Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Front Porch Books: April 2013 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.

The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge (Other Voices Books):  This book came to me by way of my good friend Gina Frangello (and when I say "good friend," I should clarify that Gina and I have never met in person, but have bonded over the internet for years and I trust her literary tastes, so when she says, "You should read this," I don't say anything, but just bow and obey).  Gina said Rob was an AMAZING writer--and you know when Gina Frangello puts something in All Caps, you better sit up and pay attention.  Well, I dipped into the first few pages of The Cost of Living, and you know what?  Roberge's prose is, indeed, AMAZING.  It begins with two police-blotter clippings from a newspaper about a missing woman, and then...Here are the Opening Lines:
The night before my father would beg me to kill him, I sat alone in a hotel room across the street from his hospital, rereading old newspaper articles about my mother's suicide.  I had six months clean for the second time in my life.  The first time stuck for six years.  But that seemed impossible to do again.  My skin itched and my body crackled and I had no idea how I'd get through the next five minutes, let alone the night, or the rest of my fucking life without being loaded.  I was freezing and the room wasn't cold.  I went into the bathroom and turned on the heat lamp, which came on along with a fan, and I paced for a minute.  I sat on the toilet, fully clothed with the seat down and counted the square-inch white tiles on the floor three times while breathing deeply.  I listened closely to the fan's small jetlike idle to block any thoughts that might come.  I tried counting the tiles on the walls but couldn't concentrate.  I looked back down at the floor.  I let my sight blur, and the moldy grout started to form a pattern that looked like floating chicken wire.
I love the level of detail and the compulsive force of the language which pulls us right in to the head of this character.  Here's more about the book from the Jacket Copy:
To the shock of lovers and rivals, indie guitarist Bud Barrett is finally—if tenuously—married, clean, and sober. Now he faces the challenge of staying that way. To avoid repeating the past, Bud needs to confront the ghosts that dwell there. After decades of seeking redemption in the arms of “pervy Florence Nightingales,” Bud finds himself still haunted by his mother’s abandonment, his own array of crimes, and a murder he witnessed as a child. As he revisits his life of grief and reckless excess, all paths lead to his long estranged father, a man with his own turbulent history and the only one who can connect Bud’s fragments, unlocking the answers that just might save him.
So, thanks, Gina for the introduction.  I can hardly wait to learn more about those pervy nurses.

Enon by Paul Harding (Random House): Okay, confession time: I still haven't read Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 novel Tinkers, even though I really really really really want to.  It's in good company on that unread shelf, joined by Housekeeping, A Confederacy of Dunces and Lolita.  One of these days, one of these days (he says while shopping for real estate on deserted tropical islands).  And now along comes Harding's new novel, due to hit bookstores in September.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
The Dallas Morning News observed that “like Faulkner, Harding never shies away from describing what seems impossible to put into words.” Here, in Enon, Harding follows a year in the life of Charlie Crosby as he tries to come to terms with a shattering personal tragedy. Grandson of George Crosby (the protagonist of Tinkers), Charlie inhabits the same dynamic landscape of New England, its seasons mirroring his turbulent emotional odyssey. Along the way, Charlie’s encounters are brought to life by his wit, his insights into history, and his yearning to understand the big questions.
And here are the wrenching Opening Lines:
Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children.  I am the exception.  My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago.  She was thirteen.  My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.
In an earlier interview at Tin House, when he was "75% done with the first draft" of the novel, Harding described a little bit more about the book:
The title of it is Enon, which is the town in Massachusetts in which George Crosby dies. In his mind, to where he escaped from his youth in Maine. It’s the original colonial name for Wenham, the town I grew up in, just a little bit north of Boston.  So this next novel is about one of George’s grandsons. His name is Charlie Crosby, and he actually makes about a one-sentence cameo in Tinkers. So it’s about him and his daughter, Kate. The action is subsequent to that in Tinkers, and set in the same location, but it’s not a sequel per se. As Charlie makes his way through the plot or the circumstances of the novel, George will show up as part of Charlie’s sort of reservoir of memories and reference points, but it’s not a continuation of the action of Tinkers. I have some idea that I’ll go back and a third book will be connected with the same family, so I might be coming up with my own little New England Yoknapatawpha one of these days.
Okay, fair warning.  I need to read Tinkers before September.

Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes (Bellevue Literary Press):  This debut novel by Michele Forbes begins with a great, menacing scene in choppy ocean waters.  I was thoroughly hooked by these Opening Lines:
      The seal appears from nowhere, an instant immutable presence in the sea--although he must have been swimming silently beneath the surface for some time without her knowing.  Katherine shudders in the water; her thoughts are moving like fast cold spikes inside her head.  Where has he come from?  Is he lost?  Has he come to feed?  The seal's heavy muzzle thrusts toward Katherine; his nostrils--two dark inlets--flare: He is taking in her smell, her fear.  His stiff eyebrow hairs, beaded with sea drops, crisscross the thick shadowy skin of his dark, wide head.  Battle-scarred, his snout slopes to an ugly dull point where his long wiry whiskers afford him the seductive familiarity of a family dog.  But it's his eyes--the eyes of this wild animal--that terrify Katherine the most; huge, opaque, and overbold, they hold on her like the lustrous black-egged eyes of a ruined man.
      Briefly the seal's lips roll to display his sharp conical teeth, strong enough to dismember a large bird, she thinks, strong enough to rip her flesh.  Her panic rises.  If she turns her head away from him to look for help, even for a second, God knows what he'll do.  He may strike.  Seals startle easily, someone once told her, their behavior as unpredictable as human love.  Yet if she remains where she is...
      They tread the cold sea together, Katherine and the seal.  Above them, sandpipers drop their miserable cries as they fly.  Splinters of high voices peak on the blue wind.  In the distance, there is the low mechanical churr of a train.  Around them, the sea continues its cool lamenting slap.
The rest of the novel appears to have little to do with slapping seas or scary seals, but those first paragraphs carry such beautiful threat that I can't help but read on.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
During the hot Irish summer of 1969, tensions rise in Belfast where Katherine, a former actress, and George, a firefighter, struggle to keep buried secrets from destroying their marriage. As Catholic Republicans and Protestant Loyalists clash during the “Troubles” and Northern Ireland moves to the brink of civil war, the lines between private anguish and public outrage disintegrate. An exploration of memory, childhood, illicit love, and loss, Ghost Moth is an exceptional tale about a family—and a country—seeking freedom from ghosts of the past.

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books):  Following in the wake of her previously successful novel with Algonquin, Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt is poised to make another splash in bookstores with this new work of fiction that has mid-century Communist paranoia as its fulcrum.  In the press materials accompanying Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt said this book began with a question she pondered: "Can outsiders become a part of a community and feel safe in that community?"  She puts her characters through the wringer in answering that question and keeps the reader glued to the page.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In 1956, Ava Lark rents a house with her twelve-year-old son, Lewis, in a desirable Boston suburb. Ava is beautiful, divorced, Jewish, and a working mom. She finds her neighbors less than welcoming. Lewis yearns for his absent father, befriending the only other fatherless kids: Jimmy and Rose. One afternoon, Jimmy goes missing. The neighborhood—in the throes of Cold War paranoia—seizes the opportunity to further ostracize Ava and her son.  Years later, when Lewis and Rose reunite to untangle the final pieces of the tragic puzzle, they must decide: Should you tell the truth even if it hurts those you love, or should some secrets remain buried?
I can't wait to read Is This Tomorrow and find out all the answers.  Blurbworthiness: "A beautiful free-spirited divorcee is shunned by her neighbors. A boy from that neighborhood goes missing. This is the engine that drives Leavitt's latest story, a page turner from first to last. I loved the way Leavitt's Mad Men-like examination of shifting American values dovetails with her vivid tale of heartbreak and hope. An enthusiastic thumbs-up from this grateful reader."  (Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed)

