Rumpus Blog

Notable NYC: 11/22–11/28

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Saturday 11/22: Kyle Erickson, Steven Leyva, Tafisha A. Edwards, and George Hackett join Huffington Post blogger Leslie Goshko for Kick Assonance, an evening of poetic works. KGB, 7 p.m., free.

Molly Rose Quinn, Vanessa Gabb, Jesse Kohn, and Paige Taggart are Everyday Geniuses. Mellow Pages, 7 p.m., free.

Sunday 11/23: Vahram Muratyan reads from About Time: A Visual Memoir Around the Clock. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.

Claire Fornarola, Joshua Edwin, Jay Deshpande, Marina Blitshteyan, and Laura Jean Moore join La Perruque VII. Berl’s Poetry Shop, 7 p.m., free.

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Blood Sparrows

Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows by Eugenia Leigh

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When trauma forms part of the poet’s life, we sometimes have to spend a book working through its reverberations, approaching it again and again from different angles. This is the narrator’s task in the very personal Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows—which alternates between orbiting up high for the big view and flying in close to immerse, back and forth.

Leigh is masterful in finding many ways to do this without repeating herself, which maintains freshness throughout the book. On one hand, many of the poems in Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows maintain a similar affect — a contemplative voice that oscillates between varying degrees of sadness, grief, and devastation (except “Psalm 107,” which transforms the suffering into praise: “Thank you / for the bones you stacked in me”). On the other hand, over the course of the book this voice also evolves from a child’s not-knowing to an adult’s coming to terms with and perhaps even forgiveness of — her parents, and her own stumbles in life.

Recently, while reflecting on the passing of Galway Kinnell, Natalie Diaz mused “We have been taught a thing is ugly or beautiful, empty or full, but I am learning what Kinnell’s poetry has been saying to me, a thing is always both ugly and beautiful, always empty and full.” If we’re lucky, a poet can find beauty in the midst of suffering, not to negate the pain, but to complicate it. In doing so, she offers the reader the gift of her humanity.

Leigh’s collection finds this beauty in the religious beliefs of the narrator’s mother, and in the narrator’s own faith. One gets the impression of the latter not being blind faith, but a hard-won resting place, sometimes full of questions and doubts. Leigh’s poems are not either/or narratives, people (even deities) are complex, not just all good or bad.

In “Pretty Universe,” the conventionally all-knowing God instead becomes a hot and cold friend who can’t always fix things, occasionally pretends to look the other way, and sometimes doesn’t like their own perfection. There’s beauty in the imperfection of this deity, of its humanity.

Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows also finds beauty in the father, who, although abusive, is at different points painfully aware of his own failings, and tries in his own way to find a different path.

For me, one of the most powerful and formally inventive poems in the book is “Wire Hangers,” which uses a series of if-then questions to trace cause and effect in a meandering, non-linear landscape:

_______________Will you hold the small boy version
___________of my father and hide him
______in the trash can? Will you hold his father
back and put his knife
______down? And when you put my grandfather’s knife
___________down, will you pull my father’s knife
from my pregnant mother’s chest? Will you hold her
______until she sings again?

Eugenia LeighThis wandering series of enjambed inquiries begins as a kind of anaphora, but for me it does much more. It echoes something fundamental about the mind, traveling this way and that, stuttering, searching for a place to land. The mind looks for causes, wants to understand, finds reasons, partially accepts or rejects them. Much of Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows seems to echo this way-seeking journey.

The book also reaches out in other directions, at times narrowing the gap with the political and structural, as in “On the Anniversary of the War on Terror” or the simple, heartbreaking knowledge in “Monsters” that the father would have preferred a son:

I should have said, I asked my dad to take me.
I should have said, I promised him
I could be a boy for as long as he needed.

The collection ends on a tense, if hopeful note (“A hammer sits / quietly in my bag. Next to the last nail. / For now we sing.”), which is perhaps appropriate to the collection’s title. It implies this narrator’s journey isn’t over, that there’s still time and space for more life, whatever it brings.

It’s certain all of us will find both pain and beauty throughout our lives. But when we want to contemplate the configuration of their entwinement, and connect with our common humanity—that’s when we can turn to poetry collections like Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows.

This Week in Short Fiction

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On Wednesday evening, Phil Klay’s Redeployment won the National Book Award for fiction, making it the first short story collection to win the award since Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever in 1996. That’s 18 years. But what’s maybe more startling is that the collection, which takes multiple perspectives of people involved in and returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, stands nearly alone as a fictional account that has risen to the national level of attention since the war in Afghanistan began in 2003. 

About a month before Penguin released Redeployment last March, Klay wrote a short piece for the New York Times,After War, a Failure of the Imagination.” (more…)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Prophetic Speech Wins the NBAs

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In her speech at the National Book Awards on Wednesday, Ursula K. Le Guin shares her Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters with “all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long,” blasts the commercialization of literature and the greed of publishers, and predicts:

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now . . . and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

Notable Chicago: 11/21–11/27

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Saturday 11/22: RoscoeBooks is the newest independent bookstore in the city, and its Grand Opening is today. Stop by and say hello, have some refreshments, and buy a book. 3 p.m. 

2nd Story, a Chicago storytelling series, offers a free storytelling workshop where you’ll use your life experiences, those things you wrote in the Mead Composition notebooks, to create something for a captive audience. Greenline Coffee, 3 p.m.

Lisa Doyle is at the gorgeous City Lit Books to celebrate her first novel, Milked. 5 p.m.

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Margaret Atwood, Eternal Optimist

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You’re assuming that first of all you’ll finish the book, which is a big assumption, and then that somebody will publish it — even more optimistic — that somebody will read it — better still — and that they will like it — the very best thing of all — so it’s all based on optimism, isn’t it.

On the occasion of her 75th birthday, Margaret Atwood talks to Bustle about the optimism inherent in writing, her books being adapted to television, the Future Library Project, and, in typical Atwood fashion, coffins constructed from baked fungi.

canoodlers-cover4

Canoodlers by Andrea Bennett

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I never tire of coming of age stories. I enjoy experiencing characters struggling with minor humiliations while trying to grasp the complexities of the world. Andrea Bennett’s debut poetry collection Canoodlers reads like any great coming of age tale: think LM Montgomery meets Alison Bechdel with the poetic directness of Kim Addonizio.

In Canoodlers, we see the speaker’s various rites of passage: bird watching with her father, attending camping trips, obtaining a job, and her maturation into adulthood. As an adult, she encounters nature alongside social media, questions privacy as well as sexuality. When reading Canoodlers, I became both voyeur and participant in a bildungsroman of our digital age. Once started, I couldn’t put the book down; like rubbernecking on the highway, I wanted to observe more.

Bennett’s poems deliver narratives with many recurring characters and scenes that hook the fiction reader in me, and her attention to form and imagery hook the poet.  Readers learn about the speaker often times through, although not limited to, the prose form:

There’s a story

and it happens when I am twelve. There’s the backseat of the car where my friend Jane is sitting.

The present tense in this poem places us in the backseat of the car. The title, “There’s a story,” spills into the body of the poem, as so many of Bennett’s poems do. We are in the middle of the action, participating in the poems. We watch the scene unfold, feeling as helpless as the speaker herself feels when responding to her mother’s comment on a woman’s inappropriate attire:

Then I say one of those things that emerges from your mouth like a just-born giraffe learning to walk immediately on whatever legs it’s got. It’s just a hop and a skip, I say to mum, between you and her.

Here, like throughout the book, Bennett utilizes metaphors of animals to describe human behaviors, almost mythologizing her suburban backdrop as something transformative.  This poem illustrates how we become part of the “zoo,” looking outside of the car into what’s behind the cages—or rather the cages her mother feels scantily clad women belong in.

