Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Greatest Hits of 2014

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I hope Black Friday finds you cozy at home!  I’m impressed with your bravery if you’re headed to the mall, particularly Mean Hills.  The ladies mean business, especially about that parking space.  My advice to you:  concede the space and save yourself.

Today’s post features a few ideas as the shopping madness commences.  For more (ideas, not madness), take a look at the books nominated for the big literary awards; you’ll find links at the end of this post.  You might also check out the Guest Posts here at Bacon!  With no further ado…

Bacon Picks, Nonfiction:

9780385535373In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides

The voyage of the USS Jeannette is the most harrowing journey you’ve never heard of.  In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 32 set off on a celebrated voyage to reach the North Pole.  All of America cheered their grand expedition as they pulled out of port.  The leading cartographers and scientists of the day believed they would find a warm polar sea there, formed by the convergence of the Gulf Stream and another warm and powerful current flowing through the Pacific.

The scientists and cartographers were wrong, and the men found themselves in a terrifying (and very cold) struggle for their lives.  By Providence and human will, records of the journey survived.  In addition, copies of the many letters Emma DeLong wrote to her husband remained safely in an attic for over a century, and Hampton Sides is the first author to have access to them.  He has written In the Kingdom of Ice as a love story as well as a tale of grand exploration, and the result is as poignant, brilliant, and chilling as anything I’ve read.

Strangely, another tale of 33 men makes my holiday list…

 

Unknown-7Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, by Héctor Tobar

Despite this book’s title, it’s no feel-good account of the 2010 rescue the world witnessed.  I felt instead a complicated mixture of awe and sorrow at what we humans are.  We can build a dangerous mine where men spend their days in darkness and toil.  We can lose 33 of them under the earth and then devote extraordinary resources to finding them.  If we are one of the 33, we can ration our food and live on one spoonful of canned tuna and one cookie a day as supplies dwindle.  We can figure out how not to kill each other in near total darkness, hunger and fear.  We invent a rudimentary society below the earth.  We save each other – and are saved – but after this ordeal, some of us are able to move forward, while some are not.  In all of this, we laugh and cry and are capable of such kindness and cruelty that it seems unthinkable that such a creature as us exists.  Héctor Tobar has painted a portrait of one disaster, but in it, he gives us humanity.

 

Strong Inside: The Collision of Race and Sports in the South, by Andrew Maraniss

Strong Inside is a sports biography of Perry Wallace, an exceptional basketball player and gentle soul, but it’s every bit as much a rich history of Nashville, Vanderbilt, and the Civil Rights era.  Perry Wallace had been a high profile athlete at Vanderbilt from the moment he signed on in 1966, the first black basketball player not only at Vanderbilt but in the entire Southeastern Conference.  For four years he played his heart out and was even voted most popular Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the Southman on campus (Vanderbilt’s strangely named “Bachelor of Ugliness”).  In his last days on campus, he gave two interviews – to the Tennessean and to the school newspaper – revealing the truth of what he’d experienced:  a tremendous sense of social isolation, the physical and emotional assaults at away games, and the horrible feeling that his teammates and even his coaches didn’t understand what he was going through.  Wallace’s remarks caused deep confusion in some quarters and led to a decades-long estrangement from Vanderbilt.

Andrew Maraniss sets out to explain how Perry Wallace got to that point, following him from childhood in north Nashville through Vanderbilt to the present day.  Wallace now teaches Law at American University, and Vanderbilt has publicly recognized his achievements and sought reconciliation.  Maraniss tells Wallace’s story with great generosity and compassion, as well as an evident love of the game of basketball.  The spirit in which Maraniss writes is not one of judgment, but of seeking to understand one young man’s courageous journey in a particular time and place.

 

Book cover of Orange is the New Black, by Piper KermanOrange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

The great Netflix series Orange is the New Black introduced many of us to such concepts as “gay for the stay” and “going to the SHU” (Solitary Housing Unit).  Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, the show follows the adventures and misadventures of a blonde, well-heeled 30-something doing time in federal prison for a 10-year-old drug offense.  The show is often extremely funny, as stereotypes are exaggerated in a light-hearted manner, but it also has tender and frightening moments.  It seems to convey something real and essential about one woman’s experience, while highlighting the more comic elements that exist in many communal living situations.  Kerman’s memoir is funny and smart, like the series.  It has more of a thoughtful and reflective quality than the show, as one would expect in a memoir.  Kerman’s observations about the “tribal” culture in prison – her word, not mine – are both surprising and not.  Same with the abuses of power she witnesses.  She forms deeply loving and sustaining friendships both in her own tribe and outside of it, and these relationships fuel a remarkable personal transformation.

 

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann PatchettThis_is_the_Story_of_the_Happy_Marriage

In Nashville – or anywhere else – who would neglect an opportunity to spend some quality time with the sweet and savory Ann Patchett?  In this collection of essays, Ann invites the reader to peek over her shoulder as she trains for the Los Angeles Police Department entrance exam, gives a speech to an unfriendly crowd at a college in South Carolina, and opens our local bookstore, Parnassus.  In deeply personal pieces, she recounts the story of her excruciating first marriage and divorce, explains why a dog – not a child – was her “key to perfect happiness,” and divulges why she dated Karl for 11 years before marrying him.  This is more than I know about many friends.  She writes with great warmth and generosity of spirit, but an unsparing eye keeps her well north of sentimental – and often very funny.  Ann writes honestly about good decisions, bad decisions, and everything in between.

