Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Front Porch Books: June 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.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen (Scribner): Any new book by Ron Hansen is immediately and automatically added to my To-Be-Read pile.  I've been a fan ever since Mariette in Ecstasy impressed me with its lyrical tone, deep plot, and unforgettable characters.  Hansen has made a literary career out of finding ways in which stories from our past inform our modern-day sensibilities.  A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion looks like it will be no exception.  Here's the Jacket Copy: "Based on a real case whose lurid details scandalized Americans in 1927 and sold millions of newspapers, acclaimed novelist Ron Hansen’s latest work is a tour de force of erotic tension and looming violence. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Ruth Snyder is a voluptuous, reckless, and altogether irresistible woman who wishes not only to escape her husband but that he die--and the sooner the better. No less miserable in his own tedious marriage is Judd Gray, a dapper corset-and-brassiere salesman who travels the Northeast peddling his wares. He meets Ruth in a Manhattan diner, and soon they are conducting a white-hot affair involving hotel rooms, secret letters, clandestine travels, and above all, Ruth’s increasing insistence that Judd kill her husband. Could he do it? Would he? What follows is a thrilling exposition of a murder plan, a police investigation, the lovers’ attempt to escape prosecution, and a final reckoning for both of them that lays bare the horror and sorrow of what they have done." And who can resist these Opening Lines?

She woke to a slow thudding on her bedroom door. She was Lorraine Snyder, aged nine. She'd wasted Saturday night with her parents at their friends' card party and she'd gotten home only after two o'clock Sunday morning. It was now just over five hours later. March 20th, 1927. She fell asleep again, and then she heard a louder thudding and her mother called in a muffled way, "Lora. Lora, it's me."

She got up, slumped over to the door, found it mysteriously locked from the hallway, and opened it with a skeleton key that was hanging on a string.

Ruth Snyder was lying on the hallway floor in a short green satin nightgown that was hiked up to her thighs. She'd been softly drumming the door with her head. White clothesline was wrapped many times around her ankles, and her wrists were tied behind her back.
Notice that one sentence--"March 20th, 1927"--which Hansen uses to call attention to the way he places his narrative so firmly in its historical setting.  And, for what it's worth, this cover has to be one of my favorites of the year so far--the neon salmon band, the New York City nightscape, and the woman--cropped to draw our attention to the shoulder strap slipping down over her decolletage--watching over everything.  Bonus: Click here to watch a video of Hansen talking with his editor, Colin Harrison, about researching the novel and how he "took possession" of his characters from the historical record.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan (Knopf):  Okay, first of all, I'm a sucker for anything having to do with our northeastern-most state, but then when you call your novel simply "Maine," the hook is set.  Sullivan (author of Commencement) has been gathering good press for her second novel.  Booklist said: "Sullivan creates deeply observed and believable [characters]. . . . Moody matriarch Alice, her uninvolved hippie daughter Kathleen, brown-nosing daughter-in-law Mary Ann, and newly-single, thirtysomething granddaughter Maggie--each has a simmering-below-the surface inner-monologue that lights a spark, and Sullivan makes sure we can only anticipate an explosion."  Here's the Jacket Copy:
For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. Their beachfront property, won on a barroom bet after the war, sits on three acres of sand and pine nestled between stretches of rocky coast, with one tree bearing the initials “A.H.” At the cottage, built by Kelleher hands, cocktail hour follows morning mass, nosy grandchildren snoop in drawers, and decades-old grudges simmer beneath the surface. As three generations of Kelleher women descend on the property one summer, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago. By turns wickedly funny and achingly sad, Maine unveils the sibling rivalry, alcoholism, social climbing, and Catholic guilt at the center of one family, along with the abiding, often irrational love that keeps them coming back, every summer, to Maine and to each other.
Sounds like the perfect beach read to me.  Pull up an Adirondack chair and pass me a lobster roll, willya?

