Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Front Porch Books: June 2018 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.



The Strange Case of Dr. Couney
by Dawn Raffel
(Blue Rider Press)

Jacket Copy:  The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is the extraordinary tale of how a mysterious immigrant “doctor” became the revolutionary innovator of saving premature babies—by placing them in incubators in World’s Fair side shows and on Coney Island and Atlantic City. What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? As Dawn Raffel artfully recounts, Dr. Couney figured out he could use incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive, and at the same time make good money displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows. How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century émigré became the savior to families with premature infants, known then as “weaklings”—while ignoring the scorn of the medical establishment and fighting the climate of eugenics—is one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine. And as readers will find, Dr. Couney, for all his opportunistic entrepreneurial gusto, is a surprisingly appealing character, someone who genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients. But he had something to hide. Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, acclaimed journalist and magazine editor Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of Couney’s mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of tiny babies.

Opening Lines:  The pains came too early. The cramping of the womb. The ragged breaths. The life demanding release. The woman, Marion Conlin, was carrying twins, and on an otherwise gentle Thursday in May, her labor had commenced. Too soon. Not now. Not yet. Each contraction a blow.
       Only the year before, she and her husband, Woolsey, had celebrated their wedding. Summer of 1919. Atlantic City honeymoon, where, in that golden pocket—the Great War over, Prohibition not begun—a newlywed couple might sip champagne and hear their beautiful fortunes told and stroll in their bloomers into the sea, laughing.
       Now they were in a hospital in Brooklyn. Marion’s labor could not be stopped. One daughter entered the world, drew breath for twenty minutes, and lay still. The second was so tiny, it was painful to look, her skin near translucent.

Blurbworthiness:  “In carnival midways in the early decades of the 20th century—amid carousels, elephants, fire-eaters, and pie-eating contests—a gentleman of indeterminate origin, of unspecified medical background, displayed premature human babies in incubators that looked like arcade games. They were real babies, not wax; struggling to live; at home among the “Human Oddities!” of the side-shows only because preemies weighing two or three pounds at birth didn’t ever survive, had rarely been seen. Fair-goers bought tickets and lined up to gawk at them, and were asked to refrain from trying to reach in and poke the infants. Though Dr. Couney (both the prefix and the name were inventions) was more showman than doctor, he saved the babies’ lives by the thousands and pioneered American neonatology. His story is richly told in a book that savors every honk of John Philip Sousa from a marching band, every salty crunch of carnival popcorn, every sparkle of a Ferris wheel turning in a night sky, and the desperate hopes of parents traveling from their lying-in hospitals by bus or subway to the carnivals, carrying their premature newborns in shoe boxes and hat boxes or inside their coats.” (Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock)



The New Inheritors
by Kent Wascom
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  In 1914, with the world on the brink of war, Isaac, a nature-loving artist whose past is mysterious to all, including himself, meets Kemper, a defiant heiress caught in the rivalry between her brothers. Kemper’s older brother Angel is hiding a terrible secret about his sexuality, and her younger brother Red possesses a capacity for violence that frightens even the members of his own brutal family. Together Isaac and Kemper build a refuge on their beloved, wild, Gulf Coast. But their paradise is short-lived; as the coast is rocked by the storms of summer, the country is gripped by the furor preceding World War I, and the Woolsack family’s rivalries come to a bloody head. From the breathtaking beauty of the Gulf to the bloody havoc wreaked by the United States in Latin America, The New Inheritors explores the beauty and burden of what is handed down to us all. At once a love story and a family drama, a novel of nature and a novel of war, The New Inheritors traces a family whose life is intimately tied to the Gulf, that most disputed, threatened, and haunted part of this country we call America.

Opening Lines:  He was born filled with animals.
       Before he could see and before the gift of speech, before his hand could grasp the tools to channel them, to let them leap out onto canvas or page, the animals were there. They owned his proportions and made themselves known in his cries and movements and they prowled in the wet, dark Eden of his heart.

