Thursday, April 28, 2022

April 26 is my favorite release date of the year, part two: SEARCH, by Michelle Huneven

April 26 is my favorite release date of the year, part two: SEARCH, by Michelle Huneven - not just a National Book Award finalist, but also a James Beard Award-winning writer.

Last year I got serious about adding older books into my reading list. I know there are folks out there who are rolling their eyes when they learn that by older, I mean three years or more. But you try working in a bookstore where you are committed to contemporary writers and you happen to host events and you'll quickly realize that new books quickly crowd out the older titles if you truly want to do a good job. I know this doesn't have to be this way, as I learned when I spoke to Jeff Deutsch, author of In Praise of Good Bookstores, but that's my modus operandi. You can watch our conversation here.

My goal is to read one book a month that has aged out of new release in hardcover and paperback. I used three years as a model because if I used two years, I'd be able to skirt by counting our In-Store Book Club selections. We're reading Raven Leilani's Luster next week - and that would count at two years, but not three. More about our upcoming Boswell-run book club selections here - we've got four!

One month last year I finally decided to read Michelle Huneven's first novel Round Rock. The book has been in my possession for about 15 years. It's now 25 years old. It was the first of what I guess was a two book deal with Knopf, and it was edited (per the acknowledgments) by Gary Fisketjon , who worked with writers such as Donna Tartt, Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf, and Boswell favorite Peter Geye.

Round Rock is about a a small California town where one of the patrons establishes what they call "a drunk farm." I don't think we call them that anymore. Addiction and recovery is a theme that recurs in Huneven's novels, probably coming to a fore in Huneven's most popular novel, Blame, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. But to me, it's all about her second novel, Jamesland, one of my favorite books of all time - certainly my #1 book of 2003.

I still have my rec somewhere. Here it is - straight from 2003.

"What a fabulous book! Don’t be scared that Jamesland riffs on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I haven’t read it yet either. The only thing you have to know is that each of Huneven’s wonderful characters is searching for God (or at least some meaning in life) in their own way, whether it is religion, mysticism, or psychiatry.  At the center is Alice Black, great-great granddaughter of James, a bartender, and lost in an affair with a married set designer.  He in turn is married to an Eastern-wisdom-seeking actress, a bit too old for the good parts, and ready to invest in Pete Ross’s newest restaurant.  Ross is a genius chef, but is depressed by his divorce, at being barred from seeing his child, and by living in the care of his mother, a nun.  He in turn is friends with Helen, a Unitarian minister doing battle with her congregation for being too churchy.  She gets in particularly hot water for mentioning Jesus Christ in a sermon.  

"Then of course there is Alice’s Aunt Kate, semi-senile, obsessed with writing a life of William James, which is actually coming to her in visions. The scenes are of boring domesticity, but Kate types them out, transposing the same dining room conversation numerous times until she gets it right.  Alice and her cohorts bounce off each other like protons, finding solace and even some answers in each other's friendship.  The story is very warm, and quite humorous, and has an intensely place-centered setting in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, abutting Griffith Park. 

"Like many of my very favorite books (City of Your Final Destination from last year comes to mind), Jamesland (I love the hardcover jacket so much, so I included that as well) is just too quiet to blow out.  So let me help you.  My friend John told me that Jamesland reminded him why he still reads contemporary fiction.  Another friend Mark, a sales rep extraordinaire (but not of Jamesland) told me he read this through the night and was mad at me for preventing him from doing anything else.  I know this book is not for everyone, but it might be for you.  And if it is, you are really missing something by not reading it!" I reread it about five years later and it completely held up.

And then 2022 came around and I found out Michelle Huneven's latest novel, her first since 2014's Off Course (no link for this one, alas), was scheduled to come out in April from Penguin Press. I couldn't believe it! I was giddy! But would I like it? The ARC arrived and I dug in. And I was not disappointed.

