Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Front Porch Books: April 2018 edition

I wrote this roundup of new and forthcoming books way back in December, just before the blog went off the rails. I discovered the draft sitting in my Blogger account the other day and figured hey, better late than never. Most of these books have already been out for several months, but my enthusiasm and anticipation haven’t waned one iota. I hope you’ll catch my fire and consider buying one (or all) of these the next time you visit your local bookstore. I’ll be back next month with a fresh crop of new(er) arrivals.

Our Lady of the Prairie
by Thisbe Nissen
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The first paragraph (see below) of Thisbe Nissen’s new novel may look like an ordinary suitcase. But don’t be fooled: it is stuffed full of clothes (characters—ten, by my count) and is neatly packed (sharply-written sentences) for your voyage (reading). Sure, there is a lot going on in that opening paragraph, and maybe it requires a second reading to get everything sorted out, but I am wholly engaged: hook, line, and thinker.

Jacket Copy:  In the space of a few torrid months on the Iowa prairie, Phillipa Maakestad—long-married theater professor and mother of an unstable daughter—grapples with a life turned upside down. After falling headlong into a passionate affair during a semester spent teaching in Ohio, Phillipa returns home to Iowa for her daughter Ginny’s wedding. There, Phillipa must endure (among other things) a wedding-day tornado, a menace of a mother-in-law who may or may not have been a Nazi collaborator, and the tragicomic revenge fantasies of her heretofore docile husband. Naturally, she does what any newly liberated woman would do: she takes a match to her life on the prairie and then steps back to survey the wreckage. Set in the seething political climate of a contentious election, Thisbe Nissen’s new novel is sexy, smart, and razor-sharp—a freight train barreling through the heart of the land and the land of the heart.

Opening Lines:  From the moment I saw Lucius Bocelli I wanted to go to bed with him. If I’d known then what Michael would put me through by way of penance—in twenty-six years of marriage you’d think if he’d so badly needed to spank me he’d’ve found an opportunity—I might have simply given in. Instead I spent three months in tortuous longing before succumbing to all I felt for Lucius. But retrospect is convenient, life less so. Even if I should have foreseen—or already known of—my husband’s peccadilloes, I still could not have gazed into the future to know, say, the path that May’s tornado would take across Iowa, straight through our daughter’s wedding. I met Lucius in late January. I’d just arrived in Ohio for my semester’s teaching exchange; he was recently back from a year and a half in France, a research sabbatical he’d extended with an additional six-month leave. His work was on Nazi collaborationists of the Vichy regime, and he’d be headed back to France that summer, but when we met it was only January. The Democrats hadn’t even nominated someone to run against Dubya and bar him from a second term. Bernadette—the mother-in-law whose belligerent existence I’d suffered for more than half my life—was still alive and kicking me at every available opportunity, and Ginny wasn’t yet married to Silas Yoder, or pregnant and off her psych meds and once again as miserable as she’d been before the electroshock. Orah and Obadiah Yoder were already dead—Silas and Eula’s parents, hit head-on and killed by an SUV, in their own buggy in front of their own Prairie farm—and a year had done little to dissipate that pain. The birth of Eula’s baby had diverted us, yes. My point is this: when I met Lucius my life was more stable than it had been in twenty-five years. I met him, and I wanted him—more clearly, and maybe less complicatedly, than I think I have ever wanted anything in this life.

Blurbworthiness:  “Thisbe Nissen’s Our Lady of the Prairie is a Midwestern fever dream, a bold and ambitious look into the roiling emotions of a woman caught between should and could, between I must and I want. I found it funny, angry, hopeful, heartfelt, and above all, honest: about marriage, family, and that old-fashioned, endlessly fascinating thing called desire.”  (Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End and The Dinner Party)

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
by Denis Johnson
(Random House)

If we can dredge any comfort out of our grief over the too-soon passing of Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, et al) last year, it is knowing he had a few last words to share with us. Judging by the small taste I took of the first story in this posthumous collection (the titular “Largesse”), this promises to be a fitting farewell to one of our brightest literary lights. Maybe we could even call it Son of Jesus’ Son.

