Don't wait for an engraved invitation

A million thanks to Arundel and Chatwin Books for returning to sponsor the site this week and for tipping us (and you) off to their holiday party, coming up this Friday. As always, the celebration is shaping up to be something special, particularly this year's featured guest: Carl Montford, well-known local wood engraver and extraordinary artist and craftsman.

Montford's prints are on display all month at Arundel's Pioneer Square shop, and you should absolutely stop in and see them (and get some Christmas shopping done while you're there; originals are shockingly affordable). But there's only one night on which you can also meet Montford in person, talk to him about his craft, and hear him play a little music as well. Books, music, art, and wine — don't wait for an invitation; come out this Friday, December 15, and celebrate the season in true Northwest style.

Sponsors like Arundel Books make the Seattle Review of Books possible — and it's part of our commitment to make internet advertising 100% less terrible. We'd love to feature your book, event, or opportunity on the site. Reserve a date now.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from December 11 - December 17

Monday, December 11: African-American Writers' Alliance

Members of the “diverse and dynamic collective of Seattle-area writers of African descent” present new work at this reading. This is a great opportunity to celebrate Seattle-area writers of color and to see what the African-American Writers’ Alliance is up to these days. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, December 12: Navigating Seattle Transit without Losing Your Mind

Town Hall teams up with the Seattle Department of Transportation and TransitCenter to discuss why our traffic is so fucked and how you can help yourself slightly un-fuck the traffic. Hopefully, they’ll also discuss ways to leave your car and get more transit to your neck of the woods in a shorter timeframe, because that’s the only way we’re really going to make a difference around here. Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave, http://townhallseattle.org, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, December 13: Puzzle Club

The good people at Ada’s Technical Books host a monthly club for local logic puzzle fans. On the website, they call the Puzzle Club “a startlingly kind and clever group of people” who join together for “collaborative puzzle solving.” Ada’s Technical Books, 425 15th Ave, 322-1058, http://seattletechnicalbooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, December 14: *theMystery.doc Reading

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

Friday, December 15: Four Seattle Poets

The last author reading at Elliott Bay Book Company for the year of 2017 is a stellar lineup of debut poets. You definitely know Jane Wong, whose Overpour was the first big debut of the year. And frequent readers of the site also know EJ Koh, whose A Lesser Love is a genius collection that spans love and war. Mita Mahato is a paper-cut cartoonist whose first collection, In Between, is a milestone in the small-but-growing field of poetry comics. You might not know Montreux Rotholtz or her debut collection, Unmark, and that’s okay. Every great reading has some element of discovery to it, doesn’t it? Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, December 16: Counting Time Like People Count Stars Launch Party

This event is a documentary and book launch highlighting the poetry of the girls who live at Our Little Roses Orphanage in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Local authors including Luis Rodrigeuz, Lydia Valentine, Tod Marshall, Claudia Castro Luna, and more will read poems from the book. St. Peter’s Episcopal Parish, 1610 S King St, http://stpeterseattle.org, 4 pm, free.

Sunday, December 17: Story Time for Grown Ups

Seattle Public Library celebrity librarian David Wright reads two Christmas-themed stories for adults: John Cheever’s “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor,” and Donald Westlake’s creepy “Nackles.” Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: TheMystery.doc at Elliott Bay Book Company

In the wrong hands, Matthew McIntosh’s second novel, theMystery.doc, could be a murder weapon. The thing is immense — over 1500 pages, a giant blue bludgeon of a book. Once you stop wondering at the sheer size of the thing, your second question is probably: is it any good? And, uh, can you close Instagram and set down your phone long enough to read the damn thing?

You’ll have to trust me when I say that theMystery.doc is surprisingly readable. You might groan when you pick it up and put it in your lap, but you’ll whip through it so quickly that page 100 will arrive before you even know it. And then the rest of the book comes tumbling after.

All of theMystery.doc’s pages are not loaded with text. There’s a lot of blank space, and photographs, and chunks of text broken up into long poems that require the reader to turn pages every few syllables. The rhythm of reading it is a staccato beat, with occasional pauses to refresh. The book simulates the act of trying to read a book in 2017: readers are continually “distracted” with text messages and digital alerts and bizarre images.

theMystery.doc is about a man who wakes up with no idea who he is. He doesn’t know the woman in his bed. He doesn’t know his neighbor’s name. He barely recognizes himself in the mirror. On his computer, there’s an empty document, titled "theMystery.doc." He tries to figure out his identity, and he attempts to unravel the mystery of theMystery.doc. More than just an amnesia thriller, it’s a story of a narrative trying to will itself to life.

This Thursday, McIntosh is making a rare public appearance in Seattle, at Elliott Bay Book Company. Much of the book is set in the greater Seattle area — in Federal Way; on a tour of the thrift stores of the north side, from the Lake City Value Village to the Deseret Industries on Aurora — and so this event has a special meaning to the author and the book. He’ll be showing a short film inspired by theMystery.doc, and then I’ll join him in conversation about his big, ambitious novel that is actively trying to eat the world. This should be a lot of fun.

