Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Front Porch Books: November 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.

Veterans Crisis Hotline
by Jon Chopan
(University of Massachusetts Press)

Jacket Copy:  The twelve stories of Veterans Crisis Hotline offer a meditation on the relationship between war and righteousness and consider the impossible distance between who men are and who they want to be. A veteran working at the hotline listens to the stories men tell when they need someone to hear their voices, when they need to access a language for their pain. Two men search for the head of a decapitated Iraqi civilian so that they might absolve themselves of the atrocities of war, a Marine hunts for the man who raped his girlfriend, and a teenage son replaces his dead father on the battlefield. With a quick wit and offbeat humor, Jon Chopan takes us from the banks of the Euphrates to the bars and VFW halls of the Rust Belt, providing insight into the Iraq War and its enduring impact on those who volunteered to fight in it.

Opening Lines:  Sometimes, when they call the hotline, they want to talk to another vet. They ask for us specifically. They have this perception that only those who’ve seen war can understand the suffering born of it. As far as I can tell, this is a myth. It is, to my mind, like asking the criminally insane to cure one another.

Blurbworthiness:  “These twelve stories, each narrated by a different veteran of the Iraq war, divide evenly between the often near-hallucinatory events of that war and the accounts of life back home in its aftermath. Sometimes sad, sometimes horrifying, often hilarious―occasionally all three simultaneously―each story bears down on moments of such searing honesty that it lingers in the reader’s memory as urgently as it lives on the page. This is an unsparing, vital, and completely engaging work of art.”  (Sue Miller, author of The Arsonist)

The Nocilla Trilogy
by Agustin Fernandez Mallo
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  A landmark in contemporary Spanish literature, Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla TrilogyNocilla Dream, Nocilla Lab, and Nocilla Experience—presents multiple narratives of people and places that reflect America and the world in the digital age of the twenty-first century. In the middle of the Nevada desert stands a solitary poplar tree covered in hundreds of pairs of shoes. Farther along Route 50, a lonely prostitute falls in love with a collector of found photographs. In Las Vegas, an Argentine man builds a peculiar monument to Jorge Luis Borges. On the run from the authorities, Kenny takes up permanent residence in the legal non-place of Singapore International Airport, while the novelists Enrique Vila-Matas and Agustín Fernández Mallo encounter each other on an oil rig. These are just a few of the narrative strands that make up Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy. Greeted as a landmark in contemporary Spanish literature, the entire trilogy has not been available in English until now.

Opening Lines:  Digital computers are superb number crunchers. Ask them to predict a rocket’s trajectory or calculate the financial figures for a large multinational corporation, and they can churn out the answers in seconds. Bet seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading handwriting, have been devilishly tricky to program. Perhaps the networks of neurons that make up the brain have a natural facility for such tasks that standard computers lack. Scientists have thus been investigating computers modelled more closely on the human brain.

Blurbworthiness:  “An encyclopedia, a survey, a deranged anthropology: Nocilla Dream is just the coldhearted poetics that might see America for what it really is. There is something deeply strange and finally unknowable about this book, in the very best way.”  (Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet)

The Gulf
by Belle Boggs
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Marianne is in a slump: barely able to support herself by teaching, not making progress on her poetry, about to lose her Brooklyn apartment. When her novelist ex-fiancé, Eric, and his venture capitalist brother, Mark, offer her a job directing a low-residency school for Christian writers at a motel they’ve inherited on Florida’s Gulf Coast, she can’t come up with a reason to say no. The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch is born, and liberal, atheist Marianne is soon knee-deep in applications from writers whose political and religious beliefs she has always opposed but whose money she’s glad to take. Janine is a schoolteacher whose heartfelt poems explore the final days of Terri Schiavo’s life. Davonte is a former R&B superstar who hopes to reboot his career with a bestselling tale of excess and redemption. Lorraine and Tom, eccentric writers in need of paying jobs, join the Ranch as instructors. Mark finds an investor in God’s Word God’s World, a business that develops for-profit schools for the Christian market, but the conditions that come along with their support become increasingly problematic, especially as Marianne grows closer to the students. As unsavory allegations mount, a hurricane bears down on the Ranch, and Marianne is faced with the consequences of her decisions. With sharp humor and deep empathy, The Gulf is a memorable debut novel in which Belle Boggs plumbs the troubled waters dividing America.

