Short Stories

Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World

In Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World, Pat Pujolas demonstrates a strong talent for parsing the subtleties of character. Early in this collection of interconnected stories, the author offers a brief vignette about an aging woman named Doreen whose self-assessment suggests that we all must transcend petty categories in order to be fully human: “She wants to tell Roxie that she is more open-minded than them. That she agrees with the overall structure of the church, but not all of its teachings. That she would vote in favor of gay marriage if it ever comes up on the Ohio ballot.” That Doreen eventually falls back on her faith as an out when her relationship with Roxie begins to take on unexpected proportions only serves to further complicate her character: she knows who she wants to be but frequently falls short of her ideal self.

And so it goes with the majority of the characters in this debut collection of fiction. Pujolas describes a wide range of characters, each haunted as much by who they want to be as by who they’ve been. Chief among these characters is Jimmy Lagowski, a twenty-year-old with a scarred face who dreams almost incessantly of an idealized race called the Ceruleans, an asymmetrical species whose shape “gives them a better sense of what fairness is.” That Jimmy should be selected for jury duty in the murder trial around which all of the stories in this collection coalesce is therefore fitting: asymmetrical himself in many ways, his sense of justice is as nuanced as it is complicated.

Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World offers much for the reader to consider, not the least of which are meditations on the nature of humanity and justice—and how these two concepts relate to each other. What’s more, Pujolas’ use of the  of the Ceruleans as a device for framing many of the concepts in his writing evokes the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and to similar effect insofar as both alien races force us to step outside of our own frames of reference to think about ourselves from a new perspective. We are broken, Pujolas suggests throughout this collection, yet not without hope.

A promising debut.

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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

Tongue Party

Weighing in at just under 80 pages, Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party is nothing short of amazing. Focusing mainly on the theme of hunger, this debut collection showcases the talents of an author whose imagination is matched only by her economy and precision with language. Take, for example, the opening story in the collection: with a few deft strokes, Etter carries her reader from the ingenious if seemingly outlandish premise of a beach awash in koala bears to an all-too-human (and thus oh-so-painful) portrait of the alienation and disappointment inherent in all great coming of age stories; think, if you will, of a bizarro version of James Joyce’s “Araby” (substituting koalas for sexual yearning — work with me on this one) and you’ll be well on your way to picking up the vibe of “Koala Tide.”

Elsewhere in the collection, Etter offers us “Cake,” in which a wife lies beholden to her husband’s desire to watch her gorge on baked goods. Reversing the scenario in “The Husband Feeder,” the author depicts a man whose insatiable appetite leads him on a gustatory rampage that his wife can only grin and bear in the name of love. And in perhaps the most delectable of Etter’s tales, a grown man dons a chicken mask in an effort to deal with his wife’s passing — much to his daughter’s chagrin.

Needless to say, while hunger is at the heart of Etter’s strange yet captivating tales, the insatiable appetites of her characters speak volumes to the myriad conflicting and often unrequited desires that drive us all. We want love, we want sex, we want so badly to please, the stories collected in Tongue Party seem to say, but no matter how close we come to satiating our demons, something about the human condition always leaves us wanting more. Indeed, like the protagonists in the majority of Etter’s stories, I, too, was left with a desire for more — more quirky characters, more weird scenarios, more of the author’s spectacular, delicious writing. Truly a wonderful debut.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (and the future of books)

As is well-documented, there’s been a lot of anxiety in recent years about “the future of the book.” Lately, that anxiety has focused on e-books and whether they’ll supplant traditional books as our preferred literary medium. Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. But one thing’s certain: e-books can’t do the kinds of things that titles from Chicago-based Featherproof do. Scorch Atlas, for example, has the look of a book that’s been through hell and back. Daddy’s looks, at first glance, like a fishing tackle box. And Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature can, if the reader is ready, willing, and able, be converted into a working model of the solar system (see diagrams below!). You just can’t do that with an e-book no matter how hard you try. Yes, these titles are available in e-formats, but half the fun of owning them is just plain looking at them — or “accidentally” leaving them out on your coffee table for your guests to admire and enjoy. To put it another way, these books are cool.

