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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

‘Language to Swarm and Eat’ the Hopelessness: ‘A Bestiary’ by Lily Hoang

A BestiaryLily Hoang’s new book, A Bestiary (156 pages; Cleveland State University Poetry Center), proves why a healthy amount of skepticism—at times bordering on distaste—for the self is an undervalued trait in literature. Throughout her collection, Hoang blurs the line between personal essay and prose poetry as she takes stock of her life and often comes to some unflattering conclusions. Reflecting on an unsatisfying, on-and-off-again relationship with her lover, she writes, “I feel like a feminist poser, talking a big game about empowerment but living a reality of passivity and self-contempt.”

A Bestiary offers a snapshot of a turbulent time in Hoang’s life, one in which she’s still grieving her sister’s unexpected death from a brain aneurysm while trying to provide a home for her nephew, a recovering drug addict. Her aging parents also offer a point of concern, with her mother using iPad games to escape from reality and her father needling her about her weight. As a writer, Hoang is refreshingly comfortable with balancing contradictions—the self, after all, contains multitudes. This is why she can remark on Page 107, “I want my sadness to be legitimized,” when earlier in the text she came to the conclusion, “Real sadness does not need a performance.”

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Looking for Life After Death: ‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

Zero KDon DeLillo’s seventeenth novel, Zero K (288 pages; Scribner), has all the trappings of a typical DeLillo novel. It opens with the protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart arriving at the Convergence, a techo-utopian compound erected in the midst of a central Asian desert. The compound is a staging ground for a series of experiments, led by the mysterious Stenmark Twins (or, at least that’s what Jeffrey calls them), into the possibilities of cryogenics. These experiments are meant to prepare their participants—including Jeffrey’s terminally ill stepmother, Artis, and estranged father, Ross Lockhart—for a future where death has ceased to exist and life may be everlasting. There’s little plot beyond this initial setup. Rather, DeLillo performs an elliptical investigation of the tensions between skepticism and belief, alienation and community, subjectivity and relationality.

In this sense, Zero K sometimes seems like less of a novel and more of a philosophical treatise. Jeffrey aimlessly wanders the Convergence. Occasionally he encounters screens that descend at random to depict epic scenes of human suffering, as if to remind him of the mortality he might leave behind in the compound. A skeptic amid the Convergence’s utopian promise, he refuses to take the Stenmark Twins’ vision seriously. He’s convinced the entire project is a prank, a cosmic joke on gullible believers. To register his incredulity, he knocks on doors at random, certain no one is behind them, that the Convergence is a stage created for the purpose of an elaborate fiction. For the most part he’s confirmed in his suspicion—until someone answers and topples Jeffrey’s assumptions.

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The Bravery to Stand in Opposition: Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts”

Spain in Our HeartsAdam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 372 pages) carries the unique distinction of possessing value equally for the specialist and the lay reader. Hochschild is not only a historian but also a humane storyteller, and in Spain in Our Hearts the literary quality of his prose alternatively sweeps the reader into the historical narrative, while also situating us in the subjective experience of his key historical personages. His and their conception of what the Spanish Civil War actually meant is attested to time and again by an array of ideologically discrepant individuals ranging from foreign correspondents and foreign fighters, including George Orwell, as well the diaries and letters of the Spanish troops on the ground. Their shared portentous sentiment—that this was the rehearsal for World War II, for the near global and yet by no means black-and-white opposition to Fascism—is eerily and independently echoed by witnesses throughout the book.

The book begins with urgency, pulling the reader into the chaos and tumult that will characterize much of the narrative: “The country is in flames. For nearly two years, the fractious but democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic has been defending itself against a military uprising led by Francisco Franco and backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.” By November 1936, the country was roughly divided between its West, where Franco had more or less triumphed in a military and government take over, and the East, where Republican, Anarchist, and Communist communities held control. What strikes one immediately is the inventive and therefore especially disturbing barbarity and ruthlessness of Franco’s regime in dealing with dissidents and oppositional forces. These atrocities were often geographically removed from Barcelona, which seemed to many to be a kind of budding egalitarian Utopia, especially to a few of the Americans Hochschild follows who arrived in the city early in the conflict.

