Month: February 2010

The Beard

About two thirds of the way through Andersen Prunty‘s The Beard, protagonist David Glum watches helplessly as the arm of a man who may or may not be his father (but probably is) turns without cause or provocation into a two-by-four. This, however, is par for the course for the beleaguered Glum. In the opening chapters of the novel, he sees a herd of elephants abduct his grandfather, tries and fails to publish a novel, eats a psychotropic sandwich, rides a bus driven by a silent figure whose head resembles an onion, and decides to return home to Ohio to grow a beard (though not necessarily in that order). Things, however, start to get strange when Glum’s mother dies and he discovers that his family has been hiding the sacred eternal flame of a (possibly imaginary, definitely angry) tribe of (not-quite) Pacific Islanders in their attic. To say that Prunty is a shining star of the Bizarro movement would, at this point, be redundant, but I’ll say it anyway: Andersen Prunty is a shining star of the Bizarro movement.

Throughout The Beard, Prunty proves himself a natural at creating mind-bending landscapes that operate according to a warped brand of dream logic that’s especially effective in his treatment of characters. As in a dream, his protagonist is at the mercy of forces that are both far beyond his control and, paradoxically, frequently of his own unconscious making. Likewise, the notion of identity is highly fluid throughout the novel. Glum’s father, for example, is initially described as an overweight, malicious bore but, in the blink of an eye, becomes (or, depending on how you look at it, is replaced by) a skinny, relatively friendly gentleman who turns out to be the kind of father that Glum always wanted. Within the framework of traditional storytelling, such sudden transformations might be decried as inconsistencies, but in the bizarro realm, they’re the whole point of the story. To put it in another way, Prunty is playing games with the conventions of storytelling–and cackling like a madman as he plays havoc with his reader’s expectations.

Among the more egregious “violations” of the rules of traditional storytelling is Prunty’s fondness for deus ex machinaas when the arm of Glum’s father turns into the aforementioned two-by-four, or when a team of semi-invisible bodyguards semi-appears to defend Glum from sniper fire. Yet as these examples suggest, Prunty elevates deus ex machina to an art form by making each occurrence more outlandish — and therefore entertaining — than the last. Indeed, half the fun of reading The Beard is turning the page to see what Prunty will do next as the god of his fantastically twisted realm. My sense, moreover, is that Prunty and writers like him aren’t playing with the conventions of traditional storytelling just for the sake of zaniness. Rather, they’re drawing attention to the artificiality of all stories by heightening our awareness of those elements that are most contrived. Glum’s quest to return the sacred flame to its rightful owners, for example, mirrors the plot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy almost perfectly, but the execution of the details reminds us that both stories are, in the end, stories. In so doing, The Beard also (and appropriately, given the double entendre inherent in the title) gives the lie to all efforts at storytelling. To wit, it’s all artificial, so we might as well go wild and have fun with it.

Of course, Prunty’s work, like bizarro fiction itself, is an acquired taste. Perhaps this is why he offers The Beard as a free download at Smashwords. My advice for the uninitiated is to check it out, kick the tires, and, if you like what you read, then buy the book–or any of Prunty’s seven other books that are either currently available or on their way. If weird is your cup of tea, then Prunty is your man.

Small Press Profile: Miss Nyet Publishing

In this post, I’m trying something new by profiling a small press. My goal is to present a new profile every few weeks (or months) to let aspiring writers know about presses that are in the market for new work and also (as always) to help promote independent publishers. If you’re a publisher who’s interested in having your small press profiled, please feel free to drop me a line at marc at marcschuster.com. This week, I spoke with Delphine Pontvieux of Miss Nyet Publishing, whose debut title, ETA: Estimated Time of Arrest, is now available.

Publisher Delphine Pontvieux

Where does the name “Miss Nyet” come from?

Miss Nyet means “Miss No” in Russian. It was the nickname my grandfather and godfather gave to me when I was a child even though we are French. Like every other kid, I went through a phase of saying “no” to everything. It did not stick as I grew up, but when I was searching for my company name, I thought, “Don’t publishers say ‘no’ to 99% of the queries and submissions they get? How appropriate would ‘Miss Nyet’ be for a publishing company?”

Really, it is just a facetious reference, and I like the way the name rings. It sounds cool, in a tough, yet inviting, sort of a way. As for the company logo, it is a swimming mermaid, because I am deeply in love with the oceans and the underwater world at large.

Why did you start Miss Nyet Publishing? How does your background in marketing factor into your efforts in publishing?

