For any number of reasons I’m feeling tired, weary, sad, even. Comes with the territory these days, I guess. I take heart in the fine replies we’ve gotten from friends who appreciate our BookNotes suggestions, and trust somehow we will continue to be able to make a living selling these kinds of thoughtful books. It’s been over forty years in Dallastown and we remain deeply grateful for our vocation in the book biz. We are glad for local and on-line shoppers and especially for those who bought books from our first three installments of our favorite books of 2023. You can find those easily by visiting the website — all our past BookNotes columns are archived there (as are the discounts.)
Sometimes one of the many reasons to read fiction is to get a fresh perspective. I don’t usually like to talk about “escape” (let alone “guilty pleasures”) but those popular tropes get at something about the fabulous and refreshing ways in which a story can take us outside of ourselves and into worlds that sometimes are — weird as they may be — as true as the best nonfiction. Some of these novels really did that.
Here, then, are a handful of novels Beth or I enjoyed this year, books we liked talking about, showing, selling. I don’t know if these are “the best” but they were among our recent favorites and we’re happy to recommend them.
All are 20% off. Scroll down to the bottom to get to the order link.
Demon Copperhead Barbara Kingsolver (Harper) $32.50 OUR SALE PRICE = $26.00
What can I say about the great Barbara Kingsolver? We have loved most of her novels and both of her splendid, rich, intelligent, and oh-so-important nonfiction collections. Beth started this almost immediately when it first arrived at the end of ’22. Some of us were a bit slower to nab it. Most know it is a bit of an Appalachian retelling of David Copperfield. Brilliant, eh?
As you may know it won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Here I’ll just copy and paste how it was simply described at the Pulitzer Prize website:
Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, Demon Copperhead is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. Relayed in his own unsparing voice, Demon braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.
Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.
Search: A Novel Michelle Huneven Penguin $18.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.40
Okay, this came out in 2022, but the paperback released in 2023 and it was doubtlessly one of the most fun books I read all year. It is about a food critic, Dana Potowski, who is, in the story, friends with an intelligent and good preacher at her Unitarian Church and who is thrown into a bit of a tailspin when he announces his retirement. She gets on the search committee and, well, if you’ve ever wondered how congregations that have these sorts of committees with every demographic represented actually do their work, and the politics (and prayer) that goes into it, Huneven gets it just about right. Oh my, does stuff come up — from theological differences to generational stuff. Talk about church politics intermingled with prayer.
I mentioned that the main character is a food critic so there are luscious descriptions of food and — yes! — recipes. Who knew that a book reviewed in all the important mainstream places could be about church life (albeit a liberal Southern California one.) It most likely isn’t like your church, but it was still a blast, and rang true in some ways.
The Beautiful Madness of Martin Bonham: A Tale About Loving God Robert Hudson (The Apocryphal Press) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99
How can I describe this marvelous witty, page-turning story about a contemporary college professor and his spiritually-alive student who are at odds with the stuffy seminary next door to the campus? It is a hoot and a half, fun and funny, yet. I could not stop reading, and hardly did as I raced through it, wondering what would happen next.
The lead character is a usually staid literature prof whose academic publications include books on the medieval mystics and poetry that passionately portrayed the experience of the love of God. As you might guess, the academic theological critics next door are not a fan of his mystical poetry, but a burned-out, religiously disillusioned seminarian approaches him for conversations about the difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God. They ask all sorts of professors of various faiths to weigh in and, after bunches of faculty meetings and conflict, actually start a department of Theophily — the study of loving God.
This is part sitcom, sure, and the brilliant Hudson (himself an academic who has published about the history of mysticism and ancient prayer) says it is “like a Venn diagram in which C.S. Lewis and P.G. Wodehouse intersect” which is, I’d say, putting it mildly. This Gen-Z seminarian and her confession to Martin Bonham has indeed thrown the whole campus of Cupperton U into an uproar. It is almost believable and a great time.
By the way, it is almost overdone but Hudson knows his literary quotes and puts them into the epigrams and mouths of Bonham and others. It’s an education just listening to this guy quip and goose others with ancient blurbs. I have never read anything like it.
