Thursday, August 22, 2013

Front Porch Books: August 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.

Goat Mountain by David Vann (HarperCollins):  When I think of David Vann, I think of Alaska since that's where two of his previous books, Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide, have been set.  But Goat Mountain takes us to Northern California--a different physical landscape, but no less wrenching an emotional territory than what we've encountered in Vann's earlier fiction.  Even the Jacket Copy makes me catch my breath and bite my lip:
In the fall of 1978, on a 640-acre family ranch on Goat Mountain in Northern California, an eleven-year-old boy joins his grandfather, his father, and his father's best friend on the family's annual deer hunt.  Every fall they return to this dry, yellowed landscape dotted with oak, buckbrush, and the occasional stand of pine trees.  Goat Mountain is what this family owns and where they belong.  It is where their history is kept, where their memories and stories are shared.  And for the first time, the boy's story will become part of their narrative, if he can find a buck.  Itching to shoot, he is ready.  When the men arrive at the gate to their land, the father discovers a poacher and sights him through the scope of his gun.  He offers his son a look--a simple act that will explode in tragedy, transforming these men and this family, forcing them to question themselves and everything they thought they knew.  David Vann creates a haunting and provocative novel, in prose devastating and beautiful in its precision, that explores our most primal urges and beliefs, the bonds of blood and religion that define and secure us, and the consequences of our actions--what we owe for what we've done.
Here are the Opening Lines: "Dust like powder blanketing the air, making a reddish apparition of the day.  Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed.  The pickup a segmented creature, head twisting opposite the body.  A sharp bend and I nearly tumbled off the side."

Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon (Algonquin Books):  One of my favorite publishing houses, Algonquin Books, is branching out into tween territory (just as one of my favorite literary magazines, One Story, has started a separate line of young-adult fiction).  If Seamon's novel about a teen in hospice care is any indication, the Algonquin Young Readers imprint has a long life ahead of it.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
"Chemo, radiation, a zillion surgeries, watching my mom age twenty years in twenty months...if that's part of the Big Dude's plan, then it's pretty obvious, isn't it?  Enough said."  Smart-mouthed and funny, sometimes raunchy, Richard Casey is in most ways a typical seventeen-year-old boy.  Except Richie has cancer, and he's spending his final days in a hospice unit.  His mother, his doctors, and the hospice staff are determined to keep Richie alive as long as possible.  But in this place where people go to die, Richie has plans to make the most of the life he has left.  Sylvie, the only other hospice inmate under sixty, then tells Richie she has a few plans of her own.  What begins as camaraderie quickly blossoms into real love, and this star-crossed pair is determined to live on their own terms, in whatever time they have left.  Making her young adult fiction debut, Hollis Seamon creates one of the most original voices to appear in young adult literature, narrating a story that is unflinching, graphic, heartbreaking, funny, and above all life-affirming in its depiction of what it really means to be a teenager dying of cancer.
Sure, it's a little The Fault in Our Stars-y, but crack open the front cover, turn to the first page, read the Opening Lines, and if you're like me, you'll be instantly hooked by Richie's smart (and smart-ass) voice:
      I shit you not.  Hey, I'm totally reliable, sweartogod.  I, Richard Casey--aka the Incredible Dying Boy--actually do live, temporarily, in the very hospice unit I'm going to tell you about.  Third floor, Hilltop Hospital, in the city of Hudson, the great state of New York.
      Let me tell you just one thing about this particular hospice.  Picture this: right in front of the elevator that spits people into our little hospice home there is a harpist.  No joke.  Right there in our lobby, every damn day, this old lady with white hair and weird long skirts sits by a honking huge harp and strums her heart out.  Or plucks, whatever.  The harp makes all these sappy sweet notes that stick in your throat.

The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei (Other Press):  If you were to take a quick glance at the cover of Peter Mattei's new book, you might be forgiven for thinking it's called "A Novel" because those are the largest, boldest words you'll see there.  But the title The Deep Whatsis is no less in-your-face with its puzzled meaning.  Maybe you'll later get confused and call it the Whatnot or the Whositz, but chances are, once you start reading it, you won't forget it--not after these memorable Opening Lines:
The intern from the edit house is so drunk she is trying to take her skin off.  At least that’s what it looks like.  She is already half-naked and is grabbing at her flesh trying to find the edge of the Threadless T-shirt that she lost half an hour ago.  I don’t remember her name.
As the Jacket Copy says, meet Eric Nye: player, philosopher, drunk, sociopath....and forgetter-of-intern's-names:
A ruthless young Chief Idea Officer at a New York City ad agency, Eric downsizes his department, guzzles only the finest Sancerre, pops pills, and chases women.  Then one day he meets Intern, whose name he can’t remember.  Will she be the cause of his downfall, or his unlikely awakening?  A gripping and hilarious satire of the inherent absurdity of advertising and the flippant cruelty of corporate behavior, The Deep Whatsis shows the devastating effects of a world where civility and respect have been fired.
Blurbworthiness: "With zingy, hilarious glee, Peter Mattei takes a sharp stick and pokes it at many deserving underbellies: the puffery of corporate America; hipsters, yoga dudes, and the general pretentiousness of north Brooklyn; and many more.  The Deep Whatsis is a provocative, darkly subversive, deeply satisfying novel."  (Kate Christensen, author of The Astral)

