reading

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.

Nothing Serious

imagesIn Nothing Serious, Daniel Klein presents the love song of Digby Maxwell, former pop-culture editor of New York Magazine and one-time darling of the Big Apple’s social scene. Divorced, jobless, and crashing on a friend’s couch, Digby lands an unexpected job as the editor of Cogito, a stodgy philosophy journal whose late publisher has left instructions from beyond the grave for his widow to jazz the publication up a bit. Desperately in need of a second act in his capacity as a self-proclaimed “professional bullshitter,” Digby jumps at the opportunity he’s been offered. Indeed, he sees his editorship of Cogito as one last chance at realizing his lifelong aspiration to do something useful. Upon accepting the job, however, he immediately finds himself embroiled in the petty politics of the small-town college that hosts the philosophy journal, and in love, somewhat unexpectedly, with a Unitarian minister whose personal life is nearly as complicated as Digby’s.

Needless to say, Nothing Serious has all the makings of a zany yet compelling novel of ideas. Throughout the narrative, Klein expertly balances the elements of a good page turner (plot, character development, intrigue) with thoughtful and witty commentary on the collective efforts of our species to make sense of the world. There’s Digby, whose firm belief that “sometimes the best course of action is just to toss a wrench into the works and see what kinds of havoc it wreaks” keeps the novel percolating at a healthy pace, and then there are the philosophers whose names and theories lend the book depth while, ironically, also leavening the proceedings. The “flinty optimism” of Leibnitz’s theory that we live in the best of all possible worlds, for example (and echoing Voltaire’s Candide), boils down to the old truism that things could always be worse, while Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on love reduce the philosopher, in Digby’s eyes, to “a scumbag justifying his pigatude with some existential bafflegab.”

All told, Nothing Serious is an amusing and intelligent novel whose title and beguiling narrative belie the depth of the ideas that Klein is working with. Humanity, the novel ultimately suggests, will never figure it all out, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we keep trying.

To read an except from Nothing Serious, visit 2Paragraphs.

Back in the Game

Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protests to the contrary, there are plenty of second acts in American lives, and Charles Holdefer’s Back in the Game offers a case in point. The novel follows former AAA and European League baseball player Stanley Mercer as he struggles to make a life for himself as a schoolteacher in the small town of Legion, Iowa. That Stanley has never graduated from college is the least of his worries as he falls for a married woman who also happens to be the mother of one of his worst students.

Throughout the novel, Holdefer develops a perfect level of synergy between setting and character. Like any small town, Legion is home to a wide range of endearing individuals, not the least of which are a pair of misfit siblings named the Snows, who ride the school bus with Stanley amid a constant barrage of verbal slings and arrows from their classmates. Yet while the people of Legion may fit the traditional profile in many ways, Holdefer offers a complex vision of Small Town America that firmly resists cliché. Indeed, while the townspeople cheer their high-school football team by donning rubber pig noses and squealing from the sidelines, methamphetamine abuse runs rampant behind closed doors and environmental disaster looms on the horizon in the form of a massive sewage lagoon. To put it mildly, the simple life has never been so complicated.

Back in the Game explores the changing face of Middle America in a moving and nuanced way. Quirky as they are heartbreaking, Holdefer’s characters come across as nothing less than fully human in this loving study of the relationship between people and the places we call home.

Related: A Conversation with Charles Holdefer.

Isaac: A Modern Fable

As Ivan Goldman’s Isaac: A Modern Fable nears its conclusion, one of the novel’s narrators makes a telling observation: “Whatever we think we know, we’re just guessing, like everyone else.” In context, the narrator, Ruth, is commenting on her familiarity with a slippery and sinister academician named Borges, but the line also captures the essence of the novel itself. Drawing heavily on the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, this “modern fable” serves as a telling commentary on humanity’s ongoing struggle with questions of religion and our intimations of the divine. To wit: What’s the difference between those who claim to hear the voice of God and those who are just plain crazy?

The novel centers on the romance between its two narrators, Lenny and Ruth. Complicating matters is the fact that Lenny is actually the Biblical Isaac, reports of whose death, he quickly informs us, have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, he’s managed to hang on to his life for over 200 generations without aging so much as a day—forgotten, in his words, by God and the world. But not, it turns out, by another immortal known only as “the beast.”

The fantastic nature of the novel suggests a more mature, not to mention literate, version of the Twilight series. But if Lenny is a world-weary answer to Stephanie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, Ruth stands out as a far more willful, mature, and headstrong antidote to Bella Swan. That the novel also takes shots at ivory-tower academia and celebrity culture while dropping references to the likes of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, and Toni Morrison only adds to the fun.

A tale of Biblical proportions playing on the fringes of magic realism, Isaac is a compelling novel about what we accept and what we deny and how we struggle to tell the difference.

Domestic Apparition – Review by Cindy Zelman

Meg Tuite’s book, Domestic Apparition, struts boldly along the edge of a tight rope woven of hilarity and tragedy. You might laugh and cry in the same chapter, on the same page, in the same sentence. This book is brilliant.

As a reader, Tuite leaves me spell-bound as she explores the lives of a modern family: Dad, clearly a son of a bitch who shows mom the right way to slice a tomato in an astounding metaphor of abuse. Mom, who barely says a word, until Michelle hears a tragic cry come out of her one day over a deep loss. Older sister Stephanie is a rebel, perhaps a lesbian, or maybe just a lesbian to spite mom and dad; and narrator Michelle is a wonderful interpreter and tour guide of the harsh world in which she must navigate, exposing the truths and underbellies of our American family life.

Published in 2011 by San Francisco Bay Press, each chapter of Tuite’s book is its own work of art – ranging from the beautiful prose poem of “Religion,” to the dazzling narration of Michelle-turned-observant- anthropologist in “Family Conference.”  Most of the stories in the book have been published in literary journals and “Family Conference” was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest for New Writers in 2010.

This is a book for readers and writers.

Tuite mesmerizes the reader as we learn, through Michelle’s eyes, the story of her life, beginning at the age of six when she is drafted into the “human abuse” of Catholic schools, replete with wretched nuns assuming men’s names; and through her early adulthood, where, working for a bloodsucking corporation, a true human connection is finally, and unexpectedly, made.

As a writer, this is one of those books (few and far between) where I say on nearly every page: I wish I could write like this. Meg Tuite goes wild with the English language but never loses control. I am enthralled by her abilities to do what she does with prose. She is a brilliant stylist and storyteller. Open to any page and you will find a sentence (usually many) that will knock your socks off.

Here’s one:

“Every night my grandmother limps out of the liquor store with the submissive stoop of the genuflected and the promise of a liturgy to come in a bottle.”

I’m still looking for my socks, which were blown clear across town by that sentence and so many more.  Brava!

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!