You can't steal America

As I said, political conventions are stories. They are narratives through which political parties explain America to America. Last week’s Republican National Convention was a straight-up horror story, a nightmare scenario in which America was under continuous and merciless attack from alien forces both without and within. Donald Trump painted himself as the one man standing between life as we know it and total destruction. it was a child’s morality tale, a binary-minded nightmare lullaby of “winners” and “losers,” of “good guys” and “bad guys,” of “America” and “real America.”

What did Republicans think of this week’s Democratic National Convention? Katherine Kruger at Talking Points Memo collected a few Twitter reactions. Here’s a columnist at the conservative National Review:

And a National Review editor:

Here’s a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan:

Here’s Dick Cheney’s former press secretary:

A former Ted Cruz staffer:

They are right: the Democratic National Convention was far more optimistic and uplifting, which is to say more American, than the Republican National Convention. It featured more praise of the American military, and our police officers. It had more references to God and spirituality.

But the conservative commentariat is wrong to assume that this encroachment on what they believe to be Republican turf is anything new. I attended both conventions in 2012, and the last DNC wasn’t proportionally much different than this one. It featured roughly the same tributes to the military, and references to God, and cheerful optimism. Let's for right now set aside the ridiculousness of a political party believing that its opposition doesn’t have the right to be proud of its own country and ask: why are conservatives crying this year about Democrats stealing their schtick?

The difference, of course, is that Mitt Romney’s RNC of 2012 presented a similar face to the world: spiritual, relatively optimistic, inclusive. Trump’s racist, fearful spray of pseudocelebrities and political nonentities simply made the contrast starker. In short: Democrats didn’t gain ground; Republicans ceded it. That optimism and pride and faith has been there in the Democratic story for years; it’s only in comparison with the vacuum created by Trump that it was suddenly more noticeable.

So if every convention tells you where we’ve been as a people, what we’re doing now, and how we’re going to get to the future, what was the story that this DNC laid out? The “where we’ve been” part lingered most often in the recent past. Specifically, embedded into this convention was a farewell party for the Obama Administration. For too many of President Obama’s eight years in office, the Obamas could not claim any sort of victory; the recovery from the recession was too slow and too many people were in trouble.

And at the end of President Obama’s term, there are plenty of problems to be faced: inequality is still rampant, college debt is too high, and our economy is in dire need of a top-to-bottom rehaul in favor of the middle and working classes. The drone war continues, and so does wiretapping. The time is never right for a presidential victory lap.

But what the Obamas could do at the DNC for the first time was to acknowledge that they held the country together at a time when it could have fallen apart. They could say that they were proud of pieces of their legacy, even as they were humbled by their failures. And they could talk about what they learned and how they felt and what they wanted for the future.

Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday was widely regarded as a high point for convention speeches of any kind. It was a gorgeous piece of writing, finely structured and delivered with passion and true emotion. And it closed a narrative loop for First Lady Obama, addressing the conservative outrage of the 2008 presidential campaign when she said that her husband’s presidential campaign made her, “for the first time in [her] adult life,” proud of her country.

At the time, that was a nuanced statement from someone who had been thrust into the spotlight. It drew howls of treason from the right. Eight years later, Obama threw that outrage back at the Republican presidential candidate when she urged the audience to “don’t ever let anyone tell you that this country isn’t great.” The fact that she took this stage in front of millions and acknowledged the reality that the White House was “built by slaves” — and the fact that some pedants actually challenged her assertion — was a significant moment in American history. Her feelings for America are complicated, as they should be, but she hasn’t given up on it and, ultimately, she doesn’t feel that it’s given up on her.

The first lady gave President Obama a high bar to clear, and to pit the two in mortal combat would be missing the point. They were companion pieces, two beautifully written tributes to the idea of America. The point that got me in President Obama’s speech was near the end, in a Wizard of Oz-style moment, when he called back to his earliest campaign themes and tied them together into a big beautiful rhetorical bow. He tells the audience…

…you're who I was talking about 12 years ago when I talked about hope. It’s been you who fueled my dogged faith in our future, even when the odds were great; even when the road is long. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.

It’s a moment that could be schmaltzy if it weren’t so earnest: don’t you see? You were the hope and change you sought all along! It’s a moment that concludes one chapter, and opens another. When Hillary Clinton took the stage to embrace the president and hold his hand and walk around the stage with him, Obama had prepared the audience for the moment. He had said goodbye, in his thoughtful, writerly way, and introduced a new narrative with a new protagonist.

Nomination acceptance speeches are never going to be works of fine rhetorical art. They are speeches with way too much to do: they have to introduce the candidate, sum up all the symbols and themes of the previous four days, present the difference between a candidate and her opponent, and make the case for what they would do in office. It’s a speech that has to reach for the sky and sift in the dirt. It’s a balance sheet and it’s a love letter. It’s impossible to get exactly right.

