Paige Embry is the Seattle-based author of the new book Our Native Bees: North Ameria's Endangered Pollinators and the Fight To Save Them. She'll be appearing next Friday, March 2nd, at The Elliott Bay Book Company to talk about bees, her book, and her journey from geologist, to gardener, to bee expert.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading Anthony Doerr’s collection of short stories, The Shell Collector. I’ve only just begun but find myself entranced by the title story, sucked in by the lure of the unfamiliar: the location in East Africa, the idea of being a blind shell collector and most of all, the exotic shells themselves and the creatures that inhabit them. As a writer, I read some of Doerr’s descriptions with awe and a little envy. On one page I find “a crab-guarded socket in the coral” and “a tiny tessellated cone.” Tessellated — what a delightful word. It is perfectly descriptive, has a pleasing sound and is also a little bit exotic—not a word commonly used in every day conversation. In short, I’m finding the first story in this collection a pleasure on many levels and I’m looking forward to seeing how the other stories compare.
What did you read last?
I like to re-read books, and when I’m under the weather I almost always pull out some old faithful. The books I choose in this situation aren’t mentally challenging, not even on the first read. What they all have is a character, or a group of characters, that I like and a world that is a respite to sink into.
The book that I turned to for this latest bout of illness was Komarr, part of a sci-fi series written by Lois McMaster Bujold. Komarr is toward the end of a series of about ten books based on a male character, Miles Vorkosigan. In the first book he’s 17 or 18 and in the last book I read he’s pushing 40. He lives in a world where humans have spread from Earth to inhabit many planets but there are no other sentient beings. The ethos of the planets varies. One, for example, is uber-liberal — a kind of Scandinavia on steroids. Miles’s planet is authoritarian, militaristic and unforgiving of mutations. Miles is smart and the son of a powerful man but he was damaged in utero and so is only 4’9”. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and over the course of the series you get to watch him grow up and deal with his reality. The stories are enjoyable, some of the side characters are well-developed and I like Miles. He and his world are a comforting place to go visit when I’m feeling ill.
What are you reading next?
For Christmas I bought my husband The Soul of the Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. I usually try and buy him a book (or books) that seem just perfect for him. I confess that I bought this one knowing he’d likely enjoy it but if he didn’t—oh well, I certainly wanted to read it. Learning about octopuses (apparently it is octopuses and not octopi because octopus is derived from Greek, and you don’t plunk Latin endings onto Greek-derived words) would be a good enough reason for me to take a look at this book but I’m also interested to see the author’s approach to the subject since she didn’t start out as an octopus expert. She developed an interest and then threw herself into research — I can relate to that — and I’m looking forward to seeing how she handles it.
Over on our Instagram page, we’re posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson’s Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here’s her wrap-up and statement from February's posts.
I have no problem with the weather or the dark this time of year — Seattle's coldest cold is nothing compared to other places, plants start changing early, and in February I always feel the air softening in this strange way. But I find myself bracing for terrible things to happen. In my teenage years, it was just being dumped, ordinary heartbreaks. As I got a little older, February turned into the time when I lost people for real — lots of deaths, also my divorce, which ended a whole life I'd had in another country. The first death was a close friend who died suddenly our junior year of college. She was the first friend I made there, and we bonded over music-hosted a weekly radio show together, one of the most perfect things in my life. The last time I saw her we were burning dozens of CDs for each other before leaving for study abroad; I listened to them obsessively on my own in London. Every year I think I about all the albums that have come out since she died, bands we loved breaking up and reuniting and making brilliant things she'll never hear. It's been 15 years, and I'm not really friends anymore with anyone who knew her; it's hard to find ways to memorialize her right. So this month I chose post-its that quote song lyrics-from Confusion The Waitress by Underworld (all the nights up late listening by myself); We Used To Be Friends by the Dandy Warhols (teenage me at Bumbershoot; grown-up me watching Veronica Mars episodes after my divorce); Two-Headed Boy by Neutral Milk Hotel (but I got the lyric wrong somehow); and Give Up The Ghost by Radiohead (like they folded all my Februaries into a single, perfect song). Two of these she never got to hear.
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 email@example.com.
The manager at a local bookstore complained to me about Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. He said it was impossible to run a business with a wage that high. He did make one good point: restaurants and most retail stores can raise the prices of goods they sell to pay for a higher wage, but books tend to have the prices printed right on them. On the other hand, I think everyone should have the right to a living wage: especially bookstore employees. I pretty much didn’t say anything. Should I have been more forceful? Should I argue the point again?
