The Help Desk: The bad kind of free speech

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,

I've done a few onstage interviews at bookstores, and I enjoy doing them. My area of interest is in vogue right now, so there are a lot of authors of popular books who come to town, and talking to them is usually a joy.

Cienna, in almost any other field — journalism, for instance, which I do a lot of — I would be paid for my time. Venues and publishers never offer to pay me for my time as an onstage interviewer. A lot of preparation goes into those events: I have to read the book, read and listen to past interviews with the author, wear nice clothes, promote on social channels, and bring good stage presence.

I understand that bookstores don't have a lot of extra cash laying around. (Although they could surely offer a cup of coffee or a small gift card or something, couldn't they?) But the publishers, who pay for the authors to travel the country on tour, must be willing to cough up a little bit of cash for a good interviewer?

I'm not expecting to make a living as an onstage interviewers of authors, but some sign that my time is valuable would be nice. In almost any other field, being asked to do something as intensive as an onstage interview in exchange for exposure would be seen a huge rip-off. Should I ask for compensation next time, or am I being an entitled baby?

Erma, Ballard

Dear Erma,

In an ideal world, yes, you would be paid for your time as an interviewer – just like in an ideal world, sex appeal wouldn't be the strongest currency of women, people named Kash and Tiffini would automatically be registered as Assholes in some sort of community registry, the word "dollop" wouldn't exist, tweezers would scream for you, and ex-presidents would be taxidermied into their most memorable political moments and line the halls of Congress in Plexiglass tubes.

But we do not yet live in an ideal world, so we must do the hard work of fashioning one for ourselves. Here's what I suggest: the next time a publisher asks you to interview one of their authors onstage, respond with "Sure! My fee is now X." They may negotiate with you, you still may end up being paid in coffee or booze or nothing at all, but at least you'll have the satisfaction of sticking up for yourself and communicating that your time is valuable.



Portrait Gallery: Troll

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

Thursday, December 13: Trolls in the Nordic Imagination. Scary, Clumsy, and Lovable.
Lotta Gavel-Adams, a Swedish studies expert at the University of Washington will discuss the Nordic obsession with trolls tonight at the Nordic Museum. This lecture is part of the Scandinavian 30, a series of free, thirty-minute talks held once each month at the Nordic Museum.
Nordic Museum, 2655 NW Market St,, 7 pm, free.

Future Alternative Past: Religion. Seriously.

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

I teach writing classes. One thing I ask my students to do is fill in a spreadsheet for their work-in-progress’s characters, noting race, age, sexual orientation, so forth, so on. And the category of character traits they usually haven’t thought about before is religion. Or the absence of it. Which is weird.

The default religious status in this time and place is a vaguely Protestant-ish Christianity. But SFFH authors aren’t necessarily working in the here and now. Post-apocalyptic landscapes may be the breeding grounds for a warped Catholicism such as that pervading Walter M Miller, Jr.’s 1959 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. In Canticle, monks preserve scientific knowledge through a new Dark Age. The lives of religious institutions are protracted compared to human lifespans, so they can easily perform this sort of centuries-long service, as Octavia E. Butler has the heroine of Parable of the Sower realize. So Butler’s pragmatic Lauren Oya Olamina devises her own religion, “Earthseed,” as a means of guiding future generations to the stars.

In Daniel José Older’s dark fantasy Half-Resurrection Blues, Santeria, an Afro-Latin spiritual tradition, colors the half-dead hero’s interactions and grounds his world. In the new novel Tentacle, Rita Indiana writes explicitly of Santeria’s Dominican version, pitting a poor trans man newly initiated into the mysteries of the ocean deity against coral bleaching and mass fish die-offs. This tradition is my own, and it appears in several of my stories, too, most notably in “Wallamelon,” in which a young woman learns how to divine.

What about atheism? Anti-religious SFFH writing seems far more prevalent than straightforwardly atheist plots and themes. The God in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is tyrannical and vulnerable, and killing him is an act of heroism. However, he does exist. In “The Old Rugged Cross” by Terry Bisson, collected in Greetings and Other Stories, condemned convict Bud White’s vision of Jesus is very likely a hallucination, but it’s not explicitly so. Better cases can be made for Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Galileo’s Dream and Arthur C Clarke’s Hugo Award-winning short story “The Star,” since in both the antagonist is a belief system rather than a deity.

Sometimes encounters with religion are the point of a piece of SF, as in The Sparrow or Behold the Man or “The Tower of Babylon.” Generally, though, the topic is simply not mentioned. Typical SF backdrops are big on vague secularisms, which can be interpreted any number of ways — including as the casual Christianity most US readers identify as their own.

