Thursday, November 29, 2012

Front Porch Books: November 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.

Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood (Europa Editions):  I do my best not to pick favorites among my Front Porch Books, attempting to keep the playing field as level as possible....but I've got to admit, this March 2013 release is perched high atop my always-growing To-Be-Read pile (i.e., the peak of Mt. NeverRest).  From the start, I've been hooked by the novel's plot.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
March 18, 1925. The day begins as any other rainy, spring day in the small settlement of Marah, Illinois. But the town lies directly in the path of the worst tornado in US history, which will descend without warning at midday and leave the community in ruins. By nightfall, hundreds will be homeless and hundreds more will lie in the streets, dead or grievously injured. Only one man, Paul Graves, will still have everything he started the day with –– his family, his home, and his business, all miraculously intact. Based on the historic Tri-State tornado, Falling to Earth follows Paul Graves and his young family in the year after the storm as they struggle to comprehend their own fate and that of their devastated town, as they watch Marah resurrect itself from the ruins, and as they miscalculate the growing resentment and hostility around them with tragic results. Beginning with its electrifying opening pages, Falling to Earth is at once a revealing portrayal of survivor's guilt and the frenzy of bereavement following a disaster, a meditation on family, and a striking depiction of Midwestern life in the 1920s.
Unscathed man turns community pariah.  Fascinating plot hook, eh?  It's a book that couldn't be more timely for our disaster-ravaged century and I predict Southwood's debut will earn a big readership.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      The cloud is black, shot through with red and orange and purple, a vein of gold at its crest. A mile wide end to end, it rolls like a barrel, feeding on rivers and farmland. Tethered and stabled animals smell it coming and lurch against their restraints. Swollen with river mud, it moves with a howl over the land, taking with it a cow, a cookstove, a linen tablecloth embroidered with baskets of flowers. A section of fencing, a clothes hanger, a coffee can. A house lifted up and dashed to earth. The side of a barn.
      The people in the town scatter; some find shelter. The men and women running through the streets are mothers and fathers, desperate to reach their children at the schools. There is no time; the cloud is rolling over them. The men and women screw their eyes shut tight and some scream but the wind screams louder and flings metal and wood and window glass though the streets. A Model T and its driver are hurled through the window of the hardware store. Telegraph poles snap and sail like javelins into houses. An old oak rips in two like paper torn in strips. Grass is torn from the ground.
      The school, the town hall, the shops at the rail yard fold in on themselves and the people inside. And as the cloud passes, the fires begin, lapping at the broken town.

The Way of the Dog by Sam Savage (Coffee House Press): I've been attracted to Savage's fierce, uncompromising style ever since I read his second novel Firmin, which he published when he was 66 (his debut, The Criminal Life of Effie O., was published a year earlier--renewing the spark of hope in late-blooming writers still waiting to break into print).  His latest novel, The Way of the Dog, is one continuous narrative with no breaks for chapters, only some white space between paragraphs.  It looks like another of those short books which can be devoured in one sitting but digested for weeks afterward.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Sam Savage's most intimate, tender novel yet follows Harold Nivenson, a decrepit, aging man who was once a painter and arts patron. The death of Peter Meinenger, his friend turned romantic and intellectual rival, prompts him to ruminate on his own career as a minor artist and collector and make sense of a lifetime of gnawing doubt. Over time, his bitterness toward his family, his gentrifying neighborhood, and the decline of intelligent artistic discourse gives way to a kind of peace within himself, as he emerges from the shadow of the past and finds a reason to live, every day, in "the now."
The Opening Lines will give you a good sense of the book's rhythm and direction:
I am going to stop now. A few loose threads to cut, some bits and pieces to gather up and label, so people will know, and then I stop.

I had a little dog. We went through the world together for as long as he lasted, through the world this way and that, just to be going. At the end he had grown so weak I had to prod him onward with my shoe. He is buried somewhere. His name was Roy. I miss him.

I am not well.

Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 by Susan Jackson Rodgers (Press 53):  It's always a delight to receive a new story collection from Press 53 in the mail, never more so than when I opened the envelope and out fell this book.  Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 probes the anxieties facing women (and men--but especially women) in, as Anthony Doerr says, "the full, confusing bloom of adulthood."  Blurbworthiness: "Don't be fooled by the lovely, lady-like voices that lure you into the twenty-two short stories in Susan Jackson Rodgers' Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6.  It's hard not to be pulled into the deceptively charming female heads and start laughing along, relating to the frazzled divorced woman unhappy to bump into her ex-boyfriend, or the little girl innocently feeding birds outside by the pool.  Then a devastating twist towards the end lurches your heart out and shocks you so much you have to go back to reread the beginning to see what the author had slyly slipped past that you'd barely noticed.  Think: Flannery O'Connor meets Desperate Housewives.  A poetic, hilarious and haunting collection." (Susan Shapiro, author of Overexposed)  Here's just one of those shiny, sharp-barbed lures--the Opening Lines of the first story, "Fiona in the Vortex":
I agreed to water my former neighbor's plants while she was out of town, even though her husband had died and I was nervous about going into her house alone. I thought the ghost of this husband might be hanging around, waiting for me to show up. He might be miffed that I had neglected his wife in recent years. She and I had once been friends, but we drifted apart after my own marriage. When I lived next door to Fiona, I wasn't married.   was convinced I would always be alone. This fear occasionally led me to test out my powers of attraction. I'm ashamed to say that I tested my powers on the dead husband--well, he wasn't dead yet. I gardened in my bathing suit, bending over to weed, my backside facing Fiona's kitchen window. I stretched languorously, in such obvious ways I often embarrassed myself and went inside. Fiona, fifteen years older than I was, had always been kind to me; I even felt strangely protective towards her. Yet there I was trying to lure Max, her husband--to do what? I didn't even know.

