Thursday, September 1, 2011

Front Porch Books: September 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.

Crimes in Southern Indiana
by Frank Bill
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
Few Fall releases have me as excited as Bill's debut collection of gnarly noir stories set in the Rustbelt of the Midwest.  It's like there's a hundred-thousand bullets bumping through my bloodstream, unsettling me in a good way as I look forward to running my eyes across these pages.  The stories probably aren't for everyone.  If you like to read your fiction while sipping chamomile tea and listening to Josh Groban on your iPod dock, you probably want to keep away from Bill's rapists, drug dealers and no-good sonsabitches in wife-beater T-shirts.  Just look at how he literally kicks down the door and comes at us with two loaded barrels right from the Opening Lines of the first story, "Hill Clan Cross":
Pitchfork and Darnel burst through the scuffed motel door like two barrels of buckshot. Using the daisy-patterened bed to divide the dealers from the buyers, Pitchfork buried a .45-caliber Colt in Karl's peat moss unibrow with his right hand. Separated Irvine's green eyes with the sawed-off .12-gauge in his left, pushed the two young men away from the mattress, stopped them at a wall painted with nicotine, and shouted, "Drop the rucks, Karl!"
There's a lot going on in those three sentences--almost too much--but if you're like me, you can't pull your eyes away from the car crash of human misery and squalor.  Frank Bill is a force to be reckoned with--and others agree. Blurbworthiness: "Lord, where in the hell did this guy come from? Blasts off like a frigging rocket ship and hits as hard as an ax handle to the side of the head after you've eaten a live rattlesnake for breakfast. One of the wildest damn rides you're ever going to take inside a book."  (Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff)   "This gritty, violent debut collection begins rather like pulp genre fiction then deepens into something much more significant and powerful. Set in a dilapidated, seedy, nightmare version of southern Indiana, complete with meth labs, dog-fighting rings, and all manner of substance abuse, the stories are connected by recurring characters. The collection opens with vignettes focused mainly on carnage. But as readers go deeper, the stories lengthen, with Bill turning his attention to psychology and character development and bringing the community to life in fascinating ways...Bill's characters live in a fractured world where there are no good jobs, not much respect for life, and not much hope. It's a bleak, hard-boiled vision of America." (Library Journal)

The Night Strangers
by Chris Bohjalian
Just in time for Halloween, Bohjalian (Secrets of Eden, Skeletons at the Feast and The Double Bind) delivers a spooky ghost tale which begins, as all good hauntings do, in a dank basement behind a locked door:
The door was presumed to have been the entry to a coal chute, a perfectly reasonable assumption since a small hillock of damp coal sat moldering before it. It was a little under five feet in height and just about four feet wide, and it was composed of barnboard and thick pieces of rough-hewn timber. Its most distinguishing feature was not its peculiarly squat visage—and if a person were predisposed to see such things in the dim light of the basement, the knobs on the wood and the character of the planking did suggest the vague shadow of a face—but the fact that at some point someone had sealed the door shut with six-inch-long wrought-iron carriage bolts. Thirty-nine of them ringed the wood and it was all but impenetrable, unless one were feeling energetic and had handy an ax. The door glowered in an especially dank corner of the basement, and the floor before it was dirt. The fact was, however, that most of the basement floor was dirt; only the concrete island on which sat the washing machine, the dryer, the furnace, and the hot-water tank was not dirt. When most prospective buyers inspected the house, this was their principal concern: a floor that seemed equal parts clay and loam. That was what caused them to nod, their minds immediately envisioning runnels of water during spring thaws and the mud that could be brought upstairs every time they did laundry or descended there to retrieve (perhaps) a new lightbulb or a hammer. It was a lot of largely wasted square footage, because the footprint of the house above it was substantial. As a result, the door was rarely noticed and never commented upon.
Still not hooked?  Try this Jacket Copy on for size: "In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts. The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters.  Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure.  Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown.  The body count?  Thirty-nine--a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door."

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
by Don DeLillo
Can this really be the first book of short stories the grand master of American postmodernism?  Hard to believe, but true.  After a 40-year career whose epic-novel highlights include Libra, White Noise and Underworld, DeLillo is finally bringing us a collection of compact fiction--nine stories bundled into 200 pages.  I've had a hot-cold relationship with DeLillo (but mostly hot): loved Underworld, shrugged at The Body Artist, stopped just short of cartwheels for Libra.  And yet, The Angel Esmeralda is another of my most-anticipated books of the Fall season (this always happens every September: a virtual book monsoon).  The stories cover nearly the whole timeline of DeLillo's career, starting with "Creation" from 1979, so I'm expecting this will be an illuminating chart of one writer's progress.

