Wednesday, December 14, 2016
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: many 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.
What We Do Now
edited by Dennis Johnson
This new anthology of voices decrying the 2016 election might just be the most urgent and important book on this list, and that’s why I’m putting it at the top. Subtitled “Standing Up For Your Values in Trump’s America,” the book will be released in January, just as the national horror show becomes official. What We Do Now may not have all the answers, but in truth there may not be any good answers for the swampy tar pit we’ve gotten ourselves into; sometimes we just need to get it down on paper to gain some perspective. This is actually the second book with this title published by Melville House; the first was released in 2004, just after the election of George W. Bush. While I’m no fan of GWB, his America looks like Candyland compared to what we now face. What We Do Now features nearly 200 pages of essays by the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Dave Eggers, Gloria Steinem, Bill McKibben, Paul Krugman, and George Saunders. What do we do now? Read this book for starters.
Opening Lines: Somehow, the United States has always averted a takeover from the far right. It was something that made our country great. From Father Coughlan and the fascists of the 1920s and ’30s, to Joe McCarthy and the Cold War demagoguery of the 1940s and ’50s, through George Wallace and the white supremacists of the 1960s, and on, Americans have always, ultimately, resisted the call to calamity by listening, instead, to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
It was such a long spell—nearly a century—that we were all perhaps too secure in the idea that “it can’t happen here.”
But now it has. It has happened here. The most extreme and uncouth right-wing candidate ever to run for high office in the United States has somehow won the presidency.
by Omar El Akkad
Given the turbulent events that have rippled our country like a series of horrible earthquakes since Nov. 8 (see above), Omar El Akkad’s debut novel is all the more compelling. Though it was written well before the election, American War seems prescient—an alarm bell, a shot across the bow, a sobering prediction of where our country could very well be headed if we’re not careful and vigilant.
Jacket Copy: American War is an audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself. Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.
Opening Lines: When I was young, I collected postcards. I kept them in a shoebox under my bed in the orphanage. Later, when I moved into my first home in New Anchorage, I stored the shoebox at the bottom of an old oil drum in my crumbling tool-shed. Having spent most of my life studying the history of war, I found some sense of balance in collecting snapshots of the world that was, idealized and serene.
Sometimes I thought about getting rid of the oil drum. I worried someone, a colleague from the university perhaps, would see it and think it a kind of petulant political statement, like the occasional copperhead flag or gutted muscle car outside houses in the old Red country—impotent trinkets of rebellion, touchstones of a ruined and ruinous past. I am, after all, a Southerner by birth. And even though I arrived in neutral country at the age of six and never spoke to anyone about my life before then, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that some of my colleagues secretly believed I still had a little bit of rebel Red in my blood.
My favorite postcards are from the 2030s and 2040s, the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself. They featured pictures of the great ocean beaches before rising waters took them; images of the southwest before it turned to embers; photographs of the Midwestern plains, endless and empty under bluest sky, before the Inland Exodus filled them with the coastal displaced. A visual reminder of America as it existed in the first half of the twenty-first century: soaring, roaring, oblivious.
Blurbworthiness: “American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad’s story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.” (Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven)
The Baker’s Secret
by Stephen P. Kiernan
From a war of the future to a war of the past...Stephen P. Kiernan’s new novel is set in Normandy during World War II where the mere act of eating bread offers villagers hope they’ll be saved by the Allies. Yes, novels about the last century’s first two world wars are a dime a baker’s dozen these days, but I have the feeling Kiernan’s beautiful prose will elevate this one, just as yeast rises in the dough bowl.
Jacket Copy: From the multiple-award-winning, critically acclaimed author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity comes a dazzling novel of World War II—a shimmering tale of courage, determination, optimism, and the resilience of the human spirit, set in a small Normandy village on the eve of D-Day. On June 5, 1944, as dawn rises over a small town on the Normandy coast of France, Emmanuelle is making the bread that has sustained her fellow villagers in the dark days since the Germans invaded her country. Only twenty-two, Emma learned to bake at the side of a master, Ezra Kuchen, the village baker since before she was born. Apprenticed to Ezra at thirteen, Emma watched with shame and anger as her kind mentor was forced to wear the six-pointed yellow star on his clothing. She was likewise powerless to help when they pulled Ezra from his shop at gunpoint, the first of many villagers stolen away and never seen again. In the years that her sleepy coastal village has suffered under the enemy, Emma has silently, stealthily fought back. Each day, she receives an extra ration of flour to bake a dozen baguettes for the occupying troops. And each day, she mixes that precious flour with ground straw to create enough dough for two extra loaves—contraband bread she shares with the hungry villagers. Under the cold, watchful eyes of armed soldiers, she builds a clandestine network of barter and trade that she and the villagers use to thwart their occupiers. But her gift to the village is more than these few crusty loaves. Emma gives the people a taste of hope—the faith that one day the Allies will arrive to save them.