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

The Sunday Post for December 10, 2017

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.

Libya's Slave Trade Didn't Appear Out of Thin Air

You should read this piece by friend-of-SRoB Rahawa Haile multiple times (as I just have), and you should also trace each link, each video, and each photo in Haile’s footsteps, looking with careful attention to see what she saw. Haile effectively documents the connection between Libya’s slave trade, immigration policies worldwide, and racism. Throughout she drags the reader’s focus back to small moments in her research where she connected with another human’s suffering. It’s deeply unsettling: we’re familiar with how journalists write about terrible things, and we know how to take it — how to digest their words safely. Haile doesn’t write to keep herself safe, or us.

In 2016, several articles spring up about slave auctions in Libya. A year later, video of an auction goes viral. Black men sold for $400. The president of the U.S. calls those who reported the story purveyors of "fake news"; a Libyan broadcaster latches onto those words to discredit the video. African leaders, European heads of state, and the United Nations feign ignorance, but they have known. And we, of the African diaspora, have done our best to tell these stories. What those in power can't name is the way the world has become too much at all times for them.
On Being Queer and Happily Single — Except When I'm Not

Brandon Taylor writes reflectively and eloquently about desire, especially navigating a kind of longing that looks quite different from what anyone else expects.

Sometimes, I say that I want to be with someone who I only have to see three or four times a week, and only to cook meals and go book shopping. I say that I want some flannel-wearing bearded man to descend from a rainy mountain in Washington State or Vermont, who smells like crushed ice and the sharp scent of pine sap, who will read Proust to me in French and drink from enamel mugs beside a firepit with me. That’s what I want. And what my friends say to me is that I want a best friend who dresses like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and I say, yes, probably. But the look in their eyes is rueful pity, that this is not enough.
The Consent of the Ungoverned

As accusations and resignations and firings related to sexual assault, sexual harrassment, and just plain jackass behavior continue to roll out, it's hard to pick a single essay to promote. Right now the internet is doing something the internet does really, really well (yes, those things exist): a multitude of smart, experienced, excellent thinkers and writers are analyzing, arguing, negotiating with themselves and with each other — prodding the rest of us to think harder and not be complacent in our own righteousness and sense of outrage.

This week, Ijeoma Oluo is brilliant and angry and honest, as always, in her response to her hero Al Franken's resignation. The New York Times's breakdown of how Harvey Weinstein used his power and influence to silence women he had irrevocably wronged and the men who might have spoken up for them is chilling. Lucinda Franks, also in the NYT, talks with honesty and weight about revising her perception of her past — it's the other side of the male complaint that "things were different then," a side that hasn't been fully addressed. Jess Zimmerman responds to Claire Dederer's piece on "the Art of Monstrous Men" with one of her own about how gatekeepers not only determine what's good art, but what good art is. Josephine Livingstone argued with Allison Benedikt about what women will have to give up — what cherished fantasies and self-conceptions — if we continue, as we should, to walk through the door that Weinstein's accusers opened for us all.

So it's really a matter of personal taste that Laurie Penny gets top billing this week — Laurie Penny, our resident master of articulating inarticulate-able rage.

We know the world doesn’t work the way most of us want it to. We watch a bunch of badly-fitted suits stuffed with self-satisfied swagger frogmarch our nations down the road to economic calamity and climate destruction, and we try to tell ourselves that we chose this, that we have some sort of control, that there is a thing called democracy that is working more or less as it was designed to. We want to believe that some of this is our fault, because if it isn’t, then maybe we can’t do anything to stop it. This is more or less the experience of being a citizen of a notionally liberal, notionally democratic country these days. It is depressing and scary. And if we ever actually speak about it honestly we can count on being dismissed as crazy or bullied into silence, so it’s easier to swallow our rage, to bear up and make the best of things and try not to start drinking before noon every day. Being as furious as we want feels like it might be fatal, so we try not to be too angry. Or we direct our anger elsewhere. Or we turn it inwards. Or we check out altogether.

Sound familiar? That’s about how most women experience sexuality.

My Twentieth Century Evening — and Other Small Breakthroughs

It’s perfectly fair to wish the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature had gone to a writer who was nothing like Kazuo Ishiguro: a writer less expected, less established, in particular less powerful and privileged. Big prizes have muscle — muscle that could be used to shake the equilibrium of the literary mainstream, to break the vacuum seal and pull different voices into the conversation with a great whoosh of fresh air.

However, for readers who love Ishiguro and his quiet, terrifying sentences, who love Ishiguro and his quietly terrifying books — especially the ones that aren’t suited to a Merchant Ivory film — pfft on reasonable thinking: your man won. Here’s his Nobel Lecture, interesting for its insight into his process (cameo by Tom Waits!), his history, his hopes. I only wish Ishiguro had been, in addressing the imperatives for writers and readers right now, as quietly terrifying as our current political moment deserves.

