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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Rock ‘n Roll Suicide: ‘Destroy All Monsters’ by Jeff Jackson

Destroy All MonstersTo the young, music can be a religion. Destroy All Monsters (357 pages; FSG), the latest novel from Charlotte-based author Jeff Jackson, trades in the kind of punk fervor that inspires teenagers to thrash in mosh pits, raid merch booths, and obsessively listen to the same album. The power of what a few kids and some amped instruments can do is clearly a subject near to Jackson’s heart; not only does he perform in the self-described “weirdo pop band” Julian Calendar, but he’s allowed the vinyl single format to influence the design of the novel itself: Destroy All Monsters features an A-Side­­––which constitutes the novel proper­­––and a reverse B-Side, an alternate follow-up to the main story that follows some of the same characters in radically different incarnations. The novel contends frankly with both the difficulties of maintaining youthful passion for loud, distorted noise as one grows older and how the resentments and obligations of adulthood begin to accrue.

Destroy All Monsters centers on the music scene in a “conservative industrial city” called Arcadia. The prologue opens with a memorable performance by hometown heroes the Carmelite Rifles at a show attended by a motley assortment of locals:

“The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities.”

Also present at the show are two of the characters who will drive the rest of the novel: budding musician Florian and the forlorn but enigmatic Xenie. Not long after the Carmelite Rifles show, which ripples through the audience’s lives with the impact of an early Velvet Underground gig, a mysterious plague grips the entire country. All around the United States, club patrons are being transfixed by some unknown spell that causes them to gun down or otherwise attempt to murder the bands onstage:

“The noise duo at the loft party in the Pacific Northwest. The garage rockers at the tavern in the New England suburbs. The ham band at the auditorium on the edge of the Midwestern prairie. The blue grass revivalists at the coffeehouse in the Deep South. There was never any fanfare. The killers simply walked into the clubs, took out their weapons, and started firing.”

Although the killers’ motives remain largely ambiguous (most of them appear to be in a trance-like stupor as they go about their attack) the parallels to recent events are chilling. After terrorist attacks on music venues in Manchester and Paris in the last few years, it is all too easy to imagine the same violence occurring on this side of the Atlantic. The threat of danger feels heightened for the young people at the heart of Destroy All Monsters, to the point that the question of whether or not to perform a scheduled show becomes a matter of life and death for Arcadia’s local acts.

When tragedy ultimately does strike (“The band is heading for the [song] bridge when the first shot is fired”), Florian and Xenie are left to figure out how to privately mourn the loss of a close friend when seemingly everyone in town is doing so in a very public, outsized way. The spat of murders across the country also force Xenie to reckon with the fact that so much of the music playing at local venues and taking up space on her hard drive is, in a word, mediocre. “I used to have a huge music collection,” Xenie relates. “I was obsessed and even saved my concert stubs in a red cardboard box. Sometimes I’d open the box, and just touching the tickets was enough to give me a rush…These days I crave silence.”

Her statement is a lament for an age that has come to be defined by noise, much of it meaningless. Xenie and others in Arcadia’s music scene must contend with the difficulty of conveying authentic expression in a world drowned out by sound. As Florian contemplates after the last show he’ll ever play: “It’s too easy to transform a moment of truth into a cheap performance.”

Destroy All Monsters understands the impetus to pick up a guitar and strum a power chord, perhaps out of the misguided notion that the result could lead to some change in the world. And the novel understands the disheartening fact that the country is full of numerous small towns like Arcadia, with its dive bars, shuttered factories, and hobo camps, each of them with their would-be punk rockers like Florian. Amid the story’s nationwide epidemic, Jackson’s characters display crucial growth: what ultimately comes to matter––more than selling out concert halls or recording a promising demo––is remaining true to the memory and last wishes of their friends after they’re gone. “Not everything has to be a performance,” Xenie concludes. “Some things should stay pure.”

Jackson, whose prose registers as punchy and acerbic, leading the reader through multiple act breaks and perspective changes with ease, is sincere in his depiction of provincial youth yearning for an escape. In the 21st century, rock ’n roll might not mean as much as it once did, but Jackson has written a fitting tribute to its lingering spirit.

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Not a Home, But a Mere Frame: ‘An Untouched House’ by Willem Frederik Hermans

An Untouched HouseIn An Untouched House (115 pages; Archipelago), Willem Frederik Hermans presents a lucid, exhilarating account of a Dutch partisan in the waning months of World War II. Hermans, a premier and prolific author in the Netherlands, penned the novella in 1951, but only now has it received an English translation courtesy of David Colmer.

The story opens during the final moments of the World War II, with the theme of isolation permeating the narrative. Herman writes, “I didn’t look back. There was nobody in front of me…. I looked back at the others. No one was close enough to ask for water.” A sense of confusion abounds as our nameless narrator finds himself unable to communicate with his fellow soldiers: “Within our band of partisans, made up of Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians, there wasn’t a single person I could understand.”

