Portrait Gallery: Octavia Butler

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

Today would have been Octavia Butler's 70th birthday. Butler is considered one of the most influential and important Science Fiction writers of the late 20th century. She came up through the Clarion Workshop, where there is now a scholarship in her honor to support writers of color. From there she went on to write several novels, publishing her last book in 2005. She was the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur Genius Award.

The Huntington Library is home to Butler's literary archive, the Octavia E. Butler Collection, now on display in Pasadena, California.

Criminal Fiction: Murder most audible

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

Thanks to a Twitter-tip from Jim Thomsen I’ve been exploring the Writer Types podcast series run by Eric Beetner and S.W. Lauden. Come for the engaging authors interviews — Megan Abbott, Meg Gardiner, Jordan Harper, Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson — stay for the excellent music.

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

Canny novelist (the Alex Rider series, the new Sherlock Holmes thrillers) and television writer (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War) Anthony Horowitz is in his literary element in Magpie Murders (Harper). An excellent two-fer when it comes to crime fiction – the tome features a beautifully-composed Golden Age mystery written by an author whose editor finds herself with a more contemporary mystery on her hands — Horowitz’s clever take on the vintage English mystery genre as well as the often-fraught world of book publishing is one of this year’s most entertaining reads.

The excellent Stuart Neville’s new foray under his Haylen Beck moniker, Here and Gone (Crown), is about as chilling as psychological suspense novels get. Audra Kinney is trying to free herself and her two kids from an abusive husband, when, in frighteningly rapid succession, she’s pulled over by a cop on a lonely stretch of highway and separated from her kids. The story that transpires digs into some of the darkest corners not just of the Dark Web, but of what sometimes constitutes human motivation. Not as nuanced as Neville’s Belfast-based novels, but a truly propulsive page-turner nevertheless.

Don’t let Mark Billingham’s stand-up-comedian aspect of his professional life fool you: his crime novels don’t shy away from being pitch-black as well as witty. Love Like Blood (Atlantic), features the welcome return of Billingham’s astute and empathetic London-based detective Tom Thorne, here assisting colleague Nicola Tanner with what seems to be a series of honor killings. As he works to crack the horrific cases with Tanner, Thorne’s on top form, nimbly juggling work, happy domesticity, and forensic details down the pub with best buddy, police pathologist and self-proclaimed “devil’s avocado” Phil Hendricks.

Death on Nantucket by Francine Mathews (Soho) starts off all cosy-like – atmospheric island, a wedding in the works – but quickly veers off into more terrifying territory that includes, in no particular order, dysfunctional family dynamics to the max, poisoned beverages, a semi-mummified corpse, and even a temporary venture into America’s war in Southeast Asia. It’s been 19 years since the last Merry Folger mystery, but the island detective returns in fine fettle here.

The Quintessential Interview: Jason Pinter

Polis Books publisher by day, Jason Pinter has an authorial track record of his own: in his latest novel, The Castle, Everyman Remy Stanton blocks a crime-in-action on the Upper East Side, and finds himself in the best books of New York businessman Rawson Griggs, who bears amusing similarities to a Manhattan mogul currently based in the White House. Thriller and satire in one, Hoboken-based Pinter’s novel manages to be both escapist and finger-on-the-pulse-spot-on, as well as a fun, fierce ode to the Greater New York Area.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

I’ve always had a love for epic tales of good versus evil – as a kid, you could always find me buried in a thousand-page novel by Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, or Stephen King.

I’m fascinated by what drives good people to do bad things.

The notion that every villain is the hero of his or her own story. (Wouldn’t it be fantastic to read some classic books told from the villain’s perspective? I bet Pennywise has an amazing tale to tell).

Perhaps the thing that most gets my juices flowing is reading a good book. If I’m reading a terrific book, I often feel inspired: the muse comes and taps me on the shoulder, and the little devil tells me to put the book down and go write.

Top five places to write?

My desk at home. It’s cluttered with papers and files and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bwè cafe in Hoboken. It’s a homey coffee shop a few blocks from my house. If you walk in there at any time of day, the place is filled with people working on laptops. Great coffee and stable WiFi.

Bookstores. Chain or indie, as long as they have seating, coffee, and WiFi. I love taking a 15-minute break and just walking around, browsing the aisles.

Airplanes. Nothing helps pass a cross-country flight than hitting that groove and knocking out a dozen pages before you land.

Top five favorite authors?

Top five writes who inspired me as a child: Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Stephen King, Brian Jacques, and Clive Barker (I was a massive horror hound).

As an adult: Dennis Lehane, Zadie Smith, James Ellroy, Charlie Huston, Dave Barry (Who couldn't use a little more booger humor in their life?)

Top five tunes to write to?

I love writing to movie soundtracks; I have a hard time focusing on writing while lyrics are also playing. My favorite soundtracks to write to are The Social Network, The Bourne Supremacy, and Drive. I’m also a huge Ramin Djawadi fan, so I also love the Game of Thrones soundtrack and, weirdly enough, the Fright Night remake soundtrack. I’m also obsessed with the Hamilton soundtrack (who isn’t?) though that’s more to give me a boost of inspiration to get back to writing. And sometimes hard rock/heavy metal. Hey, I grew up in the 80s and 90s, I’m a Metallica/GN’R guy.

Top five hometown spots?

