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Christopher Connor

Reckoning With Seeing What We Want to See: Walter Kirn’s ‘Blood Will Out’

Blood Will OutIn 1998, author Walter Kirn (Thumbsucker, Up in the Air) agreed to drive a crippled Gordon setter from Montana to New York and deliver the dog to Clark Rockefeller. Kirn’s new memoir, Blood Will Out (Liveright, 272 pages) details his fifteen-year friendship with a man he long thought to be a Rockefeller, but turned out to be a wanted murderer.

After the delivery of the dog, Kirn and Rockefeller maintain a long-distance friendship, with Kirn making one additional visit to the East Coast in 2002. But when Clark kidnaps his own daughter in 2008, Kirn, along with the rest of the world, finds out that the man portraying himself as a Rockefeller was actually Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant wanted for the 1985 murder of John Sohus in San Marino, California. Wanting to know how he, along with everyone else, was duped by a simple con man, Kirn sits through Gerhartsreiter’s 2013 trial. “The trial was my chance to right all of this. To call off a deal I shouldn’t have agreed to.”

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Finding the Answer, in Nature or Elsewhere, Isn’t Easy: Farnoosh Fathi’s ‘Great Guns’

Great GunsGreat Guns (Canarium Books, 73 pages), the first poetry collection from California native Farnoosh Fathi, is a bold example of the sonic power of verse, and its simultaneous capacity for creating images with philosophical questions at their core.

Nature is the basis for many of the poems in Fathi’s collection. She amplifies the natural world, populating her poems with snails, butterflies, and birds, animals so small that they have different color registries, different views of the world. By changing the perspective with which the world is viewed, she’s instructing the reader to examine how large and beautiful the world is, beyond what we are used to seeing.

She also juxtaposes the natural world with our lack of understanding of theoretical ideas. In “Worm Rally,” the banal act of watching a worm crawl is pondered by two gardeners with different opinions. “What pleasure in looking,/even at the worm, especially at the living worm one said/ – as long as we know the worm’s whys.” Yet we don’t know the why of the worm, so Fathi asks whether it might be better to opt for contemplating the worm itself, “This pleasure said / another gardener, is analogous to the pleasure / derived from looking at a picture of the worm, that is if we / can aim to understand why that was the best / way to capture the worm: lacquered or unflattered by proof.” The questions asked in her poems demonstrate a keen awareness that in nature, as well as in society, finding the right answer isn’t easy.

“Worm Rally” is representative of the humor—the playfulness with the words themselves—underlying the collection. But Fathi also produces stinging images, ones layered with introspection, encouraging the reader to stop and wonder. (In “Sympathy,” she writes, “If there’s been a mistake it may be / in assuming less vulnerability / as one fills the vase.”) The harshest of the collection’s lines are often the moments when the speakers are brooding about their futures, such as in  “Honey/Manila Portfolio” when she writes, “This is not a book. Otherwise, by now / We would love each other.”

The strongest element of Fathi’s collection, though, is the highly technical construction of her poems that complements the beauty of her language. Whether a sonnet or a prose poem, each line is carefully chosen to reflect the lyricism of verse, with each line resonating with the one preceding it. In “Sparrow,” she writes, “Because you will so easily disappear / I think of you as infinitely near”; and in “Banana”: “If there is a nose, it is soft-shaped / In the business of still young foes.” Fathi’s voice is so strong that Great Guns deserves to be read aloud, lest we risk missing her strength for lyricism amid her talent for biting humor and nuanced insight.

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The Pain Hidden Behind Tenants’s Walls: Amy Grace Loyd’s ‘The Affairs of Others’

The Affairs of Others“American life asks us to engage in an act of triumphant recovery at all times or get out of the way,” notes Celia Cassill, the protagonist and narrator of Amy Grace Loyd’s first novel, The Affairs of Others (Picador, 272 pages). Celia has been all too happy “to get out of the way.” Since becoming a young widow, she has been hiding herself, her past, and her fears in plain sight as the landlady of a Brooklyn brownstone.

When an upstairs tenant is confronted with heartbreak, he pleads with Celia to allow him a sub-letter while he escapes to France. Celia reluctantly consents, and Hope, a woman slightly older than Celia, whisks into the building. “She was the sort who created intimacies when there were none,” remarks Celia upon first meeting her. Immediately, Hope is disrupting Celia’s perfectly controlled life. As the moans of Hope and her lover drift from her ceiling, Celia is set on a path that slowly strips away the emotional façade that’s protected her for years. With that unraveling comes a chaotic chain of events that cause one tenant to go missing, a husband to leave, and a psychotic man to threaten Celia.

