Thursday, August 22, 2019

Front Porch Books: August 2019 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.

Tiny Love
by Larry Brown
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  A career-spanning collection, Tiny Love brings together for the first time the stories of Larry Brown’s previous collections along with those never before gathered. The self-taught Brown has long had a cult following, and this collection comes with an intimate and heartfelt appreciation by novelist Jonathan Miles. We see Brown's early forays into genre fiction and the horror story, then develop his fictional gaze closer to home, on the people and landscapes of Lafayette County, Mississippi. And what’s astonishing here is the odyssey these stories chart: Brown’s self-education as a writer and the incredible artistic journey he navigated from “Plant Growin’ Problems” to “A Roadside Resurrection.” This is the whole of Larry Brown, the arc laid bare, both an amazing story collection and the fullest portrait we’ll see of one of the South’s most singular artists.

Opening Lines:  Jerry Barlow eased the ’67 Sportster to the edge of the sand road and shut off the motor. He listened closely to the silence of the woods. Aside from the voices of a few mockingbirds and blue jays crouched in the leaves of blackjack oak and scrub pine, nothing could be heard except the ticking of his hot motor. He got off and unstrapped the short-handled hoe and the gallon jug of liquid plant food from the chrome sissy bar.
       He knew Bacon County, Georgia, was a dangerous place to be doing what he was doing, but he was sure he wouldn't get caught.

Blurbworthiness:  “Larry Brown wrote stories that captured both the beauty and the brokenness of life. He never blinked at life’s darkness, but drew you into it with his characters. Larry Brown wrote the way the best singers sing: with honesty, grit, and the kind of raw emotion that stabs you right in the heart. He was a singular American treasure.”  (Tim McGraw)

The Topeka School
by Ben Lerner
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting “lost boys” to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart―who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient―into the social scene, to disastrous effect. Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.

Opening Lines:  Darren pictured shattering the mirror with his metal chair. From TV he knew there might be people behind it in the dark, that they could see him. He believed he felt the pressure of their gazes on his face. In slow motion, a rain of glass, the presences revealed. He paused it, rewound, watched it fall again.
       The man with the black mustache kept asking him if he wanted something to drink and finally Darren said hot water.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Ben Lerner’s riveting third novel, Midwestern America in the late nineties becomes a powerful allegory of our troubled present. The Topeka School deftly explores how language not only reflects but is at the very center of our country’s most insidious crises. In prose both richly textured and many-voiced, we track the inner lives of one white family’s interconnected strengths and silences. What’s revealed is part tableau of our collective lust for belonging, part diagnosis of our ongoing national violence. This is Lerner’s most essential and provocative creation yet.” (Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric)

The Ghosts of Eden Park
by Karen Abbott

Jacket Copy:  In the early days of Prohibition, long before Al Capone became a household name, a German immigrant named George Remus quits practicing law and starts trafficking whiskey. Within two years he’s a multi-millionaire. The press calls him “King of the Bootleggers,” writing breathless stories about the Gatsby-esque events he and his glamorous second wife, Imogene, host at their Cincinnati mansion, with party favors ranging from diamond jewelry for the men to brand-new cars for the women. By the summer of 1921, Remus owns 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States. Pioneering prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrandt is determined to bring him down. Willebrandt’s bosses at the Justice Department hired her right out of law school, assuming she’d pose no real threat to the cozy relationship they maintain with Remus. Eager to prove them wrong, she dispatches her best investigator, Franklin Dodge, to look into his empire. It’s a decision with deadly consequences. With the fledgling FBI on the case, Remus is quickly imprisoned for violating the Volstead Act. Her husband behind bars, Imogene begins an affair with Dodge. Together, they plot to ruin Remus, sparking a bitter feud that soon reaches the highest levels of government--and that can only end in murder. Combining deep historical research with novelistic flair, The Ghosts of Eden Park is the unforgettable, stranger-than-fiction story of a rags-to-riches entrepreneur and a long-forgotten heroine, of the excesses and absurdities of the Jazz Age, and of the infinite human capacity to deceive.

Opening Lines:  He had been waiting for that morning, dreading it, aware it couldn’t be stopped. An hour ago he was eating breakfast and now here he was, chasing her through Eden Park.

Blurbworthiness:  “Prose so rich and evocative, you feel you’re living the story—and full of lots of ‘I didn’t know that’ moments. Gatsby-era noir at its best.”  (Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City)

The Body
by Bill Bryson

Jacket Copy:  Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body—how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular. As Bill Bryson writes, “We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.” The Body will cure that indifference with generous doses of wondrous, compulsively readable facts and information.

