Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Steven Pete feels no pain. Even broken bones bring only a slight discomfort. For Pam Costa, any warmth burns like fire; she takes morphine every morning and sleeps on ice-cold pillows. Although the two Washingtonians live just over an hour apart, they’ve never met — but their cases are helping identify a gene that could be used to control chronic physical suffering. Erika Hayasaki documents this classic scientific detective story.
As a child, Costa would dawdle in the deep gutters lining the streets near her home, the cool, mucky water providing her momentary pain relief. In classrooms she would wrap her hands and feet around the poles of a desk, like a koala, to feel the coolness. And she’d sneak off to water fountains to wipe down her limbs with cold water.
Doctors didn’t know how to diagnose her. Some adults thought she had behavioral issues or depression. One physician said her symptoms were psychosomatic. The plum color was the only visible evidence that she might have any medical disorder at all. Then, in 1977, when Costa was 11, a letter arrived from the Mayo Clinic.
Ex-Evangelical Meghan O’Gieblyn is really, really good at describing what it’s like to lose your faith — to be dislocated in time, even to lose your sense of your own body as you lose your sense of God. That makes it easier to understand how a new, outlandish set of beliefs, the transhumanism favorited by tech elitists like Elon Musk, could slip unconsidered into the gap.
The deeper I got into the articles, the more unhinged my thinking became. One day, it occurred to me: perhaps God was the designer and Christ his digital avatar, and the incarnation his way of entering the simulation to share tips about our collective survival as a species. Or maybe the creation of our world was a competition, a kind of video game in which each participating programmer invented one of the world religions, sent down his own prophet-avatar and received points for every new convert.
By this point I’d passed beyond idle speculation. A new, more pernicious thought had come to dominate my mind: transhumanist ideas were not merely similar to theological concepts but could in fact be the events described in the Bible.
Ijeoma Oluo’s piece on Rachel Dolezal for The Stranger went viral this week, and rightfully so. Oluo perfectly expresses the frustration of trying to engage Dolezal, who is endlessly slippery and self-protective — just reading their exchanges is maddening. Then she neatly pivots out of the game of “she said, she said”: out of the pseudo-academic arguments, out of the crocodile tears, and back onto terra firma. Here’s hoping this can be her final word.
When the story first broke in June 2015, I was approached by more editors in a week than I had heard from in two months. They were all looking for "fresh takes" on the Dolezal scandal from the very people whose identity had now been put up for debate—black women. I wrote two pieces on Dolezal for two different websites, mostly focused not on her, but on the lack of understanding of black women's identity that was causing the conversation about Dolezal to become more and more painful for so many black women.
After a few weeks of media obsession, I—and most of the other black women I knew—was completely done with Rachel Dolezal.
Or, at least I hoped to be.
I don’t know, Kevin Nguyen; this is all fine practical advice, but doesn’t it boil down to — if you want to read more, read more? We don’t need a listicle for that, or a Fitbit so we can track page counts against our friends. However, in case you do want some highly amusing guidance on how to read in the absence of a comfy chair, a few hours, and glass of scotch, here it is.
Before you tell me how much you “enjoy the smell of print books” like some kind of psycho, let me try to sell you on the convenience of reading in the Kindle or iBooks app: you’ll always have your books with you, and most importantly, you can always get through a little reading in those lost minutes of the day — waiting in line for coffee, for the 4-train running behind schedule, and for the bathroom because you drank too much coffee. Those pages add up fast.
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One of the great stories of Seattle took place in this building. One of the great facades of Seattle buildings graces its exterior. Now a hotel, once a club for “explorers”, (but mostly the people who did business with them), the Arctic Building isn’t the largest building in Seattle, nor is it the most important, but it may just be one of the most interesting.
It was raised in 1916, by some lucky sods who had made off like bandits in the Klondike gold rush. At least that’s what the myth is. As Seattle well knows, most of the money was in outfitting the fools who went prospecting, not in the prospecting itself — this is the story of early Seattle. The primary funder of the club, James Moses, made his money in pottery, not gold or pickaxes and tents. And he wasn’t even a Seattle resident. The Arctic Club had strong ties to New York, where there was another club, and Chicago.
You would join the club if you wanted to reinforce your business connections to the Alaskan territory. The bar, which was once housed in an older building the club used before the building we all love so much was built, was apparently stolen through a window one night when nobody was paying attention.
