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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  Outdated advertisement breaks combined with the difficulty of committing to a set time make it more effort than it’s generally worth to catch a program as it airs.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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‘Fire Season’ by Patrick Coleman: Intergenerational Interpretations

Fire Season poetry by Patrick ColemanWe poets often pride ourselves on exploiting the many interpretations that figurative language affords us, and so we may shy away from visuals for fear they will detract from this ability to embody multiple meanings without sacrificing substance that we think separates “real” poetry from most prose. And though we may write poems inspired by visual art, we rarely include images of these works in books. Not so with Patrick Coleman’s Fire Season (102 pages; Tupelo Press).

Initially, I expected the images paired with poems in the book to be too on the nose and/or to give away too much. However, the pairings—which include artwork by sculptor Alexander Archipenko and painters Guo Hui, Jules Tavernier, Agnes Pelton, Oskar Fischinger, and Diego Rivera—make sense. Firstly, the book seems to be something of an homage to Coleman’s first daughter’s early years, a time in which she would likely have been less than enamored of a book with no pictures. Secondly, I came to appreciate the insights the visuals gave me into the identity of the speaker behind each of these prose poems.

Coleman, who was an art curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, provides the reader with a gallery built around his poems, yet the experience of reading his book is as homey and welcoming as flipping through a family album. There are some diversions into work life that seem superfluous—in the poems “Being Lost” and “Arse Poetica”—but, for the most part, Fire Season offers intimate, lovely glimpses into new parenthood. In “Leda and . . .,” for example, we see the narrator navigating the busyness of parenting while coping with a mistake that puts a minor strain on his marriage—an accident in which a sculpture that has sentimental value to his wife is broken. Coleman writes:

. . . . The second time the wings broke

. . . . It was our anniversary. I told you and

you cried and fed the baby.

Lines later, we get this gorgeous, tumbling imagery:

. . . . Love is dropping into an abyss edged with

a hundred jutting branches and choosing instead to hold the

circle of daylight above, the image that grows smaller and

smaller as you fall: moon, dime, bead, star, pinprick, memory.

In other poems, we experience something of how a new parent falls in love with their child. Much of this happens as Coleman captures the idiosyncrasies of his daughter’s toddler-speak. In “Developmental Grammar/Equivalents,” he writes:

While brushing your teeth, you waved the brush in the air

before you, saying, “I’m painting, I’m painting.” Making circles:

“It’s a house.” A smaller circle: “It’s a door.” Then with your fist:

“Knock knock knock.”

Coleman’s relationship with his daughter is enchanting. He draws us into that falling-in-love state where even his daughter’s naughtiness is endearing. In “Deaccessioning,” he writes:

. . . . My daughter

wearing only a shirt, crouched slightly and pissed on the ground.

She took pleasure in watching her own springing pool and how

quickly the heat reduced it to a darker patch of pink-stained

concrete—her shadow, she said, waving to it.

As this excerpt illustrates, much of the charm from these moments comes from seeing the world interpreted through the eyes of a child who seems at once wide-eyed and wise. Coleman wrestles with this in a number of other poems, including “On Ice,” in which he compares his child’s perspective—her ability to “make a tile floor into a skating rink”—to his own, particularly his mind’s insistence on the literal (that a rock is a rock is a rock).

Although the book’s cohesion rests mostly on the subject matter—parenthood, the anxieties of a father helping to raise a young daughter in a dangerous terrain, and the terrain itself—Coleman also ties the poems thematically by giving many of them the same titles. We get some metacommentary that gives us a sense of Coleman’s thoughtfulness as a writer when, in the final and title poem, the speaker revisits an “error” he made in the book’s first poem, which shares the same title. There are also the “Developmental Grammar” poems, in which we get to read and parse the young daughter’s child-speak; the “Equivalents” poems, in which Coleman calls into question what is real versus what is fake through language that often enacts mirroring; and others. These poems are spread across the book so that one is initially surprised at encountering pieces with the same titles but then comes to expect it and begins to wonder what they have in common and what functions they serve wherever each of them is placed. This makes for a nice game, kind of like piecing together a puzzle.

