Friday, September 12, 2014

Front Porch Books: September 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, 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.

The Infernal by Mark Doten (Graywolf Press):  I'll begin and end this discussion of Mark Doten's debut novel with some ripe Blurbworthiness; first from Ben Marcus (author of The Flame Alphabet): “The Infernal is insane.  Mark Doten turns his war criminals into the lecherous cartoons they might really be, as if the Warren Report were a drugged-out musical.  From now on I want all of my novels this brilliant, this crazily pitched, this original.”  Insane and original--those were just two of the words swooping through my head like dark bird-like shadows as I leafed through the pages of my advance reader's copy of The Infernal.  Some pages are straightforward text, some are transcripts of military reports, others are reproductions of computer screens using Memex [Wikipedia: The memex (a portmanteau of "memory" and "index" or "memory" and "extender") is the name of the hypothetical proto-hypertext system that Vannevar Bush described in his 1945 Atlantic Monthly article "As We May Think."  Bush envisioned the memex as a device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications, "mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility."  The memex would provide an "enlarged intimate supplement to one's memory."  The concept of the memex influenced the development of early hypertext systems (eventually leading to the creation of the World Wide Web) and personal knowledge base software.  However, the memex system used a form of document bookmark list, of static microfilm pages, rather than a true hypertext system where parts of pages would have internal structure beyond the common textual format.]  I don't know what to make of Doten's book, but I guarantee that I'm intrigued.   Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the early years of the Iraq War, a severely burned boy appears on a remote rock formation in the Akkad Valley. A shadowy, powerful group within the U.S. government speculates: Who is he? Where did he come from? And, crucially, what does he know? In pursuit of that information, an interrogator is summoned from his prison cell, and a hideous and forgotten apparatus of torture, which extracts “perfect confessions,” is retrieved from the vaults. Over the course of four days, a cavalcade of voices rises up from the Akkad boy, each one striving to tell his or her own story. Some of these voices are familiar: Osama bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, Condoleezza Rice, Mark Zuckerberg. Others are less so. But each one has a role in the world shaped by the war on terror. Each wants to tell us: This is the world as it exists in our innermost selves. This is what has been and what might be. This is The Infernal.
Here are some final words of praise from Dale Peck (author of Martin and John):  “From the first page to the last, [The Infernal] explodes like a roll of Black Cats in a dazzling, deafening, brilliant display of linguistic and intellectual energy.  It will thrill you, confound you, and ultimately force you to submit to its perspective, and in the end it will change the way you think about the world you live in.”

The High Divide by Lin Enger (Algonquin Books):  Montana is all the rage in my home library this year, with novels like Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks, The Home Place by Carrie La Seur and High and Inside by Russell Rowland on the Read It! Loved It! shelf; and The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan and Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson on the Can't Wait to Read It, Pretty Sure I'll Love It shelf.  Add Lin Enger's new novel The High Divide to that second list.  His first novel, Undiscovered Country (set in Minnesota) is still impatiently waiting for me on that To-Be-Read shelf, but I may end up discovering The High Divide first.  Because, you know, Montana.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In 1886, Gretta Pope wakes one morning to discover that her husband is gone. Ulysses Pope has left his family behind on the far edge of Minnesota's western prairie with only the briefest of notes and no explanation for why he left or where he's headed. It doesn't take long for Gretta's young sons, Eli and Danny, to set off after him, following the scant clues they can find, jumping trains to get where they need to go, and ending up in the rugged badlands of Montana. Gretta has no choice but to search for her sons and her husband, leading her to the doorstep of a woman who seems intent on making Ulysses her own. Meanwhile, the boys find that the closer they come to Ulysses' trail, the greater the perils that confront them, until each is faced with a choice about whom he will defend, and who he will become. Enger's breathtaking portrait of the vast plains landscape is matched by the rich expanse of his characters' emotional terrain, as pivotal historical events--the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians--blend seamlessly with the intimate story of a family's sacrifice and devotion.
Blurbworthiness:  “Set against a backdrop of beauty and danger, this is the moving story of a man coming to terms with his past.  In its narrative simplicity and emotional directness, it is reminiscent of John Ford’s classic The Searchers.” (Publishers Weekly)