The modern hotel bar is a good place to grab a drink these days — they faithfully, as possible, recreate the look-and-feel of a vintage lounge, although the drinks will set you back more than they did back in the early days. Here’s a hint: walking up to the parking lot on the corner of Cherry and Fourth allows you to walk up pretty close to one of the walrus cartouches — they’re gonna raze that to make a new skyscraper soon, so do it while you can.
And that great story? Be warned: it’s a tragedy. It centers around Marion Zioncheck, a leftist firebrand politician, who was elected to the US Senate as a representative from Washington. He was a staunch New Deal Democrat who had a wild streak, apparently. He was arrested with his wife for drunkenly cavorting in a fountain. He sent manure to J. Edgar Hoover. He was, by all accounts, completely crazy.
He announced he was retiring, and set the stage for his college buddy Warren Magnuson (the park is named for him) to run in his stead. But then, Zioncheck changed his mind. One August evening, in 1936, Zioncheck’s wife of four months Rubye was waiting in the car for him. He was in his office on the fifth floor of the Arctic Building. They were all set to go out to an event.
And then, his body tumbled down from the sky, smashing into the street in front of poor Rubye, almost hitting pedestrians, and ending the life of Marion Zioncheck. The fall was ruled a suicide, and in fact, there was a note left behind, and a witness, his brother-in-law who claimed he was trying to stop him from the act. There are those who think otherwise.
History is funny like that. It leaves buildings behind with these ghosts. I caught the bus on Third between Cherry and Columbia for years, and I walked past the spot where Zioncheck fell nearly every day. I never thought about him, save for when I was telling someone the story. Funny how we just move on and don’t remember. How a building can just be a nice hotel now. I wonder if you could sleep in the room that has the window he jumped from? Might be worth asking at the front desk.
One thing’s for sure. There are heck of a lot of stories waiting to come out of that building.
It was midnight when they broke in to the old Arctic Club. The new building was ready, and there was just one thing then needed. The building was quiet as they opened the massive window as high as it would go, and started breaking loose the large wooden bar. It was theirs, and they were gonna take it.
That old building on Third and Cherry was in poor repair, in 1975, and not looking so great. A woman, a waitress at the Harbor Club atop the Norton Building, was rushing down the hill in her heels, trying not to be late for her shift. When suddenly, she was grabbed by the waist and pulled aside. A tusk from one of the walrus friezes crashed to the sidewalk where she would have been. "Are you okay?" That voice...she turned, and gasped when she saw who had saved her.
They could only do it when the bar was slow, but it was a fun game. They tried to guess which couples getting hit on would go back to a room together. On a good night, they had a couple of hits. Occasionally, they stopped a creep from harassing someone. But when one of them elbowed the other to point out the man in the green suit making a move on the woman in the black wrap dress, what they never expected was to get pulled into the middle of an international incident.
They gathered every full moon. They wore black robes, and gathered under the walruses. They shined their lights up onto the building and began their chant. All hail the walrus! The walrus who brings life! They knew they'd have five minutes tops before the cops came, at least that was the average. But this time they had something planned that would change things. This time, they wouldn't be chased away so easily.
What was amusing was the one time she stayed in a hotel and could hear the neighbors next door spanking each other. What was not amusing was being in a hotel and hearing the neighbors next door yelling at each other in scary ways. But when she called the front desk to report them, all she was told was "Lock your door and don't leave your room until we tell you its safe", and the line went dead. Then the screaming in the hall started.
After the 2008 and 2012 elections, I was very much enthralled by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's quick-published insidery accounts of the presidential campaigns. Game Change and Game Change: Double Down both piqued my interest with their gossipy tone and their inside-baseball chattiness.
Now, of course, it's pretty obvious that Mark Halperin is an awful person, and an even worse journalist; he sucked up to Donald Trump at just about every opportunity during the 2016 elections. His pro-Trump leaning during this last election cycle was saccharine enough to help me realize what I'd hidden from myself over the last four years: Halperin's work isn't interested in what's right or even what happened. He's only interested in who's on top, and how much access he can skim from them. I'm retroactively embarrassed that I enjoyed his books so much.
But it's not just Halperin: this election has soured my entire perception of the quick-turn post-election genre. I love books that investigate presidential campaigns, but there have been a spate of titles over the last few election cycles that have been published within six months of Election Day, and they are more harmful than good.
