Cocktail hour in Portland, after the fall

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Read the first full chapter on our sponsor's page — we think you'll really enjoy it. Visit Portland in the near future, and learn all about survival in a high-rise condo during the apocalypse.

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A Ugandan filmmaker has discovered a new way to combine storytelling and movies

On Saturday, SIFF presented the West Coast premiere of Bad Black, an action movie from the Ugandan micro-movie studio of Wakaliwood. An American producer named Alan Hofmanis was in attendance to present the film and lead a Skype Q&A with director Nabwana I.G.G.

From a storytelling perspective, Wakaliwood films are unique in all the world. Hofmanis explained the history stretches back some three decades, when VHS tapes of American action films started circulating around the poorest parts of Uganda. There were no subtitles, and many in the slums of Uganda are illiterate, so instead a person would narrate the film for audiences, explaining the dialogue and action as it unfolded on the screen.

The narrators began to get artful with their commentary, making up storylines (Hofmanis said one retelling of Air Force One includes the backstory that the leader of the terrorist organization slept with the president’s wife and gave the First Lady an STD) and adding jokes and color commentary. When Wakaliwood started making movies, the narrators became more like the hype men at a hip-hop show, using hyperbolic color commentary to talk up the action on screen and to emphasize the heroism of the protagonists and the villainy of the antagonists.

Bad Black opens with a character named Swaz (the narrator shouts, “The Ugandan Schwarzenegger! Swaaaaaaaaaz!” much of the time that he’s onscreen) who gets into a gun fight with some troops invading the hospital where his pregnant wife is giving birth. The action unfolds all around the slums of Wakaliga, where Nabwana I.G.G. was born and raised. His friends and neighbors all participate in the film. Nabwana uses practical and (very low-fi) CGI effects to enhance the action.

For American audiences, the most fascinating aspect of Bad Black might be how much American pop culture — particularly 1980s American action films — have permeated the film. You’ll find references to the Karate Kid, Commando, Rambo, Wesley Snipes, The Expendables, and many more films and actors in the 80 or so minutes of Bad Black, most of them inserted by the narrator. And for Seattle audiences, there’s a special treat — Nabwana included a couple of Seattle-centric introductions shot specifically for SIFF.

I’m still wrestling with the questions of colonialism and appropriation in the presentation of Wakaliwood films. A white American producer — albeit one who moved to Uganda to help Nabwana bring his dreams to wider audiences — presenting a Ugandan film for the enjoyment of a mostly white Seattle crowd for the sake of laughs was a bit unsettling.

But is that really any more unsettling than the background child actors in Bad Black wearing our cast-off Spongebob and Rugrats t-shirts? Isn’t the fact that Wakaliwood is finally telling its own story on its own terms important? Isn’t it useful that American audiences are seeing the slums of Wakaliga, with its open sewage and its poverty and its lively day-to-day business? There is no such thing as an unalloyed good or bad here. It’s up to you to run the totals on your own moral balance sheet.

I don’t want to give away any of the best punchlines or story beats of the film. The best part of Bad Black comes in the surprise of it — suffice it to say there are some plot twists straight out of Dickens and some meta-punchlines worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a giddy delight — Nabwana and his friends are high on the very act of filmmaking, and that excitement absolutely transfers to the audience.

But ultimately, for me, the uniqueness of Bad Black all comes back to the narrator. That extra layer of storytelling plays into the wildness of the cinema and makes the whole movie, with all its fake blood and ramped-up conflict, even more enjoyable. It reminds you that the experience of going to a movie is just that — an experience, and one to be enjoyed as thoroughly as possible.

Bad Black plays again tonight at the Egyptian and on Thursday, May 25th, at Majestic Bay.

Processing abuse with art: how Ksenia Anske makes horror and dark fantasy from real horror

I've known Ksenia Anske for almost twenty years. We were both students at Cornish College of the Arts, studying design, at the close of the Twentieth Century. A Russian who came to design school after studying architecture in her home country, her approach to design was always engaged, probing, and driven.

We'd occasionally stay in touch, but I hadn't talked to her in years when I heard she was one of the first round of writers (along with Seattle writer Scott Berkun) to be awarded the Amtrak Residency.

Her absolutely direct, and no-holds-barred, approach to writing, publishing, and getting the word out to her more than forty-six thousand Twitter followers is both intense and, I think, irresistible. As is her brutal honesty about her motivations and the difficult spaces she works within.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Today you tweeted about how frustrated you were with the scene you were writing. You're very vocal about your writing on Twitter. What does that do for you? Why do you like doing that?

It keeps me accountable. You know, if you're just alone at home, and you say "okay, this didn't work" — then you can say "all right, fine. I'll just forget about it and walk away." But if you actually state it, there's this feeling of guilt if you don't do it — because so many people have seen it. You think "oh my god, tomorrow they'll ask me about it." I mean literally, it's accountability.

Also, these are my readers, and my friends. Which is true: as a writer, my readers are my friends. I don't really go out much, and I don't really socialize. I have all these people in my head, and I'm on my own. I like being alone, I like being in silence. So these are the people who are waiting, and they've been waiting for too long for this particular book, since I won the Amtrak Residency and started writing it on the train. That was last March. It's the first book out of my — what is it? eight or nine, or something, I don't remember the number — that took me over a year to write. And I just can't wait to be done with it, but I cannot ship product that's unfinished, you know? This is my product.

So by tweeting, first, I'm venting — so that somebody will pat me on the shoulder and say "hey, you're doing okay." It helps; it's like "all right, sorry, I just whined for five minutes, I've lost it, I'm good now."

And second, it's accountability to all these people who pre-ordered the book: "hey, look. I'm working on it. I haven't forgotten. I'm not giving up." Every day I get up in the morning, and I get my coffee, and I start fixing it. This scene — today was the fourth day I'm fixing it, the fourth time I'm writing it, because it just wasn't right. So I get frustrated. But after I talk about it, I feel better. It's like you go out and shout in the world, "I'm angry," and then you go, "I got this off my chest, thanks for listening, I'm happy now."

Some writers kind of go away and close the door of their room, and then it's a black box, and you don't hear anything until the book comes out. You're very vocal not only about the process of writing, but also about the stories behind what you write and why you're writing. You go to some pretty dark places, both in your fiction and when talking about it.

Yes. My entire writing career started with me wanting to commit suicide, which is a really dark topic. People usually don't like hearing about it, and people who have gone through it don't know how to talk about it — or sometimes are afraid to talk about it, because it's still not a topic to discuss freely. Also depression; any kind of a mental illness or any kind of disorder that touches or somehow affects your psychology.

Especially if you're an artist. You're supposed to be the starving artist — there's this image we all have about that artist who's a little bit crazy — but it's actually a really, really serious topic, and it's a really big problem. Most of us creators and artists come to creating art from a dark place — when we hit the wall in life and art saves us.

