Thursday, October 25, 2018

Front Porch Books: October 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 Adults
by Caroline Hulse
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  A couple (now separated), plus their daughter, plus their new partners, all on an epic Christmas vacation. What could go wrong? Meet The Adults. Claire and Matt are no longer together but decide that it would be best for their daughter, Scarlett, to have a “normal” family Christmas. They can’t agree on whose idea it was to go to the Happy Forest holiday park, or who said they should bring their new partners. But someone did—and it’s too late to pull the plug. Claire brings her new boyfriend, Patrick (never Pat), a seemingly sensible, eligible from a distance Ironman in Waiting. Matt brings the new love of his life, Alex, funny, smart, and extremely patient. Scarlett, who is seven, brings her imaginary friend Posey. He’s a giant rabbit. Together the five (or six?) of them grit their teeth over Forced Fun Activities, drink a little too much after Scarlett’s bedtime, overshare classified secrets about their pasts...and before you know it, their holiday is a powder keg that ends where this novel begins—with a tearful, frightened call to the police. What happened? They said they’d all be adults about this...

Opening Lines:  Matt had known about the trip for months before he dropped it into conversation.
       Matt didn’t deliberately keep things from Alex; he just dealt with complicated thoughts like he dealt with his post.
       When letters landed in the hallways, Matt stepped over them or, when they could no longer be ignored, crammed them into any nook he could find.

Blurbworthiness:  “Such a breath of fresh air! Witty, intensely human, and (dare I say it) relatable...This novel is the perfect comedy of errors.”  (Katie Khan, author of Hold Back the Stars)

The Elephant in the Room
by Tommy Tomlinson
(Simon & Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  When he was almost fifty years old, Tommy Tomlinson weighed an astonishing—and dangerous—460 pounds, at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, unable to climb a flight of stairs without having to catch his breath, or travel on an airplane without buying two seats. Raised in a family that loved food, he had been aware of the problem for years, seeing doctors and trying diets from the time he was a preteen. But nothing worked, and every time he tried to make a change, it didn’t go the way he planned—in fact, he wasn’t sure that he really wanted to change. He was only one of millions of Americans struggling with weight, body image, and a relationship with food that puts them at major risk. Intimate and insightful, The Elephant in the Room is Tomlinson’s chronicle of meeting those people, taking the first steps towards health, and trying to understand how, as a nation, we got to this point. From buying a FitBit and setting an exercise goal to contemplating the Heart Attack Grill, America’s “capital of food porn,” and modifying his own diet, Tomlinson brings us along on an unforgettable journey of self-discovery that is a candid and sometimes brutal look at the everyday experience of being constantly aware of your size. Over the course of the book, he confronts these issues head on and chronicles the practical steps he has to take—big and small—to lose weight by the end.

Opening Lines:   I have this dream. We’re on a road trip, out in this house in the country, and I’m trying to talk to my wife. But this hog gets in the house. It stinks and it’s slick to the touch and I can’t keep it off me. I push it away but it keeps plowing back and I see tusks. I finally shove it out the door. Now I’m in bed. Here comes the hog again. I can barely stave it off with my hands. It’s all over me. I get to my feet and kick it and ram it with my shoulder and we tumble out into the yard. My mouth is coated with hog-slime, and I reach in and scrape it off my tongue. I’m half-dressed, stinking, miserable. Suddenly we’re back in a room and I can sense I’m being watched. Three or four official-looking people are lined up at a table, like judges on a panel. One of them says, “Here’s what you have to do.”
     I wake up knowing two things.
     One, I have to kill the hog.
     Two, the hog is a part of me.

     I weigh 460 pounds.
     Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Elephant in the Room is more than a memoir of an ever-supersizing America. It’s a love story. It’s also a whipsmart history of working-class America, where the fast-food line is long and a weary mother’s love is shown in third helpings of cornbread and butter beans. Tommy Tomlinson’s singular voice—of journalist, Southerner, son, and of a husband who knows how lucky he is—is at turns punchy and poetic, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud, and full of language so authentically fresh it needs no sell-by date.”  (Beth Macy, author of Dopesick)

The Promise of Elsewhere
by Brad Leithauser

Jacket Copy:  Louie Hake is forty-three and teaches architectural history at a third-rate college in Michigan. His second marriage is collapsing, and he's facing a potentially disastrous medical diagnosis. In an attempt to fend off what has become a soul-crushing existential crisis, he decides to treat himself to a tour of the world's most breathtaking architectural sites. Perhaps not surprisingly, Louie gets waylaid on his very first stop in Rome—ludicrously, spectacularly so—and fails to reach most of his other destinations. He embarks on a doomed romance with a jilted bride celebrating her ruined marriage plans alone in London. And in the Arctic he finds that turf houses and aluminum sheds don't amount to much of an architectural tradition. But it turns out that there's another sort of architecture there: icebergs the size of cathedrals, bobbing beside a strange and wondrous landscape. It soon becomes clear that Louie's grand journey is less about where his wanderings have taken him and more about where his past encounters with romance have not. Whether pursuing his first wife, or his estranged current wife, or the older woman he kissed just once a quarter-century ago, Louie reveals himself to be endearing, deeply touching, wonderfully ridiculous . . . and destined to find love in all the wrong places.