All of this is a long way of saying that even though some part of me wants to read Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign for all the gossip and forehead-slapping it would inspire, some larger part of me understands that these auto-published postmortems are toxic. I'm not going to read Shattered, and I'd urge you to consider not reading it as well.
There's a cliche that's been pretty popular on political podcasts in the days since the 2016 election. It has many variations, but it always goes something like this: in retrospect, every winning campaign looks brilliant, and every losing campaign looks hopelessly, impossibly dumb. The truth is never that simple.
Yes, Clinton's campaign team made awful decisions. Obviously. I don't want to exonerate anyone, here.
But I just don't know what good any of this is doing anyone. Democrats are still trying to argue over where everything went wrong in the 2016 election, and the truth is that it just doesn't matter. We know what must be done: Democrats have to propose big policies that appeal to more voters, and they have to explain why those policies are better than the policies that the other side is proposing. Democrats also have to listen to average people, and respond to the needs of average Americans — Americans of every color and class and creed. I think those statements are non-controversial enough that most Sanders voters and most Clinton voters would agree with them.
One day, the residue of filth covering the 2016 election will be less greasy. Our responses to the memory of the year will grow less immediate, less visceral. And one day someone will write a book — a deeply reported, dense, smart work of journalism — about the Clinton campaign. I can pretty much guarantee that Shattered is not that book. Reading it is just picking at fresh scabs, and it will likely leave you looking to start arguments that can have no winners.
The time now is to look forward, not back. Democrats should be reading about policy and not personality. Now that a reality show star is in the White House, it should be obvious to everyone that there's no room for reality-show antics in our media coverage of the campaigns.
We must be better than this.
On their Facebook page, someone on the Phoenix Comics staff writes:
We wish we had better news to share this morning, but sadly we were the victim of a smash and grab robbery early this morning. Fortunately we have a glass company already working on it and the door should be fixed with no expected interruption to store hours or events today.
The store reported on Twitter that their door has already been fixed. But still: Boo. What kind of an asshole breaks into a comics shop? (Answer: one of the very bad kinds of assholes, not one of the sort of okay kinds of assholes, like Irish pirate queen Grace O'Malley or literally any role Benedict Cumberbatch has ever played.)
If you have a few extra dollars to spend this weekend, maybe drop by Phoenix and pick up a comic or a game. It's important at times like these to come together and make a statement that we do not tolerate this kind of awful bullshittery in our city.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
My local bookstore is great, except for one thing: the attached café is terrible. I fantasize about buying a new book and demolishing a few chapters over a nice sandwich and a cup of coffee. I’ve tried it there a few times, but their food is unexceptional and their coffee tastes like it was filtered through someone’s underwear. The service is pretty bad, too. And don’t even get me started on the soup!
Yelp is for assholes, but I really think this would be the perfect bookstore if the meals it served were halfway edible. How can I improve the quality of food?
Jay, [Neighborhood Redacted by Request]
You live in a city that has developed a taste for the ridiculous – how am I supposed to know yours is any good? If you've ever compared the rich flavor of a roasted beet to eating out Mother Earth, if your table salt costs more per gram than viable eggs harvested from a healthy young white woman, if you've ever uttered the phrase, "I long to participate in a California grunion run," I cannot and will not help you.
But let us assume you are a reasonable person – the kind of person who can't quit Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists because of their ass-pounding umami flavor. Assuming this, and knowing that independent booksellers are some of the most intelligent, reasonable, and open-minded people currently eating out Mother Earth, here is what I suggest you do: start small, with coffee.
Get coffee at your local bookstore on a regular basis, be friendly and tip well. Tipping well is the key – I'm talking very well, like 100 percent for each cup of coffee. Solicit friends and fellow book lovers to also do this. After a few visits, when you have established that you are friendly and generous, leave an extra big tip – like $20 – and write on the receipt something along the lines of "I love this bookstore and cafe, but the coffee tastes like TKTKTK. Maybe it's time for a change?" And don't just say "it tastes like shit," be polite but specific in your critique – it is weak, it is cold, it has strong notes of underwear. Encourage your friends to do the same.
The next time you go in, make small talk with the barista. Ask if the manager is open to changing things up in the cafe – like the coffee, for instance. Perhaps even nicely ask to talk to the manager face to face (I know technology has made the act of expressing a desire while maintaining sustained eye contact with another human being feel like an old-timey hobby instead of a healthy communication tactic, but it's worth a try).