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus (Algonquin Books):  Backhaus' debut novel opens with a husband hunkered down behind his bedroom door, holding his breath, trying not to make a sound for fear that his wife will hear him:
I am crouched in the darkness behind my bedroom door, listening for my wife to crack the silence with a sneeze or cough or some other little noise that tells me it's not safe to leave. She is down the hall, in the room meant for children, and I know she leaves her door open, and that her ears never sleep, that they listen for my exit noises, the retracting dead bolt and creaking floorboards. Heart without peace, she might just be lying in bed awake, holding her breath. A river of sweat flows down my spine and pools between my legs, but I cannot move, not until I'm sure she won't hear me slinking out.
I don't know about you, but if those words were a magnet, then I'm the little metal shavings drawn to them with a snap and quiver.  Here's the Jacket Copy to provide more details on what promises to be an intriguing read:
Thomas Tessler has cloistered himself in his bedroom and shut out the world for the past three years. His wife, Silke, lives right in the next room, but Thomas no longer shares his life with her, leaving his hideout only occasionally, in the wee hours of the night, to pick up food at the grocery store around the corner from their Manhattan apartment. Unable to cope with a devastating loss, Thomas has become isolated and withdrawn. He is hikikomori.  Desperate for one last chance to salvage their life together, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese immigrant attuned to the hikikomori phenomenon, to lure Thomas back into the world. Fleeing from her own shattering experience, Megumi has buried her pain in a fast life spent in nightclubs with nameless men. Now she will try to help Thomas and Silke as a “rental sister,” as they are known in Japan. At first Thomas remains steadfast and sequestered, but as he grows to trust Megumi, a deepening and sensual relationship unfolds.  Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is a taut novel that packs a big philosophical punch. In this revelatory and provocative debut, Jeff Backhaus asks, What are the risks of intimacy? Can another woman ever lead a husband back to his wife? And what must we surrender for love?

The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte Press):  Once again, Melanie Benjamin turns her sights on the past (after exploring the lives of the real-life Alice in Wonderland and Mrs. Tom Thumb) in this novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Benjamin says she was drawn to Lucky Lindy's wife because she was the quiet wife who was often lost behind the headlines of her heroic husband.  But AML was a strong woman in her own right.  A prolific writer, she left a wealth of material (letters, diaries, poems) for Benjamin to work with.  Take a gander at the Jacket Copy:
For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong. Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.
The Aviator's Wife has been on my radar for a long time, and I was thrilled to find it on my front porch yesterday.  I opened its pages at random and found myself in the scene where Anne, Charles and their nanny Betty first discover Baby Charles is missing.  Anne has just gotten out of the bathtub, ready to surrender herself to "the feathery, bottomless mattress," when:
      ....Betty burst into the room without knocking; she was breathless, as if she'd been running.
      "Do you have the baby, Mrs. Lindbergh?"
      "No. Maybe the colonel [Charles] has him?" Without replying, she had wheeled and was out of the room and down the stairs. After a moment, during which I could only stand, strangely rooted to the floor as if my legs had forgotten how to move, Betty and Charles came running to me.
      "Do you have the baby, Charles?" I asked, still puzzled. Why were we looking for little Charlie, at ten o'clock at night?
      My husband pivoted and sprinted toward the nursery. I followed, and for a second I held my breath, remembering that the night-light was still on. But then I saw that all the lights were on; my baby's room was filled with cheerful light that revealed an open window, a curtain flailing about in the wind--and an empty crib.

