In Seattle, of course, you can always attend as many poetry readings as you could possibly want. Between open mics and book launch parties and ongoing reading series, Seattleites could spend the better part of almost any week at poetry-based events. Butpoet Shin Yu Pai looked at the landscape of readings and saw a kind of poetry event that simply didn't exist.
"I wanted to curate a series that could really focus on the social role of poetry rather than just having poets in to read from their most current work," she explains to me on the phone.
Pai says her new series, Lyric World, which launches on January 30th at Town Hall in conjunction with KUOW, is designed to be a bridge between poetry and everyday life. Each event will be centered around "hot topics of conversation." The poets will read work that has been specially selected to reflect the theme of the event, "and then have an onstage conversation with a peer facilitator who's read their work very carefully and deeply." The series also spotlights musicians who can reflect on these themes with performance.
The first event on January 30th spotlights Okinawan-American poet Thomas Pruiksma, who Pai says "is a magician, a musician, and a poet. I asked him to talk about the role of wonder and magic in his work." Pruiksma will be joined in conversation by the poet Melanie Noel, who specializes in synaesthetic poetry. Pai chose Noel because "she's really looking at the ways in which the different senses are activated and how poetry can reflect that experience."
In March, Pai is pairing Seattle poet Koon Woon with Seattle poetry leader Paul Nelson in an event "focused around the idea of displacement, poems, and belonging." Koon, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young boy, "lived for many decades in Chinatown/International District in various marginalized conditions. He was eventually displaced and is now living in West Seattle," Pai says. The evening will be a study of what it means to be taken from your home, through immigration or gentrification or other means, and percussionist Paul Kikuchi will share work that incorporates his "research around the Japanese American internment experience in his own work and in his own family."
Lyric World's first season will conclude in June with Prageeta Sharma, author of Grief Sequence from Wave Books, discussing"the poetry and grief or grieving" with local poet afrose fatima ahmed.
"I was looking around and feeling like there were no series that were really elevating Asian voices, and that's very important to me," Pai says. She cites Amber Flame's Black on Craft reading series and the Poetry Across the Nations reading of Native poets at the Hugo House as inspirations for Lyric World's first season.
Pai has plenty of experience putting on events that cross disciplines and investigate new paths for the arts?—?she's curated citywide events as Redmond's Poet Laureate, and she is the head of the Obscura Society for Atlas Obscura. Does she have any metrics for determining whether Lyric World is a success as an event?
"The quality of the question and answer or comment period can often be a provocative gauge of how engaged the audience is," she says. Pai also wants this series to deliver a cross-section of Seattle poetry audiences, from regulars at Margin Shift to Hugo House open mics to Seattle Arts and Lectures: "success to me is seeing a convergence in the audience of different poetry communities," to inspire a "cross-fertilization of ideas and aesthetics."
In the end, these conversations about place and grief and imagination are "really for people who are curious about poetry but maybe have certain perceptions of it as being difficult or inaccessible," Pai says. She's particularly eager for KUOW's audience to be exposed to the series because "we're taking poetic topics and putting them in conversation, so that we can connect that to the relevance of our lives."
This is very impressive.
Rakuten OverDrive, a digital reading platform used by the King County Library System (KCLS), has released their 2019 digital circulation statistics. KCLS patrons checked out 5,678,572 digital titles in 2019—up nearly 17% from last year, **making KCLS the No. 2 digital circulating library in the U.S. and No. 3 worldwide**.
Published January 14, 2020, at 12:00pm
Darker than his previous books, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland unearths tales of our vulnerable planet through explorations of underground places, and offers a moving account of the varied, conflicting emotions of our era of ecological crisis.
(Side-scroll to see full lines)
The sushi place near my apartment is suddenly
gone, window sign reading simply, Sorry
It’s closed, and I am somehow hollow and lost, as if
everything around me will vanish, thing by thing by thing.
The sushi place is gone, and I only ate there once or twice
though I always meant to, so it’s probably my fault, or
at least partly my fault, or really largely my fault.The bakery
is gone too, and the place with rice bowls down the block.
The bakery, the sushi place, the rice bowls, and the place
with ridiculous lamps and couches like spaceships are
gone; the tire store, the car dealers, the parking lots, Ducky’s
Used Office Supplies where I got my green chair, my favorite
dry cleaner with the woman who could fix any tear or
unraveling.My blocks are filled with so much unraveling,
light posts covered with flyers for porn and meditation;
the things I miss themselves once erased beloved things,
and the park is filled with lights and snowflakes, glow
eclipsing wrappers and needles and dog shit, and perhaps
to live in a city or to love anything is to search for glow
and watch it disappear, block by brick by grain by bulb.
SponsorColumbia Global Reportsare here to ensure you know that William Wheeler is appearing inSeattle on January 21st, at the Elliott Bay Book Company.
Wheeler's astonishing new bookState of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violencetells a compelling, gripping story about how corruption at thehighest levels of the Salvadoran government is empowering thebrutal Central American gangs.
You can read theentire introduction to the book on our sponsor's page(you won't want to miss this), as well as see what otherreviewers had to say about it. More information about thereadingcan be found on Elliott Bay's webpage, and you can alsopre-order the book from them.
Sponsors like Columbia Global Reports know that the best way toget a Seattle reading audience's attention is with oursponsorships. They're inexpensive, effective, and fund thejournalism and writing we do on the site.Find more information on our sponsor page.
Last month, I let you know that the Seattle Public Library was considering its options after the Women’s Liberation Front, which non-ironically refers to itself by the acronym WoLF, rented space at the downtown library location.
Trans Seattleites and their allies have spoken out against SPL's decision to provide space for this event. WoLF is a group that frequently hosts events with anti-trans organizations, that has teamed with evangelical anti-trans groups, and has participated in what CNBC referred to as an “anti-transgender panel.” In other words, if WoLF partners with anti-trans organizations, and it talks like anti-trans organizations, it seems reasonable to treat WoLF as an anti-trans organization. The library held meetings to discuss the issue, and they said they would announce a decision in the new year.
The fact that SPL announced the decision in a Friday night news dump will probably give you an idea of their decision. Megan Burbank at the Seattle Times writes:
The Seattle Public Library board decided Friday that a February event hosted by a group that local activists say encourages discrimination against transgender people will be allowed to proceed.
SPL's Chief Librarian, Marcellus Turner, released a statement on Friday afternoon. It's full of bad reasoning and pointless equivocation.Turner notes that "WoLF’s event is not a Library-sponsored event," but he argues that "the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction" is essential to the library.
Turner argues that "The Seattle Public Library supports our transgender colleagues, families, and friends in their pursuit of personal freedoms and protections," and that SPL's decision "also does not slow the pace of, or detract from, the Library’s commitment to building an equitable and inclusive public library."
In other words, Turner's trying to have it both ways. Not even both ways, really — his arguments are all over the map. He's claiming that SPL isn't responsible for the decision to host WoLF's meeting, but he's also arguing that SPL supports the free flow of all information and perspectives, and he's also arguing that SPL supports a group that has been targeted and shamed by a group that SPL is hosting.
These are inconsistent thoughts.
Turner is ultimately relying on a ridiculously outdated idea of free speech — one promoted by libertarians and neoliberals alike. It's the idea that all ideologies should be given a platform in the so-called "free market of ideas," so that the public can make an informed decision. The idea is that the public will always choose the better, more valuable idea (like inclusiveness) and scorn the weaker, less valuable idea (in this case, anti-trans rhetoric).
Promoters of hateful concepts like Nazism and bigotry employ the good will of free speech absolutists to spread their rhetoric and activate more extremists to their cause
But the last four years have proven that just as there are no real "free markets" in economics, there is no "free market of ideas." Promoters of hateful concepts like Nazism and bigotry employ the good will of free speech absolutists to spread their rhetoric and activate more extremists to their cause. Just as hate-mongers game the algorithms on Facebook and YouTube to attract large audiences, hate groups use free speech absolutists in public institutions like colleges and libraries as useful idiots who help them capture an outsized audience. Read about Karl Popper's Paradox of Tolerance and you'll see the flaw in Turner's thinking.
The simple fact is, SPL is providing a platform to an organization that wants to make the world more unsafe and unwelcome for SPL's trans employees and volunteers and patrons. It is impossible to be impartial, here. SPL giving WoLF a platform is an endorsement. This platform will give WoLF tens of thousands of dollars in free media attention, and it will win the organization more followers. By choosing to allow WoLF to speak at SPL, Turner has made his choice. It's a bad one. History won't be kind to him.
So now, because Turner made his bad choice, we all have to make our own choice to stand against WoLF — and more importantly, to stand with our trans neighbors and friends and family. We have to let them know that though the institution of SPL has utterly failed them, the people of Seattle are there for them. We'll let you know when and where the protests are happening, and we hope you'll join us as we stand for inclusiveness and against hate.
Pamela Paul and Maria Russo present their new book about how to indoctrinate children into the only good cult — reading! They will be joined by Seattle author Maria Semple. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org, 7:30 pm, $5.
Raymond Fleischmann's debut novel, How Quickly She Disappears, is a thriller set in 1940s Alaska about a woman who is drawn into a murderer's web. Seattle mystery authorUrban Waite joins the author for an onstage interview.Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.
See our Event of the Week column for more details.University Book Store, ?4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 6 pm.
Subtitled Women Writing About Anger, "Burn It Down is an anthology celebrating the history and culture and transgression of women's anger. Contributors Dani Boss and Melissa Korbel will read tonight, along with local essayist Theo Nestor.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free. *
According to press materials, "A Scribe Called Quess? is a poet, educator, actor, playwright and activist, in that order." He's a slam poet who has won a ton of awards, and he also speaks out on the topic of education reform. He's here to celebrate his latest poetry collection. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
The Author's Guild hosts a meeting and a presentation for young adult writers titled "Cracking the Young Adult Book Market." The person giving the presentation is a literary agent named Kathleen Ortiz. All are welcome to come and learn about the business of writing and what the Author's Guild can do for you.Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 3 pm, free.
Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the overused word "epic," buteverything else about this event sounds great. "Epic Reads"breaks the audience up into small groups who then participate ina round-robin session of intimate readings and conversationswith a collection of touring young adult writers. The cost ofentry is the purchase of any one novel by the participatingauthors.
If you've ever wanted an up close and personal conversation witha writer, this is a pretty great gimmick for a reading. It'sespecially interesting for young readers who are interested inthe writer's life but are maybe too shy to speak up and askquestions at a huge reading.
The epic authors in question are:
So that's apocalyptic humor, a romantic travel adventure comedy,and a high fantasy novel about destiny, legacy, and war. Best ofall, you don't have to choose between the events — you'll get anopportunity to talk with every single one of the authors. Thinkof it as a Whitman's Chocolate sampler of a reading and you'vegot it all figured out. Sounds pretty...well, you know.University Book Store, ?4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400,http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 6 pm.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we lovedreading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup ofcoffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat!Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us firstname.lastname@example.org. Need more browse? You can alsolook through the archives.
The beginning of the year is always bittersweet for me. Eachyear seems to pass with increasing swiftness, and this time, Ifound myself at the top of a new decade, bewildered yet again.So in the spirit of this time of year - a couple Sunday readsabout time, and why we feel its passing so keenly, how wegrapple with its sensation of loss, and why humans, fastened toour perception of time, experience our lives.
Not surprisingly, as soon as the new year began, there was aonline debate as to when the new decadereally began: this year or next? This Vice article goes deeper,tracing “right now” and philosophies, psychologies, and physicsof time from St. Augustine to modern day neuroscientists.
Right now is definitely not a whole year, it's not a day, andnot an hour—these timescales are too long. Even one minute, ifyou really think about it, is too much. “We come closer andcloser, and we end up in the few-seconds range,” he said.“Close to how long it would take if I say, ‘Now.’”
And he's right: According to a wide variety of studies, rightnow only lasts a few seconds or less. More intriguingly, itmight not be right now at all, butright a-few-seconds-ago.
On the first day of this new year, Mariya and I went to seeLittle Women, the new Greta Gerwig film. It isluminous; I felt I was seeing something entirely new. InGerwig’s hands, the story is sliced and diced so that childhoodand young adulthood snapshot to and from each other as we watcheach of the March sisters grow into the lives they ended upliving. Like psychologists in the last article explained, wealways live slightly in the past.
The effect is a moving portrait of the absolute, lambent promiseof adolescence, and the crushing and conflicting uncertainty andfinality of adulthood. During this past decade, I too made thistransition. I was just 16 in the beginning of 2010; by the endof this year, I will officially be in the “nearly thirty” camp.These last ten years have made for an unfairly long decade. ThisTwitter thread by Frankie Thomas is the first “review” that Ifelt really explained why this Gerwig’s interpretation is soastonishing and poignant.
Little Women (2019) picks up where Lady Bird left off: thequestion of how to continue living when you feel like you wereonly ever meant to exist as a teenage girl— Frankie Thomas (@frankie_jay_tho)January 5, 2020
At the end of last year, I read Carlo Rovelli’s slim volume,Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. In its final chapter,after having my brain twisted into thirty knots already, thetheoretical physicist taught me that time, as we perceive it, isnot real. As each year disappears into the next, Rovelli tellsus that the “universal ‘flow’ of time doesn’t exist,” thatsequential time is merely an illusion. The future is not lessreal because it is not “now,” and more than “there” is less realthan “here.” I won’t get into all of it (because I barelyunderstand it), but I recommend you read the book, and thisinterview as Rovelli eloquently describes how humans, more thanany other animal, are “time machines,” constantly commemoratingthe past and imagining the future. And maybe you’ll feel calmerabout the new year too.
