Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Front Porch Books: December 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.



Very Nice
by Marcy Dermansky
(Knopf)

Jacket Copy:  Rachel Klein never meant to kiss her creative writing professor, but with his long eyelashes, his silky hair, and the sad, beautiful life he laid bare on Twitter, she does, and the kiss is very nice. Zahid Azzam never planned to become a houseguest in his student’s sprawling Connecticut home, but with the sparkling swimming pool, the endless supply of Whole Foods strawberries, and Rachel’s beautiful mother, he does, and the home is very nice. Becca Klein never thought she’d have a love affair so soon after her divorce, but when her daughter’s professor walks into her home, bringing with him an apricot standard poodle named Princess, she does, and the affair is...a very bad idea. In a darkly hilarious novel that zigzags between the rarified circles of Manhattan investment banking, the achingly self-serious MFA programs of the Midwest, and the private bedrooms of Connecticut, Marcy Dermansky has written an audacious, addictive, and wickedly smart take on the way we live now.

Opening Lines:  I didn’t think, the day I kissed my professor for the first time, that he would kiss me back. His lips were soft. He tasted like coffee. The coffee I had made for him.

Blurbworthiness:  “Marcy Dermansky is a light switch, a volume knob, a fire drill. Her novels are bright and attention-grabbing, from the first page to the last, and Very Nice is her best yet. This smart, sexy, funny book is a balm for rattled nerves. Write me a thousand more books, Marcy, and I’ll read them all.” (Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers)



Milkman
by Anna Burns
(Graywolf)

Jacket Copy:  In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him—and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend—rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive. Told with ferocious energy and sly, wicked humor, Milkman establishes Anna Burns as one of the most consequential voices of our day.

Opening Lines:  The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.

Blurbworthiness:  “Milkman is delivered in a breathless, hectic, glorious torrent....It’s an astute, exquisite account of Northern Ireland’s social landscape....A potent and urgent book, with more than a hint of barely contained fury.”  (Irish Independent)



Song for the Unraveling of the World
by Brian Evenson
(Coffee House Press)

Jacket Copy:  A newborn’s absent face appears on the back of someone else’s head, a filmmaker goes to gruesome lengths to achieve the silence he’s after for his final scene, and a therapist begins, impossibly, to appear in a troubled patient's room late at night. In these stories of doubt, delusion, and paranoia, no belief, no claim to objectivity, is immune to the distortions of human perception. Here, self-deception is a means of justifying our most inhuman impulses―whether we know it or not.

Opening Lines:  No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face. There was hair in front and hair in the back—only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible. I got Jim Slip to look on one side and I looked from the other and the other members of the lodge tried to hold her gently or not so gently in place, but no matter how we looked or held her the face just wasn’t there. Her mother was screaming, blaming us, but what could we do about it? We were not to blame. There was nothing we could have done.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brian Evenson is one of my favorite living horror writers, and this collection is him at his eerie and disquieting best.” (Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties)



The Municipalists
by Seth Fried
(Penguin Books)

Jacket Copy:  In Metropolis, the gleaming city of tomorrow, the dream of the great American city has been achieved. But all that is about to change, unless a neurotic, rule-following bureaucrat and an irreverent, freewheeling artificial intelligence can save the city from a mysterious terrorist plot that threatens its very existence. Henry Thompson has dedicated his life to improving America’s infrastructure as a proud employee of the United States Municipal Survey. So when the agency comes under attack, he dutifully accepts his unexpected mission to visit Metropolis looking for answers. But his plans to investigate quietly, quickly, and carefully are interrupted by his new partner: a day-drinking know-it-all named OWEN, who also turns out to be the projected embodiment of the agency’s supercomputer. Soon, Henry and OWEN are fighting to save not only their own lives and those of the city’s millions of inhabitants, but also the soul of Metropolis. The Municipalists is a thrilling, funny, and touching adventure story, a tour-de-force of imagination that trenchantly explores our relationships to the cities around us and the technologies guiding us into the future.

