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ZYZZYVA’s Summer Dance Party—Featuring Our First-Ever Raffle

Raffle itemsZYZZYVA’s Summer Dance Party 2018 is almost upon us! Do you have your ticket yet?

The event—our annual fundraiser—kicks off on Friday, June 15, at 6 p.m. at the Make Out Room in San Francisco. Besides the chance to hang out with your compatriots and supporters of our literary community, you will also be able to bid on one of our many silent auctions, and test your luck with our first-ever raffle, featuring:

  • Tickets to the Asian Art Museum
  • Gift cards & certificates to Dynamo Doughnuts, Rustic Bakery, Dandelion Chocolate, Pizzeria Delfina, and Point Reyes Bookstore
  • Gift bags from Lo-Fi Aperitifs and Baggu
  • A Family Membership to the SF Botanical Gardens
  • Membership to the Mechanics Institute Library, and more!

Tickets to the Summer Dance Party start at just $25, but are going fast. So get one now and don’t miss out on a once-in-a-year night of drinks, dancing, and community!

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Babylon Burning: ‘High Life’ by Matthew Stokoe

High LifeWhen Matthew Stokoe’s gritty noir High Life (380 pages; matthewstokoe.com) was published by noted indie Akashic Books in 2002, the book, which received very little coverage, managed to attract a fan base, thanks partly to Stokoe’s fearless depictions of upper-crust society at its worst. His novel eventually went out of print, but now that the rights to High Life are back with Stokoe, he has self-published his own edition of his hard-to-find book.

In High Life, Stokoe takes readers on a nocturnal tour of the seediest parts of late ‘90s Los Angeles, while gleefully subverting noir’s most ingrained tropes: there’s a private detective of sorts, but he’s a degenerate vice cop who more often acts as an obstacle to our main character, Jack; there’s a wealthy femme fatale living in a secluded mansion, but in a grim twist Jack might be more of a danger to her than the other way around.

Even so, Stokoe’s terse and evocative narration lets us know how much he appreciates the genre, especially the debt owed to the work of noir pioneer Raymond Chandler:

“My eyes felt charred and the cigarettes had eaten into my throat. I bought a cold coke from a machine outside a motel and chugged it until my eyes watered. Coke and damp night air, and the slowed pulse of the city around me. For that moment, for that snapshot, micron-thin slice of time, I was free of the past, free even of the present –– just the sweet caustic singe in my mouth and the loose quietness of being up and alone when most people were asleep.”

As High Life opens, Jack is just one of the millions living on the periphery of Hollywood, working a thankless job at a doughnut shop while secretly hoping to land a gig as an Entertainment Tonight-style television host. When his estranged wife (herself a drug addict) turns up murdered, organs removed with surgical precision, her grisly death serves as a catalyst for Jack to hit the streets and search for clues as to her killer’s identity––as well as quit his day job and begin to pursue his dreams of stardom.

The drive for celebrity quickly takes precedent, however, and after his friend Rex persuades him to take a stint as a male escort for the rich and famous of Beverly Hills, Jack more or less drops his amateur investigation. He rarely looks back on his journey to “lights, camera, action,” even as each inner circle of fame he achieves introduces new and more depraved behavior from Los Angeles’ wealthiest denizens. By the time he attends an Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the Bradbury Building (the iconic L.A. locale from the end of Blade Runner), the metaphor is clear: Jack’s lust for “the steamroller exposure necessary to become part of [people’s] desires” will send him tumbling down a rabbit hole to a place where traditional morality no longer seems relevant.

“I woke thinking about Daryl Hannah, about how her mornings must be. How she’d lie on a king-size bed in a pure white room the size of a tennis court with sunlight cutting swaths across the carpet. And just a short distance beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, a matter of yards perhaps, the sea would roll under blue sky and fat white clouds. The maid would come in with a light breakfast of coffee and croissants and the aroma of freshly roasted beans and the delicate pastry would mix with the ocean salt air and just that, just those three simple smells and the ocean breeze against your skin would remind you that you were a god.”

