Thursday, August 9, 2012

Front Porch Books: August 2012 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  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.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

Stray Decorum by George Singleton (Dzanc Books):  I'm a recent convert to the Holy Church of Humor as preached by Rev. Singleton.  For years, his books served as dust-collectors on my shelves, pricking me with little needles of guilt every time I walked by.  But last summer, in anticipation of meeting George at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, I cracked open Why Dogs Chase Cars and immediately cracked up.  As I wrote back then, "Singleton’s stories featuring Mendal Dawes of Forty-Five, South Carolina, are funny, wistful, profane, funny, charming, funny, and—above all—funny."  Singleton's newest collection of short stories--his first with independent publisher Dzanc Books--promises more of the same odd hilarity.  As proof, here are the first lines of each of the book's eleven short stories.  Some of these will perhaps look like lead balloons when taken out of context, but most of them are examples of how to sink a fishing lure in the soft tissue of the reader's attention.  I don't know about you, but I'm reeled in by the majority of these Opening Lines:

      My dog Tapeworm Johnson needed legitimate veterinary attention.  ("Vaccination")
      We didn't know that our dogsitter smoked so much dope, until Vina and I returned from an old-school Las Vegas trip much lighter in the savings account--sporting tattoos that meant something to us individually only--and found our wooden floors spotless and glistening.  ("What Are the Odds?")
      Alex Mull says it doesn't matter if the phone book's expired.  ("How Are We Going to Lose This One?")
      Our house's value, I understand now, never increased after my father completed the moat.  ("The First to Look Away")
      The man insisted that I needed stick-on numbers.  ("A Man With My Number")
      Madison Kent's father said that they could eat anywhere, but Madison remembered this trick.  ("Perfect Attendance")
      Billy Crume's father "invented" the Hole in the Head safety device, and that's what brought me, desperate, into He's Out Casting.  ("Where Strangers Claim the Tarnished")
      When the guy called saying he was my brother, or half-brother--or ex-half-brother, in a way, seeing as my father'd died--I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah I've heard about this scam, buddy."  ("I Think I Have What Sharon's Got")
      The original plan for the evening didn't involved talk of symbolically drowning the Father of Sociology, or of finding ways to live without neighbors.  ("Durkheim Looking Down")
      Even with my limited interaction with Randall Minning, I knew that he was the kind of man who shouldn't drink bourbon and talk to strangers.  ("I Feel Like Being Nice Today")
      The woman probably thought I hoarded things, like those sad, demented, obsessed, focused people on recent cable shows.  ("Humans Being")

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye (Unbridled Books):  When I think of Peter Geye's books, I think C-O-L-D--not in the emotional, cold-as-a-fish sense; but as in plume-of-breath-smoking-out-of-mouth and tips-of-fingers-falling-off cold.  As in his previous novel Safe from the Sea, Geye has set The Lighthouse Road in northern Minnesota and in the midst of the chilly landscape, he once again tries to reconnect the fragments of a broken family.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Against the wilds of sea and wood, a young immigrant woman settles into life outside Duluth in the 1890s, still shocked at finding herself alone in a new country, abandoned and adrift; in the early 1920s, her orphan son, now grown, falls in love with the one woman he shouldn’t and uses his best skills to build them their own small ark to escape. But their pasts travel with them, threatening to capsize even their fragile hope. In this triumphant new novel, Peter Geye has crafted another deeply moving tale of a misbegotten family shaped by the rough landscape in which they live--often at the mercy of wildlife and weather--and by the rough edges of their own breaking hearts.
Blurbworthiness: "Peter Geye writes with the mesmerizing power of the snowstorms that so often come howling off Lake Superior. I am in awe of how he swirls through so many years and juggles so many characters, all of them unforgettable and weighed down by secrets and regrets and desires that burn through the hoarfrost of Geye's bristling sentences."  (Benjamin Percy, author of The Wilding)

