Thursday, August 4, 2011

Front Porch Books: August 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.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar Straus Giroux):  In a Fall season already packed with big-hitters (see Colson Whitehead, Russell Banks and Susan Orlean below), Eugenides is probably the one most readers are expecting to step up to the plate, eye the ball, and smack a homer into the parking lot.  It's been nine years since Middlesex and for fans that's just too long a dry spell.  I haven't read either of Eugenides' previous two books (I haven't even seen the movie version of The Virgin Suicides), but I'm looking forward to The Marriage Plot primarily because it pays homage to the best elements of classic domestic literature--novels like Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice (two novels which, by no coincidence, are central to The Marriage Plot's plot).  Here's the Jacket Copy:
It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to the Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead––charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy––suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus––who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange––resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate. Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Can't wait until Oct. 11?  Here's a tasty tease...Opening Lines:
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”

Zone One by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday):  After Justin Cronin's The Passage, my bar is set pretty high when it comes to epic end-of-the-world monster stories.  But Whitehead's a smart writer and, like Cronin with his vampires, I have a feeling Zone One will be more than just another zombie saga.  Hey, if Whitehead can write a novel about the marketing of a Band-Aid, then I'm pretty sure he can clear the bar with this one.  However, I'm a little troubled by the main character's name: Mark Spitz.  Are there a lot of swimming scenes?  Jacket Copy:
      In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.
      Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild­ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.
      Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.
      And then things start to go wrong.
Blurbworthiness: "The kind of smart, funny, pop culture-filled tale that would make George Romero proud…[Whitehead] succeeds brilliantly with a fresh take on survival, grief, 9/11, AIDS, global warming, nuclear holocaust, Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Pol Pot's Year Zero, Missouri tornadoes, and the many other disasters both natural and not that keep a stranglehold on our fears."  (Publishers Weekly)

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Ecco):  Michael Ondaatje calls Banks "the most uncompromising moral voice of our time" and I'd have to agree.  Novels like The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction and Cloudsplitter take no prisoners and make no apologies.  From the looks of it, Lost Memory of Skin has just as much thematic vigor.  Jacket Copy:
      Suspended in a strangely modern-day version of limbo, the young man at the center of Russell Banks’s uncompromising and morally complex new novel must create a life for himself in the wake of incarceration. Known in his new identity only as the Kid, and on probation after doing time for a liaison with an underage girl, he is shackled to a GPS monitoring device and forbidden to live within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might gather. With nowhere else to go, the Kid takes up residence under a south Florida causeway, in a makeshift encampment with other convicted sex offenders.
      Barely beyond childhood himself, the Kid, despite his crime, is in many ways an innocent, trapped by impulses and foolish choices he himself struggles to comprehend. Enter the Professor, a man who has built his own life on secrets and lies. A university sociologist of enormous size and intellect, he finds in the Kid the perfect subject for his research on homelessness and recidivism among convicted sex offenders. The two men forge a tentative partnership, the Kid remaining wary of the Professor’s motives even as he accepts the counsel and financial assistance of the older man.
      When the camp beneath the causeway is raided by the police, and later, when a hurricane all but destroys the settlement, the Professor tries to help the Kid in practical matters while trying to teach his young charge new ways of looking at, and understanding, what he has done. But when the Professor’s past resurfaces and threatens to destroy his carefully constructed world, the balance in the two men’s relationship shifts.
      Suddenly, the Kid must reconsider everything he has come to believe, and choose what course of action to take when faced with a new kind of moral decision.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster):  I've always been a Lassie man myself, but I'm fascinated by the idea of a high-profile writer like Orlean taking on a full-length biography of a dog.  Of course, as anyone who read The Orchid Thief knows, Orlean's books work on multiple levels and I suspect Rin Tin Tin will tell us as much about 20th-century pop culture as it does the German Shepherd who goes from orphaned pup on a World War I battlefield to the biggest thing in Hollywood since Shirley Temple.  Opening Lines:
He believed the dog was immortal.  "There will always be a Rin Tin Tin," Lee Duncan said, time and time again, to reporters, to visitors, to fan magazines, to neighbors, to family, to friends.  At first this must have sounded absurd--just wishful thinking about the creature that had eased his loneliness and made him famous around the world.  And yet, just as Lee believed, there has always been a Rin Tin Tin. The second Rin Tin Tin was not the talent his father was, but still, he was Rin Tin Tin, carrying on what the first dog had begun.  After Rin Tin Tin Jr. there was Rin Tin Tin III, and then another Rin Tin Tin after him and then another, and then another: there has always been another.  And Rin Tin TIn has always been more than a dog.  He was also an idea and and ideal--a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner.  He was one dog and many dogs, a real animal and an invented character, a pet as well as an international celebrity.  He was born in 1918 and he never died.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell (Simon & Schuster):  One day after expressing my love for Schappell's "Joy of Cooking" in the latest issue of One Story, Blueprints landed on my front porch.  The God of Serendipity must agree with me: Schappell's fiction is fierce and unavoidable.  This is an automatic entry in the pile of books to be read (aka Mount NeverRest).  The Opening Lines from the opening story, "Monsters of the Deep":
      "I love you," Ross says.
      I laugh, "You don't even know me," and he looks startled, like I've just exploded something in his face. He sinks back against the pillows, confused, like maybe he read the manual wrong. Aren't all girls supposed to want to hear this?
      "I do so. I know you really well," Ross says, running his finger across the rainbow I've drawn arching over my hip bone, and down between my legs, hesitant but so eager it's pathetic, like even now, after all these months, he's worried that I'm going to stop him. I'm not going to stop him. If I stopped him, we'd have to talk. The last thing I want to do is talk.