The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau  (Harper Perennial):  Jessica Anya Blau's new novel opens with a scene in a dress shop fitting room that is simultaneously sexy and terrifying.  It will probably make you squirm a little--but that's what Blau is hoping for, I think.  At the very least, it's riveting writing and I had a hard time setting the book aside.  Here are the Opening Lines:
Allie was in a fitting room with a thirty-three-year-old man named Jonas, pulling pinches of cocaine out of a Wonder Bread bag that was more than three-quarters full.  It was the first time she had tried coke.  Her heart was rat-a-tat-tatting and her limbs were trembling like a small poodle's.  Clearly, this had been a poor decision.
Here's the Jacket Copy:
In The Wonder Bread Summer, loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, 20-year-old Allie Dodgson has adventures that rival those Alice had down the rabbit hole. Or those of Weeds’ Nancy Botwin.  Allison is working at a dress shop to help pay for college. The dress shop turns out to be a front for drug dealers.  And Allison ends up on the run—with a Wonder Bread bag full of cocaine. With a hit man after her, Allison wants the help of her parents. But there’s a problem: Her mom took off when Allison was eight; her dad moves so often Allison that doesn’t even have his phone number….Set in 1980s California, The Wonder Bread Summer is a wickedly funny and fresh caper that’s sure to please fans of Christopher Moore, Carl Hiaasen, and Marcy Dermansky.

The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman (Little, Brown and Company):  The Jacket Copy for Naomi Alderman's new novel doesn't even do it justice, so I'm not going to reprint it here.  Suffice to say, the plot boils down to this: The story of Jesus (Yehoshuah here) is told by four people closest to him a year after his death.  New Testament narratives are as old as....well, as old as the Good Book itself.  So it would take some high-voltage writing to make a novel like this stand out from the rest of the congregation.  Based on the Opening Lines of The Liars' Gospel, I'd say Alderman has a live wire on her hands:
      This was how it happened.
      It is important to quiet the lamb, that is the first thing. A young man, learning the skills of priesthood, sometimes approaches the task with brutality. But it must be done softly, even lovingly. Lambs are trusting creatures. Touch it on the forehead just above the spot between the eyes. Breathe slowly and evenly, close enough to the creature to inhale the meaty scent of wool. It will know if you are nervous. Hold yourself steady. Whisper the sacred words. Grasp the knife as you have practiced. Plunge the blade into the neck swiftly, just below the jaw. There must be no pausing. The knife must be sharp enough that almost no pressure is needed. Move it down evenly and quickly, severing the tendons and nerves as the blood begins to flow and the lamb’s muscles spasm. Withdraw. The entire motion should take less than the time of one in-breath.
      Hold the lamb so that the blood gushes down, that it may be caught in the sacred cup. There is a great deal of blood; the life is in the blood. It is appropriate at this point to meditate on the blood in your own body, on how quickly and easily it could be released, on how one day it will cease to flow. Sacrifice is a meditation on vulnerability. Your blood is no redder than this creature’s. Your skin is no tougher. Your understanding of the events which will lead to your own death is probably no greater than this lamb’s comprehension.
      The smell of it is strong: iron and salt and sharpness. A priest catches the blood in the cup. The cup becomes full. The priest scatters the blood, spatters it to the four corners of the altar. The smell increases. The lamb stops twitching. The last traces of life are gone from it. This is how quickly it happens. When the blood is drained, slice open the skin and pull it from the carcass. Now the creature is meat. Every living being is meat for another. Do you think that the mosquito – one of the smallest of God’s creatures – looks on us as anything other than food? Worms will one day devour you – do you imagine they will notice your intellect, your kindness, your riches, your beauty? Everything is eaten by some other thing. Do not think that because you have knives of bronze you are more than this lamb. All of us are lambs before the Almighty.
      Remove the sacred organs from the flesh. Pull them, separating and cutting the sinews which hold them in place. Moments ago, they had purpose: like each man in the Temple, they had their functions to perform. Now they are objects to be burned in the holy fires. Take care not to pierce the bowel – the stench will be appalling. This is no ritual of the spirit, it is a matter of the body. Remember that your bowel too contains feces, that the woman whom you most desire in all the world is, at this moment as at all others, full of mucus and feces. Be humble. Remove the forbidden fats which may not be eaten: the sheet of fat across the abdomen, the fat of the kidneys.
      Place the organs and the forbidden fats into the fire of the altar. As they burn, offer up praises to the Almighty, who has given us this holy duty, who has given us the wit to understand His works, who has placed us above the beasts in knowledge and in wisdom. As the fats burn, their outer membranes blackening, the soft white matter liquefying and dripping down among the burning branches, the smell will be sweet and delicious. These are the sweet savors for the Lord. Your mouth will begin to salivate, your stomach, if you have not eaten for some time, may begin to growl. You are not an angel, a disembodied spirit without desire. You are a body, like this lamb. You want to eat this flesh. You are a soul also, the more to praise your Creator. Remember what you are. Give thanks. When the fats and organs are consumed, the animal’s carcass may be removed. It will be cooked for you and your fellow priests. Thus you will share the meal with God.
      This is the daily sacrifice. Every day, twice a day, morning and evening, a year-old lamb, healthy and without blemish. Every time, it is a sacred thing. Every time, the animal is slain for the glory of God, not for the mere satisfaction of our hungers. Every time, as the life bleeds out, the priest should look, and notice, and give thanks for the animal whose life has returned to its Creator and whose flesh provides sweet savors for the Lord and nourishment for His servants.

