John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Seattle Review, Versal, Crazyhorse, Sou’wester, Exquisite Corpse, and 1966. His linked short story collection Island Fog will be published in October by Lavender Ink Press in New Orleans. You can follow his thoughts on the writing life and the teaching writing life on his blog Payperazzi. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
The books, journals, and magazines on my bedside table have become a veritable mountain over the years, the ones that linger being the ones I started and then had to forego when more pressing reading presented itself. Complicating matters is that because I’m a very early riser it only takes a couple minutes of nighttime reading before I’m zonked. So if I only read a book in bed I move through it very slowly indeed. This is to say that if I get serious about a book I have to move it from the bedside and take it to some other part of the house so that I can continue with it, digest it, and finally finish it. The books I get serious about are the ones that on waking I remove from the bedroom and carry out with me to the kitchen, where I’ll make my morning coffee and start the day.
Some of the books that in recent weeks won the right to leave the bedroom when I wake:
The Bill from My Father by Bernard Cooper. Cooper will be coming to my university in a few weeks as a visiting writer, so this summer I’ve been boning up on what I’ve missed from him. The Bill from My Father is his most recent volume of nonfiction. It’s an honest and sometimes heartbreaking picture of his father’s life, especially that life after the man turned eighty and was afflicted with a creeping dementia. Despite his affliction, the defiant, restless, impulsive, and contradictory nature of Edward Cooper shines through loud and clear. As someone who both loved and endured a “charismatic” father myself—at turns charming and angry, cynical and naïve, brilliant and dangerous, a model and a scourge—I completely “got” this memoir. Given how many men have issues with their fathers, the potential audience for this book—generously conceived and beautifully written—should be numberless.
Truth Serum, also by Bernard Cooper. This is an earlier memoir, published in 1997. Whereas The Bill from My Father is more or less a traditional memoir with a consistent narrative, this book is comprised of distinct, separate units. We’ve all heard of the novel-in-stories. Truth Serum is a memoir-in-essays. At the same time, there is a clear arc to the book. It starts with Cooper as a worried junior high student, knowing that something is different about him but not even sure what to call it, and ends with him as an openly gay man living in Los Angeles with a partner he deeply loves and depends on but who is suffering through a positive AIDS diagnosis. Truth Serum is valuable as an honest and well-crafted coming-of-age tale; but at the same time, with Cooper’s carefully rendered details and his evocative pictures of place, it acts as a kind of photograph album of America across the second half of the twentieth century.
The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan. If you like historical fiction, especially historical fiction that teaches you about a culture and a place you’ve never been to, this is the book for you. It’s set in India, in a variety of small villages and larger cities, and spans a wide swath of the twentieth century. It focuses on one extended Brahmin family and shows in faithful detail many different Brahmin traditions and daily rituals; and yet at the same time it also presents the social and political forces inside India that make it inevitable those traditions and rituals will be challenged. What I admire most about the book is that at all times Viswanathan focuses on her story and her characters. She does not engage in long political exposition—and certainly she tries not to take sides—but in following this family through so many decades of its ups and downs, the reader sees a new nation being started before his eyes.
A book that is literally next to my bed but has been repeatedly (and unjustifiably) forced aside:
Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter. My wife and I enjoy wine, probably too much, given our college teacher salaries.
New, or recent, or semi-recent releases that I’d like to get my hands on (as soon as I have the time!):
Stories II by T.C. Boyle. A brilliant, mercurial storyteller who constantly amazes. Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by her. Such smart, humane narratives with fascinating people inside them. Transatlanic by Colum McCann. Another writer who amazes. I value versatility above all other traits and McCann is the picture of that.
A great bedside book that I just haven’t gotten around to buying or borrowing:
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis. I heard Fatsis interviewed when this book came out and later I spent some entertaining minutes browsing through it at a bookstore. I’m not an NFL fan but I am a sports fan, so this account of Fatsis, a diminutive journalist, trying out for an NFL team intrigues me.
How do you decide which books stay bedside?