Rumpus Blog

Word of the Day: Horometry

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(n.); the art, practice, or method of measuring time by hours and subordinate divisions; the art or science of measuring time; from the Greek hora (“time” or “season”) + metron (“measure”)

With them who stood upon the brink of the great gulf which none can see beyond, Time, so soon to lose itself in vast Eternity, rolled on like a mighty river, swollen and rapid as it nears the sea.

—Charles Dickens, Barnaby Ridge

What would happen if, out of nowhere, all of the clocks stopped? What would we do if, all of a sudden, there was nothing to tell us what time we had to wake up, when to brush our teeth or eat breakfast, or when we’re allowed to relax after a long day at work? What if there was no clear, concise division of our days into regimented hours, minutes, milliseconds—those arbitrary categories into which we divvy up our daily activities? Much like Dickens’s mighty swollen river, time would still roll on; and indeed, it has, in its own lurching, unrelenting manner, regardless of how we attempt to stuff it into orderly hours. Over the past month, Nautilus Magazine has been taking us on a journey through humanity’s own past, from a fascinating examination of the mythology surrounding the Big Bang to this week’s piece on the oldest graveyard in the world.

Choosing Sides

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Andrew Wylie, arguably the most powerful literary agent in the world, has chosen sides in the Amazon-Hachette battle for global domination, and he’s allied with Authors United. Wylie represents a slew of high-profile writers like Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and V.S. Naipul—writers he has enlisted to join the 1,000-plus strong group fighting against Amazon. Alex Shepard at Melville House examines the significance of Wylie’s decision to turn against Amazon.

Notable San Francisco: 10/1–10/7

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Wednesday 10/1: Fiveology Presents A.M.P., featuring National Poetry Slam finalist Imani Cezanne followed by an open mic. $5, 8 p.m., Vinyl Oakland. – Wonder Dave

City Arts & Lectures hosts Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad presenting Gut Churn, a multimedia lecture on the creative process. $35, 7:30 p.m., Nourse Theater.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reads from and discusses her new book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Free, 7 p.m., City Lights.

Kevin Killian joins Brent Calderwood for the launch of The God of Longing. Free, 7:30 p.m., Books Inc. Castro.

Saint Mary’s College of California hosts poets Hoa Nguyen and Rachel Zucker as part of the Creative Writing Reading Series. Free, 7:30 p.m., St. Mary’s College, Soda Center, Claeys Lounge.

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What’s the Difference Between You and Your Great Great Great-Grandfather?

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At the Atlantic, David Mitchell discusses his new novel, the poem he keeps above his desk, and how to write. He explains that his work involves writing about distance and time, and that requires figuring out how one culture differs from another:

Much of my work involves writing about scenes set far in the future or deep in the past. How to immerse oneself in the moment-to-moment nature of a time and place you’ve never personally experienced—and perhaps cannot?

Well, I would put a question to you. What’s the difference between you and your great great great-grandfather? What makes you different?

I think the answer is this: What you take for granted.

Hourglass Museum

Hourglass Museum by Kelli Russell Agodon

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I sometimes ask my poetry students what they’ve learned from poems they’ve read along the way, and their answers invariably surprise me. They report learning, among many other things, about “Ohio,” “baseball,” “fishing,” “Christmas,” “Norse mythology,” “wine,” and “squid.” They also report learning about poems from poems:

“I can’t remember who the guy was, but I know he was a poet. I think he had a regular job or something. Anyway, he said, No ideas but in things. I like this thought, so I try to put more things in my poems.”

The guy in question was William Carlos Williams, and the poem is “A Sort of a Song.” I learned from that one, too.

From Archibald McLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” I learned “a poem should not mean but be,” so I stopped trying to explain everything I wrote as I was writing it.

I’m still mulling on Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” where I learned “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” Likewise on Mary Oliver’s “The Leaf and the Cloud,” where I learned “Maybe the world, without us, is the real poem.”

Here’s what I learned from Kelli Russell Agodon’s new collection, provocatively titled Hourglass Museum: “Poem: a form of negotiation for what haunts us.” I write this proposition on the board for my new students to consider. It becomes a touchstone for our conversations, a lens we use to inspect a variety of poems by a diverse group of poets.

If I turn this lens now to examine the poems in Agodon’s own volume, I see a speaker who is negotiating the related intricacies of time and mortality—two ghosts that haunt us all. Williams would admire the way she has harnessed the idea of time to the hourglass, the idea of mortality to the museum. I admire these yoking of ideas-to-things, too. Agodon yokes the abstract and the concrete often and always with a kind of sensuous precision: “No,/ there was not enough time,” she tells us, “for champagne, for matching//bookends in the library, or even sweeping/ the dog-fur, those sad clouds,/ down the stairs.” Look again: “My younger self was so much more mermaid, /so much more collarbone, not a museum/ of lackluster, an echoing clock ticking.”

