Latest Posts from the Blog

Future Shock: ‘The Transition’ by Luke Kennard

The TransitionWith frequent moments of insightful social commentary, Luke Kennard’s first novel, The Transition (328 pages; FSG), takes us to an exaggerated version of our current society—a dystopian world of recognizable stress.

Karl and Genevieve are both university-educated and hold decent jobs. Genevieve works as a teacher, and Karl has a dubious career as a fake product reviewer and ghostwriter for lazy college students who can afford his services. In the first few pages of the novel, we learn things have gotten to the point where the “average age of leaving the parental home drifted into the early forties.” At the same time, things such as male contraceptive implants, self-driving taxi cabs, and self-refilling refrigerators are common. Without the help of their parents to fall back on, Karl and Genevieve struggle and flail. In their early thirties, they still can’t afford to live alone — instead they rent a room in a shared house; having children remains out of the question. As rents keeps rising, Karl (secretly) opens up more credit accounts to pay for groceries, car repairs, and vacations they can’t afford. Whenever Karl complains about their lot in life, Genevieve reminds him that they are still wealthier and better off than ninety-seven percent of the world’s population.

To pay off some of his debt, Karl becomes involved in credit fraud and is ultimately caught. He is given an offer: go to jail for fifteen months, or participate in a pilot scheme called the Transition. After choosing the latter, he and Genevieve spend six months living with older mentors who guide them through concepts like employment, finances, relationships, and more. In other words: Adulting 101. The goal of the program is that by the end of their sentence, the couple will have paid off their debts and have enough money saved for a down payment on a house.

This too-good-to-be-true “Get Out of Jail Free Card” soon becomes a burden to Karl. He continues to land himself in trouble, and his relationship with Genevieve grows increasingly strained. Karl’s developing suspicion of the ill intentions of The Transition becomes the novel’s central conflict. Though Kennard expertly introduces new conflicts and builds suspense, there’s no dramatic conclusion to his story. In fact, the novel is consistently anticlimactic; just when you think there will be an aha! moment, Kennard adds another layer of complication and ambiguity. (Are the villains really villains or simply people looking out for themselves?) And each character is flawed in their unique ways.

The Transition is not as easily definable as a typical dystopian novel. Kennard writes cleverly about an unlivable economic climate, sprinkling instances of lovely nuance and truthful observation throughout. The novel never preaches or patronizes the reader. Instead, The Transition serves as a funny, fresh, and all too likely depiction of the future.

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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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Creating Tintypes at the Skate Park: Q&A with Photographer Jenny Sampson

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson's "skater" series

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson’s “skater” series)

Using an anachronistic 4×5 view camera—the kind where the photographer stands draped under a dark cloth—Jenny Sampson has been steadily creating tin-type portraits of skateboarders she encounters at local skate parks, mainly in California, Oregon, and Washington. The resulting portraits are beguilingly fraught with melancholy atmospherics, their distressed tactility an implicit rebuke to the sterile, antiseptic images saturating daily life in a digital age. (Several such tin-types were recently featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111.) Sampson’s practice has allowed her to meaningfully engage with the skaters themselves, and obliquely teach them a bit about her antique photographic technique. (Paradoxically, the process requires the skaters to remain absolutely still for at least 30 seconds.) In the following conversation, conducted by phone, and over Gmail, Sampson shares her experience venturing into the skater’s semi-private preserves.

ZYZZYVA: So how do the skaters respond to you when you bring this unwieldy antique camera into their midst?

Jenny Sampson: The camera is a 4X5 view camera. It’s the kind of camera that sits on a tripod, has the bellows—the part that looks a little like an accordion, and the photographer has to duck under the dark cloth while focusing on the subject.
There usually aren’t many of those types of cameras at skate parks! I also set up my portable darkroom, which includes processing trays and tanks that are visible to everyone. All of this can attract attention, actually helping me engage with people.
Sometimes when I’m developing the tintype, kneeling underneath the darkroom cloth, people don’t know I’m under there—because I’m small, covered, looking like a little mound. After the tintype is developed, I flip the cloth off and people are surprised because they didn’t see me, “Wow! Oh, wow! There she is!”

Continue reading

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Truth in a Glass: ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ by Anne Fadiman

The Wine Lover's DaughterIn The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (272 pages; FSG), Anne Fadiman, the author of Ex Libris, At Large and Small: Familiar Essays, and, most notably, her prize winning work of nonfiction, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, writes about her famous father, Clifton, or Kip, Fadiman. She centers her memoir, her first book in ten years, around her father’s love of wine, a love affair that begins on his first trip to Paris with an inexpensive bottle of white Graves.

Although Kip Fadiman’s love of wine was sincere—he found pleasure in the taste and complexities of wine, as well as an appreciation for its ability to enhance conversation—his daughter reveals that his interest was also tied to a desire to be as far removed as possible from his Jewish immigrant background. A self-described “meatball,” Kip Fadiman was born in 1904 to lower-middle class Eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn. Embarrassed by his parents and pedigree, he took great strides to “de-meatball” himself by reading through the Western canon, learning to speak impeccable English from his older brother (which later helped with his career as a radio host), putting himself through Columbia University, and, eventually, by becoming a leading wine connoisseur. Although he saw enormous success as a radio host for NBC’s Information Please, was editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster before the age of 30, worked as a book critic for The New Yorker for ten years, and co-wrote the unofficial Bible of wine, The Joy of Wine, he always feared he would someday be exposed as a fraud or counterfeit.

