Latest Posts from the Blog

The Chemistry of Society Gone Awry: ‘Sweetness #9′ by Stephan Eirik Clark

eb4da83350f8e1c425ffadc1dda9769eStephan Eirik Clark paints a satirical picture of an American past that remains with us in Sweetness #9 (353 pages; Little, Brown), a vision into the passive life of flavorist-in-training, David Leveraux, whose family eats “stillborn” microwaveable meals and watches personal televisions, which echo to each other down the halls in a sort of Bradburian way. David also carries a secret that has expanded the nation’s waistband even as it has begun to unravel our society’s psychosomatic seams.

Full of life after marrying and getting a job at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark (Clark is not shy with the acronym), David soon conducts toxicology tests on Sweetness #9, an artificial sweetener. He feeds rats varying amounts of the eponymous and sugarless sweetener only to discover that it produces “the primitive desire to eat,” alongside depression, anxiety, and mutism. He is outraged to discover the corporation is hiding the results—they replace all of their obese test subjects with skinny ones—and is subsequently fired. After failing to get another job, Leveraux begins to work at a gas station, and eventually commits himself to a mental institution.

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A Hard Swim Toward Redemeption: ‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

BarracudaIn Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel, Barracuda (429 pages; Hogarth Press), we get an enormous book with enormous themes, and a surprising narrative form featuring a protagonist who can be shockingly unlikeable. A contemporary Bildungsroman set amid a vast landscape of social and political issues, Barracuda nonetheless centers around one man—a sports hero—whose personal respect and dignity are what truly are at stake.

Danny Kelly is a talented teenage swimmer from a working-class neighborhood outside of Melbourne. His life is uprooted once he enrolls in an elite private school (which he refers to as “Cunts College”) on a swimming scholarship. There he instantly becomes the victim of bullying from his peers, and a target of jealousy from his swim squad. To spite his classmates’ elitism, Danny protects his ego by outperforming them all in the pool, reminding himself constantly that he is “better, faster, stronger” than everyone. This mantra becomes deeply embedded within him, and we watch as he becomes much like a barracuda—a “psycho,” monstrous, unsympathetic, competitive, and violent.

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Strange Folk Tales, Recognizable Troubles: ‘Walker on Water’ by Kristiina Ehin

Walker on WaterKristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (88 pages; Unnamed Press), translated by Ilmar Lehtpere, marries magical realism with oral tradition to create modern folklore about the complexity of romantic relationships. Ehin is an award-winning Estonian poet, having authored six volumes of poetry as well as three story collections and a book retelling Estonian folk tales—all of which noticeably influence Walker on Water.

Primarily, these stories remain in the realm of the magical: In the title story, the protagonist practices walking atop the sea while her husband is at work. He is the director of the Climate Change Monitoring Department at the Academy of Sciences. He also, she discovers, has a hatch on the back of his head from which he removes his brain each night. The protagonist is jealous of her husband’s admirers at work, and decides only she is deserving of his brain. So, in a fit of jealousy, she decides to drown his brains. “I wanted an intelligent and educated man, but what I got was a brainless oaf.” This line stands in stark contrast with the fantastical image of the man casually removing his brains at night, as so many husbands metaphorically do, nestling into a couch with a beer, while their intelligent minds, their desirable qualities, are left back at work.

Ehin explores contemporary problems through surrealistic means. A woman bites off the arms of her many husbands—subsequently they sullenly forgive her; another collects her former husbands’ “apricots” which she keeps in the attic (that tale uses language that is constantly a “razor’s breadth” away from using “castration”). “Lena of the Drifting Isle” is an immortal skeleton that is paid not in currency, but in time, and who tells the protagonist a story of lost love. The story is then carried on by the protagonist’s talking bird, which is teaching her its complex and invented grammar. Sometimes Walker on Water suffers from oversimplification, such as in “Evening Rendezvous,” where the characters Happiness Formula and Life Story debate in order to come to a conclusion about each other. This same method is handled much more deftly in “Stone Chunk and Beautiful Question,” which explores the issue of projection, false judgment, and expectation in relationships.

Kristiina Ehin wrote her fourth work, Kaitseala (Huma, 2005), which won Estonia’s most prestigious poetry award, on an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland during her time as a warden at a nature reserve. The natural world shines through again, years later, in Walker on Water, as Ehin conjures frozen rivers upon which grand-aunts and father-in-laws skate—barely and indiscernibly—through what the reader perceives as a snowy atmosphere. In the title story, a freezing sea threatens to swallow the protagonist, who walks out upon it from a coastal farm. While strikingly boreal, Walker on Water is also punctuated by immortal beings who live in a seemingly tropical “coral country” featuring an ancient, dilapidated castle at its center; it is a strange and effective work to behold.

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ZYZZYVA in the 2014 Best American Series, Pushcart, and Best New Poets

The annual anthologies recognizing the best work among the hundreds of U.S. literary journals and magazines have once again been very kind toward ZYZZYVA.

