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ZYZZYVA Recommends November 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, we thought we’d add a special wrinkle to our Staff Recommends this month: alongside our usual selection of films, books, and music, we’re including Thanksgiving recipes (or drink pairings) you might want to give a try this holiday. Enjoy!

Lindsey Pannor, Intern: I can already envision my trip home this Thanksgiving: filing into a huge jet plane, (hopefully) sleeping through the red eye, waking up hovering right over home, and watching the deep orange of the sunrise scatter the thick winter night. I’ll have my headphones on, listening to Lætitia Tamako’s self-titled album by her moniker “Vagabon.”

Since its release late last month, I have amassed an array of reasons to adore Vagabon. Most strikingly, Tamako’s sound traverses genre constantly. The album lies somewhere in between the oozing dream pop of Beach House and the lo-fi buzz of Miya Folick; and despite never settling into one sensibility for too long, I am still able to take comfort in familiar, brief, distinctive moments of indie rock and R&B aesthetics throughout. Tamako distinguishes this album’s style from her last by favoring analog beats over her old guitar melodies, diving into personally uncharted territory.

These new beats combined with her distinctive voice gives rise to a magical transformation, from what used to be an alternative sound typical to countless artists to one uniquely her own. Tamako integrates her crooning vocals alongside gentle blips of synth and slow bass riffs simultaneously and seamlessly. The solemn beginnings of many of the songs, set in a slow 4/4 signature like the heavy cold nighttime air, easily lift into rising upbeats of horn and yearning. They tangle into one another, calling on the liminality of morning’s waking.

Her lyricism mirrors this consistent movement throughout, making apparent both the uniqueness of her prose style and its incredibly specific universality, the kind that seizes up my heart. Particularly timely to the season, songs like “Please Don’t Leave the Table” tap into that familiar pang of betrayal when left to eat alone, as she begins the song with a wavering profession of love, and begs for the addressee not to leave, because, well, she’s still eating. “Home Soon” follows on the album, dragging one simple refrain over soft violin and reverb: “I give it all away / I’ll be home soon.” Pleasant and grounding, this song is among my favorites as it pulls away from the theme of a lover and dedicates space to reconnecting with our origins.

As we return to our nests and are met by the people who know us best this month, we will inevitably be wrapped in the existential fog of the holidays. Reflection and gratitude are integral to the spirit of the upcoming weeks, and instead of settling stagnant into the confusion this brings, I’ll be looking to Vagabon for guidance. As a woman writing and producing all of her own music as well as exploring her sense of self in relation to the love she has for others, Tamako’s new album has given me a forgiving, inspiring roadmap to explorations of my foundations.

RECIPE: Speaking of inspiration, I’ll also be trying my hand at baking Melissa Clark’s recipe for Brandied Pumpkin Pie while I’m back home. There’s truly nothing like a good pumpkin pie in my family, and perhaps I’ll garner some extra affection with such a well-reviewed and unusual variation on the classic. I’m eagerly awaiting a trip to the Fox Theatre upon my return, where, on December 7th, Vagabond will be opening for Angel Olsen. Feel free to join me.

Laura Cogan, Editor: I’m sorry, but all I can really think about at the moment is food. Every year around this time it’s as though my interest in cooking comes lumbering out of a deep hibernation, lured from slumber by the chill in the air and the scent of gingerbread. Still, even at peak interest, I am not a skilled or patient cook, so any recipe that makes it into my folder of favorites can’t be fussy or “fiddly” (as they say on the Great British Baking Show, where most assignments are, in fact, quite fiddly). Here are a couple that I especially enjoy, both preparing and eating.

Years ago, when I proposed shifting to a vegetarian or at least a “pescetarian” Thanksgiving meal, my family was generously accommodating. It was much easier than I expected to get everyone to abandon the turkey, which, while labor intensive, turned out not to be anyone’s favorite part of the meal. My mother’s only condition was that there must be stuffing, and I promised there would be. As it turns out, making stuffing in a dish rather than inside a raw turkey is an immeasurably more enjoyable experience. A win for everyone, especially the turkey (and germaphobes).

This recipe (while not as clearly written as it might be) turns out a reliably delicious stuffing, and conveniently offers one method with many variations; I recommend the apple and cranberry. Doubling the recipe for a large group works well, although it requires a good deal of space.

The other indispensable part of the Thanksgiving meal or seasonal baking, in my view, is pie. I’ve tried several but here is the most popular, most frequently requested pecan pie recipe I’ve made so far.

Note the generous 3 tbsp of bourbon (vs. the mere 2 tbsp suggested by many other recipes). Yes, you will taste the bourbon. If a bourbon cocktail could wrap itself in a cozy coat of chocolate and pecans and masquerade as a tipsy desert, it would be this pie.

This year I’ll be (clumsily) making it with a homemade crust, but trust me when I tell you that using a deep dish frozen pie crust is just as good, and makes it the actual simplest pie I’ve ever made. If you do use a prepared crust I highly recommend adding this step: brush the rim of the crust with an egg wash and then sprinkle with turbinado sugar. This makes it look gorgeous, and if someone happens to assume you did in fact make it from scratch I don’t see any reason to interject and correct them. Let’s not make the holidays any more difficult than necessary.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: There was a time when proposing a sequel to an iconic film like The Shining would have been met with outrage by the culture at large (I still remember the media pillorying Gus Van Sant received for his ’98 remake of Pyshco); but based on the dismal theatrical turnout for this year’s Doctor Sleep, it seems the general audience reaction in 2019 is indifference. Which is a shame for a number of reasons, but one of those is that—as daunting as it seems to follow up Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1980 horror film—Doctor Sleep is really quite good.

The movie represents the finest theatrical effort yet from Mike Flanagan, a filmmaker who has built a steady resume of humanist horror films that favor character and emotion over graphic violence or hollow jump scares. Movies like Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil display Flanagan’s interest in familial legacy and the inheritance of trauma, culminating with last year’s exquisite Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House. His ability to balance supernatural elements with character drama, not to mention his keen visual sense, made him a natural fit to adapt Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep.

And therein lies the challenge: how to reconcile King’s source text with The Shining’s cinematic legacy, given that King himself has long been the loudest critic of Kubrick’s adaptation. In the novel, one senses that Jack Torrance is a fundamentally good man, despite fighting a losing battle with his inner demons; onscreen, we suspect Jack Nicholson would have eventually gone axe-swinging mad even if he had never checked into the Overlook Hotel. It’s a discrepancy that has clearly always irked King, who saw his own struggles with alcoholism reflected in the character. Flanagan’s film, then, must ultimately serve two masters, but the director does so artfully, paying homage to Kubrick’s enduring visual iconography while penning a depiction of the Torrance family that is perhaps more in line with King’s vision.

To be honest, I found the experience of watching Doctor Sleep in the theater to be strangely moving. The Shining has long been one of my favorite films and, in many ways, feels like more than just a movie to me; it’s a work of art with an atmosphere so palpable that, for 146 minutes, the skeptic in me shuts off and I believe whole-heartedly in the supernatural. A viewing earlier this year felt even more magnified than before—as the Overlook Hotel is a place where evil congregates and thrives and, looking around us these last few years, that seems to be increasingly true of the world outside the movie theater as well. It makes me want to cling to what good exists in The Shining universe: the resourceful Danny Torrance and his psychic protector Tony; Shelley Duvall’s wide-eyed matriarch; the genuine warmth Scatman Crothers brought to his role. Duvall, long derided by many for her turn in the film, gives my favorite performance in The Shining; and I suppose that’s partially what made Doctor Sleep so emotionally impactful: as I watched Flanagan’s sequel, I sensed that he cared about and appreciated those same aspects of Kubrick’s film, and not just the immediately quotable moments like “Here’s Johnny!” (Alex Essoe’s performance here as Wendy Torrance serves as a lovely tribute to Shelley Duvall)

In 2019 it’s easy to feel like ‘the Shine’ has gone out of the world. Evil does persist, as evidenced by Doctor Sleep’s most difficult-to-watch scene, in which the movie’s antagonists, a pack of RV-driving vampires known as the True Knot, torture and murder a young boy in an empty lot. But Flanagan is able to end his adaptation on a hopeful note: in Doctor Sleep, we see psychic trauma serve as a bond between one generation in the next, as a middle-aged Dan Torrance fights to protect a young girl named Abra, also blessed with supernatural abilities. And it’s ultimately Dan’s same demons, when properly harnessed, that allow him to fight back against the True Knot. It’s a reminder that so many victims of abuse do not go on to inflict that same abuse on others, but instead find the courage to become counselors or mentors to those in need.

RECIPE: Not unlike our Editor, I’m always looking for an excuse to remove turkey from the Thanksgiving equation—it’s dry, it makes you sleepy, and is really only there to accentuate the stuffing and gravy, if we’re being honest. A couple years ago, I tried this honey curried roasted chicken as an alternative and now I have no reason to ever go back. Sorry, turkey!

Gabe Weiss, Intern: Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne explores the same polarities between dogmas of religion and science that we still face today. Modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke claimed the only books he found indispensable were the Bible and Jacobsen’s novel. In his letters, he praised Niels Lyhne“In it there is nothing that does not seem to have been understood, held, lived and known in memory’s wavering echo.”

To me, it is not surprising that a sensitive poet like Rilke would suggest Niels Lyhne to young poets searching for a reason to write, as Jacobsen’s novel aims to distinguish the polarity between faith and reason. The book examines the internal struggle of a rational person with romantic ideals attempting to redefine his faith on his own terms. I suspect Rilke saw this struggle to be the same for all poets who try to shape their lives around art and tackle the burden that comes with this personal commitment.

Jacobsen himself was both a poet and a botanist, a translator of Charles Darwin, and an admirer of Kierkegaard. Through his studies, the author’s conflicting interests between science and poetry led him to believe that the illusion of the Christian faith was in conflict with the laws of nature. Much like his character Niels, Jacobsen lost his romantic partner due to these beliefs and later suffered from tuberculosis, which likely fueled the writing process of his masterwork.

Niels Lyhne is a coming of age story about a boy who feels contempt for the Christian faith that his family clings to like a crutch rather than overcome their grief and suffering through reason. Despite Niels’ indifference to organized religion, he realizes that his disapproval of God and his family’s blind devotion to Him is out of spite rather than genuine doubt. After the death of his aunt Edele, he decides to cast God out of his heart due to what he regards as a betrayal. As Niels matures, he engages in various love affairs with women who try to warn him about the consequences of idealized love. Throughout the novel, we find that many of the characters in the book seem doomed to feeling alone, from the tutor who was in love with Edele to Niels’ long affair with his friend Erik’s wife, who tries to teach him to accept what he can’t control: “We can’t hold out waging a battle against ordinary people; deep inside we think they are right because they are the ones who judge.” Jacobsen’s depicts Niels’ struggle to fill the emptiness of a godless existence and live vicariously through those very same individuals who oppose him.

While this novel is rooted in its atheistic beliefs, it also shows Niels’ gradual attainment of free will. At Edele’s funeral, Jacobsen delves into the mind of the angry pubescent who bitterly justifies his resentment of God:

“With a believing mind he had followed Jesus on his wandering of the earth. But the fact that Jesus was still subordinate to his Father, walked so powerlessly, and suffered so humanly, had concealed his Godliness from Niels; in him Niels had seen only the son of God, not God Himself, and thus it was to God the Father that he and prayed, and it was God the Father who had betrayed him in his bitter need. But if God had turning away from him, then he could also turn away from God. If God had no ears, then Niels would have no voice.”

Here Jacobsen makes the bold claim that the suffering of Christ is comparable to the same kind of betrayal that Niels felt when Edele passed away. To me, Niels Lyhne evokes the restlessness that comes when we feel dissatisfied with the beliefs that govern us in our own age. Jacobsen’s mature approach to these religious dilemmas remind us that we are living in the repercussions of historical change, and that we are still a part of an ongoing narrative, regardless of what we might think. Jacobsen’s confident approach to Athiesm as a way of life doesn’t entirely dismiss religion, for it reminds us that faith and reason are now in our own hands, and we must responsibly wield them to inspire the stories yet to be told for generations to come.

RECIPIE: Here is the recipe for the German Rotkohl my grandmother used to make for us each year.

Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: There’s plenty that’s been said about Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, but among the movie’s rich themes worth considering is how Scorsese, who is 76, depicts aging. It is pitiless. Decrepitude is in the fore. We see his characters reduced to wheelchairs and walkers, limbs trembling, words slurred. A walk down a dark hallway becomes a life-and-death challenge. But worse, much worse, is what it would mean to be the near the end of life without love. Your friends are all dead. Your family wishes you were dead. And yet you carry on, alone in a nursing home, just regret and perplexity to keep you company.

I would suggest that it’s one thing to depict from your director’s chair, while cozy within the warm assurance of your youth, the inevitable (assuming you’re fortunate to make it that long). But it is entirely different to do so when you are in the anteroom leading to the Big Nothing. Perhaps that is why aging doesn’t come off as   a simple trope here. Rather, it feels like gospel truth. It raises the question of what are you doing with your life: are you taking care of what’s important? Will you be able to stand yourself? Can you make your peace?

Spalding Gray said everybody knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. The Irishman can be understood as an old man’s soliloquy wherein he no longer has the luxury of not believing. Even as he still can’t quite bring himself around to that understanding—out of fear, perhaps, of accepting how badly he misspent his life, or simply because he doesn’t feel bad about the evil he did, so what sting could dying hold, what was the point of anything?—the film’s minor-key atmosphere of gloom and sadness tells us there will be a reckoning for its titular protagonist, even if the audience doesn’t witness it. But the pathos of the old asking the door be left open a little bit for them at night, reverting to reassurances sought by an anxious child, are harrowing enough to see.

RECIPE: If you’re into egg nog, this recipe from Bi-Rite is a must (click to
pages 4-5 on the slide to find it).

