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Ingrid Vega

Our Cultural DNA: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

The Library BookIn 1986, a fire at the Los Angeles Central Library raged so fiercely, firefighters noted the strong potential for a flashover –– when a fire spreads rapidly across a gap due to extreme heat. “Flashover” is similar to the effect one experiences reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (336 pages; Simon & Schuster). It’s difficult to pull away from the story when her incisive research skills and masterful writing work in symbiosis: The Library Book is not just a sweeping narrative recounting the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, but also an in-depth look at the personal, civic, and global impact a library can have.

Although Harry Peak has long been suspected as the arsonist behind the fire, the precise cause of the blaze remains a mystery to this day. Peak was originally from Santa Fe Springs, but moved to Los Angeles –– as most aspiring actors do –– after a stint in the Army at age eighteen. He never made it to the silver screen, but he did appear on the local news in 1987 when he was arrested on suspicion of arson. He was described by many as a compulsive liar, which is partially why Peak was never indicted. No one could ascertain if Peak was even at the library when the fire started because he continually fabricated and then contradicted one alibi after the other.

In addition to her investigation into Harry Peak, Orlean examines history to add context to why someone would want to burn down a library in the first place: “libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas one finds problematic,” she notes. She harkens back to the Spanish Inquisition, wherein Spaniards created a community gathering around the act of burning books they deemed heretic, such as the Torah. With some trepidation, Orlean even burned a book herself in order to truly immerse herself in her research.

Orlean describes the personal significance of the library institution: for her, the library is a reminder of the trips she took with her mother, to whom she credits for instilling her love of literature. She saw that same parent-child bond mirrored in the present when she brought her son to the library because he –– to Orlean’s surprise –– wanted to interview a librarian for a school assignment. She calls books our cultural DNA, “a code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know.” A library is one of the safest and most open places in a community, and to burn it down would be tantamount to terrorism. For the Senegalese people, Orlean notes, saying “his or her library has burned” is a polite way to address someone’s passing; she shares a cerebral yet heartwarming contemplation of the term:

Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it —with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited— it takes a life of its own.

Reading The Library Book is not unlike combing through the stacks of your local branch: it exposes many truths, and offers answers as well as questions. While the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library may be long forgotten –– even when it occurred, it was soon eclipsed in the headlines by the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl the same week –– Orlean’s genuine ardor for this peculiar and overlooked story is adroitly conveyed by her prose—the fuel igniting this literary page-turner.

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A Maddening System: Q&A with ‘The Golden State’ author Lydia Kiesling

The Golden StateEssayist and critic Lydia Kiesling’s first novel, The Golden State (304 pages; MCD), already long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, is an enrapturing torrent of a narrative, exploring the daunting beginning of motherhood and the complications of marrying a foreign national. New mother Daphne must balance caring of her sixteen-month-old daughter, Honey, with handling the stress of getting her Turkish husband, Engin, back into the U.S., all while dealing with her job at the Al-Ihsan Foundation in San Francisco. These circumstances send her on a ten-day epic roadtrip, beginning with a drive to Daphne’s late mother’s hometown, Altavista: “The beauty here is the great slate sky The sound of the birds in the morning the color of the hills and the fields at dusk.”

Daphne’s acerbic and slightly self-loathing wit is lined with absurd humor and Kiesling’s clever syntax: her lack of punctuation allows us to further inhabit the heart of Daphne’s disquiet.

The Golden State is a trenchantly-written take on both the female and immigrant experience, making the somber read as captivating. Kiesling recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about the origins of the novel, her protagonist Daphne, immigration in America, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You started your career writing essays and criticism, and are now the editor of The Millions. Have you always wanted to write a novel?

Lydia Kiesling: I’ve been writing essays and criticism for a long time; all along I secretly wanted to write a novel. That’s not something I wanted to admit to myself until a

couple of years ago, but every time I tried a new form of writing, that was the direction I was moving toward. I also enjoy reading narrative non-fiction, and I think people really enjoy writers who can do that well. But fiction was always what I was working toward. 

Z: There were so many aspects of your protagonist Daphne that resonated with me: she’s Type-A, but also a bit of clueless and naive. The honesty of her character really drew me in. Where did Daphne come from?

