Halt and Catch Fire creator and showrunner Christopher Cantwell has a new comic called She Could Fly. The story begins in very familiar territory for a comic — in a world like our own, a young woman gains the power of flight — but the premise immediately goes south when the woman explodes in midair. Nobody knows who she is or how she could fly or why she exploded. Internet conspiracy theories sprout overnight like so many blackberry bushes.
Luna, the star of She Could Fly, is obsessed with the flying woman. In the second issue of the book, which came out yesterday, Luna's guidance counselor says "I want you to give this flying woman a rest." Luna doesn't listen to her — and for some reason, the guidance counselor has the head of a cat and a human body.
Luna, it seems, is hallucinating. She imagines demons attacking her. She imagines becoming a demon (sample dialogue: "I AM EVIL! I AM EVIL! I AM EVIL! I AM EVIL!") and she keeps digging deeper into the story of the flying woman. Meanwhile, a moustachioed rogue agent is also looking for the truth. The up-and-coming cartoonist Martin Morazzo renders Luna's reality with a high level of detail, making it even harder to tell the difference between what's real and what's fictional in Luna's world. Halfway through She Could Fly, I can't tell you what the book's about. But I can tell you that it's going somewhere interesting.
Speaking of second issues, the second issue of Chew artist Rob Guillory's new book Farmhand was published yesterday. Where She Could Fly continues to complicate the psychological layering of the series by obfuscating the narrative, Farmhand introduces characters and tensions with a refreshing directness.
Farmhand is the ultimate body horror comic: it's about a scientist who figures out how to grow new human body parts on trees. The technology, at first, seems like a godsend. In the second issue, a disfigured woman grafts a plant-based nose onto her face. But everything is more than a little creepy: a bush full of human hands isn't exactly a comforting image.
Guillory is setting up Farmhand to be a drama between an estranged son and his father. (The family tree jokes write themselves.) But there's also some fascinating depictions of addiction and recovery, as well as more than a little economic anxiety. It's the details here that make Farmhand so enjoyable. Even though Guillory is great at getting to the point in a hurry, he understands that we have to take the long way around a story every now and again.
Ron Charles at the Washington Post reports that YA author John Green is fronting a charge to bring a new format of book to America.
These Penguin Minis from Penguin Young Readers are not only smaller than you’re used to, they’re also horizontal. You read these little books by flipping the pages up rather than turning them across. It’s meant to be a one-handed maneuver, like swiping a screen.
Green first saw these so-called "Flipbacks" in the Netherlands, and he tells Charles he finds the format to be "really usable and super-portable.”
Reinventing the book — one of our species' oldest and best technologies — is a tall order. But I'd love to give the flipback format a try. When I'm on a standing-room-only light rail train, I'd genuinely enjoy a small, one-handed reading format that isn't a hideous glowing screen or a weird flickering e-ink reader. Even mass-market paperbacks are too cumbersome for Seattle's hyper-busy public transit. Maybe flipbacks will do the trick.
Eroyn Franklin is consistently one of the most interesting cartoonists in Seattle. Anyone who has seen her 2010 comic Detained, which documents the living conditions in Washington's immigrant detention centers via a comic laid out in a single unbroken scroll of paper, knows that she's formally inventive and narratively interested in what it means to be a human in the world.
But Franklin has perhaps been best-known for the last few years as one of the cofounders and organizers of Seattle's amazing Short Run minicomics and arts festival. With fellow cofounder Kelly Froh, Franklin has always been right in the thick of the festival, greeting guests and solving problems as thousands of people buy and sell comics around her.
Last week, Franklin announced that after seven years she was retiring from her role as a Short Run organizer to focus on her comics work. This week, I met with Franklin at a coffeeshop to talk about the process of leaving Short Run, why she's confident in the organization's future, and what she's working on now. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
You can keep track of Franklin's work and appearances through her website.
Franklin photographed at the Short Run afterparty in 2017.
Could you talk about how you came to realize that you were ready to move on from Short Run, and what the process of leaving was like?
I had definitely been feeling for the past two years that it was getting really hard for me to manage the responsibility of Short Run — that it was getting so big, and more work was being added every year, but there wasn't necessarily much more compensation for that. So I was having to work a lot of different freelance jobs in order to make sure that I could be a part of this creative project. And it does feel like its own creative project.
But that meant that other areas of my life were kind of suffering. I wasn't making as many books as I wanted to make. I was always anxious and depressed and swinging back and forth pretty wildly. I knew that something had to change, and it took something like two years to realize that leaving Short Run was something that had to happen. I just had to leave in order to give myself the space to pay attention to the other aspects of my life that I had set aside.
I started talking about it in earnest last summer. [Short Run cofounder Kelly Froh and I] had conversations up until [last year's] Short Run that were like, 'I'm pretty sure that I'm going to leave. Kelly, whatever you want to do is perfectly fine. If this is too much for you to do on your own, we all understand. The community understands this is a big effort.'
But right after Short Run she was like, 'I can't not do this. It was so perfect this year — it ran so smoothly and it was so huge and everything was vibrant.' For me, it was a wonderful way to say goodbye because I could experience this peak of joy, but for her it really made it clear that she needed to continue on.
So we worked together to help her build a board that would sustain the vision that she had and that we had.
Do you think about what might have happened if Kelly wanted to quit, too?