That said, Hillary Clinton gave as good a speech as I’ve ever seen her give — and that includes her transformative "Women's Rights Are Human Rights" talk in Beijing and her graceful 2008 concession speech. Clinton seems energized to find herself competing against a target like Donald Trump. (In that way, she’s very much like President Obama; his outright contempt for Mitt Romney gave him strength in some of the darkest hours of 2012.) And her disdain for Trump’s dangerous temperament felt honest and was entertaining; she attacked her opponent directly more than is traditional for one of these speeches, probably because it’s not a traditional election year. Her speech was thematically appropriate, and smart, and loaded with subtext to honor the historical importance of the moment.

And while Trump’s narrative has no middle, Clinton’s speech was obsessed with the middle. She referred to herself, self-deprecatingly, as a process nerd. She talked about policy. She even concluded the speech with a quote from the musical Hamilton, about “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Clinton immediately emphasized the importance of the lyric: “That’s why we’re here — not just in this hall, but on this earth.” Deferred gratification. Hard work for its own reward. Planning for generations that do not yet exist. Not only would a strip-miner like Donald Trump never be caught saying anything like this aloud, it’s likely that he does not even understand the concept.

If there is one insult Republicans can never hurl at Clinton, it would be that she’s lazy. Her husband made the case in his speech that she was a “changemaker,” and every other major speaker subtly reinforced that claim. She is a hard worker, someone who focuses on details, and policy, and people. And so in that way, the story she told was unique for a presidential convention: she did not focus on the America we can one day build, she focused on the America we are building right now.

And, really, what else could there be in our future but more work? The work of America will never be done. There will always be more goals, and new problems, and mistakes to clean up. There will never be a time when we look down on the American experiment, clap our hands together, and pronounce it finished. We will always wake up and look around and go to work. That is our privilege and our joy as Americans.

And what about the protesters? It would be downright odd to write about the DNC without writing about them, because they were a part of every night of the convention. On the one hand, I think it’s very likely going to be historically embarrassing for our generation that the first woman to accept her party’s presidential nomination had to do so through intermittent jeers and howls from aggrieved men. Most Sanders supporters have the same problems with President Obama that they do with Clinton, yet Obama’s speech the night before saw many fewer would-be interruptions than Clinton’s. It is impossible to separate the troubling gender dynamics from this moment.

But on the other hand, what could be more democratic, and more Democratic, than protest? Democrats have never demanded the mindless fealty that Republicans did at the peak of Reaganism. Democrats employ the tools of dissent throughout the party — from striking unions to Occupy to the wonderful Congressional sit-in from earlier this year — and so it’s only fair to expect Democrats to use dissent against other Democrats.

You and I may disagree on tactics — I absolutely believe, for instance, that it is fair game for Black Lives Matter activists to shut down highways, while others seem to believe that inconvenience is not a legitimate activist tool — but the Democratic Party has never been as comfortable in its own skin as the Republican Party. It doesn’t demand a values test of its members, nor do Democrats spend a lot of time concerned over the authenticity of other Democrats, the way Republicans will obsess over RINOs. Democrats will always argue with each other over what is right, and how to go about doing what was right. They will always protest.

Because in fact protest works. Clinton made it clear in her speech that Sanders supporters helped drive the platform to the left:

Bernie, your campaign inspired millions of Americans, particularly the young people who threw their hearts and souls into our primary. You’ve put economic and social justice issues front and center, where they belong. And to all of your supporters here and around the country: I want you to know, I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion. That’s the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America. We wrote it together – now let’s go out there and make it happen together.

The thing about protest is it’s not a single thing. A protest doesn’t just happen once. Protest is an ongoing action. You have to champion your causes, and once they’re instantiated into the mainstream you have to fight to make sure they’re not diluted. And then you have to fight to make sure people know what you did. And then you have to move on to the next thing. This is work, all of it. It’s continuous and ongoing work. And that’s what Clinton was saying from the stage, even to the people who wanted to shout her down: she was telling them, let’s go to work. Together.

The Help Desk: I want my husband's mistress to recommend books for me

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

Dear Cienna,

My husband is having an affair. It is what it is, and we'll get through it. In fact, he doesn't even know I know, and I think I'll leave it that way. All the guilt has made him pretty attentive and sweet!

But here's the thing: whoever his mistress is, she has amazing taste in books. How do I know? Because overnight he went from solely military sci-fi to reading Eco and DeLillo and Borges, and having interesting conversations about literature with me. I never could inspire him step outside his comfort zone, but I never thought about what literature would engage him intellectually like this, either. She did.

Here's my problem: I want her to recommend books for me! She has to be a librarian or a bookseller. I just know it. I snooped his browser history and stuff, but he's more tech savvy than me and obviously being smart about this. Any advice? He could go off and philander with her all he wants, just as long as she recommends a big stack of good novels I could enjoy while he was gone.