Jacket Copy:  The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is the long-awaited new story collection from Denis Johnson. Written in the luminous prose that made him one of the most beloved and important writers of his generation, this collection finds Johnson in new territory, contemplating the ghosts of the past and the elusive and unexpected ways the mysteries of the universe assert themselves. Finished shortly before Johnson’s death, this collection is the last word from a writer whose work will live on for many years to come.

Opening Lines:  After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we’d enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. These were people we’ve gotten to know a little from Elaine’s volunteer work—nobody from my work, nobody from the ad agency. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we’d ever heard. One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore and wanted a divorce. Another recalled the pounding of his heart when he suffered a coronary. Tia Jones had become a grandmother at the age of thirty-seven and hoped never again to hear anything so loud as her granddaughter crying in her sixteen-year-old daughter’s arms. Her husband, Ralph, said it hurt his ears whenever his brother opened his mouth in public, because his brother had Tourette syndrome and erupted with remarks like “I masturbate! Your penis smells good!” in front of perfect strangers on a bus, or during a movie, or even in church.

Blurbworthiness:  “American literature suffered a serious loss with Johnson’s death. These final stories underscore what we’ll miss....Johnson is best known for his writing about hard-luck cases—alcoholics, thieves, world-weary soldiers. But this final collection ranges up and down the class ladder; for Johnson, a sense of mortality and a struggle to make sense of our lives knew no demographic boundaries.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

Savage Country
by Robert Olmstead
(Algonquin Books)

Even though 19th-century buffalo hunts are anathema to me—all those skulls piled in building-high pyramids, all those hides and horns and bones that should have been red flags to the species’ near-extinction—there is something compelling about this novel set against the backdrop of a huge bison hunt in 1873. Then, too, there is the fact that Robert Olmstead (Coal Black Horse, The Coldest Night, etc.) is a first-rate, gifted storyteller who never disappoints me. So, apart from the buffalo blood, I am really looking forward to reading Savage Country this winter.

Jacket Copy:  “The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty...” Onto this broken Western stage rides Michael Coughlin, a Civil War veteran with an enigmatic past, come to town to settle his dead brother’s debt. Together with his widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth, bankrupted by her husband’s folly and death, they embark on a massive, and hugely dangerous, buffalo hunt. Elizabeth hopes to salvage something of her former life and the lives of the hired men and their families who now depend on her; the buffalo hunt that her husband had planned, she now realizes, was his last hope for saving the land. Elizabeth and Michael plunge south across the aptly named “dead line” demarcating Indian Territory from their home state of Kansas. Nothing could have prepared them for the dangers: rattlesnakes, rabies, wildfire, lightning strikes, blue northers, flash floods—and human treachery. With the Comanche in winter quarters, Elizabeth and Michael are on borrowed time, and the cruel work of harvesting the buffalo is unraveling their souls. Bracing, direct, and quintessentially American, Olmstead’s gripping narrative follows that infamous hunt, which drove the buffalo to near extinction. Savage Country is the story of a moment in our history in which mass destruction of an animal population was seen as a road to economic salvation. But it’s also the intimate story of how that hunt changed Michael and Elizabeth forever.