So here I am, a man in my sixties, rubbing my eyes and trying to discern the outlines, out there in the mist, to this world I didn't suspect even existed until yesterday. Can I, a tired author, from an intellectually tired generation, now find the energy to look at this unfamiliar place? Do I have something left that might help to provide perspective, to bring emotional layers to the arguments, fights and wars that will come as societies struggle to adjust?
Hummingbirds Are Where Intuition Goes to Die

And now! Hummingbirds! Birds’ tongues are straight-up weird. If you pull on a flicker’s tongue, for example, the feathers on the top of their heads stand up. TRUE. (This is both difficult and rude — to the flicker — to test out in daily life, so please don’t.) Here’s another one: We thought we knew how hummingbird tongues work; turns out we were completely wrong. Also their flight style is insane, they can bend their beaks, and there’s absolutely no reason they should be able to thrive in the environments they prefer. Also science. This article by Ed Yong is pure joy.

Rico-Guevara handcrafted artificial flowers with flat glass sides, so he could film the birds’ flickering tongues with high-speed cameras. It took months to build the fake blooms, to perfect the lighting, and to train the birds to visit these strange objects. But eventually, he got what he wanted: perfectly focused footage of a hummingbird tongue, dipping into nectar. At 1,200 frames per second, “you can’t see what’s happening until you check frame by frame,” he says. But at that moment, “I knew that on my movie card was the answer. It was this amazing feeling. I had something that could potentially change what we knew, between my fingers.”

Seattle Writing Prompts: Seattle Central Library

Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.

Also, how are we doing? Are writing prompts useful to you? Could we be doing better? Reach out if you have ideas or feedback. We'd love to hear.

We've written about the library before. In fact, not long ago, I wrote a story about the library and its design, while talking about Safeco Plaza, but, much to my surprise (because, you can forget what you've written about, sometimes), I've never featured the library for this column.

It's the third library to occupy this spot, squared in between Madison and Spring, and 4th and 5th. There once was a grand old Carnagie Library on the spot, built in 1906. It was demolished in 1957, and a new library, in the International Style, was opened in 1960.

The Rem Koolhaus design of the new library was shown in 1999, with our current incarnation opening in 2004. Does the building feel thirteen years old to you? I can remember visiting it, the first time, and it seemed new and fresh. Now, children born the same day it opened its doors are going through puberty, and have never known our city without it.

Sometimes, I visit the library and climb all the way (I never take the elevator) to the topmost floor, to the Betty Jane Narver Reading Room, otherwise known as the finest secular cathedral in the world. When I'm finished, I walk down the spiral. It's so satisfying to step on those rubber mats, the Dewey Decimal classification numbers inlaid in in white Futura bold on a black background.

Then, just slip into a stack at a random place, and look around. You're in the books, and who knows what you might find? It may just be something amazing, something with a story, something you could do to pull off the shelf and lose a little time with Maybe you'll find some stories there?

Today's prompts
  1. Philosophy & theory; international languages: We are unknown to ourselves. These men break up with each other in the library stacks. Arguing quietly, one who was always embarrassed by the simpleness of the other, the second who was always embarrassed by the way the first put on airs. One grabs Thus Spoke Zarathustra and shoves it at the other. "Here, work on becoming an Ubermensch". The second grabs The Gay Science and says "Here, study at this, and go fuck yourself."
  2. Geometry: "Thales of Miletus," she said to her brother. "Who?" — "Thales of Miletus! You don't know about him?" — "Should I?" — "Uh, yeah, dummy. He calculated the heights of the pyramids." — "Uh, so what?" — "He was rich because he predicted the weather and went hard on olives one year." — "Why did you bring me here?" — "We're gonna get a book about geometry!" — "I hate you" — "you won't when I get you into college. You're gonna love Thales of Miletus. He's the bomb."
  3. Mammalia (Mammals): He walked down four aisles, eyes half closed, counting down from one hundred, dragging his finger across the books. While he walked, he counted steps in rounds of four, so that the two patterns of numbers moved in different cycles, one of tens and one of fours. When he reached zero, his finger was resting on a book on the third shelf, but he ended his step on a two, so he went directly down one, and pulled out a book on whales. He looked at the time (3:19pm), and then went for three groups of nineteen pages, and rested his finger on a sentence that told him that the average blue whale penis was seven to ten feet long.
  4. Food & drink: She couldn't find the recipe. Maybe it was because of the boys running crazy. They wouldn't stay downstairs in the children's area, not without her, so she had to bring them up in the stacks. Now they were running circles around the row of shelves, where she stood, looking through the cookbook her grandmother used to keep on her shelf, trying to find that one thing she wanted to make for the holidays, all the while, the boys screamed and ran.
  5. American poetry in English: It was a quest to write a villanelle. It started with a promise to look nothing up on the Internet for the entire month of December. Then, a friend challenged her to a poetry writing contest, and she had one week to deliver a form she had never heard of. Only one way to find out...

The Help Desk: A very Help Desk Christmas

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Do you have a favorite Christmas book?

