Bedtime Stories: May 2022
- May 18, 2022
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 he said.
James Tate Hill:
Vladimir: A Novel by Julia May Jonas. I devoured this debut novel about a conflicted English professor in a few days, vowing to preorder whatever the author writes next. The narrator isn’t the professor facing a Title IX hearing for a long history of affairs with students, but his wife, whose role in and reaction to her husband’s behavior is the definition of complicated. Her attraction to the department’s new hire, the titular Vladimir, doesn’t go where a less surprising novel would go. The plot is addictive, but so is the voice and prose, simultaneously wild and precise. In Jonas’ hands, salads and furniture are as fascinating as sex.
In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom. Published earlier this year, this transfixing memoir might already be among the books I’ve recommended most frequently. Bloom, a celebrated fiction writer, recounts the decision of her husband to end his life after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in his late 60s. The narrative weaves their 15-year marriage with the months before and after the diagnosis, culminating with their trip to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is less complicated than in America, which isn’t to say uncomplicated. It’s a heartbreaking journey, as one would expect, but it’s such a vital book for its honesty, humor, and small moments and details magnified by their context.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. As often and as passionately as friends have referenced this essay collection, I was shocked to learn it only came out in 2020. I am happy to join them all on the other side of fandom. What a gorgeous, expansive book this is despite — or more likely because of — its brevity and conciseness. Each brief essay takes as its lens an element of nature, flora or fauna, and uses it to explore the author’s identity, childhood, and relationships with so much nuance and surprise. This book will inspire you to write, and I can’t wait to use it in the classroom.
The Orchard: A Novel by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry. As a child of the 1980s, I couldn’t wait to read this novel about four friends in the Soviet Union during the last years of Perestroika. As the title suggests, it’s inspired by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and the author, who moved to America in the 1990s, writes so gorgeously in English, her second language. The story centers on Anya and Milka, best friends and sexually curious teenagers. (To paraphrase Milka, sex is the only fun one is allowed to have under communism.) The characters also have a lot to say about the history and future of their country, and the book offers timely insights on contemporary Russia. This story will resonate with anyone who has a complicated relationship with their home.
Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory by Sarah Polley. As soon as I learned Sarah Polley had written a book, I preordered it without reading the description. I know Polley primarily as the director of “Away from Her” and “Take This Waltz,” and the filmmaker of the stunning documentary “Stories We Tell,” but many remember her as the child star of “Ramona” and “Road to Avonlea.” The journey from child to child actor to director to mother gives the book its shape, but like the best essayists, Polley takes intricate, illuminating detours. And like her films, Run Towards the Danger explores the unreliability of memory and reinvention, accidental and purposeful. It’s a beautiful collection, carefully put together, that won’t disappoint fans of Polley or the personal essay.
Out of the Corner: A Memoir by Jennifer Grey. I have a profound weakness for celebrity memoirs, and though I refuse to refer to any pleasure derived from books as guilty, some titles in this genre can feel like empty calories. Jennifer Grey’s Out of the Corner is not one of those titles. The star of “Dirty Dancing” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” begins the book with the infamous nose job she didn’t want, which many blame for derailing her career. She has plenty to say about body image, fame, and growing up the daughter of a beloved actor — the Oscar winner Joel Grey of “Cabaret.” Grey’s narration of the audiobook adds layers of humor and verve to the text, and in her delivery, you can hear, unlike with some celebrity memoirs, that this is absolutely her voice on the page.
James Tate Hill is the author of a memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff (W.W. Norton), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a Washington Independent Review of Books Favorite Book of 2021. Best American Essays has chosen two of his works as “Notable,” and he won the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel for Academy Gothic. He serves as fiction editor for Monkeybicycle and as a contributing editor at Literary Hub, where he writes an audiobooks column.