You are incredibly lucky to have a local bookstore in your area. As I'm sure you know, they are not the stuff of get-rich-quick schemes, they are laborious acts of love. Once the managers/owners understand that you're a loyal customer and ally – as are the other people they're hearing from – I'd expect them to be open to change.
Monday April 24th: Breaking the Bond Reading
The very fine Texas playwright Rupert Reyes brings a staged reading from his latest work-in-progress play, Breaking the Bond, to the U District’s own Jack Straw Gallery. Featuring local Spanish-speaking readers, this play discusses topics of deportation, anchor babies, and national identity. (Reyes has also acted in the film Office Space.)
Jack Straw Gallery, 4261 Roosevelt Way N.E., 634-0919, http://jackstraw.org . Free. All ages. 7:30 p.m.
Speaking of librarians, I just want to make sure that you appreciate how librarians dragged Ivanka Trump for her all-talk "support" of public libraries at the same time that her dad is trying to defund them.
The good people at Artist Trust are launching a "Night School" program of short classes for artists. Classes include "Promotion Fundamentals" and "Business Fundamentals."
Open Culture published a neat look at what children's books were like in the Soviet Union.
Yesterday, I was planning to pick up the first issue of Secret Empire, the new Marvel Comics crossover. (Technically, it was issue #0; the first issue of Secret Empire — as in the issue marked "#1" — is due on May 3rd. If you're already confused, I apologize for what I'm about to put you through.) Every once in a while I like a big superhero crossover if it's handled well, and I enjoyed Nick Spencer's run on Ant-Man a while ago. Seemed worth a shot. But then I saw this tweet by Marvel editor Tom Brevoort:
A quick semi-word of warning for this week's books: the three Opening Salvo issues are meant to be read before Secret Empire #0.— Tom Brevoort (@TomBrevoort) April 18, 2017
And because of that tweet, I didn't bother to pick up Secret Empire #0. If the first issue — sorry, the zero issue — of a series requires a "semi-word of warning" that three other books should be read beforehand, I can't really be bothered.
Look, I appreciate that superhero comics are a serialized storytelling medium. The minute a story has a conclusive ending, there's no reason for readers to pick up the next installment. But I do expect a story to make sense in and of itself, with a beginning, a middle, and some semblance of an ending. If the beginning of a book requires advance reading, it's not really a beginning.
Or let me use another example from a different publisher. I found the first collected volume of Detective Comics from DC's Rebirth line, Rise of the Batmen, to be a lot of fun. It's basically a Batman superhero team book, in which Batman must assemble a team including the formerly villainous Clayface and three interesting female characters from other Batman-themed books — Batwoman, Spoiler, and the Orphan (who used to be Batgirl) — to fend off an insidious Batman-themed threat.
Rise of the Batmen is mostly a good example of serialized superhero comics done right. The bad guys have a clear motivation, the heroes all have distinct personalities, and it's all terrifically, deliciously silly. Sure, it's a bit too goth — it is a Batman comic, after all — but it's brisk and entertaining and it never takes itself too seriously.
But then comes the ending. One of the characters supposedly dies. But then a page or two later we find out this character — gasp — didn't die after all! Par for the course for superhero comics. Except the character didn't die because they were plucked from the death scene by someone in another dimension or something, a bad guy who had nothing to do with the rest of the book.
Presumably, this plot device is setting up a crossover in some other, future DC Comic further down the line. But if you're reading this book as a book — which is to say you're expecting it to have a beginning, a middle, and an end — you're going to be incredibly disappointed. This isn't a fair ending. It's not a surprise, or a twist. A reader couldn't be expected to know what the hell is going on here without reading a ton of other comics. It's not even a deus ex machina; it's a non sequitur.
I love the fact that superhero comics never end, but I hate the fact that superhero comics are now absurdist echoes of themselves. Comics in the 60s and 70s and 80s used to catch readers up and explain the intricate mythologies behind the characters along the way. I understand that fashions change, and that the exposition-heavy comics from decades ago now read as impossibly clunky.
But surely there must be some way to convey the dense mythology of superhero comics gracefully? One thing comics are great at is broadcasting a lot of information in a relatively small amount of space. Modern superhero comics are all about withholding information, and demanding that the reader invest in dozens of books in order to understand what's going on. This philosophy is not only anti-new-reader; it's anti-comics.
