The Seattle Urban Book Expo is happening on August 26th at Washington Hall. "Last October, the authors and the people showed out and declared that black literature has a place in our community. So much so, that we had to do it again," SUBE founders write on their Facebook page. If you'd like to get a table to exhibit at this year's SUBE, you should send organizers an email and follow the instructions on this post.
Local sci-fi writing organization Clarion West is offering up some neat-looking one-day writing classes this fall, including one on world-building and one class taught by the great Nicola Griffith. You can sign up right here.
Here's a neat idea that may or may not turn into something: Bookshelf is a website that lets you construct "book mix tapes" to share with friends. You can also read through mix tapes made by other readers. And here's a nice touch: rather than the ubiquitous links to Amazon you'll find all over the internet, Bookshelf links to Indiebound, which allows you to buy books from independent bookseller.
Standard Ebooks takes the free-e-library spirit of Project Gutenberg and pairs it with a good sense of design.
Ebook projects like Project Gutenberg transcribe ebooks and make them available for the widest number of reading devices. Standard Ebooks takes ebooks from sources like Project Gutenberg, formats and typesets them using a carefully designed and professional-grade style guide, lightly modernizes them, fully proofreads and corrects them, and then builds them to take advantage of state-of-the-art ereader and browser technology.
We're so used to the modern incarnation of shooting coverage that we never think about how odd it truly is. Things always begin with reports on Twitter of gunshots, followed by dribbling pieces of "news" — some true, many false — from eyewitnesses and local news reporters. The body count goes up and down, depending on the source. Eventually, we learn about the shooter — always a man, usually with a domestic violence incident or two in his past — and people mumble about his motive and send their respects for the dead before their attention turns elsewhere. Eventually, the whole cycle begins again — every time we respond with a certain shock and newness, as though we all suffer from collective amnesia.
From 2015 to 2016, local writer Marti Jonjak published an astonishing weekly series at McSweeney’s about a man who shot two people at the Twilight Exit and then was killed by police. Jonjak's plan was simple, yet somehow entirely revolutionary: she decided to talk to the witnesses about what they saw, to return the story to the people who experienced the violence, rather than allowing the shooter to hijack the narrative.
Jonjak opens a column in October 2015 like this:
I’m meeting Dave for this interview at Vito’s, a scary and wonderful dive bar with gold-foil mirrors and meaty couches and red leather everywhere. He’s not here yet, so I sit alone on a barstool and stare at the walls. Vito’s was the scene of a murder several years ago. It’s something I’ve always wondered about. The story didn’t get a lot of news coverage, but according to rumor, the victim had gang ties. He’d recently messed with somebody and had been laying low, but his favorite band was playing, and he had to see them. It might’ve taken place on the crowded dance floor, I don’t know, but he was shot in the head. I wish I knew exactly where it happened. This question settles heavily over every surface. As I wait, it grows larger and larger, filling up the room.
Even in a relatively safe city like Seattle, there's a map of violence laid over our grid of streets. She's meeting a survivor of a shooting at a bar with a shooting in its recent past. There are so many shootings, in fact, that we can't keep track of them all. Many of them are lost to gossip and conjecture and some of them are forgotten entirely.
But Jonjak has done what she can to make sure that doesn't happen to the shooting at the Twilight Exit: she devoted herself to one crime, one narrative, to ensure that the story is completely told. Tonight, Jonjak is joined at the Hugo House by former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper to talk about that night and the aftereffects of violent crime. It's a capstone to a remarkable project from a remarkable writer, though hopefully this is not the end of the story — if some editor or agent hasn't approached Jonjak to expand her column into a book-length final statement, perhaps the publishing industry deserves to die.
Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
Amazon grew its book business in large part due to showrooming: ask any bookseller and they'll tell you horror stories of customers flipping through books, looking the title up on Amazon, and buying the book on their phone just before leaving the bookstore empty-handed.
But things have changed over the years. Amazon owns and operates several brick-and-mortar bookstores in cities around the country. They just bought Whole Foods. And so naturally they're getting concerned about showrooming, themselves. Lisa Vaas at Naked Security writes about a new patent from Amazon:
The patent, titled “Physical store online shopping control”, describes a system that would prevent customers from comparing prices in Amazon stores by watching any online activity conducted over its Wi-Fi network, detecting any information of interest and responding by sending the shopper to a completely different web page, or even blocking internet use altogether.
With the help of our friends at Elliott Bay Book Company, we at the Seattle Review of Books were happy to encourage Allison Steiger become the first person in the world to showroom Amazon Books back in 2015. If Amazon has their way, Steiger won't be a trend-setter.
(Related: Chris Sagers at Slate lays out the case for an antitrust suit against Amazon.)
Henri had ‘no other teacher
but nature.’ I recalled that factoid
from an art history class while peaking
thick with narcotics in the clinic bed
then they scotch-taped me to the ceiling
in his poster-sized jungle print.