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The Powerful Illusions of Literature: ‘The Sky Over Lima’ by Juan Gómez Bárcena

The Sky Over LimaIn Lima, Peru, in 1904, two wealthy young men wrote a letter to the Spanish Nobel Laureate poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, entreating him to send them a copy of his new book of poems. The young men believed the poet would be more likely to write back if they pretended to be a beautiful young woman. To their surprise, their joke backfires in an explosion of emotional shrapnel.

Based on this true story, Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena makes his literary debut with The Sky Over Lima (translated by Andrea Rosenberg; 288 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the charming retelling of a hoax that occurred a little over a hundred years ago. The novel’s satirical charm and witty re-creation of historical events take us into its embrace, but more than that, Barcena never allows us to forget that this story is, like our own lives, an artistic creation.

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Aftermath of Greek Crisis: ‘Something Will Happen, You’ll See’ by Christos Ikonomou

Something Will Happen, You'll SeeIn the aftermath of Greece’s 2010 debt crisis, amid the hardship in his country, Christos Ikonomou wrote Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, 250 pages, translated by Karen Emmerich). A recipient of some of Greece’s highest literary honors, as well as praise from across Europe, Ikonomou’s collection of interconnected stories focuses on people with barely a hope for attaining something better than what they’ve been given: a son stays up all night to watch the streets so his neighbors can get some sleep; a group of elderly industrial workers, recently laid off, huddle around an oil-drum fire outside the gates of their old job; fathers are forced to ask—forced to lie to—their children for money; whole communities are broken up like concrete foundations in an earthquake.

“I don’t want to write just about Greeks and Greece,” said Ikonomou in an interview with Nasslit.com, “I am trying to look beyond the walls of language and my country, I’m trying to reach out to Americans, to whoever is interested in my story, and I’m trying to write about human beings, what it means to be human and what it means to try to be human in an inhumane environment.”

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Fake Autobiography, Genuine Examination: ‘Gone with the Mind’ by Mark Leyner

Gone with the MindIn an interview with The Paris Review, Mark Leyner, author of such postmodern classics as Et Tu, Babe?, said, “I think there has to be some kind of crisis before I really feel there’s a book I should write.” In his new book, the fictional autobiography Gone with the Mind (Little, Brown and Company, 250 pages), Leyner shows us that his biggest crisis is his own life.

Gone with the Mind is an existential, experimental autobiography that covers, with broad absurd strokes, the course of Leyner’s life up to the present. The story begins at a food court, somewhere between Sbarro and Panda Express, where Leyner and his mother, Muriel, are holding a reading for Gone with the Mind. The only attendees, besides Leyner’s mother, are some food court employees on break, who are referred to every now and then throughout the novel. We never make it to the reading, however. Instead, we are given a lengthy introduction by Leyner’s mother (in which she gives us the story of her difficult pregnancy and its culmination in Mark, showing us the sort of household Mark grew up in), followed by a lengthier speech by Leyner, then a Q&A session that has neither questions nor answers.

Leyner’s speech is a long, winding stream of consciousness that begins with how he had initially conceived of his autobiography as a first-person-shooter video game. His narrative weaves in and out of childhood stories and metaphysical treatises on subjects like religion and masturbation. He introduces us to his muse, the Imaginary Intern, who appeared to him on the tile of a bathroom floor and helped him to write this autobiography. Amid these ludicrous vignettes, he talks about the traumas in his life, like his battle with prostate cancer and his complicated relationship with his father.

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When the Only Escape Is Through Fantasy: ‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt

The Seven MadmenRoberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen (New York Review Books, 272 pages; translated by Nick Caistor) is a thriller, a crime drama, a dystopian revolution novel, a metafictional meditation, a tragic romance, and a revenge tale all in one. Julio Cortazar, who provides the introduction in the New York Review Books edition, is correct in saying Arlt’s novel throws off any “literariness”—its schizophrenic characters and arrangement are too emotionally raw, too erratic in theme and direction for it to be a “traditional” novel, especially for when it was written in 1929. (Some of the novel’s formal choices, such as the use of footnotes, and the way its plotting creates a broken narrative wouldn’t be “literary” for decades.)