Call Me When You Land by Michael Schiavone (The Permanent Press):  Though the cover design of this novel looks like something cobbled together by a teenager with a free afternoon and a trial version of Photoshop, what's inside seems to indicate a sharply-written domestic drama.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
On the brink of her fortieth birthday, Katie Olmstead is in no mood to celebrate. Still tending bar to support a stalled art career, she continues to struggle with her temperamental teenage son, C.J., who wants less to do with her every day. When Katie gets word that C.J.'s estranged father has died and willed C.J. his Harley-Davidson, the gift quickly becomes a wedge driving C.J. and Katie even further apart. With the past parked in the driveway of their New England home, C.J.'s increasing outbursts and Katie's self-sabotage resurrect memories of Katie's own troubled childhood, one plagued by a mentally ill mother and a neglectful father. As Katie's notion of motherhood is tested, her artistic ambitions dwindle and she begins to feel like an imposter amongst her seemingly refined neighbors. Suddenly faced with a bullying, overachieving sister she hasn't spoken to in years, an on-again, off-again boyfriend she just can't love, and a drinking habit that's spiraling out of control, Katie finds support in an unlikely place-- her eccentric and ailing great uncle, Walter. From his room on the third floor, Walter watches over them, encouraging both Katie and C.J. to do the work they fear in order to redeem their family.
Even more convincing to me was the excerpt the publisher included on the French flaps of the softcover galley I received:
She hears the front door bang open. Against an earlier promise, Katie adds another finger's worth of Grand Marnier to her glass, careful to tread quietly across the studio floor. Her glass is streaked black from the paint still on her fingertips. From the kitchen, the blender churns and she envisions the lipstick red potion of creatine powder and fruit punch, one of three daily doses her son guzzles down. Katie listens as C.J. rummages through the refrigerator. She pictures him wolfing down cold cuts and hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese and pickles. He eats like a pregnant woman, chronically hungry. Cabinets frantically open and close. He can't seem to do anything quietly. And not until Katie hears his heavy footsteps on the stairwell does she spit the ice cubes from her mouth.

Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman (Harper Perennial):  Novels like this seem tailor-made for writers like me, mid-life drifters who wonder if we'll ever see our books published before we die.  Just take a look at the Jacket Copy:
     Tom Violet always thought that by the time he turned thirty-five, he’d have everything going for him. Fame. Fortune. A beautiful wife. A satisfying career as a successful novelist. A happy dog to greet him at the end of the day.
     The reality, though, is far different. He’s got a wife, but their problems are bigger than he can even imagine. And he’s written a novel, but the manuscript he’s slaved over for years is currently hidden in his desk drawer while his father, an actual famous writer, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His career, such that it is, involves mind-numbing corporate buzzwords, his pretentious archnemesis Gregory, and a hopeless, completely inappropriate crush on his favorite coworker. Oh...and his dog, according to the vet, is suffering from acute anxiety.
     Tom’s life is crushing his soul, but he’s decided to do something about it. (Really.) Domestic Violets is the brilliant and beguiling story of a man finally taking control of his own happiness—even if it means making a complete idiot of himself along the way.
The Opening Lines are certainly promising:
      I splash cold water on my face.
      This is what men in movies do when they're about to fly off the handle, when shit is getting out of control. I do this sometimes. I react to things based on what characters in movies would do.That's kind of ironic, considering I've always thought of myself as a book person.
      At least I think that's ironic. That word gets misused a lot.
      The water isn't refreshing like it's supposed to be. It's ice-cold and I gasp. As it swirls into a little cyclone on its way down the drain, I look in the mirror, ashamed and angry at myself.
      There's something wrong. With my penis.
      It's been an unpredictable thing for a while now, my shlong, all flighty and unreliable like some stoner uncle who shows up hammered at Thanksgiving and forgets your name.