We find a way to take this ugliness and make it into something beautiful. Not everybody can do it, but those of us who can, feel happy. It stops eating you from the inside, and this is why I'm sharing so much because ... let's say I came from a place in my life where I really wanted to die, where you stand there and you hate yourself and your life so much that you want to part with it. And then something happens. In my case, it was my children. I thought about them, and I thought, "this is really selfish, this is actually really terrible," and then it wasn't about me anymore. I couldn't leave them alone, and I decided not to.

And in that moment, something shifted. I stopped being afraid of things that I usually would not talk about. Like you're saying: dark places and dark things. Well — the fear fell off, after I decided to live. It just didn't bother me anymore, all these little problems were non-problems. And sharing this experience was what pulled me out of it.

Also my therapist literally told me to journal. I would go through these horrible panic attacks, and she told me, "You're going to buy a journal; you're going to write yourself out of those." That's how my writing started. That's how my trilogy started. I still have that journal! It has skulls on it, very fitting. It's black and has got really disturbing things inside of it, and I'm going to save it, because that was my road to writing, that was my first step toward it. That's why I don't have any fear about it anymore. It's gone.

I'm imagining you were journaling about things that were happening. How did you go from journaling to processing those things through fiction?

You know, surprisingly, I have been doing that since I was very little. I grew up in a very violent household, and I was abused in a variety of ways. I tried to cope with it as a child by being very silent — that was one of my weapons against adults who hurt me: I would not talk. Sometimes I would not talk for weeks.

I had a crazy imagination, which also is very typical, although I didn't know it at the time. As a child, when the people who hurt you are relatives or people who are supposed to love you and protect you, you can't process it — that somebody like that would hurt you. As a child you can't survive. So what you do is you suppress it, and you replace the image of that person with, often, an animal — something that is dark and scary. Usually it's a dog or a wolf or a bear; some kind of entity, some kind of animal, that in your child's mind you can justify would have hurt you, eaten you, bitten off your leg.

In my family — apart from the darkness and the anger and the hurt and the pain, and everything that was in there for generations that created the environment I grew up in — in addition, the culture in Russia was very well read and very intellectual. My great-grandmother had this huge library of books in her room. I'd been reading since I was very small, since I was four.

That was my solution to all my problems, and that was my helper: it was the books. I couldn't ask the adults about what was happening to me, so I would go and read books ... and I read books that I was not supposed to read, I think, at that age. But also things were happening to me that were not supposed to happen to me at that age. So the books explained it to me. For example, in One Thousand and One Nights, there's one fairytale about a gorilla falling on a woman — basically, a gorilla having sex with the woman — and I remember that it explained everything to me. I thought: "Oh, okay, this is normal. Oh, so it's a gorilla."

When I went to therapy and started remembering what was happening to me, at first, I remembered something black and furry like a gorilla. Then it was a black man; and then it was a man who was painted in black paint; and after that: "It's my father."

It took me so many layers to get to it, because the truth was pretty horrendous. And this is why it's taking me so long to write this book. Because it's a book about a woman remembering her sexual abuse at the hands of her father — which she has blocked — while she is on a train, and every compartment on the train contains a memory that she has to fight to see. So this, what you're asking about — what's funny and also not funny and tragic — is what I've been doing since I was little.

I would create stories in my head to explain what was happening to me based on fiction. I made it into fiction, and that's how I survived it. Everything I'm writing right now is coming from my five-year-old brain, six-year-old brain, seven-year-old brain ... All these stories that I made up in my head to be content with life and to continue functioning as a child, and then later to continue functioning as an adult. And so it's really not fiction for me.

People keep asking me, "How do you get these ideas?" I tell them they're not really ideas, but nightmares. I wish I had less, but there's so many that I just have to get them out of me. Otherwise I cannot be happy and smiling every day; it's too much. It's like living in a world where you have a trapdoor into a dungeon that you have to go in every day, and there's scary shit down there. Like in the movie The Road, have you seen it?

No, I haven't seen it.

Well, you probably read the book.

Yep.

If you watch the movie, there's this scene where they come up and find this house where people hold hostages. In the book, it made my skin crawl — but the film, it's amazing the way they did it. Now when people ask me [how I get my ideas], I tell them "just go watch that scene." That is what I have in my room.

And that is where I have to go every morning. It's horrible, but once I get through it and I come out — and it's 3 p.m. and I'm done writing — I'm this happy cat.

You know, I heard from someone once that horror writers are the happiest and the sweetest people in the world.

It's because they process all their stuff, all their bad feelings and fears.

Yeah! So what I'm doing every day now is really what I've been been doing since I was little. Except now I'm putting it into words.

You mentioned reading, and you're obviously a lifelong reader. You publish the books you're reading on your Instagram feed, and you're a pretty voracious reader, it seems. What have you been reading lately that has struck you or that you like?

I'm trying to read books on business and on writing and how to plot. And at the same time I'm trying to read fiction, novel writers who can teach me how to write novels. And also short stories; every morning before I start writing, I read a short story just to prime myself for a particular style. At the moment it's Petrushevskaya, I'm re-reading her short stories. This one is There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself.

What a title.

Yeah, very lovely. She has been not published for a long time, she basically has been banned from publishing her stories in Russia, although there's nothing political in there and nothing really to persecute. But the government didn't want people to know the real lives of real people. The horrendous, dark shit that they have to go through. And she wrote about it — there's no beautifying it, no prettifying it. It's pretty dark and it's very stark and very painful. But there's this humor in it, this survival, and I absolutely love it. Her style is very simple. It's kind of like a fairytale: "there once lived a woman and her neighbor woman had a little baby and she wanted to kill the baby." She gives me inspiration to stop trying to "write," and just tell my story.

Another one I've been reading lately — I met the artist Victoria Lomasko, and I'm reading a book of hers that's journalism with illustrations. She talks about Russian people and their everyday lives. People on the outskirts of society, the sex workers, the kids in juvenile prisons, the LGBT people, and so on. It's very enlightening, because some of these people — even I was not aware of how their lives are, and the conditions they live in.

And let's see ... this book just absolutely changed my plotting. It's called The Story Grid, by Sean Coyne. I recommend it to everyone, and if I had the money, I'd buy it for every writer, because it taught me — based on reading The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of my favorites — how to hack your manuscript, and how to shape it into something that has very distinct parts. There's so many ways of doing it; it's just that his particular formula works for me really, really well.

You have every single one of these books on hand right here with you?

Hold on, I have this one, I'm actually really enjoying this one, it's very beautiful — it's called The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. It's a sort of apocalyptic novel about the world dying from a virus, but told from the perspective of the dead people, who don't really die until everybody who remembers them dies as well. So there's this in-between place. I'm enjoying it.

