Category Archives

Book Reviews

ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Books, Not Just the Characters, Are the Point: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s ‘Severina’

SeverinaIn his introduction to Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina (Yale University Press, 112 pages), poet and translator Chris Andrews writes that for readers expecting the “baroque exuberance” of fellow Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, Rey Rosa’s fiction will come as a surprise. Not only does Rey Rosa eschew the colorful language of his predecessor for more restrained and economical prose, he allows dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations to regularly puncture his character’s worlds. In this respect, Andrews observes, the writer who Rey Rosa remains the most in debt to is Jorge Luis Borges.

Reading Severina—only the fifth of Rey Rosa’s many works to be translated into English thus far (a task begun by Paul Bowles)—one cannot help but also draw comparisons to more contemporary Latin American authors, such as Roberto Bolaño, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and César Aira. Like them, Rey Rosa enjoys using the forms of genre fiction (particularly mysteries) to mask stories whose real subjects aren’t their tantalizing series of events, but the subtler, more inscrutable themes hidden within.

Continue reading

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

An Elegy and a Testament to a Culture: Joan Naviyuk Kane’s ‘Hyperboreal’

Hyperboreal“I could make passage / A thousand obscure, / Contradictory ways,” claims Joan Naviyuk Kane in “Mother Tongues,” a poem from the collection, Hyperboreal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 65 pages), winner of AWP’s Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. In five precise, prosodic quatrains, the poem navigates vast and difficult territory, memorializing both the poet’s mother and her mother’s native tongue, the King Island dialect of Inupiaq. An Inupiaq/Inuit, and among the last living speakers of the King Island dialect, Kane contends with biological, cultural, and political threats to her ancestral community, including climate change, language death, and the diaspora prompted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ forcible relocation of King Island residents in the mid-twentieth century. Yet as a mother and a daughter, an educator and an artist, Kane brings to these subjects a singular, sonorous voice and a lyric sensibility as alternatingly austere and lush as the land of her ancestral home.

“Mother Tongues,” like many of these poems, is studded with Inuit words: “Mother, / Aakaa; Woman, / Aġnaq.” Occasionally, these terms remain un-translated, as in “Time and Time Again” and “Nunaqtigiit.” While these entries may not offer most readers much in the way of semantics, Kane’s periodic refusal to translate testifies to the irreducibility of these messages, and to the impossibility of paraphrase from a language suffused with the knowledge of its own endangerment. As Spivak would have it, one cannot make widely legible an experience whose illegibility to dominant culture is among its fundamental experiential features. Or, in Kane’s own words, “The sky of my mind against which self- / betrayal in its sudden burn / fails to describe the world.”

Continue reading

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

The Whole of the Iceberg: Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’

An Unnecessary WomanIn his fifth book, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, 304 pages), San Francisco author Rabih Alameddine examines the past and present life of a 72-year-old Lebanese divorcee and translator, Aaliyah, who has distanced herself from family and lost her only two friends. As she holes up in her spacious Beirut apartment and braces for bombs during the Lebanese Civil War or wanders the streets of her city decades later, Alameddine’s novel stays lodged within the confines of Aaliyah’s erudite mind, where she bounces effortlessly between Fernando Pessoa and Bruno Schultz. Literature is her only salve. For sticking with Aaliyah, the reader is rewarded with gorgeous moments of wonder and cranky humor that ripen a narrative and a life.

Continue reading

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

The Archaeology of Gossip: Edmund White’s ‘Inside A Pearl: My Years in Paris’

Inside a PearlIn 1983, with a Guggenheim fellowship and his acclaimed novel A Boy’s Own Story in tow, Edmund White left what he calls New York’s “gay ghetto” and moved to Paris. The site of what White thought would be a jaunting continental vacation, a respite from the AIDS outbreak and the long shadow cast upon the utopian project of sexual liberation, Paris served as his home until 1998 and ushered in a renaissance for one of the progenitors of the gay novel.

In his new memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (Bloomsbury, 261), White recounts these fifteen years abroad in loosely strung vignettes that read like feuilleton, a vortex of societal gossip tinctured with White’s erudition and humor and dotted with anecdotes on an inexhaustible parade of celebrities: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Emmanuel Carrère, Alan Hollinghurst, Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, Harry Matthews, Yves Saint Laurent, Azzedine Alaïa, Paloma Picasso and far-away glimpses of the Rothschilds. If this list sounds both fascinating and exhausting, it is because White’s social life is both of these things. Yet Inside a Pearl is underpinned by the morose awareness that death haunts each page. In the midst of the allure and maddening craze of it all, of the glint of celebrity, the lunches at La Tour d’Argent, Le Grand Véfour, Le Voltaire and Lapérouse, the holidays spent at Gstaad, the fantasy and ornate pretention of an expat flaneur in Paris, White’s frank portraiture of friends and lovers who have died from AIDS-related complications revolves at the center as larger concerns with gay identity are filtered through existential crisis.

