The Sunday Post for February 16, 2020

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 week found me reading a series of bleak but thought-provoking pieces on growth, decline, and political posturing in U.S. society.

The Age of Decadence

Ross Douthat, in an excerpt from his book, The Decadent Society, sketches a portrait of the U.S. as a nation not in decline, but in stagnation. In his view, our politics, technical innovations, art, and culture are all signs of a decadent society, canaries in a coal mine that warn not of impending disaster but of a steady state of ineffectualness and gridlock. Things are fine-ish but they feel horrible partly because progress has not kept pace with expectations based on the breakneck speed of innovations and improvements in the country's past. The piece dives into many aspects of life, and there's a lot to unpack and argue over, but I found it thought-provoking as a frame to consider some of the disappointments and malaise of the last decade.

A contributing factor, Douthat argues, is that most of the innovation in recent years has been digital, not material. We’ve seen diminishing returns in scientific research and medicine while being flooded with a bubble's worth of apps that help us do everything from chatting seamlessly with our friends to hiring a dog walker. He lists off some of the overinflated promises of the past decade (one of which is still going strong, despite never having turned a profit): Fyre Fest, Theranos, and Uber. Douthat doesn't dwell on the fact that most of the profits go into a rarified set of pockets concentrated in tech hubs, but that was top-of-mind for me while reading this piece.

The truth of the first decades of the 21st century, a truth that helped give us the Trump presidency but will still be an important truth when he is gone, is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling forward toward transhumanism or extinction. Instead, we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.
Can We Have Prosperity without Growth?

Where Ross Douthat's piece focuses on the stagnation plaguing our society and mostly eschews environmental concerns, John Cassidy’s review of recent books and viewpoints on sustainable growth leans into an environmentalist view of growth and engages with questions about whether economic growth can be compatible with environmental policies. Do the U.S. and other wealthy countries need to embrace slow growth to mitigate environmental disaster, and can the economy keep growing forever, decoupled from environmental damage? My instinct is that it’s not possible to have continued growth without paying a price, but the piece explores many sides of the argument and some proposed solutions.

After a century in which G.D.P. per person has gone up more than sixfold in the United States, a vigorous debate has arisen about the feasibility and wisdom of creating and consuming ever more stuff, year after year. On the left, increasing alarm about climate change and other environmental threats has given birth to the “degrowth” movement, which calls on advanced countries to embrace zero or even negative G.D.P. growth.
Passion Isn't Enough: The Rise of 'Political Hobbyism' in the United States

The next piece made me take a hard look at how I consume news. In the newest episode of the NPR podcast “Hidden Brain,” Shankar Vedantam interviews political scientist Eitan Hersh about what he sees as the growth of political hobbyism, or treating politics as a fun diversion without doing actual work to effect change. This episode also dovetails well with the politics section of Douthat's piece about decadence, if you feel like putting them in conversation. Hersh sees it as more convenient than ever to use politics as shallow self-expression rather than as a tool for improving our community. It's easy to follow news that's sensational and tweet about it. It is much harder to slog through information about local housing bylaws and pester your local government to make changes.

What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it's alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It's boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side. It's easier to hate and dismiss the other side than to empathize and connect to them. When do we vote? When there's a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there's a cocktail party or a viral video. What are we doing? We're taking actions not to empower our political values but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics.

Whatcha Reading, Laura Knetzger?

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.

Laura Knetzger is a Seattle-based illustrator, artist, author, and comics creator. Her best known work, Bug Boys, was just published by Random House. Although she just recently gave us her answers to the questions below, we wanted to have her back in celebration of her new book. If you've read Bug Boys before, be sure to pick up the new book to see them in incredible color! You can also follow Laura on Twitter, or support her work through her Patreon.

What are you reading now?

I just started Against Creativity by Oli Mould last night. I don’t usually read nonfiction, but this one grabbed me. It’s about the co-option of the concept of creativity by capitalism as a force for economic growth rather than an expression of humanity. Recently, my cousin asked if I considered myself a “content creator” and he was trying to be funny but it gave me a little internal crisis about how I’m perceived. Anyway, I hope I finish this book.

I’m also reading The Snail on the Slope by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I’m trying to read more Strugatsky brothers since they’re like a hidden influence on modern sci-fi — kind of like how Kenji Miyazawa is such a huge influence on manga, anime, and Japanese literature but isn’t really a household name outside of Japan — and also because the video game critic Tim Rogers recommended them and I’m working up the courage to become a Tim Rogers reply guy. Their prose is kind of a slog to get through but every now and then something really spooky and exciting happens.

What did you read last?

I just finished Barkskins by Anne Proulx, which was fantastic. It’s a huge, sprawling novel that follows the descendants of two indentures servants who emigrated to Canada in the 17th century. Both families’ lives are tied to trees, one as wealthy lumber barons and the other as poor Native woodcutters who cut down the forests. There’s no traditional “story,” just the lives of the characters and the reasons they return to trees for their livelihoods generation after generation.

Then I read The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya. I highly recommend reading a collection of short stories after reading an 800 page novel because it feels so breezy and light. These stories were all fabulous, when I describe them as “breezy” I mean they all flowed and swept me along in them, not that they were insubstantial. “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” was a standout, about a dissatisfied wife who channels her sadness into getting extremely buff but her husband pays so little attention to her he doesn’t even notice her body has changed.

What are you reading next?

I just got A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine from the library. I don’t remember why I requested this one, sometimes I just put holds on stuff that’s on “best of” lists or twitter recommendation threads of whatever and then I don’t remember what seemed interesting about it in the first place. Looks good though!

The Help Desk: Public maiming

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. Cienna is off braiding spider webs into sanitary masks, so this week is a repeat from 2016.

Dear Cienna,

I’m friends with my local used bookseller. She recommends books to me, and I recommend books to her, and I sell books back to her, and everything is pretty great, for the most part. I know I’m lucky to have such a wonderful bookseller in my life.

But the other day, after I brought a big haul of books in to sell to her, my bookseller friend left a note on my Facebook wall that said, and I quote, “Stop dog earing your books!” Please bear in mind that this note came after she gave me over a hundred dollars in store credit for those books. She didn’t mention the dog-earing at all during the entire transaction while I was in the store.

It’s true that I dog-ear my books, Cienna, and I know it’s not okay. It’s a bad habit, like pulling out your own eyebrows or picking at pimples. But I feel a little hurt by the public shaming, especially considering that she’s never brought this up to my face.

Now I don’t want to go into the bookstore anymore, and I know that’s reactionary of me and more than a little silly. How do I salvage this relationship? Or should I only buy used books online from now on?

Danielle, Edmonds

Dear Danielle,

I assume your bookseller friend is a decent person because all used booksellers I've ever met are much better people than me – the kind of people who don't try to lure neighborhood children into their basement just to prove what bad parents they have.

Nevertheless, even booksellers can be cowards when it comes to interpersonal confrontations. Most of us would prefer to avoid the emotional feedback we receive – the hurt, confusion, embarrassment – when we tell someone we care about something that they probably don't want to hear. So we email them our criticisms. We text. We Facebook. And while that eliminates the special hell of an awkward interaction, our victim doesn't get the reassurances that physical feedback provides – tone, eye contact, a smile, maybe a hug. The mostly nonverbal cues that let people know they are valued, even when being criticized.

Receiving criticism via social media feels like a slap you didn't see coming, even if it is well-intentioned. I know the urge is to respond in kind digitally, but I don't recommend it. I recently did this and it cost me two friendships – one human, the other a spider I had named after my friend, who I had to ritualistically kill, dismember, and mail to my ex-friend in 11 tiny envelopes.

It takes guts to confront someone about their behavior. It's hard. But that is how strong friendships are built – in person, not over social media or texts. So this is what I suggest you do: Visit your favorite used bookstore like normal, buy a few books, and when your bookseller friend is ringing you up, say something like, "I think you owe me a happy hour drink." When she asks why, explain to her that you were a little embarrassed and offended that she chose to criticize you over Facebook for dog-earing your books, and that in the future, you'd prefer it if she talked to you in person about the physical state of the books you bring in for trade. But that she can make it up to you with that drink.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: This toe

The Portrait Gallery: Waverly Fitzgerald

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.

Thursday, February 13th: A Tribute to Waverly Fitzgerald With Curt Colbert

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday Comics Hangover: It's magic, you know

Lev Grossman's The Magicians is often called the American Harry Potter, sometimes as praise and sometimes as insult. Like Harry Potter, The Magicians does take place at magic school, but unlike Harry Potter, The Magicians is an adult story. Or, as much as Harry Potter is about the transition into adolescence, The Magicians is the story of transition out of it.

In fact, The Magicians is both a love letter to, and a poking at, Harry Potter. By folding in a fake mythos as part of the central narrative, a close-clone of the Narnia books, Grossman scratches at the itch of British fantasy and all its trappings, while still having his students sulk, whine, preen, and win their way through their incredibly challenging schooling with a decidedly American canter. It's like a great unpacking, as if Grossman had to write a book series to understand something crucial about Rowling's (and TH White's, and CS Lewis') work.

Brakebills, the American school that works at the Hogwarts analog, is more akin to Harvard than a British "public school". In Grossman's world, it isn't heredity that gains you access, it is absolute academic brilliance. Spells are not trifles that you learn at twelve, they are deeply arcane research that require special hand motions, akin to elite musicianship, and deep understanding of obscure ontological texts. Magic, here, goes tremendously awry, in a mysterious dark ways, creepy, and invoking tremulous horror.

Outside of school, those who become obsessed and learn about magic without the proper training and tomes are called Hedge Witches. They are punk academics, full of barstool philosophy and a mix of half-truth, half-bullshit that cause a class rift between them and the school trained set, the junkies of the magical world.

Now, Boom Studio's Archaia imprint has released a series comics based on The Magicians. Writer Lilah Sturges (of Lumberjanes, among other titles) has taken Grossman's canon, and extended it, first as a graphic novel retelling the story of the first book from a different point of view in The Magicians: Alice's Story, and now in the current monthly series The Magicians, whose fourth, and penultimate, installment was just published.

Perhaps you've read Grossman's rich novels, or seen the television show based on them, but even if not, approaching the comics without knowing the ins-and-outs will still present you with a good yarn. Alice's Story will tell the part of the trilogy's story to you. As someone who loves the novels, I thrilled through it, but saw it mostly as an adjunct text, to offer context and expansion on the books themselves.

But although the new comic series starts with the world and setting of Brakebills, replete with the school's leader Dean Fog, its central narrative revolve around all new characters.

A small group of Hedge Witches matriculate at Brakebills, and with them come their instructor, now a professor. There's huge resentment from the other students by this classless intrusion on their privilege, and it plays out in a myriad of ways.

Like all of Grossman's characters, whose pattern and feel Sturges obviously groks on a deep level, these students are self-obsessed, cocky, competitive, and socially awkward.

Each issue ends on a thrilling moment, I swear I actually gasped at least twice so far, a bit of dramatic punch that ups the ante on Grossman's much slower payout in the novels, and it feels like a nice match, as if finding stories in the world that fit comic's pacing better has pushed some of the puzzle pieces flush to the table.

The art, by relative newcomer Pius Bak is rich and detailed, with a huge range of emotional expression to work with on the character faces. The composition and panelling is dynamic, intricate, and his controlling of pace is marvelous. It's a luxury to try to hold back a page turn while soaking in the details, but it's hard to do.

The short of it: The Magicians is great, and if you aren't familiar with the canonical trilogy, this series is a fantastic way to find out if you want to spend more time in this world. I find myself thinking about them all the time. Now that Boom holds the franchise, let's hope they keep finding ways to push into new stories in the world that Grossman didn't have time to get to yet.

Book News Roundup: Corporate anti-nazis, Your fake followers, and more

  • Even when Amazon's right, it's wrong. Choosing not to sell Nazi-promoting books? Sure. Keeping booksellers in the the dark about the decision? Erm. Digitally erasing swastikas from existing titles? Ugh. And then there's this:

    That only underlines how hard it can be to tell exactly what Amazon’s rules are. The confusion is reinforced by AbeBooks, the biggest secondhand book platform outside of Amazon itself.

    Some of the books dropped from Amazon are available on Abe. Recently, there were 18 copies of Mr. Duke’s books on Abe, at prices up to $150. Amazon, which owns Abe, declined to comment.

  • Feeling a little let down by your friends on Twitter or Facebook? Try joining Botnet, a "social network simulator" where you're the only human with millions of bots who are obsessed with you. Anything you post will get a huge amount of likes and comments, all of which are run by a good-enough-to-be-funny AI. If you're not popular enough off the fake sites, you can also upgrade for pay to increase the amount of interactions, or to buy your own trolls. But even the free version is pretty fun.

  • The Seattle Asian Art Museum is finally, finally, finally open again! At the end of the month, Xiaoze Xie, artist and Stanford University prof, is giving a talk on his solo exhibit, “Out of the Dark,” on the history of banned books in China. For those more inclined to read, there’s the McCaw Foundation Library downstairs housing books to go along with objects on display.

  • From January 11, through February 14th, fourth and fifth graders all throughout Seattle have been forming teams and competing in the Global Reading Challenge. Groups of kids read ten books between them, and answer a series of questions from moderators about each book. The winning teams from each elementary school will then proceed, through March 4th - 19th, to the semi-finals, leading to the city final on on March 24th. Take cheer! Children throughout Seattle are competing in a book-centered game.

Talking with Craig Fehrman about presidential memoirs and whether good writers make good presidents

Seattle author Craig Fehrman's new book Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote is a literary history of the office of the president, a guided tour of the books presidents write and read. If you're a history buff, a presidential trivia aficionado, or just a lover of American literary history, this book will transfix you, inform you, and surprise you. Fehrman reads at Elliott Bay Book Company to celebrate the book's release next Wednesday, February 19th, at 7 pm. The reading is free. What follows is an edited and abridged phone conversation I had with Fehrman on the afternoon before the Iowa caucuses stalled and collapsed into confusion. It was a simpler time.

I finished reading your book this weekend and I really enjoyed it. It seemed like such a simple idea that I'm surprised nobody has done it before. Did you have to do some research to see if somebody else had tackled this concept in the same way before you did it?

Yeah, I did. When I first had the flicker of the idea, I tried to see if anybody had really covered this, and the strange thing is, even if you look at the really good biographies on individual presidents, they just don't take their books seriously. [The biographers] don't take them seriously as writers. So sometimes I wonder if that's the present warping the way we see the past.

A lot of people today, mistakenly I think, roll their eyes at political books and think they're not serious or think they can't really have a big impact. That's just not true, and it's certainly not true historically, but I think that contributed to people not seizing on this simple idea.

The other factor might just be that it takes a lot of work. It took me 10 years to finish this. I had to research politics, I had to research publishing, and I had to research a lot of other different things. But I was glad I did, because hopefully they fuse together and make it a surprisingly multifaceted book.

They absolutely did. Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration for the book?

Back in 2008, like most Americans, I was obsessed with the presidential election. I was going to Politico every day and clicking refresh. You just really get swept up in it.

And also like a lot of Americans, I really liked Barack Obama's books. I just wondered, 'is there a history there? Has this happened before? Has a similar book or similar candidate ever caught on this way?' And so I started digging in. I went to really good research libraries and used their catalogs and just put in presidents and prominent presidential candidates names and just looked to see how many books they'd written.

I started to realize this was a much richer story than I thought. I mean, the first campaign book comes from Jefferson, the first presidential memoir comes from Adams. So this is history is as old as American history itself.

Do you think that that being a good writer is a good quality for a president?

Yeah. I have to give a convoluted answer to this, and I think that's because I'm a writer and not a politician.

I think that being a good writer can really help you when you're running for the presidency. Whether it's writing a good speech, or writing a good book, or just coming up with a compelling story about yourself and why you're running for office.

There are so many examples. Obama is the one, certainly, that's resonating most recently. But plenty of other presidential candidates, including the ones we've all forgotten, like Calvin Coolidge, used this skill to get to the office.

But I think that being a good writer can actually hurt you when you're in the White House, if you're not careful. A writer has to complicate ideas. A writer has to explore nuances. A writer has to figure out why an idea is challenging and grapple with it.

That doesn't always work well in politics. Politicians have to simplify ideas. They have to fight, they have to find messages that are persuasive as much as they are nuanced or rhetorically soaring. So I think the best move, if you want to run for president, is be a really good writer and use that skill to get to the White House. But once you have power in the White House, be willing to step away from that skill and just play politics, because sometimes nuance and beautiful language can get in the way of that.

It seems like you developed an affinity for Calvin Coolidge in this book. Is that an accurate assessment?

I wouldn't say that I have a political affinity for him. My book's not really very political. It looks more at them as people and as writers and as readers and as campaigners. Although I was really interested in Coolidge's version of conservatism and how it did not necessarily sound like the conservatism we hear today, even though he's kind of an underground hero to a lot of conservatives.

But he's a really good writer, and it's not just me saying that. I think the only thing that H.L. Mencken liked about Calvin Coolidge was his prose style. And the New York Times praise Calvin Coolidge while he's in the White House for being the most literary president since Lincoln.

Coolidge was a good example of how to be a good writer and a good politician at the same time, because his biggest gift as a writer was taking simple ideas but saying them in a memorable and succinct and persuasive way. Coolidge wouldn't take an idea and complicate it and add nuance. He would take an idea and state it in a way that was sticky and persuasive and would fire up his supporters. That's the way that a president can use the skills of a writer even while in the White House.

One of the things that I love about presidential history is that each president provides a little window into their era. For me, it's a useful way to explore history. And that's one of the things I liked about this book is it's not by any means comprehensive, but it was almost like a train ride through literary history. You're looking out a window and you see Nathaniel Hawthorne and you see Mark Twain and these other different stages of American literature. Are there things you learned about the history of American literature coming at it from the presidential side of things?

I think the thing that surprised me the most, and maybe this shouldn't have surprised me, was just how much prominent authors ended up interacting with presidents. You can really stack up the examples: You've got Emerson as a young man visiting John Adams as an old man. Or you have Herman Melville going to the White House and shaking hands with Abraham Lincoln. Or you have Edith Wharton go into the White House to have lunch with Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of these writers were celebrities in their own times, and so it makes sense that they were very prominent citizens who got to interact with presidents and got to shape public opinion in a way very few writers, unfortunately, don't get to do today.

Would you indulge me in talking a little bit about books by the current crop of presidential candidates?

Sure, let's do it.

Have you read Buttigieg's?

I have.

I'll put myself out there first: I thought it was pretty good. I didn't think it was Dreams from My Father, but I thought it was pretty well-written. What do you think?

I totally agree. What's interesting to me is that you can see, and not just in his book but in a couple of other ones too, the influence of Dreams from my Father, in that it definitely has the feel of not just memoir but literary memoir. It felt like a lot of chapters started with descriptions of sunrises and weather and little moments.

Whether Obama's memoir let serious literary candidates know that they could go in that direction, or whether they were trying to capture that formula, I'm not sure. But I definitely feel the influence of Dreams from my Father is present in Buttigieg's book. And I agree with you. It's an interesting book.

It's like there's a before Obama and after Obama in presidential memoirs.

Yeah. Joe Biden's Promise Me, Dad is another good example. It's also a surprisingly literary memoir. If you compare it to previous political books he's written, those are more your standard manifesto. But this book doesn't talk that much about him being Vice President, it doesn't even talk that much about his relationship with Obama. It's very focused on themes like family. And it has a really lyrical tone to it, which doesn't necessarily sound like Biden, but definitely sounds like Dreams from my Father. So that's another example I think where you can see Obama's book influencing the current crop.

Yeah, I was surprised, actually, that the Biden one was my favorite of the crop. I listened to the audio book and I actually like broke down a couple of times, which was a unique experience for me with a presidential biography.

No, I totally agree with you. It's a powerful story and it's told in a really powerful way and it's short. So many of these books would be better at half the length. And then another thing you can say about Biden's book is that it's focused, it gets to the point. And I think that makes the story hit harder. That's one reason I like Coolidge's book. He's a pretty famously taciturn guy, and that applied to his writing too.

One of the things that I really loved in this book was this figure — I can't recall his name, but I bet you know off top of your head. He wrote one the most popular history books of his time. What was his name?

John Clark Ridpath?

Yes! Ridpath. Did you read all of his books? You said it sold like a million copies or something, right?

He was prolific in the way that only a 19th century nonfiction writer could be prolific, so I did not attempt to read all of his works, but I did read his biggest hit, which was the most popular one-volume history of America in that time.

It tells the American story in a way that most people understood it in that period: Very providential, very focused on the current moment, very focused on white Americans and their government and everybody else is just an obstacle or a boost along the way to them achieving their current moment and their current ideology.

It must've been daunting to see a historian who was so well read and beloved in his time who's now basically forgotten. Did you learn anything from reading these historical texts that were loved and then abandoned as time marches on?

I think it just helps humble you as a writer, because you can see how they reflected the anxiety and the concerns of their age. I'm sure I'm doing the exact same thing. We talked about how nobody has done a book about presidents and their books before. But I don't think it's any accident that the first person who did it was somebody who got the idea from Obama. If I'm going to say that Obama's books are influencing their candidates, I certainly have to 'fess up and say that his book influenced my book.

So I think one reason I wrote my book was because Obama made political books salient as a category. That's a small example, but you can find lots of different examples where historians are reflecting their moment. So anytime you read a history book, you're reading something that's both historical in that it talks about the past but also it's historical in that it reflects the moment it was written in. I'm sure that's true in my book too.

In the company of books

Published February 11, 2020, at 12:00pm

Dawn McCarra Bass reviews Bad Feminist, So You Want to Talk About Race, White Fragility, Three Women, The Shipping News, Pax, Little, Big, and In the Dream House .

We've always depended on the book-ness of strangers.

Read this review now

My brothers

I love you
Truth is I miss you too
As bullets fly
Not knowing whom they are hitting
I cry because it pierced your skin
It entered the temple that is you
You whom I've known
You who made me laugh
You who comforted me when no one else could

You who dreamed of a future
Hoop dreams
Touchdowns in the snow
Lawyers freeing others
Doctors in the emergency
Lyrical genius
Pilots above the clouds

My brothers who are
Fathers who loved despite sin
Brothers who tickled and teased
Cousins that played until the days end.
Friends with bended ears
Lovers with passion and open hearts

My brothers
I love no matter what they say
Bottom line is they don't know the man who walked the streets during the day
The news said the numbers are high
Black men are dying Dropping like flies
How can we survive with your strength
Your love your kindness
That completes the families strength
I can no longer look beyond the bullets flying
Because my life is in complete with you not by my side

My brothers
I love you
It's you whom I love
Your touch
Your smile
On earth and above
No more wings
Place your two feet on planet earth
And stay with me my brother
No more tears
Erase the fears
Our love endears

Forever my brothers
Forever

Sponsor Love Week

You know who makes our literary heart go pitter-patter? Sponsors, that's who. You fine people who advertise on this website pay for all the original reporting, critique, and columns that tell you what's happening in the literary world of Seattle (and beyond). We couldn't do it without you.

That's why we've sent our bi-annual email to you listing our available sponsorship slots at a $25 discount. Check your inbox! The rest of these dates go on the site next week, February 17th, when they're available to the general public. We hope you'll take advantage of the discount — it's thanks for your previous sponsorships.

If you've never sponsored before but want to, check in next week to grab your preferred date. You'll also get two changes a year, like our current sponsors, to take advantage of sponsor love week and get future dates at $25 a week before anybody else. What a world.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from February 10th - February 16th

Monday, February 10th: Why We're Polarized Reading

Ezra Klein went from one of the most prominent bloggers in the early populra internet to a co-founder of the website Vox and a prolific interview podcaster. And now he's getting into the business of writing books: his new book is an exploration of why partisan politics has entered nearly every part of American life, from our church to our TV to our social media. University Temple,  1415 NE 43rd St,634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 7 pm, $28.

Tuesday, February 11th: With Teeth Reading

Natanya Ann Pulley's new short story collection, With Teeth, opens with the sentence "She wears a mask that looks like her." That's some stunning writing, to pack that kind of emotion into eight words. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, February 12th: Okay Fine Whatever Reading

Courtenay Hameister's collection of short nonfiction stories about anxiety, Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things, is finally out in paperback.She'll be interviewed by popular podcaster Luke Burbank. Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, February 13th: A Tribute to Waverly Fitzgerald With Curt Colbert

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, February 15th: Wild Honey, Tough Salt Reading

Press materials for Kim Stafford's new poetry collection promise that the book "offers a prismatic view of Earth citizenship, where we must now be ambidextrous." I have no idea what that means, but okay! Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Sunday, February 16th: What’s Your Pronoun: Beyond He and She Reading

Dennis Baron's latest book pokes holes in the ridiculous 'kids-these-days' idea that pronouns have always been a fixed part of language. In fact, our understanding of pronouns has changed considerably since the time of Shakespeare. This is also the first book I've seen whose covers lists the author's preferred pronouns. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.

Event of the Week: A tribute to Waverly Fitzgerald

Seattle author Waverly Fitzgerald passed away on December 13th of last year. Fitzgerald's intellect was omnivorous: she wrote historical romances and appreciations about the intersection between nature and urban life and guidebooks on how to celebrate the summer solstice, and a book titled Slow Time, about how to recapture a more humane and human sense of time.

Fitzgerald was a curious mind and a teacher to many and a member of several local writing organizations. She was never content to keep her knowledge to herself; she was always interested in sharing it, in helping others realize that the world was bigger and weirder and easier to manage than you may have guessed.

Fitzgerald also co-authored a series of dog-centric mysteries with local writer Curt Colbert under the pseudonum "Waverly Curtis." A shared pseudonym is a strange thing, because while Fitzgerald is no longer with us, Waverly Curtis is still in a kind of state of half-life. Curtis is still around to share his stories of Fitzgerald, and to explain what their collaboration was like.

That's what this Thursday's event is all about at Third Place Books Lake Forest Park. Curtis will remember his writing partner in a reading setting, to provide a little insight to the writing partnership that he shared for over a decade. Fitzgerald is gone, but her voice won't be forgotten.

Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for February 9, 2020

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.

Consider the hermit crab

Consider Katherine Rundell, who quietly, brilliantly, and consistently delivers absolute delight in her "Consider the ..." column at the London Review of Books. This one examines the humble, generous, possibly Amelia-Earhart-devouring (!) hermit crab.

In 2007, researchers decided to test the Earhart theory. The carcass of a small pig was offered to the crabs on the island, to see what they might have done to Earhart’s dead or dying body. Following their remarkable sense of smell, they found the pig and tore it apart, making off with its bones to their burrows under the roots of the trees. Their strength is monumental: their claw grip can produce up to 3300 newtons of force (the bite force of a tiger is 1500 newtons). Darwin called them ‘monstrous’: he meant it as a compliment.
The culture of misogyny inside Victoria's Secret

Not really a surprise, this one, but this should be read and heard. #metoo has faded from top billing, perhaps because it's now a constant current of our public discourse, perhaps because we have only so much patiences for the troubles of women. And it is easy to dismiss, in particular, the troubles of women who play up to traditional gender stereotypes as a profession.

But let's not. There is a literal "grab them by the pussy" moment in this article. As well as many other moments that should be boogeyman lore by now — but somehow aren't. This is not about sexy women. This is about predatory, sociopathic, and just plain incompetent men.

“I had spent all of my savings getting Victoria’s Secret lingerie to prepare for what I thought would be my audition,” a woman identified as Jane Doe said in a statement read aloud last summer in a federal court hearing in the Epstein case. “But instead it seemed like a casting call for prostitution. I felt like I was in hell.”
On cats

Raven Bookstore's Quoth the Raven newsletter is full of gently, warmly marvelous moments, and I (an unabashed lover of cats) have been hoarding this one to return to in times of need. Maybe, it occurred to me, some of the readers of the Seattle Review of Books might need it too? I give you: the lives of the Raven Bookstore cats.

Dashiell likes to sit on Register 2's keyboard in the colder months. We try to discourage this. I emerged from my office once to find him camped out on the keys and evicted him, lifting him off the keyboard to a chorus of meows. Waking the computer up, I saw an empty Word document with a single word typed into it: KILL.

Whatcha Reading, Seattle Walk Report?

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. This week's guest is a re-run from October of 2018. Since then, of course, Seattle Walk Report has unveiled herself as local librarian Susanna Ryan, and has put out a wonderful book about Seattle.

Seattle Walk Report is a charming and delightful Instagram account run by an anonymous Seattlite. You can read Paul Constant's review with her, but here we dig into the most important question of all: when she's not walking or drawing, what is she reading? Special thanks to SRoB reader Josie who recommended we reach out to Seattle Walk Report. We love recommendations! Who do you want to hear from, here? Let us know.

What are you reading now?

Due to a serendipitous library encounter, I'm currently reading Looking at Cities by Allan B Jacobs. It's about the crucial role of street-level observation in truly understanding the story of a city. Jacobs, an urban designer, delves into what you can learn about an area if you know what to look for and take the time to explore, and how that exploration can lead to building better cities. It was published in 1985 so some of the case studies in the book are a bit dated, but the essence and message of the book rings as true as ever. I'm really enjoying it so far.

After getting a totally preventable drawing injury, my friend gave me a lovely signed copy of a book called Draw Stronger: Self-Care for Cartoonists and Other Visual Artists by Kriota Willberg, which I've been reading and re-reading. The illustrations are laugh-out-loud funny at times and the writing is completely accessible. I highly recommend it.

What did you read last?

I'm 50 years late to the party, but I just finished pouring over Victor Steinbrueck's 1968 book Market Sketchbook about the Pike Place Market. It's phenomenal.

What are you reading next?

It's up for the Library hold system to decide, but I have a few that I'm especially looking forward to: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari, Seattleness: A Cultural Atlas by Tera Hatfield, Jenny Kempson, and Natalie Ross, and the graphic novel Be Prepared by Vera Brosgal. Middle grade graphic novels are a joy no one can take away from me!

The Help Desk: Under the cover of white

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 in a writing group and I'm trying to perfect my story which is about my neighbors growing up, who were immigrants from Guatemala. I've fictionalized a lot of it, but I can't get a hold of them to confirm some important details. All of this guff about American Dirt is making me think maybe this isn't a good idea. What do you think?

Miranda, Maplewood

Dear Miranda,

If you really want people to hate you, write a story about an off-white-to-really-brown-hued child who is found in the street by a compassionate white Mary Kay saleswoman, who also happens to need her pink caddy washed. (Tiny brown fingers are the Lord's Detailers.)

In exchange for his work, the generous Mary Kay saleswoman teaches the small boy to read from the labels of makeup samples. She names her new pet Malcomb K and slowly introduces him into her successful business empire. When gangbangers appear and try to tempt him to do drugs, the boy – with the help of his white savior and a little nudge from Jesus – is able to show the ruffians a better skin care regime and ultimately banishes the confused but freshly rouged bad boys back to their slums. Malcomb K then pledges to spend his life learning how to contour the crepe paper cheeks of ungracefully aging white women. In the process, he cures everyone he meets of their racism AND premature lines. The story shall be titled, "Thanks, White Lady!"

