Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Front Porch Books: May 2011 Edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly assessment of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mr. UPS, deliver them with a doorbell-and-dash method of deposit, I call them my Front Porch Books.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  To see a larger version of the book covers, click on the thumbnails.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (Knopf):  Jacket Copy:  "Meet Jake.  A bit on the elderly side (he turns 201 in March), but otherwise in the pink of health.  The nonstop sex and exercise he’s still getting probably contribute to that, as does his diet: unusual amounts of flesh and blood (at least some from friends and relatives).  Jake, of course, is a werewolf, and with the death of his colleague he has now become the only one of his kind.  This depresses Jake to the point that he’s been contemplating suicide.  Yet there are powerful forces who for very different reasons want—and have the power—to keep Jake alive."  At first glance, Duncan's novel looks like it aims to do for lyncanthropy what Justin Cronin's The Passage did for vampirism.  If it's even one-third as good as Cronin's novel, The Last Werewolf will be the one to beat this year.  After reading only two pages, I'm guessing it's already at the head of the book wolf pack.  Lord knows it has climbed to the summit of my To-Be-Read pile.  I first heard about this epic monster novel ("monster" as in "shaggy beast") from Josh Christie over at Brews and Books when he raved:
      Three months into 2011, and I may have already found my favorite book of the year.
      Due out this summer, Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf is being cast by some as “genre fiction for non-genre-fiction readers,” the same way as Cronin’s The Passage was in 2010. To be honest, that kind of terminology makes me cringe. To me, saying a novel transcends genre always sounds like an insult to genre fiction, literary fiction, and the book.
      So, I’ll just say that The Last Werewolf is a fucking awesome book. It’s surprising, it’s beautiful, and it sets the bar high for every other book I read this year.
I love it when bloggers get all frothy around the mouth.

We the Animals by Justin Torres (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Torres' debut novel is slim as a knife and looks just as sharp.  It opens with this epigraph by Plato: "Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage.  For by how much the more he has the fountain of prudence not yet fitted up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts.  On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains."  Judging by the first chapter, the prose is unbound and crackles with life in this story about three brothers living in Brooklyn who, according to the Jacket Copy, "tear their way through childhood--smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift."  The Opening Lines are pretty damn compelling:
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.
Months before its publication date, We the Animals already has the jet-propulsion of an endorsement from Michael Cunningham (The Hours): "We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book.  It’s heartbreaking.  It’s beautiful.  It resembles no other book I’ve read.  We should all be grateful for Justin Torres, a brilliant, ferocious new voice."

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Doubleday):  Some books have eye-catching cover designs (this one is bordered by a gaping tiger's mouth which surrounds a watercolored etching of a boat tossed on spaghetti-like waves).  Some books have hook-y plot summaries (in this case, a 19th-century London street urchin named Jaffy Brown goes to work for a Mr. Charles Jamrach, famed importer of exotic animals, who lures him out to sea on a three-year whaling voyage in search of a fabled sea dragon).  Some books come with a solid pedigree (Birch is ranked among Britain's finest novelists and has been long-listed for the Booker Prize--though this is her first full-length work of fiction to be published in the U.S.).  But some books, like this one, have undeniably killer opening paragraphs:
I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.
Honestly, do you really expect me to stop there?  Must.  Keep.  Reading.  Jamrach's Menagerie is due out this month and it already has my full, undivided attention.

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (Atria Books):  Here's another big June release (is the publishing world getting wiser to the movie industry's summer blockbuster formula?) with another insistent opening paragraph:
Andrew Harrington would have gladly died several times over if that meant not having to choose just one pistol from among his father's vast collection in the living room cabinet. Decisions had never been Andrew's strong point. On close examination, his life had been a series of mistaken choices, the last of them threatening to cast its lengthy shadow over the future. But that life of unedifying blunders was about to end. This time he was sure he had made the right decision, because he had decided not to decide. There would be no more mistakes in the future because there would be no more future. He was going to destroy it completely by putting one of those guns to his right temple. He could see no other solution: obliterating the future was the only way for him to eradicate the past.
Here's the Jacket Copy: "Set in Victorian London with characters real and imagined, The Map of Time is a page-turner that boasts a triple play of intertwined plots in which a skeptical H. G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and to save lives and literary classics, including Dracula and The Time Machine, from being wiped from existence.  What happens if we change history?  FĂ©lix J. Palma explores this question in The Map of Time, weaving a historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting—a story full of love and adventure that transports readers to a haunting setting in Victorian London for their own taste of time travel."  It sounds like a mishmash of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels and the Back to the Future movies, but I'll admit I'm hooked.  Pull the Delorean around to the front of the house, Watson.  I'll be right there.

