Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Front Porch Books: January 2019 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.

I Miss You When I Blink
by Mary Laura Philpott
(Atria Books)

Jacket Copy: Mary Laura Philpott thought she’d cracked the code: Always be right, and you’ll always be happy. But once she’d completed her life’s to-do list (job, spouse, house, babies—check!), she found that instead of feeling content and successful, she felt anxious. Lost. Stuck in a daily grind of overflowing calendars, grueling small talk, and sprawling traffic. She’d done everything “right,” but she felt all wrong. What’s the worse failure, she wondered: smiling and staying the course, or blowing it all up and running away? And are those the only options? In this memoir-in-essays full of spot-on observations about home, work, and creative life, Philpott takes on the conflicting pressures of modern adulthood with wit and heart. She offers up her own stories to show that identity crises don’t happen just once or only at midlife; reassures us that small, recurring personal re-inventions are both normal and necessary; and advises that if you’re going to faint, you should get low to the ground first. Most of all, Philpott shows that when you stop feeling satisfied with your life, you don’t have to burn it all down and set off on a transcontinental hike (unless you want to, of course). You can call upon your many selves to figure out who you are, who you’re not, and where you belong. Who among us isn’t trying to do that? Like a pep talk from a sister, I Miss You When I Blink is the funny, poignant, and deeply affecting book you’ll want to share with all your friends, as you learn what Philpott has figured out along the way: that multiple things can be true of us at once—and that sometimes doing things wrong is the way to do life right.

Opening Lines: It’s the perfect sentence, but I didn’t write it. My six-year-old did.
       I was sitting at the desk in my home office, on a copywriting deadline for a client in the luggage industry, wrestling with a paragraph about suitcases. I leaned forward, as if putting my face closer to the computer could help the words on the screen make garment bags sound exciting. My little boy lay on his belly on the rug, “working” to pass the time until our promised walk to the park. He murmured to himself as he scribbled with a yellow pencil stub on one of my notepads.
       “...and I miss you when I blink...” he said.
       It stopped me mid-thought. “Say that again?”
       “I miss you when I blink,” he answered and looked up, pleased to have caught my attention. He turned back to his notepad, chattering on with his rhyme (I miss you in the sink...I miss you in a skating rink...). When he ripped off the page and tossed it aside, I picked it up and pinned it to the bulletin board on my office wall.

Blurbworthiness:  “I Miss You When I Blink is a delightful, thought-provoking collection of essays, written with such spark and vulnerability that I was alternately laughing out loud and gasp-sighing at its poignancy. Mary Laura Philpott shows us her real, flawed self in these pages, sharing when she’s made mistakes, when she’s been less than charitable, or when she wasn’t sure who she was 'supposed' to be. It’s easy to connect with her honesty, and damn fun to laugh at her jokes. This book is totally irresistible!”  (Edan Lepucki, author of Woman No. 17)

by Mark Mayer

Jacket Copy:  Welcome to the sublime circus of Mark Mayer’s debut, Aerialists, a fiercely inventive collection of nine stories in which classic carnival characters become ordinary misfits seeking grandeur in a lonely world. Under the luminous tent of Mayer’s prose, we see P.T. Barnum’s caravan remade: A young misogynist finds a confidante in a cable-TV strongwoman. A realtor for the one percent invokes his inner murder clown. A skin-and-bones mathematician and his bearded wife plot revolution. A friendless peach farmer holds a funeral for a beloved elephant. And a model-train hobbyist prepares to throw his miniature world in the trash. The circus has always been a collection of American exaggerations-the bold, the beautiful, the freakish, the big. Aerialists finds these myths living in the everyday. Mayer’s deftly drawn characters illuminate these small-scale spectaculars, and their attempted acts of daring and feats of strength are rendered with humor, generosity, and uncommon grace.

Opening Lines:  A few weeks after my dad moved out, I played a trick on my mom. I asked to give her a hug, and after we held each other a minute, I stuck a sewing needle in the back of her neck. I had it taped between my fingers with invisible tape.

Blurbworthiness:  “Aerialists is a work of great imagination. These stories are always in motion, as characters reach for their better selves and touch them only briefly, in singular, exquisite moments rendered in astounding prose. Mark Mayer is wise and big-hearted, a magician of the American sentence. Each story is its own world, inhabited by characters who are painfully, wonderfully real.”  (Emily Ruskovich, author of Idaho)

Staff Picks
by George Singleton
(Louisiana State University Press)

Jacket Copy:  It’s Father’s Day 1972 and a young boy’s dad takes him to visit a string of unimpressive ex-girlfriends that could have been his mother; the unconventional detective work of a koan-speaking, Kung Fu–loving uncle solves a case of arson during a pancake breakfast; and a former geology professor, recovering from addiction, finds himself sharing a taxicab with specters from a Jim Crow–era lynching. Set in and around the fictional town of Steepleburg, South Carolina, the loosely tied stories in George Singleton’s Staff Picks place sympathetic, oddball characters in absurd, borderline surreal situations that slowly reveal the angst of southern history with humor and bite. In the tradition of Donald Barthelme, T. C. Boyle, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver, Singleton creates lingering, darkly comedic tales by drawing from those places where familiarity and alienation coexist. A remarkable and distinct effort from an acclaimed chronicler of the South, Staff Picks reaffirms Singleton’s gift for crafting short story collections that both deliver individual gems and shine as a whole.