This Little Piggy Went to the Liquor Store by A. K. Turner (Fever Streak Press): Did Erma Bombeck ever guzzle vodka?  If she did, she might have come close to the ribald domestic humor in Turner's "momoir" This Little Piggy Went to the Liquor Store.  The subtitle of the book is "Unapologetic Admissions from a Non-Contender for Mother of the Year" and Turner pulls few punches in her self-deprecating descriptions of life as an "unexpected parent."  Scan the chapter titles and you'll get an idea of what's waiting for you inside: "Do as I Say, Not as I Do" and "I'm Not Having Twins, Bitch," for example.  Here are the Opening Lines:
The family portrait of my youth resembles The Brady Bunch mixed with suppressed anger and mental instability, topped off with a healthy dollop of alcoholism. It was the usual amount of familial dysfunction, the type that involves your parents divorcing at the same time that a couple down the street divorces. A swapping of spouses takes place, and then people get married again. I hate the word "swapping;" it makes the entire situation sound much more sordid than it probably was. Sordid or not, the end result left me with step-siblings twice over, as my mother married their father, which was a limited engagement, and my father married their mother, which continues to this day. It helps to have a flow chart to keep it all straight.

The Doctor's Wife by Luis Jaramillo (Dzanc Books):  Here's another promising ARC from Dzanc which landed on my front porch this month.  Though I haven't had the chance to read all of it yet, Jaramillo's book appears to be a novel-in-stories--short, flash-length stories for the most part.  How short?  The first story, "Expecting," is exactly one sentence long: "The Doctor's Wife is pregnant with her fourth child."  The collection revolves around the Doctor, his Wife, and their offspring.  I particularly liked the Opening Lines of "Boys," a two-page story near the start of the book:
The Doctor's Wife knows her husband to be a person somewhat fixated on safety. For example, if the Doctor sees somebody speeding or driving erratically, he'll say, "I'll see you at the hospital later." He's always prepared to go fishing, a pole and flies at the ready in the car. But in case he has a heart attack while fishing--this is how his own father died, wading in a river, fishing pole in hand--he brings along a few pills of Valium (the drug calms the frantic patient) and Canadian Club whiskey in a flask (to act as a quick anticoagulant). Under no circumstances is anybody allowed to eat a cream pie from a restaurant. And speaking of restaurants, if the family is on a road trip and the silverware looks at all grimy, even if they've been driving for hours in hundred degree weather and it's air conditioned in the restaurant, the doctor will force the whole family to march in a humiliating parade back to the hot car to find a more hygienic establishment.
So much to love in that paragraph--the sarcastic "somewhat fixated," the humorous threat to the speeding car, the "humiliating parade" through the restaurant.  The Doctor's Wife holds great promise indeed.

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon (Graywolf Press):  Lennon's new novel is—  Well, it's—  It's bizarre and I love it (at least on the surface).  Here, I'll let the Jacket Copy explain:
A haunting, enigmatic novel about a woman who is given a second chance—and isn’t sure whether she really wants it. Elisa Brown is driving back from her annual, somber visit to her son Silas’s grave when something changes. Actually, everything changes: her body is more voluptuous; she’s wearing different clothes and driving a new car. When she arrives home, her life is familiar—but different. There is her house, her husband. But in the world she now inhabits, Silas is no longer dead, and his brother is disturbingly changed. Elisa has a new job, and her marriage seems sturdier, and stranger, than she remembers. She finds herself faking her way through a life she is convinced is not her own. Has she had a psychotic break? Or has she entered a parallel universe? Elisa believed that Silas was doomed from the start, but now that he is alive, what can she do to repair her strained relations with her children? She soon discovers that these questions hinge on being able to see herself as she really is—something that might be impossible for Elisa, or for anyone. In Familiar, J. Robert Lennon continues his profound and exhilarating exploration of the surreal undercurrents of contemporary American life.
Blurbworthiness:  “Over the last decade, J. Robert Lennon’s literary imagination has grown increasingly morbid, convoluted and peculiar—just as his books have grown commensurately more surprising, rigorous and fun.”  (Scott Bradfield, The New York Times Book Review)

Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail by T. J. Forrester (Simon & Schuster):  The first thing that caught my eye when I pulled this novel from its mailing envelope was A. M. Holmes' blurb: “T.J. Forrester’s narrative explores the weird heart of American darkness with echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, cousin Raymond Carver, and the young and very talented Brad Watson. At times this book makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road look like hallucinogenic cotton candy. I couldn’t put it down.”  O'Connor, Faulkner, Carver, Watson, McCarthy and cotton candy?  That's a helluva lot of bait to throw in my path.  Jacket Copy:
In the vast wilderness of the Appalachian Trail, three hikers are searching for answers. Taz Chavis, just released from prison, sees the 2,160 mile trek as his path to salvation, and a way to distance himself from a toxic relationship. Simone Decker, a young scientist with a dark secret, is desperate to quell her demons. Richard Nelson, a Blackfoot Indian, seeks one last adventure before he surrenders to the family business back home. As they battle hunger and thirst, loneliness, and the dangerous elements, their paths begin to intersect and surviving the thru-hike may be the least of their worries. Hikers are dying along the trail, their broken bodies splayed on rocks below. Are these falls accidental, the result of carelessness on the rugged terrain, or is something more sinister at work?
I've skimmed the first few pages and I can already tell this is like a dark companion to Cheryl Strayed's Wild.  A really, really dark, meth-shooting, whiskey-guzzling dark companion.  I'm in.