Although the idea of Hollywood using up and ultimately discarding the wide-eyed souls who head there seeking fortune and glory has been a noir standard since at least Sunset Boulevard in 1950, High Life is perhaps worth revisiting in the wake of the industry’s numerous sexual harassment accusations, as well as the NXIVM cult and its alleged involvement in human trafficking. Stokoe offers a glimpse of an industry where backroom power brokers indulge their most lurid predilections, and those on the lower rungs of society ––drug addicts, sex workers, and the homeless––are too often the victims of horrific violence.

Jack, while far from being a likable protagonist, does hold up a mirror to a certain part of our culture: the many who share his utter obsession with obtaining wealth, status, and media coverage, and his lack of compassion for anyone who is hurt along the way, no matter if they’re a lover or friend. Blackmail and murder become part and parcel of Jack’s world as he struggles to keep his footing on the slenderest ledge of celebrity he’s managed to obtain: “The taste of the high life I’d had made it impossible for me to give up the chance at becoming someone special without a fight.”

Not surprisingly, the novel’s graphic content ensures it may put off readers unfamiliar with transgressive literature, though it should be said this is a label Stokoe –– who cites Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn as a major influence –– actively resists. “More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or ‘outside traditional writing,’ is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors,” he said in an interview with Full Stop. “I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for. In fact I think a good portion of readers actually want the extremes…For me, the violence and sex were necessary to tell the stories I wanted to tell.”

When Jack finally achieves an on-camera role as a presenter on a Hollywood chat show, his success brings him closer to discovering the identity of the mysterious, silver-haired surgeon whose sleek black Jaguar patrols the Hollywood Strip in search of hustlers and vagrants to operate on, and who may have been responsible for his ex-wife’s murder. Along the way, Stokoe ratchets up the Grand Guignol to nearly unbearable levels –– every ghastly detail hammering home the author’s indignation for the dehumanizing culture that encourages people to idolize stardom above all else.

Fortunately, even through the thorny tangle of Jack’s increasingly emotionless narration, Stokoe’s empathy for those lost along the way still comes through: there’s Jack’s friend Rex, who becomes an empty shell after a drug-fueled road accident leaves a small child dead (“We were in the same room, but he was million miles away,” Jack observes. “At that moment I knew I could spend the rest of my life trying to reconnect and I’d never do it. The guy was gone”); and Lorn, Jack’s co-host, whose disciplined work ethic and pragmatic view of Hollywood can’t save her from the harm that befalls everyone in Jack’s orbit. These lost souls are just a few whom Jack sacrifices at the altar of fame. Perhaps most chilling of all is Jack’s epiphany near the end, as he pauses to survey the physical and spiritual carnage he’s wrought. It’s a warning of sorts that Stokoe leaves with us: “I’m not that different from a lot of people.”

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The Truest I Could Be: Q&A with ‘The Ensemble’ author Aja Gabel

Aja GabelAja Gabel’s first novel, The Ensemble (352 pages; Riverhead), reminds me of why I first, long ago, might have fallen in love with reading. It’s immersive and sweeping, featuring ambitious professional musicians—Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry—who form a string quartet. Walter Pater posited that all art aspires to the condition of music; I don’t know if I agree (that “all” makes me nervous), but I’ve thought for years that there isn’t nearly enough writing about music, and musicians. (A few exceptions I love include Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, and now The Ensemble.)

Gabel and I spoke over email about Baldwin, point of view, YouTube performances, and, of course, music.

ZYZZYVA: We’ve talked about our shared past lives as would-be professional musicians. Can you tell me about yours, and about what led to your leaving it behind?

AJA GABEL: “Leaving it behind” is the right phrase to use, but it’s something I had real trouble doing. I started playing violin when I was 5 and switched to the cello when I was 10. I played very intensely until I was about 22, until I finished college. I mostly played chamber music, but studied privately and performed solo as well. It became clearer earlier than that, though, that I wasn’t going to be the sort of conservatory-going, professional career-chasing musician I’d dreamed of being when I was younger. I don’t think I accepted that clarity for a while, though. I continued studying and playing anywhere and everywhere throughout my twenties. I didn’t really let it go—I mean really let it go—until I went to Provincetown to start writing this novel. That was the first time I didn’t take my cello with me when I moved. Not playing every day opened up this space in my brain, enough landscape for an entire novel about the pursuit of music to take hold. Unfortunately, that meant my skill level quickly dissipated. I can still play, but I wouldn’t do it publicly.