Timothy, Licton Springs

Dear Timothy,

Yes, I do: David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice. But if you haven't read it, don't bother – listen to Sedaris read Santaland Diaries instead. Back before the internet consumed 90 percent of our collective attention, this was a highly anticipated Christmas tradition in my household. Sedaris is a powerful reader of his own work and my family had to tune in to NPR at just the right time to catch his dry retelling of what it's like to be a Macy's Christmas elf named Crumpet. His story will make you love elves, hate children and pity those who give birth to them.

Kisses,

Cienna

Dear Cienna,

With all the GoFundMes and the Giving Tuesdays, I don’t know what to do with my charitable giving anymore. Do you have any ideas for which literary nonprofits are especially worth my time?

Don, Roosevelt

Dear Don,

I'm thinking of starting a nonprofit that would pay women to run around and give men titty twisters while screaming "REPARATIONS!" But until that gets off the ground, Hugo House is one of my personal favorites; The Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas (formerly 826Seattle) is fantastic; and Seattle7Writers is stacked with great people doing great work.

Kisses,

Cienna

Natalie Diaz

Each week, Christine Larsen creates a new portrait of an author for us. Have any favorites you’d love to see immortalized? Let us know

Thursday, December 7: Poetry Across the Nations: An Indigenous Reading

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Fred Wildlife Refuge, 128 Belmont Ave. E., 322-7030. http://www.hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, free.

Kissing Books: historically speaking

New Column! 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?

So now comes the end of this year of years, where the days have piled up like stones, each new one adding a fresh ounce of dread to the heap. I’m always thinking about time in the winter — thanks to my favorite piece of time-travel fiction, A Christmas Carol — but 2017 has played an extra merry hell with my sense of the daily ebb and flow. So I’m peering at time with double-surly eyebrows this December.

Historical romance is the most obvious place to start talking about how romance novels engage with the concept of time, because being set in the past is their defining feature. You recognize a historical romance because shows you Then rather than Now. And it’s usually at least a hundred years in the past — despite treasured examples like the Fly Me to the Moon series and ’s excellent Tang Dynasty books and this disco romance, by far the bulk of historical romance falls in the long 19th century. There are more than a few overlapping theories about why this happened, keeps happening, and will presumably keep happening for some time to come.

For one, the obvious influence of 19th-century genre originators: Jane Austen and Jane Eyre are both still wildly popular and much imitated. People tend to overlook the fact that Jane Austen was depicting her contemporaries but Brontë set Jane Eyre thirty years in the past. Georgette Heyer came along in the early decades of the twentieth century to finish establishing the Regency romance, and by the twenty-first century the genre’s borders had been widened to encompass the Victorian era. (Possibly because of long family-based series with multiple generations? Bertrice Small and Stephanie Laurens come immediately to mind.) Romance authors often start writing to be part of a conversation — they respond to a book that moved them, or correct a book they think could or should have gone differently. So the setting, once established, gets reinforced by later writers. At some interesting point whole sections of this woven net of texts began to drift away from historical reality and became a shared imaginary world (probably around the time Heyer started inventing her own Regency slang to catch plagiarists).

The existence of this shared world means an author can choose to blithely set aside the realities of 19th-century populations (many fewer dukes, many more black and brown and queer people) and handwave matters of plumbing and dentistry and STI rates. The Regency becomes a sort of fairy tale in historical dress — what readers refer to somewhat scornfully as “wallpaper historicals” (see Eloisa James’ A Kiss at Midnight for a particularly obvious example). Let’s be clear that choosing to leave chamberpots unmentioned in 1820s London is a much more forgiveable omission than leaving black or brown folks out of 1820s London. It’s not the fault of any individual book (or duke), exactly, but the overall pattern is distressing. More understandably, there is the attractive public pomp and performance of aristocratic marriage, which is currently flooding my timeline with engagement photos and delighted anticipation for a new princess bride. Whether you’re royal and titled or merely landed gentry, aristocratic marriage is about preserving property against the passage of time: the whole point is to pass the manor house and its wealth down to your heirs, unaltered.

American-set historicals, it seems to me, especially lately, engage with the past very differently. The chronological borders here are expanding, too — edging back into Hamilton territory and forward into the hedonism of the Roaring Twenties — but most are still set during the latter half of the 1800s. Particularly around the Civil War and the colonization of the American West (origins in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Mitchell, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and, according to this persuasive essay series, Indian captivity narratives). If the majority of British-set historicals keep historical events at a polite distance, American-set historicals use the past very deliberately as a mirror turned back toward the present. (Admittedly, this is at least partly due to my own reader bias as an American.) America in the 19th century was a work in progress in a way England was not and had not been for centuries. The characters aren’t merely heading West, they’re heading here, toward the future; they are creating the towns that will become the cities where the reader presently lives. Southern romances don’t just describe the battles of the Civil War: they are still fighting it — on the one side you have the plantation romances starring white slaveowners that began with Kathleen Woodiwiss and Margaret Mitchell but continue to be published and even unnecessarily, hurtfully reissued; on the other hand you have Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League and Beverly Jenkins’ black heroes and heroines of the Underground Railroad. Are there really readers who can enjoy both equally without some gold-metal mental gymnastics? I remain skeptical.

