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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.
I’ve always thought of Turbotax sort of like those individually wrapped slices of “cheese product” — I know slicing my own cheese isn’t hard; I know it’d improve lunch if I did. But, in the everyday calculus of time and attention … well.
Despite those annual moments of Turboweakness, I had no idea until this episode of the fabulous Reply All that the “free” software was born out of an agreement with Intuit (and other, less successful companies) that effectively restricts the US government from offering free electronic tax filing to its citizens. Well!
With its monopoly on “free” filing successfully established, Intuit has used every trick in the book, and invented several new ones, to obscure the path to free tax filing for its users. It’s insane to think how much actual productive positive change they could have made in the world with the money and energy that have gone into bilking people who are, in many cases, already scraping the bottom of their bank accounts.
Propublica has been reporting on this story for some time; you can find a slew of links at the bottom of the Reply All link above.
Every fall before tax season, the company puts every aspect of the TurboTax homepage and filing process through rigorous user testing. Design decisions down to color, word choice and other features are picked to maximize how many customers pay, regardless if they are eligible for the free product. “Dark patterns are something that are spoken of with pride and encouraged in design all hands” meetings, said one former designer.
The Giving Tree is one of the most gruesomely off-key books a child could read. It’s a claustrophobic morality play in which one character engages in escalating degrees of self-mutilation in hopes of winning the other’s attention and affection. The happy ending? The survivor sits, haggard and bent with age, and rests on the corpse of his lifelong worshipper.
This take is a little too mild for my tastes, but it carries the weight of appearing in the NYT’s Parenting column, where hopefully it will save some children nightmares — and a lifetime of bad relationship decisions.
We don’t know what motivated Shel Silverstein to write “The Giving Tree.” In a rare interview, he said it was about “a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.” But we think it’s best read as a cautionary tale about love. Although the tree seems to take joy in giving to the boy, their relationship is entirely one-sided. The tree is perfectly happy to destroy herself under the guise of “love” for the boy. That’s not love; it’s abuse. Even an editor of the book, Phyllis Fogelman, felt that way. “I have had qualms about my part in the publication of ‘The Giving Tree,’ which conveys a message with which I don’t agree,” she said in an interview. “I think it is basically a book about a sadomasochistic relationship.”
Ge Gao’s writing arm betrays her, first with pain, then with uselessness. This essay, which explores her loss from both personal and philosophical perspectives, is charmingly self-aware — who would not feel self-pity, robbed of their right hand? And yet who, knowing themselves self-pitying, could help it?
I started wondering whether the pain disabled me from writing and creating work, or whether my illness covered up the parts that had already been disabled — that were not capable of producing enough substantial matters in life to satisfy my body and mind. A broken arm could be a visible excuse. It made more sense than a malfunctioning mind. It had gained more sympathy from friends and strangers, too.
Ben Guterson just won a Washington State Book Award in the Middle Grade (ages 8 and up) category, for his book Winterhouse — the first book in the Winterhouse Trilogy . He's a Seattle native who spent ten years teaching public school on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and rural Colorado before working at Program Manager at Microsoft. He lives in North Bend with this family. Congratulations, Ben!
What are you reading now?
I’ve been on a Plato kick for the past month-plus and am trying to make my way through the majority of his works — I’m on The Republic right now. My parents had the entire set of the Great Books of the Western World along a hallway in our home when I was a kid, and I was always drawn to the volumes. I’ve slogged through the collection’s “Ten Year Reading Plan” a couple times over the years, but I’m not sure I’ve soaked up nearly as much I’d like, so now I’m trying to move through the books a little more conscientiously. This past summer I read Herodotus and Thucydides (the Landmark Books editions of both are fantastic); and now I’m on Plato, though I’m also reading some middle-grade books from the 1940s by Elizabeth Enright. I spend a lot of time with middle-grade novels, given the audience I write for, and it’s a pleasure to read Enright’s sincere and charming books. For contemporary middle-grade novels I like Trenton Lee Stewart, Jessica Townsend, and Colin Meloy, who moonlights as the frontman for The Decemberists.
What did you read last?
I read two bizarre novels at the end of summer — Remainder by Tom McCarthy, from 2005; and Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear by Javier Marias, from 2007. I’m a big Marias fan and have been wanting to read the “Your Face Tomorrow” trilogy for some time, so I was glad to jump into the series’ first book. Strange story, but most of his stuff is strange, I think, in interesting ways — dense with conceptual detours that see Marias pacing off about twenty steps more than I ever would have imagined, all absorbing. I’d heard about the McCarthy book for years — I once came across something where Zadie Smith said it was among the best of the decade, so that intrigued me. I found the story increasingly off-putting, though, as it progressed, despite its concern with matters I generally find of great interest in literature: authenticity, fabrication, and memory.
What are you reading next?
Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I like to work through the books of a given author in chronological fashion, and I’ve been moving through Roth’s novels for the past half-decade by reading a handful each year. Roth, Bellow, Ishiguro, Graham Greene, Saramago, Marias, Nabokov, and Elana Ferrante are my favorite novelists, and I’ve tried to read most of their stuff. The Catton book, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, looks right up my alley — mysterious doings and lots of interwoven stories, from what I gather. I’m also about to tackle a little more Plato before attempting some Aristotle.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to: email@example.com. Cienna is taking a break at an unimpeachable spa, so this is a rerun from 2016.
I never figured out how to read comic books. This sounds silly, I know, but every time I look at a page, I don’t know where to start. This word balloon? That box with text over there? Starting in the upper left corner doesn’t seem to work for a lot of comics pages. I’m 35 years old and I’ve tried to read all the comics everyone says I should read: Persepolis, Palestine. I never get more than a few pages in before I develop a terrible migraine. But my friends, particularly the guys, say I should keep at it. Is it okay if I just give up?
I get it. Personally, I can’t read read technical instructions or nutrition information without bleeding from my eyes. If you’ve given graphic novels your best effort, feel free to do what I do whenever a well-intentioned friend confronts me with technical instructions or nutrition information and threaten to burn their house down. (Practice saying to your guy friends, “I am a strong independent woman and if you wave that shit in front of my face again I will burn your motherfucking house down with gasoline and fireworks.”)
If, however, you want to give the medium another shot, I suggest you relax and treat them as you would children’s books: look at the pictures first and then, if you feel inclined, read the text. Remember: you’re not being tested on the material so who cares about comprehension? Also, maybe try reading a fun graphic novel before diving into beautiful-but-bleak works like Persepolis and Palestine? I recommend Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. It’s at least equal parts funny and bleak.
Chris Abani has done it all: he’s a novelist, a memoirist, a poet, and a political activist who has been sentenced to death. He’s also a beloved teacher, and so this lecture, about employing awe as a writer, should be a real inspiration for you writers out there. He’ll also be interviewed by Hugo House writer-in-residence Kristen Millares Young. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $15.
Tomorrow night at Elliott Bay Book Company, I'll be interviewing Seattle author Paul C. Tumey about his massive new art book, Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny. It's a huge collection of brief essays of cartoonists from the beginning of the 20th century, when the modern comic strip was just getting started as an art from, along with over 600 cartoons and illustrations — many never before reprinted.
Even if you're not a comics nut, you've likely heard the names or know the work of three of the cartoonists highlighted in Screwball!: Rube Goldberg, whose name literally became the name of his elaborate machines devised to perform very simple tasks; Krazy Kat creator George Herriman; and EC Segar, the cartoonist who came up with Popeye. Tumey smartly focuses on the lesser-known work of these cartoonists, rather than going over the greatest hits that have been covered again and again.
Segar, for instance, drew a series of strips about commuting in Chicago. One of them, "Looping the Loop" was an observational strip about life in the big city in 1919: bizarre clothing trends, interesting noses on pedestrians, a series of comparisons between classic sculptures like The Thinker and Segar's gawky characters striking the same poses. You can draw a straight line from these gag strips to MAD Magazine.
But the total unknowns, the cartoonists who elevated the medium to an art form and then disappeared, are perhaps most interesting. Consider Clare Dwiggins, a cartoonist known as "Dwig" who devised one strip as a sequel to a classic of American literature. As Tumey writes:
In the early 1940s Dwig returned to his "old-fashioned Tawin stories with *Huckleberry Finn*, a new daily strip for the Philadelphia Ledger Syndicate. The stories offer wacky adventures, such as a 1940 continuity in which the boys travel the Mississippi River not on a raft, but inside a giant robot duck. Also in these years, Dwig penned a series of gentle, silly Tom and Huck comic book stories for Street and Smith. These are tucked, like a flower in a machine, inside heroic titles such as *Doc Savage Comics*.
It's true that these old strips require a kind of learning curve. They read as more than a little stilted in modern times — partly a consequence of outdated language and partly a difference in the way comics portrayed time and action over a hundred years. But Tumey is a great and observational guide who will hold your hand and contextualize each of the works. He also, presumably, selected some of the most accessible work from this bygone era for modern audiences to enjoy.
Comics have always been a disposable art form. They were thrown out with the newspaper, and children read them and re-read them until they fell apart. With Screwball!, Tumey is snatching these treasures from the scrap heap and presenting them to audiences a century or so later. Comics have moved on, it's true — there's more variety in the figures' sizes in the panels, the balloons aren't quite as packed full of words, and artists feel empowered to play with perspective and pacing in ways that were unimaginable back in the day.
But maybe today's cartoonists can learn something from these strips, too. For one thing, the level of detail in each panel — the sheer amount of story and art crammed into each square inch — is much denser than most of today's comics. And for another, the slapstick comedy in these strips is much broader, much more physical, than most of the comedy you'll find in comics today. Tumey is excavating more than just a nostalgia trip: he's pointing to a lost form of communication — one that can inform a whole new generation of artists.
A couple of bookstores in our region are running crowdfunding campaigns in an effort to stay in business.
In Tacoma, professional wrestler Ethan HD is running a GoFundMe to take over ownership of Destiny City Comics, a five-year-old shop whose owner announced he'd be closing this fall. Mister, uh, HD is about halfway to his goal.
Meanwhile, in Portland, a campaign to save the city's oldest bookstore, Cameron's Books and Magazines, is about a third of the way to its goal. The 80-year-plus store — which claims to have one of the biggest selections of periodicals outside the Library of Congress — is being forced to relocate; without a successful campaign it will probably disappear.
Published October 16, 2019, at 10:00am
Born-in-Seattle novelist Madeline ffitch is coming back to town next week for a string of appearances all over the region. Her surprising novel Stay and Fight reimagines the essential American relationship between humans and nature.
Jeanette Winterson is coming to Seattle for the first time since 2011. If you are unfamiliar with her work, it could be because, like many of her generation and orientation, she was often typed as being a lesbian writer, as if queer fiction and writing isn't for everybody. Her cogent, thoughtful, outsider explorations of gender and sexuality deserve a bigger audience in the United States, besides the one she's well-lauded for writing about the past 35 years. Her novels are rife with magical realism, science fiction, general weirdness, and wonderfully obdurate characters. They're often — usually — quite fun.
Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was released in 1985. Her twenty-eighth book, Frankissstein, was just released in the states (it's been out since May in Winterson's home of England). It's been longlisted for the Booker already, so if that goes well she can add it to her already long list of accomplishments, including an OBE.
My first encounter with Winterson's work was 1989's Sexing the Cherry, a book I read around the time of its publication, which was also about the same time I was introduced to Borges and to Angela Carter. Both of those writers show through Winterson's work. Early in Cherry, she writes:
"Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle. These are the journeys I wish to record. Not the ones I made, but the ones I might have made, or perhaps did make in some other place or time."
Her new weird, and wonderful, book opens with Mary Shelley going for a naked walk around Lake Geneva in the rainy gloom — during the now-famous "Year Without a Summer", caused by the explosion of Mount Tabora. At this point in the narrative Shelley hadn't started writing Frankenstein, yet, but she's obviously ripe to:
"Here I am, in my inadequate skin, goose-fleshed and shivering. A poor specimen of a creature, with no nose of a dog, and no speed of a horse, and no wings like the invisible buzzards whose cries I hear above me like lost souls, and no fins or even a mermaid's tail for this wrung-out weather. I am not as well-found as that dormouse disappearing into a crack in the rock. I am a poor specimen of a creature, except that I can think."
On her walk, she sees something:
"A figure, gigantic, ragged, moving swiftly on the rocks above me, climbing away from me, his back turned to me, his movements sure, and at the same time hesitant, like a young dog whose paws are too big for him. I thought to call out but I confess I was afraid."
If naked Mary Shelley having a vision in the rain is your idea of a good start to a book, you're in for a treat.
But Frankissstein is more than the story of Shelley and writing the first science fiction book, it's the story of a trans doctor named Ry, who is falling in love with Victor Stein, an AI researcher, amidst the backwash of Brexit. And, of course, the story includes sex robots. And lots of romance.
Winterson featuring a trans character prominently in her new book is a political, and humanist, statement. In England the debate over trans acceptance and rights is absolutely bonkers, raging between trans-rights activists and many old-school feminists who have been labeled "trans-exclusionary radical feminists" or TERFs.
Winterson was asked about this in an interview recently:
"We don’t know that if our world was genuinely inclusive and tolerant that there would be such agony, such body dysmorphia, such a need to find another gender. There should be more than two genders anyway, of course there should, it’s daft. People don’t always feel either that they are totally male or totally female, and we haven’t done very well with that.”
Winterson has been an out lesbian since she was 16 when her adoptive-mother gave her an ultimatum: stop seeing that girl you're seeing, or you'll have to leave the house. Winterson chose homelessness and being out over comfort, and told her mother that the girl made her happy.
"Why be happy when you can be normal?" was the reply. One way to understand Winterson is that she used that title for her autobiography. Which, incidentally, was the last book she toured to Seattle.
So come out and see her Wednesday at 7:00pm at the Central Library. Pick up a copy of Frankissstein, and get it signed. It's a rare treat to have Winterson in Seattle, we should make sure she's very welcome.
July 14, 1992
10: 00 AM
we step out of unfamiliar cars, in an unfamiliar neighborhood into an unknown church.
this is my nephew’s funeral. his light brown hair and skin gathered in an urn. this is neutral ground, not Presbyterian, not Catholic, not the place of forgiveness.
named for his father
he never saw his daughter —
lineage of fire
we are the frozen chosen, the uptight upright, the pet name labels for Presbyterians — appropriate. my father, his grandmother sit as crisply as their clothes, held together by the corset of middle class indignation. this must be a proper service, no charismatic calls to death, only silent weeping until the Big Man takes the stage.
best friend, brother man
carrying a boom box
burns up pretense
it seems my nephew had one wish for his funeral, one. so, any best friend must carry that cross no matter how strange to the pulpit. he ascends, rippling with tears, a 6-foot river, 2 feet wide, we wade in the water. he is our spiritual and we are ready to sing with him, best friend, river rippling.
what song will he give us? what piece of my oldest nephew will he pull from the fiery furnace of the hotel burning, the room that had consumed him? i had always told him not to smoke in bed.
we are waiting, the thought of the lyrics climbing into our throats. Stand by Me? Lean on Me? What will it be? We begin to weep.
push the button
truth echoes through the chapel —
the music begins. the familiar beat and then, “Oh my god, Becky, her butt is so big. I like big butts and I cannot lie; all the other brothers can deny…”
we are a frozen scene.
after the funeral, nieces, nephews and aunties, all the same age, sneak away to smoke, drink and tell the truth until after midnight.
our laughter —
church bell chimes heralding
Sponsor Seattle Public Library is bringing an important event to your attention this week. "Recovering the Salish Sea starts with you," says the banner on the website for the important new book We Are Puget Sound: Discovering & Recovering the Salish Sea.
The book contributors are gathering at the Central Library, Wednesday, October 23rd at 7:00pm. This event is free and open to the public. Come learn why our efforts to recover our natural environment are crucial. Find our more about the event on our sponsor's page.
It's sponsors like the Seattle Public Library, bringing you crucial local events like this one, that make our site sing. You, too, could sponsor the website, and join the ranks of happy, returning sponsors like the Seattle Public Library. Find out more on our sponsorships page, and if you're ready to book, check out our available dates.
Yesterday, the video game Fortnite hosted a strange event, exposing a fascinating and modern act of marketing-driven storytelling in the age of the internet. They took the whole damn game offline during a Sunday, one of their busiest days, and replaced it with a black hole. They took a known thing (millions playing a game and spending money with them) and replaced it with one of the biggest question marks in entertainment history.
If you are not a gamer or teenager, Fortnite is a video game where 100 people are transported in realtime to an island, on the "Battle Bus" — a flying blue school bus suspended from a hot-air balloon. Players jump from the bus and skydive to locations on the island where they run around, collect weapons, and shoot each other. A storm, encircling the island, contracts during the game, forcing players into the same small geographic region. The last person standing wins the match.
Knowing that tells you almost nothing about the game. Its popularity has to do largely with its theming, which is cartoony, playful, colorful, and fun. You start your time on the island with a pickaxe, which you can use to break through walls, trees, vehicles, and other random items. As you do, you collect steel, brick, or wood, and you can use those materials to build structures for defensive reasons, or to reach areas you can't reach by running or jumping.
The weapons, and other goodies, are hidden in glowing gold chests that thrum an angelic chord when you get near, randomly placed llama piñatas, vending machines, and supply drops that fall from the heavens as a wooden create suspended from a weather balloon. They offer a player ever better weapons to choose from, and eliminating another player causes them to lose their loot, giving more opportunities for strengthening your gear.
Graphically, it’s bloodless — the hyper-masculine agro style of other similarly themed video games is traded for self-effacing humor and weirdness. If you play as the default skin (or, character theme), you get randomly assigned one a few default characters, who are differently gendered and skin-colored. If you’re uptight about playing as a black woman in a game, Fortnite is not the game for you.
Free to play, Epic Games, Fortnite’s publisher, makes its money (and they make a lot of it) through selling limited edition skins, upgrades, and other in-game purchases (like little dance moves called emotes, so you can literally dance on the grave of your enemy) that won’t improve your game play, but certainly allow you to kill your friends with your own limited-edition personal flair. Think of the appeal of hard to get sneakers, and you get the idea.
Looking at a very successful franchise, Epic Games knew that the passion and attention of people who love to game is fickle, and soon would move on to another shiny new thing. In order to keep the game fresh and interesting, they’ve come up with a series of updates called Seasons, where the map of the island changes, sometimes in dramatic and strange ways. Weather changes, regions become renamed, and entering them sometimes temporarily remakes your skin as you penetrate the veil of the region, say, as an old west town, or more recently, as Gotham City, replete with bat signal in the sky.
Beneath these seasons, a series of changes in the map has brought on a meta-narrative about the world and its reality. Epic Games has never come out and said what the narrative is outright, it’s up to the individual players, working together, to weave the meta-narrative from dropped scraps of information. An aggregate story emerged, through taping those scraps together into little conspiracies, with the best suggestions winning. Epic, no doubt, watches and responds, offering just enough to keep the game engaging and interesting, but not enough to be prescriptive with any of their over-story.
A glowing purple cube, called Kevin, appeared, spreading strange anti-gravitational powers. New exclusive skins, which you can earn through competing in challenges, appear — including one called the Visitor, who in an earlier season was seen programming and escaping in a rocket — an event that preceded many strange effects and changes on the island.
It’s this teasing game-within-a-game that captures the attention and interest of gamers when they’re tired of the game action itself. Some in-game puzzles — some trivial, some hinting at larger puzzles — are pursued by players who come to the island not to fight, but to play amongst the battlers, trying to avoid getting swept up in the action until the storm forces them to, and earning skins and points as they level up.
And so it has gone, with Epic Games making a series of smart decisions one after another, until last season when a too-powerful weapon (a mech suit that could hold two players working in unison) appeared, and threw the balance of the game off. People were upset, and other games, such as Overwatch, started capturing more attention.
And this was the state of the world as we came into Sunday. The Visitor is back, building another rocket — and leaving strange audio recordings around the map talking about time loops. A countdown appeared above the rocket, ending at 11am PST Sunday, October 13th.
Epic games tweeted that the end is near, but said little else. They didn’t have to advertise a thing, their players spread the word for them, the mystery too peculiar and intriguing to avoid. What ever is going to happen!?
Just before the event, Epic removed most of the player modes (in the normal game, you can go into battle solo, as part of a team, or play in a split-down-the-middle kind of game where everybody is teamed up). In lieu of them, a team fight called “The End” was the only option available. In the game, people gathered around the rocket and the warehouse structures in its vicinity, building huge scaffolding and structures to better watch what was to come. And, of course, picking each other off and re-spawning into the game.
But, then suddenly, all weapons were taken away, as was nearly every in-game option, leaving everybody standing around with their default axes. For once, players gathered and stood near each other, high in air on the built structures, watching.
The rocket launched, the first stage separating and falling to the ground, and it broke through the atmosphere and disappeared. The sky splintered. Then, moments later, the rocket reappeared from a different cosmic rift, rumbling across the map, horizontal to the ground. Then another, from a different angle, and soon a dozen, a hundred rockets came to the map, zooming overhead and hitting various locations, blowing them up. Then, they gathered around a massive meteorite, affectionately called "the meatball", which has been hovering menacingly over the map for the entire season, and crashed into the ground. The meteorite followed the many rockets, and was absorbed into the island.
The players were whisked high into the air, suspended off to the side of the island, with a birds eye-view of the entire land.
A mysterious orb, hanging out in a lake where many strange events have taken place over the seasons, created a massive force field. The meteorite, entering the atmosphere through another rift, crashed into this force field, pushing through, causing a massive implosion.
All matter sucked into the implosion, including two tomatoes and the Battle Bus, and then the players.
What the end of the event looked like.
The screen went black, and after a few moments, a blue-circled black hole appeared. A light, eerie, ethereal music played. Numbers appeared occasionally, causing people to watch closely and create more conspiracy theories. Millions of people, instead of playing a game and spending money, are staring at a screen with a blue disk. People who have spent a lot of money upgrading their avatars are upset, and feel they may lose their money. But that idea seems unlikely — this is a marketing event, not an art statement. The game will be back, and no doubt, will see a surge of new interest thanks to the stunt.
But in the meantime, Fortnite deleted all the tweets in in their Twitter account, and changed their avatar to black, only posting a live stream to the black hole. Their instagram, same, and their Trello account. They’re playing up the mystery with lack of knowledge, lack of press releases.
Logistically, overhauling the game is a massive effort. All the new code must be pushed into production, everything needs to be tested and assured. One tweet posited that they needed to upgrade all of their servers to handle the new map, and that means hours, if not days, of downtime.
On Fortnite blackout pic.twitter.com/oOQJ2vhwrL— Matthew Ball (@ballmatthew) October 13, 2019
So, this has been a very busy day for Epic Games staff, in contrast to the internet rumors of record numbers teenagers stumbling outside, shielding their eyes from the sun. This mystery, masking the boring, complicated, logistical pedantry of a major system upgrade and new release, is a nice magic trick. Don’t look at the broken login screen, look at the black hole and the strange numbers. Spread wonder to your fans, not frustration.
When will the service be back? It’s been down for nearly six hours as of this writing. Will there be a new map? Other upgrades? Nobody really knows, although leaked pictures hint at what’s probably to come.
This coordination and interplay, the ability to theme and market a game upgrade, is a perfect confluence of everything the internet offers best: fans chattering and spreading the word, the ability to distribute and push software changes remotely to the whole world at once, the strength of massive servers offering the same experience to millions at the same time. And, a whole lot of marketing chutzpah, born from knowing exactly who the people playing their game are, and what will engage them most intensely.
Imagine the Mall of America. 40 million visitors annually (says the internet). What if they started leaving clues around the mall, removing stores and replacing them with mirror-world experiences, changing known things for unknown?
What if they closed the doors one Sunday during peak tourist season? What if they put up mysterious signs outside, and people just gathered to watch them? How much money would they lose?
That’s what Epic Games has done. The comparison to Mall of America is bad in one sense — Fortnite has 250 million registered players, not the measly 40 million mall visitors. Mall of America generates about $2 billion annually for the state of Minnesota; Fortnite generates about $2.5 billion for Epic. Scale wise, they’re in the same ballpark, give or take $500 million.
But a retail establishment of that size closing for a day? It's economic suicide — it could never be done. It's the platform, the method, and the game itself that has allowed for this to happen in this way, at this time.
That's all because of the narrative. The sense that, when you’re done deciding what gun is your favorite and leveling up your skills so you’re not dying in the first few minutes of game 1, that there is something left to chase, something left to do, something left to think about — this is paramount to the success of the franchise.
When the internet was new, there was a lot of talk of hyperlinked stories and writing. People wanted to engage the new technology in advanced ways to tell stories, but the few experiments felt like little more than mediocre choose-your-own-adventure novels. The technology wasn’t ready, truthfully. For every reader who loves books like House of Leaves for its narrative and layout weirdness, just as many were annoyed by having to turn a heavy book sideways to get at the plot. Readers don’t want reading to be harder, they want a good story compellingly told.
Games like Fortnite are more akin to cinema than novels. They are the child of Star Wars, of Lost, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the comics that it was drawn from). They are the perfect marriage of technology, psychology, marketing, and storytelling. They are hugely successful, and worthy of paying attention to culturally, even if you are not a fan of the games themselves.
A future is being foretold now, as a little black hole on millions of streams. Teenagers and kids will talk for the rest of their lives where they were the day Fortnite went dark after The Event they called The End. As cultural events go, this is going to join the ages.
One genius thing about Fortnite: in some games, when a player eliminates you from the game, your point of view switches to a floating view right behind them, so you find yourself rooting for the person who took you out of the game. If someone eliminates them, you move to the third persons' point of view. You learn tricks this way, seeing how successful players do it, and your stake in the game doesn’t end when your play does.↩
Aarti Shahani's memoir about moving from India to Queens as a child in the 1980s as an undocumented immigrant is titled Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares. It's about her process of becoming an "official" American through the immigration process — which many immigrant families now don't have the opportunity.
Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.
Tim Egan is one of Seattle's best known writers. His New York Times column alone would earn him national fame, but he's also written a series of great books that illuminated very specific — and very important — moments in history. His latest book, though, is a big departure: it tracks Egan's own progress on a European trail that has long been popular with Christian pilgrims. It's an interior spiritual journey paired with a real, physical journey. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $35.
As part of Seattle Public Library's excellent Booktoberfest celebration, librarians converge on Columbia City to promote a book-themed karaoke night. But you don't have to sing to have fun: According to press materials, you should "Feel free to bring books to swap and share, as there will also be a book exchange. We will have suggested songs ready for you to choose from, and you can check out the Baby Ketten song catalog online or via their app for more inspiration." The Royal Room, 5000 Rainier Ave S, 7 pm, free.
See our Event of the Week column for more details. Push/Pull, 5484 Shilshole Ave NW, 789-1710, http://pushpullseattle.weebly.com/, 6 pm, free.
Seattle author Paul Tumey's big, beautiful art book looks deeply (and amusingly) at the great comic strip artists who helped shape American comedy (and modern comics) forever. You'll find near-household names like George Herriman and EC Segar and Rube Goldberg here, but you'll also learn about some lesser-known cartoonists like Gene Ahern and Gus Mager. The author will give a presentation and then he'll appear in conversation with Paul Constant, who is me. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Chris Abani has done it all: he's a novelist, a memoirist, a poet, and a political activist who has been sentenced to death. He's also a beloved teacher, and so this lecture, about employing awe as a writer, should be a real inspiration for you writers out there. He'll also be interviewed by Hugo House writer-in-residence Kristen Millares Young. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $15.
The group, which invites a collection of local authors to compose original music based on a work of literature, gathers to celebrate and interpret Stephen King's surprisingly great writing manual and memoir, On Writing. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, $10.
The local organization, which teaches writers how best to present their work through the spoken word and recordings, invites their latest class to read new work. Readers include Samar Abulhassan, Christianne Balk, Gabrielle Bates, Shankar Narayan, Sylvia Byrne Pollack, Rena Priest, and Michael Schmeltzer. Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 7 pm, free.
The best of Seattle-based cartoonist Myra Lara's work, to me, reverberates with a certain brand of modern anxiety. Sometimes she'll draw a strip in which everything looks to be molded out of balloons: large, round loops that look simultaneously inviting and fragile. Other times, she'll draw super-cramped cityscapes that your eye can get trapped in.
It's not all emotionally fraught, of course: Lara paints gorgeous, calming portraits made up of chunky blocks of color that are as calming as her other works are tense.
But right now, the world is a pretty tense place, and this Thursday, Lara kicks off an art show at Push/Pull Gallery in Ballard that is devoted to Seattle as it is right now: politically turbulent, socially uncomfortable, and economically unequal. It's called "Everyday Cry-sis: Existential Dread in the Technocractic City."
Her description for the event explains its themes:
When the neighborhood Prius has the tasteless Malthusian slogan "Seattle is Full", you know you're in the technocratic city. When superyachts are "sustainable" but your commute is not, you know you're in the technocratic city. When police are thanked during private "community" Pride events but queer and POC spaces are still overpoliced, you know you're in the technocratic city.
The text for the show concludes with a promise to help attendees discover a "coping mechanism." But can there be any answers?
One of the things I like most about Lara's work is that she aspires to more. Her recent zine "In This House We Believe in the Just City" lists the causes and effects of Seattle's exclusionary housing policies, but she also takes time to list all the rights that every American in the 21st century should enjoy, including health care, education, and housing. She rails against predatory housing loans and extols the power of human-scaled urban planning. In her work, there's no condemnation without a celebration of a basic human right.
We've all seen too much darkness in Seattle lately. A media organization owned by Sinclair has announced that the city is dying and warned that, unless we ship our unhoused population to a prison island, we will all drown in shit and have everything taken from us in a barbaric crime wave. Our artists are being forced out and while there's always room for another pricey restaurant, some of our favorite neighborhood locations are closing. It's time to break down the systemic fear and loathing and make room for something better. If anyone can visualize a better path forward, it's Lara.
Push/Pull, 5484 Shilshole Ave NW, 789-1710, http://pushpullseattle.weebly.com/, 6 pm, free.
Last night at the downtown Library, the 2019 Washington State Book Awards were announced and celebrated in a big old bookish jamboree. This year's list of nominees was the finest in recent memory; the judges must have been under tremendous pressure to select a single winner from each category. It really, truly, was an honor to just be nominated this year, because it placed you in company with the best authors this state has to offer. But because you can't have an award without a winner, here's this year's list of honorees:
So Lucky by Nicola Griffith (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Instruments of the True Measure by Laura Da’ (University of Arizona Press)
Laura Da' was our Poet in Residence for November, 2018. Read our interview with her, or the five poems we published during her residency:
Arctic Solitaire by Paul Souders (Mountaineers Books)
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Seal Press)
All Are Welcome, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Peanut Butter and Jelly, written and illustrated by Ben Clanton (Tundra Books)
Winterhouse by Ben Guterson (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt)
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (Dutton Books for Young Readers)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.
