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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Struggle for Humanity, on Earth, in Space: ‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of JoanThrough several books of fiction, Lidia Yuknavitch has developed a reputation for playing with language and confronting what a novel can be, both in form and purpose. In her work, plot steps aside for meditations on brutality, passion, lust, agony, and hope, all of which she ruminates on until, as if by magic, they approximate something like an undeniable narrative. Using characters and singular events to flesh out her more abstract points, she has the ability to dig into the more painful and at times disturbing aspects of feelings, resulting in rewarding books.

In her new novel, The Book of Joan (288 pages; Harper), Yuknavitch tries her hand at crafting a Heinlein-esque epic with a feminist twist, a political fable in which the protagonist Joan of Dirt—an unabashed stand-in for Joan of Arc—does her best to take down the misogynistic dictator Jean de Men. de Men has all but depleted Earth’s resources and created CIEL, a space station (and what he believes to be a utopia) for the wealthy who supported and aided his horrific rise to power. While it might seem unclear what his ultimate goal is (or what drove him to it), what is clear is that his designs threaten art and nature.

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Lost Addresses, Found Poems: Collections from Diann Blakely & Hélène Cardona

Lost Addresses“My fear is the common one, that her poetry should be lost,’’ Rodney Jones writes in the introduction to Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems (100 pages; Salmon Poetry), a posthumously released collection by his friend and fellow Southerner, Diann Blakely.

“There are ample reasons for a poet to be neglected, temporarily submerged in a trend, or permanently effaced, for poetry is a cold media and the music that the claim of poetry rests on may not always be acknowledged,’’ he adds. “This book is proof against forgetting.”

Indeed. Blakely, who died in 2014, had a light that burned brightly, but the questionable benefits of self-promotion, let alone branding, were alien to her spirit. (In addition to this volume, her longstanding project, Rain In Our Door: Duets With Robert Johnson, is to be published by White Pine Press and another collection, Each Fugitive Moment; Essays, Memoirs and Elegies on Lynda Hull, is forthcoming from MadHat Press.)

Her verse unites respect for form and for precursors like Eliot and Plath with down-home tributes to high and low culture, from Sid Vicious to Foucault. She gives us imagined renderings of the real life meetings between Helen Keller and Mark Twain. In “The Story of Their Lives,’’ she writes:

Dear Reader, spellbound
Or bored with cryptic addresses, bored

With other lives and voices, it’s time to loose
This story, to let Helen float away
From Westport, childhood, Los Angeles: you choose

Her resting place.

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A World with No Use for Her Perfect Queer Self: ‘Notes of a Crocodile’ by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a CrocodileIn 1994, the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin published Notes of a Crocodile (NYRB Classics; 254 pages), a masterwork of fiction that plumbs same-sex desire while satirizing homophobic society; a year later, she killed herself. An English translation by Bonnie Huie captures the urgent, confessional voice of a lesbian struggling to live with honesty and courage in a society that holds her in its thrall.

The novel’s anonymous narrator, known only by the nonsense nickname “Lazi,” reconstructs from old notebooks and deteriorating memories an account of her time as a college student at an elite university in Taipei in the late ’80s. Her narrative largely revolves around her romantic relationships with women, as well as the same-sex relationships she witnesses among her dearest friends. Punctuating Lazi’s journal entries are chapters from a parable about a green-skinned creature called Crocodile who, despite wearing a “human suit” to blend in with the rest of society, reports on her existence to the media out of a desire for fellowship and acceptance. This announcement touches off a media frenzy that manufactures pseudo-knowledge of “crocodile culture,” as well as clashing political movements to either eradicate or confine all crocodiles. By turns droll and horrific, the parable illustrates how a voyeuristic media can turn lesbian culture into an object for fantasy, mimicry, and oppression.

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A History of Missteps & Bad Luck: ‘What to Do About the Solomons’ by Bethanny Ball

What to do About the SolomonsAt first glance, What to Do About the Solomons (256 pages; Grove/Atlantic) by Bethany Ball may seem like just another story about a dysfunctional family. But as you get deeper into Ball’s first novel, it becomes apparent it’s less about a dysfunctional family and more about dysfunctional individuals within a family that—despite the internal dramas inevitable in any large family—have a strangely stable and even loving relationship with one another.

Much of the novel centers on the (arguably) most loveable member of the infamous Solomon family, Yakov Solomon, the family patriarch. He is a force of nature within the kibbutz: he is a successful businessman, a husband to Vivienne, who came to the kibbutz from Algiers and was known as a great beauty during the time of their courtship, and the father of five children whose lives are fuelled by a mixture of travel and minor tragedies that make up the majority of the kibbutz gossip. Yakov is in a constant state of despair over his children, and his non-stop neurosis seems almost ridiculous until the reader realizes Yakov might be onto something.

