Rumpus Blog

Paper, Please


A study of 300 college students in the United States, Germany, Slovakia, and Japan found that 92 percent preferred to read paper books over e-books.

The students preferred paper because of the “lack of distractions that are available on computers as well as the headaches and eye strain that can result from staring at a screen.” Students also enjoyed the smell of books and being able to see and feel how much they had read and how much they had left to read.

Hip-Hop’s Response to the Flint Water Crisis


Artists across the musical spectrum have rallied to help raise awareness and funds for the Flint, Michigan water crisis, which, thanks to governmental inaction, has been allowed to develop since 2014.

Okayplayer. chronicled the work that hip-hop artists, in particular, have done to bring attention to the issue, and the responses of Flint’s own hip-hop community to the crisis that has put their town on the international stage.

Reading Mixtape feature

Anna March’s Reading Mixtape #18: A Valentine: Fab Books by Fab Lit Citizens


I’m just back from Iowa, writing about the Democratic Caucus for Salon. You know what will make you think about citizenry? Watching hundreds of working-class union members standing in the harsh wind and freezing rain waiting to get in to a Hillary Clinton rally in an overheated high school gym in Cedar Rapids. Watching them excitedly waving “Fighting For Us” signs when they see Hillary, several of them so moved they cry.

Here in the literary community there’s been a lot of talk about whether or not being a good literary citizen is important. Let’s be clear: of course it is. Literary citizenship isn’t about reward; it’s about service. Some things we do as service might reap tangible rewards for us, but to my mind, service is that which is intended to support others without consideration of reward. I think we all need to be doing some service—and almost every writer/editor/agent/arts administrator I know, does. (more…)

Notable San Francisco: 2/10–2/16


Wednesday 2/10: WTF?! Infamous and courageous Russian punk band Pussy Riot will be at the Warfield tonight, presented by (and in conversation with) Bay Area expatriate Russian novelist and arts activist Zarina Zabrisky. No further introduction required, right? $25-$48, 8 p.m., The Warfield.

UC Berkeley starts out this spring’s Holloway Reading Series as Christian Nagler presents Bernadette Mayer. Free, 6:30 p.m., UC Berkeley, Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall.

City Lights presents novelist Rob Roberge (read our exclusive excerpt from Liar here) in conversation with Joshua Mohr (All This Life). Free, 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore.


Google vs. Author’s Guild


The fight against Google’s digital library continues, and this time the effort has support from big-name authors like Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malcolm Gladwell, Peter Carey, and J. M. Coetzee. The case against Google making millions of books—many of them still under copyright protection—searchable online without paying for any licenses to do so goes back to 2005. With the most recent appeal coming back in favor of Google, the Authors Guild is petitioning the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Helle Helle’s Brilliant Brilliant Novel


So I re-read the opening, then the end once more. I looked at the cover. I turned it over to contemplate what’s already been said about it. I set the book down on the bench next to me and smiled. Then I began the review in the present tense.

Over at Electric Literature, Cara Benson reviews This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, Danish novelist Helle Helle’s first book to be translated into English.

The Opposite of People

The Opposite of People By Patrick Ryan Frank


At this point in the media saturation process, you don’t even need to be much of a culture vulture to catch yourself viewing daily life in cinematic terms. Bombarded, willingly or not, with the types, tropes, and rhetoric found on screens big and small, authenticity has been thrown into question. Insofar as the television, films, and advertising we partake of hold a mirror up to nature at all, that mirror’s undoubtedly of the funhouse variety, convincing us little by little that the distorted humanity reflected on its surface may indeed be us. In his second collection, The Opposite of People, Patrick Ryan Frank scrutinizes this disconcerting feedback loop and its bewildered participants, considering how the heart’s misled by what has riveted.

In The Opposite of People, Frank, a poet with an abiding concern for the precariousness of identity and the complexities of human motivation, continues the exploration of longing and disillusionment begun in his award-winning debut, How the Losers Love What’s Lost. And while no one familiar with that book will be surprised by the wisdom, wit and formal elegance of the poems in The Opposite of People, the new collection draws on Frank’s technical skills and imagination to create a more structurally intricate work.

By dividing the book into three sections—“Day Time,” “Prime Time,” and “Late Night”—Frank has created an ingenious but unobtrusive conceptual structure in which the stages of an ordinary broadcast day intersect with the urges and indignities of daily life. Few of the collection’s persona poems and narratives run beyond a page in length, yet, like any fine entertainment in a crowded media landscape, each garners attention in its own distinct way. Whether considering the consumption or production of the films, television, commercials, and stand-up routines that fill up and flatten out our lives, Frank’s rhetorical poise, inventive rhythmic effects, and illuminating imagination ground these forceful poems.

Frank even casts himself as the lead in several of his productions, wearing the borrowed pathos of these guises with panache. Whether playing an alien stepping out of its skin, the other woman finally giving in, or an informant singing like a bird, Frank uncovers the humanity in the archetypal. One of the least offbeat but most memorable of these star turns, “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Astronaut,” finds Frank going into orbit to gain greater perspective. Looking back on earth from his shuttle’s porthole, afloat in a present that’s somewhere “after congratulations / but before that whirring signal from / the fast-approaching asteroid, the klaxons,” Frank’s astronaut considers the world he’s a part of and apart from:

there’s just this silence and unstartled black

beyond the shuttle’s plastic porthole. There

is the planet, round and blue as a gumball hard

in some boy’s sweating hand. How can this

be real? Nothing left to do but stare

at every single thing he’s thought he’s known

now so small it must all be unimportant—

old men skating, sailors in the ports,

a blond child choking in a parking lot—

if it can be right there and be unseen.

Through its reimagining of stock images, whispery assonance and consonance, and mood-inducing lineation, Frank’s poem breathes new life into cinematic cliché.

Frank brings similar technical and imaginative versatility to another of the collection’s innovations, its “commercials.” Wryly juxtaposed with the poetic programming that surrounds them, the “commercial” poems interspersed throughout the collection find the truth within the advertising trope, capturing the unique tenor and latent desire at the heart of each sales pitch. Whether it’s Frank’s “Commercial for a Personal-Injury Lawyer” coming on the heels of the poem “Makeover,” or his “Perfume Commercial” squeezed between poems about partygoers, these disarming and insightful “commercials” penetrate the often hilariously cynical veneer of advertising and show exactly how real doubts and hungers are being preyed upon. Through his metrical and rhetorical sleight-of-hand and careful selection of resonant detail, Frank translates the directing style of each commercial into the written word with concision and clarity. In the establishing shot with which the poem “Car Commercial” opens, Frank even manages to reveal the wish fulfillment lurking in the imagery of that most trope-prone brand of advertising:

Blue air, black road, red dirt, white car: white coupe

on its straight shot through a cloudless desert, fast

and bright and beautifully framed, metonymy

of a lovely life —spotless, stopless, smooth

unlyricked music and the quickest route

out of monotony and toward the curves

of Montana

Even in the short space of the poem’s first line, with its reduction of visual detail to an almost elemental level, mechanistic monosyllables, and the appositive enjambed at its end, one can feel the car approaching then whooshing past. Frank’s rendering of a frictionless life where new car owners are free to take impulsive road trips to western states based on nothing more than a near rhyme captures the dumb freedom and control these ads are so good at selling. At poem’s end, with the car traveling through the streets of Manhattan, Frank calls attention to the strange vehicular rapture that seems to have taken place, underscoring the far-fetched appeal of a hassle-free life:

still buildings serious, direct, reflected in   

the windows, black so anybody could

be driving, even you, probably you

saying goodbye, dull bungalow, goodbye,

hello A/C, combustion brogue, the road

implausibly empty, flat, implausible sky.

That the car you drive can feel like a referendum on the loveliness of your life is both a gross admission and a real one. It’s this type of squirm-inducing truth in advertising that the “commercial” poems in the collection expose so well.

Many of the collection’s most affecting poems deal with our diminished ability to distinguish between authentic feeling and the histrionic overlay that familiarity with the tropes of film and television have bred into daily life. More insidious than just serving as a handy way to categorize people and paraphrase experience, Frank shows how even the way we view the phases of life can seem predicated on what we see up on the screen. In “Ex Ingénue,” the poem’s speaker recounts an indelibly odd weekend stay with a wayward aunt and grapples with the meaning of this childhood experience. Frank stresses the exemplarity of this superannuated ingénue right up front, beginning the poem by withholding speculation about what exactly the importance of the this weekend stay was. In doing so, he allows the reader to share in the speaker’s bewilderment and turns what could have remained a finely wrought character sketch into a much more interesting meditation on memory and impressionability: “One weekend spent with a thin, blonde spinster aunt, / with her tulip-covered sofa, chocolates, her cough / as she talked through war films with the sound turned off [.]” With its militaristic imagery, sinuous sound work, and judiciously deployed double meanings, the poem manages to seem both comically surreal and grounded in the matter-of-fact:

                                           [. . .] Her laughter

was low and long, a smolder when I left her

to another summer smoking on the lawn

in a faded orange bathing suit and tan lines,

watching for the mailman at the gate—

hers was the patient glory of the landmine

waiting for a foot’s right weight.

Cougar on the prowl? Beloved character lost to time? First experience of an adult who shirked their proper role? In this poem and others Frank shows remarkable restraint, letting evocative details and the order of their relation testify to the authenticity of the speaker’s emotion.

Such subtle modulation of voice and knack for the memorable line gives his work a Larkinesque immediacy and intimacy. Both of these qualities are on full display in the tour de force, “This Must Be the Place.” In the poem, the narrator’s suspicion—fostered by the movies—that there’s a world out there more actual than the one that actually is, triggers a meditation on daily life with its boilerplate pleasures and nagging concerns. The poem’s opening lines, with their considered metrical imbalance and intricate rhyme scheme, establish a confiding tone well before the poem’s disclosures come:

Autumn, a rental, a radio, and a map—

another man excuses himself from the highway

to look for the actual world: a tourist trap,

a town that hasn’t had its trigger pulled,

those pretty girls about to fly away.

The sense that the narrator, fed up with being unable to view himself as anything but a character in his own soul-searching drama, is actually narrating his own experience becomes even more pronounced when the poem switches from third person into suspiciously particular second person:

You understand why your grandparents spent

their decades with that television set,

polished wood and full of weather: snowstorm, 

snowstorm, static through the night.

Watch it long enough, it must be life.

Somewhere, a man casually loves his wife;

a woman sitting on her sofa says,

goddamn or hallelujah or not today;

and somewhere near, the deer and foxes do

what deer and foxes do, unseen, unknown.

Someone who looks like you drives into town.

Nothing special: some stores and a bar or two,

kids in the park beside the Eagles Hall,

old women enjoying the last of this weather, warm

as the wind picks up and the red leaves start to fall.

A special reverence for these “nothing special” moments of casual enjoyment, experienced without comparison to another way of being, crops up at several points throughout the collection. And yet even the poem’s title, “This Must Be the Place,” with its seeming nod to the Talking Heads, suggests that the allusiveness of living can’t be set aside for long.

At escaping the role in which they find themselves confined, the famous fare no better than the common in The Opposite of People. In two of the collection’s more ruminative poems, “Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote Dance” and “Time Is a Car with Its Brake Lines Cut,” Frank focuses on the confines of fame and the aftermath of former glory. Perhaps the collection’s most touching moment comes at the end of “Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote Dance,” a poem inspired by a Garry Winogrand photograph taken of the painfully awkward “couple” in 1955 at New York’s El Morocco nightclub. The ambiguity as to whether it’s Capote or Monroe delivering this dramatic monologue nicely emphasizes the kinship of two people eager to control their own narrative. The entire poem takes the form of a proposal. After being pressed together by onlookers who would cruelly reduce them to “the bombshell and the queer,” one asks the other to collaborate in a little revisionist history as a way of wresting control back for themselves:

                                       [. . . ] So let them laugh

and then forget it all: those drinks and pills,

hands wet, that man who, grinning, made us dance

so here we are, we’re dancing. Let’s just pretend 

that one of us—who would remember who?— 

slipped through the grand and glittered dark and said, 

Hello, fella. Hello and take my hand.

The poem’s longish lines, with their enjambments and caesuras, read like a formal enactment of the couple’s dance. And the act of rescue, when it arrives at poem’s end, is the unexpectedly graceful flourish.

Patrick-Ryan-FrankIn “Time Is a Car with Its Brake Lines Cut,” the collection’s final and most overtly autobiographical poem, Frank uses details from the offscreen lives of two Hollywood legends as a springboard for his own elegy to former glory. Eight pages in length, the poem serves as an extended coda for the collection and examines the reasons why we sit, endlessly enthralled, viewing wonder from our seat in the commonplace. After beginning as a consideration of the 1936 film Desire, which the speaker regards as costars Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper’s sweetest confection and the apex of their self-possession, the poem turns into a meditation on the piecemeal loss of such self-possession due to uncontrollable events and the indignities of aging. In one extended passage of the poem, Frank relates the story of an aging Dietrich going to extreme measures to recapture her signature look before a performance at a London nightclub. He describes her in her dressing room giving herself a facelift with a needle and thread and wonders about his choice to focus on this grim sight:

It’s awful, the awful detail and what I’ve done—

plucked it out and lingered over it,

as if one moment could reveal some grief

at the center of a long, odd life. I know

that just because it’s terrible doesn’t mean 

it means a thing. But I’m writing it here

because I understand how it feels

to look into a mirror and see yourself

unlike yourself—[. . . ]

If the slippage of the mask in this final poem reveals something of Frank’s own motivations for turning to the screen, it also underscores just how subjective and enigmatic a person’s reasons for doing so can be. In their own way, each member of The Opposite of People’s dramatis personae are looking for some semblance of control as they continue to careen through life, some temporary stay. Frank’s poems, through their craft and imagination, illuminate this basic human desire for an idealized replayable present, and in doing so they give us the enduring pleasure of true art. 

The Page Is Mightier than the Screen


For Lit Hub, David Denby reflects on the danger of losing young readers because of the influence of cell phone and computer screens:

Electronic utopians say, “Calm down, nothing has been lost. If anything, the opportunities for reading have become much greater…” In the literal sense, this is true. You can find almost any book you want somewhere. Those who know what they are looking for can find it on a computer, a Kindle, Nook, iPad, tablet, or smartphone; the electronic library goes on forever, and the volumes will not get moldy. What technological utopians don’t and can’t explain, however, is this: How does the appetite for serious reading get created in the first place?

This Week in Posivibes: Sir Elton John


In a demonstration of why he embodies the very essence of posivibes, Sir Elton John gave a surprise concert for London commuters in the city’s St. Pancras Station. The performance marked the release of the artist’s Wonderful Crazy Nightreports the Guardian.

Whether or not critics think the album stands up to some of his greats, there is a consensus that the joy Sir Elton brings to his work—the joy that makes him the kind of knighted legend to play in a subway station, for instance—makes the work “irresistible” and “infectiously spontaneous” all the same.

Watch a quick clip of the icon’s performance after the jump. (more…)

Afrofuturist Worries


Underwriting the words on that page are the counterposing sentiments I see in many writers I know, especially writers of color: At one pole there’s, I just want to be okay; I want my family/community to be okay. At the other pole there’s, If I only reach the mountaintop I’ll be respected, valid, wealthy, etc.

