Contact Us:

Sign up for our newsletter

Joyless House Book Reviews

Six Months in the Midwest
by: Darci Schummer
follow: @DarciSchummer 
visit:
www.darcischummer.com

I must confess that I was biased in Ms. Schummer's favor before getting in to her 2014 short story collection. She was kind enough to read with me in her adopted home town of Minneapolis when I blew through a couple months ago, and responsible for most of the crowd present. Thankfully, after reading Six Months in the Midwest, I can, with good conscience, recommend Darci Schummer's work to anyone who appreciates finely crafted fiction and who is not a gutless and banal turd in his or her heart of hearts.

Schummer's style is literary, but never purple. Well-crafted sentences. The influence of geography and climate are constant but not forced on the reader via elaborate metaphors or long-winded descriptions. These stories are about people rather than events and a maudlin tone pervades throughout. Her characters are dealing with the everyday ache of alienation, loss and personal inadequacy. There are moments of saving sweetness sprinkled in - just enough. It's rather like real life. To quote a Stephen Merritt tune: "there's an hour of sunshine for a million years of rain, but somehow that always seems to be enough". 

Several of these stories intertwine, sort of passing one another in the frigid Minnesota night, which adds some cohesion to the collection as a whole. Each story is really a character piece. My personal favorites were the budding suicide, Mary and her delusional mother, Rose. There's really no quarter given by the author here. Schummer's unflinching eye is Six Month's greatest strength and we are rewarded with a true slice of humanity. It's as beautiful as this mundane life in the midwest can be.

Valencia
by: James Nulick
follow:
@james_nulick

A man checks into a hotel with no intention of checking out. We are treated to the sad litany of abuses and failures that led him to this end. Thirteen hundred reasons why, if you will. Valencia follows a path trodden by some of the heaviest of literary heavyweights. Dostoyevski, Gogol, Hamsun, Celine, Burroughs, just to name a few, have all written unforgettable portraits of man unravelled. James Nulick, even while acknowledging a long list of literary heroes, manages to place an offering of unique virtue at the altar of human misery.

The narrator here is laid low and completely bare. He catalogues the heartbreaks and indignities that characterized his childhood and beyond in a voice without ego - a voice reinforced by Nulick's doggedly sparse prose. The effect is harrowing. 

Our hero was an orphan, an alien among his childhood peers. He quickly ascertains that his sexuality is something to hide, and, throughout the book, is never able to forgive himself for who he is. His young adulthood is marked by epic self-destruction. Ultimately, he contracts AIDS. In the end . . . well, I won't say. Anyway, what is a happy ending? We can each only experience a true ending once, and we take that knowledge with us.

Nulick's tale unfolds via his narrator's leafing through a box of old photographs. Thus the chronology of the story telescopes at random. In the way that a photograph offers only a surface representation of a moment, these trips back in time inspire often contradictory memories. This is only in keeping with the roller-coaster reality of life's journey. The one constant here is the narrator's refusal to believe in his own value. Nulick's ascetic prose, eschewing every adornment of passion, is chilling in its apparent genuineness.

If all this doesn't seem like your cup of tea, you're probably right. But I consider this book a gift, and Nulick a brave sentry sending word from the dark edges of the human experience. If you are content to sound proof your life against the howls of the gaunt and moon-mad, that's fine; Nicholas Sparks is writing a book for you right now! 

One-Two
by: Igor Eliseev
follow: @IgorEliseevTwit
visit: 
www.igoreliseev.com

As an unrepentant fanboy of Russian literature in translation and Russian writers writing English prose (which is what we have here), I was excited to get into a contemporary offering in this line. To be fair, in this respect, I would inevitably be judging Igor Eliseev by a lofty standard. The Russians I'm familiar with are Turgenev, Tolstoy, Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn, not the bums writing propaganda for Putin. I was delighted to find that all the things I love about Russian literature are present in this book. Though, given the context here, "delighted" is perhaps a queer choice of words . . . 

