Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Front Porch Books: July 2012 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally 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 Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  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.

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Viking):  Edith Wharton is hot right now.  As in sizzling Author of the Moment.  Not only is it her 150th birthday this year, her novels are getting a literary remodel: The Innocents by Francesa Segal recasts The Age of Innocence and Gilded Age by Claire McMillan updates The House of Mirth.  Now, in her new novel, Jennie Fields embroiders Wharton's life itself.  Novelizing the novelist's life can be like taking a picture in a house of mirrors, but I applaud writers who at least give it a try.  Ann Napolitano did it with Flannery O'Connor in A Good Hard Look, David Lodge did it for Henry James in Author, Author, and there have been countless others.  As the title of Fields' novel implies, this fictional examination of Edith Wharton focuses primarily on the sensual life of the Gilded Age writer--at least according to the Jacket Copy it does:
They say behind every great man is a woman. Behind Edith Wharton, there was Anna Bahlmann—her governess turned literary secretary, and her mothering, nurturing friend. When at the age of forty-five, Edith falls passionately in love with a dashing younger journalist, Morton Fullerton, and is at last opened to the world of the sensual, it threatens everything certain in her life but especially her abiding friendship with Anna. As Edith’s marriage crumbles and Anna’s disapproval threatens to shatter their lifelong bond, the women must face the fragility at the heart of all friendships. Told through the points of view of both women, The Age of Desire takes us on a vivid journey through Wharton’s early Gilded Age world: Paris with its glamorous literary salons and dark secret caf├ęs, the Whartons’ elegant house in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Henry James’s manse in Rye, England. Edith’s real letters and intimate diary entries are woven throughout the book. The Age of Desire brings to life one of literature’s most beloved writers, whose own story was as complex and nuanced as that of any of the heroines she created.
Maybe it's just my abiding love for All Things Wharton, but I'm intrigued enough to immerse myself in Desire this summer.

It's Fine By Me by Per Petterson (Graywolf Press):  A new arrival by Per Petterson is always a cause for celebration in my library--my bookshelves all but bake a cake and wear party hats--because I can count on luxurious sentences, moody atmosphere, and characters impossible to shake.  As much as I loved his previous novels, Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia, I'm really looking forward to this latest book.  As I mentioned in a previous review of his work, "You don’t just read his novels of Nordic life, you experience them.  His Out Stealing Horses, winner of the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, captivated readers with its story of a Norwegian widower unpeeling the memories of a tragic past.  The novel had all the earmarks of great literature: spare, lucid prose; vibrant characters; wrenching emotional depth; a page-turning plot."  In an editor's note at the front of my advance reading copy, Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae notes that "Over the next six years or so, Petterson's British publishers and Graywolf Press are planning to release four of his backlist titles: two novels, one collection of short stories, and one collection of essays. Beginning with the novel It's Fine By Me, they are being translated one at a time, in collaboration with Petterson." Lucky us!  The Opening Lines are a good example of what I like most about Petterson's work--simple, immediately-engaging sentences:
I was thirteen years old and about to start the seventh class at Veitvet School.  My mother said she would go with me on the first day--we were new to the area, and anyway she had no job--but I didn't want her to. It was the 18th of August, the sky was all grey, and as I opened the school gate and went into the playground, it started to rain. I pushed my sunglasses up my nose and walked slowly across the open expanse. It was deserted. Midway, I stopped and looked around. To the right there were two red prefabs, and straight ahead lay the squat, blue main building. And there was a flagpole with a wet, heavy flag clinging to the halyard. Through the windows I could see faces, and those sitting on the inside pressed their noses against the panes and watched me standing in the rain. It was bucketing down. It was my first day, and I was late.
Blurbworthiness:It’s Fine By Me....convey[s] those ordinary experiences close to Petterson’s heart: the pleasure, for example, in the midst of domestic strife, of slowly and very carefully rolling a good cigarette, brewing the perfect coffee and settling down on the sofa with a fine book, like this one.”  (The Guardian)

