Latest Posts from the Blog

Peering through the Haze of Digital Commotion: ‘All This Life’ by Joshua Mohr

unnamed (3)_0Is loneliness the de facto spiritual condition of the Information Age? This is the central question that seems to loom over All This Life (Soft Skull Press; 294 pages), the latest novel from Bay Area author Joshua Mohr. In the book, Mohr trains a scathing lens upon our 21st century culture, one that craves personal connection and yet seems to have forgotten the value of face-to-face interactions, opting instead for a constant stream of YouTube videos, live Tweets, and Facebook status updates. “All that matters is content. New content. More content.” The setting is San Francisco circa 2013, a city where zealous Apple employees “swarm like Jehovah’s witnesses” and promise “video quality that looks better than the real world,” a place where a booming tech industry has driven rent prices up toward Manhattan levels and has dismantled “every bit of strangeness that once made San Francisco extraordinary.”

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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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Struggling Among So Much Splendor: ‘The Wonder Garden’ by Lauren Acampora

The Wonder GardenIt takes a skilled writer to make us see the familiar as something new. In her first book of fiction, The Wonder Garden (Grove; 386 pages), Lauren Acampora turns an anthropologist’s discerning gaze on the everyday sights and sounds of suburbia. In doing so, she creates the impression these commonplace scenes and images are imbued with some hidden meaning, whether it be a foreign girl visiting for the first time a mall, where she “touches the clothing in Aeropostale as if it were powdered with gold dust,” or the markings on a “wooden coffee table that still bears the scars of children’s homework.”

The Wonder Garden began as a novel until Acampora realized her story’s central protagonist was too passive of a character to carry the weight of hundreds of pages. Thankfully, she discovered that several of the novel’s supporting players possessed fascinating interior lives worth exploring. Acampora ultimately resurrected the project as a series of interwoven stories set around the affluent Connecticut community of Old Cranbury. These are characters who appear “stuck,” paralyzed by indecision while at the crossroads of middle-age, young adulthood, or new parenthood. The pleasure of reading The Wonder Garden comes not from watching these people escape the traps they may or may not have set for themselves, but in witnessing their struggle and seeing, despite the extreme wealth on display through the book, a mirror of our own lives.

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When a Storm Might Turn You into Pulp: ‘The Paper Man’ by Gallagher Lawson

The Paper Man Gallagher Lawson’s first novel, The Paper Man (261 pages; Unnamed Press), opens with a scene you might expect in a coming-of-age tale: a sheltered young man has just arrived by bus to an unfamiliar city, eager and more than a little anxious to start the next chapter of his life. The difference here is that our protagonist, Michael, is a walking and talking paper mache’ construction. Given his unusual appearance, Michael is dreadfully concerned with fitting in his new surroundings. Fortunately for him, he might not be the strangest resident of the novel’s unnamed seaside province: his arrival in town is heralded by the appearance of a dead mermaid in the middle of the road. The sight proves an ill omen as Michael soon finds his belongings stolen by an eye-patch-wearing talk radio host and his paper form marred by a sudden rainstorm. Early in the novel, Michael reminds himself that “he was the stranger here,” and, given the existential horror prevalent in The Paper Man, one senses Gallagher Lawson would hardly be unpleased if this phrase brings Albert Camus to mind for his readers.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard: Whose Struggle Is It?

My Struggle Volume FourWhen Karl Ove Knausgaard was in San Francisco to promote the U.S. release of the fourth book in his six-volume My Struggle series, he was quietly and generously discussing a project that had been completed several years ago, but whose trajectory among English speakers is still tracking with a fervor rarely seen in the literary world. My Struggle: Book Four (Archipelago; 485 pages; translated by Don Bartlett) deals primarily with the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard’s time as a schoolteacher in northern Norway; as in each of the first three volumes, he painstakingly chronicles tiny yet unendurable humiliations, fleeting moments of elation and revelation, and the abiding shame and existential dread that, for Knausgaard, are the costs of being alive. He employs a flatness of style, an insistence on detail, and an overwhelming candor to produce an effect few authors have ever been able to achieve, and whose qualities I can only compare to the experience of reading as a child: total immersion in a story, and the sense that the rhythms of writer and reader have been synced, producing a cosmically unlikely pleasure that hits like a fierce wave of energy.