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown and Company):  For several years, Megan Abbott has been at the top of my Authors Whose Books I Really, Really, Really Want to Read But Haven't list (other permanent residents include Jonathan Safran Foer, Pete Fromm, Jennifer Egan, and Richard Price).  Her darkly delicious noir novels are perfect for a guy like me--someone who can watch hour upon hour of Robert Siodmak movies without blinking.  Earlier Abbott hardboiled mysteries include The Song Is You, Queenpin, and Bury Me Deep--each featuring strong (but twisted) female protagonists.  The End of Everything is a departure from the classic-noir setting of those books and places Abbott's characters to the 1980s suburbs of the Midwest.  It's narrated by a 13-year-old girl whose voice grabbed me from the Opening Lines:  "She, light-streaky out of the corner of my eye.  It's that game, the one called Bloody Murder, the name itself sending tingly nerves shooting buckshot into my belly, my gut, or wherever nerves may be.  It's so late and we shouldn't be out at all, but we don't care."  Those two girls--Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver--will have an unforgettable summer.  When Evie disappears (a dark car was prowling the neighborhood earlier in the day), Lizzie is left to pick up the pieces of their friendship while trying to get at the truth of what appears to be an abduction.  Blurbworthiness:  "Lizzie's quest to find her missing best friend Evie, and make Evie's seemingly perfect family whole again, is riveting and heartbreaking. Abbott's lyrical prose gives voice to a girl in the grips of profound loss and transformation. This is a book that gets under your skin and stays there."  (Jennifer McMahon, author of Promise Not to Tell)

Other Heartbreaks by Patricia Henley (Engine Books):  This is the third book to roll off the presses of the new-and-promising Engine Books.  If Debra Monroe's Shambles and On the Outskirts of Normal were the equivalent of putting the key in the ignition and turning it, then Henley's collection of short stories puts the gas pedal to the floorboard and growls the motor to life.  This is Henley's first collection since 1992, though she has written acclaimed novels in the intervening years (In the River Sweet and Hummingbird House).  There are nine stories between these covers and they all seem to start at a pivotal breaking point in the characters' lives--a few of them even start with death--which means you, the reader, jump right in with both feet.  Jacket Copy:
In this collection of elegant, moving stories, Patricia Henley explores the many bonds and betrayals among women: mothers, daughters, lovers, friends. Her characters, at once familiar and surprising, make their way through grief and discovery, revealing the power of their own hearts and of the landscapes where they reside. In "Rocky Gap," June Peck and her family gather to honor their lost sister; in "Red Lily" the secrets and lies Jenny Rogers keeps and tells will change her life; in the haunting and hopeful "Ephemera," Sophie March-Gonzales faces the worst kind of loss, and through that loss, finds a future to cherish.

The Governess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press):  Before I stumbled across London publisher Pushkin Press, I'll admit I never heard of Zweig.  My education in Viennese literature is seriously lacking, it appears.  Zweig, born in 1881, was at the height of his literary career in the 1920s and 30s.  He chummed around with Sigmund Freud and Richard Strauss before fleeing Nazi Germany and eventually settling in Brazil where, in 1942, he and his wife were found lying on their bed in an apparent double suicide.  Now, nearly 70 years later, this handsome little book from Pushkin Press drops into my hands and, from all I can see, these four novellas are a very fine introduction to Zweig's canon.  I particularly liked the Opening Lines of the first story, "Did He Do It?":
Personally I'm as good as certain that he was the murderer.  But I don't have the final, incontrovertible proof.  "Betsy," my husband always tells me, "you're a clever woman, a quick observer, and you have a sharp eye, but you let your temperament lead you astray, and then you make up your mind too hastily."  Well, my husband has known me for thirty-two years, and perhaps, indeed probably, he's right to warn me against forming a judgement in too much of a hurry.  So as there is no conclusive evidence, I have to make myself suppress my suspicions, especially in front of other people.  But whenever I meet him, whenever he comes over to me in that forthright, friendly way of his, my heart misses a beat.  And a little voice inside me says: he and no one else was the murderer.