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ZYZZYVA Recommends October 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

As October comes to a close, the Bay Area gears up for perhaps its favorite holiday: here’s hoping your Halloween involves more treat than trick! In the office, we’re also offering a seasonal Staff Recommends—here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Scout Turkel, Intern: My music taste is defined by habit rather than preference. What makes a song good isn’t necessarily genre or content, but its capacity to fit into my rigorous and specific listening routine: for about a month at a time, I play one song, and one song only, on repeat, over and over again. Few songs hold up––most become unlistenable or annoying after a few goes. And of those select tracks that do withstand more than a handful of consecutive plays, hardly any are able to sustain me for the duration I demand. The song has to be versatile––joy-sparking but also a bit sad, appropriate for a long, crowded BART ride home or an early morning cross-campus trudge to class. It has to be sexy and danceable, galvanizing enough for chores and cleaning, calming enough to study with, and, more basically, just generally likable. I’ll be playing it all the time, so wide-spread appeal is important; I have two roommates and over one-hundred housemates, the hope is that they enjoy (or at least can tolerate) it along with me.

I’ve had many of these songs come and go over the years, but one stands up against the nonstop-listening test like no other. “Coconut Kiss” by Niki & The Dove is the soundtrack to all my seasons, and all my tasks. My breakups and my triumphs. My bad days and my dance parties, alone or, more usually, in the kitchen of my giant communal home, friends and peripheral acquaintances alike all writhing on the half-mopped floor to the synthpop anthem of our dreams. Maybe the dream is just mine, but Swedish duo Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf make me feel otherwise. Dahlström’s voice is powerful but a little eerie, high-pitched and slightly crooning with a disco-y pace and flirtation. I won’t pretend to know anything about this band––I don’t. I haven’t even really engaged with the rest of their 2016 album beyond its genius title, Everybody’s Heart is Broken Now. Which is true. “Coconut Kiss” isn’t quite a climate disaster ballad, but it’s hard to turn away from the possibility it offers for collective mourning; the planet is hurtling towards an uninhabitable state, and we all, in a truly worldly sense, are being forced to feel the crushing heartbreak of our doom together, perhaps for the very first time. And yet, in the true fashion of our times, it’s also campy. And sweet. And sensual. Karlöf’s lyricism is objectively sad, but the pop, electro-rhythm of the track begs you to dance. “I am a loner / And I paid my dues / And I don’t depend on nothing / Or no one / I am a loner / All confused / Waiting for that rainy day / While I spend my time / Walking in the sunshine”––believe it’s about climate change yet? If you don’t, well, that’s okay. It took me a few hundred listens to land on that take.

More fundamentally, “Coconut Kiss” is about heartache and the defensiveness that comes with that violation, be it carried out by the corporations warming our planet to its premature end or a first love who stopped feeling the same way. The answer it offers to this loneliness isn’t redemption, but something more removed, even cynical: “Swinging in my palm tree / Cause I love coconuts / I’m drinking Coconut Kiss / And you don’t get to know me / You don ‘t get to know me…” I love that impulse; it’s not that the mystical and heartbreaking “you” doesn’t know me, or shouldn’t know me, but rather that they aren’t allowed to. The isolation isn’t necessarily empowering, but it is a choice. As everything goes up in flames, we retain a little say in how the end plays out, sipping our syrupy, boozy punch in what may be the last palm tree on earth.

Even at the end of all things, planetary or not, Niki & The Dove puts a sleepy, warm haze over all of our sadness and confusion. “I like to / watch the world / The world is looking good today / It’s almost like I ‘m sleeping / I pull my head back to the sun” whispers Dahlström in her intimate drawl. There’s still some pleasure in watching, which might be a terrible thing to say. But it feels true when she sings it, and truer still when I hear it for the hundredth time, on the kitchen floor clutching my mop, now a mic, or too close to another body on the five o’clock commuter train, somewhere under the bay.

Sophia Stewart, Intern: Succession is a difficult series to distill into so few words. The show is so many things at once. It’s an amalgam of many genres: corporate thriller, family drama, workplace comedy. It pairs the course repartee of Veep with the aesthetic of Billions (that is, badly behaved rich people in New York). And as for premise, Succession borrows a bit from Arrested Development: a flawed family with a company to their name, law-evading patriarch, adult children vying for power.

I know what you’re thinking: who wants to watch rich, white, entitled people scheme for hours on end, especially at a time like this? Believe me, the thought crossed my mind, too. But Succession goes beyond the constraints of its premise to deliver something that is devilishly clever, emotionally resonant, and thoroughly addictive. Each episode is hearty, filling—stuffed with gripping drama and caustic wit. Dysfunction is the series’ organizing principle, and boy, does Succession do dysfunction well.

So here’s the story: the Roy family, who reign over a media empire, are a family in name alone. In reality, they’re a business operation. Unburdened by familial love or loyalty, the Roys are ruthless and conniving, conspiring against each other as they paw at power. The drama that plays out among the family members is downright Shakespearean—betrayals, back-door deals, attempted patricide. There is Kendall, the scorned heir; Roman, the twisted manchild; Siobhan, the focused striver; and Connor, the idiosyncratic recluse. And of course, pulling the strings is Logan Roy, CEO and father, in that order.

What makes Succession work is the thrill of seeing these personalities collide. These are terrible, terrible people, and watching them mistreat each other is truly delicious. (At one point, an observer of the family tells Kendall, “Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth,” and I have to agree.) We’re like anthropologists, studying these hapless, hopeless miscreants. The Roys are monsters, products of late capitalism, and what a joy it is to watch them run loose in Manhattan. But just because the Roys are despicable doesn’t mean they’re soulless. They still succumb to the pains and pressures that come with their high-stakes lives. And we are there to witness it all, as bystanders, voyeurs, or something in between.

Succession alternates between satisfying schadenfreude and heartrending tragedy, often within the same episode. Yes, we feast on the Roys’ suffering, maybe even delight in it. But we also suffer alongside them: no matter how removed from reality they may be, their humiliations, addictions, and rejections, in some sense or another, mirror our own. And that, dear reader, is the success of Succession: the Roys can disgust us all they want—we’ll love them just the same.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Ever since Robert Eggers’ name floated around a possible remake of the 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu, I’d imagined what The Witch director might do with a visual aesthetic inspired by German Expressionism. With Egger’s latest film The Lighthouse now in limited release in the Bay Area, I no longer have to wonder: the spirit of Weimar Era filmmaking is present in every shot of Robert Pattinson’s wide, startled eyes. While the Nosferatu remake appears to be on the back-burner for Eggers (maybe someday?), his latest is a black-and-white, shot-on-35mm chamber piece about a grizzled lighthouse keeper, played by Willem Dafoe, and his new assistant (Pattison) in New England circa the late 1800’s.

Beset by ill weather, their post begins to stretch beyond its scheduled four week tenure and the two men—dynamically portrayed by Dafoe at his spittle-on-beard best and an equally game Pattinson—find their relationship (and their sanity) tested by isolation, the elements, and the almost sensual lure of the lighthouse’s beacon itself.

I feel somewhat guilty trying to articulate my thoughts on this film after only one viewing—very early into The Lighthouse I knew I absolutely needed to see it again, if only to inhabit once more the wave-battered world Eggers has conjured here, one where seabirds carry the souls of long dead sailors and mermaids appear like sirens on the rocky shore. Much as in The Witch, Eggers’ influences here feel as literary as they do cinematic: one pictures an antique bookshelf where Herman Melville sits comfortably alongside H.P. Lovecraft. The dialogue registers as period accurate and studiously researched; much of the viewing experience involves listening intently to the performers, a reminder that part of the pleasure of cinema can be simply experiencing sonorous dialogue in the hands of actors who can truly rise to the level of the material. This is never more apparent than during the many scenes in which Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson have cause to curse each other out: their exasperated tirades are bawdy, vulgar, and represent some of the best “setpieces” I’ve seen in theaters all year.

To say much more about The Lighthouse might give away some of the film’s many surprises and delights—I’m also underselling just how damn funny this material is—but rest assured the movie is worthy of the serious viewer’s time before it departs from theaters like a steamboat headed back to the mainland. Reports indicate Eggers’ next film will follow a 10th century Nordic prince on a quest for revenge; after impressing with both Puritan folk horror in The Witch and the nautical hypno-drone of The Lighthouse, Eggers seems poised to do much the same in the land of the Vikings. I’ll be purchasing a ticket.

Laura Cogan, Editor: Selecting which book to read next from the mile high stack and even longer list is an inscrutable process for me, one that is more emotional and intuitive than reasoned. I want to read them all, so why this book, today, but not last month or last year? I can’t say. I think there may be material to analyze here, perhaps not totally dissimilar to the way dreams reveal simmering, subterranean concerns. I find myself reluctant to interpret, but it is interesting to note areas of synchronicity or divergence. The two books I read this month, for example, are different in most ways except this: they both revolve around family life, the most profound fears of parenthood, and the outer edges of what we can fully understand about what transpires at home–especially our own.

First I read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, an expansive and engaging fairytale blending contemporary and classical ideas of trolls and witches. LaValle’s smooth prose and compact chapters gave me the thoroughly enjoyable sense of being told a story of adventure and enchantment by a practiced and authoritative craftsman. Yes, there were moments when the plot felt strained or central ideas over-explained, but it never felt worth breaking the spell of story to stop and dwell on them.

Next I picked up The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a book I’d been both drawn to and dreading. Over two tense days of reading I inhabited every taut sentence, every deft character portrait, every nuanced and loaded interaction between Louise (the nanny) and her employers and their children. Slimani is careful not to vilify the parents (painting a sensitive portrait of the working mother), while seeking to create context (personal and societal, structural) for Louise’s break down. The book raises thorny, un-resolvable issues of class, reminding us that such issues persist even when, with the best of intentions, we turn a blind eye. Ultimately, there can be no explanation or understanding for the devastating act of violence Louise commits: it is unthinkable. But Slimani turns the impulse to ask “why” and “how” into an exercise in humanity.

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ZYZZYVA Recommends August 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

We’re officially in the Dog Days of Summer now (speaking of which, have you seen the literal Dogs Days on our Instagram?). We’ll be sad to see the summer go, but before the season departs—here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Sabrina Orah Mark story collection Wild Milk

Scout Turkel, Intern: Wild Milk (166 pages; Dorothy, A Publishing Project), the first work of fiction from poet Sabrina Orah Mark came out in October of last year. Fall seems almost too appropriate a season to mark the birthday of this haunting collection of short stories. Surrealist, creeping, and piercingly sweet, Mark’s stories unfold like incantations: each so arresting and vivid, it must conjure something. But what? Concerned with painful histories, trauma, political malfunction, and intergenerational connectivity, Wild Milk represents through distortion. In “For the Safety of Our County,” the book’s seventh story, “a new batch” of Presidents are brought into the White House in a sequence both quite funny and nightmarish:

The Presidents come from all over. Perishable Presidents in thinning sweaters. Presidents bent like moons. Thirsty Presidents. Humming Presidents. Thick, winterish Presidents. Sick Presidents. Beautiful Presidents. See-through Presidents…
None of the Presidents smile.
They go through the turnstiles. Entrance is free.

The dreamlike motion of Mark’s prose here is indicative of how Wild Milk approaches both story and critique: not from the position of revelation through explanation or uncovering, but rather by seeing what wells-up when image, language, and cadence are privileged over drawing conclusive conceits. The method seems, to me, undeniably poetic, which makes sense; I first discovered Mark through her verse, specifically her 2004 debut collection The Babies, which is as profoundly beautiful and deeply ominous as Wild Milk. I think this flirtation with verse and distinctly poetic methodology is why I love Wild Milk so much—the book is categorized as fiction, but so much of it feels like a love letter to poetry, be it highly aware of the latent and explicit histories and violences which lurk around the form. In “Clay,” Mark writes:

I was wrong. The man / in the flowers is looking around. He is rising up. / Maybe he would like to share / your colored clay? I’m sorry, Son / I’m just a poet. I hope this is enough.

I didn’t add slashes to denote line breaks, that’s exactly how Mark wrote it. Even in its structure, Wild Milk plays with, and challenges, the distance between poetry and prose. I love the moment of apology too, as if the work itself knows that its stories can be, frankly, confusing, at least when measured against the expectations for commercial fiction. If you want to try something genre defying, radically awake toward the world around us, and earnestly tender, pick up Wild Milk. If it is fiction, it’s fiction that listens very, very well, which is an endlessly special thing to witness.

Bill Murray and Jan Vogler album New World

Julia Matthews, Intern: I almost wish I wasn’t making this recommendation, because the experience of stumbling unexpectedly onto Bill Murray and Jan Vogler’s theatrical album New Worlds is just shy of magical. In what began as a live show, Murray—alongside a trio consisting of cello, violin, and piano—performs recitations and songs. The album, which came out in 2017, feels too impossibly timeless to have been produced only 2 years ago. New Worlds is a carefully curated experience—musical and literary discoveries and pairings are transferred into a visceral impression of Americana in its contemporary relevance. The palpable energy of the classical trio lifts Murray’s beautiful, paternal, chameleon voice, and occasionally drowns him out in favor of the swell of music.

The album’s first track, “The Carnival of The Animals, R.125: The Swan / blessing the boats,” was my first encounter with New Worlds. As I listened, I felt its blessing was intended for me, in all the particular ways I needed one, even as Lucille Clifton’s words address anyone, or everyone. With this piece enters the motif of water that glides throughout the album. In “Song of the Open Road / Song of Myself,” Murray reads Whitman’s poetry unaccompanied, slowly and with great thoughtfulness. The words urge transience, bridging the tranquil opening blessing with the coming adventurous journey. In “Piano Trio No.1 In B Flat, Op.99 D.898: 2. Andante un poco mosso / The Deerslayer,” Murray reads James Fennimore Cooper’s text as an inquiry into the place of humans with respect to nature. The narration looks upon undisturbed wilderness as a relic in the age of the frontier. Murray’s renditions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from George and Ira Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess and Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God” introduce the complicated nature of doubt and instability in faith alongside the simple joy of making noise. Murray’s brilliant voice acting features prominently throughout the album, particularly on one of its most powerful tracks, “Moon River / Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which asks: Where does individual consciousness live in an unjust system, and what do we expect of those who dwell within this system?

