Great Blue Heron, photo by Jack Barnwell

I’ve just finished up a year of “Leadership Nashville,” which involved 14-hour days and field trips and a lot of time on the bus with strangers who – thankfully, wonderfully, quickly and sometimes slowly – became friends. In our group of 44: a sparkling news anchor, a beautiful rabbi. An editor of our newspaper and a museum curator. The heads of Metro Nashville Sports Authority, the Meharry School of Dentistry, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (acting). Assorted flavors of business leaders, lawyers, bankers, entrepreneurs, creatives, and those working in the government and nonprofit sectors. Also – delightfully! – a young man who makes Belle Meade Bourbon.

We learned about our city through themed days focusing on Business, Criminal Justice, Arts and Entertainment, and Education, among other topics. We were of course learning a lot about each other along the way. I won’t lie to you you – there were distinctly uncomfortable moments of candor as we listened to each other’s opinions. But there were more moments of deep empathy as we listened to each other’s stories. One felt the undercurrent of hope – stronger as the year progressed – that we might be able to better understand what unites us and what divides us. That we might be able to help improve communal life in our city – and in our society.

I wrote the original version of today’s post for StyleBlueprint (“Top 10 Beach Reads for Summer 2018: Feel All the Feels”) and was deeply influenced by my year in Leadership Nashville as I made the choices. They’re great current books, full of emotion and connection, full of hope, history, humor, and sometimes anger and loss. They ask: What unites us? What divides us? What is love?

Love grows – I think – when we tell our stories.

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Top Beach Reads for Summer 2018: The Bacon Eight

The best “beach reads” often have nothing to do with the beach. Or summer. But we all know what we’re looking for! A beach read has to be easy to pick up. Hard to put down. And it’s got to make you feel all the feels. Summer 2018, here we come!

My top pick for Summer 2018 is The Mars Room, a new novel by Rachel Kushner that shimmers and sweats in the heat of a women’s prison in California. Romy Hall, a night club dancer, has been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker boyfriend. She’s figuring out prison life and agonizing over the fate of her young son – now in foster care – when she meets Gordon, a prison employee and teacher, idealistic and broke when he took the job. “If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged,” Gordon tells himself – and sometimes he even believes it. You’ll believe in every one of the characters as Romy navigates life behind bars, a place where the human spirit is sometimes but not always crushed, in which there is room for ingenuity and compassion as well as brutality. The Mars Room will open your eyes and break your heart and stay with you long after you’ve pressed it into the hands of your best friend, saying – “You’ve got to read this.”

Another book that will pull you in and wring you out this summer is Educated, a memoir that’s already spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Tara Westover grew up in remotest Idaho – in a survivalist Mormon family – with little knowledge of the outside world. Civil Rights? The Holocaust? Never heard of them. Doctor’s office? Never been. She became acquainted with the pain of abuse and eventually found her way to Brigham Young University and later Harvard and Cambridge, England. Her memoir is a testament to the power of education and of family love that can bind – and nearly destroy. “Despite its harrowing plot, Westover’s book is no misery memoir. Yes, there’s hardship, the depiction of which could be compared to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle or Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. But the book is also an elegantly written story of a young girl finding herself by leaving America and going to Europe – closer in that sense to Henry James than James Frey,” writes Vogue. Everyone you know is reading this memoir…

…Unless they want to laugh. This year’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Less, is a romp and a comic novel and something deeper, “a generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love,” according to the Pulitzer award committee. Bonus: it was just released in paperback.

From the publisher:

Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes – it would be too awkward – and you can’t say no – it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?

ANSWER: You accept them all.

…Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty…

Less shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.

Historical fiction instead raises the curtain on our shared human past. To feel all the feels – and also get swept up in suspenseful story – try Kristen Chen’s new novel, Bury What We Cannot Take. It’s late 1950’s China, and a nine-year-old girl and her brother live with their family in the upper floor of what used to be their family villa. Mao is in power – his ideology ascendant – and the girl’s formerly wealthy family now shares their home with many. Party leaders enforce political orthodoxy and punish dissent with public denunciation and execution. When the girl’s brother reports that his grandmother shattered a framed photo of Mao in their home, he sets in motion a terrifying chain of events. One child must be left behind as the others secretly flee. “[T]he novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history,” writes The Millions. “Bury What We Cannot Take explores what it takes to survive in a world gone mad – and what is lost when we do. Kirsten Chen has written both an engrossing historical drama and a nuanced exploration of how far the bonds of familial love can stretch,” writes author Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere, Everything I Never Told You).

The biggest titles in historical fiction this summer may well be Varina, by Charles Frazier, and Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Charles Frazier enchanted and moved us with his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Cold Mountain (1997). Varina remains rooted in the historical time period and region of Cold Mountain – the Civil War South – and imagines the life of Jefferson Davis’s wife. As military defeat became inevitable, Davis sent Varina, their children, and a few soldiers on a wild journey towards Florida, Cuba, and safe haven. The novel begins somewhat awkwardly, imagining that a middle-aged black man has found Varina in her old age at a health sanitarium in New England. He’s trying to find out what she knows about his past. The novel comes to life more convincingly when Varina begins telling the story of her nearly-successful escape – and how their lives intersected when he was a very young child.

Michael Ondaatje transported us to North Africa and Italy in the waning days of World War II in moody, transcendant style in The English Patient (1992). His new novel, Warlight, tells a similarly atmospheric tale, set in post-World War II England. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” the book begins – gorgeously. The story is told by one of the children much later in his life as he reflects on his parents’ choices and their consequences.

Parents’ choices and their consequences can make brilliant, glittering fiction: this June, my book club is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, her second National Book Award winning novel (following Salvage the Bones). Jojo is thirteen, a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. His family includes his drug-addicted mother, Leonie (a white woman), his toddler sister, and his father (a black man), in prison in Mississippi. When Jojo’s father is set to be released, Leonie loads up the car with the kids and a friend and sets out to go get him. Entertainment Weekly says that “[g]hosts, literal and literary, haunt nearly every page of Sing, Unburied, Sing— a novel whose boundaries between the living and the dead shift constantly, like smoke or sand. Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (a place rich in oil rigs and atmosphere, if almost nothing else), the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. But the voice is entirely Ward’s own, a voluptuous magical realism that takes root in the darkest corners of human behavior….”

Curtis Sittenfeld mines the present moment for the dark corners she illuminates. Each story in her new collection You Think It, I’ll Say It introduces us to a character in a terribly awkward or uncomfortable situation. For instance: what if you’re married with kids, you’ve been flirting with a fellow parent at school events for a long time, you think you’re both falling in love, you confess your feelings, and you learn that his feelings were completely platonic. Awkward! Horrible! Real. A moment to despair – and reflect. What if the woman you’ve hated all through pregnancy yoga and breast-feeding classes ends up being the one person who helps you when you need it most? Awkward! Painful! Real. Sittenfeld’s main characters – mostly women – can be resentful and ungenerous and distrustful. They remember hurts from high school. And – over the course of the story – they are forced to confront their ugliest feelings. Their most painful memories. They’re forced to think about their actions – then and now. They don’t always want transformative change. Sometimes they get it anyhow, and sometimes they avoid it. These unsettling stories surprise and ask us: who are you, at your worst? Who do you want to be? To change, you have to be willing to think hard about your own story. The stories around you. Amidst the stories, love can grow. 

Thank you, Jack Barnwell, for the gorgeous photos from Lake Tillery, NC

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