Thursday, March 31, 2011

Front Porch Books: March 2011 Edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly assessment of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mr. UPS, deliver them with a doorbell-and-dash method of deposit, I call them my Front Porch Books.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  To see a larger version of the book covers, click on the thumbnails.

American Masculine by Shann Ray (Graywolf Press):  In the waning months of 2010, I was all hot and itchy for two short-story collections I knew were coming my way from Graywolf Press.  The first, Volt by Alan Heathcock, arrived in November and it turned out to be everything I'd hoped for and more; the second, Shann Ray's debut collection American Masculine, took a little longer to reach my front porch, but it appears the wait was well worth it.  The winner of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize, American Masculine struck an immediate chord inside me with its subtitle, "Montana Stories."  That's like asking an ice-cream addict "One scoop or two?"  I'll have a full review of the collection here at the blog in the distant future, but for now those of you who can't wait for the June publication date can visit Ray's terrific website which has links to some of his stories.  Jacket Copy:  "The American West has long been a place where myth and legend have flourished.  Where men stood tall and lived rough.  But that West is no more.  In its place Shann Ray finds washed up basketball players, businessmen hiding addictions, and women fighting the inexplicable violence that wells up in these men.  A son struggles to accept his father’s apologies after surviving a childhood of beatings.  Two men seek empty basketball hoops on a snowy night, hoping to relive past glory.  A bull rider skips town and rides herd on an unruly mob of passengers as he searches for a thief on a train threading through Montana’s Rocky Mountains.  In these stories, Ray grapples with the terrible hurt we inflict on those we love, and finds that reconciliation, if far off, is at least possible.  The debut of a writer who is out to redefine the contours of the American West, American Masculine is a deeply felt and fiercely written ode to the country we left behind."  Blurb worthiness:  "Shann Ray's prose brings to mind Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx but is, thankfully, entirely his own.  His work is lyrical, prophetic, brutal yet ultimately hopeful."  (Dave Eggers, author of Zeitoun)


The Free World by David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):  For my money, no one--and brother, I mean no one--writes about the Russian emigre experience with more authenticity and humor than David Bezmozgis.  In my review of his short-story collection Natasha and Other Stories for January Magazine seven years ago, I raved: "He writes with authority about dislocation and assimilation."  I've been waiting all these years for the next great thing to arrive from Bezmozgis' imagination and this novel, The Free World, sure looks like it will fill me up like a series of those wooden nesting Russian dolls.  Jacket Copy: "Summer, 1978.  Brezhnev sits like a stone in the Kremlin, Israel and Egypt are inching towards peace, and in the bustling, polyglot streets of Rome, strange new creatures have appeared: Soviet Jews who have escaped to freedom through a crack in the Iron Curtain.  Among the thousands who have landed in Italy to secure visas for new lives in the West are the members of the Krasnansky family--three generations of Russian Jews."  First Lines:
Alec Krasnansky stood on the platform of Vienna's Western Terminal while, all around him, the representatives of Soviet Jewry--from Tallinn to Tashkent--roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train.  His own family roiled among them:  his parents, his wife, his nephews, his sister-in-law, and particularly his brother, Karl, worked furiously with the suitcases and duffel bags.  He should have been helping them but his attention was drawn farther down the platform by two pretty tourists.  One was a brunette, Mediterranean and voluptuous; the other petite and blond--in combination they attested, as though by design, to this scope of the world's beauty and plenitude.  Both girls were barefoot, their leather sandals arranged in tidy pairs beside them.  Alec traced a line of smooth, tanned skin from heel to calf to thigh, interrupted ultimately by the frayed edge of cutoff blue jeans.  Above the cutoff jeans the girls wore thin sleeveless shirts.  They sat on their backpacks and leaned casually against each other.  Their faces were lovely and vacant.  They seemed beyond train schedules and obligations.

