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.
Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott (University of Washington Press): Though this isn't a new book (Pumpkin came out a year ago), it's new to me. After picking up a copy from the King's English bookseller's table at last month's Utah Humanities Book Festival, I knew I'd be including it in this month's Front Porch Books feature. I mean, really, the timing is just too perfect. Cindy Ott's cultural history of the large orange squash has appeal far beyond jack-o-lanterns and pies. Like recent food histories (see Salt by Mark Kurlansky and The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson), Pumpkin smartly takes a common ingredient in our society and wraps an entire book around one author's curious investigation of its history. I've put Pumpkin high atop my perpetually-teetering stack of books To Be Read. With all the other books I'm (happily) obligated to read in the next month, I don't know if I'll be able to actually get to it before Thanksgiving--though that's my hope and prayer. You, however, should dig in to this book with enthusiastic knives and forks. Here are the Opening Lines to the Introduction:
In the fall of 1995, I helped a friend, David Heisler, sell pumpkins in front of his farmhouse in Comus, Maryland—more a crossroads than a town—located about forty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Heisler was raised on a nearby dairy farm that had since been sold to developers and divided into large estates. Intent on keeping his tractor a useful piece of equipment instead of merely a yard ornament, he raises fruits and vegetables on a couple of acres adjacent to his house and on fields near where he grew up just down the road. While he drops off peppers, green beans and corn at the local Safeway grocery store for resale without any fanfare in the summer, the piles of pumpkins he sets around his yard amid crates of local apples, Indian corn and a variety of colorful squash are an autumn spectacle. His pumpkin stand draws crowds of thousands every weekend in the month of October. From about ten in the morning until sunset, carloads of visitors wander the pumpkin patch. They playfully hold up specimens of several sizes and shapes for their companions’ inspection and take pictures in the middle of the patch before leaving with armloads, along with bags of the other fall produce.Pumpkin tracks the vegetable's history from 10,000 BC (the planting of the first pumpkin seed in the Americas) to today's pumpkin festivals. From pumpkin beer and pumpkin pie to the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Linus' undying faith in the Great Pumpkin in the Peanuts comic strip, Cindy Ott cultivates the entire patch. Brief aside: While browsing e-bookstores for more information about Pumpkin, I followed a rabbit trail to another book which caught my attention: Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner. It looks like the perfect reading companion piece.
After my immersion in the pageantry of the pumpkin stand for five weekends in a row, I no longer just walked, drove, or turned magazine pages past pumpkins, but rather stopped, stared, and wondered what the fuss was all about. There were not only the crowds flocking to the fall stands to consider, but also the time-honored pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner. Unlike most people around the world who eat pumpkin unceremoniously throughout the year, Americans hardly eat it at all except for at this one national holiday feast. Instead of eating fresh pumpkin, they set them out in front of their houses as decorations every autumn and carve them into jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween night. Small towns across the country hold annual festivals named in the pumpkin’s honor, though few have any real historic ties to the crop. Suddenly, pumpkins, from farm-grown meaty orbs to hollow plastic jack-o’-lanterns, were fascinating objects.
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Laura van den Berg's new collection of short stories begins with a plane crash and ends with a hurricane. If that isn't enough to send you running to the nearest bookstore to pre-order The Isle of Youth, then I just don't know what it is you're looking for, my friend. Van den Berg burst onto the literary scene with her debut collection of short stories What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us four years ago. And now, at last, she returns. I feel like going outside with a trumpet and announcing the news to everyone in my neighborhood. Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia!) calls her "freakishly talented;" Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver) says she is "ridiculously talented." I just say she's a helluva lot of fun to read. Here are the Opening Lines to the first story ("I Looked For You, I Called Your Name"):
The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing. My husband and I were both reading In Flight Magazine and enjoying the complimentary wine in first class—I’d never flown first class before, but it was our honeymoon and we thought that was what we were supposed to do; drink in the daytime, luxuriate in our good fortune—when the plane lurched and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and a passenger in the back screamed. We didn’t know it then, but the pilot was already steering the plane toward an empty brown field, preparing for our descent.(To hear van den Berg read from the beginning of this story, go to the Poets & Writers podcast webpage.) In the press materials accompanying the book, this "Dear Reader" note described what I'd find in the pages ahead of me:
The stories in The Isle of Youth are linked by young female narrators, and they all have some element of crime to them—yet they're not traditional crime stories. They are highly charged, and there is always something big at stake. Van den Berg takes us inside the heads of these women, who are all mired in secrecy and deception, and tells their stories with hypnotic yet searing prose. She writes with the most elegant urgency and rhythm, revealing the inner lives of these marginalized young women, all grappling with the choices they've made and searching for the clues that will unlock their lives. One of the coolest things about these stories is that they always start in one place and end up somewhere entirely different. Every time you think you know where a story is going, it takes a turn down a completely unexpected road. Van den Berg's writing is so self-assured; while there's something deeply unsettling about the contents of the stories, the writing itself remains controlled and grounded.
