Bacon readers from near and far have sent in their top picks of 2016, and I’m thrilled to share their rousing recommendations in this last post before Christmas! Each contributor’s name is linked to a website of particular interest. Without further ado, and with sincerest thanks to those who sent in their favorite reads of the year (Christina Apperson, Kobie Pretorius, Maria Browning, Ed Tarkington, Leslie Zmugg, Adam Ross, Gary Frazier, Nicki Pendleton Wood, Lou Ann Brown, Mary Raymond, Mary Laura Philpott, Don Winston, and Erica Wright)…
From Christina Apperson: Who hasn’t been stricken by the recent image of Ivanka, loyal daughter and helpmate, sitting by her controversial father’s side?
Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie explore the rich dynamics of an earlier political father/daughter relationship in their work of historical fiction, America’s First Daughter, an exquisitely researched and vastly entertaining novel about Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Hamilton. Patsy was Thomas Jefferson’s eldest and only child among four daughters to live past 25, borne by Jefferson’s beloved wife before she herself succumbed to complications of childbirth. Patsy accompanied her father to his Paris diplomatic post and debuted in Paris society, served as his First Lady in the White House and oversaw domestic matters at Monticello. He was undeniably the center of her life and she was the loyal guardian of his legacy and secret-keeper in chief, spending the four years after his death painstakingly editing – and discarding every unflattering scrap of – his voluminous personal correspondence.
Of course, any work addressing Jefferson is obliged to address Sally Hemings and the slavery question, and this book does so in a nuanced and wholly satisfying way. It explores Patsy’s possible romantic relationship with one of Jefferson’s young political proteges and her complicated marriage to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., who became a U.S. Representative and Governor of Virginia and whom she bore twelve children before their estrangement.
For readers fascinated by the creative process, the book features a “peek behind the curtain” of the authors’ research and collaboration. They amass an impressive bibliography of Jefferson scholarship, expose existing silences within the historical record and explain where and why they took dramatic liberties with the material.
The vista, while silently seated at the right hand of power, must be a dazzling one. And the responsibility of helping forge the historical legacy of a flawed father who happens to be President must occasionally be crushing. Dray and Kamoie imagine the experience in all its delicious complexity.
From Kobie Pretorius: There are many reasons I immediately fell in love with March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.
I loved reading this powerful graphic novel while sitting shoulder to shoulder with my teenage son. We were waiting in a packed auditorium for Civil Rights hero and Congressman John Lewis to speak and accept the Nashville Public Library Foundation’s 2016 Literary Award this November. People were still pouring through the doors looking for some standing space when my son pointed at a fluffy chicken that jumped off the page, saying:“Look, he also raised chickens!” Nate Powell’s masterful illustrations of John Lewis’s childhood chicken adventures in rural Alabama ropes you in, steals your heart and then takes you straight to Nashville.
With the move from Alabama to Nashville, the mood turns dark and we are introduced to the Nashville Student Movement of 1958. Turning the pages together, my son and I learned about the prominent role Nashville played in shaping John Lewis’s future. Almost as if watching a movie, historic Nashville figures come to life on the pages with images of the Tennessee State Capitol, Downtown Nashville’s First Baptist Church, non-violent lunch counter sit-ins and arrests.
By the time Congressman Lewis took to the stage at MLK High, we were his biggest fans. It is fitting that March: Book One is the 2017 Nashville Reads selection. This citywide initiative aims to encourage Nashville to read and discuss a great piece of literature. I agree, March is essential reading for Nashvillians, young and old.
March:Book One is a #1 New York Times Bestseller, Winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award – Special Recognition and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book.
From Maria Browning: The fiction I love best grabs me by both head and heart. I appreciate being moved by a story, but I’m disappointed unless it makes me think, as well. Nothing pleases and impresses me more than a work of fiction that seems to ripple out into the world beyond itself, unsettling my settled assumptions and opinions. Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a fictionalized biography of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, is a perfect example of the sort of resonant, smart work I love. Unlike many of his fellow artists, Shostakovich managed – through silence, evasion, compromise, and luck – to stay alive and continue working in Soviet Russia, and he even survived Stalin’s personal displeasure. But, as Barnes vividly conveys, he did so at great cost to his spirit. The Noise of Time is a portrait of the artist as a coward, but it snatches away any judgment we might be arrogant enough to make against Shostakovich and others like him, those who protect themselves by never confronting power. Barnes puts the reader directly into the cauldron of fear that was Shostakovich’s daily existence, making the pain of his impossible dilemmas terribly immediate. The composer is, in Barnes’s vision, a man tortured by his own conscience as well as by tyrants, and he never makes peace with the price of his survival. The only consoling truth, finally, is in his art: “What he hoped was that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life.”