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Endless Fascination: Q&A with ‘L.A. Man’ Author Joe Donnelly

L.A. ManYou can’t accuse Joe Donnelly of taking it easy. In a decades-spanning career, the Los Angeles writer has profiled the “who’s who” of Hollywood––from America’s sweetheart Drew Barrymore to iconoclast filmmaker Werner Herzog––in the pages of publications like L.A. Weekly, where he served as deputy editor for a number of years. During that time, his short stories have earned him an O. Henry Prize (“Bonus Baby,” from ZYZZYVA No. 103) and have been adapted into short films. Donnelly also co-founded and co-edited Slake, a short-lived but highly acclaimed journal that gathered journalism, fiction, poetry, and art, all with a distinctly L.A. feel.

L.A. Man (284 pages; Rare Bird Books) represents a carefully curated selection of Donnelly’s journalism. The book includes profiles of actors as disparate as Carmen Electra and Christian Bale, as well as the madmen and outsiders that capture Donnelly’s imagination: the Z-Boys who skated rings around the empty pools of 1970s SoCal; ex-hippie turned international drug smuggler Eddie Padilla; eccentric comedian and dramatist Lauren Weedman, whose solo theatrical shows Donnelly likens to witnessing The Who perform for the first time; and many more.

Donnelly talked to ZYZZYVA about some of the famous names that appear in L.A. Man, life in the sphere of the filmmaking industry, and the enduring allure of Los Angeles.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout L.A. Man, you have a tendency to profile filmmakers, actors, musicians, and other artistic figures at moments when they’re either established icons (Lou Reed, Werner Herzog)—or alternately right when they’re at the precipice of fame. For instance, you met with Wes Anderson just before Rushmore put him on the map, and you note that even when you spoke to Christian Bale pre-Dark Knight he wasn’t quite a household name yet. When you meet someone at the start of their career, does that tend to make you feel more invested in their career trajectory and want to keep up with their artistic development? 

JOE DONNELLY: Not really. I feel like I tend to go all in when I’m doing the pieces, or a lot of them anyway. There’s a desire to make them definitive even if they come at transitional points in the subjects’ lives, and I don’t tend to feel much invested in their trajectories afterward unless, of course, they are figures whose lives and art will continue to relate to my life in a tangible way. Those are few and far between. I don’t have many heroes in that way, though Lou Reed was certainly one of them. Of more interest to me than the super famous figures such as Herzog, Barrymore, Bale, or Penn, etc. are the continuing stories of artists such as Craig Stecyk and Sandow Birk, or Eddie Padilla, the subject of “The Pirate of Penance,” and the wolf OR7, whose life and story has more implication to me than whether or not Wes Anderson makes another good movie.

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Catching Up with Good Things: ‘The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin’

The Luck of Friendship“The past is never dead,’’ as Faulkner memorably put it. “It’s not even past.’’

But the mutability of literary fashion continues to be regrettable. A new collection, The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin (392 pages; Norton), reminds us of the importance of respecting the Muse (regardless of reviews), the seeming bygone virtues of literary mentorship, and the need to cast aside judgement to make way for love. Tactfully edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith, Laughlin’s longtime associates at New Directions, the avant-garde publishing house he founded, it presents a little-seen side of the playwright.

Too often portrayed retrospectively as a pill-popping, promiscuous caricature, a kind of Capote with theatrical wings, this record shows him as a devoted, if sometimes anxious friend, seeking and getting the approval of Laughlin—an accomplished poet in his own right, who was an advocate for Williams’s early works, from The Glass Menagerie to A Streetcar Named Desire. (They were also avid collaborators on everything from typeface to cover design; a subject Williams was intensely interested in.)

