Friday, May 18, 2018

Front Porch Books: May 2018 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

The Mercy Seat
by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy: An incisive, meticulously crafted portrait of race, racism, and injustice in the Jim Crow era South that is as intimate and tense as a stage drama, The Mercy Seat is a stunning account of one town’s foundering over a trauma in their midst. On the eve of his execution, eighteen year old Willie Jones sits in his cell in New Iberia awaiting his end. Across the state, a truck driven by a convict and his keeper carries the executioner’s chair closer. On a nearby highway, Willie’s father Frank lugs a gravestone on the back of his fading, old mule. In his office the DA who prosecuted Willie reckons with his sentencing, while at their gas station at the crossroads outside of town, married couple Ora and Dale grapple with their grief and their secrets. As various members of the township consider and reflect on what Willie’s execution means, an intricately layered and complex portrait of a Jim Crow era Southern community emerges. Moving from voice to voice, Winthrop elegantly brings to stark light the story of a town, its people, and its injustices. The Mercy Seat is a brutally incisive and tender novel from one of our most acute literary observers.

Opening Lines: When Lane comes out of the gas station store, the dog is waiting for him. It sits in the dusty crossroads, alert and eager, ears pricked and black tongue stiff between its panting jaws. It looks like some kind of ridgeback-pit bull mix, all sinewy muscle and worried brow, like the one he’d had as a kid until his father one day shot her in the cane fields out back, damned if he’d shelter a dog who, during domestic contests, favored the woman of the house. The dog hadn’t died right away; Lane had fixed her up as best he could and made her a bed out in the woodshed, where he’d brought her food and water and tended to her wound until she’d disappeared a few days later, likely wandered off to die

Blurbworthiness: “The lives of these characters mesh in the events surrounding the execution, and their points of view cycle through short chapters that build tension as midnight draws near. Winthrop’s carefully structured novel is a nuanced, absorbing, atmospheric examination of how racism tears at the whole of society.” (Booklist)

by Christina Dalcher

Jacket Copy:  Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter. On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denialthis can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her. This is just the beginning. Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard. But this is not the end. For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Opening Lines:  If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them. But I wouldn’t argue. I wouldn’t say a thing.
       I’ve become a woman of few words.

Furnishing Eternity
by David Giffels

Jacket Copy:  David Giffels grew up fascinated by his father’s dusty, tool-strewn workshop and the countless creations it inspired. So when he enlisted his eighty-one-year-old dad to help him build his own casket, he thought of it mostly as an opportunity to sharpen his woodworking skills and to spend time together. But the unexpected deaths of his mother and, a year later, his best friend, coupled with the dawning realization that his father wouldn’t be around forever for such offbeat adventures—and neither would he—led to a harsh confrontation with mortality and loss. Over the course of several seasons, Giffels returned to his father’s barn in rural Ohio, a place cluttered with heirloom tools, exotic wood scraps, and long memory, to continue a pursuit that grew into a meditation on grief and optimism, a quest for enlightenment, and a way to cherish time with an aging parent. With wisdom and humor, Giffels grapples with some of the hardest questions we all face as he and his father saw, hammer, and sand their way through a year bowed by loss.

Opening Lines:  He was sleeping when I arrived, a half-shape through the sun-warmed porch screens, an impression, familiar and calm. It was late spring in Ohio, and the yard surrounding him was dappled with afternoon leaf shadows. A rubbery hum droned from the highway beyond the dense screen of pines and the high stockade fence. Birds chirped. One cloud dragged the sky like Linus’s blanket.
       He was sleeping. I could see him from the driveway as I slowed to a stop and shifted into park. His old straw hat rose and dipped softly where it rested on his belly. I sat there for a long moment in the beige leather driver’s seat, watching through the windshield, engine still running, wondering if I should disturb him.
       After a lifetime of driving crap cars, most of which had held the specific purpose of hauling building materials and guitar amplifiers, I had—in what I guess I’ll have to concede is middle age—cashed out a very small windfall to buy this seven-year-old Saab turbo convertible. Such a car would seem to imply, if not outright midlife crisis, at least the illusion of leisure. I could have left him alone, put the top down, and gone for a drive in the country.
       But I don’t go for country drives. Relaxation is not a part of my family’s DNA. We spend much of our time trying to outwork each other. My father may have been napping, but it was not a matter of leisure so much as the fact that he was eighty-one years old and had spent the morning chainsawing a fallen tree. So I shut off the engine, pulled out the key, and reached over to the passenger seat for a shaggy folder of notes and sketches, including a couple of drawings from an old Mother Earth News article, freshly printed from the Internet: “Learn How to Build a Handmade Casket.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Father and son bond over a lugubrious building project in this sweetly mordant saga of death and carpentry…Giffels treats heavy themes with a light touch and deadpan humor, drawing vivid, affectionate portraits of loved ones in the richly textured setting of Akron, Ohio. The result is an entertaining memoir that moves through gentle absurdism to a poignant meditation on death and what comes before it.” (Publishers Weekly)