Patty, [Neighborhood Withheld by Request]
In the age of Trump, I don't believe it's worthwhile or effective to be forceful in disagreements. What is worthwhile is being reasonable, which is a perversion of my nature. Yet sometimes I try.
For instance, if someone pointed out that "books tend to have prices printed right on them," I might respond with, "that's what stickers were invented for." Or if someone complained that it was "impossible to run a business with a wage that high," I might inquire what they thought their own time was worth – less than $15 an hour in the sixth most expensive city in the nation?
And then, before I went back to that bookstore, I would consult my human friend Silly P – who is a big-brained intellect, voracious reader, and somewhat of an expert on Seattle's $15 minimum wage – and ask him what other helpful talking points I could throw at this misguided bookstore manager in lieu of discretely lighting his body hair on fire.
Since you may not have a Silly P in your life, I took the liberty of consulting mine for you. Here is what he added:
The minimum-wage law was designed and instituted in such a way as to give small business an advantage over the corporate chains – the wage increases at a slower rate for independent businesses with less than five hundred employees.
That delay is important for a few reasons. One: it allows businesses a lot of time to plan for the increases. Two: it provides time for the increased spending power of a lot of Seattleites who were previously making 8 or 9 bucks an hour to take hold. Workers in Seattle have more money to spend, now that the wage has increased. I know personally that a few local bookstores had their most profitable Christmases ever last year, and I bet much of that spending can be attributed directly to the waiters and dishwashers and retail workers who had more money to spend.
That said, both Silly P and I agree with you – Seattle has a lot of creative, thriving bookstores, and those bookstores wouldn't exist without booksellers. Those booksellers deserve a living wage; they deserve to be able to afford to live in their city.
This Friday at Washington Hall, author and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki will speak on the theme “Meditation for Writers,” and it is a talk that only she could give. She’ll help writers gain the focus that modern technology seeks to steal from them, and the perspective that only a true sense of timelessness can offer.
Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave, http://washingtonhall.org, 8 pm, $15.
Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
Including both James Lee Burke and Alafair Burke in this column got me thinking of other mystery-writing family ties. Whether it’s a collaborative, mother-offspring effort a la Mary Higgins Clark-Carol Higgins Clark , PJ Tracy (see also this), and Charles Todd or an all-in-the-family business, it’s dead good fun to imagine those in-the-writing-studio and dinner-table conversations.
A new Dave Robicheaux novel is always an immersive pleasure. From Robicheaux’s keeps-him-on-his-toes relationship with daughter Alafair and his deep friendship with buddy Clete Purcel to his quasi-homebody existence in Southern Louisiana, a new Robicheaux tale is akin to hanging with a beloved, familiar friend — well, with some violence and criminal activities thrown in for good measure. James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster), shivers with the dastardly deeds of nefarious no-goodniks as well as with the possibility that Robicheaux may have mishandled a deadly situation. The choice range of supporting characters come thick and fast, as do the unwavering stabs at the hideous levels of corruption in Louisiana politics. One of my favorites among a multitude of compassionate touches: a singular Clete-related reference to the Just Men of Jewish legend.
The Wife Between Us (St. Martin’s), a tidy and terrifically twisty psychological thriller, is also an impressive, double-handed effort: Greer Hendricks, a former book editor, and Sarah Pekkanen, a best-selling novelist and former investigative journalist, have put their literary heads together, creating an enjoyably electrifying, page-turning ride with cannily-chosen details. These days it takes a little something extra to offer up an intriguing novel of domestic suspense, and this book has it in spades. Oh yes.
Alafair Burke’s The Wife (Harper) features a critical cameo by Olivia Randall, the intriguing protagonist of Burke’s 2017 mystery The Ex, but this whiplash-inducing tale — in a good way — belongs wholeheartedly to Angela Powell, a woman with everything she ever wanted, including marriage, motherhood, and a fairly high-falutin’ Manhattan lifestyle. But not-so-behind-the-scenes, a perfect storm of sexual harassment accusations against her husband and past deeds long since swept under the proverbial rug may be coming home to roost. While utilising fun pop culture references – that unforgettable eyelid moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark, an arch Hunger Games comment — Burke maintains an even hand here, nicely sprinkled with the multiple deftly-doled surprises up her cavernous sleeve.
