- May 17, 2013
ZYZZYVA Spring Release at Diesel
Location: 7 p.m., Diesel Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Description: Come celebrate the release of Issue No. 97 with readings from contributors Molly Giles, Marianna Cherry, Alexandra Teague, & Aaron Jae-Ho Shin. Editors Laura Cogan & Oscar Villalon host. Free. For more info, visit http://bit.ly/15REYYI
- May 22, 2013
Luis Negron in Conversation with Oscar Villalon
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Negron, an acclaimed Puerto Rican journalist, editor, and writer, will discuss his debut story collection, "Mundo Cruel" (Seven Stories), with ZYZZYVA's managing editor. Free. For more info, visit http://bit.ly/1449E5v
- June 13, 2013
National Book Critics Circle Mixer at ZYZZYVA
Location: 6 p.m., ZYZZYVA, 466 Geary St., Suite 401, San Francisco
Description: Celebrate the summer with an informal mixer hosted by the NBCC and ZYZZYVA editors Laura Cogan and Oscar Villalon. Free to NBCC members and those interested in learning more about the organization.
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In the first of the linked essays in Aleksandar Hemon’s new book, he begins by remembering how his sister’s birth changed his childhood; how life would always thereafter be divided between before and after her arrival, how nothing would ever be the way it used to be. And then he reminds us, “But nothing has ever been—nor will it ever be—the way it used to be.”
It’s a fitting admonition for the fraught work of memoir writing. Memory, of course, betrays us incessantly, and the creative impulse of the fiction writer is somewhat at odds with the rigors of telling the non-fiction tale of one’s own biography. In The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 214 pages) Hemon collects fifteen essays about his life, all but one of which has been previously published. In gathering them, a nuanced picture of Hemon’s life emerges, yet it is not the singular, master narrative imposed by the standard memoir format.
The hybrid conception of The Book of My Lives places it neatly at the nexus of a recent surge of creativity and interest in the essay, and a protracted period of interest in the personal memoir. The force of Hemon’s writing is undeniable, and several of these pieces are exceptional; yet the collection is at times ungainly, with instances of repetition that give it a restless quality, a sense, if read straight through, of pacing in concentric circles around the book’s core subjects. This is not entirely for the bad: it’s interesting to see Hemon working and re-working his material, approaching the material of his experience from varying angles (much as he’s done in his fiction), and seeking narrative arcs in that material. This may be an unintended consequence of grouping pieces which were written separately and as stand-alone essays, but the effect is also an honest message about how we tell ourselves the stories of ourselves, revising and reflecting as we go along.
Ron Currie Jr.’s new novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Viking, 352 pages), begins with an epigraph from the movie Rocky: “women weaken legs.” Currie’s aim is to entertain, but hidden beneath his comedy about a man who cannot have the woman he loves is a heart-wrenching tale of a narrator who loses control of his life in unimaginable ways.
The narrator, a writer who happens to be named Ron Currie, Jr., has been obsessed with a woman named Emma since eighth grade. She broke his heart as a teenager, but following her divorce the pair begins a new relationship. When a fire destroys Emma’s house, and the manuscript to Ron’s overdue book with it, she decides she needs some time alone. Ron escapes to an unnamed Caribbean island to give her space. On the island, he reflects upon his relationship with Emma and the death of his father, attempting to write a book about it all while drinking himself into a stupor and fighting with the local men. Emma eventually joins him on the island, but Ron’s actions cause her to leave him for good once more, so Ron tries to kill himself. Following the attempt, which fails but leaves him declared dead, the narrator falls deeper into exile, not knowing that monumental events are occurring in the world he used to inhabit.
The relationship with Emma is the main catalyst behind all of the narrator’s decisions. Yet it becomes apparent early in the novel that the relationship is doomed to fail. Ron points out how “no one could every really have her” and says, “with Emma, her trademark is the distance she creates.” Doomed or not, Ron will continue pursuing her as long as he lives. “We all tried,” he explains about the men who have loved Emma, “and tried again, steering ship after ship into the rocks, and if you asked us to explain why, we’d be unable to give you an answer, except maybe this one: because we knew, deep down, that we would fail.”
The story’s most curious aspect is its brief asides into Ray Kurzweil’s theories of the Singularity and artificial intelligence. Speaking factually rather than from fear, Ron tells us that computers will eventually have a mind of their own, and humans have basically always been machines. Ron’s thoughts on Singularity build as the novel progresses, and though the theory seems oddly placed next to his examinations of his relationships with Emma and his father, the author cleverly uses it to build to a heartbreaking passage that pulls together all of the pieces of his narrative. Loaded with both laughter and pain as its narrator ruminates on failed love and death—both real and presumed—Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is the story of a person coming to terms with both his mortality and the inevitable decline of a relationship.
