"It's about persevering." These words appear in a funny short video about the life of a writer starring Kristen J. Tsetsi, who proudly lives up to that spirit. Her novel Pretty Much True ..., scheduled for publication in September, tells the story of a young couple separated by a military deployment to Iraq. This is the story she is most eager to tell, and I first wrote about Pretty Much True ... in 2007 when it was a self-published book called Homefront. Kristen has also published a Kindle collection called Carol's Aquarium, and edited the anthology American Fiction, Volume 11: The Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. I got a chance to ask Kristen a few questions about the life she has chosen and the work she devotes herself to.
Levi: Your novel Pretty Much True ..., previously published as "Homefront", is about soul mates separated by military deployment: the narrator is at home while her lover fights in Iraq. According to your author bio, your husband went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. How did you handle the boundaries between fiction and autobiography when you wrote about this obviously personal subject?
Kristen: Everything I've ever written creatively (not counting a couple of essays) has been fiction, but -- and this is probably true for most writers -- based on personal experience in one way or another. Non-fiction storytelling has always been a problem for me. I get too hung up on the details, and I forget the feeling.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.
The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.
As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.
This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.
Mexico. The land of intrigue south of the border. The place where Dean and Sal headed for ultimate kicks. The destination of choice for taking it on the lam, as in “I’m goin’ way down south, way down to Mexico way” in the Hendrix reading of “Hey Joe”. So many images of Mexico, most of them on the dark side. Think back to the opening scene of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Humphrey Bogart is down and out in Tampico.
I wanted to get away from the endless Chicago winter. I wanted to feel sun on my face and soft breezes blowing through my hair. I wanted to go to Mexico. So I booked a flight to Querétero, a colonial town in the central highlands, and packed my bags. What to read, though? Graham Greene? Not in the mood. I wanted something dark that penetrated to the heart of my image of Mexico, but I wanted a writer other than Greene. Browsing through the stacks at the library, I found it. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry.
We'll always circle back to our Beat roots around here. Here are a few things that've been going on.
1. I spotted the artwork above, a tribute to the epic poem BOMB by Gregory Corso, on a website by a young French artist named Vince Larue, which is mostly dedicated to 1960s culture and the Grateful Dead.
3. The Norman Mailer Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts is presenting a workshop on the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, featuring Doug Brinkley.
5. Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's lively Beat Museum is having a great time being an unofficial consultant (on Neal Cassady's dance moves, among other things) for the upcoming On The Road movie, which will be coming out later this year.
1. Billy Joel had a contract to write a memoir, but got cold feet. Too bad. We know this Long Island boy can write, and I bet he had some stories to tell. The alleged book (my personal guess is that he never began it, though the cover artwork was finished and released) was supposed to have been called The Book of Joel.
2. You know I've been wanting to read this Long Island boy's life story. Jay-Z's recent semi-memoir Decoded had its moments, but Jay hardly dug deep. Good hiphop memoirs or biographies are rare, but I eagerly snapped up Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, a new unauthorized biography by business writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who has covered hip-hop culture and money for Forbes magazine. I suppose it works as a business book, but I found it very disappointing. This white boy, unfortunately, does not know hiphop. The author also seems to think Jay-Z's best years must be right now (naturally, because this is when he's making the most money) which proves, once again, that he doesn't know anything about hiphop.
The Gospel of Anarchy, a thoughtful new novel by Justin Taylor. begins with David, a brainy but fashionably bored college dropout who has pretty much run out of ideas about what to do with his life and has lately been spooking himself by posting photos of an ex-girlfriend to an amateur porn message board. A chance meeting changes everything: David runs into his old elementary school best friend Thomas scrounging for food in a dumpster while a beguiling punk girl named Liz acts as lookout. The falafel they get here tastes good, Thomas and Liz explain, and when David takes a bite it's an epiphany:
I took the biggest bite I could and stood there dumbly, chewing and being watched. It was drier than I'd thought it would be, and sucked up the moisture in my mouth. It tasted okay, other than not being an especially impressive falafel sandwich, which, of course, having been a customer there, was no more and no less than I already knew. No rancid aftertaste, indeed no hint at all of its having turned. The punks were right. It was fine. I swallowed.