The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore (Reagan Arthur Books):  If you are parents "of a certain age" (as my wife and I are) and your children have all flown the coop, leaving the nest empty, there comes a day when you look at each other over the breakfast table, egg-yolk drying on the plates and toast crumbs crunching under your elbows, and you sigh contentedly, thinking about the second honeymoon that stretches before you in the childless days ahead.  Sure, you miss the hell out of those kids, but it's also nice to know those days of  pizza crusts in the sofa cushions and teenage bedrooms vibrating with rock music are behind you, not to mention all that pubescent strife.  That's what Ginny and William Owens, the parents in Moore's debut novel, are thinking about; but as the story opens, they suddenly find their nest filling back up again with a series of "arrivals": first their eldest daughter and her two young children, then their son and his pregnant wife, and then their youngest daughter.  All of them are lugging home their own unique set of problems and challenges for Ginny and William.  That jacket design perfectly captures the essence of the book: those pink rose bushes are beautiful, but they threaten to smother the family home.  Blurb worthiness:  "Meg Mitchell Moore takes on the age-old topic of parents and children and their children with a fresh perspective, a canny understanding of human emotion, and the absolute best dialogue I have ever read." (Elin Hilderbrand, author of The Island)


Touch by Alexi Zentner (W.W. Norton and Company):  For starters, I'm hooked by the author photograph which shows Zentner thigh-deep on a slope of snow.  Burrowing deeper into the book itself, that seems to be symbolic of the kind of all-enveloping wintry-woods environment he's created in this debut novel.  The book is set in Sawgamet, "a north-woods boomtown gone bust" where "the cold of winter breaks the glass of the schoolhouse thermometer, and the dangers of working in the cuts are overshadowed by the mysteries and magic lurking in the woods."  I'm not entirely sure what Touch is about, but I can tell you I was wholly hooked by these First Lines:
The men floated the logs early, in September, a chain of headless trees jamming the river as far as I and the other children could see. My father, the foreman, stood at the top of the chute hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand, urging them on. "That's money in the water, boys," he yelled, "push on, push on." I was ten that summer, and I remember him as a giant.
Did someone say "mangled hand"?  I'm in!


The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough (Simon and Schuster):  He's done John Adams, he's done Truman, he's even done the Johnstown Flood, and now the esteemed historian turns his attention overseas, taking early Americans along with him.  McCullough's latest work is, according to the Jacket Copy, "the story of American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, architects, and others of high aspiration who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900."  McCullough covers a broad sector of 19th-century American culture, including James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent.  First Lines:  "They spoke of it then as the dream of a lifetime, and for many, for all the difficulties and setbacks encountered, it was to be one of the best times ever.  They were the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans bound for Paris in what, by the 1830s, had become steadily increasing numbers."


A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford (Mariner Books):  This one has been parked on my Kindle for a couple of months now, but I hope to get around to it soon.  Though its subject matter is not one that would normally draw my attention--hedge funds, foreign trade, South American politics--the First Lines, a virtual carnival of noise, sure do intrigue me:
It began with a single reedy voice calling out an incomprehensible refrain, some nasally phrase that would repeat all morning. Gabriel opened his eyes, the day's first light glowed pale at the edge of the curtains. He'd requested an eighth-floor room hoping to avoid this. He closed his eyes again, optimistically. Another voice--this one burpy, froggish--joined in; this phrase was shorter. What could they be selling at that hour? A third voice entered and they were a chorus singing some garbled tune, a puzzle of phrases intoned with the distinctive eagerness of street vendors across the world. Car horns added a percussive layer. A policeman blew a whistle, hoping to introduce order, but all he added was a shrill note. Still, the sound didn't truly find its center until the buses and micros joined in, shoving their way down the narrow roads. Gabriel knew that the noise had reached its peak register then: a din that would blast for sixteen hours. A symphony forever tuning up before its concert--it brayed him awake, brayed him to sleep. It was pure dissonance, but as he lay there he found that the anticipation of future harmony was palpable.
Blurb worthiness: "In Mountford's novel, the stakes of international finance and the personal lives of those involved intersect in a beautifully drawn Bolivia. A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism accomplishes that rare trick of being a book of ideas and politics while remaining, at its core, a profoundly intimate, character-driven story and a tremendously good read.  I highly recommend this captivating debut novel by a remarkably promising young writer." (Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain)

