Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

December Chills and Thrills: Top Picks

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December can be stressful.  Correction:  December is stressful.  Give yourself a break here and there!  A puppy video.  A salted caramel hot chocolate.  A book or author event.  Today’s Bacon features four thrilling novels plus three upcoming author events in Nashville.  

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Don Winston frightens delightfully with Our Family Trouble: A Domestic Thriller, in which the Bell Witch returns after nearly a century’s rest.  The Bell Witch, Tennessee’s most famous apparition, made her first appearance in Adams, Tennessee, in 1817.  In Winston’s imagination, she’s back to haunt a modern-day descendant of the families who originally suffered her wrath.  This time she’s targeting Dillie and her infant son, a boy who according to the Witch’s prophecy should never have been born.

When the story begins, Dillie is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a new mother, living happily with her husband, baby, and nanny near Washington Square Park.  When things start going haywire around their apartment – the water heater, the smoke alarm, her computer – she’s pretty sure it’s just a series of unfortunate events.  When she starts feeling increasingly beleaguered by work mishaps and unusual encounters, she’s pretty sure it’s just the harried life of a working mother and postpartum fogginess.  After a final gruesome event in her apartment, she takes the baby and retreats to her family home, “River Kiss,” on the banks of the Harpeth River near Franklin, Tennessee.  The strangeness follows her – and intensifies.  

If you live in Nashville, you’ll enjoy references to local landmarks, events, businesses, and even our scariest winter weather (an ice storm, of course).  These familiar references are only a minor thrill of Our Family Trouble, though.  The suspense builds quietly and slowly, then rushes forward and holds you in thrall.  The relationships between Dillie, her mother, and her grandmother take center stage and gain their own internal momentum and heat.  And then there’s the Bell Witch lurking on the edges, out of sight but never out of mind.  She’s one of a kind – just like Don Winston.  

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A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, is a different kind of pleasure, straight up historical fiction with a wry sense of humor and a warmth of sentiment for even the coldest night (or most stressful day).  You may already know and love Amor Towles from his first novel, Rules of Civility, set in 1930s New York.  This time around, the setting is 1920s Russia.  The Count, lately parted from most of his belongings and his title by the Bolsheviks, has been sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow.  He’s been warned in no uncertain terms that he’ll be shot if he leaves the premises, which leaves the question:  how shall he spend the rest of his life?

But for the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide.  On the island of Crete, Theseus had his Ariadne and her magical ball of thread to lead him safely from the lair of the Minotaur.  Through those caverns where ghostly shadows dwell, Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil.  And in the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova.  

Nina is the Eloise of the Metropol, and she introduces the Count to its many secret places – and secrets.  I’m about a third of the way in, and the novel’s sense and sensibility are absolutely enchanting so far.  

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Another enchanting read this season is Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose, the story of an off-off Broadway musical based on a children’s book that sounds a lot like Curious George.  Each chapter focuses on a different person’s experience of the show.  Among others: the aging leading lady forced to wear a ridiculous purple spandex skirt at the director’s whim, the hormonal adolescent boy playing the increasingly deranged monkey, the cripplingly shy audience member who falls in love with the leading lady, and the semi-horrible author of the children’s book.  Each chapter – each person’s story – has elements of both humor and pathos.  Just like the holidays, you know.  

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A book I’ve had a harder time with but don’t regret reading is this year’s National Book Award winner, The Underground Railroad.  Author Colson Whitehead imagines a 19th century America in which an actual underground railroad – engines, tracks, freight cars – helps slaves move north and west as they flee their bondage.  The book begins as a realist work of fiction, with Cora and Caesar escaping a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia, but it subsequently veers into more magical territory, with their stops along the way cataloguing a variety of horrors blacks in America have experienced over time and place.  I feared that this would be a harrowing journey of a book, and it is.  I generally believe that the best authors have the ability to write about terrible things without making you feel simply terrible about humanity, but perhaps that is not always the case.  This book felt like Pilgrim’s Progress to me – a morally instructive tale – but the Pilgrim is being given a tour of Dante’s Inferno instead.  I’m still thinking about this novel days after finishing it.  

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In a busy season, you sometimes want a book you can dip in and out of as you find the right moment.  The Pocket Cathedral: A Collection of Prayers is just that, a luminous and lovely collection of prayers and quotable wisdom ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Anne Lamott to Albert Einstein.  If you’re in Nashville, you won’t want to miss author Farrell Mason, who will read from The Pocket Cathedral at Parnassus on Thursday, December 1st, at 6:30 p.m.  The Pocket Cathedral is the perfect size to fit in your hand or tuck in your purse, or give as a gift, gorgeous in its font, paper, and presentation.  Farrell’s language is both elevated and everyday, often woven together in surprising ways.