Lucky Bruce by Bruce Jay Friedman (Biblioasis):  Subtitled "A Literary Memoir,"* Friedman's book is sure to appeal to anyone with the slightest interest in writing, theater, movies, and name-dropping.  Here's the Jacket Copy: "For decades Bruce Jay Friedman has charmed the glitziest industries of American golden-age culture. He’s been in publishing. He’s been in theater. He’s been in film. And now, this best-selling author is in his own head, re-illuminating the dazzle of post-war American life. With cameos by Mario Puzo, Richard Pryor, Warren Beatty, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and many others, Lucky Bruce is a moving and scandalous memoir that brushes against the brightest of American luminaries."  Blurbworthiness: "Whether inadvertently snubbing Marlene Dietrich, chauffeuring Natalie Wood or fist-fighting with Norman Mailer, there are plenty of stories here to solidify Friedman’s ranking as a supreme satirist. Readers with a taste for sensationalistic old Hollywood will particularly enjoy his not-so-casual namedropping, which serves the memoir’s chatty tone well.  A life story that consistently charms with candor and the seasoned wit of a master storyteller who’s certainly been around the block." (Kirkus Reviews)

Good Neighbors by Ryan David Jahn (Penguin Books): Like Ron Hansen's A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, Jahn's novel takes a real-life crime (the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964) and examines its implications through the lens of fiction.  Here's the Jacket Copy for the novel which was first published in Great Britain in 2009 under the title Acts of Violence: "At 4:00 A.M. on March 13, 1964, a young woman returning home from her shift at a local bar is attacked in the courtyard of her Queens apartment building. Her neighbors hear her cries; no one calls for help. Unfolding over the course of two hours, Good Neighbors is the story of the woman's last night. It is also the story of her neighbors, the bystanders who kept to themselves: the anxious Vietnam draftee; the former soldier planning suicide; the woman who thinks she's killed a child and her husband, who will risk everything for her. Revealing a fascinating cross-section of American society in expertly interlocking plotlines, Good Neighbors calls to mind the Oscar-winning movie Crash, and its suspense and profound sense of urban menace rank it with Hitchcock's Rear Window and the gritty crime novels of Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and James Ellroy."  One Amazon reviewer's comment starts out, "Can you hold your breath for two hundred and eighty pages?"  That seems as good an endorsement as any for a novel which is as entertaining and suspenseful as it is thoughtful and provocative.

Naked Summer by Andrew Scott (Press 53): The publisher of Scott's debut collection of short stories had a clever publicity campaign when the book launched in early summer: Press 53 sent out emails urging readers to "Get Naked on Amazon!" on June 1.  It seemed to work as Naked Summer briefly spiked at #2 on Amazon's Hot New Releases in Short Stories list that day.  Cheesy as it may have been, I liked the chutzpah of the idea, which resulted in a sizable number of folks buying a book of short stories from an independent, small publisher.  I skimmed through Naked Summer (and intend to go back and give it a full, fair read in the near future) and was impressed by what I saw on the page.  I'm an unabashed fan of opening lines, and Scott's stories mostly begin in the middle of scenarios with characters caught in conflict and tension (if not outright, then there's a high-wire tension in the language and details of the sentences).  Here, for instance, is how "The Hypnotist" begins:
The school board booked Sherman Cadabra, the traveling hypnotist, for a Friday night engagement in the McHale High School auditorium. He stands spotlighted at center stage, dressed in a tuxedo, chairs lined up behind him. Missy bought tickets for her and Paulie after reading about the show in this morning's Courier-Gazette. She's a senior; Paulie, a lowly freshman. Paulie's wheelchair is parked in the aisle.
First of all, there's that eccentric stage name, Sherman Cadabra, the edges of which are curled with desperation and seediness.  Then there's the curious age difference between Missy and Paulie--at this point, we don't know they're brother and sister, so we're thinking they're going against the norm of high school hierarchies (no senior associates with "lowly" freshmen).  Then there's Paulie's wheelchair, a significant detail which Scott slips in at the last minute, almost casually.  The stories are set in the American heartland and Scott brings the oft-ignored "flyover states" to life with his rich language.  Blurbworthiness: "In Naked Summer, Andrew Scott brilliantly conjures up my home state of Indiana, that in-between, mixed-up blend of farmland, suburbia, isolated towns and would be cities stuck in the flyover, but he accomplishes much more than this.  His stunning collection of stories also deftly captures those in-between states that everyone finds themselves in at some point-those times of limbo when we're between jobs or relationships, or, most memorably, that last "naked summer" when childhood lingers and adulthood has not yet arrived.  This is a heart-wrenching collection, at once hilarious and wise.  I couldn't put it down."  (Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady)  Indeed, everyone should get Naked this summer.

