Sunday, May 1, 2011

Front Porch Books: April 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.

My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Bakopoulos follows up his debut novel Please Don't Come Back From the Moon with this book which seems to put the "more" in "morose."  Zeke Pappas, a 33-year-old director of a humanities institute in Wisconsin, is conducting a survey of American unhappiness, a project he considers his life's work.  He's also a widower caring for his two orphaned nieces, with a mother who is dying of cancer.  Zeke learns she's planning to deny him custody of the girls unless he gets married before she dies.  So he begins a quest for a mate, with candidates ranging from a coffee shop barista to Sofia Coppola (yes, that Sofia Coppola).  Blurb worthiness:  "In Zeke Pappas, Dean Bakopoulos has invented a man for all rainy seasons--a horny, heartbroken cousin of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe, telling a long, tall tale of anomie in the heartland." (Tom Piazza, City of Refuge)

He Said What? edited by Victoria Zackheim (Seal Press):  This anthology of twenty-five personal essays is subtitled "Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed" and it boasts an impressive contributors list, including Caroline Leavitt, Joyce Maynard, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Abby Frucht and Pam Houston--all of them focusing on significant turning points in their lives.  In her Introduction, Zackheim writes:
Whether the life-altering comment is made by a psychotic boyfriend, a dying father, someone's husband, teacher or doctor, a Russian journalist, a boss, or a frightened brother facing the threat of AIDS, the talented authors in this book offer everything from drama to delight, from havoc to the outright hilarious, from the philosophical to the whimsical, and they will remind you of that moment in your life--or, for some of you, the many moments!--when you thought to yourself, He said what? and it changed the way you looked at your life for that precise moment...or forever.
These Opening Lines from "Crazy" by Barbara Abercrombie should give you a good idea of the book's flavor:
     He's banging on the bedroom door that opens onto the deck.  When I let him in, he says, "You locked the doors."
     I say, "It's 4:30 AM."
     He says, "I forgot my keys."
     I say, "Where were you?"
     "It was a late dinner."
     "It's 4:30 AM."
     What he doesn't say is, I don't want to be married anymore.  I want to leave.  I think I'm in love with someone else.  Instead he says, "You're crazy."

Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward (Random House):  It's no secret I'm in love with AEW's fiction--ranging from her debut Sleep Toward Heaven (which I called "a novel that reads like lightning, but has the lasting roll of thunder") to her most recent book, Love Stories in This Town (which I said were "sharp-focused family snapshots, catching husbands, wives, children, parents, lovers and ex-lovers in moments of confusion, hope, paranoia, delight, resentment and all the other ingredients of the human stew").  Now Ward has returned with another novel of domestic unrest and moldering family secrets.  The prologue begins with a honey-colored scene from narrator Lauren Mahdian's life in 1986 which belies the horrible truth at the novel's core.  Opening Lines:
     I can remember the taste of ocean, and the dark smell of impending rain.  Our parents had given us reluctant permission to spend the night in the tree house.  From our perch, high in an oak tree, we could see a faraway sliver of Long Island Sound.  I can almost see myself--the way I looked, before: a sweet girl, just eight.  I was sturdy, like my father, with his dark hair and olive skin.  My mother brushed my hair into pigtails, and I wore sundresses with bare feet, so I could climb.
     My brother, Alex, had stolen a can of Tab from the pantry.  We drank from plastic teacups, remnants of my girlhood set.  Clouds moved over the moon.  My L L. Bean sleeping bag was too warm, and in the middle of the night, I slipped one leg outside the heavy fabric and touched my brother's foot with my own.
     The tree house was a small structure shaped like a pirate ship.  My mother used to laugh and say it had taken longer for my father to build the damn thing than it had for her to grow and deliver a baby, but by the time I was two and could climb the ladder to the top, it was finished.
     We had a large, grassy yard; from the tree house, you could barely see the peeling paint on our back door.  No matter what happened inside, as it turned out, you wouldn't hear a sound.
"As it turned out," Lauren's father is busy murdering her mother inside the house on that night (or so the Jacket Copy would lead us to believe).  Trust me, it took all my willpower to stop reading at the end of the prologue--and even then it was only because I'm already simultaneously reading four booksin a long line of books which need to be accompanied by cardiac paddles.

Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon (Graywolf Press):  In a note accompanying the uncorrected proof which landed on my front porch, the publicist had written in thick black ink: "Montana author!"  While I'm an instant sucker for any author hailing from Big Sky Country (Nealon currently lives in Missoula), I'm even more susceptible to a well-written memoir.  Judging from the Opening Lines of Beautiful Unbroken, Nealon seems to know how to tell her life story in a way that's completely engaging and unforgettable:
     As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a nurse or a saint. I wanted to be heroic.
     In Jersey City, our backyard was a small square that met the backyards of our neighbors. The yards were as close as the houses. Our yard faced the backs of the houses on Fifth Street, and to our right, the backs of the houses on Erie Street. Everyone's clothesline criss-crossed. Mr. Cleary's roses were big white and yellow bombs on the fence. Pearl Manupelli's potted plants and rusted rocking chair with the rooster cushion pressed in on the right. Alice lived to our left with her children and her wild barking dog, Lady. Three doors down from Alice lived the Polish man with the dog who looked just like Lassie. We called to the dog through the fence, "Lassie, come home!" In the center of our backyard, there was a dogwood tree, planted by my great-grandfather, Bartley Kelly. Once a year it rained velvety white petals in the yard.
     One day my brother and I were playing catch in the backyard. My father was home, so it must have been a weekend. He had just come out to see what we were doing, or maybe to toss the ball around, but as he stepped from the back door we heard Lassie bark and then a scream that slit the leaves quivering in the tree. My father leapt the fences between us and the scream. My brother and I followed, but we were slow and afraid of Lady. By the time we got to the Polish man's yard, my father had cut him down from the shed where his wife had found him hanging. My father was trying to bring the man around, the wife was calling an ambulance, and Lassie was sitting back on her haunches, whining. Every few seconds the whines would escalate into a one-word bark. My brother held my hand, which he rarely did anymore, he was getting too big for that, but I was happy, because really I was holding his hand. I remember more people gathering at their fences and someone pulling us back over. I remember watching the superhero back of my father bent over the man. And the man's dark green janitorial pants. I noticed the bag of clothespins on the ground and the empty pulleys where the clothesline had been.
     I remember wishing I was my father, jumping over the fence, saving the man. The man lived but his voice box was crushed and he would glare at my brother and me as we passed his front gate. We didn't think we could pet Lassie anymore because of the looks he gave us. He never forgave my father for saving him. It didn't matter. I didn't want to talk to him or pet his dog. I wanted to remember my father leaping in the air, the scream in front of him, and his quick flight over the wire fences.
There is so much to admire in these opening paragraphs: the "one-word bark," the "velvety white petals," the scream that "slit the leaves," the man who cannot forgive another man for saving his life.  It's enough to propel me forward into the book. Nealon's story mainly concerns itself with nursing and how she tried to save her brother who was diagnosed with cancer around the time she entered nursing school.  I'm already hooked on this story of a girl who wanted to grow up to be just like Clara Barton.  And, for what it's worth, I love that cover with the photo of a Janus-like woman floating in water, symbolising the way Nealon is torn between wanting to save everyone, yet knowing we are all doomed to eventual death.

Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors (Ecco):  Connors' book has been gathering acclaim at the rate of a flame ripping through dry underbrush.  Jacket Copy:
A decade ago Philip Connors left work as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and talked his way into a job far from the streets of lower Manhattan: working as one of the last fire lookouts in America. Spending nearly half the year in a 7' x 7' tower, 10,000 feet above sea level in remote New Mexico, his tasks were simple: keep watch over one of the most fire-prone forests in the country and sound the alarm at the first sign of smoke.  Fire Season is Connors's remarkable reflection on work, our place in the wild, and the charms of solitude.
I've been fascinated by the solitary life of fire lookouts ever since the day I saw an episode of Timmy and Lassie in the early 1960s when Timmy's Mom (June Lockhart) took a job in the Calverton Tower and Lassie, predictably, had to save her from smoke inhalation.  Reading Edward Abbey's Black Sun years later only deepened my fascination.  But Lassie and Abbey were fiction; Connors is the real thing.  Since I'm surrounded by forests which are dry as tinderboxes, this might just be the perfect summer reading for me.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell edited by Suzanne Marrs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  The Southern novelist and the New Yorker editor wrote letters (remember them?) for more than fifty years and now Marrs has edited more than three hundred of them for our enjoyment and edification.  Just by reading the first two letters in this collection, you know you're in for a literary feast.  On Dec. 22, 1942, Welty wrote:
Dear Mr. Maxwell,
     I will tell you the truth, your letter somehow got in my unabridged dictionary--do your letters often do that?--and was out of sight, out of mind, till just now when after a long arid period I again went to look up a word.  My apologies for not answering, though all I can answer is that I haven't any material at all right now.
Maxwell begins his reply two weeks later with:
Dear Miss Welty:
     Some of my letters get into my checkbook, and some into my overcoat pocket (which has a hole in it, so that I don't know what happens to them after that) and some into The Milwaukee Settlement Cook Book, and some in the top dresser drawer, which is theoretically sacred to socks.  So I am in a perfect position to understand and condone your leisurely reply.
In no time at all, author and editor are on a first-name basis and their letters, according to the Jacket Copy serve as "a chronicle of the literary world of the time; read talk of James Thurber, William Shawn, Katherine Anne Porter, J. D. Salinger, Isak Dinesen, William Faulkner, John Updike, Virginia Woolf, Walker Percy, Ford Madox Ford, John Cheever, and many more.  It is a treasure trove of reading recommendations."

