small press

Don’t Start Me Talkin’ – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

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Told through the eyes of young harpest Silent Sam Stamps, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a fanatical tale about the spirit of Delta blues, and what it takes to stay true to the music in a modern society plagued with a short attention span and a lust for mainstream pop.

Together, Brother Ben—the Last Delta Bluesman—and his protégé Silent Sam Stamps climb into an old Caddy Brougham and tour the nation performing songs off their chart-topping album. Hardly a stereotypical tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the duo upholds a strict respect for themselves, each other, and their art. They live modestly, doing coin laundry, sharing hotel rooms to reduce costs, and shrugging off scene temptations, commercial exploitation, and crass audiences who pressure them to perform songs like “Soul Man.”

The story bursts with eccentric and original character. Williams sets his tale in contemporary society where grande coffees and Kinkos exist, “jooks” have high-priced paraphernalia on the walls, and the duo pays their bills with a gold Corporate Amex. Brother Ben, real name Wilton Mabry, tries up uphold his image of “smoking dynamite and drinking TNT” by leaning on a stage dialect and a stage cough, and habitually swigging from a flask. In reality, he’s an articulate health nut who eats well, exercises, maintains an intense vitamin regiment, and keeps his flask brimming with caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper.

As the tour wears on, Silent Sam finds himself increasingly conflicted by the style of music he’s performing alongside The Last Delta Bluesman:

“I’m pretty sure the only recording we’d make would be for a commercial. Maybe even under Kent Bollinger’s direction. For the United Negro College Fund, perhaps. Or a fried chicken franchise.”

The quieter of the two—think neutral narrator Nick Carraway-ish—Sam keeps his head to the ground and his mouth shut, and focuses on perfecting his craft, playing with heart, grit, groin, and gut, and searching for the right audience that would truly understand his music. The duo’s fan base often consists of college professors, health-food storeowners, and “all others who graduated but never found reason to leave Missoula, Ithaca or Athens, GA.”

“I look out in the crowd every night and never see just what I’m looking for,” Silent Sam says. “What we’ve got tonight are young, Soloflex types, tanned and dressed in bright colors and eager to toss each other around a dance floor. The blues faithful come to exalt in the presence of an authentic artifact of some quasi-southern, quasi-African past. Tonight’s crowd would make Jimmy Buffet happy… a payphone is getting as rare as black blues fans.”

It’s easy to get lost in Williams’ crisp narrative, and burn through the novel from cover to cover. Details unfold naturally, and I never found myself straining to re-read a sentence, cringing at an awkward passage, or cutting around fat to get to the meat of his message. Take the opening line:

“It’s said that when Robert Johnson arrived in a new town, the first thing he looked for was an ugly woman who owned her own house. That way, Bob could depend upon a place to sleep, food on the table—he’d supply the liquor—and a bed partner likely as starved for affection as he was.”

Williams lays the story to rest with one of the most extraordinary and well-written conclusions. Never cliché or predictable, we come to learn how powerful and unbreakable the bond is between the two bluesmen, and how it perseveres in the face of tour stressors, musical infidelity, and even retirement. The curtain will rise again for Silent Sam Stamps and Brother Ben in one form or another, and together, they’ll fight to keep Delta blues alive and authentic in an ever-changing contemporary society.

Released in February of 2014, this title is available for purchase over at Curbside Splendor.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Orphans – by Lavinia Ludlow

695-2In Ben Tanzer’s novella, Orphans, the world is a violent dystopia beyond salvation. Natural resources have dissolved, homeless encampments flood the shores, and the planet is an industrial wasteland. Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.” Human clones known as “Terraxes” tend to household duties when the breadwinners leave on business. “The Corporation,” a merciless version of “the man,” has eyes on everyone, and if civilians loiter too long on the sidewalk to beg for a job or protest government fascism, helicopters gun them down like enemy soldiers trying to cross no man’s land.

In the old city of Chicago renamed Sector Six, Norrin Radd embarks on the hopeless and self-defeating search for financial security, identity, and the ever-elusive American Dream. With a wife and son to support, he mans up and takes a job with Joyful Future Real Estate as a salesman who dupes the rich “1-percenters” into relocating to a planet with questionable potential and an unknown future.

Tanzer sets the mood well for his flawed protagonist, Norrin. He is haunted by mysterious traumas of his childhood–as a kid, he saw his father “snatched” by “The Corporation” and found his mother dead after she allegedly committed suicide. He’s treading through an economic recession–“I am tired of sitting down at the kitchen table every night and talking about which bill should be paid this week, and how that will be possible when there is no money,” and trying to stay alive in a merciless civilization that guns down civilians in cold blood and creates human clones for temp work and organs.