David swallows all the way, soon happily giving up all his bourgeois possessions to live in Fishgut, the punk/anarchist house where this collective of extreme anarchists flops. Thomas, Liz, Katy, Anchor and various other drifters turn out to be pleasant housemates, and the endless partying and gratifying orgies easily win David over. This clever novel now changes tone, and we move past David's shallow epiphany to focus on this crazy group's core mythology. This involves an ur-anarchist named Parker, who once lived at Fishgut and left behind a mysterious book.
1. A Stanford University "Digital Humanities Specialist" named Elijah Meeks has created a series of rich visualizations based on the email archives of poet Robert Creeley. The lines describe connections and context, with frequency mapped to vicinity. We can glean interesting discoveries from the diagrams, such as the fact that the tech-savvy Black Mountain/Beat Generation's poet's BFF was clearly his fellow poet (and one-time Warhol scenester) Gerard Malagna. I wonder what the two poets emailed about so often? Anyway, before Robert Creeley died in 2005, he was kind enough to put in a few appearances on Litkicks, so it's exciting to think that a couple of emails from us must be represented in that pink jellyfish above.
I recently read You Can’t Win, the autobiography of Jack Black. This book was a best seller in 1926, and was a favorite of William S. Burroughs. As I read it, I could see how Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, was influenced by Black’s history. But what came to mind more often were recollections of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
In The Stranger, we follow the events in the life of Meursault, Meursault is a pied-noir: a Frenchman born and raised in colonial Algeria. The title of this book in French is L’Etranger, and the primary of definition of "étranger" is "foreigner". Meursault appears as a foreigner or outsider, living life through physical sensations, but with little meaningful connection to the society around him. At his mother’s funeral he displays no emotion. He is alive only to the sensations of the sun, the sea, and casual sex with Marie, a woman who used to work in his office.
Meursault thus drifts along through life, reacting rather than acting. Through a seemingly meaningless series of events he finds himself on a beach, in the blazing sun, confronting an Arab that had had an altercation with Meursault’s friend Raymond. Meursault has Raymond’s gun in his pocket, and when the Arab draws a knife in the blinding sun, the light glinting off the blade “like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead”, Meursault pulls the gun and shoots. He then fires four more shots into the body.
2010 was a banner year for crime fiction. The final installment of Stieg Larsson's seminal Girl trilogy continued raising the genre’s status and the film release of Winter’s Bone opened millions of eyes to crime’s literary underground, where virtuosos like Daniel Woodrell, Jim Nesbit and David Peace — today’s Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Poe – write crime as high art, but whose works are often obscured by the formulaic claptrap of bestsellerdom.
Here, in my lowly opinion, are the top ten crime novels of 2010. Please Note: I don’t claim to have read every novel in which crime plays a central role published last year – daddy needs to keep his day job – but I sure as hell tried. So throw the quick-lime and shovels in the trunk, get your gloves on and masks up, and let’s get gritty ...
"The girl in the apron turned out to be the totality of the catering by Federico's. By the time she brought in the snacks Alan had downed two glasses of champagne, and that set the pattern for the evening. I stopped drinking early, and Senor C. hardly drank at all; but over supper (roast quail with baby vegetables followed by zabaglione, except that Senor C. didn't have the quail, he had a butternut and tofu tartlet) Alan made serious inroads into the shiraz."
J. M. Coetzee, a Nobel-prize winner and one of my very favorite living writers, is not known for his funny side. A video went around the Internet recently mocking the dignified South African writer's demeanor at a ceremony when Geoff Dyer dared to make a joke about Nadine Gordimer only to receive the stoniest of reactions from the guest of honor (it's still fun to watch).
Coetzee's earliest major novels are also very low in light humor. Waiting For The Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K., for all their moral excitement, are tough, sinewy, dreary narratives about martyrdom and suffering. It's hard to laugh about characters who are being tortured, humiliated and ostracized (usually all at once). But a few sly chuckles starts to peek through in Coetzee's best mid-period books, like the great Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello and the memoir installments.