We live a little bit in the past, in the future, in the present,and in the future at the same time together. We definitely dothat. But then we narrate ourselves always in the present. Wethink about ourselves in the present. And the source of ourconfusion about time, and all this discussion about time, comesfrom that. When we hear music, we hear a musical phrase, and sowe appreciate music because it’s a certain sequence. But inevery single moment, we’re just listening to only a single noteor a single chord. So how can we appreciate the narrative if wehear just one note at a time? And that’s it, precisely becausewe don’t live in the present. We strongly immerse in the memoryof the previous chord, of the musical phrase, and you anticipatehow it will continue.
One of the great joys of running Whatcha Reading is seeing allthe books people are reading. In 2019, people in the columntalked about 258 books. There’s a big table below listing all ofthem, sorted by title, alphabetically.
Of those, only eleven books were mentioned twice (no books madethree mentions this year), so deserve an extra callout.
Personally, I read Less,The Secret Lives of Color, and I saw Jenny Odelltalk at the XOXO Festival, her lovely book is still sitting on my to-read pile.
You’ll see each of them listed twice below, because I’ve alsolinked them to the original column they appeared in, so youcould find the source, if you want to be the kind of nerd wholooks over huge lists of books and finds where they werementioned on the site (and, to be clear, I am the kind of nerdwho creates huge lists of books).
I wish I could tell you what the trend was this year, but wavinga hand over this list revealed nothing to specific to me. I'd be curious if you have insight intothat. What I can say, pretty definitively, is that Seattle isfull of (and visited by, since many of these were touringwriters) people who read incredibly widely. Kind of gives youhope about the world, doens't it?
Here's the full list. We'll be back next week with our normalWhatcha Reading, but isn't it fun to take a step back and ganderat just how many books have been recommended on the site byguests? I'm absolutely thrilled about it.
|A Big Mooncake for Little Star, by Grace Lin||Original post|
|A Chorus of Stones, by Susan Griffin||Original post|
|A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit||Original post|
|A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit||Original post|
|Jump to full list to see all 258 books mentioned this year|
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s mostvexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation tosend your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to readerotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questionsto email@example.com.
My wife is a true crime junkie. She started with Ann Rulewhen she was a teenager and now she'll read anything about aserial killer that she can get her hands on. Like, the morederanged and gross the crimes, the more into it sheis.
She's super-sweet. She had your stereotypical suburbanRedmond childhood. The closest she's ever been to a crime isthat time the wind pulled a popsicle wrapper out of my handand out the car window on the highway, making her an accessoryto littering.
I'm starting to wonder if this true crime obsession ishealthy. Sometimes she has nightmares, and sometimes she getsherself worked up over sounds in the night. It's not out ofhand, but I worry all this murder and mayhem is having acumulative effect on her psyche.
When I bring it up, she says I'm worrying about nothing, andthat true crime is her release valve — how she blows offsteam. What do you think about true crime?
Although I live in a state wherechild marriage is still legal and flourishing, I assume you're married to an adult woman? If that's the case– if she's your partner and not a sex-obliged ward you bought ata middle school auction – then your role is to rub her back andmind your business, not police her entertainment. It could bethat reading the regular ol' news about the koala-burning,hate-criming shitbasket of a world we live in is giving hernightmares. It could be that reading true crime is her copingmechanism.
I do like the genre. Studies show women especially respond it,perhaps to puzzle of how each crime is executed and criminalcaught, or perhaps asan ancient survival mechanismto avoid becoming the next victim. All I know for certain isthat I find it to be grotesquely empowering, like receiving adose of bloodthirst on loan. When I look at a man afterward, Ithink: "I hope you don't make me make hamburger out of your manparts," because like most of modern civil society, I am eager toblame the victim.
Then I think: "But if you do, what condiments should I use?"
If you want to make your wife happy, introduce her toSnapped. Sadly, it is not a book series, but it is a true crimeexperience produced for the modern day woman.
It's true that Jaron Lanier comes across as abrasive to many readers. He's been immersed in the tech industry for decades, and so his writing and speaking style have a kind of Silicon Valley style to them: he speaks in broad generalizations, and he's got a holier-than-thou libertarian vibe when he writes grandly about society.
But it's precisely because Lanier is a creature of the Silicon Valley that his thoughts on technology are so important. Read any of his books — I started with You Are Not a Gadget — and you'll see that he's a very different kind of tech evangelist: he's an advocate for consumer privacy and transparency between users and services. He's a traitor to his own people, and that makes him a compelling narrator.
Last night's Reading Through It Book Club discussed Lanier's most recent book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It was just the right time to discuss the book — most of us had taken a break from social media over the holiday vacation break, and we were suitably wary of re-engaging with our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts after reading the book.
You've likely heard many of the arguments against social media, and you likely still use social media. Maybe you feel guilty about it. Perhaps you recall a time when you were off social media and you felt more relaxed and engaged and generally happier, but you still find yourself numbly refreshing your feeds, desperately looking for something new. The mechanics of this are simple meat and chemistry: the dopamine hits, the fear of missing out, the boredom of waiting in line at the grocery store.
In "Deleting", Lanier makes ten arguments against the shiny allure of social media. Some of the arguments overlap — "Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy" and "Social media is making you into an asshole" sound pretty similar, for instance — but they all boil down to one tortured acronym. Lanier identifies the one problem of social media as "Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent," or BUMMER. He argues that "BUMMER will lead us into hell if we don't self-correct."
The tone of last night's book club felt a little bit like a 12-step group for addicts: A spirit of resignation, the glimmer of recognition when someone describes negative behaviors, the promise of a better way around the corner. I would argue that we are all much more savvy about the perils of social media now than we were a decade ago, though, and agitators like Lanier are helping us realize how much our perceptions are being forcefully changed by the algorithms.
And though we have all gone crawling back to the never-ending feed in the past, that's not proof that we will always fail in our pursuit to free ourselves from the bad actors who are selling us a funhouse mirror of ourselves. We can get through this the way anyone in recovery does: one day at a time, focused on incremental improvements, and with the serenity to accept that not every step will be in a forward direction.
In south Seattle, in a tiny storefront on Rainier, there's a new independent movie theater called The Beacon. I highly recommend the Beacon for any Seattle-area cinephiles: they show cleverly curated series of repertory films from across time and space: one series focused on the alienation of the suburbs, while another looks at heist films from a lens of class struggle. It's a small and well-appointed space to show up and fall in love with films.
Why am I mentioning the Beacon in a column about comic books? Because you comics nerds need to know about an event they're putting on next Saturday, the 18th of January. Outstanding Portland comics writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction will be coming to town for one night only to host a screening of Death Race 2000. (Not the remake with Jason Statham; the 1975 original with David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone.)
DeConnick and Fraction are the perfect pair to present this film. DeConnick is the author of Bitch Planet, a feminist sci-fi comic about women in a space prison that, like Death Race, cleverly employs trashy genre tropes to make a larger point about society. And Fraction's current creator-owned series, a crime comic stylishly illustrated by Elsa Charretier titled November, similarly features a meditation on violence in fiction and how it impacts the lives of victims and bystanders and perpetrators alike.
Fraction and DeConnick are comic book writers who bring a rock-star energy to their work and presentation. I expect their presentation of this film to be funny, surprising, and insightful — just like their work. Get tickets now, before they sell out.
This morning, the folks behind Seattle-based independent audiobook seller Libro.fm revealed their big new idea: a website called Bookstore Link. It's a super-simple way to share links for people to easily buy specific titles from their local independent bookstores. First you enter the title you'd like to share, and then, if you'd like, you can choose the independent bookstore you'd like to link to. The site then creates an easy link to share on social media that makes it easy for folks to buy from an independent bookstore. Libro.fm doesn't take a cut of any of this transaction —?the bookstore makes 100 percent of the sale. It's a simple way to promote your favorite indie bookseller online, and to drive readers away from a certain large online retailer that's currently swallowing the entire world. Here's a (very self-serving) example of what it looks like to link to a particular bookstore, and here's what it looks like when you send people to find an indie bookstore near them. I'll be talking with the creators of Bookstore Link about the making of this service soon; stay tuned for that interview.
Congratulations to the King County Library System, which was just recognized with two Library Journal awards. KCLS was honored as a five-star library system, meaning it excels in six categories ranging from the quality of its collections to the strength of its wifi, and the Tukwila branch of KCLS was honored as a Landmark Library designed to “meet today’s challenges and create tomorrow’s opportunities.”
Zora, a blog celebrating women writers of color, just released "The Zora Canon," which they describe as "our list of the 100 greatest books ever written by African American women." Yes, the books you're thinking of are on this list, but I guarantee you haven't heard of all of them. Check it out.
Here's a very good cartoon about JK Rowling officially becoming a Problematic Author.
And speaking of Problematic Authors, I was horrified to learn that Isaac Asimov was a very public — proud, even — serial groper of women:
Asimov was open about his practices: “I kiss each young woman who wants an autograph and have found, to my delight, that they tend to cooperate enthusiastically in that particular activity.” He defended himself by saying that he was universally seen as “harmless,” and the implication that it was all just an act culminated in his satirical book The Sensuous Dirty Old Man (1971), in which he wrote, “The question then is not whether or not a girl should be touched. The question is merely where, when, and how she should be touched.”
Back in December, I interviewed sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer onstage at Elliott Bay Book Company to celebrate the release of his new novel, Dead Astronauts. VanderMeer is perhaps best known as the author of the Southern Reach Trilogy, the first book of which was adapted into the film Annihilation, and he's at the forefront of science fiction right now. He writes books that are environmentally minded and weird and resistant to straightforward narrative — Dead Astronauts, for instance, is a story that involves time travel and weird interdimensional foxes and parallel universes and a giant corporation that's eating everything. VanderMeer's writing voice is so sharp and unafraid and prickly that you might wonder if he would be chilly or impersonal. In person, though, he's a delightful, forthcoming man who isn't afraid to speak his opinions but is endlessly generous with his fans. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation.
I was blown away by Dead Astronauts, and I love that you seem to break every single rule in every single how-to-write guide. First, I want to talk to you about the way that you introduced the characters in this book. I know there's nothing an author enjoys more than hearing someone else read their words aloud, so here you go:
...a tall black woman of indeterminate age named Grayson. She had no hair on her head because she liked velocity...Chen was a heavyset man, from a country that was just a word now, with as much meaning as a soundless scream, or the place Grayson came from, which didn't exist anymore either. Moss remained stubbornly uncommitted — to origin, to gender, to genes, went by "she" this time but not others.
You introduced each of these characters by describing what they don't have, so they each come out of negative space. We only learn what they're not. I kept reading the passage over and over again because I haven't seen anything quite like that. I love the way you did it, but I'm still not even sure if it's technically possible to introduce characters in that way in a book.
Well, I hope it is.
I think that it speaks to the fact that they literally have nothing. They have nothing but their mission at this point. They've become the mission, and so you can only describe them by, in a sense, what they were before but are not anymore, or where they came from — places that don't exist anymore. And so they're both completely cut off and yet completely unified, and who they are is in a way each other.
There is more description, later, of them. But it's true that I like to discover characters over time. I don't like to frontload a lot of information. I want to just give you enough to rope you in. I also think about what the characters themselves, if they were speaking to you, would divulge and not divulge, and I try to be truthful to that.
A lot of this book comes from a nonhuman perspective. And I've seen in interviews that you've admitted that writing from the perspective of an animal is not really possible because you have a human brain. If you're setting out to do something that you know is not possible, does it feel like failing every time? Are you comfortable with the way that it turned out in the book?
Early on, I found Angela Carter and just fell in love with all of her work. And I remember something she said, which was just simply that she always wanted her reach to exceed her grasp, and she didn't care if she fell on her face. That's something I think about every time I write, and it applies specifically to non-human perspectives.
And there's so much that's harmful about stereotypes of animals in pop culture and elsewhere, so I long ago lost the fear of doing more harm, because there's so much harm that's being done already.
But also, usually there's some human interference in the animals whose minds I'm inhabiting. So it's mostly, like, biotech; even the fox had been altered by humans. I feel like that gives me the permission to enter into that mind, and then I just have to find the thing that's personal to me.
So, for example, the fox expresses a lot of views I don't believe in because I'm not a fox. But the anger that the fox feels is something that I feel very purely, and so that allows me the entry point that's human —?but then also something that's not human.
If I were to just do a fox's story from its own point of view it would be a 5000-page novel of smells, because that's what foxes rely on. Then you would have to interpret what was going on in the novel just based on the smells that were in the book.
[Someone in the audience shouts "DO IT," and the room breaks out in laughter.]
That's why there are different forms in this book — I started out as a poet and I returned to that a little bit with some of the prose poetry and some of the lyricism. The other thing is that I wanted to be more didactic in certain sections, and the only way to do that was to also be more lyrical at the same time to overcoat it, so it wasn't just writing an essay. I didn't want to just convey information. Information is not a novel.
That's why there's so many different forms in there, is the attempt to do this thing that's impossible, but do some facsimile of it in a way that's honest.
There's a lot of play in the book. It didn't feel showy to me, like some authors who I will not name onstage but will happily name after the reading if you want. Did you feel as though it was breaking the form of a novel at any point? Did you ever have to pull yourself back?
That's a really good question. I was very formally experimental in my early work and I think it served a purpose there, because I was really writing about history. And so the fact that it was formal and not always tied to the emotional lives of the characters made sense.
But ever since, I've tried to make the experiments more and more invisible. So the Southern Reach Trilogy has a lot of experiments that are invisible — for example, a lot of dialogue from Annihilation is repurposed in the scenes that are in the corridors of the Southern Reach — incidental conversation, things like that. There's ways I'm literally trying to use mesmerist tricks in Authority, for example, to hold a reader in a place so they feel uncomfortable but they don't know why.
