Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
An absolutely brilliant bit of architectural criticism by Kate Wagner, on Hudson Yards's Vessel (sorry, Hudson Yards's The Vessel). The Amazon Globes are begging for a treatment this smart — and smartly laced with scorn.
What is public space if not that land allocated (thanks to the generosity of our Real Estate overlords) to the city’s undeserving plebeians, who can interface with it in one of two ways: as consumers or interlopers, both allowed only to play from dawn ‘til dusk in the discarded shadows of the ultra-rich? Unlike a real neighborhood, which implies some kind of social collaboration or collective expression of belonging, Hudson Yards is a contrived place that was never meant for us. Because of this, the Vessel is also a Vessel for outrage like my own.
Bob Mason, one-time employee of the Southern Poverty Law Center, reflects on its founder's firing. An interesting take on the abuses of power that we tolerate when we're on the inside, and what that looks like when the glaze of 16-hour days wears off.
For those of us who’ve worked in the Poverty Palace, putting it all into perspective isn’t easy, even to ourselves. We were working with a group of dedicated and talented people, fighting all kinds of good fights, making life miserable for the bad guys. And yet, all the time, dark shadows hung over everything: the racial and gender disparities, the whispers about sexual harassment, the abuses that stemmed from the top-down management, and the guilt you couldn’t help feeling about the legions of donors who believed that their money was being used, faithfully and well, to do the Lord’s work in the heart of Dixie. We were part of the con, and we knew it.
Memoirist T Kira Madden on the magic trick through which experience becomes memory becomes story.
From then on, as we tell and retell the story of the raft or the wet rock or was it a story about women and oceans? Or resilience? Or vacations? Or the fact that grandfather wasn’t alive to be there? We are essentially only recalling the last time the story was told. The purity of The Memory is gone. It has become texturized, woven, dramatized, for better and for worse. It is both the deepest loss and greatest gift I’ve experienced in my life.
The New York Times has been doing some cool things lately with microanimation and other subtle (or not-so-subtle) digital tricks. It's an easy hand to overplay, but they're doing a great job with it — using flare in the right places, in the right ways, to set mood and show the story. This illustrated piece by Brian Rea is simply magical.
The island is only about 50 acres, but it's quite easy to get lost. Distances walking in the forest are hard to determine. You spend so much time walking over, under and around branches, brush and fallen trees that a simple hike can quickly become a disorienting journey. There are no straight lines in a forest.
Martha Silano is the author of five poetry books, including the just-released Gravity Assist. As the Seattle Review of Books Poet in Residence for March, she's released three new poems over the past few weeks: Angel of the Wind, One More Monarch, and My Mother's Denial, with one more to come next Tuesday, March 26th. She'll be appearing May 17 at the Elliott Bay Book Company with Francesca Bell, Keetje Kuipers, and Tiffany Midge, then again May 22 at Third Place Books in Seward Park with Kevin Craft and Laura Da'.
What are you reading now?
The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy, a book about what happens to a poet’s brain under the influence of our current administration, especially its policies regarding the treatment of children, women, the marginalized, the non-Christian, the non-white, and just about everyone else except those in power: the rich as f*ck, well-insured, lawyered-ed, and not terminally or mentally ill, womb-possessing, or addicted to opiates, to name a few. What happens when a writer is pushed to consider the end of civilization as we know it? Our precious ‘what was’ is overthrown by an even more repressive governing council known as the octopus overlords. I can’t even begin to summarize the wonders of this book. The poems express desperation, cynicism, misery and heartbreak, yet somehow there’s levity, playfulness, and wisdom at every turn. The poems are elastic and inflexible, wobbly and strong. In “No Traveler Returns,” the speaker introduces herself as a mother, a lover, a “wild tentacled screaming creature,” “gasoline,” a forgetter, and a knower of numbers. And that’s just the first poem. Shaughnessy’s poems demand multiple readings, which is always a good sign. After half a dozen or more reads, I start to think I have a handle on what’s she’s up to, though thankfully not quite. Is this an accessible book? Not so much. Am I enthralled by the subject matter, word play, voice, and cadences? Hell, yes.
Psst: I’m also currently reading:
What did you read last?
Confession: I had never read Animal Farm. I recently had the pleasure of seeing a stage production of it at my daughter’s school, and I am so glad I did! My daughter had been bugging me for months to read the book before I saw the play. However, after seeing the play I ran home and read the book in one sitting. What’s not to love about Orwell and, in particular, a bunch of talking animals getting languaged out of their fair share? An apt book for our times. I need to read 1984 next (yes, another classic I managed to duck out on), but it will have to wait till the summer, because…
What are you reading next?
Ladder of Shadows by the great Gustaf Sobin (1935-2005). Why? Because I just finished reading Sobin’s Luminous Debris. (Surprise, I am usually reading four or more books at once). Sobin lived for many years in Provence. Spoiler alert: he is not Peter Mayle. Instead, Sobin writes utterly gorgeous lyrical essays about early human history — moon goddesses, weird-ass mirrors, toponyms, the cult of skulls, a Roman aqueduct that went from being a life-giving font of spring water to a way to flush out the sewers of Nimes. No guarantees, but I am positing Ladder of Shadows, with its chapter headings The Sarcophagi of Arles, the Dark Ages A History of Omissions, and Mary Magdalene the Odiferous, will be a spellbindingly good read.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
How would you feel about foot binding for men for a few decades until we equal out the gender disparity? At least they couldn't run very far when we #metoo them.
Just a little pissed still, Ballard
Nice visual but I like my men to be able to run when I scream for them, not hobble like foundered goats.
I understand your ire. You could obsessively focus on the 12-47 percent of our population who believe women should be kept in a box, have warranties, and if a baby a year doesn't explode from their nether fountains – or worse, if their fountains dry up – their lady parts should be recycled into yummy treats for clever hunting dogs.
But where will that get you besides bankrupt on foot bindings and eventually locked in a size 12 cage in a shithole farm outside an ironically named town like Ritzville, Idaho?
Nowhere, that's where.
Instead, I suggest you channel your frustrations into something productive – like volunteering to help me patent various spider-related inventions because, let me tell you, hot sauce is but the TIP OF THE ICEBERG. Imagine if women could spit venom when provoked?! IMAGINE.
One of my favorite aspects of comics is the way they leave time largely up to the reader. A good artist can coax a reader into reading at a certain speed or rhythm through manipulation of panel layouts and spatial tricks on the page, but ultimately, every reader engages with a comic at their own pace. There's no real way to watch a movie at your own pace, but in comics the passage of time is a collaboration between creator and reader.
It's odd, then, that superhero comics always feel so timeless. Many of the characters fans have been following since the 1940s have basically become immortal — ageless beings who wear and discard the trappings of contemporary culture as easily as you or I might swap a pair of pants. When it comes to Superman and Spider-Man, we have no control over the passage of time. They stay roughly the same age forever, and we pass them by on our way to the grave.
Yesterday, the first issue of a new series by writer Chip Zdarsky (who you may also know as the artist of Sex Criminals) lifts the spell of immortality off of one of the most popular characters in comics. Spider-Man: Life Story is a limited series that begins with Spider-Man's origin in 1962, and then it follows the character in "real time" as he ages to the present day. Each book in the series is set in a decade in the character's life, beginning with the 1960s.
This idea has been done before: John Byrne wrote and drew a series called Generations at DC that followed Superman and Batman through the years, allowing the characters to age and have children and pass their legacies on to future generations. But it's just too good a concept to only do once, and Zdarsky's interpretation of the idea is much less gimmicky than Byrne's, which contorted itself into a sort of rhyming structure for no good reason.
The first issue of Life Story allows Zdarsky to use the Spider-Man character to examine the Vietnam War. Though early Marvel Comics are praised for being politically active in a way that DC Comics at the time were not, Marvel's creators largely left the war out of their books. Perhaps including Vietnam in comics would have felt too frivolous. But in retrospect, it's bizarre that Peter Parker never really expressed much angst about the draft.
In Life Story, Zdarsky finally puts Spider-Man through the moral conflict that the character always avoided. He wonders aloud, "What do I do? I have power. Shouldn't I be--shouldn't I have a responsibility to go [to Vietnam]?" Every young person in the late 1960s had to ask themselves some variation of that question, and it only makes sense that Peter Parker, with his guilt and his dutiful nature, would ask those questions.
Life Story is drawn by Mark Bagley, who has become the quintessential Spider-Man artist for at least two generations of comics readers. His work has never had the bizarre edge of Steve Ditko, but in Life Story he captures the wholesomeness of John Romita, and it works perfectly. The book might lack some of its heft if it were drawn, say, by some quirky indie comics superstar. Bagley has spent so many years as a straightforward superhero artist that the moral dilemma of Vietnam feels even more complex when his characters question it.
I don't want to spoil the last page of Life Story, but let me say that it's one of the most surprising final pages I've read in a superhero comics in recent memory. It's a decision that actually feels brave, and it left me panting to read the next issue. This could be the most interesting Spider-Man book Marvel Comics has published in years — possibly since the wildly unpleasant issue in which Seattle cartoonist Peter Bagge imbued Peter Parker with Ditko's Objectivism. This is only the first of six issues, of course, and pretty much anything could happen in the rest of Life Story. But after this first issue, I'm hooked.
Here's an addendum to yesterday's commentary on the conservative war on free speech: A Florida Republican is trying to pass a bill that would make it easier to ban books in schools. Kelly Jensen at BookRiot notes:
This bill comes because of concerns from the Florida Citizens Alliance, which has a history of attempted censorship in Florida schools. What makes this particular bill more terrifying for educators and librarians in the state is that it’s not just parents who’d be empowered to recall a book — any citizen could step forward, deeming a book “unacceptable,” putting not only educators and librarians at risk, but the entire system of education itself.
If it were to pass, teachers and librarians who violated the law could be found guilty of a third-degree felony.
Seattle excels at interdisciplinary arts organizations — groups that combine literature with other arts like music (as with the Bushwick Book Club) and theater (The Book-It Theatre.) And for many years, literature has flirted with more risqué arts, in form of the Naked Girls Reading Series (a Chicago-based series which was exactly what it says: naked women reading stories) and several groups that tie together literature and burlesque.
On April 12th and 13th, Seattle's newest literary burlesque endeavor, The Noveltease Theatre Company, debuts a new production interpreting Baron Munchausen into a 90-minute stage show titled ADVENTURE! Marvelous Tales of the Baron Munchausen.
On the phone, Noveltease performer Sailor St. Claire explains that these dancers have a long history of interacting with books. Both St. Claire and Noveltease dancer Polly Wood participated in Naked Girls Reading, and many of the other performers have roots in the city's nerdlesque scene. St. Claire has a doctorate in English literature.
Her academic research developed in tandem with her burlesque career. As she did her academic research, St. Claire says, "there a lot of conversation between my doctoral work and what I was doing on stage. It's interesting to me from a more theoretical perspective to think about what the relationships between pages and stages are." She explains, "I'm so interested in how bodies appear in literature — what we do when we encounter a nude body in a text, and what we do when we encounter a nude body on the stage."
St. Claire says burlesque, which is "a vocabulary of revealing things," is "a great pairing with literature." Just as literary critics and authors who adapt books to other arts have to unravel the deeper meaning of a text, Noveltease's dancers are metaphorically revealing a truth in these stories by revealing more of themselves onstage.
"My branding game is on point, I guess," St. Claire explains, "as a literate and literary stripper." The road to Noveltease began with St. Claire's partnership with the choreographer Fosse Jack. Together, over the past four years, they've interpreted works by Tennessee Williams and Mary Shelley with original choreography.
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What can literate audiences who've never attended a burlesque show expect from Noveltease? St. Claire wants to make sure that Seattle Review of Books readers understand that the pairing is not new or unusual. "Burlesque itself is a literary term," she says, which "refers to a specific genre of literature that has satire and comedy and parody in it. And that's also what translated to the burlesque stage in the 1880s and 1890s."
"The work that we do in Noveltease is to elaborate on both meanings of that literary term," St. Claire explains, "to take how burlesque functions within the context of literature, and then how it has functioned in the context of theater, and explore that through contemporary burlesque."
And St. Claire points out that reading itself is an intensely physical act: "I would assume that an audience that is invested in reading is also invested in the visceral and embodied experience that you have when you're reading something that's really good," she says. "We're just externalizing that. We're putting that embodied experience on the stage."
All that sounds serious, but St. Claire adds, Noveltease is "not like a library. You don't have to be quiet. You're allowed to laugh and be audience members." The goal is "to ask people to encounter literature in a new way."
For the moment, Noveltease is going to focus on works in the public domain — partly for legal reasons, but also because "we have this really staid idea of what the classics are — you know, for all intents and purposes they're generally written by old dead white men," St. Claire says. "I think that in doing burlesque versions of stuff written by old dead white men, there's a lot of opportunity to rework and revise the canon and to attempt to take these stories that belong to a particular perspective and make them stories that could belong to other perspectives." She says future outings from Noveltease aspire to resurrect old works so that they "resonate with a modern audience — to actively queer [a text] or actively make it more feminist."
So what's the process of adaptation like? "We'll read the book, we'll think about how it becomes a dance, and then we'll think about how the dance interacts with the words," she says. St. Claire argues that Munchausen's episodic nature made it a great fit with Noveltease.
In the beginning, the group read the book and asked themselves, "what parts of this are burlesque-able?" The performers chose the passages that they most wanted to perform, and then they began editing the text. "This is language from 1785," St. Claire explains, "so a lot of editing is trying to clarify incredibly long sentences full of embedded clauses, so that human beings now could actually get their mouths around them and say them on stage."
Baron Munchausen, in particular, is a text that is ripe for reappropriation. For years after its publication, authors would add new chapters to the story, republishing the original text with a few new passages and claiming the whole book — and its attendant profits — as their own. St. Claire loves that the book has "an interesting history of theft and appropriation and adaptation as a text." Noveltease is adding to that great tradition, building on the book's legacy even as it strips away some of its mysteries.
Shot: Devin Nunes is a heroic defender of free speech.suing the site.
In the suit, Nunes accuses Twitter of having a “political agenda” by allowing two anonymous accounts—“Devin Nunes’ Mom” (@DevinNunesMom) and “Devin Nunes’ Cow” (@DevinCow)—and [political consultant Liz] Mair to attack, defame, and demean him.
The complaint is full of fantastic language like this one:
In her endless barrage of tweets, Devin Nunes’ Mom maliciously attacked every aspect of Nunes’ character, honesty, integrity, ethics and fitness to perform his duties as a UnitedStates Congressman. Devin Nunes’ Mom stated that Nunes had turned out worse than Jacob Wohl; falsely accused Nunes of being a racist, having “white supremist friends”and distributing “disturbing inflammatory racial propaganda”
This is more proof that when it comes to right-wing dickwads like Nunes, "free speech" only matters when it's a conservative doing the talking. They want to actively suppress the language of anyone they dislike. Please, please remember this the next time you read some concern trolling by a conservative pundit or any of their assorted useful idiots.
can only be compared to the scent
of my Uncle Pete’s Delta 88
the night he hit a skunk.
Dizzy. Nauseous. Breathing
into a pillow. All across
Tennessee and Arkansas —
a warning for speeding
in Paducah, the orange-lit
on-ramps of Memphis,
the flooded fields of Jericho —
my mother in the front seat
refusing to acknowledge it.
Our sponsor this week is Rosemary Reeve, author of the Jack Hart mystery series. The third Hart novel, Only the Good, is just as delightful as the first two: fast-paced and thrilling, but generous, too. It's impossible not to like Jack Hart, and not only because his stomping grounds are ours: Hart's a Seattle attorney with a talent for finding himself on the dubious side of the law.
Hart is also a man with a difficult family. His mom is heading into her first marriage; his long-lost father is leaving sizeable legal footprints that only Jack can cover up. When dad's paper mill burns down, it'll take more than a good bottle of wine to keep client Fidelity Insurance on Jack's side. It's a tasty thriller, definitely worth spending your lunch hour on our sponsor feature page.to sample chapter 1.
We love highlighting independent authors with a Seattle twist, like Rosemary Reeve, and like you. Put your book, reading, or class in front of our readership of writers, industry professionals, and avid book fans — and support the site you come to every day for the best reviews and book news in the city. Grab the last dates in April before they're gone!
Seattle Public Library, Columbia City Branch, 4721 Rainier Ave S, 386-1908, http://spl.org, 6 pm, free.
As part of the Hugo House's series of craft talks from established and well-regarded authors, Andre Dubus III will discuss his knack for creating memorable and believable characters with Seattle author Jennifer Haigh.
Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $15.
Three of Seattle's best and best-loved science fiction writers — Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead and Daryl Gregory — will be interviewed by Adam Rakunas, who is a younger Seattle sci-fi writer who is also held in very high esteem.Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.
The sixth anniversary of the Capitol Hill-based reading series features a high-quality lineup: Florangela Davila, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, Jane Wong, and Margot Kahn Case. Joy Mills and Tom Parker will play songs. Proceeds benefit Team Read, which trains readers to teach kids how to read.
Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar, 1508 11th Ave., 709-9797, http://vermillionseattle.com, 7 pm, $5.
Open Books brings two great poets together for a reading. You know S. Brook Corfman for the debut collection Luxury, Blue Lace, and you know poet Malcolm Friend, who is originally from Seattle, for his collection Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple.
Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 7 pm, free.
See our Event of the Week column for more details.
Corvus & Co, 601 Broadway E, 420-8488, https://www.facebook.com/corvusandcompany/, 11 am, free to enter but buy some brunch.
Seattle writer Josef Olsen's new book is about a "string of patricides [in] 1916 Dublin and a washed-up Scottish doctor [who] receives a mysterious manuscript from a fellow Scotsman recounting his dark experiences in the pioneer city of Seattle in 1889."
Spooked in Seattle Ghost Tours, 102 Cherry St, 425-954-7701, http://spookedinseattle.squarespace.com, 5 pm, free.
Don't get me wrong — I love a good old-fashioned reading. But it's good to see people occasionally grab the traditional formula and shake it up to see what happens. What if your schedule keeps you away from the traditional 7 pm weeknight bookstore event? How do you get new people to show up if you keep following the same patterns?
Luckily, Seattle indie literature enthusiast Kate Berwanger has some ideas on how to bring readings to a new venue. This Saturday at Corvus & Co on Broadway, Berwanger is hosting a literary brunch featuring six poets who'll read as you drink and eat.
The biggest name on the docket is Sarah Galvin, who is perhaps the Seattle poet you should most want to spend brunch with. Galvin is a hilarious and adventurous poet whose work translates well to exciting new venues.
But Galvin isn't the only writer whose name you'll recognize. Sonya Vatomsky is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine, in addition to their debut poetry collection, Salt Is For Curing. Vinnie Sarrocco has a collection coming out this year from Pioneer Square's Chatwin Books.
And you might meet one or two new favorite poets, too: Alexis Lopez, Meredith Clark, and Vi Tranchemontagne will also be reading. This is an array of writers with a good mix of ages, backgrounds, and styles. They're all at different points in their careers. And they're all reading poetry much earlier than they otherwise would.
Whether your favorite brunch beverage is a bloody Mary or a black coffee, you'll likely find the perfect accompaniment for your pancakes and eggs. And who knows? Maybe after you attend your first 11 am reading, you'll never want to go back to sleepy old seven pm readings ever again.
Corvus & Co, 601 Broadway E, 420-8488, https://www.facebook.com/corvusandcompany/, 11 am, free to enter but buy some brunch, 21+.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Adam Serwer's exploration of America's history of white nationalism, and how it influenced and was adopted by Nazi Germany, is full of ugliness. It's tempting to call it "chilling," but that's a luxury we can't afford — things that are chilling are other than us, different from us, and this is, unfortunately, who America has been and for many people still is.
What's truly chilling is the thought that we might not choose, whenever we can, to be other than this.
Nazi lawyers carefully studied how the United States, despite its pretense of equal citizenship, had effectively denied that status to those who were not white. They looked at Supreme Court decisions that withheld full citizenship rights from nonwhite subjects in U.S. colonial territories. They examined cases that drew, as Thind’s had, arbitrary but hard lines around who could be considered “white.”
The Nazis reviewed the infamous “one-drop rule,” which defined anyone with any trace of African blood as black, and “found American law on mongrelization too harsh to be embraced by the Third Reich.”
This is one of the most delicious weekends of the year to be downtown — our city is filled with superheroes and supervillains, antiheroes and anime, icons and iconoclasts. It's impossible not to catch a buzz from the very serious play of Emerald City Comic Con! In honor of the event, check out this great issue of "All the Books I'll Never Read," a newsletter from bookseller, blogger, podcaster, and sometime Seattle Review of Books reviewer Emma Nichols.
I think comics make difficult topics more approachable and understandable. And let’s be realistic, the world is full of injustice, terror, and bullies. We should prepare our kids, let them know that life isn’t fair, while simultaneously teaching them how to fight back.
As a student of poetry, many years ago, I could have written an appropriately precise and boring encomium to W. S. Merwin on the occasion of his death.
Fortunately, I'm no longer a student of poetry, and I can write instead, simply, that a beloved voice has gone quiet. Margalit Fox says the rest.
Most reviewers praised his relentless deployment of poetry as a talisman against the void; the emotional ferocity beneath the cool, polished surface of his lines; and his use of language so pure and immediate that it could attain translucence.
Tatiana Gill is a Seattle-based cartoonist, illustrator, and creator of many books focused on addiction recovery, mental health, and body positivity, including Wombgenda: Feminist Comics, Blackoutings: How I Quit Drinking, and the recently released Color Me Thicc: A Fat-Positive Coloring Book. She's appearing with fellow local comic artist and writer Colleen Frakes today, Saturday March 16, from 4-6 PM at Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique.
What are you reading now?
Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions by Russell Brand. My 12-step sponsor suggested we read it aloud to each other, and we're a few chapters in. Brand explains the 12-steps in a very funny, irreverent, and G-word (God) free context, sprinkled with anecdotes from his own life and struggles with addiction. As I have been practicing the 12-steps for years, I find it very insightful and full of laugh-out-loud moments. I have heard people speak of how the language of the more traditional 12-steps, crafted in the 1930s and rich in the G-word, alienates them. I think Brand's more modern translation of the same principles is a valuable resource.
What did you read last?
Mis(h)adra by Iasmin Omar Ata. It's semi-autographical graphic novel about a college-going man's struggles with epilespy. I could really relate to the subjects of having complicated illnesses and being misunderstood by doctors, loved ones, and society. But some of it was confusing to me, I didn't understand some of the more abstract parts. I guessed that this well-received book is speaking the language of younger people than I, with it's manga/anime style, and I may be past the ideal age range for it at 44. But I did understand what Ata was saying about the need for patient advocacy and community support. Self-care is half the battle and the other half of the battle is asking for help, and continuing to seek out second opinions when met with misunderstanding and misdiagnoses (easier said than done with limited resources, of course).
I also recently read Outrageous Openness: Letting the Divine Take the Lead by Tosha Silver which I loved. I love a fruity 'woo-woo' self help book but it's easy for them to be low quality, this one was high quality. It's a collection of essays from Silver's astrology column in the San Francisco Examiner. I was struggling with depression and faith when I read it, and I found an uplifting solace in her words. I could pick up what she was laying down and absorb those sweet post-hippie SF vibes while I was at it.
What are you reading next?
Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds. I am so excited for this graphic novel! I ordered it from the UK, which I do on very rare occasion (I usually borrow graphic novels from the Seattle Public Library, but I couldn't wait for this). I read Tamara Drewe by this British author a few years ago, and it was great - and it's how I learned the word "slag." In this new book the female protagonist is fat, old, and antisocial. When I am consuming media with a female, fat, old, cranky protagonist (which is produced so rarely), I feel the joy of representation, which helps me to relax and enjoy the story. In this rare representation I see someone like me being important and worthy of carrying a story. When it's a skinny, young, outgoing female (or most any kind of male) protagonist, there's a disconnect, it can be harder for me to relate — or worse, I can wind up aspiring to be something I don't have the means to actualize.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sometimes, my eye just catches on a fantastic title. My favorite title of all time is Legacy of Ashes, which is the title of a book that's a history of the CIA. I haven't even read the book, but that title really says it all, doesn't it? I worry that the rest of the book won't be able to live up to the title.
What do you think makes a good title? Do you have favorite titles?
Denise, Maple Leaf
Why haven't you read Legacy of Ashes? Go read it now and report back on whether the book lives up to its title. Many classic books have very straightforward titles that get to the person, place or thesis of the whole thing – think Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick – but I feel as if there is a trend among contemporary authors to worry as much about the cleverness of their title as they do about the quality of the work itself, and a great title to a mediocre book is as disappointing as a someone named Sir Shanksalot trying to sell you face cream from a kiosk in the mall.
A great book title alludes to the grist and bones of the work. Here are a few of my favorites: Confederacy of Dunces and Heart of Darkness, both of which are pretty self explanatory, while Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which books burn) and To Kill a Mockingbird (a reference to innocence lost) are more poetically subtle.
I don't write books but I will do almost anything with words for drinks or tips – it's what separates us from the beasts. Here are a few titles I'm currently shopping around:
Sometimes an artist is just too good for monthly comics. When I first saw Nick Derington's art on the recent Doom Patrol reboot, for instance, or Nate Simpson's art on Nonplayer, I was blown away by the level of detail and draftsmanship on the page, but immediately after my first swoons settled in, a second thought lodged itself in my brain: "how the hell is this artist going to hit a monthly deadline?" Simpson, of course, has famously only completed two issues of his comic in eight years. Derington's Doom Patrol saw some delays, but the book was eventually finished a few months late.
Ian Bertram's art in the first issue of Little Bird is like that: it is so mind-numbingly gorgeous, so intensely detailed and vivid and imaginative, that it's hard to imagine how the book will be able to come out on a monthly basis. I haven't been this enthralled with a new artist since Frank Quitely burst on the scene almost two decades ago. It's a European style, very much in the vein of Moebius, but Bertram doesn't sacrifice spectacle for nuance: his characters are just as emotive and distinct as any of the modern masters of character — Adrian Tomine, say, or Emil Ferris.
Created by Bertram and writer Darcy Van Poelgeest, Little Bird is a story of a far-flung future in which Canada is at war with a militaristic Christian United States. A mother, preparing her tribe for war, leaves her child — the Little Bird of the title — in a bomb shelter.
The daughter emerges days later to find her village reduced to splinters and smoke. Little Bird sets out across the wasteland with a few vague directions in mind: "Free the axe. Save the people. Free the north. Save the world."
I don't want to spoil too much of the story. A lot happens in the first issue of Little Bird — it's double-sized for the regular price of a comic — and if you're not a fan of gore you will probably not enjoy this book. But the hyper-violence never feels particularly mean-spirited. There are human beings behind the action, and the violence takes its toll on survivors, just as much as victims.
Maybe, since Little Bird is only scheduled for five issues, Bertram will manage to hit those deadlines. But even if the book winds up delayed by months or even years, I'll be waiting patiently for the next issue. I don't know where Little Bird is going, but I know that like the title character, I'll go to the ends of the earth to see this story completed.
In the past few weeks, I've been asked several times for advice from people who've been asked to host their first literary panels. It makes sense; we're coming up on convention season — Emerald City Comicon is this weekend, Norwescon is on the way, and AWP is looming at the end of the month — and conventions bring with them a swarm of author panels.
And while it's always an honor to be asked to host a panel, no convention that I know of ever offers advice on how to be a good moderator. So I thought I'd share my advice here. I don't claim to be an expert, or even an especially good moderator, but I've hosted dozens of these things and so I apparently at least know how not to ruin a panel. Here's what I've learned so far.
First, and most importantly, unless something huge happens, nobody is there to see you, and nobody will remember you after the panel. (With the exception of the authors.) Your job is to make the panel flow easily and keep the conversation going. So be pleasant, be helpful, and be easy to work with: show up really early, introduce yourself to everyone including the sound guys, ask your panelists if they need anything.
Make sure to ask management ahead of time if you need to introduce the authors yourself or if someone with the event will do it. Being caught off guard with introductions is the worst. If you are writing and doing the introductions, be pretty brief — two or three sentences for each author. For the most part people know why they're there, so you're just getting them more hyped up with your intro and adding a little ceremony to the whole thing. But you can't assume that everyone in the audience knows everyone on the panel, so you do need to be informative in your introductions. Touch on the big career moments and keep it moving along.
Thank the audience for coming and tell them exactly what's going to happen. "I'm going to chat with the authors for about twenty minutes and then we'll have twenty minutes or so for audience questions, so make sure you have some good ones lined up." Before I ask my last question, I usually let the audience know that we're about to pivot to audience questions in a minute just so they're cued up.
Definitely read something by each author to prepare for the event. Then make a big list of questions, starting with really general ones, and then with individual questions for each writer. Avoid spoilers as much as possible. Make sure that your questions end with a question that the author can respond to. Write more questions than you'll possibly need, in case they burn through the questions very quickly. Running out of questions with twenty minutes on the clock is, take it from me, terrifying. Make sure your questions are written down, preferably printed out. Practice reading the questions and introductions aloud three or four times by yourself, at least. I do like ten or twelve times, over the course of three days before the event. As you're doing the event, check off the questions as you go, so you don't start to ask a question you've already asked a second time.
I find that asking funny questions isn't a great idea, because they always feel canned when I do them. Being funny when you have a good one-liner based on something the authors said is fine, but don't try to out-clever the writers. Be funny sparingly. Again, nobody's there to see you.
Your job is to make the writers look smart and charming. I always try to ask all the basic questions as creatively as possible: Where do you get your inspiration? How did you get your start? What are you working on now? And if one writer is dominating the panel, I try to ask the quieter panel members a specific question, just to try to get them out of their shell.
The audience Q&A usually makes the moderator feel like a third wheel on a bicycle, so try to be the one who calls on audience members to ask their questions. If someone in the audience asks a meandering non-question, try to make a question out of what they said for them. If the author says something interesting in response to an audience question, feel free to ask a followup. Have some extra questions in your back pocket just in case nobody in the audience is willing to ask anything.
When it comes time for audience Q&A, I always try to call on a woman first. Studies show that if the first audience question comes from a woman, other women are many times more likely to ask a question during the Q&A period than if a man asks the first question. The reverse is not true: men will still ask questions with the same frequency if a woman goes first. This is even true if an audience is overwhelmingly female: if a man asks the first question in a largely female audience, women are still more likely to not ask questions. So if a woman has her hand up at the beginning of the Q&A, I always try to call on them to make the Q&A more inclusive.
At the end, thank the audience again, thank the authors, and thank the hosts.
That's it! You'll be great! And you'll be even better the next time you host. Eventually, authors might specifically request you to host events, which is a pretty special sense of validation. A really good moderator is a rare thing, and authors love it when someone shows up prepared to do a professional job. If you want to impress your favorite authors, being a competent moderator is probably the easiest way to do that.
After recently sharing the LEMS GoFundMe page on Facebook, someone asked me why invest in a business that is failing? Because LEMS is more than a business. Because LEMS isn’t just business as usual. Because this is about community, culture and thriving local Black businesses in Seattle. Because if this were a community center or a park in the traditional sense, we would rally together to save it. Because this is a center for Black community in Seattle.
Just a reminder to plan ahead: Seattle Independent Bookstore Day is Saturday, April 27th this year. Start saving your money and planning your route. Free Comic Book Day is one week later, on Saturday, May 4th.
Editor Arthur A. Levine, who is credited as the editor who shepherded Harry Potter to American audiences, has left his position at Scholastic and is launching his own independent publisher. This is great news for the publishing industry: we need more presses that are commercially viable but not a part of the Big Three or Four or Five or However Many There Are This Week.
In February, the Seattle Review of Books published four poems by our February Poet in Residence, Abi Pollokoff:
These poems challenged me; reading them was like walking into an ocean. I felt subsumed in the language, slightly overwhelmed by the sensation of them. They left me breathless and speechless. I always loved the poems, but it was only by staying inside them for a while, for suspending myself in them, that I started to understand them.
I confess on the phone to Pollokoff that the idea of talking about her poems with her intimidated the hell out of me. Pollokoff writes impressionistic poems that begins with a single image or idea, and the language cascades from there. To me, they're like mountain ranges, or sunsets: beautiful formations that I don't have the vocabulary to properly describe or discuss.
Pollokoff says her writing process is not unlike my explanation of reading her poems. It starts with a sensation and grows more specific over time: "I think to a certain extent, the poem already exists in some form. And as I start working on it, it starts to reveal itself more and more."
"In that sense," Pollokoff says, "I feel like I'm more vessel than writer. I love what language can do. Something I'm drawn to often in poetry is soundplay, and music, and how words can play off of each other to create different kinds of rhythms and experiences that you wouldn't expect."
Her poems reach beyond "the semantic meanings" of the words, to something more aspirational. "Every poem can be a new discovery about what language can bring to the experience," she says. When she talks about writing, Pollokoff uses the language of exploration, of experimentation.
She starts with fragments. "I'm a note-taker," Pollokoff says. "I hear fits of words and I write them down." She then free writes longhand — "sitting down and just writing without stopping and seeing where that goes" — to build "a bit of a language bank." From those words, Pollokoff says, "I start shaping, building, seeing what the page will do." When it feels more like a poem to her, she'll type it out onto a computer and continue editing.
Every poem launches off into different directions. "The Sea Thinks Beyond Itself," for instance, started as a response to Brian Teare's transcendentalist mediation on nature, Companion Grasses. "I had done some free writing after having spent time in this book and I had been thinking about a moment that I had seen over at Golden Gardens." The combination of her own experiences in the book and on the beach in Ballard offered shape and direction to the poem.
So Pollokoff has written poems about Seattle. Does she think of herself as a Seattle poet? "I don't know if I would consider myself a Seattle poet, but I certainly hope to be a Seattle poet," she says. Pollokoff manages the bustling events calendar at Open Books, and her list of Seattle influences is huge: in one breath, she invokes Keetje Kuipers, Jane Wong, and Gabrielle Bates. A dozen more names tumble out after. She's lived in Seattle for five years now and says the city is "starting more and more to feel like home."
Pollokoff is hard at work on a collection of "feminist ecopoetics," in which "I'm setting off to explore how language and nature interact with the body — specifically the female body — and how that experience can exist and unravel." Like how she sculpts her poems from large masses of words, the book seems to be coming together out of a riot of poems. "It's finally coalescing into one project, and into one final shape," she says. She sounds confident — and why wouldn't she? Her faith in the work has guided her unerringly so far.
Oh, hey! Did you know that some jackasses are still making embarrassing mid-2000s arguments in favor of book piracy? Travis McCrea is a throwback to the libertarian age when the cliche that "information wants to be free" was wrongly interpreted as "basically shoplift whatever you want because piracy hurts no one." For God's sake, people: if you don't want to or can't pay for books, use a goddamn library. There is no excuse for this kind of theft.
The thing about drowning, it would be peaceful,
though I’d mess it up with panic, the will to see
one more monarch feeding on a milkweed pod.
Even if balmy, as awful as throwing oneself
from a moving van, a condo window.
Tidal beds are definitely not for lovers —
too much dousing, too much desiccation.
Much better to be a barnacle in the brine,
a harbor seal holding your shoes, the divine
a dozen blue dashers circling your head.
Whether standing on the steps
of the Heart Prairie Lutheran Church
or the banks of Pleasant Lake,
whether one’s ticker does or doesn’t
murmur beside a moraine, Death
drives up in his Mini Cooper, sure
as you’ll find the silver-bordered fritillary
all across the transboreal north, nectaring
on swamp verbena and rabbit brush.
Our thanks to Northwest Associated Arts for returning this week to sponsor us. Coming up in April, NWAA is presenting another event that's sure to fill seats (hint, hint: get your tickets fast): Anne Lamott is taking the stage again at Benaroya Hall on April 7, 2019.
Maybe best known for her writing guide, Bird by Bird, Lamott's novels and essays are equally beloved and appear regularly on bestseller lists (and in the hands of readers and writers all over Seattle). She returns to Benaroya Hall following last year’s sold-out appearance with an entirely new talk.
Lamott tackles the big subjects with grace, humor, and honesty. Her latest, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope was titled Doomed before her publisher protested. If that sort of wry but stubborn optimism is your style — and if you're living in Seattle, we bet it is — this event is a must-attend for you. Find out more on our sponsor feature page, then reserve your seat.
Raygun Lounge, 501 E Pine St, 812-2521, http://www.gammaraygamestore.com/, 7:30 pm, free.
Starting on Thursday, downtown Seattle will be packed full of cosplayers, comics fans, and professionals for the annual nerdy bloodlust that is Emerald City Comicon. The convention, which is one of the earliest major cons in the calendar year, has a reputation for being genial and laid back and warm — it's the convention where the nerd industry comes out of winter hibernation and rejoins the world.
There's plenty to see at the main convention — full disclosure: I'm appearing on the Ahoy Comics Second Wave panel at 12:30 pm Thursday to talk about my upcoming book, Planet of the Nerds — but you don't even need a con pass to enjoy some of the festivities.
Capitol Hill's only comics shop, Phoenix Comics, has become a major headquarters for ECCC afterparties, and this year is no different. As part of their schedule of signings and parties all weekend long, on Saturday night Phoenix Comics is hosting a party to celebrate the popular comics podcast Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, which examines the incredibly convoluted history of the Marvel team of mutants.
But Phoenix Comics is only a pit stop this year for the real ECCC afterparty hot ticket: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie will be hosting a big ol' dance party at Fred Wildlife Refuge to celebrate their music-and-mythology pastiche comic The Wicked + The Divine.
WicDev, as it's commonly known, is nearing the end of its run, and the book — which imagines pop stars as an eternally rebooting pantheon of gods who Ragnarok themselves into oblivion every few decades — has one of the most passionate fan base in comics.
Running from 8 pm to 1 in the morning, this will serve as a nightcap for the convention crowd after the con's busiest day. Expect this to be a sweaty, teary, giddy celebration of one of the glitziest fandoms in all of comics — and maybe a little bit of a farewell party, too. Who says comics nerds don't know how to dance?
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
This wonderful essay by Daegan Miller ranges from ecology to personal experience to typography, pulling from between the layers a rumination on the core concepts of environmental action and what they imply for the future.
Environmentally speaking, we tend to stick in one of two places. Fuzzy mysticism, hard-nosed harm reduction — both based on the idea of the connected world, where Elon Musk stirs his delicate wings and on the other side of the globe a hurricane takes down Jeff Bezos’s house.
Miller reminds us of a third, neglected option: an environmentalism that sees the wild world as irrevocably strange and utterly necessary, and where our lesson is not how to control or even steward, but something else entirely.
"In nature nothing exists alone,” wrote [Rachel] Carson. Though she never used the word, coexistence—not connection — is the idea around which her thinking begins to coalesce. It anticipates the work of eco-critic Timothy Morton, who has spent the last ten years (so far) spinning an ecological theory of _coexistence_, and who, like Carson, suggests that existing together isn’t the same thing as being connected. Instead, as he writes in _Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence_ (2016), it is premised on unbridgeable, untranslatable, unknowable difference — “strangeness,” he calls it — between humans and the world.
First up, a note: this piece is about pornography, and there is some description of what the author sees both on film and in person as part of research. The descriptions are not long, but they are blunt, so if you’re uncomfortable with that, skip down. Otherwise, onward!
Yes, the question of whether the “right kind” of pornography can be feminist has been so thoroughly chewed that it’s barely even mush between our cultural critics' teeth. This is still an interesting take, partly because of the sheer breadth of Andrea Stuart’s exploration of feminist pornography and partly because the focus is less on right or wrong and more on female pleasure and power, and how and when and whether porn can abet both.
B’s experience fascinated me. It illustrated that it was not that she had been filmed having sex which was the issue – indeed for her that was liberating. It was that she didn’t rely on the porn business for her bread and butter, that she was already a financially independent, professional woman who could chose to do this or not. She could remain largely anonymous, and thus avoid the taint (however unfair) associated with sex work. It illustrated, in other words, that a woman can only be sexually free if she is also in control of the means of production.
It made me wonder whether, in these, the best of circumstances, whether it is more rewarding to be the performer than the voyeur; doing, living and touching, rather than merely passively watching. In an age where more and more of us conflate doing with watching, it is important to remember that porn is not sex; it is merely its fleshless representation.
Ashley Taylor on internal and external narratives around ability and disability. A writer with a difficult but mostly manageable neurological condition, she was surprised to be identified as “disabled” by editors and peers. A careful examination of what it means to claim the term “disabled,” personally, professionally, and bureaucratically.
I do, however, still feel trepidation about what I think of as “coming out” as disabled. I fear that disabled people might see me as trying to exploit a marginalized identity; I fear that drawing attention to my weaknesses might make me the target of ableist discrimination.
At the same time, the more I’ve explored my medical issues, in part by writing about them, the more grounded I feel in reality; no longer do the difficult parts of my life feel disconnected from the narrative I tell. No longer do I have a secret that distances me from others.
Courtesy of the marvelous Mark Athitakis, a rewarding takedown by Namwali Serpell of the “books make you a better person” trope. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for anything that deflates Knausgaard by even a few puffs of hot air — but personal pettiness aside, this is very good. Empathy plays a solid role in human behavior, but mostly as a cognitive function, not an emotional one — not the fluffed-up stuff we usually mean when we say books will broaden our world. That old-school way of thinking about empathy — and how stories can inspire it – is pandering, marginalizing, and destructive, says Serpell.
Also, such a lovely takedown of Knausgaard.
Knausgaard captures how our concept of empathy has shifted. This isn’t just putting another person’s shoes on. Rather, the space between people “dissolves”; the reader “assimilates” the other into his or her mind. It’s a kind of ghostly possession or occupation. Knausgaard goes on to give an example of how to access an individual’s experience rather than lazily adopting a generalized, standard account of them. “If we allowed that remoteness to dissolve, what we would see would no longer be the very image of evil, but a boy growing up in Austria with a violent, authoritarian father and a mother whom he loved. We would see a sixteen-year-old so shy he hadn’t the courage to speak to a girl with whom he was in love…” And so, boringly, on. The individual in question turns out to be none other than Adolf Hitler. Knausgaard’s perversity here — using a Nazi to exhort us to humanize others — isn’t that surprising. After all, he named his multi-volume autobiographical opus My Struggle. Many readers feel that its last book is at its worst when he eschews empathizing with his ex-wife, clearly under severe mental duress, because he’s too busy writing about … Hitler.
Coming full circle, Kerri ní Dochartaigh on finding hope, in the midst of violence, in the inhuman world. A lovely, lovely piece and the right place to end your reading and begin your exploration of the day.
I hope you never find yourself in a situation where you need to protect any child from witnessing bloodshed on the very streets they have no choice but to live on. But if you ever should, I urge you this: find books about wild creatures for them, find them a microscope, a magnifying glass — anything at all that makes the unknown make sense. It doesn’t matter how broken the surroundings may be, how bombed out; no matter how terrifying every single bit of it all may be. Just find them a way to sit in muck, as creepy crawlies do their do, as bees buzz through holes in concrete walls, as spiders build webs on empty coal bunkers under a sky that — no matter how grey and uncertain – holds room for butterflies, moths, dragonflies and unnameable things; things like whispered hope.
Samantha Allen is the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, and Love & Estrogen. Come see Samantha on Tuesday, March 12 at the Central Library at 7pm. More details on the Seattle Public Library website.
What are you reading now?
Lately, I’ve been chain-reading books that tell natural history through the lens of a specific animal, beginning with Todd McLeish’s delightful Return of the Sea Otter and Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf. I just started Ben Goldfarb’s delightfully-titled book Eager a few days ago, and it’s already teaching me that my notion of streams and rivers as narrow, rushing currents is based on having been born into a (relatively) post-beaver world. I really enjoy the process of picking an animal to which I have some sort of aesthetic attachment — I mean, have you ever seen a sea otter groom its face? — and learning how integral they’ve been to both their ecosystem and to human history. Plus, these give me plenty of tidbits to annoyingly spout at dinner parties, like the fact that sea otters have ten times more hair in a square inch than humans have on their heads. I’ll never get sick of that one, even though my friends almost certainly will.
What did you read last?
I have long been a fan of Iliza Shlesinger, a wonderful performer who sucks you into her routine with goofy voices and physical comedy before sucker-punching you with really sharp social insights. She’s naturally funny, of course, but you can also see how much care she puts into each special. She put that same extra oomph into her book. It would have been easy for Shlesinger to just cash in with a simple celebrity tell-all about life on the road and winning Last Comic Standing but she did something more interesting with Girl Logic, which was a sort of ambitious blend of memoir and social criticism — honestly, something similar to what I attempted to do in Real Queer America. As a transgender woman in my thirties who’s already married to another woman, not all of Girl Logic’s wisdom about relationships and dating was directly applicable to my life — though sections on body image and self-confidence certainly were — but I so admired the craft that went into it. (And, yes, it’s funny, too.)
What are you reading next?
Look, one day I’ll run out of books about specific animals but today is not that day.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
So I tried to read a Jordan Peterson book. It was dumb — a mix of evolutionary science, cognitive behavioral therapy, and bad Bible interpretation. It was clearly intended to attract rootless young men in their moments of need, with suspicious frequent references to the undying pain of being betrayed by a lover. Peterson almost immediately lost me when he referred to men as agents of order and women as agents of chaos.
My question is, should I bother reading the rest? I like to be informed about people who are affecting the culture, and some people think he demonstrates something uniquely toxic about this moment. But I think Peterson is just a gross fad, like The Game or the Jersey Shore. I didn't bother to learn about those two things when they were popular, either, and I turned out okay. Should I forge on to fully know the beast I'm facing, or can I give myself a pass?
Dana, Madison Valley
Do not waste the precious time you have on this dying planet reading Peterson. His work is silly. The men who read it are the type of men who ask questions like "what gives you an intellectual erection?" to their cringing Tinder dates and, once rejected, spend whole weekends furiously ironing their pant collections and brainstorming words that rhyme with "white bitch."
From one agent of chaos to another, I suggest you offer to buy a relative, friend, coworker or online stranger/Tinder date who's a fan of Peterson a bottle of cold white wine if they'll spend an hour telling you all about 12 Rules for Life. Then, while they're talking, jovially interrupt and push back on the parts that are bullshit – make his fans defend his lazy thinking. It's how I got through college without reading a single Ayn Rand book while at the same time enjoying my first pregnancy scare.
G. Willow Wilson appears Friday to read from her new book The Bird King at the Elliott Bay Book Company. See our Event of the Week column for more details.
Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
“She wasn’t the kind of woman who…”
And just like that, my shoulders are up around my ears.
They tell you romance is easy to write because the ending is a given, when in fact the opposite is closer to the truth: romance is difficult to write well because every reader’s standards for being persuaded to believe in the happy ending are unique and painfully particular. I’m not just talking about the big tropes: your marriages of convenience, your enemies to lovers, your small town prodigals come home to make good.
No, I’m talking about those tiny little echoes on the level of the sentence. Ordinary statements that would never stand out until you’ve read them in hundreds of different romances. The secret tropes.
They can make or break your romance in under twenty words.
I have taken to calling these phrases caltrops, and I perversely enjoy collecting them. Because I enjoy tracing patterns, even when the patterns themselves aren’t necessarily pleasing.
And now I get to enjoy ruining them for you, too.
A partial list of romance caltrops:
The Kind of Man/Woman Who: Generally followed by something that can range from mildly stereotypical to outright bigoted or transphobic. But anything that comes after this is going to be irritating, especially when it’s summing up women, because long experience in a sexist world has taught me that dividing women into kinds implies that one kind is going to be Good and the other kind Bad. Kinds of women = someone is looking for an excuse to do something shitty. “Well, I would never call a Good Woman a bitch—but my ex-girlfriend is a Bad Woman, so let’s point out her physical shortcomings in the most vicious way possible and expect the reader to cheer me on because breast implants, as though that is at all a logical chain of reasoning.”
Any Man/Woman Would: The character is about to declare something Inherently Masculine or Inherently Feminine! Usually without this opinion being sufficiently interrogated by the text! These are Rules we are supposed to Accept, for Reasons, and it chafes even in throwaway lines. “Any woman would find the Duke of Burlypants desirable.” Really? Even the queer ones? Or the happily married ones? Or even just the ones who would much rather flirt with lanky Viscount Sardonic over there on the other side of the ballroom? People have different tastes in people. This caltrop places shared gender identity in place of proper character development: I don’t care what Every Other Woman wants—show me what this woman finds irresistible. That’s what I’m here for.
Getting it Out of Their System: Truth be told, I love this one. One or both characters decide to give in to the attraction, thinking that once they’ve scratched the itch it will go away and no longer trouble them. It never works. Never once in all my years of romance has a one-time thing gotten someone out of someone else’s system. Basically, if you are in a romance novel and you think about getting someone out of your system? Ta-da, you’re married now! Enjoy this entire bouquet of babies.
For Their Own Good: At some delicate decision moment in the plot, one character will decide to keep an important secret from another “for their own good,” and I start to grumble and snipe at everything they do next. A lot of readers really dig that kind of secrecy and internalized angst, and more power to them; me, I anticipate the unknowing character feeling hurt and betrayed and it’s a rare book that can make that experience pleasureable for me. Variations include: “it probably won’t come up again,” “it’s too late to say anything now and bringing it up would be awkward,” and the lazy writing of “the other character has now stormed off under a misapprehension so I guess I can’t tell them.” Especially irritating when a hero does it, because I worry they’ll be too easily forgiven for the lapse.
The No-Other-Woman Bed: I’ve talked about this on my own blog before, but it’s worth revisiting because if there’s one phrase I’d most like to ruin, for no good social justice reason, it’s this one. Our hero (it’s always a hero) has finally opened his luxurious bedroom to the heroine (it’s usually a heroine, though it’s entirely possible I’m just not widely enough read in m/m to have seen this caltrop come up there). And there, drawing the eye like a magnet, is the Bed—a bed which no other woman, the hero’s POV tells us, has been permitted to sleep or fuck in. Let’s face it: this is a way of letting the hero metaphorically give his virginity to the heroine, without sacrificing the fantasy of his sexual prowess. He’s super-good at sex—but he’s never had sex right here in this limited slice of geography! That means the heroine is by definition special, because she’s the first! Weirdly, this faux-virginity-taking still leaves the hero in a position of power. It’s a favor, don’t you see? Spare me.
This month’s romances all feature characters dealing with disappointment: thwarted expectations, past hurts, failures, and betrayals. Not everything in the past is necessarily fixable in the present. Sometimes we have to be content with acknowledging the pattern. Sometimes that’s the only way forward.
Appetites and Vices by Felicia Grossman (Carina Press: historical m/f):
Most American historicals I’ve read cluster either around the Civil War or the settlement of the West—but there’s no better way to break that streak than with this strange, fine novel about a gorgeous, fat Jewish heiress and the charming, traumatized opium addict she gets fake-engaged to.
When we meet Ursula Nunes, she is in an upstairs hallway on the verge of tears because her best friend Hugo is explaining that his family refuses to let them wed. Ursula is not in love with Hugo, but they’ve been friends forever and they both saw marriage to one another as an escape from marrying anyone else (Delaware society being unusually full of overbearing fathers and poisonous debutantes). Hugo returns to the party—and Ursula is approached by Jay Truitt, an upper-class son generally considered to be a feckless womanizer, and who, of course, heard everything. He offers to pretend to be Ursula’s fiancé to spur Hugo’s family to change their mind (the Truitts being almost too upper class for the upper classes)—she can then break it off with Jay, who will use being quote-unquote heartbroken as an excuse to run far away and avoid his terrifyingly disappointed father.
Let’s be clear: this is a dumb, dumb plan, and I adore it. Fake engagements are one of those unrealistic romance tropes that I simply eat up—and this one does more than the usual amount of heavy lifting. As our fake couple socializes, they also start to notice one another’s better qualities: Ursula is clever and steely as well as sensitive, and Jay’s charm hides a profound gift for reading people, and a strong moral sense thrown perilously off by personal tragedy and addiction. (Which is, I should add, presented as a terrifying disease and not a quirk standing in for emotional depth. I was very, very worried for Jay in this book.) This is one of those lovely, lonely stories where the characters think so highly of each other, and so lowly of themselves; the contrast is an exquisite ache. The voice is a little eccentric, like classic Judith Ivory, all glints and refractions and implications. And if, at the end, it is a little too generous with the redemption (some of the side characters needed a little more shouting at, in this reviewer’s humble opinion), this is the most forgiveable kind of flaw. Ursula’s arc in particular more than makes up for it: she goes from a trembling, sobbing mess to a give-no-fucks fox without ever losing her sense of herself, and it’s bliss to watch.
She emitted a loud, sniffing, sigh. “Since we have no intention of being lovers then I don’t see what the quandary is. You’re not attracted to me and I’m not attracted to you, but I suppose there is propriety. I shall change.” He closed his eyes, his body throbbing. If she only knew. He listened for the door before relaxing his shoulders. He adjusted the lock. Perhaps he should barricade the door as well.
At His Lady’s Command by Nicola Davidson (self-published: historical f/m):
Remember the super-angsty, Gothic, Wuthering Heights-level firestorm that was The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham?
This story is the mirror universe of that: a careful, caring, sweetly earnest femdom historical with an upper-class heroine, Lady Portia, and a lower-class bodyguard hero, Captain Denham (swoon!). The writing is charming, very sexy and very sincere, and I had no trouble getting through it, but—the memory of the Peckham book is strong and the contrast really makes evident what I found dissatisfying in both stories.
The first book was intensely, unreservedly Gothic. At His Lady’s Command is firmly in melodrama territory: we have sniveling relatives, neglectful fathers, sinister dukes, an heiress in peril, a loyal ex-soldier, secret aristocratic lineages, and orphanages on the brink of being closed by cruel peers. Mustaches are twirled and lovers on the brink of disaster wrap one another in desperate embraces. It’s very charming, but—I cannot believe I am about to write this—I would have liked a few more very explicit sex scenes, or a few more plot twists, or a little of both. As with The Duke I Tempted, I was left mostly but not entirely pleased: the former was too angsty, and this one not angsty enough. I feel like a femdom Goldilocks, going from book to book and finding each one lacking in some trivial way.
But my biggest critique is that Lady Portia, a lady of mature years and strong opinions, an absolute hellion, a domme, and the founder of the Surrey Sexual Freedom Society (not nearly as anachronistic as many readers might assume)…never really takes action outside of the bedroom. The character as described is a terror to men of any station—and yet a mere proclamation from her crappy brother is enough to get her playing the docile bride-to-be and entertaining a host of horrible suitors. Even though she is old enough he can’t legally compel her marriage, even though she has wealthy and titled friends who would happily (and luxuriously) take her, she grits her teeth and goes along because…something about that orphanage? But again, wealthy friends and powerful peers are right there, offering you help and love and loyalty.
What exactly is keeping her a prisoner, except the shape of the plot?
“Oh, how awful, my brother has sold my house and demands I be chaperoned and wear pink and dance with his fortune-hunting cronies, it’s torture!” It sure is, but you could just … not do it? He can’t physically force you to dance, he can’t stuff you into the light pink gown, he can’t tie you to the chair while the maids put your hair in fussy curls. Or I mean, he could, but that would be a different story altogether. All Portia really has to do is grab a spare carriage and make for Scotland with her dishy, muscular, growly, eager-to-please silver fox bodyguard—seriously, Denham is what is colloquially known as *a snack*—et voilà, no more money or marriage problems! Instead, she laments her predicament and gets locked in a bedroom to be rescued. It all ends very happily, but I can’t help but wish she’d been permitted to help make that ending possible.
But men like him, ex-soldiers of dubious birth and no fortune were lucky to even be in the presence of women like Lady Portia. They didn’t dare wish for anything more. Not love. Not affection. Not marriage. Certainly not to be the man she commanded in the bedchamber as well as out of it.
Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles (self-published: historical m/m):
Look, I know you all know how much I love a KJ Charles book by now, and I am staunchly resisting the urge to glom the backlist and tell you all at length how good they all are—but I am only human, and this is a queer Edwardian romance where an impoverished duke’s son and illustrator, Alec, attempts to get revenge on his cruelly neglectful father by hiring a pair of jewel thieves to rob the duchess’ diamonds. And then he makes the terrible but completely understandable mistake of fucking one of the jewel thieves.
It’s perfect. Absolutely, painfully perfect.
Thief Jerry Crozier is sadistic in all the best ways: an amoral, frank-speaking, wily sort of villain. I couldn’t have loved him more. He seduces Alec for the purposes of better controlling him in the chaos of the job to come—but he’s such a thoughtful top and Alec such a willing plaything that it’s no wonder before they’re both in way over their heads, emotionally speaking. The sparkly heist qualities of this book hide some sharp, painful edges, and Charles’ brutally gorgeous prose offers up gem after gem after gem to make the reader laugh and gasp and weep and swoon. Reading this book feels like getting away with something. To describe the precise turns of the plot is to risk spoiling the whole thing—you want the diamond itself, un-smudged by my greedy fingerprints. Suffice to say that this book seized me, seduced me, and left me feeling delightfully Noel Cowardish, languid and leisurely, and wishing I had a red silk smoking-jacket and a glass of aged port to hand.
”If you were hoping I’m secretly funding an orphanage or some such, I’m sorry to disappoint: I steal because it pays. Granted, I only steal from people who can afford to be robbed, but that’s not a moral principle. It’s just that poor people don’t have jewels.”
Crashing Into Her by Mia Sosa (Avon Impulse: contemporary m/f):
The road to true love never did run smooth—and it’s less smooth still when it’s being run by two snarky, skittish types who are desperately trying to do anything but fall for one another.
Eva is a fitness instructor new to LA, who is worried that the fitness classes she teaches aren’t quite enough anymore. Anthony is her best friend’s cousin, a devastatingly handsome stunt performer who teaches workshops for those looking to break into the industry. They hooked up at the cousin’s wedding three months ago, but neither is looking for a relationship and both have declared themselves almost allergic to dating. Really, can’t even say the word. Relationships are a terrible idea, people get hurt—just look at our parents!—and who has the time anyways, so what if we were just friends, you know, friends who go to food festivals and reggaeton concerts and drive-in movies together—friends who get jealous when one friend talks to an attractive person at a bar—friends who then storm out and argue and then pull one another into the truck by the belt loop and reach for the condom and oh no, where are all of these orgasms coming from?
Mia Sosa is one of those authors who does cocky-but-in-that-fun-way banter right (see also: Jamie Wesley, Shelly Laurenston), and there’s just the right amount of snap in the dialogue here to bring out the soft and tender parts once emotions come into play. There’s also a ton of laughter and banter in the sex scenes, which is always something I like to see—sex scenes are so much more fun when the people having them are having fun! In addition we have some top-notch competence porn (stunt training is hardcore), appetizing food descriptions, and zingy epigrams at the start of each chapter. It’s not quite a perfect book—it felt like solutions at the end came a trifle too quickly and easily—but it’s a solid wrap-up to what has been a very pleasing series.
Heat suffuses my face and the pounding at my temples resumes as I line up for the tackle. There’s so much I could say, but I go with an essential truth, a maxim every self-respecting person knows. “Anthony, sweetie, no dick’s that special.”
Act Like It by Lucy Parker (Carina Press: contemporary m/f):
Almost every night, between nine and ten past, Lainie Graham passionately kissed her ex-boyfriend.
And there it is, one of the all-time greatest first lines in romance history. I am a sucker for first lines. It was the first line of Julia Quinn’s To Catch an Heiress in college that got me into romance seriously, back in my college years—to the point where my boyfriend at the time noticed, and found an episode of This American Life where they sent a reporter to the national conference of the Romance Writers of America. We listened to that segment on Valentine’s Day, and for the first time in all my years of paid and unpaid work I sat up and went: That is what I should be doing; that is where I want to be.
First lines will change your life.
This book is as superb as everyone says. Lainie is a legendary heroine: sharp, wry, and an honest-to-God diva, unapologetic about her temper and her tendency to throw small objects at people who have displeased her. She’s nice, and good, but not too nice to enjoy a good equal-opportunity shit-talking with her fake doing-it-for-the-publicity boyfriend. Hero Richard Troy is one of the greatest and most enjoyable assholes ever to grace a romance page: he’s blunt, he’s witty, he’s rude—but he’s rarely wrong. When he is, Lainie is swift to correct him in sharp terms he quickly comes to appreciate. Their chemistry is hilariously nonexistent at first—they gloriously, sincerely dislike one another—but one spark is all it takes for things to go up in proper flames. A cast of great side characters and wonderfully awful villains rounds things out: the cheating heartthrob ex, the heroine’s boisterous family, the conniving publicist, the envious television interviewer. I am beyond thrilled there are a whole series of these books for me to read next.
As a teenager, he’d been covered with acne, angry at life, and stuck at an all-boys boarding school. He was no stranger to sexual frustration. It was more than that. He was… God, he was bonding with her. Feelings—warm, strong, nauseating feelings—were springing up all over the place, unfurling in his chest, his gut, his groin. Sinking in deep with their little hooks.
Eric Powell's The Goon is one of those rare commercially successful comics that also feels deeply personal. Yes, it's an adventure comic about a mountain of a tough guy who lives in a pit of a city that's constantly under assault from some supernatural menace or another. But it's also a book that feels entirely assembled from Powell's interests — 1940s noir movies, the weirdness of animals, expectations of masculinity — on a bone-deep level. Nobody else could make The Goon.
And did I mention that the book is hilarious? The Goon is full of some great jokes — bawdy humor, physical comedy, reveling in the silliness of phrases like "seafaring trousers" — and very few cartoonists are as good at bouncing back and forth between humor and adventure as quickly and as effortlessly as Powell.
A few years ago, The Goon took a turn for the serious. The storyline edged into darker territory, investigating a romance in the title character's past and the toll that his lifestyle of zombie-punching has exacted on him. And then the book went away for a while.
This year — the 20th anniversary of The Goon's first publication, if you want to feel old — Powell is bringing The Goon comic back with a new first issue that debuts next Wednesday. The preview copy that I read proves that Powell still has a lot to say with the character.
The gap in the title's publication is addressed immediately, with a caption that reads "Welcome home" and a sequence in which The Goon and his sidekick Franky arrive home from a long journey abroad. They expect to be greeted as heroes, but the town loathes them more than ever. One woman berates The Goon that things in town are "as bad as it ever was! Worse! Because you meatheads weren't here to keep things in check."
The Goon #1 mostly involves a resetting of the status quo, in which our main characters have to find lodging — no thanks to a horrible real estate agent — and take up a fight with someone who's not happy to hear about their homecoming. (The excellent sound effect "Ku-PUNCH!" is involved.)
But comics shelves are festooned with flying punches and supernatural threats. The reason you want to read The Goon is for Powell, and the artistry he brings to the book. The Goon's house-hunting sequence brings with it several gorgeously rendered illustrations of houses that are definitely haunted, sketched in a gorgeous washed-out ink and subtle coloring by Rachael Cohen. These dilapidated shacks and gloomy mansions force the reader to slow down and appreciate the effort that goes into every panel. When you step back from the duck gags and the sex jokes, the handiwork of a great cartoonist becomes visible. Powell, with his Eisneresque ability to blend cartooniness with realism, has always been The Goon's greatest strength.
Last night, the Reading Through It Book Club welcomed its first author, Seattle's own Martha Brockenbrough. Her book, Unpresidented, is a deeply researched biography of Donald Trump for young readers — though readers of any age are guaranteed to learn something. For a little over an hour, Brockenbrough fielded the group's questions — from process inquiries about her research (it involves a large Excel spreadsheet) to more vague questions about how the country can recover from such a thorough destruction of our norms.
Brockenbrough is a funny and generous public speaker who volunteered all her knowledge and freely admitted when she didn't know the answer to a question. But boy, oh boy, she knew a lot. Through hundreds of hours of work, Brockenbrough has managed to separate the necessary from the unnecessary when it comes to Trump-related information. She doesn't fall for the palace intrigue or wild speculation that plagues the waking hours of many of us. Instead, she recognizes the obvious patterns in Trump's life and pays attention to those things. As a result, she's rarely surprised by anything the president does.
This work came with a price. Brockenbrough admitted that after she finished writing and touring Unpresidented, she became very sick and was basically out of commission for a month — an ailment that she attributes directly to spending every waking hour living in Trump's head. She suffered a condensed, heightened version of the low-level stress and anxiety that we all go through every day when we check the internet to make sure that our country still exists.
Many of the questions from the book club were some variation on the theme of "will we be okay?" Can we survive a president who very likely will, as Brockenbrough suspects, question the legitimacy of any presidential election that does not result in a landslide in his favor? While she can't guarantee a happy ending, Brockenbrough seemed to be hopeful. The nation has survived norm-busting before in the past, she said, and if we can restore a faith in our institutions then things will likely improve.
Unpresidented certainly restored my faith in the institution of journalism. The clarity that Brockenbrough delivers in the book is entirely unlike the chaos that I encounter every day on Twitter or in the news. All through the past month, I keep returning to the opening passage of the book, in which Brockenbrough defines and explains the importance of truth.
When we have patterns and supporting documentation like this, we can feel confident we have an accurate understanding of an aspect of a person's character. We can feel confident it is also fair to include in a biography...Sometimes we define fairness as a balance of positive and negative information. It's an understandable impulse
But this is a bit like saying you can create balance by putting ten elephants on one side of the scale and ten babies on the other. Ten and ten are equal, but they are not necessarily equivalent. Fairness demands a writer examine the whole and select representative parts. It demands a writer constantly consider the credibility of sources. It's not easy work...My goal, as always, was to look for patterns, to find verifiable facts, and to put all of this information into context.
It's rare to see a mission statement delivered with such clear-eyed purpose. One thing is for sure: if we do survive this mess, it will be because people like Brockenbrough have devoted themselves in full to the quest for truth — because they believe that the truth has value, that it matters. Without that north star to guide us, we'll surely be lost.
Another reason to prefer independent bookstores over Amazon: I've never had a bookseller encourage me to read hateful conspiracy theories. Ben Collins at NBC News writes:
A book that pushes the conspiracy theory Qanon climbed within the top 75 of all books sold on Amazon in recent days, pushed by Amazon’s algorithmically generated recommendations page.
“QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening,” which has no stated author, ranked at No. 56 at press time, was featured in the algorithmically generated “Hot new releases” section on Amazon’s books landing page. The book claims without evidence a variety of outlandish claims including that prominent Democrats murder and eat children and that the U.S. government created both AIDS and the movie Monsters Inc.
Elon Musk can talk about artificial intelligence as the threat to humanity's future all he wants, but I'm convinced that the real threat is algorithmic suggestion. YouTube and Amazon and Facebook and all the others don't know the difference between good clicks and bad clicks. And since controversial topics get clicks faster than thoughtful contributions, the hateful and terrible crap rises to the top and is further promoted by the algorithm. I'm not the first person to notice this.
I don't know how to repair our broken society, but I do know that the less you leave the decision-making in your life to algorithms, the happier and better-adjusted you will be. Don't let Jeff Bezos tell you which books to buy; he obviously doesn't give one good goddamn what you read, so long as you pay him for the privilege. Don't give him your business.
Tonight at 7 pm, Seattle author Martha Brockenbrough will join the Reading Through It Book Club at Third Place Books Seward Park to discuss her biography of Donald Trump, Unpresidented. Even if you haven't read the book, you'll want to attend. One of the things I loved about talking briefly with Brockenbrough last week was that she just casually drops amazing pieces of information into casual conversation, like how she manages to separate the pointless fluff from the serious information while she's consuming news:
But if you look at it another way, not a lot of stuff has changed with Trump — not since he was a little boy writing poems about winning at baseball and loving the cheers of crowds. I wanted to set up patterns: his father’s business practices, his business practices, his grandfather. I wanted to identify the patterns and see what those told me about Trump and the things that drive him. Once you do that and identify the fact that here’s a guy who’s long been entangled with Russia, here’s a guy who’s long broken the law and cut corners with business — once you establish those patterns, then all the breaking news headlines are frankly more of the same.
This is the kind of stuff you can expect tonight. Come prepared to ask all the questions about Trump's corruption that you've been afraid to ask. And be prepared to laugh: This is going to be a good time. See you at 7 tonight.
Mesha Maren’s debut novel Sugar Run (Algonquin, 2019) has it all — all being to my mind both desire and longing and all the way these modes of yearning tie us to the land, each other, and everything set to get in our way. The novel takes place in 2007 in West Virginia and follows Jodi, recently released from prison after serving a eighteen-year sentence for manslaughter, as she attempts to reconnect with family land and maybe experience love again with another lost woman named Miranda, around whom "Black Velvet" seems to croon on loop. In preparation for Maren’s reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday, March 7, we had a conversation about queer desire, longing, and possibility.
How would you define desire? How would you define longing? What is Jodi and Miranda’s relationship to each?
I heard this thing on the radio yesterday about the physiological reason that we crave sweets when we are feeling stressed out or very emotional. The report was saying that our brains use up over half the calories that our bodies take in each day. When you are feeling really sad or stressed your brain is working harder in certain ways, so it sends signals that it needs fuel fast, and sweet carbohydrates are the quickest fix. Listening to that story made me think about how we as human beings are shaped by desire from the most basic level — craving is built into us.
I see desire as a specific incarnation of longing — like longing is this kind of shapeless shroud of craving, and desire is a sharpened, specific form of that craving, when the general yearning gets pointed towards something, or someone, specific. And I think that certain people, and places, are more bent toward longing than others. Some of us like to reside in that nearly painful, kind of delicious space that is longing.
In the novel, Jodi is thinking about her grandmother Effie’s land in West Virginia and she says “Even when she’d been there, on the farm with Effie alive, Jodi had been bending in her mind towards the memories of before, the time when her parents had lived there too. Maybe, she thought, she’d been like that since birth, filled up with a backwards yearning.” And this comes up in various other places in the book too, this affinity that Jodi has for the past or for something that can never be recaptured. She has a tremendous capacity for empathy, and she’s always looking at not just what is there but what is below the surface or what was once there, and in that looking she taps into a deep and continuous form of longing.
For Miranda, I think her longing and desire manifest in different ways. She is deeply unsettled and overwhelmed by her longings, and unlike Jodi, who gets some sort of pleasure out of sinking into that “backward yearning,” Miranda wants desperately to be more tethered to the present moment. When she recalls her pregnancies, she says “It was only in pregnancy that things got simple again and she was nothing more than a collection of sensations. Cold now, warm later, hungry then full, horny, sated. The pills, if she balanced them out right, did something similar but not the same.” It seems to me that for Miranda, longing is this tsunami that is constantly threatening to wash her away, whereas for Jodi, desire is this sweet-sad song that she likes to turn the volume up on.
No matter where Jodi travels, the land is most alive in West Virginia. Can you talk about how you go about deciding when it is most useful for land to come alive as a character?
I think that all land can come alive — even the most commonplace looking sidewalk in suburban America has a great story to tell but it all depends on relationships, which landscapes sync up with which characters’ internal soundtracks. For Jodi, and for me, the land in West Virginia speaks to that deep and abiding sense of yearning. I really think West Virginia is a place of longing, and I’ve been trying to figure out for a while why that is. Ever since white people set eyes on what is now West Virginia there was this sense of desire, people breaking the British law and crossing the Proclamation Line of 1763 to settle in the mountains, and one early colonizer wrote, “It was a pleasing tho’ dreadful sight to see mountains and hills as if piled one upon another.” I think this quote gets at something that is a part of the longing that is woven into West Virginia, the fact that the mountains are so simultaneously beautiful and impassive. It is not a place that loves you back very easily. You can work hard and scratch out a small life on a piece of land, and then the river rises and in an instant it is all gone. There is always a tenuousness to life in West Virginia, but for some of us that just makes us love it even more, like how sometimes you feel stronger emotions for a person who is hard to love than you do for someone who gives back readily.
This book is full of the queer desire for the natural world: the home we find deep within someone else’s body and the home in caves you can literally climb into as you wait for your eyes to adjust. How do you see queer desire or longing at work in your characters' relationship to each other and West Virginia?
In a review for Bustle, Katie Smith said while Sugar Run is a novel about “queer relationships in the South,” it also “asks readers to consider other types of love — specifically, love of a place and love of oneself, in all their deeply melancholy and complicated forms.” When I read this, I felt the most incredible tingling happiness — that otherworldly sensation of having someone see and understand what you are trying to talk about. I felt like if that was what Smith took from Sugar Run, then I had succeeded, because on a certain level that is what the novel is about to me: all the different types of queer love — the ways in which desire changes you and takes you outside of yourself, the way that it feels if that desire is not reciprocated or if that desire is condemned by the people around you.
Queer desire takes on many forms in Sugar Run. For both Jodi and Miranda, their first “romances” were with the land they grew up on, not with people. For Jodi specifically, the land provided friendship and solace, but it eventually became a sort of trap because it isolated her. I see the whole novel as a journey that Jodi is on to learn to love herself, as cheesy as that sounds, she has to learn to prioritize herself over the mountain land, over these women she loves.
When Jodi denies her relationship with Miranda “the word coming out before she had time to think […] the scent of self-hatred as ripe and familiar as her own shit.” I came out in the South, and I don’t know if I have felt, anywhere else, both the strength of community in the queer South but also all the ways in which claiming this identity is a kind of privilege in itself.
I agree entirely, coming out is a privilege, especially in the South. Jodi is extremely vulnerable and very reliant on her relationships to her family and neighbors and she knows that those relationships might change in irreconcilable ways if she talks openly about her sexual orientation. What Jodi prefers is to just not put words on her relationships — but when you don’t put words on something, it can become invisible. When she was younger, in her relationship with Paula, Jodi thought “If she could push back the words — dyke, queer — then everything would make sense and turn out all right. Sometimes though, the terror of it grips her, the knowledge that she is not seen at all, or seen only backwards and out of focus. It is a feeling she is sure will crush her someday.”
I think Jodi is continually struggling with how to balance the power of words: the dark and violent power of homophobic epithets (“the bitter drawl” of Jodi’s brother’s voice when he says “I heard you turned queer”), the power that words have to include or exclude a person (when she’s in prison, Jodi receives letters from “lesbians everywhere, all of them acting like they knew her just because she and Paula were lovers. Alone in her cell, she’d felt so far from their talk of solidarity, so far outside their supposed community”), and the power that words have to free you from guilt and self-doubt (towards the end of the novel Jodi decides to "own up to it, tell anyone who cared to know that she loved Miranda”).
Outside of her hometown, Jodi mentions her accent is “a strange left over burden, something that only made sense here.” What have been some of the greatest challenges or surprises with traveling this novel around to places and readers that may fetishize or miss the nuances of the characters and locations of this book?
People have preconceived notions about almost everything. but certain places, like West Virginia or Appalachia, seem to heavily attract this kind of thinking. As a whole, I think Americans have gotten a lot better about questioning stereotypes, but the interesting thing is that I think that can sometimes result in an almost equally damaging line of thinking — where people say “I know that poverty, violence, and drugs are stereotypes about West Virginia, so I want to see something else, something not stereotypical.” I’ve had people ask me why some of the characters in my novel act in what they think of as “stereotypical” ways (doing drugs, shooting guns, etc.), and I have to say that it’s not that black and white. In order to write truthfully about the West Virginia that I know and love, I have to write about drugs and guns and poverty and violence as well as queer sex, beautiful mountains, and close-knit communities.
Jodi can’t seem to get away from the threat of incarceration. She has a probation officer who sees her as less than human, which is a continuation to how she was treated in prison, and a wealthy environmental activist who pities her perhaps not unlike how she felt pitied by her counselor while incarcerated. At what point in the writing did you realize Jodi’s relationship to limited choices and options, and how did this inform your narrative?
When I started writing this novel I was just writing the pre-prison sections. This was back in 2010, when I very first started drafting scenes, and they were these short little vignettes with Jodi and Paula. I pretty quickly realized that something was going to happen in Jodi’s life that would forever change it, that would mark it as “before” and “after,” but I wasn’t sure what that was at first. I just knew that something would happen that would keep her away from West Virginia for a long time.
When it occurred to me that the change, that the thing that kept her away, would be prison, I started to research narratives about life after prison. My father worked for a nonprofit that sent him into prisons, and when I was a kid I would go along with him, and I can still remember him talking to women about their fears and desires in regards to “life on the outside.” At some point in my research, I stumbled across an article about a program in Colorado, called the Long-Term Offender Program, that was set up to help people who had been sentenced to twenty-plus years. The article was about “life after ‘life’ ” and how difficult even the smallest things, like ordering food from a menu, can be. When I read that, it broke something open in my brain, like that detail about how overwhelming it can be to order from a menu after not having choices like that for twenty or thirty years. It served as the lens I needed to understand just how colossally difficult it is to navigate life after prison. If something that small is so overwhelming, the big life decisions would be so big that you wouldn’t even really be able to fit your mind around them.
Fracking seems to be the height of the societal conflict, a particularly brilliant move considering the amount of change that a place would undergo in the time that Jodi was away. How do you see societal conflicts as playing a role in your fiction? What has your relationship been to fracking as someone from the area and as someone who translated it into fiction?
One of the interesting things about writing a book about a place that you know and love is that sometimes real life plays out alongside the fiction. When I first started drafting Sugar Run, there was no fracking in my area of West Virginia, and most of the research that I did was about fracking in Pennsylvania. I even wondered if it was realistic to put fracking in southern West Virginia. Then, before the book was published, fracking arrived in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. There is now active construction on a pipeline (the Mountain Valley Pipeline) less than ten miles from my hometown.
Part of the reason that I chose to include fracking in the book is because it is fascinating to me how extractive industries can affect communities. On the one hand, we know that fracking (and coal mining and the timber industry, etc.) is super damaging to the environment. But fracking can also provide high-paying jobs (although often local people do not get those jobs), and it also brings money into the area. The men who have those jobs are making a lot of money and spending it in the local economy. In my hometown there are signs that local residents have put up to protest the pipeline, but the downtown motel also has a huge “Welcome Frackers” sign, and I don’t blame them — all these guys in town spending money is good for their business. Of course, the frackers will leave as soon as the pipeline is built, but for the moment they are spending more money than anyone else. In many ways the pros and cons are short-term versus long-term decisions, and sometimes for areas with such limited options, the short-term pros can gleam very brightly, despite the catastrophic long-term results.
It is really not unlike the short-term versus long-term decisions that Jodi is faced with in her own personal life — do I run with what is right in front of me now or do I hold off and maybe end up empty handed?
Last week, Short Run announced the new recipients of their Trailer Blaze residency, which places women cartoonists in the Sou'wester Lodge and Trailer Park in Seaview for an intensive residency and community art experience. This year's new artists are:
Lori Damiano (Portland), Leela Corman (Gainesville), Graciela Sarabia (Pittsburgh), Amy Camber (Seattle), Ashley Franklin (Austin), Kacy McKinney (Portland), Alejandra Espino (Mexico City)
Are you sad that you missed out on this year's Trailer Blaze? If so, then you should probably apply for Short Run's Dash Grant program, which provides $250, community support, a free table at this year's Short Run Festival, and a spotlight on your work. Don't be sad about the opportunities you missed; plan for the opportunities you still have a chance to grab.
O angel of the wind angel of the inferno
O angel of the vortex
O angel like a dahlia drooping in the heat
O crescent moon the color of copper of cantaloupe
O angel of the smoke that arrives
from Chelan and Wenatchee
from Cashmere and the Okanogan
O the 577 fires of British Columbia
including the one at Tugwell Creek
threatening five million bees
including the 86,000-hectare Shovel Fire
including the words human-caused
O angel of Seattle dirtiest air on the planet
dirtier than Dubai than Agra than Abu Dhabi
O dirty air the scales differ on how dirty
O dirty like a brick factory like a tannery
O dirty angel with your 217 AQI wings
O helicopters and tankers
O ferocious king of the 85 flame-licking legions
O Furcas like a cruel man with a long beard
O Raum like the crow of close your windows
O Procel who speaks of hidden and secret things
such as just how bad is the air today — was it 7 cigarettes
O don’t breathe
O make sure your air conditioner has a filter
O adversarial AC angel
O evil angel guiding children
at the crosswalk in their N95 masks
O nimbus nostalgia
O cobalt and azure
O gust please not from Hamma Hamma
O angel I can’t see downtown
O angel I cannot calculate
O Vassago of the aching throat
O Wormwood blood in the snot
O Solas sneeze and cough
O Dantainian dizzy and out of sorts
O sooty Ronobe searching for children to kill
O Shax O Gaap O Gadreel
O small particulates of which no level is safe
One of the best surprises of 2018 was the first Orcas Island Lit Fest. The event snuck up on us (and many), appearing full-blown and seemingly out of nowhere onto the literary scene. (Don't worry, festival organizers — we know amazing events don't come out of nowhere! We celebrate your work!)
We’re delighted and grateful to have the Lit Fest here to sponsor us this week, and to give our readers an extra push to get tickets now for the second year of the festival, happening April 5–7, 2019. The lineup is extraordinary; featured authors include Nicola Griffith and Teresa Marie Mailhot, and the list of panelists includes both national and local names that make our hearts flutter.
Three days of writing, readings, panels, and conversation, on one of the Puget Sound’s most beautiful islands? Sign yourself up now. We’ll look for you in the crowd!
On Twitter last week, Seattle author G. Willow Wilson said that her upcoming novel The Bird King "is in many ways one of the most personal things I've ever written."
Much of Wilson's work — both overtly, in the case of her memoir Butterfly Mosque, or through allegory, as in her conspiracy thriller comic Air — is about the discovery of and maintenance of faith. Her conversion to Islam was a life-changing event, and in many ways she's been writing about that decision ever since.
The Bird King, which she says is "set [in 1491,] at the end of an era of profound and fruitful hybridity between European and Islamic cultures," represents "a symbiotic relationship that quite literally saved Europe's hellenic heritage from being lost." This symbiotic relationship sounds in some ways like the journey Wilson took to Islam in order to feel fully herself, the fusion of cultures that created something new while preserving some essential part of herself.
This week, Wilson debuts The Bird King for her adopted home town of Seattle a full week before the rest of the world gets it. On Thursday at 1 pm, she's kicking off her month long book tour with an intimate luncheon at Third Place Books Ravenna. And on Friday night at 7, she's officially launching the book into the world with a big reading party at Elliott Bay Book Company.
Whether you know Wilson from Butterfly Mosque or from her work writing comics like Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel or from her excellent novel for young readers, Alif the Unseen, you know that she puts herself in everything that she writes. So you are undoubtedly excited to hear Wilson explain that writing The Bird King "was a cathartic writing experience in this time of frightening upheaval — a reminder that the world has come to an end before, yet humanity persists and remains."
I missed Sophia Shalmiyev’s recent reading at Elliott Bay Books, with immense regret. Her review of Eileen Myles’s Afterglow is one of the most vibrant and energetic pieces I’ve edited in my time as associate editor here, and I was eager to see that energy on stage. Nanci McCloskey’s interview with Shalmiyev shows exactly why: Shalmiyev brings a fiercely feminist perspective and the same ambition to critical writing as she does to creative.
Every time I write I might imagine a feminist thinker or writer I wish to speak to directly and I try to do so without any of the pretenses or idealizations that reduce most women in the arts to tropes and clichés. Like Oh, that’s that experimental novelist; or that’s that writer who had been raped. I hate this. I hate that women must be marketed for their pain or their proximity to power, but not for their actual craft. Jean Rhys comes to mind right away. Ok, it is very relevant that she was an unhappy, broke, alcoholic, now what? Her sentences slaughter. Her themes and topics are sliced lemons on newly cut skin.
The contractors Facebook hires to screen content are emotionally scalded, under extreme performance pressure and threat of retaliation from disgruntled moderators, and beholden to confusing, constantly changing, and often ignorant or misinformed direction from Facebook itself — corporate errors that can cost them their jobs.
Next time you log on to the behemoth popularity contest, reflect on the fact that this excruciatingly thankless work also allows our tech gods to continue stretching the income inequity gap until it breaks. Then take the currency of your attention to another vendor.
The use of contract labor also has a practical benefit for Facebook: it is radically cheaper. The median Facebook employee earns $240,000 annually in salary, bonuses, and stock options. A content moderator working for Cognizant in Arizona, on the other hand, will earn just $28,800 per year. The arrangement helps Facebook maintain a high profit margin. In its most recent quarter, the company earned $6.9 billion in profits, on $16.9 billion in revenue. And while Zuckerberg had warned investors that Facebook’s investment in security would reduce the company’s profitability, profits were up 61 percent over the previous year.
Sara Fredman uses television’s favorite antiheroes to dissect how unlikeable women help us like unlikeable men. Painful but apt, and worth reflection heading into 2020.
Looking back, it’s painful to admit that for many in the electorate, Hillary Clinton was the Skyler to Trump’s Walt, the Betty to his Don. We had already spent years seeing her as the Carmela to Bill’s Tony, implicated in her husband’s misdeeds by dint of staying with him, forever tainted by her own moral compromises that, while they paled in comparison to his, were for some reason less forgivable and rendered her eternally “unlikable.” It made sense, then, that when Clinton took a jab at Trump’s penchant for avoiding paying taxes while explaining her plan to raise taxes on the wealthy during the third debate, Trump interrupted to call her “such a nasty woman.” This one, he seemed to be telling viewers at home, is a Skyler.
Abi Pollokoff is a poet and book artist. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington, and serves as the events manager for Open Books. She was our Poet in Residence for February, during which time we published four of her poems: To live in ignorance is exactly what, The Sea Thinks Beyond Itself, Urban planning when prayers for the body aren’t enough, and if the mirror.
What are you reading now?
What did you read last?
What are you reading next?
I have a few on my list! For poetry, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and I might do some rereading of Pierre Joris’s collection of Paul Celan’s later work, Breathturn into Timestead. My next prose might involve some Hélène Cixous, but I’m not sure what text of hers just yet!
Over on our Instagram page, we’re posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson’s Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here’s her wrap-up and statement from February's posts.
At the end of January my father unluckily topped off a bout of pneumonia by breaking his back. For days, a week, two weeks, the pain was so acute I routinely caught him muffling isolated stoic sobs; the number of times in my life I’d ever witnessed my father crying quickly doubled, maybe tripled. Everyone became desperate to find anything he could still do, utterly immobilized in pain, to pass time faster. My oddball, surprisingly successful idea was asking him to choose my February posts; it turned out to be a confusingly delightful family activity. He enjoys orderly patterns, and felt strongly in his heart his February choices needed to be from past Februaries. After my assurances that really, truly, he could choose however he wanted, he immediately requested the February when his mother died, declaring (kind of gleefully?) “I’M IN A DARK MOOD.” The first two are right after she died. For me, my grandmother was both a fun friend and a fierce bully—progressively supportive when I came out as a teenager, but she never really loved me the same after I cut off my hair. In later years, she got heartbreakingly mean, seemed to think I was out to get her. She was a force, but always idolized and trusted men above women; I’d visibly sidestepped out of a system she’d believed was all-encompassing. So scary and threatening, there next to her but grown up a mystery. It feels wrong to say this, she was a friend too, goofy and playful, always liked monkeys for some reason. This sudden new friend of hers—I don’t remember her name—swore she’d said these words about me the night before she died. I don’t know if it’s true but it’s a sweet thought, a gentle ouch. February 15th I arrived to help clean out her apartment, and surprised myself by telling my dad no, he should take the guest unit, I wanted to stay in Nanny’s room. Slept alone in her bed, braced myself to cuddle into the life she’d just vacated. I use her dishes every day now, feeling a distance, a closeness. In a sweetly protective parent move, the other half of my dad’s dark mood theme was exposing how tough it is to be an artist. The class in question was about writing LGBTQ children’s books; East Anglia is the somewhat obscure part of England I’d been living in before my divorce. Jumping through hoops is most definitely writing yet another funding or fellowship application—noting the time of year, probably at least 3 specific ones—which most definitely resulted in rejection a few months later. Those things are exhausting. Still, I have to say I’m awfully grateful they exist, the handful of times they’ve worked out. Honestly we all need them, and they always work out for someone.
I love that my girlfriend is even more of a book nerd than I am. Whenever I finish reading a trilogy and need something new, she's always there with a new book for me to read.
But the problem is that she's recently started talking to her ex-boyfriend again, and she's been reading books that he's giving to her. It's making me pretty uncomfortable. It feels like they're sharing a secret or something, whenever they talk about books.
I've brought it up to her and she says that I'm being silly and it's just books. But I still feel jealous. I guess I should say she broke up with him because he cheated on her. Am I being silly?
I understand why this new relationship feels a bit threatening and I applaud you for speaking up. I was recently put in the difficult position of telling a good friend that I was uncomfortable with all the attention she was giving her new "baby." I reminded her that there is nothing a "baby" can give her that I can't besides sore nipples but like your gf, my friend did not take me seriously, which is left me no recourse but to steal her "baby's" identity and ruin it financially. Perhaps then my friend will realize that I am the wiser emotional investment.
Stealing your gf's ex-bf's identity may be untenable or simply not worth it, depending on his credit history (baby credit is as pure as the driven snow). If this is the case, I would encourage you to take a deep breath and remind yourself that you can't control your gf or her friendships (and you shouldn't want to). Strong relationships are built on trust and a mutual pact to never get pregnant, so instead of focusing on her, scout around town for new bookworm friends you can make. Join a book club, go to readings, find others who can recommend great reads to you and vice versa.
If this gives you any hope – and it should – I recently met a very nice llama down the street who might be new best friend material. She's quiet and she's been fixed, which are the number 1 and 2 things I look for in a friendship. As a bonus, her body makes sweaters and if we ever get into an argument, I can have her euthanized. Maybe try dating a llama next time?
Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
The Vanishing Man (Minotaur), the second of Charles Finch’s trilogy chronicling the fledgling-career days of London detective Charles Lenox, delivers a doozy of a mystery. The action ranges from the inner sanctums of plusher neighborhoods, to the dingy pubs of the East End and the busy thoroughfare of the Thames River, as Lenox pursues a missing painting, a missing Shakespeare play, and a wealthy duke who has, it seems, the power and reach enough to manipulate circumstances as he likes. This historical crime novel is firmly planted in Queen Victoria’s England, gentlemen’s clubs, rigid social mores, newly published sensation Uncle Tom’s Cabin and all, while gently planting the details that reveal the sturdy, nurturing ground from which Lenox grew to be an independent-thinker, generous friend, and empathetic ally. Tucked cannily in Finch’s fiction are brilliantly compelling moments that acknowledge contemporary sentiments as well – “It was exhausting, this arrogance” – as well as a terrifically heart-heating delineation of a character who writes his dedications at the back of the book he’s gifting because “it would be rude to speak before the author.” Ace.
In the dusty, remote, palpably overheated Australian Outback, Cam, one of three brothers is found dead of exposure. Is it a murder mystery, a moral mystery, or a matter of accidental death? Jane Harper’s third thriller, The Lost Man (Flatiron), limns the truly harsh realities of living in isolated circumstances, here in the very specific and pitiless geography of Western Australia, while also unearthing and exposing the vagaries of dysfunctional family dynamics, recognizable pretty much everywhere. As Cam’s brothers, Nathan and Bub, their mother, and Cam’s widow and daughters grapple with coming to terms with their loss, Harper evokes the complexities of love, hate, rage, emotional baggage, and a spot of redemption with a spare language that suits her story’s geographical surroundings – and her characters’ deeply interwoven and even more deeply imprinted relationships – down to a T.
In The Familiars (Mira), Stacey Halls’ arresting debut, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, 17-years-old, wife of the wealthy Richard Shuttleworth, and mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, has substantive reason to believe that her fourth pregnancy in as many years – the previous ones were unsuccessful – will end in both the child’s death and hers. Hiring an experienced and intriguing midwife, one Alice Gray, makes such an immediate positive difference to Fleetwood’s health, that she’s emboldened to act when she realizes that local men in leadership positions are up to no good. But Alice and Fleetwood are caught in in a murderous, all-too-real tragedy – the notorious Pendle witch trials of 1612 – and thus their involvement is fraught with danger. A mesmerizing historical novel that deftly plumbs a darkly textured tapestry of so-called justice to reveal the real crimes being carried out against society: poverty, hunger, hopelessness, misogyny, and that mother of all-time high crimes, abuse of power.
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox (Crown) finds Manchester detective Aiden Waits barely holding onto his career by his fingernails – some of his colleagues prefer not to work with him after his tangle with illegal substances in 2018’s Sirens. As this riveting sequel opens, he and his partner, DI Peter Sutcliffe – for whom the description "grumpy, irascible, and belligerent" just doesn’t even cover it – are called to a shuttered, for-sale hotel that’s had a bizarre break-in. One bludgeoned security guard and one mysterious corpse later Waits and Sutty are immersed up to their eyeballs in a mystery that just won’t quit. Not one to stint on complexities, Knox brings the gritty streets of Manchester, the unstoppable greed of some, the penchant for violence of others, and an enormous heft of Waits’ seriously embedded emotional baggage and chequered past to bear on this shocking, elegantly-wrought police procedural.
There’s a murderer loose on a gleeful killing spree – the targets appear to be pairs of friends who all receive odd little handmade books with quotes from literary works – and, as the recipient of one such booklet, stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck looks to be a future victim. Kim, however, famously has no friends, so what gives? The Next to Die (William Morrow) by Sophie Hannah is a pleasurably convoluted mystery that even has Hannah’s genius detective Simon Waterhouse stumped – not to mention his myriad colleagues and a serial-killer profiler. Meanwhile, Simon’s wife, Sergeant Charlie Zailer, has her hands full working on the Tribbeck case as well as one a little closer to home: just what are her sister, Liv, and Liv’s supposed former lover – and Si and Charlie’s colleague – Chris Gibbs up to, insisting they’ve broken up but still sneaking around together, meeting other couples for lunch? Hannah, a poet as well as a novelist, infuses this engaging outing with the Culver Valley police department with even more wordplay than usual, giving the ever-acerbic police chief Proust some particularly tasty one-liners.
Fourteen years since he published 2005’s The Power of the Dog, Winslow delivers The Border (William Morrow), rounding out his war-on-drugs trilogy that included 2015’s The Cartel. This crime-thriller’s action – which picks up immediately after Cartel’s left off – is appropriately grim, violent, and fast-paced. We get up close and personal, for example, with second-generation drug lords, kids who were born rich and have learned more about getting high and getting laid than getting into business. But Winslow also immerses us in the lives of young immigrants, of desperate addicts, of undercover cops and federal higher-ups – the full range of people impacted by the greed, manipulations, and arrogance of the white-collar money-men and the gangsters they do business with, representing, as they clearly do, a brutally cruel supply-chain management system. Like other contemporary crime fiction, Winslow’s mighty brick of a novel takes a swing at the horrific corruption trashing our democracy at the moment, and comes out winning.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
History. The news. Shakespeare. Jazz. The writers who came before.
Top five places to write?
A desk in a converted gas station I rent. My mother’s porch. Any train. A tent. A beach parking lot.
Top five favorite authors?
Shakespeare. Jim Harrison. Bruce Springsteen. Raymond Chandler. Elmore Leonard
Top five tunes to write to?
“Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Bruce Springsteen; “Moanin,’” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; Beethoven String Quartet # 14; The Serpico soundtrack; “Everything Happens to Me,” Sonny Stitt.
Top five hometown spots?
The beach near the house I grew up in. This fish and chips place on the harbour. The local library. A taco joint on Main Street. This old road that runs from the house, past a farm, to the beach.
So with Saga on hiatus and G. Willow Wilson's impressive five-year run on Ms. Marvel over, what's the comic that I most look forward to reading every month? I'm enjoying a lot of comics right now, but not many of them inspire the kind of anticipation that great monthly comics do.
Probably the book I'm most consistently enjoying right now is Giant Days — every issue of this college series is funny and clever and full of boundless compassion for the main characters. As the protagonists draw closer to their last day of university, I'm left worrying what will happen to the book — I don't want to say goodbye to these young women, but I also don't want them to overstay their welcome. This is the kind of push-pull relationship that good comics can bring out in their readers.
But the book that I'm most looking forward to these days — the one that I absolutely can't stop myself from devouring as soon as I buy my weekly comics — is Portland author Chelsea Cain's Man-Eaters.
The plot, as described in the advertising copy for the first issue, sounds like a pretty straightforward sci-fi allegory: "A mutation in Toxoplasmosis causes menstruating women to turn into ferocious killer wildcats—easily provoked and extremely dangerous."
There's a lot to examine in that premise, of course — giving an overt terror to society's fear of women's sexuality puts an interesting spin on these #MeToo times. But the tone is what turns Man-Eaters from a good idea into a great comic.
Cain and her artists — Kate Niemczyk, Lia Miternique, and Stella Greenvoss — use the premise to explore a satirically heightened Portland Oregon in a bunch of interesting ways. The graphic design in this book is incredible. In issue 6 alone, there are great visual riffs on Google Maps, dog food ads, Soviet propaganda, the terrors of a random YouTube page, and medical forms.
And as she follows her cast of young women around a world that hates and fears them, Cain is pulling together themes from all over popular culture, including song lyrics from "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," along with a pretty good Portlandia-style joke and a very funny running gag about comic book colorists. It's not a horror story — that would be too easy, and so thoroughly 1990s — because there's nothing scary about female sexuality. Instead, Man-Eaters is funny and empathetic and inquisitive and energetic.
Man-Eaters is consistently the most surprising, experimental, and humane book I read every month, and for that reason, this is the book that I am most eager to read when new comic book day rolls around.
We are raising money for the historic L.E.M.S. (Life Enrichment) Bookstore, the last Black-owned bookstore focused on the African diaspora in the Pacific Northwest! LEMS Bookstore has been around for over 20 years, with all of its time being in Seattle. It has been in its current location for over a decade, serving the Black community and the larger Seattle community with cultural space, books, knowledge, Kwanzaa, and so many more cultural events. All of which we want to continue -- but we need your help.
You have a couple months to apply to be Seattle's next Civic Poet. Don't wait until the last minute, please. You'll thank me later.
The fourth print volume of Moss, the great Pacific Northwest literary magazine, will be published this summer. To celebrate the announcement of the upcoming volume, Moss published a new essay by APRIL Festival founder Tara Atkinson. Here's the first paragraph:
After my father died, I waited for his ghost. I waited for him in the church that held his body and in my uncle’s house in Indiana where we stayed until the funeral was over. One night a powerful thunderstorm woke me, loud and bright. It reminded me of what summer is in the Midwest, and that I don’t live there anymore. When I returned to Seattle, I continued to wait. He did not show up in my dreams. He did not appear in any of my doorways. His face did not reflect up out of the coffee mugs I took from his house.
This week, the Seattle Public Library announced their 2019 Seattle Reads selection. This is the program that makes hundreds of copies of a single selected title available at libraries throughout the city, and which then brings the author to town for a series of readings, conversations, and examinations of the book.
This year's selection is a comic book: The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. SPL's site describes the book as...
...a haunting memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for a simpler past. Thi Bui documents her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves in America. As the child of a country and a war she can’t remember, Bui’s dreamlike artwork brings to life her journey to understanding her own identity in a way that only comics can.
It's obviously a great time for Seattle to get together to discuss the immigrant experience, and what it's like to be an outsider in the USA. It will be interesting to see how the Seattle Reads program interacts with a comic: will the book be more accessible to our city's general population? Will it change the way people respond to the text? Will a conversation with a cartoonist be any different than the novelists who've come to the city in the past?
This is an exciting choice for the Seattle Reads program, and I can't wait to see what happens if all Seattle reads the same comic. Copies of The Best We Could Do will soon be available at a Seattle Public Library branch near you, and Bui will be reading all over Seattle later this spring. Check back here for more information as it's available.
Next Wednesday, the Reading Through It Book Club will meet at Third Place Books Seward Park at 7 pm to discuss *Unpresidented*, a meticulously researched biography of Donald Trump intended for young readers. For the first time in our book club's history, we'll be joined by the book's author — Seattle's own [Martha Brockenbrough](http://martha-brockenbrough.squarespace.com/). I talked on the phone with Brockenbrough yesterday about what to expect at the book club, what it's been like to hand over so much headspace to such a terrible person, and why it's important to not tune out the news, no matter how tempting that may be.
Thank you for agreeing to come to our book club next week! We're really excited to have you — you'll be the first author to attend one of our meetings. Unfortunately, I'm not sure you'll like this first question. In our book club, we all vote on the next book we'll discuss, and the vote for Unpresidented was closer than I thought it would be. One book club attendee actually pointed at Trump's picture on the dust jacket and said, "I don't want to have to look at that man for a month." Which I found to be a pretty remarkable statement for a book club that started in direct response to Donald Trump winning the 2016 election! So I was wondering if you've had a lot of pushback from exhausted liberals who are suffering from Trump fatigue and if you have anything you say to those people?
They're really talking about the feelings of being triggered by this guy. His face is everywhere. His voice is everywhere. His idiosyncratic diction is everywhere.
About the cover — the dust jacket comes off. Seriously, I can totally understand the feeling of being triggered — because I got to a point where it was very difficult for me to listen to audio clips. When someone is not telling you the truth, you feel insulted. Being honest with each other is an absolute basis for our community — you cannot live in a civil society without honesty being the norm — and the fact that he has so violated this particular norm, I think, is one of many reasons that people feel triggered.
But it's important. We have to look, we have to gaze into the abyss. And you know this is where we, especially those of us who enjoy any sort of privilege at all — meaning we don't fear we're going to be deported based on the color of our skin — we have to brave it.
What was it like writing a book about current events? Obviously, unfortunately, the Trump presidency is still ongoing , and so at some point you had to let go of the book and send it out to be printed. How did you decide how to stop writing this book?
So my previous biography was about Alexander Hamilton, and his story has remained relatively stable for a while now. In many respects with Trump, you know, there's always a new headline, there's always a new outrage, there's always a new something that in previous times would have been a headline-dominating scandal for months.
You know how traditional presidential biographies often go through the first hundred days? My editor suggested [covering just] the first hundred days. But I took a look at what had happened, I made this big huge spreadsheet of the timeline and events, and at the end of the first hundred days he had not yet fired James Comey, there was no Mueller investigation, they had not implemented a plan of separating families at the border. So some of the dominant features of the Trump presidency hadn't happened yet.
So I just decided that's not going to happen — I'm going beyond the first hundred days. My second thought is I wanted the book to feel as fresh and current as possible.
So when he, in Helsinki, once again rejected the conclusions of the American intelligence community in favor of his bromance with Vladimir Putin, and when John Brennan and others were saying 'this is treason,' I decided that's a pretty good place to end the book.
But if you look at it another way, not a lot of stuff has changed with Trump — not since he was a little boy writing poems about winning at baseball and loving the cheers of crowds. I wanted to set up patterns: his father's business practices, his business practices, his grandfather. I wanted to identify the patterns and see what those told me about Trump and the things that drive him. Once you do that and identify the fact that here's a guy who's long been entangled with Russia, here's a guy who's long broken the law and cut corners with business — once you establish those patterns, then all the breaking news headlines are frankly more of the same.
And so my job as the writer was to find a representative dramatic and satisfying ending, and I think a whiff of treason says that nicely.
So you might be able to teach us how to separate the meaningful Trump news from the pointless Trump news?
There's been nothing that's come out since my book was published that is surprising or new for me. It's all in there.
There's always the possibility for surprise — I don't have a lot on Saudi Arabia and certainly the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and whatever Jared Kushner is doing with his businesses. But when you look back, the big themes — lying, corruption, racism, misogyny, bigotry, incompetence — these things aren't changing.
It's compelling to follow the headlines, but really, what's important? Continuing to vote. What else is important? Paying attention to what happens in the Mueller investigation — and certainly in Congressional investigations, but the Mueller one is really historic in its breadth and importance.
And then other than that, we have actual major issues — you know, climate change is huge. The amount of homeless students in Washington State, homeless kids in the Seattle Public School district — that's huge. Let us fight these local and global battles, and know that for us to have up-to-the-minute understandings of the latest scandal that already fits an established pattern is not as important as taking care of ourselves and the people around us.
Are there any aspects of the Trump presidency that you haven't talked about yet that you might like to discuss next week?
Let's see what the news is next week. Like yesterday, for example, Junior said this [Russia] stuff happened in 2006, before Trump ever dreamed of running for office. Bullshit! He's been talking about running for president since 19-fucking-80. You cannot trust a single thing these people are saying. So, there's bound to be some news and we could certainly use it as an example.
class="noindent" Can I ask you, as an expert, why does Donald Trump play "You Can't Always Get What You Want" at the end of his rallies? It's such a deeply bizarre choice for a presidential event.
I mean, he's just probably thinking, 'oh, this is something that they'll like — it's a crowd pleaser.' And he's just a huge dork. He's just this guy who peaked in high school, who wants everybody to love him, who has done poorly in business, has cost taxpayers, like, $1 billion in New York, his billion-dollar loss cost banks and he used it as a tax write-off. He has slurped $2 billion from the public and doesn't have much to show for it. And he just wants to be beloved and cool. It's just amazing he was elected.
Yesterday's news — broken by Crosscut's David Kroman — that this week's issue of the Seattle Weekly will be the final print edition of the alternative weekly has saddened a lot of Seattleites. And rightly so! It's always sad when journalists lose their jobs — even moreso when their good work has been relentlessly undermined by reshuffling and corporate cuts along the way.
Watching the slow death and decline of the alt-weekly in general has been painful. When I first started paying attention to alternative weeklies in the 1990s, they still felt like genuine countercultural documents. I got my start at alternative weeklies, and I've been published in quite a few alt-weeklies over the years. (Full disclosure: for a couple years, the Seattle Review of Books republished pieces in the print edition of the Seattle Weekly as part of a content sharing agreement; no money or ownership ever changed hands.)
But the last two decades have seen alt-weeklies age very poorly. The aging alt-weekly hipsters in management who saved themselves in the onslaught of layoffs and shutterings have soured into reactionary South Park-style conservatives, tossing out clickbait and feasting on outrage, to diminishing returns — look at the LA Weekly and the East Bay Express, among others.
In the onslaught of the internet and the devaluation of print advertisements, alt-weeklies have gone from the freshest source of urban cultural commentary to the stodgiest. It's hard to imagine today's teenagers aspiring to one day write in what's left of the alternative weekly media bubble, in just the same way that nobody in my generation really dreamed of writing for Playboy or any of those other washed-up countercultural dinosaur outlets.
But over the last few years, the Weekly didn't fall into the bitter-old-white-man trap that captured so many other alt weeklies, and they deserve our respect for that. Right up until the end of the print edition, they told compelling stories about Seattleites and tried to make sense of wonky regional politics. They were a publication that was devoted to documenting life in Seattle, the way it looked on the street.
In my 20 years in Seattle, I've seen the Weekly fall and rise: when I first moved here, it was becoming the establishment paper. But under the leadership of arts editor Kelton Sears about five years ago, the Weekly started embracing Seattle's weirdness again, and it became an earnest celebration of what makes this city unique: the comics, the outsider art, the tireless young creators. The Weekly continued keeping that DIY spirit alive in the print edition even after another round of budget cuts wiped out Sears's art section and reduced the print publication to a few sheets of thin newsprint.
The Seattle Weekly will reportedly still continue online, where the "Weekly" part of the name will essentially be meaningless. But starting next week, there will be no alternative weekly published and distributed on the streets of Seattle. And that's a moment worth marking — a complicated legacy that should be noted. Whatever form their journalism takes in the future, the stewards of new media should reflect on the lessons and tragedies and triumphs of the 20th century alternative weekly. They got a lot wrong in the end, but the good times were pretty great.
(Side-scroll to see full lines)
in its gilded frame
beheld the body’s greeneries something
a face of leisure
a leaning in the neck’s question
than a slung shoulder
a slipped stem into a gilded vase
an unstrung bodice
would it be
the lady or the thread
tucking itself into a stretching fog
throating out a call
it’s a lovely thing
to be the mirror
to be the lady
& with the neck in repose
what’s the throat to do
We're so delighted to have Chuckanut Writers Conference as a sponsor this week! We are always thrilled when a sponsor returns (thank you, Chuckanut!), and we're especially thrilled to make sure our readers are in the know about events like this.
The Chuckanut Writers Conference is laser-focused on making sure writers who attend walk away with the tools they need to do the work. They're bringing an amazing list in this year for classes, readings, and talks — Tara Conklin, Laurie Frankel, and Nancy Pearl are just a few of the names on the list. See the full lineup on our sponsor feature page, then sign up now for the earlybird discount.
When you sponsor us, you put your book, event, or residency in front of our readership of book lovers and industry professionals. And you're helping keep Seattle's amazing community of writers, reviewers, and readers vibrant. Want to join us? Check out rates and dates at www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/sponsor/.
Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, $10.
Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 5 pm, free.
Every year, two local organizations — Seattle7Writers and Bushwick Book Club — come together to do what they do best. For Seattle7Writers, that means presenting some of the best writing in the city. For Bushwick Book Club, that means local musicians transforming great literature into new music.
This Saturday, Word Play brings three local writers together with nine local musicians at Hugo House to create new music. The three authors are:
Laurie Frankel, who I noted in her novel This Is How It Always Is "clearly loves her characters, and is rooting for them to succeed. That gives the book a charm that makes it very hard to put down."
In my review, I said that Anca Szilágyi’s debut novel Daughters of the Air "feels as real and as insistent as the vein pulsing just over your right eye."
And Oliver de la Paz calls Michael Schmeltzer's poetry collection Blood Song a "startling debut" which "is filled with a tenderness capable of turning us to tinder."
On their event page, Bushwick Book Club doesn't say which musicians will participate in the event, and that's a shame.
But whoever musically interprets the books has got some great material to work with: a dark fairy-tale story of a young woman trying to make her way in the world, a story of a loving family trying to help their child be who she is deep down, and a collection of poems from one of our most promising poets. When you're working from that kind of literary source material, you're bound to make some beautiful music.
Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, $10.
Robert Messenger, two-time editor at the one-time Weekly Standard, with an essay that is “about something other than the ostensible subject.” The pain and pleasure of deadlines at dailies, weeklies and monthlies; the difficult transformation of the media industry; and, especially, the loss of a lifetime’s profession. Serious but not self-pitying, wry, and interesting enough if you’re a sucker for how-things-work to justify yet another article on the “death” of publishing.
The miracle is not that newspapers are any good; it is that they come out at all. One of the city’s greatest critics once told me that the best advice he got in two decades at the New York Times was when he proposed a new arts column. “Do you know what a newspaper feature is?” an old-timer asked him: “It’s a hole you have to fill with sand every goddamn day”. Not bad as a description of the whole business. It wears you down.
I need to warn you that this is long, because I think that, like me, you’ll have trouble stopping once you start. Steve Salaita was a professor for two decades; then, abruptly, after a series of Israel-critical tweets, he was not. Here, he writes about choosing to leave the life of the public intellectual, the economic threads that complicate “free speech” in our academic institutions, and the semiotics of the school bus.
The job induces primal expressions of love. School buses supersede their physical structure; they anchor a huge apparatus designed to guard the vulnerable. The machine is outfitted with lights and blinkers calculated to announce its presence. It is excessive on purpose. Nothing is more important than its cargo. SUVs, bicycles, eighteen-wheelers, ambulances, fire trucks — all abdicate their right of way when the stop sign and crossbar swing into the roadway. The school bus is one of the few institutions in the United States that protects the powerless from the depredations of commerce.
Tove Jansson is so very good at delivering the gracious and the ridiculous side-by-side — giving neither the upper hand, maintaining the perfect balance of sharp and sweet. Here she sits in a park in Paris, writing about being unable to write, which should be the most tedious subject possible. In her voice, it is the opposite.
