Thursday, November 17, 2016

Front Porch Books: November 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple
by Jeff Guinn
(Simon and Schuster)

I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I first heard the news about the mass suicide in the jungle of a country I’d never heard of, but I can tell you that when I opened up our family’s copy of TIME magazine later that week in late 1978, it was the first time I’d ever seen a bloated corpse. Hundreds and hundreds of bodies, swollen and straining against the confines of clothing, lay on the ground like trees toppled by a hurricane. That hurricane had a name: The Rev. Jim Jones. I was 15 years old and, looking at those photos, I was both sickened and fascinated. Two words volleyed like a ping-pong ball through my head: Why? How? Why? How? In his new book, Jeff Guinn (author of Manson and Go Down Together) takes us to the jungle. The Jonestown madness will probably be hard to stomach, but I don’t think I’ll be able to look away.

Jacket Copy:  In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a curious blend of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially integrated, and he was a much-lauded leader in the contemporary civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California. He became involved in electoral politics, and soon was a prominent Bay Area leader. In this riveting narrative, Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, from his extramarital affairs, drug use, and fraudulent faith healing to the fraught decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Guinn provides stunning new details of the events leading to the fatal day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children—after being ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink. Guinn examined thousands of pages of FBI files on the case, including material released during the course of his research. He traveled to Jones’s Indiana hometown, where he spoke to people never previously interviewed, and uncovered fresh information from Jonestown survivors. He even visited the Jonestown site with the same pilot who flew there the day that Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered on Jones’s orders. The Road to Jonestown is the definitive book about Jim Jones and the events that led to the tragedy at Jonestown.

Music for Love or War
by Martyn Burke
(Tyrus Books)

Okay, I’ll admit I’m hooked by the idea of torturing the Taliban with a life-sized cardboard cutout of a high-kicking Liberace in satin short shorts. The rest of Martyn Burke’s new novel sounds splendidly absurd, too.

Jacket Copy:  Danny, a Canadian sharpshooter, and Hank, in the U.S. Army, have been stationed in Kandahar, but they are in Los Angeles, desperate to find the Hollywood psychic who will reveal the whereabouts of the women they love. Danny is searching for Ariana, the girl he fell in love with in Toronto in the last years of the twentieth century; Hank is searching for Annie Boudreau, known in the tabloids as “Annie of the Boo Two”twins who were briefly in the gravitational pull of Hugh Hefner. From Grenadier Pond in west-end Toronto, to Afghanistan, to the Malibu colony in LA, the novel follows these moments in the lives of Danny and Hank, revealed by a masterful storyteller and commentator on American culture. When in the mountains of Kandahar, Danny and Hank torture the members of al Qaeda and the Taliban with the music and a larger-than-life-size cardboard reproduction of Liberace in satin short shorts, high-kicking as if on Broadway.

Opening Lines:  According to what we’ve been told, the source of all knowledge is somewhere just south of Sunset Boulevard. The problem is that Danny has lost the address.

Blurbworthiness:  “Music for Love or War is slash-and-burn funny, but also unexpectedly touching and wise. Few writers can take you in one breath from the hills of Afghanistan to the gates of the Playboy mansion, and make you believe every crazy word. Martyn Burke has that special talent.”  (Carl Hiaasen, author of Razor Girl)

Bad Dreams and Other Stories
by Tessa Hadley

By now, I’ve accumulated five different books by Tessa Hadley on my shelves (Married Love and Other Stories, Clever Girl, The London Train, The Past, and, just the other day, Bad Dreams and Other Stories). Each time there’s a new addition to the Hadley shelf, I hear that inner voice chiding me: You really must read this and Let’s get going with this one and What are you waiting for, you stupid oaf? After getting Bad Dreams and taking a look at that first line, I think it’s time. I really must learn better obedience to my inner voice.

Jacket Copy:  The award-winning author of The Past once again “crystallizes the atmosphere of ordinary life in prose somehow miraculous and natural” (Washington Post), in a collection of stories that elevate the mundane into the exceptional. The author of six critically acclaimed novels, Tessa Hadley has proven herself to be the champion of revealing the hidden depths in the deceptively simple. In these short stories it’s the ordinary things that turn out to be most extraordinary: the history of a length of fabric or a forgotten jacket. Two sisters quarrel over an inheritance and a new baby; a child awake in the night explores the familiar rooms of her home, made strange by the darkness; a housekeeper caring for a helpless old man uncovers secrets from his past. The first steps into a turning point and a new life are made so easily and carelessly: each of these stories illuminate crucial moments of transition, often imperceptible to the protagonists. A girl accepts a lift in a car with some older boys; a young woman reads the diaries she discovers while housesitting. Small acts have large consequences, some that can reverberate across decades; private fantasies can affect other people, for better and worse. The real things that happen to people, the accidents that befall them, are every bit as mysterious as their longings and their dreams.

Opening Lines:  Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.

