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?”
“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.’”
“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.
“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.