LK: Well, it’s funny because I’ve seen two reactions to the book. People sort of go in two camps: ones who can relate to her as a character and as a person, and ones who don’t relate to her at all; so that influences their experiences, and those who can’t relate to her kind of treat the novel like a horror story. I think Daphne is a little bit over the top, but I would be lying if said she wasn’t somewhat of a relatable character.

Z: Stylistically, I noticed there weren’t a lot of commas in Daphne’s speaking lines, which makes it seem as though she is talking on and on (and on), adding to her neurotic quality.

LK: I took someone who is very similar to me and put her in more difficult circumstances to see how she would respond. One of the things I thought about all the time when I had a baby (my oldest one) was how much I longed to be alone with her; I was a bit traumatized because I went back to work in an office setting when she was about ten weeks old. I was surprised to find it demoralizing. On the one hand, I had this fantasy of going somewhere with her, and yet when I was alone with her I realized it was miserable. It really taxes your mind and body in a different way. I was trying to think of a person like me who got what I wished for, in a sense, but under the worst conditions and what that would be like.

Z: Another thing I resonated with me was Engin’s Green Card-related distress. As a foreigner myself, I’ve spent hours researching this. All the details of the situation’s complexities were so spot on! Have you experienced this firsthand?

LK: I have friends who were not in identical circumstances but in pretty similar ones, so I started looking into it. I think people look at the book now and see what it’s about and think it’s very timely because of Donald Trump. But in all reality, the immigration system has been messed up for a long time. What struck me about my friend’s situation was that it was extremely arbitrary. All you have to do is meet the wrong border guard and they can decide they’re interpreting something in a different way, or they don’t like how you’re fulfilling some byzantine and arcane requirement, and then they can detain you indefinitely and you have no recourse in that moment. As we’ve seen, it’s happening now and that gives way for a lot of abuses. It involves guards being wrong and choosing an interpretation of a policy that suits them, but also there’s some ineptitude: paperwork being lost, things not moving forward and having no visibility on why that is –– it’s such a maddening system.

And when you read through these websites, you understand why it costs so much to hire a professional to navigate it for you. There’s one line that makes me laugh in relation to overseas consular processing: “if you’re case is approved, you will receive a packet. Do not open this packet.” You’re supposed to bring it to the consulate and open it under a specific circumstance, which I think is absurd. I wanted to put a little of that frustration in the book. I’m sorry you can relate to that!

Z: Northern California’s landscapes really came alive in your prose. Can you tell me about your chosen setting of Pauite County?

LK: Pauite County is fictional, it’s a mishmash of several counties in the North State. Anyone from Modoc County will see the resemblance. My mom is from a town called Alturas, which is where Altavista was fictionalized from. The only reason why I decided to do this amalgam of counties was that I wanted to have the political happenings, and I felt like if I called it Modoc County I’d have to replicate the exact board of supervisors and their meetings. I wanted to give myself a little bit of room. It’s a very rural area; the counties that have now theoretically signed on to create a 51st state, the State of Jefferson, are about 1/3 of California’s land mass but 5% of the population. It’s a large landmass but sparse population, and the town my mom grew up in is decreasing in population.

Z: What made you decide on Turkey as the country where Engin is from?

LK: I went back and forth on the decision, but I lived in Turkey for a year and studied Turkish there and later in grad school, so that choice made the most sense. Paradoxically, since I had more knowledge and information about Turkey, I was scared to misrepresent it. Initially, I thought the husband could be from Denmark, which I then thought was very offensive to Denmark since I’ve only been there one day in my life and I would have to figure out the rest. Fortunately, I realized it was a bad idea and that I was just trying to evade my anxieties. I love Turkey and the Turkish language, so that’s definitely a theme. It definitely provides an interesting contrast, to have a spouse living in one of the world’s’ megacities with a population of 20 million versus the sparsely-populated Northern California.