His battalion enters a spa town, where he comes across an abandoned luxurious house, replete with amenities, but bereft of human life. This is his escape from conflict, where he can “pretend like the war never existed.” He makes himself at home, takes a bath, and falls asleep, only to be awoken by Nazis ringing the doorbell in search of lodging. The interloper manages to convince them that he is the owner of the house with deft, casual dishonesty.

The next morning he wakes convinced of the lie he imparted on his German visitors: “I the son of the house woke up the next morning to general quiet thinking: I have always lived here. This is my home.”

There is an eerie vacuity to the descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings: “Then I would walk up and down, touching objects without investigating them. On medicine bottles and compacts, on handkerchiefs, and on the edge of the sheets were names I didn’t try to pronounce.”

Throughout the book, the protagonist refuses to allocate names to the other characters, and instead only gives them titles: the colonel, the Spaniard, the Germans. They are not individuals in his eyes; their identities are wrapped up entirely in their countries of origin or military ranking.

Although he is the protagonist, our narrator proves passive and the action of the plot is acted upon him. He makes few decisions. His choice to inhabit the house is the end result of aimless wandering rather than an active search. He soon discovers there is no escape. The architecture of the story reaches its apex as the whirlpool of action spins toward this previously unattended and innocuous building.

The narrator describes the increasingly disturbing events with a detached, passionless voice:

“I could clearly see the dead woman. I sat down next to her on the bed and felt her face with my fingertips. It was now cold. I stuck my hand under her coat, under her skirt, and laid it on her thigh. Cold, a thing, water and proteins, something chemists have studied, nothing more.”

The narrator possesses only the silhouette of morality, attached to nothing, a vagabond of land and virtue. In the end, his actions prove nearly as cruel as the Nazis themselves. The vastness of World War II becomes a microcosm within this singular building. The house thus feels like not a home, but a mere frame, lacking any moral edifice.

Although An Untouched House is brief, it is worth pacing oneself and absorbing its remarkable density. Hermans is the architect of a masterful story –– concise but expansive in vision.

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New, Unique, and Alive: ‘Like’ by A.E. Stallings

LikeReading A.E. Stallings’ new book of poetry, Like (137 pages; FSG), my first impression was a furious delight at the way she invigorates the old forms and makes them sing. No one else I know can breathe such life into rhyme, can elevate the mundane to the mythic, the prosaic to the transcendent. The diction is often deliciously at odds with the form—contemporary slang set off against the myth of Pandora, for example:

He’d said she was a punishment from Zeus,
And that virginity made for a sour dowry

Depreciating as soon as you drove it off the lot.

The unexpectedness of the phrasing is part of what makes these poems so lively. They overflow with Stallings’ wit, her love of words and wordplay, and her immersion in Greek literature. These inform and transform the everyday from how to clean a cast iron pan (“Cast Irony”), to scissors, to a lost Lego brick, to insects, gardening.

“Bedbugs in Marriage Bed” is a perfect example. On the surface, this clever sonnet is a deft and amusing explication of an infestation of pest, but underneath, the uncertainties of marriage itself come into question:

Maybe it’s best to burn the whole thing down,
The framework with its secret joineries.
Every morning, check the sheets for blood
As though for tiny lost virginities,
Or murder itself distilled into a drop.
It might take lighter fluid to make it stop:
Maybe it’s best to just give up and move.
Every morning, check the seem of seams.

Nothing for weeks, for months, but still you frown:
You still wake up at half-past dawn each day
When darkness blanches and the stars go grey.
Who knows what eggs are laid deep in your dreams
Hatching like doubts. They’re gone, but not for good:
They are the negatives you cannot prove.

This book is rich with form: villanelles, sonnets, syllabics, terza rima, and no one could accuse Stallings of writing without an ear for meter, assonance, and rhyme, even when the form isn’t standard. But what makes Like so thoroughly appealing is the mix of the contemporary into the form. A few examples:

The washing machine door broke.   We hand washed for a week.
Left in the tub to soak    the angers began to reek.
And sometimes when we spoke   you said we shouldn’t speak.

*     *     *

Dyeing the Easter eggs the children talk
Of dying, Resurrection’s in the air
Like a whiff of vinegar. These eggs won’t hatch,
My daughter says, since they are cooked and dead,
A hard-boiled batch.

*     *     *

The hours drained as women rearrange
The furniture in search of small lost change.

*     *     *

And all choice, multiple,
The quiz that gives no quarter,
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter.

There are several themes that run through this book: myth, The Odyssey, the tedium of life with small children (where “minutes are not lost…but spent”), and the crisis of immigration across the Mediterranean, set against a comfortable family life on those same beaches. (Stallings lives most of the year in Greece with her husband and children). Of all the poems in the book, those dealing with the horror of dead immigrant children seem the least successful to me. Even with her impressive tools, it’s hard to get beyond mere reportage. Of those, my favorite is “Empathy,” a sort of hymn to gratitude that ends:

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice,
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

One of the most beguiling sequences in the book is “Lost and Found,” a 36-part poem that circles around the hunt for a small lost toy, taking us from daily tedium through a Dante-like encounter with the muses, and features Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses. The quest moves between the everyday and the epic, ending in a sort of ars poetica:

I saw the aorist moment as it went—
The light on my children’s hair, my face in the glass
Neither old nor young; but bare, intelligent.
I was a sieve—I felt the moment pass
Right through me, currency as it was spent,
That bright, loose change, like falling leaves, that mass
Of decadent gold leaf, now turning brown—
I could not keep it; I could write it down.