I’d give a pretty penny to know whatMark Athitakis wrote in his “too-earnest” unpublished response to this essay on the diminishment of classical music coverage. What caught my attention was the idea that critical coverage can be a history of otherwise ephemeral arts. More obviously applicable to live performance than words on a page — but books are ephemeral in the moment that they’re read, and that moment is what we hope reviewers (including ourselves) will capture.
... a lot of history has already been lost – and the private recordings that find their way onto YouTube can only tell us so much. Many local newspapers have either folded or been taken over by big companies with minimal interest in presenting any sort of intellectual record of a given place. The critics are mostly gone and – as astonishing as it may seem to some of those we have tossed and gored – I think we will be missed. Maybe composer and critic Virgil Thomson said it best: “Perhaps criticism is useless. Certainly, it is often inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.”
There’s something very Annihilation about the idea that the real evolution of wildlife is happening not in the wild — the traditional locus for ecologists and biologists — but in urban spaces, where killfish develop dioxin-resistant DNA, white-footed city mice outpace the immune systems of their country cousins, and brown rats become super-smellers, ready for anything New York can throw at them. And something hopeful and desperate and very New Weird about, as one scientist puts it, “reconciling with our changed world.”
Like so many of their scientific peers, urban evolution researchers are grappling with the question of how their work can help us make this new environmental reality a bit less grim. On the surface, at least, their inquiries can seem largely aimed at addressing theoretical matters—notably the issue of whether the evolution of complex organisms is a replicable phenomenon, like any ordinary chemical reaction. Cities provide an accidental global network of ad hoc laboratories to test this question: Office towers the world over are fabricated from the same glass panels and steel beams, night skies are illuminated by the same artificial lights, auditory landscapes thrum with the noise of the same cars, food waste comes from the same KFCs and Subways.
Receiving someone else’s mail after a move provides an unsettling glimpse outside the bubble, especially when the post office delivers a stack of prepper catalogs: “ghillie suits” modeled by the world’s most awkward-looking white men, no-prescription-required antibiotics (the trick: order for your fish), guns, guns, guns, guns.
Right on time, here’s Port Townsend resident Joe D’Amico, starring as a prepper (which he is) in a series of novels authored by his lawyer, Greg Overstreet (also a prepper, also a character in the series, and, startlingly, a one-time state government employee). In the book, D’Amico’s alter ego sells guns inscribed with the coordinates of a “rally point” where buyers can unite after society collapses. In real life, D’Amico sells guns inscribed with the coordinates of a “rally point” where buyers can unite after society collapses — or he did until just a few years ago and plans to again.
I cannot find any lesson or pithy point to pull from this one — it just seems monstrously silly and terrifying all at once. Watching for the end of the world, sure! I’ve seen who’s in the White House. But there’s a little-boy glee to the prepper movement, combined with grown-up brutality, that’s as scary as anything I can imagine.
During that interview, Overstreet held a military-style rifle and wore a fake beard, hat and sunglasses to disguise his identity. “Glen Tate is not my real name,” he tells the interviewer. “It’s a pen name. I have to cover up my identity because I work in government, in politics and law. Writing a book about the collapse of the United States and all the dirty stuff in my state capitol of Olympia where I live and work in Washington state is not really looked upon highly.”
Paul C Tumey is a comic scholar, writer, and artist based out of Seattle. He's just released the epic Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, which looks at the "disruptive, manic, and surreal verbal-visual comedy" of the great comic artists who invented it — like George Herriman, Rube Goldberg, and EC Segar, just to name a few. You can see Paul in conversation with our own resident comic writer, Paul Constant, next Friday, October 18th, at the Elliott Bay Book Company.
What are you reading now?
I'm one of those people who reads several books at the same time and weaves from them an ongoing tapestry of interests, vicarious experiences, and knowledge. I don't want to hog space, so I'll just mention a few. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee. This non-fiction book came out earlier this year. It tells the story of Hernando Colon, perhaps the most ambitious book collector in history who also happens to be the son of Christopher Columbus. One thing I love about this book is it reveals Hernando's efforts to assemble a vast collection of all printed materials, including broadsides, pamphlets and what we today call ephemera. If comic books had existed back then, he would have put them into his library. In the ephemera line, I am also reading Jay's Journal of Anomalies by the recently departed (or should I say vanished?) Ricky Jay, the great magician. This is a reprint of his fascinating and highly eccentric newsletter which shares arcane information and rare art about extraordinary people, animals, and machines taken from Jay's astounding archives. Another book I am totally absorbed in is Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo by Joe Adamson, written in 1973. This lively book is the best and most fun biography of the Marx Brothers I have ever read. Writing Screwball! revealed fascinating connections between the humor comic strips and comedy films of the first half to the 20th Century and that set me off on a rewarding reading binge around the great early film comedians.
What did you read last?
I just finished the brand new Treasures Retold: The Lost Art of Alex Toth edited by Dean Mullaney. Toth was one of the greatest artists to work in comic books in the 20th Century. His understanding of how to craft a sequential visual narrative is unparalleled. This thick, oversized volume collects hundreds of pages of obscure, rare Toth comics which have been carefully curated and restored. It's really a giant, fun comic book. I also recently finished Roughing It by Mark Twain, one of the funniest books I have ever read. There's more than a little screwball humor in Twain's work — or at least the roots of what became screwball humor. I read the University of California edition, which includes the illustrations.
What are you reading next?
We've had some very promising looking new releases in comics and so I will be reading these next. At the top of my pile is Pittsburgh by Frank Santoro. His comics are few and far between and offer a truly singular reading experience, more like poetry than comics. Because he is more concerned with the underlying and secret power of visual storytelling, his work is less detailed but paradoxically more vivid. I understand Pittsburgh is his first autobiographical work. I am also excited to read the just-released The River at Night by Kevin Huizenga. Although this cartoonist has been around for years, I am just now discovering him. This book is a long, complex and tangential stream of consciousness narrative that takes place in the mind of his continuing character, Glen Ganges, over the course of one sleepless night. It seems very Joycian. I also plan to read Bill Schelly's recently updated memoir, Sense of Wonder. Bill just died unexpectedly. A Seattle-based writer and comics historian, he was a friend I wish I had gotten to know better. His biography of Harvey Kurtzman, published by Fantagraphics, is a masterpiece. Reading this memoir he left us will help me, I think, to accept that he has gone to the great comic book convention in the sky. That's something reading does magically well: connects us to those who have gone.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
I volunteer to read magazines and books that aren't on tape yet for the blind community. I was reading about a study the other day, and the study was "double-blind." I paused, then just read on (because my job is to present the words as written not edit), but I started wondering about the derivation of possibly offensive terms.
But now I don't even know if that term is offensive. Maybe it's a previously innocent word, like “niggardly,” that is best to avoid because it is better to be thoughtful than pedantic. But I don't know how to know. Is there a definitive place to find a list of terms that are offensive and ones that are safe to use?
First off, I recycle, so don't think you're better than me.
I was actually speaking to a blind woman about accessibility last week and she said this: “When a certain population can’t access the content that you’re creating, you’re saying that they’re not human enough to have the chance to access it, whether you want to say that or not."
Your voice is giving people valuable access to other peoples' creative work. Thank you for that, and congrats on having a gold-plated soul.
As for whether "double-blind" is offensive, I am a terrible person to ask. My favorite words are the offensive ones. I love "cunt" as a pejorative; it feels good to say. (Friends and various cunts have suggested I find a new pejorative, so I did: "cunt-licking cocksucker." It's not gender specific, it also has a very good mouthfeel, and I can't think of a scenario in which a cunt-licking cocksucker wouldn't be the most popular person in the room, so it's not really even an insult.)
I do think that using "blind" as a metaphor for ignorant or unknowing seems ableist. I recommend reading this fascinating blog discussion on that very topic (don't skip the comments! Politest fighting you'll find on the internet!). It convinced me that there's no reason not to employ "anonymous" in lieu of "blind" whenever possible.
That said, language is a living, evolving thing. There will never be a master list of words that are offensive and words that are "safe" to use, and even if there was, no one would agree on it. The most you can do is what you're already doing – being thoughtful and sensitive to the multitude of ways words can be interpreted.
Okay, Paul is hosting this one, but you can’t really consider this to be a conflict of interest: have you seen the list of nominees for the Washington State Book Awards this year? It’s amazing. Like, we haven’t seen a better collection of books nominated for these awards in, we think, ever. Tonight, the authors will get together to celebrate the winners and honor each other. Don’t let the fact that I’m hosting the ceremony keep you away, because this is going to be a special night. Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.
I'm sorry to report that the Joker movie is a dreadful affair. Joaquin Phoenix's acting is very good — though I've seen him do better in The Master and Her — and the supporting cast is excellent. But the movie doesn't really have anything to say. It's just a Joker origin story, pulled out of a comic book setting and planted smack in the middle of a 1980s Scorsese New York City. "Serious" bad stuff happens, and the movie is relentless in its repetition of bleak events. Aside from one very funny piece of physical comedy, there's no punchline here. It's not clever or, really, very funny.
I just don't get why the filmmakers decided to juxtapose the character of the Joker against Scorsese's New York. There's not really any friction there. Now, if they plopped the Joker into the middle of a romantic comedy, or a World War II movie, there might have been enough friction to make a reimagining feel worthwhile.
And I have one great example in mind: Last month, DC Comics published a Harley Quinn comic called Breaking Glass that was written by bestselling young adult comics author Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by veteran comics artist Steve Pugh. It begins as a straightforward young adult story — Harley is a new girl at a foster home who has to learn how to fit in at high school — and it ends with a bold reimagining of the Batman characters for a new generation.
First, let me just say that Pugh, who has been drawing beautiful horror comics since the 1980s, is perhaps doing the best work of his life in Broken Glass. His work has always carried an uncomfortable realism with it, but here the discomfort has been leached away. It's a realistic style that's given just enough comic-book wildness through Pugh's monochromatic coloring. Each page has its own palette — one page is tinted in stately browns, the next is a bright, vivid red — that reflects its main character's discombobulated inner emotional state.
And about that main character: aside from her original appearances in the 1990s Batman animated series I've never been too much of a fan of Harley Quinn. Too many male comics writers handled the abuse aspect of her relationship with the Joker too poorly, making her a toxic role model for men and women alike.
But in Breaking Glass, Tamaki handles Quinn's psychological issues with great care and empathy. Quinn finds a community in a drag troupe, and she learns to love herself in her own unique way. And her relationship with the Joker — who is thankfully presented here as an alter ego and not a demented omnipotent force of chaos — has some twisty depth to it.
I wouldn't give Breaking Glass to any very young readers. There's swearing and violence and some emotional complexity that middle-grade readers might not be able to handle. But for someone in their mid-to-late teens who can handle the occasional R-rated movie, Breaking Glass is the rare reimagining of the Batman story that doesn't just put everyone in a new costume and tell the same tired stories all over again.
Tamaki introduces the Batman universe to a young adult fiction framework and then proves that she has enough ideas to stretch on for six or seven more books in this style. Unlike the been-there-seen-that vibe of The Joker, I want to see more of this world as soon as possible.
The Seattle Review of Books is currently accepting pitches for reviews. We’d love to hear from you — maybe on one of the books shown here, or another book you’re passionate about. Wondering what and how? Here’s what we’re looking for and how to pitch us.
Earlier this fall, at the downtown offices of augmented writing platform Textio, I facilitated a discussion between internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch and Textio CEO Kieran Snyder, who holds a PhD in Linguistics and Cognitive Science from the University of Pennsylvania. (Full disclosure: Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan is a Textio employee.) The event, to celebrate McCulloch's delightful new bestselling book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, turned into a lively conversation about workplace language, irony, and what it means to navigate the strata of internet language history. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Gretchen, I was surprised by how many internet fads and trends I had forgotten, reading your book.
Kieran Snyder: Same.
Like "doge" — is that how you pronounce that one? Anyway, it seems like a lot of what you're writing about in this book is the relation of irony to language, and how irony gets closer to and further away from language.
So I don't know if you've seen this, but there are Facebook groups where young people join and pretend to be old people — where they'll be writing like old people. There'll be a post, like, "I LOVE JESUS" and then somebody in the comments is like, "MY SON TIMMY DIED LAST NIGHT IN A CAR ACCIDENT IT WAS TERRIBLE."
Looking at this Facebook group, I think of how young women are now wearing my mom's pants. Are young people going to be writing earnestly like old people on the internet sometime soon?
Gretchen McCulloch: That's a great question. I'm very delighted that this is the first question.
So, to take it slightly more seriously, when I was writing the section of Because Internet that was about irony, I ended up thinking what I really need to do was actually see if there's some irony literature. Because surely someone has written a literature on irony.
Turns out, yes. There is a literature on irony. It's great. And there are a couple of things that the irony literature points out. One is that irony is inherently difficult, and it's difficult even in speech. So irony has a couple of steps. One of those is the communication of irony and the second is the acknowledgement by the receiver that the irony has been received. And sometimes they receive it by continuing the irony, and sometimes they receive it by laughing, and sometimes they receive it by acknowledging this sort of thing. It was interesting to me to see that the second step was very much there.
And the second thing that was interesting is that the fundamental principle of irony, or characteristic of irony, is saying something that's not true in a way that makes it clear that you don't actually think that it's true. That introduces this layer of doubt in the receiver.
So if you say, "What a lovely day" when there's a hurricane outside, saying something that's the opposite of what's intended, sometimes the context is sufficient. But sometimes you need some additional thing to introduce this doubt. And that's where I think talking like an older person or using outdated slang or even bringing back things like the tilde, asterisks, that sort of sparkle punctuation, comes in. Then it gets brought back in the way that choker necklaces get brought back — like, "I'm doing this because people did it."
So anything that introduces this note of cognitive dissonance because it's a deviation from expectations — whether that's talking like somebody of a different generation than you, or talking in a slang that was actually cool 20 years ago but is no longer cool — anything that introduces that dissonant note is what enables the receiver to understand that there may be an attempt at irony going on here.
What you're looking for is a way of hinting that there's irony going on, and adopting outdated slang is one way of doing that because if it's actually coming from someone who's a member of that group, then it's not a hint. But if it's coming from somebody who I know is 18 then I'm thinking, okay, there's something else going on here. What is that additional thing?
That's what enables the irony computation to happen. Irony happens with a computation step: like, "here's a note of dissonance. Here's why there's something else going on."
One of the things that I think is super interesting about having the two of you on the stage that you are peers and you come from similar backgrounds. But I think that Textio is interested in, I'll call it formal language, it's more like professional language. And your book deals with very informal language.
I was wondering if you could both talk about inclusivity in language and how you see that changing. It does seem like language, both professional language and formal and informal language, is getting more inclusive in our articles and our gender-neutral language, for instance. Are we moving in a more inclusive direction in both spheres?
KS: I don't think that we are, I'll say it.
I actually like "professional language" more than "formal language" as a label. Because I think every dialect that we use is intended at some level, whether it's consciously or not. And it's often to communicate who belongs in our speech community, right?
Simple example: we think that professional language is by design culturally neutral, right? That's an idea that people who have not thought a lot about language probably believe, is that they come to work and they leave culture at the door and it's a neutral thing.
But you only need to look at how people respond to it to see that that's not true. Right? When you use corporate jargon — words like "stakeholders" or "synergy" or "KPIs" in how you're communicating at work, it turns out that people of color tend to opt out of engagement. Right? When somebody is speaking them, that that's not their design intentionally. But those words grew up in a predominantly white corporate culture and they developed cultural significance. And so I think even in this ostensibly, culturally neutral register of language, often we're communicating in-group and out-group stuff.
Formality and informality, I think, is really interesting. Formal language often wins the battle, but I think informal language typically wins the war. Right?
So at school, we are all taught, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the conservatism of the person you're asking, grammatical rules and compliance and where to put the commas and when you use a semicolon. And people as adults get really self-conscious about whether they comply with the rules that are expected.
I'm a descriptivist linguist, and I still say to my kids, "no, it's not me and Elsa. It's Elsa, and I." I still find those things that my parents said to me coming out. So we absorb that. However, any meaningful look at language change, identifies quickly that real language change comes from communities that are often relative to the mainstream out-group communities. They come from not socioeconomically privileged groups; they come from young people who are trying to find the cultural footing. They tend to come from girls and women more than from boys and men.
So informality is the thing that starts out as out-group and it becomes the way we're all talking 20 years later. We speak English the way we do right now because about a thousand years ago a bunch of people living on an island learned old Norse wrong, so ultimately the out-group tends to win.
I think formal or professional language is as culturally coded. That's why I think software is a helpful solution in the problem, because it interrupts your bias while you're communicating. But in the end informality wins and becomes the new formality.
GM: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question. What I'd like to see, and I don't know the extent to which this is true or the extent to which I can try to make it true by saying that it's true, is a greater recognition that you can have multiple varieties and that's okay. When I'm saying "younger people are doing this, older people are doing this," People say, "well I'm an older person, that means I must be doing it wrong. I should be changing because I'm not cool like the kids."
You don't have to talk like the kids.
KS: And if you do, you're usually not that cool. As my kids tell me all the time.
GM: I'm already getting less cool. You don't have to talk like the kids. And pointing out that multiple versions can exist doesn't mean that one of them has to be correct, one of them has to be right. You can have multiple ways of doing things and all of them can coexist and people are generally fairly good at understanding each other. I'd like us to be better at understanding each other across different varieties of English and across different ways of speaking.
I don't think that means you have to give up the way you want to talk personally so much as it means you need to understand the context that other people are coming from and to be able to hopefully interpret them and understand them as well. So what I'd like to see is a more pluricentric view of English that doesn't say there's only one way of talking. It says here's a bunch of ways — they're all fine. My English is okay. Your English is okay.
The thing that I think is is challenging about the prescriptive goal in English and one of the things that I think is really cool about Textio, actually, is that the kind of prescriptive English-teacher way of addressing the language assumes that everyone has the same goals when it comes to language.
And as soon as your goals are to impress the dead people — literally they're dead, why do you care about impressing them? They're not there to be impressed. Why do we want you to impress a bunch of 18th century grammarians? They're not here. And this assumes that any deviation from those goals is somehow a problem.
I don't think it's incorrect to evaluate writing and say, okay, this writing did a better job and this writing didn't. We need to be explicit about what our goals are for an individual piece of writing, and in many cases, impressing dead people is not that goal.
I mean, maybe you want to write a Jane Austen pastiche that is indistinguishable from Jane Austen herself, in which case maybe that is your goal. But for many of us, our goals are actually to connect with living people. And our goals are actually maybe to sound artistically beautiful, maybe to sound like we're a member of a particular community, maybe to sound like we care about other people.
So we ask ourselves, "does my language meet these goals? Am I accidentally insulting people because I'm using this word that's actually a slur and I didn't realizing it?" Accidentally insulting people is not generally most people's goals. You either want to deliberately insult them or not insult them at all.
So if we think about what are the possible ranges of goals that different bits of language can have, and how well a particular bit of language is accomplishing its particular goals that it's set — not someone's idea of what everyone's goal should be all the time, but what my goals are right now — so in this case saying, "okay, if our hiring goals are actually to hire a broad range of people, are we actually attracting them?"
I think being explicit about those goals and also accepting that other people may have different goals and their goals can also be legitimate is a way of developing a more pluricentric view of English.
Is the Venn diagram, the overlap getting bigger between professional writing and informal writing? I think of tools like Slack, which I think they bring a sort of informality into the workplace in terms of communication in a way that wasn't there before.
GM: I think it's partly that in the whole internet domain, a lot of styles that were not historically written down are now getting written down. How people talked in the hallway at our workplace was never the same as how they wrote in their memos. Right? But that hallway conversation sometimes moves to Slack or moves to email. And that was always a more informal genre than, "here I am chairing this meeting."
And so we're not used to thinking of writing as having so many different genres, even though speaking has had this many different genres for a long time. And so the the hallway banter or the casual chat you have before the meeting starts are styles. Those haven't been written down as much. And now people are writing them in email or writing them in Slack and say, "why am I using so many exclamation marks? I just keep putting exclamation marks. What are they doing there for?" Well, it's because this isn't a memo, this isn't a chairing a meeting. This is the casual chat in the hallway where maybe you're smiling at somebody.
KS: I also think there's almost a "what are the young people doing" attitude that people who've been in the workforce for a while have as a response to their perceived "millennials are bringing all kinds of crazy informal rules to the workplace. And that's not how it was in my day." It actually was how it was in your day — you were just the young person then. And you were the one bringing change that alarmed and scandalized people who had been in the workplace 20 or 30 years before you.
I think the internet has accelerated it because as Gretchen pointed out, before any of us had computers at work, long ago before any of us were at work, probably, everything that was written was written in a very different way. And it was probably pretty formal because if you didn't have a computer to write on — like my mom was a writer and she used a typewriter — and it was expensive to make mistakes.
So you were pretty serious about getting it formal and perfect because if you didn't, it was like a world of Wite-Out for you. It wasn't backspace and edit and change. And then we get computers and the ability to take risks changes because I can backspace and edit and change. And then we get the internet. Have any of you, maybe it's only me, ever pressed send on something and then regretted it five seconds later?
[Most of the crowd raises their hands.]
Right. I'm better at it than I was 10 years ago. I'm better than I was 20 years ago when I first had regular email access. But the fact of the internet accelerates and pulls in stuff that we would have only said before. Now we write. And we can write with a much higher degree of casualness and apparently lower risk because we can follow up right away or we can backspace or we can change it.
GM: I think it's also the bits that we preserve as well. Because a lot of the informal genre of workplace communications in writing before the internet era is on sticky notes, and telephone pads. And some of these small notes that were never really intended to be preserved and got thrown out or didn't get added to someone's collective archives. So these sorts of informal genres happened, but when they're hand-written, somehow it doesn't seem as grave as when you've typed them. When you've typed them, you expect a certain type of thing. If you think about the genre of informal email versus an informal note you leave on your coworker's desk, they're often very similar.
This is not that dissimilar from what goes in an email, these sorts of notes. So I think also it's a shift in expectations or a shift in how preservable you think something is. Whereas an email can get printed out and used as evidence against you when your company gets sued or something — not this is going to happen — but the email can take on this additional gravitas that the sort of sticky note genre never pretended to have.
Gretchen, I wanted to ask you one thing. You have this amazing sort of super-positive attitude to the language on the internet and I really enjoyed that. I do want to ask, though, is there anything that really bugs you about language? Is there any type of internet writing that annoys you?
GM: You know, my life has gotten so much better since I decided not to get annoyed about language. You don't have to get annoyed about language. There's no moral obligation to being annoyed about stuff. Everything that somebody says they say for a reason. They say because it meets a need for them, or even if they're rushed or something, that's a reason.
I think of it as approaching other people from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. I'm not here to say "this is somebody doing something wrong." Honestly, I sound like a fool if I talk like a teenager, but that doesn't mean the teenagers are wrong. That means that we're just of different generations and it's fine. So I reject the premise of the question.
Although a chunk of our block burned down today, the Garden will be back to independently sell books tomorrow! Thank you for all your queries! We are safe! pic.twitter.com/18mkw1tH9x— Secret Garden Books (@SecretGardenBks) October 7, 2019
According to a Facebook post, the Elliott Bay Book Company-themed Hudson Booksellers is now open in SeaTac International Airport. Stop by on your way to (or on your way back from) your next trip for some local recommendations.
Fremont's longtime nautical bookshop, SeaOcean Book Berth, is closing at the end of this month. Seattle Met writer Courtney Cummings really gets at what made the place special:
Seattle’s nautical history is long and rich. Our city and its economy were built on lumber and fishing imports, shipyards and naval bases, freight and passenger transportation. Seattle still relies on this industry today through tourism, fishing, and ferry transportation. With SeaOcean’s closure, though, the city will bear one less gem of a resource.
(A Sonnet in response to Debora Moore's Glass Orchidarium exhibition)
(Side-scroll to see full lines)
Nymphs, your glass bodies do frame our own curves
mortality’s lost scents we are — breezes
in the nostril, prayers of lovers, hip swerves
in the cup of night, a kiss that eases
how could we love anything more than moss
more than rain on your belly, the promise
of waterfalls, mist, of soft dreams not loss,
to be fragrant as hope on the chalice
of orchid’s lips? Each of you an army
of love, each breast a song…
missing from our daily lives of steamy
cars, of concrete, of crows, of gulls, of long
unremembered rivers turned to channels
when earth had eyes, legs, a goddess’ shield, arms for battles
But perhaps it is too late already. Sponsor AHOY Comics has once again come to our pages to infect your brain with their peculiar brand of mischief.
This time, it's none other than Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Terror a dance macabre of modern takes on Poe's miseries, released in a very handy paperback form just in time for All Hallow's Eve. On our sponsor's page you can see the first four pages from the epic tale "Dark Chocolate", written by Mark Russell and drawn by Peter Snejbjerg, as well as a teasing taste of other pages from this lush volume.
Don't miss out, for it is sponsors like AHOY that keep us running and paying for the very content you're seeing surrounding this post. We have dates available for you, too, to become a sponsor, at reasonable prices. Take a look, and sign up, and escape the curse of too few people knowing about your event or book.
October is the Seattle Public Library's busiest month of the year — it's the month where librarians take to the streets to celebrate reading and literature and fellowship with trivia, karaoke, and other special events. It's called Booktoberfest, and it really kicks into gear tonight, with "a fun evening of bookish games and activities, prizes, free books and snacks, buttons, bookish tarot, and great beer!" Come meet your librarians, who are incredibly fun people Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery, 8570 Greenwood Ave N, http://www.flyingbike.coop, 6 pm, free.
Conflict of interest alert: This is an event that I helped to put together at my day job at Civic Ventures. If that conflict bugs you, please feel free to move on to the next event, which is an alternate Tuesday selection. But I do think that this panel about the end of local media and what it means for all of us is something that people who read this site would find to be interesting. It's moderated by my coworker, David "Goldy" Goldstein, and the panel includes my old coworker Erica C Barnett of C Is for Crank fame, South Seattle Emerald founder Marcus Harrison Green, and Matt Gertz of Media Matters, who's bringing his national expertise to Seattle.
Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.
Seattle Times journalist Lynda Mapes reads from her excellent new book, which looks at centuries of nature and decades of climate change through the life and times of a single tree. I loved this book, and you this is a great opportunity to hear the author discuss it and determine whether or not it will work for you. University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 6 pm, free.
It's almost time again for Lit Crawl, which sends book-lovers all across Capitol Hill (and a little bit of First Hill) in search of reading adventures. This event serves as an unveiling of the Lit Crawl lineup and it's also a fundraiser for the festival, which costs a lot of goddamn money to run. Readers include Richard Chiem, Tara Hardy, and Ching-In Chen. There's also an open mic and booze and other events. Cost is $5, and tickets can be bought here.Capitol Cider, 818 E Pike St,397-3564, 6 pm, free.
Lawrence Weschler is one of the best non-fiction writers in the country. Whatever he puts his big brain to — from a bizarre museum owned and operated by a true eccentric to the light in Los Angeles — is guaranteed to fascinate and amaze you. His newest book is all about the late Oliver Sacks — himself a great writer about the human brain. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Okay, I'm hosting this one, but you can't really consider this to be a conflict of interest: have you seen the list of nominees for the Washington State Book Awards this year? It's amazing. Like, I haven't seen a better collection of books nominated for these awards in, I think, ever. Tonight, the authors will get together to celebrate the winners and honor each other. Don't let the fact that I'm hosting the ceremony keep you away, because this is going to be a special night. Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.
Seattle poet Laura Da’ hosts a generative writing course that focuses on "the conceit of the map as a central metaphor for crafting new work and evoking place." Geography and personality and place and time are all connected, and Da' will teach you how to make these juxtapositions to create new work.
Seattle organization Books to Prisoners does amazing work delivering books free of charge to incarcerated individuals around the country and the world.
This is a vital service. Our prisons do a miserable job of providing inmates with books, and books are how we make people into better people. In fact, if you wanted to actively hurt someone's chances of rehabilitation, one of your first acts would be to withhold books from them.
Book lovers tend to celebrate excess. "I lost control and bought an armload of books at Powell's last weekend," we say, complaining that our nightstands are going to tip over and crush us. So with that in mind, imagine this: The inmates who are served by Books to Prisoners just want to read. Many of them have access to no books at all, let alone the books they want to read.
This month, Books to Prisoners has published a coffee-table book titled Dear Books to Prisoners: Letters from the Incarcerated, collecting some letters from men and women in prisons. (It's almost ironic that letter-writing, that lost art romanticized by so many, is almost exclusively practiced by the people so many of us have given up on.) They have things to say about books: books they want to read, books they have read, books they want to write.
On Thursday night, editors and contributors to the book will be hosting a reading at Third Place Books Ravenna. It's a great way to learn about what Books to Prisoners does, and how people are trying to get books to incarcerated individuals.You should go and learn about the mission. And if you ever needed to reignite your love affair with books, this reading to celebrate the publication of Dear Books to Prisoners, should remind you what's most important.
Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave NE, 525-2347 http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.
I’m back this week! And of course, with me comes my cunning plan to force-feed into this venerable column as much aimless history-related content as I can. Unfortunately, my attention span is as atrophied as ever. So today I present a jaunt through Western history in 4 (somewhat) recent Twitter threads. Lots of European history, 140 characters or less at a time.
History is a trip, y’all.
Disclaimer: I did not fact-check how accurate these threads are, so read them with a grain of salt. Or instead, simply enjoy the stories we still manage to tell in this strange new Internet form.
First up, a fascinating, detailed thread by amateur historian and engineer Aditya Mukerjee about Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama — doing what Twitter is best at doing: spluttering with outrage.
Vasco da Gama is best known for being the first European to reach India by sea. What Portuguese monuments failed to mention were the immoral, greedy escapades of da Gama as he tried to swindle Indian merchants, evade taxes, and colonize India while also trying to colonize a tiny Portuguese village at the same time. Even his contemporaries apparently hated him. His crew bailed on him in Cape Verde; the “Shakespeare of Portugal" called his actions in India “reprehensible." Whatta guy.
Because Vasco da Gama failed to negotiate a trade treaty with India (and it's unclear if he actually tried), the Portuguese set up the Portuguese India Armadas - fleets of military ships that would sail to India every year for the next ~50 years to attack India.— Aditya Mukerjee, the Otterrific 🏳️🌈 (@chimeracoder) September 12, 2019
During these armadas, the Portuguese colonized the Indian state of Goa, which they held from 1510 until 1961.— Aditya Mukerjee, the Otterrific 🏳️🌈 (@chimeracoder) September 12, 2019
Yes, people think of India's independence in 1947, but that was just British India. France and Portugal held their colonies in India long after the British left.
Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian and author shares her favorite objects from prehistory to now. And it’s exactly as morbid as you’d expect from the author who wrote a book called The Butchering Art. This thread takes you on a wild ride through bog men, ancient Egyptian prosthetics, memento mori, preserved whale hearts, and royal hair lockets.
My favorite thing about this thread is how utterly, remarkably weird all of this stuff is. Often the way we conceive of the past, especially the Western past, is as an inexorable march toward the present. “Here," we point to a straight and narrow timeline, “is where democracy began."
– Here, the Magna Carta, the foundation of individual freedom
– Here, Enlightenment philosophy, reason!
– The Industrial Revolution! Trains! Medical advancements! Vaccines! Hygiene!
The pace of progress multiplies, speeding faster and faster toward our world today.
But this timeline misses some of the best and wackiest stuff that might tell you more about the people who lived through those times. If we simply focus on what historical people had in common with us, we fail to understand them as fundamentally different than we are. Even when it doesn’t seem that long ago, or that far away:
#24 of my 40 FAVOURITE HISTORY OBJECTS: this photo of the "Student’s Dream” from the 19th century - depicting a medical student being dissected by his own cadavers. It is very much of its era, when postmortem photography was popular. pic.twitter.com/XPBB8c5eHl— Lindsey Fitzharris (@DrLindseyFitz) January 1, 2019
Victorians, you know – the ones who invented the steam engine and the subway, they also used to mummify cats and tuck them under their floorboards to bring luck to their houses. If you’re British, that’s like, 6 generations ago. Yikes.
Non-Western historians frequently contend with the issue of othering and foreignness. Maybe one way to balance the scales is not to show what makes the different familiar, but to show how the familiar is otherworldly, too.
Ever read way too much into something? You may be more well-adjusted person than me so you don’t, but chances are, you probably have. We-ell, it turns out Flemish art is the perfect place to do so. So put away those text messages from your ex-lover, and read through cartoonist C. Spike Trotman’s sassy, lively thread about these dramatic Northern European still lifes.
Still lifes weren’t just decorative, they were intellectual. The symbolism was strictly codified. The wealthy kept them in their libraries, not their dining rooms. And even so, as civil wars tore apart Europe in the seventeenth century, these artists used still lifes to ridicule earthly wealth and power.
Some of the artists left NOTHING to chance, and even included little portraits of Charles himself.— Iron Spike (@Iron_Spike) March 31, 2019
*hauls out megaphone* DO YOU GET IT? YOU GET IT, RIGHT? HE'S A KING AND HE DIED. DO YOU UNDERSTAND MY PAINTING? IT'S ABOUT HOW BEING A KING IS MEANINGLESS. MY GOOD PAINTING. HELLO? pic.twitter.com/WPNIoRARRX
After you get through this thread, digitally explore the Rijksmuseum’s still life catalogue to see what you can read way, way, way too much into.
A few weeks ago, the British travel agency Thomas Cook collapsed overnight, leaving 150,000 (!) customers stranded in their holiday destinations. Here’s a thread from Middle Eastern history doctoral student @afzaque about its auspicious early beginnings as a tour guide vendor in 1869, as Britain expanded its interests in the Middle East. The company grew with British power, capitalizing on the opening of the Suez Canal, attempting to infiltrate pilgrimage travel to Mecca in British India. Wherever the British army went, British tourists soon followed.
The history of Thomas Cook's travel empire may be regarded as synonymous with that of imperial Britain. As of this morning, the company he founded has now collapsed—and the timing could not be more symbolic!— Musannaf (@afzaque) September 23, 2019
It’s no coincidence that the collapse of a travel company also lead to the UK’s largest repatriation operation in peacetime. The ease of travel that blesses British passports also means a lot of travelers at any one time. The longest lasting effects of British imperialism are in the privileges of global movement and citizenship. The power inequalities, wins, and losses of previous centuries remain in the power of modern-day passports. Which citizens can enter without a costly visa? Who gets the right to a long-term working holiday? Why are some residents expatriates, but others immigrants?
Critics of Brexit have argued that leaving the EU in favor of the freedom to forge stronger ties to other countries the US and India is just a new imperialist fantasy. Britain, once again, trying to reclaim the empire it relinquished after the Second World War. But in reality, I suspect Brexit will see the whimpering end of the last remnants of the British empire. It has already sped the end of the Thomas Cook Group.
If they actually manage to leave at the end of this month, UK citizens will likely see the power of their passports curtailed, and with it, one of the most durable signals of it historical significance.
You’ll note that not all of these threads are from professional historians — and all the better for it. We need more amateur historians in the world.
Finally, a big thank you to Alp Çoker and Orion Montoya for sharing some of these threads with me. This Twitterific Sunday Post would not exist without people who are better at navigating Twitter than I am.
Monique Truong is a Brooklyn-based Vietnamese-American novelist, whose many award and accolades, if listed, would turn this pamphlet into a broadside. She is the author of the novels The Book of Salt, Bitter in the Mouth, and the just-released The Sweetest Fruits. Her latest is a fictionalized look at the very real writer Lafcadio Hearn, through the eyes of three women who loved him: his Greek mother, his African-American first wife, and his Japanese wife and literary collaborator.
Truong is also an intellectual property attorney, serves on many boards, has many fellowships, and is a lyricist working on a libretto for an opera inspired by Joseph Cornell and Virginia Woolf. All of which is to say that it would be foolish to miss this opportunity to see her speak next Thursday, October 10th, at the Elliott Bay Book Company, starting at 7:00pm. It promises to be fascinating.
What are you reading now?
I'm reading Sweet Taste Of Liberty: A True Story Of Slavery And Restitution In America (Oxford University Press, 2019) by historian W Caleb McDaniel. The subject is Henrietta Wood, a legal trailblazer whom I should have learned about in law school but did not. She was born into slavery in Kentucky, freed and living in Ohio when she was kidnapped and sold back into slavery in 1853, eight years before the start of the Civil War. That alone is an epic deserving of documentation and study, but Wood’s story is one of survival and of seeking and obtaining redress in a court of law against her kidnapper.
This is how “The Crossing,” the first chapter of Wood’s story, begins: “The blinds had been drawn and buttoned over all of the carriage windows. In hindsight, that should have been the very first sign of trouble. ‘Still, I never suspected,’ Henrietta Wood told Lafcadio Hearn more than two decades later, after she had finally returned to Cincinnati. Otherwise, she might not have left behind in her room the papers that proved that she was free.”
According to McDaniel’s endnotes, the interview ran in the Cincinnati Commercial in April 2, 1876. I’ve spent eight years researching Lafcadio Hearn for my latest novel, but somehow I’d missed this interview. Given the newspaper and the date, I knew exactly the state of mind of the young Greek-Irish reporter Hearn. In August of the previous year, he had been fired from the Cincinnati Enquirer for his “deplorable moral habit,” specifically for cohabitating with a “woman of color.” That woman is Alethea Foley, an African American bi-racial woman who also had been born into slavery in Kentucky and who, post-Civil War, migrated to Cincinnati. Foley and Hearn were living as husband and wife since the summer of 1874. She is one of three first-person narrators of my novel. She’ll tell you that Hearn was in utter disbelief and dismayed by his treatment by the Enquirer and that she, of course, was not. Wood may not have known of Hearn and Foley’s story, but what if she had? What did Hearn and Wood tell each other in that interview that did not make it onto the pages of the Commercial? It’s a tantalizing place to begin this necessary history of enslavement, empowerment, and legal restitution.
What did you read last?
I’ve been reading a lot of first novels this year, and they’ve been remarkably impressive. Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) is the most recent of these for me. Set on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska, this immigrant family narrative, literally and figuratively, took me into new territory. Alaska itself is a character within this Taiwanese American novel and is one that offers both refuge and terror to the children who roam its woods and shores. The beauty and isolation of their geography—their literal backyard—amplifies and echoes the hope and the terrible exile that their parents’ decision to immigrate to the U.S. has placed them in. Will they survive or will they falter is the question that all children in fairytales face when they find themselves lost in the woods. Here, it’s the entire family who is trying to find their way to a home, and it’s their survival, as individuals and as a unit, that is at stake.
What are you reading next?
Top on my to-be-read stack of books is Butterfly Yellow (Harper, 2019) by Thanhha Lai. This is Lai’s young adult novel debut, but it’s her third book. Her first, Inside Out & Back Again (HarperCollins, 2011) — for ages eight to twelve but really for us all — received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newberry Honor Book. I consider that novel-in-verse as an example of Vietnamese American literature and Southern literature, as its coming-of-age narrative is set in Alabama. (Full disclosure: I consider myself a Vietnamese-American and a Southern writer, having grown up in North Carolina, which is the setting of my second novel Bitter In The Mouth (Random House, 2010)). I’m eager to begin Lai’s latest, as it’s set in Texas, a region of the country that I also have called home.
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 September's posts.
My baby sister is back, choosing more post-its from the days when my Post-it Note Project was just a baby too. September is my birthday month, but it is also hers — and hers takes precedence, because she is truly the baby, born a decade after me, I have to be gracious. She is so far from being middle-aged that it astounds; perhaps there’s still time for my parents to become grandparents after all. In honor of her birthday, these early-days post-its all connect slyly back to her. Coincidentally, she’s the only person living Seattle life with me who also lived the England one from back then; she spent one high school semester sleeping on a cheap fold-out chair (not even a fold-out _couch, mind you, just a chair!) in our cramped living room, treating me confusingly like a parent. When our dad came for a short visit, she confided teenage transgressions to him like a sibling, commanding her baffled actual parent DON’T TELL CLARE I had wine at that party. In my first year of turning days into post-its, though, I was in London for grad school. By July my future-ex-wife had moved back there too, at 11:26pm I was probably attempting forced sleep, still living someone else’s schedule, not yet able to embrace my truer 2am-bedtime self. The post-it feels a bit mysterious, because listening to favorite songs just before bed — naked on top of the covers, head to the foot of the bed near the speakers, freezing on my back lights off, just me and the cold dark quiet of The Hot Rock track 7 — was a leftover ritual, never worked with a partner. I don’t know what I was doing. My sister chose it because years earlier I took her to see Sleater-Kinney at the Showbox (On a weeknight. I recall numerous advance debate sessions with our parents, in which I apparently successfully argued the special merits of her attending such a show). Internet sleuthing confirms that concert was a December Sunday; I was in college, just arrived home for my final winter break, my sister was 12. Cat Power opened, along with Smoosh — a local duo who were also, strangely, 12-year-olds. I’d seen both grown-up bands before, and for me this was all about Sleater-Kinney — earnest and intricate queer excellence, loud guitars. But the online evidence remaining now is from a Cat Power fan site, dotingly detailing her “belligerently drunk” performance, arriving onstage carrying “her guitar, a cup of whiskey, and a post-it note.” It felt like I’d uncovered a sharp, tiny clue, my memory-sleuthing unearthing coincidences that could overpower distances of time and space. But we all have private patterns, and post-its are just ordinary. The 2010 pieces look benignly similar to 2006, but that 4-year leap takes my breath away, lands badly. We’re now just barely after marriage. One month into my new life in Seattle, this one I live now. My sister and I were sharing a fold-out couch in Tennessee, our grandma moved there for a late third marriage but I’d never been, always living too far away. It had been so long since I’d taken a domestic flight — after years in England, flying cross country seemed suspiciously, delightfully fast. My baby sister was in college by then, we went for her break. An awkwardly mistaken variation of “totally” from the movie I Love You, Man had briefly become part of her vernacular... and I, being a TRUE ARTIST, felt compelled to illustrate the pictures this made in my head. Rare lighthearted drawings in an era of much darker memories. The ordinary relief of joking at bedtime together and thank goodness, even when I’m heartbroken; luckily my sister thinks I’m funny sometimes.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
Lately I've been waking around 3 a.m. and sitting up for a few insomniac hours thinking — about failure, regret, what America looks like now that we've ripped her skin off. The usual. My doctor asked me what I read before bed, and apparently books about rape and depression memoirs aren't "soothing" or "calming" enough (?). Got any recommendations that would fit her prescription, without turning my brain into fluff?
Sleepless in Seattle (Sorry)
Your brain is horny for sadness, or what the veterinarian I buy my spider antidepressants from calls "Praying Mantis Syndrome." The syndrome, a sex-positive cousin of SAD, can manifest in many ways – for instance, it's what prompts me to compulsively buy sexy clothing in a "spiced ham" hue.
I commend you for seeking treatment. Have you heard of Up Lit? It's an entire genre of literature dedicated to people with your affliction. For your first read, I recommend Furiously Happy.
The Seattle Public Library also has a list of Up Lit books that aren't fluff.
(May Baphomet bless Seattle's librarians – they work in a beautiful book terrarium, being paid to do the job I do in a basement for free. From their list, I also recommend Beautiful Ruins.)
Finally, if you're looking for a shorter read before bed, The Guardian's Upside is dedicated to journalism that doesn't make you feel like you are being swallowed whole by a shit snake.
Ijeama Olou's talk with Charles Mudede was last night, but we wanted to re-run this amazing portrait of her to celebrate the paperback publication of her wonderful debut book So You Want to Talk About Race.
Drawdown is many things — an encyclopedic guide to what the Green New Deal can and should do to reduce climate change; a primer for those seeking to educate themselves on how they can encourage a greener planet; a guide to where we are now — but it is not a very good book club book. You can't really read Drawdown from beginning to end. It's meant to be read in quick bursts, or used as a resource for people who work in public policy. It's maybe the first book for the Reading Through It Book Club that I haven't read every word of, from beginning to end.
But though none of us read Drawdown from cover to cover, last night's Reading Through It Book Club had a great conversation about the environment and climate change.
It helped, of course, that we were meeting just two days after the end of perhaps the single most consequential month in the history of the environmental movement. We toasted to Greta Thunberg's astounding achievement in changing the discourse about climate change, and we discussed the similarities between her action and the Parkland kids changing the gun responsibility discourse forever with their activism.
One of the most interesting avenues of discussion had to do with the way that the book centered white men — it's edited by a man, and it features essays largely by men, and the chapter on how policies benefitting women could help the environment mostly consisted of reproductive rights, as though bearing children is the only value women possess. Thunberg has helped decentralize the conversation from a masculine frame, and so Drawdown already feels regressive, though it was only published last year.
And as with the larger conversation about climate change, members of the book club were wrestling with the idea of what it means to be environmentally conscious, and how much of the work can be done on an individual basis as compared to a systemic basis. Surely, even the single most environmentally responsible person in the world is a grain of sand compared to the most environmentally irresponsible corporation?
Can any individual action matter?
Ask Greta. Alone, one person can't do much. But if that person commits the right action, and calls on the right people to follow them, conversations can be changed and the impossible suddenly becomes inevitable.
The Reading Through It Book Club will meet next at Third Place Books Seward Park at 7 pm on Wednesday, November 6th. We'll be discussing Sarah Smarsh's excellent economic memoir Heartland. It's always free; please join us.
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.
October is an ideal time to talk about monsters. Both the literal kind — Beauty and the Beast is one of the great narrative threads of the romance genre — and the more metaphorical kind. Romance has plenty of both. We have werewolves and bear-shifters and aliens and paranormal characters with terrifying abilities. And we have frighteningly powerful men: dukes and billionaires and SEALs and cops and warriors and spooky house owners who may have murdered their first wives (or just keep her imprisoned in the attic, pick your poison). Less commonly, but more interestingly, we have monstrous women: abusive mothers and unrelatable heroines, emotionally broken creature hunters and ice queens and traumatized women whose survival has turned them bitter or cold or suspicious.
It is impossible to add up every kind of monstrousness in romance and get a clean, unambiguous result about being a monster means. Every book that grapples with it reinvents the definition to some degree. You have to take it case by case: Are the monsters the heroes, or the villains, or is it a mix? (Paranormal worlds do a lot of the latter, as we’ll see in this month’s books). Watching who self-identifies as a monster can be instructive: plenty of villains do it, yes, but plenty of leads do it too only to be proven wrong and reclaim their humanity.
And sometimes, monsters fall in love with other monsters, because romance is flexible like that.
Sci-fi authors have written a million robot books to ask questions about how sentience is defined, claimed, and created. When exactly does a machine become a person? Where does humanity begin?
Romance’s monsters, all of them, explore the opposite problem: When does humanity end? At what point have you gone too far for love to bring you back again?
Take the dark romance subgenre, which has featured romances for Nazi and Stasi love interests, serial killers, kidnappers, stalkers, rapists, current gang members, sex traffickers… You get the picture. Conversation around these stories often borrows from therapeutic language: they’re a way of facing fears in safety, or they’re a way of processing trauma and/or stigmatized desires. Or conversely they’re deeply unhealthy and contribute to the worst impulses of rape culture and toxic masculinity. Or maybe they’re both.
There’s no succinct answers here, either: is that medicine you’re drinking or poison? Sometimes the difference is only a question of dosage.
And there’s certainly a few examples of dark romances like the Stasi hero, whose function is to make terrible men seem palatable. He’ll hurt everyone but you — or he’ll only hurt you for your own good. It may be a fascinating challenge for the writer, but… it feels less than healthy, to me. Not because I need my stories to be perfectly hygienic or sanitary — I love Macbeth, for instance — but because romance as a genre exists to show that the leads belong together, and that means ethically they have to deserve one another. Don’t they? I have an extremely hard time believing, even in fictional settings, that survivors deserve to live as partners with their torturers, or that they can do so safely. At what point are these stories treating the symptoms of toxic masculinity, rather than the disease? Are dark romances a therapy, or merely an anaesthetic?
Forgiveness may be divine, but we’re only humans here.
Personally, I tend to prefer literal monsters who are profoundly human underneath, despite the fur and the fangs. Shelly Laurenston’s aggressively horny shifters, for example, or Gomez and Morticia Adams, whose love language is innuendo about murder and torture. I have a harder time with emotional monsters: people who abuse their power over others, people who demand submission and not in the fun way, people with unacknowledged anger issues and bloody backstories and inhuman aspects that seem to be normalized in the text. But as with everything in romance, there are exceptions: this month’s books include some doozies. We’ve got a badass sci-fi heroine who’s not quite the girl she used to be; a noir hero who falls in love with a vicious assassin with golden eyes; a blacksmith heroine with huge shoulders and a cheerfully murderous attitude; and one of the single most terrifying and lovable alpha heroes I’ve ever read. And one short, sweet book about two quieter souls who fall in love in a world where they’re the only people who aren’t monsters — because I had to have some fluff in here, after all, even in the spookiest month.
Venture forth — if you dare.
Aurora Blazing by Jesse Mihalik (Harper Voyager: sci-fi m/f):
Disclosure: Jesse Mihalik and I share a publisher and an editor.
February’s Polaris Rising was one of the best action-filled sci-fi romances I’ve read in some time; Aurora Blazing is even better. It continues events from the first book, so you probably lose a little if you go in as a standalone — but if your choice is between reading neither and just starting here, then please, I urge you, start here.
Bianca is a daughter of House Von Hasenberg, one of the four main families in the corrupt, conniving, and ultra-wealthy Consortium. Widowed, wounded, and carrying around a truly awesome secret which not even her much-loved siblings know about — seriously, it’s amazing, I love her, and I’m not telling — she plays the part of a social schemer while collecting broad-ranging intelligence and helping other people escape the kind of abusive situation she found herself in as a younger woman. Stubborn and self-protecting, she often butts heads with the House’s director of security, the too-attractive and interfering Ian Bishop, who has a few secrets of his own. Next thing you know the von Hasenburg heir has vanished, Bianca’s gone on the run and been marked as a traitor, and Ian’s been sent to capture her and bring her back to her father for justice.
It’s difficult to write a good cat-and-mouse plot with tech that hasn’t been invented yet, but Mihalik gets it just right, clear about both the obstacles and the workarounds both characters exploit while keeping the pace brisk and the blasters firing. I loved the chemistry our two leads showed in the first book, and it’s front and center here: just the right amount of pining and lust and that heartbreaking need for consolation that always twists me into delightful knots. Just a great ride from start to finish.
“You are a dead man, Ian Bishop,” I threatened.
“It wouldn’t be the first time, love,” he said, his clipped accent more pronounced than usual.
The endearment kicked me in the chest and I froze. I knew it didn’t mean anything, it was just a filler word like darling or sweetheart, but it hit on one of my secret longings. I stared straight ahead and pretended my heart didn’t ache.
No Good Men by Thea McAlistair (NineStar Press: historical m/m):
It’s been a rough couple years in queer romance publishing: Riptide lost an editor for racism and harrassment, Dreamspinner is demonstrating extremely dodgy behavior at best, and Less Than Three Press recently made a graceful exit from the stage. Larger publishers have started buying more queer romances but it’s still a trickle where we want a pool.
All of which is to say I’m incredibly grateful for the work NineStar Press is doing: queer romance of so many subgenres and heat levels, especially speculative, with a freewheeling sense of risk-taking. Like Thea McAlistar’s noir m/m mystery, with a romance arc but no on-the-page sex, and plenty of hard-bitten cynicism.
There are detectives of brilliance: Sherlock Holmes of course, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, the terrifying razor blade of Miss Marple’s intuition. But I reserve a certain part of my heart for detectives who are just a bit dim, and a lot stubborn. Holly from The Third Man; the Dude from The Big Lebowski; Harry from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. And now Alex Dawson, a sometime pulp writer turned bodyguard, who starts poking into the murder of the mayor he was supposed to be guarding. Not out of any regard for the mayor himself, but because the other bodyguard killed was Alex’s dear friend, and he just wants to know the answer to a simple question: Why?
It’s a wonderful setup, where the publicly important death matters to us much less than the emotionally important death. Like any good noir, the personal looms larger than the political, and watching Alex cope with the assault on his rickety found family will break your heart in the best way. It’s also the first in a projected series, and I have high hopes of seeing more of this cast of characters — at least, the ones who survive. Spoilers? Sorry: this book has a higher body count than my usual recommendations. And a lot of guns. It must be said that the romance arc is definitely a bit secondary, and readers in search of fluff will want to look elsewhere.
Readers in search of something gritty but not grim, tragic but not nihilistic, will come away amply satisfied.
Sometime during my visit with Mrs. Green the weather had turned heavy and damp, threatening rain. I was almost glad. Sunlight didn’t quite match my mood. I cursed myself the whole half block it took to get to the Carlisles’ house. Suckered by an old lady, I couldn’t believe it! Well, I could, considering the amount of corruption in town. Everyone with their money and their secrets. I was almost surprised no one I knew had been murdered before.
The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter by KJ Charles (self-published: historical asexual trans f/asexual m):
It’s always a risk to bare your feelings to another person, but how much more so when there’s queerness or transness to take into account, especially in times and places where those identities carry more than the usual burden of legal and social stigma. Maybe that’s why trans and ace (asexual) romance plots appeal to me so much: there always has to be a moment where the characters must be more than usually delicate with one another, because the risks of confession are so much more profound, and the characters have been hurt in just that way so many times before.
Here, that moment comes when our music hall songstress Miss Christiana and our humble clockrepairer/diamond fence Stan reveal to one another that they’re not really into the whole sex thing, never, not with anyone, just not anothing that works for them. It starts as an awkward, anxiety-filled conversation for both of them, and turns into a glowing, giggling sunburst of mutual understanding and relief. I couldn’t have liked it more.
And of course, that lovely gem of a moment shines more brightly against the grimy backdrop of Charles’ underworld family: the Lilywhite Boys (as you’ll recall from the marvelous Any Old Diamonds) would be the villains in nearly any other romance world. They cheerfully steal things; they like violence; they are the furthest thing from gentlemen. I’m glad we have this morsel of a book to keep us from getting too ravenous for the next one (Templeton and Susan, be still my heart!)
What will really upset Stan is you getting in trouble, so don’t. And don’t worry,” he added, a little more gently. “We’ll bring him back.”
She clutched his forearm. “Will he be all right?”
Templeton didn’t respond right away. “I hope so,” he said at last. “But if he’s not, I promise you, it’ll be catching.”
The Blacksmith Queen by G. A. Aiken (Kensington Books: fantasy m/f):
Did I describe No Good Men as a little violent? Oh, sweet summer child. This book opens with not one but two scenes of gleeful slaughter, splatteringly comic, and by the end of chapter two I had already lost count of how many skulls had been smashed and whose inside bits were splashed onto whom. It’s not at all my usual thing but all the characters seemed to be having such a good time that I couldn’t look away.
By the time the secret centaurs (what?) and the demon wolves with fire for eyes show up (what???), I was reaching for the popcorn and settling in for the whole show.
This book is not subtle, but it is gloriously surprising. It’s what you might get if Game of Thrones and Borderlands 2 had a romance baby. Or a slightly less wholesome Galavant.
At several points I actually yelled Oh shit aloud at the page, because G. A. Aiken can present a plot twist with all the finesse and brilliance of a stage magician.
We begin: The Old King has died and prophecy hails new successor — not one of the king’s murderous offspring, who immediately begin assassinating one another, but a blacksmith’s younger daughter. But we don’t follow Beatrix: the story’s centered on the Chosen One’s older sister Keeley, a tall, broad, impossibly strong and burly blacksmith like her mother. Keeley is deadly with a sledgehammer and easily makes friends with every animal, even the demon wolves. The Witches of Amhuinn have sent a clan of centaurs to defend the proespective Queen — including large, scowly, misanthropic Caid, who is utterly perplexed to find Keeley treating him with all the cheer and confidence at her disposal.
The goal is simple: get Beatrix to the witches to confirm her destiny, while avoiding capture and slaughter from the royals who are grasping for power. But then things — well, things take a turn, and the patterns you thought you were following begin shifting like a kaleidoscope. The prose is profane and filthy and utterly unself-conscious, leaving the faux-medieval tone at the door in favor of brash, direct statements.
I had forgotten that epic fantasy could be this fucking fun.
“So we’re just going to pretend those wolves don’t exist?” Laila asked.
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do!” Keeley joyfully replied. She’d just survived a battle and she felt pretty good about herself. Why ruin it all by fighting a woman she barely knew?
“Are you a witch of the dark gods?”
“Me? A witch?” Keeley had to laugh. “I have one loyalty aside from my family and it’s steel. That’s where my heart and love are.”
Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews (Avon: paranormal m/f):
If Nevada Baylor were not a romance heroine she would be a Raymond Chandler character. I’ll spare you the five-page essay, but I’ve got the quotes to prove it.
Noir was always a genre I loved for its best tendencies (sly wit, mysteries to solve, cityscapes, femme fatales) and in spite of its worst (misogyny, violence, xenophobia, and nihilism, not necessarily in that order). Romance-noir overlaps are few and far between: things either go Gothic and angsty, or end up as romantic suspense with its comfortable Good Versus Evil, or star a heroine who’s too much of an ingenue to support the weight of a proper noir voice.
What I’ve been missing is the heroine with an eye like Phillip Marlowe’s, which presents subtle observations in the form of biting jokes.
Such as: “She wore a white dress that really wanted to be a sleeve.”
Which is how Nevada Baylor, our down-and-out private eye in a world controlled by magical families, describes the receptionist in the ultra-modern lobby of the ultra-wealthy Montgomery International Investigations. It’s a classic noir scene, our detective showing up to a wealthy client’s office, setting up future tensions and showing us why we’re going to be rooting for this detective even when they’re haggard and human and ready to buckle beneath the weight of crime and sin and evil.
By the time our hero Mad Rogan shows up, I’m ready to burn down the world to keep Nevada safe. I’m committed. I’m invested. I’m more than a little bit in love. Any man who wants her is going to have to prove to me that he damn well deserves the honor.
Mad Rogan is not a noir hero. He’s something like a noir villain, with his wealth and his morals and his power. He’s an homme fatale, both intensely sexual and profoundly untrustworthy. And he’s fucking dangerous: a powerful high-level magic user, he calmly muses aloud at several points that people get far too worked up over a little murder here and there.
I love him to bits and I have no earthly idea why.
Seriously, I write books and about books for a living. Normally I can at least see enough of the strings to know how they’re being pulled. I generally don’t mind. Good magic’s not less fun when you know how a trick is performed. But I honestly have no idea how Ilona Andrews is pulling this one off. Just last month I was talking about being painfully tired of alpha heroes who are the Mostiest Most of everything, and power imbalances in paranormal romances, and romance arcs that take up multiple books — and here is a book where all of that seems to be true, at least on paper, and I am eating it up with a fucking spoon.
I’m going to have to read the rest of this series, and reread it until I figure it all out. My puzzle-solving, pattern-spotting, overthinking magpie mind is not going to be able to let this go. I’m actually furious at myself for not having read this years ago. If you want your brain gloriously wrecked this October, start here.
Across from me, Mad Rogan sat motionless in the circle. A damp sheen beaded at his hairline and slicked his chest and carved biceps. The blue runic script covering his body still held, but some symbols were beginning to smudge. The effort of crushing my will was wearing him out. In the soft illumination of the room, he looked barely human, a feral, predatory creature of some arcane magic. I would’ve loved nothing more than to walk over there and kick him right in the face. As it was, I glanced at him anytime the pressure got to me, and a fresh jolt of fear kept me going. The pressure ebbed slightly.
He was tired.
Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the world premiere of The Twilight Zone, a show that would forever change the scope of what television was capable of as a storytelling medium. Yesterday was also the publication date for The Twilight Man, a comic biography of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling by Koren Shadmi.
If you're unfamiliar with Serling, you are likely at least very familiar with his legacy: Black Mirror was pretty much straight-up a Twilight Zone knock-off with a technological angle. You likely have seen at least the climax of Planet of the Apes, the screenplay of which was written by Serling. He helped shape our idea of what science fiction can do as an agent of social change, and he opened up television to a world of possibilities that are still being explored today.
Of course, the question about any comics biography about an artist who excelled in another medium like television is, why does this biography need to be in comics form? Wouldn't it make more sense, be more thematically interesting, to tell Serling's story as a TV movie or series? Shadmi answers the question of "why comics?" by embracing the major themes of Serling's work and echoing those themes throughout the book. Like in the Twilight Zone, Shadmi's story veers into bizarre visuals, adding an air of menace to Serling's story that suits him down to his shoes. (And of course, like the best Twilight Zone episodes, the book is presented in glorious black and white.)
Serling's early military career, in which the unexceptional physical specimen volunteered for pretty much any dangerous duty he could get his hands on, is marked with the horror and sudden reversals of fortune that we recognize in Serling's work. And as Serling eventually works to find his voice as a broadcast writer, Shadmi illustrates his journeys into weird and sinister fiction as psychedelic trips through mysterious floating doorways, haunted by shadowy monsters at the edges of his peripheral vision.
Shadmi is an excellent cartoonist, finding the right balance between cartooniness and realism. (His figures resemble nothing so much as the work of Jason Lutes.) You might be deceived by his clean linework into thinking that very little is going on in each panel, but if you look closer, you'll notice that Shadmi almost never skimps on backgrounds — he'll draw every piece of debris in a combat scene after an explosion, for instance, just to give a sense of the desolation caused by war. The world feels just as real as our own.
Very few biographies of writers are worth your time — particularly writer biographies told in visual media like film or comics. The interiority of a writer's life rarely makes for decent narrative fodder. But The Twilight Man makes the weakness of the medium — the inability to really reach for the interiority of Serling's writer life — into a strength by pulling the man inside out, and letting us peek into his head. It's a dark ride, with a killer twist. Serling would be proud.
I’ve gotten tired of podcasts lately. Maybe I’ve listened to two (thousand) too many hours of interviews and pundit prognostications. Maybe I just need to sit with some thoughts a little longer than the 45 minutes to an hour that podcasts demand.
In place of the podcasts, I’ve been downloading audiobooks from the Seattle Public Library and listening to them in rapid succession. I’ve burned through a half-dozen books since Labor Day in my two hour walks to work. In many ways, the books I’m listening to examine the same themes as my current-events podcasts, but they spend more time with the subjects, really digging deeply into the roots of problems.
The audio book that has elicited the strongest reaction from me so far is Dale Beran’s It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump Into Office. It’s basically a history of men acting terribly on the internet, from the Something Awful forums to 4Chan to 8Chan to Gamergate to the alt-right.
In Something Awful, Beran digs deeply into this hidden history of the world — the part that unfolded under the guise of anonymity for the last few decades, while the rest of us were living our lives in reality. It’s a solid piece of journalism, connecting all the dots that have been right there in front of us all along.
But let’s be clear: the history of online chuds is not by any means a straight line. Trump was not an inevitable outcome of an inexorable forward march. Men behaving badly online have swung between the poles of the left (those worldwide protests against the Church of Scientology) and the right. To them, it’s not political — it’s about the chaos they can cause.
Beran reads his own book and he’s a capable narrator, adding enough irony to his voice that you can practically hear the eye-rolls at some particularly dumb online rituals. Hearing some of this online conversation read aloud is cringe-worthy — I’ll never hear “lulz” in spoken English without wanting to crawl into a ball and die — but in a way that helps fortify the book’s thesis. None of this stuff — not the pointlessly complex memes, not the rage at “normies” for living a life they can only dream of — is normal, or should be spoken aloud in polite company.
But of course now it has been spoken aloud. And Tweeted. And elected to the White House. Like a magical curse in some fable, what’s been spoken aloud can’t be taken back. We all live in 4Chan now.
Another audio book I’ve consumed recently proved to be especially illuminating when it comes to understanding the troll-in-chief. After watching Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (twice) and the second season of the serial-killer profiling drama Mindhunter, both of which involve Charles Manson, I decided to listen to Jeff Guinn’s biography Manson.
Manson is a pretty straightforward true crime biography, a speedy trip through Manson’s life as he creates a cult, tries to break into the music business, and orchestrates several murders. It’s well-reported, and not at all lurid. (Though I do question Guinn’s decision to refer to Manson as “Charlie” throughout the book; it feels too friendly to me.) If you’ve absorbed Manson in popular culture over the last few months and you have some blank spaces in the timeline that you need to fill, it does the job.
But the whole time I spent listening to Manson, I couldn’t stop comparing its subject to Donald Trump. Both of them are fascinated by, drawn to, fame. Both of them have amassed a cult of enthralled damaged people. Both of them have made kingdoms out of the shit that nobody else wanted to touch.
The similarities are troubling for any number of reasons, of course. But maybe the most troubling part of the book comes near its climax. Manson ordered the infamous killings in large part because his repeated attempts at scoring a record contract failed to materialize. Manson had been publicly shamed in front of his “family” when a record producer didn’t offer him a lucrative recording contract after an audition and, Guinn argues, Manson felt he needed to regain control of his followers with a big splashy act. It was, in other words, a matter of escalation.
Today, just a few days after Donald Trump warned the world that his followers would consider impeachment to be an act of “civil war,” and one day after Trump accused his political opponents of committing a “coup,” I’m wondering about that escalation born of humiliation. What would it look like, say, if a humiliated Charles Manson had an army at his command? If Trump truly does find impeachment to be a humiliation, how can he possibly escalate the situation in order to regain control of his followers? What if the real crimes are yet to happen?
When I joined Seattle writer John Englehardt onstage at Elliott Bay Book Company last month for a well-attended book launch party for his first novel Bloomland, the very first question I asked him was “what’s your author origin story — were you bitten by a radioactive Faulkner?”
Set in Arkansas, Bloomland feels through and through like a novel in the southern tradition. Its cadence, its understanding of human nature — by which I mean it has a keen eye for how we behave both alone and in groups — and its complicated relationship with poverty and religion all resonate like a book by a southern author.
Englehardt admitted that Faulkner was a heavy influence on Bloomland. “When writing this book, I did go back to Absalom, Absalom! in particular. I love that book.” He especially found inspiration in the way that Absalom unfolds — “a kind of peeling back the onion.” That structure helped him figure out how to tell the story: “I really wanted to have almost everything up-front [in Bloomland]. Specifically, I didn't want to write a thriller or sensationalize the topic.”
About that topic: Bloomland is the story of what happens after a school shooting at an Arkansas university. When you take the sensitive subject matter into account and also consider the fact that It’s written in the second person, the book violates pretty much every writing-class warning in the instructor handbook. Those are two big danger zones for any writer, let alone a first-time novelist.
“I tried to write the novel a different way,” Englehardt admitted. “I tried to write it in first person. I tried to write it in third person. And it ended up not working out. It felt disingenuous.”
For Englehardt, the second person and the subject matter went hand-in-hand: “one of the biggest things I was trying to think about when writing this book was the issue of shared responsibility. So I became really drawn to the second person for the way it interrogates the reader.” By addressing the reader directly, he believed Bloomland could more clearly address “how our individual actions can be seen as complicit in a proliferation of mass shootings and ceremonial violence.”
And that’s where the southern regionalism came in. “There was something about the way I felt this particular story needed to be told that really required the richness and texture and layer consciousness and attention to the landscape of the south,” Englehardt said. He grew up in Washington state, went to school for four years in Arkansas, and it wasn’t until 2014, when he was finally back in Seattle, that he started to write about Arkansas. “When I was in Arkansas, I didn't write about Arkansas at all,” he said. “But I took notes. I had notebooks filled with Arkansas stuff.”
This week, a movie is being released by a major Hollywood studio that has been at the center of a conversation about art and responsibility. The director and star of Joker didn’t seem to stop and think about the ways that their work might be interpreted and celebrated by the alienated young men who are most prone to dramatic violent outbursts in America today. Did Englehardt feel a responsibility in writing about a school shooting?
“It's one thing I've thought about all throughout writing the novel,” he said. “And initially I didn't think I was going to write about the shooter. But then as I did more research and was thinking about the issue of shared responsibility, I realized that there are so many kinds of myths out there about what makes a mass shooter and about the social roots of mass shootings that we keep repeating every time one of these things happen.”
Englehardt listed those causes in a rote voice, the way we hear them listed on the evening news: “that they did this specifically because they had a mental illness, or because they were bullied, or because they were addicted to buying video games. I started to think it would be instructive and necessary to write from his perspective as a way to write against those myths — by not making him those things.”
One book that helped Englehardt the most in the writing of Bloomland was Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir of her time counseling a death row inmate, Dead Man Walking. “One of the biggest things she struggles with is the extent to which we are taught that to extend understanding and especially compassion towards someone who's done something unthinkable like murder is to betray the victims and to condone what they did,” he said.
In her book, Prejean suggests that we “can have understanding and compassion and treat someone like a human while also at the same time not condone what they did — not be their apologists, and not strike back at them, or elevate them. Sometimes when we declare someone as evil and declare them as a monster, it's a way of distancing ourselves from them.”
In the end, Englehardt concluded, distance is the worst thing you can do. “You know, this is the person that our community created.”
(Side-scroll to see full lines)
Let Seattle be
Seattle, the place that was, and is, and will be
Seattle has become a home for me
among the shackled and the free
The place where trees once stood
before there was a neighborhood
Seattle was the Cedar’s majesty
before the planes and glass spines scraped the sky
she was the mother in her children's eyes
before the hills were pushed into the sand
this was and is and will be the Duwamish land
Let Seattle be
Seattle, a chief's name on foreign tongues
Seattle recognized and sung, by dolphins we call Killer Whales
before they too are gone — a sanctuary City, in a filled in estuary
Let Seattle be hope, in this hope broken land
a shelter and a refuge, a fist to stop a tyrant’s hand
Seattle, your tectonic faults are great
See the last one leaving turn out the lights
See the home of War and the flight
See the Gold Rush and sourdough bread
See the Issei and the Nisei of the Panama Hotel, 7,000 gone by what the president said
See how Hooverville returns again and again
See old covenants of outside the International District and CD
See where no Asians and no Africans could be, how more than others we still live
without the trees
Oh gray blanket on the streets and in the sky
See the tents, the sweeps and totem poles
Seattle, remember too the change you are and want to be
Listen to The Gang of Four
understand their Unity
Listen to The Gang of Four
notice what remains
When the soil of ourselves is pushed into the sand
What rises from the grains is in the People's hands
See Bob Santos in the International District See Bernie Whitebear occupy the Daybreak Star
See Larry Gossett CAMP to feed the people (no matter what the name)
See Roberto Maestra and El Centro De La Raza rising still again
Say, who are you in the Salish Sea?
Pushed aside for prosperity
I am the Black River gone as the people cried
I am the Chinook dead on the side
I am the Orca carrying my child
I'm the gray whale beached at Alki
I am your neighbor
without shelter in the sand
Oh, but Seattle is mighty even with its broken dreams
Oh, Seattle is mighty when it looks in its own eyes
What city do you know that fights itself to undo its present harms
What city do you know that sounds its own alarms?
What city do you know that was raised by colonizers
that turns itself upon itself to put out ancient fires?
This place, of wooded paths and parks
that must belong to all
This place, where we drink the water from protected Cedar Falls
This place, where race and social justice is built into the law
This place, where you are taught to understand the power of it all
The power of illusion that there are racial lines
The power of Illusion that's kept us all behind
But the strength of our ethnicity is celebrated here
Sing what's right Seattle
over the heartless song
Sing the estuary where freshwater meets the sea
where Orcas must survive for our health and their dignity
Sing My Posse's on Broadway
Sing jazz on Jackson Street in wires
Sing Jimi Hendrix, what stars is in his Spangled Banner demand
Sing WTO, Black Panthers and the Women's March
Sing and Endangered song, Sing a whale's song, Sing
Sing Quincy Jones
Sing Ernestine Anderson
Sing Grunge and Hip Hop
Speak tablets from the sky
Speak Octavia Butler and her brood in a futuristic mood
Speak Gabriel and Riz
Speak August Wilson, play out all the cycles
Speak Colleen McElroy with Madagascar lips
Dance/color into the dark canvas of Winter
Dance Chihuly in two steps
Dance Jacob Lawrence and Debora Moore
Dance Dingus and Barbara Earle
Dance Kabby and Syvilla Fort
Feast on Forest of food from Beacon Hill
Become an Amazon for equity
with the sweet steamy foam of justice in our mouths — Come, All
Stand in the crossroads of the red, black & green
Stand in the rainbow of what has been
Celebrate this Emerald City and its Green New Deal
make a way for the poor and impoverished to heal
SING WHAT’s RIGHT SEATTLE
Let Seattle be
Seattle, the place that was and is and will be
Seattle has become a home for me
among the shackled and the free
amidst the resistance there must be
as the hills were pushed into the sand
Seattle will bring
Justice to our land
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Vox journalist Liz Plank's new book investigates what kind of a future men have in a world of toxic masculinity. It's subtitled *A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity*. Those braying ninnies online who intrude into every conversation about feminism with cries of "but what about the meeeeeeen?" might want to tune in to this author conversation with *YES! Magazine*'s editorial director, Lauren Bohn. Impact HUB Seattle, 220 Second Ave S, 430-6007 https://impacthubseattle.com/, 6 pm, free.
The greatest sci-fi bookstore in town welcomes author Robin Hobb to celebrate the 25th anniversary edition of her first novel, Assassin's Apprentice. This is a hardcover deluxe edition of the fantasy novel, with illustrations by Magali Villeneuve and other bonus features. University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 7 pm, free.
Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo will be onstage in conversation with Seattle author and director Charles Mudede to celebrate the paperback publication of her amazing first book, So You Want to Talk About Race. If you know someone who complains about people talking too much about race in America these days, you should give them this book; it's literally intended for them. It's a straightforward primer intended for curious people who want answers but were too afraid to ask in a public forum. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.
Alice Hoffman is a leading American novelist. Her latest book is about three women in Berlin in 1941 who stand against the Nazis. Hmmmmm. Whyever would Hoffman choose to write about this subject right now, I wonder? Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, $28 for a book and admission for two.
La Sala Latinx Arts Collective presents three artists — Milvia Pacheco, Mirta Wymerszberg, and Leo Carmona — who will present a multi-disciplinary storytelling event honoring Black women from the Caribbean and Latin America. (Not to nitpick, but press materials call this a "pop-up event," which is a little precious. Aren't most literary events pop-up events?) Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.
See our event of the week column for more details. Northwest African American Museum 2300 S Massachusetts St, Seattle, WA 98144 206-518-6000, 12 pm, free.
Michael Niemann presents the fourth in his series of thrillers starring the character Valentin Vermeulen. It's set in the Middle East and focuses on ISIS in Turkey and Syria in late 2015.
Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 6 pm, free.
It's no mystery that we are big fans of the Seattle Urban Book Expo, which celebrates Seattle's Black and brown authors and publishers. We've attended the festival, we've interviewed founder JL Cheatham II, and we've written about Seattle Urban Book Expo authors.
But it comes down to this: if you love books in Seattle and you don't know the authors on the list of Seattle Urban Book Expo's attendees, you owe it to yourself to come on down and familiarize yourself with this important part of the literary community. We're big fans of Kamari Bright, who was the July Poet in Residence here last year, and we also recommend poets Rasheedah Roberson, Kiana Davis, and Cheatham, who published a new children's book this year.
Now that the event is entering its fourth year — it takes place this Saturday afternoon at the Northwest African-American Museum — the Seattle Urban Book Expo is enjoying a moment of maturity: it's been around long enough that it's a known quantity, but it still has room to grow. If you wanted to make your mark in the community, there's still a space for you.
This year's Expo actually begins a day early with two panels featuring Expo attendees discussing "their personal experience in book publishing, the importance of diversity in literature, and give advice to those who want to create their own work."
At a time when white people are moving into traditionally PoC spaces in Seattle, it's more important than ever to claim a time and space to talk about why Black voices are so necessary in Seattle right now. For three years, the Seattle Urban Book Expo has been devoted to exactly that: making space for voices to be heard.
Northwest African American Museum 2300 S Massachusetts St, Seattle, WA 98144 206-518-6000, 12 pm, free.
It was difficult to want to read anything this week. Today — yesterday, when this hits screens — I move out of the apartment I’ve lived in for 13 years; I move out of the neighborhood I’ve walked through for 13 years. I move into a house, into a house with my boyfriend, into my first house, with my boyfriend, with whom I’ve never lived.
Every book I own is in box, and my cats are very worried.
Reading up on cats and moves reminds me that they don’t comprehend “home” in quite the same way; for them, just changing the furniture up is a re-design of the universe. So the journey to a new house is like moving to an unknown continent. Involuntarily, after someone picks you up and shoves you in a box to do it.
When I worked at a wildlife rehabilitation shelter, I worked with terrified animals every day — animals who had essentially just undergone an alien abduction-type experience, swooped up by one of their largest potential predators, shoved into a tiny box, and force-fed, needled, drugged. It was impossible to forget, ever, the misery of it — the harm humans can do while correcting a human sin (a window strike, a car’s tires, the teeth of an outdoor cat). There’s a genre of books that reflects this tension with greater or lesser awareness, from Ring of Bright Water to Hawk. It’s impossible to touch the wild without giving pain. This is true even for wild animals that have become very used to domesticity.
All of which is to say that I’m taking a great deal of comfort and pleasure in Nicola Griffith’s sequence of blog posts on her new kittens. First: kitten pictures. Second: the addictively dry warmth of Griffith’s writing style, which is perfect for the nuance of kitten personality. Third: the respect and care Griffith offers the tiny balls of fluff. There’s something as strengthening in it as a sip of good scotch, or hot soup on an empty stomach.
Anyway, that is just to say that I’m enjoying it a great deal, and if you aren’t subscribed to her newsletter, you’re missing the kitten reports. And if you have any sort of uncertainty in your life, missing the kitten reports is a terrible shame.
My main suspicion is that I’m not training Charlie and George, they are training me: hours and hours of play time a day, plus treatsies for playing, and endless comfy lap time afterwards. Oh, well. I’m getting a lot of reading done.
Using the pronouns people prefer is not only courteous, it can save you from looking like a fool to history! Win-win.
When William Safire wrote an “On Language” column for The New York Times about the still-nascent honorific Ms. in 1984, he was grudging at best. Marvel Comics had introduced Ms. (now Captain) Marvel, and there was even a feminist magazine called Ms. The influential Safire still groused, but he had an insurmountable problem. Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice president, and the Times’ inviolable house style insisted on an honorific. But it couldn’t be Miss. Ferraro was married. But she’d kept her own last name, so she couldn’t be Mrs. Ferraro. So Safire capitulated under duress. By 2009, when the new “On Language” columnist Ben Zimmer returned to the subject, the ruling on usage wasn’t even a question.
The poetry and threat of the wingless cranes that dominate our sky.
As dots on a map, all cranes may look the same. But their impact isn’t indiscriminate. Even more than a construction tool, elegant wetland bird, and/or healing origami shape, cranes have become a synecdoche for transformation—telegraphing evolutions both personal and physical, wanted and unwanted.
Prachi Gupta on the loss of her brother, best friend, and sometimes political antagonist.
In the last year of his life, we had spoken to each other only twice over the phone. To each of us, the political was very much personal, stemming from wildly different responses to witnessing domestic violence within the deeply patriarchal culture of our Indian-American family. When he died, I believed that I didn’t know the facts of his life well enough to write his obituary. Worse, I feared that he wouldn’t have wanted me to write it. How do you write about someone you loved intensely, but didn’t really like?
Michael Hobbes is a Seattle-based journalist, writer, and supremely-talented untangler of our culture's messiest cultural hairballs. He is the other half (the first being Sarah Marshall, who did this column last week) of the most wonderful You're Wrong About, a podcast that absorbs every superlative I throw its way, and leaves me wanting to praise it still more. Let's just say it's really good and you should listen to it. Michael's bylines include Slate, NPR, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, and his primary home for long-form writing, The Huffington Post. An enjoyable, and enlightening, afternoon can be spent perusing his published articles.
What are you reading now?
I've loved graphic novels since I was a kid. One of my favorite summer activities is buying one at a used bookstore, then sitting in a park and reading it all at once. The other day I came across David B’s Epileptic, which I read years ago and adored. I had given away my copy so I bought it again, biked to Greenlake and read about half of it.
It’s a memoir about a family trying to cure their son’s epilepsy. After they get frustrated with doctors, they start hiring psychics and subjecting their kids to weirder and weirder diets. Eventually, they join a cult and move into the woods.
The book takes place in France in the 1970s, but it's human enough to feel time- and place-less. Reading it, I kept thinking of the episode Trust Issues did last year on these resorts in Florida that advertise swimming with dolphins as a cure for autism. Parents pay thousands of dollars to get their kids a few minutes of swimming time. Many of them come away convinced that it works, but their kids didn't get enough. Or that their own behavior reversed the results somehow.
Epileptic tells this story from the inside. It's hard for people to come to grips with conditions they don't experience themselves, and even harder to accept that there's no 'normal' they can ever return to.
What did you read last?
Last month my book club read Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. It was published in 1975 and is considered one of the first feminist sci-fi novels. At the time, writers were starting to put female characters into science fiction stories, but their female-ness was often sidelined. Their actions weren’t explicitly informed by their experiences as women and their gender never led them to be angry or — gasp — “radical” in their political beliefs.
Russ was not having any of that shit. Her book takes place in four parallel universes, one of which is a utopia in which men have been wiped out and women live together in peace. The story begins when a character from this all-female Xanadu — an out lesbian, another thing Russ refuses to apologize for — visits Earth and starts pointing out all the ways the women there are being abused and belittled by men.
It’s a difficult book to read because it bounces around in time and dimension and character, but it’s fascinating for how openly angry it is. Later, Russ wrote a non-fiction book called “How to Suppress Women’s Writing.” It gives men all these rules for casting female artists as not-really female and their best work as not-really-masterpieces. Both books are 30-odd years old but they still feel urgent.
What are you reading next?
Speaking of old stories and gayness, I got super obsessed with the Thomas Ripley books this summer and can’t wait to finish the series.
I’ve always had a weird relationship with the story. As a teenager, I saw “The Talented Mr. Ripley” knowing nothing about it except that Matt Damon and Jude Law were hot on the posters. None of the movie’s trailers had indicated that it had any gay characters, so I thought it was a safe movie for me, a deeply closeted senior in high school, to suggest to my straight friends.
Most of the other people in the theater had apparently come in equally unfamiliar with the story. As soon as Tom started trying on Dickie’s clothes, the walkouts started. By the time Matt Damon (spoiler) killed Jude Law and embraced his dead body, probably a quarter of the theater had left. People were shouting at the screen. I was terrified my friends would suspect I was gay because I had suggested it. Since then I've never been able to rewatch it because it's always been this perfect little symbol of why I stayed in the closet for so long.
But then a friend suggested the series and I devoured the first two books. They’re amazing. They came out 44 years before the movie, so the homosexuality is a lot more subtle. Nonetheless, they’re a painfully specific portrait of the exact alienation I had experienced in that movie theater in 1999.
Tom feels profoundly alone; he falls in love recklessly; he changes locations and friendships and identities thinking he’s one change away from fixing the emptiness he feels. It was everything I heard when I interviewed therapists and experts on minority stress, but it’s a suspense thriller written when Dwight Eisenhower was president. It’s so magical to feel a connection to the past through fiction like that.
So anyway, I need to finish the series! I also need to try watching the movie again. Partly because I’m ready to revisit that part of my life but mostly because I still think Matt Damon and Jude Law look hot on the poster.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cienna is on her annual Fall spider quest, this column is a re-run from 2016.
I received the worst rejection slip from a literary magazine in the mail the other day. It was a form letter with check boxes, and at the top it said “NOT ANOTHER…” and then there were a series of options for the editor to check off: “…poem about alcohol,” “…short story about horses,” that sort of thing. My checked box said “…memoir about mothers and daughters.”
Cienna, I’m more than a little annoyed about this. There’s a lot more to my piece than my mom’s death, and I think the response is a little bit condescending and, yes, sexist. My friends mostly say I should be happy I got a response at all, but that snotty little checkmark haunts my dreams. Should I blog about this rejection letter experience, or would I just look like a bitter freelancer?
Luann, Rainier Valley
I’m sorry, that is both disappointing and unnecessarily catty. Anyone worth their salt — or the salt of your tears — should have the decency to be both honest and kind in their rejection. Like this:
I hope that letter helps put things in perspective. And yes, when in doubt you should always blog about your feelings. The internet is a carpetbag of freaks and wonder; someone is bound to find your insights helpful. Where else could I find a support group of fellow spider lovers struggling to discipline their out-of-control teens AND sweet discounts on Spanx?
Thank you for your submission. Your piece was raw and moving, and I encourage you to continue submitting to other publications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit with the tone of our magazine so we have to pass. You see, we are a literary magazine and thus we have a high bar to uphold in terms of both quality and content for our reader. From the feedback we receive, we know our reader is sophisticated, she enjoys sleepy short stories about the middle class in which nothing more startling happens than a blink. She is also a deep thinker who hates poetry and horses, and who happens to resent her own mother, which is why your story simply won’t suit (unless your mother’s death could be rewritten as more of a comedy?).
You may have noticed that literary magazines are experiencing something of an ecdysis, like when a snake sheds its skin only to reveal a dead snake underneath. Imagine a carpet of dying, molting snakes. In the literary world, we call this a “niche market.” In this niche market it pays to pander to our loyal audience of reader, and right now we’re niched so tight we can hear each other’s dying heartbeats. To mix a few metaphors, we are niched to the hilt. To Hell and back. I’m sure you understand we must keep our reader happy. Keep writing!
See our Literary Event of the Week column for more details. Greenwood Elementary School, 144 NW 80th St, 11 am, https://www.seattlechildrensbookfestival.com/
Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
In late-1960s Glasgow, someone is killing women after picking them up at the popular Barrowland dancehall. Based on the infamous real-life mystery of the Bible John killings, Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker (Europa Editions) follows the chilling murder investigation, primarily from the point of view of one DI McCormack who’s been brought in to review his colleagues’ work on the case. The proverbial outsider – in more ways than one – McCormack has a keen eye and a willingness to think far outside the investigative box, especially when whiffs of police corruption arise. When his own pursuit of the unknown suspect intersects with a major jewelry heist, the stage is plausibly set for manhunts, red herrings, and explosive denouements galore. A beautifully crafted police procedural, The Quaker doesn’t just locate its humanity in McCormack’s personal story: McIlvanney’s inclusion of the voices of the murdered women imbues the narrative with a quietly affecting, indelible sensation.
Erstwhile private investigator Pete Fernandez leaves another memorable mark on the city of Miami in Miami Midnight by Alex Segura (Polis). Still recovering from a near-fatal brush with violence – and still pining after Kathy who is now engaged to another – Pete is reluctant when a new customer comes calling, particularly as the customer is a high-profile city gangster. As we dive even further into Pete’s chequered and deceptive past, the worlds of art, drugs, jazz clubs, and gambling intersect, and Pete finds himself, once again, immersed in a seemingly Sisyphean challenge to bring his world to right – and survive. As with Segura’s previous novels in this series, terrifically telling musical, literary, pop-culture touches and details abound: I particularly enjoyed the not-so-mysterious femme fatale with a pleasingly sophisticated taste for thrillers.
Something is definitely rotten on the campus of a New England prep school in The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (Ballantine). Alex Witt, the newest faculty recruit at Stonebridge Academy, thinks she’s uncovered a super-secret society through her creative-writing assignments, something, perhaps, to do with an exclusive clique of popular students. Maybe it’s just the usual clique-y cattiness? Nope, guess again. Shades of an early incarnation of a major social-media platform darken this novel in which rifts of sexism and corruption run like powerful fault-lines under the isolated campus and its supposedly sleepy Vermont town. In a tale that manages to be both scathing satire and also wholly realistic, Lutz elegantly renders a riveting cast of characters – students, faculty, protagonists, and all – within a “Holy cow! What’s next?!” plot that just won’t quit.
In Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier (Doubleday), two aging, careworn Irish drug smugglers cosy up to the bar in a seedy Spanish port, hoping to locate a young woman – one of their daughters, in fact. Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond have worked and tangled with each other over a lifetime of lucrative criminal activities, crippling addictions, and broken hearts; now, they wait, on the lookout for Hearne’s runaway daughter. As they wait, they mildly terrorize a young man who seems like he might know Hearne’s daughter, and they talk. And talk. Barry’s is a starkly descriptive tale that thrives on dialogue and shimmers with canny and cunning details: one suspenseful scene, for example, takes place in a late-night shebeen, aptly named the Judas Iscariot. A raw and riveting story that mines the tumultuousness of recent Irish history and the vagaries of organized crime – exposing the former’s vulnerabilities, and throwing the latter’s utter heartlessness into naked relief – Barry’s immersive novel contains crimes-a-plenty, yes, but the narrative is pure poetry.
It’s the welcome return of Darren Mathews, Texas Ranger, in Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home, in which, during the turbulent aftermath of the 2016 election, a missing nine-year-old gets Mathews inextricably entangled in the history, politics, and racial schisms in Jefferson, Texas, and the nearby settlement of Hopetown: “…something had rooted [Darren’s] boots in place, some bits in this story that didn’t add up, that played like Russian nesting dolls – open one mystery and find another and another and another and another.” Curious characters and unsavory suspects keep Darren on his toes in this twisted, teasing mystery, but the most salient voices in the book are the ones in Darren’s head, those of his uncles, William and Clayton, whose different belief systems play themselves out in Darren’s sometimes-conflicted heart and mind.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
Lightnin' Hopkins. My family. East Texas. Politics. Weird and/or broken people.
Top five places to write?
My office. My bed. The big yellow chair in my den. The armchair by the window in my living room. Pasadena Central Library.
Top five favorite authors?
Toni Morrison. Pete Dexter. Larry Brown. Jane Smiley. Curtis Sittenfeld.
Top five tunes to write to?
"Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down" – Eric Bibb. "Tom Moore Blues" – Lightnin’ Hopkins. "You’ll Never Walk Alone" – Aretha Franklin. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" – Aretha Franklin. "All Around You" – Sturgill Simpson.
Top five hometown spots?
Hermann Park. Half Price Books. Irma’s. Whataburger. Project Row Houses.
For me, the most impressive part of the Marvel Comics exhibit that was on display at MoPop's Marvel: A Universe of Super Heroes exhibit last year wasn't one of the movie costumes or a human-sized statue of a Marvel hero. No, the thing that immediately captured my imagination was a piece of art by Bill Sienkiewicz, the abstract comics illustrator who worked at Marvel in the 1980s. It was a New Mutants promotional poster from 1984, and it was a little bit like seeing a Jackson Pollock in person.
The art featured the New Mutants, a young team of X-Men understudies, and their villains in classic superhero pin-up style. But there was another dimension to the work — literally. This wasn't a flat illustration. Sienkiewicz had splattered layers of paint on the Bristol board, giving it actual depth, and he had glued actual circuit boards to the artwork, reflecting the villain of the piece — an evil technological organism from the stars called The Magus:
Standing before that Sienkiewicz art wasn't just a nostalgia trip, or an amusement-part thrill, It deepened my appreciation for an artist who meant a lot to me as a kid.
I always loved superhero comics, but the book that opened up the ideas of what comics could do as a medium was New Mutants. Written by longtime X-Men author Chris Claremont as a spin-off of the main title, the book was a mostly unexceptional series about young heroes until Sienkiewicz took over the art duties. His work, which didn't share the obsession with realism that most 80s comics artists single-mindedly pursued, pretty much exploded my young mind.
Sienkiewicz's drawings are consistently expressive and moody and surprising and energetic. Once he got onto New Mutants, Clarement began to up his scripting game to match the artwork: the stories became weirder, more interior, more full of enormous ideas that 9 out of ten comics artists couldn't begin to figure out how to illustrate. The team worked together for a couple years, and then moved on to other work.