Yeah, it would definitely break my heart if Short Run folded. But heartbreak is also a part of life. Kelly and I have always talked about how our friendship comes before anything else — that we are a team that runs this organization, but really it's our friendship that makes all that possible.
So I was looking out for her and she was looking out for me. She never made me feel guilty about leaving. She never tried to pressure me to stay. She understood it. And I know she is going through a lot of the same feelings that I have. We both have problems with anxiety and depression and it is overwhelming.
So yes, I would have been okay if she decided to shut it down, of course, because that would've been her decision for herself. But it's so great to have this legacy that I get to be a part of. And I am one of the cofounders of this great, magical experience.
So what's happened since then?
Immediately afterwards, I had one day where I felt free. I could imagine myself just walking into the studio and just writing an entire book. But in reality I hit a pretty deep depression for about three months, and I just felt like all of my identity was wrapped up in Short Run. It's my community. It's my friends. It's everything. And losing that, all of a sudden — the reality of it, and what that meant, really dragged me down.
And then I walked into the studio to work on this book that was actually supposed to be a collaboration with my ex. And it turns out it's really hard to write when you're just crying all day. So it took me awhile to set that aside.
I went to an artist residency at Caldera Arts, which is in central Oregon, and so I got to spend a month in an A-frame cabin and my only obligations were to make art, walk around, and do whatever I wanted. It was so freeing. [Before Caldera,] I was so depressed that I thought I was going to give up on art, give up on writing, give up on comics, and everything was just going into the trash.
But the second day I was walking around and something just clicked. All of a sudden I had all these new stories flood my brain. They're all fiction, and I've worked a lot in nonfiction so it's really wonderful to be able to just make up these stories and go for walks with my characters and have conversations with them. That was a really healing experience, and it allowed me to also set aside the project that was supposed to be a collaboration, which I do want to come back to when it's not so close to the breakup.
What was it like putting together the board that would help move Short Run into the future?
Kelly and I had a lot of conversations about who would be a part of it and what they would contribute. I think that the board she's chosen is amazing. All the people are super-active and they know a lot about nonprofits, and about the comics world, about art. It feels really solid.
What part of your time at Short Run are you proudest of?
I'm really happy about the smaller programs that Short Run has built. Everyone thinks of the festival and it's this huge event where we have, you know, thousands of people attending and it fills all of Fisher Pavilion. We have 300 artists, and so it's like this big dramatic thing.
But we also have all these smaller programs — we have the Micropress which publishes anthologies; we have the Dash Grant, which is a small grant for self-publishers; we have our educational component. And we also have the Trailer Blaze, which is the ladies comics residency at Sou'wester, which is a vintage trailer park in Seaview, Washington.
That residency is for women comics creators, and that was really important to us because when we first started Short Run, it was a lot of dudes. I remember when Kelly had to make the table map and she had to lay out where everyone would sit at the festival and she'd put three guys and then one woman and three guys and then one woman. It was just so difficult to figure out how to show representation of women.
That is absolutely not true anymore in any way. It's so easy. We're basically 50 percent women and it's not hard — it's not like we're trying anymore. There are so many more female creators in the field. So anyway, the residency is for women comics creators. It's so wonderful because it's a combination of giving women time and space to dedicate themselves to their work, which we often don't have in our daily lives because we have so many distractions.
It's just a very supportive environment. I remember one time at Trailer Blaze in the first year. Without any urging of any kind, we started this thing that we later called "The Compliment Avalanche," where we just went around and told stories about how wonderful the people were. Each woman got to be spotlighted for a few minutes, and it was just such a wonderful loving experience.
So what are you working on now?
Right now I'm working on a bunch of stuff. I just finished a minicomic that's actually an illustrated zine called Vantage #3, and it documents all the walks that I did during that residency I was just talking about at Caldera Arts. While I was there I was really inspired by the environment — both the natural world and the actual space that I was staying in, the A-frame cabin. I wanted to incorporate that into a story, and I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do when I set foot in the A-frame cabin, but I immediately fell in love and realized 'this is a character in this story.'
I think after #metoo, everyone was trying to find an authentic way to talk about how misogyny is rampant in our culture. I wanted to create a story about it, and I wanted it to reflect my personal experiences but also be fiction. And so I started out with this woman who basically goes and lives in this A-frame cabin. She's trying to get away from all the men in her life. She starts having conversations with the environment, with the natural setting and with the cabin, and they become characters on their own and they develop.
She develops a relationship with space that becomes more intimate than her relationships with men, and more loving. And that's as far as I can go into a description of that without giving it all away.
A page from Vantage #3.
It seems like a lot of your work, especially Detained, is about people in space — where they are and how those places affect them and how they affect where they are, and all that. So it seems like this is a continuation of that theme on a very literal level.
Does it feel like working in fiction has enabled you to get a little deeper into those themes?
In some ways, fiction makes it so that I can be almost more intentional in the purpose of the story. When I'm drawing from my own life or from non-fiction stories, I'm indebted to the people who are a part of it. With fiction I can go in any direction I want to. So it does free me up to explore different themes that maybe aren't going to be present in every story. I feel like there's a lot of freedom in fiction that I haven't paid attention to in a long time.
Are you going to still go to Short Run this year?
