Bedtime Stories: December 2014

  • December 11, 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: December 2014

Davar Ardalan:

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi. I first met Azar Nafisi in April of 1995 when listening back to audio interviews NPR reporter Jacki Lyden recorded in Iran. That was before Nafisi's bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Listeners heard Nafisi in a university classroom, challenging her students to think critically through the subtle subversion of writers Jane Austen and Vladimir Nabokov. Nafisi believed that imagination is the most radical tool in any culture, allowing one to be self-reflective and self-critical. You can see why I was so excited to pick up her latest book, The Republic of Imagination. Here, Nafisi chooses three American novels as the focal point in her argument that American students need to be encouraged to read more fiction. Nafisi argues that America's Founding Fathers deemed literary fiction essential and that recent cutbacks in arts education, and the Common Core standards in particular, are leaving American students less prepared to think critically. Through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Nafisi says new generations of readers need to discover these characters and "give them a new life." Challenging our modern ways and technological progress, Nafisi wonders if we are inviting less thinking and less confrontation with real pain and more narcissism and self-indulgence. Bravo to Nafisi. If I could only convince my kids to put their iPhones away for a weekend and give them a novel instead.

The Lonely War by Nazila Fathi. Nazila Fathi's journey to journalism began in 1992 when New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino gave Nazila her first reporter's notebook. At NPR, we turned to Fathi for information on the devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran, in 2003 that killed up to 5,000 people and toppled a 2,000 year-old fortress, and for news on Tehran's willingness to allow UN inspectors to visit a high-security military site in 2005. Now living in the U.S., Fathi has published her first book, The Lonely War. She tells her story of witnessing the Iranian revolution at the age of 9, covering the Islamic Republic as a young journalist, having to flee the country in 2009, and leaving behind the moderates who Fathi believes are the future of Iran and worthy of engagement. Emphasizing the role women have played in keeping civic society and human rights on the front page, Fathi argues that technology has evolved faster than repression, and that the youth and middle class of Iran, although cautious and weary, are a rising tide subtly standing up for social and cultural liberties.

The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. by Gina B. Nahai. Gina Nahai is known for her rich storytelling in between her Iranian-Jewish heritage and her life in Los Angeles after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Her previous novels include Cry of the Peacock and Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith. In January 2002, we interviewed Gina on NPR's “Weekend Edition” for her novel Sunday's Silence, exploring the divergent worlds of snake handlers in Appalachia and Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East. Her latest novel, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., is an intriguing murder-mystery journey anchored within the Iranian-Jewish community of Los Angeles. Vivid and raw, Nahai's narrative reveals the pain and potential of exile when you realize your family name "isn't worth the paper it's written on," but see the relentless energy in your kids when they tell you America is the land of second chances. Nahai's characters mirror the diversity in the Iranian diaspora, where vanity and wealth mingle with hard work and social grace. Through the Solyeman family, Nahai masterfully introduces us to the mythical and mundane layers that make up Iranian-American identity.

Davar Ardalan is a veteran senior producer at NPR News and a deft social-media strategist.

Dylan Landis:

I just finished and relished:

No Stopping Train by Les Plesko. Hungary 1956: This magnetic book is about a love triangle that can't be tugged apart at any of its corners, not by internal forces of jealousy or by external forces of political brutality. A month later, I'm still living inside this novel.

The Days of Abandonment, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, all by Elena Ferrante. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The writer has apparently said that a book has to stand on its own, without publicity. Her work, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is an exquisitely detailed, frank exploration of marriage, adultery, and the complex, inextricable bonds between women, and it's impossible to stop reading her once you start.

I’m now reading and savoring:

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. "You wait at the bar of the restaurant for a friend, and a man, wanting to make conversation, nursing something, takes out his phone to show you a picture of his wife. You say, bridge that she is, that she is beautiful. She is, he says, beautiful and black, like you."

Euphoria by Lily King. "'She had the body of a tart. Nothing like my mother's. Full breasts, narrow waist, hips made for a man's hands. I had the horrible suspicion that my brothers and I had created that body, that if we had not done what we had done she wouldn't have developed the way she did.' His voice was so low I could barely make the words. 'Christ, that farm was out in the middle of fucking nowhere.'" 

Flings by Justin Taylor. "I pulled to the shoulder, shut the car off, got Mazie unbuckled, stood leaning against the car, holding her tight in my arms, her head on my shoulder and both of us dumbstruck staring at all these birds swooping and maneuvering, sometimes descending back into the branches but never letting more than a few seconds pass before they rose up again, and always together, all as one."

