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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Everything Contained in a Small Moment: ‘Saint Friend’ by Carl Adamshick

Saint FriendSaint Friend (64 pages; McSweeney’s Poetry Series), the newest collection by Carl Adamshick, is massive, not in length, as the collection clocks in at well under 70 pages, but in quality. The poems Adamshick presents us with are expansive thought projects. Even the shorter poems occupy a space that is difficult to comprehend—yet they are so readable, like all the poems here. The fact that Adamshick can write with such variance, that he can be in tune with society and with the incredible poets of the past and present, makes his work impressive and enjoyable.

In the opening poem of the collection, “Layover,” the speaker is in an airport musing as “They keep paging Kenneth Koch.” He follows up with a beautiful existential thought that sprouts throughout the lengthy poem: “Someone should let the announcer know / he is dead, that there is no city he can go to, / that no one is expecting him.” It seems so simple; of course Kenneth Koch has nowhere to go. But Adamshick continues his line of thought: “I want to be paged once a day in an airport / somewhere on this earth, so people / will think I am just running late or lost.” The fear of mortality is perhaps the most relatable theme a poet can tap (that and love, which Adamshick touches on, too), but here the poet examines the anxiety surrounding our legacy, our curiosity about what people will say when we are gone.

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Paths Untrodden: ‘Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit’

Minow WhiteShortly after World War II, Minor White (1908-1976)—a photographer of some repute before the war—was in New York, freshly discharged from the Army intelligence corps, and speaking to Alfred Stieglitz in Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. In an often-quoted exchange between the two men, White, who felt the war had sapped some of his former verve, asked Stieglitz whether he could still take photographs. “Well, have you ever been in love?” Stieglitz said. White answered yes, and the elder artist explained, “Then you can be a photographer.” The conversation had a profound effect upon White. Indeed, whatever the immediate subject—the swirling figure of a tree trunk, the geological minutia of shoreline rocks—White’s photographs seem exceptionally intimate. Unknown to many at the time, however, was that as a gay man of that era, White struggled his entire life with love. Later, he would say his photographs were merely “reflecting the loneliness, the frustrations, the search for intimacy without embarrassment, and not much more. I am merely letting the camera visualize my inner-wishes—a lazy way of working.” It was Stieglitz who used to say, “When I photograph, I make love,” but that may have been far more true of White.

Still, the photographer was correct to note elsewhere that “Sexual expression is only the foundation on which the cathedral is built.” So much is clear from the work reproduced in Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit (Getty Publications, 200 pages), which accompanies the current retrospective that opened July 8 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (It’s the first big retrospective of White’s work since 1989, and runs till October 9.) An unblinking, no-frills biographical essay by Paul Martineau, an associate curator of photography at the Getty, lucidly surveys White’s career as an artist, educator, and co-founding editor of Aperture. While he presents judicious commentary throughout the book, Martineau generally lets White’s life and work speak for themselves. He reveals White as an extremely lonely individual; a student of Catholicism, Christian mysticism, and Zen Buddhism; and an eccentric proto-hippie with, according to one photographer, “the persona of a guru,” who was worshiped by his pupils as a creative visionary. White was, writes Martineau, somebody who “believed that photography would help him to balance his natural tendency for introspection with his need to be engaged in the world.”

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The Disquiet of a Marriage Amid the Apocalypse: ‘California’ by Edan Lepucki

Lepucki_California-660x1024It can be argued that the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel was invented in California. Although there had been such end-of-days precursors as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man or E.M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops” (and even the novel The Scarlet Plague by Oakland’s own Jack London), it was Earth Abides, published in 1949 by University of California English professor George R. Stewart, that established many of the tropes associated with doomsday novels, ranging from Stephen King’s The Stand to The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Stewart’s novel follows geography grad student Isherwood “Ish” Williams after he recovers from a snakebite-induced coma in the Sierra and returns to Berkeley, only to find the human population decimated by a plague. Over the course of the narrative, Ish embarks on a cross-country reconnaissance mission, returns to California, raises a family there, and observes the further, perhaps unstoppable, deterioration of civilization.

Consciously or otherwise, Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California (Little, Brown; 394 pages), owes a debt to Stewart’s West Coast apocalyptic masterpiece. Her characters, however, forsake the So Cal flatlands for the wilderness to the north, and their concerns for the future are as much domestic and existential as global and philosophical.

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What It Means to be a Latino Writer: Daniel Olivas’s ‘Things We Do Not Talk About’

Things We Don't Talk About“Write what you know” is a common phrase in the writing world. Daniel A Olivas’s new book, Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature Through Essays and Interviews (202 pages; San Diego State University Press), raises and discusses questions with himself and other authors about what it means to be a Latino writer and how that may (or may not) influences their writings. Olivas, the author of seven books (The Book of Want, Latinos in Lotusland), doesn’t claim, though, that this collection of various Latino authors’ ideas and thoughts on their cultural lineages and their work (as captured in Olivas’s previously published essays and interviews) has all the answers.

