by Vanessa Veselka
Red Lemonade, 2011
From the publisher:
Somewhere in Della’s consumptive, industrial wasteland of a city, a bomb goes off. It is not the first, and will not be the last. Reactions to the attacks are polarized. Police activity intensifies. Della’s revolutionary parents welcome the upheaval but are trapped within their own insular beliefs. Her activist restaurant coworkers, who would rather change their identities than the world around them, resume a shallow rebellion of hair-dye, sex parties, and self-absorption. In search of clarity, and unburdened by ideological posturing, Della calls in bomb threats to various locations throughout her city. She relishes the panic and confusion incited by her fabrications. But when real explosions suddenly strike her imagined targets, Della is lured into a catastrophic plot from which there may be no return.
Della is a paleontologist who lives with her brother and his wife, and who works as a waitress for a vegan restaurant. Since having a nervous breakdown, Della can’t stop hearing phantom bombs go off in her head and she can’t seem to shake off the depression caused by the environmental and cultural degradation going on wherever she looks. She spends her free time researching people who have used self-immolation as a form of protest, and she uses her education in paleontology to create maps of the degradation in her city. Della wants to do something to change things for the better, but she has become overwhelmed and apathetic. She’s stuck between wanting to leave the country for someplace better, and staying to fight against the capitalistic practices that seem to be destroying everything around her. When a relatively harmless bomb goes off in a building down the street from where she works, it gives Della an idea–she starts calling in fake bomb threats to various places around the city in an effort to cause a little chaos in the world of capitalism. But then bombs actually start going off in those places…
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I immediately connected with Della because I know exactly how she felt. Every time I check the news I get more depressed about what I view to be the state of this country. I read about murders, social injustice, asshole politicians, all of the -isms, you name it–and sometimes it’s really hard for me not to say “fuck it” and throw in the towel. There are days when all I really want to do is sit on my couch and stare out the window for hours at a time. As an empath, it is really hard for me to hear about all of the bad stuff and not get completely overwhelmed; sometimes the bad stuff wins, and I wish there were someplace–anyplace–where I could go and never have to hear about any of it ever again. I’m a tough woman, but enough is enough–I’m tired of fighting and feeling like it’s not making a bit of difference. I can only do so much talking and watch people turn the other cheek. It’s frustrating and overwhelming. Did I mention that it’s overwhelming? I feel this way because I care, and I can’t not care. So yeah, it was very easy for me to put myself in Della’s place, to feel and understand her depression and apathy. This passage, in which Della mentally answers a question posed to her by a yoga instructor, pretty much sums it up:
“Can I help you?”
Yes. I want to look like you. I want to be so thoroughly anchored into some sort of pop culture aesthetic that nothing can knock me over or wash me away or make me hate everyone. I want to sleep again.
Sometimes I’d like that, too, Della.
Vanessa Veselka’s prose is superb. The wording of every sentence felt very deliberate and I was deeply moved by more than one passage in the story. One of my favorite passages is one in which Della is describing her mother and the influence she has on their family:
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.
That’s just beautiful to me, and there are plenty of other passages throughout the book that are just as moving. Water is a common theme throughout Zazen, and I’m not sure I fully understand the significance of it in relation to the story. I feel like the use of water-related phrases were used to show flow–the flow of time and events; like water, time can only flow forward. We can’t change what has come before, but we can do something about what happens in the future. I’m not sure…if you’ve read Zazen, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the water theme.
I know I’m not doing this book justice in my review, but it’s one of those books that I would highly recommend to everyone. The storyline is fantastic, the writing is gorgeous, and I really hope that I get to read more from Vanessa Veselka in the future.
(Want to know more? I also recommend reading Amy and Susie’s review/discussion of Zazen on Insatiable Booksluts. Their review is what convinced me to read this book sooner rather than later.)
About the author (from the publisher’s website): Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has 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. Her work has appeared in Arthur, Bust, Bitch, Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll, and elsewhere. Zazen is her first novel.
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