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.