“I apologize for standing up so high,” Thomas Frank announced from behind the podium at Town Hall Seattle last night. He observed that the audience members who gathered by the stage to ask him questions were forced to gaze up at him, as though he was a wizened old man sitting at the peak of a mountain. “It's not very populist of me,” he joked.
In reality, Frank couldn’t be any more populist if he discussed his new-in-paperback book Listen, Liberal while sitting in the middle of the audience in the pews of Town Hall. Frank addressed income inequality and the Democratic Party establishment’s dismissal of the working class with a single-minded intensity.
Frank railed on the current system, in which a few elites in the top ten percent enjoy a booming economy while everyone else in America lives in a state of perpetual recession. He says that since roughly the 1980s, America has offered its citizens economic “growth that doesn't grow and prosperity that doesn't prosper.”
Frank places the majority of the blame on the professional class of experts who run the Democratic Party. He said they refuse to crack down on their peers in the banking, pharmaceutical, and real estate businesses who are looting the American people for all they’re worth. This is because, he said, Democrats have come to believe in a “meritocracy” where “everyone gets what they deserve and what they deserve is directly tied to how they did in school.” If you didn’t go to a good school, or if you chose the wrong (read: non-STEM) major, Frank said, the creative class — and there Frank paused to reflect on the absurdity of “the idea that creativity is the property of a class” — believes you deserve the misfortune that you somehow delivered onto yourself.
Meanwhile, the pundits on every channel declare that “the answer to every question every time is to move to the center,” when in fact the problem is clear: “the party of the left isn't interested in its historical mission,” Frank said. That mission? To stand up for the working class. Donald Trump proved himself during the 2016 election to be “a hypocrite, a vulgarian, and a bigot,” Frank said, but he admitted that Trump recognized the unrest unfolding in middle America. The sorrows that Trump highlighted during the campaign, Frank said with a tone of astonishment in his voice — “those are things my people used to say.”
And because Trump continually discussed a problem that Democrats refused to even acknowledge, the Democratic Party is now at its lowest ebb “since 1920.” Frank told the audience that the only way to interpret the 2016 results is “a wipeout for the Democratic Party,” which he accused of “militant complacency.”
By design, Frank didn’t focus much on solutions to the problem. He was in full-on accusatory mode, identifying the systemic rot in America’s economy and the Democratic Party, though toward the end of his lecture he rattled off a few policies Democrats should support, including free or affordable secondary education and laws that promote unionization. The solutions aren’t the hard part, Frank said. On the contrary, “it takes ten seconds to come up with winning issues.” The problem, he warned, is that the Democratic Party is “going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming to victory.”
Good news! Now that all the allegations against Bill O'Reilly have finally gotten public attention, Fox News has kicked the man to the curb, canceling his O'Reilly Factor TV show. It's embarrassing that it took this long, but it's good to see that activism eventually pays off.
However. O'Reilly is also a bestselling writer — or more likely, "writer" — of historical books. His books warp and twist history into something that is barely recognizeable, but they sell like the proverbial hotcakes.
Even worse, O'Reilly right now has a children's book at the top of the bestseller charts. Co-"authored" with bestselling hit factory James Patterson, Give Please a Chance is an etiquette book for children:
Of course, every angry white grandpa in America who is continually enraged by "PC Culture" is now going to buy a copy of this book and mail it to their grandkids out of spite. We can't do anything about those horrible people. But will publishers think twice about their relationship with O'Reilly?
It's doubtful. As the disastrous Simon & Schuster deal with Milo Yiannopoulos proves, corporate publishers will cling to potentially moneymaking authors until the very last possible second. Some truly despicable comments by Yiannopoulos had to come to light (and had to spread widely) before they reversed their decision to publish his memoir. It seems doubtful that Henry Holt, the publisher of O'Reilly's work for adults, or Little, Brown, the publisher of his books for kids, will cancel the titles or sever their relationship with him.
But O'Reilly's TV show wouldn't have been pulled if people hadn't put pressure on O'Reilly Factor advertisers. Allegations about O'Reilly had been circulating for years; it wasn't until people stood up to say "enough" that Fox News took notice. So maybe it's worthwhile to let Henry Holt and Little, Brown know how you feel about their profiting from a man who even Fox News won't touch? Do their employees care that they're promoting the work of an alleged sexual predator? Maybe ask Little, Brown and Henry Holt those questions on Twitter and send them some emails and see what kind of a response you get.