Next I'll be reading City Infernal by Edward Lee, which is supposedly this dark horror kind of a paperback book in America, which I haven't really read much. I mean, I love Stephen King, but this one has a bloodier kind of opening. Oh, here it is: "The man walks with difficulty down the street. The street sign reads ISCARIOT AVENUE. He is carrying a severed head on a stick, and the severed head talks. 'Can you spare any change?'"

I mean this is just perfect, this is my kind of stuff! I've seen all kinds of reviews of this, from one star — saying this is just awful, cheap horror — to five stars — saying 'this is great!' So I'm going to read this ... and god, I can talk to you about books for hours. I try to read about one hundred books a year, and this year, because of my editing, I don't think I'll hit the goal, but that's usually my goal.

You give all your books away for free on your website. And then you also sell bound copies. Why did you decide to give everything away for free?

Well, that goes back to the suicide and depression. My book literally saved my life, writing my first trilogy, so I vowed to give it away for free to anyone. Because it does talk about suicide, it talks about teenage suicide, in particular.

When I wrote my second book, Rosehead, people asked, "what are you going to do now?" And I said "What do you want?" And I had so many student readers who said, "I don't have money for books." So I said, "You can have it for free; it will all just even out." There's a donate button, and people occasionally donate; somebody recently donated $100. I was like, "Wow! That just paid for all of these free books that people downloaded."

But I also sell paperbacks, and I sell e-books on all kinds of sites. The idea is: you pay what you want, or you pay if you have money. Even on my website, you can choose to pay what you want. You can pay five dollars, which only covers the cost of the book. Or you can pay nine dollars, and I get four dollars and it pays for my team and for printing costs. Or you pay thirteen dollars, and I can pay my team, it covers my printing costs, and it also gives me another four dollars to invest into my growth as a business.

And you view this as an entrepreneur would, because you ran a company before you were writing?

Yeah, I had a start-up.

I know that's a story unto itself, but how did it change your approach to selling and marketing your books?

The selling idea itself, often people are afraid of it. They think that somehow it's getting into somebody's face and demanding money from them, and they're either shy or they're afraid. They think it's annoying, but that's actually not true. And that's what I learned from my start-up. It's really helping people, holding their hands, and people will be happy to pay you if you just have your shit together.

That's all it is. It's surprisingly easy, because there are so many businesses out there that don't do the smallest things: they don't say thank you, they don't do what they promised they'll do, they don't apologize if they screwed up. If you just behave like a human being, people will love you — they'll shower you with money, they'll come back to you.

Because it's so hard — I mean, life is so chaotic. We're bombarded with all this stuff, and people are constantly coming and going. So we come back to the brands that we trust, the businesses that we trust. We say, "these guys have been making my shoes for this many years, and at least they, when everything comes apart around me, will be there doing the shoes. Or if they are going to go bankrupt, because they always communicated with me honestly, they will tell me 'We're so sorry; we're screwed. But do not fret: we'll try to make your shoes.'"

It's the same with writing books. If you talk to people like a human being, saying "I'm sorry I screwed up" —

Here's an example. Today I was supposed to ship books to somebody who won them in my free giveaway, and another person in Canada. It was 2:15, and the post office closes at 3. I was writing; I usually stop writing at 2, but I looked and saw that was 2:15, and I said, "I'll write another 15 minutes. Half an hour is enough for me to walk or bike to the post office." Next thing I know, my son knocks on the door, says "Mum something something," and I look up and it's 2:45. I go "fuck," I jump up — I'm like, 15 minutes is just not enough, I have to change, pull on my biking shorts — then I realize that the box is too large, so I start running around. Finally I think "I can't do it," so I start composing an email in my head: "Hi, I'm so sorry, I got carried away into writing, I didn't ship the books."

And then my boyfriend shows up at 2:57, and I say "I can't do this," and he's like, "Get in the car, get in the car now. Grab your stuff." I jump in, and we get to the post office one minute late. Usually they close right on time. I run in ...

All of them know me, because I've brought them chocolate before. One lady typed in — it took her 30 minutes to type up all these books that I was sending to the Philippines and Pakistan, Iran, England, and — I can't remember, there's pockets of my readers all over the place — India. And so I said "Wow, you work so hard, I need to bring you chocolate." She kind of laughed it off, but I said "No, I'm dead serious." And next time I came, I brought them a box of chocolates. Now they call me the lady who brings chocolate.

So I ran in, I'm like, "I'm so sorry I'm late," and the boss started grumbling. So I said "Hey, but I brought you chocolate," and everybody was like "Yeah, yeah, this is the girl," and she goes, "Oh, that's fine; you can stay for as long as you want to." It's so cute, and I said "See? I paid for my overtime with chocolate."

But yeah — so I came home and I emailed, so happily, to my customers: "I shipped the books." This is a small business. Customer service is number one. I will go and die and hit my face on the ground, get bloody, but I will get those books to my readers against all odds, because they paid for them. I mean that's a miracle, somebody paid for my words, and they're going to spend their time reading them. That's great; it makes me ecstatic.

How do people mostly find you? Word of mouth?

Yeah. I also now have a big readership that suggests my books to friends; also on social media. For example, on Instagram: I send out these books to book readers, and Instagram has these book review Instagram accounts — most of them are kids, some of them are teenagers, some of them are over twenty. They're younger, and so they have these accounts where they read books and they review them, and somebody would just send me a message saying "I saw your book all over the place, all of my friends have it, can I have it too?" And that's how it goes. Or on Wattpad, one day on Twitter somebody asked me, "Are you going to put your books on Wattpad?" And I said, "What is Wattpad?" So I went and I looked and I thought "This is cool." I posted the book, and just this morning I woke up and I had 150 notifications. Why? I don't know! This is one of those things that I wish I knew ... all of a sudden everybody's reading Rosehead.

Yesterday was quiet. Somebody is always reading my books there, but sometimes it just goes boom. And that's why I'm starting to get my business sense together, because I really need to understand what makes those spikes, how to turn them into sales. I make sales when a new book comes out, because all of a sudden people are interested in the rest of my books — if they like this one, they purchase the rest of them. And then it goes down. So there's always a big spike [when I publish a new book], and I have to keep it going constantly to survive. At this moment I'm not supporting myself financially. It's in bursts. And my boyfriend is like, "I'm an investor, when you make those millions"; and I'm like, "yeah, I got you."

And you keep it kind of in the family. Your daughter does all of your book design, right?

She does. I remember when she was a baby, I taught her how to draw. This is what parents do to children: they're just raising them with this hidden agenda. And she laughs at this. Yeah, she's really good; she graduated from design school in Orange, California, and she does all of my book covers.

The best part about it that is we understand each other. I tell her, "Just do a blah blah blah," and she goes, "okay, I got it." I don't even have to explain — a couple hours later it's done.

