Rumpus Blog

Surveillance in the Stacks

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Librarians have hard-won reputations as defenders of open information and patron privacy, but what about third-party providers of library services? Slate’s Future Tense explores some recent revelations from companies like Adobe, whose Digital Editions e-book software has been criticized for transmitting reader data in plain text—making it an easy target for surveillance by the government, and other private companies. It’s not hard to imagine nefarious uses for information about what people are reading, especially when they believe they’re safe from prying eyes; helping libraries take strong stands with their vendors is a key precaution to preserve the legacy of reading free of cost, and of fear.

Leaving Lebanon

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Lebanese author Rabih Alameddine gets the profile treatment at NYRB:

Many of the funniest moments in Alameddine’s work—and he is essentially a comic writer—revolve around the difficulties of trying to escape the past. The heroes of his fiction are all misfits of one sort or another. They rebel against what they take to be the tyrannical conventions of Lebanese society—its patriarchy, its sexual norms, its sectarianism. In most of his novels this revolt takes the form of flight to America, what one character calls an escape “from the land of conformism to the land of individualism.”

 

The New New Testament

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For NPR Books, Craig Morgan Teicher finds a fantastic reimagining of the black, Southern, gay experience in his review of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament. Drawing from the gospels, as well as the poet’s own rich landscape of rhythm and American mythology, Brown’s new collection attempts to articulate some kind of hope for a community in which tragedies like the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager are, sadly, not without precedent. Teicher commends the collection’s vision and artistry, singing the praises of a poet who writes about spirituality and racism with the courage of “someone making fun of thunder.”

Word of the Day: Periculous

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(adj.); dangerous or full of peril; from the latin periculum (“an attempt, risk”)

I’m normal. I live in a nice apartment. I think one thing [guys like Burroughs] didn’t have that I have is the Internet. The Internet is the biggest conduit of psychic violence since television.

Blake Butler, in an interview with The Believer

The world is full of peril: disaster and catastrophe seem to be everywhere, be they natural or man-made. The art of being human, perhaps, lies in how gracefully we’re able to navigate in between their shadows. Or, if you’re Blake Butler, the answer may  not necessarily be in finding patches of light, but rather to consume the darkness entirely: read last week’s Believer interview, in which the author discuses his apocalyptic novel, 300,000,000.

Art Doesn’t Pay

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The arts don’t pay very well, and working as a professional in a creative field like writing, music, or film has grown more precarious. High student debt doesn’t help, but it might explain why almost a quarter of arts graduates end up in business management. Of working artists, 40% don’t have bachelors degrees. The organization BFAMFAPhD compiled some data and assembled a video that explores further.

Notable San Francisco: 10/22–10/28

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Wednesday 10/22: Tom Frank and John Summers celebrate the release of No Future For You: Salvos from The Baffler (Free, 7 p.m., City Lights).

Eimear McBride reads from and discusses her novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, with Anisse Gross (Free, 7 p.m., Green Apple Books on the Park).

Alexis Coe celebrates the launch of her novel, Alice + Freda Forever, with Mallory Ortberg (Free, 7:30 p.m., The Booksmith).

Derrick Brown is in town from Austin, on tour for his new book of poems Our Poison Horse, is the feature for this week’s Berkeley Poetry Slam ($7-10, 8 p.m., The Starry Plough). 

Thursday 10/23: UC Berkeley’s The Mixed Blood Project presents C.D. Wright, reading and in conversation with Christopher Miller (Free, 6:30 p.m., UC Berkeley, Maude Fife Room).

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Apollo Revisited

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Tom Hanks (yeah, that one), lands his short fiction debut over at the New Yorker:

I’ve been around great storytellers all my life and, like an enthusiastic student, I want to tell some of my own. And I read so much nonfiction that the details stack up in my head and need a rearranging sometimes.

Be sure to read the piece, “Alan Bean Plus Four,” and his interview with Deborah Treisman afterwards.

Bam! Pow! Laureate!

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Joining the distinguished poets and children’s authors of the realm, Dave Gibbons is set to become the UK’s first Comics Laureate. In the Guardian, the artist behind the Watchmen comics shares his vision for a future where graphic novels play a central role in English literature and are put to good use by schools and parents, inspiring children to become lifelong readers. His one complaint about the appointment? “They haven’t actually given me anything yet, though—like a medal or a hat or a cape.”