Which is not to say the American-set historical romance does not have its own particular problems of idealization and erasure. You’ll find plenty of mentions of Native and half-Native American characters in romance over the years, but barely a handful of those have been written by Native authors. And we are currently living through a time where the failures of bootstrapism and capitalism and the wholesale plunder of natural resources are staring us all right in the face — so mining towns and lumber camps and railroad expansion have lost their luster of progress.

And of course, because romance is a multi-headed hydra, all of these generalizations have exceptions. Below I gush about the newest Alyssa Cole, which reaches far back beyond its American setting and into Stoic philosophy; I also review an India-set book with a laboring-class hero that manages to critique the capitalism of the East India Company while avoiding exotifying racist clichés and exploitation of suffering.

See you again in the brand new year. May you give this old one the send-off it deserves.

Recent Romances:

Seared by Suleikha Snyder (self-published: contemporary m/f):

For a moment you couldn’t swing a dead duke around in the romance genre without hitting a stepbrother romance. Some followed in the illustrious footsteps of Clueless, others were more Say It Isn’t So. (Remember Chris Klein?) The mini-trend has passed, as they always do, but thankfully not before Suleikha Snyder got her hands on it. Hotter and more playful than her Bollywood romances, this book walks right up to the comfort line, stops long enough to wink at you, then sashays boldly forward into WTF territory. Whether that’s fantastic or far too much is going to depend entirely on the reader. Naya and Lachlan’s parents married when she was sixteen and he was twenty-one; the youngsters had an instant connection but (importantly for this reader’s comfort) did nothing physical about it. Now a decade has passed, Lachlan’s vicious, controlling father is dead and can’t stand in their way anymore: she’s an international soap opera writer, he’s a billionaire celebrity chef, and they’re both kinky as all get-out. They do it. A lot. Improbable amounts of sex. This book has heard of realism and wants nothing to do with it — every encounter is intense, mind-melting, over-the-top, and damn near perfect. Naya is a submissive but not at all a docile one, and Lock is definitely a dom who needs bossing around every now and again. The arguments are heated. The chemistry is palpable. And the food puns are exquisite.

But his eyes were unchanged, and his mouth still fought smiles like a knockout was imminent.

A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole (Kensington: historical m/f)

Some romances let you escape. This romance will set you free.

Ewan McCall is a Union army interrogator, currently held in a Confederate prison. Marlie Lynch is a free black woman, the unacknowledged daughter of a wealthy white slave owner, who with her white sister brings food to the prisoners (and smuggles information in and out, of course). What begins with small notes scrawled in the margins of ancient philosophy texts flowers into one of the most gorgeous epistolary romances I’ve ever read: Ewan is injured escaping from prison, and Marlie hides him in the Lynch’s attic where she makes healing tonics and salves. They are only feet apart, but the necessity of silence forces them to write to one another rather than converse. This part could have gone on for another thousand pages and I would have treasured every word.

Ewan has leaned on Stoicism to get him through an abusive childhood, but his philosophy of resisting desire is slowly, irresistibly undermined by Marlie’s brilliance and beauty. For her part, Marlie has been betrayed in large and small ways by everyone she ever trusted, and guards her heart with a fierce and furious pride. There is a whole living world inside this book; it feels less like something I read and more like something I inhabited, or devoured, or dreamed. I paused briefly in chapter two to read through Epictetus’ Enchiridion so I could fully appreciate the way the book engaged with his particular strain of Stoic thought — and this was completely the right call, because this romance looks around, rolls up its sleeves, and begins taking the whole world apart. What it means to be a good person, what it means to love someone, what you can and cannot control, how to deal with a personal and political history built on pain and loss — Ewan and Marlie set all these questions to boil, distilling them down to their essences in search of a life pointed toward truth and goodness. And love, though the word only hovers lightly over the text, letting the sheer devotion and bravery of the characters do all the heavy lifting. It is an astonishing, glorious read from which I may never recover.

She should be quiet and unassuming, given the secret she held two flights of stairs away, but apparently her rebellious side had begun to bloom, like a nightshade that unfurls when shrouded in darkness.

A Midnight Feast by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner (self-published: historical m/f)

If you’ve read the other books in the Fly Me to the Moon series — midcentury space race historicals set in a fictionalized NASA, and they’re great — you’ll know Margie Dunsford runs everything socially for the astronaut wives. You’ll also know she and her husband Mitch have only the tattered shadows of passion left for one another. This longish novella, just shy of a full novel, stretches backward and forward in time to show us the Dunsford marriage as it rises, falls, and ultimately rises again. Marriage-in-trouble romances are hard to get right because they have to be more inwardly focused than other romance types: wondering if a partner is The One requires much less introspection than trying to decode What Went Wrong, how much blame falls to either side, and whether anything real can be salvaged. This book is a deep dive into the way two people can grow apart without realizing it, and watching Margie and Mitch as they make and unmake a lifetime’s worth of mistakes is both acutely painful and wonderfully rewarding. All this against a 1960s background of Jell-O molds, cocktails, and crinolines. It’s not the heart-smashing masterpiece that Earth Bound was, but it’s a damn fine book.