Since he never got over feeling like an intruder to WASP culture, he worked to scrub himself of any Jewish identity, Fadiman writes, and was confounded to find later generations attempting to reclaim their Jewish roots. As she points out, wine fit in perfectly with his lifelong career of divorcing himself of his lineage – wine was civilized, civilizing, and decisively not Jewish. While her father’s embarrassment over his Jewish identity is at times troubling for a contemporary reader and for Fadiman herself, she reminds us, “I don’t have a clue what they were up against and never will.” Instead of attributing his attitude to denial and snobbery, she ascribes it to the culture that her father grew up in. This is the same culture that shaped his alma mater’s decision to pass on hiring him as a professor, claiming they had already reached their quota for Jewish professors in the department (which was at one)—a moment that made him perceive his incredibly successful professional life as a failure.

Fadiman’s writing remains polished, humorous, and approachable in The Wine Lover’s Daughter. Her love of language always shines through—in Ex Libris she discusses the Fadiman family’s joy for polysyllabic words and her father’s children’s book about a worm with an appetite for words like “zymurgy”—but her work never indulges itself to the point of requiring its readers to keep a dictionary at hand. The magnificence of her work is in her empathy for her subjects and her unwavering rationality. She never acquiesces to a reader’s impulse for her to judge her subjects or make a definitive statement that would ultimately prove reductive.

After years of trying to enjoy wine, the author finally confronts the fact that she will never love wine the way her father did. When she reaches this conclusion, she goes on a trek to find some biological reason for her distaste. At first, this chapter seems like a distraction, one that detracts from the otherwise magnificent account of the father and his relationship with his daughter. Yet, by the end, one is reminded of Fadiman’s skill as a writer. What made her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down such a great success was her refusal to succumb to easy answers. She wrote with empathy for both the Western doctors and the Hmong families as they struggled over the (eventually) failed medical treatment of a young Lao girl in Merced, California. Here, she again refuses to see the world in simple terms. The answer is not found in her and her father’s different biological reactions to wine, but in their rich, yet dissimilar histories. She recognizes that her father’s love of wine could not be separated from the romance of his first experience with the white Graves and his longing to reinvent himself.

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‘Still Life with Cacography’ by Dean Rader: ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue


Still Life with CacographyDean Rader is a professor of English at the University of San Francisco. His most recent poetry collections are “Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry” (Copper Canyon Press) and “Suture” (Black Lawrence), written with Simone Muench. You can see him in conversation with other ZYZZYVA contributors tomorrow at East Bay Booksellers. Two of Rader’s poems are featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111. Presented here in its entirety is the poem “Still Life with Cacography”:

“If some of those wonderful people had guns strapped right here— right to their waist or right to their ankle—and one of the people in that room happened to have it and goes ‘boom, boom,’ you know, that would have been a beautiful sight folks.”

—Donald Trump, four days after the Orlando Pulse shooting

We are in the car. My son Henry, who is four, asks, Dad how do you spell fart? I answer: H-E-N-R-Y.

To which he screams No! And before I can say anything else it’s
Dad Dad Dad what does hkjurotha spell, and I, having played this game before,

know better than to say that isn’t a word, so I say hook joo rotha, and he laughs, and then, Dad Dad what does ggtdxererererererhenruururur spell?

And he pauses for a second when I say ice cream, and he laughs even harder, and I want to believe he knows I’m teasing, and so when he says

Dad Dad Dad what does 4thy9998rgbvvvvvvvvv17 ortyhggggavin spell? Without pausing I say the name of his most loved stuffed animal,

and this goes on for many minutes, many miles, and later, I am listening to something else and have forgotten the game, the trees, the houses.

The bikers blur by like sentences we have jettisoned, which is why
he is confused when I answer nothing to his question of what the string

of letters and numbers he has placed together might signify, for he believes that every possible combination of letters makes a word, and I begin to think how

lovely that would be if the nearly in nite number of alphabetical arrangements had a corresponding word, like ifvzmoohj for “seeing the moon in the afternoon”

and wtiuklp for “Judy’s face after lemonade” or bnvaremc for “the distance between Cork and Limerick by wagon,” a different word for a different

day of his life, a word for every time I lose him at a park or in the store, a word for the uneaten grape on his plate, for the green monster

in his dream, the word for what it feels like when you are four and do not know the word for what you have lost. And I ask him

how you spell the word for when you talk to your dad and he
does not answer, and he says I don’t know, and I say how do you spell

the word when you call to your dad and he does not come, and there
is something again on the radio, and he says Dad how do you spell bam?

And then, Dad how do you spell pechew pechew pechew pechew?

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‘Understanding, Misunderstanding, and then Sitting Down to Write’ by Andrew Tonkovich: ZYZZYVA, No. 111

Andrew TonkovichAndrew Tonkovich is the co-editor of the anthology “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide,” published by Heyday, and editor of the Santa Monica Review. To ring in the new year, we’re presenting in its entirety his essay “Understanding, Misunderstanding, and then Sitting Down to Write” from ZYZZYVA No. 111

The following is an edited version of the closing talk given at the Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley in July, 2017.