by Andrea Kleine
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Every other weekend, Hope and Eden—backpacks, Walkmans, and homework in hand—wait for their father to pick them up, as he always does, at a strip-mall bus stop. It’s the divorce shuffle; they’re used to it. Only this weekend, he’s screwed up, forgotten, and their world will irrevocably change when a stranger lures them into his truck with a false story and smile. More than twenty years later, Hope is that classic New York failure: a playwright with only one play produced long ago, newly evicted from an illegal sublet, working a humiliating temp job. Eden has long since distanced herself from her family, and no one seems to know where she is. When the man who abducted them is up for parole, the sisters might be able to offer testimony to keep him jailed. Hope sets out to find her sister—and to find herself—and it becomes the journey of a lifetime, taking her from hippie communes to cities across the country. Suspenseful and moving, Eden asks: how much do our pasts define us, and what price do we pay if we break free?

Opening Lines:  It was embarrassing to take the bus, but it was doubly embarrassing to hand the driver a coupon that had been cut out of the back of a Cheerios box. My father ate Cheerios for breakfast every day except Sundays, and then he ate eggs. When my parents divorced, back when I was ten, my father moved from Charlottesville out to the country, sort of toward DC but sort of toward the mountains, and fixed up an old house. My sister, Eden, and I took the Greyhound bus to visit him every other weekend because neither our father nor my mother was willing to make the ninety-minute drive each way. My mother insisted it was our father’s responsibility. Our father thought he was paying my mother more than enough for child support, considering she had a decent job and he never had to pay Eden’s mom, Suriya, anything. He tried to bargain with my mother to drop us off at a shopping mall halfway, but she refused. He drove us the first year and a half until he spotted the bus coupons on the back of the Cheerios box, and then he never picked us up or drove us home again.
       Eden always let me give the tickets to the bus driver. I was excited at first that she let me do it, since she was two years older, but when I realized I had been duped into having the uncool job, she said, “No givebacks.” I had to go on the bus first and hand over the tickets, and Eden could wait and lag behind, distancing herself from me and the embarrassing Cheerios coupon. Her preferred seating arrangement was to have her own two seats and she would sit wherever she wanted, forcing me to move closer to her if she sat too far away. If I tried to sit down next to her, she would say, “Hope not,” which was her way of politely saying “Fuck off,” since my name is Hope.

Blurbworthiness:  “Among the many reasons to read the fierce and wonderful Eden are its sly structure, its delicious pacing, its humor, its meditation on the strange, indelible phenomenon of being a sister, and its abiding interest in the ways tragedy defines us and the ways it doesn’t. What I love most is the way these elements conspire to deliver a fresh and moving portrait of an artist. A spirit sister to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Eden tells the bounteous, searching, sorrowful, invigorating story of what it is to make a life out of making art.” (Maud Casey, author of The Man Who Walked Away)

Mirror Shoulder Signal
by Dorthe Nors
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Sonja is ready to get on with her life. She’s over forty now, and the Swedish crime novels she translates are losing their fascination. She sees a masseuse, tries to reconnect with her sister, and is finally learning to drive. But under the overbearing gaze of her driving instructor, Sonja is unable to shift gears for herself. And her vertigo, which she has always carefully hidden, has begun to manifest at the worst possible moments. Sonja hoped her move to Copenhagen years ago would have left rural Jutland in the rearview mirror. Yet she keeps remembering the dramatic landscapes of her childhood―the endless sky, the whooper swans, the rye fields―and longs to go back. But how can she return to a place that she no longer recognizes? And how can she escape the alienating streets of Copenhagen? In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Dorthe Nors brings her distinctive blend of style, humor, and insight to a poignant journey of one woman in search of herself when there’s no one to ask for directions.

