Thursday, October 15, 2015
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, independent bookstores, 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 here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books. I’m just as excited as you are to dive into these pages.
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Having grown up in Pennsylvania (born in Bloomsburg, moved to Kittanning at 4 years old), I have a personal interest in Ellen Marie Wiseman’s new novel. Just as I’m now surrounded by old copper-mining families here in Butte, Montana, I spent my early Keystone State years living in communities populated with people whose veins figuratively ran dark with coal dust. Coal River is set in 1912, 50 years before my birth, but it pulls me back to my own past as well.
Jacket Copy: In this vibrant new historical novel, the acclaimed author of The Plum Tree and What She Left Behind explores one young woman’s determination to put an end to child labor in a Pennsylvania mining town. As a child, Emma Malloy left isolated Coal River, Pennsylvania, vowing never to return. Now, orphaned and penniless at nineteen, she accepts a train ticket from her aunt and uncle and travels back to the rough-hewn community. Treated like a servant by her relatives, Emma works for free in the company store. There, miners and their impoverished families must pay inflated prices for food, clothing, and tools, while those who owe money are turned away to starve. Most heartrending of all are the breaker boys Emma sees around the village--young children who toil all day sorting coal amid treacherous machinery. Their soot-stained faces remind Emma of the little brother she lost long ago, and she begins leaving stolen food on families’ doorsteps, and marking the miners’ bills as paid. Though Emma’s actions draw ire from the mine owner and police captain, they lead to an alliance with a charismatic miner who offers to help her expose the truth. And as the lines blur between what is legal and what is just, Emma must risk everything to follow her conscience.
Opening Lines: On the last day of June, in the year when the rest of the world was reeling from the sinking of the Titanic, nineteen-year-old Emma Malloy was given two choices: get on the next train to Coal River, Pennsylvania, or be sent to a Brooklyn poorhouse.
My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things
by Joseph Skibell
“As a writer,” Joseph Skibell has said, “I feel about life the way the people of the Plains felt about the buffalo: I want to use every part of it.” Indeed, in his first work of non-fiction, a collection of personal essays, the novelist sucks the marrow from the bones of his own life and I’m as intrigued and mesmerized as someone watching the rope charmer pictured on the cover of My Father’s Guitar.
Jacket Copy: Often comic, sometimes tender, profoundly truthful, the pleasure in these nonfiction pieces by award-winning novelist Joseph Skibell is discovering along with the author that catastrophes, fantasies, and delusions are what give sweetness and shape to our lives. In My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things, his first nonfiction work, he mines the events of his own life to create a captivating collection of personal essays, a suite of intimate stories that blurs the line between funny and poignant, and between the imaginary and the real. Often improbable, these stories are 100 percent true. Skibell misremembers the guitar his father promised him; together, he and a telemarketer dream of a better world; a major work of Holocaust art turns out to have been painted by his cousin. Woven together, the stories paint a complex portrait of a man and his family: a businessman father and an artistic son and the difficult love between them; complicated uncles, cousins, and sisters; a haunted house; and—of course—an imaginary guitar. Skibell’s novels have been praised as “startlingly original” (the Washington Post), “magical” (the New Yorker), and the work of “a gifted, committed imagination” (the New York Times). With his distinctive style, he has been referred to as “the bastard love child of Mark Twain, I. B. Singer, and Wes Anderson, left on a doorstep in Lubbock, Texas.”
Opening Lines: It all started about five years ago when I received a call from a colleague of mine. We’d done a bit of work together, planning a new major for the college where we teach, and we’d been compensated for this work with a small bonus to our travel-and-research accounts. My colleague was calling to alert me to the fact – something he’d only then discovered – that if these funds weren’t spent by the end of that very day, they’d be forfeited and returned to the college.
I gathered up all the work-related receipts I could find, but when I totaled them up, I still had $177 dollars left. And so I did the only thing I could think to do, the only reasonable thing a person in my situation could do. I went down to my local Guitar Center, and I flagged down a salesman. I told him I had $177 to spend before midnight that night, and I asked him if he’d be willing to part with a Martin Backpacker for precisely amount, tax and case included.
The Martin Backpacker is a small broom-shaped guitar that’s light enough to be carried out into the woods on a backpacking trip, if you were so inclined. It’s also, according to the Martin catalog, the first guitar ever sent into outer space.