Opening Lines:  According to the radio station’s rules, the contestants were permitted to place their hands anywhere on the RV they felt comfortable. Staff Puckett chose the Winnebago’s spare tire, which was sheathed in vinyl emblazoned with the image of Mount Rushmore. Staff had considered visiting the granite sculpture, off and on, for twenty years, and now she vowed to herself that soon she’d make her way northwest on mostly back roads to stare down those four faces, whose stony expressions didn’t look much different than her own.
       But first she had to win the RV. She’d been one of the nineteen nineteenth callers during WCRS’s nineteen-day “19th Nervous Breakdown” marathon. Now she and the other eighteen contestants were gathered in the parking lot of State Line RV World, near the border of Georgia and South Carolina. The rules were simple: This was a “hands on” contest. Contestants had to remain in contact with the RV. The last one standing got the keys.
       A man to Staff’s left stuck his hand on the taillight, and a woman with bleached hair reached up high onto the back window, which Staff thought to be a questionable move. The other sixteen contestants—including a doughy, balding man whose shirt blazed with advertising logos—chose the hood, windshield, door handles, random snatches of stripe.
       “Good morning,” the balding man said. While he waited in vain for Staff’s reply, he gave her what seemed to be a sincere smile, which led Staff to believe that he wouldn’t last long.

Blurbworthiness:  “George Singleton’s talent as a humorist is on full display in Staff Picks but don’t let your laughter distract you from the fact that he is also a sly, insightful witness to life in the American South and one of the most dexterous short story writers anywhere. He knows our hurts and fears, our desires and disappointments. He understands better than just about anybody that life can be sublime and heartbreaking and absurd all at once and he holds nothing back in his best collection yet.”  (Michael Knight, author of Eveningland)

Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land
by Julia Blackburn

Jacket Copy:  Shortly after her husband's death, Julia Blackburn became fascinated with Doggerland, the stretch of land that once connected Great Britain to Europe but is now subsumed by the North Sea. She was driven to explore the lives of the people who lived there--studying its fossil record, as well as human artifacts that have been discovered near the area. Now, she brings her reader along on her journey across Great Britain and parts of Continental Europe, introducing us to the paleontologists, archaeologists, fishermen, and fellow Doggerland enthusiasts she meets along the way. As Doggerland begins to come into focus, what emerges is a profound meditation on time, a sense of infinity as going backwards, and an intimation of the immensity of everything that has already passed through its time on earth and disappeared.

Opening Lines:  I am looking out across the North Sea on a calm day. The surface of the sea is like a covering of grey skin, breathing softly in and out.

Blurbworthiness:  “Species appear and vanish, cultures develop and are annihilated. It sounds depressing, but this is one of the only books I’ve ever read that has made me feel better about climate change. It’s not that we’re not doomed. . . But the end of us doesn’t mean the end of existence altogether. . . but if this book convinces me of anything, it’s that there will always be more life to come.”  (Olivia Laing, in The Guardian)

Earth to Charlie
by Justin Olson
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  A high school outcast spends his life hoping to be abducted by aliens in this funny, quirky novel about finding your footing in a world that sometimes feels like Mars. Convinced his mother has been abducted by aliens, Charlie Dickens spends his nights with an eye out for UFOs, hoping to join her. After all, she said the aliens would come back for him. Charlie will admit that he doesn’t have many reasons to stick around; he doesn’t get along well with his father, he’s constantly bullied at school and at work, and the only friend he has is his 600-pound neighbor Geoffrey, and Geoffrey’s three-legged dog, Tickles. Then Charlie meets popular, easy-going Seth, who shows him what real friendship is all about. For once, he finds himself looking around at the life he’s built, rather than looking up. But sooner than he expected, Charlie has to make a decision: should he stay or should he go?

Opening Lines:  My mind drifts from one thought to the next. My bed sheets are finally warm. I roll to one side, then to the other. After a bit of adjusting, I find myself on my back. My eyes shut.
       I wait restlessly for sleep to find me.
       The house is so deadened of people and activity that the air feels heavy and stagnant. If someone were to walk into my room right now, they’d think it was a tomb.
       And I, the body.

