The Help Desk: Flirting with disaster

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'm a young woman, I love to read, and I ride public transit. You can probably guess what happens next: do you have any short responses for me to say to men who insist on interrupting my precious reading time? I don't want to be confrontational, but my reading a book should not be seen as an open invitation to flirt.

Liz, #7

Dear Liz,

In the words of Mother Theresa (not that one, another one), “If you didn’t want men accosting you in public you should have never grown dirty pillows.” My advice is slightly more helpful: Either cut them off or get comfortable with the idea of being confrontational. It’s easy! Fun, even!

Try memorizing these simple phrases so you have them ready when someone asks, “what are you reading?”:

“The scratch-and-sniff book of vaginal diseases.”

“Hitler and Pol-Pot: The BFF pop-up book.”

“Sex games you can play with your cat.”

The trick is to make men — many of whom have lived their lives without being made to feel true discomfort at the hands of a woman — feel as uncomfortable as they are making you at that precise moment.



Over at the Seattle Times, Mary Ann Gwinn has the exclusive story on this year's Washington State Book Awards finalists. You should click through for all the details, but here are some of the authors I'm especially rooting for: Kim-An Lieberman was posthumously recognized for her second poetry collection, In Orbit. SRoB contributor Kelli Russell Agodon is a finalist in the poetry category as well. Peter Mountford is a finalist for his excellent second novel, The Dismal Science. And Elissa Washuta is a finalist for her memoir My Body Is a Book of Rules.

Congratulations to all the writers! If you're looking for an overview of local authors who are doing good work in various fields, from young adult novels to picture books to memoir, you should check out the full list of nominees.

The Best American Poetry 2015 controversy continues with a New York Times story that suggests Michael Derrick Hudson, the white poet who took on a Chinese pseudonym in order to make some asinine "point," might have stolen the name from a real-life Yi-Fen Chou:

The family of a woman named Yi-Fen Chou, who attended the same high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., as Mr. Hudson, has stepped forward, demanding that he immediately stop using [the pseudonym].

It just gets worse and worse.

Upstairs, downstairs

Published September 10, 2015, at 11:39am

Paul Constant review Leanne Brown's Good and Cheap.

Leanne Brown's book about eating well on four dollars a day went from a thesis to a free download to a Reddit sensation to a New York Times bestseller in less than two years. Can a cookbook change the world?

Read this review now

Thursday Comics Hangover: The fantastic voyage from Saga to Bitch Planet

Every comics fan knows 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 and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.

The new collected volume of Saga, volume five, hit the stands yesterday. I haven't read it yet, but I've already said on multiple occasions that Saga is the best mainstream ongoing comic in the business today, and I don't think volume 5 is going to damage my opinion. (The weird thing about reading collected volumes of monthly comics is that you're likely to hear well in advance if an upcoming volume is going to be especially disappointing.) Phoenix Comics keeps upping their orders of Saga, in both the monthly and the collected editions. They got almost a hundred copies of volume 5 yesterday, and they've already sold a significant portion of their order. The book keeps picking up more and more fans with each passing month; it's deep into "phenomenon" territory now.

The comics industry is always wringing its collective hands, trying to figure out how to get more people to read comics. We're at a point where many of the top ten most successful movies of any given year are superhero films, but Marvel and DC can't seem to turn those movie superhero fans into comic book fans. The Walking Dead comics series sells well, but most comics store employees say that Walking Dead fans tend to stick with the Walking Dead comics. They don't venture into other titles.

This isn't the case, I've been told, with Saga. Turns out, Saga readers also read Sex Criminals and Wicked and the Divine. They branch out and try new comics. Why is that? Damned if I know. Maybe part of it is because Saga is such an expansive comic; it feels like a story that's always opening up to embrace new possibilities, which perhaps encourages readers, in turn, to embrace their own new possibilities. Or maybe that's some mystical hoo-ha BS and there's no good explanation.

In any case, yesterday also saw the release of the fifth issue of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's Bitch Planet, and, goddamnit, Saga fans had better be picking this series up. Bitch Planet takes a simple premise — a women's prison in space — and simultaneously embraces and refutes all the expectations that come along with the premise. Part of the pleasure of Bitch Planet is that it wallows in about nine pulp traditions at once: it's a crime comic and a prison comic and a sci-fi comic and a woman-on-the-edge comic and more, all blended into one dreamy package. Hell, this issue is a sports comic and I still liked it — speaking as the most sports-phobic person in the world, that's really saying something. And this issue has got a great guest essay by Lindy West in the back. What's not to love? The first collected edition of Bitch Planet arrives in early October; when that happens, you have no excuse for missing out.

