Saturday, November 5, 2011

Front Porch Books: November 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, Amazon 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.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley.  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.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire (William Morrow):  Here's the thing: I'm not a Wicked guy.  I missed jumping aboard that hot-air balloon years ago when Maguire's reinventions of L. Frank Baum's world first started appearing on bookshelves.  Though I own all the other volumes in the series (Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men), I've never read any of them...though I want to.  Really, really want to.  I just never found/made the time.  Now, along comes the final volume in the Wicked Years series and, frankly, the physical book is a thing of beauty inside and out.

I'm calculating the amount of time I would need to invest in the entire 1,774 pages of the series, balanced against all the other books already at the top of my To-Be-Read pile.  What to do, what to do?  Two thoughts come to mind: "If I only had a brain" and "Courage!"

Immortal Bird by Doron Weber (Simon and Schuster):  Here's a book I do and don't want to read.  It appears to be one of the better memoirs to land on my shelf in recent days....but it also looks like it's the saddest.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Immortal Bird is a searing account of a father's struggle to save his remarkable son from a rare heart condition that threatens his life. It is a moving story of a young boy's passion for life, a family's love, the perils of modern medicine, and the redemptive power of art in the face of the unthinkable. Damon Weber is a brilliant kid—a skilled actor and a natural leader at school. Born with a congenital heart defect that required surgery when he was a baby, Damon’s spirit and independence have always been a source of pride to his parents, who vigilantly look for any signs of danger. Unbowed by frequent medical checkups, Damon proves to be a talent on stage, appears in David Milch’s HBO series Deadwood, and maintains an active social life, whenever he has the energy. But running through Damon’s coming-of-age in the shadow of affliction is another story: Doron’s relentless search for answers about his son’s condition in a race against time. Immortal Bird is a stirring, gorgeously written memoir of a father's fight to save his son's life.
Blurbworthiness: “I found it almost impossible to read this book, or even to see the pages, at times, through my tears. It was equally impossible to stop reading it—to turn away from its red-haired teen hero or the voice of his adoring father. The boy Damon, whose life is delimited by his damaged heart, emerges here as the grandest spirit in a small body since Antoine de Saint-Exupery imagined The Little Prince.” (Dava Sobel, author of Longitude)

The Day Before Happiness and Me, You by Erri De Luca (Other Press):  Here's an attractive pair of slim novels by "the most widely read Italian author alive today."  Other Press has nicely packaged Erri De Luca's books about post-war Europe and I can't wait to start exploring a writer I'd never heard of before Me, You and The Day Before Happiness landed on my front porch.  I don't know for sure, but I have the feeling reading these novels will be like stepping into a film by Fellini or De Sica--sun-drenched in nostalgia, adolescent awakenings, and busty women leaning over balconies.  Here's the Jacket Copy for Me, You:
The unnamed narrator of this slim, alluring novel recalls a summer spent at age sixteen on an idyllic Italian island off the coast of Naples in the 1950s, where he spends his days with Nicola, a local fisherman. The narrator falls in love with Caia, who shares with him that she’s Jewish, saved by Italian soldiers from the Nazis, who killed the rest of her Yugoslav family. The boy demands answers about the war from the adults around him, but is rebuffed by everyone but Nicola, who tells him of Italy’s complicity with the Nazis. His passion for Caia and his ardent patriotism lead him to a flamboyant, cataclysmic act of destruction that brings his tale to an end.
And here's the Jacket Copy for The Day Before Happiness:
Just after World War II, a young orphan living in Naples comes under the protection of Don Gaetano, the superintendent of an apartment building. He is a generous man and is very attached to the boy, telling him about the war and the liberation of the city by the Neapolitans. He teaches him to play cards, shows him how to do odd jobs for the tenants, and even initiates him into the world of sex by sending him one evening to a widow who lives in the building. But Don Gaetano possesses another gift as well: he knows how to read people’s thoughts and guesses correctly that his young friend is haunted by the image of a girl he noticed by chance behind a window during a soccer match. Years later, when the girl returns, the orphan will need Don Gaetano’s help more than ever.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Umberto Eco is another one of those writers on my Should-But-Haven't list.  The Name of the Rose, Foucalt's Pendulum and a half dozen other Eco novels have been sitting on my shelf for years--decades--but though I feel I should have read them by now, I just haven't.  If any book is likely to change that, it will probably be The Prague Cemetery.  It looks like it's right up my alley as someone who loves 19th-century literature in the Hugo-Dickens-Dumas vein.  Jacket Copy:
Nineteenth-century Europe--from Turin to Prague to Paris--abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious. Conspiracies rule history. Jesuits plot against Freemasons. Italian republicans strangle priests with their own intestines. French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate Black Masses at night. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. From the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," Europe is in tumult and everyone needs a scapegoat. But what if, behind all of these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay one lone man? What if that evil genius created its most infamous document? Eco takes his readers on an unforgettable journey through the underbelly of world-shattering events.
Blurbworthiness: "A whirlwind tour of conspiracy and political intrigue...this dark tale is delightfully embellished with sophisticated and playful commentary on, among other things, Freud, metafiction and the challenges of historiography." (Booklist)

Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead):  The irony starts with the title, but continues to abound in Auslander's first novel (his previous books--the short-story collection Beware of God and the memoir Foreskin's Lament--are regarded as contemporary Jewish classics).  Hope: A Tragedy is about Solomon Kugel who moves his wife and young son to rural Stockton, New York which is "famous for nothing" in hopes of getting a fresh start in life.  Things don't work out that way and, as they say, complications ensue.  In fact, they seem to be ensuing right from the get-go.  With your indulgence, here's the entire first chapter of the novel.  It's wickedly funny:
      It's funny: it isn't the fire that kills you, it's the smoke.
      There you are, pounding on the windows, climbing higher and higher through your burning home, trying to get away, to get out, hoping that if you can just avoid the flames, perhaps you'll survive the fire, but all the time you're suffocating slowly, your lungs filling with smoke. There you are, waiting for the horrors to come from some there, from some other, from without, and all the while you're dying, bit by airless bit, from within.
      You buy a handgun--for protection, you say--and drop dead that night from a heart attack.
      You put locks on your doors. You put bars on your windows. You put gates around your house. The doctor phones: It's cancer, he says.
      Swimming frantically up to the surface to escape from a menacing shark, you get the bends and drown.
      You resolve, one sunny New Year's Day, to get back in shape. This is the year, you insist. A new beginning. A new start. A stronger you, a tougher you. At the health club the following morning, just as you're beginning your third set of bench presses, your muscles cramp and the barbell collapses onto your neck, crushing your windpipe. You can't cry out. Your face turns blue. Your arms go limp. There, on a poster on the wall beside you, are the last words you see before your eyes close and darkness envelopes you for eternity:
      Feel the Burn.
      It's funny.

How the Mistakes Were Made by Tyler McMahon (St. Martin's):  Sure to appeal to fans of the movie Almost Famous, those who cling to the legend of Curt Cobain, or anyone who's ever dreamed of plugging a guitar into an amp out in the garage and thrashing some gnarly chords, McMahon's debut novel looks to be smart, poignant and wholly satisfying.  In other words, it rocks in all senses of the word.  At the center of How the Mistakes Were Made is Laura Loss, the former bassist in her brother's punk band, who now finds herself serving coffee in Seattle.  Ten years after the tragic breakup of her brother's band, Laura suddenly finds herself drawn to two talented young musicians and together they form The Mistakes.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      I don’t mind the hate. It doesn’t bother me anymore. There was a time when I was adored by the same brain-dead sheep who despise me now. I don’t miss that. Behind every dead rock god, there’s always some uppity female scapegoat. Why shouldn’t it be me? The public eye sees only love or hate. Fans aren’t capable of anything in between. So let them hate me; I can handle that. The part I can’t abide is having my own history ripped right out from under me, my life rewritten by magazines. It’s true that I’ve made mistakes. But it’s also true that I made the Mistakes.
      All the quickie-biographers and poseur journalists say I stumbled across those two boys in some basement in the mountains somewhere, already playing amazing music--that my eyes turned to dollar signs and all that was left to do was shove them into a recording studio and a stadium. That’s not how it happened.
      The first time I heard Sean and Nathan play, there was an elk heart bouncing on the floor.
If you're like me, you have to keep reading--if nothing else, to find out just what hell that elk heart was doing on the floor.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Graywolf Press):  What we hold in our hands here is a curious hybrid.  As Spufford tells us in the Opening Lines, "This is not a novel.  It has too much to explain, to be one of those.  But it is not a history either; for it does its explaining in the form of a story."  According to the Jacket Copy, here's what Red Plenty is all about (in whatever form it needs to take):
Strange as it may seem, the gray, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairy tale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called “the planned economy,” which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working. Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It’s about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending. Red Plenty is history, it’s fiction, it’s as ambitious as Sputnik, as uncompromising as an Aeroflot flight attendant, and as different from what you were expecting as a glass of Soviet champagne.
Blurbworthiness: "A hammer-and-sickle version of Altman's Nashville, with central committees replacing country music...[Spufford] has one of the most original minds in contemporary literature."  (Nick Hornby in The Believer)