The Sourtoe Cocktail Club
by Ron Franscell
(Globe Pequot Press)
The full title of Franscell's story of father-son bonding in Alaska is The Sourtoe Cocktail Club: The Yukon Odyssey of a Father and Son in Search of a Mummified Human Toe...and Everything Else.  If that mummified human toe doesn't grab you, then I don't know what will--especially when you learn the human digit is an actual additive in a drink at a bar in Dawson City, Yukon.  I'll stick with my little paper umbrella if it's all the same, thanks.  Judging by these Opening Lines, Franscell's book looks like it's a deeply personal account of a tumultuous time in his life and should appeal to fans of memoirs like David Gilmour's The Film Club:
      I don't really remember when I started dreaming about the Toe, except that it was sometime after I died and sometime before I began traveling in time.
      It wasn't a proper death, of course, but my life stopped in every way when my twenty-year marriage imploded. Our undoing wasn't infidelity, money or abuse; we had simply and sadly stopped believing in each other. We had evolved into strangers who slept together. And that's all I will say about that.
      At the end, a few weeks before Christmas when there was no point in pretending for the children we still loved each other, she asked me to leave. Since we had been running a small-town newspaper together, I suddenly had no job, no home and no place to go. But I went. One frosty December day, I kissed my son and daughter goodbye and hit the road.
I found Franscell's earlier book The Darkest Night to be a riveting (and, yes, deeply personal) story of a horrific crime which took place near Casper, Wyoming in 1973, so I'm hoping for good things from The Sourtoe Cocktail Club.  Just don't expect me to tip the glass back and let that toe touch my lips.

Sand Queen
by Helen Benedict
(Soho Press)
I'm understandably biased when I say I'm happy to see a rising tide of fiction about the Iraq War hitting bookshelves, but Benedict's novel about the unlikely relationship between a female American soldier and a female Iraqi medical student looks especially promising, judging from these Opening Lines:
      It's the biggest frigging spider I’ve ever seen in my life. From one hairy leg to the other, the whole thing’s as long as my forearm. So I make sure it’s dead first. Nudge it with the butt of my rifle till it flips over, limp and sandy. Then I pick it up by a leg, haul it into the tent like a shopping bag and nail it to the pole beside the head of my cot, right under my crucifix. That should keep Macktruck quiet, at least for the time being. He’s terrified of spiders. Asshole.
      The whistling is loud outside the tent today; a creepy, skin-prickling sound I can never get used to. The desert whistles all day and night out here. The hissing whistle of the wind cutting past your helmet. The moaning whistle of it winnowing through the razor wire. I stand under the hot canvas a moment, just listening. And then it hits me again, that deep-down ache that makes me want to curl up and cry.
      “What the fuck are you doing, Brady?” It’s Will Rickman, this bony young specialist in my squad with zitty skin and an Adam’s apple twice the size of his brain.
      I wipe my hands on my pants. “Nothing.”
      Rickman steps closer and squints at my spider. “Look at that thing. It’s disgusting. It’s fuckin’ bleeding black ooze.”
      “Don’t talk like that about Fuzzy.”
      Rickman raises his eyebrows. But all he says is, “Let’s go, they’re waiting.”
      I pick up my rifle and follow him, sunglasses over my eyes, scarf over my mouth. Ducking against the wind, the sand whipping into my cheeks, I run to the Humvee and cram into the back behind the other guy in my team, DJ, and our squad leader, Staff Sergeant Kormick.
      “We got better things to do than wait while you powder your nose, Brady,” Kormick shouts to me over the wind, shoving the Humvee into gear with a grinding wrench.“Don’t keep us waiting again. Got it?”
      “Got it, Sar’nt.”
I'm interested to see how Benedict handles the experience of a female soldier in a combat zone--which can be fraught with more danger than her male counterparts, as we've seen in Brian Turner's harrowing poem "Insignia" which I discussed earlier here at the blog.