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Restless in the Wilds of Eastern Idaho: David Kranes’s ‘The Legend’s Daughter’

From rainbow trout jumping in the Salmon River to watering holes on the edge of McCall Lake, each of the ten stories in author and playwright David Kranes’s The Legend’s Daughter (Torrey House Press, 172 pages) transports the reader to the wilderness of Eastern Idaho. While Kranes renders a common setting in each story, the collection is not simply a detailed portrait of Idaho, but an examination of the lives of restless people seeking to escape from their lives and find peace.

The Legend's DaughterIn “The Man Who Might Have Been My Father,” a fifth-grader and his mother strike out on a road trip from New York to Sunbeam Springs, Idaho, in a broken down car. Their trip is impulsive—the mother has been receiving letters from a man in Idaho she’s never met. Told from the point of view of the child, the story reveals that the mother’s quest is based on her dissatisfaction with her life. The poorly planned trip leads them through rural America, toward a state they’ve never visited on the small chance it might hold the happiness the mother desires. Throughout the journey, mother and child bond, surviving a series of mishaps, until they pull over outside of Sunbeam Springs. Whether or not the mother finds satisfaction in the mysterious man loses relevancy as the duo dive into the hot springs near the Salmon River in the middle of night. “‘You know if it’s just this,’ she said. ‘If it’s only this it’s okay’,” the mother says while they float in the warm water. Whether or not they stay once in Idaho is unimportant, for the moments of peace they discover floating in the water offer a release from the mother’s ubiquitous anxiety, allowing her to make new choices about their future.

“Between Projects” juxtaposes a woman’s unruffled life along the Payette River with the overbearing influences of the outside world. Karen, a ceramic artist, lives peacefully in her two-room cabin. But the arrivals of a famous actor, who is renting the cabin next door, as well as Karen’s criminal father throw her peaceful existence into the disarray from which she’s spent her entire life escaping. When the actor and the father bond, Karen has no choice but to flee the duo, driving to the edge of Stanley Lake and submerging herself in the water. Despite the tranquility offered in the wilderness of Eastern Idaho, she can’t evade the restlessness of other people. For Karen, the Payette River is a sanctuary, but as with many of the other characters in The Legend’s Daughter, her peace exists for only as long as the outside world doesn’t come dragging her back to reality.

Whether it’s the unraveling of a family or the materializing of marital problems, an uneasy desire for something new fuels Kranes’s characters. At the beginning of “Idaho,” Kranes writes of the protagonist, “For him, truly powerful love involves separation—the love-object across a continent. Better yet: a sea. Love next door seems prosaic.”  Throughout the collection, Kranes offers a richly rendered Eastern Idaho as a place just distant enough perhaps to find temporary solace.

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Mythical and Spiritual, Direct and Concrete: The Storytelling Prowess of Sjón

The Blue FoxThree novels from acclaimed Icelandic author Sjón are now available in the United States. Translated by Victoria Cribb, each book offers a vastly different story, beginning with simple and intense prose, which unfolds into a dense examination of a character’s thoughts.

In The Blue Fox (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages), first published in 2004, Sjón offers two separate narratives. The first describes the initial hunt for a blue fox through the heavy snow of an Icelandic winter in 1883. Halting right before the hunter attempts to kill the fox, the story shifts to the days just preceding the hunt. Fridrik B. Fridjónsson, a farmer and herbalist, is the caretaker of Abba, a simple woman with a mysterious past. Hálfdán Altlason, an eejit who works for the local Reverend Baldur, is sent to Fridjónsson to pick up a coffin. Altlason is betrothed to Abba, and upon his arrival he discovers the coffin contains Abba’s body. Following Abba’s funeral, Reverend Baldur braves the weather and sets off on the hunt for the blue fox. The narrative that follows alternates between Baldur’s attempts to survive catastrophe and the unraveling of Abba’s history.

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Easy Rawlins Searches the Sunset Strip: Walter Mosley’s ‘Little Green’

Little GreenLittle Green (Doubleday, 304 Pages), the new crime thriller from Walter Mosley, is the eleventh installment in the Easy Rawlins series, which kicked off with 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Easy is now older and edgier, navigating the reader through a layered mystery set against a racially tense Los Angeles in 1967.

