Thursday, March 16, 2017
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.
Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult
by Bruce Handy
(Simon & Schuster)
As I grow older, I’ve noticed myself traveling backwards through the books of my life. Don’t get me wrong: I love a Lee Child or a Celeste Ng or a George Saunders as much as the next guy, but there’s just something about Dr. Seuss or The Borrowers or Where the Red Fern Grows that flips a switch and floods my head with golden beams of nostalgia. Bruce Handy seems to share my love for retro kid lit, so the 11-year-old David Abrams (who still cartwheels through empty rooms inside this 53-year-old body) simply cannot wait to fall into the pages of this book. Let the wild rumpus reading begin!
Jacket Copy: In 1690, the dour New England Primer, thought to be the first American children’s book, was published in Boston. Offering children gems of advice such as “Strive to learn” and “Be not a dunce,” it was no fun at all. So how did we get from there to “Let the wild rumpus start”? And now that we’re living in a golden age of children’s literature, what can adults get out of reading Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon, or Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie? In Wild Things, Vanity Fair contributing editor Bruce Handy revisits the classics of every American childhood, from fairy tales to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and explores the back stories of their creators, using context and biography to understand how some of the most insightful, creative, and witty authors and illustrators of their times created their often deeply personal masterpieces. Along the way, Handy learns what The Cat in the Hat says about anarchy and absentee parenting, which themes are shared by The Runaway Bunny and Portnoy’s Complaint, and why Ramona Quimby is as true an American icon as Tom Sawyer or Jay Gatsby. It’s a profound, eye-opening experience to reencounter books that you once treasured after decades apart. A clear-eyed love letter to the greatest children’s books and authors from Louisa May Alcott and L. Frank Baum to Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, Mildred D. Taylor, and E.B. White, Wild Things will bring back fond memories for readers of all ages, along with a few surprises.
Blurbworthiness: “Brilliant, revelatory, and endlessly entertaining. I’ve read these books a thousand times, but only now do I finally understand them.” (Lev Grossman, author of the Magicians trilogy)
by Warren Read
A murderer escapes from jail and heads toward his hometown, the titular Pacific Northwest community of Ash Falls. Tension in the town simmers, comes to a rolling boil, overflows the pot and spills with a hot flash into the reader’s lap. Oh, yes, yes, yes: Ash Falls intrigues and tantalizes, pulling me closer and closer into its grip. I cannot escape.
Jacket Copy: A routine prisoner transfer on a rural highway ends with the bus upside-down in a ravine, the driver dead of a heart attack, and convicted murderer Ernie Luntz on the loose, his eyes fixed on the mountain range in the distance, over which lies his hometown of Ash Falls. Set in a moss-draped, Pacific Northwest mountain town, Ash Falls is the story of a closely connected community both held together and torn apart by one man’s single act of horrific violence. As the residents of Ash Falls—which include Ernie’s ex-wife and teenage son—wait on edge, wondering if and when Ernie Luntz will reappear, they come to discover that they are held prisoner not by the killer in the woods outside their town, but by the chains of their own creation. A tension-filled, multi-character exploration of collapsed relationships, carefully guarded secrets and the psychological strain of living in a place that is at once both idyllic and crippling, Ash Falls is a picturesque and haunting novel that belongs beside the work of such classic contemporary American writers as Kent Haruf, Leif Enger, Smith Henderson and Ron Carlson.
Opening Lines: He came out of the cage just before dawn and moved quickly down the corridor lined with dozens still asleep, their deep, gouging breaths and heavy snores pushing him on his way. He was dressed in state-issued jeans and a t-shirt under a thin, denim jacket. He wore running shoes, and the men shadowed him as if he were a child, one stationed on either side of him, so close their arms brushed against his as they walked past all the others, down the concrete steps and through three separate rooms, out the metal doors and into the morning chill.
It hadn’t occurred to Ernie that the sky on the outside of the wall could look so different from the one that spooned out over his cell window. This was the kind of sky that went on forever, reaching in all directions, billowing black and gray cotton, pinhole stars pushing through where they could. He’d had weeks to consider what a move like this could mean for a guy like him, a guy who had done what he’d done. But Christ almighty, the breaking day was surely something to behold from the outside. Before the men ducked him into the back seat, he took in one more breath of the brand new air.
Blurbworthiness: “Warren Read’s Ash Falls is a rare, multi-faceted treasure: at once a gripping narrative of tragedy and its aftermath and a psychologically rich portrait of small-town life in the contemporary rural West, the novel is above all a nuanced exploration of isolation and the solace of intimacy. All his characters—from an aging mink farmer, to a middle-aged pot dealer, to a single mother, to a gay teenager with an escaped convict for a father—are so real and complex I sometimes forget I haven’t encountered them in the actual world. This is a book to read, read again, and pass on to all your literature-loving friends.” (Scott Nadelson, author of Between You and Me)
The Last Kid Left
by Rosecrans Baldwin
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A car crashes into a giant sculpture of a cowgirl. Two dead bodies are found in the trunk. I’ll just stop right there because that alone is enough to put Rosecrans Baldwin’s new novel near the top of my ever-growing To-Be-Read pile (aka Mount NeveRest).