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Sisterhood Becomes Powerful: ‘The Only Girl’ by Robin Green

The Only GirlJournalist turned award-winning Sopranos screenwriter Robin Green adds a new credit to her illustrious career with the memoir, The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone (304 pages; Little, Brown and Company). In the book, she recalls how she became “paid, published, and praised” as a writer for the iconic music magazine Rolling Stone. Starting from her time studying English at Brown, where she was the editor of Brown’s literary journal and the Brown Daily Herald (and was the only girl to do so), Green hoped to land a job in the publishing industry. At 22, she moved to Manhattan and began secretarial work. During her lunch breaks in the city, she’d stare longingly at the suit-clad women who passed with briefcases in hand. In Green’s eyes, they had “glamorous and fulfilling jobs,” but in her heart she sensed that wasn’t the path for her, which induced self-loathing and disgust: “If I didn’t want that, then what the hell did I want?” She ultimately moved out to west to Berkeley and got hired at Rolling Stone, where she would develop her writer’s voice: “Showing a little of the arch and ironic tone.”

Green clearly still holds admiration for the people she worked with at Rolling Stone. In 1974, the magazine had a powerhouse editorial team, including women like Marianne Partridge as managing editor, Christine Doudna as her assistant copy-chief, and Sarah Lazin and Harriet Fier as fact-checkers — the “sisterhood had become powerful,” Green observes. Jon Landau (who eventually because Bruce Springsteen’s manager) credited them for improving his writing “by a factor of approximately fifty percent,” and Chris Hodenfield praised how they turned him “from a chaotic hog-slopper into something resembling a writer.” Green also fondly recalls several experiences with Hunter S. Thompson and heralds him for his writing. “Nobody was saying it better,” she states. She conveys the excitement she felt during the second night of the Rolling Stone editorial conference in Big Sur, when she was in the backseat of Thompson’s rented mustang with Annie Leibovitz riding shotgun. Thompson was making hairpin turns, driving with the headlights off on Route 1—and all of them were heavily intoxicated:

It occurred to me that I seemed not to care. I felt alive. Immortal. Lucky to be in the car, living on the literal edge. This, I realize, was the point of Hunter. He didn’t just write that stuff; he lived it. And if we went crashing down that cliff on the Pacific Ocean, so be it. What better way to die?

Green’s career in TV began with a phone call from John Falsey, who she knew from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Falsey was reminded of her talent after reading Green’s restaurant reviews in the LA Times. In 1986, Falsey and his playwright partner, Joshua Brand, created a show called A Year in the Life in the style of what became known as “prestige TV.” The show was a “subtle and realistic drama” similar to Hill Street Blues and its predecessors, and they wanted Green to write a script for it in two weeks. Although her first attempt failed to meet their standards, she was given a second chance. Green decided to take her own advice, harkening back to when she was a teaching fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and advised her students: “Copy a master. You probably won’t come close but you might at least have something that works.” Green found inspiration in John Updike, citing him as “an astute observer of suburban subtext,” and succeeded in her shot at re-writing the script.

Like many writers, Green also greatly admires Joan Didion and, as it turns out, the admiration goes both ways. In fact, Green once wrote a profile on Dennis Hopper for Rolling Stone that Didion enjoyed so much, she asked a friend to phone Green and let her know. Coincidentally, Green’s professional relationship with her husband, Mitch Burgess, is not unlike that of Joan Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. As Didion discusses in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, she and her husband were known to edit each other’s work intensively, so much so that it was often difficult to tell who contributed what. In Green’s case, she confessed to Jeffrey Brand that she had been “giving Mitch’s ideas as her own.” Subsequently, Brand brought Mitch on as a story-editor and minted Mitch and Green as a creative duo through a shared writing credit. This turned out to be a lucrative career for the pair, leading to several Emmys, Golden Globes, and Peabody’s for their work in shows such as Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, and their own creation, Blue Bloods.

Yet for all of Green’s numerous accolades, The Only Girl’s vigor comes from her blunt acknowledgment of the diffidence she faced early in her career. To follow her path to being paid, published, and praised amid many tribulations proves both a solace and great reward.

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Hidden in Plain Sight: ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

81SsLYe8ZRLThe Japanese word “Irrashaimasse” is an honorific expression used most often as a stock welcome in places of business. The spirit of the word is reflected throughout award-winning author Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori; 176 pages; Grove Press), which invites readers to re-examine contemporary society’s absurdities through the idiosyncratic worldview of its narrator, 36-year-old Keiko Furukura. Murata perfectly portrays this unconventional woman who has been leading a stagnant life working at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart since its opening 18 years ago. In the meantime, her friends are getting married and having children.

