I'm a few days late on this "January Edition" of Front Porch Books, but when I started tallying up the stacks of books which have landed at Chez Abrams, the number of new-and-upcoming releases I had to tell you about quickly got out of hand. As it is, this list is pretty large; but, trust me, this is only one-nth of what I wanted to share with you. If I tried to list everything I received, you and I would be here all day. And that would do neither of us any good because we both know we have better things to be doing. Like reading.
The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall (Pittsburgh University Press): This collection of 15 stories and a novella won the 2010 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and came to me by way of Book Mooch. Blurb-worthiness: "Like miniature boxes inventively and carefully wrapped, Tina May Hall's stories open to reveal the prize inside: worlds spun from caught moments, little mysteries, and shimmery incantations." (Anne Sanow, author of Triple Time) First Lines:
There was a squirrel trapped in the wall behind my stove in October. We could hear it clawing back there, but what to do? "Maybe it will leave of its own accord," Paul said. We sat at the kitchen table, an old farm table so heavy it took two people to shift it, and listened. Perfect, I thought. One of my friends had come home one night to find her hunter husband had skinned a squirrel and put it in the Crock-Pot. She had lifted the lid expecting rice and beans and had found the pink body curled like a fetus.
One day, I said, "The squirrel's gone--listen, quiet."
He said, "Or it's dead in there."
Pictures of Houses With Water Damage by Michael Hemmingson (Black Lawrence Press): I can always depend on Black Lawrence Press, a new and on-the-rise indie publisher, to deliver the goods. Hemmingson's collection of short and flash fiction looks like it more than fulfills that promise. Blurb-worthiness: "Michael Hemmingson is Raymond Carver on acid." (Larry McCaffery, editor of Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation) Indeed, indeed. Just look at how the collection opens....First Lines:
Mid-afternoon that Saturday I notice my upstairs neighbors have been using my parking space to have a yard sale, although there is no yard attached to this apartment building. They are selling things, everyday things, the things people discard, and they are making some money.
Two women in their late twenties live upstairs, right above my apartment. I often hear their feet as they walk around. One of them is a new tenant; she moved in after the other woman's boyfriend, a rap singer of some sort, moved out.
I'm annoyed. This is my parking space; they are using my space and didn't ask if I needed it, if it was okay.
This bothers me.
I wonder how long they've been at it. I've only noticed it now, mid-afternoon, because I slept until 11:30.
I have a hangover.
--from "Why Don't You Use Your Parking Space?"
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (Random House): A Kindle purchase. Okay, let me get the unforgivable pun out of the way right now: I was not bullied into buying this biography of Prez #26. (Pause for groans) I haven't read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first volume in Morris' trilogy about TR, but I can tell you I've been waiting for Colonel Roosevelt with something like restless anxiety ever since I read Theodore Rex (the middle volume). I bought that book on a whim seven years ago, when I was still in the Army. While assigned to the Third Infantry Division, I was pulling office duty at Hunter Army Airfield, about 20 miles north of my home. When I realized, horror of horrors!, that I'd traveled all the way to Savannah without my book (whatever now-forgotten novel I was reading at the time), I made a quick trip to the nearby Barnes & Noble and grabbed the first attractive book I saw. Two hours later, I was so engrossed in Theodore Rex, sitting there at the desk in the Army headquarters building on Hunter, an Armageddon jihad could have erupted in the hallway outside my office and I wouldn't even have noticed. I would just go on reading--deep, deep, deep inside Morris' marvelous prose--and not even feel the swish of the Allah-akbar sword slicing the air. I expect the same intense reading experience with Colonel Roosevelt. Blurb-worthiness: "Now with Colonel Roosevelt, the magnum opus is complete. And it deserves to stand as the definitive study of its restless, mutable, ever-boyish, erudite and tirelessly energetic subject. Mr. Morris has addressed the toughest and most frustrating part of Roosevelt’s life with the same care and precision that he brought to the two earlier installments. And if this story of a lifetime is his own life’s work, he has reason to be immensely proud." (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)
Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books): Leavitt has long been a favorite of mine, stretching back to the days when she and I both populated the dearly-departed Readerville.com. I was enthusiastic in my praise of her earlier novel, Girls in Trouble. I'm confident Pictures of You will offer the same level of emotional intensity. For those of you needing a bit of plot description to whet your appetite, here's a snippet from the Booklist review: "In Leavitt’s compelling new novel, a car crash provides the catalyst for an examination of how well we know the people we love. April and Isabelle, both fleeing their marriages, collide on a foggy, deserted stretch of road. Only Isabelle survives, and though blameless, she is haunted by guilt. In search of healing, she finds herself drawn to Charlie and Sam, April’s grief-stricken husband and son. Complicated relationships develop, and Leavitt thoughtfully handles friendship and romance in scenes of emotional resonance."
Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island by David Vann (Harper Perennial, Harper Collins): To judge by the mid-winter publishing buzz surrounding David Vann, you'd think someone had strolled to the center of Manhattan and smacked a dozen beehives with a baseball bat. David Vann this, David Vann that. Hot new thing, better than sliced bread (or, in publishing-industry-speak: Charles Frazier), let's put him on Dancing With the Stars, etc. Okay, fine. I get it. Vann's 2008 short-story collection Legend of a Suicide was great, and this year's debut novel Caribou Island is even better. Sheesh! Leave a busy blogger alone, wouldja? But then I turned to the first page of the novel, which is about a couple whose marriage unravels as they build a cabin on an Alaskan island. Oh. My. God. Just try and resist the pull of the rest of the book after you read these First Lines:
My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can't remember how my thoughts went then, can't remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I'm sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.
You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?
It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn't see even at the time, so I can't see it now. I don't know what she looked like hanging there. I don't remember any of it, only that it was.
Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman (Lookout Books): Unless a new press was hatched in the past two weeks*, Lookout, the literary imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, is America's youngest independent press. For its debut title, Lookout is publishing this collection by Pearlman a 74-year-old writer who has worked long and hard in the trenches digging with pickaxe and shovel primarily in literary journals like Agni, Ecotone, Lake Effect and a fistful of other magazines most of you have never heard of. As Ann Patchett says in her introduction to Binocular Vision, "This should be the book with which Edith Pearlman casts off her secret-handshake status and takes up her rightful position as a national treasure. Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That's where they belong."
Daddy's by Lindsay Hunter (Featherproof Books): I downloaded this short-story collection to my Kindle within seconds after reading this blurb from The Boston Phoenix: "Lindsay Hunter makes drunk teenagers dry-humping in Cheeto dust compelling literary fare." I mean, really. You just can't help but rubberneck this book. I've been held up by several other reading commitments, but Daddy's is next in my Kindle queue (even trumping the impatient Colonel Roosevelt). First Lines:
The baby was normal when it came out. Daddy snipped the cord like nothing, the baby screaming silently till the nurse sucked out whatever bloodsnot was stuck in his throat, then there was no turning back, it was there, his voice, his mouth wide and wider, that baby was all mouth, his cries like a nail being driven into rotten wood. Normal.
--from "That Baby"
The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell (Henry Holt): After The Passage by Justin Cronin, any zombie novel has a long lurching walk ahead of it to meet the high bar I've set for a book that's not....well, brain-dead on arrival. My love for The Passage was deep and wide; but, if any book can meet my expectations, Bell's 2010 novel about a young woman named Temple on the run from marauding "meatskins" might be the one to do it. Blurb-worthiness: "Alden Bell provides an astonishing twist on the southern gothic: like Flannery O'Connor with zombies." (Michael Gruber, author of The Book of Air and Shadows) Dang. You had me at "Flannery."
Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict (Press 53): I've been wanting to read this book for nigh on a coon's age, and I'm glad to finally have it in my hands. Benedict is the author of two other short-story collections (Town Smokes and The Wrecking Yard) and a novel (Dogs of God) which have all been on my short-list of books I've been meaning to get around to.....but, to my deep and utter chagrin, haven't. Miracle Boy is probably the one that will change all that. Soon, I promise. Blurb-worthiness: “When did Pinckney Benedict become the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink crazy man we see here? Some kind of latter-day Chaucer-meets-Gogol-meets-Donne-meets-Ray-Bradbury-meets-Albert-Goldbarth somewhere in the back corner of the library, where Jim Shepard is crouched empathetically over his history books and Nabokov runs his magnifying glass over his butterfly collection. Miracle Boy is a book of stories unafraid to parse the Biblical, the fabulist, the spaceman-ish, the science-y, the mythic, the genred, and the mechanical rabbited. This is the way literature used to roll.” (Kyle Minor, author of In the Devil's Territory) First Lines:
Lizard and Geronimo and Eskimo Pie wanted to see the scars. Show us the scars, Miracle Boy, they said.
They cornered Miracle Boy after school one day, waited for him behind the shop-class shed, out beyond the baseball diamond, where the junior high's property bordered McClung's place. Miracle Boy always went home that way, over the fence stile and across the fields with his weird shuffling gait and the black-locust walking stick that his old man had made for him. His old man's place bordered McClung's on the other side.
Show us the scars. Lizard and Geronimo and Eskimo Pie knew all about the accident and Miracle Boy's reattached feet. The newspaper headline had named him Miracle Boy. MIRACLE BOY'S FEET REATTACHED IN EIGHT-HOUR SURGERY. Everybody in school knew, everybody in town. Theirs was not a big town. It had happened a number of years before, but an accident of that sort has a long memory.
Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult (Atria Books): Picoult is another author whose books I've long been meaning to read, but either their daunting length or ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter has put me off. I don't know if Sing You Home--which involves same-sex marriage and music therapy--is the place I want to start (The Tenth Circle is the novel which intrigues me the most), but these First Lines sure do cast a hook in my direction:
One sunny, crisp Saturday in September when I was seven years old, I watched my father drop dead. I was playing with my favorite doll on the stone wall that bordered our driveway while he mowed the lawn. One minute he was mowing, and the next, he was facefirst in the grass as the mower propelled itself in slow motion down the hill of our backyard.
The Arctic Marauder by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics Books): I will never turn my back on a book from Fantagraphics, the publishers who for the past several decades have been putting the "come" in "comics." Beautifully packaged and carefully chosen, their titles offer a mix of the new and the resurrected. Tardi's The Arctic Marauder falls into the latter category, first published in the 1970s. Here, I'll let Fantagraphics tell you a little more about the book to wet your whistle:
A satirical, Jules Verne-esque “retro-sci-fi” yarn executed on scratchboard in a stunningly detailed faux-woodcut style perfectly chosen to render the Edwardian-era mechanical marvels on display. Created in 1972, The Arctic Marauder is a downright prescient example of proto-“steampunk” science fiction — or perhaps more accurately, and to coin a spinoff genre, “icepunk.”
In 1899, “L’Anjou,” a ship navigating the Arctic Ocean from Murmansk, Russia, to Le Havre, France comes across a stunning sight: A ghostly, abandoned vessel perched high atop an iceberg. But exploring this strange apparition is the last thing the sailors will ever do, as their own ship is soon dispatched to Davy Jones’ locker via a mysterious explosion.
Enter Jérôme Plumier, whose search for his missing uncle, the inventor Louis-Ferdinand Chapoutier, brings him into contact with the sinister, frigid forces behind this — and soon he too is headed towards the North Pole, where he will contend with mad scientists, monsters of the deep, and futuristic submarines and flying machines.
Portraits of a Marriage by Sandor Marai; translated by George Szirtes (Alfred A. Knopf): Hungarian novelist Marai is another one whose on-going resurrection is cause for celebration. His gem-like Embers, first published in 1942, had a huge impact on me when I read it a decade ago. I haven't made the time (again, bucketloads of chagrin) to read his two other recently "re-discovered" works of fiction--The Rebels and Casanova in Bolzano--but after skimming the first few pages of Portraits of a Marriage, I am expecting more of the same high level of literary quality I found in Embers. Originally published in 1941, Portraits of a Marriage is the story of a love triangle which, the publisher's Jacket Copy tells us, "is a vortex of love, sacrifice, and self-preservation from which there is no escape." First Lines:
Look, see that man? Wait! turn your head away, look at me, keep talking. I wouldn't like it if he glanced this way and spotted me; I don't want him to greet us. Now you can look again...The little squat one there in the fur-collared coat? No, of course not. It's the tall, pale-faced one in the black overcoat talking to that blond stick of a girl behind the counter. He is just having some candied orange peel wrapped. Strange, he never bought me candied orange peel.