Don't Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon (Harper):  If nothing else, McMahon's novel got my attention with its arresting cover photo.  The eyes of that little girl seem to say, "Don't you dare walk past me without opening this book and reading at least the first paragraph."  Well, I did and found myself in the middle of a sexual tryst on a motel bed between a woman named Phoebe and a married man. The rest of the book seems to be about a little girl (she of the cover's pop-eyes) who disappears into a "world of fairies" on a "soft summer night in Vermont."  It's enough to make me take at least a second look.  Blurb worthiness: "Jennifer McMahon never flinches and never fails to surprise as her stories twist down unexpected roads. Don't Breathe a Word balances love and horror as McMahon weaves a young couple into a perverse fairyland where Rosemary's Baby could be at home." (Randy Susan Meyers, The Murderer's Daughters )

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (W. W. Norton):  Finally, finally, Skibsrud's novel which won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize is available to us in the U.S.  This is high on my Most-Anticipated list and has earned a place near the summit of my To-Read Stack (Mount NeverRest).  Jacket Copy:
Haunted by the vivid horrors of the Vietnam War, exhausted from years spent battling his memories, Napoleon Haskell leaves his North Dakota trailer and moves to Canada. He retreats to a small Ontario town where Henry, the father of his fallen Vietnam comrade, has a home on the shore of a man-made lake. Under the water is the wreckage of what was once the town--and the home where Henry was raised. When Napoleon's daughter arrives, fleeing troubles of her own, she finds her father in the dark twilight of his life, and rapidly slipping into senility. With love and insatiable curiosity, she devotes herself to learning the truth about his life; and through the fog, Napoleon's past begins to emerge. Lyrical and riveting, The Sentimentalists is a story of what lies beneath the surface of everyday life, and of the commanding power of the past. Johanna Skibsrud's first novel marks the debut of a powerful new voice in Canadian fiction.
My suspicion that this will be something like a lyrical dream are confirmed by the Opening Lines:
The house my father left behind in Fargo, North Dakota, was never really a house at all. Always, instead, it was an idea of itself. A carpenter’s house. A work in progress. So that even after we moved him north to Casablanca, and his Fargo home was dragged away – the lot sold to a family from Billings, Montana – my father was always saddened and surprised if the place was remembered irreverently, as if it had been a separate and incidental thing; distinct from the rest of our lives. In this way, he remained, until the end, a house carpenter. If only in the way that he looked at things. As if all objects existed in blueprint; in different stages of design or repair.

