Thursday, November 21, 2013

Front Porch Books: November 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (Simon & Schuster):  Let me begin by saying I live and breathe classic Hollywood--in particular, the years 1920 to 1949, and specifically film noir.  If there's a scene with black guns, sharp shadows, and grey smoke curling from the end of a cigarette, I'm so there.  Let me also add that my appreciation of Barbara Stanwyck came late in life.  For years, as I was growing up, she was the steely white-coiffed matriarch of the Barkley Ranch on the TV series The Big Valley.  She was an older actress--competent, but not half as interesting as, say, Jaclyn Smith on Charlie's Angels.  It wasn't until I was in my 30s and popped Double Indemnity into the VCR that I realized what all the Stanwyckian fuss was about.  With the glint off of one gold anklet, I was a total goner.  Since that day, I've been a fan (to put it mildly).  And so, when I heard about Victoria Wilson's upcoming biography of B.S., I knew I had to be first in line to get a copy.  The biography is daunting in scope and heft--1,044 pages, and it only covers the first third of her life!--but I am ready to plunge happily, ecstatically between these covers.  It's richly illustrated and impeccably researched and, by all appearances, it's written with all the snap and verve of Stanwyck herself.  Here's the Jacket Copy for what I'm calling the Big Book of the Season:
Frank Capra called her “The greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known.” She was one of its most natural, timeless, and underrated stars. Now, Victoria Wilson gives us the first full-scale life of Barbara Stanwyck, whose astonishing career in movies (eighty-eight in all) spanned four decades beginning with the coming of sound, and lasted in television from its infancy in the 1950s through the 1980s—a book that delves deeply into her rich, complex life and explores her extraordinary range of motion pictures, many of them iconic. Here is her work, her world, her Hollywood. We see the quintessential Brooklyn girl whose family was in fact of old New England stock . . . her years in New York as a dancer and Broadway star . . . her fraught mar­riage to Frank Fay, Broadway genius, who influenced a generation of actors and comedians (among them, Jack Benny and Stanwyck herself ) . . . the adoption of a son, embattled from the outset; her partnership with the “unfunny” Marx brother, Zeppo, crucial in shaping the direction of her work, and who, together with his wife, formed a trio that created one of the finest horse-breeding farms in the west; her fairy-tale romance and marriage to the younger Robert Taylor, America’s most sought-after— and beautiful—male star. Here is the shaping of her career with many of Hol­lywood’s most important directors: among them, Frank Capra, “Wild Bill” William Wellman (“When you get beauty and brains together,” he said, “there’s no stopping the lucky girl who possesses them. The best example I can think of is Barbara”), King Vidor, Cecil B. De Mille, and Preston Sturges, all set against the times—the Depression, the New Deal, the rise of the unions, the advent of World War II—and a fast-changing, coming-of-age motion picture industry. And here is Stanwyck’s evolution as an actress in the pictures she made from 1929 through the summer of 1940, where Volume One ends—from her first starring movie, The Locked Door (“An all-time low,” she said. “By then I was certain that Hollywood and I had nothing in common”); and Ladies of Leisure, the first of her six-picture collaboration with Frank Capra (“He sensed things that you were trying to keep hidden from people. He knew. He just knew”), to the scorching Baby Face, and the height of her screen perfection, beginning with Stella Dallas (“I was scared to death all the time we were making the pic­ture”), from Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy and the epic Union Pacific to the first of her collaborations with Preston Sturges, who wrote Remember the Night, in which she starred. And at the heart of the book, Stanwyck herself—her strengths, her fears, her frailties, her losses and desires; how she made use of the darkness in her soul in her work and kept it at bay in her private life, and finally, her transformation from shunned outsider to one of Holly­wood’s—and America’s—most revered screen actresses. Writing with the full cooperation of Stanwyck’s family and friends, and drawing on more than two hundred interviews with actors, directors, cameramen, screen­writers, costume designers, et al., as well as making use of letters, journals, and private papers, Victoria Wilson has brought this complex artist brilliantly alive.