In the case of fantasy and horror, there are almost always clearer delineations of characters’ spiritual practices and beliefs. Not everyone in a given story is a practitioner, though — which is as it should be. But what the exercise I mentioned at this column’s beginning is meant to provoke, what I’d like to see, is more thought, more care and consideration given to why and how and what each and every single one of them believes. Or doesn’t. Schisms, doubts — they’re part of the human experience. Maybe the transhuman experience, too. Help me find out.

Recent books recently read

MR Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts won my heart and mind completely with its outrageous child-zombie viewpoint. To a slightly lesser extent I also dug Fellside, a later novel which was in no way related. Carey’s new book, Someone Like Me (Orbit), shares themes and focus with Fellside — identity, bodilessness, sanity, violence — but packs as much punch as Girl. Hapless Liz Kendall, self-blaming victim of a series of domestic beatdowns, finds herself host to an alternate personality who has studied her abuser through thousands of parallel worlds and knows just how to fight back. Liz’s sometimes irksome moments of passivity are nicely balanced by the activeness of her co-protagonist, feisty Fran Watts, and the unswerving bravery of Fran’s putatively imaginary friend Jinx. As Carey shares the details of how teenaged Fran confronts the kidnapper who shattered her life when she was only nine, and Liz learns crucial survival skills, he evokes the shivery desolation haunting the most mundane landscapes. At the book’s beginning love and geography link Liz and Fran’s storylines; by the end they’re inextricably dependent on one another for a gut-wrenching, teeth-gritting climax.

If you’d asked me when I first read Fahrenheit 451 which book I would want to emulate its dystopia-dwelling characters by memorizing, my unhesitating answer would have been The Last Unicorn. Author Peter S Beagle has written many wonderful books since then, but his latest returns to this favorite of mine, which is also the favorite of millions of others. The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey (Tachyon) opens with the full book’s immortal opening lines:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of seafoam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night.

In addition to poetry and mystery, there’s humor and contrarity in The Last Unicorn, and Journey includes plenty of both — especially in the person of a new character, a two-headed demon named Azazel. Stephanie Law’s charming interior illustrations and the author’s reminiscences on the story’s 1962 genesis round out what could have been an unsatisfyingly thin publication; the story stops rather than concluding, but Beagle’s many admirers will gratefully accept these fresh fragments of his most entrancing tale. And I can add their recitation to my post-apocalyptic repertoire.

Couple of upcoming cons

The website for Imagicon is almost entirely in Dutch. I can’t read it, but I guess most potential attendees are going to be fine, since this event takes place in the Netherlands. Judging from photos and loan words, there will be a boatload of cosplay there, including a cosplay dating game. Also films, workshops, gaming, and panels — with one on strong females and the Ghostbusters sequel. In Dutch.

Though I’m not one of their Guests of Honor this year, I hear that Confusion is still the hip, happenin place to be. Its suburban Detroit location isn’t smack dab in the continent’s middle, but it’s close enough. And an impressive array of the emergent and bodacious shows up there: John Chu, Margaret Killjoy, Maurice Broaddus, and Monica Valentinelli, to name a few. Cheap and thrilling and convenient, this is a convention to take sweet advantage of.

It costs an awful lot to publish a high-quality print publication, and literary standard-bearer Tin House has just announced that they can't keep losing that kind of money:

Between this and Rookie magazine shutting down, it's been another bad year for media. If you've ever been interested in starting a literary magazine, now's your chance. Figure out a new model, find a niche that's not being filled, get online, and make it happen. Nobody else is going to publish the literary magazine that you have in your head.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The mysterious Goddess

Usually we expect the first issue of a comic to clearly lay out the premise of a series and introduce readers to the world of the story. The first issue of Goddess Mode, the new Vertigo comic from writer Zoë Quinn and artist Robbi Rodriguez, is the exception that proves the rule.

I've read this issue of Goddess Mode three times already and I honestly don't know where the book is going from here. Is it a Matrix-like story of a woman fighting for freedom in a virtual world? Is it a Brazil-like story of a cog in a bureaucratic machine who struggles against the social forces that are holding her back? Is it a Gibsonesque story of lawless frontier technology? I'm still not sure; it could be all three.

Goddess Mode begins in a virtual realm (it's described as "Everywhere. But also nowhere. Kind of.") where a warrior woman (who describes herself as "a barely functioning bundle of neuroses who can't master putting on a fitted sheet") fights a starfish-looking monster. But most of the book is the story of Cassandra Price, a "junior artificial intelligence support assistant" who gets swept up into a swirl of great expectations, both within her all-powerful corporation and without.