I'm definitely going to Short Run and I'm going to be tabling for me and Kelly as usual. And of course I know all her books so I'll be able to sling them pretty well. I definitely imagine that I will be a part of Short Run and all the events that the organization puts on. I've been going to the Summer Schools that are going on right now.
They put on amazing events! They just do such a good job, of course I'm going to be a part of it. And some of my best friends are the fantastic women who are the building blocks of this organization. So I'll continue to be in their lives and in Short Run's life forever and ever and always.
Was there anything else you want our readers to know?
Yeah. I'd like to reiterate something that I said in my retirement letter, which is that Short Run will exist without me, but it won't exist without all you. People need to support this organization that has affected their lives. Maybe that's coming to events. Maybe that's donated time. But especially right now the organization does need support, so please give whatever you can in whatever shape or form it takes. I want to see it continue for another decade.
Back in 2016, I wrote about local advocacy organization Shout Your Abortion's very first zine. "The first issue of #ShoutYourAbortion celebrates a part of the abortion story that has long been too quiet," I wrote. I speculated that "maybe one day, these [pieces] will be collected into a book — something you can put on your shelf and keep on display forever."
That day is fast approaching. Yesterday, Shout Your Abortion founder Amelia Bonow announced that SYA is launching a Kickstarter to publish their first anthology volume. Here's a video:
Contributors include Lindy West, Lesley Hazleton, Angela Garbes, Robyn Jordan, Emily Nokes, Kelly O, and many more. At about 24 hours into the campaign, the book is already almost halfway funded. But simply funding the book shouldn't be the goal — it's important to get the voices of SYA into bookstores around the country, into the hands of women who might not know that it's okay to celebrate their reproductive health and to shout their abortions to the world. If you're interested in this book, I'd suggest funding the Kickstarter now, to demonstrate your support. The more copies they presell, the more copies they'll be able to bring into the world.
We dove under a table, my bag
clutched in one hand, your hand in the other.
House rules: no politics. Who had slipped,
stepped aside, maybe only moments? Left
the door unbounced this summer
night? He fired, pointing first
at the other end of the room, shed
one weapon for another. Is that
how we had time to dive? We threw
our bodies down like castoff shoes,
like trash. He walked out. This happened, it
happens, it will happen again, maybe to me,
maybe to you, waking. Down he went
through each room in my house of sleep, from
attic to basement shooting out the lamps
making permanent the dark.
We're so grateful to Seattle Arts & Lectures for their ongoing support of the Seattle Review of Books. They're back as sponsors this week to share the latest additions to the 2018-2019 season, and there are some must-see events coming up — check out the full list on our sponsor feature page.
What we love about the SAL season is that it's curated not just speaker-by-speaker, but as an arc — they think carefully about how different speakers fit together, and what it looks like to subscribe to a series (like Women You Need to Know or Literary Arts) or create a series of your own. This year, it's about joining the national discourse — about, as associate director Rebecca Hoogs put it, using story, language and conversation to "cross the bridges that divide us."
That's how you create a series that includes Kara Swisher, one of the tech industry's sharpest-eyed journalists; Pete Souza; Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit; Tayari Jones, author of an acclaimed novel about race and false accusations; Valeria Luiselli, who built an essay around her conversations with undocumented Latin American children facing deportation. The speakers who make up this SAL season are brilliant at their craft and are using it to engage and to help us do the same. Get tickets today, and make these events part of your own conversation with the world.
Sponsors like Seattle Arts & Lectures bring great events, services, and books in front of our readers — all the while helping us put book news and reviews up every single day. It's a virtuous cycle, and you can be part of it: Got an event, a book, or a residency you'd like to promote? Reserve one of the remaining 2018 slots before they’re gone.
Aside from having a fantastic name, Valerie Trueblood is best known as one of Seattle's most accomplished short story writers. She has been on shortlists for the PEN Faulkner Award and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize, and her work has been praised in all the usual New York media outlets.
But if you're not the kind of person who is moved by accolades — and, really, who can blame you? — then perhaps Roxane Gay's seal of approval might inspire you to pick up Trueblood's work? Gay says Trueblood's writing is "bursting with a genuine violence of health and strength of will that make each of her stories so engaging." Gay continues, "What I love most about her writing is how her stories are, at once bittersweet, joyful and mournful in equal measure."
After about four years out of the spotlight, Trueblood is returning with Terrarium, a career-spanning collection that brings together her classic work and dozens of new stories. It's a statement piece, a book that seems to be intended to mark her as a real American master of the short story.
Terrarium is made up of the best stories from Trueblood's three previous collections, and 30 new stories. These are stories with killer first lines ("She was a young married woman who fell in love.") and final images that will leave your mouth hanging open (like the description of the whorls of a tornado as "a fingerprint big as God's.")
In the chronological arrangement of the stories in Terrarium, you can follow the arc of Trueblood's career, and change is definitely afoot. Trueblood is getting more and more minimalist in her work. The rambling earlier works that considered the journey to be just as important as the destination give way to tiny one or two pages stories. Trueblood is distilling the idea of fiction down to something pocket-sized.
