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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Glen David Gold

In our continuing series of interviews and readings with our contributors, we talked to Glen David Gold about his nonfiction piece “The Plush Cocoon,” which appeared in ZYZZVYA No. 100. Gold is the author of the best-selling novels “Carter Beats the Devil” and “Sunnyside.” In “Cocoon” he explores his family history, particularly that of his mother’s. Gold discusses this piece as well as other topics, including how life has changed in San Francisco.

To hear Gold read from “The Plush Cocoon,” click on “Continue Reading” below.

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A Crime of Dispassion: ‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

9780802123459In schools throughout the country, American children and teenagers tend to learn about the Vietman War—and by extension, the country of Vietnam—through the prism of U.S. culture. This is not merely to reaffirm that entrenched ideas and predilections form our understanding of historical events, but also that early conversations about the war often gravitate away from Vietnam-as-place-and-people, and toward what Vietnam-as-idea sparked in the American consciousness. Student-led protests, the creation of the most talked-about countercultural movement in our history, the unthinkable fallibility of the American military—even Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles are all likely to be mentioned before Ho Chi Minh or Saigon. To young Americans, if not most Americans, Vietnam is a jungle in which unlucky youths fought and died before they lost a war, came back home, and started their American families.

Dehumanization is a part of art, war, and life; it can be both a shield and a sword. American art mines senseless loss and unspeakable atrocities for poignant drama, political insights, and moral ironies, and does so expertly. But before a deathly moment of horror, there is a life that has been lived, regardless of the hemisphere in which it was. What does it mean to engage with a subject containing the histories and hopes of an entire people about whom we know so little?

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s complex and compelling first novel, confronts us with that difficult and often discomfiting question. Ostensibly a tale of subterfuge, the novel makes use of an engaging narrator and tackles issues of artistic representation and cultural identity. Its narrator is the half-Vietnamese, half-French (and therefore worthy of scorn and distrust from many of his fellow Vietnamese) aide to a jingoistic, uncompromising South Vietnamese general. He is also a mole, working undercover for the communist regime; we learn on the first page that his story is a confession beginning in April 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”

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Finding the Logic Cloaked in the Mist: ‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried GiantCritics and readers will find it difficult to say exactly what Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is. His first novel in ten years, The Buried Giant (Knopf; 317 pages) marks a daring departure from the tortured and unreliable first person accounts his readers have come to expect. Some will exaggerate this departure, and yet Ishiguro’s prose remains undisputedly his: lyrical, patient, almost simple, but with lingering notes of deception and the unsaid.

It may be that his subject matter refuses categorization. Despite the appearance of ogres and pixies among its pages, The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. Although it recounts a quest to slay a dragon, it contains little of the narrative drive found in classic adventure tales. The protagonists are two elderly Britons, Axl and Beatrice, who are deeply devoted to one another, and yet this is not a love story. Ishiguro even goes so far as to directly borrow a literary (and historical) character, portraying the aged Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and a Knight of the Round Table, who, despite the changing times, continues to lug himself around in a full suit of rusted armor. But this is not an Arthurian legend either. So what do we call it?

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In the Spring/Summer Issue

Issue No. 103 kicks off our 30th anniversary year with a wealth of new works by the country’s finest contemporary authors.

Lydia Millet’s “The Island in the Porthole”: What plagues this stranded cruise ship: navigation gone awry or existential crisis?

Héctor Tobar’s “Secret Streams”: In Los Angeles, a winding path of water brings two loners together.

Julie Chinitz’s “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases”: A meditation on mercurial notions of territory and place in U.S. history.

Christian Kiefer’s “Muzzleloader”: A bevy of unexpected visitors intrude on a widow’s refuge in the Colorado forest.

Joe Donnelly’s “Bonus Baby”: Welcome the return of baseball season with this story of a pitcher sifting through memories while on the mound.

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Tracking Gap”: The communications department of a Japanese commercial airline scrambles to handle a PR nightmare when one of its passenger planes disappears.

Plus, more fiction from Molly Giles, Nick Fuller Googins, Ben Greenman, Robin Romm, James Warner, and Monique Wentzel; an essay from Kyle Boelte on serving as a juror; poetry from Luiza Flynn-Goodlett, Robert Hass, Ruth Madievsky, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, D. Eric Parkison, Joshua Rivkin, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, Joseph Voth, and Matthew Zapruder; artwork from Amos Goldbaum; and a new project from philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats, who asks you to consider the vast potential in emulating bacteria in the corporate world.

You can get a copy of No. 103 here, or, better yet, order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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The Oval Track of Memory: ‘Butterflies in November’ by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

9780802123183Set in the wintery depths of Iceland during the darkest days of the year, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s novel Butterflies in November (Black Cat/Grove; 296 pages) opens with a surreal scene. After accidentally running over a goose, the unnamed narrator hauls the carcass into her car trunk with plans to surprise her husband with a lavish dinner. What follows is the story of a woman out of sync with domestic life, whose impulsive nature leads her on a journey to self-discovery. We get a sense early on of our narrator’s elusive nature during a confrontation between herself and her husband. With brimming frustration, he reels off an extensive list of marital complaints–she refuses to conform to a proper schedule, she doesn’t want children, she hardly ever cooks dinner–before matter-of-factly asking for a divorce. There is another woman, he tells her unashamedly, and she is pregnant with his child.