I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, but now live across the Hudson in Hoboken, so here are the spot that make me want to hop on the Path train at any given moment:

The Strand. Wandering the stacks at The Strand is cheaper and _way _more effective than therapy for me. I collect old first editions of books that have inspired me at some point, and a good portion of my collection has been purchased there.

The Mysterious Bookshop, my home-away-from-home.

The Brandy Library. My wife took me here for my birthday one year, and if you’re a liquor connoisseur, then this is your sanctuary. Their drink menu is—I kid you not—several hundred pages long. We went here soon after the Breaking Bad finale, so I just had to try a Dimple Pinch (note: it was gooooood)

The Comedy Cellar: the best stand-up comedy joint in the country. Don’t bother to fight me on this. The club is literally in a cellar: it’s small and cramped, but this is where the greats go to test their stuff. On separate occasions, I’ve seen Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld show up unannounced just to practice new material (I also saw John Mayer do stand-up here, but that’s a whole different story).

Carbone: if you watch Master of None, you’ll recognize it as the restaurant Dev and Jeff eat at (it’s Jeff’s third dinner of the night). The best meatballs I’ve ever had in my life.

Thursday Comics Hangover: A fan's notes

The following is an email we received from a reader named Joaquin de la Puente:

A question for Paul Constant: I just read your review of Josh Bayer's Atlas #1 and found it uninformed and irresponsible. You didn't seem to research this book or the line that it is a part of. The entire All Time Comics universe is written by Josh Bayer who is a lauded and prolific figure in underground comics. His work has been mostly self-published and this series on Fantagraphics represents his most high-profile release to date.

Josh's work is steeped in reverence for the "paid by the page" writers of the early comics industry. Usually he does his writing, art, including pencils, ink and color and publishes himself. But with this universe he wanted to create a homage to the Marvel-style Bullpens of a different era. This with the goal of employing some senior and upcoming artists that collaborate to make a finished title. Each All Time Comics release, all set within a universe and continuity in which there are so far four superheroes and dozens of auxiliary characters, has at least two alternate covers by different artists, a different artist who does pencils, another that does inks, another lettering, another that does colors with Josh as writer/editor and Fantagraphics as publisher.

This collaborative effort is a tribute to the sometimes amazing and sometimes grotesque work that came out of the comics industry in its early days. So when you write this review and call it "useless", "none of it matters", "there is no point", "the first out and out failure in a decade" etc... you are doing so at the expense and in apparent ignorance of the intent of the comics line which is to honor the collaborative, working-class, sometimes assembly-line approach to the classic comic tradition that made "underground comics" and graphic novels possible.

So my question is: "Why do you hate comics?" This and the whole All Time Comics line is a labor of love by people who have lived and breathed comics for their entire lives. In fact, Crime Destroyer, Part of the ATC series, was the final work of comic veteran Herb Trimpe who loved the work being done and said he felt honored to be working with All Time Comics. All Time Comics could be the beginnings of a line that has some longevity and ability to create some more great work and employ artists and writers for some time to come.

For you to outright condemn ATC without context harms that possibility but perhaps more importantly to you, it comes across like you didn't do your homework and need to take a comics history and appreciation course. The review reminds me of music reviews by writers that couldn't wrap their heads around Bob Dylan going electric, The Clash doing reggae, Devo, Elvis, Stravinsky, Shostakovich or any tradition-bucking work. The review ultimately comments more on you and your lack of historical context for this type of work...and I would say feels like it is dripping with the type of contempt you accuse Atlas #1 of having.

I guess the real question is: What is the intent of this type of review? To express your contempt for the artists and writers or the type of people that would read this kind of "ugly" work? It feels like both of those things which is why I said the review felt irresponsible. You insult a hypothetical audience you don't understand when you "can’t imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing." But really, I'm honestly curious, what is the intent of this type of review?

Sincerely,

Joaquin

Hi Joaquin,

First of all, thanks for writing! I’m always happy to read thoughtful feedback from readers. Your email brings up a lot of important questions about my responsibility as a critic — something it’s really important to investigate on a regular basis.

So let’s start with context. I am aware of the backstory of the All Time Comics line. (I said it looked like “a lot of fun” when it was announced seven months ago). I know who Josh Bayer is, and I’ve been reading Herb Trimpe’s comics since I was a little kid in the early 1980s. Though I have no doubt he was a nice guy and a consummate professional, Trimpe’s work has never done anything for me, particularly his Liefeldian reinvention in the 1990s, which I found to be spectacularly ugly.

So the question your email raises for me is: is it my responsibility to provide background and context for everything I review? I don’t think so. Reviewers aren’t doing PR for publishers and authors. It’s not our job to explain the intent behind the book. It’s our responsibility to share our opinion about what’s on the page.

When I write my comics column, the question I often have in my mind is: if someone picks up this comic with no prior knowledge, what will they think of it? Because frankly, if someone needs to understand three paragraphs of backstory before they can enjoy the first issue of a comic series, that comic series isn’t doing its job. Serialized comics — the sort that Atlas is supposed to be mimicking — need to be as accessible as possible to new readers; if all that information you gave me was essential to enjoying the comic, it should’ve been included in the comic.

