Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Caitlin Horrocks, Richard Russo, Lyz Lenz, Nell Zink, and more—that are publishing this week.
The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Vexations: “Horrocks’s vivid, hard-edged debut about French composer Erik Satie focuses on his erratic career, difficult personality, and dysfunctional family. In 1872, widower Alfred Satie leaves his children—six-year-old Eric, youngest brother Conrad, middle sister Louise—to be raised by their grandmother in Normandy. A great-uncle takes Louise to live with him. When the grandmother dies, Alfred brings the boys home to Paris. By his early 20s, Eric, now calling himself Erik ‘with a k,’ plays piano at Chat Noir and other Montmartre cafes. Louise, widowed within a year of getting married, resides with her son on her husband’s debt-ridden estate, until relatives confiscate both the estate and the son. Often neglectful and hurtful of friends and family, Erik collaborates with modernists like Cocteau and Diaghilev to varying success. Horrocks includes the perspectives of Erik’s onetime librettist (fictional Philippe) and sometime lover (real-life Suzanne Valadon) for a portrait of avant-garde turn-of-the-century Paris that proves art isn’t easy and neither are artists. Horrocks shines while envisioning Erik scoring a silent film, debuting a masterpiece, or being released from jail (where he was held for defaming a reviewer) so he can complete a commission. Horrocks’s description of Satie’s music is also apt for her noteworthy novel: slow, spare, and at its best finely filigreed.”
Chances Are… by Richard Russo
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Chances Are…: “Russo’s first standalone novel in a decade (after Everybody’s Fool) mixes his signature themes—father-and-son relationships, unrequited love, New England small-town living, and the hiccups of aging—with stealthy clue-dropping in a slow-to-build mystery about a young woman’s 1971 disappearance. Set mostly in Martha’s Vineyard circa 2015 with flashbacks to the characters’ coming-of-age in the 1960s and ’70s, the story follows three college buddies who, now in their mid-60s, decide to reunite on the island. There’s Lincoln, a happily married and successful real estate broker with six kids; Teddy, an editor and publisher of a small university press who’s prone to panic attacks and disorienting spells that leave him depressed; and Mickey, a musician renowned for his ability to rock hard, play hard, and sometimes beat up anyone in his way. Then there’s the missing link—gorgeous Jacy, the ‘three musketeers’ ’ closest gal pal from college and secret crush—who was engaged to ‘privileged, pre-school, Greenwich, Connecticut’ Vance, and had joined her boys at Lincoln’s Vineyard cabin for one last hurrah before she vanished. Relayed in alternating chapters from mostly Lincoln and Teddy’s perspectives, the narrative touches on the Vietnam draft, Lincoln’s complicated relationship with his dogmatic father and meek mother, and an accident that befalls Teddy. In the final stretch, surprising, long-kept secrets are revealed. This is vintage Russo.”
The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Chelsea Girls: “The strong friendship between two women who meet performing in USO shows during WWII is tested as the country descends into McCarthy-era madness in the solid latest from Davis (The Masterpiece). Hazel Ripley is a perennial understudy, pushed into performance by a mother who is grieving Hazel’s brother, a talented actor who died during the war. When Hazel joins the USO tour as the maid in Blythe Spirit, she initially dislikes star Maxine Mead, but as the women endure a sideline view to the horrors of war, they find that they are a good team, with Maxine acting and Hazel writing. After the war, they meet again in New York City when both are living at the Chelsea Hotel. Maxine has become a rising Hollywood starlet, and Hazel is staging her first play on Broadway. Soon the Red Scare consumes the nation, and Hazel is flagged as a possible communist and threatened with being blacklisted due to her association with Chelsea Hotel proprietor Lavinia Smarts. Maxine and Hazel are fearful their newly found community might be broken apart when they find mysterious men investigating the building. As a government agent appears to monitor rehearsals, Hazel is irritated but remains confident there’s nothing to be found. However, as the production nears opening night, Hazel worries her confidence could be misplaced. Featuring vibrant, witty characters who not only weather but thrive in a dark period of American history, Davis’s tale of one friendship’s strength will stun and satisfy readers.”
Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Marilou Is Everywhere: “Smith’s solid debut follows the isolated and overlooked life of a teen in rural Pennsylvania. After 14-year-old Cindy Stoat and her older brothers, Clinton and Virgil, are abandoned by their mother, they make do with canned goods, candy, and income from the brothers’ lawn-mowing business amid the constant meddling of education officials who hope to bring Cindy back to school. Their stagnant and isolated existence is broken open when a teenage neighbor, Jude Vanderjohn, goes missing. A popular but complicated girl, Jude is so much of what Cindy herself feels she could never be, and her disappearance rocks not only the community, but Cindy’s day-to-day existence, especially after Virgil begins bringing her to spend time with Jude’s mother, Bernadette. Bernadette is a former hippie, a half-mystic, and an alcoholic who mistakes Cindy for her disappeared daughter, an identity crisis that Cindy cherishes, hoping desperately for her life to change, and leading to a terrible decision as she tries to maintain the illusion. Smith’s rural world is brought to life with precise and devastating descriptions of poverty and neglect, though sometimes the lyricism of the prose doesn’t gel. Still, fans of Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling will appreciate Cindy’s toughened point of view and Smith’s close attention to the details of rural Appalachian life. This is a promising debut.”
This Is Not America by Jordi Puntí
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Is Not America: “This thoughtful collection of short stories from Catalonian writer and translator Puntí (Lost Luggage) is set primarily in Barcelona and largely features a cast of jaded male protagonists. Though the stories often blend together, one not particularly standing out from the other, memorable instances occur throughout, such as the somber twist at the end of ‘Kidney,’ about a loner ignoring letters from his sick, estranged brother. In ‘My Best Friend’s Mother,’ and ‘Consolation Prize,’ men pursue fantasies of women they barely know, then realize their dream doesn’t match their reality. In ‘Seven Days on the Love Boat,’ a disgruntled husband exchanges anniversary tickets to France for a solo trip on a Mediterranean cruise liner, where he meets a sage American pianist. In ‘The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes,’ a Catalonian with a gambling problem moves to Las Vegas, where he manages to turn his addiction into an unexpected career. Although the collection lacks variety, the stories make for a consistently pleasant reading experience, especially when consumed in small doses.”
The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Accidentals: “Evocatively depicting the small town of Opelika, Miss., in 1957, Gwin (Promise) tells the heart-rending story of a mother feeling trapped in her life, whose death throws her family into turmoil. Olivia goes to a ‘chiropractor’ for an illegal abortion, dying a few days later from complications. Her husband, Holly, copes by trying to protect his daughters from the unlikely threats of bombs and natural disasters while ignoring their emotional needs. The older daughter, Grace, blames herself for not finding Olivia sooner, and her own poor choices lead to her becoming pregnant at 16 and getting sent away to have the baby in secret. The younger daughter, June, grows up to marry unhappily. Meanwhile, Ed Mae, the orphanage worker who cares for Grace’s child, has a moment of distraction that leads to complex consequences. Though the story is wrought with sadness, there’s a sense of hope that those thrown off course may find happiness in the end. Fans of tear-jerkers will forgive the occasional too-pat coincidence as Gwin brings all the threads together for an uplifting finale. This is a satisfying fable of errors and consequences in a tumultuous era.”
In the Country of Women by Susan Straight
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Country of Women: “Novelist Straight (Between Heaven and Here) focuses on the lives of the women in her family in this moving memoir. The narrative is framed as a letter to Straight’s three daughters—Gaila, Delphine, and Rosette—whom Straight shares with her ex-husband Dwayne Sims, and honors the daughters’ rich ancestral past through stories of female relatives struggling to overcome violence, oppression, and hardship. Straight celebrates Jennie Stevenson, an aunt on the Sims side who, in the early 1900s, shot a man who cornered her, and Straight’s mother, a Swiss immigrant who left home after her stepmother tried to marry her off at 15 to a pig farmer. The author excels in chapters about raising her kids, and about finding her place in the Sims clan (Straight is white, Sims is African-American). She feels indebted to her mother-in-law, Alberta Sims, who showed her how to keep family and friends close (‘she took my hand and led me to the kitchen…. Alberta cooked for the whole community’). In the touching final chapter, Straight reflects on the enduring power of memory: ‘All we women have to give you is memory…. What we felt we might keep to ourselves, unless someone wrote it down.’ Straight passionately illuminates the hard journeys of women.”
