I will be presenting on screenwriting at the Rally of Writers in Lansing, MI on April 9.
Saturday, December 11, 2021
It's been sometime since I've read a small press book and had the opportunity to offer a review. Quite honestly, in these times, I've had trouble sustaining what was a pretty robust reading/reviewing regimen. I've had trouble sustaining much interest in my own writing "career." It feels like months ago when I began reading Avner Landes' Meiselman: The Lean Years (Tortoise Books). I finished it this week and sit down now to offer a review on what is a troublingly windy day here in Michigan.
Some who follow my blog know that I have committed to reviewing small press books exclusively. I submit to small presses and have had books come out from small presses. I am a small press author and seek to support the venues that have supported (and might yet again support) me. The reading and reviewing of small press books has been no begrudging journey. I love cracking open a new small press book because I never know what I'm in for... and that's in the best possible way. Small presses are where you will find the cutting edge, the new, the experimental and, in my opinion, the literary.
As The Big Five presses remain enamored of profit, they become more and more like Hollywood... less likely to take on something fresh and more likely to take on the formulaic, the tried, the true... The Smurfs VII: Papa Smurf Gets His Groove Back.
In this paradigm, the literary, the experimental, the quietly-important, the something new under the sun, and the truly brave often find their champions in small presses. Not only do I admire small press publishers for taking the risks with their time and finances as they do, but I also admire the writers who write the books that small presses publish.
I’ve read and reviewed so many amazingly brave books over the last year or so. I call them brave because it already takes enough courage to sit down to write conventional fiction, but to sit down hour after hour and write a book that you know won’t likely find an audience… but it’s still a book that compels you? That’s true writerly bravery.
I think of The Field is White (KERNPUNKT Press) by Claire Akebrand about a snowbound Mormon missionary in Sweden (review: here) or Homeless’ This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far (Expat Press), which follows a depressive on a ridiculous road trip with a cartoon cat (review: here) or Silt (Alternating Current Press), an historical novella set in 1856 Cincinnati (review: here)
As I read these books, I often find myself smiling, thinking, “How’d they do it? How did they ever believe in these ideas/books enough to finish them? Knowing the high potential for a lukewarm to cold reception, how did these writers bring themselves to the keyboard each day?”
That’s what I love about all of this… reading books that I never would have written myself with ideas that I would have dismissed as outrageous or sales suicidal. And yet they do it, and they are good, and people should be buying and reading them. I’m awestruck by the act of writing, but even more so by the act of writing the oddity.
And that, finally, brings me to Landes’ Meiselman: The Lean Years… another brave and compelling and odd book. The book tells the story of a week in the life of Meiselman, an events coordinator for a library in the Chicago neighborhood of New Niles in the early 2000s. He’s bringing in a controversial writer to read at the library during a period in Meiselman’s life in which he has decided to be a more assertive, perhaps even more aggressive male… because, mid-thirties, he’s concluded that being a doormat hasn’t given him the respect he feels he deserves.
The world of the novel itself is refreshing, set at a time before the dominance of social media. The lack of technology is additionally fueled by Meiselman’s frugalness on display when his wife asks for a dvd player, and he responds, “How many movies do you plan to watch?” He certainly wouldn’t be the type to rush out for a cell phone. I relish a world in which authors don’t have to write about characters staring into their palms and checking Facebook.
Landes’ is a master at creating and sustaining a fully-fleshed out character. Some other reviewers have compared Meiselman to the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces and, while at first I agreed, I grew to have sympathy for Meiselman that I never really did for Ignatius J. Reilly.
Meiselman has quite a series of mishaps and adventures, including petty workplace politics and jockeying for position, bringing his wife’s underwear to his Rabbi, discovering a neighbor’s body, and a very telling, brief reunion with his big shot big brother… a cringeworthy encounter that reveals so much about the headwaters of Meiselman’s neurosis. It is also the scene from which my sympathy for Meiselman truly began.
Meiselman is in many ways all of us, if we allowed our most shallow, our most vulnerable, our most taboo and our most neurotic thoughts to be on full display. Almost like our own is available to us, Meiselman’s mind is opened to us through the narration as though a frog pinned to a dissection pan. It begs from the reader the reaction, “What would people see if my own thoughts and longings were so openly on display?”
Like many of us, Meiselman’s intentions aren’t nefarious. When he pursues a pink-haired younger woman who has been reading Shakespeare for her college course, he acknowledges to himself that she’s attractive enough, but what he craves from her isn’t sex, but instead is adulation and respect. He revels in the idea that he could somehow be a mentor for her. More than anything, he wants her to be in attendance for his story’s climax, when he will “debate” Shenkenberg, the visiting author.