Opening Lines: All through those years of war, the bread tasted of humiliation.
All Our Wrong Todays
by Elan Mastai
I’m a sucker for fiction about time travel. I loved Audrey Niffenegger’s romantic saga and don’t even get me started on Jack Finney’s cult masterpiece. There was also a day back in the 80’s when I truly believed Somewhere in Time and Time After Time were THE GREATEST MOVIES EVER MADE (oh, what I wouldn’t give to go back to that early version of David Abrams!). And so, given all that, I am the perfect reader for Elan Mastai’s debut novel. Climb aboard and let’s go back to tomorrow!
Jacket Copy: You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed...because it wasn’t necessary. Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland. But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be. All Our Wrong Todays is about the versions of ourselves that we shed and grow into over time. It is a story of friendship and family, of unexpected journeys and alternate paths, and of love in its multitude of forms. Filled with humor and heart, and saturated with insight and intelligence and a mind-bending talent for invention, this novel signals the arrival of a major talent.
Opening Lines: So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.
That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault—well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.
It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?
Well, it happened.
It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.
Blurbworthiness: “A novel about time travel has no right to be this engaging. A novel this engaging has no right to be this smart. And a novel this smart has no right to be this funny. Or insightful. Or immersive. Basically, this novel has no right to exist.” (Jonathan Tropper, author of This Is Where I Leave You)
by Richard Ford
Just how much autobiography has seeped into Richard Ford’s fiction over the years becomes evident (as if we didn’t already know) when I read the opening lines of his first full-length work of non-fiction. Between Them, a memoir about his two parents, has a classic Ford beginning: short, unadorned sentences that say so much in so little space, establishing character, setting and mood right from the get-go. If we didn’t know any better, that first paragraph could have been lifted right out of Rock Springs. And, like most Ford stories, though those first sentences radiate buoyancy and happiness, I get the sense that dark clouds are building in the pages to come.
Jacket Copy: From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sportswriter comes a deeply personal account of his parents—an intimate portrait of American mid-twentieth century life, and a celebration of family love. Richard Ford’s parents volunteered little about their early lives—and he rarely asked. Later, he pieced their stories together from anecdote, history and the occasional photograph, frozen moments linking him to another time. Edna Akin, a dark-eyed Arkansas beauty whose convent education was cut short by her itinerant parents, fell in love aged only seventeen. Parker Ford was a tall country boy with a warm, hesitant smile, who was working at a grocery in Hot Springs. They married and began a life on the road in the American South, as Parker followed his travelling salesman’s job. The 1930s were like one long weekend, a swirl of miles traversed, cocktails drunk and hotel rooms vacated: New Orleans, Memphis, Texarkana. Then a single, late child was born, changing everything. In this book, Richard Ford evokes a vivid panorama of mid-twentieth century America, and an intimate portrait of family life. Exploring children’s changing perception of their parents, he also reflects on the impact of loss and devotion. Written with the intelligence, precision and humanity for which Ford is renowned, Between Them is both a son’s great act of love and a redeeming meditation on family.
Opening Lines: Somewhere deep in my childhood, my father is coming home off the road on a Friday night. He is a traveling salesman. It is 1951 or ’52. He’s carrying with him lumpy, white butcher-paper packages full of boiled shrimp or tamales or oysters-by-the-pint he’s brought up from Louisiana. The shrimp and tamales steam up hot and damp off the slick papers when he opens them out. Lights in our small duplex on Congress Street in Jackson are switched on bright. My father, Parker Ford, is a large man—soft, heavy-seeming, smiling widely as if he knew a funny joke. He is excited to be home. He sniffs with pleasure. His blue eyes sparkle. My mother is standing beside him, relieved he’s back. She is buoyant, happy. He spreads the packages out onto the metal kitchen table top for us to see before we eat. It is as festive as life can possibly be. My father is home again.