 “I live in terror of not being misunderstood.” —Oscar Wilde

I’m proud of at least the title of this talk, and the epigraph. If the rest of it falls at, I may revisit each, encouraging you to imagine that there was, early on, some weak hope or unlikely promise of revelation, insight, affirmation, encouragement. The title—which represents, alas, perhaps .002 percent of the actual lecture—offers elements that a title should, including action verbs, gerunds, some gentle wordplay, and direction, instruction, or expectation.

As further caveat or invitation, those who know me or can easily identify a living, breathing near-cartoon stereotype when they see one (the socialist-anarchist, peace-and-justice, pro-labor, anti-racist, anti-fascist, eco-feminist, vegetarian, hippie-punk, readerly-writerly, literary type) will be unsurprised that I take this opportunity to speak not only to writing but adopt a position, perhaps present a manifesto, rant or polemic (what we on the Left used to call an analysis) of how these might be understood just now. Although I expect buy-in on the title, I’ll understand if you argue with, reject, or ignore the balance of my spiel. All good, as the young folks say, notwithstanding the obviously difficult circumstances of life-art-politics, which are not all good, and why would we expect otherwise, in reality or in its fictional or nonfictional responses from or engagement by writers?

I have something urgent to share, however calmly delivered as a pep talk, congratulation, bon voyage into the everyday oblivion of writing, back home, alone, and away from the airy and elevated psycho-topography of generous workshop encouragement and stunning natural beauty. This tradition of mild provocation as send-off has been practiced by favorite writers with big ideas, Peter Mathiesssen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and each has undermined—as I will—formal expectations or, yes, tried to go those expectations one better. Indeed, that’s one of two options for the writer, and it’s pretty much my big and perhaps only observation and advice this morning. So, if you’d rather get up now for more coffee, care instead to stroll this indeed gorgeous, rugged alpine site for about seventeen more minutes, if you generally prefer trailers to the movie or, better yet, if you are off to organize a powerful grassroots direct-action campaign to take down a criminal political regime, here’s the takeaway:

As writers we can either produce a startling reiteration of a terrific story we’ve read before and somehow improve on it, or we can respond to, answer, undermine, and challenge other writers’ true and recognizable methods and strategies, and as a result produce strange, difficult, new ones. Both options are difficult, brave, require reading and hard work, sitting at the keyboard, but are worthwhile in their own ways, and might be considered in a helpful title, which I offer here, as promised.

Keep on reading!

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Violence and Consequences on the Fringes of Society: ‘In the Cage’ by Kevin Hardcastle

In the CageWith In the Cage (309 pages; Biblioasis), Kevin Hardcastle drops the rural noir genre into the ring of literary fiction. Hardcastle, winner of the Trillium Book Award and ReLit Award for Short Fiction, has created a novel where crime fiction and the literary tradition occupy the same space. In the Cage tells the story of conflicted characters with complex relationships navigating violence and its consequences against the morally gray backdrop of remote Saskatchewan.

Daniel is a caring but stoic husband and father whose mixed martial arts career ended twelve years earlier with a detached retina. He and his wife now live in near-poverty with their daughter. Unable to find steady work, Daniel moonlights as hired muscle for a local gangster. When a money collection gig turns more brutal than delivering one-two punches, Daniel grapples with the true cost of the path he’s chosen to provide for his family. Returning to the gym gives him distance and sanctuary from his problems, but his time spent training is overshadowed by the presence of a chilling, pale-eyed villain whose sadism intimidates even the most hardened criminals.

What’s perhaps most notable about In the Cage is its unflinching look at the destructiveness of violence. Hardcastle’s descriptions are clinical yet shocking. A shotgun blast erupts and “One part of the man flew skewered with rib-bone.” Punches flatten noses. A throat is slashed and “it seemed like all he had in him had exited the body through that cut.” Hardcastle’s descriptions are free of gusto and provide just enough detail for them to act like a chokehold on the reader.

The author is clearly knowledgeable in the area of mixed martial arts. During Daniel’s training and fight scenes, the various punches, kicks, and submission holds are elaborated on with enough sensory detail that even readers unfamiliar with blood sport will be able to feel them. These sequences serve double duty, providing just as much insight into the characters as into their fighting ability. Daniel’s interior and the expression of his will are narrated with deceivingly simple, Hemingway-esque prose. “Blood and sweat sprayed the canvas and their feet atop it,” for example, or when Daniel kicks a heavy bag in his basement, Hardcastle describes the sound like “a nail being hammered into the hollows of the place.”

The remote Canadian setting evokes the hardships of rural, working-class life. Daniel and his family live in a perpetually cold, blue-collar necropolis of rust and poverty. His worksite is, “Acre upon acre of frozen ground with muddied swaths in the white.” And in my favorite line of the novel, we read, “There he thumped the gas pedal and the tires threw broken chips of brittle tarmac as he went townward through cold and lightless country.” With passages such as these, one not only feels the mood of desolation but also a hushed metaphysical horror akin to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Apart from the carnage, In the Cage is also a touching, multi-generational reflection on family values. Some of the best scenes feature Daniel’s elderly neighbors, Murray and Ella. Their kindness and moral expectations serve as prescient warnings to Daniel in a place where poor choices are paid for dearly. Even so, readers are likely to sense Daniel won’t heed his neighbors’ warnings, and that the novel’s bloody denouement will not end with a knockout.