Horowitz book

Heaven and Other Poems by Israel Horovitz

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One entertainment news flash in August was that sexagenarian Larry David will make his Broadway debut in his first play, opening at a Shubert theater in NYC on March 5th, 2015. This announcement, along with the publication of Heaven and Other Poems by multi-award-winning septuagenarian Israel Horovitz (“the most-produced American playwright in French theatre history”) looks like evidence of a bucket list zeitgeist and/or a call to sing along to “Too Much of a Good Thing.” Both David and Horovitz have had lifetime superabundance of good things goin’ on, though not with Alan Jackson’s country twang.

This first full length authorized collection of seventy-eight poems written throughout Horovitz’s life includes three from an earlier publication titled Spider Poems and Other Writings (1973). Like Horovitz’s Heaven and Other Poems, Jack Kerouac’s 2001 collection with the same title isn’t listed at the Poetry Foundation among 1210 entries for ‘heaven’. For 75 year old playwright-screenwriter Horovitz (Sunshine, James Dean, Author! Author! starring Al Pacino, The Strawberry Statement, and coming-soon, My Old Lady starring Maggie Smith & Kevin Kline), the word ‘heaven’ doesn’t come up as often as others like ‘giggle’, ‘heart’, ‘love’, ‘hopeful’, ‘hairy’, ‘running’ and ‘God’, but when it does, it appears with characteristic revelation, here at the French cultural center north of Paris:

L’Abbaye de Royaumont

I.
…I wake and force a geezer-run from Royaumont
along a duck-filled weir.

I pass a pair of married geese…
as though they need a hit of morning Sartre.
I’m told Bonnard saw Marthe a scant two hours
before proposing marriage.

I’d marry Royaumont in less.

II.
…In that spot ‘twixt hot and not,
there lives no higher beauty.

It was there we found each other.

III.
…I’ll not forget this toss of God,
or irony of barefoot monks in prayer
on Royaumont’s stone floor,
in hope of finding Heaven,

not know they had long ago

arrived. (30-31)

Horovitz saves ‘heaven’ for last in the love poem that closes in the collection:

Heaven

There is much I’ve touched in Heaven
That cannot be surpassed
Your lips, for two,
The smiles of my five children,
My feet on any street in Paris,
The sandbar at Niles Pond,
The raspberry cache on Salt Island
Off Good Harbor Beach,
The lucky 7th Green on Jubilee,
Or any one of Mme. Salmon’s
Fifty confitures des fruits.

Each memory now defines my worth,
And vanishes, like our time on earth,
Never to be touched again
In this precious life called Heaven. (96)

Blurbs on the back of the paperback poetry collection were written by Michael Douglas, Neil Labute, Gay Talese, Kevin Kline, and for readers who will recognize his name, Russell Banks. Deserved no doubt as are all the accolades in Israel Horovitz’s biography (which reads like a four star general’s chest of medals), they tend to distract from the poems which display erudition, bilingual fluency (lovely, how en francais in “Royaumont”, ‘Marthe’ echoes ‘Sartre’), celebrity cadre, and panache. “Angry Arachnid (A Cross Tick)” is a 1982 birthday poem written for and in the style of his friend Samuel Beckett. (23) Below, another ends sounding like Matthew McConaughey’s signature drawl, but in French:

Gide, Walking His Lobster

I.
He, was, alright,
Pickled, bombed; tight
As a gangland mobster.
Andre Gide
At le Flore, last night,
Was sighted
Walking a lobster.

II.
Proust was
Juiced on
Pernod mousse;
But not too pissed
To plot”
“Regard, mes frères,
Indeed, ‘cest Gide!—
With his lobster
Tout droit, tout droit,
Tout droit.”

Israel Horovitz Horovitz charms throughout this memoir-in-poetry. The Who’s Who includes his remarkable family. He is married to Gillian Adams, former English national marathon champion and record-holder. His son Oliver, who at 15 on 9/11 was a sophomore at a NYC primo magnet school, Stuyvesant High, across the West Side Highway from the Twin Towers, inspired Horovitz’s (Best Documentary – Back East Picture Show) 3 Weeks After Paradise. Oliver graduated from Harvard ’08 and authored “An American Caddie in St. Andrews”. Other dynastic Horovitz productions include: daughter Rachael Horovitz, film producer known for Moneyball, About Schmidt, and State and Main; son Matthew Horovitz television producer-director-actor, known for Lords of War, Tyler’s Ultimate, and History Detectives (2003), and son Adam Horovitz, aka Ad Rock, composer/performer of the Beastie Boys.

It’s hard not to sound sour grapesy about the Horovitz oeuvre. But while it’s understandable and laudable that family, friends, and colleagues would treasure the publication of his poems, it’s less clear whether it’s only voyeuristically that the rest of us far from the red carpet at Cannes can share in his experiences. Here’s one of martial intimacy that ends oddly in Beckett’s voice:

My Beard

…After I die
My beard will continue
Beyond any questions
Beyond any doubt.

But my love poems?
Will you happen upon a cache of six or seven
Hundred of the things
And worry-wet a cheek or two?
Were the wordies worth the wastie? (46)

Rembrandt, who died at 63 in 1669, created nearly one hundred selfies over his lifetime including approximately fifty paintings, thirty-two etchings, and seven drawings. The portraits create a visual diary of the artist over a span of forty years. Heaven and Other Poems does much the same for Israel Horovitz in an eloquent but lesser way. I am looking forward to seeing Maggie Smith (et al) in Horovitz’s film directorial debut in the upcoming My Old Lady, revised from his play about which Bruce Weber at the New York Times wrote in 2002, “The feeling you get from My Old Lady [is] that the playwright, Israel Horovitz, is answering some kind of challenge, fulfilling an academic requirement or maybe entering a contest. That the play, which had its New York premiere on Thursday night at the Promenade Theater, is formulaic and manipulative is indisputable. But Mr. Horovitz is more than an A student; he could be the crafty professor doling out the assignment to himself.”

High-Speed World

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The world is moving faster than ever. Digital technologies have allowed, encouraged, and even required quicker processing of information. The net effect isn’t necessarily a good thing—all that speed has left people struggling to consume information in fragments, and is ultimately eroding art. Mark C. Taylor explains over at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

All too often, online reading resembles rapid information processing rather than slow, careful, deliberate reflection. Researchers have discovered what they describe as an “F-shaped pattern” for reading web content, in which as people read down a page, they scan fewer and fewer words in a line. When speed is essential, the shorter, the better; complexity gives way to simplicity, and depth of meaning is dissipated in surfaces over which fickle eyes surf. Fragmentary emails, flashy websites, tweets in 140 characters or less, unedited blogs filled with mistakes. Obscurity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, which are the lifeblood of art, literature, and philosophy, become decoding problems to be resolved by the reductive either/or of digital logic.

Been Here Before

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After years of anxious separation, people are finally relaxing about the literary/genre fiction divide. Over at Electric Literature, Tobias Carroll asks: now what?

We’re now well into a period where literary writers are able to balance their love for horror (or science fiction, or fantasy) with their craft, and fewer and fewer bat an eye…But now that we’ve gotten past that, there’s another question raised by fiction that falls into the realm of, for lack of a more graceful term, literary horror: how does it deal with our expectations of both of its literary forebears?

Boston, Take It or Leave It

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Poe is more of a Bostonian than he liked to think, not in spite of but because of his criticism of the place, because of his keen awareness of the oft-commented upon socio-economic differences that still plague Boston today.

Surprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe and his hometown Boston shared a reciprocal dislike. Molly Labell—a New Yorker who relocated to Massachusetts—writes on The Toast about the largest city in New England, its inhabitants, its writers, and its modern identity.

Frankenstein’s Legacy

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For the Guardian, Neil Gaiman discusses the import of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, suggesting that the book arrived and redefined gothic fiction at a culturally apt moment:

Ideas happen when the time is right for them. The ground had been prepared. Gothic fiction had been all the rage for some time: dark, driven men had wandered the corridors of their ancestral homes, finding secret passages and dead relatives, magical, miserable, occasionally immortal; while the questing urge of science had discovered that frogs could twitch and spasm, after death, when current was applied, and, in an era of change, so much more was waiting to be discovered.

The Market Decides

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In the midst of debate over Amazon’s place in the publishing industry, Margo Howard raises questions about the authority of its consumer-based literary criticism. When it comes to art, the retail giant’s capitalist-populist approach may do more harm than good:

These people were not reviewing my book, they were reviewing me. Or rich people. Or something. And Amazon gave them the tools, through Vine, to damage my book for the casual browser.

The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost is working on a novel based on the early 90s television series. The news comes shortly after Showtime announced plans to revive the series in 2016.

According to a press release from publisher Flatiron Books, The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks “reveals what has happened to the people of that iconic fictional town since we last saw them 25 years ago and offers a deeper glimpse into the central mystery that was only touched on by the original series.”

The Book of Gaza

The Book of Gaza, edited by Atef Abu Saif

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One of the principal conventions of mainstream American narrative culture—as true for something like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as it is for something like 30 Rock—is that domestic life, which includes the workplace, happens in spite of politics. Politics, in fact, are a pale shadow of domestic life. This makes sense, since American popular culture, which includes what the newspapers, at least, call politics, has no politics. The two parties are ideologically indistinct; broadly speaking they are anti-ideological, vaguely cultural affinity groups; their opposition is effectively that of the old stand-up comedy standby memorably lampooned on the Simpsons. Black guys drive like this, but white guys drive like this. Alec Baldwin is a Republican; Tina Fey is a liberal; yuk yuk. Walter and Patty Berglund’s son rebels by becoming conservative, suffers a guilty, ahem, loss of essence, and decides to grow organic coffee. Politics, in other words, is not personal; it’s merely personality.

As an American with more radical sympathies, I can regret these conventions, but I can’t wholly escape them. I see them in my own writing, and I see them in many of the Anglo-American books that I read. This, as much as any other quality of literature, is what made my reading of The Book of Gaza so searing, so dislocating, and, I think, so necessary. Though they occur against a background of war, displacement, and occupation, these stories are not, in the American sense, political. I don’t believe there is a single mention of Fatah or Hamas or the PA or the Likud. There are no elections. Where there is violence, it is actually nightmarish: dreamlike, a-causal, symbolic, and strange. And yet, whether in a story explicitly about armed resistance, such as Zaki al ’Ela’s “Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods,” or in a brief portrait of the utmost ordinariness of daily life, like “Red Lights” by Talal Abu Shawish, there is the abiding sense of politics as Jacques Rancière defined it: “not a conflict between well-defined interest groups; it is an opposition of logics that count the parties and parts of the community in different ways.”

Atef Abu Saif

Atef Abu Saif

The Book of Gaza is a collection of ten stories from both established and new Palestinian writers from Gaza. It was published by Carcanet Press in England, part of a series called “reading the city,” and I should note, although I was only able to review an electronic version, that it is a lovely book, with spare, beautiful illustrations by Mohamed Abusal. It is also very short. None of the stories is longer than 20 pages, and half of them are ten or less. As the editor (and one of the authors), Atef Abu Saif, notes in his introduction, this brevity is itself a function of political reality. Israel imposed restrictions on printing in the occupied territories, and “[c]opying and transporting a story to publishing houses in Jerusalem to be printed was no easy task […] short length helped facilitate publication.” Curiously—or perhaps not—the best of these stories are frequently the shortest. Several of the longer works are somewhat overstuffed. At least one, “A White Flower for David,” by Ghareeb Asqalami, feels like a series of sketches toward a much longer story. It has some of the most affecting writing, line for line, of the whole book, and yet it is often difficult to tell who is doing what to whom. “Red Lights,” on the contrary, is only three pages long. It consists of cab driver hitting every red light and dispensing grudging charity while the narrator sits in the back seat. A radio “brings an air of war, raging war, right into the car.” The narrator watches “mellow faces” and “young men” and “a gaggle of careless, coquettish young women” through the window. “All of them are looking for an escape.”

The quality of writing is less than consistent, although, to be fair, these stories don’t share a translator, and it’s possible that some of the unevenness is result of varying aptitudes with that related, writerly art. But despite its inconsistency, there is a vitality that sometimes lacks in very polished works of English-language fiction. These stories have knees and elbows. “When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head,” by Mona Abu Sharekh, is another piece that may allude to more than it can rightly contain in its length, but it still contains jewels: “Maybe the beginnings of transformations in women’s lives are all much alike.”