The story is composed of “The Confessions” of Remo Erdosain, a poverty-stricken, manic-depressive, and hopelessly self-reflective Argentinian. Arlt fronts as if his fiction is real, trying to convince us that he actually met this miserable man and interviewed him over ten days (so say the footnotes). Forged at a young age in humiliation from his father and in pain from destitution, Erdosain constructs an intricate escapism. His intense imagination and its resulting multitude of made-up scenes, stories, and fantasies plunge us deep into the mind of an anguished man.

And “anguish” is the word for it. Erdosain believes he and all his fellow unfortunates live in “The Anguish Zone,” an inescapable layer of existence that curbs their thoughts and actions into unavoidable feedback loops of habit and delusion, keeping them miserable. They live in fantasy instead of reality. Erdosain sees his life almost like a stage drama, one which reality continually crashes, spoiling his idealism.

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Tweeting Ourselves into Oblivion: ‘I Hate the Internet’ by Jarett Kobek

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300The last two years have witnessed several novels lamenting the changing cultural landscape of the Bay Area, setting their sights on the runaway capitalism of the tech industry. But few of these books have actually assimilated the language of tech into their critique. This is part of what makes Jarett Kobek’s novel I Hate the Internet (We Heard You Like Books, 288 pages) so potent.

I Hate the Internet is ostensibly the story of Adeline, a middle-aged comic book artist living in San Francisco circa 2013. When Adeline, who purposefully affects a Trans-Atlantic accent a la Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, delivers a guest lecture at a Bay Area art school, she has no idea that her off-the-cuff remarks will be recorded and uploaded to the web by a student, generating a firestorm of Internet outrage in the process. While Adeline’s story remains an anchor throughout the novel, her dilemma is not the main focus of the book. Instead, her story serves as a springboard for Kobek to examine the state of San Francisco in the 21st century.

The narrative transitions from subject to subject at the speed of a mouse-click; a reference to Adeline’s former boyfriend working at LucasArts leads to several digressive paragraphs in which Kobek offers his own explication of the Star Wars property and its billion-dollar acquisition by the Disney corporation in 2012. This technique occurs on nearly every page, creating the impression that the reader has disappeared down a rabbit hole of URLs, following link after link on Kobek’s version of Wikipedia. It also allows Kobek to tie together several disparate threads throughout the book, while maintaining his central thesis that comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics—whose artists, such as Jack Kirby, saw almost none of the dizzying profits made off their intellectual properties—were the forerunners of companies like Facebook and Instagram, which earn massive revenues based on the content its millions of users produce for free.

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The ‘Adverse Gift’ Leading to a Full Life: ‘The Child Poet’ by Homero Aridjis

Screen-shot-2015-09-10-at-4.12.48-PM-253x300Homero Aridjis is renowned for his poetry throughout Latin America, his work having received the praise of such titanic contemporaries as Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, and Luis Buñuel, But Aridjis is also known for being one of Latin America’s most distinguished and conscientious environmental activists. In 1985, he founded the Group of 100, gathering together artists and academics to promote environmental justice in Latin America and leading to such accomplishments as legal protection for migratory monarch butterfly communities, gray whale sanctuaries for gray whales, and a reduction in Mexico City’s air pollution. Aridjis served as Mexico’s ambassador to Netherlands, Switzerland, and UNESCO, and was president of countless worldwide organizations promoting sustainable living, cultural diversity, and human rights.

His newest book, The Child Poet (Archipelago books, 153 pages, translated by his daughter Chloe Aridjis), is a brief exploration of where it all began, including a retelling of the tragic event he calls his “second birth” that turned him into the amazingly accomplished man he is today.

