Lee Upton is the author of The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, which was released from BOA Editions earlier this month. She has also written 12 other books, including the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy; the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; and a fifth collection of poetry, Undid in the Land of Undone. She is a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.
I have to confess that my bedside reading is not like the other reading I do in other parts of the house. The reason is simple: I am a susceptible reader right before bed, when I feel most porous and undefended. And so the books by my bed have, for the most part, a peculiar quality—they tend to be more otherworldly and dreamlike than other books I enjoy, and less often marked by overt or unrelenting violence or violence that isn’t somehow mediated.
Having made the above declaration I realize that the book in nearest finger-reach beside my bed is Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and Other Stories, which includes “Night Face Up” with its no-holds-barred portrayal of human sacrifice—so far my favorite story in the collection. Such a wild story in which dream life and so-called actual life are interchanged. And in which a man on a stone slab is about to get his heart ripped out.
My life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead. Mead uses George Eliot’s novel to think about her own life—and uses her own life to think about the novel. The result is intimate and yet probing. Sometimes you feel like you’re reading gorgeous, high-end gossip about Eliot’s characters and Eliot herself. But you can read it guiltlessly; no reputations will have been harmed in the making of this book.
Slow Air, by Robin Robertson: This collection by the Scottish poet is characterized by restraint. I’ve read these evocative poems repeatedly, with awe at the ways in which Robertson’s lines about elemental matters—nature and love—expand in the mind and resonate.
The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch: I keep this novel about an obsessive, controlling, and arrogant retired actor/director near my bed to dip into. Here’s a passage I’ve marked in red: “Even in a harmless fall in the road there is a little moment of horror when the faller realizes that he cannot help himself; he has been taken over by a relentless mechanism and must continue with it to the end and be subject to the consequences.” Murdoch can take a moment and extend it, as if she’s putting us all in training to notice things we otherwise would ignore. She shows how we can keep falling in many ways—and realize we’re falling while we’re falling, which is the worst part of falling. Her descriptions of the sea are breath-taking, and I’m not exaggerating.
Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures, by George Schenk: A charming book with plentiful photographs of moss and other small entities. Here’s a sample of the author’s characteristic blend of pride and self-deprecation as he describes his purpose: “[This book] tells almost as much about the mechanics of moss gardening as the Kama Sutra does about dancing. Like that book, this work of mine may offer more variations on the theme than you really care to know.” It’s nice to have this eccentric and pure labor of love nearby, not only for its images but for the author’s appealing voice. I haven’t finished the book, but it doesn’t seem as if it requires finishing.
Can’t and Won’t: Stories, by Lydia Davis: Davis’s stories are almost always very short, and yet they behave with such large-scale authority. Her narrators look around themselves with an air of low-key amusement or quiet astonishment. At other times Davis allows her narrators to make soft landings on near-revelations.
A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers, edited by Janet Burroway: Included are essays by nineteen writers, among them, Margaret Atwood, Gail Godwin, Honor Moore, Jane Smiley, and Edith Pearlman. The latter notes: “To respond positively to an invitation to Appear in Public is the acme of masochism.” Nice little bonus: it’s a handsome book, with an old-style image of a library card pocket on the cover. Before I open the book I spend a moment enjoying that cover. I haven’t read the entire collection yet. I’ve been so busy with that cover.
The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, by Edward St. Aubyn: Terrors are contained in each of the four slim novels in this collection—and so much vulnerability. The plots are harrowing, and yet the prose in its precision is somehow redemptive. St. Aubyn creates sealed worlds of incredible privilege where adult pathologies, boredom, and frustration are accompanied by cruelty toward the most vulnerable, cruelty that seems renewable. And yet the books, balanced between bleak tragedy and bitterly comic malice, are beautiful—as if description itself is the best revenge.
Whew! Terrors, vulnerability, human sacrifice, introspection, poetry—it’s a wonder Lee gets any sleep. Which books from her stash have you read? Any you want to read/avoid? Why?