Last night at Benaroya Hall, I introduced David Sedaris for his annual reading. What follows is my prepared text.
Hello! My name is Paul Constant and I’m a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books. Before we begin, I want you to share a message with you from the very bottom of my heart. Here it is: Turn off your fucking cell phones.
I also want to let you know about an amazing opportunity. Last January, David Sedaris did a weeklong series of workshop performances at the Broadway Performance Hall. He was editing and refining pieces from his magnificent diary collection, Theft By Finding. I think that those performances were all that got me through the week surrounding Donald Trump’s inauguration; without them I would have stayed at home in my bathrobe and cultivated a thriving blackhead farm on my nose. The readings were funny and informal and they provided a fantastic window into his process.
And just as those sold-out shows meant a lot to Seattle, apparently Seattle meant a lot to David Sedaris, because he’s coming back this January for another weeklong stand at the Broadway Performance Hall. He’ll be workshopping his upcoming book of essays, Calypso, which means you’ll get to experience his book before everyone else. Every night of the week will include a reading and an intimate question and answer session, but no two nights will include the same pieces, which means you could attend more than once and never see the same show twice. I highly recommend that you attend.
Okay! Now it’s time to get tonight’s reading going.
Introductions are a funny thing. You already know why you’re here, so you don’t need me to tell you who David Sedaris is. If you’ve read his books before, you know that he’s knife-in-the-ribs funny and slyly compassionate. If you’ve seen him read before, you know that he’s literally a world-class reader of his own work, by which I mean there’s a very good chance that you are right now about to watch the best reading in the world tonight.
When called on to do introductions, a lot of people simply visit Wikipedia and copy down a list of accomplishments and titles. They then repeat those names back to the audience with all the life-affirming energy and unbridled enthusiasm of a hostage video. But I’ve done a lot of introductions in my time, and I’m here to tell you a secret: Wikipedia sucks as an introduction resource. In fact, you can learn more about a person by reading the edits to their Wikipedia page.
In case you have an active social life and didn’t know, allow me to explain: it’s possible to read every single edit that’s ever been made to any Wikipedia entry, and to see the conversations between the thousands of volunteer editors who oversee changes to the site. I spent hours poring over Sedaris’s page as research for this introduction.
The first noteworthy edit to David Sedaris’s Wikipedia page was in July of 2005, and it was written by a user named Chrisjamescox. Mr. Cox noted that he “Removed ‘satirist’ [from the entry and] replaced with ‘humorist’.” He went on to editorialize: “He is not a satirist! He doesn't comment with disparaging humor ('humour' in Brit. Eng.) on current events and trends. He writes about his family.”
Later that same year, a user named Moncrief asked, “How is [Sedaris] a Chicagoan?? He lives in France and is from North Carolina. If he's a ‘Chicagoan’ somehow, it should be explained in the article.” Someone else would later add, “he’s not jewish. he’s half greek/half protestant.” The next year saw a number of edits from a Wikipedia user named “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”
A bunch of notable additions came in 2007. One user wrote proudly that he “Added mention of [Sedaris’s] drug use.” May of 2007 saw additions of the words “expatriate” and “homosexual” to the page.
So additions are crucial, but you can also tell a lot from the deletions. “Removed the part about [Sedaris] speaking at the University of Arizona as it's not notable in any way,” one user wrote in 2011. (My apologies to any University of Arizona alums we may have here tonight.) User Jamend8 in 2012 writes that he “Removed France as Sedaris' ‘country of origin.’ He was born in the U.S.” An editor named Frosty protested a change by claiming that “I understand that this might seem strange, but the article claims [Sedaris] is known locally as Pig Pen.” MelonKelon responded, “That may be true. It's a nickname of sorts. But it is not a notable name, nor is it an alias he writes under.”
Word choice in Wikipedia articles is very important. Lee Bailey commented with disdain in 2007 that “a ‘humorous essayist’ is a humorist.” SergioGiorgiani writes that Sedaris’s speech impediment wasn’t “cured at all. He specifically mentions how his speech therapist left without having accomplished anything but making David avoid the letter S.” Someone else writes with palpable exasperation, “I changed Infoboxes: The guy was a writer and comedian, not a scientist.”
It goes on. And on. There are something like 1500 individual edits to the page since it was created in 2003. Things get nasty in the Great Edit War of 2009. “I don't know anything about David Sedaris, but it seems odd that [user] 188.8.131.52 would delete a well-cited reference. I suspect the user has an axe to grind with that source,” someone butts in. User 184.108.40.206 retorts, “There is no ‘axe to grind.’ This is more accurate. Leave it alone.” Another editor complains about being “wrongly blocked” from editing the page, and someone else concludes, “This is it's [sic] what accurate. Stop changing it to nonsense.”
What emerges from the edits is a kind of erasure portrait of Sedaris, a biography constructed from deletions and errors. It doesn’t capture the way he can condense a perfect agonizing moment down to its most honest core in just a few sentences. It doesn’t explain how he can whiplash readers between laughter and tears and make it look easy. But it does demonstrate the passion his fans feel for him, their willingness to fight for hours in a weird internet forum about every tiny detail of his life. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to introduce the man behind the Wikipedia page, David Sedaris.