As you are introduced to the five children and their respective children and spouses, you learn that missteps and bad luck run in the Solomon family tree. There is Marc, the L.A. businessman who gets wrongly accused of money laundering; Dror, the family gossip who goes through a series of questionable wives and girlfriends; Karen, who married the madman/artist, Guy Gever; Ziv, who lives in Singapore with another man; and Shira, a once-aspiring actress who is growing ever-disillusioned both in her personal life and in her career prospects. There is also a smattering of equally eccentric supporting characters, whose lives and issues seem to get caught orbiting around the Solomon family. People in the kibbutz and beyond seem to gravitate toward the Solomons, even as they carry the weight of scandal or failure of varying degrees. The reader, too, feels the gravitational pull of the family’s charm, even when how they handle their individual struggles becomes almost embarrassing to watch. The dramas each endures almost pokes fun at itself, but instead of making the story trite, it reassures us that in the end, everything can and will work out for the Solomons, however much we may share Yakov’s despair.

Throughout her story, Ball subtly integrates to good effect the political conflicts informing the daily lives of the people living at the kibbutz. Many of the men in the Solomon family have served in the Israeli army, and the traumas brought on by what they experienced during war are shown in sporadic flashbacks. Also, Yakov owns a powerful construction business, one that comes with political entanglement, however indirectly.

These political and cultural tensions add complexity to the characters’ pasts and their current identities. But what makes us care about the Solomons is their affection for one another, even during the times they disagree or drift apart and despite however much they may judge each other.

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What Memories (and We) Are Really Made of: ‘Void Star’ by Zachary Mason

Void StarThe crux of speculative fiction is not always found in inventing new worlds but in skewing our own. Zachary Mason’s Void Star (385 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) does just that, chronicling the struggle of its misfit characters as they fight to survive on an Earth in which the oceans have risen and threaten to submerge the majority of the planet’s remaining landmass. As affluent technocrats revel in their riches atop skyscrapers, the poorest of society are corralled into filthy favelas below them. Nowhere is this stark divide epitomized better than Mason’s meticulously rendered version of San Francisco, a lurid cityscape where wealthy citizens augment themselves with neural implants and autonomous government drones patrol the Bay’s smog-strangled skyline. Into this world, Mason introduces us to the fraught lives of a trio of characters, each facing separate adversities, but each eventually colliding to reveal a city of supreme science, surprising surrealism, and lurking menace.

As a “computational translator” Irina employs her cerebral implant to convert computer code into words. Her rare ability allows her to know the “temperature” moment to moment, to hear “all the chatter of all the surveillance drones” or “see through their cameras” anywhere within the city. Her implant enables her to store memories at will, selectively saving sensory details, even if they’re only flickers of images, sights, and sounds. An intermediary between artificial intelligences and her wealthy but frequently less than human clients, Irina floats between states of liminal thought and interrelating with people, leaving her hollow. We inhabit her haze until, like all the characters in Void Star, she is awakened to a sinister plot after witnessing something on a computer screen she shouldn’t have.

Kern, on the other hand, has little time to contemplate his Spartan existence as he grapples with the sludge of the slums. A thief who has honed his body and trained in martial arts, Kern stays connected to the world through his laptop, his only possession he hasn’t pawned or stolen. When he robs the wrong target, Kern’s story takes us through the unrelenting hell that is the lives of the poor as his independence, his strength—what little he had left—is taken from him. The novel’s third narrative follows the life of Thales, a refugee and the sole surviving member of a Brazilian political dynasty. Thales suffers an unexpected blow when he’s captured by an unknown force and thrust into an inextricable matrix of corporate conspiracy and familial dread.

Void Star asks the reader to contemplate several questions. As Irina parses through code and electric symbols, we digitally dive into her and all of the characters’ consciousness, forcing us to consider which experiences matter, how our memories and the details we observe make us whole. Are we curating a facade of a personality through the artifice of civilization? Do human relationships matter when artificial intelligences are slowly supplying the same basic interactions? And how do we rectify unparalleled technological prosperity with global disparity?

Speculative fiction has long wrestled with these ethical quandaries, but rarely has it done so with the power of language and prescience found in Void Star. Mason’s prose is prodigious in scope and exultant in its decadent imagery of a pseudo-dystopian San Francisco. A combination of Gibsonian grunge and the existential intrigue of Philip K. Dick, Void Star explores the artifice of memory and the limits of man’s comprehension, all with a dash of Bay Area bedlam.