As we joyously reported on our Facebook page back in June, two marvelous works of fiction we published in 2013—marking the print debuts of young writers Daniel Tovrov and Rebecca Rukeyser—received major nods. Tovrov’s story “The News Cycle” (issue No. 99) will be appearing in the Pushcart Prize 2015 anthology, and Rukeyser’s story “The Chinese Barracks” (No. 97) will be included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. Now we can add to that list Jacques J. Rancourt, whose poem “Open Shed” was published in issue No. 98; the poem will be appearing in Best New Poets 2014. We are deeply proud to have published their work.

And we are no less proud of the work from the slew of our contributors which made the none-too-shabby Notables lists from the various Best American series. Just as it is extremely difficult for a work to be featured in any of these anthologies, it is also no small feat for a work to be acknowledged as a “notable.” To share company with “notable” work from The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and the like is cause for delight. So we list those ZYZZYVA contributors here.

From The Best American Short Stories 2014 Notables:
“The Wedding Visitor” by Elizabeth Spencer (No. 98)
“Day of the Dead” by Don Waters (No. 99)

From The Best American Essays 2014 Notables:
“Lorca in the Afternoon” by Anne Raeff (No. 98)
“The Bombardier’s Handbook” by Moritz Thomsen (No. 99)

From The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014 Notables:
“I Want to Continue” by Kimberly Lambright (No. 98)
“Photisms” by Juan Pablo Villalobos (No. 99)

A hearty congratulations to all, but one last thing—a big thank you to all of our readers. Your subscriptions, donations, and other forms of support make what we do possible. So, our sincerest thanks.

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The Twisting Paths of Survival: ‘Wolf in White Van’ by John Darnielle

Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van (224 pages; Farrar, Straus & Giroux) marks a tremendous literary achievement by the artistically and lyrically inclined John Darnielle, guitarist and lead singer of the Mountain Goats. Darnielle is already praised for the writing in his songs, so his fans may not be surprised to see him succeed in his more literary pursuits. But the novel—given its complexity of craft, its deftness, and movement of prose—is not something to be taken for granted by anyone.

In Wolf in White Van, we follow the life of Sean Phillips, who lives an isolated life due to an injury that disfigured his face, and we witness his day-to-day experiences and thoughts that often morph into psychological digressions and memories. Over the course of this non-linear novel, we move backward in time as we progress deeper into the complexities of his ailments, his strained relationships, always moving into his younger self, until everything unfurls around the climax on the novel’s final page.

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Writing the Novel as He Simultaneously Narrates It: Ben Lerner’s 10:04

10:04Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04 (244 page; Faber and Faber), is at once nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, a rumination on the relation of the three, a work flickering in the liminal spaces among these forms. It asks of its readers that they allow the traditional structure of the novel—including the presence of plot—to momentarily leave center stage and that they make room for a form perhaps more engaging, one that sings “existential crisis!”

Lerner, who is first and foremost a poet, is a writer’s writer. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, came out to great acclaim in 2011. He is constantly experimenting with form and the limits of plausibility—and breaks these literary conventions by fictionalizing nonfiction—frequently employing apostrophe to blend fiction and nonfiction and to reveal the mechanisms at the writer’s disposal. It is as if we have been invited into a space much more intimate than the writer’s studio: In 10:04, we observe his relationships, his travel to shameful fertility appointments in which he must provide a “sample” for testing in order that his best friend Alex be able to move forward with intrauterine insemination. We are with the writer as he washes his hands again and again after worrying that his pants (which have touched the D-line train seats) and the remote used to navigate the clinic’s digital library of “visual stimuli” will contaminate his sample. We pass through his life in New York, his residency in Texas, back in time to meet his mentors, and even leap forward into multiple projected futures. So while the novel is largely defined by its lack of unity of plot, the scenes, however far removed they are from each other, stand alone, and are striking in their humor and wit.

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In the Fall Issue

Issue No. 101 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Vauhini Vara’s “We Were Here”: Betwixt the fancy turkey meatballs and Ava Gardner (no, not that one) dying down the hall, there exists in an apartment building all that could ever matter.

Matt Sumell’s “Gift Horse”: Break into mom’s house, make sure you see Grams at her nursing home, and please, please try to keep it together.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Mr. Chompers”: Honey, the single mother asks her hypothetical husband, why can’t it be enough that her young daughter’s smart? Why does she need her to be smarter?

Jim Krusoe’s “Traffic”: The author tries to fit the puzzling memories of his parents, his father’s drinking, and the accidental death of a child into some kind of truth.

And a portfolio from artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, whose featured paintings and photographs document scenes from performance art.

Also, fiction from Earle McCartney (a family farm gets unsettled by the constant presence of the teen son’s girlfriend), Ricardo Nuila (on a doctor’s spectacular crack-up), Elena Mauli Shapiro (the repo men come to take away a home), Peter Rock (incorporating the photography of artist Shaena Mallett) and Emily Fridlund.

