Rumpus Blog

You Have a Problem


Did you know that owning 1,000 books or more means you have a problem? We’re all in trouble. Rachel Kramer Brussel explains at The Toast:

Books were far and away the most challenging possessions for me to part with. Unopened Talk magazines, dresses I’d forgotten I’d owned, even CDs I’d once coveted, I said goodbye to without much angst. But sending off hundreds of books to their death made me feel like a part of me was dying too. I don’t mean that I’m so far gone I believe my books are alive, but I do believe they are more than simply objects, pieces of paper with print attached inside a pretty cover. If that’s all I thought they were, I don’t think I’d ever have pursued writing so passionately, or cried the first time my words got published in a book.

Third Man’s Language Lessons


Jack White’s Third Man Records is expanding to include books. August 5th will see the release of Third Man Books‘s first hardcover title, Language Lessons, Volume 1, a 321-page collection of poetry, prose, and art together with 2 vinyl LPs, edited by poet and musician Chet Weise and Third Man’s Ben Swank.

Among the included writers are Dale Ray Phillips, C.D. Wright, Adrian Matejka, and Jake Adam York.

Turned Out I Wanted A Snack


In the newest installment of the Believer‘s interview series, What Would Twitter Do?, Sheila Heti interviews the reigning queen of Twitter, Patricia Lockwood. Patricia breaks down Pie Dough Disease: when pie dough (aka, a tweet) has “been to too much college” and refuses to be shaped. And also, loneliness:

I don’t experience much loneliness, oddly. Sometimes I have thought I was lonely and it turned out I was in reality wanting a snack, just like sometimes I have thought I was mad and it turned out I was actually wearing too many sweaters. I’ve always been very content in the company of my own thoughts, and I prefer to spend much of my time alone. But I do like conversation — for the exercise, for the spark, for the let’s-see-where-it-takes-us, for being able to dip into communal creativity when you’re tired of your own air.

Song of the Day: “Red Eyes”


The War On Drugs decided to name themselves after a bitter conflict, but their last album, Lost in the Dream, invokes anything but strife. Though the lyrics of “Red Eyes,” the second track off the record, are inscrutable at times—“Come ride away/ It’s easier to stick to the earth / Surrounded by the night / Surrounded by the night”—the jubilant guitar and synth are joined by the driving percussion to create the sensation of a blissful journey.

Wherever this song takes us, we have a feeling it’s going to be fun. Bon voyage.

Notable Portland: 7/24–7/30


Thursday 7/24: Independent publishing house Press 53 welcomes three authors to read from their latest works. Liz Prato reads from her forthcoming collection due in May 2015, Wendy Willis reads from Blood Sisters and the Republic (October 2012), and Bonnie ZoBell reads from What Happened Here (May 2014). Annie Bloom’s Books, 7 p.m., free.

Future Tense Books hosts Wendy C. Ortiz, author of Excavation: A Memoir (July 2014), in a conversation with her editor and publisher Kevin Sampsell. Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.

Scott Cheshire reads from his debut novel, High as the Horse’s Bridles (July 2014). Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.

Saturday 7/26: The 6th annual Northwest Book Festival brings together local authors, publishers, and literary citizens of Cascadia with 66 booths featuring over a hundred participants. Books in every genre will be available to readers of every age. Pioneer Courthouse Square, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., free.


Zadie Smith: Pathological Reader


In Oprah, the author writes that her consumption of books may be absurd, but that, at least, summer is a good time to have pathological reading habits.

I would like to say in my defense that I don’t really get the appeal of YOLO. I live many times over. Hypothetical, subterranean lives that run beneath the relative tedium of my own and have the power to occasionally penetrate or even derail it. I find it hard to name the one book that was so damn delightful it changed my life. The truth is, they have all changed my life, every single one of them—even the ones I hated.

Brutal Youth

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican


Anthony Breznican’s debut novel, Brutal Youth, opens with a troubled teenaged boy, nicknamed “Clink,” violently hurtling statues of saints off the roof of St. Michael’s, the crumbling Catholic school that sets the stage for all the drama within the book’s four hundred plus pages. Clink is far from a central character—we only see him once more, for a fleeting moment—but throughout Brutal Youth he is often referred to, and always as “The Boy on the Roof.” Consider the prologue a preview of heavy-handedness—no pun intended—to come.

