Thursday, September 26, 2013

Front Porch Books: September 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 Facades by Eric Lundgren (Overlook):  I love a good noir mystery.  I also love Garrison Keillor's stories of strapping, oatmeal-fed Midwesterners holding fast to Rust Belt sensibilities.  And I've been known to nod approvingly at a David Lynch movie every now and then.  On the surface, Eric Lundgren's debut novel seems to check each of those boxes for me.  Take a look at the Jacket Copy:
Along the streets of the once-great Midwestern city of Trude, the ornate old buildings lie in ruin.  Shrouded in disappointment andnostalgia, Trude has become a place to "lose yourself," as one tourist brochure puts it: a treacherous maze of convoluted shopping malls, barricaded libraries, and elitist assisted-living homes.  One night at Trude's opera house, the theater's most celebrated mezzo-soprano vanishes during rehearsal.  When police come up empty-handed, the star's husband, a disconsolate legal clerk named Sven Norberg, must take up the quest on his own.  But to discover the secret of his wife's disappearance, Norberg must descend into Trude's underworld and confront the menacing and bizarre citizens of his hometown: rebellious librarians, shifty music critics, a cop called the Oracle, and the minister of an apocalyptic church who has recruited Norberg's teenage son.  Faced with the loss of everything he loves, Norberg follows his investigation to the heart of the city and through the buildings of a possibly insane modernist architect called Bernhard, whose elaborate vision will offer him an astonishing revelation.  Written with boundless intelligence and razor-sharp wit, The Facades is a comic andexistential mystery that unfolds at the urgent pace of a thriller.
On a side note, don't you just love how the book's cover neatly divides the suburban homes into dark and light? Kudos to Keith Hayes for the design.  Blurbworthiness: “This is a detective novel that owes as much to Haruki Murakami and Italo Calvino as to John D. MacDonald and James M. Cain.  The Facades belongs to the same subgenre as Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn: detective novels influenced as much by Kafka as they are by Chandler.”  (The New Yorker)

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Atlantic Monthly Press):  Someone (Leo Tolstoy perhaps?) once said:  “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Aminatta Forna's new novel satisfies at least one half of that literary axiom--the "arrival of a stranger" part (and I'm willing to bet there are journeys of a spiritual sort in these pages, too).  The Hired Man opens with Laura and her children driving in to the Croatian village of Gost and it takes off from there, propelled by Forna's lucid, readable prose.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Duro is off on a morning’s hunt when he sees something one rarely does in Gost: a strange car.  Later that day, he overhears its occupants, a British woman, Laura, and her two children, who have taken up residence in a house Duro knows well.  He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as Laura’s trusted confidant.  But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as Duro and Laura’s daughter Grace uncover and begin to restore a mosaic in the front that has been plastered over, Duro must be increasingly creative to shield the family from the town’s hostility, and his own past with the house’s former occupants.  As the inhabitants of Gost go about their days, working, striving to better themselves and their town, and arguing, the town’s volatile truths whisper ever louder.
Blurbworthiness: “A masterful novel by a gifted writer lays bare the secrets and scars of past conflicts...[Forna] reveals her story at a pace of measured suspense until it reads like a slow-burn thriller.  Her prose quietly grips us by the throat and then tightens its hold.  It is storytelling at its most taut.” (The Independent)

If I'd Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken (University of Iowa Press):  There's always something exciting about discovering a fresh voice in fiction that spanks you hard across the face with vibrant language.  While I haven't had time to read all of its pages, Kate Milliken's debut collection If I'd Known You Were Coming seems to have the kind of energy and urgency that will make me sit back at the end and say, "Man, I was spanked but good by this book!"  Take, for instance, the Opening Lines to the first story, "A Matter of Time," which left me wishing I could stop all the clocks in my life so I could sit down and spend the rest of the day with this book:
      A hinge or a latch or some goddamn thing had rusted out and now the front door kept swinging open like an invitation.
      This was when things were better than they had been, but still bad enough Lorrie was sure it couldn't get any worse.  This was in Calabasas, in the five-room bungalow with the small square back porch that was partly detached, leaving a gap wide enough to catch a foot.  The bungalow with the little kidney-shaped pool with the cracked floor, empty, leaving only a slick of green pointing toward the drain.  This was on the other side of a head-high block wall, on the outside of a sprawling new development and just blocks from a mall--a mall, for god's sake.  On the weekends a line of cars snaked past the front windows, waiting to pull into the mall parking lot.  It was watching all those people, in their rip-sleeved t-shirts, trapped in their cars, looking sweaty, drumming their steering wheels, that made Lorrie all the more restless.
      "It's only a matter of time," Marty would say.  He wanted more, too.
I love the specificity of the details in these paragraphs: the treacherous gap on the porch, the green slime slick in the pool, the sweating mall-bound drivers with their ripped shirts.  Milliken puts me right there in that five-room bungalow with Lorrie and Marty.  Blurbworthiness: "The startling, darkly beautiful stories of Kate Milliken will make you uncomfortable, disquieted, suspicious, even weirdly aroused—and you will be left with the realization you don't know everyone you thought you knew, the equivalent of a camera pressed through the bedroom blinds of the couple next door.  She never flinches, but you will."  (Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon)

Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton):  I was hooked on this book from the first line of the publisher's blurb: "California now has more trees than at any time since the late Pleistocene."  Really?  How is that possible?  Granted, my experiences in California have been confined to the concrete jungles of L.A. and San Francisco, but verdant landscapes are not the first things that come to mind when I think of that particular state.  I'm fascinated to see how Jared Farmer shows the history of a people by way of the natural world.  Here's the full Jacket Copy:
California now has more trees than at any time since the late Pleistocene.  This green landscape, however, is not the work of nature.  It's the work of history.  In the years after the Gold Rush, American settlers remade the California landscape, harnessing nature to their vision of the good life.  Horticulturists, boosters, and civic reformers began to "improve" the bare, brown countryside, planting millions of trees to create groves, wooded suburbs, and landscaped cities.  They imported the blue-green eucalypts whose tangy fragrance was thought to cure malaria.  They built the lucrative "Orange Empire" on the sweet juice and thick skin of the Washington navel, an industrial fruit.  They lined their streets with graceful palms to announce that they were not in the Midwest anymore.  To the north the majestic coastal redwoods inspired awe and invited exploitation. A resource in the state, the durable heartwood of these timeless giants became infrastructure, transformed by the saw teeth of American enterprise. By 1900 timber firms owned the entire redwood forest; by 1950 they had clear-cut almost all of the old-growth trees.  In time California's new landscape proved to be no paradise: the eucalypts in the Berkeley hills exploded in fire; the orange groves near Riverside froze on cold nights; Los Angeles's palms harbored rats and dropped heavy fronds on the streets below.  Disease, infestation, and development all spelled decline for these nonnative evergreens.  In the north, however, a new forest of second-growth redwood took root, nurtured by protective laws and sustainable harvesting.  Today there are more California redwoods than there were a century ago.
Blurbworthiness: “A breathtaking, dramatic, and insightful history of California as seen through the rise and fall of the state’s most iconic trees.  Beautifully written, every page is a revelation, bringing to vivid life the myriad ways in which California’s landscape was transformed by human greed and desire, often with disastrous results.  You will never think about a tree or the California Dream in the same way.”  (Eric Jay Dolin, author of When America First Met China)

Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll (Graywolf Press):  Norwegian writer Gaute Heivoll wastes no time in pulling readers right into the action of his novel, which is based on a true story.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      A few minutes past midnight on the morning of Monday, 5 June 1978, Johanna Vatneli switched off the kitchen light and carefully closed the door.  She took the four steps through the cold hall, opened the door to the bedroom a fraction, causing a strip of light to fall across the grey woollen rug they had spread over the bed, even though it was summer.  Inside, in the darkness, Olav, her husband, lay asleep.  She stood for some seconds on the threshold listening to his heavy breathing, then went into the small bathroom, where she let the tap run quietly, as she always did.  She stood bent over, washing her face, for a long time.  It was cold in there; she was standing barefoot on the rag mat and could feel the hard floor beneath her feet.  For a moment she looked herself in the eye.  This wasn’t something she usually did.  She leaned forwards and stared into the black pupils.  Then she tidied her hair and drank a glass of water from the tap.  Finally, she changed her knickers.  They were covered in blood.  She folded them and put them in a bowl of water to soak overnight.  She pulled a nightie over her head, and at that moment, in her abdomen, she felt a stabbing pain, the one that was always there but had worsened recently, particularly if she stretched or lifted something heavy.  It was like a knife.
      Before switching off the light she removed her teeth and dropped them with a plop into the glass of water on the vanity shelf under the mirror, beside Olav’s.
       Then she heard a car.
      It was dark in the living room, but the windows, strangely shiny and black, gleamed as though from a dim light outside in the garden.  She walked to the window and peered out.  The moon had risen above the treetops to the south, she saw the cherry tree, which was still in blossom, and had it not been for the mist she would have been able to see right down to Lake Livannet in the west.
      A car with no lights on drove past the house and continued at a slow pace along the road towards the collection of homesteads known as Mæsel.  The car was black, or perhaps red; she couldn’t tell.  Not moving at any great speed, it finally rounded the bend and was gone.  She stood by the window waiting for one, two, perhaps three minutes.  Then she went into the bedroom.
      ‘Olav,’ she whispered.  ‘Olav.’
      No answer.  He was in his usual deep sleep.  She hurried back into the living room, knocked into the chair arm, hurting her thigh, and reached the window in time to see the dark car returning.  It was coming out of the bend, and continued slowly past the living room wall.  It must have turned around by the Knutsens’ house, but no one was living there, they had travelled back to town the night before, she had seen them leaving herself.  Outside, she heard the crunch of tyres.  The low purr of the engine.  The sound of a radio.  Then the car ground to a halt.  She heard a door open, then silence.  Her heart was in her mouth.  She went back into the bedroom, put on the light and shook her husband.  This time he woke, but he didn’t get up until they both heard a loud bang and a tinkle of breaking glass from the kitchen.
      As soon as she entered the hall she smelt the pervasive stench of petrol.  She yanked open the kitchen door and was met by a wall of flames.  The whole room was ablaze.  It must have taken a matter of seconds.  The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large, wounded animal.  She stood in the doorway paralysed with shock.  Deep within the wails she recognised–even though she had never heard it before–the sound of glass cracking.  She lingered there until the heat became too intense.  It was as though her face was being detached, dragged down from her forehead and over her eyes; her cheeks, her nose and mouth.
Hooked?  Intrigued?  Then you should be the first in line to get Before I Burn when it comes out in January.  Oh, you say you need a little more convincing?  All right, here's the Jacket Copy:
In 1970s Norway, an arsonist targets a small town for one long, terrifying month.  One by one, buildings go up in flames.  Suspicion spreads among the neighbors as they wonder if one of their own is responsible.  But as the heat and panic rise, new life finds a way to emerge.  Amid the chaos, only a day before the last house is set afire, the community comes together for the christening of a young boy named Gaute Heivoll.  As he grows up, stories about the time of fear and fire become deeply engrained in his young mind until, as an adult, he begins to retell the story.  At the novel’s apex the lives of Heivoll’s friends and neighbors mix with his own life, and the identity of the arsonist and his motivations are slowly revealed.

Glossolalia by David Jauss (Press 53): glos·so·la·lia, noun, gläs-ə-ˈlā-lē-ə, profuse and often emotionally charged speech that mimics coherent speech but is usually unintelligible to the listener and that is uttered in some states of religious ecstasy and in some schizophrenic states.  That may be how Mr. Webster defines the word, but when I open David Jauss' collection of "new and selected" short stories, I find some very intelligent, coherent and yet still emotionally-charged language.  Take, for instance, the Opening Lines to "Torque," the first story in the book:
The day after his wife left him, taking their three-year-old son with her, Larry Watkins took out his circular saw, attached the metal-cutting blade, and carefully sawed his 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood in half.  It was not an impulsive or crazy act, as his neighbors might have supposed.  He had spent almost four hours the day before making the proper measurements, drawing the cutting line with a magic marker, and chaining one bumper to the garage wall and the other to the Chevy so the two halves wouldn't spring together when he cut the frame.  And in a way, he had been planning this moment ever since 1985, when he came back to the U.S. after two years of guard duty and beer drinking for Uncle Sam in Germany.  To celebrate their release from the service, he and his buddy Spence had rented a limousine for an hour and cruised around Virginia Beach, drinking Scotch from the limo's bar and looking at girls through the tinted glass.  Spence was talking away about his plans: he was going to catch the next bus to Albany, marry his girl, and go to work in her father's office supply store.  Larry hadn't given much thought to his future, so when Spence asked him what he was going to do when he got back to Minnesota, he said the first thing that came to his mind: "I'm gonna get me one of these limousines."
Or this paragraph from the start of the titular "Glossolalia," winner of a Pushcart Prize:
That winter, like every winter before it, my father woke early each day and turned up the thermostat so the house would be warm by the time my mother and I got out of bed.  Sometimes I'd hear the furnace kick in and the shower come on down the hall and I'd wake just long enough to be angry that he'd woken me.  But usually I slept until my mother had finished making our breakfast.  By then, my father was already at Goodyear, opening the service bay for the customers who had to drop their cars off before going to work themselves.  Sitting in the sunny kitchen, warmed by the heat from the register and the smell of my mother's coffee, I never thought about him dressing in the cold dark or shoveling out the driveway by porchlight.  If I thought of him at all, it was only to feel glad he was not there.  In those days my father and I fought a lot, though probably not much more than most fathers and sons.  I was sixteen then, a tough age.  And he was forty, an age I've since learned is even tougher.
Based on these excerpts alone, Jauss seems to massage that same spongy part of my brain which is brought to life by the writings of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver.  I'm looking forward to the full literary ecstasy of Glossolalia.