Nonfiction from Jill Logan (“A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner”), and poetry by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Joseph Di Prisco, Jeff Ewing, John Freeman, Casey Fuller, Troy Jollimore, Genevieve Kaplan, Alyse Knorr, Katie Peterson, Charles Harper Webb, and the Frankenstein Sonnets of Simone Muench and Dean Rader.

You can get a copy of No. 101 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the 101st issue.

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Green Shirt: ZYZZYVA No. 100

David L. Ulin is the book critic at the Los Angeles Times, as well as the author of the books The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith and The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, the novella Labyrinth, and the editor of the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. He is also a ZYZZYVA contributing editor.

For the 100th issue, Ulin contributed “Green Shirt,” a riveting essay about (ostensibly) a deep-seated fear of flying and how the writer preps himself for boarding a plane. Erudite, roving, and surprising, “Green Shirt” touches upon Death Cab for Cutie and Elvis Costello, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth, Gretel Ehrlich and Twiggy. “What are the rituals,” he writes toward the end, “… that contain us, even (or especially) if we cannot be contained? This is why stories are important; yes, they may be contradictions, but contradictions are what we have.”

The following is an excerpt from “Green Shirt.” The piece can be read in its entirety in the 100th issue, which you can get here.

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Hacks: ZYZZYVA No. 100

Jim Gavin, the author of the critically acclaimed story collection Middle Men (which was long-listed for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize), first appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 63 (“Recommendation”). For the 100th issue, he contributed a hilarious piece of nonfiction, the stinging “Hacks.”

The story of Gavin’s stint as a young man in the world of community newspapers, “Hacks” recalls the grubby lifestyle that comes with being a grunt on the sports desk: attending endless high school meets, living off of Mountain Dew and Del Taco, working with colleagues who could stand a shower. But it is also an early glimpse into what the writing life can mean—a calling of shabby nobility, a difficult vocation in which one tries to “record and instill with grandeur the lives of people who will never be famous.”

The following is an excerpt from “Hacks.” You can read the piece in its entirety, of course, in the 100th issue, which can order here.

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Normal Problems: ZYZZYVA No. 100

Erika Recordon’s work first appeared in ZYZZYVA back in Issue No. 91 (Spring 2011), with the publication of two of her charmingly off-kilter yet genuinely serious stories, “Evolution” and “Our Brave Little Soldiers.” The elan that characterizes those short works is evident once again in her new (and much longer) story for our 100th issue, “Normal Problems.”

The tale—or perhaps even a fable?—of a woman trying to make her relationship work with a great guy who’s only fault is a long past as a serial killer (a literal “lady killer”), “Normal Problems” revels in dark humor. Incredibly, the story goes much deeper than this set up might lead one to believe is possible, freshly evoking the anxious rationalizations we make for wanting to stay with someone, for wanting to see what we so badly need to see.

 

The following is an excerpt from “Normal Problems,” which, of course, can be read in its entirety in Issue No. 100.

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The Pull of Another’s Obsession: ‘Preparing the Ghost’ by Matthew Gavin Frank

Preparing the GhostMatthew Gavin Frank retells the thrilling tale of the first photograph taken of a giant squid in Preparing the Ghost (Liveright; 282 pages). In his unique and captivating work, Frank incorporates memories from his own life with the unlikely story of Moses Harvey, the Newfoundland reverend who captured a giant squid on film in 1874.

Among the personal threads Frank weaves throughout the book is that of his Poppa Dave, his maternal grandfather who was born prematurely and small, so was force-fed by his mother, eventually becoming a chronically obese and diabetic adult. As a grandfather,  “perhaps the sequence of words Poppa Dave uttered most frequently,” Frank writes, was the most beloved of phrases grandchildren everywhere want to hear: There’s always room for ice cream. Of his great grandmother, Frank writes, “Though he was obese at age four, Dorothy continued this practice believing she was doing the right thing,” and although she established a lifestyle that would lead to Poppa Dave’s eventual death, her actions are presented as motivated by pure motherly kindness.

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We’re Going to Need More Than Bake Sales: Lewis Buzbee’s ‘Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom’

Blackboard Lewis Buzbee uses his experiences in education—as student and professor—as the backbone for his newest book, Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom (Graywolf Press), which formulates a critique of the current state of the California public school system.

The book is divided into two sections: “Orientation” and “Matriculation,” the first presenting us with the “simple” years—kindergarten to sixth grade—and the second focusing on seventh grade and beyond. Though each chapter is built upon Buzbee’s own experiences in each grade, the histories of the school system in the U.S.—such as the beginnings of kindergarten in 1837—as well as the histories of the schools the author attended are laced throughout, making Blackboard more than just a recounting of Buzbee’s school days and instead serving as a lesson on how school here came to be. For example, he breaks down methods of teaching, examining why students in kindergarten are free of desks and can sit crisscross in classes of open space and “play sections,” but by the next year they are tamed and situated neatly rows of desks in rooms with math and science areas instead of ones for playing house and rowboat.

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