There are several poems that take their inspiration directly from The Odyssey, and one long poem called Cyprian Variations that I am not scholarly enough to comment on. But even without knowing the source, it’s easy to enjoy many lovely moments, such as, “Even the coffin maker is induced/To dread the mass produced,” or St. George’s dragon “Brandishing its wings/Like an endangered bird,/Scarlet and irrelevant and feathered.”

There are many treasures in Like, “Sunset, Wings,” “Swallows,” “Parmenion,” and the previously mentioned “Ajar” and “Bedbugs…” among them. Though not every poem is successful, even those that don’t work as well are apt to have a ravishing phrase or two. It’s invigorating to read a poet who can make form new, unique, and alive.

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Walking a Loose Rope: ‘Sidebend World’ by Charles Harper Webb

Sidebend WorldCharles Harper Webb’s Sidebend World (78 pages; University of Pittsburgh Press) contains some genuinely lovely and worthwhile poems. At his best, Webb is funny and self-effacingly honest, delivering poems that are intimate and warm. Unfortunately, other poems in the book often border on careless—that is, they rely on weak associations or seem half-halfheartedly crafted. Worse, however, some poems contain stereotypical portrayals of others and humor that some will likely find offensive.

First, let’s consider the positive aspects of Sidebend World. My favorite poem in the book, “Turtle Hunt,” is one that I could return to time and time again. The rhymes are both obvious and hidden. And the poem is interspersed with formal meter in lines like:

But at the bayou—where dragonflies, metallic red
and blue, snap up mosquitoes over tea-stained
water full of tadpoles, crayfish, punkinseeds—
Teddy flops into a snarl of thorny weeds,
and being 5, runs home crying. Carol, afraid

to mess her dress, whines, “I’ve got to go,”
and scampers back to Barbie. I’m left alone . . .

It’s a lovely, thoughtful poem with universal appeal and a satisfying conclusion. This is the kind of work that stays with a reader.

“Nice People Aren’t So Bad,” another of Webb’s poems that I admire, contains some of the same formal elements as “Turtle Hunt.” The stanzas are tight and follow a fairly strict syllabic count, which, along with the subtle rhymes, carries the rhythm of the poem. More importantly, the poem feels intimate, focused, and genuine. The reader believes these are people the speaker knows and things that actually happened to him. Here are some lines that I think convey the essence of the poem:

In a four-man lifeboat, they’ll let a fifth
climb in and share their food: extremely
stupid, unless the fifth is you.

Nice people don’t call the sky punch-
in-the-eye blue. They won’t so much as kiss
if either one is married to someone else,
though they may say, “I really like you,”
in a cherry-blossom shower, then rush
away . . .

Aside from the “cherry-blossom shower,” this poem is as grounded in reality as Marge Piercy’s “To be of use” and is told in as relatable a voice. Other standouts in Sidebend World include “Have I Got a Script for You” and “Nice Hat.”

Continue reading

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Reckoning with Ever-Changing Reality: ‘John Woman’ by Walter Mosley

9780802128416In his newest book, John Woman (377 pages; Grove Atlantic), Walter Mosley reflects on truth versus perception as embodied in the life of a man who reinvents himself into the novel’s title character. Raised by a white mother with a habit of running away and a bedridden black father nearing death, Cornelius Jones experiences a childhood that is nothing if not difficult. As a boy he’s forced to pay his family’s bills by posing as his father (the first of more alter identities to come), assuming his job as a projectionist at a silent movie theatre. The pressure of covering up his identity leads to a fateful encounter with his boss one evening in the projection room, resulting in a crime that will dog Cornelius.

From this opening, the novel leaps in time to when Cornelius has become John Woman, a professor of history at the New University of the Southwest. His class is titled “Introduction to Deconstructionist Historical Devices,” a subject seemingly prompted by his father’s interests in the validity of history. In his lectures, Woman focuses on the reliability of history and how it ties into each student’s individual life.

Though his insight is renowned and admired by students and teachers alike, Woman is nonetheless admonished by many in the same community, creating no end of trouble for him, trouble made even more pointed by the specter of what happened in that projection room years ago.

As the narrative often returns to Woman’s scholarly lectures and conversations, one particular observation could serve as the core concern of the entire novel:

History is only, is always little more than an innuendo, a suggestion that we decide to believe or not … We shall fail because history is that unsteady ground I spoke of. It is not a rigid truth but an ever-changing reality. If it were an ironclad actuality then we would be able to learn from it. But all we can do is learn about its edges, insinuations, and negative spaces.