By the way, if you care at all about higher education, if you’ve ever worked on campus in any capacity, you’ll find this to be a blast. And if you care at all about the differences between learning about God and knowing God, well, come on in.
“An accomplished and seductive book you will never forget.” — Leonard Sweet
Bastille Day: A Novel Greg Garrett (Raven /Paraclete) $19.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99
I hope you recall my longer review of this last summer, naming Greg Garrett as an important scholar (having written about memoir, Christian reflections on film and on literature, and, recently the Gospel According to James Baldwin) not to mention several well-done novels. This is a powerful and very entertaining story about a troubled war correspondent, trying to get back to more normal reporting, who ends up in Paris and, well, you’ll see. What a story!
A remarkable novelist who has the courage to explore in classic terms the great theme of the human soul. — Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
The Passenger Cormac McCarthy (Vintage) $18.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.40
Beth reads a lot of novels but I don’t think she ever read McCarthy’s classic, The Road. So I was surprised to see her dive in to the meaty, serious Passenger (and, then, the odd sequel, Stella Morris.You’ll recall they were published almost back to back last year, and then came out in paperback in 2023.) She endured — which, for some, is what you do with a vulgar and dark McCarthy story — and came away impressed. They made her think, and she pondered them long and hard, well after the last page was turned. Granted, they are rather harsh and not for everyone.
I’ll let the review from Esquire do the talking, here:
“A one-two punch…The Passenger is an elegiac meditation on guilt, grief, and spirituality. Packed with textbook McCarthy hallmarks, like transgressive behaviors and cascades of ecstatic language, it’s a welcome return from a legend.”
And then, again:
With the publication of The Passenger and its companion novel Stella Maris, McCarthy seems to be done mining the myth of America. Instead, he ponders what it means to exist, and what our history tells us about our future… He digs into the big ideas of the universe, like human existence and what it means, as well as what our history and memory mean. He’s searching for something different… Where other writers venture into the mind and soul, McCarthy has leapt past that to ask what a soul is — and if it even exists…. McCarthy is no longer searching in the dirt trail across the West and saying, ‘This is it. This is our human nature.’ In The Passenger and Stella Maris, he’s trying to see the God that made the man who wrote those words. — Kevin Koczwara, Esquire
Tom Lake Ann Patchett (Harper) $30.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $24.00
I’ll admit that this was a particularly charming read as Beth was in the thick of our advanced galley of it as we were heading to the lovely Bay Village Chautauqua in NW Michigan, just a town away from where this book is set. Two daughter’s return home to during Covid to help their mother harvest apples in the family orchard and they learn about their mother’s past. We left the book there with a lucky participant and took some pre-orders. Interestingly, I myself was re-reading right then some of Ann Patchett’s beautifully-crafted essays in These Precious Days. Beth and I are big fans.
Out of Esau: A Novel Michelle Webster Hein (Counterpoint) $27.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.60
Speaking of Michigan, this is one of my favorite stories of the year, which I found hard to put down. It is, to cut to the chase, about a single black pastor in a mostly white Michigan village, and a troubled woman who may be the lead the character, after all, and, well, yeah; you’ve got to read this redemptive story. Karen Bender said of it altho is has “gorgeous, glittering prose” David Heska Wanbli Weiden (author of Winter Counts) calls it one of the best books of the year, saying it is “a tremendous achievement.” There is even a lovely endorsement by Sophfronia Scott, a novelist and author of several nonfiction spirituality books.
How It Went: Thirteen More Stories of the Port William Membership Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $16.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.56
Again, this was released in 2022 but the paperback came out in 2023 and we were delighted. These thirteen new stories “explore the memory and imagination of Andy Catlett, one of the well-loved central characters in Wendell Berry’s fictional town Port William, Kentucky.” These short-stories span Andy’s lifetime, from the outbreak of World War II to the contemporary times as rural life is increasingly threatened. Booklist called it “a work of essential American literature.” I like what Kirkus Reviews said about Berry’s effort here: “Berry has that gift for entertaining amid serious intent, and the many lighter, very human moments in his elegiac, cautionary, wistful stories keep them from sinking into jeremiad without diminishing his message.”
