New Fiction: Made for Love – Alissa Nutting

Nutting likes to push boundaries—and buttons. Her first novel, Tampa, was a dark satire about an eighth-grade teacher’s affair with a student. It was a high-wire performance that repelled some readers and made others fans for life.

This new novel, while less polarizing, is no less a daring satire. It’s the story of an aimless young woman trying to escape her marriage to the founder and sinister CEO of a far-reaching tech company. (It’s hard not to think Google when the company is named “Gogol.”)

Having literally escaped her husband’s high security compound, she arrives at the door of her elderly father’s Florida trailer where he has taken up residence with a life-size blow-up doll in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Then things get weirder.

There’s a secondary plot about a handsome con man who gets his sexual wires crossed after being molested by a dolphin. (Yes, I said that.) Eventually his story intertwines with Hazel’s and results in an absurdist romp about technology, the mind and free will.  It’s bracing, laugh out loud social satire in the vein of Nell Zink.

Nutting deftly exploits the comic potential of perverse attachments, here to sex dolls, aquatic mammals, and technological devices…. The story begins after a woman, Hazel, has fled her controlling husband, Byron, a cold-blooded, germaphobic, and distinctly un-Byronic tech titan who treated his electronics like lesser wives.’ Hazel takes refuge in her father’s trailer park home, vastly different from her former lodging, ‘the Hub,’ Byron’s sterile compound that is at once a prison, spa, and hospital. Living with her father and his recently purchased sex doll, Hazel hopes to avoid Byron’s near-omniscient gaze and forge a new, unsurveilled, and thrillingly unhygienic life…. [A] witty portrait of a woman desperate to reconnect with her humanity.
Publishers Weekly, “Best Summer Books of 2017”

“[O]ne of the funniest, most absurd books you’ll read this summer…. Hilarious, clever, and strikingly original, Made for Love speaks to the absurdity of our societal obsessions with technology and wealth.”
   — Buzzfeed

“There is no one who negotiates the absurd as vigorously yet poignantly as Alissa Nutting. In her second novel, Made For Love, Nutting explores the loneliness of a future overly mediated by technology through a tremendous romp involving Hazel, trying to leave her tech mogul husband Byron even though his reach knows no bounds. There are sex dolls and a senior citizen trailer park and brain chips and a con man who loves dolphins and still, the story makes sense like a motherfucker. Brilliant, dense, hilarious writing that hurtles toward an ending that is both satisfying and unexpected.”
— Roxane Gay

“Oh god I just love every page. It’s fantastic.”
— Lynda Barry

“After devouring Nutting’s deliciously dysfunctional debut, Tampa, I consider myself a devotee to her particular brand of cringe-worthy absurdity. Nutting masterfully navigated the sticky complexities of human sexuality once before so I trusted her, implicitly, to take me there again. She, as expected, did not disappoint…. Equal parts sinister and hilarious, eccentric and affecting, Nutting manages to craft an arresting and outrageous puzzle that is far more than the sum of its parts.”
— Tara Bagnola, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Made for Love (9780062280558) by Alissa Nutting. $26.99 hardcover. 7/4/17 on sale.

Book of the Week: River Under the Road – Scott Spencer

Spencer will likely always be remembered for this 1979 classic, Endless Love. And that’s a shame because good as that book was, Spencer followed that early success with one terrific book after another. Two of his more recent novels remain among my favorites—A Ship Made of Paper and Man in the Woods. To that I happily add this new book.

While the plots of his books are wide-ranging, there is a through-line to his themes. It seems to me that all his books are concerned with how one’s reaction in a moment of strong emotion can tear apart what proves to be the relatively thin scrim of civilization.

Told from alternating points of view over many years, River Under the Road is the story of a marriage—two marriages really–against the backdrop of declining opportunities for the working class and the lottery-like luck that leads a small number of Americans to live lives of luxury while telling themselves they have earned that outsized luck.

The story plays out poignantly on the small canvas of a handful of people’s lives from their early choices to their dawning awareness of their compromises, betrayals and failures. And in a subtle but ultimately devastating way, we see how they stand in for America’s choices over the last fifty years.

What Janet Maslin said of A Ship Made of Paper in the NYT is true for this book, too:

Richly intelligent prose and vivid characters, set against the backdrop of American race relations [in this case substitute “class”]. Here are real people confronting real emotions, whether it’s the electric thrill of illicit love, seething anger over a betrayal or the white-knuckle terror of genuine mortal danger… [the] slowly escalating catastrophe that wrecks buildings and lives – will rattle your bones.”