Made for Love
by Alissa Nutting
The first chapter of Alissa Nutting’s new novel introduces us to a Rascal-riding septuagenarian whose daughter comes home to find he’s just ordered a life-size sex doll. It can only get bolder, wackier, and even more addictive from that point forward. Made for Love seems made for me.
Jacket Copy: Hazel has just moved into a trailer park of senior citizens, with her father and Diane—his extremely lifelike sex doll—as her roommates. Life with Hazel’s father is strained at best, but her only alternative seems even bleaker. She’s just run out on her marriage to Byron Gogol, CEO and founder of Gogol Industries, a monolithic corporation hell-bent on making its products and technologies indispensable in daily life. For over a decade, Hazel put up with being veritably quarantined by Byron in the family compound, her every movement and vital sign tracked. But when he demands to wirelessly connect the two of them via brain chips in a first-ever human “mind-meld,” Hazel decides what was once merely irritating has become unbearable. The world she escapes into is a far cry from the dry and clinical bubble she’s been living in, a world populated with a whole host of deviant oddballs. As Hazel tries to carve out a new life for herself in this uncharted territory, Byron is using the most sophisticated tools at his disposal to find her and bring her home. His threats become more and more sinister, and Hazel is forced to take drastic measures in order to find a home of her own and free herself from Byron’s virtual clutches once and for all. Perceptive and compulsively readable, Made for Love is at once an absurd, raunchy comedy and a dazzling, profound meditation marriage, monogamy, and family.
Opening Lines: Hazel’s seventy-six-year-old father had bought a doll. A life-size woman doll. The kind designed to provide a sexual experience that came as close as possible to having sex with a living (or maybe, Hazel thought, a more apt analogy was a very-very-recently deceased) female. Its arrival crate bore an uncanny resemblance to a no-frills pine coffin. It made Hazel recall the passage from Dracula where he ships himself overseas via boat.
The ravaged crate now sat in the middle of his living room, surrounded by an array of tools, both legitimate and makeshift. One of the items on the floor was a can opener. Getting the doll out by himself had required tenacity. There were small pieces of chipped wood everywhere. They made it seem like the crate had harbored an animal that had escaped and was prowling the house.
The mechanical crawl of her father’s Rascal mobility scooter announced his arrival behind her, but Hazel’s eyes had locked upon the crate. It was big enough for her to climb inside. She could sleep in it. Now that Hazel was technically homeless, she was looking for “available bed” potential in everything she saw.
Blurbworthiness: “So blisteringly smart and feverishly inventive that it’s difficult to decide which element pins most precisely the absurdity of our present or the terror of our future. This is a novel as frightening as it is hilarious, melding pathos, comedy, and delight as only great satire can.” (Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You)
by Thrity Umrigar
Thrity Umrigar (The Story Hour) begins her new novel with the sound of glass shattering. A young boy, pent-up in an overheated apartment for seven days, throws a chair through a window and lets in not only fresh air but my curiosity as well. Why did he remain in that hot apartment all by himself for a week? Was he being held hostage? Did he have no other place to go when his mother didn’t come home as promised? Was he just in a rebellious, throw-furniture-across-the-room kind of mood? I am compelled to go deeper and deeper into the novel. And that is how great books hook their readers.
Jacket Copy: The bestselling, critically acclaimed author of The Space Between Us and The World We Found deftly explores issues of race, class, privilege, and power and asks us to consider uncomfortable moral questions in this probing, ambitious, emotionally wrenching novel of two families—one black, one white. During a terrible heat wave in 1991—the worst in a decade—ten-year-old Anton has been locked in an apartment in the projects, alone, for seven days, without air conditioning or a fan. With no electricity, the refrigerator and lights do not work. Hot, hungry, and desperate, Anton shatters a window and climbs out. Cutting his leg on the broken glass, he is covered in blood when the police find him. Juanita, his mother, is discovered in a crack house less than three blocks away, nearly unconscious and half-naked. When she comes to, she repeatedly asks for her baby boy. She never meant to leave Anton—she went out for a quick hit and was headed right back, until her drug dealer raped her and kept her high. Though the bond between mother and son is extremely strong, Anton is placed with child services while Juanita goes to jail. The Harvard-educated son of a U.S. senator, Judge David Coleman is a scion of northeastern white privilege. Desperate to have a child in the house again after the tragic death of his teenage son, David uses his power and connections to keep his new foster son, Anton, with him and his wife, Delores—actions that will have devastating consequences in the years to come. Following in his adopted family’s footsteps, Anton, too, rises within the establishment. But when he discovers the truth about his life, his birth mother, and his adopted parents, this man of the law must come to terms with the moral complexities of crimes committed by the people he loves most.