I’ve been reading comics my entire life, and I was a teenager in the late 80s/early 90s, which is the era that All Time Comics seems to be emulating. Even at the time, I wasn’t much of a fan of the assembly line style of comics production. (I gave up on Lee/Liefeld comics when I accidentally bought the same issue of the X-Tinction Agenda crossover twice in two weeks because the cover was so bland and forgettable.) So admittedly, I’m probably not the target audience for All Time Comics. (But I’m not alone in disliking mainstream comics from the 1990s; it’s more than a little weird that Fantagraphics is trafficking in nostalgia for comics that they openly mocked as garbage the first time around.)

The most compelling argument you make for All Time Comics is that it provides money and opportunity for comics veterans who have been forgotten by Marvel and DC Comics. But why did that money and opportunity have to come in the form of a rehash of their earlier work? Why ceremoniously load them back onto the corporate comics hamster-wheel? Why not ask them to do something new? I would’ve loved to see what comics Herb Trimpe might have made if he was offered carte blanche by a comics publisher; instead, he just rehashed some of the worst work of his career.

As to your argument that I’m the equivalent of a critic missing out on Dylan going electric: I mean, that risk comes with the job. (I am not a Bob Dylan fan, so I expect I wouldn’t have had an opinion one way or the other about him going electric.) It’s not a critic’s job to be “right” 100 percent of the time. Hell, here’s a little secret: when it comes to art, there is no right or wrong. Your opinion, Joaquin, is just as valid as mine. Isn’t that awesome? I think it’s pretty awesome.

But there is a line from the column that I regret, and I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to address it. I could even tell that I wasn’t happy with the line when I was writing it, but the deadline was breathing down my neck and I let it slide. Here it is: “I can’t imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing.”

To me, that sentence crosses a critical line. It’s not my job to worry about whether you like the book or not, or how you like the book, or why you like the book. It's not my job to speak for you, or any other fan. In that sentence I was expanding my agency beyond myself and putting it into an imagined readership for the book. I was giving myself more power than I have, and that was an unfair thing to do in a review. I wish I hadn’t included that line.

But as to everything else? Yeah, I stand by it. I think Atlas was an ugly, poorly written book. I do think it’s the worst thing Fantagraphics has published in years. I would not recommend it to anyone.

At the same time, Joaquin, I’m happy that you like the book, and that you cared enough about it to start a conversation with me on its behalf. I’m especially thrilled that you decided to stand up for the art that you believe in. This back-and-forth is exactly what criticism should be about. Thank you for that reminder.

Warm regards,

Paul

Yesterday, Seattle's outgoing Civic Poet, Claudia Castro Luna, announced the publication of her Seattle Poetic Grid. It's a map of the city, with site-specific poems interlaid over it. I encourage you to go check it out; there's lots of good stuff there, from classic seattle poems by Richard Hugo and Denise Levertov to newer poems by Julene Tripp Weaver (about University Village, of all places) and Elizabeth Austen and Lena Khalaf Tuffahha.

We'll be digging deeper into the Poetic Grid in weeks to come, but for right now you should investigate it yourself, share your favorite poems online, and contribute your own Seattle-centric poems to Castro Luna.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from June 21st - 27th

Wednesday June 21st: Life After Death

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Thursday June 22nd: Resisting Trump's Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein reads from her latest book, No Is Not Enough, and also will talk extemporaneously about whatever special hellish thing our president decides to do this week. Who can predict what that will be? Maybe he'll give citizenship to cockroaches and declare war against Luxembourg. Why not? The Neptune, 1412 18th Ave, 1-800-745-3000. http://www.stgpresents.org/tickets/eventdetail/3522/-/resisting-trump-s-shock-doctrine-an-evening-with-naomi-klein $23.49. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Friday June 23rd: Spotlight

Group readings tend to die down around this time of year, which is a shame, because few things are better on a hot summer night than a brisk night of literary events. Tonight’s readers are Josh Potter, poet Sharon Nyree Williams, and Word Lit Zine publisher Jekeva Phillips, along with an open mic in which readers get three minutes apiece. Theater Schmeater, 2125 3rd Ave, schmee.org. $14. All ages. 7:30 p.m

Saturday June 24th: June Write-In

June Write-In This is the second in an ongoing series of write-ins in which authors gather to talk about the importance of free speech and democracy in a functioning America. Readers include afrose fatima ahmed, Catherine Bull, and Anca Szilágyi. Be prepared to write about and discuss what it is you love about your country. Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, hugohouse.org. Free. All ages. 10 a.m.

Sunday June 25th: Says You!

Did you know that Town Hall Seattle is about to close for a yearlong renovation? It’s true! One of the best readings venues in the city will be shuttered, improved, and reopened. This is your last chance to catch NPR game show Says You! in this venue for at least one year. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, townhallseattle.org. $32.50. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Monday June 26th: The America Syndrome Reading

Betsy Hartmann’s latest book examines how American thought tends to be overly obsessed with the apocalypse. Is the idea of the end of the world intrinsic to the American ideal? Why do Americans spend so much time thinking about Armageddon? Is there any way to turn our national psyche around? Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday June 27th: Who Belongs?

Dr. Sapna Cheryan leads a discussion about women in science, why it’s taking so long for female representation to catch up in science — particularly computer science. Also discussed: why computer science is so thick with sexist and derogatory language. How do women catch up in this traditionally male-dominated field? That’s what tonight is all about. Ada’s Technical Books, 425 15th Ave, 322-1058, http://seattletechnicalbooks.com, $5, 21+.

Book News Roundup: Get your table at the Seattle Urban Book Expo

  • The Seattle Urban Book Expo is happening on August 26th at Washington Hall. "Last October, the authors and the people showed out and declared that black literature has a place in our community. So much so, that we had to do it again," SUBE founders write on their Facebook page. If you'd like to get a table to exhibit at this year's SUBE, you should send organizers an email and follow the instructions on this post.

  • Local sci-fi writing organization Clarion West is offering up some neat-looking one-day writing classes this fall, including one on world-building and one class taught by the great Nicola Griffith. You can sign up right here.

  • Here's a neat idea that may or may not turn into something: Bookshelf is a website that lets you construct "book mix tapes" to share with friends. You can also read through mix tapes made by other readers. And here's a nice touch: rather than the ubiquitous links to Amazon you'll find all over the internet, Bookshelf links to Indiebound, which allows you to buy books from independent bookseller.

  • Standard Ebooks takes the free-e-library spirit of Project Gutenberg and pairs it with a good sense of design.

Ebook projects like Project Gutenberg transcribe ebooks and make them available for the widest number of reading devices. Standard Ebooks takes ebooks from sources like Project Gutenberg, formats and typesets them using a carefully designed and professional-grade style guide, lightly modernizes them, fully proofreads and corrects them, and then builds them to take advantage of state-of-the-art ereader and browser technology.

Strange bedfellows

Published June 21, 2017, at 11:00am

Samuel Filby reviews Richard Rorty's Philosophy as Poetry, and Maged Zaher's Opting Out.

A classic argument between philosophy and poetry resolved twice: by the logical Richard Rorty and the lyrical Maged Zaher.

Read this review now

Literary Event of the Week: Life After Death at Hugo House

We're so used to the modern incarnation of shooting coverage that we never think about how odd it truly is. Things always begin with reports on Twitter of gunshots, followed by dribbling pieces of "news" — some true, many false — from eyewitnesses and local news reporters. The body count goes up and down, depending on the source. Eventually, we learn about the shooter — always a man, usually with a domestic violence incident or two in his past — and people mumble about his motive and send their respects for the dead before their attention turns elsewhere. Eventually, the whole cycle begins again — every time we respond with a certain shock and newness, as though we all suffer from collective amnesia.

From 2015 to 2016, local writer Marti Jonjak published an astonishing weekly series at McSweeney’s about a man who shot two people at the Twilight Exit and then was killed by police. Jonjak's plan was simple, yet somehow entirely revolutionary: she decided to talk to the witnesses about what they saw, to return the story to the people who experienced the violence, rather than allowing the shooter to hijack the narrative.

Jonjak opens a column in October 2015 like this:

I’m meeting Dave for this interview at Vito’s, a scary and wonderful dive bar with gold-foil mirrors and meaty couches and red leather everywhere. He’s not here yet, so I sit alone on a barstool and stare at the walls. Vito’s was the scene of a murder several years ago. It’s something I’ve always wondered about. The story didn’t get a lot of news coverage, but according to rumor, the victim had gang ties. He’d recently messed with somebody and had been laying low, but his favorite band was playing, and he had to see them. It might’ve taken place on the crowded dance floor, I don’t know, but he was shot in the head. I wish I knew exactly where it happened. This question settles heavily over every surface. As I wait, it grows larger and larger, filling up the room.

Even in a relatively safe city like Seattle, there's a map of violence laid over our grid of streets. She's meeting a survivor of a shooting at a bar with a shooting in its recent past. There are so many shootings, in fact, that we can't keep track of them all. Many of them are lost to gossip and conjecture and some of them are forgotten entirely.

But Jonjak has done what she can to make sure that doesn't happen to the shooting at the Twilight Exit: she devoted herself to one crime, one narrative, to ensure that the story is completely told. Tonight, Jonjak is joined at the Hugo House by former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper to talk about that night and the aftereffects of violent crime. It's a capstone to a remarkable project from a remarkable writer, though hopefully this is not the end of the story — if some editor or agent hasn't approached Jonjak to expand her column into a book-length final statement, perhaps the publishing industry deserves to die.

Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Amazon develops anti-showrooming software and irony is dead

Amazon grew its book business in large part due to showrooming: ask any bookseller and they'll tell you horror stories of customers flipping through books, looking the title up on Amazon, and buying the book on their phone just before leaving the bookstore empty-handed.

But things have changed over the years. Amazon owns and operates several brick-and-mortar bookstores in cities around the country. They just bought Whole Foods. And so naturally they're getting concerned about showrooming, themselves. Lisa Vaas at Naked Security writes about a new patent from Amazon:

The patent, titled “Physical store online shopping control”, describes a system that would prevent customers from comparing prices in Amazon stores by watching any online activity conducted over its Wi-Fi network, detecting any information of interest and responding by sending the shopper to a completely different web page, or even blocking internet use altogether.

With the help of our friends at Elliott Bay Book Company, we at the Seattle Review of Books were happy to encourage Allison Steiger become the first person in the world to showroom Amazon Books back in 2015. If Amazon has their way, Steiger won't be a trend-setter.

(Related: Chris Sagers at Slate lays out the case for an antitrust suit against Amazon.)

Myself, my self

Published June 20, 2017, at 12:01pm

Paul Constant reviews Doug Nufer's The Me Theme.

Doug Nufer's latest book is a fascinating literary constraint that will make you wonder how much weight words can bear.

Read this review now

Reading Rousseau at the Seattle Women’s Clinic

Henri had ‘no other teacher
but nature.’ I recalled that factoid
from an art history class while peaking

thick with narcotics in the clinic bed
then they scotch-taped me to the ceiling
in his poster-sized jungle print.

The safe place for banished PYTs
ripe with uglifruit, there I learned
a woman leaves The Virgin Forest

much the same way she came in.
I laid across the forest’s plush green
canvas. My own foliage, shorn

the night before. Smooth palm leaves
split open in jungle book narrative
where the shadow doctor conflicted

beneath uterine sun —
part man part beast.
Then the thunder.

And it was broken asunder.
And then it was over.
Blood orange fruition

of the smallest, wild hope
crawled out of me for five days
in broken shells and poked yolk.

From constraint comes a new small poetry book

Sponsor Sagging Meniscus wants to make sure you've got this Thursday on your calendar: Seattle writer and poet Doug Nufer will be reading from his new book The Me Theme at Gallery 1412. More details, and a link to the event, on our sponsor's page.

You've seen Doug's name plenty of times on the site. He's a formal constraint-based writer, making some of the most interesting, and compelling, and challenging (in the best possible way) work. Take advantage of the opportunity to hear him read, accompanied by pianist Gust Burns.

Sponsors like Sagging Meniscus make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? Get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. We only have three openings left in our current block, all during July! Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.

At Literary Hub, Stacie Williams writes about what it means to be a librarian:

In 1962, British librarian Douglas John Foskett wrote a paper titled The Creed of a Librarian: No Politics, No Religion, No Morals, in which he argued that “the librarian ought virtually vanish as an individual person, except in so far as his personality shed light on the working of the library.” Neutrality has been enforced from the top down, with our policymaking professional organizations, down to individual librarians in their repositories, as a way of shifting the responsibility of moral judgement from librarian to patron. For instance, neutrality says a patron who asks for help searching for romance books but says, “Don’t give me anything by a Mexican author,” isn’t to be questioned or challenged about a stance that may be prejudiced. Neutrality becomes a way to avoid questions or ethics that are wrong or make people uncomfortable. Article VII of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, amended in 2008 but first adopted in 1939, says “[W]e distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

At one of the bookstores I worked a very long time ago, a customer wanted to return a copy of Mein Kampf that he had bought from the store. When the bookseller asked why, the customer said that the edition had a foreword by a Jewish author placing the book in context and explaining why it should be read and not erased from history. The foreword, written by a Jewish author, rendered that edition of Mein Kampf "an inferior text," the customer argued, and he didn't want the book because it was "contaminated."

The bookseller, who happened to be Jewish, immediately backed away and refused to help the customer any further. She started crying and left the sales counter. Likewise, I refused to even talk to the customer, who then became agitated. Eventually, a manager stepped up and refunded the customer his cash, in an effort to get rid of him. It was a controversial decision — why should this awful human being get what he wanted, when we didn't guarantee any return? — and I still think about it often.

I am not a librarian and I have not attended librarian school. My only context for the questions raised in Williams's article is the above bookselling story and my experience as a journalist, and my opinion is this: objectivity is bullshit. Nothing human is apolitical, and to pretend otherwise is dangerously ignorant. (Note the repeated use of "he" in the Foskett quote above, which is a political decision that Foskett likely didn't realize was even a political decision.) I believe that it's better, in most instances, to acknowledge your politics, to be transparent about them, and to help the patron as best you can.

Williams draws a similar conclusion, but in a much more thoughtful way. I encourage you to read the piece.

Talking with Charles Johnson about community, retirement, and writing a whole lot of books

Charles Johnson has been one of the most influential members of Seattle’s writing community. He’s contributed to the community in a number of ways — as a professor at the University of Washington, as a writer, as a friend to writers. Johnson recently joined the writing and literacy nonprofit Seattle 7 Writers, which donates to literacy organizations and donates books to readers around the region in shelters, detention centers, food banks, and other locations where people have need of good literature.

On Saturday, June 24th, Johnson will be headlining a fundraising brunch for Seattle 7 Writers at the Mount Baker Community Center. Every table at the brunch will feature one local writer, so attendees will get close personal contact with writers including David Schmader, Donna Miscolta, Claire Dederer, Claudia Rowe, and more. I talked with Johnson about the brunch and what he’s been working on lately. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Your Wikipedia page says you're retired, and I think you're maybe one of the hardest-working retired men I've seen.

Oh, that's why you retire from teaching, so you can get your art on your schedule 24-7. Artists never retire, but college professors do. That's true.

And how has your retirement been?

Well, it's been very good. I retired [from the University of Washington] in 2009, and I have been working steadily on all kinds of projects. I've published five books in the last two years, and I'm just putting together now the manuscript for next year, which is a collection of stories. It'll be my third short story collection.

My editor at Scribner just went over it. She didn't really have anything she had to do in the way of editorial work, but she just went over the stories and sent them to me. And so I'm going over her comments and putting together a proper manuscript to get to her next week. It'll be published next May. The title is Night Hawks.

All one word?

I'm breaking it up into two words, "Night Hawks." That's the title story, which is a story I wrote about my 15-year friendship here in Seattle with August Wilson. We had really great eight-to-ten-hour dinner conversations at the old Broadway Bar and Grill, which is gone now, on Capitol Hill.