Temple Grove by Scott Elliot (University of Washington Press):  In her praise of Scott Elliott's new novel, Kim Barnes (In the Kingdom of Men) compares his work to two of my favorite contemporary writers: Alan Heathcock and Benjamin Percy.  So you know I'm already sitting up a little straighter in my chair, senses a-tingle.  Volt and The Wilding were two of the finest works of fiction I've read this century which addressed man's humble place in nature.  And now comes Temple Grove which takes us deep into the forests of the Pacific Northwest.  I lived in Oregon for four years, earning my degree from the University of Oregon, so I'm always interested in novels which explore the edgy relationship between loggers and eco-terrorists who drive metal spikes into trees in protest.  Temple Grove looks like it will be a novel in which you can practically smell the loamy, fern-festered earth and feel the ever-present mist in the air.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Deep in the heart of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula lies Temple Grove, one of the last stands of ancient Douglas firs not under federal protection from logging. Bill Newton, a gyppo logger desperate for work and a place to hide, has come to Temple Grove for the money to be made from the timber. There to stop him is Paul, a young Makah environmentalist who will break the law to save the trees. A dangerous chase into the wilds of Olympic National Park ensues, revealing a long-hidden secret that inextricably links the two men. Joining the pursuit are FBI agents who target Paul as an eco-terrorist, and his mother, Trace, who is determined to protect him. Temple Grove is a gripping tale of suspense and a multilayered novel of place that captures in taut, luminous prose the traditions that tie people to this powerful landscape and the conflicts that run deep among them.
Oh, and here's that Blurbworthiness I mentioned earlier:  "Like Alan Heathcock and Benjamin Percy, Scott Elliott writes from that place where the old myths and the new stories collide. In Temple Grove, he reminds us of what it means to be lost to everyone and everything we have ever loved...and to be found again. It is a story of longing, cruelty, forgiveness, and redemption, shot through with intimate descriptions of a land on the cusp of ruin that will break your heart with their beauty."  (Kim Barnes)

