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Thinking Out Loud

A Bibliophile's Christmas List

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 14, 2017

Bibliofile's Christmas ListIndependent bookstores appeared to be on the edge of extinction only a couple of years ago. What seems to be keeping the survivors afloat is the staff's knowledge of good books, their service, and a selection that takes us beyond the bestseller list. My favorite independent book shops include Carmichael's in Louisville, Kentucky; J.G. Ford on St. Simons Island, Georgia; Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee (co-owned by author Ann Patchett); and The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The books I recommend today (and the variety should satisfy at least some readers on your Christmas list) are undoubtedly available at an independent bookstore near you. If they are not on the shelf, just ask the staff to order them and rediscover the joy of anticipation.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This is the most wonderful weird novel I believe I have EVER read. The review published in the New York Times described it as "a weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life." The word "Bardo" is a Tibetan Buddhist term for an intermediary state between death and one's final destination. Not Purgatory. Really, a sort of way station of the soul where you wait until you're ready to get on the train to your final stop. Saunders intersperses short pieces drawn from actual period newspapers with his fictional accounts and dialogue to draw the reader into the mental and spiritual world of a grieving president, his dead child, and a cast of the most bizarre ghosts you'll ever meet. Funny, soul-rending, joyful and profound: this novel is among the most original and imaginative grown-up novels ever written.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My friend Scott Black Johnston sent me a copy of this book with the simple encouragement to "enjoy." It is the story of an aristocrat under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in an elegant Moscow hotel. Beautifully, even elegantly, written, utterly enthralling. About half-way through the book, I realized I was reading it too fast. I wanted it to last longer. So I started rationing myself a limited number of pages each night. I haven't felt that way about a novel since Anthony Doerr's brilliant, All the Light We Cannot See (which won the 2015 Pulitzer). If you buy this one for a friend, do yourself a favor and buy a copy for yourself, too.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old (begun as a pseudonymous diary on the Website of Torpedo magazine), translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans.
Enchanting, touching, and darkly funny. One reviewer said it is the best book about institutional life since Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Set in a Dutch Rest Home for the aged, 83-year-old Hendrik takes us on an odyssey of friendship and loss. The humanity of the narrator had me at the first page. His ability to deal with the many griefs and transient joys of aging, with subjects such as euthanasia, love and how to remain adventurous when life's boundaries constrict is remarkable.

Silence by Shusako Endo, translated from the Japanese by William Johnston. Originally published in Japan in 1966; in English in 1969.
Last summer, in the course of trading reading recommendations with my friend Don Frampton, he strongly recommended this book which is back on the bookstore shelves because it was recently made into a movie. The story is harrowing, but the truths embedded in it (complex, contradictory, and disturbing) make the journey through its pages more than worthwhile. The story is set in seventeenth-century Japan in the years after Christianity was forbidden there because of its ties to foreign control and European imperialism. The subjects of faithfulness and apostasy are explored through the eyes of Portuguese Jesuit priests who secretly have infiltrated the country. The book is riveting.

Russia's Dead End: An Insider's Testimony, from Gorbachev to Putin by Andrei A. Kovalev, translated from the Russian by Stephen I. Levine, with a foreword by Peter Reddaway.
Get ready to be disturbed by the account of modern Russian history by a high-level official who served at the heart of its government for thirty years, from the fall of Communism through the first years of the Putin era. Andrei Kovalev's father, Anatoly Kovalev, together with Edvard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, worked at the heart of the Soviet government to launch perestroika only to see Gorbachev's stunning achievements unravel, partly due to Gorbachev's own miscalculations, partly due to the arrogant, autocratic, easily distracted and frequently inebriated Yeltsin, and finally due to the triumph of old KGB insiders who, under Putin, returned Russia to a non-ideological and thoroughly corrupt authoritarian regime. This is about as close to a must-read as you can get.

The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone
Written by the co-host of NPR's respected program, "On the Media," this essay (the book is only 87 pages) confronts what the author calls the "moral panic" of our time. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I have purchased over ten copies and given them to friends and family. In a chapter, "Lying is the Point," Gladstone quotes Hannah Arendt's depressingly relevant observation made in a 1974 interview: "... A lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie ..., but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people, you can then do what you please." I happened upon Gladstone's book a few days after reading P.J. O'Rourke's book, How the Hell Did This Happen?, a hilarious but also thoughtful series of columns chronicling the 2016 presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath. Gladstone is progressive in her politics, O'Rourke is a delightfully curmudgeon of conservatism. Surely one or the other (or both!) would satisfy the politicos on your Christmas list.

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