Peter Davidek and Noah Stein are visiting students standing on the lawn below the shower of statues the day of the infamous “Boy on the Roof” incident, and they form an instant bond by trying to be heroes together. Fast-forward several months, and for tenuously believable reasons, both Davidek and Stein—as they are referred to throughout the book—have decided to enroll at St. Mike’s, and meet again on the first day of school. They immediately get a taste of how bad the year ahead will be. Unidentifiable muck slides down the school walls; seniors engage in vicious yearlong hazing, torturing freshmen while teachers turn a blind eye; and no one—not the heads of the school, not the guidance counselor, not even the only warm-hearted teacher—has even a scrap of sincere love for St. Michael’s, or for teaching. And certainly not for the students.

Could it get any worse?

Unfortunately, yes. And this is where the blurb on the cover of the book, from Stephen King, backfires. The Famous Writer’s endorsement leaves a one-upping door wide open: “If you thought high school was hell, has Anthony Breznican got a story for you…”

The chief trouble is this: the novel details a series of tragedies that befall Davidek, Stein, and a girl named Lorelei whom they befriend, and each episode (there are too many to count) trumps the last, without any further insight into the characters. It starts with Stein and Davidek’s banal detentions, then Lorelei being bullied by two sophomore sisters whose “surly attitudes… reflected lifetimes of torment” (there’s a blighting lack of graceful language throughout), and eventually leads to a relationship between Lorelei and Stein. As in many of the tangled plotlines, Lorelei and Stein’s relationship seems to be lifted from teen movies; she pairs with him because the two senior boys who have been “assigned” to torment her want to hurt Stein, and threaten her into agreeing to pretend to like him. Of course, we know where this goes. She actually falls in love with him. But then, in one of the most vexing parts of the book, she tells his biggest secret to the two seniors. The explanation offered up for her lapse in loyalty? “If [her] motive baffled her, maybe she didn’t want to know the real reason. Easier to believe it simply made no sense.”

Anthony Breznican

Anthony Breznican

The rest of the book rests on the decision she makes in this moment, and yet we are never offered a further glimpse into her impulsive disloyalty. Apparently, one sentence stating that the motive baffles even her is meant to be enough for us.

Even the backstories of these characters aim to out-do each other: Davidek’s mother and father are heartless because his brother has disappeared; Lorelei’s mother is an alcoholic with a prosthetic arm, which she uses to beat her daughter; and Stein—well, Stein’s story will take too long to get into, so let’s just leave it at this: there’s quite a tale behind the scar on his face, and that’s in part how Lorelei ruins his life.

There is no introspection for the students of St. Michael’s. There are few gray areas in their stories. Seniors are on the whole evil, freshmen are for the most part scum, and amidst all the face-to-face combat, I found myself longing for the sorts of internal conflicts I experienced in my own adolescence.

The most tender moments in the book arise with the character of Hannah, an outcast who has saved herself from utter ridicule by instilling fear into her peers. She’s a senior, and supposedly she’s been keeping a book of secrets about everyone at St. Michael’s during her four years there (yet another teen movie plotline). Davidek serves as her freshman for Hazing Day, and he learns his fate early on: he’s going to have to read aloud on stage from Hannah’s book, dooming his popularity for the rest of his days at the school. Hazing Day looms large for many pages, but by the time it arrives, the rest of the plot is so muddled that the scene lacks real impact.

The premise at the heart of Brutal Youth could be strong, and that’s in part what makes it so disappointing to read—and so fascinating to critique. I found myself wondering about its faults: should Breznican have tried writing it from one perspective, instead of nearly a dozen? As Donna Tartt said in a 2002 interview with the Guardian, this sort of symphonic narration is “widely thought to be the most difficult form.” If he’d stayed in the mind of one character, might he have succeeded in conveying real depth? And for that matter, he could have worked to make the voice more consistent. At times, the book reads like it’s meant to be told from a close third person, with the slang of the characters entering the language of the story (often clumsily: “[Davidek] had kissed a girl before, but only once…a girl he had crushed hard on throughout eighth grade.”) In other scenes, the narrator is omniscient, which makes for an overall off-putting combination.