This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson (Counterpoint):  Patterson, the author of the short-story collection Drift, is getting high marks for this novel which, some reviewers say, updates Edith Wharton's House of Mirth to Newport Beach, California in the 1990s.  Jacket Copy:  "The 1990s--Newport Beach, California.  Money is god.  A man's worth is judged by the size of his boat, the make of his car.  A woman's value is assessed by the blank perfection of her quantifiable desirability: dress size, cup size, the whiteness of her teeth.  And oh yes, her youth.  Though Esther Wilson, the heroine of Victoria Patterson's profound and electric debut novel, has the looks to marry well, things aren't going as planned.  She's nearing her mid-30s and possibly aging out of the only role she's equipped to play: wife to a powerful member of the elite.  Instead, Esther finds herself drawn to college professor Charlie Murphy, who challenges her and offers an alternative vision--one that he himself might not have the courage to follow."


The Silent Land by Graham Joyce (Doubleday):  Here's one of the most off-kilter and intriguing plots to come across my desk this month: a husband and wife are skiing at a French resort in the early morning when they're buried in an avalanche.  When they dig themselves out of the snow, they discover the world around them is completely empty and silent.  As the Jacket Copy tells us:  "Their hotel has been evacuated and is devoid of any living soul.  The town is empty.  Restaurants stand frozen in time, with uncooked meat and vegetables left on the countertops.  Cell phones and land lines are useless."  What?  Not even a horror-movie raven's caw to set the mood?  The novel begins in the moments just before the avalanche and Joyce sets the tone for what looks like a novel of ominous beauty with these First Lines:
It was snowing again.  Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve.  The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin.  Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go.  And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.
Did you catch that part about the mountain nodding and sighing?  That's the subtle prelude to the avalanche, which Joyce describes a few pages later: "There was a pillar of what looked like gray smoke unfurling in silky banners at the head of the slope, like the heraldry of snow armies."  There's no telling if the whole book holds up to this early promise, but it sure seems like it would be worth my time to investigate.  The Silent Land is definitely going on my pile of To-Be Read Books (aka Mount Never Rest).


Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):  This is a re-packaging, in book form, of the novella Johnson published in The Paris Review in 2002.  I read "Train Dreams" in the 2003 O. Henry Prize Stories annual anthology and was bowled over by its devastating impact.  I included it in my "Best of 2003" list and had this to say about it then:
Grainier, a laborer on a railroad crew in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900's, suffers Job-like catastrophes as he tries to eke a living from the unforgiving land. Johnson's description of a fire which consumes Grainier's land and family stopped my breathing for at least five pages. The story unspools with slow, deliberate precision, climaxing with a devastating sentence that tells us what we've just read is really about the loss of an era: "And that time was gone forever."
It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, Johnson has made to the story in the nine-year interim.  (And, yeah, I know the novella is short, but I just haven't had time to read it yet; besides, I'm saving it for later, like a dessert I already know will taste good.)