At one point, Meiselman purposefully bumps into the pink-haired woman outside the library and discovers that she’s acquired a library card:
“Now that you’re a card-carrying member you should think about taking advantage of our wonderful programming. The name Izzy Shenkenberg ring a bell?” he asks, handing her the flier in his hand. When she does not reply, he continues, “Controversial writer. I’ll be hosting him for a reading this coming Sunday. Then we will have a debate-slash-dialogue. Fireworks expected.”
Meiselman’s ego and self-doubt are fully on display, as he talks about how he, not the library, is hosting Shenkenberg. His talk of “fireworks expected” is hopelessly pitiful, but also hopelessly human.
That’s the beauty in the novel, if we are honest with ourselves. It’s not just Meiselman on display, but many of us. The book takes place while social media is in its nascent phase, but what will be our openly pitiful display of desire for relevance, as evidenced on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, is foreshadowed by Meiselman’s own arrogant and pitiable thoughts.
While reading, I guessed at the many ways the book would end… especially Meiselman’s much anticipated encounter with Shenkenberg. Most of what I imagined didn’t come to fruition, but instead was ended much more artfully and fruitfully by Landes.
Will we see Meiselman fall on his face? Will we see him triumph? No, much truer to life he does a little of both. But even in his triumphant moments on stage with Shenkenberg, Meiselman realizes:
“Yet, sadly, gone are the days of Lincoln-Douglas when people could endure the exchange of profundities for hours on end. As much as Meiselman wants this to never stop, since at the next event Ethel will be back on stage, and he will be the one running up the aisles passing notes, nobody asking what he thinks of the state of Jewish fiction, or what role Jewish writers have in bringing peace to the Middle East, the audience will turn resentful if he and Shenkenberg go on much longer. Free food is, by now, all that is on the minds of audience members.”
Before I wear out the patience of your reading capacity, let me just add that one of the truly wonderful moments in the book is to realize that Landes wrote a book within the book… or at least pages from Shenkenberg’s book. Shenkenberg reads aloud from his work, and one pauses a moment to smile and think, “Good god, Landes wrote this, too.”
That full circles back to my earlier thought, my earlier joy with taking on the reading and reviewing of small press books. As I read, I get to ask silently of the author, “How did you do it? How did you keep returning to your computer screen? How on page 200 didn’t you ask, ‘Why am I writing this? How will I get anyone to read this fever dream?’ How did you bring this from questionable premise to seemingly ludicrous scenes to finally literary treasure. How did you take it from farce to fiction that ends so perfectly?”
And even in writing this review, I become Meiselman. I recognize Meiselman in myself. How much of this review is my own pontificating? How much is an attempt at celebrating my own words as much as Landes’? Am I being honest with myself if I don’t admit that in the writing of this, I haven’t numerous times imagined the likes, the retweets, the comments… the echoing cheer of “what a review, what a review, what a review!”... my own anticipated and expected fireworks.
You will experience a true treat in diving into Landes’ Meiselman: The Lean Years. And, if you allow yourself, you’ll experience the recognition of a little Meiselman in yourself.
If you’re going to give this book a spin, don’t go to the Amazon dealership… try first to buy it directly from the press: here
Tuesday, August 17, 2021
As fiction readers, we have certain expectations when it comes to a novel. We expect conflict; we expect a plot; we expect well-developed, sympathetic characters; and we expect a build-up to a satisfying ending, which often brings some kind of redemption or at least ties up the various threads of the story. Just on a basic level, this is what we expect we’ll find, but that’s not saying that’s what we should find.
True, novels that defy those expectations are taking a big risk. Such novels run the risk of being called boring or pointless or navel-gazing. They run the risk of ending up on many “did-not-finish” piles. But, then again, it’s the novels that take these big risks that have the potential to be the most intriguing, the most surprising, and the most rewarding. That’s definitely the case with Patrick Park’s novel, Tucumcari (KERNPUNKT PRESS).
It’s hard to describe exactly what Tucumcari is beyond saying that it’s wholly engaging. Is it a roadless and buddy-less buddy-road trip book? Is it a story really more about the past than it is about the present or future? Is it a story that’s taking place at all or only in our unnamed protagonist’s troubled mind? What is truth and what is fabrication? To what extent can we trust the narrator of the tale? These and others are all intriguing questions that the novel raises. And, like with the best novels, the symbolic possibilities of what exactly this story represents are seemingly endless.