Time for my staff rec for Search: "Restaurant reviewer Dana Potowski is asked to be on the committee to pick the new minister for her Unitarian Universalist congregation and decides to write a memoir about the experience, but how is she going to do that when she’s agreed to confidentiality? The committee, a varied lot of big personalities, seems to be on the same page regarding generalities, but when it comes to the specifics, conflicts arise, factions take hold, and Dana’s not exactly the only committee member keeping a few secrets.  If you had asked me for a shortlist of compelling plots for a novel, I would not have come up with this one, but I would have been dead wrong, and not just because whenever I describe it to someone, I often get the response: I would read that! Search is a wonderful novel filled with vibrant characters, essential philosophical questions (most notably, what do we want from life?), and a cornucopia of foodie delights."

Huneven has been a long-time restaurant reviewer, and this, in a way, was the Huneven book that foodies were waiting for. Did I mention its got a great blurb from Ruth Reichl? She wrote, "I’ve loved every book Michelle Huneven has written and Search is the best - the most delectable - yet."

The story is set in a Unitarian Universalist congregation and for sure, UU folk will particularly enjoy this book. One bookseller friend of mine, Anne, told me that the book had a special place in her heart, as she was actually on a search committee for a new UU minister. But pretty much anyone who's been on any leadership committee for a religious organization, a service organization, or in my experience, a prize committee for a book award, will connect with this story.

And now something that new readers may not know. A minor character in Search is actually one of the characters from Jamesland. So you can imagine that I screamed when I discovered this. 

Huneven has a lovely quote from that former Wisconsinite, long-time Southern Californian Mona Simpson - I'm pretty sure they are friends, that's the way blurbs often work - and yet what she has to say resonates with me: "With echoes of voices as disparate as those of Thomas McGuane and Barbara Pym, Huneven is an American original, attentive to the outscale beauties of the west and the fragility of its citizens and institutions." Another connection - I think Fisketjon edited both Simpson and McGuane at one point - just guessing! And I must always highlight a Barbara Pym shout out.

This is a particularly special event for us. I really expected to just do this program in our Readings from Oconomowaukee series, a virtual monthly program with Lisa Baudoin of Book & Company. And then the publicist said, after I had written my rec last October, that Huneven might come in person. What? This is impossible, I thought. And how do we duplicate this virtual series in person?

Here's how. Lisa and I will discuss the book at 2 pm on May 4 at Books & Company, and then drive Huneven back to Boswell to have another discussion at 6:30. That 6:30 discussion will be broadcast, so anyone can watch it. And yes, that means I have been the conversation partner three times in eight days, but sometimes, that's just the way things work out. I'm not complaining!

Scott Simon talked to Michelle Huneven on NPR's Weekend Edition: "There're recipes in the back. I, by the way, particularly want to try Dana's escarole salad with favas, mint and pecorino. Why are recipes in the book? It's a wonderful added value for novels. And I think novels might do a little better in today's market if they added recipes. But tell us what they're doing here."

Here is a promotional video that Lisa and I did with Sarah Bagby of Watermark Bookstore of Wichita, who is hosting a virtual event with Huneven in conversation with Leslie Jamison on May 12. It started when Sarah wrote to me and asked how we were trying to sell this book that we loved so much. I thought, why not tape the discussion? My apologies for a little volume issues on my part - when I get excited, I tend modulate wildly.

I should note we talk about a lot of books, and yes, the conversation returns to Laurie Colwin! When it comes to writing and food, there's something about her collection Home Cooking.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Huneven's editor for helping shape this book and championing it, being that I mentioned the author's previous editors. So thank you to Virginia Smith Younce for Search.

I'd love to close with a reprise, those very words I said about Jamesland: I know that Search is not for everyone, but it might be for you.  And if it is, you are really missing something by not reading it.

Register for our May 4, 6:30 pm Boswell event here - in person or broadcast! Photo credit: Michelle Huneven by Courtney Gregg

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