Portrait Gallery: Ellen Swallow Richards

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

Today is the birthday of Ellen Swallow Richards. She was an American chemist and author, the founder of the Home Economics movement, the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry, the first woman admitted to MIT, and the first woman to teach at MIT.

She was a feminist (some say the first eco-feminist), and was an environmental scientist who studied air quality, groundwater, soil, and food. She authored books about science for use in the home, particularly about nutrition and sanitation, bringing a scientific rigor to what once was the realm of hand-me-down tales.

You can see all of her books on Archive.org, but, you the one you might find most interesting is The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers.

We're big fans of Seattle poet EJ Koh, and we think you should be big fans of EJ Koh, too. If you need an introduction, you should read this interview with Koh published in Hoctok. I especially like that the interview is broken up with Koh's poetry; it's surprising that more literary interview outlets don't liberally intersperse their interviews with actual examples of the writers' work. Seeing an author's thoughts and words in such close proximity to each other provides a more immersive experience for the reader.

Michel Houellebecq and the limitations of satire

Published December 03, 2015, at 1:06pm

Paul Constant review Michel Houellebecq's Submission.

Michel Houellebecq has long been regarded as France's most brilliant satirist. His latest book imagines a France under Islamic rule, and it violates a very important rule of satire.

Read this review now

Thursday Comics Hangover: A vision of normalcy

Every once in a while, a truly individual voice will emerge out of the morass of conventional superhero comics. These occasions are always a surprise — nobody could have predicted that Swamp Thing would become a convergence point between art and commercial comics until Alan Moore and Steve Bissette landed on the book, and nobody expected much of Daredevil until Frank Miller was allowed to get experimental with the character. It’s too early to draw a comparison Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision to those two examples, but two issues into the series, it’s already clear that the book is something special.

The premise of The Vision is that the Avengers’ resident density-controlling synthezoid has constructed a nuclear family (his wife, Virginia, and his two children, Viv and Vin, look just like him, purple skin and all) and moved to the suburbs. This has been done with this character before — in the 1980s, Marvel produced a couple of limited series centered around the married life of the Vision and Scarlet Witch — and superhero comics often flirt with suburban life as a source of comedy. But King is doing something very different here, and it doesn’t read like any other superhero comic on the stands today.

In the first issue, Virginia made a choice to protect her children, and in the second issue she constructs an elaborate fiction to hide the truth of what happened from Vision. The pair sit awkwardly on a couch, dressed like preppy humans in a clothing catalog, and they begin to understand the complexity of married life. “They could hear the stutter and roll of a skateboard riding through their street,” the captions explain….

…the lazy caw of birds yelling in the wind. The bland, passive roar of a 757 cutting into a cloud. These are the noises of their every day, the banal background to their new home. They used to sound so pleasant.

The Vision drops a godlike, aloof figure into the American suburbs of John Cheever, but it’s not interested in easy satire. Instead, it deals with the discomfort of what happens when you finally get everything you ever wanted, and the vertiginous moment when you realize that life just keeps going after you achieve your dreams.

Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s art perfectly resonates with the hollow echo accentuated in King’s script. He’s not interested in making the Vision and his family look human, but they’re not superhero-idealized, either. Instead, they look like they’re trying to behave like humans. They move with a kind of uncomfortable emulation, except for the moments when they take to the skies. When they fly, they’re graceful and lean. It’s one of the few times they’re not trying to pass for normal.

We’re only on the second issue of The Vision, which means things could yet go totally wrong. But the first issue ended with one of the darkest twists I’ve read in a Marvel comic, and the second issue is cloaked in an appealing sense of impending doom. You get the sense as a reader that if King and Walta are allowed to make future issues of The Vision as uncomfortable and full of yearning and quiet moments as these first two issues, you could be watching the start of something truly memorable.

Teju Cole published a poem at the New Inquiry in response to today's terrible news out of San Bernardino. It's a moving reminder that poetry can respond to current events, can be as timely as a thinkpiece, can be so much more meaningful than a hot take on Twitter.

The fabulous Short Run Comix & Arts Festival is throwing a holiday fundraising art auction, and it's packed with all sorts of one-of-a-kind gift ideas. Highlights include:

If you hate eBay auctions, every single one of these offers comes with a "buy now" option that will save you from the drama of waiting to see if you've been auction-sniped. They're all unique gifts, and they benefit a great cause. The auction closes on December 4th, so get in there right now.

