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4.1 out of 5 stars
Zazen
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2011
When I saw video from the Japanese tsunami, it struck me how badly Hollywood gets it wrong when it comes to depicting disasters. Hollywood always shows bystanders standing in awe or running away hysterical, while the Japanese video showed people looking so sad at the sight of ocean waves flowing through their city streets. It's that kind of emotional realism that drives Zazen, and what sets Vanessa Veselka apart from other novelists setting their stories in post-911 `life during wartime'-style landscapes.

The novel is from the point of view of Della, a invertebrate paleontologist working as a waitress and who is obsessed by cases of self-immolation. Living under the anxiety of a pending war and bombs going off around the city, Della asks store employees to page her sister (who died years earlier) and starts calling in bomb threats to places around town. It's a bent view of reality the novel creates, and you never know how much of it is Della's creation. (Veselka is remarkably gifted at showing a warped world anchored by emotional realism.)

The bombings create a sense of community, though less with among the victims than those responsible, and after falling in with a crew of Baader-Meinhof type radicals, Della is pulled in different directions: alienation in one extreme and and connectedness in the other. She is also ineffectual at almost everything she tries, whether it's leaving town or convincing the person on the other end of the phone that her bomb threat is real.

It's a novel that reads like a tightly wound rock `n' roll record, its world comes across like a Twilight Zone episode that keeps getting weirder and weirder, and ultimately, it's a story about how hard it is to set yourself on fire.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2011
It's not every writer who can be this funny and also draw a clear-eyed portrait of a crumbling world. Veselka's characters worry about whether to be vegan or vegetarian, and they plan elaborate parties. Meanwhile, bombs fall just outside the frame of the story. The main character, Della, is sensitive enough to be driven crazy by the contradictions of her life and sane enough to be sympathetic.
If you're on the prowl for your next really good read, this novel deserves your attention.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2011
Somehow, this book is simultaneously a funny story about someone leaving an academic ivory tower to join an over-the-top hipster/hippie subculture, and an intensely emotional portrait of the unsettling feeling you get when you think too hard about whether our modern society is going to survive (and whether it should be allowed to.)
Veselka's voice (as the narrator Della) has a lyrical but gritty quality that makes everything seem both startling and familiar.
I'm having trouble capturing this in a review, but so if you're curious, try googling for the serialized version of the story that appeared in an online magazine, or for the youtube videos of the author reading excerpts.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2011
To misquote Zazen, "every generation defines their relationship with the universe." And while the protagonist, Della, is not my generation, she feels so real, so caught between the expectations of her hippy parents who know they have failed to change the world, the frustration with people who give their money to Walmart when it's really not in their best interests to, torn between ennui and anger and the "keep Portland weird" movement, the search to find meaning, to do meaningful things, when everything seems so hopeless and arbitrary and a thousand yoga sessions are not going to make you any more unique from the billions of people before you. How the knowledge that you are smarter than everyone around you and yet they don't care, burns inside you.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2011
"Zazen" is an amazing achievement. I found myself grinning frequently whilst reading. The author's insightful swipe at John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen had me in tears of pure joy that I had difficulty explaining to those around me. I love everything about this book.

Through her use of the first-person, her female characters with male (red-neck) names, her encyclopedic knowledge of all things yoga and vegan, her love of rats, and fly-oil burning Mercedes, Vanessa Veselka has won my heart forever and ever.

Read this book. It will make you happy.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2011
Zazen is a novel that looks without flinching at the special terrors of our times.

Yes, there are bombs. But that's not what I'm talking about. Lives are in danger, and limbs, but what's most imperilled in Della's narrative world is its soul. Nobody knows what this means; we struggle, we have struggled, we always will struggle - especially in our best books, our bravest songs - to untangle the chaos of desires and ethics and politics and overblown, blown-out powers and hopes that swirl in and around our beings in any given place and time. What makes Zazen such a powerful and important work is that it confronts the timeless, essential human questions - how to live? what to do? whether to fear? how to love? - within the distinct setting of the 21st-century urban global-industrial-capitalist terrorism-haunted American Pacific Northwest. And this world is envisioned by Della with a rare and phenomenal voice and vision, like a dirty diamond lit from within.