Opening Lines:  Long ago, when I was a junior high school student in Iowa, I remember being taught by a biology teacher that all the chemicals that make up a human body could be bought in a hardware store for $5.00 or something like that. I don’t recall the actual sum. It might have been $2.97 or $13.50, but it was certainly very little even in 1960s money, and I remember being astounded at the thought that you could make a slouched and pimply thing such as me for practically nothing.

Tell Me Who We Were
by Kate McQuade
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  It begins with a drowning. One day Mr. Arcilla, the romance language teacher at Briarfield, an all-girls boarding school, is found dead at the bottom of Reed Pond. Young and handsome, the object of much fantasy and fascination, he was adored by his students. For Lilith and Romy, Evie and Claire, Nellie and Grace, he was their first love, and their first true loss. In this extraordinary collection, Kate McQuade explores the ripple effect of one transformative moment on six lives, witnessed at a different point in each girl’s future. Throughout these stories, these bright, imaginative, and ambitious girls mature into women, lose touch and call in favors, achieve success and endure betrayal, marry and divorce, have children and struggle with infertility, abandon husbands and remain loyal to the end. Lyrical, intimate, and incisive, Tell Me Who We Were explores the inner worlds of girls and women, the relationships we cherish and betray, and the transformations we undergo in the simple act of living.

Opening Lines:  We were all a little bit in love with her.
       Partly the good of her, and partly the bad. Partly the pretty, and partly the dark thing under the pretty.

Blurbworthiness:  “The stories in Tell Me Who We Were are united by ferociously complicated women wrestling with pain and desire in a vividly unsettled world. Kate McQuade is a spectacular writer, equal parts sensitive and fearless, and Tell Me Who We Were is abundant with heartbreak and wonder.”   (Laura Van Den Berg, author of Find Me)

A Good Neighborhood
by Therese Anne Fowler
(St. Martin’s)

Jacket Copy:  In Oak Knoll, a verdant, tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son. Xavier is headed to college in the fall, and after years of single parenting, Valerie is facing the prospect of an empty nest. All is well until the Whitmans move in next door―an apparently traditional family with new money, ambition, and a secretly troubled teenaged daughter. Thanks to his thriving local business, Brad Whitman is something of a celebrity around town, and he’s made a small fortune on his customer service and charm, while his wife, Julia, escaped her trailer park upbringing for the security of marriage and homemaking. Their new house is more than she ever imagined for herself, and who wouldn’t want to live in Oak Knoll? But with little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds: first, over an historic oak tree in Valerie’s yard, and soon after, the blossoming romance between their two teenagers. Told in multiple points of view, A Good Neighborhood asks big questions about life in America today―what does it mean to be a good neighbor? How do we live alongside each other when we don’t see eye to eye?―as it explores the effects of class, race, and heartrending star-crossed love in a story that’s as provocative as it is powerful.

Opening Lines:  An upscale new house in a simple old neighborhood. A girl on a chaise beside a swimming pool, who wants to be left alone. We begin our story here, in the minutes before the small event that will change everything. A Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them. Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame. They’ll challenge attendees to say on-camera whose side they’re on.
       For the record: we never wanted to take sides.

Blurbworthiness:  “A gripping modern morality tale...Familiar elements―two families, two young lovers, a legal dispute―frame a story that feels both classic and inevitable. But Fowler makes the book her own with smart dialogue, compelling characters and a communal “we” narrator that implicates us all in the wrenching conclusion.”  (Tara Conklin, author of The Last Romantics)

by Edmund Morris
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  Although Thomas Alva Edison was the most famous American of his time, and remains an international name today, he is mostly remembered only for the gift of universal electric light. His invention of the first practical incandescent lamp 140 years ago so dazzled the world—already reeling from his invention of the phonograph and dozens of other revolutionary devices—that it cast a shadow over his later achievements. In all, this near-deaf genius (“I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old”) patented 1,093 inventions, not including others, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he left unlicensed for the benefit of medicine. One of the achievements of this staggering new biography, the first major life of Edison in more than twenty years, is that it portrays the unknown Edison—the philosopher, the futurist, the chemist, the botanist, the wartime defense adviser, the founder of nearly 250 companies—as fully as it deconstructs the Edison of mythological memory. Edmund Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, brings to the task all the interpretive acuity and literary elegance that distinguished his previous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Ludwig van Beethoven. A trained musician, Morris is especially well equipped to recount Edison’s fifty-year obsession with recording technology and his pioneering advances in the synchronization of movies and sound. Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship. Enlightened by seven years of research among the five million pages of original documents preserved in Edison’s huge laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, and privileged access to family papers still held in trust, Morris is also able to bring his subject to life on the page—the adored yet autocratic and often neglectful husband of two wives and father of six children. If the great man who emerges from it is less a sentimental hero than an overwhelming force of nature, driven onward by compulsive creativity, then Edison is at last getting his biographical due.

