Monday, April 27, 2020

Fresh Ink: April 2020 edition

Fresh Ink 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 Swallowed Man
by Edward Carey

Jacket Copy:  The ingenious storyteller Edward Carey returns to reimagine a time-honored fable: the story of an impatient father, a rebellious son, and a watery path to forgiveness for the young man known as Pinocchio. In the small Tuscan town of Collodi, a lonely woodcarver longs for the companionship of a son. One day, “as if the wood commanded me,” Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—carves for himself a pinewood boy, a marionette he hopes to take on tour worldwide. But when his handsome new creation comes magically to life, Geppetto screams . . . and the boy, Pinocchio, leaps from his arms and escapes into the night. Though he returns the next day, the wily boy torments his father, challenging his authority and making up stories—whereupon his nose, the very nose his father carved, grows before his eyes like an antler. When the boy disappears after one last fight, the father follows a rumor to the coast and out into the sea, where he is swallowed by a great fish—and consumed by guilt. He hunkers in the creature’s belly awaiting the day when he will reconcile with the son he drove away. With all the charm, atmosphere, and emotional depth for which Edward Carey is known—and featuring his trademark fantastical illustrations—The Swallowed Man is a parable of parenthood, loss, and letting go, from a creative mind on a par with Gregory Maguire, Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton.

Opening Lines:  I am writing this account, in another man's book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten. I have been eaten, yet I am living still.

Blurbworthiness:  “A beautiful and dark meditation on fatherhood, mercy, redemption and the alchemy of isolation. Strange, moving and musical, it's a delight.” (A. L. Kennedy, author of Day)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Who knows how old I was when I first saw Disney’s Pinocchio: 4, 6, 7? I’m sure I still had a few baby teeth clinging to my gums when I first encountered the nose-growing puppet boy. And in all those years since that magic-tingled moment did I ever read the original story, as written Carlo Collodi? I cannot tell a lie: no, I haven’t read it...yet. But I’ve been meaning to and now with Edward Carey’s inventive re-telling, I think the time has finally come to trace those strings back to the puppet.

Miracle Country
by Kendra Atleework
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Kendra Atleework grew up in Swall Meadows, in the Owens Valley of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, where annual rainfall averages five inches and in drought years measures closer to zero. Kendra’s family raised their children to thrive in this harsh landscape, forever at the mercy of wildfires, blizzards, and gale-force winds. Most of all, the Atleework children were raised on unconditional love and delight in the natural world. But it came at a price. When Kendra was six, her mother was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, and she died when Kendra was sixteen. Her family fell apart, even as her father tried to keep them together. Kendra took flight from her bereft family, escaping to the enemy city of Los Angeles, and then Minneapolis, land of all trees, no deserts, no droughts, full lakes, water everywhere you look. But after years of avoiding the pain of her hometown, she realized that she had to go back, that the desert was the only place she could live. Like Wild, Miracle Country is a story of flight and return, bounty and emptiness, and the true meaning of home. But it also speaks to the ravages of climate change and its permanent destruction of the way of life in one particular town.

Opening Lines:  The valley lay dry that winter, and wind roared over the mountains.

Blurbworthiness:  “Can a book be both radiant with light and shadowy as midnight? Miracle Country can. I felt the thrill I once knew reading Annie Dillard for the first time. Kendra Atleework can really write. She flies with burning wings.”  (Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I am looking for a book that will describe human connection to the earth in glowing, lovely turns of phrase; Miracle Country, which has scooped up bucketloads of praise already, looks like it will be my conduit back down to dirt.

American Birds: a Literary Companion
Edited by Terry Tempest Williams and Andrew Rubenfeld
(Library of America)

Jacket Copy:  Featuring some of America’s greatest writers and poets, this landmark anthology is both a celebration of the birds around and above us and a field guide to the American soul. Americans have always been fascinated by birds and from the beginning American writers have captured this keen interest in a variety of genres: poems, journals, memoirs, short stories, essays, and travel accounts. Now, editors Terry Tempest Williams and Andrew Rubenfeld bring together the very best of this writing on America’s birds in an astonishing collection that encompasses the Aleutian Islands and the Florida Keys, the Maine woods to the deserts of the southwest—and our own gardens and backyards feeders. What better companion to a field guide to the birds of North America than these personal accounts of birds and bird watching by a Who’s Who of American literature? Put your binoculars aside and listen to the exquisite beauty of three Native American songs about birds, follow Lewis and Clark as they encounter new species on their journey across the continent, look over Audubon’s shoulder as he sketches in New Orleans, and join Emerson and Thoreau rambling around Walden Pond. Here too are Theodore Roosevelt as he recalls the birds of his New York childhood, Rachel Carson observing a skimmer on the Atlantic coast, and Roger Tory Peterson casting a keen eye on snail kites and limpkins in the Everglades. Add to this an impressive array of modern and contemporary poets celebrating the wonder of birds and the joys of bird watching, including Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sterling A. Brown, Cornelius Eady, Mary Oliver, Linda Hogan, and Louise Erdrich. This chronological survey of how and why Americans have watched birds makes the perfect gift for both the serious birder and the backyard watcher, indeed anyone who’s ever been drawn by the wonder of birds.

