Labor of love

Published June 14, 2016, at 1:15pm

Paul Constant reviews Adam Rakunas's Like a Boss.

The second book in Adam Rakunas's Windswept series, Like a Boss,

Read this review now

Charlotte Runcie at The Telegraph does some literary sleuthing to contextualize the literary tradition that inspired the sonnet that Lin-Manuel Miranda read at the Tony Awards on Sunday.

...Miranda’s sonnet is 16 lines long, and has some moments of unconventional rhythm. What does that tell us? The best-known writer of the 16-line sonnet is probably the Victorian writer George Meredith, who wrote a sequence of them titled ‘Modern Love’, exploring his own disastrous marriage and expressing a sentiment that love in his time had become corrupted and corrosive.

Miranda adopts Meredith’s form and uses it to talk about his own good marriage, and about love as a positive and unbeatable force. To take a form that had been associated with a poet claiming love is rotten, only to turn it around to use it as a poem about the healing power of love in the face of darkness, is elegant, beautiful and extremely powerful.

(Thanks to SRoB tipper Paul for the link.)

My Heart the Size of a Tea Kettle

What I brew in me
your tongue no longer tastes.

Do you believe passion
or security

ruins the palette?
We once boiled red

like the most glorious

and at the worst times.
Sip me

before I’m lukewarm,
before the whistle of regret

keeps us awake.
Dear love, last night

I walked in the rain
dressed only in a bathrobe. I bought

a little kettle on sale
and am convinced our lives

will be better now.
I am not sad

when I say this. I am not quite
unsad either.

If there is one thing to be said
about marriage or monogamy

there is another thing entirely
to be undone. Clean or dirty

is how I divide the day.
After you leave

or before you come home.
The more I smell

of cleaning products
the messier it means I am.

The toilet, the kitchen sink,
every closet–this house

is yours to pollute.
I’ve been alone

in it
for many, many hours.

Look around.
There’s no trace of me.

It’s as if
I don’t even exist.

One of the most famous translators in the world has died, ABC News reports:

Rabassa was an essential gateway to the 1960s Latin American "boom," when such authors as Garcia Marquez, Cortazar and Mario Vargas Llosa became widely known internationally. He worked on the novel that helped start the boom, Cortazar's Hopscotch, for which Rabassa won a National Book Award for translation. He also worked on the novel which defined the boom, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a monument of 20th century literature.

Hastings, a national chain selling books, comics, music, and movies, announced that if buyers for its 126 stores cannot be found, they will be forced to close down.

Hastings has been working diligently to overcome our business challenges and we have made significant progress with a remerchandising strategy and other initiatives aimed at increasing profitability. To continue our transformation, we have initiated a comprehensive process to identify a buyer or investor that will give us the additional financial stability we need to move forward. While we are hopeful a sale agreement will be reached, we also have a responsibility to prepare for all contingencies.

As a result, we were obligated to formally notify our associates that, if a sale agreement cannot be achieved in a timely manner, we may need to begin downsizing our corporate office and/or closing the entire Hastings chain due to our continuing financial challenges. Our management team believes there are a number of parties that would be interested in acquiring our brand, and we are doing everything possible to create a strong future for our business and for this great team.

The modern mid-century spy novel

Sponsor Paul Vidich's An Honorable Man has been getting a great reception. It's Washington D.C., 1953, and any fan of spy novels knows that this time is pivotal in the espionage game. Russia in chaos after Stalin died, McCarthyism taking root at home, the Cold War starting its long tense march.

We've got a full chapter on our sponsor's page for you to read and see what you think. An Honorable Man is the perfect Father's Day book, a taut thriller set in an important American past.

It's thanks to sponsors like Paul Vidich, and readers like you, we sold out this season of our sponsorships. We couldn't be more thrilled. If you'd like to be notified when we release the next block, sign up for our low-volume sponsors' mailing list.