At 2 pm, Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison, author of novels like This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! and the excellent The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving will be doing an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Follow this link and, well, ask Evison anything. In my experience, he's always been remarkably open in interviews, from the business side of things to what he thinks of other writers. I can pretty much guarantee he'll be painfully honest, which makes this an interesting opportunity for those burning questions you've always wanted to drop on a novelist.

A big feud over A Little Life

In the December issue of the New York Review of Books, Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard takes on reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn for his review of the Doubleday novel A Little Life. Howard's letter concludes: "At bottom Mendelsohn seems to have decided that A Little Life just appeals to the wrong kind of reader. That’s an invidious distinction unworthy of a critic of his usually fine discernment."

This is not the only charge levied against this particular reviewer and this particular review. As Bookforum noted, Mendelsohn was recently accused by the author Jennifer Wiener of "Goldfinching," or diminishing popular books written by and for women.

I have yet to read A Little Life — I know! I know! But sometimes life gets in the way — so I can't comment extensively on the matter. But I'm disappointed by Mendelsohn's response to Howard, which concludes with an admission that the word "duped" in his review of A Little Life might have been a poor choice, but that "One only wishes that [Howard] had imposed as stringent an editorial oversight on his author as he would do on her reviewers." It feels way too flip and combative a response to a serious charge.

Ideally, a reviewer should always be able to parse a book from its fans. But sometimes that's impossible; sometimes a book's success becomes part of the story of the book, as inextricable as its plot and main characters. And sometimes a reviewer has to address an author's persona in the course of a review. (Here's a great example of that.) But when a review takes on the supposed audience of the book as part of a broader argument against the supposed self-victimization of college students, as Mendelsohn's review does, that's perhaps a step too far. It's one thing to extrapolate from a book's themes into a larger conversation about society. It's another thing to imagine an audience for the book and then use that imagined audience as an example of what's wrong with society.

I also find it distasteful that Mendelsohn's review overtly refers to the gendered perspective of A Little Life as "bear[ing] a superficial resemblance to a certain kind of 'woman’s novel' of an earlier age" and then immediately accuses the book of having the structure "of a striptease." The sexist condescension there — the diminishment of the book, first as a new version of a "woman's novel," and then as a stripper — feels very purposeful to me.

As Howard notes at the beginning of his letter to the editor, authors should almost always leave negative reviews alone. Rarely will you encounter a good reason to argue with a critic over a negative review; you're not going to change the critic's mind, and the argument is going to make the author look petty and small. But in this case, I'm glad that Howard stepped forward. Mendelsohn crossed a couple of very important lines in his review, and Howard was right to carry this conversation over into the public sphere.

Holiday gift book recommendation #1: Thing Explainer

(Every Wednesday in December before Christmas, we’ll talk to a Seattle bookseller about the gift book they’re most excited about this season.)

Alex Gholz, bookseller at Third Place Books Ravenna, has eclectic tastes. His recent reading of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes put him on a brief space opera kick — he’s right now reading Alatair Reynold’s Revelation Space, and after that he’s planning to dive into Seth Dickinson’s political fantasy novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant. But just when you think you’ve got Gholz’s reading tastes figured out, he casually mentions that he just finished his first Oliver Sacks book, Seeing Voices, and then he can’t say enough good things about Lev Golinkin’s memoir A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, which he encountered as part of “an Eastern European history binge.”

So what kind of a gift book does a sci-fi lover who adored both Oliver Sacks’s history of ASL and a hilarious account of early-90s eastern European immigration recommend to shoppers looking for the perfect gift book? Gholz is a passionate advocate for XKCD cartoonist Randall Munroe’s new book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.

Thing Explainer, Gholz explains, is about “making complex science accessible through images" and “the thousand most common words in English." Munroe explains "everything from how a car engine works to how the ISS international space station flies around Earth in orbit — or I should say falls around Earth in orbit.” He loves how Munroe makes complex ideas accessible through “very clear images and even clearer words.”

Gholz says he “grew up on David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work. I spent days and weeks and months looking at that book, well into adulthood.” Thing Explainer, he says, is like “a new edition of Macauley’s book, in some ways.”

So who is Thing Explainer for? “It’s a book that both parents and children can enjoy together and individually. You’ll spend hours going over” the illustrations, Gholz promises, which are “drawn almost like blueprints.” He continues, “I think this book would be perfect for basically any parent who has a child between maybe ages 7 to twelve and wants to share an experience of iguring out what’s going on with science today.” He can say from experience it's a book that even an intellectually voracious reader will return to again and again.

Two housekeeping issues we'd like to share with our readers:

  • If you're a Hugo House member, you can now sign up for "The You Review of Books," a book reviewing class taught by myself and Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan. We hope to teach you how to communicate with art, how to be a better reader, and how to appreciate book reviewing as an art form. If you're not a Hugo House member, you'll be able to sign up for the class starting next week. But you really ought to be a member of the Hugo House.

  • Next week, Martin and I will be reading at Phinney Books to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Dock Street Salon, a very fun reading series that combines readings and informal chats in a laid-back setting. If you have any questions about this here website or our upcoming class, please drop on by. We hope to see you there.

Sitting in the middle of a clock

Published December 01, 2015, at 11:51am

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore review Mairead Case's See You in the Morning.

Mairead Case's debut novel "is a love story if a love story means trying to become someone who doesn’t always feel shut off."

Read this review now

The fifth issue of Seattle-based literary magazine the James Franco Review, in which every submission is treated "as if we were all James Franco, as if our work was already worthy of an editor’s attention," is rolling out now. The first piece of issue five to see publication is a collection of poems from Aricka Foreman, including "Monologues in Bars By White People With Good Intentions" and the especially haunting "Consent Is A Labyrinth of Yes." Go take a look, and keep an eye out for the rest of issue five, which will be rolling out in the days to come.

This month, we celebrate the life of Madeline DeFrees

Last month, the Seattle poetry world lost one of its giants when Madeline DeFrees passed away. DeFrees was one of the most vibrant, evocative poets the Pacific Northwest has ever produced, and the Seattle Review of Books wanted to find some way to honor her life, and to bring her work to new audiences. Here’s one way to do that: every Tuesday for the month of December, we’ll present a DeFrees poem. We’re going to move chronologically through her body of work with every passing week of the month.

The first poem we chose to highlight, “Matinal,” is from DeFrees's 1964 collection From the Darkroom, and it’s a great early exploration of the themes you’ll find in all her work: that friction between the duty of religion and the siren call of poetry, the single lines that themselves could be their own poems (“usual as air” is just about as near to a perfect line of poetry as I can recall reading,) the clarity of the imagery (the sound of the clock, the early morning “tryst,” the “soggy May” before the sun rises.)

I want to personally thank Copper Canyon Press co-publisher Joseph Bednarik for generously giving us permission to run these poems of DeFrees’s this month. Copper Canyon is that rarest of publishers: they understand the sacredness of their charge, the fact that they are not the owners of the words they publish so much as their temporary stewards. Quite simply, DeFrees could not have chosen better guardians for her legacy; Copper Canyon will keep her poems alive for generations to come.

Come January and the new year, we will continue our charge to run new poems by Seattle-area poets. We’ve been publishing an excellent chain of poets since July, and this temporary detour into DeFrees’s work is not so much a distraction from that mission as a chance to renew our focus and remind us why it’s necessary to publish the works of Seattle poets. The Seattle tradition of poetry may not be as long as, say, the New England tradition, but it is a proud story, built on the works of immortal geniuses like DeFrees. There are hundreds of poets out there right now, continuing her work. And we’ll continue to bring their work to you in the months and years to come.

Matinal

Four-thirty, morning. Unearthly time
by nuns' or any standard;
almost, this soggy May, monastic.
I close my door on sleep
for other sanctuary,
preceded by the birds
who long ago devised
their daylight saving.
Now, saving the daylight,
no other shape abroad
but the swinging step of rain
on rain-soaked turf.

Unbreakable as doom
five streetlamps watch me come
to keep my tryst.
Nailed each to a man-made cross,
usual as air,
we watch, mechanical,
dawn light dispelling glare;
hooding our early brightness in a cloud
tempers the shock
and orders lonely emanations
by a clock.

Be sure to read these Nicole Sarracco poems

Our thanks to sponsor Chatwin Books, who wanted to make sure you were familiar with Nicole Sarracco. They're publishing her debut novel Lit by Lightning, and to celebrate that, we're running three poems from her 2004 debut book of poems Karate Bride.

Chatwin Books is a local affair, tackling ambitious publishing projects of high quality. Sarracoo is a unique voice, and Karate Bride is a great way to get to know her work before reading Lit by Lightning.

They're our partner is bringing you new content everyday, and making sure that internet advertising isn't all bottom feeders. We want nothing less than to make internet advertising 100 percent less terrible, and we thank Chatwin Books for being our partner in this.

The road to Donald Trump is paved with decency

Published November 30, 2015, at 1:25pm

Paul Constant review Jon Meacham's Destiny and Power.

Jon Meacham has delivered the unthinkable: he's written a compelling biography of George H.W. Bush. But is Meacham too close to his subject? What does the life of the elder Bush have to teach us about the current abysmal state of the Republican Party?

Read this review now

Dianna Dilworth at GalleyCat writes:

A Wisconsin elementary school has cancelled the reading of a children’s book about a transgender girl after parents threatened to sue claiming that the reading would be a violation of parents rights.

The book in question is I Am Jazz, written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. These bigoted parents need to understand that banning a book never works; it only results in more copies sold and increased interest. A few more of these moronic attempts to ban the book from the public conversation will likely result in I Am Jazz landing on the bestseller list, where it belongs.

The publishers' dilemma

Published November 30, 2015, at 12:01pm

Willie Fitzgerald review Roberto Calasso's The Art of the Publisher, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen.

We live in an age where anyone can publish a book in a matter of minutes. Why, then, do we need publishers?

Read this review now

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from Nov 30 - Dec 6

MONDAY Happy new week! I’m sorry to report that tonight’s reading with xkcd’s Randall Munro and Hank Green at Town Hall is sold out. Instead, you should visit Campion Ballroom at Seattle University for Jon Meacham. Meacham is an excellent presidential biographer, and his newest book is about George Herbert Walker Bush. Destiny and Power is a much-needed spotlight on the somewhat-reasonable-in-retrospect man who sired two dullards with presidential aspirations.

TUESDAY Seattle Arts and Lectures brings poet Srikanth Reddy to McCaw Hall. Check out the beginning of Reddy’s poem “Burial Practices”:

Then the pulse.

Then a pause.

Then twilight in a box.

Dusk underfoot.

Then generations.

Whoooa. That's some good stuff. According to press materials, “Reddy's talk will consider a range of questions concerning poetry and poetics, including theories of likeness, ekphrasis, technology, and wonder.” Sold!

WEDNESDAY Christopher T. Bayley reads from his new book Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle at Town Hall Seattle. It’s a true crime story that begins with this sentence: “It was a sunny day in July, and Seattle perched on a gray-green sound edged by mountains: the Cascades formed a wall on the east, the Olympics rose and fell along the west.”

THURSDAY Tonight’s pick for best event is Pay Dirt at the Rendezvous. Local writers Anca L. Szilágyi, Bernard Grant, Emily Bedard, Martha Kreiner, and Matthew Schnirman “explore art, money, and desire in new fiction and poetry.” This event will be hosted by Poetry Northwest’ magazine’s Kevin Craft, who is an excellent host. It’s always interesting when writers talk about money.

FRIDAY Elliott Bay Book Company hosts a launch party for Mairead Case’s See You In the Morning, which is a book about three seventeen-year-olds told in paragraph-length poems.

SATURDAY It’s time for Urban Craft Uprising at Seattle Center. Why not go and support Seattle’s biggest and best craft show? They’ve got plenty of paper craft on display, including some gorgeous letterpress printers.

SUNDAY University Book Store’s Bellevue branch hosts authors Maia Chance, Janine A. Southard, Raven Oak, and G. Clemans. Their anthology, Joy to the Worlds, is a collection of holiday-themed sci-fi and mystery short stories. (The publishers of this book sponsored the Seattle Review of Books last month, but they did not pay for this recommendation; I think it sounds like the best event of the day.) Go and have a very genre holiday.