Month: November 2011

Farley’s Bookshop: Friend of the Small Press

Given the ups and downs of both the publishing industry and the business of bookselling over the past few years, it’s no wonder that a lot of attention among book lovers has been turning (or returning, as the case may be) to independent bookstores. A recent headline in Salon.com exhorted readers to support indie bookstores, while the poet Will Nixon recently issued a holiday appeal to not only buy local but read local as well: ” ‘Buy Local,’ yes. But why not ‘Read Local’ too? I wish that the enthusiasm so many people share for local businesses and independent enterprises could find its way to books.”

In a similar spirit, Farley’s Bookshop of New Hope, Pennsylvania, has recently begun to work with a handful of small, independent presses to provide readers with what the store’s website describes as, “the best reading material possible.” With this in mind, Small Press Reviews recently chatted via email with William Hastings of Farley’s Bookshop about the Farley’s decision to feature small press titles.

You’ve dedicated a big chunk of prime real estate in your store to books from small presses. What was behind this decision?

The decision to bring in as many small presses as we can came about primarily from our being fans of the books we were reading on small presses. We were looking for ways to diversify our stock and it seemed natural to reach out to the small presses that we were reading. We were also trying to come up with new models of buying and highlighting books within the store, since the old models of publisher and bookstore relations seem to be getting dated very fast. Once we started figuring out a plan that would allow us to bring in the small presses at no risk to either the press or ourselves, we reached out to some of our favorites. They all bought the idea with great enthusiasm which only served to make us more enthusiastic about the project. After that we were pretty much up and running. As for using the majority of the very front of our store for the small presses, that too was a pretty natural decision. What better way to turn people on to them than to not hide them in the genre sections, but give each press their own real estate at the front of the store? It’s a bit like buying records that way. Used to be you’d know something would be great when it came out on your favorite record label, even if you didn’t know the band or act. Small presses work the same way.

What attracts you to small presses?

The risk taking, the quality of literature, their hell-or-highwater stand behind their authors. After 2008 when the economy tanked, many great writers who weren’t big sellers found their way to the small presses and haven’t left. Between that and the profusion of print-on-demand technology that allows a press to run without overhead there’s a boom in small press activity right now. They’re taking bigger chances than the major presses in many ways. While the big presses still house wonderful writing there’s certain things they aren’t doing and much of that is found in the small presses. From a bookseller’s point of view it’s a wonderful scenario. As voracious readers it’s like being a pig at the trough.

What has the reaction among customers been to your small press initiative?

At this point it’s really incredible to see. At first we could see that some customers didn’t know what to make of it. But they asked questions, we made recommendations, we walked them through it and now we have many customers that come in regularly just for the small press offerings. We’re always making new converts as well. People come in all the time, check out the presses and walk away with something and they’re very excited to be discovering something new. We put shelf talkers—brief descriptions/recommendations—about the books beneath them and since they are from us that helps. People shop here because they know we’ll make a great recommendation for them. And they trust us enough to help them branch out into presses, or genres, styles, they might not read regularly. One of the coolest things we’ve seen is a woman who drove almost three hours round trip because we had her favorite small press in here.

Do you get the sense that readers make a distinction between small and big press books, or are they just looking for something good to read?

They make the distinction only because we’ve highlighted the books in a different manner than large press books. There’s certainly an aesthetic to each of the presses and people have figured that out, but for the most part people just want a really good book to read.

Are there any small press titles that you’ve personally fallen in love with or that you think more people should be reading?

There’s so many. Here’s a quick list:

  • Eric Miles Williamson “Welcome to Oakland” Raw Dog Screaming Press
  • Larry Fondation “Unintended Consequences” Raw Dog Screaming Press
  • Michael Gills “Go Love” Raw Dog Screaming Press
  • William Matthews “New Hope for the Dead” Red Hen Press
  • Kwame Dawes “Wisteria” Red Hen Press
  • Steve Kistulentz “The Luckless Age” Red Hen Press
  • Pinckney Benedict “Miracle Boy and Other Stories” Press 53
  • Meg Pokrass “Damn Sure Right” Press 53
  • Surreal South ’11 anthology Press 53
  • Shelley Stenhouse “Impunity” New York Quarterly Books
  • Luke Johnson “After the Ark” New York Quarterly Books
  • Adam Hughes “Petrichor” New York Quarterly Books
  • Rene Char “Furor and Mystery” Black Widow Press
  • Paul Eluard “Capital of Pain” Black Widow Press
  • Dave Brinks “The Caveat Onus” Black Widow Press
  • Ha Jin “Wreckage” Hanging Loose Press
  • Robert Hershon “The German Lunatic” Hanging Loose Press
  • Shooting the Rat anthology Hanging Loose Press
  • Karen Lord “Redemption in Indigo” Small Beer Press
  • Raymond Hammond “Poetic Amusement” Athanata Arts, Ltd.
  • Lucius Shepard “A Handbook of American Prayer” Concord Free Press

And for every one of these there’s five we left off the list that we loved. It’s simply too big a list….