 This understanding seems to be of comfort to Woman as he undergoes great tribulations near the end of the novel. That “ever-changing reality” of history is directly reflected in his identity, profession, relationships—his life in its entirety. Through the character of John Woman, Mosley demonstrates that truth is nothing more than the perception of itself, which can be terrifying or, oddly enough, consoling.

In the end, the dramatic irony of John Woman leads us to question what we really know to be true, perhaps even bringing us to sympathize with the so-called “criminals” we have been told to vilify by society.

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Emerging from the Fog: ‘America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience’

America, We Call Your NameThe first image we encounter in America, We Call Your Name: Poetry of Resistance and Resilience (203 pages; Sixteen Rivers Press) is that of Lady Liberty in the midst of a grey fog; it’s unclear as to whether she is receding or emerging.

The editors have stated that the impetus for this anthology was a desire to help unify the country after the 2016 Presidential Election. The Trump Administration symbolizes the oppression that these poets are resisting; the collection acknowledges that the election woke up many people who had grown politically complacent.

For this anthology, Sixteen Rivers Press, a shared work-collective of Northern California poets, gathered material from writers of numerous backgrounds and eras. To produce a democratic work that responds to the “cultural, moral, and political rifts that now divide our country,” they sought “poems of resistance and resilience, witness and vision, that embody what it means to be a citizen in a time when our democracy is threatened.”

From Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare to Pablo Neruda, Po Chu-I, and Thursday’s just posted “Poem-a-Day,” the vast array of voices is inspiring. Many of these poems touch on themes of land, belonging, and truth, yet the spirit of resistance imbues every selection , no matter the era—although it is disheartening that we are still asking the same questions without finding any lasting answers. America, We Call Your Name reminds us that the conviction of resistance is timeless and inevitable.

Frank Bidart’s poem “Mourning where we thought we were” arrives early in the collection:

therefore, thank you Lord/
Whose Bounty Proceeds by Paradox,/
For showing us we have failed to change.

 This despondent sentiment lingers through many of the poems. In “Money,” Jane Mead asks, How did the earth come to belong to humans?

But it wasn’t possible –by then the water didn’t belong to the salmon anymore, by then
The water didn’t belong the river.
The water didn’t belong to the water.

Like the layers of a geological formation, the questions these poems ask exist in sedimentary sympathy. Centuries before our current moment, Dante also wrote in the spirit of resistance. The anthology features an excerpt of Dante’s Paradiso – from the moment in the epic trilogy when he faces exile from Heaven.

You shall leave behind all you most dearly love/
and that shall be the arrow first loosed from the exile’s bow.

These words are already poignant within the diegetic context of the poem, but they bear even more emotional weight with the knowledge the author himself was condemned to exile. Dante knew the pain of losing one’s home in the wake of oppressive regimes. He also wrote the Commedia in Italian: the vulgar language, the language of the people.

Dean Rader writes, “[Poems] are the instruments of the people, not the palace.” Each poem is a voice raised against the hegemonic castle of oppressive societal structures, joining together in a symphony of resilience. From ancient to contemporary voices, the poet’s essence remains constant: we ask questions. To the extant power systems, we ask why. Art does not acquiesce – it rebels.

Emma Lazarus composes a vision of the Statue of Liberty. She writes:

A mighty woman whose flame/
is imprisoned lightning, and her name/
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command/
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame

America, We Call Your Name invites us to think for ourselves: do we view the future as the Statue of Liberty emerging from her cage of fog, or is she disappearing into the shroud? The existence of the anthology itself ­– a collaboration of passionate humans – may compel us to see Lady Liberty coming out of the fog, continuing in her resistance even in the midst of seemingly inescapable despair. Without hope, there is little to hold on to. As we struggle in search of the strength to carry on, the work of great poets like those in this anthology might serve as a beacon guiding our way.

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Our Cultural DNA: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

The Library BookIn 1986, a fire at the Los Angeles Central Library raged so fiercely, firefighters noted the strong potential for a flashover –– when a fire spreads rapidly across a gap due to extreme heat. “Flashover” is similar to the effect one experiences reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (336 pages; Simon & Schuster). It’s difficult to pull away from the story when her incisive research skills and masterful writing work in symbiosis: The Library Book is not just a sweeping narrative recounting the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, but also an in-depth look at the personal, civic, and global impact a library can have.

Although Harry Peak has long been suspected as the arsonist behind the fire, the precise cause of the blaze remains a mystery to this day. Peak was originally from Santa Fe Springs, but moved to Los Angeles –– as most aspiring actors do –– after a stint in the Army at age eighteen. He never made it to the silver screen, but he did appear on the local news in 1987 when he was arrested on suspicion of arson. He was described by many as a compulsive liar, which is partially why Peak was never indicted. No one could ascertain if Peak was even at the library when the fire started because he continually fabricated and then contradicted one alibi after the other.

In addition to her investigation into Harry Peak, Orlean examines history to add context to why someone would want to burn down a library in the first place: “libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas one finds problematic,” she notes. She harkens back to the Spanish Inquisition, wherein Spaniards created a community gathering around the act of burning books they deemed heretic, such as the Torah. With some trepidation, Orlean even burned a book herself in order to truly immerse herself in her research.