Throughout Zazen, Veselka's Della Mylinek blasts a searchlight into some of the darkest corners of a world that is sometimes uncomfortably familiar. In her narrative we recognize spectres of our own emaciated hopes and hollow disappointments, as they slink away into cracks in community-garden beds or between worn floorboards at the local food co-op. We know we're broken, however hard we try to be whole; but Della shows us where and how we break, with surgical precision and fiercely generous wit like nothing seen before. That is to say, she shows us with her own bones and flesh, in the form of a singular voice.

I wish to hell this book had existed when I was seventeen. What a gift to have Della as as a guide at that particular stage of American youth, when one is so acutely sensitive to the failings of society and also in love with its glorious possibilities, and so deeply embroiled in the terminally-confusing quest to secure a place and personhood in a world you're pretty sure you don't trust. Thankfully, as with the best books that guided us then, and like the best art we have, Zazen is an illumination that saves us from some of the blind fumblings of spirit and intellect we must endure in a world full of contradictions. And even for the calloused and jaded among us, no longer seventeen, Zazen is a fresh recollection of the beauty that can still flower within all this confusion.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2012
Vaenessa Veselka's Zazen (Red Lemonade) dives bravely into plot, with the author's gymnastics reserved for language that soars and swirls in waves, reminiscent at times of Thomas Pynchon at his most accessible and Tom Robbins at his most fanciful. Vaselka's book is, however, hardly derivative. Della Mylinek, a recent paleontology graduate, grinds away at life in the near-future (perhaps) in Portland, Oregon. It's a dystopian world with America on the decline, trudging from war to war as what could be the sons and daughters of the Occupy movement have a choice to make: stick it out and fight the power, or skip country for third-world safety, away from the bombs and strip malls that equally disrupt the bleak horizon. Pick your existential poison, be it Hamlet or the Clash, and cue "Should I Stay or Should I Go."

Her degree behind her, Della is apparently damaged, given to snark, and serving up tofu in a vegan restaurant called Rise Up Singing. Tickets out of town in hand, she's unable to make up her mind on the Big Questions as she navigates the impact of her troubled past. Veselka's hard-driving storyline is populated by dyed-colorful characters weaving their way through a hopelessly grey landscape, marching into events ranging from mass funerals and protests to orgies to down-on-the-farm family gatherings. Everything in Zazen is radically charged: language, plot and subject matter. It is barren and beautiful, and deeply unnerving - a modern story for our modern times.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Della is a scientist who lives with her brother and his pregnant wife after graduating from school and having somewhat of a mental breakdown. She has an obsession with fire, as well as with people setting themselves on fire. Through her job at a local restaurant, through her brother's connections, and through her parents, Della is surrounded by people who are hippie-radical types, and is focused on changing the world in some way, by using extreme measures.

When the places she calls in bomb threats to actually start being bombed, Della knows she needs to figure out the connection.

Continue reading at [...]

Thanks for reading,

Rebecca @ Love at First Book
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2011
It is astonishing that Zazen is Vanessa Veselka's first book. She deftly balances laughter and wry bemusement and left me longing for more. Not only is Zazen a must-read, it is also a must-read-it-again. And again.

Hope that Veselka writes quickly. Anticipating her next work is like waiting for a special gift to arrive.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2011
I really liked the tone of this book, pure low-punk narrative that somehow manages to tread on the light side of dystopia. The menace is more in the background, a doom, a dread, which is really the feeling that limns a certain kind of hard-lived hip life, and not just in fiction. It's a life I know well, and characters I know backwards since I've worked with them, lived with them, and been them. Dyke cooks with cool trucks, warehouse squats, impromptu art shows, everyone with a dream of "leaving" although maybe not because of bombs, just the idea that there's somewhere else. Post-college white nothing. People without culture, willing to do anything to connect with one another. Like mosh at shows or burn men in the desert on ecstasy, or shave their head, or paint their El Camino purple as an expression of...the universal lack of expression. Vaselka effortlessly captures the voice of the free-float. Many great lines and quiet observations. A really solid novel that manages to be original while neck deep in an alienation that is all too expected.
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