The Deep by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster):  The Jacket Copy for this new novel coming in January from the author of The Troop doesn't waste any time in ratcheting up the tension:
From the acclaimed author of The Troop—which Stephen King raved “scared the hell out of me and I couldn’t put it down.…old-school horror at its best”—comes this utterly terrifying novel where The Abyss meets The Shining. A strange plague called the ’Gets is decimating humanity on a global scale. It causes people to forget—small things at first, like where they left their keys…then the not-so-small things like how to drive, or the letters of the alphabet. Then their bodies forget how to function involuntarily…and there is no cure. But now, far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, deep in the Marianas Trench, an heretofore unknown substance hailed as “ambrosia” has been discovered—a universal healer, from initial reports. It may just be the key to a universal cure. In order to study this phenomenon, a special research lab, the Trieste, has been built eight miles under the sea’s surface. But now the station is incommunicado, and it’s up to a brave few to descend through the lightless fathoms in hopes of unraveling the mysteries lurking at those crushing depths…and perhaps to encounter an evil blacker than anything one could possibly imagine. Part horror, part psychological nightmare, The Deep is a novel that fans of Stephen King and Clive Barker won’t want to miss—especially if you’re afraid of the dark.
And how about that hand reaching out to grab us from the cover design?  File under: Irresistible Literature.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner):  I was honored to share the stage at last year's Brattleboro Literary Festival with Megan Mayhew Bergman as we (along with several other writers) read short short stories.  I read two pieces--one about a cross-country trip that ends in a breakup, and one about a son realizing his father has succumbed to Alzheimer's--but when Megan took the microphone--man, oh, man.  It's like she'd gone out into the audience with a hammer and--tap tap tap--nailed each of us to our seat.  "Expression Theory" is a short piece about James Joyce's daughter, Lucia, who--as Bergman makes explicitly clear in about 750 words--is emotionally troubled but, like her father, possesses a vivid imagination ("Her thoughts were the color of moss and her head was teeming with them.").  Lucia's story is just one of the many about "almost famous women" in Bergman's followup to her promising debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise.  Here's the Jacket Copy to give you an idea of why I'm already head over heels for this collection, even before I've read all of it:
From “a top-notch emerging writer with a crisp and often poetic voice and wily, intelligent humor” (The Boston Globe): a collection of stories that explores the lives of talented, gutsy women throughout history. The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader’s imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions. The world hasn’t always been kind to unusual women, but through Megan Mayhew Bergman’s alluring depictions they finally receive the attention they deserve. Almost Famous Women is a gorgeous collection from an “accomplished writer of short fiction” (Booklist).
I love the way the first story, "The Pretty Grown-Together Children," begins.  It's about Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins who toured the U.S. sideshow and vaudeville circuit in the 1930s.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      Let me tell it, I said.
      No, you’re a liar and a drunk, I said. Or she said.
      Our voices could be like one. I could feel hers in my bones, especially when she sang—a strong quicksilver soprano.
      One of us has to tell it, I said, and it’s going to be me.
Like I said, pinned to my seat with nails.