We have only four sponsor slots left, before August. If you're a small publisher, writer, poet, or foundation that is looking to back our work, and advertise your own in an inexpensive and expressive way, take a look at our open dates. We'd love to talk to you about opportunities to sponsor us. It's our way of making internet advertising something to look forward to.

Gene Balk, the Seattle Times's excellent "FYI Guy," reported over the weekend that "Between 2011 and 2014, branch visits to Seattle Public Library declined by about 150,000 – even as branch hours were added." Visits are especially down in the city's lowest-income neighborhoods, for unclear reasons. Circulation of digital materials, however, is way up.

Could the lack of visits have to do with SPL leadership's "anti-book" agenda? Considering that many of Seattle's independent booksellers saw record sales during the same years that SPL's visits declined, an anti-book agenda probably isn't helping matters.

To open a bookstore, you have to leave room to grow

Eric McDaniel has never before been responsible for managing an entire bookstore. Before he took the lead position at the new Third Place Books Seward Park, he worked as one of a handful of managers at Third Place’s Lake Forest Park store, and he spent two years at Half Price Books on Capitol Hill. All told, he’s worked in bookstores for a dozen years.

And he’s been involved with Seward Park since the very beginning. “I helped with the design and the layout” of the shop, McDaniel tells me, “and [Third Place Books Managing Partner] Robert [Sindelar] and I went through the blueprints together” since before the store was public knowledge. Other Seward Park staffers, particularly used book buyer Wesley Minter, provided input on the store’s layout, too.

McDaniel has lived in the neighborhood “for about seven years now. I consider this my community,” he says. What does he like about the area? “I love the amount of cultural diversity we’ve got down here,” he says. And he likes the fact that “people still say hello on the sidewalks in Seward Park and Columbia City. It still feels like a very tight-knit community, and people are still very engaged” both with the community and with each other.

One aspect that McDaniel says the store is taking its time on is the event programming. For the summer, he says, “we need to play with the music levels and listen to what a noisy dinnertime [at the attached Raconteur restaurant] is like.” But they’ll definitely be hosting events once they get the noise issues figured out: “we designed it to seat a hundred people,” he says, and he’s eager to get a reading series started. With the city divided by traffic as it is, he can see a time when big-name visiting authors headline three separate Seattle events on three consecutive evenings: one at Third Place Lake Forest Park, one in Seattle proper at Elliott Bay Book Company or Town Hall, and one at Seward Park.

The store is already planning to host book clubs, hosted both by staff and by Seattle author Garth Stein, who lives in the neighborhood. “We’ve already had so many people reaching out with things they’d like to host here,” McDaniels says, and he finds the different types of suggested programming and the high level of interest to be heartening.

Third Place Books Seward Park has a staff of eight full-time booksellers and two part-timers. McDaniel wasn’t just looking for veteran booksellers, though he has four of those, too. Of the novice booksellers, he says, “three of them have done library work, and one of them worked in magazines at Bulldog News.” Two of the staff are former college professors. Experience was less important to McDaniel’s hiring decisions than ensuring the staff had a wide range of tastes and interests. A history of bookselling isn’t always the best indicator of success for new hires, McDaniel says. “I was kind of looking for personalities, and for people who could work with each other.”

A seasoned bookseller might notice that the bookshelves at Third Place Books Seward Park are light in stock. “We left things a little bit loose on the shelves because we anticipated new books,” McDaniel explains. Partly, they did so because they were counting on “getting used books from the community,” and he says “we intentionally bought a little bit light knowing people were going to come in the door and request very specific things.” By making sure there was room to grow, McDaniel says, the Seward Park store was leaving room to reflect the flavor and tastes of its community.

The Sunday Post for June 12, 2016

Cities Like Seattle Are Recklessly Unprepared For Self-Driving Cars

New Seattle-based publidation Scout takes on the infrastructure of self-driving cars. It asks a vital question: in the modern days of rapid technological change, how can the traditionally slow process of civic change catch up to technology and ideas that will benefit the city?