Continue reading

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

Claiming Her Origin and Her Life Apart From It: Gillian Conoley’s ‘Peace’

PeaceThe poems in Gillian Conoley’s Peace (Omnidawn, 112 pages) are characteristically spacious, speculative, full of breath and light. Drawing on a range of registers—the geographic and technologic, emotional and workaday—Conoley explores several categories of peace, broadly construed: the peace of armistice, of reflection, of liberation, of death. In her sparse, inventive lyric mode, Conoley weaves personal and political threads into an incantatory not-quite-narrative whose power lies in the gravid spaces between juxtaposed images and thoughts. It is in the emergent rhythms of “each euphoriant ephemery” that Peace finds its logic—and, perhaps, its peace.

Continue reading

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

A Transgendered Youth’s Search for Self: Kim Fu’s ‘For Today I Am a Boy’

For Today I Am a BoyOver the past several years, the transgender perspective—once a marginal voice even within the LGBT community—has gradually emerged into the mainstream. In 2003, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex helped raise awareness of gender identity issues when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Elsewhere, transgender actress Laverne Cox has found acclaim on a popular show, and actor Jared Leto recently won an Oscar for his depiction of a transgender woman.  Recognition is not tantamount to acceptance—for this, a long road still lies ahead—but Kim Fu has chosen an auspicious time for her first novel, For Today I Am a Boy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pages).

Continue reading

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

All That Woe Out There: Rob Fitterman’s ‘No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself.’

No Wait Yep“I am a genius of sadness,” reads a line from Robert Fitterman’s book-length poem, No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. (Ugly Duckling Presse, 80 pages). “I am a prism / through which sadness could be / Divided into its infinite spectrums.”

It’s as good a description as any of the book’s central premise: the appropriation of public articulations of loneliness and angst from blog posts, song lyrics, and ads, and the collaging of these excerpts, without context, in a relentless, eighty-page masterwork of Weltschmerz. Invariably first-person and homogenously histrionic, quotations give rise to an emergent “I” that is at once collective and personal. Mediated via Fitterman’s own curatorial bias, the speaker is simultaneously an individual and a univocal multitude, posting his pathos for all to see but incapable of finding succor in the near verbatim posts of others. Yet by applying to the passages an idiosyncratic, masculine affect, Fitterman makes the whole pastiche read like the work of one sad narcissist.

The book’s form borrows from James Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem,” a sixty-page epistolary poem that resembles a chapter of Ulysses: self-absorbed, associative, and lyrically beautiful, with a deictic duration far shorter than the time it takes to actually read. Like those of “The Morning of the Poem,” Fitterman’s lines increase gradually in length, with every other line indented, so that by the end, the poem has morphed into a monolithic paragraph without my even noticing. I am reminded of other authors in addition to Schuyler; Harold Jaffe’s found-text collection Anti-Twitter comes to mind, as does Ariana Reines’ Cœur de Lion, another book whose disarming candor makes me put it down intermittently to catch my breath and whisper “TMI.”

Continue reading

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

What It Means to Be Alive and Dying at the Same Time: Jack Mueller’s ‘Amor Fati’

Amor FatiAmor Fati, a thick volume of new and selected poems from Beat affiliate and once San Francisco fixture Jack Mueller, truly lives up to its name (Lithic Press; 177 pages). “Love of fate,” as the title translates, appears in these pages in many forms: as contemplative acceptance, surly fatalism, awed joy. One moment pondering the nature of death, the next exuberantly describing a bird, Mueller vacillates between optimism and resignation as he moves between the registers of philosophical abstraction and concrete observation. Distinctly the work of an older writer, Amor Fati tackles almost exclusively cosmic questions—about mortality, love, and our relationship to language.

While the more lucid, imagistic poems are generally Amor Fati’s most memorable, the majority of the book consists in abstract, existential declaratives. “We live, love, marry, suffer / and more,” one poem reads, while another comprises only the sentence “There is no science / but the science of poetry.” Mueller explores logic and physics, tautology and eroticism, with the tenor of someone who has thought long and hard enough about these subjects to have finally arrived at something true—something like consensus between his various and often inharmonious selves. (“I am, by condition, complex,” he writes, affecting Whitman, “I argue tomorrow and today comes / like a small surprise.”) Even when his subject is moral or linguistic relativism—which is often—Mueller speaks with authority: “I am not myself / nor am I something / other.”

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Troubled & Young, But That’s O.K.: Adam Wilson’s ‘What’s Important Is Feeling’

What's Important Is FeelingWhat’s Important Is Feeling (Harper Perennial, 198 pages), the new collection of short stories by Adam Wilson, begins with a few lines from Denis Johnson’s poem “Enough”: “as if we held in the heavens of our arms/not cherishable things, but only the strength/ it takes to leave home and then go back again.”

