look for the ultimate solution, especially if one holds enough keys to it.

It’s worth mentioning that the Spanish title of this book is Un Verdor Terrible, roughly, “A Terrible Greening.” In the last section of the book, the “night gardener” tells the narrator about the terrible, monstrous way that citrus trees die: “Their fruits ripen all at once, whole limbs break off due to their excessive weight, and after a few weeks the ground is covered with rotting lemons. It is a strange sight, he said, to see such exuberance before death.”

The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish; translated by Fady Joudah. I have two books of Darwish’s poems on my table. One is in Arabic. Whenever I read it, it is the ultimate escape: I stay with the words until I think I understand them. Arabic isn’t my mother tongue; I learned it many years ago, and some of the grammar has become rusty. When I immerse myself in this slim, untranslated volume, everything else ceases and, for a while, there is just the voice of Darwish in my head saying the poem in his deep, gravelly voice.

The second one, The Butterfly’s Burden, has been translated by Fady Joudah. Here, the Arabic and the English face each other; I cross over into a more familiar language to sense Darwish’s questioning, longing, anger, distractions. Naomi Shihab Nye said of the author and this work: “Mahmoud Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart. What he speaks has been embraced by readers around the world — his in an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.”

[Editor’s note: Farah Ali will discuss her new story collection, People Want to Live, with Fargo Nissim Tbakhi at Lost City Books in Washington, DC, on Fri., Oct. 29th, at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more info.]

Farah Ali is from Pakistan. Her work won a 2020 Pushcart Prize as well as received special mention in the 2018 Pushcart anthology. Her stories have appeared in Shenandoah, the Arkansas International, the Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Copper Nickel, Ecotone, the Colorado Review, and elsewhere. People Want to Live (McSweeney’s) is her first collection.

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