In December you published a book about creativity and writing. And I wanted to ask if, at this point in your career, if you're sort of taking your teaching wisdom out into the world and teaching sort of in a more informal space?

Well, that's an interesting way to put it. The Way of the Writer evolved out of a longer book called The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson, which was a year-long interview that poet Ethelbert Miller did with me on every subject under the sun. He asked me 400 questions about everything, and I answered 218, and a lot of them were about the craft of writing, because he's a poet and also a teacher of creative writing.

And then we looked at that, and a couple of people commented, who had seen Words and Wisdom, that there was a book here that could be developed on the craft of writing. And I agreed. It was all there. I simply had to maybe revisit and update the essays that I did in response to those questions. And then I added a couple of essays that I had written on the craft of writing over the years.

So this book is essentially a record of my experience for 33 years as a teacher of literary fiction. That's about half my life, actually, 33 years.

But I still do teach. I'm going to work with people at the Spirit Rock People of Color Buddhist Conference in September. And I'm going to do two sessions with their teachers talking about the Buddha, Dharma, and how you can serve your communities with Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Buddhism has been an ongoing theme in your work. Has your teaching shifted over into a more spiritual place since you formally retired?

I've always been a very spiritual person. I've always been a Buddhist practitioner — my entire, really, adult life. I didn't bring that into the classroom with me; I would leave it outside the door. But I think it's pretty well known that I'm a Buddhist practitioner.

And so, people ask me questions about that and I'm happy to respond. It's all total, together, you know. Art is mind, body and spirit, and they all reinforce each other and serve the creative process, I think.

You recently joined the Seattle 7 Writers. Can you talk about what you like about them?

I joined on the invitation of Garth Stein. And I met Garth because every year we do the Bedtime Stories fundraiser for Humanities Washington, and he is the MC. I've written a story for them for every year for 18 years; it'll be 19 years this fall.

I've seen some of them and they’re wonderful. And you always seem so eager to be there.

Oh yeah. I think it’s a great experience. You create something new and it serves a good cause — the programs at Humanities Washington. And the new story collection coming out, Night Hawks, all of those stories except one were written for Bedtime Stories. Ten of the 11 were written for that.

And in my previous book, Dr. King's Refrigerator, five of those stories were written for Bedtime Stories. After I do them for the event and read it, my agent places it somewhere, and then very often it gets an award or it's reprinted or anthologized. So for me, the Bedtime Stories event is a perfect stimulus.

And with regard to the very, very good MC [Stein], he invited me to join the group because I think he's doing good things. The group is doing good things with writers and readers in Seattle.

And can you give us a little preview of what you're going to talk about at the brunch?

I want to talk to Garth a little bit before I actually do it, but my hunch is that what I'll do is I may read bit of something from the last book, The Way of the Writer, and then engage whoever is present in a kind of spirited Q and A about the creative writing process.

And there will be writers at every table of the brunch spread throughout the room, so that'll make an interesting forum to talk about writing.

Last March, I went to the Tucson Festival of Books. I was on a panel with Colson Whitehead, and then I was on a panel with my UW colleague David Shields, and another guy who wrote a book called Thrill Me.

But the morning before that afternoon panel, I spoke to writers about writing using The Way of the Writer as my springboard. It was just real. It's a roomful of writers because it's a literary festival, so I'm pretty familiar with that group — what kind of questions writers can ask. They ask the best kind of questions because they are immersed in the creative process themselves.

Lately I've been asking writers about community. Throughout your career, you've had a terrific commitment to community. You work with Humanities Washington, and you just joined Seattle 7 Writers, and you're very generous with your time. I was wondering if you think that a writer does have an obligation to a community — or does it depend on the writer?

I think you hit it when you said it depends on the writer. Some people are very eager to interact with other writers — to understand what they do, to do things with other writers that are for good causes. Like Humanities Washington, for example. I mean, I enjoy helping other writers, particularly younger ones, get published and get awards and colleagues.

I'm working right now with philosopher George Yancy on a book that he's going to do on Buddhism and whiteness, a critical race theory. I just alerted a lot of friends that I have in the Buddhist community, or the Sangha, to what George was doing. And maybe they'll make a contribution to it and make the book even richer.

I talk about that in The Way of the Writer, probably in the introduction. We don't live in isolation. I think we live in a world of interconnectedness with others. We might feel isolated sometimes; writing's a very lonely activity. You're doing this by yourself, usually, right? In a little room somewhere or, I don't know, wherever people write.

And you kind of forget that it takes a lot of people to get a book out there. The writer writes it, but then there's the editor who gives a good critical eye to something the writer might have missed. And there's the publisher, right? And then there's the bookstores. It really is a network, as Martin Luther King would say, a network of mutuality, that brings a book into being.

I've always been conscious of that, and grateful, too, and thankful for the people who enable a book to become a public object after it leaves the hands of the author. And maybe other writers don't feel that way, but I do think we're all conscious of the fact that we were given something by others, and it's very good, if we can, to give back.

The Sunday Post for June 18, 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.

Nothing Tastes the Same

Friend of SRoB Rahawa Haile returns to the Appalachian Trail, this time on a road trip with her father. Speeding from BBQ to buffet, they take the first small steps toward knowing each other after a ten-year hiatus and map the distance that remains between.

