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.

Is it OK to Read YA?

Blog - Permission to Read YA 2

Credit: nwbooklovers.org

I hope it’s not too late to give my official reaction to the provocative “Against YA” article published in Slate a few weeks ago. It’s written by Ruth Graham and has a pretty offensive subtitle: “Read whatever you want, but you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” Graham’s article not only shows her contempt for readers of YA, but also for readers of any type of fiction that she doesn’t consider “literary” (i.e. genre fiction).

In her article, Graham shuns “trash” like Divergent and Twilight from the get-go, and says she’s only interested in talking about realistic YA fiction. She says that when she read The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park, she couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes again and again in reaction to some of the narration and dialogue, and feels that when adults read YA, they are asked to “abandon the mature insights” they have gained over the years. But according to Graham, YA’s most unforgivable sin is its satisfying endings: “Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.” She concludes that such endings are “emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.” Ultimately, though, Graham admits that there is space for  “pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose.”

My gut feeling is this article was published to drive traffic to Slate‘s website, much like Ann Coulter’s ridiculous article for The Clarion-Ledger on the moral decay of the U.S. as evidenced by soccer’s rising popularity. Putting that feeling aside though, I want to discuss Graham’s piece because it has many people thinking and talking about what they read and why they read, as well as whether we should regard all literature as equal. Almost every article I’ve seen in reaction to “Against YA,”—from Salon to The Atlantic to The Washington Post to Bookish, and more—lay out plenty of examples of great YA fiction and also state that YA can be just as complex, enriching, and eye-opening for adults as any work of great literature can be. Of course, I agree with those reactions, and feel strongly about them too. But I can see where Graham is coming from.

WAIT. Here’s why: I think her choice to pigeonhole YA was made in poor taste. Pigeonholing any genre as unsophisticated and cliché, especially one as broad as YA, is ridiculous. There’s always going to be exceptions and examples that counter such rigid classifications. I think the heart of Graham’s argument, though, is really about her disdain for bad writing, and her concern that people are forgetting what makes a story great and worth reading. But she’s using YA and genre fiction to explain her concerns, and that’s just not the way she should be looking at it.

For example, most of us hate murderers, but are there any populations made up entirely of murderers? Of course not. And like so, most of us hate shitty books, but are there any genres made up entirely of shitty books? No. Not YA, not Romance, not Western, not Mystery, not Science Fiction, not Fantasy, not Horror, not Erotica—not anything.

It seems that Graham suffers from literary pretentiousness and elitism—something that I’ve been struggling to overcome for a few years now. I’ll say it: I’m a recovering literary snob. It started in freshman year of college, when I declared my major in English literature and creative writing. At first, I was just reading a few classics, like Hamlet and The Odyssey. But then I started getting in deep with authors like Virginia Woolf, John Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, and others. I started to think that authors writing outside of the “literary” genre could never be as great as literary authors (romance got the worst of my bullying). At one point, I might have even agreed that adults shouldn’t be reading YA.

Stuck in my world of pretentiousness, I almost forgot that I was mesmerized by ghost and horror stories as a kid, that I grew up with Harry Potter, that reading the YA book Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging inspired me to keep a brutally honest journal, that Stephen King always fascinated me, and that I rented the animated versions of The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, from the Pathmark video section religiously. I’ve always gravitated toward genres like fantasy, horror, and YA, and I almost lost those interests when I descended into literary snobbery. I think that’s where Graham is right now—she’s still hooked on books packaged with the “Fiction – Literary” BISAC, and thinks nothing else is worth her time.

As I mentioned above, this argument is really about what makes a story good, and what kinds of books adults should be taking the time to read. First of all, anyone can and should read whatever they want. But if we’re talking about the best of the best, I do agree that great literature incorporates the literary sensibility.

I’m just going to take a moment here to define what I mean by literary: There’s a difference between the “literary genre” and the “literary sensibility.” The literary genre is made up of adult books that are usually set in the real world and emphasize character and language over plot. The literary sensibility, on the other hand, is the way in which a story is written. Stories written with a literary sensibility share some similarities with the literary genre (for example, the careful crafting of character and language), but literary sensibility is not limited to any one type of story. For a while, in my snooty little corner, I thought the literary sensibility was an exclusive component of straight up literary fiction, but that’s just not how it is in the real world.

Here’s what I think describes a story written with the literary sensibility:

  • It avoids clichés, flat protagonists, and formulaic plots.
  • The language is crafted, consistent, and engaging.
  • It’s character driven. The main character(s) undergo some kind of change—they’re not just observing their world, but also are taking action, and it’s affecting them.
  • It’s honest. It illustrates the human condition and embraces the complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability that characterize real life. (This can be evident in the plot, in the characters themselves, or both).
  • It’s about more than itself. It makes a statement, even a subtle one.

Again, the above elements can be incorporated into any type of story—realistic stories, detective stories, memoirs, nonfiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror stories, mystery and romance, and of course, YA. It might be true that some genres have fewer examples of stories written with the literary sensibility, but great stories in those genres do exist, and adults read them.

It seems like Graham, and other people caught in the snobbery cycle, still have some growing up to do. Part of being a mature adult is understanding that just because you don’t like something or don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s bad or stupid or beneath you. Real adults are open-minded, understanding, and empathetic. They can see things from another perspective, and they care about equality and diversity in their literature.

Real adults aren’t against YA.

 

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