Thursday, August 10, 2017

Front Porch Books: August 2017 edition

The Age of Perpetual Light
by Josh Weil

I look forward to a new Josh Weil book like Donald Trump looks forward to a 2 a.m. Tweet (though my anticipation is decidedly less malicious in intent). From the time I read his debut collection of novellas, The New Valley, to the dazzling dystopian epic novel, The Great Glass Sea, Weil has bound me in a beautiful spiderweb of words. He burrows deep into his characters and, like the cleverest of spiders, draws me closer and closer to the center, where I die in ecstasy. And now comes this new book of stories. From the title to the cover design to the story about an Amish woman discovering the wonders of electricity, light—both manmade and divine—guides us forward into this brilliant fiction.

Jacket Copy:  Following his debut novel, The Great Glass Sea, Josh Weil brings together stories selected from a decade of work in a stellar new collection. Beginning at the dawn of the past century, in the early days of electrification, and moving into an imagined future in which the world is lit day and night, The Age of Perpetual Light follows deeply-felt characters through different eras in American history: from a Jewish dry goods peddler who falls in love with an Amish woman while showing her the wonders of an Edison Lamp, to a 1940 farmers’ uprising against the unfair practices of a power company; a Serbian immigrant teenage boy in 1990’s Vermont desperate to catch a glimpse of an experimental satellite, to a back-to-the-land couple forced to grapple with their daughter’s autism during winter’s longest night. Brilliantly hewn and piercingly observant, these are tales that speak to the all-too-human desire for advancement and the struggle of wounded hearts to find a salve, no matter what the cost. This is a breathtaking book from one of our brightest literary lights.

Opening Lines:  One by one the windows come alight. From up the hill, I watch: the Hartzlers’ old stone house so dark, so still, it might be the new-turned soil of a garden bed—huge, square, black—and in it the orange lamplight blooming. Bloom, bloom, bloom. Mrs. Hartzler lighting the wicks. There: I can see her shape. It goes window to window, a bee drifting, till it reaches the first floor, again, and goes straight to—where else?—the kitchen. My stomach moans. I suck in my gut, tug the rucksack’s belt more tight. On my shoulders I shrug the straps a little higher. Down I start toward the farm.

Blurbworthiness:  “Josh Weil is a lamplighter, the best possible kind. He moves us into each of these earthy, elegant stories and suddenly the light changes in ways we couldn’t have imagined. The Age of Perpetual Light is a special book woven with generosity and grit as it works against the dark to take the true measure of kinship.”  (Ron Carlson, author of Return to Oakpine)

The Grip of It
by Jac Jemc
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I’m going to start building this year’s Halloween reading list with Jac Jemc’s new novel right at the top. From the mad-seeming black-marker scrawl on the front cover and the equally-childlike drawings of screaming heads overlaid on the cover in a near-transparent layer (tilt the book to see the faces in the light) to a groaning haunted house, The Grip of It is the book to prickle my skin with unease this autumn.

Jacket Copy:  Touring their prospective suburban home, Julie and James are stopped by a noise. Deep and vibrating, like throat singing. Ancient, husky, and rasping, but underwater. “That’s just the house settling,” the real estate agent assures them with a smile. He is wrong. The move―prompted by James’s penchant for gambling and his general inability to keep his impulses in check―is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to start afresh. But this house, which sits between a lake and a forest, has its own plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to establish a sense of normalcy, the home and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The framework― claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms―becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall―contracting, expanding―and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of painful, grisly bruises. Like the house that torments the troubled married couple living within its walls, The Grip of It oozes with palpable terror and skin-prickling dread. Its architect, Jac Jemc, meticulously traces Julie and James’s unsettling journey through the depths of their new home as they fight to free themselves from its crushing grip.

Opening Lines:  Maybe we move in and we don’t hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door. Maybe we drag our friends and family into the house and ask them to hear it and they look into the distance and listen as we try to describe it and fail. “You don’t hear it? It’s like a mouth harp. Deep twang. Like throat singing. Ancient. Glottal. Resonant. Husky and rasping, but underwater.” Alone in the house, though, we become less aware of it, like a persistent, dull headache. Deaf to the sound, until the still silence of ownership settles over us. Maybe we decide we will try to like the noise. Maybe we find comfort in it. Maybe an idea insists itself more easily than an action.

