Thursday, May 23, 2013

Front Porch Books: May 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.

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith (Algonquin Books):  As I mentioned before, 2013 is shaping up to be the Year of Zelda.  While I'm looking forward to reading Erika Robuck's Call Me Zelda and Therese Anne Fowler's Z, Lee Smith's new novel about Mrs. Fitzgerald also intrigues.  I'm a long-standing member of the Lee Smith Fan Club and a quick skim through the early pages in Guests on Earth reminds me that few writers are her equal in creating a vivid world simply through dialect and narrative rhythm.  As in so many recent novels about historical figures (especially artists), Smith comes at her subject obliquely through the eyes of her own fictional creation.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain more:
Evalina Toussaint, the orphaned child of an exotic dancer in New Orleans, is just thirteen when she is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. The year is 1936, and the mental hospital is under the direction of the celebrated psychiatrist Robert S. Carroll. His innovative program of treatment for mental and nervous disorders and addictions is based on exercise, diet, art, and occupational therapies—and experimental shock therapy.  Evalina finds herself in the company of some notable fellow patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald, estranged wife of F. Scott, who takes the young piano prodigy under her wing. Evalina becomes the accompanist for the musical programs at the hospital. This provides privileged insight into the events that transpire over the next twelve years, culminating in a tragic fire—its mystery unsolved to this day—that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. At all costs, Evalina listens, observes, remembers—and tells us everything.
The title, by the way, comes from a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter Scottie on December 15, 1940:  "The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read."

The Exiles by Allison Lynn (New Harvest):  I like novels in which authors begin by thrusting their characters into difficult, seemingly impossible situations almost from the first page.  The Jacket Copy for The Exiles shows how Allison Lynn jeopardizes her creations:
A couple escaping the over-the-top lifestyle of Manhattan's Upper East Side move to comparably quaint Newport, Rhode Island, only to be confronted by truths they tried to leave behind. Nate, a midlevel Wall Streeter, and his partner Emily are effectively evicted from New York City when they can no longer afford their cramped apartment on the Upper East Side. An out presents itself when Nate's offered a job in Newport—complete with a bucolic, small-scale, and seemingly affordable new house. They're eager to start fresh, yet within minutes of arriving in Rhode Island, their car and belongings are stolen, and they're left with nothing but the keys to an empty house and a bawling 10-month-old son. Over the three-day weekend that follows, as Emily and Nate watch their meager pile of cash dwindle and tension increase, the secrets they kept from each other in the city emerge—and threaten to destroy their hope for a future. A story about economic precariousness, family history, tainted gene pools, art theft, architecture, and the mad grab for the American Dream, The Exiles bravely explores the weights of our pasts—and whether or not it's possible to start over.
I like the repeated cry of "promise" in the Opening Lines:
It's 5:10 p.m. and the bay is a hazy blue, the sky a hint of orange, the land full of promise, promise, promise. Cars creep across the bridge as if pulled by the force of that promise itself. Look, sailboats! Hark, a resort hotel. Ho there, bloated gulls line up along the bridge's side rails and point their beaks toward the traffic, guiding the way. In three days the high season will be over and Newport's ice cream vendors, trinket traders, and yachtsmen will crawl deep into their off-season dens to hibernate. Off-season: the beach's sand will turn gray and flat overnight; the historic mansions will offer tours only two days a week; boats will be pulled from the water.

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense by Sarah Weinman (Penguin Books):  Let me start by saying how much I love the cover design for this anthology of classic mystery stories.  Evocative of pulp fiction covers in their heyday, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives gives us a femme fatale* caught in the beam of a flashlight, startled eyes popping out of her head, hand up, fingers curled, claws out.  This is a cover that will reach out and grab bookstore browsers.  Once past the packaging, however, they'll find stories which will sink even deeper claws into their attention.  Editor Sarah Weinman assembles a line-up of authors whose names might not be heard in even the most literate of households these days.  Weinman knows crime fiction inside and out and has written on the subject for the Los Angeles Times and The Barnes and Noble Review (among others), so I totally trust her judgment when it comes to literature about the darker side of domesticity.  In her introduction to Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, she talks about the early female pioneers of crime fiction: "Their books color outside the lines, blur between categories, and give readers a glimpse of the darkest impulses that pervade every part of contemporary society.  Especially those impulses that begin in the home."  Contemporary female writers particularly intrigue the editor--authors like Gillian Flynn, Tana French and Attica Locke who "take a scalpel to contemporary society and slice away until its dark essence reveals itself: the ways in which women continue to be victimized, their misfortunes downplayed by men (and women) who don't believe them, and how they eventually overcome."  For this anthology, Weinman stretches farther back to a goldener age of suspense fiction to bring us short stories by Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar and several others to paint a portrait of troubled domesticity in mid-century America.  At the anthology's companion website, Weinman further defines "domestic suspense":
To my mind, it’s a genre of books published between World War II and the height of the Cold War, written by women primarily about the concerns and fears of women of the day. These novels and stories operate on the ground level, peer into marriages whose hairline fractures will crack wide open, turn ordinary household chores into potential for terror, and transform fears about motherhood into horrifying reality. They deal with class and race, sexism and economic disparity, but they have little need to show off that breadth. Instead, they turn our most deep-seated worries into narrative gold, delving into the dark side of human behavior that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or taking care of a child. They are about ordinary, everyday life, and that’s what makes these novels of domestic suspense so frightening. The nerves they hit are really fault lines.
Blurbworthiness: “At last, the anthology we have been waiting for: a veritable goldmine of spellbinding, psychologically rich tales. Masterfully curated by crime fiction expert Sarah Weinman, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives not only brings much-deserved attention to fourteen unjustly neglected, pioneering writers—it also changes the way we think about the history, and the future, of the suspense genre.” (Megan Abbott, author of Dare Me)