Opening Lines:  Toward the end, as at the beginning, he lived only on milk.
       Even when he turned eighty-four in February, and pretended to be able to hear the congratulations of the townspeople of Fort Myers, and let twenty schoolgirls in white dresses escort him under the palms to the dedication of a new bridge in his name, and shook his head at being called a “genius” by the governor of Florida, and gave a feeble whoop as he untied the green-and-orange ribbon, and retreated with waves and smiles to the riverside estate he and Mina co-owned with the Henry Fords, he declined a slice of double-iced birthday cake and instead drank the fourth of the seven pints of milk, warmed to nursing temperature, that daily soothed his abdominal pain.

We Leave the Flowers Where They Are
by Richard Fifield (editor)
(Sweetgrass Books)

Jacket Copy:  Longtime memoir instructor and novelist Richard Fifield of Missoula, Montana has curated an anthology, We Leave The Flowers Where They Are, named after a line in the single poem included in the book. Fifield is the author of The Flood Girls and The Small Crimes Of Tiffany Templeton. The idea for the project grew out of Fifield’s memoir classes. Women of all ages and backgrounds have been writing and sharing their stories in his classes for years, according to Fifield, who says “it is time to share these stories with a broader audience.” The anthology is a truly diverse collection, with stories from women all around the Big Sky State, from Powder River to Eureka. Reflecting the lives of all Montana women, the authors’ stories offer joy, pain, humor and hope. From the story of how a midwife in Montana was sued and fought in court to ultimately earn the first professional license issued by the state, to the memoir of an incarcerated woman diagnosed with AIDS, the anthology represents the voices of writers with stories that demand to be told. Fifield’s hope is that these memoirs will help other women to not feel alone, ashamed, and to believe that change is possible. A portion of the book’s proceeds will benefit two nonprofit organizations: Zootown Arts Community Center, an arts nonprofit based in Missoula, and Humanities Montana, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities with offices around the state.

Opening Lines:  When the phone rings in the middle of the night, I turn on a small light, and it wakes my husband. It is just after two in the morning. He turns over in the bed, accustomed to these late night calls. Sarah is in labor, and I must go to work. After years as a midwife, the rush of an impending birth jolts me awake, and I move quickly, a familiar routine, but still exciting every time.  (from “Number One” by Dolly Browder)

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini
by Joe Posnanski
(Avid Reader Press)

Jacket Copy:  Harry Houdini. Say his name and a number of things come to mind. Escapes. Illusions. Magic. Chains. Safes. Live burials. Close to a century after his death, nearly every person in America knows his name from a young age, capturing their imaginations with his death-defying stunts and daring acts. He inspired countless people, from all walks of life, to find something magical within themselves. This is a book about a man and his extraordinary life, but it is also about the people who he has inspired in death. As Joe Posnanski delves into the deepest corners of Houdini-land, visiting museums (one owned by David Copperfield), attractions, and private archives, he encounters a cast of unforgettable and fascinating characters: a woman who runs away from home to chase her dream of becoming a magician; an Italian who revives Houdini’s most famous illusion every night; a performer at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles who calls himself Houdini’s Ghost; a young boy in Australia who, one day, sees an old poster and feels his life change; and a man in Los Angeles whose sole mission is life has been to keep the legend’s name alive. Both a personal obsession and an odyssey of discovery, Posnanski draws inspiration from his lifelong passion for and obsession with magic, blending biography, memoir, and first-person reporting to examine Harry Houdini’s life and legacy. This is the ultimate journey to uncover why this magic man endures, and what he still has to teach the world about wonder.

Opening Lines:  “Ladies and gentlemen,” Harry Houdini sang, for in those days he did sing. Houdini’s voice in many way was more magical than any escape or illusion. He spent a lifetime cultivating it, smoothing it, flattening out the Hungarian accent, cleaning up the new York street grime, transforming every da into the, dees into these, and ain’t into are not. By the time he became famous around the world―and by 1915 he was famous in more countries than any performer on earth―you could hear European high society in the street urchin’s voice.

Not a Thing to Comfort You
by Emily Wortman-Wunder
(University of Iowa Press)

Jacket Copy:  From a lightning death on an isolated peak to the intrigues of a small town orchestra, the glimmering stories in this debut collection explore how nature—damaged, fierce, and unpredictable—worms its way into our lives. Here moths steal babies, a creek seduces a lonely suburban mother, and the priorities of a passionate conservationist are thrown into confusion after the death of her son. Over and over, the natural world reveals itself to be unknowable, especially to the people who study it most. These tales of scientists, nurses, and firefighters catalog the loneliness within families, betrayals between friends, and the recurring song of regret and grief.