Blurbworthiness:  “I mean this in the best possible way: Jac Jemc gives me the creeps. The Grip of It deserves a spot on the shelf beside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves―not only because it is a masterful haunted house story, but because it, like its literary predecessors, is elegantly written, psychologically rich, and damn terrifying.” (Benjamin Percy, author of The Dark Net)

The Shape of Ideas
by Grant Snider
(Abrams Comicarts)

I have a very short shelf of inspirational books about writing and creativity; right now, the only other residents are Still Writing by Dani Shapiro and On Writing by Stephen King. To that shelf, I am joyfully adding a new member: The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider, creator of the equally-fabulous Incidental Comics. I am only about one-third of the way through this “Illustrated Exploration of Creativity,” but I am taking it slow because smart, beautiful books like this deserve to be savored. The Shape of Ideas is divided into chapters with headings like Inspiration, Perspiration, Aspiration, Contemplation, Pure Elation and other wonderful “-ation” words. Snider is inventive, witty, forthright, and, yes, inspirational. I am hereby declaring this is the Gift Book of the Year for all creators in your life. It is for everyone who, according to Snider in his Dear Reader note, has ever been mocked “for carrying a notebook to bars, restaurants, and children’s birthday parties,” and those who “have been glared at in class or during an important meeting for aimlessly doodling on scrap paper.” Snider is quick to point out The Shape of Ideas won’t help you tap into a bottomless well of creativity (a non-existent well, he says), but it will provide the kind of long-lasting, deep-drilled inspiration that will keep you going when you think all wells have run dry. Want one more scrap of encouragement before you dip your pen in the ink? In addition to being a world-class illustrator, Snider has a full-time day job as an orthodontist. Dentist by day, artist by night. That kind of dedication, perspiration, and aspiration makes me smile.

Jacket Copy:  What does an idea look like? And where do they come from? Grant Snider’s illustrations will motivate you to explore these questions, inspire you to come up with your own answers and, like all Gordian knots, prompt even more questions. Whether you are a professional artist or designer, a student pursuing a creative career, a person of faith, someone who likes walks on the beach, or a dreamer who sits on the front porch contemplating life, this collection of one- and two-page comics will provide insight into the joys and frustrations of creativity, inspiration, and process—no matter your age or creative background.

Opening Lines:

Blurbworthiness:  “Grant Snider’s work delivers introspection, humor, and inspiration in visually stunning drawings. They are a colorful look into the creative process—from the moments of quiet contemplation to the days of frenzied desperation.”  (Susan Cain author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking)

The Standard Grand
by Jay Baron Nicorvo
(St. Martin’s Press)

Some of the best war literature doesn’t involve bullets, blood, or bombs, but centers around what happens to warriors after they redeploy. Think The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman, Redeployment by Phil Klay, and Tim O’Brien’s short story “Speaking of Courage” from The Things They Carried. When you’re in the midst of the fog of war, it’s hard to think; the contemplation—and the nightmares—often don’t hit full force until after you’re back among the uncomfortable comforts of home. That’s one reason I’m looking forward to reading Jay Baron Nicorvo’s The Standard Grand; the other is the dazzling and inventive plot which involves an AWOL vet, a cougar, a resort in the Catskills and Senator Al Franken. Good things wait for us in these pages, dear reader.

Jacket Copy:  When an Army trucker goes AWOL before her third deployment, she ends up sleeping in Central Park. There, she meets a Vietnam vet and widower who inherited a tumbledown Borscht Belt resort. Converted into a halfway house for homeless veterans, the Standard―and its two thousand acres over the Marcellus Shale Formation―is coveted by a Houston-based multinational company. Toward what end, only a corporate executive knows. With three violent acts at its center―a mauling, a shooting, a mysterious death decades in the past―and set largely in the Catskills, The Standard Grand spans an epic year in the lives of its diverse cast: a female veteran protagonist, a Mesoamerican lesbian landman, a mercenary security contractor keeping secrets and seeking answers, a conspiratorial gang of combat vets fighting to get peaceably by, and a cougar―along with appearances by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Senator Al Franken. All of the characters―soldiers, civilians―struggle to discover that what matters most is not that they’ve caused no harm, but how they make amends for the harm they’ve caused. Jay Baron Nicorvo’s The Standard Grand confronts a glaring cultural omission: the absence of women in our war stories. Like the best of its characters―who aspire more to goodness than greatness―this American novel hopes to darn a hole or two in the frayed national fabric.

Opening Lines:  Specialist Smith gunned the gas and popped the clutch in the early Ozark morning. Her Dodge pickup yelped, slid to one side in the blue dark, then shot fishtailing forward. The rear tires burned a loud ten meters of smoking, skunky rubber out front of the stucco ranch house on Tidal Road.
       She felt thankful for her bad marriage. It allowed her the privilege of living off base; she could go AWOL without having to bust the gates of Fort Leonard Wood. Her four-barrel pocket pepperbox, a COP .357—holstered, unloaded—rode on the passenger seat.