The Call by Yannick Murphy (Harper Perennial):  The Jacket Copy of this novel does little to make it stand out from any number of "family dramas" littering the new-arrivals table at the local bookstore:
The daily rhythm of a veterinarian's family in rural New England is shaken when a hunting accident leaves their eldest son in a coma. With the lives of his loved ones unhinged, the veterinarian struggles to maintain stability while searching for the man responsible. But in the midst of their great trial an unexpected visitor arrives, requesting a favor that will have profound consequences—testing a loving father's patience, humor, and resolve and forcing husband and wife to come to terms with what "family" truly means.
But turn to the first page and it's quickly apparent this is unlike any other novel from the likes of Jodi Picoult.  The entire book is written in a series of notes from each of the veterinarian's house calls.  It could be a gimmick, or it could be a brilliant narrative choice.  I'll know more once I read it.  For now, here's a taste of the Opening Lines:
Call: A cow with her dead calf half born.
Action: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.
Result: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso are still inside the mother.
Thoughts on drive home: Is there a nicer place to live?
What children said to me when I got home: Hi, Pop.
What wife cooked for dinner: Something mixed up.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday):  As a member of the Assassinated Presidents Club, James Garfield has never gotten the respect he deserves.  Oh sure, he didn't have a flashy killer like Lincoln or have his death recorded on film like Kennedy, but his death is nonetheless a tragic one.  Shot in the back by a madman only four months after taking office, Garfield's place in history was like a snuffed-out candle.  Here, then gone all too quickly.  The most interesting thing about Millard's book is not necessarily the assassination.  As the Jacket Copy tells us: "the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what hap­pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur­moil.  The unhinged assassin’s half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care.  A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect.  As his con­dition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet."  Fans of narrative history like The Devil in the White City and The Professor and the Madman will want to grab this one.

Everything Happens Today by Jesse Browner (Europa):  This one sounds like a mash-up of Mrs. Dalloway and Catcher in the Rye with some classic Russian angst thrown in for good measure.  I didn't start obsessing about Tolstoy until I was well into my 20s, but there's still something about Browner's novel which plucks a chord inside me.  This could be one of the most interesting reads this season.  Jacket Copy: "Jesse Browner's dazzling new novel records a single day in the life of Wes, a seventeen-year-old who attends Manhattan's elite Dalton School and lives in Greenwich Village in a dilapidated town house with his terminally ill mother, distant father and beloved younger sister. In the course of one day everything will happen to Wes: he will lose his virginity to the wrong girl and break his own heart, try to meet a Monday morning deadline for a paper on War and Peace, and prepare an elaborate supper he hopes will reunite his family. Wes struggles through the day deep in thoughts of sex, love, Beatles lyrics, friendship, God and French cuisine-a typical teenager with an atypical mind, a memorable young man who comes to the poignant understanding of how fragile but attainable personal happiness can be."

Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry (Crown Publishers):  Henry's novel was released earlier this year, so some of you already have the jump on me, but for those unfamiliar with it, I'm going to convince you to buy Learning to Swim in the same way I was convinced to put it near the top of my To-Be-Read pile: I'm going to give you the Opening Lines to the first chapter.  If you're like me, you'll have a hard time breathing by the time you reach the last sentence of this excerpt.  Hopefully, you won't pass out and you'll have enough strength to reach up and click the link to buy the book.  Here we go:
      If I'd blinked, I would have missed it.
      But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.
      I was on the late afternoon ferry on Lake Champlain, the big one that takes an hour to reach Vermont. It was overcast and misty, one of those in-between Adirondack days just before summer commits itself, and I’d pulled on a windbreaker because of the occasional chilly gust of wind. I was the only one out on deck, but the closed-in lounge with its narrow benches and tiny snack bar makes me edgy. And I love watching the water as the ferry carves through it. Today the water was calm, with no other boats out except this one’s twin, chugging stolidly in the opposite direction.
      What I did next was a visceral reaction to those small eyes I thought I saw. Without conscious thought I vaulted onto the railing I was leaning against, took a deep breath, and dived.
      It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t stop to think. The coldness of the water seemed to suck the air out of my lungs, but instinctively I curved upward, fluttering my feet.
      In the weekly mini-triathlons in Lake Placid where I live, I’m always one of the last out of the water. The closest I’d ever come to underwater swimming was picking up my hair clasp at the bottom of a friend’s pool, and that had taken two tries. And whenever I see a movie with scenes where the hero has to swim through a long, narrow passageway, I always try to hold my breath. I never make it.
      But I was in the lake, committed, and surging strongly underwater. By the time I broke the surface, I’d traveled more than a third of the way to where I’d seen the thing go in. Both ferries had gone onward, in their opposite directions. There was no one in sight. No shouts of alarm, no ferry slowing and turning about.
      I kept my eyes fixed on the water ahead, and saw something bob up, too far away. My stomach gave a nasty twist. Then I swam, harder and faster than I ever had in a mini-triathlon with middle-aged tourists coming up behind me.
      When I reached what I thought was the right spot, I took a deep breath and dived. The water wasn’t clear but not exactly murky, sort of a blurred translucence with a greenish cast. I didn’t get very far under, and had to try again. This time I saw only a few flat, colorless fish skittering by before I had to come up for air.
      Gasping for breath, treading water while I sucked air, reason began to creep in. I wasn’t just cold; I was close to numb. I was alone in a very deep lake twelve miles wide, diving after what could be a bag of garbage somebody didn’t want to pay to haul to the dump. I was none too sure I had enough strength to get to shore. But I dived once more, and this time something led me straight to it.
      It wasn’t a bundle of trash. It wasn’t a doll. It was a small boy, arms entangled in what looked like a dark sweatshirt, straight dark hair floating eerily above his head. For one awful moment I thought I was looking at a corpse, but then I saw a small sneakered foot kick weakly. By the time I got close enough to grab a handful of sweatshirt, I’d been without air far longer than I’d ever managed to hold my breath. watching underwater scenes in movies. My throat was convulsing in an effort not to suck in water instead of the air that wasn’t there.