Tomorrow night, Trueblood celebrates Terrarium's release day at Elliott Bay Book Company with a reading and a little celebration. If Terrarium becomes as well-regarded as it should, this might be your last opportunity to say you saw her read before she became a celebrity in the world of short fiction. Seattle needs to step up and embrace Trueblood before the rest of the world tries to claim her.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Past Seattle Review of Books contributor Tessa Hulls’s essay on biking to weddings — I mean, biking hundreds of miles to weddings, not biking-downtown-from-Ballard — is an eloquent exploration of independence. Hulls built her own machine to leave an engagement that was overcast with anger. Then she used it to establish a relationship with the world in which the boundaries are entirely hers, as much as they ever can be.
Ever since I made that first escape, my body has felt too small to contain its sense of wonder for the world and for how much of it I have been able to see. In all the places I’ve been and the moments I’ve witnessed, I’ve almost always been alone. I relish solitude, but I have often longed for a partner to help shoulder some of the beauty and the weight. There have been men over the years — men I shared sleeping bags with, men with whom I watched the Northern Lights, men who brewed coffee as I broke down the tent. But none of them ever made me feel free.
The internet took poets seriously last week, to the surprise and dismay of the poets involved. Also, a baby whale died. Charles Mudede gently deflates our collective mourning for the whale and its mom, and the poetry they inspired, with the driest kind of wit, the kind that comes from a too-painfully-perfect understanding.
The poem is by Paul E. Nelson. It's not bad at all (though I'm no expert in such matters). It contains one or two respectable lines. It has some restraint, though the bit about the princess whale is almost a bit much. It does its best not to speak for the grieving sea mother, whose name is Tahlequah (or J35). Nevertheless the poem itself is a sure sign that things have really gone too far. The whales' over-grieving has become over-reading and over-writing for the language ape.
Mudede takes some of the air out of Seattle sentimentality, including our desire to carry the Showbox and other beloved businesses on our rostrums as we swim through the Sound … Shannon Mattern’s essay about Crest True Value Hardware, an independent hardware store in Brooklyn, puts the air back (a bit) — reminding us that our regret isn’t just about sentiment.
Building a small business is a craft, itself: choosing products that both sell and offer real value to the customer; designing the layout and making sure it evolves over time as the business does; engaging with the community. Independent businesses bring something to a sale beyond the exchange of cash for commodity. And that’s not just romance or mawkishness — Mattern isn’t a hipster elegist; she has hardware heritage, and a killer knowledge of general-store history to share. A long read but an excellent counterbalance.
(Hat tip to Tim Carmody at Kottke.org for this one.)
In Joe’s telling, there is a reciprocal relation between the hardware store and the neighborhood it supplies. Those plank floors might seem as if they were buried beneath the old tile, just waiting to be exposed, but actually the wood was reclaimed from nearby buildings damaged by Hurricane Sandy. “We wear those floors almost like a badge of honor,” he told me. Similarly, the counters were sourced from a former employee (now a local firefighter) who was renovating his home. “That live edge: you can tell they’ve been somewhere,” Joe said. “And for the last hundred years they’ve lived less than a quarter-mile away, holding up somebody’s building.”
This is a vision of the hardware store as episteme. It holds (and organizes) the tools, values, and knowledges that bind a community and define a worldview. There’s a material and social sensibility embodied in the store, its stuff, and its service, and reflected in the diverse clientele. That might sound a bit lofty for a commercial establishment that sells sharp objects and toxic chemicals. But the ethos is palpable. (And profitable, too.)
Kamari Bright is a poet, filmmaker, artist, and musician, who also happened to be our Poet in Residence for July. See the five poems we published: Chalice, And the Moon, Nephilim, The Garden, Eve, and our interview. She'll be appearing at the 3rd Seattle Urban Book Expo, on August 25th.
What are you reading now?
What did you read last?
What are you reading next?
Over on our Instagram page, we're posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson's Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here's her wrap-up and statement from July's posts.
Every summer I think I’ll get a million things done, catch up on every longterm personal and professional goal... then end up sick for weeks, or totally useless and unfocused because apparently not taking weekends off from work ever suddenly catches up with you, who am I to think I can outrun that. Or I’m frantically applying to the million art things with July deadlines, or I’m languishing in the heat, confused about why I don’t function better in it. I mean... do I have to say more about the last post-it? Housework in hot weather—I’m maybe not the best at it. Really, not even in the “A for effort” category... it’s more like, WHAT ARE YOU DOING CLARE. WHY ARE YOU VACUUMING YOUR FEET IN YOUR UNDERWEAR. All I can say is it seemed logical—inevitable even—at the time. Also fireworks. I know fireworks displays are indefensible, profoundly problematic in countless ways, and yet in my private heart I remain deeply intrigued. Back in the US after years away, I kept grasping for that one viewpoint where they look as crazily big as I remembered. But it might just be the past. Last July, with the larger world falling to pieces the way it’s always doing now, I found myself in a shockingly charmed moment personally. I’d just been awarded a glamorously unrestricted grant, been handed the actual check on Pride Sunday just as June ended, in the quiet, dark, blisteringly hot afternoon rooms of a fancy club called the Ruins. Sharing the news on social media felt like I was someone else. I was looking forward to my first residencies ever, and this beloved literary review (yes, this one) wanted to start publishing my Post-it Note Project each week. This July I’m just my old self, recovering from a bug, floundering in a relentless sea of applications and rejections, still worrying about small things, or the world, or my friend in Turkey, will I make it back there to her, will things get better, when can I just make all the work I dream of making, oh my god I need to vacuum. But I am still grateful for the same things too. The lake is the lake, and one song on the radio will solve everything for that moment. I’d forgotten the name of that song, such a heartbreakingly lovely thought: No Danger.
