Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Front Porch Books: September 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.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (Knopf):  Opening a new book by Karen Russell is a little like coming home after a dinner with your spouse (who was oddly insistent that the two of you go out to a particular restaurant at a particular time), turning the doorknob, pushing your way into the living room, and having two dozen of your closest friends sporting silly cone hats on their heads leap out from behind the furniture and yell: "Surprise!  Happy Birthday!"  That's the kind of happy, unexpected pleasures readers have found with Russell's previous books: the short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the widely-acclaimed novel Swamplandia!  And now comes a new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  I'm already strapping on my party hat and warming up my noisemaker.  Jacket Copy:
In the collection's marvelous title story, two aging vampires in a sun-drenched Italian lemon grove find their hundred-year marriage tested when one of them develops a fear of flying. In "The Seagul Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979," a dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left in a seagull's nest. "Proving Up" and "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis"--stories of children left to fend for themselves in dire predicaments--find Russell veering into more sinister territory, and ultimately crossing the line into full-scale horror. In "The New Veterans," a massage therapist working with a tattooed war veteran discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the images on his body. In all, these wondrous new pieces display a young writer of superlative originality and invention coming into the full range and scale of her powers.
Opening Lines (of the title story):
In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or "first flowering fruit," the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli. In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I've been sitting here so long their falling seems contiguous, close as raindrops. My wife has no patience for this sort of meditation. "Jesus Christ, Clyde," she says. "You need a hobby."
I find that paragraph terrifically funny--the poetic, pastoral description of the lemon grove, punctuated by the snappy, sitcom-ish exclamation by the vampire's wife.  I can't wait to sink my teeth into the rest of the collection (sorry--my pun resistance is weak today).

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey (Soho Press):  Along with having one of my favorite titles of the year so far, this novel has some unforgettable Opening Lines (I didn't plan it this way, but both of these first Opening Lines selections crescendo with wives yelling at their husbands, invoking the Lord's name in vain):
      Los Angeles 1984. California is a no-fault state. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault. It just is. Day after day. Until it kills you.
      Automatic sprinkler clicks on at dusk. SssstChchchSssstChchch.  Flattens oak leaves—yellowy, brown-veined—against stiff green lawn.
      It is a warm September night when I leave my wife and eight-year-old daughter. I tell my wife I’m going out to the backyard to clean up the dog shit. It’s the one chore I’ve never really minded. A couple of times a week, I use a long-handled yellow plastic pooper-scooper that came with an accessory—a narrow rake designed to help roll the turds into the scooper. I make my way systematically across the lawn in a zigzag pattern. The dogs, a couple of beautiful over-bred Irish setters who suffer from occasional bouts of mange, enthusiastically follow, sniffing as if hot on the trail of something other than their own crap. When the scooper gets full, I dump it into one of the black Rubbermaid garbage cans I keep in the garage. And when I’m done, I spray down my equipment with a fierce stream from the gun-like attachment I screw on to the green hose I use to top off the swimming pool. By the time I’m finished, the scooper is clean enough to eat off of.
      “Jesus Christ, Greyson,” my wife, Ellen, yells out the kitchen window, “it would be a whole lot easier if you’d do that during the day when you could actually see the shit.” This is something she yells out the kitchen window almost ritually. But I always do it at night. I like the challenge.
This comes to us from the unstable mind of Hollywood studio exec Greyson Todd who, according to the Jacket Copy, "leaves his wife and young daughter and for a decade travels the world giving free reign to the bipolar disorder he's been forced to keep hidden for almost 20 years. The novel intricately weaves together three timelines: the story of Greyson's travels (Rome, Israel, Santiago, Thailand, Uganda); the progressive unraveling of his own father seen through Greyson's eyes as a child; and the intimacies and estrangements of his marriage."  But wait!  There's more!  "The entire narrative unfolds in the time it takes him to undergo twelve 30-second electroshock treatments in a New York psychiatric ward."  Okay, now I'm completely sold on this debut novel.  Strap me down and give this novel to me in strong doses.

The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diana Wagman (Ig Publishing):  I'll start with the Blurbworthiness: “What begins as a single mom’s ordinary chaotic morning launches into a pinball-game of twisted fun when Winnie Parker is kidnapped after dropping her station wagon at the Peugeot mechanic’s.  Add one sulky teen daughter, one wonderfully self-impressed celebrity ex-husband, one flashingly weird reptile-obsessed kidnapper and a seven foot iguana, and you have Diana Wagman’s The Care & Feeding of Exotic Pets, a high-speed comic thrill ride that launches the reader against the restraint bar with every turn, while at the same time offering up a surprising array of insights into marriage and midlife.  Buckle up and get ready.” (Janet Fitch, White Oleander) and “Diana Wagman’s new novel is a beautifully rendered, perverse love story.  Man loves woman, lizard loves woman, Wagman deftly infuses the ordinary with shots of horror.  You’ll never look at pet ownership the same way again.” (Seth Greenland, author of The Bones).  As they say in the business, those are money blurbs!  I like stories that come at readers from sharp angles and Wagman's novel certainly looks like it fits the bill.  This is high in my To-Be-Read stack and it should be in yours, too.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Winnie Parker, mother to an angst-ridden teenage daughter and ex-wife to a successful game show host who left her for a twenty-something contestant, begins a normal day in her hum-drum existence by dropping her car off at the repair shop. After accepting what she believes is a ride to pick up her rental car, Winnie realizes too late that she's been kidnapped. What follows is a riveting psychological game of cat and mouse set in the kidnapper's tropically heated house—kept that way for Cookie, a menacing seven-foot long Iguana headquartered in the kitchen. While desperately seeking to escape—which leads to several violent clashes with her increasingly unstable kidnapper—Winnie also tries to understand why she was taken captive. Is her kidnapper merely seeking a ransom or does he have something more sinister in mind? Does he know that Winnie's mother is an Oscar-winning actress? Or did he connect her with Jonathan, her famous ex-husband? When the truth reveals itself, Winnie is not only forced to fight for her life, but must also protect the lives of those she loves from the kidnapper's deranged master plan.