Orlean describes the personal significance of the library institution: for her, the library is a reminder of the trips she took with her mother, to whom she credits for instilling her love of literature. She saw that same parent-child bond mirrored in the present when she brought her son to the library because he –– to Orlean’s surprise –– wanted to interview a librarian for a school assignment. She calls books our cultural DNA, “a code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know.” A library is one of the safest and most open places in a community, and to burn it down would be tantamount to terrorism. For the Senegalese people, Orlean notes, saying “his or her library has burned” is a polite way to address someone’s passing; she shares a cerebral yet heartwarming contemplation of the term:

Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it —with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited— it takes a life of its own.

Reading The Library Book is not unlike combing through the stacks of your local branch: it exposes many truths, and offers answers as well as questions. While the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library may be long forgotten –– even when it occurred, it was soon eclipsed in the headlines by the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl the same week –– Orlean’s genuine ardor for this peculiar and overlooked story is adroitly conveyed by her prose—the fuel igniting this literary page-turner.

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Clear Blue Skies: ‘Ghost Guessed’ by Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs

Ghost GuessedGhost Guessed (156 pages; Mesæstándar) is an exquisite meditation on grief, loss, and family ties in a world increasingly given over to technology. A combination of prose and photography, the work takes a unique approach to creative nonfiction by telling a highly personal story through the blended voice of co-authors Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs. The book opens in the spring of 2014 as our unnamed narrator finds himself traveling to Malaysia with his wife just three weeks after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished over the South China Sea. The plane’s mysterious disappearance triggers the narrator’s memories of his cousin, Andrew Lindberg, who similarly vanished in 2009 while flying a single-engine plane near the town of Staples, Minnesota. It’s worth noting that Lindberg is Tom Griggs’ real life cousin, and Ghost Guest features a host of what appears to be authentic family photographs. The ambiguity as to which author can be attributed for the story lends to the spectral quality of the work and blurs the line between truth and non-truth. “The boundaries of reality became fluid,” the narrator states, “and while we knew they would reset, we didn’t know what form they would take.”

These twin disappearances create dual timelines in the book––one in which the narrator recalls his malaise following the financial crash of 2008-09 and the discovery of his cousin’s downed plane in the White Earth Indian Reservation, and the other chronicling his trip to Malaysia as he becomes increasingly unmoored by memories of the past. Threading these moments together is the omnipresence of technology in our lives, as well as the far-reaching absence the death of a loved one can create. “Today it is no longer a question of whether there are images of an event,” the narrator muses, “but a question of what to show from all we have and how to show it to the largest possible audience.”

When we can spend all day scrolling through “an aggregation of social media posts and crime-scene pics, ISIS propaganda and high-end real estate listings, surveillance stills and police bodycam footage,” one might expect we’d find it easier to parse truth from the world around us. Instead, we find “mountain digital archives that hem us in,” and we are left to ponder the same questions the writer does when he reluctantly takes a job photographing foreclosed houses in the Midwest during the financial crisis: “How do you make meaningful work amidst endless images? How do you make shapes from the sea?”

In Ghost Guessed, the ominousness of the Information Age––with its “Predator drones making civilians fear clear blue skies, and the shifting satellite and radar grids recording our lives as they unfolded,” as well as what seems to be the increased occurrence of aviation accidents during the last decade––is set in contrast with the bonds of family. Home photographs from before and after Andrew Lindberg’s death capture stray moments of intimacy among kin, as well as the visible sense of loss seen upon the faces of bereaved relatives. The book’s sparse prose underscores this state with its quiet, humane details, as when the narrator reflects on a mundane occurrence during the search for Andrew’s downed plane: “I remember pulling a sandwich from a cooler and immediately feeling the banality of the moment, the lack of reverence of everyday events amid catastrophe.”

Most of the photographs in Ghost Guessed possess the texture of analog media, a clear reminder of how previous generations used to document their lives on film, compared to the increasing digitization of this era, our memories now reduced to Facebook feeds, Instagram photos, and the ambiguity of “The Cloud.” The narrator observes, “A triangle emerged: camera, society, and sky bound in a system of infinite visible relationships, increasing the probability of finding a pattern we could grasp.” But what happens when no such pattern emerges? Ghost Guessed is frank about the harsh truths of middle age, of finding yourself no more grounded or certain than when you were young. “…I wondered if I’d ever live up to my own expectations,” the narrator reflects, “I could start over and still never get past the beginning.”

It’s fitting then that Ghost Guessed ends exactly as it starts: in uncertainty as murky and grey as the roiling clouds that adorn its back cover. In tracing the lingering hold of technology on us, from disasters in the skies to social media feeds, and the devastating losses that can impact a family for years, Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs have crafted the rare multimedia work that one can declare profound.

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Post-Consumer Apocalypse: ‘Severance’ by Ling Ma

SeveranceWith Severance (304 pages; FSG), author Ling Ma delivers a fascinating coming-of-age novel, one full of millennial culture, post-apocalyptic adventures, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a zombie-like populace.

