Thursday, October 10, 2019

Front Porch Books: October 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.

Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s
by Tiffany Midge
(University of Nebraska Press)

Jacket Copy:  Why is there no Native woman David Sedaris? Or Native Anne Lamott? Humor categories in publishing are packed with books by funny women and humorous sociocultural-political commentary—but no Native women. There are presumably more important concerns in Indian Country. More important than humor? Among the Diné/Navajo, a ceremony is held in honor of a baby’s first laugh. While the context is different, it nonetheless reminds us that laughter is precious, even sacred. Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s is a powerful and compelling collection of Tiffany Midge’s musings on life, politics, and identity as a Native woman in America. Artfully blending sly humor, social commentary, and meditations on love and loss, Midge weaves short, stand-alone musings into a memoir that stares down colonialism while chastising hipsters for abusing pumpkin spice. She explains why she does not like pussy hats, mercilessly dismantles pretendians, and confesses her own struggles with white-bread privilege. Midge goes on to ponder Standing Rock, feminism, and a tweeting president, all while exploring her own complex identity and the loss of her mother. Employing humor as an act of resistance, these slices of life and matchless takes on urban-Indigenous identity disrupt the colonial narrative and provide commentary on popular culture, media, feminism, and the complications of identity, race, and politics.

Opening Lines:  The day of my mother’s funeral service I separated myself from the rest of the grieving throng and hid out in the musician’s belfry like tortured Quasimodo, my grief too hideous to expose.

Blurbworthiness:   “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s drives a spear into the stereotype of Native American stoicism. It is perhaps the funniest nonfiction collection I have ever read. But it is much more than funny: it is moving, honest, and painful as well, and looks at the absurdities of modern America. Midge’s collection is so good it could raise Iron Eyes Cody from the grave and make him laugh till he cries.”  (David Treuer, author of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee)

The Gnome Stories
by Ander Monson
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  The Gnome Stories focuses on characters who are loners in the truest sense; who are in the process of recovering from mental, physical, or emotional trauma; and who find solace―or at least a sense of purpose―in peculiar jobs and pursuits. A man whose wife has left him is robbed, so he decides to start doing his own breaking and entering, into his neighbors’ homes. When another man’s girlfriend is cryogenically frozen by her family after a car accident, he becomes a maintenance worker at the cryogenic facility, eavesdropping on visitors as they whisper secrets to their frozen loved ones. A woman serves as an assistant to the Starvationist, whose methods to help clients lose large amounts of weight are unorthodox, sadistic―and utterly failproof. Another woman and her robot assistant have been hired to tinker with the troubling memories inside a celebrity’s brain. With The Gnome Stories, Ander Monson presents eleven unforgettable stories about oddly American situations: as surreal as an urban legend and at the same time perfectly mundane.

Opening Lines:  I came upon him as he was rustling through the DVDs, throwing them into a sack in what appeared to be a self-congratulatory way, laughing to himself, probably at the selection, which was my wife’s, and I was doubly enraged. I don’t know why I thought of it when action was required, but I wondered where people got sacks like this, as in could you buy them at the supermarket, or were these specialized burglary tools endorsed by criminals? I was standing on the steps coming down from the spacious landing to the main floor, and I wondered also how he got through the alarm system I had installed after my wife saw too many of those threatening commercials on television and I felt the pressure of my husbandness coming down on me, and I called and got jacked by the small print but had it installed nevertheless, which gesture did not stop my wife from leaving.
       I found out after she left that you can set the system, which is admittedly pretty glorious, to keep someone from leaving the house, too, though I did not read the entire instruction manual at the time and it would only seem important to me later, like most realizations I have had in my life.
       So I was watching and he must have heard me coming down or something because he turned to me, and it must have been hard to see me in the dark because he began to walk toward me. That’s why I shot him. He advanced on me. He was an imminent threat. This is what the police told me later as I sobbed, more for the loss of my marriage than any kind of ruined innocence.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ander Monson has always been fascinated by...human creatures who unexpectedly shine their light on the rest of us. [He] is an American Kafka...The Gnome Stories will stay in your memory long after you have finished the book.”  (Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love)

This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story
by Jackie Shannon Hollis
(Forest Avenue Press)

Jacket Copy:  Knowing where your scars come from doesn’t make them go away. When Jackie Shannon Hollis marries Bill, a man who does not want children, she joyfully commits to a childless life. But soon after the wedding, she returns to the family ranch in rural Oregon and holds her newborn niece. Jackie falls deep into baby love and longing and begins to question her decision. As she navigates the overlapping roles of wife, daughter, aunt, sister, survivor, counselor, and friend, she explores what it really means to choose a different path. This Particular Happiness delves into the messy and beautiful territory of what we keep and what we abandon to make the space for love.