Blurbworthiness:  “It is impossible to overstate how much I admire the work of Tessa Hadley; her mastery of the smallest gestures on the page is breathtaking and her ability to weave a symphonic whole time after time thrilling. Every story in this collection is beautiful, precise, expansive, and a joy.”  (Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest)

Flight Path
by Hannah Palmer
(Hub City Press)

I live in Butte, Montana, a city whose east-side neighborhoods were largely chewed and swallowed by steam shovels digging an open-pit copper mine back in the 1950s. Meaderville, East Butte, and McQueen now lie buried beneath rubble and toxic mine water. It is a painful scar for many old-timers here in our western Montana city: memory swallowed by progress. And so, Hannah Palmer’s memoir about her own childhood neighborhoods disappearing under the expansion of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport sounds like the familiar death-tolls from a big iron bell. Not only that, but I have a personal connection to Palmer’s section of Atlanta: Forest Park was where I lived when I first joined the Army in the late 1980s. Now I’m wondering how much of my cramped apartment just off I-75a place where my own sons have their childhood memorieshas survived the wrecking ball.

Jacket Copy:  In the months leading up to the birth of her first child, Hannah Palmer discovers that all three of her childhood houses have been wiped out by the expansion of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Having uprooted herself from a promising career in publishing in her adopted Brooklyn, Palmer embarks on a quest to determine the fate of her lost homes—and of a community that has been erased by unchecked Southern progress. Palmer’s journey takes her from the ruins of kudzu-covered, airport-owned ghost towns to carefully preserved cemeteries wedged between the runways; into awkward confrontations with airport planners, developers, and even her own parents. Along the way, Palmer becomes an amateur detective, an urban historian, and a mother. Lyrically chronicling the overlooked devastation and beauty along the airport’s fringe communities in the tradition of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Leslie Jamison, Palmer unearths the startling narratives about race, power, and place that continue to shape American cities. Part memoir, part urban history, Flight Path: A Search for Roots beneath the World’s Busiest Airport is a riveting account of one young mother’s attempt at making a home where there’s little home left.

Opening Lines:  Despite protests from the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization and bad press in the local paper, they bulldozed the house where I lost my virginity.

Blurbworthiness:  “A book about a tiny patch of land that manages to say something large and meaningful about the American experience. The home where Hannah Palmer grew up was erased by growth. It wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. She sets out to resurrect it.”  (John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead)

by Ali Smith

The opening lines of Ali Smith’s new novel are a breathless cascade of words that lead me to the next paragraph and the next and the next... Autumn is the first of a projected quartet of seasonal novels from the author of Hotel World and How to be both. As one reviewer said, Winter can’t come soon enough.

Jacket Copy:  From the Man Booker–shortlisted and Baileys Prize–winning author of How to be both: a breathtakingly inventive new novel—about aging, time, love, and stories themselves—that launches an extraordinary quartet of books called Seasonal. Readers love Ali Smith’s novels for their peerless innovation and their joyful celebration of language and life. Her newest, Autumn, has all of these qualities in spades, and—good news for fans!—is the first installment in a quartet. Seasonal, comprised of four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as are the seasons), explores what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy, and the color hit of Pop Art, Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.

Opening Lines:  It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea’s been rough.

Blurbworthiness:  “Elisabeth Demand is a thirtysomething lecturer in London with a wryly detached view of the modern world. It is the time she spends with 101-year-old former neighbour Daniel Gluck, both in the present and the past, that really hits home—their strange companionship giving Smith the chance to muse on the nature of love, art, life and, well, what the referendum has done to Britain....Given this is the first of a quintet of season-based novels that explore time, Winter can’t come soon enough. Smith is at the very peak of her powers.”  (Ben East, The National)

by Kate Southwood
(W. W. Norton)

As a number-one fan of Kate Southwood’s debut novel, Falling to Earth, the arrival of her new book on my front porch (actually on my Kindle via Edelweiss) is cause for celebration. In my review of Falling to Earth, I said it was “the start of a very promising career.” Evensong is Wish Fulfillment at its best.

Jacket Copy:  For readers of Olive Kitteridge and Housekeeping, Evensong is a novel about the deep undercurrents of love and regret in one Midwestern family. Margaret Maguire: a widow and grandmother, home from the hospital in time for Christmas, is no longer able to ignore the consequences of having married an imperious and arrogant man. Despite her efforts to be a good wife and mother in small-town Iowa, her adult children are now strangers to one another, past hope of reconciliation. Margaret’s granddaughter could be the one to break the cycle, but she can’t do it without Margaret’s help. It’s time to take stock, to examine the pasteven time for Margaret to call herself to account. By turns tenacious and tender, contrary and wry, Margaret examines her life’s tragedies and joys, motivations and choices, coming to view herself and the past with compassion, if not entirely with forgiveness. Beautifully rendered and poignantly told, Evensong is a realistic portrait of a woman searching for tranquility at the end of her days.

Opening Lines:  Garfield closed the door without a sound.
     Maggie Doud, he said, before he turned to face me where I stood at the foot of his bed. He’d undone his tie and top button on the way up the stairs. He came toward me then saying, A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts, and I had no more notion of whether he meant it to be sacred or profane than I knew where he’d gotten ahold of a Protestant Bible, and when I whispered, What would the priest say? he smiled a little and kept coming.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Evensong, Kate Southwood has given us a novel filled with an epic life, that of a woman whose fierce and vivid memories encompass a truly American story of mothers, daughters, the struggle for love and independence, the way women fight to keep their true selves when the world tries to etch them away. Unforgettable.”  (Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon)

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