reading

Shelf Unbound

Just a quick note to say that the latest issue of Shelf Unbound is now available. It’s a free e-journal that covers everything that’s great in pop culture, with a focus on all things indie. Definitely worth a click, and I’m not just saying that because one of my reviews appears in the latest issue.

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!

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey distills in its purest form author Steve Almond’s literary aesthetic by collecting a series of micro-essays on the ins and outs of writing and then exemplifying those ins and out with a brief selection of flash fiction. The result is what may be the most concise and helpful book on how to write fiction ever published — a pocket-sized catechism for writers at every stage of the game.

Early on, Almond offers a definition of writing that calls to mind the advice Grady Tripp offers his students in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. According to Almond, “Writing is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less. Where to place the comma? How to shape the paragraph? Which characters to undress and in what manner? It’s relentless.” From here he goes on to discuss the various decisions that writers need to make with respect to plot, style, point of view and a host of other issues.

In the shortest of his “essays,” Almond offers a one-sentence definition of plot: “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” In the event that this definition needs further elucidation, he goes on to offer a supplemental essay on the subject titled “A Quick Survey of Where Your Plot Went Wrong.” (Hint: it probably has something to do with your characters and how you treat them.)

Elsewhere, Almond proffers such invaluable pieces of advice as “Metaphors Almost Always Suck,” “Excessive Emotional Involvement Is the Whole Point,” and “Slow Down Where It Hurts.” He also asks a pointed question: “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll?” As these titles suggest, the author pulls no punches when describing the difference between good writing and bad, yet he’s also quick to admit in a piece titled “This Is Just My Bullshit” that the dicta he has on offer are purely subjective.

As with all books on writing, the best the author can do is provide guidelines for writing the kind of fiction he likes to read. Fortunately, Almond’s tastes run a fairly wide gamut, and his talent as a fiction writer — as evidenced not only by the flash fiction included in this brief volume but also by his excellent short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil BB Chow — renders his an opinion worth considering.

If you’re a writer, buy this book. If you’re a reader, buy this book. If you have either writers or readers in your life, buy all of them this book.

– Review by Marc Schuster