The Infernal by Mark Doten (galleys). "new [sic] blood helper boy is laid out on a plywood table, hairline striped with granulated brown blood at the strap binding his head to the table. The right arm of his gown has been cut away, revealing a narrow metallic spiral from elbow to shoulder."

Let Me See It by James Magruder. "She uncrossed her arms and, still hugging the doorway, said, 'You think sorrow is original to you, Tom?' Before he could manage a response to this curious question, his mother was making a blasting, nasal sound, a prolonged, undulant cry more piercing than a whistle."

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora (galleys). "John meets the woman's eyes again, the crystalline irises with nothing in them but confidence in the universe. He feels nearly dead in comparison, more exhausted by the moment, as if he were being depleted by her presence."

To be read:

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow. I love the first sentence: "They never found his hands."

The Perfect Mother by Nina Darnton. I'm drawn to mother-daughter books with a dark underside.

Dylan Landis is author of Rainey Royal, a novel, and Normal People Don't Live Like This, a linked-story collection.

René Steinke:

The Trace by Forrest Gander. I’ve been reading a lot of books set in Texas lately, and I’m halfway through this novel, a lush, gritty story about a road trip through Texas and Mexico that retraces the steps of the American writer Ambrose Bierce. Forrest Gander is a poet I admire, and his prose is just as inventive, just as much a pleasure to read as his poetry. Here’s a sample: “Dale walked outside and around the side of the building to a rusty orange door. He opened it, and daylight surged onto a grimy bathroom floor trembling with hundreds and hundreds of daddy longlegs. None of them scurried away. It was as though there were some kind of electric current coming up through the floor and locking them in place. They quivered there en masse, like the entranced members of a horrific cult.”

Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke. We have an unusual last name, and many people think Darcey is my sister, but she’s actually my cousin. I’m a big admirer of her work, especially the radiant details in her prose. The new novel has been called a coming-of-age story, and while it is that for sure (a kind of prequel to her earlier Suicide Blonde), it’s also a story about faith, female friendship, and the malaise of the 1970s. It’s a treat to read this novel, especially after talking to Darcey about the writing of it over the years. I love the moment when Jesse imagines a horn growing out of her head as an alternative to developing breasts.

The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman. I’m absorbed by this fascinating and poignant memoir about parenting, the brain, language, families, and love. A serious reader and teacher of Wordsworth (and other Romantic poets), Gilman reflects upon her experience raising her oldest son, Benjamin, who is both precocious and challenged by a developmental disorder. Gilman takes motherhood seriously, not only in her devotion to her sons, but also in the intellectual energy she brings to her consideration of what motherhood means. So few books do this — it’s thrilling to see Gilman’s reflections on Wordsworth’s vision entwined with her ideas about raising a child. A very unique book.

Wonderkid by Wesley Stace. I just finished reading this really charming, witty novel about a boy coming of age while on the road with a “kiddie rock” band (Blake Lear, the leader, is a devotee of the nonsense poetry of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear). Stace is a music-world insider (a singer-songwriter who has recorded under his own name and under the name John Wesley Harding). These scenes — backstage, on the tour bus, onstage — are very funny, but also alive with the texture of authentic detail. There’s a palpable sense of the band as an alternate family, with its own tensions and emotional systems — a story unfolding behind the scenes of the performances. By the end, we see how the experience of the band shapes the members’ personalities and futures, and I found that surprisingly touching.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I just finished teaching this novel in my modern literature class. I read it again every year or so, and it’s the mark of a great novel that I always find new things to admire in it. Nightwood might be the most original (and pleasantly baffling) book I’ve ever read, more like an extended, feverish prose poem than a conventional story. As the title suggests, reading Nightwood can feel like making your way through the woods in the dark — the prose is meditative, dark, absurd, and occasionally frightening. The story circles around an obsessive love affair, but it also wrangles with themes of religion, politics, and gender. I’m also fascinated by this novel because Djuna Barnes was the best friend of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (the main character in my last novel, Holy Skirts), and there seem to be echoes of the baroness all over this book. I have many favorite lines from Nightwood, but today, it’s this one: “I tell you, Madame, if one gave birth to a heart on a plate, it would say ‘Love’ and twitch like the lopped leg of a frog.”

René Steinke’s most recent novel is Friendswood. She is also author of Holy Skirts (a National Book Award finalist) and The Fires. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Vogue, O Magazine, Bookforum, and Triquarterly. She is director of the MFA Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University and editor-at-large at the Literary Review. She lives in Brooklyn.

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