Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Front Porch Books: June 2017 edition

The Ninth Hour
by Alice McDermott
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Any good and proper Most-Anticipated-Fiction list of mine will always start with Alice McDermott. I have been an earnest fan since reading That Night one night in grad school. Though I haven’t read all of her most-recent work, I will always be the first in line to snatch-grab her newest release. The Ninth Hour is no exception. To the top of the To-Be-Read pile, buster!

Jacket Copy:  On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove―to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife―“that the hours of his life belong to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun, a Little Sister of the Sick Poor, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child. In Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century, decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence, and yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives―testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.

Opening Lines:  February 3 was a dark and dank day altogether: cold spitting rain in the morning and a low, steel-gray sky the rest of the afternoon.

Blurbworthiness:  “Partly told by a voice from the future who drops tantalizing hints about what’s to come—for example, a marriage between the occupants of the baby carriages—this novel reveals its ideas about love and morality through the history of three generations, finding them in their kitchens, sickbeds, train compartments, love nests, and basement laundry rooms.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Wolf Season
by Helen Benedict
(Bellevue Literary Press)

Another author and her books who will always take a seat in the crowded front row of my new books to read: Helen Benedict. She’s written seven novels—most notably Sand Queen—and has emerged as one of our most thoughtful and provocative writers of war literature. Wolf Season, which comes out in October, brings the war home to the United States from the Middle East, not in a “deranged veteran can’t re-adjust to society and takes a sniper rifle to a tower” sort of way, but in the more-realistic depiction of characters leading “lives of quiet desperation.”

Jacket Copy:  After a hurricane devastates a small town in upstate New York, the lives of three women and their young children are irrevocably changed. Rin, an Iraq War veteran, tries to protect her blind daughter and the three wolves under her care. Naema, a widowed doctor who fled Iraq with her wounded son, faces life-threatening injuries. Beth, who is raising a troubled son, waits out her Marine husband’s deployment in Afghanistan, equally afraid of him coming home and of him never returning at all. As they struggle to maintain their humanity and find hope, their war-torn lives collide in a way that will affect their entire community.

Opening Lines:  The wolves are restless this morning. Pacing the woods, huffing and murmuring. It’s not that they’re hungry; Rin fed them each four squirrels. No, it’s a clenching in the sky like a gathering fist. The wet heat pushing in on her temples.

Blurbworthiness:  “No one writes with more authority or cool-eyed compassion about the experience of women in war both on and off the battlefield than Helen Benedict. In Wolf Season, she shows us the complicated ways in which the lives of those who serve and those who don’t intertwine and how―regardless of whether you are a soldier, the family of a soldier, or a refugee―the war follows you and your children for generations. Wolf Season is more than a novel for our times; it should be required reading.” (Elissa Schappell, author of Use Me)

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts
by Caitlin Hamilton Summie
(Fomite Press)

Talk about most anticipated....Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s first book, a collection of short stories, has been on my radar ever since it was the tiniest green blip on the edge of the screen. I’ve known Caitlin (in the virtual sense of the word) as a book publicist extraordinaire for about two decades (and still we’ve yet to meet!), and wrote about it earlier here at the blog. But it wasn’t until about six months ago I learned she had a book of her own coming out. So, yes, any book of Caitlin’s earns an automatic position near the top of my ever-growing TBR stack (aka Mount NeveRest). And that’s before I open the book and clap my eyes on that powerful, poignant first paragraph in the first story.

Jacket Copy:  In these ten elegantly written short stories, Caitlin Hamilton Summie takes readers from WWII Kansas City to a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in New York, and from the quiet of rural Minnesota to its pulsing Twin Cities, each time navigating the geographical boundaries that shape our lives as well as the geography of tender hearts, loss, and family bonds. Deeply moving and memorable, To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts examines the importance of family, the defining nature of place, the need for home, and the hope of reconciliation.