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V
by Jacques Strauss
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Here's another novel that opens with the equivalent of verbal fireworks.  I focus a lot of my attention on Great Beginnings because they often make the difference between committing to a book or setting it aside for the proverbial "rainy day"--which, if I'm honest with myself, will never come.  The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. centers around 11-year-old Jack Viljee, a white boy living in Johannesburg in 1989.  Though, according to the Jacket Copy, Jack's world is "a rational simple place," apartheid shapes and squeezes the South Africa outside his front door and Jack's perception of that world is sharpened by the family's black maid Susie. "The noisy domesticity is upset by the arrival of Susie's fifteen-year-old son.  Percy is bored, idle, and full of rage, and when he catches Jack in an indeliby shameful moment, Jack learns that the smallest act of revenge has consquences beyond his imagining."  Oh yes, those Opening Lines.  Here they are in all their attention-grabbing glory:
When I was eleven I was too old to cry in front of my friends, but not too old to fake a stomachache at a sleepover if I was suddenly overcome with homesickness because my friend's mother had made mutton stew and prayed before the meal and bought no-name-brand toothpaste that tasted funny. When I was eleven I had a nightmare and went to my parents' room and interrupted them having sex. I was old enough to know what they were doing, but I did not pretend I was half asleep, because it was that horrible nightmare about the dead children with the stitched-up lips and the stitched-up eyes who came out of the black lake to chase me.
I don't know what's more disturbing: catching your parents in flagrante delicto or having a nightmare about dead children with stitched-up faces.  Either way, I Can't.  Stop.  Reading.

I Married You for Happiness
by Lily Tuck
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
Tuck's novel opens with the line "His hand is growing cold; still she holds it."  Intrigued?  Read on.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
The tale unfolds over a single night as Nina sits at the bedside of her husband, Philip, whose sudden and unexpected death is the reason for her lonely vigil. Still too shocked to grieve, she lets herself remember the defining moments of their long union, beginning with their meeting in Paris. She is an artist, he a highly accomplished mathematician—a collision of two different worlds that merged to form an intricate and passionate love. As we move through select memories—real and imagined—Tuck reveals the most private intimacies, dark secrets, and overwhelming joys that defined Nina and Philip's life together.
Blurbworthiness: "A breathlessly mannered, affecting new work....Small, vital snapshots make up two lives closely shared, and beautifully portrayed in this triumph of a novel."  (Publishers Weekly)

The Maid
by Kimberly Cutter
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

One film that consistently makes my 10 Best Movies of All Time list is The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent film starring Maria Falconetti.  It's smartly filmed, emotionally wrenching, and features an unforgettable performance with Falconetti's transformative face looming large in the camera's frame.  This is a long way of saying I've set the bar pretty high when it comes to narratives about Joan of Arc.  I haven't had the chance to read Kimberly Cutter's novel, The Maid, but from the Opening Lines, it looks like it could be as rich and nourishing as those tears coursing down Falconetti's cheeks:
      In the dream, death is as far off as the mountains. It’s a cold, blue winter morning, and she is riding her horse very fast over a field of snow toward a high pine forest, still dim with shadow. Her armor glints in the early light, the steel giant’s hands flashing on either side of her horse’s mane, but the metal is strangely weightless in the dream. She does not feel it. What she feels instead is the still and brilliant morning, the snow and the speed and the cold air on her cheeks, and inside of her a violent, holy joy that makes her eyes very bright and propels her wildly over the fields toward the enemy forest, snow spraying and glittering beneath her horse’s hooves.
      Behind the girl rides her army of ten thousand men, all of them eager as she is, united by the same strange and feverish joy as they crash across the winter fields, across a black icy river that winds, shining like a ribbon, through the white land and toward the shadowed stillness of the pines. She can hear them thundering behind her, and hearing them, she knows that they are riding together toward a mad and glorious victory. And she knows too that they are riding toward death. But there is no fear in her this morning. She is seventeen, a peasant, unschooled, simple as a thumb. Fear has no place in her heart yet, though soon enough it will. Soon enough she will be caged, tortured, branded a witch, a whore, a limb of Satan. But on this morning she is simply God’s arrow, shot across the winterland, brilliant and savage and divine. Unstoppable.

