Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

April 19, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

Haunted Songs

Alice Randall, Adam Ross, Jennifer Puryear, Gary Shockley

Last week I found myself on a small stage but in big company with Alice Randall, Adam Ross, and Gary Shockley. We were talking about Lincoln in the Bardo, the Man-Booker-Prize-winning novel by George Saunders. (Thank God all I had to do was ask the questions.)

The novel imagines Lincoln on the night after his 11-year-old son’s death in February of 1862. Newspapers reported that Lincoln visited his son’s crypt alone in the dead of night, and this anecdote is Saunders’ starting point. He writes about Lincoln, his son, his wife, his grief, a nation at war – and a cemetery full of talking ghosts.

Two stylistic aspects of the book are particularly challenging. First, you’ve got the ghosts’ voices, often presented in the form of a script. You thought you were reading a novel but then find yourself in the middle of a play. Second, entire chapters take the form of snippets from historical sources. The sources might describe, for instance, Lincoln’s appearance, or different impressions of a party at the White House shortly before the child’s death. Here’s another wrinkle: some of the historical sources are real, while some are made up.

Lincoln in the Bardo elicited a wide variety of responses both positive and negative among readers – and among the panelists as well. All the panelists acknowledged the novel’s shocking creativity, but Alice was also horrified by Saunders’ vision of black women and of the white lower class. Adam noted that some great novels require a great deal of work from the reader. This novel clearly requires a great deal from the reader, but is it a great novel? He was noncommittal. Gary found this strange work brilliant, if jarring, likening it to “Mozart on a saw.”

My take? It’s one of the most fascinating, odd, powerful novels I’ve ever read. It seems to me that Saunders’ deepest message conveys the paramount importance and transformative power of empathy (though Alice’s comments have made me wonder if he has in some regards failed – certainly for her, and perhaps for others).

It succeeds for me – stunningly – as a ghost story – but I’m always inclined to like those.

I’m so happy for Gary Shockley to stop in at Bacon today to recommend another haunting work.

From Gary:

Robert Johnson recorded twenty-nine songs in two recording sessions, San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937. He then disappeared back into the life of an itinerant bluesman, leaving only those songs and two known photographs before succumbing to a jealous husband’s poisoned whiskey and a pauper’s unmarked grave. A generation later, when northeastern collectors began to hunt dusty 78 rpm “race records” across the South, the myth of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a midnight crossroads fired their imaginations. In his latest novel, White Tears, Hari Kunzru builds on those events to craft a meditation on obsession, race, appropriation, and class. In true Faulknerian fashion, the past isn’t dead in White Tears – and isn’t even really past.

Kunzru’s protagonist is Seth, a twenty-something graduate turned music producer with his best friend, Carter Wallace, the scion of a wealthy government contractor. Seth obsessively records the ambient noise of New York, convinced of Marconi’s theory that no sound ever completely fades but is always available to the ear sensitive enough to hear it. He captures a snatch of a blues song in Washington Square, which is then seized on by Carter, who values “authenticity” about all else. When Carter releases a version on the internet with the fictitious name of Charlie Shaw and an old 78 rpm Key & Gate record label attached, they attract the malign attention of a former collector known as JumpJim – and, it seems, of Charlie Shaw himself. When Carter is attacked and beaten into a coma at his own midnight crossroads, Seth is drawn into a vortex of paranoia and revenge, toggling between the present and several hallucinatory pasts.

Seth’s companion on these journeys is Leonie, Carter’s sister and Seth’s unrequitted love. Leonie is a struggling artist, but hardly a starving one. Buoyed by her family’s wealth and the patronage of her older lover, Leonie is accused by one colleague of being less an artist than a collector in waiting – a devastating indictment in the world of White Tears. Seth and Leonie go south to try to find Charlie Shaw and resolve the mystery of Carter’s attack and of the sinister forces that seem to be circling them both. In the heart of the novel, Kunzu alternates between the Seth-Leonie trip and a similar one taken decades earlier by JumpJim and his mentor, the record collector and junkie Chester Bly. Both trips end in ways that demonstrate the power of Charlie Shaw and the risks of the travellers’ obsessions.