Breznican’s day job is as a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly. This touching piece—about a handful of interactions he had with Philip Seymour Hoffman—shows he can tell a hell of a story, and with a strong voice. But while I read Brutal Youth, I found myself wondering more than once if anyone had made editorial suggestions to him—either large-scale or nitpicky. Breznican’s path from writing movie and book critiques to writing a novel—with its demands of careful scene creation, character development, and thoughtful plotting—is a rocky one.

Goodnight Structure, Goodnight Narrative Form


The classic children’s book Goodnight Moon is a model example of successful narrative structure, argues Aimee Bender in the New York Times. The story follows enough traditional patterns to be satisfying, but also deviates in new and unique ways:

“Goodnight Moon” does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure.

The Marriage of Music and Poetry


Brown has tied the concept to sound/color synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that causes people to see color when they hear music. Her research has led her to believe that during Dickinson’s most productive creative period (1860–1865), she could have been experiencing this type of synesthesia. The time coincides with an eye affliction Dickinson suffered, which led the poet, who rarely left home, to travel for treatment.

Molly Brown at Bucknell is doing work to bring music and literature together within the academic sphere, as John Darnielle, Eminem, and Colin Meloy have done in the public one. This way for more.

Next Letter for Kids: Trudi Trueit


We’re sending our next Letter For Kids from Trudi Trueit! Trudi is the author of Stealing Popular and Secrets of A Lab Rat, and she writes her letter about all the things that she loves about summertime: The beach! The mountains! Ice cream! Crazy babysitting jobs!

And, there are hand-drawn color illustrations! Trust us, you won’t want to miss this one. For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. And click here to subscribe now!

Edan Lepucki Gives ‘Colbert Bump’ to Sweetness #9


Edan Lepucki‘s debut novel California has been the poster child for the conflict between Amazon and Hachette ever since Sherman Alexie plugged the book on The Colbert Report. Since receiving the Colbert bump, California has hit the #3 spot on the New York Times bestseller list. When Colbert invited Lepucki onto Monday’s show, she took the opportunity to plug another Hachette debut novel, Stephan Eirik Clark’s Sweetness #9.

Notable San Francisco: 7/23–7/29


Wednesday 7/23James Nestor talks about and reads from his latest book, Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, for which he traveled 2,500 ft below in a DIY submarine. $15, 6 p.m., Mechanics Institute Library.

Portland’s Future Tense Books presents a launch for the new memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz, Excavation, with readings by the author, Brynn Saito, and Jan Richman. Hosted by Tomas Moniz. Free, 7:30 p.m., Pegasus Books Downtown.

Elizabeth Cantwell celebrates the publication of her debut collection of poems, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You. Free, 7 p.m., Green Apple Books.

Get Lit features an evening of adventure women writers with Marianne Rogoff, Amy Tsaykel, and Laurie Weed, followed by an open mic. Free, 7 p.m., Corkscrew Wine Bar.

Thursday, 7/24: National Book Award winner William T. Vollman (Europe Central) makes a rare appearance to read from his new collection of ghost stories, Last Stories and Other Stories. The event will be held at a secret location; invitations are mandatory and may be picked up at the front counter of City Lights. Free, 7 p.m., TBA.


I Am Not My Protagonist


At Buzzfeed Books, novelist Catherine Lacey writes about an interview she had with a reporter who assumed Lacey had based the protagonist of her first novel on herself. To an extent, Lacey finds this frustrating, but then she considers the way all writers are and are not their characters:

What I should tell anyone who might ask again is that no fiction writer can honestly tell you what parts of her characters are mutations or facsimiles or pure inventions of the self. There’s no master Venn diagram, no clean delineation between invention and reality. Everyone writes fiction.

The Self Unstable

The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert


Elisa Gabbert has been writing intelligently and entertainingly about perfume for several years now, not just on her own blog, The French Exit, but for various other publications, and while The Self Unstable, her latest book, mentions perfume only once, on page 47, it’s arguably one of the best things she or anyone else has written on the subject. Perfume, as this book demonstrates and most people who love it tend to believe, is about a lot more than perfume.