Vacationland by Sarah Stonich (University of Minnesota Press):  Okay, okay, I'll admit I'm kind of a sucker for paint-by-number paintings on book cover designs (see also the similarly-titled Jamesland by Michele Huneven) and I especially like the work Mingovits Design has done on the cover for Sarah Stonich's novel--notice how the fawn stands out from the faded background and interweaves through the font of the title.  Okay, fine, the cover got my attention; but it's the contents inside the package that really matter.  Like so many of the other books mentioned in this edition of Front Porch Books, Stonich had me at "Hello."  Here are the Opening Lines:
      When Ilsa shakes snow from her ruff the thing is tossed from her jaws to land and skitter across the linoleum. At the sink with her back to the dog, Meg scrapes egg from a pan and idly wonders if she’s being delivered another frozen bone. When it rolls to a stop near her slipper, she sees. There is no mistaking it, snow-crusted as it is.
      “Real?” Meg squeals, answering the question. She vaults back, her own hand meeting her mouth as if zip-lined. Her next words gurgle into her palm, but when she swivels to where Ilsa sits, her voice is clear, “Bad, bad dog!”
      Pivoting to the dark window, she gasps at her reflection. On the other side of the glass the first storm of the season has already dropped eight inches and it’s still coming down. Meg inhales and exhales in sync with gusts of corn-snow battering the window, hoping that upon turning back she’ll see she’s utterly, ridiculously mistaken.
      Her kitchen had once been the bar and lounge of Naledi Lodge. Besides this building, little suggests the place was ever a thriving resort. A pair of dry gas pumps lean like drunks near the dock, and pilings poke blindly through the ice as if groping for the vanished boathouse. All but two of the little cabins have been razed. Little Hatchet is a glacial lake shaped as you might expect, poised as if chopping down from Ontario, with the town of Hatchet Inlet stuck to its blade. Naledi sits at the northernmost point near the frozen handle.
      There are two seasons on Little Hatchet – blistering, black-fly summers and long winters with short days that dawn cold, colder, and, as the hand thawing on Meg’s floor mutely suggests – life threatening.
I like how Stonich delays the revelation of that hand (though I sort of suspected it was coming).  I also like the visual details with which she paints the setting (the gas pumps leaning like drunks, corn-snow hitting the window).  Marvelous, marvelous writing is at work on these pages.  Ah, but you'll want to know what the book is about, right?  Here you go--the Jacket Copy:
On a lake in northernmost Minnesota, you might find Naledi Lodge—only two cabins still standing, its pathways now trodden mostly by memories. And there you might meet Meg, or the ghost of the girl she was, growing up under her grandfather’s care in a world apart and a lifetime ago. Now an artist, Meg paints images “reflected across the mirrors of memory and water,” much as the linked stories of Vacationland cast shimmering spells across distance and time.  Those whose paths have crossed at Naledi inhabit Vacationland: a man from nearby Hatchet Inlet who knew Meg back when, a Sarajevo refugee sponsored by two parishes who can’t afford “their own refugee,” aged sisters traveling to fulfill a fateful pact once made at the resort, a philandering ad man, a lonely Ojibwe stonemason, and a haiku-spouting girl rescued from a bog. Sarah Stonich, whose work has been described as “unexpected and moving” by the Chicago Tribune and “a well-paced feast” by the Los Angeles Times, weaves these tales of love and loss, heartbreak and redemption into a rich novel of interconnected and disjointed lives. Vacationland is a moving portrait of a place—at once timeless and of the moment, composed of conflicting dreams and shared experience—and of the woman bound to it by legacy and sometimes longing, but not necessarily by choice.

1 comment:

  1. Liars' Gospel blew me away. Once I picked it up, I was hard pressed to put it down. Historical novels as well as novels about religion fascinate me, and Alderman does such a great job of capturing the time period in such a way as to make the reader feel as if it's familiar. The story of Jesus/Yehoshuah as told from the point of view of four Jews is such a different way of looking at the story.