 

Bacon Picks, Fiction:

Euphoria, by Lily King9780802122551

Lily King makes no grand claim that Euphoria gets inside the head of Margaret Mead, but King’s bibliography suggests extensive research on Mead and the time she spent on the Sepik River in New Guinea in 1933.  Reading it made me feel as if I could understand at least partially what it might have felt like to be Margaret Mead – among the tribes – with malaria and big ideas – and between two men.  Euphoria opens with husband and wife team Schuyler Fenwick and Nell Stone leaving the violent Mumbanyo tribe they’ve been studying; from the first, the anger and tension between husband and wife is palpable.  Before they can leave New Guinea, they cross paths with another renowned anthropologist, Andy Bankson, who is desperately lonely.  Intrigued by both Nell and Fen, Bankson convinces them to stay on the same stretch of river with him, rather than hopping continents. “The steam the book emits is as much intellectual as erotic,” writes Emily Eakin in The New York Times Book Review “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace – a love triangle in extremis.” Euphoria received the New England Book Award for Fiction this year as well as the brand new Kirkus Prize, which at $50,000 makes it one of the most lucrative awards for a literary work.

 

images-3Long Man, by Amy Greene

In 1936, the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Long Man River, flooding a number of small hamlets in order to bring electricity and progress to an impoverished region. In Long Man, east Tennessee author Amy Greene imagines the few holdouts who refuse to leave the hardscrabble (fictional) community of Yuneetah.  Front and center is Annie Clyde Dodson, a young mother who loves the land and her daughter Gracie with equal ferocity.  When Gracie goes missing in a storm, with a dangerous drifter in the vicinity and the flooding of the land imminent, the suspense becomes nearly unbearable.  Long Man finds hope and beauty despite a multitude of sorrows; it knows the fierceness of a mother’s love; it moves as swiftly as a river.  It lifts the spirit to read such a book.

 

9781594486104_p0_v2_s260x420On Such a Full Sea, by Chang Rae Lee

The future isn’t looking so bright in Chang-Rae Lee’s strange and powerful novel.  The inhabitants of “B-Mor” — the city formerly known as Baltimore — live in an urban farming collective, and their lives and thoughts are controlled with equal care. After the disappearance of her lover, a young woman named Fan takes the unprecedented step of leaving B-Mor to find him. Her journey takes her from the “Counties,” where life is nasty, brutish, and short, all the way to the gated society of the “Charters,” where the quest for perfection warps and shapes in its own destructive ways. Fan’s journey becomes revolutionary myth for those left behind, and the voice of the novel is their collective, haunting chorus as they tell her tale.  Lee’s future is of course a version of our own present, and his observations can be unsettling and provocative.

 

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart9780316055437_p0_v3_s260x420

Feelings have been mixed about this year’s hefty Pulitzer Prize winner.  Some people felt it dragged in the long middle section set in Las Vegas.  Others didn’t like Boris’s strange accent or Tartt’s pontifications on art in the last chapter.  If you haven’t read it, you’ve certainly heard someone express an opinion.  You might want one too!  I thoroughly enjoyed The Goldfinch, a great big casserole of a book.  Or maybe it’s more like a great big strip steak.  Either way, it’s got suspense, substance, and style.  The buzz moment for The Goldfinch may have passed, but it’s still a great current read.  Plus, it’s nice to know what everyone was getting so worked up about.  I never read The Da Vinci Code and always felt that I missed a major cultural moment. (I made sure to read Fifty Shades and Gone Girl.)  If you care about the zeitgeist, you should probably read The Goldfinch.

 

9780062365583Us, by David Nicholls

In David Nicholls’ Booker-Prize nominated novel, the narrator tries to save his marriage of 24 years by planning a grand tour of Europe for his wife, himself, and their 17-year-old son.  Things don’t work out exactly as planned.  Us has the quality of a great madcap movie in addition to its literary qualities.  You can’t wait to hear what will happen next as the family lurches through Europe.  Husband and father Douglas is as straight-laced as they come.  His wife and son, on the other hand, are eager to experience a bit more adventure, especially in free-wheeling Amsterdam.  Things get scary when son Albie decides he’s had enough of this trip and takes off with an itinerant accordionist.  For all of the humor in this book, it also feels deeply real and true in its portrayal of the challenges of a long marriage and dealing with teenagers. (Don’t tell my kids I said that.  Or my husband.)

 

 

Links to some Literary Award Nominees, 2014:

UnknownMan Booker Prize:  www.themanbookerprize.com  (Winner:  The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan)

Pulitzer Prize: www.pulitzer.org/finalists/2014  (Winner:  The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt)

National Book Award:  www.nationalbook.org/nba2014.html  (Winner:  Redeployment, by Phil Klay).  See Guest Post by Carolyn Hall.

Kirkus Prize:  https://www.kirkusreviews.com/lists/2014-kirkus-prize-finalists/  (Winner:  Euphoria, by Lily King)

coverPEN/Faulkner Award: http://www.penfaulkner.org/award-for-fiction/past-award-winners-finalists/    (Winner:  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler)  See Bacon review here.

Nancy Cheadle’s Favorite Book of the Year and One of Her Favorite Books Ever:  All The Light You Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.  See Guest Post by Elizabeth Lamar.

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