I’m a massive fan of Mick Herron’s excellent British spy/Slough House series. This Is What Happened (Soho), a standalone thriller, draws on his incisive spymaster knowledge as well as other imaginative forays, and uses the mean streets of contemporary London to their utmost advantage. Protagonist Maggie Barnes – independent, smart, and ever-so-slightly emotionally vulnerable – is the perfect recruitment target for certain MI5 missions and she accepts her destiny with alacrity. It’s what happens next that leads deep into a startling and engrossing rabbit hole.
The wonderful Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (Soho) is the first in an enticing new series: Parsi Preveen Mistry has joined her father’s law firm in 1920s Bombay, a position fraught with challenges, including her attempt to attend law classes at the Government Law School. When someone turns up dead at the secretive home of one of Preveen’s father’s clients, she’s handed an unusual opportunity: the wives of the household live in strict purdah, but, as a woman, Preveen can speak with them directly. A rich blend of history and fiction, Widows brings historical Bombay to vibrant life in this engaging mystery.
Austin-based Meg Gardiner had already published 12 terrific mysteries when she kicked off her chilling new series last year with the unnerving UNSUB, introducing Bay Area detective Caitlin Hendrix and a serial baddie known as the Prophet. In Hendrix’s second outing, she’s testing her mettle as a rookie FBI agent with the organization’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but the killer she’s chasing is no less creepy than her previous nemesis. On a more personal level, she’s now balancing a bi-coastal relationship with bomb-explosive-specialist boyfriend, Sean Rawlins.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
Families. The seven deadly sins. The shadowed depths of the human mind. The hero’s journey. Sue Grafton.
Most of my top five are source material. But Grafton’s books both thrilled me and showed me there was a place for women writing modern crime fiction. She inspired me to write my own novels.
Top five places to write?
Top five favorite authors?
Stephen King, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard.
Top five tunes to write to?
Top five hometown spots?
Torchy’s Tacos. The Half Step on Rainey Street, when the band’s playing jazz. The LBJ Museum. The hiking trail around Lady Bird Lake. Book People.
Last month, Drawn and Quarterly published the new English translation of Swedish cartoonist Anneli Furmark's comic Red Winters. Though the book is set in 1970s Sweden, it feels newly relevant for a politically charged America in 2018.
Red Winter is the story of an affair, but it's also a political story. In the dark of winter, a wife and mother named Siv finds comfort in the arms of a young unmarried man named Ulrik. Siv is a member of the Socialist Democrats, which were at the time Sweden's longtime ruling political party. Ulrik is a communist who is part of a group that actively seeks to undo capitalism.
Their political differences don't matter to Siv and Ulrik, but they do matter to everyone else. As the community discusses Siv's infidelity, the relationship becomes a partisan football, used to question the couple's commitment to their respective causes. The communists suspect Ulrik of selling out; neighbors wonder if Siv is about to turn radical.
Of course, every affair is political. Siv and Ulrik's decisions don't only affect them. Red Winter brilliantly displays the impact of the affair on everyone in the community by continuously changing perspectives: one chapter focuses on Siv's daughter while another centers on Ulrik's nosy roommate. Siv's husband starts to realize something is wrong. Everyone is, ultimately, a partisan.
Anyone who's lived through Seattle's endlessly glum winters will find something to recognize in Furmark's gorgeous illustrations. A cold and dark winter - snowier than here, obviously - permeates every page, and Furmark's orange-and-blue color palette perfectly portrays the whipsaw winter alternation between cozy warmth and brutal frigidity. You can feel the cold of this book in your bones.
The characters, too, are instantly recognizable in just a handful of lines. Even as they strip off layers when they head indoors and swaddle themselves in protective winter clothing when they leave the house, you always know exactly who you're looking at. Furmark's biography describes her as "One of the most important comics artists in Sweden," and Red Winter is the first full-length work to be translated into English. Let's hope it's not the last.
Buried in this South Sound Magazine story about new additions to SeaTac International Airport by Kirsten Abel, there's a piece of news that Seattle Review of Books readers will be especially interested to hear. A ton of local restaurants are opening in SeaTac over the next few years, but SeaTac will also be home to an outpost of the Elliott Bay Book Company. This move has a local precedent, of course: Portland indie bookstore Powell's has an airport outpost, too. I'm incredibly excited to see bookseller-approved selections at SeaTac, rather than the usual Hudson News monotony.
Yesterday, I chatted on Facebook Live with Evergrey cofounder Monica Guzman about three spring books I'm looking forward to reading over the next three months.
West Seattle Blog's Tracy Record wrote an excellent post about Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist Colson Whitehead's visit to a West Seattle high school.
We're very excited to hear that civil rights legend Representative John Lewis has announced a second comics trilogy to pair with his March series. The new trilogy, about his life in politics, is cleverly titled Run.
Fuck off forever, Milo.
Published February 21, 2018, at 12:00pm
Fans of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy are waiting with anticipation (and apprehension) for the February 23 release of Annihilation. Is the New Weird too weird for the big screen? Or is this the genre our screwed-up historical moment needs most?
"I started writing poetry in eighth grade," our February Poet in Residence, Azura Tyabji, tells me over the phone. She'd always considered herself a writer - she wrote and assembled her own books as a child, and she participated in the school paper as soon as she could - but "I never really considered myself a poet." It was an assignment to read a poem in a student showcase that inspired her. She credits her language arts teachers for "validating that yes, what I was writing was, in fact, poetry, and that it deserved an audience."
Tyabji continued to write poetry, but a couple years after her first reading, she became involved with the local writing organization Youth Speaks, and then everything became clear. At first, she attended a poetry slam and she found the competitive atmosphere to be too intimidating to participate, "but then I went to an open mic and it was one of the most welcoming, beautiful, nurturing communities that I'd ever witnessed. And I decided I want to join this beautiful community and give back to it and be a part of it." She's been a part of Youth Speaks ever since.
Ask Tyabji what poets she's reading right now and she enthusiastically supplies a list of names. "Locally, Tara Hardy is someone that I've been reading again and again and again, and I just want to see Anastacia-Renee speak at the Seattle Public Library." The two poets inspire Tyabji as performers, as writers, and as people. "I'm just in awe of how they craft their imagery and I think that they both really have this whimsical style that I hope to learn from," she says. And she reads the work of Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna "whenever I want to be inspired to observe my city."
Nationally, Tyabji is a big fan of spoken word artist Olivia Gatwood, whose 2017 collection New American Best Friend is a big influence on her work. "She writes very intimately about girlhood - she writes about period panties, and she has a poem called 'Ode to my Bitch Face.' She's so bold in how she describes and prioritizes girls." From Gatwood, Tyabji is learning how to "uplift women and girls to fight against shame."
Tyabji is a writer on the verge of a big shift. She's graduating high school this June, and she's staying in Seattle for her gap year before heading to a college that is "probably out of state." Is she concerned about leaving her community behind? "I'll be really sad to let Youth Speaks Seattle go when it is my time to leave," she says. "But I know that the community here will keep growing and keep preserving itself and also find new paths, and I can always come back and visit."
She has no doubt that she'll be able to find a community of poets no matter where she goes. "What I've learned for myself is that I can't write poetry alone. I'm always absorbing what other people have taught me, and I think that's how we all work as poets: absorbing and is being influenced by each other," Tyabji says.
But no matter where she ends up, Tyabji knows where her roots are. "I consider myself a Seattle poet," she says. "Not just because I was born here and grew up here, but because I try to write about my city, especially with how it's changing, how it's being transformed into a city that's not necessarily friendly to the same people that have lived here for a long time," both through gentrification and institutional racism.
"But I'm trying to challenge myself to write about what I love about the city. Yesterday I just watched a poem by Laura 'Piece' Kelly called 'Central District.'," Tyabji says. "She writes so lovingly about her community in the Central District and about growing up in Seattle, and that's something I want to challenge myself to remember as well: although the city has so many things that it needs to work on, there is beauty in it as well."
Tyabji sets a lot of goals for herself. She wants to do writing residencies, and publish a chapbook, and learn how to teach poetry. She's currently starting to co-teach a class on slam poetry at her high school, and she says "I can't wait to see what I'll discover about my own work when I teach others."
When Tyabji reads her own work, she radiates an air of confidence that many poets twice her age will never be able to muster. What's her secret? "When I'm preparing to share a poem for the first time, I really sit down with what I have written and I read it over - in my head first and then out loud."
As her own first audience, she says, "I read the poem until I really am confident that this piece brings me joy." And it's important "when you're sharing your work with other people to go somewhere where you're surrounded by people that love you unconditionally. Find your community - even if it's small. I'm really blessed to have the Youth Speaks community, and we really give love to every poet."