News From the World by Paula Fox (W. W. Norton):  You've got to admire an author who starts her Preface with a sentence like this:  "My Father, Paul Hervey Fox, was a writer and a drunk."  Over the years, Fox has earned nothing but admiration from readers--especially fellow writers like Jonathan Franzen who ranked her above Roth, Bellow and Updike.  Jacket Copy:  "This complete gathering of Paula Fox's short works spans forty-five illustrious years of her career, from 1965 to 2010.  There are perfectly turned stories (two of which--'Grace' and 'The Broad Estates of Death'--won the O. Henry Prize) in which characters unexpectedly find themselves at a crossroads and struggle to connect with others.  There is memoir--a genre where Fox's honesty, grace, and perception set her apart--in which Fox revisits childhood ideas about art and reality, life in New York in the 1960s, and her relationship with her husband's family.  And there are essays--pointed, funny, relentlessly persuasive pieces on such topics as censorship and the corruption of language.  Enlivened by Fox's signature wit and electrified by her unsparing insights into human nature, News from the World is essential for Fox's loyal readers and perfect to introduce those who are meeting her for the first time."   Leafing through the book, I came across this essay, "Light on the Dark Side" whose Opening Lines snapped me to attention:
      One Manhattan mid-morning in the spring of 1967, I heard the crack of a gun going off below, along the broad reach of Central Park West.  I jumped up from the table where I was working on my second novel and looked down five stories to the street, on the other side of which breathed the quiet greenery of Central Park.  What I saw was a man lying in the middle of the street attempting to raise himself up from the waist, like a seal, collapsing, trying again, then falling flat.
      At the same moment that I looked down I saw Billy the doorman glance up at me.  We had both witnessed the murder.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey (Penguin Books):  Published in Great Britain in 2009 and coming to America now for the first time, courtesy of the fine folks at Penguin, Roffey's novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (losing to Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna).  Jacket Copy:  "Monique Roffey's Orange Prize-shortlisted novel is a gripping portrait of post-colonialism that stands among great works by Caribbean writers like Jamaica Kincaid and Andrea Levy.  When George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from England, George is immediately seduced by the beguiling island, while Sabine feels isolated, heat-fatigued, and ill-at-ease.  As they adapt to new circumstances, their marriage endures for better or worse, despite growing political unrest and racial tensions that affect their daily lives.  But when George finds a cache of letters that Sabine has hidden from him, the discovery sets off a devastating series of consequences as other secrets begin to emerge."  Blurb worthiness:  "Heart-rending and thought-provoking, you will never again see the Caribbean as just another holiday destination." (Elle Magazine)

The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy (Hyperion):  On the face of it, Leroy's novel about a woman living on the Channel Island of Guernsey while her husband is off fighting in World War Two doesn't look like my cup of English tea.  There's the plot which seems ripe for a gooey Hollywood mess: British soldier's wife falls in love with German soldier; long tracking shot as they kiss; bombs burst over head; fade out, etc.  There's the cover which seems a little too gauzy, a little too sentimental, a little too perfume-y.  The Jacket Copy also doesn't bode well for anything that tickles my fancy, full of phrases like "As their relationship intensifies," "Though Vivienne knows the perils of her love affair with Gunther," and "A novel full of grand passion and intensity."  But then I turned to the first chapter and read a few paragraphs, which include these Opening Lines:
It's so peaceful in my house tonight. The amber light of the setting sun falls on all the things in this room, all so friendly and familiar: my piano and heaps of sheet music, the Staffordshire dogs and silver eggcups, the many books on their shelves, the flowered tea set in the glass-fronted cabinet. I look around and wonder if we will be here this time tomorrow--if after tomorrow I will ever see this room again. Millie's cat, Alphonse, is asleep in a circle of sun on the sill, and through the open window that looks out over our back garden, you can hear only the blackbird's song and the many little voices of the streams: there is always a sound of water in these valleys. I'm so grateful for the quiet. You could almost imagine that this was the end of an ordinary sweet summer day. Last week, when the Germans were bombing Cherbourg, you could hear the sound of it even here in our hidden valley, like thunder out of a clear sky, and up at Angie le Brocq's farm, at Les Ruettes on the hill, when you touched your hand to the window pane, you could feel the faint vibration of it, just a tremor, so you weren't quite sure if it was the window shaking or your hand. But for the moment, it's tranquil here.
I thought to myself, "Hmmm....maybe there's actually something good here, a realism buried beneath the postcard romance of another Summer of My German Soldier.  Maybe I shouldn't judge a book by its cover.  Maybe I'll give this one a shot."

