Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Front Porch Books: Stephen King, flappers, Dani Shapiro, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Willa Cather, and war poetry

I'll have a proper edition of Front Porch Books later this month, but for now, I wanted to talk about the books which landed on my doorstep in a single day.  It's always a miniature Christmas whenever I come home from a long, soul-draining day at work and find a pile of boxes and/or large envelopes waiting for me to open, but yesterday was an especially Good Day, bringing a treasure trove of books I'd ordered from Amazon, advance copies from publishers, and the latest installment in my subscription to the Art of the Novella series.  It's unusual that I get so many good books in one day, and so I thought I'd share the joy with you....

Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime):  Speaking of joy....No two ways about it, I'm tremendously excited to have my fingers curled around King's newest novel, published by my favorite mystery imprint, Hard Case Crime.  You may have heard the noise in the book world about how King held off releasing Joyland as an e-book in order to persuade readers to purchase it from independent booksellers (Full Shameful Confession: I'd ordered my copy from Amazon months ago, so I guess I really fucked his plan all to hell).  I'm all for putting bodies inside independent bookstores, but what I think is really going on here is that King wants readers to enjoy the gorgeous cover art by Glen Orbik--those menacing shadows, the flaming lights of the amusement park, that short green dress!  The physical book is indeed a thing of beauty, but I'm really looking forward to exploring the funhouse contents beyond the cover: "Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever."  The back cover copy says this is less horror-gore King than it is bittersweet King (a la The Green Mile).  The first paragraph certainly seems to bear that out:
I had a car, but on most days in that fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay. It seemed like the right thing to do. The only thing, actually. By early September, Heaven Beach was almost completely deserted, which suited my mood. That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too. People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You’ve heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What’s so sweet about that?

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz (Three Rivers Press):  I've had this book on my wishlist for nearly five years, but have only just now gotten around to ordering it. I've long been fascinated by the Jazz Age lifestyle, embodied by the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the movies of Clara Bow. The female "flapper" epitomizes the image of change and rebellion. Here's how Zeitz describes the origin of the term in the introduction to his book:
      It's not clear how or when the term flapper first wound its way into the American vernacular. The expression probably originated in prewar England. According to a 1920s fashion writer, "flapper" initially described the sort of teenage girl whose gawky frame and posture were 'supposed to need a certain type of clothing--long, straight lines to cover her awkwardness--and the stores advertised those gowns as 'flapper dresses'."
      "Shortly after the closing shots of World War I, the word came to designate young women in their teens and twenties who subscribed to the libertine principles that writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and actresses like Clara Bow popularized in print and on the silver screen.
      An early reference in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defined the flapper as "A young girl, esp. one somewhat daring in conduct, speech and dress," a designation that at least one eighteen-year-old woman in 1922 seemed ready to embrace. "Of all the things that flappers don't like," she boldly explained to readers of The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, "it is the commonplace."
Well, pour me some bathtub gin and put an Al Jolson platter on the phonograph, I'm ready to Charleston my way into this book!

Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press):  Shapiro's book comes out in October and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from my publisher.  It couldn't have come at a better time.  For the past six months or so, I've been living in a trough of slack habits, a creative doldrums that infects a lot of writers after they drink the champagne fizz of publication success.  Oh sure, since Fobbit was released, I've kept myself busy by working on this blog, noodling around with a few short stories, and writing some essays, but right now I'm in need of a creative spark.  Someone please hook a car battery to my nipples and give me a jolt.  Still Writing might just be the kind of jump-start I'm looking for.  The back cover copy states: "Like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary, and Stephen King's On Writing, Dani Shapiro's Still Writing is a lodestar for aspiring scribes and an eloquent memoir of the writing life."  This morning, I reached for her book, I opened a page at random, I drank these words:
We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the black page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on that page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can't know. And so we need a sense of structure around us. These four walls. This cup. The wheels of the train beneath us. This borrowed room. The weight of this particular pen. Whatever it is that makes us feel secure in our physical space allows us to make the leap hoping that the page will catch us. Writing, after all, is an act of faith. We must believe, without the slightest evidence that believing will get us anywhere.
I closed the book.  I closed my eyes.  I rested in the cradle of Shapiro's words.  I thought about how the page would catch me if I just took that leap with an insuck of breath and a modicum of faith.  I opened my eyes and vowed, right then and there, to begin each day by reading a few pages of Still Writing (the book is conveniently fenced into short, sip-length essays).  It will be like my morning matin, a linguistic Our Daily Bread, my devotion to this craft.

The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather (Melville House):  The novella: the overweight son nobody talks about, the smart kid with ambition but little success to show for it, the noisemaker clanging in an empty room.  Pity the novella, the resident of literary limbo--too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel.  I love novellas--in fact, I just finished reading five excellent examples of the form as part of my duties judging Press 53's Open Awards--but novellas are the Rodney Dangerfields of the book world, earning little respect beyond a small circle of writers and readers with pigeon-holed tastes.  But thanks to the good people at Melville House, the shortish-longish story is getting the attention it deserves.  I've subscribed to the Art of the Novella series for nearly a year and I'm always pleased to find a Melville House envelope on my front porch.  This time around, I received two classic works by Dostoevsky and Cather (both long-time favorites of mine).  I own other editions of The Eternal Husband and Alexander's Bridge, but the Melville House volumes take their place of honor on that special shelf of books which are packaged like palm-sized gems and easily digested.  If you'd like to subscribe to the Art of the Novella series, CLICK HERE.

The Stick Soldiers by Hugh Martin (BOA Editions):  I've been looking forward to this book ever since I first met Hugh Martin on the pages of his chapbook So, How Was the War?.  Not since Brian Turner (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise) has a poet so perfectly captured the horror, the insanity, the inanity, and the sorrow of the war in Iraq.  In his introduction to this latest book, Cornelius Eady writes: "The Stick Soldiers touches a soldier, touches a war, touches the landscapes of two loaded cultures, a landscape where night-vision goggles and Kurdish lutes coexist in the same space, where laptop porn glows under the door of the base shit-house, where even a drive on a snowy stateside road can evoke the bombs that are not under the tires."  I can't wait to start reading The Stick Soldiers as part of my Poem-a-Day habit.  To give you a taste of what waits for you inside the book, here are the first four stanzas from the title poem of Martin's new collection:
The children have colored the cards,
dated from December,
with Christmas trees, piles of presents,
snowmen smiling, waving. Sara wants
a doll. Evan, a dog. Kyle promises
to pray for us.

Outside the hooch, we open mail,
hundreds of letters
from youth groups, scout troops,
classes of school children.

Kearns wants to write back,
ask for pictures
of older sisters.

We tape our favorites to the door.
In blue crayon, a stick-figure soldier poses
as he’s about to toss
a black ball,
fuse burning,
at three other stick figures,
red cloth wrapped over faces,
Iraki written
across stick chests.
He also has some new poetry in the Spring issue of The Iowa Review, a journal which sits high atop my To-Be-Read pile.  For those who seek the artful truth of war, I highly recommend Hugh Martin's poetry.

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