Panorama City by Antoine Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Read the plot summary for Panorama City.  Then turn to the first page and read the first paragraph.  I dare you--I double-dog dare you--to walk out of that bookstore without PC in your hand, your slick-palmed hand, your palms slick with the happy sweat of anticipation.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present you with the evidence.  The Jacket Copy:
From his deathbed*, twenty-eight-year-old Oppen Porter–an open-hearted, bicycle-riding, binocular-toting, self-described slow absorber–unspools into a cassette recorder a tale of self-determination, from village idiot to man of the world, for the benefit of his unborn son. Written in an astonishingly charming and wise voice, Oppen’s account traces forty days and nights navigating the fast-food joints, storefront churches, and home-office psychologists of the San Fernando Valley. Ping-ponging between his watchful and sharp-tongued aunt and an outlaw philosopher with the face “of a newly hatched crocodile,” Oppen finds himself constantly in the sights of people who believe that their way is the only way for him.
*Not really
And here are the Opening Lines:
If you set aside love and friendship and the bonds of family, luck, religion, and spirituality, the desire to better mankind, and music and art, and hunting and fishing and farming, self-importance, and public and private transportation from buses to bicycles, if you set all that aside money is what makes the world go around. Or so it is said. If I wasn’t dying prematurely, if I wasn’t dying right now, if I was going to live to ripeness or rottenness instead of meeting the terminus bolted together and wrapped in plaster in the Madera Community Hospital, if I had all the time in the world, as they say, I would talk to you first of all about the joys of cycling or the life of the mind, but seeing as I could die any minute, just yesterday Dr. Singh himself said that I was lucky to be alive, I was unconscious and so didn’t hear it myself, Carmen told me, I’ll get down to so-called brass tacks.

Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel (Doubleday):  This novel about resurrection through computer simulation is the highest of high-concept love stories.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  Goodbye for Now promises to be an entertaining (and thoughtful!) read; and, hell, it's already optioned for Hollywood.  As always, I advise "Read the book first, see the movie later."  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the spirit of One Day, comes a fresh and warmhearted love story for the 21st century. Sometimes the end is just the beginning....Sam Elling works for an internet dating company, but he still can't get a date. So he creates an algorithm that will match you with your soul mate. Sam meets the love of his life, a coworker named Meredith, but he also gets fired when the company starts losing all their customers to Mr. and Ms. Right. When Meredith's grandmother, Livvie, dies suddenly, Sam uses his ample free time to create a computer program that will allow Meredith to have one last conversation with her grandmother. Mining from all her correspondence—email, Facebook, Skype, texts—Sam constructs a computer simulation of Livvie who can respond to email or video chat just as if she were still alive. It's not supernatural, it's computer science. Meredith loves it, and the couple begins to wonder if this is something that could help more people through their grief. And thus, the company RePose is born. The business takes off, but for every person who just wants to say good-bye, there is someone who can't let go. In the meantime, Sam and Meredith's affection for one another deepens into the kind of love that once tasted, you can't live without. But what if one of them suddenly had to? This entertaining novel, delivers a charming and bittersweet romance as well as a lump in the throat exploration of the nature of love, loss, and life (both real and computer simulated). Maybe nothing was meant to last forever, but then again, sometimes love takes on a life of its own.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks (St. Martin's Press):  Imagine that classic James Stewart movie Harvey, but narrated from Harvey's perspective.  Now, instead of an six-foot-tall invisible rabbit, picture Harvey as a five-year-old boy.  Maybe I should let the Jacket Copy explain the high concept behind Dicks' new novel:
Budo is lucky as imaginary friends go. He's been alive for more than five years, which is positively ancient in the world of imaginary friends. But Budo feels his age, and thinks constantly of the day when eight-year-old Max Delaney will stop believing in him. When that happens, Budo will disappear. Max is different from other children. Some people say that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, but most just say he’s “on the spectrum.” None of this matters to Budo, who loves Max and is charged with protecting him from the class bully, from awkward situations in the cafeteria, and even in the bathroom stalls. But he can’t protect Max from Mrs. Patterson, the woman who works with Max in the Learning Center and who believes that she alone is qualified to care for this young boy. When Mrs. Patterson does the unthinkable and kidnaps Max, it is up to Budo and a team of imaginary friends to save him—and Budo must ultimately decide which is more important: Max’s happiness or Budo's very existence.
I think I'm in love with this book even before I start reading it.  I'm tucking it near the summit of the To-Be-Read mountain of books on my desk.  Blurbworthiness: Wholly original and completely unputdownable. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friends is a captivating story told in a voice so clever and honest I didn’t want it to end. The arresting voice of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with the emotional power of Room and the whimsy of Drop Dead Fred, but in a class of its own.”  (Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters)

The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men by Adam Prince (Black Lawrence Press):  Beginning with the Beautiful/Ugly clash found in the title, Adam Prince's collection of short stories promises to keep us on edge, emotionally itchy--like sitting on an old sofa with a broken spring poking into our thigh.  Or like the overlong hug found in the Opening Lines of the first story ("Big Wheels for Adults"):
Time passed, and Peter didn’t know what to do. He’d never liked long hugs, not even from women, and this was soon becoming one of the longest of his life. He was getting squirmy, uncomfortable, while Jocko just kept hanging on, pulling so tight that Peter could feel the density of his old friend’s fat. It was maybe a full minute before Jocko let out what seemed a conclusive sigh. Peter starteded to loosen his arms. But Jocko went in for one more clinch. It was to make some point, thought Peter, some claim about who was the better friend, the better man. And though he'd never examined precisely why he didn’t like long hugs, a reason appeared to him now: There was something coercive about them.
As is my habit with new short story collections I receive, I leafed through the rest of the book and read the other opening paragraphs.  Not one of them failed to entice....or to make me squirm.  Like this one: "On the seventy-fifth day of their marriage, halfway through his six o'clock vodka tonic, Clare Barlow's husband Rod announced that he had invited a woman over for dinner" (from "Tranquility").  Or this one: "She wants to have sex, but it's only a one-bedroom apartment, and her toddler's asleep in the dirty white chair next to the bed" (from "Six Months In, Another Kind of Undressing").  Blurbworthiness: “The men in this collection seethe with something close to rage or desperation or both while remaining recognizably and sympathetically human, and that rare combination makes the experience of reading The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men feel as dangerous as a knife fight.”  (Michael Knight, author of The Typist)