Blurbworthiness:  “Unfurling one fine sentence after another, The New Inheritors is like some magnificent dream ship from the past set to churn the waves of the present, bound for blood and beauty, and for the breaking of heads and hearts.” (Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome)



Children of God
by Lars Petter Sveen
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Lars Petter Sveen’s Children of God recounts the lives of people on the margins of the New Testament; thieves, Roman soldiers, prostitutes, lepers, healers, and the occasional disciple all get a chance to speak. With language free of judgment or moralizing, Sveen covers familiar ground in unusual ways. In the opening story, a group of soldiers are tasked with carrying out King Herod’s edict to slaughter the young male children in Bethlehem but waver in their resolve. These interwoven stories harbor surprises at every turn, as the characters reappear. A group of thieves on the road to Jericho encounters no good Samaritan but themselves. A boy healed of his stutter will later regress. A woman searching for her lover from beyond the grave cannot find solace. At crucial moments an old blind man appears, urging the characters to give in to their darker impulses. Children of God was a bestseller in Norway, where it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize and gathered ecstatic reviews. Sveen’s subtle elevation of the conflict between light and dark focuses on the varied struggles these often-ignored individuals face. Yet despite the dark tone, Sveen’s stories retain a buoyancy, thanks to Guy Puzey’s supple and fleet-footed translation. This deeply original and moving book, in Sveen’s restrained and gritty telling, brings to light stories that reflect our own time, from a setting everyone knows.

Opening Lines:  It was in the days of Herod the Great, in Bethlehem, and we were on the lookout for a little king of the Jews who’d been born. The stars were out, and we’d come to kill him.

Blurbworthiness:  “Children of God reads like Biblical fan fiction written by a genius.” (Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair)



Virgil Wander
by Leif Enger
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  Midwestern movie house owner Virgil Wander is “cruising along at medium altitude” when his car flies off the road into icy Lake Superior. Virgil survives but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer familiar to him. Awakening in this new life, Virgil begins to piece together his personal history and the lore of his broken town, with the help of a cast of affable and curious locals—from Rune, a twinkling, pipe-smoking, kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man, to Tom, a journalist and Virgil’s oldest friend; and various members of the Pea family who must confront tragedies of their own. Into this community returns a shimmering prodigal son who may hold the key to reviving their town. With intelligent humor and captivating whimsy, Leif Enger conjures a remarkable portrait of a region and its residents, who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, never made it out of their defunct industrial district. Carried aloft by quotidian pleasures including movies, fishing, necking in parked cars, playing baseball and falling in love, Virgil Wander is a swift, full journey into the heart and heartache of an often overlooked American Upper Midwest by a “formidably gifted” (Chicago Tribune) master storyteller.

Opening Lines:  Now I think the picture was unspooling all along and I just failed to notice. The obvious really isn’t so—at least it wasn’t to me, a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.
       If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself—that is, when my seeing of it began to shift—it would be the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom. It was also the day of my release from St. Luke’s Hospital down in Duluth, so I was concussed and more than a little adrift.



A Family History of Illness
by Brett L. Walker
(University of Washington Press)

Jacket Copy:  While in the ICU with a near-fatal case of pneumonia, Brett Walker was asked, “Do you have a family history of illness?”―a standard and deceptively simple question that for Walker, a professional historian, took on additional meaning and spurred him to investigate his family’s medical past. In this deeply personal narrative, he constructs a history of his body to understand his diagnosis with a serious immunological disorder, weaving together his dying grandfather’s sneaking a cigarette in a shed on the family’s Montana farm, blood fractionation experiments in Europe during World War II, and nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks that ravaged small American towns as his ancestors were making their way west. A Family History of Illness is a gritty historical memoir that examines the body’s immune system and microbial composition as well as the biological and cultural origins of memory and history, offering a startling, fresh way to view the role of history in understanding our physical selves. In his own search, Walker soon realizes that this broader scope is more valuable than a strictly medical family history. He finds that family legacies shape us both physically and symbolically, forming the root of our identity and values, and he urges us to renew our interest in the past or risk misunderstanding ourselves and the world around us.

