The odd couple

Kurt Vonnegut was mortified by the idea of being considered a sci-fi author. You have to understand, this was a different time, before Michael Chabon and Haruki Murakami and Kelly Link started blurring the lines between literary fiction and genre. The “science fiction” classification used to mean an author would be stigmatized to the gaudy corner of bookstores where only children and misfits would browse, so you can forgive Vonnegut a little bit of grumpiness over an imaginary distinction.

I give you that context to explain why I actually gasped a little bit when I saw Vonnegut’s books shelved in the sci-fi section of longtime West Seattle used bookseller Pegasus Book Exchange. Vonnegut would have been displeased; it’s not hard to imagine him walking up to the counter and trying to register a formal complaint about it.

The shelves at Pegasus Books

Pegasus, located right in the Junction, is that kind of bookstore; it’s been run by the same family for so long that it’s developed its own sense of organizational physics. Some of those decisions make perfect sense — Perfume by Patrick Suskind is shelved in horror, where it belongs, and not fiction — and some of them are a little more suspect, like alphabetizing children’s books by title and not author. Books are stacked up every which way; on floors, stacked horizontally on shelves, on every flat surface. The buyers have secreted surprises everywhere, through years of accumulation. Every decade of from World War II until today is represented on its shelves, including books that likely don’t exist anywhere online. You shouldn’t go into Pegasus Book Exchange with any plan but to lose hours to some aimless browsing.

But some unadventurous people are too OCD to appreciate a nice, messy used bookstore. Luckily for them, there’s another used bookstore on the same block as Pegasus that will appeal to their organizational instincts. Merryweather Books is much more organized than Pegasus. It’s clean and quiet and the sections are clear and well-maintained. Merryweather doesn’t have the luxury of decades of business that Pegasus enjoys, so it has to be well-curated. So it is.

If you’re looking for a particular title — Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris, say — you can walk into Merryweather, look around, determine where the literary essays are, and search alphabetically. Vonnegut is in fiction, where he preferred to be placed. Books are alphabetized by author. All is right in the universe, with no book out of place.

As for me, I love both kinds of used bookstores. Pegasus-like stores are great for intensive browsing, for conquering that nagging sense that you’ve seen it all done before. And Merryweather-like used book stores are perfect for the laser-like search, when you decide it’s finally time to dive into that author you’ve always wanted to read but never found the time to dig in. They’re a fascinating pairing, coexisting on the same street but living in entirely different universes. West Seattle is lucky to have them.

The Guardian just published the first chapter of Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set a Watchman, on a page loaded with animation and "ambient sound" and an audio version of the text read by Reese Witherspoon. It positively reeks of overkill. And how's the chapter? As you may have expected, it's really not very good; some of the writing is painfully awkward.

“Hush, girl,” he said, holding her face in place. “I’ll kiss you on the courthouse steps if I want to.” The possessor of the right to kiss her on the courthouse steps was Henry Clinton, her lifelong friend, her brother’s comrade, and if he kept on kissing her like that, her husband. Love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her. Henry Clinton was Jean Louise’s own kind, and now she did not consider the dictum particularly harsh.

Ouch. So contrived and so repetitive; this has none of the simple charm of Lee's earlier work. I decided some time ago that I wasn't going to read Watchman. It's not that the experience would destroy To Kill a Mockingbird for me or anything so dramatic as that. Really, I'd just rather not have to write a negative review of a Harper Lee book.

Speaking of comics, I barely pay attention to the news that comes out of San Diego Comicon these days because it's become a big Hollywood PR machine. But the SDCC news that DC Comics' adult/creator-owned imprint Vertigo is launching 12 new titles this fall is very welcome. Vertigo used to publish wonderful comics series on a regular basis, but it's fallen into disrepair over the last decade or so. Some of these names — Darwyn Cooke! Gilbert Hernandez! Mike Allred! Gail Simone! — are very promising, and only one of them (Lucifer) appears to be a half-assed Sandman ripoff. I like those odds.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Saga, Split in Two

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

The single best ongoing comic book right now is clearly Brian K. Vauhgan and Fiona Staples’s Saga. No other comic comes close to matching Saga’s inventiveness, progressive attitudes, and sheer storytelling energy. Vaughan has written some pretty good comics in the past — Ex Machina and Y the Last Man were both flawed but generally excellent series — but his collaboration with Staples has produced something absolutely magical, an artistic and entertaining masterpiece unfolding on a (semi-)monthly basis. Which is how it should be; comics are a collaborative medium, so some partnerships are just better than others.