Genre fiction is often criticized for its recurring tropes and boilerplate plots, but Kevin Hardcastle’s novel proves otherwise. In the Cage is both fresh and haunting. It is a novel of grace and brutality, and the balance between them.

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‘The Corps of Discovery’ by Kristopher Jansma: ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

The Corps of DiscoveryKristopher Jansma is the author of the novel “Why We Came to the City,” published by Viking. His story “Chumship” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 105. Presented here is an excerpt from his story “The Corps of Discovery,” which you can read in its entirety in ZYZZYVA No. 111:  

We had a long way to go—this was the last comment my father made as we left Natalie’s house and eased westbound onto the interstate. He’d been over the route with me several times. St. Louis to Portland was just over two thousand miles. Six states, thirty hours. We’d stop in Nebraska that night, make it to Utah by the following day, and complete the trip late Sunday. All that time and distance stretching out on the other side of the y-spotted windshield was as real to me as the weight of my sister’s remaining things, stacked neatly in the truck behind us.

My father scratched at his beard as we drove out toward the edge of the city. I picked a blister forming at the base of my index finger. I was supposed to be back home in the Bronx, planning lessons. By early Monday morning, I’d be teaching eighth graders about Lewis and Clark, those explorers who, two hundred years ago, had set out not far from where we now drove. Following the Missouri River across a newly purchased Louisiana in search of a Northwest Passage to the Pacific.

“I-70 turns into I-29, then I-80,” my father said. “It’s almost a straight shot, really.”

Through the scratched window I looked out into the dark country for the green glint of mile markers. One every tenth, ticking down the distance. My father had taught me about these back when I’d first learned to drive, before GPS. Even now he would not turn on the location setting on his phone. Was there any reason for T-Mobile to know where he was every minute of the day? He was this type of father. Who’d delicately unfolded a broad white aaa map across the U-Haul’s hood before leaving Natalie’s. Even though we were traveling in “almost” a straight line. But we had to be ready for accidents—other people’s accidents. People were not to be trusted. Or, rather, they could only be trusted to be ill-prepared and unreliable.

Didn’t I remember the white Escalade, back on our trip to visit colleges? He’d bring this up soon. He did every time. How it had flipped as it tried to pass us at a hundred miles per hour. Like a great whale in the air ahead of us. If my father hadn’t been quick, it would have hit us.

And what about that old VW bus that had fishtailed right in front of the motor home we’d owned, back before Natalie had even been born? I’d been three, and could barely remember the RV, let alone the “hippie bus”—but I did remember it. Or I had grown up hearing the story so many times that it became the same thing.

I waited for my father to begin retelling these stories, but he was quiet.

Dry brown trees, cold and narrow, slipped by one after the other. I huddled inside the old army jacket that I’d found in Natalie’s closet. It had been mine before she’d stolen it. Now I guessed it was mine again. Heat spread slowly from the vents. Outside, in ashes of green, mile-tenths went by and went by and went by.

* * *

My father bought the Powerball tickets at an unusually festive rest stop in Kansas City. The whole place was decorated with chili pepper lights and sombreros. My father made no comment about this and neither did I. We hadn’t spoken in an hour and a half. We’d just driven along, rubbing sore hands and stretching sore backs. I had inherited the same extra vertebrae that had him at the chiropractor all the time when I was younger. He always used to tell me how sorry he was about that. He used to warn me that it would start to really give me hell when I got older. But not this time. Just listening to Natalie’s furniture shifting in the back of the truck. Smelling air freshener and listening to the radio.

“It’s actually just ‘Eagles’… not ‘The Eagles,’” my father would say when they came on the radio. Always like it was new information. Never with any awareness of having said it every time before, just as he routinely commented that the song most people called “Teenage Wasteland” was really titled “Baba O’Reilly,” as if he hadn’t told me at age twelve.

But not this time. It worried me. It worried me because I knew that we were both very capable of continuing this silence all the way to Oregon. The silence inside my father was the same one I heard inside myself. And I can only guess that it was the one Natalie heard, and that my grandfather heard. He’d passed away when I was seven, when my father was twenty- seven, the same age I was that winter.

Then he did speak, though not to me.

Order your copy of Issue No. 111.

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‘Secret Santa Protocols’ by Christine Sneed

Secret Santa


 Date:   December 1

To:      All Quest Industries Employees

From: Upper Level Management

Subj:   Secret Santa Protocols

It’s once again the time for one of our most beloved Quest Industries traditions: Secret Santa week, and this year’s exchanges will take place from Monday, December 11 through Friday, December 15.

A couple of minor adjustments have been made to the Secret Santa guidelines, as noted below.  We have also answered several questions that came to us from some of last year’s participants.

The longstanding $5 maximum per day/gift has been raised to $5.32, which we believe is a fair adjustment for inflation, although please note that none of us are trained economists and it is probable this isn’t a truly accurate inflationary adjustment.

One question that came up in the past year pertains to sale prices: If an item ordinarily costs $7.99 but is on sale for a limited time for $4.99, is it permissible to purchase said item at the sale price or is the Secret Santa breaking one of the game’s foundational rules?