“I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays,’’ he writes in 1947, from New Orleans. “One of them, ‘A Streetcar Called Desire’ turned out quite well. It is a strong play…but is not what critics call ‘pleasant.’ In fact, it is pretty unpleasant. But we already have a producer ‘in the bag.’ A lady named Irene Selznick [estranged wife of David Selznick and a daughter of Louis B. Mayer]. Her chief apparent advantage is that she seems to have millions.’’

Laughlin, as always, was supportive. Even when he had reservations, or suggestions about Williams’s work, he phrased them encouragingly, and was an advocate for controversial material like his 1948 story collection, One Arm and Other Stories, which depicted gay life explicitly, and tirelessly urged Tennessee to continue work on his underrated poetry.

Perhaps the secret to the longevity of this alliance was in the physical distance between the two men.

“Their joint story, while admittedly only a small part of the life of either man, provides a window into the literary history of the mid-twentieth century and reveals not only the self-destructive tendencies of a great artist, but also his lifelong perseverance to remain both a poet and an experimental playwright, supported in his endeavors by the publisher he considered his his one true friend,’’ Fox writes in the introduction.

True to form, Laughlin backed Williams in his later efforts, even when they were viciously attacked. It’s a commonplace (seen also in Rebecca Miller’s recent documentary about her father, Arthur) that after enjoying early success of incredible magnitude, the artist must be knocked down a peg or ten by critics for his subsequent work, even though they obviously stem from the same sensibility. The light may burn brightest in youth, but the Victorian maidens of the press can’t resist the temptation to engage in schadenfreude at the inevitable fall.

“Dear Tenn,’’ Laughlin writes in 1953. “I’m glad that you have been encouraged by lots of letters from people who liked Camino [Real]. They are right and the dopes are wrong. But it all takes time. You must be patient. The world catches up with good things slowly. You’ve just got to develop a thick hide. I went through all of this with New Directions. For years almost all of the reviews of all the books were ridicule and scorn. You just have to sit tight and pay no attention and believe in yourself.’’

The publisher’s modesty, too, belied his talent. I was lucky enough to interview Laughlin some years back, and he recounted how he founded New Directions at Ezra Pound’s behest. He’d interrupted his studies at Harvard to sit at the cantankerous poet’s feet in Rapallo.

“When I first went there, I was trying to write, and I would show him things,’’ he recounted wryly. “He’d always tear them to pieces: too many words, too ‘poetic.’

“He finally said, ‘You’d better go home and do something useful.’ I said, ‘What is useful?’ and he said, ‘If you have the guts, you might murder Henry Seidel Canby.’ Henry Canby was the editor of the Saturday Review, who was very old-fashion, and always getting after Ezra.’’

“We decided that wouldn’t be very practical, so he said, ‘Well, you can become a publisher’ – and gave me letters to William Carlos Williams and his other literary friends.’’

Despite Pound’s protestations, Laughlin, who died in 1997, was a serious, if underappreciated, poet in his own right. I’d be remiss not to recommend, along with the Williams correspondence, his Collected Poems (New Directions, 1,214 pages), a massive volume full of unexpected pleasures, like this:

The Poet To His Reader

These poems are not I
hope what anyone ex-
 
pects and yet reader
I hope that when you
 
read them you will say
I’ve felt that too but
 
it was such a natural
thing it was too plain
 
to see until you saw
it for me in your poem.

Williams’ heroine Blanche DuBois famously declared she’d always depended on the kindness of strangers. But in Laughlin, he found an initial stranger who became a stalwart friend. Every writer should be so lucky.

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National Poetry Month: ‘Creation Myth’ by Austen Leah Rosenfeld

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each Wednesday we will be taking a deep dive into both ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For the third week of April, we present Austen Leah Rosenfeld’s poem “Creation Myth” from ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall 2016

Creation MythIn the beginning, there was only darkness.

Not the dark of the prairie at night,
fireflies nestled like hot pearls in the grass.

More like the sense of something
approaching, weaving a black basket in the sky.