We're going to change the Tube cover right now. She was traveling, so it was hard to find an image for her. I don't know if you've seen the discussion, but basically it looks like a nonfiction book, so I'm going to take feedback. This is one other reason that I share everything — I get raw feedback from people, and if eight people out of ten say the same thing, that helps me; it helps me write a better book, it helps me create a better product. So, yes, she does that, but then the rest of my team is all over the place. My editor and my proofreader, you know, formatter, and so on.

Anything that we didn't cover that you wanted to talk about?

Well, I'm excited because Tube is going to be done in about two months. Maybe it will take me a few read-throughs, but this is the final draft. I have decided that I could probably keep perfecting it forever, but I can't do it anymore.

What draft are you on now?

This is draft five. And I've never done this many before. Each draft is a complete rewrite; it's not just revising it, I scrub through from beginning to end. So when that book comes out, it's going to be very important. I'm very proud of it; I worked really hard on it, harder than on any of my other books.

It's my best writing so far, and it's also a really important story — like I said, about a woman remembering her sexual abuse. I tried to dramatize the process of remembering something when it's hidden so well in your child's mind inside of you that you're acting like a private investigator, literally going back into your past and reviewing it. And so it was really challenging, because she jumps from present to past constantly. I hope I did the job right. So I'm really excited about that — and after that I'm going to be writing my first thriller, The Dacha Murders.

Cool. And Tube was the one you wrote on the Amtrak residency?

Yeah, when I started that, it was just a goofy kind of idea. I actually didn't think I'd ever win. I just submitted this little paragraph. They ask "Why do you think you're going to win?" and I said something like "Because I'm going to write a book about trains." And then I won. And somehow, because I said that, when I got on the train, I had to do it, so it became a book about the train. But it changed very much from the original first draft.

All of my drafts are on my website. If people are curious, they can download them and compare. That is another reason why I put it up for free on my site — because when I started writing, I wished there was a resource like that where I could go and I could compare something — let's say The Da Vinci Code or one of Stephen King's books — if I could see the very first rough draft and compare it to the final one, that would really help me as a writer. But I could hardly find that information anywhere.

That's an approach to writing — sharing that stuff — that most writers would find horrifying.

Yeah ... and actually, there's another book I'm reading, by Kit Reed called Revision, if anybody is interested — in the back she has examples, because the book is about revision, they're manuscripts of the first draft and the final draft. But it's still not enough. So that's why I'm doing it — to give back to the community and also learn. People constantly send me feedback, so I get better.

Anything else you wanted to add?

Just send me coffee, coffee beans, my PO box address is on my website. Coffee beans will keep me going. If you want more books, send me more coffee.

Do you eat coffee beans while you write?

Yeah. Actually, I need an IV for that.

The Sunday Post for May 21, 2017

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow 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.

The Public Square Belongs to 4Chan

Halfway down, Joseph Bernstein’s article on “He will not divide us,” a public art piece fronted by Shia LaBeouf, goes batshit crazy. Launched on January 20 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, the installation was simple and in theory (although: really?) nonpartisan: a sidewalk-facing camera and a line of text for passersby to read aloud. Within a week it was a mosh pit of alt-right trolling, trash, and violence. Then the real fight started: between the artists, the museum, and the community.

By the third and fourth days of the installation, as young men in MAGA hats started showing up to the museum in larger numbers, "He Will Not Divide Us" began to resemble nothing so much as a social network made flesh. There were civil discussions. There were shouting matches. There were visitors squawking about Trump, about “the Jewish word for division, Soros,” about the revolution not being televised, about their mixtapes, about how Bitcoin would save the world, about WeSearchr, about yo, follow my Instagram. There were doxxes. There were well-intentioned founders with institutional backing and idealistic words about free expression; there were early celebrity adopters; there was an initial period of great hope; there was a worsening signal-to-noise ratio; and there were trolls and racists determined to test the boundaries of the new space with provocations and hate speech.

And then, there was chaos.

Gerhard Steidl Is Making Books an Art Form

Rebecca Mead profiles Gerhard Steidl, considered the best printer of photography books in the world — a craftsman so confident he was disappointed by the Gutenberg Bible. Fascinating look at the practicalities of printing (the fine details of ink, paper, and press) and the philosophy of books as beautiful and meaningful objects. As well as the book as more than an object:

Steidl’s family was poor, and his parents had received no formal education. There were few books at home, and it was momentous for Steidl when he received one — Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” — as a Christmas gift. Steidl begged his sister to read it aloud to him immediately, and afterward he told his father how much he had loved it. Steidl’s father, angered that the children had finished the book so quickly, struck the sister. Years later, Steidl’s father explained that he had believed the book, having been read through, was now useless; before buying the gift, he’d never been in a bookstore.

See also Craig Mod this week on the maturing debate about print vs. digital reading: “Containers matter.

Mysterious Island Experiment Could Help Us Colonize Other Planets

In 1843, a jealous James Hooker started a twenty-year evolutionary hack, shipping the first of hundreds of trees to barren, equatorial Ascension Island. Today the island’s “Green Mountain” is lush and abundant — and a new ecosystem is pushing out the old. This is what terraforming a new world might look like: the transformation of a Mars-like wasteland; a slow, painful struggle between native and alien species; and constant vigilance to prevent an epic system crash.

I visit Ascension’s famous Dew Pond. By the 1880s, Hooker’s “mist-catching trees” had formed a small pond at the mountain’s summit, the island’s first freshwater water body. Today, bamboo trunks form a 40-foot tall wall around the pond, knocking together harmoniously in the breeze.

A life-sized, plastic crocodile waits half-submerged in the pond with teeth showing. The faux reptile appeared there in the 1990s as a gag. It quickly developed its own mythology among the military residents. Should they remove the item? Or leave it? No one can agree what to do with it now. The same can be said about the artificial ecosystem all around.

Seattle Writing Prompts: Seattle's Privately Owned Public Spaces

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.

Look at the little plaque in that picture. It's just a little corner that edges one of the tiles on the 4th Avenue open space in front of Safeco Plaza (the building also known as "the Box the Space Needle Came In"). It's a demarcation, of course, of when you are leaving officially public land and crossing some imaginary, but well-documented, veil onto private land. But did you know that this plaza, and many others like it, are actually official public spaces?

They are Seattle's POPS, or Privately Owned Public Spaces. There are many of them — some, modest and available from the ground floor; others, more grand and on private floors in buildings that you can access any time the building is open. The thing is, unless you knew you were welcome, you might think twice about just hanging out in front of a big building. But welcome you are.

The city has made this PDF list available — maybe someone should visit each one and then document the visits. The guide could be clearer, though. One of the greatest POPS in the city is in the Fourth & Madison Building. Enter the building through the grand revolving doors on 4th. Walk to the left, down the lobby, and find the back elevators. Take them to the seventh floor, where you will find a park in the sky: a lovely public space with a lawn, and tables, with views and a chance to get away from the bustle of the city while still being in it.

Of the many, many, many political tensions in our world, one that is more subtle (e.g., there's nobody on cable news screaming about it right now) is this idea that the world belongs to the owners, as opposed to the idea that the world belongs to the commons. You see this in desires to sell off our public lands, but you also see it in your very city, where the needs and desires of property owners often bump up against the needs and desires of the citizens. Some feel that the property owners should have the upper hand here, but when you choose to buy property in a city, you are entering a contract with the commons of that city. Yes, you have rights assigned to you by law and by ownership, but you also undertake responsibility to the city you've pledged your money and taxes to. You enter a contract, and the benefit is that you get to live where many others desire to live as well.

This tension played out, through pieces of art, twice at Safeco Plaza.

One: Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae, by Henry Moore, was purchased and installed by Seafirst National Bank, who owned the building, in 1971. After Bank of America bought the building in 1982, they sold the sculpture (and the building) to investors in Japan. After a public outcry, Bank of America purchased back the sculpture and donated it to the Seattle Art Museum, who still officially own it.

Two: A massive — eighteen by thirty-six foot — painting by Sam Francis used to hang in the marble lobby of the Seafirst building (aside: walk through the building. Take the escalators down to 3rd Avenue. It's a marvelously considered space: austere, beautiful. Designed by NBBJ with a corporate mid-century Asian inspiration) on the large elevator bank wall that stands behind the guard station. The painting was an abstract, facing 4th Avenue. Rumor has it, when Rem Koolhaas visited the site of the Central Library, he looked across into the atrium of the building and saw the crossing patterns on the large canvas. It was his inspiration, if you believe the story, for the diamond cross-hatching that dominates the library's facade. That painting was moved when Bank of America decided to open a museum of its art in South Carolina. There, apparently, it still sits, out of context, inspiring no architecture.

Hmmm. Maybe we've only learned that Bank of America are jerks who don't care about keeping art in Seattle. Let's make up some different stories, shall we?

Today's prompts
  1. There were the cops, lined up, impact plastic covering their faces, armor covering their bodies, standing a line along where the private land started. There were the protesters, walking by, looking at the cops. Wondering why some of them were holding batons. Then there was the troublemaker. Black jeans, black sweatshirt, black balaclava. Then there was a brick flying, and the lines moved towards each other.

  2. Why had she decided to walk down the stairs? She thought it would give her some exercise, didn't think how much 29 floors down would make her knees feel wobbly. She made it out to the street, out to the edge of the public square, before they gave way. Before she skinned her knee going down. Before she looked up to see a hand held out to help her up.

  3. Because she died inside, the ghost rules said she could not cross the boundary set forth by the seers who drew the building lay lines. She sometimes haunted those on the elevator, and more than one janitor or night security guard quit before they were employed for a single week. But those minor amusements were erased when the little dog died in traffic in front of the building. Its ghost looked at her now, across that line that divided them, the line that neither could cross. It whimpered as she tried to reach it, determined to find a way.

  4. The drunk men were arguing. "That's it!" one yelled. "Here's the line," he pointed to the metal that demarcated the plaza. "This is it! You cross this line, and it's coming to blows." The other man edged right up, toes against the mark. "This line?" he said. "You mean, if I cross this line?" He picked up his foot, and threatened to move it forward.

  5. The detective pulled his collar up against the wind and rain. 4th Avenue was deserted, except the occasional taxi driving by, splashing water. He flicked his cigarette into the gutter, and waited for that big bad businessman to exit the building. Soon as he crossed the line onto city property, the cuffs were coming out. Inside, commotion. He saw the mark. He raised his hand to his partner on the other side of the building. Time to bust some criminals.

The Help Desk: The online retailer that shall not be named

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

Dear Cienna,

I work at a large independent bookstore. I love my job, but my manager is getting on my nerves — specifically, his tendency to smack-talk Amazon to customers. He’s always launching into lectures about why shopping at Amazon is a bad idea, how they don’t support the community, and stuff like that.

I agree with him! Amazon is bad. But he brings up Amazon a lot. Like, a lot. I know he thinks he’s educating customers, but he sounds like a scold, and kind of a bore.

I’m pretty new at bookselling, but it seems to me that people aren’t going to shop at indies out of guilt. They’re going to do it because they like indies better. And if we lecture them all the time about the “Evil Empire” or whatever, that’s just going to scare them away.

But I’m not really comfortable with lecturing my manager about lecturing customers. Can you think of a way to help me realize that he’s being counterproductive?

Lily, Alki

Dear Lily,

You're right – people don't shop at indie bookstores for bitter lectures from staff on what their competitors are doing. You know this, your customers know this, your boss apparently does not.

But I empathize with your boss's Ahab-esque obsession. One of my favorite northwest pastimes used to be lecturing conservative hunters about how safe access to abortion is a fundamental human right. I firmly believed that everyone would agree with me if they just first gave me three hours of their undivided attention, preferably somewhere festively claustrophobic, like the bathroom hallway at a house party.

It's easy to fall into the habit of such selfish soapbox lectures. Everyone loves agreeing with themselves and in these instances your audience is held resentfully captive because they want to buy a book from you or still hold out a vague hope that eventually you'll grow tired of talking and fuck them, and then spend endless mornings making them elk-steak breakfasts until the race wars begin, at which point they might have to hunt you for sport because your name sounds suspiciously ethnic.

I was lecturing one such hunter about abortion and he interrupted me with, "You want to kill babies, get out there and sterilize all those wild horses ruining our public lands. That's the kind of killing I can get behind." And I thought to myself, "This man is an unfuckable genius."

What do northwest rural conservatives dislike more than abortion? Wild horses and wolves. Which is why, just this week I trademarked the names "PlannedParenthoof" and "PlannedParentwoof" and began the process of marketing myself as the northwest's first wild horse and wolf abortionist.

But back to your issue: obviously, your situation is complicated by the power dynamic between yourself and your manager. If your manager is a mostly reasonable person, try approaching him the next time you hear him mention Amazon to a customer and either start screaming something simple like, "ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!" or "I think we'd make more headway with our customers if we thanked them and praised them for shopping with us and left our competitors out of the conversation." If you're uncomfortable with this upfront tactic, you can talk to your manager's boss or write an letter from a "customer" that delicately highlights your manager's Amazon obsession.

To be clear: your boss is not likely to get over his obsession. The key is to find a way to redirect his dour lectures into positive, productive interactions with customers, much like PlannedParenthoof/woof will undoubtedly do for anti-abortionists living in rural communities.

Kisses,

Cienna

Ethel & Ernest is the opposite of your typical comic book film

Last night I decided to go to the movies for the simple reason that after a week of relentless breaking news stories about Donald Trump, two hours in a dark room with my phone turned off sounded like some kind of paradise. I decided to go to an opening night screening of Alien: Covenant. It was a pretty film, and Michael Fassbender turns in an excellent performance, but the movie was ultimately pretty bad — it was a horror movie that forgot to be scary, a philosophical movie that wasn't very smart to begin with, a space exploration movie with no joy to it.