That is perhaps the only story that could be more offensive than co-opting the life story of your immigrant neighbors and passing it off as your own work, for which you could be monetarily compensated. (You mention that you fictionalized parts of it, which sounds to me like a weak justification that is undermined by your efforts to get in touch with them to corroborate their story. The key word is "theirs." As in, not yours.)

Yes, people are frothing about American Dirt right now, for (among other reasons) a white author being paid seven figures for obscenely bad writing. Many writers have been covering this issue, with better prose, for decades. And authors of color certainly are not extended seven-figure book deals to write about border issues and immigration. Much of the outrage stems from what feels like a shoddy attempt to capitalize on an issue that touches a raw nerve with many Americans who have been affected by, or witnessed firsthand, the damage that America's border policies have had on families.

But you're not talking about bad fiction, you are talking about badly fictionalizing someone's very personal struggles, which in my view is worse. In fact, on the grand scale of bad ideas, that one rates right around grabbing women by the pussy. Don't co-opt other people's stories – especially the stories of brown people you once knew tangentially. Just don't. You're a writer. Use your imagination and come up with new stories. Or if imagination isn't your strong suit, write about issues nearer to home, like how hard it is for a healthy ambulatory white woman to get good parking ("Yards to Go Before I Shop") or perhaps your personal struggle growing up with Too Much ("The Color Muave - One Woman’s Struggle to Wear Pastels"). Most American women can relate to both and you'll exploit fewer people in the process.

Kisses,
Cienna

PS. Since it is Black History Month, here's some homework for you: research and read a few #ownvoices stories. I'll even suggest one: The Hate U Give.

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Baby hippo

Kissing Books: Golden ages

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.

I have a hunch we’re living in a Golden Age of romance writing.

But it’s hard to tell: Golden Ages are generally the kind of thing that only get haloed in hindsight. What’s more, romance seems peculiarly resistant to an official canon of Significant Works. Very smart people have been trying to build one for decades now. And every time they try, the list proves somehow unsatisfying to nearly everyone.

Part of the trouble is that we’ll obviously need more than one canon. Are you an academic studying romance? You’re going to want to list those peaks that jut up above the broader current of history: Austen, Heyer, Woodiwiss, Garwood, Jenkins, Radclyffe, Nora—just to name a few. We’re already in an argument. Are you going with sales numbers, enduring reputation, or effect on the business of publishing as a metric? Are you parsing subgenres to follow the ebbs and flows of historical versus contemporary versus Gothic versus paranormal versus erotic? Are you doing the research to highlight forgotten milestones, with the knowledge that progress is never a straightforward unbroken narrative (you should be!)? Are you looking at the ways a genre that purports to be “by women, for women” both devalues certain kinds of women and is also controlled by publishing companies whose highest decision-making tiers are mostly if not entirely men?

So I guess we’re already having several arguments.

Perhaps you’re not an academic. Perhaps you are a new reader, looking for the best of the genre as she is currently wrote. Anyone building a canon of Best Current Romances is going to come up with a very different list of author names, and some of those Significant Books from a historical perspective turn out to be entirely skippable.

For instance, I never start new readers off by recommending Georgette Heyer. I feel like if you haven’t discovered her via dog-eared library paperback at the age of 14 or so, you’ve probably missed the ideal appreciation window and are better off with someone more modern. (And less anti-Semitic.) It’s not because Heyer is unimportant to the genre’s history! It’s just that we don’t tend to start people on horseback when they’re asking to learn to drive.

The more I think, the more I come to the conclusion that romance resists a canon because no generalized list of Important Books is ever going to eclipse the reader’s internal personal canon — the books they discovered first, the ones that moved them the most, the ones that made the world shift a little on its axis.

I’ve talked before about how romance is all about the specific: the mainstream dismisses a happy ending as “formulaic,” when in fact the whole point of an HEA is so the author can show the reader what “happy” means in this one very particular instance.

Reader’s experiences are just as unrepeatable. Each reader navigates the genre a little differently, and—here’s where the academics are really going to be mad at me—those differences matter. Those differences are everything. The order of what a person reads matters; their mood matters; the reader’s unique lived experiences affect how they respond to the text.

This timeline by definition cannot be recreated for another reader. Not identically. The specific refuses to be generalized.

A reader’s personal reading canon is closer to what we call a ludonarrative in video games: the game has a built-in story (plumber travels to castle to rescue princess) but the experience of playing the game expands, complicates, or conflicts with that story (player takes care to stop and collect coins rather than rushing right to the princess’ rescue). The built-in story gives the game structure—but the player’s experience is the point.

The Important Books canon is the game story, the reader’s canon is the ludonarrative. They can overlap, but they’ll never match completely.

Which is all a really roundabout way of saying: the problem with a canon is that it is supposed to be timeless. But the reader experience is fundamentally rooted in time: everything you read is tied to the moment at which you read it. How you react to a book depends on who you are (and when you are). No romance canon that I’ve seen includes the book Cupid’s Kiss by Karen Harbaugh—but for me, it’s one of the most important books of my life. It showed young Olivia you could put Greek gods in Regency England just for fun, just because you wanted to.

I didn’t know you were allowed to do things like that. It’s part of why I became a writer.

And that’s another reason why canons are troublesome: they’re supposed to stay fixed, but they can’t possibly. In 2015 NPR put together a list of 100 best romances; it was only five years ago and I already want to overhaul it to add a bunch of stunning new works. And remove things that haven’t aged as well (Susan Johnson’s fake Indian romance, Hot Head.) Any canon set up and left alone for too long turns into an old crone yelling at the kids to stay away from her prize dahlias. You can’t carve a romance canon in stone, because time keeps moving us all forward.

This wrestling with the press of time has been brought to you by a particularly long, cold winter, and by the experience of reading a romance told in slices of a single holiday over the course of several decades. And then another romance, set on the same holiday, by the same author—but with a totally opposite premise. Other books this month include a Black cowboy and the woman he never forgot (but who can’t remember him), a diamond heiress/jewelry designer and the long-lost love she reconnects with, a jilted-at-the-altar wedding planner forced to work with her ex-fiancé’s brother (who is annoyingly hot, damn him). It’s an exceptional crop, at the start of an exceptional year for the genre.

A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Dafina Books: contemporary m/f):

I tend to either love or hate the amnesia trope. I’m always intrigued when authors play with the importance of memory, but sometimes the tense imbalance between the characters who remember and the characters who forget twists my breath a little too tightly and suffocates my pleasure in the story.

We have none of that happening here, thankfully. Weatherspoon has gifted us a profoundly thorough take on what’s usually a hand-wavey premise: Evie has forgotten everything, not just what’s narratively convenient—she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror, doesn’t remember in-jokes with her best friend, doesn’t remember how to cook even though the day before her fall she was an award-winning tv celebrity chef. She’s also dealing with the physical fallout of her injury: exhaustion, disorientation, live-in care, the need for new hairstyles, and the scar on her scalp. Things which normally get glossed over as Not Romantic, but which are such powerful ways to explore a character in three dimensions.

Oh yes, and her agent’s pretty sure someone tried to murder her. In case you think Weatherspoon can’t blend emotional subtlety with high-stakes external conflict.

About the only thing Evie does have left is flashes of memory of a gorgeous Black man—who turns out to be Zach Pleasant, one of three brothers who own the California ranch where Evie grew up, and the nearest thing to family she has left. Zach and Evie have A History, and weren’t on speaking terms when she had her accident—he tells her immediately that things between them are strained, and why, but to the reader it is abundantly clear that there is more to their history than Zach realizes. He’s trying to be honest, but how can he be honest with Evie when he hasn’t been honest with himself yet?

Reader, I adored this conflict.

I adored this world. There’s so much there there: so many hooks for the feelings, so much potential. You have to love it when a series starts out this strong.

Secret Heir Seduction by Reese Ryan (Harlequin Desire: contemporary m/f):

A good category romance is like a good martini: the ingredients are minimal and easy to get together, but there’s alchemy in the mixing of them. If you’ve had a great martini—a truly great one, blended by an expert—you know there’s no substitute. And you know how very hard it is to get the balance just right.

Reese Ryan’s entry in the multi-author Texas Cattlemen’s Club: Inheritance miniseries has everything a Desire ought to: dazzling glamour, family secrets, and high-octane emotion delivered straight-up, no chaser. Everyone (we see perhaps one too many cameos from past couples in the miniseries) is gorgeous and talented and passionate, reluctant to settle for second-best, determined not to let themselves get hurt again (but doomed to fall in love regardless, of course).

But the thing I loved the most was the way work worked in this novel. Audra is a diamond heiress, sure, and she has more piercings than any Harlequin heroine I’ve seen (tongue stud, nose piercing, belly ring, oh my!)—but first and foremost she is a high-end jewelry designer, and we see on the page how much time and energy she puts into her work. This makes her a perfect match for Darius, a rising performance wear designer and fellow workaholic. They bond over that unique combination of creativity and business ambition, and it gives them a connection besides the sexual that really drives home their suitability as a couple. It’s also a beautiful anchor for the angst—and it left me with a warm, comforted feeling in my chest, just the thing I want from a category.

Darius wanted to walk out. Refuse to play along with the old man’s sick game. But a part of him needed answers. And this was the only way he’d finally get them.

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa (Avon Books: contemporary m/f):

I’ve been craving another Mia Sosa book since her exuberant stuntman/gym instructor romance, and it doesn’t hurt that this book has one of the best illustrated covers I’ve seen as that trend resurges.

Max definitely lives up to his title of Worst Best Man at the start of this story: he wakes up achingly hungover, five minutes before the wedding, and with a text from the groom saying essentially You were right, the wedding’s off, tell the bride for me. Dear god. There oughta be a word for this sharp mix of joy/horror one feels watching poor Max flail his way through this first chapter. I loved him at once, fiercely.

The bride is Lina, and — oh dear god — she’s not just a bride. She’s a wedding planner. And she prides herself on her icy control of emotion — not because she doesn’t have any of them, but because she’s a woman of color and the world is primed to turn her feelings into weaknesses. So she handles her business as best she can and gets on with her life. She’s pricklier than Max, warier — and I couldn’t wait to see her learn to trust someone.

They end up working together and hiding the fact that they know one another. They end up stranded at an inn, forced to share a room. It’s a masterclass in all my favorite rom-com beats: Only One Bed, Okay Maybe Just A Fling Then, Oh No My Family Loves You/Oh No My Family Hates You. There’s embarrassment and banter, but no cringeworthy humiliation.

A lot of books are claiming the rom-com title these days — but a lot of them focus more on the rom than the com. Not so here — this book is fucking hilarious. I’ve liked Mia Sosa’s past work, but this story put her firmly on my auto-buy list. She’s pushed herself as a creator, and put so much heart and thought and wit into this. As a critic I can only say: you absolutely love to see it.

Every New Year by Katrina Jackson (self-published: contemporary m/f):

This is the moment where I confess: I read the wrong Katrina Jackson New Year’s Eve book.

I’d heard something about Katrina Jackson, and a heist, and a holiday, and I grabbed the first likely title and opened it up. And couldn’t stop—this book skewered me through in chapter one and didn’t let up until the epilogue wrung the last ugly tear from my exhausted-but-satisfied heart.

Candace Garret and Ezra Posner meet in college. Their best friends fall in love at first sight and become instantly inseparable—so Candace and Ezra are thrown together a lot. Especially at the couple’s New Year’s Eve parties. Where Candace and Ezra kiss. Then a little more, the following year. Then hookups, every year at midnight, as December 31 becomes January 1 and fireworks burst in the background.

Until it’s too much and they fall apart. Then end up meeting on a flight to South America, on yet another New Year’s Eve.

This is Katrina Jackson in her sweetest, most poignant mode. Do you like pining? The deepest, most helpless, loneliest, lustiest kind of pining? This is your book: both our characters do a lot of it. It’s gorgeously written, and heartbreakingly tender, and it flickers brilliantly backward and forward through the years like an art house film. Shuffled timeline books can be tricky, but this one was incredible—I’m going to have to reread, just for the pleasure of watching how the author manages to tell a forward-moving story almost entirely in flashback.

Candace Garret was tall, almost as tall as him, with big curly hair that framed her head and gave her a few inches more height, wide hips and the brightest smile he’d ever seen. She was also way out of his league. He knew that. She knew that. Everyone knew that. Because Candace Garret was way out of everyone’s league.

This Month’s Con Artist Heroine Who Knows What She Wants And Just Steals It Already

Grand Theft NYE by Katrina Jackson (self-published: contemporary m/bi f):

Indulge me with the rare column that includes two books by one author, because once I realized there were two New Year’s-themed books by Katrina Jackson I had to read both to see how they stood as a pair.

Every New Year was a heartbreaker—this novella is a panty-dropper. We’re back in the world of Pink Slip and Private Eye, where everyone’s up to no good and things couldn’t be hornier. I tend to prefer my erotica joyous and juicy rather than angsty, and this book takes great delight in being creatively filthy and funny and ready to go from the start. Con artist Cleo’s already stolen everything she needs from her mark, and is in the middle of a dramatic exit from a party full of too-rich, too-useless men—when the hot, powerful, and obviously wealthy Mr. Shimizu offers her a ride home. Cleo likes the look and sound of him, and five minutes later they are on the road doing things the highway patrol definitely does not recommend, especially in a convertible. They fuck, it’s great, she steals his car for her getaway before he wakes up.

Of course she can’t get over him. Of course there’s more to Mr. Shimizu than his money and his car. Many books have great banter, and many books have great sex scenes, but any book that can make you laugh and turn you on at the same time is to be treasured. Recommended for any and all Leverage fans, and readers who just need a solid hit of the hot stuff without any of the tortured manpain.

There are orgasms, and then there are life-changing moments between your legs. Cleo had had many of the former and a few of the latter. But this orgasm was different. It was transcendent.

Reading Through It: we all love Coates

There were no dissenters in last night's meeting of the Reading Through It book club. We discussed Ta-Nehisi Coates We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The collection of essays, one from each year of the Obama presidency, paired with retrospective pieces giving context to, and commenting on, the original essays, is a powerful and rich read. All in attendance were quite taken by the book, which is unusual in our group, which nearly always has at least one dissenter.

We talked quite a bit about Coates' power as a prose stylist, his ability to frame an argument, his insight into systems of power, and their cascading effects on black Americans. Coates' background as a blogger, digging deep into the oft forgotten (or deliberately recast) history of the Civil War, gave him a runway at the beginning of the Obama presidency to frame such a historical president in a starkly historical context. One member talked about never putting it together before, until Coates pointed it out, that Obama's presidency created an editorial and public thirst for African-American perspectives that launched the careers of a new school of social and political critics: Coates, Jamelle Bouie, Gene Demby, just to name a few.

We spent a bit of time — a slim amount, in proportion to its historical importance — on "The Case for Reparations", the essay that launched Coates from a well-known political writer, to a famous writer. We touched on how clear and unassailable his argument was, how focusing its lens on living Americans who were so clearly cheated and swindled, moved the argument for reparations from something removed from a time period white America doesn't understand, to something modern, cruel, and difficult to argue with.

One member read a quote from the essay we spent some time with:

Perhaps the number is so large that it can't be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it woes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America's maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

The essay that garnered the second-most attention was "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration." Many books, in the over-three year history of our book club, have been painful and difficult to read. But this essay was very affecting to many of our members, who struggled to find meaning in the absolute cruelty of the system Coates so cogently unpacks. The cruelty is the point, after all, not rehabilitation.

Coates' relationship with Obama was a narrative arc told mostly in the commentary on the essays in the book, and it was moving to see a sharp-eyed critic also so admire and work at understanding the target of his criticism. When Coates gained access to Obama, first in off-the-record meetings where they would discuss a wide range of topics, his admiration for the man, even when he was disappointed by his actions or policies, was palpable. Obama has a towering intellect, and Coates took a while to find his own comfort when verbally sparring with the president.

His sharpest critique, for some in our group, was when the administration caved and fired Shirley Sherrod, after video-taped comments she made to the NAACP were re-cut so that it appeared she was saying something opposite of what she actually was. Obama, or his people, reacted knee-jerk to the right wing campaign, firing Sherrod before she had a chance to defend herself. Coates goes deep into Sherrod's past, what drove her to her post at the USDS, after years of activism and civil rights labor. He goes into her family history — her father was shot dead by a white neighbor, who refused to return charges, and a cross was burned on her family's lawn soon after — and how she dedicated her life to improving conditions in the south. The context he gives in his essay makes Obama's decision appear weak, feckless, and cruel, an untrue smear campaign taking down a woman who earned her position many times over.

This book will stand tall on the shelf, compared to many of the other's we have read during the past three years of the club. If you want to understand Obama, the effects of his presidency, and a good-faith critique of his policies, and the cultural context of black America during those years, Coates is every bit as good as his reputation might suggest.

Reading Through It will be back next month, on Wednesday, March 4th, at Third Place Books' Seward Park location. We'll be reading Rebecca Traister's Good and Mad which is 20% at the store for the next month. Grab your copy, and come on down to discuss it.

This will be the last book we cover. After March, we're going to discontinue the club. We've had an amazing run over the past three years, and learned so much from the people who came and shared and learned with us. We're grateful to you all for the opportunity, and to Third Place Books for giving us the forum. It would be fun to have a banner month to celebrate, so please do come if you can.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The monstrous talent of James Stokoe

James Stokoe is one of those artists you just want to blindly follow from project to project. He's done licensed work in Godzilla comics and a story based on the Alien franchise. He's done mainstream superhero work. And he works on his own projects. Stokoe is a rarity because he brings the same level vitality and invention to everything he works on — you can't imagine him phoning a single page in. There aren't many artists like that: Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko come to mind, of course, and Stokoe captures some of that same vivaciousness. You get the feeling, looking at the quivering lines of one of his pages, that he just might do something on the next page that will change the medium of comics forever.

On a trip to Portland last fall, I bumbled into a small press publication by Stokoe that I'd never heard of. It's called Sobek, and it's a beautiful one-shot comic that's too thin to be a proper "graphic novel," by which I mean it doesn't have a spine or a dust jacket or any of those other book-y trimmings. Though the cover does have some lovely gold foil elements, Sobek is likely to be passed over by people who buy their comics in bookstores, and that's a shame.

Sobek's plot is pretty simple: the holy leaders of an imperiled (seemingly) bronze-age civilization call on a crocodile god — the titular Sobek — to wreak havoc for them. Havoc is wrought. The end?

But that doesn't come close to describing this book. Sobek is lushly drawn, almost intimidatingly so. In the jungle scenes, you can swear you'd see every single leaf on every single plant that Stokoe crammed into the panel. It's an exercise in excess: exactly how much visual information can fit into a comic panel? On every page?

This visual theme, this too-much-ness, plays wonderfully with the narrative idea of Sobek — that some creatures are just too powerful for the world. In the story, an immensely powerful old god is summoned for revenge. Behind the pages, an immensely powerful artist is summoned to overwhelm the reader. Both the artist and his creation do their jobs perfectly.

Seattle's forgotten history of coal mining

This Sunday at 6 pm, Seattle author John Goodfellow will give a presentation to celebrate his new book Seattle's Coal Legacy, an intensely researched history of the forgotten history of coal mining in the Seattle area, at Third Place Books Lake Forest Park. I talked with Goodfellow on the phone last week about the book, which is illustrated on nearly every page with photographs from the era of the bustling coal industry. What follows is an abridged and lightly edited version of our conversation.

I really enjoyed your book — thanks for writing it. I've lived here for twenty years and I didn't know that the area was a coal mining hub until I happened across the town of Newcastle on a walk and found a plaque explaining the town's history. I was completely unaware that there was any coal mining in the Seattle area. You grew up here; how did you learn that Seattle used to mine and ship coal?

I did an underwater survey project of Lake Union. We were just basically looking at all the ships and boats that have been pushed off from the different shipyards that were there, because they were out of use. They just kind of sunk them out there in the old days.

I realized there was a coal terminal at the bottom of Westlake — what was that all about? I started doing some research and learned that the coal was coming from Newcastle. I've always been very interested in industrial history, especially in the Seattle area and, I knew there was coal because I knew of Black Diamond, which was certainly one of the major mines, and they're the ones who keep the coal history alive. They're very much into their coal history.

Was there ever a risk of Seattle becoming like a West Virginia, in terms of massive coal production?

It was like West Virginia, in some ways, until the demise of coal, which was after the first World War. There were no other coal mines on the West coast. They didn't have coal, so they had to either get it from Seattle or they had to get it imported from from South America.

I guess I was thinking about the strip mining operations in West Virginia, which leaves the landscape completely ravaged.

If you drive that road directly to the east of Black Diamond, there's a big strip mine there up on top of the ridge.

Oh, really? I didn't know that.

Yeah, it looks just like a quarry. It's full of water, and I wouldn't doubt it would make a nice swimming hole, but that was a strip mine and it totally did destroy that mountain.

In general, in Seattle the coal here was not near the surface — it was a seam, and it was going pretty deep. But there were parts where coal was near the surface and that's where they did strip mining. Centralia had a big strip mine next to the power plants down there.

How did you come to get interested in Seattle-area industrial history? It sounds like you've got a whole bunch of books rolling around in your head about the topic.

As kids, we would go on road trips with my parents. And there were — there probably still are — a lot of steam tractors out there. I just became totally fascinated. When I was a little older, the whole energy crisis happened, so there was a focus on questions like "what is energy? How's it used?" That made me very interested in coal. Obviously, at that point, it's only used now for generating electricity, but from a historical perspective, it was very important.

Reading your book, I had to think a lot about how we pride ourselves on our history of environmentalism in Washington state, and we forget about all this stuff from our not-so-distant past. I can't believe I didn't know about this.

Nobody knows about it. I didn't know about it either until I started to really look at it and focus in on it. So it's a surprise.

Why do you think the city has so much amnesia about our coal-producing past?

Coal is dirty, and people in Seattle thought of themselves as part of the new century with the World's Fair and everything, and they were leaving the coal behind. They just stopped talking about it.

But those bike trails like the Burke Gilman trail and the trail along West Sammamish were going to the coal mines in Issaquah. Gasworks Park was coal. So we've taken a lot of this infrastructure of coal and we actually turned it into recreation.

We're surrounded by a lot of coal stacks from businesses that ran coal. I just found one last week — I was going to get underwear at Fred Meyer down in Ballard, and to the south of Fred Meyer, there's a power plant with a coal stack on it for running a factory. It's not being used obviously, but when you see these really big metal stacks, — there's also one on top of Paramount Theater — those are coal sacks. These are used for generating power and heat and everything else.

And they're still around. The UW coal stacks don't burn coal anymore — at least I don't think they do. Also in South Lake Union, there's coal stacks. There are coal stacks down in Georgetown. You start looking around and you start seeing them everywhere. So the history is all there. It's just been sort of repurposed and become part of the Seattle skyline.

Mail Call for February 4, 2020

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Lunch Date: Taking Gideon the Ninth to the basement, which is unexpectedly appropriate

(Once in a while, we take a new(ish) 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?

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir. Gideon is an indentured broadsword fighter forced to the rapier, and to courtly clothes, to serve as cavalier to her much-loathed mistress — Harrowhark Nonagesimus, heir to the house of Drearburgh. Sarcasm, sorcery, and swordplay follow. Charles Stross describes it as "Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space." I mean to say!

Where'd you go?

As usual, unfortunately, my ambition to leave the house was larger than my stomach, or, rather, larger than the energy I had left at the end of a long day. So: I went to the basement, where I can read with one hand and flip a cat toy in the other. It's the good life.

What'd you eat?

I had a glass of sparkling rosé and half a dark-chocolate-almond-coconut Kind bar.

How was the food?

Pretty good! Dark-chocolate-coconut is definitely the best sort of Kind bar; it has the category-defying texture of Mounds, with slightly less sweetness and plausible deniability on health value. Louis de Grenelle Saumur Brut is the only sparkling rosé among the standards available at your local grocery store. Crispy little bubbles, entirely lacks the Jolly Rancher flavor that dogs rosés described as "drinkable" ... it's the best thing that can happen to Sunday evening (and Monday night — restraint!).

What does your date say about itself?

From the publisher's promotional copy:

Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won't set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon's sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Is there a representative quote?

On every single, magical page. Here's just one.

Their mummified faces did not yield to time because — as Gideon knew, and the marshal, and the captain of the guard, and nobody else in the universe — Harrowhark had frozen them forever. Ever the obsessive and secretive scholar, she had derived at great cost some forgotten way of preserving and puppeting the bodies. She had found a nasty, forbidden little book in the great Ninth repositories of nasty, forbidden little books, and all the Houses would have had a collective aneurysm if they knew she'd even read it. She hadn't executed it very well — her parents were fine from the shoulders up, but from the shoulders down they were bad — though she had, admittedly, been ten.

Will you two end up in bed together?

Oh my gosh yes. I can't believe I'm writing this right now instead of curling up — in bed? Anywhere! The basement floor will do! — and blazing through this beauty.

There's lots of pop culture triangulation going on in descriptions of this book; "Daria in space," for example, or random name-drops of The Hunger Games. Nothing wrong with that, but what this reminds me of most is much less pop-y things: Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Muir has got Peake's jewel-encrusted sentences (with just a touch of Jack Vance). And, as when you're reading Leiber, you want to test each jewel against a piece of glass to see which scratches first.

Reading this in the same set of days as Kim and Kim, I can't help feeling nostalgia for a world that wasn't — one in which a certain girl (and lots of others of all persuasions) grew up with stories like these to align with, instead of emerging from an adolescence dominated by Heinlein and other dominant males into years of recovery.

AND it's the first in a series. I haven't felt this grateful to be thousands of pages from "true last chapter" since I discovered Laurie J Marks. Double full speed ahead!

I’m No Piece of Brittle

I'm no piece of brittle
My life plays like a roller coaster ride
Every minute emotions change
The thickness of my skin
Is no reflection of my path
But the path of those before me
The ancestors
The whips, the chains, being thrown off the boat
Hung by a rope
My feet can't dangle in the air
The price has been paid
Ain't got time for fear
Nigga please
Get the fuck outta here
I'm tearing down barriers
The rules of being in my place
Don't apply
Tokens are for Chucky Cheese
I'm building bricks
Splitting trees
I'm standing in the field
Fluffy whiteness to my knees
I breakdown the words
You believe are me
Recognize greatness
The strength in me
Is stronger than what man can see
On my back
I carry the cross
For the ancestors and the slaves
I take the whips for Jesus
I put the spiked crown on my head with ease
I absorb the pressure from the water
My feet aren't planted
They are cemented in purpose
No mirror for the image that is me
My knowledge can't be parted like the Red Sea
R.E.S.P.E.C.T Me
No limits
I'm sitting under the tree
Holding the branches of my blood line
I'm moving through time
With the mind God gave me
To proclaim
My purpose
Stories are my weapons
My words are my strength
My heart and soul will not be broken
My path has been written
No static in my stride
I'm claiming what's mine
The history of my ancestors supports my foundation
The blood of my mother and father is the lava I breath
I proclaim your evilness
Can't break me
Your fear can't rock me
I'm coming to the table
With all of my BLACKNESS
Light, dark, Carmel, midnight and high yellow
This world is nothing without me

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from February 3rd - February 9th

Monday, February 3rd: Run Me to Earth Reading

Paul Yoon's novel Run Me to Earth is "about three orphaned children trying to survive in chaotic 1960s Laos." He'll be interviewed onstage by Hugo House events coordinator Rob Arnold.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http:// ttbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, February 4th: Unsun Reading

Andrew Zawacki's fifth poetry collection investigates signals and patterns and the old ways of doing things and how they change into the new ways of doing things. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, February 5th: Verge Reading

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, February 6th: Wake Up to What Matters Reading

The popular and charismatic young teacher Avikrita Vajra Sakya Rinpoche's book is an enthusiastic evangelist for Buddhism. His book Wake Up to What Matters is an introduction to Buddhism that is meant to appeal to young people. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Friday, February 7th: What I Carry Reading

Jennifer Longo's novel is about a young girl growing up in foster care who is about to age out of the system when she finally starts to make friends and develop a community.

Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, February 8th: Daniel Clowes

The last time that Daniel Clowes read in Seattle, I'm pretty sure, was 2008. I can't recall the time before that. And in fact his most recent comic, Patience, came out four years ago. So he's not the most frequent book promoter of our age, is what I'm saying. If you'd like to meet the creator of Ghost World and Eightball and (my favorite of his) Ice Haven, this is your best chance for a while. He's in town to celebrate a studio edition that collects his art into a fancy book.

Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, 925 E. Pike St., 658-0110, https://www.facebook.com/events/883660035386725/, 6 pm, free.

Sunday, February 9th: Seattle's Coal Legacy Reading

Did you know that the region once had a series of bustling coal mines just north of Renton? And that Seattle was once in the top three exporters of coal in the world? John M. Goodfellow's new book, Seattle's Coal Legacy, is all about that forgotten history. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 6 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: Lidia Yuknavitch at Third Place Books Seward Park

Portland writer Lidia Yuknavitch loves to give voice to the voiceless. Her book Dora: A Headcase offered agency to a young woman who was previously famous solely for being a patient of Sigmund Freud. The Small Backs of Children creates a life for a young woman whose worst day has been made famous by a war photographer. The Book of Joan whips Joan of Arc into a dystopian future and imagines a different outcome for her.

In Yuknavitch's latest collection of short stories, Verge, the author continues examining these themes of her work by focusing on outcasts and victims and castaways from society. They build tiny cities out of garbage and they make up whole new commandments and they are recruited to run black-market organs through cities in decline.

Yuknavitch is one of the Northwest's best writers. She's willfully different from mainstream fiction — her prose is prickly and angry at times, even while it's incredibly beautiful — and she's eager to keep pushing at those boundaries. That independence, that energy, and that ferocity has made her a role model for generations of young Northwest authors.

The fact is, while Yuknavitch loves to write about outsiders, she very well could be something akin to an insider for a new generation. By the time the dust settles, she just might be the most influential regional writer of this generation.

Yuknavitch reads at Third Place Books Seward Park on Wednesday, February 5th at 7 pm. The reading is free.

The Sunday Post for February 2, 2020

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](mailto:submissions@seattlereviewofbooks.com). Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

Frequently asked questions about your craniotomy

Medical FAQs are impenetrable and unemotional. Either lawyers have pared them down and flattened them out to the point of nonsense, or they’ve been written by specialists with so little perspective that … nonsense, again. We walk (are rolled) into surgery like we’re stepping into a dark room filled with ominous growling — and we don’t know where to find the light switch.

In this short story, Mary South imagines a world in which FAQs receive answers worth hearing: alternately dry and lyrical, sympathetic and caustic, delivered by a jaded brain surgeon who doesn’t have one fuck left to give. Terrifying, hilarious, angry — I wouldn’t let this narrator anywhere near a scalpel, but I’d buy her a drink and give her a hug for sure. From across several rooms, with an armed guard in between.

Can you tell me about your surgical team?

Though I wouldn’t necessarily call us a team, I did fill in as pitcher so the hospital could participate in league softball playoffs. Dr. Jay Katz couldn’t make it because he had a Whipple. Jay is a terror both on and off the mound. He can remove half a patient’s pancreas without having to pee. I’d have to rig myself up with a catheter. Dr. Amy Benson is our go-to skull-base surgeon. She recently returned from maternity leave. Now the only thing we hear about is the coltish softness of fontanels, the magical myelination moment of development when her baby recognized — I mean really recognized — her face. Maybe I’m just jealous she has a child who recognizes her face.

The art of dying

This essay was everywhere for a while, but if I missed it, maybe you did too? Peter Schjeldahl takes the occasion of his death as an opportunity to meander through his life. Wait, that makes it sound self-indulgent and boring, which is my fault, not his. There are so many lovely or funny passages in this itinerant reflection (“Swatted a fly the other day and thought, Outlived you.”). Some of the best are about writing and life, a pairing you’d think had been utterly exhausted.

Writing consumes writers. No end of ones better than I am have said as much. The passion hurts relationships. I think off and on about people I love, but I think about writing all the time.

Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.

You’re reading an exception, which is pouring out of me. It’s the first writing “for myself” that I’ve done in about thirty years, since I gave up on poetry (or poetry gave up on me) because I didn’t know what a poem was any longer and had severed or sabotaged all my connections to the poetry world. An impermeable block has crumbled, my muse being, I guess, the grim reaper.

Under the weather

How will the mental health profession adapt to the end of the world? Badly, one suspects. The turtle on which the whole field balances is the repairable broken-ness of the patient. Psychology is ill equipped to heal people living in a broken world.

The emergent understanding of the psychological harm caused by climate change is at the root of a new field known as ecopsychology. According to one of its founders, historian Theodore Roszak, the purpose of the discipline is to define “‘sanity’ as if the whole world mattered.” Ecopsychologists view the Cartesian separation of mind and body — an outlook taken for granted in mainstream medicine — as antiquated and harmful, and argue that it can lead to people viewing themselves as separate from the planet they live on. Because traditional psychologists limit their examinations to individuals and their internal maladies, they stamp a “sick” label on patients like Chris and me in an attempt to treat the person instead of treating the problem.

Whatcha Reading, Melissa Anne Peterson?

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.

Melissa Anne Peterson is a Washington-based writer who grew up in a "rainy working-class logging town". She's worked in endangered species recovery, and her first novel, Vera Violet, is being released on February 4th. It's a gritty story of teenagers growing up in a twisted rural Pacific Northwest logging town, with no options, and violent outcomes. Peterson will be appearing next Thursday, February 6th at 7pm, at the Elliott Bay Book Company, to talk about her new book.

What are you reading now?

I have several books in process, but have been most lately enamored with Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide by Robert Michael Pyle. I’ve used Pyle’s butterfly guides, but this is the first narrative book of his that I’ve read. So far, I find it elegant and unique. After I bought the book, I found out it will be celebrated in a film, The Dark Divide, which I look forward to watching.

What did you read last?

I recently finished reading Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table by Langdon Cook. It’s about the plight of salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. It differs from other “wild salmon 101” books in that Cook spends time on salmon and steelhead preparation techniques, and the part salmon play in the restaurant industry. I previously worked in salmon and steelhead recovery, so I also enjoyed Cook’s interviews with some key players in the conservation movement.

What are you reading next?

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee. It was a Christmas present, and I’m already a huge fan of the alpha female, 0-Six. I’ve seen the documentary, She Wolf, and heard parts of the audiobook, so I can’t wait to dig into the text.

The Help Desk: Under the skin

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,

If you could flay the flesh from the bones of any author, living or dead, and then wear their flesh like a fancy suit and walk around inside them for a while, which author would you choose?

Sera, Madison Park

Dear Sera,

How fun! This is a game Mother and I usually reserve for special occasions, like Y2K or Nicholas Sparks' birthday, but of course I will humor you.

Who would I wear like a wedding dress? Definitely Pearl S. Buck for the day-to-day. When I'm menstruating, a pre-oven Sylvia Plath. Jack Kerouac on days when I need a boost of unearned confidence, and I'd reserve Roxanne Gay for days when I'm forced to attend above-ground parties.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Creative morons

The Portrait Gallery: Gelett Burgess

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.

Happy Birthday to Gelett Burgess, who would turn be 154 today, if he weren't 69 years dead.

Burgess was publisher of the magazine The Lark, poet of nonsense verse, and the introducer of French modern art to America. He also coined the word "blurb", by placing a picture of "Miss Belinda Blurb" on the promotional cover of his book Are You a Bromide?, under the headline "YES, this is a BLURB. All the other publishers commit them. Why shouldn't we?"

Of his famous moral instructives, the Goops, he wrote:

The Goops, they lick their fingers,
and the Goops, they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth,
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!

Before Us: Smells like pre-revolutionary France

Once a quarter, lapsed historian and very slow reader Julie Yue dives into the archives to find one vivid historical fiction and one rigorous history book that go together like perfume and ambergris.

Despite being the little weirdo who went straight to the biography aisle at the children’s library, the grown me has not always loved history as entertainment. In fact, too often I abandoned popular volumes of historical fiction, aggravated by the mellifluous descriptions of moonlit cobblestones (we still have cobblestones—they’re not lovely, they turn your feet into pâté) and characters so full of newfangled spunk they could be dropped into a nineties sitcom with little revision. So much historical fiction reads like a tourism pamphlet, making the past feel so available, so conquerable, a world we are free to step into. There and back again.

The work of historians is nothing like that. The past isn’t on view, the archive isn’t a museum you can meander through, with storylines and exhibits carefully laid out. It’s the historian’s job to find the story, to decipher the logic of our predecessors as they excavate catalogues of microfilm, or translate obscure, possibly meaningless, medieval tax records. What’s more, so much of our history has been discarded, censored, and destroyed. And much of it is regulated by social and moral codes we find so distasteful that we suppress it ourselves. It is the work of historians to interpret the meager scraps we’re left with. And their interpretations might surprise you.

Venturing into a different time and place tells us something vital about the diverse human condition. The opportunities for varied and difficult kinds of empathy are endless. The past and the people in it do not exist as a prelude to ourselves. They exist in their own right. They are not necessarily outraged by the same injustices we are, and they are not overjoyed by the same revelations either.

In an effort to think more historically about historical fiction, each of these columns will put one piece of historical fiction and one historiography into conversation, and see what new readings we can uncover. This time, I read French historian Alain Corbin’s seminal work on the history of the senses, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (1982) and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985), a thriller about a murderous perfume-maker set in mid-eighteenth-century France. These two books, published within a few years of each other, offer two views on early modern French society and the way people thought about the way things smelled.

I’m beginning this column by (re)reading Perfume, because I think it’s the perfect example of the best kind of historical fiction. It finds its footing in the specific cultural anxieties of a precise moment in time, and as a result it tells a story that blooms in its setting. The story couldn’t have been told in twelfth-century Belgium or post-war Vietnam. Süskind takes a historian’s lucid attempt at decoding the fears of death and deception of the eighteenth-century French and turns it into your own nightmare.

Perfume doesn’t attempt to simply be an illumination of a time period with characters to fill it. It provides the reader with something more disquieting and rich. Like a historian, Süskind’s book does not simply describe the past, it interprets the past. Like a historian, Süskind takes settings and characters and gives you actors and mechanisms. It forces you to consider a logic you wouldn’t otherwise think twice about. If Corbin produced an intriguing, coherent analysis, Süskind created its thrilling metaphor.

It’s successful because it makes no attempt to configure a world to our sensibilities, in fact it forces you to follow a character who navigates his world using literally the wrong sense organ. While we, literate and freshly showered, walk down the streets watching traffic lights and reading road signs, Süskind’s protagonist follows his nose and can barely string sentences together. And as a result, we get an sensual evocation of a time where the social calculus must have been startlingly foreign but no less complex.

But first, let’s start with the history:

In Corbin’s analysis of pre-modern France, “stenches filled the nose; but they also filled the mind.” A student of the Annales School of History, which broke down the barriers between traditional political history and other disciplines, Alain Corbin plumbed the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s supposedly neutral territories like chemistry and ventilation for hierarchies of order, class, education, and refinement in The Foul and the Fragrant. “Abhorrence to smells,” Corbin writes, “produces its own form of social power.”

In the eighteenth century, odor was deeply connected with identity, life, and death. Every organ had a different smell, every age group, every sex, every difference in diet produced a distinctive atmosphere around the individual. But paradoxically in the era before Louis Pasteur, stench could also kill you. Miasmas were the epicenters of disease, doctors and experts were grievously sensitive to smells. Accounts from the time period insisted that strong, unpleasant odors caused itchy throats, swollen tongues, even foaming mouths and epileptic fits. In the documentary evidence, there was “a collective hypersensitivity to odors of all sorts.”

Olfactory vigilance not only aimed to detect the threat, the risk of infection, but also entailed a permanent monitoring of the dissolution of individuals and the self.

[As early as 1733,] the atmosphere of bodies influenced human relationships at two levels: at the level of personal attraction or revulsion, and at the level of infection.

At the crux of his book, Corbin argues that the perception of the role of smell changed over time. By the nineteenth century with its advancements in germ theory, odor was no longer something to be analyzed for signs of life or disease, two elements that affected all of society. Instead, stench became “traits of the masses,” and social deodorization began. From a world of “everyone smells” to “the poor smell.” The role of perfume also shifted from masking your natural body odor to revealing your inner identity among the now-deodorized bourgeoisie.

If Patrick Süskind only wanted a setting to evoke historical smelliness, he could have blindly drawn any time period out of a hat. Aside from the last eighty years or so, they would have all smelled pretty rank to our modern noses. Paris is still bemoaned for stinking like a latrine.

But Süskind chose to set it in the eighteenth-century, where French anxieties about scent and olfaction were yet not about class or uncomely behavior, but explicitly about personal identity, attraction and revulsion, life and death. And then he made his protagonist a grubby, scentless survivalist and an unrepentant serial killer who used the power of scent as both disguise and domination. Coincidence? I think not. Süskind likely read Corbin.

In Süskind’s world, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (conveniently, French for frog) is born in one of the stinkiest cities (Paris) in one of the most malodorous eras of human history (the pre-sewer, pre-shower 1738). While he has no scent of his own, Grenouille has an extraordinary nose. And he decides to create his own personal scent through the gruesome killings of lovely, pubescent girls.

Süskind, from the first page, immerses us in this world where everything smelled and no one could escape their own stench:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells tank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aromas of chamber pots.

Süskind is clear that this odor was not relegated to the lower class, “The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like an rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.” But in a world where everyone smelled and emitted what Corbin called the “atmosphere of bodies,” Grenouille has one problem: he smelled like nothing. And thus, he repelled people. When passing people on the street, they literally couldn’t see him coming, so attached were they to an unconscious reliance on smell.

Midway through the book, Grenouille realizes his life would be easier if he manufactured a scent that made him stink like other people. Using vinegar, civet, old sardines, rotting cheese and cat piss, he distills himself an imitation human perfume. Then he went out into the street, where for the first time in his life, he was accepted into society.

From his youth on, he had been accustomed to people’s passing him and taking no notice of him whatever, not out of contempt—as he had once believed—but because they were quite unaware of his existence. There was no space surrounding him, no waves broke from him into the atmosphere, as with other people; he had no shadow, so to speak, to cast across another’s face.

With this revelation and his powerful nose, Grenouille begins collecting human scents, with the aim of blending the perfect vial so that every person who saw him would find him irresistible.

After evoking a strange new world of social smells, Perfume, in its denouement, goes terrifyingly off the rails. You realize fearfully that the story wasn’t about odor at all. It was about the gullibility and arrogance of society, how easily our most deep-seated institutions can prove impotent, how quickly we revert to our animal instincts if only given the chance.

Upon its completely logical yet utterly monstrous conclusion, you close the book with your native anxieties on edge, your sense of propriety shuddering. It was a feeling that Corbin only managed to record from doctors and philosophers who held their breath for fear of infestation and death, but now you feel it too, like a slimy frog in your stomach.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The future of superhero comics?

This week, Jerry Craft's book for young readers New Kid made history. Bonnie Burton at Cnet writes:

For the first time ever, a graphic novel has been awarded the coveted the 2020 John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature, the American Library Association announced on Monday.

The graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft is an uplifting tale of a 12-year-old African-American boy living in New York City's Washington Heights who just wants to go to art school. But instead, his parents enroll him in a private school where he's one of the only students of color.

It seems absurd that it's taken this long in the Newbery's storied history — the award was founded 98 years ago — to honor a comic book. Kids, after all, love comics. They're great at teaching kids how to read (I'm living proof.) The most popular author for kids in the country right now is Raina Telgemeier, who is a very good cartoonist. But comics have had the stench of the gutter on them for so long that a generational shift had to happen. The snobs who discounted comics as genre trash had to slowly retire to make room for a new generation who saw the storytelling possibilities in the medium.

This youthful revolution — or at least youth reader revolution — toward the mainstream acceptance of comics for kids has finally started to affect the big two mainstream comics publishers. DC Comics has recently launched a series of graphic novels for young readers which reimagine their superheroes with less continuity and more of the emotional introspection and character development that young readers have come to expect from their comics.

The latest such effort from DC will be in bookstores around the country this coming Tuesday. It's titled Shadow of the Batgirl, it's written by Sarah Kuhn and illustrated by Nicole Goux, and it points the way to a whole new approach to superhero comics for young readers.

Batgirl retells the story of Cassandra Cain, a retooled Batgirl character from the early 2000s. In those comics, Cain was a teenaged assassin, brainwashed and nearly mute. Few writers knew how to handle the character, and she quickly slipped to the background. You don't need to know any of this backstory to enjoy this new book; in fact, it's fairly bold in its reinvention.

Cain, in Batgirl, is still a brainwashed teenage assassin, but in this version of the story she breaks free from her programming and takes up residence, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler-style, in a gorgeous library, where she starts to learn about books and socialization and normal life. It's an origin story that doesn't feel like an origin story — instead, it feels like a novel, with a beginning and a middle and an end.

It's hard to imagine artist Nicole Goux ever getting a foothold in the traditional world of mainstream superhero comics. Her work is manga-inspired, but it also carries a lot of inspiration from European comics like Tintin and Asterix. Sometimes character's eyes are just inky black dots, and other times they're expressive lakes of white. Goux picks up and abandons different styles in a single page, whipping from realistic portrayals of teenagers mingling around bookshelves to a wide-angle cinematic pan of a character recoiling in fear from a tiny mouse. Colorist Cris Peter maintains that sense of duality in the book's palette: in action sequences, the book is awash in noirish dark blues and purples, but Cain's world at the library is glowing in warm oranges and yellows.

Hardcore comics readers — by which I mean the men like me in their 40s who popular culture used to envision as the sole audience for superhero comics — will likely agitate against Batgirl because it doesn't reconcile with the superhero books that they buy every month. That's fine; Batgirl isn't for them. It's for the kids. And the vibrant energy that it brings with it — a little more realistic, a lot less macho, a lot more compassionate — points to a new future for the publisher. It's easy to imagine books like Batgirl becoming the new normal for superhero comics. The future looks bright.

This Saturday, stand up for our trans neighbors at Seattle Public Library

This Saturday, a group with the ridiculous acronym WoLF, which traffics in anti-trans panic, will be hosting a meeting at the Seattle Public Library downtown. SPL's Chief Librarian, Marcellus Turner's decision to host the meeting is an outright failure to uphold SPL's mission of inclusivity, and so it's up to us, the literary community of Seattle, to do what Turner was too cowardly to do: Stand up to WoLF and signal to the community that anti-trans hate is not acceptable.

Here is a Facebook invite to the rally, which begins at 4 pm at City Hall. At 5:45, the rally turns into a four-block march and outdoor protest at Seattle Public Library at 6 pm. You should go; SPL has repeatedly failed its trans patrons, staffers, and neighbors, and it's up to us to fix their mistake.

If you absolutely can't make it Saturday, you should definitely sign this petition demanding that "Seattle Public Library's administration make significant changes to repair its reputation and relationship with the trans community," with specific policies and actions spelled out for the library to follow. (Of course, if you can make the protest, you should still sign the petition.)

I really urge you to attend this rally. If you're reading this site, you are a member of Seattle's literary community. And it is up to us to correct Turner's egregious failure to protect everyone in this community.

Also, please follow Gender Justice League on Twitter, as they'll offer up-to-the-minute details about the rally.

The Subject is Predicate: Talking with the founder of "personal book shopper" service Predicate Booksellers

Founded in summer of 2019, Predicate Booksellers seeks to offer one-on-one bookselling experiences to people who want a more bespoke experience than the traditional independent bookstore has to offer. We talked with Predicate founder Wesley Minter about his neat new venture, which provides personalized handselling, curation, and home consultations for those in need of book advice.

Are there any more booksellers on your staff? What kind of bookselling experience do they have?

There are currently four of us, all told. I am the founder but Predicate is also shaped by three other booksellers: Niki Marion, Sam Kaas and Haiden Lisenby. If you add all of our experience together, it lands just on the far side of forty years of bookselling. Our reading tastes are widely varied but we all have one thing in common: we each see bookselling as a craft. Sharing that with local readers and each other has created an ability to work together intuitively and learn from one another.

Can you give an elevator pitch of what your services are?

We are personal book shoppers offering appointments for readers of all ages. Each one-hour appointment is spent discussing a thoughtful, concise stack of recommendations. A book purchased at a local independent bookstore is always the client’s to keep, as well as a solid list of other titles we’re confident are a good fit. It’s great for individual readers as well as book clubs who might need a little guidance planning future selections. And what most excites me personally: we offer curation for anyone looking to bulk up personal book collections of any size, from a simple stack on your nightstand to an entire library.

What's Predicate's ideal customer?

We are looking to connect with any reader who values a human exchange over the cold, sales-based recommendation of an algorithm. Folks who value expertise and personal service over the vacuum of corporate convenience. Sharing how we react to books and ideas is an intimacy that benefits a community and few cities understand that better than Seattle.

The four of us are all have wildly different reading tastes but we talk about books similarly and those far-flung tastes are our greatest asset. Pooling our individual tastes make it easy to create a distinct experience for readers and Predicate is perfect for people who like a little extra, tailored touch. And, personally, anyone who wants to talk about Mary Robison.

What services do you offer that are different from traditional bookselling?

Extreme flexibility and nominal distraction. We are entirely mobile and our service is largely one-on-one. Where an appointment takes place is up to the customer: their home, favorite coffee shop, wherever they’re most comfortable. There are no new release tables to overwhelm you if you’re not in the mood to browse. There are no lines, not as much noise or static. Just a little old-fashioned human interaction and a small, sharply executed stack of books chosen for you and you alone.

It is not our aim to compete or take away from the fantastic independent bookstores in Seattle - I hope what we do supports them and the reading community at large. All books we provide come from local indies and a good chunk of each appointment is spent recommending not just books but all of the wonderfully eclectic and energetic booksellers who call Seattle home.

I love the name. Can you offer a little insight into where your inspiration came from?

I wish it were something romantic or profound but in elementary school I just loved the tidy aesthetic of diagramming sentences. The predicate is where all the action happens in a sentence, what gives the sentence its meaning. Nothing has brought more meaning to my life than reading. It just fits.

Book News Roundup: Huge Cloudy gets some love, American Dirt gets canceled

  • Seattle poet Bill Carty's collection Huge Cloudy has been longlisted for a Believer Book Award, which is no small feat. (Fun fact: The Believer Book Award is how I learned about the novelist Sam Lypsite, as his hilarious novel Home Land was selected in one of the very first years of the award's existence.

  • Elissa Washuta, a former Seattleite who still has strong ties to the Northwest, has announced that her next book of linked essays, White Magic, will be published by Tin House in 2021.

  • Daniel Hernandez at the Los Angeles Times published an amazing piece titled "‘American Dirt’ was supposed to be a publishing triumph. What went wrong?" The piece is an indictment of American Dirt and its ham-fisted approach to the topic of Mexican immigration, but it's also a huge indictment of Big Publishing and its multi-million dollar promotional machine. This kind of stuff is really gross:

    Critics noted a string of similar casual-seeming social posts from famous figures such as Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma”), MJ Rodriguez (“Pose”) and Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”). [Salma] Hayek, the Academy Award-nominated Mexican actress, posted her own glowing review for “American Dirt” [on Twitter] later in the week, then deleted it on Friday. “I confess I have not read it and was not aware of any controversy,” she said on Instagram. Each entertainer displayed an e-reader version of the novel and nearly all of them thanked Winfrey for sending the book, hinting at a multiplatform publicity campaign.
  • I don't know why, but Salma Hayek urging people to read a book she didn't even read hurts me deep down in my heart.

  • Meanwhile, American Dirt readings and signings with author Jeanine Cummins in La Jolla and Pasadena have been canceled. At the time that I'm writing this, the February 1st Cummins appearance scheduled for Third Place Books Ravenna has not been canceled.

Made for walking

Published January 28, 2020, at 12:00pm

Dawn McCarra Bass reviews Lizzy Stewart’s Walking Distance .

There are a lot of books about walking, but none that feel like a walk quite the way Lizzy Stewart's Walking Distance does.

Read this review now

Four-twenty-one

(Side-scroll to see full lines)

Our parents wouldn’t let us name him, so we called him
421, from the yellow tag stapled to the black fur of his left ear.

More dog than calf, he liked to lick the salt
from our skin, followed us beneath the grape arbor,

through clover patches, back to the chicken house
where he’d tickle corn from our bare hands.

I liked him because he followed us and hated blackberries,
toothy brambles and fat berries hiding too many

seeds. And though we couldn’t name him, like the Toyota
we’d christened Pearly, the rabbit Clover, the persimmon tree

by the clothesline Sam, we sang him songs with his new name,
murmuring into his too-big eyes, the number growing

sweet and fat as he did, as the blackberries, as the corn
when it sat in water. In a few weeks he outgrew

the chicken house, moved to our neighbors’ pasture with George,
the mean old cow, who chased us if we came inside the barbed wire fence.

Six months and he was sold, the pasture only George.
The things we cannot name are splinters

working slowly out toward skin:
my blackberry stain memories of the pasture

with mean old George and piles of manure,
my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.

It's time to apply to Mineral School!

Sponsor Mineral School is back to make sure you're aware of this very important fact: applications are currently open, and the deadline is February 15th! Get your applications ready!

Are you one of the rare Pacific Northwest writers who hasn't yet heard about Mineral School, the converted old school building in Mineral, Washington? That hosts writers for residencies in amazing bedrooms made from huge old classrooms? That feeds you, and brings in visiting writers to work with you? Good news! You can find out much more about this unique, wonderful, and compelling residency on our sponsor's page, of course. Also, Mineral School will be at Hugo House February 1st for their "Everything you wanted to know about applying for a residency" session. Don't miss out on applying to one of our favorite local resources.

It's sponsors like Mineral School, who return each year, who show you how effective our platform is for getting the word out. We're getting our next batch of sponsorships ready to ship — want to be the first to know? Already have date in 2020 you want to snag? Write us at sponsorships@seattlereviewofbooks.com and we'd be happy to help you out.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from Jan 27th - Feb 2nd

Monday, January 27th: I Shimmer Sometimes, Too Reading

How's this for the first line of a bio: "Porsha Olayiwola is from the future!" Boston's Poet Laureate, Olayiwola, is fusing the genre of Afrofuturism — which popularly found its footing in sci-fi and comics like Black Panther — with poetry. If the bio is true, I want to join Olayiwola in the future.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, January 28th: Black on Craft

Poet Amber Flame's discussion series which invites "Black writers and creatives [to] discuss the hows, whys, and methodologies of their artistic practice" has put together a killer lineup for its latest edition: Boston poet Porsha Olayiwola, who read on her own last night at Elliott Bay Book Copmany, and Seattle poet Quenton Baker. It's two young poetic geniuses talking poetry and Blackness and just generally being great onstage together.

Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $5.

Wednesday, January 29th: Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Let's get this up front: I only half-liked She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement The first two thirds of the book, which detail Kantor's and Twohey's efforts to cover the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, is a thriller of a book. The book perfectly captures the hard work and diligence that went into ethically covering a slippery subject. The last part of the book, though, is about the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and without the ticking clock of the Weinstein story, it feels more rote and less compelling. Still, you'll want to attend this event with the authors, who will hopefully have some insight into the #MeToo movement today and the ongoing Weinstein trial playing out in New York right now.

Benaroya Hall,  200 University St., 215-4747, http://seattlesymphony.org,  7:30 pm, $35.

Thursday, January 30th: Lyric World

See our Event of the Week column for more details.

Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $10.

Friday, January 31st: Youth Speaks Seattle Qualifying Slam

As they say at Youth Speaks: "The youth right now is the truth right now. This competitive poetry event offers a supportive but tense air, as our city's leading youth poets learn who will represent Seattle in the national slam competition. This event features poet Christopher Diaz.

Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 6 pm, $10.

Saturday, February 1st: The Best New True Crime Stories: Serial Killers Reading

Mitzi Szereto has edited an anthology of true crime writing about serial killers, and tonight she's going to discuss what it was like to assemble this honkin' huge collection of death and creepiness and monstrous behavior.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: Lyric World at Town Hall Seattle

“I wanted to curate a series that could really focus on the social role of poetry rather than just having poets in to read from their most current work,” Shin Yu Pai told me about her brand-new series Lyric World, which debuts on Thursday at Town Hall with help from KUOW.

Each event brings poets and performers together to read work and join in conversation on a pre-ordained topic. The launch event is all about wonder, and Pai has assembled a hell of a lineup.

Poet and magician (!) Thomas Pruiksma will be in conversation with poet Melanie Noel, who explores the breadth and limitations of sensory experiences in her work. It's genius of Pai to combine a poet who spends a fair amount of time convincing audiences to ignore the evidence right in front of them with one who is so dedicated to the reality of sense.

At the beginning of the evening, kora player and griot-trained jeli Ibrahim Arsalan will perform muscin on the theme as well. I suck at describing music, so here's a tiny taste of what Arsalan's kora playing sounds like:

See? That feeling in your chest right now is wonder. It all makes sense.

Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $10.

The Sunday Post for January 26, 2020

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.

Magic mountain

I remember a time when I was blissfully unaware of Davos, and then I remember a time when I was aware of it without really understanding it. For a member of the comms team at a large global health-oriented nonprofit, Davos was a last-minute email campaign, an annual moment of predictable unpredictability, a few paragraphs to be assembled, pushed, and forgotten.

Through exposure, my understanding grew, but somehow I missed the phase where I admired, respected, and waited breathlessly to see the outcome of this gathering of giants. Displays of status leave me not just cold, but irrationally furious. The World Economic Forum could end with a comprehensive (and executable) plan to solve the world’s ills, and I’d be as likely to light it on fire as praise it.

I have a problem, I admit.

Nick Paumgarten went to Davos in 2012 and wrote about it for The New Yorker. He showcases the ego, the arrogance, and the unearned power of the people who go — how very much the gathering is about power climbing on power, and how very little it’s about anything else. Revelations here? Not really, but a detailed and experiential report that looks straight up the WEF’s nose.

Davos is, fundamentally, an exercise in corporate speed-dating. “Everyone comes because everyone else comes,” Larry Summers told me. A hedge-fund manager or a C.E.O. can pack into a few days the dozens of meetings—with other executives, with heads of state or their deputies, with non-governmental organizations whose phone calls might otherwise have been ignored—that it would normally take months to arrange and tens of thousands of Gulfstream miles to attend. They conduct these compressed and occasionally fruitful couplings, the so-called bilateral meetings, either in private rooms that the W.E.F. has set aside for this purpose or in hotel rooms, restaurants, and hallways. All that’s missing is the hourly rate.
The girlfriend's guide to gods

Speaking of powerful, contemptible men: Maria Dahvana Headley has mastered whatever the opposite of magical realism is — pulling myths into our world, then rubbing grime on them until it’s like they’d always been here. Her new short story does a brutal and brilliant job at griming up the gods and god-like men of Greek mythology. If you’re a woman, you’ve almost certainly dated these bastards. If you’re a woman, you’ve long since learned what “god” is another word for …

You’ll ignore what you know, and get it on with Icarus in an extra-long single dorm bed. When he rolls off, there will not be any room for you on the mattress, so you’ll sleep on the floor. He’ll be super sweet though. When you wake up, he’ll give you half a protein bar and take you to the free screening of Satyricon.
My Instagram

Everybody’s hating on social media these days, so much that it’s hard to find something original or new (or worth your time to read). Dayna Torotorici’s detailed history of her relationship with Instagram isn’t new, per se, but the way she exposes her own vulnerabilities, and how Instagram exploits them, feels new. She weaves delicately between the hot-take haters and the big-data fear-mongers while proving the point of both: social media is shaping more than our spare time.

Modern voyeurism has precedents, even the multiple-window kind. The entangled dynamics of who sees whom and who knows they’re being seen have always been present. Where Instagram seems truly new — beyond the introduction of machine learning and commercial surveillance to the mix — is in the strange instability of the viewer’s position as a subject. A voyeur knows what kind of viewer he is, but looking at Instagram, you are not always a voyeur. Neither are you always a witness, nor any other single kind of watcher. Each post interpellates you differently. Your implied identity slips with each stroke of the thumb.

Whatcha Reading, Jessica Hurst?

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.

Jessica Hurst is the owner of Mercer Street Books, one of our very favorite used bookshops in Seattle. She always has amazing recommendations, and no doubt will guide you to discover authors you don't know but wish you did, and works by authors you do, but have yet to have find.

What are you reading now?

I’m almost always reading four or five books at once, often things that counterbalance each other. If I’m reading something true, I may also need to read something made up. If I’m deep into something long I need to keep a few short books going as well. I often pick up a second book that contextualizes or counters or complements the first book I was reading before I’m half done. And if a book has been recommended to me, I may also read something that I won't tell anyone that I've read just for the pleasure of having a secret. It isn’t a hard and fast rule, but rather a pervasive tendency. In the interest of brevity, I'll just chart the high tide of my current obsession which shows no signs of ebbing.

I'm about half way through The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer. I'd never read any Iyer until about a month ago when he was recommended to me by a customer. Now I cant get enough. This one is an interesting read in that it's the most self-reflective of his work that I've read so far. While the previous books have mostly used Iyer as a hyper intelligent lens through which to gaze upon the world, The Lady and the Monk focuses his poetic eye inwards and follows his romantic entanglements with his future wife and with Japan itself.

What did you read last?

It all started with A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations by Pico Iyer. Brief, bright vignettes are clustered together like candles to illuminate already brilliant observations about Iyer's adopted homeland of 32 years. No matter how long he stays, he's never quite an insider. Perhaps, you learn, that's part of the appeal. The fragmented, non-narrative nature charmed the heck out of me and reminded me of other favorites like Fernando Pessoa.

Next I read Sun After Dark (by, of course, Pico Iyer.) Mr Iyer wanders through literal and political darkness in this, my favorite of his books. Chapters on insomnia and how a foreign city acts on you when you can't keep to its normal hours follow chapters that accompany singer Leonard Cohen through his residence at a Buddhist monastery, a place both holy and a depository for Cohen's pain. There was something warm yet haunted about this book that made it a great winter read.

What are you reading next?

Autumn Light by Pico Iyer. Because I find it's best to just let these compulsions play out. In reading, like nowhere else, you can eat until you've had your fill.

The Help Desk: Judge a cover by its book

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,

Book cover design has gotten very good, by which I mean if you walk into a bookstore and check out the new release wall, none of the books are so ugly that they're offensive. That's good!

