Rumpus Blog

This Week in Indie Bookstores

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A bookstore designed to feel like a spaceship has opened in Hangzhou, China.

Romance-novel bookstore Ripped Bodice in Los Angeles has gotten a little funnier by adding live comedy shows.

Author Judy Blume has found a new career as a bookseller.

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When in Cleveland

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Why not cap off your visit to the Republican Convention in Cleveland by renting the childhood home of Jeffrey Dahmer for the summer? It’s a steal at only $8,000:

“The Bath Township home is site of what’s believed to be the Dahmer’s first murder. In 1978, Dahmer, then 18, killed Steven Hicks, an 18-year-old hitchhiker, and disposed of his remains in the woods in the house’s back yard.”

Inherited Disorders

Inherited Disorders by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

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The American author Willa Cather once claimed, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” If writers are required to draw from some predetermined well of archetypal stories, then one of these stories is most certainly about a father and his son. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hamlet, Turgenev—countless examples illuminate some aspect of the complicated bond between generations of men in a family. Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ debut novel, Inherited Disorders, explores the father/son relationship in a unique form: 117 stories that range in length from a single paragraph to several pages.

Readers expecting warm, fuzzy tales of paternal and filial bliss should look elsewhere. These tales are parabolic, often absurdist, each seeming to shine light on yet another way misunderstanding can flourish in a family. And they are cleverly funny, full of ironies about legacy and its pressures, about expectations misunderstood and over-emphasized. Take, for instance, the story “Diving Record,” quoted here in its entirety:

A Florida man died Monday while trying to surpass his father’s record for deep diving without the aid of oxygen or fins. Thirty years ago, in the Gulf of Mexico, the father famously dove 225 feet without using oxygen or fins. On Monday the son made three dives in the same location, all without using oxygen or fins. His first dive was 167 feet. His second dive was 191 feet. On his third attempt the son managed to dive down 216 feet without oxygen or fins, but his lungs burst on the way up and he died aboard his diving vessel. At the funeral, his father tearfully admitted that in his record-setting dive he had actually used both oxygen and fins.

The wry humor of the ironic ending, the distanced, reportorial style of the prose, the inherent pressure felt by the son of the high-achieving father—these facets recur throughout Sachs’ stories. In “Legacy,” the son of an atonal composer suffers a lifetime being referred to as “the son of the famous atonal composer” until he exposes himself on an airplane in part, we imagine, to change this primary association. The son of a winemaker in “The Family Shiraz” tries to improve on his father’s winemaking process; meanwhile, the son of an influential wine critic takes over his father’s job, changing the rating system so drastically that the winemakers can never know which wine is superior. “Concerto for a Corpse” tells the story of the Czech pianist who loses, in questionable accidents, first one finger, then another, then an arm, then another, while his father, the composer, continues to compose concertos for him, even after his death.

The characters in Sachs’ stories are scholars and artists, scientists and craftsmen, and the tales are set in locations all over the world; this inclusiveness of range parallels the universality of the theme. Sachs attended Harvard, where he studied atmospheric science and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. These two biographical notes fit perfectly with the flavor of Inherited Disorders, as does the fact that Sachs’ own father was once voted one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Sachs’ dedication reads simply “for my father.”

Adam Ehrlich Sachs

Adam Ehrlich Sachs

The stories that deal with a character failing to reach another are perhaps the most melancholy. In “The Fourth Sonata,” a composer struggles to reach his father through his art.

A German composer whose earliest songs and sonatas had been dismissed as trifling and derivative, and whose father had begun to suggest, in his exceedingly gentle way, that he look into business or the law, went in 1924 to live in a timber hut beside a lake in the north of Finland, where over the course of several years, in perfect solitude, he pioneered an ingenious method of composition, very, very different from Schoenberg’s chromaticism, if superficially of course somewhat similar to it.

When the composer returns in triumph to play the piece for his father, he finds that in his absence, his father has gone completely deaf. The son spends the rest of his life trying to create a form for his sonata that his father can access, only to be thwarted by his father’s subsequent loss of sight, taste and speech; his goal is unattainable.