In Caddis Wood by Mary Francois Rockcastle (Graywolf Press):  For a novel which, according to its rather pulse-less Jacket Copy, "explores the competing rhythms of romantic love, family life, and professional ambition, refracted through the changing seasons of a long marriage," In Caddis Wood sure has some Opening Lines which quicken my blood:
      Carl sits upright in bed and gazes into the furry dark. Something hot and galloping in the room, black walls leaping like a Tilt-A-Whirl, the steady thump of his heart. Terror. Not from a dream, either. Hallie sighs and turns into his arm. There is a stirring in the corner behind the glass door, and he remembers a similar movement that afternoon while he was weeding in the garden. A motion as of a bird startled, jarred into flight. Scanning the shadowy contours of the room, he sees the pale curtain, the silhouette of clothing hung on hooks. He concentrates on each breath, his eyes locked on the steepled pines that frame the edge of the porch, then pads across the wooden floor.
      The air outside is resinous, soft, completely still. Only the silver stream moves. Maybe it's the unnatural quiet that has awakened him, the absence of nighttime's customary clamor: leaves, the soughing wind, whine of insects. The moon is sickle shaped and bright, not a single cloud.  Everything--trees, sky, birds--is watching.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press):  Selling a book is all about timing, isn't it?  Today's headline could boost tomorrow's bestseller.  That's why it's a shame this new novel from Perrotta (Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher) won't be released until August--just think of how author and publisher could have cashed in on the flash-in-the-pan media hysteria surrounding Harold Camping and his recent predictions of the Rapture.  Take one look at the empty, smoking shoes on the front cover and it's pretty easy to guess this book is about the LeftBehindOvers.  Perrotta (the "Steinbeck of suburbia"*) puts his date of "Sudden Departure" at October 14 (no year given) and once again delights readers with a lemon-sharp satire about How We Live Today.  By the time The Leftovers opens, the big whoosh up into the sky has already taken place and society is carrying on as best it can--organizing a parade down the Main Street of Mapleton and forming groups like the Orphans of October 14th, the Grieving Spouses' Coalition, Bereft Siblings Network, and the Guilty Remnant.  If anyone can make us laugh at the Apocalypse, it's Perrotta.

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (Other Press):  There's something about the last sentence of the first paragraph in Nadzam's debut novel which snaps me to attention with its clear, clever imagery:
About the tops of upturned trash bins, black flies scripted the air.
I like the construction of the sentence, the specificity of the flies' blackness, and especially that verb "scripted."  I don't know how the rest of the book holds up, but Nadzam sure has my attention at this point; she's a writer to watch.  Here's the Jacket Copy: "Lamb traces the self-discovery of David Lamb, a narcissistic middle aged man with a tendency toward dishonesty, in the weeks following the disintegration of his marriage and the death of his father.  Hoping to regain some faith in his own goodness, he turns his attention to Tommie, an awkward and unpopular eleven-year-old girl.  Lamb is convinced that he can help her avoid a destiny of apathy and emptiness, and even comes to believe that his devotion to Tommie is in her best interest.  But when Lamb decides to abduct a willing Tommie for a road trip from Chicago to the Rockies, planning to initiate her into the beauty of the mountain wilderness, they are both shaken in ways neither of them expects."  Blurb-worthiness:  "Lamb is a wonder of a novel.  Bonnie Nadzam has offered an exploration of interpersonal and sexual manipulation and power that left me reeling.  This is a novel about responsibility, complicity, blame, neglect, and finally love."  (Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier)

Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine by Lou Ureneck (Viking):  The cover design for Ureneck's memoir is the first thing that pulls me in: the purple snow, the spider-silhouettes of trees, the palpable warmth of the light spilling out of the door and windows.  The word "Maine" in the title is the second thing that convinces me I need to make this a must-read.  I've never been to Maine, nor even to New England (does New Jersey count?), but I want to go so badly I can taste it like woodsmoke on the tongue.  From what I can see, Ureneck's story of escaping the city, going into the woods, and--a la Thoreau--living deep to suck out all the marrow of life will only prime my wanderlust to epic proportions.  Great Opening Lines, too:
      The idea had taken hold of me that I needed nothing so much as a cabin in the woods--four rough walls, a metal roof that would ping under the spring rain, and a porch that looked down a wooded hillside.
      I had been city-bound for nearly a decade, dealing with the usual knockdowns and disappointments of middle age. I had lost a job, my mother had died and I was climbing back from a divorce that had left me nearly broke. I was a little wobbly but still standing, and I was looking for something that would put me back in life's good graces. I wanted a project that would engage the better part of me, and the notion of building a cabin--a boy's dream, really--seemed a way to get a purchase on life's next turn. I won't lie. I needed it badly.