The best book titles offer and “ah ha” moment and a clue about the writer’s intent. The title for this book comes when two screenwriters are talking at a Hollywood party: “’You want to know what I know, chum?… Eagles can tell how much food is going to be available in their habitat over the next six months and if they see it’s going to be slim pickings they break a couple of their own eggs so there won’t be too many mouths to feed. We’re connected to our environment, too. We’re aware of what’s going on with our species, with our whole world, we can feel it like you can feel a river under a road.’”

Coverage starts with New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post where it was already included as one of most anticipated book of the spring.

“Rich, provocative . . . . Since Endless Love (1979) . . . Spencer’s specialty has been the ache of unrequited (or lost) love. His prose on the subject of romance is fulsome, lush, downright Lawrencian. He has a supple understanding of infidelity and marital dynamics, especially the simmering resentments of a floundering relationship. . . . River Under the Road is wry and insightful.”
— Washington Post

“The story of two couples, recounted across 14 years through the lens of a dozen parties…. At the center of the action are Thaddeus, a screenwriter, and his wife, Grace, an artist who drifts away from her art as the pair moves from bohemia into the bourgeoisie…. Money is an issue throughout the novel—who has it and who doesn’t, what one must do to get it, what happens when it goes away. More to the point, however, this is a book about the vicissitudes of love…”
Kirkus Reviews

River Under the Road (9780062660053) by Scott Spencer. $27.99 hardcover. 6/27/17 on sale.

 

Nonfiction Short Take: The Ends of the World – Peter Brannen

Here’s another look at five big catastrophes and what they can tell us about the future. In this case we’re not talking money but geology–and the stakes are the survival of the planet. That said, you won’t read a funnier, wittier book on the topic of mass extinction. This is a terrifically entertaining tour of the planet’s history structured as a detective story. It’s got the same narrative inventiveness that made The World Without Us such a hit with general readers.

“Brannen infuses his narrative with tongue-in-cheek humor that does not downplay the seriousness of his subject [while] addressing the controversies that have arisen both in the scientific community and the public sphere but never devolving into unproductive attacks. If readers have time for only one book on the subject, this wonderfully written, well-balanced, and intricately researched (though not too dense) selection is the one to choose.”
Library Journal (starred review)

A simultaneously enlightening and cautionary tale of the deep history of our planet and the possible future… entertaining and informative on the geological record and the researchers who study it…. [A] useful addition to the popular literature on climate change.”
Kirkus

“A much-needed overview… of [the Big Five] extinctions, both as a cautionary lesson and a hopeful demonstration of how life on Earth keeps rebounding from destruction… Everyone from climatologists to general science buffs will enjoy this well-written, closely focused. . . look at our planet’s paleontological history.”
Booklist

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions (9780062364807) by Peter Brannen. $27.99 hardcover. 6/13/17 on sale.

 

Poetry Short Take: Scribbled in the Dark – Charles Simic

A new book from Simic is always a cause for celebration. A Pulitzer-Prize winner, former U.S. Poet Laureate and MacArthur fellowship winner, Simic’s wry, sardonic and mysterious poems have tracked the human condition for over half a century.

 In his latest exemplary collection, Simic, one of American poetry’s most revered and acclaimed figures, reveals a mysterious world that is simultaneously sinister and whimsical, observable through the minute details trailing in the wake of life’s most fleeting moments…. Simic has always had a knack for channeling the morbid—and managing to blend it with the joyous. It is in navigating those kinds of opposing emotions that he is at his most clever and profound…. Image by image, Simic composes miniature masterpieces, offering what appears as a seemingly effortless study in language’s cinematic possibilities.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Scribbled in the Dark (9780062661173) by Charlies Simic. $22.99 hardcover. 6/13/17 on sale.

 

New Fiction: She Rides Shotgun – Jordan Harper

 

Screenwriter Harper was well-reviewed for his terrific debut story collection, Love and Other Wounds, inspiring comments like this from PW: “Harper kicks the door of crime fiction off its splintered frame.”

The promise of that collection is realized in this explosive first novel which received three starred advance reviews. The set-up sounds something like Paper Moon blasted against the hyperviolent universe of Breaking Bad. After making enemies with a gang called Aryan Steel, Nate McClusky is released from prison to find his ex-wife dead and the gang looking for his young daughter. Nate scoops up the shy, smart Polly from school and the two go on the run from both Aryan Steel and the police.