Over at the Ploughshares blog, Daniel Peña considers how the worries and anxiety of contemporary writers of color are seen through Octavia Butler’s newly discovered notebook.

This Week in Indie Bookstores


New York City’s St. Mark’s Bookshop has twice now been faced with closing over financial issues. But the store has a mysterious, rich benefactor who keeps pouring money into the shop. Despite the two lifelines, the store may close as early as Wednesday.

Despite the disappearances of other booksellers, one Hong Kong bookstore owner continues to sell banned books. However, another shop has closed.

A New York City bodega doubles as a indie erotic fiction bookstore.


A Place That She Herself Has Imagined


Brooklyn is a place of layers both personal and historical, one that, as Colm Tóibín puts it, is “full of ghosts.” Reflecting on the recent film adaptation of his novel, the Brooklyn author observes one of the borough’s more visible specters:

You could invent yourself here, even if the term self-invention was not yet understood by you.

The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie


Shortly after finishing The Portable Veblen, I was running an errand in Park Slope when I walked by a friendly-looking squirrel and felt the urge to talk to it, tell it a problem or two. Once you read Elizabeth McKenzie’s delightful and thought-provoking tale of family dysfunction, you understand the inclination.

The title character, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, is a charming, underachieving thirtyish woman who translates Norwegian documents as a side job and idolizes her namesake, Thorstein Veblen, the economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” She also talks to squirrels, a habit she picked up during an isolated and difficult childhood with a manipulative and hypochondriac mother, Melanie, and an institutionalized father whom she saw infrequently on court-mandated visits.

The novel begins with an arresting first paragraph:

Huddled together on the last block of Tasso Street, in a California town known as Palo Alto, was a pair of humble bungalows, each one aplot in lilies. And in one lived a woman in the slim green spring of her life, and her name was Veblen Amundsen-Hovda.

The writing never quits from there. It is shortly after the New Year when Veblen and her boyfriend, Paul Vreeland, an ambitious neurosurgeon, take a walk by her house (which she fixed up and treasures; it’s her escape from the home she grew up in and her mother). Eying the natural world around her, Veblen has the wish to stop time. Just then, Paul proposes. Though Veblen accepts, she is harboring doubts: “Later, she would remember a filament that passed through her, of being glad she had provided him happiness, but not really sure how she felt herself.” She lends these thoughts to her old friend the squirrel, who witnesses the proposal and “makes a few sharp sounds, as if to say he had significant doubts. As if to say, and she couldn’t help translating it this way: There is a terrible alchemy coming.

Immediately after the proposal, the fundamental differences between the two lovers become apparent, starting with their view of squirrels. Veblen holds a soft spot for them. When Paul comments that the town is “infested” with squirrels, Veblen says: “I’d rather say it’s rich with squirrels.” Paul is incredulous that the sound of gnawing rodents in the floor above them does not bother Veblen, who feels the urge to remain calm when someone around her is bothered by something—a result of growing up with her high-maintenance mother.

Elizabeth McKenzie

Elizabeth McKenzie

Veblen and Paul haven’t met each other’s families, and it soon becomes clear why. While Veblen has her hands full managing her mother, Paul’s roots have complications, too: his brother, Justin, is mentally handicapped, and Paul has spent most of his life feeling overlooked by his parents, who raised him on a commune and were nudists for a brief period. Paul’s embarrassment about his beginnings is a part of what drives him forward in his career. If they have children, Veblen would prefer they be gritty and scrappy; Paul wants to give them every advantage in the world.

Paul is the inventor of the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, a device that can treat brain injuries on the battlefield. His device catches the eye of a shady pharmaceutical company, Hutmacher, and Paul gets swept up in the attention and excitement, overlooking some of the less savory aspects of the company, which his hippie parents are quick to point out.