Sins of Our Fathers by Shawn Lawrence Otto (Milkweed Editions):  This debut novel by the award-winning writer and co-producer of the Oscar-nominated film House of Sand and Fog, takes us to a specialized world of banking, casinos and Native American reservations in the "northern heartland" of America.  It's not a world I often encounter in contemporary literature (or, maybe I just need to get out more).  Here's the Jacket Copy to further pique your interest:
JW is a small-town banker. His specialty: teaching other bankers in towns near Indian reservations how to profit from casino deposits without exposing themselves to risk. His problem: having lost his son in a car accident a year ago, JW is depressed, his wife is leaving him, and he can't stop gambling. When he is caught embezzling funds to support his addiction, JW's boss offers him a choice. He can either accept responsibility and go to prison, or use his talents to sabotage a competing Native American banker named Johnny Eagle. With the clock ticking, JW moves into a trailer on the reservation within sight of his prey. But as he befriends Eagle and his son, JW finds that his plan to reclaim his freedom will be more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies (Torrey House Press):  The subtitle of this edition of Jefferies' 1883 autobiography bears mentioning: "As Rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams."  When I saw one of our most respected nature writers (When Women Were Birds) and her husband were bringing a 131-year-old book to my attention, I sat up a little straighter and peered a little closer.  Here's the Jacket Copy with the backstory:
While browsing a Stonington, Maine, bookstore, Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams discovered a rare copy of an exquisite autobiography by nineteenth-century British nature writer Richard Jefferies, who develops his understanding of a "soul-life" while wandering the wild countryside of Wiltshire, England. Brooke and Terry, like John Fowles, Henry Miller, and Rachel Carson before, were inspired by the prescient words of this visionary writer, who describes ineffable feelings of being at one with nature. In an introduction and essays set alongside Jefferies' writing, the Williams share their personal pilgrimage to Wiltshire to understand this man of "cosmic consciousness" and how their exploration of Jefferies deepened their own relationship while illuminating dilemmas of modernity, the intrinsic need for wildness, and what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.
Here are the Opening Lines, as published by Jefferies in 1883:
The story of my heart commences seventeen years ago. In the glow of youth, there were times every now and then when I felt the necessity of a strong inspiration of soul-thought. My heart was dusty, parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry, for there is a dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge. It is injurious to the mind as well as to the body to be always in one place and always surrounded by the same circumstances. A species of thick clothing slowly grows about the mind, the pores are choked, little habits become a part of existence, and by degrees the mind is inclosed in a husk. When this began to form I felt eager to escape from it, to throw off the heavy clothing, to drink deeply once more at the fresh foundations of life. An inspiration--a long deep breath of the pure air of thought--could alone give health to the heart.
Chapters of Jefferies' 19th-century book are interspersed with Brooke's writing about his relationship with Terry and how his reading of the book impacts him in the deepest, most spiritual ways.  This looks like it will be the perfect kind of book to read this winter, what I've always consider a contemplative season.

Straight White Male by John Niven (Grove/Atlantic):  Oh, Opening Lines, how I love you so!  Let me pull you close, press the flesh of my eyes against the curve of your vowels, and ravish you all night long!
      He recrossed his legs, comfortable in the club chair, and gazed out through the floor-to-ceiling windows, pretending to consider the question. From where he sat, nicely chilled by the AC, high in Century City (the shark tank of CAA just down the street), Kennedy Marr could look east and see downtown Los Angeles broiling in the July heat. ‘Broiling’. Ach – these Americans. He’d been here eight years and he still didn’t really know what ‘broiling’ was. Somewhere between frying and boiling? Wouldn’t ‘froiling’ be better? Whatever – it was just after 11 a.m. and it was already froiling. This demented city, this insult to nature: a garden carved out of desert basin. Like maintaining a 20,000-hectare greenhouse in the Arctic. He became aware that Dr Brendle – one of this demented city’s more demented creations, Kennedy thought – was looking at him expectantly, his pinched, serious face demanding an answer. Kennedy now realised he had completely forgotten what the question had been. Not a listener.
      ‘Could you, ah, could you rephrase that please?’ he said, smoothing down the leg of his linen suit, feeling the sluggish tug of the enormous screwdriver he’d guzzled at a bar off Santa Monica Boulevard on the way here, to fortify himself for this hellish, weekly appointment.
      ‘Well, another way of putting it,’ Brendle said, clicking his pen on and off, ‘would be to ask why, as an intelligent man whose working life must involve a good degree of self-analysis, do you continue to indulge in behaviour that you know is hurtful to those around you?’
It's going to be pretty easy to indulge, binge and engorge on John Niven's tasty new novel, Straight White Male.  Here's the Jacket Copy for your ogling pleasure:
Irish novelist Kennedy Marr is a first rate bad boy. When he is not earning a fortune as one of Hollywood's most sought after script writers, he is drinking, insulting and philandering his way through LA, 'successfully debunking the myth that men are unable to multitask'. He is loved by many women, but loathed by even more including ex-wives on both sides of the pond. Kennedy's appetite for trouble is insatiable, but when he discovers that he owes 1.4 million dollars in back taxes, it seems his outrageous, hedonistic lifestyle may not be as sustainable as he thought. Forced to accept a teaching position at sleepy Deeping University, where his ex-wife and teenaged daughter now reside, Kennedy returns to England with a paper trail of tabloid headlines and scorned starlets hot on his bespoke heels. However, as he acclimatizes to the quaint campus Kennedy is forced to reconsider his laddish lifestyle. Incredible as it may seem, there might actually be a father and a teacher lurking inside this 'preening, narcissistic, priapic sociopath'. Straight White Male is a wildly funny and whip smart tale of Kennedy's transatlantic misadventures. It's an uninhibited and heartfelt look at the mid-life crisis of a lovable rogue.
Ooo, and la, and la!