For Interview magazine, Choire Sicha interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin, and it's exactly as delightful as you hope it would be. They discuss editing, the book business, fans, and her big problem with poets. ("Poets get very territorial, and that's too bad; that's a waste of time.")

You already know that the Short Run small press & comix expo is happening on Halloween this year. But they've just announced their schedule for the month of October, and there's some great stuff happening in the lead-in to the festival. First up, on October 8th, Short Run goes to the Capitol Hill artwalk with an art show at Joe Bar featuring comics artists from Seattle, LA, Chicago, and Toronto. On the 28th, they'll be hosting special festival guests Charles Forsman and Melissa Mendes at the Capitol Hill branch of the library. On the 30th, they're having a pre-festival funk at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery in Georgetown with an art show featuring art from Forsman and Mendes and Jim Woodring, who is the most brilliant comics artist in Seattle. And on Halloween night, they're hosting a costume party with musical guests Your Heart Breaks and Mommy Long Legs, along with "a troupe of bizarre papier-mâché monsters by artist and musician Kelly Sorbel."

Short Run is a celebration of Seattle's intentionally small and hand-made literary art scene, and their programming accentuates that aesthetic; they're accessible (most events are free) and energetic and fun. You should make sure to block out some time in your busy October to celebrate.

Exit Interview: Kelly Davio is moving to London

When we announced that we’d like to interview authors who are leaving town for our Exit Interview feature, the most-suggested writer was Kelly Davio, a poet, columnist for The Butter, and co-publisher and poetry editor at the Tahoma Literary Review. The e-mails we received were dripping with sadness about Davio’s departure; the word “irreplaceable” came up. Davio’s debut poetry collection, Burn This House was publshed by Red Hen Press in 2013.

Where are you going, and when and, if I may be so bold, why?

I’m gearing up for one of the bigger moves of my life: I’m headed to London, England. My husband is in tech, and his company has made him director of a group that works primarily out of its London office. It’s hard to say goodbye to literary Seattle, but I’m awfully proud of my husband and this big opportunity for him, so off I go. If I can get all my paperwork in order, that is. Trying to collect all the right papers, stamps, and certifications feels a little bit like waiting for a ruling in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, if I may be allowed a cheesy Bleak House reference.

We encourage as many Bleak House references as possible around here. When do you leave?

If I can get all of the moving parts of this relocation to align, I should be gone by early October. Somehow, in this remaining month-or-so, I need to sell a house and find a new apartment overseas. Yet somehow all I want to do is work on my novel revisions. Maybe I'm in denial!

How would you describe Seattle's literary culture?

I’d say the community here is pocketed. And I mean that in a good way — there are wonderful little pockets of literary community all over the city and the larger area, and no matter what neighborhood you live in or what kind of literature you like to read or write, there’s a gathering and a community for you. Over the years, I’ve thought, “okay, now I have a handle on literary Seattle.” Then I'd immediately be proven wrong when I’d learn about an expo like APRILFest, or about events like Poets in the Park out in Redmond, or about cool new presses like Two Sylvias, or about great literary organizations like Old Growth Northwest. There’s always something new percolating here, and I’ve loved discovering all of these diverse and thriving literary communities over the past decade.

Did you feel supported in Seattle?

Absolutely. Part of that comes from having attended Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, which I firmly believe to be the friendliest and most supportive MFA program in the world. Part of it's also the fact that literary folks in Seattle are unusually giving of their time, their knowledge, and their professional support. Every time I’ve needed help with setting up a reading or getting in touch with a conference organizer, a fellow poet or writer has been gracious enough to help me out. I’ve tried to do the same for others in turn. I think Seattle writers understand that the literary world is an ecosystem, and that when we all work to better that ecosystem, we create a better place for all of us to thrive.

In your opinion, what could Seattle literary culture do better?

We could — and I include myself in this — put our butts in chairs with greater regularity. Being an attendee at a reading series, a book launch, or a workshop is an important way that any one of us can support other writers. Of course, it’s hard when you don’t get off work until six or so to make it halfway across the city to attend a reading at seven, especially when traffic is grueling and busses are late and it’s raining, and, and, and. Yet at the same time, it’s awfully disheartening for authors to put on events that draw, say, two people total.

When a good friend of mine released her first book a couple of years back, she had a big, well publicized event here in Seattle, and just one guy showed up. The guy wandered in as she read to an empty room, he ate a muffin in what sounded like an arrestingly messy way, and then he wandered back out. That, folks, is a bad scene.

