Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Front Porch Books: July 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.


Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  This November marks the welcome return of Robert Stone whose last novel was published in 2003 (Bay of Souls).  A new book by Stone is always a cause for celebration ...at least on my bookshelves it is.  In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, he examines the sticky moral questions of illicit romance and campus politics.  Jacket Copy:
In an elite college in a once-decaying New England city, Steven Brookman has come to a decision. A brilliant but careless professor, he has determined that for the sake of his marriage, and his soul, he must extract himself from his relationship with Maud Stack, his electrifying student, whose papers are always late and too long yet always incandescent. But Maud is a young woman whose passions are not easily contained or curtailed, and their union will quickly yield tragic and far-reaching consequences.
Blurbworthiness: "Stone imbues his characters with a rare depth that makes each one worthy of his or her own novel. With its atmosphere of dread starting on page one, this story will haunt readers for some time." (Publishers Weekly)


Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Books):  Here's another long-awaited return by a beloved author.  It's been four years since Jamie Ford brought us Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a smashing debut which hit the New York Times bestseller list.  What has the Seattle native been doing in all the years since then?  Well, for starters, he's been busy speaking to the hundreds of book clubs which took Hotel to heart.  But he's also been at work on Songs of Willow Frost.  Was the wait worth it?  This novel moved Pat Conroy to tears (see blurb below), so that should tell you something.  Exhibit A, the Jacket Copy:
Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago.  On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost.  Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.  Determined to find Willow and prove that his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte.  The pair navigate the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star.  The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.  Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery.  Jamie Ford’s sweeping novel will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.
Here are the memorable Opening Lines:
William Eng woke to the sound of a snapping leather belt and the shrieking of rusty springs that supported the threadbare mattress of his army surplus bed. He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor. He heard the popping and billowing of sheets being pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail. And so he drifted, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else--anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed wetters.
Blurbworthiness: “Ford is a first-rate novelist whose bestselling debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was a joy to read.  With his new book, he takes a great leap forward and demonstrates the uncanny ability to move me to tears.” (Pat Conroy, author of South of Broad)


The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books): After the breakout success of Me Before You, Moyes returns to American readers with a new novel that has an enticing hook (at least my attention has felt the snag of the hook's barb).  Behold, the Jacket Copy:
France, 1916: Artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front.  When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant.  As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie will risk everything—her family, her reputation, and her life—to see her husband again.  Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death.  A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.  Like Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, The Girl You Left Behind is a breathtaking story of love, loss, and sacrifice told with Moyes’ signature ability to capture our hearts with every turn of the page.


Havisham by Ronald Frame (Picador): We all know the story of the lover jilted at the altar, the bitterly insane woman holed up in the house--still clad in her wedding dress and surrounded by cobwebs and a moldering wedding cake.  Charles Dickens created a singularly unforgettable character in Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.  But what do we really know about the woman?  Nearly a dozen film adaptations have tried to interpret Miss Havisham in different ways, but now Ronald Frame breathes new life into a character that Dickens describes as a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton.  Frame also gives her a first name: Catherine.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Before she became the immortal, terrifying, wedding dress-wearing Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, she was a young woman named Catherine, with all her dreams ahead of her.  Catherine Havisham was born into privilege.  Spry, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer, and lives in luxury in Satis House.  But she is never far from the smell of hops and the arresting letters on the brewhouse wall—havisham.  A reminder of all she owes to the family name, and the family business.  Sent by her father to stay with the Chadwycks, Catherine discovers literature, music and masquerades—elegant pastimes to remove the taint of her family's new money.  But for all her growing sophistication Catherine is anything but worldly, and when a charismatic stranger pays her attention, everything—her heart, her future, the very Havisham name—is vulnerable.  In this astounding prelude to Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations, Ronald Frame unfurls the psychological trauma that made young Catherine into Miss Havisham, and cursed her to a life alone roaming the halls of the mansion in the tatters of the dress she wore for the wedding she was never to have.
Blurbworthiness: “Frame makes Dickens' ghostly Miss Havisham a real woman of flesh, blood, pain and guilt. He gives us a hopeful girl, caught between loss and class, and in doing so he makes her demons all the more powerful.  A rich, evocative and poignant work.”  (Stella Duffy, author of Theodora)