Firefly by Janette Jenkins (Europa Editions):  Here's another book about a celebrity--this time, a fictional treatment.  Janette Jenkins' new novel is about the final days of Noel Coward spent at his home in Jamaica.  From what little I've read, these pages remind me of the historic fiction of Adam Braver (which is about as high a compliment as I could pay anyone since I'm a huge fan of AB).  I can't wait to read more of this book and spend some time with Mr. Coward in the sunny tropics.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Noël Coward: dramatist, composer, actor, director, lyricist, and at one time the highest-earning author in the western world. He virtually invented the concept of the sophisticated Englishman for the 20th Century. Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 1969, and since his death in 1973, there has not been a time when his plays are not staged (Private Lives), films shown (Brief Encounter) and songs sung ("Mad Dogs and Englishmen"). An astounding talent, not even his very public homosexuality and his flamboyant lifestyle could diminish his popularity and acclaim. Firefly is Coward’s beloved retreat on a secluded hillside in Jamaica. There, between brandies and cigarettes, the entertainer wiles away his daysa dispiriting pattern of unwanted meals, reluctant walks, graceless swims in the poolin the company of his man servant, Patrice, and reluctant former lover, Graham Payn. They talk of a London long gone or imagined: Noel’s is peopled with glamorous friendsRedgrave, Taylor, Olivier, O’ToolePatrice’s a naive vision of elegance and opportunity. Set over a few weeks in the early seventies, Firefly sorts through Coward’s dreams and memories, his successes and regrets against a sultry Caribbean backdrop of blue mountains and endless vistas. By turns revealing, wicked, witty, and unsparing, this sparkling novel is a moving portrait of age and friendship, and a poignant recollection of a life fully lived.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez (It Books):  Last month, I told you of a book tailor-made for the autumn season (Pumpkin by Cindy Ott--a food history which I'm now reading and enjoying as much as a slice of Thanksgiving pie); and now here comes the perfect Christmastime book, especially for those of us of A Certain Age.  I grew up sitting cross-legged in front of the television set, eyes glued to the screen every December as I watched Charlie Brown's pathetic attempts to harvest a Christmas tree ("pathetic" only in the eyes of the beholder, of course).  And so, I was happy to see this particular book land on my front porch recently.  I know what I'll be reading directly after Pumpkin.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
For nearly fifty years, since first airing in December 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of America's most beloved television shows and is a holiday television staple. Every year millions of fans tune in to the Emmy-winning Christmas special featuring Vince Guaraldi's iconic jazz score and Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters as they remind Charlie Brown, and all of us, of the true meaning of Christmas. A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition is a lushly illustrated tribute to the beloved television classic that takes readers behind-the-scenes of the Peanuts holiday special. It includes the script of A Charlie Brown Christmas, more than two hundred full-color pieces of original animation art, Vince Guaraldi's original score and publication notes for the songs "Christmas Time is Here" and "Linus and Lucy," and a look at the making of the feature from producer Lee Mendelson and original animator, the late Bill Melendez. The two share their personal memories and charming reminiscences on the Christmas special and reflect on their three decades of working with Peanuts creator, Charles M. Schulz.

Fractures by Lamar Herrin (Thomas Dunne Books):  If you're one of the few moviegoers who happened to see last year's Matt Damon movie Promised Land (I myself haven't yet seen it), and it sparked your interest in natural gas, drilling and the controversial fracking process, then Lamar Herrin's book will most likely be something you need to add to your must-read list.  But, as the Jacket Copy explains, it's a novel which goes much deeper than the subject of drilling:
A Thousand Acres and Empire Falls meet during the present hydrofracking controversy as a beleaguered patriarch must decide the fate of his land and children in this enveloping family drama. The Joyner family sits atop prime Marcellus Shale. When landmen for the natural gas companies begin to lease property all around the family’s hundred acres, the Joyners start to take notice. Undecided on whether or not to lease the family land, Frank Joyner must weigh his heirs’ competing motivations. All of this culminates as a looming history of family tragedy resurfaces. A sprawling family novel, Fractures follows each Joyner as the controversial hydrofracking issue slowly exacerbates underlying passions and demons. With echoes of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Fractures takes its reader deep into the beating heart and hearth of a family divided.
Blurbworthiness: “Here’s an environmental novel that does just what you want it to do: Frame an important contemporary debate in profoundly human terms….How we should act is the real heart of this brooding novel, which moves beyond its timely environmental debate to consider more existential questions with great discernment….Plenty of readers will enjoy Herrin’s book for its lustrous writing and poignant insight into the challenge of building a life worth living.  But if you also want a novel that addresses a pressing political and environmental issue, Fractures is worth exploring.” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post)

A Life in Men by Gina Frangello (Algonquin Books):  Sex, friendship, global travel, illness, death--Gina Frangello packs a lot into the suitcase of this novel.  And, frankly, this is one piece of luggage I'll gladly carry anywhere.  I've long been an admirer of Frangello's work, from her short story collection Slut Lullabies to the way she wields her editorial pen at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown, and now this new novel of hers feels like it's bursting with life--not just “in men,” but also in the way women interact with each other.  A Life in Men centers around the lifelong friendship of Mary and Nix, a relationship that had its roots back in kindergarten when Nix bit Mary “during a dispute over a yellow crayon” and continued up to the point where the novel begins during a trip to Greece when both women are in college.  Here's more from the Jacket Copy:
The friendship between Mary and Nix had endured since childhood, a seemingly unbreakable bond, until the mid-1980s, when the two young women reunited for a summer vacation in Greece. It was a trip instigated by Nix, who had just learned that Mary had been diagnosed with a disease that would inevitably cut her life short. Nix, a free spirit by nature, was determined that Mary have the vacation of a lifetime, but by the time their visit to Greece was over, the ties between them had unraveled, and when they said goodbye, it was for the last time. Three years later, Mary returns to Europe to try to understand what went wrong, in the process meeting the first of many men she will spend time with and travel with throughout the world. Through them she experiences not just a sexual awakening but a spiritual and emotional awakening that allows her to understand how the past and the future are connected, and to appreciate how important it is that she live her life to the fullest.
I was pulled right into the novel by the Opening Lines:
      Pretend I'm not already dead. That isn't important anyway. It's just that, from here, I can see everything.
      There we are, see? Or should I say, There they are? Two girls sitting at a cafe off Taxi Square, eating anchovies lined up in a small puddle of oil on a white plate. Both girls are obsessed with salt. Since arriving in Mykonos, they have ordered anchovies every day, lunch and dinner. As a result, they are constantly thirsty. They carry large bottles of water with them everywhere, written on in Greek lettering, the blue caps peeking out the tops of their beach bags along with their rolled-up beach mats. The curly-haired blond girl, Mary, jokes to the straight-haired blond girl, Nix, that this influx of salt is going to be a turnoff should they pick up any hot men.
I was also very touched by Gina's personal essay about the story behind A Life in Men in The Algonquin Reader which was included in the press materials from the publisher.  You can read “Life Imitates Art” at The Algonquin Reader here (scroll down the page to find it).

Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas (University of Iowa Press):  Right from the first two paragraphs, Tessa Mellas draws sharp lines between readers who'll love these stories and those who'll be turned off, between those who “get it” and those who don't.  I, for one, am in the first camp of those who want to read more, more, more.  Exhibit A, the Opening Lines to “Mariposa Girls,” the first story in Lungs Full of Noise:
      Last year, the girls wore dance skirts on the ice, sheer fabric tied at the waist, ribbons fluttering behind them—absurdly expressive tails. This year, they wear nothing. No skirts. No leotards. No tights. They skate naked, wind nipping their nipples, ice burn searing their thighs.
      Along with their lycra, they gave up their skates, unscrewed the blades from the boots, and drilled them right into their feet. Two screws in the heel, three up front, secured into flesh and bone, just as one would mount them to wood. They say this way it's easier to point their toes in the air, to sink into the ice as the shock of descent shoots into their knees.
Still with me?  Good.  Because if you continue, I think you'll reap plenty of literary rewards.  Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say about the book:
The 12 stories in Mellas's debut collection, which won the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award, employ fantasy to magnifying effect as she explores the ways women and girls view themselves and their shortcomings. Much like Karen Russell or Aimee Bender, Mellas uses bizarre and even grotesque elements to test the mettle of her characters—or to indicate their skewed worldviews. Many resort to extreme tactics to get what they want: figure skaters screw blades directly into their feet and shave their bodies to give themselves an added edge in "Mariposa Girls;" a woman alleviates empty-nest syndrome by raising caterpillars in "The White Wings of Moths;" and a menopausal caregiver has an evergreen baby in "Beanstalk." In "Dye Job," a gaggle of high school girls gorge on fruit to lure prom dates. "So Many Wings" depicts a divorcée making off with her ex-husband's severed arm from a morgue. "Bibi From Jupiter," which centers on a college student who, over the course of two semesters, has more-unusual-than-average roommate issues, is a departure. The other six stories have an impressionistic, abstract bent, lacking coherent narrative backbones; the best of these, "Quiet Camp," hyperbolizes the punishments that girls endure for being loquacious. This collection establishes Mellas as a writer of strong, strange, and questioning stories.

Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers (W. W. Norton):  I began this edition of Front Porch Books with a Big Biography and so I think it's fitting that I close with another larger-than-life life.  Louis Armstrong--impeccable instrumentalist, raspy-voiced singer, and extraordinary showman--gets the kind of treatment he deserves in Thomas Brothers' biography, the second volume in Armstrong's story which follows Brothers' earlier Louis Armstrong's New Orleans.  I'm probably not alone in knowing less of Armstrong the man than I do Armstrong the artist.  I can't wait to get under his skin with Brothers as my tour guide.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Nearly 100 years after bursting onto Chicago's music scene under the tutelage of Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong is recognized as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.  A trumpet virtuoso, seductive crooner, and consummate entertainer, Armstrong laid the foundation for the future of jazz with his stylistic innovations, but his story would be incomplete without examining how he struggled in a society seething with brutally racist ideologies, laws, and practices.  Thomas Brothers picks up where he left off with the acclaimed Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, following the story of the great jazz musician into his most creatively fertile years in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Armstrong created not one but two modern musical styles.  Brothers wields his own tremendous skill in making the connections between history and music accessible to everyone as Armstrong shucks and jives across the page.  Through Brothers' expert ears and eyes we meet an Armstrong whose quickness and sureness, so evident in his performances, served him well in his encounters with racism while his music soared across the airwaves into homes all over America.  Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism blends cultural history, musical scholarship, and personal accounts from Armstrong's contemporaries to reveal his enduring contributions to jazz and popular music at a time when he and his bandmates couldn't count on food or even a friendly face on their travels across the country.  Thomas Brothers combines an intimate knowledge of Armstrong's life with the boldness to examine his place in such a racially charged landscape.  In vivid prose and with vibrant photographs, Brothers illuminates the life and work of the man many consider to be the greatest American musician of the twentieth century.

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