Latest Posts from the Blog

In the Winter Issue

Issue No. 102 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Michael Jaime-Becerra’s “Omer, March 1987”: A boy out skateboarding stumbles upon his mother’s affair.

Melissa Yancy’s “Dog Years”: A scientist must make time for her family, her career, and, somewhere in there, cure one son of his devastating disease.

Laura Esther Wolfson’s “Infelicities of Style”: In the hinterlands, a young dance critic experiences the complications of art.

Octavio Solis’s “Retablos”: How may times has El Paso lamed him? Yet how many times has he walked back to his past walked away?

Plus, fiction from Josh Emmons (a slacker in France takes in her American cousin), J. Malcolm Garcia (a social service agency for homeless serves as a predator’s lair), Kate Petersen (a young woman returns to England and a love eluded), A. Nicole Kelly, Kathleen Alcott, and Jeffrey Moskowitz.

Also, work from artist Julio Cesar Morales’s series We Are the Dead, and poetry from Chuck Carlise, Lucille Lang Day, Rae Gouirand, Andrew David King, Joshua McKinney, Suzanne Roszak, and First Time in Print poet Andrew Gavin Murphy.

You can get a copy of No. 102 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

Posted in News | Leave a comment

Understanding Desperation, & Knowing the Natural World: Q&A with Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer

“Once upon a time, you told yourself that you would be no killer, that this was how you would live your life,” reflects the protagonist of Christian Kiefer’s new novel, The Animals (Liveright/Norton; 320 pages), as he prepares to euthanize a wounded moose in the book’s opening chapter. “And yet you learn and relearn that everything is the same.”

Bill Reed is the operator of the North Idaho Wildlife Rescue and a man haunted by a guilty conscience. Caring for wounded animals—raccoons, badgers, an owl, a wolf, and a blind grizzly bear, among others—is a form of catharsis for Bill, who is on the run from his criminal past and living under a different name. (His real first name is Nat.) When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatens to close the rescue shelter, the livelihood Bill has carefully built for himself and the animals is endangered. To make matters worse, his former best friend, Rick, is fresh out of prison and seeking payback.

The narrative switches between the story’s current setting of 1996 Idaho and Bill’s young adulthood in 1984 Reno. As he grapples with the rescue’s impending closure, we learn who Bill was, about his gambling addiction, and the catalyst for the bad blood with Rick. Survival is at stake as Rick and Bill circle each other in increasingly aggressive encounters from which neither can back down. As past sins threaten to eclipse the present, Bill is forced to explore what he is willing to do to save the people and animals he loves. Kiefer, whose story “Muzzleloader” appears in the upcoming issue of ZYZZYVA (No. 103), uses nature and seasonal imagery as powerful backdrops in an atmospheric narrative about conscience, survival, and primal identity—a story in which violence is inevitable. We talked to him via email about how he came to write The Animals, the importance of reading the work of master writers, what it means to “know your plants,” and the role of poverty in narrowing people’s options.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Field Guide to San Francisco Fog, and to Mutable Memory: Q&A with Kyle Boelte

The Beautiful UnseenKyle Boelte’s memoir, The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting (Counterpoint; 176 pages), weaves together the author’s investigations into the mysterious San Francisco fog with an exploration of his memories of the life and suicide of his brother, Kris. On one side of this dual narrative, Boelte researches the fog from the standpoint of San Francisco history and the science behind the Bay Area’s climate. On the other, he remembers his life before and after his brother’s death. Juxtaposing these two themes, memory becomes reminiscent of the fog and vice versa.