Opening Lines:  Some distance from town he was met with the smell of raw sewage and creosote, the stink of lye and kerosene oil, the carrion of dead and slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption. He struck the mapped, vacant streets where there was a world of abandoned construction, plank shacks with dirt floors and flat-pitched roofs hedged with brambles and waste. Two cur dogs snarled at each other over a bone. Dead locust strewed the ground three inches deep.
       The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty. Notes were being called in for pennies on the dollar. Money was scarce and whole families were pauperized.
       For weeks countless swarms of locusts, brown-black and brick-yellow, darkened the air like ash from a great conflagration, their jaws biting all things for what could be eaten. They fed on the wheat and corn, the lint of seasoned fence planks, dry leaves, paper, cotton, the wool on the backs of sheep. Their crushed bodies slicked the rails and stopped the trains.
       Michael rode light in the saddle, his left hand steady on the reins. His trousers were tucked inside the shafts of his stovepipe boots, and the buckhorn haft of a long knife protruding above the top was decorated with plates of silver. His black hair was long and plaited into a queue, which hung down his back. A shotgun was cradled in his free arm and on the saddle before him sat a setter dog and behind his right leg hung a string of game birds. The red dog had fallen out a mile ago and he thought that was perhaps for the best.

Blurbworthiness:  “Like so many outstanding novels about the taming of the West, there is a tragic ambiguity at the heart of Olmstead’s brutal but beautiful tale of the last buffalo hunt. For a certain kind of uncompromising yet lyrical writer—think Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, or William Kittredge—the West offers a stage for a special kind of archetypal, almost Shakespearean tragedy, and Olmstead makes the most of it.”  (Booklist)

Desert Mementos
by Caleb Cage
(University of Nevada Press)

Books about the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan keep rolling off the printing presses and arriving on my front porch. This makes me happy, both as a veteran and as a writer. I’m always curious to see how other authors will describe the wars that often defy description. A couple of months ago, a smaller-than-usual package landed on the doorstep: Caleb Cage’s debut collection of short stories about Iraq...and Nevada. As a Reno native and veteran of the Middle East conflicts, Cage knows his sand. And his bullets, and the people who fire them and, in the worst cases, receive them. Desert Mementos is a smallish book (it’s exactly the size of my hand), and you might be able to finish it in one sitting, but I have a feeling these are stories that will stick with you long after you turn the last page.

Jacket Copy:  Desert Mementos is a collection of loosely connected short stories set during the early stages of the Iraq War (2004 and 2005). The stories rotate from battles with insurgents and the drudgery of the war machine in Iraq to Nevada, where characters are either preparing for war, escaping it during their leave, or returning home having seen what they’ve seen. Cage captures similarities in the respective desert landscapes of both Iraq and Nevada, but it is not just a study in contrasting landscapes. The inter-connected stories explore similarities and differences in human needs from the perspectives of vastly different cultures. Specifically, the stories deftly capture the overlap in the respective desert landscapes of each region, the contrasting cultures and worldviews, and the common need for hope. Taken together, the stories represent the arc of a year-long deployment by young soldiers. Cage’s stories are bound together by the soldier’s searing experiences in the desert, bookended by leaving and returning home to Nevada, which in many ways can be just as disorienting as patrolling the Iraq desert.

Opening Lines:  Three nights before your second deployment to Iraq you finish a Michelob and slide the bottle back in the box behind the passenger seat. You’ve only been driving for less than an hour, so you decide to switch to Copenhagen for a little while. There is only one reason you can think of for a twenty-one-year-old man to be driving from Reno to Tonopah on a Friday night in weather like this.

Blurbworthiness:  “I love for a novel to shift me into another’s reality, and I greatly admire Caleb Cage’s ability to capture both the sensual and the emotional experiences of someone at war. As someone who has not experienced war, I was captivated by the author’s ability to transport me to Iraq, and to specific moments in a soldier’s experience.”  (Laura McBride, author of We Are Called to Rise)

by Fiona Mozley
(Algonquin Books)

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel comes across like a blend between a fairy tale and the recent movie Captain Fantastic. Add in the haunting cover image of a dark forest, trees thick and forbidding as prison bars, and this instantly becomes a must-read for me. I look forward to wandering the novel’s dark paths.