I can’t understand why I must drag the ocean into everything I write. Furthermore, it’s so fucking hard to go on with something that was so wonderfully simple and I should know this well.
Toni Yuly is a Bremerton-based children's book writer and illustrator. Formerly a librarian, she studied painting with Jacob Lawrence at the University of Washington. She's appearing Sunday, February 24th, at the Elliott Bay Book Company at 3pm to show her latest book The Whole Wide World and Me. Bring the kids!
What are you reading now?
I am a book packrat and at any given time have stacks of books around me that I dart in and out of…I am also in the middle of finishing artwork for my next book and so tend to gather books around me that help inspire the work I am currently doing.
All that said, a couple of the books I am reading right now are:
The Gardens of William Morris by Jill Duchess of Hamilton, Penny Hart, and John Simmons. I love seeing Morris's designs and the flowers and gardens they came from. It also is interesting to read about this eccentric, Victorian workaholic.
Swedish Modern (A coloring Book of Magical Interiors) Janet Colletti - It isn't so much a coloring book but a gorgeous art book that celebrates the work of Swedish designer Josef Frank.
What did you read last?
What are you reading next?
Next I want to re-read some of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, especially Self-Reliance and The Over-Soul. I also want to read all of the recent Children's book award winners, Caldecott and Newbery. Here's the list:
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cienna is out this week, so this is a re-run of a column from March of 2016.
A co-worker and I often trade book recommendations. She has more seniority than I do but we are both in management. She recently went on a vacation and borrowed two of my paperback books that I had recommended to her. But she only came back with one of the books. She said the other one had fallen in the pool and then she ended up giving it to one of her fellow vacationers. She half-heartedly mentioned that she’d look for a used copy of the book to replace it. It’s been a few months and she hasn’t. Any advice?
Feeling Burned in Ballard
You are never going to get that book back. We both know that. What you need to do is suck it up and do the adult thing: drop it. Keep lending her books. Likewise, return her books in pristine condition. Smile at her in hallways. Volunteer to partner with her during team building exercises at work. Eventually, ask your spiders to make themselves scarce for an evening and invite her over for dinner. Over a bottle or two of mid-range wine (don’t go cheap, she’s not a monster), ask her searching questions about her life’s goals and ambitions. Press her about family or her partner, if she has one. If she doesn’t have a partner, ask her why she thinks she is not worthy of love? When she’s ready to leave your home at the end of the night, brush your fingertips down her arm, look deep into her eyes and tell her that you admire her. Continue cultivating her friendship. Invite her to happy hours, birthday parties, book readings. Invent inside jokes. Trade family recipes. Text emojis apropos of nothing.
Then, months from now, when the book she failed to replace is a distant memory, invite her to join you at a weekend Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. The sales are popular and a ton of fun, especially for two best friends who share the same passion and taste for literature.
Offer to drive.
Pick her up.
Tell her you need to make a quick detour before hitting the book sale.
Drive her to the desert.
Tell her to get out of the car.
Then, leave her for dead with nothing but a Danielle Steele novel and 6 inches of garden hose.
Consider it your own version of Naked and Afraid, Book Stealer Punishment Edition.
There are downsides to this plan – if she survives you will likely be written up by HR. But I think we can both agree it will be worth it.
Seattle Review of Books columnist Nisi Shawl will discuss the life and work of Octavia Butler. If you’ve ever heard Shawl discuss Butler, you should know you’re in for a treat. And if you haven’t visited the Renton Library, it is absolutely beautiful and well worth the trip on its own. Renton Library, 100 Mill Ave S, 425-226-6043, https://www.facebook.com/events/1951597504957309/, 1 pm, free.
Once upon a time, romance comics were all over newsstands. In the 1950s, comics publishers put out titles like Young Love and Boy Meets Girl and Young Romance. It's an oversimplification to say that romance comics completely disappeared — Archie Comics never stopped venturing into the genre — but romance comics certainly suffered as much as monster comics and war comics when superheroes took over the medium in the 1960s.
Just as romance novels are enjoying a period of critical reappraisal and commercial popularity, it's time for romance comics to make a comeback. And two books that I picked up at Phoenix Comics yesterday indicate a bold path forward for the romance genre in comics.
Each of the comics in the seventh issue of the free local comics anthology zine Thick as Thieves is at least vaguely Valentine's-themed. Some of the strips are adorable — Ryan Tiszai's bunny rabbit strip on the inside front cover is unspeakably cute — and others are edgier and more abstract.
If your idea of love doesn't involve the Kool-Aid Man crashing through Mount Rushmore while shouting "FUCK YOUR GODS!," as in Travis Rommereim's contribution to the issue, maybe this isn't for you. But really, maybe you should reassess your romantic goals if that image doesn't speak to you on some deep emotional level.
Perhaps more surprisingly than Thick as Thieves taking on a romantic theme, Marvel Comics published a one-shot for Valentine's Day titled Love Romances. Subtitled Love Stories That Can Only Be Told in a Comic Book!, Love Romances captures nearly the same vivid sense of experimentation that you'll find in the much punkier Thick as Thieves.
Really, these four stories are more stylistically daring and artistically bold than a lot of mainstream books. "The Widow and the Clockwork Heart," a steampunk love story written by Gail Simone and drawn by Rogé Antônio, is perhaps the most stylistically straightforward of the stories — but it imagines a vivid new world that feels ready for further exploration.
Margaux Motin and Pacco Dorwling-Carter's "Heartbroken from Beyond," the silent story of a man haunted by his deceased lover, is the cartooniest story in the book, and it enjoys a kineticism that wouldn't feel out of place in a Fantagraphics title. And "Gone Like the Wind," a story of robots and aliens and superficial love drawn by Jon Adams and colored by Tamra Bonvillain, feels closest to Fraction and Zdarsky's Sex Criminals in tone and appearance. These are influences and energies that ordinarily would land nowhere near a traditional Marvel title. It's beyond refreshing.
When read together, Thick as Thieves and Love Romances make a strong argument for a romance comic revival. The genre's tropes are an excellent laboratory — a place to examine social behaviors and expectations. I've seen plenty of older people complain online that the idea of sex and dating in the time of #MeToo is simply too tortured to consider. That's a silly, regressive argument — but it is true that gender and consent politics are being rewritten in real time.
And where better to examine these new social mores than in some vivacious, experimental comics made by fresh young talents? When has there ever been a better time to write about romance than right now, when a new generation is rewriting the rules of love for the better? This is how romance comics make themselves relevant for a new generation.
Ian Millhiser reports that Justice Clarence Thomas is trying to undermine freedom of the press. I try not to be alarmist about the Trump administration on this site, but if Thomas "opens up libel laws" as Trump requested, journalism in this country will go straight to hell. The destruction of Gawker has already proven that a billionaire can override freedom of the press through litigation; Thomas would give that kind of power to virtually everybody.
Reagan Jackson interviewed Seattle writer Alex Gallo-Brown at the South Seattle Emerald, and you should get excited for his next book:
Part of what’s challenging is that I write poems and I write lots of different things. I write short stories. I also write a fair amount of journalism and nonfiction and so on, but I was very fortunate to find a publisher in Seattle called Chin Music that took an interest in my work, and they were willing to publish a multigenre book, so it’s actually going to be poems and short stories, and it’s coming out later this year and it’s called Variations of Labor and it has kind of a labor theme.
My day job is labor organizer, labor advocate. That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last three or four years is work both in terms of our professional lives, but also the emotional labor we perform to survive both in our relationships and also in our daily lives and in our work experiences. The book is sort of a mix of people working and living their lives. The poems get more at the emotional interior lives of people’s experience both at work and in their daily lives.
If you're a writer, I'd urge you to think about the history and impact of labor unions. I'm seeing a tremendous demand in the world for contemporary work having to do with work and unions and collective action, and the New York publishers are doing very little to address that need.
After Lit Crawl last year, a friend reached out to me about an exciting new poet he saw at a reading. Did I know, my friend asked, that Karen Finneyfrock — you know, the great local young adult novelist — was a great spoken word poet?
I had to laugh. For as long as I've been covering Seattle's literary community, Karen Finneyfrock has been reinventing herself. I can remember when she published her first excellent collection of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost. At that moment, Finneyfrock was transitioning from one of Seattle's very best spoken-word performers to a poet whose work lived primarily on the printed page.
And I can remember when Finneyfrock made the next transition — to writing novels for young readers. To date, she's published two such novels (The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside) and she's hard at work on a third. Most writers would be pleased with any one of these careers, but Finneyfrock seems to always be reinventing herself into a completely different kind of writer.
"Sometimes it feels like I'm living two lives, or maybe three lives," Finneyfrock confirms to me over the phone. "I do have friends who are poets who only know me through spoken word, or friends who are fiction writers who aren't really aware that I write poetry at all."
All these reinventions aren't part of a grand plan, she says. "I would say I think it's probably unintentional." Finneyfrock attributes her creative restlessness to "naturally growing and getting interested in different subjects."
But it's important to note that Finneyfrock hasn't "moved on" from poetry, or abandoned spoken word, or given up on writing novels. She keeps active in all three forms of writing. What's the common theme? Finneyfrock says in all her writing, she's "figuring out what story is."
The biggest leap for her was moving from poetry to novels. She began with "a love of words and how they string together," and that still informs her writing. But she realized soon enough that the "big challenge" of novels is "realizing that it had to have a coherent plot underneath." Be it in fiction or in poetry, she says, "I do think of writing often as some sort of puzzle I'm trying to solve."
Finneyfrock's poetry has always had a narrative quality, but she says the difference is that her poems can "convey story" without "including a full narrative. There's a certain high wire act with poetry that I've always been really intrigued by."
At the moment, Finneyfrock is working on a "historical fantasy" novel. "I've never written fantasy before," she says, noting wryly that this shift in genre marks "another change" in her career. "I've been working on it for years, but it has made writing fun again for me in a way that I'm really enjoying."
When I remark that Finneyfrock's poetry has always contained a touch of the fantastic, she says she's been aspiring to fantasy for some time. "My first novel originally included some fantasy elements and my agent — I think really wisely — gave me the feedback that it wasn't working." So with this new book, she says, "it does feel like I am finally coming around to something I really, really wanted to do from the start. And that's exciting, but I also realize it's a lot harder than it looks."
Finneyfrock is grateful for Seattle's vast network of writers and booksellers for staying with her through all her permutations. "The community and the work has always gone hand in hand," she says. She gushes about local poets who have been doing exceptional work lately, mentioning Anastacia-Renee and Laura Da' by name.
"I moved to Seattle from the east coast and all these dreams that I had for my life seemed sort of big and unattainable," Finneyfrock says. Just the act of saying she wanted to be a poet "sometimes felt kind of ridiculous." But Seattle always took her seriously: "I really feel like this city gave me everything that I could have needed to help me along that path and I really feel deeply thankful to Seattle."
"I really have found so many wonderful community members and jobs and opportunities here," Finneyfrock says, her voice full of gratitude. "I'm overcome by it, sometimes."
Rhett Jones at Gizmodo reports that a non-profit artificial intelligence research group taught an AI to write some pretty convincing fiction.
According to the nonprofit's report, the AI, named GPT-2, is "trained on a dataset of 8 million web pages," with the intent to "predict the next word, given all of the previous words within some text."
The examples are kind of stunning. Here's the human-written first paragraph that was intended to cue up the software:
In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains. Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English.
GPT-2 then wrote:
The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid’s Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science.
Now, after almost two centuries, the mystery of what sparked this odd phenomenon is finally solved.
Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.
Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez.
Pérez and his friends were astonished to see the unicorn herd. These creatures could be seen from the air without having to move too much to see them – they were so close they could touch their horns.
While examining these bizarre creatures the scientists discovered that the creatures also spoke some fairly regular English. Pérez stated, “We can see, for example, that they have a common ‘language,’ something like a dialect or dialectic.”
Dr. Pérez believes that the unicorns may have originated in Argentina, where the animals were believed to be descendants of a lost race of people who lived there before the arrival of humans in those parts of South America.
While their origins are still unclear, some believe that perhaps the creatures were created when a human and a unicorn met each other in a time before human civilization. According to Pérez, “In South America, such incidents seem to be quite common.”
However, Pérez also pointed out that it is likely that the only way of knowing for sure if unicorns are indeed the descendants of a lost alien race is through DNA. “But they seem to be able to communicate in English quite well, which I believe is a sign of evolution, or at least a change in social organization,” said the scientist.
In the end, the researchers decided that they had valid "concerns about large language models being used to generate deceptive, biased, or abusive language at scale," and so they're releasing a smaller, dumber version of GPT-2 to the public. The robot writer was just too good to be trusted.
i am walking out of footprints
body left behind in crystals, i am
walking here next to rusted wires, a fester left behind
where you once built a city
of bodies on Sundays, structures: lilies,
lawns: palmpressed & praying
there, we spun whistles into anthems
& peeled off scabs to watch the clots pearl
& what’s the point of bridges anyway,
hovering over nothing
more than their marrow
over this rucksack of riches,
pearls unspooled & pooling
& this city crystal underfoot
on days like this,
it’s nice to remember how it feels
away from the sentence filled like a city
Thank you, Randy Mason, for sponsoring us this week! We're excited to share a chapter excerpt from Falling Back to One with our readers.
A debut novel and winner of a 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Award, Falling Back to One is described as both "a gritty New York story" and "a tale of transformation and healing." It's not the usual combination, but read more: it's a magic trick that Mason pulls off flawlessly.
Featuring a down-on-his-luck detective sergeant and the juvenile delinquent he's assigned to save, Falling Back to One defeats every genre expectation. Set in the 1970s, and enriched by Mason's love of music (she’s a musician herself and played on stage in some of the best-known NYC clubs), Falling Back to One is a Monday sample that will be on your bedside table before you know it.
Did you know that every freelance writer on this site, from our amazing columnists to our guest reviewers, is paid through our sponsorship program? We care — a lot! — that writers are compensated for their work, and we're so grateful that you make it possible.
When you sponsor us, you put your book, event, or residency in front of our readership of book lovers and industry professionals. And you're keeping the community of writers, reviewers, and readers alive. Want to join us? Check out rates and dates at www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/sponsor/.
Back in October, I wrote about Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's amazing novel Sketchtasy. I called the book, which is about the gay party scene in Boston in the 1990s, "a merry-go-round of drugs and sex and gossip and sex and drugs."
My review continued, "I recommend reading it in long sittings, so the breathless sentences clamber into your brain all at once, like a party that is tipping over into a riot." The book is remarkable, the culmination of all Sycamore's writing to date, an elegy and an all-night party.
Sycamore has been reading all around the country since Sketchtasy was originally published, but she hasn't read in her adopted city of Seattle — until now. This Thursday, Sycamore finally makes her grand homecoming in a reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company.
This is the opposite direction that most local authors go: they usually launch the books here before traveling the nation. But this direction feels right for this book, and for Sycamore: all the better to build up anticipation for one enormous celebration. You don't want to miss this.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
If you haven’t read Sharma Shields' absolutely delightful The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, make it the next thing you read after the short essay linked here. Mesmerized by d’Aulaires' Greek myths as a child (my own copy was so well-read it crumbled), a grown-up Shields reads them to her children — and considers the fierce Artemisian steel that shapes her perspective on her own rape, and that of others, today.
What will it take for us to toss the water onto the rapists’ heads, to watch assured as they flee, the blood-mouthed hounds — guilt, say, or responsibility — snapping behind them? It is not the violence of such a scene that attracts me, but the righteousness. Artemis was a cold and pitiless goddess. She knew — or learned — where to place the blame.
Another exceptional piece by a Washington writer (though residing in Ohio now): Elissa Washuta. This is an essay about witchcraft, about appropriation, about rape, about despair. But I most love what it has to say about claiming the right to define where power lies. Washuta walks through the world — a white world, a male world — like a woman walking through a hostile wood. In this essay, her fiery, defiant voice burns out a space where she is, finally, untouchable.
When I choose, anoint, and burn a candle with my prayers scratched into the wax, when I make my prayers material, I convince myself that I can grab onto a power that will carry me through this life. I know how to show the spirits that I am here through the light of my fire, because we have always used fire to smoke fish, conduct ceremony, burn cedar boughs, turn prairie brush to ash so the camas or huckleberries can grow stronger.
I choose witchcraft; I choose to cast spells.
Because I have given up my ability to touch a Western red cedar on a daily basis. Because I have seen my binding work on a dangerous man. Because I am alone and low on hope sometimes.
Marie Le Conte is shooting fish in a barrel here, but sometimes, don’t you just want to take the easy shot? She takes many, and they land, hard, in her takedown of some ridiculous man-catching advice that outlines where, and what kind, of books are appropriate to a woman seeking to catch the right kind of man.
As a beloved and badass scientist friend of mine said, “this makes me want to wear a suit of cacti to repel men everywhere in my life.” If only it were that easy!
Perhaps we should try to go further. If you are a single woman and would like a man to come to your flat and not run away weeping and screaming, why not let your book collection do the talking for you? Buy 35 copies of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and leave them lying around every corner of your house, in places where he will least expect it, so he is constantly reminded of the fact that you’re up for it. It doesn’t matter that the book is about a bit more than that; as we’ve established, men only ever look at the covers.
Tara Conklin is the Seattle-based author of the bestselling novel The House Girl, and has just released her second novel The Last Romantics (SRoB readers will be very interested to know: it's a novel about a poet). Tara will be reading from The Last Romantics at the Elliott Bay Book Company this Tuesday, February 19th at 7:00pm.
What are you reading now?
I usually have several books on the go at once. This month I’m
promoting my second novel so I’ve got lots of travel time for
reading. On the flip side, however, I have very little room in
my suitcase, so I’m reading slim paperbacks on the road and big
hardcovers at home. The hardcover keeping my attention these
by Richard Powers.
It’s a big, bold, inventive, intricate novel about a group of
unlikely environmental activists who come together to save a
pristine stretch of forest. I love novels that teach me things –
whether history or different ways of life or, in this case,
science. The environmental science underlying this book is
fascinating. But I don’t want to make it sound dry — it’s
decidedly not. Each character is brilliantly formed, each one
distinct and compelling. I’m reading it slowly, savoring the
sentences. It’s a book that’s making me look at the world a
little bit differently, which is the most I can ask of any
My current carry-on read is Friday Black, a debut collection of stories by Nanan Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, a book that comes with rave blurbs from Roxane Gay, George Saunders, and other writers I admire. The first story is raw, urgent and compelling — a dystopian look at racism that conveys the edge of contemporary truth, as all the best dystopian stories do. Adjei-Brenyah’s voice is unlike any I’ve read before — it’s brutally honest, wildly imaginative and tough but contains a real tenderness and surprising humor. I’m looking forward to finishing the collection. And seeing what he writes next.
What did you read last?
My last travel read was Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, a young British writer who’s just starting to get attention here in the US. The book charts the relationships of two young female friends and former lovers who are befriended by a 30-something married couple. After the first few pages, I almost abandoned the book — it struck me as too hipster and self-conscious for my taste. But I kept reading, and I’m so glad I did. She writes like the love child of Lena Dunham and Jane Austen — emotional analysis in the extreme but with sweetness and real depth. I loved it.
My last at-home read was A Woman Is No Man, the debut novel by Etaf Rum. It might be unfair to mention this one because it’s not out until March 5. I was lucky to score an advance copy and to meet Etaf at a book festival recently. Her novel is devastating and fascinating and moved me deeply. The book tells the story of three generations of Palestinian women living in the US, each struggling to find her place in a new home and an ancient culture. I’ve never read a book that focuses on Arab-American women’s experience and the cultural norms that restrict them, even here in the twenty-first century. So much of the story seems pulled from a different time, but the characters are contemporary and the struggles they encounter about family, obligation and love are universal.
What are you reading next?
I have a towering stack of books on my bedside table! It’s going to be tough to choose but I’m thinking my next reads will be: Transcription by Kate Atkinson. She’s such a consistently inventive writer and I’ve loved pretty much every single one of her books — from the Brody Jackson detective novels to Life After Life, a brilliant mind-bending book that describes one woman’s multiple possible lives. I feel like I can’t go wrong with Atkinson. And Bowlaway, the new novel by Elizabeth McCracken. I absolutely loved her book of short stories, Thunderstruck — each one contains a whole universe and people you believe in. For probably a year, at least, Thunderstruck was the book I carried around in my bag to keep me company. Her new novel takes places in Massachusetts (my home state!) and revolves around candlepin bowling, a uniquely New England pastime that most people on the west coast have probably never encountered. Let’s just say it’s a quirky “sport” that seems an unlikely focus for a novel, but I have no doubt that McCracken will carry it off in style.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com. Cienna is digging herself out a snowbank, so this column is a re-run, from three years ago.
The Little Free Library closest to my house is often full of crap. I’m talking outdated programming books and collections of VHS tapes and other things that stay in the LFL for weeks and weeks because no one wants them. The structure is not in someone’s front yard, so it’s unclear who is responsible for it. I’m tempted to weed the LFL myself, tossing the old crap and filling it with newer novels, audio books on CD, hardback non-fiction titles. (I just KonMari-ed my bookshelves, so I have lots of goodies to contribute.) Would that be overstepping?
Alyssa, Capitol Hill
I admire your “go-getter” attitude. Personally, I’ve never been convinced of the community benefit of those tiny libraries. To me, they are what you’ve experienced: twee trash cans adored and installed by middle- and upper-class individuals who believe that their poorer neighbors will treasure their garbage.
But I’ve been wrong about many things lately. For instance: take the ghosts haunting my vagina. Most contemporary researchers agree that the best method for dispelling ghosts is to ask them politely but firmly to leave. If that doesn’t work, leading studies show that asking a ghost what it wants – like a ham sandwich, for instance – and then satiating it will do the trick.
I consider myself a woman of science, unmoved by superstition, so for months I have faithfully followed the scientific method.
“PLEASE LEAVE,” I scream at my vagina on a near-nightly basis. Followed by, “DO YOU WANT A HAM SANDWICH?”
Still, the hauntings have continued. So last weekend, I purchased an amethyst dildo from a serene wiccan named Goshuhn. Now, I’m not one to believe in the healing powers of crystals, but Goshuhn assured me that ghosts really hate amethysts because the crystal is known as a sobering agent and ghosts love to party (bizarrely, they also love ham sandwiches so I might’ve just been encouraging them to stick around).
Despite my skepticism, the amethyst dildo appears to be working. I have noticed a 50 percent reduction in paranormal activity in my vagina over the past week.
This is all to say, while I’m skeptical that a little free library can work, I am willing to put my faith in you, Alyssa. Tomorrow, tape a sign to that tiny library that says something like,
Spring cleaning! I’ve noticed our pickings have become a bit stale, so on TKTKTK (this is where you fill in a date/time) I’ll be tossing old items and replacing them with new stock. Please feel free to stop by, say hi, and contribute a book that you love and think others will enjoy. If you have questions, contact me at TKTKTK (this is where you put your email address, if you want).
I believe in you,
One Million Tampons hosts an annual event called LOVEFEST, which both raises funds for the organization and helps raise awareness of its cause. This year’s LOVEFEST, which happens on Saturday night is a pretty fantastic lineup: the readers are Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Reneé and Seattle writer David Schmader. See more on our Event of the Week post.
Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the [archives of the column](http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/tags/the-future-alternative-past).
My dead mentor Gardner Dozois told me he classified the futures he came across when reading science fiction as either "New Jersey" or "California Hot Tub." New Jersey futures were grim and full of work, while California Hot Tub futures, predicated on the existence of widespread automation and abundant free energy, dealt mostly with what we called in my far-off youth “the problem of leisure” — that is, what citizens to come were going to do with all the time saved by timesaving devices.
SFnal depictions of leisure activities sometimes contrast today’s version of normal existence with strange, futuristic occupations. Cordwainer Smith’s story “Scanners Live in Vain,” for instance, tells of a man deprived of sensory input so he can endure the pain of space travel; his recreation involves reconnecting himself to his nervous system so he can feel his feet on the floor, hear the music his wife plays, smell the reconstituted odor of lamb chops. His recreation is the life we take for granted.
More often, though, it’s the recreation itself that’s science fictional rather than the work it relieves us from. An early example is Kate Wilhelm’s disturbing 1967 proto-cyberpunk story “Baby, You Were Great,” included in Lisa Yaszek’s Library of America anthology The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women. In Wilhelm’s California Hot Tub future, boredom is escaped by imbibing another’s emotions. The “sim-stim” stars of William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” and the rest of his Sprawl Trilogy provide similar relief, capturing and broadcasting their lives via artificial lenses: Zeiss-Ikon eyes implanted for an expensive fee. The latest take on first person shooter-type immersive recreation comes in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Nebula Award-winner “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience(TM),” a short story which also makes wicked fun of cultural appropriation.
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks pits Gurgeh, a citizen of that ultimate in California Hot Tub futures, The Culture, against denizens of the Empire of Azad, in a complex game whose stakes are life, death, and reign over the Empire. With a centuries-long lifespan, first-rate medical care, and complete economic freedom, Gurgeh has an indubitable lead over native Azadian players — or does he? Does their ingrained knowledge of the game and scarcity-induced fervor for victory outweigh his advantages? And do the high stakes and immersion Gurgeh commits himself to remove it from the category of recreation?
Fantasy is much less often concerned with the future, and though there can be worlds of magical abundance or scarcity, they don’t seem to have the same effect on how leisure-filling gets portrayed. Faeries are addicted to dance in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum trades riddles with hobbits and just about everyone sings. Prince Alveric, hero of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, hunts a unicorns as pastime. The beast is fantastic, but the activity itself is mundane. As are the aforementioned singing and dancing.
Sometimes magic does make a difference in what characters do. It’s hard to imagine the invention of quidditch without wizardry: flying broomsticks and enchanted quaffles, bludgers, and snitches. However, following up on the description in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, there’s a real-life version being played internationally. It’s sometimes called “muggle quidditch,” after the magic-less muggles most of us are assumed to be.
Hotshot editor John Joseph Adams teamed up with Black star rising Victor LaValle to put together the new anthology A People’s Future of the United States (One World). With such a winning title (it refers to Howard Zinn’s big hit, A People’s History of the United States), and with a Table of Contents featuring Nebula Award-winner Charlie Jane Anders and two dozen other intriguing authors, this book’s sure to attract lots of attention. And most of the contents deserve it.
Right on the mark when it comes to delivering the goods the book’s title advertises are NK Jemisin’s rollicking tale of soul food-digging dragons, “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death”; “The Blindfold,” Tobias Buckell’s extrapolation of modern jury selection methods’ weaknesses and strengths; and Justina Ireland’s heisty “Calendar Girls,” a near-future thriller about a streetwise dealer in illicit condoms. Several more stories are close enough for jazz when compared to these ideals, though downbeat endings to certain otherwise brilliant pieces such as Daniel H. Wilson’s “A History of Barbed Wire” may leave readers wondering whether we actually want the futures LaValle’s introduction urges us to claim. Still, with only a couple of misses among the authors’ swings at the piñata of audience satisfaction, the variations on a theme A People’s Future provides are well worth the time and money it’ll cost you to buy and enjoy it.
A collection rather than an anthology, The Very Best of Caitlín R Kiernan (Tachyon) hews to one style, uttering its fabulations in one piercingly delicious voice. My personal favorite, “The Maltese Unicorn,” dishes up a Dashiell Hammett-esque crime narrative in a setting filled with bisexual demons and enchanted dildos. Often decay appears as a near-sentient character in the fictional worlds Kiernan constructs; often wickedness and ineffability and fate acquire a palpable, practically tactile presence in prose both teasing and pleasing. The author flirts with literary pretentions at times, and many of her overtures have been answered (as a glance at her long list of publication credits reveals) by hard-to-locate publications. Let us be grateful that Tachyon’s Jacob Weisman and Jill Roberts have made appreciation much easier by curating this magnificent selection of Kiernan’s eerily beautiful oeuvre.
Once again this year I’ll be flying to Florida to attend the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, aka ICFA (pronounced “ick-phah!”). In addition to appearing on two panels--the maximum allowed — I’ll host a reading and launch for the anthology I just finished editing, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. The theme for this session of this semi-academic conference is conflict. Let’s talk about it calmly, by the poolside, over tropical drinks.