Unremarried Widow: A Memoir by Artis Henderson (Simon & Schuster): I'll start by giving you the Opening Lines to this memoir which is scheduled to hit bookshelves next January:
     My husband dreamed of his death in the fall of 2005, nine months before he deployed to Iraq.  He was twenty-three years old.  He told me about the dream on a Saturday morning as he dressed for work on Fort Hood, and I listened from the bed while he pawed through the BDUs hanging in the closet.
     "Our helicopter crashed," he said.
     He took a pair of camouflage pants off a metal hanger, shook them out by the waistband, and stepped in one leg at a time.
     "John Priestner and me."
     Already the Texas day was warm and our air conditioner chugged an unconvincing stream of cool air.  I squinted at Miles as he talked, trying to shake the sleep from my brain, while he disappeared back into the closet and returned with the jacket to his uniform.
     "We floated above the helicopter," he said, "while it burned to the ground."
     He pulled a pair of socks out of the dresser and sat on the edge of the bed.  He turned to look at me and I rested my fingers against the side of his face.  He covered my hand with his, and we sat for a time without speaking.  Then he pulled on his socks, laced up his boots, and walked into the living room.  I heard the metallic clink of his dog tags slip around his neck and the front door opened and a shaft of sunlight spilled in.  The door closed and I was alone.
That's the setup for what looks like a heartbreaking book--especially heartbreaking if you're a military spouse who's always on edge, waiting for the dreaded arrival of the chaplain and casualty assistance officer at your front door delivering the worst news you never want to hear.  Here's the Jacket Copy for Henderson's memoir:
In the tradition of The Year of Magical Thinking and What Remains, this breathtaking memoir by a young Army widow shares her heartbreaking, candid story about recovering from her husband's death.  A world traveler, Artis Henderson dreamed of living abroad after college and one day becoming a writer.  Marrying a conservative Texan soldier and being an Army wife was never in her plan.  Nor was the devastating helicopter crash that took his life soon after their marriage.  On November 6, 2006, the Apache helicopter carrying Artis’s husband Miles crashed in Iraq, leaving her—in official military terms—an “unremarried widow.”  She was twenty-six years old.  In Unremarried Widow, Artis gracefully and fearlessly traces the arduous process of rebuilding her life after this loss, from the dark hours following the military notification to the first fumbling attempts at new love.  She recounts the bond that led her and Miles to start a life together, even in the face of unexpected challenges, and offers a compassionate critique of the difficulties of military life.  In one of the book's most unexpected elements, Artis reveals how Miles’s death mirrored her own father’s—in a plane crash that she survived when she was five.  In her journey through devastation and heartbreak, Artis is able to reach a new understanding with her widowed mother and together they find solace in their shared loss.  But for all its raw emotion and devastatingly honest reflections, this is more than a grief memoir.  Delivered in breathtaking prose, Unremarried Widow is a celebration of the unlikely love between two very different people and the universality of both grief and hope.
Blurbworthiness: “Artis Henderson’s remarkable memoir allows readers into the seldom-seen and unexpected world of the war widow.  Henderson’s eloquently rendered grief honors the soldiers lost and the resilient widows who carry on, all while she reassembles her life by pursuing a dream of writing.”  (Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone)