The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc Books) and Love Slave (Unbridled Books) by Jennifer Spiegel:  No doubt about it, this is Jennifer Spiegel's year.  Any writer would be happy--nay, ecstatic--just to have one major work of literary fiction published in any given year, but Spiegel has two coming out from different publishers in the space of three months.  I bow to her.  Here's the Jacket Copy for each of her publishing triumphs:
The short stories in The Freak Chronicles explore, both implicitly and explicitly, the notion of freakiness. They worry over eccentricity, alienation, normalcy, and intimacy. What is it that makes one a freak, makes one want to embrace quirkiness, have the fortitude to cultivate oddity? Is there a fine line between abnormality and the extraordinary? Jennifer Spiegel’s stories delve into these questions and others.

"I can write the pants off any man," declares Sybil Weatherfield, the plucky hero of Jennifer Spiegel’s Love Slave. A literary novel set in 1995 New York, Love Slave follows Weatherfield and her strange friends as they frustrate chick-lit expectations (though they’re unaware that they’re doing so) in this uproarious, genre-breaking spree. By day Sybil is an office temp, and by night she’s a columnist for New York Shock, a chatty rag in which she writes a column called "Abscess" — a wound that never heals. Her friends include a paper-pusher for a human rights organization, and the lead singer of a local rock band called Glass Half Empty. Full of cultural detail, mid-'90s observations, and early adulthood anxieties, Weatherfield’s story of finding love ultimately casts an ironic eye on what it means to be a love slave.

Inferno: A New Translation by Dante Alighieri, translated by Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf Press):  I've come to expect consistently excellent books from Graywolf, but with this new translation of Inferno, I think they've outdone themselves, pole-vaulting to new Olympic heights.  The hardcover is a handsome package--there's a solid heft to it, the pages are coffee-table-art-book quality, and Henrik Drescher's drawings sprout in the margins of nearly every page (with full-page illustrations at the start of each Canto).  But it's Mary Jo Bang's lively, modern translation which sets this Inferno apart from all the other Infernos.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
Award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang has translated the Inferno into English at a moment when popular culture is so prevalent that it has even taken Dante, author of the fourteenth century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, and turned him into an action-adventure video game hero. Dante, a master of innovation, wrote his poem in the vernacular, rather than in literary Latin. Bang has similarly created an idiomatically rich contemporary version that is accessible, musical, and audacious. She's matched Dante's own liberal use of allusion and literary borrowing by incorporating literary and cultural references familiar to contemporary readers: Shakespeare and Dickinson, Freud and South Park, Kierkegaard and Stephen Colbert. The Inferno--the allegorical story of a spiritual quest that begins in a dark forest, traverses Hell's nine circles, and ends at the hopeful edge of purgatory--was also an indictment of religious hypocrisy and political corruption. In its time, the poem was stunningly new. Bang's version is true to the original: lyrical, politically astute, occasionally self-mocking, and deeply moving.
Blurbworthiness:  “Bang uses anachronisms when they’ll add some punch—hell’s hot wind is like a ‘massive crimson camera flash’—but it’s still Dante, wordy, guilty and full of splinters that don’t come out. Hell is where Bang went after her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Elegy, about the death of her son, and her Inferno is a classic recast for our age, a hell we’ll find ourselves in, an old poem made new by one of our most surprising and innovative poets.”  (Craig Morgan Teicher)

Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino (University of Iowa Press):  The winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Bertino's debut collection of short stories promises to be entertaining and electrifying (just based on the standard first-paragraph test I put all new arrivals through).  I mean, who can resist the idea of Bob Dylan coming home as a Thanksgiving dinner guest?  Jacket Copy:
Safe as Houses, the debut story collection of Marie-Helene Bertino, proves that not all homes are shelters. The titular story revolves around an aging English professor who, mourning the loss of his wife, robs other people's homes of their sentimental knick-knacks. In "Free Ham," a young dropout wins a ham after her house burns down and refuses to accept it. “Has my ham done anything wrong?” she asks when the grocery store manager demands that she claim it. In "Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph," a failed commercial writer moves into the basement of a convent and inadvertently discovers the secrets of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. A girl, hoping to talk her brother out of enlisting in the army, brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner in the quiet, dreamy "North Of." In “The Idea of Marcel,” Emily, a conservative, elegant girl, has dinner with the idea of her ex-boyfriend, Marcel. In a night filled with baffling coincidences, including Marcel having dinner with his idea of Emily, she wonders why we tend to be more in love with ideas than with reality. In and out of the rooms of these gritty, whimsical stories roam troubled, funny people struggling to reconcile their circumstances to some kind of American Ideal and failing, over and over. The stories of Safe as Houses are magical and original and help answer such universal and existential questions as: How far will we go to stay loyal to our friends? Can we love a man even though he is inches shorter than our ideal? Why doesn’t Bob Dylan ever have his own smokes? And are there patron saints for everything, even lost socks and bad movies?
Blurbworthiness:  "When have I last read such highly original stories? With a surreal edge and a brilliant dark humor, Safe as Houses’s tales of daughterhood and its mishaps mark a staggeringly good debut." (Deb Olin Unferth, author of Revolution)

That's Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson (Soho Press):  Josefson's debut novel about a school for "maladjusted" teens carries the hallmark of an endorsement from the late, great David Foster Wallace: "Dan Josefson is a writer of astounding promise and That's Not a Feeling is a bold, funny, mordant, and deeply intelligent debut."  Judging by the Jacket Copy, there's a whiff of Infinite Jest spritzed throughout Josefson's story:
Benjamin arrives with his parents for a tour of Roaring Orchards, a therapeutic boarding school tucked away in upstate New York. Suddenly, his parents are gone and Benjamin learns that he is there to stay. Sixteen years old, a two-time failed suicide, Benjamin must navigate his way through a new world of morning meds, popped privileges, candor meetings and cartoon brunches--all run by adults who themselves have yet to really come of age. The only person who comprehends the school's many rules and rituals is Aubrey, the founder and headmaster. Fragile, brilliant, and prone to rage, he is as likely to use his authority to reward students as to punish them. But when Aubrey falls ill, life at the school begins to unravel. Benjamin has no one to rely on but the other students, especially Tidbit, an intriguing but untrustworthy girl with a "self-afflicting personality." More and more, Benjamin thinks about running away from Roaring Orchards--but he feels an equal need to know just what it is he would be leaving behind.
Opening Lines:
No one noticed the evening’s approach until the long shadows cast by the mountains began to merge in the grass. Alternative Boys stood on the Dirt Pile, digging away at it with their shovels and tossing the dirt toward the adjacent woods. Only when Roger woke to the growing darkness did he order the boys down and tell them to hurry back to the Mansion for supper. I’m losing it, he thought, and rubbed his face with his hands. He followed as the boys crossed Route 294 in a clump and then stretched out into a loose line to pass through the school’s iron gate. The gate hung between two stone pillars; on the right pillar a sign read, THE ROARING ORCHARDS SCHOOL FOR TROUBLED TEENS, WEBITUCK, NY. The Mansion they headed toward was built on a slight eminence, and sat in an angle of light. Most of the boys rested the shovels on their shoulders or dragged them rasping along the gravel driveway. William Kay and Andrew Pudding soon fell behind; they were swinging their shovels at each other like swords.

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: "High Noon at Inferno Gulch" (Vol. 3) by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics Books):  I'll leave you with this tasty treat from the good folks at Fantagraphics.  I've been enjoying the Midas touch the publisher has given to the Golden Age of Comics--Prince Valiant, Pogo, Donald Duck, Popeye--but none as much as the serial adventures of history's most famous mouse.  This volume collects several strips from the mid-1930s, including "Race for Riches" and "The Bat Bandit of Inferno Gulch."  As always, the entire package is a treasure as rich as any glowing coins Mickey could find in an unearthed trunk.  The book comes with more than 50 pages of supplementary material, including rare behind-the-scenes art, vintage publicity material, and commentary by Disney scholars.  Opening Lines:

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