In New Worlds, find replenishing comfort in art that is plainly earnest. However, consider not only the content of the texts and music that Murray and Vogler bring to life, but the historical American realities that informed the original artists’ intentions as well.

Netflix series The OA

Laura Cogan, Editor: Back in March I mentioned to Josh Korwin (our production designer) that I was searching for a new show to watch. I had a vague and impossibly specific idea of what I wanted: something immersive that would require a degree of focus. Something serious, but not gritty or violent. Something invested in ideas about contemporary life, but not play-acting with the same frayed topics of the daily news, chasing headlines. He helpfully suggested The OA, and I promptly forgot all about it. Until a couple months later when the dreariness of the TV landscape combined with the anxiety of a particularly dreadful news cycle somehow brought it back to mind. Through the first episode, I was skeptical: although hard to tell where the show was going, or what story would unfold, it seemed ominously tethered to familiar and (to me) exhausting themes: conjuring the alarming specters of kidnapping, abuse, trauma. But the show was, also, immediately, sort of strange, and I was intrigued enough to stay with it. As the first season unfolded, it became increasingly unusual and interesting. I’ll admit, however, that it’s Season Two that I truly enjoyed, and now when I recommend the show to others, that’s what I’m truly recommending.

In part it’s because the distressing captivity aspect largely fades away; in larger part it may be because the show shifts location to the Bay Area, which seems significant to how dramatically and imaginatively the story opens up. It is relatively uncommon to see the Bay Area explored and showcased onscreen—and The OA takes us not only around San Francisco in pleasing noir style, but also revels in the mystical beauty of West Marin, and dramatically amplifies the eerie quality of Treasure Island. I am always interested in looking at the role that place plays in shaping drama in literature, and Season Two offers (among other things) an interesting examination of that idea, with the intersecting themes of tech and mysticism and ethical questions.

But those are details, really. What made The OA special was its extraordinary imagination and ambition, and its infatuation with the power of story-telling itself. The questions it asks are sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional—but always stripped of cynicism. Watching it offered relief from the fatigue not only of the news, but also from the numbing sense of the same stories being told in the same ways, following the same patterns. So of course this week I was disappointed to hear that Netflix will not make the additional seasons that the show’s creators planned. But I’m honestly more surprised it was ever made in the first place (that’s my own cynicism showing up). I do think that what they were able to produce stands on its own, and the open-ended quality of the de facto ending actually works in the context of the show’s kaleidoscopic infinity-gazing. I can’t wait to see what they create next. Though I know it will likely surprise me in new ways, I can’t help but hope it will also include parallel universes, giant squids, and layered references to “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In the meantime, I’m glad I have Season Two of Lodge 49 to look forward to on Monday.

Orion Lake music

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Orion Lake’s Twitter bio reads, “in a bedroom with a soft voice…” and there’s perhaps no better description for the music that 22 year-old Christina Hernandez makes under the moniker. The New Jersey-based musician has already accumulated an EP and a series of singles on Bandcamp and music streaming services that feel entirely cohesive and of a piece: dreamy and forlorn, carried aloft by her ethereal vocals and innate gift for melody.

Orion Lake first appeared on my radar after she collaborated with L.A.’s MIRSY on the haunting “Big Eyes” (“Never made sense to me/Love is only memory/All I want is to fall asleep”). But I quickly took to Orion Lake’s back catalog, a series of tracks she’s been steadily releasing since Fall 2017, each one like a quiet capsule of the artist’s melancholy reflection in front of a rain-streaked window.

In an interview with UK music blog A Lonely Ghost Burning, Hernandez stated, “I’d say I’m more of a writer than anything,” and it’s a notion that bears out in her gently bruised lyrics and concise song structure (most tracks don’t run much longer than two minutes). This style is exemplified by the closing track on her first EP, the acoustic duet “The Future is Not That Scary”: “Who were you/when you walked right in/to my head, to my heart/You left it open/It’s kerosene/left in a time machine/Kissed you once/Now I want it forever.”

Hernandez cites The Cure and Bjork among her musical influences, and describes her songwriting process thus: “Most of the time it’s me in my room, and I’m usually alone. I like to make it atmospheric with the lighting, and I just make sounds and start writing.” That DIY quality—the sound of just an artist and her laptop or guitar—is there in the closely mic’d intimacy of Orion Lake’s voice, and the quiet backing of synthesizers and acoustic guitars. It’s the kind of dark bedroom pop that should resonate with anyone who can relate to the feelings of depression and anxiety Orion Lake poetically conveys (“I cry hard on the drive home/I only laugh when I’m alone”), and marks Hernandez as an artist to watch closely in the coming years.

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ZYZZYVA Recommends June 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

We’d be lying if we said the highlight of June 2019 wasn’t our Annual Fundraiser & Celebration on the 21st! Thanks again to everyone who came out and made it such a memorable evening. But there were some other memorable experiences in June — so here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

You'll Grow Out of It essay collection Jessi KleinArianna Casabonne, Intern: I’m midway through You’ll Grow Out Of It, The New York Times Bestseller by Jessi Klein, and I find myself absorbed with Klein’s raw and relatable writing. The book, a collection of twenty four essays, is as much about how Klein navigates the cultural norms of femininity as it is about making fun of them (and herself). In these revealing stories, Klein dissects her feelings growing up as a late bloomer, and the many awkward and cringe-worthy moments of figuring out womanhood. Immediately, the novel’s first essay, “Tom Man” delivers a heart-felt and funny recount of her transition from a “Pippi Longstocking-esque tomboy to are-you-a-lesbian-or-what tom man.” In this story, Klein admits to looking “like a mess during college,” and that it “didn’t even occur to [her] to eat anything other than breaded chicken patties on Wonder Bread buns followed by a piece of cake” for all four years of school. With a humorous self-awareness, Klein takes readers along as she describes her attempts at transitioning from a “Tom Man” to a “Grown Woman.”

Along this journey are many embarrassing pitfalls, devastating heartbreaks, and a continuous unveiling of what it means to be a woman. In You’ll Grow Out Of It, womanhood seems to be a combination of the authentic, cringey, and heartfelt moments of navigating the dating scene, going to therapy, seeking advice from girlfriends, and finding love. At the same time, womanhood is swathed with pressure to participate in typically feminine activities, like lingerie shopping and barre classes. Klein critiques how the seemingly effortless perfection women radiate comes at a physical, emotional, and monetary cost. In “Bar Method and The Secrets of Beautiful Women,” Klein is shocked to find how hard women work in order to maintain their image. In New York City, Klein attends a barre workout class where each class costs $32 with a recommended five classes a week for the best results. Therefore, the women spend $180 a week on having toned bodies. In addition, there is what Klein describes as “taking a class where you are in horrible pain and hate your life and might lose your lunch at any moment.” Klein finds the class ridiculous and annoying, yes, but she is not immune. She sees the Bar Method instructors with their LuluLemon leggings and butts “like the very best of the produce section,” and she is swayed into continuing the class.

While Klein provides important critiques on hyper-femininity, she humorously highlights how she is still roped into it and affected by its ridiculous standards. Her stories intertwine humor with significant insights, creating a truly fun and compelling read. You’ll Grow Out Of It poignantly captures the uncomfortable and hilarious experience of becoming a woman, in a world where femininity and womanhood hold a multiplicity of meanings. In her own stories, Klein delivers wisdom with a humorous, self-deprecating edge. Reading You’ll Grow Out Of It feels like every long conversation with a best friend. It’s soul-barring, funny, and strikingly real.

Mandy movie posterJulia Matthews, Intern: Only a year after its 2018 Sundance premiere, Mandy seems on its way to cult classic status. I saw it for the first time last weekend when I caught a showing at Oakland’s (wonderfully strange) New Parkway Theater. Directed by Panos Cosmatos and starring Nicholas Cage, Mandy is cinematic sensory overload. It is fearsome from its opening moments as cinematographer Benjamin Loeb and late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson plunge the viewer into a heavy metal universe drenched in staggering displays of color and light and scored by perpetually moaning electric guitar.

Mandy is the story of Red (Nicholas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a couple living an idyllic, if remote, life of domestic bliss in a Pacific Northwest forest. Their intimacy is palpably conveyed through shimmery scenes of rowboat afternoons, pillow talk about the universe, and nights on the couch with dinner and a B-Movie. When a quasi-religious, Manson Family-esque cult roll into town –– followed later by a vampiric biker gang –– Red and Mandy’s quiet life together is excruciatingly and irrevocably destroyed. Red then embarks on a quest for revenge that plays out like a feverish nightmare (fueled by an entire bottle of liquor, a fistful of cocaine, and one drop from a horrible batch of liquid LSD). The film is purely psychedelic: saturated with deep, consuming blues, poisoned greens, and smothering reds, and steeped in the continuous synth rumble of Jóhannsson’s score. It’s Eighties metal from start to finish.

Although deliberately and at times painfully slow, Mandy is punctuated with unforgettable scenes, including a literal chainsaw duel. Cosmatos has pulled off an appalling feat of reversal: creating a film so tense and emotionally destructive that the climax’s unbearable violence actually brings the viewer tangible relief when it finally arrives (the whole theater even erupted into laughter at a few choice moments). Credit must also be given to Jóhann Jóhannsson; after so many minutes of liquid ambient sound left me yearning for a downbeat, the pounding drums that kick in to accompany Red’s march towards vengeance lifted me out of my seat. Above all, Mandy represents Nicolas Cage unleashed –– his raw, maniacal performance takes this from a slasher film to an Odyssean romance. Go see Mandy…but only if you have a strong stomach, a big screen, good speakers, and a hand to hold.

Gabriel García Márquez essays The Scandal of the CenturyOscar Villalon, Managing Editor: Gabriela Gárcia Márquez’s The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings has been sustaining me in dribs and drabs, its pleasures neatly delivered in various pieces the maestro wrote for Spanish-language newspapers and magazines from the ‘50s through the ‘80s. They’re not really columns or articles; they’re more like feuilletons, those newspaper pieces shaped by their authors’ sharpened cultured and literary acumen to where the fact-based article you’re reading assumes the guise of belle-lettres. (That is to say, writing that is sorely missing from American newspapers.)

He weighs in on many things, and the judiciousness in what was selected by editor Cristóbal Pera for this book (50 pieces plucked from the five-volume Obra periodística) is borne out in how Gárcia Márquez’s writings on Venezuela and Cuba and (of course) Colombia read as fresh—and relevant—these many decades later. The same is true of his pieces on the literary world (1980’s “The Specter of the Noble Prize”: “The bad thing is that the final result does not depend on the candidate’s own right, and not even on the justice of the gods, but on the inscrutable will of the members of the Swedish Academy.”) and the writing life (1966’s “Misadventures of a Writer of Books”: “Personally, I believe that the writer, as such, has no other revolutionary obligation than to write well. Nonconformism, under any regime, is an essential condition that can’t be helped, because a conformist writer is most likely a bandit, and most definitely a bad writer.”)

There’s an old saw that there’s a novel in progress in the desk drawer of every reporter. Gárcia Márquez would be an apotheosis of this maxim. “I am basically a journalist,” Pera quotes him as having said. “All my life I have been a journalist. My books are the books of a journalist, even if it’s not so noticeable.” What a marvel, then, to read these works, written under deadlines, presented to a mass audience, and see both in advance of his fame and after its establishment an immutable and rare greatness.

Under the Silver Lake movie posterZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Over the last several years, A24 has made a name for itself as the premiere independent film distributor, with titles like Lady Bird and Hereditary to their name; so it came as a surprise when the label delayed the theatrical release of Under the Silver Lake, director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his 2015 breakout horror film It Follows, not once but twice, only to then unceremoniously dump the film on Video on Demand services four months later. I suppose I can’t blame A24 for not knowing what to do with Under the Silver Lake: I’ve seen the film twice now and I still don’t entirely know how I feel about it. Although rumors swirled that the distributor had prodded Mitchell to deliver a new edit based on negative test screenings, the movie’s weighty 140 minute runtime –– and indeed the film itself –– suggest that not a moment has been trimmed from Mitchell’s L.A. slacker neo-noir. For both better and worse, Under the Silver Lake registers as David Robert Mitchell’s unfiltered creative vision.

The story follows the jobless and perpetually-behind-on-rent Sam, played by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, as he grows convinced the sudden disappearance of his new neighbor (Riley Keough) is not a random occurrence, but rather evidence of a vast conspiracy involving the Hollywood elite and the deeply coded messages they weave throughout pop culture. Under the Silver Lake possesses style to spare –– cinematographer Michael Gioulakis brings the same visual flair he exhibited earlier this year in Jordan Peele’s Us, and Disasterpiece’s knockout soundtrack deliberately channels Bernard Herrmann’s thundering scores for Hitchcock thrillers such as Vertigo and Psycho.

The swooping camera movements and evocative music place us in a familiar genre context: as we watch Sam pull at every disparate thread of this Hollywood mystery, we anticipate a shadowy cabal will ultimately be uncovered. No doubt The Powers That Be will be dragged reluctantly into the light, albeit for a brief moment, and Sam will suffer some kind of punishment for upsetting the status quo, before things continue exactly as they were before. It’s Chinatown. Right?

But Under the Silver Lake does something unexpected, and it’s the reason I find the film –– for all its faults –– difficult to shake. As Sam begins to penetrate the cover-up at the heart of the story, we realize the “conspiracy,” such as it is, is fairly innocuous and not all that grand. Furthermore, as Sam ferrets around Silver Lake literally assaulting anyone who upsets his worldview or refuses to indulge his paranoid questioning, a realization sinks in for the viewer: this insecure young man and his rampant sense of entitlement are more of a danger to the citizens of L.A. than the purported masterminds he’s attempting to reveal.