Kirkus notes in its starred review that “The novel combines striking images…with disturbingly raw violence.”  But the real surprise here is not the adrenaline-fueled escapades and violence. It’s the way Jordan is able to develop the relationship between this absent father and his young daughter—and his portrayal of a shy kid turning into a strong heroine who has her own sense of grit and honor.

Harper’s writing is not for the faint of heart but this is a rewarding read from an author to watch.

At the start of Harper’s visceral, pulpy, vernacular-filled first novel, introspective 11-year-old Polly McClusky has an unexpected reunion on the steps of her Southern California middle school with her estranged father…. Nate, Polly, and her stuffed bear, who serves to articulate the swirling emotions that Polly hesitates to voice, go on the run, sought by not only the gang but also Det. John Park, who’s investigating the murders. Nate and Polly’s relationship blooms, despite their being in constant crisis-survival mode…. Expert pacing and well-developed characters lift this above the thriller pack.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“From its bravura prologue to its immensely satisfying ending, this first novel comes out with guns blazing and shoots the chambers dry. It’s both a dark, original take on the chase novel and a strangely touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship framed in barbed wire.”
— Booklist (starred review)

“The characters’ loyalty, love, and struggle for redemption grip the reader and don’t let go.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

She Rides Shotgun (9780062394408) by Jordan Harper. $26.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

New Nonfiction: Between Them – Richard Ford

This small, intricate recollection of his parents by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford is his first book-length work of nonfiction. Ford brings his brings his trademark blend of understated wit, insight and empathy to the story of young Parker and Edna Ford, a traveling salesman and his wife living on the road together and later with young Richard in the South during the Great Depression. Parker died when Ford was 16 and Edna in 1981. He tells the story their lives in two parts, written decades apart, that together form a vivid portrait of a loving marriage in a by-gone America.

The book has three starred advance reviews and is already slated for coverage in the NYTBR, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer, VanityFair.com and The Huffington Post. Ford will be interviewed on Fresh Air and PBS Newshour.

“Ford vividly and gracefully preserves his memories of parents, his life “between them,” and the small Southern towns that provided the limits and the possibilities of their lives…. Every page of this little remembrance teems with Ford’s luxuriant prose, his moving and tender longing for his parents, and his affecting and intimate portrait of two people simply living life as best they can as their world changes around them.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

By any standards, this is a singular volume, as peculiarly personal as it is slim. There are two sections, one devoted to each parent: ‘Gone: Remembering My Father’ and ‘My Mother, In Memory.’ The second was written three decades before the first, shortly after his mother’s death. Ford’s father had died much earlier, leaving his mother alone in the world to raise the son she loved, but not in the way she had loved his father. ‘He was her protector, but she was his,’ writes the author. ‘If it meant that I was further from the middle of things, I have lived my entire life thinking this is the proper way to be a family.’… A subtle, careful testament to devotion and a son’s love for his parents.
Kirkus (starred review)

“Illustrated with family photographs, Ford’s remembrance of his parents is a masterful distillation of sensuous description, psychological intricacy, social insights, and a keen sense of place. Ford’s reflections are bright with wit, edgy with candor, and lustrous with extraordinary poignancy and love.”
Booklist (starred review)

Between Them: Remembering My Parents (9780062661883) by Richard Ford. $25.99 hardcover. 5/2/17 on sale.

Poetry Month! Fast – Jorie Graham

A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Graham is always an event;  Dwight Garner in the New York Times called her “a central figure in the last four decades of American poetry.”

A much admired and ground-breaking stylist, the scope of her subject matter is also impressive. This time she contemplates on the future–the ‘post-human’ condition from cyberbots to 3D-printed humans; the limits of life from the crumbling minds of old age to the possibility of consciousness beyond the grave.

“Graham’s 12th collection [is]… a dizzying, difficult exploration of that border and the world beyond—the one in which the human is becoming or has become unrecognizable: ‘Each epoch dreams the one to follow.// To dwell is to leave a trace.// I am not what I asked for.’ This latest book contains some of Graham’s most accomplished work to date—the poems ‘Reading to My Father’ and ‘The Medium’ among them—but Graham has always been a poet of great books, followed by books that explore new forms and new ways of seeing. This is at its heart a book of exploration, with varied levels of success. Still, there’s a great pleasure in reading one of America’s most intelligent poets work her way through subjects that are by their nature beyond understanding.”
Publishers Weekly

Fast: Poems (9780062663481) by Jorie Graham. $25.99 hardcover. 5/2/17 on sale.