My bookish game, “What’s on My Nightstand?,” is very similar to Wheel of Fortune. Think Vanna White and Pat Sajak with book titles instead of phrases.
Just before I go to sleep, a title will shimmer in my mind.
O_ _ _ e _ e _ _ _
Yes, of course, I want to read On the Beach!
So I rush out to the bookshelf and bring it back to my room. Sometimes I read it, sometimes I just look at it.
I have recently finished two of the five books on my nightstand, and I’ve dipped into the other three.
I’m sure you’re yearning to know what they are, so here goes:
1. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. One of the best-written post-apocalyptic novels of all time, it is set in Australia in 1963 after a World War kills everyone in the northern hemisphere. The winds will bring the fallout to Australia soon, and all will die of radiation by the next September.
The characters in this chilling 1957 novel are well-developed, and the plot is horrifyingly realistic–people worried about the Bomb then, as they should now, and Shute gives us one of the best arguments for disarmament I have ever seen. The popular writer Shute’s book was categorized as fiction instead of science fiction, and that gave it a wide readership.
Shute has done such a remarkable job that I, like the characters, am unable to face the future. After a Christmas barbecue, Australian Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes prepares to go back to work: he does not know what naval assignment can be given in this holocaust. His wife, Mary, cares for their baby, Jennifer, and plans the garden. She wants everything to go on as it has before.
Captain Dwight Towers, a U.S. naval commander, escaped with his men to Australia in a submarine. He and Peter will be sent on a mission to measure radiation, and then to investigate a signal near Seattle (which they assume is an accident of some kind, since there cannot be any people left.)
Invited by Peter for the weekend, Dwight meets Moira, a drunken recent college graduate who cannot get a job and sees very little point now anyway. She and Dwight cavort on the beach, sail in a race, and she falls in love with him.
No one can quite believe the world will end: Dwight hangs on to the notion that his wife and children are still alive in Connecticut, and buys gifts for them, though he knows in another part of his mind they are dead.
This is beautifully written, has depth, and is a realistic prediction of what could very well happen with nuclear power and bombs.
Yes, I finished this. I couldn’t put it down.
2. Susan Richards Shreve’s You Are the Love of My Life. Shreve’s new novel is entertaining but simplistic: I can’t pretend it is as gracefully rendered as some of her earlier books, Daughters of the New World, a historical novel about four generations of women, or Miracle Play, a complex family saga.
In 1973, while the Watergate scandal rages, Lucy Painter, a children’s book illustrator, moves with her two children from New York to a house her family has long owned in Washington, D.C.. She needs distance from the father of her children, a married man who has never told his wife about his second family.
There are problems on Wichita Ave., though. Lucy has a family secret regarding her father and the house. She does not wish to be absorbed into the neighborhood housewives’ circle, organized by the magnetic Zee, who invites all the women to drink coffee in the morning on her porch and wine in the evening.
And when her daughter, Maggie, turns against her and begins to spend her free time with Zee, Lucy is dismayed.
I did enjoy this: another fast read.
3. STILL IN PROGRESS: Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens. Sherry Jones sometimes comments at Frisbee, so of course I was curious about her historical novel about four sister queens in the 13th century, Queen Marguerite of France, Queen Eleonore of England, Queen Sanchia of Germany, and Queen Beatrice of Sicily.
I love fiction about queens. I can’t help myself. I’ve read Jean Plaidy’s novels about the queens of Henry VIII, Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Boleyn sisters, and Anya Seton’s novel about Katherine Swynford.
So, yes, I am enjoying Jones’s extremely well-written novel about four queens. I don’t know this period of history, and that background is a revelation in itself.
Sherry follows the four heroines from childhood, when they already understand the political stakes for Provence of their marriages. Will Marguerite manage to become politically influential in her husband Louis IX’s court and overcome the meddling of her domineering mother-in-law? Will Queen Eleanore be able to keep her crown in England after a nobleman shows up at the coronation and claims her husband is betrothed to her daughter?
Really an enjoyable, lively novel, and my only criticism is, What is with the cut-off heads on the covers of all women’s historical novels these days?
4. STILL IN PROGRESS: Zadie Smith’s NW. Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, set in northwestern London, focuses on characters in one neighborhood. I very much like this kind of urban novel: I think of Margaret Drabble’s The Needle’s Eye and Sebastian Faulk’s A Week in December
I’ve read less than 100 pages of NW: The main character so far is Leah, a 35-year-old muddled philosophy graduate who works for a charity and is under pressure to have children. The novel begins with her giving money to a crack addict, a former schoolmate who shows up on her doorstep with a sad story, and Leah doesn’t feel she can live in such comfort without helping her. Leah’s mother has a similar problem when they come across another old devastated friend in the neighborhood.
So far I like it. We all enjoyed White Teeth at our house.
5. Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest. Cronin won the PEN/Hemingway award for a novel in stories, and this novel has sat on my porch for years. All I can tell you is that it is a literary novel, and Cronin went all-vampire-and-viruses a couple of years ago: yes, he has written two post-apocalyptic novels (science fiction?). I thought I’d start with the literary.