What It Is Like to Go to War
by Karl Marlantes
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
Like Joan of Arc, Marlantes knows a thing or two about leading soldiers into battle.  A graduate of Yale and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Marlantes suspended his studies to join the Marines in Vietnam.  His bloody, fiery crucible of combat was documented in the novel Matterhorn.  In my review elseweb, I had mixed feelings about Matterhorn, but I couldn't deny it "puts the reader in the thick of combat like few others I've read."  Now, like Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone, Marlantes has given us the truth behind his Vietnam fiction.  What It is Like to Go to War documents the author's experiences in Southwest Asia and opens the aperture wide to comment on the societal role of combat and its place in literature.  Blurbworthiness: ''Karl Marlantes has written a staggeringly beautiful book on combat--what it feels like, what the consequences are, and above all, what society must do to understand it. In my eyes he has become the preeminent literary voice on war of our generation. He is a natural storyteller and a deeply profound thinker who not only illuminates war for civilians, but also offers a kind of spiritual guidance to veterans themselves. As this generation of warriors comes home, they will be enormously helped by what Marlantes has written--I'm sure he will literally save lives.'' (Sebastian Junger)  Here are the Opening Lines to the first chapter ("Temple of Mars"):
The sun had struggled all day behind monsoon clouds before finally being extinguished by the turning earth and the dark wet ridges of the Annamese Cordillera.  It was February 1969, in Quang Tri province, Vietnam.  Zoomer lay above my hole in monsoon-night blackness on the slick clay of Mutter's Ridge, the dark jungle-covered ridge paralleling Vietnam's demilitarized zone where the Third Marine Division and the North Vietnamese Army had struggled together for two years.  A bullet had gone through Zoomer's chest, tearing a large hole out of his back.  We kept him on his side, curled against the cold drizzle, so the one good lung wouldn't fill up with blood.  We were surrounded and there was no hope of evacuation, even in daylight.  The choppers couldn't find us in the fog-shrouded mountains.

by Thomas Mallon
(Pantheon Books)
I've been a fan of Thomas Mallon's work from the day I read Henry and Clara, his smart, engaging novel about the Civil War officer who was stabbed on the night he joined Abraham Lincoln in that fateful box seat at Ford's Theater.  Mallon approaches history like it was a half-filled canvas waiting to be painted with fiction.  His other novels--including Dewey Defeats Truman, Two Moons, and Bandbox--each take a different slice of our history and give it a fresh, human perspective.  Now Mallon enters the nondescript office building in downtown Washington on a summer evening in 1972 for his exploration of America's worst political scandal.  I, for one, can't wait to find out what's on the missing eighteen-and-a-half minutes of tape (though we'll have to wait for February when Mallon's novel is released).  Here's the Jacket Copy:
For all the monumental documentation that Watergate generated—uncountable volumes of committee records, court transcripts, and memoirs—it falls at last to a novelist to perform the work of inference (and invention) that allows us to solve some of the scandal's greatest mysteries (who did erase those eighteen-and-a-half minutes of tape?) and to see this gaudy American catastrophe in its human entirety. In Watergate, Thomas Mallon conveys the drama and high comedy of the Nixon presidency through the urgent perspectives of seven characters we only thought we knew before now. Praised by Christopher Hitchens for his "splendid evocation of Washington," Mallon achieves with Watergate a scope and historical intimacy that surpasses even what he attained in his previous novels, and turns a "third-rate burglary" into a tumultuous, first-rate entertainment.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
by Julia Scheeres
(Free Press)
Here's another story which shared the headlines of the 1970s with Watergate.  For anyone who was alive in 1978, the news of the mass suicide (murder) from the Jonestown religious compound in Guyana was unforgettably shocking.  I was 15 at the time and, thanks to the graphic photos in TIME magazine, I still carry the image of the sun-bloated bodies sprawled around the vat of Kool-Aid.  Nearly one thousand people (913, to be exact) fell under the sway of Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, and "drank the Kool-Aid" as a matter of faith.  Julia Scheeres (author of the memoir Jesus Land) goes inside the tragedy, based on her first-hand interviews with survivors and families and her access to the diaries, letters and audiotapes collected by the FBI after the jungle massacre.  This is a book which both calls to me and repels me.  I approach the carnage with hesitant, weak-muscled legs, knowing that what I see and read will be horrific.  And yet, 913 ghosts insist I have no other choice.

