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When there is nothing left to burn, Della sets herself on fire. At twenty-seven, she is stuck in the far corner of a parallel America on the verge of collapse, splitting time slinging tofu scramble at the local vegan-friendly diner and counting down the days until the impending birth of her brother Credence’s twins forces her out of his house’s leaky attic apartment. She collects pictures of historic self-immolators and stares out the skylight of her room while TVs from across the sprawl spew war reports and ...

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When there is nothing left to burn, Della sets herself on fire. At twenty-seven, she is stuck in the far corner of a parallel America on the verge of collapse, splitting time slinging tofu scramble at the local vegan-friendly diner and counting down the days until the impending birth of her brother Credence’s twins forces her out of his house’s leaky attic apartment. She collects pictures of historic self-immolators and stares out the skylight of her room while TVs from across the sprawl spew war reports and Presidential battle plans. A breakdown a few years back has sent splinters through her buzzing mind, though something in her still hums with a mercurial urgency, flittering back and forth between fight and flight. Many of those close to her shuffle through the shallow rebellions – hair dye, sex parties, gluttonous self-absorption – of an ineffective counterculture, and while others join the growing people leaving their country behind for a life of escape and “eco-tourism,” something quiet in her whispers the need to stay. But those bombs keep inching closer, thudding deep and real between the sounds of katydids fluttering in the still of the city night, and the destruction begins to excite her. What begins as terror threats called in to greasy bro-bars across the block boils over into a desperate plot, intoxicating and captivating Della and leaving her little chance for escape.

Zazen unfolds as a search for clarity soured by irresolution and catastrophe, yet made vital by the thin, wild veins of imagination run through each escalating moment, tensing and relaxing, unfurling and ensnaring. Vanessa Veselka renders Della and her world with beautiful, freighting, and phantasmagorically intelligent accuracy, crafting from their shattered constitutions a perversely perfect mirror for our own selves and state.

Winner of the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The deeply disaffected young woman narrator of Veselka's taut debut must decide whether to flee a dystopian America or try to endure it, and, in the process maybe help save it a little. Della is a waitress with an obsessive interest in self-immolation, a sharp wit, and a dwindling hope in humanity. When a bomb goes off in an office building in her faceless industrial city's downtown, Della finds that the distant wars the country's been fighting are coming closer to home. At first she considers leaving like many others, but then the chaos becomes attractive to Della and she calls in a series of phony bomb threats around town, taking big delight in watching people scramble from, for instance, a mall-church complex. But when someone starts setting off bombs at places from her list of "targets," Della realizes that she might be part of something bigger than her own absurd protest. Veselka's prose is chiseled and laced with arsenic observations, and though she unleashes some savage social satire, her focus is more on the hypocrisy, heartache, and confusion that drive Della and those around her. But don't be distracted by the chaos and disorder: Veselka makes a case for hope and meaning amid sheer madness. (May)
From the Publisher
Vanessa Veselka is something like a literary comet: bright-burning, far-reaching, rarely seen, and a little dangerous.—Tom Bissell

At turns hilarious, unsettling, and improbably sweet, Veselka's debut is, above all, a highly engaging, and totally unique experience, which will have you re-reading passages and dog-earing pages. But best of all, in the end, Zazen is that rare novel which dares to be hopeful in the face of despair, and succeeds.—Jonathan Evison, author of All About Lulu and West of Here

[A] taut...Veselka's prose is chiseled and laced with arsenic observations...Veselka makes a case for hope and meaning amid sheer madness.—Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
In her debut novel, Veselka introduces Della, a lost soul disillusioned by society and caught in a state of despair. Della yearns for security and beauty but is consumed by fear of an impending war and feelings of powerlessness. Unable to fulfill her desire to create a brilliant insurgency, she challenges the status quo only to add to the chaos. Using solid prose complemented by subtle lyricism and allusion, as well as wry observations about such cultural constructs as consumerism, organized religion, and economic development, Veselka examines the choices individuals make when they feel consumed with helplessness. Throughout, readers will find insight into the human condition, where the goal of "zazen," the Zen Buddhist practice of seeking a place of peace and refuge through meditation, may prove illusive. VERDICT Readers will be delighted by Veselka's wit and social commentary and engaged by Della's personal journey. Recommended for anyone interested in a perceptive analysis of modern society and the evolution of the human character.—Catherine Tingelstad, Pitt Community Coll. Lib., Greenville, NC
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781935869054
  • Publisher: Cursor
  • Publication date: 5/22/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,491,375
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

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 bust, bitch, maximum rock ’n’ roll, and elsewhere. Zazen is her first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

I went to work and a guy I wait on said he was leaving. He said everyone he knew was pulling out.
“Canada is just not far enough. Mostly Mexico. A bunch to Thailand. Some to Bali.”
He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook. No soy sauce in the oil mix, no garlic, extra tomato, no green pepper. Add feta. Potatoes crispy and when are we going to get Spelt. He holds me personally responsible for his continued patronage. I hope he dies. I’d like to read about it.
My brother Credence says people who leave are deluding themselves about what’s out there. I just think they’re cowards. Mr. Tofu Scramble says I should go anyway, that it’s too late. I want to but I can’t. Maybe when the bombs stop, or at least let up. Nobody thinks it’ll stay like this. I call it a war but Credence says it isn’t one. Not yet. I say they just haven’t picked a day to market it. Soft opens being all the rage. My last few weeks down at grad school it was so bad I thought everything was going to shake itself apart. I tried to focus on my dissertation, follow the Diaspora of clamshells but every night it got worse. It’s not any better here—here, there, now, tomorrow, next Wednesday—geologically speaking it’s all the same millisecond. The gentle rustle of armies crawling the planet like ants. Anybody with any sense knows what’s coming.
I was in yoga yesterday and this girl started crying. Raina, who teaches on Mondays, went over, put her hands on the girl like a faith healer, her fingers barely grazing the shoulders. She closed her eyes and let the girl cry while she breathed. Everyone was watching like they were going to see sparks or something. I was anyway. I would have liked that. The girl calmed down. Her breath was hard and her eyes swollen. Raina talked about being okay with how you find yourself on the mat and I thought there’s no one here who’s okay with that. If you took the roof off we would all look like little gray worms, like someone lifted the rock; too close, hot bent and wet. Well, maybe not hot because of the mud but that’s still what I thought when the girl was crying. I was glad it wasn’t me.
Credence says if half the privileged white marketing reps in my yoga class voted for something other than reductions in their property tax, something might actually happen. I’d like to see something happen. Something big that wasn’t scary, just beautiful. Some kind of wonderful surprise. Like how fireworks used to feel. Now I’m no better than a dog.
Still, there’s something true in that yoga manifestation thing because I feel different when I believe different things. Only I don’t know how to go back to feeling how I did because I can’t re-believe. When the first box-mall-church went up in the blackberry field I wanted some kind of rampant mass stigmata with blackberry juice for blood. It didn’t happen. It’s not going to. They win; they just roll, pave and drive over everything that’s beautiful: babies, love and small birds. On summer nights with the windows open I hear joints cracking like crickets.
I wake up sometimes and feel the nearness of something but then it’s gone and I’ve started to wonder if it was ever there. Lately, I’ve become afraid that the feeling I used to feel, like something good was waiting, is what people mean when they say “young” and that it is nothing more than a chemical associated with a metabolic process and not anything real at all.
I waited on Mr. Tofu Scramble. He had a date at lunch and they both ordered blackberry smoothies. Vegan. I thought about slipping his date a note telling her that he was a big old cheese eater when she wasn’t around. But who am I to stand in the way of love?
I went into the kitchen and pulled a five-gallon bucket out of the fridge. They stack the tofu in soft blocks at the bottom of a bucket of water. With dirty hands I scooped out the tofu and threw a handful into the blender, little white clay hearts. Then I filled it to the brim with blackberries. I pressed the “chop” on the blender because it’s louder and takes longer and in a second the blackberries stained those little white hearts and turned them dark as a bruise. I left the blender on. It took over the restaurant. Everyone tried harder and harder to ignore the noise but the more they did, the longer I let it run. There should be some price to pay for all of this ugliness, especially the pretty kind; especially the kind you don’t always see.
Mr. Tofu Scramble looked around and I thought, yeah, that’s right, it’s you, you Big Old Cheese Eater When She’s Not Around. His cheeks reddened and his jaw shifted side to side. He started to look so much like a little kid staring down at dirty candy that I turned the blender off. It’s not all his fault. It’s not his fault he’s in love and wants quiet blackberries. It’s just not his fault.
Even Credence fell in love and got married although I think he secretly wants a medal for falling in love with a black woman. Our parents were so proud. Now, if I could only abandon my heterosexual tendencies as uninvestigated cultural preconditioning and move in with some sweet college educated lipstick-dyke bike mechanic, they could all finally die happy.
I’ve lived with Credence and Annette for almost three months now. At first I thought that because Annette was black I wasn’t ever supposed to get mad at her. It was like living with an exchange student that spoke English really well.
“Jean-Pierre, what do they call baseball in France?”
“Annette, do you like macaroni and cheese?”
“Daisuke, how is the rebuilding going?”

Credence has a missionary belief in community organizing. He says, “grass roots” like bible thumpers say Jesus.
Credence and I stopped a Wal-Mart from opening once. It was earlier in the year and it lasted about a minute. Four months of door-to-door organizing, leafleting, town meetings, petitions, land-use hearings, senators, phone calls, cold, free doughnuts, and sermons to the choir in the rain with balloons whipping around our faces in the wind while we chant and people drive by in heated sedans and look confused. Take pictures and send it out to everyone who couldn’t come to the rally. And it worked. For about a minute. It’s hard to do the same thing twice. It’s hard to feel the same way you did, especially when you really want to. We just set them back a couple of months on their timetable. Chipped teeth, flags, crosses and white sugar.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 25, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Della is a scientist who lives with her brother and his pregnant

    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.

    Della is depressed and lost, which is how many of us feel when we hear about another horrible bombing, shooting, or other situation of unjust occurring.  Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an intricate read with great writing that made me feel connected to Della even though she is so incredibly different from who I am.

    When reading Zazen, I connected it with the Ann Curry's new movement called 26 Acts of Kindness.  From the Facebook page:

    "Newtown's heartbreak has a lot of us asking, "What can I do?" Thinking about this, Ann Curry took to social media and asked people to imagine what would happen if all of us committed to 26 acts of kindness to honor each life lost in Newtown."

    I had been thinking about joining and starting my own 26 acts, but when reading Zazen, I found an immediate connection.  Della's in a complete mess based on what has happened in her life and what is currently going on, all because of a tragic event that set her on this path.  While that's not the way I would think to correct the world, there are things I can do to make it a better place and honor the memories of a recent tragedy.

    You can actually read Zazen online at the publisher's website here.  That's how I read this novel, and I flew through it.  Also, if you want some more information about the book, check out Heather @ Between the Covers for her review, which is what caused me to read this novel (as well as the fact that I needed a "z" for my A-Z Challenge).

    Have you thought about joining Ann Curry with her 26 Acts of Kindness?

    Thanks for reading,

    Rebecca @ Love at First Book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2012

    Like a fever dream

    The story, as told by Della, is not linear and is full of allusions and metaphors, so you have to decide which, if any, part of her narration is reliable. Yet there is something about Della's way of telling her story that compelled me to read on, despite the nightmarish dystopia that her version of the US has become. The flashes of black humor reminded me Margaret Atwood's "The Year of the Flood", though set in a different generation. Bracing, challenging, thought provoking.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2011

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