Hugo House Event Curator Peter Mountford just dropped some big news down the Friday-afternoon news-hole:
I’ll be leaving my post as @HugoHouse’s events curator in a couple months, and we’re hiring a replacement (it’s a national search if you’re interested in moving to Seattle). It’s an awesome opportunity, and I love Hugo House, but I gotta write more https://t.co/T9upg6npkz— Peter Mountford (@PeterMountford) February 2, 2018
Hopefully, we'll be able to do an interview soon with Mountford to discuss his tenure and what he's working on next. But for now, let's focus on the job opening: this is a very important role. If it's going to draw in audiences and serve as a community literary center, Hugo House has to represent a very fine balance of local and national authors. Their Literary Series combines big-name writers from all over the world with local talents, and their Craft Talk series featuring popular authors talking about writing (an upcoming one features Ruth Ozeki, for instance) draws the kind of huge crowds that help pay the bills.
Many years ago, back when the House was under different management, that balance tipped too far in the direction of national acts, and it left the House feeling aloof and disconnected from the scene. (Not to mention the fact that some of those national acts were very expensive and the House wound up in dire financial straits for a while.) It took years of good event planning to make the House feel interwoven with the community again.
So. Is this you? Do you think you can present a series of unique and exciting literary events that represent the hinge where Seattle meets the world? If so, apply now!
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 email@example.com.
I am bestowing upon you the power to remove any one man from the literary canon. At the same time, I’m granting you the power to add any woman to the literary canon. Whom do you choose?
Francine, Whittier Heights
I would remove: Tom Hanks. (Please just stop.)
And replace him with: Seattle writer Stacey Levine.
Calling a writer's prose "unexpected" is trite but Levine's prose is exact and strange and provokes thoughts in my head that I would be unable to produce on my own. She is underrated and I think it's a shame.
Tom Hanks will make a great Mr. Rogers but his short stories are a snooze fest – only by the grace of slavering sycophancy did one of them end up in the New Yorker. I'd rather tweeze hairs from strangers' chins for tips than read another Tom Hanks short story. I'd rather watch a rat gnaw the mole off my left breast. I'd rather listen to the late Mr. Rogers read 50 Shades Freed fanfic.
In fact, I think everyone who paid $75 to see him at Seattle's McCaw Hall (or anywhere else in the country) should now be forced to pay their favorite local literary nonprofit $75 to listen to Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers read 50 Shades Freed fanfic – that would be a worthy crossover event that would tap Hanks's actual talents for a great cause. And it would likely make for a more interesting evening than watching Hanks read about young youths and old typewriters.
Paul Tumey at the Comics Journal wrote a lovely, detailed remembrance of Seattle cartoonist Mark Campos, who passed away in January. Campos was an incredibly supportive cartoonist, reader, and friend. I can't quite bring myself to accept that I won't bump into him at the next Short Run. He was devoted to cartooning, and to Seattle, and to all his many friends. I'll miss Mark very much, and Tumey's piece is a good and fitting tribute to his life.
If you're a woman who makes comics, you should definitely apply for Short Run's five-day Trailer Blaze residency. It sounds like a fantastic opportunity, and I've talked with several women who have loved the experience.
Residents will stay in their own full-sized, refurbished Airstream trailer or a spacious Lodge room. Both have a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and sitting room with desk or table. Residents are responsible for their own breakfast, lunch, and snacks, but each evening all residents will convene for a group dinner.
Clarion West, that amazing sci-fi writer's organization, has announced that Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin has worked with them to create a new Worldbuilder Scholarship:
Each year, the WORLDBUILDER SCHOLARSHIP will cover tuition, fees, and lodging for one Clarion West student who demonstrates both financial need and a talent for worldbuilding and the creation of secondary universes. The scholarship will be conferred via blind judging, and will not be limited by age, race, sex, religion, skin color, place of origin, or field of study.
And if you're a poet, the Kundiman Poetry Prize is now accepting applications. As they explain on their site, "The Kundiman Poetry Prize is dedicated to publishing exceptional work by Asian American poets at any stage of their career. Winner receives $1,000 and book publication with Tupelo Press."
Brett Hamill wrote a fantastic profile of the second life of Capitol Hill used bookseller Horizon Books for Capitol Hill Seattle Blog:
Letsinger, with a small staff of employees, aims to position the shop as a community space, hosting events such as poetry readings, book clubs, art shows, and Dungeons & Dragons meetups. They’ve set up tables and afghan-swaddled chairs to encourage guests to linger in the cozy subterranean grotto.