The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Other’s Gold: “Four women form an intense bond as college freshmen and support one another through life-altering mistakes across a decade and a half in Ames’s unfocused debut. In 2002, sporty Alice, uber-rich Ji Sun, stunningly beautiful but academically struggling Margaret, and feisty, adopted Lainey arrive at Quincy-Hawthorne College. After immediate friendship, Alice divulges that years before she caused her brother’s intellectual disability by intentionally pushing him off a tractor. In their sophomore year, all four become entranced by a popular professor until Ji Sun fabricates a claim of sexual harassment against him. After college they all gravitate to New York City, where Lainey becomes a well-known voice of the Occupy Movement and Alice struggles with fertility problems. The foursome’s friendship cools when Margaret, now a popular blogger and wife to a wealthy scion, crosses a serious line, and drifts further apart when Lainey makes an even more shocking mistake. Ames rarely provides sufficient retribution for characters’ bad decisions, and the tangents about their lives become distracting. Though there are moments of powerful emotion, and the details and emotional crises are well drawn, most readers will feel frustrated by the meandering plot and the characters’ choices.”
Black Card by Chris L. Terry
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Card: “Terry’s darkly humorous coming-of-age novel (after Zero Fade) explores the nuances and challenges of being a young black man in America. A punk rock bassist with a white mother and black father living in Richmond, Va., the unnamed narrator struggles with feeling ‘black enough.’ ‘Being mistaken for white erases half of me,’ he muses, ‘and happens so often that I think I’ve failed at blackness.’ In a desperate attempt to finally earn his Black Card—an actual card—he indulges in misconceived stereotypes of blackness. He tries to ‘speak more black’ and changes up his style of dress. He earns his card but has it revoked by his guide/mentor Lucius when he fails to speak up during a racist incident. Determined to earn back his card, he performs rap songs at a white karaoke bar and musters up the courage to ask out his black coworker, Mona. When Mona is assaulted in her apartment, he becomes a suspect and is finally forced to face his racial identity. ‘The minute Mona told the cops about me, she’d given me something. She’d made it so I’d never, ever doubt that I was black.’ This memorable, deeply insightful work has echoes of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Terry’s provocative and timely novel challenges readers to confront the racial stereotypes and injustices in America.”
God Land by Lyz Lenz
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about God Land: “Journalist Lenz blends memoir and reporting in this slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America. After a lifetime of straining against her prescribed place within a white, Protestant world, Lenz left both her marriage and church in the wake of the 2016 election. Unable to compromise any longer with a husband who voted for Donald Trump, and unable to worship at a church that ignored violent white supremacy, divorce and departure become her only path forward. ‘The story of who leaves the church,’ Lenz writes, ‘is just as important as the story of who stays.’ In a series of episodic chapters, the author travels across the Midwest exploring stories of both the belonging and exclusion she finds there. Highlights include her tale of a home church that imploded around questions of authority and submission, and her tracking of a resurgent ‘muscular’ and patriarchal Christianity. She also reveals online and physical communities built by women, queer Christians, and people of color pushed out of conservative evangelical spaces. This work will resonate with any readers interested in understanding American landscapes where white, evangelical Christianity dominates both politics and culture.”