Opening Lines: On the seventh day, the boy broke the window.
It had been sealed shut by a coat of paint applied years earlier, and after several futile attempts to open it, he picked up the nearest dining room chair and heaved it against the glass.
Even though it happened during the quiet of a Saturday afternoon in May, no one appeared to have heard. No heads stuck out from their own window to examine the source of the shattering, no feet hurried to the apartment where the boy had stayed alone for seven days.
It was a miracle, really, that he had survived.
My Jewish Year
by Abigail Pogrebin
(Fig Tree Books)
I was raised in the Baptist church and the majority of our holidays were clustered around the Big Two: Christmas and Easter (the days of Advent, Christmas Eve, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc.). But when it comes to my friends of the Jewish faith, most of their religious traditions and celebrations remain clouded in mystery. So that’s why Abigail Pogrebin’s exploration of 18 holidays with “one wondering Jew” will be a welcome addition to my library. Soon, as one chapter puts it, I’ll be “slouching toward Shabbat.”
Jacket Copy: The much-dissected Pew Research Center study of 2013, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” revealed that most U.S. Jews locate their Jewishness in their ancestry and culture―not in religion. Abigail Pogrebin wondered if perhaps that’s because we haven’t all looked at religion closely enough. Although she grew up following some holiday rituals, Pogrebin realized how little she knew about their foundational purpose and current relevance. She wanted to understand what had kept these holidays alive and vibrant, in some cases for thousands of years. Her curiosity led her to embark on an entire year of intensive research, observation, and writing about the milestones on the Jewish calendar. My Jewish Year travels through this calendar’s signposts with candor, humor, and a trove of information, capturing the arc of Jewish observance through the eyes of a relatable, wandering―and wondering―Jew. The chapters are interspersed with brief reflections from prominent rabbis and Jewish thinkers. Maybe you’re seeking an accessible, digestible roadmap for Jewish life. Maybe you’d appreciate a fresh exploration of what you’ve mastered. Whatever your motivation, you’ll be educated, entertained, and inspired by Pogrebin’s unusual journey―and by My Jewish Year.
Opening Lines: It was a sure conversation-stopper: “This year I’ll be researching, observing, and writing about every single Jewish holiday on the calendar.”
My non-Jewish friends nodded politely: “That sounds really interesting....”
Non-observant Jews looked puzzled: “Aren’t there, like a thousand of those...? I guess you won’t be doing much else this year.”
Observant Jews shrugged, as if to say “Welcome to our world; want a trophy?”
Blurbworthiness: “With wit, warmth, and the fierce, searching curiosity that is her trademark, Abigail Pogrebin takes us on an intimate, powerful journey as she reckons with her faith and commitment, and in so doing, gives us the gift of exploring our own. This book will speak to everyone who wonders why we do what we do, and isn’t content with the answer that our fathers and mothers did it before us. I absolutely loved it.” (Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion)
Wait Till You See Me Dance
by Deb Olin Unferth
It’s hard to believe Wait Till You See Me Dance is Deb Olin Unferth’s first collection of short fiction. It feels like I’ve been reading her stories, here and there, off and on, for a long time. Now, thanks to Graywolf, we have 39 of them bundled into 200 pages. That should give you some idea of the average story length. Unferth accomplishes so much in a small amount of space and time.