From Ed Tarkington: For all its shortcomings, 2016 was a really good year for fiction. I read more new novels this year than in any other I can remember, and have too many favorites to pick just one. Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad deserve every bit of the praise they’ve garnered. But you know this. You’ve also seen raves of other books near the top of my list, like Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. I’ve been beating the drum for Brad Watson’s Miss Jane since February. A few others I loved, like Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, and Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, made the National Book Award longlist along with Miss Jane. There have also been some auspicious debuts this year I’m happy to rave about, most recently, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
Since so many of the books I loved are getting lots of attention, I’d like to use this space to recommend a book on my shortlist of favorites that sort of flew under the radar but has recently begun to seem extraordinarily relevant. Patrick Dacey’s debut story collection We’ve Already Gone This Far offers penetrating insights into the lives of people in one of those small, dying towns you’ve been hearing so much about lately. Particularly significant to Dacey’s characters are the consequences of the Iraq War for families of veterans. Dacey’s mentor is George Saunders, whose influence is palpable in the wit and generous spirit that permeates these bleak but often very funny stories. If you want to understand how President Trump happened, skip the latest op-ed from the urban intelligentsia and spend some time with the humble folk of fictional Wequaquet, Massachusetts, who, to paraphrase the Little River Band, still keep on trying. You’ll be glad you did.
From Leslie Zmugg: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Because it slaps you in the face, punches you in the chest, and says get up and quit your whining. And you then realize that, sometimes, a slap in the face is something like love.
From Adam Ross: Some of the best books I read this year were slim-spined novels and works of nonfiction south of 200 pages, as easily devoured in a single sitting as gingerbread men and affirming Italo Calvino’s maxim that prose stylists in the post-modern age should “Keep it short.” Here are a few stocking stuffers (and they’d fit). Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid tells the tale of that legendary outlaw in mesmerizing prose and vivid poetry. Sarah Manguso’s inimitable 300 Arguments, a series of aphorisms that outline a woman coming to terms with mortality, marriage, and motherhood that reads as if it’s three hundred pages, what with each epigram sending you down philosophical wormholes so deep you can’t help but pause to reflect on each before proceeding. Poet Mary Ruefle’s remarkable My Private Property is an unclassifiable bit of writing (I’ve heard these short pieces called prose poems) whose highlights are her different colors of sadness. In a year that witnessed continued, heartbreaking racial struggles in our country, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me read in conjunction with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, both of which grapple with the threat to the black body in ways that make one more mindful of how the past is not dead, it is not even past.
As for flat-out faves, here are my top three, in no particular order. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter, about a girl who comes to the big city, lands a job at a New York restaurant (it’s modeled after Union Square Cafe), and quickly finds herself in a love triangle, has been labeled with all sorts of foodie adjectives given its sumptuous prose, gustatory subject, and steamy central affair (ok, there’s a scene where the protagonist and her crush enjoy an oyster tasting in a walk-in refrigerator that’s hot enough to short-circuit the thermostat). This sort of targeted hype aside, it marks the arrival a serious talent, and the main character’s sentimental education shades darker and truer than your typical tale of 20-something love since it grapples with what either kills us or makes us stronger: our appetites. I was also blown away by Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me which sounds like the sort of book you couldn’t get your favorite lit-loving dude to crack if you paid him (murder among a group of elite women gymnasts) but the fact is that its plotting is as stick-the-landing perfect as a Hitchcock thriller and its unflinching gaze at the ways in which children bind couples together while cleaving them apart puts it in the category where it belongs: high literary art. Finally, there’s Ian McGuire’s The North Water, the book I’ve recommended to everyone this year since I devoured it like dolphins a bait ball, a beautifully written and relentlessly violent tale of murder and mayhem on a 19th-century whaling ship. Imagine Herman Melville meets A Clockwork Orange and then prepare yourself to be as obsessed as Ahab was with Moby Dick. Not for the feint of heart.
From Gary Frazier: I’m going to nominate Darktown by Thomas Mullen. This fictional account of the first-ever black police officers in Atlanta is a stark, eye-opening account of racial prejudice and the courage of those first officers to uphold justice and fight for equal rights in the face of overwhelming adversity. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Mullen at the Southern Festival of Books for BookPage. He actually began work on this book before current police and black tensions resurfaced in the last couple of years, but that nonetheless makes it especially relevant to today’s conversation.
From Nicki Pendleton Wood:The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. I will never not be haunted by this book. It’s a dystopian novel that’s actually truthy. Was a hard read, because of the cruelty and random violence; I’m glad I listened to it, because it would have been difficult to keep turning pages in some places.
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides. The depth and granularity of his research on the tragic polar voyage of the Jeannette is stunning.