Blurbworthiness:  “A thinking person’s comic thriller, The Municipalists is a joy ride and a meditation both. Seth Fried is the consummate urban planner of a novelist, providing us with exciting thoroughfares of action as well as quiet gardens of feeling. And the story stars, among other characters, a drunk and vain (but ultimately loveable) computer. What else could a fiction dweller ask for? A wonderful debut novel.” (Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask)



Hold Fast Your Crown
by Yannick Haenel
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  A man writes an enormous screenplay on the life of Herman Melville. Not a single producer is interested in it. One day, someone gives him the phone number of the great American filmmaker Michael Cimino, legendary director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. A meeting is arranged in New York, and Cimino reads the manuscript. What follows is a series of crazy adventures through Ellis Island, the Musée de la Chasse in Paris, a lake in Italy. We run into Isabelle Huppert, Diana the hunting goddess, a Dalmatian named Sabbat, a diabolical neighbor, and two shady characters with conspicuous mustaches. There’s also a pretty PhD student, an unpleasant concierge, and an aggressive maître d’ who looks like Emmanuel Macron...This improbable, insightful tale bridges the divide between cinema and literature in unexpected ways that are at once gratifying and profound.

Opening Lines: Back then, I was crazy. I had a seven-hundred-page screenplay on the life of Melville crammed into a box. Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, the greatest of all American writers, the one who, in launching Captain Ahab in search of the white whale, incited a mutiny of global proportions, and through his books offered dizzying prophecies I adhered to for years. Melville, whose life was a never-ending catastrophe, who constantly fought against the thought of killing himself and, after having wonderful adventures in the South Seas and great success telling about them, suddenly converted to literature, that is, to conceiving the written word as truth, and wrote Mardi, which no one read, then Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which no one read either, then The Confidence Man, which, again, no one read, before holing up for the final nineteen years of his life in a customs office in New York, and declaring to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

Blurbworthiness: “A wild novel, a blaze of astounding images.”  (L'Obs)



Red Birds
by Mohammed Hanif
(Grove Atlantic)

Jacket Copy:  An American pilot crash lands in the desert and finds himself on the outskirts of the very camp he was supposed to bomb. After days spent wandering and hallucinating from dehydration, Major Ellie is rescued by one of the camp’s residents, a teenager named Momo, whose entrepreneurial money-making schemes are failing as his family is falling apart: His older brother, Ali, left for his first day of work at an American base and never returned; his parents are at each other’s throats; his dog, Mutt, is having a very bad day; and an earthy-crunchy aid worker has shown up wanting to research him for her book on the Teenage Muslim Mind. Amidst the madness, Momo sets out to search for his brother Ali, hoping his new Western acquaintances might be able to help find him. But as the truth of Ali’s whereabouts begin to unfold, the effects of American “aid” on this war-torn country are revealed to be increasingly pernicious.

Opening Lines:  On the third day, I find the plane. I’d been looking for something to eat or drink, anything of nutritional value really. I know that I can’t survive for long on the measly rations in my survival kit. A ripped parachute and regulation sunglasses were all I had found on my bruised ass when I came to. Roving Angels would be on their way to rescue me, but sometimes Angels can take their time and in order for this rescue to be successful I need to stay alive.

Blurbworthiness:  “As grimly, intelligently comic as if written by an Asian Joseph Heller.” (Daily Telegraph)



A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do
by Pete Fromm
(Counterpoint)

Jacket Copy:  A taciturn carpenter has been too busy putting the final details on others’ homes to pay much attention to his own fixer-upper. But when his wife becomes pregnant with their first child, he realizes he’ll need to apply his art closer to home. For Taz and Marnie, their dreams are coming into focus, sustained by their deep sense of love and now family. The blueprint for the perfect life eludes Taz, plummeting him head first in the new strange world of fatherhood, of responsibility and late nights and unexpected joy and sorrow. It is a deceptively small novel with a very big heart.