Timelines for the arrival of consumer-ready self driving cars range from two to 20 years. Even if 20 years go by before Americans trade in their driver’s licenses, the fact that only one out of every 17 cities is even thinking about self-driving cars is shocking. Transit infrastructure, from roads to light rail, takes years to plan, billions in investment, and decades to build.

At best, cities omitting autonomous vehicles from transit planning represents a failure of imagination. At worst, it’s gross civic negligence.

Does Literary Criticism Have a Grade Inflation Problem?

Alex Shehard looks at LitHub's new Book Marks service, a review aggregator (the Seattle Review of Books is one of the source sites for Book Marks), and argues that the grades of the books are elevated on the site.

This is not a new debate. Literary criticism has been routinely lambasted for its niceness, its lack of intellectual rigor, and its mediocrity. n+1’s first issue took on The Believer, which “[differed] in at least one particular from, say, the New York Review of Books, in that its overt criterion for inclusion is not expertise, but enthusiasm.” Writing in Slate in 2012, the critic Jacob Silverman decried the effect of social media on reviewing, arguing that it made incisive criticism more difficult because your potential targets were almost always connected to you in some way: “Reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it.” (In 2013, meanwhile, Clive James took to The New York Times to tell Americans that they simply weren’t good at writing hatchet jobs.)
Head in the cloud

Sophie McBain, in the New Statesmen, looks at whether we're losing our ability to remember things now that we can store them all in our external hand-held brain.

do not remember my husband’s tele­phone number, or my best friend’s address. I have forgotten my cousin’s birthday, my seven times table, the date my grandfather died. When I write, I keep at least a dozen internet tabs open to look up names and facts I should easily be able to recall. There are so many things I no longer know, simple things that matter to me in practical and personal ways, yet I usually get by just fine. Apart from the few occasions when my phone has run out of battery at a crucial moment, or the day I accidentally plunged it into hot tea, or the evening my handbag was stolen, it hasn’t seemed to matter that I have downloaded most of my working memory on to electronic devices. It feels a small inconvenience, given that I can access information equivalent to tens of billions of books on a gadget that fits into my back pocket.

Small Town Noir: Mug shots from New Castle, PA 1930-60 - Kickstarter Fund Project #23

Every week, the Seattle Review of Books backs a Kickstarter, and writes up why we picked that particular project. Read more about the project here. Suggest a project by writing to kickstarter at this domain, or by using our contact form.

What's the project this week?

Small Town Noir: Mug shots from New Castle, PA 1930-60. We've put $20 in as a non-reward backer

Who is the Creator?

Diarmid Mogg.

What do they have to say about the project?

An extraordinary collection of criminal mug shots and the stories behind them from one small American town 1930-1960

What caught your eye?

This is a fascinating idea: a series of mughsots from a small town in America, found by a journalist and artist, who started investigating the stories of the people in the images. Using the attached criminal records, as well as newspaper information, Diarmid is creating a narrative of crime in this small town from 1930 - 1960.

That's a great concept, but execution is everything. Look at his website for a sample, where you'll see the people in the mugshots, and what Diarmid has recreated is evocative and well written, and he includes all the sources on each post.

Why should I back it?

Because no researcher will ever write this history, but it's a history worth knowing. A history of grift, of corruption, of petty crime, of people in the wrong place at the wrong time, with all of the racial and social layers that still affect American jurisprudence. Back it because the stories are amazing, and back it because you want to know.

How's the project doing?

They're only 4% funded currently, towards their goal of $20,000. A slow start, they can use every bit of help we can offer.

Do they have a video?

Kickstarter Fund Stats
  • Projects backed: 23
  • Funds pledged: $460
  • Funds collected: $400
  • Unsuccessful pledges: 0
  • Fund balance: $580

Against blurbs and for endorsements

Whenever I read a glowing blurb on a book these days, I wonder to myself, "what is this person's relationship to the author?" It's no secret that authors write blurbs for friends, or former students, or authors who have previously blurbed them. Every blurb comes with a price — a favor owed, a favor repaid. A bookseller once told me that the only blurber they trusted was Thomas Pynchon, because Pynchon was a recluse and therefore he only blurbed books that he honestly liked because he didn't carry the personal baggage that every other author did when it comes to blurbs. (I've used this observation as a yardstick in the years since, and Pynchon has driven me to authors I might not otherwise have discovered, including Jim Knipfel.)

It's not like this observation is new or especially deep. Blurbs have always been favor games, passed around like cigarettes in prison. But maybe now, thanks to social media and a broader range of book news outlets, we can just see the strings that connect the authors a little more clearly than we once could. We now know when authors are friends or that they both spent time at the Iowa Workshop back in 2009 or that they have the same agent. Maybe it's always been this craven and insular, but it's never been quite this openly craven and insular.

I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago and I wondered, as I often do, if maybe we should do away with blurbs altogether. Nobody I know takes them seriously anymore, so maybe a blurb moratorium — a blurbatorium? — would be worthwhile. But my friend had a better idea. She said, "maybe they should just list the author's friends on the back cover." And, you know, that struck me as a pretty good idea.

Call it the Endorsements List. Rather than run a bunch of two-sentence lies about the book that overuse words like "luminous" and phrases like "by turns," why not just provide a list of the author's peers, teachers, friends, and classmates? We'd be able to learn a lot about the author — it would be kind of like an "If You Like X, You'll Also Like Y" algorithm — and we wouldn't have to sift through all the atrocious bullshit that passes for modern blurbs. Lay it out plain and let the reader decide whether they care or not.

These lists would just be governed by one simple rule: authors would have to expressly consent to be added to an endorsements list. The understanding would be that they were using their own name as a commodity to add value to another author's name. If they overused that commodity, people would stop caring. But if they only endorsed the authors they truly enjoyed, the value attached to their name would increase. This would mean less work for the authors — rather than struggling over how to describe a book in twenty words or less, they'd just have to sign their name — and it would clean up a dirty system of paybacks and back-scratching.

Gawker, which started as a literary gossip blog and then became something else again, has just filed for bankruptcy and might be sold to terribad online publisher Ziff Davis. Now might be a good time for you to read my review of Brian Abrams's book Gawker: An Oral History.

The Help Desk: Will no one think of the white man in literature?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I know we have to be very careful these days. I mean, political correctness or whatever you want to call it. But, just because you like books by the Marquis de Sade doesn't mean you want to do the things inside, right?

Just because you like a white male writer doesn't make you bad, right? What about us who just want to read whatever the fuck we want and don't want to have to freaking justify it to everybody?

Bellevue Man

Dear Bellevue Man,

I doubt anyone is arguing that you should disavow all white male writers, as they’re ubiquitous. You might as well proclaim that you don’t like your beaches sandy. But a lot of people agree that white male authors have historically received, and continue to receive, a level of reverence, attention, and clout simply because of their race and gender, and maybe we should make an effort to find some new voices.

Nevertheless, I am sorry to hear you’re feeling oppressed by the literati. It’s hard to feel unfairly judged for something you can’t help, like your ethnicity, gender, or preference for books authored by white men. What you need to do is find a group of like-minded peers with whom you can share your burden. I would suggest you drop in on a support group – like those offered by Seattle Counseling Services – but I suspect your kind would not be welcome there.

Instead, head down to the Hard Rock Cafe with a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog From Hell (or anything by Hunter S. Thompson) and belly up to the bar. Order one of Marshawn Lynch’s favorite drinks – Skittles Sangria or a Patronessy – and wait for another white man to sidle up and compliment your taste in literature and hip appropriation of black culture. I suspect that after a few weeks of this routine, you will have amassed your own fawning book club. No longer will you and your brethren have to stand in the shadows like the millions of other white men who like to read works by millions of still other white men. Finally, you too shall be free.



The Portrait Gallery - Jay Newton-Small

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

Time Magazine correspondent, and author of Broad Influence, Jay Newton-Small is in town next Tuesday to talk about leveraging female political power.