The safe place for banished PYTs
ripe with uglifruit, there I learned
a woman leaves The Virgin Forest
much the same way she came in.
I laid across the forest’s plush green
canvas. My own foliage, shorn
the night before. Smooth palm leaves
split open in jungle book narrative
where the shadow doctor conflicted
beneath uterine sun —
part man part beast.
Then the thunder.
And it was broken asunder.
And then it was over.
Blood orange fruition
of the smallest, wild hope
crawled out of me for five days
in broken shells and poked yolk.
Sponsor Sagging Meniscus wants to make sure you've got this Thursday on your calendar: Seattle writer and poet Doug Nufer will be reading from his new book The Me Theme at Gallery 1412. More details, and a link to the event, on our sponsor's page.
You've seen Doug's name plenty of times on the site. He's a formal constraint-based writer, making some of the most interesting, and compelling, and challenging (in the best possible way) work. Take advantage of the opportunity to hear him read, accompanied by pianist Gust Burns.
Sponsors like Sagging Meniscus make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? Get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. We only have three openings left in our current block, all during July! Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.
At Literary Hub, Stacie Williams writes about what it means to be a librarian:
In 1962, British librarian Douglas John Foskett wrote a paper titled The Creed of a Librarian: No Politics, No Religion, No Morals, in which he argued that “the librarian ought virtually vanish as an individual person, except in so far as his personality shed light on the working of the library.” Neutrality has been enforced from the top down, with our policymaking professional organizations, down to individual librarians in their repositories, as a way of shifting the responsibility of moral judgement from librarian to patron. For instance, neutrality says a patron who asks for help searching for romance books but says, “Don’t give me anything by a Mexican author,” isn’t to be questioned or challenged about a stance that may be prejudiced. Neutrality becomes a way to avoid questions or ethics that are wrong or make people uncomfortable. Article VII of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, amended in 2008 but first adopted in 1939, says “[W]e distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”
At one of the bookstores I worked a very long time ago, a customer wanted to return a copy of Mein Kampf that he had bought from the store. When the bookseller asked why, the customer said that the edition had a foreword by a Jewish author placing the book in context and explaining why it should be read and not erased from history. The foreword, written by a Jewish author, rendered that edition of Mein Kampf "an inferior text," the customer argued, and he didn't want the book because it was "contaminated."
The bookseller, who happened to be Jewish, immediately backed away and refused to help the customer any further. She started crying and left the sales counter. Likewise, I refused to even talk to the customer, who then became agitated. Eventually, a manager stepped up and refunded the customer his cash, in an effort to get rid of him. It was a controversial decision — why should this awful human being get what he wanted, when we didn't guarantee any return? — and I still think about it often.
I am not a librarian and I have not attended librarian school. My only context for the questions raised in Williams's article is the above bookselling story and my experience as a journalist, and my opinion is this: objectivity is bullshit. Nothing human is apolitical, and to pretend otherwise is dangerously ignorant. (Note the repeated use of "he" in the Foskett quote above, which is a political decision that Foskett likely didn't realize was even a political decision.) I believe that it's better, in most instances, to acknowledge your politics, to be transparent about them, and to help the patron as best you can.
Williams draws a similar conclusion, but in a much more thoughtful way. I encourage you to read the piece.
Charles Johnson has been one of the most influential members of Seattle’s writing community. He’s contributed to the community in a number of ways — as a professor at the University of Washington, as a writer, as a friend to writers. Johnson recently joined the writing and literacy nonprofit Seattle 7 Writers, which donates to literacy organizations and donates books to readers around the region in shelters, detention centers, food banks, and other locations where people have need of good literature.
On Saturday, June 24th, Johnson will be headlining a fundraising brunch for Seattle 7 Writers at the Mount Baker Community Center. Every table at the brunch will feature one local writer, so attendees will get close personal contact with writers including David Schmader, Donna Miscolta, Claire Dederer, Claudia Rowe, and more. I talked with Johnson about the brunch and what he’s been working on lately. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Your Wikipedia page says you're retired, and I think you're maybe one of the hardest-working retired men I've seen.
Oh, that's why you retire from teaching, so you can get your art on your schedule 24-7. Artists never retire, but college professors do. That's true.
And how has your retirement been?
Well, it's been very good. I retired [from the University of Washington] in 2009, and I have been working steadily on all kinds of projects. I've published five books in the last two years, and I'm just putting together now the manuscript for next year, which is a collection of stories. It'll be my third short story collection.
My editor at Scribner just went over it. She didn't really have anything she had to do in the way of editorial work, but she just went over the stories and sent them to me. And so I'm going over her comments and putting together a proper manuscript to get to her next week. It'll be published next May. The title is Night Hawks.
All one word?
I'm breaking it up into two words, "Night Hawks." That's the title story, which is a story I wrote about my 15-year friendship here in Seattle with August Wilson. We had really great eight-to-ten-hour dinner conversations at the old Broadway Bar and Grill, which is gone now, on Capitol Hill.
In December you published a book about creativity and writing. And I wanted to ask if, at this point in your career, if you're sort of taking your teaching wisdom out into the world and teaching sort of in a more informal space?
Well, that's an interesting way to put it. The Way of the Writer evolved out of a longer book called The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson, which was a year-long interview that poet Ethelbert Miller did with me on every subject under the sun. He asked me 400 questions about everything, and I answered 218, and a lot of them were about the craft of writing, because he's a poet and also a teacher of creative writing.
And then we looked at that, and a couple of people commented, who had seen Words and Wisdom, that there was a book here that could be developed on the craft of writing. And I agreed. It was all there. I simply had to maybe revisit and update the essays that I did in response to those questions. And then I added a couple of essays that I had written on the craft of writing over the years.
So this book is essentially a record of my experience for 33 years as a teacher of literary fiction. That's about half my life, actually, 33 years.
But I still do teach. I'm going to work with people at the Spirit Rock People of Color Buddhist Conference in September. And I'm going to do two sessions with their teachers talking about the Buddha, Dharma, and how you can serve your communities with Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Buddhism has been an ongoing theme in your work. Has your teaching shifted over into a more spiritual place since you formally retired?
I've always been a very spiritual person. I've always been a Buddhist practitioner — my entire, really, adult life. I didn't bring that into the classroom with me; I would leave it outside the door. But I think it's pretty well known that I'm a Buddhist practitioner.
And so, people ask me questions about that and I'm happy to respond. It's all total, together, you know. Art is mind, body and spirit, and they all reinforce each other and serve the creative process, I think.
You recently joined the Seattle 7 Writers. Can you talk about what you like about them?
I joined on the invitation of Garth Stein. And I met Garth because every year we do the Bedtime Stories fundraiser for Humanities Washington, and he is the MC. I've written a story for them for every year for 18 years; it'll be 19 years this fall.
I've seen some of them and they’re wonderful. And you always seem so eager to be there.
Oh yeah. I think it’s a great experience. You create something new and it serves a good cause — the programs at Humanities Washington. And the new story collection coming out, Night Hawks, all of those stories except one were written for Bedtime Stories. Ten of the 11 were written for that.
And in my previous book, Dr. King's Refrigerator, five of those stories were written for Bedtime Stories. After I do them for the event and read it, my agent places it somewhere, and then very often it gets an award or it's reprinted or anthologized. So for me, the Bedtime Stories event is a perfect stimulus.
And with regard to the very, very good MC [Stein], he invited me to join the group because I think he's doing good things. The group is doing good things with writers and readers in Seattle.
And can you give us a little preview of what you're going to talk about at the brunch?
I want to talk to Garth a little bit before I actually do it, but my hunch is that what I'll do is I may read bit of something from the last book, The Way of the Writer, and then engage whoever is present in a kind of spirited Q and A about the creative writing process.
And there will be writers at every table of the brunch spread throughout the room, so that'll make an interesting forum to talk about writing.
Last March, I went to the Tucson Festival of Books. I was on a panel with Colson Whitehead, and then I was on a panel with my UW colleague David Shields, and another guy who wrote a book called Thrill Me.
But the morning before that afternoon panel, I spoke to writers about writing using The Way of the Writer as my springboard. It was just real. It's a roomful of writers because it's a literary festival, so I'm pretty familiar with that group — what kind of questions writers can ask. They ask the best kind of questions because they are immersed in the creative process themselves.
Lately I've been asking writers about community. Throughout your career, you've had a terrific commitment to community. You work with Humanities Washington, and you just joined Seattle 7 Writers, and you're very generous with your time. I was wondering if you think that a writer does have an obligation to a community — or does it depend on the writer?
I think you hit it when you said it depends on the writer. Some people are very eager to interact with other writers — to understand what they do, to do things with other writers that are for good causes. Like Humanities Washington, for example. I mean, I enjoy helping other writers, particularly younger ones, get published and get awards and colleagues.
I'm working right now with philosopher George Yancy on a book that he's going to do on Buddhism and whiteness, a critical race theory. I just alerted a lot of friends that I have in the Buddhist community, or the Sangha, to what George was doing. And maybe they'll make a contribution to it and make the book even richer.
I talk about that in The Way of the Writer, probably in the introduction. We don't live in isolation. I think we live in a world of interconnectedness with others. We might feel isolated sometimes; writing's a very lonely activity. You're doing this by yourself, usually, right? In a little room somewhere or, I don't know, wherever people write.
And you kind of forget that it takes a lot of people to get a book out there. The writer writes it, but then there's the editor who gives a good critical eye to something the writer might have missed. And there's the publisher, right? And then there's the bookstores. It really is a network, as Martin Luther King would say, a network of mutuality, that brings a book into being.