The image system that links these poems forms an intricate origami of linguistic relationships. First, the dog-fur is likened to “sad clouds.” Later, our speaker is “on the side of the clouds/ and their quiet disagreement with the sun.” She likens herself to an “echoing clock ticking,” while later even “the moon is just another kind of clock.” So our speaker, if we employ the transitive property we once learned in math, yokes her complex self to both a clock and a moon, a synthetic and a natural marker of time.

I jot in my margin: What have I been missing even in my very own kitchen? Agodon’s prodigious looking lends itself to increasingly fraught ideas-in-things, a litany of haunted couplings. For instance, “The sink is always full/ of disappointment,” and “Inside,//we were considering a life of unopened jars./ So many things we kept shut.” And here is our speaker negotiating with things that haunt her—“windows full of streaks and sheets//too large to fold, […] the silence of the Brillo pad […]”—and the ideas behind them, too: mundaneness, boredom, restlessness, the dawning realization that “the future isn’t what it used to be.”

So who is this book for, you may be wondering? Is it only for women haunted by the entropic demands of domesticity, the felt imperatives of creativity? No. It is not only for them, though there is a special empathy accorded those women who “feel the blade and not the smoothie,” who become “the blender and not the woman//pressing the switch.” This book is also “For everyone who never smiled in school/ photos, for all who’ve wandered city streets//not knowing where they were/or feeling alone.” I think that covers all of us, but if you’re not convinced, consider “Self-Portrait with Reader,” one of my favorite poems.

I often ask my students to choose the “heart poem” of a collection we have read. This is the poem that pumps blood to the rest of the book, that best epitomizes the poet-speaker’s view of the world—her negotiation, if you like, with what haunts her:

To create is not enough.

We must live with our hearts
in our hands—like Mary.

We must hold the blood-
red heart and not be disappointed
when others look away.

Reader, you won’t be disappointed with this book, I promise. You will learn so much about looking, within the self and beyond. You will glean the wisdom of someone who has been writing her way toward a deeper knowing for a long time, then showing what she has learned simply and artfully through the things of this world. For instance: “The future is a paper airplane hitting me in the face.//It never lands softly.”

Agodon will show you how to see yourself in that world, that precarious future. These poems are, at least in part, perspective lessons:

See the glow in the window
and want to be that glow.
See one person reaching for another.

Be the silhouette behind the shade.

kelli-r-agodonThey are also, at least in part, a new and exciting vision of ekphrasis. Remember reading John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) in your high school British lit class? Or W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1938) in your college modern poetry seminar? Ekphrasis, from the Greek meaning “description,” has historically referred to a poem that describes and perhaps also interprets, perhaps also meditates upon, a work of visual art. Agodon takes the spirit of ekphrasis and unites it with a confessional impulse: to reexamine her own life in light of visual art, and in so doing, to illuminate the idiosyncratic responses we have as we step inside a museum, or open an art book, or consider a reproduction on a living room wall.

“If My Life Were a Canvas, It Would Be a Jackson Pollock Paint-By-Number” introduces this thread near the beginning of the book. This poem alone provides an ideal writing prompt for my own students, who are challenged to complete “If My Life Were a Canvas, ___________” and thus to begin their own negotiation with a work of art upon the page. Joseph Cornell is here, and Frida Kahlo, and Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol, just to name a few. When I told you “Self-Portrait with Reader” is one of my favorite poems, I forgot to mention that “Notes” at the end of the book is one of my other favorite poems. That is to say, I come to the end, and there is more to learn via poetic appendix, more to discover about the other artist-ghosts haunting this book: Mark Rothko, Diego Rivera, Salvador Dali, Roy Lichtenstein, just to name a few.

Remember when DVDs had Easter eggs, a secret menu with bonus footage that gave the viewer an unexpected reward? Hourglass Museum, with all its rewards, offers AFTER HOURS DINING AT THE HOURGLASS CAFÉ, four extra poems that can be accessed through links for appetizers, entrees, drinks, and dessert. Agodon has already told us, “The hourglass museum remains unfinished,” but here it is, still expanding right before our eyes—even to the final page of this volume and then beyond that page.

Here I think of Edgar Degas, a painter I love, and how his ballerinas were depicted in motion, dancing off the stage, only half a tutu visible there at the canvas edge.

So it is with Agodon’s additional poems. We follow her off the stage, the page, past the ending that is never really—could never really be—an ending. One tantalizing morsel of what’s waiting there, in the ghostly periphery of this book:

In a busy world, the sour experience
is not the lemon, but forgetting
to taste it.

Savor everything, including this book.

Book Tour Ticketgate

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Lena Dunham launched her collection of personal essays, Not that Kind of Girl, yesterday. At NPR, the filmmaker, actress, and author discusses oversharing, sexual assault, and pornography. Dunham did not get through the week without controversy, though. Gawker wrote up a click-bait attack on Dunham criticizing her book tour. As is typical with A-list celebrity book tours, Dunham will be been reading at ticketed events. As is atypical of A-list celebrities, Dunham included some amateur performers. They were not going to be paid. After Gawker’s teardown, Dunham has worked out an arrangement to compensate participants.

Chomsky For You

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Intellectual all-star and modern day renaissance man Noam Chomsky has finally released a “Best Of” anthology, to the elation of liberal arts students nationwide. At The Daily Beast, David Masciotra makes the case for Chomsky’s continuing relevance:

Regardless of how one wrestles with Noam Chomsky, one does always wrestle, leaving the bout much smarter and stronger. His flaws are eclipsed by the sizable shadow of his strengths.

The Irony of It

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Over at The Believer, Riayn Fergins chats with Cornel West:

Anytime you have a deep commitment to loving your neighbor, you hate injustice. When you love folks, you can’t stand the fact they’re being treated unfairly… It’s not sadomasochistic. You’re not liking them, you’re loving them because you can’t hate folks, no matter what color they are, but you hate the injustice. Hate their deeds, but you don’t have to hate them. You can never trump somebody’s possibility. People can change. If you hate someone so intensely, you freeze them for that moment. They could actually undergo a transformation and become lovable people.

The pair also riff on social responsibility, the lack thereof, and how one makes it off of the couch to support a cause.

Notable Interns

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In The Physiology of the Employee (1841)—a pamphlet-length essay on the misery of bureaucracy—the French novelist Honoré de Balzac wrote: “An intern is to the Civil Service what a choirboy is to the Church, or what an army child is to his Regiment, or what rats and sidekicks are to Theatres: innocent, gullible, and blinded by illusions”.

Tired of being an underpaid and overworked intern? Cheer up: In 1841, Honoré de Balzac was in that very position too! Over at the New Statesman, Philip Maughan looks at the long history of the internship and the position’s notable forerunners.

Second Time’s the Charm

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Slate and the Whiting Foundation have teamed up to save authors from the dreaded sophomore slump in a quest to unearth the five best second novels of the last five years. Novelists Yiyun Li and Colson Whitehead will be judging alongside other literary personalities. If you were waiting for the opportune moment to sneak-publish that semi-fictional multimedia pseudo-sequel you’ve been holding onto, this is it.

The Emerald Light in the Air

The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim

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Donald Antrim’s searing, ferociously observant debut collection, The Emerald Light in the Air, has been long in the making. The book’s seven stories span fifteen years. But as dedicated readers of The New Yorker will likely suspect—each story originally appeared in the magazine—the collection is worth the wait. Alone the stories are small masterpieces. Together they tell a larger story of despair and recovery.

Antrim’s stories center around white men in their thirties and forties, mostly in New York and often with Southern roots. These men are uneasy inheritors of Prufrock. They ask not “Dare I to eat a peach?” but “Ought I to light a joint?,” as one character queries in a fun, raucous party scene that becomes a frantic search for a former lover. They are adrift, mourning losses. Artists and intellectuals and lawyers who possess cultural capital and enough money to be middle class or upper-middle class (though typically not enough, by their lights, to feel secure), they struggle with anxiety and depression and grandiose flights of mania. They go on Madison Avenue shopping trips, buy—well, steal—outrageously expensive bouquets of flowers for their wives, mount ill-advised productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring undergraduate nudity, pretend to be doctors while hauling ex-girlfriends’ paintings to the dump. They occupy friends’ apartments. They attend book launch parties. They smoke; they drink bourbon and Scotch. They fret.

But the characters’ problems go deeper than fretting, deeper even than a paralyzing anxiety. Many of these men are in the grips of a breakdown, or only recently on the mend. They drink too much. They despair. One man, an out-of-work actor, suffers from what he terms “the Dread”; another gets electroshock therapy that he details in excruciating scientific language, the dryness of which suggests the psychic pain that leads one to require this drastic therapy.