While it's not yet clear if Goddess Mode will be a liberation story or a Dick-ian exploration of self in a futuristic setting or an investigation of the emotional impact of video games (or, again, all three,) it is obvious that the book is good comics.

Quinn relays a lot of exposition with very little awkwardness, and Rodriguez's art is a fascinating blend of the futuristic (his tech looks lived in and unobtainable) and the organic (his skill at body language is remarkable.) The color palette for the book, by Rico Renzi, is a refreshing blend of turquoises and pinks and purples — less of a sterile iPhone future and more of a neon smear.

A caption box at the end of this issue of Goddess Mode promises a few answers to some of the most nagging narrative questions in the next issue — mainly, what's with the team of fierce warriors who show up to recruit Price at the end of the issue? With this first chapter, Quinn and team have earned the right to keep readers guessing for a while longer.

Tomi Kilgore at Marketwatch writes:

Barnes & Noble Inc.’s list of 20 top holiday gift ideas in five categories includes several types of socks, some mittens, Mickey Mouse speakers and a Buddha board for “live-in-the-moment” painting, but only one book and no reading devices, not even its own Nook e-reader.

How embarrassing for Barnes & Noble.

Later this week, you will be able to buy tickets for the local leg of Michelle Obama's Becoming book tour. She'll be talking about her memoir with an unspecified guest on February 8th.

Because Ticketmaster is nothing less than pure evil, you have to apply for presale access before 10 pm tonight, and then presale access goes live on Friday, December 14th. Then everyone else will be able to try to get tickets on Saturday, December 15th. Good luck with that. Buying from Ticketmaster is always a nightmare, so be sure to leave extra time for the system to fail several times before you eventually get tickets — if you eventually get tickets.

Is this the first author event to happen at the Tacoma Dome? I really can't remember it ever happening before. It makes sense that Obama would be the first reader to crack that venue, though — Becoming is indisputably the biggest book of the year.

Laura Da' loves the privacy of writing in public

The poet Laura Da' has been a notable name in Seattle for a good long while now. But a few years ago, it felt like Da' started appearing everywhere. She showed up on bills at group readings, and she appeared as a featured poet at book launch parties, and she taught workshops at the library. Da's ascension into the upper echelon of Seattle's literary scene happened gradually, but once you noticed that she had become an important figure, that realization felt right and good.

As you can see in the poems Da' has published with us as our Poet in Residence for the month of November, she is a meticulous and thoughtful poet. She works frequently with finely wrought couplets, often revolving around a single powerful word or image. A good Da' poem feels to me like a delicate string of glowing pearls, hung on a string of silver so finely crafted that it's almost invisible.

Over coffee, I ask Da' if she agrees with my assessment that she one day seemed to be ubiquitous in Seattle's poetry scene, after years on the edges. "I have a son who is eight now," Da' tells me, "and so there was a good amount of time where I was pretty limited in my ability to be out and about." She also points to the 2015 publication of her first full-length collection, Tributaries, as a moment in which her relationship to the city changed.

"I think that I've always been well connected in the indigenous poetry community," Da' says, "because I started my education at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and there are so many writers who have come out of that school. It's a tight, small community generally speaking, though it's incredibly vast in terms of talent and experience." She felt a part of that community almost immediately.

But even though she was born and raised in the Snoqualmie Valley, and lived most of her life in western Washington, breaking into this city's poetry community took more work. "Seattle is not easy to get in the door, I think, which is really unfortunate," Da' says. She says Seattle's literary community has a fair share of "gatekeepers" who aren't especially good at making new voices feel welcome.

But then "I was a Jack Straw fellow and Hugo House fellow and that really helped me," Da' says. What was it about those two programs that worked for her? "I met a lot of wonderful writers and good friends. I'm fairly introverted and shy, so usually I need an extrovert to sort of adopt me. And that was the way I found a place in the Seattle poetry community."

Da' is not one of those poets who have been writing poetry since she could first pick up a pen. She started at the Institute of American Indian Arts with "an idea that I wanted to be involved in museum studies," but then she met poet Arthur Sze, who was an instructor at the school and "a really incredible poet." His work inspired her. "I was 17 and in college and that's when I started writing poetry. I changed majors almost instantly."

What was it about poetry that spoke to Da'? "I really like the ambiguity of poetry and I also hate to be told what to do, ever. So poetry is really appealing to me," she laughs. And it appeals to her inner introvert because it's "a meditative art that feels nicely private even though it is public. There's an element of privacy that I really like."

When Da' writes a poem, she says, she's "looking at the tiniest little elements and sometimes they seem so discreet — molecular, maybe ,is a better word." She calls her poems "very finely constructed," and as she does so she mimes someone repairing a watch, leaning in close to the table and working with delicate tools to place a gear that's almost invisible to the naked eye. "They've taken me a very long time," she says.