I've always been conscious of that, and grateful, too, and thankful for the people who enable a book to become a public object after it leaves the hands of the author. And maybe other writers don't feel that way, but I do think we're all conscious of the fact that we were given something by others, and it's very good, if we can, to give back.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow 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.
Friend of SRoB Rahawa Haile returns to the Appalachian Trail, this time on a road trip with her father. Speeding from BBQ to buffet, they take the first small steps toward knowing each other after a ten-year hiatus and map the distance that remains between.
Now, driving instead of hiking down these mountains, I learn that my father loves taking sharp turns too fast, something I never noticed growing up in the road-dull broadsheet that is Florida. I do not share his enthusiasm. I’ll take sore knees from 4,000-foot descents over feeling my inertia any day. I recognize for the first time just how much of him comes from the highlands of Eritrea. He's been courting death in this way since before I was born.
Also fascinating: the backstory of how the original article came to be, via an interview with Haile in the Columbia Journalism Review.
People think it’s a rather gloomy job, but it’s very seldom a sad job. Usually, the people you’re dealing with have lived for ages and have done really interesting things. It’s only when people die young that I think it becomes sad. I think of death as going into another place where you are as alive there as you are here. It doesn’t bother me at all.
If you were born at a certain point in history, your childhood shelves included odd books about stunt-flying seagulls, sky-climbing caterpillars, and this gem: Shel Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ. I was lucky enough to read it (likely while sitting in the middle of the street with a handful of firecrackers) before the “adult only” flag was added to the cover. Kevin Litman-Navarro celebrates Uncle Shelby and the consternation of several generations of unsuspecting parents.
Given all of the thinly veiled adult humor throughout the book, it seems quite clear that Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not intended for children. But some distracted adults, it seems, neglected to actually read it before passing it to their sweet, impressionable young ones — today’s parental equivalent of giving a child unprotected internet access. One scandalized reader on the book review site Goodreads didn’t realize her mistake until she had already begun a family reading. “The truly shocking page,” she wrote, “was where he was joking about going with kidnappers and eating the lollipops they offer.”
In its exclusive on Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb (no ropes, no company) of the massive El Capitan, National Geographic says Honnold’s “tolerance for scary situations is so remarkable” that he’s been a lab subject for neuroscientists fascinated by his ability to chill. Honnold’s take? “I just set [fear] aside and leave it be.” Philippe Petit, the man on the wire, has a somewhat more detailed and poetic anatomy of the deadly emotion.
A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad.
Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.
Also, how are we doing? Are writing prompts useful to you? Could we be doing better? Reach out if you have ideas or feedback. We'd love to hear.
The logistics of shipping and distribution of goods are amazing to think about. Even an ardent anti-capitalist has to admit that the ingenuity by which we distribute things around the world, even when they take tremendous resources, is impressive. Maybe I'm clouded by my love of trains, but rail is the mechanism that always invokes the most wonder in me. Ships are great, don't get me wrong, but heavy iron rolling on rails makes me feel like a kid when I watch them pass. Planes, too, because of the magic the demonstrate: for the natural engineer in all of us, trains and boats are more-or-less understandable, and the methods of their locomotion easily demonstrable. But planes rely on hidden physics, airflow over wings, incredible amounts of forward thrust, and a little white-knuckled hurling yourself into opaque clouds.
So imagine how exciting it is to see 737 bodies, not yet fully assembled, rolling by on trains through Seattle. They come from Kansas, where Boeing has a factory (unfortunately, to my point of view, who wished full assembly was done here in Washington even if it would negate the sight of the fuselages rolling through), and they are shipped north, then west, across Montana, Idaho, and Washington before crossing the Cascades near Everett and heading south through Seattle to Renton for final assembly.
I used to work at an office on the ground floor at the old Post-Intelligencer building on the waterfront, where the P-I globe is now. When a plane on a train went by, the view of the park would be eclipsed by this massive cargo — green, from the protective plastic wrapping, as if your new plane is the same as your new iPhone (if you love peeling the protective covering from a small thing, imagine doing it for a plane. I wonder how soon you'd learn to hate it, if it were your job?). Because I was obsessed, I'd run out on the balcony and take a picture as quickly as I could. I used to maintain a Twitter account to post those pictures, and then I assembled a photo essay when our offices moved from the building.
There's something about seeing a plane on a train that makes you appreciate the scale of trains themselves. They don't seem quite that big, until you see them carrying something that, in short order, will launch itself into the sky, clad in the livery of the final client. I want to see a model in a giant warehouse, with tiny trains traveling from Kansas to Seattle across America.
In Seattle, this common sight brings to light a number of interesting topics: Boeing, and its role in our local economy ("Will the Last Person Leaving SEATTLE — Turn Out the Lights"; Execs abandoning their Seattle, ostensibly due to traffic; factories moving around the country, and around the world), how trains run right through the heart of our city, and we can't really control what those trains carry past our doorstep, or how long they block traffic along the waterfront.
