Bacon on the Bookshelf

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Guest Post by Mary Falls: Grazing for the Literary Omnivore

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mary Falls at a loss for words, and I’ve known her since we practiced law together very many years ago.  She always seems to have just the right thing to say!  Maybe because she reads so much?  Maybe it was all those siblings competing for air time.  Maybe it’s just her own special gift.

In case it’s the reading, here’s what she’s loved in 2014!  From Mary:

https://www.flickr.com/x/t/0098009/photos/72616463@N00/8209747013/ Vegan chocolate cake from Goodie's Cafe, Berlin

https://www.flickr.com/x/t/0098009/photos /72616463@N00/8209747013/
Vegan chocolate cake from Goodie’s Cafe, Berlin

My literary palate is expansive, but also selective.  This means that I sample many books (about 200 per year), but only devour about half that many.  I think of my style of reading as catch and release – the catch is abundant, but the keepers are few.  Thanks to our fabulous public library, I order just about any book that is garnering critical buzz and gather armfuls at my local branch nearly every week.  If a particular book doesn’t grab me in the first fifty to one hundred pages, it goes right back promptly.  Time is, of course, the literary equivalent of food calories, so each book has to be really satisfying to merit the commitment.  So what types of books qualify for the literary equivalent of a calorie bomb?  Non-fiction is the meat-and-potatoes of my literary diet – I need to be nourished by it and will tolerate less than stellar prose or a slightly plodding delivery if I am learning something worthy.  This year, my reading list skewed heavily to non-fiction.  Fiction is dessert for me – and I am really, really fussy about dessert.  The prose must be gorgeous and the story compelling for me to really sing about a work of fiction (ahhh – Dickens is bliss).

Here is this literary omnivore’s best reads thus far in 2014:

Non-Fiction:

  1. Unknown-4No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald.  This is the massively important book about how and why Edward Snowden became a household name.  For anyone concerned about government overreach and privacy issues, I assume you have read this already.  If you aren’t willing to become a bit more paranoid, don’t read this.
  1. Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey is the best historical non-fiction book I read in 2014.  This is a far more nuanced approach to this pivotal figure than I have read previously.  Fantastic.
  1. Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy is a wonderful read.  You might think this topic is too narrow to merit your attention, but Macy is a talented storyteller with an important message about our globalizing commerce.
  1. Pay any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen.  You know Risen as the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist from The New York Times.  Risen’s frustration and indignation carry forth at a steady simmer throughout.  As in Greenwald’s book, few institutional players come off favorably.
  1. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  While Alexander’s writing style failed to impress me, this book is a must read.  I thought I knew quite a bit about the inadequacies and racism endemic in our “justice” system, but this book demonstrated to me that I knew about five percent of the story.  Despite Alexander’s plainly disclosed biases, I found the case she made to be compelling.  Kate Ezell provided a comprehensive review here that you should read.
  1. To the End of June by Cris Beam.  This close-up view of the foster care system in New York City will leave you sleepless. Beam looks at foster care from the perspective of various kids yearning to be adopted, one who should have been removed from her parents’ care much earlier, one who perhaps should not have been removed, caring and uncaring foster parents, and caring but poorly prepared adoptive parents.  Eight months after reading this book, I am still at a loss to understand why the system is such a mess.  These poor, poor kids deserve better.
  1. Unknown-8Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis.  Lewis is a talented writer who can expose the underside of finance (in this case high speed trading) in a gripping tale of intrigue and suspense.
  1. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel.  After seeing my list above, this one shouldn’t surprise you.  I was the kid who never had a grape at home until I was a teenager.  My well-informed mother was a big fan of Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez and so, out of solidarity with the migrant farm workers, we abstained from grapes.  Like most (perhaps all?) heroes, Chavez was deeply flawed, but a star at organizing powerless migrants and creating a message that reached from rural California to my kitchen outside of Buffalo, New York.  This book left me pondering the oh-so-obvious absence of a singular voice for the voiceless today.

Fiction:

  1. Redeployment by Phil Klay.  This book just won the National Book Award.  These haunting short stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars offer the immediacy and detailed intimacy of a memoir from the perspectives of officers, enlisted men, chaplains, medics, Unknown-6and translators.  The author sensitively poses the big picture questions (why? what for? what now? how to move forward?), but leaves the reader to ponder whether there are answers and what they might be.
  1. Sweetness #9 by Stephen Eirik Clark.  This funny novel dishes up some serious issues – Is our food killing us, making us crazy, causing the demise of the American family, culture, and way of life?  Sounds heavy (and it is, sort of), but also brilliantly clever.
  1. Zone of Interest by Martin Amis.  This controversial book grabbed my attention.  I am an Amis fan and he delivers again by wading into the cupidity of the Holocaust.  While some reviewers have criticized his failure to delve into the myriad thorny big picture issues, I found his absurdist farce of a romance between the commandant’s wife and a mid-level officer amid ubiquitous death to be the point we are meant to ponder.
  1. Book cover of Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael BeahRadiance of Tomorrow by Ishmeal Beah.  I am still haunted by Beah’s first memoir: A Long Way Gone about the civil war in Sierra Leone and his years as a child soldier.  Beah was eventually rescued and aided by UNICEF and is now a UNICEF ambassador against child soldiering.  In Radiance of Tomorrow, Beah turns to fiction to tell the story of Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war.  Government corruption, the disintegration of traditional family and community structures, and resource pillaging by western conglomerates make for a deeply troubling tale.  There are no happy endings in this novel.
  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  This was beautifully reviewed by Elizabeth Lamar in this blog and I will simply echo her recommendation.
  1. Long Man by Amy Greene.  I just read this beautiful novel yesterday after skipping over it earlier in the year.  If reading a novel about TVA coming to Appalachia in the 1930’s strikes you too as a snooze, you would be wrong!  Happily, I finally got around to reading it.  Superb.
  1. Euphoria by Lily King.  This is a lovely little book that it is justifiably garnering high praise.  Like Ann Patchett’s brilliant novel State of Wonder, King takes the reader into the wild to experience the muddling of science and conflicting human experiences.

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For Mary’s introductory bio and prior post, please click here.

3 Comments

  1. Wonderful! My stack for 2015 is much improved! Thank you, Mary and Jennifer.

  2. How can you not be excited by all these books. – And a little overwhelmed.
    Mary, thank you for your curation.

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