Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Front Porch Books: July 2014 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers.  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.

Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich (Little, Brown and Company):  We'll begin this month's edition of Front Porch Books with a few short story collections I regretfully missed highlighting in what was supposed to be the be-all, end-all list of 2014 collections--even the "Bigger Boat Addendum" missed these new and forthcoming releases.  Sorry, my fellow scribes!  First up is Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich, a by-all-accounts hilarious gathering of tales about the absurdities of our modern culture.  Take a giggle at the Jacket Copy:
Twenty years ago, Barney the Dinosaur told the nation's children they were special. We're still paying the price. From "one of the funniest writers in America" (The Daily Beast) comes a collection of stories culled from the front lines of the millennial culture wars. Rife with failing rock bands, student loans, and participation trophies, Spoiled Brats is about a generation of narcissists--and the well-meaning boomers who made them that way. A hardworking immigrant is preserved for a century in pickle brine. A helicopter mom strives to educate her demon son. And a family of hamsters struggles to survive in a private-school homeroom. Surreal, shrewd, and surprisingly warm, these stories are as resonant as they are hilarious.
Here are a few choice Opening Lines:
They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park.  ("Animals") 
When the nurses handed me my son, I couldn't believe how perfect he was. Ben was so robust, nearly fifty inches tall, including horns and tail.  ("Gifted") 
Okay, so this is, like, my diary or whatever.  ("Semester Abroad") 
I am not smart with words, but I work hard every day of my life.  ("Sell Out") 
So a guy walks into a bar one day and he can't believe his eyes. There, in the corner, there's this one-foot-tall man, in a tiny tuxedo, playing a sonata on a little piano.  ("Guy Walks Into a Bar") 
I love my father, but sometimes he can get on my nerves. It's hard to explain why exactly. It's just little things he does, here and there, that bother me. For example, sometimes he shits into his hands and then throws the shit into my face while jumping up and down and screaming. I know he's just trying to be funny--and it is funny, I can see that. But there's just something about it that annoys me. I've asked him politely not to do it anymore, but I always get the same reaction. He just rolls his yellow eyes and says, "I'm sorry, your majesty."  ("Family Business") 
There aren't a lot of jobs out there for elves. You can work in the toy shop, a nonunion hellhole, and handcraft Hess trucks until you get arthritis.  ("Elf on the Shelf") 
Mr. and Mrs. Carr had been dead for several months, but like most ghosts, they thought they were still living.  ("Upper East Side Ghosts")
Now that's some crackling, sparking, live-wire-dancing-in-a-rainstorm kind of writing.  I'm bumping Spoiled Brats closer to the top of my To-Be-Read pile.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree (A Strange Object):  I'm a huge fan of Criterion, the company that has lovingly, smartly packaged classic and arthouse films for movie nuts like me since 1984.  That's one of the reasons I'm drawn to this collection of short fiction by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree (the other attraction for me is that I think the Austin, Texas micro-press A Strange Object is doing some mighty interesting stuff).  It's a unique book about--well, I'll just turn the microphone over to the authors to let them explain how it came into being:
We wrote Our Secret Life in the Movies in San Francisco, in a shared sublet a block away from the Mission Dolores, the site of Carlotta Valdes’s grave in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. We’d hatched a plan to watch every film in The Criterion Collection’s sweeping catalog of world cinema classics over the course of a single year, an obsession that fed off pizza boxes, sambuca fumes, and whatever is damaged on the Y chromosome. We watched film after film—as many as two or three a day—and wrote stories inspired by them. After completing a dozen sketches, it became obvious that we were writing a fragmented book of linked snapshots chronicling our parallel trajectories as the last children of the Cold War and the analog era, coming of age in the 1980s amidst the white noise of intercontinental-ballistic mayhem and Reaganomics. Nearly all of us have a secret life in the movies, in which the pictures seep through our dreams until fantasy and reality become hopelessly blurred. We are in the movies, and the movies are in us.
Our Secret Life in the Movies is set up in such a way that McGriff and Tyree each write a piece of flash fiction about particular movies--which include Blade Runner, Mon Oncle, On the Waterfront, Donnie Darko and more than a dozen other films I'd never heard of (this shows how deep and wide The Criterion Collection really is).  I'm not sure if the authors collaborated on each story or who authored which piece of the pairs--but that's probably less important than the stories themselves which are written in a flowing, free-form dreaminess with often bizarre and jarring imagery (much like pieces of film, actually).  The stories aren't necessarily about the movies themselves, but about how the movies make us feel.  Here, for instance, are the Opening Lines to "The Man Who Married an Egg," inspired by Blade Runner:
After my father leaves us, he buys a dozen large eggs and takes a perfectly brown, perfectly egg-shaped egg for a wife. At night he places her in the robin's nest by their wedding photo, by day she sits on the kitchen table in a stand made from a coat hanger. They listen to classical music on the radio and complain about the lack of twentieth-century composers and the DJ's droning voice.