The book has major sillage, a French term which describes the scent trail a fragrance leaves in its wake. Like a good vintage fragrance – Guerlain’s rich, balsamic but bright Mitsouko, for instance – The Self Unstable has an expansive effect on the imagination, detonating in the mind long after being atomized. Each of the book’s 83 pages proposes a compact paragraph of tightly coiled thought. The ideas inside these paragraphs expand and contract within the imagination, shifting vapor-like between meanings and possibilities. The last sentence relates to the first but wouldn’t make much sense directly following it. It’s a fat, dense book composed of wonderfully spare prose, a marvel of thought-provoking concision. Perfumers take note: it’s possible to create a minimal composition without skimping.

It’s doubtful they will. Among perfume lovers, it’s a now frequent lament that perfume isn’t what it used to be. There’s so much of it (over 1,000 new fragrances released in 2013) and so much of that so muchness feels unimaginative, if not thoroughly cynical. All the money and thought goes into the top notes.

So it is with so much else. In a cultural moment which disguises dearth as profusion, presenting such an abundance of paucity, that state of affairs is hardly isolated to perfume. It’s the air we breathe, a surface of surfaces. Something about the form Gabbert has chosen, which in theory resembles, say, the syntax of the Facebook or twitter feed, engages the reader in a weird by-product analysis of the way we receive and organize thought and information these days, how the speed of all this locks out reflection and penetration maybe, and where that might be leaving us.

“They slowed down Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so it stretched over 24 hours,” Gabbert writes:

“The effect was of a continual climbing, with no resolution – just an ever-building terror, the slowest imaginable scream. In a state of heightened time, everything reduces to fear, a sublime fear. If life has any meaning, it comes at the end.”

GabbertMore than anything, the book seems to be peering into the mechanics of present day self reflection, showing what introspection looks like inside the kaleidoscope of now. It’s one thing to bemoan cultural overload, but what does a steady diet of the stuff actually feel like? The Self Unstable doesn’t answer that question. It isn’t that smug. But it makes you aware of what’s on the plate, and you hear your stomach grumbling as if for the first time. There’s a simultaneous randomness and precision to the writing which ends up feeling like a satire of this moment and an elegy to things you hadn’t quite realized are missing in our ubiquitous thicket of hamster wheel data.

Like the slowed down ninth, the book confronts you with the actual speed of this particular time we’re living in. It’s like a friend we hadn’t realized until much later had left the party. What does that say about our capacity for friendship and attention to detail, and about the possibility of friendship in this kind of noise? Reading The Self Unstable, it’s impossible not to consider all this.

In that endless stream of food photos and pseudo-witty concision there is a nothing that feels like something. This writing shows you what something actually feels like, what it might feel like to be a thoughtful, present tense person, and how far away from remembering that you might be.

Books Grow Longer


Several recent high profile books, like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, are hefty tomes. As it turns out, these outliers are part of a larger trend toward longer books. Jeremy Anderberg, writing at BookRiot, researched popular books over the last 110 years and found that page lengths are increasing—prize-winning books over the last forty years are almost twice the length of those from the turn of the century.

The Saddest Poem Ever Written


A lot of poems are sad, but over at The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone thinks he’s found the saddest: “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ripatrazone explores Hopkins’s poem, and while doing so, gives his thoughts on what good poetry can do:

I think the best poetry is a form of interrogation of self. I can move through much of my public day hearing language emptied of its soul by politicians and twisted into service by advertising. But I pray that poetry props-up language.

Building Our Own Communities


As Ramadan approaches and we look for a family to break fast with come sundown, the realities of being a transgender Muslim set in. Flashing all of the proper signals I pass through gendered space unscathed, always left fearing how much I have to lose if outed. Some are forced to put on drag as a different gender just to feel accepted in their faith. Others eat dates behind closed doors, pushed out by a culture of exclusion and gender policing. But together, we create an alternative: meeting as one, praying side by side, and building our own communities.

At The Toast, Mahdia Lynn writes about life as a transgender woman in a Muslim community.

Unlocking the New Yorker


Those little blue padlocks are gone for good. Starting this week, will release all its content to the public, free of charge, until summer’s end. Unfortunately for subscription commitment-phobes, the site will then transition to a metered paywall system (think New York Times) come fall.

The obvious solution is to read everything the New Yorker has ever published while you still can (or to, you know, subscribe).