In “Utterly Inscrutable,” the son of a serial killer is unable to recognize his father’s crimes, despite tangible evidence. When interviewed, he gives vague, noncommittal answers.

‘I think,’ he replied, ‘the people closest to us are sometimes the most opaque to us. Perhaps the closer we are, the more ignorant we are.’

Early in the trial it emerged that the son had once discovered four human femurs in his father’s sock drawer. He granted another interview. ‘Even the people we love are, in the end, utterly inscrutable to us,’ he said.

Sachs sites Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, Borges, Beckett, and Lydia Davis as influences, and says he came to the form for Inherited Disorders through trial and error. In a recent New Yorker interview, he claims that form followed theme, which was there from the start. “First I tried to write a more conventional novel about fathers and sons. I would start with a father and a son arranged in some extremely ironic configuration, as in these stories, but then I would make the son sort of amble over to the father, in a realist mode, and say something, and the novel would fall apart.” So he went back to his original impulse, the ironic stories, and let them stand alone.

The danger of exploring a theme over and over—say, 117 times—is that a sense of inevitability or even boredom might surface during the reading experience. This is not the case with Inherited Disorders, which is endlessly sharp and engaging from start to finish. There is something almost rhythmically musical or mathematical about the form, like Monet’s water lilies.

Artists often fixate on certain themes. All of Willa Cather’s best known short stories are about home and the process of leaving it; she explored the immigrant experience and being an outsider throughout her entire writing career. Sachs’ debut is a welcome addition to our collection of writing about the father/son relationship, and it tackles this multi-faceted, universal theme in a unique, compulsively readable, and entirely modern form.

Poet Tripping

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Carol Ann Duffy, the UK’s poet laureate, has invited three poets to join her on a road trip through England, Wales and Scotland, which will take them from Falmouth to St Andrews over the course of a fortnight.

From June 19 to July 2, Gillian Clarke, the outgoing national poet of Wales, the makar (the national poet of Scotland) Jackie Kay, and Imtiaz Dharker, winner of the Queen’s gold medal for poetry, will be driving with Carol Ann Duffy through Great Britain on the “Shore to Shore” poets tour, to bring their words throughout the country. Over at the Guardian, Alex Clark talked to the four writers about their imminent trip.

Spotlight: Lorenzo Fonda’s “Yo Solve Cuba”

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In August 2015 I took a trip with my parents to Cuba. I didn’t really feel like doing the traditional tourist thing of snapping pictures at everything that attracted my attention, which can be dangerously easy and inadvertently condescending. I decided to keep an illustrated journal, so that the effort in recording memories would hopefully be a bit more respectful to the struggle Cuban people are still enduring. Jotting down experiences in comics form is also a way for me to assimilate and process them through my own life-filter, so that I somehow make them mine in a way that I couldn’t make through any other medium.

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Figuring It Out En Route

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Growing up does not mean we stop reading Marxist critiques or hating ourselves or feeling the grotesque contrasts writ large on every page of our petty lives.

At the Paris Review blog, Sadie Stein offers a hilarious peek into her thoughts during a flight to San Diego, addressed to the teenage boy she sat next to who was reading Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Lessons from Frog and Toad

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At the AtlanticBert Clere reflects on Arnold Lobel’s children’s books, Frog and Toad and Owl at Home, the lessons these stories try to teach, and the representation of the self in each of them:

Although Frog and Toad’s world is perhaps more pastoral than that of their average reader, most can recognize and relate to the situations the duo find themselves in. Their various struggles might involve deciding whether to stay in or go out, the difficulty of restraint when it comes to cookies, and the challenge of adhering to a daily to-do-list. Frog represents the practical and sensible part of the self, while Toad is emotional and tempestuous. But they’re both deeply realized characters who sometimes defy expectations.

To Collide Continually

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Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected.