Dark March by Colin Fleming (Outpost19):  The subtitle of Fleming's debut collection is "Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep."  From the looks of it, these are tales for the deep, dead, dark of night--fiction to be read in a solitary pool of lamplight.  They're fractured fairy tales, off-kilter fables, fabulist fiction in the vein of Calvino and Kafka.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
An island who becomes ambulatory and has adventures upon the land.  A frigate captain with a singularly artistic method of punishment.  Gulls who are players.  Crabs who crack wise.  A garage encrusted in blue crystals that harbors a secret.  Rival haunted forests fighting for top billing.  And a man who navigates that dream world known to anyone who has had a life pulled out from under them and a heart replaced with a question that has a beat of its own: What the hell is happening to me?  What the hell is happening to me?  What the hell is happening to me?  Dark March may be happening to you.  And probably some other things, too.
Blurbworthiness: "Colin Fleming is one of the truly exciting and significant writers of his generation."  (Richard Burgin, author of Hide Island)

BUtterfield 8 and The New York Stories by John O'Hara (Penguin Classics):  In my personal library, I have several stand-alone collections (Best American Short Stories, Big Little Books, Dell Mapbacks, and so on).  One of my most prized bookcases is chock-full of the black-spined Penguin Classics series (from Akhmatova to Xenophon).  There's something of a dark sexuality to the design of these volumes which really scratches my bibliophile's itch.  Now I'm happy to add John O'Hara to the collection (sandwiched between Pablo Neruda and Dorothy Parker--which is a very weird sandwich indeed): BUtterfield 8, with an introduction by Lorin Stein; and The New York Stories, with a foreword by E. L. Doctorow.  My only familiarity with O'Hara's works is the time I watched Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960 movie version of BUtterfield 8 and I don't remember it with any great clarity.  So, I'm very interested to participate in Penguin Classics' "John O'Hara revival," which began in May with a fabulous edition of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra.  By all accounts, O'Hara was a real son-of-a-bitch as a person and a bombast as a writer.  Still, I'm intrigued.... Here's the Jacket Copy for BUtterfield 8:
A masterpiece of American fiction and a bestseller upon its publication in 1935, BUtterfield 8 lays bare with brash honesty the unspoken and often shocking truths that lurked beneath the surface of a society still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.  One Sunday morning, Gloria wakes up in a stranger's apartment with nothing but a torn evening dress, stockings, and panties.  When she steals a fur coat from the wardrobe to wear home, she unleashes a series of events that can only end in tragedy.  Inspired by true events, this novel caused a sensation on its publication for its frank depiction of the relationship between a wild and beautiful young woman and a respectable, married man.
....and here's the Jacket Copy for The New York Stories:
Collected for the first time, here are the New York stories of one of the twentieth century’s definitive chroniclers of the city—the speakeasies and highballs, social climbers and cinema stars, mistresses and powerbrokers, unsparingly observed by a popular American master of realism.  Spanning his four-decade career, these more than thirty refreshingly frank, sparely written stories are among John O’Hara’s finest work, exploring the materialist aspirations and sexual exploits of flawed, prodigally human characters and showcasing the snappy dialogue, telling details and ironic narrative twists that made him the most-published short story writer in the history of The New Yorker.
Lorin Stein writes in his introduction to BUtterfield 8, "No one could call O'Hara unobserving.  On the topics of class, sex, and alcohol--that is, the topics that mattered to him--his novels amount to a secret history of American life.  So do his stories.  O'Hara may not have been the best story writer of the twentieth century, but he is the most addictive.  You can binge on his collections the way some people binge on Mad Men, and for some of the same reasons."  Okay, bring on the binge!

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