The other half of the fun inherent in Featherproof’s titles, needless to say, is reading them. As reported in an earlier post, Christian Tebordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a mind-bending roller-coaster ride of a read, and Patrick Somerville’s aforementioned The Universe in Miniature in Miniature follows in the same vein. Indeed, the works in Somerville’s collection display a colossal range of imagination and emotional depth. He is an author who is as comfortable depicting the end of the world (as in the apocalyptic “No Sun,” which sees the Earth stop in its tracks without cause or explanation) as he is following the burgeoning passions of a teenage girl (as in the coming-of-age tale “The Wildlife Biologist”).

Significantly, Somerville is also funny, as initially evidenced by the book’s dedication to Slartibartfast (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and borne out through subsequent tales of wayward, incompetent aliens, grad students in unaccredited MFA programs, and a balding man desperately seeking matriculation into an overseas institution known only as Hair University. The humor in all of these situations is, of course, balanced with pathos, underscoring the exquisite ambivalence of the human condition in ways reminiscent of both Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen. Our struggle for happiness, these stories suggest, will always be undercut by our tendency to screw things up, yet it’s our tendency to screw things up which, ironically, makes us keep trying (and failing, and trying again) and, not coincidentally, also makes us human. We are flawed, and we are beautiful, and we are funny. Patrick Somerville sees all of it (and then some), and reports lovingly on our shared humanity throughout The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. It is, in short, an amazing collection of stories.

Most likely, we’ll be debating the future of the book until the Earth does, in fact, stop in its tracks, but as long as small presses like Featherproof — which is to say, people who care deeply not only about storytelling but about books themselves, the very experience of reading a book, the thrill of regarding a book as more than a medium for conveying information but as a work of art in and of itself — have anything to say about it, the printed word will continue to thrive. If you or someone you know is a book lover, do yourself a favor and check out this wonderful press.

Build your own solar system with Patrick Somerville's THE UNIVERSE IN MINIATURE IN MINIATURE!

The Small Press Reviews Holiday Gift Guide

Once again, the holidays are upon us, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably faced with the conundrum of knowing loads of avid readers but not knowing what to give them because, to put it bluntly, they’ve already read everything. But fear not! Small and independent presses have plenty of great books to offer, and chances are good that the readers in your life haven’t yet stumbled upon these undiscovered gems. What follows is a list of my favorite small presses, broken down by their specialties and genres. Peruse their catalogs… You’re bound to find something for everyone on your holiday gift list!

Novels: Followers of this blog know that I’ve reviewed and loved many titles from The Permanent Press — and with good reason. From mainstream to mystery, they have it all. Specifically, books like The Chester Chronicles and Elysiana offer compelling and nostalgic takes on the 1960s, and To Account for Murder is a noirish page-turner set in the 1940s. Though not a novel, Doris Buffett’s memoir, Giving it All Away, offers much insight into what drives Warren Buffett’s sister to, as the title suggests, give so much of her fortune away to those in need.

Short Stories: Featherproof Books just showed up on my radar, and I’m blown away by the care they put not only into selecting the titles they publish, but also in designing their books. Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a heck of a mind-bender, and Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature has to be seen to be believed.

Poetry: For the poetry lover on your list, you can’t go wrong with Write Bloody Books. Write Bloody specializes in poetry collections from touring poets — so, to paraphrase the theme from The Monkees, you better get ready (if you turn your friends on to any of WB’s poets), they may be coming to your town! I recommend Jeanann Verlee’s Racing Hummingbirds and Robbie Q. Telfer’s Spiking the Sucker Punch.

Graphic Novels: Another recent discovery of mine, Conundrum Press is nothing short of awesome. Line Gamache’s Poof! offers a madcap rumination on the relationship between the artist and her muse, and fans of CBC Radio’s Wiretap (with Jonathan Goldstein) will revel in Howie Action Comics by souvlaki aficionado and longtime Wiretap regular Howard Chackowicz. Speaking from experience, I can say that there’s nothing cooler to a comic book geek than “discovering” a new artist, so definitely give Conundrum a look if you have representatives from this species on your list.

Of course, this list of presses is far from comprehensive, but who knows? If you give a couple of these independent publishers a chance, you might end up a fan for life — and the readers in your life will marvel at your good taste!

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.