Like so many men of his generation, Sam has surrounded himself with analog detritus: his apartment is a catalog of old video game consoles, VCRs, vintage pornography, and Nintendo Power magazines. His desperate search of their contents for increasingly arcane codes has less to do with unraveling a conspiracy and more with an inherent need to attach these artifacts with some meaning beyond an empty consumerism. It’s telling that Sam reserves his harshest punishment for the one person who dares to insist the pop culture that means so much to Sam does not, in fact, serve any purpose beyond a means to make someone else money. It must be said that Andrew Garfield has rarely been better than he is here, successfully subverting his boyish and handsome persona with Sam’s nervy, manic energy and a barely repressed misogyny disguised as lovesickness.

There’s a menace plaguing Los Angeles, the film tells us; but rather than lurking in the shadows or the halls of power, its face might be as familiar as the boy next door. Under the Silver Lake is a challenging, frequently unpleasant viewing experience. It’s also one of the most interesting artistic statements of the year.

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ZYZZYVA Recommends May 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

May, we hardly knew you! Yes, it seems we are well and truly in the midst of summer now, which means we’re gearing up for our Annual Fundraiser & Celebration on June 21st. But we’re also taking time out to share what ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Tierra Whack album Whack WorldJulia Matthews, Intern: While I’ll admit I’m often one to play songs out of order, hitting shuffle or getting distracted, I relish an album that begs to be listened from start to finish. Tierra Whack’s dreamscape Whack World is one such project. Released a year ago this spring, Whack World is Whack’s debut visual-album. On the fifteen-minute record, each song lasts just one minute before the rapper launches into a new one. It’s maddening, and it’s genius. Whack’s album is ripe with infectious hooks, pulling the listener into groove after groove only to truncate each song, never landing on the satisfying resolution our ears are trained to anticipate. I’m left with the sense that her music is larger-than-life: if her songs were forced to shrink by resolving to an end, it might be detrimental to their melodic contagiousness. Or perhaps the music is too potent, and hearing a song’s ending could be dangerous for the listener.

It’s this kind of imaginative spirit that Whack World inspires — Whack is unafraid of dwelling in the nonsensical. The audiovisual experience (directed by Thibaut Duverneix and Mathieu Léger) is outrageous, blending the playful with the dark. In “Pet Cemetery,” she sings in a graveyard full of animal sock puppets, lamenting the loss of her dog, perhaps in tribute to the death of her friend and fellow Philadelphia rapper, Hulitho. She often contorts her voice, adopting a deep and garbled mumble or a grating twang, and compliments the grab-bag variety of her sound with fantastical outfits and settings throughout the visual album.

Whack World is not fifteen minutes long because Whack doesn’t have much to say. Rather, it’s an exercise in less being more. She has listeners melodically hooked, but refuses to fill out each song beyond the exact sufficiency of her razor-sharp lyrics. In the visual album, Whack captivates with every entrancing scene, but knows she can cut off each one only to plunge the viewer into another. Whack’s music is bubbling into the mainstream, buoyed by critical acclaim for much of her work. To listen to Whack World is to flout musical conventions and embrace visceral ridiculousness. Fill in the gaps with your imagination.

Netflix series EasyArianna Casabonne, Intern: Netflix’s Easy is an anthology series created and directed by Joe Swanberg chronicling the lives of various couples in Chicago. Now in its third season, I stumbled upon Easy from Netflix’s “Recommended” section. I will admit, most of the time the recommended section does not yield the best results, however once in a blue moon Netflix reveals a hidden gem of a show. Easy is just that. Each episode focuses on a different couple, and throughout the seasons we watch their relationships morph, experience challenges, sometimes end, and sometimes begin again. The couples include a husband and wife who decide to explore an open marriage, a young lesbian couple figuring out how feminism and emotional obstacles play a role in their relationship, and a fading comic book author as he struggles to remain current and mend the pain he has caused various women.

There is a diverse and notable cast, including Dave Franco, Emily Ratajkowski, Orlando Bloom, and Jacqueline Toboni. The exploration of relationships among different sexes and races allows the show to delve into social issues as well. One episode focuses on a sex-positive feminist writer and sex worker played by Karley Sciortino. Her character refers to her sex work as a “side hustle” which she hopes will help her launch her career as a writer. In another episode, an older graphic novelist deals with a former graduate student of his who makes a comic about the time he slept with her while she was still his student. This episode addresses not only the abuse of power, but what rights artists have to share other’s stories, especially when it may be damaging to another person. Although the episodes tackle a variety of relationships and issues, they are all bound together by the setting of Chicago.

What Easy manages to capture very well is the nuance of human emotion. The challenges the couples face are wide and varied, yet the show narrows in on relatable experiences the viewer can take part in. The show’s title conveys just how naturalistic the writing and acting appear, allowing the audience to easily connect with the characters. The world these people live in feels authentic and modern, and something particularly current to our lives today.

Zhang Yimou film ShadowZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Zhang Yimou stands as one of the select few Chinese filmmakers to achieve success at the U.S.  box office –– 2002’s Hero remains the third highest grossing foreign-language film in America –– and even after the creative misfire of 2016’s (still interesting) The Great Wall, a new film from Yimou is a cause for celebration, particularly when he’s working in the wuxia genre he knows so well. Films like House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower are as much about stillness as they are the swift motion of martial arts; they luxuriate in their costumes and zither soundtracks as much as their bladed weaponry and wire-assisted battles. Yimou pinpoints at each of their centers a cauldron of barely repressed emotion that gives rise to the balletic violence: when the seasons suddenly change mid-battle in The House of Flying Daggers, mirroring the characters’ relationship to each other, it somehow makes perfect sense in Yimou’s stylized world.

His latest film, Shadow, is no exception, and fortunately it’s now screening in San Francisco. The movie finds the filmmaker truly embracing the artifice of digital cinema for an almost comic book-like aesthetic. True to its namesake, Shadow boasts a nearly black-and-white color palette, with blacks as deep and inky as the calligraphy brushstrokes we witness the characters perform. The first hour of the story gives itself over to palace court intrigue –– set during the Three Kingdoms period, it’s a twisting narrative that sees a wounded General replace himself with a highly trained double in order to scheme against the petulant young Emperor. Torn between the General and his ‘shadow’ (both played by Deng Chao, though his performance is so skilled viewers would be forgiven for thinking there are two separate actors in the roles) is the General’s wife, who finds herself developing feelings for her husband’s duplicate.

The table is clearly set for betrayal, intrigue, and tragedy in equal measure, and Yimou does not disappoint, tightening the rope for a back half full of expertly-choreographed action sequences, including razorblade umbrellas twirling in the rain, an androgynous army wielding crossbow gauntlets, and the startling introduction of blood red to the film’s stark milieu. It’s been over a decade since Zhang Yimou has delivered this brand of film –– the same gravity-defying, martial arts epic that introduced him to American multiplexes –– but Shadow operates with a confidence and grace to indicate Yimou hasn’t missed a step in the intervening years. Shadow is precisely the kind of visually lush, operatic tale that calls for the theatrical experience. I recommend Bay Area audiences seek it out while they have the opportunity.

Rachel Cusk novel TransitLaura Cogan, Editor: I’m midway through Transit, the second in Rachel Cusk’s compact and rigorous trilogy of novels, and as the book centers around a period of transition, upheaval, and uncertainty in the narrator’s life, it seems somehow appropriate that I’m writing about it while still reading and still gathering my thoughts. In this volume, Cusk’s narrator (Faye) is back in London, recently separated from the father of her children, and renovating her life nearly from the ground up. The run down second floor apartment she’s purchased requires extensive work. The largest part of the project—redoing the floors—is meant to assuage the vociferous complaints of her elderly downstairs neighbors who are sensitive to all footsteps from above, but thus far has only inflamed tensions, as the noise of the construction itself outrages them. There may be a metaphor in here, but I wouldn’t want to reach at one when Cusk has done such a beautiful, intricate job of laying down each sentence just so, and layering complex themes throughout. As in Outline, most of the text is rendered through a series of conversations. The stories shared by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are varied but rich with interconnectedness. The longing for freedom, the fear of change, the myriad ways we are shaped and hurt by our relationships with our parents and children—these all emerge at the forefront.

Amid all this, the meta-considerations of Outline are continued as well. In that first volume, a neighbor in Athens tells Faye, “I discovered that a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live.” That may be true for many of us. But it seems Cusk is asking Faye and the reader (and perhaps herself) to consider more fully what, then, constitutes a story. And in Transit, that question is more explicitly linked to the sacrifices and risks involved in our primary relationships. In one of the relatively rare moments when Faye, rather than just reporting the stories and ideas she’s listening to, steps forward and shares her own, she says, “…it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.”

I continue to be fascinated with Cusk’s work in these books, with the opacity of Faye, and the unusual authority and confidence of this voice and structure. It’s the kind of work that opens door upon door of inquiry, prompting me to take many, messy notes in the margins. I’m looking forward to reading Kudos next.

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ZYZZYVA Recommends April 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

April feels as though it’s come in gone in a flash (though we did make appearances at the Orcas Island Literary Festival and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books), but we’re taking time out to share what ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

306 Hollywood documentaryJosh Korwin, Graphic Designer: “If you didn’t have the physical remains of the past, the question would be whether it existed.” 2018’s 306 Hollywood (directed by Elan & Jonathan Bogarín), billed as a “magical realist documentary,” is otherworldly, yet perfectly ordinary. On the surface, the film revolves around the life and death of the filmmakers’ grandmother, Annette Ontell, and the ramshackle house she left behind. “Messy” would be putting it nicely (“This’ll be a shanda to show all this garbage!” Ontell remarks), but the Hillside, New Jersey house’s significance and inspirational role to the grandkids is contagious when seen through their wondering, childlike perspective. It’s a reminder of how when we’re young, anything can feel magical.

After her death, the Bogaríns decide “we’re turning grandma’s house into an archeological dig” before it is sold. This countdown premise provides a background rhythm for the film, which is otherwise a somewhat wandering meditation on memory, scale, and impermanence. Its rambling at times is forgivable, as a lively raconteur goes off on tangents while remaining utterly captivating. Not every story need be neatly told; along the dirt roads we find buried treasure.

The filmmakers have a peculiar fascination with the aesthetic of yesteryear, explicitly ogling type and lettering specimens from the past (swoon!). The opening and interstitial title cards primarily consist of hand-set letterpress prints by the talented designer/printers at Hammerpress, plus hand-lettering, foil stamped faux book covers, etc. They’re newly made artifacts in their own right, “imprints of time pressed into” the film itself.

Most spectacularly, the Bogaríns commissioned a tiny replica of their grandmother’s 1936 cottage, complete with its mid-century tacky-chic patterned wallpaper, wood paneling, and rose-pink tiled bathroom, all perfectly miniaturized. The exquisitely placed dollhouse toilet paper rolls and Saltines boxes add to the film’s Wes Andersonesque twee vibe, with a soupçon of I Like Killing Flies.

Can you bring someone back to life by examining their worldly possessions? Not entirely. But the Bogaríns’ elevation of household objects as archeological artifacts, shot reverently as though plinthed in the Metropolitan Museum, help us to remember, and to feel. Macro-lens textures of floral terry cloth and plastic CVS shopping bags are surprisingly gorgeous, and moving. Their Knolling and color groupings of office supplies into archaeological “catalogues” is bound to set off some ASMR for the obsessive compulsive designer types among us.

The film captures the specific cocktail of pain, joy, curiosity, learning, and grief that accompanies rummaging through a loved one’s house after they pass away, and the immense weight of all the stuff we carry around with us until it’s left to someone else to figure out.

This film hits particularly close to home for me. Ontell, in interviews filmed by Elan Bogarín over ten years, was a gem; she reminds me of my own sorely missed Jewish grandparents. As a people ever dispersed, our roots on this continent are extremely shallow. Our ancient heirlooms are lost, so Band-Aid tins full of pennies carry history in their place.

Conversations with an archaeologist, a fashion conservator, and an archivist at the Rockefeller estate contrast the lives of the important, famous, and wealthy from the lives of the anonymous and modest. Privilege leads to preservation (“we’re the winners so we get to tell the story that we want to tell”). But humanity transcends class. The Rockefeller archivist is asked, “is documenting your family’s history as important as documenting the history of the Rockefellers?” “Yes of course,” he replies, “my grandparents were hugely important. To make a qualitative judgment that they somehow didn’t have value, and so we’re not going to save a record of their existence, tells a kind of story that we don’t want to tell about this nation, which is that it’s only great and wealthy people who have value.”

Claudia Rankine play The White CardCasey Jong, Intern: Claudia Rankine’s The White Card is a concise and captivating two-scene play that begins at a dinner party for an artist, and ends in her art studio a year later. Rankine uses the creation and collection of fine art as a metaphor for the interrogation of our relationships with race and consumption of blackness.

The play has only five characters, including artist Charlotte, a black woman in her forties being courted by a wealthy white art collector and his family. Rankine seamlessly and quickly crafts white characters who don’t fit the mold of overt racists or smug wealthy conservatives, and who, for that very reason, consider themselves to be on the “right side” of the racial injustices of history and of today. These collectors of “black death”, as Charlotte frames it, are able to put political and racialized artwork on their walls without ever engaging with the politics or the humanity of affected black people:

Look, I don’t want to think of the officer as a monster of Hulk Hogan or a demon or whatever and I don’t think you’re a monster, but his obsession with black people as criminals and yours with black people as victims are cut from the same cloth. Neither is human.