Blurbworthiness: “Stories? These wise and humane offerings aren’t stories; they’re musical notes, from a master composer. And they swirl and swell and come together and echo one another to create a concerto of love and sadness and warmth and humor that will linger in your memory long after reading, as the best music always does.” (Jeremy Dauber, author of The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem)
by Matt Gallagher
To say Matt Gallagher’s debut novel is “most-anticipated” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Like many servicemembers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan near the start of this century (along with others who had a vested interested in the desert wars), I first met Matt Gallagher through the blog he kept while deployed to Iraq. Pieces of those blog posts were later incorporated into his first book, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. That was in 2011. I’ve been eagerly anticipating his next book ever since, and what a joy to find it’s a work of fiction that, from all appearances, will be another great addition to my rapidly-growing war literature shelf.
Jacket Copy: The U.S. military is preparing to withdraw from Iraq, and newly-minted lieutenant Jack Porter struggles to accept how it’s happening—through alliances with warlords who have Arab and American blood on their hands. Day after day, Jack tries to assert his leadership in the sweltering, dreary atmosphere of Ashuriyah. But his world is disrupted by the arrival of veteran Sergeant Daniel Chambers, whose aggressive style threatens to undermine the fragile peace that the troops have worked hard to establish. As Iraq plunges back into chaos and bloodshed and Chambers’s influence over the men grows stronger, Jack becomes obsessed with a strange, tragic tale of reckless love between a lost American soldier and Rana, a local sheikh’s daughter. In search of the truth and buoyed by the knowledge that what he finds may implicate Sergeant Chambers, Jack seeks answers from the enigmatic Rana, and soon their fates become intertwined. Determined to secure a better future for Rana and a legitimate and lasting peace for her country, Jack will defy American command, putting his own future in grave peril. Pulling readers into the captivating immediacy of a conflict that can shift from drudgery to devastation at any moment, Youngblood provides startling new dimension to both the moral complexity of war and its psychological toll.
Opening Lines: It’s strange, trying to remember now. Not the war, though that’s all tangled up, too. I mean the other parts. The way sand pebbles nipped at our faces in the wind. How the mothers glared when we raided houses looking for their sons. The smell of farm animal waste and car exhaust blending together during patrols through town, rambling, aimless hours lost to the desert.
Blurbworthiness: “Youngblood is not only a ‘war novel,’ it is a rich, fully formed, and beautifully executed novel-novel, way beyond the chicken coops of genre, a novel about the human heart in contest with itself, a novel about memory and longing and grief and hope and guilt and late-night ironies that raise a chuckle to the lips of the dead. Yes, the people and events in this fine novel are certainly ‘tangled up’ with war, as the author puts it on page one, but it is the same sort of entanglement that Lord Jim has with the ocean, or the sort of entanglement that Huck Finn has with the river.” (Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried)
Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories
by Edward Hamlin
(University of Iowa Press)
I can always count on the Iowa Short Fiction Award to deliver some of the most engaging short stories to arrive on my doorstep each year. This new book by Edward Hamlin already has the front of my shirt bunched in its fist and is pulling me closer. I go willingly.
Jacket Copy: Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories spans the globe, taking us from Belfast to Brazil, Morocco to Manhattan. The teenage daughter of an IRA assassin flees Northern Ireland only to end up in Baby Doc’s terrifying Haiti. An American woman who’s betrayed her brother only to lose him to a Taliban bullet comes face to face with her demons during a vacation in Morocco. A famed photojournalist must find a way to bring her life’s work to closure before she goes blind, a quest that changes her understanding of the very physics of light. By turns innocent and canny, the characters of Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories must learn to improvise—quickly—when confronted with stark choices they never dreamed they’d have to make. Lyrical, immaculately constructed and deeply felt, these nine stories take us far beyond our comfort zones and deep into the wilds of the human heart.
Opening Lines: It wasn’t the guns that bothered her but rather the heat, which was the true killing machine. Guns had always been with her; they figured in her earliest memories. Her father dismantling a revolver on the kitchen table as she picked at her greasy Ulster fry. The RUC boys armed to the teeth outside the greengrocer’s smashed door, outfitted for war in a dank city street. High-powered rifles with sniper scopes laid out in the boot like firewood, or cradled like infants as her uncles stalked through the muddy darkness along the right-of-way. Guns were cityscape.
