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Interoffice Memorandum

Office MemoDate: 15 February

To: All Quest Industries Employees

From: Judy Kemper, Vice President of Marketing

Subj: Lost cardigan—please help!

I seem to have misplaced a very important sweater and I’m almost certain I left it here in the office this past Friday. If you have seen my lime green Laura Ashley cardigan, size M, with pearl buttons, a small-to-medium gravy stain on one sleeve (left), and one frayed cuff (right), please tell me where you spotted it, and if this information leads to its recovery, I promise to give you a reward of your choosing, up to $10 in value. I do wish it could be more, but unfortunately, my husband and I are on a tight budget this month, due to expenses incurred when a tree fell on our car last Wednesday evening during a thunderstorm and another tree, unbelievably, fell on our roof less than an hour later!

What are the odds? And what on heaven and earth is going on with our karma? Not that I believe specifically in karma or anything related to the Hindu faith, but it does seem as if something strange is going on here.

By the way, if you choose to forfeit your reward for locating my treasured cardigan in light of Glenn’s and my current financial situation, I will be happy to repay the favor by searching high and low (for up to 15 minutes) if you ever lose anything of sentimental or monetary value in this office and are desperate for help finding it.

If anyone here at Quest Industries actually does know how to calculate the odds of a tree falling on your car and another tree falling on your roof less than an hour later, I’d be very interested in hearing what they are.

Here is some more information for the math nerd(s) among us: We have six trees on our property (well, four now, technically) and they are all about 50-75 years old: two birch, one maple, two evergreens, one gingko. There was a squirrel’s nest in the maple, and an unidentified bird’s nest in the gingko. The maple was the first tree to fall (on the roof) and the blasted gingko fell on the car approximately 48 minutes later. The car was parked in the driveway, about 8 yards from where the tree fell on the roof. The gingko and the maple were on opposite sides of the front yard and did not have overlapping root systems, as far as I know. Also, according to my mother-in-law, the gingko tree was haunted.

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Strength of Kindness & Reason: Q&A with ‘Winter Kept Us Warm’ Author Anne Raeff

(photo by Dennis Hearne)

(photo by Dennis Hearne)

San Francisco writer Anne Raeff’s new novel, Winter Kept Us Warm’’ (304 pages; Counterpoint Press), officially out next Tuesday, is an ambitious, multi-generational tale that deals with the interlocking lives of three characters—Ulli, Leo, and Isaac—who meet in Berlin shortly after World War II has ended. A departure of sorts from Raeff’s 2015 story collection, The Jungle Around Us, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, it shares a similar interest in the complexities of character, motive, and human nature, albeit on a different palette. (In a coincidence of fate, Raeff’s wife, Lori Ostlund, previously won the O’Connor Award in 2008 for her collection The Bigness of the World.)

Raeff spoke to us by e-mail about the new book, her biography, and her future projects. This is a writer who deals with serious, sometimes unfashionable subjects, with depth and compassion, qualities the new novel displays in abundance.

ZYZZYVA: Winter Kept Us Warm covers a lot of ground and geographical locations, from Germany to New York, Los Angeles and Morocco. It also seems like a “European’’ novel, in the sense that politics is seen as part and parcel of the tapestry of life, rather than something to be addressed separately. Was that partly your intent, to bring that tradition back? Are there novelists you were particularly influenced by who deal with the same concerns?

Anne Raeff: I don’t see how it is possible to separate story from history. In fact, the word story didn’t come into the English language until the early 16th century. Before that, history was the only word, and it meant a narrative of important events. Perhaps because the stories I grew up with were so closely tied to cataclysmic events in history like the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and World War II, from a very early age I thought of history as story and story as history.

My father was an historian by profession, but the interesting thing is that he didn’t teach me the facts of history, though he encouraged me to study and read about history on my own. Instead, he told me stories. He told me the story of the girl who died because of a gas leak while taking a bath in a pension in Lisbon. She and her family were among the many Russian refugees like my father who had escaped Occupied France and were waiting in Lisbon for visas to come to the United States. He told me about the prisoner at the POW camp in Arizona who believed that Stalin was living in his head.