Women—writers and characters—predominate. They are often doubly caught, doubly occupied:

She doesn’t feel any relief. She draws a deep breath and wishes that she could smoke, that she could breathe out with each exhalation all the unyielding things within her, the very spectacle of herself in this state. She extends her hand to the light beside her, switches it on, and then takes the packet of cigarettes and the lighter and touches its flame to a cigarette. She almost devours the cigarette with greedy lips, calming her anguish with the cigarette dangling between her upper and lower lips. More composed now, she focuses on breathing the tobacco in and out. She always imagines this scene, but knows absolutely that it will never take place, for she has not, and will not ever try a cigarette. How could she ever dare to acquire something so ostracised in a society like hers, something carved in stone as forbidden – for her and for millions of women like her. (“The Whore of Gaza,” Najlaa Ataallah)

There are no crude sexual liberations or neat epiphanies in the story, and this one woman’s sensual incoherency is one of truest depictions of the relationship between the human body and the divine that I’ve recently read:

Smiling, she flicks through her text messages while he gets ready. She conjures up, with the messages, a picture of the man that sent each one, and recalls also what Allah and his messenger said about how each person should not ‘forget to pursue his share of the world’.

In the end, she takes the proceeds of her occupation and rides around Gaza in a cab, depositing it in the collection boxes at a series of mosques under the silent, bemused gaze of her driver. Then she “heads towards a flat in one of the most beautiful streets in Gaza . . .” Oh, yes, Gaza too has beautiful streets.

“What do you expect from the enemy?” asks an abused laborer in “A White Flower for David.” And a young man who managed to hide from the abuse laughs and cries, “Mercy, of course!” Collectively The Book of Gaza is the story of the logic of oppositions in this occupied land that is, as Abu Saif observes, “difficult to enter” and “even more so” to leave. These are not lives carried out in spite of politics, but because of them—because of the irreconcilable contradictions of love and aspiration banging up against the ubiquity of an enforced waiting, because the desire to be charitable and the desire not to appear to be charitable wait together at the same red light, because forbearance becomes resistance, and necessity becomes choice.

One and The Same

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Nosy readers often delight in sleuthing out the parallels between an author’s work and their life, as if an identifiable autobiographical source might change the meaning behind the words. So what happens when authors eliminate the boundary altogether?

By calling these books novels you might say that Coetzee is holding onto a fig leaf. More interestingly, I suspect he is telling us that the word “fiction” was always a fig leaf, that literature can always be deconstructed to arrive at a play of forces that is essentially autobiographical, so that in a sense these more candidly autobiographical works are no more revealing than the fiction that came before them.

A Modern-Day Typewriter

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The personal computer may have revolutionized the way writers write, but distractions from the Internet and social media may not make it the ideal tool for writing. Designer Adam Leeb has created a hybrid typewriter called a Hemingwrite. Long battery life, instant on, and a mechanical keyboard help make Hemingwrite feel more like a typewriter or word processor, but with one key distinction—cloud connectivity backs up and syncs documents to services like Google Docs.

The device isn’t available for sale yet, but is currently a semifinalist in Engadget’s Insert Coin contest. Until then, get your typewriter fix with our own iPad app, Typing Writer.

Little Traveler

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In support of his new memoir, Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart’s been touring the country. Lucky for us, he’s keeping a journal:

Philip Roth, in a 2000 interview with David Remnick in the pages of this magazine, speaks about the declining number of serious readers in America—he supposes it might even have dwindled to around five thousand. But, Roth says, “five thousand is a lot of people. And, as a friend of mine said about five thousand people, ‘if they came through your living room one at a time, they’d have you in tears.’” Today, that number has fallen to about four thousand, by my estimate, but the intensity of the connection between reader and writer has never been stronger.

Find the rest over at the New Yorker; Shteyngart also reminisces about day-time television, the southern iced tea question, and Atlanta’s chicken and waffles.

Another Story to Guide You

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Over at the New Yorker, Etgar Keret and Sayed Kashua continue their conversation:

I believe that this despair is temporary, and that even though there are quite a few political elements that would rather see us despairing, and even though it sometimes seems as if enormous forces are working to convince us that hope is just another word in our national anthem and not a powerful force that can lead to change, people feel deep down that the terrible situation we find ourselves in is not really the only dish on the regional menu.

Notable Los Angeles: 10/20–10/26

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Monday 10/20: Joe Perry signs Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Lauren Cobb reads from Boulevard Women. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

Tuesday 10/21: Dan Jones presents and signs The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

The Moth presents Accident. 7 p.m. doors/7:30 p.m. show at Los Globos. $8 at the door or $16 online for prime seating. 21+ event.

Guernica Annual Print Journal launch party. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

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