For the New Yorker, Nicola Lagioia, author of the forthcoming novel Ferocity, interviews Elena Ferrante about Ferrante’s own forthcoming novel, Frantumaglia. The two deftly touch on the interconnectivity of the “I,” what it means to write, and the (im)possibility of transcendence.

Remaking Historical Memory

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For JSTOR Daily, Ellen C. Caldwell examines historical “memory-making” and our changing interpretations of historical events over time. Caldwell focuses on the 1746 Battle of Culloden, a battle that ended the Jacobite Uprising and decisively transformed the British monarchy and Scottish Highland culture. Further influencing the history around Culloden, the battle features as a pivotal historical point in Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel romance series, Outlander, now also adapted into a popular television drama on Starz.

Tennis as Art Form

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Understanding tennis as aesthetic phenomenon involves returning to that word Wallace insists on using in his discussion of Federer: beauty.

At Guernica, Greg Chase discusses the new collection of David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis, String Theory, in which tennis is investigated as an art form in light of Kant’s aesthetic philosophy on words like “beauty” and “genius.”

Notable Los Angeles: 5/23–5/29

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Monday 5/23: Cheryl Della Pietra discusses and signs Gonzo Girl. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Rachel Moore discusses and signs The Artist’s Compass: The Complete Guide to Building a Life and a Living in the Performing Arts. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

Tuesday 5/24: (Happy My Birthday!)

Words in Bloom: A Litfolks Reading Event. With readings by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Matt Binder, Jessica Handler, Ashaki Jackson, Michele Raphael, and David Ulin. Hosted by Antonia Crane, Anna March, Ashley Perez, and Laura Warrell. 7 p.m. at Book Show.

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Weekend Rumpus Roundup

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Poet Kamden Hilliard is the subject of this week’s Saturday Interview. Jellyfish Magazine editor Gale Thompson talks to Hilliard about sexual violence, the “colonized” body, and his love for James Baldwin. Hilliard’s chapbook, Distress Tolerance, looks at these ideas closely. He argues that “survival is not always cute, politically responsible, mature, or sober. Survival is ramshackle, as is tolerance.”

And in the Sunday Essay, Eiren Caffall writes about the devastating loss of her father when she was twenty-nine, the unlikely support group that formed around her, and the grueling mourning process that followed. Caffall inherits her father’s Saab, which becomes a symbol of her memories of him:

It was like he’d curled me inside his big coat, against the heat of his body on a winter day, cigarette smoke and the smell of his beard and the little tang of alcohol sweat on his skin. I’d drive out of my way by hours, drive everywhere, to be close to the smell lingering in that car.

Naturally Emily Dickinson

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I became tantalized by the idea of a genius poet whose talent was nourished not by extensive travel, nor by formal literary training, but rather by an intimacy with the kinds of creatures Americans routinely encounter and rarely appreciate.

For Slate, Ferris Jabr dives deep into the imagery of Emily Dickinson’s poetry to find new appreciation for the level of detail Dickinson’s knowledge of nature lent to her work.

So Sad Today

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder

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I used a prayer card from a wake as my bookmark while reading So Sad Today by Melissa Broder. It happened accidentally—I went to a memorial service for someone I cared about, and, in wanting to keep her close, slid her prayer card into the book I was carrying with me at the time, which happened to be So Sad Today. But it feels fitting.

2016 has been a bad year for people dying. A lot of people whom I love and admire have left this planet, and we are only one-third into the year. It makes me sad, and it makes my heart beat too fast at night as I think about who will go next. I try deep yoga breathing, I try counting backwards from a hundred, I try taking a swig of NyQuil, and, when none of that works, I get up and read So Sad Today. Reading about Broder’s own anxiety and depression makes me feel better and less alone. I’m writing this review in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking too much about death. That also feels fitting.