Part of American exceptionalism is a lack of interest in history and an almost ideological denial of the effects of history on individual lives. Perhaps now that American literature is including a greater variety of voices, the importance of the forces of history will become more integrated into literature and into the American consciousness. The book that comes to mind that weaves together a very particular moment in history with a very particular human tragedy is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is a book with an extraordinary sense of place, which is also something that is extremely important to me.

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Now & at the Hour of Our Death: Q&A with ‘The Immortalist’ Author Chloe Benjamin

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(Photo by Nathan Jandl)

I refuse, as a rule, to consult all fortunetellers, palm-readers, and tarot-card diviners. I won’t so much as glance at a horoscope; routinely, I forget what my own astrological sign might be. It’s not so much that I believe or disbelieve in what a fortuneteller might have to tell me, but that I distrust myself, not knowing how my future behavior might change in response to what any would-be oracle has to say.

Chloe Benjamin’s second, much-lauded novel, The Immortalists (352 pages; Putnam), follows four siblings who, as children, go to a fortuneteller to learn when they’ll die. Afterward, tensions between the future and the present, between predictions and reality, threaten to break this family apart. I talked via email to Benjamin (whose first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award) about her powerful, compelling new book, and about death, the present tense, and dance.

ZYZZYVA: I’m not at all alone in finding the central premise of The Immortalists—the possibility of finding out, and maybe even believing in, the date we’ll die—to be both terribly moving and terrifying. What brought you to this idea?

Chloe Benjamin: I know it sounds strange, but I have such a hard time answering this question! I think it’s because concepts, for me, always feel very subconscious—I don’t have a clear memory of the first time the idea hit me, but I do know that the basic kernel was always there: four siblings go to visit a fortuneteller, and then the book follows each of them over the course of their lives. I wish I had better origin stories. Stephen King has a great line that references the muses as “the boys in the basement”—this idea of people working away at some deeper level of a writer’s consciousness. Of course, as a feminist, I amend that to “the gals in the basement.”

Even if I can’t remember the precise spark, I do know that The Immortalists comes very much out of my own neuroses. I’ve always struggled with uncertainty and loss, which are intertwined, for me: the uncertainty of whether and when we will lose our loved ones, our happiness, our stability. And there’s no greater, or at least no more final, loss than death. It’s occurred to me that I would be able to slough off so much worry if I knew that I and those closest to me would live long lives. Of course, we can’t know that, but it got me thinking about what it would be like if we could know—with no guarantee that it would be good news. Is knowledge a blessing or a curse? A liberator or a hindrance? And to what extent are denial and ignorance actually positive forces in human life, in that they enable us to keep going?

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Letting the Light in: ‘Recent Changes in the Vernacular’ by Tony Hoagland

9781893003170Tony Hoagland, like Jack Spicer, is a master of wielding the needle of irony to inject you with the pain of being an aware human being. (Re-reading Spicer’s letters to Graham Macintosh in the July 1970 issue of Caterpillar reminded me of their shared sensibility.) Hoagland has a particular ability to pinpoint the ills and contradictions of the American psychic landscape using deadly serious humor. This was already evident in poems such as “Hard Rain,” “Dickhead,” “Foodcourt,” “At the Galleria Shopping Mall,” and “America.” Perhaps no one else in the contemporary poetry landscape creates such pitch-perfect expositions of our national yearnings, naiveté, and delusions. He also has poems of infinite tenderness, such as “Beauty” or “The Color of the Sky.”

The best of Hoagland’s work shows his fearlessness, his willingness to probe his own demons, to expose himself in print. In the poems “Lucky,” “Sweet Ruin,” or “Phone Call,” for example, he dramatizes his own darkness, admits he is implicated, doesn’t shrink from self-exposure. He opens himself up in a profound way—the way letting light into a dark room allows you to see, and re-evaluate the tattered, rather humiliating furniture. (This has not been without controversy. His reaction several years ago to Claudia Rankine asking him about his poem “The Change” provoked a scathing response from Rankine, which you can read about here.)