It’s a madcap book and I laughed out loud. As Veblen prepares for Paul to meet Melanie, “she reminded herself that all humans were flawed, no family faultless, and whatever happened that day, it was part of the rich tapestry of life,” and that Paul, “who routinely dissected brains, could surely endure her mother too.” The language is lovely, and McKenzie has a knack for always taking a line one step further. After a conflict with Paul, she doesn’t just feel distant, but is “far, far away. On a steamer bound for a penal colony, waving a long farewell, with a small white hankie wet with snot and tears.” As Veblen prepares coffee, “the coffeemaker gurgled and hissed, a tired old friend doing its best.” Paul recalls his days as a bachelor: “Weekends so vast they felt like a graveyard of bones.”

Veblen is full of delightful observations on marriage and finding her place in life: “You could spin until you lost your compass. You could pull together thinking: This is only the beginning, one day it’ll come around.” One night over dinner, Veblen catches Paul throwing away the turkey meatballs she made, after pretending to like them. “It was clear that your choice of mate would shape the rest of your life in ways you couldn’t begin to know. One by one, things he didn’t like would be jettisoned. First squirrels, then turkey meatballs… then— what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.”

It’s easy to empathize with Veblen’s trepidation. At one point, she finds the squirrel in a trap that Paul set (despite her best efforts to thwart him by replacing the trap’s cheese with things that a squirrel might find unappetizing, like sauerkraut sprinkled with mace) and rescues it, bringing it on a road trip to set it free in a safer place. She stops at a restaurant and is unsettled by a family feeding their children nearby, and then by an old man eating alone. “She wasn’t sure how to live.” She fondly remembers “being little in the backseat, allowed to sleep while they drove through the night. Everyone in the right place, strapped in, looking forward. No one acting out. The passenger years.”

Even the squirrel gets its own point of view briefly, and watches events unfold between Veblen and Paul while considering his own squirrel family issues: “Every family had its burdens. Sato lived with a sadistic blue jay, and Calarak danced at a strip tease. That had been a tough one.”

At 427 pages, the novel probably could have been trimmed. But as it builds to its satisfying conclusion it’s apparent that all the stories and plot twists are essential to the work. The Portable Veblen asks important questions about how to leave our childhoods behind and step into new families, while balancing the ones we were given, and how to embrace the imperfection of living.

Book Collecting Thrives


Book collecting of antique and rare books remains big business. For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the original British version of the first book in the Harry Potter series, could be worth as much as $40,000—only five hundred were printed. The Observer explores the strange and expensive world of book collecting.

Work and Play


Sixteen female authors tell Susie Schnall about their experiences and struggles with work-life balance, and offer some wonderful advice to us all:

I think it’s unrealistic to max out in every area of your life simultaneously—there’s just not time for everything. But if you’re able to prioritize certain elements of your life during certain periods, you can make everything work over time.

Editions at Play


Editions at Play, the brainchild of Visual Editions publishers Anna Gerber and Britt Iverson and Google Creative Lab in Sydney, has launched, pushing the boundaries of books so far off that they can no longer be printed. Editions at Play creates interactive storytelling experiences meant for your phone, the justification for which being that digital is a new media aching to be explored by writers with more depth, more sensitivity, and more fun poking around in Google Earth. So far Editions has two titles, both of which are fun and less than $5.

Life in the Historical Novel


The historical novel describes then what might have happened within what happened; the feeling of being free within the machine of one’s fate, dare I even say the old consciousness.

For The New Republic, Alexander Chee explores historical fiction and whether the genre owes more to literature or historical accuracy. For more from Chee on history and his new novel, The Queen of the Night, check out our recent interview with the author.

John’s Pixie Dream Girls


Mary Jo Tewes Cramb discusses the perpetuation of the “manic pixie dream girl” stereotype in John Green’s novels:

In Green’s novels, there is considerable tension between the potent appeal of his manic pixie characters, the excitement and fun they bring into the narrators’ lives, and the messages these characters impart about their own lives and identities. It is only through celebrating the quirky charisma of manic pixie dream girls and fully exploring their attraction that he is able to show their accompanying problems.