The Druggist of Auschwitz by Dieter Schlesak (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):  Staying in World War Two for a moment, here's a book that's labeled "A Documentary Novel."  After picking up the package from my front porch and tearing it open, I started leafing through the pages.  This is a novel, but it's liberally peppered with photographs--horrific images of the Holocaust, some of which we've seen before.  It's always hard to read about the death camps, in fiction or otherwise, but I'm very curious to see how Schlesak blends fiction with the unbearable truth.  Jacket Copy:
Dieter Schlesak’s haunting novel The Druggist of Auschwitz—beautifully translated from the German by John Hargraves—is a frighteningly vivid portrayal of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of criminal and victim alike.  Adam, known as “the last Jew of Schäßburg,” recounts with disturbing clarity his imprisonment at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Through Adam’s fictional narrative and excerpts of actual testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial of 1963–65, we come to learn of the true-life story of Dr. Victor Capesius, who, despite strong friendships with Jews before the war, quickly aided in and profited from their tragedy once the Nazis came to power. Interspersed with historical research and the author’s face-to-face interviews with survivors, the novel follows Capesius from his assignment as the “sorter” of new arrivals at Auschwitz—deciding who will go directly to the gas chamber and who will be used for labor—through his life of lavish wealth after the war to his arrest and eventual trial.  Schlesak’s seamless incorporation of factual data and testimony—woven into Adam’s dreamlike remembrance of a world turned upside down—makes The Druggist of Auschwitz a vital and unique addition to our understanding of the Holocaust.
Blurb worthiness:  "A great book that hits you like a fist....An unforgettable tapestry of evil....[The Druggist of Auschwitz] shows that, as Melville said, the truth is more unthinkable than fiction." (Claudio Magris, Corriere della Sera)

The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Riverhead Books):  As this novel opens, Joseph Conrad's body is being lowered into his grave at Canterbury and another man starts to write about his encounter with the novelist:
       Here I shall tell you of implausible murders and unpredictable hangings, elegant declarations of war and slovenly peace accords, of fires and floods and intriguing ships and conspiratorial trains, but somehow all that I tell you will be aimed at explaining and explaining to myself, link by link, the chain of events that provoked the encounter for which my life was destined.
       For that's how it is: the disagreeable business of destiny has its share of responsibility in all this. Conrad and I, who were born countless meridians apart, our lives marked by the difference of the hemispheres, had a common future that would have been obvious from the first moment even to the most skeptical person.
From these lines alone, it's not hard to see why Mario Vargas Llosa called Vasquez "one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature."  Jacket Copy:  "In the early twentieth century, a struggling Joseph Conrad wrote his great novel Nostromo, about a South American republic he named Costaguana.  It was inspired by the geography and history of Colombia, where Conrad spent only a few days.  But in Juan Gabriel Vásquez's novel The Secret History of Costaguana, we uncover the hidden source--and one of the great literary thefts.  On the day of Joseph Conrad's death in 1924, the Colombian-born José Altamirano begins to write and cannot stop.  Many years before, he confessed to Conrad his life's every delicious detail--from his country's heroic revolutions to his darkest solitary moments.  Conrad stole them all.  Now Conrad is dead, but the slate is by no means clear--Nostromo will live on and Altamirano must write himself back into existence.  As the destinies of real empires collide with the murky realities of imagined ones, Vásquez takes us from a flourishing twentieth-century London to the lawless fury of a blooming Panama and back."

There Is No Year by Blake Butler (Harper Perennial):  This odd, experimental novel by the editor of the website HTMLGIANT hit bookstores in early April and has been gathering praise like a magnet draws metal filings.  I'm still not quite sure what to make of the book which bears more than a little resemblance in plot and physical design to Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves.  It could be the strangest thing I've ever read, or it could be the coolest.  The Jacket Copy, written in the style of the staccato-short chapters, should give you some idea of what to expect inside the book:
     A family of three: father, mother, son.
     A house that gives them shelter but shapes their nightmares.
     An illness that nearly arrested the past, and looms over the future.
     A second family—a copy family.  Mirror bodies.
     Events on the horizon: a hole, a box, a light, a girl.
     Holes in houses.  Holes in speaking.  Holes in flesh.
     Memories that deceive and figures that tempt and lure and withdraw.
     There Is No Year is the astonishing new novel by Blake Butler.
     It is a world of scare, a portrait of return, a fable of survival and the fierce burden of art.
Blurb worthiness: "Blake Butler, mastermind and visionary, has sneaked up and drugged the American novel. What stumbles awake in the aftermath is feral and awesome in its power, a fairy tale of an ordinary family subjected to the strange, lonesome agony known as daily life.  There is No Year is a merciless novel cleansed of joy, pumped full of fear and awe." (Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String)

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