If you like epic dark fantasy, stop reading this post and go immediately to the sample chapter from sponsor Allen Batchelder's Steel, Blood & Fire. You'll find the not-so-heroic hero Tarmun Vykers sitting in the stocks, at the mercy of an entire village he's mysteriously offended. It's an irresistible opening, and so are the cameos by Aoife, a woman on a secret and possibly deadly mission, and Long Pete, a man whose destiny (at least for today) lies at the bottom of a flask. The first book in a series called Immortal Treachery, Steel, Blood & Fire is a fast-paced and gripping story, and we're delighted to share a taste with our readers.
Sponsors like Allan Batchelder make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? We've just opened up our new slots for spring and summer 2018. If you have a book, event, or opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, reserve your dates now.
As part of their ongoing Inside/Out program, Town Hall asks the Columbia/Hillman City communities what they can be doing to assist inclusivity and togetherness in their events. This is worth attending even if you’re unfamiliar with Town Hall. This part of town has been changing for years, and it needs to reassess its cultural needs and desires before it moves into the future. Rainier Arts Center, 3515 S Alaska St, http://townhallseattle.org, 7 pm, free.
See our Event of the Week column for more details. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
You know who we think are the best people in the world? A hint: it starts with s and ends with ponsors. We owe a huge enthusiastic thank you to the more than sixty sponsors who've signed up to support us since we launched. By putting their projects in front of our readers, it means that we can pay writers, which is pretty dope. Also, unlike some advertising, our sponsors are pretty amazing and interesting — you actually want to read what their offering. They won't follow you around the internet like an annoying little sibling who you can't get away from. They won't profile you and sell it to another company. It's just a simple offering for you to read and look at. And they're popular! We've sold out every quarter we've put up for sale, sometimes nearly before they go public. How amazing is that?
That's why we're so thrilled to announce that we've just opened up sponsor slots through July 2018. If you're one of the people who have been emailing us about dates — here they are! If you've considered sponsoring before, step lively to pick up a prime week now.
And if you're a previous sponsor — well, we love you and want to show it. So, you get $25 off any slot through the end of today, Monday November 20th. Just or send a quick note. We're always happy to hear from you
Each one-week sponsorship includes an ad on every page of the site; a full page dedicated to highlighting your book, event, class, or workshop (got something else in mind? email us), and a thank-you on the home page and over social media.
Two years ago we wrote about how we're aiming to improve the model for internet advertising. Together, we can make an impact and change the conversation. Local publishers, venues, and writers across all genres — our sponsors are truly the best. They help us keep the site alive, and make sure we can continue to publish reviews by writers new and known. In return, sponsors get exposure to the most passionate reading audience we’ve ever seen. Find out more, and then reserve a slot before they’re gone.
Humanities Washington announced the news today:
Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) are excited to announce that Claudia Castro Luna, a prominent Seattle poet and teacher, has been appointed the fifth Washington State Poet Laureate by Governor Jay Inslee.
Castro Luna takes over from current state Poet Laureate Tod Marshall on March 1st of next year. Marshall has been a tireless advocate for poetry in Washington state, but if anyone can keep up with Marshall's pace, it's Castro Luna. Humanities Washington points out the importance of her tenure:
As the first immigrant and woman of color to assume the role, Castro Luna will be advocating for poetry during a particularly fraught period for both the humanities (the current administration proposed eliminating the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities early this year) and immigrant populations, who are confronting uncertainty in the face of travel bans and heated rhetoric.
In her recent role as Seattle's first Civic Poet, Castro Luna created the Seattle Poetic Grid, a map of Seattle told in poetry. I can't wait to see what she does for Washington state during her two-year tenure as Poet Laureate.
Say you’re friends with a writer. Say one day your writer friend asks you to lunch. You ask what’s going on. She tells you, “I’m working on a book.” A book, you reply, that’s great! What’s it about?
“Well, here’s the thing,” she says. “I’m writing a sequel to The Wind in the Willows.”
Here’s where you’d gently try to convince your friend that she’s making a horrendous mistake, that the world doesn’t need a sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s beloved children’s classic. And just about any time, you’d be doing your writer friend a favor. But if your friend is Kij Johnson, you should just nod, tell her you look forward to reading it, and enjoy the rest of your lunch.
Johnson is one of the most important sci-fi writers in America today — one of the few names mentioned as a natural successor to Ursula K. Le Guin and a true standard-bearer of fantasy fiction. Her latest book, The River Bank expands on and explores the themes of Grahame’s novel with all the dignity and resourcefulness that the subject matter demands. (Johnson reads from The River Bank this Tuesday at Elliott Bay Book Company.)
As you’d expect from Johnson, River provides a feminist spin on Willows. The opening line identifies the most important change Johnson makes to Grahame’s mythos:
The news was everywhere on the River Bank and had been heard as far as the Wild Wood: Sunflower Cottage just above the weir had been taken by two female animals, and it was being set up for quite an extended stay.
It’s a divisive move:
The satisfaction felt by the feminine residents of the River Bank was not, alas, universal. A few days after the arrival of Beryl and the Rabbit, the Mole said to his friend, the Water Rat, “I do not see what all this fuss is about. We were going along very well without these two setting everything at sixes and sevens.”