Severance opens in New York City, where protagonist Candace Chen works for a Bible manufacturer called Spectra. Throughout the novel, Candace finds plenty of reasons to leave her job, even as she clings to the city that feels so close to her. But after experiencing the strife of the Shen fever, a pandemic which reduces people to automatons who slowly waste away, she ends up traveling far away from an emptied New York with a group of survivors looking for safety.

Interestingly, consumerist culture is a big theme in the novel. The story makes constant references to specific skincare brands, products, stores, and other consumer-related items, giving in-the-know readers something to connect to. However, Ma seems to raise the question of whether even having this connection is a good thing. She presents us with characters of contrasting lifestyles, allowing us to reflect on our society’s sense of materialism and attachment. As the characters’ varying levels of consumption and wealth create barriers between them, it’s easy to ask ourselves to reevaluate how healthy our level of consumerism is, and to what extent dependency on the things we buy is permissible.

Throughout her first novel, Ma alternates between multiple perspectives. Candace narrates every other chapter (with one exception), with the timeline jumping between pre- and post-apocalypse, illustrating Candace’s development as a character. In juxtaposing her attitudes before and after the end of civilization as we know it, Ma emphasizes Candace’s diminishing attachment to the city and all it has to offer, and at the same time demonstrate her renewed growth as she takes on challenges with her fellow survivors.

Yet even as Candace becomes more independent, her past continues to haunt her at every turn. There seems to be the implication that nostalgia for what used to be might be putting Candace at risk, as she reminisces on times spent with her her mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from China, and others before the Shen fever destroyed their world. Toward the end of the novel, we wonder how this state of mind will affect Candace as she reaches her final, fateful decisions.

Severance wonderfully demonstrates how the lifestyles we lead now can have a great impact on our future, and not just in terms of what we buy. Ma also takes a unique and sometimes comedic look at the commonly superficial relationships we have with our acquaintances, especially in the workplace. She shows how this lack of depth in communication with others is reflected in our relation to consumerism and the capitalist system as a whole. But its all done with a pleasingly light touch, despite the story being heavy with death and addressing the pressing issues of our times.

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Leaning into the Tale: “CoDex 1962: A Trilogy” by Sjón

CoDex 1962In CoDex 1962: A Trilogy (515 pages; MCD/FSG), premier Icelandic novelist Sjón manages to transcend conventional genre expectations while still engraining himself within the rich tradition of fables and fairy tales. The trilogy of books, first released to great acclaim in Iceland in 2016, was written over the course of 25 years, with the story itself spanning from the early 20th century to modern day.

For the American release, the author has combined all three novels into one book, designating a genre to each section: Thine Eyes Did See My Substance (A Love Story), Iceland’s Thousand Years (A Crime Story), and I’m a Sleeping Door (A Science Fiction Story). Despite these labels, Sjón does not confine the writing within these respective genres. The prose, translated by Victoria Cribb, exhibits the timeless cadence of a Grimm Brothers’ tale, yet is suffused with a profound nuance and ambiguity that evokes the surreal quirkiness of Italo Calvino (especially his Cosmicomics) or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.

The trilogy begins in a German inn, just after World War II. Marie Sophie, a maid, looks after an invalid, a Jewish refugee who had been interned at a concentration camp. After a gentle but troubling prelude, they produce a child formed from clay. He is Jósef Loewe, the narrator of their stories, from its nascence all the way to its conclusion in the present day, when we find Jósef the aging and mildly delusional CEO of a biotech company.

Over the course of the three sections, Sjón introduces a vast array of characters, including a curious little chickadee, a jealous lover, a stamp-collector, the Archangel Gabriel at his most vulnerable, and a genderless android. He deftly employs a close third-person perspective, allowing him to delve deep into the minds and lives of his characters. From time to time, the narrative will halt its ongoing plot to elucidate an incident from a character’s past, or a folk tale that is analogous to the one being composed.

One example arrives in Thine Eyes Did See my Substance, when the story is suspended so as to tell the tale of “The Old Woman and the Kaiser,” in which a young woman in a woodland cottage takes in a hunter later revealed to be the King. Of course, they fall in love, and legend has it she bore his only true heir but raised him in the woods, keeping him from assuming the throne. The book weaves similar stories throughout, adding even more complexity to an already complex plot.

It is difficult not to equate the narrator with the author. Both Jósef Loewe and Sjón were born on the same day in Reykjavik in 1962, and Loewe often discusses the act of storytelling. In this way, the trilogy proves of and about storytelling. Sjón hails from a rich background of traditional Icelandic stories, but he is not derivative –– he is wildly original in his reshaping and expansion of these stories.

Near the end of the novel he writes:

Storytellers are not content merely to have power over their audience’s minds but must also take control over their bodies at the very beginning of their tale by lowering their voices and leaning back, thus compelling their listeners to lean forwards—after all, they’ve come to hear what the story teller has to say. By means of this synchronized shift they establish who is the guide and who the travellers are on the coming journey.