The last two weeks have seen the release of first issues of new comics series from Vaughan and Staples, working separately. This creates a great opportunity to examine what each collaborator is capable of on their own. Last week, the first issue of a new series from Vaughan and horror comics illustrator Steve Skroce was published. It’s a war comic, and a dystopian future comic, and an opportunity to examine what it really means to be Canadian.

We Stand on Guard

No, that’s not a joke. We Stand on Guard tells the story of an elite paramilitary group of Canadian revolutionaries trying to defend the Great White North from gigantic, lumbering American war machines. As a first issue, Guard works well: it introduces a team of characters, gives them distinct personalities and motivations, and then sets them into action. The futuristic sci-fi elements are handled well, and they don’t overwhelm the essentials like characterization and plot. The people sound like people and not mirthless post-apocalyptic grimace machines. Vaughan’s script is expository without being clumsy, and Skroce’s artwork is clean and expressive. It’s not the slam-dunk that Saga #1 was — that issue practically bubbled with the dance between liveliness and possibility, while Guard has an air of staginess, of scene-setting — but it’s a decent start.

Meanwhile, this week Vaughan’s Saga co-star has a new first issue of her own, launching the first in a new series of Archie comic books with writer Mark Waid. Like most comics fans, I’ve always taken Archie comics for granted, assuming that they would take up space at grocery store checkout lines for years after I’ve grown cold in the ground. But a series of recent adult reinventions — zombie Archie, married Archie, murdered Archie — indicates that maybe the formula is in trouble. The hiring of Staples and Waid to reinvent the character seems like the latest drastic measure in a long line of drastic measures.

Archie #1

Happily, this particular drastic measure paid off. Archie #1 is a very fun comic book. It’s more realistic than the cartoonish stories that came before — Archie always superficially grew and changed with the times, but Riverdale has always felt like it’s stuck in some weird 1950s Twilight Zone — but it’s not some humorless Dawson’s Creek-style soap opera, either. The characters are still exactly who they’ve always been, but they feel more human than ever, thanks to Waid’s lively script. Archie talks directly to the reader, setting the scene (there’s been drama with Betty, and a new wealthy family, the Lodges, are moving to town) and easing us into daily life in Riverdale. It gives the book the loose air of a stage production, and it keeps the melodrama from getting too soppy.

Staples is an inspired choice for an artist on this series. Her characters’ body language and expressions are rich and personalized, and she somehow stays close to the original character models while adding something new. A few panels later in the book, when Archie is playing guitar, actually depict the way a human being holds a guitar in real life; it’s an object with weight and some awkwardness, not a cardboard prop. This may sound like a small touch, but it’s really quite significant in terms of reading enjoyment, and Archie is full of small touches like this.

Unfortunately, Waid authored another first issue out this week that does not fare anywhere near as well. Strange Fruit #1 — yes, the title refers to what you think it refers to — is a gorgeous book to flip through. You could lose yourself in artist J.G. Jones III’s painted panels for hours at a time; I’ve never seen coloring quite like this in a comic, and it sets the scene admirably. But the problem is that Waid and Jones are a pair of white guys telling a story about the history of race in the south, and they don’t seem equipped to deal with what that means. The book feels remarkably tone-deaf on race and then some sci-fi elements are dropped into the story and it all feels painfully wrong. I’d say more about it, but J.A. Micheline at Women Write About Comics has already explained the problem with Strange Fruit at great, satisfying length. Go read what she has to say about why this project could have used a lot more thoughtfulness and consideration. It’s 2015, and paying lip service to racial justice isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to demonstrate your commitment to racial justice, too.