My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible by Gregg Cusick (Livingston Press):  Here's one other short story collection (out in October from this small press headquartered in Alabama) which came to my attention this past week.  Anything with a dirigible will always give me reason to take a closer look, but a quick tour through some of the stories' Opening Lines ensures I'll linger a little while longer in these pages:
Ever since she shot her husband, Bonnie has felt better about their relationship.  ("Balance") 
Alone in the house--his mother on second shift at the hospital--Hank scrapes his plate of congealing macaroni into the dog's dish.  ("Dozen Wheelbarrows") 
He is nothing like she remembers. She thinks the word husk when she first sees him, pictures a dried cornstalk barely upright in a muddy winter field.  ("Have You Seen Me?")
The Jacket Copy reveals some further tantalizing promise for what's ahead:
A small town suicide ripples through the lives of a series of acquaintances. An aging professor wavers before his class while reliving the sinking of his WWII troopship where hundreds perished. A middle-aged woman confronts her dying abuser of thirty years before. And in the title story, an old man recalls his boyhood view of his own father and the great rigid airship Shenandoah that passed over hours before its dramatic crash. In all the stories in this debut collection, ordinary, yet remarkable individuals face common human challenges in original, often surprising ways.
And none other than the great Lee Smith offers up this Blurbworthiness: "Poet of the everyday, connoisseur of hard times, spokesman for the down and out...there seems to be no end to the range of characters that Gregg Cusick can understand and articulate, often better than they can themselves."

The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke (Algonquin Books):  As an insane fan of Brock Clarke's previous two novels, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England and Exley, I was ecstatic to see The Happiest People in the World land on my front doorstep.  The Jacket Copy doesn't really let on too much about the plot--something to do with "the American obsession with security and the conspiracies that threaten it" in a "story of innocence corrupted"--but frankly, I don't really care.  This is Brock Friggin' Clarke, people!  I will happily sink into his words, no matter what they're about.  If you're a newcomer to this novelist, then these Opening Lines (just a snippet of the dazzling, single-paragraph first chapter) will give you a taste of his style, which deliciously combines humor and heartbreak:
The moose head was fixed to the wall, the microphone in its mouth was broken, but the camera in its left eye was working just fine, and as far as the moose head could see, this was just another Friday night in the Lumber Lodge! Perhaps even more Friday night than most Friday nights. In fact, it was barely evening at all--the camera had just begun recording, as it did every night, at 5 p.m.--but it looked a lot like closing time. The smoke, for instance! New York State law had been insisting for years now that no one was allowed to smoke in this bar or in any other bar, but this law, like most laws--including the United States' laws preventing unauthorized surveillance of its citizens--was often ignored, and wow, was it being ignored tonight. The smoke was so thick the moose head was barely able to see the people it was intended to spy on. Finally, at 5:04 p.m., the smoke had thinned enough for the moose head to tell how very drunk all the people were. They were so very drunk that they were sprawled out on the floor, all of them--the boy who was clearly too young to be in the bar in the first place (another law broken, ignored); the blond woman who spent more time in the bar than anyone; the man who was wearing a red hat with a white letter C on it; the man who, along with the blond woman, the moose head had watched put up streamers all around the Lumber Lodge the day before; the woman and the man and the other man who had put the microphone and the camera in the moose head in the first place; the man with the ruined hand; the man with the garish shirt; the woman with the black hair who was clutching another red baseball hat with the white letter C on it; the man with the new haircut; the dark-skinned man the moose head had never seen before--all of them lying on the floor, obviously drunk, obviously completely plastered, grabbing at each other, reaching out for each other, yelling at each other (the moose head could not hear them but could see the O shapes their yelling mouths made), wrestling with each other, hugging each other, crawling away from and toward each other across the beer-and-booze-stained wooden floor. The stains were dark--darker than the usual stains--but then again these people were clearly drunker than the usual drunks, so they must have consumed alcohol darker and stronger than their usual alcohol. The moose head was not capable of judging these people; the moose head simply watched them the way the moose head had watched so many other drunks on so many other Friday nights.
Man, oh man.  I myself once wrote a story in which a taxidermist spied on his ex-wife through the eyes of a mounted elk head, but my words read like a Dick and Jane primer compared to Brock Clarke's fiction.  Here's some nice Blurbworthiness for The Happiest People in the World from Richard Russo: “Brock Clarke’s hilarious new novel starts out in rural Denmark, then takes us someplace really foreign and utterly weird: upstate New York.  The parallel universe Clarke creates there is both our world and not, and like his baffled, yearning characters, we navigate it with surprise and wonder.”