She's very aware of the whole scope of her career, and Da' is always trying to stretch her abilities. "I'm a young writer and I don't want to move into a territory where I no longer feel like I'm an emerging writer." She cites her poem "Centaur Culture" as an attempt to do something new. "I'm trying to challenge myself with more of that sort of lyrical essay or prose-poem kind of work. Anytime I feel more established I always try to shift into something a little different."

Da' is happy with the reception her work has received, but she does think a lot about "how my poetry is categorized. I think that it's limited by mainstream publications' desire to essentialize non-white, non-dominant narratives."

Da' explains, "very often in any review [of my work,] it'll talk about how it's a Shawnee document." That's not inaccurate, of course — "I really appreciate my roots as an indigenous writer. My community is indigenous writers, and that's my most important audience, too."

That said, "I do think the dominant mainstream publication industry is much too apt to want to essentialize my work. And I think that institutional racism still allows people to view it through a lens that makes it lesser." The comments that seem to sting most for her are those reviewers who seem surprised by how finely rendered her poems are, as though indigenous poets can't be watchmakers, too.

"There are so many fantastic indigenous poets," Da' says. "There are so many poets who have been trapped by the institutional racism of publication for so long that to have people still apply that worldview feels really wrong and also sort of infuriating."

The poets who influence Da' range widely in terms of style and background. Da' gushes over poems by Danez Smith, Natalie Diaz, Sherwin Bitsui, and Cassandra Lopez. She speaks again of Sze's "respect for the reader and the reader's ability to handle the ambiguity of the unanswered."

She most likes how you can return to a single poem by Sze "every decade, and the more you've learned, the more the poem sings out to you. It's so admirable to me to create something that is beautiful on the first reading, but rewards every single subsequent reading, too."

Da's so enthusiastic about Sze's writing that she doesn't seem to realize that she could just as easily be describing her own work — these elegant couplets crafted from the smallest and most delicate materials, but which only grow finer with age.

Book News Roundup: Is this the end for Amazon Books?

  • Congratulations to Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee, who Humanities Washington just announced as this year's James W. Ray Distinguished Artist, and to poet Cassandra Lopez, who is a recipient of the James W. Ray Venture Project Award. Also, the press release kind of buries the fact that this is the last year of the James W Ray awards, which annually gave $80,000 to local artists.

  • The Washington Ecopoetry Map provides an online map of poems that specifically mention various Washington state natural landmarks. Click around on this one for a while and you're likely to find a new poem to love.

  • If you're a freelance writer, please sign up for Obamacare now. The deadline is December 15th.

  • Is Amazon giving up on the Amazon Books model already? This post at the Digital Reader indicates that Amazon has backtracked on three potential Amazon Books locations, but the company told Geekwire that they're still "excited" about physical bookstores. We'll see, but I think there's plenty of reasons to doubt the sincerity of Amazon's commitment to brick-and-mortar bookselling.

  • I'm okay with the fact that I did not make the list of 2018's most scathing book reviews. A scathing book review is fun to write, but it should be the most sparingly used weapon in a book reviewer's arsenal. Negative book reviews are great, of course, but a little bit of performative outrage goes a long way.

On being over my head in a black hole

My grasp of science, at this point, is fairly pathetic. What little I understood in high school is basically gone by now. For me, science is pretty much a matter of faith. I take it as a matter of course that people who are smarter than me — people who have devoted their lives to science — know what they're doing, and I follow their advice on topics like climate change and vaccination.

I know that my phone works when I want it to. I know that we have satellites in orbit around the planet and an awesome well-digging robot on Mars. Do I know how we did any of it? No. I only have a rudimentary understanding of scientific advancements: basically, in my head, I picture science with all the nuance of a child's crayon scrawling. That's what our species's tendency toward specialization is all about — or so scientists tell me.

That said, I love to dabble in scientific books. Reading about science feels, to me, like a calisthenics of the mind: I can stretch my brain and try out some concepts that would never have occurred to me otherwise. The secret to reading science books, for me, is the understanding that I'm not going to understand everything that I read. I'm just kind of forcing my way through the book and coming to terms with the fact that, unlike most books that I read, comprehension is not always possible.

This is a long way of saying that I'm not reviewing Chris Impey's book Einstein's Monsters: The Life and Time of Black Holes. I'm not reviewing it because I didn't understand all of the book — my guess is I only really got about 65 percent of it.

This is not Impey's fault. He's a clear and straightforward narrator, and his explanations will definitely make sense for a general audience. But there were parts of this book that I skimmed because my poor dumb lit-drunk brain simply couldn't absorb the information properly.

