Contributors Archives

Jerome Blanco

Cross Country Journey More Than a Road Trip: Grant Ginder’s ‘Driver’s Education’

Driver's EducationGrant 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.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Transcendence as Religious Experience: Q&A with Christopher Buckley

Christopher BuckleyChristopher 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.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Everyday Bizzare: Zsuzsi Gartner’s ‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’

Better Living Through Plastic ExplosivesZsuzsi Gartner’s new story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Pintail, 224 pages), is a fun book in the best sense: a treasure of tears, laughs, sighs, and smiles.

From her opening story, “Summer of the Flesh Eater,” to the title story that closes the collection, Gartner takes us on a creative and bizzare ride in and around British Columbia, awakening us to the marvels of the ordinary. Houses are swallowed up by the earth, recovering terrorists sweat over backyard gardens, a couple speaks the language of Swedish furniture, angels go to high school, and a group of adopted Chinese daughters disappear on a wintry night.

The titles hint at how entertaining each piece is, and the imaginative, compelling scenarios contained in them. “Investment Results May Vary” follows a character hobbling around Vancouver in a marmot suit; “Mister Kakami” offers a handful of frightening visions, which include nuns turning, “blue-grey and waterlogged,” and there’s the self-explanatory “Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika.” Gartner isn’t afraid of the ridiculous and the absurd, beautifully using these very elements to highlight the wonder and the depth, in the ordinary. Gartner’s stories glow with the strange, sometimes eerily, sometimes splendidly, but always as an exclamation point to the fundamental truths that we see everyday.

Every person wants something in these stories, and Gartner explores the journeys, glorious and ugly, some take to fulfill their desires—and when they fail, she shows how they respond. “It’s about the things you want,” one story reads, “Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s about the things you can’t have. Is it so terrible to want what you can’t have?” In “Mister Kakami,” Kakami asks himself, while dwelling on his career, “How had he ended up making films and not movies, when it was good old-fashioned flicks, middlebrow and sentimental, excluding only those who didn’t believe in magic, that he so loved?”

Gartner’s whimsical stories cut to the core of the human condition. Even angels, who spend a few months inhabiting the bodies of high school kids in “We Come in Peace,” sift through the complexities of mundane life and think, “How mystifying it is that knowledge and experience are such utterly different beasts—one a contemplating buffalo, the other a wild mink.”

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize, is about individuals, communities, their futures, and their pasts. Gartner makes us think about what it means to be a person—imperfect, full of failures and desires.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Half-Lives That Make Up a Single Identity : Zubair Ahmed’s ‘City of Rivers’

Zubair Ahmed’s first poetry collection City of Rivers (McSweeney’s, 96 pages) captures the reader’s heart from its first line to its last. These poems are reminders of poetry’s power to leave us breathless after immersing us in truths, both wonderful and painful. Ahmed, who was born and raised in Bangladesh and moved to the United States in 2005, explores memory and identity with a sincere voice steeped in genuine experience. These are dense poems, carrying the story of an individual, of a family, and of Bangladesh itself.

City of Rivers opens with “Measuring the Strength of a Sparrow’s Thigh” and the words “I’ve been walking for many nights now, / Heading south in Bangladesh / Where the sea churns / Into a hundred deltas / And the landscape looks like a rotting nail.” The poem is a provocative introduction to the collection’s recurring themes: reflection on a past life, the search for home, and the darkness that lingers in memory. The speaker of City of Rivers walks and is always walking, and we find all the poems that follow are steps on a winding journey from here to there, present to past, and back again.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Dignity at the Mercy of a Ruined Economy: Hans Keilson’s ‘Life Goes On’

Originally published in 1933, Hans Keilson’s recently translated first novel, Life Goes On (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 255 pages; translated by Damion Searls), is a gripping story of a family living in post-World War I Germany. Keilson’s autobiographical novel, which came out when he was only twenty-three, is a striking exploration of struggle, shame, and hope, and what it means to live.