The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel (Bloomsbury Press):  Sticking with the subject of great titles, Laura Feigel certainly caught my eye with her literary history of World War Two London.  The Love-Charm of Bombs takes its title from a Graham Greene quote: "The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine ('Where are you?  Where are you?  Where are you?'), the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm."  Of all the books which have recently come across my desk, Feigel's probably holds my interest the most in the way it approaches a subject obliquely and from different angles, like something by William T. Vollman, Nicholson Baker, or David Foster Wallace.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
When the first bombs fell on London in August 1940, the city was transformed overnight into a strange kind of battlefield.  For most Londoners, the sirens, guns, planes, and bombs brought sleepless nights, fear and loss.  But for a group of writers, the war became an incomparably vivid source of inspiration, the blazing streets scenes of exhilaration in which fear could transmute into love.  In this powerful chronicle of literary life under the Blitz, Lara Feigel vividly conjures the lives of five prominent writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and the novelist Henry Green.  Starting with a sparklingly detailed recreation of a single night of September 1940, the narrative traces the tempestuous experiences of these five figures through five years in London and Ireland, followed by postwar Vienna and Berlin.  Volunteering to drive ambulances, patrol the streets and fight fires, the protagonists all exhibited a unified spirit of a nation under siege, but as individuals their emotions were more volatile.  As the sky whistled and the ground shook, nerves were tested, loyalties examined and torrid affairs undertaken.  Literary historian and journalist Feigel brilliantly and beautifully interweaves the letters, diaries, journalism and fiction of her writers with official records to chart the history of a burning world, experienced through the eyes of extraordinary individuals.
Blurbworthiness: "Feigel writes with modesty and grace, never patronises or sentimentalises her subjects, and makes the reader glad to be sharing her ideas.  The Love-charm of Bombs is a bounding success as an account of wartime London and as a study of highly strung but tough characters under stress, and of the way that novelists transmute adultery into great art.  It evokes the inflamed skies, desolate streets, gashed buildings, broken windows, crushed or scorched corpses–and the ways that these stimulated novelists."  (The Sunday Telegraph)

An Afghanistan Picture Show by William T. Vollmann (Melville House):  Speaking of William T. Vollmann (see oblique reference above), here's the new edition of an old book of his.  God bless Melville House for bucking the advice of Library Journal (see direct reference below) and bringing this part-history, part-autobiography back to our attention after thirty years.  Like Nicholson Baker's (see above) Human Smoke, An Afghanistan Picture Show is a melange of war reportage, which is now dosed with three decades of hindsight.  In his self-deprecating introduction to this new edition from Melville House, Vollmann calls this book a "product of sincerity and gaucherie" which "suffers deficiencies of both form and content."  I don't know about you, but hearing an author warn us away from his writing in the very first paragraph only makes me want to read on further.  Here's the Jacket Copy to entice us deeper into the pages:
Never before available in paperback and all but invisible for twenty years, a personal account of the origins of America's longest war.  In 1982, the young William Vollmann worked odd jobs, including as a secretary at an insurance company, until he'd saved up enough money to go to Afghanistan, where he wanted to join the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets.  The resulting book wasn't published until 1992, and Library Journal rated it: "The wrong book written at the wrong time. . . . With the situation in Afghanistan rapidly heading toward resolution . . . libraries may safely skip this."  Thirty years later--and with the United States still mired in the longest war of its history--it's time for a reassessment of Vollmann's heartfelt tale of idealism and its terrifying betrayals.  An alloy of documentary and autobiographical elements characteristic of Vollmann's later nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show is not a work of conventional reportage; instead, it's an account of a subtle and stubborn consciousness grappling with the limits of will and idealism imposed by violence and chaos.
No matter what Library Journal says, I won't be skipping this one.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (Faber and Faber):  I have read the opening paragraph of Fiona McFarlane's debut novel three times now--at first, slowly; but then with increasing, heart-pounding speed each time--and I am convinced it's one of the most enticing openings to a novel I've read all year.  Take a look at the Opening Lines and judge for yourself:
Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, "Tiger."  That was natural; she was dreaming.  But there were noises in the house, and as she woke she heard them.  They came across the hallway from the lounge room.  Something large was rubbing against Ruth's couch and television and, as she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair.  Other sounds followed: the panting and breathing of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with enormous noses.  But the sleeping cats were weighing down the sheets at the end of Ruth's bed, and this was something else.
Dream or no dream, my mouth goes dry and I forget to breathe every time I read those vivid sentences.  The rest of the book looks just as compelling.  For your consideration, the Jacket Copy:
Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of town.  Her routines are few and small.  One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea.  This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government.  Ruth lets her in.  Now that Frida is in her house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat?  Why do memories of childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency?  How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry with her own troubled past?  And how far can Ruth trust herself?  The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane’s hypnotic first novel, is no simple tale of a crime committed and a mystery solved.  This is a tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about aging, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.  Here is a new writer who comes to us fully formed, working wonders with language, renewing our faith in the power of fiction to describe the mysterious workings of our minds.
Blurbworthiness: "The Night Guest is such an accomplished and polished debut.  There's a delicacy and poignancy to the writing, combined with almost unbearable suspense.  I love books in which I have no idea what's going to happen next."  (Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life)