American Roulette: A Novel Matthew Best, J.M. West, and others (Milford House) $22.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $18.36
I have been wanting to write about this since it came out a few months ago; a south central Pennsylvania pastor was involved as were a number of other local writers (and a few nationally-known ones, as well.) The topic is critical important and the style is ingenious. It should be getting much attention but I am afraid that since it is published by a small, indie press here in the area, it may not become as widely known as it deserves. I will write about it again, I am sure.
For now, I will say it is heart-rending and somehow hopeful. The topic is the story of a mass shooting (in a mall.) Yes, the authors know some about this horror and some have been advocates for reasonable gun control measures for years. They wanted to tell the story that created less an argument for legislative policies and more one that evoked complexity and human empathy. It strikes me that, like anti-slavery Parliamentarian William Wilberforce recruited Hannah More who wrote novels about the morals of the day, knowing that stories could influence the popular mindset and values that necessarily preceded successful legislative initiatives, so these authors, in telling a on-the-ground story, might do more to change the hearts of folks than any number of well-documented and well footnoted policy arguments. So the book is a novel about a horrible day in the lives of a bunch of people.
Ahh, and then there is this: one or two of these caring folks came up with a plan: they asked each writer to do a chapter without consulting the others. Each one tells the story of somebody involved in the crisis that ensues at this school. A couple of them intended to serve as editors to help the chapters coalesce and weave them seamlessly into a coherent plot and — as you might be surprised to hear — very little editing was needed. The stories held together and the plot unfolds in various voices in a way that feels natural and compelling. The first third of the book just introduced each of these folks, and, knowing what you know, you wonder how they might fit into the tragedy that is sure to unfold. It’s almost like micro-fiction, short stories of each of these varied people whose fates will meet, in one way or another.
American Roulette ought to be known because it is one of the view novels that explore this topic that every American knows and wonders about — how does this happen? Will it happen near us? And, further, for anyone interested in experimental fiction and literary collaboration, this is pretty darn cool, just as a writing project that came together well. It’s not going to win a Pulitzer for luminous prose, but it’s a story that is captivating and well presented.
It is a notable paperback of 2023. Spread the word won’t you?
Transcendent Kingdom: A Novel Yaa Gyasi (Vintage) $16.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.80
I know I was a bit late to this, but this is a book that the Washington Post described as having a “blazing brilliance.” Of course Yaa Gyasi became very well known for the devastating and blazing and brilliant Homegoing, which begins centuries ago among African tribal groups and the invading power of the white colonialists, and follows generations through the middle passage into slavery, the great migration, New York, and more. What an unforgettable, powerful, epic story that was.
This is a very moving tale, set in modern times, among yet other descendants from Homegoing, and a woman named Gifty from Alabama who is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine. There has been great sorrow in her family and now her mother is depressed, nearly dead in her bed, while Gifty is studying the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. In a way, this is a story — called luminous and redemptive by one reviewer — about the relationship (and not only in the abstract) between faith and science.
I almost jumped out of my seat at one point when I realized that this was not just a passing phrase or two in the narrative but a real theme of this lovely, moving story.
Sun House David James Duncan (Little Brown) $35.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $28.00
One of the most amazing authors of our lifetime, quirky, complex, funny, with complicated stories — we adored The River Why and The Brothers K — has finally (finally) finished this audacious book he’s been working on for decades. I’m not kidding — this is one of the great literary events of 2023. Sun House is a massive book and I’m not going to say whether I finished it, yet, but, man, this is the book of almost a lifetime. And, believe me, you get your money’s worth!