I reviewed Ernest Cline's sci-fi novel Ready Player One on its release. I didn't like it. The book's boundless nostalgia for 80s nerd culture unsettled me on a deep level; hating the book kind of felt like self-loathing. In retrospect, I admit that my review of the book wasn't very good — I couldn't convey what I disliked about Ready Player One because I was wrestling with the issue of my generation's nostalgia on a personal level. So I'm thrilled to see Laura Hudson's excellent review of Cline's second novel, Armada, because she exactly articulates my problem with Cline's writing in specific, and with my generation's propensity for nerd nostalgia in general. Feast your eyes:

It's a valuable question for gaming culture—and “nerd culture” more generally—to ask itself: Do we want to tell stories that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remember the reasons we were so drawn them, and create new works that inspire that level of devotion? Or do we simply want to hear the litany of our childhood repeated back to us like an endless lullaby for the rest of our lives?

Yes, yes yes! This is exactly what I wished I'd said when I reviewed Ready Player One. Go read the whole review. And pity poor Hudson's Twitter replies feed; for the next few weeks, it's going to be full of angry nerds howling for her blood.

The only downside to covering the books beat is that you occasionally have to write a goodbye to a fantastic local bookshop. Miguel Otárola at the Seattle Times did a fantastic job of paying tribute to Cinema Books on Roosevelt.

Your week in readings: The best literary events from July 6-12, 2015

Doug Nufer and his dog

The Seattle Review of Books will launch our readings calendar in the fall. (These things take time to do right!) But until that happens, every Monday we’ll highlight the best readings/literary events/talks/book clubs happening in Seattle — one event for each day of the week. (The above photo is of local author Doug Nufer and his dog. Nufer is on the right.)

Monday: The week opens on a promising note as Seattle’s literary godmother, Nancy Pearl, appears in conversation with the novelist Mary Doria Russell at University Book Store. Russell, in case you didn’t know, is the author of the excellent novel The Sparrow, which brought religion to the sci-fi novel in the most thoughtful, rewarding way possible. That was a long time ago. Now, she’s the author of a pair of historical novels—the first is about Doc Holliday, the newest is about Wyatt Earp. Pearl is a terrific interviewer, and Russell undoubtedly now has a metric ton of facts about the American west in her brain thanks to years of intensive research. This should be a fun conversation.

Tuesday: We at The Seattle Review of Books love Town Hall for their readings series, of course, but they also provide important community engagement sessions at key moments. This is one such moment: in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to make same-sex marriage legal across the United States, representatives from Lambda Legal, the ACLU of Washington, Legal Voice, and QLaw Foundation will lead a discussion about “the current state of LGBTQ equality, and examine key areas where there’s still work to be done.” It’s easy to forget, in moments of celebration, that we’re still so far from where we need to be. This is a great opportunity to plan the way we move forward.

Wednesday: Rebecca Makkai, author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, will read from her new book of short stories, Music for Wartime, at Elliott Bay Book Company. The Seattle Review of Books hasn’t read this book, but Makkai is a frequent contributor to the Best American Short Stories series, for whatever that’s worth, and Pam Houston can’t slather enough praise on Makkai. That makes this free reading absolutely worth your time.

Thursday: It’s always exciting when a Seattle author debuts her first book. And this debut looks to be a doozy: Sonya Lea’s memoir Wondering Who You Are is the latest production of the exceptional Portland publisher Tin House. The book is about what happens when Lea’s husband suffers a medical emergency that leaves him with no memory of their life together. Hugo House throws a party for Lea tonight, with a reading and signing and guest appearances from other local authors.

Friday: Up in Lake Forest Park, Third Place Books hosts Jesse Goolsby, author of I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them. It’s a debut novel. Third Place’s press copy describes the plot thusly: “three American soldiers haunted by their actions in Afghanistan search for absolution and human connection in family and civilian life.”

Saturday: This weekend, local Oulipian treasure Doug Nufer is hosting two readings. Saturday’s reading is a new iteration of Nufer’s popular Barrom Writers Offensive, and it takes place in Georgetown “and the water.” We’re informed that “ there will be a shuttle service from the Georgetown Art Attack.” More readings should take on the energy and mystery of a good kidnapping, I always say. (Sunday, Nufer will be performing with jazz saxophonist Wally Shoup at the Lower Duwamish Superfund Site, as part of the ongoing Duwamish Revealed art festival, too.)

Sunday: Ada’s Technical Books is hosting their third annual celebration of R. Buckminster Fuller’s birthday. Not enough mainstream attention has gone to Fuller, the geodesic dome fetishist and utopian thinker, and Ada’s earns a special place in our hearts for keeping the torch lit in Fulller’s name. The bookstore will celebrate Fuller’s birthday with a presentation by Fuller scholar L. Steven Sieden, a Q&A, and “a special birthday treat.” What better way to end a week, we ask you, than with a special birthday treat? None. There is no better way to end a week.