Opening Lines:  Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along. It’s heavy, and sits in the bag on the backseat. She’s halfway through her translation of Gösta Svensson’s latest crime novel, and the quality was already dipping with the previous one. Now’s the time I can afford it, she thought, and so she looked for driving schools online and signed up with Folke in Frederiksberg. The theory classroom was small and blue and reeked of stale smoke and locker rooms, but the theory itself went well. Besides Folke, there was only one other person Sonja’s age in the class, and he was there because of drunk driving, so he kept to himself. Sonja usually sat there and stuck out among all the kids, and for the first aid unit the instructor used her as a model. He pointed to the spot on her throat where they were supposed to imagine her breathing had gotten blocked. He did the Heimlich on her, his fingers up in her face, inside her collar, up and down her arms. At one point he put her into a stranglehold, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was when they had to do the exercises themselves. It was humiliating to be placed in the recovery position by a boy of eighteen. It also made her dizzy, and that was something no one was supposed to find out.

Blurbworthiness:  “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal explores the otherwise unspoken misery of getting a driver’s license, and uses the experience to tease out the secret humiliations that we all suffer but never name. No writer is more haunted by history—the personal, the local, the international—than Dorthe Nors and it’s all here, delivered with her customary economy and grace.” (Jarett Kobek, author of I Hate the Internet)

How To Be a Good Creature
by Sy Montgomery (illustrated by Rebecca Green)
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet’s rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy’s life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets. This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals—Sy’s friends—and the truths revealed by their grace. It also explores vast themes: the otherness and sameness of people and animals; the various ways we learn to love and become empathetic; how we find our passion; how we create our families; coping with loss and despair; gratitude; forgiveness; and most of all, how to be a good creature in the world.

Opening Lines:  As usual, when I was not in class at elementary school, we were together. Molly―our Scottish terrier―and I were doing sentinel duty on the spacious, crew-cut lawn of the general’s house, Quarters 225, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York. Rather, Molly was keeping watch, and I was watching her.

Blurbworthiness:  “A truly beautiful book about life, family, loss, and love.” (Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals)

Another Life
by Theodor Kallifatides
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  “Nobody should write after the age of seventy-five,” a friend had said. At seventy-seven, struggling with the weight of writer’s block, Theodor Kallifatides makes the difficult decision to sell the Stockholm studio where he diligently worked for decades and retire. Unable to write, and yet unable to not write, he travels to his native Greece in the hope of rediscovering that lost fluidity of language. In this slim memoir, Kallifatides explores the interplay of meaningful living and meaningful work, and the timeless question of how to reconcile oneself to aging. But he also comments on worrying trends in contemporary Europe—from religious intolerance and prejudice against immigrants to housing crises and gentrification—and his sadness at the battered state of his beloved Greece. Kallifatides offers an eloquent, thought-provoking meditation on the writing life, and an author’s place in a changing world.

Opening Lines:  It was a difficult time. My latest novel had taken up all my strength. I was exhausted, and thinking of abandoning my writing: giving up on it, before it gave up on me.

by Alyson Hagy
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  A brutal civil war has ravaged the country, and contagious fevers have decimated the population. Abandoned farmhouses litter the isolated mountain valleys and shady hollows. The economy has been reduced to barter and trade. In this craggy, unwelcoming world, the central character of Scribe ekes out a lonely living on the family farmstead where she was raised and where her sister met an untimely end. She lets a migrant group known as the Uninvited set up temporary camps on her land, and maintains an uneasy peace with her cagey neighbors and the local enforcer. She has learned how to make paper and ink, and she has become known for her letter-writing skills, which she exchanges for tobacco, firewood, and other scarce resources. An unusual request for a letter from a man with hidden motivations unleashes the ghosts of her troubled past and sets off a series of increasingly calamitous events that culminate in a harrowing journey to a crossroads. Drawing on traditional folktales and the history and culture of Appalachia, Alyson Hagy has crafted a gripping, swiftly plotted novel that touches on pressing issues of our time―migration, pandemic disease, the rise of authoritarianism―and makes a compelling case for the power of stories to both show us the world and transform it.

Opening Lines:  The dogs circled the house all night, crying out, hunting. She knew they were calling to her. Beckoning. Working their churn. The world she lived in had become a gospel of disturbances, and the dogs wouldn’t let her forget that. In the morning, before she had even gone to the springhouse for milk, she saw a man waiting at the foot of her garden. It was how they did.
       Summer had spun away from them all. The creek banks were whiskered with a nickel-shine frost, and she could smell the cooking fires laid down by the ones who called themselves the Uninvited. Pig fat and smoke. Scorched corn. There were more people at the camp every week, staking out tarps, drying fish seined from the river. They were drawn to her fields at the end of their seasonal migrations because of what had happened there some years before, because of their beliefs. She did not know if they planned to stay for the winter.