Years from now, I am fairly certain Coleman’s daughter will appreciate Fire Season just as any reader might—both subjectively, as a labor of love, and objectively, as a solid body of work. It addresses timeless themes, and the visual art contained in it spans centuries and civilizations. There is intergenerational wisdom in this book.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Carolyn Burke

Carolyn Burke was born in Sydney, spent many years in Paris, and now lives in California. Her 2011 No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, published by Knopf and Bloomsbury, has been translated into several languages, including French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Burke’s Lee Miller: A Life, published by Knopf and Bloomsbury in 2006, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award. Burke spent time with Lee Miller while working on her first book, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. The definitive biography of the expatriate artist/poet, it sparked a major Loy revival.

When the Santa Cruz-based author visited City Lights Bookstore earlier this month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon spoke to Carolyn Burke about her newest work, Foursome, an examination of the lives of the famous artists Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury. Burke also read from the book, which you can hear in the video at the 3 minute mark.

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‘The Collected Schizophrenias’ by Esmé Weijun Wang: A Map into Rarely Charted Waters

The Collected SchizophreniasEsmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias (202 pages; Graywolf Press) consists of twelve essays addressing the technical definitions, medical prognosis, and personal challenges of schizophrenia. In the first essay, Wang discloses her own diagnosis to the reader: during her time as an undergraduate at Yale, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), which she describes as an illness that combines certain behavioral markers of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She makes it clear the schizophrenias (of which there are a few types) are both complex and vast in how they are perceived and experienced. Wang manages to discuss such a broad topic by anchoring each essay with a specific cultural or personal touchpoint: for example, her concerns about whether or not she would be a good mother, and the case of Malcolm Tate, a mentally ill man who was murdered by his family members. In another essay, she discusses the movie Lucy and her experience with delusions induced specifically by films that take place in other realities. One delusion she often experiences is that of the people in her life having been replaced by doubles or robots. Another is Cotard’s delusion:

I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead. What the writer’s confused state means is not beside the point, because it is the point. I am in here, somewhere: cogito ergo sum.

Wang’s vulnerability as she puts her diagnosis and lived experiences in conversation with each other welcomes us into her life while also provoking our own self-reflection. Her Ivy League education and status as a published author are frequently identified as ways she finds validation among neurotypical people. In the essay “Yale Will Not Save You,” she writes, “‘I went to Yale’ is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless.

Neurotypical readers may ask themselves, would we see Wang as credible if not for her ability to articulate her delusions and episodes? Would we trust a schizophrenic person’s recollections if that person was not college-educated or successful in their career? Her in-depth discussion of medical, educational, and judicial institutions ask us to question the humanity and compassion we extend to those who struggle with their mental health. Without speaking on anyone else’s behalf, Wang touches on involuntary hospitalization policies, the potential overlap of schizophrenia with other disorders like PTSD or manic depression, and more:

I’d been living with medication-resistant schizoaffective disorder prior to the new diagnosis, and PTSD, while uniquely excruciating, was not—unlike schizoaffective disorder—considered to be incurable…I was grateful for the hope of a condition I could eliminate.

Wang gives readers a map of sorts into rarely-charted waters. She handles the discussion of schizophrenia with a gentleness for both the subject matter and the reader. The collection strikes a balance between the technical and the emotional, and works, like good books do, to change how we think.

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Interview with Erik Tarloff: Hollywood Endings

Erik Tarloff novel The Woman in Black Berkeley novelist Erik Tarloff is a polymath. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was steeped in the motion picture industry (his father, Frank Tarloff, was a screenwriter), but he has also been deeply involved in politics, including stints as a speechwriter for Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, among others. He has satirized the Washington political scene in his acclaimed 1998 novel, Face-Time, about a speech-writer whose girlfriend is sleeping with the President, and taken a fictional look at the complicated political and personal dynamics of ‘60s Berkeley in All Our Yesterdays. He is also the author of three well-received plays.

His new novel, The Woman in Black (Rare Bird Books; 275 pages), chronicles the rise and fall of Chance Hardwick, a young actor who blazes across the Hollywood scene only to mysteriously disappear, as told through the eyes of those who knew him–or who thought they did. Tarloff spoke with us about his book and his background.

