Lauren Grodstein teaches creative writing at Rutgers-Camden and is the author of “A Friend of the Family,” which I reviewed yesterday.
A few nights ago, after yet another round of searching for the lost pacifier, I found myself, once again, unable to fall back asleep. The house was quiet – the kid snored, the husband snored, the cat snored at the landing at the base of the stairs. These three are frankly outstanding in their ability to go from alert to unconscious in the time it takes a normal person to sneeze. Meanwhile, once I’m up, I’m up – and, at three a.m., I’m usually ticked off, surrounded by snoring and pacifiers, wondering once again how I got into this mess. There was a time in my life when I slept, regularly, til noon! These days it’s a triumph if I’m still asleep at five-thirty.
However, on those occasions I’m able to go back to sleep, it’s usually due to the help of one of four books that now stake permanent territory on my nightstand. These books are well-written enough not to wake up my irritable inner grammar maven, but boring enough not to wake up my imagination, either. They’re like literary Ambien. This week, in honor of daylight savings, I’m sharing this list as a gift to all the exhausted parents out there, since I cannot give them the biggest gift of all: a child who sleeps through the night.
1. In Suspect Terrain, by John McPhee
John McPhee is a masterful reporter who’s done books on everything from oranges (fabulous) to Alaska (a bit meandering at times, but still well worth a read). However, in “In Suspect Terrain,” McPhee, alongside intrepid geologist Anita Harris, documents the geographical history of the eastern United States, spending a whole lot of time at the Delaware Water Gap and dropping mad knowledge about igneous rock and conodonts. The writing is lovely; the topic is dull as, literally, dirt. Four pages in I’m asleep and dreaming about sediment.
2. Fascinating Womanhood, by Helen B. Andelin
This gem is actually very absorbing the first few times you read it; it’s a 1960s guide to man-catching, akin to 1996’s The Rules, and full of such pearls as “Beneath his desire for worldly acclaim lies an even more intense yearning, and it is HIS DESIRE TO BE A HERO IN YOUR EYES. It is for this he lives and breathes.” (caps author’s). When I first read this book in my twenties, this advice seemed hugely amusing, but ten years later, with my hero fast asleep next to me, reading it not only knocks me out, it also knocks out my ability to feel any sort of amusement whatsoever.
3. The Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen.
Virtuous vegetarian recipes; sweet black-and-white illustrations. Pass me some of that Arabian Squash-Cheese Casserole before I lose consciousness forever.
4. Lonely Planet Vancouver, by the Lonely Planet people.
Vancouver, as a city, has many of the same qualities I look for in a sleeping aid: it’s pleasing, calm, attractive, and, deep down, just the tiniest bit boring. Believe me, I love Vancouver the way any normal person loves maritime Canada, and I keep this guide on my nightstand because it’s as close as I’m going to get to the city any time soon. Nevertheless, what is Vancouver if not rainy weather, homemade scones, urban kayaking, and efficient public transportation? Just thinking about it makes me drowsy in the nicest possible way.
So there you go: my four insomniac go-tos. If you have any suggestions of books that knock you out, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Three in the morning is coming all too soon, and believe me when I tell you I need all the help I can get.