The sound of one mouth talking

Published July 05, 2015, at 2:39pm

Paul Constant review Rachel Cusk's Outline.

Outline is a novel in ten conversations, but it also examines what a conversation truly is: when a chatty airplane seatmate blathers all over us, is that a conversation? Can we have a conversation with an empty apartment?

Read this review now

Phinney Books, the Elkin test, and the eternal joy of Fup

A couple weeks ago, I visited the delightful Phinney Books for a reading. Customers at Phinney Books always have huge smiles plastered across their faces, and when you walk in, it's easy to understand why: from the categorization of books as either "TRUE" or "MADE UP" to the giant Ferris wheel along the wall of the kids' section, the whole store seems designed to maximize happiness in humans.

In preparation for the store's upcoming one-year anniversary, owner Tom Nissley was talking up a neat new idea: he had recently purchased a Polaroid camera (or whatever they call cameras that take instant photos nowadays; Polaroid got out of the Polaroid business a few years ago) and he was taking photographs of Phinney Books customers holding their favorite books. He wanted to decorate the store with the photographs.

This is a deeply lovable idea. How better to illustrate the shelves of a bookstore than with demonstrations of what the love of books can do to a person? Could there be a better advertisement for books than smiling humans, holding books they adore?

Nissley asked if I wanted to pose for a photo. Of course I did. But my enthusiasm quickly soured into a quandary. People ask me all the time for my favorite book, and the truth is, I don't have one. I don't believe in favorite books. I've written about this before: Out of the thousands of books that I've read, with the enormous palette of ideas and emotions they've represented, how could I choose only one? Why not ask for a favorite orgasm, or laugh, or grain of sand?

But I went out on safari anyway, scouring the shelves of Phinney Books in search of a photographic partner. In the fiction section, I spotted a copy of Stanley Elkin's masterpiece, The Franchiser. That seemed like an appropriate choice. Here's something I wrote years ago about what I call The Elkin Test:

Find the fiction section, locate the Es, and look for Stanley Elkin. If a bookstore carries Elkin's novels, it's a sign of all-around quality. Elkin, who died in 1995, was a masterful writer with a playful love of language that few authors this side of Nabokov could match—it's a good bet that almost every literary author you admire has read and loved Stanley Elkin's fiction. But many bookstores don't carry Elkin's novels because they're obscure and they don't sell—you'd be lucky to have one stolen every other year, compared to perennial sellers like Kerouac. Granted, any bookstore can order Elkin's books—the nonprofit Dalkey Archive Press keeps them all in print, supposedly forever—but so can I, from my laptop, on my couch. A bookstore that carries Stanley Elkin has more than good taste; it has a commitment to its stock and a willingness to shelve excellent books that don't pay for their own real estate.

My hand was almost on The Franchiser's spine when my eye caught a familiar friend a couple shelves away: Jim Dodge's sublime novella Fup. Sorry, Stanley: I instantly knew that Fup was going to be my date for this particular dance.

It's not that Fup is my favorite book, though it is one that I'll recommend to practically anybody. The thing is, Fup is my most memorable reading experience. It's the only book I've read three times in one day. I still remember the comfy chair I sat in to read the book, the sunbeam I almost unconsciously followed across the living room as I read the book once, came up for air, then went down again and again in a state of wonderment. I've read better books, but I've never fallen so quickly for a book. Every time I re-read it — and I re-read it often, sometimes even aloud — I relive the feeling of that day, when nothing mattered to me but sunlight and this remarkable new book that I had discovered.

People who love Fup have a hard time explaining why Fup is so important to them, but I'll give it a shot: it's a novella — actually, maybe "novelette" is more exact — about a young man who is raised by his taciturn, grumpy grandfather. Together, the boy and his grandfather find a young duck and adopt him as a pet. They name the duck Fup because it's a good, dumb joke — its full name is "Fup Duck" — and they grow into a family together. That's basically it.

Except it's not. Fup is a story that resonates with the weird magical crackle of an American tall tale. It's profane and hysterically funny and deeply moving. I've never read any book even remotely like Fup, although Tom Robbins at his very best sometimes brushes past it. And even after all these paragraphs, I'm not even coming remotely close to identifying why Fup is as important to me as it is.

