Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Sunday Morning With Sean

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I’m almost scared to say this, but I find myself – adjusting. Not feeling quite as volatile. Feeling calmer in the face of what lies ahead.

Maybe it helped to eat out at my favorite restaurant, etc, a few nights ago.

It helped to walk with a girlfriend, I think, and make plans with another.

For the first time in months I feel like I might possibly read a novel.

Yesterday, I started The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. You remember the movie from a thousand years ago?

I’ve never read the book; somehow this is the moment.

I know this is a niche pick.

This morning, I’m thrilled to offer you a recommendation from a discerning and ambitious reader, Sean Kinch, a long-time friend of Bacon, who will be stopping in on the regular and sharing his reading recommendations going forward…

 

From Sean:

I’m naturally drawn to novels about scientists. I was hooked by reviews of Meng Jin’s Little Gods, her debut work, which emphasized the portrayal of a brilliant but disturbed theoretical physicist who warps the lives of people around her. Reading it, though, one discovers that at the center of this novel is an emptiness. Su Lan, a physicist who rises from a rural backwater to China’s most prestigious university, appears only rarely; we detect her presence, as we do for black holes and undiscovered planets, “by the way they affect the behavior of nearby lesser objects… something that exerts substantial influence over others in its field, drawing continually toward it.”

Another novel with a largely-absent physicist at its singular center, Louisa Hall’s Trinity (2018), rotates around Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, who altered the course of the 20th century.

Jin’s approach is riskier: after a promising start to her academic career leading to a fellowship in America, Su Lan drifts into professional obscurity and mental illness. What we learn of her comes from Su Lan’s solar system of orbiting characters, including her daughter, her husband, and her first love, all of whom she eventually abandons, leaving them grasping for plausible explanations. Jin paints each of her sections with care, an attempt to recapture a life from fragments, to create a mosaic out of those fragments that suggests the full tragedy of Su Lan’s life. “What strange torture it was for Su Lan to be limited to a linear experience of time,” Jin writes.

Jin’s novel is admirable on many levels – glistening prose, innovative structure, provocative themes – a success in its own right and a promise of more brilliance to come. If you enjoy Little Gods or Hall’s Trinity, I recommend Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac (2016), another depiction of troubled genius, a mathematician, and Stephen Wright’s Going Native (1994), which makes extraordinary use of the absent-protagonist structure.

 

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What Sean Read, April 2020

Thank you so much, Sean! xoxo

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Chapter 1

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea…

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