The push and pull of home—the fear of arriving unchanged, still incomplete—is an ever-present theme throughout Wilson’s fiction. His first novel, Flatscreen, told the story of Eli Schwartz, a stoner in his early 20s who lives at his parents’ house in a ritzy Massachusetts suburb, a young man without the drive to leave or to interact with the world. Many of the protagonists in What’s Important Is Feeling are similarly glum, dark-humored, and pill-addicted, but Wilson succeeds as he did in Flatscreen in giving them depth.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lone Survivor Bears Witness to Atrocity: Jessica Bozek’s ‘The Tales’

the_tales_jessica_bozek_front_coverThe Tales by Jessica Bozek (Les Figues Press, 78 pages) consists mostly of prose poems from a variety of first-person narrators, all on the subject of a fictional genocide known as “Operation Sleep.” Inspired largely by the literature of witness, on which she based a seminar at Boston University called Reading Disaster, Bozek tells the grim story of a land whose citizens die en masse upon a visitation from a soldier who hails from a powerful nation and is fluent in the local tongue. When the soldier speaks, the people of the land sink into the earth—except one, known as the Lone Survivor, who alone remains to tell the tale. Poly-vocal and formally hybrid, The Tales combines the language of contemporary politics with that of age-old myths, post-colonial thought, and heartbreaking testimony, to construct a parallel world that is at once strange and strikingly familiar.

Continue reading

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

The Rewards (and Risks) of the Difficult: Ben Marcus’s ‘Leaving the Sea’

Leaving the SeaBen Marcus is a man who prefers not to put things too easily. Since his first book was published almost twenty years ago—The Age of Wire and String, a collection of stories that could have also been prose poems or even guides to some other plane—Marcus has carved a career out of writing complex, formally inventive fictions that seem to confuse just as many readers as they impress. In 2005, after Harper’s published an essay in which Marcus defended difficult and experimental fiction from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and the Atlantic Monthly’s B.R. Myers, Marcus became an unofficial spokesperson—some might even say a symbol—for writing that was innovative, demanding, and different from the mainstream. “If you happen to be interested in the possibilities of language,” Marcus wrote, “if you appreciate the artistic achievements of others but still dream for yourself, however foolishly, that new arrangements are possible, new styles, new concoctions of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions—if you believe any of this, and worse, if you try to practice it, you are an elitist. You hate your audience, you hate the literary industry, and you probably hate yourself. You stand not with the people, but in a quiet dark hole, shouting to no one.”

This said, many were surprised when, in 2012, Marcus came out with his most accessible work to date, The Flame Alphabet. Adhering mostly to the rules of linear narrative, complete with a cast of characters and a suspenseful plot, it marked a stylistic shift away from his earlier books. Marcus’s usual themes (family, language, metaphor) are still present, as is the particular strangeness of his world, but both the fierce experimental wordplay and the emphasis on an unconventional structure were tamped down. So with the release of his latest story collection, Leaving the Sea (Knopf, 271 pages), a question lingering among his fans was, will Marcus continue down this path, or will he return to his more experimental roots? The answer, as it turns out, is, Yes.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

We Want What Language Won’t Do: Dean Rader’s ‘Landscape Portrait Figure Form’

Landscape Portrait Figure FormThere’s a little room adjacent to the Djerassi Gallery of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in which, during the Paul Klee at SFMOMA exhibit in 2011, several of Klee’s small drawings and sketches hung. While the main gallery—spread with bright, prismatic paintings on large canvases—was overwhelming, the little annex was quieter and still, its pictures more thoughtful and muted. It was a place to ponder and absorb the dazzling content and heady theory of Klee’s works, a place for the emergent patterns of thought and art to coalesce and make themselves known.

Dean Rader’s new chapbook, Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn Publishing, 46 pages), is a lot like that little room: it’s small, reflective, and haunted by Paul Klee. As we learn from the Notes, a few of the book’s poems were inspired by that very exhibit at SFMOMA, and several are ekphrases based on particular paintings: Ad Marginem, Angelus Nous, Man in Love. Klee’s writings feature as prominently as his visual art; the chapbook’s title refers to concepts from Klee’s lectures on modern art and pictorial studies, which, according to Rader, “sound very much like poetic theory.” Even those poems not based on particular works of art employ painterly terminology and visual schematics to contribute to an ongoing dialogue between literary and graphic media. There are self-portraits, sequences, triptychs, and choose-your-own-adventure poems, whose sharp, uncanny imagery punctuates abstracter philosophical musings. There’s an elegy for Adrienne Rich and a poem starring Frog and Toad. There’s even a poem written as a Wikipedia article, which ZYZZYVA published last year along with several other poems from the collection.

Continue reading

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