Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

June 14, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

Summer Reading 2018: What is Love?

Great Blue Heron, photo by Jack Barnwell

I’ve just finished up a year of “Leadership Nashville,” which involved 14-hour days and field trips and a lot of time on the bus with strangers who – thankfully, wonderfully, quickly and sometimes slowly – became friends. In our group of 44: a sparkling news anchor, a beautiful rabbi. An editor of our newspaper and a museum curator. The heads of Metro Nashville Sports Authority, the Meharry School of Dentistry, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (acting). Assorted flavors of business leaders, lawyers, bankers, entrepreneurs, creatives, and those working in the government and nonprofit sectors. Also – delightfully! – a young man who makes Belle Meade Bourbon.

We learned about our city through themed days focusing on Business, Criminal Justice, Arts and Entertainment, and Education, among other topics. We were of course learning a lot about each other along the way. I won’t lie to you you – there were distinctly uncomfortable moments of candor as we listened to each other’s opinions. But there were more moments of deep empathy as we listened to each other’s stories. One felt the undercurrent of hope – stronger as the year progressed – that we might be able to better understand what unites us and what divides us. That we might be able to help improve communal life in our city – and in our society.

I wrote the original version of today’s post for StyleBlueprint (“Top 10 Beach Reads for Summer 2018: Feel All the Feels”) and was deeply influenced by my year in Leadership Nashville as I made the choices. They’re great current books, full of emotion and connection, full of hope, history, humor, and sometimes anger and loss. They ask: What unites us? What divides us? What is love?

Love grows – I think – when we tell our stories.

*      *      *

Top Beach Reads for Summer 2018: The Bacon Eight

The best “beach reads” often have nothing to do with the beach. Or summer. But we all know what we’re looking for! A beach read has to be easy to pick up. Hard to put down. And it’s got to make you feel all the feels. Summer 2018, here we come!

My top pick for Summer 2018 is The Mars Room, a new novel by Rachel Kushner that shimmers and sweats in the heat of a women’s prison in California. Romy Hall, a night club dancer, has been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker boyfriend. She’s figuring out prison life and agonizing over the fate of her young son – now in foster care – when she meets Gordon, a prison employee and teacher, idealistic and broke when he took the job. “If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged,” Gordon tells himself – and sometimes he even believes it. You’ll believe in every one of the characters as Romy navigates life behind bars, a place where the human spirit is sometimes but not always crushed, in which there is room for ingenuity and compassion as well as brutality. The Mars Room will open your eyes and break your heart and stay with you long after you’ve pressed it into the hands of your best friend, saying – “You’ve got to read this.”

Another book that will pull you in and wring you out this summer is Educated, a memoir that’s already spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Tara Westover grew up in remotest Idaho – in a survivalist Mormon family – with little knowledge of the outside world. Civil Rights? The Holocaust? Never heard of them. Doctor’s office? Never been. She became acquainted with the pain of abuse and eventually found her way to Brigham Young University and later Harvard and Cambridge, England. Her memoir is a testament to the power of education and of family love that can bind – and nearly destroy. “Despite its harrowing plot, Westover’s book is no misery memoir. Yes, there’s hardship, the depiction of which could be compared to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle or Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. But the book is also an elegantly written story of a young girl finding herself by leaving America and going to Europe – closer in that sense to Henry James than James Frey,” writes Vogue. Everyone you know is reading this memoir…

…Unless they want to laugh. This year’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Less, is a romp and a comic novel and something deeper, “a generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love,” according to the Pulitzer award committee. Bonus: it was just released in paperback.

From the publisher:

Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes – it would be too awkward – and you can’t say no – it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?

ANSWER: You accept them all.

…Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty…

Less shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.

Historical fiction instead raises the curtain on our shared human past. To feel all the feels – and also get swept up in suspenseful story – try Kristen Chen’s new novel, Bury What We Cannot Take. It’s late 1950’s China, and a nine-year-old girl and her brother live with their family in the upper floor of what used to be their family villa. Mao is in power – his ideology ascendant – and the girl’s formerly wealthy family now shares their home with many. Party leaders enforce political orthodoxy and punish dissent with public denunciation and execution. When the girl’s brother reports that his grandmother shattered a framed photo of Mao in their home, he sets in motion a terrifying chain of events. One child must be left behind as the others secretly flee. “[T]he novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history,” writes The Millions. “Bury What We Cannot Take explores what it takes to survive in a world gone mad – and what is lost when we do. Kirsten Chen has written both an engrossing historical drama and a nuanced exploration of how far the bonds of familial love can stretch,” writes author Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere, Everything I Never Told You).