Selina, Georgetown Heights

Dear Selina,

Congratulations, you have made me deeply uncomfortable, which is a difficult thing to do! I’m tempted to send you a polyp in a jar as a prize, courtesy of my clinically resentful uterus! (I’ve been waiting for an excuse to make polyp de gallo like those crunchy new mothers do. All I need is one human-shaped friend to share it with.)

So your husband may be gently humping Nancy Pearl or one of her equally well-read peers. I am sorry but not surprised; it is a Northwest bourgeois intellectual fear that many of us partnered book lovers share. But perhaps I shouldn’t be sorry – you don’t seem that sorry.

If you want book advice from your husband’s mistress without outing his affair, here’s the obvious answer: Ask him for book recommendations and let this bizarre game of telephone play out. He’ll ask her for advice post-gentle-hump, he’ll pass that advice along and you’ll hopefully get what you want.

But here’s some extra free advice from a woman whose idea of “personal growth” is stored in canning jars in her kitchen: Seeking out book advice from your husband’s mistress isn’t the healthiest pastime. You live in a city pulsing with book lovers, book sellers, bookstores and librarians. Perhaps you should seek out your own literature-loving unicorn and leave your husband to his own.



Portrait Gallery will be back next Thursday!

Christine has taken this week off from Portrait Gallery, but she will be back next Thursday with another amazing art piece! In the meanwhile, you can mosey over to the Portrait Gallery archives to appreciate last week’s portrait of Carla Hayden and more. And if you have anyone in mind you think would make a good portrait, let us know!

The author of short stories and essays passed away today at age 72. He was a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellow, and he was notably the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Book News Roundup: Racism in science fiction, Man Booker longlist released

In a cooperative arrangement with the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair to be held October 8 & 9, 2016 in the Exhibition Hall at the Seattle Center, the Ephemera Society of America is holding its first ever mid-year meeting in the Pacific Northwest. The regional presence of the Society, based in the East Coast, is part of its efforts to expand its mission throughout the entire United States and provide its West Coast members opportunities to participate in events and programs dealing with paper ephemera.
How then to certify that the extra weight allowance will be used specifically for books? According to Alexander Skipis, managing director of the German Booksellers and Publishers Association, “All the 5,000 bookstores in Germany were equipped with the campaign stickers and the bigger part of them are participating.” Once you have the sticker, you are allowed the extra weight. Simple enough.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Make Captain Marvel Great Again

On his 45th birthday, Chris is on the cusp of a few different disasters, each one more mundane than the last. His mother died, so he’s moved in with his ailing father. His body seems to be falling apart all at once. He’s been the music editor at a starving alternative weekly (the latest issue is just 28 pages, which in alt-weekly terms is basically a death sentence) for at least two decades, so his employability is questionable at best. But he’s out for a celebratory beer with friends, and he feels grateful for his schlubby nondescript white-guy life. It could be the beginning of a Stephen King story, or an off-brand Springsteen ballad.

On his way back from the bathroom, a young woman grabs Chris’s arm and starts yelling at him. With accusing body language, she snaps: “Why be old when you can be young?...Why be human when you can be more? Stop wasting time. You have the power.” The is fraught with a deeper social meaning: a young woman who appears to be African-American telling a white guy he has the power is a kind of on-the-nose moment.

But Captain Kid is a superhero comic, and the power she’s referring to has a more literal meaning, too: some time before the opening of this issue, Chris discovered that he can turn into a superhero. Specifically, he can turn into a super-strong teenage boy who can fly. It’s a reversal of the classic Captain Marvel formula — in case you’re unfamiliar, in the Captain Marvel comics, a prepubescent boy turned into an in-his-prime Superman-type. It’s a premise that’s been played with before — in Alan Moore’s Marvelman comics, a sidekick character turned the age dynamic on its head — but as traditional superhero fandom continues to slide into middle age, a reverse-Captain Marvel seems especially topical.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Captain Kid presents a play on Donald Trump’s campaign promises to return America to the days when it was “Great” (the subtext, of course, is white, and male.) Much hay has been made of Trump’s messaging being directed at older white men, who feel disempowered by the diversity and city-centric focus of President Obama’s America. Of course, Captain Kid was likely in the works long before Trump’s rise, but the comic still feels very of-its-moment.

Writers Mark Waid and Tom Peyer have been playing clever games with superheroes for decades now. (Waid most recently launched a very successful Black Widow series at Marvel with artist Chris Samnee.) Captain Kid has one foot planted firmly in postmodernism, but the other is in traditional superhero storytelling, with a plot revolving around a mysterious man who runs a potentially shady lawn and garden company. You won’t find the rawness of Marvelman here, or the grit of some of the more unfortunate Captain Marvel reimaginings of the last decade. They seem to like their main character, even as they challenge his own ideas about what he is.

And the art by Wilfredo Torres resembles the clean lines of Chris Sprouse, paired with the dynamic facial expressions of Samnee. This is good stuff — much better than some of the overwrought artists on mainstream superhero titles. It all combines into a slick, enjoyable package, the kind of book you wish mainstream superhero publishers were putting out.

Captain Kid packs in more than enough clever inversions of traditional superhero ideas to capture my interest, and if the book continues to pick at the political and racial ramifications of its premise, it will very likely become a monthly must-read. Waid, Peyer, and Torres are stomping on some hallowed ground here. They have the potential to create real mischief in future issues.

Yesterday, Hugo House published the lineup of their 2016-2016 Word Works and Literary Series events.

The Literary Series, which pairs writers and musicians to produce new work on a theme includes authors like Téa Obrecht, Alexander Chee, Megan Kruse, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and musicians including beautiful Seattle-based electronic act Crater. Word Works is bringing authors like Patricia Smith (who kicked ass the last time she read at Hugo House,) Lidia Yuknavitch, and — perhaps most excitingly — Mary Gaitskill, who is one of the most underrated literary novelists in America today.

Non-series events presented by Hugo House this fall include a much-anticipated reading by Colson Whitehead, a new book from Michelle Tea, the launch of Seattle author Steven Barker's debut non-fiction collection Now for the Disappointing Part, Ed Skoog's latest poetry collection, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's Contagious Exchanges series, featuring discussions between queer artists (such as Rebecca Brown and C. Davida Ingram) moderated by Sycamore. This is just a sampling of what was announced; go check out the House's site for more details.

The State of the Site: Year One

It’s been one year today since Paul and I launched the Seattle Review of Books, and it is my solemn duty to report to you that the state of the site could not be stronger.

In this past year, we’ve run 120 book reviews, about 2.25 per week on average. We have paid 85 writers, journalists, and poets to bring insightful critique, remarkable poetry, reports from corners of the book world, and the occasional tough look at local issues.

We are lucky that many of those writers have come back to write for us again, and we owe special thanks to our weekly columnists: advice (and spider) wrangler Cienna Madrid, and portrait painter, the goddess of the gouache, Christine Marie Larsen. Special thanks also to our first intern, the driven and talented Rebecca Garcia Moreno.

We are grateful to our sponsors, who keep the pixels lit by offering up their books and work for your consideration. Our sponsorship program started as an experiment, and continues as a roaring success, with only three of our first fifty-two weeks going unsold. This is notable and promising for such a new advertising model, and we couldn’t be happier with the results. As always, our motto has been: better for the reader, better for the advertiser.

Diversity is an important issue to us, and we have focused on giving platforms to women, people of color, and voices from across the diverse spectrum of the LGBT community. How did we do? Our Public Diversity Editor has been tasked tasked with letting us know — we are the first publication in history to ask for our feet to be held to the fire in this regard — and as soon as her first report is ready, you will find it here, on the site.

The Seattle Review of Books started on a lark — Paul had just left his job of seven years, and after his announcement of such on social media, I tweeted a joke at him, kidding on the square.

We went to Le Pichet one night soon after to catch up, and the joke tweet came up. I did a search, there at the slate-topped table, and we were both flabbergasted to learn that the domain name had never been claimed. Could it be that with my knowledge of design and building websites, and his stellar writing and editorial know-how, that we could put something together?

Laughing, we agreed to buy it. Paul gave me a $10 bill and we made a handshake agreement: whatever we did, we’d do it as partners.

A few months later we were gathered in the basement at Elliott Bay Book Company with a small group of friends from the book world. It’s to Paul’s credit that he could gather a room of people on a Monday night with the promise only of an mysterious announcement.

We had snacks, and socialized a bit, and then, talking about the hole in Seattle media focusing on the local lit scene, we announced this site, to a very pleasing round of applause.

The in-between — deciding what form the company should take, figuring out our tech, putting the thing together — that stuff is boring. It’s worth noting only to mention that whenever one of us took a step forward, the other was in almost total agreement. It was the easiest concept-to-release I’ve ever been involved in.

We have plans for the future. Were we to have a full editorial staff, and the time to dedicate to them, you may see a richer site, with broader coverage and deeper looks at issues we don’t currently have the bandwidth to cover.

But there is something to be said about keep our expectations at a certain level: our audience is you. We don’t want to scale to millions of viewers. We don’t want to add in advertising scams meant to milk every penny out of your generous attention. We want you to find things you love to read here. We are writing for those of you who look at us every day over lunch, or at the end of the day on the bus or light rail, or who binge-read at the end of the week. We’re writing this for you who follow us on Twitter or Facebook and click through when we publish something new.

What we want is to deliver, every day, is a site full of words you want to read so badly you can hardly wait to refresh and see if we've updated. Words to engage and disagree with, to feel passionately about. We want to offer you our world on your screen, and in doing so, create a bridge to your world, and in between we forge community.