Opening Lines:  The applications arrived, first in a trickle that Marianne could have read in an afternoon, then all at once, in alarming, mailbox-stuffing sheaves. She spent all day avoiding them, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico instead, or reading the stubby, water-damaged Judith Krantz and Stephen King novels she borrowed from the paneled-wood study. The applications covered every horizontal surface in her room: the oak-veneer bureau, the top of the boxy, old-fashioned television, the round Formica dinette table. They splayed across the second double bed’s glossy navy-and-orange bedspread, and blocked the heating and air vents that jutted out below the heavy floral curtains.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Gulf is a hilarious and healing novel for these polarized times. Reading it consumed my nights, and gave me hope.”  (Tania James, author of The Tusk That Did the Damage)

Look How Happy I’m Making You
by Polly Rosenwaike

Jacket Copy:  The women in Polly Rosenwaike’s Look How Happy I’m Making You want to be mothers, or aren’t sure they want to be mothers, or―having recently given birth―are overwhelmed by what they’ve wrought. Sharp and unsettling, wry and moving in its portrayal of love, friendship, and family, this collection expands the conversation about some of women’s most intimate experiences. One woman struggling with infertility deals with the news that her sister is pregnant. Another woman nervous about her biological clock “forgets” to take her birth control and confronts the reality of becoming a single parent. A new mother with postpartum depression finds comfort with a much younger man. A psychologist who studies infant laughter faces her best friend’s tragedy. Together, these twelve empathetic stories reveal pregnancy and new motherhood in all its anxiety and absurdity, darkness and wonder.

Opening Lines:  We are all in love with the baby. We, meaning the #4 bus community, weekdays at the seven o’clock hour, on our way to work and school and early morning errands. The baby wears a royal blue puffy jacket and a striped knit hat. He tracks our shopworn, overly articulated faces. Despite how we caper―tilting and bouncing our heads, scrunching our lips and wriggling our noses, working our hands into frantic waves―the baby gazes at us with his grave baby face. He is chary with his baby gift of a grin, a palm in the air, a mimic, obliging just often enough to lend hope to our campaigns.

Blurbworthiness:  “The world wants one story: pregnant glow, new mother tired but ever-grateful, ever-in-love. Without shying away from any of the transcendent and true beauty, Look How Happy I’m Making You shows us the many shadowed layers of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth and motherhood with an insistent bravery and searing honesty.” (Ramona Ausubel, author of Awayland)

The Patch
by John McPhee
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  The Patch is the seventh collection of essays by the nonfiction master, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Sporting Scene,” consists of pieces on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse―from fly casting for chain pickerel in fall in New Hampshire to walking the linksland of St. Andrews at an Open Championship. Part 2, called “An Album Quilt,” is a montage of fragments of varying length from pieces done across the years that have never appeared in book form―occasional pieces, memorial pieces, reflections, reminiscences, and short items in various magazines including The New Yorker. They range from a visit to the Hershey chocolate factory to encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, Joan Baez, and Mount Denali. Emphatically, the author’s purpose was not merely to preserve things but to choose passages that might entertain contemporary readers. Starting with 250,000 words, he gradually threw out 75 percent of them, and randomly assembled the remaining fragments into “an album quilt.” Among other things, The Patch is a covert memoir.

Opening Lines:  You move your canoe through open water a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads. You cast just shy of the edge of the pads—inches off the edge of the pads. A chain pickerel is a lone ambush hunter. Its body resembles a barracuda’s and has evolved to similar purpose. Territorial, concealed in the vegetation, it hovers; and not much but its pectoral fins are in motion. Endlessly patient, it waits for prey to come by—frogs, crayfish, newts, turtles, and smaller fish, including its own young. Long, tubular, with its pelvic fins set far back like the wings of some jets, it can accelerate like a bullet.