Doxology by Nell Zink
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Doxology: “Beginning in the early days of the 1990s and moving through the years to the 2016 election, Zink’s solid fourth novel (after Nicotine) follows the exploits of the members of a short-lived New York City punk band. Pam and Daniel have a daughter, Flora, before their careers can even begin to take off; meanwhile, Joe, the singer, has a breakthrough when he writes an unexpected hit single. As his fame grows, Pam and Daniel focus on raising Flora. On 9/11, everything changes, not just because of the attacks, but also because of an unexpected death that occurs on the same day. The second half of the book focuses more on Flora’s coming-of-age as she, among other things, becomes a campaign staffer for Jill Stein. As time passes, Zink infuses the novel with as many period details as possible (for instance, ‘bricklike cell phones’), but the repeated intrusion of the narrator explaining the political and cultural developments during the last 30 years becomes a bit overbearing and, worse, mostly unnecessary. Still, Zink’s gifts for characterization and richly evoked periods and places are on display throughout. Zink’s longest novel is her most ambitious and perhaps her most effective.”
Hemingway put the Parisian bar, Harry’s, on the map. Dylan Thomas did the same for Manhattan’s White Horse tavern. This fall, Victor Giron’s Chicago watering hole, Beauty Bar, might prove just as instrumental to independent literature.
While a staggering number of publishers are closing up shop or announcing mergers, Giron’s press, Curbside Splendor, is growing at a rate many big New York presses would find inspiring, envy-inducing or both. None of it would have been possible without the Beauty Bar. That, and Giron’s bottomless supply of energy.
You get a sense, talking to Victor Giron, that he probably wakes up before you and goes to bed many hours after you. Our interview felt a little like witnessing a plate spinner at the circus. Because, on top of running the Beauty Bar and Curbside Splendor, the optimistic Giron is also a husband, father of two boys, and works a high profile day job as a financial accountant for Jim Beam.
“I tend to pick things up and get really into them,” says Giron, squeezing our weekday afternoon chat between several of his other responsibilities. “If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to do it half-assed.”
Half-assed is probably the last thing observers call Curbside Splendor. Especially after its recent jump in production and profile. Curbside previously released only a handful of books per year, but ramped up the release schedule to a whopping dozen this fall. This shift is a direct result of landing a coveted distribution deal with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. In this golden age of the indie book publisher (According to Bookstatistics.com there are currently over 60,000 book publishers), it is tough to get noticed amongst the slosh of other presses. So, aside from a political sex scandal involving one of your authors, solid distribution is the most reliable way to compete with the major New York houses.
But should book lovers care about industry talk like distribution? Absolutely. Distribution is the only thing — not the overthrow of Amazon or an e-reader revolution or a self-publishing frenzy — that ensures fresh voices finding readers.
A publisher landing a strong distributor is similar to a rock band selling CDs at concerts and then signing with a prominent indie label like Merge Records. Merge has excellent distribution, which gets its albums in stores and online outlets just as well as majors. But distribution doesn’t guarantee success. It does, however, level the playing field between big labels and indies. Merge is an ideal example. Since starting in 1989, the record company has a massive list of artistic high points, but also numerous business victories. This ability to remain independent, yet place its albums in every conceivable retail outlet has given Merge the strength to release a Billboard #1 album, help its bands like Spoon perform to millions of viewers on Saturday Night Live and watch its most popular act, Arcade Fire, earn the 2011 Album of the Year Grammy.
Similarly, Curbside’s distribution deal is no guarantee of success. But it opens doors to compete on the literary world’s main stage. The evidence is promising — small publishers with Consortium ties have made serious waves, like Akashic Books mega-selling Go the F**K to Sleep and how Two Dollar Radio’s titles frequently earn raves in the New York Times.
Curbside seems poised to make the most of this opportunity. But if it wasn’t for Giron’s bar, none of it would be happening.
Three years ago, when Giron started Curbside Splendor to release his own novel, Sophomoric Philosophy, he had next-to-no literary connections. “It seems kind of backward, I guess. I had no idea people did such things as readings at coffee shops or bars, to tell you the truth, until I was invited myself,” he says. “I began meeting other editors and writers around Chicago by hosting readings at my bar. I really didn’t know anyone until I started reaching out on Facebook and in person, really with the interest of getting people to come to the bar and read.”
