Contributors Archives

Laura Cogan

Gladly Going Anywhere Crosley’s Witty Voice Wishes to Take Us

In a recent interview with FiveBooks, Woody Allen lamented the current scarcity of outlets for comic writing in the grand tradition of James Thurber and Dorothy Parker. It’s an absence most readers may not usually feel until, that is, we run into a snort out-loud, serio-comic, utterly enthralling collection of essays by Sloane Crosley. At which point we have to ask, How have we managed without a weekly dose, and where can we find more?

Crosley’s second book of essays, How Did You Get This Number (now available in paperback), picks up on some of the themes (life in Manhattan, childhood in suburbia) from her first collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, and broadens the scope of experience and observation to Paris, Alaska, and Portugal, all told in the same engaging voice — wry, honest, eccentric — that charmed us before. While traveling alone in Portugal, she observes that “While the emotional sum total of my trip would eventually add up to happiness, … hidden between the cathedral and castle tours was the truth: I have never felt more alone than I did in Lisbon. A human being can spend only so much time outside her comfort zone before she realizes she is still tethered to it.” When Crosley writes in the next essay about her temporal-spatial deficit, her willingness to be alone and lost in Lisbon takes on greater significance. The willingness to persevere and move forward into the unknown has meaning for travelers, for readers, and for anyone charting their own course in life. “I have never outgrown that feeling of constant disorientation,” she writes. “Rather, the feeling has followed me around like a homing device.” Yet in her essays Crosley is deft and sure-footed, charting a confident course and delivering satisfying layers of comedy and observation in every piece.

These are beautifully crafted essays that often happen to be outrageously funny, but can also be achingly sad. Crosley invites us to laugh at the curve balls life throws, but she allows the small tragedy of some moments to arrive naked in their sadness, refusing to cloak them immediately in the armor of comedy. Therein lies the winsome honesty of her writing, sacrificing neither a dark underside nor an inappropriate laugh to any particular cause.

Unlike a sitcom-writer or stand-up comedian, Crosely is not obligated to deliver a particular number of laughs per half hour or set. And this is in part what distinguishes the comedy of humorous non-fiction from that of other genres. Each essay, though peppered with funny one-liners, holds a larger humorous story whose unfolding cannot be rushed. The great test of comic narrative non-fiction is whether the writing can bring us along in the process. Sustained by the intelligence of the author’s voice, we would gladly go anywhere with Crosley, as we allow the landscape — unpredictable, heart-wrenching, and hilarious – she creates to unfold around us.

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Francine Prose and the Crushing, Comic Discontent of American Life

As My New American Life (HarperCollins, 306 pages) opens, twenty-six-year-old Lula stares out the window of the suburban New Jersey home where she works as a nanny, waiting without much hope for something, anything, to happen. If life was simple and humans were well-engineered for happiness, Lula might well be content. Yet she’s miserable. It’s not only because Lula is far from her home in Albania and without friends or anybody who shares her history that’s she’s unhappy. In Francine Prose’s new novel, it’s because Lula has begun to experience a uniquely American mode of discontent.

Lula has left her shattered family and come here on a tourist visa in the ages-old hope of building a better life in America. With her best friend, Dunia, by her side, Lula forges ahead in Manhattan, waiting and hoping for something to work out. Eventually Lula feels they must take some initiative to secure their immigration status, but Dunia suggests that if they do nothing, something good will happen. Unconvinced by this logic, independent Lula takes the initiative to answer a personal ad on Craigslist and lands a gig working for Mister Stanley, a well-intentioned middle-aged man who needs someone to look after his son, Zeke, now that his wife has suffered a nervous breakdown and left them to fend for themselves.

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Before Goldman Knew of Great Loss There Was First Knowing Great Love

On a hot, bright July day in 2007, author Francisco Goldman waded into the Pacific surf off Mazunte, Mexico. His wife, Aura Estrada, watched him bodysurf, catching a wave and riding it twenty yards back toward the shore, and decided she’d like to do the same. As the next wave approached, she called out, “This one’s mine!” That powerful wave left Aura unconscious, floating in the shallow waters near the beach, and although she regained consciousness and fought for her life in the hours that followed, she did not survive.

Say Her Name (Grove; 350 pages) is Goldman’s wrenching but also warm and often funny novel about a middle-aged professor and writer named Francisco Goldman, who finds a passionate and enduring love with Aura Estrada, a talented young academic and promising fiction writer from Mexico. She dies just two years after they marry, catching her first wave bodysurfing off the coast of Mazunte, Mexico.

The book begins with the stark and true information of Aura’s accident. Part of the immense impact of Goldman’s work is how he renders this heavy foreknowledge: It becomes the spark that ignites the relentless engine of the narrative. As Aura comes alive on the page, the knowledge of her death becomes agonizing; our growing attachment to her creates tension and significance to that singular event around which the book restlessly orbits. Yet Say Her Name blossoms with the story of Aura’s life opening up — a young writer breaking out on her own, struggling to develop and define her work and to meet her own high expectations.

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Naomie Kremer: The Vocabulary of Obsession and Obsessiveness

Naomi Kremer (photo by Dennis Letbetter)

Naomie Kremer has been described as “a remarkable and innovative colorist, with a subtle mastery of intimating interior meaning.” Her current exhibition, “Multiverse Part I,” at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco through April 23, showcases 12 of her densely layered oil-on-linen paintings, all characterized by Kremer’s sensuous use of color, her energetic and meticulous brushwork, and a complex, detailed sense of structure. Yet her work in black and white is integral to her craft, and equally compelling. ZYZZYVA sat down with the Bay Area artist in her bright and inviting studio in Oakland on a recent stormy day. As the rain poured down outside, Kremer discussed the inspiration behind her current show at Modernism, the important role that drawing has played in the development of her craft as a painter, and her innovative collaboration with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

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The Strangeness of Loss Imbues ‘Widow’

A collection of 17 short pieces, Widow (Bellevue Literary Press; 160 pages) is, as the title suggests and the opening story firmly establishes, concerned with a particular loss — that of the beloved partner. Though several of the book’s stories were written after the death of California author Michelle Latiolais’s husband, and the impact of that loss is felt on every page, Widow is not a memoir, yet neither is it entirely fictional. Drawing on a variety of genres (meditations, stories, and poetic vignettes) and points of view, Widow offers a kaleidoscopic view of the world from deep within the mourning mind. (One of the stories in the book, the haunting “Breathe,” first appeared in ZYZZYVA.) Continue reading

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