“There’s a story” follows “When you are famous,” written in the same prose style with a different point of view: “If a hot mess reclines on the chaise and a handsome wreck answers a phone call, it is plot development.” When reading these two poems together, I am reminded that the paparazzi and those who consume their work are just the same as the mother who wants to cage people for wearing shorts that are too short.

This poem resonates with me as a person who would never buy Hollywood magazines (gasp!), yet of course still consumes so much of their content through other outlets: social media or word of mouth or even checkout-line reading. Who doesn’t want plot development, as long as it pertains to those outside of ourselves?

In “Ben and Kim want a sex poem.”, the poem itself never describes the act of sex, yet the mere mention of it in the title and the final line (“There’s something missing from the middle, Kim says. Yes, says Ben. The sex.”) grants Ben and Kim as well as the readers the poem they want. It forces them to insert the sex in themselves. This back and forth between participant and voyeur drew me in despite any disconnect I wanted to have.

We don’t often label ourselves voyeurs. We attempt to distance ourselves from that taboo. Yet Bennett’s poems allow readers to experience this badge in a raw and honest way, one that is familiar and welcoming rather than shocking. Much like the speaker in “Birthday Tarot,” whenever I could be tempted to “call bullshit” while reading these poems, feeling as if they didn’t give me what I expected, well… then as one character Anna so aptly says, “This is not sex & gender class. This is you need to get fucked.”

In the title poem, the speaker does not take herself out of the scandal either—thus never sounding sanctimonious. She too sits and stares at others in a way not too different from the mother in “There’s a story,” the mother who also in an earlier poem “defriended” the speaker on Facebook. “Canoodlers” begins:

Two people sat nose to nose. Gossip columnists call this canoodling, which means intimacy that is fresh, thin, easy to break. Like stalks of asparagus banded together at an outdoor market.

The fragmentation of the line further enacts just how easy intimacy is to break. In every one of Bennett’s poems, intimacy is breakable, whether between family or friends or partners. Yet despite a looming threat of such a rift, many of the poems suggest hope.

In “If I had a beak,” the final couplet reads: “If you were a crow, I’d be a crow too. And then, when we got/ together, it’d be murder.” The romance in the line is somehow not undercut by the wordplay of “murder,” but rather heightened. These tricks of language are also found at the end of the poem “Canoodlers”:

I don’t tell her that I ran my tongue along the edge of those two together, testing for tenderness first in girl, then boy.

Here, I continually read the word “tasting” instead of “testing,” as if Bennett sets up this expectation to highlight the word even more. Testing sexuality, testing intimacy, all add more to the limits of what the tongue tastes, what kisses can or cannot create.

Bennett’s poems provide an eyewitness clarity of a coming of age tale. Combining this truth with her contemporary themes constructs the voice of Canoodlers, a voice that keeps me wanting more. And like in the book’s final poem “In Seattle,”Canoodlers makes me desire to be in the car with the speaker and her friends, living a future in which “we’ll honk and open our throats for as long as possible, until it’s not possible anymore.”

A Loss of Translation

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The mismatch between quality and recognition in the world of translated fiction and nonfiction is surely more extreme than in any category of literature, and while this category has a growing number of great advocates, it deserves to have them at the highest level.

At Melville House, Mark Krotov argues that the National Book Award should once again be given out for translations.

Flynn and Strayed, Together At Last

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Cheryl Strayed and Gillian Flynn discuss ladies and likability in their writing:

It never occurred to me, not once, that the book would be read as an inspirational tale. I really have no interest in likability when it comes to characters. It’s always about credibility, and to be credible you have to seem human. One of the most difficult things reading about the movie “Wild” was when people started writing about it and me in this shorthand way. I knew they hadn’t read the book, because the things they would say about me were just patently untrue.