Furukura has never even been with a man, until an unlikely solution presents itself in the form of her new co-worker, Shiraha. Unfortunately, Shiraha is viewed as a societal parasite, a close-minded man who believes that the world is still “basically the stone age with a veneer of contemporary society, and only took a job at the convenience store to find a wife. To little surprise, not only does he perform poorly, but he is eventually fired for his stalker-like behavior toward some of the female customers and employees. Furukura crosses paths with him again when she sees him outside the store and realizes he has been evicted from his place and is now homeless. She proposes a convenience marriage, which to Shiraha wasn’t ideal initially, but it is beneficial for both of them; this turns in to a quid-pro-quo situation as Shiraha only agrees to live with her if Furukura allows him to stay in the apartment. She can talk about him all she wants, but he doesn’t wish to be seen in public where he believes society will berate him for his choices.

Their relationship bears positive fruit in Furukura’s life: her co-workers invite her out for drinks, and her friends finally display some excitement instead of judgment toward her. She slowly tries to assimilate into society’s standards of a normal life—for instance, she considers bearing children with Shiraha—but the idea is stopped by a phone conversation with Shiraha’s sister-in-law. “Please don’t even consider it,” she tells her. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by not leaving your genes behind. That’s the best contribution to the human race you could make.”

Muriel Sparks wrote in A Good Comb, “There is nothing like work to calm your emotions,” and Furukura not only turns to work to calm her emotions, but to give her a sense of having some role in society. “I just come in every day,” she declares, “because I am accepted as a well-functioning part of the store.” She believes her very cells exist for the store, and so can never hope to leave her position.

Convenience Store Woman is a novel that proves sylphlike; spare in its contents, with a masterfully deceptive comic veneer that keeps the reader turning the page. Even with peculiar and macabre elements aplenty (as when a young Furukura wants to grill and eat a dead bird she finds on the ground), Murata has penned an unlikely feminist tale that unflinchingly depicts the social constructs of being a single woman.

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An Inner Life Exposed: ‘Wait, Blink’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Wait, BlinkA jolt of elation always strikes when coming across a passage that perfectly captures one’s private thoughts, and with Gunnhild Øyehaug’s novel Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life (translated by Kari Dickinson; 288 pages; FSG), I frequently found myself electrified. Page after page of passages artfully dissect our most subliminal mental processes. Utilizing the character of Sigrid and her sense of detachment in front of the computer screen, the author makes a fluid allusion to the novel’s subtitle: “She identifies with the cursor! Waiting, blinking, and without any real existence in the world, just on and off between blink and blink. Is this her light in the world?” Øyehaug’s insight echoes what author and psychologist Maria Konnikova said about fiction writers: “Their understanding of the human mind is so far beyond where we’ve been able to get with psychology as a science.”

 The novel is Øyehaug’s first to be published in English. Translator Kari Dickinson’s discerning work remarkably captures the unique beauty of the novel’s syntax, powerfully relating a story so vivid it’s little surprise it made its way to the big screen. (It was adapted into the 2010 Norwegian film Women in Oversized Mens Shirts, its title a reference to Sigrid’s feminist antipathy toward wearing a male partner’s shirt.) The strength of Øyehaug’s prose is admirably unswerving; the evocative opening paragraph gives readers a taste of what’s to come:

“Here we see Sigrid. It’s nine o’clock in the morning, it’s January, and the 2008 January light that fills the room is sharp, yet reliably a color temperature of 5600 kelvins, which is the normal color temperature for daylight, and is the color temperature of bulbs in those large spotlights that are sometimes used in films to simulate daylight in a room.”

The precision of the prose is contrasted by a plot full of variables. The novel threads together the lives of several different individuals who have fleeting connections to one another, incorporating scattered cinematic and literary parallels as it does so, analyzing their interior relationships through the lens of movies such as Kill Bill and Lost in Translation, as well as works of literature such as Dante’s Inferno. Sigrid is a literature student at the University of Bergen and is often “falling into a kind of trance which meant that she’d forgotten she was still part of the world’s everyday dance.” Consequently, she tends to develop attachments with nature rather people.