Tumbledown by Robert Boswell (Graywolf Press):  Robert Boswell (author of The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards: Stories and Century's Son) has written a big book.  Big in all senses of the word--page count, cast of characters, sentences ripe as plums.  Big like the epic-length works of Tom Wolfe**, Michael Chabon and John Irving.  Hard-to-zipper-the-suitcase-shut big.  Here, for instance, is the Jacket Copy:
Welcome to the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center. Mick Coury is schizophrenic, and he doesn’t feel alive when he takes the drugs that keep him sane. Alonso Duran is, among other things, a compulsive masturbator. Bellamy Rhine has his head in the clouds. All three of them are in love with the gorgeous Karly Hopper, who is developmentally disabled and living with a trucker whose motives are questionable at best. Guillermo Mendez is clinically sane and of average to above-average intelligence, but desperately wants to avoid another tour of Iraq so he can start a real life. Maura Wood is extremely intelligent but has terrible judgment, among other problems; she’s also in love with Mick. Therapist James Candler is about to be made director of the center. A program he devised, a sheltered workshop where patients practice working on an assembly line, is a huge success. His unreliable best friend from childhood, Billy Atlas, has moved in temporarily, and Candler has found him a job managing the sheltered workshop, a serious miscalculation. He doesn’t really know his fiancĂ©e, Lolly (they got engaged via text message), and he seems to be falling in love with Lise, a girl he meets one night at a bar, who, unbeknownst to him, has been trailing him for years, after one counseling session with him that changed her life. And then there’s the reason that Candler is doing this kind of work, trying to save everyone else, in the first place: his older brother Pook, a talented artist whose life came to a tragic end. They’re all trying, and succeeding or failing in varying degrees, to make sense of an irrational, unfair world, to “accommodate the impossible.”
Or take a look at Exhibit B, the Opening Lines of Tumbledown:
      There are yet states of being that have no name, anonymous human conditions that thrive at the periphery of powerful emotion the way bedroom communities manacle a city. James Candler and Elizabeth Ray reside in such a place.  Separately.  They are new arrivals.  Candler showed up the last week of January, purchasing a big stucco house snouted by a two-car garage.  A few weeks later, Elizabeth Ray paused in her pale subcompact to eye his residence.  Neither the ugliness of it nor its enormity could dissuade her.  She circled the block several times to look it over.  Around the corner, she parked at an apartment complex.  Her studio-with-balcony rented by the week.
      The subtle pleasures of suburban life would prove difficult for Candler to seize.  Shoving the mower around his front lawn left him without the humblest sense of accomplishment: what could he do in that yard?  The elementary school down the street spawned a daily parade of idling station wagons and SUVs, a surprisingly civil motorcade that left gaps to protect the right-of-way at every household drive, but the polite convoy struck Candler as a funeral procession for the ozone layer.  He managed to locate a decent local restaurant, a steakhouse that also served Mexican food, but it played CNN day and night on an elevated screen the size of a motel mattress. "I don't suppose you could turn that off," he asked.  The waiter, a Sinaloa transplant who walked past Candler's house every weekday morning, holding hands with his fourth-grade daughter and practicing English according to her strict instructions, smiled and shook his head, saying, "People like."  Even the spitting applause of sprinklers oppressed Candler, reminding him of waking as a child to a snow-covered television screen and the disturbing sense that he was sleeping through his life, and it would soon be time to die.
There's a lot of information to process in those two paragraphs--and the formality of language in that first sentence is, admittedly, a little off-putting--but I really, really love some of the fresh, startling images Boswell gives us: the snout of the two-car garage, Elizabeth's "pale subcompact," the "spitting applause of sprinklers."  I will happily clear the calendar and burrow deep in a book to be rewarded with language like that.  Blurbworthiness: "If you read Tumbledown in public, beware: Boswell's story is barkingly, snort-spurtingly, people-give-you-looks funny. Yet its humor is the most generous kind, uncynical and unsentimental, and woven through an ensemble story so large-hearted it keeps bursting its narrative seams. The result is a brilliant, humane, engrossing argument for how infinitely whacked and contingent life can be, and therefore how desperately we need one another to survive. I finished it with a long contented sigh, thinking, this is why I love reading novels."  (David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle)

*At least, I assume she's an ff; maybe she's a good girl, the nice wife, the pure heroine, the wifely Jane Wyatt rather than the vixen Lizabeth Scott
**Typo joke which might be funny only to me: I initially wrote his name as "Tome Wolf.""

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