Not to mention how strangely hypnotic the sight is, standing on the bridge at Carkeek Park, or walking the waterfront, getting caught by the old Old Spaghetti Factory, seeing them roll past as you're caught going eastbound on Lander, watching planes roll by, green, with such a future.
Imagine now that you're trapped watching a train with five of them roll by. Imagine that each plane is destined for a future, and each plane will encounter thousands of people. That means that every train has a nearly limitless supply of stories. Let's find one for each plane.
The first plane — This is the one that, after pulling into the factory, after being positioned in the assembly area, between shifts so that the riveting guns were silent — an employee inspecting the fuselage removed one of her ear protectors to scratch an itch and she heard an almost-silent mewing. And after yelling for her coworkers to shut up for a minute, discovered the kitten that had hitched a ride across America on a plane on a train.
The second plane — It's on this one, on an Alaska flight from Las Vegas to Montana, where a man who went in big and came away lacking is fretting over facing his wife to explain their diminished savings. He drank before boarding. He drank when, at altitude, first service came around. Then, with a bear-like howl, he cried out. People all around him looked as his large, 250-pound body collapsed on itself, sobbing, shaking. A small elderly woman, on her way to visit her wayward daughter, who was finding herself at a yoga retreat near Glacier, moved next to him, placed her tiny hand on his shoulder, and leaned in to speak the most calming words he'd ever heard.
The third plane — It's ten years into its service when this plane flies a seven-year-old who will become the President of the United States. It's the last time this child will fly with their father, who will die in the year following. It's notable because they're going to see Washington, DC, where the child's father hopes to instill a sense of purpose and pride in the child for their country, and where they will have a coincidental run-in, checking into the hotel, with a former congressperson that the child will never forget. And the flight is notable because, due to great irony, the man who runs against this child in the future (and loses, by a narrow margin), a teenager at this point, is sitting in first class, coming to spend Spring Break with his own professional lobbyist father, flying from the boarding school he hates so much.
The fourth plane — It's this one that comes closest to having an accident. It's an air traffic control issue, and the plane is saved by a quick-thinking pilot — who had once been a test pilot on the 737 line — who immediately responded to an impending collision light by pulling up hard and increasing thrust to jet the airplane to a much higher altitude. And in the bathroom, a woman applying makeup and nearly poking her eye out and dropping her little zip bag full of beauty kit everywhere, devises an idea for organizing her kit that ended up becoming a multi-million dollar business.
The fifth plane — This is the plane that the aliens take. It's flying to Bermuda, and then blink, it's gone. Nowhere on radar, and no wreckage ever found. It just disappears from the world. In fact, everybody aboard passed out, as if by magic, and awoke to the plane on stable ground, quiet, engines off. They woke, and looked around. A scream from the front of the plane, a man looking out the window. It was obvious on first glance, they were nowhere in the world. It was obvious on first glance that they had been abducted.
We’re not quite halfway through 2017 yet, but I’ve noticed a very visible pattern to my reading this year: I’m not enjoying novels the way that I always have. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel that has really blown me away, the way memoirs from Patricia Highsmith and Sherman Alexie did this year. No novel has wowed me with its ingenuity and energy and passion, the way Claudia Rankine’s Citizen did. No novel has reached out and forced me to reconsider the world the way The Righteous Mind did.
The book-critic-o-sphere, even in its weakened state, has already promoted quite a few novels as the year’s best, of course. And if you’re preparing to counter this post with a tweet that reads “But, @paulconstant, did you read [insert hot 2017 novel title here]?” let me assure you that the odds are good that yes, I did try the book. I’ve abandoned more novels this year than at any other point in my reading life. I’ve tried almost every flavor-of-the-month and none of them have moved me.
I haven’t written reviews of these books or called them out on social media because, frankly, I’m not sure what the source of this problem might be. There are two options:
Maybe I’m not in a place to receive good fiction right now. This happens every so often, especially in politically difficult times. I couldn’t read fiction during the end days of the 2008 or 2012 elections, for example. So perhaps my adjustment into the Trump administration has temporarily eaten the part of my brain that enjoys novels. If so, I’m sure it’s a temporary condition and my fiction-brain will reaffirm itself eventually.
Perhaps we’re in a fallow period for modern literary fiction. It has been a while since some person or group of people has claimed a new literary aesthetic as their own. Not everyone is happy with these moments in literary history, but they at least provide a point of discussion for writers to consider as they move forward. As a young man, I was thrilled by the whole McSweeney’s aesthetic, which seemed to reinvigorate literature for younger audiences. I was less thrilled with the Tao Lin-style simple-prose aesthetic that made a big deal of ostentatiously incorporating tech brands like Gchat and Facebook into the narrative. But at least those writers offered critics something to align themselves against. You may not agree with a literary movement, but you can’t argue that literary movements allow literature the opportunity to reinvestigate what it has and has not been doing well.