Tomorrow Night, Friday, June 10th, come see these paintings in person! Push/Pull Gallery, and the Seattle Review of Books, are putting on a show at Essentia Mattresses Store on 1st Avenue. We'll be joined by Lesley Hazelton, Maged Zaher, and Sarah Galvin. More information is here on the Facebook invitation. Please come and say hello.

Book News Roundup: Neal Stephenson is going to the movies

I was told today that the principal felt the book and my presentation about the writing process behind it would generate many questions that they would not be able to adequately answer and discuss. I called and asked the school to reconsider because I desperately didn’t want to disappoint all those kids. I explained how the topic was handled in a sensitive, age appropriate way.
  • Holger Schott Syme is critiquing a book of Shakespeare scholarship, one tweet at a time. He's now in the midst of a tweetstorm that encompasses more than 500 tweets.

  • A bunch of fantasy authors played a role playing game together. They all played goblins.

  • Some assholes stole a bunch of books intended for prisoners in Austin.

  • Why do people insist on using Netflix terms to describe books? First, everyone was crazy about "The Netflix of Books," which turned out to be a dumb idea because libraries already exist. Now the Wired headline "You May Soon Binge Books Just Like You Binge Netflix" is making my eyelid twitch. We already binge books. It's called reading. And when we read a novel, we're already absorbing the equivalent of a TV season or two. Watching movies is one thing, reading books is another. I understand that it's helpful to use metaphors to explain concepts to people, but these Netflix-to-books false equivalencies are particularly clumsy.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The Vision keeps getting better

Writer Tom King’s The Vision series from Marvel Comics is such a weird, wonderful thing. It’s a superhero comic that features virtually no superheroics, a domestic drama about superheroes that’s more interested in the psychology of its main characters than their powers. It’s a Cheeveresque suburban drama where the secrets that the main characters keep from each other manifest in the form of murder and the deeper issues of faith and existential angst materialize in the form of the convoluted Gordian knot of comics history.

The eighth issue of The Vision pushes along the plot of the series, after a seventh issue that reveled in the characters' deep and occasionally contradictory history. The synthezoid superhero and his family have settled into an uneasy tranquility, and they’re enjoying a visit from their “uncle,” a superhero created by the power-mad evil robot Ultron. Things seem positively cheery for a while, until, of course, they stop seeming cheery. Artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta portrays all the characters with a wide-eyed innocence, and he underplays the science fiction elements beautifully. He puts such attention into the detail of Vision’s family’s somewhat preppy clothing that you almost forget their skin is a radioactive pink-purple.

The best parts of the issue are the scenes that don’t necessarily have to do with advancing the plot. The Vision’s son reads the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice — the passage about justice and salvation not being the same thing — as he absentmindedly plays fetch with his robot dog, Sparky. Meanwhile, Vision’s malfunctioning wife is plunking away at a piano and slowly falling apart. Her housewife’s lament touches on the core themes of the series, the question of reality and synthetics, of tools and humanity:

When when I simply access the notes and play play play them well...I seem to feel that I am not playing them. I have… simply…become the piano. I am perfect perfect perfect I am the piano. I am I am I am.

There are very few comics that compare to The Vision. It’s a dense and literate story that celebrates its pulpy superhero roots. It’s not a deconstruction, the way Watchmen was. It’s not one of the hyper-serious re-imaginings we’ve seen time and again in Watchmen’s wake. It’s not a winking postmodern joke. It’s a book that has its own rhythms and its own uncomfortable vibrations. It’s heartbreaking to think that King is leaving The Vision with issue 12. He claims that his story will be complete with that last issue, but it’s easy to imagine 50 or 60 more issues of this, collected into something dense and weird and creepy: the great American superhero novel.

Lincoln Michel at Electric Lit takes a look at an (depressing, not-always-very-accurate) annual report on how much authors earn. Turns out, a tiny amount of writers actually make above poverty wages. The rest are just in it for the art.