Late Bloomer

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At the New Yorker, James Wood reviews Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, an English writer who emerged on the scene at sixty-one:

The story that Lee’s book tells (or tries to tell, because much evidence has been obscured or lost) is not about patience on a monument but about talent buried under a heavy plinth, and discovered only just in time—the late achievement less a measured distillation than a lifesaving decoction.

Discovering a Smart Poet

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Smart was known, with his “disturbed mental state,” for his loud, feverish, constant praying, and you can read some of that catatonia in Jubilate, with its litany of “for”s and its incantatory quality. 

Over at the Paris Review, Dan Piepenbring introduces us to Christopher Smart, an interesting, unknown poet from the XVIII century who is featured in the Public Domain Review‘s very first print anthology, the newly published The Book of Selected Essays, 2011-2013.

Of Bacon and Transgression

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On The Butter, Syed Ali Hader writes about his complicated relationship with pork:

I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores. Surely my parents could smell it on me. And then they would want some. How could they turn it down? I knew that my mother had at least eaten it once in her life. She grew up Catholic, and her family was always eating pork when we were around. She said the smell made her sick. Lies, lies, lies! Had my brothers eaten some at any point? Was I the first in my family to try bacon? I wanted to ask them but it was as if we were in some secret society; I thought it was against the rules to mention our transgressions.

Song of the Day: “Micheline”

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A standout record in Mark Kozelek’s long career is the critically-lauded 2014 release, Benji. The presence of everyday tragedies permeates the record and propels the keening voice of Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moon. On “Micheline,” he offers us three stories whose sad endings are complicated by a rich, guitar-driven melody in a major key. In the process, he stops short of moralizing and urges us to draw connections of our own between the heartfelt and affecting stories. Listen closely for the influence of Bob Dylan and lyrical precursors from the folk music canon.

Notable Portland: 11/20–11/26

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Thursday 11/20: Mary Szybist, most recently the author of Incarnadine, reads from her poetry. Reed College, 6:30 p.m., free. 

Ooligan Press hosts a book launch party for Karelia Stez-Waters’s new book, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before. There will be a raffle, an author reading, and a 90s-themed dance party. Jones, 7 p.m., free.

Ted Rall reads from his latest book, After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests. Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.

Mark Pomeroy reads from his debut novel, The Brightwood Stillness. Powell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.

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In the Course of Human Events

In the Course of Human Events by Mike Harvkey

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Mike Harvkey’s In the Course of Human Events opens with a scene nearly unrecognizable from the rest of the book. Two characters walk through a Missouri graveyard and read the headstones of veterans of the Civil War. But the prologue is connected to the main plot, because a sentiment about Civil War-era slaves from the opening passage echoes throughout: “They was so loyal to the white woman who owned them that they fought against their own interests.”

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of In the Course of Human Events. Anyone who’s ever wondered why poor, disenfranchised, rural Americans join the Tea Party in protest of government programs like the minimum wage or socialized medicine—programs designed to assist poor, disenfranchised, rural Americans—will find the answers in Harvkey’s book. We follow the unassuming, likable Clyde Twitty on his journey from down-on-his-luck lost boy to rage-filled monster. The trip is all the more terrifying because we buy Clyde’s humanity right up until the very end. Harvkey tests the limits of our sympathies. He challenges our ability to see the world through an unsavory pair of eyes. He dares us to look at unimaginable acts of violence and consider that they might have been performed by an actual human being.

The nightmarish downward spiral that is the novel’s plot reveals itself in such refreshing, surprising ways that to give any of it away would be to spoil the whole thing. I’ll tread lightly. After being laid off as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, Clyde takes a job working part-time at Wal-Mart, and can barely make ends meet. He’s a product of bad luck (he owes the IRS $862 by no fault of his own) and harsh circumstances. But he’s an interesting case, because despite a mounting frustration with his lot in life, he never complains. The people around him recognize this quality, and either reward it (like Esther, his flirtatious Wal-Mart coworker) or take advantage of it (his mother treats him like an employee). He’s exactly the kind of candidate Jay Smalls, a mysterious and charismatic stranger, has been looking for.