Even the Rat, a confirmed bachelor, felt this was unjust. “Now, Mole, that’s not fair; you know it’s not. There was a lot of here-ing and there-ing at first, but now things are nearly as they were The young ladies keep to themselves. Why, we hardly see them!”
It’s like Twitter, with talking animals.
Fans of Willows will find much to appreciate here. Johnson appreciates the traditions — she writes a great, rampaging Toad — even as she builds on them. The animals of the River Bank, Weasel and Rabbit and Rat, all wrestle with big questions of change and tradition, and community. There’s a ransom plot, and a decent coshing. It’s all in good fun.
Johnson makes a bold inquiry into Willows’s class distinctions — it’s a story of upper-class men in a pristine rural land — and in so doing matures and expands the characters. She’s not burning down Grahame’s world, she’s engaging it in a deep and meaningful conversation, taking the characters by the hand and slowly introducing them to the modern day.
But even as she interacts with the world of Willows, Johnson never forgets to pay homage to Grahame’s gorgeous prose style — that deceptively lyrical language that lures children in and then grows and deepens with them as they age. Johnson is not intruding on alien land, here — she’s doing Grahame a boon by building on what came before.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
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.
Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner published an open letter this week about the paper’s history and commitment to holding power’s feet to the fire. It’s a stirring account of the tough choices a newspaper makes — the risks that journalists face, to their livelihoods and persons, when they oppose the dominant political and social thinking. Under the implied heading now more than ever, Viner says, “We believe in the value of the public sphere; that there is such a thing as the public interest, and the common good; that we are all of equal worth; that the world should be free and fair.”
Here are two picks that show a gritty and determined commitment to the same ideals from regional papers here in the United States. Unquestionably there are many more each week that don’t make it past their local circuit but are heard by those who need to hear them. So don't be jaded, by the echo chamber or the flood of "content" crawling across the internet. In a time (now more than ever) when journalism is at the bleeding edge of financial survival, these writers continue to put their livelihoods on the line.
Topher Sanders and Kate Rabinowitz at ProPublica teamed up with Benjamin Conarck of the Florida Times-Union on this story about racial inequities in ticketing for pedestrian violations in Jacksonville, Florida. Fines are small, but being handcuffed (a 13-year-old girl) or on the wrong end of a Taser for jaywalking is not, to say the least. It’s impossible not to feel furious or nauseated or both while reading this piece, especially these on-the-record comments by the local law enforcement.
In interviews, the sheriff’s department’s second-in-command, Patrick Ivey, said any racial discrepancies could only be explained by the fact that blacks were simply violating the statutes more often than others in Jacksonville.
“Were the citations given in error?” Ivey asked. “I have nothing to suggest that. Were they given unjustified? I have nothing to suggest that.”
In response to the ProPublica/Times-Union findings, Sheriff Mike Williams said, “Let me tell you this: There is not an active effort to be in black neighborhoods writing pedestrian tickets.”
Ivey said stopping people for pedestrian violations as a means for establishing probable cause to search them was also fully justified. “Shame on him that gives me a legal reason to stop him,” Ivey said.
At the Kansas City Star, Laura Bauer, Judy Thomas, and Max Londberg sweep aside the veil that’s dropped between Kansas State government and Kansas State residents: a child welfare system that’s geared to protect itself over the children under its trust; police operating without public accountability; the authors of key legislation (abortion, gun violence) protected by anonymity. Any one of these threads could have been a great investigative piece; woven together, an insane picture emerges: government by those in power, for those in power. Finally, something both political parties can agree on.
Both Democrats and Republicans have run opaque administrations, said Burdett Loomis, who worked for former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“Once you’ve got that lack of transparency, unless there’s something that rocks the boat, the people who benefit from it are perfectly happy to let it be,” said Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Corporations, lobbyists, lawmakers, a lot of these people have no reason to change anything very much.”
The culture that stifles transparency has become ingrained, said Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center serving vulnerable and excluded Kansans.
“There’s something about once that culture sets in,” Magnuson said. “It’s really difficult to move out of.”
Changing tone, but staying on location: In a personal essay that’s both lyrical and muscular (characteristically, and appropriately for a swimmer), Lidia Yuknavitch talks about catching and gutting fish, and how to finally throw the hook of your childhood.
I think it might be true that arriving in Florida was a leaving. I was already leaving the moment I got there; I hated it passionately. Those scant years, between high school and college, everything in me was about leaving. I left my father’s house forever. I left my alcoholic mother. I left the boy I loved. I left the girl I was, the girl who did not know a god damn thing, in our garage next to my father’s Camaro. I left ever being abused again — except that isn’t true, is it — I found other fists later in life, I found other ways to punish myself when no one else was around to do it. And, the truth is, I left a bloodline near a sinkhole near my house in Florida.
After 26 years of silence, Aminatta Forna published the story of her father’s hanging at the hands of the government of Sierra Leone. Beyond the usual intimate disclosures that memoir requires, she dealt with life-and-death questions of security: her own, her family’s, and that of the man whose purchased testimony led to her father’s death. A dramatic story and also a thoughtful piece about what conversations the author of a memoir starts with her or his readers, intentionally or not.
The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me — members of the regime that had killed my father.