It had been like playing a part — but he knew all about that. These days he glided through life. He said the lines and did the work until he couldn’t separate the pretense from reality. Maybe that was the secret: there wasn’t any other, better reality. This was it.

Discovery of Desire by Susanne Lord (Sourcebooks: m/f historical)

The steps for reading this book are as follows. One: Oooh, what a pretty cover! Two: Is that a blurb from Courtney Milan? Three: turn to first page. Four: fall headlong in love with the giant, lumbering diamond-in-the-rough hero and the petite, managing, steely heroine. Seth Mayhew spent years hunting orchids in the jungles of Brazil: now he has come to Bombay to search for his missing sister. His translator meets him at the wharf — but Seth is not the only person he’s waiting for. Turns out the translator has gotten himself engaged to a venture girl (mail-order bride) from England, a poised and pretty problem-solver named Wilhelmina Adams. Minnie, as Seth almost immediately begins calling her, has made the journey with her sister, another venture girl whose fiancé just so happens to be a botanist on the same crew as Seth’s missing sister. There are so few coincidences in romance.

The sense of place here is phenomenal, a tropical port city so vividly rendered that you can all but feel the humid sweat on the back of your neck. The characters, too, are vivid and engaging — Seth’s easy if unpolished charm (as a younger man his sister named him the Worst Flirt in the Midlands) makes for a lovely contrast to Minnie’s formality and directness. The last third of the story returns to London for a bit more angst than was probably required, but this small flaw is more than made up for by the fact that we get a suspenseful orchid auction scene at the climax where all our hero’s hopes for love and happiness rest on one question: how much will these unbelievably rich obsessives pay for their pretty, useless plants?

All these charms aside, this book is an excellent example of how to confront the evils of racism and colonialism while still staying firmly in your lane as a white author. We don’t need a fetishizing setpiece of Brown People Suffering to show how cruel the men of the East India Company are — instead we see how much indifference they wield against our white-but-laboring-class hero and are explicitly invited to extrapolate outward to India and the whole British empire. The Company men’s sense of entitlement is palpable and terrifying, and Seth’s role as an explorer/gatherer for the company lets him reveal how deeply greedy they are as a group: “They take away everything. Anything they can take, they’ll take.” It’s a narrow view onto a vast, complex issue, but it deftly avoids many of the exotifying pitfalls we’ve grimly come to expect from so many India-set historicals. Later scenes of working poverty in London’s lower-class neighborhoods bring this book surprisingly close to a critique of capitalism.

There wasn’t a wrinkle on her skirts or a wayward crease in its folds. And that straight spine was all the sight he had of her — she didn’t fidget and she didn’t turn. Composed, capable, orderly-like. He’d drive a woman like that to Bedlam. But he fell a little bit in love with her anyway.

This Month’s Scrooge of a Heroine

A Christmas Bride by Mary Balogh (Dell: m/f historical):

Like many writers, I often imagine plot as a physical shape: an arc that rises and falls, a set of points in a constellation, a circle coming back around to its starting point. We talk of enemies-to-lovers or marriage of convenience tropes as though they are ready-made vessels waiting to be filled. As though what we pour in there — which is to say, the fluid stuff of character — does not affect the nature of that shape.

If you fill a champagne flute with hemlock, can you still call it a champagne flute?

Plot-wise, A Christmas Bride has the sweet shape of a classic Christmas Regency: Mr. Edgar Downes is a wealthy self-made man whose father is insisting he take a genteel bride before Christmas. He has his pick of docile, well-behaved prospects, but becomes entangled with a woman who is both irresistible and totally unsuitable as a marriage prospect. An unplanned pregnancy compels them to wed, emotions develop and are revealed, a happy ending arrives just when it seems least likely. It’s a shape designed to sparkle, whether you fill it with cheap cider or the most subtle and exquisite blanc de noirs. I’m an experienced reader: I came looking for sparkles. I anticipated a saucy bluestocking or blushing wallflower would prick Edgar’s ego and disturb his comfort. Hell, so do the secondary characters, fresh from their own recent and fertile romances: “The combination of a wedding an an imminent Christmas was enough, it seemed, to transport everyone to great heights of delirious joy.”

Expectation is shattered when we meet the Lady Helena Stapleton, a well-traveled widow of thirty-six. She shows up late to the ball in a red satin gown and a mocking smile, bangs our hero like a drum, and sends him home with nary a cuddle. Her attitude toward her surprise pregnancy is less secret baby and more get this facehugger off of me. She is bitter, brilliant, cynical, sharp-tongued, and, of course, emotionally scarred. Many of the reviews you’ll find mention disliking the heroine — and some of the things she’s done really are terrible. Helena is not a nice person; in fact, she’s the villain in an earlier Balogh book. She is clear-eyed enough to see the shape of the holiday romance crystallizing around her, but stubborn as she is she has to be dragged toward her happy ending under constant cursing protest. She does not want to be dragooned into happiness. She would rather be left alone.