Yesterday, as part of their ongoing 80th anniversary celebration, Marvel Comics brought Claremont and Sienkiewicz back together for a one-shot. New Mutants: War Children is a story that is intended to evoke the brilliant Sienkiewicz/Claremont run on the title. It's kind of like a greatest hits album: the story evokes many of the themes and tics of the 1980s series (fear of growing up, anxiety about friends seeing us as we really are, obsession with bodily transformation) in a self-conscious way.
Of course, no artist draws the same after a quarter century has passed, and Sienkiewicz's art is no exception. The art in War Children is a little less punk rock and a little more jazz: the story pauses for big full-page illustrations where Sienkiewicz can position characters into cool poses, and the cinematic storytelling has given way to long series of tight close-ups to show characters' emotions. It's not better or worse, just...different.
Both Claremont and Sienkiewicz are having a lot of fun here. The artist throws in a beautiful Ditko homage, and Claremont seems to be poking fun at his exposition-heavy script from way back when. The story is nothing more than a reprisal of two or three villains who menaced the New Mutants team, with a lightweight threat that gets resolved and squarely packed away in the single issue.
New readers will likely be befuddled by War Children. But for people like me, who found those New Mutants comics to be weirder and more enticing than any other books on the wire racks at the Rite Aid, it's is a magnificent reminder of what it felt like to see two disparate talents create a new magic by filtering their work through the lens of each others' gifts.
As part of their fabulous 70 mm film festival, Cinerama is showing several of film history's most gorgeous movies. Even if you're somebody who can't ordinarily tell the difference between a digitally projected movie and a movie shown on film, a 70 mm film at the Cinerama is an absolute delight. And perhaps no movie is a better example of what the Cinerama does best than Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It screens this Friday and again on Sunday night as part of the festival.
If you've only seen 2001 on TV or — choke — a laptop screen, you are missing a true cinematic experience. The film's analog special effects are more convincing than just about any digital effect you've ever seen. The designs are gorgeous, the story is thought-provoking, and the slow pacing of the story is hypnotic. Put simply, there's more thought put into each square inch of 2001 than just about any other film.
Last week, I listened to an audio book version of Michael Benson's Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. (I listened to a download from the Seattle Public Library, though you can also buy a copy of the audiobook from your local independent bookstore through Libro.fm.) It's a bracing account of the making of one of the best movies in the history of film.
2001 began as a collaboration between Kubrick and Clarke — the novel 2001 was conceived by both the director and the novelist, and written, in a unique circumstance, as kind of a pre-novelization of the motion picture. Both men were at the height of their powers, and they egged each other on into making the film bigger, more portentous, higher-concept.
Benson's account of the making of the film tracks 2001 from its very first conception through its release, and it's a loving biography. Kubrick is a complicated character; some accounts portray him as a merciless asshole while others position him as more a tortured genius. Benson falls somewhere in the middle: the interviews he relays in the book argue that Kubrick is so detail-obsessed that he's almost impossible to work for, but most people understood that this difficulty was the price you paid to take part in something great.
To hear Benson tell it, just about everyone involved with the making of the film — from the least respected assistant to the underpaid Clarke to the terrorized prop manufacturer — seemed to understand that they were working on something special: a sci-fi film that was "serious" and tackled adult ideas with respect and intellectual rigor. Surely, some of this can be waved away as the glow of hindsight, but even the contemporaneous accounts — mostly letters from Kubrick and Clarke — indicate that 2001 was always warm from a heat of genius.
Space Odyssey is a great book to listen to as you're walking or bicycling around; the stakes are low, the characters are interesting, and the book is packed with bizarre anecdotes about the lengths the two men went to bring their vision to life. And by the end, you'll be filled with an insatiable desire to watch 2001. In other words, it's the perfect audiobook for this week in Seattle, when the best movie theater in town prepares to show what many argue is the best movie of all time.
Christopher Leonard's book Kochland is a remarkable piece of journalism that digs deep into the secretive lives of the Koch brothers. It's a corporate biography of Koch Industries — from its first busted union to its worldwide domination — and a biography of Charles Koch and a map of the labyrinthine political action organization founded by the Kochs. If you'd like to understand why we're in the mess that we're in, you can't really find a better guide than Kochland. It outlines the corporate and political abuses that created our modern world. I interviewed Leonard onstage at Town Hall early last month, coincidentally just a couple of weeks after David Koch died. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Thank you for writing this book. I really enjoyed it. It's a really interesting way of looking at a lot of the problems that are coming to a head in America right now. I’m very interested in how you decide you want to devote a whole book and the better part of a decade of your life to this subject.
The most important thing is not knowing what you're getting into at the beginning. I started in late 2011. I've been a business reporter for 20 years now, and at that time I had a lot of pretty profound concerns that were really bothering me — stuff I wanted to write about, stuff I wanted to do and explore. I had this a-ha moment that Koch Industries was the perfect canvas to paint on, through which I could explore all of these things. I realized early on that I could put my head in this for what I thought was going to be three years, because the company is so diversified and so widespread.
First of all, this corporation is enormous, right? It's gigantic. Its annual sales are bigger than that of Facebook, Goldman Sachs, and US Steel combined. But what really draws me to it is that this company specializes in the kinds of businesses we need to survive, but that we don't like directly interact with everyday. There's no Koch brand name on this stuff, but — not to sound hyperbolic — it is all around us. Koch makes the fuel we use to drive everywhere we go. They work on the pipeline systems and natural gas systems that deliver a lot of the electricity we use. They make the carpeting material and the synthetic fibers in our clothing. They make sensors in our phones. They make nitrogen fertilizer, which we don't think we buy, but it's literally the bedrock of our food system.
So the company’s hugely embedded in our entire economic system. And so what that means when you write about it is you're writing about blue-collar manufacturing workers on the factory floor, you're writing about high-flying finance, trading derivatives and commodities and the whole Wall Street thing that has become so important in America, you're writing about corporate lobbyists who are shaping our public policy—all within the framework of this one company.
One more thing that I didn't even realize at the beginning was the other thing that made this company such a great subject was the person at the very top, Charles Koch, who’s been literally the unquestionable authority over this organization for 50 years. Charles Koch became CEO when Lyndon Johnson was president. I don't know if any other CEO in America has had the job that long. He has this incredibly rigid, very extreme worldview — I think ‘extreme’ is an okay word to use. He'd probably use it himself. And he represents one extreme pole in this huge and bitter debate we're having in our country right now, about what role government can play. He believes we need to have this free-market utopian libertarian thing, and he spent his whole life trying to reshape America to be in that image. So it really crystallizes this debate we're having in the country.
Charles Koch is a private person, and writing about him must've been a challenge. Did that contribute to the time that the book took to write? Because you paint a pretty full portrait of somebody who is not a very open person.
Yeah, that definitely contributed to it. It was like crawling over glass — I'm not even going to lie. The company is privately held, so they don't have to disclose financial records or much of anything. And then they have a deep baked-in culture of secrecy. It's an extremely insular organization. That's where the word “Kochland” first came from. The first time I went, in 2013, I could drive right up to their headquarters. After that they renovated the campus, and part of the renovation was they added a 10-foot-tall wall around the north side. So the next time I went in, it was literally like entering a fortress. It was so telling about how insular and self-contained this place is. People don't want to talk about it and people don't want to talk about Charles Koch without his permission.
So, yes, it took years of flying to Wichita and knocking on people's doors. It took two years to convince one person to go on the record in the book. It took a lot longer than I thought. But, you know, as a reporter, that, to me. is really a story worth telling — it’s not the stuff that is publicly flaunted. I'm not saying that everything the public relations industry puts out there is not true, but we are so inundated with the story that people want to tell us: messaging, messaging, messaging all the time. It was really gratifying to tell a story that is being intentionally held secret.
And if I could add one quick thing to talk about the secrecy: It's not all nefarious James Bond villain-type secrecy. The book opens in 1981 when these bankers from Morgan Stanley fly to Wichita and they try to convince Charles Koch to take his company public. He would have gotten a $23 million bonus that night if he did it, which is like $60 million today. And he sent them packing. He turned them down flat. They couldn't believe it. There were a lot of reasons, but one of the things that caught my eye is he told these bankers, ‘if we go public, people are gonna learn how much money our commodities are making. And if they know how much money our traders are making, they're going to stop doing business with us.’ And that was so illuminating to me about why this company is so private and secretive. Their strategic DNA, and the way they make money, and the way they succeed, is by knowing more about the world than anybody else knows, and exploiting their knowledge and acting faster than other people can act. And when that's a strategy you have, you don't want people to know what you know and you don't want people to know what you're about to do. So yeah, the secrecy is deeply embedded in the whole culture.
Obviously the secrecy is his success as a businessman. But it seems like as much of a free marketeer as he is, as a libertarian, he seems like the kind of person who would be a big believer in shareholder value as a driving force for the free market. So it seems almost sort of hypocritical to me for him to keep his business private. Am I reading his libertarianism wrong?
He really is a big believer in shareholder value. And the thing is, there are two shareholders. David and Charles Koch owned 80 percent of this enterprise, and Charles Koch drilled into his people: ‘What you need to be thinking about is return on investment, return to shareholders’ — meaning David and Charles. He does believe in that.
And I'll tell you, you're pointing at a really interesting element of libertarianism, I think: when you hear the word libertarian, you think transparency, competition, markets, democracy, freedom, voting. But it's more complex than that. Charles Koch was born in a hyper-political family. His Dad, Fred Koch, was one of the cofounders of the John Birch Society, and that's a secret right-wing organization that believed the federal government was infiltrated by communists and that it a Trojan horse of tyranny.
That's the political conversation at the Koch dinner table, right? And so he’s got four sons that all seem to have absorbed that. But then Charles, as he grows older, he goes to college, he gets multiple engineering degrees from MIT. He’s a smart guy and he starts reading these Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises and Hayek, and he starts thinking, ‘I have discovered the blueprint of how human societies ought to work.’ Or not just how they ought to work, but how they do actually work.
So Charles Koch believes in this very pure market system that can't be tampered with by government. That means it is wrong for voters to pass a program like Social Security that takes money from productive citizens like Charles Koch and gives it to unproductive citizens like Chris Leonard. because what you're doing is you're taking capital from the sources that generate it and you're giving it to non-generating forces. So the whole picture of libertarianism isn't quite as neat and pretty as everybody has the right to vote and everything needs to be transparent. I think the central thrust is markets need to be allowed to operate. Corporations need to be allowed to operate in an unfettered way.
David Koch wasn't the brains behind the operation, but he passed away a few weeks ago. That was obviously momentous. Could you talk a little bit about what you think that might mean for Kochland, for Koch Industries?
Okay. So we're here on a Friday night. I'm just going to be brutally honest with everybody: David Koch was not strategically important to Koch Industries or to the political network. As I mentioned, I flew to Wichita and was reporting on this for years, and I got these former people who built the Koch system to talk to me in their living rooms, in their basements, and we talked for hours. David Koch's name doesn't come up when you talk to these people. It really is all about Charles Koch.
There were four sons. Two of them leave the business in this huge contentious thing. And then David and Charles come to a truce. They split the shares 50/50. It was probably the most consequential decision David Koch ever made in his life — to hitch his wagon to Charles. And then David Koch went and lived the more public life. He went to New York City. He has his name on museum wings, he gives the speeches at Americans for Prosperity, their political group, he gives speeches at events. Charles Koch is the one who stayed back home in Wichita and just diligently, quietly, patiently built this massive corporate empire.
I guess all I would say is that David Koch's passing was super-sad for his loved ones and for his family, and yet it won't have a strategic or operational impact on the corporation or the political network.
This might sound like pop psychology, but I'm trying to get into where Charles Koch is coming from, here. When David Koch died, there was a fair amount of a celebration on Twitter from the left. And it caused me to wonder if Charles Koch realizes that people will do that when he dies eventually. I guess I'm wondering if Charles Koch thinks of what other people think of him. Is he aware of the fact that a lot of people in this room don't like him? And, does that matter?
He is aware that a lot of people in this room don't like him.
I mean, I'm making an assumption that people in this room don’t like him.
Let's make that assumption. Any room I talk in, that’s fair to say.
I'm not kidding: I think he feels sorry for people who dislike him. He is not a man plagued by self-doubt. He really thinks he has figured it out. I interviewed people who worked with them for decades — and I'm thinking of this guy, Brad Hall, who was a senior executive. He went to shake his head at me because I had these poisonous socialist ideas like that the New Deal was a good thing. He would just, say ‘God, Chris, they really poisoned your brain and elementary school.’
So I think within the system, inside Koch Industries, Charles Koch is seen as a hero. He stood up and put his head above the trash. He stuck his neck out. He tried to advocate for views and principles that the people in that organization really believe in. And he took flack and he took heat and he took attacks. And I will say, I talk a lot about that wall they built around campus as this kind of crazy metaphor for how insular they're becoming, but they face some intense death threats—vitriol, anger. It's a very real thing. But I don't think that it makes him doubt himself.
There are a lot of jaw-dropping sentences in this book, but there were, uh, three sentences in this book that floored me, so I'm just going to read the three sentences for you: 'When they were children, Bill Koch hit his twin brother David in the head with a polo mallet, leaving a permanent scar just behind David's ear. Later, Bill stabbed David Coke in the back with an African sword from their father's collection at the family compound, leaving another scar. David forgave his twin brother for both attacks.' So my question is: What the hell?
There were four Koch brothers and we mentioned the dad, Fred. Charles Koch describes his father in these euphemistic terms. He was larger-than-life, overbearing. The guy drove his sons intensely. He made them literally box with each other, fight with each other. And you saw very fierce competition between these brothers: you had Freddie Koch, who was the oldest, and he was just out from the beginning: ‘I don't want anything to do with this. You people are crazy. I'm out of here.’ He went to New York very early, never came back.
Then he had Charles, who dad sucked in to take over the business, basically. And then you had these twins, David and Bill. Bill was always just a walking psychotherapy session all the time — talking about how horrible his father was, how much he hates his brothers. He's been attacking his brothers since he was a kid. Those are anecdotes from David and Bill about the attacks, the physical attacks on David Koch.
Bill Koch waged a war against David and Charles for 20 years. He tried to get Charles fired. Bill tried to take over the company. He could never accept Charles’s authority. He sued them. He employed armies of lawyers. He employed detectives to dig through Charles Koch's trash. He employed people to pose as reporters. He tried to plant terrible stories about Charles in the press. There’s some deep, deep psychological stuff here.
And I think it comes back to a domineering father making the children compete. And I don’t want to get into pop psychology, either. Most of this book is about the decline of labor unions and things like that. But there's a scene at the end in which the question is: why does Charles Koch work so hard? He's 83, he still gets to the office before the sun comes up. How much money is enough? What drives this guy?
In my mind, an important scene at the end of the book is that you've got this bronze bust of Fred Koch outside Charles Koch's office. And every day when Charles Koch walks into the office, he walks past it. And now at the age of 83, Charles Koch has essentially surpassed his father in every field. His dad printed these old pamphlets; Charles Koch has one of the most influential political networks in the world. His dad built a business that was kind of a hodgepodge of businesses; Charles Koch unified it, blew it up, turned it into a corporate Goliath. I think that it’s incredibly significant that, that he has essentially surpassed as father. I think that was what drove a lot of the psychodrama that you just described as well.
So why didn't Koch Industries invest in alternative energy at some point rather than fight so hard to keep the fossil fuel industry in a stranglehold? At some point, doesn't it make better business sense to diversify and branch out into these up-and-coming fields?
No, no, no. And I've asked myself that question a lot. They are just sitting on all this cash. They have all this money. Why aren't they just pivoting into wind and solar?
So, momentum matters a lot. Charles Koch took over the company in 1967 when he was 33 years old, and the most important asset that he inherited was an enormous crude oil gathering system. Koch at the time was the largest gatherer of crude oil in the United States. Critically, they owned a huge stake in an oil refinery up in Minnesota, and Charles Koch’s first move as CEO was to purchase that entire refinery.
And it sounds silly to talk about one oil refinery, but this is the Pine Bend oil refinery in suburban Minneapolis. And it's amazing how much money you can make by owning one oil refinery. The economics of the oil refining business is astounding and crazy to me, and it’s such a big story about regulatory dysfunction in the United States — but let's leave that to the side for the second. He bought that oil refinery that generated billions in profits for them over the years. They buy another oil refinery. They own fossil fuel pipelines. They own natural gas pipelines. They own natural gas refineries.
So let's get up to the year 2009, when Barack Obama is president and a Democratic Congress is talking about regulating greenhouse gas emissions. What does that mean for a company like Koch that owns all of these massive actions? Well, here's what it means. The company has billions of dollars sunk into the physical infrastructure of our fossil fuel segment — the refineries, the pipelines, the shipping channels around the world where it's buying and selling leases for super tankers of oil. All of it.
That's some investment. There’s billions in this physical infrastructure. Then you've got to account against that: the flows of crude oil that will go through this infrastructure every year for the next decade, two decades, and three decades. That's a lot of money. A lot of money. Now let's think about what happens if we pass a law that caps greenhouse gas emissions, and demand for fossil fuels starts to go down and alternative sources of energy like solar and wind rise. All of a sudden the value of those assets you own is going to go down. The cost is truly in the trillions. You lose trillions by writing down the value of those assets and by losing that future revenue. There’s money on the table here that's difficult for normal people to conceive. And I think that that's one of the reasons why they have fought so vigorously to keep the fossil fuel system alive.
And I mean, they fight vigorously. They have fought to derail greenhouse gas emission rules for sure, but they have also fought on the state level, quite ingeniously I believe, to thwart renewable energy programs.
Koch Industries is out here today and spending a lot of money on political ads and think tanks. When it comes to renewable energies, they say this is crony capitalism. The corrupt Obama wants to steer money to these inefficient industries like solar and wind. Meanwhile, they celebrate the story of fracking, of fractionated drilling, that has given us all these natural gas crude oil supplies.
There's a chapter in the book that blows my mind about how Koch got in front of the fracking revolution down in Texas. It’s just amazing. They built a pipeline superhighway to take all this new fracked crude oil from Texas to a refinery. Fracking was a ward of the state for decades — Fracking only happened because the federal government gave billions in tax subsidies. It funded the basic research to figure out the technology to frack over decades. It funded university centers to figure out how to frack, and how to make fracking cheaper. And then the private sector people came in on the very tail end of that and kind of commercialized it.
So we didn't hear these terrible complaints about crony capitalism and industrial policy for all those decades. But now that we're trying to generate for the first time actual competition — actual real competition in the energy sector — in other words, giving fossil fuels a competitor? They're working to quash that effort all around the country.
This event came in too late to land in yesterday's readings calendar, but you should still give it your consideration: The Carnival for Sanity is happening at the Hotel Albatross in Ballard on Sunday starting at 2 pm. It benefits a host of progressive causes including Planned Parenthood; Literacy Source, which provides education for low-income adults in Washington; and Emerge Washington, which helps women run for office in Washington State. It's not, strictly, a book-themed event, but there are plenty of literary features including a silent auction for a stack of 18 books signed by local authors and a stack of political books donated by Phinney Books, copies of Peter Bagge's excellent Margaret Sanger biography Woman Rebel for sale, and a "Trump Misspelling Bee." It's just five bucks to get in the door; sounds like a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Ballard to me.
If you're wondering how the cataloguing of ZAPP's zine archive at Seattle Public Library is going, KNKX just profiled Seattle librarian Abby Bass, who is one of the staffers in charge of the project.
Here's a pretty great interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about what gives her hope and what does not give her hope:
Now, in a world that is not just about that American president being unusual, but also there is this vote shift to the right in Europe and the world just feels very unsteady, I think it is just so important to tell human stories; not necessarily stories about politics. I find myself reading poetry a lot, because it's important for me after reading the news to just remember simple things. The sacrifices that a parent makes for a child; what it means to experience heartbreak. That kind of things. Hope, love.
She nailed it. pic.twitter.com/drYKn0iCbH— Pamela Ribon (@pamelaribon) August 29, 2019
for Kevin Gick
as young people we are
taught to hold our tears
the feeling that could not
come to pass in the thundering
fallstreak, in piercing through virgae
we risk the jet plane flaming out
shafts of rain going sublime,
before ever touching ground
if this is dormancy, the self
unrequited, who would we be
if we became cloudburst?
consider the potted plant in the crook
whose roots could grow no deeper
its refusal to bloom & choosing
instead to shrivel, this is the instruction:
to pour down now and resound
Congratulations on finishing your book! Congratulations on booking that event you've been dreaming about putting on for years!
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J.A. Jance is, quite possibly, the most popular living Northwest author. Her books are beloved by legions of fans. The latest mystery in the J.P. Beaumont series, Sins of the Fathers, sees the detective coming out of retirement to solve a crime. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
After a long hiatus, this literary happy hour returns — this time at Optimism Brewing on Capitol Hill. The rules are simple: show up with the book you're currently reading. Be prepared to talk about the book. Be prepared to ask other people about their books. That's it! And as a bonus, "Optimism will donate $1 per pint to local non-profit Literacy Source to help promote adult literacy in our community." Optimism Brewing, 1158 Broadway, 206-651-5429, 6 pm
Portland poet Julia Wohlstetter has made the long trek up to Seattle to read new work at Capitol Hill's newest reading series. She'll be joined by Seattle poet (and Babel/Salvage founder, and Hollow Earth Radio host) Bryan Edenfield. This one will also feature music by Bill Horist, a local guitarist who "is on over 70 recordings and has been in over 1000 concerts." Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar, 1508 11th Ave., 709-9797, http://vermillionseattle.com, 7 pm, free.
Kenji C. Liu's newest book of poetry is Monsters I Have Been.Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart's Traffic. These two poets are not from around these parts — they're from California and Texas, respectively, last time I checked — so Seattle should do its best to make them feel welcome. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.
You really know it's fall when Hugo House's Literary Series kicks off. Like every edition of the Literary Series, three authors and one musical act will present new work around a theme. This time writers Jayne Anne Phillips, Mira Jacob, and Ruth Joffre, will join musician Sarah Paul Ocampo in creating new work on the idea of "The Great Divide." In the hands of a lesser writer, that theme could inspire some real hackneyed writing about Thanksgiving dinner with Trumpy relatives. Good thing these aren't hackneyed writers! Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $25
See our Literary Event of the Week column for more details. Greenwood Elementary School, 144 NW 80th St, 11 am, https://www.seattlechildrensbookfestival.com/
Jenny Brown is here to celebrate the release of her new book Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now. Brown should know; she's been an outspoken proponent of reproductive rights for years. She'll be joined onstage by local activist and Shout Your Abortion firebrand Amelia Bonow. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.
Here's something great: for four hours at Greenwood Elementary School this Saturday, dozens of children's book authors — from picture books to young adult novels and everything in between — will be signing their books, talking about the children's book industry, and generally sharing the joys of literacy with kids.
This is the first annual Seattle Children's Book Festival, and it's absolutely free. Phinney Books and Madison Books will be onhand to sell copies, authors will give talks, and kids will get a chance to meet their heroes.
Seriously, there are a ton of authors authors in attendance: Dusti Bowling, Martha Brockenbrough, Ben Clanton, Heather Fox (author of the awesome-sounding Llama Destroys the World), LeUyen Pham, Aron Nels Steinke, and Joyce Wan. Authors will be contributing to how-to-write panels, discussions about graphic novels and middle reader novels, and a "monster mashup."
Best of all, this whole affair is a fundraiser to get books in the hands of local kids who need them most. From the event's website:
During the festival you’ll have a chance to donate money to cover the cost of the direct donation of any festival author/illustrators books to Seattle Public Schools at a reduced price (these donations are tax-deductible). In addition, after the event, Madison and Phinney Books will be giving 20% of autographed book sales to our organization. The directly donated books will go into classroom libraries and the 20% of signed book sales proceeds (after recovering any outstanding festival expenses) will go towards putting on FREE book fairs at the Seattle Public Schools that serve the highest poverty populations.
This is a rain-or-shine affair, and it needs to be successful so that the Seattle Chidren's Book Festival can be an ongoing thing. So bring your kids (or bring someone else's kids — uh, with permission of course) and introduce them to their new favorite author.
Greenwood Elementary School, 144 NW 80th St, 11 am, https://www.seattlechildrensbookfestival.com/
I’ve never liked the architecture of Seattle’s Central Library, which doesn’t matter one bit. Nobody is liked by everyone, and that goes for buildings, too, especially if they have a bit (or a lot) of personality. (And yes, the logo of this publication is inspired by the Central Library, and I love the resonance there, even if it gives me the willies sometimes.)
Still, I felt slightly and unworthily validated by this, by David Brewster. Brewster’s insight on the selection process for the library’s architect shows a winner — Rem Koolhaas — who pushed every one of Seattle’s buttons: innovative, “disruptive,” cool. Aggressively competitive, the kind that’s called ambitious if you win and cheating if you lose.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these qualities (maybe), and many people like them, or at least like the money and power they’ve brought. The Central Library was built in 2004; Amazon moved to downtown Seattle in 2008, after a burst of “disruptive” launches — Amazon Prime (2005), Amazon Fresh (2007), the Kindle (2007).
The spark for Brewster’s piece is an essay in the New York Times about a new library by Steven Holl, who was the quiet runner up to Koolhaas. Holl’s New York library is gorgeous: warm but not precious, modern but not pretentious.
Brewster wonders what Seattle’s library might be like if our city had chosen Holl over Koolhaas; I wonder what Seattle might be like if we were the kind of city to make that choice. It’s pretty obvious that Holl wasn’t a lesser option.
And yes, the Times piece is also about how long the Holl project took and how much over budget it went. Architecture is hard, and so is being a city.
Koolhaas gave a kind of TED Talk to the public meeting, very cool and disruptive. His firm was then intent on getting an important American job, and his wooing continued in earnest when the selection committee visited European works by the two finalists. Holl, honoring the no-contact etiquette of the final decision, hung back. Another factor, I’m told, was the reluctance of the Library to pick an architect who had done a major project in (gasp!) Bellevue.
An excerpt from Anne Boyer’s The Undying that dissects cancer treatment as mercilessly as any surgeon.
The system of medicine is, for the sick, a visible scene of action, but beyond it and behind it and beneath it are all the other systems, _family race work culture gender money education_, and beyond those is a system that appears to include all the other systems, the system so total and overwhelming that we often mistake it for the world.
Katherine Rosman on the new, high-price-tag writing workshop.
Thanks to tweets, comment threads, Instagram captions, Facebook confessionals, newsletters, self-publishing and the internet’s insatiable thirst for first-person essays, _everyone_ is now a writer (or a “content creator”). With an oversupply of words and increasingly distracted demand, making money in a side hustle or day job is harder than ever.
Rachel Corbett on what happens when Medicaid comes to collect.
Some states initially resisted implementing estate recovery. West Virginia legislators called it “abhorrent” in a federal lawsuit seeking to have it declared unconstitutional. (An appeals court rejected the suit in 2002.) Michigan became the last state to enact recoveries, in 2007, after the federal government threatened to cut its Medicaid funding if it didn’t. Other states opted to collect only high-value assets, or offered exemptions for family farms or estates worth less than a few thousand dollars.
The majority of states, however, took a harder line.
Sarah Marshall is a journalist, writer, and vindicator of maligned women in the pop-culture landscape. She's one-half of the power duo (alongside Seattle journalist Michael Hobbes) that makes up the sensation that is You're Wrong About, a truly insightful podcast that unpacks media-driven pop-culture moments with compassion, humanity, and a lot of humor. (Seriously, I love this podcast, and with apologies for editorializing, think it's worth your time to listen to an episode or two and find out why the so many of the women our culture love to hate got a raw deal). We caught up with Sarah in Portland, her place-of-origin, but she never sits still long. You can follow her travels, interests, and the ongoing adventure of the world's most favorite fictional eighties television show, Teen Lawyer, on her Twitter.
What are you reading now?
Every fall I reread Anagrams, a weird little jewel box of a novel that, for me, works by not quite working: its characters express themselves in jokes and verbal sleight-of-hand, and experience the kind of glancing intimacies that are almost enough to keep them alive.
The book falls into five jagged pieces: five stories, one the length of a novella, each one about Benna and Gerard, the configurations of their lives a little different each time, and their fractured longing for each other always the same. It's an emotionally gutting book, but its sentences are confected with the nervy joy of a writer who, like her characters, makes life livable through language. "My idea in a love affair," Benna reflects, "is that if everyone makes enough declarations, one of hem is bound to come true. Words are interesting that way."
What did you read last?
I read Jane every couple of years, always in one sitting; there is no other book that is able to focus my attention this way, to make me feel like my own thoughts are approaching such diamond density, but that's because there is no book quite like this one. In it, Nelson tries to understand the life and afterlife of her maternal aunt, Jane, who was murdered before Nelson was born: "My face stares into hers," she writes of a newspaper photograph:
our thoughts frozen together
on the cusp of a wave
just starting to go white-cold, curl
and fall back into the spitting green.
When I started looking at Jane,
she was much older than me.
How strange her face seems now
enlarged on this grainy screen,
now that she will always be
Nelson wades into a genre fraught with the desires and anxieties that writers have always projected onto the lacunae of the dead, and especially of young female victims; this book continues to haunt me and hold me because of the space Nelson makes for her own uncertainty, and, through excerpted diary entries, for Jane's voice:
Everything I said or did, I said or did wrong
But all those joys, sorrows, and upsets
help you find yourself, help you build
a life of real value. Those upsets all contribute
to my character and what I'm going to be.
What are you reading next?
Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush by Lael Morgan, Epicenter Press, 1998
I picked this book up in Alaska earlier this year, and have been saving it as a treat since reading part of it on the plane home. What drew me in to begin with was the chance — always a rare one — to connect with the lives of real women, and to the people who had made history possible, and for the most part have not been remembered for it. It's also a book that makes it easy to understand the draw of sex work in a world where it was all but impossible for a woman to get by on her own. About Cad Wilson, a "diminutive, brown-eyed redhead" who captivated Dawson City on her arrival there in 1898, despite being "no beauty," a prospector later recalled: "The fellows went mad when she was singing 'There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.' That's when they really began throwing nuggets on the stage… She'd sing a while and then she'd look around and laugh. She used her dress for holding nuggets just like it was sort of an apron and she held it right high in front of her. Cad was smart. She'd gone up there like all the rest of us because she wanted to get all the gold she could."
Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes has written a book that examines the biography of a single particular oak tree. The tree in question is over a century old, and it has seen, as they say, some shit that you wouldn’t believe. Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave NE, 525-2347 http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
In the fall of 1980, in the small town of Holland, Michigan, a new department store is just about to open. It's called Everything, and it seemingly stocks...well, everything: groceries, "fancy pants," insect poison, fishing rods. The parking lot is full on opening day, and local government officials are around to suck up to the new job creators who just moved to town. Meanwhile, small business owners brace for impact and young people consider selling out to the new corporate behemoth in town for $4.50 an hour.