The dynamics between Charlotte and the collectors are complicated by both the transactional nature of their interactions, and also by the family’s fascination with Charlotte and other black figures like Venus and Serena Williams, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others. Their first conversations gesture at misplaced guilt and a fundamental misunderstanding of what they believe they’re fighting for. Their activist son also plays an interesting role, one that may feel familiar to and critical of many readers, as he understands much of what is wrong with America but continuously overlooks the nuance of the issues he is fighting.

By the end of the play, Charlotte’s experience at the dinner has changed her art and perspective dramatically, and she clearly plans to continue shifting the perspective of others with her own work. One of Charlotte’s greatest insights comes when father and son are fighting at the dinner table, each of them insisting on one specific dimension of the larger conversation: “All things can be true at the same time.” The power of this simple line, to me, is in the tough questions it invokes in the context of this play: How might we face the realities of racialized violence without commodifying and numbing ourselves to the harm done to black people? How can whiteness, not just blackness, be addressed?

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ZYZZYVA Recommends March 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

Before we head off to Portland for AWP ’19, we thought we would share what  ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

The Magicians SyFy TV showKatie O’Neill, Intern: The abundance of streaming services available online have largely killed any urge I have to watch live TV.  Outdated advertisement breaks combined with the difficulty of committing to a set time make it more effort than it’s generally worth to catch a program as it airs.  But, every Wednesday night at 9pm I can be found in front of my TV tuned in to SYFY to catch the latest episode of The Magicians.

Based on the trilogy of the same name by Lev Grossman, the show recently entered its fourth season, and the first to not be based on the books’ canon.  Remarkably, it has largely avoided the stumbles that naturally accompany this sort of departure and is continuing to come into its own as one of the most inventive shows on air today.

The Magicians can be most succinctly described as, “Harry Potter meets The Chronicles of Narnia, but in grad school.” The series follows Quentin Coldwater, an awkward, deeply insecure Columbia graduate who is obsessed with the Narnia-esque children’s series “Fillory and Further.”  Played by the wonderful Jason Ralph, who brings a sympathetic quality the self-hating Quentin of the books lacked, Quentin discovers that magic is real when he is selected to take an entrance exam for the magical grad school Brakebills University. He passes and is quickly pulled into the orbit of several older students, most notably the haughty, regal Margo Hanson (Summer Bishil) and the charismatic hedonist Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman).

Three seasons later, after becoming the new royalty of Fillory, defeating several increasingly powerful villains, and killing a few gods, the Brakebills crew is struggling to restore magical freedom.  On a show largely driven by the strength of its characters, it is the connection between Quentin and Eliot that is perhaps the most compelling. Many fans of the books believe their relationship is a fundamentally romantic one, and in the most recent seasons the show has embraced this idea.  In season three, the poignant and beautiful episode “A Life in the Day” explored their relationship by sending them back in time to spend fifty years solving an impossible puzzle. They shared a brief kiss and grew old together, and fortunately for fans the duo retained the memory of their alternate lives once they returned to their real ones.  

Their connection continues to develop in season four, even though Eliot’s body has been taken over by a malignant force known as the Monster. Their relationship is one of the best portrayals of queer friendship and love on the air, and only promises to grow stronger as the season continues.  In addition to the queer experience, the series also explores issues of mental health, sexual assault, substance abuse, and the difficulty of maintaining healthy adult friendships.  When combined with inventive plotlines, wonderful special effects, and a welcome embrace of whimsy, the series has become something truly great and arguably transcends the (already fantastic) books it’s based on.  

Debra Granik film Leave No TraceOscar Villalon, Managing Editor: If you followed the round-ups of movies overlooked by the Academy Awards this year, you would’ve seen director Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace in any one of them. Set in the contemporary Pacific Northwest, her film (based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment) is a marvel of rich detail and moving understatement. Just as in her 2010 movie Winter’s Bone, we are presented with a community in crisis (vets afflicted with PTSD in this instance), and our entry into their lives is through the protagonist of an adolescent girl. The bond between the girl (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father (the underrated Ben Foster) is palpable. Their existence together—related in intimate scenes of them cooking, sleeping, foraging, traveling, and reading—is an anxious one but also enticingly warm. And the narrative that unfurls demonstrates again how wisdom comes with accepting how powerless you are to change the lives of some people, but that doesn’t mean you don’t keep showing your love for them as best you can.

Goodbye, Vitamin novel Rachel KhongCasey Jong, Intern: Released in 2017, Goodbye, Vitamin was Rachel Khong’s first novel. I didn’t get around to reading it until the following year, but now as I grow older alongside my parents, it’s become something of a staple on my bookshelf. The award-winning novel follows the life of our narrator Ruth, age 30 and single, as she moves back in with her parents. Her life isn’t quite falling apart, but her last serious relationship came to a devastating end, and her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, causing him to sometimes mistake his wife for his mistress or leave the house unattended and undressed. Ruth struggles to settle back into her childhood home and recover from her own heartbreak while watching her parents’ relationship become fractured by her father’s illness. Sometimes, it feels as though she’ll never find peace in the single life or her role as a caretaker, but Khong brilliantly coaxes the sweetness and the humor out of life’s tough moments:

If I were you is something I’ve never really understood. Why say, “If I were you”? Why say, “If I were you,” when the problem is you’re not me? I wish people would say, “Since I am me,” followed by whatever advice it is they have.

Goodbye, Vitamin, though one could argue its central theme is loss, doesn’t hang idly on what’s been lost–Ruth’s ex, Joel, or her father’s memory–nor does it ascribe too much significance to kernels of joy whenever Ruth comes across them. This novel, both distressing and utterly relatable, captures the ebb and flow of life through common themes of love and loneliness, the passage of time, and the gift of forgiveness:

You repeated about how nice the day was, either because you really wanted me to know it or because you’d forgotten you already mentioned it, but all of a sudden, it didn’t matter what you remembered or didn’t, and the remembering–it occurred to me–was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the day was nice.

Lee Chang-dong Korean movie BurningZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Burning represents Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong’s (Secret Sunshine, Oasis) first film in nearly a decade, and it arrives with enough thematic heft to suggest Lee has had a great deal on his mind during that time. The movie draws its source material from a short story by internationally renowned author Haruki Murakami, though Murakami’s story serves as more of a skeletal framework – not unlike the wire frames of the abandoned greenhouses Steven Yuen’s character claims he is so fond of torching to the ground. Perhaps the most critical change Lee makes is reducing the age of the protagonist; whereas the narrator of Murakami’s “Barn Burning” is a married, seemingly successful novelist in his thirties, Yoo Ah-in plays a recent college graduate with a Creative Writing degree and few career prospects.

Toiling on his father’s farm near the Korean border, Yoo Ah-in is forced to listen day and night to the propaganda being blasted from a speaker across the Northern side of the DMZ. Yoo seems to spend most of his time alone, scrounging for odd jobs and deriving what pleasure he can from the rare smoke break. He is forced to contend with the realities of a modern Korean society that has whole-heartedly embraced the values of cutthroat capitalism and, in the process, left behind a generation of young people, those with no family or class connections to speak of. The sense of desperation and resentment experienced by Yoo Ah-in and his peers simmers just below the surface of the film.

At least Yoo Ah-in’s romantic life appears a bit more hopeful when he runs into a former classmate (a radiant Jeon Jong-seo in her screen debut) and soon finds himself in her bed. Their dalliance ultimately lands Yoo Ah-in in the middle of a love triangle, however, after Jong-seo connects with the wealthy and enigmatic Ben (played by Steven Yuen) on a trip abroad. It is only later, after Jeon’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, that Yoo Ah-in begins to suspect Yuen’s well-mannered exterior might be hiding something far more sinister.

Much in the way Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here updated Taxi Driver for our ugly and digital 21st century, Burning at times feels like Lee Chang-dong’s response to classic Hitchcock pictures like Vertigo and Rear Window. Even in a film year as crowded as 2018, Burning’s depiction of sexual obsession and economic rage holds a unique staying power. The film’s core trio delivery uniformly excellent performances, from Yoo Ah-in’s aloof, almost socially stunted protagonist to Jeon Jong-seo’s troubled young woman and Steven Yuen’s chilling depiction of an upper class sociopath. Somehow Yuen turned a yawn into one of the most disquieting movie moments of the last year (you’ll know when you see it). Newcomers should also find Burning a terrific entry-point into contemporary Korean cinema, as it’s likely to appeal to any viewer who appreciates thrillers that are light on action and long on mood.

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi documentary Free SoloLaura Cogan, Editor: After Free Solo won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature it reappeared in theaters so latecomers like me could have another chance to see it on the big screen. Rarely have I found a documentary that so rewards a large screen viewing, for part of the thrill here is the visceral, palm-sweating anxiety of watching Alex Honnold spirit himself up the mostly sheer face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes. It seems to me Free Solo is exceptional mostly for allowing so many to witness something rarely done (in the case of El Cap, to be specific, never done), and even more rarely seen. It’s an impressive feat of physical strength and mental focus and endurance. But I what I found most compelling was the understory, which was not so unusual at all.

To be clear, I have no knowledge of (or particular interest in) rock-climbing, mountaineering, or any kind of extreme sport. I came to the movie with only the near-universal curiosity that draws me to many a documentary, and left with the familiar sense that even in the most niche of human activities lies a microcosm of the entire universe of human pathos. Here, for example, we find a young man doing something most of us find nearly incomprehensible for reasons that are completely un-extraordinary. Family dynamics are the wellspring of so much suffering, and so much striving and seeking—and that seems to be at least part of Honnold’s story. Something that begins as the need to perform well for one’s parents can take all kinds of strange, distorted shapes over the course of a person’s life. (Granted, abnormalities in Honnold’s amygdala are likely a contributing factor to the direction he’s taken as well.)

Even as he works meticulously to plan every foot and finger-hold of his upcoming climb, a task that demands his full concentration and the personal stakes of which simply could not be higher, he seems most flummoxed—and profoundly challenged—by his fledgling relationship. Honnold is often rude and immature, especially in his commentary on relationships, and I had to laugh in sympathy when I heard other people in the theater call him a jerk at a couple points. But there were other moments when he’d say something almost profound and it seemed lost on the audience. At one point he’s thinking aloud, trying to balance his relationship against his ambitions, and notes with consternation that his girlfriend simply wants to be happy. But, he says (as well as I can remember the line), “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.” He’s not entirely correct, of course, as a stable and nurturing home life has contributed to the great work of many. But he’s not entirely wrong, either, because there is always an element of personal exposure in attempting to do something great, or even to live a different kind of life. Perhaps dwelling mostly in literature gives you an appreciation for the eccentric. Certainly I have a well-established predisposition for rooting for an underdog, and a seeker. In any case, I found myself anxious for Honnold to complete his historic climb safely, but also to find the right words to say to his girlfriend when he called her from the top.

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ZYZZYVA Recommends February 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

We are firmly entrenched in 2019 now and, as such, we thought we would tell you what  ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

ZYZZYVA recommends Three Poems Hannah SullivanKatie O’Neill, Intern: This holiday season, one of the best gifts I received was Hannah Sullivan’s debut collection Three Poems.  The winner of the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the collection is comprised of three long poems – “You, Very Young in New York,” “Repeat Until Time,” and “The Sandpit After Rain.”  Quoting from and referencing Phillip Larkin, Claude Monet, and Joan Didion, among many others, the collection is grounded in the modern experience while deftly honoring those who came before.  Each poem is distinct and could easily stand alone, but together they allow the book to feel like a revelation.

As someone who is “very young,” I am especially drawn to the first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” which traces the experiences of a young woman in New York City and meditates on the nature of love and intimacy in the modern world.  Containing gems of lines like, “Your friends wear flannel and McDonald’s name badges…You think the great American novelist is David Foster Wallace,” the poem skewers the pretensions of young, self-described “literary” types without being unkind.  It is addressed to an unclear “you,” who might be her younger self, or perhaps to all young people, and ranges between the conversational, the descriptive, and the profound.

“Repeat Until Time” is significantly more opaque in its meaning. Sullivan is an Associate Professor at Oxford and her varied research interests include, “how writers write and revise, particularly the process of innovation, in ways of classifying and interpreting style, and…the relationship between local and major form.”

“Repeat Until Time” explores this interest in the relationship between form and content by examining philosopher Heraclitus’ famous observation that, “On those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters keep on flowing.”  She rephrases this as, “There is no stepping twice in same or different rivers” and continues down this path to consider the difficulty of originality. References to San Francisco are scattered throughout the poem, alternately celebrating and criticizing its offbeat nature and rampant inequality.

The final poem, “The Sandpit After Rain,” is the most clearly personal, comparing the birth of her son to the death of her father.  She compares herself to a stuffed chicken and a caged eel, references Tolkien and yoga, and explores the beauty of a children’s sandpit made dirty with litter after a storm.  In a particularly striking moment, she observes that, “there is no necessary season for things/and birth and death happen on adjacent wards,/that both are labour, halting and starting:/that women are always the middlemen/finding the coins.”  Moments and phrases like these are frequent occurrences throughout the collection, which is well deserving of the praise it has won for balancing precise details with larger reflections on the challenges and joys of modern life.

ZYZZYVA recommends Ross Gay Catalog of Unabashed GratitudeCasey Jong, Intern: I always like to start a new year with books that will help me look to the future with positivity. That’s why, as January came and started to go, I picked up an older favorite of mine, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. This little collection of poetry is aptly named, both for its title poem, which is literally a catalog of things for which he is grateful, and for the overall tone of the book, which pours out color and thanks from every page. In this book, Gay often uses his love for gardening to discuss life and to speak openly, not dejectedly, about death and some of life’s hard questions, highlighting the cyclical nature of the world we are in, and the care we can give to the lives around us.

Despite this, the collection’s message is not simply one of positivity, but of reflection. Gay’s poems find existential weight in even the simplest of things. “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” begins with the simple joy of the act of buttoning a shirt and eventually ends with

for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes.

