A closer look at what you should be reading

When the fabulous Gina Frangello approached me to write a monthly column about books that cross my desk, my first thought was, “There are so many books, how will I decide what gets mentioned?”What I’ve realized is I have no formula for that except to say, if it’s unique in style or voice, I keep reading. Cover art is often alluring when I decide to pick up a book but ultimately, what matters most are the words on the page, how they fit together. Do they tell me a story or evoke emotion? If the answer is yes, I turn the pages. I think of writer in the same way I do an architect.A writer is in charge of building something beautiful and making it their own with style and imagination. Whether they place the words on the pageso they sound and feel good to say out loud or create a text that’s visually interesting to read or develop multi-faceted characters that feel as if they could be you or someone you know—all of these things make writing fascinating and help to build amazing stories. It’s what really happens between the pen and paper, or rather the fingers and the keyboard that count. What I do know is there are far more books than there are hours in the day for me to read every single one that’s sent to me; however I’ll try to keep you abreast of the best in my TBR pile. So, here’s some of what I’ve recently read. I hope that it resonates with you, dear reader, in some way.

Debut Darlings

Open City Books published newcomer Leni Zumas in 2008. Her debut work, Farewell Navigator stands out from the rest with its original voice and compassionate humor. This collection of short fiction explores the lives of what appear to be everyday people but the characters that exist within the pages of Zumas’s stories are marred emotionally, physically or mentally in some way. Most have suffered from their poor choices or circumstances beyond their control, which makes them more like the majority than the minority of the “everyman”. Many of these stories tend to take on a Saunders-esque type of humor, while others go to darker places where hard truths and ugliness are often reflected in images that mirror us. Zumas’s stories stand out from the traditional and mundane. The writing is replete with poetic and fantastical ingredients as well as work that demands attention from a more discerning eye. Each of these stories in some way causes its reader to look closely at our flaws, indiscretions and regrets and how they often keep us confined in spaces and ultimately where we in turn become prisoners of our own environments. She’s created characters like Black and Blue, who are in essence the best and worst versions of ourselves.

I watch Black peel fruit so fast the colors smear. Purple skin, yellow meat, silver knife: his fingers know where to go. He’s gotten fat, our Black–thighs shuddering, belly enormous. Blue calls him Pudding and whispers to me: I’d love to fuck a man who didn’t wobble. She can’t see me blush or the tears that end in my mouth.

Zumas doesn’t lose her sense of humor in stories like, “Waste No Time if this Method Fails” where a male patient has been institutionalized for being vulnerable and emotionally unstable has trouble interpreting the “rules” and an oddball nurse who falls in love with him.

Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities about Zumas’s writing is her ability to have dysfunctional relationships between a daughter and mother or disasters, albeit visually, mentally or emotionally seem normal to even the most well-adjusted reader.

Caty Sporleder released work with BlazeVOX books in the fall of 2009. Her book entitled, Flay: a book of mu is full of erotic images with poetry that drips from descriptions and interludes. Sporleder has a love for language and she utilizes various forms to unleash longing and lust all while keeping the worklittered with fictitious elements coupled with essay and poetic voice that massages its way into the words of the sometimes narrative text. Sporleder plays with form here and keeps images and language bumping up against you in a way impossible to ignore. Each passage, much like Marisa Matarazzo’s world in Drenched, is saturated with excess fluid and all things moist. Sexuality oozes from the words and sentences pieced together in these pages.There is something incredibly alluring about the obtuse nature of these constructions that keeps me waiting with each turn of the page to see how she’ll use emotion, construct passion and allow the reader to lose themselves in the words as they unfurl.

Let your feet seek the loam-softened-security of my forest floors. Summit to, the ranges of my mountainous. Escape to my bleed-scapes. Consent to the callus my caresses bond to your solitary spasms. Travel and my love, making flesh transparent to your blood: breeding heart visions of me.

Flay: a book of mu is an adventure in form and style where letter-writing slips into revisited memories where every emotion and feeling is ripped open, lashed apart with tongues and peeled back to its core for the reader to examine in the raw.