As its title suggests, Butterflies in November is full of paradoxes. At once playful and dark, the novel, smoothly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, unfurls with a series of strange occurrences and characters. The narrator is enchanting, though at times painfully aloof, an impetuous woman who, after being dumped in one day by two men (her husband and her lover), wins the lottery and embarks on a journey eastward along Iceland’s Ring Road. Adding to the circus-like atmosphere is her travel companion, her best friend’s four-year-old son, Tumi, whom she has promised to care for while the friend recovers from an accident in the hospital. The child is comically misshapen: squat with a big head and an obscenely large hearing aid, which “looks like a receiver for picking up messages from outer space.” They make a strange but dynamic pair and, slowly, learn to communicate and read one another. Their relationship is fascinating to observe: she is a translator by profession who knows eleven languages; he is a deaf child with a speech impediment. In fact, the child’s sporadic verbalizations often have to be interpreted and re-articulated by the narrator. The two develop their own unique rhythm, as they head into the desolate and harsh arctic landscape.

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Reimagining Landscape: Q&A with Photographer Vanessa Marsh

Vanessa Marsh's "Mountain 4"

Vanessa Marsh’s “Mountain 4″ from her series “Falling”

Bay Area artist and photographer Vanessa Marsh’s photographs, currently on display at San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery till February 28, are dream-like in their blending of reality and fiction. The enigmatic quality of Marsh’s work is due in large part to her unique processes. Experimenting with several mediums, she is able to transcend realism through subtle manipulations of proportion, lighting, and perspective, without resorting to abstraction. In some photographs (several of which were featured in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 98), she uses models to create miniature scenes. In Man Chopping Wood (2011), for example, a stiff little figure on a lumpy hillside raises an axe above his head pre-chop. The figure’s slightly erroneous proportions and the ghostly backlighting undermine and warp the simplicity of such a quotidian scene.

The majority of the Dolby Chadwick show is devoted to Marsh’s Landscape photographs from the series “Everywhere All at Once.” When you think of landscapes, perhaps you think of Ansel Adams’ black and white photographs of classic American terrain, complete with its sweeping canyons and looming boulders towering toward the camera lens. This is nothing like the world Marsh depicts. Unrecognizable, the landscape in her work has been reassembled. While describing this project, Marsh compared her technique to the shifting of tectonic plates. Our perception of a landscape can be broken down into an accumulation of several two-dimensional planes that adjust and shuffle as we change our relationship to them.

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Struggling to Unseal All of the Words Unspoken: ‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell Exploring the emotional gaps created by grief and prolonged silence, Frances Itani’s new novel, Tell (Black Cat Press; 318 pages), is the story of a Canadian family coping with the fallout of the First World War. Picking up the thread from Itani’s 2003 novel, Deafening, Tell weaves an intricate narrative of two couples struggling with things left unsaid. The novel opens in 1921 before flashing back in time, with the bulk of the story occurring in the last two months of 1919.

Tress and Kenan are a young couple trying to reconnect after Kenan’s return from the front; meanwhile, Am and Maggie, Tress’s middle-aged aunt and uncle, are in a marriage that betrays a fragility neither will acknowledge. Itani expertly portrays the intricacies of each character, revealing the similarities among them slowly and deliberately. Despite the tensions in the novel’s romantic relationships, the connections between the two couples are both affectionate and complex. Seeing themselves reflected in their younger counterparts, Maggie and Am offer guidance and advice, hoping to help a marriage affected by Kenan’s wartime injuries.

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A Mental Hospital’s Foreboding Power: ‘The Forgetting Place’ by John Burley

The Forgetting Place“Menaker State Hospital is a curse, a refuge, a place of imprisonment, a necessity, a nightmare, a salvation.” So opens John Burley’s The Forgetting Place (344 pages; HarperCollins), an atmospheric medical thriller with a fictional mental hospital as its core setting. Burley’s new novel follows resident psychiatrist Dr. Lise Shields, who is assigned a new patient, Jason Edwards, who has a mysterious past and an even more secretive admission. Much of the novel’s first half is spent on Dr. Shields’ attempts to coax the truth out of her reluctant patient and the hospital administration. Faced with a bureaucratic stonewall, Dr. Shields thinks, “So often we are the only tangible thing anchoring our patients to their delicate perch above the abyss.” As her concerns deepen, she discovers an institutional conspiracy that puts her and Edwards in danger. She takes drastic action, which hurls the story into its second act.