Gay’s poetry often addresses the reader directly and seriously, but also with humor and real personality, as he interrupts himself or poses questions that it seems he truly has no answers for. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is accessible and honest, and asks us to act with care, to count our blessings, and to challenge our linear understandings of the world around us.


ZYZZYVA recommends The Field Mice EaracheZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: 
South London’s The Field Mice released three albums between 1987 and 1991. Though championed by UK tastemaker John Peel, they never broke into the mainstream; even so, their dreamy and introspective brand of indie pop—what The Smiths would sound like if Morrissey really was the agoraphobic shut-in his lyrics described—earned them a devoted cult following. Thirty years later, their influence continues to be felt: it’s there in the hushed vocals and melancholy tinge of Australian two-piece Earache, who recently put out their debut album Last on Sydney-based label Black Wire Records.

It is exceedingly difficult to find information on Earache (their Facebook page informs me I am one of 175 fans), but Last is an album that speaks for itself. Here is the first indie pop gem of 2019. Last’s eight tracks are comprised of simple but effective drum loops, sinuous basslines, and jagged guitars. Forlorn-sounding vocals from band members Gemma Nourse and David Fenderson often lie buried in the mix; one strains to catch pieces of lyrics like “I sit, drifting/Looking for reasons,” but the gorgeous melodies ring clear.

As the weather grows cold in the early months of the year, one naturally reaches for warm sweaters, steaming coffee mugs, and, if you’re like me, the kind of album that rewards multiple listens on a long night. Earache’s dreamy bedroom pop conjures fond memories of early New Order, The Cure, and other new wave acts. Most of the songs on Last run brief and lend themselves to repeat plays, including standout track “Upside Down,” in which Nourse takes the lead to sing, “When I’m with him/Everything turns upside down.” It’s precisely this kind of liminal state, caught between the rapture of love and the uncertainty of the future, that so often seems best expressed by a three-minute pop song. Earache may be an up-and-coming act, but they already have the essentials down.

ZYZZYVA recommends Can You Ever Forgive Me?Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: There are many things about Can You Ever Forgive Me? that recommend a viewing, but it’s an especially important movie for anybody considering the literary life or already entrenched in it. I can imagine it being screened at every MFA on orientation day, an unvarnished depiction that directly addresses what we already know but may need reminding of: the writing life can be a deeply unfair pursuit. As with so many other fields, the best rarely rises to the top; there is much toiling amid lack of recognition (which is to say compensation)—and a glaring absence of social skills will only make things worse, unless, of course, you sell a million copies of your book, in which case, as the agent in the movie (played by Jane Curtin, and how nice is it to see Jane Curtin again?) puts it, you can be as awful as you want. The flip side to this bitter wisdom is, as the movie suggests, that quality should still nonetheless matter, and that the writing life can be noble, no matter the cruel circumstances pushing a few toward things they’d never imagined themselves doing. For as bad, morally and legally, the crimes of Lee Israel, it’s the bloviating of a self-satisfied Tom Clancy at a lux cocktail
party that’s as much a cautionary tale as Lee’s. That’s perhaps what’s so appealing about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it evokes empathy for the afflicted, but presents shameless self-regard as unredeemable.

ZYZZYVA recommends Jonathan Franzen The End of the End of the EarthLaura Cogan, Editor: There is an expansive tree outside my window, whose branches often tap or trace the glass, according to the direction and force of the wind. I’ve long appreciated the dense shade and privacy it provides. But one day last spring as I stood at the open window daydreaming, observing the slice of visible sidewalk below, a breeze shook the branches just inches from my arm and I saw, with a start, that the branch and indeed the entire tree was blossoming with countless curled green pods. For years I’d seen this tree without actually seeing it. I had no idea it blossomed, or what kind of tree it was. I’ve been thinking about this kind of environmental blindness lately, and trying to shake it off.

Even for those of us living in a city there is so much of the natural world living all around us and being ingenious and remarkable every day. My own neighbors include bats (of which I have other, more unnerving stories), crows, geese, herons, egrets, hummingbirds, coyotes, turtles, bees, and raccoons, among many others. And nearly anywhere we look there are local environmental issues calling out for attention.

There’s an inescapably obvious irony in the fact that I care about the environment and the creatures with whom we share this planet, and yet am often so immersed in such concerns in a macroscopic way that I am blind to their most local manifestations.

Two books I’ve been reading address this idea directly and persuasively, in quite different ways. The End of the End of the Earth collects Jonathan Franzen’s recent essays, nearly all of which (and certainly the best of which) are preoccupied with birds in one way or another. Franzen tries to clarify his concern (which has previously landed him in controversy, perhaps because he was partially misunderstood—or perhaps not) that by focusing exclusively on the emergency of climate change, we risk overlooking other, smaller scale environmental issues. Such issues can be efficient to address and can affect substantial, lasting change with striking results for individual species, a specific ecosystem, and a local economy (as he describes in a few inspiring examples). Franzen’s perspective on climate change, understood in full, is devastating—which may be the underlying reason for the backlash. Many of these essays are exquisitely well-crafted, poignant, and painfully sad. I find I don’t always agree with Franzen, but both his perspective and my own occasional internal arguments with him sharpen my perception of the landscape.

ZYZZYVA recommends Richard Powers The OverstoryThe Overstory by Richard Powers is a doorstop of a novel peopled by characters both human and plant, where the trees are just as important, and just as interesting, as the humans. If this sounds odd or tedious, it isn’t. With masterful storytelling and a confident use of poetic license, Powers tells a story that shifts perspective and directs our gaze toward the slow moving and ingenious creatures busy living their own lives right alongside and amid all our family dramas, our spiritual awakenings and failures, our loves and losses.

The tree outside my window, I’ve learned, is a Blackwood Acacia, a species from Australia considered invasive.

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Catching Up on the Classics: A ZYZZYVA Staff Reading Roundup

Sadly, there are only so many hours in a day. For even the most diligent among us, it can be difficult to stay on top of all the classic books that demand to be read. Here at ZYZZYVA, we took this rainy San Francisco January as the perfect excuse to sit down and finally catch up on some of those iconic works our staff has missed out on (at least until now):

Scarlet LetterLaura Thiessen, Intern: With the New Year comes new resolutions. Unfortunately, most of them fail by the time we turn the calendar page to February. Perhaps it might be better to read about someone else’s resolution instead. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the idea of resolution, or transformative action, to engage readers of The Scarlet Letter. I recently reread this classic novel about sin, shame, and social stigma and found it a great inspiration towards sticking with one’s resolutions.

A New Year’s resolution is, in a sense, a confession that something hasn’t been working and needs to be changed. In the same way, the Puritan concept of public shame and ostracizing those who did not conform to standard was also a method of transformation.

An old, and now obsolete, definition of resolution is a ‘softening of a hardened mass in the body’. This definition was still around when Hawthorne was writing The Scarlet Letter, and I like to think it was floating in the back of his head while writing. Hawthorne also seems inspired by the adage, ‘confession is good for the soul’. Conceivably, he thought that to soften something hard within a person’s character, confession is a tool towards transformative action.

The contrast between Hester’s forced, public confession and Reverend Dimmesdale’s private, self-tortured one is stark. Hester, though shunned by her community, comes to understand them, and later, they feel understood by her. She is at peace. Whereas, the Reverend keeps his confession to himself and his transformation is to death.

If public confession creates change in a good way, then I ought to confess my addiction to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I can only hope this admission will lead to a resolution that sticks.

The AlchemistM.M. Silva, Intern: I was so excited to finally read The Alchemist. One of my English teachers in high school told me it was her favorite book, and knowing how well-read she was, I thought it might very well become a favorite of mine as well.

The story opens with a debrief of the life of a shepherd boy, Santiago, who possesses a great desire to travel. As he goes about moving his flock to his next destination, he is stuck wondering about a recurring dream. The dream centers on his discovery of a treasure near the Egyptian Pyramids, but never shows him where exactly the treasure is. Eventually, Santiago chooses to go to an old woman who interprets dreams. He ends up leaving having promised to give her one-tenth of the treasure upon finding it, yet he doesn’t feel confident enough to give up being a shepherd and go searching.

As he continues to go about his daily life, he encounters another person that encourages him to seek out the treasure, a King named Melchizedek who initially comes off as a nuisance to Santiago. However after getting to know the King further, Santiago feels enlightened by his words and inspired to seek out what Melchizedek calls a “Personal Legend,” which he defines as “what you have always wanted to accomplish.” This leads Santiago to give in to spontaneity, giving up his life as a shepherd to chase his “Personal Legend” and find the treasure of his dreams.

From that point forward, Santiago has many further encounters and endeavors that teach him about his purpose in life as well as his capabilities. This involves the titular Alchemist of the book, as well as the pastoral roots from which Santiago initially arose from.

The story is quite allegorical and encourages reflection on one’s own “Personal Legend.” It alludes to Biblical stories and phrases often, and might serve as a motivational resource for those who find themselves facing any kind of crisis or challenge.

Winesburg, OhioZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Despite what the author himself claimed in numerous interviews, Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 effort Winesburg, Ohio is likely not the first instance of a short story cycle, or novel-in-stories. The cycle is a form that can trace its origins back to much older works such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and One Thousand and One Nights, with even Winesburg, Ohio preceded by the likes of Anderson’s friend and mentor Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. But there’s little denying Winesburg, Ohio as one of the best examples of its genre, and it was a pleasure to finally visit a story collection I’d heard so much about during grad school.

Our setting, aptly enough, is a fiction small town in Ohio at the turn of the 20th century. Anderson offers each of the book’s twenty-two short stories as slice-of-life vignettes, detailing the everyday struggles of Winesburg’s population. Characters who drive the engine of one story may reappear later as a mere background player. Although Sherwood Anderson denied the Russian writer’s influence, it’s easy to read Winesburg, Ohio as something approximating an American Chekhov. Anderson displays a similar aptitude for honing in on the quiet desperation of those individuals we walk past (and overlook) everyday. In one of the book’s most dazzling passages, he writes of Kate Swift, the town’s local schoolteacher, 30 years-old and still unmarried:

Although no one in Winesburg would have suspected it, her life had been very adventurous. It was still adventurous. Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. The people of the town thought of her as a confirmed old maid and because she spoke sharply and went her own way thought her lacking in all the human feeling that did so much to make and mar their own lives. In reality she was the most eagerly passionate soul among them…”

Winesburg, Ohio provides further literary proof that all human tragedy great and small can just as easily be found in a town with a population of less than three thousand.

The StrangerPeyton Harvey, Intern: In The Stranger, Albert Camus reflects on the absurdity of existence. The format of the novel allows the reader to engage with the existentialist philosophy on an intimate level.

The tale opens with Meursault’s indifferent account of the death of his mother. He receives a telegram stating, “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” His response: “That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.” He writes with negligible emotion – recounting the logistics of the visit he must make to the house where Maman was staying.

Throughout the novel, the narrator appears to desire the palpable and observable – that which he can sense in his immediate surroundings. He is attracted to his lover Marie when he is with her. He longs to touch her, and be with her. Yet when she is away from him, he does not care about her or if he will see her again. He does not see the purpose of caring for someone if they are not there.

There is a strange series of events, which results in Meursault killing a man. He is arrested and sent to court. He attempts to convince the jury that this act was premeditated. From the perspective of the other characters, Meursault is inhuman. The prosecutor says he sees “nothingness” in the soul of Meursault.

However, as Camus brings us into the mind of the narrator, we see that he does indeed possess desire, and even hope. He longs for what is instinctual, not the contemplation of unknowable ideas or anything he does not sense in his immediate surroundings.

He does not feel remorse, and is sentenced to death.

He concludes, “Everything was happening without my participation. My fate was being decided without anyone so much as asking my opinion.” He cascaded into this crime, with each act aligning with the other to culminate in this absurd murder.

Camus speaks of the guillotine as an absurd occurrence with death. As one approaches the guillotine, he may not wish to be killed, however it is in his best interest for the blade to run smoothly, without a hitch – a perfunctory plunge.

Although, he finds little meaning in questions of God and religion, the narrator finds beauty in immediate moments. When he is in prison, he only desires Marie, the shapes and senses of her. He misses the joys of living:

Smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie dresses and the way she laughed…. I wanted to squeeze her shoulders through her dress. I wanted to feel the thin material and I didn’t really know what else I had to hope for other than that.

Perhaps The Stranger is so entitled to emphasize the chance of his encounter with this person. Meursault did not know the person he killed- but because of this stranger, he will be killed.

The end may come as a mild relief as the reader has inhabited the bleak mind of Meursault.

Camus wrote in the vein of the absurd, lifting the veil off of artificial meaning. While pondering those questions of faith he does not become despondent, rather he looks to other forms of meaning. He finds them not in the intangibles of God and belief, but in the here and now.

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Stories Told in Shadow: What We’re Reading This Halloween

Stories Told in ShadowSan Francisco’s most cherished holiday—that’s right, Halloween—is nearly upon us. That means it’s colder and darker outside before you know it, so what better excuse to curl up in bed with a (frightfully) good book? In keeping with the spirit of the season, we’ve assembled a list of recommended reads that might just help you keep warm, that is, if they don’t chill you to the bone.

White TearsLaura Cogan, Editor: The dehumanizing violence of American racism and white power is the horror at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s novel, White Tears. I read it earlier this year, as a part of the Tournament of Books (where I offered commentary in the opening round), and though there were aspects that I wish had been developed more, the novel has stayed with me. It can be fascinating when the genre of horror is used incisively (either in film or narrative) to address social concerns. In this regard, Kunzru’s book is timely and memorable—both for its visceral evocation of the way we are haunted, whether we can perceive it and admit it or not, by slavery, and for its treatment of contemporary racism.

As I noted earlier this year, White Tears drives home a serious point about the present-day legacies of our shameful past by making use of the propulsive conventions of the horror genre. But the novel is especially impressive for its layered critique of white exploitation of black Americans in many guises over generations. Issues of ownership, possession, and obsession come up in several forms throughout the book—and interwoven with this motif is a suggested critique of capitalism itself.