The newest ZYZZYVA features a special section of work by authors who divide their time between the West Coast and elsewhere, as well as …
Stories about love and grieving (Marianna Cherry’s “The Endurance”), about love and its opportunities: grand (Chris Leslie-Hynan’s “Hunter’s Moon”) and grim (Herbert Gold’s “The Passion of a Fussy Man” and Michelle Latiolais’s “Gas”), irrevocable (Dani Shapiro’s “Cardioplegia”) and fixed to place (Molly Giles’s “Life Span”). Fiction on the writing life—whether pursued in a classroom (Lori Ostlund’s “Clear as Cake”) or very much alone (Debbie Graber’s “Northanger Abbey”)—and fiction about teachers, young and veteran, learning the truth about themselves (Hilda Johnston’s “In Her Dream the Teacher Apologizes” and Peter Mountford’s “Safari in the Bayou”).
A profile of a beloved uncle and a community of deaf Mexican migrants making their home in the United States (Diego Enrique Osorno’s “A Cowboy Crosses the Border in Silence”), and the pensées of the great poet W.S. Di Piero (“Out of Notebooks”).
Verse from Joseph Di Prisco, Alexandra Teague, Christopher Buckley, Lynne Knight, Amy Miller, Christian Kiefer, Adam O. Davis, Allan Peterson, Michelle Lin, Matthew Nienow, Richard Tillinghast, and Floyd Skloot.
And we introduce young writers Rebecca Rukeyser (“The Chinese Barracks”) and Aaron Jae-Ho Shin (“Erroneous”).
Get your four-issue subscription to ZYZZYVA now and start with the Spring issue.
Unreliable narrators have populated literary works for hundreds of years. Piero Rosini, the narrator of Francesco Pacifico’s novel The Story of My Purity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 292 pages; translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley) is not unreliable in a naïve or precocious way like Huck Finn, but utterly loathsome in the vein of Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert. Rosini is a devout Catholic working as an editor in a right-wing publishing house in Rome. His current project is a book that would expose Pope John Paul II as having been born Jewish and planted in the Catholic Church by Frankists. An anti-Semitic xenophobe, Rosini has also ended sexual relations with his wife and given up music and novels to dedicate himself completely to his faith. Yet at the age of twenty-eight, faith hasn’t exactly led him to paradise. “I’ve read all of Tolstoy, visited New York and Tokyo, slept in castles on the Loire, and now I live across from an IKEA,” Rosini informs us early in the book.
Rosini is not completely devoid of desire. He harbors secret feelings for his sister-in-law Ada (or more specifically, for one part of Ada’s anatomy). And by chance, he befriends an aspiring novelist named Corrado, who leads Rosini from a sheltered life among the devout into Corrado’s group of boisterous co-workers, including the sultry intern Lavinia. In a single encounter, Lavinia awakens Rosini’s sexual desires. When word arrives that she has disappeared to Paris, Rosini makes up reasons to move to that city as well. He tells us he needs a fresh start in life, that it would be best for him to avoid the future media firestorm of his new book, The Jewish Pope, even referring to Paris as “the Virgin Mary of cities.” Nobody is fooled. He moves to Paris to find Lavinia. If Rosini thinks Paris can help dispel the mounting temptation found in Rome, he apparently hasn’t done his research on the city. Soon he is in love with a Jewish woman and finds a best friend in her uncle, both of whose values challenge the pillars of Rosini’s faith. His beliefs begin to fracture, and his mind follows suit.
Pacifico elicits a fair amount of laughs from his caricature of a narrator and his ridiculous, offensive theories, but Rosini isn’t totally laughable. He strikes us as a man who is not happy in his life, who is crippled by his blind faith to the Church and whose dedication to purity is clearly riddled by sexual frustration. As his bottled-up sexual desires become harder to control, we watch as his befuddled mind turns possibly liberating sexual encounters in Paris into disasters.
The Story of My Purity, a raucous examination of the conspiracy theorists and strict theologians that exist among Italy’s ultraconservative Catholics to this day, is not the story of redemption for a repugnant narrator whose every word is dispelled by his own actions—nor does it ever try to be. Rather, it’s the story of a man led astray by his own beliefs.
I heard somewhere that it’s easier to dream lucidly as a couple. If, before going to sleep, you turn to your lover and say, “Darling, tonight let’s dream of boats,” and then you both go to sleep, the odds are much greater that you will both dream of boats.
The Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs (a new translation by Rob Melrose, directed by Annie Elias) is the story of a superannuated couple who create a new reality together as they fight off the tedium and irrelevance of old age. They live in a crumbling apartment building on an island, somewhere—according to The Old Man, Paris was destroyed years ago, if it ever existed at all. Their only contact with the outside world is the music (Edith Piaf or a clone) that crackles through the ancient radio (sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker). But since the two are alone onstage for most of the play, even the music might be a shared delusion.
At first, the atmosphere almost makes one sleepy—we slip into what feels like a long-settled routine. David Sinaiko as The Old Man sits onstage gazing out the window as the audience files in. You have the feeling he’s been sitting there for years. Michael Locher’s set is comfortably shabby, with its water-stained pink wallpaper and faded furniture. The Chairs begins slowly—in their first exchange, The Old Woman (Tamar Cohn) begs The Old Man to come away from the window and take a seat in a chair. Reluctantly, he agrees, and the couple edge carefully over to the two chairs in the center of the stage and sit down in the same one, with Sinaiko (kittenish and Keatonesque) on Cohn’s lap. Their clothes (costume design by Sarah Roland) add to the production’s dreaminess. Sinaiko wears absurd thigh-high rubber waders, which contribute to the sluggish physicality of his role, while Cohn flounces about in a fur coat and faded, flowered housedress.
Grant Ginder’s recent novel, Driver’s Education (Simon and Schuster; 256 pages), is a lighthearted story about fathers, sons, and the spirit of adventure. But most of all, it’s a story about story itself. Ginder, author of the novel This Is How It Starts, conjures an exciting cross-country journey, and an even more exciting journey across the lives and memories of a family.
Alastair McPhee is near the end of his life and lives with his son, Colin, in San Francisco. He asks his New Yorker grandson, Finn, for a final favor: Find Lucy, an old car that Alastair drove on his countless travels, and bring her back to him in San Francisco. Finn, an editor for a reality TV show, agrees, and he finds himself in the old ’56 Chevy Bel Air with his friend Randal and a three-legged cat named Mrs. Dalloway, and a map to help him retrace his grandfather’s old travels. Ginder takes his time sending Finn off on his quest—we read through one or two unnecessarily over-described scenes of New York—but once the trip begins it’s engaging, as Finn lives out the experiences from his grandfather’s past, revitalizing Alastair’s memories while also creating his own.
As Finn’s story progresses in the present, Colin takes us into the past. Contemplating his father’s condition, he recalls how he went from his quiet, small town life to becoming a West Coast screenwriter, and how his father had a hand in the transformation, for better and for worse. In the spinning and intertwining stories of these three men’s lives, Ginder examines how stories lived and stories told can influence the stories yet to come.
Through this family of storytellers, Driver’s Education celebrates the power of narrative to make better what is good and make good what is not. Alastair tells elaborate and exaggerated tales; Colin writes his movies; and Finn dresses up the lives of others for his reality TV show. “We do all these things until we turn reality into what everyone wants it to be, until we turn it into something sculpted and spectacular,” Finn says.
Stories told always add to a story experienced. But as Finn makes his way from coast to coast, and the tales of the McPhee family unfold, Ginder forces us to question where the line between a story and a lie is. While Alastair’s tales put a spark into the lives of all the McPhee men, his lies have come at a cost, too. To what extent should a story be rewritten? And what is the cost of telling a beautiful tale?
For the most part an entertaining story of an adventure-packed road trip, Driver’s Education works on a deeper level, too, speaking to the values, aesthetics, and risks involved in telling a good story. Like any road trip, Ginder’s novel has its dull stretches, but it also provides us wonderful travel companions, beautiful sights, unexpected twists, and some good laughs and happy memories.
Eric Pankey’s new poetry collection, Trace (Milkweed, 68 pages), is an intense journey of powerful language to the edge of the wilderness. Even as his poems invoke a sense of earthly calm, the threat of danger looms throughout these poems, grabbing our attention and holding it throughout.
Much of Trace is set in the natural world, offering a somber examination of the ways in which humans occupy the space. Nature here is constant, balancing the frenetic sphere of humans, a realm in which homes are burning down and people are leaving, crying, or simply trying to find themselves. Often, Pankey will use death to show how these worlds intersect. In “The Place of Skulls,” he writes, “After the body’s hauled down, the tree resumes / Its life as a tree.” The enduring mystery of the natural world is also examined, perhaps most evident in lines such as these from “As of Yet,” where Pankey writes, “Call it paradise, this enclosure of trees / No graves yet.”