The year’s biggest surprise: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre. A well-told story about events that happened right before I was born, and that I had always heard references to but never understood fully. Here’s the library’s description: “Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history, a brilliant and charming man who rose to head Britain’s counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War – while he was secretly working for the enemy. And nobody thought he knew Philby like Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s best friend and fellow officer in MI6. The two men had gone to the same schools, belonged to the same exclusive clubs, grown close through the crucible of wartime intelligence work and long nights of drink and revelry. It was madness for one to think the other might be a communist spy, bent on subverting Western values and the power of the free world. But Philby was secretly betraying his friend. Every word Elliott breathed to Philby was transmitted back to Moscow -and not just Elliott’s words, for in America, Philby had made another powerful friend: James Jesus Angleton, the crafty, paranoid head of CIA counterintelligence.”
From Lou Ann Brown: Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. In a year where Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is getting plenty of attention, this book seems to have gotten less. This is a suspenseful story told from the perspective of a black man living in the US of the near future – a nation that has not totally eliminated slavery. Part thriller, part parable.
From Mary Raymond: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am is the story of Jacob and Julia Bloch, a Jewish couple living in Washington D.C. with their three young sons. The novel opens with the oldest son Sam’s upcoming bar mitzvah suddenly in flux after he gets into trouble at school. While his parents find themselves at odds over how to address their son’s behavior, Sam flatly rejects the importance of the ceremony. Adding to the familial conflict are the deteriorating trust between Jacob and Julia, tensions between Jacob and his politically outspoken father, and competing ties of family loyalty as Jacob’s grandfather approaches the end of his life. Jacob’s Israeli cousins soon arrive to attend Sam’s bar mitzvah and help the family patriarch move into a nursing home. While they are in town, a series of earthquakes erupts across the Middle East, and the ensuing geopolitical tensions seem to threaten the existence of Israel. As Jacob and his cousin respond in different ways to the crisis, Jacob is faced with questions about what it means to be a father, a husband, a son, an American, and a child of Israel. While struggling to make sense of these varied identities, Jacob remembers Abraham’s faithful response to God’s call in Genesis when he is asked to sacrifice his son: “Here I am.”
Here I Am invites the reader to join Jacob as he seeks meaning in a world he no longer understands. What is the value of faith? What are the limits of family loyalty? Can forgiveness heal? Can ancient rituals of faith and family still provide comfort when one is no longer certain of the permanence of either? Here I Am deftly ponders all these questions while entertaining its readers with its achingly intimate portrayal of modern life.
Note: There is some graphic language in the first part of the novel. I found it really troubling and nearly stopped reading because of it. If you can stick with it, you eventually understand why it’s there.
From Mary Laura Philpott: Long-listed for the National Book Award this year, Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett belongs on every best-of list. This is the kind of writing that makes you a better writer for having read it. Confession: I underlined so many passages and folded down so many pages in my first copy that I basically ruined it and had to buy a second copy for my bookshelf. The novel is about a family with a history of mental illness, and it contains some of the most searing and true descriptions of depression I’ve ever read – but please, don’t put it down because you think it’ll be a downer. It’s sad in parts, yes, but it’s also surprisingly uplifting, sometimes even hilarious. Haslett himself called it “a love letter to family,” which is a perfect description. That its author is a kind, funny gentleman who is as generous with his time as his talents is a bonus. Please read it.
From Don Winston: They’re Playing Our Song, by Carole Bayer Sager. Carole is a casual acquaintance in that L.A. way, so when I heard she was penning her memoir, I perked up. One of the most important songwriters of the past fifty years, Carole lays out her life and career in an addictive, page-whizzing autobiography. Her talent is a gift, but her drive and ambition – and innate decency – are her own creation.
From her break-out hit “A Groovy Kind of Love” to her Broadway smash (the book’s namesake) to the Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme” to Whitney Houston’s final chart-climber – and over 400 others – Carole’s songs have been part of your life, even if you don’t know it. Every few pages, you’ll think: “She wrote that, too?” In the world of love ballads, nobody does it better – and yep, you guessed it.
Sinatra, Streisand, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, Peter Allen, Melissa Manchester, Aretha Franklin – they’re all here, vividly. So are her romances (Marvin Hamlisch, etc.) and marriages (Burt Bacharach et al.) that prompted Neil Simon to quip: “Her complete name could be a law firm.” Like her lyrics, Carole’s story focuses more on longing than heartbreak, and without giving away spoilers, fortunately her love life has a happy ending.
Breezy, wry, self-deprecating – with the right dose of snark – the book weaves its own elegant melody. Carole’s a class act who’s earned her perch in the pantheon of popular culture. And she’s still at her keyboard. Her pal David Geffen recently broke the news: “Honey, we’re old.” Geffen should speak for himself; Carole is ageless. So are her songs.
From Erica Wright: