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.
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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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com 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.