So why would I bother reading a book that I'm constitutionally unable to understand? It's because science writing is so abstract that I'm able to appreciate the poetry in it. Impey tosses off facts that are so gorgeous and so difficult to grasp that they're practically poetic imagery. Consider:

  • "The farther away a galaxy is, the faster it's receding; in fact, every galaxy is moving away from every other galaxy."
  • "As a star evolves it keeps a delicate balance between gravity, which is always pulling inward, and pressure from fusion reactions, which pushes outward."
  • "Normally these pairs of particle and antiparticle, or pairs of photons, disappear with no effect. But close to the event horizon of a black hole, intense gravity can pull the virtual pairs apart. One falls in and the other flies away and becomes real."
  • "They've weighed black holes by the thousand. This research has taken away black holes' shock and awe, and given them an air of inevitability — which doesn't make them any less amazing."
  • "Think of black holes colliding as a gravity bell ringing."

Impey leaves a trail of delicious metaphors throughout Monsters — a long line of bells and corks bobbing in the water and elevators hurtling through space. The message behind those metaphors might be lost on me, but the metaphors themselves are beautiful. For some people, at some times in their lives, the search for truth is more important than the truth itself.

leaving my therapist’s office after a breakthrough

As soon as I unlock my phone,
out falls a tiny mother
asking her grown son to call
                                                          back when he finds the time plz,
out falls the strained voice of a debt
                  collector after several
                  attempts to reach you,
                                                                  out falls a school
                                              with a shooter & everything,
                  out falls a riot, out falls a child
texting another child how scared she is
                                                   from under her desk
        with all the curtains
drawn, out falls
                                an election,
                                a special election,
                                a compromised election,
                                & another smoked quartz riot,
out falls a pair of unconcerned liquid gold legs at a hotel pool,
out falls Tommy Le’s pen,
                   Sandra Bland’s signal light
                   a stack of Alton Sterling’s bootleg CDs, out falls
                   a powerful man awash in disgrace & another terrible man
                                                                                           & another terrible man
                                                                                           & Jesus —
                             until out falls Janelle Monaé,
        plentiful & perfect
                                               -ly formed.
At what point, exactly, does grief start?
                                                                                   This onslaught of self-
                                                                                   portraits in convex mirrors—
                                                                                   each moment more upside down
                                                                                   was to know what time it was.
                                                      pǝʇuɐʍ I llɐ ⅋
                    ˙sɐʍ ʇᴉ ǝɯᴉʇ ʇɐɥʍ ʍouʞ oʇ sɐʍ

The downfall of Albert Lesiak

This week, we're sponsored by John Popielaski, Connecticut poet and now novelist. The Hollow Middle, Popielaski's first full-length work of fiction, is the story of aging English teacher Albert Lesiak and his sojourn out of civilization and into rural Maine and reluctant foster-fatherhood.

It's rare that our attention is captured in just a few lines, but drop yourself anywhere into the first chapter of The Hollow Middle, and you'll find yourself caught up. Popielaski's style is an organized four-car pileup, with just a bit of an echo of Joyce, a bit of an echo of Eliot. You can see empathy peeking through his gentle mockery of his protagonist; your smiles will be rueful, but you won't be able to restrain them.

Here's the opening:

Nothing is remarkable about the lightening hour and the mild fairgrounds air, and nothing is remarkable about the peeps and ribbits in the meadow where the birders, loyal to migration schedules, stalk when there is light to glimpse a little rarity, and nothing is remarkable about the yonder man, bespectacled, whose respiration is the stuff of late-stage hibernation.

Read more on our sponsor feature page, then buy the book.

Sponsors like John Popielaski make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you can sponsor us, too? We only have three slots left in the first quarter of the year (and we haven't even gone public yet!). Reserve your week of choice before it's too late: Just send us a note at

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from December 10th - December 16th

Monday, December 10: Click Reading

Seattle photographer Bob Peterson, who has taken pictures of sports, nature, and local celebrities. Tonight, he chats with environmental artist Tony Angell about his long career and his new book of photos. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600,, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, December 11: Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories Reading

Local translator Jay Rubin is likely best known as one of the main translators of Haruki Murakami's fiction, but he's also translated plenty of other Japanese writings into English, including for a popular XBox game. Tonight, he celebrates the publication of a new book of Japanese short stories with a cast of readers.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600,, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, December 12: Journalism and Democracy in an Age of Misinformation

Marcus Harrison Green, who founded the South Seattle Emerald, will chat with a local journalism researcher about the importance of good journalism as part of Humanities Washington's ongoing discussion series. Naked City Brewery, 8564 Greenwood Ave N, 838-6299,, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, December 13: Trolls in the Nordic Imagination

Lotta Gavel-Adams, whose name is almost a complete sentence, is a Swedish studies expert at the University of Washington. She'll discuss the Nordic obsession with trolls, which is a pretty fantastic

Nordic Museum, 2655 NW Market St,, 7 pm, free.