Jacket Copy: For more than ten years, Deb Olin Unferth has been publishing startlingly askew, wickedly comic, cutting-edge fiction in magazines such as Granta, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, NOON, and The Paris Review. Her stories are revered by some of the best American writers of our day, but until now there has been no stand-alone collection of her short fiction. Wait Till You See Me Dance consists of several extraordinary longer stories as well as a selection of intoxicating very short stories. In the chilling “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” a shooter gets in position while a young girl climbs a sand dune. In “Voltaire Night,” students compete to tell a story about the worst thing that ever happened to them. In “Stay Where You Are,” two oblivious travelers in Central America are kidnapped by a gunman they assume to be an insurgent―but the gunman has his own problems. An Unferth story lures you in with a voice that seems amiable and lighthearted, but it swerves in sudden and surprising ways that reveal, in terrifying clarity, the rage, despair, and profound mournfulness that have taken up residence at the heart of the American dream. These stories often take place in an exaggerated or heightened reality, a quality that is reminiscent of the work of Donald Barthelme, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders, but in Unferth’s unforgettable collection she carves out territory that is entirely her own.
Opening Lines: She could see she was becoming a thoroughly unlikable person. Each time she opened her mouth she said something ugly, and whoever was nearby liked her a little less.
Blurbworthiness: “This book is an astonishment—strange, brainy, and loaded with feeling.” (Ben Marcus, author of Leaving the Sea)
In Love and War
by Chris McClelland
(The Provo Canyon Review Press)
I’m not usually pulled into a book by an introductory Author’s Note, but this one from Chris McClelland at the start of his novel is sure compelling—an eye-catching precursor to what waits for me in the pages beyond: “The genesis of this book was a remarkable story told to me by my father when he was in the Catholic lay ministry administering communion to the residents of a nursing home in central Florida. He often stopped by and chatted with the people during his rounds. In one room he found an old German woman. When my father asked how she spent the war, she told him of the horrors of being bombed in wartime Germany. My father was thoughtful and sympathetic about what she had survived, and reluctantly moved on to the next room. In this room was an old American man. Again my father asked the question about World War II. This man said, I flew bombers over Germany, and bombed German cities and towns.”
Jacket Copy: In Love and War is the moving story of two young people in love at the cusp of adulthood and America’s entry into World War II. Inga, a German girl, and Mack, an American pilot, have fallen in love, but the war threatens to separate them forever. From the tranquil citrus groves of Florida to the shrapnel-filled skies over Europe, Mack only wants to see Inga again. Inga longs for Mack amid the wartime carnage of Germany. One fateful day, the families of both will be changed forever.
Opening Lines: A dark cumulus of cigarette smoke drifted over the pilots waiting for the pre-mission briefing, and as usual, Mack McInnis sat next to Brigham Fratelli, the captain of his ship, The Sweetness. Fratelli bounced his leg, nervous, a ball of energy, a dynamo that consumed alcohol, food, and cigarettes and chased women, at a rapid pace.
by Max Winter
I was initially attracted to Max Winter’s debut novel by the cover design of a car shooting skyward over a pastoral mountain scene, but by the time I reached the part about babies falling out of windows in the first paragraph, I was completely sucked in. I think I’ll marry this book—and not get divorced.
Jacket Copy: For Clay Blackall, a lifelong resident of Providence, Rhode Island, the place has become an obsession. Here live the only people who can explain what happened to his brother, Eli, whose suicide haunts this heartbreaking, hilarious novel-in-fragments. A failed actor impersonates a former movie star; an ex-con looks after a summer home perched atop a rock in the bay; a broken-hearted Salutatorian airs thirteen years’ worth of dirty laundry at his school’s commencement; an adjunct struggles to make room for her homeless and self-absorbed mother while revisiting a salacious high school love affair; a recent widower, with the help of a clever teen, schemes to rid his condo’s pond of Canada geese. Clay compiles their stories, invasively providing context in the form of footnotes that lead always, somehow, back to Eli. Behind Clay’s task—which seems insane, definitely doomed, and, as the pages turn, increasingly suspect—burns his desire to understand his brother’s death and the city that has defined and ruined them both. Full of brainy detours and irreverent asides, Exes is a powerful investigation of grief, love, and our deeply held yet ever-changing notions of home.
Opening Lines: My landlord didn’t want to call the cops. For five years he’d been shuffling me from empty place to empty place while he fixed up the thirty or so eyesores my grandfather sold him. He felt bad about my brother, but bad only gets you so far. Smith Hill was the end of the line. Two babies had fallen out of windows that year alone, and now a guy was walking around with a sword.
