Thane Tierney

Michelle Huneven is a Whiting Award-winning writer who studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as well as a James Beard Award-winning food journalist who spent time at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology. She leverages all this in her fifth novel, Search, which follows a food writer named Dana and her fellow members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation through the process of searching for a new minister. Huneven, who now teaches writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, answered our questions about the spiritual inquiries and delectable recipes of her latest novel.


Dana’s committee experience in Search has the ring of truth to it. How much of it comes from your personal history, and how did your experiences differ?
I was on a church search committee—if only for an assistant minister—and that is where I got the idea for Search. My writer’s antennae first quivered when I read the applications, which were full of personal narratives (Describe a mistake you’ve made in ministry and what you did about it. . . . Tell about your call to ministry). The applicants were so varied and so self-revealing—whether they meant to be or not. 

Unlike Dana’s committee, we were an affable, tame group and quickly agreed on an applicant who seemed highly qualified. But someone had “heard something” about the applicant, so we did another round of reference-checking. I interviewed a reference who affirmed the applicant’s talents but also disclosed a pattern of ethical lapses too troubling to overlook. Even as I was shocked and disappointed by these revelations, a light went off: The vetting process had been like detective work. Uncovering the discrepancy between how a person self-presented and who they really were . . . now that seemed the stuff of novels.

Although my church search committee experience was congenial, I began collecting stories of other search committees (in both churches and academia) where factions, feuds and intractability flourished. It soon occurred to me that this intimate, small form of democracy was like a fractal of what was happening on the national level: the divisiveness and spleen, the dearth of middle ground.

“The vetting process had been like detective work. Uncovering the discrepancy between how a person self-presented and who they really were . . . now that seemed the stuff of novels.”

Why did you choose a Unitarian Universalist church as a backdrop for Search?
I am a UU, and that’s the denomination and church life that I know. We are known for being articulate, skeptical, contentious, open-minded and socially progressive. We follow no dogma or doctrine and embrace spiritual wisdom from all traditions; our congregations include Jewish people, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, atheists and many others. Social action is a major form of spiritual practice. Many of us would describe ourselves with that now-popular phrase, “spiritual not religious,” which is the fastest growing category of religious affiliation in the country. 


Read our review of ‘Search’ by Michelle Huneven.


How did your time at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology influence this book? Did you, like Dana, ever consider the ministry as a vocation?
In my 30s, I’d been supporting myself as a restaurant critic while trying to write a novel. I’d been working on that novel for more years than I’m willing to admit, and I was not getting anywhere. Like Dana, I yearned to do something more strenuous and meaningful with my life than write about what I put in my mouth. 

The minister at my church was literary, erudite, funny and wide-ranging in his interests, and I thought I might like to do what he did. (Ministry and novel writing are among the few careers for generalists.) Also, I loved the sermon as a literary form almost as much as I loved the novel. So, off to seminary I went. Although the Claremont School of Theology was Methodist-affiliated, students from 31 denominations attended, including an African denomination of one. My study partner was a nun.

I loved every minute of my time there—the classes, the reading, the papers and preaching, the conversations, my colleagues, and professors. But about a year and a half in, as I sat in my Backgrounds of Contemporary Theology course, it came to me what I’d been doing wrong with the novel I’d been trying to write for so many years: I’d been starting it in the wrong place! 

When school got out for the year, I went back to work on the old project, and by the fall, I was so deep into it, I put off finishing my divinity degree—and indeed, I never did complete it. I did, however, finish the novel, which was Round Rock. My second novel, Jamesland, was my first “church” novel, and Search, my fifth novel, is my second “church” novel. They share a character, and both make use of my seminary experience and, I hope, justify it. In Search, Dana actually gets my seminary years and, like me, never finishes. Like Dana, I have never lost my interest in ministers and ministry.

“Ministry and novel writing are among the few careers for generalists.”

Search

Why did you decide to include recipes with the book? And how did you decide which recipes to include?
When I won a James Beard Award years ago, it was for the category “Feature Writing With Recipes.” The “With Recipes” clause always made me laugh. It seemed like both a pulled punch and the promise of a little bonus. That is, some might see the category as a lighter, perhaps slightly frivolous form of feature writing, while others might consider the recipes as a bonus, like a crackerjack prize. At any rate, the idea of a Novel “With Recipes” has also always amused and appealed to me. 

Some recipes—like chicken fiesta and the whole wheat chocolate chip cookies—I knew I would include from the start, while other recipes made themselves known as the characters cooked and carried their dishes into committee meetings. 