Friday, December 14: Maged Zaher, Jamaica Baldwin

Seattle poet Maged Zaher is visiting town from his home in Georgia. Why do I call him a Seattle poet when he lives in Georgia? It's because Seattle helped to shape Maged Zaher's poetry in a meaningful way, and also because I refuse to accept the fact that he's left. He'll be joined by Seattle poet Jamaica Baldwin for an end-of-year reading at Arundel Books. This is likely to be one of the best readings of the year.

Arundel Books, 212 1st Ave S,, 4 pm, free.

Saturday, December 15: Sugar Reading

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Chin Music Press Showroom, Pike Place Market, 380-1947,, 3 pm, free

Sunday, December 16: Meet the Grinch

This storytime for kids will include a special appearance by everyone's favorite Christmas-stealing bastard, the Grinch.

University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400,, 1 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: Sugar Reading

"Butter had bound them," Seattle author Anca L. Szilágyi writes in her new chapbook, Sugar. "A mutual love of butter." Sugar is a gastronomic love story about tastes and flavors and agreement and disagreement and all those other factors that make a relationship succeed or fail.

I'd wager that pretty much everyone who has behaved ungenerously in a relationship can see themselves in the opening lines of the book: "He couldn’t stomach currants in his salad. She couldn’t stomach his not stomaching her currants."

Set in and around Pike Place Market, Sugar is a kind of fairy tale, with food in place of magic. There are lamb's tongues and artichokes and lakes of butter and French food and other delectables that you can find in the Market. It's a delightful little amuse-bouche of a book, with an ending that will charm Seattleites and tourists alike.

This Saturday, Szilágyi will read Sugar in the Pike Place Market at the showroom of the book's publisher, Chin Music Press. She'll be joined by Seattle poets Montreux Rotholtz and Alex Gallo-Brown, who is publishing an exciting new book at Chin Music next year. This is a great little showcase celebrating local writers and a local press and Pike Place Market itself. It doesn't get Seattlier than this.

Chin Music Press Showroom, Pike Place Market, 380-1947,, 3 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for December 9, 2018

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

High Elopement Risk

I’ve searched this piece by Jessica Mooney over and over, trying to choose a single quote that captures it. It’s impossible. Mooney’s writing mimics the way the mind dances around something too difficult to look at, repeatedly approaching and retreating. Wry, sad, reflective, angry, she shifts from the history of insomnia to her mother’s history of sexual assault, from cartography to her own ceaseless motion … Oh, just read it. It’s very, very good.

My mom, the Sudafed socialite of Chicago, called me in Seattle, fresh from an Aisle 4 gossip session. She could barely catch her breath. She couldn’t remember what she took or how many.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said, pushing blooms of static through the phone. “What if … ” she gasped, “What if I’m a shadow who’s lost her person?”

What’s behind a recent rise in books coverage?

Overall, good news here: some of the losses to book coverage that came with the decline in print journalism are being recovered online. I still believe that “shareable” is not the final word (or even the first word) on what deserves focused attention; “yes” to writing about books vibrantly, imaginatively, passionately — “no” to dressing books in clickbait’s hand-me-downs. But I’m not going to quibble: more writing about books makes room for more writing about books, and that’s good for readers and authors alike.

Given the deluge of movies, TV, and tweetstorms, it may be more important than ever for publications to help books accomplish these goals. But the best format for them to do so is likely no longer the traditional, single-book, literary review. To break through the noise, editors must translate old-fashioned book coverage to the lingua francas of today’s impossibly paced media climate: shareable lists, essays, digestible Q&As, podcasts, scannable email newsletters, hashtags, Instagrams, even book trailers.
Thank You for Growing Up With Us

No, I am going to quibble, just a bit. Or let Tavi Gevinson, the editor-in-chief of Rookie, quibble for me. Her farewell letter as she closes out the seven-year publication is an incredible reflection on compromise, on becoming an entrepreneur, on growing up and knowing what you want (or don’t). And it’s a reminder that professionalizing creativity comes with a cost, especially online.