Now, driving instead of hiking down these mountains, I learn that my father loves taking sharp turns too fast, something I never noticed growing up in the road-dull broadsheet that is Florida. I do not share his enthusiasm. I’ll take sore knees from 4,000-foot descents over feeling my inertia any day. I recognize for the first time just how much of him comes from the highlands of Eritrea. He's been courting death in this way since before I was born.

Also fascinating: the backstory of how the original article came to be, via an interview with Haile in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The art of writing an obituary

Meet Ann Wroe, obituarist for The Economist, who’s eulogized the lives of figures as towering as Fidel Castro and tiny as a fish (well, Benson was not so tiny, as fish go).

People think it’s a rather gloomy job, but it’s very seldom a sad job. Usually, the people you’re dealing with have lived for ages and have done really interesting things. It’s only when people die young that I think it becomes sad. I think of death as going into another place where you are as alive there as you are here. It doesn’t bother me at all.
A Look Back at Shel Silverstein’s Adults-Only Children’s Book

If you were born at a certain point in history, your childhood shelves included odd books about stunt-flying seagulls, sky-climbing caterpillars, and this gem: Shel Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ. I was lucky enough to read it (likely while sitting in the middle of the street with a handful of firecrackers) before the “adult only” flag was added to the cover. Kevin Litman-Navarro celebrates Uncle Shelby and the consternation of several generations of unsuspecting parents.

Given all of the thinly veiled adult humor throughout the book, it seems quite clear that Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not intended for children. But some distracted adults, it seems, neglected to actually read it before passing it to their sweet, impressionable young ones — today’s parental equivalent of giving a child unprotected internet access. One scandalized reader on the book review site Goodreads didn’t realize her mistake until she had already begun a family reading. “The truly shocking page,” she wrote, “was where he was joking about going with kidnappers and eating the lollipops they offer.”
In Search of Fear

In its exclusive on Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb (no ropes, no company) of the massive El Capitan, National Geographic says Honnold’s “tolerance for scary situations is so remarkable” that he’s been a lab subject for neuroscientists fascinated by his ability to chill. Honnold’s take? “I just set [fear] aside and leave it be.” Philippe Petit, the man on the wire, has a somewhat more detailed and poetic anatomy of the deadly emotion.

A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad.

Seattle Writing Prompts: Planes on Trains

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.

The logistics of shipping and distribution of goods are amazing to think about. Even an ardent anti-capitalist has to admit that the ingenuity by which we distribute things around the world, even when they take tremendous resources, is impressive. Maybe I'm clouded by my love of trains, but rail is the mechanism that always invokes the most wonder in me. Ships are great, don't get me wrong, but heavy iron rolling on rails makes me feel like a kid when I watch them pass. Planes, too, because of the magic the demonstrate: for the natural engineer in all of us, trains and boats are more-or-less understandable, and the methods of their locomotion easily demonstrable. But planes rely on hidden physics, airflow over wings, incredible amounts of forward thrust, and a little white-knuckled hurling yourself into opaque clouds.

So imagine how exciting it is to see 737 bodies, not yet fully assembled, rolling by on trains through Seattle. They come from Kansas, where Boeing has a factory (unfortunately, to my point of view, who wished full assembly was done here in Washington even if it would negate the sight of the fuselages rolling through), and they are shipped north, then west, across Montana, Idaho, and Washington before crossing the Cascades near Everett and heading south through Seattle to Renton for final assembly.

I used to work at an office on the ground floor at the old Post-Intelligencer building on the waterfront, where the P-I globe is now. When a plane on a train went by, the view of the park would be eclipsed by this massive cargo — green, from the protective plastic wrapping, as if your new plane is the same as your new iPhone (if you love peeling the protective covering from a small thing, imagine doing it for a plane. I wonder how soon you'd learn to hate it, if it were your job?). Because I was obsessed, I'd run out on the balcony and take a picture as quickly as I could. I used to maintain a Twitter account to post those pictures, and then I assembled a photo essay when our offices moved from the building.

There's something about seeing a plane on a train that makes you appreciate the scale of trains themselves. They don't seem quite that big, until you see them carrying something that, in short order, will launch itself into the sky, clad in the livery of the final client. I want to see a model in a giant warehouse, with tiny trains traveling from Kansas to Seattle across America.

In Seattle, this common sight brings to light a number of interesting topics: Boeing, and its role in our local economy ("Will the Last Person Leaving SEATTLE — Turn Out the Lights"; Execs abandoning their Seattle, ostensibly due to traffic; factories moving around the country, and around the world), how trains run right through the heart of our city, and we can't really control what those trains carry past our doorstep, or how long they block traffic along the waterfront.

Not to mention how strangely hypnotic the sight is, standing on the bridge at Carkeek Park, or walking the waterfront, getting caught by the old Old Spaghetti Factory, seeing them roll past as you're caught going eastbound on Lander, watching planes roll by, green, with such a future.

Imagine now that you're trapped watching a train with five of them roll by. Imagine that each plane is destined for a future, and each plane will encounter thousands of people. That means that every train has a nearly limitless supply of stories. Let's find one for each plane.

Today's prompts
  1. The first plane — This is the one that, after pulling into the factory, after being positioned in the assembly area, between shifts so that the riveting guns were silent — an employee inspecting the fuselage removed one of her ear protectors to scratch an itch and she heard an almost-silent mewing. And after yelling for her coworkers to shut up for a minute, discovered the kitten that had hitched a ride across America on a plane on a train.

