The Bookworm: A real bedtime story and a heart-wrencher
“Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World”
By Benjamin Reiss
c. 2017, Basic Books
$28, $36.50 Canada; 320 pages
Covers on. Covers off. That was you all last night: too hot, not warm enough. The pillow was hard, the mattress was soft, the neighbors were loud, the room was stuffy, you were thirsty, and something was tickling the back of your neck. You couldn’t sleep, maybe due to insomnia. Or maybe you were just following your ancestors, and in “Wild Nights” by Benjamin Reiss, you’ll see how.
In a perfect world, that’s how much sleep you’d get every single night, uninterrupted, though that it never happens that way. Instead, you toss, turn, and spend the entire next day feeling as if you’re on the set of “The Walking Dead.” No worries: that sleep-awake cycle you’ve got there might be perfectly normal.
Two hundred years ago, it would’ve been, for sure. Back when folks had less-defined time, before noisy neighbors, electricity, alarm clocks, and factories, people kept hours with the sun, slumbering and rising with natural light. It was common then to have a two-cycle sleep pattern broken up by an hour or so of gentle wakefulness and, because sleep was more of a social thing, it was common for entire families to sleep together.
Though you can still find places in the world where it’s good hospitality to share beds with guests, in the 19th century, missionaries spread across the globe and made it shameful to slumber without privacy. By the earliest part of the 20th century, and surely by time electricity reached most households, the majority of First World citizens slept alone or in coupled pairs, in rooms specifically meant for sleeping. That included children, who were taught to sleep separately in a room away from their parents.
And as if civilization didn’t affect sleep-wake patterns enough, well, 24/7 entertainment, shift-work, better hygiene, electronics, and widespread availability of coffee sure don’t help any. Therefore, it’s advisable, says Reiss, to wake up to this “global weirding of sleep” and recognize that further changes could be more than just a dream.
The alarm went off awfully early this morning. And yesterday morning. And every day last week, but why? The reason may be inside “Wild Nights.”
And then again, it may not: readers searching for sleep-advice will go away frustrated, because this isn’t that kind of book. Instead, author Benjamin Reiss explains how biology and conditioning make us sleep as we do. Readers get a glimpse of classic literature’s examination of the subject, how slave masters used sleep to control slaves (and how it led to a stereotype), why it’s so hard to get kids to go to bed, and what a few z’s might look like in the future. That’s great for anyone with wide-eyed curiosity, while a blanket full of comfort-through-research will help those who are wide awake.
Don’t take this book to bed with you. It’s too much fun, a lot of fascination, and it might just keep you up all night, reading. You’ll like it because, when it comes to learning about the big snooze, “Wild Nights” has you covered.
“History of Wolves”
By Emily Fridlund
c. 2017, Atlantic Monthly
$25, higher in Canada; 279 pages
Let it go. That’s what people say when others are upset: let it go. Shake it off. Can’t do anything about it now, so why dwell on it? Pretend like it never happened and that you didn’t see a thing -- at least until, as in the new novel “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund, you can’t unsee anymore.
In just 16 years of life, Madeline “Linda” Furston had seen two dead bodies. The first one was her old history teacher: she sensed that he was dead before he was even carried from the middle-school. The second one, Paul, wasn’t dead when she last saw him, but he might as well have been.
Just two – which is hard to believe, considering that her early childhood was spent in a struggling commune. Nobody died there, though; instead, one by one, everyone drifted away to other places with electricity and bathrooms, or places less remote than northern Minnesota, until just Linda and her parents were alone. That left Linda with the ability to fend for herself, an understanding of wolf-like stealth, keen knowledge of surrounding woods and lakes, and the middle-school nickname of “Freak.”
With no friends, an introverted personality, and a preference for animals over people, Linda naturally kept to herself. It was easier, and safer … until the Gardner family arrived at the summer home across the way.
She’d spotted them moving in and watched them from the roof, so she felt as though she knew them before they even met. Paul, the four-year-old, took to Linda straight away; Patra, the mother, noticed, and hired Linda to spend time with the boy. Ten dollars a day was more than Linda could make as a waitress, and she liked Paul.
She was fascinated with Patra. It was quite some time before Linda would meet Paul’s father.
Leo was 11 years older than his wife, a mostly-humorless, laser-focused astronomer who made Linda feel unsettled. He tried to engage her in serious philosophical and religious conversations but his beliefs were not hers, and never would be. Especially when it came to the care of his son.
Here’s a nice surprise: I sincerely did not know where “History of Wolves” was taking me when I first started it.
It’s not a mystery; you know right away that something happened and it wasn’t good. It’s not a thriller, although it’s quietly thrilling. You can tell it’s a heart-wrencher, but you don’t know why until author Emily Fridlund has you well and hooked. Even what I’ve told you here won’t ruin the surprise of reading this book, partially because of a teenage main character who’s wise beyond her years. She tells this story from the viewpoint of a damaged, grown-up Linda, looking back, with slow pain that’ll make you howl.
This book starts off sluggishly and a little weird, but stick around; it’s laying the groundwork for a good character you’ll come to like. Read a little more, and “History of Wolves” will soon become a book you can’t let go.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.