None of this is surprising considering that KERNPUNKT PRESS describes their aesthetic as follows on their website: “We enjoy symbolism, non-traditional plots, unique characters, taboo, and experimentation. We like challenging. In short, we value art over entertainment.”
Tucumcari begins with the protagonist waking to the realization that he has a wife or at least, “I should say I remember believing I have a wife. Why this occurs to me after so long is a mystery” (1). From the jump, the narration already establishes that we can’t necessarily believe everything the narrator tells us. Does he have a wife or does he believe he has a wife and, like in life, is what we believe actually more of a truth for us than what is fact?
The narrator lives in a neighborhood that, if we are to believe him, is comprised entirely of men. Additionally, an endless precipitation of ash falls from the sky, coming from the town’s windowless factories. Our narrator tells us that he teaches English as a second language, and his students are largely made up of people who work in the factories. The significance of the ash and the itinerant workers is never fully explored, but they provide ample fodder for a reader who’d like to go deeper with symbolic interpretation.
As the narrator plans for his road trip to the town of Tucumcari where, in his mind, he will find and reunite with his wife, he decides that he must also take his childhood friend, Boyd Delmarco. They’ve grown apart since childhood (if they were ever truly friends), but the narrator has been a faithful listener to Boyd’s very popular radio show. The narrator tells us that Boyd is no longer on the air because Boyd’s “lungs are turning to glass. The capillaries are crystalizing. The bronchia are turning rigid and transparent. Soon he will be as fragile as a wine goblet. If he falls, his chest will shatter” (25). The narrator attributes this to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is a very serious lung disease, but the actual symptoms are scar tissue, not tissue turning to glass. The narration of Tucumcari almost reads like conspiracy theory… with just enough grounding in truth to be believable.
Research. It’s something I found myself doing several times while reading the novel. Of course, doing research sounds tedious but, in the case of Tucumcari, part of its pleasure is the questioning of its very convincing details. So many times I found myself reading and then asking, “I wonder if that’s true?” And then off to Google I’d go.
As the narrator prepares for his road trip, he recalls many memories, especially of his parents. He remembers his father looking up at the sky at a murmuration (giant, flying whorl) of starlings. The father says, “It’s how they fool hawks into thinking they’re all one big bird” (82). This explanation is partly true. Bird experts, instead, hypothesize that the murmuration actually makes it more difficult for a predatory bird to select a single starling to attack. Of course, either explanation could be correct. Is the narrator’s father any less or more correct than the hypothesizing bird experts? Or, again, does what we believe become our own truth… the catalyst, for good or for bad, of our actions?
The narrator remembers that his father was among the soldiers who worked on the atomic bomb. The experience left him with a founded, or perhaps unfounded, paranoia which saw him continuously moving his family from place to place because he “knew enough about radiation to know you were never really safe from it and sitting around in a hole or under a sofa wasn’t going to do much to save your life. His plan, besides trying to avoid places where the bomb might be dropped, was to be ready to outrun the radiation. Which is why we had boxes we never unpacked and why we never bought any furniture. Everything we owned could be put into our station wagon” (90).
So certain was the father that there would eventually be an atomic war that he lived his life acting according to that “truth.” Isn’t this true of all of us in some way? Isn’t that just the subjectivity of truth?
At another point, however, the narrator creates a complete fabrication when he explains that Sandusky, Ohio is sinking and sliding into Lake Erie “at the rate of one inch per year. This doesn’t seem like much, but if you’ve lived in Sandusky for a while, you notice things. You notice that the walk from your house to your mailbox at the curb is much steeper now. You notice that the angle of the sun is different, which makes the light different, which makes sunsets more spectacular, especially in the fall as the days grow shorter. The days seem even shorter because of the sinking and sliding” (98).
The narrator also tells us that President Eisenhower was inspired to invest in our current interstate system by the autobahn in Germany, which is true. In this same section of the book, the narrator says, “The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways also required that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections would be used as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies” (105) which is not true.
Again, a blending of fact and fiction that becomes an important component in Tucumcari’s effect on the reader. Did the narrator’s father really help work on the atomic bomb? Is the narrator in sound mental health? What exactly is meant by the book’s anti-climactic, yet mesmerizing ending?
Tucumcari is a book for our times as our own perception of what is fact and what is fiction is tested every day, leading us to causes and quests that, like with the novel’s narrator, might not be causes and quests at all. Tucumcari does not play by the traditional rules of novel-writing, and it is that which makes it all the more intriguing, mysterious and, well… novel.
