On the Nightstand


It is June.  The days are long, the sun is high, and my nightstand is groaning.   What on earth should get out from under the bed lamp and head for the beach?   Books, of course, and you.  As for the books, I suggest these, in varying degrees of ‘suggest.’

If this is your first visit to On the Nightstand, or if it’s been so long you’ve forgotten, here’s the drill.  Books are rated on watts for their capacity to keep you awake (as high as 100 watts for the page turners) or help you sleep (I suppose a book could be as low as 0 watts, but I probably wouldn’t finish reading it so it would never get reviewed here; 20 watts is more like it for a book that puts you to sleep or is a hard slog).  So, without more, here is what I’ve been up to:


The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2013.  This  treasure, published by Houghton Mifflin and edited by Walter Mosley, consists of short stories gleaned from American magazines and journals and selected by writing students. The stories range from so-so to fantastic and, since there are 31 of them, you can decide on each one for yourself.  But, to cheat, read Black Box by Jennifer Egan, a 110  watt story if I’ve ever read one, about a woman who takes on a secret mission, and Everyone’s Reading Bastard, by Nick Hornby, the painful tale of what a journalist can do to an ex by writing a daily column about the former husband now known to newspaper readers as ‘the bastard.’  It’s a solid 95 watts.  And there are others, many others.  The volume?  As close to 90 watts as averaging 31 stories can be.  Find it.  Take it to the beach or wherever you recharge yourself.  Read it.

The Rise and Fall of an American Army, Shelby Stanton.  This is the best non-fiction history of the Vietnam War that I have read.   It is clear, it is readable, and it is painful indeed.  An eighty-five watt book on a par with Rick Atkinson’s newest WWII history, Guns at Last Light.

Vietnam Diary, Richard Tregaskis.  This is the worst non-fiction account of the early years of the Vietnam War that I have read.  Written in 1962-1963, it is the smug assessment by a smug journalist for whom every GI volunteered for ‘Nam to save America from the demons by helping the local peasants who really wanted to become Americans.  Why do I include it?  It is a terrific reminder of how easy it is to follow the party line by taking a few helicopter rides and paraphrasing press releases from army / marine information officers until one looks up  (which Tregaskis never did) one day and discovers that the underlying facts about whether the locals really want American ‘intervention’ and their supposed aversion to home grown rebels is so wrong that it would be laughable if not tragic.  Read ‘Vietnam.’  Think ‘Iraq,’ or ‘Yemen.’  Otherwise, 10 watts.  I stayed awake only because I was drawn in by how badly Tregaskis missed the boat while writing to tell  the public that he was on a pleasure cruise.

The News:  A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton.  How about a novel idea?  Instead of making us feel endangered by terrorists and illegal immigrants, at risk of impoverishment by a few crooked bankers, and utterly disinterested in what’s happening in Cameroon, what if news editors decided to publish stories that would help us?  Instead of telling us about the jets and professional teams owned by Silicon Valley’s top twenty rich people and thereby making us believe we are ourselves so ordinary and unlikely to ever even pay off the mortgage that we despair of life’s futility, what if the news told us exactly how they earned their money, exactly what mistakes failed businesses made so that we could learn from them and avoid them, and focus on things that do actually affect us more than Kate Middleton’s labor pains and how we can stop letting others’ dramas work their way into our narratives and assist us in life’s quest to be more calm and tranquil, happier and more agreeable.  As usual, de Botton is brilliant.  90 watts.  Why not 100?  Because his publisher chose the clever ploy of printing the book in newstype, then reduced it to tiny fonts….

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen.   Not terribly unlike The Corrections, this novel follows the tragi-comic muckups of a dysfunctional midwestern family, and does so with such brilliant writing that one almost doesn’t really care that Mom was in love both with Dad and with a bad boy for so long that she wrecked the family, that Dad was incapable of guiding his own son through a semi-normal teenage-hood and so allowed him to live in the bed of the older teenage girl next door and her bottom-dwelling mother and step-father, and how even a life’s quest to make the world a better place is something fraught with short-sighted risk.  As with John Lanchester in Capital, Franzen has the ability to create a family history in a single page and make you care very deeply about the members and their enemies and their dogs and neighborhood associations.  Read this book.  Now.  100 watts.


Some really intriguing books are piling up.   Here is what I’m reading:

Saturday, by Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement.  A day in the life of a brilliant neurosurgeon, from the moment he awakens at 4:00 am and sees outside his window a plane whose engines are on fire to the trivial car crash he has on the way to play handball to ….

A Novel Approach (to writing your first book), by Jack Woodville London.  All indications are that it is just brilliant.  Okay, I wrote it, but I really don’t do a lot of self-promotion, so cut me some slack.

Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon.   This simple-appearing book of artistic advice, such as steal ideas to get your artistic self going, is a minor rage.  Time will tell.


The Swerve, by Steven Greenblatt.  National Book Award winner, this book chronicles how the world became modern.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.  Need I descibe it?

Armadillo, William Boyd.   Must. Stop. Reading. Boyd. And. Add. New. Authors. To List.

and, the biggie,

Goldfinch, Donna Tartt.  I’ve been savoring the moment that I can stop reading my assigned books for the summer class I will begin in a few weeks and pick up this book by the woman I believe to be the best American fiction author since …… Franzen?  Can’t wait.

Enjoy your summer.



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