Tag Archives: California

Obsessions: ‘Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts’

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We begin with “Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts,” a piece from Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Rajabzadeh’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Northwest and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she is currently working on a series of essays about immigrating to the United States and growing up Muslim, post-9/11. She’s closed her Instagram account again. I’ve checked three times …Continue reading

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Grassfire

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

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

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

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

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 …Continue reading

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The Disquiet of a Marriage Amid the Apocalypse: ‘California’ by Edan Lepucki

It can be argued that the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel was invented in California. Although there had been such end-of-days precursors as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man or E.M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops” (and even the novel The Scarlet Plague by Oakland’s own Jack London), it was Earth Abides, published in 1949 by University of California English professor George R. Stewart, that established many of the tropes associated with doomsday novels, ranging from Stephen King’s The Stand to The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Stewart’s novel follows geography grad student Isherwood “Ish” Williams after he recovers from a snakebite-induced coma in the …Continue reading

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Buffeted in His Father’s Wake: Kelly Daniels’ ‘Cloudbreak, California’

“The pure products of America go crazy,’’ William Carlos Williams memorably wrote, and from Aurora to the weird kid lounging at the register of the local 7-Eleven, we see the proof of his perception all around us. In ‘70s Southern California, Kelly Daniels grew up amid such strangeness as the son of a drug-dealing, surfer-bum dad (who was ultimately convicted of killing a drug-dealing cousin) and a well-intentioned and loving mom, who signed up with a cult called the Church of the Living. Although he found temporary refuge with his wealthy grandparents, Daniels grew up, understandably, confused and angry. With …Continue reading

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Rural Doesn’t Equal Empty: Lisa M. Hamilton’s ‘I See Beauty in This Life’

I See Beauty In This Life, photographer Lisa M. Hamilton’s exhibition of her own work as well as images she pulled from the California Historical Society’s vast archives, attempts something seemingly impossible: in Hamilton’s words, to “cover a history dating from 2012 all the way back to a time when California was essentially nothing but rural” in about 150 pictures. This presents a gargantuan curatorial challenge. How do you address California’s geographical vastness, the scope of its industries, and the numerous complexities of its rural labor history? “Rural” is different than “empty,” and the exhibition’s images nearly all emphasize the …Continue reading

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The Messiness of Love, Family, and Identity: Q&A with Lysley Tenorio

The people of Lysley Tenorio’s story collection, Monstress (Ecco), are straddlers. Most obviously, they straddle cultures. Filipino immigrants in America pine for their native land or wish, often hopelessly, to assimilate indistinguishably into the culture of their adopted home. Life in the Philippines seems just as conflicted; the West’s exported culture muscles out the endeavors of Filipinos, with the Beatles and Hollywood dominating the collective imagination there just as much as they do here. But Tenorio’s characters also seem to straddle the high and low. He imbues them with profound (but never cheaply sentimental) longings, and with refinement of feeling …Continue reading

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Connecting With the Unknown, Unexpected in Nature: Q&A with David Rains Wallace

David Rains Wallace was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1945 and grew up in New England. He attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. (B.A. 1967) and Mills College in Oakland (M.A. 1974). His first published writing on natural history and conservation appeared in Clear Creek Magazine in 1970. Since then he has published seventeen books, and his work has appeared in many anthologies and periodicals, including The Norton Anthology of Nature Writing, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, Mother Jones, Greenpeace, Sierra, Wilderness, Country Journal, and Backpacker. Wallace received the 1984 John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing …Continue reading

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An Emphatic Vision That Sees Beyond the Stars: Louis B. Jones’ ‘Radiance’

“This was a city of the world, a profound city, an endless city,” reflects Mark Perdue, the narrator and protagonist of Louis B. Jones’ latest novel, Radiance (Counterpoint; 240 pages), as he contemplates the unfamiliar surroundings of Los Angeles. The departure from Jones’ home turf of Terra Linda and Berkeley — ground zero for his previous novel, Particles and Luck, also featuring Perdue, and his alarmingly excellent first novel, Ordinary Money — is salutary, and disturbing, for the author and his invented worlds. In the new book, Perdue, a physics prof at UC Berkeley with a fading career that may be …Continue reading

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The Strangeness of Loss Imbues ‘Widow’

A collection of 17 short pieces, Widow (Bellevue Literary Press; 160 pages) is, as the title suggests and the opening story firmly establishes, concerned with a particular loss — that of the beloved partner. Though several of the book’s stories were written after the death of California author Michelle Latiolais’s husband, and the impact of that loss is felt on every page, Widow is not a memoir, yet neither is it entirely fictional. Drawing on a variety of genres (meditations, stories, and poetic vignettes) and points of view, Widow offers a kaleidoscopic view of the world from deep within the …Continue reading

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