I can absolutely recommend shutting your phone off for two hours, but I cannot recommend doing so for Alien: Covenant.

Luckily for us, SIFF starts tonight, offering plenty of opportunities to get away from the world and into hushed theaters. Today at 1:30 p.m. and Sunday at noon, the animated film Ethel & Ernest is playing at SIFF, and it just might be the perfect anecdote for a loud and dumb world.

Based on a comic book biography by Raymond Briggs (the British cartoonist behind The Snowman, who I wrote about last month), Ethel & Ernest is the story of Briggs's parents, from their first meeting to their deaths. Like the comic, the story is episodic, spanning decades encompassing World War II, the Korean War, and the moon launch. Through it all, Ethel and Ernest live their quiet middle-class lives, raising their son and worrying about society going all to hell because of the kids these days and marveling at technological progress like televisions and freeways.

The film begins with Briggs himself explaining why he wanted to tell the story of his parents, and then it cuts to an animated style that hews closely to Briggs's own illustration. Most notably, Ethel & Ernest features gorgeous backgrounds — what appears to be watercolor portraits of British urban life, with red brick rowhouses and beautiful emerald countrysides. Occasionally, the figure animation looks a tad awkward — sometimes, a movement will stutter, or a character will float in space in an unmoored fashion — but the excellent voice acting more than makes up for those flaws.

It should be clear that Ethel & Ernest is not a film for everyone. Just because it's an animated film does not mean it's for children — the film gets fairly dark — and just because it's a story of a long and relatively happy marriage doesn't mean it's a romantic comedy. Instead, it's a loving and honest portrait of a pair of decent people. Ethel and Ernest may have their prejudices and their failures to empathize with others outside their economic class, but they're always trying their best.

In a summer full of garish sequels that nobody asked for and comic book adaptations that are all starting to feel the same, Ethel & Ernest is a quiet, gently funny labor of love. It's just the thing to take your mind off whatever clownish news is blowing up your phone.

Portrait Gallery: Nisi Shawl

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

Thursday May 18th: Everfair Exhibit Opening

Sci-fi novelist Nisi Shawl’s Everfair was one of the best books to be published by a Seattle author last year. Tonight, it inspires a whole new generation of Seattle art. Push/Pull gallery presents new work by Seattle artists inspired by Shawl’s steampunk alternate history of the Congo. Shawl will be in attendance.
Push/Pull, 5484 Shilshole Ave NW, 789-1710, http://pushpullseattle.weebly.com/. Free. All ages. 6 p.m.

Book News Roundup: Nominate your favorite Seattle writer for the Mayor's Arts Awards

  • There's still time to nominate a Seattle writer you love for the Mayor's Arts Awards! You have until May 25th to "recognize the accomplishments of artists, arts and cultural organizations and community members committed to enriching their communities through the arts." All you have to do is head over here and fill out the form.

  • And if you'd like to be Washington State Poet Laureate, you can find more information about that in this PDF. The position pays $10,000 per year, with up to $3,500 in expenses paid for travel and materials.

  • The Spokesman-Review reported on Sherman Alexie's commencement speech at Gonzaga University:

“So ask yourself, graduates, and families and friends: Do you want to be the person suspicious of strangers? Do you want to be the person who turns away strangers from your front door?”

Thursday Comics Hangover: Wonder Women

I haven’t had much to say about superhero movies lately — sorry, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s not you, it’s me — but I do agree with the consensus that the movies made from DC Comics superheroes have been disastrous. Batman V Superman was one of the worst blockbusters I’ve ever seen. Suicide Squad was even worse. I’ll be watching the Wonder Woman movie when it debuts at Cinerama in a couple of weeks, but that feels more like an act of obligation: I want to support the first female superhero movie in a generation, even though Gal Gadot has never once ever successfully, in the technical sense of the word, acted.

The most confusing thing about the failure of DC Comics to transition to film is that there’s already a perfect prototype out there for the producers to emulate: Melissa Benoist’s performance in the weekly Supergirl TV show. In the 80s and 90s, superhero movies were always trapped in a tug-of-war between the two opposing poles of dark-n-gritty (think the first Tim Burton Batman) and campy (think the Joel Schumacher Batman Forever). Benoist’s performance as Supergirl finds a new, third way: she’s earnest but serious, happy but determined. Sure, the effects on Supergirl are cheesy, but even when it’s at its worst, Benoist’s performance holds the whole damn show together.

DC’s stable of characters — more colorful and goofy than Marvel’s — should more or less follow Benoist’s lead. These are over-the-top sci-fi concepts from the 1950s; the concern is not taking them seriously. It’s about believing in their character. Benoist gets that. The people adapting DC Comics to film, sadly, don’t.

The new collection of Supergirl comics from DC, Reign of the Cyborg Superman, unfortunately, doesn’t have Benoist’s charm, either. To the credit of writer Steve Orlando and artists Brian Ching, Emanuela Lupacchino, and Ray McCarthy, they’re rightly shooting for the optimism and the youthful vivaciousness of the TV show. Unfortunately, the comic is kind of a mess.

Reign establishes a world that mimics the basic status quo of the Supergirl TV show, introducing characters and situations that viewers will find very familiar. But it feels kind of like a mess, with some occasionally lively artwork obscured by Michael Atiyeh’s muddy coloring, and a plot that tries too hard to emulate the ALL CAPS APOCALYPSE feel of a superhero movie. The villain of the piece — Supergirl’s father, who for some reason looks like a cyborg Superman — is way too broad. But to Orlando’s credit, the book ends on a high note, with Supergirl nailing the hope and courage of her TV version. And thankfully the art doesn’t objectify Supergirl with the leering 90s male gaze that has dogged the character over the last couple decades. There’s room for improvement here.

But Supergirl isn’t the only female superhero DC is publishing these days. They’ve also got a new Superwoman character, and her first adventures are collected in a new paperback titled Who Killed Superwoman? While Supergirl is Superman’s Kryptonian cousin, the stars of Superwoman are two of superman’s love interests: Lois Lane and Lana Lang, who have both been given powers somehow — it’s not important — and who are teaming up to cover for a seemingly deceased Superman’s absence.

In case you can’t tell, there’s a lot of continuity at play in Superwoman, but you don’t have to read a dozen other books to understand what’s going on here. Writer Phil Jiminez takes a delightfully old-school approach to his superhero comics: he welcomes the weirdly intricate decades-old relationships between characters, but he also explains the important stuff to the readers in the course of the story. It’s accessible, while still hinting at the sixty years of backstory available to curious readers.