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An Honest Portrayal of Reckoning with Memory: Lizzie Harris’s ‘Stop Wanting’

Stop Wanting “I want to say what happened / but am suspicious of stories,” begins a poem in Stop Wanting (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 72 pages), Lizzie Harris’s debut collection, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2013 First Book Prize. The simple statement of these opening lines illuminates the entire collection, because at the root of these poems, Harris questions how to retell memory without overwhelmingly fictionalizing. This is especially difficult when what happened frightens both writer and reader. Yet Harris investigates her memory with grace and courage in such beautiful poetry that she leaves the reader shivering, line after line. Her poems curl in and out of the experience of living with an abusive father and how that leaves a daughter to fight for her own in the adult world.

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Music, Marine Life, and Childhood: Lisa Williams’s ‘Gazelle in the House’

gazelle in the houseAs the title of Lisa Williams’s new book suggests, this collection of wild and graceful poems are untamed yet bound to the confines of the page. Gazelle in the House (New Issues, 87 pages), Williams’s third poetry collection, showcases the elegant range of a poet who listens deeply to the world around her. In the poem “Thelonious,” she reaches out to the jazz legend, displaying a particular knack for evoking the rhythms found in jazz:, “the crooked / passage that a flood can settle: / nuanced tread, asymmetrical / ramble only he could muster / from the backward drift of fingers: chords.” Again and again, Williams relates so poignantly to other art forms, especially music, that we hear the euphonic sounds within the poems.

In “Spilled Milk on Banjo,” she retells a childhood memory of her mother playing the stringed instrument. We can hear the rhythmic strums in the lines as her mother plays “with her clicking silver finger picks / like claws like a machine gears flashing / faster and faster her curved hands / raking across the strings such ringing.” The lack of punctuation and expert line breaks make this poem seem childlike in the disjointed and sporadic nature of the language, especially in “I am sad girls are indelicate banjo / strings taut in their silver girdle / sharp in memory as my mother.” The broken syntax throughout the poem evokes the tragedy of the memory and enacts the way we often remember childhood experiences.

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‘I can’t forget that I belong alone.’: Keetje Kuipers’s ‘The Keys to the Jail’

The Keys to the JailIn the title poem of The Keys to The Jail (BOA Editions, 92 pages), the latest stunning collection from poet Keetje Kuipers, the poet writes, “We tell our sad stories / until the dog hangs his head.” Those two lines shadow the collection’s heavy sadness, but it’s a sadness from which Kuipers crawls out of, escaping the morbid nature of life and displaying a gift for relating her experiences of the world. We feel we are discovering the world as she is: “the breath / is our own, the voices belong/ to you and me.”

The poem that follows, “Birthday Poem,” elaborates on selfhood and discovery as she opens with the gorgeous line: “My earliest memory is someone else’s.” With this poignant opening, the title suddenly becomes so fitting for the poem. With each birthday we rediscover ourselves, older and stranger, leading to the poem’s final arresting lines: “ One minute I’m becoming myself, the next I’m forgetting how.”

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Of Hope and Devastation: Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Snow Queen’

snow_queen“A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.” So begins The Snow Queen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages), the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham. Like his previous novels, The Hours and By Nightfall, Cunningham combines delicate prose with poignant subject matter, exploring the themes of love and mortality through the relationships of his characters.

Beginning in 2004 on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, The Snow Queen tells the story of a group of friends across a span of four years, the narrative winding its way through the shifting dynamics of their lives and friendships. At the center of the story are Tyler and Barrett, two brothers who share a long history and an apartment in Brooklyn. Though seemingly opposite in nature, Tyler and Barrett’s close friendship speaks to the bond of a shared past and also highlights the illusory stability of the other relationships in the novel.

Complementing the brothers’ friendship is Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend Beth, whose long-term illness is one of the focal points of the story and the glue that holds the group together. The fourth member of the Brooklyn quartet is Liz, a brassy middle-aged retail maven with a penchant for young lovers and a keen understanding of love’s capricious nature.

Shifting perspective between the four protagonists, The Snow Queen traces the path of their lives between 2004 and 2008, using political events to establish chronology and to evoke the frustrations they all share. As the friends suffer through illness, money problems and drug addiction, their parallel struggles interweave, making it impossible to read one against the other. Instead, the novel insists on the characters being considered as part and parcel of each other, the messiness of their lives a testament to a shared human experience.

By turns mournful and anticipatory, The Snow Queen balances on the knife point of faith and despair, repeatedly invoking the celestial light at the novel’s beginning as a way of asking whether magic is indeed possible. Though Barrett vacillates more often between these two states, it is Tyler who truly embodies their delicate balance when he hears a distant song, described as being evocative “of hope and devastation, as if they were the same thing: as if, in the vocabulary of this language, there were only one word to convey the two conditions.”

Created through song and thematically developed, the link between hope and devastation permeates the novel, making itself visible in every interaction. Living up to his literary legacy, Cunningham delivers a beautifully complex story through The Snow Queen, taking the reader on a difficult journey that is tinged with just a little bit of magic.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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