Antrim’s three darkly comic fabulist novels—recently reissued by Picador with introductions by Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders—have an intellectual playfulness and distance. They are surreal, antic, daring in conceit and wild in execution. (The Guardian calls the middle novel and my favorite, The Hundred Brothers, “possibly the strangest novel ever published by an American.”) Even as the novels enact and provoke a volatile set of emotions, they hold the reader at bay with the force of their absurdist intelligence. Stylistically matchless, they are perfectly controlled. For this reason, they draw comparison to Barthelme and Pynchon. Rightfully so. The three novels are widely agreed to be among the most under-read and most original books in the contemporary canon and are perhaps destined to be classics. But Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, about his relationship with his alcoholic mother, is my favorite of his prior books. It couples humor with a deep empathy and vulnerability that alchemize into a masterful emotional depth.

Donald Antrim

Donald Antrim

And this is what Antrim achieves here. Like Antrim’s novels, his stories are very funny. “An Actor Prepares,” the enjoyable and engrossing opening story, is a broadly comic romp in which an acting professor stages a hilarious, misguided production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We immediately suspect that the play will end in disaster. The revelation that “two seasons ago, we mounted an all-male, all-nude Taming of the Shrew” which audience members claimed “really increased their appreciation for the radical potentials in Elizabethan drama” puts us on notice. When we learn that the middle-aged professor will play the adolescent Lysander alongside “the beautiful, waifish Mary Victoria Frost,” a sophomore who is “the finest actress we’ve had in my time at Barry, a sure candidate for Yale, or Juilliard if she can ease off the drugs,” well, yikes. Puck is to be played by a blind boy. Staging situates him in a pit beside the outdoor stage. Before opening night, it rains and the pit becomes mud. A vengeful duck finds its way into the muddy pit, but the show must go on.

Its absurdist premise and deeply unbalanced narrator make “An Actor Prepares” the clearest analogue to Antrim’s novels, with their wild, writ-large comedy. No surprise, it is also the oldest of the stories. Subsequent stories, like the masterful “Solace,” flicker with a dry wit that illuminates subtler renderings of psychology.

“Solace” tells the story of a couple who meet up in friends’ New York apartments, conducting a romantic relationship in borrowed spaces. The man imagines a painting that the woman has been reluctant to show him—she is an artist who works outside in Central Park—and in the description’s hushed loveliness we see the gentleness and insight with which Antrim handles the couple’s connection: “If the painting was accomplished, or even if not, he would find and appreciate an aspect of it—an element reflecting technical execution and artistic choice, a movement of brushstrokes indicating an intensity of gray light behind bare trees, say, since she’d begun in winter. Or she might have revised with the changing seasons, painting over winter’s silvers with the pale greens and eggshell blues that signify spring. There might be a figure in the painting, a man walking quickly through the park, as he himself had done when out searching for her at her work.”

Other stories, like the standout “He Knew,” about that out-of-work actor on a celebratory late-autumn Madison Avenue shopping trip with his wife, allow us to spot a glimmer of the fantastical behind the scrim of real life. Heightened moments of apprehension—and misapprehension—introduce the surreal without positing it as literal fact. We see this, for instance, when the actor, Stephen, believes he sees his dead therapist eating pancakes in a diner only to realize this cannot be the case, or when he thinks of his wife, Alice, “She had long dark hair and round brown eyes, which, when he looked into them, seemed to have other eyes behind them. What did he mean by that? It was a feeling, hard to shape into words.”

The stories are arranged in order of publication. This order does surprising narrative work: read oldest to newest, they chart a descent and an emergence. “Another Manhattan,” the center of the book, is the nadir. A man named Jim stops at a florist’s to buy flowers for his wife, Kate, on a winter evening while walking home from an outpatient psychiatric clinic. He is in the grips of a frantic depression. Bankrupt, his marriage faltering, he hopes the flowers will buy “a chance that Kate might smile.” Later this evening, he and Kate are to have dinner with a couple, Susan and Elliot. Jim has five months earlier ended an affair with Susan; Kate is conducting an affair with Elliot. Jim adds more and more flowers to the bouquet until the arrangement becomes “a great concrescence of blooms,” only to have his credit card declined and steal the bouquet. When he arrives at the restaurant scratched and water-soaked and bleeding, his worsening mental state becomes undeniable. A pitch-perfect portrait of mania and despair, the story takes us from the tensely humorous to the heartrending. “Later,” we are told, Kate “would get on her knees on the emergency-room floor and extract the laces from his shoes. A nurse would come, then another, and a doctor promising sleeping pills.” Jim is returned to the care of a nurse and an in-patient psychiatric ward. The story ends with the lines, “She gave him Ativan and a paper cup of water, and watched while he swallowed. Then she showed him to a room of his own.”

