CURRENCIES OF AUGUST by Donald Anderson

Currencies of August
Here’s something I realized recently: I haven’t had the chance to read many self-published novels. I suppose this is for two reasons—one, as an English major, I spent most of my time (really, all of my time) reading classics. And two, after graduating, I started working in at a large publisher right away, which meant I was surrounded by free traditionally published books for years. But while I was off doing all that, indie publishing began to experience a renaissance. And it’s still going strong.

So many authors are trying out self-publishing and it’s paying off by creating a truly diverse array of bestsellers in most genres—science fiction (The Martian by Andy Weir, and Wool by Hugh Howey), fantasy (My Blood Approves by Amanda Hocking, and The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung), mystery/crime (Only the Innocent by Rachel Abbott, and Taunting the Dead by Mel Sherratt), self-help (Choose Yourself by James Altucher), romance (Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James), and more. However, missing from that list—quite conspicuously—is realistic literary fiction.

Currencies of August is the first self-published book I’ve ever read in the realistic literary genre. It’s author and academic Donald Anderson’s debut novel, and boy is it ambitious. (*Disclosure: Anderson was one of my former English professors at Marist). Due to Anderson’s background with the study of language and literature, I right away noticed how measured and mature his prose is. It’s the type of language you want to stop and savor (at least, that’s what I did for almost the entire time I read it). And somehow, Anderson is able to keep that up throughout its entire 502 pages. Yes it’s a long debut. I’ll say it again—it’s ambitious.

The prose is still beautiful even when the protagonist, Jeremiah Curtin, deals with quite a few uncomfortable things. Namely, the death of his father, trying to re-establish a relationship with his estranged mother—oh, and dating his first grade teacher.

Yup, his first grade teacher. Though, by the time they start dating, he’s in his 20s, and has become a teacher himself (which even he is surprised by). Jeremiah’s relationship with his first grade teacher—her name is Nancy Feller—is one of the most unique and uncomfortable romantic situations I’ve ever read about, and that was one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Another was the setting. Currencies of August takes place in the Hudson Valley, and Anderson never misses a chance to illuminate its beauty and the history, especially when Jeremiah decides to renovate a home that dates back to Dutchess County’s first days as a settlement.

One thing that of course can’t be missed are the quirky characters that Jeremiah meets throughout the novel. Though he’s a little quirky himself, he pales in comparison to people like Willy Furman (a talented but disinterested student—and a spitfire at that), Chuck Gillis (the nutty, impassioned college professor everybody hopes to have at least one class with), Mary Jane Otto (Jeremiah’s weirdo neighbor and her dog, Steverino), and seriously so many more. As I’m writing these few names down, I’m remembering just how many unique characters fill the pages of this book.

As for criticisms (any review isn’t complete without them), my main thing was that this book is a bit long for this type of cerebral, quirky, academic story. I also wish I knew a little more about Jeremiah’s motivations for some of the rash decisions he makes—then again, he is the type of character who doesn’t really think things through, so it lines up with his personality for sure. And as most of us learn when studying literature, we don’t always have to read about “like-able” characters. If anything the mysterious or unreliable ones tend to provide the most entertainment.

Try out Currencies of August with this exclusive excerpt from pages 12-14, the scene when Jeremiah sees Nancy again for the first time in 20 years (all due to her college age son’s refusal to do his homework in Jeremiah’s class):

It was Nancy who set up the interview after midterm grades were released. It was one of those late-October afternoons in the Hudson Valley that slices into you.

It was just after what people call The Peak, an unmeasurable outshoot of time when the turning trees are their most perplexing. Much of the leaf-fall has already taken place, and the ones that remain, with no purpose but to let go, are at their most vivid. They wave slightly, modestly, but with such an articulation of beauty that one almost has to turn away.

After twenty years, her first words after introductions were, “I hope you won’t take it too personally that you’re the only teacher he’s not doing well with.”

I didn’t know how to prioritize the several new elements of important business.

“Given all that, it’s difficult not to personalize.” Her smile had changed little over time, except for a few new facial lines to reinforce that look of soft command.