Our answer: $5.32 is the maximum, and if your $5.32 is spent on a sale item in lieu of a regularly priced item, that is perfectly acceptable.  Needless to say, your Secret Santa pick will be the beneficiary of both your largesse and your sharp eye on the weekly sales flier(s) from the retail outlet(s) of your choice.

A question that wasn’t asked in recent months, but we can imagine it silently being asked right now: How will you know if we spend more than $5.32 on a Secret Santa gift?  Are you planning to police every Secret Santa exchange and scan the bar codes of our gifts the moment they are unwrapped?

No, of course not.  We are using the honor system, and we trust you will faithfully observe all of the Secret Santa guidelines.

Other questions we’ve received in the last year:

If our Secret Santa has very poor taste and we despise every gift we receive, would it be possible to request a different Secret Santa, mid-week? As in most, if not all, other areas in life, fortune smiles upon us on some days; on other days, alas, it frowns. We can’t permit changes to the Secret Santa pairings once all names are drawn on Wednesday, December 6 (and we have determined that no one has drawn one’s own name). You are free, however, to politely barter with a colleague if she, for example, looks with more favor than you do upon the 3-ring binder and bag of gas station peanuts you’ve received. But please keep in mind that your Secret Santa has feelings too, and he/she might overhear or eavesdrop on your trade negotiations. Thus, please be discreet when attempting to unload your substandard gifts on a less finicky colleague.

What if we contract the flu, for instance, or salmonella, and can’t deliver our Secret Santa gifts on schedule? We have decided to make it a requirement for every participant to designate a Secret Santa proxy at the outset of our upcoming clandestine gift-giving spree. One stipulation is that you cannot ask your own Secret Santa pick to act as a proxy gift-giver for him- or herself. Additionally, in order to make it easier for your proxy to carry out his/her duties if in fact you are stricken with a case of swine flu or salmonella during the week of December 11, please buy and wrap all gifts the weekend before the exchange begins and keep them in your desk, starting with the morning of the 11th. Your proxy will then easily be able to dispatch with his/her emergency duties if called upon to do so.

What if our Secret Santa gives us a gift we believe to have been stolen or purchased from a disreputable source? We debated even including this question in this memo, as it is likely to be a moot point. But just in case, here goes: we very much doubt anyone among us would be able to accurately identify illegal or contraband goods, barring exposure to a bag of fragrant, black-market cannabis, or a stolen, factory sealed bottle of Oxycontin, for example. If, however, in the unlikely event you are gifted with a dime bag or a bottle of purloined pharmaceuticals, please notify Ken Crickshaw, Jr., our new office manager, immediately. Similarly, in the unlikely event your Secret Santa gives you a wallet, one filled with money (and far exceeding the $5.32 per day maximum, needless to say) and/or credit cards with a stranger’s name on them, it is quite possible your Secret Santa has robbed this individual, and you should also notify Ken Crickshaw, Jr. immediately.

Are home-baked gifts allowed? No, alas, they are not. A few among us here at Quest Industries are gifted bakers and adventurous amateur pastry chefs, but in view of the potential for food poisoning and food allergies—those known and as-yet unknown to us—we can only allow for consumables that come prepackaged, with factory-provided ingredients lists. If you would like to make butter caramels, however, those we will make an exception for, especially if you draw the name of Miriam Quinlan or Harry Sanchez for your Secret Santa pick. (Neither Miriam nor Harry has any food allergies and they would be happy to receive your homemade butter caramels, the rectangular variety wrapped in waxed paper, in case there is any confusion about the kind under discussion).

What about non-edible homemade gifts? It is very exciting indeed that along with amateur pastry chefs and bakers, we number among us several high-level woodworkers and knit-crafters, and at least one of our colleagues has extensive experience with semi-precious rock tumbling. Naturally, some of us would very much welcome the opportunity to put our skilled hands to various raw materials in service of the Secret Santa festivities.

Therefore, non-edible homemade gifts will be allowed, though again, please keep in mind that the components used to create the gift should not total more than $5.32. We also think it would be a good idea for a potential homemade gift-giver to check with one of us first if you do decide to give homemade handicrafts to your Secret Santa pick. A desktop ant farm, for example, might be appropriate for a colleague who studied biology in college, or for someone who has confided in you a desire to acquire some of his daily protein from insects, but for most of us at Quest Industries, a handcrafted desktop ant farm, although no mean feat to produce, would probably not be a welcome gift. There is also the potential for infestation if any ants were to escape a farm built by less than expert hands. We must insist on no ant farms for anyone, though other ideas, especially those not involving live insects, you should feel free to approach us with.

Should we include receipts with the gifts we give to our Secret Santa picks in case they would like to exchange the items or return them for cash? Okay, you almost stumped us with that one. We spent more than an hour debating the pros and cons implicit in this question and finally had to resort to a blind vote on the matter. Our decision is no, no receipts should be included with your gifts. It is a privilege in and of itself to receive a Secret Santa cadeau. Let us all contemplate this notion for a moment and internalize the goodwill this team-building holiday tradition instills in everyone who participates each year. (Along with being a caramel aficionado, Miriam is a Francophile and lobbied for the inclusion of the French word for “gift” above. French-inspired gifts or cadeaux, if you will, from France, would be more than welcome if you happen to draw Miriam’s name as your Secret Santa pick—the “fleur de sel” caramel, for example).