Opening Lines:  I awoke startled and feverish. “Where am I?” I thought. The back of my head pounded. I was thirsty and drenched in sweat. When I coughed, the pounding intensified and ripped along the center of my scalp toward my forehead, piercing a point between my eyes. A white hospital gown clung to my shivering body. The vision in my right eye became blurrier the more I hacked. My neck and shoulders tensed as I turned my head to look out a window near the bed—I saw only the inky black of the night sky.
       I lifted myself upright to get a better view, and the sweaty hospital gown tightened around my shoulders, the fabric constraining me and chafing against my skin. I could feel tape tugging at the hairs on my arms and face, tying me to clear plastic hoses. I vaguely remembered that these tubes were important: they tethered me to rhythmic pumps and spherical tanks that kept me alive.

Blurbworthiness:  “This book is terrific in five ways I can barely list here. Fascinating, literate, profound, wondrously variegated, harrowingly personal. Brett Walker, a historian with an eye for science and an ear for language, knows that he and his near-death experience are a synecdoche for the broader issues of disease, memory, selfhood, and history among us all.” (David Quammen, author of Spillover)



The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist
by Michael Downs
(Acre Books)

Jacket Copy:  In 1844, Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, encountered nitrous oxide, or laughing gas—then an entertainment for performers in carnival-like theatrical acts—and began administering the gas as the first true anesthetic. His discovery would change the world, reshaping medicine and humanity’s relationship with pain. But that discovery would also thrust Wells into scandals that threatened his reputation, his family, and his sanity—hardships and triumphs that resonate in today’s struggles with what hurts us and what we take to stop the hurt. In this novel, Michael Downs mines the gaps in the historical record and imagines the motivations and mysteries behind Wells’ morbid fascination with pain, as well as the price he and his wife, Elizabeth, paid—first through his obsession, then his addiction. The book is a love story, but also a story of what love can’t redeem; of narcotic dreams and waking insanity; of humbug and miracle; of pain’s destruction and what pains can never be eased. Following Wells throughout New England and across the ocean to Paris, the novel immerses the reader in the nineteenth century, conveying through rich physical description and telling dialogue the tragic life of a dentist who gave everything to rid the world of suffering.

Opening Lines:  On another of those melancholy nights, a doctor came to the sick man’s bedside and with the boy’s help turned the man onto his belly. The boy lifted the damp shirt and in the lamplight saw his father’s back, skin grayer than the sweat-dark sheets. Boils clustered, livid along the spine. The backbone cast shadows. From the mattress rose a sour smell, an expression of disease.
       “Bind the arms and legs to the posts,” the doctor said. He held a green-glass bottle by its neck, shaking the liquid inside to a froth.
       “He’s too weak to kick.”
       “Do as I say.”

Blurbworthiness:  “An exhilarating tale from the annals of medical history, a provocative study of pain in all its forms, and a brilliant rendering of the kind of obsessiveness that leads to invention—all delivered in sumptuous prose with sly, surprising humor and perfect timing.” (Kim Church, author of Byrd)



French Exit
by Patrick DeWitt
(Ecco)

Jacket Copy:  Frances Price–tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature–is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her adult son Malcolm is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development. And then there’s the Price’s aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts. Putting penury and pariahdom behind them, the family decides to cut their losses and head for the exit. One ocean voyage later, the curious trio land in their beloved Paris, the City of Light serving as a backdrop not for love or romance, but self destruction and economical ruin–to riotous effect. A number of singular characters serve to round out the cast: a bashful private investigator, an aimless psychic proposing a seance, and a doctor who makes house calls with his wine merchant in tow, to name a few. Brimming with pathos, French Exit is a one-of-a-kind send-up of high society, as well as a moving mother-son caper which only Patrick deWitt could conceive and execute.

Opening Lines:  “All good things must end,” said Frances Price.
       She was a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone in New York City’s Upper East Side. Her son, Malcolm, thirty-two, stood nearby looking his usual broody and unkempt self. It was late autumn, dusk; the windows of the brownstone were lit, a piano sounded on the air—a tasteful party was occurring. Frances was explaining her early departure to a similarly wealthy though less lovely individual, this the hostess. Her name doesn’t matter. She was aggrieved.