Friends, the future of the Seattle Review of Books is bright. Stay tuned for new things, and expect more of the same we’ve been delivering every day for the past year. You've only just read the first chapter of a very long novel. We’ve only just begun to get to know each other.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from July 27th - August 2nd

Wednesday July 27: Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State Reading

To hear Donald Trump tell it, China is supposedly that weird blob on the other side of the world that keeps screwing us with trade. For a more nuanced view, perhaps you should turn to Seattle native Justin Jacobs, who will debut his new book about the rise of China as a “national empire.”University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Thursday July 28: Margin Shift

Seattle’s Margin Shift poetry collective presents a night of young poets. Georgia writers Ginger Ko and Lindsay Tigue will read new work, but the real reason to turn out is to see Seattle writer Bernard Grant give one of his last readings in town before he pursues his PhD in literature at the University of Cincinnati. Common AREA Maintenance, 2125 2nd Ave, (253) 224-0746. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Friday July 29: Arcane Comics Grand Re-Opening

Until a few months ago, Arcane Comics was arguably the best comics shop in Seattle. Now that it’s moved to Aurora, it’s definitely the best comics shop in Shoreline. Arcane celebrates its relocation with a weekend long sale, appearances by guest artists, and a big art party Saturday night starting at 8 pm. Arcane Comics, 15202 Aurora Ave North Suite A, 781-4875, Free. All ages. 10 a.m.

Saturday July 30: A Reading of Indigenous Writers

Memoirist and Fremont Bridge Writer-in-Residence Elissa Washuta headlines an afternoon of poetry from indigenous writers. She’ll be joined by Portland poet Demian DinéYazhi’ and Brooklyn author Tommy Pico, who has written an epic poem titled IRL. Expect a lot of dark humor and more than a little manipulation of genre and form. Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, Free. All ages. 4 p.m.

Sunday July 31: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Midnight Release

See our Event of the Week column for more details.

Monday August 1: Landscapes for the People Reading

National parks are an essential part of the American character. Tonight, outdoor photographers Ren and Helen Davis celebrate the centennial of America’s wondrous national parks program with a new book titled Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, . Free. All ages. 7 p.m

Tuesday August 2: Salon of Shame

Why the hell do people hold onto their embarrassing teenage writing? That’s a mystery for the ages, but Salon of Shame will make you so glad that they do. In this perennially popular event, people read their most embarrassing journal entries and school assignments for the edification of a delighted audience.

Cornish Playhouse At Seattle Center, 201 Mercer St., 726-5113, $20. 21+. 8 p.m.

Get a load of all the small presses and cartoonists who'll be presenting at this year's Short Run Festival at the Seattle Center. November 5th can't get here soon enough.

Literary Event of the Week: Harry Potter and the Inexorable March of Time

Of course, there was no such thing as a midnight Harry Potter party when the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was released in the United States back in 1998. I was a bookseller at a Borders when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone debuted, and the books gradually gained attention thanks to a word-of-mouth campaign spurred by the book’s popularity in Britain and a succession of breathless media reports ranging from newspapers to NPR to daytime talk shows.

By the time the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released in 2007, the midnight release party had become a beloved ritual for a whole generation of kids. They grew up with the books, and every new release in the series brought with it an ever-increasingly more elaborate series of bookstore events. Booksellers dressed up like wizards. Kids participated in raffles and trivia contests and ate snacks lifted from the novels.

The Harry Potter party craze couldn’t have arrived at a more fortuitous time for the publishing industry. Even as Amazon’s popularity seemed to increase exponentially with each passing year, independent bookstores gently trained a whole new generation of kids to look forward to congregating at bookshops with other book nerds. For once, the passive pleasure of discovering a brown cardboard parcel on your doorstep paled in comparison with the pageantry of actually visiting an actual bookstore staffed with actual human beings.

And now is the time for this generation of twentysomethings to wallow in the kind of nostalgia that has suffocated every American generation before it. The latest in the Harry Potter series, a play titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child co-written by J.K. Rowling, is being released at midnight on Sunday, July 31st—Harry Potter’s canonical birthday—and both University Book Store and Elliott Bay Book Company are hosting release parties for millennials to relive the good old days. Festivities at Elliott Bay begin at 10 pm on Saturday, July 30 and continue well past midnight on the 31st. University Book Store's party starts at 11 am on the 31st.

Both stores are hosting performances of excerpts of the new play by local theater troupes. University Book Store promises birthday cake and other treats. Elliott Bay is acknowledging the advanced age of the Harry Potter demographic by promising (presumably alcoholic) “Hogsmeade libations,” a trivia contest, and what sounds like a Potter-themed drinking game.