Part of the horror evoked here has to do with being disenfranchised. Which is a condition, if we pause to really dwell on it, as essentially horrifying as any. As one of Kunzru’s characters observes: “When you are powerless, your belief or disbelief is irrelevant. No one gives a damn about what you believe. But if some reality believes in you, then you must live it. You can’t say no thank you. You can’t say I don’t want this. If horror believes in you, there’s nothing to be done.”

XPeyton Harvey, Intern: After seeing the live production of X in London, I immediately purchased a ticket to see it again the following week. From the mind of Alistair McDowall comes a play that is exhilarating, mind-bending, and heartfelt. It’s the kind of story that you’ll want to revisit and absorb every detail that you may have missed. The stage production is magical, but the deftly crafted script is able to stand alone and conjures extremely visceral images in the mind of the reader.

 X, its the title befitting its enigmatic plot, serves as a measure of humanity and relationships through the lens of time. The play fuses elements of sci-fi, horror, and thriller; however, at its core it is a exploration of the human condition. We begin on a research station on Pluto with four astronauts: Gilda, Clark, Ray, and Cole. But soon the play’s timeline, like the minds of its characters, grows warped. The start of the play actually falls somewhere near the middle of the chronological narrative. The author presents clues to indicate where we are in the story: a watch only worn in certain scenes, the letter x written, apparently in blood, on the window.

The characters struggle to maintain their sanity as their memories begin to fade and merge together. In Act II, the in-house meteorologist Cole realizes that the station’s main clock and other means of keeping time have stopped working. As a result, none of the characters can tell how long they’ve been away from Earth, or even how many hours they’ve been awake.

Over time—whatever that word means to them now—they becomes increasingly less sure of who they are. McDowall adds an eerie levity to the plot as two characters play the game Guess Who, a game with definite questions and answers. Do I have blonde hair? Yes. Am I wearing a hat? No. Before long, the players lose their grip on their identities. Without any reference point to time back on Earth, they become more unstable.

While there are horrifying images of bloody letters sprawled on walls and the ghostly sound of a young girl’s voice, what proves most frightening is the slow realization that there is no escape from the characters’ increasing disconnect from reality.

X delves into the fragility of the human psyche. In one instance, Ray explains that he maintains his sanity by playing recordings of bird sounds: “I try to hold onto birds in particular.” Gilda, near breaking point, replies, “Hold onto X, X in particular.”   The theme of holding on appears throughout the play. We are asked: who are we if we do not possess our own thoughts and memories? What do you hold onto when you are losing your very self?

Alchemaster's ApprenticeM.M. Silva, Intern: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers is one of my all-time favorites for many reasons. It takes its readers on a spooky adventure through a disease-ridden village called Zamonia ruled by an “alchemaster” named Goolion. It has the ability to either place you on the rough carpet of your fifth grade classroom, reading the coolest story of your youth or actually bring you into the story itself as the conflicted main character Echo. Echo is an ownerless “crat,” essentially a cat that can speak any language with a slightly different internal anatomy than other cats. This ends up putting Echo in a scary situation, as Goolion needs the fat of a crat for his own evil purposes.

It may sound like the the kind of imaginative fiction you’d read during childhood, but Moers’ novel is a perfect pick for Halloween and might add a little spice to your book list.

The Haunting of Hill HouseZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: “I think that what we all want is facts,” says Luke early on in Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. “Something we can understand and put together.” Yet in Hill House, as in all great horror tales, “the facts” are exceedingly difficult to come by and increasingly irrelevant in the face of the world’s terror. As the story opens, Shirley Jackson introduces four characters to the imposing and architecturally irregular world of Hill House as a means to investigate just how precarious our notions of logic, self, and sanity can be. Following in the tradition of writers as venerable as Poe and Lovecraft, Jackson understood that the most terrible terrain fiction can navigate is not a fog-ridden graveyard or castle crypt, but the human mind. Her prose is so effective at capturing the anxiety-ridden interiority of her main character, Eleanor Vance, that it’s easy to imagine the strange noises and disturbances of Hill House as merely the product of mental illness. Many readers have noted Eleanor’s similarities to Jackson herself: both suffered under the thrall of a domineering mother and felt increasingly stifled by domestic life.

Of course, Jackson herself professed to critics that she did, indeed, believe in ghosts—and she writes The Haunting of Hill House with the conviction of a believer. “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns,” claims the measured and quite rational Doctor Montague, who has summoned these three strangers to Hill House. “We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” But how to hold onto logic, how to fight fear at a scene like the one Jackson describes during Eleanor and Theodora’s nocturnal stroll of the Hill House grounds: “On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.” It’s difficult to imagine a better treat during the October season than to savor such a passage as Halloween draws near. But the pleasures of Jackson’s novel run deep—indeed, it’s actually quite hilarious at parts, particularly once Dr. Montague’s brash wife enters the scene—and there’s no need to shelve the book after the 31st. The Haunting’s closing chapters make it quite clear that, for Eleanor, the greatest horror might not be found in the slanted halls of Hill House, but in being forced to confront the overwhelming loneliness of her life as she prepares to depart. It’s this observation from Jackson that ensures the novel registers as insightful and even profound.

Carrion ComfortBjorn Svendsen, Intern: Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort, released in 1989, is an epic 800-page horror novel which twists the traditional vampire mythos by featuring human monsters. Its title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem about spiritual despair, but the novel is about “mind vampires”— human beings with the psychic talent to control others with only a glance. These mind vampires sustain themselves with the emotional energy of others while forcing them to do their bidding like human puppets. Simmons writes in the introduction: “Absolute power does more than corrupt us absolutely, it gives us the blood-power taste of total control. Such control is more addicting than heroin. It is the addiction of mind vampirism.”

Carrion Comfort opens with a prologue. The protagonist, Saul Laski, is a Jewish man imprisoned in Chelmno extermination camp. There he encounters one of the novel’s perversely evil antagonists, an SS Colonel named Wilhelm von Borchert. Laski is forced into a game of human chess, where the people standing in for pieces are slaughtered when taken off the board. Laski survives the encounter and the war, and by the early eighties, has become a studied psychiatrist with a deep understanding of human violence. He has never forgotten his torture at the hands of a mind vampire, and devotes himself to understanding their rare and terrible talent, and ultimately, to destroying them. While Carrion Comfort is primarily a horror novel about facing adversity, it also balances elements of science fiction and the spy thriller. The novel features multiple characters, and the majority of the narrative is presented in third person. The first person is sparingly used for chapters featuring one of the novel’s main antagonists, exposing the workings of a psychopathic mind to chilling effect.

Carrion Comfort is a powerful meditation on corruption, violence, and the human will, and it is no surprise that it won the Bram Stoker Award the year of its publication. Stephen King has called Carrion Comfort, “One of the three greatest horror novels of the twentieth century.” Need I say more?

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Off the Beaten Path: ZYZZYVA’s Summer Travel Reads

Travel ReadsSince the summer is a time especially suited for travel, we’ve put together a collection of the ZYZZYVA team’s favorite works centered on the subject. Ranging from books thematically concerned with journey to ones that are simply perfect for reading in transit, we hope these picks will transport you––from an armchair at home or from one exciting locale to another.

A Good Man is Hard to FindCaleigh Stephens, Intern: A word of advice to those embarking on road trips or other travels this summer—give a second thought before hurtling down that seemingly abandoned dirt path in rural Georgia at the behest of a grandmother’s nostalgia. However, don’t hesitate to pay a visit to the Southern gothicism of Flannery O’Connor’s first short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Containing such stories as the titular piece, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and “Good Country People,” O’Connor depicts the deep South with her distinctive religious symbolism and apocalyptic commentary on the human condition. Though offering disparate vignettes, the stories are all grounded in the landscape they inhabit, infused with a strong sense of place. Her fiction binds the familiar with the foreign, adding a deep feeling of unease as appearances turn to deceptions. Thanks to masterful irony, the scattered violence and emphasis on the grotesque often add to the dark humor of the collection. The bizarre and comic nature of the collection also arises from a cast of characters who are as flawed as they are compelling. Caught up in their own hubris and naïveté, characters often find themselves in tragic and ironic situations of life or death. The book is imbued with O’Connor’s Catholicism as it often broaches questions of salvation, yet it also resides in a state of moral complexity. What is clear––O’Connor is a masterful storyteller, and her work is as enthralling as it is eerie.

Angela Yin, Intern: Culture and travel, two things central to the summertime, are also central to Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. In it, Jane Takagi-Little travels all over America, filming episodes for the Japanese show, My American Wife! In each episode, an upper-middle-class “wife,” typically white, teaches the audience a recipe for preparing meat while her two-point-five well-adjusted children play at her feet. Unsurprisingly, this layering of desires intended to create a desire that transcends a simple hunger for meat is sponsored by an American beef exportation company seeking a wider consumer base in Japan. When Jane rises in the ranks of the production crew, she alters the show’s direction, filming more diverse and non-traditional (though no less American) families. As she uncovers more of the dubious practices of the meat business, Jane must reckon, not with what she knows and doesn’t know, but with what she knows and has chosen to forget or ignore. In these days following the Fourth of July, with the smell of barbecue lingering in our backyards and American flags flapping in front of our houses and streaming from the backs of our cars, we need books like Ozeki’s My Year of Meats to remind us to question the history of these symbols, our voluntary ignorance, and what, exactly, it means to be an American.

New CriterionIngrid Vega, Intern: In transit, journals always have room in my carry-on; but their svelte size does nothing to diminish the amount of erudition they can pack in one read. Other than ZYZZYVA (of course), The New Criterion has made its way to my travel bag. In 1982, this journal was born out of Matthew Arnold’s quote, “the best has been taught and said.” That statement challenged art critic Hilton Kramer and pianist Samuel Lipman to “experiment in critical audacity.” The journal brings in critics — both new and established — with the homologous aim of delivering the sharpest criticism of today. I especially adore The New Criterion for its music criticism. In the June 2018 issue, music critic Jay Nordlinger wrote “classical music is a minority taste,” in his article “New York Chronicle.” His writing — engaging and replete with the consistent sharpness that The New Criterion cultivates — also displays a satiating humility not commonly attributed to the intellectual community.

Throughout the “New York Chronicle,” Nordlinger expresses his admiration for Mahan Estefani, lauding him as an evangelist for the harpsichord; shares who he feels should succeed James Levine as the director of the Metropolitan Opera; and enlightens us concerning several recitals he recently attended by Russian pianists, Argentine cellists, and Latvian conductors. I harken back to Matthew Arnold’s philosophy while reading this journal: The New Criterion, for me, provides guidance as a young writer, as well as a satisfying consciousness of that “minority taste” and a reminder there are still people who care to disseminate it.

Claire Ogilvie, Intern: Whenever I am in transit (house moving, on vacation, or even during a long bus ride), I find comfort and connection in reading memoirs; in experiencing a journey in tandem with an author. One of my favorite and most repeated reads — especially for those summer months when reading becomes all the more languorous — is eminent rock critic Richard Goldstein’s 2015 cultural tour de force and crash-course in Sixties pop, Another Little Piece of My Heart. Goldstein’s memoir introduces readers to his lifelong love of rock music and counter-culture by way of his early twenties, when he spent his days traveling the country, pioneering of the art of rock criticism for the Village Voice. Goldstein is, refreshingly, most critical of himself; covering his early blunders and deep insecurities, as he elbowed his way backstage to conduct slapdash interviews with the likes of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and just about every other pop culture icon of the Sixties. Goldstein’s journalistic prose is peppered with self-effacing humor, filled with poignant recollections of the toll fame and drugs takes on an artistic soul, and brimming with the sincerity and wisdom of hindsight:

What sticks in my memory is the way he looked. Hendrix was stupefied, his shirt stained with what looked like caked puke. I listened to him mumbling for several minutes before leaving as graciously as I could. There was no publicist to make excuses or even wipe him up. I was tempted to put that meeting into print, but by then I had lost my distance from the musicians I wrote about. I’d learned to honor the feeling of empathy that they often aroused in me. There were two kinds of rock stars, it seemed: the survivors, such as Dylan and Jagger, who hid behind their personas, and those whose precarious egos marked them for ritual self-destruction. No way would I perform the journalistic equivalent of that nasty spectacle by blowing Jimi’s cover.

My copy is rightfully in tatters (the pages dog-eared and the cover faded from sun
exposure) after becoming a carry-on and poolside staple. Just as visceral after every reread, Goldstein chronicles the chaos of the Summer of Love, the Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam through the reactionary violence and poetry of the rock ’n’ roll revolution.

Strangers on a TrainZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: At the risk of being thunderingly obvious, Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 suspense classic Strangers on a Train stands out to me as a must-read while on the go. Sure, we’re all familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock film, which –– no doubt propelled by the ingenious hook of two men “trading” murders –– arrived in theaters only a year after the book, but it is Highsmith’s novel that is allowed to go even deeper and darker in both its psychological complexity and violence. With this, her debut work, Highsmith introduces many of the themes she would explore throughout her career, including morally dubious protagonists, homoerotic subtext, and noir-ish murder plots.

When architect Guy Haines encounters charismatic playboy Charles Anthony Bruno on a train ride to Metcalfe, Georgia, he has no idea he’s about to be plunged into his own personal hell. The smooth-talking Bruno has a talent for quickly worming his way into strangers’ confidence, and soon learns of Guy’s unhappiness with his straying wife. Conveniently, Bruno himself is looking to get out from under the thumb of his domineering father, and suggests he and Guy swap murders, as the seemingly motiveless crimes would surely leave the authorities baffled. Guy is quick to rebuff his fellow passenger, but Bruno is not so easily deterred, and the budding psychopath becomes a long shadow darkening the step of Guy’s life as soon as he departs the train.