While the Seth-Leonie plot line sometimes suffers from Seth’s passivity and Leonie’s entitlement, Seth is a rich source of ambiguity. Is he a paranoid schizophrenic, acting out elaborate fantasies in response to the voices in his head? Or is he the only one attuned to the echoes of the past and aware of their power over the present? Is he Carter’s last hope or Leonie’s worst nightmare? Is he acting out of love for Carter and the music, or is he driven to possess something that can never be his? Kunzru’s novel is open to all of these readings, and to many more.

Part psychological thriller, part paean to the shadowy wraiths of the old blues records, part meditation on the poisonous legacy of race and class, White Tears is a haunted song echoing long after the needle reaches the runout groove.

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Hot Club Time Machine: Derek Pell on violin, Mark Powelson on upright bass, Austin Filingo on guitar.

Beth Alexander, Adam Ross, Julie Frist

Library Foundation director Shawn Bakker pictured with Kaaren and Ben May

Many thanks to Julie and Tommy Frist for hosting such a lovely evening to benefit the Nashville Public Library. Thanks also to event co-chairs Tracy Frazier, Elizabeth Hawkins, and Lucy Haynes.


April 15, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

The Importance of Emojis (and Gratitude): Guest Post by Mary Raymond

My friend Mary Raymond and I were corresponding by email the other day. She wanted to insert a slightly freaked-out/chattering tooth emoji that had not yet been envisioned by Apple (because I was nervous about a speaking engagement and also it was very cold out… she understood!!). I was distressed because I couldn’t figure out how to use emojis on my new Ipad. She took the conversation to the next level: “This is the existential crisis of our time: if you can’t find the appropriate emoji, did you really feel the corresponding emotion at all?”

Mary Raymond is good at emojis – and guest posts. (We both love a good self-help book.) Today, she’s thinking about The Gratitude Diaries: How A Year Of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, by Janice Kaplan.

From Mary:

How do you respond to suggestions that some product/practice/prescription will change your life? I have fallen for these messages too many times to count. To wit: the “dermatologist approved” skin care regimen which set my face aflame; the therapeutic shirt designed to stop my cat Mavis’s yowling which only seemed to paralyze her (while she yowled); countless kitchen gadgets and recipe books which were no match for my lackluster culinary skills.

Mavis is grateful for spring flowers. And that her mom gave up on the therapeutic shirt.

Maybe this is why for most of my life I eschewed “self-help” books. I didn’t really believe change was possible. Or, if I could change, it would only be after mastering impossible skills like remaining positive in the face of adversity or giving up Extreme Moose Tracks chocolate ice cream. I was fairly confident I couldn’t do either of those things and certainly not both at the same time.

But in recent years I have read several interesting books exploring the mind-body connection, and I have felt the benefits of making subtle shifts in my thinking and behavior. One of the most beneficial changes came after reading Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life.

Kaplan has experienced professional success as a magazine editor, television producer, writer, and journalist. She had a good life by almost any definition, but she knew that she often spent more time dwelling on the negative aspects of her life than appreciating the positive. The framing device of the book is her year-long quest to embrace gratitude and look on the bright side, come what may. She made this resolution after encountering a particularly grumpy woman at a New Year’s Eve party and feeling emotionally drained by her steady offering of complaints and negativity. Kaplan realized that the upcoming year would bring both positive and negative experiences, and the only thing she could control was how she chose to respond.

Janice Kaplan on The Today Show

Each chapter focuses on how intentional gratitude impacts various aspects of her life: her marriage, her relationship with her sons, her career, etc. She brings a natural curiosity to her discussions with psychologists, professors, and physicians as she learns more about the positive effects of gratitude on our physical and mental health. Kaplan learned that “gratitude wasn’t the same as happiness – it has a much deeper resonance…It requires an active emotional involvement – you can’t be passively grateful, you actually have to stop and feel it, experience the emotion. So it creates an inner richness that’s sustaining in difficult times as well as good ones.”

Focusing on gratitude forces us to turn our attention away from what we lack and celebrate what we already have. Our ancestors often held on to negative information because it could be lifesaving to remember which berry in the forest was poisonous.