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.
My favorite alpha heroes in romance are the fragile ones.
They don’t seem fragile, at first. Consider Alec Kincaid from the RITA-award winning classic romance The Bride. He’s a big, burly Scotsman, the much-feared laird of his clan, who kills enemies easily and without a second thought. He’s manipulative and self-centered and emotionally closed-off after the mysterious death of his first wife. He is the most important man in his world, and he’s not afraid to throw his weight around and give orders to absolutely anyone short of his king.
In short, he is a giant ego-balloon, and the bigger he swells the more fun it is to buckle in and wait for the inevitable pin to find him.
Because of course Alec’s self-inflation has to be punctured. Anyone who’s read more than, say, three romances can see it coming from chapter two. He’s going to be matched with a tiny, too-pretty, naively optimistic virgin with violet eyes named Jaime, and this insignificant non-entity — with no physical strength, legal power, or wish to do harm — is going to turn him entirely inside out. She’s going to disobey him, undermine his authority, and fearlessly demand what she needs. She’s going to convince him she’s right to want to help people, to be kind, to trust others. She’s going to make him question everything about himself, and — here’s the kicker — this big, tough, weathered warrior is going to be grateful for all the changes. Because a romance hero may be strong at the start of the book — but it’s the events and transformations of the plot that turn him into a hero.
As much as we talk about alpha males in romance, ego-balloons are not only carried by musclebound alpha heroes. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice famously has her own self-regard deflated a bit before the happy ending. Shelly Laurenston’s shifter heroines tend to be as sexually frank, egotistic, and casually violent as the heroes. (That’s a compliment, by the way: those books are fun.) And there’s a whole strain of romantic comedies where the hapless city girl in too-high heels has to learn humility from a hard-working country boy in work boots. General patriarchal pressures often apply: there are too many toxically masculine heroes who aren’t de-bro-ified enough, and far too many haughty (or simply human) heroines whose abject embarrassment we’re supposed to wallow in. The lines are all highly subjective: one reader’s too far is another’s not far enough for what they did/said.
I started thinking about egos and punctures while reading Alyssa Cole’s upcoming A Princess in Theory (reviewed below). Our hero Thabiso is a handsome, educated, wealthy prince from the South African nation of Thesolo; he’s been raised with all privileges and the weight of decision on his broad, young shoulders. It has not, shall we say, left him struggling with the burden of self-doubt. Heroine Ledi has mistaken him for the new waiter she was supposed to train, and to get close to her, Thabiso plays along: “He was feeling rather pleased with himself. Not only was he an excellent negotiator and a shrewd businessman, but having completed the tasks assigned him, he was well on his way to becoming a master waiter, too.”
This is the ball being tossed in the air.
And then the racket comes around and whack: ten minutes later, our master waiter is dumping fish into the lap of a VIP, setting fire to the fondue station, and getting unceremoniously fired by our heroine.
It’s all about the expectations. Romances live and die on the alchemical reaction of reader expectations combining and combusting with the reality of the text. We expect a happy ending — but what has to happen first? We expect a hero to be, well, heroic — but what if instead he is, as the old Princess Bride blurb goes, a son of a bitch? Of course there are plenty of alpha heroes whose alpha-ness isn’t challenged because it’s the foundation of the fantasy (dukes, billionaires, vampire Viking angels), and while I understand the escape those books offer I find myself much more gratified by books where the alpha’s overweening ego is the set-up to an eventual well-earned punchline. It’s more dynamic, for one thing; it’s what Nisi Shawl points to when she talks about narrative tension: “the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what must be.’” What is: the hero’s self-image. What must be: his transformation.
The ultimate result is something that has long been deeply uncool to talk about with respect to literature: a moral. When overbearing alphas change their tune, when egos get bruised and recover, there’s always a moral lesson in it. Sometimes it’s as simple as: Love matters. Sometimes it’s dark and complex and nuanced with, ha, over twoscore shades of grey. But very nearly all romance has some element to the plot that’s trying to tell you how to be a better person: sexually, emotionally, or among the people in your community. It’s why it’s not terribly far-fetched for Jennifer Weiner to argue in the New York Times that romance novels fill in a lot of gaps left by sex ed curricula that are either abstinence-centric, queerphobic, or both, or that limit the conversation around sexuality to mere biological terms while ignoring issues of consent, desire, and self-expression. There is a lot about sex that is more about words and thoughts than it is about body parts, and romance is the literature we’ve developed to grapple with that.