Tyabji likes to remember that all poets have anxiety about their work. "We're never going to get to a point where we're not anxious, where we're a hundred percent confident about anything. I could choose to despair over that fact, or I can use it as a motivator," she says.
"I think it's great that I will never be perfect," Tyabji says. "I think I can learn so much from that. I can always keep challenging myself."
If you're interested in creative uses of the comics format, or in innovative literary fiction, this week's sponsor sample is a must-see. Kevin Marshall's Not Really an Emotion walks the border between reality and dream, transforming the familiar comic book conventions (panels, speech bubbles) into something strange and new. The storyline of Not Really an Emotion is appropriately dreamlike: a young woman, meditating, hears music she can't forget, and seeks to recreate it through means both natural and fantastic. We can't do it justice here; spend just a few minutes with it on our sponsorship page, and you'll be hooked.
Sponsors like Kevin Marshall make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? If you have a book, event, or opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, reserve your dates now.
I've said for years that I don't believe in writer's block. I believe writing to be a craft more than an art, and I think the only way to cure a problem with writing is to sit down and work through it by writing - a lot. Inspiration is cheap, and words are entirely free. Too many people use writer's block as a convenient excuse to explain away their fears, or to undercut their own ambition. This is not to say that writing is easy - you need the privilege of time, and you have to commit to the time, and you have to read all the time - but it is to say that writing has nothing to do with muses.
So when I sat down on Sunday night at Benaroya Hall to talk with Fran Lebowitz, I had to ask her about writer's block. Lebowitz's decades-long case of writer's block is arguably the most famous creative blockade since Coleridge was interrupted while writing "Kubla Khan."
The question, as I put it, was inelegant: I told her I didn't believe in writer's block and I wanted her to persuade me that it existed. That gave Lebowitz the option to use herself as an example. She said if she didn't have writer's block, she wouldn't be at Benaroya Hall on a speaking tour. Because she can't write, she suggested, she has to travel to cities being witty as a public speaker for her supper. If she could write, she'd be at home - writing.
I tried a different tack: is writing, for Lebowitz, a pursuit of perfection? Yes, she affirmed. For her, she was only interested in writing if she could write perfectly.
Lebowitz started out by writing a column, and I started out writing for a weekly newspaper. Didn't those early relentless deadlines teach her the same thing they taught me - that no writing could ever be truly perfect, that ultimately you just have to be okay with letting it go into the world? No, Lebowitz disagreed. Deadlines worked for her column, back in the day, but she seemed to expect more of herself now.
Some might argue that there's no such thing as a perfect sentence. I tend to disagree; Vladimir Nabokov wrote a shelf full of books that are as close to perfect as anything I've witnessed in my life. And that's the vision that Lebowitz is pursuing - the perfection of Truman Capote, of Harper Lee. The kind of perfection that demands a monastic dedication.
Nobody will ever accuse me of writing a perfect sentence. And the difference between Lebowitz's writing and my own is not unlike the difference between an airplane and a tricycle. So it's presumptuous of me to compare my own experience to hers. But I believe her, now: Lebowitz's writer's block is as real as her custom-made cowboy boots. She's blocked by her own expectations, and those expectations are confounding her endless pursuit of perfection.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole says,
“My hope is this will be the community’s police station”
and every inch of black girl resistance in me becomes a tremor becomes palpitation of heart and earth,
a bullet in barrel,
Earth’s crust eager to rift itself into a beast that breathes fire.
a .9 earthquake will hit Seattle within the century.
Police union says it needs a new facility able to endure eventual catastrophe and I think
if cops need building material,
there’s nothing more able to endure fission than a black or brown body.
There’s nothing that holds up guilt, greed, and excess more than a back that is used to being broken,
but I’m glad
I get a seat at a table I’ve set
A community space a floor above a shooting range:
a court to practice the de-escalation technique of killing people who look like my family Thank you, officer, for this concession.
Capital will never become full enough to not steal the fruits of our labor. Will never sacrifice beyond what it can get away with spitting up. Capital
harvests stolen crop
until mouth twists into gallant smile, blood on leaves and blood at root Strange
O’Toole wants the new precinct host a farmers market.
What can grow in a fortress besides a pedestal to hang a noose? What good is a community that bonds over lynching?
Is this what a safe city looks like?
Emerald City progressive showing us the man behind the curtain and expecting us to pay no mind?