With remembering comes forgetting, and memories can cloud over time. Boelte’s memories of his brother, whose death occurred when the author was 13, become vague and even seemingly warped as he gets older. There’s an instance in the book where Boelte realizes he and a friend remember the same situation differently: one remembers Kris being there and the other doesn’t. Via email, we asked Kyle Boelte (who has an essay in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 103, out in April) about how he approached writing on such a personal subject.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Misapprehension of Satire: On ‘The Zone of Interest’ by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest“O Germany—
Hearing the speeches that ring from your house, one laughs.
But whoever sees you, reaches for his rifle.”
—Bertolt Brecht (from Hannah Arendt’s
Eichmann in Jerusalem)

I. Introduction

January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous labor and extermination camp in Poland where more than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, right under the nose of Polish citizens and the wider international community. The timing of this gruesome anniversary is poignant, as European anti-Semitism is perhaps more virulent and threatening now than at any point since the war. Anti-Semitism has unfortunately proven itself to be an extremely adaptive prejudice, taking different forms wherever and whenever it emerges; it has also proven to be monumentally destructive for culture. “The politics of hate that begins with Jews,” as Jonathan Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “never ends with Jews.” The anti-Semitism we see in Europe today has roots in historic prejudices, but there are new aspects to its current incarnation. The distinctly European strain of anti-Semitism has combined with tensions surrounding events in the Middle East, as well as simmering resentments from Europe’s often alienated Muslim communities.

European leaders have struggled even to face, much less stem this rising tide of bigotry. The French ministers of foreign affairs and the interior penned an op-ed for the New York Times last July, titled, almost plaintively, “France Is Not An Anti-Semitic Nation.” Just three days later, on July 13, crowds marching in anti-Israel demonstrations set the streets of Paris on edge with chants of “Death to the Jews” and two synagogues were attacked; a third synagogue was defaced the following day, and similar attacks, as well as assaults on Jewish citizens, continued throughout the following months in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her denunciation of bigotry, but even she must be unnerved by the thus far uninhibited rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, where demonstrations last summer also featured chants of “Adolf Hitler.” Despite Germany’s stringent laws prohibiting the use of overt Nazi imagery, the production of clothes that assists white supremacists in identifying each other through more subtle branding has proven lucrative for at least one company. A recent article in the New Republic details the enormous expansion and popularity of Thor Steiner, a clothing company that “has gone from a small business patronized by German neo-Nazis into a multimillion-dollar clothing chain with a presence throughout Europe.” Thor Steiner’s clothing features sly references to Nazi imagery and slogans, and over the past several years they’ve opened stores in “the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as 13 locations in Moscow.” They’ve registered their trademark in the U.S., too. Meanwhile, the surge of violence continues. Several weeks ago, a gunman in Copenhagen targeted bystanders at a free-speech rally and a synagogue, killing two civilians and injuring five police officers. As we commemorate the past, our most urgent obligation is to honestly confront the thorny history of anti-Semitism, and to face its current incarnation with clarity.

Historical records are, of course, critically important in such work, but literary fiction has a role to play as well. Where the sheer magnitude of the historical record of the Holocaust can sometimes become so overwhelming that our empathetic faculties are all but exhausted or shut down, fiction can offer us a way in, once again. Both the writing and the reading of Holocaust fictions are fraught with pitfalls, yet the subject calls to us, and it is a call that should be heeded. Over the past year several new novels have been published around the subject, and, in light of recent events and the escalation of violent attacks, one in particular seems perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published: Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest (306 pages; Knopf), deserves renewed attention, not only for what it accomplishes, but also for the confused reception it received. Some found it to be satire, which implies the work offers exaggeration to the point of comedy. That’s not how I read it. With this recent surge of anti-Semitism tearing its way through Europe, it is more important than ever to read such books carefully, and to scrutinize not only their pages, but how they are received.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Oval Track of Memory: ‘Butterflies in November’ by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

9780802123183Set in the wintery depths of Iceland during the darkest days of the year, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s novel Butterflies in November (Black Cat/Grove; 296 pages) opens with a surreal scene. After accidentally running over a goose, the unnamed narrator hauls the carcass into her car trunk with plans to surprise her husband with a lavish dinner. What follows is the story of a woman out of sync with domestic life, whose impulsive nature leads her on a journey to self-discovery. We get a sense early on of our narrator’s elusive nature during a confrontation between herself and her husband. With brimming frustration, he reels off an extensive list of marital complaints–she refuses to conform to a proper schedule, she doesn’t want children, she hardly ever cooks dinner–before matter-of-factly asking for a divorce. There is another woman, he tells her unashamedly, and she is pregnant with his child.