The Chocolate Money by Ashley Prentice Norton (Mariner):  Norton's debut novel about the daughter of a chocolate heiress navigating a hazardous path through childhood in Chicago and prep school on the East Coast is sure to lose the kindly ladies of the Grandmother's Book Club and Knitting Circle right from the first page with its Opening Lines:
      The day I cut my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.
      It is late August. I am ten. Babs is in the kitchen talking to Andie, who comes Saturday afternoons for Bloody Marys and eggs Benedict. Babs doesn’t drink alcohol. She always nurses a Baccarat champagne flute of freshly squeezed juice (grapefruit, plum, raspberry) cut with a heavy pour of Perrier. Fruit has way too many calories. I’m not even sure she likes the taste, but it looks pretty.
      “So, Andie,” Babs says, “we are doing the Card tomorrow. I can’t decide if I should go summer or for more of a holiday feel. No matchy-matchy reindeer sweaters, of course, but maybe a tad less controversial than last year’s. I know the nudity was tastefully done, but I don’t want that bitch Nona Cardill writing nasty things about me in her column. That biddy probably never takes off her underwear. And all the calls from school. No sense of humor at all; no points for creativity.”
      All the kids in my grade at Chicago Day were really mean when our Christmas Card arrived last year. Yes, we were naked, but I was sitting on Babs’s lap and covered her privates. That didn’t make things any better. They said I was totally weird to have my picture taken without my clothes on. The best I could come up with was that it wasn’t my idea.
So Norton's characters shock the white wigs off a few readers.  What of it?  By all appearances, this is not a safe book...and I love that about it.  In his workshop at NYU, E. L. Doctorow said Babs was "the worst mother [he] had ever come across in American literature."  That alone makes me want to sit around gorging on Chocolate Money.

Spectacle by Susan Steinberg (Graywolf Press):  From the looks of it, Steinberg's stories in this slim collection are the equivalent of the carnival ride depicted on the cover design: they're bright, they're fast, and they leave you feeling shaken, your core of balance thrown out of whack.  Most of the stories come to us in one-sentence paragraphs--short lines that look like poetry on the page.  Other stories do the opposite--they're one long sentence glued together with semi-colons (which also begin and end the story).  The subject matter, according to the Jacket Copy, takes no prisoners:
In these innovative linked stories, women confront loss and grief as they sift through the wreckage of their lives. In the title story, a woman struggles with the death of her friend in a plane crash. A daughter decides whether to take her father off life support in the Pushcart Prize-winning “Cowboys.” And in “Underthings,” when a man hits his girlfriend, she calls it an accident. Spectacle bears witness to alarming and strange incidents: carnival rides and plane crashes, affairs spied through keyholes and amateur porn, vandalism and petty theft. These wounded women stand at the edge of disaster and risk it all to speak their sharpest secrets.
Here are the Opening Lines from "Superstar," the first story in the collection:
      I once hung out with this shit group of kids and they were just such shit.
      This to say I made some mistakes.
      Like breaking into this one guy's car.
      Like stealing the stereo out of that car.
      I was young and I didn't steal the stereo because I wanted the stereo.
      I stole it, rather, because I wanted the guy.

Love Bomb by Lisa Zeidner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):  In all the history of Great First Lines in American Literature, surely the Opening Lines of Zeidner's new novel are already in my Top 10:
The bride did not wear white. But the terrorist did.
As far as hooks go, those are some of the hookiest sentences I've encountered all year.  The rest of the novel appears to hold up to the promise of those first sentences.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In quaint Haddonfield, New Jersey, Tess is about to marry Gabe in her childhood home. Her mother, Helen, is in a panic about the guests, who include warring exes, crying babies, jealous girlfriends, and too many psychiatrists. But the most difficult guest was never on the list at all: a woman in a wedding dress and a gas mask, armed with a rifle, a bomb trigger strapped to her arm.  Lisa Zeidner’s audacious novel Love Bomb begins as a hostage drama and blossoms into a far-reaching tale about the infinite varieties of passion and heartbreak.  Who has offended this nutcase, and how? Does she seek revenge against the twice-divorced philanderer? Or is her agenda political—against the army general? Or the polygamous Muslim from Mali? While the warm, wise Helen attempts to bond with the masked woman and control the hysteria, the hostages begin to untangle what connects them to one another, and to their captor. But not until the SWAT team arrives does “the terrorist of love” unveil her real motives....
Blurbworthiness:  “If Jane Austen had lived to witness 9-11, Lisa Zeidner’s witty and terrifying comedy of romantic manners is what she would have written.  It’s brilliant, funny and scary.”  (Rafael Yglesias, author of A Happy Marriage)

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