Even Curbside’s distribution deal came because of a chance Beauty Bar meeting. “I had been a big fan of James Greer’s novels, The Failure and Artificial Light,” Giron says. “James came through town when his girlfriend’s band played at my bar. We got to talking and he said ‘You know, I’ve never had a story collection published. I don’t think Akashic, his publisher, is interested in a story collection.’ Long story short that’s one of the books (Everything Flows) coming out this fall.”
This relationship with Greer proved invaluable to Curbside’s current growth. “I was kind of honest with James, saying there’s no real distribution for your book. Just so you know. The amount of sales you can expect aren’t going to be much,” says Giron. “And then he suggested we talk to (Publisher) Johnny Temple of Akashic. Originally, Akashic was going to consider sub-distributing James’s book. After our conversation Johnny said we can certainly consider doing this, but it just seems like you have so many great projects that it would be a shame that you not actually try and work with Consortium yourselves. And so he made a personal referral.”
Temple’s enthusiasm for Curbside was a massive boost. Giron had already been rejected by several distributors. Temple, however, saw something most distributors didn’t: “While the mainstream New York-based book industry laments the supposed ‘decline’ of the industry, moping ad nauseum about how no one reads anymore,” says Temple. “This creates opportunities for ambitious and creative companies like Curbside to prove them wrong.”
From the Akashic referral, things moved swiftly last December. “On Friday [Temple and I] were talking and then the next Tuesday I was on the phone with Consortium’s president and then that Thursday they were like, okay, we can sign the contract. And by the way, we need all of your titles for the fall season by next week.”
Where most budding publishers would sprout ulcers at such a radical change, Giron’s energy and optimism took over. “I never really got worried. A big part of my day job is project management, so it comes naturally to me.”
The bulk of Curbide’s fall catalog was born in only a few days’ time. Once again, the Beauty Bar and bottomless energy played a big role. Giron quickly rounded up writers and artists he’d befriended from the bar. “I basically got all my people together and said, okay all these great projects we’ve been kicking around, we need to actually put them together now. So we had to come up with cover mocks, come up with one paragraph summary of titles, author bios, marketing plans. Luckily, we had all these projects but over a long weekend we put together the backbones of the twelve books that are now coming out.
“Some of these titles were pretty much complete, like James Greer’s book, but ranged to flat out ideas like Samantha Irby’s Meaty. We had known Samantha, who is a performer here in Chicago and has a huge following through her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat. We had been loosely talking to her about maybe doing a book together sometime. So, after the meeting with Consortium we were like, Samantha, we really need you to write the book. So then she wrote it.”
Beyond Irby’s collection of humor essays, Curbside’s whirlwind effort since December is just now coming to reality. Giron’s press is offering a diversified lineup this fall, ranging from YA lit Zero Fade, to literary leanings like Greer’s collection and The Desert Places by Robert Kloss and Amber Sparks, to Franki Elliot’s Kiss as Many Women as you Can — a poetry collection in postcard form.
There is, of course, great risk in Curbside’s gamble for real estate on the literary map. Namely, financial risk. Giron has no business partners or investors in Curbside. He personally funded the costly printing, editing, and marketing expenses for every release this fall. “It’s pretty crazy of me. As a rational business person, this is not a good investment/risk to be taking.”
It’s easy to see his energy overshadowing this rationale. “What propels me in this is the idea, the challenge, the belief that there are really great books out there to be made and there is a market of people that are thirsty for innovative, artistically minded, edgy, fresh, spectacular new voices and ideas and beautifully designed books, and so we’re here to try and provide that service.”
Not surprisingly, Temple echoes this sentiment. When asked how he saw Curbside impacting the literary landscape after this Fall’s splashdown, he says Curbside is, “Further proof that books matter, that new audiences are still very hungry for books.”
While it’s still far too early to begin tossing confetti, Giron’s barroom-born gamble seems to be paying off. Irby’s Meaty is garnering a lot of attention, thanks in part to being named part of Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. The book has already sold several thousand more copies than any previous Curbside release. Does that mean Giron will be buying rounds at the Beauty Bar? Probably not. But it might just give this uber-entrepreneur the ability to keep pushing Curbside up through the ranks.