Opening Lines:  Jimmy Weston had his Dad’s dog tags. He wore them around his next on a steel chain and had this funny habit of rubbing them back and forth between his fingers. We’d be playing marbles or collecting tin for the war effort; we’d be jumping on cracks to break Hitler’s back or be waiting, just waiting for the whole thing to end, and Jimmy would talk and rub those dog tags together, and I’d listen, That’s mostly how I remember those days: Jimmy and me sitting on the curb, tired of marbles, tired of tin, him with that sound of his father, and me with nothing of mine but his name.

Blurbworthiness:  “To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is nothing short of magnificent. After reading the vivid and powerful opening story, I thought Well, this is a smart writer―she’s obviously led off with her best. Then I found that if anything I liked the next story even better, and by then I knew I was reading something special. These stories are realist fiction at its finest. The author’s sense of place is extraordinary, and it informs every word she writes. Her characters are as real as anybody you know in the town where you live, and their lives are depicted with quiet dignity. The stories are both intense and economical. I’ve gotten very hard to please, but I loved this book.” (Steve Yarbrough, author of The Realm of Last Chances)

It’s My Country Too
by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow
(Potomac Books)

Since reading Studs Terkel when I was a teenager, I’m convinced of one thing: history is best told by the voices of witnesses. In Studs’ case, that could be about labor, urban life, or economic hard times. Now, thanks to the brilliant editing skills of military veterans Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow, a choir of female voices is singing about war. At various times, that singing can be a running cadence, an aria from a tragic opera, or a peppy rendition of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (with, in this case, the bride being the one who marches off to battle). For years, the gravelly voices of men have dominated the ranks of war literature (reflecting the sexual demographics of the military), but now it’s time to hear from all uniformed members in those ranks. There have been various accounts of female service (from Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy by Sarah Emma Edmonds to Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams), but Bell and Crow have brought so many stories together in one place―from the American Revolution to the battles of Afghanistan―that It’s My Country Too is bound to become an indispensable member of every military historian’s bookshelf.

Jacket Copy:  Serving with the Union Army during the Civil War as a nurse, scout, spy, and soldier, Harriet Tubman tells what it was like to be the first American woman to lead a raid against an enemy, freeing some 750 slaves. Busting gender stereotypes, Josette Dermody Wingo enlisted as a gunner’s mate in the navy in World War II to teach sailors to fire anti-aircraft guns. Marine Barbara Dulinsky recalls serving under fire in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and Brooke King describes the aftermath of her experiences outside the wire with the army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In excerpts from their diaries, letters, oral histories, and pension depositions―as well as from published and unpublished memoirs―generations of women reveal why and how they chose to serve their country, often breaking with social norms, even at great personal peril.

Blurbworthiness:  “This compendium of women’s bravery and accomplishments is a compelling read of firsthand accounts in U.S. military conflicts. No American woman should raise her right hand and swear to ‘support and defend’ without these haunting voices urging her to walk the trail where few have gone. Every American history syllabus should include this book as a requirement. A true inspiration!”  [Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, U.S. Army (Ret.), president of Women in Military Service for America]

by Daisy Johnson
(Graywolf Press)

Earthy, organic, twisted, wry, fractured fairy tales were the hallmark of Angela Carter’s work (The Bloody Chamber, Nights at the Circus, etc.), and I’m glad to see some of that same spirit in newcomer Daisy Johnson’s fiction. As Evie Wyld (All the Birds, Singing) notes, this debut collection of short stories promises “lush language, ever-surprising characters” and a crooked path taking readers “through the rooty tangle of human love and desire.”

Jacket Copy:  Daisy Johnson’s Fen, set in the fenlands of England, transmutes the flat, uncanny landscape into a rich, brooding atmosphere. From that territory grow stories that blend folklore and restless invention to turn out something entirely new. Amid the marshy paths of the fens, a teenager might starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl and grow jealous of her friend. A boy might return from the dead in the guise of a fox. Out beyond the confines of realism, the familiar instincts of sex and hunger blend with the shifting, unpredictable wild as the line between human and animal is effaced by myth and metamorphosis. With a fresh and utterly contemporary voice, Johnson lays bare these stories of women testing the limits of their power to create a startling work of fiction.