Jackaby by William Ritter (Algonquin Books):  R. F. Jackaby, "an enigmatic detective of all things supernatural," has a staff whose members include a duck and a frog.  Oh man, you had me at "enigmatic"; the animal assistants just sealed the deal.  The first in a planned series for Algonquin's Young Readers imprint, Jackaby captured my attention well before its publication date.  I welcomed its arrival on my front porch.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
"Miss Rook, I am not an occultist," Jackaby said. "I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion--and there are many illusions. All the world's a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain." Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby's assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it's an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it's a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny. Doctor Who meets Sherlock in a debut novel, the first in a series, brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.
Blurbworthiness: “Toss together an alternate 19th-century New England city, a strong tradition of Sherlockian pastiche, and one seriously ugly hat, and this lighthearted and assured debut emerges, all action and quirk.”  (Publishers Weekly)

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh (Fence Books):  Winner of the 2014 Fence Modern Prize in Prose, Moshfegh's novel opens with an epigraph from Emerson: "The young men were born with knives in their brain."  From what I've read so far, that's the perfect tone to set for this electrifying short novel.  As prize judge Rivka Galchen noted, "A sextant of the psyche, McGlue works its grand knowing through the mouthfeel of language; it's a sharply intelligent, beautiful, and singular novel.  A scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once, Moshfegh transforms a poison into an intoxicant."  The proof is in the poison--here are the Opening Lines:
      I wake up.
      My shirtfront is stiff and bibbed brown. I take it to be dried blood and I'm a dead man. The ocean air persuades me to doubt, to reel my head in double-, triple-takes towards my feet. My feet are on the ground. It may be that I fell face first in mud. Anyway, I'm still too drunk to care.
The Jacket Copy hints at how McGlue got in this sorry state of affairs:
      Salem, Massachusetts, 1851: McGlue is in the hold, still too drunk to be sure of name or situation or orientation--he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A-sail on the high seas of literary tradition, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard on a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.
      "They said I've done something wrong?...And they've just left me down here to starve. They'll see this inanition and be so damned they'll fall to my feet and pass up hot cross buns slathered in fresh butter and beg I forgive them. All of them...the entire world one by one. Like a good priest I'll pat their heads and nod. I'll dunk my skull into a barrel of gin."
Blurbworthiness: "Short-fiction genius Ottessa Moshfegh's first novel is a gorgeously sordid story of love and murder on the high seas and in reeky corners of mid-nineteenth-century New York and points North.  McGlue is a wonderwork of virtuoso prose and truths that will make you squirm and concur."  (Gary Lutz)

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