The Fifty-First State by Lisa Borders (Engine Books): I was so impressed by the Opening Lines of Lisa Border's new novel that I immediately wrote to the publisher and asked if I could quote the entire opening section here at the blog, believing that readers would be as gripped by the words as I was.  Victoria at Engine Books was kind enough to give me permission.  So here it is, the opening section called "The Accident":
      At the same time a white Dodge Ram pickup truck driven by Donald Corson, 66, of Oyster Shell, New Jersey drifted across three lanes of traffic on Route 42 in Bellmawr and grazed the side of a green Ford Taurus, Corson’s 17-year-old son, Josh, stood on line in his high school cafeteria in Floyd, New Jersey, pondering one bad offering after another— Sloppy Joe meat that looked like dog food, Chow Mein that looked like vomit—and opting for an apple and a carton of milk as his lunch.  While Corson’s second wife, Brenda, in the passenger’s seat of the pickup truck, was trying frantically to pull the steering wheel to the right, out of the way of the fast-moving traffic, even as she wondered at her husband’s sudden slump, the distant look in his eyes, their son stood in a corner of the cafeteria near a girl named Missy Dalton, a girl he’d been in love with since ninth grade, a girl who Josh knew was out of his league but he couldn’t help himself—she was just so, so.  While Missy was smiling, not unsweetly, and walking to her table of friends and Josh was internally berating himself for always saying the most incredibly lame things in the universe to Missy Dalton, Brenda Corson lost control of the steering wheel and the truck skidded in a few dizzy arcs.  While the truck was still spinning, Donald Corson’s daughter from his first marriage—a girl he and his wife had named Holly, but who had lived in New York for nearly twenty years and reinvented herself as Hallie—had just finished a photo shoot in the Lower East Side for a music magazine called Lush Life, a magazine that, as far as Hallie could tell, was highly regarded in New York and unheard of anywhere else in the country.  As Hallie was packing up her camera, lenses, light meter, shoving the flash and cord into her bag, cars piled up on Route 42 as a result of the Corsons’ skidding truck.  A red Toyota Tercel driven by a nineteen-year-old Rowan College sophomore with a heavy foot on the gas pedal who also happened to be text messaging her boyfriend while the Corsons’ truck went out of control in front of her and who, when she looked up and saw the skidding truck, hit her brakes far too hard and far too late, slammed into the Corsons’ pickup just as Hallie was getting into a taxi which would take her to Soho, where she was having lunch with a photo editor at Interview.  As Hallie was fretting in the cab that, at thirty-seven, she was too old to get work at a magazine like Interview—the photo editor would clearly see how she had squandered her youthful promise, would see that she was just Holly Corson, a nobody from a crappy little town on the Delaware Bay—a minister from an A.M.E church in Philadelphia’s Germantown section hit the side of the Tercel with his baby blue Honda Prelude after he tried, unsuccessfully, to steer around the wreck.  The moment Hallie pulled her cell phone out to let the editor know she might be late, that her taxi was stalled in traffic on Bowery Street, was the same moment the minister saw a tractor-trailer fast approaching in his rearview mirror with a horror that Donald and Brenda Corson and the college student—all three of them dead—were spared.
      As the tractor-trailer plowed into the three vehicles twisted together on Route 42—white, red, and blue, a macabre abstract Americana sculpture—and ignited a small fire, a brown-and-white dog, curled on the floor in an upstairs front bedroom of the Corsons’ comfortably run-down house—a neighbor’s long-suffering pet which Josh had snuck in the night before—kicked its leg four times in its sleep, growled slightly, then was still.
I don't think I need to say anything else to convince you to buy this book when it comes out in October, do I?


The Virgins by Pamela Erens (Tin House Books): The cover of Pamela Erens' new novel shows the torso of a young woman, handing cupping her crotch, as she lies on a bed of grass.  The designer has given us this titillating glimpse through a round circle, as if we're looking at the girl through a peephole. This, it seems to me, is entirely appropriate given the fact that The Virgins is narrated by what the Jacket Copy calls a "repentant narrator" (I like the complexity of that set-up):
It’s 1979, and Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung are notorious at Auburn Academy.  They’re an unlikely pair at an elite East Coast boarding school (she’s Jewish; he’s Korean American) and hardly shy when it comes to their sexuality.  Aviva is a formerly bookish girl looking for liberation from an unhappy childhood; Seung is an enthusiastic dabbler in drugs and a covert rebel against his demanding immigrant parents.  In the minds of their titillated classmates—particularly that of Bruce Bennett-Jones—the couple lives in a realm of pure, indulgent pleasure.  But, as is often the case, their fabled relationship is more complicated than it seems: despite their lust and urgency, their virginity remains intact, and as they struggle to understand each other, the relationship spirals into disaster.  The Virgins is the story of Aviva and Seung’s descent into confusion and shame, as re-imagined in richly detailed episodes by their classmate Bruce, a once-embittered voyeur turned repentant narrator.  With unflinching honesty and breathtaking prose, Pamela Erens brings a fresh voice to the tradition of the great boarding school novel.
Here are the Opening Lines of the novel, which is set in 1979:
      We sit on the benches and watch the buses unload. Cort, Voss, and me.
      We’re high school seniors, at long last, and it’s the privilege of seniors to take up these spots in front of the dormitories, checking out the new bodies and faces.  Boys with big glasses and bangs in their eyes, girls with Farrah Fawcett hair.  Last year’s girls have already been accounted for: too ugly or too studious or too strange, or already hitched up, or too gorgeous even to think about.
      It’s long odds, we know: one girl here for every two boys.  And the new kids don’t tend to come on these buses shuttling from the airport or South Station.  Their anxious parents cling to the last hours of control and drive them, carry their things inside the neat brick buildings, fuss, complain about the drab, spartan rooms.  If there’s a pretty girl among them, you can’t get close to her for the mother, the father, the scowling little brother who didn’t want to drive hundreds of miles to get here.  We don’t care about the new boys, of course.  We’ll get to know them later.  Or not.
Blurbworthiness:  “Like the unforgettable Aviva Rossner, The Virgins is small but not slight—intense, sublime, vivid, uncanny, irresistible.  It joins the ranks of the great boarding school novels while somehow evoking the twisted, obsessive narrations of Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Wharton’s Ethan Frome.  Pamela Erens is that rare writer who can articulate—and gorgeously—the secrets we never knew about ourselves." (Rebecca Makkai, author of The Borrower)


