With great pleasure I share the last installment of Bacon readers’ top picks for 2015! It’s not too late to get these books wrapped and under the tree… and it’s always a good time to treat yourself to a great read!
From Kate McKee: My favorite read of 2015 was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I picked it up when it came out late last year after hearing the author interviewed on NPR, but I didn’t get around to reading it until this summer. I’m drawn to non-fiction books, so this story of injustice in the deep South really caught my attention.
Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer who has dedicated his career to defending the poor and wrongly convicted. His book focuses on one of his first clients, Walter McMillian, a black man with a family and a good job who was convicted to death in the late 1980s for the murder of a young, attractive white woman in Monroeville, Alabama (ironically, home to Harper Lee) despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. The book is a fascinating and disturbing look at the unimaginable injustices carried out by a system that was clearly rigged against an innocent man. To begin with, McMillian was placed on death row for months prior to his trial. At trial he presented multiple alibi witnesses who testified that he was at a family fish fry miles away when the crime took place. He was convicted by a jury of 11 whites and 1 African American based primarily on the testimony of a white man with a lengthy criminal record. The jury recommended a life sentence but the trial judge, Robert E. Lee Key (you just can’t make this stuff up) overrode the jury and imposed the death penalty. When Bryan Stevenson took the case on appeal, Judge Key called him and warned him not to get involved. He was eventually exonerated, but it’s deeply disturbing to think of how many Walter McMillians are still sitting or have died on death row. Throughout the book, Stevenson weaves the stories of injustice of other clients and touches on larger issues of criminal justice in America such as why incarceration rates have increased so dramatically over the past several decades. It’s tough stuff but important. I highly recommend it!
From Nancy Cheadle: Looking over books I have read this year, one stood out as very uplifting and inspiring. That book was My Dream of Stars by Anousheh Ansari, written with Homer Hickham (Rocket Boys). She was the keynote speaker at an Aviation conference my husband John and I attended this year. We were impressed and enthralled with her talk. I came home and read this book about Mrs. Ansari’s difficult childhood in Iran, and her family’s move to the U.S., where she grew up, studied hard and has had huge success as an entrepreneur. The author became the title sponsor of the 10 million dollar Ansari X Prize. Mrs. Ansari then achieved her life-long dream of traveling to space. Along the way, the author overcomes preconceived notions of what an Iranian and a woman can accomplish. Though this book is not great literature, Mrs. Ansari tells her story skillfully and at times poetically, with the wonderful insight of a woman who has literally seen the big picture of our world from space.
From Andrea Overby: One of my favorite books of this year is The Last Season by Stuart Stevens, longtime political consultant and campaign strategist.
After the 2012 election, in which he was Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, Stevens decides to set aside intentional time to be with his parents, who are into their 90s. He and his father had many fond memories of attending Ole Miss football games, and Stevens proposes to his 95-year-old dad that they spend the upcoming Fall season attending one more round of games.
Their journeys – to Oxford for tailgaiting in the Grove for home games and driving to away games – are wrapped around reflections of his growing up in Mississippi in the early 1960s and his realization of the blessing of family. Stevens writes of his gratitude that his parents gave him the opportunity to experience life outside of his home state, while still loving his roots. Traveling with a 95-year-old was both humorous and challenging, but the lessons learned apply to all of us, no matter where we were born.
The Last Season is an easy read of a father-son story with delightful insights into meaningful life values. Stevens’ career as a writer includes five previous books, writing for The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications, and writing extensively for television shows.
From Amy Norton: Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became more than a way of life: it became a badge of honor. And in what seems like a cultural quest to affirm our importance through multitasking, we have become masterful plate spinners who have long lists of accomplishments, but who often struggle to connect meaningfully with those most important to us. So much to do, so little time, and smartphones surgically attached at the wrist. The phubbing phenomenon should come as no surprise. (Can you relate? I certainly can.)
Worse, we’ve developed a collective case of relaxation amnesia. Not only have we forgotten how to do things like enjoy an afternoon nap in a hammock, we have weeks of of unused vacation time accruing because we are afraid to unplug for fear of the tsunami that awaits our return.
As a recovering plate spinner myself, I recommend 5 Gears: How to be Present and Productive When There’s Never Enough Time, written by two good friends and my colleagues, Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram. Their simple metaphor based on the manual gear shift of a car has helped me develop a new mindset that makes it entirely possible to work from a place of rest and genuinely connect with my people (i.e. without one eye on my phone all the time).