His latest book, Recent Changes in the Vernacular (96 pages; Tres Chicas Press), displays these same qualities—humor, perceptive exploration of the American psyche, and a willingness to go deep into the unexplored personal. It’s tempting to quote whole poems; to let them speak for themselves, because it’s hard to get a sense of their range and depth in short bursts. Part of Hoagland’s technique is the layering of imagery, one sequence playing off the next. But other skills include the ability to create a simple exposition that exactly captures something you instantly recognize. In “Opening Night,” a poem about the opera house built by the generosity of the widow of an arms manufacturer, he comments:

… no one smells the gunpowder
hidden deep inside the curtains;

No one sees the blood congealed
around the legs of the piano

These lines seem simple, straightforward, inevitable. But the effect they produce is almost impossible to achieve. Like a skilled tightrope walker, Hoagland makes his acrobatics look easy. Hoagland notes in his poem, “Empire”:

It’s hard to write inside an empire.
The ink is made from the eyelids of mice…

You don’t say anything because you like your job;
you like your car and wife and life.

Yet somehow Hoagland can write about the empire from inside it, write of his own role within it, of his complicity, which makes us aware of our complicity. His vision is accurate, wry, unflinching. This excerpt from “Moisture” is typical:

The ice skater spins on her prosthetic leg, on national TV,
in her first performance since the accident

and wobbles once but does not fall,
as the audience rises to its feet to give her an ovation

and my tears drip down into my potpie chicken dinner
saving me the trouble of adding salt.

His ability to pick just the right detail—the potpie or the eyelids of mice—elevates the poems and gives them power.

Of course, not every poem hits its mark; some feel light, jokey, too easy. But as a whole, this book is a complex mix of pleasure and revelation. Who else could write a scene of a man dying of a heart attack in a bus on the way to Atlantic City and end it like this?

The tired state trooper can feel a headache coming on,
and the faintest sprinkle on his hairy arms, just a mist
descending from the shrouded Jersey sky,
just the faintest dreamlike of particulates…

—Now traffic will be stop and go
all the way to Party City—
that’s what he thinks, phlegmatically,
as a woman with cotton-candy hair

and what looks like a Corgi in her purse
stands up inside the bus
and slides down the aisle,
because there is a vacancy in Row Sixteen

and she feels lucky.

We are there with the tired trooper, the hopeful gambler, and that perfect detail—the Corgi in her purse. We are with them and of them, rueful observers as death exits down the interstate.

As for the personal, “The Age of Iron,” which opens Section II of this book, stands as one of Hoagland’s most masterful poems—one that I wish there were space to quote in its entirely. As it is, you’ll need to read the book.

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Become a Member-Level Donor and Get a Copy of Fred Lyon’s ‘San Francisco Noir’

PA_SanFranciscoNoir_CVR_9781616896515If you make a Member-level donation of $100 to ZYZZYVA before the end of the year, do we have a nice surprise for you. We’ll send you a copy of acclaimed photographer Fred Lyon’s gorgeous San Francisco Noir, published by Princeton Architectural Press, for free. But we have a limited supply of books, so don’t delay! Just enter SFNOIR in the “Write a note” field on the donation page to receive your copy.

All of our Member-level donors also get a complimentary four-issue subscription to ZYZZYVA and have their generosity acknowledged by name in both the journal and on our website.

Called “San Francisco’s Brassai,” Fred Lyons, now 93, has long been photographing the city. His work has been exhibited at SF MOMA, the Legion of Honor Museum, the Art Institute in Chicago, and at the Leica Gallery, where an exhibition of his work from San Francisco Noir runs through December 30. The glamour and the grittiness of San Francisco’s bygone years are forever captured in Lyon’s work. (Click on two of the images found in the book below for a better sense of what we mean.) And thanks to the good people at Princeton Architecture Press, this $40 book can be yours with your $100 donation to ZYZZYVA. But hurry! Copies are very limited.

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San Francisco cable car turnabout at Eddy and Powell Streets 1005191

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Get a Subscription to ZYZZYVA, New England Review, & Rain Taxi for Just $70

ZYZZYVA_NERThis holiday season treat yourself or somebody you know to a year’s worth of acclaimed writing from three of the country’s best journals—for one low price.