Government ain't the wizard we hoped
but a coward pretending to be better than he is
Is this the fraud I'm expected to call progressive?
Is this the shooting range I am expected to call my community?
What's a new precinct to Oscar Perez’s grieving family?
What's a new bunker to the 10,000 homeless people in Seattle besides another place they can't live in?
This is excessive force
of the most insidious kind
I don't know which will hurt me first:
a building collapse or a cop mistaking my mother’s body for a weapon Either way
I know whose lives matter in this city
and it's not black lives.
Seattle is prepared for us to die
Seattle making a refuge for people who already get away with killing us, too.
Insurrection will be the next major disaster this city faces
Will resurface all the lies and empty promises it was told
Pulse from the streets up, radiate the heat of magma Molotov and bitter history, no longer latent and cowering,
but surging, dangerous, and revolutionary.
We will be hammer to the coffin of every cruel and fragile thing that has wronged us and tool to every dream we want to build in its place
A table where capitalism is not welcome
A city my mother can feel safe in
A city where all lives actually matter
Where hands reach out to hold mine instead of to the gun in its holster
it's hard to stay hopeful
in times where death seems to lurk around every corner But we are unstoppable
and another world is growing within us
I am prepared to fight
for a community
That is real
British Columbia author Ruth Ozeki's majestic 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being imagined a global perspective on the Northwest, pinning together the Fukushima meltdown with our coastline on the other side of the world. She is a vocal supporter of the amazing Hedgebrook writers residency for women. And she's a natural teacher who has guided new generations to the pleasures and challenges of writing fiction.
Ozeki is also a Zen Buddhist priest-ordained in 2010-and that informs her work more than any single region or theme ever could. Zen Buddhism enables Ozeki to span the divide of time in her work in novel ways, exploding a moment out into an eternity and back again.
This Friday at Washington Hall, Ozeki will speak on the theme "Meditation for Writers," and it is a talk that only she could give. She'll help writers gain the focus that modern technology seeks to steal from them, and the perspective that only a true sense of timelessness can offer.
Here's a video of Ozeki talking on the topic of meditation:
So, look. Maybe you're thinking this is religious bunk, or just feel-good hooey. If so, that's okay. This isn't for you. But if you can't get through a paragraph without checking Twitter lately, I'd advise you to attend this talk. As anyone who's had a burst of inspiration in a shower can tell you, sometimes the very best thing you can focus on in pursuit of fiction is nothing at all.
Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave, http://washingtonhall.org, 8 pm, $15.
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.
Laurie Penny somehow manages to be deeply compassionate toward men who treat women badly, without surrending a single ounce of her righteous, blazing fury. In this piece, she explores what men’s feelings require of women during the #metoo moment — and how the kneejerk instinct to protect and mend may be just as damaging as the impulse to rage and reject.
Self-hatred makes people selfish. It deserves compassion, but not indulgence. Women — and I’m sorry to have to break this to you — are not put on this earth to make men feel better about how inherently awful they are. Most of us would prefer the men in our lives to stop wallowing and get on with being a little bit more considerate than they were yesterday, because that is what it means to grow the fuck up.
So no, I don’t hate men. I hate how brittle and fragile modern masculinity is; how it reacts to any perceived threat by lashing out and shutting down. I hate how part of our worn-out script of maleness is by definition resistant not just to change, but even to the thought of change, and how tightly swaddled the whole thing is in shame and silence.
Imagine you’re a guy with the means and desire to build a crazy-ass high-tech submarine, and you do; and you’re also a guy with the means and desire to lure a freelance journalist on board with the promise of a story, torture and kill her, and you do; and then you sink your incredibly expensive high-tech submarine to try to cover the murder.
Now imagine you’re another journalist, a friend of the dead woman (stay with me, this is going somewhere), and you investigate your friend’s death and write about it, including how even being dismembered might be something that you were “asking for.”
That’s this, by May Jeong. Read it.
In the days after she disappeared, I heard people ask questions that betrayed a misunderstanding about reporting — couldn’t she have done the interview over the phone? — and casual sexism — why was she there alone so late? On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would end up on internet chat rooms where the comments sections filled me with rage: “She is a woman — how could she go alone with a man she does not know?” And: “She had skirt and pantyhose—how could she egg on a poor uncle in that way.”