But just as there are no truly ugly book covers anymore, I think there are no truly great book covers anymore, either. I'm thinking of the good old fashioned Salinger white covers with the rainbows, or the Great Gatsby cover with the eyes, or the uber-90s-goth Bell Jar cover with the dead rose.

Book covers now are very safe. They're all abstract colorful landscapes, or glimpses of body parts — jaws, feet, necks — that don't impinge upon the reader's imagination of what the characters in the book should look like. Whatever happened to illustrating scenes from the book? Why wouldn't you try to make a book cover that interacts with the book, rather than one that just sits there and looks pretty?

But I don't want to be nostalgic for a past that doesn't exist. Are there any good book covers anymore, Cienna? Or will you make my week by telling me that I'm right?

Eva, Lynnwood

Dear Eva,

There seems to be a disconnect between the book covers you cite – rainbows, eyes, and dead roses – and what you expect a book cover to do. How are those not abstract conceptualizations of books?

Don't be embarrassed. We're all wrong sometimes. Just last night I had someone – a man – mansplain at me that an alligator cannot be my progeny. He did not back down, even after I showed him photos of Beatrix crowning from my vagina. (Obviously, it was a symbolic act. Obviously, she hatched from an egg first and then only executed a quick dip inside me, like a freaky polar bear plunge, as my pediatrician warned me that the natural biome of my uterus is "hostile to life.")

It is absolutely criminal the way some people regard adoption as inferior to biological procreation.

But back to your question. Personally, I enjoy medical dictionaries that graphically depict things like a person's face sans skin. Also, cookbooks with tacos on the cover. I rarely cook but I do enjoy fondling a beautifully illustrated cookbook; the images go great with a bottle of wine.

I can appreciate you romanticizing the book covers of yon – I think we often fawn over reminders of the past. But remember: the past is history. That alligator will never again fit inside that vagina, no matter how many industrial spacers we may buy.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Exploitative poachers

The Portrait Gallery: Edith Wharton

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.

Happy 158th anniversary of your birth, tomorrow, Edith Wharton! So many books to discover in her library, if you've never read them. Here are a couple good quotes: “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.” — from The House of Mirth, and this particularly pithy refrain from War & Travel: "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it."

Criminal Fiction: The year of perfect vision has begun

Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

A palpable thread of menace winds relentlessly through Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas (Counterpoint), in which Natasha, the daughter of a wealthy Russian businessman, lands at a boarding school in the north of England. Her home-away-from-home posse includes the French and fabulous Tiffanie, the highly dramatic Bianca, the extroverted Rachel, the sly Lissa, and non-border Danielle, at whose house they all indulge in freely available WiFi. (At the school they are limited to an hour per day). The girls obsess about Princess Augusta, a local aristocrat whose portraits hang on the school walls and who died tragically in a nearby lake. They indulge in eating disorders – applying serious amounts of peer pressure on each other – and over-consume alcohol when they can, taking us effortlessly along on their ride. But this darkly funny novel of suspense, glorious in its scope, is just as interested in delineating the decadent capitalism glittering within contemporary London, the easy, casual cruelty integral to criminally funded wealth, and the pitch-black impulses that can lurk within the human heart.

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River (Riverhead) throws America’s opioid crisis into sharp, stark relief, capturing, on a very local level, the sheer scale of its destruction. But Moore’s perfectly wrought story of a Philadelphia policewoman, Mickey, searching for Kacey, her addict sister, never devolves into gratuitous overindulgence. With an apparent serial murderer out on the city’s streets targeting vulnerable women, Mickey is overwhelmed with worry, attempting some off-the-books sleuthing of her own while putting her job at risk. The edgy and spare writing is a perfect match for Mickey’s withholding personality as she searches for Kacey, spars with her colleagues, and, most movingly of all, shares the story of the childhood that shaped two sisters into such seemingly different personalities.

Ian Rankin’s Westwind (Little, Brown) rises again: This is the first U.S. publication of Rankin’s standalone 1990 espionage thriller which, scarily enough, is creepily redolent of certain contemporary events. Okay, there are some throwbacks – smoking-seat availability on planes, for one thing – and the writing isn’t always as polished as it is in Rankin’s Rebus novels, but this crafty story of surveillance, spooks, and ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations is still well on the money. Martin Hepton, our Everyman hero and modest British satellite observer, finds himself suddenly having to puzzle out why a U.S. space mission ended badly and why his colleagues are being targeted by an alarmingly successful assassin. Meanwhile, the American military is busy pulling out of Europe, possibly taking the Brits with them. As generals clash with civil servants – and with a bevy of authority figures blatantly mis-wielding their power – this 30-year-old novel manages to be both of its own time as well as of ours.

In The Art of Dying (Canongate), their terrific follow-up to 2018’s The Way of All Flesh, wife-and-husband team Marisa Haetzman and Christopher Brookmyre – collectively known as Ambrose Parry – extend their immersive world of 19th Century Edinburgh, seamlessly mixing real-life characters with fictional ones and bringing the city’s presence as a leader in medicine to vivid life. While doctors and patients alike are coming to terms with the discovery of chloroform – and as ne’er-do-wells are exploring their own uses for it – a mysterious nurse appears to be taking matters of life and death into her own hands. Happily, housemaid-turned-doctor’s assistant Sarah Fisher and Dr. Will Raven are on the case: Sarah is coming into her own, inspired by the rising wave of feminism – Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman shines its literary light throughout the novel – while Will is struggling to define who he wants to be. Still, together, they present a detective force to be reckoned with. Brookmyre draws on his thriller-writing expertise as deftly as Haetzman, an anesthetist, utilizes her MA in medical history, making The Art of Dying, as one character says to another, “‘…fiendishly clever….Or cleverly fiendish,’” and pure, unadulterated reading pleasure.

In The Wife and the Widow (Minotaur), Christian White’s follow-up to his celebrated debut The Nowhere Child, two women struggle to come to terms with what they thought they knew about their lives. Set on a holiday island off the coast of mainland Australia during winter, the off-season hollowness of the setting imbues this thriller with its chilling, claustrophobic atmosphere as Abby, a taxidermist who also works at the local grocery store, makes one unwelcome discovery after another about her husband. Meanwhile, Kate, a well-off, stay-at-home mom, is on the warpath to discover why her husband has been pretending to speak with her from an overseas conference when a single phone call to his office has exposed an even bigger lie. White’s sophomore outing succeeds as both a clever literary puzzle and an insistent page-turner.

The Quintessential Interview: William Gibson

The ever-astute William Gibson follows up 2014’s The Peripheral with Agency, in which myriad characters in various time frames grapple with and manipulate cutting-edge technology as well as the latest political developments. When Verity, an early 21st Century app whisperer interacts with Eunice, a highly evolved – and perpetually evolving – AI, the scene is set for all kinds of head-scrambling shenanigans. Gibson has been chronicling our times with a perceptive eye on the near future for nearly 40 years now, and his authorial hand is as evocative and as sharp as ever. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

When I was starting to write, I might have said JG Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, David Bowie, Lou Reed... At this point I don’t think that way. Inspiration is the last thing I read that I found really wonderful!

Top five places to write?

In our dining room, which is set up as our library. In my car, parked somewhere with a view. In a Starbucks, if there’s an easy chair available between busy periods. Parked somewhere with a very different view. Likewise, another view.

Top five favorite authors?

I don’t have those, the way I once did. I miss David Foster Wallace and I’d love to see what he’d have done with our newsfeed today. Likewise JG Ballard, though in a way he’d already done our newsfeed today. Iain Banks. I want a new Jack Womack novel. And new nonfiction from Iain Sinclair, particularly his take on the Brexitition, though like Ballard he’s somehow already cumulatively done it.

Top five tunes to write to?

I’m not currently listening to music as I write, but am lately haunted, deeply, by a song called “21st Century USA” from the new Drive-By Truckers album, lyrics by Patterson Hood. DBT have been quite an inspiration to me generally.

Top five hometown spots?

A park just east of Main renamed Dude Chilling Park, mainly because it was renamed that. Vancouver’s Chinatown, as it struggles to resist gentrification. Liberty, a great bakery-cafe on Main Street. Siegel’s Bagels, 1883 Cornwall, get the Big Breakfast Bagel. Mamalee Malaysian Delight on West Broadway, for Singaporean classics.

Thursday Comics Hangover: I wonder when she'll get a truly great series

Last year, Seattle novelist G. Willow Wilson took over writing duties on Wonder Woman. It was a pretty big deal: Wilson had made a name for herself in the comics world as the co-creator of, and original writer for, the popular Ms. Marvel character. So for her to take on the third-most-popular DC Comics hero was seen as both a step up for Wilson and a sign of hope for Wonder Woman as a character, who enjoyed big box office success with her first movie but who has had a creatively wobbly time of it on the comics end of things.

Wilson's Wonder Woman run begins in a collection called The Just War, and it basically touches all the basic points you'd expect a Wonder Woman story to hit: Ares, the God of War, is a major villain; the themes of the story focus largely on the conflict between love and war; and the story is a showcase for the character's deep ties to mythology.

My favorite aspect of The Just War, though, is also my favorite part of Wilson's Wonder Woman run: the main story takes a back seat on several occasions to focus on a subplot featuring a minotaur, a pegasus, and a satyr who are trying to make their way in the modern world. These mythological creatures at once stand in for the reader and also represent a central dichotomy at the heart of the Wonder Woman character — her fantasy background and her need to be relevant to modern society.

In Just War and in Wilson's subsequent issues, it almost seemed as though Wilson was going to turn Wonder Woman into an ensemble book — one in which mythology spins around a central character in new and interesting ways. I was hoping that Wilson would recast Neil Gaiman's Sandman run with Wonder Woman as the central character around which the stories spin.

Unfortunately, Wilson left Wonder Woman after a couple of arcs, and that plan never came to fruition. Instead, Wilson's run joins a parade of half-started, half-abandoned takes on the character that never really took off because they never had the opportunity to take off.

This week, DC Comics is celebrating Wonder Woman with the 750th issue of her title, an anthology that tries to cast the character in a new direction that will stick. (For real this time.) The first story in the volume pretty much tries to re-establish the status quo — Wonder Woman gets her Golden Lasso of truth back, which she apparently had lost in the not-so distant past? — while celebrating the character.

It's a bit of a mixed bag. Modern writers have had a hard time deciding how warlike Wonder Woman should be — how tough the character has to be while still staying true to her mission of peace and love, and this anthology veers back and forth. It doesn't feel so much of a relaunch as a stuttering celebration that isn't sure whether it should embrace the character's cartoony origins or discard them.

Writer Steve Orlando is set to take over the character from now on, and I wish him luck. Orlando has written several very clever, compassionate Wonder Woman comics in the past, and perhaps he'll be able to stretch the character out and see what she can really do with a little bit of runway and a lot of planning. But I still am kind of heartbroken by the idea of Wilson's unfinished run, and what she might have done with the character had she not left the book. Just War provides a few hints, but it doesn't give us that long-term sense of commitment that the character so dearly needs.

Book News Roundup: Do you have what it takes to be Reese Witherspoon's book buddy?

  • Reese Witherspoon is looking for a Librarian-in-Residence for her bookclub. It goes without saying that that librarian should be from Seattle. So start making those videos now:
  • Here's a ghastly headline: "Missouri could jail librarians for lending 'age-inappropriate' books"
  • I loved The Hunger Games — the book and the movie — and while the sequels had diminishing returns, I still enjoyed them. But I'm not interested in the just-announced prequel series about the rise and corruption of evil President Snow. We don't need another prequel.

  • Some guy tweeted about how he likes to cut long books in half and then he asked the internet to chime in, so yesterday was a gold rush for book-related content on the usual sites. Everything about this tweet is designed to annoy people, from the casual book destruction to the choice of Very Big Serious Books By and About Big Serious Men. My take on this — aside from pointing out the obvious click-bait-y-ness of the original post — is that when you do something like this to a book, you're stealing an opportunity to read that book away from someone down the line. Maybe if the book hadn't been sliced in half, someone would have bought that copy at a used book store, or at a Friends of the Library sale. But as it is now, nobody's likely to sit down with a copy that's been sawed in half and duct-taped back together.

Libro.fm's Mark Pearson is helping independent bookstores fight Amazon

That's where Seattle online retailer Libro.fm comes in. Libro.fm is an independent retailer of audiobooks that partners with indie bookstores, giving them a cut of the profit from every sale. Not so long ago, Libro.fm also launched a membership program allowing customers to download one audiobook per month for free and offering a deep discount on any other audiobook purchases.

Earlier this month, Libro.fm launched another new online tool that makes it easier to buy books from indie bookstores online. It's called Bookstore Link, and I provided a little tutorial about the free service earlier this month. It's a way to link directly to indie bookstores on social media and other online sites, including a straightforward way to link directly to the indie bookstore of your choice.

Last week, I talked with Libro.fm co-founder and CEO Mark Pearson about Libro's fight against Amazon, their vision for Bookstore Link, and how the company does so much with a tiny staff.

For someone who isn't familiar, what are you doing with Libro.fm? What's with your company's philosophy around supporting indie booksellers?

Our mission is super-focused on getting more people to read books, and supporting local bookstores to make that happen. That's why Libro.fm exists. And the problem is that the average bookstore in the US has revenue of $1.2 million, but they only have a net profit of $10,000 — so every single book and audio book sale counts.

And at the same time, we have Amazon in our backyard, and that counts for more than 50% of all the print books sold in the US every year. We want to do something about that — we want local bookstores to survive and thrive.

We built Bookstore Link to drive traffic to local bookstores instead of Amazon. It went live on January 8th. It's an easy way for authors and publishers and influencers to share a single link to a print and audio book across 900 bookstores.

It's easy to use — very intuitive. How has the reception been since you launched?

The reception has been great. We're thrilled, and it's just the beginning. We have some more plans for Bookstore Link and basically anything we can do to help bookstores.

It seems like you've been working on it for a while.

Yeah, absolutely. Bookstore Link required a tremendous amount of work. Libro.fm is a platform, and it's been six years in the making to build this platform so that we have more than 14 million print books and 125,000 audio books and 900 bookstore partners that we work with one-on-one. We are in close contact with more than 6,000 booksellers and they are a key part of what we do. So you're right — it was not built overnight. It's the product of many years and investing in bookstores and in our technology.

I wonder if you could talk about how you see this living in the same spaces as IndieBound, which provides links to indie bookstores.

IndieBound has a wonderful history and it's a great discovery website. Booksellers make recommendations that go on the Indie Next list, and there's nothing better than bookseller making a recommendation instead of an algorithm. But the process for one of your readers on [the Seattle Review of Books] is to go from IndieBound to find a local book site to make a purchase is not easy, and it only works on U.S. bookstores. So we've simplified the process for an author, publisher, influencer — we don't have to have detailed book information. All we do, and there's a lot under the hood, is to connect the reader to their local bookstore and make a purchase. That's what we heard from authors and publishers who want to help bookstores, and that's what we've done.

It seems like 90% of the work with online sales is ease of use. Jeff Bezos understands that with Amazon, and this seems like an easy way to direct people to better behaviors.

Exactly. I talk a lot about the three C's — what bookstores do better than Amazon is the curation and the community. Booksellers are the best in making recommendations, right? They're also the best at playing a meaningful role in their community. You don't think about Amazon and community — it's not a word that comes to mind. You think about Amazon destroying communities.

But the piece that Amazon does a good job with is the convenience. It's simple to order. Now that's the role Libro.fm plays in competing with Amazon, is we are making it more convenient through our platform for readers, for listeners who like and value bookstores to support them. That's why seventy percent of all our Libro.fm members come from Amazon's Audible. They cancel their accounts at Audible and they decide to support the local bookstore.

Wow.

Because we deliver on those three Cs: the curation, the community, and it's convenient.

The remarkable thing is you have fewer than 10 staffers, right?

That's right. We have a team of seven people, but in some ways it feels like we are a larger company, because we work closely with 6,000 booksellers across 900 bookstores. So they are on the front lines, selling audio books and memberships.

The app and the online interface for Libro.fm and Bookstore Link are all so slick that I did not expect that from such a small staff, honestly. I thought you were a lot bigger. It's just very impressive.

Well, thank you. And yeah, our goal is to be the great marketing and tech partnership of bookstores. We take the products that we launch seriously, and we're just getting started.

Ah — the sea!

Published January 21, 2020, at 12pm

Martin McClellan reviews Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea .

Does having a story to tell mean that you need to tell it a certain way? What if you were to, say, evoke the story and bring the dream of it alive, in lieu of describing every plot point? In The Starless Sea, argues Martin McClellan, Erin Morgenstern has done just this, and he's grateful for it.

Read this review now

The Dirt on American Dirt

When a novelist identifies as white until she writes a book about Mexican migrants in order to give a face to the “faceless brown mass” at the border, trouble follows, dirt is raised, caca is thrown. And for good reason.

The January 21 release of the much-hyped novel American Dirt, which garnered its author Jeanine Cummins a seven-figure contract, has been preceded by rave reviews in major publications. These have been countered with reviews by writers of color and an ongoing Twitter conversation robust with wrath about whose stories and whose voices are elevated by the publishing world.

In case you haven’t heard about this book blurbed by Stephen King and compared to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath by another endorser, here’s a quick, breathless synopsis of its content, which I gleaned from reviews:

A middle class Mexican woman in Acapulco runs a bookstore whose customers include a cartel boss being investigated by the woman’s journalist husband, and in an act of murderous retribution, gunmen attack the family home during a quinceañera celebration, killing all but the woman and her nine-year-old son because, as luck would have it, while the rest of the family was outside enjoying barbecue, the boy was inside peeing and his mother was standing at the door at his request, so now with the cartel in hot pursuit of them, the mother and her son set off on a grueling journey north to the border to seek asylum, encountering on their way either first-hand or as frightened observers hunger, thirst, assault, robbery, and dangerous transport atop the migrant train La Bestia – all the perils that real migrants face in real life.

I’d seen the book on all those “most anticipated books of 2020” lists, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until early this month when I came across Chicana writer Myriam Gurba’s tweet about what happened to her review of the book. Asked by Ms. Magazine for her take on Cummins’s book, Gurba provided just that in her unrelentingly honest, full-bodied prose, describing American Dirt as a “literary licuado (smoothie) that tastes like its title,” pointing out its clichés, stereotypes, and shallow understanding of Mexican culture, and summing it up as “a perfect read for your local self-righteous gringa book club.”

Gurba does not pull punches in situations in which punches must be punched. She is unsparing in her well-founded disdain and masterful in her delivery of it. Ms. never published the review, paying Gurba a kill fee since she couldn’t write something “redeeming” about the book.

So Gurba wrote an essay with the irresistible and pointed title “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” in which she not only includes the review killed by Ms. but expands on it in language powerful with the Spanglish and curse words that are part of the poetry and soul of her writing.

I won’t quote from the essay here. Better to read for yourself Gurba’s eloquent takedown of Cummins’s “obra de caca,” on the Tropics of Meta blog.

In the meantime, flattering reviews proliferate by high-profile writers in high-profile publications. Lauren Groff’s rather waffling, both-sides review appeared in the New York Times and Pam Houston’s more emphatically favorable review ran in the Los Angeles Times. Both acknowledge Gurba’s opinion of the book, but also make sure to reference endorsements by Latinx literary icons Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez.

New York Times critic Parul Seghal, noting that American Dirt had been on the Times’s list of most anticipated 2020 books, departs from the “rapturous and demented praise” and “takes one for the team,” presumably the community of writers of color. Seghal calls out the simplistic language and predictable plot, noting that a book can’t exist on intention alone, especially when that intention is to give a face to the “faceless brown mass” at the border. In his review, Chicano writer David Bowles calls such an intention “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama.”

In an attempt to address the controversy, the Los Angeles Times published an article basically summarizing both sides of the question of who has the right to tell certain stories. The author Dorany Pineda ends the article with Colson Whitehead’s advice: “You can write about anything. Just don’t fuck it up.”

By many accounts, Cummins, a white woman with a Puerto Rican grandmother, fucked it up. And by “many accounts,” I mean many brown-faced accounts.

The publishing industry increased the fuckery by rewarding Cummins with a seven-figure contract. Seattle writer Jen Soriano justly tweeted that Cummins should donate some of that windfall to immigration rights groups.

But the most important takeaway of the Pineda article is in the middle, a quote from Gurba. “We’re perfectly competent and perfectly capable of telling stories” but “gatekeepers do not allow us inside, but they will let in somebody who wants to usurp our voice.”

Voices like Cummins’s are elevated and rewarded with fat contracts because a white publishing industry catering to white readers, anoints through its white lens a novel that is, in the publisher’s words, “IT in capital letters.” High-profile white writers are invited to review it for high-profile publications, and the (white) snowball gains momentum, while brown writers are sidelined, their words ignored.

If Gurba had written a migrant novel and it had been submitted alongside American Dirt, all things being equal (which they’re not since Gurba is the superior writer), whose manuscript likely would have been chosen for the seven-figure deal? Consider the gatekeepers, when you answer.

Cummins reads at Ravenna Third Place Books on Feb. 1. Go or don’t go. Read the book or don’t. Just be aware of the issues that the anointing of America Dirt raises by reading Gurba’s essay.

I won’t be reading Cummins’s book. But I will be reading more of Myriam Gurba’s work. She’s the author of several books, the latest of which is her memoir Mean. Jill Soloway says of Gurba, “She’s ready to wake up the world.”

Ecola State Park

(Side-scroll to see full lines)

Clumps of mosses of unexpected softness, riots of
mushrooms, fist-wide or thread-thin, whole

worlds of dripping. Curving path and then,
broken open: the sky, the sea, our brittle hearts.

Flock of sparrows lifting lightly, silk in breeze,
tiny gelatinous tendrils littering beach,

seafoam blowing: icebergs, then clouds, then
meringue. The dog skitters after sand pipers, foam,

runs circles, lopes toward a dead seal beached,
gaping, rib cage now scaffolding picked bird-clean.

High clean sky and yellow grasses, I am this seal
split open, purplish glimmering; I am this wide sky, clouds

breaking, mirrored in slick sand shimmering; I am this dog
running full out, for sheer joy of wind, for kick of sand,

for rough circles returning again and again
to sea, to foam, to bird, to us.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from January 20th - January 26th

Monday, January 20th: Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work Reading

Robert H Frank's book is about how social context is a meaningful driver of human decisions. Could we shame our neighbors into fixing climate change? It's not such a weird idea. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.

Tuesday, January 21st: Agency Reading

William Gibson's latest novel is somehow both a prequel to and a sequel of his popular novel The Peripheral. It's about an "app whisperer" who tries to figure out the problem with and appeal of a virtual assistant. There's also another narrative in the book set in an alternate universe. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, ticket with purchase of book.

Wednesday, January 22nd: Oh, La La! Reading

Ciscoe Morris is a beloved local TV news fixture who gets extraordinarily excited about Northwest plants. His enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge seems quite comprehensive. His latest book is named after his catchphrase. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, January 23rd: Fight for Our Lives

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $10 suggested donation.

Friday, January 24th: Black Imagination Reading

Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures is the latest anthology from McSweeney's. It's edited by local author and artist Natasha Marin, and it features an exploration of Black imagination written by, according to press materials, "black children, black youth, LGBTQ+ black folks, unsheltered black folks, incarcerated black folks, neurodivergent black folks, as well as differently-abled black folks." Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, January 25th: The Eidola Project

In Robert Herbold's novel, a mad drunk in the year 1885 winds up investigating the afterlife. Is it real, or is it a hoax? Can a group of explorers get to the bottom of it? Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 6 pm, free.

Sunday, January 26th: Pavel's War Reading

Peter Curtis's new novel Pavel's War" is the third book in a trilogy (The Dragontail Buttonhole and Cafe Budapest are the first and second, respectively) about World War II and the flight for safety across Europe. Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 2 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: Fight for Our Lives at Hugo House

According to press materials, Fight for Our Lives "is a performance series advocating for communities targeted by divisive politics and systemic oppression (queer, trans*, incarcerated, migrants, women, people of color)." The organization is scheduled to end on inauguration day of 2021. That means it's got less than a year left to live.

During its life, Fight for Our Lives will aspire to "connect nonprofit organizations to audiences and artists across the Puget Sound area." Thursday night's reading benefits Lambert House, an amazing nonprofit organization and space for queer and trans teens, and the Ingersoll Gender Center, which provides "peer led support groups, advocating in navigating resources, community organizing, and education" for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals.

Tonight's event is a splashy big debut for Fight for Our Lives, featuring performances from poet Naa Akua, musician and performer Adé A Cônneré, poet Amber Flame, and writers Juan Miguel Jocom, Callum Angus, Calvin Gimpelevich, and Ray Stoeve. Additionally, Seattle literary powerhouse Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore will read, lending her power and passion to the event.

The event will also feature an art sale, with proceeds benefitting Lambert House and Ingersoll. In a year when everyone's attention will be impossible to focus for any longer than a minute at a time, this event will remind you what matters.

Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $10 suggested donation.

The Sunday Post for January 19, 2020

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.

Signs you may be a female character in a work of historical fiction

The decade has gotten off to a gloomy start. Maybe it's the reminder that ten years have passed since 2010, or the hangover from gazillions of decade round-ups that try to wrangle ten years into a neat, "unbiased" list. It might be the snowstorm that overpromised and underdelivered in Seattle. (I won't mention the political cloud of worry that's always in the weather forecast.) Whatever the reason, I've been gravitating toward comic relief, like McSweeney's list of warning signs that you're actually a woman in a historical novel:

You have a propensity for turning on the radio just as some world-changing news is reported. Also, you still listen to the radio.

Your best friend is a horse.

People often tell you not to be afraid of things, including icy ponds, beauty parlors, muskets, ferrets, the dark, and hot stew. Invariably, you have to interact with this thing before too long.

Why we love untranslatable words

My first brush with linguistics in college convinced me that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or strong linguistic determinism) is full of holes because cultures without specific words still understand the ideas these words describe. I don't think the availability of a word for a concept influences our ability to think about the concept, but I, like the next person, love to learn about words or expressions that are unique to some languages but not to others. A favorite expression is the French "l'esprit de l'escalier," ("staircase wit") or thinking of the perfect comeback in an argument or conversation when you've already left and are walking down the stairs.

In this piece, David Shariatmadari dives into our obsession with forwarding lists of "untranslatable words" like hygge and kummerspeck to one another and using them to draw conclusions about their culture of origin. He argues that although a word may not have a one-to-one translation in another language, it's still explainable and can usually be captured in a few descriptive words or even an idiom. What he misses, and the part that I find untranslatable, is that words might have many meanings, of which only one can be translated at a time. They certainly have many connotations or connections in one language that are often impossible to preserve when translated, so in that sense they don’t exist in other languages.

The cult of untranslatables goes beyond orientalism. They spread, meme-like, with the same misleading explanations repeated. Often, they hew suspiciously closely to stereotypes about the culture in question. Cheerfully eccentric Nordic types, when they’re not in the sauna, like nothing better than utepils: “Norwegian for to sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer.” How quaint. And how informative about Scandinavian culture. Except, utepils isn’t a verb, it’s a compound noun, from ute meaning “outside” and pils, “beer” (after the Czech town Plzen, which produces one popular type). So it means “outside-beer”—a concept hardly foreign to British people, for example, whose pubs frequently come equipped with beer gardens.
Little Women and the Marmee problem

The Sunday Post has turned into a review of Little Women content, but I'm not sorry. (I loved Greta Gerwig's movie so much that I've already seen it twice.) Sarah Blackwood's New Yorker piece about the girls' mother, or Marmee, explores the depths of Marmee's repressed anger, which is in plain sight in the book but under wraps in the movie.

Alcott’s representation of maternal anger feels like a miracle of insight. It comes out of nowhere and seeps in everywhere. Marmee is central but unknowable, cherished yet easy to ignore. She can’t be figured out because her experience of subjectivity does not dovetail with what the social world expects or wants from her, and she knows it.

Our culture’s sentimental attachment to stories of young women about to bloom is strong. Jo’s anger—at her own powerlessness, at her culture’s obsession with marriage, at others’ assumptions about what shape her life should take—is legible; Marmee’s is not. A subtext of “Little Women” is that the explosive potential of these four girls is not, and will not be, realized; this is why Marmee belongs at the heart of the story.

Whatcha Reading, Ruth Dickey?

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.

Ruth Dickey is the Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures, an avid reader, an ardent fan of independent bookstores, the original inspiration for this column, the only person to have done this column twice, and our current Poet in Residence for January. We've published two of her poems so far this month: "San Jose, Costa Rica", and "Seattle Winter".

What are you reading now?

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties – I’m late to the party on this one but am loving these haunting stories, and can’t wait to hear her speak on 1/24.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Towhey – I’m so excited to be hosting these brilliant journalists at the end of the month.

What did you read last?

As we crossed into 2020, I read a lot of books (helped by a 5-hour delay in O’Hare on the way to NC – thank goodness for airport bookstores!). And also when it feels like the world is imploding, I found myself looking for engrossing reads, intricate plots, and insight about love:

  • In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado – structurally brilliant and I can’t stop thinking about this book.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – speaking of structurally brilliant, Rebecca Hoogs (SAL’s Associate Director) loaned me this one literally four years ago and I just read it - amazing.
  • Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson – Robin Reagler, Executive Director of WITS Houston, recommended this one and I gobbled it up after finding it at an airport bookstore (and I should note the bookseller actually asked me where I heard of it because he’d sold so many copies the day I bought mine).
  • History of Love by Nicole Krauss – having finished all the books I’d packed, I picked this up at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, NC, because several folks I admire had raved about it.

What are you reading next?

I’m always asking folks for their recommendations and adding to my ever-growing stacks of things I want to read. For some reason I’ve been craving nonfiction, and so on the top of my current pile are:

The Help Desk: Koolhaas's folly

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 know you're not a licensed architecture critic, but what do you think of the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library? I know a lot of people love it, but I guess my tastes are more traditional.

Veronica, The Mixing Chamber (whatever the hell that is)

Dear Veronica,

Even better than being a licensed architecture critic, in some underground circles I am considered a licensed architect. I received my training from Prepperdine University (shortened to Prepper U. in 2018 due to some LITIGIOUS FUCKS who shall not be named). Prepper U. is the nation's premier school for those who believe the end of the world could be as near as next Tuesday. Along with how to make a gas mask out of a bong and pair of used underwear, and how to make filling meals out of human hair, I learned how to draft spacious bunkers that could survive anything from an intimate civil war to a global nuclear attack.

While I specialized in bunkers, not "outies," as Prepper U. architects call them, I feel qualified to critique both.

The Seattle Public Library is a phenomenal work of art, with its natural light, silly winding walkways, and nooks and crannies for reading and snoozing. But as a functional building, it is more worthless than your typical outie. Like you, I suppose my tastes are more traditional. Those windows would never survive a nuclear blast and there are few secure spaces in which to imprison captives.

At best, given any sort of large-scale disaster, that building will make a beautiful dumpster fire.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Lunar new year

The Portrait Gallery: Burn it down

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.