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore (William Morrow):  Christopher Moore is another one of those authors I think I'd like if I ever took the time to actually sit down and read one of his books.*  Judging by each of the novels I have waiting for me on my shelves, you never know quite what to expect from Moore.  Vampires (Bite Me), King Lear (Fool), or Biff, Jesus' childhood friend (Lamb)--just about anybody can turn up in odd and tantalizing form on these pages.  Sacre Bleu is more of the delightfully unexpected.  The Jacket Copy describes the novel as "A tale of intrigue, passion, and art history filled with crusty bread, can-can girls, absinthe, Toulouse Lautrec, fin de siècle Paris, and many other French accoutrements....a wonderfully witty masterpiece from the ever-impressive Christopher Moore."  Opening Lines: "On the day he was to be murdered, Vincent van Gogh encountered a Gypsy on the cobbles outside the inn where he'd just eaten lunch."  Bonus: If you want to spend upwards of half an hour giggling over Funny Foto Follies, visit Moore's blog dedicated to Sacre Bleu.  It's full of street snogging, inappropriate statues, and men balancing fish on their heads.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James (Knopf):  These days, everyone seems to be jumping on the Austen bandwagon (or, to be precise, horse-and-carriage) so why not the 91-year-old P. D. James?  Commander Adam Dalgliesh is nowhere to be found here, but there are some characters you might already know.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Set in 1803 at Pemberley, the Darcy family estate, five years after Austen concluded her original story, James’ new novel finds Elizabeth and Darcy happily married, with two fine sons, and enjoying regular visits from Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband Bingley. There is talk about the prospect of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana, lingering resentment over the elopement of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia with the dishonorable Wickham, and rumors that war will soon break out between England and France. Still, life continues at Pemberley, and preparations are being made for the annual ball. But on the evening before it is to take place, the idyll is suddenly shattered. There are gunshots and screams, a body is discovered in the woods, and all at once the story evolves into a murder mystery--one recognizable as P. D. James at her best, yet conveyed with all the charm and wit of Jane Austen.
James opens the book with this author's note:
I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation, especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views quite plain: "Let other pens dwell on the guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest." No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done better.
She offers a longer explanation of the novel's genesis at The Telegraph.

The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan (Viking): My radar always goes full-tilt Red Alert whenever the words "Stewart O'Nan" and "new book" are found together in the same sentence.  The odds are very good this one is shooting straight to the top of the To-Be-Read pile.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Valentine's weekend, Art and Marion Fowler flee their Cleveland suburb for Niagara Falls, desperate to recoup their losses. Jobless, with their home approaching foreclosure and their marriage on the brink of collapse, Art and Marion liquidate their savings account and book a bridal suite at the Falls' ritziest casino for a second honeymoon. While they sightsee like tourists during the day, at night they risk it all at the roulette wheel to fix their finances--and save their marriage.
And here's the Opening Line:  "The final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and, stupidly, half secretly, in the neverdistant past ruled by memory, infidelity, Art and Marion Fowler fled the country."

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers (Viking): Despite the rather unwieldy title, the Opening Lines of this debut novel about a young girl coming of age in Maine after her mother disappears during a weekend outing hint at good things to come inside:
After we almost burned down a summer cottage, my friends and I were not allowed to see each other for the rest of July and August. It was 1963, and I was twelve.
I like a story that jumps right in with clear, confident language.

