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

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

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

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Reimagining Landscape: Q&A with Photographer Vanessa Marsh

Vanessa Marsh's "Mountain 4"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mythical American Hero on a Scavenging Quest: Q&A with Jenny Riffle

"Tom Sawyer's Gang" (2011) by Jenny Riffle

“Tom Sawyer’s Gang” (2011) by Jenny Riffle

When I first met Jenny Riffle, she had already been photographing her boyfriend, Riley, for several years. Their one-bedroom apartment was intricately arranged with Riley’s findings: a large poster advertising Raleigh cigarettes, which he found behind the drywall in an abandoned building; old calcified revolvers and rusty shotgun bullets he collected while metal-detecting off of forest pathways; and cloudy bottles of various sizes, softened by years of sifting Brooklyn beach sand. Doll heads with cheeks too rosy and features dulled by wear leered from corners, and old clippings of cars hung tacked to the wall above their gold couch. There in that one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill I had found a collection of treasures, meticulously cleaned and arranged by their finders into a collection of consumerism turned junk.

But I first came to know Riffle’s photography through her younger sister—my girlfriend, Emily. Riffle has been taking photographs of Emily once a year on her birthday, since Emily was 15. Similar to Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” a series of photographs taken each year of Nixon’s wife and her sisters, “Emily” works as a compilation and a meditation on time. By continuing to reexamine a subject, Riffle accrues images that simulate the progression of time while simultaneously freeing the subject from the metonymy of portraiture that claims to define a person with the blink of a shutter. Besides chronicling the process of aging, “Emily” dwells on the multiplicity that makes up a single person. As Riffle, who teaches photography at the Photo Center Northwest, writes in her description of the project, “Seeing the progression of birthday photos shows how my sister has changed over the years, but in the end for me she will always encompass all the images at once.” This is what makes Riffle’s portraits like stories. They may not have classic beginnings, middles, or endings, but they have an element of wholeness that classic portraiture lacks.

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

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

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Astonishing and Everlasting Work: ‘Reformations: Dürer and the New Age of Print’ at USF

Detail from a Albrecht Dürer woodcut from St. Jerome's "Correspondence" (1497)

Detail from a Albrecht Dürer woodcut from St. Jerome’s “Correspondence” (1497)

During the Renaissance, it may have been the Italians who mastered the painted canvas, but it was the Northern Europeans who mastered the print. Perhaps the best artist to come out of that period, Albrecht Dürer (1472-1528) sought to prove he could do with woodblocks and copper plates what any Italian painter boasted with his paintbrush. Perspective, proportion, and balance, Dürer achieved it all.

In Reformations: Dürer and the New Age of Print, an exhibit running at the Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco till February 22, prints by the legendary print-maker are showcased along with some of the first books to be made using moveable type and printing presses. Collectively, the pieces consider the impact of this Renaissance technology as it transformed social, cultural, and artistic movements. While slow, these transitions are striking; one enters the dimly-lit space to examine cases of manuscripts—hand-written works of art that alone warrant a visit to this free show—and continues along to see some of the earliest surviving printed books, mainly religious texts beautifully bound and hand-colored. These texts, though old, reveal not only the developing technology of bookmaking but also the technology of reading. Bookmakers used visual tricks to draw the reader’s eye to important parts of the text. Red marks often highlight the beginning of each sentence, making the mass of letters on the page more digestible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

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

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

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

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

Yue Li's "Untitled" (2014), digital painting

Yue Li’s “Untitled” (2014), digital painting

A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free.

And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the performance of both with its new venture: an online gallery that lets people collect digital art and display it on any desktop or mobile screen.

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Rocket Man: ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

The Book of New Strange ThingsMichel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (Hogarth; 496 pages) explores first and foremost the separation of a husband and wife by light years of space. It is also a meditation on religion in an age of science, on devotion, and, to put it plainly, on life-work balance. Coming after his acclaimed novels The Crimson Petal and the White and Under the Skin, Faber’s new novel has been praised by the likes of Phillip Pullman, David Benioff, and David Mitchell. It is hailed as “genre-defying,” and though it plays into certain sci-fi tropes, it examines the human reaction to communion with interstellar beings in a complex and specific manner, a manner often reserved for more literary works. It shies away from the technical acuity of hard science fiction, existing in the space between a speculative and literary work.

Peter, a former drug-addict-turned-preacher, takes on a job for USIC as a missionary to aliens on the newly discovered world Oasis. “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does…You ask USIC what they specialize in and they tell you things like…Logistics. Human Resources. Large-scale project development.” Peter never even decodes the acronym.

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The Complex Truths of a Disturbing Relationship: ‘Excavation’ by Wendy Ortiz

EscavationIn her memoir, Excavation (Future Tense Books; 244 pages), Wendy Ortiz looks to her journal entries and memories to piece together a narrative of her adolescent traumas. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Ortiz was seduced by her 8th-grade English teacher who instigated a relationship that would last five years. Now a registered sex offender, “Jeff Ivers” (as he is called in the memoir) is described in both flattering and disturbing terms, Ortiz’s attraction to him having as much to do with his charisma as with the danger his love promises. Now married, and with a child of her own, Ortiz digs into her past so as to fight her demons, revealing with utter honesty and unrestrained prose the vicious details of her ordeal. But rather than point fingers or give a moralizing depiction of a taboo story, she instead shows us the intimate spaces and the blurred lines of the relationship—as seen by a girl who doesn’t fully believe herself to be the victim of an older man’s predation.

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