Finally, Tucumcari exists because a small press took a chance on it. Small presses need more than reviews like this one; they need readers of the review to take the next step, and that's to buy the book. I am going to provide a link to KERNPUNKT's catalog page. If you buy directly from the press, both the author and the press make more money. But, you can (if you insist) find Tucumcari on Amazonopoly too.
Purchase Tucumcari: here
Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. In 2022, Montag Press will publish his dystopian novel, Falling Sky. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.
Sunday, June 27, 2021
A novella set in 2073 telling the story of the few survivors (and their descendants) of a pandemic that took place in 2013.
Sound like the work of Cormac McCarthy? Perhaps Ray Bradbury? Maybe Margaret Atwood?
I was surprised to find out instead that a novella with this premise was written by Jack London and published in 1915… a good thirty years before Albert Camus’ The Plague would see publication.
Coming in at under 20,000 words, London’s The Scarlet Plague can be read in a few hours. The actual plot is fairly simple, too. An old man (a rare survivor of “the Scarlet Death” and a former English Professor) recounts to his half-attentive grandsons the onset of the plague and the early years of his survival up until he found other survivors. He speaks too of the world lost to the plague.
The world of 2073 is sparsely populated, and nature thrives without the prevalence of people.
Is the book a dystopia? A utopia? Something in between?
London seems to suggest that as long as there are people, there will be no utopia. Our very nature seems to thrust us toward dystopia.
It’s part of what makes this novella kind of fascinating. Why exactly did London write the book? What’s his point?
It would be a great book to teach and discuss.
In terms of plot, very little happens in the present of the story. The bulk of the book is the old man, Professor James Howard Smith, talking about the past. His nearly-feral grandsons listen while they also tend to their goats, cook mussels and crabs, and scheme dreamily for more power within the structure of their tribe.
Power. Progress. It's what London suggests got humankind to the point that a mass killing via plague was even possible.
One can’t help but wonder if what London is implying is that the world is much better off without humankind. Even as they eat crab, Smith says to the boys, “But there weren’t many crabs in those days. They were fished out, and they were great delicacies […] And now crabs are accessible the whole year around.”
Smith is an interesting character, too. He seems to lament the world that the plague took away, but his lamentation is akin to a Gone with the Wind kind of feeling… as though he laments a corrupt world that really never should have been.
He speaks of a woman, Vesta Van Warden, “the perfect flower of generations of the highest culture this planet has ever produced.” She’s rich, married to the President of the Board of Industrial Magnates. Her world is a world of servants and, even Smith admits that in the pre-plague years, Vesta wouldn’t have lowered herself to speak to him.
Smith talks about how Vesta survived the plague only to be enslaved by her chauffeur in the post-plague years. Smith weeps for her, but seems to miss the irony in the fact that in the pre-plague years, her chauffeur was essentially her slave and treated no better.
I was told that in his novel, Martin Eden, London makes his titular character anti-socialist. He wanted readers to see Martin as flawed for his anti-socialist beliefs, but readers largely missed it, leaving London to lament to Upton Sinclair, “I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it."
I wonder if London intended also that Smith be a flawed narrator, mourning a lost world that in hindsight hardly merited mourning.
I often think about that… about our 2021 world… and wonder, “What if we are doing this all wrong? What if we have been, almost from the jump?”
I think we are, but I digress.
The contradictions in Smith’s lament are the beauty of the book. It really would make for excellent discussion in a book club or classroom.
Even as Smith goes on and on about the lost world, his grandson Hare-Lip makes the astute comment, “What a gabble the old geezer makes.” It's all so much words, and the boys can hardly believe that their grandfather's "profession" used to consist of standing in front of a room making words about other people's words. Smith even realizes that his highly specialized skills in literature have left him nearly useless now that the world has pushed humankind to exist much lower on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
And Smith, too, has moments where he doesn’t so much lament the lost world of his youth as he does the lost nature of humanity.
Looking at his grandsons, whom he considers “savages”, he says, “The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization. When we increase and feel the lack of room, we will proceed to kill one another.”
That statement alone holds out little hope for humankind. Interestingly, considering that Jack London is celebrated as a pioneer in what would become science fiction, his sentiments are echoed in the sci-fi classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day when Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a reprogrammed terminator, explains to a young John Connor about humankind, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”
How I leapt from The Scarlet Plague to Terminator 2, I’m not certain. But I’m letting it stand.
The delete key will see no action this day. As Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “No bulls would die today” or, in this case, “no bullshit would die today.”
I quit drinking ten weeks ago, so I don’t know where this is coming from.
In short, The Scarlet Plague is a fascinating and quick read. I would highly recommend reading it closely before or after reading London’s The Iron Heel, which I discuss: here.