Blurbworthiness: “Edward Hamlin has been listening hard to the opaque rustling of the world. And he is just as adept at describing the crack a skull makes on tile as the ‘quieter, thrushier’ gurgling of a creek after a drought. The stories in Night in Erg Chebbi are sweeping and intimate and awesomely confident of their own effects. They document staggering, cataclysmic changes—forest fire, flash flood, revolution, murder—as well as the slow violence of grief and degenerative disease. In one story, a photographer is losing her eyesight and her art; in another, a boy leashed to his house on ‘a good long lead’ runs away. This is a collection with both depth and breadth, a book dedicated to revealing ‘the universal concealed in the weft of the particular.’ Hamlin spins the globe, jumping nimbly from a treetop lodge on a Brazilian riverbank to the lawn of a governor’s mansion on the eve of an execution to Merzouga, Morocco, ‘gateway to the dune sea of Erg Chebbi.’ No matter how wild or unsettling the events of a story, Hamlin holds the camera steady. As one character says, ‘What mattered lately was to observe with precision rather than to judge for good or ill.’ Each story here is a world in miniature, illuminated by the flashbulb bursts of Hamlin’s luminous, controlled prose.” (Karen Russell, judge for the 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Award)
Fake Fruit Factory
by Patrick Wensink
A satire about small-town blues and an outlandish chamber of commerce marketing schemes designed to put the “speck of pepper” village on the map? Yes, please!
Jacket Copy: Fake Fruit Factory is a stick-slapping, gut-punching comedic novel about the eccentric small town of Dyson, Ohio. When NASA determines an errant satellite will crash there, the town's young mayor uses the ensuing media circus to attract tourism and save his bankrupt rust belt community. Unless, of course, the satellite completely wipes it from the map. In Fake Fruit Factory, Wensink’s motley cast of characters are the heart of “America’s Boringest City.” Bo Rutili is Dyson’s 26-year-old mayor, who relieves stress with copious doses of hand sanitizer. Donna “Urinating Bear” Queen uses her recent lottery spoils to convince the town she’s the only one who can save it. And Old Man Packwicz, Dyson’s aging ex-mayor, might finally save the town via a filet-mignon wielding, toilet paper-clad mummy. Fake Fruit Factory hilariously captures the peculiarities of small town life through the story of a wacky community finding its place in contemporary America.
Opening Lines: A speck of pepper.
On any map detailed enough to include Dyson, Ohio, it’s a speck of pepper. But most maps ignore it. Most maps neglect the flat Midwestern fields of wheat and corn swaying for miles in every direction. Most maps turn their nose up at Dyson’s lack of a university of major historical attraction or building taller than three stories.
Dyson is a village, technically speaking, and, technically speaking, villages aren’t worth the mapmaker’s time. Dyson’s crumbling downtown isn’t worth his time. Its few thousand people aren’t worth his time. So, every citizen’s job and family and dog and cat and mortgage problem all get housed on a tiny, unmarked dot of pepper. And that little spot of spice never causes so much as a cartographic sneeze. So, like all sneezes, Dyson is forgotten in an instant.
Blurbworthiness: “Patrick Wensink is our Terry Southern and Paul Krassner and possibly one day even our own Jonathan Swift.” (Scott McClanahan, author of Crapalachia)
Daydreams of Angels
by Heather O’Neill
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In her debut short story collection, Canadian novelist Heather O’Neill combines stark realism with traditional fable-like storytelling to deliver a witty, sideways-glance, subversive group of tall tales and twisted fairy stories. Take the first line of “The Gospel According to Mary M.” for instance: “Jesus and I were pretty good friends, and after he disappeared from our neighbourhood and all those TV reporters started showing up on our street, I was a pretty hot property.” I’m already licking my fingers before I feast on the whole book.
Jacket Copy: A cherub breaks all the rules when he spends one night with a girl on earth. Snow White and Rose Red forge a unique way to survive the Paris occupation. A soldier is brought back to life by a toymaker, but he’s not grateful. And a child begins the story of a Gypsy and a bear, who have to finish it themselves. These are old stories, but not as you know them. These are set not in the forests of Europe or fantasy worlds, but on the battlefields of World War Two and the wilderness of downtown Montreal. With her blazing imagination, irreverent humour and arresting prose, Heather O’Neill twists them anew: more magical for their realism, more profound for their darkness; captivating, witty and wicked.
Opening Lines (“The Gypsy and the Bear”): One afternoon in 1946 a child was telling his toy soldiers the tale of a certain tall, menacing-looking Gypsy who was walking down a road in rural France. He had a trained bear and he played the violin. Something magical was meant to happen to him, naturally. However, in the middle of the tale, the child was called to lunch and never returned to the story.
The Gypsy stood there, contemplating his existence. He wasn’t even a real Gypsy, not a member of the great Romany people, but more like the fictional kind, like the ones that you see in old-fashioned storybooks. He had on a pair of black leather boots, a pinstriped suit and a hat with its brim pulled down over one eye. He had a twinkle in the eye that you could see and a violin case under his arm. At least the boy must have thought that Gypsies were the most handsome men in the world, because he was darn good-looking. He was just a stereotype, a collection of spiffy attributes and flashy characteristics. He was one-dimensional in that sense. He had no depth.