Fiction Ruined My Family
by Jeanne Darst
(Riverhead Books)
All writers' families are the same; they're all unhappy in their own quirky ways.  Jeanne Darst comes from a literary lineage of novelists, journalists and alcoholics which provides hilarious fodder for her memoir.  Here's the Jacket Copy for Fiction Ruined My Family:
      The youngest of four daughters in an old, celebrated St. Louis family of prominent journalists and politicians on one side, debutante balls and equestrian trophies on the other, Jeanne Darst grew up hearing stories of past grandeur. And as a young girl, the message she internalized was clear: while things might be a bit tight for us right now, it's only temporary. Soon her father would sell the Great American Novel and reclaim the family's former glory.
      The family uproots and moves from St. Louis to New York. Jeanne's father writes one novel, and then another, which don't find publishers. This, combined with her mother's burgeoning alcoholism--nightly booze-fueled weepathons reminiscing about her fancy childhood--lead to financial disaster and divorce. And as Jeanne becomes an adult, she is horrified to discover that she is not only a drinker like her mother, but a writer like her father.
      At first, and for years, she embraces both--living in an apartment with no bathroom, stealing food from her babysitting gigs, and raising rent money by riding the subway topless, or performing her one woman show in her living room. Until gradually, she realizes that this life has not been thrust on her in some handing-down-of-the-writing-mantle-way. She has chosen it; and until she can stop putting drinking and writing ahead of everything else, it's a questionable choice. She writes, "For a long time I was worried about becoming my father. Then I was worried about becoming my mother. Now I was worried about becoming myself."
And here are the Opening Lines which have the funny, breezy style of something by Sloane Crosley or Sarah Vowell:
      Writers talk a lot about how tough they have it--what with the excessive drinking and three-hour workday and philandering and constant borrowing of money from people they're so much better than. But what about the people married to writers? Their kids? Their friends? Their labradoodles? What happens to them? I'll tell you what happens to them. They go fucking nuts. Tolstoy's wife, Sophia, after copying War and Peace--1,225 pages--by hand seven times and having thirteen children by him, is rumored to have poisoned him in his eighty-second year; Viv Eliot, institutionalized after being found meandering the streets of London at five a.m. asking if T.S. had been beheaded, died in Northumberland House mental hospital, after one failed escape attempt, at age fifty-eight; William Makepeace Thackeray's wife, Isabella, threw herself out of a bathroom window on a ship at sea headed for Ireland rather than vacation with him.
      One might almost judge writers not by their prose but by the people around them.

Men in the Making
by Bruce Machart
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
I've been yearning to read Bruce Machart's debut collection of short stories ever since the day I turned the last page of his novel The Wake of Forgiveness (read my review of that book here).  As lyrical as that book was, the stories of Men in the Making seem to have a punchy, contemporary vibe to them.  If Machart was channeling Cormac McCarthy in The Wake of Forgiveness, then it feels like the ghosts of Larry Brown, Raymond Carver, and maybe even Richard Ford are leaving vapor trails across these pages.  And that, as they say, is a good thing.  I've already talked about the visceral punch I got from an earlier reading of one of these stories, "The Only Good Thing I've Heard," and now skimming through the collection, that early promise seems to hold true throughout the book.  Here, for instance, are the Opening Lines to the first story, fittingly titled "Where You Begin":
      Sad to say, but dogs get killed sometimes. Take a city like Houston, four million people and all those cars, sometimes it’s bound to happen, but if you’re like I used to be, it doesn’t bother you so much. Anyway, before this is over there’s one less dog in the world, so in case you’re not like I was, fair warning.
      But if you’re like I used to be, when your fiancée of five months gets home from a day of slaving for that lawyer downtown, the guy who cuts her a check twice a month for the privilege of telling her what to do and watching her cleavage go red with splotches the way it does sometimes when she’s flustered; when she makes it through the door and finds you scribbling your latest on a legal pad, still in your boxers with the newspaper untouched on the porch in its plastic wrap, the classifieds still tucked inside without a single job listing circled; and when a few minutes later she comes half naked and frowning into the hallway, as red-faced and eager for her evening shower as would be a farm wife after bleeding a hog, you know you’re history.
      Kaput. Finito. It’s over and you don’t even ask for that ring back. All you think is, Well, dip my dog, because that’s a quarter-carat solitaire with not too damn bad color and clarity. Even so, you just let it go, chalk it up to a learning experience, like the time you bought a quarter ounce of oregano outside the Texaco station from a pock-faced Mexican kid with jeans about half fallen off his illegal brown ass. You chalk it up. You say, “That there’s a loss.”

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