Days came and went without epiphany.
Then the world began to materialize.

It was like coming down out
of the clouds in an airplane:
miles of snow-scented wheat,
white-tailed deer and wild turkey.

The people had a feeling
somewhere their lives were already lived.

They heard a narrator
in the cornfield, a voice like a flashlight
in the barn of the future.

Austen Leah Rosenfeld’s poems have appeared in AGNI, Salmagundi, Indiana Review, and other publications. She lives in San Francisco. Two of her poems appear in ZYZZYVA No. 107, available for purchase in our store

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The Symphony of Life: ‘Hybrid Creatures’ by Matthew Baker

Hybrid CreaturesMatthew Baker’s characters nurture obsessions. In his story collection Hybrid Creatures (126 pages; Louisiana State University Press), each of his protagonists carries a passion for a particular field, whether it’s mathematics or music, to the point that their fixations bleed through into the text of their stories. The narrator of “Movements” is so buoyed by his love of the symphony he can’t wake up to a morning cityscape in Nashville without experiencing it in musical terms:

“…a shopkeeper in cowboy boots heaved a security shutter up with a crash {piano}, somewhere a jackhammer was slugging {mezzo-forte} pavement, a sheet of metal covering a pothole in the street clapped {pianissimo} when run over by a taxi, somebody was periodically flinging objects made of glass, maybe bottles, into an empty dumpster, where the glass would shatter {staccato}…”

Tryg, the young boy and math prodigy at the heart of the story “The Golden Mean,” processes the emotional fallout of his parents’ divorce, and the ensuing time he must divide between both family members, through the unfailing laws of mathematics: “On average, 4.3 days per week with Family A, 2.7 days per week with Family B.”

These and other more unusual (and complicated typographic) ways of illustrating his characters’ preoccupations appear throughout the collection, such that Baker takes the time in the Acknowledgements to thank the crew at the printer, who “worked spiritedly and tirelessly to accommodate all of the special formatting and symbols in this book.

Baker’s stories read as crisp and minimalist, dictated to the page with a precision not unlike those same mathematical principles Tryg is so fond of. The opening piece, “Coder,” re-contextualizes computer hacking for the martial arts genre, as a younger hacker goes in search of his mentor—or “Sensei”—who has gone missing, ramping up the mood of paranoia so prevalent in stories about data and surveillance.

“Coder” contains more action than the rest of Hybrid Creatures in that the activity moves from one location to another; more often, Baker places his characters in a static milieu—locked on a hotel rooftop overnight or wandering the hallways at a crowded family gathering—as they face some kind of internal dilemma: The narrator of “Movements” must rediscover the meaning behind life’s cacophony of sounds after the death of his long-term partner, while Tryg tries to savor the last few hours with his mother and her new family in the suburbs before being shuttled back to his father’s farm.

The centerpiece of Hybrid Creatures, and arguably its most accomplished work, arrives last with “Proof of the Century,” a story that follows a curmudgeonly grandfather, Willis, navigating a party where his large family has gathered. The character, who has made a career in industrial agriculture, comes to the painful realization he may be suffering from dementia, and that he has not only lost some of his mental faculties but perhaps his beloved wife as well. Refreshingly, Baker treats this revelation not as a dramatic plot twist, but as a quietly devastating unveiling. He displays further deftness in how he weaves overheard conversations throughout the house into the story, often to add humor or to contrast the guests’ self-absorbedness with Willis’s determined mission to locate his wife.

His lifelong belief in the overriding Logic of the universe hinges on finding her, but that belief is threatened by not just the possibility of his wife’s absence but by a dawning understanding that Willis’s work may have had a disastrous effect on the environment. Again and again in Hybrid Creatures, we see that the pursuits in life that edify and elevate us, which help shape our daily routines and provide a sense of purpose, rarely prepare us to face life’s greatest hardships. That we must do, like so many things, on our own.

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In the Spring Issue

In this issue:

Interview:

The first American to win the Man Booker Prize, Paul Beatty talks with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his novel “The Sellout,” Los Angeles, literature, and satire.

Nonfiction:

What Emerges from the Fog: Essays on the faded traces of a life spent in the City (Joshua Mohr’s “San Francisco Loved Us Once”), and on the incredible challenges of making a life here—and of just choosing to live (Suzanne Rivecca’s “Ugly and Bitter and Strong”).

Fiction:

Anticipating the Worst: Stories on the threat of explosions, whether it be at the airport (David L. Ulin’s “Terminal”) or as just part of your job (Tom Barbash’s “Catbird”).

Natalie Serber’s “La Voix du Sang”: A son, becoming a young man, pulls his parents into the spiral of his wobbly future.

Maddy Raskulinecz’s “Barbara from Florida”: The tricks of the pizza-delivery trade: carry a dummy wallet, have plenty of fake IDs, and be ready for anything.

Plus stories from Dawna Kemper, Olivia Parkes, and Michael Zaken.

Poetry:

Christopher J. Adamson, William Brewer, Leah Clare Kaminski, Amy Miller, Pablo Neruda (translated by Katie Lateef-Jan & Dean Rader), John Sibley Williams, Casey Thayer, Robert Thomas, Kristen Tracy, and Devon Walker-Figueroa

Art:

Featuring the paintings of Eileen David

You can purchase a copy of No. 112 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring issue.

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Adrift and at Peace: ‘A Good Day for Seppuku’ by Kate Braverman

A Good Day for SeppukuFiction writer and poet Kate Braverman began her acclaimed career with 1979’s Lithium for Medea, a bildungsroman about a young woman struggling with cocaine addiction and a trying relationship with her family. Since that time, Braverman has collected numerous accolades, including Best American Short Story and O. Henry awards, a Graywolf Press nonfiction prize, and being named a San Francisco Public Library Laureate. Four decades into her career, she shows no signs of slowing down her creative output, and returns with her latest story collection, A Good Day For Seppuku (192 pages; City Lights Books). Here Braverman depicts characters in complex relationships that seem all too real: estranged daughters, young adults forced to choose between their parents, toxic friendships, and more. These are complicated people who bring to mind poet William Shenstone’s observation that “A liar begins with making falsehood appear like the truth, and ends with making truth itself appear like falsehood.”

Though the collection’s scenarios could be dismissed as familiar tropes, Braverman brings sagacious insight to them. Her mind, a fecund breeding ground of creativity, can take a cliche such as “a wife leaves her husband” and spin it, often with a clever turn of phrase, into something like a short masterpiece. For example, in “O’Hare,” in which a 13-year-old girl must choose between living with her mother and her record-producing boyfriend in Beverly Hills, or her father in the rural Allegany Hills, she describes how her young protagonist finds herself most at home between the two places, at the Chicago airport: “I feel like I’m back in O’Hare where seasons do not exist and all rules are suspended…I press the pause button on my life and everything stops.”

Moving through the eight stories in the book, one is greatly impressed by Braverman’s ability to recontextualize themes of estrangement, substance abuse, and fractured familial relationships through her unique prose style. Page after page of the collection is filled with lyrical imagery that veers toward the cinematic, such as in this evocative opening paragraph from “Women of the Ports”:

They meet at irregular intervals at Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the neutral zone, the landscape of perpetual, unmolested childhood where the carousel spins in its predictable orbit, and the original primitive neon alphabet does not deviate. Some hieroglyphics are permanent and intelligible in all hemispheres and dialects. No translation is necessary. The carousel doesn’t require calculus, rehab or absolution. No complications with immigration or the IRS. Just buy a token.

Elsewhere, in “In Feeding in a Famine,” she uses vivid symbolism to describe an alienated young woman’s visit to her family farm: “Outside is thunder like a plane straining at a blue edge too fragile to be a real border. It’s a juncture created by intention and rumor, composed of insects and feathers clinging to underside of yellow air. It has nothing to do with her.” With A Good Day for Seppuku, Braverman shines a light on our most intimate relationships. It is a bracing reminder of how uniquely powerful of a writer Braverman is.

 

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Interoffice Memorandum 2/15

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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