Either of those statements may be true. Perhaps I’m too distracted by current events and addled by Twitter to focus on the quality literature that’s being published this year. Or perhaps we’re in a too-comfortable fallow period of the kind that has traditionally preceded some young writer’s attempt to blow the whole damn kingdom up in order to reinvent it.
Either way, I can’t wait until I’m eagerly engaging with literature again; this last half-year has been difficult, because while non-fiction might help me understand the world and poetry might help me see the world, I build my world out of fiction. A good novel rebuilds your understanding of the universe from start to finish, and I have rarely lived in a universe more in need of reinvention than this universe we’re living in right now.
Cienna Madrid is, despite what some of her friends and family might tell you, a human being. Human beings take vacation in the summer. There will be no new advice column this week, because Cienna Madrid is on vacation.
If you want Cienna Madrid to stop taking vacations, you should email her your best literary etiquette questions. If you keep her engaged and entertained with your emails, she will never leave us again. That address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday June 15th: Writers & Poets of Washington State
Western Washington poets Gary Lilley and Ann Tweedy team up with Spokane story author Erin Pringle and Spokane novelist Sharma Shields to bridge the divide and bring eastern and western Washington together at last. For one night, let’s pretend the mountain range, desert, and broken political discourse that separates us just doesn’t exist.
Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, hugohouse.org. . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.
Last night I dreamed, prosaically, that I was conversing with my oldest niece. My half-sobs kept trembling up to disturb the surface of our conversation; I excused myself to her by saying how much she looked like her mother, my baby sister, dead now four years. Then I woke, realizing that the face and voice I’d been talking with didn’t merely resemble my sister’s, they were my sister’s, back when she was young, vibrant, beautiful, cancer-free. Alive.
So there you have two forms of immortality: survival via remembrance and via genetic legacy. But this has never been enough for the bulk of us. Like religion, SFFH has sought for centuries to address that lack. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, continuing through George Eliot’s 1859 novella “The Lifted Veil” and beyond, the fantastic genres have consistently questioned the supposed impenetrability of the barrier between life and death. Which you would naturally expect from ghostly tales of haunted mirrors and clairvoyant ascetics and so forth, but sometimes science and technology get dragged into the fray.
“Corpsicles,” as they’re facetiously referred to, are one example of sfnal immortality made (perhaps prematurely) real. The thought is that frozen people — whole bodies, or, less expensively, just their heads — will be thawed and restored to life decades after they’ve died. Though Walt Disney was an early supporter of human cryogenics, he didn’t get himself frozen, (let alone become the first corpsicle, as is often rumored). That honor goes to Dr. James Bedford, whose body, after his death in 1967, was cooled to a temperature of minus 79 centigrade and is now stored at Alcor Life Extension's Arizona facilities.
The answers to moral, technical, and other questions rising from the practice of cryogenic suspension — Would revived corpsicles have legal rights? What would motivate their resuscitation? Who could be held responsible in the case of accidental thawing? — are explored by quite a few SFFH authors. In addition to those listed in the linked articles I recommend Tanith Lee’s novelette “The Thaw.”
Another favorite sfnal way to cheat death is to upload one’s memories and/or consciousness into another living being’s brain or, more typically, into a computer. In Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed, her villain Imaro does the first at will; he couldn’t care less that his head-hopping dislodges and kills a body’s original tenant. James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur” examines a problem that develops when transferring consciousness to artificially created bodies. William Gibson and most cyberpunk authors opt for the machine upload scenario, and of course ethical quandaries can be involved there as well, as readers of my Making Amends series (“The Mighty Phin” et al.) are aware.
The aforementioned Gibson famously said: “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.” Which may well be the truth when it comes to a third form of sfnal immortality: medical advances. Already we have a sharp disparity in average life expectancies due to the availability of insurance and the quality of care afforded the rich as opposed to the poor. Already we have toilets that monitor urine flow and analyze hormone secretion. Bruce Sterling’s 1996 novel Holy Fire) extrapolates these points out to a time when his protagonist shops for an affordable, reliable life extension treatment. Never mind the excruciating pain she must subject herself to — this is a largely financial decision. Also one on which market forces, planned and unplanned obsolescence, and general demographics come to bear.
Despite In Search of Lost Time’s (Aqueduct) omnipresent cancer treatment medtech, this standalone novella resonates less with the hard science stylings of cryogenics, uploads, and gene-tailoring than it does with the happily-ever-after limbo at the end of fairytales. Author Karen Heuler’s heroine Hildy discovers that chemo infusions targeting malignant lesions on her “tempora” — an imaginary area of the brain — allow her to see, manipulate, and ultimately steal other people’s time. Her superpowers neither free nor cure Hildy, though. Instead, she struggles to integrate them into a humane and principled philosophy while fending off the self-interested alliances of warring would-be time-mongers. She girds herself for battle in red-heeled boots, silk head scarves, and penciled-on eyebrows, but kindness and self-reflection prove to be her most kickass weapons.