Opening Lines:  The woman crawled into town from the riverbed. Two miles. The elbows of her jean jacket were ripped to shreds and there was tar on her forearms, and gravel, and river mud. That’s how it was we knew how far she’d come. That, and the other body, the man’s, was found down in the tamarisk, catfish gnawing on his feet. We knew they were together because they each had part of the same animal skull in a pocket: she had the cranial cavity and upper mandible; he had the jaw. I put hers on her nightstand so it’d be the first thing she saw when she woke up.

Blurbworthiness:  “Populated with all manner of wild animals, endangered species, and flawed people, the endlessly readable stories in Not a Thing to Comfort You remind me of campfire ranger talks, if the rangers are Annie Proulx or Raymond Carver and the untended campfire burns down an entire forest. Wortman-Wunder now certainly enters the ranks of our finest naturalist writers, yet what gives these stories their remarkable power and depth is her lifetime of meticulous fieldwork on the always unpredictable human heart.” (Justin Hocking, author, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir)

Sweep Out the Ashes
by Mary Clearman Blew
(University of Nebraska Press)

Jacket Copy:  Diana Karnov came to Versailles, Montana to uncover secrets. Teaching college history in remote northern Montana offers the opportunity to put distance between herself and her overbearing great-aunts and to uncover information about her parents, especially the father she can’t even remember. At first overwhelmed by the brutal winter, Diana throws herself into exploring mysteries her aunts refuse to explain. Eventually, she befriends several locals, including a student, Cheryl Le Tellier, and her brother, Jake. As Diana’s relationship with Jake deepens, he discusses his Métis heritage and culture, exposing the enormous gaps in her historical knowledge. Astounded, Diana begins to understand that American narratives, what she learns about her father, and the capacity for women to work and learn is not as set and certain as she was taught. Mary Clearman Blew deftly balances these 1970s pressure points with multifaceted characters and a layered romance to deliver an instant Western classic.

Opening Lines:  Diana Karnov stood at the classroom window, looking out over the faculty parking lot in the early twilight of Montana’s northern latitude. Beyond the parking lot stretched the frostbitten brown grass of the Lawn, ringed by a glow of lights like a barrier between the campus and the open prairie. As the afternoon faded into nightfall, her own reflection emerged in the glass like a ghost of herself superimposed upon an unforgiving landscape.

Blurbworthiness:  “Smart, witty, hard-hitting, tender, and compelling. . . . Much more than a saga about women struggling for their rightful place in the world, though, this book stages a fascinating love story, a fresh look at ethnic relations, and an exciting exploration of history and its surprising revelations. It’s a damned good read.”  (Joy Passanante, author of Through a Long Absence: Words from My Father’s Wars)

Vera Violet
by Melissa Anne Peterson

Jacket Copy:  Vera Violet recounts the dark story of a rough group of teenagers growing up in a twisted rural logging town. There are no jobs. There is no sense of safety. But there is a small group of loyal friends, a truck waiting with the engine running, a pair of boots covered in blood, and a hot 1911 with a pearl pistol grip. Vera Violet O’Neely’s home is in the Pacific Northwest—not the glamorous scene of coffee bars and craft beers, but the hardscrabble region of busted pickups and broken dreams. Vera’s mother has left, her father is unstable, and her brother is deeply troubled. Against this gritty background, Vera struggles to establish a life of her own, a life fortified by her friends and her hard-won love. But the relentless poverty coupled with the twin lures of crystal meth and easy money soon shatter fragile alliances. Her world violently torn apart, Vera is forced to leave everything behind and move to St. Louis, Missouri. She settles into a job at an inner-city school where she encounters the same disarray of community. And alone in her small apartment, Vera grieves. She thinks about her family and the love of her life, Jimmy James Blood. In this brilliant, explosive debut, Melissa Anne Peterson establishes herself as a fresh, raw voice, a writer to be reckoned with.

Opening Lines:  The Montana sky opened up and gave me snow. Snow to numb my wounds. Snow to cover my footprints. Snow to cushion the echo of the rifle as I fired it repeatedly.

Blurbworthiness:  “Vera Violet is the most authentic and exciting debut I’ve read in a long time. At once gritty and jaw-droppingly lyrical, Peterson’s voice is a clarion call for the downtrodden and disenchanted. Reading Vera Violet is nothing less than a visceral and stirring experience.”  (Jonathan Evison, author of Lawn Boy)

Deacon King Kong
by James McBride

Jacket Copy:  In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .45 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range. The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself. As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characterscaught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New Yorkoverlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion. Bringing to these pages both his masterly storytelling skills and his abiding faith in humanity, James McBride has written a novel every bit as involving as The Good Lord Bird and as emotionally honest as The Color of Water. Told with insight and wit, Deacon King Kong demonstrates that love and faith live in all of us.

Opening Lines:  Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .45 Luger in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.

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