That is, until she meets Kåre Tryle, twenty years her senior and with whom she develops a complex romance. Kåre’s ex-girlfriend, Wanda, feels her relationship with Kåre mirrors Uma Thurman’s vengeful quest in Kill Bill: “the fact that it was a possibility, now demonstrating on film, that someone could hurt someone else as much as Bill hurt the Bride.” And to the south of Bergen, in Denmark, is Linnea, a director scouting locations for a film that will never be produced. She is small and slight, and often walks with her head down, as though she were a small bell-like flower who wanted to keep things to herself.

Øyehaug’s characters are as nuanced as her fine-tuned language, which makes the most of its cultural references while radiating the uniqueness of a novel that feels profound, mysterious, and witty all at once.

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A Balance Between Cultures: ‘How to Write an Autobiographical Novel’ by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical NovelIn his first nonfiction collection, award-winning novelist, poet, and journalist Alexander Chee offers a reflective look at his life in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (288 pages; Mariner Books). From his time in Mexico learning high school-level Spanish to his undergrad days at Wesleyan, and later the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as well as his AIDs activism in San Francisco, the book is a well-orchestrated chronicle of a life well-lived.

Growing up as a Korean American, Chee often struggled with his identity and felt awkward in public, as when his long hair caused him to be mistaken as a girl, or when a stylist nonchalantly remarked he could pass for white. But Chee stood out in other ways: in the essay “The Curse,” he was the first among his classmates to achieve fluency in Spanish; and in “The Querent,” he was the only one to pass a test for psychic abilities. These were the times when he was visible in the “right” ways, and Chee conveys the validation he felt when he was finally recognized for his individual strengths rather than his outward appearance.

Chee’s realizations read as personal, yet universally contextualized. His essays form a triumphant and evocative narrative about youth and a hankering for the power found in beauty. One recalls philosopher Benedetto Croce’s notion of aesthetics while reading Girl,” in which Chee portrays the elation of taking on a new identity, that of a woman. Aesthetics, as Croce points out, are ascendant; and although aesthetics are both the highest and the most challenging domain of human behavior, it is also the most base form, the one from which all others derive:

This beauty I find when I put on drag, then: it is made up of this talismans of power, a balancing act of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful that any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve ever tried.

Chee graciously shares advice from his beloved professors at Iowa, such as Deborah Eisenberg and Frank Conroy, as well as Annie Dillard, who taught him at Wesleyan. Each of these mentors offers sound reminders that talent cannot be nurtured without hard work, making the book a helpful guide for young writers: “‘I started with writers more talented than me,’ Annie Dillard had said in the class I took from college. ‘And they’re not writing anymore, I am.’”

Chee also narrates his writerly journey through the hobby of gardening in “The Rosary.” Using gardening as a metaphor for his development under his teachers, he concludes, “I was not their gardener. They were mine.” The parallels of how a garden can initially be a “disaster in need of reckoning,” and how Chee eventually turned it into a blossoming rose garden, helped him visualize his own success. In chronicling his personal and creative struggles, Chee produces a cathartic primer for treading through the challenges of life with the same grace he displays as a writer.

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Craft Talk: Dean Rader on Poetry Workshops, Writing Hurdles, & Looking Outward

Works & DaysDiligent readers of ZYZZYVA will have noticed Dean Rader’s dazzling poems in numerous issues of the journal, most recently in our Art & Resistance-themed Issue 111. We’re pleased to announce that Rader will also be leading a ZYZZYVA Writer’s Workshop in Poetry on August 18th, which is currently accepting submissions. The deadline to enter is June 18th –– so do not delay! The poet recently took time out of his busy schedule, which includes teaching writing at the University of San Francisco, to discuss the merits of the Workshop format, writing hurdles he’s overcome, recent poetry collections he’s read, and much more.

ZYZZYVA: Do you feel the communal aspect of a writing workshop, in which participants receive critical feedback from both the instructor and other attendees, can help improve the quality of a poem – or is it more about the discussion a poem can generate among the group? 