That's the premise of the first issue of Everything, a comic out this month from writer Christopher Cantwell, artist and colorist I.N.J. Culbard, and letterer Steve Wands. It's a beautiful book — Culbard draws striking, clear compositions and uses the primary colors and zip-a-tone textures of 1980s comics.
It's a first issue, so I have to give Cantwell and Culbard some leeway about the mysteries in the book. (Isn't 1980 a little early for a store like this? Wouldn't the 90s have been a better setting for the wholesale decimation of small-town America at the hands of a giant retailer?)
The first issue of Everything is crawling with menace. The vibe of Everything, particularly as represented by the aloof store manager Shirley, is just not quite right — everything to do with the store feels like an approximation of humanity that doesn't quite nail the impression. (I hope Cantwell and Culbard continue to incorporate Everything's advertisements into the story the way they do on the first and last pages of this issue — even good retail ads almost always have a sinister air to them, so this seems like fertile ground for further exploration.)
Everything does a great job of establishing the characters and stakes with economy and compassion: the book doesn't take too long to get into the store opening, but Cantwell's script establishes the status quo in Holland enough to make it feel like a town that's been there forever. Imagine the first two hundred pages of a great 1980s-era Stephen King novel smashed into twenty or so pages of comics and you have a good sense of what you'll find here.
The U.S. government filed a lawsuit Tuesday against former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, alleging he violated nondisclosure agreements by publishing a memoir without giving the government an opportunity to review it first.
Snowden, rightly, is using the lawsuit as an opportunity to sell his book:
The government of the United States has just announced a lawsuit over my memoir, which was just released today worldwide. This is the book the government does not want you to read: (link corrected) https://t.co/JS1AJ6QlXg— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 17, 2019
However, I wish someone would tell Snowden about IndieBound and the importance of selling books through independent bookstores. Given that Amazon is working with ICE and other law enforcement agencies on facial recognition and other Orwellian technologies, you'd think Snowden would be pulling for indie booksellers.
This book contains no government secrets that have not been previously published by respected news organizations. Had Mr. Snowden believed that the government would review his book in good faith, he would have submitted it for review. But the government continues to insist that facts that are known and discussed throughout the world are still somehow classified.
In other book news, the literary world is having fun kicking around a Medium post by Heather Demetrios titled "How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying." In the post, Demetrios talks about her inexperience with the business of books and how her naivety led her to squander the experience of being published.
A lot of the comments about Demetrios feel a little like sour grapes to me — the business really is confusing for new writers, and a lot of agents are very good at getting big advances but very bad at being good human beings.
A good response to Demetrios's post is Chuck Wendig's "How To Be A Professional Author And Not Die Screaming And Starving In A Lightless Abyss". Wendig offers plenty of tips and compassion for Demetrios while frankly explaining how the industry works.
Sometimes I wish that some genre publisher would stop giving out six-figure advances and instead hire a fleet of novelists on a fixed, middle-class salary with benefits. The process of requiring every author to be a social media whiz, a self-marketer, and an expert at working freelance is not the most welcoming atmosphere for creative types. Imagine what a working-class literary workforce could produce if they didn't have all those pressures forcing them to keep hustling.
If that cool air and the smell of stew hasn't already awakened your consciousness to the world around you, we're in the beginning of fall, which means it's time to get into some real witchy stuff. This Friday, September 20th, there's a neat-looking metaphysical reading that deserves your attention:
Join mystic poet and performer Janaka Stucky for an immersive, multidisciplinary performance involving light, scent, and sound to introduce his new book of poetry ASCEND ASCEND. Janaka will be joined by cellist and composer Lori Goldston who has collaborated with artists ranging from Nirvana to Mark Mitchell and Lynn Shelton.
This event is put on by the local branch of Atlas Obscura and it's $18, which also gets you a copy of Stucky's book Ascend Ascend. And frankly, eighteen bucks is a steal for a performance by Goldston, who has been making beautiful, soulful cello music in Seattle for over two decades. She is a local treasure.
Get your tickets now for an event that will kick off the beginning of autumnal spooky season in style.
Our August Poet in Residence, Edward Harkness, found his way to poetry the way so many poets did: a high school English teacher led the way. The teacher introduced Harkness to the work of Emily Dickinson and, most importantly, the poem ("Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell,, which inspired "an immediate visceral reaction" in him.
Harkness has lived in the Seattle area for his whole life, and he considers himself very much a part of "Seattle tradition of literature." He writes beautifully about the region in his work, of course, and he participates in the literary community as a reader. But Harkness has an even more direct tie to the region's history of literature. "My mentor was Richard Hugo," he says. You can't get much more into the Seattle literary scene than learning at the feet of the Hugo House's namesake.
In fact, Harkness's biography is basically made up of a who's who of Northwestern poetry history. He attended the University of Washington "right after the death of Theodore Roethke, and his ghost was everywhere around the campus," and he attended one of Tess Gallagher's very first public poetry readings. It was no less a talent than Madeline DeFrees who saw something in Harkness and encouraged him to go to University of Montana to study under Hugo.
Hugo's tutelage was "the game changer for me," Harkness says. He'd loved poetry for years, but Hugo in performance was the thing that pushed Harkness toward the idea of poetry as a vocation. "I'll never forget hearing [Hugo]. I'd never heard a voice like that, and it just boomed out of him — it was kind of scary how powerful his voice was. And I just said, 'okay, that's what I want to do.'"
One name that Harkness believes doesn't get enough attention in Northwest poetry history is Nelson Bentley, a poet who was one of Roethke's contemporaries and who lived, by Harkness's estimation, "in Roethke's shadow." Bentley was "a very fine poet and an incredible teacher — students just worshipped him. He was genial and approachable and never, ever threatening or intimidating, in the way that I think Roethke could be."
As a teacher at Shoreline Community College, Harkness inspired a whole new generation of regional poets. "I think I've done my best" to pass on the lineage of Hugo, he says. But Harkness isn't slavishly devoted to past masters. He brings his own elements to poetry: "I am much more narrative driven" than most Northwest poets, he says. "I tend to be conversational. I think I learned something about humor from de Frees."
And maybe most of all, Harkness says, "I see myself as being a more political, in my work." He has written poems that directly address his own white privilege, which is certainly not something you can find in Hugo or Roethke's work. So what makes a good political poem? "It has to be nuanced, maybe. Nuance and subtlety and suggestibility are all necessary."
Harkness is now hard at work on composing a "new and selected" collection of his poetry. "I'm barely starting on it," he says, "going through my three books and putting them together with a sampling of new stuff." Now that he's learned from the Mount Rushmore of Northwestern poetry, it's time for Harkness to carve out his own place in Seattle's story.
I lead you up terraced slopes
until we see clear to Hing Hay Park
down Maynard Street, rattling
off the annals of Uncle Bob
how he leased the land
beneath our feet to feed
the elders, create
a thriving ecosystem where
there had only been neglect,
a plot of land covered in trash
& shattered glass restored to
life-giving beds of vegetables
through a shared belief in change,
fallen now into decay rain-soaked
winter leaves rotting underfoot,
the reports of sex trafficking
in massage parlors down the way
replete with unhappy endings,
you startle me from remoteness
when you pull me close, to quiet
speech, our tongues entwined in
some scattering of verdancy come alive
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Guess who reads our site? Get your message out to the most passionate and engaged audience Seattle has to offer. Prices vary, but start low — in fact, the last week in September is still open for your Fall list favorites.
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David B. Williams's new book is subtitled Travels Through Urban Geology, and it examines the way that cities, which are a fairly new invention as we know them, incorporate geology, which can encompass millions of years. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
Seattle author Kim Brown Seely's new memoir discusses what happened after she and her husband sent their kids off into adulthood. They celebrated by promptly taking off on a long sailing trip to the north. They may or may not have been thoroughly unprepared for such a trip. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
This interactive program asks the question "How can a person who lives with multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, or arthritis communicate their experiences to people who do not live with these or other autoimmune diseases?" It is hosted by poet Suzanne Edison and it benefits the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:00 pm, $5.
Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes has written a book that examines the biography of a single particular oak tree. The tree in question is over a century old, and it has seen, as they say, some shit that you wouldn't believe. Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave NE, 525-2347 http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
See our Event of the Week column for more details. Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.
Francesca Bell is the author, most recently, of the collection Bright Stain from the good people at Red Hen Press. Brian Laidlaw's The Mirrormaker was published by the great Milkweed Editions. One of these presses alone is worthy of your attention, but a reading with one author from each of these two presses is a must-attend situation. Throw in the fact that Laidlaw is also the author of "a book-length erasure of John Muir called Summer Err and this is sounding like a real night to remember. Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 7 pm, free.
This time of year is perfect for a trip out to Snoqualmie, and this reading of Seattle authors makes for a great excuse. Seattle Review of Books's September Poet in Residence, Shin Yu Pai, anchors a great lineup of Seattle talent including Gail Folkins, and Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum. Go hear a great roster of authors at an artistic outpost in the beautiful hilly land to our east. Black Dog Arts Cafe, 8062 Railroad Ave SE, Snoqualmie, https://www.facebook.com/events/2329606110409772/ 2 pm.
Even those of us who love it have to admit that the publishing industry moves slowly. It's one of the things we love about books: their creation demands time and consideration. A tossed-off book feels like ephemera, something disposable. But a real book about an important subject really carries its own gravity.
I mention this to explain why we have waited so long for the first real wave of books about the #MeToo movement to arrive. Sure, there have been some hastily collected anthologies and some memoirs that have been retrofitted to hit the cultural moment. But now we're getting books that were conceived to respond to this moment in time — books with thought and care and intentionality behind them.
The new wave of #MeToo books is led by She Said, a title from New York Times authors Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohe. But this Friday, Hugo House hosts the second-most anticipated #MeToo title of the fall: a McSweeney's anthology of writings from the #MeToo movement. Titled Indelible in the Hippocampus after Christine Blasey Ford's brave testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the book attempts to give a wide-ranging and intersectional survey of the movement and its effects.
Indelible editor Shelly Oria is coming to town to celebrate the book's publication with local contributors to the anthology. Those slated to read include Kamari Bright, Jalayna Carter, Sasha LaPointe, and Kristen Millares Young.
It's fitting that #MeToo — which began with the telling of stories on social media — is now taking the form of a book. And it's important that the authors are reading these stories at Hugo House. These are stories that have changed the world. These are stories that require you to listen, and witness.
Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.
I read Natalie Beach's essay about her relationship with Caroline Calloway somewhere around 3 a.m., grateful for the insomnia that allowed me to bypass self-respect and lap up the gossip shame-free. So I was startled when Paul Constant described it, with interest, as a story about writing.
If you haven't been following the relentless internet frenzy over this — I dunno, maybe you're following the relentless internet frenzy over Donald Trump or whatever else Twitter's got hold of this week — here's the short version: Caroline Calloway built her Instagram empire on captions ghost-written by her friend Natalie Beach. There was a book, also to be ghostwritten by Beach, then there wasn't. There were fights and hurt feelings. Now, there is a public airing of grievances: by Beach in The Cut, by Calloway in front of her 800,000 Instagram followers.
Is this a story about writing? Beach and Calloway met at in a creative nonfiction writing workshop at NYU, so at least at one point they both cared about the craft. But I couldn't find much published by Beach beyond her tell-all — except, somewhat ironically, a bit of bookstuff for Oprah.com. Calloway remains her own best creation.
Is this a story about writing? Beach calls herself Calloway's ghostwriter. She was slated, though not contracted, to receive a generous slice of Calloway's profits from the book. When Calloway decided not to complete the book, Beach received nothing — and Calloway lost the right to be the public author of the story they were telling together.
Paul called silence the most important part of the job of ghostwriting. I think that's less true now than it used to be. Ghostwriters now are often recognized for their work, even on the front cover. The idea of authorship has changed, at least for the kinds of books that are often ghostwritten: to be the author doesn't mean, any more, to be the writer. Which is brain-bending in and of itself.
Is this a story about writing? During Colette's early writing career, her husband's pen name was the one on the cover of her books. He got away with it because he was a controlling shit, but also because he was visible to the world in a way a woman was not. Less cringe-y (maybe): Dick Francis credits his wife with writing his immensely popular thrillers, credit she gently deflects because she believes the testosterone-laden books require a male byline for success.
Beach and Calloway created a character together — Caroline Calloway. When Calloway decided she wanted to have her name on the cover alone, Beach created a new character: Natalie Beach. There's no gender imbalance in the push-pull between the two, just opportunism. But there is a story here about how being seen gives you the power to be heard.
This is going to be a leap, but bear with me: because we take pitches, instead of submissions, we get a lot of email from writers packed with impressive bios, lists of big publications — and it's great! We need that information, especially links to past writing, so we can make good guesses about who'll be a fit for the site.
But it's also how people tell us they've been seen. That they're worth looking at. And, by extension, that what they want to say is worth hearing — which is an even bigger leap than the one I just made.
That's a story about writing, too.
Meanwhile, here's Beach giving away the game in the very opening of her piece ...
I began going to Caroline’s after every class, then just any chance I could. To my other friends, I described her as someone you couldn’t count on to remember a birthday but the one I’d call if I needed a black-market kidney. What I meant was that she was someone to write about, and that was what I wanted most of all.
Zuana Justaman on what she didn't say in the diary she kept during the Holocaust.
In my memory, it seems as though my mother remained in prison for months. But according to my diary she “was away from us for three weeks.” Against all reason, we never gave up hope that she would be released.
Cory Doctorow on the feudalism of digital books.
The established religion of markets once told us that we must abandon the idea of owning things, that this was an old fashioned idea from the world of grubby atoms. In the futuristic digital realm, no one would own things, we would only license them, and thus be relieved of the terrible burden of ownership.
They were telling the truth.
Out of sight, out of mind: an excerpt from Ian Urbina's forthcoming The Outlaw Ocean investigates labor conditions in deep waters.
Greed, not water, sank the Oyang 70. The ship had tried to swallow too much fish; the ocean swallowed the ship instead. The last men off the drowning ship said that they saw Shin in the wheelhouse, refusing to abandon his post or put on a life jacket. Hugging a pole and clutching his clear bottle, he was muttering in Korean and crying.
Shin Yu Pai is a Seattle-based author of eight books of poetry, who often blends poetry with visual and installation art. She's a 2014 Stranger Genius Nominee, was the fourth Poet Laureate of Redmond, served as poet-in-residence for the Seattle Art Musuem, and is our Poet in Residence for September. To date, we've published two of her works: white savior industrial complex, and Chiang-Kai Shek Boneyard. She is appearing today, September 14 at PACT 2019, and September 22nd at the Black Dog Cafe in Snoqualmie.
What are you reading now?
I'm working on writing a collection of personal essays (as memoir) and have embarked on a deep dive into the craft of narrative nonfiction. I am currently reading Mary Karr's Art of Memoir and Elissa Washuta's edited anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. I'm also reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, in preparation for a civil rights pilgrimage that I am going on with Project Pilgrimage in October.
What did you read last?
Earlier this summer, I attended a poetry festival in Curtea de Arges, Romania. Through that experience, I had a chance to come into contact with some amazing poets and community builders from all over the world. One book I've read recently is Dutch poet Milla van der Have's Ghosts of Old Virginny. I wrote a review of this collection for High Desert Journal, which is forthcoming in October. Milla's book is a terrific documentary poetics collection that explores the history of a silver mining town in rural Nevada. I also recently finished reading Latin American poet and critic Benjamín Chávez literary musings Los Trabajos y Los Dias which reflects upon some the poet's influences through an ongoing column that he wrote for a Bolivian newspaper. Leona Chen's Book of Cord is a deeply thoughtful and experimental collection on Taiwanese identity, that has also captured my attention.
What are you reading next?
Bryan Blanchfield's essay collection Proxies. I want to get my hands on a copy of Prageeta Sharma's Grief Sequence from Wave Books. I also need to get a copy of Arthur Sze's newest poetry collection, Sight Lines, too.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
I work at an independent bookstore. We had to sign a nondisclosure agreement from Penguin Random House ensuring that we wouldn’t sell their new book, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid's Tale sequel The Testaments, even a minute before midnight on September 10th. We were told if we got caught selling the book early, Penguin Random House could penalize us by not ever selling us any of their titles again, which would essentially put us out of business.
Unfortunately, as you probably know, Amazon mailed copies of The Testaments to their customers a week early. Amazon says they only broke the embargo for 800 customers, but who knows if they’re telling the truth about that figure?
Look, accidents happen — even if you’re the biggest and by far the most evil bookseller on the planet. But the thing that chaps my ass is that Amazon basically is suffering no consequences for breaking this embargo. If I sold 800 copies of The Testaments a week early, I could be sued into oblivion. Is it too much to ask that the same rules apply to everyone? Hell, Penguin Random House didn't even mention Amazon by name in their tweets about the incident, presumably because they're too scared to call them out.
I’m so frustrated with Penguin Random House that I just feel like quitting the business entirely.
As my father used to say before he killed himself, "Life isn't fair and then you marry one." (And then she leaves you, which really isn't fair, and then you start drinking with guns.)
Yes, Amazon is taking over the free market like online outrage is overtaking any kind of action. Yes, Penguin Random House is staffed by punitive cowards. But before you do something rash, like quit the soul-satisfying business of selling books for something with a dental plan, know that things could be worse.
I know people who work for Amazon. They have to sign a non-dick-closure agreement and wear catheters so that they can work straight through bathroom breaks. THAT’S HOW THOSE BOOKS ARE SOLD SO FAST AND SO EARLY! It’s not all boob-shaped terrariums and 5-star ratings behind closed doors – Jeff Bezos makes people dance for pocket change every time an order doesn’t qualify for free shipping. And that's not even the worst of it. Next week, Seattle employees will walk off the job to protest Amazon's indifference to the sous vide hellscape our Earth is becoming, in part because of the company's policies and practices.
I also heard Bezos sold his mother's organs on Deep Dark Prime after she gushed about the customer service at Best Buy. (For Mother's Day, he regifted her her own kidney.)
My point is, life isn't fair. Every pocket of the globe has its injustices – you may not have dental, but hey — you don't have to professionally piss in a bag.
Find out a ton more detail on our Literary Event of the Week column. Come see why Acker was so important to Seattle, punk, and the Riot Grrl movement.
For the past eight years, minus one when it was on hiatus, I’ve spent early September amidst a colorful, creative, productive, and intimidatingly humane group of people in Portland at the XOXO festival.
Andy posted at 11:30am, and I backed the festival at 1:45pm. The festival sold out in fifty hours. That I would give someone I didn’t know, but had admired online, $400 for something that didn’t yet exist gives you a good idea of how much I’d loved Andy’s work over the years.
One of the great joys of the magazine and newspaper age, that transferred well to blogging but horribly to bigger social media, was getting to know certain writers. Reading the same byline month-after-month, you develop a sense of the person, their tastes, their quibbles. I can’t express the exhilaration of seeing a (now retired) Margalit Fox byline in the New York Times obituaries, or the rush of pleasure from when Paul Ford sighs and says "well, I guess I’m gonna have to write about that", to name but two examples.
I co-founded this very website with someone whose work I admired from afar, until I met him and told him so in person. But, of course, most of those writers who I admire I would never be lucky enough to meet, and felt that if I did, I would have little to offer apart from praise and appreciation, which might only get one halfway through the first glass of wine before aging into boredom.
Same it was with Andy, who covered a beat few others did. To wit: what is the cultural impact of the internet on the people who make it their playground? He tracked the rise of popular culture as it ricocheted across the bit-broken packet-by-packet surface of the internet; watched it get trapped in eddies and pools of sometimes horrifying digital homes; measured its growth and response as larger media started noticing the gif memes climbing their legs; brought, with delight, explanations of some of the stranger manifestations of the internet echo chamber: the chaffing of jokes that transmogrified from obscure in-jokes into glitchy overly-compressed expressions of pure weirdness.
It was Baio’s curiosity, compassion, and humor that made new posts by him top priorities when the indicator in NetNewsWire showed a new unread Waxy.org post.
So, Andy, along with Andy McMillian, who I didn’t know when they launched XOXO, but had admired his work on the Build Festival and his bookazine series The Manual, started this festival, and I was lucky enough to be one of the 400 people who took a chance on them.
That September, we convened on an old laundry in Portland, next to tall curving windows, and sat close together in folding chairs during two days of talks. Many people have written about the talks, and they are all online for you to see, so I’m not going to focus on those, despite their importance to me, and the festival.
Instead I want to talk about the things around the talks. The Andys (which is what collectively, and affectionately, the community calls Baio and McMillian) have told the story that they invited everyone to come on Thursday, but only scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, and so in a pinch came up with "XOXO Social" for Friday, a day of events where people could hang out and get to know each other. We got free access to Ground Kontrol, invited to drop by the Panic Software offices, and Wieden+Kennedy had a rooftop soiree replete with circus performers.
Sitting next to a stranger was made much less awkward when you had seen them the day before around town, or had played pinball with them, or ran into them browsing at Powells.
Then there was the eating. Portland, of course, has amazing food, and parked outside the festival was Nong’s Khao Man Gai truck (for me, the quintessential taste of XOXO, along with iced cold brew coffee), among other amazements.
We played tabletop games, watched music, hung out at picnic tables on a closed city street, wandered a marketplace on the ground floor of the Yale Union that had 3D printers, games, and designers, and generally had a marvelous time.
Then they did it again. Seven times, now, over eight years. Instead of repeating the formula over and over, the Andys always try new things each year. Some experiments have been as successful as XOXO Social, some were tried once and not repeated. A reader board greeted us at registration a few years back, imploring: "Lower your expectations".
My personal approach is to not expect anything. To go in as raw as I can, and open myself up to whatever I find.
And when I walk away from the festival, my mind is a fog. I’m peopled-out, but also inspired. The talks are blurs of moments, the live podcasts, the in-person chats, the tabletop games, the serendipitous moments witnessed, the kindness and generosity of spirit all around, it conspires into a kind of smoothed liquid brain that precludes me from sensibly writing about the festival (I have, for the seven years, attempted to write about each and every festival, and failed until now, thanks to brain smoothness).
I doubt this website, as it sits, would exist without XOXO. I published my own novel through a Kickstarter, inspired by the festival and its community. XOXO helped me to learn to ask for what I need, and to not be afraid to be myself. It helped me create work and put it into the world. It’s changed my life in many ways, some professional, many intensely personal and deeply meaningful. I see people, each year, that light the world for me, and who I think about all year.
Each festival is end-capped by the Andys on stage. This year, unlike all others, they had MCs — Helen Zaltzman, of The Allusionist, and Hrishikesh Hirway, of Song Exploder — which took some pressure off them, but still they started and ended together. There are always tears at the end, and perhaps relief that they pulled off another year. They always do (with the help of many, of course), in admirable fashion.
What a pleasure it is to feel hope about the internet and its people, if only for a brief time. What I walk away with, each year, is gratitude. I am appreciative of being part of a community that watches out for all members with a strict code of conduct (the Andys remove at least one person for breaking the code, and ban them for life, each year), and clear work on inclusion. I am so grateful to be part of a community that works so hard on helping people who are excluded elsewhere feel welcome.
I’m paraphrasing, but Baio said the first year that he thought the name XOXO would be a great filter towards the kind of haters he wanted to keep out, since none of them would attend a festival called hugs and kisses. He was right, and the extra work, and policing where necessary, has imbued the festival with a rich sense of belonging for many different kinds of people.
My father, who was a minister, always told me — a devout non-believer — that at heart, churches were about people coming together and creating something bigger than themselves. I sometimes wonder what a secular church would be like, one that wasn’t focused around religious teaching, but around morality, perhaps, around self-awareness of the world. About the importance of creating, and placing your creations in the world. Or, like my father — who was a wonderful writer who used his platform for storytelling and exploration, instead of condemnation and evangelism — often preached about questioning ourselves, our place in our communities, our capacity to do good and help people.
That’s really the only way I can describe what I’ve found at XOXO. People I want to see, listen to, learn from. Two days of the kinds of
sermons talks my dad would have loved — questing, questioning, inward facing, reflective, humble, personal. Then, community. People coming together. Trying to make build greater than themselves.
Sometimes failing, but always recognizing that you have to show up to even put the effort in. Lower your expectations, yes, but for the love of all that is good, show up. It all can’t start until you make the choice to do just that. Please show up, we’re waiting to see what you make.
Seven years of good luck @xoxo.— Martin McClellan (@hellbox) September 10, 2019
I’m so grateful for this community, for the inspiration, for the opportunity to be present, to listen and learn, and for all the tremendous fun and friendship. Thank you @waxpancake @andymcmillan! pic.twitter.com/gvO2ABC6gm
Immediately after MAD Magazine's editorial staff announced that they would cease the publication of new material on July 4th of this year, the publishers of the horniest sci-fi comics anthology magazine on earth, Heavy Metal Magazine, announced that they would be picking up MAD's slack with a new comedy publication. Stepping in to fill the void before the adoring eulogies for MAD could even be published was a classic old-school publishing move. You had to admire Heavy Metal's brazenness; they were reanimating Alfred E. Neuman's corpse before it even had time to get cold.
But you also have to admire Heavy Metal's industriousness: yesterday, roughly two months after their announcement, the first issue of their new humor anthology comic, Soft Wood — get it? — landed in comics shops. This is light speed for the creation and distribution of a new magazine.
So Heavy Metal invited the comparison on themselves: How does Soft Wood read in comparison to MAD Magazine? Unfortunately, it's not a substitute. MAD was more or less an all-ages magazine, no matter what the parents who wouldn't let their children read it for content concerns might think (I forgive you, mom.) Soft Wood is full-on smut. There's a reason why the magazine comes in a plastic bag: it's packed with swear words, a few explicit shots of genitalia, and more than a few distasteful prostitute jokes. If you give Soft Wood to your children, you are a bad parent.
Given the short publication window, most of the work in Soft Wood has clearly been repurposed from other publications. In fact, the central strip, a parody of Watchmen by Bleeding Cool comics journalist Rich Johnston, was originally published in 2009. (To be fair, that original publication was black-and-white, while this republication features beautiful Watchmanesque colors from John Higgins.) And to continue the comparison with MAD, Watchmensch is the only full-on parody in the book, so those who miss MAD's timely parodies of popular culture won't find much in this issue to latch on to.
But for adults who are looking for a new comics magazine, Soft Wood demonstrates a lot of promise. The book contains a nice mix of funny cartoonists who've been in the business since the 90s (Evan Dorkin, Shannon Wheeler, Bob Fingerman;) some artists with a more European bent (Osmarco Valladao, Manoel M., and Carlos Cabrera;) and some cartoonists who I've never heard of before (Jake Thompson.) Of these, the standouts for the issue are Wheeler, who contributes a hilarious and moving memoir piece about summer camp and micropenises, and Thompson, whose gag strips often end with a character's awkward stare that feels more real and visceral than ink on paper should. One particularly weird strip from Krent Able, featuring newscasters measuring their taints in the middle of a breaking news report, is likely to haunt my dreams tonight.
In short, there are a lot of surprises here, and it's honestly thrilling to flip through a glossy comics magazine. The colors pop, the art has more room to breathe than in the standard comics format, and at $8.99, the magazine manages to cram in a lot more pages than your standard four-dollar comic.
I'm excited to see what Soft Wood will do as it grows and changes. Will the book embrace more of MAD's legacy through parody strips and a series of regular features, or will it find its own way to something completely different? Either way, it's good to see an organization who views the death of a legacy media publication as an opportunity, rather than another excuse to wallow in sentimentality or lament the end of the world as we know it.
Two weeks out of the year, I get to read whatever I want. I don't have to read new books or book club books or books by local authors or books that I plan to review. For one week in the summer and one week in the winter, I disconnect from the internet, fill a tote bag with a truly aspirational stack of books, head to a large body of water, and get lost.
A few weeks ago, I was in Moclips, out on the Olympic Peninsula, and I was trying to read as much as I could. I went for a long walk on the beach and I decided to sit down on a log and power through the last 100 pages of a book I'd been reading. And that's what I did. I wasn't interrupted by people or phones or responsibilites.
The book in question was Myla Goldberg's novel Feast Your Eyes, about a famous photographer and her difficult relationship with her daughter. It was easily Goldberg's best novel since her astonishing debut, Bee Season, and it was a book that made me think about photography in a new way. Goldberg has become a tireless experimenter in the form and function of novels, and Eyes is no different: it takes the form of notes in a photography exhibition — minus the photos — and it is a book that will break your heart and leave you grateful for the experience.
I brought Colson Whitehead's latest novel, The Nickel Boys along with me, too. I've got to stop reviewing WHitehead's books, for the simple reason that I have always deeply loved every book by Whitehead that I've ever read. I worry that i don't have anything new to add to his body of work, that my gushing has grown tired. When a writer only triggers one emotional response in a reader, that usually signifies a failure on the reader's behalf. I wish I had something more complex to say about Whitehead's work than it's great, and that he's one of the greatest novelists alive. But I don't. I can only sit there with my ass in the sand, wondering at the wonder of it all.
But now I'm back to reviewing again, and that's something I promise myself I won't do on my vacation. The fact is that I can't read without formulating a response in my head anymore. I'm always reviewing, even when I don't need to or even want to. And it doesn't feel like work, either — it feels like how I figure out the world, how I process what I see and feel and experience.
So I brought you on vacation with me, even just a little. I read these books, and I had to talk to you about them. What's the point of getting away from it all, if you don't have someone to help give meaning to all that away?
On August 29th at the Mayor's Arts Awards ceremony, Jourdan Imani Keith, read a poem as the first public act in her new role as Seattle's Civic Poet. (Start around 16 minutes in to this video if you'd like to see her perform the poem, which is a celebration of Seattle as a place that has always existed and that has always changed.)
How does Keith feel about her new role? "I'm very happy," she says over the phone, with an audible smile in her voice.
Keith was born and raised in Philadelphia, but she's been in Seattle for over two decades. "Over the years of living here I've been very engaged with the city," she says. It's impossible, in fact, to separate Keith's civic engagement from her poetry. She's celebrated Seattle through poetry in city programs including the Parks Department, youth learning initiatives, and other municipal celebrations of the arts like the Poet Populist program. She has participated in the Jack Straw Writers Program and she's worked closely with the Northwest African American Museum.
Poetry is Keith's way to honor the city's past and to look forward. Poetry, she says, has "made me feel more committed to the city." Now, as Civic Poet, she hopes to expand that commitment to a macro scale by strengthening the bond between Seattle and its citizens through poetry. One of her most important charges as Civic Poet is to "highlight emerging poets and to lift youth voices" by giving them a platform at city functions.
Education is vital for Keith. She's looking forward to a project that will encourage people to write poetry in response to Seattle's public art "as a way of envisioning the city." Seattle's public art stretches back over a century and attempts to incorporate the city's ethnic and cultural diversity. By encouraging people to write in response to the art, she says she's "layering the web of art through the city — that's what I'm most excited about," Keith says.