The story opens with Easy recovering from a near-fatal car accident. Enlivened with a voodoo concoction called Gator’s Blood, the private eye gets right back to work, helping his stalwart friend Mouse find Evander “Little Green” Noon, a young man who went missing after dropping acid on Sunset Strip. Finding Evander is complicated by an incident during his trip that somehow ended in bloody burlap sacks filled with money and several gangs in the city looking for him. Easy is tasked with finding and protecting Evander, hiding the money, and unraveling the story of what exactly happened.

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The Question of Existence: Gary Amdahl’s ‘The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts’

The Intimidator Still Lives in Our HeartsThe Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts (Artistically Declined Press, 295 pages), the new book from author Gary Amdahl (Visigoths, I Am Death), is a collection of stories that features a startling range of settings and characters (a writer, a bookstore employee, a philosopher, and a gambler, to name a handful). But each story is connected through the philosophical questions Amdahl’s dense, sweeping prose addresses, a trait of serious-mindedness not found in many modern story collections.

Of the book’s nine stories, several feature a first-person narrator, including “Breezeway.” In that piece, the narrator reflects on the breezeway between the garage and the house of his grandparent’s house, the basement of which he lived in as a child. He would frequently sit in the breezeway and think in silence. Looking back through old pictures, he also remembers when his younger brother died, and the effect it had on his family. In one scene, the narrator examines an old picture of himself and a dog, and mentions the foreboding look in his eyes in the photo, indicating something unpleasant would happen to the dog. “That such things happen all the time to everybody fails to alter the character of my grief—that is to say, of inexplicable loss. You can in fact see it in everybody’s eyes: that’s what life is.”

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Self-Doubt, Rage, Compassion in Measured, Perfected Poems: Jason Bayani’s ‘Amulet’

AmuletAmulet (Write Bloody Books, 89 pages), the first poetry collection from East Bay Area native Jason Bayani, is a blistering examination of American life, as seen through the lens of a poet struggling to define himself. The poems are lyrical yet direct, with a clear voice that evokes humor while scuffling with questions of racism and artistic identity.

Bayani, who’s Filipino American, doesn’t shy from the blunt racism he’s experienced. In “Playgrounds and Other Things,” he writes: “And the old lady leaning into the wood / at the corner of Sutter and Stockton: / I heard her tell it like broken glass, / ‘Go back to your own country.’” Yet within the same poem, the author is willing to accept that racism is a complex issue, and one for which, despite his unfortunate experiences, he doesn’t have the answer: “What is more difficult / is the velocity of how I love you. There, dawg, / is all the complex racism any of us can handle.” The juxtaposition of love within a poem about hate exemplifies how Bayani is able to move past the injustices he’s seen in his own life and write delicately about the process.

Addressing racism is not the defining theme of Bayani’s collections. He also voices his anxiety about being raised a millennial in America. “Surviving America is learning / the limit of want,” he states in “Strange Velocity.” The poems capture a young man struggling to identify the goals of adulthood. In “After Manny Pacquiao,” he writes “We were born to outrun / ‘nothing.’ So we’d never have to say it like / they did. ‘We come from nothing.’ But nothing / never did nothing but keep coming for us.” Some of the poems in Bayani’s collection speak to an unavoidable problem for an entire generation of Americans—the empty feeling that accompanies being young today, For those who share in his feelings, though, solutions are not offered, simply the chance to commiserate with another lost soul.

Despite the multiple struggles it addresses, much of Amulet focuses on Bayani wrestling with his identity as poet. “A lot of people say that writing is their therapy. / Me, I go to therapy,” he writes in “Depression.” Bayani deftly uses humor to leaven such sticky topics as racism, drug addiction, and a looming empty existence—and witnessing him as he wonders why he chooses to write proves cathartic, especially when the answer encapsulates the sweetest of our emotions. “Maybe all this living comes down to the encryption—,” he writes in “Sonnet for Lauren.” “(T)oday I’m working with simpler mathematics: / ‘Jason + Lauren.’ I wrote that shit on a tree.”

Even as his poems touch on various social and artistic tribulations, they are united by Bayani’s voice. A veteran of international slam poetry competitions, the verses come at the reader as if he’s performing each piece in front of them, his speech resonating through each line of the book. The words permeate with self-doubt, rage, and compassion, yet the poems themselves feel measured and perfected. There’s also his referencing of the East Bay, where he was raised and whose culture he clearly loves. In “History of the Ardenwood B-Boys,” he writes: “I’m from Fremont, California. That shit was no South Bronx.” He namedrops his elementary and high schools, and writes a sonnet to rapper E-40. It feels as if his hometown has his back while he, a poet, boldly navigates social problems and an uncertain future.