The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):   The backstory to the publication of this whopper of a novel (685 pages) is as intriguing as the book itself.  Written by Goliarda Spaienza, an Italian actress and novelist who died in 1996, The Art of Joy languished for several years after being rejected by publishers.  As her husband Angelo Pellegrino notes in his foreword to the novel, "the manuscript lay for decades in a chest in my office, awaiting more fortunate times."  Though the thought of rejected pages gathering dust in a trunk seems conveniently dramatic and ready-made for a publishing Lazarus story of resurrection and redemption, there's no denying The Art of Joy looks like a big, bold, fascinating tale.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Rejected by a series of publishers, abandoned in a chest for twenty years, Goliarda Sapienza’s masterpiece, The Art of Joy, survived a turbulent path to publication.  It wasn’t until 2005, when it was released in France, that this novel received the recognition it deserves.  At last, Sapienza’s remarkable book is available in English, in a brilliant translation by Anne Milano Appel and with an illuminating introduction by Angelo Pellegrino.  The Art of Joy centers on Modesta, a Sicilian woman born on January 1, 1900, whose strength and character are an affront to conventional morality.  Impoverished as a child, Modesta believes she is destined for a better life.  She is able, through grace and intelligence, to secure marriage to an aristocrat—without compromising her own deeply felt values.  Friend, mother, lover—Modesta revels in upsetting the rules of her fascist, patriarchal society.  This is the history of the twentieth century, transfigured by the perspective of one extraordinary woman.  Sapienza, an intriguing figure in her own right—her father homeschooled her so she wouldn’t be exposed to fascist influences—was a respected actress and writer who drew on her own struggles to craft this powerful epic.  A fictionalized memoir, a book of romance and adventure, a feminist text, a bildungsroman—this novel is ultimately undefinable but deeply necessary; its genius will leave readers breathless.
Here are the electrifying Opening Lines:
     I'm four or five years old, in a muddy place, dragging a huge piece of wood.  There are no trees or houses around.  Only me, sweating, as I struggle to drag that rough log, my palms burning, scraped raw by the wood.  I sink into the mud up to my ankles but I have to keep tugging.  I don't know why, but I have to.  Let's leave this early memory of mine just as it is: I don't want to correct or invent things.  I want to tell you how it was without changing anything.
     So, I was dragging that piece of wood.  And after hiding it or leaving it behind, I entered a large opening in the wall, closed off only by a black curtain swarming with flies.  Now I'm in the dark room where we slept and where we ate bread and olives, bread and onions.  We cooked only on Sundays.  My mother is sewing in a corner, her eyes wide in silence.  She never speaks, my mother.  She either shouts or keeps quiet.  Her heavy fall of black hair is matted with flies.  My sister, sitting on the ground, stares at her from two dark slits buried in folds of fat.  All her life, at least as long as their lives lasted, my sister tracked her constantly, staring at her that way.  And if my mother went out — which happened rarely — she had to lock her in the toilet, because my sister wouldn't hear of being separated from her.  Locked in that little room my sister would scream, tear her hair and bang her head against the wall until my mother came back, took her in her arms and silently stroked her.
Blurbworthiness: “This massive book, unpublished when Sapienza died in 1996, first printed in a limited edition spearheaded by a friend, then reprinted to become a sensation in France, finally appears in English.  It’s easy to see why it . . . has such passionate promoters now: the story of Modesta, born poor in Sicily in 1900, passionate reader, lover of men and women, and fighter against fascism and patriarchy, is a stirring and potentially shocking tale of a woman’s awakening . . . The strong first section introduces Modesta just when she’s discovered the art of self-pleasure.  Surviving rape and fire, she’s taken into a convent where she discovers another source of pleasure: words, and the ability to manipulate others . . . With its specificity of place, experimentation (Sapienza switches between third- and first-person points of view, sometimes on the same page), and pugnacious determination to use one woman’s life to show a tradition-bound world struggling toward modernity, Sapienza’s singular book compels.” (Publishers Weekly)


2 comments:

  1. Oh, how I adore your Front Porch posts, David. So excited about three of them including "Havisham." Many thanks.

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  2. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded. Here are these two classes as described by James in his own words:
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2013/11/bellow-deans-december.html#.UyN3Wj9dXxA

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