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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

The Wistful Battle to Be Better: ‘Bream Gives Me Hiccups’ by Jesse Eisenberg

Bream Give Me HiccupsIf Jesse Eisenberg’s first fiction collection were made up of simple extended bits, in which Eisenberg takes an initial premise and wittily wrings it for every drop of comedic juice possible, the book would still be an entertaining read. What makes Bream Gives Me Hiccups (Grove; 256 pages) more than that, however, is the dissection of social anxiety underlying each piece. Through a myriad of perspectives—from a precocious, broken-homed nine-year-old boy and an obnoxious college freshman with self-projection issues to Carmelo Anthony after an irritating run-in with a fan—Eisenberg relates a collective understanding of how difficult it is to both like others and also feel liked.

At first it’s hard to imagine any continuity in a collection that features the Bosnian genocide, Alexander Graham Bell, and a guy at a bar tripping on manufactured hallucinogens. But Eisenberg, through intimate points of view, a commitment to each comic premise, and a nerdy but unpretentious deployment of knowledge, links these seemingly unrelated stories. He shows that at base everyone has that Charlie Brown-like combination of hope and disappointment: cynical enough to know the football is going to be swiped away at the last moment, but hopeful (or possibly deluded) enough to try again, anyway.

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Trapped in a Town Without Pity: ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

EileenEileen (260 Pages; Penguin Press), the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, examines the moment of change in a life marred by self-hate, servitude, and isolation. Eileen Dunlop is a twenty-four year-old woman who plays caretaker to her alcoholic father, for whom “the worst thing [Eileen] could commit … was to do anything for [her] own pleasure, anything outside of [her] own daughterly duties.” A gun toting retired cop, he is harassed by imagined “hooligans” day and night. The gun thus established in the first act, we await its discharge in the third. But in the meantime, Moshfegh ekes out the dark family history of the Dunlops and presents the inner workings of unsympathetic characters filled with loathing.

In Eileen, stalking, verbal abuse, criminal compliance, prison visitations, and pregnant silences masquerade as love. Eileen works at a boys’ prison, and in order to placate the restless visiting mothers, she hands out innocuous (and in fact meaningless) polls to “create the illusion that their lives and opinions were worthy of respect and curiosity.” She does this to “fend off her own hard feelings,” but what we are seeing is an unconscious attempt at compassion. Continue reading

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Short Story Master Rediscovered: ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning WomenBy any estimation, writer Lucia Berlin led a full life. As a small child growing up in 1940s Texas, she fended for herself against an abusive grandfather while her mother remained a distant figure. Her glamorous teen years were spent in Chile among wealthy expatriates, attending dances and other high society functions after her father struck it rich in the mining industry. As an adult, Berlin frequently moved across the United States and Mexico, including a lengthy stay in the Bay Area. Along the way, she married three husbands, mothered four sons, and held an array of  jobs–from cleaning woman to emergency-room staff member to high school teacher. For much of this time, her greatest struggle was with alcoholism. Berlin chronicled these facets of her life in her highly autobiographical stories, ones she produced intermittently over several decades of writing—some theorize perhaps too intermittently for Lucia Berlin to ever gain the wide recognition she deserved.

A new collection seeks to rectify Berlin’s absence from the canon of all-time great short story writers. A Manual For Cleaning Women (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 403 pages) compiles forty-three of Berlin’s finest pieces, assembled from across her entire career. Featuring a foreword by Lydia Davis, who maintained a friendly correspondence with Berlin, this literary “mix tape” of Berlin’s writing is the perfect way for new readers as well as for existing fans to experience her work in a new context.

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Always More Stories to Tell: Q&A with ‘Landfalls’ Author Naomi J. Williams

Naomi J. Williams (photo by Kristyn Stroble)

Naomi J. Williams (photo by Kristyn Stroble)

Naomi J. Williams’s first novel, Landfalls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 336 pages), follows the Lapérouse expedition, whose two ships and nearly two hundred sailors left France in 1785 on a global trek to explore and fraternize in the name of science, God, and country. Although they never made it back, vanishing in the Pacific several years later, firsthand accounts and historical scholarship of the voyage remain. From the available facts, Williams has fashioned a smart, surprisingly hilarious, unusual, and moving story less concerned with maritime adventure—although Landfalls is an exciting and enjoyable read—than with carefully imagined dynamics of petty squabbles and momentous encounters alike.

Williams’s reimagining of the expedition and its participants is deeply compassionate even as she acknowledges and incorporates the mission’s staunchly imperialist spirit, and she is careful not to let a tragic end completely overwhelm this fact, or vice-versa. Her characters are at once neurotic, courageous, stubborn, spiteful, gentle, and human. And the novel itself is a meditation on colonialism, nationalism, the frailty of ego, the durable potency of friendship, and more. We spoke via email to Williams (whose story “Sunday School” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 82) about her approach to writing fiction and her interest in exploring the personal drama and quotidian humor that is lost in maps and historical records.