John Woman
by Walter Mosley
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  A convention-defying novel by bestselling writer Walter Mosley, John Woman recounts the transformation of an unassuming boy named Cornelius Jones into John Woman, an unconventional history professor―while the legacy of a hideous crime lurks in the shadows. At twelve years old, Cornelius, the son of an Italian-American woman and an older black man from Mississippi named Herman, secretly takes over his father’s job at a silent film theater in New York’s East Village. Five years later, as Herman lives out his last days, he shares his wisdom with his son, explaining that the person who controls the narrative of history controls their own fate. After his father dies and his mother disappears, Cornelius sets about reinventing himself―as Professor John Woman, a man who will spread Herman’s teachings into the classrooms of his unorthodox southwestern university and beyond. But there are other individuals who are attempting to influence the narrative of John Woman, and who might know something about the facts of his hidden past. Engaging with some of the most provocative ideas of recent intellectual history, John Woman is a compulsively readable, deliciously unexpected novel about the way we tell stories, and whether the stories we tell have the power to change the world.

Opening Lines:  Lucia Napoli’s family name had been Tartarelli before her great-grandfather migrated from Naples to the Lower East Side. No one was certain how the name got changed. Lucia’s Aunt Maria said it was a drunken Irish customs officer on Ellis Island who mistook their origins for the name. Lucia’s great Uncle Christopher said his father, Alesio, introduced himself as Alesio from Napoli so often that the name stuck.
       Lucia didn’t care where Napoli came from. It sounded better than Tartarelli. There were pastries and breasts and something flip in the sound. She liked the way it brought her lips together. “Like a kiss,” she once told her girlfriends after her part-time shift as a filing clerk at Household Insurance Company.

The Summer She Was Under Water
by Jen Michalski
(Black Lawrence Press)

Jacket Copy:  It has been twenty years since Sam Pinski, a young novelist, has spent the Fourth of July weekend with her family at their cabin on the Susquehanna River. There, she must confront a chaotic history of mental illness, alcoholism, and physical violence, and struggle to find perspective in the pulse of things familiar and respite from the shame of the taboo relationship that courses through her. As she does, a subplot emerges: Excerpts are included from Sam's metaphoric novel in which a pregnant man tries to solve the mystery of his fertility and absolve himself of his past. Then tragedy strikes the Pinskis and they must draw together, tentatively realizing that they will continue to spin off in their own orbits unless they begin the hard work of forgiveness themselves.

Opening Lines:  “I think the car is on fire,” Eve says. Smoke tendrils curl out from under the hood of Samantha Pinski’s Volkswagen Jetta.
       “It’s just overheating,” Sam answers. They are at the precipice of the soft, winding dirt road that leads up to her family’s cabin on the hill. She flips on the heater and hot air from the engine pours into the interior like batter into a pan. “We’ll make it.”

Blurbworthiness:  “The Summer She Was Under Water introduces us to the vivid Pinskis, a family unwilling to be honest about its past and ill-equipped to alter its future. Jen Michalski movingly captures the way mother and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers jab at and dance around each other, alternately trying to soothe and to wound.” (Pamela Erens,  author of The Virgins and Eleven Hours)

Still Life With Monkey
by Katharine Weber
(Paul Dry Books)

Jacket Copy:  Duncan Wheeler is a successful architect who savors the quotidian pleasures in life until a car accident leaves him severely paralyzed and haunted by the death of his young assistant. Now, Duncan isn’t sure what there is left to live for, when every day has become “a broken series of unsuccessful gestures.” Duncan and his wife, Laura, find themselves in conflict as Duncan’s will to live falters. Laura grows desperate to help him. An art conservator who has her own relationship to the repair of broken things, Laura brings home a highly trained helper monkey―a tufted capuchin named Ottoline―to assist Duncan with basic tasks. Duncan and Laura fall for this sweet, comical, Nutella-gobbling little creature, and Duncan’s life appears to become more tolerable, fuller, and funnier. Yet the question persists: Is it enough?