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the experience of working with small presses?

It’s been an incredible experience as both a bookseller and as a reader. We’ve been turned on to incredible writers, incredible books, made some wonderful friends, been able to offer free writing workshops and poetry readings to our customers (small press writers we have in stock have been coming from as far away as Mississippi to do those), we’ve watched our customers get amazed and fall in love with certain books, we’ve had wonderful late night bar discussions over some of the small press books we’ve read. And most importantly we’ve been able to help support great art. For any of your readers out there they should be asking their local bookseller to support and stock these writers. And if their bookseller doesn’t know how to go about doing it so that it is at no risk to them financially, have their bookseller contact us here at the store, we’re more than happy to pass on how we did it. We’d love to see this all over the country.

For more information about the small press initiative at Farley’s Bookshop, read “Farley’s Bookshop Goes Big with Small Presses” on the American Booksellers Association website. Better yet, visit the store at 44 South Main Street in New Hope, Pennsylvania, the next time you’re in the neighborhood!

A Thinking Man’s Bully

From the traditional schoolyard variety to their online cyber-cousins, bullies have been the focus of much national debate over the last few years. Gone are the days of turning a “kids-will-be-kids” blind eye to the issue; now, responses to bullying run the gamut from zero-tolerance school policies to efforts at understanding what makes bullies tick. Falling somewhere on the latter end of the spectrum is Michael Adelberg’s honest, moving debut novel, A Thinking Man’s Bully.

In many ways, the novel draws easy parallels to television shows like The Sopranos and In Treatment, particularly in terms of Adelberg’s storytelling. Echoing the back-and-forth banter between Tony Soprano and his therapist Jennifer Melfi, the novel consists of a series of fictive essays in which narrator Matt Duffy attempts to work through some of his “issues” with his therapist/interlocutor Lisa Moscovitz. Indeed, Duffy is so aware of his television counterpart that he can’t help underscoring many of their similarities himself: they’re both from New Jersey, they’re both fairly overbearing, and neither has much faith in the therapeutic process. Over time, however Duffy comes to piece together the elements of his life that have led him into therapy — most notably the suicide of a friend many years earlier and the suicide attempt of Duffy’s son.

What drives Duffy into therapy is a deceptively simple question: Is there something about his personality that drives the people he loves to suicide? Or, to put it more bluntly, is he responsible? What emerges over the course of his therapy sessions is a much more nuanced answer than these questions might, at first glance, engender. Early entries initially come off as one-shot stories about the friends that populated Duffy’s childhood, but as the novel progresses, the narrator starts to see the big picture and recognize patterns not just in his own behavior but in the behavior of his son. The apple, it turns out, doesn’t fall far from the tree.

While the comparison to The Sopranos is easy to see, I was also struck by the structural similarity between A Thinking Man’s Bully and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales — albeit with a slight twist. Where Chaucer depicted a range of characters who each trotted out a basic premise and then told a story to illustrate that premise, Adelberg reverses the formula by having his narrator tell a story and then explore its implications as he visits with his therapist. The effect of this pattern is to allow the reader an added angle into Duffy’s psyche; in addition to watching him dredge up memories old and new, we also see him gain a stronger sense of self-awareness. Ultimately, it’s the narrator’s gradual evolution that makes the novel so compelling.

The material in A Thinking Man’s Bully is certainly heavy, but it’s leavened with deadpan humor and wry observations that make for a highly engaging, bittersweet read, not unlike paging through an old yearbook or a family photo album. Additionally, Adelberg’s straightforward prose works the minor miracle of balancing bluntness and nuance as he examines difficult and complex issues throughout the proceedings. All told, A Thinking Man’s Bully is a superb debut.

- Review by Marc Schuster

Small Press Bulletin

Sophomoric Philosophy: It’s a classic case of art versus commerce in Victor David Giron’s debut novel, which follows a first-generation Mexican-American accountant named Alex Lopez as he attempts to balance his artistic inclinations with the realities of life in contemporary Chicago. Should he follow his muse, or stay on the straight and narrow? Somewhat reminiscent of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao but with a more explicit philosophical bent. Check out Lavinia Ludlow’s full take on this novel at Plumb.

Speaking Truths: A compelling first-person narrator akin to a latter-day Holden Caulfield makes Dayna Hester’s debut novel about the long-term psychological effects of child abduction an engaging and emotionally complex read. Landon Starker is a young trouble maker whose home life is anything but secure. Yet when he’s forcefully removed from his home, Starker is also forced to confront a memory he’s long kept repressed. Part character study, part page-turner. To read an excerpt, visit Atticus Books.