What is the minimum one can spend on a Secret Santa gift? $4.05, which we are happy to inform everyone should cover the cost of a roll of wax paper and the ingredients for a batch of homemade butter caramels. Sample ingredients list: 1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar; 6 tbsp (90 g) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut up into 6 pieces; 1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream, pinch of salt).

Lastly, we have decided to donate $10 to charity for each person who takes part in this year’s Secret Santa exchange. The charity we have chosen is the Housing Fund for Francophone Vagrants, Chicago chapter. Next year’s charity is TBD. Please send us your suggestions and we will be happy to consider them.

(Christine Sneed is the author of four books, including the novels 
“Paris, He said,” and “Little Known Facts,” and the story collections “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry” and, most recently, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” published by Bloomberg.)

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Reflections in an Uncertain Era: ZYZZYVA Looks Back at Our Favorite Reads in 2017

We can think of a lot of words to describe 2017, but “trying” would certainly be one. If you’re anything like the team at ZYZZYVA, you’ve found yourself reaching for book covers new and familiar as both a source of comfort and intellectual edification during these tumultuous times. As 2017 winds to a close, we thought we would take a look back at some of the titles that proved most memorable for us. What was your favorite book you read this year (whether it was published in 2017 or not)? Feel free to share in the Comments section.

Thrill MeBjorn Svendsen, Intern: In Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press; 160 pages), veteran genre and literary writer Benjamin Percy talks writing craft. Percy, the author of such novels as The Wilding, the werewolf infection epic Red Moon, and recent techno horror thriller The Dark Net, shares his insights into the creation of short and long fiction. With fifteen essays on topics such as setting, character building, and emotional arcs, Percy analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of genre and literary fiction, and poses an important question: why can’t a work of art be both?

Percy’s academic background lends itself well to explaining how fiction works. Thrill Me is both entertaining and informative, and employs the very lessons it teaches. Percy shares funny anecdotes and the strange experiences which have formed his writing life alongside scene analysis from a diverse selection of writers. Films, too, are also referenced as Percy describes scene construction, pacing, and narrative conflict—what he refers to as “juggling flaming chainsaws”—as plot drivers.

Students and the curious will find plenty to work with and plenty to ponder. Thrill Me is
relatively short at 167 pages, but these essays are rich and lean, and would be of interest to any reader or aspiring author who wants to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Cake TimeZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: The book that has lingered in my subconscious the most heading into the back half of 2017 would have to be Siel Ju’s Cake Time (Red Hen Press; 246 pages), a collection of short stories that, sequenced together, form a mosaic of one professional woman’s life in contemporary Los Angeles – from spending her teenagers years under the watchful eye of her stern Korean immigrant mother to navigating the perils and pitfalls of the post-Internet dating scene.

Cake Time quietly declares Siel Ju as one of our preeminent scholars of thirty-something ennui, her nameless narrator drifting from cubicles to L.A. hotspots to lovers’ beds, not in search of love or a storybook ending, but something that can often prove far more elusive: a sense of fulfillment. Cake Time asks if it’s possible to rise the ranks of the corporate world and maintain a monogamous relationship without comprising some part of ourselves that once felt integral along the way – and the answer doesn’t look hopeful.

A savvy Netflix executive paying attention to bookstore shelves would greenlight a series based on Cake Time, targeting the same audience that has embraced Master of None; but Siel Ju’s book still feels a bit too bruising, a bit too real for scripted drama, blurring as it does the line between fiction and memoir. Even what could have been the most provocative story of the collection, in which the narrator’s date makes the questionable decision to take her to a swingers party, very quickly descends into an uncomfortable (and honest) examination of consent and personal responsibility when the narrator witnesses an encounter go too far.

That scene, like so many others, have stayed with me in the months since finishing Cake Time – whether it’s a high school girl seeing Batman Returns with her boyfriend after a pregnancy scare or the cringe-worthy birthday party that unfolds in the titular story. An elegant chronicle of SoCal despair, Cake Time will strike a familiar chord with anyone who’s ever nursed a sense of romantic disillusionment along with their vodka-tonic.

The Seventh Function of LanguageKailee Stiles, Intern: Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language (FSG; 368 pages), recently translated into English, is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve read this year. The story starts with the death of Roland Barthes, the famed French intellectual from the mid-twentieth century. Binet takes the real, albeit bizarre circumstances of Barthes’ death–from injuries sustained when a laundry van hit him on the streets of Paris–and assumes it was murder. The fallout of this assumption is a rollicking murder mystery that takes an everyman detective through the imagined netherworld of philosophy. Binet’s protagonist, a decidedly pragmatic detective named Jacques Bayard, is the only one in the French police force who thinks there’s something fishy about Barthes’ death. Like any good detective he follows the trail of Barthes’ known associates and enemies, diving deep into the world of cutthroat French academia to look for suspects. Bayard is, predictably, entirely out of place in this tightly-confined, esoteric milieu, and so enlists a low-level adjunct professor as his theoretical translator.