Opening Lines:  If at last they are to come down to us—the Extraterrestrials—what better time than dusk, what better place than the American Midwest? It’s midsummer and a small boy sits beside his father on their sagging back porch. The boy’s name is Louie Hake and the father’s name is Louie Hake as well, and so prickling-potent is the boy’s sensation of kinship while the two of them hunch in the neighborhood twilight, it’s like some internal scent lodged within the very bones of his head. Both wear khaki shorts. Both have blue-gray eyes.

Winter Loon
by Susan Bernhard
(Little A)

Jacket Copy:  Abandoned by his father after his mother drowns in a frozen Minnesota lake, fifteen-year-old Wes Ballot is stranded with coldhearted grandparents and holed up in his mother’s old bedroom, surrounded by her remnants and memories. As the wait for his father stretches unforgivably into months, a local girl, whose own mother died a brutal death, captures his heart and imagination, giving Wes fresh air to breathe in the suffocating small town. When buried truths come to light in the spring thaw, wounds are exposed and violence erupts, forcing Wes to embark on a search for his missing father, the truth about his mother, and a future he must claim for himself—a quest that begins back at that frozen lake. A powerful, page-turning coming-of-age story, Winter Loon captures the resilience of a boy determined to become a worthy man by confronting family demons, clawing his way out of the darkness, and forging a life from the shambles of a broken past.

Opening Lines:  A hawk banked in the gray daybreak, head hunched, eyes darting beneath a cross of wings. Nothing scampered or skittered along the ice, nothing meaty or gamey worth a closer look, nothing with any fight left. All that hawk could have seen was me as I was that morning, a boy only fifteen years old curled up tight as a fiddlehead, ear to the ice, alone on a frozen lake surrounded by remote miles of woods and farmland, a handful of houses sagging in the dark.

Blurbworthiness:  “Winter Loon is a brutal, beautiful coming-of-age story in which a young man who loses everything must return to the landscape of that loss to discover what it all means. Susan Bernhard is a writer of incredible grace and power who employs weather and the natural world to plumb the icy depths of her characters’ souls for the warmth of hope, healing, and heart.”  (Wiley Cash, author of The Last Ballad)

Buddhism for Western Children
by Kirstin Allio
(University of Iowa Press)

Jacket Copy:  Set on the coast of Maine and in the high desert of New Mexico in the late 1970s through the early 80s, Buddhism for Western Children is a universal and timeless story of a boy who must escape subjugation, tell his story, and reclaim his soul. In search of community and transcendence, ten-year-old Daniel’s family is swept into the thrall of a potent and manipulative guru. To his followers, Avadhoot Master King Ivanovich is a living god, a charismatic leader who may reveal enlightenment as he mesmerizes, and alchemizes, Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Daniel’s family plunges into a world with different rules and rhythms—and with no apparent exit. They join other devotees in shunning the outside world, and fall under the absolutist authority of the guru and his lieutenants. Daniel bears witness to the relentless competition for the guru’s favor, even as he begins to recognize the perversion of his spirituality. Soon, Daniel himself is chosen to play a role. As tensions simmer and roil, darkness intrudes. Devotees overstep, placing even the children in jeopardy. Daniel struggles with conflicting desires to resist and to belong, until finally he must decide who to save and who to abandon. With spiraling, spellbinding language, Allio reveals a cast of vivid, often darkly funny characters, and propels us toward a shocking climax where Daniel’s story cracks open like a kaleidoscope, revealing the costs of submitting to a tyrant and the shimmering resilience of the human spirit.

Opening Lines:  Daniel’s parents listened to the Guru on cassette tape all the way down to Maine from Halifax.
       Canyon stripes of browns and grays whipped by like banners out the window. As they got farther south there was yellow-green in the blur of bushes at the bottom.
       His dad, Ray, set a plastic milk jug of drinking water on the floor of the back seat, and it was Daniel’s job to pass it up when Ray got thirsty.