ZYZZYVA: Woman in Black was forty years in the making. How did you come to the subject, and how much of it was influenced by your Hollywood upbringing? Did you meet any Brando/James Dean-types growing up as the son of a blacklisted screenwriter?

ERIK TARLOFF: I don’t know about Brando/Dean types (never met either of those), but Sidney Poitier was a good friend of my parents, as was Farley Granger. Larry Parks and his wife, Betty Garret, had been very close until he cooperated with HUAC—that ended the friendship abruptly—but I wasn’t sentient yet, so it’s lost in the mists of pre-history. Ditto Lloyd Bridges.

It’s always hard to say by what route an idea first arrives, although I do recall being intrigued by a series of short documentaries produced in the ’80s about screen actors who came to prominence in the ’50s. More, I think, from those little films’ evocation of the period and the place—I first came to consciousness in ’50s Hollywood—than from any notion of show biz glamour. Having grown up in a show biz family, my sense of the industry’s glamour was rather attenuated all along, but those documentaries did start me thinking about the novel’s central character and the world he inhabited.

Z: The novel seemed to be in some ways about the nature of celebrity – how we deal with fame, and use it to fill in vacuums in our own life. Even your subject, Chance Hardwick, seems to be, through the odd circumstances of his life—perhaps chance—to be an empty vessel, whose motives, nature are not known, even to himself. Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon?

ET: It could be that Americans, lacking a feudal history (with the obvious and appalling exception of slavery), may have a less rooted sense of identity than their European counterparts. But my starting point had more to do with the protean nature of the art of acting, the fact that by its very nature it requires its practitioners to assume and shuck off a vast range of identities. The way this might hollow out an actor’s sense of an authentic self struck me as a phenomenon worthy of a serious novel. It seemed—no presumption intended, word of honor—almost Dostoyevskian in its implications.

Let me add, parenthetically, that the popularity of writers like Rona Barrett, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susann, and Gwen Davis have given the concept of “the Hollywood novel” a certain specific coloration that I think can be misleading. Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, of course, Nathaniel West, have shown that novels set in the movie business can have serious literary ambitions. I’d hate to have The Woman in Black relegated to the wrong heap.

Continue reading

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‘Gingerbread’ by Helen Oyeyemi: Ever-Shifting Nature

Helen Oyeyemi novel GingerbreadHelen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Gingerbread (258 pages; Riverhead), revolves around the fictional country of Druhástrana, an “alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location” that may or may not exist, depending on who you ask. Druhá Strana roughly translates from Slovak to “the other side” or “the flipside,” a fitting name for a nation that bears more resemblance to a half-remembered fever dream than any currently existing country.

Gingerbread mirrors the ever-shifting nature of Druhástrana in many ways, with its circular and occasionally conflicting narratives leaving the reader frantically performing mental gymnastics in order to keep up.

The novel focuses on a family of Druhástranian expatriates who bake obscene quantities of gingerbread daily: Margot Lee, a doting grandmother and preternaturally talented interior designer; her daughter Harriet, who is consumed by her quest to find her childhood best friend, distant cousin, and alleged fairy-changeling Gretel Kercheval; and Harriet’s teenage daughter Perdita, who cannot indulge in her family’s signature pastry because she was born with celiac disease.

Created by a distant ancestor on Harriet’s father’s side as a way to eke any remaining nutritional value out of spoiled rye, the gingerbread is revered by some and intolerable to others.  It plays many roles throughout the book: as the only known method of transportation to or from Druhástrana, as the building material for an impossible-to-locate house where an improbable reunion is destined to occur, and as a way for Harriet to win over the cliquish Parental Power Association (PPA) at Perdita’s school.

The Lee women refuse to sell their gingerbread, instead using it as a way to extort “information, goodwill, and … compliance.”  In doing so, Oyeyemi has transformed a traditional symbol of domestic femininity into a potent tool and weapon that all three Lee women yield indiscriminately. The majority of the book is comprised of Harriet relating her childhood and adolescence in Druhástrana to Perdita after Perdita attempts suicide by way of gingerbread in an extremely desperate effort to travel to her family’s homeland.