Phinney Books’s Dock Street Salon series is always a fun time. Authors talk in a fairly up close and intimate setting with an engaged and excited audience. Today’s readers are Anne Liu Kellor, Jennifer D. Munro, and Ann Teplick. Expect a reading, a lively Q&A, and maybe some booze (not in that order.) Phinney Books, 7405 Greenwood Ave. N., 297-2665, http://phinneybooks.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
It is probably no mistake that some of the best poets are translators. While translating poetry from one language into another is an impossible, thankless task — I’ve heard it described as performing open heart surgery with a chainsaw — it still teaches you to ask all the right questions.
Why did the poet use this word in that particular spot? Does a line break mean the same in this language as it does in the original language? Just because you’ve managed to assemble a word-for-word translation of a sentence, the rhythm of the translated sentence might be completely wrong — a sentence can sound like a crashing wave in one language and a galloping horse with a trick knee in another. Those airy, complicated questions of translation are bound to make anyone a better writer.
Redmond writer Lena Khalaf Tuffaha has translated other poets from Arabic to English. She’s written beautifully about the experience in an essay on her site titled “Translation as Poetry.” She explains that the “first time I unlocked one of these phrases on my own, I felt like I had put on goggles and was happily diving into the cerulean deep of a pool after years of blurry immersion.”
Now, Tuffaha is publishing her first book of poems with prestigious Pasadena publisher Red Hen Press. Water & Salt is a book that spans the globe, from Seattle to Jordan and back again:
We are driving away
because we can leave
on the magic carpet of our navy blue
US passports that carry us
to safety and no bomb drills
to the place where the planes are made
and the place where the president
will make the call to send the planes
into my storybook childhood
The repetition of the “planes,” there, from being manufactured to being launched, is a meaningful one. Here, in Seattle — once the Jet City, though that name has fallen into disfavor in the age of Amazon — the planes are a point of pride. They represent jobs and industry and security for families. There, they bring endings to childhood.
These poems bounce back and forth between worlds to look at familiar objects from both sides. Tuffaha compares vivid street markets to fluorescent supermarkets. She writes, “I love to tell you where I am from,” when she says “the nine letters” — Palestine, the “place with a name charged as an electric fence” — that inspire opinions in absolutely everyone. Her poems are addressed to ugly Americans and friends and Syrians and her close family. Even Tuffaha’s beloved coffee habit is different in America (“free-trade shade-grown organic”) than it is in the Middle East (“…never serve coffee without ground cardamom.”) The sun casts different shadows here and there. Everything looks a little different.
It becomes obvious as you read Water & Salt that Tuffaha is still deeply invested in the business of translation. Not even something as innocuous as an almond can just be itself. Here, they are dried and brown and vacuum sealed. There they are green and so sour they’re “puckering.” Her poetry is always translating something — experiences, cultures, memories — for someone else. She’s a patient intermediary, explaining how one word can have a million different meanings. It’s all a matter of perspective.
A couple weeks ago, I listened to the podcast S-Town. It was exactly as compelling as you’ve heard — a story of death and crime and poverty and hatred and mental illness. Of course the story of S-Town is more complex than just what’s in the narrative— the way it’s told, the elements of the story that don’t appear in the audio, are part of the podcast’s puzzle-box fascination.
It occurred to me as I was listening to S-Town, though, that fifteen years ago, before the dawn of podcasts, the story almost certainly would have arrived in the form of a book. In fact, you could easily argue that the story of S-Town would likely be better served in book form.
Podcasts are terrific ways to relay certain kinds of information — interviews, current events, deep dives into a single topic. But the nuance of S-Town isn’t especially great for a podcast, which is a medium that continually moves forward. Books are better-suited to address the kind of complicated questions raised in S-Town — the recursive questions of reporting and ethics and respecting the wishes of the dead while honoring their legacies.
S-Town is in the spirit of two recent true crime books by local authors: Eli Sanders's While the City Slept and Claudia Rowe's The Spider and the Fly. Both of those books provided context, introspection, and complex narratives in a way that S-Town could only hint at. It's frustrating to feel that there's more just outside the reach of the storyteller, and that certain aspects of the story aren't covered as thoroughly as they should because of the limitations of the medium.
