Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization. A longtime journalist and freelance writer, she has published in Utne Reader; Brain, Child; Youth Today; Salon; and other journals. A former editor at Harvard Business Review, she’s currently a contributing editor at Women’s Review of Books. She teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School.
Which pile would you like to hear about? Pinning down the books stacked on and under my nightstand, on the floor beside the shelves near my bed, and on the table beside my favorite reading chair is like capturing a single sequence of thoughts cantering through my mind. Impossible. Hilarious.
But here I am, anyway, attempting an ode to my current state of being. Many of the books in my piles remain unread or partly read. The stack on my nightstand is typical; I’ve listed the titles below in order, from top to bottom.
The one on the top has spent almost a month there, but oh, how I love the glossy cover: a green vista of a British estate with three foreground figures fashionably dressed in black—two men and a woman in the middle who’s holding the hand of the chap on her left, evoking everything and nothing about the story revealed in…
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst: I just finished this paperback edition of a 2011 novel—and loved it. How have I missed Hollinghurst up to now? A few years ago, I meant to read his Booker-winning The Line of Beauty, but it fell off my mental stacks. Now I’ll read it, because Hollinghurst is something like a latter-day Forster, one of my very favorite novelists. The Stranger’s Child is a conscious nod to Howards End and Maurice, especially the latter’s exploration of gay relationships in ye olde England. That’s a theme in this novel by Hollinghurst, too. But I also thoroughly enjoyed his exploration of the way people’s stories shift and change over time—and how attempts to write “The Life” of a well-known poet can founder in a biographer’s hands yet brush against larger existential truths.
Sacred by Dennis Lehane: A 1997 genre mystery in Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie series. In truth, I might have read it way back when, but that didn’t stop me from picking up this paperback copy for 50 cents at a school book sale. Sometimes, I just need a good page-turning mystery, and I bet this one is good. A piece of advice: If you ever follow someone in my neighborhood, don’t wear pink. That opening hooked me. As of two months ago, however, I haven’t read past page 6.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: The pretty trade paperback edition of this 2004 novel—all those lovely shots of clouds, like something from a meteorologist’s commonplace book—has been on my nightstand at various points for years. Every well-intentioned literary reader in my life has insisted that I just have to read it. I’ve never gotten far, but I hauled it out again last fall after seeing the movie of Cloud Atlas, which was unexpectedly great and wacky. I figured, “What the heck, don’t be a prole, Martha.” This time I made it through the first section, which ends in mid-sentence. But you know what? I hate things that end in mid-sentence. Hollinghurst’s novel, which also skips forward in time and between characters, maintains the backbone of a social novel. “Only connect.” That’s me.
The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson: Another title I’ve been meaning to read for ages—this one nonfiction and also originally published in 2004. It documents the ”lobstering community” on the Maine island near Acadia National Park where my family and I have summered for a couple of decades. My husband tells me that a number of the subjects in the book are folks we’ve met. Still, the blurb on the paperback’s front cover—How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean—has yet to trap me.
Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam: One of a series of novels I’ve tried this past year that are riffs on classics. (The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey is another.) I have yet to finish Gardam’s erudite spin on novels with faux autobiographical narrators. I’ll get back to it, I think. The opening lines of her preface are what convinced me, while trolling through an airport bookstore, to buy Crusoe’s Daughter: “This, by far the favourite of all my books, was written thirty years ago after the run of short novels I had rushed off in joyous release but a bit of a sense of sin, the minute the last of my children had gone to school.”
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Here’s a genuine classic that I bought in a mass paperback edition while hanging out with my son in a local Barnes & Noble. As it happened, I’d just read the first chapter of Gemma Hardy in the library, not understanding at first that this contemporary novel is a retelling of Jane Eyre but thinking, “Huh! Where have I read this scene before?” I connected the dots eventually, and I did finish Gemma Hardy on my Kindle—but only after I’d reread most of Jane Eyre, which, truly, is tough to improve.
So, one pile of books down. Still, I have to mention a last title that rests in a special place of honor behind my reading lamp:
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien: I’m reading the series aloud with my son (we finished The Hobbit this past summer). Decades ago, it was my Harry Potter. Now, my son is taken with the epic tale, although I think the narrative pacing feels like a dawdle for a kid of his generation. Reading it aloud helps. I believe he recognizes the ritual nature of it, too, because we’re reading my dad’s 1960s paperback edition with the psychedelic cover (which has torn off completely) and yellowed pages that crumble if you handle them too roughly.
Time does pass, indeed.
What books are lingering on your eReader?