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington (Pamela Dorman Books): I'm looking forward to reading this novel which looks at the Iraq War from a unique angle: the titular character is a young girl wrenched by the news her father is being deployed.  While Siobhan Fallon's You Know When the Men Are Gone primarily examines the catastrophic effects of combat on adults left at the homefront, Harrington's novel gives us the story from a more impressionable and tender viewpoint.  I'm anxious to read this one--if nothing else, to get some sense of what my own three children went through when I got on that plane to Baghdad six years ago.  Jacket Copy: "When Alice learns that her father, Matt Bliss, is being deployed to Iraq she's heartbroken.  Alice idolizes her dad, working beside him in their garden, accompanying him on the occasional roofing job, playing baseball.  After Matt ships out, her mother begins to crumble under the pressure of suddenly being a single parent and Alice struggles to fill the void as she balances the drama of adolescence with the effort of keeping her family together.  But Alice is supported by a safety net strung with relationships, including almost boyfriends, a grandmother, a baker with too many children, her track coach, her kid sister, her Uncle Eddie, and even her well meaning but complicated mom.  She will learn to drive, plant her father’s garden, and fall in love, all while trying to be strong for her mother, and take care of her precocious little sister, Ellie.  But the smell of Matt is starting to fade from his blue shirt that Alice wears everyday and his infrequent phone calls are never long enough."  Blurb worthiness: "I put down this book and thought, there is no one like this girl, so fully and richly has Harrington brought a new Alice to life.  The great sorrow, of course, is that there are many Alice Blisses out there.  The power of Harrington’s richly delineated novel lies in putting a girl like Alice before us and asking us to remember how many beautiful, feisty others are staring down the long hall of adulthood with a father or a mother gone to war."  (Sarah Blake, The Postmistress)

A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (McSweeney's): Like Saturday Night Live's faux household cleaner Shimmer ("It's both a floor wax and a dessert topping!"), Sayles' 955-page epic about American Manifest Destiny serves two purposes: It's both a book and a murder weapon!  It's also a wrist-breaker, toe-stubber, and cat-squasher.  Pair it with McSweeney's other brick-book from last year, the 1,030-page The Instructions, and you've got a good set of barbells for a weight-training program.  All kidding aside (sort of), big books like A Moment in the Sun always daunt and depress me because I know I'll be so intimidated by their length I won't get around to reading them anytime soon.  Sayles (who in another life is the gifted filmmaker behind Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan and Lone Star) has gathered good reviews for this novel (Adam Langer in San Francisco Chronicle: "His breathtaking precision and attention to detail can make E.L. Doctorow's historical novels look puny and slapdash by comparison") and the subject matter is certainly dialed in to precisely the era of which I'm most fond: the turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is).  It's big and sprawling and will likely take weeks (nay, months!) to read, but I've got the whole summer stretching ahead of me, don't I?