Like most of Tanzer’s work, chapters are fast-paced, succinct, and contain no fat, dead ends, or draggy dialogue. Background details unfold naturally through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and paint a vivid image of Norrin’s internal struggles:

“I should know what to say, loving someone means knowing what to say, or at least knowing how to fix something after you’ve broken it…Instead I am about to break something and I know it, but feel powerless to prevent it…because it’s easier to leave when you’ve fucked things up…I hate myself and my inability to express my fears to her, and this self-hatred quickly mutates into rage, and the rage needs an outlet, and she looks up at me, so sad and vulnerable, which makes me hate her more, and I suddenly want to punch her in her beautiful face, break it and break her…”

For the most part, Tanzer respects the sci-fi element by not overdosing on the bizarre. He writes about conflicts and struggles consistent with those that many deal with today: unemployment, poverty, marital strain, soul-sucking jobs, and personality disorders induced by early traumas. Tanzer also recognizes the social implications of introducing advanced technologies into a culture hardly mature enough for radical change, such as the distress and heartbreak that Norrin feels when he sees a Terrax acting as the husband and father figure in his own household. At times though, the story’s naming conventions come off as senseless and unintelligible. Titles like the “Joyful Future Real Estate” and the “Happiness Sector” make me question why a sophisticated society with commercial space travel and “Terraxes” would elect such asinine titles for its businesses and districts. If Tanzer was trying to mock society’s fall from grace, the inconsistent attempt falls flat.

Scene transitions are often disorienting (but unavoidable with flash-like chapters), and the ending feels like an anecdotal obligation jammed in a single wide-margin page. The stunted closing does no justice to the overall story given the futuristic setting and Norrin’s emotional state of mind, which Tanzer did such a phenomenal job developing throughout the novel.

All in all, Orphans is an imaginative and sobering tale of one man’s final attempt to rise above his inner demons, an economic collapse, and a floundering society. Highly recommended.

Check it out over at Switchgrass Books.

What’s Your Poison? (an interview with Karen Lillis)

Karen Lillis selling books at her pop-up bookstand, Small Press Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Laura Zurowski

Karen Lillis selling books at her pop-up bookstand, Small Press Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Laura Zurowski

Last month I brought news of Small Press Roulette, a new service designed by Karen Lillis to add the element of chance to the business of connecting readers with small press books and journals. Personally, I love the idea. Confronted with the wide range of indie offerings that the 21st-century publishing world has to offer, it’s almost impossible to decide what to read next. Sure, it’s a bit of a gamble, but playing Small Press Roulette means I don’t have choose, which is a big deal for me because I’m the poster-child for indecision. Curious about Small Press Roulette, I placed an order (reviews to come!) and emailed Karen with a few questions…

How would you describe Small Press Pittsburgh?

Small Press Pittsburgh is an evolving small press showcase. It’s a bookstore that started out as a web resource. Right now it is four things: a pop-up street bookstand (in Pittsburgh) selling indie press books, zines, and journals; a curated bookstore service (“Small Press Roulette”) for small press readers everywhere; a web directory for literary Pittsburgh; and a Facebook page for Pittsburgh literary announcements.

The bookstand has a heavy emphasis on Pittsburgh authors and publishers, and browsers so far have been most excited by discovering Pittsburgh authors. With the bookstand, I’m interested in bringing the larger indie lit world to Pittsburgh, while also making Pittsburgh’s emerging authors (and publishers) better known to Pittsburgh readers (especially outside the lit scene). With the bookselling service, Small Press Roulette, I want to introduce the best of the underground small press to readers who aren’t over-familiar with the authors I’m sending them. There are more great writers than the ones who are getting all the hype. Or, sometimes a writer is getting the hype, but not in a wide enough area—they’re some city’s local celebrity while remaining a national secret.

The mission of Small Press Pittsburgh (in any form) has always been to promote small and micro- presses and make them more visible—easier to find for anyone who’s looking. It started with the web directory, creating listings for all the indie publishers of Pittsburgh. Now I guess I’m getting impatient—it’s not enough to passively promote. Now I’m willing to stand on the street with all those indie publishers’ books and talk to people until they buy one. “We’ve got fiction! We’ve got poetry! We’ve got graphic novels! What’s your poison?” I’m like a carnival barker once I smell a passerby who’s genuinely curious about the books.