The spirituality of Trace is not simply beholden to how it addresses nature. The voice of the poems addresses human spirituality often, though it doesn’t seem to be grappling with the issue of what exists and what does not. Rather, the poems offer beautiful insight into how human consciousness exists in concert with nature. In “Edge of Things,” we read, “I wait for the resurrection, but wake to morning; / Mist lifting off the river.” On a similar note, “Cold Mountain Meditations” informs us that “No god offered us fire. A burning branch / Fell from a tree and we dragged it home.” These poems are not a rejection nor outright acceptance of any religious credence, but an examination of how the essence of humans is easily reflected amid the beauty of nature.
The references to religion are thought-provoking, but Pankey’s diction and word choice are arresting, too, often causing the reader to pause and reflect. In “Ritual,” he directly tells us, “Repetition is an aid to memory.” Repetition is also a tool frequently used in the collection to invoke reflection, and helps deliver some of Trace’s more skillful lines. In “The Creation of Adam,” the poem ends with “The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew / If he chose, he could shrug, and shoo the crow. / If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.” Unlike humans, unlike Adam, the scarecrow has no free will.
Trace deftly surrounds the reader in the natural world, offering us a chance to ruminate our existence inside of it. In the collection’s final poem, “Sober Then Drunk Again,” we read “Once I drank with a vengeance / Now I drink in surrender.” While reading Trace, we surrender ourselves to Pankey’s vision, and conclude the book deep in thought.
Larry Beckett, the one-time songwriter (he famously collaborated with the late Tim Buckley) has long been immersed in an ongoing poetic project called “American Cycle,’’ which takes an ambitious look at the folkloric past—from Paul Bunyan and P.T. Barnum, to Chief Joseph and Amelia Earhart and other figures from the “old weird America.’’
His latest book, simply titled Beat Poetry (Beatdom Books, 150 pages), tries to put into meaningful perspective the oft heralded if frequently over-hyped revolution in American poetry that took birth from the vernacular modesty of that good obstetrician William Carlos Williams and incorporated the spare eloquence of forebears like Li Po.
Journalism is under the microscope in Fallaci, the new play from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Directed by Oskar Eustis, the fictional play is based on the life of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was famous for her interviews of provocative world leaders such as Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Wright’s play examines the two sides of the journalist through the eyes of an idolizing young writer.
The first act introduces a reclusive Fallaci (played by Concetta Tomei with an enthralling gravitas) at home in her New York apartment. Twenty-five-year-old reporter Maryam (Marjan Neshat) finagles her way into Fallaci’s home to conduct an interview for a less-than-wholesome reason. The year is 2000, and Fallaci has been absent from the public eye for more than ten years. After initial hesitation, Fallaci opens up to Maryam, who is Muslim, reveling in her accounts of her interviews with Khomeini, Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. She reveals how her family’s experience of nearly dying at the hands of the Nazis is the underlying reason behind her brazen questioning of the Middle East’s fascist leaders.Wright’s tight play allows Fallaci to recount her favorite anecdotes mostly in good humor, while Maryam provides historical context to Fallaci’s interviews and establishes the importance of that work.
Nature plays an integral part in Joelle Fraser’s new book, The Forest House: A Year’s Journey into the Landscape of Love, Loss and Starting Over (Counterpoint Press, 224 pages), which chronicles her life right after her marriage ends.
Wanting to disrupt the life of her young son, Dylan, as little as possible, Fraser resolves to stay near the small mountain town where Dylan’s father lives. The only place she can find that’s close enough to town, but far away from the gossip (it was Fraser’s decision to leave her husband) and sympathy there, is a one-bedroom home tucked into the forests of the Sierra Nevada. With a dirt road leading up to the forest house and miles separating her from the nearest neighbors, Fraser learns quickly how to become self-sufficient. Her first months in the house take place in the dead of winter, which brings terrible snowstorms, power outages and an increased sense of isolation as she mourns her losses.
Alone, except for when her son visits, Fraser struggles to come to terms with losing half of Dylan’s life because of joint custody and with living hidden away in the wilderness. As Fraser tries to navigate these internal and external landscapes, she probes into her family history, finding similarities to her situation in the story of her great-grandmother, who had to leave behind her six children in Sweden when she immigrated to America with her husband, whom she would wind up divorcing. Time passes, and Fraser settles into her new home, the wild that surrounds it, and her new identity.