If the reader hears here an homage to Virginia Woolf, good. Antrim deserves comparison to that great modernist master of charting interior life. Perhaps he courts it. The echo is, for this reader, unmistakable, and it suggests a larger point: Antrim has become a writer whose work converses as easily with the great modernists as with the great postmodernists. But he never loses his distinctive voice. His stories remain wholly original.

We emerge from the stories’ dark places shaken but more alive. The tentatively hopeful endings of the final two stories, “Ever Since” and “The Emerald Light in the Air,” lead us through brokenness into moments of potential. At the book’s conclusion, we have the end of a rainstorm, a Mercedes unstuck and again roadworthy, “soft white clouds” and “a few birds . . . in the air.” This is as it should be. Antrim is too good a writer to ignore the complexities of life, with its Dread and its suffering and its white clouds and its few birds. In fact, he is a genius. So says the MacArthur Foundation—and so says the quality of his work. A virtuoso with rare range, Antrim has long been one of our funniest writers. Here he proves one of our most unflinching and poignant and penetratingly insightful. If there is any justice, this collection, too, is destined to become a classic.

Shooting the West Bank

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Teju Cole spent his summer in Palestine, just before the latest wave of hardship. Viewing the country through his camera lens proved more affecting than not:

Photography cannot capture this sorrow, but it can perhaps relay back the facts on the ground. It can make visible graves, olive trees, refuse, roofs, concrete, barricades, and the bodies of people. And what is described by the camera can be an opening to what else this ground has endured, and to what its situation demands.

The White Review has posted his photos; they’re as close to illumination as we can hope to get.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Manuscript

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left an original manuscript of a Sherlock Holmes story to his daughter, who in turn left it to the Nation of Scotland. Then the manuscript sat in a bank vault. Conan Doyle studied medicine in Edinburgh and wanted to leave part of his legacy there, but no museum was specified, leaving the manuscript’s final destination in limbo while potential homes vied for it. “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” first published in 1927, will at last be displayed at a new exhibition opening next month in London.

Mastering the Short Story

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…short stories [are] a venerable form, but it’s diabolically hard to master. There’s a lot of apprenticeship in writing stories. And sometimes a story can take such a long time to write — I mean, months and months. … It’s only 10 or 15 pages, but still you got to get it right.

Paul Theroux spoke with NPR about his new short story collection and just how hard it was for him to call it “done.”

The 24 Amtrak Residents

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Earlier this year, Alexander Chee tweeted about his enjoyment of writing on trains. Amtrak jumped aboard and decided to launch an Amtrak residency program granting writers free, multi-day train rides where they could write. Amtrak has announced the first 24 recipients of the residency. The Wall Street Journal sums up the program:

The writers will be able build their own travel itineraries from the 15 long-distance trips offered by Amtrak over the next year. They’ll receive free round-trip train travel in a private sleeping room—complete with a writing desk—and onboard meals in the dining car, said an Amtrak spokesperson. They won’t be compensated for additional travel between rides.

The Voice of Secondary Trauma

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In his review of Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great, Jess Row writes about the trauma that’s influenced so many of Pakistan’s novelists:

Pakistan is a country where the fact of suffering is indeed irrefutable, whether we’re speaking of the horrific treatment of women and religious minorities, the use of terrorism — both insurgent and state-sponsored — as a tool of political strategy or simply the persistence of the most extreme poverty in a country that wastes billions on a state of perpetual war. From novelists in such a climate you might expect a response of escapism, or simply escape, but consider, for example, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie: What unites these very different writers is a stubborn insistence on, in Lipsky’s words, the reconciliation of joy and suffering in the texture of everyday life.

Notable Los Angeles: 9/29–10/05

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Monday 9/29: Steph Cha discusses and signs Beware Beware: A Juniper Song Mystery. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

David Bezmozgis reads from The Betrayers. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

Tongue & Groove presents Eat Write, with readings by Lilliam Rivera, Brandon Jordan Brown, and Lisa Segal. There will also be an open mic potion of the evening (three minute limit). Signups for the open mic begin at 7:30 p.m. At the Muddy Leek.

Tuesday 9/30: Naja Marie Aidt presents and signs Baboon. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

John Darnielle reads from Wolf in the White Van. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

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Weekend Roundup

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First, feel for Steven Kraan’s Lonely Circle.

Then, in the latest The Last Book I Loved, Chris Kubica shares his affection for Krabat, by the Czech writer Otfried Preußler. The story of an adventurous boy who discovers a mysterious, magical grain mill appealed deeply to the 9-year-old Kubica. Kubica’s relationship with his former 4th grade teacher enriches a heartwarming story that ends on a decidedly Preußler-esque note of suspense. (more…)