Sun House is a book of healing that will earn a place on the shelf between the world’s ancient wisdom texts and Mark Twain…Here is a book like nothing I have ever read, an epic story about how we may be made whole in a broken time.— Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Pine Island Paradox
This is a classic epic novel with 21st century humor and timeless spirituality. I laughed so much and cried just as often. It’s sexy, politically astute, visionary, and bold. I love this novel. I love David. Read it now. — Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Where’d You Park Your Spaceship? An Interplanetary Tale of Love, Loss, and Bread Book One: Welcome to Firdus Rob Bell (Backhouse Books) $23.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $18.40
Not going to lie, I was thrilled to discover this — it hasn’t gotten much publicity and is self published by our hip, California guru — and it is supposed to be fantastic. Witty, seriously written, fun, and well-construed, it is, as you might guess, a vehicle for Rob’s ever curious mind and the interlace of faith spirituality, science, life, and, well, “love, loss, and bread,” I don’t know if this will resonate with those who loved his amazing Drops Like Stars or if it has tones of his legendary “Everything is Spiritual” lecture series, but you know he’s a extraordinary thinker, a clever entrepreneur and now — hooray! — a novelist. This is Part One, with a second coming, maybe, someday. The first section of this grand novel is “This is the Out.” Okay? Anybody you know read this year?
The print is larger than normal, which is weird, and it’s way over 500 pages, although it needn’t be that thick if it used normal-sized type.
Renaissance: A Novel Susan Fish (Raven) $20.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $16.00
I was interested in this firstly because the Raven imprint is a new publishing venture by the ecumenical publisher that features mostly spiritual formation books (and albums of Gregorian Chant) called Paraclete Press. We appreciate them so much and over the years they have released outstanding poetry and a few good novels (and some stellar memoirs.) They’ve created this imprint of quality fiction with a faith orientation, but which isn’t what some think of when they think of pious and wholesome “Christian fiction.” They are going for authors who can write profound stories and do important, honest, art; their moving novels are for those who are seeking meaning and deep value and who are not afraid of the Christian tradition, but are not seeking books that preach. This, I gather, is what Christian fiction could and should be. I will admit that I was also drawn to the cover, one of the nicest of the year.
Renaissance is a story of Elisabeth Fane who is turning 50. Instead of celebrating with friends and family she is alone, on a plane to Italy.
Liz, as she is called, plans to prune olive trees at a convent and explore the city of Florence. Okay, right there! What more do you need? It’s a book about gardening in Florence. Exquiste, huh?
The back cover puts in plainly: “She meets four women — five if you count the large painting of the Virgin Mary — with who she converses regularly. Eventually, these conversations allow Liz to consider the rift between her and her family, reveal why she left home, and sort out what it will take for her to return.”
I guess Renaissance is a coming-of age story “about a woman of a certain age.” As one reviewer noted, this is a “rare combination of two journeys: a vivid external tour of Florence, Italy, and a deep interior path through a woman’s struggle.”
Yes, there is some sorrow here, but it includes a discovery of great love. I highly recommend it. My friend Bob Tribe had a nice review of it that he posted a week or so ago at our Hearts & Minds Facebook page.
Girls They Write Songs About: A Novel Carlene Bauer (Picador) $19.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.20
This is one of the books that, again (like most, I guess) I have to say is not for everyone. This is a story of two writers — both women are contemporary women, feminists, literary types, working in the field of rock journalism in Manhattan a few years back. They are self-consciously academic, talking about their critical theory and their writing courses and their artists retreats, their awareness that they are pretentious, even, as they surely are. But I loved these women, and their work in the thick of pop culture. Their friendship is moving, until it is not, and their respective romantic attachments and life with families unfolds over the years. They continue to write, one more commercially successful than the other, and their friendship forms the core — at times luminous, often sad — of this extraordinary story.
The New York Times review (by Molly Young) says it is about “the cycles of enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment that make up a life.” Another reviewer said it isn’t about friendship but about the question: “what did we really want?”
I picked this up because of the rock music context, but mostly because I loved the “dazzling” epistolary novel nearly a decade ago, Frances and Bernard. It was a favorite this year, but, again, may not interest most folks.