Opening Lines:  The Land was drained. They caught eels in great wreaths, headless masses in the last puddles, trying to dig into the dirt to hide. They filled vats of water to the brim with them: the eels would feed the workforce brought in to build on the wilderness. There were enough eels to last months; there were enough eels to feed them all for years.

Blurbworthiness:  “Fen is a lusty, voracious beast. It will tie you up, rip off your boots, and throw them off the balcony. These stories are charged by an undercurrent of crouching energy that waits, waits, waits....and then, delightfully, pounces. There's a calm feralness to Daisy Johnson's writing that is as refreshing as it is invigorating.”  (Kelly Luce, author of Pull Me Under)

Eat Only When You’re Hungry
by Lindsay Hunter
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

From the title to the first sentence to that unappetizing clutter of half-eaten snacks on the cover, food is everywhere in Lindsay Hunter’s new novel. Though the Pringles, jelly donuts, Circus Peanuts and fruit pies may be low in nutritional value, Hunter’s writing is reliably fortified with 11 essential minerals and vitamins, so I’m looking forward to her latest literary feast. I can’t wait to eat this book.

Jacket Copy:  In Lindsay Hunter’s achingly funny, fiercely honest second novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, we meet Greg an overweight fifty-eight-year-old and the father of Greg Junior, GJ, who has been missing for three weeks. GJ’s been an addict his whole adult life, disappearing for days at a time, but for some reason this absence feels different, and Greg has convinced himself that he’s the only one who can find his son. So he rents an RV and drives from his home in West Virginia to the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, the last place GJ was seen. As we travel down the streets of the bizarroland that is Florida, the urgency to find GJ slowly recedes into the background, and the truths about Greg’s mistakes as a father, a husband, a man are uncovered. In Eat Only When You’re Hungry, Hunter elicits complex sympathy for her characters, asking the reader to take a closer look at the way we think about addiction why we demonize the junkie but turn a blind eye to drinking a little too much or eating too much and the fallout of failing ourselves.

Opening Lines:  It was too late to be a lunch, too early to be a dinner, this disappointing collection of food Greg was packing. He was leaving in the odd smear of time between the markers of his day. Not in the morning, not in the night. Not even in the midday. After lunch, before dinner. The sun was out but getting lazy. Everything started to give over, accepting that this day’s moment was swiftly passing. Maybe that was why he finally left. He had to get away from the giving over, for once. His son had been missing three weeks.

Blurbworthiness:  “The frailties of the human body and the human heart are laid bare in Lindsay Hunter’s utterly superb novel Eat Only When You’re Hungry. There is real delicacy, tenderness, and intelligence with which Hunter tackles this portrait of a broken family of people who don’t realize just how broken they are until they are forced to confront the fractures between them and within themselves. With this novel, Hunter establishes herself as an unforgettable voice in American letters. Her work here, as ever, is unparalleled.”  (Roxane Gay, author of Hunger)

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
by Megan Stielstra
(Harper Perennial)

I had the pleasure of meeting Megan Stielstra in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin at this year’s Midwest Independent Booksellers Association spring meeting and I was immediately struck by her passion, her sense of humor, her down-to-earth...realness. There are some people whose electric personalities vibrate off the surface of their skin even from the most regrettably-short meetings (which ours was...regrettably). Those same qualities pour from the pages of her new collection of essays, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, like heat from a humming engine. Megan hooked me into her book with the simple elevator-pitch summary of one of her essays in the book (“Here Is My Heart”): “My father had his third heart attack while hiking up a mountain in Alaska.” I may have put words in Megan’s mouth, but that’s the gist of the story and it went straight to my chest for three reasons: 1. I have a history of heart disease in my family; 2. I used to live in Alaska; 3. I like to hike. Yep, it was  booklove at first sight. Now, if only our hearts were as simple, as shiny, and as easy to reassemble as the plastic heart model on the cover of this book!