Jacket Copy:  The family thought the little house they had made themselves in Elmet, a corner of Yorkshire, was theirs, that their peaceful, self-sufficient life was safe. Cathy and Daniel roamed the woods freely, occasionally visiting a local woman for some schooling, living outside all conventions. Their father built things and hunted, working with his hands; sometimes he would disappear, forced to do secret, brutal work for money, but to them he was a gentle protector. Narrated by Daniel after a catastrophic event has occurred, Elmet mesmerizes even as it becomes clear the family’s solitary idyll will not last. When a local landowner shows up on their doorstep, their precarious existence is threatened, their innocence lost. Daddy and Cathy, both of them fierce, strong, and unyielding, set out to protect themselves and their neighbors, putting into motion a chain of events that can only end in violence. As rich, wild, dark, and beautiful as its Yorkshire setting, Elmet is a gripping debut about life on the margins and the power—and limits—of family loyalty.

Opening Lines:  I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count railroad ties and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid. I am unsure of the direction but in that initial choice I am pinned. I have passed through the turnstile and the gate is locked.

Blurbworthiness:  “Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, Mozley’s preternaturally accomplished debut novel is a riveting and disquieting fable of a family reaching back to life’s essentials and embracing nature’s beauty, abundance, and challenges, yet remaining caught in the perpetual twist of human good and evil. In pristinely gorgeous and eviscerating prose, Mozley, who chimes with Hannah Tinti, Lydia Millet, and Daniel Woodrell, sets ablaze a suspenseful family tragedy stoked by social critique, escalated by men’s violence against women, and darkly veined with elements of country noir.”  (Booklist)

Clara at the Edge
by Maryl Jo Fox
(She Writes Press)

It took me less than two minutes to move Maryl Jo Fox’s debut novel from the “could be interesting” pile to the “definitely want to read” stack. That’s the time it took to read the first two pages of the novel, pages in which a 12-year-old girl cowers in her family’s barn, certain she is about to be abused by her father, and then is miraculously saved by wasps who surround her father’s head, “in a tight ball, making a sound like a thousand voices.” The writing in these paragraphs is so rich and so confident that I cannot stop reading deeper and deeper into the book.

Jacket Copy:  At seventy-three, eccentric widow Clara Breckenridge is on a last-ditch journey to reconcile with her estranged son, finally confront the guilty secrets surrounding her daughter’s death, and maybe find love again before she dies miserable and alone. But Clara is her own worst enemy. Rigid and afraid of change, she has cocooned herself in her old house to escape from life. Magic purple wasps saved her as a child from an abusive father and they want to help her now, but wasps only live 120 days. Clara’s time is running out. When her beloved house is slated for demolition, she panics and persuades her son to haul the house from Eugene to Jackpot, Nevada, where Clara’s life is turned upside down by two troubled young people. Can the rowdy purple wasp, a spirit guide with surprising powers, help Clara confront her past and join life again or is it too late? Clara at the Edge is imaginative, eventful, sometimes funny and deeply moving.

Opening Lines:  Clara heard his breathing, smelled his smell of rotten mushrooms and oily sweat. Her father had followed her into the darkest corner of the barn, where she hid. He was going to hurt her, she just knew it. She was twelve. She’d been watching him the last few months. He would give her the look that said she knew the same secret he did--that she was no good and he had to beat it out of her. But she didn’t know any secret like that. She was just afraid of him. She’d seen him beat her mother and her twin sister, Lillian, and she knew her turn was coming. Her mother was mild as a moth, always washing doilies and holding them up to the sun to admire their designs. She would keep sweeping the porch until he came and beat on her. And then she just cringed, never fought back. Clara never wanted to be like that.