Life Goes On follows the lives of the Seldersens as they face the economic turbulence sweeping Germany. Herr Seldersen, a veteran of the Great War, runs a small shop with his wife. Even as they try to make ends meet, companies, big and small, declare bankruptcy across the nation. Everyone is mired in debt. Fewer customers come to the store to buy even fewer goods, and most everything is sold on credit.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Poetry of Apples, Maple Syrup, Blackberries, and Sandwiches: ‘The Hungry Ear,’ edited by Kevin Young

The need for food and drink is universal. The preparation and partaking of meals mark events ordinary and extraordinary. Because of this, food has naturally found itself a subject of poetry for as long as can be remembered. Celebrating the many facets of food and drink, poet Kevin Young, author of seven books of poetry and editor of six previous anthologies, has compiled The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink (Bloomsbury, 336 pages).

In his introduction, Young writes, “Love, satisfaction, trouble, death, pleasure, work, sex, memory, celebration, hunger, desire, loss, laughter, even salvation: to all these things food can provide a prelude; or comfort after; and sometimes a handy substitute for. It often seems food is a metaphor for most anything, from justice to joy.” The poems that follow certainly demonstrate this all-encompassing nature of food and drink. Divided into four sections, named for each of the four seasons, The Hungry Ear delivers verse for life’s ups and downs, from poets such as Li Po, Robert Frost, Charles Baudelaire, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and dozens more.

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Everything Pivots on the Verb: Constance Hale’s ‘Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch’

Constance Hale (author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose) has penned another guide to prose writing. Her new book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch (Norton; 400 pages), is a celebration of the verb. “(A)ll serious writers know,” Hale writes, “that verbs act as the pivot point of every sentence. Verbs put action in scenes, show eccentricity in characters, and convey drama in plots. They give poetry its urgency. They make quotes memorable and ads convincing.” In her book, Hale gives readers and writers many views on the life of verbs, from their birth to their evolution to their function. Hers is not only a book on the whats of grammar but a book on its hows and its whys.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Program for Fulfillment: Scott Hutchins’s ‘A Working Theory of Love’

Scott Hutchins’s first novel, A Working Theory of Love (The Penguin Press, 328 pages), is a refreshing exploration of how the many relationships every person has can shape who we are. It is a reflection on failure, fear, grief, hope, and, of course, love. Lovers, friends, family, coworkers, and even the city in which one lives: Hutchins demonstrates what these connections can mean in our search for fulfillment.

Neill Bassett Jr., a San Franciscan divorcee, is trapped in “the doldrums of physical isolation,” stuck in a dull cycle of unsatisfying bachelor routines and a Silicon Valley job. He works at a three-person company led by a renowned scientist whose current task is to create the first truly sentient computer. Despite knowing next to nothing about programming, Neill is integral to the project’s success because his dead father’s expansive journals will form the cornerstone of the program’s mind.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

An Iraq Vet and the Weight of War: Kevin Powers’s ‘The Yellow Birds’

Those of us who have not experienced the pains of war can never claim to understand them, but Kevin Powers’s first novel, The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown; 240 pages), gives its readers a poignant glimpse. Powers, a poet and a veteran, takes us in medias res to Al Tafar, Iraq, and into the life of then-twenty-one-year-old Private John Bartle. Matching the novel’s form with its chaotic content, Powers takes us in and out of scenes from Bartle’s life between 2004 and 2009, spanning the before, during, and after of this one soldier’s war experience.

Powers’s weaving of these moments masterfully expresses the way the war spirals out from memory and experience to encompass an entire life. “It might seem like a short time,” Bartle reflects, “but my whole life since has merely been a digression from those days, which now hang over me like a quarrel that will never be resolved.” From the now-apparent emptiness Bartle comes to see as his pre-war past, to his struggle to return to a life back home in Richmond, Virginia, readers come to feel the weight of the war as it seeps from Bartle and spreads into every part of his existence, like blood into white linen.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment