Book Review: Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

Posted January 14, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 10 Comments

Book Review: Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
Published by Red Lemonade on May 2011
Pages: 257
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

America is on the verge of collapse, and 27-year-old Della is serving up tofu scramble in a hippie restaurant called Rise Up Singing and growing increasingly frustrated by the violence and apathy surrounding her. Many people she knows are leaving the country for Asia and South America — anywhere they can escape the impending war and economic doom — and Della is torn: should she flee to a tropical paradise or stay and fight?

Although she buys a ticket out of the country, she finds herself unable to leave. When bombs begin going off in her city, Della sees an opportunity to express her rage; she begins phoning in bomb threats to businesses that defy her ideals, such as the biodiesel fueling station with the armored vehicle bay, strip joints that charge stage fees, and a Vietnamese restaurant chain, “demanding an end to bubble tea as… a barrier to real revolution because the equation Bubble Tea = Something to Look Forward To depressurizes the misery of capitalism and is a band-aid on the festering wound of Neo-Liberalism.” She has no intention of actually blowing up these buildings; she doesn’t have the guts to hurt people. She just wants to make them feel, for a moment, the same fear she feels on a daily basis. She wants to force them to examine the cracks in their society — cracks into which they personally drive wedges.

“Walking home it occurred to me that the great thing about a bomb threat is how much it leaves to the imagination. Like your mom saying you’re in trouble but not telling you why, you go over everything it could be in your mind. There were hidden rivers of guilt running underneath. There had to be.”

However, Della’s paper revolution goes farther than she ever meant it to when bombs suddenly strike some of the businesses she threatened. Needing to get away from the city, she joins a friend on a farming collective in the mountains, where she meets a cast of revolutionaries planning an elaborate stunt to get the public’s attention. Della is drawn into their plans and uses her background in geology to help plan a coup that would knock out power in the city. Niggling in her mind, though, is the question of who hijacked her map of imaginary targets, and for what end? How far will they go to be heard?

I’m not really sure how to approach discussing this book. It is very complex, and I don’t think I fully understand it. Even figuring out how to write the plot summary was challenging for me; for a book weighing in at just over 250 pages, a lot happens, and many of the characters have complex motivations. However, it is an incredible book. It is angry and crackling with life, exploding like fireworks as Della tries to make a difference in a world in which she thinks everything beautiful is destroyed. The writing is stunning; although Della’s inner narration is sometimes crude in its anger, the language is gorgeous.

“I went to sleep and dreamt of tidal waves. When I woke, the world was washed clean and the streets empty of water. But then I realized it wasn’t over. It was only the drag of a great wave calling all of itself to itself, gathering. I looked at the dry road and knew that I was between moments.”

Zazen speaks of the way our culture of violence numbs our emotional reactions; we see violence so often on the media that it is often easier to turn away from it. For some, the constant exposure to violence desensitizes them to its effects. Others, like Della, care too much; they can’t handle thinking too closely about the shattered lives violence causes, and so they turn away.

“After all, two black boys from Heritage Avenue getting shot by cops is the kind of thing that happens all the time. If I gave it one second of real attention, I would be lost.”

This book also looks at the way consumerism dulls our senses and causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture. In a way, our commercial culture is the contemporary opiate of the masses. Instead of looking at and evaluating what’s going on around them, many people become absorbed by a cultural aesthetic that tells them how to think and behave. Zazen also considers the impermanence of our society and our efforts to change it.

My one complaint about this book is that it could have used another round of copy editing. There were numerous sentences that seemed to be missing a word — a minor word, like “to” or “were,” but enough to throw me off for a moment and make me re-read the sentence to make sure I hadn’t missed something.

I could barely scratch the surface of Zazen with this review, but it is a fantastic book: brutal, burning, and honest.

See also, reviews of Zazen by two of my favorite bloggers: Heather of Between the Covers and Rebecca of Love at First Book!

  • The copyediting would be a huge issue for me, but you certainly make it sound enticing.

    • The copy issues weren’t terribly frequent — there were maybe five or six errors that I noticed — and if you can get past re-reading a few sentences, it’s an excellent read.

      • Great review. It was very hard for me to review this one, too, because I loved it so much and because it’s so complex. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the shout out!

        • I bought this book based on your review, so thank you for introducing me!

  • This is a wonderful review, really captures the book. (love that- “angry and crackling with lief”). I too found it beautiful but also challenging in many ways, but so glad I read it.

    • Thank you! I think “beautiful but also challenging” is a good way to describe this book 🙂

  • Totally just bought this today on Red Lemonade. Can’t wait to read it!

    • Leah, you’re so right! I also loved reading the book but thought that writing the review was really tough! I felt like I missed stuff, too, and that I wasn’t able to explain the book clearly since I maybe didn’t understand the whole thing. But it’s strange since I really enjoyed reading it in general!