Opening Lines:  Her long fingers caressed his check for a moment, as she traced her way down to his jaw, her cool touch just grazing the stubble of Duncan’s five-day beard. She studied his face, seeking his gaze. He met her eyes for an instant before looking away, strangely embarrassed by his inability to match the intensity of her insistent stare. Ottoline smacked little air kissed as she reached up to touch his face again, and he was surprised by the gentle precision of her tiny fingernails sorting through his whiskers as she investigated up the contour of his cheek from jaw to upper lip. She pressed two fingers to his lips, and he nearly kissed them, but he didn’t, and then she contemplated her fingertips, sticking out her tongue daintily for the tiny flake of something she had found on his lip. She nibbled at it contentedly while continuing to stare up at him, making a sweet, soft, peeping sound. She repositioned her springy little body constantly, and now she shifted again, peering up at his chin, plucking with fascination at the bristles that speckled his face. They had been alone together for five minutes.
       Ignore her, her trainer Martha has advised, before leaving them alone. Act as if you’ve seen a million monkeys and you’re bored by her. Let her be curious about you. Stay very still. Make no sudden movements. Duncan was very good at sitting still, and he was pretty much the master of being bored, too.

Blurbworthiness:  “Still Life With Monkey is a brilliantly crafted novel, brimming with heart. Pairing poetry with wisdom, this is a story about what it means to live, love, and grow.” (Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage)

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
by Neel Patel
(Flatiron Books)

Jacket Copy:  In eleven sharp, surprising stories, Neel Patel gives voice to our most deeply held stereotypes and then slowly undermines them. His characters, almost all of who are first-generation Indian Americans, subvert our expectations that they will sit quietly by. We meet two brothers caught in an elaborate web of envy and loathing; a young gay man who becomes involved with an older man whose secret he could never guess; three women who almost gleefully throw off the pleasant agreeability society asks of them; and, in the final pair of linked stories, a young couple struggling against the devastating force of community gossip. If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi examines the collisions of old world and new world, small town and big city, traditional beliefs (like arranged marriage) and modern rituals (like Facebook stalking). Ranging across the country, Patel’s stories―empathetic, provocative, twisting, and wryly funny―introduce a bold new literary voice, one that feels more timely than ever.

Opening Lines:  The Wi-Fi was out: that was the first sign. The second was that my dress was an eyesore.

Blurbworthiness:  “It’s possible that no one ever told Neel Patel that Indians in America are supposed to be a model minority. How else to explain these stories, full of terrible spouses, warring siblings, unapologetic liars, and naive kids, searching for happiness, love, or maybe just sex? In stories that are moving, thoughtful, entertaining, and discomfiting all at once, Patel upends what we think the experience of Indians in America looks like. It’s about time.” (Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty)

by Silas House
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  In the aftermath of a flood that washes away much of a small Tennessee town, evangelical preacher Asher Sharp offers shelter to two gay men. In doing so, he starts to see his life anew—and risks losing everything: his wife, locked into her religious prejudices; his congregation, which shuns Asher after he delivers a passionate sermon in defense of tolerance; and his young son, Justin, caught in the middle of what turns into a bitter custody battle. With no way out but ahead, Asher takes Justin and flees to Key West, where he hopes to find his brother, Luke, whom he’d turned against years ago after Luke came out. And it is there, at the southernmost point of the country, that Asher and Justin discover a new way of thinking about the world, and a new way of understanding love.

Opening Lines:  The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness, without ceasing for two days, and then the water rose all at once in the middle of the night, a brutal rush so fast Asher thought at first a dam might have broken somewhere upstream. The ground had simply become so saturated it could not hold any more water. All the creeks were conspiring down the ridges until they washed out into the Cumberland. There was no use in anyone going to bed because they all knew what was going to happen. They only had to wait.
       The day dawned without any sign of sun—a sky that groaned open from a black night to a dull, purpling gray of morning—and Asher went out to walk the ridge and get a full eye on the situation. The news wasn’t telling them anything worthwhile. He could hear the flood before he reached the top of the ridge. There he saw the massively swollen river supping at the edges of the lower fields, ten feet above its own banks, a foamy broth climbing so steadily he could actually see its ascent, and then he knew he had to go get Zelda.

Blurbworthiness:  “Southernmost is an emotional tsunami. The classic themes of great literature written about family life are upended here in a modern twist as a father and son flee one life in search of another; as estranged brothers separated by time and their judgement of one another seek redemption and through the women in their lives, antagonists in the struggle who become grace notes on the road to redemption. This is a story of faith lost and love found, and what we must throw overboard on the journey in order to keep moving. A treasure.”  (Adriana Trigiani, author of Kiss Carlo)

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