The biggest titles in historical fiction this summer may well be Varina, by Charles Frazier, and Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Charles Frazier enchanted and moved us with his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Cold Mountain (1997). Varina remains rooted in the historical time period and region of Cold Mountain – the Civil War South – and imagines the life of Jefferson Davis’s wife. As military defeat became inevitable, Davis sent Varina, their children, and a few soldiers on a wild journey towards Florida, Cuba, and safe haven. The novel begins somewhat awkwardly, imagining that a middle-aged black man has found Varina in her old age at a health sanitarium in New England. He’s trying to find out what she knows about his past. The novel comes to life more convincingly when Varina begins telling the story of her nearly-successful escape – and how their lives intersected when he was a very young child.

Michael Ondaatje transported us to North Africa and Italy in the waning days of World War II in moody, transcendant style in The English Patient (1992). His new novel, Warlight, tells a similarly atmospheric tale, set in post-World War II England. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” the book begins – gorgeously. The story is told by one of the children much later in his life as he reflects on his parents’ choices and their consequences.

Parents’ choices and their consequences can make brilliant, glittering fiction: this June, my book club is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, her second National Book Award winning novel (following Salvage the Bones). Jojo is thirteen, a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. His family includes his drug-addicted mother, Leonie (a white woman), his toddler sister, and his father (a black man), in prison in Mississippi. When Jojo’s father is set to be released, Leonie loads up the car with the kids and a friend and sets out to go get him. Entertainment Weekly says that “[g]hosts, literal and literary, haunt nearly every page of Sing, Unburied, Sing— a novel whose boundaries between the living and the dead shift constantly, like smoke or sand. Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (a place rich in oil rigs and atmosphere, if almost nothing else), the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. But the voice is entirely Ward’s own, a voluptuous magical realism that takes root in the darkest corners of human behavior….”

Curtis Sittenfeld mines the present moment for the dark corners she illuminates. Each story in her new collection You Think It, I’ll Say It introduces us to a character in a terribly awkward or uncomfortable situation. For instance: what if you’re married with kids, you’ve been flirting with a fellow parent at school events for a long time, you think you’re both falling in love, you confess your feelings, and you learn that his feelings were completely platonic. Awkward! Horrible! Real. A moment to despair – and reflect. What if the woman you’ve hated all through pregnancy yoga and breast-feeding classes ends up being the one person who helps you when you need it most? Awkward! Painful! Real. Sittenfeld’s main characters – mostly women – can be resentful and ungenerous and distrustful. They remember hurts from high school. And – over the course of the story – they are forced to confront their ugliest feelings. Their most painful memories. They’re forced to think about their actions – then and now. They don’t always want transformative change. Sometimes they get it anyhow, and sometimes they avoid it. These unsettling stories surprise and ask us: who are you, at your worst? Who do you want to be? To change, you have to be willing to think hard about your own story. The stories around you. Amidst the stories, love can grow. 

Thank you, Jack Barnwell, for the gorgeous photos from Lake Tillery, NC

June 11, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

Nashville Special: All We Ever Wanted

Here in Nashville, we had a lot of opinions about Anthony Bourdain’s visit (rest in peace) when he came to town. Same with the hit TV show “Nashville.”

Photo from Nash Country Daily

Mostly we loved being in the limelight! But you also heard whispers and complaints. Minor and major grousing. The chatter was half the fun! 

Next-up: a big-time novel set in Nashville by a big-time, New York Times-bestselling author, Emily Giffin. All We Ever Wanted will be released June 26th, with a launch party a few days earlier at Cheekwood (Saturday, June 23rd). I was lucky enough to read an early copy, and it promises more delicious – and heated – conversation. I can’t wait to hear what you think!

You’ll recognize all the places in the novel, set largely in Belle Meade, East Nashville, and a school called “Windsor Academy” in West Nashville that sounds suspiciously familiar. You’ll go to 404 Kitchen. A Luke Bryan concert. Urban Outfitters in the Gulch. Some bad things go down on Belle Meade Boulevard and Lynwood.

A senior at “Windsor Academy” takes a photo of a sophomore in a compromised position. She’s drunk, and he is too. What if she has a crush on him and wants to minimize what happened? She REALLY doesn’t want her father making everything worse by making such a big deal of it. The young man’s Princeton admission is on the line. What if things aren’t exactly as they seem? A jealous girlfriend might be involved. This is all sounding very YA – in a good way – but this novel is as much about the parents as the kids. How far will we as parents go to protect our children? What are the lessons we’ve taught that we didn’t mean to teach? Things aren’t black and white in this novel – until they are.