  2. The second plane — It's on this one, on an Alaska flight from Las Vegas to Montana, where a man who went in big and came away lacking is fretting over facing his wife to explain their diminished savings. He drank before boarding. He drank when, at altitude, first service came around. Then, with a bear-like howl, he cried out. People all around him looked as his large, 250-pound body collapsed on itself, sobbing, shaking. A small elderly woman, on her way to visit her wayward daughter, who was finding herself at a yoga retreat near Glacier, moved next to him, placed her tiny hand on his shoulder, and leaned in to speak the most calming words he'd ever heard.

  3. The third plane — It's ten years into its service when this plane flies a seven-year-old who will become the President of the United States. It's the last time this child will fly with their father, who will die in the year following. It's notable because they're going to see Washington, DC, where the child's father hopes to instill a sense of purpose and pride in the child for their country, and where they will have a coincidental run-in, checking into the hotel, with a former congressperson that the child will never forget. And the flight is notable because, due to great irony, the man who runs against this child in the future (and loses, by a narrow margin), a teenager at this point, is sitting in first class, coming to spend Spring Break with his own professional lobbyist father, flying from the boarding school he hates so much.

  4. The fourth plane — It's this one that comes closest to having an accident. It's an air traffic control issue, and the plane is saved by a quick-thinking pilot — who had once been a test pilot on the 737 line — who immediately responded to an impending collision light by pulling up hard and increasing thrust to jet the airplane to a much higher altitude. And in the bathroom, a woman applying makeup and nearly poking her eye out and dropping her little zip bag full of beauty kit everywhere, devises an idea for organizing her kit that ended up becoming a multi-million dollar business.

  5. The fifth plane — This is the plane that the aliens take. It's flying to Bermuda, and then blink, it's gone. Nowhere on radar, and no wreckage ever found. It just disappears from the world. In fact, everybody aboard passed out, as if by magic, and awoke to the plane on stable ground, quiet, engines off. They woke, and looked around. A scream from the front of the plane, a man looking out the window. It was obvious on first glance, they were nowhere in the world. It was obvious on first glance that they had been abducted.

Is it just me, or has 2017 been a bad year for novels?

We’re not quite halfway through 2017 yet, but I’ve noticed a very visible pattern to my reading this year: I’m not enjoying novels the way that I always have. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel that has really blown me away, the way memoirs from Patricia Highsmith and Sherman Alexie did this year. No novel has wowed me with its ingenuity and energy and passion, the way Claudia Rankine’s Citizen did. No novel has reached out and forced me to reconsider the world the way The Righteous Mind did.

The book-critic-o-sphere, even in its weakened state, has already promoted quite a few novels as the year’s best, of course. And if you’re preparing to counter this post with a tweet that reads “But, @paulconstant, did you read [insert hot 2017 novel title here]?” let me assure you that the odds are good that yes, I did try the book. I’ve abandoned more novels this year than at any other point in my reading life. I’ve tried almost every flavor-of-the-month and none of them have moved me.

I haven’t written reviews of these books or called them out on social media because, frankly, I’m not sure what the source of this problem might be. There are two options:

  1. Maybe I’m not in a place to receive good fiction right now. This happens every so often, especially in politically difficult times. I couldn’t read fiction during the end days of the 2008 or 2012 elections, for example. So perhaps my adjustment into the Trump administration has temporarily eaten the part of my brain that enjoys novels. If so, I’m sure it’s a temporary condition and my fiction-brain will reaffirm itself eventually.

  2. Perhaps we’re in a fallow period for modern literary fiction. It has been a while since some person or group of people has claimed a new literary aesthetic as their own. Not everyone is happy with these moments in literary history, but they at least provide a point of discussion for writers to consider as they move forward. As a young man, I was thrilled by the whole McSweeney’s aesthetic, which seemed to reinvigorate literature for younger audiences. I was less thrilled with the Tao Lin-style simple-prose aesthetic that made a big deal of ostentatiously incorporating tech brands like Gchat and Facebook into the narrative. But at least those writers offered critics something to align themselves against. You may not agree with a literary movement, but you can’t argue that literary movements allow literature the opportunity to reinvestigate what it has and has not been doing well.

Either of those statements may be true. Perhaps I’m too distracted by current events and addled by Twitter to focus on the quality literature that’s being published this year. Or perhaps we’re in a too-comfortable fallow period of the kind that has traditionally preceded some young writer’s attempt to blow the whole damn kingdom up in order to reinvent it.

Either way, I can’t wait until I’m eagerly engaging with literature again; this last half-year has been difficult, because while non-fiction might help me understand the world and poetry might help me see the world, I build my world out of fiction. A good novel rebuilds your understanding of the universe from start to finish, and I have rarely lived in a universe more in need of reinvention than this universe we’re living in right now.

The Help Desk is on vacation (again)

Cienna Madrid is, despite what some of her friends and family might tell you, a human being. Human beings take vacation in the summer. There will be no new advice column this week, because Cienna Madrid is on vacation.

If you want Cienna Madrid to stop taking vacations, you should email her your best literary etiquette questions. If you keep her engaged and entertained with your emails, she will never leave us again. That address is advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.