Opening Lines:  Taz is on his knees when she tells him, his arms abuzz with the repeated hammer blows, tingling and tweaking. He looks up, ears buzzing too, the seven bar and his fingers wedged underneath another six inches of the damned kryptonite subfloor.
       Thumbs hooked into her tool belt, like now she’ll just get back after all that pesky lath, Marnie watches him, smile just waiting to bloom, and says it again.
       He blinks, lifts an eyebrow, and wriggles his fingers free, rubs away some dust. “For real?” he says.
       Fighting back the grin, she reaches into the pencil slot in her tool belt and eases up the pregnancy test, just a peek, pushes it back down. “The eaglet has landed.”



Phantoms
by Christian Kiefer
(Liveright)

Jacket Copy:  A Vietnam vet still reeling from war, John Frazier finds himself an unwitting witness to a confrontation, decades in the making, between two steely matriarchs: his aunt, Evelyn Wilson, and her former neighbor, Kimiko Takahashi. John comes to learn that in the onslaught of World War II, the Takahashis had been displaced as once-beloved tenants of the Wilson orchard and sent to an internment camp. One question has always plagued both families: What happened to the Takahashi son, Ray, when he returned from service and found that Placer County was no longer home—that nowhere was home for a Japanese American? As layers of family secrets unravel, the harrowing truth forces John to examine his own guilt. In prose recalling Thomas Wolfe, Phantoms is a stunning exploration of the ghosts of American exceptionalism that haunt us today.

Opening Lines:  Those were halcyon days. All summer we ranged over dry grass hills crackling with heat, their surfaces broken by ragged oaks hiding secret pools of silent blue shadow. Days of rattlesnake and buckeye, of blue jay and digger pine. And days, too, of cold creek water, of plunging into the irrigation canals that tucked along the base of each soft, folded ridgeline, or coming up to the bank coughing and spitting and steaming in the afternoon sun. And, most of all, those were the days of the orchards. Of peaches, of pears, of plums. All aglow like jewels. Like tiny suns.

Blurbworthiness:  “The pacing of Phantoms felt like a perfect gallop into every sunset. From the first paragraph, I was captured by the vibrancy of Kiefer’s prose, both as sophisticated and shimmering as the family secrets his characters unwind. Phantoms is a story of history, examination, and is a pleasure to read.”  (Natashia Deón, author of Grace)



Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
by Casey Cep
(Knopf)

Jacket Copy:  Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted—thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend. Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more working on her own version of the case. Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.

Opening Lines: Nobody recognized her. Harper Lee was well known, but not by sight, and if she hadn’t introduced herself, it’s unlikely that anyone in the courtroom would have figured out who she was. Hundreds of people were crowded into the gallery, filling the wooden benches that squeaked whenever someone moved or leaning against the back wall if they hadn’t arrived in time for a seat. Late September was not late enough for the Alabama heat to have died down, and the air-conditioning in the courtroom wasn’t working, so the women waved fans while the men’s suits grew damp under their arms and around their collars. The spectators whispered from time to time, and every so often they laughed—an uneasy laughter that evaporated whenever the judge quieted them.

Blurbworthiness: “A triumph on every level. One of the losses to literature is that Harper Lee never found a way to tell a gothic true-crime story she’d spent years researching. Casey Cep has excavated this mesmerizing story and tells it with grace and insight and a fierce fidelity to the truth.” (David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon)



Juliet the Maniac
by Juliet Escoria
(Melville House)

Jacket Copy:  Juliet the Maniac is a debut coming-of-age novel from Juliet Escoria, the “indelible, shrewd and frank and real” (Emily Gould) writer DAZED describes as “a combination of Denis Johnson and Joan Didion.” In the novel, it’s 1997, and 14-year-old Juliet has it pretty good. But over the course of the next two years, she rapidly begins to unravel, finding herself in a downward trajectory of mental illness and self-destruction. An explosive portrayal of teenage life from the perspective of The Bad Friend, Juliet the Maniac is a bold, stylish breakout book from an author already crackling on the indie scene.

Opening Lines:  It is hard to tease out the beginning. When I was living it, my disintegration seemed sudden, like I had once been whole but then my reality swiftly slipped apart in sand. Not even sand, but slime, something desperate and oozing and sick. But looking back—I was a slow burn that eventually imploded.



