Our Favorite Recent Novels

We love nonfiction books and it seems the more we learn, the more God’s good creation calls to us—-learn this! Study that! Enjoy it all! From the obvious importance of theology and the discerning study of worldviews to science, history, nature writing, economics, biography, world cultures, gender studies, art history, urban planning…more than ever, the old adage "too many books too little time" rings true. We are so grateful that our supportive customers appreciate the effort of Hearts & Minds to be a well-stocked, multi-dimensional bookstore, and regularly encourage us by sharing our passion for books of all sorts. We may be a dying breed, you know.

One irony of our passion for breadth in non-fiction reading is that it makes us all the more appreciate fiction. I do not mean what you might think at first—that trudging through dry nonfiction tomes works up a thirst for the fun and frivolous; not at all. The best nonfiction books are well-written and interesting After all, Christian doctrine is way too important to be written by the boring; the detailed quandaries of modern psychics should be written as glorious doxology, I’d say. And how’s this for a back-cover blurb, from the ingeniously titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (HarperCollins; $24.95)"Marilyn Johnson pulls it off with death-defying grace, insight, charm and wit. " Or this: "Vital reading for anyone who knows a dead person or is likely to become one." Roy Blount, Jr. says "If Marilyn Johnson had been meaner, I could have said she puts the "bitch" in obituary. Instead, she’s written a warm, funny, appreciative book that, ironically enough should live forever. But get it now." Who says nonfiction isn’t great reading!

No, what I mean by this assertion that wide nonfiction reading might drive us to a deeper appreciation of novels is that the more one reads about, the more one wants to experience, to really know. And that, even if vicarious, is a fruit of good fiction. In a good novel, you can be there. I know for many who read literary criticism–at least the good kind–this is nearly a cliché, so I beg your pardon. For some of us, this is, shall we say, a novel insight.

A wondrous new novel by the popular and well-respected Julia Alvarez illustrates this well. In Saving the World (Alconquin; $24.95) she weaves together two mesmerizing stories, each page-turners in their own way. Every other chapter tells of a contemporary Latina author, stumped on her next overdue novel, while her husband leads an ecologically-minded development project amongst the poor of her homeland, the Dominican Republic. In a single page you can get to know a bit about the professional concerns of a contemporary novelist, the lonely feelings of a middle-age woman whose beloved is out of country, and the visionary politics of a humanitarian relief worker doing good science for the poor of our hemisphere.

Intermittent chapters tell of an historical episode that our writer is studying (one of the reasons she can’t finish her own work. She is so taken with this little known historical drama.) In those riveting chapters, a story unfolds about a 16th century nun and her charge of young orphans who are making a risky journey to the New World. These orphans have been infected purposefully with small pox so a young scientist, with blessings from Pope and King, can carry a new invention—a vaccination!—and its healing powers to infected, dying natives of the Americas. What a grand plan! The boys, it is said, will only be mildly ill, and this is the only way to keep the pox vaccine alive.

In both these stories within Saving the World, strong women stand by a visionary man, each set on doing great good in the fallen world. These short chapters have kept me up late—just one more!–and have not only provided much food for thought (how could it not?) but have helped me understand history, the complexities of nature and the glories and foibles of human nature. When our local newspaper called recently, asking our recommendations for meaningful beach books, this was the first we described. Thrilling, and a page-turner, it stands out, drawing us in to these lives.

(Interestingly, the "spiritually-themed" interests of this particular feature of this reporter had her happily searching non-Borders books; she called our local typical, "Christian bookstore" who admirably, if predictably, suggested Jan Karon. She then called a local new age shop who recommended a cheesy self-help book by Wayne Dwyer—eeck—and some Wiccan fable. One might have thought they’d have pushed the cool story The Way of the Peaceful Warrior which is coming out as a summer movie in August. But I digress, as book-lovers often do…)

The next book we seriously recommended (or was it the first?) may be my favorite novel of the year—certainly in the top few. All of our staff were waiting for Marsena Konkle’s first novel, A Dark Oval Stone, released this Spring by Paraclete Press ($23.95.) It has a stunningly simple and exquisite cover over a solid and perfectly sized hardback. Ms. Konkle—long-time friend of Hearts & Minds through our partnership with Ransom Fellowship and their Critique journal that she used to edit—is a young woman we’ve admired and respected. And she is a very good wordsmith. She submitted her manuscript two years ago to a publishing contest at the prestigious Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing; Lief Enger (of the extraordinary Peace Like a River) was the main judge. Paraclete Press, known mostly for spirituality, liturgical books, and the occasional, brilliant memoir (like Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath) promised to publish the winning one. (Dare I now say that the Paraclete Press Fiction Award is coveted?) They have done good novels before—-a monastic mystery series (yes, you read that right) and the well-reviewed novel of the spiritual journey of an art historian doing restoration work, Unveiling by Suzanne Wolfe, and the wonderful Life With Strings Attached, a 1970’s growing up story set in Alabama by Minnie Lamberth. We stock all of their novels, monastic and otherwise, and, well, all of their nonfiction, too. Kudos to them for discovering fresh, important writers and investing in serious, faith-filled fiction…