The holiday hoopla will be over in a blink. As you turn your thoughts toward what you want 2016 to be, skip all the resolution-making and read this book instead.
From Jason Facio: The Monk and the Philosopher is a conversation between a brilliant agnostic western philosopher and a Tibetan Monk, which is interesting, but what makes this dialogue even more so is that this particular Monk is a western born PhD in molecular genetics who retreated to India some 40 years ago to study Tibetan Buddhism and eventually took refuge and became a Monk. The renowned philosopher who is talking with the Monk, and here’s the big Star Wars twist … Is HIS FATHER!! All joking aside, there’s a beauty to the ease of the dialogue. I’m not saying the conversation is always pleasant. The father seems to hold some resentment over the son’s abandonment of western life, and maybe a rejection of his father’s heritage, but it’s very honest. At times you can even see the father rolling his eyes, exasperated at his son, as they discuss the meaning of life. In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s encouraged to challenge the teachings and in fact it’s common practice for Monks to debate each other fiercely and to incorporate scientific facts in those debates. Matthieu Ricard (The Monk) and his father Jean Francois Revel (The Philosopher) do just that and cover a wide spectrum of western and eastern philosophies. Every so often, the two are bridged in the dialogue and the reader has a pleasant, albeit voyeuristic, a-ha moment.
From George Cassidy: For some years now, Keith Richards has slowly but surely been evolving into one of our leading men of letters. First came his acclaimed memoir, Life, in 2010. Then, in 2014, came his charmingly rendered children’s book, Gus and Me, about his close childhood relationship with his musical grandfather. Now, “Keef” has branched out to become a literary tastemaker of sorts – not unlike Oprah with her nefarious Book Club. His recent praise for Doctor Dogbody’s Leg, a collection of out-of-print sea yarns by James Norman Hall, sent asking prices for even the grubbiest paperback version briefly into the thousands of dollars as all extant copies were snapped up by adoring Stones fans worldwide. Alas, I have not read Doctor Dogbody’s Leg, but I can second Keef’s standing recommendation of another set of maritime tales, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. An improbable blend of high adventure and finely observed social comedy, these have been called the finest historical novels ever written, aptly described as “Jane Austen at sea” – well before the current vogue for self-conscious Jane Austen genre mash-ups. Unlike Doctor Dogbody’s Leg, they are in print and readily available at ordinary prices. Proceed in order through the first two, Master and Commander and Post Captain, and see if you don’t gradually lose your irritation with the abundance of nautical jargon and start staying up well into the night to finish them. Then, simply reserve, as I have done, the next couple of months to work your way through all twenty in the series. Thanks, Keef!
From Martha Ivester: A friend handed me The Rosie Project while we were at the beach and said “you HAVE to read this.” The last book she passed me was Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, so I eagerly dug in. It is a quick read and enormously entertaining, with several unexpected twists. Don is a geneticists professor with severe social issues. On the advice of a friend, he embarks on “The Wife Project,” a data-driven effort to locate, test, and weed out the perfect mate, based mainly on their willingness to complete a multi–page suitability questionnaire. Don’s criteria are extremely stringent and he of course has some trouble sourcing good candidates. One of these (quickly disqualified), is Rosie. Despite her “unsuitability” (which he makes no effort to hide from her), Don is inspired to help Rosie find her genetic father and together they embark on a transcontinental search for DNA. Don and Rosie are polar opposites but perfect for each other. The Rosie Project is about love and about our expectations of what ultimately matters most in our deepest relationships. It is definitely not a chick book; anyone will have a blast following Don’s antics on his quest.
From Sandra Lipman: Briefly…some interesting, provocative, thoughtful, smart and fun books that I have recently read are: Circling the Sun by Paula McClain, The Dinner by Herman Koch, Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter to name a few. And of course 9-month-old grandson baby Peter loves all of the Pete the Cat books, especially the ones accompanied with audio… They are very cool!!!
A Memory of Violets, A Novel of London’s Flower Sellers, by Hazel Gaynor is based on real stories and people from the London flower markets in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Gaynor weaves believable and meaningful stories of the children, often orphaned and disabled, who eked out a subsistence by selling flowers, and some of the people who helped them to make a better life. Well-researched and absorbing.
Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, weaves two stories together. One is the story of Vivian, who as a young girl in the 1920s is taken from New York to the Midwest on the Orphan Train to be adopted. The second story is set in present day, when Vivian is an elderly woman and she meets Molly, a teenager in the foster system. Their stories coincide nicely, and I was swept along with the characters as they grew and changed. This was a book I couldn’t put down.