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (W. W. Norton):  Here's another novel with a memorable opening--one of those books you instantly hate because they force you to scratch out everything on your Dayplanner calendar.  That really important errand you were about to run?  Forget it.  That meeting with the board of directors?  Cancel it.  The baby's crying because she's hungry?  Oh well, she can just eat Fruit Loops straight out of the box as far as you're concerned.  Because, dammit, once you start The Vanishing Act, it will be really tough to stop.  You'll probably want to pull a vanishing act of your own--hiding away in your secret don't-bother-me-I'm-reading nook of the house.  The Opening Lines:
      It was snowing the morning I found the dead boy. The island with its two houses and one church was covered in a layer of white.
      Papa was pulling in the fishing nets when I saw a hand between the two rocks. It looked like a magic trick; almost as if a bunch of roses was about to appear—boom! There you are, for you—and then applause. But everything was quiet and the hand didn't move.
      He was lying on his back, dusted with new snow in a cradle of rocks. His eyes were closed. A raven sat above him, watching from a weathered pine branch. The boy was a bit older than me, maybe fourteen or fifteen. His hair was dark, almost as dark as mine.
      "Papa," my voice came out as a whisper.
      The dead boy's mouth was slightly open, as though he was about to ask a question, something hard to ask, something that made him hesitate.
      "Papa," I shouted, "Papa."
      And then I started running towards him, stumbling, running, and Papa let the nets fall and caught me in his arms.
      "Don't be scared, Papa," I said against his thick coat, "it's not Mama."
I like how Jakobsen takes an unnerving scene and makes it twist at the end with that unexpected "it's not Mama."  Not exactly the response you expect from a girl who's just found a dead body cradled in the rocks.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
On a small snow-covered island—so tiny that it can’t be found on any map—lives twelve-year-old Minou, her philosopher Papa (a descendent of Descartes), Boxman the magician, and a clever dog called No-Name. A year earlier Minou’s mother left the house wearing her best shoes and carrying a large black umbrella. She never returned. One morning Minou finds a dead boy washed up on the beach. Her father decides to lay him in the room that once belonged to her mother. Can her mother’s disappearance be explained by the boy? Will Boxman be able to help find her? Minou, unwilling to accept her mother’s death, attempts to find the truth through Descartes’ philosophy. Over the course of her investigation Minou will discover the truth about loss and love, a truth that The Vanishing Act conveys in a voice that is uniquely enchanting.

The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories by Steve Stern (Graywolf Press):  It's a pretty safe bet to say that Steve Stern has flown under the radar of most readers for the better part of two decades, standing just outside the edge of the spotlight he so richly deserves.  But now, with this hefty collection of stories, Stern is reaching out to youlike the man on the trapeze on the book's coverand you're well-advised to listen.  And to read.  Here are the Opening Lines of the first story, "The Tale of a Kite."  All in all, it's an unremarkable paragraph.  Until you get to the corkscrew of those last four words.
It's safe to say that we Jews of North Main Street are a progressive people. I don't mean to suggest we have any patience with freethinkers, like that crowd down at Thompson's Cafe; tolerant within limits, we're quick to let subversive elements know where they stand. Observant (within reason), we keep the Sabbath after our fashion, though the Saturday competition won't allow us to close our stores. We keep the holidays faithfully and are regular in attending our modest little synagogue on Market Square. But we're foremost an enterprising bunch, proud of our contribution to the local economy. Even our secondhand shops contain up-to-date inventories--such as stylish automobile capes for the ladies, astrakhan overcoats for gentlemen--and our jewelers, tailors, and watchmakers are famous all over town. Boss Crump and his heelers, who gave us a dispensation to stay open on Sundays, have declared more than once in our presence, "Our sheenies are good sheenies!" So you can imagine how it unsettles us to hear that Rabbi Shmelke, head of that gang of fanatics over on Auction Street, has begun to fly.
Welcome to the spotlight, Mr. Stern.

1 comment:

  1. I am so, so jealous! Per Petterson is my favorite author...I gasped when I saw that section of your post. Please report on this one ASAP!