Blurbworthiness:  “With profound compassion for his outrageously wonderful characters, Nicorvo brings readers to a defunct and decaying Catskills resort where a ghost platoon of vets are surviving among dangers both natural and human-made. Insanely funny, by turns tragic and, ultimately, redemptive, The Standard Grand is a desperate masterpiece of a debut: honest, epic, constantly surprising, and relentlessly entertaining.”  (Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of American Salvage)

by Jon Kerstetter

Another promising book about war landed on my doorstep this month and has promptly hooked me inside its pages. Like The Standard Grand, the memoir Crossings reminds us that battles are not fought by faceless robots bent on clinical killing but by men and women with bodies that can bleed and souls that can break. Army physician Jon Kerstetter volunteered for duty in Rwanda, Kosovo, and Bosnia and served three combat tours in Iraq. And then he came home and suffered a stroke. See, no robots here. The military may pride itself on its weaponized machinery, but its heart is still made of flesh and blood.

Jacket Copy:  Every juncture in Jon Kerstetter’s life has been marked by a crossing from one world into another: from civilian to doctor to soldier; between healing and waging war; and between compassion and hatred of the enemy. When an injury led to a stroke that ended his careers as a doctor and a soldier, he faced the most difficult crossing of all, a recovery that proved as shattering as war itself. Crossings is a memoir of an improbable, powerfully drawn life, one that began in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin but grew by force of will to encompass a remarkable medical practice. Trained as an emergency physician, Kerstetter’s thirst for intensity led him to volunteer in war-torn Rwanda, Kosovo, and Bosnia, and to join the Army National Guard. His three tours in the Iraq War marked the height of the American struggle there. The story of his work in theater, which involved everything from saving soldiers’ lives to organizing the joint U.S.–Iraqi forensics team tasked with identifying the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, is a bracing, unprecedented evocation of a doctor’s life at war. But war was only the start of Kerstetter’s struggle. The stroke he suffered upon returning from Iraq led to serious cognitive and physical disabilities. His years-long recovery, impeded by near-unbearable pain and complicated by PTSD, meant overcoming the perceived limits of his body and mind and re-imagining his own capacity for renewal and change. It led him not only to writing as a vocation but to a deeper understanding of how healing means accepting a new identity, and how that acceptance must be fought for with as much tenacity as any battlefield victory.

Opening Lines:  A soldier lies in the sand, blood pooling beneath his head, mouth gulping at the air. His eyes fixed, head tilted off to one side, legs and arms motionless. He’s a young soldier in his early twenties, late teens, a young man who should be a freshman in college or finding a summer job while deciding what to do after high school. In less than five minutes he’ll probably die right there in the dirt, right at your feet. You will carry his bloodstains on your boots and on the sleeves of your uniform.

Blurbworthiness:  “The author’s emergence as a military doctor makes for interesting reading...but what is of greatest value in this narrative is Kerstetter’s ongoing, twofold recovery from a stroke on one hand and PTSD on the other...The author’s medical perspective on his own condition and critical therapeutic moments adds depth to an already solid story. An inspiring memoir.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

Fresh Complaint
by Jeffrey Eugenides
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story collection—his first in a writing career which began in 1993 with The Virgin Suicides—is a virtually gallery of great opening lines. I won’t list them all here—apart from the book’s very first lines (see below)—but as one example, here’s the bold, funny start to “Baster,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker:
The recipe came in the mail:

Mix semen of three men.
Stir vigorously.
Fill turkey baster.
Insert nozzle.

1 pinch Stu Wadsworth
1 pinch Jim Freeson
1 pinch Wally Mars

There was no return address but Tomasina knew who had sent it: Diane, her best friend and, recently, fertility specialist.
Now, that’s funny stuff. The rest of the collection promises even more smart hilarity. No complaints here.

Jacket Copy:  Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestselling novels have shown him to be an astute observer of the crises of adolescence, self-discovery, family love, and what it means to be American in our times. The stories in Fresh Complaint explore equally rich­­––­­and intriguing­­––territory. Ranging from the bitingly reproductive antics of “Baster” to the dreamy, moving account of a young traveler’s search for enlightenment in “Air Mail” (selected by Annie Proulx for Best American Short Stories), this collection presents characters in the midst of personal and national emergencies. We meet a failed poet who, envious of other people’s wealth during the real-estate bubble, becomes an embezzler; a clavichordist whose dreams of art founder under the obligations of marriage and fatherhood; and, in “Fresh Complaint,” a high school student whose wish to escape the strictures of her immigrant family lead her to a drastic decision that upends the life of a middle-aged British physicist. Narratively compelling, beautifully written, and packed with a density of ideas despite their fluid grace, these stories chart the development and maturation of a major American writer.

Opening Lines:  Coming up the drive in the rental car, Cathy sees the sign and has to laugh. “Wyndham Falls. Gracious Retirement Living.”
       Not exactly how Della has described it.
       The building comes into view next. The main entrance looks nice enough. It’s big and glassy, with white benches outside and an air of medical orderliness. But the garden apartments set back on the property are small and shabby. Tiny porches, like animal pens. The sense, outside the curtained windows and weather-beaten doors, of lonely lives within.

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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