Lili Loofbourow betrays men’s best-kept secret: they are actually well able to recognize right and wrong. So how did we come to think otherwise?
Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.
Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.
Also, how are we doing? Are writing prompts useful to you? Could we be doing better? Reach out if you have ideas or feedback. We'd love to hear.
It's worth going to Bainbridge or Bremerton just for the ride back some nights. If you do it enough, suddenly the ferry ride transforms. The first time you ride? It's a magical experience. The thrum of the massive diesel engines underfoot, the boat shuddering as those giant props push all that weight. The people sitting at their tables, playing cards, just hanging out. The cafeteria, and, I remember so acutely when I was a kid and would go to Orcas Island, the video games.
But ride the ferry too much and it becomes a huge bus. The people playing cards are bored, they do it all the time. Or, if not bored, maybe partway in the transformation that riding the boat allows us, this window into a world between worlds as we cross a barrier from one land to another.
The ferry is a thin place, a place between places. The bored people are in suspended animation, while the vibrant newcomers are awake with the excitement of the new — snapping pictures, staying on the cold deck with the wind whipping them, talking loudly and having a full-life moment. So the ferry contains two types of people, at least, and the shear between them can feel odd, like walking into a wax museum where half the figures are animatronic animals.
Sometimes, on rare nights, the energy is so charged there are riots.
No ferry ride is as special as coming into downtown Seattle at night. How many people get to see that view? How man crowd the waterlogged front windows so they can see? How many run out to try to capture it, how many professional photographers with their tripods setup are there to capture the skyline as only the ferry view would let them?
Watching the city approach, first on the horizon, then growing until it gets bigger than it should, it feels amplified in front of you, like a camera trick where you're point of view is shrinking as the buildings get so tall they appear to bend over you.
It just overwhelms your senses with the lights of the city, the approaching promise of...what? Home? A night out? Whatever it is, the reverse engines kick in, and the water roils in front of the ship. You push backward to slow down, and ease into the dock. Welcome to Seattle.
It happened like this: as soon as the boat pulled out from the dock she went up to get a cup of coffee. It was against the rules to leave the truck, but she double checked all the cages and they were fine, and she was only going to be gone a few minutes. Less than ten minutes later she came down the metal stairs, opened the heavy door, and walked onto the car deck. The first sign something was amiss was the monkey sitting on top of the truck. The monkey holding the master cage key, and then, she noticed, just how many animals were sitting on all the cars surrounding the truck.
It was returning from Bainbridge that he picked his moment. He had a friend hiding with a telephoto lens on the opposite balcony. He brought her out, and kissed her, then got down on one knee. "Clarice," he said, "you've made my life so complete. I love you so much. Would you do..." — "you have got to be kidding me," came a voice next to him. A guy, thirties, burly. He stipped off his shirt and threw it over board, then ran to the railing, looked at Clarice, and shouted "I'm the king of the world!"
The worst shift on the ferry was working the ritual sacrifices. But if you didn't give leviathan his due there was no way to cross Elliott Bay without being dragged down into the brine by a tentacle the size of the Space Needle. So the new people always had to be the ones to do it. Toss the animals overboard alive, but bathed in the blood of fish — it was like a doorbell to the monster. But, it wasn't that part that was horrible, although the gruesome cruelty certainly would be. But no, it was when that first tentacle broke the surface, and you suddenly realized what lived under the ocean. You never felt safe passing over it again. You may have known in your mind that you were unsafe in the world, but until you saw the monster that controlled us all, it never really became true.
He was just in a pissy mood. His parents were being super annoying, and, like, riding him about everything. He wasn't doing well in school. He broke the television. He made his little sister cry. It wasn't his fault! They never even listened to what he was saying. And now, they were making him go to Seattle to stay with his grandma while they went on some lame vacation without him. "A second honeymoon" they said. So, he got the hell out of the car and went up on the deck. Screw them. He stomped through the cabin, and slouched down in one of the long banquet seats. Then he saw her — his fifth grade teacher. She was sitting with a man, and it wasn't her husband, and they were kissing!
They were waiting in the van until the ferry got away from the dock. Eight of them, armed to the teeth. In black clothes. They pulled balaclavas over their face. They had one mission: to break into the cockpit and take control of the vessel before it landed in Seattle. They had thirty minutes until they docked. It was time to move.
Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna Madrid can help. Send your Help Desk Questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a white writer, and I’m writing a historical novel. One of the characters — a villain, I guess you’d say — is racist as fuck. This is important to the plot.
But every time I write his dialogue, I cringe. He says the n-word a lot. A lot. It’s historically appropriate for him to do this, and I try to incorporate other racist synonyms when I can, but the truth is that if this guy was alive then, he’d be saying the n-word a lot. A lot.
Cienna, I’m half-inclined to use asterisks for the word in the body of the novel whenever he says the n-word because I’m so uncomfortable using it, but I think that would be silly and pull the reader out of the story and I don’t think my publisher would allow it. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that Quentin Tarantino’s movies are aging about as well as The Jazz Singer in part because of his rampant use of the n-word. So what should I do?
If you publish your manuscript, I can guarantee that no critic or reader will think, "not enough 'N' words for my taste." Part of writing well is understanding the power of language – when powerful words underscore your point and when they disrupt your narrative.