Opening Lines:  What is the date? It doesn’t matter. What is the time? My shadow is by my side. It is early spring, the dried leaves of cottonwoods are a reminder of what has been. I am sitting on sand the color of my skin and it comforts me. The valley we live in is quiet—save for the buzz saw I can hear in the background. Somewhere someone is building something. The gathering clouds are alerting me not to be seduced for long by the glory of this day—a sky the color of lapis against the red rock cliffs is suddenly interrupted by the wing beats of ravens.

Blurbworthiness:  “Evocative and absorbing....All who read it will find their own favorites among the 74 appealing selections and will marvel at the many different ways to see, think about, describe, and cherish birds and their place in our lives.”  (The Urban Audubon)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Now that I’m locked up tight indoors, I find myself staring out the windows more and more, soaking in the natural world I can no longer touch. Chief among my window-gazing pursuits are long episodes of what my cats like to call Bird TV; in particular, the shows involving those coo-chuckling comedians, The Pigeons (airing daily outside my office window between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Mountain Standard Time). Watching birds, reading about birds—it’s all fun entertainment on the fly.

by Callan Wink
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  Callan Wink has been compared to masters like Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane. His short stories have been published in The New Yorker and have won numerous accolades. Now his enormous talents are showcased in a debut novel that follows a boy growing up in the middle of the country through those difficult years between childhood and adulthood. August is an average twelve-year-old. He likes dogs and fishing and doesn’t mind early-morning chores on his family’s Michigan dairy farm. But following his parents’ messy divorce, his mother decides that she and August need to start over in a new town. There, he tries to be an average teen—playing football and doing homework—but when his role in a shocking act of violence throws him off course once more, he flees to a ranch in rural Montana, where he learns that even the smallest communities have dark secrets. Covering August’s adolescence, from age twelve to nineteen, this gorgeously written novel bears witness to the joys and traumas that irrevocably shape us all. Filled with unforgettable characters and stunning natural landscapes, this book is a moving and provocative look at growing up in the American heartland.

Opening Lines:  Bonnie and Dar were sitting at the end of the dock at Bonnie’s parents’ lake house. Torch Lake stretched out in front of them, so blue it seemed impossible, unnatural, almost as if it had been dyed.

Blurbworthiness:  “Callan Wink’s characters are as real and vivid as if they’d stepped into your living room, uninvited, to tell their stories. His style is as clear, precise, and starkly poetic as the young Hemingway’s, but with a more droll sense of humor. This book is simply super—a deft, beautiful, deeply engaging read.”  (Brad Watson, author of Miss Jane)

Why It’s In My Stack:  An instant fan of Wink’s first book, a little-read collection of short stories called Dog Run Moon, I am looking forward to exploring more from this fellow Montana writer.

by Heidi Pitlor
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Allie Lang is a professional ghostwriter and a perpetually broke single mother to a young boy. Years of navigating her own and America’s cultural definition of motherhood have left her a lapsed idealist. Lana Breban is a high-profile lawyer, economist, and advocate for women's rights with designs on elected office. She also has a son. Lana and her staff have decided she needs help softening her image in the eyes of the public and that a memoir about her life as a mother will help. Allie struggles to write Lana’s book as obstacles pile up: not enough childcare, looming deadlines, an unresponsive subject, an ill-defined romantic relationship on the verge of slipping away. Eventually, Lana comes to require far too much of Allie and even her son. Allie’s ability to stand up for herself and ask for all that she deserves will ultimately determine the power that she can wield over her own life. With the satirical eye of Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher and the incisiveness of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, acclaimed writer Heidi Pitlor tells a timely, bitingly funny, and insightful story of ambition, motherhood, and class.