I have worked for 10+ years for very successful, 100% independently-owned record labels in the past. As a result, the independent model of doing business has always been very much engrained in me, especially when working for an industry largely dominated by ‘major’ companies. I always took it upon myself to get the work done. It can be risky at times but also very rewarding. Thus, when my novel was nearing completion, I never really thought about shopping my manuscript to agents and so forth. My editor, who used to work for a big publishing company in New York, advised me to try the ‘traditional route’ first, because she thought I had a good chance of finding an agent. So she presented my book to four of her prominent agent friends in LA, which is seldom heard of. I got a reply the very next day from one of them. She liked my writing, but thought the story was too political for her audience. I did not hear back from the other three. I told myself, “OK, so we tried that. Now it’s time to really get to work.”

While I was putting the finishing touches on my novel, I contacted a lawyer and laid the foundations for Miss Nyet Publishing, LLC. It made all the sense in the world to me. I WANTED to create my company, just as much as I wanted my book to be read.

By releasing my own work first, I am learning the ropes, as well as getting acquainted with many interesting people who work in retail and media. I make mistakes, learn from them and find a better way to do things. I am laying the foundation so that I am ready to release the work of other authors when the right time and opportunity come my way. It is a tough road, but there is not a day that I don’t learn something new, or regret the decision I took, and it is all very exciting. I am lucky I can put the experience and expertise I acquired while working in the music industry to the book-publishing business. I think my outlook is a bit unique because I have a fresh take on things, and I’m not afraid of breaking the rules because I don’t really know what they are just yet.

My motto is don’t wait around for someone to discover your worth. It may take years, or it may never even happen. Be proactive about the goals you set out to achieve!

What sets Miss Nyet apart from other small publishers?

It is hard to say, because the company is so young, still. I want my company to serve as a springboard for talented and undiscovered authors, a place to go for new writers who aren’t afraid to work hard to turn their dream into reality that allows them to develop from the ground up over time. If, somewhere along the way, someone’s work gets under a larger book publisher’s radar and the author is given the chance to move on to the next level, then we’ve done the right thing at the level we’re at. Small presses and large publishers should complete each other, not compete against each other.

What’s your ideal submission? Who is your ideal writer? Who do you want to work with?

I would love to find a great horror manuscript with a gripping plot that forces you to sleep with the lights on and characters who are so compelling and credible you recognize that there are people in the world like them.

Another original thriller with extreme sports and/or music as the backbone of the story would also be a great find.

My ideal writer would be a cross between Edgar Allan Poe, Emile Zola, Albert Camus and Stephen King. Are you out there?

Who would I want to work with? Stephen King. I’ve pretty much grown up with one of his books in my hand.

Do you have any projects currently in development?

Right now, I am focusing my efforts on the sale and promotion of my first novel, a thriller entitled ETA – Estimated Time of Arrest, which just came out in December and is getting very positive feedback. I am also getting started with novel # 2.

ETA: Estimated Time of Arrest

The process involves creating a network of media contacts, establishing relationships with bookstores and setting up accounts with distributors and chain retail suppliers, among many other tasks.

Wearing the writer’s and publisher’s hat at the same time can be exhausting work.  I also have to contend with the “Oh, so you’re self-published?” one-liner more often than not. To this, I reply, “Yes, indeed. But it makes all the sense in the world, because Miss Nyet is the company that I would choose for a publisher at this stage in the game. It is going to take time and effort to establish Miss Nyet and put the company on the map, but I am confident it will happen, and that I will get the chance to work with exciting authors in the future.”

For more information on Miss Nyet Publishing, visit www.missnyet.com.This just in… Miss Nyet Publishing is now distributed by Baker and Taylor books. What this means in practical terms is that it should now be easier for your to order ETA and all future Miss Nyet Titles through the big bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home

I was having what was arguably a bad week when I read If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home by John Jodzio, but every story in this debut collection offered a brief but much needed respite from the slings and arrows of the daily grind. Among other things, I had a stack of 60 freshman composition papers to grade (with another 30 or so papers looming on the horizon), I’d botched a job interview for a job I didn’t even want, and I managed to piss off at least two of my friends by inadvertently insinuating that their knowledge of aesthetics was somehow lacking. Then, of course, there was the snow, and the constant threat of more snow, and I was starting to go a little crazy — and probably would have completely lost it if not for the fact that I had Jodzio’s stories to look forward to every night. Some people drink to forget their troubles, but (this week, anyway) I was more than happy to lose myself in Jodzio’s world to get the same effect. (If you’re reading this, John, my liver thanks you.)