Blurbworthiness:  “McPhee delights in cracking open subjects, both ordinary and esoteric, and making them accessible to the layperson in works that testify to his virtuosity as one of the greatest living American essayists.” (Publishers Weekly)

Floyd Harbor
by Joel Mowdy

Jacket Copy:  The twelve linked stories in Joel Mowdy’s first book take place in and around Mastic Beach, a community on New York’s Long Island that’s close to the wealthy Hamptons but long afflicted by widespread poverty. Mostly in their teens and early twenties, the characters struggle to become independent in various ways, ranging from taking typical low-paying jobs—hotel laundry, janitorial, restaurant, and landscaping work—to highly ingenious schemes, to exchanging sexual favors for a place to stay. A few make it to local community colleges; others end up in rehab or juvenile detention centers. However loving, their parents can offer little help. Those who are Vietnam veterans may suffer from PTSD; others from the addictions that often come with stressful lives. Neighborhoods of small bungalows—formerly vacation homes—with dilapidated boats in the driveways hint at the waterways that open up close by. The beauty of the ocean beach offers further consolation, as does the often high-spirited temperament of youth. Joel Mowdy brings to his affecting collection both personal experience and a gift for discerning and lingering on the essential moments in his characters’ stories. He intimately and vividly illuminates American lives that too seldom see the light.

Opening Lines:  The bungalows on Neighborhood Road, Mastic Beach, had been summer homes, Fire Island a short drive from there via the Smith Point Bridge. Now bicycles built from parts huddled under lock and chain along the concrete stoop of Paul’s Bicycle & Shoe Repair. Their wheels caught clumps of dead leaves in the wind. Baskets of doll heads collected dust among spools of thread and balls of yarn in the neighboring unmarked craft stores, where bundles of cotton had been stacked like sandbags in the window display.

Blurbworthiness:  “Of course there’s no harbor in Floyd Harbor, a town untouched by Long Island’s affluence, and these intricately linked stories’ protagonists are dishwashers and salad boys and line cooks, and in rehab and awaiting court appearances; they’re kids from broken homes who left high school to start broken homes. They feel like they’ve never been anywhere, and striving for a little of the comfortable life they’ve glimpsed, they’re the kind of small-time schemers who do most of their thinking in the woods behind the Handy Pantry. But they’ve never given up on hope, and especially love, since it might stop them from rolling blindly through the rest of their lives, and they’re determined to hold out for some acknowledgment of their presence. Joel Mowdy writes beautifully about one part of America left behind in the great heartless scramble that constitutes our society.”  (Jim Shepard, author of The World to Come)

Funny Man
by Patrick McGilligan

Jacket Copy:  Funny Man is a deeply textured and compelling biography of comedy giant Mel Brooks, covering his rags-to-riches life and triumphant career in television, films, and theater, from Patrick McGilligan, the acclaimed author of Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy award–winner Mel Brooks was behind (and sometimes in front the camera too) of some of the most influential comedy hits of our time, including The 2,000 Year Old Man, Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. But before this actor, writer, director, comedian, and composer entertained the world, his first audience was his family. The fourth and last child of Max and Kitty Kaminsky, Mel Brooks was born on his family’s kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, and was not quite three-years-old when his father died of tuberculosis. Growing up in a household too poor to own a radio, Mel was short and homely, a mischievous child whose birth role was to make the family laugh. Beyond boyhood, after transforming himself into Mel Brooks, the laughs that came easily inside the Kaminsky family proved more elusive. His lifelong crusade to transform himself into a brand name of popular humor is at the center of master biographer Patrick McGilligan’s Funny Man. In this exhaustively researched and wonderfully novelistic look at Brooks’ personal and professional life, McGilligan lays bare the strengths and drawbacks that shaped Brooks’ psychology, his willpower, his persona, and his comedy. McGilligan insightfully navigates the epic ride that has been the famous funnyman’s life story, from Brooks’ childhood in Williamsburg tenements and breakthrough in early television—working alongside Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner—to Hollywood and Broadway peaks (and valleys). His book offers a meditation on the Jewish immigrant culture that influenced Brooks, snapshots of the golden age of comedy, behind the scenes revelations about the celebrated shows and films, and a telling look at the four-decade romantic partnership with actress Anne Bancroft that superseded Brooks’ troubled first marriage. Engrossing, nuanced and ultimately poignant, Funny Man delivers a great man’s unforgettable life story and an anatomy of the American dream of success.