Blurbworthiness:  “We will follow Clara anywhere.” (Walter Kirn, author of Up in the Air)

The Ghost Notebooks
by Ben Dolnick
(Pantheon Books)

Given my deep and abounding love for Ben Dolnick’s earlier novel, At the Bottom of Everything, it’s a no-brainer that I should immediately reach for his new book, The Ghost Notebooks, as soon as I got word of its upcoming release. Sure, it’s another one of those supernatural-paranormal-expialidocious tales which are more and more frequently haunting the new release tables at our bookstores....but given Dolnick’s ability to write breathless, tooth-rattling sentences, I think this will be much more than a story about a couple who move into a historic home in upstate New York and feel the spooky presence of its previous owner, a nineteenth-century philosopher. I have the eerie feeling that The Ghost Notebooks will, like At the Bottom of Everything, ask deeper questions like: What is our responsibility to the lives of others? Should we take it upon ourselves to rescue lost souls? How do we forgive ourselves for bad deeds? Is it ever possible to move on from the errors of our past?

Jacket Copy:  The Ghost Notebooks is a supernatural story of love, ghosts, and madness as a young couple, newly engaged, become caretakers of a historic museum. When Nick Beron and Hannah Rampe decide to move from New York City to the tiny upstate town of Hibernia, they aren’t exactly running away, but they need a change. Their careers have flatlined, the city is exhausting, and they’ve reached a relationship stalemate. Hannah takes a job as live-in director of the Wright Historic House, a museum dedicated to an obscure nineteenth-century philosopher, and she and Nick swiftly move into their new home. The town’s remoteness, the speed with which Hannah is offered the job, and the lack of museum visitors barely a blip in their consideration. At first, life in this old, creaky house feels cozy—they speak in Masterpiece Theater accents and take bottles of wine to the swimming hole. But as summer turns to fall, Hannah begins to have trouble sleeping and she hears whispers in the night. One morning, Nick wakes up to find Hannah gone. In his frantic search for her, Nick will discover the hidden legacy of Wright House: a man driven wild with grief, and a spirit aching for home.

Opening Lines:  Let me explain, first of all, that I was never one of those people who believed, even a little bit, in ghosts. I knew people who did—people with office jobs and shoe inserts and wallets stuffed with sandwich punch cards—and I could never quite hide my bewilderment when I realized that they weren’t kidding.

Blurbworthiness:  “For all its curiosity about things that go bump in the night, the most notable features in The Ghost Notebooks are its qualities of light. Ben Dolnick’s charm, lucidity, and insight will come as no surprise to his growing band of fans. Count me one of them.”  (Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City on Fire)

After Paradise
by Robley Wilson
(Black Lawrence Press)

Many, many years ago (nay, decades), when I was an undergrad at the University of Oregon, I heard Robley Wilson read one of his short stories when he visited the campus for a craft talk and an evening reading. I was transfixed. I can’t recall the name of the story but I remember it concerned a strained conversation between a couple who were in their car, stopped at a road construction site, and there was tension in the air. Like broken-power-line-snapping-like-an-electric-snake tension. And when I say I was “transfixed,” I mean someone had apparently snuck into the room prior to the reading and smeared a tube of Super Glue on my chair. I couldn’t move, a prisoner to Mr. Wilson’s words. I was a half-broke (sometimes all-broke), married college student at the time, so poor that buying off-brand soda at the supermarket was a luxury, but I somehow found enough money to buy a copy of Wilson’s short story collection Dancing for Men and drank it down like a bottle of Dr. Pepper (and not that lame-ass imitation, Dr. Snapper). The “road construction story” wasn’t in that volume, but it didn’t matter. I was an instant fan. So, when Black Lawrence Press asked if I’d like to take a look at his new book, a novel called After Paradise, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. It has all my “trigger” elements: Maine! Carnivals! Early 20th-Century America! Exotic dancers! And so, After Paradise goes in my ever-towering To-Be-Read pile. This time, I think I’ll drink champagne while reading it.