This is about more than just accessing a city's history through poetic dialogue. Keith hopes to awaken a whole army of poets through this communication through public art. And why not? It's not too far-fetched a notion to believe that a person can fall in love with poetry overnight. In fact, Keith can recall the exact moment she fell in love with poetry: "I had a wonderful incredible outdoor experience climbing a mountain. It shifted my whole perspective. I took myself through what I later realized was all these sensory exercises." Closing and opening her eyes, seeing birds take flight, and feeling bugs on her skin, keith was visited by something.
She ran down the mountain — "I fell down and skinned my hands," she laughs, a little tenderly — and "I went to my little plaid journal and wrote a poem. It was the first time i had written a poem."
Beyond sense explorations, Keith immediately started to explore the possibilities of the form. "I was grounded early in the fact that poetry could be used for social responsibility — in fact that it had to be." For Keith, poetry is nothing unless it engages with the world, and encourages the world to be better than it is. For the next two years, as Civic Poet, she's going to try to encourage more Seattleites down that path.
Keith takes her new role as Civic Poet seriously. "It's important to be an ambassador for the city," she says. Seattle has "changed a lot from the place I came to twenty years ago. It's still what it was, but it's also becoming something else. It's really critical for people to know a history of a place and to feel they have a hand in shaping its future."
A group calling itself "Cartoonists Against Amazon" has published an open letter on Medium asking comics and small-press festivals to boycott Amazon. The letter notes that Amazon, mostly through its e-comic platform Comixology, sponsors a number of independent comics festivals and events. The reason for the requested ban is Amazon's "horrific labor abuses" and the company's support of ICE. They argue:
Art is not apolitical, and art workers are not afforded special neutrality as innocent bystanders. We must examine the ways in which Amazon uses sponsorships to whitewash its brutal exploitation of workers and the disastrous effects it has on the cities it moves into. We must examine our culpability in a system that enforces and profits from the violent, inhumane treatment of immigrants; a system of sting raid operations and concentration camps that separates families and murders both children and adults via neglect. When we take money from Amazon and look the other way, we are allowing these actions to happen with our silence.
Signatories include local cartoonists Sarah Glidden and RJ Casey, as well as comics genius Kevin Huizenga and Bojack Horseman co-creator Lisa Hanawalt. Aside from their demands that festivals cut ties with Amazon, the letter urges comics festivals to offer "Complete transparency regarding sponsorships and money allocation," because "Artists should be able to provide input and make informed decisions about what our participation in any festival entails."
This is a pretty big deal, and it's interesting that cartoonists are the first to speak out. I can't recall a similarly sized literary protest of Amazon's support of literary events and festivals. Do any small-press poets and fiction writers want to follow the lead established by these cartoonists?
Once in a while, we take a new book out to lunch and give it half an hour or so to grab our attention. Lunch Date is our comment on that speed-dating experience.
Who’s your date today?
Trash, a YA novel by Andy Mulligan about poverty in a developing-country setting. I stay in the same room at Campbell's Lodge in Chelan every year; for the last three years, this book has been sitting on the desk, along with The Wedding, by Julie Garwood, and Too Long a Stranger, by Janette Oke. I was struck by someone's decision to put this particular novel out as a beach read at a resort frequented by often-drunk twenty-something men, newlyweds, and conventioneers. My own preconceptions, I guess, about what people want to read on vacation!
The guts of the story are that Raphael Fernandez, a boy-becoming-a-man who keeps himself and his family alive by picking through mounds of garbage for items he can sell, finds something different — a key that at first means money, and then something more. Raphael and his friends have a classic coming-of-age decision to make, except that in their world, they've never truly been children. Chaos ensues.
Where’d you go?
Local Myth Pizza, in downtown Chelan. Local Myth is one of a handful of restaurants and businesses that survive through and beyond the tourist season here. While all food is, essentially, some form of pizza, Local Myth makes pizza in its ur form, and they do it well.
What’d you eat?
I had a slice of the “pepp crunch,” which has black olives, basil, and pre-crisped pepperoni — with an optional feta add-on, which of course I got.
How was the food?
Awesome. This is classic “unstyled” pizza: not deep dish, not Chicago, not New York, not Neapolitan, just good ol' standard crust piled high with toppings. The basil gives it a bit of freshness, the pepperoni a bit of crunch, the feta a bit of chew.
What does your date say about itself?
From the publisher’s promotional copy:
In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three “dumpsite boys” make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city.
One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat — boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money — to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.
Andy Mulligan has written a powerful story about unthinkable poverty — and the kind of hope and determination that can transcend it. With twists and turns, unrelenting action, and deep, raw emotion, Trash is a heart-pounding, breath-holding novel.
Is there a representative quote?
This is Raphael, narrating his (first?) kidnapping by the police. Try reading this with the lens of today’s immigration policies, then remember that this is a YA book.
I tried to keep still, like the man had told me to, but I couldn't. I was rocking backwards and forwards. All you can think about is how alone you are, and how anything can happen now. A little while ago, things had felt safe and ordinary — my auntie, Gardo, the cousins, the fire — and people, all around me. Now! It is like falling through a trapdoor. In a second, every single thing had changed, and you are falling — your friends cannot get to you, nobody knows where you are, and you think, So when do I stop falling? You think, What plan do they have for me that I can do nothing about?
Will you two end up in bed together?
This book and I have already spent long nights sleeping next to each other for three years running. Will we take the next step? No. Trash is competing for my attention against Mary Robinette Kowal's The Calculating Stars, and it just doesn't have the chops.
I'm intrigued to test Mulligan's 2010 book against 2019's understanding of the world — the world as a place where Donald Trump is elected to our highest office. And I'm intrigued to see how Trash does at speaking from the mind of boys/young men in a developing country, even a fictional, futuristic one. 2010 isn't that long ago, but the rules for talking about being poor, if that's not the life you're living, have changed a lot in the past decade.
I'm also curious about a book that was kicked off the shortlist for the Blue Peter awards because it hits too close to home. But after reading into it a bit, I'm not so sure the Blue Peter team was wrong for the reason's Mulligan's publicity team would claim. Trash makes a lot of social promises up front. My instinct, admittedly only 50 pages in, is that it fails to keep those promises. Raphael and Gardo and Rat are the usual suspects in a coming-of-age adventure — draped in a darker setting, but not something new, something truly transforming.
Should we expect a YA novel to do better? Yes. In this particular time, and maybe in all times, I think we should.
the streets have been renamed
by politicians to bear fewer
remembrances of colonial times
as society evolves to retire master
narratives; what would it mean
to my father and his generation
to regard this graveyard of the past
collected together in one memorial
park, acres of bronze busts
all over the nation, monuments
beheaded, spray painted with
graffiti, or simply taken down
the Generalissimo as wounded
hero, the dictator riding out
on a dogged steed, soldiers
salute each day in choreographed
displays of military honor for one
who lays putrefying in state
guarded by young men in white
uniforms who perform daily
acts of allegiance, forbidden from
taking photographs of the tomb,
I focus instead on the 20-year-old
cadets saluting the ruler who never
commanded them, sweating in the heat
of mid-day, the vacant face of the recruit,
his brow patted dry by a superior while
standing at something less than full attention
We're so pleased the University of Washington sponsored this week to talk about their Certificate in Writing program. First of all, one of our co-founders, Martin, holds a Certificate in Fiction writing from this program. Second, you'd be hard pressed to find a longer-standing or better respected program in Seattle.
The instructors are wonderful, thoughtful, and help students to do their best work. And because of the flexible schedules, you can make earning your Certificate in Writing fit in with the most demanding of lives.
A few deadlines for registration are approaching: September 30, for Fiction Writing, September 26 for Memoir, and September 28 for Screenwriting.
Find out more on our sponsor's page, and take a look to see why so many people in Seattle have taken part in this tremendous program.
It’s sponsors like the University of Washington who make the engine of our website purr so smoothly. Their sponsorship means the world to us. Find out what sponsorship can do for you on our sponsor page. We’d love for you to find out why so many of our sponsors come back again, and again.
Even if you don't know Randall Munroe's name, you likely have at least seen his work. He's the cartoonist behind XKCD, the delightfully nerdy online comic that gets way more mileage out of stick figures than is humanly possible. Munroe brings an engineer's mind to the bizarre, often taking nonsensical claims to their logical extremes for the sake of...I dunno, science? His latest book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, imagines the most complicated way to solve simple problems, to hilarious effect. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, $28.
Everyone knows David Guterson for Snow Falling on Cedars, but his latest book is a grand departure from the world of fiction. Turn Around Time is a non-fiction testament to the beauty of being in Northwest wilderness, and it's written in verse. If you've ever been stunned by the varieties of green available in one square foot of the rain forest out on the Olympic Peninsula, this is the book for you.
Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.
"Susan Straight's memoirish new book, In the Country of Women, tells the story of how Straight and her three daughters investigated their own family history, only to discover the story of remarkable women who sacrificed so much along the way. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Seattle author John Englehardt's debut novel from great small press Dzanc Books is about what happens in a community after a mass shooting. The great local literary magazine Moss recently published an excerpt of the book. This will be a launch party for the book, and I'll be interviewing Englehardt onstage. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Cascadia Magazine presents a lineup of great talent from the Northwest, including journalist Karin Jones and climate scientist Sarah Myre. (They'll be discussing polyamory and feminism in the sciences, respectively. Local poets Susan Rich, Martha Silano, Shin Yu Pai, and Robert Lashley will also read. Rendezvous, 2322 2nd Ave, 441-5823, 7 pm, $10 suggested donation, 21+.
See our Event of the Week column for more details. Various locations and times, http://www.kathyackerseattlesymposium.com/schedule.htm
More women than ever are running for office, but author June Diane Raphael won't be happy until women can campaign with the confidence and ease of a mediocre white man. She'll be presenting her new how-to guide for civic engagement, and chatting with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan onstage. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 3 pm, $5.
On their Facebook page, University Book Store announced that their Mill Creek branch is set to close on October 19th. The statement says this is due to a "significant rental increase," and the store's other five locations will remain open. U Book Store's Bellevue branch closed in February of 2017.
A confession: I've read the Beats and William S. Burroughs and all those literary touchstones, but they've never really spoken to me. They feel distant and chauvinistic and overly praised, like some classic rock band whose glory days came and went a full generation before I was born.
But when I hear people talk about what the Beats do for them — that sense of literary freedom, of bracing stylistic possibility, of taking down the norms and building something new — I absolutely understand that feeling. It's the feeling I had when I first read a book by Kathy Acker.
Acker doesn't enjoy anywhere near the name recognition of Kerouac and the rest, but she did for the 1980s what the Beats did for the 50s: she brought a subculture (in her case, punk rock) to mainstream literary culture, and she pissed off quite a few literary lions while she did it. Her books gleefully dissemble the idea of narrative with more than a little seething rage. They're angry and punky and singular documents — the kind of thing that whispers directly into your ear when you're a young reader looking for a flag to carry.
As I told you last week, Seattle tastemaker Larry Reid is helping to bring a symposium celebrating Acker's work to Seattle on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of this week. It's all free. If you can't attend the day-long investigation of her work and legacy, you should at least try to attend one of the after-hours readings.
I had no idea until Reid reached out that Acker lived in Seattle at one of the most important moments of her career — just before her milestone work Blood and Guts in High School was published, and while she was working on my favorite of her books, Great Expectations. The symposium will explore Seattle's effect on Acker, and vice versa. Reid believes that the Riot Grrl movement took great inspiration from Acker, and Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna agrees. (Hanna will participate in a group reading at the symposium via Skype.)
Why hasn't Acker received the devotion that Burroughs did? Sexism plays a big part, of course, and it's harder to craft a cult of personality around an author from the 1980s, when there were so many countercultures erupting all over, than it was in the monocultural literary 1950s. But Acker wouldn't enjoy being loved the way Burroughs is, anyway: she'd demand that her readers kill their idols, and she'd laugh the whole time they tore her down. That's why she's the best.
Various locations and times, http://www.kathyackerseattlesymposium.com/schedule.htm
This is Julie, stepping in for Dawn, who is taking a much-needed vacation this week.
Even though it’s September (already!), and Women in Translation Month is over, I’m using this Sunday Post to talk about women in translation (and women translators!). I hope that even without a dedicated month, you might continue to discover and dive into all the great writing by women outside the Anglo-American sphere.
If you can read them in their original language, all the better. But you might also keep a translation around, if only to marvel at the feat of literature required to render one language clearly and elegantly into another.
Here are three great reads that contend with the art and artifice of translation — and engage with writing from Poland to Pakistan.
First, a personal essay from translator Jennifer Croft, who finds parallels between her own life and Polish writer Sylwia Siedlecka’s. Croft and her sister Anne Marie were inseparable until Anne Marie was diagnosed with seizures. By age 6, Anne Marie’s life held no resemblance to Jennifer’s. In an almost poetic reversal, Sylwia Siedlecka’s short story “Wodny motyl,” translated as “Water Butterfly” is about conjoined twins.
If you love those weird untranslatable words, you’ll love this essay. Croft muses on all the strange inequities between languages and the “strange alchemy” of being a translator.
In some languages, like Polish, the word for share is the same as the word for divide. It took some time, but finally this did make sense to me. If there is an unlimited quantity of anything, I don’t know what it is. To share is always to give something up: to divide.
If you’ve had any exposure to the Chinese literary canon, it’s hard to overstate how popular and influential Eileen Zhang (or Chang, depending on the romanization) is. My mother had most of her books lined up on the shelves at home. When I went to college, I signed up for Chinese classes, where I struggled character-by-character through her short stories with a dictionary. Sometimes, I “cheated” by finding the English translations to read instead (sorry mom/Professor Wang, if you’re reading this). For anyone looking for an introduction to modern Chinese literature, there’s no better place to start than with Eileen — her characters are modern, approachable, and alive with smart writing.
Or you can start here: Sheng Yun’s London Review of Books review of Zhang’s novel-cum-autobiography Little Reunions. Sheng does an excellent job of putting Zhang’s life and work in the context of the tumultuousness of a half century of Chinese history. After the communist revolution, Zhang moved to Hong Kong. The United States Information Service commissioned her to write anti-communist novels — in English. Through propaganda, Eileen Zhang effectively becomes her own translator, to frustrating ends:
The novels’ outlines were set by the American propaganda officer, and Naked Earth caused [Zhang] a lot of headaches and ‘mental constipation’. The ‘bedroom scene’ was a challenge too: ‘How do English novels deal with this? Maybe I should read something like From Here to Eternity or Bhowani Junction.’ The Rice-Sprout Song was acclaimed by American critics, but Chang swore she’d never again write anything she didn’t feel committed to, or on a subject she wasn’t familiar with.
But what happens when a translation just works?
“Can you really like the translation of a book you did not like when you first read the original?” asks Asif Farrukhi when reading Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s posthumous Zameen, a forgotten Urdu story about the upheaval of the Partition.
The original, Farrukhi complained, lacked finesse. It felt hurried, like a first draft. Unfortunately, the author died before the original was published.
But maybe a translation is not just alchemy or mental constipation. It is also a revision — a second draft that the writer could not undertake herself. Under Daisy Rockwell’s “deft hands,” the original becomes accessible, and meaningful — even when translation errors inevitably proliferate.
The work of a translator gives forgotten works to new audiences, and just might save it from the dustbin of history.
The novel did seem hurried over as if some parts of it were meant to be developed further or marked for revision by the author. I recall a conversation with Hajra Masroor Mastur’s sister and a master of the short story in her own right — where she vehemently denied that _Zameen_ was unfinished or in a draft stage. She insisted that the book was exactly as its author had intended it to be. In spite of this, over the years, the book has attracted far less attention than its predecessor. I wonder if its fortune will change and, with this new translation, it will find more readers. As far as I can say about myself, it caught me by surprise and I read it with new enthusiasm.
Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist, resident linguist at Wired, co-creator of the podcast Lingthusiasm, and author of the New York Times bestselling Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. McCulloch is appearing this Tuesday, September 10th, at the offices of Textio in downtown Seattle. This is a free event, co-hosted by the Elliott Bay Book Company. McCulloch will be joined in conversation with Textio CEO Kieran Snyder, and our own Paul Constant. Space is limited, so please RSVP on the event's Eventbrite page, where you will find additional details.
What are you reading now?
I'm currently reading This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, which is about duelling time-travellers who start up a correspondence. I got my hands on an advance copy and I read it twice in a couple days because I just couldn't leave it after a single reading. But I had to give the advance copy back so I bought it myself and I'm re-reading it a third time now that it's out so I can tweet my way through it. I don't even know how to describe it to do it justice....the writing is so beautiful and rich and sharp that I recall the book more as a series of flickering, highly saturated images than as words on a page. I've been recommending it incessantly.
What did you read last?
I last read an advance copy of You Look Like A Thing And I Love You by Janelle Shane, which is about AI and all the things that can possibly (and often hilariously) go wrong with it. I'm a big fan of Janelle's blog where she posts experiments in AI humour, so I figured I'd enjoy the book, but I was expecting it to be a little more dense, you know, just because it's a book. But it's highly, highly readable and very funny — I picked it up one evening expecting to just start with 50 pages or so and before I knew it I was over halfway through already. It's coming out in November and like Time War, I've been recommending it to everyone.
What are you reading next?
Next I'm planning on reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, which pretty much sold me as soon as it said "lady astronauts" but for some reason I hadn't gotten around to it yet. Now that it's won the Hugo, I really have no excuse!
Over on our Instagram page, we’re posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson’s Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here’s her wrap-up and statement from August's posts.
I seem to have made a tradition of bestowing post-it choosing duties on family members in honor of their birthday months. August is my mother, albeit with some external parameters—she asked me to pre-limit her options, for greater ease. I was about to spend the month at a surprise residency in Boise, where my mom grew up, so she chose post-its from my first time at this residency, a couple Octobers ago. We share a fascination with family stories and strange lands; I think it’s safe to say that for both of us, her home state occupies the epicenter of both loves. Back then I was working on a cozy project, making drawings inspired by favorite books. I was expecting to be a little swamped with dead grandparent memories—or very-much-alive cousins and their kids—or feel like a short-haired sore thumb, sorely lesbian in public—or surprised by people’s plainspoken friendliness too—and wandering around town never disappointed, on any of these fronts. But that residency looped my different lives together with a thoroughness I never expected. Outside was the old desert oasis of grandparent-cousin summers, changing seasons in a way I’d only heard about from my mom. But inside, quietly roaming this art-filled house left behind by a gone-too-soon painter, life was improbably twinned with times in England—teaching Saturday morning classes in Cambridge—an ancient house—art in each new corner—strange modern additions disarmingly charming—hallowed modest rooms, carefully preserved—a secret familiarity—allowed to touch the furniture, long before open hours—this beloved space I’ll never regain. I regained it. Meanwhile spending most evenings chatting with my closest cousin, random walks in the foothills or hanging out at his house with his family, casually last-minute plans and joking after work or weekends like it was no strange thing, living in the same place just natural. We’d only had that once before, as teenagers—medical visits to Seattle forcing him to moonlight in my high school memories—all our grown-up times are summer vacations, divorced from normal life. In this Boise house I lived teenage me, childhood summers me, England teacher me, Seattle artist and writer me all at once, I was calm, everything made easy sense. Having just achieved my unlikely dream of living there another month, this time as a writer, I have to admit I still feel the same way I did making this first post-it, the night before the residency even started—staying in my cousin’s guest room, gently engulfed in old music and posters, a quilt made by my grandma’s big sister. Other evenings found me swimming in palatial YMCA pools, sharp turquoise echoes, vast emptied 8pm’s in a town where everyone else has kids, expected home for dinner. Luxuriating in deep waters strangely all to myself, like I’d stayed late in a childhood memory of nighttime fall swimming lessons, my mom gone home. Taking breaks from work to walk along the river at the end of the street, the ragged art of every moment overwhelmed me, too many things to say at once, strange humor, lovely pathos, odd perfection of each detail a little creative ache. At my exhibition, someone paid me an enthusiastically mysterious compliment, surprised by my slideshow of paintings and post-its, so different from the dip pen drawings I’d been making. If anyone knows what he meant please explain, I confess it’s beyond me. (Does Scarlett demonstrate confusingly diverse artistic talents I’ve forgot? Did Margaret Mitchell sneakily paint??) Halloween was my last night in town, my cousin’s toddler in her flamingo outfit a deadpan delight. That post-it appeared online while I was driving home from this year’s residency, the strange calm of that time-traveling house behind me and belonging to another artist and a new month now, just my usual self again, it drives me crazy I can’t be everywhere at once.
Whenever a local news organization fucks up — and I mean really fucks up, like giving a platform to Nazis — people talk about boycotting that organization. It makes sense: we unfortunately live in late capitalism, so boycotting is possibly the greatest power that we have.
But as soon as people discuss boycotting a media org, I see a bunch of reporters step forward on Twitter and Facebook to say that boycotting is a bad idea, since news organizations are on such shaky financial ground. But of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? I know that journalists are underpaid and that the field is shrinking. But on the other hand, I don’t know if I want to live in a world where there are no repercussions for bad journalism.
Do you think that boycotting a news organization is ever warranted?
Yes, I think boycotts can be warranted. I wish people would boycott Fox news but realistically, we will have to wait for old age and alligator attacks to work their magic on that audience. But in order for a boycott to be effective, it has to actually hurt their business model, and that is hard to do when the model is already broken.
Let me ask you: How many newspapers and magazines do you actually subscribe to versus how many articles do you read online, for free?
A majority of people ages 18-49 now get most of their news online. Another study shows that a little over half of people actually pay for it. Journalism is suffering — and bad journalism is flourishing — in part because of this. We've lost years of institutional knowledge as career journalists retire or leave their field for PR jobs that offer humane things like decent pay, health insurance and days off.
Meanwhile, many readers have come to expect a high-quality product on a 24-hour cycle for free. For free. It's completely fucked.
Should quality be better? Yes. And it was, when more people payed for their media. I loved it when Seattle was a two-newspaper town. I loved reading two different takes on the same city council meeting or whatever. I loved having many diverse, well-research viewpoints to better inform my own. But for quality to improve, people have to actually pony up and pay for it.
Without that mechanism, it's like boycotting the zoo and expecting the tigers to give half a silly fuck. Your absence will have no meaningful effect on their lives. They will still be trapped in their cages, pacing and dreaming of death.
It's back to school! All over the multiverse, young and eager robots, androids, cyborgs, droids, bots, and automatons pass through the schoolhouse gates to learn their binary. Must be that Fall is just around the corner.
Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
Among romance readers, there is a strong belief that the main couple of a (non-poly) book must show balance.
This can mean the characters are parallel in some way: childhood sweethearts, second-chance romances, and friends-to-lovers tropes all start by establishing the characters as a pair. Two equivalent weights on the story-scales. A matched set, even before our couple have worked out the issues standing between them.
Other times, balance means means contrast. This is where a lot of your archetypes come in: the billionaire and the waif, the ray of sunshine and the grump, Beauty and the Beast, demigod paranormal hero and physically fragile mortal heroine with a reservoir of emotional resilience. Contrast is good because it generates conflict, and tension, and these are the engines that turn a mere series of events into a proper living story.
Some of the most consistently popular romance tropes use both coordination and contrast. Fated mates and marriage of convenience/fake dating plots usually take two wildly different character types and handcuff them together with some just-believable-enough excuse. And then we sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
Once in a workshop I heard romance author Gerri Russell sum up this romance theory by saying: “If your hero is a firefighter, your heroine had better be an arsonist.” But while there’s definitely a few firefighter romance heroes out there, I have yet to find a single one with an arsonist heroine — not because that wouldn’t be amazing (writers with arsonist heroines: email me!), but because romance as a genre tends to privilege some kinds of opposites over others.
For instance: cops are almost never paired with criminals, especially in m/f romance — shoutout to rare gems like Faking It by Jennifer Crusie, with its art-forging heroine — they’re paired with victims in need of rescue, or occasionally amateur sleuths. Military main characters are much more often given romance arcs with civilians and not with, say, enemy soldiers (Courtney Milan’s In the Pursuit Of… being, again, the rare exception that proves the rule — can you tell I’m inordinately fond of exceptions in romance?).
Which brings me to my least favorite trope of all time: the Battle of the Sexes. Your heroine is a feminist, so your hero must be, oh how clever, and ANTI-feminist! Because the correct resolution to any conflict must lie in the precise middle between two passionate points of view! And it’s important to behave as though trans, intersex, and nonbinary people don’t exist!
Very few authors can pull off the kind of creativity a truly satisfying compromise ending requires. Even fewer can do it on subjects where the both-sides framework is a lazy cliché — Courtney Milan spoke about this once when discussing the time she spent plotting The Suffragette Scandal: she assumed when she created a suffragette heroine that the hero would be the opposite, and would have to be convinced about women’s worth, and then it transpired that… she just didn’t really want to have to write that man as a hero. So she wrote an entirely different kind of scoundrel instead — and ever since I’ve been noticing just how irritating it is when two characters are expected to meet in the middle on questions about, say, the humanity of women. Or people of color, because you bet there’s a ton of romances out there with Green Book-style white saviour narratives that follow a similar pattern.
As if what really matters about feminism is convincing men it’s important. As if what matters about racism is how white people feel about it.
Sometimes, the consequences of contrasted character types means that one character ends up doing all the changing. Or all the forgiving. Take the magical monster/emotionally resilient mortal pairing that happens so often in paranormals. The weaker character is often kidnapped, imprisoned, controlled, or limited by the stronger, for Very Important Reasons. Inevitably they fall in love, and the mortal forgives the monster’s actions. Because romance is about characters learning how to use their strengths for good. So the monster gets to use those powers, albeit more judiciously. The mortal… gets to forgive the monster for abuse of powers. Which doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun.
Are we meant to read this as balanced? As equal? It feels more like a lesson in becoming resigned to power imbalances, rather than a means of correcting them.
What if, instead, a misuse of a paranormal hero’s power was punished in some way by the narrative? What if abusing power got that power taken away?
One of this month’s books actually tries to answer that question: a young mage who has been using his magic to harm others has that same magic locked away when he decides to stop hurting people; what follows is tender and terrifying by turns, and one of the strongest and strangest fantasy romances of the year. Also featured below: a strong Beauty and the Beast variant, a romance between a woman who loves durian and a man who loathes it (the kind of topic on which compromise is actually possible!), a Ren Faire-set story with a priggish English teacher/pirate king and a wench who’s come home to help her family recover, and finally, a historical fantasy romance featuring a Malaysian woman with no magic and no memory, and a highborn British witch under too much familial pressure to wed a fortune.
It’s an excellent mix of contrast and coordinating pairs, just right for the month when summer is poised to transform into fall.
Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (Carina Press: fantasy m/non-binary m):
This book? This book. Reading it is like — the feeling you get when you’re going about your everyday business and somehow come face-to-face with a wild creature in the middle of a city.
This book is really fucking good, is what I’m trying to tell you.
It wil snare you in the second paragraph, with her red witch’s eye a glowing carbuncle in the sun. For a time you will have no idea what is going on, but it is dark and it is poetic and you are enchanted. Mio, our young and fragile soul who sings out people’s hidden secrets. Wry and aristocratic Rhody, dead and resurrected with the moonlit soul of a bear, who fights a constant battle with a great curse. Priests in azure chasubles, a war that left thousands of ghosts to trouble the living, a kind of magic that is fluid and artistic and deadly dangerous — to the soul as well as the body. Mio has done terrible things, and he carries that knowledge around like a burden. This is not an easy book, for all its beauty.
Nor is this book an unbalance of powers, as discussed above. Normally the character with greater power has committed the greater crime: your dragon shifters, your vampire lords, your immortal demigods and dethroned princes of Faerie. But it’s sensitive, artistic Mio who has sinned greatly, and is asking to be contained. To be killed, even, at least at the start. The rest of the book is a lengthy exploration of sins and revelations, and when we start revealing that the things wrong in Bedefyr are not precisely what the secret-keepers think, it was pure exhilaration. I could spend months teasing out all the thoughts I have about this. I could spend another thousand words talking about this book — how it’s a Gothic and a Little Mermaid variant and a shatteringly unique fantasy world with not one but two strong, distinctive character voices.
But you don’t need those thousand words. You just need the book itself. This eerie, lovely, wondrous gift of a story. It’s the dark full-fantasy full-romance we’ve dreamed of for years.
My bear-mind was always strangely vivid, emphasizing the environment with a series of scent strokes and heat. I wished I could figure out how to smoke as a bear so I could delicately tap off ashes as I crushed things. Since I couldn’t be so dainty, I released a wave of roars, making the night flash. The soldiers abandoned their positions — loyalty could not suspend their mortality, or ward off the giant black bear that was reminding them of it.
Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean (Avon Books: historical m/f):
This is the book that got me thinking about balance in romance in the first place: it is one of the most exquisitely balanced pairings I have read in quite some time. A woman protecting her brother challenges and falls for a man protecting his sister; Hattie was raised on the docks before her father acquired a title, while Whit was trained as a duke’s heir before taking to the streets of Covent Garden. They’re both of neither world, which lets them find a middle ground together. It’s truly wonderful to see the Beauty and the Beast trope finessed — Hattie is irresistable to Whit, but in her own eyes she’s no beauty, always too much: too tall, too fat, too intelligent, too ambitious. Feeling hurt or vulnerable makes her angry which in turn makes her stand tall and defend herself, and it’s such a damn relief. More heroines blazing with righteous anger, please and thank you!
I only wish… There needs to be a better critical language for this kind of book, when you see something that’s a beautiful, near-perfect success at what it’s trying to do — that aim is totally Someone Else’s Catnip, but not mine. This will be a very useful book to have read, because it is an excellent alpha hero and those are worth remembering. I’m going to be recommending it all over the place. It is not in any way the book’s fault that at the moment I am singularly tired of alpha heroes who are the Mostiest Most In Every Way (biggest, meanest, handsomest, etc). Perhaps it’s only my author-brain getting in the way, as sometimes happens: there are choices made in this book and this series that are precisely the opposite of what I would have done, and my inner critic just will not shut up about it.
When the third book comes out I will be keeping a close eye on others’ reviews, because there are hints about where it will be going and people are going to Have Opinions. I am excited about that in a very nerdy romance kind of way.
Man Versus Durian by Jackie Lau (self-published: contemporary m/f):
“Show, don’t tell” is probably one of the most misused pieces of writing advice out there. Every good writer I know breaks it on the regular — and not just romance writers, but sff, mystery, and your favorite lit-fic darling, too. Telling is efficient. Telling is clear. Writers who think they can’t just tell you something end up wasting words being more opaque than they have to be, and both the book and the reader often suffer.