 CoDex 1962 makes the reader feel as though they are engaging with a master storyteller. By the end of the trilogy, one enters into a symbiotic relationship with its narrator (and its author)—we trust Sjón will provide fulfillment in synthesizing the countless elements of the story, and we will be rewarded for following along with his vertiginous adventure. Sjón compels us to lean in close to hear his tale—and the journey is more than worthwhile.

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Merging into a Singular Voice: ‘They Said,’ edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader

They SaidThey Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (535 pages; Black Lawrence Press), edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader, is an ambitious, immersive collection that challenges readers and writers alike. Breaking out of traditional ideas of authorship, the book gathers hundreds of pieces of multi-author writing that span multiple genres and formats. At the end of each work is a blurb written by the authors that describes their unique writing process. In the spirit of the collection, we decided to collaboratively read and review the work in the form of a conversation.

Claire Ogilvie: What stood out most to me about this anthology was the conscious noting of the authors’ writing processes and unintentional similarities of those processes across genres. It was interesting to see that many of the works started off as passion projects, or as a joke between friends, and then morphed into something more meaningful that was later published or performed. Some of the contributors, following the styles of their work, described their writing process similarly, like Maureen Alsop and Hillary Gravendyk who poetically note of their piece “Ballast”: “A mirror shone a refused language, the last moon slipped. As to the dreaming craft lightened one moment then another left.” While I didn’t exactly grasp what this described of their process, it did help me better understand the authors’ thoughts and intentions.

Caleigh Stephens: All of the writing about process definitely adds this extra dimension. I found the writing, and the writing about the writing, to be conversational, which helped illuminate the relationship between the authors outside of the piece. Creative writing is often presented as this isolated and individual art, and They Said functions as a challenge to that. The nature of collaborative writing is that it allows the author, as John F. Buckley and Martin Ott note, to “get out of that ‘I’ voice, that sometimes dark, sometimes limiting well of ego.” There’s a focus on process that underlies the entire collection, and while there are many excellent pieces of writing here, the anthology fundamentally is a work for writers and people fascinated by the craft of writing.

CO: I agree that the informal, candid description of processes enhances the work since it gives more background about the authors themselves and their relationship, or the concept of what they set out to write originally, as well as the often unexpected results. The series of poems that features the “The Sea Witch” by Sarah Blake and Kimberly Quiogue Andrews has one of my favorite process notes because, while some of their poems about the Sea Witch are a little cheeky or even slightly humorous (“The Sea Witch Needs a Mortgage for The Land, If Not for The House of Bones”), the poems had an overall experimental nature that the authors explained as “…a bit like a very friendly tennis match wherein one of us starts by making the ball. One of us will write a draft of a poem, as complete as we can get it, and then we send it to the other, who has free reign to add, cut, rearrange, etc.” Blake and Andrews process was clearly one of friendship and trust, which is reflected in their work.

CS: I also found “The Sea Witch” poems to be interesting due to the range of style and tone. With such an intricate and individual art such as poetry, the meshing of two (or more) voices cultivates an atmosphere of exploration. Some authors choose to write back and forth while others merge into a singular voice, becoming indistinguishable. Some, like the cross-genre piece “The Wide Road” by past ZYZZYVA contributors Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, include both –– writing that hovers between poetry and prose, followed by letters written by the authors that are “about our work-in-progress as a part of the work itself.” The collaboration is embedded into the text rather than being something the authors must work around. “The Wide Road” also stands as an example of the experimentation that pervades the collection. Even beyond those pieces labeled “cross-genre,” there’s an interplay of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction throughout that results in writing that flouts convention.

CO: It all sort of feels cross-genre to me, like some of the fiction could have just as easily fallen into another category. Like Tina Jenkins Bell, Janice Tuck Lively, and Felicia Madlock’s piece, “Looking for the Good Boy Yummy,” which takes the real events of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s life and final moments and then fictionalizes them through multiple perspectives and narratives. In their description of their process, they write, “We chose to tell Yummy’s story in the form of a hybrid comprised of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry because so much has been said about him and each form would reflect a different view. We believed the true Yummy was somewhere in the center of all the accounts.” The authors are intentional about mixing genres to better represent the realities of gang violence and poverty. The fictionalization of the story takes it to an interesting, murky, and political place. Which raises the question: when does a fictionalized account become cross-genre?

CS: The beauty of the collection is that although each section is labeled by genre, the works are able to move beyond those confines and tell their stories in the most authentic way possible. Thanks to the collaborative aspect, not in spite of it, the writers feel free to challenge themselves stylistically. Some pieces came out of literary games –– authors adding two sentences at a time or working in “antonymic translation.” On the whole, the stakes don’t feel very high in those examples, and often the works aren’t perfect, but this doesn’t lessen the anthology’s ultimate impact. As Cynthia Arrieu-King and Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis write, “We play and I still feel astonished by what happens when we do.” This is an inspiring collection precisely because it brings up more questions about the nature of writing than it answers.