Jacket Copy:  A tale of two couples, David and Kate, high school students, and Sherrie and Frank, an exotic dancer and her carnival barker, Robley Wilson’s After Paradise is a beautifully observed, passionate, and elegant unveiling of small-town life in all its claustrophobic intensity. A traveling carnival arrives in Scoggin, Maine, after World War II, setting in motion a battle between sensuality and puritanism, love and punishment that moves inevitably toward a tragic conclusion. Evocative of New England lives described long ago by Hawthorne and Wharton, and more recently by Cheever and Updike, After Paradise is a brilliantly compelling exploration, engaging from start to finish.

Opening Lines:  Thursday. Early September. On a field in Maine, the outskirts of a small town called Scoggin, here are three men. One of them holds a flashlight; the other two are toting armloads of wooden stakes and short, heavy hammers. The man with the torch is wearing a light jacket, khaki pants, and a grease-stained fedora; he is smoking an unfiltered cigarette. The others wear overalls and denim shirts. All three wear army boots.
       The man with the flashlight, who is the layout man in charge of this activity, indicates a spot on the ground, and one of his crew promptly sets a stake and hammers it into the earth. The layout man takes a number of paces away from that stake and signals a new location with his light. A new stake is set, and the process continues.

Blurbworthiness:  “From the very first page, as a traveling carnival sets up in the small Maine town of Scoggin, you know you are in for something exceptional. Robley Wilson has a rare gift for capturing place and creating achingly real characters: David, on the cusp of adulthood, lit with desire and chafing against a cruel father; Kate, his clever, strong willed almost-girlfriend; and Sharita, an erotic dancer with a dark past, whose arrival sets in motion an explosive chain of events. Set at a time when the memory of WWII was fresh, the novel is both a vivid portrait of the past and a timeless look at relations between men and women.”  (Dawn Raffel, author of The Secret Life of Objects)

The Flicker of Old Dreams
by Susan Henderson
(Harper Perennial)

And, finally, I’ll close with the book that is currently at the summit of that To-Be-Read mountain of books: Susan Henderson’s new novel The Flicker of Old Dreams. This has to be one of my Most Anticipated Books of the past couple of years. I was hooked and entranced by Susan’s debut, Up From the Blue, and became an instant fan. I started following her on social media and her blog, where she occasionally wrote dispatches on her work-in-progress, a novel set in small-town Montana. Montana! Now I had to read it. That was several years ago (Susan and I both belong to the “I’ll finish it when it’s damn well ready” school of writing) and my appetite has only grown for this book. Now the meal is served and I lean forward to savor the delicious steam rising from what’s in front of me. I hold the knife and fork in my hands.

Jacket Copy:  Mary Crampton has spent all of her thirty years in Petroleum, a small Western town once supported by a powerful grain company. Living at home, she works as the embalmer in her father’s mortuary: an unlikely job that has long marked her as an outsider. Yet, to Mary there is a satisfying art to positioning and styling each body to capture the essence of a subject’s life. Though some townsfolk pretend that the community is thriving, the truth is that Petroleum is crumbling away—a process that began twenty years ago when an accident in the grain elevator killed a beloved high school athlete. The mill closed for good, the train no longer stopped in town, and Robert Golden, the victim’s younger brother, was widely blamed for the tragedy and shipped off to live elsewhere. Now, out of the blue, Robert has returned to care for his terminally ill mother. After Mary—reserved, introspective, and deeply lonely—strikes up an unlikely friendship with him, shocking the locals, she finally begins to consider what might happen if she dared to leave Petroleum. Set in America’s heartland, The Flicker of Old Dreams explores themes of resilience, redemption, and loyalty in prose as lyrical as it is powerful.

Opening Lines:  Most who pass this stretch of highway don’t notice there’s a town here at all. The drivers’ eyes glaze over the flat, yellow land of Central Montana that goes on and on. The only landmark tall enough to see from the road is the abandoned grain elevator. But just as the gray wooden tower comes into view, the AM radio tends to lose its signal. The drivers look down to fiddle with the dial, and there goes the town of Petroleum.

Blurbworthiness:  “This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book.”  (Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling 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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