Jackie Lau’s books tell you straight-up what the characters are feeling: what they fear, what they’re avoiding thinking about, what they want. So we have all that information in mind while we watch them dance through her high-concept situations: fake dating, party planning, the great and always-loveable Only One Bed trope.
And, as here, a classic Opposites Attract. Peter has declared durian his nemesis after it spoiled a tryst of his in college. Valerie not only works in a shop that sells durian ice cream, but durian is her favorite food. He’s happy in his low-key job; she’s missing the intensity and problem-solving opportunities of the software development career that her terrible ex-boss torpedoed a year ago. She’s prickly, he’s soft; together, they’re adorable. This is an emotional romance, but a very low-stakes one — a gentle, easy hug of a book with people you wish you could hang out with in real life. It’s so inviting and pleasant and wholesome that it makes me want to give durian another shot.
She bites into the bun, closing her eyes. I’ve noticed that Valerie likes to close her eyes when she eats, as though it allows her to truly savor food.
“Good?” I ask. For some reason, it’s extremely important that she like it.
“Yeah.” She sighs in bliss.
The extra stop before going to Ginger Scoops was definitely worth it. There’s a tiny bit of custard on her lip, and I want to lick it off. Then I remind myself that it’s durian-flavored and must taste like absolute shit. Still, I would happily lick her lip if she’d let me.
Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Jove Books: contemporary m/f):
Pro tip: when in Chapter One your heroine encounters a large, generically hot blond man whose muscles are explicitly compared to Gaston’s and who is happy to wear a kilt and be ogled by everyone at the Renaissance Faire… no way is that guy the hero.
No, the hero is the dark-haired, uptight, incredibly irritating man with the clipboard, who in the heroine’s words, “would be relatively attractive if he weren’t looking at me like he’d caught me cheating on my chemistry final.”
That’s because romantic comedies live and die on the specifics. The swooniest parts are always context-dependent: Kate Moseley and Doug Dorsey finally nailing the Pamchenko Twist; Harry’s New Year’s Eve list of Sally’s quirks; Lucy In her booth finding a wedding ring clinking down instead of a subway token, and looking up into the smiling faces of Jack and his family.
Or, in this case, a golden cord and a pirate earring at a small-town Renaissance Faire.
Jen DeLuca’s debut is sweet and snappy and light as a lemon tart: Emily Parker has moved to Willow Creek after a breakup to help her sister and niece recover from a serious car accident. Her niece is desperate to be involved in the local Faire with all her friends, and she can’t audition unless an adult volunteers along with her. Her mother is still recuperating, so Emily channels her unfinished English major and signs on as a tavern wench — and immediately has a run-in with the man running the Faire, a starchy, scowly English teacher named Simon, who has his own issues with family and the Faire.
This is the pure undiluted enemies-to-lovers stuff, and it packs a wallop. Reading this book made me feel like a teenager just discovering romance for the first time: the heroine’s hurt and self-doubt, the need to decipher the hero’s true feelings (we stay in Emily’s POV the whole book), the courage it takes Emily to realize she’s worthy of love, how it feels to be tangled in a social and familial web of obligation and loyalty that can either hold you back or hold you up.
It’s a whole functioning world in here, and I hope to get a chance to revisit.
He ran a hand over his jaw again, rubbing at the bristles on his cheek as though he could scrub them out. “This isn’t your community. You don’t live here.”
Those words were a dart, and they hit the bull’s-eye. To my horror, my eyes started to sting. “Excuse me?” I blinked hard. I was not going to let this asshole see he’d made me cry.
But he noticed. “I mean… ” He had the grace to look a little ashamed and started to backpedal. “You’re not staying, right? I thought you were only here short term to help out your sister.”
“Well, I hadn’t thought about it yet. I’m …” I put up a hand, stopping the thought. Stopping him from saying anything else. “You know what? My future isn’t any of your business. What is your business is I represent fifty percent of your wenches, and Faire starts in two weeks. Do you really not want me here?”
The True Queen by Zen Cho (Ace Books: historical fantasy f/f):
You might know Zen Cho’s name from her quirky and charming 1920s biracial retelling of Jane Eyre, her award-winning short story collection, her much-loved debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, or the glorious, heartrending f/f fantasy romance novelette “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”, for which she won the Hugo this year, and which you can read for free immediately at that link. Good luck getting through it with a dry eye, though.
However you come to read Zen Cho, rejoice — for her writing is universally delightful.
We like to compare books to food, and say they nourish the soul, because this is true. Some books are steaks: thick and meaty and bloody in the mouth. But Zen Cho’s works are delicate, decorated, fanciful and wondrous — amuse-bouches, or hors d’oeuvres, or petit fours for the soul. Sweet and pleasing overall with the occasional darkness and bitterness of high-quality chocolate. They are small luxuries: “post-colonial fluff for book nerds,” she’s described it. You’ll find all the light humor and stiletto-sharp wit of Wodehouse and Heyer, both admitted influences, as well as an incisive kindness and sympathy that is all Cho’s.
The True Queen is a sequel to Sorcerer. Like a fugue, the book starts with a simple melody line: a storm, and two sisters cast out upon the shore. Slowly and steadily the figure repeats and builds and varies itself: sundering and reunion, memory and magic, family duty and love and betrayal. The romance is but one note among many, a flute piping above the rest of the orchestra. The plot is not surprising — not if you know anything at all about fairy tales — but it’s so beautifully done that the satisfaction resonates down to the bone. You know it’ll end with a major chord, but it still feels right when those last notes strike your ear. It’s recommended, but not necessary, to have read Sorcerer first, though ultimately I find I prefer this second book, and I cannot wait to see what she’ll write next.
“I take it very kind in Her Majesty to send us a warning,” said Prunella, ignoring this. “But what is the danger that threatens us?”
“Oh, did I not say?” said the Duke. “It is us.”
Prunella stared. “You?”
“Her Glorious Majesty the Fairy Queen desired me to send you her best compliments,” said the Duke, “and explain that she means to kill all English magicians, burn your spell books and sack your miserable country. Her hunger for revenge will only be sated by the wholesale destruction of English thaumaturgy.”
American citizenship, like so much else, has become weaponized. To many on the right, if you question any aspect of America's greatness — even if you simply mention that slavery is a huge part of American history — you are un-American. If you try to tell some people I know on the left that America has accomplished some good and is founded on a good idea, you're hopelessly naive at best, or minimizing the experience of entire groups of people at worst.
I don't mean to play both sides, here. The truth is, I've only rarely been accused of being a corporatist lapdog by a small handful of people on the left, while Republicans accuse me of hating America all the time. But these extremes are telling: it's hard to imagine the left and the right coming to an agreement on the meaning of America anymore.
In her book This America: The Case for the Nation, Jill Lepore argues that American citizenship has lost its meaning, and that Americans have lost a common sense of identity. At under 150 pages and published in a large font with huge spacing, the book feels slight, but Lepore's argument still feels thoughtful and well-supported.
Still, This America feels like a prologue for a longer, more in-depth examination of the American idea that has yet to be written. Lepore walks the reader through American history, recognizing how the establishment has ignored or even targeted groups that are outside the protection of privilege. She argues against blind nationalism in favor of a complicated patriotism that acknowledges our blind spots and failures as a nation.
At the Reading Through It Book Club last night, we wondered why Democrats are so bad at embracing patriotism. While it's true that President Obama made some beautiful pronouncements of love for the United States over the course of his career, he could never coax his party into a fervent embrace of nation. It just seems to be in our character to keep our cynical distance from a full-on patriotism.
Which is a shame, because the conservative embrace of patriotism is complete. Love of country is often used as a cudgel to fend off criticisms and questions. Opposition is often framed as hatred of the nation. It's intended and used as a stifling of opposition in public conversation.
But patriotism used as a weapon isn't true patriotism. Unlike the hatred of nationalism, patriotism is a positive force — a common understanding of who we are and where we're going. Is it even possible to bring together Americans under the guise of patriotism anymore? Would a reinstatement of a robust civics curriculum help, or perhaps two years of mandatory community service for all young Americans? Is there any way to restore something we can all experience in these hyper-personalized times?
One member of the book group suggested that LGBTQ Pride celebrations are a model for patriotism. There's an unalloyed commonality to Pride, a collection of multiple disparate communities coming together to celebrate achievements and recognize obstacles that have yet to be overcome. There is not one monolithic LGBTQ identity, yet LGBTQ communities have found reasons to work together in tandem and deal with their conflicts as one, under the guise of a single identity. What could be more American than that?
The world of fiction is full of hyper-competent scouting organizations. The Junior Woodchucks in Donald Duck comics are probably the gold standard of fake scouts — the Junior Woodchuck Handbook is filled with more practical information than even the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy — but fictionalized Boy and Girl Scouts are everywhere in popular culture. It's easy to see why the idea would be so pervasive: scouting offers a compelling combination of peril and competency. It at once gets innocent children into trouble and provides them with the tools to get out of trouble. That's practically the definition of a story.
Earlier this year, Boom! Studios published a gorgeous hardcover collection of the first volume of Black Badge, a comic by writer Matt Kindt, artist Tyler Jenkins, colorist Hilary Jenkins, and lettered by Jim Campbell. The premise is a clever twist on the idea of scouts in fiction: it's about a team of covert kid scouts who do black ops work that adults can't do.
When we first meet the team of Black Badge, they're sneaking into North Korea for an undercover mission. "They send us because we're kids," one of the scouts says, his eyes wide open as he tries and fails to get comfortable in his sleeping bag at night. He continues...
...Because it's the perfect cover....I mean, we're kids. We get lost all the time. We can't be tried as adults. We blend in. Who pays attention to a bunch of sight-seeing kids? But we're breaking like ten different laws. And not all countries take it easy on kids.
It's a credit to Tyler Jenkins that he can make this idea not feel sadistic. These aren't cute Precious Moments-style children. That monologue I quoted from above is delivered with the perfect ten-thousand-yard stare. The way the kids' jaws are set as they pass a sign warning, in Korean, that "Trespassers will be killed," indicates that these are not innocents. These kids have seen some shit.
Not that the kids deserve to be swept up into a world of violence. Kindt's dialogue feels ripped from films about new recruits swept into war — even though the kids talk like extras in Full Metal Jacket, there's an absurdity, and a darkness, to the fact that their lines are delivered with such callousness. Hard-bitten or not, they're still kids.
Hilary Jenkins's coloring is the secret weapon. The scouts often head into the wilderness, and Jenkins gives the surroundings a rich, watercolor feel. Without all the violence and the endangered children, these backgrounds could easily be postcards.
You get the sense by the end of Black Badge Volume 1 that the story is just getting started. (In fact, the second volume was just released yesterday.) We've barely scratched the surface of the organization's lore and legend — a huge part of any scouting experience — and someone in the scouting organization is racking up some serious payback for putting generations of kids in the line of fire. Not every serialized comic has a premise that feels both durable and promising, but Black Badge has the feel of a book that will only improve and deepen as the story continues. I can't wait to follow these kids further into the darkness.
C. Spike Trotman, the publisher of Chicago-based Iron Circus Comics, tweeted a letter yesterday indicating that the publishing industry is finally about to pay the price for Donald Trump's trade war:
g r e a t pic.twitter.com/u44dwSBF5U— Iron Spike (@Iron_Spike) September 3, 2019
The worst part of all this is that we can't appeal to the president's better nature. The dumb motherfucker doesn't even read books.
From September 12th to the 14th, the Goethe Pop Up in Chophouse Row on Capitol Hill will team up with Fantagraphics Books in Georgetown to host a free symposium to celebrate the life and work of iconic feminist novelist Kathy Acker. Acker is generally associated with New York City, but she enjoyed two residencies in Seattle that tremendously influenced both Acker and our city. The Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium will serve as a celebration and a recontextualization of Acker's work, as well as an attempt to establish a record of her time in Seattle.
"I met Kathy Acker in 1980," Symposium Curator Larry Reid tells me over the phone. Reid, who has been a pillar of the local art scene for over forty years and now works as a manager at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, says Acker's two Seattle residencies helped to put the city on the map.
The NYC-based experimental novelist's first visit to Seattle in 1980 — she lived here for "six to eight months" at the time, Reid figures, was because "she'd recently been divorced and I recall that she wanted to get a fresh start" — was a momentous one. At the time, Acker was putting the finishing touches on her seminal novel Blood and Guts in High School and beginning Great Expectations, which many consider to be her best book, and Seattle had an art scene that was just waiting to clamber on the global stage.
"In 1980, Seattle was pretty much a provincial fishing village where we built airplanes," Reid says. He was involved in the tiny local experimental art scene here — it was largely centered around the And/Or Gallery on Capitol Hill — but Acker's arrival signaled the city's coming expansion.
Though she was on the verge of being discovered by the mainstream at that time in her life, Acker was already "well-known in the counter-culture and in experimental literary circles," Reid explains. She had self-published and self-distributed a number of chapbooks — kind of a precursor to zines — and was known for bringing a punk rock flair to the confessional writing popularized by the Beats in the 1950s and 60s.
"To us," Reid says, Acker's presence in 1980s Seattle "was a pretty big deal. This punk-rock New Yorker with a shaved head coming to town felt like validation in some respects and it gave momentum to younger artists"
"We were all very enamored with her and she had these romantic associations with New York," Reid says. "I think it was a really formative period for Kathy. She complained about Seattle being so remote and said there was nothing to do, but as a writer that sort of isolation serves creativity."
Acker returned to Seattle in 1988, at the height of her popularity, for a brief visit that included a huge reading at New City Theatre, a venue in the former funeral home that would later become Hugo House's first home. Acker's second visit elevated two women who would come to shape the world's perception of our region: Seattle author Stacey Levine and Olympia musician Kathleen Hanna.
"Kathleen was not known then," Reid says. Hanna credits opening for Acker as "inspiring her to form Bikini Kill," the feminist punk band that paved the way for what would become Seattle's grunge scene. Without Acker, Reid asks, "do we know if Sleater-Kinney would've happened without Bikini Kill — or Portlandia, or you know, any of that?"
Levine became one of Seattle's greatest literary talents, a wholly original talent who composes beautiful fairy tales that dance to some monstrous unconscious rhythms. Her work simmers with some of the same heat of Acker's fiction.
For a certain generation that came of age in the late 1990s, myself included, Acker is a foundational talent — an author who means as much as William S. Burroughs did for the generation before. Acker shares some qualities with Burroughs — a proclivity for nonlinear storytelling, an eagerness to push the idea of narrative beyond its breaking point — but there's a rage and a humanity underlaying all her work that I could never find in Burroughs.
But while Burroughs is still read and half-understood by young white boys with literary aspirations, Acker seems to be fading into history.
That's where next week's Symposium comes in. Featuring dozens of contributors including Hanna, Levine, cartoonist Megan Kelso, poet Marilyn Stablein, author Paul de Barros, and bookseller Gary Wilkie, the Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium is a mixture of exhibitions, panels, readings, and reminiscences intended to identify Acker's impact on Seattle, and vice versa.
Of course, Acker herself wouldn't be happy with a calm and academic dissection of her work. That won't be a problem here. Reid warns that a number of opinionated Acker fans are going to be in attendance, and there will be plenty of opportunities to gather at the Comet Tavern and at the Fantagraphics Store in Georgetown to "informally discuss whatever issues arose in the panels." Reid says "I'm sure that conflicts will happen, based on my initial research. Maybe some beer will smooth things over, but everybody's not gonna agree on everything."
Reid has spent about two years organizing this symposium, but he's quick to add that it's not planned down to the minute. "I haven't fully scripted a lot of this because I want it to feel organic," he insists. "From the meetings that I've had with the panelists, it feels like this is going to be phenomenally interesting."
Assembling the symposium has "been a really emotional process," Reid says. "I adored Kathy. We became close and stayed close right up until her death in the late nineties."
But despite the personal connections, "I want to avoid the suggestion that this is just an exercise in nostalgia," Reid insists. It's about looking closely at where we are and where we're going — as a city, as an art scene, and as a post-Acker literary community. Ultimately, he says, "we hope to look at the past as a way of informing the present and inspiring the future."
Sponsor Northwest Associated Arts is bringing David Sedaris back for his annual visit to Benaroya Hall. For those of you who already have tickets, you should turn to your neighbor and explain just why they have to see Sedaris live.
Because no other performer brings the energy, vivaciousness, or good humor to their readings that Sedaris does. He’s always a treat, always on point, and always bringing new works to his adoring audience.
It's sponsors like Northwest Associated Arts who make the engine of our website purr so smoothly. They’re returning sponsorship means the world to us. Find out what sponsorship can do for you on our sponsor page. We’d love for you to find out why so many of our sponsors come back again, and again.
while reading a pale-faced activist’s
book on civil disobedience
I encounter the passage of
that time he evaded Johnny Law
by hiding with his buddies
in Yellow Face onstage,
the “wrong side of Murder Creek”
I think how activism, like feminism
often fails people, like that time
175,000 protestors armed with
pussy hats marched through
the International District on the eve
before the Lunar New Year,
without giving the community notice
ahead of time, never considering how
they’d close streets, affect traffic,
or impact business on what would
usually be the busiest weekend
of the year, even Uwajimaya
seeing a drop in sales
See our Event of the Week column for more details. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 6 pm, $5.
Sarah Smarsh's memoir is everything that Hillbilly Elegy was supposed to be but wasn't. It uses Smarsh's own story of growing up in intergenerational poverty to exemplify everything that's gone wrong with America's economy. It's a beautifully written example of economics in action, and a damning indictment of America since the 1980s. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
As the literary fall starts to heat up, consider taking a moment to join the official Seattle Review of Books book club to discuss Jill Lepore's brilliant, tiny book about embracing the complicated horrors and joys of American citizenship, This America: The Case for the Nation. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
Press info says this talk builds "on the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Global Warming of 1.5ºC Special Report and the 4th National Climate Assessment. Your host is Dr. Heidi A Roop, a local climate scientist who is trying to investigate ways out of this pickle we've gotten ourselves into. The Mountaineers, 7700 Sand Point Way NE, 7 pm, donations.
Christopher Leonard took years to investigate the shady organizations that funded the Koch Brothers' multi-billion dollar crusade against the public good. Today, Leonard joins me for a conversation about how the Koches got rich, what they've done with the money, and what happens to the organization now that one of the brothers is dead. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.
Ganesh Sitaraman previously worked as a close economic adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren. His latest book is an argument for public ownership of utilities and services as a way to strengthen the nation's communal wealth. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.
All afternoon and evening, the MacArthur "Genius" winner, playwright, novelist, and musician will be hosting short plays, Q&A sessions, and musical performances to celebrate the grand re-opening of Town Hall Seattle. Parks is an amazing performer as well as a captivating writer. Don't miss this one. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 2 pm, free.
Beloved local poet Claudia Castro Luna hosts an afternoon of Seattle-centric storytelling with authors including Tyrone Beason, Elissa Washuta, and Ramon Isao. Expect a few surprises, too. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 4 pm, $15.
Alex Gallo-Brown is a local writer who also works as a union organizer. If you think those two careers sound disparate, you're not paying attention to the media world, where journalists are finally standing together to demand that they be treated better than a few interchangeable cogs in whatever kind of machine still uses cogs in the 21st century.
But Gallo-Brown was there first. Born and raised here in Seattle, he's attended just about every major political action that's unfolded in the last five years. Forged in the Great Recession, he's keenly aware that workers in America are getting shafted even while the bosses are making more than ever before.
Today, in a special Labor Day reading, Gallo-Brown will be debuting his new collection of fiction and poetry about work and unions, Variations of Labor, at Town Hall. He explained the new book to the South Seattle Emerald's Reagan Jackson back in February:
My day job is labor organizer, labor advocate. That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last three or four years is work both in terms of our professional lives, but also the emotional labor we perform to survive both in our relationships and also in our daily lives and in our work experiences. [Variations] is sort of a mix of people working and living their lives. The poems get more at the emotional interior lives of people’s experience both at work and in their daily lives.
It's going to be a busy Labor Day at Town Hall; upstairs, Congressperson Pramila Jayapal will be talking with former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. They'll be discussing what it means to work in America in the 21st century. But downstairs, Gallo-Brown will be telling those stories in an emotionally approachable way. This is what literature is for: to take disparate experiences and make them relatable, to find the heroic in the everyday. In Gallo-Brown's book, every worker is a hero.
Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 6 pm, $5.
Between writing the copy below and the time you're reading this, poet and critic Robert Lashley published an essay that defines why this weekly column exists. Lashley writes about Toni Morrison, his childhood, and his mother; it is humbling to see the grace with which he navigates between thoughtful analysis of Morrison's work and reflection on a deeply personal and difficult story. This is everything good writing about books should be, and I'm thrilled to have a place to highlight it.
If, as Oscar Wilde said, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars, my mother’s voice was a rocketship. Graduating from The University of Washington in 1973 with a major in African American studies and a minor in Latin American studies, Glennis Wilson was one of finest literary minds I have ever heard or will hear. As an intellectual she was great misanthrope, and like all great misanthropes she was a broken-hearted idealist. She carried the scars of being excommunicated from progressive antiwar, black power, civil rights, and socialist movements for the sin of her occasional skepticism. Yet it was in literature, in the writers and likeminded people who represented democracy better than founders and most fortunate beneficiaries, where she found her true exemplars of the human condition.
One of my go-to newsletters is "Why is this interesting,", written by Noah Brier and Colin Nagy with frequent guests. When I first came across it, that seemed like the quintessential question the Sunday Post tries to answer, one paragraph at a time — why is this essay interesting? Why should you read it? They do a marvelous just-the-right-length job of responding to that question every time.
In the last few weeks, their newsletter has been talking about navigation — wayfinding, and what the ability to find your own way does for your brain and spirit. There's a lot of cool stuff about compasses and navigating by the stars, and about people who are finding their way back (pun intended) to the hand-rolled navigation styles that preceded Google Maps’ little blue line.
The flip side of finding your way is getting lost. Getting lost is something I do well and often, sometimes even trying to get back to my table after visiting the washroom in a new restaurant. Hunting for a house, I have criss-crossed the city I've lived in for 14 years and been delighted and a bit chagrined to see how all the neighborhoods, well, connect to each other. They're not geographic islands! I knew this conceptually, but to have your brain map it as a physical reality is like putting on glasses for the first time.
Those who are good at getting lost know the panic of the wrong turn before an important appointment and the frustration of well-intentioned navigators in the passenger seat. They also know the pleasure of finding your own way back from lostness. As a solo hiker, I was often lost and as often gratified by my ability to remain calm and puzzle my way back to the trail. Since partnering up, I've lost that (pun intended, again); when I turn down the wrong path, there's always a voice to call me back. It saves time but sacrifices something else — something I discovered after hours of real terror in the desert in Las Vegas once, trying to find a bit of sandstone that looked familiar while the sun went down and my cut leg burned and the sound of coyotes echoed from not too far away.
There's the reward of self-sufficiency, of course, which is what "Why is this interesting" is focused on. But there's something more than that, too. There's seeing the world become strange, seeing how memory transmutes fear to wonder, seeing yourself become strange and wonderful.
There are innumerable books about getting lost; one of my most beloved is Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, which, if you are only familiar with the movie, will surprise you with the depth of the sadness in it. Bastian Balthazar Bux loses himself, piece by piece and willingly, in the wonder of the world he's found. The trope is not uncommon, but the tone is: it's a story of incredible loneliness and longing and fear.
The protagonists of "door into" books are so often heroes waiting to be discovered; Bastian is a childish antihero, instead, like Narnia's Eustace Scrubb, who loses himself inside a dragon's skin. Bastian is infinitely more complex, though, and his lostness infinitely more resonant. His story tells us why getting lost in the real world and finding your way out of it is such a necessary joy: it promises that you can be terribly, terribly lost, even within yourself, and still find the way home.
I mentioned Rebecca Solnit last week and hesitate to do so again, but her Field Guide to Getting Lost is just a few feet away and too appropriate not to check. "We treat desire as a problem to be solved," she says, "... though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between us with the blue of longing." I saw the blue of longing in a shallow pool at the top of a white sandstone canyon once. I've never forgotten the brilliance of it.
What I didn't realize then is that this practice of land navigation was forming my mind and thoughts in a certain way. Unfortunately, it’s a way that I've likely lost after a decade of using Google Maps for navigation on my iPhone. As Maura O'Connor notes in her new book _Wayfinding_, and a recent Washington Post article, the hippocampus—the part of the brain that allows us to orient in space, recall events from the past (episodic memory) as well as the ability to imagine ourselves in the future—shrinks when it isn’t used. She also notes that atrophy in that part of the brain is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. It seems not using a map isn’t just affecting how I think today, but it can also affect my thoughts well into the future.
Why is it that when I see Halsey on the cover of Rolling Stone I don’t think twice, while seeing Cardi B makes me feel out of my depth? My woeful lack of music knowledge is the same for both of them. If anything, I should feel more of an affinity for Cardi because I’ve actually heard a couple of her songs. But I don’t, because Cardi’s otherness eclipses everything else about her and becomes her identity — she reads insurmountable. Halsey, who passes like me, despite us having nothing else in common, plays less obscure. Is that racist? Cause it sure as hell sounds like it is.
Once I began to wonder where the real borders of musicality are, the world started to crack open in beautiful ways. Some particular types of movement pattern, sensations of wind. Watching telephone poles through a car window is a musical experience, Kim tells me. As soon as she says it, I remember a 2013 event in Boston in which the poet Raymond Luczak read a poem with this same image, his arms embodying that exact tune: “As you drive home, notice how rhythmic / telephone poles and corner signs are. / Wonder why no one ever thinks of making music / for eyes alone.”
Given that women have been the majority of the undergraduate student body in many countries for the last three decades, one can no longer argue that equality can be achieved by simply waiting for young female scholars to emerge at the end of the academic “pipeline.” “The increase in women at later stages of the pipeline is the consequence of a slow ‘pull’ provided by the expanding pool of women at the beginning,” the authors of a 2008 study in Science suggest, “not because of an effective ‘push’ that reduces attrition during career advancement.”10 Strengthening this push, however, means addressing the sexist practices that “push” men along the cursus honorum, because these practices tend to be the very same mechanisms that oust women from the academy. The zero-sum nature of this problem makes it difficult to discuss, let alone redress. Ugly small-brained misogyny explains only part — albeit an important part — of this result. More insidious are banal sexist practices that reinforce one another to compose a vast ramshackle machinery that elevates men to the pinnacle of the ivory tower.
The Starting Gate: A Cocktail of Working, Drinking, Family, and Zen. The next Loud Mouth Lit is Tuesday, September 24th at 8pm at St Andrew's Bar and Grill. Paul will be joined by Kelleen Conway Blanchard, author of The Neverborn (in its last weekend at the Annex Theatre!).
What are you reading now?
A buddy of mine gave me a couple books before he moved to Kyoto with his wife and daughter, one of them is Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird by Robert Aitken. I put it off for a while, because I was afraid it was going to be a cutesy, twee, Westernizing white-wash of the practice I’ve been engaged in for over three decades now, something in the vein of The Tao of Pooh (though I have to say that I do owe that book a huge debt). Instead, Zen Master Raven is a stark, deep-running collection of what can only be called modern American koans. Not surprisingly, Robert Aitken turns out to be a bona-fide Rōshi, having received the Dharma transmission from Koun Yamada in 1985. His stories have the same starkly ineffable force as any koan you might find in the classic Zen text The Mumonkan. I would love to figure out how to infuse this quality into my own story-telling: the clarity of a wooden block.
What did you read last?
I recently went to Europe for the first time in my life and I went on a bit of a Paris kick with my reading when I got back. I bounced from Hemingway to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London to Alan Furst’s wonderfully wrought series of spy books set in and around the City of Light prior to and during World War II.
When it came to Papa in Paris A Moveable Feast was a no-brainer pick and it did not disappoint. It’s a plain joy, with the absurdly handsome and virile young Hemingway serving as a synecdoche for all of America’s blundering, blustering early 20th Century youth crashing into the jaded mores of Europe. But I also checked out The Nick Adams Stories, and finally learned a valuable lesson about Hemmingway’s stories. They either speak to you or they don’t. It ran about 50/50 for me, but the ones that worked were a revelation of understatement and meticulous observation. He’s a bit like Chekhov that way, though Chekhov’s batting average is way higher than .500 (for his short stories anyway: ironically or not, I am not a big fan of his plays).
Orwell’s book is a must read, if only to understand that homelessness has always been a problem in big cities and their surroundings. The “Seattle-is-Dying” crowd would have loved England’s solution in the 1930s, which was to force itinerant men to shelter each night in a different town or village, forcing them to walk as much as 20 -30 miles each day between stays.
I finally had to let the Furst books go when the main characters started blurring into the same flawed but ultimately noble Allied operative.
What are you reading next?
I’m so stoked to answer this question because I can’t wait to read a book that got handed to me on Wednesday by the author Charles E Martin. It’s called My Life Underwater. I’ve only read the first page, but based on that it promises to be excellent.
I have special tangential connection to Charles because he’s the new cook in my neighborhood bar, The St Andrew’s, which also happens to be where I host my monthly literary series Loud Mouth Lit. It delights me to think that I have some small part in expanding the soccer-and-scotch bar I first stumbled into from the bus stop 15 years ago into a genuine literary establishment. The Algonquin of Aurora, maybe? I have a strong suspicion Martin will be one of my LML guests in the coming months. So stay tuned. Seattle’s a small world for writers, and I hope that never changes.
I’m fed up with the reader’s curse. I have a big vocabulary and I know the names of plenty of important people, but it seems like every time I try to toss off a big word at work (elucidate, anyone?) or refer to a major historical figure, I mispronounce them terribly because I’ve only ever encountered them in print. (I still remember the first time I did this, back in high school, when I gave a presentation on Socrates who I referred to as “SEW-crates” several times.) I’m trying to sound smart, but mangling the pronunciation always makes me sound like a total moron.
I try to Google, for instance, “how do you pronounce Miriam Toews,” but different YouTube pronunciation guides offer completely different pronunciations. Should I just stick to monosyllabic words and bland British names from now on? And just to be safe, how do you pronounce “monosyllabic,” anyway?
Perplexed in Portage Bay
"Tanzaynia," "diversary," "covfefe," "premedication," "Nambia," and "infantroopen," are just a few of my favorite words President Donald Trump has mispronounced or made up entirely. These are the words I call to mind every time my vigilance slips and I mispronounce "pedestrian" in public. (Think of a pedophile injuring himself while taking a shit. That's how I pronounce it: "pedo-strain".)
For readers, that is the silver lining on the clusterfuck shit-pile of these last three years – if the leader of our nation can't pronounce basic words, or even fucking remember them, how can anyone judge you for mispronouncing "Socrates" or "elucidate" or "macabre"?
They can't. They are puckered assholes if they even try, so you go ahead and scream "Miriam Toews" from the rooftops until your pretty pink lungs cave in.