The N word is the most hate-filled word in the American English language. Period. An asterisk does not make it okay to use – if anything, it is an acknowledgement that you shouldn't be using it.
Yes, the word has been used historically in texts and no, I do not believe it should be censored from works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but there is a difference between writing in a period and writing about a period. Your writing is informed by almost 150 years of brutal history after the works of Mark Twain.
As a writer, you know good writing involves showing over telling. There are plenty of ways to show racism and racist thought that are more powerful than going Nuclear – if you're stumped, look to our current president and his administration for examples. Or grab one of the synonyms you've been using and stick to it – repetition builds meaning, and by layering the racist actions of your character with his repetition of a less hateful word, your readers will have no problem understanding his nature.
If you haven't seen the 1973 Hal Ashby film The Last Detail, I'd urge you to do so. Detail, starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid as young Navy men on a road trip before one of them is put in the brig for a long time, is one of the most quintessentially American films I think I've ever seen. It's an ambitious, dark, funny film that name-checks Billy Budd and questions our assumptions about freedom and duty.
Richard Linklater's new film Last Flag Flying is a spiritual sequel to Detail, but it's not a direct sequel. Both films are based on novels written by Bainbridge Island author Darryl Ponicsan (Ponicsan co-authored the screenplay for Flag with Linklater,) and both feature three military men on a road trip. But the men in Flag are Marines, not Navy; the names of the characters are different; and the timelines of the films don't quite line up evenly. Still, Flag picks up the spiritual threads of Detail and spins them out into a story that's a little wiser, a little slower, and a little bit more disillusioned than the 1973 film.
Steve Carell's Larry Shepherd is the Quaid character, the younger innocent who sets the plot in motion. Laurence Fishburne plays Richard Mueller, a former hellraiser who has turned to Jesus and now lives as a reverend. And Bryan Cranston absolutely slays as Sal Nealon, the rabble-rousing smartass who nevertheless misses the time he spent in the Marines. (One relatively unknown actor, J. Quinton Johnson, plays a supporting role as a young Marine assigned to the three older men; Johnson more than carries his weight with these great actors, here. I expect to see more great things from him in the very near future.)
Cranston is playing the Nicholson role here, and it's a knockout performance. He's a huge dick — an alcoholic asshole who loudly tells you how horrible he is and then immediately demonstrates that he was telling the truth all along — but there's something so lovable about his bombast that you can't ever quite turn your back on him. Cranston builds on Nicholson's performance in Detail by making his character a stand-in for American weariness. He notes that America doesn't build anything anymore. He has disparaging words for the Iraq War — the film is set in 2003 — and he laments a simpler time when men were men. His nostalgia is wrong-headed, but his sadness is real and raw and very relatable.
Flag is a very talky, slow-paced film. It doesn't have the cathartic youthful vigor of Detail. These are three older men who've been beaten down by life and duty and the death of their dreams, and anyone expecting a wild dance party that fixes everything is likely in the wrong theater. But if you have a taste for slow and talky films, you might not find a better one this year. The writing and pacing of Flag is exquisite, and the questions it raises about belief and friendship and honor are piercing.
And while Flag will inevitably be compared with Detail, there's another film in theaters right now that deserves mention, too. Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, Lady Bird, is also set (partially) in 2003, and Lady Bird and Flag would make for a stellar weekend double-feature. Both films wrestle with the American response to 9/11 and the beginning of the end of our imperial authority as a nation. Both films capture a moment before technology consumed every waking moment of our attention. And both films depict very different moments in the ongoing conversation between individual and society.
Nearly 15 years later, we're just starting to realize what it is we lost as a nation, and how we lost it. Small, funny, brilliant films like Lady Bird and Last Flag Flying are a big part of how we'll finally be able to understand what happened to us.
Subtitled Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Toxic Tech, in Technically Wrong, Sara Wachter-Boettcher explains why the male bias in the tech industry is creating a culture that places the needs and interests of men light years ahead of those of women or nonbinary individuals.
Impact Hub, 220 2nd Ave S, https://impacthubseattle.com, 7:30 pm, $5.
Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
Winter’s shorter days are a terrific time to dig into writer interviews, old and new. One of my favorite bookish series is the New York Times’ "By the Book" column, which embraces a rich selection of crime-fiction authors including Louise Penny, Don Winslow, Michael Connelly, Paula Hawkins, and Philip Kerr.
And it’s in a different format and less high-profile, but the fall issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine has a fascinating interview with Chester Himes biographer Lawrence Jackson.
Finally, as someone who got to visit the first two UNESCO Cities of Literature, Edinburgh and Melbourne, on a wonderful work trip and appreciating what this particular recognition entails, it’s terrifically exciting to see Seattle welcomed into that particular fold.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality (Little, Brown), may be slim but it packs a substantial punch. This is a tale in which every character — the eponymous Heather, her parents Mark and Karen, and a dude from the other side of the tracks, Bobby — has an oddly creepy element to them, so as a reader, there’s nowhere to hide. It is also a trenchant reminder of the critical damage an excess of obsessiveness can do, no matter who you are or what your intent might be.