Friday, January 17th: Burn It Down Reading

Subtitled Women Writing About Anger, Burn It Down is an anthology celebrating the history and culture and transgression of women’s anger. Contributors Dani Boss and Melissa Korbel will read tonight, along with local essayist Theo Nestor.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

The Future Alternative Past: Nature’s way of telling you

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

As I write this I’m in pain. I’m a migraineuse, a migraine sufferer, a distinction I’d been told I would lose when I hit menopause. Alas, that has proven untrue. Migraines remain one of my chronic companions, along with fibromyalgia, arthritis, bursitis, glaucoma, and, most likely, a few others conditions I’m too cowardly to have diagnosed. So I know a bit about how pain works, firsthand.

Even before all these ills beset me, pain exercised a deep fascination. I don’t identify that fascination as kink-oriented; expeditions into BDSM have left the silt of my sexuality unperturbed. It has a much tighter connection, IMO, to my stubborn willfulness. As a nine-year-old I walked barefoot down gravel driveways to train myself to be a secret agent. As a 15-year-old I pored over Amnesty International texts to study the best ways to resist torture.

SFFH deals with pain by transforming it, curing it, inflicting it, questioning it, and cutting it off. Way back in 1950, the mighty Cordwainer Smith wrote about the suicide-inducing Great Pain of Space in his retro-Hugo winner “Scanners Live in Vain.” Neurological amputation produced the zombie-like crews who could withstand the agony of interstellar flight. More recently, Kelley Eskridge’s 1995 short story “Alien Jane” depicts researchers experimenting on a woman who is immune to pain due to a genetic condition — one that’s rare but does actually occur in real life.

Then there’s the deliberate infliction of pain, which can be found in myriad SFFH works. The most disturbing example I’ve come across so far is the torture of innocent elephants in the Nick Harkaway novel Angelmaker. Infliction of pain is rife in horror, of course; pain is a big part of the subgenre’s point. From gore-dripping slashers by well-known authors like Richard Laymon, to the revulsion and body horror I serve up in “Queen of Dirt,” to the heartrending anguish inflicted on his characters in Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America,” these are not feel good stories.

Fantasy’s pain can stem from spells, as in the juju worked on Cocoa in Gloria Naylor’s novel Mama Day or the menstrual cramps a witch inflicts on the men of Ulster in the Irish epic The Tain. On the other hand it can be the goal of a magical cure, as in the pangs suffered by Michael Moorcock’s albino anti-hero Elric of Melniboné.

Pain can also be funny, as I’ve learned while figuring out ways to post about mine on social media. I make up hyperbole-laden stories about smashing giant pumpkins with my ass to account for seemingly random flare-ups, inviting readers laugh at my condition with me. But my favorite example of the humor intrinsic in pain is Terry Bisson’s wicked short story “The Old Rugged Cross,” and its understated account of the absurdities of injustice uses pretty much the opposite of this technique.

Basically, though, pain tells us what’s wrong, as Alien Jane explains to her story’s narrator. SFFH can do a lot with that formula, including making the source of pain the variable, or changing what a given pain’s message means by “wrongness” it warns us of, or exploring the way a pain gets its message across: naturally, supernaturally, artificially, or by its total absence.

Recent books recently read

“Maybe blogoirs are a thing now,” muses the author in his introduction to his new collection Peter Watts Is an Angry Sentient Tumor (Tachyon), trying to fathom how it came about. And how well it will do. Somewhat wistfully comparing his popularity with that of fellow SFist-cum-blog-post-republisher John Scalzi (“He’s so, so — cheerful. How do I compete with that?”), Watts wonders if maybe he should tone down his “fucking profanity.”

Signs point to “No.” Profanity is completely appropriate when examining the economic equations that keep cops shooting unarmed black folks. Or when acknowledging the deliberate ignorance with which religious fundamentalists respond to logical arguments against their beliefs. Or when adding up the costs of blithely ignoring the doomful extrapolations SFFH offers concerning global pandemics and climate change. Illustrations in the style of caution-sign icons, at times grim, at times hilarious, mostly both, accompany fifty essays in which Watts does all of the above and more. Like cheering on the Zika virus and experimenting with LSD. (Not at the same time.)

Peter Watts has written and published a dozen brilliant books; Riot Baby (Tor.com) is Tochi Onyebuchi’s incandescent adult debut. In his afterword he thanks award-winning author NK Jemisin for teaching him “how to write angry, the type of angry that still leaves room for love,” but Onyebuchi’s earlier short stories and young adult novels shine with this same hard-edged glory. Riot Baby follows a brother and sister from the inferno of 1992’s Rodney King-inspired insurrection to the freezer-burnt, weed-fumigated stairwells of Harlem tenements, through Rikers Island and other deliberately dehumanizing prisons, to a near-future of “Sponsored” half-way house communities and mood-regulating implants: Ella discovers as a child that she has magical mental powers which demand discipline, and when she retreats into the desert to get them under control Kev, left behind, runs afoul of White America’s “justice” system. His release on parole in 2022 dumps him into the sort of plausible nightmare we see developing around us daily. “Anger is an energy,” declared ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon, and Onyebuchi harnesses this energy to warming and clarifying effect.

Some upcoming cons

Several conventions are clustered around Valentine’s Weekend this year. Take your pick of Greater Seattle’s Foolscap, the convention that creates programming on demand; Eastern Washington’s Radcon, a nicely mixed bag of hallway parties, school visits, gaming, and panels; or my venue of choice, the under-new-management African American Multimedia Conference in Oakland, California. Rebooting a festival started over twenty-five years ago, organizer Sumiko Saulson is bringing together African-descended musicians, authors, and film artists to show rather than tell the world how fabulous we are. I’ll be making closing remarks, tryna keep up with horror queen and poet Linda Addison, who’ll set the celebration’s tone with her keynote.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Explaining the joke

Over holiday break, I finally had time to sit down with Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden's much-lauded comics theory text, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Steps. It's an oversized, fastidiously annotated exploration of all the complex mechanics that goes into making a single Nancy comic strip.

This book deserves all the accolades it's received: Newgarden and Karasik's extensive autopsy of an Ernie Bushmiller strip is so thorough that it feels at times obsessive. But that obsession is the point; I don't know if Bushmiller really possessed a comprehensive theory of architecture, for instance, but it sure is fun to at least entertain the idea that he did.

How to Read Nancy is a potent reminder that art isn't a bolt of inspiration — it's work. It's almost impossible to quantify verything that goes into a single piece of art — decades of training and practice and failure and success — to make it work.

These unconscious layers resist parsing, but Karasik and Newgarden have somehow accomplished it. THey've quantified the comedy and the artistry that goes into a single Nancy strip. They've explained the joke, and it's somehow made the joke even funnier.

If you've read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and you want to get deeper into the idea of what makes a comic tick, How to Read Nancy is the expert course that follows up on and expands on McCloud's 101-level class. It's rare that an artist receives this kind of lavish attention — this research and deep thinking and exploration. If you think that Ernie Bushmiller doesn't deserve this deep dive, Newgarden and Karasik are eager to explain why you're wrong.

Stephen King Vs. Little Women in the outrage match of the century!

Stephen King did a certified Bad Tweet™ in response to the lack of diversity among the 2020 batch of Academy Award nominees:

Stephen King is, to my mind, pretty much the dictionary definition of a Well-Meaning Old Dude. He's pretty liberal, he's outraged about current political dynamic, and he's got a strong sense of justice. He is also, in this context, making some very bad assumptions.

Awards are dumb. Awards are also completely subjective. In King's original tweet, he seems to be making the assumption that the Oscar winner for Best Picture for any year is obviously the best film released int hat year. History doesn't bear that out. Green Book is neither the best, nor the most memorable, film to be released last year. Crash has been almost entirely forgotten when compared to the legacy of Brokeback Mountain. Pulp Fiction was a much more meaningful film than Forrest Gump.

Awards are given by humans to celebrate human achievement. Humans are inherently biased, and every human has a number of blind spots. To disregard diversity within the context of awards is to argue that there is an objective truth behind awards — that one piece of art can be definitively declared better than another.

But that's simply not true. You might think Stephen King is the greatest novelist in the history of the world. I would disagree. But I can't change your opinion, nor should I want to change your opinion. It's important to remember that our own experiences often blind us to the value of art: white men are likely to appreciate art featuring white men over other types of art, and to dismiss art centering women as inferior or less valuable. That's why it's important to include a diverse voting body that can counter these kinds of inherent biases.

I will say this about the Academy Awards this year: Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Little Women is absolutely one of the best films I saw last year. It's a clever examination of the classic  — one which uses deft editing to find some deeper truths about the book and its author. It incorporates a deep feminist criticism of the book into its narrative, and it includes one of the best sequences of the process of writing I've ever seen in a film. And in conjunction with Florence Pugh's brilliant performance, Gerwig also redeems Amy, who is one of the most misunderstood characters in American literature. If that's not an achievement worthy of a directing nomination, I'm not sure what is. But Gerwig wasn't nominated for a Best Direction Oscar, and that's a shame. I'm pretty sure that a voting body that more accurately represented the male/female split of the American moviegoing public would have recognized Gerwig's work.

With all that said, I don't think King is particularly worthy of the outrage or scorn that some media outlets seem to want to see. People sometimes make grand statements that fall apart upon closer investigation, and King doesn't have a particularly problematic history. It seems to me like a plain old bad tweet, and an opportunity to kick off a civil conversation about art and the way we celebrate it.

On January 30th, a new Town Hall poetry series called Lyric World will connect the poetic and the personal

In Seattle, of course, you can always attend as many poetry readings as you could possibly want. Between open mics and book launch parties and ongoing reading series, Seattleites could spend the better part of almost any week at poetry-based events. But poet Shin Yu Pai looked at the landscape of readings and saw a kind of poetry event that simply didn't exist.

"I wanted to curate a series that could really focus on the social role of poetry rather than just having poets in to read from their most current work," she explains to me on the phone.

Pai says her new series, Lyric World, which launches on January 30th at Town Hall in conjunction with KUOW, is designed to be a bridge between poetry and everyday life. Each event will be centered around "hot topics of conversation." The poets will read work that has been specially selected to reflect the theme of the event, "and then have an onstage conversation with a peer facilitator who's read their work very carefully and deeply." The series also spotlights musicians who can reflect on these themes with performance.

The first event on January 30th spotlights mixed-race Asian-American poet Thomas Pruiksma, who Pai says "is a magician, a musician, and a poet. I asked him to talk about the role of wonder and magic in his work." Pruiksma will be joined in conversation by the poet Melanie Noel, who explores the full range of sensory experiences in her work. Pai chose Noel because "she's really looking at the ways in which the different senses are activated and how poetry can reflect that experience."

In March, Pai is pairing Seattle poet Koon Woon with Seattle poetry leader Paul Nelson in an event "focused around the idea of displacement, home, and belonging." Koon, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young boy, "lived for many decades in Chinatown/International District in various marginalized conditions. He was eventually displaced and is now living in West Seattle," Pai says. The evening will be a study of what it means to be taken from your home, through immigration or gentrification or other means, and percussionist Paul Kikuchi will share work that incorporates his "research around the Japanese American internment experience in his own work and in his own family."

Lyric World's first season will conclude in June with Prageeta Sharma, author of Grief Sequence from Wave Books, discussing "the poetry and grief or grieving" with local poet afrose fatima ahmed.

"I was looking around and feeling like there were no series that were really elevating Asian voices, and that's very important to me," Pai says. She cites Amber Flame's Black on Craft reading series and the Poetry Across the Nations reading of Native poets at the Hugo House as inspirations for Lyric World's first season.

Pai has plenty of experience putting on events that cross disciplines and investigate new paths for the arts — she's curated citywide events as Redmond's Poet Laureate, and she is the head of the Obscura Society for Atlas Obscura. Does she have any metrics for determining whether Lyric World is a success as an event?

"The quality of the question and answer or comment period can often be a provocative gauge of how engaged the audience is," she says. Pai also wants this series to deliver a cross-section of Seattle poetry audiences, from regulars at Margin Shift to Hugo House open mics to Seattle Arts and Lectures: "success to me is seeing a convergence in the audience of different poetry communities," to inspire a "cross-fertilization of ideas and aesthetics."

In the end, these conversations about place and grief and imagination are "really for people who are curious about poetry but maybe have certain perceptions of it as being difficult or inaccessible," Pai says. She's particularly eager for KUOW's audience to be exposed to the series because "we're taking poetic topics and putting them in conversation, so that we can connect that to the relevance of our lives."

King County Library System is a leader in digital downloads

This is very impressive.

Rakuten OverDrive, a digital reading platform used by the King County Library System (KCLS), has released their 2019 digital circulation statistics. KCLS patrons checked out 5,678,572 digital titles in 2019—up nearly 17% from last year, **making KCLS the No. 2 digital circulating library in the U.S. and No. 3 worldwide**.

Robert MacFarlane’s adventures in underland

Published January 14, 2020, at 12:00pm

Wendy Knepper reviews Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey .

Darker than his previous books, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland unearths tales of our vulnerable planet through explorations of underground places, and offers a moving account of the varied, conflicting emotions of our era of ecological crisis.

Read this review now

Seattle Winter

(Side-scroll to see full lines)

The sushi place near my apartment is suddenly
gone, window sign reading simply, Sorry
It’s closed, and I am somehow hollow and lost, as if
everything around me will vanish, thing by thing by thing.

The sushi place is gone, and I only ate there once or twice
though I always meant to, so it’s probably my fault, or
at least partly my fault, or really largely my fault. The bakery
is gone too, and the place with rice bowls down the block.

The bakery, the sushi place, the rice bowls, and the place
with ridiculous lamps and couches like spaceships are
gone; the tire store, the car dealers, the parking lots, Ducky’s
Used Office Supplies where I got my green chair, my favorite

dry cleaner with the woman who could fix any tear or
unraveling. My blocks are filled with so much unraveling,
light posts covered with flyers for porn and meditation;
the things I miss themselves once erased beloved things,

and the park is filled with lights and snowflakes, glow
eclipsing wrappers and needles and dog shit, and perhaps
to live in a city or to love anything is to search for glow
and watch it disappear, block by brick by grain by bulb.

The brutal truth of Salvadoran gangs

Sponsor Columbia Global Reports is here to ensure you know that William Wheeler is appearing in Seattle on January 21st, at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

Wheeler's astonishing new book State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence tells a compelling, gripping story about how corruption at the highest levels of the Salvadoran government is empowering the brutal Central American gangs.

You can read the entire introduction to the book on our sponsor's page (you won't want to miss this), as well as see what other reviewers had to say about it. More information about the reading can be found on Elliott Bay's webpage, and you can also pre-order the book from them.

Sponsors like Columbia Global Reports know that the best way to get a Seattle reading audience's attention is with our sponsorships. They're inexpensive, effective, and fund the journalism and writing we do on the site. Find more information on our sponsor page.

Seattle Public Library to allow group that traffics in anti-trans rhetoric to meet at Central Library

Last month, I let you know that the Seattle Public Library was considering its options after the Women’s Liberation Front, which non-ironically refers to itself by the acronym WoLF, rented space at the downtown library location.

Trans Seattleites and their allies have spoken out against SPL's decision to provide space for this event. WoLF is a group that frequently hosts events with anti-trans organizations, that has teamed with evangelical anti-trans groups, and has participated in what CNBC referred to as an “anti-transgender panel.” In other words, if WoLF partners with anti-trans organizations, and it talks like anti-trans organizations, it seems reasonable to treat WoLF as an anti-trans organization. The library held meetings to discuss the issue, and they said they would announce a decision in the new year.

The fact that SPL announced the decision in a Friday night news dump will probably give you an idea of their decision. Megan Burbank at the Seattle Times writes:

The Seattle Public Library board decided Friday that a February event hosted by a group that local activists say encourages discrimination against transgender people will be allowed to proceed.

SPL's Chief Librarian, Marcellus Turner, released a statement on Friday afternoon. It's full of bad reasoning and pointless equivocation. Turner notes that "WoLF’s event is not a Library-sponsored event," but he argues that "the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction" is essential to the library.

Turner argues that "The Seattle Public Library supports our transgender colleagues, families, and friends in their pursuit of personal freedoms and protections," and that SPL's decision "also does not slow the pace of, or detract from, the Library’s commitment to building an equitable and inclusive public library."

In other words, Turner's trying to have it both ways. Not even both ways, really — his arguments are all over the map. He's claiming that SPL isn't responsible for the decision to host WoLF's meeting, but he's also arguing that SPL supports the free flow of all information and perspectives, and he's also arguing that SPL supports a group that has been targeted and shamed by a group that SPL is hosting.

These are inconsistent thoughts.

Turner is ultimately relying on a ridiculously outdated idea of free speech — one promoted by libertarians and neoliberals alike. It's the idea that all ideologies should be given a platform in the so-called "free market of ideas," so that the public can make an informed decision. The idea is that the public will always choose the better, more valuable idea (like inclusiveness) and scorn the weaker, less valuable idea (in this case, anti-trans rhetoric).

Promoters of hateful concepts like Nazism and bigotry employ the good will of free speech absolutists to spread their rhetoric and activate more extremists to their cause

But the last four years have proven that just as there are no real "free markets" in economics, there is no "free market of ideas." Promoters of hateful concepts like Nazism and bigotry employ the good will of free speech absolutists to spread their rhetoric and activate more extremists to their cause. Just as hate-mongers game the algorithms on Facebook and YouTube to attract large audiences, hate groups use free speech absolutists in public institutions like colleges and libraries as useful idiots who help them capture an outsized audience. Read about Karl Popper's Paradox of Tolerance and you'll see the flaw in Turner's thinking.

The simple fact is, SPL is providing a platform to an organization that wants to make the world more unsafe and unwelcome for SPL's trans employees and volunteers and patrons. It is impossible to be impartial, here. SPL giving WoLF a platform is an endorsement. This platform will give WoLF tens of thousands of dollars in free media attention, and it will win the organization more followers. By choosing to allow WoLF to speak at SPL, Turner has made his choice. It's a bad one. History won't be kind to him.

So now, because Turner made his bad choice, we all have to make our own choice to stand against WoLF — and more importantly, to stand with our trans neighbors and friends and family. We have to let them know that though the institution of SPL has utterly failed them, the people of Seattle are there for them. We'll let you know when and where the protests are happening, and we hope you'll join us as we stand for inclusiveness and against hate.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from January 13th - January 19th

Monday, January 13th: How to Raise a Reader Reading

Pamela Paul and Maria Russo present their new book about how to indoctrinate children into the only good cult — reading! They will be joined by Seattle author Maria Semple. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.

Tuesday, January 14th: How Quickly She Disappears Reading

Raymond Fleischmann's debut novel, How Quickly She Disappears, is a thriller set in 1940s Alaska about a woman who is drawn into a murderer's web. Seattle mystery author Urban Waite joins the author for an onstage interview. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, January 15th: Writers in the Secret Garden Reading

Writers in the Secret Garden has the fascinating subtitle of Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring. Authors Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis investigate the world of online fan-fiction with a serious eye. These are legitimate writers doing real work, and it's about time that people take them seriously. Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave NE, 525-2347 http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, January 16th: Epic Reads

See our Event of the Week column for more details. University Book Store,  4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 6 pm.

Friday, January 17th: Burn It Down Reading

Subtitled Women Writing About Anger, "Burn It Down is an anthology celebrating the history and culture and transgression of women's anger. Contributors Dani Boss and Melissa Korbel will read tonight, along with local essayist Theo Nestor.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free. *

Saturday, January 18th: Sleeper Cell Reading

According to press materials, "A Scribe Called Quess? is a poet, educator, actor, playwright and activist, in that order." He's a slam poet who has won a ton of awards, and he also speaks out on the topic of education reform. He's here to celebrate his latest poetry collection. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Sunday, January 19th: Cracking the Young Adult Book Market

The Author's Guild hosts a meeting and a presentation for young adult writers titled "Cracking the Young Adult Book Market." The person giving the presentation is a literary agent named Kathleen Ortiz. All are welcome to come and learn about the business of writing and what the Author's Guild can do for you. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 3 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: Epic Reads at University Book Store

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the overused word "epic," but everything else about this event sounds great. "Epic Reads" breaks the audience up into small groups who then participate in a round-robin session of intimate readings and conversations with a collection of touring young adult writers. The cost of entry is the purchase of any one novel by the participating authors.

If you've ever wanted an up close and personal conversation with a writer, this is a pretty great gimmick for a reading. It's especially interesting for young readers who are interested in the writer's life but are maybe too shy to speak up and ask questions at a huge reading.

The epic authors in question are:

  • Adam Silvera, the bestselling author of Infinity Son, a fantasy novel about two brothers who live in a world of magicians at war.
  • Abigail Hing Wen, who wrote Loveboat, Taipei, a romantic novel about a young woman who takes part in an educational program that brings her to a new part of the world with a whole classroom of world-traveling, romance-minded teens.
  • I Hope You Get This Message is Farah Naz Rishi's book about what three teenagers do when they believe the world is about to end in a week.

So that's apocalyptic humor, a romantic travel adventure comedy, and a high fantasy novel about destiny, legacy, and war. Best of all, you don't have to choose between the events — you'll get an opportunity to talk with every single one of the authors. Think of it as a Whitman's Chocolate sampler of a reading and you've got it all figured out. Sounds pretty...well, you know. University Book Store,  4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 6 pm.

The Sunday Post for January 12, 2020

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.

The beginning of the year is always bittersweet for me. Each year seems to pass with increasing swiftness, and this time, I found myself at the top of a new decade, bewildered yet again. So in the spirit of this time of year - a couple Sunday reads about time, and why we feel its passing so keenly, how we grapple with its sensation of loss, and why humans, fastened to our perception of time, experience our lives.

How Long is Right Now?

Not surprisingly, as soon as the new year began, there was a online debate as to when the new decade really began : this year or next? This Vice article goes deeper, tracing “right now” and philosophies, psychologies, and physics of time from St. Augustine to modern day neuroscientists.

Right now is definitely not a whole year, it's not a day, and not an hour—these timescales are too long. Even one minute, if you really think about it, is too much. “We come closer and closer, and we end up in the few-seconds range,” he said. “Close to how long it would take if I say, ‘Now.’”

And he's right: According to a wide variety of studies, right now only lasts a few seconds or less. More intriguingly, it might not be right now at all, but right a-few-seconds-ago.

The best analysis of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

On the first day of this new year, Mariya and I went to see Little Women, the new Greta Gerwig film. It is luminous; I felt I was seeing something entirely new. In Gerwig’s hands, the story is sliced and diced so that childhood and young adulthood snapshot to and from each other as we watch each of the March sisters grow into the lives they ended up living. Like psychologists in the last article explained, we always live slightly in the past.

The effect is a moving portrait of the absolute, lambent promise of adolescence, and the crushing and conflicting uncertainty and finality of adulthood. During this past decade, I too made this transition. I was just 16 in the beginning of 2010; by the end of this year, I will officially be in the “nearly thirty” camp. These last ten years have made for an unfairly long decade. This Twitter thread by Frankie Thomas is the first “review” that I felt really explained why this Gerwig’s interpretation is so astonishing and poignant.

A Conversation with Carlo Rovelli

At the end of last year, I read Carlo Rovelli’s slim volume, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. In its final chapter, after having my brain twisted into thirty knots already, the theoretical physicist taught me that time, as we perceive it, is not real. As each year disappears into the next, Rovelli tells us that the “universal ‘flow’ of time doesn’t exist,” that sequential time is merely an illusion. The future is not less real because it is not “now,” and more than “there” is less real than “here.” I won’t get into all of it (because I barely understand it), but I recommend you read the book, and this interview as Rovelli eloquently describes how humans, more than any other animal, are “time machines,” constantly commemorating the past and imagining the future. And maybe you’ll feel calmer about the new year too.

We live a little bit in the past, in the future, in the present, and in the future at the same time together. We definitely do that. But then we narrate ourselves always in the present. We think about ourselves in the present. And the source of our confusion about time, and all this discussion about time, comes from that. When we hear music, we hear a musical phrase, and so we appreciate music because it’s a certain sequence. But in every single moment, we’re just listening to only a single note or a single chord. So how can we appreciate the narrative if we hear just one note at a time? And that’s it, precisely because we don’t live in the present. We strongly immerse in the memory of the previous chord, of the musical phrase, and you anticipate how it will continue.

Whatcha Reading: Looking back at 2019

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.

One of the great joys of running Whatcha Reading is seeing all the books people are reading. In 2019, people in the column talked about 258 books. There’s a big table below listing all of them, sorted by title, alphabetically.

Of those, only eleven books were mentioned twice (no books made three mentions this year), so deserve an extra callout.

  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit
  • Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson
  • Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky
  • Dreyer's English, by Benjamin Dreyer
  • How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell
  • Is, Is Not, Tess Gallagher
  • Less, Andrew Sean Greer
  • Milkman, Anna Burns
  • On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
  • The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
  • The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St Clair

Personally, I read Less, The Secret Lives of Color, and I saw Jenny Odell talk at the XOXO Festival, her lovely book is still sitting on my to-read pile.

You’ll see each of them listed twice below, because I’ve also linked them to the original column they appeared in, so you could find the source, if you want to be the kind of nerd who looks over huge lists of books and finds where they were mentioned on the site (and, to be clear, I am the kind of nerd who creates huge lists of books).

I wish I could tell you what the trend was this year, but waving a hand over this list revealed nothing to specific to me. I'd be curious if you have insight into that. What I can say, pretty definitively, is that Seattle is full of (and visited by, since many of these were touring writers) people who read incredibly widely. Kind of gives you hope about the world, doens't it?

Here's the full list. We'll be back next week with our normal Whatcha Reading, but isn't it fun to take a step back and gander at just how many books have been recommended on the site by guests? I'm absolutely thrilled about it.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, by Grace LinOriginal post
A Chorus of Stones, by Susan GriffinOriginal post
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca SolnitOriginal post
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca SolnitOriginal post
Jump to full list to see all 258 books mentioned this year

The Help Desk: A life of (true) crime

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,

My wife is a true crime junkie. She started with Ann Rule when she was a teenager and now she'll read anything about a serial killer that she can get her hands on. Like, the more deranged and gross the crimes, the more into it she is.

She's super-sweet. She had your stereotypical suburban Redmond childhood. The closest she's ever been to a crime is that time the wind pulled a popsicle wrapper out of my hand and out the car window on the highway, making her an accessory to littering.

I'm starting to wonder if this true crime obsession is healthy. Sometimes she has nightmares, and sometimes she gets herself worked up over sounds in the night. It's not out of hand, but I worry all this murder and mayhem is having a cumulative effect on her psyche.

When I bring it up, she says I'm worrying about nothing, and that true crime is her release valve — how she blows off steam. What do you think about true crime?

Erik, Admiral

Dear Erik,

Although I live in a state where child marriage is still legal and flourishing, I assume you're married to an adult woman? If that's the case – if she's your partner and not a sex-obliged ward you bought at a middle school auction – then your role is to rub her back and mind your business, not police her entertainment. It could be that reading the regular ol' news about the koala-burning, hate-criming shitbasket of a world we live in is giving her nightmares. It could be that reading true crime is her coping mechanism.

I do like the genre. Studies show women especially respond it, perhaps to puzzle of how each crime is executed and criminal caught, or perhaps as an ancient survival mechanism to avoid becoming the next victim. All I know for certain is that I find it to be grotesquely empowering, like receiving a dose of bloodthirst on loan. When I look at a man afterward, I think: "I hope you don't make me make hamburger out of your man parts," because like most of modern civil society, I am eager to blame the victim.

Then I think: "But if you do, what condiments should I use?"

If you want to make your wife happy, introduce her to Snapped. Sadly, it is not a book series, but it is a true crime experience produced for the modern day woman.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Tampered with

Portrait Gallery: EJ Koh

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.

Congratulations to Seattle's own EJ Koh on the release of her new memoir, The Magical Language of Others!

Social media addicts anonymous

It's true that Jaron Lanier comes across as abrasive to many readers. He's been immersed in the tech industry for decades, and so his writing and speaking style have a kind of Silicon Valley style to them: he speaks in broad generalizations, and he's got a holier-than-thou libertarian vibe when he writes grandly about society.

But it's precisely because Lanier is a creature of the Silicon Valley that his thoughts on technology are so important. Read any of his books — I started with You Are Not a Gadget — and you'll see that he's a very different kind of tech evangelist: he's an advocate for consumer privacy and transparency between users and services. He's a traitor to his own people, and that makes him a compelling narrator.

Last night's Reading Through It Book Club discussed Lanier's most recent book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It was just the right time to discuss the book — most of us had taken a break from social media over the holiday vacation break, and we were suitably wary of re-engaging with our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts after reading the book.

You've likely heard many of the arguments against social media, and you likely still use social media. Maybe you feel guilty about it. Perhaps you recall a time when you were off social media and you felt more relaxed and engaged and generally happier, but you still find yourself numbly refreshing your feeds, desperately looking for something new. The mechanics of this are simple meat and chemistry: the dopamine hits, the fear of missing out, the boredom of waiting in line at the grocery store.

In "Deleting", Lanier makes ten arguments against the shiny allure of social media. Some of the arguments overlap — "Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy" and "Social media is making you into an asshole" sound pretty similar, for instance — but they all boil down to one tortured acronym. Lanier identifies the one problem of social media as "Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent," or BUMMER. He argues that "BUMMER will lead us into hell if we don't self-correct."

The tone of last night's book club felt a little bit like a 12-step group for addicts: A spirit of resignation, the glimmer of recognition when someone describes negative behaviors, the promise of a better way around the corner. I would argue that we are all much more savvy about the perils of social media now than we were a decade ago, though, and agitators like Lanier are helping us realize how much our perceptions are being forcefully changed by the algorithms.

And though we have all gone crawling back to the never-ending feed in the past, that's not proof that we will always fail in our pursuit to free ourselves from the bad actors who are selling us a funhouse mirror of ourselves. We can get through this the way anyone in recovery does: one day at a time, focused on incremental improvements, and with the serenity to accept that not every step will be in a forward direction.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Two Portland comics greats at the Beacon, for one night only

In south Seattle, in a tiny storefront on Rainier, there's a new independent movie theater called The Beacon. I highly recommend the Beacon for any Seattle-area cinephiles: they show cleverly curated series of repertory films from across time and space: one series focused on the alienation of the suburbs, while another looks at heist films from a lens of class struggle. It's a small and well-appointed space to show up and fall in love with films.

Why am I mentioning the Beacon in a column about comic books? Because you comics nerds need to know about an event they're putting on next Saturday, the 18th of January. Outstanding Portland comics writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction will be coming to town for one night only to host a screening of Death Race 2000. (Not the remake with Jason Statham; the 1975 original with David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone.)

DeConnick and Fraction are the perfect pair to present this film. DeConnick is the author of Bitch Planet, a feminist sci-fi comic about women in a space prison that, like Death Race, cleverly employs trashy genre tropes to make a larger point about society. And Fraction's current creator-owned series, a crime comic stylishly illustrated by Elsa Charretier titled November, similarly features a meditation on violence in fiction and how it impacts the lives of victims and bystanders and perpetrators alike.

Fraction and DeConnick are comic book writers who bring a rock-star energy to their work and presentation. I expect their presentation of this film to be funny, surprising, and insightful — just like their work. Get tickets now, before they sell out.