How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (St. Martin's Press):  Here's another book in the same vein as The Night Guest (the Unreliable Narrator Vein).  There's something just a the Opening Lines of Emma Chapman's debut novel, starting with that second word, "somehow":
      Today, somehow, I am a smoker.
      I did not know this about myself.  As far as I remember, I have never smoked before.
      It feels unnatural, ill-fitting, for a woman of my age: a wife, a mother with a grown-up son, to sit in the middle of the day with a cigarette between her fingers.  Hector hates smoking.  He always coughs sharply when we walk behind someone smoking on the street, and I imagine his vocal cords rubbing together, moist and pink like chicken flesh.
      I rub the small white face of my watch.  Twelve fifteen.  By this time, I am usually working on something in the kitchen.  I must prepare supper for this evening, the recipe book propped open on the stand that Hector bought me for an early wedding anniversary.  I must make bread: mix the ingredients in a large bowl, knead it on the cold wooden worktop, watch it rise in the oven.  Hector likes to have fresh bread in the mornings.  Make your home a place of peace and order.
      The smoke tastes of earth, like the air underground.  It moves easily between my mouth and my makeshift ashtray: an antique sugar bowl once given to me by Hector’s mother.  The fear of being caught is like a familiar darkness; I breathe it in with the smoke.
      I found the cigarette packet in my handbag this morning underneath my purse.  It was disorientating, as if it wasn’t my bag after all.  There were some cigarettes missing.  I wonder if I smoked them.  I imagine myself, standing outside the shop in the village, lighting one.  It seems ridiculous.  I’m vaguely alarmed that I do not know for sure.  I know what Hector would say: that I have too much time on my hands, that I need to keep myself busy.  That I need to take my medication.  Empty nest syndrome, he tells his friends at the pub, his mother.  He’s always said I have a vivid imagination.
This is the kind of writing that makes me say, "Yes, I'll keep reading."  The Jacket Copy sinks the hook:
Marta and Hector have been married for a long time.  Through the good and bad; through raising a son and sending him off to life after university.  So long, in fact, that Marta finds it difficult to remember her life before Hector.  He has always taken care of her, and she has always done everything she can to be a good wife—as advised by a dog-eared manual given to her by Hector’s aloof mother on their wedding day.  But now, something is changing.  Small things seem off.  A flash of movement in the corner of her eye, elapsed moments that she can’t recall.  Visions of a blonde girl in the darkness that only Marta can see.  Perhaps she is starting to remember—or perhaps her mind is playing tricks on her.  As Marta’s visions persist and her reality grows more disjointed, it’s unclear if the danger lies in the world around her, or in Marta herself.  The girl is growing more real every day, and she wants something.

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster):  In the opening pages of Michael Farris Smith's debut novel, a man saddles a horse and, armed with a double-barrel shotgun and a flashlight, ventures out into a dark storm full of lashing rain.  Nothing too out of the ordinary, right?  Keep reading.  What makes this interesting is the fact that the horse has been stabled in his living room and as they ride out into the surrounding urban neighborhood, we see that it's full of abandoned houses, downed power lines and "sloppy roads."  We get the distinct feeling that we're in a post-apocalyptic world a la The Road by Cormac McCarthy (indeed, Smith's prose style has some of the same hard-muscled, grim texture of McCarthy's words).  Rivers is a novel full of decay, starting with that spot-on-perfect cover design of a rusted metal sign bleeding onto a wall.  Here's the Jacket Copy to shine a flashlight on the dark plot:
Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees.  The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline.  Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.  Cohen is one who stayed.  Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land.  Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.  But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter.  On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.  Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.  Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.
Blurbworthiness: “The lightning whips and the thunder bellows and the rain attacks in the water-stained pages of Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers, a hurricane-force debut novel that will soak you with its beautiful sadness and blow you away with its prescience about the weather-wild world that awaits us.”  (Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon)

1 comment:

  1. Rivers sounds really unusual and something I am likely to look for. Thank you for posting that. I wonder if you ever read Back From The Abyss by Kieran Doherty. It's the last really great book I read and I think it deserves some attention. From the website;

    "In Back From the Abyss, Kieran Doherty takes the reader along on the wild ride that was his life. With a voice reminiscent of Pete Hamill’s in A Drinking Life and a childhood as tough as Frank McCourt’s in Angela’s Ashes, he tells his story, full of wit, bravado, and Irish charm. We watch him change from altar boy to rebel … then throw away a promising career in the theater. We follow him through his almost unbelievable adventures in the military … through four marriages and countless lovers … through the alcohol-fueled crimes that ultimately landed him in prison … and, finally, through the ugly reality of the cancer that killed him. Along the way, we get a feel for the internal pain, the constant struggle of the “low-bottom” alky to make it from one day to the next."

    Really fantastic book that shouldn't be missed this year. Thanks again :)