Opening Lines:  The child in my arms breathed the fast breath of baby sleep. Her eyes moved beneath her lids and her mouth pouted and relaxed, pouted and relaxed. I smoothed my hand over her thick black hair, smelled the smell of her, milk and powder and Desitin. Her small weight and the heat of her against my chest were perfect comforts that stilled me.

Blurbworthiness:  “This Particular Happiness, is a deeply moving story about Jackie Shannon Hollis’s decades-long yearning to have a child―and her complicated decision not to. But it’s also about so much more than that. With honesty, generosity, precision and insight, Hollis writes the story of her life―from her girlhood in rural Oregon, where she both broke and followed the rules, to her hard-earned self-acceptance at middle age. This Particular Happiness is a gloriously wise memoir about one woman’s unexpected path to becoming.”  (Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild)

A Sportsman’s Notebook
by Ivan Turgenev

Jacket Copy:  A Sportsman’s Notebook, Ivan Turgenev’s first literary masterpiece, is a sweeping portrayal of the magnificent nineteenth–century Russian countryside and the harsh lives of those who inhabited it. In a powerful and gripping series of sketches, a hunter wanders through the vast landscape of steppe and forest in search of game, encountering a varied cast of peasants, landlords, bailiffs, overseers, horse traders, and merchants. He witnesses both feudal tyranny and the submission of the tyrannized, against a backdrop of the sublime and pitiless terrain of rural Russia. These exquisitely rendered stories, now with a stirring introduction from Daniyal Mueenuddin, were not only universally popular with the reading public but, through the influence they exerted on important members of the Tsarist bureaucracy, contributed to the major political event of mid–nineteenth–century Russia: the Great Emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Rarely has a book that offers such undiluted literary pleasure also been so strong a force for significant social change, one that continues to speak to readers centuries later.

Opening Lines:  Anyone who has crossed from the district of Bolkhov into that of Zhizdra will probably have been struck by the sharp difference between the natives of the provinces of Orel and Kaluga. The peasant of Orel is short, stooping, sullen; he looks at you from under his brows, lives in flimsy huts of poplar wood, does labour-duty for his master; never goes in for trade; eats badly, wears plaited shoes. In Kaluga the peasant pays rent and lives in spacious cabins of pinewood; he is tall, with a bold gay way of looking at you, and a clean white face; he trades in oil and tar, and on feast days wears boots.

What Is the Grass
by Mark Doty
(W. W. Norton)

Jacket Copy:  Mark Doty has always felt haunted by Walt Whitman’s bold, new American voice, and by his equally radical claims about body and soul and what it means to be a self. In What Is the Grass, Doty―a poet, a lover of men, a New Yorker, and an American―keeps company with Whitman and his mutable, landmark work, Leaves of Grass, tracing the resonances between his own experience and the legendary poet’s life and work. What is it, then, between us? Whitman asks. Doty’s answer is to explore spaces tied to Whitman’s life and spaces where he finds the poet’s ghost, meditating on desire, love, and the mysterious wellsprings of the poet’s enduring work. How does a voice survive death? What Is the Grass is a conversation across time and space, a study of the astonishment one poet finds in the accomplishment of another, and an attempt to grasp Whitman’s deeply hopeful vision of humanity.

Opening Lines:  Walt Whitman spent his final years in a two-story, woodframe house on Mickle street in Camden, New Jersey, less than half a mile’s walk from the Delaware River, though in those days, after his debilitating stroke, he’d have been pushed there in his wheelchair by an attendant.

Blurbworthiness:  “What Is the Grass is a deep-dive into Walt Whitman’s life, work, worldview, and something that feels like his cosmic theology. As if that weren’t enough, we’re also invited into Doty’s own candid self-seeking, in episodes of the author’s life rendered in generous complexity. This beautiful, ingenious book affirms my belief in language as a living thing, and in the universe as a place overflowing with purpose and meaning. I wish all of the great poets could be reintroduced to me in such fashion!”  (Tracy K. Smith, author of Wade in the Water)

Eden Mine
by S. M. Hulse
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy: In Eden Mine, the award-winning author of Black River examines the aftershocks of an act of domestic terrorism rooted in a small Montana town on the brink of abandonment, as it tears apart a family, tests the faith of a pastor and the loyalty of a sister, and mines the deep rifts that come when the reach of the government clashes with individual freedom. Jo Faber is packing up the home she and her brother Samuel inherited. For generations, the Fabers have lived near Eden Mine, but Jo and Samuel will be the last. Their family home has been seized by the state through eminent domain. At the moment she hears the news of the bombing on the radio, Jo knows nothing, but she also knows that something isn’t right. The arrival of their friend and unofficial guardian, Sheriff Hawkins, confirms her suspicions. Samuel said he was going to find work. But soon it’s clear that he’s not gone, but missing—last seen by a security camera near the district courthouse at Elk Fork. And a nine-year-old girl, the daughter of a pastor of a storefront church, is in critical condition. This isn’t the first time Jo and Samuel have seen the ravages of violence visit their family. Last time, they lost their mother and Jo lost her ability to walk. Samuel took care of her, outfitted their barn with special rigging so she could keep riding their mule. But he was never the same, falling in with a separatist group, getting a tattoo he’d flaunt, then spending years hiding. She thought he had finished with all that. But now he’s missing, and she can’t talk to the one person she trusts. A timely story of the anger and disaffection tearing apart many communities in this country, S.M. Hulse’s Eden Mine is also a beautiful novel of the West, of a deep love for the land, of faith in the face of evil, and of the terrible choices we make for the ones we love.

