You Should Read This: Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

22 February 2012 by 13 Comments


Book: Zazen

Author: Vanessa Veselka

Published: May 31, 2011 by Red Lemonade; 256 pages

Date Read: February 6, 2012

First Lines: “I went to work and a guy I wait on said he was leaving. He said everyone he knew was pulling out.”

Genre: Literary fiction

Amy’s rating: 5/5  Buzz Lightyears lashed to miniature graveside crosses

Susie’s rating: 5/5 candy-colored rat phones

Warning: Extreme gushing about how much we loved this book ahead. Amy and I were both fairly bowled over by Ms. Veselka’s debut novel. Also, I was having a sad because I had to trim down our conversation about Zazen, because we had many things to say about it and it’s super fun talking to Amy about books. So, I’ve decided to post an extended version(!) of our conversation here, just in case some of you would like to see more about what we had to say. Everything that is down below is also on the extended post, so you don’t have to read both if you don’t want to!

Vanessa Veselka describes herself as having been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress, and a mother–is it any wonder that she is also a writer? She fills Zazen to the brim with life and it bubbles over in streams of achingly beautiful language. Zazen tells the story of Della, a geologist/waitress who wants to get away from everything. She hears bombs in her head and can’t escape the monuments to shiny plastic capitalism that keep going up where she lives. When she hooks up with a girl named Jimmy who is leaving the country, Della buys a ticket, too. But she doesn’t go–instead, she starts calling in bomb threats, mentally attacking the places that threaten her neighborhood. She finds herself in deeper than she ever imagined when the real bombs start going off in places she’s called.

Amy: We both loved, loved, loved it! Best book I’ve read so far this year, by far.
Susie: I’m also so glad that we read it. I was enchanted (as much as you can be enchanted by a book that is about terrorism and war and hippies).
Amy: Almost every line was a poem in itself. I’m going to try to find the one, early on, that hooked me.
Susie: I loved her use of imagery. During the “anniversary” scene she talked about Della’s mother in terms of a tsunami–ocean imagery is dicey because it can be so overdone, but hers was perfect.

“Grace rose from the table like a tsunami. With her breath she washed away the debris of the past until we were all floating in her massive sorrow and buoyed by her absolute conviction in life, vibrant and wild on the shores, she carried us forward and that’s how we landed, all of us on this strange beach.” –Zazen

Amy: Bah, I can’t find the specific line, annoying. One I did find: “I had been kissing the hems of ghosts.” *swoon* Gorgeous.
Amy: Her use of language and imagery is masterful. The recurring themes of the self-immolators, the pregnant rat, her sister, the ocean… so many common (and often ugly) things, but made beautiful with her language around them.
Susie: I identified a lot with this book because it is about how ugly things have gotten–and it is frustrating. It’s compelling to follow someone who is acting on her frustration. Veselka said in an interview that she was trying to capture a culture, I think in this case the revolutionary/neo-hippie culture, but also contrasted against our mainstream consumerism.

 “… what is this book? Hmm … another Buddhist geological thriller? A secular spiritual epic? You know, just the other day in a radio interview I actually failed to describe my own book. It was a low point. … One day I was listening to an English professor talk about encyclopedic fiction. He defined it as a work that attempts to encapsulate an entire culture. I immediately realized that’s what I was trying to do.” — Vanessa Veselka in an interview with Literary Kicks

Amy: That’s interesting. It did make me think of that – what the 60s protesters would be, were they around now. How they would use modern technology to their advantage, what they would protest against, how they would go about getting their point across.
Amy: It’s a frightening book, because it’s just vague enough that it could very much happen, and any day now, you know? No details for us to grab onto to say, “Oh, well, that couldn’t happen because THAT person wasn’t president,” etc. She purposely left everything vague so it could be us, in an indeterminate future. Chilling.

Susie: I loved the subtlety of her writing. Her humor was subtle–and she treated sex subtly, which I appreciated. She also doesn’t beat you over the head with anything; she doesn’t tell you what she’s getting at.
Amy:  The book didn’t hand you anything – it let you make up your own mind. I liked that. It treated me like an adult reader.
Susie: Something else I love–you can tell that she’s actually lived what she’s writing about. It’s not just some airy construct in her brain.
Amy: YES! I was so happy to see her list of jobs, and that she was writing from a place of knowledge with them.
Amy: Did I miss the story behind the title? Or was there not one?
Susie: Sitting zazen is a Buddhist thing. It’s basically sitting meditation.
Amy: Oh! I didn’t know that, I’d never heard the word before! I thought of it more as a nonsense word – in my mind, it was the sound of bombs flying overhead. Which almost works too, even if it isn’t what she was going for.
Susie: It does kind of sound like that, I hadn’t thought about it. I used to have a Buddhist roomie so I know a smattering of things about Buddhism. (Well, he was supposedly Buddhist–I think he told himself that to make him feel better about being a dick, but that’s another story.)
Amy: This is probably a bad book for a lengthy discussion because I have all the love for it. :)
Susie: I hope she writes more books and that they’re just as good as Zazen was. Totally would recommend it to anybody, and in fact I’m going to try to make my husband read it, ha.

Veselka and Zazen get two thumbs up from us. Each. So I guess that’s a total of four thumbs. So, you should probably read it, because that’s a lot of thumbs. As an added bonus, it’s available to read, for free, in its entirety, on the publisher’s website. Of course, this means reading on a screen, which kind of sucks, but it is free. (I have no doubt that the book will be winging its way to people soon, even if they start off reading it for free on the site. It’s just that good.)


Susie is the Bitch-in-Chief at IB and is also a contributor at Book Riot. She's an ice cream connoisseur, an art fanatic, a cat-mommy of three, and a wife. She runs the @thebooksluts Twitter account and may be slightly addicted.

13 thoughts on “You Should Read This: Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

  1. I’ve heard lots of good stuff about this book and it’s on my wish list… but after reading all of the gushing, I REALLY can’t wait to read it now. I might just have to sneak it into my TBR pile right now.

  2. Thanks to this detailed review, Zazen has been added to my TBR list. You two can be trusted to know what I’ll like, so if you both give it five stars, I know I’ve got to check it out! I’ll see about obtaining a copy soon.

      • Technically, poetry has slowed down as I am deep in the short stories of Dorothy Parker. Her poetry is in the next section of the book. But, I am loving Parker’s style and I discovered her through your poetry recommendations. After Parker, I need to move on to Eliot so that I, too, can legitimately measure my life in coffee spoons.

  3. I love the way this blog is written…it’s always smart and fun to read. I was a bit worried when I saw all the transcript sections – but it’s like being in the room with you gals. It’s a rare thing to have such energetic voices in my inbox. Ta very much!

    • Oh whew, I’m glad you liked it. Thank you! Rest assured that I do not just slap up our conversations; I prune them meticulously, like I am growing championship roses. Only we have not actually won awards for our discussions. YET.

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