7.6.17 — I’m grateful for floating on the lake with my sister / and the song on the mixtape I made for my father’s dying friend, too late / from me and my dead friend, singing loudly on our Saturday night radio show (I’ve been hanging round for days)⠀ ⠀ #PostItArt by @clare.e.johnson #ClareJohnsonPostItProject
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife and I have a great relationship but she likes baths. She loves to take books into the bath, and they always get wet and waterlogged, she’ll scratch her leg and then instead of drying her wet fingers sensibly on a towel, she’ll just turn the page.
I like buying first editions in hardback. Not like a snooty collector, but to support authors and I can afford them so why not? I just can't stand what she does to my books. It's driving me mad. She ruins them!
I’ve tried getting her a Kindle (she thinks it will electrocute her), buying TWO copies of books she wants to read (she has a crazy good memory and doesn't use bookmarks so it's not uncommon that both books get a soaking), and plain old pleading, but she keeps saying “honey, relax, it’s just a book.”
Yeah. But then see what happens if I leave one of her screwdrivers out of place. Ugh.
Anyway, she agreed that I can write to you and get advice, and she will abide by it. Please, Cienna, for the love of all that is good. Please help me.
Even your wife must admit that sometimes wonderful things are incompatible. Drinking and texting. Feminists and weddings. Raccoons and dinner parties. (Stop me if I'm repeating myself.) Such is the way with books and bathtubs.
That said, it's nearly impossible to change a person and foolish to try, much like attempting to switch the theme of your aunt's funeral from "farmer's banquet" to "Harry Potter" because the only black thing you own is a cloak with matching hat.
So what do you do? Tell your wife that from now on, whenever she ruins one of your hardcover books, she owes you $100. With that $100, buy yourself a new hardcopy and save the rest until you have enough in ruined book restitution to purchase a lawyer's bookcase – one with a lock in which you can store your prized collection. And if she fails to pay up within a week of each offense, start sponge-bathing her screwdrivers.
Thursday, August 2: The Annotated Big Sleep Reading
Owen Hill’s latest book is an annotation of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel. Paul Constant says: "These annotated guides are a real pleasure to read, particularly in works that have maybe lost some nuance due to the time they were published in. While I haven’t read this particular edition, I suspect that Chandler’s work will feed well into the annotation format."
University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 7 pm, free.
Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
In romance circles, there is a thing known as the Black Moment.
Here is how it goes: you have your two protagonists, who we’ll call H1 and H2. For most of the book they have been drawn closer and closer together — maybe they’ve been having sex, maybe they’ve been forced to marry, maybe they’re working together to eradicate space pirates from the newly colonized Argyle Nebula. They’re on the verge of something big, a life-changing realization that they love one another, that they could spend the rest of their lives together, that everything they want is right there in front of them. But first! The author must take all their old fears, all the old problems, all the long-burning fuses of catastrophe that have been set alight over the course of the plot (“And no one will ever find out…”= someone’s definitely gonna find out), throw everything at our lovers, and set their entire world on fire. Maybe H1 learns that H2 was only sleeping with them to win a bet. Maybe H2 learns tht H1 has been captaining the space pirates all along. The specifics vary but the effect is the same: the H1-H2 relationship, once so shiny and promising, shatters.
That is your Black Moment. It is when H1 and H2 believe they’ve ruined everything.
The reader feels all that pain along with them. Because of course we read romance to feel things. A romance is the emotional equivalent of a roller coaster, and the Black Moment is the spot where the train has cranked up to the highest point, and you take one breath, and then you plunge down into the depths at speeds that no human should rightly survive. A good Black Moment lands in the body in an intensely physical way. It is not an intellectual experience, some distant and voyeuristic Goodness, whatever shall they do? A well-crafted Black Moment should feel like you’ve been gut-punched.
And you like it. It’s safe to like it. Because it’s going to be all right in the end.
This is the intellectual part: despite what you feel, despite the pain and the anguish and yes, the rage at seeing someone self-destruct, at seeing two people who care about each other just royally tearing one another’s hearts to shreds, you can be absolutely certain that they will get over this, because if they do not, then the novel has failed.
No matter how many times I see it happen, I always am a little awed. If a romance novel makes you feel that everything’s lost, and you do not feel things are right again at the end, it is considered the book’s fault and not the reader’s. We warn each other against insufficient Black Moments: “He doesn’t grovel enough,” we’ll say, because that’s the most common way a book can fail this test. (There’s a Goodreads list about this, can you believe it? And yes, Kristin Ashley is on it. Twice.)
Building such a subjective experience must be done carefully. H1 can’t say, “Aha! I have been the space pirate captain all along!” and then blast H2’s ship to pieces with a laser cannon while shouting about how terrible all the sex secretly was. The Black Moment is not solely a plot twist. It is not simply about surprising the reader (though while I have you here, plot twists aren’t simply about surprising the reader either, you hacks). To take an example from literature, the Black Moment in Jane Eyre is not the part where Jane learns Rochester’s been hiding a wife in the attic. It’s not even the moment where Jane thinks Rochester has died in the fire that burned Thornfield to the ground. Those are points in the plot. The Black Moment in Jane Eyre is the part where Jane almost agrees to marry St. John Rivers to go work herself usefully but unhappily to death as a colonial missionary. Not just because marrying St. John (a priggish and emotionally abusive megalomaniac) would be The Absolute Worst, but because it is the moment where Jane comes closest to losing the most vital parts of herself. It is the highest crisis, the greatest risk, the profoundest moment of dread for the reader. It encompasses everything that has come before — in fact, it depends on it. Losing Jane only matters if we know who Jane truly is.