Without giving too much away, the story introduces a couple of villains unique to the book while addressing the question of what it means to do the right thing, even if it kills you. Emanuela Lupacchino’s art is better-served on this title than on Supergirl, giving her time to invest emotionally in the characters and better frame out the surroundings. Jiminez draws several issues himself in his tight, George Perez-style 80s superhero comic style. For people who’ve been reading comics for decades, it’s a throwback delight that somehow still feels like a modern superhero comic. It’s also my favorite Superman-themed book that DC has published in years, an operatic riff on values and expectations and responsibility.

DC is also publishing the original female superhero, and I’m happy to report that the second paperback of Wonder Woman comics is terrific. Just in time for the movie, writer Greg Rucka and artist Nicola Scott have told an origin story for Wonder Woman that audiences will find to be compelling and modern and fun. (Yes, even though there’s a number “2” on the spine, Year One is an origin story and can be read on its own. Sometimes comics are dumb.)

Generally, I’m against retelling origin stories in comics; my philosophy is just murder the parents in a flashback and get on with the story. But Wonder Woman has needed a good origin story for just about her entire life as a character, and Rucka succeeds where so many others have failed by making her eminently relatable.

Yes, this Wonder Woman is wildly powerful. Yes, she bests all of her fellow Amazons in hand-to-hand combat. But she’s also a total nerd, and when she first comes into contact with our modern world she can’t speak English, which gives her a relatable vulnerability. When she goes to a mall, she’s overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds and smells. (She asks a translator, “Why does the air taste this way?”) She’s tough and curious and exuberant, expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Scott is a gifted superhero artist. She can capture difficult emotions like a flicker of nostalgia on a person’s face, but she can also draw an iconic double-page spread of Wonder Woman, her blurry arms spread out around her, octopus-like, as her bracelets deflect bullets at super-speed. Scott often draws her from below, to cast her in a heroic light, and this simple trick doesn’t feel at all manipulative or cheap; Scott conveys the sense that she’s genuinely in awe of the character she’s drawing.

A lot is riding on the Wonder Woman film. In addition to its unique status as the first-ever female-starring superhero film of the modern era, it’s also the first to be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, director of Monster) and the last DC superhero film to be released before this fall’s team-up film Justice League. But even if the film is a disaster — by artistic standards, by box office standards, or both — Year One proves that the character of Wonder Woman will survive. There’s a lot of humanity yet to be explored.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from May 17th - May 23rd

Wednesday May 17th: SAL Presents: The Moth

The Moth has become a preeminent name in storytelling, and Seattle Arts and Lectures brings some of the best storytellers to town. Regular Moth host Dan Kennedy presents musician Andy Fischer-Price, veteran and state department employee Laurence Kerr, artist Jessica Lee Williamson, and Seattle’s own Ijeoma Oluo, who is quickly (and rightfully) achieving national prominence. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 215-4747, https://www.lectures.org. $35. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Thursday May 18th: Everfair Exhibit Opening

Sci-fi novelist Nisi Shawl’s Everfair was one of the best books to be published by a Seattle author last year. Tonight, it inspires a whole new generation of Seattle art. Push/Pull gallery presents new work by Seattle artists inspired by Shawl’s steampunk alternate history of the Congo. Shawl will be in attendance. Push/Pull, 5484 Shilshole Ave N.W., 789-1710, http://pushpullseattle.weebly.com/. Free. All ages. 6 p.m.

Friday May 19th: Jack Straw Writing Fellows

Every year, a curator chooses a group of Seattle writers to learn how to do a better job of reading their work, both live and in audio recordings. This year a handful of authors selected by Jourdan Imani Keith will present their latest work and show off what they’ve learned. Readers tonight include Ellie Belew, Hera McLeod, Ashlan Runyan, and the fabulous Quenton Baker. Jack Straw Gallery, 4261 Roosevelt Way N.E., 634-0919, http://jackstraw.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Saturday May 20th: Mancini/Nufer

Vancouver poet Donato Mancini is reading twice in Seattle to celebrate his new book, Same Diff. He’ll be joined by irrepressible Seattle poet Doug Nufer, who will soon be releasing a new poetry collection of his own, titled The Me Theme. Why not spend your afternoon with two very fine Cascadian poets? Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St., 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com. Free. All ages. 2 p.m.

Sunday May 21st: Apollo 8 Reading

Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon is about a horrendous year in American history (almost exactly 50 years ago now) when we decided to send human beings to the goddamned moon. Maybe the problem with this horrendous year in American history is we’re not shooting enough people into space. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com. Free. All ages. 3 p.m.

Monday May 22nd: SCALE Reading

Now more than ever in these Trumpy times, it’s important to give scientists your attention. Tonight, according to press materials, a theoretical physicist named Geoffrey West “explores the hidden laws that govern the lifecycle of everything from plants and animals to our cities in his new book.” Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Tuesday May 23rd: King County Libraries Fundraiser

Spokane author Jess Walter is one of the most charming and funny authors you’ll ever see in person. Tonight, he’ll share the stage with Lark chef John Sundstrom for a fancy meal and a conversation moderated by yours truly as a fundraiser for King County Libraries. It’s for a great cause, and it will be great fun. Lark, 952 E. Seneca St., 323-5275, http://kclsfoundation.org. $200. All ages. 6 p.m.

Alternate Tuesday May 23rd: The Biographies of Ordinary People Reading

Since the Seattle Review of Books is affiliated with the previous event (and since it’s a very expensive fundraiser), allow me to suggest an alternate reading. Seattle author Nicole Dieker, whose excellent writing you can find almost every day at The Billfold, debuts her first novel at this launch party. Dieker has been very open about the process of self-publishing the book, and anyone looking to learn how to get their writing out there should be paying attention. Phinney Books, 7405 Greenwood Ave. N., 297-2665, http://phinneybooks.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Last night, literary Seattle mourned one of their own

Tess Gallagher reads as part of the Joan Swift memorial service at @openpoetrybooks. It's a packed house of adoring fans. So much laughter!

A post shared by The Seattle Review of Books (@seattlereviewof) on

Last night, Open Books was packed solid with friends, peers, and fans of poet Joan Swift for a combination memorial service/reading to celebrate the life and work of a giant of Northwest poetry. Hosted by Doug Johnson, publisher of Yakima’s Cave Moon Press, the evening saw friends of Swift including Tess Gallagher and Esther Altshul Helfgott read favorite Swift poems and share their favorite memories.

Helfgott called Swift “the big sister that I never had.” She said that when they met, they took to each other immediately. “She did a lot of kvetching,” Helfgott laughed, “and I guess I was the right person that she needed for kvetching.” They talked about everything, including poetry. “Joan may not have taught formally,” she said, “but she taught me.” Gallagher called Swift “one of our most undaunted poets,” adding that she was “courageous — even a bit savage, in a way.” Gallagher read several poems from Swift’s posthumous book from Cave Moon, The Body that Follows Us — poems about aging and loss and persistence.