Book News Roundup: Bookstore Link debuts, King County Library System wins two awards for excellence

  • This morning, the folks behind Seattle-based independent audiobook seller Libro.fm revealed their big new idea: a website called Bookstore Link. It's a super-simple way to share links for people to easily buy specific titles from their local independent bookstores. First you enter the title you'd like to share, and then, if you'd like, you can choose the independent bookstore you'd like to link to. The site then creates an easy link to share on social media that makes it easy for folks to buy from an independent bookstore. Libro.fm doesn't take a cut of any of this transaction — the bookstore makes 100 percent of the sale. It's a simple way to promote your favorite indie bookseller online, and to drive readers away from a certain large online retailer that's currently swallowing the entire world. Here's a (very self-serving) example of what it looks like to link to a particular bookstore, and here's what it looks like when you send people to find an indie bookstore near them. I'll be talking with the creators of Bookstore Link about the making of this service soon; stay tuned for that interview.

  • Congratulations to the King County Library System, which was just recognized with two Library Journal awards. KCLS was honored as a five-star library system, meaning it excels in six categories ranging from the quality of its collections to the strength of its wifi, and the Tukwila branch of KCLS was honored as a Landmark Library designed to “meet today’s challenges and create tomorrow’s opportunities.”

  • Zora, a blog celebrating women writers of color, just released "The Zora Canon," which they describe as "our list of the 100 greatest books ever written by African American women." Yes, the books you're thinking of are on this list, but I guarantee you haven't heard of all of them. Check it out.

  • Here's a very good cartoon about JK Rowling officially becoming a Problematic Author.

  • And speaking of Problematic Authors, I was horrified to learn that Isaac Asimov was a very public — proud, even — serial groper of women:

    Asimov was open about his practices: “I kiss each young woman who wants an autograph and have found, to my delight, that they tend to cooperate enthusiastically in that particular activity.” He defended himself by saying that he was universally seen as “harmless,” and the implication that it was all just an act culminated in his satirical book The Sensuous Dirty Old Man (1971), in which he wrote, “The question then is not whether or not a girl should be touched. The question is merely where, when, and how she should be touched.”

Foxes and wormholes and Dead Astronauts: Talking with Jeff VanderMeer about how he writes his audaciously weird novels

Back in December, I interviewed sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer onstage at Elliott Bay Book Company to celebrate the release of his new novel, Dead Astronauts. VanderMeer is perhaps best known as the author of the Southern Reach Trilogy, the first book of which was adapted into the film Annihilation, and he's at the forefront of science fiction right now. He writes books that are environmentally minded and weird and resistant to straightforward narrative — Dead Astronauts, for instance, is a story that involves time travel and weird interdimensional foxes and parallel universes and a giant corporation that's eating everything. VanderMeer's writing voice is so sharp and unafraid and prickly that you might wonder if he would be chilly or impersonal. In person, though, he's a delightful, forthcoming man who isn't afraid to speak his opinions but is endlessly generous with his fans. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation.

I was blown away by Dead Astronauts, and I love that you seem to break every single rule in every single how-to-write guide. First, I want to talk to you about the way that you introduced the characters in this book. I know there's nothing an author enjoys more than hearing someone else read their words aloud, so here you go:

...a tall black woman of indeterminate age named Grayson. She had no hair on her head because she liked velocity...Chen was a heavyset man, from a country that was just a word now, with as much meaning as a soundless scream, or the place Grayson came from, which didn't exist anymore either. Moss remained stubbornly uncommitted — to origin, to gender, to genes, went by "she" this time but not others.

You introduced each of these characters by describing what they don't have, so they each come out of negative space. We only learn what they're not. I kept reading the passage over and over again because I haven't seen anything quite like that. I love the way you did it, but I'm still not even sure if it's technically possible to introduce characters in that way in a book.

Well, I hope it is.

I think that it speaks to the fact that they literally have nothing. They have nothing but their mission at this point. They've become the mission, and so you can only describe them by, in a sense, what they were before but are not anymore, or where they came from — places that don't exist anymore. And so they're both completely cut off and yet completely unified, and who they are is in a way each other.

There is more description, later, of them. But it's true that I like to discover characters over time. I don't like to frontload a lot of information. I want to just give you enough to rope you in. I also think about what the characters themselves, if they were speaking to you, would divulge and not divulge, and I try to be truthful to that.

A lot of this book comes from a nonhuman perspective. And I've seen in interviews that you've admitted that writing from the perspective of an animal is not really possible because you have a human brain. If you're setting out to do something that you know is not possible, does it feel like failing every time? Are you comfortable with the way that it turned out in the book?

Early on, I found Angela Carter and just fell in love with all of her work. And I remember something she said, which was just simply that she always wanted her reach to exceed her grasp, and she didn't care if she fell on her face. That's something I think about every time I write, and it applies specifically to non-human perspectives.

And there's so much that's harmful about stereotypes of animals in pop culture and elsewhere, so I long ago lost the fear of doing more harm, because there's so much harm that's being done already.

But also, usually there's some human interference in the animals whose minds I'm inhabiting. So it's mostly, like, biotech; even the fox had been altered by humans. I feel like that gives me the permission to enter into that mind, and then I just have to find the thing that's personal to me.

So, for example, the fox expresses a lot of views I don't believe in because I'm not a fox. But the anger that the fox feels is something that I feel very purely, and so that allows me the entry point that's human — but then also something that's not human.

If I were to just do a fox's story from its own point of view it would be a 5000-page novel of smells, because that's what foxes rely on. Then you would have to interpret what was going on in the novel just based on the smells that were in the book.

[Someone in the audience shouts "DO IT," and the room breaks out in laughter.]

That's why there are different forms in this book — I started out as a poet and I returned to that a little bit with some of the prose poetry and some of the lyricism. The other thing is that I wanted to be more didactic in certain sections, and the only way to do that was to also be more lyrical at the same time to overcoat it, so it wasn't just writing an essay. I didn't want to just convey information. Information is not a novel.

That's why there's so many different forms in there, is the attempt to do this thing that's impossible, but do some facsimile of it in a way that's honest.

There's a lot of play in the book. It didn't feel showy to me, like some authors who I will not name onstage but will happily name after the reading if you want. Did you feel as though it was breaking the form of a novel at any point? Did you ever have to pull yourself back?

That's a really good question. I was very formally experimental in my early work and I think it served a purpose there, because I was really writing about history. And so the fact that it was formal and not always tied to the emotional lives of the characters made sense.

But ever since, I've tried to make the experiments more and more invisible. So the Southern Reach Trilogy has a lot of experiments that are invisible — for example, a lot of dialogue from Annihilation is repurposed in the scenes that are in the corridors of the Southern Reach — incidental conversation, things like that. There's ways I'm literally trying to use mesmerist tricks in Authority, for example, to hold a reader in a place so they feel uncomfortable but they don't know why.

There was a version of [Dead Astronauts] that was much more experimental. The fish point of view swam underneath two of the other sections, but there was no way to format it where it just didn't feel like a footnote. I did not want that thing where you're going back and forth on the page; I felt like that would be death in a novel where it's already fairly strange and breaking some convention. So FSG [Dead Astronauts publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux] had to retype the entire novel because they had already done it that way, and I would just like to thank FSG for doing that. It was excruciating for them, and I will forever feel guilty. I was trying very hard to make the flow of it and the sequencing of it such that it felt less experimental than it was so that the reader could get into it. Because I really want the reader to be immersed in it, not to be noticing what the experiments are.

In an interview with the Paris Review, you said, and I quote, "I always go back to structure. I think more and more of structure as the scaffolding a writer needs in their mind to write a story or novel." Your writing feels very intentional, but it doesn't feel to me like you're starting out with a structure every time. In Dead Astronauts, for instance, it doesn't feel like you started out with a strict plan. I was wondering if you could just talk about whether you keep to the structure in your head or if it evolves, because you seem like a very organic writer to me.

Well, that's why I call it scaffolding. I start out writing a story or a novel because I have this intense image in my head that has some resonance. It's not symbolic in a Freudian way — I think that's a dead end because it means only one thing — but it's something that resonates and is connected to a character.

And then I have some sense of an ending, and then some scaffolding of structure comes around it, and it may not even be the structure that's actually, finally, the novel. Like for Acceptance, I imagined the structure as as a five-pointed star. In the middle of the star is the biologist's point of view and everything spokes off from that, but if you diagrammed the novel, the actual structure is not that. That is just simply a structure in my head that allowed me to write the novel.

[With Dead Astronauts,] it was a little looser because I felt that there's a remix version of this where you literally just change the order and you have a very different novel, depending on what you encounter first. That liberated me quite substantially in worrying about sequencing. All I had to do was make sure that the structure of each section was correct and then make sure that the order made sense for the effect I wanted to make, while realizing there were all these other wormholes that you could take to read it and have a totally different effect.

Another year, another journalism outlet that needs your help

You may have missed this over the holiday break, but the Seattle Globalist, a publication devoted to contextualizing Seattle in the larger international community, announced that it had run out of money.

At Crosscut, Marcus Harrison Green writes about what this means for the city's media landscape:

At a time when most newsrooms give lip service to racial diversity while being whiter than a Friends Trivia Night on Vashon Island, writers for the Globalist are 67% people of color and 45% immigrant or first generation American.

There’s no newsroom in the city that comes within Jupiter’s diameter of those numbers.

Most importantly, the Globalist acted as a fertile training ground for emergent journalists of color. Many of those journalists, with only the means provided by a working-class income, found traditional tracks such as journalism school cost-prohibitive. Amassing tens of thousands of dollars of debt for the tenuous prospects of finding a well-paying media gig after graduation didn’t quite pencil out.

If you care about diversity in Seattle journalism, this Friday brings a unique opportunity to support two organizations at once. The newly revived Seattle Association of Black Journalists is hosting an all-ages holiday party at the Redwing Cafe starting at 6 pm, and they're splitting the proceeds with the Globalist. DJ Custom Cutz will be playing all evening, and plant-based light appetizers will be available, along with beer and wine for sale.

Believe me, I'm as frustrated as you are that worthy media outlets have to rely on guilt and shaming to keep the lights on. And I want to be clear: This isn't your fault. Huge economic forces currently beyond our control are making it very hard for media outlets to stay in business. And we will work to do something about that, by and by.

But goddamnit, if you can give anything to help make Seattle's media younger, less white, and more gender-diverse, I hope you'll consider supporting these fine organizations.

The pleasure of addressing

Published January 7, 2020, at 12:00pm

Dawn McCarra Bass reviews André Kertész's On Reading , and Sophie Calle's The Address Book.

Unpublished until after its subject's death, Sophie Calle's Address Book says something about privacy in an era determined to end it.

Read this review now

San Jose, Costa Rica

(Side-scroll to see full lines)

   

Doña Mary said, Come. Not Here, help me or even Lo siento,
just Come, and led me to her china cabinet. Turned the key,

as I moped like congealed spaghetti on the couch
inconsolable over my wallet, stolen on a crowded bus,

began extracting each glass, each dish, each vase,
handed me, one by one, the fragile objects. We washed

and dried, assembling them like looted treasure, polished
each shelf with graying rags. She lifted a vase, tall and thin

as a prepubescent girl, and told the story of her husband’s death
ten years earlier. Abel. Her espadrilles shushed across the floor

from sink to cabinet; water sparkled the wedding ring
she still wore. It was long past 2:00 a.m.

when plates were re-stacked, glasses carefully lined,
tiny bells sparkling even the dull overhead light.

Now, I understand this is the purest form of comfort:
not to say I’m sorry or Que lástima, but to take hands, share tasks,

stand beside, be six-year-olds comparing scabs, lost
in color and texture, hands busy in pressing, picking, telling.

Two January sponsorships left!

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Since you're reading this, imagine all the others that were curious too — that's because sponsorships on the Seattle Review of Books work. They are focused, targeted, in that our entire readership is self-selecting, and inexpensive.

Winter and Sprint openings will be launching soon, and we want to make sure we're ready by clearing the deck — so get the last two sponsorships of January at a great price before we launch the next group. Find out how effective the sponsorship is, and why our sponsors come back again and again, whenever they need to reach Seattle's most literate and best-engaged audience.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from January 6th - January 12th

Monday, January 6th: Spirited Stone: Lessons from Kubota's Garden Reading

This is a reading celebrating a new collection of "short stories, poems, essays, and photographs" which pay homage to south Seattle's most beautiful park, Kubota Garden. (It's also Seattle's most underrated park, by the way.) Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, January 7th: The Magical Language of Others Reading

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, January 8th: Reading Through It Book Club

The Seattle Review of Books presents a discussion of a book that just might save your life in the hellscape that will be the year 2020: Jaron Lanier's thin manifesto Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Do you really need Facebook? I mean, really need it? Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, January 9th: Scavenge the Stars Reading

Tara Sim's gender-swapped riff on The Count of Monte Cristo is an adventurous fantasy for young readers. Tonight, she'll be in conversation with fellow YA author Margaret Owen. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Friday, January 10th: Gazing at the Distant Lights Reading

In 1964, a young man finds himself "alone and alienated in a conservative evangelical culture he finds bizarre and repressive." Gazing at the Distant Lights asks two questions: Can he find something better? Can he find love? Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, January 11th: Task Force Baum Reading

James D. Shipman's novel is a thriller that is "based on the true story of General Patton's clandestine unauthorized raid on a World War II POW camp." That Patton! Always getting into hijinx. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 6 pm, free.

Sunday, January 12th: Writers Read

Columbia City's library hosts its regular open mic night, which isn't at night at all but rather which happens in the afternoon. Seattle Public Library, Columbia City Branch, 4721 Rainier Ave S, 386-1908, http://spl.org, 2 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: The Magical Language of Others debut party at Elliott Bay Book Company

We at the Seattle Review of Books are huge fans of Seattle poet EJ Koh.

In my review of her debut poetry collection, A Lesser Love, I wrote that her poetry is...

...intensely interested in exploring the complexities of those human interactions: father to daughter, daughter to mother, lover to lover, occupier to occupied and back again. History is a theme in her work. She is interested in the history of nations battling nations (one of her best poems is titled “Korean War,” and it is an attempt to capture all the complexities of a geopolitical conflict onto a single sheet of paper) and in the history shared between people.

Tomorrow night, Koh presents her first memoir in a big party at Elliott Bay Book Company. The Magical Language of Others is a memoir that's informed by letters Koh received from her mother during a time when she was separated from her parents in her teens. At the time, Koh read the letters and didn't think much of them. But as an adult, she was struck by what her mother gave up to keep her in America, to build her a better life. Those letters figure heavily into the memoir, as well as what translation has meant to her.

Koh told me a couple years ago that she's "not super, super fluent in Korean — I can do karaoke, but I’m not super fluent." But she was already talking about language as a way to stay in contact with her parents.

I do translate Korean poetry, and I use the help of my father, who’s been great. My dad gets the literal translation for me. I get to sit next to him and ask him the context because the literal is not enough. I also want to know for him being born at that time — let’s say post-occupation or so — and so during the war, what was going on? What was the pop culture? What did that word mean then, not what does it mean now? So that’s been really great.

This is what it looks like when a literary year kicks off with a bang: Koh's memoir, about the gap between parents and their children, looks to be one of the most promising books of 2020. Can Koh bridge that gap between herself and her parents? Can she find a familiar connection through translation? Really, when you get down to it, can anyone actually forge a true understanding between generations?

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for January 5, 2020

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](mailto:submissions@seattlereviewofbooks.com). Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

The strangeness of grief

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a friend who grew up in rural California, who did not grow up with books, and who had just started reading Of Mice and Men. It was exactly his kind of story, he said, an adventure story about two men, farming, other familiar things.

When we met again he reported on his experience of the ending of the book. I tried to remember the age at which a teacher put Steinbeck in my hands, and how that reading felt. What would it be like to read about George and Lenny for the first time at 50, after a lifetime of work and love and grief?

Talking about sadness and stories and school reminded my friend of a classroom screening of Old Yeller (again, he did not grow up with books), and how he turned around at the critical moment to find the boy behind him crying openly, red-faced, unashamed. How he turned back around quickly, glad his sadness was better hidden.

My friend and I have a common language of sad childhood stories, mostly on the screen on his end, mostly on the page on mine — Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web. Animals in danger and often dying populate the world of children’s stories, as if to train us for what’s to come.

Grief remains strange, though — untrainable. As V. S. Naipaul puts it:

We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable.

Stories make us love, and so we grieve for loss in stories. It’s part of the fabric of reading. It is inescapable.

Best books of 2019

But it’s not! Anne Trubek’s weekly(ish) newsletter is not at all about the best books of 2019, thank goodness, because everything else is — the best of 2019, the best of the decade, or how in the last decade social media ate us alive and left the carrion remains for Donald Trump to pick over.

Instead, Trubek reflects on what it takes for a small publisher to win at the publishing game, which is, in very brief, doubling down on respect for readers and refusing the lure of Big Publishing tactics.

I have to keep Belt Publishing from falling into becoming ‘like any other publisher’ — which will definitely happen unless we constantly fight against the momentum to do so — so many forces pressure us into making decisions we are only subconsciously aware of, daily, that will render us ‘just like the others’ otherwise. We will fail if we make such decisions, because of the conglomeration of publishing. We will lose if we try to play the same game as the big fish.
The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism

Some interesting reflections here on how minimalism became a hipster brand — a longing for simpler times, a desire for control in a world of overwhelm. Doesn’t all ring true; there’s a difference between minimalism the brand and simple thoughtfulness about what and how much you own. But I’m on board with anything that helps deflate the trend of hipster trends.

On one hand there was the facade of minimalism: its brand and visual appearance. On the other was the unhappiness at the root of it all, caused by a society that tells you more is always better. Every advertisement for a new thing implied that you should dislike what you already had. It took Andersen a long time to understand the lesson: “There was really nothing wrong with our lives at all.”

Whatcha Reading, Kieran Snyder?

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.

Kieran Snyder is the CEO and co-founder of of the Seattle-based award-winning augmented writing company Textio (which, full disclosure, makes her my boss). She has a PhD in linguistics from University of Pennsylvania, and has written about language and culture in Fortune, Re/code, Slate, the Washington Post, and, of course, on the Textio blog. Do not challenge her to Boggle or Scrabble, if you are competitive and not preternaturally skilled at those types of word games (it's nearly a lock she'll sweep the board). She always has such great book recommendations on our company's Slack, that I thought hearing what she's been reading would be a great way to welcome in 2020.

I'd be remiss if I didn't note that Textio is a very unique home for word nerds who want to work on amazing language challenges, at the #1 best place to work in Washington State, according to Seattle Business in 2018. We're hiring, if that sounds intriguing to you.

What are you reading now?

Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms, by John Hodgman.

I actually just finished it a couple of hours ago. John Hodgman writes about being a minor celebrity who didn't recognize that his moment of TV stardom was passing until it was done. Funny, compassionate, smart. A good way to start the new year.

What did you read last?

Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney.

I read her second book in 2019 (Normal People) and was excited to go back and check out her debut. Coming of age story in contemporary Ireland. This knocked the wind out of me before I even knew I was hit. It is a gentle punch.

What are you reading next?

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo.

My brief look makes it feel like a hybrid between a novel and a poem. Women's stories, and especially women of color's stories, in modern London. Jensen [Harris, Textio's co-founder, and Mr. Kieran Snyder] told me I would like it because it was British and looked like it had a lot of adjectives in it. I read a bunch of reviews and can't wait to get started.

December 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 December's posts.

December's Theme: Close Seconds

At the close of a year publishing post-its chosen by family and friends, I wanted to revisit a few that came close but ended up unseen second choices. There were more, I’ve forgotten so many, I’m remembering one right now I’d have liked to feature but it’s too late, there’s never room for all the moments together. Last January my middle sister left behind a plucky group of also-rans sharing things I love about Seattle — or loved, there’s an ominous past tense hanging around us here — neighborhood stuff, people you run into on lucky days. Tanya at Chu Minh Tofu is unfailingly kind, before I lost my old studio this fall I could go there almost every week, years of kind lunches, the rare kind of place I can sometimes afford to take myself out. She survived cancer the same time as my mom, still asks after her, makes her spontaneous soup gifts. I walk into hugs that make me feel like a sweet-hearted giant, she slips me extra egg rolls and feeds me fake meat and kindness on top of improbable kindness. Looking at the date, I guess I drew this before any of that happened, she’s just that lovely, you can’t help but notice even when your mom isn’t ill. The second post-it is the late-night afterthought conclusion to a conversation with my poet friend Laura, unwinding over pho after our respective Lit Crawl readings that night. She told me a story — this story, I can’t, it’s terrible and wonderful, we laughed and laughed and it’s terrible — about men at night in my neighborhood. I’m wary of drunk straight guys for my own reasons, skirting the bars on walks home, safer on the side streets, trying not to wander my body into someone else’s leaking homophobia. But the THINGS these guys have said to Laura. Things I remember from younger life, things I’m maybe immune from receiving in my shaven-head adulthood, tucked into hoodies and barreling home long-legged, shaking my genders off as I go, so much gender left behind. I forgot we don’t all grow out of being hit on by men, these straight sexual aggressions still advancing everywhere, so casual, nothing reportable. Our nighttime neighborhood worries were each so complete, so overlapping yet distant, mystifyingly targeted to our separate identities as straight and gay, identities these falling down drunk guys shouldn’t even be able to sense. How are they so precise. Walking home after on the quieter main street, bars and bustle in the past, here he was just a few feet to my left, his drastically bare butt the perfect punchline. Glanced over as I passed to see this white guy in a nice button-up and clean khakis, professional-looking... in a quite striking stance. His pants-down disembodied naked bottom perfectly framed, dramatically spotlit by the entrance to a fancy apartment building. The others are close seconds from my Idaho August, things my cousin considered but didn’t go for in the end. I feel my hide-and-seek prowess speaks for itself. I have a real way with this kid, his kid and by that I mean a way which I’ll admit is not totally helpful for her parents at bedtime. My cousin really lingered over the shooting stars, mostly, he said, because of how ridiculous my sister was being that night. I love it for a fleeting closeness. Family time at my grandparents’ old house up by the lake, the three of us after dark my last night of vacation. My sister wanted to watch the meteor showers, I wanted to stay up late talking to my cousin in that spontaneous way that is ruined if you ever actually say you want to talk, it just has to work out. We dragged chairs out to the edge of the yard where it drops off in darkness down to the water, laughed about falling over, did not fall over. At first it seems like nothing’s happening, just the usual stars, but suddenly your sister is announcing proudly every shooting star, it’s so many, a competition ensues, she seems EXTREMELY untrustworthy, how on earth could she be seeing so many. And then you realize you’ve seen one, four... I’m certain it was at least a tie, she was exuberantly smug and disagreed. There may also have been a discussion about whether or not to have children, and some weakly-made arguments for me to reconsider my personal no on drugs. My sister is a pretty sparkling extrovert. My cousin laughed looking at the post-it, we couldn’t remember what she’d said but he laughed again thinking of whatever it was, whatever we did.

The Help Desk: Radio silence

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. Cienna is bracing for 2020 right now in a bomb shelter somewhere; we're proudly re-presenting this column from three years ago.

Dear Cienna,

Some time ago, my local NPR affiliate stopped interviewing authors on a regular basis. They used to do author interviews practically every day, but now they’ll only feature a segment on a book once or twice a week, if I’m lucky.

This happened around the same time that the station stopped featuring as much local content as it used to. And it recently got involved in a very sketchy plan to buy out a smaller NPR affiliate in a situation that is way too distasteful to get into here.

But my main thing is the lack of author interviews. I thought they were a great way to get a ton of perspectives on the air, and they were terrific ads for readings at local bookstores.

So my issue is: how do I make my displeasure known? Do I keep donating to the NPR affiliate just because they’re the best of a bunch of terrible options, or do I stop donating and send them a letter explaining why? Even in their current diminished state, I’d be despondent if they suddenly disappeared off the radio dial because local media is so diminished as it is. How do I get their attention and let them know that they should be interviewing more authors in such a way that I don’t threaten their existence?

Jim, University District

Dear Jim,

What would your daily commute be like without NPR? Democracy Now! is only an hour long and spiders, while excellent travel companions, are prone to car sickness. If you have the financial flexibility to continue donating, I would encourage you to do so.

Catholics and Mormons tithe, Muslims practice Zakat, atheists have lottery tickets, and agnostics have public libraries and NPR. Much like voting, tithing involves buying into an imperfect system with the fervent hope that someday, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

And having once worked in journalism, I’d bet you five MegaMillions lottery tickets that your local NPR reporters are as frustrated than you (if not more so) with the state of their industry. Their resources are continuously being cut at a time when the city in which they operate is showcasing new, obscene riches every day. Feeling like there’s more popular support for another bar that sells $65 bottles of beer than for public radio, and that you can’t produce your best work without nearly killing yourself for pennies, is unbelievably depressing.

So donate. (If you have time, you could even volunteer.) But as a contributing member, you should also let them know you miss the daily author interviews. The most memorable criticism I ever got came with a small bouquet of flowers and a card that simply read, “You’re wrong.” It was funny, it was kind, and it made me reach out and engage with my critic when I otherwise wouldn’t have.

In the meantime, you’ve got at least one great alternative: This site’s very own Paul Constant is the most thoughtful and thorough author interviewer I’ve ever met (full disclosure: I consider Paul a “friend,” or as I prefer to call him, “human spider”).

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Pilates

Kissing Books: Time to start a brand new story

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.

You can’t edit a blank page.

This is common advice offered to writers, often credited to Jodi Picoult. It urges you not to give in to the fear of failure, and reminds you that producing something flawed but concrete is better than an unattainable, unshareable dream. Books that never get finished never get read.

There are also times, writers learn, when you have to let a story go. When no matter how much time and effort and sheer brain-wringing sweat you put in, the thing fails to do what it’s supposed to. Maybe the structure is flawed, or the characters infuriatingly inconsistent. You edit and you edit and you edit, you get expert feedback, you read craft manuals and brainstorm and add ten points to your blood pressure just trying to make tiny, incremental nudges of forward progress and yet somehow` despite all that labor the thing just does not want to work. It’s unavoidably, unfixably broken, and only the sunk cost fallacy keeps your nose pressed to the grindstone while other, better ideas beckon.

At such times the right thing is to let the story go and put the work into something else.

I come to bury the Romance Writers of America, not to praise them.

For those of you new to this topic, Twitter has been on fire about this since before Christmas. A timeline of the full series of events has been compiled and is being updated by author Claire Ryan. The details are jaw-dropping—like, secret shadow ethics committee nobody knew about and board members amended bylaws ex post facto so they retroactively had power for things they’d already done kind of jaw-dropping.

But the heart of it is this: RWA went to self-destructive lengths to discipline a woman of color for speaking out against the entrenched racism of its members. The original complaint was brutally, nakedly vindictive when it said that Courtney Milan “cannot be allowed to hold a position of authority, or to use her voice to urge others to follow her lead.” Because a Chinese American author dared to publicly criticize the portrayal of a Chinese heroine in a white author’s book. Over half the board has quit, including the president, numerous committee members have stepped down in protest, and the forums are bristling—half in righteous fury, half with smug pearl-clutchers newly emboldened to talk about ‘mob rule’ and ‘unprofessional conduct.’ Petitions (yes, plural) have gone out for the resignation of the remaining board, particularly the new president (formerly president-elect) and the executive director

I have never in my life seen this many romance authors this collectively furious.

Without a complete sweep of senior staff and the Board of Directors, and an extremely thorough independent audit of process and policy, it is impossible to imagine this organization carrying on except as a bastion of the most insidious kind of white supremacy. There is no safety within these walls.

The rage that sparked when all this broke did not rise up from nowhere. A great many people over the years have made a great many attempts to try and fix RWA’s very evident problems with racism, queerphobia, and other biases. Courtney Milan’s work in particular, both on the board and off, offered hope to a lot of us from various corners of the industry. It felt recently as though things were changing—as though the creaky old ship were finally starting to turn from its accustomed course. We had our first Black and Desi RITA winners not six months ago, after all.

But this fight is decades old. It was being fought in 2005, when RWA sent out a poll asking members if they ought to restrict their definition of “romance” to “one man, one woman”. The RWA President at the time wrote an email to Nora Roberts worried the lesbians would take over RWA. We were fighting it still in 2015, when an editor at an RWA conference flatly stated their romance imprint does not acquire Black or Latinx authors (they send those to race-specific imprints). We fought to bring self-published authors, erotic romance authors, digital authors, authors of color, disabled authors, and queer authors into the membership and leadership. We elected the most diverse Board of Directors in RWA history. We pointed out microaggressions and reported open aggressions, only to have those complaints be mysteriously buried or ignored and left to rot in someone’s inbox.

And every time we cried out that change is needed, that a lack of progress on this subject is a continuance of harm, the people in power tried to lullaby us with the refrain that if you want change, you have to be patient. Patient — while they ask for our time and labor, while they ask us to educate ignorance in spite of itself, and tolerate entrenched dismissal of our humanity. Patient — be civil, be quiet, sit down, don’t use your voice, don’t argue with us, with an unspoken but palpable or else we won’t do anything for you at all.

To judge the sacrifice we make in waiting, we have to ask: what is our time worth?

Romance has astonishingly high generational turnover. You can mark the passage of the years by the loss of institutions: were you there when Dorchester was failing, when Triskelion flamed out, when Ellora’s Cave filed that disastrous lawsuit, when we lost All Romance eBooks and Torquere and Borders and Samhain and Kimani and Less Than Three Press (who bowed out so graciously; I miss them). Amid months-long allegations of nonpayment of royalties, Dreamspinner Press recently put out an oh-so-reassuring announcement that they are absolutely not declaring bankruptcy, no way, no how. And that’s not even getting into the losses of individual people, as memories fade and familiar names are carved into the obituary pages (Judith Krantz and Johanna Lindsey just this year).

I feel like an elder sometimes, bending my face to the flickering light of Twitter’s endless dumpster fire and whispering: “Listen, children, as I tell you the tragedy of Janet Dailey...”

When readers and writers protest the lack of mainstream or scholarly attention to romance novels, we are not simply asking for our egos to be flattered. Libraries and newspapers come with archives more robust than the ephemeral ones of volunteer reviewers and critics. All love to the Browne Pop Culture Library, who are bravely tackling this mountain of work and whose Twitter feed is a delight. But often, trying to find out what happened five or ten or fifteen years ago means following the breadcrumbs of broken links, or being stonewalled by the lack of access to official RWA national or chapter records. We are constantly required to be the stewards of our own history — this on top of our creative work, and the day jobs that are necessary to pay the bills for so many working writers. It would be so nice not to have to fight for the same piece of ground over and over again.

Time, in such a climate, is triply precious.

Which is why it’s so pointedly appalling and frankly enraging to see RWA leadership ask for more of our time—and, not coincidentally, for more of our money—while we languish waiting for them to fix a problem of their own creation. As though we have no option but to capitulate. To bow the head and offer only gratitude for the crumbs they claim will feed us. They honestly think all they have to do is wait us out.

Fuck all of that.

We cannot let stewardship of the past prevent us from tending to our future.