Small Press Pittsburgh has also been interested in cross-fertilization from the start. One big aim of the website is to help writers and publishers from outside Pittsburgh who are planning book tours and readings—I want to demystify Pittsburgh’s reading venues and bookstores in order to bring outside readers here. Now I get to cross-fertilize readers and writers through the bookstand and the roulette bookselling. I get to sell Baltimore zines to New Orleans, Pittsburgh memoirs to New Jersey, Pittsburgh graphic novels to San Diego, and San Francisco fiction to Pittsburgh. And so on.

How long has it been in operation?

The website started in 2008, and expanded a few times. The Facebook announcement page has been around for a couple of years. The pop-up bookstand started in early July 2013, and Small Press Roulette began in late July 2013.

What gave you the idea to do it?

The website came about because I came to Pittsburgh and saw a small but vibrant, dedicated but balkanized literary scene. It seemed like the academics kept their distance from the underground writers, and the “literary” writers didn’t always associate with the zinesters or the slam poets. I was in library school when I created the website for a cataloging class. Thinking as a librarian, I wanted to show what a healthy literary scene Pittsburgh had by democratizing each facet. To a librarian, each of those literary scenes is equal. Whereas the people inside the scenes can be blinded by concerns of the ego: Worrying whether their scene has enough clout or convinced that their scene is so much better than the others.  As an outsider, I thought it would create a point of strength just to show how much was going on in Pittsburgh, to record it all in one place.

Evolving into the pop-up bookstand happened much more recently. I was inspired by a few different sources. I was following Mellow Pages Library really closely, a new small press library in Brooklyn. And I kept organizing Pittsburgh’s small presses to give me copies of their books, and I’d send them as library donations en masse. I’d label the packages “from Small Press Pittsburgh.” Next the Polish Hill Arts Fest was coming up, a street fair here where I had tabled as an author the previous year. The organizers were asking me to come back, but I wasn’t convinced it was worth it to sit there with my own novels. One of the organizers, Laura Zurowksi, knew about the packages I’d been sending to Mellow Pages. She suggested I could do the same thing—get books together from local publishers and showcase everyone’s, not just my own. I loved the idea, it made me excited about tabling again.

I think sometime after hearing about The Newsstand in Brooklyn, I bought a book/magazine rack, supposedly to augment table space at the arts fest. But as soon as I bought it I felt like I could sell books anywhere. Since then I’ve been popping up at events like gallery crawls—my next event is the grand opening of a library.

What are some challenges you face with the SPP bookstand?

Rain, wind, gravity. Every outdoor event has been under threat of severe thunderstorms. The first time we set up the bookstand, a good gust of wind came through and blew almost every book off the stand and onto the sidewalk. We clipped a trash bag to the back of the stand, which helped that dilemma. The physics of the bookstand itself is something I’m still working out—the “shelves” are very shallow, which is good for face-outs, but it’s easy for a book to start a domino effect. One book leans forward at the wrong angle, and in a few seconds, twenty books have fallen off. This is tedious because the books start to get damaged if they fall two or three times. Not terribly so, but visibly. It reminds me of another challenge—when the books are threatened by damage from falling or rain, it makes me see a very-low overhead operation (a lot of consignment books) as hundreds of dollars of stock I’m suddenly responsible for. Which is fine, as long as I adjust my thinking.

What do you enjoy about it?

I love connecting people to books. Readers love discovering new books, so I love watching people get curious, start to browse. I try to gauge how much book talk they do or don’t want. Some people want to be talked into a book, others feel like that’s condescending. Often it’s more like conversation between book lovers—”I loved X book for Y reason, you should check it out.” Other times it’s just describing the basics so it piques interest without sounding like arm-twisting. “This is a true crime novel about a group of misfits working on an underground newspaper.”

Part of the enjoyable work is behind the scenes—curating a selection of books I know are great reads, or interesting small press items. I want books I can stand up for, and book design that’s bold and eye-catching, books that feel good in your hand. There’s books that are good reads but that have terrible design—they’re too POD, they have terrible font or colors, or they’re way too stuffy looking. Some books have a cover so dull it screams, “I CAN BE SOLD AT A READING OF SYMPATHETIC PEOPLE BUT NOWHERE ELSE.” I don’t always have time to convince people what’s between the covers. There’s a brief window where my potential customers might stay interested in my bookstand or might keep walking on to wherever they were actually headed. I want books whose design suggests in a glance how urgent and interesting the content is. I want books whose design is half the sell.

