Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Emergency Book Buying Guide, December 2019

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We’re down to the wire on Christmas gifts. Waiting much longer is hazardous to your health. Unbelievably, I’ve finished my shopping, so I’ve got the luxury of offering some advice.

Here are several recommendations if you’re still looking for the right book for someone on your list.

1) Start by browsing The New York Times Top Ten Books of the Year and 100 Notable Books of the Year.

My pick from the Top Ten might be Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips.

“In the first chapter of this assured debut novel, two young girls vanish, sending shock waves through a town perched on the edge of the remote, brooding Kamchatka Peninsula [Russia]. What follows is a novel of overlapping short stories about the various women who have been affected by their disappearance. Each richly textured tale pushes the narrative forward another month and exposes the ways in which the women of Kamchatka have been shattered — personally, culturally and emotionally — by the crime.”

Disappearing Earth was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, won by Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi. I bought Trust Exercise the week after it came out – excited to read Choi’s new book – but I put it down after the first few chapters. I found it kind-of sad and kind-of repulsive. I will give it another chance. It’s the National Book Award winner, people will be talking about it. Probably people in your book club.

From the publisher:

In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving “Brotherhood of the Arts,” two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley…

As captivating and tender as it is surprising, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise will incite heated conversations about fiction and truth, and about friendships and loyalties, and will leave readers with wiser understandings of the true capacities of adolescents and of the powers and responsibilities of adults.

Here’s the longer list of 100 Notable Books of the Year.  My pick from this list:


“De Waal argues that we make a grave mistake when we pretend that only humans think, feel and know, and cites neurochemical studies to conclude that feelings like love, anger and joy are widespread throughout the animal kingdom.”

2) I’m also impressed by the Top 10 Books of the Year selected by the Wall Street Journal. My top two?

A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, by Lewis Hyde

“To a world that prizes memory, justice and grudge-holding, Lewis Hyde—a poet, essayist and American original—makes a quietly persuasive case for “forgetting” in all its forms. Without it, he says, there can be no forgiveness, no mercy, no reconciliation, no Proustian surprise of rediscovery—in short, no healing and little delight in living.”

Say, Say, Say, by Lila Savage

“The paradox of goodness lies at the heart of Lila Savage’s small, prismatic gem of a novel, about the emotional trials of a young Midwestern woman who cares for the infirm and disabled. Like its heroic and relentlessly self-questioning main character, the book reaches heights of revelatory beauty without once raising its voice or clamoring for attention.” Bacon review here.

3) Last stop, if you’re in a hurry: Lithub’s List of Lists.

Emily Temple at Lithub has done us all a solid. She’s been keeping track of the most prominent “Best of 2019” lists and has let us know which books appear most often.

So – this is basically the Homecoming Queen contest. Or: who has the best publicist? Which books are deemed to speak to our cultural moment?

Top two, most mentioned (each on 21 lists):

An Amazon Best Book of July 2019: “Based on a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after more than one hundred years in existence, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. So in theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. But what happens inside Nickel Academy does not match its public image, and Elwood is about to learn that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn.”

An Amazon Best Book of June 2019: “There is an immediacy to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous that almost feels unique. The author Ocean Vuong was first published as a poet, and the poetry in this novel—present in the language, in the images and ideas—is unforgettable. The narrator is a young man in his late twenties, nicknamed Little Dog by his family, who is composing a long letter to his Vietnamese mother. Little Dog and his family grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, but their struggles do not end there. His mother still carries the burden of the war, as does his grandmother, and Little Dog’s struggles reach not only back to the traumas of Vietnam but forward in his efforts to fit in to a world that sees him as other.”

4) When all else fails?

Give my top pick of the year: How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature, by Marc Hamer. Bacon post here. Suitable for your best friend, your spouse, your mother. A stranger. Yourself.

 

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