“It really isn’t all that much,” she said. She looked at me with a kind of curiosity, a wideness of pleasant unknowing. “I get the sense you’re new to all this.” Her eyes gazed around my rather tiny office with its view of a shopping center. Michael, meanwhile, sat comfortably in the chair next to hers. He seemed to have his own kind of unknowing, not as immediately pleasant as his mother’s but one that fit his crunched-upon posture like a pillow.

“All what, do we mean?”

“Teaching?”

“On the contrary, Mrs. Feller, I’ve been around teachers and teaching most of my life. They’ve taught me everything I know and a whole lot more.”

“Things you’d like to forget?” She was dressed in a businesslike outfit of pants, blouse, and navy-blue jacket.  She was buttoned securely, but for a moment I had the embarrassing thought that beneath it all were breasts I had sublimated for twenty years. Breasts. I was thinking about her midlife breasts. I felt chagrined and puzzled.

“What is it?”

It was a head-shaking moment. “I started teaching in August, if that’s what you were wondering. So, yes, I’m new to this part of things—the meeting-with-a-parent-of-a-student-who-doesn’t-wish-to-meet-with-me.”

She glanced at Michael. “I thought you said you’d been in to meet with Mr. Curtin.”

“Doctor Curtin,” I corrected.

“My apologies. I didn’t mean to slight you.” She appeared to take enjoyment. She seemed to know something. And she was taking advantage of that something, whatever it was.

“It’s silly of me. It’s a new little badge I wear. Hopefully I can tuck it in a drawer soon.”

“Then let’s try calling you ‘Professor.’”

“Let’s not.”

“What then?” We clearly were not talking about Michael.

“We’ll find something.”

“No need. Michael will start producing for you, I’m sure.”

We all paused, even her son, in the middle of the extended pause he had been taking since coming into the office. I looked at him. He had an air that was gloriously restful and satisfying, as if his mother had given birth to an already-answered question—one needing not to be asked again with conscious insistence. But what it was…?

I had been standing since they arrived, my back to a corner formed by the window-wall and a bookcase. The oddness of it finally pushed me into my seat. “Okay, Michael. Let’s try it just for fun. Why won’t you write for me?”

I had stunned him in some way, but he finally spoke.

“Write?”

“You can write, can’t you?”

I saw his mother frown for the first time. “Michael can write.”

“Plenty,” he added.

“‘Plenty,’ is it?” I was starting to love him in an envious way. Nancy beamed with her own detached aura of motherlove. I could have hugged both of them and given thanks for the eddies of emotion that come unexpectedly. I didn’t.

“Michael has been writing since he was three,” she instructed. “He wrote his first story about a river that became a mandarin orange.”

Nor was that startling. “I’ll hope to read it sometime.”

“I still have it.”

Of course she did.

 

*Disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. As mentioned above, the author is a former college professor of mine. I also contributed a blurb for the cover and helped out with the marketing in the months before it was published.

Reading Thoughts: THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll

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I didn’t think I’d get creeped out by this graphic novel I stole from my boyfriend’s house…but I did. I live on a pretty busy street, and the city noise that seeps into my room is usually quite comforting. However, when I was reading Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, I jumped at every sound outside my window.

The artwork was beautiful—and of course, creepy. But mainly beautiful. My two favorite stories were “Our Neighbor’s House” and “My Friend Janna.” Anyone who loves fairy tales and reminisces about reading Scary Stories to tell in the Dark will love Through the Woods.

4/5 Stars

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11/22/63

Photo Credit: BarnesandNoble.com

Well I’m back with another Stephen King review–this time, with one of his newest highly anticipated novels, 11/22/63. I luckily got it for free from work and so was able to get to reading it sooner than I expected. The reading took a long time, with my curse of being a slow reader of course, and because this novel is a hulking hardcover of 849 pages. I still “breezed” through though, because King has a unique and well-told story here.

11/22/63 is about a divorced high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, ME, named Jake Epping, who goes back in time to prevent the JFK assassination. It is a grand and ambitious plot, and yet the page-to-page story is full of realistic discomfort, tragedy, and uncertainty.

Before I get to my thoughts on the novel in its entirety, I want to say that the prologue was really what drew me in. It is beautifully written and sets the tone of the story perfectly. It also shows us that Jake has substantial reasons to travel back in time–perhaps even more substantial than the saving JFK. Having such a wonderful prologue to frame the book proved to me why 11/22/63 was named by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2011.