Jay “sees something” in Clyde and bullies the kid into coming to a family picnic, whereupon he introduces Clyde to the concept of anger. “Everybody thinks anger’s a bad thing,” he explains to Clyde. “You got a right to be pissed off,” he finishes, and we’re told that “the way Jay said it made it attractive.”

Mike Harvkey

Mike Harvkey

Already it’s clear that there’s something off about Jay, and it’s not just how clearly he’s exploiting Clyde’s unsuspecting nature. He demands that Clyde join him for karate classes; his nephew has strange tattoos under his hair; he has a bizarre relationship with his daughter, whom he all but uses as a sexual recruitment tool to woo Clyde. But Clyde is made to feel special, and the reader can even understand, at least a little, Jay’s “right to be pissed off” logic, seeing as poor sweet Clyde gives so much to the world around him and gets so little in return. Clyde does start to get angry, and to follow Jay almost religiously—even after Jay’s dark plans are revealed. Jay begins ranting about minorities and his disdain for the government, offering a copy of The Turner Diaries for Clyde’s perusal, somehow convincing him that reading the book is a natural extension of his karate training.

Harvkey convincingly pushes the scary process of Clyde’s brainwashing to the breaking point and then, rather less convincingly, turns Clyde from an innocent victim into an active agent of hate. After a night in a pit, one of the most terrifying sequences in recent literature, Harvkey refuses to let up. The ante is raised in every chapter, the violence heightened. The book becomes so dystopic that the smallest bit of kindness brings the reader to tears. “My dad would be nice to you,” Esther tells a teetering-on-the-edge Clyde, in an attempt to pull him back from the brink, “which you deserve, cause you’re a good person.” It’s been so long since we’ve seen someone recognize Clyde’s humanity at this point, it breaks our hearts to realize it’s still there.

The obvious reference point for Clyde is Travis Bickle, or his real-life inspiration, Samuel Byck: sad-sack losers whom America saw no use, who retaliated by attacking its institutions. Harvkey, in his attempt (and considerable success) at empathizing with a madman recalls Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins as well. Even when Clyde has crossed what seems to be a line he can’t come back from, Harvkey allows him to hear out a Mexican man who chastises his use of “wetback”: “Growing up, Clyde had heard words like ‘wetback’ and ‘nigger’ all the time, practically on every street corner. Nobody’d ever taken offense.” And even when Clyde has seemingly lost his mind, Harvkey reminds us that Clyde’s not evil—he’s got his reasons: “You may not know that the last few years, before I met Jay, were the worst of my life,” Clyde writes to a friend. “I wallowed in self pity and accepted my sad fate as if I had no choice in it at all.”

The book’s nadir is also, unfortunately, its centerpiece—a visit to the World Aryan Congress during which Clyde evidently gets converted, but which takes us out of his head exactly when we should be closest inside of it. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point of In the Course of Human Events. Like the book’s ending, which forces the reader to only imagine the horrifying events to follow, the real challenge is to empathize with someone like Clyde, even when he’s doing the unthinkable, and even when a brilliant author like Harvkey refuses to spell it out for you.

The Best Standup Comedian You’ve Never Seen Perform

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For the Guardian, Joshua Ferris pays tribute to his hero, Jim Shepard, who served as a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine when he was an MFA student. “A lot of critics dislike the professionalisation of creative writing,” Ferris writes, but “they have never had Shepard in a workshop”:

[Shepard’s] insight is humbling, deeply grained, outrageously perceptive and full of a signature humour. (I once saw him tell of an encounter between a beagle and a squirrel, doing impressions of both. His emotional wisdom extends to animals and plants and inanimate objects. He’s the best standup comedian you’ve never seen perform.)