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A Haven for the Printed Work: Q&A with the Book Club of California’s Jennifer Sime

The Book Club of California (photo by Matthew Millman Photography)

The Book Club of California (photo by Matthew Millman Photography)

The Book Club of California—with a 102-year history of fine letterpress publishing and support for hand-press printers—is a bibliophile’s delight and refuge. Sedately described by someone on its website as “a non-profit organization of people who take pleasure in fine printing related to the history and literature of California and the western states,” the San Francisco organization has an impressive and unexpectedly adventurous 3,000-volume collection, which ranges from a cuneiform tablet to a 15th century incunabula to a one-off book printed with alphabet cereal. The largest group for book collectors in the country, the Book Club also hosts exhibitions and literary events at its handsome Sutter Street offices and reading room. If you love the book as an object, as a talisman, as a link to the past, find your way there.

Two recent publications by the Book Club depart from their usual publishing program: the anthology Poetry at the Edge: Five California Poets (discussed below), and a story collection by Monique Wentzel, a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, called The Woods Were Never Quiet. Designed and printed by Jonathan Clark of Artichoke Press, with illustrations by Jessica Dunne, the book itself is a good match for Wentzel’s direct gaze and her steely narrative control. (Wentzel’s story “Modern Speedwash” appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 99.)

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The Dialogue Between Motherhood and War: ‘Blood Lyrics’ by Katie Ford

Blood LyricsIn her most recent book of poetry, which came out in late 2014, Katie Ford offers a raw and thoughtful look at the frailty of life, tracing the fragile line traversed alike by her premature infant daughter and the countless victims of war. Blood Lyrics (Graywolf Press, 62 pages) resembles a book of hymns, hauntingly personal, one piece coursing like blood into the next. Some of these poems ought to be delivered in a funereal whisper, others chanted to the rhythm of pumping hearts. Life and death are intimately connected, one necessitating the other.

In the first poem, “A Spell,” Ford prepares us for the urgent tone that will carry us through to the end of this short, yet profound, collection. The urgency is that of a mother begging for the survival of her child. The images she offers in return are timeless—“lights,” “opal,” “bells,” “water,” “eyes,” “cotton,” “industry”—so as to emphasize the timelessness of motherly devotion. In this way she connects her own suffering to the mythic and historic, and she concludes the poem by offering up the ultimate sacrifice—her own blood: “and bleed me in the old, slow ways, / but do not take my child.”

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Realism and the Fantastic as Very Much the Same: Q&A with Kathryn Davis

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

In Kathryn Davis’ novel Duplex (Graywolf Press, 195 pages), the suburban mundane is interrupted by the magical, the mythic, and the bizarre. In a neighborhood of duplex housing, kids play on the street as robot neighbors fly past them, sorcerers and Bodies Without Souls drive by in Mercedes, and teddy bears become human babies. Two coexisting narratives alternate from chapter to chapter, as two worlds slide past each other and often overlap. The intimacy between these worlds is such that the particularities of each echo the other, the realities of both merging into one.

The novel, recently published in paperback, follows such characters as Miss Vicks (who is described as “a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound”) and her neighbor, Mary, who happens to marry a sorcerer; robots who look like people, a baseball player who sells his soul for success. The narrative of this cast alternates with that of the narrative of Janice and the neighborhood girls, who, as though at a sleepover, listen to their cooler, older peer,as she tells them stories about the phenomena of their world. Janice’s stories, many of which could stand alone as fables, do more than just interrupt the more linear narrative of Miss Vicks and those around her. These stories ground the world of the novel as one with a long history of bizarre occurrences that are perceived as both mystifying and entirely ordinary by its characters.

One way of allowing yourself to experience the brilliance of Duplex is by accepting that the novel thrives in its departure from logic; the text is not there to hold your hand. The reader instead treads through the thickets of the strange, often leaving one scratching her head. Those wishing to follow a story whose plot has a traditional structure, with a clear climax and conclusion, might not find what they expect, but they will find themselves bedazzled and delighted with the narrative’s unconventionality. We spoke with Davis via email about Duplex and the uses of plot and genre in her work.

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In the Winter Issue

Issue No. 102 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Michael Jaime-Becerra’s “Omer, March 1987”: A boy out skateboarding stumbles upon his mother’s affair.

Melissa Yancy’s “Dog Years”: A scientist must make time for her family, her career, and, somewhere in there, cure one son of his devastating disease.

Laura Esther Wolfson’s “Infelicities of Style”: In the hinterlands, a young dance critic experiences the complications of art.

Octavio Solis’s “Retablos”: How may times has El Paso lamed him? Yet how many times has he walked back to his past walked away?

Plus, fiction from Josh Emmons (a slacker in France takes in her American cousin), J. Malcolm Garcia (a social service agency for homeless serves as a predator’s lair), Kate Petersen (a young woman returns to England and a love eluded), A. Nicole Kelly, Kathleen Alcott, and Jeffrey Moskowitz.

Also, work from artist Julio Cesar Morales’s series We Are the Dead, and poetry from Chuck Carlise, Lucille Lang Day, Rae Gouirand, Andrew David King, Joshua McKinney, Suzanne Roszak, and First Time in Print poet Andrew Gavin Murphy.

You can get a copy of No. 102 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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