Blurbworthiness: “I got a parking ticket, missed a dentist appointment, burned my oatmeal and lost count of the times my coffee went cold—such is the spell of Max Winter’s wildly inventive, flat-out fearless debut Exes and its cast of big-hearted fuckups in 1990s Providence, Rhode Island, whose doggedness is matched only by their inability to learn from failure and their powerlessness to change the fact that the game is rigged. Ferocious, gritty, hilarious, and near-impossible to put down, Exes will make you laugh and break your heart at the same time.” (Matt Sumell, author of Making Nice)
The Young Widower’s Handbook
by Tom McAllister
As of this month, I’ve been happily monogamous for thirty-three years—my wife and I share everything except the same skin—so I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my lover whose hips, like those of the couple at the start of The Young Widower’s Handbook, flow into mine like an interlocking puzzle piece. I can’t imagine what that tidal wave of grief would be like, but I don’t have to; Tom McAllister has done it for me in his debut novel. I’m ready to dive into the sadness (and the joy of recovery, too, I hope).
Jacket Copy: For Hunter Cady, meeting Kait was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. Otherwise unmotivated, he spent roughly half his twenty-nine years accomplishing very little, which makes him about fifteen in terms of real-life experience. But he’s the luckiest man on earth when it comes to his wife. Beautiful and confident, Kait is somehow charmed by Hunter’s awkwardness and droll humor. So when she dies quite suddenly, Hunter is crushed. Numb with grief, he stumbles forward the only way he knows how: by running away. To the dismay of her family, Hunter takes Kait’s ashes with him and heads west. They had always meant to travel. Soon enough, he finds himself—and Kait—in encounters with characters even quirkier than he is: an overzealous Renaissance Faire worker; a raucous yet sympathetic troop of bachelorettes; a Chicago couple and their pet parrot, Elvis. He meets a much older man still searching for the wife who walked out on him years ago. Along the way are glimpses of Hunter and Kait’s beautiful, flawed, very real marriage and the strength it gives Hunter, even when contemplating a future without it. Insightful, wry, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, The Young Widower’s Handbook is a testament to the power of love.
Opening Lines: You don’t fall in love at first sight, or first kiss even, but many months later, at that indelible moment when you awake in her bed before sunrise, her breath hot on your back, arm draped across your ribs, the contours of her hips flowing into you, and you feel like you’re two interlocking puzzle pieces, built specifically to fit together with each other and no one else.
Blurbworthiness: “Funny, sad, and smart, The Young Widower’s Handbook is a brilliant meditation on love, loss and loneliness. Part wacky road novel, part romantic comedy, Tom McAllister's debut novel flies along yet reaches deep.” (Stewart O’Nan, author of West of Sunset)
What to do About the Solomons
by Bethany Ball
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
At first glance, the cover design for Bethany Ball’s debut novel appears to show rubber bands binding the title to a turquoise fence. On closer inspection, however, I realized those are sticks and it seems even more appropriate because What to do About the Solomons is filled with many branches from a family tree. I can’t wait to start climbing into Ball’s multi-generational story of secrets and scandals in one Jewish family.
Jacket Copy: Meet Marc Solomon, an Israeli ex-Navy commando now living in L.A., who is falsely accused of money laundering through his asset management firm. As the Solomons’ Santa Monica home is raided, Marc’s American wife, Carolyn—concealing her own dark past—makes hopeless attempts to hold their family of five together. But news of the scandal makes its way from America to the rest of the Solomon clan on the kibbutz in the Jordan River Valley. There we encounter various members of the family and the community—from Marc’s self-absorbed movie actress sister, Shira, and her forgotten son Joseph; to his rich and powerful construction magnate father, Yakov; to his former star-crossed love, Maya; and his brother-in-law Guy Gever, a local ranger turned “artist.” As the secrets and rumors of the kibbutz are revealed through various memories and tales, we witness the things that keep the Solomons together, and those that tear them apart. Reminiscent of Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and told with razor-sharp humor and elegant acuity, What to do About the Solomons is an exhilarating first book from a bright new star in fiction.