“Anyone who can meet my level of intensity can’t be totally normal,” writes Broder in her essay “One Text Is Too Many and a Thousand Are Never Enough.” She’s talking about an ex-lover but she might as well be addressing her readers. Anyone who picks up a black-covered book emblazoned with the words So Sad Today and thinks, “Hey, maybe I can connect to something in here!” is probably working out some of her own issues. This book is not for everyone. Broder says it herself, in “Never Getting Over the Fantasy of You is Going Okay”, when she advises people trying to get over a break-up: “If you really love yourself, you will block and unfollow the person on all social media. But if you really love yourself you probably aren’t reading this essay.”

Before reading Broder’s book, I’d been in a phase where I was completely smitten with that kind of essay that blends the personal with the researched—the Maggie Nelson, the Roxane Gay, the Eula Biss, the Claudia Rankine, the Leslie Jamison. Working on an essay about your fears about vaccinating your newborn? Write about the history of immunizations! Composing a personal piece about your nontraditional family? Analyze the history of queerness! Picking up Broder’s book, I expected her to fall into that trend of contemporary nonfiction writers. But Broder is not like that. She is all in her head. For approximately two hundred pages, you get to experience what it’s like to have Broder’s brain: the highs, the lows, the fetishes, the panic attacks, the anxiety, the depression. She does not go off on poetic tangents about the history of Effexor. She doesn’t cite statistics about the number of American suffering from adjustment disorders. It’s just her own experience, her own neuroses, her own fears. It’s all me, me, me, and, my god, it’s beautiful.

Broder’s brutally honest essays range from anorexia to polyamory to anti-depressants to fetishes to marriage to illness to an assortment of addictions—alcohol, drugs, nicotine gum, the internet. Broder can make even the darkest scenario funny: she confronts her raging body image issues through a humorous take on her experience trying Botox:

Over the course of the next few days I feel like I have been poisoned, just a little. I have flu-like symptoms. My forehead feels like there is a plate on it. I kind of didn’t realize the word toxin actually means “toxin.” Like, I kind of didn’t think about that. I keep googling “Botox death” looking for new results. I also google “Botox flu,” “Botox soulless,” “plastic surgery disaster,” “what’s wrong with me,” “why,” and “how to love yourself.”

Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder

Broder laughs at herself along with you, while at the same time, she gently takes you by the hand, carefully lifts her shirt, and reveals scars, as if to say, here are mine, they’re just like yours.

So Sad Today didn’t just include me; it was me. In “Honk If There’s a Committee in Your Head Trying to Kill You,” Broder describes me at my most vulnerable time before bed at night: “Everything is shit! Time to act impulsively. But first let’s start by getting into fights with imaginary people from the past. Next let’s catalog everything that’s wrong with you and your life. Also, I want to remind you of everything you don’t have—and everything you should be scared of losing. Let’s begin.” How does that committee make the rounds so fast?

“As a little kid I took fearful thoughts to a greater extreme than most kids, I think,” Broder writes in “Under the Anxiety Is Sadness but Who Would Go Under There.”

If a parent got sick, it was cancer. If I got something in my eye, the cornea would be scratched forever. A sprained ankle on a school trip definitely meant an amputated food. I was dying and everyone I loved was dying, which was true, of course, but it wasn’t happening as quickly as I thought.

Reading that paragraph, I felt as if I were reading about my own childhood; just like Broder, I had nightmares about fires when I was twelve years old. I can’t even write about “I Don’t Feel Bad About My Neck” in which Broder lists all the things she feels bad about. It’s too real—the guilt, the anxiety, the sadness, the panic. As I read, over and over, I had the thoughts: Yes. Thank you. You get it.

So Sad Today stemmed from Broder’s Twitter account by the same name, @sosadtoday. She began tweeting anonymously from the account in 2012, sending out short bursts when she found herself deep in existential crisis and depression: “my mind wants me dead but it’s fine,” she writes. “can’t believe this life thing is still going on,” and “here let me just rip my heart out and give it to you.” “I felt like things were starting to move and clear out of me,” she writes about the experience of tweeting from @sosadtoday. In some ways, the entire essay collection is a huge sigh of relief. “After I cried, I felt better,” writes Broder about a panic attack she had before getting married. “When I suppressed the sadness, I practically shook with existential fear over simply existing. I was fighting myself. But when the tears flowed, I felt better.”