As Harriet describes her life in Druhástrana, it becomes clear she possesses “the kind of past that makes the present dubious.”  She reveals to Perdita that she grew up on an impoverished, isolated farm in the Druhástranian countryside, reading the collected works of Émile Zola and baking gingerbread. After a series of improbable events, the Lee family gingerbread attracts the attention of Gretel’s mother, who then recruits Harriet to work at a gingerbread theme park run exclusively by other farm girls.

Harriet’s history starts to spiral from there, and is frequently interrupted by asides from Perdita’s life-size (and apparently self-aware) dolls.  These sorts of fantastical moments are common, with the narrator explaining that “talking or thinking about ‘there’ lends ‘here’ a hallucinatory quality that [Harriet] could frankly do without.”  This tendency toward the surreal is heightened whenever the characters squint too hard at what it means to be Druhástranian in the outside world.

Harriet obsessively searches the Internet for traces of Druhástrana, perhaps in an effort to confirm that her own lived experience did in fact occur. The majority of the articles she finds are translated by Drahomira Maszkeradi, a woman who later becomes the Lee’s realtor as Harriet searches for one of the three houses where she promised to meet her cousin Gretel once she had left Druhástrana and grown up.  It’s unclear whether Harriet ever makes the connection that the woman who is trying to help her fulfill her doomed quest is the same woman who has provided all of her knowledge of Druhástrana since leaving. As Maszkeradi skirts the Lee women’s attempts to pin down her origins, Oyeyemi hints at the answer to a larger question: what does it mean to live in a world that denies your very existence?

“Margot had only one question left. In Druhástranian, she asked: ‘Drahomíra, my dear…are you by any chance Druhástranian?”

She was answered in English, and Harriet held her phone away from her ear to protect it from the Maszkeradi trill: ‘Of course I am…I mean, aren’t we all?”

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‘Territory of Light’ by Yuko Tsushima: A New Life in Tokyo

Yuko Tsushima Territory of Light novelYuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light (183 pages, FSG; translated by Geraldine Harcourt) begins when the husband of the narrator, Mrs. Fujino, leaves her. After months of apartment hunting, she moves with her two year-old daughter into a new building. The apartment is abundant with light most hours of the day, but it fails to illuminate their lives the way she hoped it would.

The novel consists of twelve brief chapters, each one a vignette of life in Tokyo with an inquisitive and sometimes unruly daughter. (The narrative was originally published in Japan in twelve installments, between 1978 and 1979.) At first, Mrs. Fujino finds empowerment as a newly-single woman living in the city, but the thrill of independence quickly fades, and her obligations wear her thin. Her daughter is causing trouble at daycare, and in the middle of the night has crying fits that often end with soiled sheets and start up again just hours later. Over the course of the story, Mrs. Fujino becomes disorganized, sleeping in well past 10 a.m. and sometimes staying out too late at the bar or in finding companionship with old acquaintances. The mother-daughter duo’s schedule becomes erratic, and their relationship seems to shift with the added stress. Fittingly, as a reader, it is sometimes hard to maintain a sense of direction; it’s this simultaneously muted and overwhelming feeling of instability that comes through in Tsushima’s book.

Through it all, Mrs. Fujino remains an insightful and placid narrator. Though her daughter and soon-to-be ex-husband unhinge her, her thoughts are clear and her internal monologue displays an acute self-awareness:

Impatient at her slow pace as we headed for daycare, I picked her up and ran. As I did so, the thought that, in spite of everything, maybe some part of me wished my daughter dead crossed my mind. Why would I have dreamed of her dead body otherwise?…When we reached the centre, she tripped away to join the other children without a backward glance. The moment when she separated herself from me was a palpable relief.

While she realizes much of the instability around her is of her own making, she never loses sight of her humanity—and the humanity of her young daughter, whose father left the picture rather suddenly:

A couple of nights after I’d dreamed of her death, as she cried and cried, the same as ever, I laid her on my lap like a baby and began to recite ‘magic words’ while rubbing her chest and stomach, tracing circles … My daughter had stopped crying and was listening to my voice, a smile on her lips. Encouraged by that smile, I continued, still more fervently, to recite the magic words.