Blurbworthiness:  “One piece of traditional writer’s advice is ‘Give the devil all the best lines’; Kirstin Allio has instead elected to give him the entire book, leaving the reader and her dear feral child of a protagonist, Daniel/Jubal, to fight their way free together through nests of dazzling, seductive, off-kilter language. The result is a superb exploration of the emotional condition of guru-drunkenness.”  (Jonathan Lethem, author of The Feral Detective)

The Altruists
by Andrew Ridker

Jacket Copy:  Arthur Alter is in trouble. A middling professor at a Midwestern college, he can’t afford his mortgage, he’s exasperated his much-younger girlfriend, and his kids won’t speak to him. And then there’s the money—the small fortune his late wife Francine kept secret, which she bequeathed directly to his children. Those children are Ethan, an anxious recluse living off his mother’s money on a choice plot of Brooklyn real estate; and Maggie, a would-be do-gooder trying to fashion herself a noble life of self-imposed poverty. On the verge of losing the family home, Arthur invites his children back to St. Louis under the guise of a reconciliation. But in doing so, he unwittingly unleashes a Pandora’s box of age-old resentments and long-buried memories—memories that orbit Francine, the matriarch whose life may hold the key to keeping them together. Spanning New York, Paris, Boston, St. Louis, and a small desert outpost in Zimbabwe, The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, with shades of Philip Roth and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a “good person.”

Opening Lines:  The Alter family was beset by fire. All autumn there were flare-ups, happenings, the kind of uncoordinated auguries that look ominous only in retrospect. In September, Ethan singed his thumb trying to light a cigarette. Three days later, a faulty burner caused the range in the kitchen to malfunction; the igniter made an anxious sound, a string of desperate ticks, before sparking a flame that caught Francine’s cuff. And at Arthur’s fiftieth birthday, a modest gathering on the back lawn of the house, a trick candle fell from the carrot cake and set a few dead leaves alight, which Maggie stomped out with her foot.

Blurbworthiness:  “Andrew Ridker has a lot to say about the way we live now. The result is one of those super-brilliant, super-funny novels one enjoys in the manner of a squirrel with an especially delicious acorn. I found myself trying to get out of every activity and responsibility just to come back to this novel.”  (Gary Shteyngart, author of Lake Success)

A Philosophy of Ruin
by Nicholas Mancusi
(Hanover Square Press)

Jacket Copy:  A young philosophy professor finds himself in the middle of a drug-running operation after his personal life derails in this taut, white-knuckle debut for fans of Breaking Bad. Oscar Boatwright, a disenchanted philosophy professor, receives terrible news. His mother, on her way home from Hawaii with Oscar’s father, has died midflight, her body cooling for hours until the plane can land. Deeply grieving, Oscar feels his life slipping out of his control. A seemingly innocuous one-night stand with a woman named Dawn becomes volatile when, on the first day of classes, he realizes she is his student, and later learns that she is a fledgling campus drug lord. To make matters worse, his family is in debt, having lost their modest savings to a self-help guru who had indoctrinated Oscar’s mother by preying on her depression. Desperate to help his family, Oscar breaks with his academic personality—he agrees to help Dawn with a drug run. A Philosophy of Ruin rumbles with brooding nihilism, then it cracks like a whip, hurtling Oscar and Dawn toward a terrifying threat on the road. Can Oscar halt the acceleration of chaos? Or was his fate never in his control? Taut, ferocious and blazingly intelligent, A Philosophy of Ruin is a heart-pounding thrill ride into the darkest corners of human geography, and a philosophical reckoning with the forces that determine our destiny.

Opening Lines:  Oscar Boatwright’s mother had died in her seat during a flight from Hawaii to California, and his father had been made to sit for three hours in the same aircraft as her cooling body. This information had been relayed to Oscar via telephone by an airline representative who spoke in a measured tone that simultaneously conveyed measured sympathy and complete legal indemnity. The plane was still in the air.

Blurbworthiness:  “An unforgettable debut. Mancusi is a writer to watch.”  (Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel)

The Other Americans
by Laila Lalami
(Pantheon Books)

Jacket Copy:  Late one spring night, Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant in California, is walking across a darkened intersection when he is killed by a speeding car. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efrain, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, a former classmate of Nora’s and a veteran of the Iraq war; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself. As the characters tell their stories, the invisible connections that tie them together—even while they remain deeply divided by race, religion, or class—are slowly revealed. When the mystery of what happened to Driss Guerraoui unfolds, a family’s secrets are exposed, a town’s hypocrisies are faced, and love, in its messy and unpredictable forms, is born.

Opening Lines:  My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland. Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo

Blurbworthiness:  “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.”  (J. M. Coetzee, author of Disgrace)

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