Firebrand (Tor Teen) is A.J. Hartley’s second novel set in Bar-Selehm, a gritty, steampunk analogue of South Africa. Steeplejack introduced readers to Anglet Sutonga, who began the book as an impoverished young laborer among Bar-Selehm’s chimneyed rooftops and ended it hired by her government’s main opposition party as a spy. Now Sutonga, member of a racial minority distinct from the region’s ruling whites and indigenous blacks, becomes entangled in a plot involving smuggled war refugees and stolen blueprints for a deadly machine gun. With her usual flair for leaping headfirst into trouble and sorting out the consequences later, she takes on a psychopathic assassin, a supernatural legend come to haunting life, and a hate-spewing white supremacist in her pursuit of truth and at least an approximation of justice. The results satisfied both my cautious mind and my crusading heart.
Seattle-area Futurist Brenda Cooper’s Wilders (Pyr) is the first volume in her new Project Earth series. The premise is promising: megacities house most of North America’s population, with the surrounding land slated for “re-wilding,” a sort of remediation-cum-restoration project. Our entry point into this near-future scenario, though, is the somewhat feckless Coryn Williams, whose older sister Lou strikes out on her own as soon as she can to do cool stuff like reintroduce wolves to the prairie. Coryn, abandoned, must stay a couple of years after that in the milieu that mysteriously led their parents to kill themselves — there’s a paragraph on possible reasons for their suicide on page 196, but by then Coryn has achieved adulthood and set off with her robot companion to track Lou down. Revolt among non-city dwellers and deception among city rulers make for a gloriously unpredictable denouement and hold out hope for more action in the rest of the series.
Westercon is your prototypical large regional science fiction convention. Past iterations — all taking place, per the organization’s website, “west of the 104th meridian” — have featured art shows, filking (fannish folk music), and everything else con-goers have come to expect from full-service conventions. This is its 70th year of meeting those expectations.
But wait — do you like SFFH books more than the genre’s movies, cosplay, games, and such? Then Readercon is your cup of vodka. Two tracks of panels talking about books and one room of dealers selling them. That’s it for programming. Authors are the only Guests of Honor — two living and one dead per year — plus a plethora of guests of no particular honor but plenty of literary distinction, like Samuel R. Delany, Kit Reed, and Jonathan Lethem.
Tomorrow, Tatiana Gill will release her new comic Wombgenda at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery as part of the Comics & Medicine Conference. Over the last couple of years, Gill has become one of Seattle's best, and most prolific, autobiographical cartoonists, and Wombgenda collects some of her latest work — most of it related to women's health, but with some current events mixed in.
The three long pieces in Wombgenda address Gill's journey to developing a positive body image, her abortion story, and an account of getting a new IUD at Country Doctor. Her style in these strips is very reminiscent of Seattle cartoonist Roberta Gregory's autobiographical comics from the 1990s — simple figures, little to no backgrounds, and a lot of words packed into every panel. They feel something like handwritten letters from a friend — confessional, intimate, exuberant, and heartfelt.
Most of Gill's stories are about discovery: learning she's not alone, figuring out what to do to solve a problem, looking into the basic day-to-day processes of a doctor who specializes in women's health. If you are a woman wrestling with body image issues, or unwanted pregnancy, or other health issues and these comics land in your hands at just the right moment, they could easily be the most important comics you'll ever read in your life. If you are not any of those things, Gill's specificity — her confident voice and strident curiosity — can help put a face on an issue in a way that might change your perspective. And isn't that what non-fiction comics are all about?
The other material in Wombgenda mostly hews to political spot illustrations drawn from the tradition of American World War II propaganda posters. (I like the one of Lady Justice and Lady Liberty flipping a rich guy's chair over with the caption "Let's work together and overthrow the patriarchy.") She also includes a page of love notes to cartoonist women from Seattle who influenced her, giving the comic the air of a 1990s fanzine.
Maybe one day, Gill will get a fancy book deal from a big New York publisher to do a graphic memoir and she'll disappear for a few years while she works on her magnum opus. But for now, we're lucky to have her out in the streets of Seattle, attending our protests, telling the stories of women, capturing everyday life in a city that's always changing. She's telling this city's stories, and we're lucky to have her.
It’s a cold and rainy March morning in Pioneer Square, and two men in a dark suite at Clatter & Din recording studios are chasing after a ghost. In the next room over, Sherman Alexie is reading his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, into a very expensive microphone. He’s recording the audio version of Love, which is set to be released in June, but the ghost hunt is getting in the way.
Here’s the problem: the director of the audio book, Jeremy Wesley, claims he can hear a high-pitched whine that piggybacks onto every word Alexie says into the microphone. He asks the audio engineer, Brian Sloss, if he can hear it. They ask Alexie to say a few words. Sloss first says he can’t hear the whine — it’s indistinct, Wesley says, just a bit of frizz hiding behind each word — but then, after a moment or so, he picks it up. “Yeah,” Sloss says. “Yeah, there it is.”