The Year of Vaping

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The Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year” has been announced, and young people around the world will be called upon to explain the word “vape”—and its significance as part of cultural shifts surrounding marijuana and tobacco—to their older relatives in the coming days. The dictionary folks acknowledge that folks have been “vaping” since the early 1980s, but claim the word has now matured to the point of linguistic relevance. Thus,“vape” has claimed the prestigious title for 2014, beating out contenders including “slacktivism,” “contactless,” and “bae.”

The Making of Michael Pietsch

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Amazon and Hachette have, for now, resolved their dispute. But their protracted battle over pricing has made Hachette’s Chief Executive Michael Pietsch something of a hero to many in the literary community—in Distinction, Pietsch discusses his journey from a small Boston publishing firm to leading the charge against Amazon:

My first job in publishing was as a dogsbody at a small firm in Boston. The job was full days of photocopying and typing, and it came with a fringe benefit: manuscripts to read at night, as many as I cared to carry home. I quickly learned that editing is two jobs in one.

Joy to the World

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Over at New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh’s written an intricate, affecting, and (honest to god) shocking elegy in awe of the emoji. If he comes to a single conclusion, it’s that every single one of them is here to stay:

Over 470 million Joy emoji are being sent back and forth on Twitter right now—which makes the Joy emoji the No. 1 most popular emoji on Twitter (it tends to compete for the top spot with the Heart). Lovers have successfully wooed one another with emoji. Recruiters for ISIS are using emoji in their friendly sounding, ISIS-promoting tweets. Someone put together a song-length emoji-translation video of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” while someone else translated R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” into emoji, while someone else translated all of Moby-Dick (titled, inevitably, Emoji Dick).

Word of the Day: Epimythium

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(n.); the moral appended to the end a story or fable; from the Greek epi (“upon”) + muthos (“story, fable”)

Once upon a time there was a princess who went out into the forest and sat down at the edge of a cool well.

—Excerpt from “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” in Jack Zipes’s Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The odds are that if you grew in just about any European-influenced country, you are probably familiar with old folk tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White.” If you grew up anytime after the 1930s, you are also familiar with Walt Disney’s classic retellings of such tales. But the literary world is buzzing with the recent release of Jack Zipes’s new, uncensored translation of the original Brothers Grimm tales. Check out this brief NPR interview with the author. And if your interest in ancient tales has been piqued, you may also enjoy Rebecca Morrison’s review of two other recently published fairy tale collections.

A Fair Shake for Flawed Female Characters

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Over at the Guardian, Emma Jane Unsworth considers the apparent likeability divide between anti-heroes—as it turns out, a heavily gendered archetype—and their female counterparts. Why does it seem that readers have a more negative reaction to women behaving badly and having existential crises in fiction? And why do we more often conflate character and author when women write female anti-heroes? Claire Messud hits the nail on the head in response to a recent interviewer’s inquiry as to whether she would want to be friends with her character Nora, who has a decidedly bleak outlook on life:

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”

Notable San Francisco: 11/19–11/25

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Wednesday 11/19: Mateo Hoke, co-editor of Palestine Speaksthe latest in the Voice of Witness series—discusses the book with oral historian Shanna Farrell (Free, 6 p.m., UC Berkeley, North Gate Hall).

The Kinda Late Night Show with Broke-Ass Stuart premiere seems like it’ll be pretty literary: interviews, sketches, and performances by The Real Kari Byron, Polly Superstar, Inka Siefker, Boots Riley with Gaby La La, and MegaFlame Presents Big Band Cabaret ($10-12, 8 p.m., Doc’s Lab).

Vouched Presents: Emergency Preparation, with James Tadd Adcox, Lauren Traetto, M Kitchell, and free booze (Free, 7:30 p.m., 826 Valencia).

Passages on the Lake closes out their year with readings by Kate Milliken, Mg Roberts, Michael N. Thompson, Matt Lucas, Sarah Kobrinsky, and Siamak Vossoughi (Free, 8 p.m., The Terrace Room).

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