Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Catching Up: Best Books I Read in August

Thank you to everyone who read, commented, messaged, texted, or sent good vibes in response to last week's post. You all are the best. I am encouraged and inspired anew! 

Here's the first in a series of posts to catch up on the "best of" months I missed when I was...I don't know, not writing. 

August reading included some pretty, pretty big names. In what has already been an incredible publishing year, late summer and fall have been a whole 'nother level of fantastic. I mean, holy sh!t, we got new novels from Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, AND Lauren Groff within weeks of each other. These are charmed times, friends.

Here are the best FOUR books I read in August.

The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff -- Lauren Groff is one of my personal writing heroes. She might be my FAVORITE writer -- but at least easily in the top five. I've read every published word she's written. And her newest novel is just a beautiful creation. Poetic, evocative, harrowing. It's a novel about paradoxes: We crave companionship, but most people are vastly disappointing at best and cravenly terrible at worst. We look for validation and hope from belief in god and the practice of religion, but both are riddled with hypocrisy, both in terms of the people who practice them and in a stringent morality that serves more to punish than provide comfort. I loved this book, even if I don't know how to recommend it, other than to say "It's Lauren Groff's new novel. It's very different than her other stuff. But you should still read it because she is amazing."

And now for the brag: I GOT TO MEET HER! These photos are from two events on back-to-back days -- the first was Writers on Writing at the Newberry Library in which she was in conversation with Rebecca Makkai. The second was a StoryStudio (my wonderful employer) event -- it was a tiny gathering of about 25 people during which she talked about her book and fielded questions. She's even more amazing in person than on the page. And that's saying a lot. 

Me, trying to hold it together, sitting next to a genius. 

Lauren Groff in conversation with Rebecca Makkai

The Fraud, by Zadie Smith -- Okay, deep breath -- back to the books. So in a lot of ways, The Fraud and The Vaster Wilds are terrific companions: historical fiction with clear and intended parallels with elements of today's culture/politics/etc. The Fraud, based on a true story, is a deliberately plotted story about a guy in 1870s London who gets a large swath of the public to go along with his delusions. The detail in this novel is exquisite, and almost even frustratingly precise at times. I definitely enjoyed this but you have to be in the right mood and fully caffeinated when you pick this up. When people ask me to describe it or wonder if they'll like it, I tell them this: "Zadie Smith is such a tremendous writer, this book almost feels like she set herself a HUGE challenge of writing an historical fiction because contemporary stories are just too easy for her." 

The People We Keep, by Allison Larkin -- I hope this book doesn't get lost so far down this post, because I loved this novel and INDECENT amount. One of my favorite writers, Matthew Norman, recommend this new-to-me writer on Instagram, and it took awhile to finally get to it, but as is the case 99 times out of 100, someone whose tastes match your own was right on the money. This is a coming of age story about finding (or lucking into) the people who'll stick with you through thick and thin (even when you do shitty things to them), but also having to learn the hard way that many, many, many people are not good. Ultimately, it's a novel about learning to identify the difference, trusting people, and letting yourself be vulnerable. It's also a story about the balance between independence and loneliness, of freedom and being unattached with needing connection and establishing yourself. And MUSIC. IT'S ABOUT MUSIC. Take a chance on this book, if Larkin is a new-to-you-writer, as well. She's REALLY amazing.

Somebody's Fool, by Richard Russo -- And thus concludes the saga of Sully, for my money, one of the best characters in all of literature. Sully is long dead, sadly, in this third installment of the Sully Saga, but his shadow looms large over the characters and events of this novel. This story is mostly about his son Peter, former police chief Raymer, and Rub -- good 'ol Rub Squeers, Sully's trusty companion who has fallen on hard times. If you like Russo, you'll like this. You do probably have to have read the first two in this series -- Nobody's Fool and Everybody's Fool -- to not be totally lost. This one's a little more introspective than the first two. But you know me, I'd read and love Russo's grocery list. So I loved this too. 

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