If this doesn't get you ready for autumn, nothing will

If that cool air and the smell of stew hasn't already awakened your consciousness to the world around you, we're in the beginning of fall, which means it's time to get into some real witchy stuff. This Friday, September 20th, there's a neat-looking metaphysical reading that deserves your attention:

Join mystic poet and performer Janaka Stucky for an immersive, multidisciplinary performance involving light, scent, and sound to introduce his new book of poetry ASCEND ASCEND. Janaka will be joined by cellist and composer Lori Goldston who has collaborated with artists ranging from Nirvana to Mark Mitchell and Lynn Shelton.

This event is put on by the local branch of Atlas Obscura and it's $18, which also gets you a copy of Stucky's book Ascend Ascend. And frankly, eighteen bucks is a steal for a performance by Goldston, who has been making beautiful, soulful cello music in Seattle for over two decades. She is a local treasure.

Get your tickets now for an event that will kick off the beginning of autumnal spooky season in style.

Edward Harkness is a living bridge between Seattle's literary past and future

Our August Poet in Residence, Edward Harkness, found his way to poetry the way so many poets did: a high school English teacher led the way. The teacher introduced Harkness to the work of Emily Dickinson and, most importantly, the poem ("Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell,, which inspired "an immediate visceral reaction" in him.

Harkness has lived in the Seattle area for his whole life, and he considers himself very much a part of "Seattle tradition of literature." He writes beautifully about the region in his work, of course, and he participates in the literary community as a reader. But Harkness has an even more direct tie to the region's history of literature. "My mentor was Richard Hugo," he says. You can't get much more into the Seattle literary scene than learning at the feet of the Hugo House's namesake.

In fact, Harkness's biography is basically made up of a who's who of Northwestern poetry history. He attended the University of Washington "right after the death of Theodore Roethke, and his ghost was everywhere around the campus," and he attended one of Tess Gallagher's very first public poetry readings. It was no less a talent than Madeline DeFrees who saw something in Harkness and encouraged him to go to University of Montana to study under Hugo.

Hugo's tutelage was "the game changer for me," Harkness says. He'd loved poetry for years, but Hugo in performance was the thing that pushed Harkness toward the idea of poetry as a vocation. "I'll never forget hearing [Hugo]. I'd never heard a voice like that, and it just boomed out of him — it was kind of scary how powerful his voice was. And I just said, 'okay, that's what I want to do.'"

One name that Harkness believes doesn't get enough attention in Northwest poetry history is Nelson Bentley, a poet who was one of Roethke's contemporaries and who lived, by Harkness's estimation, "in Roethke's shadow." Bentley was "a very fine poet and an incredible teacher — students just worshipped him. He was genial and approachable and never, ever threatening or intimidating, in the way that I think Roethke could be."

As a teacher at Shoreline Community College, Harkness inspired a whole new generation of regional poets. "I think I've done my best" to pass on the lineage of Hugo, he says. But Harkness isn't slavishly devoted to past masters. He brings his own elements to poetry: "I am much more narrative driven" than most Northwest poets, he says. "I tend to be conversational. I think I learned something about humor from de Frees."

And maybe most of all, Harkness says, "I see myself as being a more political, in my work." He has written poems that directly address his own white privilege, which is certainly not something you can find in Hugo or Roethke's work. So what makes a good political poem? "It has to be nuanced, maybe. Nuance and subtlety and suggestibility are all necessary."

Harkness is now hard at work on composing a "new and selected" collection of his poetry. "I'm barely starting on it," he says, "going through my three books and putting them together with a sampling of new stuff." Now that he's learned from the Mount Rushmore of Northwestern poetry, it's time for Harkness to carve out his own place in Seattle's story.

The forest for the trees

Published September 17, 2019, at 12:00

Paul Constant reviews Lynda V Mapes's Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak, and David Guterson's Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest.

Two Seattle authors celebrate nature in very different ways: Lynda V. Mapes examines climate change through a single tree, and David Guterson takes us on a long walk through the woods.

Read this review now

in the garden of Danny Woo

           

I lead you up terraced slopes
until we see clear to Hing Hay Park

down Maynard Street, rattling
off the annals of Uncle Bob

how he leased the land
beneath our feet to feed

the elders, create
a thriving ecosystem where

there had only been neglect,
a plot of land covered in trash

& shattered glass restored to
life-giving beds of vegetables

through a shared belief in change,
fallen now into decay rain-soaked

winter leaves rotting underfoot,
the reports of sex trafficking

in massage parlors down the way
replete with unhappy endings,

you startle me from remoteness
when you pull me close, to quiet

speech, our tongues entwined in
some scattering of verdancy come alive

It’s you all the way down

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Guess who reads our site? Get your message out to the most passionate and engaged audience Seattle has to offer. Prices vary, but start low — in fact, the last week in September is still open for your Fall list favorites.

We can’t wait to see you here. Find out more on our sponsor page — or if you’re ready to dive right in, check out our prices and book right now.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from September 16th - September 22nd

Monday, September 16th: Stories in Stone Reading

David B. Williams's new book is subtitled Travels Through Urban Geology, and it examines the way that cities, which are a fairly new invention as we know them, incorporate geology, which can encompass millions of years. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, September 17th: Uncharted Reading

Seattle author Kim Brown Seely's new memoir discusses what happened after she and her husband sent their kids off into adulthood. They celebrated by promptly taking off on a long sailing trip to the north. They may or may not have been thoroughly unprepared for such a trip. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, September 18th: The Body Lives Its Undoing

This interactive program asks the question "How can a person who lives with multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, or arthritis communicate their experiences to people who do not live with these or other autoimmune diseases?" It is hosted by poet Suzanne Edison and it benefits the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:00 pm, $5.

Thursday, September 19th: Witness Tree Reading

Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes has written a book that examines the biography of a single particular oak tree. The tree in question is over a century old, and it has seen, as they say, some shit that you wouldn't believe. Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave NE, 525-2347 http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Friday, September 20th: Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the #MeToo Movement

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, September 21st: Francesca Bell and Brian Laidlaw

Francesca Bell is the author, most recently, of the collection Bright Stain from the good people at Red Hen Press. Brian Laidlaw's The Mirrormaker was published by the great Milkweed Editions. One of these presses alone is worthy of your attention, but a reading with one author from each of these two presses is a must-attend situation. Throw in the fact that Laidlaw is also the author of "a book-length erasure of John Muir called Summer Err and this is sounding like a real night to remember. Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Sunday, September 22nd: Three Writers

This time of year is perfect for a trip out to Snoqualmie, and this reading of Seattle authors makes for a great excuse. Seattle Review of Books's September Poet in Residence, Shin Yu Pai, anchors a great lineup of Seattle talent including Gail Folkins, and Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum. Go hear a great roster of authors at an artistic outpost in the beautiful hilly land to our east. Black Dog Arts Cafe, 8062 Railroad Ave SE, Snoqualmie, https://www.facebook.com/events/2329606110409772/ 2 pm.

Event of the Week: Indelible in the Hippocampus group reading at Hugo House

Even those of us who love it have to admit that the publishing industry moves slowly. It's one of the things we love about books: their creation demands time and consideration. A tossed-off book feels like ephemera, something disposable. But a real book about an important subject really carries its own gravity.

I mention this to explain why we have waited so long for the first real wave of books about the #MeToo movement to arrive. Sure, there have been some hastily collected anthologies and some memoirs that have been retrofitted to hit the cultural moment. But now we're getting books that were conceived to respond to this moment in time — books with thought and care and intentionality behind them.

The new wave of #MeToo books is led by She Said, a title from New York Times authors Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohe. But this Friday, Hugo House hosts the second-most anticipated #MeToo title of the fall: a McSweeney's anthology of writings from the #MeToo movement. Titled Indelible in the Hippocampus after Christine Blasey Ford's brave testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the book attempts to give a wide-ranging and intersectional survey of the movement and its effects.

Indelible editor Shelly Oria is coming to town to celebrate the book's publication with local contributors to the anthology. Those slated to read include Kamari Bright, Jalayna Carter, Sasha LaPointe, and Kristen Millares Young.

It's fitting that #MeToo — which began with the telling of stories on social media — is now taking the form of a book. And it's important that the authors are reading these stories at Hugo House. These are stories that have changed the world. These are stories that require you to listen, and witness.

Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for September 15, 2019

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at submissions@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

I read Natalie Beach's essay about her relationship with Caroline Calloway somewhere around 3 a.m., grateful for the insomnia that allowed me to bypass self-respect and lap up the gossip shame-free. So I was startled when Paul Constant described it, with interest, as a story about writing.

If you haven't been following the relentless internet frenzy over this — I dunno, maybe you're following the relentless internet frenzy over Donald Trump or whatever else Twitter's got hold of this week — here's the short version: Caroline Calloway built her Instagram empire on captions ghost-written by her friend Natalie Beach. There was a book, also to be ghostwritten by Beach, then there wasn't. There were fights and hurt feelings. Now, there is a public airing of grievances: by Beach in The Cut, by Calloway in front of her 800,000 Instagram followers.

Is this a story about writing? Beach and Calloway met at in a creative nonfiction writing workshop at NYU, so at least at one point they both cared about the craft. But I couldn't find much published by Beach beyond her tell-all — except, somewhat ironically, a bit of bookstuff for Oprah.com. Calloway remains her own best creation.

Is this a story about writing? Beach calls herself Calloway's ghostwriter. She was slated, though not contracted, to receive a generous slice of Calloway's profits from the book. When Calloway decided not to complete the book, Beach received nothing — and Calloway lost the right to be the public author of the story they were telling together.

Paul called silence the most important part of the job of ghostwriting. I think that's less true now than it used to be. Ghostwriters now are often recognized for their work, even on the front cover. The idea of authorship has changed, at least for the kinds of books that are often ghostwritten: to be the author doesn't mean, any more, to be the writer. Which is brain-bending in and of itself.

Is this a story about writing? During Colette's early writing career, her husband's pen name was the one on the cover of her books. He got away with it because he was a controlling shit, but also because he was visible to the world in a way a woman was not. Less cringe-y (maybe): Dick Francis credits his wife with writing his immensely popular thrillers, credit she gently deflects because she believes the testosterone-laden books require a male byline for success.

Beach and Calloway created a character together — Caroline Calloway. When Calloway decided she wanted to have her name on the cover alone, Beach created a new character: Natalie Beach. There's no gender imbalance in the push-pull between the two, just opportunism. But there is a story here about how being seen gives you the power to be heard.

This is going to be a leap, but bear with me: because we take pitches, instead of submissions, we get a lot of email from writers packed with impressive bios, lists of big publications — and it's great! We need that information, especially links to past writing, so we can make good guesses about who'll be a fit for the site.

But it's also how people tell us they've been seen. That they're worth looking at. And, by extension, that what they want to say is worth hearing — which is an even bigger leap than the one I just made.

That's a story about writing, too.

Meanwhile, here's Beach giving away the game in the very opening of her piece ...

I was Caroline Calloway
I began going to Caroline’s after every class, then just any chance I could. To my other friends, I described her as someone you couldn’t count on to remember a birthday but the one I’d call if I needed a black-market kidney. What I meant was that she was someone to write about, and that was what I wanted most of all.
Other good reads this week

My Terezín Diary

Zuana Justaman on what she didn't say in the diary she kept during the Holocaust.

In my memory, it seems as though my mother remained in prison for months. But according to my diary she “was away from us for three weeks.” Against all reason, we never gave up hope that she would be released.

DRM Broke Its Promise

Cory Doctorow on the feudalism of digital books.

The established religion of markets once told us that we must abandon the idea of owning things, that this was an old fashioned idea from the world of grubby atoms. In the futuristic digital realm, no one would own things, we would only license them, and thus be relieved of the terrible burden of ownership.

They were telling the truth.

Ship of horrors: life and death on the lawless high seas

Out of sight, out of mind: an excerpt from Ian Urbina's forthcoming The Outlaw Ocean investigates labor conditions in deep waters.

Greed, not water, sank the Oyang 70. The ship had tried to swallow too much fish; the ocean swallowed the ship instead. The last men off the drowning ship said that they saw Shin in the wheelhouse, refusing to abandon his post or put on a life jacket. Hugging a pole and clutching his clear bottle, he was muttering in Korean and crying.

Whatcha Reading, Shin Yu Pai?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Shin Yu Pai is a Seattle-based author of eight books of poetry, who often blends poetry with visual and installation art. She's a 2014 Stranger Genius Nominee, was the fourth Poet Laureate of Redmond, served as poet-in-residence for the Seattle Art Musuem, and is our Poet in Residence for September. To date, we've published two of her works: white savior industrial complex, and Chiang-Kai Shek Boneyard. She is appearing today, September 14 at PACT 2019, and September 22nd at the Black Dog Cafe in Snoqualmie.

What are you reading now?

I'm working on writing a collection of personal essays (as memoir) and have embarked on a deep dive into the craft of narrative nonfiction. I am currently reading Mary Karr's Art of Memoir and Elissa Washuta's edited anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. I'm also reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, in preparation for a civil rights pilgrimage that I am going on with Project Pilgrimage in October.

What did you read last?

Earlier this summer, I attended a poetry festival in Curtea de Arges, Romania. Through that experience, I had a chance to come into contact with some amazing poets and community builders from all over the world. One book I've read recently is Dutch poet Milla van der Have's Ghosts of Old Virginny. I wrote a review of this collection for High Desert Journal, which is forthcoming in October. Milla's book is a terrific documentary poetics collection that explores the history of a silver mining town in rural Nevada. I also recently finished reading Latin American poet and critic Benjamín Chávez literary musings Los Trabajos y Los Dias which reflects upon some the poet's influences through an ongoing column that he wrote for a Bolivian newspaper. Leona Chen's Book of Cord is a deeply thoughtful and experimental collection on Taiwanese identity, that has also captured my attention.

What are you reading next?

Bryan Blanchfield's essay collection Proxies. I want to get my hands on a copy of Prageeta Sharma's Grief Sequence from Wave Books. I also need to get a copy of Arthur Sze's newest poetry collection, Sight Lines, too.

The Help Desk: The handmaid's fail

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I work at an independent bookstore. We had to sign a nondisclosure agreement from Penguin Random House ensuring that we wouldn’t sell their new book, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid's Tale sequel The Testaments, even a minute before midnight on September 10th. We were told if we got caught selling the book early, Penguin Random House could penalize us by not ever selling us any of their titles again, which would essentially put us out of business.

Unfortunately, as you probably know, Amazon mailed copies of The Testaments to their customers a week early. Amazon says they only broke the embargo for 800 customers, but who knows if they’re telling the truth about that figure?

Look, accidents happen — even if you’re the biggest and by far the most evil bookseller on the planet. But the thing that chaps my ass is that Amazon basically is suffering no consequences for breaking this embargo. If I sold 800 copies of The Testaments a week early, I could be sued into oblivion. Is it too much to ask that the same rules apply to everyone? Hell, Penguin Random House didn't even mention Amazon by name in their tweets about the incident, presumably because they're too scared to call them out.

I’m so frustrated with Penguin Random House that I just feel like quitting the business entirely.

Karen, Greenwood

Dear Karen,

As my father used to say before he killed himself, "Life isn't fair and then you marry one." (And then she leaves you, which really isn't fair, and then you start drinking with guns.)

Yes, Amazon is taking over the free market like online outrage is overtaking any kind of action. Yes, Penguin Random House is staffed by punitive cowards. But before you do something rash, like quit the soul-satisfying business of selling books for something with a dental plan, know that things could be worse.

I know people who work for Amazon. They have to sign a non-dick-closure agreement and wear catheters so that they can work straight through bathroom breaks. THAT’S HOW THOSE BOOKS ARE SOLD SO FAST AND SO EARLY! It’s not all boob-shaped terrariums and 5-star ratings behind closed doors – Jeff Bezos makes people dance for pocket change every time an order doesn’t qualify for free shipping. And that's not even the worst of it. Next week, Seattle employees will walk off the job to protest Amazon's indifference to the sous vide hellscape our Earth is becoming, in part because of the company's policies and practices.

I also heard Bezos sold his mother's organs on Deep Dark Prime after she gushed about the customer service at Best Buy. (For Mother's Day, he regifted her her own kidney.)

My point is, life isn't fair. Every pocket of the globe has its injustices – you may not have dental, but hey — you don't have to professionally piss in a bag.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Booo

The Portrait Gallery: Kathy Acker

Each week, Christine Larsen creates a new portrait of an author for us. Have any favorites you’d love to see immortalized? Let us know, or see if you can find them in the archives.

Saturday, September 14st: Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium

Find out a ton more detail on our Literary Event of the Week column. Come see why Acker was so important to Seattle, punk, and the Riot Grrl movement.

Seven years of good luck at the XOXO Festival

For the past eight years, minus one when it was on hiatus, I’ve spent early September amidst a colorful, creative, productive, and intimidatingly humane group of people in Portland at the XOXO festival.

It started with a Kickstarter. Andy Baio, who I’d followed for years as one of the most tireless and delightful chroniclers of internet culture at his waxy.org, posted this on Twitter:

Andy posted at 11:30am, and I backed the festival at 1:45pm. The festival sold out in fifty hours. That I would give someone I didn’t know, but had admired online, $400 for something that didn’t yet exist gives you a good idea of how much I’d loved Andy’s work over the years.

One of the great joys of the magazine and newspaper age, that transferred well to blogging but horribly to bigger social media, was getting to know certain writers. Reading the same byline month-after-month, you develop a sense of the person, their tastes, their quibbles. I can’t express the exhilaration of seeing a (now retired) Margalit Fox byline in the New York Times obituaries, or the rush of pleasure from when Paul Ford sighs and says "well, I guess I’m gonna have to write about that", to name but two examples.

I co-founded this very website with someone whose work I admired from afar, until I met him and told him so in person. But, of course, most of those writers who I admire I would never be lucky enough to meet, and felt that if I did, I would have little to offer apart from praise and appreciation, which might only get one halfway through the first glass of wine before aging into boredom.

Same it was with Andy, who covered a beat few others did. To wit: what is the cultural impact of the internet on the people who make it their playground? He tracked the rise of popular culture as it ricocheted across the bit-broken packet-by-packet surface of the internet; watched it get trapped in eddies and pools of sometimes horrifying digital homes; measured its growth and response as larger media started noticing the gif memes climbing their legs; brought, with delight, explanations of some of the stranger manifestations of the internet echo chamber: the chaffing of jokes that transmogrified from obscure in-jokes into glitchy overly-compressed expressions of pure weirdness.

It was Baio’s curiosity, compassion, and humor that made new posts by him top priorities when the indicator in NetNewsWire showed a new unread Waxy.org post.

So, Andy, along with Andy McMillian, who I didn’t know when they launched XOXO, but had admired his work on the Build Festival and his bookazine series The Manual, started this festival, and I was lucky enough to be one of the 400 people who took a chance on them.

That September, we convened on an old laundry in Portland, next to tall curving windows, and sat close together in folding chairs during two days of talks. Many people have written about the talks, and they are all online for you to see, so I’m not going to focus on those, despite their importance to me, and the festival.

Instead I want to talk about the things around the talks. The Andys (which is what collectively, and affectionately, the community calls Baio and McMillian) have told the story that they invited everyone to come on Thursday, but only scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, and so in a pinch came up with "XOXO Social" for Friday, a day of events where people could hang out and get to know each other. We got free access to Ground Kontrol, invited to drop by the Panic Software offices, and Wieden+Kennedy had a rooftop soiree replete with circus performers.


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Circus performers #xoxofest

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Sitting next to a stranger was made much less awkward when you had seen them the day before around town, or had played pinball with them, or ran into them browsing at Powells.

Then there was the eating. Portland, of course, has amazing food, and parked outside the festival was Nong’s Khao Man Gai truck (for me, the quintessential taste of XOXO, along with iced cold brew coffee), among other amazements.

We played tabletop games, watched music, hung out at picnic tables on a closed city street, wandered a marketplace on the ground floor of the Yale Union that had 3D printers, games, and designers, and generally had a marvelous time.

Then they did it again. Seven times, now, over eight years. Instead of repeating the formula over and over, the Andys always try new things each year. Some experiments have been as successful as XOXO Social, some were tried once and not repeated. A reader board greeted us at registration a few years back, imploring: "Lower your expectations".

My personal approach is to not expect anything. To go in as raw as I can, and open myself up to whatever I find.

And when I walk away from the festival, my mind is a fog. I’m peopled-out, but also inspired. The talks are blurs of moments, the live podcasts, the in-person chats, the tabletop games, the serendipitous moments witnessed, the kindness and generosity of spirit all around, it conspires into a kind of smoothed liquid brain that precludes me from sensibly writing about the festival (I have, for the seven years, attempted to write about each and every festival, and failed until now, thanks to brain smoothness).

I doubt this website, as it sits, would exist without XOXO. I published my own novel through a Kickstarter, inspired by the festival and its community. XOXO helped me to learn to ask for what I need, and to not be afraid to be myself. It helped me create work and put it into the world. It’s changed my life in many ways, some professional, many intensely personal and deeply meaningful. I see people, each year, that light the world for me, and who I think about all year.

Each festival is end-capped by the Andys on stage. This year, unlike all others, they had MCs — Helen Zaltzman, of The Allusionist, and Hrishikesh Hirway, of Song Exploder — which took some pressure off them, but still they started and ended together. There are always tears at the end, and perhaps relief that they pulled off another year. They always do (with the help of many, of course), in admirable fashion.

What a pleasure it is to feel hope about the internet and its people, if only for a brief time. What I walk away with, each year, is gratitude. I am appreciative of being part of a community that watches out for all members with a strict code of conduct (the Andys remove at least one person for breaking the code, and ban them for life, each year), and clear work on inclusion. I am so grateful to be part of a community that works so hard on helping people who are excluded elsewhere feel welcome.

I’m paraphrasing, but Baio said the first year that he thought the name XOXO would be a great filter towards the kind of haters he wanted to keep out, since none of them would attend a festival called hugs and kisses. He was right, and the extra work, and policing where necessary, has imbued the festival with a rich sense of belonging for many different kinds of people.

My father, who was a minister, always told me — a devout non-believer — that at heart, churches were about people coming together and creating something bigger than themselves. I sometimes wonder what a secular church would be like, one that wasn’t focused around religious teaching, but around morality, perhaps, around self-awareness of the world. About the importance of creating, and placing your creations in the world. Or, like my father — who was a wonderful writer who used his platform for storytelling and exploration, instead of condemnation and evangelism — often preached about questioning ourselves, our place in our communities, our capacity to do good and help people.

That’s really the only way I can describe what I’ve found at XOXO. People I want to see, listen to, learn from. Two days of the kinds of sermons talks my dad would have loved — questing, questioning, inward facing, reflective, humble, personal. Then, community. People coming together. Trying to make build greater than themselves.

Sometimes failing, but always recognizing that you have to show up to even put the effort in. Lower your expectations, yes, but for the love of all that is good, show up. It all can’t start until you make the choice to do just that. Please show up, we’re waiting to see what you make.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Not your usual gang of idiots

Immediately after MAD Magazine's editorial staff announced that they would cease the publication of new material on July 4th of this year, the publishers of the horniest sci-fi comics anthology magazine on earth, Heavy Metal Magazine, announced that they would be picking up MAD's slack with a new comedy publication. Stepping in to fill the void before the adoring eulogies for MAD could even be published was a classic old-school publishing move. You had to admire Heavy Metal's brazenness; they were reanimating Alfred E. Neuman's corpse before it even had time to get cold.

But you also have to admire Heavy Metal's industriousness: yesterday, roughly two months after their announcement, the first issue of their new humor anthology comic, Soft Wood — get it? — landed in comics shops. This is light speed for the creation and distribution of a new magazine.

So Heavy Metal invited the comparison on themselves: How does Soft Wood read in comparison to MAD Magazine? Unfortunately, it's not a substitute. MAD was more or less an all-ages magazine, no matter what the parents who wouldn't let their children read it for content concerns might think (I forgive you, mom.) Soft Wood is full-on smut. There's a reason why the magazine comes in a plastic bag: it's packed with swear words, a few explicit shots of genitalia, and more than a few distasteful prostitute jokes. If you give Soft Wood to your children, you are a bad parent.

Given the short publication window, most of the work in Soft Wood has clearly been repurposed from other publications. In fact, the central strip, a parody of Watchmen by Bleeding Cool comics journalist Rich Johnston, was originally published in 2009. (To be fair, that original publication was black-and-white, while this republication features beautiful Watchmanesque colors from John Higgins.) And to continue the comparison with MAD, Watchmensch is the only full-on parody in the book, so those who miss MAD's timely parodies of popular culture won't find much in this issue to latch on to.

But for adults who are looking for a new comics magazine, Soft Wood demonstrates a lot of promise. The book contains a nice mix of funny cartoonists who've been in the business since the 90s (Evan Dorkin, Shannon Wheeler, Bob Fingerman;) some artists with a more European bent (Osmarco Valladao, Manoel M., and Carlos Cabrera;) and some cartoonists who I've never heard of before (Jake Thompson.) Of these, the standouts for the issue are Wheeler, who contributes a hilarious and moving memoir piece about summer camp and micropenises, and Thompson, whose gag strips often end with a character's awkward stare that feels more real and visceral than ink on paper should. One particularly weird strip from Krent Able, featuring newscasters measuring their taints in the middle of a breaking news report, is likely to haunt my dreams tonight.

In short, there are a lot of surprises here, and it's honestly thrilling to flip through a glossy comics magazine. The colors pop, the art has more room to breathe than in the standard comics format, and at $8.99, the magazine manages to cram in a lot more pages than your standard four-dollar comic.

I'm excited to see what Soft Wood will do as it grows and changes. Will the book embrace more of MAD's legacy through parody strips and a series of regular features, or will it find its own way to something completely different? Either way, it's good to see an organization who views the death of a legacy media publication as an opportunity, rather than another excuse to wallow in sentimentality or lament the end of the world as we know it.

Summer reads

Two weeks out of the year, I get to read whatever I want. I don't have to read new books or book club books or books by local authors or books that I plan to review. For one week in the summer and one week in the winter, I disconnect from the internet, fill a tote bag with a truly aspirational stack of books, head to a large body of water, and get lost.

A few weeks ago, I was in Moclips, out on the Olympic Peninsula, and I was trying to read as much as I could. I went for a long walk on the beach and I decided to sit down on a log and power through the last 100 pages of a book I'd been reading. And that's what I did. I wasn't interrupted by people or phones or responsibilites.

The book in question was Myla Goldberg's novel Feast Your Eyes, about a famous photographer and her difficult relationship with her daughter. It was easily Goldberg's best novel since her astonishing debut, Bee Season, and it was a book that made me think about photography in a new way. Goldberg has become a tireless experimenter in the form and function of novels, and Eyes is no different: it takes the form of notes in a photography exhibition — minus the photos — and it is a book that will break your heart and leave you grateful for the experience.

I brought Colson Whitehead's latest novel, The Nickel Boys along with me, too. I've got to stop reviewing WHitehead's books, for the simple reason that I have always deeply loved every book by Whitehead that I've ever read. I worry that i don't have anything new to add to his body of work, that my gushing has grown tired. When a writer only triggers one emotional response in a reader, that usually signifies a failure on the reader's behalf. I wish I had something more complex to say about Whitehead's work than it's great, and that he's one of the greatest novelists alive. But I don't. I can only sit there with my ass in the sand, wondering at the wonder of it all.

But now I'm back to reviewing again, and that's something I promise myself I won't do on my vacation. The fact is that I can't read without formulating a response in my head anymore. I'm always reviewing, even when I don't need to or even want to. And it doesn't feel like work, either — it feels like how I figure out the world, how I process what I see and feel and experience.

So I brought you on vacation with me, even just a little. I read these books, and I had to talk to you about them. What's the point of getting away from it all, if you don't have someone to help give meaning to all that away?

Meet Jourdan Imani Keith, Seattle's newest Civic Poet

On August 29th at the Mayor's Arts Awards ceremony, Jourdan Imani Keith, read a poem as the first public act in her new role as Seattle's Civic Poet. (Start around 16 minutes in to this video if you'd like to see her perform the poem, which is a celebration of Seattle as a place that has always existed and that has always changed.)

How does Keith feel about her new role? "I'm very happy," she says over the phone, with an audible smile in her voice.

Keith was born and raised in Philadelphia, but she's been in Seattle for over two decades. "Over the years of living here I've been very engaged with the city," she says. It's impossible, in fact, to separate Keith's civic engagement from her poetry. She's celebrated Seattle through poetry in city programs including the Parks Department, youth learning initiatives, and other municipal celebrations of the arts like the Poet Populist program. She has participated in the Jack Straw Writers Program and she's worked closely with the Northwest African American Museum.

Poetry is Keith's way to honor the city's past and to look forward. Poetry, she says, has "made me feel more committed to the city." Now, as Civic Poet, she hopes to expand that commitment to a macro scale by strengthening the bond between Seattle and its citizens through poetry. One of her most important charges as Civic Poet is to "highlight emerging poets and to lift youth voices" by giving them a platform at city functions.

Education is vital for Keith. She's looking forward to a project that will encourage people to write poetry in response to Seattle's public art "as a way of envisioning the city." Seattle's public art stretches back over a century and attempts to incorporate the city's ethnic and cultural diversity. By encouraging people to write in response to the art, she says she's "layering the web of art through the city — that's what I'm most excited about," Keith says.

This is about more than just accessing a city's history through poetic dialogue. Keith hopes to awaken a whole army of poets through this communication through public art. And why not? It's not too far-fetched a notion to believe that a person can fall in love with poetry overnight. In fact, Keith can recall the exact moment she fell in love with poetry: "I had a wonderful incredible outdoor experience climbing a mountain. It shifted my whole perspective. I took myself through what I later realized was all these sensory exercises." Closing and opening her eyes, seeing birds take flight, and feeling bugs on her skin, keith was visited by something.

She ran down the mountain — "I fell down and skinned my hands," she laughs, a little tenderly — and "I went to my little plaid journal and wrote a poem. It was the first time i had written a poem."

Beyond sense explorations, Keith immediately started to explore the possibilities of the form. "I was grounded early in the fact that poetry could be used for social responsibility — in fact that it had to be." For Keith, poetry is nothing unless it engages with the world, and encourages the world to be better than it is. For the next two years, as Civic Poet, she's going to try to encourage more Seattleites down that path.

Keith takes her new role as Civic Poet seriously. "It's important to be an ambassador for the city," she says. Seattle has "changed a lot from the place I came to twenty years ago. It's still what it was, but it's also becoming something else. It's really critical for people to know a history of a place and to feel they have a hand in shaping its future."

Cartoonists call for comics festivals to shun Amazon's money

A group calling itself "Cartoonists Against Amazon" has published an open letter on Medium asking comics and small-press festivals to boycott Amazon. The letter notes that Amazon, mostly through its e-comic platform Comixology, sponsors a number of independent comics festivals and events. The reason for the requested ban is Amazon's "horrific labor abuses" and the company's support of ICE. They argue:

Art is not apolitical, and art workers are not afforded special neutrality as innocent bystanders. We must examine the ways in which Amazon uses sponsorships to whitewash its brutal exploitation of workers and the disastrous effects it has on the cities it moves into. We must examine our culpability in a system that enforces and profits from the violent, inhumane treatment of immigrants; a system of sting raid operations and concentration camps that separates families and murders both children and adults via neglect. When we take money from Amazon and look the other way, we are allowing these actions to happen with our silence.

Signatories include local cartoonists Sarah Glidden and RJ Casey, as well as comics genius Kevin Huizenga and Bojack Horseman co-creator Lisa Hanawalt. Aside from their demands that festivals cut ties with Amazon, the letter urges comics festivals to offer "Complete transparency regarding sponsorships and money allocation," because "Artists should be able to provide input and make informed decisions about what our participation in any festival entails."

This is a pretty big deal, and it's interesting that cartoonists are the first to speak out. I can't recall a similarly sized literary protest of Amazon's support of literary events and festivals. Do any small-press poets and fiction writers want to follow the lead established by these cartoonists?

Read the full letter here.

Lunch Date: Taking Andy Mulligan out for pizza

Once in a while, we take a new book out to lunch and give it half an hour or so to grab our attention. Lunch Date is our comment on that speed-dating experience.

Who’s your date today?

Trash, a YA novel by Andy Mulligan about poverty in a developing-country setting. I stay in the same room at Campbell's Lodge in Chelan every year; for the last three years, this book has been sitting on the desk, along with The Wedding, by Julie Garwood, and Too Long a Stranger, by Janette Oke. I was struck by someone's decision to put this particular novel out as a beach read at a resort frequented by often-drunk twenty-something men, newlyweds, and conventioneers. My own preconceptions, I guess, about what people want to read on vacation!

The guts of the story are that Raphael Fernandez, a boy-becoming-a-man who keeps himself and his family alive by picking through mounds of garbage for items he can sell, finds something different — a key that at first means money, and then something more. Raphael and his friends have a classic coming-of-age decision to make, except that in their world, they've never truly been children. Chaos ensues.

Where’d you go?

Local Myth Pizza, in downtown Chelan. Local Myth is one of a handful of restaurants and businesses that survive through and beyond the tourist season here. While all food is, essentially, some form of pizza, Local Myth makes pizza in its ur form, and they do it well.

What’d you eat?

I had a slice of the “pepp crunch,” which has black olives, basil, and pre-crisped pepperoni — with an optional feta add-on, which of course I got.

How was the food?

Awesome. This is classic “unstyled” pizza: not deep dish, not Chicago, not New York, not Neapolitan, just good ol' standard crust piled high with toppings. The basil gives it a bit of freshness, the pepperoni a bit of crunch, the feta a bit of chew.

What does your date say about itself?

From the publisher’s promotional copy:

In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three “dumpsite boys” make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city.

One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat — boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money — to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.

Andy Mulligan has written a powerful story about unthinkable poverty — and the kind of hope and determination that can transcend it. With twists and turns, unrelenting action, and deep, raw emotion, Trash is a heart-pounding, breath-holding novel.

Is there a representative quote?

This is Raphael, narrating his (first?) kidnapping by the police. Try reading this with the lens of today’s immigration policies, then remember that this is a YA book.

I tried to keep still, like the man had told me to, but I couldn't. I was rocking backwards and forwards. All you can think about is how alone you are, and how anything can happen now. A little while ago, things had felt safe and ordinary — my auntie, Gardo, the cousins, the fire — and people, all around me. Now! It is like falling through a trapdoor. In a second, every single thing had changed, and you are falling — your friends cannot get to you, nobody knows where you are, and you think, So when do I stop falling? You think, What plan do they have for me that I can do nothing about?

Will you two end up in bed together?

This book and I have already spent long nights sleeping next to each other for three years running. Will we take the next step? No. Trash is competing for my attention against Mary Robinette Kowal's The Calculating Stars, and it just doesn't have the chops.

I'm intrigued to test Mulligan's 2010 book against 2019's understanding of the world — the world as a place where Donald Trump is elected to our highest office. And I'm intrigued to see how Trash does at speaking from the mind of boys/young men in a developing country, even a fictional, futuristic one. 2010 isn't that long ago, but the rules for talking about being poor, if that's not the life you're living, have changed a lot in the past decade.

I'm also curious about a book that was kicked off the shortlist for the Blue Peter awards because it hits too close to home. But after reading into it a bit, I'm not so sure the Blue Peter team was wrong for the reason's Mulligan's publicity team would claim. Trash makes a lot of social promises up front. My instinct, admittedly only 50 pages in, is that it fails to keep those promises. Raphael and Gardo and Rat are the usual suspects in a coming-of-age adventure — draped in a darker setting, but not something new, something truly transforming.

Should we expect a YA novel to do better? Yes. In this particular time, and maybe in all times, I think we should.

Chiang-Kai Shek Boneyard

       

the streets have been renamed

by politicians to bear fewer
remembrances of colonial times

as society evolves to retire master

narratives; what would it mean

to my father and his generation

to regard this graveyard of the past

collected together in one memorial


park, acres of bronze busts

all over the nation, monuments

beheaded, spray painted with

graffiti, or simply taken down


the Generalissimo as wounded

hero, the dictator riding out

on a dogged steed, soldiers

salute each day in choreographed


displays of military honor for one

who lays putrefying in state

guarded by young men in white

uniforms who perform daily


acts of allegiance, forbidden from

taking photographs of the tomb,

I focus instead on the 20-year-old

cadets saluting the ruler who never


commanded them, sweating in the heat

of mid-day, the vacant face of the recruit,
his brow patted dry by a superior while
standing at something less than full attention

Deadlines are approaching to register for your Certificate in Writing from UW

We're so pleased the University of Washington sponsored this week to talk about their Certificate in Writing program. First of all, one of our co-founders, Martin, holds a Certificate in Fiction writing from this program. Second, you'd be hard pressed to find a longer-standing or better respected program in Seattle.

The instructors are wonderful, thoughtful, and help students to do their best work. And because of the flexible schedules, you can make earning your Certificate in Writing fit in with the most demanding of lives.

A few deadlines for registration are approaching: September 30, for Fiction Writing, September 26 for Memoir, and September 28 for Screenwriting.

Find out more on our sponsor's page, and take a look to see why so many people in Seattle have taken part in this tremendous program.



It’s sponsors like the University of Washington who make the engine of our website purr so smoothly. Their sponsorship means the world to us. Find out what sponsorship can do for you on our sponsor page. We’d love for you to find out why so many of our sponsors come back again, and again.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from September 9th - September 15th

Monday, September 9th: How To Reading

Even if you don't know Randall Munroe's name, you likely have at least seen his work. He's the cartoonist behind XKCD, the delightfully nerdy online comic that gets way more mileage out of stick figures than is humanly possible. Munroe brings an engineer's mind to the bizarre, often taking nonsensical claims to their logical extremes for the sake of...I dunno, science? His latest book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, imagines the most complicated way to solve simple problems, to hilarious effect. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, $28.

Tuesday, September 10th: Turn Around Time Reading

Everyone knows David Guterson for Snow Falling on Cedars, but his latest book is a grand departure from the world of fiction. Turn Around Time is a non-fiction testament to the beauty of being in Northwest wilderness, and it's written in verse. If you've ever been stunned by the varieties of green available in one square foot of the rain forest out on the Olympic Peninsula, this is the book for you.

Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, September 11th: In the Country of Women Reading

"Susan Straight's memoirish new book, In the Country of Women, tells the story of how Straight and her three daughters investigated their own family history, only to discover the story of remarkable women who sacrificed so much along the way. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, September 12th: Bloomland Reading

Seattle author John Englehardt's debut novel from great small press Dzanc Books is about what happens in a community after a mass shooting. The great local literary magazine Moss recently published an excerpt of the book. This will be a launch party for the book, and I'll be interviewing Englehardt onstage. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Friday, September 13th: Cascadia Magazine Event

Cascadia Magazine presents a lineup of great talent from the Northwest, including journalist Karin Jones and climate scientist Sarah Myre. (They'll be discussing polyamory and feminism in the sciences, respectively. Local poets Susan Rich, Martha Silano, Shin Yu Pai, and Robert Lashley will also read. Rendezvous, 2322 2nd Ave, 441-5823, 7 pm, $10 suggested donation, 21+.

Saturday, September 14st: Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Various locations and times, http://www.kathyackerseattlesymposium.com/schedule.htm

Sunday, September 15th: Represent: The Woman’s Guide to Running for Office and Changing the World Reading

More women than ever are running for office, but author June Diane Raphael won't be happy until women can campaign with the confidence and ease of a mediocre white man. She'll be presenting her new how-to guide for civic engagement, and chatting with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan onstage. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 3 pm, $5.

University Book Store's Mill Creek branch to close next month

On their Facebook page, University Book Store announced that their Mill Creek branch is set to close on October 19th. The statement says this is due to a "significant rental increase," and the store's other five locations will remain open. U Book Store's Bellevue branch closed in February of 2017.

Literary Event of the Week: Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium

A confession: I've read the Beats and William S. Burroughs and all those literary touchstones, but they've never really spoken to me. They feel distant and chauvinistic and overly praised, like some classic rock band whose glory days came and went a full generation before I was born.

But when I hear people talk about what the Beats do for them — that sense of literary freedom, of bracing stylistic possibility, of taking down the norms and building something new — I absolutely understand that feeling. It's the feeling I had when I first read a book by Kathy Acker.

Acker doesn't enjoy anywhere near the name recognition of Kerouac and the rest, but she did for the 1980s what the Beats did for the 50s: she brought a subculture (in her case, punk rock) to mainstream literary culture, and she pissed off quite a few literary lions while she did it. Her books gleefully dissemble the idea of narrative with more than a little seething rage. They're angry and punky and singular documents — the kind of thing that whispers directly into your ear when you're a young reader looking for a flag to carry.

As I told you last week, Seattle tastemaker Larry Reid is helping to bring a symposium celebrating Acker's work to Seattle on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of this week. It's all free. If you can't attend the day-long investigation of her work and legacy, you should at least try to attend one of the after-hours readings.

I had no idea until Reid reached out that Acker lived in Seattle at one of the most important moments of her career — just before her milestone work Blood and Guts in High School was published, and while she was working on my favorite of her books, Great Expectations. The symposium will explore Seattle's effect on Acker, and vice versa. Reid believes that the Riot Grrl movement took great inspiration from Acker, and Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna agrees. (Hanna will participate in a group reading at the symposium via Skype.)

Why hasn't Acker received the devotion that Burroughs did? Sexism plays a big part, of course, and it's harder to craft a cult of personality around an author from the 1980s, when there were so many countercultures erupting all over, than it was in the monocultural literary 1950s. But Acker wouldn't enjoy being loved the way Burroughs is, anyway: she'd demand that her readers kill their idols, and she'd laugh the whole time they tore her down. That's why she's the best.

Various locations and times, http://www.kathyackerseattlesymposium.com/schedule.htm

The Sunday Post for September 8, 2019

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at submissions@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

This is Julie, stepping in for Dawn, who is taking a much-needed vacation this week.

Even though it’s September (already!), and Women in Translation Month is over, I’m using this Sunday Post to talk about women in translation (and women translators!). I hope that even without a dedicated month, you might continue to discover and dive into all the great writing by women outside the Anglo-American sphere.

If you can read them in their original language, all the better. But you might also keep a translation around, if only to marvel at the feat of literature required to render one language clearly and elegantly into another.

Here are three great reads that contend with the art and artifice of translation — and engage with writing from Poland to Pakistan.

The daily alchemy of translation

First, a personal essay from translator Jennifer Croft, who finds parallels between her own life and Polish writer Sylwia Siedlecka’s. Croft and her sister Anne Marie were inseparable until Anne Marie was diagnosed with seizures. By age 6, Anne Marie’s life held no resemblance to Jennifer’s. In an almost poetic reversal, Sylwia Siedlecka’s short story “Wodny motyl,” translated as “Water Butterfly” is about conjoined twins.

If you love those weird untranslatable words, you’ll love this essay. Croft muses on all the strange inequities between languages and the “strange alchemy” of being a translator.

In some languages, like Polish, the word for share is the same as the word for divide. It took some time, but finally this did make sense to me. If there is an unlimited quantity of anything, I don’t know what it is. To share is always to give something up: to divide.
Small feet were an advantage

If you’ve had any exposure to the Chinese literary canon, it’s hard to overstate how popular and influential Eileen Zhang (or Chang, depending on the romanization) is. My mother had most of her books lined up on the shelves at home. When I went to college, I signed up for Chinese classes, where I struggled character-by-character through her short stories with a dictionary. Sometimes, I “cheated” by finding the English translations to read instead (sorry mom/Professor Wang, if you’re reading this). For anyone looking for an introduction to modern Chinese literature, there’s no better place to start than with Eileen — her characters are modern, approachable, and alive with smart writing.

Or you can start here: Sheng Yun’s London Review of Books review of Zhang’s novel-cum-autobiography Little Reunions. Sheng does an excellent job of putting Zhang’s life and work in the context of the tumultuousness of a half century of Chinese history. After the communist revolution, Zhang moved to Hong Kong. The United States Information Service commissioned her to write anti-communist novels — in English. Through propaganda, Eileen Zhang effectively becomes her own translator, to frustrating ends:

The novels’ outlines were set by the American propaganda officer, and Naked Earth caused [Zhang] a lot of headaches and ‘mental constipation’. The ‘bedroom scene’ was a challenge too: ‘How do English novels deal with this? Maybe I should read something like From Here to Eternity or Bhowani Junction.’ The Rice-Sprout Song was acclaimed by American critics, but Chang swore she’d never again write anything she didn’t feel committed to, or on a subject she wasn’t familiar with.

Fiction: A promise gone sour

But what happens when a translation just works?

“Can you really like the translation of a book you did not like when you first read the original?” asks Asif Farrukhi when reading Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s posthumous Zameen, a forgotten Urdu story about the upheaval of the Partition.

The original, Farrukhi complained, lacked finesse. It felt hurried, like a first draft. Unfortunately, the author died before the original was published.

But maybe a translation is not just alchemy or mental constipation. It is also a revision — a second draft that the writer could not undertake herself. Under Daisy Rockwell’s “deft hands,” the original becomes accessible, and meaningful — even when translation errors inevitably proliferate.

The work of a translator gives forgotten works to new audiences, and just might save it from the dustbin of history.

The novel did seem hurried over as if some parts of it were meant to be developed further or marked for revision by the author. I recall a conversation with Hajra Masroor Mastur’s sister and a master of the short story in her own right — where she vehemently denied that _Zameen_ was unfinished or in a draft stage. She insisted that the book was exactly as its author had intended it to be. In spite of this, over the years, the book has attracted far less attention than its predecessor. I wonder if its fortune will change and, with this new translation, it will find more readers. As far as I can say about myself, it caught me by surprise and I read it with new enthusiasm.

Whatcha Reading, Gretchen McCulloch?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist, resident linguist at Wired, co-creator of the podcast Lingthusiasm, and author of the New York Times bestselling Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. McCulloch is appearing this Tuesday, September 10th, at the offices of Textio in downtown Seattle. This is a free event, co-hosted by the Elliott Bay Book Company. McCulloch will be joined in conversation with Textio CEO Kieran Snyder, and our own Paul Constant. Space is limited, so please RSVP on the event's Eventbrite page, where you will find additional details.

What are you reading now?

I'm currently reading This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, which is about duelling time-travellers who start up a correspondence. I got my hands on an advance copy and I read it twice in a couple days because I just couldn't leave it after a single reading. But I had to give the advance copy back so I bought it myself and I'm re-reading it a third time now that it's out so I can tweet my way through it. I don't even know how to describe it to do it justice....the writing is so beautiful and rich and sharp that I recall the book more as a series of flickering, highly saturated images than as words on a page. I've been recommending it incessantly.

What did you read last?

I last read an advance copy of You Look Like A Thing And I Love You by Janelle Shane, which is about AI and all the things that can possibly (and often hilariously) go wrong with it. I'm a big fan of Janelle's blog where she posts experiments in AI humour, so I figured I'd enjoy the book, but I was expecting it to be a little more dense, you know, just because it's a book. But it's highly, highly readable and very funny — I picked it up one evening expecting to just start with 50 pages or so and before I knew it I was over halfway through already. It's coming out in November and like Time War, I've been recommending it to everyone.

What are you reading next?

Next I'm planning on reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, which pretty much sold me as soon as it said "lady astronauts" but for some reason I hadn't gotten around to it yet. Now that it's won the Hugo, I really have no excuse!

August 2019's Post-it note art from Instagram

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 August's posts.

August's Theme: Once Before

I seem to have made a tradition of bestowing post-it choosing duties on family members in honor of their birthday months. August is my mother, albeit with some external parameters—she asked me to pre-limit her options, for greater ease. I was about to spend the month at a surprise residency in Boise, where my mom grew up, so she chose post-its from my first time at this residency, a couple Octobers ago. We share a fascination with family stories and strange lands; I think it’s safe to say that for both of us, her home state occupies the epicenter of both loves. Back then I was working on a cozy project, making drawings inspired by favorite books. I was expecting to be a little swamped with dead grandparent memories—or very-much-alive cousins and their kids—or feel like a short-haired sore thumb, sorely lesbian in public—or surprised by people’s plainspoken friendliness too—and wandering around town never disappointed, on any of these fronts. But that residency looped my different lives together with a thoroughness I never expected. Outside was the old desert oasis of grandparent-cousin summers, changing seasons in a way I’d only heard about from my mom. But inside, quietly roaming this art-filled house left behind by a gone-too-soon painter, life was improbably twinned with times in England—teaching Saturday morning classes in Cambridge—an ancient house—art in each new corner—strange modern additions disarmingly charming—hallowed modest rooms, carefully preserved—a secret familiarity—allowed to touch the furniture, long before open hours—this beloved space I’ll never regain. I regained it. Meanwhile spending most evenings chatting with my closest cousin, random walks in the foothills or hanging out at his house with his family, casually last-minute plans and joking after work or weekends like it was no strange thing, living in the same place just natural. We’d only had that once before, as teenagers—medical visits to Seattle forcing him to moonlight in my high school memories—all our grown-up times are summer vacations, divorced from normal life. In this Boise house I lived teenage me, childhood summers me, England teacher me, Seattle artist and writer me all at once, I was calm, everything made easy sense. Having just achieved my unlikely dream of living there another month, this time as a writer, I have to admit I still feel the same way I did making this first post-it, the night before the residency even started—staying in my cousin’s guest room, gently engulfed in old music and posters, a quilt made by my grandma’s big sister. Other evenings found me swimming in palatial YMCA pools, sharp turquoise echoes, vast emptied 8pm’s in a town where everyone else has kids, expected home for dinner. Luxuriating in deep waters strangely all to myself, like I’d stayed late in a childhood memory of nighttime fall swimming lessons, my mom gone home. Taking breaks from work to walk along the river at the end of the street, the ragged art of every moment overwhelmed me, too many things to say at once, strange humor, lovely pathos, odd perfection of each detail a little creative ache. At my exhibition, someone paid me an enthusiastically mysterious compliment, surprised by my slideshow of paintings and post-its, so different from the dip pen drawings I’d been making. If anyone knows what he meant please explain, I confess it’s beyond me. (Does Scarlett demonstrate confusingly diverse artistic talents I’ve forgot? Did Margaret Mitchell sneakily paint??) Halloween was my last night in town, my cousin’s toddler in her flamingo outfit a deadpan delight. That post-it appeared online while I was driving home from this year’s residency, the strange calm of that time-traveling house behind me and belonging to another artist and a new month now, just my usual self again, it drives me crazy I can’t be everywhere at once.

The Help Desk: I don't buy it

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Whenever a local news organization fucks up — and I mean really fucks up, like giving a platform to Nazis — people talk about boycotting that organization. It makes sense: we unfortunately live in late capitalism, so boycotting is possibly the greatest power that we have.

But as soon as people discuss boycotting a media org, I see a bunch of reporters step forward on Twitter and Facebook to say that boycotting is a bad idea, since news organizations are on such shaky financial ground. But of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? I know that journalists are underpaid and that the field is shrinking. But on the other hand, I don’t know if I want to live in a world where there are no repercussions for bad journalism.

Do you think that boycotting a news organization is ever warranted?

Sam
Leschi

Dear Sam,

Yes, I think boycotts can be warranted. I wish people would boycott Fox news but realistically, we will have to wait for old age and alligator attacks to work their magic on that audience. But in order for a boycott to be effective, it has to actually hurt their business model, and that is hard to do when the model is already broken.

Let me ask you: How many newspapers and magazines do you actually subscribe to versus how many articles do you read online, for free?

A majority of people ages 18-49 now get most of their news online. Another study shows that a little over half of people actually pay for it. Journalism is suffering — and bad journalism is flourishing — in part because of this. We've lost years of institutional knowledge as career journalists retire or leave their field for PR jobs that offer humane things like decent pay, health insurance and days off.

Meanwhile, many readers have come to expect a high-quality product on a 24-hour cycle for free. For free. It's completely fucked.

Should quality be better? Yes. And it was, when more people payed for their media. I loved it when Seattle was a two-newspaper town. I loved reading two different takes on the same city council meeting or whatever. I loved having many diverse, well-research viewpoints to better inform my own. But for quality to improve, people have to actually pony up and pay for it.

Without that mechanism, it's like boycotting the zoo and expecting the tigers to give half a silly fuck. Your absence will have no meaningful effect on their lives. They will still be trapped in their cages, pacing and dreaming of death.

Kisses,
Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Cryptids

The Portrait Gallery: Back to school

Each week, Christine Larsen creates a new portrait of an author for us. Have any favorites you’d love to see immortalized? Let us know, or see if you can find them in the archives.

It's back to school! All over the multiverse, young and eager robots, androids, cyborgs, droids, bots, and automatons pass through the schoolhouse gates to learn their binary. Must be that Fall is just around the corner.

Kissing Books: Opposites intract

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.

Among romance readers, there is a strong belief that the main couple of a (non-poly) book must show balance.

This can mean the characters are parallel in some way: childhood sweethearts, second-chance romances, and friends-to-lovers tropes all start by establishing the characters as a pair. Two equivalent weights on the story-scales. A matched set, even before our couple have worked out the issues standing between them.

Other times, balance means means contrast. This is where a lot of your archetypes come in: the billionaire and the waif, the ray of sunshine and the grump, Beauty and the Beast, demigod paranormal hero and physically fragile mortal heroine with a reservoir of emotional resilience. Contrast is good because it generates conflict, and tension, and these are the engines that turn a mere series of events into a proper living story.

Some of the most consistently popular romance tropes use both coordination and contrast. Fated mates and marriage of convenience/fake dating plots usually take two wildly different character types and handcuff them together with some just-believable-enough excuse. And then we sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

Once in a workshop I heard romance author Gerri Russell sum up this romance theory by saying: “If your hero is a firefighter, your heroine had better be an arsonist.” But while there’s definitely a few firefighter romance heroes out there, I have yet to find a single one with an arsonist heroine — not because that wouldn’t be amazing (writers with arsonist heroines: email me!), but because romance as a genre tends to privilege some kinds of opposites over others.

For instance: cops are almost never paired with criminals, especially in m/f romance — shoutout to rare gems like Faking It by Jennifer Crusie, with its art-forging heroine — they’re paired with victims in need of rescue, or occasionally amateur sleuths. Military main characters are much more often given romance arcs with civilians and not with, say, enemy soldiers (Courtney Milan’s In the Pursuit Of… being, again, the rare exception that proves the rule — can you tell I’m inordinately fond of exceptions in romance?).

Which brings me to my least favorite trope of all time: the Battle of the Sexes. Your heroine is a feminist, so your hero must be, oh how clever, and ANTI-feminist! Because the correct resolution to any conflict must lie in the precise middle between two passionate points of view! And it’s important to behave as though trans, intersex, and nonbinary people don’t exist!

Very few authors can pull off the kind of creativity a truly satisfying compromise ending requires. Even fewer can do it on subjects where the both-sides framework is a lazy cliché — Courtney Milan spoke about this once when discussing the time she spent plotting The Suffragette Scandal: she assumed when she created a suffragette heroine that the hero would be the opposite, and would have to be convinced about women’s worth, and then it transpired that… she just didn’t really want to have to write that man as a hero. So she wrote an entirely different kind of scoundrel instead — and ever since I’ve been noticing just how irritating it is when two characters are expected to meet in the middle on questions about, say, the humanity of women. Or people of color, because you bet there’s a ton of romances out there with Green Book-style white saviour narratives that follow a similar pattern.

As if what really matters about feminism is convincing men it’s important. As if what matters about racism is how white people feel about it.

Sometimes, the consequences of contrasted character types means that one character ends up doing all the changing. Or all the forgiving. Take the magical monster/emotionally resilient mortal pairing that happens so often in paranormals. The weaker character is often kidnapped, imprisoned, controlled, or limited by the stronger, for Very Important Reasons. Inevitably they fall in love, and the mortal forgives the monster’s actions. Because romance is about characters learning how to use their strengths for good. So the monster gets to use those powers, albeit more judiciously. The mortal… gets to forgive the monster for abuse of powers. Which doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun.

Are we meant to read this as balanced? As equal? It feels more like a lesson in becoming resigned to power imbalances, rather than a means of correcting them.

What if, instead, a misuse of a paranormal hero’s power was punished in some way by the narrative? What if abusing power got that power taken away?

One of this month’s books actually tries to answer that question: a young mage who has been using his magic to harm others has that same magic locked away when he decides to stop hurting people; what follows is tender and terrifying by turns, and one of the strongest and strangest fantasy romances of the year. Also featured below: a strong Beauty and the Beast variant, a romance between a woman who loves durian and a man who loathes it (the kind of topic on which compromise is actually possible!), a Ren Faire-set story with a priggish English teacher/pirate king and a wench who’s come home to help her family recover, and finally, a historical fantasy romance featuring a Malaysian woman with no magic and no memory, and a highborn British witch under too much familial pressure to wed a fortune.

It’s an excellent mix of contrast and coordinating pairs, just right for the month when summer is poised to transform into fall.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (Carina Press: fantasy m/non-binary m):

This book? This book. Reading it is like — the feeling you get when you’re going about your everyday business and somehow come face-to-face with a wild creature in the middle of a city.

This book is really fucking good, is what I’m trying to tell you.

It wil snare you in the second paragraph, with her red witch’s eye a glowing carbuncle in the sun. For a time you will have no idea what is going on, but it is dark and it is poetic and you are enchanted. Mio, our young and fragile soul who sings out people’s hidden secrets. Wry and aristocratic Rhody, dead and resurrected with the moonlit soul of a bear, who fights a constant battle with a great curse. Priests in azure chasubles, a war that left thousands of ghosts to trouble the living, a kind of magic that is fluid and artistic and deadly dangerous — to the soul as well as the body. Mio has done terrible things, and he carries that knowledge around like a burden. This is not an easy book, for all its beauty.

Nor is this book an unbalance of powers, as discussed above. Normally the character with greater power has committed the greater crime: your dragon shifters, your vampire lords, your immortal demigods and dethroned princes of Faerie. But it’s sensitive, artistic Mio who has sinned greatly, and is asking to be contained. To be killed, even, at least at the start. The rest of the book is a lengthy exploration of sins and revelations, and when we start revealing that the things wrong in Bedefyr are not precisely what the secret-keepers think, it was pure exhilaration. I could spend months teasing out all the thoughts I have about this. I could spend another thousand words talking about this book — how it’s a Gothic and a Little Mermaid variant and a shatteringly unique fantasy world with not one but two strong, distinctive character voices.

But you don’t need those thousand words. You just need the book itself. This eerie, lovely, wondrous gift of a story. It’s the dark full-fantasy full-romance we’ve dreamed of for years.

My bear-mind was always strangely vivid, emphasizing the environment with a series of scent strokes and heat. I wished I could figure out how to smoke as a bear so I could delicately tap off ashes as I crushed things. Since I couldn’t be so dainty, I released a wave of roars, making the night flash. The soldiers abandoned their positions — loyalty could not suspend their mortality, or ward off the giant black bear that was reminding them of it.

Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean (Avon Books: historical m/f):

This is the book that got me thinking about balance in romance in the first place: it is one of the most exquisitely balanced pairings I have read in quite some time. A woman protecting her brother challenges and falls for a man protecting his sister; Hattie was raised on the docks before her father acquired a title, while Whit was trained as a duke’s heir before taking to the streets of Covent Garden. They’re both of neither world, which lets them find a middle ground together. It’s truly wonderful to see the Beauty and the Beast trope finessed — Hattie is irresistable to Whit, but in her own eyes she’s no beauty, always too much: too tall, too fat, too intelligent, too ambitious. Feeling hurt or vulnerable makes her angry which in turn makes her stand tall and defend herself, and it’s such a damn relief. More heroines blazing with righteous anger, please and thank you!

I only wish… There needs to be a better critical language for this kind of book, when you see something that’s a beautiful, near-perfect success at what it’s trying to do — that aim is totally Someone Else’s Catnip, but not mine. This will be a very useful book to have read, because it is an excellent alpha hero and those are worth remembering. I’m going to be recommending it all over the place. It is not in any way the book’s fault that at the moment I am singularly tired of alpha heroes who are the Mostiest Most In Every Way (biggest, meanest, handsomest, etc). Perhaps it’s only my author-brain getting in the way, as sometimes happens: there are choices made in this book and this series that are precisely the opposite of what I would have done, and my inner critic just will not shut up about it.

When the third book comes out I will be keeping a close eye on others’ reviews, because there are hints about where it will be going and people are going to Have Opinions. I am excited about that in a very nerdy romance kind of way.

Man Versus Durian by Jackie Lau (self-published: contemporary m/f):

“Show, don’t tell” is probably one of the most misused pieces of writing advice out there. Every good writer I know breaks it on the regular — and not just romance writers, but sff, mystery, and your favorite lit-fic darling, too. Telling is efficient. Telling is clear. Writers who think they can’t just tell you something end up wasting words being more opaque than they have to be, and both the book and the reader often suffer.

Jackie Lau’s books tell you straight-up what the characters are feeling: what they fear, what they’re avoiding thinking about, what they want. So we have all that information in mind while we watch them dance through her high-concept situations: fake dating, party planning, the great and always-loveable Only One Bed trope.

And, as here, a classic Opposites Attract. Peter has declared durian his nemesis after it spoiled a tryst of his in college. Valerie not only works in a shop that sells durian ice cream, but durian is her favorite food. He’s happy in his low-key job; she’s missing the intensity and problem-solving opportunities of the software development career that her terrible ex-boss torpedoed a year ago. She’s prickly, he’s soft; together, they’re adorable. This is an emotional romance, but a very low-stakes one — a gentle, easy hug of a book with people you wish you could hang out with in real life. It’s so inviting and pleasant and wholesome that it makes me want to give durian another shot.

She bites into the bun, closing her eyes. I’ve noticed that Valerie likes to close her eyes when she eats, as though it allows her to truly savor food.

“Good?” I ask. For some reason, it’s extremely important that she like it.

“Yeah.” She sighs in bliss.

The extra stop before going to Ginger Scoops was definitely worth it. There’s a tiny bit of custard on her lip, and I want to lick it off. Then I remind myself that it’s durian-flavored and must taste like absolute shit. Still, I would happily lick her lip if she’d let me.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Jove Books: contemporary m/f):

Pro tip: when in Chapter One your heroine encounters a large, generically hot blond man whose muscles are explicitly compared to Gaston’s and who is happy to wear a kilt and be ogled by everyone at the Renaissance Faire… no way is that guy the hero.

No, the hero is the dark-haired, uptight, incredibly irritating man with the clipboard, who in the heroine’s words, “would be relatively attractive if he weren’t looking at me like he’d caught me cheating on my chemistry final.”

That’s because romantic comedies live and die on the specifics. The swooniest parts are always context-dependent: Kate Moseley and Doug Dorsey finally nailing the Pamchenko Twist; Harry’s New Year’s Eve list of Sally’s quirks; Lucy In her booth finding a wedding ring clinking down instead of a subway token, and looking up into the smiling faces of Jack and his family.

Or, in this case, a golden cord and a pirate earring at a small-town Renaissance Faire.

Jen DeLuca’s debut is sweet and snappy and light as a lemon tart: Emily Parker has moved to Willow Creek after a breakup to help her sister and niece recover from a serious car accident. Her niece is desperate to be involved in the local Faire with all her friends, and she can’t audition unless an adult volunteers along with her. Her mother is still recuperating, so Emily channels her unfinished English major and signs on as a tavern wench — and immediately has a run-in with the man running the Faire, a starchy, scowly English teacher named Simon, who has his own issues with family and the Faire.

This is the pure undiluted enemies-to-lovers stuff, and it packs a wallop. Reading this book made me feel like a teenager just discovering romance for the first time: the heroine’s hurt and self-doubt, the need to decipher the hero’s true feelings (we stay in Emily’s POV the whole book), the courage it takes Emily to realize she’s worthy of love, how it feels to be tangled in a social and familial web of obligation and loyalty that can either hold you back or hold you up.

It’s a whole functioning world in here, and I hope to get a chance to revisit.

He ran a hand over his jaw again, rubbing at the bristles on his cheek as though he could scrub them out. “This isn’t your community. You don’t live here.”

Those words were a dart, and they hit the bull’s-eye. To my horror, my eyes started to sting. “Excuse me?” I blinked hard. I was not going to let this asshole see he’d made me cry.

But he noticed. “I mean… ” He had the grace to look a little ashamed and started to backpedal. “You’re not staying, right? I thought you were only here short term to help out your sister.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought about it yet. I’m …” I put up a hand, stopping the thought. Stopping him from saying anything else. “You know what? My future isn’t any of your business. What is your business is I represent fifty percent of your wenches, and Faire starts in two weeks. Do you really not want me here?”

This Month’s Sapphic Fantasy Romance With Witches and Fairies and Dragons, Oh My!

The True Queen by Zen Cho (Ace Books: historical fantasy f/f):

You might know Zen Cho’s name from her quirky and charming 1920s biracial retelling of Jane Eyre, her award-winning short story collection, her much-loved debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, or the glorious, heartrending f/f fantasy romance novelette “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”, for which she won the Hugo this year, and which you can read for free immediately at that link. Good luck getting through it with a dry eye, though.

However you come to read Zen Cho, rejoice — for her writing is universally delightful.

We like to compare books to food, and say they nourish the soul, because this is true. Some books are steaks: thick and meaty and bloody in the mouth. But Zen Cho’s works are delicate, decorated, fanciful and wondrous — amuse-bouches, or hors d’oeuvres, or petit fours for the soul. Sweet and pleasing overall with the occasional darkness and bitterness of high-quality chocolate. They are small luxuries: “post-colonial fluff for book nerds,” she’s described it. You’ll find all the light humor and stiletto-sharp wit of Wodehouse and Heyer, both admitted influences, as well as an incisive kindness and sympathy that is all Cho’s.

The True Queen is a sequel to Sorcerer. Like a fugue, the book starts with a simple melody line: a storm, and two sisters cast out upon the shore. Slowly and steadily the figure repeats and builds and varies itself: sundering and reunion, memory and magic, family duty and love and betrayal. The romance is but one note among many, a flute piping above the rest of the orchestra. The plot is not surprising — not if you know anything at all about fairy tales — but it’s so beautifully done that the satisfaction resonates down to the bone. You know it’ll end with a major chord, but it still feels right when those last notes strike your ear. It’s recommended, but not necessary, to have read Sorcerer first, though ultimately I find I prefer this second book, and I cannot wait to see what she’ll write next.

“I take it very kind in Her Majesty to send us a warning,” said Prunella, ignoring this. “But what is the danger that threatens us?”

“Oh, did I not say?” said the Duke. “It is us.”

Prunella stared. “You?”

“Her Glorious Majesty the Fairy Queen desired me to send you her best compliments,” said the Duke, “and explain that she means to kill all English magicians, burn your spell books and sack your miserable country. Her hunger for revenge will only be sated by the wholesale destruction of English thaumaturgy.”

America, in search of America

American citizenship, like so much else, has become weaponized. To many on the right, if you question any aspect of America's greatness — even if you simply mention that slavery is a huge part of American history — you are un-American. If you try to tell some people I know on the left that America has accomplished some good and is founded on a good idea, you're hopelessly naive at best, or minimizing the experience of entire groups of people at worst.

I don't mean to play both sides, here. The truth is, I've only rarely been accused of being a corporatist lapdog by a small handful of people on the left, while Republicans accuse me of hating America all the time. But these extremes are telling: it's hard to imagine the left and the right coming to an agreement on the meaning of America anymore.

In her book This America: The Case for the Nation, Jill Lepore argues that American citizenship has lost its meaning, and that Americans have lost a common sense of identity. At under 150 pages and published in a large font with huge spacing, the book feels slight, but Lepore's argument still feels thoughtful and well-supported.

Still, This America feels like a prologue for a longer, more in-depth examination of the American idea that has yet to be written. Lepore walks the reader through American history, recognizing how the establishment has ignored or even targeted groups that are outside the protection of privilege. She argues against blind nationalism in favor of a complicated patriotism that acknowledges our blind spots and failures as a nation.

At the Reading Through It Book Club last night, we wondered why Democrats are so bad at embracing patriotism. While it's true that President Obama made some beautiful pronouncements of love for the United States over the course of his career, he could never coax his party into a fervent embrace of nation. It just seems to be in our character to keep our cynical distance from a full-on patriotism.

Which is a shame, because the conservative embrace of patriotism is complete. Love of country is often used as a cudgel to fend off criticisms and questions. Opposition is often framed as hatred of the nation. It's intended and used as a stifling of opposition in public conversation.

But patriotism used as a weapon isn't true patriotism. Unlike the hatred of nationalism, patriotism is a positive force — a common understanding of who we are and where we're going. Is it even possible to bring together Americans under the guise of patriotism anymore? Would a reinstatement of a robust civics curriculum help, or perhaps two years of mandatory community service for all young Americans? Is there any way to restore something we can all experience in these hyper-personalized times?

One member of the book group suggested that LGBTQ Pride celebrations are a model for patriotism. There's an unalloyed commonality to Pride, a collection of multiple disparate communities coming together to celebrate achievements and recognize obstacles that have yet to be overcome. There is not one monolithic LGBTQ identity, yet LGBTQ communities have found reasons to work together in tandem and deal with their conflicts as one, under the guise of a single identity. What could be more American than that?

Thursday Comics Hangover: Be prepared

The world of fiction is full of hyper-competent scouting organizations. The Junior Woodchucks in Donald Duck comics are probably the gold standard of fake scouts — the Junior Woodchuck Handbook is filled with more practical information than even the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy — but fictionalized Boy and Girl Scouts are everywhere in popular culture. It's easy to see why the idea would be so pervasive: scouting offers a compelling combination of peril and competency. It at once gets innocent children into trouble and provides them with the tools to get out of trouble. That's practically the definition of a story.

Earlier this year, Boom! Studios published a gorgeous hardcover collection of the first volume of Black Badge, a comic by writer Matt Kindt, artist Tyler Jenkins, colorist Hilary Jenkins, and lettered by Jim Campbell. The premise is a clever twist on the idea of scouts in fiction: it's about a team of covert kid scouts who do black ops work that adults can't do.

When we first meet the team of Black Badge, they're sneaking into North Korea for an undercover mission. "They send us because we're kids," one of the scouts says, his eyes wide open as he tries and fails to get comfortable in his sleeping bag at night. He continues...

...Because it's the perfect cover....I mean, we're kids. We get lost all the time. We can't be tried as adults. We blend in. Who pays attention to a bunch of sight-seeing kids? But we're breaking like ten different laws. And not all countries take it easy on kids.

It's a credit to Tyler Jenkins that he can make this idea not feel sadistic. These aren't cute Precious Moments-style children. That monologue I quoted from above is delivered with the perfect ten-thousand-yard stare. The way the kids' jaws are set as they pass a sign warning, in Korean, that "Trespassers will be killed," indicates that these are not innocents. These kids have seen some shit.

Not that the kids deserve to be swept up into a world of violence. Kindt's dialogue feels ripped from films about new recruits swept into war — even though the kids talk like extras in Full Metal Jacket, there's an absurdity, and a darkness, to the fact that their lines are delivered with such callousness. Hard-bitten or not, they're still kids.

Hilary Jenkins's coloring is the secret weapon. The scouts often head into the wilderness, and Jenkins gives the surroundings a rich, watercolor feel. Without all the violence and the endangered children, these backgrounds could easily be postcards.

You get the sense by the end of Black Badge Volume 1 that the story is just getting started. (In fact, the second volume was just released yesterday.) We've barely scratched the surface of the organization's lore and legend — a huge part of any scouting experience — and someone in the scouting organization is racking up some serious payback for putting generations of kids in the line of fire. Not every serialized comic has a premise that feels both durable and promising, but Black Badge has the feel of a book that will only improve and deepen as the story continues. I can't wait to follow these kids further into the darkness.

Donald Trump's trade war hits the publishing industry.

C. Spike Trotman, the publisher of Chicago-based Iron Circus Comics, tweeted a letter yesterday indicating that the publishing industry is finally about to pay the price for Donald Trump's trade war:

The worst part of all this is that we can't appeal to the president's better nature. The dumb motherfucker doesn't even read books.

Kathy Acker helped put Seattle on the map. Now it's Seattle's chance to return the favor.

From September 12th to the 14th, the Goethe Pop Up in Chophouse Row on Capitol Hill will team up with Fantagraphics Books in Georgetown to host a free symposium to celebrate the life and work of iconic feminist novelist Kathy Acker. Acker is generally associated with New York City, but she enjoyed two residencies in Seattle that tremendously influenced both Acker and our city. The Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium will serve as a celebration and a recontextualization of Acker's work, as well as an attempt to establish a record of her time in Seattle.

"I met Kathy Acker in 1980," Symposium Curator Larry Reid tells me over the phone. Reid, who has been a pillar of the local art scene for over forty years and now works as a manager at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, says Acker's two Seattle residencies helped to put the city on the map.

The NYC-based experimental novelist's first visit to Seattle in 1980 — she lived here for "six to eight months" at the time, Reid figures, was because "she'd recently been divorced and I recall that she wanted to get a fresh start" — was a momentous one. At the time, Acker was putting the finishing touches on her seminal novel Blood and Guts in High School and beginning Great Expectations, which many consider to be her best book, and Seattle had an art scene that was just waiting to clamber on the global stage.

"In 1980, Seattle was pretty much a provincial fishing village where we built airplanes," Reid says. He was involved in the tiny local experimental art scene here — it was largely centered around the And/Or Gallery on Capitol Hill — but Acker's arrival signaled the city's coming expansion.

Though she was on the verge of being discovered by the mainstream at that time in her life, Acker was already "well-known in the counter-culture and in experimental literary circles," Reid explains. She had self-published and self-distributed a number of chapbooks — kind of a precursor to zines — and was known for bringing a punk rock flair to the confessional writing popularized by the Beats in the 1950s and 60s.

"To us," Reid says, Acker's presence in 1980s Seattle "was a pretty big deal. This punk-rock New Yorker with a shaved head coming to town felt like validation in some respects and it gave momentum to younger artists"

"We were all very enamored with her and she had these romantic associations with New York," Reid says. "I think it was a really formative period for Kathy. She complained about Seattle being so remote and said there was nothing to do, but as a writer that sort of isolation serves creativity."

Acker returned to Seattle in 1988, at the height of her popularity, for a brief visit that included a huge reading at New City Theatre, a venue in the former funeral home that would later become Hugo House's first home. Acker's second visit elevated two women who would come to shape the world's perception of our region: Seattle author Stacey Levine and Olympia musician Kathleen Hanna.

"Kathleen was not known then," Reid says. Hanna credits opening for Acker as "inspiring her to form Bikini Kill," the feminist punk band that paved the way for what would become Seattle's grunge scene. Without Acker, Reid asks, "do we know if Sleater-Kinney would've happened without Bikini Kill — or Portlandia, or you know, any of that?"

Levine became one of Seattle's greatest literary talents, a wholly original talent who composes beautiful fairy tales that dance to some monstrous unconscious rhythms. Her work simmers with some of the same heat of Acker's fiction.

For a certain generation that came of age in the late 1990s, myself included, Acker is a foundational talent — an author who means as much as William S. Burroughs did for the generation before. Acker shares some qualities with Burroughs — a proclivity for nonlinear storytelling, an eagerness to push the idea of narrative beyond its breaking point — but there's a rage and a humanity underlaying all her work that I could never find in Burroughs.

But while Burroughs is still read and half-understood by young white boys with literary aspirations, Acker seems to be fading into history.

That's where next week's Symposium comes in. Featuring dozens of contributors including Hanna, Levine, cartoonist Megan Kelso, poet Marilyn Stablein, author Paul de Barros, and bookseller Gary Wilkie, the Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium is a mixture of exhibitions, panels, readings, and reminiscences intended to identify Acker's impact on Seattle, and vice versa.

Of course, Acker herself wouldn't be happy with a calm and academic dissection of her work. That won't be a problem here. Reid warns that a number of opinionated Acker fans are going to be in attendance, and there will be plenty of opportunities to gather at the Comet Tavern and at the Fantagraphics Store in Georgetown to "informally discuss whatever issues arose in the panels." Reid says "I'm sure that conflicts will happen, based on my initial research. Maybe some beer will smooth things over, but everybody's not gonna agree on everything."

Reid has spent about two years organizing this symposium, but he's quick to add that it's not planned down to the minute. "I haven't fully scripted a lot of this because I want it to feel organic," he insists. "From the meetings that I've had with the panelists, it feels like this is going to be phenomenally interesting."

Assembling the symposium has "been a really emotional process," Reid says. "I adored Kathy. We became close and stayed close right up until her death in the late nineties."

But despite the personal connections, "I want to avoid the suggestion that this is just an exercise in nostalgia," Reid insists. It's about looking closely at where we are and where we're going — as a city, as an art scene, and as a post-Acker literary community. Ultimately, he says, "we hope to look at the past as a way of informing the present and inspiring the future."

Have you heard the one about the person who forgot to buy David Sedaris Tickets? It's too sad to repeat...

Sponsor Northwest Associated Arts is bringing David Sedaris back for his annual visit to Benaroya Hall. For those of you who already have tickets, you should turn to your neighbor and explain just why they have to see Sedaris live.

Because no other performer brings the energy, vivaciousness, or good humor to their readings that Sedaris does. He’s always a treat, always on point, and always bringing new works to his adoring audience.

Make sure to join Sedaris for his visit, you can purchase tickets now, or read more on our sponsor’s page.

It's sponsors like Northwest Associated Arts who make the engine of our website purr so smoothly. They’re returning sponsorship means the world to us. Find out what sponsorship can do for you on our sponsor page. We’d love for you to find out why so many of our sponsors come back again, and again.

A kingdom of crows

Published September 3, 2019, at 12:00pm

Paul Constant reviews Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth , Kira Jane Buxton's Hollow Kingdom, and Margaret Owen's The Merciful Crow.

Sarah Smarsh reads from her beautiful memoir about American decay tonight. Are we all doomed to fight for table-scraps as income inequality grows?

Read this review now

white savior industrial complex

   

while reading a pale-faced activist’s
book on civil disobedience

I encounter the passage of
that time he evaded Johnny Law

by hiding with his buddies

in Yellow Face onstage,

the “wrong side of Murder Creek”

I think how activism, like feminism
often fails people, like that time

175,000 protestors armed with
pussy hats marched through

the International District on the eve
before the Lunar New Year,

without giving the community notice
ahead of time, never considering how

they’d close streets, affect traffic,
or impact business on what would

usually be the busiest weekend
of the year, even Uwajimaya

seeing a drop in sales

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from September 2nd - September 8th

Monday, September 2nd: Variations of Labor Reading

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 6 pm, $5.

Tuesday, September 3rd: Heartland Reading

Sarah Smarsh's memoir is everything that Hillbilly Elegy was supposed to be but wasn't. It uses Smarsh's own story of growing up in intergenerational poverty to exemplify everything that's gone wrong with America's economy. It's a beautifully written example of economics in action, and a damning indictment of America since the 1980s. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, September 4th: Reading Through It Book Club

As the literary fall starts to heat up, consider taking a moment to join the official Seattle Review of Books book club to discuss Jill Lepore's brilliant, tiny book about embracing the complicated horrors and joys of American citizenship, This America: The Case for the Nation. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, September 5th: How to Prepare for Climate Change

Press info says this talk builds "on the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Global Warming of 1.5ºC Special Report and the 4th National Climate Assessment. Your host is Dr. Heidi A Roop, a local climate scientist who is trying to investigate ways out of this pickle we've gotten ourselves into. The Mountaineers, 7700 Sand Point Way NE, 7 pm, donations.

Friday, September 6th: Kochland Reading

Christopher Leonard took years to investigate the shady organizations that funded the Koch Brothers' multi-billion dollar crusade against the public good. Today, Leonard joins me for a conversation about how the Koches got rich, what they've done with the money, and what happens to the organization now that one of the brothers is dead. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.

Alternate Friday, September 6th: The Public Option Reading

Ganesh Sitaraman previously worked as a close economic adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren. His latest book is an argument for public ownership of utilities and services as a way to strengthen the nation's communal wealth. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.

Saturday, September 7th: Suzan-Lori Parks

All afternoon and evening, the MacArthur "Genius" winner, playwright, novelist, and musician will be hosting short plays, Q&A sessions, and musical performances to celebrate the grand re-opening of Town Hall Seattle. Parks is an amazing performer as well as a captivating writer. Don't miss this one. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 2 pm, free.

Sunday, September 8th: Short Stories Live

Beloved local poet Claudia Castro Luna hosts an afternoon of Seattle-centric storytelling with authors including Tyrone Beason, Elissa Washuta, and Ramon Isao. Expect a few surprises, too. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 4 pm, $15.

Event of the Week: Variations of Labor reading at Town Hall

Alex Gallo-Brown is a local writer who also works as a union organizer. If you think those two careers sound disparate, you're not paying attention to the media world, where journalists are finally standing together to demand that they be treated better than a few interchangeable cogs in whatever kind of machine still uses cogs in the 21st century.

But Gallo-Brown was there first. Born and raised here in Seattle, he's attended just about every major political action that's unfolded in the last five years. Forged in the Great Recession, he's keenly aware that workers in America are getting shafted even while the bosses are making more than ever before.

Today, in a special Labor Day reading, Gallo-Brown will be debuting his new collection of fiction and poetry about work and unions, Variations of Labor, at Town Hall. He explained the new book to the South Seattle Emerald's Reagan Jackson back in February:

My day job is labor organizer, labor advocate. That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last three or four years is work both in terms of our professional lives, but also the emotional labor we perform to survive both in our relationships and also in our daily lives and in our work experiences. [Variations] is sort of a mix of people working and living their lives. The poems get more at the emotional interior lives of people’s experience both at work and in their daily lives.