American Bittersweet: this is seriously in all of your popular floral arrangements these days

This survival skill is less helpful in the modern world where we gloss over positive comments so that we can ruminate on the one negative piece of feedback we received.

One of the first areas where Kaplan chose to focus her gratitude was her marriage. She recognized that the intimacy and familiarity of marriage didn’t necessarily breed contempt, but they did make it much easier to take one’s spouse for granted. She resolved to look for her husband’s traits and actions that she appreciated and express that appreciation to him. One night when he was driving them home in the snow from a late-night party she told him how grateful she was that he drove in foul weather.

Photo credit LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP/Getty Images

The comment caught him off guard because driving had always been “his” job in the give-and-take of their relationship, and he didn’t realize it mattered to her. She was specific in her appreciation: his driving when they were both tired and the streets were icy made her feel safe and loved. Without further discussion Kaplan noticed that her husband began reciprocating her gratitude, sincerely offering his thanks for her preparation of a dinner of frozen ravioli. The things they chose to appreciate about each other were as pedestrian as they were specific. The act of expressing gratitude – even for something seemingly inconsequential like heating up a frozen dinner – had a significant impact on their marriage. As both partners looked for ways to show their appreciation for each other, they felt seen in ways they had not experienced since their early days together.

Kaplan soon noticed that gratitude seemed to beget more gratitude, and articulating her appreciation had a lasting positive impact on her mood. When she shared these findings with a professor of marriage and family therapy, he explained that “there is strong neurological evidence showing that circuits in the brain can be primed to create stronger feelings of connection.” Gratitude doesn’t just create a positive mood in the moment. It actually conditions the mind for increased positivity.

Kaplan continued her experiment throughout the year and felt the benefits of focusing on gratitude in other areas of her life. She sought out experts who explained the science behind the positive effects she experienced, and this served to reinforce her efforts. She interviewed people who had found comfort from choosing to focus on gratitude despite enduring crushing losses. She learned that they used gratitude not as an escapist trope to convince themselves that their current circumstances were somehow different than they were. Rather, they “made a concerted effort to flip from the darkness and find some cracks of light – and they didn’t do it just once, but repeatedly. Every day. Over and over. You could almost see them working to be grateful, and the gratitude paying them back.” They weren’t making the effort because it changed their circumstances. They made the effort because it brought them a sense of comfort and hope when little else did.

Kaplan’s book inspired me to start my own gratitude diary.

I enjoyed the ritual of identifying three things I felt grateful for each day. Pretty soon, I noticed two positive developments.

First, taking time to consider what I’m grateful for each day has made me more optimistic. I realized that there were days where it was easier to come up with three items and days when it was more of a struggle. In either case, just the effort of focusing on the abundance of things for which I felt grateful kept me from dwelling on what I thought I might be missing. This shift in focus was a natural boost to my optimism.

The second thing gratitude gave me was the ability to live in the moment. I’m afraid I haven’t found a less New-Agey way to describe it. When I felt grateful for something during the day – the slant of sunlight through the jade plants in my office window, shared laughter with a friend, the sound and vibration of Mavis’s purr – I really relished those individual moments. Temporarily relieved of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, I felt content in the present. After enough of those moments I realized how much time I wasted racing through life, hurrying to check off the list of things I thought I needed to accomplish so that I could finally just rest. Taking time to focus on gratitude helped me relax and enjoy the moments of my life instead of just trying to survive them.

I am not a naturally positive person. I have been that woman Janice Kaplan encountered at the New Year’s Eve party. When more optimistic friends try to encourage me with positive thoughts about what the future holds I sometimes just stare at them with the quizzical remove of Jane Goodall surrounded by chimpanzees. Hasn’t anyone taught these suckers about the manifold joys of catastrophizing?!? Practicing gratitude helped increase my optimism in a way that never felt forced.   Over time I learned that negativity didn’t have to be my default option. Optimism could be learned.

Mary Raymond, practicing optimism

Maybe this was the greatest gift of focusing on gratitude. It wasn’t just a pleasant surprise to learn that I really could change. I could create enduring, positive benefits in my life by introducing a simple ritual which helped me change my perspective. And that changed everything else.

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Lately I’ve been very grateful for the white and pink dogwoods and the kwanzaa cherry in my yard…