To our glory, romance is fucking resilient. We have stamina. We outlast every rickety shell game they’ve tried to play on us. Bookstores wouldn’t stock category romances, so publishers set up their own mailing lists and turned to drugstores and grocery stores and built a readership. New York kept a lock on print publication, so fresh voices sent out digital books and revolutionized the industry virtually overnight. Amazon is becoming a hive of scum and villainy (both for wage workers and the creatives who fight for a piece of the limited Kindle Unlimited pie) so we’re reconnecting with independent bookstores. When institutions stop being useful, we build other ones—that’s how RWA started in the first place, so perhaps it’s fitting that’s how it ends.

It hurts to lose an organization we’ve sunk so much into over the decades. It hurts to leave and let the bigots think they’ve won, to have to rebuild support networks and infrastructure from scratch. It’s hard. Some of us separated from RWA years ago, others will be newly shocked. Either way, we should let ourselves mourn the loss.

And then we take a breath, and sit down with a fresh page, and start a brand-new story.

Recent Romances:

Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera (self-published: contemporary f/f):

This holiday novella is the lesbian Latina equivalent of the Great British Bake-Off. I honestly don’t know why I even need to tell you more than that. Get your sweet and sexy high-concept contemporary fix right here!

You would not believe the sheer number of mouth-watering food descriptions a talented author can fit into a novella-length work. I would like to eat every single thing described in these pages. And I would definitely like to read more romances with two women of color, who can both bond over a culture they share, and also talk about their different individual relationships with that culture. Sully and Kiskeya both grew up in the Dominican Republic—they also have a classic grump/sunbeam dynamic, and even the bad-idea sex (not in the practice kitchen, people cook there!) is hot as hell.

If you’ve heard the buzz about American Dreamer and wanted to try the author out, or if f/f is more your thing than m/m, here is the perfect bite-size morsel.

Rule number one: No distractions. “I don’t know if the Baking Challenge’s idea of building rapport is getting drunk with a bunch of fake elves.”

Why did her laugh make me think of flowers? Stupidly, I thought, she should always be wearing a crown of them on her head.

Headliners by Lucy Parker (Carina Press: contemporary m/f):

Very early buzz about this one made me sit down one rainy week and binge all Parker’s other books in anticipation—and I can’t remember the last time I got this sucked in to a contemporary romance series. Sharp dialogue, a close-up view of work—actual work!—in entertainment media, sizzling chemistry, gasp-worthy drama, and at the center of everything a great, warm, welcoming heart.

For the record, I’d definitely recommend reading The Austen Playbook before this one to get the full impact. It’s not going to be a hardship. Both are absolutely stunning.

Nick Davenport and Sabrina Carlton have dueling evening shows in London’s competitive entertainment world. They’ve carped and sniped at each other for years, even before Nick broke the story that devastated Sabrina’s family. It should have landed him the gig they were both competing for—except a hot-mic moment of candor about his new boss has Nick’s reputation as roughed up as Sabrina’s.

Naturally, to punish them both, new boss decrees they’ll be co-hosting Wake Me Up London, a cheery soft-pedaling morning show. Naturally, they’re livid.

Add in fallout from past drama, one horrifyingly creative saboteur, and a lightning-storm’s worth of sexual chemistry, and you’ve got an ideal enemies-to-lovers romp. There’s a fine line to be walked with this trope: too much bitterness, and the romance feels rickety; too little, and the reader grows impatient with the pace of the relationship. Parker’s brilliance is to build both Sabrina and Nick as gloriously, stubbornly professional: they’re exceptional at their job, and would never compromise their performance under any circumstances. It adds edge to their dynamic, as they try to out-best one another, but it also gives us a reason for them to trust one another when they realize someone’s playing silly buggers on the set. And then—oh, the falling mic! The Wibblet! The first time they [redacted]!

It’s enough glow to get you all the way through til spring.

“Are there times,” Sabrina asked, her voice just audible over the maintenance staffer’s hoovering, “when you take stock of where you are and what you’re doing, and wonder how the fuck this happened?” Daily. Never more so than now, as he crouched on the floor of the ugliest studio in the network, unshaven, in need of a shower and coffee, hiding in wait for a meddler whose Scooby-Doo antics were plausibly threatening what remained of his job security. He ought to be fed up to the back teeth, but right at this moment, he was very aware of the lightness in his chest.

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn (Kensington: contemporary m/f):

Speaking of close-up views of work, here we have the latest entry in the fine romance tradition of Competence Porn. This love story of a lettering artist and a financial numbers analyst is one of the strongest contemporary romances I’ve seen this year.

Meg is supposed to be hand-lettering Reid Sutherland’s wedding program. She’s not supposed to be slipping in secret messages about how she thinks the match is doomed. And Reid’s definitely not supposed to pick up on those, call off the wedding, and one year later show up to ask Meg what the hell she’s up to. It’s an excruciatingly awkward beginning, which makes the richness of the emotional payoff all the more satisfying.

This is the first Kate Clayborn I’ve read. It won’t be the last—this book is utterly captivating, with a voice that leaps forward and then back on itself, like a series of curling loops inked a blank page. Dizzying, in the way of good champagne.

A new year is a blank page, too, and this story has so much to say about blank pages. Planners, agendas, weddings, fresh starts, new relationships, creative blocks, new upheavals in old relationships—what words and pictures and numbers we use to fill the spaces in our lives. To draw connections where once was nothing. Friendships, romances, family, the relationship with one’s own self. It’s a bit like New York, to which this book is very much a love letter: the epic shapes you see from faraway are full of secret details and revelations when you go look up close.

Highly recommended for anyone who has strong opinions about secret codes, typefaces, planners, or pens.

“Meg,” Reid says. “You remember Avery.”

I say nothing. I don’t even nod and smile. I am absolutely shocked; I feel as though I’ve walked into another dimension. In this particular dimension the hemline of your dress is wasted with city street dirt and you can’t remember when you washed your hair last and there’s a high-calorie dessert called a Salty Pimp running down your left hand when you run into—in a city of almost two million people!—the ex-fiancée of the man you’re currently sleeping with.

This dimension is called Absolute Bullshit.

A Delicate Deception by Cat Sebastian (Avon Impulse: historical bi m/bi f):

High on my list of resolutions for 2020 is: read (and write?) more queer m/f romances, both cis and trans and butch and femme and everything around and in between. Bang the drum about people falling in love with people, no matter what gender each one happens to be. Always and forever more bi and pan and queer characters who don’t treat individual human sexual self-discovery like an automatic either/or, in or out, gold-star purity test.

This book stars two anxious, clever, guarded, prickly-but-tender people trying to figure out how to people both separately and together. Amelia Allenby has fled the London social scene lest it literally drive her mad — she has a particular form of anxiety that feels specific and weighty and vivid, and means she spends a great deal of time outdoors. On her walks she begins encountering Sydney Goddard, a railway engineer and builder, whose anxieties take a different form than hers, and whose skills are about finding solutions and overcoming obstacles in the landscape. They’re both grieving, they’re both more than a little self-loathing, and their romance is tender enough to break anyone’s heart.

This book is full of woods and paths and cottages and half-ruined houses being restored. There are multiple adorable dogs, and a snarky ostler, and a child who I read as a light fuck you to the young Adèle from Jane Eyre. It’s a bit wild, just the right amount rambling, and entirely charming. If you’ve read the prior A Duke in Disguise you’ll not only recognize a few characters, but start to see how deeply entwined that earlier book was with London, with the urban streets and houses and shops and people. This is that story’s country cousin: it reads like a breath of fresh spring air.

“Did you hear that there’s a duke living at Pelham Hall?” she asked, striving to make light conversation.

“I don’t want to talk about dukes.” His voice was low, almost a growl. “Bollocks on every last one of them.”

“Are you a radical? What a relief. One doesn’t like to ask, but what if I had kissed a Tory?”

This Month’s Immigrant Romance With None of Your Xenophobic Bullshit

: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Penguin Books: contemporary m/f):

In 1811 the Great Comet blazed across the sky, and people considered it a portent. That year’s champagne vintage was particularly splendid, and the wines resulting came to be called comet vintages: the term implies beauty coming from fear and disaster, something rich and special and unique emerging from a time of turmoil and alarm.

It strikes me that the past year’s romances have been very much like this. It is quite likely we’re living through a Golden Age of romance — though Golden Ages have a way of being identified in hindsight, usually. But after the 2016-2017 years, where it seemed every writer I knew had staggered beneath the neverending blows of events, there has been a sudden, fierce flowering of truly incredible stories, where the hope of the HEA is not nebulous and dreamy, but vital and pulsing and urgent.

Better writers than I have discussed the difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant. We’ve see a lot of ex-pats in romance — Greek tycoons and social-climbing Americans hunting for titled spouses, all those fictional royals — but suddenly major entries in the genre are putting immigrants at center stage. Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Xeni, for example, had a working-class Scotsman living in California, worried about paying off student loans. And the latest from Helen Hoang, whose The Kiss Quotient was one of the runaway illustrated-cover hits of the past few years, gives us Mỹ, a Vietnamese woman working as a hotel maid, who agrees to an arranged marriage because it will get her to America to build a better life for herself and her daughter. Her fiancé is Khải, a man whose good looks and financial success hides the deep-seated struggles he faces with as a man on the autism spectrum. They both have old wounds, as romance protagonists do, and things go very, very wrong before they ultimately go right.

This is not a story abut the superiority of the American system. This is a story about American families, new and old, helping one another despite the American system. It is beautiful and absolutely wrenching at times; it is also funny and warm and has some of the best sexual tension you’ll see. Kick-me-in-the-stomach kind of yearning. If you only read one romance this year — though I certainly recommend reading more — this would be an excellent choice.

“Ah, so Mỹ approves. I told you he was handsome,” Cô Nga said with a knowing smile.

Mỹ blinked like she was coming out of a trance and handed the picture back to the lady. “Yes, he is.” He’d make a lucky girl even luckier someday, and they’d live a long, lucky life together. She hoped they experienced food poisoning at least once. Nothing life-threatening, of course. Just inconvenient—make that very inconvenient. And mildly painful. Embarrassing, too.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Internal affairs

Before I read Kevin Huizenga's comics, I thought that the fiction of interiority was best left for literary fiction. I'd never seen a comic that could convincingly get me inside a character's head the way a good literary monologue could. When you're looking at a comic, after all, you're almost by definition outside the action, outside the characters. You're on the outside looking in.

But Huizenga's comics collected in The River at Night taught me that comics can just as ably take a reader inside the head of a protagonist and show you what they're thinking. In retrospect, it's obvious. Why would prose be particularly great at simulating thoughts when our thoughts are a blend of words and pictures — the very definition of comics?

The River at Night is a collection of comics about a normal middle-aged married man named Glenn Ganges. One day, Glenn drinks too much coffee too late in the day. As a consequence, he can't sleep. He tosses and turns at night, captivated and kept awake up by his restless mind. He recalls recent events, wonders about mortality and music, and tries to fathom the hugeness of geologic time. He barely moves in the whole book.

On the surface, Huizenga's art looks deceptively simple, like Popeye cartoon. But when Glenn's mind begins to wander, Huizenga's knack for illustrating complicated ideas in as few lines as possible becomes clear. Segments in which Glenn becomes swamped in his thoughts, or wanders around his home trying to force his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness, are illustrated in a minimalist style that lands with maximalist effect. Nothing happens in this book, but that's everything.

Book recommendations from prominent Seattleites

It's probably not too much of a stretch to guess that Seattle Review of Books readers are more likely than the rest of the population to receive gift certificates to independent bookstores for the holiday seasons. So say you've got all that money to burn at your neighborhood bookstore and you're trying to figure out what to bring home with you. How can you possibly choose?

Good news: all this month, we asked Seattleites who made a splash this year to share their gift recommendations with our readers. Specifically, we gave them the impossible task of choosing one book to give to everyone in Seattle as a holiday gift. It's such a great little list: books from big publishers and small publishers, bestsellers and indie titles, local and national subject matter. We wanted to put them all in one place to help you find a book that's just right for you. Print this one out and bring it with you next time you go shopping:

Emily Nokes, lead singer of Tacocat and Bust Magazine music editor:

I would give everyone in Seattle Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino. I loved it so much it's practically a prerequisite for having a conversation with me right now haha. I haven't read anyone who can so intelligently untangle and articulate the feelings of NOW—the performative bleakness of social media, how mainstream "feminism" has been commodified and co-opted into a nothing concept, the ultimate scam of late capitalism, and other ways in which existing in the 21st century feels like a stupid trap. Her essays aren't preachy or prescriptive, just incredibly observant, funny, and well structured.

Amada Cruz, the new Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO at Seattle Art Museum:

The book that I think everyone in Seattle — or really, America — should read is These Truths: A History of the United States by historian Jill Lepore, a rollicking history of this country, with all of its contradictions. It’s full of surprising information, such as the history of political polling, which of course has crucial ramifications for our current moment.

But for a holiday gift, I’d choose The Dutch House by the always-incredible Ann Patchett. I mean, who doesn’t love an epic family drama for the holidays?

Kate Berwanger, indie publishing impresario

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. I was shopping at Elliott Bay for a book that should have lived on the shelf next to this one. It wasn't there, but Tierce fell into my hands. And I won't spoil a perfectly good gift by explaining why I'm giving it to you.

Andrew Engelson, publisher of Cascadia Magazine:

I'd give everyone Tracing the Desire Line by Melissa Matthewson (Split Lip Press). It's an absolutely gorgeous series of linked essays about giving in to the urge to stray in a long-term monogamous relationship. Matthewson lives on a farm on southern Oregon, and in addition to a sharp and honest dissection of her changing marriage, she weaves in observations of the flora and fauna bursting with life around her, glimpses of the small beauties that come with raising children. It's book very rooted in the Pacific Northwest both in its subject and sensibility, the sort of writing I've tried to publish at Cascadia.

Susanna Ryan, author of Seattle Walk Report:

Recommending a history book as a holiday gift for every single person in Seattle feels a bit like handing out toothbrushes on Halloween, but I think all Seattleites have something to gain from reading Seattle at 150: Stories of the City through 150 Objects, an approachable, well-curated book that uses documents, photos, and ephemera from the Seattle Municipal Archives to shine a light on decisions that have shaped the city since its incorporation in 1869. Pairing interesting finds from the Archives with short, thoughtful paragraphs about their significance, this book manages to be both an engaging entry point for folks new to exploring Seattle's history and a delightful read for even the most devoted local history nerds. If we want a vibrant "Seattle at 300" in 2169, I believe that having a citizenry with an understanding of where we've been is essential. Give the gift of perspective with this satisfying book!

Thinking through the clutter

Published December 31, 2019, at 12:00pm

Levi Stahl reviews Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport .

Lucy Ellmann's imposing Ducks, Newburyport, shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, succeeds in putting the inner life on the page like never before.

Read this review now

Reading On Your Feet: Walking Beacon Hill with Jia Tolentino and Lindy West

Thanks to independent audio book service Libro.fm and the huge catalog of audio books available for loan through the Seattle Public Library, audio books are more accessible than ever before. We like to take books out on the town with us, listening to them as we take in Seattle from a pedestrian's-eye perspective. Reading on Your Feet is an occasional column about what happens when we take books for a walk around the region.

What are the books?

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino and The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West. (Full disclosure: Lindy West is a friend of mind and a former coworker and I can't give her an impartial review; luckily, this isn't a review, just an account of listening to her book.)

Where did you walk?

Beacon Hill.

Who reads the books? How's the audio presentation?

Both these books are read by the authors, and they're both pretty great. Tolentino is a clear and straightforward reader of her own work, but I really enjoyed how she couldn't at times contain the emotions behind what she was reading. When she talked, for instance, about internet trolls, the disdain in her voice added an additional weight to the book. Same with Lindy West: when I worked with her at *The Stranger, Lindy would often begin her stories as conversation or rants, thinking her way through aloud before she ever wrote down a single word. That makes audio books a very straightforward medium for her.

What did you think of the books?

I listened to these books one after the other this fall, and while they don't have a lot in common — Tolentino isn't as funny a writer as Lindy; Lindy doesn't have that precise, New Yorker-y air that Tolentino brings to her work — they do both write long chapters early in their respective books on internet trolls. Specifically, they talk about how aggressive men trolling women on the internet in the early part of this century eventually turned into the despicable alt-right hordes who are now making the world terrible for everyone. These two chapters of these two different books feel almost in conversation with each other, and listening to them reminded me that I was one of the naysayers at the time, arguing that internet trolls should be ignored and not regulated or cut out of the equation entirely. I was wrong, and now the world is poorer because none of us listened to Tolentino and Lindy. Both these books are smart and funny and heartbreaking and fantastic.

How was the walk?

Almost every weekday, I walk by the Veteran's Hospital on Beacon Hill on my way to work. Over the last year, a tent village had built up near the hospital. Many of the residents of the village were veterans who were receiving care at the hospital, and they simply didn't have any place to go. One fall day, though, as I was listening to The Witches Are Coming, I realized: the tents were gone.

The village had been swept by order of Mayor Durkan. Now, whenever I walk past this empty stretch of land, I think about the veterans who used to live in the tents (one tent had a hand-lettered sign on it that read "YES, FEED THE ANIMAL — ME!") Where are they now? Are they close to the hospital, still? Do they still get the care that they need? Are they someplace where they can feel secure? When will we ever fix this terrible housing crisis that we've created? How long did it take me to realize that the tents these people called home had been gone?

Mi Vida Loca

   

he shows her
his new tattoos: three dots
under his left eye

and in the crease
of his elbow, silky skin
pierced, filled,

and on his inner wrist:
a scar like a mouth
the blood like spilled ink

(the spilt milk —
palm held to the searing
cast iron pan

greased with bacon,
eggs with fluttery edges thrown
to the door)

three dots like sharp pops
from the intersection
like buttons to press

her fingers to
like tears
like little kisses

Get ready for Bookstore Romance day early this year

This week’s sponsor is Bookstore Romance Day. Founded last year by Oregon independent bookseller Billie Bloebaum of Third Street Books, this nationwide event is a day designed to give independent bookstores an opportunity to celebrate Romance fiction—its books, readers, and writers—and to strengthen the relationships between bookstores and the Romance community. Seattle-area participating bookstores included Queen Anne Book Company, Third Place Books, and the Neverending Bookshop.

Though the 2020 celebration isn’t until August 15, booksellers and authors around the country are already fundraising and planning to improve upon last year’s success. You can browse the map of participating stores—or sign up, if you’re a bookseller!—browse merchandise in the shop, or contribute directly at the link. The whole effort is volunteer-coordinated, so anything you can do to help will be most welcome.

And if August feels impossibly distant, there are the quarterly book club discussions to hold you over until summer. February’s picks are When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon and Maria Vale’s The Last Wolf.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from December 30th - January 5th

Monday, December 30th: Factfulness Book Club Discussion

Hans Rosling is founderof Swedens Doctors without Borders, and the gigantic UW building in the University District is named after him. This is a discussion of his book, which sees a hopeful future for humanity so long as we stay focused on facts and logic and honesty. University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, January 2nd: First Thursday Open Mic Night

Join the Pike Place Market's collective bookstore for what I believe is the first open mic of the year. Left Bank Books Collective, 92 Pike St, 7:30 pm, free.

Saturday, January 4th: The Wives Reading

Tarryn Fisher is a bestselling novelist whose new novel, The Wives, is about a woman whose husband has two other wives. The wives have never met, until the protagonist decides to investigate the other two wives. She finds some uncomfortable truths. Fisher will be in an onstage conversation with Andrea Dunlop. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 6 pm, free.

Sunday, January 5th: Roger Fernandes

Roger Fernandes "is a story teller, tribal historian, educator and a member of Lower Elwha Band of the S’Klallam Indians from the Port Angeles area of the state of Washington." This afternoon, he'll be doing what he does best. Seattle Public Library, Greenwood Branch, 8016 Greenwood Ave N, http://spl.org, 1:30 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for December 29, 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.

The rise of review culture

Because I’m on the receiving line for pitches to this publication, I’m in a constant state of reflection on what “book review” means for the Seattle Review of Books. It’s hard to turn down a pitch, but not nearly as hard as it is to kill a piece once it’s drafted, so getting that initial assessment right is a gift to myself and to the writer.

Others here may disagree (I’ll let you know if there are cries of dissent), but reviews that promise primarily to recommend for or against most often don’t make my cut. I’m interested in what a writer thought or felt about a book, certainly, but I’m more interested in what the book made the writer think or feel about the world, or about books writ large, or about themselves.

Yes, there are many smart, interesting, well-written reviews that assess the quality of a writer or a particular work — on this site and elsewhere. But for me the bar to acceptance is set much higher when the writer offers to assess rather than to explore.

In this essay, Tom Henry articulates some of the “why” behind this semi-conscious prejudice, and how the culture of too-much-choice leads to a culture of reviewing that is (again, arguably) stripped of what makes reviews worth reading. A book review isn’t a buyer’s guide. It’s an act of examination, of revelation, of conversation with a reader — just like the books that are its subject. As Henry puts it, speaking of his genre, not ours, “clothing is sterile without stories, community, and things that excite the heart as much as they do the mind.”

Anyway, here’s Tom Henry.

The thing about review culture is that the promise of finding “the best” is never fulfilled. For one, the best doesn’t exist — particularly in fashion, which is subjective. Second, too many people lean on the idea of buying "the best” to abdicate responsibility in developing a sense of taste. But most importantly, the reason why we never find the best is because that gnawing urge that compels us to find it in the first place is never satisfied.
The secret life of the audiobook star

Tim Dowling takes an insider’s look at what it takes to voice an audiobook: hours of lonely, throat-drying, brain-breaking work that drives many authors to their knees. (Bill Bryson: “I can’t help but feel … that I should be able to pronounce the words in my own book.”) Delightfully geeky on process — e.g., how readers track the voices they’ve chosen for different characters — and art — e.g., the serendipity of discovering Dobbie in a small, insolent boy on an elevator.

I narrated my own audiobook in 2014, an experience that I described at the time as being akin to an exorcism: three long days in a dark room, tripping through the minefield of my own words. All I could think was: if I’d known I was going to have to say this whole book out loud, I would have written a better one. Or maybe I wouldn’t have written one at all.
Diary: Alan Bennett

Absolutely, quintessentially Oxford-educated English: playwright, screenwriter, actor, and by coincidence (see above) reader of audiobooks for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh offers up selections from his journals over the course of 2019. Here’s what Bennett was thinking on our independence day. So English. So delightful. Also, what better way to avoid having one’s diaries shredded than to publish them in the LRB? Just saying …

4 July. A letter from the Philip Larkin Society, reminding me that I’m an honorary vice-president, which I was unaware of. I’ve never been an enthusiastic member, partly because Larkin wasn’t particularly keen on my stuff or keen on my being keen on his (which I am); Amis (K.) very much of the same mind. It wasn’t this, though, that put me off. What made me dubious about the society was the degree of enthusiasm felt by the members, with all the poetic locations pinpointed and Larkin clasped ever more tightly to the bosom of Hull (along with his sister and his cousins and his aunts). The risk is admittedly slight, but I am fearful of such detailed posthumous scrutiny. I don’t want to be Hullified, though I hope I wouldn’t do what Larkin did and have my diaries shredded when the breath has scarcely left my body.

The Help Desk: Untruth and consequences

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. Cienna had a mishap involving a wreath and a stocking full of waxy chocolate coins, so we're proudly re-presenting this column from three years ago.

Dear Cienna,

What’s the best way to call out a book liar? There’s this awful woman dating a friend of mine, and we’re all at the same parties, and she says “Oh yes, I loved it!” anytime you ask her if she’s read anything.

Have you read 2666? “Oh yes, I loved it!”

Have you read the Knausgaard? “Oh yes, I loved it!”

Have you read the Voynich manuscript? “Oh yes, I loved it!”

Have you read the secret novel tattooed on Nicolas Cage’s inner thigh? “Oh yes, I loved it!”

Ugh! I wish she’d just say “No, tell me about it” or something. So, I decided next time I see her enough of this being nice shit, I’m going to call her out. You’re mean and seem to not mind making people uncomfortable in public. How do I do this?

Pansy, White Center

Dear Pansy,

I think the better questions are, why do you care if someone else lies about reading books that you’ve read? How does it diminish your pleasure in having read them? If she bugs you so much, why not just avoid asking her about books — or rephrase your questions. Ask her “what are you reading right now?” or follow up with, “what did you love best about Nicolas Cage’s thigh oeuvre?”

I suspect you crave being right for its own sake, and all the better if you have an audience to witness your absolute rightness and her abject wrongness.

I can relate. This week I got into an argument with a coworker about which state has more trees in it – Idaho or Washington. The coworker said Washington, because Idaho is “mostly desert” according to her, and I said, “actually, Idaho is about 12,000 square miles larger and only the southern part of the state is high desert, much like the eastern half of Washington.” I do not like this coworker; she suspects rainbows are chemtrails that turn people gay and once accused the sun of being Mexican for giving her a tan. So when all of our coworkers and the internet agreed that she was probably right – Washington is called the Evergreen State, after all – my first thought was, “I’ll just start a few forest fires and we can resume this discussion next week.”

But being right doesn’t make you a hero and it doesn’t mean you win. Often, people just think you’re an asshole for proving how right you can be at the expense of a national forest or two.

I’d advise you not to confront this woman. However,if you absolutely cannot leave it alone because, like me, you are deeply flawed, here is what you do: the next time you’re at a crowded party and she professes love for a book you suspect she hasn’t read, point directly at her face and start screaming, “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE! LIAR LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE!” If you have a lighter handy and she is willing to stand still, attempt to light her pants on fire until someone physically restrains you. That’ll ensure she never wants to talk books with you again. Meanwhile, everyone else at the party will decide you’re a complete freak instead of a run-of-the-mill asshole, and forgive you more readily for your outburst.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Up in the air

Thursday Comics Hangover: Memories are made of this

This April, Seattle cartoonist Laura Knetzger published a sci-fi comic called Before & After that consists of nothing more than two people sitting in an apartment, talking. There are no robots or flying cars, but the subject of that book-length conversation is out on the cutting edge of modern science's understanding of intergenerational trauma.

Before & After is a quiet minicomic, but a consequential one. Like the classic sci-fi of the 50s and 60s, Before & After looks at a single technology — in this case, cloning — and imagines the complicated moral situations that could arise by implementing the tech in the real world.

It would be easy to wander into cliches, but that doesn't happen here. Knetzger toys with the tropes of a mad scientist meeting her creation and expositing on her own genius and gently pokes fun at the drama of the situation.

The black-and-white artwork, which features a gray wash throughout that evokes the ambiguity of the scenario, is actorly and appealing. These characters have interior lives and awareness of the unique qualities of their situation. Knetzger briefly illustrates their metaphors with abstract illustrations which help clarify the complexities of the discussion.

Ultimately, Before & After wrestles with the fairly new concept that, as one of the character puts it, "When you make a long-term memory, it has a physical presence in your brain." Memories and thoughts aren't some ephemeral specter. They have weight and consequence in the physical worlds of our bodies. They can't be ignored, or dissolved, or wiped clean. Memory doesn't just persist — it changes us. The madeleine bites back.

The ghost of Nicholas Pass

The pass was closed: to begin with. There was no doubt about that. The ceaseless rain in the city — just a thirty-minute slide down a serpentine river of a highway — was white-out snow in the midnight mountains. Police trucks crossed the road. Their searing lights, blue and red, painting a disco’s worth of pulse on the powdered trees off the shoulder. Officers in puffy ski parkas, holding orange-coned traffic flashlights, turned cars down the turnabout, onto to the westbound lanes, away from the pass.

Ramon watched a Prius go that way, sliding and spinning its wheels before finding traction and trudging off. Then, more successfully, a Tesla Model 3. What fool tries to best the pass at any time the winter in these kinds of cars? He bought the Jeep so that there was never a question of getting over — he made this trip at least once a month, and never saw it closed like this. Especially on Christmas Eve when so many wanted over the hump.

He pulled up near one of the officers, turned off the music, and rolled down the passenger window — Stella’s collar jangled as she shook off sleep and hopped from the back into the passenger seat, her black-lab tail whipping bruises into Ramon’s arm. She sniffed the piercing alpine air.

“She’s friendly,” Ramon cried out to an officer, approaching with a bit of hesitation. A hand got pulled out of an oversized glove, and yanked down a balaclava to reveal a smile. The officer pressed her hand across the threshold of the window, and Stella gave it a cursory sniff, before leaning up to lick the officer’s face.

“Harsh night to pull this duty,” Ramon said. “Hope you’re getting holiday pay.”

“What a sweet girl,” said the officer, scratching Stella around the collar, and, Ramon noted, leaning in a bit to look around the front seats of the car.

“We really need to get over,” said Ramon.

“Funny, I keep hearing that,” said the officer. “But that isn’t going to happen.”

“I’ve seen it worse than this,” said Ramon. “I’ve got chains.”

“Five wrecks tonight, already. It’s like a Zamboni came through before the snow hit. It’s a solid sheet on the road up above.”

“Damn,” said Ramon.

“Best to turn around.”

“That is not really a viable option for me,” Ramon said.

“Well, like they say at the lodge, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” She gave Stella an appropriately rough scratch on the head.

The police trucks had enough clearance between them that he could drive through. They probably wouldn’t give chase, they had to stay behind and make sure no one else was idiotic enough to try it. But, they would phone his plates ahead — there’d be someone waiting for him on the drive down.

“All right. Thanks, officer,” he said.

She made a kissy face at Stella, then pulled the mask back up before turning away. Ramon rolled up the window and, waving, went the way the police directed.

Stella, sensing the moment of excitement was over, looked to Ramon. He motioned with his head to the back, and she lazed over, into the soft bed he liked to put out for her when they drove.

He pulled onto the access road about a half-mile down from the turnabout. He could take it around Chorus Hill to where it intercepted Nicholas Pass, the one the higher capacity freeway replaced so many years back.

Sometimes, Ramon liked to drive that way on nice Summer days when he had a bit extra time to kill. It was gorgeous — a classic two-lane highway that switchbacked its way up and down, hugging sheer cliffs that rock-falled their way into evergreen valleys. Made him feel like Cary Grant driving through a Hitchcock film in a white convertible.

Almost nobody drove Nicholas Pass in the winter, so the police won’t be blocking it. In any car other than the Jeep, he wouldn’t think of it. But, going slow, he could make it. Might add two or three hours onto the drive at the pace he imagined, but he’d make it, all the same.

The snowfall was steady enough that the high beams did more damage than good, but the foglight helped, and the road here was lined with tall trees, so it was easy to keep to the gully.

He had the music low, but then switched it off to better concentrate on the road. A few times, he felt a bit of drift or slip, but it was nothing the chains couldn’t handle.

It was almost peaceful, no other lights, no other people, no other cars, just him, a little pregnant Mary on the way to find an inn. He started singing Christmas carols to Stella, and she howled once-or-twice to join him.

They passed through Luckton, which was literally a gas station and the Luckton Diner, established 1943. The diner had holiday lights strung around the outside, but was otherwise dark and obviously closed, as was the gas station.

Around a few bends, the road went more-or-less straight for a ten miles or so, at the end of the stretch it joined the Nicholas Pass highway for the start of the climb. Taking advantage of the lack of curves, Ramon put the pedal down and gained good speed.

The snow let up, and he flicked on the brights, the high beams showing a corridor of trees, standing tall around him, laden with white powder, slumping under the weight of their burden.

