Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Sun House, by David James Duncan: Finding Your People, Finding Transcendence

Sun House (out today!) is David James Duncan's first novel in 31 years, since 1992's The Brothers K, one of favorite novels of all time. So it's a good thing that the next novel by a guy who publishes once every three decades is just shy of 800 pages. It's also a good thing that's it's amazing. 

Sun House is a throwback novel to a time when old white men published long, complicated novels about American life. Think Don DeLillo's Underworld or Philip Roth's American Pastoral or even John Steinbeck's East of Eden. It's also a novel of ideas that is often less driven by plot and more propelled by long passages of introspection and characters' interior truth-seeking. 

The search for truth, for transcendence, for what happens when we pass from this life, but also finding meaning while we're here in what is an increasingly corrupt and cynical world, are the cornerstones of this story. One reviewer described this novel as an "openhearted epic about everything."  

They're not wrong, because it's also a story about friendship and love, and finding those in the world who will build you up instead of tear you down. Cling to these people with every ounce of spiritual and physical strength you own, the novel urges. That is, find the people who make you happy and latch onto them like there's no tomorrow. Because, really, there's not. 

Essentially the plot of the novel is thus: Several characters take different paths to finding meaning, and each other, and try to establish a rural Montana utopia. There's a beautiful, brilliant Sanskrit student, a Shakespearean actor and his dog, an ex-Jesuit priest and his street-preacher brother, and many more. 

If you've read this far, you've hopefully come to the conclusion that this is not a beach read. It demands (and deserves!) fully caffeinated attention, not just to fully comprehend but also to make the most of. I spent more than a month with this novel, reading and rereading passages, puzzling out each characters' motivations, wants, and paths to their own versions of peace. Sometimes I got frustrated. Sometimes, like when Duncan is writing some of the best dialogue I've ever read, I was delighted. Overall, I was just awed. It's worth the effort, for sure. After all, it's an achievement 31 years in the making! 

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Best 3 Books of July

I feel like I'm constantly behind, but even more so this summer. As a reader who wants to stay as current as I can with new releases, the sheer volume of incredible books coming out this fall is causing me anxiety! (But not real anxiety. Readerly anxiety. Which is different.)  Yes, there are so many amazing books on the horizon this fall, and I'm slowly starting to dig in -- the first of which wound up on July's best 3 (Ann Patchett's new novel). 

(Side note: I just started the new Lauren Groff, The Vaster Wilds, that's out in September, and oh my goodness. I'm only 70 pages in, but they're 70 of the best pages I've read this year.)

Here's the list of the best three of July:

Good Night, Irene, by Luis Alberto Urrea: If you read only one WWII novel this year, let this be it. Urrea is a consummate storyteller, and this novel inspired by his mother's service in the Red Cross, truly is the story he's been preparing his whole life to tell. It shows! 

The Celebrants, by Steven Rowley: Though the overarching conceit here isn't original -- the blurb copy even calls it a Big Chill for our times (though I'd suggest Matthew Norman's All Together Now is a better example) -- Rowley definitely makes this his own. The schtick here is that college friends gather for funerals, but the twist is that they person they're celebrating is still alive. The idea, and it's a good one, is to say everything you ever wanted to say to this person while they're still alive, to let them know what they mean to you while they can still take it to heart. This novel is sweet and funny and just downright charming. I even cried a little. It's a just a terrific way to spend a few summer afternoon hours.

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett's writing is a warm blanket on a cold winter day. It's soothing. It's comforting. It makes everything okay. Some writers, for whatever reason (probably because they're very, very good) you just connect with. Patchett is one of those writers for me. So when Ann Patchett tells a story about a story being told, you know it's going to be good. And it is. Very good.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Best Books of 2023 (so far)

Yep, I'm a couple weeks late on getting this done at the year's halfway point -- the main reason for that is because I wanted to finish reading one of the books that I was pretty sure would wind up on this list (Good Night, Irene). And it did. Wow.

It's been a real good six months of reading, and the next six months promises to be just as great. (I'm about to dive into the first of my three most anticipated books of the fall -- new novels by Zadie Smith, Lauren Groff, and Ann Patchett!) But so here, are my favorite books of 2023...so far.

The Weight, by Jeff Boyd -- I love it when a book you pick up on a whim based on jacket copy or blurbs turns out to be this good. Boyd's debut is the Black hipster musician novel you didn't know you needed...but definitely do. 

Choosing To Run, by Des Linden -- Chances are, if you're a runner, you've read this book. And chances are just as good you loved it. I sure did. Des is in inspiration. And she's funny as hell, too. 

Gone To The Wolves, by John Wray -- The novel I was born to read. Devil horns up! 

The Longest Race, by Kara Goucher -- Man, eff Nike. Goucher lays bare not just how poorly the company treated her, but also how they turned a blind eye to former coach Alberto Salazar, and his doping, emotional abuse, and quack training practices. But not only did Nike turn a blind eye, they actually defended him until the evidence was so overwhelming they couldn't deny it anymore. Kudos to Goucher for writing this brave book.

I Could Live Here Forever, by Hanna Halperin -- A novel about addiction, relationships, and the creative spark, this is as devastating as it is engrossing. A masterful debut!

A Country You Can Leave, by Asale Angel-Ajani -- Voice, voice, and more voice. I love a novel with a good voice. And voice is certainly the hallmark of this novel about a girl and her, um, unusual mother living in a trailer park in California. 

