Thursday, February 14, 2013

Front Porch Books: February 2013 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 Good House by Ann Leary (St. Martin's Press):  I'll admit I'm initially drawn to Ann Leary's novel by its cover design--the mustard-yellow house buried up to its roofline in snow, the bold black serif font, that solitary red cardinal perched on the eaves--but once inside, I stay for the writing.  Exhibit A, the Opening Lines:
      I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions. I remember joking about this one evening with Peter Newbold, the shrink who rents the office upstairs from mine.
      “The next time you get a new patient,” I offered, “I’ll sneak to their house for a walk-through. While you jot down notes about their history, dreams, whatever, I’ll shine a flashlight into the attic, open a few cupboards, and have a peek at the bedrooms. Later, when we compare notes, I’ll have the clearer picture of the person’s mental health, guaranteed.” I was teasing the doctor, of course, but I’ve been selling houses since he was in primary school, and I stand by my theory.
      I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives—you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench oozes up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before. The marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s now clearly hers—well, you get the idea.
The narrator of those sentences is Hildy Good, alcoholic Realtor and, from what I can gather from the first few pages of Leary's novel, a character to be savored like a fine after-dinner wine.  Here's the Jacket Copy for what looks like a very promising plot:
Hildy Good is a townie. A lifelong resident of an historic community on the rocky coast of Boston’s North Shore, she knows pretty much everything about everyone. Hildy is a descendant of one of the witches hung in nearby Salem, and is believed, by some, to have inherited psychic gifts. Not true, of course; she’s just good at reading people. Hildy is good at lots of things. A successful real-estate broker, mother and grandmother, her days are full. But her nights have become lonely ever since her daughters, convinced their mother was drinking too much, staged an intervention and sent her off to rehab. Now she’s in recovery—more or less.  Alone and feeling unjustly persecuted, Hildy needs a friend. She finds one in Rebecca McCallister, a beautiful young mother and one of the town’s wealthy newcomers. Rebecca feels out-of-step in her new surroundings and is grateful for the friendship. And Hildy feels like a person of the world again, as she and Rebecca escape their worries with some harmless gossip, and a bottle of wine by the fire—just one of their secrets.  But not everyone takes to Rebecca, who is herself the subject of town gossip. When Frank Getchell, an eccentric local who shares a complicated history with Hildy, tries to warn her away from Rebecca, Hildy attempts to protect her friend from a potential scandal. Soon, however, Hildy is busy trying to cover her own tracks and protect her reputation. When a cluster of secrets become dangerously entwined, the reckless behavior of one threatens to expose the other, and this darkly comic novel takes a chilling turn.
Blurbworthiness: "Leary's genius is to give us a true original: Hildy, a not-so-recovering alcoholic/realtor who crashlands among a colorful cast of New England neighbors, but Leary also says a great deal about the houses we choose to live, the people we're compelled to love, and the addictions we don't want to give up. So alive, I swear the pages of this wickedly funny and moving novel are breathing."  (Caroline Leavitt, author of Is This Tomorrow)

