What I discovered in my attempt to select books for this month’s column is that there are more books for me to read than I have time. So, I’ve decided this month’s focus would be about the “little press”. To me every independent press is a champion in its own right, but there were a couple presses in particular that stood out for me this month. While these two selections are only two among many worthy titles, I really felt like these were outstanding. I like books of all shapes, sizes, styles and (okay, sorry non-fiction, you . . . not so much) I try to be as well rounded as possible however; I do tend towards shorter books when in a pinch for time. I’ve come to learn though, shorter books are equal if not more time consuming than a novel or short-story because they are replete with thought-provoking sentences, images and often, complex paragraphs of poetry. A shorter text requires a bit more commitment from my brain. I cannot flip the pages as easily, partially because I want so much to savor the words and sentences, so I read slowly (that and I seem to have horrible reading comprehension or ADHD) and thus, a fifty page book takes me almost as long as if it were two hundred and fifty. What does all this mean? Quite simply put: Good writing is good writing regardless of length.
I chose my texts with one purpose in mind: to be inspired or challenged in some way. I become completely submissive to the words on the page, to a writer’s world of words, people, sentences and conversations. What I found interesting about both of these novella-like stories is that they both revolve around self-acceptance, introspection and realizing what it means to grow up (especially in the Midwest). While there are plenty of fictitious scenarios that might resemble our own lives and the people in them, words have the ability to transform ideas and memories into something new, thus creating an original voice that evokes memories or conversations past that relate to both reader and writer alike.The content lurking within unread pages is a writer’s greatest gift to its reader. With every turn of the page, there’s a new opportunity to decode the language and what it means to each of us, a chance to make those words fit into our own mind-puzzles.Language, whether spoken, written or felt through images (painted or photographed) is the singular thing that connects us to one another. These books are original in style, unique in their approach and even, as I hope you’ll find, worth reading more than once. Because all good books are worthy of at least that much.
Little Engines That Could
Letter Machine Press has the honor of publishing Travis Nichols’ debut work, Iowa. The pages of this book were initially tough to define but after having read it, twice and mulling it over, thrice, I’ve decided this the charm in this piece, its inability to conform, its ambiguity, its obtuseness. Iowa is full of prose poems that play out as spotty and misshapen walks down memory lane. These musings ask us to look back at what life was like as an adolescent and in this case, Midwest adolescence. Nichols’ words echo that of a sentimentalist, who’s ability to recall (albeit fondly and often regretfully) the roads travelled during childhood take on Keillor-like ease. The drama that occupies the space of a teenage mind is colored with anxieties (social and otherwise) humiliations, self-persecution and a sense of humor. Nichols takes the journey of what could be every teenager and turns it into a poetic reflection on what it means to be one, one who feels angry with his/her surroundings and those who inhabit that space. Perhaps most importantly, Nichols understands what it’s like, as do most of us, to be a teenager, to be misunderstood. No one quite knows how to deal with a son or daughter fraught with personal insecurities nor an over-inflated sense of self. Whatsmore, the author focuses on the internal feelings and often, equally complex musings of teenage friends, enemies, relationships and mentors. Right away, Nichols’ knack for describing the familiar in the most peculiar way emerges in the first few pages with sprinkles of poetic verse and excellent prose.
The work here does not follow rules and because it does not, the reader has carte blanche where interpretation is concerned. Often we inject our own memories into the scenarios on the page when they resemble our own and the author invites us to come to our own conclusions in these pages. We are reminded that the manner in which we identify with the thoughts, feelings, words and phrases depends on how lively a memory one has and what you conjure up based on your own past.All of the people who occupy space in our young adult lives help mold and shape us into better, more grown-up versions of ourselves. Some of those experiences make us wiser for having been a part of them while others make us no worse for wear.
“I never woke up and thought, “Today! 1,2,3,4!” It wasn’t“I am new!” and I never woke and thought, “today I will do the old thing!” but always I awoke each day as fast as I could then jumped in the air to crash into another thought: “again.” And it always was, but that fall at the school dances it was like when I woke up and thought, “Maybe everybody is in a line, and Madame is wrong!” I crawled thinking, “I can fall in love!” In a bubble everyday I wasn’t somebody with little brown thighs in love. I was still white underwear under plaid boxer shorts in a bubble, and it was the same day Dead East Dead West Dead North Dead South, so that’s probably why I fell in dead love with dead Steffi for no reason.”