Dean Rader: This is my professor (and my poet) answer but both things are valuable—especially in a one-day workshop. As a full-time professor and as someone who reads a lot of poems for contests and publication, I feel like I know what elements make a poem really sing. I also think it is important for writers to get feedback from other writers who are engaged in a common pursuit. One of the most critical things for any writer is learning what advice to take and what advice to ignore—these kinds of workshops are great for this.

One last thing—immersive workshops do both short term and long term work. There are immediate benefits that might make the poem under discussion stronger, but conversations and techniques and strategies learned in the workshop have long lasting benefits that can make future poems stronger than they might have otherwise been.

Z: In your collaboration with fellow poet Simone Muench in ZYZZYVA No. 101, known as the Frankenstein Sonnets, the two of you devised a new form for constructing poetry, one that saw you both piecing together a poem stanza by stanza. Do you ever instruct your students to experiment or devise new forms like this to break them out of their usual patterns?

DR: Oh yes. It’s a regular assignment in all of my writing classes. In fact, I have even begun assigning the very same system Simone and I used for our own poems. Often, they result in some of the best work of the semester because most people are capable of writing two interesting stanzas. One of the hardest things is writing a flawless poem from beginning to end. But, without the pressure of having to write a perfect poem, you would be amazed at how creative people get. Plus, you never want to let your collaborator down. Greatness rises to the surface…

Z: If a student comes to you and says, “This poem I wrote is bad,” what’s typically your first response?

DR: I usually quote this great passage from Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Most of our poems begin badly. There is nothing wrong with writing a bad poem. I have written many. I have written bad poems this month. Typically, I ask my student if there is a way to save the poem, and we sometimes look for one line or one image or one moment that contains the energy or the edge of the poem. I ask the student to cut everything but that one part and start from there.

But, beyond that, I also believe that we sometimes have to write a series of failed poems in order to write the one that succeeds. What if the successful poem can only have been written because of multiple failures?

As I suggest above, poetry is about playing the long game.

Z: Early in your writing career, was there a specific hurdle you were able to jump over, whether it was a way to unlock your creativity or simply begin viewing yourself as a poet? How did you overcome it? 

DR: That is a great question. The answer is yes, absolutely. Probably two main hurdles.

The first was simply wondering if I have what it takes, if I have the talent and the commitment to devote my life (or at least the professional part of my life) to poetry. There are two components of that fear—talent and dedication. I remember Edward Hirsch telling me one time that he came to a realization at one point in his career that he would rather fail at poetry than succeed at anything else. I too came to that realization, perhaps a little later than some, but it made all the difference in my work. There are other poets out there with more natural gifts than I have—Terrance Hayes is a better poet than I am. Jorie Graham – way better. W. S. Merwin – so much better it’s like Kevin Durant and my 6-year old son playing horse. But, I’m playing the long game – I believe my best poems are to come. I’m committed to being courageous about my work.

The second hurdle was believing in that choice—believing that if I gave myself to poetry that poetry would return that gift. Like most poets, early on I was confused about my voice and/or what I wanted my voice to be. I both wanted to sound like poets I admire and did not want to sound like poets I admire. Somehow, that involved letting go of past voices of restrictive ideas about what a poem should look like or sound like or do and let my poems embody poetry’s flexibility, its nimbleness, its openness.

Z: What are some poetry collections you’ve recently read and would whole-heartedly recommend to prospective Workshop attendees? 

For me, the most impressive collection of the last decade or so is Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. A very different book but one which I like and I think students will like is Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. King Me by Roger Reeves is great, as is Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. If folks have not read W. S. Merwin’s The Lice, now is a great time to do so. Copper Canyon just issued a 50th anniversary edition of it – that book changed contemporary poetry. Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire is a must. I also recommend a book many people may not know – Simone Muench’s Lampblack with Ash. Lastly, if folks are interested in the ways in which poems can take on controversial political issues, I urge readers to check out Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence—with poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Danez Smith, Robert Hass, Natalie Diaz, Dana Levin, Yusef Komunyaaka, Jane Hirshfield, Martin Espada and 40 others. Each poem is paired with responses by survivors of mass shootings, parents of children killed in shootings, and other activists. Often, contemporary poetry can feel like it is facing inward, but these are all poems looking outward.