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash (Ecco):  Ron Rash follows his last novel (The Cove) with a new book of short stories which firmly inhabit his distinctive Appalachian terrain.  I can't wait to take a trip to Rashland.  Here's the Jacket Copy for Nothing Gold Can Stay:
In the title story, two drug-addicted friends return to the farm where they worked as boys to steal their former boss's gruesomely unusual war trophies. In "The Trusty," which first appeared in The New Yorker, a prisoner sent to fetch water for his chain gang tries to sweet-talk a farmer's young wife into helping him escape, only to find that she is as trapped as he is. In "Something Rich and Strange," a diver is called upon to pull a drowned girl's body free from under a falls, but he finds her eerily at peace below the surface.
That last story ("Something Rich and Strange") comes from the opening of Rash's novel Saints at the River.  I was going to quote the first lines of that story here, but then I realized I'd already posted them to the blog a year ago.  They still grip me in a tight clutch every time I read them.  So, instead, I'll give you the Opening Lines (from "Cherokee," a story which first appeared in Ecotone):
With a green rabbit’s foot clipped on his belt loop, a silver four-leaf clover dangling from his neck, Danny has brought all the good luck he could find. As they drive past a billboard advertising Harrah’s Casino, his free hand caresses the rabbit fur, perhaps hoping luck really can rub off on you. Angie remembers a story about a magic lamp that, once rubbed, grants three wishes. Danny would settle for just one––make the one hundred and fifty-seven dollars in her handbag turn into a thousand.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (Simon & Schuster):  You know Jeannette Walls as the best-selling author of the memoir The Glass Castle and the "true-life novel" Half Broke Horses, and now she's going Full-Throttle Fiction with The Silver Star.  Though the Jacket Copy may be full of spoilers, I'm still intrigued:
It is 1970. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister Liz is fifteen when their artistic mother Charlotte, a woman “who flees every place she’s ever lived at the first sign of trouble,” takes off to “find herself.” She leaves her girls enough money for food to last a month or two. But when Bean gets home from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz board a bus from California to Virginia, where their widowed Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying antebellum mansion that’s been in the family for generations. An impetuous optimist, Bean discovers who her father was and learns many stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place. Money is tight, so Liz and Bean start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town, a big man who bullies workers, tenants, and his wife. Bean adores her whip-smart older sister, inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, non-conformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz in the car with Maddox.
 I'm even more convinced by the novel's Opening Lines:
      My sister saved my life when I was just a baby. Here's what happened. After a fight with her family, Mom decided to leave home in the middle of the night, taking us with her. She put me in the infant carrier and set it on the roof of the car while she stashed some things in the trunk, then she settled Liz, who was three, in the backseat. Mom was going through a rough period at the time and had a lot on her mind--craziness, craziness, craziness, she'd say later. Completely forgetting about me--I was only a few months old--Mom drove off. Liz shrieked my name and pointed to the roof of the car. At first Mom didn't understand what Liz was saying, then she realized what she'd done and slammed on the brakes. The carrier slid forward onto the hood, but since I was strapped in, I was all right. In fact, I wasn't even crying. In the years afterward, whenever Mom told the story, which she found hilarious and acted out in dramatic detail, she liked to say thank goodness Liz had her wits about her, otherwise that carrier would have flown right off and I'd have been a goner.
      Liz remembered the whole thing vividly, but she never thought it was funny. She had saved me. That was the kind of sister Liz was. And that was why, the night the whole mess started, I wasn't worried that Mom had been gone for four day. I was more worried about the chicken potpies.

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee (Algonquin Books):  Lee's debut collection of short stories arrived on my doorstep complete with some powerhouse Blurbworthiness: “Bobcat and Other Stories is nothing short of brilliant. Rebecca Lee writes with the unflinching, cumulatively devastating precision of Chekhov and Munro, peeling back layer after layer of illusion until we’re left with the truth of ourselves … This extraordinary story collection is sure to confirm its author as one of the best writers of her generation.” (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and “[T]his is a great collection, so alive to itself that it made my skin buzz. Most stories are domesticated, pacing along step by step, but Lee's roam and dart like wild things and yet somehow wind up exactly where they intended to go. They are ardent, wayward, vigilant, heartbreaking, and, amidst all the trouble they explore, mysteriously funny.”  (Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead).  Like most advance review copies which arrive at Casa Abrams, Bobcat was also accompanied by a press kit from the publisher.  As a rule, my eyes glaze over when it comes to "Dear Reader" letters, but this one from Algonquin editor Kathy Pories really caught my attention:
      A few years ago, a good friend of mine, a writer, sent me a little chapbook written by a friend of hers. It contained just one story, "Bobcat," but it was the kind of story that I finished and then read again immediately. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I passed it on to a few people, and then it disappeared, kept by the last reader, who wanted to read it a few more times.
      That story, the title story to this collection, was set at a dinner party that revealed so much more about everyone there than they realized, in language that was precise, in sentences that cut to the heart. It was funny, but also heartbreaking, and mysterious as to how it worked. You could not help but be led by Rebecca Lee through the story, and then be as surprised as the narrator for where you ended up.
      So when Rebecca Lee’s agent sent me her story collection, I was thrilled to see that story making its way back to me, and I knew I’d like her others. But I wasn’t prepared for how much, nor how I would proselytize about them or force them into people’s hands. I wasn’t prepared for how each story was like a compressed little novel. I found myself using the words "brilliant" and "insightful" and then finally saying things like "she sees everything the way I wish I did" and then jotting down sentences so that I could remember them. And then I started to worry that I was maybe losing my mind a little bit and obviously using too much hyperbole.
      But then others at Algonquin and Workman started to read the collection, and I sent it out to writers for their thoughts. Still, I was trying to rein myself in; I said, "just read one, and see what you think." When you love something this much, it’s anxiety-producing, as you don’t want to hear anyone else say anything otherwise. So I felt a a profound relief as I began to hear their reactions (especially from those who claimed they weren’t short story readers). You can see some of those glowing blurbs here; what you can’t hear is how passionate people were as they talked to me about this collection. Let’s just say I heard the word "love" a lot.
      I’ll say it to you: if you doubt me, just read one. Start with the first, or second, or third. Or anywhere. Every year, there is a story collection that wakes us up—the one that we all remember, like Birds of America or Pastoralia or St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. 2013 is the year of the Bobcat.
I'm anxious to settle in with the collection to see if the hoopla is justified.  Judging by the one story in the book I've already read--"Fialta" when it was previously published in Zoetrope All-Story--I think it is.  Here are the opening lines to one of the stories ("The Banks of the Vistula"):
It was dusk; the campus had turned to velvet. I walked the brick path to Humanities, which loomed there and seemed to incline toward me, as God does toward the sinner in the Book of Psalms.