And where the heck was I? I don’t remember. I will always feel terrible about not showing up and putting my behind in a chair to listen to her and support her.

Are there any aspects of literary Seattle that you'll especially miss?

I’ll really miss Open Books, Elliott Bay Books, and Hugo House. Those places — both as physical locations and as evolving communities — have been at the center of my experience of Seattle as a literary city, and I’ll miss being able to pop by anytime I want.

I’ll also miss being close to home base as I work on Tahoma Literary Review; I’ll continue as poetry editor and co-publisher, but it will be a bummer not to be able to attend contributor readings and launch events here at home.

Do you have any readings or public events between now and when you go?

I do! I'm happy to say that I'll be reading one last time at Lit Fix on September 23, 7pm at the Rendezvous. I'll be reading with Kevin Maloney, Matthew Simmons, and Jeanine Walker. All the proceeds from the event will benefit Literacy Source, which does wonderful work here in our community.

Do you have any parting words, advice, or wishes for Seattle's literary scene?

Be good to each other. Remember that there’s room in literature for all of us, and we’re at our best when we help — not crowd — each other out.

This is terrible news. National Geographic was a nonprofit for over 125 years. Now it's likely going to become just another content farm for Rupert Murdoch's multinational entertainment corporation. It's very hard to find a silver lining in this deal.

The recommendation engine

You can’t stay in business for as long as (our September Bookstore of the Month) Seattle Mystery Bookshop has without becoming really, really good at a thing or two. The most readily apparent sign of the bookstore’s excellence is in its selection, which I wrote about last week. The selection is really quite impressive — the shelves of Seattle Mystery Bookshop display a stock that is comprehensive enough to please the most deeply OCD mystery nerd and yet welcoming enough to appeal to a novice browser who has never before considered reading a mystery novel.

But the store’s not-so-secret weapon is its comprehensive understanding of the mystery genre, which it puts to great use as a tireless engine of book recommendations. A sign on the front counter as you’re walking in to Seattle Mystery Bookshop reads, “for mystery lovers who know what they want and for those who haven’t a clue!” That’s about right.

One of the store’s greatest resources is its seasonal list of new arrivals, which arrives in newsletter form and is consistently updated on their website. The list is broken out into subsections including local authors, new in paperback, historical books, international mysteries, and so on. Elsewhere on the site you’ll find long lists of staff picks to give you a sense of which booksellers’ tastes most align with your own. With its combined decades of bookselling experience behind it, the website has got to be one of the best online resources for mystery-lovers.

The real magic happens, of course, when you visit the store in person. Drop by at any random hour and you’ll see customers get connected with books that no algorithm would retrieve. The ever-changing displays provide a passive form of connection: one woman picks up Leonie Swann’s delightful Three Bags Full, about a herd of sheep trying to solve their shepherd’s murder, from a display of light-hearted mysteries.

But other pairings are more intentional. A young couple buys the latest volume of an urban fantasy series from bookseller Adele, mentioning offhandedly that it’s the only series of prose novels their autistic son is interested in reading. At that, Fran asks the couple to wait and disappears into the store for a quarter-minute, returning with a copy of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a mystery narrated by a young autistic boy. The couple are effusive in their thanks, saying that they might have to come back and buy a second copy because their reading-addicted daughter will likely grab hold of the book and not let go.

I decided to put the recommendation engine to work. I tell Fran and Adele about one of my favorite reading experiences: one morning a long time ago, I sat down to read a book from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I was entranced by both the mystery — it involved The Deaf Man, a recurring antagonist who plagues the 87th Precinct with elaborate, almost super-villainous schemes — and by McBain’s writing voice, which was short, and punchy and, it turns out, addictive. I finished the book in a couple hours and wanted more. I walked up to Twice Sold Tales, bought another Ed McBain mystery, took it home, sat down, and read that one from beginning to end, too. Then I returned to Twice Sold Tales again, bought another Ed McBain mystery, read that one from cover to cover, and then I ordered a large pepperoni pizza, ate it all by myself, and fell asleep. It was one of my favorite days. Do they have any recommendations for McBain-like thrillers, written in staccato sentences? Bonus points for a little bit of levity — McBain had a great, underrated sense of humor.

Without a single step wasted, Adele leads me to The Life and Death of Bobby Z, a novel written by Don Winslow. Get a load of these opening paragraphs:

Here’s how Tim Kearney gets to be the legendary Bobby Z.