Friday, June 25, 2021
The sole convert of a young Mormon missionary in Sweden dies. John, the missionary, ends up snowbound with the estranged daughter and wife of the deceased as John attempts to make arrangements for what will be a paltry funeral for Emil, a man both large and small in his significance. Confined by cold and an ongoing blizzard, the people populating The Field is White face memories, regrets, revelations, and quiet longings.
This novel, written by Claire Akebrand and published by KERNPUNKT Press, is a slow burn of a read with complicated characters, an atmospheric style, and a tragic sense of what can happen when we, inevitably, invite others into our lives.
The publishers explain on their website that the point of the press “is to discover the heart of unique literature and art,” and they’ve done just that with The Field is White. It’s the kind of book that might only find its champion in a small press as, sadly, the bigger publishers are driven more and more by concerns of plots, profits, and platforms.
More and more, what we will refer to as important literature will be released from small presses, as the large presses operate like what we have seen in the growingly risk-adverse Hollywood.
And the advocating small presses will need our support in the way of word-of-mouth marketing and sales. It's what I'm trying to do with each book review.
I adored reading The Field is White. If you’re looking for a page-turning plot, you will not find it here; although, even with its languid meandering, I found myself turning pages fairly quickly. I was drawn into the book for the best reason of all… because the characters felt real, lifted from life to reveal themselves to the reader as each deal with what we all deal with – the compromises and small passions that comprise the bulk of our living.
The fact that this slow burn ends in an inevitable and tragic conflagration of events is all the more surprising and satisfying. It very closely mirrors life and its tendency to relegate us to the mundane to the point that we forget that tragedy is only a poor choice or two away from invading our existence.
In an interview on Big Other, Jesi Buell, chief editor and steward of KERNPUNKT, said, “We are less concerned with plot and more concerned with phrasing and creativity.” That aspect of KERNPUNKT’s publishing philosophy shines through in The Field is White.
Read the full interview with Buell: here
And another interview: here
While reading, I must have dog-eared over 25 different pages for possible quotes to include in my review.
It’s an overused word in book reviews, but I use it in earnest when I say that Akebrand’s language and turn of phrase is quite stunning.
In an early scene, the missionary looks out the window:
“John watches the landscape disappear under a clumsier one of snow. Under the snow, things become caricatures, their shapes exaggerated and blown up. The backyard, more like a giant’s yard. The pond—not even an indentation where it had been. The dog’s prints already unmade.”
As someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter can start in October and sometimes end in May, I very much felt the accuracy of the above passage.
In an interview, Hemingway once reportedly said, “I want to write like Cezanne paints.” Hemingway may have wanted to do it, but Akebrand often does it, seemingly effortlessly.
In the following passage, she describes an impressionistic memory John has of he and his brother walking as young boys:
“They heard a gravel sound in the distance. A cloud of dirt rose on the road before the car became visible. It passed them. A girl and a poodle in the backseat looked out of the window at the two brothers squinting in the noon heat. Her eyes clung to them as if they were phantoms walking down an endless road. George and John coughed at the dirt cloud the car was leaving behind. John covered his eyes from the violent sun. A deep sunburn was beginning to flower across his cheeks.”
And just as much as her words can move like brush strokes, they can also produce profound philosophy:
“When you are born, you splash into a sea of time. Time is a calm sea when you are a child. It begins to knock you about like rapids sooner or later. Old age feels like a swamp. We all drown in time eventually. No one can survive too much time.
People say that one runs out of time. But time gets into one’s lungs like water.”
Recently, I had an editor tell me that all similes must be expunged. Absolutes like that have always troubled me. Look at this simile of Akebrand’s to describe the distant sound of howling coyotes:
“Coyotes screeched in the distance over the hills and they sounded like thirty children wailing for home.”
Camping on Michigan’s Pigeon River while fly fishing, I have often been woken by the howling of coyotes, and I can’t think of a better way to describe their haywire racket.
The Field is White is a masterful book. You should purchase it for its use of language alone. You should purchase it directly from KERNPUNKT’s site to cut out the middleman that is the greedy Amazonopoly.
Get it: here
But, if you must, get it: here
In short, just get it.
I will be presenting on screenwriting at the Rally of Writers in Lansing, MI on April 9.
The sole convert of a young Mormon missionary in Sweden dies. John, the missionary, ends up snowbound with the estranged daughter and wife o...
As fiction readers, we have certain expectations when it comes to a novel. We expect conflict; we expect a plot; we expect well-developed, s...
When I was a young teen, I devoured Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang . For a time, as I’m sure is true of many young peopl...