What gave you the idea for Small Press Roulette?

The Polish Hill Arts Fest was a big event for the bookstand, and I had gathered a lot of books for it. There was a lot of anticipation. I was checking the weather, which was calling for 0% chance of rain—I kept checking all week and that’s what it said, over and over, “0% chance of rain.” We ended up having five excellent hours of selling books—our area was always busy with browsers—and then a deluge came out of nowhere. Hard rain for over an hour. The stands weren’t quite all the way under a tent, and I had overstock sitting on a lawn….It was very stressful getting the books put away quickly and unharmed, and it was really disappointing to be cut off from the best day yet for the bookstand.

The next morning I took the momentum of all the browsers and invented Small Press Roulette. I wanted a rain-proof way for people to have access to the books. But at the same time, I’m not interested in promoting the books individually on the internet. Why are readers going to enjoy my jpeg book cover over Amazon’s jpeg book cover, over Powell’s jpeg book cover? Internet book sales is a cutthroat game. People want the lowest price, or they want their go-to bookstore, or they want to buy direct from the author or the publisher. One bookseller can knock themselves out hyping a book online and the customer will still go to Amazon or Ebay looking for a lower price. I can’t compete with those things. But I knew I could try to harness the excitement that far-flung readers had expressed when the news first came out about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand. I think that the Kickstarter phenomenon has shown us that people want to support ideas they’re excited about, and the people behind those ideas. And publishers Richard Nash of Cursor/Red Lemonade and Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio have both talked about giving customers a chance to support the author or publisher at different price points or different levels of involvement. Readers want to be involved with the writer, but different readers will have different financial capacities. Some people want to be involved for $2 and others want to be involved for much more. Right now Small Press Roulette goes between $2 and $15, but I’m planning to expand it. I already had an order from a bookstore for $75.

What makes it fun?

Connecting people to books I think they would genuinely like thrills me. I sometimes do a lot of research when I get an order. In a way, it means I’m working as a Small Press Librarian for the first time. A lot of people think I am a working librarian because of the title of my blog, but library jobs are scarce in this economy. I’m trying to invent the small press library job I’m built for. This is like Reader’s Advisory meets bookselling.

Helping writers and books I believe in find readers who devour them is another thrill. I hate watching talented writers work hard to languish in obscurity.

Photo Credit: Robert Lee Bailey

Photo Credit: Robert Lee Bailey

Links of interest:

Twenty Four Hours Zine blog interview about the Small Press Pittsurgh bookstand: http://twentyfourhourszine.blogspot.com/2013/07/small-press-go-go-talking-with-karen.html

Gigantic Sequins interview about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand:

http://giganticsequins.com/spotlights-2/spotlight-karen-lillis/

Karen the Small Press Librarian blog:

http://karenslibraryblog.blogspot.com/

Small Press Pittsburgh website:

http://smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com/

Small Press Roulette:

http://smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com/Small+Press+Roulette

Small Press Roulette

Here’s a new game from Karen Lillis, a.k.a. Karen the Small Press Librarian: Small Press Roulette. Visit the Small Press Roulette page on Etsy, choose your price point and your basic genre, and Karen will send you a small press item from her indie press pop up bookstand, SMALL PRESS PITTSBURGH, that she thinks you might like. Many books are from Pittsburgh’s best authors or indie publishers, but Karen also has books, zines, and lit mags she’s carefully selected from other cities like SF, NYC, Baltimore, Chicago, LA, and more.

Karen Lillis rocks Pittsburgh with her pop-up small press book stand. Play Small Press Roulette and get one of the titles on her rack!

Karen Lillis rocks Pittsburgh with her pop-up small press book stand. Play Small Press Roulette and get one of the titles on her rack!

The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax

Wallace_AMAT_CVI’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who could read an entire book by David Foster Wallace, but I’ve always been intimidated by their sheer length–not to mention the density of their prose and the level of minute detail with which the author observes the world at large. But the good folk at Madras Press — the proceeds of whose books go to nonprofit organizations — have, with the publication of The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax made it possible for me and readers everywhere to boast without lies or exaggeration that they’ve read — not merely skimmed or glossed or hefted or otherwise demonstrated an awareness of — one of Wallace’s books. (Though, to be completely honest, it’s a slight exaggeration, as The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax is actually an excerpt from The Pale King, but who’s counting?)