The very same weekend, though, here in Seattle, the fan community hosts Emerald City Comic Con. Perhaps that will be more your jam? After all, ECCC is “the destination comic and pop culture show for the Pacific Northwest.” It’s big (last year over 90,000 attended); it features dozens and dozens of author, artist, and actor guests; it offers wristbands to overcome the invisibleness of some disabilities, and a bunch of other ADA help; and its anti-harassment policy is clear and straightforward. Win, win, win, and win.
I've written before about the perils of comics falling under a distribution monopoly. When Diamond Comics, the only national distributor of monthly comics, can't manage to deliver the week's shipment of comics on any given Wednesday due to inclement weather, comics shops across Seattle simply don't get any new comics. It happens usually at least once a year, and yesterday was one of those days.
A Wednesday without new comic books is unthinkable, though, so I tend to use New Comics Day to unearth the books on my shelf that I haven't read yet — preferably local books that wouldn't ordinarily fall under the monolithic Diamond Comic blackout.
I've written before about the joys of Seattle comedian Brett Hamil's minicomics. Hamil's primitive gag cartoons — which I appreciatively called joke delivery systems — used to be featured prominently in CityArts magazine before it went under. No local media outlet has picked them back up on a regular basis, which is a goddamned shame.
In lieu of new comics, I dug up a copy of Hamil's zine Tardigrade Appreciator, which he published in the middle of 2018. The book is a spoof on magazine culture, in the form of an US Weekly-style magazine about how cool tardigrades are.
But of course part of the joke is that tardigrades are really super-fucking-cool, so the breathless reporting feels more genuine than the phony celebrity worship in People magazine. (If you don't know what a tardigrade is, you should Google them immediately; also known as water bears, tardigrades are microscopic creatures that, as one explains in an interview in Appreciator, "could survive a meteor strike or a nuclear war or an ice age." They are the toughest creatures in the known galaxy, but they look like total chubby doofuses and that's part of their charm.)
Appreciator features person-on-the-street-style interviews with humans about where they first heard about tardigrades ("house party in Flagstaff") and a giant centerfold of a tardigrade lying on its back in a come-hither pose. A tardigrade talks about politics, and another segment is about how tardigrades are "just like us!"
This is just a delightful little package of a minicomic, and Hamil's best cartooning yet. I would read a full-size issue of Tardigrade Appreciator, and I'd love to see a book version of this. Track a copy down wherever you get your zines, and I guarantee you won't even care that your weekly new comics are sitting in the back of a UPS truck somewhere on the side of the road just outside Eugene.
Unless you're a booth vendor at a Trump rally, how about maybe don't sell t-shirts with "Fake News" written on them? It's not cute or fashionable to profit from the president's ongoing war against the media. (Note that Amazon, which is run by the Washington Post's owner, is profiting off "Fake News" shirts, too. When you're as rich as Jeff Bezos, you can profit by playing both sides of a fight.
The Raven Chronicles is looking for submissions about hate for an upcoming book. The goal is to "build and publish an anthology as a vehicle for positive change in response to the growing climate of hate." And they're not just looking for general love-conquers-all platitudes: "We need work that references and identifies specific legacies, personal histories, and stories of conditions that we (and others) face daily." This is an intriguing idea. Submissions are open from February 15th through April 1st, so you've got some time to think about it. (Though, as with all submissions, it's important to remember that you always have less time than you originally think you do.)
Last week, I interviewed author Thomas Kohnstamm about his excellent debut novel Lake City onstage at Elliott Bay Book Company. It was a packed room, and the mood was warm and loving. Kohnstamm would stop mid-answer to say hello to an old friend who he spotted in the audience, or point out someone he went to middle school with. In sports terms, it was a hometown crowd. What follows is an edited and abbreviated version of our discussion.
The book is set in Seattle in 2001. Why did you pick that time, and how much research did you have to do for that setting? 2001 is a long time ago now.
Our protagonist, Lane, is dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, which is not just an emotional kickdown, but a backsliding in class, basically. That experience, the emotional starting point of the novel, was based on an experience I had in my own life. It's not exactly as it played out in the book, but I did have that experience, and I did base the book off of different details of my horrible winter break of 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11. Everything was messed up. Everything was going to shit.
And there were details that I researched from there — figuring out what cell phones were like in 2001, for example, which was kind of a strategic decision. If the book had happened in 2019, Lane would have an unlimited data plan and he'd be able to reconnect with things. But I wanted him to be totally isolated and frantic.
I also thought 2001 was an interesting point in the trajectory of the development of Seattle, a midpoint between 1986 when Microsoft went public and where we are now. Now we've become this very well-heeled city and Amazon has come to fruition and they're hiring 300 people a week who make six figures. I thought 2001 was when things really started to blow up.
I think some of the reviews I've read misread this book as a glorification of Lane, that sort of aimless angry young white man. But in fact, Lane is kind of the butt of the joke a lot of the time, isn't he?
The joke was primarily on Lane, I'd like to think. And I think that there are some people who have misunderstood — I think Lane is the clown at the middle of all of it, and Lane knows the least of anyone and everyone in the book. Lane comes into everything thinking he has it all figured out, and everybody surprises him in the long run. They're much smarter than he thinks.
I think what I was trying to wrestle with in the book is what's the downside of ambition? What's the dark side of ambition? What are the costs? If you're trying to pull yourself up, make something different and better of yourself, what is the cost in that process?
What is it about ambition, or lack thereof, that makes such a compelling story, from Hamlet to Lane to the story of Seattle? And what's your relationship to ambition?
Well, you know, ambition is framed as this word that we're told is good and positive. But what does ambition really mean? Ambition means potentially climbing over other people to gain more. There have been a lot of points in history that ambition was seen as a sort of naughty attribute, or something that you shouldn't be proud of, and gaining great wealth was something that you should be ashamed of. But we're living in a time when there's a cost to everything.
As for me, I'm an ambitious person. I think that anybody who writes a novel is obviously not a normal human being. I spent seven years writing this in my basement after my wife and children had gone to bed when I could've been watching TV or sleeping or socializing with friends or relaxing. It's got to be a compulsion at some level, and there's a cost to that, whether it's a financial cost or a relationship cost. So maybe in a lot of this, I'm exploring the path of the writer too.
slowskulled & drowsy,
this epitaph’s the one that’s carved
over & over again :
here a blowsy mallet & chisel
on the rock this tide’s
overswept in looking
too close for tidings for how to remain
the shore it’s always
itself tense & feathering &
not about itself & counting
the time it takes to linger
where it’s not
wanted here waking it’s
the same rock
that’s waiting to be
to have one more
drink to quench
this ebony shore —
Northwest Associated Arts is a regular sponsor here at The Seattle Review of Books. We're grateful — not just because they're a loyal supporter of our great columnists and writers, but because they make sure you're in the loop for some of Seattle's best events.
They're hosting two fabulous nights coming up soon: Samin Nosrat on March 10 and Anne Lamott on April 7. We don't have to encourage you to see Anne Lamott; this is a writing and reading town, so we just encourage you to get tickets fast, before they're gone.
And we don't have to encourage you to see Samin Nosrat, either. Her new book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, is the talk of the Top Chef circuit; if you love celebrity chefs, don't miss this. And if you just love food — or how simplicity can transform into greatness — you also belong at this event. Nosrat is a student of Chez Panisse Robert Hass, and Michael Pollan. That combination sounds magic to us. Find out more on our sponsor feature page, then reserve your seats.
Got an event you think our readers would love? [You can sponsor us](), too. If you have an opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, reserve your dates now.
Monday, February 11:
Seattle Arts and Lectures brings one of our most exciting young poets to town. Solmaz Sharif only has one book to her name — LOOK, published by Graywolf — but she's also written beautiful essays about erasure and the distance and closeness of language. She is a serious thinker about the capacity of language and if you care about words you should be at this event tonight. Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, 934-3052, https://lectures.org/event/solmaz-sharif/, 7:30 pm, $20.
Spokane author Sharma Shields, whose debut novel The Sasquatch Hunters’ Almanac was a worthy (and hilarious) addition to the Northwest canon of bigfoot literature, reads from her newest book — a novel that updates the Cassandra story for the 20th century. To celebrate her book launch on this side of the mountains, Shields is joined by authors Katrina Carrasco and Anca Szilágyi. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Valentine's Day this year falls on a Thursday, which basically stretches the holiday out into a long weekend. Sorry, but if you were scrambling to score a Valentine's reservation at a fancy restaurant on the 2nd of January, you were kind of taken for a ride. Friday night is wide open at some of the nicest places in town, and Saturday night is even better. Why would you bother going out with your sweetie on a work night, anyway?
So since you'll be reveling in an all-weekend orgy of Valentine's celebrations, allow me to point you to an event that serves a double purpose: it features two of Seattle's finest readers and it's a fundraiser for an excellent cause.
Feminine hygiene products are a necessity, but too many Seattleites can't afford them. One Million Tampons is a nonprofit that last year donated over a hundred thousand tampons to women who were homeless or in serious financial distress.
One Million Tampons hosts an annual event called LOVEFEST, which both raises funds for the organization and helps raise awareness of its cause. This year's LOVEFEST, which happens on Saturday night is a pretty fantastic lineup: the readers are Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Reneé and Seattle writer David Schmader.
Anastacia-Reneé has never been anything less than a compelling reader of her own work. Her readings are so harrowing and so buttery and so honest that you'll feel bolted to your seat. And Schmader — who, full disclosure, I worked with at The Stranger and who I'm proud to call my friend — is an impossibly funny human being.
Together, the readers will share work that will make you laugh, make you think, and probably make you horny. It's the Valentine's Day trifecta, and it happens on a Saturday night so you don't have to worry about waking up early the next day. Go fall in love all over again.
South Park Hall, 1253 S Cloverdale St, https://www.facebook.com/southparkhall/, 8 pm, $7.
Seattle's own Nicola Griffith, talking to Portland's own Alexis M Smith, published by the Northwest's own journal Moss. A great conversation about writing, earning a PdD, and her most recent novel _So Lucky_. Maybe I'm biased to interviews with Griffith because an interview with her appeared on the launch day of the Seattle Review of Books, but linking to conversations with her is an easy choice. She has a compelling frame on the world, and seeing through her eyes for a brief time is always a privilege.
The books that made me want to be a writer? All of them. None of them. Every single book I’ve ever read has added to what I know of story and writing; those books made me the writer I am. But did any of them make me want to be a writer?
To me there’s a difference between wanting to Be a Writer and wanting to write. I wanted to write early on; pinning down a description or a moment or a feeling felt like a triumph. I didn’t decide to be a writer until I was in my twenties. Or perhaps it might be more true to say I didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer until I was in my twenties. I had a dream about being at a fancy awards dinner, and winning, and waking up knowing it was the Booker Prize, and that I would win it one day.
Isn't it just awful when doing the right thing causes you to lose a bit of the privilege and position in the world? Best to make yourself feel good without doing nothing at all, then.
A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken. The same could be said of others around the world. And now many of the people who broke the progress machine are trying to sell us their services as repairmen.
If you're a sucker for classic Hollywood stories like I am, then you'll love this piece from old-school screenwriter Daniel Fuchs, who died in 1993 at age 84. I mean, name dropping Dorothy Parker? I'm in.
When I came to California twenty-ﬁve years ago, I was taken with the immense, brilliantly clean sunshine that hovered over everything. I wrote troubled pieces about Hollywood—a diary that I actually kept, an article titled “Dream City, or The Drugged Lake.” The studio where I worked, RKO on Gower Street, seemed drenched and overpowered by the sun. The studio paths were empty; you heard a composer somewhere listlessly working up a tune for a musical picture: “Oh, I adore you, adore you, adore you—you wonderful thing!” The people stayed hidden inside their offices, and what they did there, I didn’t know. I was made welcome to the community with a grace I somehow hadn’t expected—by the wonderful Epstein brothers, who broke the way for me and looked out for me; by Dorothy Parker, who telephoned and introduced me to a glittering group of people, or a group I thought glittering; by John Garfield, with his honest and whole-hearted happy spirits; and by a man named Barney Glazer, now dead, at one time head of Paramount Studios. Mr. Glazer had a beautiful home on Chevy Chase Drive in Beverly Hills. It was surrounded by carefully tended grounds— gardens and strawberry patches, patios, a championship enclosed tennis court, a championship swimming pool, dressing rooms, a gymnasium. After the week’s work, starting with Saturday afternoon, guests assembled there and a sort of continuous party went on until Monday morning. Mr. Glazer trotted through the assemblage, ignoring the entertainment and the championship tennis court, bent on his own pursuits. He was interested in fine china and objets d’art, in carpentry work, in watching over his dogs who were getting old and decrepit and kept falling into the swimming pool; the dogs, when they hurt themselves, would huddle motionless and just wait until Mr. Glazer came hurrying up, to scold and take care of them. With his open generosity, he took pains to make sure I felt easy among the company at those parties, and I visited his home often, appearing on most of the weekends. Many kinds of people were there, but mainly the old-timers, men who were firmly a part of the movie business—grizzled and heavy-eyed, patient, pestered by arthritis, sciatica, and other vexations. They smiled at me. They were amused by my inexperience and newness to their community. They liked me and I think they wanted to be liked. But they would never parry my questions. They wouldn’t respond to my inquiries and doubts. They knew that if I was to learn anything about their way of living and working, it would be no good unless I found it out by myself. “I would argue with you,” one of them said to me, “but if I win the argument, what do I win?” They had their minds set on other things, and time was short.
The intersection of design nerdery and book nerdery is the most perfect nerdery of all. I love stories of cover designers who worked for years in the trade, and this look at the design of Faber & Faber covers by Mike Dempsey is an absolute joy.
In 1981, John McConnell, then a Pentagram partner, was approached by Robert McCrum, editorial director of Faber & Faber, to look at the design of their books. The firm had a long tradition of handling the design of the inside text, rather than have an external printer dictate it. The same had applied over at the paperback house Penguin Books, carefully monitored initially by Jan Tschichold, who later handed on the baton to Hans Schmoller as head of typography and design for three decades. But all that eventually ended when cost-cutting CEO Peter Mayer discovered that it was far cheaper to photograph the hardback publisher’s text and reduce it to Penguin’s format, rather than reset it in Penguin’s house style.
But Faber & Faber still cherished their own bespoke typographical standards originally overseen by Richard de la Mare and responsible for bringing in Berthold Wolpe, who had been designing jackets for Victor Gollancz. He joined Faber's in-house production studio in 1941 during a time of wartime shortages Wolpe's 2 colour line, non illustrated, bold typographical designs fitted the bill during this period of austerity. He stayed with Faber & Faber until his retirement in 1975 having clocked up 1500 jacket designs. The story goes that after Wolpe's departure Faber & Faber invited Herbert Spencer to look at the design of the inside of their books, but his suggestions were frowned upon by the tight-knit design production team, well entrenched in Wolpe's design doctrine, so Spencer’s suggestions went no further. Meanwhile, canny John McConnell realised that it would be pointless to mess with the well-versed internal production team and suggested to McCrum that he not take that aspect on but instead look at the identity. Back then, that usually meant a new logo and letterhead – job done. But McConnell had other ideas. He had always been impressed by Penguin’s design legacy: the very thing that had been lost courtesy of Peter Mayer’s economics and personal influence over the presentation of covers.
Summer Brennan is an award-winning investigative journalist, and author of 2015's The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America. Her second book, High Heel, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury, is being released on March 21st. On Twitter (she's a very good follow) she said it was about "feminism, femininity, sex, gender, biology, violence and mythology." Get a jump on the crowd, and pre-order it from your local indie bookshop.
What are you reading now?
Right now I'm reading two books, Essays in Feminism by Vivian Gornick (1978), and the new memoir How To Be Loved by Eva Hagberg Fisher, which was just published this week. I knew I would read anything Fisher wrote after I read her essay "How I Learned To Look Believable" in The New York Times, last January. I love that How To Be Loved is about, among other things, a friendship between women, and a friendship between women of different generations. I had a close friend who died a few years ago who was in her early 80s, and I wish these sorts of decades-spanning relationships were more common. It can be like making friends with a time traveler. And Fisher's prose is easy to read in the way that, as a writer, I know means it was probably very difficult to write. It feels like sunshine, to find a writer who has already hacked a clear path through the jungle of their ideas for you, even when the subject matter is dark. And speaking of older women as time travelers bearing gifts, I am finding Gornick's 1970s essays to be very eye-opening. We do ourselves a great disservice, particularly in modern feminist discourse, to discount or even not read at all the seminal works of the fraught but vital Second Wave period. In a forward written at the time of the book's initial publication, Gornick describes the "feminisms" of the previous decade as "lurching forward in the unshapely manner of one proceeding through uncharted territory with a compass that works only intermittently." Those who were not yet alive during this period, like myself, have so much to learn by listening to the messy, emotionally potent urgency of that time, rather than letting our thoughts fall to lazy, misogynist stereotypes that too often are left unexamined.
What did you read last?
I just bought this week, and then read in less than 24 hours, last year's Pulitzer-winning novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer. I read the excerpt that came out in The New Yorker in June 2017 called "It's A Summer Day," and was delighted, so it has been on my list for a while. I loved it. It felt light but poignant, with a bit of a narrative mystery built into the structure that I appreciated. And the book, like its protagonist, has a sense of humor about itself to a point that's even a little meta. In it, a wandering white man worrying over his problems has written an unloved book about a wandering white man worrying over his problems. It made me think also, among other things, about the current conversations around "likeable" characters. I could feel Greer's love for all of his characters, even the ones disliked by his protagonist, which gives the whole thing a tenderness and a humanity that one doesn't always find. Sort of like how a good actor can never have contempt for their own character, no matter how dastardly, in order for the character to feel true. I don't know. Am I rambling? I liked this book a lot, and I really hope that someday soon female authors can also write books like this—stories about a female protagonist, concerned with love, with prose that has a spring in it's step, style-wise—and be treated with the same seriousness as this book deservedly was.
What are you reading next?
I don't know! There are so many books lined up, for work and for pleasure. For nonfiction, this week I intend to buy Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer and The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang. Novel-wise, it will definitely be Bangkok Wakes To Rain, by Pitchaya Sudbanthad.
Should home libraries always be alphabetized, so everyone can use them, or does someone who, say, prefers to arrange her personal books by color have a point in telling her husband to be quiet and leave her alone?
Esther, First Hill
Unless you are shackled to the corpse of Melvil Dewey, your husband has no authority to tell you how to arrange your books. Organizing a collection is very personal, like organizing a quinceañera party for your tortoise or, conversely, organizing your taxidermy leftovers.
And aside from the visual appeal of arranging books by color, there's an upside to leaving your shelves unalphabetized – if you are in search of something particular, it forces you to slow down and peruse each shelf, which sparks nice memories of past reads. And if someone asks to borrow a book – for instance, a friend who rarely reads or returns books that you lend him but leaves them scattered around his house before dates to look smarter – it gives you an excuse to say you can't find it.
Be sure to turn in your ballots for the February special election — they're due next Tuesday, and are largely about school funding. Also, read our recent piece by Paul Constant about why the Seattle Public School's plan to cut library budget is a terrible and misguided idea: By cutting school library budgets, Washington state is putting its future in peril
Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
We talk a lot about historical accuracy in our commercial fiction. I would like to talk a little bit about accuracy in our history of commercial fiction.
Let me take you through a case study.
Back in that dimly remembered epoch known as The Year 2015, author Stephanie Dray made a racist joke while finishing a novel about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter. Screenshots were passed around; many people spoke up about how harmful this was; Dray and her co-author Laura Kamoie (who also writes as Laura Kaye) apologized, saying their book about a wealthy white woman was really meant to illuminate the evils of slavery, and kept their heads down long enough for the conversation to move on.
Then in April of 2018 they came out with a novel centered on Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. It is obviously, explicitly riding along on the musical’s wave of popularity. I have read and enjoyed Hamilton-inspired romance before; unfortunately Dray and Kamoie’s take ignores the modern musical’s revolutionary casting to focus primarily on white historical hottie Alexander Hamilton. They seem to mistake the musical’s subject (A. Ham) for the message (immigrants make valuable contributions to the American story).
Hamilton the musical boldly put black and brown faces center stage at America’s foundational moment; My Dear Hamilton reaches out for that bright spotlight and turns it once again on white people. The novel is historically accurate, because Alexander Hamilton was indeed a white man—but the change of focus feels like an erasure because it casts aside the present-day interpretations of the historical figure, where kids singing about Hamilton, Washington, and Jefferson are envisioning them as Puerto Rican and black.
This is the equivalent of answering: “It’s whom, actually” when someone asks you: “Who did you shoot in that duel?” Technically correct, but missing the greater point of the question.
While promoting the Hamilton book this winter on Facebook, Dray shared a post from the Historical Fiction Authors Co-op, highlighting a brand-new novel about black performer Josephine Baker by white author Sherry Jones.
So now, if you’re keeping count, that’s two novels by white authors capitalizing on the historic success of black/brown artists, taking advantage of the same promotional network to boost their books’ visibility and sales.
Still with me? There’s more.
If the second author’s name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you remember that back in Ye Olde 2009 Sherry Jones’ novel about Aisha, The Jewel of Medina, was at the center of an intense literary scandal for its treatment of Islamic religious history as escapist entertainment. Rather than trying to untangle the whole discourse about Orientalism, Islamophobia, censorship, and the West, let us look at the novel’s starting point: according to an interview from this past November, Jones was “inspired by an essay she heard on NPR shortly after 9/11 about a Muslim woman who renounced her faith due to Islamic extremism and the misogyny that comes with it.”
She heard a Western news outlet’s edited version of a contemporary Muslim woman’s experience, in the confused aftermath of a generation-defining act of violence, and chose to write a novel exploring, well, a Western white woman’s interpretation of Islamic history. According to an interview from Patheos in 2008: “I did all this in the service of what I see as a truth. My truth – this is my vision of what things would have been like based on my own experiences and my own research and my own intuition and observations of human nature.”
Jewel of Medina caused the kind of shitstorm you’d think would be a career-ender. Instead, Sherry Jones is now with Simon and Schuster. Her Josephine Baker book is getting enough buzz that I noticed it way over here in my happy romance bubble. The glowing Kirkus review says Jones’ new novel “offers a corrective to some of Baker’s own fabrications about her life.”
Just as a suggestion, if you decide you must dismantle the defiant self-mythologizing of a cherished and complex black celebrity in the name of pedantic historical trivia, please at least get anyone but a white novelist to do it. Next thing you’ll be informing me Queen Bey has not in fact been legally crowned as the head of any existing monarchy. Again: this approach is technically correct, but pedantically narrow.
On Facebook, Jones complained about “so-called ‘reviewers’” who were disappointed to see what she’d left out of Baker’s story. She stated they were “missing the pojnt [sic] of the book.” In comments she continued: “We couldn’t possibly write every detail of our subjects’ lives; nor would we want to.” This is a painful truth about writing historical novels: at some point, you’re going to have to either leave something out, or make something up. The historical record is full of gaps, it doesn’t always line up in a neat narrative, and every author has to find a way to come to terms with this. And you could hand the same biographical facts to three different authors and get three wildly different novels. Such as, say, Alexander Hamilton.
But an author should be comfortable having those gaps pointed out, since these are decisions you ought to have at least a minimum justification for. The historical record does not belong to you alone. Creative works do inform our understanding of the past—especially if they’re bestsellers and supported by marketing dollars. If Josephine Baker isn’t just a historical person anymore, if she’s also the main character in a popular novel, then who we think she was depends on the author’s approach to the facts.
Deciding what to emphasize, what to alter and what to leave out of a historical account gives an author a great deal of power—especially if the person you’re writing about is dead and can’t argue back.
For modern novelists, the promo grind is endless. It’s a crowded market, with a vanishing midlist, and we’re all fighting for every scrap of reader attention. We are encouraged to seize opportunities, to play up connection points between our work and current trends and events. It’s why bookstores put up displays full of material on Hamilton and Burr; it’s why I took photos of me holding up my favorite astronaut romances that time I visited NASA. That constant pulse of scrambling for relevance might explain this shareable public post from Sherry Jones’ Facebook page, where she makes time to point out on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that “Josephine Baker used her platform to demand equality years before Dr. King became famous.” Jones comes down hard on the fact that Baker “was the ONLY woman to speak” at the March on Washington, the all-caps emphasizing Baker’s gender in contrast to her race, as though those parts of her identity are separable and distinct from each other. It’s an odd choice to honor MLK by making him a second-place finisher in someone else’s story. Josephine Baker’s presence at the March, a historical accuracy, thus becomes a moment where Jones downplays King’s world-changing speech and boosts her novel’s online profile—a novel whose profits go to a white author, and a publisher who is statistically likely to be staffed with white people. (The audiobook’s narrator Adenrele Ojo, I will point out, is both black and a dancer, which is pretty awesome.) In the interview quoted above, Jones marvels at how much she learned about racism while researching Baker’s history and says: “I hope this book will awaken other people the way I have been awakened.”
This is very like what she said in Patheos about the readership of her first novel: “I always said my main audience is going to be Western women because I felt like Muslims already know these stories.” Historical fiction, according to Jones, bridges the gap between unawareness and knowledge. Unfortunately, that means that Jones’ version of Baker’s story will have more impact on white readers, since it’s safe to assume that black readers are already aware of racism as a powerful force in daily life. And every author always strives to speak more directly to her audience: the demographics will become a self-reinforcing bubble.
This is how black history can become white profits, even if your clear intent is to enlighten and inform.
It should go without saying but I’ll say it: Dray/Kamoie and Jones and so on are perfectly free to write whatever they feel like writing. But when they step up to publish that writing, when you ask for money in exchange for your work,we have to ask who these books are speaking to, and whose real-world voices they may be speaking over.
It’s about financial benefits, and who counts as an authority on the past and in the present—about access to platforms and silenced perspectives and, yes, a certain kind of ownership. Dray and Kamoie and Jones seem to feel enough ownership over black and brown art and experiences that they can leverage this material—or whitewash and whitesplain it—in a social and commercial network. For profit and acclaim.
I write this because black history is more than slavery and Civil Rights. Black history is also the devaluation—the underfinancing—of black voices in present-day commercial publishing.
Dray and Kamoie’s next project is a French Revolution-set novel with three, possibly four other white authors. The promo materials use the language of feminism to unabashedly trumpet women’s political agency and empowerment across classes—but at the time of the Revolution France was still a slave-owning empire, making race incredibly germane to any discussion of liberté, egalité, fraternité. This is also the time period covered by Dray/Kamoie’s America’s First Daughter, which deals extensively with the Jeffersons’ and Hemings’ lives in Revolutionary Paris.
This is what any working author recognizes as the building of a brand. Historical novels set around the same time, with similar covers, promoted as a bundle. Readers who like one will probably like the others—and just like that, you’ve got a backlist, and a readership, and a platform.
What you don’t see, unless you’ve been around and listening for a while, are the absences: the black and brown authors and readers and reviewers who spoke out about that racist joke three years ago, who’ve been speaking up so often while the privileged among us move on and forget: the vital critical voices outside the promo bubble, who object to a narrow white and wealthy version of historical truth.
Authors are discouraged from engaging with negative reviews, for obvious reasons—but often the practical result is that authors stop engaging with all criticism, so as a white author’s career profile grows she signal-boosts only those authors who don’t call her out on racist biases, erasure, or stereotypes. Despite the controversy, Sherry Jones’ first novel makes her a good colleague to cross-promote, because she too understands the pain of having her work criticized by the people she was writing about, and will give you the benefit of the doubt for your good intentions. That’s sisterhood.
This kind of comfort is a privilege you only get to enjoy if you don’t have to constantly shout down lies about you and people like you.
The reason I’m writing this, the reason I chased down all these forgotten scandals, is because of the way in which I learned about Stephanie Dray’s new book: I was having coffee with my editor and asked her what she had coming down the pipeline. And it was this.
Romance is big—but publishing is small, turnover is high, and institutional memory threadbare. If I hadn’t happened to remember Dray’s name, I wouldn’t have known about her problematic history. Same with Sherry Jones—I had in fact forgotten her name, but not her earlier book’s publication, and it made me much warier of her new book than I would have been otherwise. Once someone has made you one sandwich with expired mayonnaise, you hesitate the next time they offer to pack you a picnic lunch.
Historical accuracy is a mutable value. A lot of the same people who care very much whether or not your 12th-century characters can eat potatoes will tell you it’s uncouth to dredge up a joke someone made about a dead black rape victim three whole years ago. Romance gets enough bad press from outsiders, especially during February. We have to protect one another by only speaking positively about the industry. Otherwise you risk briefly slowing down a white woman’s career.
As I write this, a venture-capital-funded romance website thoughtlessly published and then hastily pulled down a piece where white romance author Laurelin Paige said real-life predator R. Kelly was exactly the kind of romance hero she would write and read and fantasize about, because she is a self-described strong woman and a feminist. Just days before that, two reactionary letters were published unedited in RWA’s Romance Writer Report: one letter cried censorship because another author had told her Confederate heroes were on the wrong side of history; the other letter called for more attention to diversity of white experiences, because Catholics and Protestants are different, and stated without citation that queer people were historically miserable until the 21st century. Last year Harlequin closed Kimani Romance—their one line where buying a book guaranteed royalty money went to an author of color. And there was the closure of Crimson Romance, notable for being the most inclusive major imprint, and the revelations of racism and harassment at Riptide…
Any one of these alone would be bad enough—but to see them come so fast, to look back over the last ten years and see so many more of them that we are all encouraged not to remember once the right apologies have been issued to the right people—and then to have an ongoing genre debate revolve around historical accuracy as though that is an unquestionably neutral concept and we weren’t swimming in a constant sea of self-inflicted amnesia…well, it leaves me with questions. Such as:
Why do we obsess over details of dress and travel and titles, and leave out whole swathes of the historical population? Whose history, whose facts, whose interpretations do we keep putting at the center and holding up as worth studying? We are defined by what we remember—but we are also defined by what we choose to forget.
These patterns are also part of black history. We should remember them accurately, too.
An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole (Kensington Books: historical m/f):
The Loyal League series has always burned with a fierce and righteous fury, but this book is an absolute conflagration. Hero Daniel Cumberland was born free but kidnapped into slavery and only rescued years later; he is a battered, bristling, murderous ball of hard-earned rage and trauma at the start of the book. We’ve caught glimpses of Daniel in the other books of the series: he was Elle’s childhood friend and would-be fiancé in An Extraordinary Union, and he had a brief but arresting cameo in A Hope Divided that hinted his past held awful and disturbing things. He stands on the cover of this book holding a lamp and a scroll, like the icon of some avenging saint. (I actually looked up the iconography to see if there was a saint reference I was missing.) Seeing the world through his eyes yanked the breath from my lungs and made me ache for his pain. What kind of heroine, I wondered, will he be matched with? Someone who can meet him in the middle of his anguish, matching pain for pain? Or someone who brings light into the storm?
Holy shit, she’s a Confederate spy.
They tell you that in the blurb so it’s not at all a spoiler, but I was too eager to read the book to glance at the blurb, and what a rush, my god. Janeta is black and Cuban; she is guarded and clever and observant and knows exactly how far her father’s wealth has protected her, and how many times it has failed. She’s not a believer in the Confederate cause—but she was steeped in its myths, and she needs to bring down the League to save her father. And now the League has paired her with Daniel. At this point in the story we know—we know, because this is Alyssa Cole’s book we’re reading—she is going to have all her sentimental illusions about her family and her slaveholder father torn away. We’ve seen Daniel’s past agony; Janeta’s greatest suffering is all still to come.
What follows is one of the most tense, brilliant, urgent, and goddamn gorgeous romances I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I don’t know how Alyssa Cole keeps doing this. I stand here in absolute awe, utterly vanquished.
He looked around as if each shadow thrown by the half-bare trees might hide some threat, and Janeta’s heart squeezed painfully in her chest. He was looking in all the wrong places; the actual danger stood just a foot away from him, offering him a drink and wishing this damned war had never drawn either of them into its gears.
Private Eye by Katrina Jackson (self-published: contemporary m/pan f):
Spy stories often have a veneer of cold misogyny about them: from the casual lady-murder of James Bond, to the tragic fringing of women in Le Carré, to the squicky sexual power dynamics of True Lies, the genre often runs roughshod over femmes and feelings in service of The Mission, or The State, or Stopping Terrorism, or whatever. If women do have agency, they often only use it to betray, and therefore retroactively justify all the suspicion and emotional distance the male leads carry around like so many chips on their shoulders. And it goes without saying that all the best spies and major diplomatic players are white. Black and brown folks get to be villains, sidekicks, and cannon fodder, and not much else.
Katrina Jackson has seen those spy stories and is having none of that nonsense here.
I’m picking up this series at the second volume, caught by the promise of a sex worker heroine written by someone not interested in shaming her for it. I got all the sweet feelings and exuberant filth I’ve come to expect from the author’s books—plus a whole agency full of hot, kinky, queer and queer-friendly spies who explicitly reject the concept of the ideal espionage agent as someone friendless, untouchable, and iceberg-pure. Maya is a fat black cam model, exceptional at her job, whose life is turned upside-down when she learns her favorite subscriber is actually a spy. Kenny first checked Maya out to get her roommate a security clearance—Kierra’s exploits as a personal assistant/girlfriend to the head of the spy agency and her husband is the plot of book one in the series—but kept coming back, entranced by her gorgeous curves and the way she laughs when she comes. At times you have to wonder how they get any spying done with all the flirting and fucking and feelings—but it’s not any less plausible than James Bond, so best to just kick back and enjoy the ride. Pun very much intended.
This was all fun and games and flirting and blowjobs until it wasn’t.
The Apprentice Sorceress by E. D. Walker (self-published: trans m/f):
I’ve always been a sucker for books in the Youths Develop Magic And Feelings genre: Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, Patricia C. Wrede, etc. This story of a high-born refugee sorceress coming into her powers, and a lovelorn trans squire helping her learn how to channel them, plucks a new set of strings in that familiar key.
It’s always fun to watch an author develop a magical system—sometimes you want something with clear rules, sometimes it’s more fun if magic is organic and artistic and a little bit, well, magical. Walker’s magic leans more toward the latter, but the descriptions of it are concrete enough that it never feels hand-wavey or too plot-convenient. We can never have enough well-crafted magical hangovers, in my opinion—and while the source of magic is never really explained, each time Violette manages a spell she builds on what we’ve seen her learn, so it feels as though we’re learning along with her. A nice trick, that.
And Ned. Oh, Ned—you charming, funny, earnest, tender-hearted young man. I can see why prickly, wary Violette likes you so much in spite of herself. Our main romance is contrasted with a romance between the two royals our hero/heroine serve: we watch how many sacrifices Ned and Violette have to make, how many risks they run, until it feels like Aliénor and Thomas’ love can only come at the expense of everyone else’s safety and happiness. It’s a clever way to add tension, and it definitely means I’ll be looking out for more books by this author in years to come.
Next moment, he had turned that grin on Violette, and the breath caught in her chest. He wasn’t handsome, not by any stretch. And yet the sparkle of his eyes and the wry twist of his mouth were enough to set her heart to racing. Most inconvenient.
Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik (Harper Voyager: m/f sci-fi):
Time to talk about the forced proximity trope in romances! My favorite examples usually sport equal-opportunity constraint, rather than putting only the heroine at a disadvantage. Two characters handcuffed together is almost always more fun than simply chaining one character to the wall. For instance: when the runaway space princess is captured by mercenaries and forced to share a cell with a terrifying, infamous, and muscular assassin.
Together, they manage to break out of the mercenary ship—and then it’s a headlong rush from one planet to another ahead of mercs, space princes, and family spies in this action-heavy space adventure.
Heroine Ada is marvelously engaging: scrappy and fallible, with a principled emotional center that makes her feel more complex than many a not-like-other-girls-with-their-frills-and-feelings Strong Female Character [Beaton link]. The success of a first-person POV depends so much on the character’s voice: this one is snappy without overdoing the snark, and has some rich and fascinating depths of tenderness lurking beneath the blaster fire. Ada makes rash decisions as a matter of course to protect her friends and family, and is charmingly taken aback when those friends and family are outraged at the dumbass risks she took with her own life. “What was I supposed to do, leave you?” she asks, and every other character shouts “YES!” in all-caps exasperation. Several side couples are obvious sequelbait, but who’s complaining when there’s this much fun to be had? The plot hits many of the same notes as Firefly, minus the Whedonian asshattery. Or if Jupiter Ascending were not quite so bonkersville.
Our hero Marcus Loch is more of a cipher, all growly possessiveness and tragic backstory. There was a sense of loneliness and self-deprecation about him that matched Ada’s own, and I would have liked to have seen this emotional arc deepened and dwelt on a bit more. Also a certain couple of space princes definitely needed more punching in the face. Hopefully the second book (fall 2019!) will give us a bit more of this, while keeping all the fun and the fireworks.
There are moments in your life when you absolutely know what you should do and then you absolutely choose to do something else entirely. This was one of those moments.
Sugar Pie Guy by Tabitha True (self-published: historical m/f):
Disco is the like bodice-ripper of music genres—in fact, they emerged at roughly the same time in the sexual revolution, as did feminist sex-toy shops. Taken together, these three different cultural products all look like rebellious antidotes to the 1970s’ particular flavor of serious, self-contained, rough-edged masculinity. Disco in particular was visibly black, femme, and queer, which goes a long way toward explaining the vitriolic backlash it received, and still receives.
So a romance set in the disco era is a natural fit, especially if you like your historicals to occasionally visit times other than the 19th century (and we know by now that I do!). Between the punchy voice and the vintage atmosphere, this book has a lot going on. It’s a classic small business-versus-rich-developer setup, with a welcome emphasis on what being a community means. Heroine Bobbie is delightful and ambitious, hero Randy (heh) is more earnest and tender than many others of his archetype. (The moment he’s abashed to realize the hot stewardess who’s hitting on him doesn’t remember she’s hit on him before is a neat twist on an old hero-POV chestnut.)
Every Lesser Rule of Romance has an exception, and this one is: do not name actual bands and songs unless you are writing a historical and using older songs for period detail. The playlist I built while reading this is unbelieveable. It was fascinating to see different dance moves embodied in print; most of the dance books I’ve read have leaned strongly toward ballroom and ballet. This book’s disco scenes made me want to get up and move. And sing. And buy something with sequins on it.
He made his way to the VIP banquette, and greeted Miss Foster, her hip stylist, and a sweater-wearing man who seemed to have wandered in from a book club meeting. Chit-chatting with them was nice, but when the intro to “Never Gonna Leave You” came booming out of those speakers, he cut it short as graciously as he could. He was going to have that dance, with that girl, if it was the last thing he ever did.
Al Ewing is doing some of the best work at either of the big two superhero publishers right now. How good is he? He got me to read and enjoy a Deadpool miniseries. That's no small feat.
And now, Ewing is hard at work on another difficult Marvel character: the Hulk. Lots of writers have made their own imprints on the Hulk over the years — I grew up with Peter David's run, but that Bill Mantlo stretch in the 1980s was just as groundbreaking as David's, if not more — but Ewing is doing something else again: he's recasting the Hulk as a horror comic, and he's succeeding.
The Immortal Hulk, as Ewing's run is titled, began as a kind of gimmick in single-issue stories: Bruce Banner would die in some gruesome way, then the Hulk would briefly show up and enact an ironic form of justice. It was the kind of formula we've seen in comics since at least the early days of The Spectre, and it was enjoyable enough.
But the last few issues of Ewing's run have changed the character of the Hulk in some deeply disturbing ways. It sent the Hulk, literally, to hell, and made him join forces with some unlikely allies in a quest to escape. This Hulk — more literate than past versions, and gaunt like a corpse — is beyond good and evil. He's a monster with his own mysterious agenda, and he'll defeat the devil himself if he gets in the Hulk's way.
Issue 13 of The Immortal Hulk sees the conclusion of one story and the beginning of another. It has deepened the character's story by making him the first in a small army of gamma-ray-powered "metaphor people," and it has promised more revelations to come. And it ends with one of the most affecting last pages I've seen in a superhero comic in recent memory: Bruce Banner, the monster at the heart of the Hulk, writhing in an agony of his own making, seeking some kind of salvation. It probably won't end well for him.
Between Virginia's parade of blackface-wearing public officials and Liam Neeson's admission that he sought to kill a "black bastard" almost at random after a friend was raped, white people have done their best to mar the first week of 2019's edition of Black History Month. And of course the white people at the heart of these stories all insist, heartily and without irony, that they are not racist.
"I'm not racist." Think about that statement. On what planet do you get to be the final arbiter of your own racism? Racism is not an individual choice; it is systemic. Every white person I know — yes, myself included, obviously — has behaved in a racist manner, or said something racist, or committed a racist action. Racism is not who you are, it's the culture you simmer in, and it's the choices you make within that culture. When you are accused of racism, the best first action is not to insist upon your own lack of racism; it is to shut the hell up and listen.
Last night's edition of the Reading Through It Book Club discussed Jabari Asim's beautifully written collection of essays, We Can't Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival. Thanks to slick roads and skittish Seattle drivers, we were a small group — and, as it happens, we were a group entirely made up of white people. Of course we discussed the complexity of that situation: it felt problematic for a group of white folks to sit around and talk about a book that talked so honestly about the Black experience in America.
But, really, what would have been a better option for us to take? Would it be better for us to not discuss the book? That doesn't seem right. It's important for white people to discuss race and racism amongst ourselves, isn't it? To call our white friends out when we see racism, and to embark on the difficult conversations when they're necessary?
There was much to discuss in Asim's book. The essays are not just gorgeously written; Asim placed them perfectly in relation to each other. The first essay is about the importance of truth and the lies people tell; it immediately framed Asim as someone who cares deeply about honesty. The second essay is about the pleasures of strutting, of feeling comfortable and happy in your own body, and the joy that Asim takes in lyrically describing his own tendency to strut is infectious.
We were all moved by Asim's writing. We all took something away from the book and wanted to read more by him. We wanted to place the book in the hands of the white people who needed to read it. We wanted to talk about the book with our neighbors, and to take Asim's words to heart. We were a small group, and we barely scratched the surface of what Asim had to say. But we showed up, and we talked, and we listened to what he had to say, and we tried to recognize our own place inside that terrible mess of a system. It's not enough, but it is a step forward.
The next Reading Through It Book Club will convene at Third Place Books Seward Park to discuss Seattle author Martha Brockenbrough's biography of Donald Trump, Unpresidented. Brockenbrough will be in attendance at the next meeting on March 6th at 7 pm. The reading is free to attend and Unpresidented is now 20% off at Third Place Books.
Don't have any plans this Saturday? Here's a way to stand up for Seattle's school libraries:
Join us at a rally for our @SeaPubSchools students Saturday Feb9, 10am at Cascadia Elementary School. Family friendly, #studentvoice #letthemspeak help spread the word https://t.co/mncQDn1nek #schools1stSeattle https://t.co/kZxGrjgaFB— Rebecca Wynkoop (@EagleStaffLib) February 3, 2019
Well, here's a bummer: the person who'll be interviewing Michelle Obama at the Tacoma Dome stop on her Becoming reading tour is...Jimmy Kimmel? Couldn't they have found someone with a local tie?
Here's a great conversation with Victor LaValle and Marlon James about how literary fiction is failing a generation of writers and readers:
Literary realism has this sort of indie-film attitude toward sex. Violence is violent, but sex isn’t sexy. It’s compulsive; nobody’s happy; they enjoy the cigarette way more than the sex. Sometimes I read these novels, none of which I’ll name, and I go, It’s not that hard to enjoy sex, people.
So apparently some famous writer was disgraced this week and a venerable literary organization asked me to fill in for him at a dinner to raise money for imperiled writers around the world.— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) February 6, 2019
You won’t believe what ensued.
I probably don't need to tell you that public schools in Washington state are in serious trouble. The problems are deep and systemic and a lot of great journalists have been covering this issue for a very long time and I don't want to insult them by mangling the subject, but I think what it boils down to is this: Even though Washington state's constitution specifically labels education of children as the state's "paramount duty," we have failed our public school students again and again.
Our state simply doesn't budget enough for our public school teachers and staff to perform the task that our founders determined to be our "paramount duty." Without an income tax on high-income Washingtonians — two of the three richest people in the world live here, and they pay almost nothing toward public education — we cannot capably educate our children.
Virtually every week brings another failure — both a failure to live up to our state's constitution and a failure to live up to our promise to the state's future. We are losing a generation of students to underfunded schools. Our teachers are brilliant and talented and they love their jobs, but they simply don't have the resources to do the job we hired them to do. And meanwhile our billionaires embark on vanity presidential runs to whine that they don't want to pay any more in taxes. It is a moral outrage.
Virtually every aspect of our public schools are in crisis, but for right now I want to talk about our school libraries. Ashley Gross at KNKX reported late last month that two dozen schools in the Seattle school district will be forced next year to reduce their full-time school librarians to part-time status.
You're on a site called the Seattle Review of Books, so it's likely that you understand the importance of reading. School libraries help children learn how to love reading for the pure pleasure of it. Librarians provide book recommendations that could change the course of lives. Those books teach children to be empathetic, to imagine a world bigger than their own, to see themselves in a new light.
And school librarians do a lot more than just check books in and out. In 2016, I profiled a number of Seattle school librarians to get a better sense of what they do. I learned that they provide important classroom support for teachers, that they create safe spaces for children who are suffering from stresses that overwhelmed teachers can't address, that they teach children how to be good researchers and consumers of media. To the children, they are friends, counselors, protectors, cheerleaders, and tour guides to the world outside the school's walls.
Rebecca Wynkoop is a teacher librarian at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School. She explained to me that librarians are on the chopping block right now because the state legislature defines school librarians as "recommended, not required" staff. This word choice means that "the school district is not bound by any law to provide students with school librarians."
Wynkoop, who has worked for Seattle schools for a dozen years, says that "when faced with budget issues, librarians are unfortunately often one of the easiest targets" due to that distinction between "recommended" and "required." Those cuts, she says, will "leave eight schools out of 102 with full-time librarians."
If Wynkoop goes to half-time as expected, she says she would likely "see 400 fewer classes next year," and her students "would check out 17,000 fewer books" than they did this year. It's hard to reconcile those numbers with the real world: how many favorite books will the students of Robert Eagle Staff go without discovering? How many children will not learn to love reading? The cost is incalculable.
The worst part of all this is that there's probably nothing you can do to stop this from happening next year. "I think it's fairly certain that the cuts are going to be made," Wynkoop says.
So what can readers of the Seattle Review of Books do to help? "The first thing is we need is to pressure our legislators to" ensure that schools "can actually operate with a budget that is reflective of the number of students and the diversity of the students that we're serving."
"The second thing is to vote for the two levies that we're facing" in the February 12th election, Wynkoop says. Neither of these levies will restore school libraries to their current strength, but they are absolutely necessary to prevent even deeper cuts.
And we need to change the culture to reflect the importance of school libraries. "Recently the Washington Library Association did a study, and they found that there's 33 surrounding districts in the Pacific Northwest that have full-time librarians in their schools. And Seattle is one of two that won't. Some of that's because we're a larger district, but some of that is because there hasn't been a priority placed on libraries in schools, and the services that they provide, for a number of years."
"So we also need folks to encourage their school board members and, quite frankly, if they have kids in schools, to encourage their principals and the administration to prioritize libraries." One way to show what school libraries mean to you is to contribute to an upcoming zine showing the impact of reading and libraries on young lives. If you have a compelling testimonial to contribute in whatever form — comics, essay, interview — librarians would love to hear from you.
Wynkoop adds, "I definitely feel like our libraries are the key to equity, and unfortunately this cut is going to only increase the inequities to students in Seattle public schools." She says that wealthier schools "with strong library programs and strong parental support will likely find ways to keep their full-time librarians," through PTA donations and grants. But in the schools with less resources, "the students will just go without. And that's just going to widen our opportunity gap."
The choices we're making in this state right now will have long-term repercussions for Washington and the world in years to come. If we fail to foster a love of reading in children today, we could be dooming an entire generation to failure. Children need ready access to free books, and they need trained adults to help them find those books. Libraries can never be optional.
On a sunny day in March 2014, I drove a moving truck packed full of zines across downtown Seattle to the top of Queen Anne Hill. With the gas pedal pressed to the floor, the truck slowly crawled up the 18 percent grade. When we arrived at our destination, 223 carefully packed boxes of zines were whisked out of sight into a building I was prohibited from entering: the off-site storage facility of the Seattle Public Library. I would not see the zines again for five years.
Last week, the Seattle Public Library hosted a number of events for those in town for the American Library Association's Midwinter conference, including an open house of the ZAPP (Zine Archive and Publishing Project) collection. As a librarian and a ZAPP volunteer from 2009 to 2014, I was grateful for the chance to see the collection again. I approached the event with a mix of trepidation and hope, and I came away cautiously optimistic about the collection's future.
The ZAPP collection, which includes more than 30,000 zines dating from the 1920s to the time ZAPP moved out of the Richard Hugo House in 2014, is now located on the seventh floor of the Central Library, in the Maffei Family Aviation Room. The collection is locked, with access available only by appointment. Even more disappointing, the ZAPP collection still has no presence on the Seattle Public Library website (although I was assured this was in the works); unless someone has previous knowledge of ZAPP, they would have no idea of the treasures held within. No new zines are being added to the collection, belying the long-held conception of ZAPP as "a living archive." Any new zine donations are added to the separate, circulating collection of zines in the library's teen collection.
The collection is still in the original boxes and acid-free plastic bags that housed the zines at Hugo House. Library staff plan to place the zines in plastic sleeves that have an open top, and there is talk of storing the entire collection in closed-top Hollinger boxes. Open-top sleeves are a great idea for making the zines more browsable, but having the collection in Hollinger boxes would make the collection seem unwelcoming and could discourage people from looking through the collection. There's a balance to be struck between preservation and access, and closed-top boxes swing that balance too far.
The room itself has beautiful views but is stark, with grey walls and no decor. SPL staff have invited a handful of school groups to make zines in the working space toward the back of the room. Though no zine-making supplies were visible during the open house, the SPL zine librarians expressed their desire to get additional supplies: a copy machine, paper cutters, typewriters. I also hope that they can make the space more inviting by displaying creative inspiration on the walls.
Two things I learned during the open house made me hopeful for the future of the collection: the SPL zine librarians mentioned that they were working on an upcoming exhibit with North Seattle College, which will feature memorabilia from ZAPP's history from 1996 to 2014. That'll be an exciting opportunity to let folks know about this important part of Seattle's history of art and literature. In addition, SPL was able to obtain enough funds from the Seattle Public Library Foundation to hire a twenty-hour-a-week copy cataloger who will focus exclusively on providing access to the ZAPP collection. While this funding is only guaranteed for one year, it's still a huge step towards making the zines located within SPL more visible to a worldwide audience.
I would encourage anyone who was a part of ZAPP or is a part of Seattle's vibrant small press culture to continue to pay attention to what SPL does with the collection. Let's make sure that SPL administration gives the collection the attention and financial resources it requires to thrive and grow into the future.
An ageless geography,
this dizzying Sisyphus that defines
the tremor of knots & water, classification of a mile-hymned
absence shorn of breath & bismuth. For its excess,
an abdication. A victory sizzling
the compass glass,
the dinging, a beacon for what’s lost
& hungered. There’s nothing
here to covet.
Of what’s been asked
across the oscillating apse,
which question is the one to strain?
All strung out in axes,
asp & aspen
both sense the same direction.
Have you ever read an interview with a school? Neither had we before our disembodied consciousness reached out to ask sponsor Mineral School some important (and only slightly impertinent) questions.
Fits the bill, since Mineral School is the most unique, charming, and special writer's residency around. Hosted in an actual school (retired) for the small town of Mineral, Washington, it was built the same year that something very culturally significant happened in the sky above the new school (read about that in the interview). A classroom in this storied building could be your home and workplace a bit later this year. Even better, they feed you great food, and from everything we've heard, they know how to feed the soul of a writer, as well.
Don't miss out. February 15 is the application deadline for this year's residencies. Check out our sponsor feature page for the inside scoop on the program, and to read about the school in its own words.
Sponsors like Mineral School make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you can sponsor us, too? If you have a book, event, or opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, reserve your dates now. The spring is selling fast!
This year is the 100th anniversary of a citywide strike that helped make Seattle a center of labor in the United States. This is a release of a revised reissue of a book written by Robert L. Friedheim and published in 1964. University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 6 pm, free.
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of the brand-new short story collection What We Do With the Wreckage. Sarah Cannon is a memoirist who wrote the very good The Shame of Losing. They are both Seattle writers. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Seattle writer Marlene Blessing was for years a senior editor at Dragon Gate Press. Tonight, with the help of local writers Sharon Bryan and Laura Jensen, they will celebrate an important press in local history. Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 7 pm, free.
As I wrote in my review of Seattle author Thomas Khonstamm's debut novel Lake City, the book "makes a pretty compelling case for the titular neighborhood as the place where 'real' Seattle has dug in and stubbornly refused to give up." It's a story about a side of Seattle that rarely gets any attention anymore. Tonight, I'll be in conversation onstage with Khonstamm. We'll talk about what it's like to recreate a certain time and place, why Lake City is so evocative, and what writing a debut novel after publishing a successful nonfiction book is like. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
"[Madeline] DeFrees was one of the most vibrant, evocative poets the Pacific Northwest has ever produced," I wrote on this site three years ago, not long after her death. DeFrees's passing moved whole generations of Seattle poets — people who had loved her work as readers, or who knew her personally, or had just fallen in love with her as a reader of her own work.
DeFrees's work appealed to so many readers because it was so specific to her own experiences. That specificity brought a universal appeal to her writing. "Her charge as a poet," I wrote in November of 2015 when DeFrees's death was announced, "was to capture the workings of her mind, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies, and relate it in beautiful, entrancing language."
After every poet's death, there come a reckoning with legacy. Either people remember and celebrate their work, or the poet is forgotten. DeFrees was too important to Northwest poetry to be lost to time. In fact, our realization of the importance of her work has only grown in the years since her passing. DeFrees was the creator of a particular kind of confessional work that we're still seeing in our new Seattle poets today. It's probable that a hundred years from now, her name will tower over some of the white men who currently stand atop the Washington State Poetry Canon.
This Thursday, Hugo House celebrates the 100th anniversary of DeFrees's birth and the publication of a posthumous collection of her work, Where the Horse Takes Wing: The Uncollected Poems of Madeline DeFrees. Local poets including Anastacia-Renee, Susan Rich, Arianne True, and Natasha Kochicheril Moni will read some of DeFrees's work and discuss how she helped shape their own careers.
Anne McDuffie, the book's editor, will be on hand to discuss what it is like to oversee the next step in DeFrees's evolution as a poet. This is a rare chance to witness the moment in which a poet's afterlife truly begins.
Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, free.
At thirteen, Alice de Rivera decided that the right school for her was not the local public — weak in STEM, weak in support from teachers — but Stuyvesant High, an all-boys school celebrated for its math and science classes. With consent from, but not driven by, her parents, she found a lawyer willing to push the case and was admitted after a media circus that today would surely have brought Twitter to its knees. Although de Rivera never attended Stuyvesant (her parents shuffled her out of the public eye, after her very public win), she was the tip of the wedge that pried Stuyvesant open for other young women. Laurie Gwen Shapiro visited Alice to hear the story firsthand.
De Rivera lives in a farmstead that was built in the eighteen-twenties, far outside of town, and hidden among the trees. My Uber driver went back and forth several times before de Rivera, a trim sixty-three-year-old in a plaid flannel shirt, walked down the snowy road to find me. She was instantly recognizable from her old, teen-age press photos. She brought me inside, and we sat at her kitchen table near an old Jøtul wood stove that was heating the room. De Rivera is a physician, and she lives with her husband, David Haines, a retired math professor at Bates College. (She now goes by Alice Chartrand Haines, which includes her first husband’s last name.) After her courtroom victory, she had become a footnote in history, and hadn’t spoken to the press since 1969. When I saw her, I told her that some New York City girls wonder whether she was a myth.