You Only Get Letters From Jail by Jodi Angel (Tin House Books): This month, my To-Be-Read pile had a growth spurt, thanks to not only Laura van den Berg, but also this compelling new collection of short stories by Jodi Angel. It's Angel's second book (her first, The History of Vegas, came out in 2005), but she didn't really ping on my radar until You Only Get Letters From Jail came on the scene. I think I first heard about her when "A Good Deuce" was featured at Electric Literature last year. (And by the way, if you're not already subscribed to Electric Lit, then you need to mend the error of your ways posthaste. See also: Saguaro by Carson Mell below) Here's Tin House editor Rob Spillman's Angel-ic endorsement:
Two years ago, at the Tomales Bay Writers’ Workshop, north of San Francisco, I went to a reading with Tin House favorites Ron Carlson and Dorothy Allison, both of whom we’ve published multiple times, beginning with the very first issue of the magazine fourteen years ago. Another author was sandwiched in between whom I had never heard of—Jodi Angel. Carlson and Allison are both astonishing, captivating readers, yet Angel somehow upstaged them both with her reading of “A Good Deuce,” her story of a rural California teen dealing with the aftermath of a mother’s overdose. She pulled us into a lower-class world of emotionally stunted teens, a bleak yet vibrant land a million miles away from the shiny, happy America of TV and advertising. I was blown away. But I wondered if it was only her delivery—deadpan, direct, through a veil of dark hair hanging over her face, her leather jacket adding to her overall vibe of “Why’d you drag me out of the biker bar to make me tell you this story?” Afterward, I took the story out of Angel’s hands to see if it was as good on the page as it was in the ether. It was. And is. Later, she told me she wrote the story in one sitting, only a few days before, because she needed something new to read. Angel works stories over in her head, sometimes for months at a time, without writing down a single word, then, when she can’t take it anymore, gets it all down. “A Good Deuce” needed hardly any edits or copy edits. Her “first draft” was nearly flawless.Want more? Okay, just look at all the enthusiastic Blurbworthiness Jodi Angel has been getting:
"Jodi Angel writes like an angel—in the full sense of the designation--which is to say someone fallen out of the armpit of a restless deity—sharp-eyed, ruthless, and tender at the same time. I'd walk a long way to hear her read these stories, and plan to buy a half dozen copies just so I can give them away saying, 'Look at this. You have never before read anything like this.'" (Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina)If you crack open You Only Get Letters From Jail to the first story, the aforementioned "A Good Deuce," you'll see why all these esteemed authors are waxing enthusiastic for Angel. Here are the Opening Lines:
"Jodi Angel embodies this pack of low-rent, no-count, hard-luck, heart-tugging teenage boys so thoroughly that one can only conclude she was one, in this or some former lifetime. Plus, she really knows her way around a paragraph. In these stories, child support never gets paid and guns go off too often and deciding to love something almost guarantees its immediate departure or death. These are hard, wonderful, compassion-inducing stories, laced with surprising and surprisingly powerful grace notes, flashes of heat lightning in the dark." (Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted)
"You Only Get Letters From Jail is one of the finest and truest collections of 'American' short stories I have ever read. Set in small towns among muscle cars and grange halls and rock and roll and damaged vets and divorced parents, Jodi Angel's stories explore in sharp and often funny prose the lives of teenagers trying their best to make sense of things in this world that, more often than not, remain inexplicable." (Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time)
I was on my second bag of Doritos and my lips were stained emergency orange when my best friend, Phillip, said he knew a bar in Hallelujah Junction that didn’t card, and maybe we should go there. We had been sitting in my living room for eighteen or nineteen hours watching Robert Redford movies, where Redford had gone from square-jawed, muscled, and rugged to looking like a blanched piece of beef jerky, and we had watched it go from dark to light to dark again through the break in the curtains. The coroner had wheeled my mother out all those hours ago and my grandma Hannah had stalked down the sidewalk with her fists closed and locked at her side, insisting that a dead body had every right to stay in the house for as long as the family wanted it there. My mother was no longer my mother; she had become Anna Schroeder, the deceased, and my grandma Hannah had been on the phone trying to track my father down. The best we had was a number for the pay phone at the Deville Motel, and only one of two things happened when you dialed that number—either it rang and rang into lonely nothing or someone answered and asked if this was Joey and hung up when the answer was no. My grandma called the number twenty-two times, and the only thing that changed was the quality of the light, and my mother went out, and Phillip came in, and my sister, Christy, packed her things so she could go, and I did not.
Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior by Brandon R. Schrand (University of Nebraska Press): Like Pumpkin, Brandon Schrand's Works Cited is not minty-fresh new (it was released this past Spring), but it's new to me--and, I'm willing to bet, new to you. I was late getting to the Humanities Montana Festival of the Book this year, so I slipped in quietly to the tail end of Schrand's reading in one of the ballrooms. He was midstory--something about how a gift of the illustrated Children's Bible from his glassy-eyed, pot-smoking parents segued into an apocalyptic vision of Mount St. Helens exploding--but I knew right then and there in that hot, smoking-chest moment that I'd be heading right out to the festival's bookstore and buying a copy of Schrand's memoir. His voice (both literally and on the page) was so commanding, so rapid-fire, so goddamn funny that I really had no choice. In Works Cited, Schrand uses books to chart the growth of his life--sort of like progressive pencil marks on the wall to mark a child's height. It's a fascinating angle at which to approach a memoir and I'm totally hooked. Here's the Jacket Copy:
“Doing things by the book” acquires a whole new meaning in Brandon R. Schrand’s memoir of coming of age in spite of himself. The “works cited” are those books that serve as Schrand’s signposts as he goes from life as a hormone-crazed, heavy-metal wannabe in the remotest parts of working-class Idaho to a reasonable facsimile of manhood (with a stop along the way to buy a five-dollar mustard-colored M. C. Hammer suit, so he’ll fit in at college). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn informs his adolescent angst over the perceived injustice of society’s refusal to openly discuss boners. The Great Gatsby serves as a metaphor for his indulgent and directionless college days spent in a drunken stupor (when he wasn’t feigning interest in Mormonism to attract women). William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky parallels his own dangerous adulthood slide into alcoholism and denial. With a finely calibrated wit, a good dose of humility, and a strong supporting cast of literary characters, Schrand manages to chart his own story—about a dreamer thrown out of school as many times as he’s thrown into jail—until he finally sticks his landing.Other "works cited" include Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff. I can't wait to read about this particular boy's life via books.
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce (A Strange Object): For those of you who got a taste of Luce's collection of short stories via the earlier Trailer Park Tuesday post here at the blog, I thought I'd give you an even bigger mouthful of this relatively slim book. As the publisher notes at their website, "Hana Sasaki will introduce you to many things—among them, an oracular toaster, a woman who grows a tail, and an extraordinary sex-change operation. Set in Japan, these stories tip into the fantastical, plumb the power of memory, and measure the human capacity to love." Here are some Opening Lines from the stories in the collection:
Over the course of that interminable weekend after Jun died, Asian lady beetles overtook our place in shadowy Totsuka-cho. Orange, winged bodies coated the ceiling and left yellow stains, carapaces crunched underfoot against the bathroom tile. The air smelled like rancid walnuts. ("Reunion")Lots of talented people have said some nice things about Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. Here is just some of the Blurbworthiness: “Let us all now append one more syllable to the list of the most acrobatic imaginations in contemporary American fiction: Saunders, Bender, Link, and Luce! This book in an incantation, and I adore it.” (Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn) “In Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, Kelly Luce manages the impossible: each story delicate and enormous, intricate, glitteringly beautiful, never less than strange, never less than profound, ten spiderwebs astonishingly spun. Readers: here is your new favorite short story writer.” (Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination) “Kelly Luce writes rings around most writers, and this is only her first book. Hana Sasaki is bold, strange, funny, and tender. These stories are just such a pleasure to read—so forget this blurb and get to the damn book.” (ubiquitous blurber Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine)
Yumiko jiggled the handle and thought, break, broke, broken.
"Toilet's broke," she called, testing him. She waited, imagining the serrated tone he used to correct her English when he was upset. BrokEN. ("Pioneers")
It is her thirtieth birthday. She wakes alone.
Her right hand reaches around to feel a soft length of hair that wasn’t there when she took her bath the night before.