This month the egos are out in full force and they’re all — well, mostly all — cruising for a bruising. We have a self-involved vampire who is quite literally heartless; a brash dance student-turned-professional choreographer who has no problem telling his former dance teacher exactly what she can do with his now-grown self; the charmingly self-important African prince mentioned above; a frontier mail-order bride who’s frighteningly handy with a rifle; and a mercenary warrior heroine whose stubborn pride is mighty enough to change the destiny of her world.
Curses, Foiled Again by Sera Trevor (Ninestar Press: paranormal m/m):
Trends or no trends, a good vampire novel is never out of style. This offbeat gem is less Interview with the Vampire and more What We Do in the Shadows, with that blend of the comic and the horrific that’s so hard to get right and so delicious when done well. Felix is a vampire living in LA whose preternatural strength and thirst for human blood are balanced out by his wistfulness, impulsive sincerity, and the inescapable fact that he’s dumb as a bag of hammers (a side effect of the vampire condition). Watching him occasionally try to be cunning is adorable: think a Goth Jason Mendoza from The Good Place. He becomes annoyingly fixated on a witch named John, who is living under a truly frightening, isolating curse, and in the way of all romance they slowly annoy one another more and more intimately. There are some truly horrific moments in the course of the plot — as well as actual consideration of the predatory nature of vampiric feeding, which is not the lightest of reading — so best keep this book for a moment when you’re in the mood to shiver a little. But if you’re a horror romance fan (I see you! I know it’s hard to find your catnip!) then you’re going to want to give this one a try.
He paused for a minute, trying to put together all of the feelings inside of him, so many of them buried. He felt like an archaeologist, uncovering his own soul piece by piece.”
On Pointe by Shelly Ellis (self-published: contemporary m/f):
One way to quickly establish a heroine’s character is to show us who she is not. Here we meet Bina, a dance teacher at a DC studio, meeting her ex for coffee for the first time since she walked in and caught him cheating. She’s been lonely since the breakup, and she’s worried she won’t be able to resist him if he begs her to take him back. But that’s not why Carl wanted to talk. No, Carl has started his own architectural firm — in a partnership with the woman he was cheating with — and they have a big client who wants to buy Bina’s dance studio, tear it down, and built fancy-ass condos in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. And when Bina raises her voice in outrage at the callousness of this, Carl tells her not to be such an angry black woman.
What does our heroine do then? Bina dumps a full iced macchiato over his head and walks away, as coffee drips into the fine wool of her ex’s expensive suit.
Reader, by this point I was completely on her side.
And this was before we see how kind she is to her dance students, how much she loves her difficult mother, how hard she works to keep the studio from sliding into collapse. Meanwhile her former student, Maurice (Mo), now grown and hot as hell, has been hired to teach a hip-hop class in hopes of bringing in a new crop of students. Sparks fly, desires are denied, risks are taken, and romance blossoms. This is the set-up book for a three-novella series, so it ends with a bit of a cliffhanger and a Happy For Now rather than Ever After, but it’s written with such rare verve and energy that I’d have been hungry for more at any length.
We have to wait until April for book two — it’s gonna be a long eight weeks.
He eased through the doorway and his chest brushed her shoulder. It was like plucking a tuning fork. He could still feel the residual vibrations of their touch even as he stood in the center of the empty room and looked at the mirrored walls and white ceilings.
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (Avon Books: contemporary m/f):
Unlike vampire novels, Cinderella stories never, ever go out of style in romance, and this one is an absolute treasure of a Cinderella tale. We’ve covered our princely hero Thabiso above, so let’s talk about the heroine, Naledi Smith née Ajoua. She’s studying to be an epidemiologist and is super-geeky and smart, so when she starts receiving emails announcing she’s the long-lost princess of Thesolo and they just need to confirm her personal details to proceed, she hits the delete key quicker than a lab rat gunning for a sugar hit. She’s not only cagey about probable scams, either: a former foster kid who got bounced from family to family after her parents’ death, Ledi works hard to keep everyone at arm’s length because she doesn’t believe she’s the kind of person people can love in the long term. She is wary, witty, profoundly moral, and prone to silent, heartfelt cursing when beset by fools and fuckboys.