The characters and situations in S-Town are rich, deep, and they possess many levels. They deserve the richness, depth, and nuance that only books can provide.
All the cell phone towers are pagodas
from the top floor through my near-sighted eyes—
blue, white, red shimmering houses
for ancient gods among the fir trees and dogwood.
They climb the hills to the cemetery, carrying
the voices of the living far above the lost
chatter of those already gone before us.
The words are like raindrops in a summer storm
here then gone, sadness borne away
over the continents. And love
or the failure of love, wounds and caresses.
The seas wander underneath.
Somewhere in this forest of voices
a pen is writing in blue ink.
Sponsor Third Place Books, up in Lake Forest Park, is hosting an exciting evening with author Laird Hunt, to talk about his latest novel The Evening Road. Hunt will be joined by Third Place Books managing partner Robert Sindelar. It happens next Tuesday, April 25th, starting at 7:00pm.
If you know Hunt, you certainly need to introduction to his work. He's the author of six novels and a collection of short works. He works across various literary genres, always working to reach new, exciting ground. No doubt this is going to be a fascinating conversation with a compelling writer. Find more information on our sponsor's page, and make sure to put the 25th on your calendar.
Sponsors like Third Place Books make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? Get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. We have two dates for March we'd love to sell, and they're currently discounted. Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.
(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)
Who’s your date today? Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank. (Frank will be reading at Town Hall tomorrow night.)
Where’d you go? The Tigerly Ox, a newish Vietnamese lunch counter on Madison.
What’d you eat? The Tigerly Ox's fancy version of a steak banh mi. ($8.20.)
How was the food? Great! You should be warned that the Tigerly Ox doesn't serve the so-simple-it's good version of the banh mi that you can pick up anywhere in the International District. This is on crusty, crunchy bread, it's made from fancier ingredients than your typical four-buck-banh-mi, and it's loaded with a nice fishy umami kick from the paté. It's a lot more filling than the typical banh mi, but you should be warned that it doesn't scratch the particular banh mi itch you get when you want a cheap sandwich on airy, cheap French bread.
What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:
... Drawing on years of research and first-hand reporting, Frank points out that the Democrats have done little to advance traditional liberal goals: expanding opportunity, fighting for social justice, and ensuring that workers get a fair deal. Indeed, they have scarcely dented the free-market consensus at all. This is not for lack of opportunity: Democrats have occupied the White House for sixteen of the last twenty-four years, and yet the decline of the middle class has only accelerated. Wall Street gets its bailouts, wages keep falling, and the free-trade deals keep coming.
Is there a representative quote? "Democrats have been wondering who they are and squabbling over what they believe for virtually my entire life. It has taken them years to get to wherever it is they are today; years filled with quarrels and vituperation and occasional bouts of manic self-love. It has required long periods of slow evolution, usually in the wrong direction; runs of rapid but lousy choices; epochs followed by a savage Thermidor in which hard-headed party toughguys promoted different fad ideas that turned out to be even worse."
Will you two end up in bed together? God, I have no idea how I didn't read this book when it was realeased in hardcover last year. Frank accurately identifies the problem with the Democratic party — elitism and a wrong-headed meritocracy — and his diagnosis is so eerily right-on that it seems like he has access to a time machine. This book explains why Hillary Clinton lost the election, and it was published a year before Hillary Clinton lost the election. It's fascinating stuff, though I hope Frank has some prescriptions for how to fix the problem, because while he's great at being right — seriously, this book is filled with rage and disgust and it's wildly entertaining — it would be even better if he turned out to be helpful, too.
When news broke last month that Joan Swift had died, the Seattle literary community erupted in outpourings of grief. A shared sensation spread quickly around Facebook that something momentous had passed with her. At 90 years old, Swift was well-loved by many generations of Seattle writers, and she provided a direct link to the history of Northwest literature. She was one of the last living writers to learn directly from Seattle poetry godfather Theodore Roethke, and she shepherded generations of writers out of anonymity and into maturity.
Tess Gallagher (on the left on the photo) met Swift (on the right) in 1963 when both had enrolled in what would be Roethke’s final spring poetry workshop. Roethke developed nicknames for several of his students, and “he called [Swift] ‘Mother’ since she had two children and was a bit older than others” in the class, Gallagher recalls.