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff (W. W. Norton):  By now, it's pretty apparent the bulk of my reading is concentrated on fiction.  Though I receive plenty of potentially interesting biographies, histories and, once, puzzlingly, a book called Why Men Marry Bitches: A Woman's Guide to Winning Her Man's Heart,** I usually set those aside in favor of the made-up stuff.  But Conniff's story about early zoologists appears to be one of those rare science books which could win me over.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Beginning with Linnaeus, a colorful band of explorers made it their mission to travel to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new life forms. They attracted followers ranging from Thomas Jefferson, who laid out mastodon bones on the White House floor, to twentieth-century doctors who used their knowledge of new species to conquer epidemic diseases. Acclaimed science writer Richard Conniff brings these daredevil "species seekers" to vivid life. Alongside their globe-spanning tales of adventure, he recounts some of the most dramatic shifts in the history of human thought. At the start, everyone accepted that the Earth had been created for our benefit. We weren't sure where vegetable ended and animal began, we couldn't classify species, and we didn't understand the causes of disease. But all that changed as the species seekers introduced us to the pantheon of life on Earth—and our place within it.
Not only that, but I really love the Opening Lines:
      At the height of the Battle of Alcañiz on May 23 1809, as he was about to give the order for a desperate charge by French troops into the center of the Spanish line, Col. P.F.M.A. Dejean happened to glance down. The air around him was thick with gunpowder and blood, but on a flower beside a stream, he saw something unusual. A beetle. Species unknown. He immediately dismounted, collected it, and pinned the specimen to the cork he had glued inside his helmet.
      Dejean was a count and a battle-tested leader in the Napoleonic armies. But he was also, above all, a coleopterist, a specialist in beetles. His men knew it because many of them carried glass vials for him and had orders to collect anything on six legs that crawled or flew. His enemies knew it, too, and out of courtesy and respect for the cause of scientific discovery, sent him back vials taken from the dead on the field of battle.
      Having collected this latest prize, Dejean swung back up into the saddle and launched the attack. With bayonets fixed, the massed French forces advanced up the slope toward the Spanish artillery. The gap between them slowly closed, everything tense and quiet. Then, at the last moment, the cannons let loose a storm of grapeshot into the faces of the attacking line. Hundreds of French soldiers died. Dejean’s helmet was shattered by cannon fire. But he and his specimen survived intact.

The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax (Soho):  Fans of Romano-Lax's first novel, The Spanish Bow, have been impatiently waiting five years for this second work of fiction.  The wait seems to have been worth it.  For starters, the author has gotten her hands on a compelling real-life moment of history involving Hitler and a stolen statue.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Ernst Vogler is twenty-six years old in 1938 when he is sent to Rome by his employer—the Third Reich's Sonderprojekte, which is collecting the great art of Europe and brining it to Germany for the Führer. Vogler is to collect a famous Classical Roman marble statue, The Discus Thrower, and get it to the German border, where it will be turned over to Gestapo custody. It is a simple, three-day job. Things start to go wrong almost immediately. The Italian twin brothers who have been hired to escort Vogler to the border seem to have priorities besides the task at hand—wild romances, perhaps even criminal jobs on the side—and Vogler quickly loses control of the assignment. The twins set off on a dangerous detour and Vogler realizes he will be lucky to escape this venture with his life, let alone his job. With nothing left to lose, the young German gives himself up to the Italian adventure, to the surprising love and inevitable losses along the way. The Detour is a bittersweet novel about artistic obsession, misplaced idealism, detours, and second chances, set along the beautiful back-roads of northern Italy on the eve of war.
Blurbworthiness:  "As Nazi Germany passes from living memory, novels that allow the reader to travel its ethical landscape are increasingly important.  Andromeda Romano-Lax has a fine feel for moments of clarity that are recognized only in hindsight, when chance and personal defects--moral and physical--combine to produce heroism, or mediocrity, or cowardice.  A convincing novel, beautifully written." (Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc)

*I know I'm repeating myself here, but I really do live a life ruled by the TMBNET principle ("Too Many Books, Not Enough Time").
**Imagine the difficulty I had explaining to my wife why that particular book was in my possession.


  1. Have truly enjoyed the Wicked series - strangely enchanting (they are pretty fast reads if you decide to catch up!) A bit curious about Prague Cemetery. O'Nan has been on my ought-to-read list for a long time & have never gotten to any of his, sadly.

  2. O'Nan is terrific. I started with "The Circus Fire" and moved to "The Night Country" and "Songs for the Missing." I have never been disappointed by Mr. O'Nan.

  3. What!?!

    David, you have never read "A Prayer for the Dying"???

    Oh, my. You need to correct that ASAP.

  4. Okay, Pat. Pushing "Prayer" to the top of the TBR pile. Gladly pushing it there, I might add.