A lonely man hangs out in his local bar, in Roddy Doyle’s Smile (Viking), bathed in memories of his no-longer-existent happy, indulgent relationship. He was a writer, a music critic; she succeeds as a celebrity chef, television series and all. As the book opens, he’s hit rock bottom, keeping a bar-stool warm, when someone from his past recognizes him and strikes up a conversation. Where that conversation goes in this novel of psychological suspense may or may not surprise you, but Doyle’s portrayal of a loving, intimate, empathetic relationship and its original inspiration — the longing of a human heart — will stick in your mind long after the final page.
Mma Ramotswe, she of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gabarone, Botswana, gets caught up in multiple intriguing mysteries in Alexander McCall Smith’s The House of Unexpected Sisters (Pantheon). Why was a hardworking employee suddenly fired — and was it even legally done? Why is someone from Mma Ramotswe’s past turning up like a bad penny? And who is the mystery lady who shares Mma Ramotswe’s name? Ably abetted by her partner-in-crime Mma Makutsi, as well as by friends and family, and armed as always with wisdoms from Clovis Anderson’s The Principles of Private Detection, Ramotswe brings a curious mind and an attentive heart to her work, not to mention plenty cups of comforting redbush tea.
In her acknowledgements, Winnie M Li makes it abundantly clear that her debut novel Dark Chapter (Polis), which begins with the rape of an adult woman, Vivian, by a teenage boy, Johnny, is drawn from personal experience. If anything, this makes the story — which, while nerve-shreddingly explicit in terms of the assault, focuses primarily on the aftermath for both the woman and the boy — all the more raw in its intensity. Despite wandering into stereotype-territory at times, Li’s also produced a riveting, highly empathetic read, one that recently won the UK’s prestigious Not the Booker prize.
On a cold winter’s day, a young girl goes missing near a rural English village. Through the searches and the perpetually open police investigation, her parents seen as both despairing and under suspicion, McGregor delineates the lives and times of the locals: villagers fall in and out of love, lose their jobs and gain new ones; flocks of birds fly south and return, badgers settle in their setts, and newborn foxes tumble over each other in their dens. In Reservoir 13, McGregor, a terrific novelist with the pen of a poet, has woven a mesmerizing tapestry, a tale not so much about a mystery, as about the sometimes-lingering repercussions that a crime can have on the community around it and the inexorable passage of time. McGregor is based at the University of Nottingham, where he also edits the excellent epistolary literary journal The Letters Page.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
Top five places to write?
Top five favorite authors?
Top five tunes to write to?
Top five hometown spots?
Ben Affleck is the perfect Batman for the era of Donald Trump. He’s huge and he often looks like he can barely move his arms. The nose on his mask is doing something weird that looks odder and odder the more you stare at it. He’s prone to saying gruff things that don’t really make sense. His plans involve talking a lot and not doing anything of value, and they almost always result in the situation getting worse. This is a Batman who is unintelligent, aimless, and way past his prime. Trumpy Batman is supposed to be the guiding light of the Justice League movie, which lands in theaters tonight. The team he puts together is a perfect reflection of Affleck’s surface-obsessed and unthoughtful Batman.
Let’s talk about Cool Aquaman. For decades now, Aquaman has been the butt of easy jokes: he’s got no personality and he talks to fish. Most writers have responded to Aquaman’s laughing-stock status by trying to make him extra-cool. (A recent Aquaman reboot saw the hero order fish and chips at a bar in order to demonstrate that he doesn’t give a shit about his finny friends.) Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, though, is Cool Aquaman taken to his extreme: he’s like a heavy-metal Yukon Cornelius, and he’s such a try-hard that all his coolness veers around into uncoolness again. He’s so fucking desperate to be seen as bad ass that he’s just an embarrassment.
Ezra Miller’s Flash is only slightly better. He’s supposed to be the funny wide-eyed can-you-believe-this-shit audience surrogate, but only about one out of every four of his jokes lands cleanly. The rest are awkward or just plain unfunny. And there’s not really anything to say about Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, a character who is noteworthy only for his ugly body of silvery CGI chunks.
So that leaves Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Rumor has it that after Justice League director Zach Snyder stepped off the film to deal with a family tragedy, fill-in director Joss Whedon added a bunch of Wonder Woman scenes to capitalize on her recent film’s fantastic reception. That was a smart move; Wonder Woman is the best character in the whole DC Comics film universe and Gadot is vastly improving as an actor from her wooden Fast and Furious days (though she does a few too many intense glares in this movie that all look exactly the same, and the male gaze lands on her multiple times in this movie, lingering on her body in sleazy ways that highlight the need to get more women directors behind the cameras of blockbusters immediately.)
These characters ostensibly get together because the world is awash in fear and loathing after the death of Superman in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. (One early scene seems to hint that anti-Islamic racism is on the rise because Superman is gone, which certainly is one way to try to seem relevant, I guess.) We never got to see this cinematic Superman as a figure of hope, but I guess we just have to take Batman and his pals at their word about this, because they keep talking about Superman as a figure of hope whenever the plot stops dead, which is pretty often.
Justice League is a fucking mess. The plot makes no sense. The special effects aren’t half-baked so much as shoved under a heat lamp for a minute or two. There are quite a few poorly shot close-ups of characters saying funny things that clearly happened in reshoots. Those shots are then wedged into the movie willy-nilly, with no regard for pacing or flow. It’s ugly and abrasive and dumb, dumb, dumb.