“This is the first time I’ve written specifically about money, privilege, and entitlement,” Giffin told Us Weekly. “It is also the first time I’ve written from three different viewpoints and given that I’m a married mother, I was surprised to discover that in many ways, I connected most deeply with a single father.”

Giffin is the author of eight internationally bestselling novels: Something Borrowed, Something Blue; Baby Proof; Love the One You’re With; Heart of the Matter; Where We Belong; The One & Only; and First Comes Love. A graduate of Wake Forest University and the University of Virginia School of Law, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and three children.

The Bacon verdict: I loved it! It’s provocative. Suspenseful. It presents several ethical dilemmas in the context of believable relationships. You care about the (flawed, but trying their best) characters. Perhaps there’s one character you hate. This novel may have been written with a female audience in mind, but anyone living in Nashville will find it fascinating. I think the rest of you may, too.

Interested in an early copy? Along with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and a Garden Party at Cheekwood?

Here are the details, from the sponsor… (Click here for more info and to purchase a ticket for the Garden Party on Saturday, June 23rd)…

Gather your girlfriends and spend the afternoon with #1 New York Times bestselling author Emily Giffin – and get her new novel, ALL WE EVER WANTED, 3 days in advance of publication! Be one of the first readers of one of the hottest books of the summer and spend the afternoon with your friends enjoying wine, sweet tea & lemonade and lite bites. You’ll hear Emily in conversation talking about her life and career, and she’ll answer your questions (including her thoughts about England’s Royal family!). You’ll also have a professional, social-sharing ready photo taken with Emily IF you’d like! There will be a talk on tips & trends in make-up by Woo Cosmetics, shopping at the online resort marketplace Dear Keaton’s pop-up shop, raffle prizes from CROSBY by Mollie Burch, Dear Keaton, Woo Cosmetics, Mario Badescu, Random House and a ticket ($20 value) to tour the gardens and galleries of Cheekwood Estate & Gardens.

In addition to your signed copy of ALL WE EVER WANTED before it goes on sale, guests will receive a special Random House canvas tote bag which includes two of Emily’s favorite reads, chic readers from Drew Barrymore’s FLOWER Eyewear collection, a beautiful pocket notebook from Rifle Paper Co., an exclusive 20% discount card (one-time use) from Draper James, plus samples from Woo Cosmetics and Mario Badescu Skincare.

Set in Nashville, ALL WE EVER WANTED is already promising to be one of THE reads of summer: see Emily before she is on the Today Show with Hoda and Kathie Lee on Tuesday, June 25. Early reviews are fantastic – PopSugar calls it “the book everyone will be talking about this summer.” Good Morning America included ALL WE EVER WANTED in its list of Best Books to bring to the Beach This Summer & Entertainment Weekly has posted an exclusive excerpt.

Cheekwood Estate & Gardens is the ideal location to spend an afternoon immersed in book culture and beauty. You’ll hear Emily discuss her timeliest novel to date; have time to explore Cheekwood’s art collection and 12 unique garden settings; and enjoy a reception with Emily and other readers following her conversation.

4:00pm Doors open
4:30pm A Conversation with Emily Giffin and Q&A
5:30pm Photo Opportunity, Activities, Snacks & Refreshments
7:00pm Event ends

*Cheekwood Estate and Garden is available to tour beginning at 9:00am

What’s included in Emily Giffin’s Garden Party (a $150+ value):

  • signed copy of ALL WE EVER WANTED (3 days before publication!)
  • Conversation and Q&A with Emily Giffin
  • professional & social media sharing ready photo with Emily
  • Dear Keaton pop-up shop
  • wine, sweet tea, lemonade, and hors d’oeuvres
  • a Random House canvas tote bag
  • cosmetic sample from Woo Cosmetics
  • skincare sample from Mario Badescu
  • chic readers from Flower Eyewear by Drew Barrymore
  • a beautiful pocket notebook from Rifle Paper Co.
  • an exclusive 20% off discount card from Draper James (one-time use)
  • TWO of Emily’s own favorite reads
  • raffle prizes from CROSBY by Mollie Burch, Dear Keaton, Draper James, Maria Badescu, Woo Cosmetics, Random House
  • access to Cheekwood Estate’s gardens & galleries