It’s hard to think of many other characters who have been allowed to age with an audience like this. Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books come to mind as peers of Potter, but for the most part, kids’ book characters like Nancy Drew and the Magic School Bus kids stay young forever, trapped in a permanent, moisturized fog. Unlike most relationships between readers and favorite fictional characters, this devotion is so strong that it takes up physical space in the world every few years. It makes you wonder if one day a generation of weeping, middle-aged adults will gather at bookstores around the world to show their respect at a funeral for a lifelong friend.

A self-made man

Published July 26, 2016, at 1:01pm

Paul Constant reviews Rikki Ducornet's Brightfellow.

Sometimes a word is more than its definition. The latest novel from Port Townsend author Rikki Ducornet is full of sentences that are divorced from meaning, in the liveliest way possible.

Read this review now

Seattle Arts & Lectures amazing 2016/17 Season

Sponsor Seattle Arts & Lectures is back to promote the amazing 2016/17 Season, especially the Literary Arts Series. Seriously, let's just list the people they're bringing your favorite stage in town: Ann Patchett, Timothy Egan, Helen Macdonald, Ben Fountain, Bryan Stevenson, and Helen Oyeyemi.

I mean, are you kidding me? We're huge SAL boosters here at the site, and this lineup tells you exactly why. There's more information, and links to get tickets, on our Sponsors' page. Check it out, and we'll see you at the lectures.

It's thanks to sponsors like Seattle Arts & Lectures, and readers like you, that we're able to keep the pixels lit up here at the Seattle Review of Books. We've just released our next block of sponsorship opportunities. Check them out on the sponsorship page, and grab your date before they're gone.

The Moss family got bigger

The introductory letter in the brand-new 5th issue of the online literary magazine Moss begins, "our team has grown substantially since our last release," welcoming "five new contributing editors." It's not readily apparent when reading the issue, which feels like the issues that have come before, but that's what you want in a staff expansion: unless your publication is suffering an existential crisis, editorial shifts are generally best felt only subtly.

So the format of this issue of Moss is very familiar: an interview with Portland writer Mitchell S. Jackson about regionalism and gentrification, fiction from Leyna Krow and Sonya Chung, non-fiction from Tiffany Midge and Leah Sottile — the latter of whom contributed a moving meditation on love and death. All for the impossibly low price of free. Go spend some time with the new issue.

Technology killed bookstore chains. Can technology save indie bookstores?

It's great when the received narrative gets disrupted, and Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), has heard more than his share during his long tenure at the independent bookstore trade group, where he's been the boss since 2009 and in other positions before that. The story that is told, news cycle after news cycle, is that indies were always just about to be wiped off the face of the country because of a new challenge.

First, he says, it was that the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks outlets in every mall would kill local stores. Then, the big boxes like Barnes & Nobles and Borders. After that, the deep discounters like Crown Books. And onward to mass merchandisers like Walmart and membership stores like Costco. And, finally, along came Amazon, he says, followed by Amazon selling ebooks.

But after years of shrinking sales and locations, indie stores have seen a slightly accelerating tick upwards since 2009 in new businesses, more stores, a bigger slice of the retailing pie, and a growth in overall revenue. Teicher cites several reasons, but one of them is the same wave of technology that, the story was supposed to go, would drown non-chain stores once and for all.

It's not just indie stores that lost ground

Indie bookstores have taken a truly big hit in the last 20 years, but the trends cited account for only a portion of the roughly 4,000 independently owned stores (including small chains) shrinking to under 2,000 by 2011. Two recessions didn't help any independent retailer, bookstore or otherwise, and deep bricks-and-mortar and then online discounting certainly bit into sustainability for all kinds of retailers, even those that had been around for many decades — or more than a century. And skyrocketing real-estate costs since the last economic dive, especially in major cities, put a squeeze on stores that didn't own buildings or have favorable landlords. "You can't put the bookstore out in the middle of nowhere," Teicher says. (Beloved bookstores have been closing down due to rent forever, but nostalgia sets in when reading this story from 1997 when a mere 2.5 percent rent increase forced Manhattan's Books & Co. to shutter.)

But it's easy to miss in the "indies failing" story the fact that thousands of mall and big-box locations also closed, starting before the big decline in independents. Crown Books went early, by 2001, from almost 200 stores at its peak. B. Dalton had its most stores (800) in 1986, and shrunk over the next 25 years. Waldenbooks at one time had over 1,200 outlets; when it was sputtering in 2010, it had fewer than 300. Borders, its parent company, had about 500 Borders-branded locations before it shuttered in 2011, taking the rest of Waldenbooks with it.

One analysis, using Labor Department and other data, puts the peak number of bookstores at nearly 14,000 in the mid-1990s and at about 8,000 by 2012. Non-chain stores represent roughly one third of the closures.