The strength of The Forest House comes from Fraser’s ability to seamlessly weave the nature surrounding her into her story. Each chapter begins with an epigraph, dealing with weather, trees, animals, or a type of plant, preparing the reader for the type of encounter that she will be exploring in that section. Each wilderness backdrop, from the harsh snows and winds of winter to the charred remains of an old forest fire, is expertly laid out, drawing the reader into the physical space of the Sierras.
Fraser (whose first essay in print, “Karyn’s Murder,” appeared in ZYZZYVA’s Fall 1998 issue) makes a compelling case for those in need of a new beginning to retreat into the wild. In taking refuge in nature—availing herself of the privacy and the quiet the forest house provided her—Fraser deals with her losses and rebuilds her life.
The obsession with celebrity is arguably more intense today than it has ever been before. In the millennial years, the somewhat nebulous concept of fame has been democratized, intensified, and extended to those outside of the film and television industries of Hollywood. Yet despite the elevation of everyday people to the status of public figures, the hierarchical nature of celebrity continues to privilege movie stars above all else, using their fame and talent as the benchmark against which all others are judged.
Exploring celebrity through this lens, Christine Sneed’s novel, Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury, 304 pages), tells the story of a family at the center of Hollywood’s fame bubble. Embittered by divorce and dealing with the ennui of a life filled with privilege, Sneed’s characters are by turns selfish, greedy, obstinate, and guilt-ridden, a combination of traits that leaves them feeling confused and unsatisfied.
The family’s patriarch, Renn Ivins, is a famous movie star who has traded his stable family life for a successful career, one punctuated as much by accolades as by moments of intense frustration. His adult children, Will and Anna, are a study in opposites—the former is self-obsessed and perpetually unemployed, the latter self-possessed and intensely hard-working. The complexities of their relationships are highlighted by their interactions, and underscored by a narrative that focuses on what is left unsaid between them.
Well-crafted and character-focused, Little Known Facts consists of layered individual stories working together to drive the plot forward. Offering the viewpoints of both minor and major characters, the story’s shifting perspectives are expertly intertwined and never heavy-handed. These narrative shifts also serve to situate the novel within a long tradition of character-driven stories, and are especially reminiscent of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, another cautionary tale of celebrity and excess.
The solipsism of the central characters—Renn, Anna, and Will— is mirrored by that of the minor characters (such as Renn’s two ex-wives) with a surprising result—the surfacing of a pervasive self-indulgence that causes tensions in their relationships among each other. As Jim, one of the minor characters, reflects during his attempt to define celebrity and his place within the Hollywood landscape:
“They are victims of their own appetites, but I suppose that is true of everyone. They will stuff themselves with junk food before dinner or sleep with their friends’ wives or drive their cars over cliffs because they own ones they don’t know how to drive or else they are desperately lonely. Their nightmares are other people’s daydreams.”
Dark, poignant, and at times disquieting, Sneed’s novel does not offer much in the way of hope. Instead, it reflects on our cultural fixation with celebrity and everything that glitters, shattering illusions and façades in the process. As Sneed writes, there is “so much poetry in sadness, a very different and possibly more potent variety than the kind of poetry you find in happiness.” Despite its bleak moments (or rather because of them), Little Known Facts tells a story that moves beyond the salacious lives of its characters, illustrating the difficulties and obsessions that are as common within Hollywood as outside of it.
Christopher Buckley is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and editor. Throughout his long career, he has been a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry and the recipient of four Pushcart Prizes, two NEA grants in poetry, and a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing. His nineteenth book of poetry—Varieties of Religious Experience (Stephen F. Austin State University Press)—will be published next month.
Varieties is a sincere exploration of meaning, in life and in all things. These poems ask questions about an individual’s place in the universe and about the existence of the universe itself. Written in language humble and wise, Varieties reflects on experiences both personal and universal. In his captivating voice, Buckley invites us to consider ideas of the mundane and the divine, ontology and epistemology, and what on earth we are here for.
Buckley, whose work is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA’s Spring 2013 issue, corresponded with us via email and answered some questions about his new collection of poems.
ZYZZYVA: The title of this collection raises the question, what does “religion” mean to you?
Christopher Buckley: The title of my book is borrowed/stolen from the famous and seminal book by William James, of course. I found it fit a longer poem I was writing about my mother’s death, the range of experiences surrounding it. I hit a spot where a number of classic titles suggested poems to me for the book: A Sentimental Education; Natural Selection, Interpretation of Dreams, etc.
I then saw that the William James title would accommodate several ironies at work in the new collection, hence the title of the book.