As its title suggests, Butterflies in November is full of paradoxes. At once playful and dark, the novel, smoothly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, unfurls with a series of strange occurrences and characters. The narrator is enchanting, though at times painfully aloof, an impetuous woman who, after being dumped in one day by two men (her husband and her lover), wins the lottery and embarks on a journey eastward along Iceland’s Ring Road. Adding to the circus-like atmosphere is her travel companion, her best friend’s four-year-old son, Tumi, whom she has promised to care for while the friend recovers from an accident in the hospital. The child is comically misshapen: squat with a big head and an obscenely large hearing aid, which “looks like a receiver for picking up messages from outer space.” They make a strange but dynamic pair and, slowly, learn to communicate and read one another. Their relationship is fascinating to observe: she is a translator by profession who knows eleven languages; he is a deaf child with a speech impediment. In fact, the child’s sporadic verbalizations often have to be interpreted and re-articulated by the narrator. The two develop their own unique rhythm, as they head into the desolate and harsh arctic landscape.

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reimagining Landscape: Q&A with Photographer Vanessa Marsh

Vanessa Marsh's "Mountain 4"

Vanessa Marsh’s “Mountain 4″ from her series “Falling”

Bay Area artist and photographer Vanessa Marsh’s photographs, currently on display at San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery till February 28, are dream-like in their blending of reality and fiction. The enigmatic quality of Marsh’s work is due in large part to her unique processes. Experimenting with several mediums, she is able to transcend realism through subtle manipulations of proportion, lighting, and perspective, without resorting to abstraction. In some photographs (several of which were featured in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 98), she uses models to create miniature scenes. In Man Chopping Wood (2011), for example, a stiff little figure on a lumpy hillside raises an axe above his head pre-chop. The figure’s slightly erroneous proportions and the ghostly backlighting undermine and warp the simplicity of such a quotidian scene.

The majority of the Dolby Chadwick show is devoted to Marsh’s Landscape photographs from the series “Everywhere All at Once.” When you think of landscapes, perhaps you think of Ansel Adams’ black and white photographs of classic American terrain, complete with its sweeping canyons and looming boulders towering toward the camera lens. This is nothing like the world Marsh depicts. Unrecognizable, the landscape in her work has been reassembled. While describing this project, Marsh compared her technique to the shifting of tectonic plates. Our perception of a landscape can be broken down into an accumulation of several two-dimensional planes that adjust and shuffle as we change our relationship to them.

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Struggling to Unseal All of the Words Unspoken: ‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell Exploring the emotional gaps created by grief and prolonged silence, Frances Itani’s new novel, Tell (Black Cat Press; 318 pages), is the story of a Canadian family coping with the fallout of the First World War. Picking up the thread from Itani’s 2003 novel, Deafening, Tell weaves an intricate narrative of two couples struggling with things left unsaid. The novel opens in 1921 before flashing back in time, with the bulk of the story occurring in the last two months of 1919.

Tress and Kenan are a young couple trying to reconnect after Kenan’s return from the front; meanwhile, Am and Maggie, Tress’s middle-aged aunt and uncle, are in a marriage that betrays a fragility neither will acknowledge. Itani expertly portrays the intricacies of each character, revealing the similarities among them slowly and deliberately. Despite the tensions in the novel’s romantic relationships, the connections between the two couples are both affectionate and complex. Seeing themselves reflected in their younger counterparts, Maggie and Am offer guidance and advice, hoping to help a marriage affected by Kenan’s wartime injuries.