Brisbane and A History of the Island Eugene Vodolazkin (Plough) $26.95 each OUR SALE PRICE = $21.56 each
We have promoted these two heady books over the last years as it isn’t every day you get such intellectual fiction from — get this — a Ukrainian living in Russia! His novel Laurus, translated into English nearly a decade ago won quite a lot of acclaim and, in paperback, now, is a great book to enter a conversation about calling, vocation, grief and guilt, and the healing powers of a doctor. (It is set in a time of plague and pestilence in fifteenth century Russia.)
Some have likened his readable but intense prose to Umberto Eco (if that gives you a sense of the weight of these works) and the two newest have been brought to the English speaking world by the fabulous little publisher, Plough Press, run by the literary minded folks at the Anabaptist alternative community known as the Bruderhof. As we have explained before Brisbane is about a celebrated guitarist who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s and has agreed to allow a biographer to do his life story. One might think it is about mortality, but it is also about so much more… The more recent History of the Island has been called a “masterpiece” by Rowan Williams; it is a story (about monks who are “devious and devout” and an “age-defying royal pair”) who chronicle the history of their fictional island — from medieval times to modern days.
Is A History of the Island a tragedy or comedy? Is it a satire of European history (and the myth of progress)? It may be about the futility of war, and knowing about the homeland of the author as the book came to press, it makes it all the more urgent. A little weird, but urgent. I’m not sure how the Russians or Ukrainians say it, but “wowza!”
Trust: A Novel Hernan Diaz (Riverhead) $17.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60
The other day I heard Beth talking on the phone, extensively, with great passion, with one of our best and longest friends. He had read Trust and wanted her opinion. She had told me how much she loved this book — it also, with Demon Copperfield, was a winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize and is now out in paperback — but I didn’t realize how much she was taken by this story of the stock market crash of 1929. At first the tale seems straightforward about this mighty Wall Street tycoon as the “roar and effervescence” of the 1920’s in New York gave way to the stock market crash and the 1930s. In the novel, there are four manuscripts about the era, one (in the story, of course) published in 1937 as a book called Bonds; each in one way or another asks the big question — at what cost the immense wealth was gained? There are four competing voices, then, in this immersive story and one will learn a lot about the quest for truth, the importance of lasting relationships, and the matter of deception that tends to come with the “reality warping force of capital.”
The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams Daniel Nayeri (Levine Querido) $21.99 OUR SALE PRIUCE = $17.59
It was such a delight the week this came out — it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review (which we shared at our Facebook page) and we enjoyed highlighting it as a YA novel that, frankly (like most great ones in that genre) could be equally enjoyed by adults. This summer I lead a book club conversation at my church on his splendid, unforgettable (and quite autobiographical) Everything Sad Is Untrue: A True Story (now out in paperback, by the way) and was reminded again that it is one of the best books we’ve sold in our 40 years here. As Kirkus put it, that one was “a modern epic.” It won many awards — I do hope you know it — and now this one, The Many Assassinations of… was just awarded with a prestigious Newberry Honor Award. Congrats to Daniel, a great writer and lover of stories (and bookstores!)
Beth noted how she felt this really helped unlock more of the Persian storytelling traditions that shaped young Daniel (as described and shown in Everything Sad.) This one, set along the enchanting silk road and a caravan of characters (including Samir) takes it to a higher, wilder level, with story upon story, and the power of story actually being the point. Or so it seemed to us.
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Sadly, as of January 2024 we are still closed for in-store browsing. COVID is not fully over and is truly on the rise. Since few are reporting their illnesses anymore, it is tricky to know the reality but the best measurement is to check the waste water tables to see the amount of virus in the eco-system. It is now getting worse. It is still important to be aware of how risks we take might effect the public good — those at risk, while not dying from the virus, are experiencing long-term health consequences. (Just check the latest reports of the rise of heart attacks and diabetes among younger adults, caused by long Covid.) It is complicated, but we are still closed for in-store browsing due to our commitment to public health (and the safety of our family who live here, our staff, and customers.) Our store is a bit cramped without top-notch ventilation, so we are trying to be wise. Thanks for understanding.
We will keep you posted about our future plans… we are eager to reopen. Pray for us.
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