I had a lot of fun testing the recipes to get them right. How many fresh coconuts did I hurl on our concrete patio for the buko pie? Many! Enough to become an expert coconut cracker. And friends still speak reverently of the lamb nihari feast we held outside under heaters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that’s an interesting recipe—it’s not difficult, except that you must get out (and use) every single spice in your cabinet.

What link(s) do you find (or draw) between food and spirituality?
My husband, who is Jewish, likes to say, “Where two or more are gathered, food is served.” Eating together, breaking bread, communion, picnicking, coffee hour—here is where generosity, nourishment, conversation, conviviality and community occur, and connection is made. Food connects us to a vast web of labor and resources, not to mention growing cycles and the seasons. If you ever need a sense of “the interconnected web of which we are all a part,” consider how that cup of tea or apple or slice of bread reached your lips. 

“Eating together, breaking bread, communion, picnicking, coffee hour—here is where generosity, nourishment, conversation, conviviality and community occur, and connection is made.”

Dana comes out squarely in favor of whole wheat chocolate chip cookies. And you? Do you prefer yours crunchy, chewy or cake-y?
Oh, I really do love those whole wheat chocolate chip cookies from Kim Boyce’s whole grain cookbook, Good to the Grain. Someone called them “adult cookies,” and maybe they are. They are certainly burly cookies. (I gave the recipe to a friend who had two adult sons living with her during the pandemic, and they nicknamed the cookies “The Burly Mofos.”)  I admit, I use fancy muscovado for the brown sugar and excellent chocolate, so they are especially good. They are crunchy AND chewy, with all the buttery, grainy pleasures of whole wheat toast, plus some serious chocolate action. 

But then, I’m a person who halves the sugar in most recipes and craves the bitterness in dark chocolate, marmalade and radicchio. Regular Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies are way too sweet and insubstantial for me, though of course I can’t stop mindlessly eating them once I start—they’re designed for that.

What do you hope readers will take away from Search?
Gosh. Ideally? A few hours of literary pleasure. And some choice recipes!

Photo of Michelle Huneven by Courtney Gregg.

The award-winning author’s fifth novel, Search, pairs delectable recipes with a church committee’s quest to find a new minister.

G.K. Chesterton once said that he had “searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” In Michelle Huneven’s fifth novel, Search, we can begin to see why Chesterton’s hunt proved so fruitless.

Pastor Tom Fox has been dialing it in lately, and his Southern Californian congregation is becoming restless. Some of the church’s executive committee members approach a fellow congregant, restaurant critic and food writer Dana Potowski, with the suggestion that she take him to lunch and have a come-to-Jesus chat about the situation. Well, not exactly come-to-Jesus; the Unitarian Universalists don’t work that way.

For readers unfamiliar with it, the Unitarian Universalist Association is a spiritual organization that’s open to theists, atheists, agnostics and believers of all stripes, formed from the union of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. “I could go into some detail about the theological and class differences between the two groups,” says narrator Dana, “but suffice it to say that Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian and P. T. Barnum a Universalist.”

When Pastor Fox cops to his critics’ appraisal and lets it slip that he’s planning to retire from ministry, this sets into motion a replacement search committee, which Dana semireluctantly joins. Previous committee meetings had taken place over potluck dinners, so Dana persuades herself to take the plunge by planning to get her next project—The Search Committee Cookbook—out of it.

Whiting Award winner Huneven is uniquely suited to undertake a novel like this; not only did she study at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but she’s also a James Beard Award-winning food journalist. She gleefully digs into the sausagemaking of a New-Agey church committee trying to reach consensus. They go on retreat. They hold meetings. They undergo anti-oppression training “to promote inclusivity and discourage undue discrimination in the search process.” And they talk—with one another, over one another, behind one another’s backs, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes lovingly, sometimes angrily. By the time the process winds down, all eight committee members have vetted not only the replacement candidates but also each other.

They also consume a great deal of food. If it’s true (as Napoleon may have said) that an army marches on its stomach, then a church committee bears some resemblance to a platoon. Here Huneven sparkles, with chop-licking descriptions of their potluck delectables, and as a bonus, she includes a baker’s dozen recipes as appendices.

But there’s also a profoundly spiritual dimension to Search. It raises difficult questions about living one’s beliefs in a faith-based community and doesn’t flinch when principles and practice come into conflict. Like a challenging sermon or a great restaurant’s tasting menu, Search leaves the reader hungry for more.