Tinseltown by William Mann (Harper):  As evidenced by my 20-year work-in-progress--a novel about a midget who finds work in Hollywood as a stuntman--I am obsessed with Hollywood history, particularly that era between 1910 and 1950.  And so, when I see a book with the word "Tinseltown" diagonally blazed across the front cover, you can imagine the chain of tickles that sets off inside my chest.  William Mann's book focuses on one particular shady, seamy, unsolved chapter of H-wood's history: the unsolved murder of movie director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.  Taylor's death was just one of many scandals which rocked Hollywood around that same time (see also: Fatty Arbuckle--another personal obsession of mine).  It is one of Tinseltown's most perplexing cold cases and this book promises to finally find an answer in a tale of "murder, morphine and madness."  Mann has a James Ellroy-like grab-you-by-the-lapels style, as we can see in the Opening Lines of the book's introduction:
      This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upward through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck, after being fired by an unknown assailant 92 years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.
      This is also the story of three beautiful, ambitious women, all of whom loved the victim and any of whom might have been his killer, or the reason he was killed. It is also the story of one very powerful man, who saw the future of a very profitable industry hanging in the balance and kept the truth about the murder obscured and camouflaged for nearly a century.
The publisher is billing this as “The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”  It makes for a nice marquee--and indeed, you had me at "Nathanael West"--but we'll see how well Mann handles the material.   I, for one, can't wait to time-travel back to a Los Angeles full of "party girls, drug dealers, religious zealots, newly-minted legends and starlets already past their prime."

Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder (HarperCollins):  This new novel by the author of The Juliet Stories and Hair Hat begins with the irresistible voice from a resident of a nursing home who evidently has a story to tell.  Let's eavesdrop on the Opening Lines:
      This is not the love song of Aganetha Smart.
      No, and don't talk to me of being weary and claiming one's well-earned rest.
      All my life I've been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer. In the beginning, I chased it with abandon, with confidence, and somewhat later with frustration, and then with grief, and later yet with the clarity of an escape artist.  It is far too late to stop, even if i run in my mind only, out of habit.
      You do what you do until you're done. You are who you are until you're not
      My name is Aganetha Smart, and I am 104 years old.
      Do not imagine this is an advantage.
      I have outlived everyone I've ever loved, and everyone who ever loved me. Nor have I aged well. Just look at me.
Yes, just look at her sitting there in her wheelchair: mind as spry as a a spring, voice as smart as a whip.  This is going to be one of those books driven by its narrator's voice and, based on these first opening lines, I think it's going to be a crackling success.  --What's that, you say?  Who is Aganetha Smart?  Sorry, I guess I should have properly introduced the two of you.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
Girl Runner is the story of Aganetha Smart, a former Olympic athlete who was famous in the 1920s, but now, at age 104, lives in a nursing home, alone and forgotten by history. For Aganetha, a competitive and ambitious woman, her life remains present and unfinished in her mind. When her quiet life is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of two young strangers, Aganetha begins to reflect on her childhood in rural Ontario and her struggles to make an independent life for herself in the city. Without revealing who they are, or what they may want from her, the visitors take Aganetha on an outing from the nursing home. As ready as ever for adventure, Aganetha’s memories are stirred when the pair return her to the family farm where she was raised. The devastation of WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic, the optimism of the 1920s and the sacrifices of the 1930s play out in Aganetha’s mind, as she wrestles with the confusion and displacement of the present. Part historical page-turner, part contemporary mystery, Girl Runner is an engaging and endearing story about family, ambition, athletics and the dedicated pursuit of one’s passions. It is also, ultimately, about a woman who follows the singular, heart-breaking and inspiring course of her life until the very end.
Girl Runner will be released in the U.S. in early 2015, but Canadian bookworms can get their hands on the novel in September (lucky Canucks, eh?).  Now, aren't you glad you dropped by the nursing home?

Alphabet by Kathy Page (Biblioasis):  Speaking of Canada, have I ever mentioned how much I love Ontario-based publisher Biblioasis?  If not, then let me correct that lapse right now.  Biblioasis has been putting out high-quality, hand-crafted literature for a number of years and I always love it when their books sneak south across the border onto my doorstep.  Kathy Page's new novel is no exception.  Like Girl Runner, Alphabet is driven forward by voice and character--but the person inhabiting these pages is very different than the 104-year-old Aganetha Smart in that earlier novel.  Here's the Jacket Copy to paint a portrait for us:
Simon Austen has the names people have called him tattooed all over his body. "Dumb Cunt." "Waste of Space." "A Threat to Women." "Murderer." Simon Austen has strangled his girlfriend. For the next thirteen years, Simon Austen will be serving life. Barely out of his teens, his past a grim assembly of foster homes, Simon is cagey, reserved, and highly intelligent. He's been told he has trouble relating to women. But what kind of woman would want to relate to "him"? Determined to resolve his issues on his own terms, and at great personal risk, Simon begins writing illicit letters to women under assumed identities. And though short-lived, his letter-writing triggers a terrifying process of self-reconstruction. "Who is Simon Austen," he is forced to ask, and "who do his psychiatrists want him to become?" A jolting portrait of modern prison regimes, Alphabet is the story of a man's uncertain and often-harrowing journey towards rehabilitation.
Blurbworthiness: "I can't remember the last time I was so compelled, impressed, and unsettled by the emotional world of a novel."  (Sarah Waters, author of The Paying Guests)

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