But maybe the worst misstep of Justice League is its villain: Steppenwolf. Canonically in the comics, Steppenwolf is big bad guy Darkseid’s uncle, and he’s not a major player by any means. In the film he’s a poorly animated all-CGI character who rants a lot about MacGuffins and conquest. He has no motivation, no physical presence, and he makes no sense. He’s chasing after some magic boxes that could mean the end of the world as we know it, and his tools include a large axe, a fleet of interchangeable flying monkeys who eat fear, and some tendrils of purple crystals that are supposedly a threat because they’re filmed in a slightly menacing way.
Justice League is so dumb, so obviously broken on a fundamental level, that it’s an insulting viewing experience. You’ll likely be seeing apologists on the internet saying that it’s “not a perfect film,” but that it “gets the characters right” and so it “sets the table” for future installments. To that faint praise, I say “bullshit.” Justice League isn’t a better movie than the disastrous Batman V Superman or the excrementitious Suicide Squad. It’s just tonally different from those movies — a desperate attempt to course-correct into brighter, more hopeful territory to quell fan complaints — and some overly forgiving souls may interpret that pandering as an increase in quality.
But trust me: This movie will not age well. You won’t watch it fondly on your own TV at home. It will look like a smear of gilded pixels on a tiny screen when you half-watch it in discomfort while sitting on an airplane. You won’t remember anything about it six months from now. One year from now, the silence that will surround this nearly half-billion dollar debacle will be a vacuum so deafening, so all-encompassing in its nothingness, that it may drive humans mad when they hear it. This is a void, and it consumes souls. Watching Justice League is like staring Donald Trump in the eyes and wondering at the nothing you find there.
One of Seattle's oldest comics shops is set to close. Zanadu Comics posted on Facebook yesterday:
The good guys don’t always win. Unfortunately, our world is harsher than that of comic books and after 42 years of battling in the trenches of comic book retail, Zanadu Comics will be closing its doors at the end of January 2018. Believe us when we say that this decision was not made lightly. There are hundreds of reasons we could list, but the truth is that the money coming in does not equal the money going out.
Go read the whole post. Zanadu has been selling comics since 1975. After it closes, the only downtown comics store will be Golden Age Collectables in the Pike Place Market, which could be the oldest comics shop in the world.
This Saturday, a familiar face in Seattle literary circles makes a welcome return to the scene. In 2011, Margot Kahn, who was well-known in the community for her work as a youth creative writing program director at Hugo House, published her first book — an excellent biography titled Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith. Saturday night at Elliott Bay Book Company, with the help of readers including Claudia Castro Luna, Kate Lebo, and Jane Wong, Kahn introduces her second book, an anthology she co-edited with Kelly McMasters titled This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Kahn talked with me on the phone this week about how the book came to be and what she's been up to in the time between books. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited.
It’s been a few years since Horses That Buck came out. What have you been up to between then and now?
I've been mostly raising a small human being, and that has occupied a lot of time. I've also been doing some writing for a couple of freelance publications — Edible Seattle and a couple of other places.
How did the idea for this anthology come to you?
As I said, almost seven years ago I had a baby, and I found myself at home more than I thought I would be as a parent.
I don't really know what I was expecting. I guess in part I did expect that I was going to take a brief leave of absence from the Hugo House and then return. And when it was time for me to go back, the House was in a bit of a different place than when I left it. I look back on that and think I probably should have done it, but they were asking me to do even more than what I had been doing when I left and I just didn't feel like I could at that moment in time.
At that time, I don't think anybody at the House had had a baby, and part of what seemed overwhelming to me was, I didn't know where I was going to nurse, and I didn't think anybody was going to get what I was going through, and there were sort of no parameters put into place for someone having a kid, and I just didn't feel like I could advocate for myself and my time in that way.
So anyway, I stayed home and got to thinking. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents had come to this country from Poland as World War II was getting started — they got out at basically the last possible moment. When I was with them when I was younger, I would always ask them to tell me stories about their growing-up years, and they had these wonderful, nostalgic, beautiful, fond memories. But also their stories of home were wrapped up with a lot of pain and they really only talked about home when I asked them to. I always carried that with me, and I really was always trying to understand what that must have been like for them, to leave a place that they loved so dearly to never go back, and to make a whole new life somewhere else.
And then fast-forward to my having a child and thinking about what making a home means — not just for myself but for someone else. And in between there was the general kind of moving about in one's 20s — or many people in their 20s, anyway — where, you know, it's one rental after another and kind of trying to decide where to live.
And then I was settling on a place that I felt good about, while not really totally understanding at the time that I was settling down. And then I was becoming a part of a community and buying a house and putting down roots somewhere, when that somewhere isn't the same place where my family is. At some point, it's like, “oh, wait! What have I done?”
All of those things sort of fed into my thinking about what makes a home. And every other perspective about homes that I read was really informative, and so this idea of an anthology, of a collection of voices of many different people grappling with the same idea, became really interesting to me.
The rule for anthologies is generally to make the theme as specific as possible. But this is a super wide-angle topic that goes in the opposite direction of that rule. But it works! Was it hard to get your contributors to stay on topic, or did people just immediately get what you were what you were going for with the theme?