Read more: Michelle Huneven discusses the spirituality of food and her love for ‘burly cookies’

Like a challenging sermon or a great restaurant’s tasting menu, Michelle Huneven’s novel Search leaves the reader hungry for more.

For as long as the field of psychology has existed, one central debate continues to rage: Is human behavior a product of genetics or environment, nature or nurture? In her debut novel, The Orchard, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry comes down squarely on the middle of the fence. Set during Russia’s volatile period of perestroika, the restructuring of the USSR in the 1980s, this coming-of-age tale tracks the emotional, political, intellectual and social growth of Anya Raneva and her small circle of friends.

Most of us who grew up in the United States during the Cold War had little insight into the lives of our Soviet peers, and it’s here that Gorcheva-Newberry does the reader a great service, offering a peek behind the Iron Curtain and its veil of propaganda. In a postscript to the novel, the author outlines the unsettling cavalcade of events to which her contemporaries were subject. “In a single decade, my generation lived under Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin,” she writes. “We witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire, the August Coup of 1991 and the October Coup of 1993. . . . We saw tanks rumble down the Moskva River quay and surround the [Russian] White House.”

If there is such a thing as clear-eyed sentimentality, The Orchard evokes it, with its warts-and-all recollections of youthful passions, when the road ahead seems like one endless string of possibilities. At one juncture, Anya and her best friend, Milka Putova, compose a letter to President Ronald Reagan, hoping to wrangle a state-sponsored invitation to the U.S. similar to the one Russian leader Yuri Andropov had recently extended to an American girl. Anya and Milka’s request is a long shot, but in their “Soviet universe, a life without an occasional miracle could be a bottomless pit. So we thought we could nudge our socialist fate a little and take a chance.”

But miracles, by definition, don’t happen all that often. And in the meantime, life goes on, and adolescence yields to adulthood—or, as we discover on a tragic occasion or two, doesn’t.

No one in Anya’s circle ultimately winds up where they thought or dreamed they’d be, which is a quintessentially Russian literary endgame. And as Anya reflects on her youth, she recognizes that both nature and nurture had their roles to play. “Russian people are fatalists; we believe that our future is preordained, irreversible,” she says. “But then, we also believe in miracles, one grand sweep of imagination. Perhaps it’s what allows us to survive and to endure. And maybe it isn’t that at all, maybe it’s our enormous pride, the aggrandized vanity, which we carry to the grave, and the rest is just weather, wind and rain, spurts of blinding snow.”

With her debut novel, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry does the reader a great service, offering a peek behind the Iron Curtain and its veil of propaganda.

In pop culture, the women of the French Resistance often look as though they are poised to step onto a Chanel runway once they dispatch their current obligations. Think Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca or pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s beret-clad cartoon sharpshooter, crying out, “Now, mes petites . . . pour la France!” Our war heroines are often portrayed as beautiful, camera-ready and hypercompetent—but available for rescue by our heroes.

In the cinematic sweep of Sisters of Night and Fog, Erika Robuck artfully upends this trope. Although Violette Szabo and Virginia d’Albert-Lake fill central casting’s ideal of la femme de la résistance, they come across as actual people. Because they were.

During her meticulous research for The Invisible Woman, her World War II-era novel about Allied spy Virginia Hall, Robuck encountered stories about Szabo and d’Albert-Lake. She initially intended them to be characters in the earlier book, then realized that each woman’s story needed more space, so a trilogy was planned. But when Robuck discovered that the arcs of Szabo and d’Albert-Lake intersected in an almost miraculous way, this novel was born.

In many ways, the structure of Sisters of Night and Fog parallels the narrative arc of Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Academy Award-winning film, Life Is Beautiful. When war breaks out, there are rumblings and stirrings, inconveniences and portents. Then, as the monster draws nearer, life takes a quantum leap into something worse but still bearable. In one scene, a woman who houses Violette in Rouen reacts with Gallic stoicism to a pre-bombing leaflet warning her to leave the city: “Petite, I’ve lived seventy years, through two wars. If I go out in a blast, that’s how I go.”

Violette and Virginia are not so lucky as that. They both fall into the hands of the Nazis and are moved from jail to concentration camp. Survival is a minute-by-minute endurance test, and Robuck wrings out every sweat-laden drop of emotion from their plight. You can almost feel your stomach growl when she describes the half-pint of thin rhubarb soup allotted to the prisoners each day. Horror pervades every corner of the camps, yet Robuck manages to keep humanity’s candle flickering at the gates of hell.