We’re teaming up with NER and Rain Taxi to offer our readers what we think is a deal too good to refuse. All year you’ll get prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and reviews and essays from prestigious journals located on the West Coast, the East Coast, and in the Midwest—giving you a rich sense of the work being produced across the country. All for just $70.

This offer expires December 22. So order now!

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Subscribe to ZYZZYVA and Receive a Free Copy of ‘Feed the Resistance’

Feed the ResistanceZYZZYVA, in collaboration with publisher Chronicle Books, is offering a free copy of Feed the Resistance to the first five people who subscribe to ZYZZYVA, give a gift subscription, or renew their subscription today.

Written by celebrated food writer Julia Turshen, Feed the Resistance is a cookbook keyed to the demands of activism. There are recipes for when you have little time to spare in the kitchen (Spicy Tandoori Cauliflower with Minted Yogurt), and there are recipes for when you have to feed a large group of fellow resisters (Angel Food Bread Pudding with Butterscotch Sauce).

Feed the Resistance makes for a stellar pairing with out latest issue, to say nothing of it being a great holiday gift in itself. So don’t delay! Just enter promo code RESIST in the Order Notes at checkout.

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Letter From The Editor

“Literature is the question minus the answer.”
—Roland Barthes

To learn which questions are unanswerable and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
—Ursula K. LeGuin, from The Left Hand of Darkness

Dear Reader,

Perhaps you, like me, find yourself asking a lot from literature these days: greater solace, finer insight, deeper resonance. For me that’s led to thinking more pointedly about such expectations, and I’ve found it is useful to ask not only what literature can do to respond to current events, but also how; not just what meaning literature can make, but how such meaning operates.

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In the Winter Issue

In this issue:

Art & Resistance Amid Turmoil

Criticism:

Troy Jollimore on how Wallace Shawn’s plays and his latest book, Night Thoughts, illuminate our predicament

Robin Romm on what Imre Kertész can teach us about art as resistance

Nonfiction:

T.J. Stiles on the road we travelled to arrive at this precarious moment

Andrew Tonkovich on “free persons,” and the risks writers must take

Fiction:

Dana Johnson’s “Like Other People”: In desperate need of a job, a graduate student takes a job cleaning cable boxes, working with folks also hard up for work.

Kristopher Jansma’s “The Corps of Discovery”: On a long road trip with his father, a middle-school history teacher considers Lewis & Clark, loss, and how no matter how much you prepare, “there were things you couldn’t reasonably expect to be prepared for.”

Krys Lee’s “The Jungle”: The trees and the vines have long received the terrified and the wretched; their plight does not go unnoticed.

Mackenzie Evan Smith’s “The Wet Continent”: “I have not set toe on a sailboat in more than a decade. I don’t know the last time I touched the ocean. … I think I am happier now. Am I really?”

Plus an excerpt from Dorthe Nors’s upcoming novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Poetry:

Victoria Chang, David Hernandez, Ruth Madievsky and Dean Rader on the topic of resistance; plus new poems from Judy Halebsky, Auzelle Epeneter, Bino A. Realuyo, Noah Warren, Christina Olson, and Jenny Xie

Interview:

Over a home-cooked meal, a boisterous conversation between Matt Sumell and Michelle Latiolais about mentoring, anger, rescue dogs, and what it means to write for a living.

Art:

Jenny Sampson’s tintypes of California skaters
Custom cover design & illustration by Josh Korwin

You can purchase a copy of No. 111 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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A Shared Madness: ‘The Grip of It’ by Jac Jemc

The Grip of ItThe idea of the “haunted house” novel is at least as old as the Gothic genre itself, dating back to the late 18th century with The Castle of Otranto. But it wasn’t until Anne Rivers Siddons published her cult favorite The House Next Door in 1978 that readers learned a haunting, much like real estate, is all about location, location, location. While urbanites who migrated to the suburbs may have thought they were leaving behind the crime and blight of the inner cities for a more tranquil existence, the horror novels of the Seventies were there to teach readers that America’s pastoral regions had their own share of maladies—and often the supernatural variety.