How Tim Kearney gets to be Bobby Z is that he sharpens a license plate to a razor’s edge and draws it across the throat of a humongous Hell’s Angel named Stinkdog, making Stinkdog instantly dead and a DEA agent named Tad Gruzsa instantly happy.

“That’ll make him a lot easier to persuade,” Gruzsa says when he hears about it, meaning Kearney, of course, because Stinkdog is beyond persuasion by that point.

Sold! I ask if I should read Winslow’s latest, The Cabal, which is earning rave reviews everywhere. Adele gasps. “You haven’t read The Cabal?” I admit that not only have I not read The Cabal, but I haven’t read the novel that preceded it, The Power of the Dog, either. I ask if I should just pick up The Cabal. Adele shakes her head. “You really won’t get it without reading The Power of the Dog first.”

But I have another question: those mysteries that I like, the ones with the short, punchy sentences — McBain, Elmore Leonard — why are they always referred to as “masculine” books? Surely there are women authors who have a similar style? Fran and Adele both light up and lead to me Kelli Stanley’s San Francisco-set novel City of Dragons, a Hammett-like historical thriller that opens with a bang: “Miranda didn’t hear the sound he made when his face hit the sidewalk.”

And sold again.

From a memory of a terrific reading experience, Adele and Fran guided me to two books that I never otherwise would’ve encountered. On a certain online book retailer, the recommendations for those who look up McBain are Go Set a Watchman, the newest Michael Connelly mystery, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web, none of which are very appealing to first-time readers and none of which necessarily seem appealing to McBain fanatics. When it comes to suggested reading, people are in no danger of being replaced, John Henry-like, by algorithms. And when it comes to personally suggested reading, Seattle Mystery Bookshop has some of the best humans in the business.

Of all the think-pieces published yesterday about Sherman Alexie and the Best American Poetry controversy, Jia Tolentino's piece at Jezebel is by far the best. Don't bother with the rest of them. This has been a think-piece public service announcement.

You should absolutely read Noah Davis's overview of what it means to be a freelance writer in 2015.

Many newer outlets offer upwards of fifty cents per word or more—sites like The Verge might pay a dollar per word—as do established publications including New York's blog network and The Guardian. “You can expect that two hundred and fifty dollars is an ultimate baseline for anything that you do,” Kyle Chayka, a New York-based freelancer, told me. “No one is paying less than that. My own perception is that fifty cents per word is a fair going rate for an experienced freelance writer who’s writing something primarily for web that’s been reported.” But still: figure twelve hundred or fifteen hundred words per piece, and you’re talking closer to twenty cents per word. “That’s depressing math when you’re doing your budget,” Erik Malinowski, a freelancer writer, said.

It's not all bad news — more outlets are paying freelancers than ever before — but freelancers are balancing on a cliff made from venture capital cash, and publishers still, almost two decades after the birth of the mass-market internet, don't know how to make money out of advertising clicks. (We have our own revenue system here at Seattle Review of Books, and the response has been solid, though we could always use more Sponsors.)

So what can you do as a reader? In short, it's tough out there for freelancers and if you read a piece you like, you should share it far and wide, because clicks (unfortunately) are the way that most publishers determine a piece's worth. If you really like a piece, you should write in to the publication to let them know how much you like it. And, as always, a little bit of praise never hurt anyone; maybe track the writer down on Twitter or Facebook and let them know how much you enjoyed their writing.

Heaven is a place on Earth

Published September 08, 2015, at 11:49am

Paul Constant review Jonathan Evison's This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!.

The newest novel from Seattle author Jonathan Evison seems at first like a broad comedy about a 78-year-old woman on an Alaskan cruise. Then things start to get weird. And then things get dark. What the hell is going on here?

Read this review now

Rogue Wave

A rogue wave of old grief capsized me at the bar.

The night in my mouth had the names all wrong:
Herodotus. Herodotus.

My chair was upside down
but I was making it look casual.

Earlier, when my glasses flew off and his glasses flew off
and they did a little orbit around each other
before returning to our faces—
but that was before Herodotus.

Herodotus tells us:
Human happiness never continues long in one stay.

I report my old love in longhand.
I report old grief in perfect sobbing penmanship.
I report my flight from the bar as a series of not-falling,
bat-wing-like movements.

Logographers, I need you! Graffiti artists, I need you!
Dancing man at the bus stop, I need you!

I have staggered free of the wreck of one year,
I can surely come clear of another.

This poem first appeared in the chapbook “In Case of Loss,” Embark Quartet, Toadlily Press

On the Best American Poetry blog, Sherman Alexie explains the process of guest-editing Best American Poetry 2015. He also addresses a controversy that's swirling around the book:

I chose a strange and funny and rueful poem written by Yi-Fen Chou, which turns out to be a Chinese pseudonym used by a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business.