I could talk forever about Function’s wit, complexity, and cunning layers of plot–but really, the thing I love most about it is the fact that it’s just fun. Bayard muddles around looking for a murderer while sidekick Simon ponders Barthes’ work, but Binet has a love of the absurd that trumps any self-seriousness. Even long passages devoted to explaining the mysterious seventh function of language pose it as a Sherlockian problem, drawing readers in to the arcane instead of walling us out. The meaning of life is a very serious business, but thankfully Binet keeps the book light and its characters alive. A born teacher, Binet knows to be patient with his audience. If Detective Bayard or a college freshman can understand Foucault at a base level, so can we. Either way, Binet peppers the novel with enough red herrings and unexpected twists to bring us into a world of intellectual intrigue that’s much more than the sum of its parts.

The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: It’s when putting together a roundup like this that I admonish myself for not keeping a reading diary, or maintaining a tightly organized library, or for being able to remember anything from more than a month ago (though that I lay squarely on the crisis in which we all find ourselves).

So knowing there will be titles that I’m missing, here are the books—some published this year, some yesteryear—that made an impression as they made their way from the one of the many to-be-read stacks at home to one of the spare crannies in the already crammed bookshelves in the living room.

Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (Penguin Classics; 480 pages) was an unexpected delight. Joaquin, who died in 2004, is not widely known outside the Philippines, despite writing in English. This is a shame. His themes of colonialism, power, class, and religion, and his often-creepy but entertaining tales of violence and retribution remain perfectly suited to the times. Speaking of violence and retribution, Juan Rulfo’s The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings (Deep Vellum; 136 pages; translated by Douglas J. Weatherford) offers minor work from one of the masters of literature, but that all minor work be this good. The title story—a rags-to-riches-to-extinction one, set amid the world of cockfighting and itinerant musicians—and the other collected pieces (fragments, really) speak to the palpable presence of death and ruin, there lurking in the wings. Maybe it’s just the times, but reading this slim volume one is left wondering at what point does the inevitable arrive, at what point have we exceeded our quotient of mercy.

This year I was fortunate enough to be in public conversation with several authors, some of whose works made it on to best-of-the-year lists, but all of whose book I was grateful to have read. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Grand Central; 496 pages) is a multi-generational epic whose depiction of a Korean family dealing with institutional bigotry in Japan stays with you; the ways in which laws and policies can batter if not destroy the least among us figures also in Shanthi Sekaran’s powerful novel of family and immigration, Lucky Boy (Putnam; 480 pages); story collections by Edie Meidav and Akhil Sharma—Kingdom of the Young (Sarabande; 256 pages) and A Life of Adventure and Delight (Norton; 208 pages), respectively—displayed bracing, voracious experimentation in language (Meidav) and incisive, exquisite sentences, too (Sharma); and one’s understanding of the concerns and paths of poetry, and the concerns and paths of coding, will be immensely enriched by Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry (Ecco; 256 pages) and Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (MCD/FSG; 320 pages).

Rebels in ParadiseThough I’m a confirmed San Franciscan (at least until rent-control and eviction laws say differently), I have a deep abiding love for Los Angeles. Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s (288 pages), published by Henry Holt in 2011, is a reminder of how culturally vibrant and exciting the Southland has been, and, indeed, continues to be. One of the prominent figures from Rebels is the late legendary art curator Walter Hopps, and his memoir, The Dream Colony: A Life in Art (Bloomsbury; 336 pages), written with the New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran, only confirms that idea. (Interestingly, Hopps’s book also gives a glimpse of what a socially complex place L.A. is. Hopps’s grandfather moved from the U.S. to northern Mexico in the late 19th century, and by 1900 had a citrus plantation going in Tampico, where Walter’s father was raised and presumably born. “Having grown up in Mexico, my father had a great openness and empathy,” Hopps writes, referring to his father’s disgust at the internment of Japanese Americans. Indeed, though his father was a white American, it’s not hard to imagine him identifying with Mexicans to the extent of viscerally understanding the cruelty of racism.) Yet another figure from Rebels is the writer Eve Babitz (who at one point was Hopps’s lover), whose Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (New York Review Books Classics; 184 pages) was re-issued last year. All the hype you’ve heard about Babitz’s writing is true. Slow Days is full of life, brimming with wit and intelligence. And so as not to be stuck in the past, reading Dana Johnson’s story collection from 2016, In the Not Quite Dark (Counterpoint; 225 pages), gave one a better understanding of L.A. today. Johnson’s characters play out their lives against the gentrification of downtown and the desire to reclaim the elegance of the city’s past while never quite dealing with the truth of that past.

The Bloody ChamberAnd finally, I made my way to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (Penguin Classic; 176 pages), the edition commemorating the 75th anniversary of Carter’s birth, the one with an introduction by Kelly Link. Perhaps it was because the movie version of “The Company of Wolves” was so off-putting that I was so late getting to this, but books arrive to us when they need to, and I really needed something to read while waiting for a flight out of San Diego. It was, of course, very, very good. God bless well-stocked airport bookstores.

