Rumpus Blog

Song of the Day: “Micheline”

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A standout record in Mark Kozelek’s long career is the critically-lauded 2014 release, Benji. The presence of everyday tragedies permeates the record and propels the keening voice of Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moon. On “Micheline,” he offers us three stories whose sad endings are complicated by a rich, guitar-driven melody in a major key. In the process, he stops short of moralizing and urges us to draw connections of our own between the heartfelt and affecting stories. Listen closely for the influence of Bob Dylan and lyrical precursors from the folk music canon.

Notable Portland: 11/20–11/26

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Thursday 11/20: Mary Szybist, most recently the author of Incarnadine, reads from her poetry. Reed College, 6:30 p.m., free. 

Ooligan Press hosts a book launch party for Karelia Stez-Waters’s new book, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before. There will be a raffle, an author reading, and a 90s-themed dance party. Jones, 7 p.m., free.

Ted Rall reads from his latest book, After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests. Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.

Mark Pomeroy reads from his debut novel, The Brightwood Stillness. Powell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.

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In the Course of Human Events

In the Course of Human Events by Mike Harvkey

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Mike Harvkey’s In the Course of Human Events opens with a scene nearly unrecognizable from the rest of the book. Two characters walk through a Missouri graveyard and read the headstones of veterans of the Civil War. But the prologue is connected to the main plot, because a sentiment about Civil War-era slaves from the opening passage echoes throughout: “They was so loyal to the white woman who owned them that they fought against their own interests.”

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of In the Course of Human Events. Anyone who’s ever wondered why poor, disenfranchised, rural Americans join the Tea Party in protest of government programs like the minimum wage or socialized medicine—programs designed to assist poor, disenfranchised, rural Americans—will find the answers in Harvkey’s book. We follow the unassuming, likable Clyde Twitty on his journey from down-on-his-luck lost boy to rage-filled monster. The trip is all the more terrifying because we buy Clyde’s humanity right up until the very end. Harvkey tests the limits of our sympathies. He challenges our ability to see the world through an unsavory pair of eyes. He dares us to look at unimaginable acts of violence and consider that they might have been performed by an actual human being.

The nightmarish downward spiral that is the novel’s plot reveals itself in such refreshing, surprising ways that to give any of it away would be to spoil the whole thing. I’ll tread lightly. After being laid off as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, Clyde takes a job working part-time at Wal-Mart, and can barely make ends meet. He’s a product of bad luck (he owes the IRS $862 by no fault of his own) and harsh circumstances. But he’s an interesting case, because despite a mounting frustration with his lot in life, he never complains. The people around him recognize this quality, and either reward it (like Esther, his flirtatious Wal-Mart coworker) or take advantage of it (his mother treats him like an employee). He’s exactly the kind of candidate Jay Smalls, a mysterious and charismatic stranger, has been looking for.

Jay “sees something” in Clyde and bullies the kid into coming to a family picnic, whereupon he introduces Clyde to the concept of anger. “Everybody thinks anger’s a bad thing,” he explains to Clyde. “You got a right to be pissed off,” he finishes, and we’re told that “the way Jay said it made it attractive.”

Mike Harvkey

Mike Harvkey

Already it’s clear that there’s something off about Jay, and it’s not just how clearly he’s exploiting Clyde’s unsuspecting nature. He demands that Clyde join him for karate classes; his nephew has strange tattoos under his hair; he has a bizarre relationship with his daughter, whom he all but uses as a sexual recruitment tool to woo Clyde. But Clyde is made to feel special, and the reader can even understand, at least a little, Jay’s “right to be pissed off” logic, seeing as poor sweet Clyde gives so much to the world around him and gets so little in return. Clyde does start to get angry, and to follow Jay almost religiously—even after Jay’s dark plans are revealed. Jay begins ranting about minorities and his disdain for the government, offering a copy of The Turner Diaries for Clyde’s perusal, somehow convincing him that reading the book is a natural extension of his karate training.

Harvkey convincingly pushes the scary process of Clyde’s brainwashing to the breaking point and then, rather less convincingly, turns Clyde from an innocent victim into an active agent of hate. After a night in a pit, one of the most terrifying sequences in recent literature, Harvkey refuses to let up. The ante is raised in every chapter, the violence heightened. The book becomes so dystopic that the smallest bit of kindness brings the reader to tears. “My dad would be nice to you,” Esther tells a teetering-on-the-edge Clyde, in an attempt to pull him back from the brink, “which you deserve, cause you’re a good person.” It’s been so long since we’ve seen someone recognize Clyde’s humanity at this point, it breaks our hearts to realize it’s still there.

The obvious reference point for Clyde is Travis Bickle, or his real-life inspiration, Samuel Byck: sad-sack losers whom America saw no use, who retaliated by attacking its institutions. Harvkey, in his attempt (and considerable success) at empathizing with a madman recalls Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins as well. Even when Clyde has crossed what seems to be a line he can’t come back from, Harvkey allows him to hear out a Mexican man who chastises his use of “wetback”: “Growing up, Clyde had heard words like ‘wetback’ and ‘nigger’ all the time, practically on every street corner. Nobody’d ever taken offense.” And even when Clyde has seemingly lost his mind, Harvkey reminds us that Clyde’s not evil—he’s got his reasons: “You may not know that the last few years, before I met Jay, were the worst of my life,” Clyde writes to a friend. “I wallowed in self pity and accepted my sad fate as if I had no choice in it at all.”

The book’s nadir is also, unfortunately, its centerpiece—a visit to the World Aryan Congress during which Clyde evidently gets converted, but which takes us out of his head exactly when we should be closest inside of it. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point of In the Course of Human Events. Like the book’s ending, which forces the reader to only imagine the horrifying events to follow, the real challenge is to empathize with someone like Clyde, even when he’s doing the unthinkable, and even when a brilliant author like Harvkey refuses to spell it out for you.

The Best Standup Comedian You’ve Never Seen Perform

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For the Guardian, Joshua Ferris pays tribute to his hero, Jim Shepard, who served as a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine when he was an MFA student. “A lot of critics dislike the professionalisation of creative writing,” Ferris writes, but “they have never had Shepard in a workshop”:

[Shepard’s] insight is humbling, deeply grained, outrageously perceptive and full of a signature humour. (I once saw him tell of an encounter between a beagle and a squirrel, doing impressions of both. His emotional wisdom extends to animals and plants and inanimate objects. He’s the best standup comedian you’ve never seen perform.)

The Year of Vaping

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The Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year” has been announced, and young people around the world will be called upon to explain the word “vape”—and its significance as part of cultural shifts surrounding marijuana and tobacco—to their older relatives in the coming days. The dictionary folks acknowledge that folks have been “vaping” since the early 1980s, but claim the word has now matured to the point of linguistic relevance. Thus,“vape” has claimed the prestigious title for 2014, beating out contenders including “slacktivism,” “contactless,” and “bae.”

The Making of Michael Pietsch

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Amazon and Hachette have, for now, resolved their dispute. But their protracted battle over pricing has made Hachette’s Chief Executive Michael Pietsch something of a hero to many in the literary community—in Distinction, Pietsch discusses his journey from a small Boston publishing firm to leading the charge against Amazon:

My first job in publishing was as a dogsbody at a small firm in Boston. The job was full days of photocopying and typing, and it came with a fringe benefit: manuscripts to read at night, as many as I cared to carry home. I quickly learned that editing is two jobs in one.

Joy to the World

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Over at New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh’s written an intricate, affecting, and (honest to god) shocking elegy in awe of the emoji. If he comes to a single conclusion, it’s that every single one of them is here to stay:

Over 470 million Joy emoji are being sent back and forth on Twitter right now—which makes the Joy emoji the No. 1 most popular emoji on Twitter (it tends to compete for the top spot with the Heart). Lovers have successfully wooed one another with emoji. Recruiters for ISIS are using emoji in their friendly sounding, ISIS-promoting tweets. Someone put together a song-length emoji-translation video of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” while someone else translated R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” into emoji, while someone else translated all of Moby-Dick (titled, inevitably, Emoji Dick).

Word of the Day: Epimythium

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(n.); the moral appended to the end a story or fable; from the Greek epi (“upon”) + muthos (“story, fable”)

Once upon a time there was a princess who went out into the forest and sat down at the edge of a cool well.

—Excerpt from “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” in Jack Zipes’s Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The odds are that if you grew in just about any European-influenced country, you are probably familiar with old folk tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White.” If you grew up anytime after the 1930s, you are also familiar with Walt Disney’s classic retellings of such tales. But the literary world is buzzing with the recent release of Jack Zipes’s new, uncensored translation of the original Brothers Grimm tales. Check out this brief NPR interview with the author. And if your interest in ancient tales has been piqued, you may also enjoy Rebecca Morrison’s review of two other recently published fairy tale collections.

A Fair Shake for Flawed Female Characters

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Over at the Guardian, Emma Jane Unsworth considers the apparent likeability divide between anti-heroes—as it turns out, a heavily gendered archetype—and their female counterparts. Why does it seem that readers have a more negative reaction to women behaving badly and having existential crises in fiction? And why do we more often conflate character and author when women write female anti-heroes? Claire Messud hits the nail on the head in response to a recent interviewer’s inquiry as to whether she would want to be friends with her character Nora, who has a decidedly bleak outlook on life:

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”

Notable San Francisco: 11/19–11/25

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Wednesday 11/19: Mateo Hoke, co-editor of Palestine Speaksthe latest in the Voice of Witness series—discusses the book with oral historian Shanna Farrell (Free, 6 p.m., UC Berkeley, North Gate Hall).

The Kinda Late Night Show with Broke-Ass Stuart premiere seems like it’ll be pretty literary: interviews, sketches, and performances by The Real Kari Byron, Polly Superstar, Inka Siefker, Boots Riley with Gaby La La, and MegaFlame Presents Big Band Cabaret ($10-12, 8 p.m., Doc’s Lab).

Vouched Presents: Emergency Preparation, with James Tadd Adcox, Lauren Traetto, M Kitchell, and free booze (Free, 7:30 p.m., 826 Valencia).

Passages on the Lake closes out their year with readings by Kate Milliken, Mg Roberts, Michael N. Thompson, Matt Lucas, Sarah Kobrinsky, and Siamak Vossoughi (Free, 8 p.m., The Terrace Room).

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Amazon’s Book of the Year

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Celeste Ng’s novel, Everything I Never Told You, was recently named by Amazon as the book of the year. Amazon’s editorial team reviewed 480 fiction and non-fiction books before coming up with a top 10. Ng sat down with Hermione Hoby for the Guardian to talk about about writing, race, and Amazon:

“It’s hard to feel like the things Amazon was doing were not going to harm the industry,” she says. “Writers, most of them, don’t have a lot of resources. I know many people have reasonable questions about how Amazon operates. But the editorial staff, I think, are people who just really love books and want to promote them. They’re not the people setting company policy.”

Who Will Stand Up for Crumbling Libraries?

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In an opinion piece in the New York Daily News, David Giles calls upon the de Blasio administration to extend its efforts to strengthen infrastructure and promote equal opportunity by aggressively funding some of the NYC’s most valuable public spaces: its libraries. Estimates from the Center for an Urban Future put the cost of “pressing” capital needs alone at $1.1 billion; Giles argues that in our increasingly knowledge-based economy, these unmet needs will take a serious toll on the city and its residents over time.

It’s notable that Giles glosses over concerns about who would make key, big-ticket decisions about contracts and real estate deals in historically underserved neighborhoods—issues that would require careful consideration should de Blasio heed the call for an aggressive improvement plan—but it’s hard to argue with the thrust of his case. Libraries deserve lots of love, and cash besides.

FOUND Book Release Party in LA!

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If you’re in Los Angeles this Saturday, stop by the Bootleg Theater to celebrate the release of FOUND Magazine: THE EARLY YEARS, a compilation of the best stuff from the first issues of a magazine that collects found objects of all kinds. Founder Davy Rothbart will read about his favorite finds, as well as his work from This American Life and his book, My Heart Is An Idiot. Buy tickets here (suggested donation), and don’t forget to join the Facebook event.

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The New York Comics and Picture Story Symposium: Pure Vision Arts and the Outsider Artist

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The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. (more…)

The Pen Is Mightier than the Sword

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[W]riters today are less likely to engage in open antagonism because the political risks are too great. Between trolls on Twitter, libel law and the pressures of political correctness, writers no longer dare to insult their rivals in the hyperbolically abusive terms that Mailer and Vidal favoured.

For Prospect Magazine, Elaine Showalter reviews Richard Bradford’s latest book Literary Rivals, recalling some of the most juicy rivalries and altercations among writers through history.

Light Reading

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Why do readers love to hate the Times’s Style section? While many of its trend pieces are guilty of the same transgressions committed elsewhere in mainstream media, a history of misogyny and homophobia directed at lifestyle journalism suggests our contempt goes beyond objective criticism:

Far from detailing the paper’s ignominious decline into muddy ethical waters and vacuous intellectual territory, the history of style reporting at the New York Times actually exposes some of the nastiest truths about misogyny and homophobia in the mass media: their intensity, their unbelievable durations (by which I mean “totally believable”), their active contemporary manifestations, and the role audiences play in perpetuating them.

Celebrating the “American Bible”

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In accordance with the 163rd anniversary of Moby-Dick, Elisabeth Donnelly explores why Melville’s “American Bible” is still relevant today:

Perhaps what Moby-Dick has to offer for generations of readers is “a shaft of light in the darkness,” as Philbrick puts it. “Not that it provides any real consolation, it just resonates with what it means to be alive in the face of terrifying change.”

My Body is a Book of Rules

My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta

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In My Body is a Book of Rules, Elissa Washuta delivers a coming-of-age memoir in a succession of linked essays that mirror the rapid cycling of her bipolar brain. She pulls readers into the world of a young woman as she struggles to reconcile her mixed Native and White heritage, mental and physical well-being, and sexuality in the wake of losing her virginity to rape. She uses a pop-culture framework and formally inventive chapters. She juxtaposes a Cosmo quiz with Catholic catechisms, annotates her match.com profile, and reenacts the aftermath of her rape as an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

What excites me most about Body is how Washuta exhibits agency — a critical element that is often lacking in mainstream discussions of trauma. In “Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat,” she recounts the people’s she’s had sex with from most recent to the first, the first being the rape that took her take her years to come to terms with. “Each addition proves that I am not afraid to repeat my mistakes until one of my decisions happens to be good,” she writes. “Counting backward is a must.” This accounting reveals her culpability. The reader watches with a mix of horror and sorrow and recognition as she navigates her sexual relationships from a scarred and faulty foundation. It speaks to how we are all shaped by our past, and how we often take over and wound ourselves, claiming a false form of self-control that is at least as destructive as the harm that others inflict. About midway through that chapter, Washuta pulls a punch that stunned me, a trick she uses in other places in the book, where she asks herself a question and forces the reader to ask the same thing. “I don’t know which is more terrifying,” she says. “Being loved or being asked to love.”

Elissa Washuta

Elissa Washuta

Body isn’t a memoir about just one thing, and it lacks a strong chronological narrative. The chapter called “A Cascade Autobiography” shapes and holds the whole. Written more as traditional prose, it’s the longest piece in book and is broken into sixteen parts, placed between each of the chapters. Although it explores many issues, it’s grounding. With its familiar and recurring style, it brings together the strands of ethnic identities, sanity, and intimacy that come barreling at us through the uniquely constructed pieces. “Cascade” reveals the interconnectedness and inseparability of body and mind, culture and action, history and healing, and continues to explore the idea of agency. “Having been raped a virgin used to seem to have a lot in common with being Indian,” she writes. “People were skeptical and I didn’t have enough proof. Both had to do with being fucked over. But Indianness is now cool, evidenced by the dream-catchers spangling every rack at Urban Outfitters. Being a rape victim just sucked, for a while. Sometimes though, without meaning to be, I was proud: I have suffered, and that entitled me to something, but I didn’t know what.”

As a reader of essays and memoirs, I usually want what’s described as “show, show, show, show, show, then tell beautifully.” This isn’t what Washuta gives us. So why am I so crazy in-love with this book?

At times, Body is a difficult read. Washuta places the reader inside her mind and body, brings us right into the experience no matter how uncomfortable. It’s difficult because I wanted to rush in and yell, “Stop! No, wait!” when she was on the cusp of a bad decision. I related to those bad decisions, viscerally. But Washuta doesn’t narrate the solution, or take us out of whatever reaction we’re having. She just holds us in the moment. Because of that, I could see how much of my emotional, physical and sexual self I’d both lost and given away as I fumbled along my own course into adulthood.

It’s a common critique that writing produced by younger people is lacking in reflection. The old joke is that a person in their 20s (or 30s, 40s, 50s) couldn’t possibly have enough life experience to write a memoir. In Body, Washuta shows why younger voices and voices outside the mainstream matter. They show us the immediate implications of our current culture on our psyches, bodies, and hearts. In her refusal to apologize or sugarcoat her thoughts and behavior, and her refusal to let others off the hook for their actions, Washuta forces us to reflect on our own experiences and draw the connections.

In an online commentary, Washuta wrote, “If I use wording that relies on sexist values, it is because I live in a sexist nation. I was taught in my Catholic school to guard my virginity with my life. This is the story I have for you. I’m not writing to heal so much as to turn the mirror back on the world.” Her mirror cracks the illusion that we are separate, that culture is something that happens around us. It is part of us.

And yet there is light: the freedom that comes with admitting our broken parts, with self-reliance, with letting go and getting lost, with being willing to do the work of mending.

I strapped myself to my grief for a long time and beat it into the folds of my skin. Every sexual misstep was a line of litany petitioning some savior for intercession… I know now that I am enough… I seek no savior now, not one in the sky who will wrap his hands around my soul, not one on earth who will wrap his arm around my shoulders. Comfortably unattached, I walk and chant, touch my own hands, waiting for something to be revealed.

Purity Forthcoming

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Jonathan Franzen will release another sweeping narrative titled Purity in September of next year, to the edification of serious intellectuals nationwide. While Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi promises a “multigenerational American epic” that will deal with the ambitious subject matter Franzen is known for, the novel’s “mythic undertone” may be an interesting departure from his trademark social realism.