When I think about McSweeney’s, the word innovative comes to mind. Harking back to the beginning, McSweeney’s has been groundbreaking in the type of work it chooses to publish. Deb Olin Unferth’s debut novel, Vacation, is no exception. This surreal jaunt into the absurd follows a disjunctive narrative filled with various POV shifts and characters only found in obtuse dreams we quickly forget upon waking. However, Unferth never lets us forget that this vacation is one where R&R is absent from the menu and its replacement, angst and obsession have taken its place. The main character is quickly sent on a mission to find his wife, whom he believes has been having an affair with his good friend. The reader is constantly frustrated by near misses and crossed-connections but ultimately this book proves to be the best kind of soap opera, filled with altered states of reality, delirium, insanity, religious tourists, odd coincidences and natural disasters. The quest for Myers to find his wife, (who happens to be obsessively stalking Gray)  remains blithely unaware that he’s going through similar turmoil in his own marriage and remains oblivious to this fact throughout this story.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of this book is watching how Unferth creates a world of chaos and craziness for these characters to find their way. The reader is almost distracted by the hubbub of it all. What’s most interesting here is watching each character take inventory of their shortcomings, looking at their own reflections to see how they’ve contributed to the demise of a life they once deemed good. Even though there aren’t a lot of answers to be had in this whirlwind of a novel, Unferth digs deep and reaches into the hearts and minds of her characters. This novel masquerades as an uncharted escape route from reality, where we walk into the deep recesses of the mind where characters explore their shortcomings and failings. In the grand scheme of things, everyone is simply trying to figure out where they belong. Vacation is a novel that makes you feel unsteady and unsure of what’s going on, much like the characters in this complex work. To be able to watch characters do things that are irrational and to their own detriment is fascinating to read and watch unfold. Perhaps what’s most captivating about it all is the passion that exists within each of us to do something that scares us because after all, we’re just humans with real emotions. Deb Olin Unferth is an exceptional writer, one who creates fantastic characters that are as dangerous and passionate and troubled as the people we encounter on a daily basis in our own lives. 

Genre-Bender Extraordinaire

I want to live inside of Laird Hunt’s brain. He likes Georges Perec. Check. He writes stories that blur genre lines. Check Check. He writes without boundaries and doesn’t follow rules regarding grammar and POV. Check. Check. Check. And he lives in a city where they have seasons. 4x check.

Laird Hunt’s fourth novel, The Ray of the Star covers a lot of ground, all while utilizing unique phrasing, patterns of missing punctuation and a fairytale like manner in which this story is told. First off, anyone who uses Perec’s, A Man Asleep as the jumping off point to begin his story is the kind of author I’m gonna like.Hunt’s main character is on a very strange journey to a fictitious city in a town that resembles Barcelona, which should come as no surprise because the author himself said he’d written this in a short period of time after having returned from Spain. Harry, the protagonist becomes entwined with odd people and dangerous relationships.Hunt tells Harry’s story with subtle nuances and mini-tangents that keep the reader and Harry at arm’s length from fully experiencing the confusion and anxiety of his reality.Ray of the Star is full of interesting parallels and emotions all of which are tempered with funny moments and humor that make otherwise uncomfortable and painful moments in the book palpable.Laird Hunt is at his best when bending the rules, creating abstract worlds where love stories and fantasy co-exist with posthumous visits of neighbors and shoes with minds of their own. Ray of the Star is a book that depicts lost souls in a way no one else could, unless of course, your name is Laird Hunt.

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ANGELA STUBBS lives in Los Angeles and is a freelance writer and MFA graduate of the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, esque Magazine, Puerto del Sol, elimae, Marco Polo Quarterly, Lambda Literary, The Rumpus, and others. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction entitled, Try To Remain Hidden.

8 responses to “Between the Pen and Paper, Vol. 1”

  1. Ben Loory says:

    making note of this laird hunt fella… is that shoe with a mind of its own a brown oxford, by any chance?

    • D.R. Haney says:

      I read with Laird last summer, Ben, at Vermin on the Mount in Chinatown. In fact, he read from the book that Angela reviewed, and we had dinner before the proceedings. Nice guy.

  2. Angela, so excited about the debut of this column! Looking very much forward to all the wonderful recommendations TNB readers will get from you in the future!

  3. Shya Scanlon says:

    Welcome, Angela. These were excellent choices for your inaugural column, and I look forward to being able to pick each of them up.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Hi Angela! As with everyone else, very excited about this column’s appearance on TNB.

    Damn it. As I seem to be whining about every second post these days, more books to read…

  5. Thanks all for the comments and support!. New work/reviews coming on March 15th. Stay tuned . . .

  6. […] column, “Between the Pen and Paper,” offers insightful perspective into primarily new titles. Her first column will consider work […]

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