A ways past Luckton, in a slight downward grade, he saw the figure in the road. At first, he thought it was some trick of the light, and then perhaps a snowman or some kid’s prank. He slowed the Jeep, controlling his skid, and avoided the figure. He passed it, sliding, shuddering as the car worked to stop, and saw it was a man. A flash of eyes, gray hair, lines on his face, mustache. Old. Steady as hell, he didn’t even flinch. The Jeep shuddered and halted about ten yards past the figure.

“Stay,” he said to Stella, and he opened the door and stepped out into a foot or more of snow on the road. The cold overwhelmed his senses immediately.

“Hey!” he yelled at the man, who was turned towards him.

“Hi,” the man said. Ramon couldn’t make him out in the dark, but he could see the man’s breath rising above him like he were smoking. There was no other sound but the engine, and the voices.

“I almost hit you,” said Ramon. There was nothing, here. No driveway, no lights in the trees. He wasn’t by some estate, or home. Where the hell had the man come from?

“I see that.”

“You drunk or something?” The cold was biting Ramon’s hands.

“No,” said the man.

“What the hell are you even doing?”

“Well,” said that man. “That’s a fair question.”

“Jesus, it’s cold. Come get in the car and let’s talk there.”

Ramon climbed back in. Stella was on her feet, watching. The old man crossed behind the car, Ramon could see the red brake lights splashing up his torso. The passenger door opened, and the man started to get in.

Stella growled, low and light. The man stopped, half-in, half-out, and looked back at her. He was even older than Ramon thought, Eighty, maybe? Gaunt, long face. Looked like he came from the desert, maybe a cowboy or something.

“Easy,” said Ramon to Stella, and she licked her chops and whined, but did as she was told.

The man sat all the way in the chair and closed the door.

“It’s warm in here,” the man said.

“You were standing in the middle of a pitch-black road on a snowy Christmas Eve.”

“I was,” said the man. “You caught me.”

“Uh, okay,” said Ramon. Was this man a runaway? A patient somewhere? Was he suffering from some kind of dementia?

“Where’s your home?” Asked Ramon. “Do you need me to take you home?”

“I live in the city,” said the man. “I haven’t been up here years. Many, many years.”

“You know where you are?”

“I know exactly where I am.”

“How did you get here?”

“Now, that part’s a little hazier.”

The man seemed confused. “Say, I think I’m gonna double-back to Luckton, and we can call somebody, right? I think that’s the best plan.”

“Fine,” said the man. He had a big wool coat on, smelled like wet sheep. He stripped thick leather gloves off, yellow working gloves, and held his fingers by the heat vents.

Ramon turned the car around. Where the man had been standing, he saw a little flurry of footsteps, but none leading to them or away from them. He pulled out, and saw the Jeep’s tracks, heading to him, his past self going in the opposite way.

“What’s your name?” He asked the man.

“Dallas,” the man said. “Call me Dallas.”

“That where you from, originally?” Asked Ramon.

“Near enough,” said Dallas.

“How long were you waiting in that road for someone to just come along?”

“Long enough,” said Dallas.

“Do a lot of public speaking, do you?” Said Ramon.

“I’m sorry?” Said Dallas.

“Just not the chatty type, is what I’m saying.”

“Ah,” said the man. “No. Nobody’s every accused me of being chatty.”

“How about storytelling? You got a story, like what the hell you were in that road?”

Ramon had asked the question staring out the windshield, but when the man didn’t respond, Ramon glanced over. Dallas was turned, looking full at him. A kind of appraising look.

“You believe in fate?” Dallas asked.

“Not really,” said Ramon.

“You got any food?” asked the man.

“Sure,” said Ramon. “What does that have to do with fate?”

“Nothing, I’m just hungry,” said that man. “I tell stories better with food in my belly.”

“Behind you, in the cooler.”

“Your dog doesn’t like me,” said Dallas.

“Nothing personal,” said Ramon. “She doesn’t like anybody that freaks me out.”

“I just mean I don’t want to reach back and startle her.”

“Sure, fine,” Ramon said. He pulled the Jeep to a stop, and reached back. Stella sniffed his hand, and nudged him. He opened the cooler, and pulled out a roast beef sandwich he packed up for when he got hungry. He also grabbed his thermos from the well behind the seat. Handed both to Dallas.

“Hot cider in there,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Dallas. He unwrapped the sandwich from the wax bag, and started eating.

Ramon gave the Jeep some gas. The tires spun, but then caught. Watching the road, the snow swirling and soft, the tracks from where he passed before now nearly hidden by new fall. That version of him, hell-bent on getting over the pass, not imagining he would soon be turned around, with a passenger, no less.

Dallas pulled a crust off of one slice of bread, and without glancing back, dangled it between the seats. Ramon saw Stella creep forward, in the rear view, and gingerly take it, retreating to her bed as she gulped it down.

They were quiet, the man eating, until they reached Luckton. Ramon pulled off into the gas station, then checked his phone for service. Nothing. No phone booths anywhere anymore. He put the Jeep in park. Turned off the wipers.

“What am I supposed to do with you?” He said to Dallas.

“Take me to the city, I guess.”

“If you haven’t noticed, I’m going the opposite direction.”

“I’m afraid I don’t think that’s wise,” said Dallas, taking the last bite of sandwich. He took the thermos, and poured steaming cider into the plastic lid. “The way is shut.”

“Okay, Galdalf.”

“You drive that way, you’ll hit either be blocked by a road covered in avalanche remains, or you’ll get hit by one yourself. Or, you’ll drive off the road, maybe get clocked by a falling rock. You could fall asleep at the wheel, or get snow-blind and go straight on a hairpin right off a cliff. There are four dozen way to die on that pass tonight.”

“Nice of you to care, but I know the pass. I’ll be fine.”

“What about your pup?”

“Excuse me?”

“Guy like you, sure it’s okay to take some chances. But you want to gamble with your pup’s life? That the kind of dog parent you are?”

Stella’s snout, as if she knew she were being talked, came up between them. Dallas made a clicking sound with his mouth, and she looked at him, head turned. She sniffed at him, then looked to Ramon, who gave her a pet.

“How about we just find a place to take you, okay?”

“Sure,” said Dallas. “Sure, that’s a good idea. I’d appreciate a ride back to the city.”

“Dallas, I’m not going to the city.”

“You take me to the city, you can be back here in an hour. Drive over the pass, if you feel like you can make it. I won’t be in the road again to stop you, you can be pretty sure about that.”

“No offense, pal, but when when did you become my problem? I got enough of my own problems without being responsible for some old timer who just appears randomly in the middle of some dark road, okay?”

Dallas nodded, listening. “Well, to be fair, I don’t think it was so very random.”

“What, are you the ghost of some guy who died on the pass, and have come back to warn me off or something?”

“Like Corker Prine, you mean?” Said Dallas.

“Is that a name?

“Yeah. He was the son of industry, Prine Lumber?”

“Sure, okay.”

“Corker was just about twenty-two or so, and he wanted to be with his fiancee and her family for Christmas. He was driving this very road, 90 years ago tonight. He was like you, thought he could make it over the pass during a snow storm. They didn’t find him until the Spring thaw, at the bottom of a ravine. Drove right through the guard rail.”

Stella began to sniff in earnest at Dallas’ coat arm, luxuriating in it, taking her time.

“So, Dallas, are you Corker Prine?”

“Oh hell, I’m no ghost. But Corker was the first to die in the snow on Nicholas Pass since the old wagon train days. Some say he haunts it to this day. Depending on your version of the story, he either comes out to warn fellow foolish travelers, or jumps out to scare them so they join him in death. Some say the reason he got knocked off the road was an avalanche caused by some of the patches his Daddy’s company left up the hill when they cleared it of timber. Those folks say Corker got what was due to him.”

Something drew Ramon’s eye. A light on a string at the diner flickered, then popped out. The rest of the strand after it went, too. It sent a shiver down Ramon’s spine.

Ramon put on the wipers, put the Jeep in gear, and started driving out towards Nicholas Pass.

“Sorry, Dallas. I gotta get over the pass tonight. I’ll find someone to take care of you when we get where we’re going. Get you on a plane or bus back to the city.”

“Be much easier if you just took me back to the city.”

“Be a lot easier for me if you weren’t in my car.” Ramon gunned it, and the Jeep drifted before catching. Ramon tried to keep in the path of the first time drove this way tonight, the tracks coming back at him again. Ghosts of two previous Ramon’s driving this godforsaken road.

“Look, kid, I want to be here about as much as you want me here, but for whatever reason, here I am. You want to hear my story? Fine, I’ll tell you. I read Dickens tonight, like I’ve been doing every Christmas Eve since I was a kid. I go to bed. I have a dream some old friend comes and visits me, shows me some crap from my past when I was a nicer man. Then, I get told to wait for the ghost of Christmas Present, and next thing I know I’m standing on a dark road in the middle of the night. I hear an engine, and then see lights cresting the hill, and there you were, right on me.”

Ramon laughed, a kind of bitter sound. “I thought you said it wasn’t a ghost story.”

“Oh no,” said Dallas. “I said I wasn’t a ghost. This is definitely a ghost story.” Dallas patted his knee, and Stella did her best to climb into his lap, putting her torso and front legs onto him.

“How is that?”

“Used to be an old ski resort off Luckton. I worked it in the 50s for years. One Christmas Eve was so rainy we all got sent home. I decided to drive over Nicholas Pass to surprise my Mama.

“I get near the peak, and there, standing in the middle of the road is a man. Just like when you saw me, except he was on the pass, right at that hairpin corner before the peak. I pulled to a stop, nothing else to do, and was about to get out of my car to talk to him like you done to me, when he disappeared. Poof, just gone.

“And a moment later, a shelf of snow fell on the road, right there in front of me. Right where I shoulda been. I would have been buried, or pushed off the road. I saw my death right there. But for that man standing there, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”

“And you think that was Corker Prine?” said Ramon.

“Don’t know who else it could’ve been.” said Dallas

“You think he’s a benevolent kind of ghost? Come back to help people from getting killed on the pass?”

Dallas shrugged. “What do I know? I’m just telling you what I saw.”

“So, if you hadn’t gotten in front of my Jeep, I would have made it fine over the hill. Or, old Corker would have appeared to me and kept me safe.”

They were almost to where Ramon had first seen Dallas in the road.

“Do me a favor and stop the car,” Dallas said.

“Why?”

“Just let me out.”

Ramon laughed. “I’m not gonna let you out in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm.”

“Let me out, I’ll be fine. I just know I’m not supposed to go over that pass. You gonna do it, that’s between you and your pup here. None of my business anymore. I tried to get you to stop and you said no. Fine. I’m not gonna be a party to it anymore. Your funeral.”

“Suits me,” Ramon said. He began to slow down.

“I’m gonna take your thermos with me. You make good cider. It’ll keep me warm.”

“Fine,” said Ramon. The car came to a stop.

Dallas gave Stella few good pets. “You try to convince him, now,” he said.

He opened the door and stepped out. Walked around the back of the Jeep, the brake lights splashing him red, like before, then he walked to about the spot he originally was standing when Ramon found him.

Ramon could see Dallas’ breath, again like smoke, rising from him in great plumes. He was a silhouette against the falling snow.

Stella whined. Ramon motioned with his head, and she got back in her seat, but whined again.

“You know what’ll happen if we don’t make it in time for opening presents,” Ramon said. He turned and looked at her. The Jeep idled. The hot air from the vents shushed. She looked right back at him, impatient, eyebrows pursed. Obviously of a set opinion. She yelped, annoyed.

“Fine,” he said. "Fine. You win. Stay.” Ramon opened the door and stepped out into the cold.

“Hey!” He called out to Dallas. But Dallas was not where he was a moment ago. Ramon ran over, but Dallas’ footsteps lead from the Jeep to a circle of indented snow in the middle of the road, no new tracks leading away from it, just a small circle where he had been standing.

Ramon looked around. “Dallas!” He cried out, but there was nothing. Just snow, falling from above, late on Christmas Eve. Just his own breath, making clouds as he exhaled. “Dallas?”

The engine of the car purred, exhaust bluming from the tailpipe. It cast red behind it from the brake lights, staining the snow. Before the Jeep, the headlights illuminated a long cooridor of tall-standing trees, and a cut valley of road between them, frosted in untouched snow. That way, Nicholas Pass.

But the way was shut. The pass was closed. Nothing could be done about it tonight. There was no doubt about that. It was Christmas Eve in the mountains, and somewhere behind him and somewhere in front of him, there was a line in the sky: above it, powder white. Below it, an earth soaked with hard falling rain.

Year of the pig

Published December 24, 2019, at 12:00pm

Ivan Schneider reviews Jean-Baptiste de Amo's Animalia, Nell Zink's Doxology, and Juan José Millás' From the Shadows (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn).

In typically "reassuring" style, reviewer-at-large Ivan Schneider brings the holidays home.

Read this review now

The Heart

   

A door opened into her body,
a cavern, pinpricks like electric wasps.

Her fingers dimmed
like fireflies drained of light.

So this is someone’s work, she thought,
the dimpled spider and the white heal-all.

Her heart waned in the cave.
A fox crept to the mouth, lowered his head.

Wind shivered through her gown.
Where is he going? she asked.

Where is the spider? At night
flowers closed like ghosts on their stems,

moth wings ruined by fingers. Voices floated
from the hall, lungs filled and emptied,

alveoli like paintbrush bracts,
like tips of lit torches.

Announcing the Seattle City of Literature Community Catalogue

We love this week's sponsor, Seattle City of Literature, the organization responsible for Seattle's designation as a UNESCO City of Literature.

They've just released a great resource: the Community Catalogue. It's a compendium of the best of Seattle's literary culture: bookstores, libraries, professional organizations, publishers, educational centers, conferences/festivals/fairs, residencies, nonprofits, and many more. Check it out, or read more on our sponsor's page.

And, a side plea from us: consider Seattle City of Literature in your year-end giving. They're a vital resource that is working to make our disparate literary work into the one thing we praise most during the holidays: a community.

Thanks for the sponsorship, Seattle City of Literature! We haven't opened our books for the Winter and Spring yet, but we have a few tantalizing sponsor openings left for the clever and quick to snag before someone else grabs them from under you.

Looking for something to do on a holiday week? Try a book club!

Friday, December 27th: Afternoon Book Group

Due to the timing of Christmas and New Year's, this is one of the deadest weeks for literary events over the last few years. If you'd like to get out and immerse yourself into a bookish group, your best bet is to sidle up to a book club. Luckily, there's a great conversation to be had this Friday afternoon at the Greenwood branch of Seattle Public Library. The conversation will revolve around Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, the journalistic account of Elizabeth Holmes and the boondoggle known as Theranos. You can't really find a more appropriate way to close out this year of corruption, outsize profits for a tiny few, and bullshit PR moves than a discussion about one of the largest Silicon Valley scams in history.

Seattle Public Library, Greenwood Branch, 8016 Greenwood Ave N, http://spl.org, 2 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for December 22, 2019

To be frank — and why not? — like the anxiety dreams that persist decades after my last hour in a college classroom, this week, I haven’t done the reading.

I’ve read many things. On the page, on the screen of my new e-reader — a Kobo, because fuck you Jeff Bezos — and while I bought it for its kindness to new areas of darkness in my eyes, it’s now closer and more consistently to hand than even my iPhone.

(Than even my iPhone! Because like all of us, or almost, my very clever phone now fills the interstices of my life, even, to the despair of the SRoB team, to the point of responding to editorial queries while stopped in traffic.)

This is how I read when I was a child. In any moment that the world didn’t absolutely demand my attention, I was in a book. On the schoolbus; under the desk in classrooms; under the blankets at night. Common. But: While walking from one room to another. Between songs in band. Between sentences in conversation.

(Most of my childhood discipline was meant to pull me back to the world beyond the page. So, what the iPhone has done — in my case — is not invade spaces where “real life” used to be, but overturn years of my mother’s careful training, years of learning to bounce the ball back, to pay attention to the people around me, to mirror them and how they move with the world.)

I am home for Christmas, and my grandmother, who is 95, is experiencing a slow loss of mind that’s peeling away the understanding we’ve had of her for decades. In its place, a woman who cared terribly for her family and showed them that by surviving.

Which led to my mother asking her children what it was like to return to a house that you’d grown up in, since she had many, and I and my brothers at most swapped bedrooms for variety.

Which led to asking myself what it is like, since I have never thought of it as returning to a house, but only as returning home.

And answering: a house of stories and the physical memory of the books that held them.

(Something my e-reader, whatever joy it gives me, can never duplicate.)

This is the house where my father read Jack London’s Call of the Wild — a big, red book without a dust jacket, at an age where I was young enough to be read to but already beginning to correct the errors iI saw over his shoulder. It’s the house of memorizing the wolf song from The Jungle Book and playing at a braver kind of loneliness in the woods in the backyard.

This is the house of The Hobbit; you already know which mass market paperback I’m talking about. It’s the house of reading the same mass market editions of The Lord of the Rings long before I could understand more than the terror of the Black Riders and the glory of the elves.

It’s the house of water-crumpled copies of endless Heinlein and Bradbury, of McIntyre and McCaffrey, of Asprin and Anthony and Pratchett, because at a certain age, an endlessly refilled hot tub brought hours of comfort, and no hour could be spent without a book. There must, in retrospect, have been strict rules about library books in the bath. Or maybe I had better sense than I remember having.

It’s the house I came home to in college with immense copies of Hardy’s poems and slender ones of Bishop’s and Bogan’s. The latter, later, were stained with smoke and a memory of fire and panic, but I could never manage to trade them for fresher copies. I read Bishop even now, when it’s that copy, with the silence of my childhood home at midnight dampening the distractions of the world.

It’s the house I came back to in graduate school empty-handed, during a yearlong period when my mind devoured itself so unrelentingly that even reading was overwhelming.

(You may feel the sting of an hour’s separation from your smartphone. But losing the ability to connect with books is a death. A small one, but a real one.)

This morning, it’s the house where I sit in the daybed my mother made for me, which I look forward to finding at the end of every year, and write this before we go to visit my grandmother again. This year will be marked by the crispness of the ARCs I’ve brought, and the gentle resistance of the e-reader’s buttons.

There’s a bookcase across the room that’s waiting for me today as well. Last summer, my mother and I sat in a humid, dark attic, eyeing a dormant wasp’s next just in case, and went through box after box of books from my childhood and my brothers'. Whatever’s in that bookcase is what I chose, on that hard, hot day, to keep.

It’s not a large case, and the shelves are barely full. Of books, anyway. I expect I may find them full of other things.

Whatcha Reading, Arlene Naganawa?

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.

Arlene Naganawa is a Seattle-based poet and teaching artist, with three published chapbooks, and many poems published in journals. She's a recipient of the Seattle Arts Comission literary artist award, has been featured on Metro Poetry on Buses, works with Seattle Arts & Lectures as a Writer in the Schools, and is the current Seattle Review of Books Poet in Residence. Arlene is currently working on two two projects funded by Artist Trust's Grants for Artist Projects, and a Seattle Arts and Culture CityArtist grant. One is a series of poems exploring the life of her maternal grandparents and their friend who immigrated to Whitefish, Montana, in 1919, to work on the Great Northern Railroad as laborers, servants, ranch hands, and store owners. The second is a collaboration with several local visual artists, exploring the connection between biology and the creation of organic forms in ceramics and textiles.

What are you reading now?

Right now I am reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit and Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineraolgy, Anatomy, and the Arts by Patrick Syme.

What did you read last?

I recently finished On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

What are you reading next?

Next, I’ll be reading The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

The Help Desk: Does this book stink?

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. Cienna is enjoying maybe a little too much nog for the holidays; we're proudly re-presenting this column from three years ago.

Dear Cienna,

Whenever people get angry about e-books, they always talk about how much they love the way books smell. Is this real? The only time I’ve ever smelled a book was when it was sitting in a musty basement for too long.

I’ve always had a decent sense of smell, I thought. I can tell when I forgot to put on deodorant in the morning, and I love new car smell. But of all the pleasures that books bring me, smell is not one of them.

Do books have a smell? What do they smell like?

Brian, Shoreline

Dear Brian,

What have you been doing with your life that you’ve only ever sniffed one book? I bet you’ve sniffed a handful of horrible things repeatedly in your life but you can’t be bothered to pick up a book, close your eyes, and inhale until you run out of lung? I have three books sitting on my desk right now and each smells different: Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils smells crisp, like socks fresh from the dryer; Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space smells sour because I spilled old coffee on it; my 20-year-old copy of Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories smells like spiders in top hats because it is the book I return to the most often and thus have charged my most trusted spiders to watch over it like those somber circus-themed sentinels that guard the Vatican.

There have been scientific research papers written on how the smell of books change as they age. There are posters devoted to the aroma chemistry of them. Our memory is closely tied to our sense of smell, which is why book lovers cherish the scents that emanate from their favorite works, and which is probably why whenever I smell a spider in a top hat, I now have the urge to hug a wooden-legged woman.

If you’re interested in seeing how books smell (har har), ask a handful of friends to bring over a favorite book and a bottle of wine. Cover the labels and blindfold yourself, and your friends can blindly drink and watch in amusement as you sniff out the unique notes of their favorite works.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Crack errs

Portrait Gallery: Happy Holidays!

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.

Criminal Fiction: Blood on the snow

Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

Things are mightily askew for Carol Jordan and Tony Hill in Val McDermid’s How the Dead Speak (Atlantic). The dynamic duo has been physically torn asunder following the events of 2017’s Insidious Intent: Tony is in prison, and Carol is grappling with the crippling effects of PTSD. Then, Tony’s horrific mother comes calling, corralling Carol into finding a scam artist. Meanwhile, Carol’s Regional Major Incident Team (ReMIT) teammates – including the canny DI Paula McIntyre and the supremely internet-adept Stacey Chen – are on the case when a mass grave is discovered on the grounds of a former convent. McDermid’s witty and assured authorial hand juggles multiple strands of mystery and murder to create a narrative that’s an absolute pleasure to read, chock-full of criminal conundrums as well as compelling characters, both major and minor.

Early in Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep (Knopf) – in the first sentence, in fact – he presents a barely-there clue that transforms what appears to be historical fiction into speculative fiction. Be warned: Harris’ evocative depiction of humanity’s future is not pretty. His post-apocalyptic world has returned England to one of its darkest ages, a pre-industrial landscape of serfdom, rampant consumption – of the tuberculosis kind – and public hangings. Church and State are one, faith has replaced reason, any pursuit of historical knowledge is outlawed, the Inquisition is alive and well, and the common law reads, “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound….” Into this claustrophobic setting rides Christopher Fairfax, a priest, who discovers a treasure-trove of allegedly heretical books and objects, and soon has a suspicious death as well as a crisis of faith on his hands. Harris’ post-disaster world is skillfully and carefully wrought, lending a particularly chilling aspect to his all-too-plausible vision.

In Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré (Viking), Nat, a newly retired British spy and agent runner who has recently returned to England, is brought back into the intelligence fold to whip a languishing London field office into shape. Meanwhile, an encounter at his sports club leads to a chummy, chatty badminton-centered relationship with a young man named Ed, who throws his disgust with both Brexit and Trump into sharp relief during post-game rants. This being a Le Carré novel, of course, there are no spoilers in noting that political machinations, intelligence-directed manipulations, and deceptive actions are the order of the day, as a slate of spooks confer and, inevitably, eye each other up as possible moles. Agent marks another thoroughly engaging and satisfying spy novel from one of the genre’s masters; it is also an energizing and entertaining cri de coeur from a social hero: in October, Le Carré spent his 88th birthday marching for a People’s Vote on a second Brexit referendum.

It doesn’t get much cosier than Christmas in Provence, complete with cassoulets, tasty olives, and a Christmas market with food from Aix-en-Provence’s Sister Cities, including Philly cheesesteaks, English pastries, and German beer. But in M.L. Longworth’s A Noël Killing (Penguin), all is not right in Aix. Judge Antoine Verlaque is feeling inordinately grumpy, and his wife, Marine Bonnet, has a secret playing on her mind. Then, a baffling death occurs during a Christmas carol sing-along at the cathedral, and everything goes just a bit more haywire. Corsican gangsters, a bilingual private school, mysterious business practices, and plenty of husband-and-wife intrigue among various local couples drive the plot, while Longworth happily peppers her seasonal tale with lovely and cheeky references to films such as Manon des Sources and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Kate Bush songs, and the swoon-inducing Bradley Cooper.

The Quintessential Interview: Elly Griffiths

Now You See Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the latest Edgar Stephens-Max Mephisto mystery, is set against a deeply 60s English backdrop – the Beatles, the new-to-TV Top of the Pops, Bobby Soxers, Mods and Rockers, early days of pro-animal activists, new towns, and the social-class divide. Newly reunited, Stephens and Mephisto join forces once again as detecting partners-in-crime when several young women go missing. But, refreshingly, the dudes have others to reckon with in the form of Emma Holmes-turned-Stephens, now a mother of three and married to Edgar; 19-year-old policewoman Meg Connolly; and newspaper reporter Sam Collins. Women’s changing roles at home and at work, father-daughter relationships, and dark obsessions all play their part in this cunning, atmospheric mystery set in and around Griffiths’ hometown of Brighton.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

  1. My mum. She read to me and my sisters until we were in our teens. I still hear certain books in her voice.
  2. Wilkie Collins. When I first read the description of the shivering sands in The Moonstone, I realised that this was the sort of crime novel I wanted to write, where the landscape itself is doom-laden and sinister.
  3. Agatha Christie. No-one plots better but I think her descriptions are underrated. She does good spooky houses.
  4. Readers. The book community is a wonderful place and, some days, it’s my readers that keep me going.
  5. My cat, Gus. He always sits with me when I write. Often, I know, without looking round, that he’s staring at me.

Top five places to write?

My garden office. Ok, it’s a shed really but it is surrounded by apple trees and has a sea view. And that’s it. I don’t write when I’m away from home and could never work in a café or on a train. I used to write in an ‘office’ that doubled as a music practice room, work room, and teenage chill-out area. The shed feels like bliss.

Top five favorite authors?

Wilkie Collins. Jane Austen. Alison Lurie. Anne Tyler. P.G. Wodehouse

Top five tunes to write to?

I never listen to music when I’m writing. I like complete silence. When I’m not working, I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen and Italian opera.

Top five hometown spots?

  1. Brighton Pier. There used to be two piers and, in the Brighton Mysteries, it’s great to bring the beautiful West Pier back to life.
  2. The Undercliff Walk between Saltdean and Brighton. It’s the scene of a murder in Now You See Them but this is actually a beautiful walk, cliffs on one side, sea on the other. I’m there most days, gazing out to sea or having coffee in the Whitecliffs Café. In the summer, I swim in the sea every day.
  3. North Laine. Not as smart as the famous Brighton Lanes but full of fascinating second-hand shops.
  4. The Fortune of War. It’s a pub on the edge of the beach that looks like an upside-down boat. When I was a teenager, it was considered a daring place to go and, even though the surrounding area has been smartened up, the Fortune still has a slightly rackety feel to it.
  5. Rottingdean. A beautiful village, just outside Brighton, famous for smuggling and for once being the home of Rudyard Kipling. In the wall around the Kipling Gardens, there’s a stone Saxon head that allegedly brings good luck if you touch its nose and turn round three times….

Thursday Comics Hangover: Between poetry and comics, between animal and human

Seattle cartoonist Mita Mahato has always worked in the world between comics and poetry. Her debut collection of paper cut comics, In Between, came out from Plieades Press, one of the more exciting independent poetry publishers.

It's hard to describe, exactly, what defines this conjunction between poetry and comics. They're not just comics with poems published on top of them, or in caption boxes. It's easier to describe them by what they're not: They're less concerned with plot and more concerned with tone and phrasing and perspective.

And they're also deeply interested in the non-human experience. She's written two graceful, beautiful love poems about and for marine life — one full of wonder, one elegiac — that indicate her sympathies may not fall strictly on the human side of the environmental equation. These poetry comics are perfect for that kind of exploration: they're not as word-based as traditional poetry, and so they appeal to our other forms of communication. They put us in a more primal state of mind.

Mahato's latest collection, It's All Over And Other Poems on Animals debuted at Short Run this year. It's perhaps her most traditionally poetic work, and it's also a deeper exploration of her environmental themes. Over is a collection of three short tone poems collected in one tiny package. The poems consist of pages full of repeated phrases with colorful silhouettes of animals behind them.

So, in front of a dolphin silhouette tinged in red, with pink waves emanating from it: "THELASTTIMEISAWYOUTHELASTTIMEISAWYOUTHELASTTIMEISAWYOU"

And over an orca:

"IT'SALLOVERIT'SALLOVERIT'SALLOVER"

In Mahato's neat-but-somewhat-frantic lettering, these repeating words feel like a cross between a mantra and a cry for help. They're a religious experience and a single circling thought and a single-minded, animalistic desire to exist. It's hard to say if Mahato is speaking for the animals, or if she's trying to think like them, to become their translator.

Over is a more experimental work for Mahato. It's as gorgeous an object as any comic she's made, but it's also less accessible than some of her other work. That's just fine, of course; not every poem is intended for mass market appreciation. And the thematic work she's doing in this short conceptual work will likely pay off in huge ways in the future. Her aspirations for the form are more ambitious than perhaps any other comics artist — and poet — in Seattle.

Holiday Recommends: Here is the book that Emily Nokes would give all of Seattle

We’re asking people who made a splash in 2019 one question: If you could give everyone in Seattle one book as a gift this holiday season, what book would you choose and why? Our final gift-giver is Emily Nokes, who is the lead singer of Tacocat and music editor at Bust Magazine. There have been three new albums on heavy rotation in our ears all year long year: Lizzo's Cuz I Love You, Carly Rae Jepsen's Dedicated, and Tacocat's This Mess Is a Place. It is a party album for America in 2019, which is to say it's a party album which doesn't try to ignore that things are pretty tough right now. But sometimes you just have to party, right? Do yourself a favor and buy — don't just stream — this remarkable album; you won't regret it.

I would give everyone in Seattle Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino. I loved it so much it's practically a prerequisite for having a conversation with me right now haha. I haven't read anyone who can so intelligently untangle and articulate the feelings of NOW—the performative bleakness of social media, how mainstream "feminism" has been commodified and co-opted into a nothing concept, the ultimate scam of late capitalism, and other ways in which existing in the 21st century feels like a stupid trap. Her essays aren't preachy or prescriptive, just incredibly observant, funny, and well structured.

Holiday Recommends: Here are the books that Amada Cruz would give all of Seattle



We’re asking people who made a splash in 2019 one question: If you could give everyone in Seattle one book as a gift this holiday season, what book would you choose and why? This morning's gift-giver is Amada Cruz, who was announced as the new Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO at Seattle Art Museum back in June of this year. Cruz is a huge reader who didn't hesitate when asked to pick a book (or two) to recommend.

The book that I think everyone in Seattle — or really, America — should read is These Truths: A History of the United States by historian Jill Lepore, a rollicking history of this country, with all of its contradictions. It’s full of surprising information, such as the history of political polling, which of course has crucial ramifications for our current moment.

But for a holiday gift, I’d choose The Dutch House by the always-incredible Ann Patchett. I mean, who doesn’t love an epic family drama for the holidays?