This organicness of Rookie was in part a testament to the way people rallied around it: the contributors and readers who were willing to share pieces of themselves and support each other. This is still happening, thanks to you, reading this, but organicness on the internet is not as easy now as it was back then. Rookie started in 2011, and to remind you where technology was then, I had a slide phone and no Instagram account. When I got home from school every day, I looked at websites on a desktop computer. To get to school in the mornings, I had to walk ten miles in the snow, and actually never even made it because I would trip and fall on my back and have to wait for hours for someone to stand me up because my coat was so puffy that I could not move. Nowadays, social media gets more of people’s eyeballs than publications do.

Whatcha Reading, Kristen Millares Young?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Kristen Millares Young is the author of the upcoming Subduction (Red Hen Press, spring 2020), as well as an essayist and journalist. She's the current Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. Mark your calendar now! See Kristen read, sing, and perform with a host of others in "Lit Jam: a Night of Words and Music" at Hugo House on March 8, and catch her off-site during AWP reading from “Every woman keeps a flame against the wind.” to celebrate Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity, in Portland, March 27 at the Milagro theater.

What are you reading now?

Sam Ligon’s Miller Cane: A True and Exact History, serialized in the Inlander, is the only reason I look forward to opening my email, where I get a weekly installment. Miller Cane lives the long con, and his marks are the victims of massacres. A fraudulent historian, Cane goes on the lam “to save the young daughter of the woman he loves, taking her with him on his roadshow across the worn-out heart of America, staying one step ahead of what’s after them.”

Miller Cane is a satire. Miller Cane is deadly serious. In this epic road trip novel, Ligon evokes the zeitgeist of our cultural obsessions with guns and healing while maintaining the pacing of a potboiler. His prose is unmistakable – taut, acerbic and driven by hope for a country whose rules he criticizes with the relentless fervor of a patriot.

Reading Miller Cane, I laugh so often I have to wonder why few writers make use of their wit to divine the pathos of our collective psyche. Among the many gifts of Miller Cane, aside from its gumshoe plunder of Pacific Northwest places and American history, are Ligon’s insights into parenting and the horrors of loving. Great lines abound.

The Inlander projects that Miller Cane will wrap up in 2019. Writing Miller Cane for weekly deadlines, reading it too on Spokane Public Radio, Ligon reaches for the legacy of that other great serialist, Charles Dickens. The only way out is through. Good luck, Sam.

What did you read last?

Lately, I’ve been flickering between two books of poems:

The Hog Killing by Gary Copeland Lilley, out on Blue Horse Press. Listen to him read “The Car is the Crucial Chariot to Rural Culture,” a poem that’s supple because his language is highly crafted and rooted in place and time. Gary’s poems sound like they come out perfect, a spontaneous rush of observation, thought and action, but his teaching approach is about rigor of vision and revision. I am honored to read with him and Paisley Rekdal on July 14 during the Centrum Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, where, in the afternoons, he’ll help folks resurrect dead poems while I’m teaching fiction.

I received scholar, cultural organizer and sociologist Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches as a gift from my friend Kristen Goessling, an assistant professor at Penn State Brandywine, where she teaches young people to activate their ideals with an artistic practice rooted in social justice and a collaborative pedagogy informed by her love of theory. I’ll read anything Goessling recommends.

After reciting Ewing’s “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife,” I ripped up this week’s syllabus for my Hugo House class and assigned Electric Arches, a mixed media book of poetry, essays and visual art from Haymarket Books. Based in Black reality, cherishing a future born from fierce imaginings for her community, Electric Arches is a true work of art.

What are you reading next?

I have deliberately delayed the gratification of finishing my advance reader’s copy of Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, with thanks to Bill Carty and Seattle Arts & Lectures. Down hard with a cold, I just cracked Deaf Republic and was stunned into a pause by the first poem, “We Lived Happily During the War.” I am tempted to sample it here, in its entirety, as Kaminsky often does his favorites on Facebook (there is no better person to follow online for a running poetic commentary on our times, as elucidated by exquisitely paired works from his favorite writers). But I will content myself with “in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money.”

A book to savor, a book to devour. I battle my own proclivities to write this paragraph for you, rather than finishing Deaf Republic. Self implicating and expansive, something accusatory resides in his honesty. His litanies are revelations. I will never forget Kaminsky’s performance at the Centrum Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, where Ligon is artistic director. Kaminsky electrified the whole audience with urgent work that refuses our collective silence.

Part of SAL’s Poetry Series, Kaminsky will perform on Monday, April 1 at Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle Central Community College. 7:30 p.m. Deaf Republic comes out March 5 from Graywolf Press.

What book would you recommend most as a holiday gift?

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s What We Do With The Wreckage, which won the University of Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor Award, is a slow burn. In this potent collection of short stories, Lunstrum maps the perseverance needed to survive the invisibilities of girlhood (and later, marriage and motherhood) to become women seen in our own right.