Her presence changes the nature of her story, even though all the plot points came along in the usual order. I’d expected Edgar to be the one transformed by love and seasonal sentiment; instead, we end up with the grand battle of Hemlock Helena Versus the Redemptive Coziness of Christmas: “The great myth lifted ones spirits only to dash them afterward even lower than they had been before. She had feared it this year and sworn to resist it.” She has not been poured into the story like an afterthought — the proper metaphor here is not the champagne in the glass. The image we are looking for is chemistry: we have mixed two elements, and the mixture was beautifully volatile.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The hardest button to button

So as you probably know by now, writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank are publishing a sequel to Watchmen titled Doomsday Clock. I don't really know what to say about the first issue of the book, except it is drenched in nostalgia. It's the kind of book that ten thousand teenage geeks dreamed they'd get to write after they read Watchmen for the first time. Doomsday Clock reads like a cover version of Watchmen, a mimicking of Alan Moore's tone without the intellect to back it up.

At least the art is pretty. Frank is one of the best contemporary superhero artists, though it must be said that his work is changing in an unpleasant way with each passing year. The faces of his characters are getting tighter and more pinched; the poses seem more coiled with every new page. The looseness and excitement of his early work seems to be replaced with a dour and puckered over-rendering, and it's kind of sad to watch. I want to start a GoFundMe to send him on a nice relaxing vacation or something.

DC Comics published a prequel to Doomsday Clock in a Batman/Flash crossover called The Button, which is out in hardcover with a fancy cover that changes when you tilt the book. I enjoyed parts of The Button — writer Tom King's segments of the story, particularly a slow-motion battle between Batman and the ridiculous Flash villain Reverse-Flash, is laid out with King's customary attention to the rhythmic power of comics.

But The Button isn't just a callback to the Watchmen: it also homages the 1980s crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, which suggests that perhaps there's even more of a callback to 1980s nostalgia in DC Comics today than Doomsday Clock lets on. It seems that every single book DC is publishing has to hearken back to its 45-year-old-male readership's childhoods in some form or another.

I can't really recommend either of these books, even though they're definitely appealing to a certain kind of reader. It doesn't really feel like there's anything new here, but unfortunately there are plenty of readers who might take that as a recommendation and not a criticism.

One Year of Reading Through It

Last night marked the one-year anniversary of the Reading Through It Book Club. The anthology we were there to discuss, Tales of Two Americas, was a controversial topic. I didn't think it was especially interesting, but others considered it to be a worthy selection packed with important perspectives. The best pieces in the book — by Karen Russell, Edwidge Danticat, and Chris Offutt — inspired some conversation, but the book club's collective mind kept wandering.

It makes sense that an anniversary meeting should be reflective, and so our conversation was wide-ranging in subject matter. We talked about being tired of waking up to the continual assault of horrible news. We shared our techniques for staying sane. We thought back to some of our favorite and least favorite book club picks (The Righteous Mind was incredibly useful for most of us; Hillbilly Elegy was not.) We discussed what it means that Democrats are wrestling with the legacies of several high-profile sexual harassers, while Republicans are somehow absolving themselves of any responsibility in this age of #MeToo.

People talked a lot about feeling hopeless. And that's to be expected — this first year of Trump's presidency, with Congress and the Supreme Court tilted in his favor, was bound to make us feel powerless. But at the end of this year, as we tilt into 2018 and its midterm elections, we have to shake off that feeling of powerlessness and embrace our own capacity for change.

It's important to remember what matters. Sharing a meme on Facebook probably won't help the political situation at all, for instance. Donating some money to a congressional race in a swing district might very well make a difference. Calling your representative helps. Registering friends and family to vote will definitely create positive change. Remember to allocate time and resources toward positive change, and not just the actions that make us feel good.

Most of all, it's important to keep talking and reading and processing and sharing. I've learned a lot from Reading Through It; the books have educated me about history and culture and inequality and justice, and the book club attendees have taught me about curiosity and humor and open-mindedness. I'm looking forward to the club's second year, in which we'll chart a path forward.

If you haven't yet attended, I hope you'll join us for Reading Through It at any of our future meetings. We meet on the first Wednesday of every month at Third Place Books Seward Park at 7 pm. We'll be discussing Weapons of Math Destruction on January 3rd, and Economics in Wonderland: Robert Reich's Cartoon Guide to a Political World Gone Mad and Mean on February 7th. The featured titles are always 20% off at Third Place in the weeks leading up to the reading.

William Gass, one of the most challenging and brilliant writers of the 20th century, has died, Dalkey Archive reports. I will never understand why Gass's 1995 novel The Tunnel, about Nazism and academia and guilt and procrastination, is not considered one of the major books of our time, alongside its peers like Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow and The Last Samurai.

My introduction to Gass was a hilarious quote from this Paris Review interview, which I'll share with you now:

If someone asks me, “Why do you write?” I can reply by pointing out that it is a very dumb question. Nevertheless, there is an answer. I write because I hate. A lot. Hard. And if someone asks me the inevitable next dumb question, “Why do you write the way you do?” I must answer that I wish to make my hatred acceptable because my hatred is much of me, if not the best part. Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world—every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste. There isn’t very much satisfaction in getting the world to accept and praise you for things that the world is prepared to praise. The world is prepared to praise only shit. One wants to make sure that the complete self, with all its qualities, is not just accepted but approved . . . not just approved—whoopeed.