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‘What If My Mother’ by Victoria Chang: ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

What If My Mother
Victoria Chang is the author of four books of poems, the most recent being “Barbie Chang,” published by Copper Canyon Press in November. Two of her poems are featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111. Presented here in its entirety is the poem “What If My Mother”: 

What if my mother never protested
was never pro

anything never probed beyond
the small yard where

the bees lived with their constant
buzzing what if my

mother matched the bees in their
compliant striped

dresses minding their own business
afraid to wander too

far from the work that paid honey
afraid to wander too far

from the one queen they served
but maybe the bees

are not just working maybe the
bees make all that

noise because they are hiding things
because they don’t like

where they live are really livid not
timid not just little

serfs in striped furs maybe the bees
are not protégés to

one dictator but actually protesting
maybe the bees are

meeting each night in secret chambers
about the queen and

trying to make change to overthrow
her because she eats

all the royal jelly what if all I do is
have parties what if

I don’t do anything let others do
everything like my

mother who came to this country at
20 afraid to do

anything because she was finally free
what if we all do

nothing drink tea while filling our
notebooks like the

secretary bird with its long neck and
pen-like feathers fill the

sky with ideas ideations of ideas full of
ideology full of idiocy

that no one even reads one day the
moon will turn off

with a click like a light switch someone
pulls in a prison

we won’t be able to see the ideas anymore
our eyes won’t ever

adjust to the lack of light but in our ears
the bees will keep

screaming and we can only imagine
them disappearing

Order your copy of Issue No. 111.

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Writing History: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years in PowerTa-Nehisi Coates will be the first to tell you that his road to becoming a celebrated essayist, author, and staff writer at The Atlantic began with failure. Failure to keep a job. Failure to graduate college. Failure to write exactly what he felt needed to be said. So begins his recent essay collection, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (Random House, 367), which, contrary to Coates’ inauspicious start, cements his reputation as a gifted, iconoclastic writer and serves as required reading for anyone concerned about how, and when, black lives have (not) mattered in American history. The book is separated into eight parts, one for every year of Barack Obama’s presidency. Each section contains a present-day self-reflection and a look at the goings-on of that particular year, followed by an original essay by Coates previously published in The Atlantic.

The collection, in an attempt to quickly capitalize on Coates’s spotlight, could have been a lazy mix of vague recollection of events and re-presentation of previous work. Not so. These prior essays are so richly written they reward a second (and third, and fourth) read. His arguments–on mass incarceration, studying the Civil War, etc.– have not lost their initial force, and in fact have been invigorated by the current political maelstrom we find ourselves in. Additionally, the commentaries preceding each essay are remarkable essays in themselves. Coates uses them to re-evaluate the successes and failures of his work, to add cultural and personal context to each piece, and to reflect meaningfully on the directions he and his country have gone. There is no fluff or languorous storytelling here. The chance to publicly, rigorously question and explain one’s previous work is a gift few writers are ever granted, and Coates does not waste the opportunity.

The highlight of the collection is the essay that first brought Coates to national prominence: “The Case for Reparations,” a feature article published in The Atlantic in June 2014. While none of the other essays are weak links in any sense of the term, “Reparations” can and should always stand above the rest, for its taboo subject matter and sheer moral certainty if nothing else. The idea of the US government paying reparations to black citizens for slavery is “a wildly impractical solution” to some, as Coates admits he once believed, if not an absolutely laughable one to others. Coates is a patient writer, a rarity in the twenty-four hour news cycle of hot takes, and the persuasiveness of his arguments is burnished as a result. He never bows to lowered expectations when he finds the fire in his argument, nor sacrifices seeing the forest for finding each tree. The rise and flow of each essay isn’t truncated to serve the smaller anecdotes that form the emotional core of his book, but works with them to create a genuine portrait of black lives in America.

We Were Eight Years in Power also demonstrates how incredibly well researched his work is. Somehow, Coates tells readers, white and black, facts we didn’t know (for example, that black families making six figures often live in neighborhoods where white family incomes are near the poverty line) and re-frames facts we did know (such as the tenuous class mobility of black families) creating arguments that are both unsurprising and shocking. We have always known that racism affects homeownership, but many of us have overlooked the participation of the U.S. government and viciousness of white property owners in creating that reality. Coates will not let us look away any longer.

He writes philosophically and thinks historically, without obscuring our current moment in time. When he writes, “The need for purpose and community, for mission, is human…It is that search [for meaning] that bedeviled the eight years of power,” Coates sees what many do not—that though we have only our own eyes and ears to experience the world with, our personal developments are part of the history we come from. Coates life growing up black in Baltimore is his own. No one else can account for what he did and saw. However, those experiences are not divorced from what happened in New England colonies in the 17th century, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or in the streets of contemporary Compton. Coates weaves all these threads together as though they were never separated at all, never sacrificing each component’s singular character.

Reading and re-reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is a special experience. Writers frequently pride themselves on making the act of choosing each word seem effortless, invisible. Yet Coates chooses to keep the curtain up, all too frequently reminding his readers that he still feels like an imposter–a black Howard University dropout working at The Atlantic?–and that he has been making it up as he goes for a very long time. All work worth doing is done painstakingly, but Coates’ honesty about the difficulties of thinking and writing intellectually is startling. His forthrightness actually makes the book more difficult to criticize, since he admits his own mistakes so plainly it leaves very few for the rest of us to find. This collection is a worthwhile read for its breadth, academic rigor, and shattering prose, but it deserves special attention for its self-portrait of a black writer finding his way. Every American should read this because Coates so effectively challenges our mythologies and assumptions with real data and human stories. But every writer should read it because nowhere else will a writer ever be so brutally forthright about the (political) struggle of writing itself.

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