Blurbworthiness: “Daydreams of Angels is hearty meat-and-potato soup for fans of short fiction, and is probably the closest thing to a book of bedtime stories that messed-up adults will ever get.” (Winnipeg Free Press)
by Amy Koppelman
(The Overlook Press)
Amy Koppelman’s writing style may take a little getting used to. Most paragraphs are comprised of choppy, fragmentary sentences—but the disjointed effect creates a sense of dislocation and dreaminess, which, in the case of this narrator’s troubled narrator, seems wholly appropriate. Koppelman’s newest novel stares at me. I’m drawn toward its unflinching gaze.
Jacket Copy: The acclaimed author of I Smile Back (now a film starring Sarah Silverman), Amy Koppelman is a novelist of astonishing power, with a sly, dark voice, at once fearless and poetic. In Koppelman’s new novel, Dr. Susanna Seliger is a renowned psychiatrist who specializes in treatment-resistant depression. The most difficult cases come through her door, and Susa is always ready to discuss treatment options, medication, and symptom management but draws the line at engaging with feelings. A strict adherence to protocol keeps her from falling apart. But her past is made present by one patient, Jim, whose struggles tear open Susa’s hastily stitched up wounds, revealing her latent feeling that she could have helped the people closest to her, especially her adored, cool, talented graffiti-artist brother. Spectacularly original, gorgeously unsettling, Hesitation Wounds is a novel that will sink deep and remain―like a persistent scar or a dangerous glow-in-the-dark memory.
Opening Lines: This is what I know: the people who love you leave. But you already know that. We all think we know. Yet somehow...at some point we are without. And it’s like walking through life without the sky. Flight risk endangers those on land. Still I look for you. Absorbing impact in well-soled shoes. A sidewalk with bicyclists. Don’t step on the crack and so on. Betrayal—and that’s ultimately what we’re talking about here, don’t kid yourself—comes in many forms. Yours happened to be unadorned. Like how concrete when wept upon becomes slippery.
Blurbworthiness: “Hesitation Wounds reads like a fever dream, or the last second of a deeply feeling woman’s life. It is full of brilliantly observed pain and truth. It is an in-depth unblinking report on the deepest of all bonds, familial love. It is spare but it is also somehow full. Its truths are so sharp I began to read with my head slightly averted, as if expecting the next blow. She is way more unflinching than you or me. Her language is simple, deceptively so, the further she goes, as if depth stole oxygen and there was only so much breath left for words, so they had better be true. And they are true. It’s a jagged, dangerous, beautiful book that affirms life even as it affirms the impossibility of life. Like Beckett, she can’t go on, she will go on.” (David Duchovny, author of Holy Cow)
Between You and Me
by Scott Nadelson
I like the setup of Scott Nadelson’s novel: a marriage is charted through chapters set two years apart—from 1981 to 2001. It’s like watching a time-lapse film of a relationship. I’m also curious about Paul, the husband, who oozes vulnerability and anxiety through his pores as he tries to plow his way through this world. I can relate to this guy.
Jacket Copy: Paul Haberman was happy living alone in the city until he met Cynthia, an enchanting suburban single mother. After he moves to New Jersey to marry her, Paul’s life reshapes itself dramatically around his new family and home, evolving over the years in ways he could never have imagined. In this funny, moving, episodic novel, Scott Nadelson reveals the quiet beauty, doubt, and longing of a blended family’s life in the unglamorous American suburbs.
Opening Lines: The Rockaway Mall movie theater still had only six screens, tucked between the Bamberger’s and the video arcade. It would be a few more years before another six were built, in a strip mall annex beside the Sizzler that dropouts from Morris Knolls High School would later accidentally burn down during a burglary. Those new screens would have plenty of parking spaces, separated as they were from the main complex, but this afternoon, a rainy Sunday in early July, Paul Haberman had to compete for spots with every shopper in Morris County, every teenager playing Asteroids and smoking cigarettes and trying to look fearsome.
Blurbworthiness: “Scott Nadelson’s novel, Between You and Me, grows on you, gains weight chapter by chapter as its hero, Paul Haberman—step-father, husband, lawyer, son and brother—stumbles his way through passive and passionless middle age to stand, finally, in his own skin as a man and to affirm his life. The ending is beautiful. The beginning and middle pieces add up, finally, like any good befuddling adventure, to something astounding. Something extraordinary. Yes, I said when I’d read the last pages, yes.” (David Allaan Cates, author of Tom Connor’s Gift)