Tsushima’s Territory of Light, for which she won the inaugural Noma Literary Prize, is a tender and relatable story, highlighting both the obstacles and highlights of a transitional stage in life. By the novel’s end, readers are left with the sense this mother and daughter will continue to learn and change together as they remake their life.

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‘Mothers’ by Chris Power: The Fragility of Connection

Chris Power Mothers story collectionThe characters in Mothers (287 pages; FSG), the debut story collection by London writer Chris Power, occupy tenuous positions in their personal lives. Many of the ten stories here hone in on the bitter resentments and petty debates that arise when a romantic relationship has barely formed or, alternately, reached its breaking point. In “The Crossing,” protagonist Ann comes to regret her backpacking weekend with recent lover Jim:

“Several times, in the weeks since she had met him, Ana had thought Jim was telling her what she had wanted to hear. Even before she agreed to this weekend away the trait had been irritating her…She had wanted to sleep with him as soon as she saw him, leaning against the kitchen counter at a party in a big, dilapidated house in Chalk Farm. And she had slept with him, but now she wished she had left it at that.”

As one might expect, the backpacking excursion doesn’t end well for Jim; his attempt to restore some of his masculine pride and put himself back in Ann’s good graces leads to disaster at a swift-moving river crossing.

Stephen, the narrator of “Portals,” visits Paris to stay with an old acquaintance, a charismatic Spanish dancer who invariably wins the affection of the men who cross her path (including Stephen). As various would-be gentlemen callers vie for Monica’s attention, the brewing rivalry among them sets the stage for a violent altercation at a French drum ‘n bass club:

“Michael went down so fast it was like I made him disappear. A space cleared around us. Monica–– who I never saw or spoke to again –– looked at me like she didn’t even know me. Which she didn’t, I realized. I laughed. It was so ridiculous and sad.”

And in perhaps the collection’s strongest piece, “Above the Wedding,” a young Englishman named Liam travels to a destination wedding in Mexico City for the purposes of confronting the husband-to-be, with whom he shared a brief physical tryst and still nurtures feelings for:

“As the security light above the garage flicked on, frosting the driveway white, Liam called his name.

Miguel stopped, turned.

‘You’re going to have to talk to me some time,’ Liam said.

Miguel smiled, not unkindly. ‘No I am not, Liam,’ he said, and turned and walked into the darkness.”

It is the “unkindly” in that last sentence that hurts the most, and throughout Mothers Power exhibits a similar knack for detail in his depictions of the way people navigate disintegrating relationships, whether due to fading sexual chemistry or the barriers put up by mental illness. An eponymous sequence of stories appears at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the book, each installment focusing on the life of the troubled Swedish native Eva. The opening story relays her childhood outside of Stockholm, while later pieces touch on her struggles with depression and failed attempts at maintaining a family. Power lets some of the connections among the stories reveal themselves slowly, and each one can comfortably stand on its own, though the final two chapters are united by the imprint of Eva’s physic pain: “When it comes it’s like all the rules change,” she explains. “You feel everything falling apart and coming back together in new shapes, shapes you can’t understand. You lose the ability to make sense of anything.”

A couple of the stories in Mothers register as outliers: “The Colossus of Rhodes” ruminates on the nature of storytelling itself, as the narrator admits to exaggerating the details of an uncomfortable incident from his childhood in order to express the anxiety of being a parent in a world where it is often impossible protect one’s children (“…I can’t help but wonder if the same thing happened to them, would I want to know? And if I knew, what then?”). Elsewhere, “Johnny Kingdom” follows the hard luck of an English stand-up comic and family man attempting to make a living by impersonating the fictional comedian Johnny Kingdom (a clear stand-in for the late Rodney Dangerfield). Power cleverly utilizes the concept of a comic recycling a deceased comedian’s material to examine writer’s block and the struggle to find a creative voice that is uniquely one’s own:

“Sometimes he was asked, with genuine puzzlement, why he was doing someone else’s bits –– a crime in comedy, but complicated in this case by the fact that he wasn’t trying to pass someone else’s line off as his own, he was only performing someone’s entire act…He was as uncomfortable with what he was doing as anyone else was.”