Now indie stores are seeing a resurgence — small, but noticeable, sustained, and continuous. The ABA says its membership has grown from 1,401 and 1,651 locations in 2009 every year through the current one, with 1,775 members and 2,311 stores even as Borders shut down and Barnes & Noble closed 120 outlets during the same period. (Not all indie stores are ABA members, though most are. This can result in apples-to-oranges comparisons among articles that rely on ABA numbers, industry figures, or government analyses.)

There's a fair argument to be made that indies remained bulwarks and carved out territory that bigger competitors couldn't hold as ebook sales grew and consumed a hunk of the overall market for book purchases. Ebooks, along with Costco, Walmart, and Amazon, might have been the real culprit in killing chains by sucking the high profit margins of new hardcover booksales out of the big boxes. This also ostensibly gave breathing room to indies, though they lost some of those sales, too.

It's important to put this in perspective, of course. The most recent comprehensive look at retailer market share is from Bowker's 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review. A chart from that report tells the story vividly. From 2010 to 2012, large chains' percentage of consumer purchases dropped from 31.5 to 18.7 percent; online sales swelled from 25.1 to 43.8 percent. Indie stores' percentage rose from 2.4 to 3.7 percent. (Book clubs had the other big loss, dropping from 11.5 to 6.1 percent of the market.)

Overall retail book revenue in the category has remained relatively flat for years when adjusted for inflation, especially in the "trade" category, which is general fiction, non-fiction, and religious, and excludes most materials aimed at education.

What's most interesting is that after years of torrid growth, ebooks settled down and lost ground: the saturation point was apparently reached a couple of years ago in the mix of ebook, paperback, and hardback sales. The Association of American Publishers survey for 2015, released July 11, found ebooks were in the second year of slight decline in revenue and unit sales. Some of that change came as publishers were able to push an agency model.

Even through indie stores can sell Kobo ebook readers and ebooks through its bookstore, Kobo's revenue represents just 3 to 4 percent of the U.S. market. Amazon occupies about 74 percent, Apple's iBookstore 10 to 12 percent, and Google Play about 1 to 2 percent.

The persistence of physical volumes

"Not only are we still here, contrary to the projections and predictions of many, we're better off and stronger today than we were 20 years ago," says Teicher, and the evidence seems to back him up. If not torrid growth, all trends are modestly popular. A new equilibrium may have been reached.

Especially with fewer chain stores, and Costco, Walmart, and the like stocking relatively few unique titles relative to volume, people still need to go to an actual bookstore to browse effectively. "There is nothing like the physical place to browse and discover titles that you didn't know about," Teicher says.

He has a four-legged stool on which he rests the current minor resurgence of local stores. "It's disingenuous not to acknowledge part of our more recent success is directly, intricately tied to the shop-local movement," he says. In some cities, bookstores have been rescued after losing a lease or after declining sales through crowdfunding campaigns, membership drives, or a wave of new sales from people who realized they were about to lose a store.

"Amazon can try to identify with local businesses," Teicher says, its so-far single-store experiment in operating a bricks-and-mortar store here in Seattle notwithstanding — he says, "Those aren't bookstores." (I've described the store's policy of shelving most books face out as the physical manifestation of a Web page.)

Teicher says a second leg is how publishers and other bookstore suppliers have overhauled their operations to better serve smaller stores, after realizing that they were ceding their future to Amazon and chains. "It's as important for them to be a viable network of bricks and mortar stores as it is for us," he says. "The publishers deal with bookstores dramatically differently today than they did a decade ago." This includes much faster delivery, reducing the advantage of online retailers, and print-on-demand for some titles, allowing what would have been an out-of-stock or back-catalog book to be produced and shipped almost immediately.

Third is handselling, something this site's founders know…first hand. Passionate bookstore staff can have a disproportionate effect in making sure people leave with a book at all, and in providing exposure to titles that would otherwise languish.

But it's the fourth leg that I plan to look into further in the weeks to come. It's a bit of tech innovators being hoisted by their own petard: the massive drop in cost in back-office software and computers has benefitted small stores as much as a large ones. It costs much less now to do much more than a decade, reducing overhead and improving efficiency. Teicher notes this includes point-of-sale terminals and transaction costs, inventory control, payroll management, and even bookkeeping.

On the front-end marketing side, the ease of reaching customers and helping remind people stores are there — via Web sites, email, and social networks — has gone way up, while cost have plummeted as well.

Teicher says there are clouds on the horizon. Higher rents, noted earlier, are one of them. Higher wages are another. While Teicher says members want employees to make livable wages, the timing puts a crunch on small retailers more than big ones, in that labor forms a larger percentage of expense, and a small store needs a minimum level of staff that can be proportionately much higher than a store with 10 times the square footage. (Amazon reportedly lured bookstore staff to its Seattle store by offering higher wages, a rarity in the industry.)