There was a version of [Dead Astronauts] that was much more experimental. The fish point of view swam underneath two of the other sections, but there was no way to format it where it just didn't feel like a footnote. I did not want that thing where you're going back and forth on the page; I felt like that would be death in a novel where it's already fairly strange and breaking some convention. So FSG [Dead Astronauts publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux] had to retype the entire novel because they had already done it that way, and I would just like to thank FSG for doing that. It was excruciating for them, and I will forever feel guilty. I was trying very hard to make the flow of it and the sequencing of it such that it felt less experimental than it was so that the reader could get into it. Because I really want the reader to be immersed in it, not to be noticing what the experiments are.
In an interview with the Paris Review, you said, and I quote, "I always go back to structure. I think more and more of structure as the scaffolding a writer needs in their mind to write a story or novel." Your writing feels very intentional, but it doesn't feel to me like you're starting out with a structure every time. In Dead Astronauts, for instance, it doesn't feel like you started out with a strict plan. I was wondering if you could just talk about whether you keep to the structure in your head or if it evolves, because you seem like a very organic writer to me.
Well, that's why I call it scaffolding. I start out writing a story or a novel because I have this intense image in my head that has some resonance. It's not symbolic in a Freudian way — I think that's a dead end because it means only one thing — but it's something that resonates and is connected to a character.
And then I have some sense of an ending, and then some scaffolding of structure comes around it, and it may not even be the structure that's actually, finally, the novel. Like for Acceptance, I imagined the structure as as a five-pointed star. In the middle of the star is the biologist's point of view and everything spokes off from that, but if you diagrammed the novel, the actual structure is not that. That is just simply a structure in my head that allowed me to write the novel.
[With Dead Astronauts,] it was a little looser because I felt that there's a remix version of this where you literally just change the order and you have a very different novel, depending on what you encounter first. That liberated me quite substantially in worrying about sequencing. All I had to do was make sure that the structure of each section was correct and then make sure that the order made sense for the effect I wanted to make, while realizing there were all these other wormholes that you could take to read it and have a totally different effect.
You may have missed this over the holiday break, but the Seattle Globalist, a publication devoted to contextualizing Seattle in the larger international community, announced that it had run out of money.
At Crosscut, Marcus Harrison Green writes about what this means for the city's media landscape:
At a time when most newsrooms give lip service to racial diversity while being whiter than a Friends Trivia Night on Vashon Island, writers for the Globalist are 67% people of color and 45% immigrant or first generation American.
There’s no newsroom in the city that comes within Jupiter’s diameter of those numbers.
Most importantly, the Globalist acted as a fertile training ground for emergent journalists of color. Many of those journalists, with only the means provided by a working-class income, found traditional tracks such as journalism school cost-prohibitive. Amassing tens of thousands of dollars of debt for the tenuous prospects of finding a well-paying media gig after graduation didn’t quite pencil out.
If you care about diversity in Seattle journalism, this Friday brings a unique opportunity to support two organizations at once. The newly revived Seattle Association of Black Journalists is hosting an all-ages holiday party at the Redwing Cafe starting at 6 pm, and they're splitting the proceeds with the Globalist.DJ Custom Cutz will be playing all evening, and plant-based light appetizers will be available, along with beer and wine for sale.
Believe me, I'm as frustrated as you are that worthy media outlets have to rely on guilt and shaming to keep the lights on. And I want to be clear: This isn't your fault. Huge economic forces currently beyond our control are making it very hard for media outlets to stay in business. And we will work to do something about that, by and by.
But goddamnit, if you can give anything to help make Seattle's media younger, less white, and more gender-diverse, I hope you'll consider supporting these fine organizations.
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Do?a Mary said, Come. Not Here, help me or even Lo siento,
just Come, and led me to her china cabinet. Turned the key,
as I moped like congealed spaghetti on the couch
inconsolable over my wallet, stolen on a crowded bus,
began extracting each glass, each dish, each vase,
handed me, one by one, the fragile objects. We washed
and dried, assembling them like looted treasure, polished
each shelf with graying rags. She lifted a vase, tall and thin
as a prepubescent girl, and told the story of her husband’s death
ten years earlier. Abel. Her espadrilles shushed across the floor
from sink to cabinet; water sparkled the wedding ring
she still wore. It was long past 2:00 a.m.
when plates were re-stacked, glasses carefully lined,
tiny bells sparkling even the dull overhead light.
Now, I understand this is the purest form of comfort:
not to say I’m sorry or Que lástima, but to take hands, share tasks,
stand beside, be six-year-olds comparing scabs, lost
in color and texture, hands busy in pressing, picking, telling.
Imagine that here, instead of these words, people are reading a chapter from your book. Or, finding out about an upcoming event you want to promote. Or, asking for donations.
Since you're reading this, imagine all the others that were curious too — that's because sponsorships on the Seattle Review of Books work. They are focused, targeted, in that our entire readership is self-selecting, and inexpensive.
Winter and Sprint openings will be launching soon, and we want to make sure we're ready by clearing the deck — so get the last two sponsorships of January at a great price before we launch the next group. Find out how effective the sponsorship is, and why our sponsors come back again and again, whenever they need to reach Seattle's most literate and best-engaged audience.
This is a reading celebrating a new collection of "short stories, poems, essays, and photographs" which pay homage to south Seattle's most beautiful park, Kubota Garden. (It's also Seattle's most underrated park, by the way.) Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
See our Event of the Week column for more details. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
The Seattle Review of Books presents a discussion of a book that just might save your life in the hellscape that will be the year 2020: Jaron Lanier's thin manifesto Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Do you really need Facebook? I mean, really need it? Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
Tara Sim's gender-swapped riff on The Count of Monte Cristo is an adventurous fantasy for young readers. Tonight, she'll be in conversation with fellow YA author Margaret Owen. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
In 1964, a young man finds himself "alone and alienated in a conservative evangelical culture he finds bizarre and repressive." Gazing at the Distant Lights asks two questions: Can he find something better? Can he find love? Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.
James D. Shipman's novel is a thriller that is "based on the true story of General Patton's clandestine unauthorized raid on a World War II POW camp." That Patton! Always getting into hijinx. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 6 pm, free.
Columbia City's library hosts its regular open mic night, which isn't at night at all but rather which happens in the afternoon. Seattle Public Library, Columbia City Branch, 4721 Rainier Ave S, 386-1908, http://spl.org, 2 pm, free.
We at the Seattle Review of Books are huge fans of Seattle poet EJ Koh.
In my review of her debut poetry collection, A Lesser Love, I wrote that her poetry is...
...intensely interested in exploring the complexities of those human interactions: father to daughter, daughter to mother, lover to lover, occupier to occupied and back again. History is a theme in her work. She is interested in the history of nations battling nations (one of her best poems is titled “Korean War,” and it is an attempt to capture all the complexities of a geopolitical conflict onto a single sheet of paper) and in the history shared between people.
Tomorrow night, Koh presents her first memoir in a big party at Elliott Bay Book Company. The Magical Language of Others is a memoir that's informed by letters Koh received from her mother during a time when she was separated from her parents in her teens. At the time, Koh read the letters and didn't think much of them. But as an adult, she was struck by what her mother gave up to keep her in America, to build her a better life. Those letters figure heavily into the memoir, as well as what translation has meant to her.
Koh told me a couple years ago that she's "not super, super fluent in Korean — I can do karaoke, but I’m not super fluent." But she was already talking about language as a way to stay in contact with her parents.
I do translate Korean poetry, and I use the help of my father, who’s been great. My dad gets the literal translation for me. I get to sit next to him and ask him the context because the literal is not enough. I also want to know for him being born at that time — let’s say post-occupation or so — and so during the war, what was going on? What was the pop culture? What did that word mean then, not what does it mean now? So that’s been really great.
This is what it looks like when a literary year kicks off with a bang: Koh's memoir, about the gap between parents and their children, looks to be one of the most promising books of 2020. Can Koh bridge that gap between herself and her parents? Can she find a familiar connection through translation? Really, when you get down to it, can anyone actually forge a true understanding between generations?
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
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](mailto:email@example.com). Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a friend who grew up in rural California, who did not grow up with books, and who had just started reading Of Mice and Men. It was exactly his kind of story, he said, an adventure story about two men, farming, other familiar things.
When we met again he reported on his experience of the ending of the book. I tried to remember the age at which a teacher put Steinbeck in my hands, and how that reading felt. What would it be like to read about George and Lenny for the first time at 50, after a lifetime of work and love and grief?
Talking about sadness and stories and school reminded my friend of a classroom screening of Old Yeller (again, he did not grow up with books), and how he turned around at the critical moment to find the boy behind him crying openly, red-faced, unashamed. How he turned back around quickly, glad his sadness was better hidden.
My friend and I have a common language of sad childhood stories, mostly on the screen on his end, mostly on the page on mine —?Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web. Animals in danger and often dying populate the world of children’s stories, as if to train us for what’s to come.
Grief remains strange, though —?untrainable. As V. S. Naipaul puts it:
We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable.
Stories make us love, and so we grieve for loss in stories. It’s part of the fabric of reading. It is inescapable.
But it’s not! Anne Trubek’s weekly(ish) newsletter is not at all about the best books of 2019, thank goodness, because everything else is —?the best of 2019, the best of the decade, or how in the last decade social media ate us alive and left the carrion remains for Donald Trump to pick over.
Instead, Trubek reflects on what it takes for a small publisher to win at the publishing game, which is, in very brief, doubling down on respect for readers and refusing the lure of Big Publishing tactics.
I have to keep Belt Publishing from falling into becoming ‘like any other publisher’ — which will definitely happen unless we constantly fight against the momentum to do so — so many forces pressure us into making decisions we are only subconsciously aware of, daily, that will render us ‘just like the others’ otherwise. We will fail if we make such decisions, because of the conglomeration of publishing. We will lose if we try to play the same game as the big fish.
Some interesting reflections here on how minimalism became a hipster brand —?a longing for simpler times, a desire for control in a world of overwhelm. Doesn’t all ring true; there’s a difference between minimalism the brand and simple thoughtfulness about what and how much you own. But I’m on board with anything that helps deflate the trend of hipster trends.
On one hand there was the facade of minimalism: its brand and visual appearance. On the other was the unhappiness at the root of it all, caused by a society that tells you more is always better. Every advertisement for a new thing implied that you should dislike what you already had. It took Andersen a long time to understand the lesson: “There was really nothing wrong with our lives at all.”
Kieran Snyder is the CEO and co-founder of of the Seattle-based award-winning augmented writing company Textio (which, full disclosure, makes her my boss). She has a PhD in linguistics from University of Pennsylvania, and has written about language and culture in Fortune, Re/code, Slate, the Washington Post, and, of course, on the Textio blog. Do not challenge her to Boggle or Scrabble, if you are competitive and not preternaturally skilled at those types of word games (it's nearly a lock she'll sweep the board). She always has such great book recommendations on our company's Slack, that I thought hearing what she's been reading would be a great way to welcome in 2020.
I'd be remiss if I didn't note that Textio is a very unique home for word nerds who want to work on amazing language challenges, at the #1 best place to work in Washington State, according to Seattle Business in 2018. We're hiring, if that sounds intriguing to you.
What are you reading now?
I actually just finished it a couple of hours ago. John Hodgman writes about being a minor celebrity who didn't recognize that his moment of TV stardom was passing until it was done. Funny, compassionate, smart. A good way to start the new year.
What did you read last?
Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney.
I read her second book in 2019 (Normal People) and was excited to go back and check out her debut. Coming of age story in contemporary Ireland.This knocked the wind out of me before I even knew I was hit. It is a gentle punch.
What are you reading next?
My brief look makes it feel like a hybrid between a novel and a poem. Women's stories, and especially women of color's stories, in modern London. Jensen [Harris, Textio's co-founder, and Mr. Kieran Snyder] told me I would like it because it was British and looked like it had a lot of adjectives in it. I read a bunch of reviews and can't wait to get started.
Over on our Instagram page, we’re posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson’s Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here’s her wrap-up and statement from December's posts.
At the close of a year publishing post-its chosen by family and friends, I wanted to revisit a few that came close but ended up unseen second choices. There were more, I’ve forgotten so many, I’m remembering one right now I’d have liked to feature but it’s too late, there’s never room for all the moments together. Last January my middle sister left behind a plucky group of also-rans sharing things I love about Seattle — or loved, there’s an ominous past tense hanging around us here — neighborhood stuff, people you run into on lucky days. Tanya at Chu Minh Tofu is unfailingly kind, before I lost my old studio this fall I could go there almost every week, years of kind lunches, the rare kind of place I can sometimes afford to take myself out. She survived cancer the same time as my mom, still asks after her, makes her spontaneous soup gifts. I walk into hugs that make me feel like a sweet-hearted giant, she slips me extra egg rolls and feeds me fake meat and kindness on top of improbable kindness. Looking at the date, I guess I drew this before any of that happened, she’s just that lovely, you can’t help but notice even when your mom isn’t ill. The second post-it is the late-night afterthought conclusion to a conversation with my poet friend Laura, unwinding over pho after our respective Lit Crawl readings that night. She told me a story — this story, I can’t, it’s terrible and wonderful, we laughed and laughed and it’s terrible — about men at night in my neighborhood. I’m wary of drunk straight guys for my own reasons, skirting the bars on walks home, safer on the side streets, trying not to wander my body into someone else’s leaking homophobia. But the THINGS these guys have said to Laura. Things I remember from younger life, things I’m maybe immune from receiving in my shaven-head adulthood, tucked into hoodies and barreling home long-legged, shaking my genders off as I go, so much gender left behind. I forgot we don’t all grow out of being hit on by men, these straight sexual aggressions still advancing everywhere, so casual, nothing reportable. Our nighttime neighborhood worries were each so complete, so overlapping yet distant, mystifyingly targeted to our separate identities as straight and gay, identities these falling down drunk guys shouldn’t even be able to sense. How are they so precise. Walking home after on the quieter main street, bars and bustle in the past, here he was just a few feet to my left, his drastically bare butt the perfect punchline. Glanced over as I passed to see this white guy in a nice button-up and clean khakis, professional-looking... in a quite striking stance. His pants-down disembodied naked bottom perfectly framed, dramatically spotlit by the entrance to a fancy apartment building. The others are close seconds from my Idaho August, things my cousin considered but didn’t go for in the end. I feel my hide-and-seek prowess speaks for itself. I have a real way with this kid, his kid and by that I mean a way which I’ll admit is not totally helpful for her parents at bedtime. My cousin really lingered over the shooting stars, mostly, he said, because of how ridiculous my sister was being that night. I love it for a fleeting closeness. Family time at my grandparents’ old house up by the lake, the three of us after dark my last night of vacation. My sister wanted to watch the meteor showers, I wanted to stay up late talking to my cousin in that spontaneous way that is ruined if you ever actually say you want to talk, it just has to work out. We dragged chairs out to the edge of the yard where it drops off in darkness down to the water, laughed about falling over, did not fall over. At first it seems like nothing’s happening, just the usual stars, but suddenly your sister is announcing proudly every shooting star, it’s so many, a competition ensues, she seems EXTREMELY untrustworthy, how on earth could she be seeing so many. And then you realize you’ve seen one, four... I’m certain it was at least a tie, she was exuberantly smug and disagreed. There may also have been a discussion about whether or not to have children, and some weakly-made arguments for me to reconsider my personal no on drugs. My sister is a pretty sparkling extrovert. My cousin laughed looking at the post-it, we couldn’t remember what she’d said but he laughed again thinking of whatever it was, whatever we did.