Johnny Appleseed by Howard Means (Simon & Schuster):  Here's another book of epic proportions--not in page length, but in subject matter.  I've long been fascinated by the folkloric character of Johnny Appleseed, tree planter extraordinaire.  Surely there must be more to the man than the goofy Disney cartoon.  Howard Means appears to have probed beneath the skin of myth to reach (....wait for it....) the core of Appleseed's character.  The Opening Lines indicate Means is a good storyteller, too:
      Near sunset, one day in mid-March 1845, a seventy-year-old man named John Chapman appeared at the door of a cabin along the banks of the St. Joseph River, a few miles north of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Barefoot, dressed in coarse pantaloons and a coffee sack with holes cut out for his head and arms, Chapman had walked fifteen miles that day through mixed snow and rain to repair a bramble fence that protected one of his orchards. Now, he sought a roof over his head at the home of William Worth and his family—a request readily granted. Chapman had stayed with the Worths before on those few occasions when he felt a need to be out of the weather, a little more than five weeks in all over the previous five-plus years.
Inside, as was his custom, Chapman refused a place at table, taking a bowl of bread and milk by the hearth—or maybe on the chill of the front stoop, staring at the sunset. Accounts vary. The weather might have cleared. Afterward, also a custom, he regaled his hosts with news "right fresh from heaven" in a voice that, one frontier diarist wrote, "rose denunciatory and thrilling, strong and loud as the roar of wind and waves, then soft and soothing as the balmy airs that quivered the morning-glory leaves about his gray beard."
      One version of events has him reciting the Beatitudes, from the Gospel According to St. Matthew: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. …" That could be, but for last words—and this was to be his final lucid night on earth—the Beatitudes are almost too perfect, like those morning-glory leaves fluttering in the old gray beard. More likely, Chapman expounded for the gathered Worth family on the "spiritual truths" of the Bible, its hidden codex, a subject for him of inexhaustible fascination.
      John Chapman slept on the hearth, by the fire, that night. On that everyone agrees. By morning, a fever had "settled on his lungs," according to one person present, and rendered him incapable of speech. Within days, perhaps hours, he was dead, a victim of "winter plague," a catch-all diagnosis that dated back to the Middle Ages and included everything from pneumonia and influenza to the cold-weather rampages of the Black Death. Whatever carried him away, Chapman almost certainly did not suffer. The physician who pronounced him dying later said that he had never seen a man so placid in his final passage. Years afterward, Worth family members would describe the corpse as almost glowing with serenity.
      That's overblown, of course, but with John Chapman—or Johnny Appleseed, as he eventually became known throughout the Old Northwest—just about everything is.

The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese):  In the first chapter of Abbott's debut novel there is a random act of violence that is so shocking, so horrifying, it's all but impossible to stop reading.  The fact that Abbott describes it with such precise control over tone and pacing makes it all the more gripping.  I won't say more for fear of spoiling the experience of those first few pages, but if you're in a bookstore and you happen to pick up The Upright Piano Player and start leafing through the beginning of the book, you're a stronger person than me if you can put it down and walk away.  Me, I'd be taking it up to the cash register, my fingers full of paper cuts from turning the pages too fast.  Here's the Jacket Copy to tease you a little more:
      Henry Cage seems to have it all: a successful career, money, a beautiful home, and a reputation for being a just and principled man. But public virtues can conceal private failings, and as Henry faces retirement, his well-ordered life begins to unravel. His ex-wife is ill, his relationship with his son is strained to the point of estrangement, and on the eve of the new millennium he is the victim of a random violent act which soon escalates into a prolonged harassment.
      As his ex-wife's illness becomes grave, it is apparent that there is little time to redress the mistakes of the past. But the man stalking Henry remains at large. Who is doing this? And why? David Abbott brilliantly pulls this thread of tension ever tighter until the surprising and emotionally impactful conclusion. The Upright Piano Player is a wise and acutely observed novel about the myriad ways in which life tests us—no matter how carefully we have constructed our own little fortresses.

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff (Harper):  In an introductory note to the Advance Reader's Edition of this book which is subtitled "The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash Into the Stone Age," Harper Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Claire Wachtel writes: "On a very warm day in August 2009, I was lunching with an agent who mentioned a great project he'd be sending out in the fall.  'It's one of the last untold stories of World War II,' he began, raising instant skepticism.  But within minutes this jaded book editor was hooked.  At each crucial point in this thrilling story--and there are many--I interrupted, 'Are you sure this isn't a novel?"'  One look at the Jacket Copy and it's easy to see why Wachtel was so incredulous:
      On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over “Shangri-La,” a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton’s bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors rumored to be cannibals.
      But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. Miraculously, three passengers pulled through. Margaret Hastings, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friend’s shoes. John McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the plane, masked his grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a gaping head wound.
      Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to the hidden dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainside—a journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white man—or woman.
      Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivor’s diary, a rescuer’s journal, and original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the first time. Mitchell Zuckoff reveals how the determined trio—dehydrated, sick, and in pain—traversed the dense jungle to find help; how a brave band of paratroopers risked their own lives to save the survivors; and how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out.
      By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages, and rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives’ remembrances of the long-ago day when strange creatures fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that vividly brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening, and comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride from beginning to end.

Sigh.  Between The Last Werewolf, Shangri-La, A Moment in the Sun, The Upright Piano Player, and a dozen other new releases, it looks like my summer is already booked.

*TIME magazine

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