I absolutely adored her. I love when historical authors write contemporaries, because the world-building muscles honed in historical romance really shine when applied to modern settings. For instance, Ledi tends to look at the world through science metaphors: viruses, lab experiments, evolution, bacilli, bacteria. (One of my notes from later in the book: “Gonorrhea! So romantic!” Not sarcastic. It’s a truly touching moment referencing STIs. Romance Author Achievement Unlocked!) We’re also treated to a realistically diverse and lively New York with Latinx neighbors, Pan-African nonprofits, polyglot citizens, and subway dance performances. Plus a bit of a mystery subplot about a new disease cropping up in Thesolo’s mountain villages. I read until I could not keep my eyes open, slept a bit, woke up at four a.m., decided that was enough sleep to get by on, and finished the last ten chapters as the sun came up.
Then I read the teaser for book two, because it was right there and I still wanted more. And have you seen that cover? Romancelandia is due for a serious epidemic of dress envy as this series continues.
Tempest by Beverly Jenkins (Avon Books: m/f historical):
In Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer, straitlaced accidental abductee Mary Challoner shoots the Marquis of Vidal when he menaces her aboard his yacht. In Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, seduced bluestocking Jessica Trent shoots the Marquess of Dain when he refuses to marry her to save her reputation. And now in Tempest Beverly Jenkins, First of Her Name, Slayer of Words, has given us Regan Carmichael, who shoots down three outlaws as they try to hijack her stagecoach — or rather, two outlaws and one doctor, who turns out to be the man she’s traveled across the country to wed.
Our heroine apologizes promptly to the doctor. She wastes no time worrying about the outlaws.
Regan is that rarest of creatures: a power fantasy heroine. She can shoot, drive a mail coach, and muck out animal stalls. She can bake, and cook, and help a shy, traumatized stepdaughter heal from a legacy of grief and abuse. She’s independently wealthy enough to stand up to all the petty-minded penny-pinchers in town who try and look down on her for being unconventional — and she has a sapphire satin dress with matching corset and garters that will blow a bridegroom’s hat clean off his head. She’ll know just what to do with that bridegroom when she gets him in bed, too, and she’ll never apologize for having loved someone before meeting the hero.
Does she sound too perfect? Implausible, or invulnerable? It doesn’t read that way. It reads like liberation — like you have a champion there on the page, a vision of strength and hope and heart who cannot help but fight to make the world a better place. When the grieving widowed doctor, who vowed never to forget his first wife, takes about three days to realize he’s halfway to falling in love with his new bride, the reader can only smile in sympathy and say: yeah, buddy, same.
“So you’ll accept my needs in the marriage bed without complaint?”
“As long as you extend me the same courtesy.”
”Good women don’t have needs.”
She scoffed, “And you call yourself a doctor.”
A Certain Magic by Kathleen Morgan
There will always be a part of me that wants a psychic dragon or magical horse I can ride around on while it tells me how brave and special and loved I am. I picked up A Certain Magic because the front cover promised winged horses and the back cover promised dragons. It has been a long bummer of a winter and I thought something fuschia-tinted would be just the thing.
We did indeed get dragons — an adorable, clumsy, loveable baby psychic dragon named Padborn and a big, sinister bastard named Dragon Father — but instead of winged horses, there was a lot of weird sorcerer sexual politics. Readers looking for something at the precise midpoint between Anne McCaffrey and Laura Kinsale will thrive on the whackadoodle nature of the story; readers looking either for gritty realistic fantasy or for consistent magical systems are straight out of luck.
While this book certainly had its rough edges (’twas rampant with Ye Olde Faux Medieval Dialogue), the real meaty mindfuckery is in the what gender and magic mix. Let me sum up as succinctly as I can:
Sorcerers are men who can augment their powers by having sex with women, consensually or otherwise. This can kill the woman. Galienes are women who are magically bonded to dragons. They also unlock their powers through sex (presumably with men, though this is never explicitly stated) and this sex hurts absolutely nobody. Hero Galen is a sorcerer who has sworn off sex after killing the woman he loved (pro tip: don’t take your evil twin’s word that this is actually what happened). Heroine Alena is a mercenary who tracks Galen down to get him to help defeat his twin, who’s been draining local women one by one. Alena is also a galiene, though she doesn’t know it, and she unwittingly bonds with baby dragon Padborn. Again, who would turn down a psychic baby dragon? But this bonding doesn’t unlock her full powers — so Padborn and Dragon Father work together to magically compel Alena and Galen to have Really Good And Surprisingly Graphic Magical Sex. While the dragons watch. Ayla and Jondalar vibes, anyone? Now Galen has his powers back but refuses to use them, and Alena has a bunch of mysterious new magic she can’t actually use herself. They argue a lot about the proper uses of force in self-defense and to stop evil, which is by far the most interesting part of the book.