Homeland
by Fernando Aramburu
(Pantheon)

Jacket Copy:  Homeland is the internationally acclaimed novel that limns a decades-long relationship between two Basque families torn asunder by the violent insurgency of the separatist movement ETA—arguably the most acclaimed and successful literary novel published in Spain in recent times. It’s the story of two families in small-town Basque country, pitted against each other by the ideology and violence of the terrorist group ETA, from the unrelentingly grim 1980s to October 2011 when the group proclaimed an end to its savage insurgency. Erstwhile lifetime friends—especially the generation of parents on both sides—the two families become bitter enemies when a father of one is killed by ETA militants, among them one of the sons of the other family. Told through a succession of more than one hundred short sections devoted to a rich multiplicity of characters whose role in the story becomes clear as one reads. Homeland brilliantly unfolds in nonlinear fashion as it traces the consequences for the families of both the murder victim and the perpetrator.

Opening Lines:  Poor thing, there she goes: about to crash into him the way a wave crashes into rocks. A little foam and goodbye.



Disappearing Earth
by Julia Phillips
(Knopf)

Jacket Copy:  One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka Peninsula at the northeastern tip of Russia, two girls—sisters, ages eight and eleven—go missing. The police investigation goes cold from the outset. In the girls’ tightly-woven community, everyone must grapple with the loss. But the fear and danger is felt most profoundly among the women of this isolated place. Taking us one chapter per month across a year on Kamchatka, this powerful novel connects the lives of characters changed by the sisters’ abduction: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. Theirs is an ethnically diverse population in which racial tensions simmer, and so-called natives are often the first to be accused. As the story radiates from the peninsula’s capital city to its rural north, we are brought to places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas. Disappearing Earth is a multifaceted story of the intimate lives of women—their vulnerabilities and perils; their loves, aspirations, and regrets; their desires and dreams. The novel speaks to the complex yet enduring bonds of community as it offers startlingly vivid portraits of people reaching out to one another and, sometimes, reaching back to save each other.

Opening Lines: Sophia, sandals off, was standing at the water’s edge. The bay snuck up to swallow her toes. Gray saltwater over bright skin. “Don’t go out any farther,” Alyona said.
       The water receded. Alyona could see, under her sister’s feet, the pebbles breaking the curve of Sophia’s arches, the sweep of grit left by little waves. Sophia bent to roll up her pant legs, and her ponytail flipped over the top of her head. Her calves showed flaking streaks of blood from scratched mosquito bites. Alyona knew from the line of her sister’s spine that Sophia was refusing to listen.
       “You better not,” Alyona said.
       Sophia stood to face the water. Here, it was calm, barely touched by ripples that made the bay look like a sheet of hammered tin. The current got stronger as it pulled into the Pacific, leaving Russia behind for open ocean, but here it was domesticated. It belonged to them.



The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead
(Doubleday)

Jacket Copy:  As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.” In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

Opening Lines:  Even in death the boys were trouble.
       The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy acre of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated a dairy, selling milk to local customers—one of the state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys’ upkeep. The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.



Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’ London
by Claire Harman
(Knopf)

Jacket Copy:  In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London’s highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell’s valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories. Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales—Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William’s murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense. Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.

Opening Lines:  Early in the morning of Wednesday, 6 May 1840, on an ultra-respectable Mayfair street one block to the east of Park Lane, a footman called Daniel Young answered the door to a panic-stricken young woman, Sarah Mancer, the maid of the house opposite. Fetch a surgeon, fetch a constable, she cried: her master, Lord William Russell, was lying in bed with his throat cut.

Blurbworthiness:  “This beautifully produced and impressively researched historical account of a celebrated Victorian murder with a literary twist reads like a thriller. I devoured it in one sitting, and was at once enthralled and chilled. Highly recommended!”  (Alison Weir, author of Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen)


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


She can hear the splashing of the light inside of the gem.

from “The Power of Performance” in
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams