The Strop Weekly Roundup

Weekly Roundup: 8 Books We Can’t Stop Thinking About

The Strop is a place to whet your appetite for damn good stories. Check back every Friday for our latest recommendations.

1. LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry From Appalachia edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts 

This anthology, like the title says, collects fiction and poetry by LGBTQ authors hailing from the Appalachian region of America, including Dorothy Allison, Savannah Sipple, Rahul Meta, and Silas House. Frankly, it’s the only anthology of its kind, and brings a nuance that has been sorely lacking from representations of Southern queerness. I think this quote from the editors’ note does a great job of summarizing my love for what this anthology is trying to do: ” … it was a thrilling, transformative experience to discover authors who wrote not about being LGBT or Appalachian, but LGBT and Appalachian, writers who … ‘don’t put an or where God puts an and.'” – Daniel Mazzacane

2. The Deeper The Water, The Uglier The Fish by Katya Apekina

This has a lot of the roughness that many debut novels have, but Apekina’s play with form and time are fantastic. She weaves two narratives, told by two sisters at different times — one in 1997, told in the present tense, and one in the present day, told in the past tense, reflecting on the other timeline from a new angle — supplemented with excerpts of letters, emails, and interviews between various other members of the cast. The story itself, which follows two girls as they try to find themselves and their strength in the wake of their mentally ill mother’s suicide attempt, doesn’t always hit the mark, but the book is worth it for the structural and character analysis alone. – Daniel Mazzacane

3. Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison

I think this is the best thing I read in 2018. A fresh take on Western lit. Think Mulan but Western and queer and not so culturally appropriative. Jessilyn Harney, a 17-year-old girl with a talent for sharpshooting, disguises herself as a man and leaves her father’s homestead to find her outlaw brother. A fast-paced adventure story with a lot of heart. Perhaps the best part of the novel is the brilliantly evocative voice. The novel is narrated by Jess, an amazing character with as many flaws as she has talent. She’s brash but quick-witted, and consistently underestimated. You’ll have no choice but to root for her. – Sierra Stonebraker

4. Work by Bud Smith

Bud Smith’s memoir Work is a reminder that creativity isn’t some highly ordained piece of mind — it’s work, just like a 9-5, and if creating that art fills you with joy and purpose and meaning, you’ll make it happen because it matters. Work is a collection of anecdotes that speak to each other to form a frank, personal, and hilarious portrait of Smith’s life. His stories reminded me that you can write anywhere, anytime, in whatever snippets and whatever form you can. Smith primarily writes on his phone, during his lunch breaks on construction jobs, and yet the revelations feel larger than what can be captured on a compact smartphone’s screen. He writes, “We don’t judge people who seek beauty in the dirt, we make fun of those who lay down in the dirt and do not dream.” – Rebecca Paredes

5. Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman

I think I’ve recommended this book to every person that’s asked me about books for about two months now. I needed a thesaurus at least once every five pages, and this main character is purposely detestable, but there’s an extremity to everything in this book, a willingness to wallow in insanity, and a simple joy in itself and the strangeness of the concept and in language itself, that had me completely hooked. – Brandon Williams

6. Eventide by Kent Haruf

Nobody reads Kent Haruf anymore, and that’s sad. Nobody writes like Kent Haruf anymore either, and that’s sadder. He writes like Hemingway and Steinbeck if they didn’t both write like arrogant, self-aggrandizing assholes (I actually like both of them, but come on, you can feel them writing for the eventual histories that were going to be written about them). He writes like I want to believe rural America is, or was. He is calm and melodic and carefully measured in every word. His stories feel like people simply living, until they circle around and come together and you realize that he’s been carefully building plot the entire time. – Brandon Williams

7. Phantoms by Christian Kiefer

I love this book, and I also have pretty serious problems with it. This is an audacious book, but one that’s caught in between wanting to be as audacious as it seems to need to be on one hand, and trying to toe the line on the other. The story in this book absolutely has to be told, but I don’t know that it needs to be told by this narrator, and the book never really tries to make the narrator essential to the book: He pretty much has no plot, and while there’s an interesting conceit about the struggle that he’s had to write the book that we start out reading, it doesn’t ever really coalesce into mattering. That narrator could have added an extra layer of tension, but he’s so concerned with the same things that the actual book appears to be concerned with that that narrator feels like he has nothing to add. That said, the techniques of imagination that are explored in this book are fascinating, and when we’re allowed to forget about the narrator, this story is deeply engaging in the ways of old-fashioned storytelling. While the mystery is never actually the focus that the book wants it to be and so might come across as a bit of a letdown, it’s still incredibly moving to watch the journey of these characters as they come to understand themselves and the places where they are and are not what they’ve always thought themselves to be. – Brandon Williams

8. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

The first writing course that I took began with the instructor walking silently to the front of the room and, in large capital letters, writing SEX and DEATH across the whiteboard. This, he told us, is what serious literature concerns itself with. Though I laughed at him then, James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime has given me a damn good idea of what he meant. Avoiding self-indulgence, the novel feels so confessional that one almost feels guilty for reading it. Centering itself around the narrator’s obsession with Philip Dean, a Yale dropout who begins a fervent romantic relationship with a local French girl named Anne-Marrie, A Sport and a Pastime sifts through various intimate encounters that the narrator himself continuously reminds the reader he never had access to. “I am not telling the truth about Dean,” the narrator reminds us. “I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” The central questions then become: Did any of this actually happen? Is any of what we’re told true? Does it matter? Our past, the novel argues, along with the ways we define our histories, heroes, and loves, are largely fictionalized through memory. “One alters the past to form the future,” Salter tells us. “But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears.” Driven by masterful prose, as lyrical as it is terse, A Sport and a Pastime takes the sort of risks—in both aesthetic and content — that a novel should strive for. – Josh Olivier