Opening Lines: My brother’s bomb explodes at 10:16 on a late April Sunday morning.

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here
by Esther Safran Foer
(Tim Duggan Books)

Jacket Copy: Esther Safran Foer grew up in a home where the past was too terrible to speak of. The child of parents who were each the sole survivors of their respective families, for Esther the Holocaust loomed in the backdrop of daily life, felt but never discussed. The result was a childhood marked by painful silences and continued tragedy. Even as she built a successful career, married, and raised three children, Esther always felt herself searching. So when Esther’s mother casually mentions an astonishing revelation—that her father had a previous wife and daughter, both killed in the Holocaust—Esther resolves to find out who they were, and to learn how her father survived. Armed with only a black-and-white photo and hand-drawn map, she travels to Ukraine, determined to find the shtetl where her father hid during the war. What she finds not only reshapes her identity but gives her the opportunity to properly mourn. I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the riveting and deeply moving story not only of Esther’s journey but of four generations living in the shadow of the Holocaust. They are four generations of survivors, storytellers, and memory keepers, determined not just to keep the past alive but to imbue the present with life and more life.

Opening Lines: My birth certificate says that I was born on September 8, 1946, in Ziegenhain, Germany. It’s the wrong date, wrong city, wrong country. It would take me years to understand why my father created this fabrication. Why, each year, my mother came into my room on March 17 and gave me a kiss and whispered, “Happy birthday.”

I, John Kennedy Toole
by Kent Carroll and Jodee Blanco
(Pegasus Books)

Jacket Copy:  I, John Kennedy Toole is the novelized story of the funny, tragic, riveting narrative behind the making of an American masterpiece. The book traces Toole’s life in New Orleans through his adolescence, his stay at Columbia University in New York, his attempts to escape the burden of his demanding mother and his weak father, his retreat into a world of his own creation, and finally the invention of astonishing characters that came to living reality for both readers (and the author himself) in his prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces. The other fascinating (and mostly unknown) part of the story is how after a decade of rebuke and dismissal the novel came to a brilliant author, Walker Percy, and a young publisher, Kent Carroll, who separately rescued the book, then published it with verve and devotion. The novel that almost never came to be went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and continues to sell at a satisfying rate as it winds its way to the 2 million mark. That audience is the happy ending for this brilliant, unrepentant writer, whose only reward before his untimely death was his unending belief in his work and his characters.

Opening Lines:  He was humming to himself as he drove back to the hardware store. It was a perfect day, a cool, crisp sixty degrees, sun shining, a light breeze tousling the trees. He had never before felt so free.

Blurbworthiness:  “I, John Kennedy Toole is a vivid exploration of every writers’ nightmare―of writing the best she or he possibly can to create a book that would become a standard-bearer for decades to come, but not getting it published until it's way too late.”  (Audrey Schulman, author of Theory of Bastards)

Little Constructions
by Anna Burns
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  In the small town of Tiptoe Floorboard, the Doe clan, a close-knit family of criminals and victims, has the run of the place. Yet there are signs that patriarch John Doe’s reign may be coming to an end. When Jetty Doe breaks into a gun store and makes off with a Kalashnikov, the stage is set for a violent confrontation. But while Jetty is making her way across town in a taxi, an elusive, chatty narrator takes us on a wild journey, zooming in and out on various members of the Doe clan with long, digressive riffs that chase down the causes and repercussions of Jetty’s act. Before Milkman took the world by storm after winning the Man Booker Prize, Anna Burns had already honed her distinctive voice. In her second novel, Little Constructions, she exhibits the same linguistic brio, coruscating wit, and scintillating insight into men, women, and the roots of violence. A wickedly funny novel that swoops and spirals as it examines the long shadow of abuse and violent crime, Little Constructions explores what transpires when unspeakable realities, long hidden from view, can no longer be denied.

Opening Lines:  There are no differences between men and women. No differences. Except one. Men want to know what sort of gun it is. Women just want the gun.

Blurbworthiness:  “At the center of Anna Burns’ novel lies the Doe clan, a closely-knit family of criminals and victims whose internal conflicts and convoluted relationships propel this simultaneously funny and terrifying story. When unspeakable realities break through, the tale is chilling—and funny.”  (Belfast Telegraph)

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