Rumpus Blog

Use It in a Sentence


British designer Jez Burrows was looking up a word in the New Oxford American Dictionary and was struck by how literary the example sentences for word definitions were. So he created a new Tumblr called Dictionary Stories, where he posts very short stories made up only of those sentences:

He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery, a study of a man devoured by awareness of his own mediocrity. The place was dreadfully untidy. Tattered notebooks filled with illegible hieroglyphics, the evolution of animal life, the mysteries of analytical psychology, victorian architecture… The street lamps shed a faint light into the room. It was beginning to rain.

Today’s Record Release Highlights


This week’s close is seeing releases from Beach House (Sub Pop), Destroyer (Merge), Yo La Tengo (Matador), The Weeknd (Republic), Cold Showers (Dais), Andra Day (Warner), and Tamaryn (Mexican Summer). Castle Face is also putting out an anthology of early Fresh & Onlys material this coming Monday, August 31st, for anyone who loved what the San Francisco garage resurgence meant at its start.

This Week in Short Fiction


Editing. It’s the most reviled step of the writing process. It’s where we do the backbreaking work of word-weeding, where we must dissociate from ourselves enough to see our work objectively, where we’re forced to kill our darlings. It’s the dark place between writing and publication, mostly characterized by bloodshot eyes and crippling doubt. It’s where stories go to die. It’s also what makes “The Humble Simple Thing,” a collaboration between Sheila Heti and artist Sara Lautman at Recommended Reading, so remarkable.

“The Humble Simple Thing” is a “cut-up”: a short story whittled down to its essence and accompanied by drawings that don’t merely illustrate it, but inform it. (more…)

I Get My Favorite Short Stories From the CIA


The Kenyon Review. Mundo Nuevo. The Paris Review.

Check out whether you’ve been unknowingly colluding with secret agents whilst reading your favorite lit mags. Patrick Iber writes, “The CIA became a major player in intellectual life during the Cold War—the closest thing that the US government had to a Ministry of Culture.” (The Rumpus would like to state that we are miffed to be excluded from this list.)

Notable Chicago: 8/28–9/3


Friday 8/28: Theater Oobleck performs There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, a comedy conveyed via two lectures on the poetry of William Blake. Purchase tickets here for the one-night benefit engagement at the Neo-Futurarium. 7 p.m.

Curbside Splendor editor-in-chief Naomi Huffman moderates a conversation between Jessica Hopper (The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic) and Suzanne Scanlon (Her 37th Year: An Index). Women & Children First, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday 8/29: The Book Cellar hosts a celebration to launch Wesley Chu’s new book, Time Salvager. Geek Bar Beta, 6 p.m.


Refusal to Read


At Slate, Jacob Brogan responds to the Duke freshman who has made the headlines for speaking out on his refusal to read Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, on the grounds that it is “pornographic”:

Sex becomes pornographic when we detach it from its living, breathing context…He only sees those brief images as pornographic because he refuses to consider the fuller experience of LGBTQ existence that Bechdel maps in Fun Home. In effect, Grasso reduces homosexuality to a few sex acts, and then declares that showing those sex acts is unacceptable.

The Forgotten Poet


You could visit India and never hear the name Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, if you don’t live in India, you may well have never known Rabindranath Tagore existed. But this was not always the case: recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, Rabindranath Tagore became one of the major influences in the formation of the India we know today. All the while, he wasn’t identified as a politician, social leader, or revolutionary: he was a poet. Or, as his contemporary Gandhi noted, The Poet.

For Ploughshares, John Rufo explores the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore.

A Bedtime Story Designed to Induce Sleepiness


Aimed towards parents desperate to get their children to sleep, a book that claims to induce “gentle hypnosis” is topping the charts at Amazon. Written by a Swedish psychologist, The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep encourages children to yawn along with the story. However, there is a disclaimer by the publisher:

Even if this book is harmless to use, the author and the publisher takes no responsibility for the outcome.

Everyday You’re Hustlin’


If you’re not making enough money, or if you’re stuck in a dead-end job that you’re overqualified for, it’s because you just aren’t hustling hard enough. It most certainly is not because there aren’t enough jobs, or the minimum wage isn’t high enough, or because women aren’t guaranteed equal pay under the law. Even if those things may be true, hustling makes them irrelevant.

Colette Shade on the problem with the commodification of “the hustle.”

Bechdel Test Gets New Name


The Bechdel Test has a new name: the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel popularized the test for assessing films on their portrayal of women. To pass, a film must contain a scene with two female characters talking to each about a subject other than men. (Few films pass.) However, while Bechdel popularized the test through a comic, its origins are with her friend Liz Wallace, and Bechdel wants to share the credit.

Grace Jones and Yo La Tengo


No supergroup rumors here (sadly), but both delivered performances this week that you may have missed. First, Grace Jones killed it at the Afropunk festival, topless, in full body paint, and wielding a hula hoop through the entirety of “Slave to the Rhythm.” A crowd member did us all a favor by catching a short clip of the performance, which you can watch via Dazed Digital.

Then, in a truly NPR moment, after being played between segments on countless episodes of NPR’s Morning Edition, Yo La Tengo finally came to play as the show’s house band for a day. Videos of the performance are up alongside the show’s segments on NPR’s website, along with the transcript of their interview discussing the upcoming album, Stuff Like That There, coming out on Matador tomorrow.

Song of the Day: “Asphyxiate”


The duo of Lizzie Karr and Ben Wiley are one of the more compelling electronic music groups to come out of the Bay Area since Bassnectar. Though their previous single, “Colours,” was like a prism of anthemic pop, their newest track is darker and more introspective. And the beautiful and haunting music video for “Asphyxiate” alludes to the complicated power dynamics of sex and relationships. “I can’t put up the will to put up a fight,” Karr sings in this skillfully-produced addition to the Colour Theory catalogue.

Japanese Bookstore Beats Amazon to the Punch


In what can aptly be described as a preemptive strike against online retailers like Amazon, major Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya bought up to 90% of the first print run of Haruki Murakami’s latest book of essaysNovelist as a Vocation. A Kinokuniya representative had this comment to offer:

To rival online book retailers, bookstores across the country now need to join hands in efforts to reinvigorate the conventional book distribution market.

A Manual for Cleaning Women

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin


“Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes,” wrote Mark Berlin, one of Lucia’s four sons, on a memorial website published upon her death in 2004, a day that happened to be her 68th birthday. “Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.”

A Manual for Cleaning Women collects 43 of Lucia Berlin’s stories written “sporadically,” as the book jacket specifies, throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Most readers, even those who take pleasure in rediscovering forgotten genius, will not be familiar with her work. As Stephen Emerson, the collection’s editor, put it, while Berlin has had “one or two thousand dedicated readers… that is far too few.” Emerson is right. Berlin’s language is succinct and tightly focused, its effects on the reader immediate, saturating, and her imagery is crystalline in its formation on the page and in the reader’s mind. Yes, she must be read. Two thousand admirers is far too few for Berlin’s staggering talent.

The engrossing world of Berlin’s fiction is, as her son Mark admits, inspired by her own life. One recurring narrator looks a lot like Berlin: a strong personality who has married three times, birthed four sons, struggles with alcohol, leans nomadic, and works as a cleaning woman, among other transitory vocations. Berlin’s subject matter marks her as what Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin calls a literary “outsider.” Like her fellow Black Sparrow author, Charles Bukowski, Berlin’s focal universe is the American periphery, distinguished by working class struggles, palm trees, addiction and sated passions, a tumultuous world often viewed, and sometimes perpetrated, by a woman. Berlin’s stories provide a fascinating look at what it meant to be a nonconforming female during a time when women’s rights and societal status shifted dramatically.

Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin

The brilliance of Berlin’s stories lies in a combination of her precise, incisive language and expert narrative-making. There are stories in this collection whose events will cause the rapid beating, and subsequent crushing, of your heart. In “Silence,” an uncle, driving with a bottle between his thighs and his young niece riding shotgun (a girl whose mother is emotionally abusive, father is absent, grandfather is a pedophile and grandmother is complicit), hits a boy and his collie, speeding away as they lie maimed on the side of the road. In “Carmen,” a pregnant woman travels across the border to Mexico to smuggle drugs for her cough syrup-addicted husband and returns to a slap in the face and a solitary miscarriage.

There are quieter stories too, deceptively simple vignettes that leave the reader in awe, like “Macadam.” Take the story’s opening sentence: “When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.” “Macadam” is a story about being poor and wanting something better and the narrator’s emotional isolation from her mother, all contained in four brief paragraphs.

What comes across, in both types of stories, is Berlin’s mastery of the form.

I hate to keep writing, as the longer you dwell on this page the less you are on Berlin’s, so I will leave the (hopefully) curious reader with an excerpt from perhaps her most famous story, “My Jockey,” which shimmers in less than two pages. The narrator, who works in the emergency room at a hospital, is tending to a Mexican jockey, “a miniature Aztec god” named Muñoz who has broken his collarbone and some ribs, and potentially suffered a concussion. The story closes as follows:

We waited in the dark room for the X-ray tech. I soothed him just as I would a horse. Cálmate, lindo, cálmate. Despacio… despacio. Slowly… slowly. He quieted in my arms, blew and snorted softly. I stroked his fine back. It shuddered and shimmered like that of a splendid young colt. It was marvelous.

In reading Berlin, you will forget where you are sitting, who else is in the house, what you have to do later this afternoon. You will be entranced. With Berlin, the story, above all else, is the thing.

Feminists Under Attack in Mexico


Feminist activists have become the targets of attacks in Mexico. At least 36 women’s rights activists have been killed in the last five years. Marie Claire points to a recent incident where activist Nadia Vera and women convening in her flat were brutally attacked, raped, and shot. Local media appear to be ignoring the attacks, and the people responsible might be the very government officials who should be protecting them:

A study found that in 2012 alone, there were 414 attacks against female human rights defenders in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, with 118 of these taking place in Mexico. A massive 87% of these attacks were found to have been committed by the very people who were supposed to be protecting these women – police, government officials and the military.

The Awesome and Baffling Immateriality of Time


Over at BOMB Magazine, the brilliant Laura van den Berg has an illuminating conversation with the talented Stephanie Barber, artist-in-residence in the MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Stephanie says:

Time — and how to organize it, and what happened to it, and what is going to happen in it — is one of the things I like to think about a lot. … I like the awesome and baffling immateriality of this thing that so tightly entwines our understanding of our existence — both the smallnesses and largenesses it touches.