Here is one of my favorite prayers from the collection:

Divine One,

You know my heart better than I do.

I believe, help my unbelief.

If I had been a guest at the Wedding at Cana,
I fear I might have proclaimed,

“There’s no wine, only water in these cisterns,”

Instead of leaning into the Mystery.

Fill this empty vessel of my soul with the rich wine
of Your Holy Spirit.  Allow it to spill over into
every nook, cranny and crevice of my being.

Transform my heart into a divining rod.

Make me believe again in miracles.

I don’t want to ever be surprised by Your unfathomable love for me.

In secret, my soul has always known it was wine,
not water, in those cisterns.

Amen.

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Several days later – on Sunday, December 4th, at 3:00 p.m. – you can catch Pulitzer-Prize winner Michael Chabon at Nashville’s Downtown Public Library as part of the Salon@615 series.  Click here for more details and to reserve a seat in advance.  

Chabon’s new novel Moonglow received a shiny review from A.O. Scott on the front page of The New York Times Book Review several weeks back.  Scott begins:

Michael Chabon’s new book is described on the title page as “a novel,” in an author’s note as a “memoir” and in the acknowledgments as a “pack of lies.”  This is neither as confusing nor as devious as it might sound…. Chabon has what sounds like a mostly true story to tell – about characters whose only names are “my grandmother” and “my grandfather,” and also about mental illness, snake hunting, the Holocaust and rocket science – and he may not have wanted to be bound too tightly by the constraints of literal accuracy in telling it.

“Whatever else it is – a novel, a memoir, a pack of lies, a mishmash,” Scott concludes, “this book is beautiful.”

Sean Kinch has written a thoughtful and thorough review at Chapter16.org.  “Chabon’s novel belongs to a growing shelf of recent fiction that moves mental illness from the wings to center stage,” he observes.  “Like Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Moonglow treats depression as a personal affliction that affects everyone nearby.”  Chabon’s comic instincts balance the heavier elements of the story, “a yin and yang [that] exist in dynamic equilibrium, a cosmic balance reflected at the sentence level” in Kinch’s view.

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For one more installment of truth and beauty this December – or another kind of escape – come hear Robbie Robertson talk about his new memoir, Testimony.  Click here for more details and to purchase a ticket.  

From the Salon@615 website:

The book:

On the 40th anniversary of The Band’s legendary The Last Waltz concert, Robbie Robertson finally tells his own spellbinding story of the band that changed music history, his extraordinary personal journey, and his creative friendships with some of the greatest artists of the last half-century.

The man:

Robbie Robertson was the guitarist and principal songwriter in The Band.  He has produced many movie soundtracks for Martin Scorsese and others, and continues to record as a solo artist.  His most recent record is the critically acclaimed “How to Become Clairvoyant.” 

Event details:

Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt
Tuesday, December 13th, 6:15 PM
COST: $35.50 – includes signed copy of book

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If all else fails and December’s just wearing you down, drop everything and go to the Nutcracker.

 

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Copyright for hot chocolate photo here.

10 Comments

  1. Rules of Civility read like Fitzgerald’s lost novel. It felt like finding buried treasure. Am also a third of the way through Moscow and loving it equally, but differently – if that makes sense. In either case, Towles makes a persuasive case for civility, manners and rules of engagement even when the world seems to have abandoned it.

  2. So much good information here, Jennifer! I really wish I could make the Parnassus event about the Cathedral book, but alas have other plans. Even so I am thrilled to know about this little treasure. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts about The Underground Railroad, too. I have heard all the rave reviews but haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. I’m not sure I could bear the cruelty I imagine it chronicles. It sounds like you had a similar sensibility but still found it to be a worthwhile read.

  3. Jennifer, thank you so much for this! The entire list looks excellent. When I need Christmas gift ideas, I turn to your page first. Very much appreciated. And now you’re on Kate’s good side, which is a good place to be…

  4. I’m looking forward to Michael Chabon’s visit. Already got my ticket. I’m taking The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with me to get signed. Not sure the new book sounds right for me, but I am sure his talk should be fascinating.

  5. Wished I lived in Nashville as your literary life and friendship life is quite wonderful.
    A friend from DC.

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