It's going to be a busy Labor Day at Town Hall; upstairs, Congressperson Pramila Jayapal will be talking with former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. They'll be discussing what it means to work in America in the 21st century. But downstairs, Gallo-Brown will be telling those stories in an emotionally approachable way. This is what literature is for: to take disparate experiences and make them relatable, to find the heroic in the everyday. In Gallo-Brown's book, every worker is a hero.

Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 6 pm, $5.

Sunday Post for September 1, 2019

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at submissions@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

Editor's note

Between writing the copy below and the time you're reading this, poet and critic Robert Lashley published an essay that defines why this weekly column exists. Lashley writes about Toni Morrison, his childhood, and his mother; it is humbling to see the grace with which he navigates between thoughtful analysis of Morrison's work and reflection on a deeply personal and difficult story. This is everything good writing about books should be, and I'm thrilled to have a place to highlight it.

If I could hear my mother read again
If, as Oscar Wilde said, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars, my mother’s voice was a rocketship. Graduating from The University of Washington in 1973 with a major in African American studies and a minor in Latin American studies, Glennis Wilson was one of finest literary minds I have ever heard or will hear. As an intellectual she was great misanthrope, and like all great misanthropes she was a broken-hearted idealist. She carried the scars of being excommunicated from progressive antiwar, black power, civil rights, and socialist movements for the sin of her occasional skepticism. Yet it was in literature, in the writers and likeminded people who represented democracy better than founders and most fortunate beneficiaries, where she found her true exemplars of the human condition.

One of my go-to newsletters is "Why is this interesting,", written by Noah Brier and Colin Nagy with frequent guests. When I first came across it, that seemed like the quintessential question the Sunday Post tries to answer, one paragraph at a time — why is this essay interesting? Why should you read it? They do a marvelous just-the-right-length job of responding to that question every time.

In the last few weeks, their newsletter has been talking about navigation — wayfinding, and what the ability to find your own way does for your brain and spirit. There's a lot of cool stuff about compasses and navigating by the stars, and about people who are finding their way back (pun intended) to the hand-rolled navigation styles that preceded Google Maps’ little blue line.

The flip side of finding your way is getting lost. Getting lost is something I do well and often, sometimes even trying to get back to my table after visiting the washroom in a new restaurant. Hunting for a house, I have criss-crossed the city I've lived in for 14 years and been delighted and a bit chagrined to see how all the neighborhoods, well, connect to each other. They're not geographic islands! I knew this conceptually, but to have your brain map it as a physical reality is like putting on glasses for the first time.

Those who are good at getting lost know the panic of the wrong turn before an important appointment and the frustration of well-intentioned navigators in the passenger seat. They also know the pleasure of finding your own way back from lostness. As a solo hiker, I was often lost and as often gratified by my ability to remain calm and puzzle my way back to the trail. Since partnering up, I've lost that (pun intended, again); when I turn down the wrong path, there's always a voice to call me back. It saves time but sacrifices something else — something I discovered after hours of real terror in the desert in Las Vegas once, trying to find a bit of sandstone that looked familiar while the sun went down and my cut leg burned and the sound of coyotes echoed from not too far away.

There's the reward of self-sufficiency, of course, which is what "Why is this interesting" is focused on. But there's something more than that, too. There's seeing the world become strange, seeing how memory transmutes fear to wonder, seeing yourself become strange and wonderful.

There are innumerable books about getting lost; one of my most beloved is Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, which, if you are only familiar with the movie, will surprise you with the depth of the sadness in it. Bastian Balthazar Bux loses himself, piece by piece and willingly, in the wonder of the world he's found. The trope is not uncommon, but the tone is: it's a story of incredible loneliness and longing and fear.

The protagonists of "door into" books are so often heroes waiting to be discovered; Bastian is a childish antihero, instead, like Narnia's Eustace Scrubb, who loses himself inside a dragon's skin. Bastian is infinitely more complex, though, and his lostness infinitely more resonant. His story tells us why getting lost in the real world and finding your way out of it is such a necessary joy: it promises that you can be terribly, terribly lost, even within yourself, and still find the way home.

I mentioned Rebecca Solnit last week and hesitate to do so again, but her Field Guide to Getting Lost is just a few feet away and too appropriate not to check. "We treat desire as a problem to be solved," she says, "... though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between us with the blue of longing." I saw the blue of longing in a shallow pool at the top of a white sandstone canyon once. I've never forgotten the brilliance of it.

The Wayfinding Edition
What I didn't realize then is that this practice of land navigation was forming my mind and thoughts in a certain way. Unfortunately, it’s a way that I've likely lost after a decade of using Google Maps for navigation on my iPhone. As Maura O'Connor notes in her new book _Wayfinding_, and a recent Washington Post article, the hippocampus—the part of the brain that allows us to orient in space, recall events from the past (episodic memory) as well as the ability to imagine ourselves in the future—shrinks when it isn’t used. She also notes that atrophy in that part of the brain is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. It seems not using a map isn’t just affecting how I think today, but it can also affect my thoughts well into the future.
Other good reads this week

Soroya Roberts on white angst about writing about black culture:

Why is it that when I see Halsey on the cover of Rolling Stone I don’t think twice, while seeing Cardi B makes me feel out of my depth? My woeful lack of music knowledge is the same for both of them. If anything, I should feel more of an affinity for Cardi because I’ve actually heard a couple of her songs. But I don’t, because Cardi’s otherness eclipses everything else about her and becomes her identity — she reads insurmountable. Halsey, who passes like me, despite us having nothing else in common, plays less obscure. Is that racist? Cause it sure as hell sounds like it is.

Katie Booth on the divorce between sound and hearing:

Once I began to wonder where the real borders of musicality are, the world started to crack open in beautiful ways. Some particular types of movement pattern, sensations of wind. Watching telephone poles through a car window is a musical experience, Kim tells me. As soon as she says it, I remember a 2013 event in Boston in which the poet Raymond Luczak read a poem with this same image, his arms embodying that exact tune: “As you drive home, notice how rhythmic / telephone poles and corner signs are. / Wonder why no one ever thinks of making music / for eyes alone.”

Why don't women get tenure as often as men? I'm glad you asked. Also, absolute gold-star use of "ramshackle" here:

Given that women have been the majority of the undergraduate student body in many countries for the last three decades, one can no longer argue that equality can be achieved by simply waiting for young female scholars to emerge at the end of the academic “pipeline.” “The increase in women at later stages of the pipeline is the consequence of a slow ‘pull’ provided by the expanding pool of women at the beginning,” the authors of a 2008 study in Science suggest, “not because of an effective ‘push’ that reduces attrition during career advancement.”10 Strengthening this push, however, means addressing the sexist practices that “push” men along the cursus honorum, because these practices tend to be the very same mechanisms that oust women from the academy. The zero-sum nature of this problem makes it difficult to discuss, let alone redress. Ugly small-brained misogyny explains only part — albeit an important part — of this result. More insidious are banal sexist practices that reinforce one another to compose a vast ramshackle machinery that elevates men to the pinnacle of the ivory tower.

Whatcha Reading, Paul Mullin?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Paul Mullin is a Seattle-based writer, self-described "recovering" playwright — for which he won a Stranger Genius award — host of the monthly reading series Loud Mouth Lit

, and author of The Starting Gate: A Cocktail of Working, Drinking, Family, and Zen. The next Loud Mouth Lit is Tuesday, September 24th at 8pm at St Andrew's Bar and Grill. Paul will be joined by Kelleen Conway Blanchard, author of The Neverborn (in its last weekend at the Annex Theatre!).

What are you reading now?

A buddy of mine gave me a couple books before he moved to Kyoto with his wife and daughter, one of them is Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird by Robert Aitken. I put it off for a while, because I was afraid it was going to be a cutesy, twee, Westernizing white-wash of the practice I’ve been engaged in for over three decades now, something in the vein of The Tao of Pooh (though I have to say that I do owe that book a huge debt). Instead, Zen Master Raven is a stark, deep-running collection of what can only be called modern American koans. Not surprisingly, Robert Aitken turns out to be a bona-fide Rōshi, having received the Dharma transmission from Koun Yamada in 1985. His stories have the same starkly ineffable force as any koan you might find in the classic Zen text The Mumonkan. I would love to figure out how to infuse this quality into my own story-telling: the clarity of a wooden block.

What did you read last?

I recently went to Europe for the first time in my life and I went on a bit of a Paris kick with my reading when I got back. I bounced from Hemingway to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London to Alan Furst’s wonderfully wrought series of spy books set in and around the City of Light prior to and during World War II.

When it came to Papa in Paris A Moveable Feast was a no-brainer pick and it did not disappoint. It’s a plain joy, with the absurdly handsome and virile young Hemingway serving as a synecdoche for all of America’s blundering, blustering early 20th Century youth crashing into the jaded mores of Europe. But I also checked out The Nick Adams Stories, and finally learned a valuable lesson about Hemmingway’s stories. They either speak to you or they don’t. It ran about 50/50 for me, but the ones that worked were a revelation of understatement and meticulous observation. He’s a bit like Chekhov that way, though Chekhov’s batting average is way higher than .500 (for his short stories anyway: ironically or not, I am not a big fan of his plays).

Orwell’s book is a must read, if only to understand that homelessness has always been a problem in big cities and their surroundings. The “Seattle-is-Dying” crowd would have loved England’s solution in the 1930s, which was to force itinerant men to shelter each night in a different town or village, forcing them to walk as much as 20 -30 miles each day between stays.

I finally had to let the Furst books go when the main characters started blurring into the same flawed but ultimately noble Allied operative.

What are you reading next?

I’m so stoked to answer this question because I can’t wait to read a book that got handed to me on Wednesday by the author Charles E Martin. It’s called My Life Underwater. I’ve only read the first page, but based on that it promises to be excellent.

I have special tangential connection to Charles because he’s the new cook in my neighborhood bar, The St Andrew’s, which also happens to be where I host my monthly literary series Loud Mouth Lit. It delights me to think that I have some small part in expanding the soccer-and-scotch bar I first stumbled into from the bus stop 15 years ago into a genuine literary establishment. The Algonquin of Aurora, maybe? I have a strong suspicion Martin will be one of my LML guests in the coming months. So stay tuned. Seattle’s a small world for writers, and I hope that never changes.

The Help Desk: I have a huge vocabulary. Why can't I pronounce any words correctly?

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I’m fed up with the reader’s curse. I have a big vocabulary and I know the names of plenty of important people, but it seems like every time I try to toss off a big word at work (elucidate, anyone?) or refer to a major historical figure, I mispronounce them terribly because I’ve only ever encountered them in print. (I still remember the first time I did this, back in high school, when I gave a presentation on Socrates who I referred to as “SEW-crates” several times.) I’m trying to sound smart, but mangling the pronunciation always makes me sound like a total moron.

I try to Google, for instance, “how do you pronounce Miriam Toews,” but different YouTube pronunciation guides offer completely different pronunciations. Should I just stick to monosyllabic words and bland British names from now on? And just to be safe, how do you pronounce “monosyllabic,” anyway?

Perplexed in Portage Bay

Dear Perplexed,

"Tanzaynia," "diversary," "covfefe," "premedication," "Nambia," and "infantroopen," are just a few of my favorite words President Donald Trump has mispronounced or made up entirely. These are the words I call to mind every time my vigilance slips and I mispronounce "pedestrian" in public. (Think of a pedophile injuring himself while taking a shit. That's how I pronounce it: "pedo-strain".)

For readers, that is the silver lining on the clusterfuck shit-pile of these last three years – if the leader of our nation can't pronounce basic words, or even fucking remember them, how can anyone judge you for mispronouncing "Socrates" or "elucidate" or "macabre"?

They can't. They are puckered assholes if they even try, so you go ahead and scream "Miriam Toews" from the rooftops until your pretty pink lungs cave in.

Kisses,

Cienna