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 bracing for 2020 right now in a bomb shelter somewhere; we're proudly re-presenting this column from three years ago.
Some time ago, my local NPR affiliate stopped interviewing authors on a regular basis. They used to do author interviews practically every day, but now they’ll only feature a segment on a book once or twice a week, if I’m lucky.
This happened around the same time that the station stopped featuring as much local content as it used to. And it recently got involved in a very sketchy plan to buy out a smaller NPR affiliate in a situation that is way too distasteful to get into here.
But my main thing is the lack of author interviews. I thought they were a great way to get a ton of perspectives on the air, and they were terrific ads for readings at local bookstores.
So my issue is: how do I make my displeasure known? Do I keep donating to the NPR affiliate just because they’re the best of a bunch of terrible options, or do I stop donating and send them a letter explaining why? Even in their current diminished state, I’d be despondent if they suddenly disappeared off the radio dial because local media is so diminished as it is. How do I get their attention and let them know that they should be interviewing more authors in such a way that I don’t threaten their existence?
Jim, University District
What would your daily commute be like without NPR? Democracy Now! is only an hour long and spiders, while excellent travel companions, are prone to car sickness. If you have the financial flexibility to continue donating, I would encourage you to do so.
Catholics and Mormons tithe, Muslims practice Zakat, atheists have lottery tickets, and agnostics have public libraries and NPR. Much like voting, tithing involves buying into an imperfect system with the fervent hope that someday, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
And having once worked in journalism, I’d bet you five MegaMillions lottery tickets that your local NPR reporters are as frustrated than you (if not more so) with the state of their industry. Their resources are continuously being cut at a time when the city in which they operate is showcasing new, obscene riches every day. Feeling like there’s more popular support for another bar that sells $65 bottles of beer than for public radio, and that you can’t produce your best work without nearly killing yourself for pennies, is unbelievably depressing.
So donate. (If you have time, you could even volunteer.) But as a contributing member, you should also let them know you miss the daily author interviews. The most memorable criticism I ever got came with a small bouquet of flowers and a card that simply read, “You’re wrong.” It was funny, it was kind, and it made me reach out and engage with my critic when I otherwise wouldn’t have.
In the meantime, you’ve got at least one great alternative: This site’s very own Paul Constant is the most thoughtful and thorough author interviewer I’ve ever met (full disclosure: I consider Paul a “friend,” or as I prefer to call him, “human spider”).
Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
You can’t edit a blank page.
This is common advice offered to writers, often credited to Jodi Picoult. It urges you not to give in to the fear of failure, and reminds you that producing something flawed but concrete is better than an unattainable, unshareable dream. Books that never get finished never get read.
There are also times, writers learn, when you have to let a story go. When no matter how much time and effort and sheer brain-wringing sweat you put in, the thing fails to do what it’s supposed to. Maybe the structure is flawed, or the characters infuriatingly inconsistent. You edit and you edit and you edit, you get expert feedback, you read craft manuals and brainstorm and add ten points to your blood pressure just trying to make tiny, incremental nudges of forward progress and yet somehow` despite all that labor the thing just does not want to work. It’s unavoidably, unfixably broken, and only the sunk cost fallacy keeps your nose pressed to the grindstone while other, better ideas beckon.
At such times the right thing is to let the story go and put the work into something else.
I come to bury the Romance Writers of America, not to praise them.
For those of you new to this topic, Twitter has been on fire about this since before Christmas. A timeline of the full series of events has been compiled and is being updated by author Claire Ryan. The details are jaw-dropping—like, secret shadow ethics committee nobody knew about and board members amended bylaws ex post facto so they retroactively had power for things they’d already done kind of jaw-dropping.
But the heart of it is this: RWA went to self-destructive lengths to discipline a woman of color for speaking out against the entrenched racism of its members. The original complaint was brutally, nakedly vindictive when it said that Courtney Milan “cannot be allowed to hold a position of authority, or to use her voice to urge others to follow her lead.” Because a Chinese American author dared to publicly criticize the portrayal of a Chinese heroine in a white author’s book. Over half the board has quit, including the president, numerous committee members have stepped down in protest, and the forums are bristling—half in righteous fury, half with smug pearl-clutchers newly emboldened to talk about ‘mob rule’ and ‘unprofessional conduct.’ Petitions (yes, plural) have gone out for the resignation of the remaining board, particularly the new president (formerly president-elect) and the executive director
I have never in my life seen this many romance authors this collectively furious.
Without a complete sweep of senior staff and the Board of Directors, and an extremely thorough independent audit of process and policy, it is impossible to imagine this organization carrying on except as a bastion of the most insidious kind of white supremacy. There is no safety within these walls.
The rage that sparked when all this broke did not rise up from nowhere. A great many people over the years have made a great many attempts to try and fix RWA’s very evident problems with racism, queerphobia, and other biases. Courtney Milan’s work in particular, both on the board and off, offered hope to a lot of us from various corners of the industry. It felt recently as though things were changing—as though the creaky old ship were finally starting to turn from its accustomed course. We had our first Black and Desi RITA winners not six months ago, after all.
But this fight is decades old. It was being fought in 2005, when RWA sent out a poll asking members if they ought to restrict their definition of “romance” to “one man, one woman”. The RWA President at the time wrote an email to Nora Roberts worried the lesbians would take over RWA. We were fighting it still in 2015, when an editor at an RWA conference flatly stated their romance imprint does not acquire Black or Latinx authors (they send those to race-specific imprints). We fought to bring self-published authors, erotic romance authors, digital authors, authors of color, disabled authors, and queer authors into the membership and leadership. We elected the most diverse Board of Directors in RWA history. We pointed out microaggressions and reported open aggressions, only to have those complaints be mysteriously buried or ignored and left to rot in someone’s inbox.
And every time we cried out that change is needed, that a lack of progress on this subject is a continuance of harm, the people in power tried to lullaby us with the refrain that if you want change, you have to be patient. Patient — while they ask for our time and labor, while they ask us to educate ignorance in spite of itself, and tolerate entrenched dismissal of our humanity. Patient — be civil, be quiet, sit down, don’t use your voice, don’t argue with us, with an unspoken but palpable or else we won’t do anything for you at all.
To judge the sacrifice we make in waiting, we have to ask: what is our time worth?
Romance has astonishingly high generational turnover. You can mark the passage of the years by the loss of institutions: were you there when Dorchester was failing, when Triskelion flamed out, when Ellora’s Cave filed that disastrous lawsuit, when we lost All Romance eBooks and Torquere and Borders and Samhain and Kimani and Less Than Three Press (who bowed out so graciously; I miss them). Amid months-long allegations of nonpayment of royalties, Dreamspinner Press recently put out an oh-so-reassuring announcement that they are absolutely not declaring bankruptcy, no way, no how. And that’s not even getting into the losses of individual people, as memories fade and familiar names are carved into the obituary pages (Judith Krantz and Johanna Lindsey just this year).
I feel like an elder sometimes, bending my face to the flickering light of Twitter’s endless dumpster fire and whispering: “Listen, children, as I tell you the tragedy of Janet Dailey...”
When readers and writers protest the lack of mainstream or scholarly attention to romance novels, we are not simply asking for our egos to be flattered. Libraries and newspapers come with archives more robust than the ephemeral ones of volunteer reviewers and critics. All love to the Browne Pop Culture Library, who are bravely tackling this mountain of work and whose Twitter feed is a delight. But often, trying to find out what happened five or ten or fifteen years ago means following the breadcrumbs of broken links, or being stonewalled by the lack of access to official RWA national or chapter records. We are constantly required to be the stewards of our own history — this on top of our creative work, and the day jobs that are necessary to pay the bills for so many working writers. It would be so nice not to have to fight for the same piece of ground over and over again.
Time, in such a climate, is triply precious.
Which is why it’s so pointedly appalling and frankly enraging to see RWA leadership ask for more of our time—and, not coincidentally, for more of our money—while we languish waiting for them to fix a problem of their own creation. As though we have no option but to capitulate. To bow the head and offer only gratitude for the crumbs they claim will feed us. They honestly think all they have to do is wait us out.
Fuck all of that.
We cannot let stewardship of the past prevent us from tending to our future.
To our glory, romance is fucking resilient. We have stamina. We outlast every rickety shell game they’ve tried to play on us. Bookstores wouldn’t stock category romances, so publishers set up their own mailing lists and turned to drugstores and grocery stores and built a readership. New York kept a lock on print publication, so fresh voices sent out digital books and revolutionized the industry virtually overnight. Amazon is becoming a hive of scum and villainy (both for wage workers and the creatives who fight for a piece of the limited Kindle Unlimited pie) so we’re reconnecting with independent bookstores. When institutions stop being useful, we build other ones—that’s how RWA started in the first place, so perhaps it’s fitting that’s how it ends.
It hurts to lose an organization we’ve sunk so much into over the decades. It hurts to leave and let the bigots think they’ve won, to have to rebuild support networks and infrastructure from scratch. It’s hard. Some of us separated from RWA years ago, others will be newly shocked. Either way, we should let ourselves mourn the loss.
And then we take a breath, and sit down with a fresh page, and start a brand-new story.
Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera (self-published: contemporary f/f):
This holiday novella is the lesbian Latina equivalent of the Great British Bake-Off. I honestly don’t know why I even need to tell you more than that. Get your sweet and sexy high-concept contemporary fix right here!
You would not believe the sheer number of mouth-watering food descriptions a talented author can fit into a novella-length work. I would like to eat every single thing described in these pages. And I would definitely like to read more romances with two women of color, who can both bond over a culture they share, and also talk about their different individual relationships with that culture. Sully and Kiskeya both grew up in the Dominican Republic—they also have a classic grump/sunbeam dynamic, and even the bad-idea sex (not in the practice kitchen, people cook there!) is hot as hell.
If you’ve heard the buzz about American Dreamer and wanted to try the author out, or if f/f is more your thing than m/m, here is the perfect bite-size morsel.
Rule number one: No distractions. “I don’t know if the Baking Challenge’s idea of building rapport is getting drunk with a bunch of fake elves.”
Why did her laugh make me think of flowers? Stupidly, I thought, she should always be wearing a crown of them on her head.
Headliners by Lucy Parker (Carina Press: contemporary m/f):
Very early buzz about this one made me sit down one rainy week and binge all Parker’s other books in anticipation—and I can’t remember the last time I got this sucked in to a contemporary romance series. Sharp dialogue, a close-up view of work—actual work!—in entertainment media, sizzling chemistry, gasp-worthy drama, and at the center of everything a great, warm, welcoming heart.
For the record, I’d definitely recommend reading The Austen Playbook before this one to get the full impact. It’s not going to be a hardship. Both are absolutely stunning.
Nick Davenport and Sabrina Carlton have dueling evening shows in London’s competitive entertainment world. They’ve carped and sniped at each other for years, even before Nick broke the story that devastated Sabrina’s family. It should have landed him the gig they were both competing for—except a hot-mic moment of candor about his new boss has Nick’s reputation as roughed up as Sabrina’s.
Naturally, to punish them both, new boss decrees they’ll be co-hosting Wake Me Up London, a cheery soft-pedaling morning show. Naturally, they’re livid.
Add in fallout from past drama, one horrifyingly creative saboteur, and a lightning-storm’s worth of sexual chemistry, and you’ve got an ideal enemies-to-lovers romp. There’s a fine line to be walked with this trope: too much bitterness, and the romance feels rickety; too little, and the reader grows impatient with the pace of the relationship. Parker’s brilliance is to build both Sabrina and Nick as gloriously, stubbornly professional: they’re exceptional at their job, and would never compromise their performance under any circumstances. It adds edge to their dynamic, as they try to out-best one another, but it also gives us a reason for them to trust one another when they realize someone’s playing silly buggers on the set. And then—oh, the falling mic! The Wibblet! The first time they [redacted]!
It’s enough glow to get you all the way through til spring.
“Are there times,” Sabrina asked, her voice just audible over the maintenance staffer’s hoovering, “when you take stock of where you are and what you’re doing, and wonder how the fuck this happened?” Daily. Never more so than now, as he crouched on the floor of the ugliest studio in the network, unshaven, in need of a shower and coffee, hiding in wait for a meddler whose Scooby-Doo antics were plausibly threatening what remained of his job security. He ought to be fed up to the back teeth, but right at this moment, he was very aware of the lightness in his chest.
Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn (Kensington: contemporary m/f):
Speaking of close-up views of work, here we have the latest entry in the fine romance tradition of Competence Porn. This love story of a lettering artist and a financial numbers analyst is one of the strongest contemporary romances I’ve seen this year.
Meg is supposed to be hand-lettering Reid Sutherland’s wedding program. She’s not supposed to be slipping in secret messages about how she thinks the match is doomed. And Reid’s definitely not supposed to pick up on those, call off the wedding, and one year later show up to ask Meg what the hell she’s up to. It’s an excruciatingly awkward beginning, which makes the richness of the emotional payoff all the more satisfying.
This is the first Kate Clayborn I’ve read. It won’t be the last—this book is utterly captivating, with a voice that leaps forward and then back on itself, like a series of curling loops inked a blank page. Dizzying, in the way of good champagne.
A new year is a blank page, too, and this story has so much to say about blank pages. Planners, agendas, weddings, fresh starts, new relationships, creative blocks, new upheavals in old relationships—what words and pictures and numbers we use to fill the spaces in our lives. To draw connections where once was nothing. Friendships, romances, family, the relationship with one’s own self. It’s a bit like New York, to which this book is very much a love letter: the epic shapes you see from faraway are full of secret details and revelations when you go look up close.
Highly recommended for anyone who has strong opinions about secret codes, typefaces, planners, or pens.
“Meg,” Reid says. “You remember Avery.”
I say nothing. I don’t even nod and smile. I am absolutely shocked; I feel as though I’ve walked into another dimension. In this particular dimension the hemline of your dress is wasted with city street dirt and you can’t remember when you washed your hair last and there’s a high-calorie dessert called a Salty Pimp running down your left hand when you run into—in a city of almost two million people!—the ex-fiancée of the man you’re currently sleeping with.
This dimension is called Absolute Bullshit.
A Delicate Deception by Cat Sebastian (Avon Impulse: historical bi m/bi f):
High on my list of resolutions for 2020 is: read (and write?) more queer m/f romances, both cis and trans and butch and femme and everything around and in between. Bang the drum about people falling in love with people, no matter what gender each one happens to be. Always and forever more bi and pan and queer characters who don’t treat individual human sexual self-discovery like an automatic either/or, in or out, gold-star purity test.
This book stars two anxious, clever, guarded, prickly-but-tender people trying to figure out how to people both separately and together. Amelia Allenby has fled the London social scene lest it literally drive her mad — she has a particular form of anxiety that feels specific and weighty and vivid, and means she spends a great deal of time outdoors. On her walks she begins encountering Sydney Goddard, a railway engineer and builder, whose anxieties take a different form than hers, and whose skills are about finding solutions and overcoming obstacles in the landscape. They’re both grieving, they’re both more than a little self-loathing, and their romance is tender enough to break anyone’s heart.
This book is full of woods and paths and cottages and half-ruined houses being restored. There are multiple adorable dogs, and a snarky ostler, and a child who I read as a light fuck you to the young Adèle from Jane Eyre. It’s a bit wild, just the right amount rambling, and entirely charming. If you’ve read the prior A Duke in Disguise you’ll not only recognize a few characters, but start to see how deeply entwined that earlier book was with London, with the urban streets and houses and shops and people. This is that story’s country cousin: it reads like a breath of fresh spring air.
“Did you hear that there’s a duke living at Pelham Hall?” she asked, striving to make light conversation.
“I don’t want to talk about dukes.” His voice was low, almost a growl. “Bollocks on every last one of them.”
“Are you a radical? What a relief. One doesn’t like to ask, but what if I had kissed a Tory?”
: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Penguin Books: contemporary m/f):
In 1811 the Great Comet blazed across the sky, and people considered it a portent. That year’s champagne vintage was particularly splendid, and the wines resulting came to be called comet vintages: the term implies beauty coming from fear and disaster, something rich and special and unique emerging from a time of turmoil and alarm.
It strikes me that the past year’s romances have been very much like this. It is quite likely we’re living through a Golden Age of romance — though Golden Ages have a way of being identified in hindsight, usually. But after the 2016-2017 years, where it seemed every writer I knew had staggered beneath the neverending blows of events, there has been a sudden, fierce flowering of truly incredible stories, where the hope of the HEA is not nebulous and dreamy, but vital and pulsing and urgent.
Better writers than I have discussed the difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant. We’ve see a lot of ex-pats in romance — Greek tycoons and social-climbing Americans hunting for titled spouses, all those fictional royals — but suddenly major entries in the genre are putting immigrants at center stage. Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Xeni, for example, had a working-class Scotsman living in California, worried about paying off student loans. And the latest from Helen Hoang, whose The Kiss Quotient was one of the runaway illustrated-cover hits of the past few years, gives us M?, a Vietnamese woman working as a hotel maid, who agrees to an arranged marriage because it will get her to America to build a better life for herself and her daughter. Her fiancé is Kh?i, a man whose good looks and financial success hides the deep-seated struggles he faces with as a man on the autism spectrum. They both have old wounds, as romance protagonists do, and things go very, very wrong before they ultimately go right.
This is not a story abut the superiority of the American system. This is a story about American families, new and old, helping one another despite the American system. It is beautiful and absolutely wrenching at times; it is also funny and warm and has some of the best sexual tension you’ll see. Kick-me-in-the-stomach kind of yearning. If you only read one romance this year — though I certainly recommend reading more — this would be an excellent choice.
“Ah, so M? approves. I told you he was handsome,” C? Nga said with a knowing smile.
M? blinked like she was coming out of a trance and handed the picture back to the lady. “Yes, he is.” He’d make a lucky girl even luckier someday, and they’d live a long, lucky life together. She hoped they experienced food poisoning at least once. Nothing life-threatening, of course. Just inconvenient—make that very inconvenient. And mildly painful. Embarrassing, too.
Before I read Kevin Huizenga's comics, I thought that the fiction of interiority was best left for literary fiction. I'd never seen a comic that could convincingly get me inside a character's head the way a good literary monologue could. When you're looking at a comic, after all, you're almost by definition outside the action, outside the characters. You're on the outside looking in.
But Huizenga's comics collected in The River at Night taught me that comics can just as ably take a reader inside the head of a protagonist and show you what they're thinking. In retrospect, it's obvious. Why would prose be particularly great at simulating thoughts when our thoughts are a blend of words and pictures — the very definition of comics?
The River at Night is a collection of comics about a normal middle-aged married man named Glenn Ganges. One day, Glenn drinks too much coffee too late in the day. As a consequence, he can't sleep. He tosses and turns at night, captivated and kept awake up by his restless mind. He recalls recent events, wonders about mortality and music, and tries to fathom the hugeness of geologic time. He barely moves in the whole book.
On the surface, Huizenga's art looks deceptively simple, like Popeye cartoon. But when Glenn's mind begins to wander, Huizenga's knack for illustrating complicated ideas in as few lines as possible becomes clear. Segments in which Glenn becomes swamped in his thoughts, or wanders around his home trying to force his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness, are illustrated in a minimalist style that lands with maximalist effect. Nothing happens in this book, but that's everything.
It's probably not too much of a stretch to guess that Seattle Review of Books readers are more likely than the rest of the population to receive gift certificates to independent bookstores for the holiday seasons. So say you've got all that money to burn at your neighborhood bookstore and you're trying to figure out what to bring home with you. How can you possibly choose?
Good news: all this month, we asked Seattleites who made a splash this year to share their gift recommendations with our readers. Specifically, we gave them the impossible task of choosing one book to give to everyone in Seattle as a holiday gift. It's such a great little list: books from big publishers and small publishers, bestsellers and indie titles, local and national subject matter. We wanted to put them all in one place to help you find a book that's just right for you. Print this one out and bring it with you next time you go shopping:
I would give everyone in Seattle Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino. I loved it so much it's practically a prerequisite for having a conversation with me right now haha. I haven't read anyone who can so intelligently untangle and articulate the feelings of NOW—the performative bleakness of social media, how mainstream "feminism" has been commodified and co-opted into a nothing concept, the ultimate scam of late capitalism, and other ways in which existing in the 21st century feels like a stupid trap. Her essays aren't preachy or prescriptive, just incredibly observant, funny, and well structured.
The book that I think everyone in Seattle — or really, America — should read is These Truths: A History of the United States by historian Jill Lepore, a rollicking history of this country, with all of its contradictions. It’s full of surprising information, such as the history of political polling, which of course has crucial ramifications for our current moment.
But for a holiday gift, I’d choose The Dutch House by the always-incredible Ann Patchett. I mean, who doesn’t love an epic family drama for the holidays?
Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. I was shopping at Elliott Bay for a book that should have lived on the shelf next to this one. It wasn't there, but Tierce fell into my hands. And I won't spoil a perfectly good gift by explaining why I'm giving it to you.
I'd give everyone Tracing the Desire Line by Melissa Matthewson (Split Lip Press). It's an absolutely gorgeous series of linked essays about giving in to the urge to stray in a long-term monogamous relationship. Matthewson lives on a farm on southern Oregon, and in addition to a sharp and honest dissection of her changing marriage, she weaves in observations of the flora and fauna bursting with life around her, glimpses of the small beauties that come with raising children. It's book very rooted in the Pacific Northwest both in its subject and sensibility, the sort of writing I've tried to publish at Cascadia.
Recommending a history book as a holiday gift for every single person in Seattle feels a bit like handing out toothbrushes on Halloween, but I think all Seattleites have something to gain from reading Seattle at 150: Stories of the City through 150 Objects, an approachable, well-curated book that uses documents, photos, and ephemera from the Seattle Municipal Archives to shine a light on decisions that have shaped the city since its incorporation in 1869. Pairing interesting finds from the Archives with short, thoughtful paragraphs about their significance, this book manages to be both an engaging entry point for folks new to exploring Seattle's history and a delightful read for even the most devoted local history nerds. If we want a vibrant "Seattle at 300" in 2169, I believe that having a citizenry with an understanding of where we've been is essential. Give the gift of perspective with this satisfying book!
Thanks to independent audio book service Libro.fm and the huge catalog of audio books available for loan through the Seattle Public Library, audio books are more accessible than ever before. We like to take books out on the town with us, listening to them as we take in Seattle from a pedestrian's-eye perspective. Reading on Your Feet is an occasional column about what happens when we take books for a walk around the region.
What are the books?
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino and The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West. (Full disclosure: Lindy West is a friend of mind and a former coworker and I can't give her an impartial review; luckily, this isn't a review, just an account of listening to her book.)
Where did you walk?
Who reads the books? How's the audio presentation?
Both these books are read by the authors, and they're both pretty great. Tolentino is a clear and straightforward reader of her own work, but I really enjoyed how she couldn't at times contain the emotions behind what she was reading. When she talked, for instance, about internet trolls, the disdain in her voice added an additional weight to the book. Same with Lindy West: when I worked with her at *The Stranger, Lindy would often begin her stories as conversation or rants, thinking her way through aloud before she ever wrote down a single word. That makes audio books a very straightforward medium for her.
What did you think of the books?
I listened to these books one after the other this fall, and while they don't have a lot in common —?Tolentino isn't as funny a writer as Lindy; Lindy doesn't have that precise, New Yorker-y air that Tolentino brings to her work — they do both write long chapters early in their respective books on internet trolls. Specifically, they talk about how aggressive men trolling women on the internet in the early part of this century eventually turned into the despicable alt-right hordes who are now making the world terrible for everyone. These two chapters of these two different books feel almost in conversation with each other, and listening to them reminded me that I was one of the naysayers at the time, arguing that internet trolls should be ignored and not regulated or cut out of the equation entirely. I was wrong, and now the world is poorer because none of us listened to Tolentino and Lindy. Both these books are smart and funny and heartbreaking and fantastic.
How was the walk?
Almost every weekday, I walk by the Veteran's Hospital on Beacon Hill on my way to work. Over the last year, a tent village had built up near the hospital. Many of the residents of the village were veterans who were receiving care at the hospital, and they simply didn't have any place to go. One fall day, though, as I was listening to The Witches Are Coming, I realized: the tents were gone.
The village had been swept by order of Mayor Durkan. Now, whenever I walk past this empty stretch of land, I think about the veterans who used to live in the tents (one tent had a hand-lettered sign on it that read "YES, FEED THE ANIMAL —?ME!") Where are they now? Are they close to the hospital, still? Do they still get the care that they need? Are they someplace where they can feel secure? When will we ever fix this terrible housing crisis that we've created? How long did it take me to realize that the tents these people called home had been gone?
he shows her
his new tattoos: three dots
under his left eye
and in the crease
of his elbow, silky skin
and on his inner wrist:
a scar like a mouth
the blood like spilled ink
(the spilt milk —
palm held to the searing
cast iron pan
greased with bacon,
eggs with fluttery edges thrown
to the door)
three dots like sharp pops
from the intersection
like buttons to press
her fingers to
like little kisses
This week’s sponsor is Bookstore Romance Day. Founded last year by Oregon independent bookseller Billie Bloebaum of Third Street Books, this nationwide event is a day designed to give independent bookstores an opportunity to celebrate Romance fiction—its books, readers, and writers—and to strengthen the relationships between bookstores and the Romance community. Seattle-area participating bookstores included Queen Anne Book Company, Third Place Books, and the Neverending Bookshop.
Though the 2020 celebration isn’t until August 15, booksellers and authors around the country are already fundraising and planning to improve upon last year’s success. You can browse the map of participating stores—or sign up, if you’re a bookseller!—browse merchandise in the shop, or contribute directly at the link. The whole effort is volunteer-coordinated, so anything you can do to help will be most welcome.
