Always on the cusp of a new year, we see lists of the “best of” with titles of books published or read or reviewed in the last twelve months. Cheryl and Eric Olsen have taken the idea of best of’s one step further. They’ve compiled an anthology of posts from their blog series, Books by the Bed. They’ve given readers a mega-list of 250 books, from classics to the contemporary, as recommended by 28 different authors.
I’m honored to host Cheryl and Eric today. While this is a longer post than usual it’s well worth your time. Not only will you read about their series and the book, but you’ll get a taste of the kinds of essays found in the anthology, as Cheryl and Eric discuss their own stack of books by the bed. Plus, there’s a giveaway (and who can resist a giveaway), which you’ll learn more about at the end of the interview.
Now, welcome Cheryl and Eric!
CC: I love the idea of authors sharing their current reads or favorite reads or books that settle them in for the evening, not only because I discover a list of must-reads but because these essays are like tiny impromptu book club meetings–full of insight into the magic that makes for a good story. What prompted you to begin this series on your blog, and what do you love most about it?
CHERYL: As soon as we started running the excerpts from We Wanted to Be Writers about the writers’ bedside reading, it became clear we were onto something. We’d hit a responsive chord with book lovers.
Of the hundreds we’ve run in the past four years, every author has commented on how fun the posts were to write. In addition to providing a constant source of great book recs, many read like compelling short stories or themed creative nonfiction, delightful on multiple levels. I especially love writers admiring each other’s craft and accomplishments. Fans maintain the pulse of a book’s success. But few joys are as pure and treasured as unsolicited praise from peers.
I love providing a forum for positivity in an arena that isn’t always supportive, especially for developing writers. I still invite contributors, but now I get queries as well. And it feels good to add to a creative writing student’s or other emerging wordsmith’s list of publications.
ERIC: We have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our living room, where we keep all the books I want our guests to think we read all the time, the “serious literature,” the Faulkner and Hemingway and Plath and all that sort of thing, even poetry, and the “classics” of course, the Greeks, plus lots of serious contemporary stuff, the sorts of novels that get reviewed in The New York Times and New Yorker. But speaking only for myself here, since Cheryl really does read serious literature (and all the time), I must admit I keep the stuff I really like to read by the bed, the murder mysteries and political thrillers and tales of skullduggery and betrayal, plus some scifi now and then, the stuff that would never, ever, in a million years, get reviewed in the likes of the New Yorker.
Thus when I was doing interviews for We Wanted to Be Writers, ever curious about what others are reading and cognizant of the fact that the books we keep by the bed can sometimes be more “intimate” or “revealing,” I started asking the writers I interviewed what books they had by the bed at that moment.
At the time, I asked just for the books. I included these “snapshots” as little boxes throughout the text: books by John Irving’s bed, for example, or books by Sandra Cisneros’ bed. The books by her bed at the time, by the way, included biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald and Jackie Kennedy’s cousin and aunt. “They seem like locas,” Sandra said, “but they’re women who’ve been ostracized, who couldn’t take care of their money and ended up poor. They’re made to look like eccentrics, but I see these fragile old women as being vulnerable and preyed upon. Hell, I could turn out like this!” John had by his bed at the time Robert Stone’s Fun With Problems, T. C. Boyle’s Wild Child, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires.
I probably had more nice comments about these lists than anything else. So, when we launched the website, we continued the feature but also invited the writers to tell us a bit about each book.
CC: One of my favorite essays in this book comes from Tom Titus, in which he writes, “My books are various explorations into the idea of Place, that little spot in the universe to which we have attached ourselves and connect with on all levels.” Connection. That’s what I think stories are for us, whether we read them or write them or simply talk about them. Which essay in this series speaks to you the most?
CHERYL: Choosing a favorite from the 30 guest posts in our second annual collection from the Books by the Bed series is a daunting task. They are, after all, the “Best Of” the series. But for sheer entertainment value and breadth of reading interest, I pick Kitty Sheehan’s contribution. An unabashed lover of all things New York, she starts with Mary Cantwell’s Manhattan Memoir, or as she describes it, “The Devil Wears Prada meets ‘Mad Men’.” Neil Young’s—yes, THAT Neil Young—Waging Heavy Peace also makes an enigmatic appearance, along with other unexpected fare, including Marilyn Johnson’s The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Kitty ends the literary romp with “a Joan Didion and a Nora Ephron. Isn’t that the rule?”
ERIC: I got something out of each essay, but Matt Debenham’s strikes a particular chord as he talks at some length about his interest in comics and graphic novels, and lists several authors of note. I’m presently working on a script that I have no illusions will ever make its way to film, but which could possibly form the basis of a graphic novel, or so l tell myself — I’ve been nagging my son to do the illustrations, as he’s a very good illustrator and has done the artwork for a couple graphic novels already. I’m not sure he finds the prospect of working on anything with the old man all that appealing, but I keep at him. Maybe someday. Anyway, I’ve been exploring some of the titles Matt lists and it’s been very helpful. Matt also talks about some books about writing, which I always enjoy learning about. Claire Lombardo’s thoughts on re-reading also spoke to me, as I’m also a re-reader.