At Briarwood School for Girls
by Michael Knight
(Grove Atlantic)

Jacket Copy:  It’s 1994 and Lenore Littlefield is a junior at Briarwood School for Girls. She plays basketball. She hates her roommate. History is her favorite subject. She has told no one that she’s pregnant. Everything, in other words, is under control. Meanwhile, Disney has announced plans to build a new theme park just up the road, a “Technicolor simulacrum of American History” right in the middle of one of the most history-rich regions of the country. If successful, the development will forever alter the character of Prince William County, Virginia, and have unforeseeable consequences for the school. When the threat of the theme park begins to intrude on the lives of the faculty and students at Briarwood, secrets will be revealed and unexpected alliances will form. Lenore must decide who she can trust--will it be a middle-aged history teacher struggling to find purpose in his humdrum life? A lonely basketball coach tasked with directing the school play? A reclusive playwright still grappling with her own Briarwood legacy? Or a teenage ghost equally adept at communicating with the living via telephone or Ouija board? Following a cast of memorable characters as they reckon with questions about fate, history, and the possibility of happiness, about our responsibilities to each other and to ourselves, At Briarwood School for Girls is a stunning and inventive new work from a master storyteller.

Opening Lines:  All boarding schools are haunted. Not infrequently by suicides. So it was at Briarwood School for Girls.

Blurbworthiness:  “Like a package of sweets sent from home, At Briarwood School for Girls is replete with the familiar, beloved, humorous elements of a boarding school book--old trees and legacies, a headmistress, a ghost, and girls out of uniform--and surprise at what real life offers up. I read the book in an evening--so irresistible and satisfying was it, I kept turning the pages.” (Christine Schutt, author of Pure Hollywood)

Everything Inside
by Edwidge Danticat

Jacket Copy:  From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying comes a collection of vividly imagined stories about community, family, and love. Rich with hard-won wisdom and humanity, set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed country in the Caribbean and beyond, Everything Inside is at once wide in scope and intimate, as it explores the forces that pull us together, or drive us apart, sometimes in the same searing instant. In these eight powerful, emotionally absorbing stories, a romance unexpectedly sparks between two wounded friends; a marriage ends for what seem like noble reasons, but with irreparable consequences; a young woman holds on to an impossible dream even as she fights for her survival; two lovers reunite after unimaginable tragedy, both for their country and in their lives; a baby’s christening brings three generations of a family to a precarious dance between old and new; a man falls to his death in slow motion, reliving the defining moments of the life he is about to lose.

Opening Lines:  Elsie was with Gaspard, her live-in renal-failure patient, when her ex-husband called to inform her that his girlfriend, Olivia, had been kidnapped in Port-au-Prince.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About
Edited by Michele Filgate
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  In the bestselling tradition of The Bitch in the House, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is an anthology about the powerful and sometimes painful things that we can’t discuss with the person who is supposed to know us and love us the most. In the early 2000s, as an undergraduate, Michele Filgate started writing an essay about being abused by her stepfather. It took many years for her to realize what she was actually trying to write about: the fracture this caused in her relationship with her mother. When her essay, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” was published by Longreads in October of 2017, it went on to become one of the most popular Longreads exclusives of the year, and was shared on social media by Anne Lamott, Rebecca Solnit, Lidia Yuknavitch, and many other writers, some of whom had their own individual codes of silence to be broken. The outpouring of responses gave Filgate an idea, and the resulting anthology offers an intimate, therapeutic, and universally resonant look at our relationships with our mothers. As Filgate poignantly writes, “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them.”

Opening Lines:  Lacuna: an unfilled space or interval; a gap.
       Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them. To know what it was like to have one place where we belonged. Where we fit.
       My mother is hard to know. Or rather, I know her and don’t know her at the same time. I can imagine her long, grayish-brown hair that she refuses to chop off, the vodka and ice in her hand. But if I try to conjure her face, I’m met instead by her laugh, a fake laugh, the kind of laugh that is trying to prove something, a forced happiness.
       Several times a week, she posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. Achiote pork tacos with pickled red onions, strips of beef jerky just out of the smoker, slabs of steak that she serves with steamed vegetables. These are the meals of my childhood; sometimes ambitious and sometimes practical. But these meals, for me, call to mind my stepfather: the red of his face, the red of the blood pooled on the plate. He uses a dishtowel to wipe the sweat from his cheeks; his work boots are coated in sawdust. His words puncture me; tines of a fork stuck in a half-deflated balloon.

Blurbworthiness:  “These are the hardest stories in the world to tell, but they are told with absolute grace. You will devour these beautifully written--and very important--tales of honesty, pain, and resilience.” (Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love)

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