Alexander Chee’s latest newsletter contains a truly excellent manifesto about why writers should expect, and ask, to be paid. The fact that there’s social stigma around this is nuts. If you’re afraid that asking for money means you aren’t a “real writer,” read this and boldly go forth into a new and shame-free world.
And then yesterday morning, I received an email from someone assisting in the editing an anthology. She had made the assumption that my silence in response to her and her co-editor's last email was due to the fact that they can't afford to pay anyone, and so she wrote to me, acting as if I was snubbing them because of the money issue, and quoting from this essay at BuzzFeed back to me. I had written there that you should write for money and love both but money more than love. And she seemed to think it was a sign I was a callow creature hell-bent only on profits, and not someone who had so often gone broke because of writing for love.
Inside baseball, but fascinating: Alex Pareene dissects the role billionaires play in sustaining, and thus shaping, the media landscape. Read this even if you think you don’t care; by the end, you’ll care very much.
What’s happening to the press is reflective of the broader transformation of our society. Rule by supposedly benevolent technocratic elites is giving way — in large part due to the fecklessness of those technocrats — to straight plutocracy. And really, that only makes sense in an era in which everyone feels like their lives are, in important and fundamental ways, in thrall to the whims of a few mega-rich people. Our cities promise to remake themselves to please Bezos. A few GOP donors threaten to close their checkbooks, and the entire federal tax code is sloppily rewritten. Chris Hughes sneezes, and The New Republic catches a cold.
Frank Chimero brings a designer’s sensibility to the question of the kind of rooms we choose to inhabit, when we choose to inhabit the internet. If we don’t like the ones we’ve made, why not imagine new rooms — and go live there? Despite its starry-eyed start in the New York Public Library, this is a solid piece about the commercialization of digital community space, and a reminder that we’re not at the mercy of the technology we use. Quite the opposite.
Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon aren’t going anywhere at this point — nor should we expect them to — so it’s best to recalibrate the digital experience by increasing the footprint and mindshare of the kinds of cultural and communal value they can’t provide. The web isn’t like Manhattan real estate — if we want something, we can make space for it.
Different measuring sticks are also in order. If commercial networks on the web measure success by reach and profit, cultural endeavors need to see their successes in terms of resonance and significance. This is the new game, one that elevates both the people who make the work and those who see, use, and enjoy it.
(h/t Tim Carmody via Kottke.org. And while we’re on the subject of Jason Kottke, here’s an interview with one of the internet’s best-known renaissance bloggers.)
Alix Christie is a writer and journalist based in London. Her novel Gutenberg's Apprentice (which I absolutely adored) came out in 2014. She's at work on a new novel about her Scots ancestors in the Pacific Northwest.
What are you reading now?
Almost finished Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. These stories are blowing my mind. On the one hand they're visceral, sexy, physical, and on the other fantasmagorically surreal — yet also terrifyingly plausible. Each one is a take on the obliteration of the female body, the violence to which it is constantly prey in this society. Yet they're dreamlike, logical, beguiling—brilliantly devised. I am in awe of her imaginative power and look forward to reading much more.
What did you read last?
A remarkable travelogue, Notes from the Century Before: a Journal from British Columbia by Edward Hoagland, in the Modern Library Exploration Series. It describes a 1966 journey through the roadless B.C. interior east of the Alaska panhandle. I can't remember ever reading such astonishing descriptions of landscape and people. Hoagland has a razor eye and manages to marry physical traits with moral or metaphysical ones: one fellow "has a rather strange biblical face, rather like Lincoln's"; he looks "as though his face were younger underneath the skin than outside." Nor could I have imagined so many different and precise ways to depict rough and turbulent landscape: "The mountains around were like modern war. … Chains of them extended on in laughing, awesome serration to the four skylines, not a hero among them, just a fierce mass of tire irons and short knives." Some of his attitudes are dated, but the man wields absolutely extraordinary prose.
What are you reading next?
It's a toss-up between the first translation by a woman of Homer's The Odyssey and an enjoyable historical novel, in this case A Gentleman in Moscow which a sophisticated reader friend enthusiastically recommends. I admit to not ever having read the Odyssey, but reports of the brilliance and clarity of Emily Wilson's translation convinced me to buy the book. She apparently conveys Homer's women with more insight, and the opening line is a stunner: "Tell me about a complicated man." We're talking 500+ pages though, and my hibernating winter self is sorely tempted by what I am told is Amor Towles' uplifting story of a man with integrity and heart. I'll keep you posted.