Poet Holly Hughes praised Swift’s ability to ride “that razor edge of risk which is also tempered by sorrow.” She remembered first meeting Swift: “she seemed a little bit ethereal. But when Joan started talking I realized that Joan is not ethereal.” The room burst out in laughter then; most of the speakers made reference to Swift’s tendency to be straightforward and direct in almost every aspect of her life. She was honest and sometimes blunt, but never cruel. Her honesty served as both a survival mechanism and an artistic imperative. “Joan didn’t have an easy life, but she made art out of the losses,” Hughes said.

Attendees were invited to read their favorite Swift poems and share their memories. Several people never met Swift, but found strength through her poetry. Others got to know her late in life. It was striking to realize that no matter how they came to Swift — be they best friend or total stranger — everyone was describing the same woman. Swift, on paper, was the same person as Swift in everyday life. The authenticity of her voice, her commitment to her own truths, spoke to everyone.

Helfgott took the opportunity to make several announcements about Swift’s legacy. She said she was working on a website to give Swift a presence on the internet. And she also announced a new award called The Joan Swift Memorial Award for Women over Seventy, which will be administered by Poetry Northwest. It’s a fitting tribute for a poet as vibrant as Swift, who felt compelled to work up until the very end of her life.

Literary Event of the Week: The Seattle International Film Festival

Something very strange happens when you get a bunch of book people — booksellers and librarians, say — to sit down at a bar with a bunch of people who work with movies, like projectionists and film bookers. Usually, all the book people want to talk about is movies: what’s coming out, what this movie star was like when she visited town for a special screening, what working at a movie theater is like. But the movie people are excited to talk about books with a knowledgeable peer group for a change. In the end, they kind of tragically talk over and around each other in an unfortunate overlap of interests.

Book folks and movie folks do have a lot in common, though: they both spend a lot of time indoors, staring at things. They both adore well-told stories. They are patient and abiding lovers of fandom. And for a few weeks at the end of every Seattle spring, the interests of book and film communities intermingle during the Seattle International Film Festival.

Every year, a good portion of SIFF’s 400 films boast a literary pedigree, ranging from adaptations to biopics about authors to documentaries about literary figures. I wrote about some of those movies in our SIFF preview, and we’ll be covering more in the coming weeks.

The first book-to-film adaptation to debut at SIFF this year is the documentary The Fabulous Allan Carr, which screens this Friday and Saturday at the Egyptian. Appropriately, it’s a movie about a nerd who becomes entranced by the glitz and glamor of Hollywood.

With his weirdly boyish face and his unashamed enthusiasm, Hollywood producer Allan Carr gives off a sense that he’s an oversized toddler. His interview segments in the film — all recorded decades ago — are kind of bonkers. At one point, Carr enthuses: "I love stars. Stars are my favorite thing in the world." We discover in the film that Carr was born Allan Solomon, and he chose the name “Carr” in part because it rhymes with “star.”

Carr’s enthusiasm soaked through all the projects he chose to produce. His greatest success was the John Travolta film Grease, but he also shepherded Ann-Margret’s career, and he was an early backer of the Village People. Everything he touched oozed of showbiz: eager to please, over-the-top, and thrumming with gay subtext.

Told in archival clips, brief animated segments, and sparkle-enhanced photographs that shimmer like animated gifs, The Fabulous Allan Carr is as eager to please and as flashy as its subject. But beneath the glitz, there’s a rock-solid structure and dense reporting — all carryovers from the book that inspired the move, Robert Hofler’s Carr biography Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr. Without the substance and heft of a biography to shape the film, it might have been all style and no substance.

Seattle novelist Matt Ruff's excellent novel Lovecraft Country started its life as a pitch for a television show. Now, the Hollywood Reporter says the cycle is complete, as Lovecraft Country (the novel) is heading to HBO. And Get Out director Jordan Peele is producing it, along with J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company:

The drama — described as an anthological horror series that reclaims genre storytelling from the African-American perspective — hails from Peele's Monkeypaw Productions, as well as Bad Robot and Warner Bros. Television. Peele and Green will executive produce alongside Bad Robot's J.J Abrams and Ben Stephenson.

Congratulations to Matt Ruff! This is terrific news. The series has been greenlit straight to series, so we hope to see it at some point in the near future.

Writing in between the lines

Published May 16, 2017, at 12:30pm

Paul Constant reviews Various's PageBoy .

The latest issue of local literary magazine PageBoy invites writers to write about writers they love.

Read this review now

Against Dilbert

We've known for years that Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams is a dipshit men's rights activist. He compares women who want equal pay to children. He's said awful things about consent. He endorsed Donald Trump and praised his "clown genius" for a year before the election.

Adams may be a jackass, but he is not, strictly speaking, an idiot. He's kept his politics out of his comic strip, because he understands that people like Dilbert for its inane "boy-oh-boy-bosses-sure-do-suck-am-I-right?" gloss on office politics. If he were to start bleating his politics in his strip, people might start noticing Dilbert for the first time in years. And when people notice a comic strip, that's usually bad news for cartoonists. Comic strips have coasted along in the same haze of mediocrity for decades now. But newspapers are always looking for ways to cut costs nowaday — I'm sure some editors would love to cut a suddenly controversial strip from their pages if it meant they could save a little cash.

To my knowledge, this Sunday's Dilbert was the first time that Adams's politics overtly bled over onto the comics pages. P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula explains the politics behind the strip, which lands squarely on the side of climate change denial.

This strip did run in the Seattle Times on Sunday. If you're a Seattle Times subscriber, you might want to let the paper know how you feel about Adams's garbage pseudo-science on the comics page.

A Story Problem #2

There is 100 yards of string laid out in a straight line and every ten yards a flower sprouts from stone. The flowers are A. Red. B. Fuschia. C. Yellow. D. White. E. None of the Above. If a boy walks down this path and it is summer and he hums a song from childhood will he pick A, B, C, D or choose E? Will he smell D's metallic hook and think of how gardenias are loudest in the heat? If the string were to tie back the scent could it? Could the string hold back whatever fire rises from A? The split hearts of B? Would there be enough string left to get the boy from X to Y to Z which are not flowers but points like pinpricks on a map. And would someone be waiting for him at Z with a bouquet of gardenias and marigolds? Is there a field at the end of the street, wild with flowers and vines? And what of the map with names like forgotten flowers? What about E and how these are all bad choices? How the names in front of us are never right?

How do you make a solar pizza oven, again?

Sponsor Anne Mendel is here with a full chapter from her comically twisted and dark novel Etiquette for an Apocalypse. Set in Portland in 2020, Mendel gives us a future when humanity is falling apart. But is that any reason to set aside manners?

Read the first full chapter on our sponsor's page — we think you'll really enjoy it. Visit Portland in the near future, and learn all about survival in a high-rise condo during the apocalypse.

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