Love Fraud: At well over 600 pages, Donna Andersen’s Love Fraud is equal parts memoir and handbook. Throughout the book, Andersen touches on such topics as how sociopaths manipulate and deceive their victims as she recounts the tale of how her psychologically tortuous marriage to a sociopath led, eventually, to spiritual fulfillment. To read a short essay by Andersen on why she wrote Love Fraud, visit Colloquium.

-Posted by Marc Schuster

Smoke Damage

Michael Schwalbe’s Smoke Damage isn’t quite the book I expected. Where I thought I’d be reading a fire-and-brimstone anti-smoking tract, what I got instead was a fairly objective examination of smoking as both a social and medical issue in the twentieth and twenty-first-centuries, a snapshot of the tobacco wars as they currently stand. The book consists of a collection of brief first-person accounts of people whose lives have been affected by tobacco in some way: tobacco farmers, doctors, legislators, cancer survivors, and others. Each account is accompanied by a photograph; indeed, the photographs alone (all taken by Schwalbe) make the book worth perusing. Needless to say, Schwalbe comes down against smoking and the tobacco industry throughout the book, but he manages to do so in an even-handed and decidedly non-preachy way.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Twoweeks

On the surface, The Twoweeks by Larry Duberstein is a masterful story about extramarital relations and the complications inherent therein. Read a little closer, and it’s about the eternal tension between time and memory.

The plot of the novel revolves a pair of more-or-less happily married young lovers who don’t happen to be happily married to each other. To do away with any potential sexual attraction they might have for each other, the pair decide to embark on a two-week fling — hence the title of the novel. Yet what starts off as a simple fling (as if such a thing could ever exist) turns out to be anything but simple.

While Duberstein’s treatment of the emotional peril inherent in the novel’s basic conceit is both nuanced and intensely human, his framing of the tale lends texture to the narrative. As readers, we learn about the events thirty years on as the key players argue over seemingly petty details and reminisce almost antagonistically over the time they shared. The effect of this layering is to raise many issues about the tangled relationships between time, memory, and identity. And, like all good art, The Twoweeks poses more questions than it answers.

Throughout the novel, Duberstein’s talents as a prose stylist are in full bloom, and the author emerges throughout as not just a master of well-wrought phrases and descriptions, but as a true student of the human condition. Consider, for example, his take on what he terms “the eternal spousal question”: To the eternal spousal question (“What’s wrong?”) the eternal answer (“Nothing”) can never be rendered convincingly… If the question must be asked, then “Nothing” is simply not among the plausible answers.

Truer words have never been spoken!

All told, The Twoweeks is the work of a master wordsmith whose intimate knowledge of the human heart is rivaled only by his perspicacity, a writer who is comfortable dealing with uncertainties and who understands that a good question can sometimes be worth a thousand answers.

-Review by Marc Schuster

God Bless America

Reading Steve Almond’s short fiction collections in relatively rapid succession is a little bit like listening to your favorite band evolve over the course of several albums. The movement from Almond’s My Life in Heavy Metal to The Evil B.B. Chow to his latest, God Bless America, is akin, for example, to listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sergeant Pepper in the order they were recorded. All of this is a complicated way of saying that as good as each of Almond’s fiction titles is — as honest, as compelling, as attuned to the mysteries of the human heart — the next still manages to break new ground and go new places. Almond, in short, is still capable of not just wowing his readers but of surprising them as well.

What’s especially striking about this collection is that it sees Almond exploring and at times pushing the boundary between the real and the surreal. Early on, he presents the story of a would-be tax preparer whose love of acting gets him tangled up in a Boston-tea-party-themed drug ring. Elsewhere, a dying patriarch takes cues from a hallucinatory bird as he struggles to offer fatherly advice to his mostly estranged son. And then, of course, there’s the American accountant who finds himself all but trapped by a Sheik in a luxury hotel in the United Arab Emirates. Given the current political and cultural landscape in the United States, the odd turns in this collection feel entirely appropriate: surreal times call for surreal fiction.

Although things tend to take a turn for the strange throughout God Bless America, Almond’s characteristic fondness for humanity and its myriad competing desires continues to drive his fiction. Indeed, the author comes of first and foremost as a student of the human condition. Throughout the collection, he depicts a wide range of characters doing their utmost to do well by each other — the mother struggling with her son’s PTSD, the young waiter trying to keep an unhinged customer happy — while simultaneously trying to eke out a small modicum of happiness for themselves. In this sense, the book is highly realistic.

We are a hopeful species, Almond is at pains to illustrate in each story. More to the point, however, his stories suggest that our hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, is actually warranted. Life is strange and frequently challenging, but on the whole, life is also ultimately good.

-Review by Marc Schuster