CC: So, what books are on your bedside table?
ERIC: Speaking of re-reading, I have right now only one book by my side of the bed, Robert Harris’ The Ghostwriter. It was originally titled The Ghost, but when the book was made into a film titled “The Ghostwriter,” the publisher shrewdly reissued the book with the new title. During my career as a hack writer, I did a little ghostwriting myself, and so when Harris’ novel came out in 2007, I grabbed a copy and read it at once. It’s a good story, though I found it a little short on the sex and violence.
The story involves a British writer ghosting the memoir of a now-out-of-office prime minister, Adam Lang, a very thinly disguised Tony Blair (in the movie played by Pierce Brosnan, who brings a nice creepiness to the role). The tension in the story circles around accusations that Lang, who while in office post-9/11 had been sucking up to the criminal organization known as the Bush presidency, had committed crimes against humanity by ordering the abduction, imprisonment, and torture of British citizens believed to be part of Al Qaeda — see, I told you he was a thinly disguised Tony Blair….
Anyway, the other day I was channel surfing and stumbled on a showing of “The Ghostwriter” and watched a few minutes, long enough to remember that I had a copy of the book. So that night I started reading it again, in part I think because of the recent report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s crimes against humanity, much in the news right now, and the horror I feel realizing that still another Bush could end up in the White House. Suddenly, Harris’ story seems very au courant (and please do excuse that bit of French, but I was just reading the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, also by my bed, and something seems to have rubbed off).
CHERYL: Full disclosure: the cover of Best of Books by the Bed #2 was shot in our bedroom; it didn’t take much to stage the stacks—the books were already there. Most of the titles rotate regularly, but a few are constant because whether or not I dip back into them, just their physical presence is comforting or inspirational or emotionally satisfying. Oregon writer Kate Gray’s Carry the Sky is at the top of the permanents. This debut novel wowed me in unexpected ways and continues to impress months after my initial reading. Vivid characters abound and the two young teachers who narrate are GOOD and flawed and unique and achingly needy as they deal with bullying, racism, homophobia, and other big topics without a hint of pathos. The language is exquisite, the imagery lyrical. I think this is an important book and I hope it finds the audience it deserves.
I never would have selected The Gods of Second Chances on my own; it, like Carry the Sky, was sent to me by Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press (an imprint I now wholeheartedly endorse!). Dan Berne’s saga of an Alaskan fisherman raising his granddaughter while her druggie mother serves her prison term drips with authenticity—and fog and rain and hail and sleet and . . . nails setting big time.
Now I See You, Nicole C. Kear’s startling memoir about adjusting to a degenerative retinal disease diagnosis at 19 that would render her blind by the time she was the mother of young children is simultaneously devastating and hilarious. It takes readers into uncharted territory with snark and profanity, self-deprecation, tenderness, and wisdom.
The Age of Desire, The French House, and Off Course are always nearby as reminders that more years of writing can translate into richer perspectives with no loss of energy. The respective authors, Jennie Fields, Don Wallace, and Michelle Huneven are friends and former classmates for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration.
Have You Seen Marie? is the latest by another friend and classmate, Sandra Cisneros. It’s a beautifully illustrated little book for adults about a missing cat (and of course much more) written to help Sandra come to terms with her mother’s death, select excerpts sent when my mom died. It’s a blazing testament to the power of words.
Another small book that spoke volumes at the right time is Susan Tepper’s From the Umberplatzen a novel in 48 flash fiction segments. It convinced me to continue writing the short short stories I find so intriguing.
I met Fred Setterberg online. We went to one of his readings, discovered we’re practically neighbors, and that he and Eric share an astounding number of similarities in background and childhood experience. His Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel chronicles with insight and humor a transitional period in California history that shaped us in immutable ways.
David Corbett is a dynamite crime writer neighbor-cum-friend whose latest—The Art of Character—should be on every fictionist’s reference shelf.
Until recently, I hadn’t read much poetry. Since starting ARCology, a series to introduce new releases that might otherwise take readers much longer to discover, I’ve received a steady stream of poetry collections from small presses. One of my favorites is Terri Kirby Erickson’s A Lake of Light and Clouds, a wonderful quirky assortment of everyday subjects rendered extraordinary. It serves as an instruction manual for improving one’s visual acuity. And mood.
To win a copy of Best of Books by the Bed #2 (courtesy of Cheryl and Eric), simply drop your name in the comments below. The giveaway runs until Tuesday, January 6th, noon. To read more about the book and purchase your own copy, click here.