A Dark Oval Stone is a hip, contemporary story of loss and healing, friendship and what one sees in life. Miriam Kovatch is thirty-something, pregnant and suddenly widowed. With prose that just glides along effortlessly—an all too rare quality for serious literature–Konkle draws us into dialogues and memory, chatty conversation and realistic concerns, familial and otherwise. As we come to know the ups and downs of the unraveling and slowly recovering life of Miriam, we are able to experience her life–and hence, see anew our own, as good art allows. We can join her in relationships of various sorts, understand her plight, pain, doubt, frustrations, passions, and hope. My description all sounds quite cliched, I’m sure, but trust us: this is excellently crafted prose, telling a fully believable story with exceptional, mature insight. We surely "get something out of it" but it is not at a parable, moralistic. It is too real for that. It is solidly rooted in a sure-footed Christian world and life view—which sounds so antiseptic, I’m afraid, except that Dark Oval Stone is thrilling fiction, from it’s early, vivid (if brief) sex scene, to its hilarious and poignant episode of getting propositioned for a date at a grief recovery support group, to the redemptive sub-plot of Svetlana, an immigrant house-cleaner at a get-away motel Miriam holes up in for a while, to the ways Miriam’s devout Catholic mother prays for her. Konkle, herself a Protestant, has written a fascinating, brief essay on why and how she came to discover that her character was a Catholic. (Order Dark… from us and we will include that illuminating piece for your enjoyment.) It too, is very well written. Marsena is well read, thoughtful and very talented. We hope this novel is only her first and if we ever hear of more work of hers, fiction or nonfiction, we will buy it the day it is released. We heartily recommend this fun and wise story to you.

Such stories can be vastly entertaining, even as they are informative. (I have more than a few single, young, widowed friends and this story helps present a window into the textures of their lives. The quick chapter on the blur of the funeral took my breath away, and that was early on in the plot…other scenes made me exclaim how right she records the details and feel of her settings and characters– a water park, a tired old motel, a dinner party, a friendship with a youthful nephew.) Stories, can, as we’ve all heard, help us "grow wiser and more whole" as Vinita Hampton Wright (no shabby writer herself!) has generously said of Dark Oval Stone. It is not a dark or terribly complicated story—which perhaps is why it was so compelling, unlike more "sophisticated" works that may be executed with extraordinary literary zeal but don’t seem plausible. Who can relate to some of the stuff that populates faddish fiction these days?** Konkle has given us a good story that helps illuminate real relationships. Is it therefore chic-lit? I don’t think so, although I am not sad to say I cried at the end. This truly deserves the significant runner up award from Paraclete Press and we celebrate with Marsena, her family, and her publisher for this fabulous debut.

**I’m a sucker for some good-hearted off beat stuff, too, and have been a fan of books like Walter Kirn’s Thumb-Sucker and Up In the Air and thoroughly enjoyed—loved, really–the last collection of the very creative Dave Eggers short stories, How We Are Hungry. I couldn’t put down his You Shall Know Our Velocity which was pretty weird, too. And I have before exclaimed the stories of Dave Almond, graphic as some of his are. Be warned. Just so you don’t think I’m too much of a sentimentalist.

The First Prize of the Paraclete Press Fiction Award from the highly regarded Calvin Festival went to a truly spectacular and intensely written story of an Ohio farmwoman, This Heavy Silence by Nicole Mazzarella ($24.95.) Arranged in two parts—set in 1962 and 1972—this epic story is complex, interesting, rich. The plot revolves around a single farmwoman who intends to will her farm to Mattie, a child of a friend (who took her own life when Mattie was a young.) As Dottie Connell raises Mattie it becomes tragically clear that Mattie does not want the farm. (I get choked up writing this sentence—even though I read this two months ago; this is the power of such a well-told story.) I won’t tell you more of the plot, although one could list the themes that come to the surface—-seeking a sense of place, history, upward mobility, the nature of calling and desire, selfishness, even well-intended selfishness, familiar loyalty and forgiveness. My-o-my. This is fertile soil.

I should be said, too, that part of the joy of this extraordinary work is the agricultural detail. Anyone who has lived in a farm community will know that this books gets it right; it just seeps authenticity and it was a nearly sensual joy to experience the true rendering of close details. Those who enjoy Wendell Berry, the small town writings of someone like Barbara Hollander, or who may wonder what barns and fieldwork and country cooking is like will find this to be a fine introduction. Anyone interested in the changes in recent rural life (I can’t not think of Jayber Crow) will love this. Those attracted to the nature of the networks, biases, pleasantries and foibles of rural women will have a time! Get some strong coffee—not Starbucks this time, please—and some rhubarb pie, and get reading. This deftly told and tightly conceived drama was one Beth and I talked about for weeks. She has relatives on farms like this, but I do not (although both of our mothers were raised on pre-WW II farms.). We both loved this book. Ms. Mazzarella, a creative writing prof at Wheaton, knows her central Ohio stuff, and must have some agrarian blood in her veins, as it surely flows from her good pen. Kudos all around.