“Oh, I’m real,” she said, possibly blushing. “Just very private.”
The tags on this one tell the story: "free speech," "homophobia," "Oxford." Sophie Smith considers the case against John Finnis, whose position on homosexuality has been challenged by a petition to remove him from his post at the august British institution, and reminds us that few ideas are free of hidden motivations, and free speech may in fact be very costly.
In 2017, Finnis was called on to respond to claims that his former student Neil Gorsuch, then a nominee for the US Supreme Court, had plagiarised other scholars in a book. Finnis defended Gorsuch on the grounds that his ‘writing and citing was easily and well within the proper and accepted standards of scholarly research and writing in the field of study in which he and I work’. But as Finnis’s colleague Les Green pointed out at the time, ‘if by “the field of study in which [Gorsuch] and I work” Professor Finnis means university research in law or legal philosophy, then his claim is unfounded.’
We should be mindful of the way the current narrative is playing out: the gentle, humble scholar defending himself against the witch-hunt of the student mob. The Gorsuch episode suggests that, like the students who would see him dethroned, Finnis is engaged in politics, and wants to create a world more congenial to his views. And sometimes his side wins: Gorsuch, until he retires or dies, will sit on the US Supreme Court.
A lovely, long piece by novelist Rachel Cusk on driving. Cusk considers time, death, morality, and freedom, all through the windshield — the perfect reading for a road trip, or for recognizing the largeness that exists in everyday actions.
It is often regretted that children can no longer play or move freely outside because of the dangers of traffic; inevitably, many of the people who voice these regrets are also the drivers of cars, as those same restricted children will come to be in their time. What is being mourned, it seems, is not so much the decline of an old world of freedom as the existence of comforts and conveniences the individual feels powerless to resist, and which in any case he or she could not truthfully say they wished would be abolished. There is a feeling, nonetheless, of loss, and it may be that the increasing luxury of the world inside the car is a kind of consolation for the degradation of the world outside it.
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of three collections of short fiction, most recently What We Do With the Wreckage, the winner of the 2017 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction — and which was also popular with other Whatcha Reading contributors.
Come see Kirsten in conversation with local author Sarah Cannon, author of The Shame of Losing, this Tuesday, February 5th at the Elliott Bay Book Company.
What are you reading now?
I’ve just discovered UK-based Platypus Press’s Shorts — a series of individually released digital short stories — and I’m happily working my way through the most recent issues, starting with January’s release, “Now We Get Over It,” by Seattle-native Michelle Bailat-Jones (whose most recent publication is the lovely and moving novel Unfurled, published in October of 2018 by Ig Publishing).
“Now We Get Over It” is a quiet and technically beautiful story. It follows Laura, a new mother, through the first weeks after her son’s delivery into the world, and it so perfectly captures the disorientation, unexpected emptiness, and muddy fatigue that many mothers experience during the early months of parenthood. Bailat-Jones’s writing is precise, and reading her prose called up in me the exact dreamy melancholy and unexpected grief I recall from my own first days as a new mother. Laura’s repeated variations on the line Everything is fine, I’m really fine, I’m going to be fine run like cracks across the polished surface of this story, and by the last page I felt exactly as fractured as Laura herself.
I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in this series.
What did you read last?
I bought myself Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color at the end of December, and reading a few pages of it each night before bed became my daily gift to myself throughout the first month of the new year. Several people had recommended the book to me — among them Seattle poet Catherine Bull, who said the book’s rich and vivid exploration of the history of colors was working its way into her poems; and also Seattle artist Drie Chapek (whose show In the Quiet opens at the Greg Kucera Gallery at the end of this month). I was intrigued, bought the book, and then found myself savoring every page. Opening the book each night to read St. Clair’s detailed, fascinating, and visually evocative histories was like opening a box of sweets. I loved everything about this gorgeous book.
What are you reading next?
Next on my list is a re-read, actually, of a book I’ve loved for years: Andrea Barrett’s story collection Ship Fever. I’m teaching a high school creative writing class this year, and in February and March we’re focusing on integrating history and science in our short fiction. I’m turning (back) to Barrett’s collection not only because of her mastery of short story form, but because of the intricacy with which she is able to lace together fact and fiction. Next week my students will read her story “Rare Bird,” which follows two 18th century women scientists as they defy a widely accepted theory about swallows’ winter migration — and set themselves apart from the exclusively male circle dominating scientific study and knowledge. It’s a beautiful, perfectly put-together story, and — like all of Barrett’s stories — I learn more about how to write fiction each time I read it.
Over on our Instagram page, we’re posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson’s Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here’s her wrap-up and statement from December's posts.
I love publishing these, and I also hate choosing which ones to publish. I’m not great at making decisions. The decisions themselves turn out fine—I’m just terrible at coming to one. My monthly post-it choice overwhelms me with self-consciousness and time, throwing fistfuls of years and life in my face at once. Who knows which moments above others are better, worth anyone else’s time. My little sister was in town last month, inspiring a brilliant temporary solution: I should make her choose them. I hesitate to assign hierarchies (decisions, ugh) but it’s possible that my sister is the #1 BIGGEST FAN EVER of my Post-it Note Project. Maybe. I felt she was a good target. She briskly narrowed her scope to 2013; I know why, and I don’t want to talk about it right now. Charmingly, she initially seemed to be drawn to a healthy dose of pieces featuring herself (there are many), but then took a slightly alarming turn towards the theme of my divorce. That spotlight makes me a little squeamish, but I played by the rules and didn’t edit her choices. The first one anticipates another February, traditionally my most vulnerable month—superstitiously fearing deaths, more losses. Trying to prepare, or trying on hopefulness, laughing at myself. The laptop drawing feels jarring; in the day-to-day now I forget, lose the details of how the partnered version of my life ended. The friends pressuring me about online dating have long since moved away for spouses met through random computer-free coincidences, so I find myself less encumbered by such suggestions nowadays. It’s sweet that she chose the Doris Day post-it—she’s so delightfully on board with all things dyke. Apparently I’m just enough older to have made lesbian cool from an early age. She lives states away but we’re also so crazily close; I think some part of her feels disguised by her own straightness when I’m not around. The divorce meerkat came into my life thanks to my former in-laws, who I speculate bestowed it upon me in a panic of powerlessness and care the night that their daughter left me. We were staying with them a lot; my wife was at work, I was on the top floor of their house when I got her message. My mother-in-law was somewhere downstairs; I don’t know how much she and my father-in-law knew. When he got home from work he confusingly thrust a foot-high, strangely realistic meerkat figurine into my arms. Jauntily, awkwardly, kindly; saying “this is for you.” I never asked them about it. I do like meerkats. When I finally moved into my own place years later, unpacked the boxes from England, there it was, bland and blisteringly hard to look at. There aren’t words. The helpless love in their baffling gesture, the unbearable time travel of this cute, tacky meerkat that traveled an ocean and continent and three years into the future to track me down, break my heart. It makes me laugh out loud and utterly crushes my soul to the floor. I’m sort of miffed at my sister for tricking me into talking about this. Last I saw it, the divorce meerkat was headed to North Carolina to live with my cousin during her own divorce. She’s a grief and bereavement counselor and enjoys a dark joke.
You know that old line about book critics being frustrated novelists? Do you think there's any truth there? Is it, like, 68 percent true, maybe?
All novelists are frustrated but yes, book critics are an odd mix of fangirl and frustrated rival to the authors they critique. It's natural to be competitive in this way. For instance, I have a natural rivalry with retired NASA astronaut Steve Swanson, who many agree is the nicest guy on land or in space – a real Prom King of the People.
You might be wondering why the silly fuck I would choose an all-American hero as a rival. Have you ever heard the old spider adage "bite up"? In other words, don't spin a web to snare a fly, spin a web to snare an astronaut and if a fly lands in the interim, eat him for dinner and then piss on his desiccated corpse.
Retired NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and I attend the same gym. I find myself working out with him regularly. My pushups look like I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders while he knocks his out in Zero-G. I find myself thinking, "Goddamn your perfect pecs, retired NASA astronaut Steve Swanson." I also note his flaws, and find satisfaction in the fact that, given his advanced age, he will likely die before me.
Does this make me a bad person? No. At worst, it makes me a frustrated spaceman.
The best book critics are frustrated novelists who have spent their lives studying and practicing the art of writing good, and are in the best position to crack open the form and structure of a work. Book critics are especially eager to dissect books that succeed in ways that they, as writers, fail.
I would say 68 percent frustrated is accurate.
I don't want you to read about Howard Schultz. You don't need to read about Howard Schultz. Howard Schultz doesn't have any answers to the problems that this country faces.
Instead of reading this piece about Howard Schultz, I would much rather you spent this time reading about real policies that would help Americans eliminate the inequality that has hobbled this nation for the last 40 years: Elizabeth Warren's plans to tax the wealthy and put workers on the boards of corporations, Bernie Sanders's plans to raise the estate tax, Kirsten Gillibrand's plans to institute paid family leave and publicly funded elections, Kamala Harris's calls for universal pre-k.
Virtually all of the Democrats who are running for president have put together thoughtful, ambitious policy proposals that would change the power dynamic in America, helping to re-establish the middle class as the true center of the economy and of the future. Focusing on these ideas, rather than the whims of some dilettante who wants the validation of history, would help to make our country a better place. Please, please focus on substance.
But here's the thing: last night, I saw former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speak at the first event in his adopted city of Seattle since he announced Sunday on 60 Minutes that he was considering a run for president. And I am still furious about what I saw.
The way I process things is I write about them. And then I publish them on websites, in the hopes that perhaps my processing will be useful to someone else. So I'm going to talk at length about Howard Schultz right now. I'm not doing it because he's important or because he's thoughtful or serious. In fact, he is the opposite of all those things. But I still have to process my experience at the Howard Schultz event, and so that's what I'm doing here. I urge you to do something more useful with your time than think about Howard Schultz.
But for the rest of you, those foolhardy few, I will start writing about my evening with Howard Schultz now.
So far as Seattle events go, the Howard Schultz book launch event last night at the Moore Theatre was about as Seattle-y as they come. There was a protest out front — across the street, very politely corralled away from the doors of the Moore. People waved around signs. My favorite was one that said WHAT THE HELL, HOWARD?, but there were plenty to choose from: DON'T SPLIT THE ANTI-TRUMP VOTE, A DOUBLE SHOT OF STUPID — A GRANDE DRIP, and CLUELESS BILLIONAIRE$ MAKE CRAPPY POLITICIANS.
The protesters' message was fairly polite, too: they tried to appeal to Schultz's better nature by chanting "pick a party," rather than "go fuck yourself," say. They suggested that he run as a Democrat. They argued that he was a great businessman and a good man, deep down, but they took issue with his decision to run as an independent and therefore potentially pull votes from whoever gets the Democratic nomination in 2020. It was all very civil.
The raucous, angry protests I imagined simply didn't materialize. Unlike the rollout of Schultz's event in New York City, nobody called him an "asshole." There were no coordinated protests inside the venue, and the heckling was very light.
Perhaps most surprisingly — and damningly for a Seattle event, the evening did not begin nor end with a standing ovation.
The crowd inside the Moore was very traditionally Seattle, by which I mean it was super-white, and wealthy, and older than the crowds you see on the street in South Lake Union. People wore business casual and outdoorsy fleeces. Their applause felt ostentatious, like it was a performance to show the world that they were good and correct moral creatures. Perhaps most surprisingly — and damningly for a Seattle event, the evening did not begin nor end with a standing ovation. Seattle crowds are notoriously easy with their standing o's, and the denying of an ovation from Schultz at his homecoming felt like a noteworthy snub from such a Seattle-y room.
As I entered the hall, someone handed me a square piece of thick cardboard — a coaster, maybe? — that had printed on it, in Schultz's messy handwriting, "Don't be a bystander," along with the name of his new book, From the Ground Up, and the puzzling hashtag #reimagineus, which was supposed to be a call for reimagining the United States, but which read more like the name of a failed Roman emperor or a bad advertisement for an REI store remodel.
Schultz's hour-and-a-half conversation with Evergrey editor Mónica Guzmán was especially noteworthy for the fact that Schultz did not list one single policy that he would promote if he were to be elected president.
Instead Schultz talked about all the things he would not do. He said he opposed Trump's border wall and his corporate tax cuts. But he also said he opposed the "progressive" policy agenda that Democrats in Congress were promoting. He listed three of those policies in quick succession: Free health care (the crowd cheered for it) and free college (the crowd also cheered for it) and "government jobs for everyone" (a mangled interpretation of a jobs guarantee bill which elicited more confusion than anything else from the crowd — one woman issued an incredulous "WHAAAAT!?" when Schultz said it.)
When Schultz announced that he doesn't know how we can pay for those policies, some hero in the audience shouted "pay your taxes!" People applauded. Schultz almost certainly heard — I've been on the stage of the Moore during busy events in a packed house, and you can hear people talking at normal levels in the back row — but did not reply.
Schultz is not especially charismatic. He can put sentences together, and he looks the part of an intense leader, but he doesn't carry a mystery about him, a suggestion of a deep interior life. It's easy to picture him thinking about the song "Pop Goes the Weasel" in any given situation — underneath that slick of gray hair, you get the sense that there's often not much going on.
Further, Schultz does not seem especially smart. He talked about the national conversation with all the depth of the coaster everyone was handed on the way into the theater. Whenever Schultz was asked why he was running as an independent, he'd turn to the audience and say something like, "how many of you think the situation is working well as it currently is?" That's all well and good, but you wouldn't go up to people who were trapped in a burning building and say "it would be a lot worse if there were a bunch of sharks in there with you, wouldn't it?"
Schultz is perhaps the world’s first identity politics billionaire. He whines about being labeled as a billionaire in the same breath that he acknowledges that it’s a true label.
Schultz is perhaps the world's first identity politics billionaire. He whines about being labeled as a billionaire in the same breath that he acknowledges that it's a true label. He says he feels attacked for his great wealth, and he longs for the good old days when people "celebrated success." He's someone who suffers no ill consequences from Donald Trump's actions in the White House, but who would lose money if Democrats took power and passed sane tax legislation. That's why Schultz can call Trump "exhausting" in the same sentence that he complains about the "toxicity" of Democrats in Congress. Democrats are poisoning everything; Trump makes Schultz want to take a nap. Though he actively begged for the spotlight of intense national scrutiny to fall down upon him, he has clearly been coddled to the point that he believes himself to be the innocent victim of a "punitive" and jealous smear campaign centered around his wealth.
In short, Schulz seems delusional. No humble person talks about their own humility as much as Schultz did last night. No humble person has to announce "I'm not a Messiah." No humble person would run for president and then compare themselves to the father of the country: "Imagine for the first time since George Washington that an independent person could win."
The worst answer of the night came when Schultz tried to explain away his abysmal voting record. Danny Westneat reported this week that Schultz has only voted in 11 of the last 38 elections, and Schultz claimed that he's voted in every presidential election since he turned 18 and that he just "wasn't engaged" in local politics.
This, to me, is the most baffling part of the whole thing. I don't know how you can have the gall to identify yourself as a civic leader, as someone who can change the conversation forever, while not taking an interest in the operation of the city around you. People have asked why Schultz doesn't run for Seattle City Council; I have my doubts that he could name his home district's City Councilmember.
He seems thoroughly uninterested in the mechanisms of political power. When Schultz explained how he lost Seattle's basketball team, his story portrayed himself as the hapless loser, torn between civic forces he didn't understand. When he then expressed his disinterest in city, county, and state politics, he reconfirmed that portrayal.
In the end, here's what I think. I think Howard Schultz is a man who is in over his head. I think he's an arrogant man who has fallen prey to some money-grubbing consultants who are playing out his expensive fantasy on a world stage for as long as they can. He's not especially bright when it comes to politics, and he's aggrieved, and he's starting to behave like a wounded child. He thinks the world owes him awe, and he's mad that he's not getting it.
While I could see some Americans falling for the idea of a Howard Schultz presidency just based on hearing the broad strokes of his autobiography, I don't think the man can survive the scrutiny of this process. More, he's not good at it. I don't expect that many people left the Moore last night banking on Schultz to win.
Given that Schultz ended the evening by running away from the press, I suspect that even he's starting to have doubts that he's the right man for the job:
Video of @HowardSchultz ignoring the press, many of whom sat at Moore Theatre for 2+ hours on the explicit promise there would be a media availability after the event. #Q13FOX pic.twitter.com/fHmpC5gTnA— Brandi Kruse (@BrandiKruse) February 1, 2019
But here we are now — I've spent hundreds of words discussing the reasons why a man who is clearly not qualified to be president of the Seattle City Council should not be President of the United States, and you've read this far. So does that mean we're part of the problem, you and I? Should we have ignored Schultz from the start until he demonstrated a certain quality or sturdiness or talent? Maybe so. But we're also human, and humans love to rubberneck at a disaster and Howard Schultz is undeniably this week's disaster.
But now that Howard Schultz has told us who he is — now that he has proven incapable of discussing policy, or promoting a vision for the country beyond "being nice" — it's time to ignore him again. No matter how much money he spends, no matter how much the press loves to lavish their spotlights on him, we have to let him go. The last time we couldn't look away, we wound up with a monster in the White House. We failed the test last time; this time we must do better.
She is always a lot of fun. Her readings are lively and audiences always come ready to laugh and cry and hoot and holler. Her writing advice is candid and often hilarious. Her Q&A sessions alone are reason enough to come out for one of her events. So why not turn up for this reading from her new memoir? At the very least, you’ll have a great time. And that’s not nothin’.
Yesterday, two comics from Seattle writer G. Willow Wilson landed in comics shops — one issue from near the end of a celebrated run on a superhero title, and one issue from the beginning of a promising new run.
It's kind of unbelievable that Wilson is just one issue away from being done with Ms. Marvel, the successful superhero she created for Marvel Comics five years ago. The character feels inseparable from Wilson at an atomic level — other writers have handled her well, but she always sounds slightly off, like a guitar with a too-loose string.
Issue 37 of Ms. Marvel, Wilson's penultimate issue, is a self-contained story that celebrates everything great about the character: she's a member of a community, and a sister, and a daughter, and she's best when she stays a friendly neighborhood hero. It's a fun issue with some physical comedy and action and some drama and superheroics — the formula that has made Ms. Marvel such a standout for the whole of Wilson's run. (If you need a primer, I've written at length about this series before.)
Wilson has been writing Wonder Woman at DC Comics for several months now, and while her first story on the title was an entertaining Wonder Woman story, it didn't exactly feel like a G. Willow Wilson Wonder Woman story. The plot involved Ares the God of War — probably not coincidentally, the villain in the first Wonder Woman movie — and it involved all the usual Wonder Woman characters and situation.
Wonder Woman 63, though, feels like the unofficial true first issue of Wilson's tenure. It's about a minotaur, a pegasus, and a satyr who are trying to fit in to ordinary human life in Washington DC. Wonder Woman appears briefly in the issue, but she's not the focus. It's a story about some profoundly weird people — I use the term loosely — doing their best to hold it together in extreme circumstances, and it's entirely delightful.
"There are elections coming up," a customs agent tells the magical creatures in the beginning of the issue as they try to enter the United States. "People are nervous." For the rest of the comic, they try to find a place in the world, to varying levels of success. Wonder Woman pops in to establish order and to encourage the trio. Like this week's issue of Ms. Marvel, there's no villain — but you won't miss the lack of antagonist in either book.
Hopefully, Wilson continues down this avenue for the rest of her time on Wonder Woman. By placing the fantastic charms of mythology directly up against the mundanity of ordering food in a restaurant, she can examine the themes that make all of Wilson's work so interesting: faith, and friendship, and what it means to be a good person in the world. These are questions that come up again and again in comics, and it's such a relief to know that Wilson is not done searching for the answers.
Do you have what it takes to be Seattle's next Civic Poet? This is a pretty great position that serves as a kind of ambassador from the nation of poetry to the city of Seattle — reading at civic events and working to promote Seattle's amazing poetry scene. If you're a local poet with "an established body of work including published works, reading/spoken word and project planning experience with skills in racial equity practices," this could be the gig for you. Apply by April 24th.
At Crosscut, Agueda Pacheco Flores interviewed the outgoing founding co-directors of Book-It Theatre:
The company’s trademarked and signature approach to theater, known as the Book-It Style, was developed by Jones and Platt. The style adapts full-length novels into theatrical works, but preserves the author’s original narrative text and dialogue.
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats performed a set at Wizards of the Coast's Renton headquarters earlier this week. It's the first event in a rollout of a new Dungeons & Dragons-themed album titled In League with Dragons from the Mountain Goats. (WotC purchased D&D around the turn of the century; here's a fascinating writeup about the purchase.)
I can't quite believe that Spiegel & Grau, which published Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me and last year's Christmas bestseller The Beastie Boys Book, is gone. They published one of the best-selling books to be published last year, but Penguin Random House has to cut imprints because they're simply way too big. Corporate mergers are terrible.
Have you heard that Seattle Public Schools is responding to a budget deficit by cutting some school librarians to part-time? It's true, and we'll be reporting more on this soon. But for now, here's something you and you child can do to help: Librarians and friends of librarians are putting together a zine to "archiv[e] the impact of school libraries in Seattle Public Schools." So if you have any work that explains what school libraries mean to you — from poetry to comics to letters and beyond — please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org by February 4th. Once you've done that, please stay tuned for more on this story.
Every time I've been called to judge a literary competition of any sort - a contest, say, or a grant — I am immediately paralyzed. Judging reminds me that everything is relative, that quality is in the eye of the beholder, and that I am wholly unqualified to choose one person's work over another. The responsibility of it all is too much: maybe this acceptance letter will change a writer's life for good, maybe this rejection will convince this writer to give up forever, maybe the person I'm choosing is actually bad at writing and will embarrass the city and it will ultimately be all my fault.
Every year, the Jack Straw Cultural Center chooses one writer to select a dozen Seattle writers to take part in the Jack Straw Writers Program. This is a big deal for the chosen writers: Jack Straw helps them learn how to better read their work aloud, both in live and recorded contexts. It gives them a platform to read their work in showcases around the city and the state. They collaborate with groups like Folklife and Bushwick Book Club to present new work in exciting ways. Their work will be collected into anthologies produced just for the program. And it introduces them to a peer group of writers — many of whom will become close friends and collaborators.
Being in Jack Straw has changed the lives of dozens of writers: given them confidence, helped them make connections, and taught them how to present their work to new audiences.
Poet Kathleen Flenniken is Jack Straw's 2019 Writer Program Curator. When I ask her on the phone how she dealt with the stress of selecting her 12 writers, she laughs knowingly. Flenniken has been on the board at Jack Straw for a dozen or so years, and she had always known that one day she would be called to curate the Jack Straw Writers Program.
Flenniken says former Jack Straw curators "Karen Finneyfrock and Daemond Arrindell had told me how hard it was to get to 12. And I've done some other judging, so I know how hard it is." She laughs again, "and it was every bit as hard as I feared it would be."
When she first got all the applications for the programs the difficulty of the task really sunk in for Flenniken. "I could very, very happily have chosen twice as many writers," she says. "There weren't a huge number of applications, but the quality of the applications were so high. It's both encouraging and sort of horrible at the same time."
When she's staring down the applications, she says, "I'm questioning my own motives." It's not a blind selection process, and in many ways knowing some of the applicants made it even harder for her. "You're encouraged to choose whoever you want in your cohort," Flenniken says, "and I knew I wanted to have a mix of writers that I knew and writers I didn't know. It was just sort of finding the right balance."
There was also personal drama to take into account, and sometimes the selection process was like planning the seating arrangements at a wedding: "Maybe I knew too much about a certain person's relationship to another person. I can go down this rabbit hole very easily where I'm worrying about relationships among writers, and of course I want my group to all get along."
Flenniken also had to go outside her comfort zone as a reader and writer of poetry. "Jack Straw is open to writers of all genres. Probably because I am a poet, I received majority poetry applications, but I wanted to make sure to include prose writers. I tried to create 'company' for every writer, which is a little like matchmaking — I’m not sure if it will work, but I hope it will."
Eventually, Flenniken laughs, Jack Straw staff "asked me to please just lay that aside and just choose the writers that I think would work together as a group and who would benefit most from the program."
Flenniken was a Jack Straw Writer more than fifteen years ago, and she applied multiple times before she was selected. That helped her remember that she wasn't rejecting applicants forever, that next year a different curator was going to select writers with a completely different set of criteria in mind. And Flenniken supplied personal notes with some of the rejections, asking people to "please apply next year," or "please apply for the Artist Support Program because there are two parallel programs and sometimes people apply to the wrong program and they just need to be pointed in the right direction."
After she finally nailed down the final dozen, she says, "it was still really difficult. It was traumatizing for a few days after."
The 2019 Jack Straw Writers that Flenniken settled on are Samar Abulhassan, Dianne Aprile, Josh Axelrad, Christianne Balk, Gabrielle Bates, Leanne Dunic, Shankar Narayan, Sylvia Byrne Pollack, Rena Priest, Putsata Reang, Michael Schmeltzer, and Suzanne Warren.
Flenniken is proud of all of the writers, and she can gush at length about all of them. In the deliberation process, she's become an expert in what makes them interesting and noteworthy as artists. She was surprised by Josh Axelrad, who previously published a non-fiction book but submitted a short story for the program. "I had a sort of emotional reaction to it and I felt personally implicated in the story — even kind of mad at the story — and then there's a twist at the end. I read it and put it aside," she says. "But then I kept thinking about it and then I went back and I reread the story and I had a different take on it the second time. It was just really well done. So he was a discovery for me."
Flenniken was also surprised by the "wonderful dark sense of humor" in Suzanne Warren's story submission, and by Rena Priest, "whose poems are so incredibly musical and really interesting — sort of mythological."
For the next year, Flenniken will mentor these writers, offer support for them, and cheer them on as they take their writing to exciting new places. While she has plenty of experience teaching elementary school students through Writers in the Schools, Flenniken says "I don't usually have that role with adult writers. So this does feel like a pat on the back or a mark of trust, to be put in this role."
The hardest part — the selection process — is over. Now it's time for Flenniken and her Jack Straw Writers to learn and grow and build a community — and most of all, to write.
By far the worst book we've read at Reading Through It, the current-events book club that the Seattle Review of Books hosts at Third Place Books Seward Park, is the first book we covered: JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. The book was passed from liberal hand to hand in the days after Trump's election as some sort of a Rosetta Stone for the red states.
But the truth is that Hillbilly Elegy is just another con job — a fantasia used to promote the same sharklike conservative agenda of 'personal responsibility' that's been the Republican Party's stock in trade since at least the Reagan administration.
So of course Hollywood fell for it. Netflix is paying forty five million dollars (!) for a Ron Howard-helmed (!!) film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy (!!!). We're doomed to hear about this shitty book in some form or another for the rest of our lives, people.
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While reciting Robert Hayden whose father got up early in the blueblack cold,
to the fifth grade, an announcement. Lockdown, the secretary says, then repeats it
like she doesn’t believe herself. Pink sneakers tuck under tables, followed by little
combat boots. When the teacher turns the blinds I sink down wondering where
to put my hands. The classroom door is before me; behind it stands the gunman.
In his brain, a red pearl has formed around an itch of sand. Between us, twenty
children poke each other’s sides trying not to giggle. Their beds are filled with
elephants and missing socks. I make thirty dollars an hour teaching them.
I prepare myself because who wouldn’t try to save even the cruelest boy,
the one who hates the women teachers, plays pistol with his finger and keeps me
always in his sights? You are nothing, he whispers when I pick up the chalk.
The door wrenches from its frame. It is filled with a man the size of all the places
I want to hide. Of course it’s the principal saying good job like we all did our math
homework. Good job staying quiet and small while a flinty beast snorted outside,
gnashing teeth and seething, but not today making news.
Little hands straighten sweaters and rearrange pencil cases as I complete my lesson
on fathers raising sons, on the austere and lonely offices of love.