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Making the Case for Hidden Wonder: ‘In Defense of Monsters’ by B.J. Hollars

In Defense of MonstersB.J. Hollars’ short essay collection, In Defense of Monsters (Bull City Press; 40 pages), opens on a world with no mysteries left. Now that seemingly every corner of the globe has been charted, and Google Earth allows one to zoom in on any coordinate one desires, the encroachment of human civilization on the natural world leaves us with little to explore. It wasn’t always the case: in the 20th century, even as horror spread across Europe and a racially divided America, the World’s Fairs promised a tomorrow full of discovery, and pulp novels sold readers on the idea of lost cities and forbidden jungles. Unsurprisingly, it was during this time that mythic figures such as Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster, which began as local rumors, developed into tourist attractions and subjects of international study. The Earth seemed like a place of wonder.

That sense has arguably since been stamped out, due in no small part to the scourge of war, the advance of technology, and a more skeptical populace. But in his essays, Hollars reminds us that “while three-fourths of Americans live in suburban and urban areas, only 2% of America is defined as such. The remaining 97% is considered rural.” Perhaps in those overgrown forest trails, lonely woods, and far-off mountain ranges, some domain still exists for these folklore creatures to flourish unseen by man. For Hollars, it’s not so important that scientists eventually prove the existence of a creature like Sasquatch (in fact, it’s immaterial), merely that our collective unconscious leave room for the possibility of their existence.

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Testaments to Our Will to Live: ‘Objects From a Borrowed Confession’ by Julie Carr

Objects from a Borrowed ConfessionSomewhere along the way, confessional poetry developed a bad rap. Perhaps it was the result of ubiquity: by 2003, every other turn of the radio dial delivered a soul-baring lyric to one’s ears (“On the way home this car hears my confessions,” went a lyric from a band literally called Dashboard Confessional), and college freshman creative writing classes were inundated with impressionable students expressing their angst through pen and paper. (You may have sat next to one, you may have been one yourself.) These days, mediums such as Facebook, Tumblr, and, well, Medium allow us to broadcast our inner lives to close friends and complete strangers alike—these digital walls can talk.

Considering the way modern technology has made the act of confession an almost thoughtless and arbitrary pastime, academic circles may have felt they had no choice but to turn their noses up at this ever-growing portion of the poetry world. But it’s a corner that clearly has long fascinated celebrated poet and author Julie Carr: “I wanted to think about what the Language Poets and the Conceptual Poets had against ‘confession,’ but I also wanted to see why confession was so important to our broader culture,” she writes in the Author Statement of her newest book, Objects From a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta Press; 149 pages), a collection of pieces that tackle the notion of confession from a unique angle. “I wanted to explore that impulse and the attraction we have to one another’s secrets…I wanted to understand what the act of confession has to do with intimacy, empathy, and subjectivity.”

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Medea as Something More Than Monster: ‘Bright Air Black’ by David Vann

Bright Air Black With all of the revenge, patricide, and doomed attempts at heroism as one might expect from Greek mythology, David Vann retells the story of Jason and the Argonauts through the eyes of Medea in his new novel, Bright Air Black (250 pages; Black Cat/Grove). Medea is most commonly known for her fierce, self-sacrificial love for Jason, which borders on madness as she is driven to betray her family and abandon her home country to help him rise to power. In this retelling, Vann introduces us to a Medea that goes beyond just her supporting function within another hero’s journey, and who has her own dreams of conquest in mind as she sets sail on the Argo.

The novel begins moments after Medea decides to leave Colchis, her home, with Jason, and steps onto the Argo, where the most of the first half of the book is set. We see her as she is feeds the dismembered corpse of the brother she slaughtered into the sea, for her father, the king of Colchis, to trail after and collect. Although this opening may seem exceptionally horrifying, the reader soon learns Medea is rarely without blood on her hands. Early in her journey, it is revealed her motives for these incredible actions have nothing to do with her love for Jason, and everything to do with a hunger for power. It is not just Jason using Medea here, but Medea using Jason so as to get closer to ruling her own kingdom one day. As she sails on the Argo, she ponders the nature of god (with philosophical questions such as “How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping the sign of god?”), how stories of heroism get shaped by biases that obscure their darker, more realistic elements (about Jason: “The stories will reveal nothing about the real man who lived”), and how no one—despite status or title—is invincible.

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A Wide-Ranging, Dazzling Debut: ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer Among the StarsSwimmer Among the Stars, (256 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Kanishk Tharoor’s first collection of stories, centers on concepts of language, conquest, and our ever-changing position on this planet. Born in Singapore and raised in Geneva, Tharoor touches on the imagined personalities of several countries and cultures— ruminating on the complex ways in which strangers cooperate and learn from one another, even on the brink of warfare. Often focusing on the strong polarities, and in turn, similarities of differing cultures, Tharoor is meticulous in illustrating the realistic yet otherworldly on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level.