The weirdest thing about all this sex magic is how not-tawdry it feels. I mean, yeah, dragon voyeurism and enforced desire and gender essentialism and all that baggage — but there’s a New Age-y kind of rudimentary sex-positivity in here that’s quaintly appealing. Alena is not a virigin and it’s not a thing: nobody even brings it up. Masturbation is a perfectly natural urge. Jealousy is toxic, sexual manipulation frowned upon (even the dragons get scolded for this), and rape is objectively evil and will turn the land into a grim, corrupt wilderness (which could explain Westeros — hey-oh!). Love and physical love are not precisely the same thing, but they are connected, and both are not only forces for good but things that actually save the world at the novel’s end. Galen, a pacifist who only barely learns to swing a sword in self-defense, takes over his brother’s castle and begins healing the land’s political and emotional damage, while Alena keeps her dragon, rebuilds the castle’s defenses, trains her own personal army, and explicitly says the only thing she’s keeping from the list of Proper Wife Traits is banging her husband like a drum. My teenage self would have adored this book; my grown-up self can see all the flaws, but feels a little wistful at the incredible story that almost, maybe, could have been if the author had done just a few things differently.
I've been enjoying the Young Animal line of comics curated by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way. They're a pop-up imprint published on the fringes of the DC Comics superhero properties, taking on the same rebellious-goth-teen role that Vertigo Comics did back in the 1990s. The best Young Animal books, like Mother Panic, fill in a gap left by the all-ages edict of mainstays like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. They're a little bit weirder, a little bit more imaginative, a lot looser.
This week saw the first issue of Milk Wars, a crossover between Young Animal comics and DC Comics. If you've ever been disgusted with the crass action-figure ballet that is the typical superhero crossover, you'll probably find something to love here.
Milk Wars is a meta-crossover pitting the weird heroes of the Doom Patrol versus the staid, conservative heroes of the DC Universe. And thanks to an intergalactic bureaucracy called Retconn, the DC Universe has been made even more conservative. Superman is a flying milkman. The other Justice League figures have been recast as the Community League of Rhode Island, a staid suburban homeowners association with superpowers.
This feels like a crossover with something to say, which is a rarity for the genre. Of course, some of that conservatism of the mainstream DC line rubs off on the Doom Patrol; while the Young Animal books are generally content to be weird without bragging about how weird they are, in this comic they're painfully self-aware.
"Some of the best people are weirdos," a Doom Patrol member says while in the middle of a fight with the godlike milkman, and the point is made. But then two panels later, she adds, "everyone's a little strange, and that's okay." Later on, someone says "maybe strange deserves a shot." There's nothing less weird than talking about how weird you are; the repetition gives off the impression of a coffee cup that reads "You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Work Here, But It Helps!"
This is probably the reason Vertigo began enforcing a concrete divider between itself and the mainstream DC superhero universe in the late 1990s. When you combine the two tones into a single book, you get something that feels a little smaller than its component parts. Milk Wars, at least, seems to recognize that flaw and builds it into the plot.
And in Milk Wars #1, you get several full-page shots of people with bizarre powers punching each other, which is the point of these whole things, right? Can there be anything more dull, anything more in direct opposition to art, than conflict for conflict's sake? And isn't there maybe a chance for some art to made out of that artlenssness?
I'm taking part in a pair of upcoming events that you should know about:
This event will start with Keynote Speakers, followed by lunch—free for all attendees—and a Table Fair featuring opportunities from local arts organizations. After lunch, attend the Breakout Session that's relevant to your interests. We'll finish off the afternoon with a Networking Party, featuring a live DJ, to help you get the most out of your Career Day!
Is Amazon very good or very bad at naming things? It's honestly hard to tell. Why would any company choose to promote a line of e-reading devices with fire-themed names, for instance? Most businesses would balk at the idea of even hinting at book-burning in their book-related products, but Amazon led with the Kindle and then doubled-down on the concept with its Fire family of tablets. Naming their personal-assistant line of speakers the Echo, too, seems a little cute — what is an echo but a hollow and fading repetition of ourselves?