Mothers proves an elegant collection, touching on a host of issues deeply ingrained in our modern experience: the fragility of human connection, the impulse to travel, and the painful ramifications of mental illness, among others. Power’s prose is spare and exacting, excising the needless word in pursuit of emotional truth. Mothers proves a rewarding experience for the lover of quiet short stories that speak volumes.

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Interview with Rae Gouirand: Words Loosen and Diffuse

rae gouirand glass is glass water is waterIn Glass Is Glass Water Is Water, one of the first full-length books to be published by Spork Press, Rae Gouirand (whose poetry book Open Winter won the Bellday Prize) explores relationships, intimacy, the body, and the tension inherent in wanting to be understood without having to be explicit. Gouirands’ poems push against linear, heteronormative ways of reading and often challenge prescribed forms. Gouirand, whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 102, recently spoke to us about how her work speaks to present-day concerns, such as the MeToo movement, and delved more deeply into her craft.

ZYZZYVA: One of the reasons I was drawn to Glass Is Glass Water Is Water was that I’d read your poem “Not Marrying” on the Academy of American Poets website, and I thought it contained one of the best illustrations of what consent should look like. The following lines in particular stood out to me:

. . .

push back hard when you object to my position.

 

Divorce me every moment you decide

who you are and where you should

 

next be. . . .

This and the insistence on will—“There is no moment/we could exchange our words. We will . . .” (as opposed to “I do”) and “wherever you find that bending becoming/your will and your innate way. I pray . . .”—were captivating. I’m curious about whether you think poetry can effect social change and has a place in conversations that are political, such as the dialogue surrounding the #MeToo movement?

Rae Gouirand: It’s interesting to me to hear about that poem being read through the lens of consent—it definitely teaches me something. In my mind that poem grapples with the limits and the terms of the compact that any two people can have, and kind of realizes those concerns out loud in the form of this address to the beloved. I wrote it slowly over the course of a year after the Obergefell v. Hodges [Supreme Court] decision was announced in 2015—that summer I was driving back and forth across the country on a 10,000-mile road trip with my partner, having lots of conversations with those I’m close to about the tremendous discomfort I feel around the way the queer movement has prioritized marriage equality.

The book overall chews pretty hard on what meanings, and specifically on what figurative assignments, do and don’t do. I’m coming at that as a queer person, and dealing with the ways meaning gets dislocated or transposed or lost in transit, and that poem was the last one I wrote for the book, and the poem that signaled to me that the book was done. In it I wanted to figure out what the question is that lives past marriage proposal, and how that question can be asked. In writing it I realized I was kind of praying something for the two of us, and also for all queer folks—that we always be willing to ask our questions, and that we always have questions worth asking.

The ways in which I think poetry can absolutely shift the paradigm are mostly invisible, slow, low to the ground, close to the bone, and having to do with keeping individuals here, with helping them stay. Yes, it helps us shift thinking, and it facilitates empathy and curiosity. Yes. Art helps me, and many others, stay here and keep pushing onward or pushing back—any creative impulse that is well-realized helps me remember how much power lies in my ability to make, and invent, and revise the way I interface with the world. Since 2016, many of my students have pointed to that power as mattering an almost unfathomable amount. Ultimately I think the job of the poet is to multiply the number of ways that sense is made, and can be made, and is recognized as sense in this world. I believe that matters; I believe in that labor as a necessary labor. That might be the only belief I have that I would call religious.

Continue reading

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‘Rag’ by Maryse Meijer: Refusing to Flinch

RagIn Maryse Meijer’s new collection, Rag (144 pages; FSG), the final and eponymous story is written from the point of view of a rag stuffed down a woman’s throat, slowly killing her. Reading Rag feels a bit like this, as the fourteen unsettling stories leave you gasping for air. With terse, dark prose, Meijer has created a cohesive set of stories which seem to delight in exploring taboos and destroying expectations.

These stories are unsettlingly honest, with the most twisted inner thoughts of each principal character laid bare for the reader. Rag is at its strongest when delving into the minds of its uniformly flawed narrators, which include a college student living in self-imposed isolation, a high school teacher consumed by an unhealthy obsession with his student, and a pizza shop worker who develops feelings for a woman who has a miscarriage in his store’s public bathroom.