The Man on the Third Floor by Anne Bernays (The Permanent Press):  McCarthy-era homophobia is at the center of Bernays' tenth novel.  Thomas Mallon addressed the same theme four years ago in his novel Fellow Travelers, and Bernays appears to have followed suit with her own sensitive, compelling portrayal of secrecy and risk in an era when secrets were quickly becoming a way of life against political fear-mongers.  Here's the Jacket Copy for The Man on the Third Floor:
Walter Samson is a successful book editor in post World War Two New York. He has more than money, an interesting wife, Phyllis, two smart children and reason to believe he's leading the good American life. That is, until he meets Barry Rogers by chance. Barry is blue collar, handsome, single and poor. Walter is instantly drawn to Barry and, despite the considerable risks, installs him in the Samson's three story house on the the Upper East Side, where the two men try to keep their amorous relationship secret.
I particularly liked Bernays' Opening Lines to the novel:
     After news of the unusual goings-on in my house finally escaped, like a gas leak from a faulty stove, some of my so-called liberal New York City friends characterized my life using words that shocked even me. "Deplorable," "disgusting," "unnatural," "selfish," "hedonistic," "bizarre." I hadn't hurt them in any way, hadn't threatened their way of life. Up until then we had had a lot of fun together.
      Actually, this didn't happen. What did happen was that I was met with looks of incredulity fueled by moral judgment, averted eyes, hems and haws and, in some cases, total silence. I only imagined that they called me those things in the privacy of their own homes and to each other. "Can you believe it, good old Walter--all these years?" One or two of them, I guessed, were secretly envious because I had managed to fool everyone for quite a while and because they would have liked to do as I did but didn't have the nerve.

Thrill-Bent by Jan Richman (Tupelo Press):  Ask any of my kids about my relationship with rollercoasters and they'll be quick to give you a performance mocking my behavior on the mechanized peaks-and-valleys death rides.  It involves a lot of white knuckles, squeezed-shut eyes, chins tucked into collarbones and, occasionally, bile rising in the back of the throat.  Oh, and crying like a little girl.  I love rollercoasters in theory only; the only thing worse for me is when the Ferris Wheel stops with me at the peak and one of my devil-spawn children starts rocking our car back and forth with malicious glee.  That's why I'm both fascinated and frightened by Jan Richman's new novel in which she casts herself as the fictional Jan Richman, a freelance journalist writing about amusement parks.  Setting my shredded nerves aside, I hope to step inside the pages soon.  Besides, any novel that compares itself to Kerouac and Ignatius P. Reilly spending a day at Six Flags seems pretty cool to me.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Journalist and armchair thrill-seeker Jan Richman gets a freelance assignment to write about the nation's antique wooden roller coasters. Jan takes off across the U.S. to report on a fanatical sub-culture and her picaresque research junket dovetails with the wedding of her Tourette's-riddled father, whom she hasn't seen in years. Brazen and stingingly funny, Thrill-Bent recalls the tautly observed mayhem of On the Road, with linguistic crescendos to rival A Confederacy of Dunces, as Jan zooms from Coney Island to New Orleans to the San Fernando Valley, learning how to be truly impulsive in a buttoned-down world.
I'm really looking forward to Thrill-Bent.  It seems like it's all the fun without the vomit.

Margaret from Maine by Joseph Monninger (Plume):  Even though, on the surface, Joseph Monninger's new novel looks a little Nicholas Sparks-y, I'm eager to give it a try based on its gut-wrenching Opening Lines alone:
      The last sound Maine Guardsman Sgt. Thomas Kennedy heard was the whine of a mosquito. At least he thought it was the last sound, although what he thought and what actually occurred had little to do with each other. He raised his right hand to brush it away, conscious of the heat under his helmet, the dry, sweltering sweat that soaked his uniform. And now a mosquito.
      As his hand lifted, he saw a glint--just a fracture of light--and he glanced down at Private First Class Edmond Johnson, who happened to be changing the back rear tire of the team's Humvee. In that instant, many things did not make sense.
      What were they doing here, in Afghanistan, to begin with? How had he come all this way--from Bangor, Maine--to be standing beside a beached Humvee, beside a private named Johnson who had arrived at this point in time from Solon, Maine?  And where, after all, had the flash of light come from? They were in a dry, featureless plain, and the mountains, arguably the most rugged mountains in the world, were too far away to provide a sniper with sufficient height. So how could there be a flash of light, gunfire, when all the world lay flat and even and empty?
      That's when it occurred to Sgt. Thomas Kennedy that a mosquito is not always a mosquito.
      Because he felt his hand shatter, the bones flying apart under his skin, his cheek exploding so that he tasted teeth and blood in the same instant. Oh, he thought. Just that. What they had feared, what they had all feared, had finally arrived. They were pinned down and a mosquito is not a mosquito and he turned and spread his arms--ridiculously like a crossing guard--and tried to protect Private Johnson.
Now, that's why I call writing that head-locks you and doesn't let up even when you cry "Uncle!"  If Monninger's book carries out the promise of its first two pages, then this will be the best kind of novel that guarantees you'll burn dinner and forget to feed the dog.  Here's the Jacket Copy (which, like I said, probably would have made me keep walking on by if it weren't for those opening paragraphs):
Margaret Kennedy lives on a dairy farm in rural Maine. Her husband Thomas—injured in a war overseas—will never be the man he was. When the President signs a bill in support of wounded veterans, Margaret is invited to the nation’s capital. Charlie King, a handsome Foreign Service officer, volunteers to escort her. As the rhododendron blossoms along the Blue Ridge Highway, the unlikely pair fall in love—but Margaret cannot ignore the tug of her marriage vows.

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