“We’ve got bad luck with the gear,” Wesley says. “Yesterday we had two cords go down. This is a bad way to start the day — it throws people off.” The two men start fiddling with the wires connecting to their elaborate computer setup, trying to determine the source of the ghostly whine. They get more flummoxed with every passing second. (For the record: my decidedly untrained ears can’t hear a goddamned thing, and in fact I thought Wesley was joking when he first started talking about the noise.)
For about 15 minutes, the hunt goes on as Sloss and Wesley float and discard a series of theories. Then they start replacing cables. Sloss goes into Alexie’s recording room down the hall, disconnects the cables connecting to the mic, and installs a fresh set. A moment or two later, Wesley and Sloss are sitting, expectantly, in their studio, waiting for Alexie to read. Their frustration is visible in their tense backs and jaws. When Alexie’s words come over the speakers in the studio, the two men relax as though they’re stepping into a sauna. The ghost haunting the words — wherever it came from — is gone, and recording can ensue.
Wesley has done a lot of work with audio books; he directed the audio version of Lindy West’s memoir Shrill, too. What does an audio book director do? Mostly, Wesley says, he listens to ensure that the author is “talking into the mic correctly, that we get the recording, and that it saves properly.” As Alexie reads his book aloud, Wesley reads along on a manuscript loaded onto his iPad. Whenever Alexie pops a “p” sound into the microphone, pauses too long between words, or flubs a pronunciation, Wesley makes a notation on his manuscript, reminding him to fix the error in production.
Alexie is one of the most talented readers on the planet, so Wesley says he’s got a pretty easy job of it this time. Yesterday, he recalls, Alexie “busted it out so quickly that we got even more done than we intended. We have the studio for four days, but he might finish it in three” because he’s such a professional in the recording studio. It helps that the book is of such high quality; Wesley praises the “caliber” of the work. “It’s just good,” he enthuses. The way he says “good” makes it sound like a word he cautiously preserves behind glass, only breaking it out when absolutely necessary.
During a break in the reading, Alexie invites me into the recording booth to look around. It’s dark inside, with no windows out into the studio to see Sloss and Wesley. Alexie’s recorded other audio books at Clatter & Din in studios that have a more traditional setup, with a line of sight between the reader and the engineers. Which does he prefer? Alexie looks around the booth, which is a little bigger than a closet. He says this works for him — especially given his memoir’s subject matter.
“It’s like a confessional” in the booth, he says. This way, when he reads, “I can imagine my audience. Sometimes I’m talking to directly to my mother. Sometimes, my wife and my kids.”
I step into the booth, and take another step, and then the silence subsumes me. It’s almost physical, this silence: you’re dipped into it, like caramel, and the whole world disappears and is replaced by the absence of sound. I blurt out a “holy fuck” at the unexpected vacuum, and Alexie nods. He recognizes that look of mild panic and wonderment on my face. When he’s in the booth, he says, “it sounds like I’m actually beside myself.”
The break ends and Alexie gets shut into the soundless room. Back in the studio, his voice sounds so clear in the speakers that he might as well be sitting there with us. He reads for a few minutes, and then Wesley makes a note on his iPad and steps on a pedal which puts his voice in the headphones Alexie is wearing in the booth.
Wesley asks Alexie, “could we do this one more time? You missed [the words] ‘dirty shirts.’” Alexie reads the passage again, inserting “dirty shirts” into the right space. He keeps moving forward through the text.
He reads a sentence and pauses, reads it again: “’Not even though I’ve been heavily marked by their scent?’ Did I write that sentence? That’s an awkward construction.” His voice pauses over the speaker, and then pops back in, with an audible shrug. “Wouldn’t be the first time,” he says.
Unlike most authors reading their own work for the audio book, Alexie is writing and rewriting parts of Love in the booth as he reads it aloud. With less than three months to go until publication date, Alexie says he wrote seven new chapters of Love while in the booth yesterday. “They’re short chapters,” he tells me. “The longest one is like four pages.” Wesley interrupts with a correction: “I think it was like eleven chapters.”
As he reads, poems burst out of him and demand to be added to the manuscript. Alexie sends me a photograph of one poem he wrote on both sides of an index card during a recording session:
At one point, Alexie starts making more mistakes: “I can’t get that rhythm right,” he says, saying one sentence over and over again. He reads the word “interviews” instead of “intervals.” He can’t land the phrase “when he was drunk.” He stumbles on the word “anesthetized.” He inserts the word “mom” when the text says “mother.”
Finally, Alexie realizes, “I’m not looking forward to reading the rest so I’m psychologically sabotaging myself.” He slows down a little bit and trudges forward until he gets to the passage he was avoiding — a youthful confrontation with his mother, when he returns to his room and sulks and punches the ceiling knowing she’s directly above him. After that, it’s back to normal. He relaxes and sinks into the words and makes fewer mistakes and embraces the text, and is embraced by it.