The Black Moment is the part that makes the Happily Ever After mean something. The old clichés are sometimes cliché for a reason: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. The losing isn’t something you can lightly skip. The losing glues the other parts together.
Of course, the cultural habit of associating blackness with pain and despair is something we'll need a whole other book to unpack, but use of this term, thankfully, doesn’t seem to be racially loaded.
This month’s books all feature exquisite Black Moments. One of them was so horrifying I honestly nearly put the book down out of self-defense; one of them has a grovel scene that was so outrageous and bold it made me want to laugh and cheer and shout to the heavens. All of them landed square in my gut and knocked the wind right out of me. May everything we read leave us so pleasurably breathless.
A Gentleman Never Keeps Score by Cat Sebastian (Avon Impulse: historical m/m):
I keep picking up Cat Sebastian’s romances on account of irresistible paradox: they are always profoundly surprising in some way, and at the same time they are consistently, reliably excellent. They stick in the mind: Ruin of a Rake’s intricate social balancing act, It Takes Two to Tumble’s sparkly quasi-supernatural tone, The Lawrence Browne Affair’s Gothic indulgences. And now her latest book, the second about the ramshackle Sedgwick siblings, pairs black boxer-turned-pub owner Samuel Fox with disgraced semi-aristocrat Hartley Sedgwick, as they plot to discover and steal a set of scandalous paintings owned by Harley’s dead benefactor.
You’d think it’s a heist book. But it turns out to be more like a not-heist book — because of course in real life heists are usually an absolutely terrible idea. They’re precisely the kind of terrible idea a person would have if, like Hart, they were trying desperately to feel something other than traumatized by someone they’d trusted who’d hurt them enormously, and whom death had put beyond the reach of any actual punishment or revenge. And if you’re a decent, strong, caretaking type like Sam Fox, carrying around a lot of guilt about the people you’d lost before, you’d go to great lengths to keep someone like Hart from getting hurt any worse than he clearly already had been. You might even, say, help him break into a neglected house where some of that trauma took place, if Hart thought the paintings might be there, and it might help to find them. But mostly you’d do other, ordinary things: bring food, pour a drink, offer an understanding ear. Tell Hart he’s beautiful, make him feel safe.
Somehow, all the not-heisting turns out to be as engaging as a heist would have been. Hart and Sam are amazing on their own but absolute dynamite together: the scene where they meet may be one of my new favorite scenes in all of romance. There’s a lot about sex work and social stigma, racism and homophobia and snobbery and hypocrisy. It’s quite dark, at times, but there’s moments of absolute glory. Occasional romances deal earnestly and deeply with healing the damage left by sexual assault and rape; Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair, for example. This book gives us a pair of heroes who know what it means to put their bodies and selves at risk for family. It makes it all the sweeter when they finally find each other.
Hartley broke the kiss and buried his face in Sam’s coat, but Sam could tell Hartley was smiling. God, it was a rare gift to have this man in his arms. It made Sam feel like he had been given care of something unspeakably precious and fragile.
The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham (NYLA: historical m/f):
I have never read a romance so reluctant to give up its secrets. Everyone is suffering and trying to hide it, from themselves as much as from the reader. And the few who aren’t suffering are up to something. It makes for a somewhat stony beginning — but as soon as one crack appears in the façade, the book becomes irresistible, like watching a ghost-riddled manor catch fire and burn to ash. You fly through the pages as the clock strikes ten, eleven, midnight — and then the book rips away the veil and you whisper holy shit against the darkness.
There was once a flourishing Gothic branch of romance, where women with voluminous nightgowns and voluminous hair fled sinister houses and sinister men by moonlight. Battered paperbacks embossed with names like Victoria Holt and V. C. Andrews were passed around from friend to friend, lurked briefly on the shelves of used bookstores, and then vanished seemingly into the ether. Then all at once the Gothic trend withered on the vine. Nobody quite knows why, and scholars who wish to study this question have trouble tracking down copies. The details of these half-remembered tales glimmer gemlike in memory: a secret room with a dead wife’s corpse locked inside, a peacock feather fan whose ribs are tipped with poison, an unlucky Australian opal that decimates an equally unlucky family. I devoured these books by the bagful, and none of the brooding vampires or burly werewolves of modern paranormal romance can pose a threat half as viscerally terrifying as They say he killed his first wife and now he’s asking me to marry him.
Oh, they’ll tell you this Scarlett Peckham novel is femdom, and it is — once it gets around to it — but in the excitement about that underexplored trope they won’t tell you about all the rest: the fire, the other fire, the secret marriage, the opium, the ballroom that becomes a forest, the iron key our hero wears around his neck, the child with a shock of white-gold hair who bears an uncanny resemblance to another child long dead. It was bone-chillingly spooky and when I wasn’t reading I was laughing with sheer delight.