One thing I loved about Jodzio’s stories was that no matter how bad my week was going, I could count on his characters to be having much worse weeks than I could imagine. There’s the kid who stumbles upon a corpse while collecting golf balls in the local bog. There’s the sad clown who’s lost his dog. There’s the boy whose job is to pretend he’s the dead son of a lonely divorcee. There’s even the aspiring swimsuit model who wakes up from sunbathing one day to find that a barnacle has attached itself to her thigh. And the list goes on. In all, Jodzio presents 21 tales of woe, yet he never insults the reader by feeling sorry for his characters, nor do his characters ever feel especially sorry for themselves. They’re all dealing in good faith with a world that’s gone horribly awry, all playing the crappy cards they’ve been dealt and making the best of their bad situations.

None of this is to say that If You Lived Here is especially inspiring; that’s hardly the point. The point, I would venture to guess, is to say that life can be ridiculous at times, disappointing at others, and is largely a crap shoot, but that we just need to deal with it. At least, that’s part of the point, and I’d have loved this collection if it had just stopped there. But Jodzio, it turns out, is an optimist at heart. He doesn’t simply shit all over his characters to make us feel better about our own lots in life. Rather, he graces them with hope and leaves their lives open to miracles. To get a taste for what I’m talking about, check out his short story, “The Moonlighter,” which originally appeared in Five Chapters before being reprinted in If You Lived Here as “Whiskers.” It opens with a father whose desperation to keep his daughter from committing suicide leads him to open a veterinary clinic in his garage and climaxes with the best ending to a short story I’ve read in a long time.

Would I go so far as to say that If You Lived Here is exactly what America needs right now? Yes, I would: If You Lived Here is, in fact, exactly what America needs right now for so many reasons — perhaps most of all because it offers hope for the otherwise hopeless. If this collection is any indication of what’s to come, Jodzio is definitely a writer to watch.

How to Choose a Church or Synagogue – Review by Kerri Schuster

For most people, polite conversation avoids all things spiritual.  Fortunately, Ruth Laker has no problem sharing with readers her honest and humorous opinions and observations as she searches for the perfect church in How to Choose a Church or Synagogue:  A Twenty-One Pew Adventure.

The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, wife of a “recovering” Catholic and stepmother of two boys involved in Quakerism, Laker herself is a potpourri of traditions.  Not entirely happy with the church she most recently attended, she embarks on a yearlong quest for a new place of worship.  She takes us with her to modern synagogues, palatial holy spaces and humble, no-nonsense places of prayer.  We join her on her personal journey but are welcome to come to our own conclusions along the way.  In fact, she half-jokingly includes a rating chart for readers to customize for their own spiritual shopping.

Each chapter describes an experience with a different denomination.  There is no church she’s not willing to give a chance.  She experiments with varieties of Judaism and with a range of Christian groups from conservative to liberal.  She enters each sanctuary with an open mind and tries to leave behind her preconceived ideas about the people she joins.  Therefore, she is often surprised by what she finds.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bombard her with their evangelism.  The Presbyterians might have more money than God.  Some churches have convenient parking and clean bathrooms.

One common thread throughout the book is a concern about the role of women in each religion, and Laker frequently questions ministers, male and female, about leadership positions available to both sexes.  More than half the people who regularly attend religious services are female, and Laker seeks an environment in which women are welcomed as members of the clergy and not just relegated to duties in the Sunday school.  The writing on this topic is the book’s most clear, convincing, and heartfelt.

In an account that has the potential to take itself too seriously, Laker manages to write about religion in a way that is both sincere and entertaining.  She has many more positive experiences than negative and shows that choosing a church or synagogue does not have to be weighted down with the political and cultural baggage we might expect.  As she says near the end of the book, “…church people are basically pretty gosh darn nice.”

-Review by Kerri Schuster

Don’t Smell the Floss

The subtitle of Don’t Smell the Floss says it all: “amazing short stories by matty byloos.” Though it’s tempting to read this as a bit of snarky self-promotion along the lines of Kathy Griffin’s Official Book Club Selection, Byloos has the writing chops to pull it off legitimately. The fourteen stories collected in this volume really are amazing in every sense of the word. For one thing, they take the reader behind the scenes of lives we might not normally think about (or even want to think about) but which are no less real despite their clandestine nature. In one story, for example, he gives us a largely dysfunctional couple whose only meaningful communication occurs when they discuss the comings and goings of a fictitious serial killer. In another, he takes the reader behind the scenes of a pornography shoot to reveal the soft side of the business — which isn’t to say that he romanticizes his subject at all in this story. On the contrary, he explores the effect of pornography on everyone involved in the business from all of its intricate angles. Yes, the participants are jaded, but their lives are so complicated and splintered, their loneliness and insecurity so palpable, that it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for them.