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee (Random House):  The publisher compares this new novel by Jonathan Dee (author of The Privileges) to the work of another Jonathan: Franzen.  Okay, I'm intrigued.  That curiosity is further piqued by the Jacket Copy:
Once a privileged and loving couple, the Armsteads have now reached a breaking point. Ben, a partner in a prestigious law firm, has become unpredictable at work and withdrawn at home—a change that weighs heavily on his wife, Helen, and their preteen daughter, Sara. Then, in one afternoon, Ben’s recklessness takes an alarming turn, and everything the Armsteads have built together unravels, swiftly and spectacularly.  Thrust back into the working world, Helen finds a job in public relations and relocates with Sara from their home in upstate New York to an apartment in Manhattan. There, Helen discovers she has a rare gift, indispensable in the world of image control: She can convince arrogant men to admit their mistakes, spinning crises into second chances. Yet redemption is more easily granted in her professional life than in her personal one.  As she is confronted with the biggest case of her career, the fallout from her marriage, and Sara’s increasingly distant behavior, Helen must face the limits of accountability and her own capacity for forgiveness.
Here are the Opening Lines, a domestic scene which could have been lifted from one of a million suburban houses in America, but which is so well-written it compels me to read more:
      Helen tried not to look at her watch, because looking at your watch never changed anything, but it was already a quarter to seven and her husband’s headlights had yet to appear at the top of the hill. Evening had darkened to the point where she had to press her forehead to the kitchen window and frame her eyes with her hands just to see outside. Meadow Close was a dead end street, and so even if she couldn’t make out the car itself, the moment she saw headlights of any kind cresting the hill there was a one in six chance they were Ben’s. More like one in three, actually, because by turning her face a bit in the bowl of her hands she could see the Hugheses’ car parked in their driveway, and the Griffins’, and that obscene yellow Hummer that belonged to Dr. Parnell—­
      “Mom!” Sara yelled from the living room. “Can I have some more seltzer?”
      Twelve was old enough to get your own fanny out of the chair and pour your own third glass of seltzer. But it was Tuesday, and on Tuesday evening guilt always ruled, which was why Sara was eating dinner in front of the TV in the first place, and so Helen said only, pointedly, “Please?”
      “Please,” Sara answered.
      She couldn’t help stealing a look at the kitchen clock as she closed the refrigerator door. Six-­fifty. Mr. Passive Aggressive strikes again, she thought. She wasn’t always confident she understood that expression correctly—­passive aggressive—­but she referred to it instinctively whenever Ben failed to do something he had promised her he would do.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books): As regular blog readers know, I spent most of my time last September and October on the road in support of my debut novel Fobbit, visiting bookstores, speaking on panels at book festivals, and attending publishing industry trade shows (like the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association gatherings).  At those shows, publishing sales reps, editors and authors mingled, rubbed elbows, and chattered with fervent urgency about what they thought was the Next Big Book.  The one title that came up in conversation over and over was How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.  I can't tell you how many times Mohsin Hamid's novel was pressed into my hands by someone who, an excited spittle-mist flying from their lips, told me, "If you read one book this year, make it this one."  After the third such encounter, I started thinking that maybe this wasn't just publishing-industry hype, maybe I was holding a true gem in my hands, maybe How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia really was the Next Big Thing.  Since then, time and other obligations have conspired against me and I haven't had the chance to sit down with Hamid's novel, but believe me when I say it's very near the summit of my mountain of books to read (aka Mt. NeverRest).  As the Jacket Copy tells us, it's the tale of  “a man’s journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon” which  “follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else, on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his.”  I just took another look at the Opening Lines and was reminded why I suspected all those sales reps were onto something.  See if you don't agree with me that Hamid's style is the very definition of spell-binding:
      Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on.
      None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.
      This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.
The rest of the novel continues with that same second-person point of view.  Rather than being a too-clever literary device which quickly wears thin, I think it works well here in this faux self-help, how-to book.  But don't just take my word for it.  None other than Jay McInerney, author of the landmark 2nd-POV novel Bright Lights, Big City, gave How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia this nice piece of Blurbworthiness:  “A dazzling stylistic tour de force; a love story disguised as a self-help guide, freighted with sly social satire.  As timely and timeless a novel as I’ve read in years.”