Gothic romances are tempestuous by definition, but this one is dramatic even by those heightened standards: Archer and Poppy each say and do several things in the course of their marriage that would be unforgivable in a less turbulent book. We’re talking Heathcliff and Cathy levels of mutual desire and damage. If you want characters whose emotional compasses you trust not to lead them too far astray into frank rage and despair, well, you’re going to want to give this a miss. But if you want something to speed your heart and stop your breath as you read beneath the covers, with only the meager flashlight beam warding off the enveloping night — then you have a rare treat in store. Enjoy.
There was a piercing kind of emptiness in being cold to someone who was trying to be kind to you. She had thought it would be satisfying to trouble him but it only made her feel more bereft.
Sweet on the Greek by Talia Hibbert (Nixon House: contemporary bi m/f):
Nik, the Greek pro soccer player hero of Talia Hibbert’s latest contemporary gem, is not terribly bright. He hasn’t had to be: family wealth, stunning good looks, and athletic talent have given him everything he’s wanted. But now an injury means his career is behind him, and the future is a total blank. Nik may not be bright, but he is good, and he wants to do something meaningful, something to help the world.
But first he has to get the love of his life to like him, just a little bit. Just for a little while — say, the rest of their lives. And he has no idea how to go about it. Hence: fake relationship! It’s sure to backfire, and Nik’s just bright enough to know it, but he’s got no better ideas so hey, I’ll pay you to pretend to be my girlfriend at a month-long house party with my twenty best friends! He’s a hero of the type I think of as a Sex Puppy, muscular and rambunctious but inherently sweet and affectionate, like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor or Big Dick Richie from modern cinematic masterpiece Magic Mike XXL. Protective, but not prideful or authoritative — and gosh, doesn’t that feel refreshing in a world that sometimes feels stuffed to the gills with brooding alphas.
Heroine Aria Granger has good reason to be wary of brooding men: her last ex turned out to be someone stalking and trying to murder her best friend. Not a big surprise that she has serious trust issues! She’s questioning everything about herself — her instincts, her intelligence, her worth as a person. To Nik, though, she’s everything: sexy and witty and strong and brilliant and generous. Her deep uncertainty mixed with Nik’s absolute conviction is like nitroglycerin for the heart. This book is a Molotov, this book is a firework, this book will make you want to run around and dance and shout out of sheer joy. It’s funny, it’s filthy, and it’s sharp enough to cut. Run, don’t walk, et cetera.
He slid a hand under her head, cradling her skull, holding her to him as he kissed her again. He couldn’t speak. If he did, she’d hear the truth in his voice, hear the fact that he loved her in every crack and waver. So, instead, he kissed her, and hoped she wouldn’t taste it on his tongue.
A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (Avon: contemporary m/f):
Every now and then a heroine comes along who’s so engaging and so flawed and so marvelous all at once that you wish she was real so you could hang out and tell her how wonderful you think she is. Related: let’s never stop talking about Portia from A Duke by Default.
We first met Portia Hobbs as the hot mess best friend in book one of the Reluctant Royals series: she was funny and brilliant but she drank way too much and hooked up constantly and nearly messed everything up when she found out Thabiso was a prince. Now she’s landed a swordsmithing apprenticeship at a Scottish armory, as part of what she calls Project: New Portia, which is all about giving up booze and men and trying to figure out what the hell she’s going to do with the rest of her life. Her parents are driven and wealthy real estate tycoons, her twin sister Reggie runs a geek media empire from her custom-designed wheelchair, but Portia…Portia, according to her mother, is a “Jill of all trades, master of none.” The family dynamics here are so realistically painful that I had to read these scenes with my hands half over my eyes, cringing with the best kind of shared agony. If you know what it feels like to disappoint someone you love even though you’re trying your hardest, Portia’s your girl. I cried for her. I raged for her. And I loved her with my whole heart.
In a desperate effort to prove her competence, Portia pours herself into the armory, beefing up their social media and redesigning the website and oh yes, unearthing the fact that her boss (and our hero) is really the long-lost illegitimate heir of a royal duke. Tavish “Here’s My Eighteen-Inch Length of Steel” McKenzie is a silver fox Scottish-Chilean swordsmith who’s happiest in the shadows, so the title upends everything comfortable and familiar in his life, even as it gives him position and power enough to have real influence to make changes for good in the world. It’s tough on everyone, and the drama is riveting. This is a long, tense, slow burn of a romance: I almost worried — almost! — that they weren’t going to make it in time. We were racing toward the end of the book, and they still had not gotten their shit together! And Tavish was going to be meeting the Queen! And then the Queen was there and and and — and it’s a moment so spectacular, so jaw-dropping, so Peak Romance, such a gift to those who love this genre that I can’t even tell you what happens. You’re just gonna have to read it for yourself.
Now that she was here, the entire plan seemed ridiculous.
This Month’s Hot, Savory Romance to Make Your Mouth Water: A Taste of Pleasure by Chloe Blake (Harlequin Kimani: contemporary m/f):
As you value your life and your reason, stay away from this book when you’re hungry. Genre fans know the secret: many of romance’s most decadent moments aren’t about sex at all. They’re about food. Many authors who write sex scenes with plain language and precise choreography will drop all realism and restraint to lavish hyperbole on an entree or a dessert or a glass of good wine. Food, like sex, is an ephemeral art form: you shop, you prep, you enjoy it — and then it’s gone. Category romances are a little ephemeral, too: short, swift stories designed to pack the maximum amount of punch into the minimum amount of book. Most of them are potato chips, briefly savory as they melt away, then you’re reaching for the next one. This slender little masterpiece, though, is lush and rich and complicated and memorable. Full of places and people and meals and wine. Bigger on the inside. It’s like a top chef’s best amuse-bouche, and I couldn’t have loved it more.