Nude Walker by Bathsheba Monk (Sarah Crichton Books):  This is Monk's debut novel, following up on her well-received collection of short stories Now You See It...Stories From Cokesville, PA which was published in 2006.  This book returns to Monk's steel-town stomping grounds and though it has what seems like an "everything-into-the-stew" plot, I'm happy to see the main character is a female veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a perspective in which I'm particularly interested.  Jacket Copy:  "Nude Walker is a love story seen through the prism of post-industrial America.  It's set in Warrenside, Pennsylvania, which hasn't prospered since the steel industry died.  There, Kat Warren-Bineki, the daughter of old-guard industrialists, falls for Max Asad, the son of nouveau riche Lenanese immigrants.  The two should never have met, but their paths crossed as they returned from Afghanistan, where each served with the National Guard.  Now Kat is forfeiting her social standing by declaring her love for a bitterly resented foreigner, and when his heart strays, Max jeopardizes his father's dreams.  As the families feud (sometimes comically, sometimes ferociously), Warrenside braces for an epic flood, and the city's citizens try to keep busy--with love, lust, insurance fraud, hallucinations--any means of outrunning the past."  Blurb worthiness: "You know how writers are always cautioned not 'to have too many plates in the air?'  Well, Bathsheba Monk lets those plates fly and dance and whirl like dervishes and shiver like wronged lovers and spin like hilarious idiots.  I found myself looking up, up, wondering how she would pull it off--and then I was reading without stopping, because I couldn't tear myself away.  This novel has everything: War and conflict, sex and betrayal, old-money people and fresh-dollar newcomers, and always, men and women looking for the purest kind of love, even if it burns too hot." (Susan Straight, author of Take One Candle Light a Room)


A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano (The Penguin Press):  Now here's a perspective which is truly near and dear to my literary heart.  My fervid love for Flannery O'Connor is no secret here at the blog, so when I heard that Napolitano had written a novel featuring the author of Wise Blood, my wise blood immediately got all hot and fast-moving.  Jacket Copy: "Crippled by lupus at twenty-five, celebrated author Flannery O’Connor was forced to leave New York City and return home to Andalusia, her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.  Years later, as Flannery is finishing a novel and tending to her menagerie of peacocks, her mother drags her to the wedding of a family friend.  Cookie Himmel embodies every facet of Southern womanhood that Flannery lacks: she is revered for her beauty and grace; she is at the helm of every ladies’ organization in town; and she has returned from her time in Manhattan with a rich fiancée, Melvin Whiteson.  Melvin has come to Milledgeville to begin a new chapter in his life, but it is not until he meets Flannery that he starts to take a good, hard look at the choices he has made.  Despite the limitations of her disease, Flannery seems to be more alive than other people, and Melvin is drawn to her like a moth to a candle flame."  When I brought my advance uncorrected proof in off the front porch and pulled the book out of the envelope, I told myself I was just going to skim the first few paragraphs....Thirty minutes later, I was still reading.  I did eventually set the novel aside for a later time, but that was not without a supreme act of willpower on my part.  Napolitano seems to have captured the bracing wit of O'Connor as well as her unforgettable characters.  And, of course, the novel begins with peacocks.  First Lines:
       The peacocks tilted their heads back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night. They snapped their shimmering tails open and shut like fans. Behind each male’s pointy head, a green-bronze arch unfurled, covered with a halo of gazing suns. The females brayed and shook their less-attractive tails in return.
       The birds didn’t care that it was the middle of the night, and they didn’t care who they were disturbing. They didn’t care that there was a wedding tomorrow, or that the groom, who had just arrived from New York City, was lying beneath a lace canopy at his in-laws’ house, paralyzed with fear. They didn’t care that his fiancé startled awake in the next room and toppled out of her high bed, and they certainly didn’t care that her face hit a stool on the way down. They didn’t care that the rest of the small Georgia town was also awake, twitching in their beds like beached fish.

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown by Paul Malmont (Simon and Schuster):   Critics said Malmont's first novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, was a blissful, breathless rollercoaster-ride through the worlds of pulp fiction and comic books.  His new novel looks like more of the same kind of fun.  Get in, sit down, buckle up, brace yourself.  Jacket Copy:  "In the fall of 1943, when the United States learns that Germany is on the verge of a deadly innovation that could tip the balance of World War II, the government turns to an unlikely source for help:  the nation's best science fiction writers.  Installed at a secret military lab within the Philadelphia naval yard, Robert Heinlein and his 'Kamikaze Group,' which includes young writers Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard, are tasked with transforming the wonders of science fiction into science fact and unlock the secrets to invisibility, 'death rays,' and other astounding phenomena--anything that might quell the imminent Nazi threat.  As the oddball team endeavors to harness mysterious technologies of the past, events are set in motion that just may change the future--or destroy it."