A Man of Parts by David Lodge (Viking): In 2004, Lodge published a critically-acclaimed novel, Author, Author, about Henry James.  Now he turns his attention to the life of another important writer: H. G. Wells.  This is not your granddaddy's Wells, as those naked Victorian women on the cover indicate.  Here's the Jacket Copy for the novel which hits bookstores this September: "Wells had sexual relations with innumerable women in his lifetime, but in 1944, as he finds himself dying, he returns to the memories of a select group of wives and mistresses, including the brilliant young student Amber Reeves and the gifted writer Rebecca West. As he reviews his professional, political, and romantic successes and failures, it is through his memories of these women that he comes to understand himself. Eloquent, sexy, and tender, the novel is an artfully composed portrait of Wells's astonishing life, with vivid glimpses of its turbulent historical background, by one of England's most respected and popular writers."

The Other Walk by Sven Birkerts (Graywolf Press):  Like Geoff Dyer (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition), Birkerts is an essayist everyone has been telling me I should be reading on a regular basis.  While I'm pretty lax in my non-fiction reading habits, The Other Walk might be the book to (briefly) pull me away from contemporary literary fiction.  Here are the Opening Lines from the title essay:
This morning, going against all convention, I turned right instead of left and took my circuit—one of my circuits—in reverse. Why hadn't I thought of this before, given that the familiarity of the other loop has become so oppressive, even to one who swears by the zen of familiarity, the main tenet being that if you are bored with what you're seeing, you're not seeing clearly enough, not looking? Still, going against the grain of my usual track, seeing every single thing from the other side, was suddenly welcome. It also helped that it felt like the first real Spring day, the birds somehow more liquid in their vowels, and the elusive something which when added to the accustomed air suddenly makes it the new season. Habit and repetition. It's not like I don't know this other walk intimately, too—not like I haven't taken it hundreds of times over what are now becoming these years of walking. How is it I haven't written more on this?
The Jacket Copy calls Birkerts "the Master of Reflection and Time" and indicates this book is full of intimate contemplation: "Throughout his life, Sven Birkerts, one of the country’s foremost literary critics, has carved out time for himself—to walk, to swim, to read, to contemplate. Now in his late fifties, he has clocked up many thousands of hours of reflection. It shows in his prose, which proceeds at a refreshingly deliberative pace as it draws the reader into his patterns and rhythms. In this deeply appealing and engaging collection of essays, Birkerts looks back through his own life, as well as at the generations before him, and ahead at the lives of his children. We read how the writer witnesses his son’s frightening sailing accident, how he feels when he encounters his own prose from many years ago, how finding a cigarette lighter or a lost ring releases a cascade of memories. The objects he sees around him—old friends, remembered places—are excavated, their layers exposed. But most winning of all is the emerging character of Birkerts himself. We come to have great respect for this competitive but deeply loyal friend, the caring father who respects his children’s independence even as he tries to connect with them, the traveler, the onetime bookseller, the writer at all stages of his writing life, and throughout it all, the attentive, passionate reader."

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller (Penguin Press):  Fuller is another essayist who plumbs the depths of her subjects--whether it's the tragic death of a young oil roughnecker (The Legend of Colton H. Bryant) or her own life growing up in South Africa (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood).  I've loved everything else she's written, so I'm primed to enjoy this Cocktail Hour, a sequel of sorts to her memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.  Here's the Jacket Copy: "Alexandra Fuller braids a multi-layered narrative around the perfectly lit, Happy Valley-era Africa of her mother's childhood; the boiled cabbage grimness of her father's English childhood; and the darker, civil war- torn Africa of her own childhood. At its heart, this is the story of Fuller's mother, Nicola. Born on the Scottish Isle of Skye and raised in Kenya, Nicola holds dear the kinds of values most likely to get you hurt or killed in Africa: loyalty to blood, passion for land, and a holy belief in the restorative power of all animals. Fuller interviewed her mother at length and has captured her inimitable voice with remarkable precision. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is as funny, terrifying, exotic, and unselfconscious as Nicola herself."