The Deluge, by Stephen Markley -- A masterpiece of speculative fiction that feels all too real -- examining the people and politics of climate change, and extending 30 years into the future. I read this book on vacation in Kauai, and now have overused the following comment when recommending it: Reading a novel about climate change on the beach is like reading a novel about a plane crash on a flight. Still, though, if you're up for a long book about not-exactly-cheery subjects, this is your jam.

Good Night, Irene, by Luis Alberto Urrea -- One of the more satisfying, enjoyable reading experiences I've had in a long time, Urrea is a consummate storyteller. If you read one World War II novel this year, make this it. 

Friday, June 30, 2023

Best 3 Books of June

As is my usual MO, I was all over the place in June reading. From a 600-page boarding school novel (Foster Dade Explores The Cosmos) to a novel set in 1990 Dubai (Hope You Are Satisfied) to Lorrie Moore's new and very strange novella (I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home). 

My best three are just as eclectic. Here are my favorite three books I read in June.

1. Charm City Rocks, by Matthew Norman: From following Norman on IG, I know he's a huge fan of Richard Russo. In this novel, he's borrowed a page from Russo's book: An exceptional devotion and care for his characters. Any writer that does this well is one I'll read no matter what -- and Norman does it well here, and then some. Yes, of course, at its root, this novel is a just-on-the-safe-side-of-saccharine romcom. One of the blurbs compares it to if Emily Henry and Daisy Jones and the Six had a book baby, and that's right on the nose. But it's sweet and it's funny and the characters are those things too, and I loved it.

2. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer: I feel like I'm the last person to read this book, and I'm glad I finally did. This book makes the crucial point in new and really creative ways: We are made for the Earth, not the Earth for us. We have no more right to plants and animals than any other plant or animal. And we've gotten so far from that idea with our consumerism and consumption, that it'll be nearly impossible to get back to this piece of Indigenous wisdom. Humans are only exceptional in that they have more ability to destroy and not replace than other species. And boy have we showed our exceptionalism in that respect. We must return to reciprocity in all things. We must treat the Earth as a gift, not a resource. And we must restore what we've already destroyed.

3. Maddalena and the Dark, by Julia Fine: If Mean Girls were a fairy tale, and even darker, and set in 18th century Venice at a music school for girls, and was just as vicious, you'd have this marvelously original story. Jealousy and its close cousin envy are the stars of this show of two girls, one an orphan, one from an upper class family, and their "friendship." This burns slowly for a bit as you find your footing and get acclimated, but then it picks up quickly and explodes to the finish. A truly original novel and a really satisfying read.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Best 3 Books of May (Plus 2 More)

We made it through May, and now it's summer! Everyone has different definitions of what a "summer read" is, but to me, a summer read is big and meaty, something I'm not going to finish in just a few sittings. I have a few of those lined up for the next few months (hello, Chuck Wendig and Haruki Murakami), but I started that trend off in May with the new novels by David James Duncan and Nathan Hill novels out later this summer (see below). May was also about a bunch of other shorter books, here are the best three.

1. Gone To The Wolves, by John Wray -- Let's rage! You may not know this about me, but I love metal -- and this novel about a group of teenagers in late 1980s Florida (the cradle of death metal!) is the novel I was born to read. Wray really knows what he's talking about here. And even if you're not into metal, there's lots here about friendship and loyalty to get you through. 

2. Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley -- This is a difficult read, but an accomplished debut novel. It's about agency and autonomy -- when our backs are against the wall, what choices do we really have? And it's about corruption, evil cops, and the failures of the justice system. Yes, a lot of the headlines of about this novel involve the young age of the novelist -- which yes, it's pretty amazing to consider she wrote this at ages 17-18 -- but that also shouldn't distract from just how well done this book is.

3. Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma, by Claire Dederer -- This book is the most nuanced, intelligent, and well-thought-out treatment of the age-old and crucial question of how to (or whether to) separate art from artist -- or as Dederer writes it, what do we do with the art of monstrous men? Since I first wrote about this question 13 years ago, it's a question that's hounded me and I haven't found an answer. That's because there isn't one. Or at least there's not one that applies to every artist or every situation. In this book, Dederer gives you all the tools to be able to puzzle out a decision on your own. Really, that's what this comes down to -- you have to make your own decisions about what to do with the art of Roman Polanski, Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, and many others. Does the "biographical stain" prevent you a) from continuing to enjoy the art, or b) from consuming the art at all?

Two HUGE Books To Look Forward To:

1. Sun House, by David James Duncan (out August 8) -- Duncan's The Brothers K, published in 1992, is one of my five favorite novels of all time. And he hasn't published a new novel since...until now (or, well, August). This book is, frankly, a lot -- and not just in terms of pages (just shy of 800). We have a bunch of characters searching for truth -- and though they don't know it most of the way through, they're searching for each other, as well. It's a novel about finding the people who are like you and holding onto them fiercely. It took me more than a month to read this, and while nothing will ever be The Brothers K, this is a solid follow-up. You just have to be in the right mood and well-caffeinated. 

2. Wellness, by Nathan Hill (out September 19) -- This is another gigantic (in terms of pages, themes, and probably reader excitement) forthcoming novel that will certainly be a big hit. You know Hill from 2016's mega-debut novel The Nix. He returns with this story of a marriage, and how everything isn't always as it seems. Hill has out Franzen'ed Franzen with this novel, and I think you're gonna love this book -- it may very well vaunt Hill into "household name" status.