Many of the stories focus on themes of self-injury, dubiously consensual sex, and disordered eating, Meijer refusing to flinch from their alarming details. One of the collection’s most compelling stories follows a father serving on the jury for a murder trial while attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Another focuses on a homicide detective who, over the course of an investigation, becomes convinced being decapitated by his principal suspect would be the only fitting end to his life. In a particularly powerful passage, Meijer reflects on the detective’s perceptions of the case and his work:

“The detective keeps a photo of the dead man’s head; there it is, intact, stuck to a bulletin board. You’re going to die, the detective thinks every times he looks at the ugly happy face…He strokes the glossy photo and thinks of all the women he has known, all the meat inside a man. How often it is the other way around: the woman in pieces, and every man a murderer.”

Twelve of the fourteen narrators are male, allowing Meijer to explore their varyingly warped perceptions of women. In deconstructing the many forms of the male gaze, she grants insight into the roots of each character’s neuroses and fixations, skewering the most extreme manifestations of toxic masculinity. The haunting, beautifully horrific stories in Rag linger long after finishing the collection, and subtly answer almost as many questions as they raise about what it means to interact with and be a man in the modern world.

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“Summer at the Baltic Sea, 1958” by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, ZYZZYVA No. 110, Fall Issue

Summer at the Balctic Sea, 1958Kelly Cressio-Moeller is an associate editor at Glass Lyre Press. Her work has previously appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Her poem “Summer at the Baltic Sea, 1958” from ZYZZYVA No. 110 is presented in its entirety below:

The sepia-toned man & woman
sit together in a Strandkorb
an arched canopy pushed back
their heads turned toward
each other eyes smiling
she wears a strapless swimsuit
her body leaning forward
arms mid-motion
as if brushing away sand
he wears a striped beach robe
one hand wrapped around
his raised knee on the footrest
the other holding the side of his neck
considering her measuring his words
in two years they will marry
forgetting seastorm days
no one remembers
who took the photograph
it does not matter
that it was captured at all
a wind-borne miracle
ephemeral as summer
her bare shoulders
glowing bright as amber
found along the strand

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Interview with Kristen Tracy: Interspecies Conflict

half hazard kristen tracyOne of two epigraphs for Kristen Tracy’s debut collection of poetry, Half-Hazard (94 pages; Graywolf Press), advises that, “when a bear attacks, the victim who fights back is likely to fare better than the one who plays dead.” Although this is useful information to have in case of a rogue bear attack, it’s not as helpful when considering how to read the stunning assortment of poems included in the book. Readers might be better served if, rather than attempting to fight the sweeping flow of Tracy’s fantastic lines and vivid imagery, they “play dead” and allow it to wash over them. Tracy, who is also a prolific author of many young adult novels, brings her understanding of the youthful psyche to the page as she describes her experiences growing up in a Mormon farming community and explores themes of loss, sexuality, and leaving home in sharp, playful verse. The winner of 2018 Emily Dickinson First Book Award, Half-Hazard practically overflows with a diverse array of animals, including bears. Recently, Tracy, whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 112, spoke to us about the writing process, family history, and interspecies seabird warfare.

ZYZZYVA: A zoo’s worth of animals appear throughout your poems in Half-Hazard— tigers, lions, and bears (oh my!) pop up within the first few pages. What draws you to animals, and do you have a favorite?

KRISTEN TRACY: I grew up in a small Mormon farming community near Yellowstone Park. Animals were everywhere, even in the nightly news where reports of bear attacks and buffalo gorings dominated the summer news cycle. So I’ve been captivated by animals since my childhood. Bears are probably my favorite animal. A few years ago I went to Transylvania and toured a bear preserve with my three-year-old, and I kept enthusiastically pointing to all the bears and he finally said, “Let’s go home. This place is boring.” So I pointed out more bears and he said, “Mom, those bears are boring.” And so I fear bear adoration is not a hereditary trait.