Amidst subtle scenes and intimate dialogue so real you wonder whether she takes notes at family dinners, Lunstrum breaks form to bring fable into daily life. Throughout, she delivers lyric insights with real authority. “I know that when I open my mouth next, I will speak like this – in gusts, with force. I will sound like fire moving through a forest…”

On Thursday, January 24th, from 7-8:30 p.m. at Hugo House, I will moderate a panel on the state of short fiction. Lunstrum will appear with Ramon Isao, Corinne Manning, Becky Mandelbaum, and E. Lily Yu.

November's 2018's Post-it note art from Instagram

Over on our Instagram page, we’re posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson’s Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here’s her wrap-up and statement from November's posts.

November's Theme: That November / Mixed Feelings

Thanksgiving and US elections stress me out. They are scary, and I don’t really want to talk about it. On the other hand, there’s my old love rainy weather. And sometimes a particular November turns out ok. These post-its are from a fateful November two years ago—yes, that November, one that very noticeably did not turn out ok. For me, that month started with a trip to the East Coast, staying with a college friend for a few days while we collaborated on what was both the most and least glamorous project ever. She and her partner provided an ACTUAL GUEST ROOM for me to stay in. The good fortune of having queer friends with guest rooms should never be underestimated, please remind me to delight in this memory more often ok? One wall was resplendent with old nautical prints; I don’t know why rooms on the other coast always feel darker to me than Seattle ones. In their bathroom, my musical-theater-loving friend had hung framed sheet music from eras past, including a 1910 song called “I’ve Got The Time, I’ve Got The Place—But It’s Hard To Find The Girl.” The bathroom is a great place to contemplate things, and I found myself contemplating the photo on the cover of that song. Crisply-pressed suit and tie; sweet smile; hat held politely in subtly gentle hand. Compelling in a way you’d only understand if you do. My friend explained the dapper young singer was professional male impersonator Hetty King, famed in English music halls of the early 1900s. Election day hit silently while I was on a train into New York, my ballot sent in long before the trip, bad news rolling through the city as the night went on, inescapable. (Inescapable, that is, unless you were the seemingly oblivious straight white couple on a first date next to me at that one empty-ish bar, forcing your loudly self-indulgent flirting down everyone’s throats, flaunting your privileged straight white happiness as the TV news anchors flailed and dread clamped down over my head and chest. You guys were awful.) When I got back to Seattle, there were so many people smiling at me. On the phone with another friend I shared my delighted confusion at these open, friendly looks around the neighborhood. Her theory was that I look gay—in the wake of the election, she posited, maybe these people were scrambling to reassure any visible minorities in their vicinity that they were sympathetic, safe, sorry even. There’s no way to know the answer. And then Thanksgiving—long days. Explaining anything feels wrong, because at the end of the day you don’t need to know my whole day, ever.

The Help Desk: Lord, give me the confidence of a lactating spider

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,

I work in a bookstore and I deal with self-published authors who come in to place their books on our shelves on consignment. Some of the authors are very polite and kind and understand that they're not my only client. But the pushiest authors I know, the ones who bug me incessantly and continually ask why I don't put their books on the counter at the front of the store, have the self-published books that don't even look like books — they're double-spaced, and the covers are garbage and they're printed on 8 1/2 by 11 paper. The back covers are riddled with errors, and the dialogue reads like it was written by an ESL class from Tokyo on its first day.

The most confident authors I've ever met are also the worst authors I've ever met. In your experience, is self-confidence a sign of bad writing?

Pat, Columbia City

Dear Pat,

Did you know that some spiders breastfeed their young? Imagine the body confidence it takes for a spider to look at a dairy cow, nature's milk-producing poster child, voluptuous udders refracted in each of its eight tiny eyes and think "Nice try but I can do better."

Spiders do not even have mammaries. What they lactate could better be described as protein venom, yet produce it they do. The reason? Confidence, willpower, and spite.

All artists are powered by a blend of confidence, willpower, and spite. It takes those three traits to take stock of the world – and the art already in it – and conclude an important point of view is missing: their own. This isn't a bad thing, but as you've discovered, when one trait outweighs the rest, the artist becomes insufferable.

Nature will take care of over-confident writers in time. Like over-confident spiders, their protein-to-venom ratio is screwy and they will find few volunteers willing to suckle at their teets, metaphorically speaking. This vicious cycle will continue until they are all venom, devoid of protein, and they find to their horror they have misspelled their own name on the cover of their own self-published book. On that day, they will quit art altogether and resume their career as a real estate agent/fly catcher while the watchers of the world, like you, quietly celebrate.