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The Hairline Fractures of Relationships: Gregory Spatz’s ‘Half as Happy’

Half As HappyHalf as Happy (Engine Books, 186 pages), the new story collection from novelist Gregory Spatz (Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, No One But Us), examines faltering relationships and the unhappy people struggling to hold them together. The collection’s eight stories are remarkably honest, driven by moments both funny and painful that uncover deep rifts in the lives of Spatz’s characters.

In “No Kind of Music,” Patrick is drawn to the symphony after his wife leaves him for a younger, one-legged man. Most of the excitement remaining in Patrick’s life is centered on his eclectic neighbors, an elderly couple raising their rebellious daughter’s child. Patrick involves himself with them to mask his loneliness, but when the couple’s daughter comes to town and causes trouble for Patrick, he has to escape to the outdoor symphony, where he runs into his ex-wife and her new lover. “Why wasn’t he part of anything, anywhere, ever?” Patrick wonders to himself as he struggles to hear the concert. Alone amid a sea of spectators, he realizes that without his wife his existence has become empty.

“A Bear for Trying” is about twin brothers who do everything together until one of them falls into a coma. When the other begins to invade the intimate areas of his comatose brother’s life, their relationship is jeopardized. “Happy for You” tells the story of an elderly mother giving out Easter recipes to her son over the phone till  she realizes no one will be joining her for the holidays; her son will be spending them with his estranged father. The mother finds herself constantly at odds with “that feeling in the middle of the night when you wake up and can’t think of a single good excuse for your existence.” In both of these stories, the protagonists struggle to define their lives within the context of their closest relationships. Once those relationships change—whether suddenly because of an accident, or slowly because of time—the boundaries of their self become blurry.

The collection’s title story displays the hairline fractures of a seemingly happy marriage. Each day at lunch, Stan sits by his pool, eating and drinking beer, enjoying the view of his naked wife swimming laps in the sunshine. But since the beginning of summer, Heidi has become obsessed with her self-image, losing so much weight her husband no longer recognizes her body. While Heidi is driven by an insecurity rooted in the small, distant problems in her marriage, Stan tries his best to find the right way to tell her she’s gone overboard. “Too much of a good thing, honey, is still a good thing, but it’s too much,” he tells her in one of his subtle attempts to save her from herself. Soon, his overtures become less subtle, and a twenty-year marriage that appeared stable just months before is on the verge of implosion.

This constant search for happiness and meaning winds through Half as Happy, and often ends without a perfect resolution. The first story, “A Landlord’s Dream,” is about a couple who rent a new home as they look to run away from the painful memories held in their last residence. But Carolyne and Seamus’s real problem is a lack of intimacy. “If her instincts had taught her one thing by then,” Carolyne thinks, “it was that they were seldom to be trusted, and never where men were concerned.” Carolyne and her husband are always trying to find easy solutions to their issues—new house, new toys—that only touch the outskirts of the actual problem. They, like most of the characters in Half as Happy, don’t have a problem understanding they are unhappy; their difficultly lies in determining the next step to take. Spatz guides us into the most intimate parts of his characters’ lives, and often concludes their stories with an uneasy lack of resolution. The indication being that the future of these relationships may be as doomed as you would think.

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A Cult Built Out of Anguish and Desolation: Fiona Maazel’s ‘Woke Up Lonely’

Woke Up LonelyWoke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press, 336 pages), the new novel from author Fiona Maazel (Last Last Chance), is an imaginative thriller about a cult leader and the ex-wife in charge of spying on him. By balancing humorous adventures with an indictment of our modern world, in which solitude reigns despite all the new methods of communication, Maazel delivers a wild read teeming with emotion.

Thurlow Dan is the founder of the Helix, a cult based on the principle that lonely people need someone with whom they can share their feelings. At the start of the novel, the Helix has grown to almost 160,000 lonely members. But once they are banded together, the group’s ideology starts to grow. Discontent over the 2000 elections and the war in Iraq have sparked rumors of an uprising among Helix members. Empowered by a cash influx from the North Korean government, revolution seems imminent.