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I suppose I would rather have you spend your discretionary time reading novels than reading me, so I will be brief. We want to give a quick blurb to a few other novels our family and staff have enjoyed this past half a year. Perhaps it will inspire you to run to your local library, or send us an e-mail order. Or maybe make your own such list.

Gilead Marilynne Robinson (Picador) $14.00 Few serious readers haven’t heard that last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, about an aging pastor, is now out in paperback. The Washington Post Book World said of it "So serenely beautiful, and written in prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it…A triumph of tone and imagination and a spiritual journey no reader will want to miss." Amen. I can’t believe I have not yet read Housekeeping. I have read Marilynne Robinson’s introduction to a new, brief collection of pieces by John Calvin. How cool is that?

Catherine Wheels Leif Peterson (Waterbrook) $13.99 Released to some commotion in the in-house CBA world—there is drinking and a little cussin’ and a couple sleeping together. (Imagine!) We have been happy to promote this first novel (yes, by the son of Eugene) which won us all over very quickly. A tremendously inventive story rendered in very good tones about a guy living in the Colorado castle of his college buddy, drinking himself silly while waiting to die. A child enters the picture who may or may not have mystical insights as she takes spiritual walks through the grounds of a near-by monastery. If this ain’t Christian fiction, I don’t know what is. Beautiful, thoughtful, fun, full of hope within the messiness of regret.

The Memory Keepers Daughter Kim Edwards (Penguin) $14.00 Beth just finished this and was blown away. Deeply moving on many levels– it is lovingly set in our old stomping grounds in Pittsburgh—this runaway best seller is finally about the questions of the meaning of life. That is, who should live and die, and what constitutes a life well lived? A young doctor is delivering his own baby (while is wife is anesthetized) only to find unexpected twins. One has Down’s Syndrome, which he cannot bear, and asks his nurse to take the baby (unbeknownst to his wife) to a local institution. She cannot bear that, and raises the child as her own. One reviewed called this beautifully written book "heart-breaking and heart-healing."

Almost Friends Philip Gulley (Harper) $18.95. When Multnomah published his sweet essays, I presumed he was a lightweight "Chicken Soup for the Soul" inspirational writer. How wrong I was. He is a profound Quaker theologian (controversial for his universalism) and a fine, fine wordsmith. His Harmony novels are all worth reading, perhaps a bit like Mitford. Publishers Weekly says it seriously: "Gulley’s work is comparable to Gail Godwin’s fiction, Garrison Keillor’s storytelling, and Christopher Guest’s filmmaking… " I don’t know what that last comparison means, but it makes me want to re-watch Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman.

Invisible: An Ivy Malone Mystery Lorena McCourtney (Revell) $12.99 Okay, I admit I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery, at least not in 40 years. Several of our staff love this light-hearted story of an older woman who realizes she is inconspicuous–invisibility is the academic phrase some sociologists use for the plight of older women. This gal plays her situation to her advantage in a fun plot of solving real crimes and sleuthing away for God and justice. We’ve noticed that serious nonfiction writer Lauren Winner, who does read more mysteries than most, has given a great blurb on McCourtney’s third in this series. Amy and Patty beat her to it!

We could go on. I’ve finally read Patchwork Planet which Beth read years ago; everybody should read Anne Tyler. I have been pushing Taft by Ann Patchett ("As resonant as a blues song…Expect miracles…" says The New York Times review.) Beth has been embroiled in long Scottish novels by evangelical author and humorist Lizz Curtis Higgs which parallel a sprawling story from Genesis (we really ought to read more CBA fiction, so we’re trying. She has really liked them, although it is hard to beat the old tales of old George MacDonald, no?) She was really struck by the lyrical, haunting More Like Not Running Away, a novel by Paul Shepherd. We were first attracted to stock this in the shop because of the award it achieved, the esteemed 2004 Mary McCarthy Prize which that year was selected by erstwhile Calvinist and award-winning writer, Larry Woiwode. It was very good, Beth thought, despite the seriously raw language of the characters. Our very literary carpenter, Paul Tucker, recently brought by an old collection of Tobias Wolff short stories, The Night In Questions which he commends. The Kite Runner was just announced as Central Pennsylvania’s "One Community One Book, " which we have been excited about (we were privy prior to announcement which is such, such fun.) Next on my list (I think, I think) will be Once Upon a Day by Lisa Tucker (I adored her creative story of the working class gal with a penchant of counseling people based on the songs they like, The Song Reader.) This new one has a fabulous starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and a blurb on the back that says "Tucker gives me what I want most from fiction: compassion and provocation. Once Upon a Day is her most impressive novel to date." Well, how “Ëœbout that? My youngest daughter is reading House a scary "supernatural thriller" by Frank Perritti and Ted Dekker. Not Pulitzer stuff, I’m sure, but the tag line on the cover is pretty cool:"The only way out is in." Maybe next month I’ll give her A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or something like that. By late December, though, we will all be reading the next Wendell Berry fiction, another in the lovely Port Williams series, Andy Catlett: Early Travels. Until then, we hope these reviews prove helpful. Give us a call anytime, or order on line. As always, thanks for helping indie stores like ours survive, by spreading the word-of-mouth and cyber-space news of good books, fiction and nonfiction. Blessings.