What makes this work so interesting is that this story could be anyone’s story and it becomes less about how we can relate to the words on the page and about the actual words on the page and the images and scenes that play out as a result. It is immediately evident upon reading all fifty-three pages, Travis Nichols understands teenagers in the way all parents misunderstand theirs. To grow up, whether it’s in a place like Iowa where boys are “thinking about having voiceless sex with Tami from Roland-Story in the woods” or feeling insecure about who we are vs. who we might be, “then I went to go get a girlfriend, but her parents could feel me turning into a training room doorjamb, so they decided not to live there anymore. Red then, she walked her legs into a bucket of ice. Aaron teaches math back to her friends who were water because I got shinned somewhere in Virginia. It hurts. Gretchen is skinny. She didn’t want a lot right at the start when I covered up some of what I assume was someone else combed into me” makes no difference where teenage struggles are concerned.
The nostalgia that exists in Nichols’, Iowa is endearing. Every paragraph does not have some thick syrup coating its words nor does it attempt to trivialize the obstacles we all face in adolescence. This work is interesting to me because Nichols opts for the road less travelled, to mix words and emotions with time and space and have it be as organic as if you were experiencing this part of your life for the very first time.
A Jello Horse by Matthew Simmons is a book that I liked from the second I read the title. This story, told in 2nd person is a glimpse into the life of a twenty-something man attempting to deal with a friend’s suicide. Perhaps the most important element to the journey in this story are the friends that come along for the ride; the kind of friends you had when you were in college and thought, “these are the friends I’ll have the rest of my life.” Reading this work you might find yourself asking, “What in the hell is a Jello Horse?” and wondering if your perception of all the elements in this tale are really what you think they are. A Jello Horse is full of oddities and subtle nuances where details are concerned. What’s most interesting is the list of said friends who are only referred to by their abbreviated names (LEM, DEV, TAD, MEG). We are never sure what these three-letter names are short for, but no matter, Simmons ups the ante by introducing a slew of wonderful images and places. Visions laden with animals (jackalopes, antelopes, bears and lions) and a whole assortment of strange places he visits like the “House of 2000 Telephones” where there are 2000 separate phone lines and only wrong numbers are connected or “Carhenge”, (not to be confused with Stonehenge, sans stones, add cars) and countless others, all of which create a fantastic visual playground for the reader and serve as a great diversion from the narrator’s uncomfortable reality.
During the course of this trip to a funeral, our protagonist reminisces over wrong turns and the way our childhood experiences can and often do scar. Simmons writes simply but illustrates through complex behaviors and self-reflection how we can grow and make it past even the most challenging moments in life. Simmons allows desperation, self-doubt and melancholy daydreams of what could have been take over the mind of our narrator. “You were once very thin, but now your body is filing out. The late 20s. There is a little belly that hangs in front of you, and you’ve noticed that you like having it more than you liked being thin. Weight reminds you that you are older, and things are progressing like they should. And death is making its slow walk in your direction. Or you in its. Or something.“
Slowly, we are allowed to see what these characters are made of as he introduces us to scenarios with friends that drop acid, former girlfriends and motel rooms that broadcast public access. Simmons re-traces the life of our narrator and his quest for answers about lost loves, bad choices and places of the past as this road trip progresses. His sentences are teeming with wild imagery and emotion that keep us nodding our heads, “yes “ but somehow not really knowing why we agree. The writing here is effortless and done with maturity and style. Even when worrying about suspicious bumps in pubic hair, you find yourself saying, “been there” and feeling as though you, too, might feel like you’d caught the plague if you’d acquired an STD “you are now a carcinogen. Like Cigarettes” or were going to contaminate any person you came into contact with henceforth. A Jello Horse is peppered with fairy-tale like magic throughout which allows for the heartbreak and sadness within the narrator’s story to stand alone on the page.
A Jello Horse is tough to define. Is it really a hallucinatory object one sees after getting high? What is it really? To this reader, it feels representative of the wobbly tight-rope Simmons walks between reality and the other side. What is fact? What is fiction? Is this story a bit of both? Or Neither? One cannot be entirely sure, but what we do come to know is that it’s less important to define the imagined/real or present/past, but rather ask ourselves the question, “Do we have what it takes to evolve into well adjusted adults in spite of the trials and tribulations of our dysfunctional pasts?”