Jacket Copy: The Last Kid Left begins when a car smashes into a sculpture of a giant cowgirl. The police find two bodies in the trunk. 19-year-old Nick Toussaint Jr. is arrested for murder, and after details of the crime rip across the internet, his 16-year-old girlfriend, Emily Portis―a sheltered teen who’s been off the grid until now, her first romance coinciding with her first cellphone―is nearly consumed by a public hungry for every lurid detail, accurate or not. Emily and Nick are not the only ones whose lives come unmoored. A retired police officer latches onto the case. Nick’s alcoholic mother is thrust into an unfamiliar role. A young journalist who left her hometown behind is pulled into the fray. And Emily’s father, the town Sheriff, is finally forced to confront a monstrous secret. The Last Kid Left is a bold, searching novel about how our relationships operate in a hyper-connected world, an expertly-portrayed account of tragedy turned mercilessly into entertainment. And it’s the suspenseful unwinding of a crime that’s more complex than it initially seems. But mostly it’s the story of two teenagers, dismantled by circumstances and rotten luck, who are desperate to believe that love is enough to save them.
Opening Lines: Nick Toussaint Jr. clutches a handle of tequila by the neck. A pair of Range Rovers swing around him, playing tag in the rain.
An orange moon hangs slightly low over New Jersey.
He mashes the gas pedal. A surge of acceleration fills the hollow in his gut.
Two bodies lie still in the back.
The Red-Haired Woman
by Orhan Pamuk
On the surface, Orhan Pamuk’s new novel bears some similarities to Ron Carlson’s 2007 novel Five Skies: a story of blue-collar labor populated with rich characters. I loved Five Skies very much. So, I’m ready to dig deep beneath the surface of The Red-Haired Woman.
Jacket Copy: On the outskirts of a town thirty miles from Istanbul, a master well digger and his young apprentice are hired to find water on a barren plain. As they struggle in the summer heat, excavating without luck meter by meter, the two will develop a filial bond neither has known before—not the poor middle-aged bachelor nor the middle-class boy whose father disappeared after being arrested for politically subversive activities. The pair will come to depend on each other and exchange stories reflecting disparate views of the world. But in the nearby town, where they buy provisions and take their evening break, the boy will find an irresistible diversion. The Red-Haired Woman, an alluring member of a traveling theatre company, catches his eye and seems as fascinated by him as he is by her. The young man’s wildest dream will be realized, but, when in his distraction a horrible accident befalls the well digger, the boy will flee, returning to Istanbul. Only years later will he discover whether he was in fact responsible for his master’s death and who the redheaded enchantress was.
Opening Lines: I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor. Even so, readers shouldn’t conclude from my telling the story now that it is over, that I’ve put it all behind me. The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.
by Nicholas Bredie
Strangers (American ex-pats) in a strange land (Turkey) are themselves “invaded” by a family who take up residence in their Istanbul apartment. That’s just the starting point for Nicholas Bredie’s debut novel. From there, Not Constantinople spins into hilarity when a get-rich scheme bonds the two factions together.
Jacket Copy: Fred and Virginia, two expatriates living in Istanbul and working at the university, come home one night to find their apartment occupied by a family of Greeks. Barred by a quirk of Turkish law from evicting them, Fred comes to a strange kind of understanding with their new squatters; looking to make his fortune before returning to the States, he starts a paper-writing racket with the Greek patriarch, selling term papers to his own university students. Between get-rich schemes and run-ins with Kurdish separatists, Fred watches the transformation of his new city as historic neighborhoods are gobbled up by greedy developers and the city’s rapacious elite. Lauded by T.C. Boyle as “utterly charming,” Not Constantinople is the story of a region in transition and the uncertainty of life in a foreign country.
Opening Lines: Fred called the police twice. The strangers in the apartment just stared as he dialed. When Fred tried to explain in English, the police hung up. The second time, he tried saying “There are strangers in our apartment” in Turkish. After conferring with one another, the police said yes, there are. It wasn’t the first time his phrasebook had failed him.
Blurbworthiness: “In spare, understated prose, our author captures the privileged aimlessness and corrupted romanticism of the contemporary white American expatriate. Bredie is a sly and unsparing writer for the post-Hemingway set, revealing a world of travel that is stripped of illusions and glamour.” (Viet Nguyen, author of The Refugees)
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays From a Nervous System
by Sonya Huber
(University of Nebraska Press)
I have a very low pain threshold. As in, a quarter-inch paper cut can send me into teeth-clenching, eye-squeezing agony. Just ask my wife—she has a whole suitcase of eye-rolling, head-shaking stories she could tell. So yeah, I’m a wimpy baby when it comes to cuts, bruises, broken bones and stomach aches, but there are many people in this world who bravely swallow their pain on a daily basis, biting down on leather straps to endure much deeper stabs of bodily torment than those caused by my little paper cut. Like author Sonya Huber who lives in “a body with the city-buzz of pain always in the background.” We read, in part, to slip into the minds and bodies of others. In this instance, sinking into Huber’s essay collection might hurt, but I expect it to be enlightening and to give me a much-needed dose of empathy. I’m really looking forward to reading Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. As long as I don’t get any paper cuts while turning the pages.
Jacket Copy: Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a collection of literary and experimental essays about living with chronic pain. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles. Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.
Opening Lines: Pain moved into my body five years ago. It wasn’t the whack of an anvil or the burn of a scraped knee. This pain sat warmly on the surface of my hands up to my elbows like evil, pink evening gloves, with a sort of swimming cap clenched on my head, with blue plastic flowers at the base of the neck, and a nauseating blur in the eyes. At other times the pain was a cold ache at the knuckles, with a frazzle in the stomach and a steady and oblong ache from hip to hip across the pelvis. It was a rigid, curled twang in the toes like the talons of a predatory bird. (from “The Lava Lamp of Pain” )
Blurbworthiness: “This is an important book, a necessary book, a book that, in the right hands, could change how our medical establishment deals with pain. These essays are at once vulnerable and fierce, funny and smart, unflinching and dappled with stunning metaphor.” (Gayle Brandeis, author of Fruitflesh)