Toni is a perfectly cromulent hero — hot Italian winemaker with a troubled teen daughter and a troublemaking ex — but what I loved most about him was how completely he was into our heroine from the moment they met. Because Dani, our curvy black chef heroine with a temper and a weakness for terrible men, is an absolute marvel. She’s been working as a ghost chef, earning Michelin stars while her truly shitty on-again, off-again boyfriend claims all the credit for her work. Some sterner readers might be put off that she semi-cheats on him with the hero at the start of the book, but Andre so deserves cheating on, and Toni is so clearly a Fun Time Ready to Go, that I found myself actively rooting for Dani to let her guard down and just hit that already. In addition to the solid chemistry and great banter, we have a whole bundle of complex and beautifully rendered secondary characters (Dani’s driven, regal supermodel mom being a particular favorite) who help make this book feel like a complete world, briefly glimpsed. Good news: it’s a series!
Men, she thought. Watch, he is going to eat my whole dinner. Toni reached for a little plate and loaded it up with portions from each dish, taking care to select the best cuts, just as she would. Then he held it out for her to take.
Discussion about Sarah Kendzior's The View From Flyover started on a positive note. I said I enjoyed the book, but thought the collection of essays — originally posts on Al Jazeera, mostly from 2013 and 2014 — had a bit too much crossover with each other, some points being made three or four times across as many essays.
Kendzior raises a number of important issues around poverty, lowering of wages, and full-time workers who are underpaid and living below the poverty line while doing the same work that others get much higher salaries for.
Others in the club agreed with me, one member feeling that this was the best written book we've read in the book club.
But one member raised concerns in a thoughtful way. She pointed out, for example, that Kendzior often failed to contextualize the history around her arguments, and at times, just made audacious claims.
In the essay "Academia's Indentured Servants", Kendzior pointed to a 2013 New York Times article, which she said reported that "76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors — an all time high."
That's a flip of what the article actually says, and leaves a gap where she draws flawed assumptions. The Times reported that 24 percent are tenure track positions, but the remaining 76 percent does not necessarily equate adjunct status, especially not the kind Kendzior highlights, living with outrageously low wages — that number also includes non-tenure lecturers who may have good pay and strong contracts at large universities.
As we talked through this member's concerns, some of the shine came off the book. We agreed that Kendzior tackled serious, important issues lyrically and with great verve and passion, but if she had offered greater historical context around some of her topics, or perhaps had framed this collection more as essays than journalism, it could have preempted some of the holes in her arguments.
Compared to other books we've read that decidedly brought receipts — Carol Anderson's White Rage, and Amy Goldstein's Janesville were both name-checked on this point — The View From Flyover Country is less authoritative when you start poking at its arguments, and that undermined our ability to trust it.
It seems that in this age of outright bold lies, we need to hold essayists and journalists arguing for positions we believe in to a very high standard. An epilogue from September of 2017 does talk about how bad things are after the 2016 election, but it doesn't look back and give any context to the essays preceding it, and some of us were curious how the Kendzior of today reads her own work, five years past.
One moment in the book proved not only prescient, but reading it in retrospect flips the meaning of the words in that most deliciously tragic way. It's where Kendzior quotes Turkish PM Erdogan from June of 2013, talking about Turkish protestors:
"There is a problem called Twitter right now and you can find every kind of lie there," he told reporters following days of mass protest in Istanbul. "The thing that is called social media is the biggest trouble for society right now."
Join us on Wednesday, September 5th, at Third Place Books Seward Park for the next Reading Through It Book Club. We’ll be discussing Kurt Andersen's Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. You can buy the book for twenty percent off right now at Third Place Books in Seward Park.
Two big bits of news!
A year ago, [Short Run cofounder] Kelly [Froh] and I started planning a strategy that ensured the continuation of Short Run under Kelly’s leadership. We have carefully selected a new and active board of directors who share our vision for Short Run and who will help Kelly carry the organization into its next phase. If you love what we built and want to make sure it thrives, please continue to support Kelly and Short Run as you always have. Without me, Short Run will survive, but without all of you, it won’t. Offer what you can—time, money, energy, and participation in Short Run events will help keep the organization and the community we’ve built together fueled and going strong.
In weeks to come, I'll be talking to Franklin about what's next for her and what leaving Short Run was like, and I'll also be talking with the new Short Run board members about what they have planned for the organization as it moves ahead. Stay tuned.
Yesterday, news broke that Hulu bought a six-episode season of Shrill, a sitcom based on Lindy West's memoir of the same name. Saturday Night Live star Aidy Bryant will be starring in the show, which is filming this summer. Bryant will star as a journalist named Annie, which means the show is presumably based in part on the sections of Shrill that were set at Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger (where, full disclosure, I worked with Lindy for a few years.) Hedwig and the Angry Inch writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell is costarring on the show. This is going to be good.