Thurlow, however, is simply a lonely man caught in the middle of the mayhem. He started the Helix to deal with his emotions after the frequent arrivals and departures of Esme, his only love. Thurlow has been trying to track down Esme since she bolted with the couple’s newborn daughter nine years ago. In the book’s opening pages, Thurlow spots them from a bus, but unable to persuade Esme to come back to him, he retreats to the Helix compound in Cincinnati.

Esme, it turns out, is a spy for the Department of Defense. Tasked with bringing down Thurlow and the Helix, she’s prepared to double-cross the government to keep him safe. Though she can’t communicate her feelings to her ex-husband, she realizes that “They had been happy once. Since then it had been x days, months, years, and she still missed him with a degree of agony that would have sent most people running back to him a long time ago.” Esme decides to send four bumbling surveillance lackeys to the Cincinnati house with hopes that they fail.

Maazel dips into the point of view of each of these “secret agents,” demonstrating how, in an age when technology can connect everyone to anyone, people are most often lonely inside their own homes. For example, Bruce, an aspiring documentarian and gambling addict, feels his pregnant wife slipping away from him. And Anne-Janet watches her mother die in a hospital as she tries to suppress memories of childhood molestation. While Thurlow and Esme drive the madcap narrative, the supporting cast of misfit agents manifest realistically Maazel’s theme. The splintering of a loving relationship is what started the Helix, but as we see the relationships of the four agents also fall apart, it becomes apparent that the affliction that fueled Thurlow from the beginning is widespread.

As it romps through the households of Washington, D.C., the passages of an underground city beneath Cincinnati, and the streets of Pyongyang, Woke Up Lonely shows how one man started a movement he couldn’t control. In the aftermath of a government attempt on Thurlow’s life, one congressman reflects, “Thurlow Dan was probably a nut, but couldn’t a nut still be spokesman for that anguished and desolate feeling you had every morning just for waking up alive?” That desolate feeling grips Maazel’s characters and elevates her novel from a crazy spy adventure to a literary work that reflects upon the inherent loneliness of an age in which loneliness isn’t supposed to exist.

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Amid a Failing City, a Marriage in Jeopardy: Patrick McGrath’s ‘Constance’

ConstancePatrick McGrath’s new novel, Constance (Bloomsbury, 229 pages), is a chilling tale of family destruction set against the backdrop of a crumbling New York City. Set in the 1960s, Constance follows the marriage of two people as long-hidden secrets threaten to break up them apart.

Sidney Klein, a single father and poetry professor, meets Constance Schuyler at a book party and is immediately swept up by the much younger woman’s “air of angry untouchablility.” During their courtship, he learns she was solely raised (along with her younger sister, Iris) by her father on the banks of the Hudson River. After Sidney and Constance marry, Iris moves to New York where she falls for a suave piano player named Eddie Castrol. Life appears to be moving along for Sidney and Constance, while Iris’s unpredictable life orbits on the outskirts of their marriage.

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Finding the Right Note for Admired Works of Poetry: Q&A with Michael Zapruder

Pink ThunderMichael Zapruder’s recent album/poetry anthology Pink Thunder (Black Ocean, 64 pages, 22 audio tracks) combines the poetry of twenty-three poets—including Gillian Conoley, Dorothea Lasky, Mary Ruefle, and D.A. Powell—with Zapruder’s music to create songs that do not alter the original form of the poems. We talked with Zapruder via email about the process of putting poems to music, and collecting them for an album.

ZYZZYVA: Pink Thunder is an ambitious experiment mixing poetry with music. Can you explain how you came up with the idea for this record?

Michael Zapruder: I wanted to make songs from poems—without changing the poems—to see if there’s as much unexplored, great potential for songs as I think there is. Potential for songs to be very different from what we generally have come to expect them to be, and for those very different kinds of songs to not only be good but to still really feel like songs.

Also, I LOVE these poets, these poems, and the fundamental effort in which these works are engaged. These poems are trying to discover and express truths that really feel like truths to me. These poems say things like: “Then something strange happened. / His giant bald head rose into the window frame followed / by his one green eye, one blue eye, then his red / veined nose and finally his beard fuzzed mouth / which sang out in a clear human voice / I have been afraid of ever since.” That’s from the poem “Florida” by Travis Nichols. Or like: “and cold enough to trouble / the ghost in you still riding your bike / under pink hi fidelity thunder” from “Twenty Poems for Noelle” by my brother Matthew Zapruder.

I’ve always tried to make songs that feel like those words. I wondered what would happen if I just used the words themselves.

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