I’d wager much of the reason both the original book and Hitchcock’s adaptation continue to linger in the public imagination (Gone Girl director David Fincher has teased a remake as recently as 2015) is the way the concept underscores the inherent randomness and risk involved in travel. As soon as we set foot out our door, we give ourselves over to chance –– and the knowledge that the strangers we pass on the road, brush past on the train, or sit next to on a flight could just as easily be our next great love as our most insidious enemy; the particular brilliance of Highsmith’s novel is how Guy and Bruno’s obsessive game proves sometimes they can be both.

The Art of FlightOscar Villalon, Managing Editor: You couldn’t narrowly define the late Sergio Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory” as just travel books. Yet the three volumes in his genre-defying series—The Art of Flight, The Journey, and The Magician of Vienna (translated into English by George Henson, and published by Deep Vellum)—are nonetheless invigorating travelogues

Pitol, who died in April at 85, was awarded both the Juan Rulfo Prize (in 1999) and the Cervantes Prize (in 2005, which he won for The Journey), making him one of the most acclaimed Spanish-language writers, as well as Mexican authors, of his era. The “Trilogy of Memory” describes, through what Henson aptly describes as a “collage technique,” Pitol’s formation as a writer, the blueprints of his novels and stories, and, for me, most enjoyably, his wanderlust. He finds himself in Central Europe, the Caucasus, and Russia, in Western Europe and China, sharing the company of an array of writers and poets, steeping himself in the literature of whatever nation he happens to be. (Pitol was also a translator, bringing into Spanish the works of Witold Gombrowicz, Jerzy Andrejewski, Henry James, Jane Austen, Giorgio Bassani, and many others.) Those meetings and relationships are winningly infused with an appreciation for the wonder of his vocation, and for the joys of culture and thought.

(Fortunately for Pitol, finding work in Mexico’s diplomatic corps gets him across the
globe niftily, as does having handy a valuable painting or a rare book to sell; any
writing about distant sojourns can’t help but remind, once again, that it’s incredibly
useful in life to have either a surfeit of money or of youth, which is to say time.)

But the travel in these books happens as much in the mind as on forlorn docks.
Pitol’s discursions on novels and stories are transporting. In fact, the distances
covered and worlds inhabited in his head are indistinguishable in their tangibility
from the streets and the rooms he inhabits abroad. The “Trilogy of Memory,” then,
conveys that other amazing aspect of travel, of time traversed. That’s a one-way
journey, of course. But if you’ve been looking behind and around you before the last
station comes into view, the scenery can be amazing.

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What We’re Reading this Women’s History Month

IMG-4538March represents Women’s History Month and, as such, we thought we would share a brief overview of some of the women we’ve been reading as of late, which includes a group of authors operating within a myriad of genres and hailing from a number of locales. We hope this collection serves as just a small sampling of the dynamic work being done by women in literature and non-fiction today.

ImprovementLaura Cogan, Editor: “No one knew the real story but me,” declares one of Joan Silber’s exquisitely drawn characters near the end of Improvement. It is both a brag and a burden this character bears—and a not-quite-accurate statement. Silber has crafted a book that uses a kaleidoscopic narrative technique to meditate on the recurring patterns within our life stories, and the unexpected junctures where our shifting patterns of desire and deception interact with the equally complex lives of others. The frustrating truth of life, beautifully evoked here as only fiction can do, is that not one of us can ever know the real story (if by the real story we mean the whole story). As desperate as we may be to see more, and yet more, our perspective is inescapably blinkered. Still, there are authentic truths in the fragment of the whole that each of us calls our life story. Fiction can remind us of this persistent limitation—remind us of all we cannot know of the lives of others, and that knowledge in turn can, crucially, remind us to remain curious, questioning, empathetic.

With a light touch, Silber’s novel offers insights on imitation vs. authenticity; the power and limitations of love; and the cons we run—on each other, and on ourselves. The book is packed with seekers and wanderers, cheaters and dreamers who tell themselves and others little lies to get by. Through their stories, Silber develops a graceful and moving meditation on the idea of reparations and amends. Improvement evokes the beauty and unexpected generosity of our imperfect, inadequate gestures of remorse, our struggle to manage our guilt, and human empathy in the face of irreducible loss—on both a historic and a personal scale. As another character observes, “That was the question asked every day, all over: how much could ever be fixed?”

Improvement is so accomplished and polished that I suspect it will invite many readers to simply sit back and enjoy being in the presence of a fabulous storyteller. But others may pause from time to time to marvel at Silber’s skill, and for any of these readers who close the novel with a sense that they would love to hear Silber discuss craft there is The Art of Time in Fiction, from Graywolf’s excellent “The Art of” series. Here Silber brings similar clarity to complex material, and it’s a pleasure to follow her discussion of works by Chekhov, Flaubert, Baldwin, and Munro, among others.

Speaking of clarity: if anyone you know is still struggling with the very concept of feminism, perhaps We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would be an excellent gift, and tonic. While this short essay is unlikely to advance the understanding of those already conversant in the basic terms and ideas of feminism, it may well be gentle and focused enough to persuade those who genuinely have not thought such ideas through but have been susceptible to the noise of misogyny and the often invisible prevalence of sexism. This is a time in which we must ask difficult questions without obvious answers; one such question might well be, “How much can ever be fixed?” Another is certainly: How can we effectively change minds, and advance ideals of equality?

The Collected Stories of Amy HempelSamantha Aper, Intern: The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel has lived next to my bed since the moment I picked it up three years ago. Reading these stories has been a slow process, as I often find myself putting the book down to stare at the ceiling and turn Hempel’s sentences over in my head. I have told anyone who will listen: you must read this book. Hempel is one of those writers who makes you throw your hands in the air as you question everything you ever thought you knew about fiction. Each word she writes is precise, each punctuation mark carefully chosen. Embedded in these pages are life lessons without the in-your-face siren that says: this is a lesson, pay attention! And when she doesn’t offer a lesson, Hempel writes from a place of hindsight. Her stories make you crawl into another body’s world and live in it as if it were your own. Perhaps what makes her so special is her understanding of the human experience— of the emotions behind the choices people make. She excavates identifiable scraps of experience that leave you somewhere between laughter and tears — typically both.

Many of Hempel’s stories deal with the mundane, all-encompassing boredom that can result from loss, yearning, and failed relationships. It’s as though her goal is to find the place where trauma lives in the body, to pull it apart and dissect it all:

The worst of it is over now, and I can’t say that I am glad. Lose that sense of loss—you have gone and lost something else. But the body moves toward health. The mind, too, in steps. One step at a time. Ask a mother who has just lost a child, How many children do you have? “Four,” she will say, “—three,” and years later, “Three,” she will say, “—four.” 

Amy Hempel claims to be a slow writer, one who agonizes over every sentence she writes; it took her over twenty years to amass the four hundred pages comprising this story collection. Her careful craft is evident in each exquisitely constructed sentence of wry humor and observation. Her superb wit and dazzling relatability will stay in your head long after you’ve put her work down. Read this book.

Sing, Unburied SingIsabel Erickson White, Intern: When asked to think of a great Southern writer, most likely one would respond with names from the past — William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams. We don’t often imagine the South as a place that still produces great literature. Jesmyn Ward’s voice, however, demands that we return our gaze to the South, and shows us that it can still produce incredible works. Ward’s work places her alongside the celebrated literature produced by the region’s previous writers; her latest novel has been described as a Southern odyssey and compared to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Her first work of nonfiction, Men We Reaped, was a soul-crushing memoir about the losses of five men in her life due to drug addiction, suicide, and accidents. Ward’s book took statistics about black male life expectancy and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and shaped them into a narrative about five caring, much loved men from her life — men whose lives had great meaning and whose deaths were keenly felt. The final loss Ward suffered was that of her younger brother, whose death remains a looming presence over her most recent work of fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing. The novel is about three generations of a family—Mam, Pop, their daughter Leonie, and Leonie’s two children, Jojo and Kayla—living in southern Mississippi. Ward takes her reader on a road trip through Mississippi, starting at the southern end, where the air smells of the Gulf, and ending in the north at Parchman prison, a symbol of Southern racial violence and convict leasing. Ward travels from present day as Leonie, her children, and a drug dealing friend go to pick up the children’s father at the prison, to the past when Leonie’s brother died as Pop endured his days in prison. As in her memoir, Ward is capable of making characters on a page feel as real as the members of one’s own family. She mercilessly drags her reader into the story; the pain from the loss of Leonie’s brother, Given, is not something one merely reads or observes, but something felt viscerally, as if you’ve experienced the loss yourself. This novel is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Some Gangster PainZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Gillian Conoley announced her arrival on the literary scene with 1987’s evocative debut, Some Gangster Pain. To revisit this collection today is to be reminded of the pleasure of experiencing a vivid poetic milieu. Conoley’s critical lens is trained on the South, a region ravaged by both beauty and violence — that American dichotomy. Whether she’s rendering the Texas plains or New Orleans’ French Quarter, Conoley creates images that emerge from the page like phantoms: “the cicadas, thick in the air” and their drone like “a scratched record/spinning above her,” or the bulldozers churning up a graveyard depicted as “yellow tanks steamshovelled/for the underworld.”

Although many of these poems were originally featured in outlets such as The American Poetry Review and Ploughshares, they form a remarkably cohesive tapestry gathered as they are here, arranged by Conoley into three separate Parts. As a writer in her early thirties, Conoley displays both youthful candor (“There is no peace in my mind anywhere”) and a battle-tested wisdom (“We can be kin/in an eternal house,/your hair falling to my shoulders/if my thoughts become too private”).

Conoley’s poems read as minimalist, rarely longer than a page each and with sparse lines, but her details prove as lucid and precise as photographs. Her words speak to a pastoral landscape haunted by loneliness, insomnia, and the lingering imprint of the mythic West. Images and sounds begin to accrue: a sorry Texas bar with Patsy Cline on the stereo, a horse wildly bucking at the rodeo, the light of the drive-in’s screen reflected off the hoods of cars.

Some Gangster Pain traffics in the ghosts of our collective memory, both channeling and challenging the origin stories we tell ourselves about our country (“The white man…lassoed the stars and rode amuck”). Throughout the book, we witness Conoley’s fascination with hands, and again and again we see those hands plunge into the soil, stirring up the resting place of those who came before and our own ultimate destination — when at last “There is nothing but sleep.”

Jewels of AllahIngrid Vega, Intern: What began as a doctoral thesis at Columbia University was re-written to become an award-winning book by Dr. Nina Ansary. In Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of the Women in Iran, Dr. Ansary aims to “lift the veil of misunderstanding” by chronicling the women’s movement unique to Iran and Islam, as well as attempting to answer the controversial question, “Can women in Iran be equal?”

She directly addresses popular misconceptions born out of the coups, wars, and revolts that have shaped modern Iran. While the Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought many negative effects to women of Iran, Dr. Ansary Argues that one should look deeper below the surface: “The quasi-westernized education that these girls received in single-sex institutions is one of the underlying reasons a women’s movement has developed in post-revolutionary Iran.”

Ansary illuminates the paradigm of feminism unique to Iran — “Islamic Feminism,” as coined by female expatriates. This paradigm seeks to “break the bonds of tradition through the reinterpretation of Koranic passages” and runs in parallel to nonreligious contemporaries. She also notes how journalism has been central to the dissemination of information that has helped strengthen the women’s movements in the post-revolutionary era. There were many great (yet short-lived) Iranian feminist journals from the post-modern, but the most influential and long-standing was Zanan (meaning Women) which ran from 1992-2008.

Zanan published brazen articles like “Sir, Have Your Ever Physically Assaulted Your Wife?” and “Man: Partner or Boss,” and republished excerpts of Western feminist classics such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), which helped to rejuvenate and strengthen the women’s movement. It also furthered the Sharia-based discourse characterized by Islamic Feminism. Much to the public’s surprise, Zanan survived for 16 years and its founder  was eventually cleared of all accusations, including “collusion and conspiracy with the West.”

Dr. Ansary is optimistic and claims that the Iranian women and youth “could be an instrumental force in effecting its dissolution,” and believes this movement will persist in Iran until “they are granted the divine compassion they deserve.” She ends the book with a compendium of outstanding women from Iran – such as Olympians, actresses, and politicians. She also shares several of her own personal philosophies, including “You will never find what lies deep within if you choose to remain in shallow waters,” a quote that perfectly aligns with the ethos of the entire work.

One of UsOscar Villalon, Managing Editor: Books have a way of finding us when we’re ready for them, which is why we keep so many stolid stacks of them around our homes. They bide their time. Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (translated by Sarah Death), published in the U.S. in 2015, chronologically relates the personal histories of a terrorist and his victims, following their separate paths to July 22, 2011, when their stories would disastrously meet, and on through Breivik’s trial.

On that July day, Breivik would methodically murder 73 people, the vast majority of whom were teens on a Workers’ Youth League retreat on the island of Utøya. A harrowing if brisk read, Seierstad’s book is, unsurprisingly, difficult to get through. But given the current circumstances, the story—which is also the story of Europe’s far right, of the racism and xenophobia championed by Norway’s ironically named Progress Party, of poisonous misogyny and Internet delusion, and of a view of the left as the enemy of civilization—is, alas, more relatable now than before the 2016 election.

One pores through One of Us as if looking for clues to the future. There are certain details, which may or may not mean anything: their people believe themselves to be exceptional, too—citizens of the best country on Earth, in fact; their youth also champion equality and social responsibility, and are averse to profit at the expense of society. Also interesting: Norway’s colors are red, white, and blue. But also this: Norway’s society, as reported by Seierstad, is something of a marvel. Children are encouraged to assert their voices and play a part in meaningfully shaping their future. Education isn’t starved; decent housing and social services are prioritized. What do those details mean then, if anything? What an anxious way to read a text! Still, what lays ahead? The rising dawn or the plunge into midnight?

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