This book is a reminder that you’re not alone. Cry with Broder. Let it out. She is here for you: “Of course, that is a scared woman’s way of saying what I really want, which is to connect with you on a deep and true level while I am still on this earth, and maybe even after I am off it.”

Maybe today you’re just so sad, and that’s okay.

On the Auction Table

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The supposedly lost letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac that inspired Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, was found in 2014. Now, the letter is being auctioned off:

The 16,000-word typed letter, which carries an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, had been considered lost before it surfaced in the discarded files of Golden Goose Press, a now-defunct small San Francisco publisher, and listed for sale by a Southern California auction house in 2014. That auction was suspended after the Kerouac estate and Cassady’s children said they were the owners.

Jami Cassady, a spokeswoman for the family, told The San Francisco Chronicle this week that the three parties had reached “an amicable settlement.” She also said the family, which owns the copyright on the letter, intended to publish it at some point.

Notable NYC: 5/21–5/27

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Saturday 5/21: Tod Lippy and Karl Ove Knausgaard have a conversation sponsored by ESOPUS magazine. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.

Jason N. Fischedick, Lisa Huberman, and Mikey Rosenbaum join the Oh, Bernice! Reading series, hosted by Jonathan Alexandratos. Astoria Bookshop, 7 p.m., free.

Ali Powers launches A Poem For Record Keepers. Wendy’s Subway, 7 p.m., free.

Emmy Catedral and Constance DeJong join the Segue Series. Zinc Bar, 4:30 p.m., $5.

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Is This Water?

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Graduation season is upon us again, and with it comes the vacant, cliché-ridden literary animal that is the graduation speech. Over at Lit Hub, Emily Harnett revisits David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon graduation speech, “This Is Water,” and marvels at the insidiousness of the speech’s logic and message:

Tell your audiences that they’re too smart to want a certain thing and give it to them anyway. Remind everyone that they’re too hip for corny dad sermonizing and then double down in the corny dad sermonizing. This is a great way to write a commencement speech—not by avoiding platitudes, but by drawing an enchanted circle around yourself where the things we thought were platitudes can be revealed as divine truths.

This Week in Short Fiction

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This was the trouble with bringing a gun to work: you couldn’t stop thinking about it.

This understatement comes from “Rutting Season,” a story by Mandeliene Smith in this week’s new issue of Guernica that flirts with every office worker’s worst nightmare—or secret fantasy—while exploring the divide between the public persona and the private self.

The story is told from three perspectives: Lisa, the hot girl from fundraising; Ray, the computer guy; and Carl, the computer guy’s assistant. They are three people who work together and draw assumptions about each other but, as so often happens with coworkers, don’t know each other at all. (more…)

Growing Up with ADHD

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Despite the narrative that we are over-diagnosing ADHD in children, symptoms of ADHD often go unrecognized in girls. At the Toast, Grace Lidinsky-Smith discusses navigating grade school with undiagnosed ADHD, her experiences with feelings of shame, and the impact of finally receiving treatment:

I wanted to write this for my younger self, and for all girls who keep silent and try to be obedient despite the ruckus in their skulls. Who do their best to keep the chaos from escaping their mouths, from demanding any attention. Who think their forgetfulness and scatterbrained nature mean they are stupid, lazy, ditzy, innately hopeless. It’s not true. None of it is true. If you think you need it, find a practitioner who will take your concerns seriously and give you an assessment.

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

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Everyone is wrong at times, even people who are paid lots of money to be right. The 1984 book The Experts Speak collected thousands of wrong statements and predictions, and reading it can ease one’s anxieties about being incorrect:

The Experts Speak, by bludgeoning us with wrongness…can act as the reminder of fallibility that our minds so often can’t. And the wrongness train, once boarded, need not stop at global affairs; it can penetrate to the most intimate cores of our lives, those areas about which our minds claim to speak most authoritatively.