She shuffles to the full-length mirror, cranes her neck. The tail is three inches long, and gleams silver with a lavender tinge, one end thin and flyaway, the other thick as rope. It sprouts from the asymmetrical dark button at the base of her spine—what her mother used to call her Hydrangea Mole. Her mother loved hydrangeas, but Hana found them a bit over-the-top. Hana prefers tulips. ("Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail")
Saguaro by Carson Mell (Electric Literature): Subscribers to Electric Literature received the following email from the lit fic site's editors earlier this month:
Many of you may remember Carson Mell from his story “The West,” which we published back in Electric Literature no. 5. Right before publication, Carson came to our office and handed us a copy of Saguaro, his self-published novel about Bobby Bird, a degenerate rock legend seeking redemption. That lone paperback circulated among our staff. We praised it, we fought over it, and eventually we lost track of it. Now we know we’re not the only ones trying to get our hands on a copy. The book became almost as mythical and elusive as its protagonist: Carson sold-out a 1,000-copy print run on his own, and for a while the only place you could find Saguaro was on eBay (for sixty bucks a pop). Until now.Knowing a good thing when they read it, the smart folks at Electric Literature snatched up Saguaro and released Mell's weird, short novel as an ebook earlier this month. "And since the epic of Bobby Bird cannot be contained in print alone, the digital edition of Saguaro will include illustrations and animations also created by Carson Mell," the publisher added. I grabbed a copy of the novel, downloaded it, and started reading. It took me .001 of a second to get sucked into that numbing vortex we call A Good Read. Judge for yourself. Here are the Opening Lines to Saguaro:
When I was twelve years old I was best friends with a baby. The upside to that kind of a situation is that the baby is always down to hang out, the downside being that you can’t take him anywhere but out in the yard. We spent a lot of time out there though, fiddling around with the bugs and whatnot, maybe even eating one now and then, but I wanted to take him somewhere else; somewhere better. I imagined having a black motorcycle with a breadbox sidecar, him bopping around in there all pink and goofy. I can still see it—two boys a rocket down that long dusty road. The little tiny helmet and racing goggles. Us getting into adventures, sticky situations that he’d get us out of by squeezing through a hole the exact size of a baby.
I made up my first songs for him too. His favorite went like this:
What I call a shower don’t take too long
I hop in the water and I sing me a song
No soap or shampoo so I’m out like a whip
Ain’t got a towel so I drip, drip, drip.
I pushed him around his house in a stroller at top speeds and just about spilled him, soft spot and all, into the linoleum every time we rounded a corner. His beautiful mom never stopped us though—just watched from the couch with her legs crossed, all soft smiles and sipping. She told me she liked it because it left marks in the carpet that made her girlfriends think she vacuumed every day.
The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting by Philip Hensher (Faber and Faber): Some time ago here at the blog, I was lamenting my handwriting, simultaneously complaining about the fact that it was bulbous and ugly while also praising it for the way in which it physically brought me closer to the act of creation. And so, when Philip Hensher's new book about "the lost art of handwriting" arrived on my front porch, I knew I was born to read this book. The Opening Lines to the introduction:
About six months ago, I realized that I had no idea what the handwriting of a good friend of mine looked like. I had known him for over a decade, but somehow we had never communicated using handwritten notes. He had left messages for me, e-mailed me, sent text messages galore. But I don't think I had ever had a letter from him written by hand, a postcard from his holidays, a reminder of something pushed through my letterbox. I had no idea whether his handwriting was bold or crabbed, sloping or upright, italic or rounded, elegant or slapdash.It's a generously-illustrated book about an "endangered art." Here's the Jacket Copy for more illumination:
The odd thing is this. It had never struck me as strange before, and there was no particular reason why it had suddenly come to mind. We could have gone on like this forever, hardly noticing that we had no need of handwriting any more.
This book has been written at a moment when, it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether. Is anything going to be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper? Will some part of our humanity, as we have always understood it, disappear as well?
Hensher introduces us to the nineteenth-century handwriting evangelists who traveled across America to convert the masses to the moral worth of copperplate script; he examines the role handwriting plays in the novels of Charles Dickens; he investigates the claims made by the practitioners of graphology that penmanship can reveal personality. But this is also a celebration of the physical act of writing: the treasured fountain pens, chewable ballpoints, and personal embellishments that we stand to lose. Hensher pays tribute to the warmth and personality of the handwritten love note, postcards sent home, and daily diary entries. With the teaching of handwriting now required in only five states and many expert typists barely able to hold a pen, the future of handwriting is in jeopardy. Or is it? Hugely entertaining, witty, and thought-provoking, The Missing Ink will inspire readers to pick up a pen and write.