It’s a lesson that continues to reverberate in the latest novel from Jac Jemc, The Grip of It (288 pages; FSG Originals), as young married couple Julie and James flees the temptations of city life (namely James’ gambling habit) to settle in a low-cost fixer-upper in a more rural part of the state. A welcome twist on this familiar set-up is how Julie and James react upon learning of their new house’s hidden compartments and hideaways: “I squeeze James’s hand and he squeezes back because we have this way of feeling the same about the unexpected, and I know, like me, he is excited about the secret passages…” Genre connoisseurs may find themselves thinking, now here’s a couple I can relate to.

It doesn’t take long for the duo’s excitement to fade, however, as the otherworldly occurrences pile up: local children play a strange game called Murder in the woods; painful bruises sprout upon Julie’s skin, seemingly without cause; Julie and James’ inexplicably keep waking up in their neighbor’s house; and worse. The stress, understandably, puts a strain on the couple’s relationship, each partner wondering if the other’s outsized behavior is merely retaliation for some perceived slight:

“There’s a room behind that wall, but it’s gone now.”

He looks at me strangely. “That can’t be. It’s the guest room on the other side. There’s not enough space.”

I’m too tired to convince him. “Well, I didn’t make it up.”

I can tell he wonders if this is all a bid for attention, if I was ever even trapped. “Talk to me, Julie. What’s going on? Are you mad at me? Are you trying to get back at me?”

I don’t know.

Despite an ominous tone, The Grip of It proves a brisk read thanks to Jemc’s punchy, to-the-point chapters, each one typically alternating between Julie and James’ perspectives. Because Jemc never roots us in a stable point-of-view, she is able to foster in us the same sense of paranoia her characters are experiencing—how can we be certain what Julie or James are up to when they’re off camera? This selective vision creates the suspicion we may be witnessing a case of folie à deux, a shared psychosis between a stressed husband and wife pushed to the brink by home ownership, managing addictions, and keeping up appearances for friends and neighbors. “The inability to trust ourselves is the most menacing danger,” James muses. “What is worse? To be confronted with an obvious horror, or to be haunted by a never-ending premonition of what’s ahead?”

The novel deliberately blurs the line between the supernatural and the mundane, but as with any great horror novel the genre-trappings are merely a framework employed to discuss the pressures of modern life. The looming horror doesn’t just rest in the child-like drawings Julie and James discover on a cave wall near their property, or within the secret journal entries they find in the house. There is also their real fear that their relationship can’t survive the lure of addiction and the anxiety of becoming bourgeois and out of touch in the suburbs, and that their work life will suffer as a result. Even as possible explanations for the surreal happenings surface—a rare disorder of the nervous system, an extreme reaction to fungal mold—the reader is left to contend with the remaining mysteries that aren’t so conveniently solved. “We experience our fear privately,” James remarks. “When I see an errant shadow, I tell myself it’s nothing. When I notice a row of photos turned facedown on the shelf, I right them.” Perhaps that is all we can do when faced with the myriad of experiences that unsettle, that linger without explanation: a quiet resolution to fix the crooked frame.

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Looking for ways to help those affected by the Northern California fires

North Bay firesSmoke, ash, and an eerie light are constant reminders of the devastating fires just North of San Francisco. Our hearts go out to all those affected, and we’ll be looking for ways to help.

To begin, 7×7 has a list of local relief efforts that we can contribute to, including food donations and fundraising socials,  while KQED highlights ways to help animals that are affected by the Northern California wildfires. In addition, the compassionate crowdfunding site YouCare is raising funds for fire victims in the Santa Rosa community.

Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the Comments section.

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Celebrate Labor Day Weekend with Our Nifty Subscription/Pins Combo

ZYZZYVA PinsAs you take time to enjoy the long weekend ahead, we’d like you to consider something that might make the barbecues and binge-watching that much more enjoyable. For only today through Tuesday, September 5, we’re shipping a free set of our brand new ZYZZYVA pins with every purchase of a subscription or a subscription renewal.

You’ll be able to get the pins (stylish, no?) on our shop page soon enough. But why not get them sooner by simply renewing or subscribing to ZYZZYVA this weekend? So subscribe to ZYZZYVA and be prepared to wear those pins proudly!

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