Because booksellers can't easily raise prices, between competition and the recommended list price appearing on nearly every book, there's no room as in other retail segments and other industries to pass even on modest increases in expense. Only increased volume helps. But the most profitable ABA members have increased their share of non-book items, which often have much higher margins than books, sad to say. He says 17 to 19 percent of total sales at the most successful stores are something other than books.

It would be the worst fate for indie stores to falter due to the resurgence success of cities and the growing enactment of better minium wages, rather than competition from other kinds of booksellers. But stores benefit from denser cities with more residents looking for a local book fix, and the prevailing winds that lift expenses apparently are lifting sales, too.


There’s this vessel I feel
the presence of all the time. My sister-
in-law sprays a semi-precious wash
of silver beneath her tongue
which is one way to manage. For my own
part I envy the wooden pencils
shot through with graphite, deveining
themselves to the end of every line.
But for the stenographers
everyone do your own typing
seemed a sensible and leveling measure.
They still have their secret alphabet
and their flip-top pads so suited
to it. They took dictation
the way young Mother Theresa
heard God talking plain as a neighbor
yelling through the screen door
that the dog has got out of the yard again
but after starting that new order
and dressing all the sisters in white
cotton ribbed in periwinkle she didn’t hear Him
ever again. It’s not that Wisconsin
is newly rich in silica, which is another
word for quartz, which is another
word for sand, but suddenly industry
can’t get enough of its impressive
compressible strength and tiny
roundedness, which is another word
for I am found pleasing again. I will pour
most of the glasses of water I will ever
drink. I don’t mean loneliness. I could
impersonate your heart by tapping
on this wiped Formica lub dub
until you consent to tomorrow’s
urgent appointment but I hope
it doesn’t come to that. I think
of my prototype — the prototype
of me — gangling on
a ledge: the wire limbs
taped to the short cage
of torso were engineered for maximum
slouching, but, too, you could drop her
from the high roof
as much as you want. That egg
would never crack.

Book News Roundup: Seattle cleans up at the Eisner Awards

  • The Eisner Awards were announced at San Diego Comic Con this weekend. The Seattle Review of Books has praised some of the big winners at the show, including Paper Girls and Nimona. Seattle-area Eisner winners include Fantagraphics Books, which won for its wonderful archival reprinting of The Eternaut; Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal; and translator Zack Davisson, who worked on Showa, 1953–1989: A History of Japan. Find a full list of winners right here.

  • Here's another sign that ebook adoption has stalled: the "largest proportion of students, 67 percent, buys used textbooks, 55 percent rent, 25 percent buy new and 25 percent download e-books."

  • Bookstore chain Hastings is going away this fall:

After filing for bankruptcy in June, Hastings has been unable to find a buyer who would be willing to keep it in business, so it’s time to liquidate. Hastings is expected to close all 126 of its stores by the end of October.

You down with RBG?

Published July 25, 2016, at 11:55am

Anna Minard reviews Irin Carmon's Notorious RBG.

An examination of one of the weirdest — and coolest — popular reappraisals in American political history.

Read this review now

Here's what Vlad from Third Place Books is most looking forward to this fall

This month, I’ve been asking booksellers to name their summer reading picks. It’s been delightful. But the problem with asking booksellers about books they recommend for the summer is that most of them are likely already reading books that will be coming out this fall. Librarians and booksellers are often months ahead on the new-release front.

When I asked Vlad at Third Place Books for his favorite summer read, he selected Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, which Frances Chiem wrote about for the Seattle Review of Books when it was published in April of last year. He said it’s been “one of my clear favorites,” adding that he was “utterly enchanted” by the book and by the character. He calls Dutton’s prose “superb, approaching Woolf-levels of achievement.”

But Vlad is also getting ready for the fall, and in addition to new novels from Alan Moore and Warren Ellis, a kids’ book from Shaun Tan, and a non-fiction book about time travel from science writer James Gleick, he’s most excited for his customers to get their hands on Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, which he said left him “floored.” “The topic is always troubling and harrowing…” Vlad writes in an email,

…but what fascinated me was Whitehead's unflinching exploration of the various manifestations of the economics of slavery — the way slave-owners talked about them, the subtle social cues, the levels of 'owning' another human being. The numbing idea of slaves (and their wounds) as walking ledgers of atrocity.

Vlad is not the only bookseller or librarian to talk up Underground Railroad to me; it’s set to be one of the biggest books of the fall. You should reserve a copy at your favorite bookstore today. Here’s the link to reserve it at Third Place Books; tell them Vlad sent you.

In his role as the curator, editor, and printer of Third Place Press, Vlad is most looking forward to putting out “an anthology of writing and art from the South Seattle Emerald” this fall. Vlad has been working in conjunction with Emerald publisher Marcus Green to make a vibrant and artistic collection. The Emerald is one of Seattle’s most energetic young publications, and this physical collection is a great way to affirm its voice and its place in the city. We’ll let you know when it’s available this fall.