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.