Alexie talks about the process of selection, how he felt when he found out Yi-Fen Chou was a ruse, and why you'll still find the controversial poem in the book when it's published this fall. Alexie is taking a lot of heat for this decision, but you can't accuse him of obfuscating the process. His transparency in the face of this controversy — did poetry really need its own Hugo Awards-style mess? — is to be commended, even if you disagree with his decision.

And if you're a white male writer who is complaining about political correctness as a roadblock to your success, let this white male offer you a piece of advice: putting on another culture like a Halloween costume is not going to win you friends or fans. It's not going to prove a point. It's just going to make people furious at you, and rightfully so. And in the years and decades to come if you're ever remembered at all, it will be as the white male writer who pretended to be another race because he was a total asshole and on the wrong side of history. That's not a legacy, it's just a stinkbomb tossed into a room full of unsuspecting and well-intentioned people.

Priscilla Long's Crossing Over: reading on September 19th

Our sponsor this week is Priscilla Long. You may know her from her fanastic work The Writer's Portable Mentor. Her new poetry collection Crossing Over is being released, and she'd like you to join her at Elliot Bay Books on September 19th at 7pm for her book launch and inaugural reading.

Read a poem from the collection on our sponsorship page, and mark the date. This is sure to be a fascinating reading. Tell her you found out about it on the SRoB.

Our sponsors are not big corporations. They are working writers, artists and publishers who need a channel to reach out to the reading public. Please take a look, and help us make advertising on the internet something we look forward to.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from September 7 to September 13

MONDAY Celebrate Labor Day at Bumbershoot, where the Words & Ideas Stage hosts a discussion between local authors Timothy Egan and Jamie Ford, with moderation from Portland Magazine editor Brian Doyle. Egan, of course, is a New York Times contributor and the author of some fantastic non-fiction history books. Ford wrote the Seattle-set novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

TUESDAY Elliott Bay Book Company hosts Anita Feng, a local poet and zen teacher who just published Sid, a contemporary retelling of Siddhartha. Press materials say that “Sid teaches that the key to the story of the Buddha's life is that the story could be about any of us.”

WEDNESDAY This is a big-name night with a big-name Seattle author. Third Place Books hosts Jonathan Evison, who will be reading from his new novel This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! Evison, the author of the very good All About Lulu and the phenomenal Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (which is being adapted into a movie starring Paul Rudd) is always trying new things in his fiction. Harriet is a novel about a nearly 80 year-old woman on an Alaskan cruise. At this reading, you should ask Evison how he researched the book.

THURSDAY When an event is titled “Wave in the PNW: An Evening with Wave Books,” you’ve got our attention. Wave Books is one of the most ambitious publishers of poetry in America today, and tonight, they’re bringing five Pacific Northwest authors to town. Tonight’s readers are Alejandro de Acosta, Joshua Beckman, John Beer, Cedar Sigo, and Don Mee Choi, who is one of the best poets in Seattle right now. Seriously, this is a roster that’s gushing with talent — Beckman and Sigo have rocked my world in past readings — but I can’t wait to read Don Mee Choi’s forthcoming collection.

FRIDAY It’s time again for the Hugo House’s Literary Series, in which three authors and a local band produce new work based around a theme. Tonight’s readers are novelists Dinaw Mengestu and Alissa Nutting, along with wonderful local poet Sarah Galvin. The Foghorns will perform new songs. The theme — this year’s Literary Series is all about cliches — is “Beating a Dead Horse.” Somehow, I think this is the theme Sarah Galvin was born to write about.

SATURDAY Head on out to the Bellevue branch of University Book Store for what sounds like a fascinating book. Here’s the pitch: “Over a decade ago, W. Ernest Freud, the only one of Sigmund Freud's grandchildren to become a psychoanalyst, asked Bellevue psychologist Daniel Benveniste to write his biography.” Tonight, Benveniste debuts the biography, which is titled The Interwoven Lives of Sigmund, Anna and W. Ernest Freud: Three Generations of Psychoanalysis. Imagine the kind of apple that family tree must’ve produced.

SUNDAY Capitol Hill rum bar Rumba is an unconventional place to hold a reading, which means we’re all for it. Tonight, author Adam Rakunas presents his novel Windswept, which is a science fiction story about a labor organizer who wants to open a rum distillery. Yes, and it all happens in space. You just can’t resist that kind of a premise.