The book's narrator, Troy Chance (a female freelance writer), saves the boy who says his name is Paul but is otherwise mute.  Then she waits for his parents to come claim him after the rescue.  And waits and waits.  When the parents don't show up, she begins a harrowing search to find out what happened to make him fall off the back of that ferry.  But if you're like me, you shouldn't need any more persuasion to buy the novel after taking that first frigid dive into Lake Champlain with Troy.  With a strong opening scene like that, Henry shows all the promise of being a storyteller who won't release her hold until the last page.

God Bless America by Steve Almond (Lookout Books):  This new collection of short stories by Steve Almond is coming out in October, but if you feel like shooting off fireworks, waving a red-white-and-blue flag, and marching in a parade through the autumn leaves, then by all means go right ahead.  New fiction from one of our funniest, earthiest, balls-to-the-walls writers is always cause for celebration.  God bless America and God bless Steve Almond and God bless Lookout Books for bringing us another set of off-kilter tales to enjoy long into the winter months.  Jacket Copy: In his most ambitious collection yet, Steve Almond offers a comic and forlorn portrait of these United States: our lust for fame, our racial tensions, the toll of perpetual war, and the pursuit of romantic happiness.  In the exuberant title story, a hapless would-be actor, desperate to escape the drudgery of his existence, lands the role of a lifetime. In "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched," reprinted in Best American Short Stories, a psychoanalyst with a secret gambling addiction squares off over the poker table against a damaged ex-patient. In "First Date Back," a young woman becomes the target of a traumatized soldier s misguided hopes for love. And "A Dream of Sleep," the collection s final story, presents a grief-stricken refugee who tends the graves of a forgotten cemetery, only to have his fragile peace shattered by an unwelcome visitor.  Blurbworthiness: "These wonderful, wickedly hilarious stories have forgiveness at their core. Steve Almond's characters are sons and fathers, inveterate gamblers, thwarted dreamers, the mothers of children gone astray, and God Bless America teaches us how to love every one of them. Almond always has an ear to the ground for the 'dumb throb, the frantic seep' of human hope, which his prose transmutes into music." (Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!)

The Great Leader by Jim Harrison (Grove Press):  Here's another cause for celebration: the indefatigable Jim Harrison is coming out with a new novel in October and, by all accounts, it looks like another example of his tough, wry, bare-knuckled writing.  Here's the Jacket Copy:  Jim Harrison has won international acclaim for his masterful body of work, including Returning to Earth, Legends of the Fall and over thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In his most original work to date, Harrison delivers an enthralling, witty and expertly-crafted novel following one man's hunt for an elusive cult leader, dubbed "The Great Leader." On the verge of retirement, Detective Sunderson begins to investigate a hedonistic cult, which has set up camp near his home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. At first, the self-declared Great Leader seems merely a harmless oddball, but as Sunderson and his sixteen-year-old sidekick dig deeper, they find him more intelligent and sinister than they realized. Recently divorced and frequently pickled in alcohol, Sunderson tracks his quarry from the woods of Michigan to a town in Arizona, filled with criminal border-crossers, and on to Nebraska, where the Great Leader's most recent recruits have gathered to glorify his questionable religion. But Sunderson's demons are also in pursuit of him. Rich with character and humor, The Great Leader is at once a gripping excursion through America's landscapes and the poignant story of a man grappling with age, lost love and his own darker nature.

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