Thursday, September 21, 2017

Front Porch Books: September 2017 edition

The Disappeared
by Adam Braver

You have only to say four words —“Adam Braver” and “new book” — and I’m already halfway to my nearest independent bookstore in search of a copy. Lucky me, as a reviewer and blogger, I already received an advance copy of the new novel The Disappeared (though, a future trip to the aforementioned bookstore will be in order because, damn, I love that cover design!). I have been a die-hard fan of Adam’s work ever since I read Mr. Lincoln’s Wars a decade ago. My love for his prose only intensified when I later picked up a copy of Misfit, an imaginative retelling of Marilyn Monroe’s last days. Now here comes The Disappeared, a bit of a departure for the novelist who has set his previous books in the past (the JFK assassination, the early twentieth-century actress Sarah Bernhardt, etc.). The Disappeared concerns itself with more recent acts of terrorism, of which, sadly, we know all too well. No matter where on history’s timeline Adam chooses to turn his attention, you can bet I’ll be turning the pages eagerly and rapidly.

Jacket Copy:  A novel of two strangers swept up in the aftermath of two politicized acts of violence. The Disappeared traces a pair of survivors: a woman whose husband is missing in a San Bernardino-type of attack, and a man who believes his sister was an unidentified victim of the ’93 World Trade Center bombing. With a remarkable mix of nuance and momentum, Braver portrays their post-trauma experience in the face of relentless public feedback.

Opening Lines:  The morning of the shooting is the last day she’ll go out for a while. Already Lucy had been growing nervous about being out in public. Following a season of international terror attacks, her daily routine had been thus: get in the car, drive to work, eat lunch inside the building, get in the car and come back home. There was no more gathering in large public spaces. No more train to work. The unseen risks outsized the convenience. She’d even conceded all grocery shopping to Henry, refusing to be a target in the Raley’s parking lot or inside the crowded market. Think about it: at the time, who would have thought twice about sitting in a Parisian café on that warm November night? Or who would have had any apprehension about just waiting for the usual commuter train in the usual station at the usual time in London or Madrid? The cable news shows said we now lived in an era of vigilance. Lucy saw it more as an era of cautious retreat.

Blurbworthiness:  “Adam Braver’s vivid characters move through a haunted landscape—the world forever changed by terror—that has become all too familiar to many of us. This compelling and elegantly written novel charts the intersections of individual and collective grief, unfolding in unexpected ways. It is both profoundly personal and smartly political, a memorable page turner with urgent, resonant themes.”  (Alix Ohlin, author of Signs and Wonders)

The Overstory
by Richard Powers
(W. W. Norton)

Just like Adam Braver, Richard Powers is another author who will immediately grab my attention when I see one of his books on the New Release table in stores. (If you haven’t read his tour de force about civil rights, The Time of Our Singing, you need to correct that mistake right away). Combine that interest with the subject matter of The Overstory — the fight to save our dwindling forests — and this new novel is a sure thing for me.

Jacket Copy:  The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. An air force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing-and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by trees, are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Opening Lines:  First there was nothing. Then there was everything.
      Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages.
      A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words.

Draft No. 4
by John McPhee
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

      A new book by John McPhee?
      Yes, please.
      A new book by John McPhee with the subtitle “On the Writing Process”?
      Say no more.

Jacket Copy:  Draft No. 4 is a master class on the writer’s craft. In a series of playful, expertly wrought essays, John McPhee shares insights he has gathered over his career and has refined while teaching at Princeton University, where he has nurtured some of the most esteemed writers of recent decades. McPhee offers definitive guidance in the decisions regarding arrangement, diction, and tone that shape nonfiction pieces, and he presents extracts from his work, subjecting them to wry scrutiny. In one essay, he considers the delicate art of getting sources to tell you what they might not otherwise reveal. In another, he discusses how to use flashback to place a bear encounter in a travel narrative, while observing that “readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.” The result is a vivid depiction of the writing process, from reporting to drafting to revising—and revising, and revising. Draft No. 4 is enriched by multiple diagrams and by personal anecdotes and charming reflections on the life of a writer. McPhee describes his enduring relationships with The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and recalls his early years at Time magazine. Throughout, Draft No. 4 is enlivened by his keen sense of writing as a way of being in the world.

Opening Lines:  In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Kasrel, Optometrist. Across the street was the main library of Princeton University. Across the hall was the Swedish Massage. Operated by an Austrian couple who were nearing retirement and had been there for decades, it was a legitimate business. They massaged everything from college football players to arthritic ancients, and they didn’t give sex. This, however, was the era when massage became a sexual synonym, and most evenings—avoiding writing, looking down from my window on the passing scene—I would see men in business suits stop, hesitate, look around, and then move toward the glass door at the foot of the stairs. Eventually, the Austrians had to scrape the words “Swedish Massage” off the door, and replace them with a hanging sign they removed when they went home at night. Meanwhile, the men kept arriving at the top of the stairs, where neither door was marked. When they knocked on mine and I opened it, their faces fell dramatically as the busty Swede they expected turned into a short and bearded man.

Blurbworthiness:  “[Draft No. 4]’s combination of shop talk, war stories, slices of autobiography, and priceless insights and lessons suggests what it must be like to occupy a seat in the McPhee classroom...McPhee’s observations about writing are always invigorating to engage with. And Draft No. 4 belongs on the short shelf of essential books about the craft.”  (The Wall Street Journal)

by Robin Sloan
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Robin Sloan’s debut novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was an odd delight and one of my favorites of 2012. I still think about that shadowy bookstore which served as a nondescript front for an equally-shadowy group of high-tech code breakers. That novel brimmed with all the quirky complexities of Umberto Eco and Haruki Murakami. Sloan’s new novel Sourdough looks just as tasty. There are still strange codes to be broken, but this time they’re leavened by a ceramic crock of yeasty sourdough starter. My interest, like the bread itself, is definitely on the rise.

Jacket Copy:  Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her—feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it. Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up. When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?

Opening Lines:  It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.
      I was just home from work and my face felt brittle from stress—this wasn’t unusual—and I would not normally have been interested in anything unfamiliar. My nightly ration of Slurry waited within.
But the menu intrigued me. The words were written in a dark, confident script—actually, two scripts: each dish was described once using the alphabet I recognized and again using one I didn’t, vaguely Cyrillic-seeming with a profusion of dots and curling connectors. In either case, the menu was compact: available was the Spicy Soup or a Spicy Sandwich or a Combo (double spicy), all of which, the menu explained, were vegetarian.
      At the top, the restaurant’s name was written in humongous, exuberant letters: CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH. At the bottom, there was a phone number and the promise of quick delivery. Clement Street was just a few blocks away. The menu charmed me, and as a result, my night, and my life, bent off on a different track.

Blurbworthiness:  “[Sourdough] plunges through so much terrain: microbial nations, assimilation and tradition, embodied consciousness and the crisis of the tech industry, all without losing the light, sweet, ironic Sloanian voice familiar from Mr. Penumbra’s, a plot that makes the book a page-turner and a laugh-out-louder, with sweetness and romance and tartness and irony in perfect balance. What a great book, seriously.”  (Cory Doctorow, author of Walkaway)

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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