Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall, a work of historical fiction set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. She has a bachelor’s degree from The University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Marylhurst University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. She’s reviewed books for The Oregonian, served as a federal disaster/trauma specialist, and has lectured nationally on this topic. Her work has been profiled in the Oscar-qualified short documentary film Paint Me a Future. A Southern expat now residing in Oregon, her pets will always be dawgs and her truest allegiance will always reside with the Crimson Tide. Learn more about Ellen on her website.
Before I met the man who would eventually become my husband, he took my memoir, When I Was Elena, to bed with him.
This resulted in a rather sizeable imbalance in regard to our familiarity with each other when we finally connected in person—as I knew nearly nothing about him, and he knew almost too much about me. But he is both a bright and a gracious man, and within a few days of our first in-person meeting a box arrived upon my doorstep from Powell’s Books with three gifts inside: two of his favorite Orson Scott Card novels for me—Ender’s Game and The Worthing Saga—and a copy of Margie Pallatini’s Piggy Pie! for me to read to my small children, as he had once read to his. It was certainly a kind gesture, and endeared him to the wee ones and me early on, but it also accomplished his goal of exposing himself to me via literature in much the same way that I had first been exposed to him. In particular, the over-arching theme of The Worthing Saga (which he identifies as “the idea that suffering and pain are integral components of life; that they define who we are as much as the good times do; that alleviating them would rob us of something important and essential”) immediately revealed to me that he not only understood, but empathized with, the story documented in my memoir. Moreover, I realized he sported an attitude that might make him particularly well-suited to adventuring through life’s highs and lows alongside me.
And so it came to pass that my husband and I slept with each others’ books before we slept with each other, and still make it a habit to welcome literature into our bed.
The authors with whom I’ve most recently engaged in arduous pillow talk include:
Roxane Gay. Her An Untamed State is a terrific read but a terrible bedfellow. It’s been on my to-read list for too long, so I could not postpone further, but it is giving me nightmares. Literally. One should not read about a woman being tortured and gang-raped as the last sensate act of one’s day, no matter how sparse and taut the writing is, no matter how brilliant the phrasing and visceral the staging. With a book like this, where the writer’s great gift is to lead the reader just far enough into scenes that one is left imagining a picturesque world around her words, one cannot shut the book, shut the lights, and shut one’s mind. An Untamed State haunts me. So take this as your warning: buy Gay’s book but dispatch her from your bedroom. Daylight is requisite for this one.
Jon Krakauer. His Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town resides under Gay’s book, next-up on my docket. This clearly proves I am not a quick study, for I am admittedly intending to tackle another book focused on crimes against women before slumber after warning you never to do such a thing. But … it’s Krakauer. And I love Krakauer. He captivates me with his penchant for taking real life adventure tales and suffusing them with the pacing and styling of a whodunit, so that one is forever startled, intrigued, consumed. And in Missoula he cites Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, wherein she says, “In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting,” which called to me in a uniquely personal way. For there is something I need to remember; something I need to find the courage to write. Which is why I will take Krakauer to bed with me against my own better instincts, so as to stir my memory and awaken it from dreams.
Cheryl Strayed. While it is Wild that made her famous, I am of the opinion that her greatest gift shines through Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of personal essays packaged as responses to the viral Dear Sugar advice column that ran under her direction on The Rumpus website from March 2010 through May 2012. (Steve Almond was Sugar prior to May 2010.) That Strayed took such a pedestrian and parodied format as an advice column and turned it into a work of art is remarkable enough, but it is her capacity to bring a story full-circle in such a miniature span that astounds me. Reading nearly every single essay/answer I must stifle the urge to genuflect before her talent for crafting individual sentences that inspire so fully and endings that crack me wide open. Case in point, my favorite essay among a slew of charmers: “On Your Island.” Strayed’s answer in this case is inspired by a question from a young transgender woman-turned-man, who writes to Sugar about being rejected by his parents and fleeing their home years earlier. He says he has created a “safe island” for himself apart from them, but wonders whether he should give his mother and father another chance these many years later after they recently contacted him to apologize and ask to be readmitted to his life. Strayed concludes her pitch-perfect response with this: “[Your parents] were cruel and small when you needed them most, but only because they were drowning in their own fear and ignorance. They aren’t drowning anymore. It took them seven years, but they swam to shore. They have arrived at last on your island. Welcome them.” Good god, this slays me. Slays me with kindness, and compassion, and the most beautiful form of recompense: forgiveness. On nights when I am overtired, and need to relax enough to sleep, these tiny stories help me breathe deeply, recalling for me all that is most good in the world, and thus allowing me the luxury of shutting my eyes to the rest.
Anne Fadiman. The best damn baby shower favor I ever received was a copy of Ex Libris. (Thank the heavens that journalists occasionally host showers for their friends, and feel no compunction to torment their guests with candied almonds nestled in baby booties when there is literature that might be distributed instead.) I have read Ex Libris cover to cover more times than I can count, the first two passes without pausing for so much as a bathroom break between re-readings. So enamored was I of this collection that I took the uncommon step of writing to the author to share my own bookish stories, as if her essays had been penned as personal letters to me and required a response, and bless her heart Fadiman wrote back and we corresponded for a spell. Like Tiny Beautiful Things, these charming essays require only five to fifteen minutes of your time each, making them perfect I’m-almost-too-tired-to-read-but-can’t-sleep-without-touching-a-book-first, end-of-day delights. Treat yourself to Ex Libris if you want to fall asleep with a smile.
Kate DiCamillo. I’m stealing this author’s books from my kiddos’ shelves to share with you, and can hardly be expected to choose only one. The Tale of Despereaux I read to my littles for the first time when they were but three and four, all of us bundled together under a blanket on the floor, beneath their bunk beds. (Don’t ask why we were under the bed instead of in it. I can’t remember. But our positioning was memorable.) I read it again to them a year later, and again the year after that. Now they’ve moved on to independently read Flora & Ulysses. (Though tonight, because our dog is sick and everyone is sad, I curled in bed with them and read aloud Chapter 31 “Holy Unanticipated Occurrences” and Chapter 33 “Does Rabies Itch?” We didn’t skip Chapter 32; it is not readable; it is a set of cartoon pictures of a bald squirrel, whose hair was sacrificed in a brawl with a vacuum. Seriously: how can you not be reaching for this book right now?) But the crown jewel in DiCamillo’s oeuvre is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This 2006 novel details the life story of a china rabbit. If you have ever owned a beloved stuffie (and if you have not, please stop reading now, for we are not friends anymore) this book will make you weep aloud and race to the attic to find the box where you stored your Teddy, and move him back into the bed with you.
Which I hope your spouse accepts with as much good-natured aplomb as mine did.
Sweet dreams, all.
Have you ever gotten to know someone through their literary picks? What genres would you hope for in a mate?