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Mythical American Hero on a Scavenging Quest: Q&A with Jenny Riffle

"Tom Sawyer's Gang" (2011) by Jenny Riffle

“Tom Sawyer’s Gang” (2011) by Jenny Riffle

When I first met Jenny Riffle, she had already been photographing her boyfriend, Riley, for several years. Their one-bedroom apartment was intricately arranged with Riley’s findings: a large poster advertising Raleigh cigarettes, which he found behind the drywall in an abandoned building; old calcified revolvers and rusty shotgun bullets he collected while metal-detecting off of forest pathways; and cloudy bottles of various sizes, softened by years of sifting Brooklyn beach sand. Doll heads with cheeks too rosy and features dulled by wear leered from corners, and old clippings of cars hung tacked to the wall above their gold couch. There in that one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill I had found a collection of treasures, meticulously cleaned and arranged by their finders into a collection of consumerism turned junk.

But I first came to know Riffle’s photography through her younger sister—my girlfriend, Emily. Riffle has been taking photographs of Emily once a year on her birthday, since Emily was 15. Similar to Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” a series of photographs taken each year of Nixon’s wife and her sisters, “Emily” works as a compilation and a meditation on time. By continuing to reexamine a subject, Riffle accrues images that simulate the progression of time while simultaneously freeing the subject from the metonymy of portraiture that claims to define a person with the blink of a shutter. Besides chronicling the process of aging, “Emily” dwells on the multiplicity that makes up a single person. As Riffle, who teaches photography at the Photo Center Northwest, writes in her description of the project, “Seeing the progression of birthday photos shows how my sister has changed over the years, but in the end for me she will always encompass all the images at once.” This is what makes Riffle’s portraits like stories. They may not have classic beginnings, middles, or endings, but they have an element of wholeness that classic portraiture lacks.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mental Hospital’s Foreboding Power: ‘The Forgetting Place’ by John Burley

The Forgetting Place“Menaker State Hospital is a curse, a refuge, a place of imprisonment, a necessity, a nightmare, a salvation.” So opens John Burley’s The Forgetting Place (344 pages; HarperCollins), an atmospheric medical thriller with a fictional mental hospital as its core setting. Burley’s new novel follows resident psychiatrist Dr. Lise Shields, who is assigned a new patient, Jason Edwards, who has a mysterious past and an even more secretive admission. Much of the novel’s first half is spent on Dr. Shields’ attempts to coax the truth out of her reluctant patient and the hospital administration. Faced with a bureaucratic stonewall, Dr. Shields thinks, “So often we are the only tangible thing anchoring our patients to their delicate perch above the abyss.” As her concerns deepen, she discovers an institutional conspiracy that puts her and Edwards in danger. She takes drastic action, which hurls the story into its second act.

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Astonishing and Everlasting Work: ‘Reformations: Dürer and the New Age of Print’ at USF

Detail from a Albrecht Dürer woodcut from St. Jerome's "Correspondence" (1497)

Detail from a Albrecht Dürer woodcut from St. Jerome’s “Correspondence” (1497)

During the Renaissance, it may have been the Italians who mastered the painted canvas, but it was the Northern Europeans who mastered the print. Perhaps the best artist to come out of that period, Albrecht Dürer (1472-1528) sought to prove he could do with woodblocks and copper plates what any Italian painter boasted with his paintbrush. Perspective, proportion, and balance, Dürer achieved it all.

In Reformations: Dürer and the New Age of Print, an exhibit running at the Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco till February 22, prints by the legendary print-maker are showcased along with some of the first books to be made using moveable type and printing presses. Collectively, the pieces consider the impact of this Renaissance technology as it transformed social, cultural, and artistic movements. While slow, these transitions are striking; one enters the dimly-lit space to examine cases of manuscripts—hand-written works of art that alone warrant a visit to this free show—and continues along to see some of the earliest surviving printed books, mainly religious texts beautifully bound and hand-colored. These texts, though old, reveal not only the developing technology of bookmaking but also the technology of reading. Bookmakers used visual tricks to draw the reader’s eye to important parts of the text. Red marks often highlight the beginning of each sentence, making the mass of letters on the page more digestible.