The Ghost Army of World War II: How one Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery, by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles. The title rather says it all. An incredible story, the book is full of photos and art that put the reader right in the middle of the secret phantom army maneuvers. From the book jacket: “In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of young GIs landed in France to conduct a secret mission. Armed with truckloads of inflatable tanks, a massive collection of sound-effects records, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves, their job was to create a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe, with the German Army as their audience. From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the Ghost Army, conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Between missions the artists filled their duffel bags with drawings and paintings and dragged them across Europe. Every move they made was top secret and their story was hushed up for decades after the war’s end. The Ghost Army of World War II is the first publication to tell the full story of how a traveling road show of artists wielding imagination, paint, and bravado saved thousands of American lives.”
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. This is another book I bought for everyone I knew after I read it. This is the story of Oak Ridge, TN, and how it grew to house 75,000 residents, many of them single young women. Most of them had no idea that they were working to create fuel for the atomic bomb until it was dropped over Hiroshima. I love learning history from amazing personal stories, and this book has that and fascinating details of the work that went on at Oak Ridge.
Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton. It is a collection of photos and brief stories about people that he approaches on the streets of New York City as well as people he met when he traveled to other countries in collaboration with the UN. It is a terrific reminder of how much we have in common with everyone else. He also has a website with his photos and stories, which is www.humansofnewyork.com.
From Marion Herndon (my Mom!): The Nightingale is a marvelous read – the best I’ve read in 2015. It is about two sisters living in the quiet village of Carriveau, France, at the time of the German invasion in 1939. It is a very moving historical novel and may have you in tears from time to time.
Vianne is the rule-follower of the sisters, and the younger, Isabelle, is the rebel. Vianne, her husband, Antoine, and young daughter, Sophie, live an idyllic life in the country until one day he is called to the Front to fight after the Germans invaded France in WWII.
I learned so much about the often untold story of women during wartime – the sacrifices they make, the courage and strength required of them, the struggles they face while their men are away enduring great hardships in battle or as prisoners of war.
Months go by with no word from Antoine at the Front. It was a difficult daily struggle for Vianne and Sophie just to survive. To complicate matters further, one day a young German officer shows up and requisitions Vianne and Sophie’s home. “You needn’t worry, Madam, he said. “We have been admonished to act as gentlemen. My mother would demand the same, and in truth, she scares me more than my general.” How was Vianne supposed to respond?
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is in a finishing school she despises some distance away. She breaks all the rules because she is a born rebel, and when the Germans invade her beloved Paris, she determines to go there by hook or crook, no matter the danger in getting there to “this magnificent city that had been stripped of its essence by the endless clatter of German jackboots on the streets and disfigured by swastikas that flew from every monument.”
Vianne’s pleading for her to remain quiet and safe was to no avail. She refused to believe that France had surrendered to Germany, the enemy. In Paris she joined an underground group, the Resistance, fell in love with Gaetan, and became “Juliette Gervaise, with the code name of “The Nightingale.”
Back in Carriveaux, Vianne in her own way survived the ravages of wartime and dared to take chances to save her own skin as well as others. What happens to her when another, more sullen German officer, requisitions her home, will keep you on edge. Does her husband survive the war and come home? Why is the book a flashback of her own telling? How does she end up in the US? You will burn the midnight oil to finish reading this book.
From Joe Herndon (my Dad!): Chris Hallfield had a desire to fly from age 7 onward. His father was an airline pilot, and this probably tweaked his interest. From early on, he wanted to become an astronaut, but being Canadian, the chances were slim.
However, he set his goals high. He studied engineering in college and joined the Canadian Air Force. He became a test pilot in the US AirForce system and continued to pursue his passion. His dedication and purpose began to open doors. His family supported him in his efforts.
He flew in the US shuttle to the Space Station and on his last mission to the space station, he flew in the Soviet re-supply vehicle, the Soyuz, and stayed there for six months.
The experience of viewing Earth from space with its river systems, mountain ranges, oceans, human density at night with the concentration of night lights, big cities, and vast areas of little activity gave him an appreciation of how life is not just random, but ordained, and how important family is. Without family, he could never have attained his goals and witnessed the marvels of life on earth from space.
This is one of the best books I have read all year, and I am an avid reader. My daughter, Jennifer, is always recommending good reads and sending them to me so I am never without. This one, however, Marion chose from her Reader’s Club selection of books for the year. I always find time to read her books as well.
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Please share any further recommendations in the comments! I’d be so delighted to hear about other great reads, and it would be a kindness to all last-minute book shoppers!