The Griff by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson (William Morrow):  And now for something completely different from Moore, a writer known for his odd, funny novels full of "profound goofiness"** (Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal; Practical Demonkeeping; Fluke, Bite Me: A Love Story, and more).  The Griff is a graphic novel about...well, how can I explain this?  It's like every bad monster/apocalypse/buddy movie you've ever watched on late-late-night television.  Minivan-size griffin-like dragons are summoned from deep sleep in outer space, fly all the way to our galaxy, and lay waste to everything and everybody--from Trump Towers to that guy hoovering a Whopper at the local Burger King.  It's up to a "motley band of survivors" to defeat the Evil Winged Beasts and, hopefully, repopulate the Earth.  Of course, it helps that one of the plucky post-world survivors is a red-haired Goth Girl whose breasts are about to bust out of what little clothing she has left.  There are lots of big guns, explosions, gaping jaws of lizard teeth, exclamation points, sound effects like "Scree! Scree!!" and "Chommp!" and at least one hot-tub scene.  But the pages are bursting with color and it all looks like great fun.  And I didn't even mention one of the heroes is a guy in a squirrel suit.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Ballantine Books):  This debut novel has been getting a lot of pre-publication press thanks to the publicists at Random House.  Editors have said it is the next White Oleander, The Help or The Memory Keeper's Daughter.  Nothing against the aforementioned titles, but those kind of comparisons make me want to run away in the opposite direction, scratching at the sudden outbreak of hives.  But I like to give every book which lands on my front porch an equal chance at capturing my attention.  And so, in fairness, I have to admit I liked the Opening Lines of The Language of Flowers:

      For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose. Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake. The sharp, chemical smell was nothing like the hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Indian and Carolina jasmine, separation and attachment. They could not be confused.

      Standing in the middle of the room, I located the source of the fire. A neat row of wooden matches lined the foot of the bed. They ignited, one after the next, a glowing picket fence across the piped edging. Watching them light, I felt a terror unequal to the size of the flickering flames, and for a paralyzing moment I was ten years old again, desperate and hopeful in a way I had never been before and would never be again.
      But the bare synthetic mattress did not ignite like the thistle had in late October. It smoldered, and then the fire went out.

      It was my eighteenth birthday.

Broken Irish by Edward J. Delaney (Turtle Point Press):  I'm reserving the entire space of this novel's description for its Opening Lines, and if you're anything like me, you Will.  Not.  Be.  Able.  To.  Stop.  Reading.
      Yes, he's driving drunk, but the rarity would be him driving sober, because when he does, he's usually hurrying his way to the South Boston Liquor Mart (the morning run the straightest line he still knows), usually afflicted through miscalculation by a crushing hangover needing to be fed and abated. Jimmy Gilbride hates having hangovers, hates their gravelly insistence and their saddening whispers, which is one good reason why he never truly lets himself sober up. He prefers to flow in the twilight between, that domain of the truly accomplished functional alcoholic. There was a time when he felt guilty about standing in front of the open refrigerator door at eight in the morning, usually naked, knocking down his "breakfast mix" of orange juice, vodka and grenadine. He appreciates the cold sigh of the fridge wafting on his timid loins. He feels no such guilt anymore, nor does he feel okay about it, either; he has simply stopped devoting any thought to it. It's become so automatic that he can sip his ways through most days without forming any conscious thoughts on the matter, because that would be like considering one's own breathing.
      It's a hot afternoon, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. His seersucker sport coat, worn out in the cool of morning, is laid on the seat beside him, too warm to bear now. The heat is getting to him. There's a certain buoyancy to his sodden brain so that he feels, driving, as if his sweating head is the balloon that gives lift to his whole body, the rest just bagged entrails that hang below like the ballast of his life. He feels as if he is floating inside his car as it rolls down a sun-white landscape of pavement and sky. The AC went out years ago in his weathered Ford Taurus, which has a story to tell in its dents and scratches, its emergency bottles rolling empty under shredded seats.
      He is thirty-two and in decent shape, if that means thin--someone hardly prone to eating. He's especially slack where the skin gathers around the joints. He is sustained by the nutrients of many beverages, by the gum he chews incessantly to mask his breath, and by some Beer Nuts thrown in for a suggestion of the solid. Getting along, today, the fifth of September 1999, the fifth anniversary of his father's death. He has not called his mother. They have more or less lost touch. But he has really put on a drunk in honor of both old habits and the old man. He's headed somewhere else with a pocket full of cash, and he feels just fine. It's driving sober that has become so unnatural as to be the truer challenge.
Trust me, it only gets better from there....

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden (Scribner):  The author, the executive editor of the New Yorker, recently re-discovered some old letters from her grandmother in the back of a drawer at her home.  Going over the letters, Wickenden found an irresistible story hanging there on one of the branches of her family tree.  The Jacket Copy explains:

      In the summer of 1916, Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, close friends from childhood and graduates of Smith College, left home in Auburn, New York, for the wilds of northwestern Colorado. Bored by their society luncheons, charity work, and the effete young men who courted them, they learned that two teaching jobs were available in a remote mountaintop schoolhouse and applied—shocking their families and friends. "No young lady in our town," Dorothy later commented, "had ever been hired by anybody."