And if August feels impossibly distant, there are the quarterly book club discussions to hold you over until summer. February’s picks are When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon and Maria Vale’s The Last Wolf.
Hans Rosling is founderofSwedens Doctors without Borders, and the gigantic UW building in theUniversity District is named after him. This is a discussion of his book, which sees ahopeful future forhumanity so long as we stay focused on facts andlogic and honesty. University Book Store,4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 7 pm, free.
Join the Pike Place Market's collective bookstore for what I believe is the first open mic of the year. Left Bank Books Collective, 92 Pike St, 7:30 pm, free.
Tarryn Fisher is a bestselling novelist whose new novel, The Wives, is about a woman whose husband has two other wives. The wives have never met, until the protagonist decides toinvestigate the other two wives. She finds some uncomfortable truths. Fisher will be in an onstage conversation with Andrea Dunlop. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 6 pm, free.
Roger Fernandes "is a story teller, tribal historian, educator and a member of Lower Elwha Band of the S’Klallam Indians fromthe Port Angeles area of the state of Washington." This afternoon, he'll be doing what he does best. Seattle Public Library, Greenwood Branch, 8016 Greenwood Ave N, http://spl.org, 1:30 pm, free.
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 email@example.com. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.
Because I’m on the receiving line for pitches to this publication, I’m in a constant state of reflection on what “book review” means for the Seattle Review of Books. It’s hard to turn down a pitch, but not nearly as hard as it is to kill a piece once it’s drafted, so getting that initial assessment right is a gift to myself and to the writer.
Others here may disagree (I’ll let you know if there are cries of dissent), but reviews that promise primarily to recommend for or against most often don’t make my cut. I’m interested in what a writer thought or felt about a book, certainly, but I’m more interested in what the book made the writer think or feel about the world, or about books writ large, or about themselves.
Yes, there are many smart, interesting, well-written reviews that assess the quality of a writer or a particular work —?on this site and elsewhere. But for me the bar to acceptance is set much higher when the writer offers to assess rather than to explore.
In this essay, Tom Henry articulates some of the “why” behind this semi-conscious prejudice, and how the culture of too-much-choice leads to a culture of reviewing that is (again, arguably) stripped of what makes reviews worth reading. A book review isn’t a buyer’s guide. It’s an act of examination, of revelation, of conversation with a reader —?just like the books that are its subject. As Henry puts it, speaking of his genre, not ours, “clothing is sterile without stories, community, and things that excite the heart as much as they do the mind.”
Anyway, here’s Tom Henry.
The thing about review culture is that the promise of finding “the best” is never fulfilled. For one, the best doesn’t exist — particularly in fashion, which is subjective. Second, too many people lean on the idea of buying "the best” to abdicate responsibility in developing a sense of taste. But most importantly, the reason why we never find the best is because that gnawing urge that compels us to find it in the first place is never satisfied.
Tim Dowling takes an insider’s look at what it takes to voice an audiobook: hours of lonely, throat-drying, brain-breaking work that drives many authors to their knees. (Bill Bryson: “I can’t help but feel … that I should be able to pronounce the words in my own book.”) Delightfully geeky on process — e.g., how readers track the voices they’ve chosen for different characters —?and art —?e.g., the serendipity of discovering Dobbie in a small, insolent boy on an elevator.
I narrated my own audiobook in 2014, an experience that I described at the time as being akin to an exorcism: three long days in a dark room, tripping through the minefield of my own words. All I could think was: if I’d known I was going to have to say this whole book out loud, I would have written a better one. Or maybe I wouldn’t have written one at all.
Absolutely, quintessentially Oxford-educated English: playwright, screenwriter, actor, and by coincidence (see above) reader of audiobooks for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh offers up selections from his journals over the course of 2019. Here’s what Bennett was thinking on our independence day. So English. So delightful. Also, what better way to avoid having one’s diaries shredded than to publish them in the LRB? Just saying …
4 July. A letter from the Philip Larkin Society, reminding me that I’m an honorary vice-president, which I was unaware of. I’ve never been an enthusiastic member, partly because Larkin wasn’t particularly keen on my stuff or keen on my being keen on his (which I am); Amis (K.) very much of the same mind. It wasn’t this, though, that put me off. What made me dubious about the society was the degree of enthusiasm felt by the members, with all the poetic locations pinpointed and Larkin clasped ever more tightly to the bosom of Hull (along with his sister and his cousins and his aunts). The risk is admittedly slight, but I am fearful of such detailed posthumous scrutiny. I don’t want to be Hullified, though I hope I wouldn’t do what Larkin did and have my diaries shredded when the breath has scarcely left my body.
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 had a mishap involving a wreath and a stocking full of waxy chocolate coins, so we're proudly re-presenting this column from three years ago.
What’s the best way to call out a book liar? There’s this awful woman dating a friend of mine, and we’re all at the same parties, and she says “Oh yes, I loved it!” anytime you ask her if she’s read anything.
Have you read 2666? “Oh yes, I loved it!”
Have you read the Knausgaard? “Oh yes, I loved it!”
Have you read the Voynich manuscript? “Oh yes, I loved it!”
Have you read the secret novel tattooed on Nicolas Cage’s inner thigh? “Oh yes, I loved it!”
Ugh! I wish she’d just say “No, tell me about it” or something. So, I decided next time I see her enough of this being nice shit, I’m going to call her out. You’re mean and seem to not mind making people uncomfortable in public. How do I do this?
Pansy, White Center
I think the better questions are, why do you care if someone else lies about reading books that you’ve read? How does it diminish your pleasure in having read them? If she bugs you so much, why not just avoid asking her about books — or rephrase your questions. Ask her “what are you reading right now?” or follow up with, “what did you love best about Nicolas Cage’s thigh oeuvre?”
I suspect you crave being right for its own sake, and all the better if you have an audience to witness your absolute rightness and her abject wrongness.
I can relate. This week I got into an argument with a coworker about which state has more trees in it – Idaho or Washington. The coworker said Washington, because Idaho is “mostly desert” according to her, and I said, “actually, Idaho is about 12,000 square miles larger and only the southern part of the state is high desert, much like the eastern half of Washington.” I do not like this coworker; she suspects rainbows are chemtrails that turn people gay and once accused the sun of being Mexican for giving her a tan. So when all of our coworkers and the internet agreed that she was probably right – Washington is called the Evergreen State, after all – my first thought was, “I’ll just start a few forest fires and we can resume this discussion next week.”
But being right doesn’t make you a hero and it doesn’t mean you win. Often, people just think you’re an asshole for proving how right you can be at the expense of a national forest or two.
I’d advise you not to confront this woman. However,if you absolutely cannot leave it alone because, like me, you are deeply flawed, here is what you do: the next time you’re at a crowded party and she professes love for a book you suspect she hasn’t read, point directly at her face and start screaming, “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE! LIAR LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE!” If you have a lighter handy and she is willing to stand still, attempt to light her pants on fire until someone physically restrains you. That’ll ensure she never wants to talk books with you again. Meanwhile, everyone else at the party will decide you’re a complete freak instead of a run-of-the-mill asshole, and forgive you more readily for your outburst.
This April, Seattle cartoonist Laura Knetzger published a sci-fi comic called Before & After that consists of nothing more than two people sitting in an apartment, talking. There are no robots or flying cars, but the subject of that book-length conversation is out on the cutting edge of modern science's understanding of intergenerational trauma.
Before & After is a quiet minicomic, but a consequential one. Like the classic sci-fi of the 50s and 60s, Before & After looks at a single technology — in this case, cloning — and imagines the complicated moral situations that could arise by implementing the tech in the real world.
It would be easy to wander into cliches, but that doesn't happen here. Knetzger toys with the tropes of a mad scientist meeting her creation and expositing on her own genius and gently pokes fun at the drama of the situation.
The black-and-white artwork, which features a gray wash throughout that evokes the ambiguity of the scenario, is actorly and appealing. These characters have interior lives and awareness of the unique qualities of their situation. Knetzger briefly illustrates their metaphors with abstract illustrations which help clarify the complexities of the discussion.
Ultimately, Before & After wrestles with the fairly new concept that, as one of the character puts it, "When you make a long-term memory, it has a physical presence in your brain." Memories and thoughts aren't some ephemeral specter. They have weight and consequence in the physical worlds of our bodies. They can't be ignored, or dissolved, or wiped clean. Memory doesn't just persist — it changes us. The madeleine bites back.
The pass was closed: to begin with. There was no doubt about that. The ceaseless rain in the city — just a thirty-minute slide down a serpentine river of a highway — was white-out snow in the midnight mountains. Police trucks crossed the road. Their searing lights, blue and red, painting a disco’s worth of pulse on the powdered trees off the shoulder. Officers in puffy ski parkas, holding orange-coned traffic flashlights, turned cars down the turnabout, onto to the westbound lanes, away from the pass.
Ramon watched a Prius go that way, sliding and spinning its wheels before finding traction and trudging off. Then, more successfully, a Tesla Model 3. What fool tries to best the pass at any time the winter in these kinds of cars? He bought the Jeep so that there was never a question of getting over — he made this trip at least once a month, and never saw it closed like this. Especially on Christmas Eve when so many wanted over the hump.
He pulled up near one of the officers, turned off the music, and rolled down the passenger window — Stella’s collar jangled as she shook off sleep and hopped from the back into the passenger seat, her black-lab tail whipping bruises into Ramon’s arm. She sniffed the piercing alpine air.
“She’s friendly,” Ramon cried out to an officer, approaching with a bit of hesitation. A hand got pulled out of an oversized glove, and yanked down a balaclava to reveal a smile. The officer pressed her hand across the threshold of the window, and Stella gave it a cursory sniff, before leaning up to lick the officer’s face.
“Harsh night to pull this duty,” Ramon said. “Hope you’re getting holiday pay.”
“What a sweet girl,” said the officer, scratching Stella around the collar, and, Ramon noted, leaning in a bit to look around the front seats of the car.
“We really need to get over,” said Ramon.
“Funny, I keep hearing that,” said the officer. “But that isn’t going to happen.”
“I’ve seen it worse than this,” said Ramon. “I’ve got chains.”
“Five wrecks tonight, already. It’s like a Zamboni came through before the snow hit. It’s a solid sheet on the road up above.”
“Damn,” said Ramon.
“Best to turn around.”
“That is not really a viable option for me,” Ramon said.
“Well, like they say at the lodge, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” She gave Stella an appropriately rough scratch on the head.
The police trucks had enough clearance between them that he could drive through. They probably wouldn’t give chase, they had to stay behind and make sure no one else was idiotic enough to try it. But, they would phone his plates ahead — there’d be someone waiting for him on the drive down.
“All right. Thanks, officer,” he said.
She made a kissy face at Stella, then pulled the mask back up before turning away. Ramon rolled up the window and, waving, went the way the police directed.
Stella, sensing the moment of excitement was over, looked to Ramon. He motioned with his head to the back, and she lazed over, into the soft bed he liked to put out for her when they drove.
He pulled onto the access road about a half-mile down from the turnabout. He could take it around Chorus Hill to where it intercepted Nicholas Pass, the one the higher capacity freeway replaced so many years back.
Sometimes, Ramon liked to drive that way on nice Summer days when he had a bit extra time to kill. It was gorgeous — a classic two-lane highway that switchbacked its way up and down, hugging sheer cliffs that rock-falled their way into evergreen valleys. Made him feel like Cary Grant driving through a Hitchcock film in a white convertible.
Almost nobody drove Nicholas Pass in the winter, so the police won’t be blocking it. In any car other than the Jeep, he wouldn’t think of it. But, going slow, he could make it. Might add two or three hours onto the drive at the pace he imagined, but he’d make it, all the same.
The snowfall was steady enough that the high beams did more damage than good, but the foglight helped, and the road here was lined with tall trees, so it was easy to keep to the gully.
He had the music low, but then switched it off to better concentrate on the road. A few times, he felt a bit of drift or slip, but it was nothing the chains couldn’t handle.
It was almost peaceful, no other lights, no other people, no other cars, just him, a little pregnant Mary on the way to find an inn. He started singing Christmas carols to Stella, and she howled once-or-twice to join him.
They passed through Luckton, which was literally a gas station and the Luckton Diner, established 1943. The diner had holiday lights strung around the outside, but was otherwise dark and obviously closed, as was the gas station.
Around a few bends, the road went more-or-less straight for a ten miles or so, at the end of the stretch it joined the Nicholas Pass highway for the start of the climb. Taking advantage of the lack of curves, Ramon put the pedal down and gained good speed.
The snow let up, and he flicked on the brights, the high beams showing a corridor of trees, standing tall around him, laden with white powder, slumping under the weight of their burden.
A ways past Luckton, in a slight downward grade, he saw the figure in the road. At first, he thought it was some trick of the light, and then perhaps a snowman or some kid’s prank. He slowed the Jeep, controlling his skid, and avoided the figure. He passed it, sliding, shuddering as the car worked to stop, and saw it was a man. A flash of eyes, gray hair, lines on his face, mustache. Old. Steady as hell, he didn’t even flinch. The Jeep shuddered and halted about ten yards past the figure.
“Stay,” he said to Stella, and he opened the door and stepped out into a foot or more of snow on the road. The cold overwhelmed his senses immediately.
“Hey!” he yelled at the man, who was turned towards him.
“Hi,” the man said. Ramon couldn’t make him out in the dark, but he could see the man’s breath rising above him like he were smoking. There was no other sound but the engine, and the voices.
“I almost hit you,” said Ramon. There was nothing, here. No driveway, no lights in the trees. He wasn’t by some estate, or home. Where the hell had the man come from?
“I see that.”
“You drunk or something?” The cold was biting Ramon’s hands.
“No,” said the man.
“What the hell are you even doing?”
“Well,” said that man. “That’s a fair question.”