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The Voice That Moves You: ‘The Art of Perspective’ by Christopher Castellani

9781555977269When readers think of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita, they’re arguably more likely to recall the silver-tongued wordplay of its narrator, Humbert Humbert, than they are of the machinations of the plot, the character’s verbal gymnastics intended to distract from the horrors of his crimes. As Humbert declares, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” One of William Faulkner’s most revered novels, Light in August, utilizes a complex, impressionistic style, even to the point of incorporating made up words like “sootbleakened” and “childtrebling,” to underscore the psychological complexity of its potentially unsympathetic lead, Joe Christmas. Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a Vietnam account that constantly casts doubt on its own veracity, its narrator interrogating just what it means to tell a “true” war story.

All of these works prove why who is telling a story is often just as crucial as the story itself, if not more so. As novelist Christopher Castellani states, “There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story.” Castellani is the author of The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (160 pages), the latest in a collection of books about the craft of writing published by Graywolf Press. While the series may be of most interest to writers, Castellani discusses fiction in such an accessible and engaging manner that the book should prove compelling to anyone who is curious about why some of their favorite novels work the way they do.

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Accept the Flaws to Get to Beauty: ‘Syllabus of Errors’ by Troy Jollimore

9780691167688_p0_v1_s192x300Whenever I open a new book of poems, I am torn by twin currents of hope and dread; hope that there may be something fresh, meaningful, transcendental inside, and dread that it will be more pretentious nouveau pointlessness. Is that too strong a characterization? Not if poetry is the cornerstone of your (with a nod to Forrest Gander) faithful existence.

As C.K. Williams said in “Whacked,” good poems should whack you and “bad poems can hurt you…you know you are, wasting time, if you’re not being whacked.” So it was with deep pleasure that I slowly read through Troy Jollimore’s new book, Syllabus of Errors (112 pages; Princeton University Press). I was thoroughly whacked by these poems, and as Jollimore studied with Williams in the hazy past, I think he’d be proud. From the first lyric, “On Birdsong,” one is captivated by Jollimore’s unapologetic embrace of complex thought, of humor, doubt and praise. Often, the poems move from logic through the fantastic to the affirmative. The poem “On the Origin of Things” starts:

Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled that hellish furnace
and congealed into a flat frozen pond suspended
between the planets. But did you know
that anger began as music, played
too often and too loudly by drunken musicians
at weddings and garden parties? Or that turtles
evolved from knuckles, ice from tears, and darkness
from misunderstanding?

After a few more elegant twirls, the poem becomes a love song:

…and that my longing
for you has never taken me far
from that original desire, to inscribe
a comet’s orbit around the walls
of our city, to gently stroke the surface of the stars.

Many poetic and philosophic references infuse these poems. Jollimore’s first book, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, was at least in part an homage to John Berryman. The series of forty-two linked sonnets shows us a sad, slightly comic everyman, an update to Berryman’s Henry. In his second book, At Lake Scugog (an unfortunate title for an excellent book), Jollimore’s Tom romped though part of the book, but Jollimore also played with other forms—pantuom, terza rima, and rhyme, in general.

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Queen of the Liminal: ‘Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine’ by Diane Williams

unnamedDiane Williams has remained on the edge of American experimental short fiction for the last twenty years. Known for her compact, oblique stories and her extraordinary use of non sequiturs, Williams has written seven books of stories and was an editor at StoryQuarterly before starting the NOON literary annual. She has been lauded by authors Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte, and Lydia Davis. And her latest book of remarkably potent short fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (136 pages; McSweeney’s), not only keeps her on the forefront of the form, but also redefines its parameters.

In an interview with HTMLGiant.com, Williams said: “The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not.” For the forty stories in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, this sentiment holds true: Williams renders every single word like a prism of implication, and she stretches the space between sentences as wide as chapter breaks, while the sentences themselves somehow read like stand-alone stories. The density of her writing warrants a closer reading than most fiction because it also reads like superb poetry, just casual and fluid and lilting between verse and improvised speech.

Above all, this collection expresses a viciously recursive self-awareness through its narrators and characters (including Williams herself, who shows up by name in at least four of these stories) who attempt to fulfill the stories they tell themselves.

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