The (at times bizarre) subject matter, however, isn’t the only thing Don’t Smell the Floss has going for it. It turns out that Byloos is an amazing (there’s that word again!) writer–a true “craftsman” of the written word, as one of the book’s blurbs rightly puts it. Stylistically, the book reads like a cross between George Saunders and Chuck Palahniuk; it’s fast-moving, occasionally gross, but always smart and funny in a disturbing “I can’t believe I just laughed at that” kind of way. Take, for example, the opening tale of this collection, “One Day, Letter from a Ghost Leg,” in which an amputated leg writes a love letter to the body from which it’s been severed. The premise alone is wild enough to win my undying respect, but what rockets Byloos into the realm of genius in my estimation is that the leg quotes Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist as it tries to make sense of the separation that has just occurred.

Needless to say, the fact that I find all of this so compelling says as much about me as it says about the book. Along these lines, it probably isn’t a book for everybody–but what book is? What I will say about it is this: If you like compelling, inventive writing and you don’t flinch (too much) at fairly gritty yet matter of fact descriptions of subjects like pornography, amputation, and masturbation (each a form of loneliness in its own way), then you’ll find a lot to love in Don’t Smell the Floss.

A Theory of All Things

It’s hard not to fall in love with Peggy Leon’s latest novel, A Theory of All Things, a comic drama that studies the competing forces of order and chaos inherent in all families. Representing order, more or less, is a character named Mary, the eldest sister and self-appointed lynch pin in a family of geniuses that appears, at first glance, to be hell-bent on falling apart. At the other end of the spectrum is Mark, a brilliant physicist whose faith in entropy is rivaled only by his social awkwardness. Filling in the spectrum between them is an array of artistically gifted siblings, absent parents, and hapless lovers caught in the crossfire of the family’s simmering yet mostly unspoken rage. Not since the opening chapters of Don Delillo’s White Noise have family matters been so complicated–or so true to life.

To tell the story of the dysfunctional Bennett family, Leon adopts the voices of all of her major characters. As a result, the narrative takes on a confessional quality, especially since each narrator is so willing to bear his or her soul to the reader. Yet here lies the heartbreaking beauty of the novel: even as the reader begins to understand where all of the discord within the Bennett family is coming from–and how much the siblings all really love each other–the characters never come to the same conclusions. The problem, of course, is that they’re not really talking to each other. They’re bottling their emotions and storing them for later use, all the while increasing the tension that drives the novel so forcefully forward.

Despite their differences and personality quirks, the Bennetts are a lovable family. Indeed, one of Leon’s major gifts as a storyteller is knowing how to keep the pressure building inside a narrative without blowing it apart. For the most part she does this with humor. Mark’s efforts at losing his virginity at the age of 36, for example, are as a funny as they are misguided. At the same time, though, Leon is also adept at inducing pathos, particularly with respect to the Bennett patriarch, Frank, whose losing battle with Alzheimer’s is accompanied by a tendency to wander both physically and mentally through the confusing landscape of his rapidly deteriorating memory.

All told, A Theory of All Things speaks both intelligently and emotionally to the complex nature of being in a family–or in any relationship, for that matter. Stylistically, Leon does a wonderful job of bringing the novel’s disparate narrative voices into harmony with each other. While this technique is, in some ways, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, readers will likely find a stronger parallel between this novel and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, or between the Bennetts and J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. All of this, of course, is to say that A Theory of All Things is in great company.

Pacing the Moon

In Pacing the Moon, Sandy Green demonstrates time and again that everything tells a story. In a poem titled “The Iron,” for example, a missing iron is not just a missing iron. It’s everything that left the relationship when the narrator’s lover took off: order, stability, what should have been permanence–but also the occasional bump in the road or intentional crease. By way of contrast, in “Pouring Tea by Way of Titration,” a shared pot of tea speaks to the minutia of shared memory that holds the most intimate of relationships together. As this pair of poems demonstrates, the collection also does a wonderful job of balancing the extremes that make a life: presence and absence, order and chaos, longing and satisfaction are all the subjects of Green’s poetry. Indeed, so schooled is she at the cosmology of everyday life that the most mundane of occurrences (dust settling on a porcelain cat, for example) serve as the backdrop for the most significant of realizations (time passes, life is not eternal, and, thus, we must learn to live in the moment, to appreciate the now). Weighing in at sixteen poems over twenty-one pages, Pacing the Moon packs a surprising punch and introduces Sandy Green not just as a poet but an ardent student of the tiny details that make us human.