One-Two is the story of conjoined twins who were orphaned at the time of their birth and endure a life of constant rejection and abuse. The twins, Hope and Faith, are literally inseparable, yet at the same time, become alienated from one another, almost strangers in the end. It serves as a fine metaphor for the inherent contradictions in each of us, as well as the contradictions in a society supposedly built on communal ideals that, nonetheless, engenders the worst manifestations of selfishness. 

Eliseev's themes are heavy and bleak. His prose has that measured, dogged intensity that I think is uniquely Russian. I dig it. It requires a certain commitment on the reader's part and , inevitably, toward the end of the book certain lines and passages jump out as suddenly profound. I will share a few that I highlighted: "Strange thoughts visit me sometimes." So begins chapter 13. Such a simple sentence, but somehow so heavy. "What if I were secretly in love with my failures and wished them to continue forever?" Chew on that one when your lamenting your pitiful lot. ". . . they beat the armless people not because we are repulsive freaks but because we can't hit back," What's that say about your fellow man? More importantly . . . there's a bit of truth to the line, isn't there?

Bravo, brother Eliseev!

Just Speculating
by: Geoff Sturtevant
follow: @Flexfiction
Visit: 
www.amazon.com

Sturtevant keeps churning out great pulp stories. At this point it is no fluke, people. 

Here we have a collection of one previously published tale, Anything for My Bubela (which I am already on the record as digging strong) and two new ones, Jar Baby and Night Fright. 

Jar Baby is the funniest thing I've ever read from Sturtevant. The characters are so idiotic and disgusting, yet so perfectly rendered. They are caricatures but they are so fearlessly drawn that they breath. You believe them. There must be something terribly wrong with Mr. Sturtevant. And as always there is a clever plot and beautiful pacing. 

Night Fright takes shape a little differently, a sort of mild mannered suspense piece with simple believable characters that takes a bizzaro-ironical turn at the end. 

Geoff Sturtevant is a craftsman. This is important, damnit! This stuff is in the tradition of Tales From the Crypt and the Twilight Zone, but, and I've made this comparison before, he reminds me most of Kurt Vonnegut. This is not cheap genre shit. Geoff is doing pulp/horror/sci-fi better than anyone going today.

by Sam Pink

Sam Pink, if you're not familiar, is an institution. Or perhaps in an institution, I'm not sure, haven't heard from him in a while. He is an institution of higher . . . no higher is not the word . . . or, yes, higher - higher, get it? He is an institution of 'higher yearning'. And if he wants to use that catchy little tagline, he will pay me in American dollars, damnit! 

Witch Piss

This is a brilliant book. Pink has figured out that all good comedy comes from tragedy and the characters that populate this slim novel have been squeezed out of America's diseased lower intestine, trampled on, and scraped with disgust off of the shoes of her populace. But the real genius here is that Pink never condescends to his characters but shares their plight as an equal. Shining through all the wacky, schizo-gutter comedy, is the relentless humanity of the narrator. It's touching. To myself. I'm touching myself.

Pink, like myself, was weaned on self-loathing. I don't know if it's a generational thing or just the new state of our species. Were my lips not warped by the teat of personal shame, I would put Witch Piss right up there with Knut Hamsun's Hunger and Fyodor's Notes From the Underground. Rontel dat.

Rontel

I feel like writing a detailed review of this book would be silly. Absurd even. I laughed my balls off. Real out-loud, make you feel embarrassed afterward type laughter. Some of it in the best restaurant in Green Bay (Taco Burrito Mexico on Mason St.).

There is perhaps some existential point to be understood here, suggested by the author's sadness, the futility of modern, urban life, poverty, etc. But in effect that's what makes the book funny; you know, because the guy's such a pathetic loser and all. Great read! Will buy more of Pink's stuff.

Person

I've read some of Pink's more recent work, so I thought it would be interesting to go back a few years and read one of his earlier books. Don't worry, jerks! Pink's singular style was already well-formed when he wrote Person. At this point I think Sam Pink is the Ramones of whatever it is he does. Like, "Hey man, what's your favorite Ramones record?" It doesn't matter, dumbass. They're the Ramones.