#MeToo finally starts making a mark in the publishing industry

Paris Review editor and Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein has stepped down amid charges of harassment. “At times in the past, I blurred the personal and the professional in ways that were, I now recognize, disrespectful of my colleagues and our contributors, and that made them feel uncomfortable or demeaned,” the New York Times reports Stein wrote in his resignation letter from the Paris Review.

Meanwhile, author Jennifer Weiner attacked the framing of Stein in the Times story, and rightfully so:

And New Yorker staff writer Alexandra Schwartz just tweeted a link to the Stein story and left this comment:

Hopefully, we'll see more harassers in the publishing and magazine industries lose their power. We've written many times on this site that the publishing industry is primarily made up of women, except for at the very highest posts: editors and publishers and executives still tend to be men, and that affects every other aspect of the industry. It's time to drive the harassers out and replace them all with women.

Book News Roundup: Wrath can be fun!

  • Town Hall Seattle is looking for artists and scholars in residence. But because Town Hall (the building) is being renovated this year and Town Hall (the organization) is branching out into other neighborhoods, they're doing something a little different. Each of the four neighborhoods that Town Hall is using as home bases during their Inside/Out Program — Phinney/Greenwood; University District/Ravenna; Capitol Hill/Central District; Columbia City/Hillman City — will have its own artist in residence. Those residents will then program Town Hall events within their communities, in exchange for a $5000 stipdend. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Submit to Town Hall by December 10th, okay?

  • Penguin childrens' book designer Giusseppe Castellano left the publisher under a cloud after being accused of harassing comedian Charlene Yi, who was pitching projects to the publisher. Castellano then released a statement claiming that Yi's complaints were "false." But Yi brought receipts:

  • Related: if you have experienced harassment in childrens' book publishing, here's a survey that's intended to help "get a handle on the scope of the problem."

  • Don't fuck with Joan Didion, because she will murder you with two words.

  • And Eileen Myles is taking none of your bullshit, either:

Words written in anger, words written in ink

Published December 06, 2017, at 12:00pm

Robert Lashley reviews Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power.

The hot takes said Ta-Nehisi Coates's reporting on the Obama presidency aids and abets white supremacy. Robert Lashley found something different in the words written on the page.

Read this review now

Looking for a holiday gift book? Richard Chiem recommends The Passion According to G.H.

Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our second author is short story writer and novelist Richard Chiem.

I recommend The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector, for that weird strange someone in your life. It's about a maid who accidentally kills a cockroach, and then goes through a stunning and hellish existential dreamscape. Almost every sentence is some kind of dagger, and she reminds me of Kafka but deadlier. Not for all readers, but I dare you watch this interview with her and not pick up all her books right away:

A fairy tale of New York

Published December 05, 2017, at 12:30pm

Paul Constant reviews Anca L. Szilágyi's Daughters of the Air.

Seattle author Anca Szilágyi launches her debut novel at the Sorrento tonight. It's a gritty, realistic fantasy, a fairy tale set in a gutter, and the main character will take up residence in your head.

Read this review now

Natalie Diaz, John Freeman, and a pair of events for you to consider

Yesterday, I told you that Arizona poet Natalie Diaz is in town for a fantastic new series of events celebrating indigenous women writers called Poetry Across the Nations.

What I failed to tell you was that Diaz's first Seattle event this week is tonight at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library. She'll be appearing in conversation with great literary editor John Freeman in a discussion about inequality and invisibilty in modern America. I interviewed Freeman a couple years ago, and I can tell you that he gives brilliant, thoughtful answers. I bet he and Diaz will have one hell of a fascinating conversation.

And while we're talking about Freeman, I hope you'll join me tomorrow night at 7 pm at Third Place Books Seward Park for the final Reading Through It book club of 2017. We'll be discussing Freeman's anthology Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation. It's a book that covers a lot of ground, from poverty to immigration to racism to homelessness. Basically, it's an opportunity to discuss any problem in America today, through the eyes of some of the sharpest writers of our time. Even if you haven't read the whole book, I hope you'll come out and join the book club tomorrow night. It's absolutely free, and the conversation will be hot and heavy.

Relish

It’s summer in Sanger, California,
and there’s a volcano
between my mother’s lips
as she stuffs me
into tiny shoes and a cotton dress.
Ashes powder my pointy bits —
nose, elbows, training bra.

Instead of running in grapevines,
I sit in mahogany pews
at a Methodist church and stare
at the heavily blushed face
of my grandmother —
her gray head juts
out her coffin
like a matchstick from a box.

She used to force relish
into tuna — I said
I didn’t like it, she said
I didn’t know
how to brush my hair
and even if I did
it wouldn’t brush right.

I want to strike her face
against flint
and ash her body into a jar —
cover the condolences of strangers
with I never liked Nona
and she never liked me.