Setting his thirteen stories in land, space, and sea, and roaming in time from as early as 190 B.C. to a post-apocalyptic future, Tharoor asks us to conceptualize the relationship between past and present by treating time and language as near characters of their own. Reminiscent of the magical realism of Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami, Swimmer Among the Stars collectively capitalizes on the often unexplainable, enchanting feelings and interactions brought on by strong cultural identities and superb storytelling.

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Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us: Q&A with Emily Fridlund

(photo by Doug Knutson)

(photo by Doug Knutson)

Dark, haunting, and arresting, History of Wolves (279 pages; Grove/Atlantic) announces Emily Fridlund as a literary voice to watch. The book’s story opens as an isolated, woodland community in northern Minnesota confronts a scandal involving a predatory high school teacher. The sullen and introspective narrator, fourteen-year-old Linda, watches the tumult unfold from a distance, as she does most things in life.

That is, until the self-sufficient ninth-grader gets drawn into the lives of the young Gardner family who move in across the lake. Linda takes to the Gardners’ precocious four-year-old, Paul, but begins to notice peculiarities about the child, like the strange Scripture-like verses he seems to quote and his frequent bouts of fatigue. Though History of Wolves builds to a tragic series of events, the novel never trades in empty shock; part of its strength is in the way Fridlund adroitly explores the ways in which we reckon with tragedy—as individuals, as family units, as communities.

This auspicious first novel probes the terrible limits of faith, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the secrets beneath the surface of small towns. “I was intrigued, I was repulsed,” remarks one of the characters, and the reader is likely to relate. Fridlund understands the precariousness of youth, how “coming of age” is seldom about reaching a new plateau of maturity but more often like what Linda experiences standing under a scalding hot shower: “some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I hadn’t known I’d felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing already coming.”

Fridlund talked to ZYZZYVA about History of Wolves and some of her influences as a writer, as well as her story “Lock Jaw,” which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101.

ZYZZYVA: One of the aspects of a novel that draws me in, perhaps before anything else, is its milieu. The setting here feels so tied to the book’s events, with details about the oppressiveness of winter and the isolation of this wooded community creating the kind of environment where Paul’s story could so easily happen. Like with Linda’s dogs and their chains, I think their mere presence adds a certain texture to the novel, in a similar way the scandal with Linda’s teacher, Mr. Grierson, compliments the main story of the Gardner family. How much of the novel began with, say, the character of Linda or Paul versus the woods themselves? 

Emily Fridlund: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled in by the milieu. The woods and Linda, setting and narrator, were always inextricably linked in my mind. I began with Linda’s voice, and the first scene I wrote was the one in which she approaches Mr. Adler, after he collapses in front of his class, and tentatively takes his hand. I was intrigued by the boldness of such a gesture, and also by the longing for human contact that might inspire it. As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.

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Tangles, Erasures, and Connections: ‘Of Form & Gather’ by Felicia Zamora

P03334In the introduction to Felicia Zamora’s collection of new and selected poems, Of Form & Gather (62 pages; University of Notre Dame Press), Edwin Torres writes that “A poem’s burden is to live inside its creation, where the organized singularity of its gathering is what brings the reader to the reader’s own voice.” This is an accurate description of how Zamora’s poems work, and what they do to the reader. The book is divided into four sections, titled “circles & circulations,” “that that that; this this this,” “in in; gather gather,” and “To be out of- dually other.” Each section does exactly what the title of the book says, as they each play with form and formalistic elements while underlining the circular and repetitive nature of Zamora’s poetry and images.

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Nightmarish Existence of The Child: ‘The Impossible Fairy Tale’ by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy TaleThe dichotomies of childhood—children’s capacity for both guileless love and extreme cruelty—make our earliest years ripe material for storytelling; fairy tales, in particular, have long traded on the contradictions of youth: Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping an evil witch’s clutches only to burn her alive in her own oven, Red Riding Hood fending off the appetite of a ravenous wolf disguised as her grandmother before filling his stomach with stones. It’s through this lens the reader approaches The Impossible Fairy Tale (214 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Janet Hong), the first novel from Korean author Han Yujoo and her first work to be translated into English.

The book opens on a bleak grade-school world (“Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen?” is one of the first lines spoken) and quickly establishes the novel’s central parallel: the charmed life of the angelic Mia—who wants for nothing and receives lavish gifts from both her biological father and her mother’s paramour (as the novel opens it’s a set of seventy-two German watercolor pencils, perhaps a nod to the Germanic origins of the Grimm fairy tales)—presented in sharp relief against a classmate’s known only as the Child, an unfortunate girl who experiences a constant torrent of abuse from her mother: “She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker.”

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