ZYZZYVA: You dedicate the novel to your grandmother, “who also loved maps.” How did your love of maps inform the strong sense of place in your writing? How many of the “landfalls” did you visit, if any, and how does visiting a place, or not visiting it, affect the way you write about it?

Naomi J. Williams: I’m so delighted you’ve mentioned my grandmother. She was Japanese, and one of my early memories is of sitting on the tatami floor in her tiny apartment in Fukuoka, a city in southern Japan, and poring over a map of the city. I remember being fascinated by the notion that you could have this logical, colorful paper representation of where you lived.

I’ve loved maps ever since, and indeed, the whole idea for Landfalls came from a misidentified antique map my husband bought for me about fifteen years ago. I tell that story in some detail in a recent blog post, but briefly, it’s a map from the Lapérouse expedition, of Lituya Bay, Alaska, the setting for two chapters in the novel.

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When Death Goes on Hiatus: ‘Killing Pretty’ by Richard Kadrey

Killing PrettyJames Stark is a sarcastic, hard-charging brawler who can heal from any wound. Half human and half angel, he still feels pain, and his battered body carries a multitude of scars from shootings, stabbings, and torture. Stark, who goes by Sandman Slim, is so tough he smokes Maledictions, cigarettes you can only get in Hell. He lives off spicy food, donuts, and Hell’s best wine, Aqua Regia. His attitude and appetites are the product of eleven years in gladiatorial arenas in Hell’s capital, Pandemonium (a much hotter version of Los Angeles). In the first book of Richard Kadrey’s bestselling supernatural noir series, Stark escapes Hell, seeking vengeance with a flaming sword and his weapon of choice, the na’at—a malleable, sword-like whip. He possesses Hellion magic, the ability to warp distance via shadow, and a black blade that cuts anything, opens any lock, and starts any car.

Stark’s penchant for violent solutions existed long before his time in Hell. He is a descendant of Wild Bill Hickok, and in previous adventures, Stark has faced off against numerous threats: vampires, mutant angels, necromancers, a zombie plague, and gods as old as God himself. He’s saved the world more than once, served as a bodyguard for Lucifer, and even reigned on the throne of Hell for a time.

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A Fevered Vision in the South Seas: ‘Imperium’ by Christian Kracht

ImperiumIn the early twentieth century, a young German named August Engelhardt sailed to Kabakon, a small island in the German territories of the South Pacific. His goal was to establish an outpost from where he could promulgate his ideas, chief among them the belief that the proper way to live, spiritually and practically, was to be naked, to worship the sun, and to eat nothing but coconuts. From Kabakon he managed to disseminate frugivorist and utopian literature to Europe, and to entice to the island numerous followers, some of whose travel he funded. By the end of his life, though, Engelhardt was malnourished, disconnected, and delusional, a leprous skeleton who barely reached middle age and who seemed to prove by his own dwindling health the untenable idiocy of his philosophy. In Christian Kracht’s newly translated novel, Imperium (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 179 pages; translated from the German by Daniel Bowles), Engelhardt is not merely an anthropological subject but “our friend,” and the protagonist not only of the book but of “the new age.”

Imperium is funny and short, but vigorous in its exploration of ideas and ambitious in its scope. Fiercely erudite, it is clearly the work of a man who has ingested all sorts of philosophies and literary traditions. While comparisons to classic adventure and maritime tales are inevitable, Kracht’s narrative sensibility echoes the self-conscious playfulness of 19th century French and Russian tale-tellers, and his obsessive focus on coincidences and ostensibly dissimilar yet interrelated phenomena reminds one of Pynchon’s intricate cataloguing of stories-within-stories, regardless of whether they are germane to the plot. (A digression, for example, concerning the alleged creation of the yeast by-product Vegemite under the aegis of the Kellogg brothers is particularly Pynchon-esque in its interpretation of corporate hegemony as a mechanizing force guiding individual wills.)

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A Family’s Struggles Mirror Its City’s: ‘The Turner House’ by Angela Flournoy

The Turner HouseSet primarily in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s riveting and acrobatic first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages), flips among several points of view and timelines: principally between the Great Migration of the mid-1940s—when Francis Turner leaves his young wife, Viola, and their infant son behind in Arkansas to prepare a new life for the family in Michigan—and 2008, when Viola is near the end of her life and about to lose the family home. This spells potential tragedy, as both mother and house are the last points of connection among the couple’s thirteen children.

In the story’s central timeline, Francis has already died and Viola’s advanced age and ill health have forced her to move in with her eldest son, Cha-Cha. With thirteen kids, Viola should be spending her last hours holding loved ones’ hands, surrounded by the noise and activity that was the soundtrack to her life. But each son and daughter has such complicated and all-consuming struggles, that it’s just as likely Viola will die alone, at night, held only by the chemical grip of morphine under the crackling blue light of an infomercial.