Opening Lines:  What made Melvin, the youngest of the Kaminsky kids, so darn funny? Later people said—he himself said—it was Brooklyn, the Depression, being Jewish and growing up in the shadow of Hitler. But there was also something about birth order and the family genes that contributed to “the strange amalgam, the marvelous pastiche that is me.”
       Before there was Mel Brooks there were the Kaminskys. The Kaminsky family formed their own little world in Brooklyn, the mother and four brothers living in humble circumstances, the brothers sharing the same bed and crawling over one another like a litter of adorable puppies in a cardboard box, as Brooks often said in interviews.

The Behavior of Love
by Virginia Reeves

Jacket Copy:  Doctor Ed Malinowski believes he has realized most of his dreams. A passionate, ambitious behavioral psychiatrist, he is now the superintendent of a mental institution and finally turning the previously crumbling hospital around. He also has a home he can be proud of, and a fiercely independent, artistic wife Laura, whom he hopes will soon be pregnant. But into this perfect vision of his life comes Penelope, a beautiful, young epileptic who should never have been placed in his institution and whose only chance at getting out is Ed. She is intelligent, charming, and slowly falling in love with her charismatic, compassionate doctor. As their relationship grows more complicated, and Laura stubbornly starts working at his hospital, Ed must weigh his professional responsibilities against his personal ones, and find a way to save both his job and his family. A love triangle set in one of the most chaotic, combustible settings imaginable, The Behavior of Love is wise, riveting, and deeply resonant.

Opening Lines:  Ed’s work keeps him late. Yesterday’s pile of incomplete tasks awaits him in his office, and today’s begins the moment he steps from his car. He never knows what the first thing will be, but it always meets him here in the dirt parking lot. Yesterday, it was Margaret wandering toward the Boulder River, whose waters have already drowned one patient. The day before, it was a six-year-old named Devin eating gravel. Today, it’s a young man bursting out the front doors of Griffin Hall, a white plastic chair over his head, a denim-clad orderly close behind. The orderly’s rubber club is raised. The boy drops to the ground and curls himself into a ball. The chair topples down the stairs and scatters a group of patients.

Recent Studies Indicate
by Sarah Bird
(University of Texas Press)

Jacket Copy:  When Sarah Bird arrived in Austin in 1973 in pursuit of a boyfriend who was “hotter than lava,” she found an abundance of inspiration for storytelling (her sweetheart left her for Scientology, but she got to taste a morsel of Lynda Bird Johnson’s poorly preserved wedding cake as a temp worker at the LBJ Library). Sarah Bird went on to write ten acclaimed novels and contribute hundreds of articles to publications coast to coast, developing a signature voice that combines laser-sharp insight with irreverent, wickedly funny prose in the tradition of Molly Ivins and Nora Ephron. Now collecting forty of Bird’s best nonfiction pieces, from publications that range from Texas Monthly to the New York Times and others, Recent Studies Indicate presents some of Bird’s earliest work, including a prescient 1976 profile of a transgender woman, along with recent calls to political action, such as her 2017 speech at a benefit for Annie’s List. Whether Bird is hanging out with socialites and sanitation workers or paying homage to her army-nurse mom, her collection brings a poignant perspective to the experience of being a woman, a feminist, a mother, and a Texan—and a writer with countless, spectacular true tales to tell us.

(On a personal and purely egotistical note, I’m especially interested in reading this essay collection because I get a little cameo at one point when Sarah relates the story of the time she passed out just before going on stage to interview Ben Fountain and me at the Texas Book Festival—a scary and embarrassing episode that she somehow turns into high wit.)

Opening Lines:  As a pathologically shy child driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world and the fascinating human creatures who inhabit it, I was simultaneously compelled by two deeply opposing forces: (a) I desperately desired to never have to speak to anyone outside of my immediate family and (b) I yearned to quiz every stranger who crossed my path.
       Only one profession had the power to grant both of these contradictory wishes. Writing.

Blurbworthiness:  “What sets Sarah Bird apart from other writers is the pure joy she gets out of her characters. And she laughs at herself—a lot. You can’t help but grin when you read her, no matter the topic.” (Skip Hollandsworth, author of The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer)

by Maria Popova

Jacket Copy:  Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries—beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists—mostly women, mostly queer—whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson. Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman—and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

Opening Lines:  All of it—the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality—it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

No comments:

Post a Comment