Opening Lines: Now it is just a question of what to do with Guy Gever. He works as a ranger at Beit She’an, the national park close to the Jordan River Valley. He works with his dogs and frightens the birds that eat the crops. At night, he hunts the porcupines, the dorban, and sometimes the tiny kipod, the hedgehogs, with his brothers. But now people think he has gone mad.
Blurbworthiness: “A riveting family drama which feels at once solidly classic and bitingly contemporary; if Transparent and A Thousand Acres snuck off and had a kid, you’d have What to do About The Solomons. With their screw-ups, their sadnesses, their pasts catching up on them and their futures slamming in hard, these people are fascinating to be with and oddly hard to leave. Isn’t that always the way with family—as long as they’re not your own?” (Belinda McKeon, author of Tender)
Should I Still Wish
by John W. Evans
(University of Nebraska Press)
John W. Evans follows up his 2014 memoir Young Widower with the story of his life after he left his dead wife’s family and set out on a cross-country journey of healing and hope. Grief is never easy to read about—it’s a bitter pill that sticks halfway in the throat—but Evans makes it palatable, dare I say delicious, with his remarkable prose and storytelling. P.S. I did not plan this to coincide with The Young Widower’s Handbook; the pair just landed together on my front porch this month.
Jacket Copy: In this candid and moving memoir, John W. Evans articulates the complicated joys of falling in love again as a young widower. Though heartbroken after his wife’s violent death, Evans realizes that he cannot remain inconsolable and adrift, living with his in-laws in Indiana. Motivated by a small red X on a map, Evans musters the courage for a cross-country trip. From the Badlands to Yellowstone to the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, Evans’s hope and determination propel him even as he contemplates his vulnerability and the legacy of a terrible tragedy. Should I Still Wish chronicles Evans’s efforts to leave an intense year of grief behind, to make peace with the natural world again, and to reconnect with a woman who promises, like San Francisco itself, a life of abundance and charm. With unflinching honesty Evans plumbs the uncertainties, doubts, and contradictions of a paradoxical experience in this love story, celebration of fatherhood, meditation on the afterlife of grief and resilience, and, ultimately, showcase for life’s many profound incongruities.
Opening Lines: I left Indiana and drove toward happiness.
Blurbworthiness: “Beautifully observed and unstintingly honest, Should I Still Wish tries to make sense of a world rendered senseless by tragedy. Its real brilliance, though, is in its interweaving of sorrow and joy, its examination of what it means to simultaneously mourn an old life and celebrate a new one.” (Katharine Noel, author of Halfway House)
In This Grave Hour
by Jacqueline Winspear
Once again, war has come to Maisie Dobbs. When we first met the stalwart detective in the first novel of the series, she was dealing with the aftershocks of the Great War, World War I. Now, as In This Grave Hour opens, Britain is once again going into combat with Germany. I’ve fallen behind in my Maisie Dobbs reading, but I hope to catch up soon so I can see how the unsinkable detective deals with this new conflict.
Jacket Copy: Sunday September 3rd 1939. At the moment Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcasts to the nation Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, a senior Secret Service agent breaks into Maisie Dobbs’ flat to await her return. Dr. Francesca Thomas has an urgent assignment for Maisie: to find the killer of a man who escaped occupied Belgium as a boy, some twenty-three years earlier during the Great War. In a London shadowed by barrage balloons, bomb shelters and the threat of invasion, within days another former Belgian refugee is found murdered. And as Maisie delves deeper into the killings of the dispossessed from the “last war,” a new kind of refugee—an evacuee from London—appears in Maisie’s life. The little girl billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent does not, or cannot, speak, and the authorities do not know who the child belongs to or who might have put her on the “Operation Pied Piper” evacuee train. They know only that her name is Anna. As Maisie’s search for the killer escalates, the country braces for what is to come. Britain is approaching its gravest hour—and Maisie could be nearing a crossroads of her own.
Opening Lines: Maisie Dobbs left her garden flat in Holland Park, taking care to lock the door to her private entrance as she departed. She carried no handbag, no money, but had drawn a cardigan around her shoulders and carried a rolled umbrella, just in case. There had been a run of hot summer days punctuated by thunderous storms and pouring rain, leaving the air thick and clammy with the promise of more changeable weather, as clouds of luminous white and thunderous graphite lumbered across the sky above.