Continue reading

Posted in Art Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Haven for the Printed Work: Q&A with the Book Club of California’s Jennifer Sime

The Book Club of California (photo by Matthew Millman Photography)

The Book Club of California (photo by Matthew Millman Photography)

The Book Club of California—with a 102-year history of fine letterpress publishing and support for hand-press printers—is a bibliophile’s delight and refuge. Sedately described by someone on its website as “a non-profit organization of people who take pleasure in fine printing related to the history and literature of California and the western states,” the San Francisco organization has an impressive and unexpectedly adventurous 3,000-volume collection, which ranges from a cuneiform tablet to a 15th century incunabula to a one-off book printed with alphabet cereal. The largest group for book collectors in the country, the Book Club also hosts exhibitions and literary events at its handsome Sutter Street offices and reading room. If you love the book as an object, as a talisman, as a link to the past, find your way there.

Two recent publications by the Book Club depart from their usual publishing program: the anthology Poetry at the Edge: Five California Poets (discussed below), and a story collection by Monique Wentzel, a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, called The Woods Were Never Quiet. Designed and printed by Jonathan Clark of Artichoke Press, with illustrations by Jessica Dunne, the book itself is a good match for Wentzel’s direct gaze and her steely narrative control. (Wentzel’s story “Modern Speedwash” appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 99.)

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Dialogue Between Motherhood and War: ‘Blood Lyrics’ by Katie Ford

Blood LyricsIn her most recent book of poetry, which came out in late 2014, Katie Ford offers a raw and thoughtful look at the frailty of life, tracing the fragile line traversed alike by her premature infant daughter and the countless victims of war. Blood Lyrics (Graywolf Press, 62 pages) resembles a book of hymns, hauntingly personal, one piece coursing like blood into the next. Some of these poems ought to be delivered in a funereal whisper, others chanted to the rhythm of pumping hearts. Life and death are intimately connected, one necessitating the other.

In the first poem, “A Spell,” Ford prepares us for the urgent tone that will carry us through to the end of this short, yet profound, collection. The urgency is that of a mother begging for the survival of her child. The images she offers in return are timeless—“lights,” “opal,” “bells,” “water,” “eyes,” “cotton,” “industry”—so as to emphasize the timelessness of motherly devotion. In this way she connects her own suffering to the mythic and historic, and she concludes the poem by offering up the ultimate sacrifice—her own blood: “and bleed me in the old, slow ways, / but do not take my child.”

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Realism and the Fantastic as Very Much the Same: Q&A with Kathryn Davis

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

In Kathryn Davis’ novel Duplex (Graywolf Press, 195 pages), the suburban mundane is interrupted by the magical, the mythic, and the bizarre. In a neighborhood of duplex housing, kids play on the street as robot neighbors fly past them, sorcerers and Bodies Without Souls drive by in Mercedes, and teddy bears become human babies. Two coexisting narratives alternate from chapter to chapter, as two worlds slide past each other and often overlap. The intimacy between these worlds is such that the particularities of each echo the other, the realities of both merging into one.

The novel, recently published in paperback, follows such characters as Miss Vicks (who is described as “a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound”) and her neighbor, Mary, who happens to marry a sorcerer; robots who look like people, a baseball player who sells his soul for success. The narrative of this cast alternates with that of the narrative of Janice and the neighborhood girls, who, as though at a sleepover, listen to their cooler, older peer,as she tells them stories about the phenomena of their world. Janice’s stories, many of which could stand alone as fables, do more than just interrupt the more linear narrative of Miss Vicks and those around her. These stories ground the world of the novel as one with a long history of bizarre occurrences that are perceived as both mystifying and entirely ordinary by its characters.

One way of allowing yourself to experience the brilliance of Duplex is by accepting that the novel thrives in its departure from logic; the text is not there to hold your hand. The reader instead treads through the thickets of the strange, often leaving one scratching her head. Those wishing to follow a story whose plot has a traditional structure, with a clear climax and conclusion, might not find what they expect, but they will find themselves bedazzled and delighted with the narrative’s unconventionality. We spoke with Davis via email about Duplex and the uses of plot and genre in her work.

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , | Leave a comment