But Amazon has sold hundreds of thousands of those devices, and so by the only arbiter that matters to Amazon — that of the market — the names must be considered a success. The problem with this thinking, of course, is that markets can only ignorantly choose winners or losers in the moment. There's no nuance to a market. If you make a mistake, but that mistake is rewarded with profits, you'll keep on making that same mistake until something catastrophic happens.
Earlier this week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiled the Spheres to the world. Located at the corner of 6th and Lenora downtown, Amazon's Spheres are a cross between a biodome and a corporate conference room. They're supposedly a place for Amazon employees to work in a pleasant natural environment. The Spheres have already become a symbol of Amazon's domination of downtown Seattle, and local media went positively berserk when Bezos took the press on a tour of the constructs.
Now, Amazon has opened up a public-facing section of the Spheres, and they've given it one of their trademark curious names: The Spheres Discovery at Understory. On Tuesday, Understory opened to members of the public who had the foresight to make reservations in advance online.
When walking into the Understory at the base of the Spheres, visitors are greeted by enthusiastic young people in bright Amazon polo shirts. They scan tickets and usher people inside with the barely restrained zeal of Scientologists. The first thing you'll see in the Understory is a wide array of video screens showing some of the plant life in the Spheres. One of the Amazon employees directs a tourist to stand in a colorful spotlight in front of a video screen. While standing in the spotlight, a narration to the video screens is audible — it sounds as though a tour guide is standing directly behind you, whispering information into your ear. Step an inch out of the spotlight and the voice is gone. Step back into the spotlight and she's there again.
In a room to the right of the video screens, visitors will find samples of plants that can be found in the Spheres above, including a particularly robust orchid. In a room to the left of the video screens, visitors huddle around some signage giving an ebullient explanation of the purpose that the Spheres serve in Amazon's corporate culture.
In this room, you'll see some testaments to Amazon's charitable giving. (Amazon gives much less than other corporate giants in the region, of course, but you won't learn that fact here.) Perhaps the most bizarre touch in this room is a spray of plastic bananas intended to promote Amazon's Community Banana Stand, which hands out free bananas in South Lake Union during the week. The bananas are obviously synthetic — they practically glow — and next to all the testaments of the Sphere's natural beauty they feel decidedly off-brand.
After exploring the three rooms, visitors are likely to start looking around for a way to climb up into the Spheres and explore the terrariums. That's when they'll realize the limits of the Understory. One tourist asks an Amazon employee whether the tour extends up into the Spheres. "No," the employee says. "They're actually working up there, so we can't interrupt them. You need a badge to get up there." The tourist nods, and then wanders over to the video screens to take a picture of a video tour of the inside of the Spheres. That's as close as he's going to get to the Edenic garden promised from the outside of the Spheres: a picture of a picture on a screen.
So. What is an Understory? It's basically the carpet of the forest, that spongy layer of green that absorbs and distributes water for everything else. But Amazon loves names with multiple, even contradictory meanings. It could be a fancy way of saying "basement," after all, and the Understory visitor center is the Sphere's cellar, basically. But "understory" also sounds like the parts of a story that a narrative doesn't explore: the innocent bystanders of fiction, the passersby who walk onto the page, say one line, and are gone. The soldiers who die messily in the background while the protagonists bask in glory. The screaming woman falling from a building who is saved at the last minute by Superman before she's desposited safely on the ground to wander into obscurity again. The understory is everywhere that the narrator doesn't direct our attention.
The reality of the Spheres is that if you have an Amazon badge, you're allowed into the story of the corporation. You get to hang out in treehouses and write code surrounded by exotic plants. If you don't have an Amazon badge, you're cast into the Understory. You wander around a rinky-dink museum with one exhibit that enthuses about what it's like to be allowed into the world above. You crane your neck and peer at the ceiling, and you wonder what it's like up there, in what you're told is the only story that really matters in Seattle right now. And then you'll realize you're never getting up there. And so you return, dissatisfied, to your story — to the understory.