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco):  The arrival of a new JCO book--on average, once every six months--is always a cause for confetti-tossing, but there's something about The Accursed which has me really excited.  Part of that anticipation starts with the way her 132nd* novel is packaged by her publisher.  Ecco has given the 667-page book an elegant cover design which uses a detail from Profile of a Young Woman by Giovanni Boldini to good effect.  The jacket spine and back are a deep cranberry red and even the paper stock feels....well, regal, I guess.  I can't properly describe for you how impressed I am by this book before I even open it.  You'll have to touch it for yourself to see what I mean.  But of course it's what's inside the cover that really counts.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century: a tranquil place to raise a family, a genteel town for genteel souls. But something dark and dangerous lurks at the edges of the town, corrupting and infecting its residents. Vampires and ghosts haunt the dreams of the innocent. A powerful curse besets the elite families of Princeton; their daughters begin disappearing. A young bride on the verge of the altar is seduced and abducted by a dangerously compelling man–a shape-shifting, vaguely European prince who might just be the devil, and who spreads his curse upon a richly deserving community of white Anglo-Saxon privilege. And in the Pine Barrens that border the town, a lush and terrifying underworld opens up. When the bride's brother sets out against all odds to find her, his path will cross those of Princeton's most formidable people, from Grover Cleveland, fresh out of his second term in the White House and retired to town for a quieter life, to soon-to-be commander in chief Woodrow Wilson, president of the university and a complex individual obsessed to the point of madness with his need to retain power; from the young Socialist idealist Upton Sinclair to his charismatic comrade Jack London, and the most famous writer of the era, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain–all plagued by "accursed" visions.
You know you are firmly planted in Gothic territory right from the Opening Lines of the Prologue:
      It is an afternoon in autumn, near dusk. The western sky is a spider’s web of translucent gold. I am being brought by carriage—two horses—muted thunder of their hooves—along narrow country roads between hilly fields touched with the sun’s slanted rays, to the village of Princeton, New Jersey. The urgent pace of the horses has a dreamlike air, like the rocking motion of the carriage; and whoever is driving the horses his face I cannot see, only his back—stiff, straight, in a tight-fitting dark coat.
      Quickening of a heartbeat that must be my own yet seems to emanate from without, like a great vibration of the very earth. There is a sense of exhilaration that seems to spring, not from within me, but from the countryside. How hopeful I am! How excited! With what childlike affection, shading in to wonderment, I greet this familiar yet near-forgotten landscape! Cornfields, wheat fields, pastures in which dairy cows graze like motionless figures in a landscape by Corot...the calls of red-winged blackbirds and starlings...the shallow though swift-flowing Stony Brook Creek and the narrow wood-plank bridge over which the horses' hooves and the carriage wheels thump...a smell of rich, moist earth, harvest... I see that I am being propelled along the Great Road, I am nearing home, I am nearing the mysterious origin of my birth. This journey I undertake with such anticipation is not one of geographical space but one of Time—for it is the year 1905 that is my destination.
      1905!—the very year of the Curse.
Blurbworthiness: “[The Accursed] is in addition to being a thrilling tale in the best gothic tradition, a lesson in master craftsmanship...The story sprawls, reaches, demands, tears, and shrieks in homage to the traditional gothic, yet with fresh, surprising twists and turns... Oates has given us a brilliantly crafted work .”  (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

*Just kidding.  This is actually her 39th novel.  I think.  I lost count somewhere back around the time of We Were the Mulvaneys.

1 comment:

  1. I have a few of these from NetGalley that I'm so anxious to read, but more than anything I'm aching for How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia! I finished reading A Thousand Pardons a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. Franzen-esque is a fair comparison, but I really like Dee's subtle voice. Thanks for the great list, there's a couple I'm hunting down now.