“Jesus, it’s cold. Come get in the car and let’s talk there.”
Ramon climbed back in. Stella was on her feet, watching. The old man crossed behind the car, Ramon could see the red brake lights splashing up his torso. The passenger door opened, and the man started to get in.
Stella growled, low and light. The man stopped, half-in, half-out, and looked back at her. He was even older than Ramon thought, Eighty, maybe? Gaunt, long face. Looked like he came from the desert, maybe a cowboy or something.
“Easy,” said Ramon to Stella, and she licked her chops and whined, but did as she was told.
The man sat all the way in the chair and closed the door.
“It’s warm in here,” the man said.
“You were standing in the middle of a pitch-black road on a snowy Christmas Eve.”
“I was,” said the man. “You caught me.”
“Uh, okay,” said Ramon. Was this man a runaway? A patient somewhere? Was he suffering from some kind of dementia?
“Where’s your home?” Asked Ramon. “Do you need me to take you home?”
“I live in the city,” said the man. “I haven’t been up here years. Many, many years.”
“You know where you are?”
“I know exactly where I am.”
“How did you get here?”
“Now, that part’s a little hazier.”
The man seemed confused. “Say, I think I’m gonna double-back to Luckton, and we can call somebody, right? I think that’s the best plan.”
“Fine,” said the man. He had a big wool coat on, smelled like wet sheep. He stripped thick leather gloves off, yellow working gloves, and held his fingers by the heat vents.
Ramon turned the car around. Where the man had been standing, he saw a little flurry of footsteps, but none leading to them or away from them. He pulled out, and saw the Jeep’s tracks, heading to him, his past self going in the opposite way.
“What’s your name?” He asked the man.
“Dallas,” the man said. “Call me Dallas.”
“That where you from, originally?” Asked Ramon.
“Near enough,” said Dallas.
“How long were you waiting in that road for someone to just come along?”
“Long enough,” said Dallas.
“Do a lot of public speaking, do you?” Said Ramon.
“I’m sorry?” Said Dallas.
“Just not the chatty type, is what I’m saying.”
“Ah,” said the man. “No. Nobody’s every accused me of being chatty.”
“How about storytelling? You got a story, like what the hell you were in that road?”
Ramon had asked the question staring out the windshield, but when the man didn’t respond, Ramon glanced over. Dallas was turned, looking full at him. A kind of appraising look.
“You believe in fate?” Dallas asked.
“Not really,” said Ramon.
“You got any food?” asked the man.
“Sure,” said Ramon. “What does that have to do with fate?”
“Nothing, I’m just hungry,” said that man. “I tell stories better with food in my belly.”
“Behind you, in the cooler.”
“Your dog doesn’t like me,” said Dallas.
“Nothing personal,” said Ramon. “She doesn’t like anybody that freaks me out.”
“I just mean I don’t want to reach back and startle her.”
“Sure, fine,” Ramon said. He pulled the Jeep to a stop, and reached back. Stella sniffed his hand, and nudged him. He opened the cooler, and pulled out a roast beef sandwich he packed up for when he got hungry. He also grabbed his thermos from the well behind the seat. Handed both to Dallas.
“Hot cider in there,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Dallas. He unwrapped the sandwich from the wax bag, and started eating.
Ramon gave the Jeep some gas. The tires spun, but then caught. Watching the road, the snow swirling and soft, the tracks from where he passed before now nearly hidden by new fall. That version of him, hell-bent on getting over the pass, not imagining he would soon be turned around, with a passenger, no less.
Dallas pulled a crust off of one slice of bread, and without glancing back, dangled it between the seats. Ramon saw Stella creep forward, in the rear view, and gingerly take it, retreating to her bed as she gulped it down.
They were quiet, the man eating, until they reached Luckton. Ramon pulled off into the gas station, then checked his phone for service. Nothing. No phone booths anywhere anymore. He put the Jeep in park. Turned off the wipers.
“What am I supposed to do with you?” He said to Dallas.
“Take me to the city, I guess.”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m going the opposite direction.”
“I’m afraid I don’t think that’s wise,” said Dallas, taking the last bite of sandwich. He took the thermos, and poured steaming cider into the plastic lid. “The way is shut.”
“You drive that way, you’ll hit either be blocked by a road covered in avalanche remains, or you’ll get hit by one yourself. Or, you’ll drive off the road, maybe get clocked by a falling rock. You could fall asleep at the wheel, or get snow-blind and go straight on a hairpin right off a cliff. There are four dozen way to die on that pass tonight.”
“Nice of you to care, but I know the pass. I’ll be fine.”
“What about your pup?”
“Guy like you, sure it’s okay to take some chances. But you want to gamble with your pup’s life? That the kind of dog parent you are?”
Stella’s snout, as if she knew she were being talked, came up between them. Dallas made a clicking sound with his mouth, and she looked at him, head turned. She sniffed at him, then looked to Ramon, who gave her a pet.
“How about we just find a place to take you, okay?”
“Sure,” said Dallas. “Sure, that’s a good idea. I’d appreciate a ride back to the city.”
“Dallas, I’m not going to the city.”
“You take me to the city, you can be back here in an hour. Drive over the pass, if you feel like you can make it. I won’t be in the road again to stop you, you can be pretty sure about that.”
“No offense, pal, but when when did you become my problem? I got enough of my own problems without being responsible for some old timer who just appears randomly in the middle of some dark road, okay?”
Dallas nodded, listening. “Well, to be fair, I don’t think it was so very random.”
“What, are you the ghost of some guy who died on the pass, and have come back to warn me off or something?”
“Like Corker Prine, you mean?” Said Dallas.
“Is that a name?
“Yeah. He was the son of industry, Prine Lumber?”
“Corker was just about twenty-two or so, and he wanted to be with his fiancee and her family for Christmas. He was driving this very road, 90 years ago tonight. He was like you, thought he could make it over the pass during a snow storm. They didn’t find him until the Spring thaw, at the bottom of a ravine. Drove right through the guard rail.”
Stella began to sniff in earnest at Dallas’ coat arm, luxuriating in it, taking her time.
“So, Dallas, are you Corker Prine?”
“Oh hell, I’m no ghost. But Corker was the first to die in the snow on Nicholas Pass since the old wagon train days. Some say he haunts it to this day. Depending on your version of the story, he either comes out to warn fellow foolish travelers, or jumps out to scare them so they join him in death. Some say the reason he got knocked off the road was an avalanche caused by some of the patches his Daddy’s company left up the hill when they cleared it of timber. Those folks say Corker got what was due to him.”
Something drew Ramon’s eye. A light on a string at the diner flickered, then popped out. The rest of the strand after it went, too. It sent a shiver down Ramon’s spine.
Ramon put on the wipers, put the Jeep in gear, and started driving out towards Nicholas Pass.
“Sorry, Dallas. I gotta get over the pass tonight. I’ll find someone to take care of you when we get where we’re going. Get you on a plane or bus back to the city.”
“Be much easier if you just took me back to the city.”
“Be a lot easier for me if you weren’t in my car.” Ramon gunned it, and the Jeep drifted before catching. Ramon tried to keep in the path of the first time drove this way tonight, the tracks coming back at him again. Ghosts of two previous Ramon’s driving this godforsaken road.
“Look, kid, I want to be here about as much as you want me here, but for whatever reason, here I am. You want to hear my story? Fine, I’ll tell you. I read Dickens tonight, like I’ve been doing every Christmas Eve since I was a kid. I go to bed. I have a dream some old friend comes and visits me, shows me some crap from my past when I was a nicer man. Then, I get told to wait for the ghost of Christmas Present, and next thing I know I’m standing on a dark road in the middle of the night. I hear an engine, and then see lights cresting the hill, and there you were, right on me.”
Ramon laughed, a kind of bitter sound. “I thought you said it wasn’t a ghost story.”
“Oh no,” said Dallas. “I said I wasn’t a ghost. This is definitely a ghost story.” Dallas patted his knee, and Stella did her best to climb into his lap, putting her torso and front legs onto him.
“How is that?”
“Used to be an old ski resort off Luckton. I worked it in the 50s for years. One Christmas Eve was so rainy we all got sent home. I decided to drive over Nicholas Pass to surprise my Mama.
“I get near the peak, and there, standing in the middle of the road is a man. Just like when you saw me, except he was on the pass, right at that hairpin corner before the peak. I pulled to a stop, nothing else to do, and was about to get out of my car to talk to him like you done to me, when he disappeared. Poof, just gone.
“And a moment later, a shelf of snow fell on the road, right there in front of me. Right where I shoulda been. I would have been buried, or pushed off the road. I saw my death right there. But for that man standing there, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”
“And you think that was Corker Prine?” said Ramon.
“Don’t know who else it could’ve been.” said Dallas
“You think he’s a benevolent kind of ghost? Come back to help people from getting killed on the pass?”
Dallas shrugged. “What do I know? I’m just telling you what I saw.”
“So, if you hadn’t gotten in front of my Jeep, I would have made it fine over the hill. Or, old Corker would have appeared to me and kept me safe.”
They were almost to where Ramon had first seen Dallas in the road.
“Do me a favor and stop the car,” Dallas said.
“Just let me out.”
Ramon laughed. “I’m not gonna let you out in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm.”
“Let me out, I’ll be fine. I just know I’m not supposed to go over that pass. You gonna do it, that’s between you and your pup here. None of my business anymore. I tried to get you to stop and you said no. Fine. I’m not gonna be a party to it anymore. Your funeral.”
“Suits me,” Ramon said. He began to slow down.
“I’m gonna take your thermos with me. You make good cider. It’ll keep me warm.”
“Fine,” said Ramon. The car came to a stop.
Dallas gave Stella few good pets. “You try to convince him, now,” he said.
He opened the door and stepped out. Walked around the back of the Jeep, the brake lights splashing him red, like before, then he walked to about the spot he originally was standing when Ramon found him.
Ramon could see Dallas’ breath, again like smoke, rising from him in great plumes. He was a silhouette against the falling snow.
Stella whined. Ramon motioned with his head, and she got back in her seat, but whined again.
“You know what’ll happen if we don’t make it in time for opening presents,” Ramon said. He turned and looked at her. The Jeep idled. The hot air from the vents shushed. She looked right back at him, impatient, eyebrows pursed. Obviously of a set opinion. She yelped, annoyed.
“Fine,” he said. "Fine. You win. Stay.” Ramon opened the door and stepped out into the cold.
“Hey!” He called out to Dallas. But Dallas was not where he was a moment ago. Ramon ran over, but Dallas’ footsteps lead from the Jeep to a circle of indented snow in the middle of the road, no new tracks leading away from it, just a small circle where he had been standing.
Ramon looked around. “Dallas!” He cried out, but there was nothing. Just snow, falling from above, late on Christmas Eve. Just his own breath, making clouds as he exhaled. “Dallas?”
The engine of the car purred, exhaust bluming from the tailpipe. It cast red behind it from the brake lights, staining the snow. Before the Jeep, the headlights illuminated a long cooridor of tall-standing trees, and a cut valley of road between them, frosted in untouched snow. That way, Nicholas Pass.
But the way was shut. The pass was closed. Nothing could be done about it tonight. There was no doubt about that. It was Christmas Eve in the mountains, and somewhere behind him and somewhere in front of him, there was a line in the sky: above it, powder white. Below it, an earth soaked with hard falling rain.
A door opened into her body,
a cavern, pinpricks like electric wasps.
Her fingers dimmed
like fireflies drained of light.
So this is someone’s work, she thought,
the dimpled spider and the white heal-all.
Her heart waned in the cave.
A fox crept to the mouth, lowered his head.
Wind shivered through her gown.
Where is he going? she asked.
Where is the spider? At night
flowers closed like ghosts on their stems,
moth wings ruined by fingers. Voices floated
from the hall, lungs filled and emptied,
alveoli like paintbrush bracts,
like tips of lit torches.
We love this week's sponsor, Seattle City of Literature, the organization responsible for Seattle's designation as a UNESCO City of Literature.
They've just released a great resource: the Community Catalogue. It's a compendium of the best of Seattle's literary culture: bookstores, libraries, professional organizations, publishers, educational centers, conferences/festivals/fairs, residencies, nonprofits, and many more. Check it out, or read more on our sponsor's page.
And, a side plea from us: consider Seattle City of Literature in your year-end giving. They're a vital resource that is working to make our disparate literary work into the one thing we praise most during the holidays: a community.
Thanks for the sponsorship, Seattle City of Literature! We haven't opened our books for the Winter and Spring yet, but we have a few tantalizing sponsor openings left for the clever and quick to snag before someone else grabs them from under you.
Due to the timing of Christmas and New Year's, this is one of the deadest weeks for literary events over the last few years. If you'd like to get out and immerse yourself into a bookish group, your best bet is to sidle up to a book club. Luckily, there's a great conversation to be had this Friday afternoon at the Greenwood branch of Seattle Public Library. The conversation will revolve around Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, the journalistic account of Elizabeth Holmes and the boondoggle known as Theranos. You can't really find a more appropriate way to close out this year of corruption, outsize profits for a tiny few, and bullshit PR moves than a discussion about one of the largest Silicon Valley scams in history.
Seattle Public Library, Greenwood Branch, 8016 Greenwood Ave N, http://spl.org, 2 pm, free.
To be frank — and why not? —?like the anxiety dreams that persist decades after my last hour in a college classroom, this week, I haven’t done the reading.
I’ve read many things. On the page, on the screen of my new e-reader — a Kobo, because fuck you Jeff Bezos — and while I bought it for its kindness to new areas of darkness in my eyes, it’s now closer and more consistently to hand than even my iPhone.
(Than even my iPhone! Because like all of us, or almost, my very clever phone now fills the interstices of my life, even, to the despair of the SRoB team, to the point of responding to editorial queries while stopped in traffic.)