Gallagher was 20 years old, and one of the two youngest students in the workshop. “Joan was extremely kind to me and took me under her wing,” Gallagher writes in an email. “We sat near each other in the class and it helped me greatly that she took an interest in my poems and clarified things that were asked of us by Roethke from time to time.” She doesn’t know what she would have done had Swift not “made me welcome in her quiet, bemused but affable way.” Swift and Gallagher have been friends ever since. “I considered her a close friend with whom one could share life details and gossip a bit with and just laugh with in a special way,” she writes.
The Puget Sound region is full of stories like that — tales of how Swift reached out to others, and how that first act of kindness blossomed into a lifelong friendship. Seattle poet Esther Altshul Helfgott first saw Swift read at the Frye around the year 2000, and they became fast friends. Helfgott started the It’s About Time open mic series at Ravenna's Eckstein Senior Center a quarter-century ago as a way for new writers to practice their craft on a public platform. She says “some poets and writers of Joan's caliber wouldn't give us a second look, but Joan read for” the series on multiple occasions; she especially appreciated that Swift “treated me like an equal. That doesn’t happen with well-known people in the literary community. She was just so warm and giving.”
Swift had been a high-profile poet in the Seattle area for so long that her monolithic presence could sometimes overshadow the very fine, delicate work in her poems. “Her use of language is so beautiful and lyrical, and the warmth of her personality is reflected in her language,” Helfgott says.
“She is so entirely present in her encounters within the poem that, reading her poems, you accompany her at a high intensity,” Gallagher says. “Her endings often sink the poem deep into your memory so the poem is carried and not released. She is so exact in her image and language that one immediately trusts her, follows her. Her voice has its truth seemingly embedded within it.”
The honesty of Swift’s voice opened doors for other poets. Shortly after news of Swift’s death broke, Sherman Alexie told me about the impact that her work had on him as a young poet. “Way back when, in college, or just after college, I read a Joan Swift poem about eagles having sex as they plummet toward the earth, how they sometimes forget to uncouple and crash to their deaths,” Alexie says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wait, it's cool to write a poem about eagles fucking to death? Awesome!’ Joan introduced a new rule of poetry to me. Or broke the old rules. Or both.”
“She writes about difficult subjects that others might shy away from,” Gallagher says, citing the poem “Shin-Ichi’s Tricycle” from Swift’s forthcoming book from Cave Moon press as an example. “That ending makes us wear the death of the little boy in the bombing of Hiroshima and she convicts us of us death in such a deadly no-escape way in her ending. She’s a take-no-prisoners kind of writer.”
Swift wrote candidly about rape, Gallagher says, “long before other women would write about it.” Helfgott says that one of the last poems Swift ever completed, “Sometimes a Lake” is one of her most courageous. The poem addresses the suicide of Swift’s daughter, Laurie, and it “is so gorgeous. When she would talk on the phone about Laurie, there was nothing in her voice or her words speaking to me that were like that poem.” In the poem, Swift captures the moment when she goes through Laurie’s effects, looking for a greater meaning that isn’t there.
These boxes are almost empty—
just air and losses.
But here’s a photo album where you’re smiling
with friends, your borderline disorder group.
Everyone I talked to remarks that Swift was working right up until the end. At 90, by all accounts, she was still as sharp a writer and reader as she’d ever been. Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson was working closely with Swift on a volume of poems titled The Body that Follows Us that will be published next month. On Tuesday, May 16th, Open Books in Wallingford will host a memorial service for Swift that will serve as a launch for the book.
Johnson says that Swift was thoroughly involved with the editing process. Unlike some of the books he’s published, Swift “handed me an extremely well-formatted book,” one that was clean and well-formatted and basically ready for publication immediately. But they passed the manuscript back and forth for months, editing it and talking about fonts and making sure everything was perfect.
“Joan very much wanted to get it extremely right,” Johnson says. “She wanted to carry it through to the best of her ability.”
Heidi MacDonald at the Beat says that Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts has won the Penn State University Libraries' 2017 Lynd Ward prize. MacDonald says the prize is given to "the best graphic novel, fiction or non-fiction, published in the previous calendar year by a living U.S. or Canadian citizen or resident. It’s definitely one of the most prestigious awards for a graphic novel given out each year."
We've been talking about Sarah Glidden for a long time here on the Seattle Review of Books. You can find our author page for her here. I reviewed Rolling Blackouts on its release, and I interviewed Glidden about the book at the Rolling Blackouts Seattle launch party.