I think King made use of time travel appropriately for this story. He didn’t give much explanation about how the “portal” in Jake’s friend Al’s diner exists or why it only brings people back to the summer of 1958. The reader knows just as much as Jake and Al know, which is not much. When Al, the man who discovered the portal in the storeroom of his run-down diner, reveals his secret to Jake, they speculate that the slightest wrong move or the subtlest molecule out of place will change or destroy it. But neither of them really know. Al has used the portal to travel in time before, aging in the process, while his time actually spent in the past always turns out to be two minutes–no matter if he stays for two minutes or five years. And each time he goes in is a reset.

Al recruits Jake to help him stop the assassination of JFK because he won’t be able to do it himself due to becoming terminally ill with cancer. He feels strongly that we would be better off if President Kennedy was never killed–that the Vietnam War would never have occurred, nor would a host of other woes in the current world.

Jake then, becomes this vigilante figure as he travels in time, taking on the pseudonym of George Ambrose. He soon finds that, like most time travel stories, changing something unpleasant in the past can lead to an equally unpleasant future. I found it phenomenal, though, that King added another layer to Jake’s battle with the butterfly effect. Not only is it uncertain that the future won’t be ruined by his noble efforts, but Jake also has to deal with a past that fights back. The past doesn’t want to be changed, and so when Jake tries to change it substantially, things happen to prevent him from doing so. Car trouble, falling trees, food poisoning, and worse. The threat of death follows Jake around–all the while, he starts making a life for himself in the past, waiting for 11/22/63–the date of JFK’s assassination.

I loved the uncertainty throughout this book–the uncertainty of the mechanism of time travel, the uncertainty of who really killed JFK, and the uncertainty that the future will even benefit if Jake succeeds. We share Jake’s agony from undertaking such a confusing and dangerous mission. But we also share Jake’s bliss in traveling back to a simpler time. King’s description of Jake’s first sip of a 1958 home-brewed root beer is such bliss. And so is the relationship he begins with a young librarian named Sadie, who would be as old as his grandmother up in the 21st century.

One problem I found, though, was the way King cornified Jake and Sadie’s sex-life. Their code word for sex was “poundcake,” complete with dinner parties where Jake would show up at Sadie’s door and she’d welcome him saying, “Come in! I’ve made some dessert–poundcake of course” (Not an actual quote, but you get the idea). I still cringe. Also, Jake and Sadie dance together a lot. So there is this idea of dancing and “dancing is life” running throughout the book. I get it, I mean, why shouldn’t dancing be an important theme in the story? But it just didn’t do it for me. It didn’t fit (maybe it’s because I’m not an avid dancer). I did like that Jake’s love for Sadie and their relationship becomes an important component of the plot, but at times it made the story too sappy.

I’ve heard that some think the novel isn’t paced right, that it takes too long to get to 11/22/63. While it is true that 11/22/63 happens at the very latter part of the book, I don’t think the pace was wrong. I think it makes sense to take a while to get there. Jake has to live in the past for about five years before the date even occurs, and all the while he has a lot of preparation to do–namely spying on Lee Harvey Oswald to be sure he acted alone, if he acted at all. Jake basically has to debunk JFK conspiracy theories to be sure he’s going after the right person. I think as readers, we needed that time to explore the past with Jake. It gives him time to develop as a character–Jake becomes more than just an accidental vigilante time traveler. This pace also allowed King to incorporate some inter-textuality between 11/22/63 and one of his other novels that takes place in Maine during the late 1950s–It. I was pretty excited to see characters I had read about a long time ago (I read It in high school) and was happy to be reminded about such a creepy story, while seeing it from Jake’s perspective as an outsider. Good choice there, King.

This review has been pretty hard to write because 11/22/63 just has so much going on. If you have a large chunk of time ahead of you, I recommend picking up this book, especially if you aren’t looking for a really scary novel. 11/22/63 is a complex science fiction thriller as opposed to a horror novel you might expect.

This is a story King has been waiting a long time to write, and I think it’s something we’ve been waiting a long time to read.

Rating (out of 5): \bigstar\bigstar\bigstar\bigstar

Favorite Quote: “For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamlock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark” (616).

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