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Note of Grace Among an Unhappy Family: ‘The Loved Ones’ by Mary-Beth Hughes

The Loved OnesEven if Tolstoy was right about happy families, unhappy families in Western literature often bear striking resemblances to one another. The unfaithful, existentially-tormented husbands; the beautiful, unfulfilled wives; the precocious yet emotionally unformed children caught up in family affairs far beyond what they are capable of properly assimilating into their senses of self—we recognize these tropes partly because they are, sadly, representative of many actual families, but mostly because, also sadly, they make for instantly recognizable and compelling dramatic structures. It is, perhaps, unfair to levy such a generalization against the many writers who choose to tackle dissolute spouses and dissipating family units, but it is certainly incumbent upon these writers to bring something new to the table, if only for the reason that it is one heavily laden with offerings. Mary-Beth Hughes’s new novel, The Loved Ones (Grove/Atlantic; 289 pages), is in many ways a familiar portrait of a family tearing itself apart through avarice and ennui. But its contribution to the genre is its unflinching and intelligent exploration of the ways in which the characters—particularly the women—attempt to keep their pain from spreading to those around them.

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Old Souls and Deep Sadness: ‘In Another Country’ by David Constantine

In Another CountryReaders of British author David Constantine’s In Another Country (Biblioasis; 277 pages) may identify in his stories certain hoary elements of style and material that have been all but abandoned by contemporary U.S. writers seeking to depict modern life in all its fragmented complexity. Absent are the ingratiating narrative voice, the frenetic observation, the satirical punches to the gut dealt to unworthy characters. Constantine’s characters have souls, and do such un-ironic things as write long letters to one another, which they send via mail. The stories are simply plotted, harrowing, and enduringly powerful; the prose is uncompromisingly lyrical yet rarely overwrought. Constantine’s old-world sensibilities imbue his stories with grace and seriousness, and his characters seem to exist not in any recognizable world, but in their own personal Limbos, wherein ancient forces and quotidian difficulties converge to create an immense pressure threatening to tear them apart. There is a pronounced fatalism through many of the stories, yet Constantine’s great skill lies in his ability to create moments that feel not like authorial intrusions but rather fleeting recognitions, whether of insurmountable loneliness or inchoate hope.

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Deceptions of an Iraq War Memoir: ‘A Big Enough Lie’ by Eric Bennett

A Big Enough LieEric Bennett’s first novel, A Big Enough Lie (285 pages; TriQuarterly Books), is fiction within fiction. The novel opens with best-selling author John Townley sitting in a studio green room, waiting to discuss his war memoir, Petting the Burning Dog, for the second time on the Winnie Wilson Show. There’s just one problem. The memoir is a fabrication, written under the name Henry Fleming, who happens to be a real second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Fleming is missing in action in Iraq and was the leader of the “Babylon Seven”—a platoon captured and executed on video. Townley suspects his second appearance will expose his lies on national television; the show’s second guest is Antoine Greep, the platoon’s sole survivor.

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Peering through the Haze of Digital Commotion: ‘All This Life’ by Joshua Mohr

unnamed (3)_0Is loneliness the de facto spiritual condition of the Information Age? This is the central question that seems to loom over All This Life (Soft Skull Press; 294 pages), the latest novel from Bay Area author Joshua Mohr. In the book, Mohr trains a scathing lens upon our 21st century culture, one that craves personal connection and yet seems to have forgotten the value of face-to-face interactions, opting instead for a constant stream of YouTube videos, live Tweets, and Facebook status updates. “All that matters is content. New content. More content.” The setting is San Francisco circa 2013, a city where zealous Apple employees “swarm like Jehovah’s witnesses” and promise “video quality that looks better than the real world,” a place where a booming tech industry has driven rent prices up toward Manhattan levels and has dismantled “every bit of strangeness that once made San Francisco extraordinary.”

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Struggling Among So Much Splendor: ‘The Wonder Garden’ by Lauren Acampora

The Wonder GardenIt takes a skilled writer to make us see the familiar as something new. In her first book of fiction, The Wonder Garden (Grove; 386 pages), Lauren Acampora turns an anthropologist’s discerning gaze on the everyday sights and sounds of suburbia. In doing so, she creates the impression these commonplace scenes and images are imbued with some hidden meaning, whether it be a foreign girl visiting for the first time a mall, where she “touches the clothing in Aeropostale as if it were powdered with gold dust,” or the markings on a “wooden coffee table that still bears the scars of children’s homework.”

The Wonder Garden began as a novel until Acampora realized her story’s central protagonist was too passive of a character to carry the weight of hundreds of pages. Thankfully, she discovered that several of the novel’s supporting players possessed fascinating interior lives worth exploring. Acampora ultimately resurrected the project as a series of interwoven stories set around the affluent Connecticut community of Old Cranbury. These are characters who appear “stuck,” paralyzed by indecision while at the crossroads of middle-age, young adulthood, or new parenthood. The pleasure of reading The Wonder Garden comes not from watching these people escape the traps they may or may not have set for themselves, but in witnessing their struggle and seeing, despite the extreme wealth on display through the book, a mirror of our own lives.

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