Z: Two of your poems, “Goodbye, Idaho” and “Taming the Dog,” appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue 112. “Goodbye, Idaho” and many other poems in the collection are very grounded in place, ranging from San Francisco to Alaska to the moon. Where do you consider home?

KT: I live in Los Angeles County right now and I’m really happy here, so it feels like home. For me, the place where everything started is Idaho. It held my whole childhood, so I’m still pinned to it. A few years ago my dad was doing his estate planning and asked me to sign off on things. He owns a propane company in Idaho, and I realized in signing the paperwork that he’d made me vice president of the propane company, and so I called him and said, “I can’t be vice-president of a propane company.” And he said, “Sure you can. And you can come back every year for the company Christmas party.” So I do make it back at least once a year for that. I feel like it was a pretty sneaky move on his part, to keep me coming “home.”

Z: There were so many lines in the collection that made me laugh out loud. How do you balance humor and disaster in your work?

KT: So I have a sad backstory. I’ve lost both a brother and a sister in separate car accidents. My family was overwhelmed by grief, and I realized that somebody had to be funny. So at seven I became the funny one. I basically view it as my job. And as I got older and became a writer, I started writing funny things. My children’s books are funny. I like making people laugh, so now I have my poetry do some mood-lifting work. I think that suffering those twin losses altered my lens on how I see the world. I notice tragedy, accidents, disaster. But I don’t want my readers to sit in sadness. I want everybody to be okay.

Z: You mention volunteering as a gardener on Alcatraz. What was that experience like, and what was the most surprising thing you learned?

KT: I spent several years volunteering as a gardener on Alcatraz, where I learned a tremendous amount about seabirds, particularly sea gulls, because they are brutal beasts who will destroy anything. I once watched a group of seagulls tear a line of goslings apart in front of stunned tourists who pleaded with me to stop the carnage. I wasn’t allowed to intervene, because one of the first rules I learned on Alcatraz was that when it came to the birds I wasn’t allowed to get involved in interspecies conflict. The savagery overwhelmed me. I didn’t realize I’d witness so much bird-on-bird violence. But I loved working to restore the gardens, and if I ever live close enough to the island I’d go back and garden there again.

Z: When did you start writing, and what led you to poetry?

KT: I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in college. I decided my best chance of escaping my tiny Mormon upbringing was to apply to a school far away from it. So I only applied to one college, Loyola Marymount University, and that’s where I went. My freshman year I became good friends with a rebellious Jehovah’s Witness who suggested I take a poetry class with her. I did, and my teacher, Gail Wronsky, really encouraged me and told me I had real talent. I didn’t get a lot of exposure to art growing up, or encouragement. So I really clung to this. Following a path in the arts became a way to rebel against my faith system. I spent years reprogramming myself to value something other than the Mormon belief system I’d been fed as a child. Studying and writing poetry really helped me form my identity.

Z: You also write books for young readers. What books influenced you the most growing up?

KT: I wish I’d read better books growing up. My library had a bunch of Disney books in it. Stone Soup retold as Button Soup with Daisy Duck. So I read a lot of folk tales, but they had Chip and Dale in them. Lots of Bible stories. Lots of Book of Mormon stories. I didn’t become a big reader until college.

Z: In your acknowledgments, you mention that Half Hazard has been in the works for almost two decades. What kept you going, and what was your revision process like?

KT: I can’t believe it took twenty years for this book to exist. It was all the small encouraging accomplishments along the way that motivated me to keep at it. I’d place poems in journals I truly loved. I’d win fellowships to conferences. I’d been a finalist for the Yale Younger Poet Prize and a semifinalist for the Walt Whitman Award and Sarabande Books Kathryn Morton Prize. So I figured if I kept writing poems, eventually luck would find me. And it did!

Z: Half-Hazard is your first book of poetry. What has the experience of publication been like for you, and are you working on a second?

KT: I’ve never felt so thrilled or vulnerable. Working with Graywolf has been amazing. And everybody at the Poetry Foundation has been so supportive and kind. I’m definitely working on a second book. I’m revising a poem about the propane company right now.

Read Kristen Tracy’s poetry in ZYZZYVA Issue 112, which you can order from our Shop page.

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