Blurbworthiness: “A series that seems to get better with every entry.” (Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal)
Hold Back the Stars
by Katie Khan
You know that scene in Gravity when George Clooney lets go of Sandra Bullock and drifts away into cold, dark outer space? Did your heart break as you stood up in the theater, screaming, “No, George! Don’t do it! Hang on!”? No? Oh. Maybe that was just me, then. At any rate, I was reminded of that heartbreaking moment when I read the description of Katie Khan’s debut novel, which is also set in space (at least partially) and involves two lovers with dwindling oxygen who must decide who lives and who dies. There’s a good chance I’ll stand up in the middle of this book and scream, “Noooo! Don’t do it! Hang on, buddy!”
Jacket Copy: In Hold Back the Stars, a man and a woman revisit memories of their love affair on a utopian Earth while they are trapped in the vast void of space with only ninety minutes of oxygen left. After the catastrophic destruction of the Middle East and the United States, Europe has become a utopia and, every three years, the European population must rotate into different multicultural communities, living as individuals responsible for their own actions. While living in this paradise, Max meets Carys and immediately feels a spark of attraction. He quickly realizes, however, that Carys is someone he might want to stay with long-term, which is impossible in this new world. As their relationship plays out, the connections between their time on Earth and their present dilemma in space become clear. When their air ticks dangerously low, one is offered the chance of salvation—but who will take it? An original and daring exploration of the impact of first love and how the choices we make can change the fate of everyone around us, this is an unforgettable read.
Opening Lines: “This is the end.” They lurch into focus: Carys is breathing hard, a gasping panic filling her fishbowl helmet. “Fuck,” she say. “I’m going to die.” She reaches toward Max, but the motion rolls him away, out of her grasp.
“We’re going to die.” Her voice is choppy with shallow breaths, the sound loud in the glass of Max’s helmet. “Oh, god—”
“Don’t say that,” he says.
“We are. Oh, god—”
They are falling in space, spinning away from their ship, two pointillist specks on an infinitely dark canvas.
“We’re going to be fine.” He looks around, but there’s nothing out here for them: nothing but the bottomless black universe on their left, the Earth suspended in glorious technicolor to their right. He stretches to grab Carys’ foot. His fingertips brush her boot before he’s spinning away and can’t stop.
Blurbworthiness: “Hold Back the Stars is a high-stakes, high-concept, high-flying (or floating) love story that marks Katie Khan as a bold new talent. I raced through it. All the obvious out of this world comments apply.” (Matt Haig, author of A Boy Called Christmas)
South and West
by Joan Didion
If you have ever found yourself saying, “I love Joan Didion’s work so much I would read anything she wrote, even a grocery list hastily scribbled on a Post-It note,” then South and West is tailor-made for you. The new book, split into two parts, is a peek inside her writing notebooks, unpublished drafts of two articles she worked on back in the 1970s. I don’t mean to make it sound like South and West is lesser-quality, grocery-list writing from one of the greatest chroniclers of our era. Far from it. I mean, just take a look at the opening lines of “New Orleans,” the first part of the book. This proves there’s no such thing as Bad Didion, only Rare Unpublished Didion. And, yes, I would definitely stand in line at my neighborhood bookstore to buy a copy of The Collected Grocery Lists of Joan Didion.
Jacket Copy: Joan Didion has always kept notebooks: of overheard dialogue, observations, interviews, drafts of essays and articles—and here is one such draft that traces a road trip she took with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June 1970, through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. She interviews prominent local figures, describes motels, diners, a deserted reptile farm, a visit with Walker Percy, a ladies’ brunch at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention. She writes about the stifling heat, the almost viscous pace of life, the sulfurous light, and the preoccupation with race, class, and heritage she finds in the small towns they pass through. And from a different notebook: the “California Notes” that began as an assignment from Rolling Stone on the Patty Hearst trial of 1976. Though Didion never wrote the piece, watching the trial and being in San Francisco triggered thoughts about the city, its social hierarchy, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento. Here, too, is the beginning of her thinking about the West, its landscape, the western women who were heroic for her, and her own lineage, all of which would appear later in her acclaimed 2003 book, Where I Was From.
Opening Lines: In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.