On Book: Writing Home

Two satisfying, deceptively funny summer reads, now in paperback, find their characters seeking strength in the familiar as life unravels all around them.  

J. Ryan Stradal and Tara Conklin will both be in Seattle on Monday (6/17), in conversation at Capitol Hill’s Elliott Bay Book Company. Free, no tickets required; info here


Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club 

Hearty stories of hardy Midwesterners 
By J. Ryan Stradal

One of the few advantages to being a child was the freedom to ask direct questions,
and that was a privilege she fully intended to abuse for as long as possible.

I don’t remember what first brought me to J. Ryan Stradal — Kitchens of the Great Midwest doesn’t really sound like a title I’d stumble across — but his prose grabbed hard and fast. A couple of years later, I drank up The Lager Queens of Minnesota, Stradal’s second book, like a cold one on a sunny day. His latest, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, takes us to a generations-old family restaurant in northern Minnesota, where gossip is swapped freely around the smoky horseshoe-shaped bar, and classic American cooking in epic portions awaits regulars and special-occasion diners alike.

Like his first two novels, Lakeside hops across characters and decades, building separate stories that gel into a single family legacy. (There’s enough going on that I always wish I’d drawn a family tree to start the book off; I never do.) The books are stand-alone tales — save for the occasional reference to Blotz beer, perhaps — so you don’t have to read the first two to appreciate this one. But they’re cut from the same cloth.

Here, as before, Stradal writes generations of compelling, steely, imperfect, and good-hearted women, for whom stubbornness and powering through it are facts of life. His characters are charactersmind-speakers, shit-starters, grudge-holders, stranger-helpers, and carry-oners — and the women carry the lion’s share of the personality, the guilt, the lore, and the reconciliation. 

Their stories aren’t fairy tales. But you can feel good about pulling for these characters, and trust that their author will treat them right. (Stradal talks about the inspiration for his characters here.) 

Release date: 4/16/2024 paperback (2023 hardcover), from Penguin Random House (Pamela Dorman Books); 352 pages. Book info here


Community Board 

As everything else falls apart, will home be any different?   
By Tara Conklin

‘I think we’re done here.’
… It sounded like something you’d say to a waitress who hovered over the table,
wondering if she should clear the plates.

Darcy has a delightfully boring life, with a husband and a job and predictable nights in and a routine. Until she doesn’t.

Prompted by a sympathetic boss to take a mental health break before she completely breaks, Darcy heads home to small-town Massachusetts, only to find the house empty; her parents have become snowbirds in Arizona without telling her, and she’s all alone (again) to wallow in delivery food and tears. At last, deciding she needs a hobby, or money, or both, she turns to the town’s online “community board,” a quaint mix of rants and raves, free stuff, odd jobs, and missing pets.

Plenty of things make this a fast and fun read: Darcy’s tendency to leap to hyperbole, whether it’s self-talk or in accusations lobbed at her parents; assorted bits of petty vengeance around town; the many epistolary detours, including her (mostly unsent) draft emails to the ex; and the wayward, scavenging pig that drags her back into civilization. It’s a weird journey, and not always a logical one — don’t overthink this book, especially her new friend’s singular quest — but it feels good to get there.

Release date: 4/2/2024 paperback (2023 hardcover), from HarperCollins (Mariner Books); 272 pages. Book info here

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.