Blurbworthiness:  “French Exit made me so happy—I feel as if I have downed a third martini, stayed up past sunrise, and still woken up refreshed. Brilliant, addictive, funny and wise, DeWitt’s latest has enough charm to last you long after you’ve put it down.” (Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less )



The Third Hotel
by Laura van den Berg
(Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In Havana, Cuba, a widow tries to come to terms with her husband’s death―and the truth about their marriage―in Laura van den Berg’s surreal, mystifying story of psychological reflection and metaphysical mystery. Shortly after Clare arrives in Havana, Cuba, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema, she finds her husband, Richard, standing outside a museum. He’s wearing a white linen suit she’s never seen before, and he’s supposed to be dead. Grief-stricken and baffled, Clare tails Richard, a horror film scholar, through the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, clocking his every move. As the distinction between reality and fantasy blurs, Clare finds grounding in memories of her childhood in Florida and of her marriage to Richard, revealing her role in his death and reappearance along the way. The Third Hotel is a propulsive, brilliantly shape-shifting novel from an inventive author at the height of her narrative powers.

Opening Lines:  What was she doing in Havana?
       A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer. She imagined bumping into someone she had known in upstate New York, in her former life. She would see this person taking photos in the Plaza de la Catedral or on the Paseo del Prado. They would look up from their cameras. They would call her name and wave. They would make remarks about coincidences, about the world being a very small place, and when the inevitable question came–What was she doing in Havana?–she would have no idea how to explain herself.
       She might have said,
       I am not who you think I am.
       She might have said,
       I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.

Blurbworthiness:  “In this gorgeous, frighteningly smart novel, a woman deranged by grief becomes an imposter in her own life. As inventive and inexorable as a dream, The Third Hotel is a devastating excavation of the unconscionable demands we place on those we love, and a profound portrait of the uncanny composite creature that is a marriage. Laura van den Berg is one of our best writers, an absolute marvel.”  (Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You)



The Widower’s Notebook
by Jonathan Santlofer
(Penguin Books)

Jacket Copy:  On a summer day in New York Jonathan Santlofer discovers his wife, Joy, gasping for breath on their living room couch. After a frenzied 911 call, an ambulance race across Manhattan, and hours pacing in a hospital waiting room, a doctor finally delivers the fateful news. Consumed by grief, Jonathan desperately tries to pursue life as he always had–writing, social engagements, and working on his art–but finds it nearly impossible to admit his deep feelings of loss to anyone, not even his to beloved daughter, Doria, or to himself. As Jonathan grieves and heals, he tries to unravel what happened to Joy, a journey that will take him nearly two years.

Opening Lines:  Do I start with the part where I am paralyzed, back pressed hard against the living room wall, shrinking into it but watching as if through a lens zooming in and out of the action, near then far, all of it taking place no more than five, six feet in front of me, firemen pushing the coffee table aside, books toppling, paramedics rolling my wife onto the floor, one tearing open her blouse and searching for a heartbeat, another pressing her chest up and down as a second team races in and a woman takes over, flips open a black bag and inserts a tube down my wife’s throat, everything happening in hyperspeed, while I stare at my wife’s face gone pale and the room going gray and grainy as an old photograph?
       Or do I start ten, twenty minutes earlier, impossible to track the time, when I come into the living room and even from twenty feet away, I can see that something is terribly wrong, my wife, Joy, on the couch, beckoning to me, mouth open but unable to speak, her eyes large and terrified, and I rush to her side and she grips my arm and I pull her to me and frantically attempt to dial 911, trying to punch in three simple numbers but can’t get them right, as my wife gasps for breath and I say over and over, “Take it easy, honeybreathehangonyou’llbeokay,” trying to sound comforting and rational, as a voice comes on the phone and I say, “My wife, she’s not breathing–” and the woman on the other end, speaking calmly–How is that possible?–asks my name and address and I am shouting now “Hurry!Please!” and minutes later–I think it’s minutes–time is spiraling, collapsing–firemen and paramedics burst on the scene, push the coffee table aside, and roll my wife onto the floor and tear open her blouse, while I am backed up against the living room wall, watching the unwatchable: watching my wife die.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Widower’s Notebook is an intimate, honest, heart-wrenching, and at times even funny account of grieving as well as the memoir of long, satisfying, loving marriage. This is an important and welcome addition to the literature of loss and grief from the male point of view. I will be giving this Notebook to friends reeling from loss but also to old and new couples who need models of how to weather the many little deaths and losses that occur as they journey a life together. Santlofer has given us a brave, beautiful gift, heartfelt and invaluable.” (Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents)


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