I think people really did get what we were going for.
Where the work came was in whittling things down. That was really the hardest part. We wound up having a few pieces about moving around a lot, and we didn't want a few pieces about moving around a lot. We wound up getting a couple pieces about living in a very small space, and we had to choose one of them. We had a couple pieces about living in the West and sort of hardscrabble solitude and we had to choose one.
That’s the work I'd say came in in the curation. And we were very committed to having a diverse range of voices in every aspect we could think of, from age and geography and race and ethnicity to subject matter. All the things that we read were pretty amazing, and it was a question of which pieces are hanging together, and which pieces speak to each other.
Who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is a part of this community?
Was the book always specifically related to women’s perspectives on the home?
It was, but we did grapple with that question. Kelly and I said to ourselves, and each other, "are we losing anything by not having men be a part of this? Are we perpetuating a stereotype that the woman's place is in the home? Are we marginalizing men in some way? Are we creating something that is not taking the dialogue in the direction that we can or should be going?"
Ultimately we what we came to is that traditionally and historically, the home has been seen as the domain of the woman. We wanted to address that — in this day and age, what does that mean for women? And in large part, we've been raised by our mothers and grandmothers — in fact, that is a thread that we saw throughout the book: mothers or grandmothers appear in almost every essay. And women's voices are still statistically not as represented [in publishing], so we wanted to have this place for women's voices to be heard, with [Seal Press,] a press that has been dedicated to publishing women's voices since 1976.
One interesting thing to both me and Kelly is that when we conceived of this book it was three years ago and we were really not thinking so much about politics. We were honestly thinking about own our own personal stories and wanting to hear other personal stories. And then it became a possibility that we were going to have a woman in the White House. It was going to be a whole new ballgame. And then suddenly that was not the case at all.
And so many of those issues come up in this book in some way, shape, or form. This thread of belonging, this sense of safety, and the longing that is at the heart of our assumptions or perceptions or being. That image of what home should be. And that feeling that we're seeking, and all the conversations we're having now on the national political stage, really boil down to the same questions: who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is made to feel safe? Who is a part of this community?
What’s next for you? Another anthology?
I haven't thought about the next anthology, but I would be psyched to do one. I had so much fun working on this book. I never really thought that anthologies would be something that I would do, but having done it, it's like it's like the best kind of curation project — like organizing the best dinner party ever and inviting the most interesting, awesome people and having this fantastic conversation. So, yeah, I would do an anthology again for sure.
I'm thinking about doing another biography, actually. I said I would never do that again after the first one just because it took so long, and I got so involved in other people's lives, but there is somebody I'm interested in writing about.
And I also have started a novel that’s set in a community garden in Seattle. it’s about community and gentrification and gardening. I don't know if that's really going to happen, but that's sort of a fun side project.
Congratulations to Tim Lennon, who was announced as the Executive Director of LANGSTON, a new Seattle nonprofit that will "guide programming intended to strengthen and advance community through Black arts and culture." I worked with Lennon at Elliott Bay Book Company right after he moved to town in 2001 and we've been friends ever since, so I can't claim any objectivity, but his career in the years since — at One Reel, heading up Vera Project, working at the Office of Arts & Culture — demonstrates that he'll be excellent at this. I look forward to seeing what LANGSTON contributes to Seattle's arts and literary communities. Lennon starts in January of next year. And if this post didn't have enough conflict-of-interest in it for you already, the best account in local media of Lennon's new job is from my old associate Brendan Kiley at the Seattle Times.
Kirkus interviewed Chin Music Press editor Cali Kopczick about the trends she's spotted in publishing, what manuscripts she'd never like to see again, and what's unique about Seattle's Chin Music.
Yesterday, Amazon's television division paid a crazy amount of money to make a Lord of the Rings prequel TV show. There's not much information about this, but the deal is so huge that it seems to be tempting fate:
In its quest to launch a hit fantasy series of the Game of Thrones caliber, Amazon has closed a massive deal — said to be close to $250 million — to acquire global TV rights to The Lord of the Rings, based on the fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. The streaming service has given a multi-season commitment to a LOTR series in the pact, which also includes a potential spinoff series.
I dunno about you, but when I see a quarter-of-a-billion deal with multi-season franchise commitments, I think of the recent collapse of Universal's awful "Dark Universe" megafranchise, and then I think of an old cliche about counting baby chicks before they hatch. And then I think of all the people living under bridges in this city and I start to feel queasy.
The comics industry is going through its own sexual harassment crisis, and Heidi MacDonald at the Beat has been keeping good track of it all. Hopefully when we get to the other side of all this and the predators have been shaken out, we'll see a more inclusive, less white-male-centric comics industry.
And if you think the children's book industry is free from sexual harassment, you should read this thread:
Two Fridays ago I met up with a man who works at a children's publishing company to discuss making a book together in which he tried to manipulate me into having sex with him. I reported him to HR. Been waiting to see if they actually handle this and how.— Charlyne Yi (@charlyne_yi) November 14, 2017
Published November 14, 2017, at 11:54am
Taking the audio version of Jane Jacobs's urbanist classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities out on a walk through Seattle is like reading a great piece of writing with an editor.