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A Legacy Lost and Recovered: ‘Memento Park’ by Mark Sarvas

Memento Park A decade after the publication of his first novel, Harry, Revised, Mark Sarvas returns with Memento Park (288 pages; FSG), the chronicle of one first-generation Hungarian American’s journey to retrieve a family painting believed to have been looted by the Nazis. The protagonist, Matt Santos, is an aspiring actor and current background extra living in L.A. at the tail-end of his thirties when he receives a strange call from the Australian Embassy concerning a painting from their database of unclaimed war paintings: the fictional “Budapest Street Scene” by tortured artist Erwin Kàlmàn. The piece belonged to Matt’s family in Hungary during the Second World War, and its current value is estimated at two to three million dollars. Desperate for transit documents, his grandfather traded the painting to a member of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross Party. Unfortunately, the papers did not arrive in time to save his grandmother’s life,

This revelation leaves Matt puzzled; the story of his family’s escape “had always been a closely guarded secret,” and his “repertoire of gesture was too limited.” Matt also believes his father is the type of guy who “reveled in getting something for nothing,” and finds it strange his father doesn’t want anything to do with the painting, at least according to the embassy. Perhaps the story behind the painting could unlock why his family’s flight was shrouded in such mystery.

“There was something formidable about him, about his adherence to adamantine standards that I could neither meet nor shake free of,” Matt says of his father. Sarvas is an expert at depicting the dualities of the immigrant experience. When speaking in English, Matt’s father is laconic and rigid at best, belligerent at worst. But in Hungarian he becomes “like an aria transposed in another key,” an amiable, card-playing jokester when around his comrades from the Hungarian Social Club.

Matt’s other key relationships—his professional one with Rachel Steinberg, the striking, young lawyer from the World Jewish Congress; and the romantic one with Tracy, his supermodel girlfriend—are also complicated by his quest. Rachel travels with Matt to Budapest to aid him in his search for the painting, leading to amorous feelings that will create problems for Matt’s relationship with Tracy. “It often seems to me that the stories of our lives are too easily reduced to single moments of decision, whether to stay or to leave,” Matt says. “I suppose The Clash had it right, after all, but the wisdom of punk notwithstanding, I am consumed with this question.”

As Matt’s journey takes him from Los Angeles to New York and Hungary, Sarvas develops each setting with admirably unique language: “I had missed the spiced metal spell of the ocean,” he says of Los Angeles, “missed the gentle curves of the coast highway where the glass-flecked green and blue sheet shoulders up against pale, windswept beaches.” And throughout the novel, Sarvas allows his characters moments of self-reflection, ultimately asking if one can continue life’s dance when one has failed to learn the steps. (Witness the awkward encounter with Rachel’s father during a Sabbath dinner where he questions Matt’s lack of Jewish education.) As its protagonist puzzles over his identity, his relationships, and the painter Erwin Kàlmàn’s troubled past, Memento Park assembles these pieces into a satisfying whole.

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A Culling of Foxes: ‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna

HappinessIn Happiness (368 pages; Atlantic Monthly Press), novelist and memoirist Aminatta Forna takes the reader into a caravan of events that starts in contemporary London, where Attila, a Ghanian psychologist whose field study specializes in war refugees, in between “going to see plays and eating in fine restaurants,” feels as if he’s living on “a stage set, whose denizens enacted their lives against its magnificent backdrop. A theatre of delights, where nothing surely could go wrong, and if it did, all would be put right by the end of the third act.” On Waterloo Bridge one day, he bumps into Jean, an urban wildlife biologist from the United States. He has come to London to find Tano, the son of his beloved “niece,” Ama, who has been swept up recently in an immigration raid. Tano has been missing ever since.

Intertwining psychological, historical, and scientific insights, and seamlessly incorporating vignettes set in Iraq, Bosnia, and New England, Happiness explores the unexpected parallels between urban wildlife and the humans living next them:

“But he’s going to stay close by and not just because of his mother,” Jean tells Attila. “These”—”and she indicated markings on the map—are all fox territories. Foxes stake out an area and then they stay in it. Why? Because that’s how they sustain themselves. They know where to hunt, where to find food, water, shelter, where they feel safe from predators. The boy is no different, he’s going to stay where he feels most secure.” 