Comprising Knausgaard’s admirers are novelists of every ilk and age; respected reviewers; and, judging by the sales, around one-in-nine adult Norwegians. Reckless hyperbole about his accomplishment abounds (such as that in the preceding paragraph), much of it merely in service of figuring out how he achieved what he did, which is to make interesting and appealing 3,600 pages of hastily-written, baldly autobiographical prose about a handsome, intelligent, successful man who describes the birth of his daughters and his bowel movements with equal reverence.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Vauhini Vara

Welcome to the newest feature on our website: the ZYZZYVA Video Series—featuring short readings and interviews with ZYZZYVA’s many contributors. We kick off our series with Vauhini Vara, whose story “We Were Here” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Vara, whose fiction has been honored with an O’Henry Award, is also an award-winning journalist. Having worked at the Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade, she now covers technology and business for the NewYorker.com, where she was previously the business editor. Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked with Vara about “We Were Here,” as well as about her career as a journalist.

And if you click on “Continue Reading,” you can see a video of Vara reading from “We Were Here.” We hope you enjoy!

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Grassfire

When I moved to California last year, water was far from my mind. Naturally, upon my arrival I was shocked by the severity of the drought, the messy status of water rights, and the endless bickering over an element that I considered a common occurrence, as well as a natural right. For Californians, however, these environmental threats are nothing new. Beyond the political scope, environmental issues, at their core, reveal the moral grappling of humankind, and yet a surprisingly few number of authors take on the subject.

In light of the current drought, John van der Zee’s “Grassfire,” which appeared thirty years ago in the first issue of ZYZZYVA, remains morally pertinent. The story, detailing a man’s struggle to put out a small wildfire, illuminates the essential crux of California’s environmental issues, which, thirty years later, are just as controversial. A wildfire presents a moral dilemma; though, with its rapid and unpredictable expansion, it ultimately contradicts the old adage that what is one person’s problem is not another’s. “Grassland” begins with gallantry before crumbling again into conflict.

Van der Zee’s prose is evocative and succinct. The wildfire is just as animated as the characters, animal-like, morphing into the irrepressible fears of our protagonist, inserting itself into the politically divided landscape. And though fire poses the greatest immediate peril in this story, the threat of drought looms ominously at its side. The descriptions of the burnt landscape and dry faucets, when read today, resemble the unheeded forewarnings of a prophet. — Sarah Cooolidge

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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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A Vision Stretching Over Centuries: ‘The Memory Painter’ by Gwendolyn Womack

The Memory PainterGwendolyn Womack’s first novel, The Memory Painter (320 pages; Picador), is a historical and scientific thriller fueled by themes of reincarnation and identity. World-famous painter Bryan Pierce is at the mercy of sudden trance-like states wherein he is able to paint moments of beauty and pain from his past lives. His art acts as a distress call, and it’s answered by Linz Jacobs, a neuroscience researcher. When Linz visits an art gallery and recognizes in one of Bryan’s paintings an image from a recurring childhood nightmare, an immediate connection to the artist soon becomes an exploration of shared history and past mysteries.

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The Potential of Formless Beings: A Translation of Anne Garréta’s ‘Sphinx’

sphinx_intro_rgbBeyond the elegant, geometric design of its cover, Sphinx (Deep Vellum; 120 pages; translated by Emma Ramadan) is an ambiguous, multifaceted beast. With its third publication, Deep Vellum, an eclectic Dallas press, brings the work of French writer Anne Garréta to English readers for the first time. Nearly thirty years after its original publication, Sphinx also marks the first English translation of a female member of Oulipo (short for ouvrir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop for potential literature”), the exclusive, prestigious writer’s workshop that included George Perec and Italo Calvino among its members. (Garréta is the first member of Oulipo to be born after its founding.) The goal of so-called potential literature is to restrict or manipulate language structures to open up the narrative possibilities of literature. And, indeed, there is something both freeing and unsettling about the prose of Sphinx. Though the sentiments at the heart of the novel are universal–love, passion, and melancholy–the agents of such feelings are strikingly absent, phantom-like forms that refuse to be pinned to the page and examined as specimens.

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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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Drugged Daydreams Down on the Farm: ‘Delicious Foods’ by James Hannaham

Delicious FoodsJames Hannaham’s striking new novel, Delicious Foods (Little, Brown; 384 pages), digs deep into a son’s loyalty to his mother and deeper into his mother’s dependence and addiction to crack cocaine. When Eddie’s mother, Darlene, fails to return home, he begins a search that leads him to Delicious Foods—a farm where addicts, lured with false stories and promises, are forced to work for next to nothing and are unable to leave.

The prologue of the novel begins with the end. Eddie escapes Delicious Foods, but freedom comes with a price. Hannaham introduces us to the horror of this world, when on page one he describes Eddie driving a stolen SUV, steering with the nubs of his wrists—his hands having been recently sawed off. Though we learn in the prologue that everything ends up O.K. for Eddie, one question central to the entire novel haunts him: Will he ever be able to save his mom from her demons, and will he ever be free of his own?

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