Anyway, I went back up the counter and Nissley took my picture holding a copy of Fup and I didn't even blink when the shutter clicked down. I am someone who avoids looking in mirrors when he shaves, and even I have to admit that the picture came out okay; my smile is genuine and I look happy to be there. Fup is that kind of a book, and Phinney Books is that kind of a place.

This headline from Consumerist says it all: "Amazon Will Reportedly Pay Self-Published E-Book Authors $.006 Per Page Read."

According to the Guardian, that means the payments received by authors could be as little as $0.006 per page read, estimating that if an author publishes a 220-page book each page would have to be read by every person who downloads the book in order for the writer to make the $1.30 they get under the previous pay-per-download payment system.

Some authors have already left the program, "citing an estimated 60% to 80% reduction in royalties." The per-page payment system is classic Amazon-style shrewdness, in that it makes perfect sense and it's difficult to argue in terms of fairness. But even advocates for the plan have to admit that it's a hard-assed maneuver.

Think about it: when you go to a bookstore, how often do you buy books with the intent to read them right away? At least for me, the books that I buy wind up in a pile on my nightstand until the perfect moment for that particular book arrives. That moment might arrive two days after buying the book, or two years after buying the book. Maybe that day never comes.

When Amazon sells a self-published book to a customer, Amazon instantly makes money from that transaction. If the buyer never gets around to reading the e-book, the author will never make any money from that transaction. So Amazon is profiting from the author's hard work — plainly, the book wouldn't exist without the author, so Amazon would have nothing to sell — and paying nothing in return for that sale until the reader starts turning pages, a moment that is not guaranteed to ever arrive.

In this age of hyper-analytics, Amazon's new royalty policy is technically appropriate. But it's morally wrong.

The perpetual naked lunch of Starvation Mode

Published July 01, 2015, at 11:00pm

Paul Constant review Elissa Washuta's Starvation Mode, and My Body Is a Book of Rules.

In which Elissa Washuta answers a very important question for memoirists: “Are we bad friends? Should people avoid being in relationships with people like us?”

Read this review now

The Hugo House has announced its 2015-2016 season, and it's a stellar lineup, featuring terrific big-name writers like Jonathan Lethem, Heidi Julavits, Dinaw Mengestu, Maggie Nelson, and Susan Orlean paired with some of the best local writers in the business today, including Maged Zaher, Sarah Galvin, and Sierra Nelson.

Novelist Peter Mountford took the helm as the House's curator a while ago, and this lineup feels like a manifesto. Or more accurately, as Hugo House prepares for a massive demolition and construction project, it's more of a statement of purpose. Come what may, Hugo House is here, in Seattle. It might have to move for while, but it's not going anywhere.

On some whiteboard at Scribd, there is a chart of the amount of reading a particular genre lover does, compared to the overall cost of keeping books of that genre stocked.

Romance readers found themselves on the wrong side of that line, by actually taking advantage of the service as advertised.

If you're a writer who needs a little help getting a project done, take note: now is the time to apply for CityArtists Projects funding. There is a literary category. Go get some of that money and make something beautiful out of it.

Here is the cover of Grace Jones's upcoming memoir, I'll Never Write My Memoirs.

Grace Jones graces the cover of her new memoir

The Seattle Review of Books is in love with Grace Jones. That is all.

You should read Robyn Jordan's excellent comic about arts education in Seattle public schools. What a beautiful way to tell a positive story.

The #AskELJames hashtag went horribly wrong.

Seattle Mystery Bookshop has announced that their co-founder, William D. Farley, passed away on Sunday, June 28th, "just three days short of the shop’s 25th birthday." Our thoughts are with the staff of Seattle Mystery Bookshop at what must be a tremendously difficult time. What a legacy, though! The store he helped found is keeping a proud tradition of Pioneer Square bookshops alive.

Sticking the landing

Published June 28, 2015, at 9:26am

Martin McClellan review Neal Stephenson's Seveneves.

Even Neal Stephenson has to acknowledge that "Neal Stephenson has trouble ending his novels" is a popular opinion. Does Seveneves end well? Is it even worth getting to the end?

Read this review now