Amid the search for Tano, Jean finds herself being tested in other ways. During a spirited radio-show debate on the culling of foxes, Jean calls the mayor of London a fool and finds herself on the wrong end of a hashtag attack on Twitter, where she’s criticized for supporting foxes over people. Her family life isn’t going so well, either. Her son treats her like “the kind of old school friend you’ve outgrown, but to whom you remain bound by a shared history and a sense of loyalty.”

While the story largely centers on the search for Tano and the relationship between Attila and Jean that ensues from that, Happiness also considers how indispensible people such as security guards and doormen typically remain in the background of city life. The doorman at Attila’s building, for example, along with his network of surrounding doormen, security guards, and street-sweepers, stay on the alert for Tano. As such, it is the overlooked who catalyze the seemingly Sisyphean search for the lost boy. Over the search’s span of two weeks, the narrative mines the tender feelings, as well as the tensions, between Attila and Jean.. Their emotions are portrayed in such a way that it rouses sentiment rather than sentimentality:

“Love is a gamble, the stake is the human heart. The lover holds his or her cards close, lays them out one at a time and watches each move of the other player. To whom do you go first? This is the ‘tell’ of love…More than anybody else Jean wanted Attila.”

Happiness takes quotidian societal problems like racism, illegal hunting, and faulty government and wreathes them with personal issues such as mourning the deaths of wives and past lovers, Aminatta Forna has given us a pertinent novel, one whose prose is fluid and dynamic.

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Adrift and at Peace: ‘A Good Day for Seppuku’ by Kate Braverman

A Good Day for SeppukuFiction writer and poet Kate Braverman began her acclaimed career with 1979’s Lithium for Medea, a bildungsroman about a young woman struggling with cocaine addiction and a trying relationship with her family. Since that time, Braverman has collected numerous accolades, including Best American Short Story and O. Henry awards, a Graywolf Press nonfiction prize, and being named a San Francisco Public Library Laureate. Four decades into her career, she shows no signs of slowing down her creative output, and returns with her latest story collection, A Good Day For Seppuku (192 pages; City Lights Books). Here Braverman depicts characters in complex relationships that seem all too real: estranged daughters, young adults forced to choose between their parents, toxic friendships, and more. These are complicated people who bring to mind poet William Shenstone’s observation that “A liar begins with making falsehood appear like the truth, and ends with making truth itself appear like falsehood.”

Though the collection’s scenarios could be dismissed as familiar tropes, Braverman brings sagacious insight to them. Her mind, a fecund breeding ground of creativity, can take a cliche such as “a wife leaves her husband” and spin it, often with a clever turn of phrase, into something like a short masterpiece. For example, in “O’Hare,” in which a 13-year-old girl must choose between living with her mother and her record-producing boyfriend in Beverly Hills, or her father in the rural Allegany Hills, she describes how her young protagonist finds herself most at home between the two places, at the Chicago airport: “I feel like I’m back in O’Hare where seasons do not exist and all rules are suspended…I press the pause button on my life and everything stops.”

Moving through the eight stories in the book, one is greatly impressed by Braverman’s ability to recontextualize themes of estrangement, substance abuse, and fractured familial relationships through her unique prose style. Page after page of the collection is filled with lyrical imagery that veers toward the cinematic, such as in this evocative opening paragraph from “Women of the Ports”:

They meet at irregular intervals at Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the neutral zone, the landscape of perpetual, unmolested childhood where the carousel spins in its predictable orbit, and the original primitive neon alphabet does not deviate. Some hieroglyphics are permanent and intelligible in all hemispheres and dialects. No translation is necessary. The carousel doesn’t require calculus, rehab or absolution. No complications with immigration or the IRS. Just buy a token.

Elsewhere, in “In Feeding in a Famine,” she uses vivid symbolism to describe an alienated young woman’s visit to her family farm: “Outside is thunder like a plane straining at a blue edge too fragile to be a real border. It’s a juncture created by intention and rumor, composed of insects and feathers clinging to underside of yellow air. It has nothing to do with her.” With A Good Day for Seppuku, Braverman shines a light on our most intimate relationships. It is a bracing reminder of how uniquely powerful of a writer Braverman is.


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