Violette and Virginia are two women whose stories needed to be told, particularly now that most of the people who fought in WWII are gone. Robuck has done their memory great honor.

The stories of real-life French Resistance fighters Violette Szabo and Virginia d’Albert-Lake needed to be told. Erika Robuck has done their memory great honor.

Whoever said that nonsense about girls being full of sugar and spice and everything nice couldn’t have imagined Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett, the binary star at the center of Heather O’Neill’s When We Lost Our Heads. These perversely fascinating characters are filled with guile and bile and many things vile, and even though it’s virtually a certainty that they are star-crossed, it’s impossible to tear one’s gaze away.

Marie is the beautiful daughter of a Victorian-era sugar baron; her childhood friend, Sadie, was born the odd one out into a political family of social climbers. If anything, Sadie’s ambition is to be, in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s words, “a social climber / climbing downwards.” The two girls form a peculiarly strong bond in the opening of the book, just before the act that will separate them for years: They accidentally murder one of Marie’s household maids.

Rich sugar barons’ daughters don’t go to jail, not in Montreal, not back then, so the equally culpable Sadie gets pegged for the crime and is sent off to England to a school for “difficult” girls. Over the next few years, the temporarily separated pair evolve into the bewitching sociopaths who will ignite the fuse for the book’s latter-half powder keg.

Bound inextricably by murder and money, the Antoine and Arnett families navigate an unsteady truce that ultimately leads Sadie’s brother, Philip, to become a suitor for Marie’s hand. Circumstances change rapidly, though, and it dawns on Marie that—for her, at least—marriage would be tantamount to slavery. “Freedom and power,” she realizes, “were one and the same and were interchangeable.” The interfamily schism seems irreparable, and scandal ensues. Rather than retreating from the gossip, Marie leans into it, while on the other side of town, the recently returned Sadie stokes the flames with an incendiary novel whose protagonists are loosely (and transparently) based on herself and Marie.

All this personal drama plays out against the background of women’s suffrage, workers’ rights and the economic inequality that characterized the Gilded Age. It comes as no surprise that society and the sociopaths are on a collision course, but O’Neill is sufficiently deft to keep the reader in suspense as to where and how that inevitable impact will occur.

With explicit echoes of Marquis de Sade and the French Revolution, this is not a book for the faint of heart or Victorian sensibility, but it does encompass a fair amount of sugar . . . and spice.

Heather O’Neill’s perversely fascinating characters are filled with guile and bile and many things vile, and it’s impossible to tear one’s gaze away.

In the July 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, an editorial urged “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” It’s believed to be the first time the expression “manifest destiny,” a staple of high school history papers for over a century, ever appeared in print.

The phrase doesn’t show up as such in Jonathan Evison’s epic seventh novel, Small World, but its presence—and its role within American immigrants’ and Native Americans’ destinies, spread across three centuries—is woven into every page.

There’s Amtrak executive Jenny, whose great-great-great-grandfather was a Chinese immigrant and forty-niner who parlayed his gold into intergenerational wealth; budding basketball player Malik, son of a single mother and descendant of an enslaved man; abuse survivor Laila, whose Miwok ancestor internalized white people’s cruelty; and retiring train conductor Walter, whose Irish forebear was on the crew that drove the golden spike that connected America’s coasts by rail in 1869.

In fact, it’s Walter’s 2019 train crash that kicks off the odyssey, as the engineer tries to imagine the lives of his passengers and “what circumstances, what decisions, had delivered them all to that moment.”

As Evison tells the tale of America through immigrants’, Native Americans’ and their descendants’ eyes, readers are treated to seemingly unrelated vignettes that jump back and forth across time and space. Piece by piece, Evison successfully corrals this sprawling history into a cohesive whole, coalescing it into a vivid mosaic.

Part of the reason this 480-page book seems like a novel half its girth is Evison’s ability to drop the reader into a scene. You can feel the bone-rattling lurch of a wagon carrying its hidden human cargo to freedom. You can smell the pinewoods as a young couple seeks a place to build their nest in the Sierra foothills. You can taste the congealed oats at a Dickensian orphanage. You can revel in the dreams of a young athlete on the verge of greatness.

Throughout it all, Evison underscores a sense of a shared America, not so much in the kumbaya mythology of the melting pot but a feeling—oft-neglected these days—that we are all in this nation-building adventure together. That’s a destiny worth manifesting.

Jonathan Evison underscores a sense of a shared America, that we are all in this nation-building adventure together. That’s a destiny worth manifesting.

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