Jacket Copy:  In this poignant and inciting collection of literary essays, Megan Stielstra tells stories to ward off fears both personal and universal as she grapples toward a better way to live. In her titular piece “The Wrong Way To Save Your Life,” she answers the question of what has value in our lives—a question no longer rhetorical when the apartment above her family’s goes up in flames. “Here is My Heart” sheds light on Megan’s close relationship with her father, whose continued insistence on climbing mountains despite a series of heart attacks leads the author to dissect deer hearts in a poetic attempt to interrogate her own feelings about mortality. Whether she’s imagining the implications of open-carry laws on college campuses, recounting the story of going underwater on the mortgage of her first home, or revealing the unexpected pains and joys of marriage and motherhood, Stielstra’s work informs, impels, enlightens, and embraces us all. The result is something beautiful—this story, her courage, and, potentially, our own.

Blurbworthiness:  “In The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Megan Stielstra takes a core sample of her life, like a core sample of a glacier, and subjects it to her great punk-rock sensibility. What happens? It melts beautifully! There are fires and guns and knives in these terrific essays, and heavy metal and bloody hearts on cutting boards, and Stielstra handles it all with humor and expert humanity.”  (Eula Biss, author of On Immunity)

Strangers in Budapest
by Jessica Keener
(Algonquin Books)

Prior to my recent river cruise in Europe, which began on the Danube in Budapest and ended on the Rhine in the Netherlands, I set about trying to find some reading that would serve as a literary soundtrack for my trip. I eventually settled on two books by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water (the latter which I still need to read). Fermor’s memoirs of his walk across Europe in the 1930s were quite good and illuminated much of my route. I received a copy of Jessica Keener’s new novel in the mail earlier this week, long after I’d returned from Hungary, et al. I wish I’d had Strangers in Budapest with me earlier, so I could have a sense of verisimilitude while walking the streets of the two halves of the city: Buda and Pest. Keener’s earlier books, Night Swim and Women in Bed, received glowing reviews but never really found the number of readers the Boston author deserves. If there’s a just and righteous god in charge of publishing, Strangers in Budapest will be her breakout book. I can’t wait to revisit the enigmatic city through Keener’s imagination.

Jacket Copy:  Budapest is a city of secrets, a place where everything is opaque and nothing is as it seems. It is to this enigmatic city that a young American couple, Annie and Will, move with their infant son, shortly after the fall of the Communist regime. Annie hopes to escape the ghosts from her past; Will wants to take his chance as an entrepreneur in Hungary’s newly developing economy. But only a few months after moving there, they receive a secretive request from friends in the U.S. to check up on an elderly stranger who also has recently arrived in Budapest. When they realize that his sole purpose for coming there is to exact revenge on a man who he is convinced seduced and then murdered his daughter, Will insists they have nothing to do with him. Annie, however, unable to resist anyone she feels may need her help, soon finds herself enmeshed in the old man’s plan, caught up in a scheme that will end with death. Atmospheric, secretive, much like the old Hungarian city itself, Strangers in Budapest is an intricately woven story of lives that intersect and pull apart, perfect for fans of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Chris Pavone’s The Expats. Keener has written a transporting novel about a couple trying to make a new life in a foreign land, only to find themselves drawn into a cultural, and generational, vendetta.

Opening Lines:  She’d grown used to calling the Danube by its Hungarian name—Duna. In fact, she preferred it over the American version. The whimsical sound—Duna—felt light on her tongue, fanciful and upbeat, a spirit rising. But, like all things in this city, the river that glittered at night concealed a darker surface under the day’s harsh sun. The water looked sluggish and dull from this high point on the bridge.
       “How much farther?” Annie asked. They had walked a mile, but it felt longer to her.
       “Almost there,” Will said, waving his well-worn map. “A few more blocks.”
       “Good, because this whole thing feels crazy.”

Blurbworthiness:  “What do we run away from? And what do we run toward? Two American expatriates in Budapest, a lonely young mother with a devastating secret, and an old man desperate to discover the truth about his daughter’s death, forge a shattering connection. Gorgeously told and deeply moving, Keener’s brilliant new novel is a bold, brave and dazzlingly original tale about home, loss and the persistence of love.”  (Caroline Leavitt, author of Cruel Beautiful World)

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.

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