This is how I read when I was a child. In any moment that the world didn’t absolutely demand my attention, I was in a book. On the schoolbus; under the desk in classrooms; under the blankets at night. Common. But: While walking from one room to another. Between songs in band. Between sentences in conversation.
(Most of my childhood discipline was meant to pull me back to the world beyond the page. So, what the iPhone has done — in my case — is not invade spaces where “real life” used to be, but overturn years of my mother’s careful training, years of learning to bounce the ball back, to pay attention to the people around me, to mirror them and how they move with the world.)
I am home for Christmas, and my grandmother, who is 95, is experiencing a slow loss of mind that’s peeling away the understanding we’ve had of her for decades. In its place, a woman who cared terribly for her family and showed them that by surviving.
Which led to my mother asking her children what it was like to return to a house that you’d grown up in, since she had many, and I and my brothers at most swapped bedrooms for variety.
Which led to asking myself what it is like, since I have never thought of it as returning to a house, but only as returning home.
And answering: a house of stories and the physical memory of the books that held them.
(Something my e-reader, whatever joy it gives me, can never duplicate.)
This is the house where my father read Jack London’s Call of the Wild —?a big, red book without a dust jacket, at an age where I was young enough to be read to but already beginning to correct the errors iI saw over his shoulder. It’s the house of memorizing the wolf song from The Jungle Book and playing at a braver kind of loneliness in the woods in the backyard.
This is the house of The Hobbit; you already know which mass market paperback I’m talking about. It’s the house of reading the same mass market editions of The Lord of the Rings long before I could understand more than the terror of the Black Riders and the glory of the elves.
It’s the house of water-crumpled copies of endless Heinlein and Bradbury, of McIntyre and McCaffrey, of Asprin and Anthony and Pratchett, because at a certain age, an endlessly refilled hot tub brought hours of comfort, and no hour could be spent without a book. There must, in retrospect, have been strict rules about library books in the bath. Or maybe I had better sense than I remember having.
It’s the house I came home to in college with immense copies of Hardy’s poems and slender ones of Bishop’s and Bogan’s. The latter, later, were stained with smoke and a memory of fire and panic, but I could never manage to trade them for fresher copies. I read Bishop even now, when it’s that copy, with the silence of my childhood home at midnight dampening the distractions of the world.
It’s the house I came back to in graduate school empty-handed, during a yearlong period when my mind devoured itself so unrelentingly that even reading was overwhelming.
(You may feel the sting of an hour’s separation from your smartphone. But losing the ability to connect with books is a death. A small one, but a real one.)
This morning, it’s the house where I sit in the daybed my mother made for me, which I look forward to finding at the end of every year, and write this before we go to visit my grandmother again. This year will be marked by the crispness of the ARCs I’ve brought, and the gentle resistance of the e-reader’s buttons.
There’s a bookcase across the room that’s waiting for me today as well. Last summer, my mother and I sat in a humid, dark attic, eyeing a dormant wasp’s next just in case, and went through box after box of books from my childhood and my brothers'. Whatever’s in that bookcase is what I chose, on that hard, hot day, to keep.
It’s not a large case, and the shelves are barely full. Of books, anyway. I expect I may find them full of other things.
Arlene Naganawa is a Seattle-based poet and teaching artist, with three published chapbooks, and many poems published in journals. She's a recipient of the Seattle Arts Comission literary artist award, has been featured on Metro Poetry on Buses, works with Seattle Arts & Lectures as a Writer in the Schools, and is the current Seattle Review of Books Poet in Residence. Arlene is currently working on two two projects funded by Artist Trust's Grants for Artist Projects, and a Seattle Arts and Culture CityArtist grant. One is a series of poems exploring the life of her maternal grandparents and their friend who immigrated to Whitefish, Montana, in 1919, to work on the Great Northern Railroad as laborers, servants, ranch hands, and store owners. The second is a collaboration with several local visual artists, exploring the connection between biology and the creation of organic forms in ceramics and textiles.
What are you reading now?
What did you read last?
What are you reading next?
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 enjoying maybe a little too much nog for the holidays; we're proudly re-presenting this column from three years ago.
Whenever people get angry about e-books, they always talk about how much they love the way books smell. Is this real? The only time I’ve ever smelled a book was when it was sitting in a musty basement for too long.
I’ve always had a decent sense of smell, I thought. I can tell when I forgot to put on deodorant in the morning, and I love new car smell. But of all the pleasures that books bring me, smell is not one of them.
Do books have a smell? What do they smell like?
What have you been doing with your life that you’ve only ever sniffed one book? I bet you’ve sniffed a handful of horrible things repeatedly in your life but you can’t be bothered to pick up a book, close your eyes, and inhale until you run out of lung? I have three books sitting on my desk right now and each smells different: Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils smells crisp, like socks fresh from the dryer; Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space smells sour because I spilled old coffee on it; my 20-year-old copy of Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories smells like spiders in top hats because it is the book I return to the most often and thus have charged my most trusted spiders to watch over it like those somber circus-themed sentinels that guard the Vatican.
There have been scientific research papers written on how the smell of books change as they age. There are posters devoted to the aroma chemistry of them. Our memory is closely tied to our sense of smell, which is why book lovers cherish the scents that emanate from their favorite works, and which is probably why whenever I smell a spider in a top hat, I now have the urge to hug a wooden-legged woman.
If you’re interested in seeing how books smell (har har), ask a handful of friends to bring over a favorite book and a bottle of wine. Cover the labels and blindfold yourself, and your friends can blindly drink and watch in amusement as you sniff out the unique notes of their favorite works.
Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
Things are mightily askew for Carol Jordan and Tony Hill in Val McDermid’s How the Dead Speak (Atlantic). The dynamic duo has been physically torn asunder following the events of 2017’s Insidious Intent: Tony is in prison, and Carol is grappling with the crippling effects of PTSD. Then, Tony’s horrific mother comes calling, corralling Carol into finding a scam artist. Meanwhile, Carol’s Regional Major Incident Team (ReMIT) teammates – including the canny DI Paula McIntyre and the supremely internet-adept Stacey Chen – are on the case when a mass grave is discovered on the grounds of a former convent. McDermid’s witty and assured authorial hand juggles multiple strands of mystery and murder to create a narrative that’s an absolute pleasure to read, chock-full of criminal conundrums as well as compelling characters, both major and minor.
Early in Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep (Knopf) – in the first sentence, in fact – he presents a barely-there clue that transforms what appears to be historical fiction into speculative fiction. Be warned: Harris’ evocative depiction of humanity’s future is not pretty. His post-apocalyptic world has returned England to one of its darkest ages, a pre-industrial landscape of serfdom, rampant consumption – of the tuberculosis kind – and public hangings. Church and State are one, faith has replaced reason, any pursuit of historical knowledge is outlawed, the Inquisition is alive and well, and the common law reads, “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound….” Into this claustrophobic setting rides Christopher Fairfax, a priest, who discovers a treasure-trove of allegedly heretical books and objects, and soon has a suspicious death as well as a crisis of faith on his hands. Harris’ post-disaster world is skillfully and carefully wrought, lending a particularly chilling aspect to his all-too-plausible vision.
In Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré (Viking), Nat, a newly retired British spy and agent runner who has recently returned to England, is brought back into the intelligence fold to whip a languishing London field office into shape. Meanwhile, an encounter at his sports club leads to a chummy, chatty badminton-centered relationship with a young man named Ed, who throws his disgust with both Brexit and Trump into sharp relief during post-game rants. This being a Le Carré novel, of course, there are no spoilers in noting that political machinations, intelligence-directed manipulations, and deceptive actions are the order of the day, as a slate of spooks confer and, inevitably, eye each other up as possible moles. Agent marks another thoroughly engaging and satisfying spy novel from one of the genre’s masters; it is also an energizing and entertaining cri de coeur from a social hero: in October, Le Carré spent his 88th birthday marching for a People’s Vote on a second Brexit referendum.
It doesn’t get much cosier than Christmas in Provence, complete with cassoulets, tasty olives, and a Christmas market with food from Aix-en-Provence’s Sister Cities, including Philly cheesesteaks, English pastries, and German beer. But in M.L. Longworth’s A No?l Killing (Penguin), all is not right in Aix. Judge Antoine Verlaque is feeling inordinately grumpy, and his wife, Marine Bonnet, has a secret playing on her mind. Then, a baffling death occurs during a Christmas carol sing-along at the cathedral, and everything goes just a bit more haywire. Corsican gangsters, a bilingual private school, mysterious business practices, and plenty of husband-and-wife intrigue among various local couples drive the plot, while Longworth happily peppers her seasonal tale with lovely and cheeky references to films such as Manon des Sources and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Kate Bush songs, and the swoon-inducing Bradley Cooper.
Now You See Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt),the latest Edgar Stephens-Max Mephisto mystery, is set against a deeply 60s English backdrop – the Beatles, the new-to-TV Top of the Pops, Bobby Soxers, Mods and Rockers, early days of pro-animal activists, new towns, and the social-class divide. Newly reunited, Stephens and Mephisto join forces once again as detecting partners-in-crime when several young women go missing. But, refreshingly, the dudes have others to reckon with in the form of Emma Holmes-turned-Stephens, now a mother of three and married to Edgar; 19-year-old policewoman Meg Connolly; and newspaper reporter Sam Collins. Women’s changing roles at home and at work, father-daughter relationships, and dark obsessions all play their part in this cunning, atmospheric mystery set in and around Griffiths’ hometown of Brighton.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
Top five places to write?
My garden office. Ok, it’s a shed really but it is surrounded by apple trees and has a sea view. And that’s it. I don’t write when I’m away from home and could never work in a café or on a train. I used to write in an ‘office’ that doubled as a music practice room, work room, and teenage chill-out area. The shed feels like bliss.
Top five favorite authors?
Wilkie Collins. Jane Austen. Alison Lurie. Anne Tyler. P.G. Wodehouse
Top five tunes to write to?
I never listen to music when I’m writing. I like complete silence. When I’m not working, I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen and Italian opera.
Top five hometown spots?
Seattle cartoonist Mita Mahato has always worked in the world between comics and poetry. Her debut collection of paper cut comics, In Between, came out from Plieades Press, one of the more exciting independent poetry publishers.
It's hard to describe, exactly, what defines this conjunction between poetry and comics. They're not just comics with poems published on top of them, or in caption boxes. It's easier to describe them by what they're not: They're less concerned with plot and more concerned with tone and phrasing and perspective.
And they're also deeply interested in the non-human experience. She's written two graceful, beautiful love poems about and for marine life — one full of wonder, one elegiac — that indicate her sympathies may not fall strictly on the human side of the environmental equation. These poetry comics are perfect for that kind of exploration: they're not as word-based as traditional poetry, and so they appeal to our other forms of communication. They put us in a more primal state of mind.
Mahato's latest collection, It's All Over And Other Poems on Animals debuted at Short Run this year. It's perhaps her most traditionally poetic work, and it's also a deeper exploration of her environmental themes. Over is a collection of three short tone poems collected in one tiny package. The poems consist of pages full of repeated phrases with colorful silhouettes of animals behind them.
So, in front of a dolphin silhouette tinged in red, with pink waves emanating from it: "THELASTTIMEISAWYOUTHELASTTIMEISAWYOUTHELASTTIMEISAWYOU"
And over an orca:
In Mahato's neat-but-somewhat-frantic lettering, these repeating words feel like a cross between a mantra and a cry for help. They're a religious experience and a single circling thought and a single-minded, animalistic desire to exist. It's hard to say if Mahato is speaking for the animals, or if she's trying to think like them, to become their translator.
Over is a more experimental work for Mahato. It's as gorgeous an object as any comic she's made, but it's also less accessible than some of her other work. That's just fine, of course; not every poem is intended for mass market appreciation. And the thematic work she's doing in this short conceptual work will likely pay off in huge ways in the future. Her aspirations for the form are more ambitious than perhaps any other comics artist — and poet — in Seattle.
We’re asking people who made a splash in 2019 one question: If you could give everyone in Seattle one book as a gift this holiday season, what book would you choose and why? Our final gift-giver is Emily Nokes, who is the lead singer of Tacocat and music editor at Bust Magazine. There have been three new albums on heavy rotation in our ears all year long year: Lizzo's Cuz I Love You, Carly Rae Jepsen's Dedicated, and Tacocat's This Mess Is a Place. It is a party album for America in 2019, which is to say it's a party album which doesn't try to ignore that things are pretty tough right now. But sometimes you just have to party, right? Do yourself a favor and buy — don't just stream — this remarkable album; you won't regret it.
I would give everyone in Seattle Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino. I loved it so much it's practically a prerequisite for having a conversation with me right now haha. I haven't read anyone who can so intelligently untangle and articulate the feelings of NOW—the performative bleakness of social media, how mainstream "feminism" has been commodified and co-opted into a nothing concept, the ultimate scam of late capitalism, and other ways in which existing in the 21st century feels like a stupid trap. Her essays aren't preachy or prescriptive, just incredibly observant, funny, and well structured.
We’re asking people who made a splash in 2019 one question: Ifyou could give everyone in Seattle one book as a gift thisholiday season, what book would you choose and why? Thismorning's gift-giver is Amada Cruz, who wasannounced as the new Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEOat Seattle Art Museumback in June of this year. Cruz is a huge reader who didn'thesitate when asked to pick a book (or two) to recommend.
The book that I think everyone in Seattle — or really, America —should read isThese Truths: A History of the United Statesby historian Jill Lepore, a rollicking history of this country,with all of its contradictions. It’s full of surprisinginformation, such as the history of political polling, which ofcourse has crucial ramifications for our current moment.
But for a holiday gift, I’d chooseThe Dutch Houseby the always-incredible Ann Patchett. I mean, who doesn’t lovean epic family drama for the holidays?