Opening Lines:  I once saw a woman in a library pick up a biography of Mother Teresa. A few seconds later, she returned it to its display, and next, she reached for a Kennedy nephew’s memoir. The title, The House that Uncle Jack Built, was printed in a faux handwritten scrawl above the nephew’s name, itself set in a bold Baskerville twice as large as the title. The book could have been called Why I Love Pants; it was the man’s last name that would move copies.

Blurbworthiness:  “Impersonation is the book we need now: an unflinching look at our current moment, and at questions few of us dare to ask. If our personas do good in the world, does it matter what we did to create them? How much hypocrisy are liberals willing to tolerate? Can women raise good men? Provocative, heartfelt, and often hilarious, this is a novel I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.”  (Anna Solomon, author of The Book of V)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Just a few sentences into the first chapter, I was hooked by the author’s firm, commanding grip on the narrative, with a promise of many more good things to come in its pages. For years, I’ve been familiar with Pitlor’s name as the editor for the Best American Short Stories anthology series (I’m reading the 2019 edition right now), so it’s high time I dove into her own fiction.

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck
by William Souder
(W. W. Norton)

Jacket Copy:  This first full-length biography of the Nobel Laureate to appear in a quarter century explores John Steinbeck’s long apprenticeship as a writer struggling through the depths of the Great Depression, and his rise to greatness with masterpieces such as The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. His most poignant and evocative writing emerged in his sympathy for the Okies fleeing the dust storms of the Midwest, the migrant workers toiling in California’s fields, and the laborers on Cannery Row, reflecting a social engagement--paradoxical for all of his natural misanthropy—radically different from the writers of the so-called Lost Generation. A man by turns quick-tempered, contrary, compassionate, and ultimately brilliant, Steinbeck took aim at the corrosiveness of power, the perils of income inequality, and the growing urgency of ecological collapse, all of which drive fierce public debate to this day.

Opening Lines:  In the California winter, after the sun is down and the land has gone dark, the cool air slips down the mountainsides that flank the great Central Valley, settling over the fields and tules below.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brilliance follows brilliance in this illuminating biography of John Steinbeck. William Souder reveals his with a vibrant narrative and prose worthy of the master himself. Every page comes alive with the force of history, the wonder of place, and the friends, strangers, and dogs that shaped the sensibilities of the man who became the conscience of modern America.” (Jack E. Davis, author of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea)

Why It’s In My Stack:  John Steinbeck is one of those cherished authors I like rather than love, admire rather than desire. So, when a new biography of the beloved writer comes along, my pulse doesn’t necessarily race, but it does settle into a steady thrum-thrum-thrum of heightened interest which accompanies any new book that opens the doors to reading about a stranger’s life. And when you add acclaimed biographer William Souder’s name to the mix, the pique factor shoots up even higher. I do love how the first line of his book is very Steinbeckian in its description of California’s landscape.

by Philippe Djian
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  In this electrifying psychological drama, two veterans readjusting to civilian life find their friendship tested when ugly truths come to light. After returning from combat to a quiet garrison town, Dan and Richard struggle in their different ways to regain a sense of normality. Dan, desperate to prove to his bourgeois neighbors that he isn’t the violent, unstable veteran they’d expect, sticks to a rigorous routine and keeps his head down. Richard, on the other hand, doesn’t resist his impulses, repeatedly flouting the law and spending money he doesn’t have. All the while, his home life is gradually falling apart—unbeknownst to him, his wife has been having an affair, and his teenaged daughter is becoming increasingly distant and even hostile. The arrival of Richard’s sister-in-law, Marlene—a woman with a reputation for sleeping around and bringing bad luck wherever she goes—threatens to destroy what little peace the two men have, calling into question their seemingly unbreakable bond.

Opening Lines:  It wasn’t the smartest thing to do. It might even worsen the situation, which wasn’t great to begin with. But since she refused to let him in or hear him out, he rammed open the door with his shoulder.

Blurbworthiness:  “Marlene reads like noir cinema mixed with a dream. A subtle and haunting book that I couldn’t put down.” (Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk)

Why It’s In My Stack:  After weeks of reading some heavy, thick-bound books like the biography of Thomas A. Edison and a history of the American Revolution, I think I am ready for something thinner, sexier, and more modern (not that the other books I’m reading are bad; no, they’re very good—it’s just that I want a breather from dense non-fiction in favor of quick-on-its feet fiction). I haven’t read Djian’s other novels, but Marlene might just be a good tour guide to those earlier works.

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