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books):  True to the title and the name of the publisher, this is indeed a peculiar, quirky book.  Labeled as "Young Adult" this debut novel looks like it will also appeal to those well beyond the YA bloc.  The story of a 16-year-old boy exploring an abandoned orphanage on a mysterious island is liberally illustrated with weird, creepy vintage photographs.  Thumbing through its pages, I got the sense this was the love child of Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey.  Here's a test to see if Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will be your cup of odd-tasting tea or not: go to this website of "50 Unexplainable Black and White Photos."  If you turn away after only a couple of photos, you should probably move along; but if you think those vintage oddities are the coolest Weird Things you've ever seen, then you should add Riggs' novel to your Amazon Wish List posthaste.

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Simon and Schuster):  Here's another book where you're either completely in or completely out.  The subtitle of Baker's ninth novel is "A Book of Raunch" and it's stuffed with sex, sex, sex.  Public decency and decorum preclude me from--
Ah, screw it.  Here's the Jacket Copy from the publisher's press materials:
       The House of Holes is a surreal alternate reality that is a kind of sexual wonderland.  Imagine the Bosch painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights" or something out of a Terry Gilliam movie.  You get to the House of Holes by being sucked into a straw, or by climbing through the dryer in a laundromat, or by diving down the hole in a golf course, and when you arrive, lots of things you've secretly thought about--and some you probably haven't--are happening around you.
       Be warned: the book is explicit--but it's also pure entertainment.  Somebody is getting off on nearly every page of this book.  People are getting off, plants are getting off, animals are getting off--even a lake gets laid in this book.  It's a magical world where a man can give up his arm for a week to have a bigger penis.  Anybody can get a reversible crotch transfer and be a different gender.  Readers can visit the Garden of the Wholesome Fuc--
--Okay, I'll stop there.  You get the idea.  The envelope-pushing House of Holes is certainly not for everyone.  Hopefully, it's for someone.  I don't know whether to be alarmed or charmed.  Maybe I'm somewhere in the middle ground.  One thing I do know for certain: with Human Smoke, Baker completely altered my view of World War II and the way creative non-fiction can be used to tell a story, so maybe he'll hand me a pair of seX-Ray glasses with House of Holes.


In This Light: New and Selected Stories by Melanie Rae Thon (Graywolf Press):  These stories span the arc of Thon's career, including selections from Girls in the Grass (1991), First, Body (1997), and three new stories written between 2002 and 2010.  Thon, whose novels include Sweet Hearts and Iona Moon, is especially good at startling and intriguing the reader with her openings.  Witness these First Lines:
Two nurses with scissors could make a man naked in eleven seconds. Sid Elliott had been working Emergency eight months and it amazed him every time. Slicing through denim and leather, they peeled men open faster than Sid's father flayed rabbits.
     --from "First, Body"

In 1858, the slave called Lize was hanged in Louisville, Georgia, for the murder of her master's son. I was twelve that day, and now I'm ninety, but I still see her bare feet, scratched and dusty from being dragged down the road. Those feet dangle among leaves so green they writhe like flames.
     --from "Punishment"

The girl was radiant. I saw her in the shower naked. Glistening with water, she seemed lit from inside, a woman illuminated. I tried not to stare, then simply surrendered.
     --from "Tu B'Shvat"


1 comment:

  1. Wow. What a bunch of interesting stuff. And all over the emotional and geographical map to boot. So many sound interesting, and I'll be keeping my eyes open, but I'm particularly intrigued by The Free World. Thanks for piquing my interest.

    ReplyDelete