CO: Yes, the most impressive aspect of this anthology is its commitment to collaboration –– from the editing, to the writing of the introduction, the collaborative reviews of the material inside, and the pieces themselves. It’s collaboration within collaboration, and even if a piece didn’t necessarily resonate with me I always respected the craft of the poem, or story, or genre-breaking-rule-defying piece in front of me. It’s all so thoughtful and intricate. You can tell from the effort shown by the contributors and the editors that it’s a labor of love, and as a writer and reader that’s what interests me.

Caleigh Stephens and Claire Ogilvie on their process: Claire and Caleigh originally (and quite candidly) had no idea how to go about writing a collaborative review of a collaborative anthology. The entire review-writing process was an extended conversation, as they picked out individual sentences and pieces to share with the other while reading.They came to appreciate the art of “collaborative writing” all the more after giving it an honest attempt one Sunday afternoon. Distracted by IKEA locations, yerba mate, and the current state of U.S. politics, they holed up in Claire’s living room and decided that they wanted their review to reflect the ongoing dialogue they had about the work. In short they would describe their own artistic collaborative process as “in cahoots.”

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Relevant and Relatable: ‘American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time’ by Tracy K. Smith

American JournalAmerican Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (120 pages; Graywolf) delivers on its promise of introducing readers to some of our most important contemporary American poets, both well-known and emerging. Moreover, the writers featured in it are a reflection of the diversity of the United States, which is what one would hope for in a collection curated by the current U. S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. In addition to featuring a racially diverse group of writers, there are poems by old and young, female and male, and straight and gay poets (although queerness is not a theme that is really explored in it, except in Terrance Hayes’ “At Pegasus”). Clearly, there is a wealth of perspective in this book, making one wonder whether a collection that attempts to appeal to such a broad audience might read as too general or watered down. This isn’t the case.

The poems in American Journal both celebrate and critique the American “way of life.” There are poignant portrayals of small-town and rural America (not to be confused with white America) in poems like Oliver de la Paz’s “In Defense of Small Towns” and Vievee Francis’ “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding,” as well as nods to urban America, such as in Major Jackson’s “Mighty Pawns,” a witty poem about a tough and brilliant kid from Philadelphia who “could beat/any man or woman in ten moves playing white.” There are also honest appraisals of our frequent complacency in the face of injustices meted out by our government in Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” and in Layli Long Soldier’s “38,” which is something of an anti-poem that recounts in a nonlinear fashion the Abraham Lincoln-sanctioned execution of thirty-eight men from the Dakota tribe. Near the beginning of the poem, Long Soldier alerts readers:

You may like to know, I do not consider this to be a ‘creative piece.’

I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.

Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an ‘interesting’ read.

Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.

That said, I will begin.

You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.

Other poems touch on other relevant social concerns: Tina Chang’s “Story of Girls” and Donika Kelly’s “Fourth Grade Autobiography” speak to our increasing societal awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse—an awakening facilitated by the #Me Too movement. One of my favorite poems in the book, Eve L. Ewing’s “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went on Then,” is an intimate and recognizable portrayal of contemporary school life, but I can’t read it (especially its final lines) without thinking about recent school shootings.  The poem characterizes several members of this school community, painting an especially vivid portrait of a student named Javonte Stevens:

Sing of Javonte’s new glasses,

their black frames and golden hinges that glint in the sun,

and his new haircut, with two notched arrows shorn above his temples.

Another of the strongest poems in the book, Danez Smith’s “From summer, somewhere,” is a must-read about the police killings of black boys that is written from the perspective(s) of the dead boys. It’s a compact poem packed with power. Here is a couplet from the poem: “history is what it is. it knows what it did./ bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy.”

Elsewhere, universal themes such as familial strife, forgiveness, and death are addressed in poems, such as the highly memorable “Reverse Suicide” by Matt Rasmussen and “becoming a horse” by Ross Gay. In Gay’s poem, which manages to be both down to earth and spiritual—humbling, really—the speaker reflects:

But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know

the sorrow of horses . . .

Feel the small song in my chest

swell and my coat glisten and twitch.

Diverse as they are, the poems in American Journal flow into one another, mirroring the melding of experiences that makes us who we are as a nation. This fusion is partly a result of the poems being grouped into thematic sections. Often, poems on opposite pages, such as Rasmussen’s “Reverse Suicide” and Charles Wright’s “Charlottesville Nocturne,” or Ada Limón’s “Downhearted” and Gay’s “becoming a horse,” address strikingly similar subject matter. It might also have been interesting to juxtapose poems that speak to each other in a different way—that also enact the tensions that are particular to a culture defined as much by similarity as by difference. For example, it might have created a pronounced tension to run Lia Purpura’s “Proximities,” which addresses police shootings, but from a perspective of privilege, next to Smith’s “From summer, somewhere.” As it is, they’re placed far from each other. While this may show the difference in the closeness to danger for each poem’s subject(s), this is a point that may be lost on readers.

Overall, American Journal serves as a strong overview of the poetry of our current moment. And in a time in which the only thing most of us seem to agree on is that we disagree—at a time when our nation is in what esteemed journalist Carl Bernstein has dubbed a “cold civil war”—it is refreshing to read a books that unifies our diverse perspectives.

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