      They took the new railroad over the Continental Divide and made their way by spring wagon to the tiny settlement of Elkhead, where they lived with a family of homesteaders. They rode several miles to school each day on horseback, sometimes in blinding blizzards. Their students walked or skied on barrel staves, in tattered clothes and shoes tied together with string. The man who had lured them out west was Ferry Carpenter, a witty, idealistic, and occasionally outrageous young lawyer and cattle rancher. He had promised them the adventure of a lifetime and the most modern schoolhouse in Routt County; he hadn't let on that the teachers would be considered dazzling prospective brides for the locals.
      That year transformed the children, their families, and the undaunted teachers themselves. Dorothy and Rosamond learned how to handle unruly children who had never heard the Pledge of Allegiance and thought Ferry Carpenter was the president of the United States; they adeptly deflected the amorous advances of hopeful cowboys; and they saw one of their closest friends violently kidnapped by two coal miners. Carpenter's marital scheme turned out to be more successful than even he had hoped and had a surprising twist some forty years later.

      In their buoyant letters home, the two women captured the voices and stories of the pioneer women, the children, and the other memorable people they got to know. Nearly a hundred years later, New Yorker executive editor Dorothy Wickenden—the granddaughter of Dorothy Woodruff—found the letters and began to reconstruct the women’s journey. Enhancing the story with interviews with descendants, research about these vanished communities, and trips to the region, Wickenden creates an exhilarating saga about two intrepid young women and the "settling up" of the West.

Cain by Jose Saramago (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Last week, I downloaded The Collected Novels of Jose Saramago onto my Kindle, intending someday to read at least one or two of the 12 novels of the late Portugese author.  Before I get to Blindness, All the Names or The Double, I'll probably start with this "radical retelling of the Old Testament" (in the words of the Jacket Copy).  Cain is a slim book and looks like it will be easily consumed, but with the lingering after-effects of a good, nourishing meal.  Here are the Opening Lines (all lowercase names, as per the Advance Reading Copy in front of me):
When the lord, also known as god, realised that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were, like the two humans, the product of his divine command, already had a voice of their own, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle.  In an access*** of rage, surprising in someone who could have solved any problem simply by issuing another quick fiat, he rushed over to adam and eve and unceremoniously, no half-measures, stuck his tongue down the throats of first one and then the other.
Though they're over-punctuated ("Quick! Somebody call a doctor!  That sentence is about to slip into a comma"), these first lines of Cain are compelling and promise great things ahead in the simple story of a boy, his brother, and a murder.

Trophy by Michael Griffith (Triquarterly Books):  Now here's a high-concept novel for you: a stuffed grizzly bear falls on a man, crushing him to death.  But here's the thing: the entire 275-page novel is told in that instant between the bear falling and the man dying.  Griffith takes the old cliche "my life flashed before my eyes" and runs with it all the way to the finish line.  And here's the interesting part: the 29-year-old man being crushed to death is named Vada Prickett, and Darla, the woman he loves, is about to marry his friend Wyatt Yancey, and the stuffed bear belongs to Wyatt, and when the bear fell on him, Vada had been helping him move it into his house, against Darla's wishes.  It's a brilliant concept and judging by the little I read of Trophy, Griffith pulls it off marvelously.  Here are the Opening Lines to the first chapter:
      Vada Prickett is a corpse.
      Oh, but that's showy...it's more accurate to say that Vada is on the cusp of corpsedom. He is enjoying--or, rather, not enjoying: what kind of man would take pleasure in an end so early and grim and flat-out painful as this one, especially if it's his own early, grim, and flat-out painful end?--his last instant of life. Dear God but that's a mess. Think straight, Vada. Uncomplicate, unravel.
      What Vada is doing is dying.
      Actually, at this precise sub-instant what he's doing is wondering: Does "cusp" mean what he thinks it does? Seems like it might have to do with the caulifowery tops of teeth. Or it's a poisonous snake from Bible times. Does a cusp have something to do with Amontillado, whatever Amontillado is? Or it's one of those snapped-toether words, one that applies to the wretch who lisps when he cusses. Vada can empathize: The world gigs you again and again, waits till dark and shines a bright light in your eyes and runs you through with a sharp stick, and then even your rightful rage becomes fodder for chuckles. You wriggle; they haw. It's not fair. Up your ath, world. Kith thith.

*At least, that's the subtitle on my Advance Reading Copy.  Seems the publisher may have changed it for the final press run.
**Moore's own words
***I'm wondering if this is a typo in my ARC and it should be "excess"

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