In many ways, The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax reads like a cross between a tax manual and a latter-day version of Catcher in the Rye. Wallace’s reputedly preternatural attention to detail and minutia is on full display throughout the narrative, particularly since his narrator is afflicted with an odd combination of OCD and malaise that leads him to count every word he hears without ever really understanding what any of them mean. Indeed, this curious manifestation of OCD makes the narrator somewhat of an outsider — or a “wastoid,” in his own words — cut from a pattern highly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield.

Much of the narrative deals with the protagonist’s fraught relationship with his parents, a mother whose own personal and emotional issues make her ripe for consciousness-raising reawakening in the early 1970s, and a straight-laced father who wants nothing more than to see his son succeed through hard work and, for lack of a better phrase, the gumption he just doesn’t seem to have. His journey, then, is both personal and, in an odd way, spiritual, for as the narrator comes to grips with all of his own idiosyncrasies, a Damascene encounter with a substitute tax professor points the way to a new life for the narrator and a reconciliation of sorts with his father.

The above revelations, by the way, aren’t spoilers, as Wallace reveals nearly everything relevant to his plot very early in this 177-page book, a strategy that frees him to riff on all manner of topics and to philosophize ad infinitum about the nature of humanity in the final quarter of the twentieth-century. Engaging, quirky, and oddly spiritual, The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax makes for an excellent introduction to Wallace.

Note: All net proceeds from the sales of this book will benefit Granada House, a substance addiction-recovery facility in Boston MA. Residents of Granada House are provided a safe, stable environment in which to begin their substance-free lives, with supportive peers, counseling services, and a variety of integrative 12-Step programs.

Want, Wound

Want, WoundI’ve admired the work of Nicole Monaghan for a long time, so I was very excited when she asked me to provide a blurb for her first collection of fiction, Want, Wound. The blurb I provided reads, “A loving exploration of the tender corners of the human heart and the empty spaces we all long to fill.” While this blurb does a decent job of capturing what Nicole does so well in all of her work, I’m not sure it does her book justice. Throughout the volume, she takes every opportunity she can to inhabit the skin of “the other.” Sometimes this involves imagining what it must be like to be a man. Other times, she explores the inner world of children yearning to impress their parents or insecure teens trying to make sense of the world or adult women struggling with addictions. In every instance, Nicole come across as a true empath, an author with a preternatural ability to feel the pain and love and longing of every character she imagines. As a result, Want, Wound is a moving, touching, tiny wonder of a book.

Vs. Death Noises

vs-death-noises-marcus-pactor-paperback-cover-artIn the final story of Marcus Pactor’s Vs. Death Noises, a man discovers a single hair in his bathroom and obsesses over the shape it has taken. The problem, he realizes, is that geometry can’t solve his conundrum because geometric definitions are “concerned with perfect impossibilities” whereas the world we live in is “a world of approximations.” The human experience, in other words, only translates to “[a]pproximate forms, approximate phrasings, approximate feelings.” To put it another way, we’ll never communicate perfectly with one another. Something is always lost in the translation from the lived experienced to the written or spoken word no matter how hard we try. It’s a theme that Pactor explores throughout this collection in a way that allows him to simultaneously explore the exquisite agony of the human condition.

Early on, this agony settles on a young woman struggling to understand her relationship with the man in her life only to discover that she’s unknowable even to herself in many ways: “I could not have done anything but cling to Bander because what I have been calling mistakes were simply the motions of my love and these motions were always uncertain, no matter what smiling mask I wore.” Elsewhere, it gnaws at a restaurant worker feeling remorse over an ill-fated fling with his manager: “She might try to will indifference, the same as every one of us, but my failure had nicked her heart. We all get nicked. They add up over time, and then some people lose it… and others it pills, and we tell ourselves not to care. Inside, though, we’re this bubbling cauldron of fears. We cover it with a heavy pot top and forget it on the stove.”

Yet if it’s our tendency to bury emotions deep within ourselves that contributes the most to our inability to ourselves and each other, Pactor is doing his best to uncover the hidden emotions that make us human, to lift the heavy pot top off the human heart, as it were, and shed light on the pain and suffering that are frequently so hard to describe that language fails whenever we try to talk about them. Hence, perhaps, Pactor’s fondness for the downtrodden. His characters include a starving runaway, a father and son almost wordlessly mourning the death of their wife and mother while drowning their sorrows in booze and Mel Brooks movies, and a wide range of hapless strangers trying desperately to connect with each other and the world around them.

As the stories in Vs. Death Noises all indicate, we’ll never achieve geometric perfection in our efforts at connecting with each other, but Pactor’s fiction offers hope that we can all find solace in trying.