What's that, dear?...Nothing. Wait, I have to blow my nose.
Has he gone? Tell me when he has gone.
He's paying now?...Can you see what his wallet looks like? Describe it carefully; I don't want to look that way. Is it brown crocodile skin? Yes? Oh, I'm so pleased.
Why am I pleased? Just because. Well, yes, of course, I gave him the wallet, for his birthday. Ten years ago. Was I in love with him?...That's a hard question, dear. Yes, I believe I did love him. Has he gone yet?
A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco): By all appearances, this is the hardest book the prolific Joyce Carol Oates has ever had to write. She opens the memoir with these First Lines: "My husband died, my life collapsed." Jacket Copy: "On a February morning in 2008, Joyce Carol Oates drove her ailing husband of forty-eight years, Raymond Smith, to the emergency room of the Princeton Medical Center where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Both Joyce and Ray expected him to be released in a day or two. But in less than a week, even as Joyce was preparing for his discharge, Ray died from a virulent hospital-acquired infection, and Joyce was suddenly faced—totally unprepared—with the stunning reality of widowhood." Yes, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Joan Didion's masterpiece of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, but I trust Oates will deliver a memoir that's equally profound and beautifully heartbreaking. The book will be released on February 15th. Ouch.
Hull Creek by Jim Nichols (Down East Books): Jim Nichols is another favorite writer of mine for whom I was just about to put out a literary APB. He wrote an absolutely stunning collection of short stories called Slow Monkeys which, it seems, had a passionate but unfortunately small circle of readers. I raved about it back in 2003, and then sat around waiting for Nichols' next book to arrive. Eight years later, I was still sitting around moping like a depressed Oasis fan waiting for the band to reunite. Then, I got word that a small indie press in Maine was about to release his first novel. I was so excited, I think I broke parts of the alphabet on my keyboard when writing to request an advance copy. Jacket Copy: "After the death of his parents, Troy Hull left college to take up his family's traditional lobster-fishing life in Maine. After a few good years, Troy finds himself faced with the loss of that life, and the changing nature of his hometown. Troy's best friend, also a lobsterman, has found his own shady methods to deal with this situation, and now Troy must decide whether to follow his pal's outlaw path to solvency or let the straight-and-narrow take him from his beloved home forever. Throw in a run-away wife, a wicked city woman, a wild melee where a big-shot TV host and crew get tossed into the chilly harbor, and a drug deal gone bad." That may not sound like much, but I'm pretty confident, based on the gritty excellence of Slow Monkeys, Nichols will--okay, I'll say it--haul up a net full of sweet meat. No more sitting around waiting for the goods to arrive. Thanks, Jim!
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Ecco): "DeWitt's bang-up second novel (after Ablutions) is a quirky and stylish revisionist western. When a frontier baron known as the Commodore orders Charlie and Eli Sisters, his hired gunslingers, to track down and kill a prospector named Herman Kermit Warm, the brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and eventually to Warm's claim in the Sierra foothills, running into a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlor of drunken floozies, and a gang of murderous fur trappers." That's taken from the Publishers Weekly review of The Sisters Brothers, a novel whose timing couldn't be better, given the renewed interest in Charles Portis' classic "revisionist western" True Grit. First Lines:
I was sitting outside the Commodore's mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie's new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by. I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it? Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.
*Which is a distinct possibility. After all: "Daddy says every time a rejected novelist goes into rehab, a new publishing imprint gets its wings"--Zuzu in It's a Wonderful Life, Part III: The Rise of the Borzoi Knopfs