Once you leave the Understory, you'll probably wander around the Spheres, trying to look inside. You'll walk by the tiny dog park, and by all the people bustling around with orange Amazon Go tote bags. You'll walk in that direction for a half-block, and you'll walk by the long line of people who are waiting in line to get into a cashierless convenience store that's plastered with signs promising you'll never have to wait in line again. None of it will make sense to you, but you'll just shrug and keep walking away from the Spheres. It's okay that it doesn't make sense to you. It's not your story.
Earlier this month, Lisa Rosenblum had her first day on the job as the King County Library System Director. Rosenblum has worked in libraries across the country, but she’s taking the helm of an especially vibrant library system in KCLS.
King County Library System seems well-positioned for the future. Last year, digital reading platform Overdrive announced that King County led the nation in digital book checkouts, ahead of the systems for Los Angeles, New York, and even Seattle. In 2017, KCLS users checked out over four and a half million ebooks and digital audiobooks, but physical media hasn’t been left behind in the digital gold rush—over ten million visitors checked in to KCLS’s 49 branches, and they checked out some sixteen million non-digital-book items.
We talked on the phone with Rosenblum last week, to get a sense of where she’s from and what she wants to do at KCLS. The following transcript has been lightly edited.
What brought you into this line of work, and how you came to be interested in libraries? Do you have a librarian superhero origin story?
Well, I know you’re hoping for a romantic story, but I'm afraid mine came from a recession. I went to this fancy liberal arts school back east, called St. John's College, which is a great book school that gives you a liberal arts education in the most traditional sense — you study Ancient Greek, and you translate Sophocles, and you read the plays in the original language. It was an amazing education. But I got out during a time where there were no jobs, especially for overeducated liberal arts majors.
So, I started working. I got a job at a government contractor that provided library services to Army libraries. This was outside of Washington DC. Then, from there, I moved to Houston, married my husband, and got a job at Rice University, doing what we called, back then, cataloging. I knew from that point on that I never wanted to be a cataloger, because we had to file cards. I don't know how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember cards and card files.
Oh, sure. Yeah.
So, the big deal was, if you were good, you could drop your own cards. You know the little rods that went through the holes in the cards?
Well, when you did it correctly, you were allowed to pull out the little pole, have the cards drop down, and then the pole went through the hole in the bottom of the card, and that was it.
At Rice University, you were only allowed to do that if you never made a mistake filing. Well, in two years working there, I never could figure it out. I always had one or two mistakes, so I was never able to drop my own cards. So, long story short, I knew that this level of detail work was not my strong point.
So, fast-forward: we leave Houston, we're in California. Back then, California was hiring librarians without library degrees if they took tests, and I said, 'I'll never pass.' My husband encourages me: 'Oh, just take the test. Take the test.' So, I did, and I failed miserably on anything librarian-ish. But remember I told you I had that fancy liberal arts education? Well, I could match the author with the title of all these old Greek and Latin and Roman works, so I passed the test. Then I had an interview, and I got the job as a librarian.
I really loved it in the public library. This was before the internet. I really enjoyed helping people find answers, find information. This is back when these big reference books were behind us, and we could pull them down and find the answers to questions like, what was the average temperature in Prague in August? You just felt so empowered. I also was a youth librarian, and I did book talks. I'd go out to schools and talk about books in a very entertaining way, summarize them very dramatically.
So, I really learned to love the public library, and that's kind of how I got into it. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be a librarian.’ It wasn't that I met a librarian when I was in high school or when I was in elementary school and she made an impact. In fact, back then, librarians, I thought, were kind of mean. And they also would separate the children's areas from the adult's, so if you were a kid you were kind of isolated from things.
That's really how I got to be a librarian. From there, I progressively started to enjoy what I was doing. I worked for a big system, did basically everything in it, and then decided I wanted to be a director. I got a couple of different jobs as a director — including the last one as the director of the Brooklyn Public Library. Every time, I just really enjoyed what we do in our communities. I think that we really are very impactful and have done a great job in changing with what our community needs. The library I entered into more than 25 years ago is different than the one that we run now, but it's still the same. We still value books and reading and literacy, but we just do it in a different way, that's all.
So you mentioned Washington DC and Houston and California. Where are you from originally?
I originally was born in New Jersey, on the East Coast. Then, when I was 12, we moved to Virginia because my dad got a new job. Then, like the pioneers, I gradually made my way out west. I lived in California for most of my career, but I took up the opportunity to work for Brooklyn, because they recruited me.
So, I did that for two and a half years, and I decided that as much as I like New York, I'm a West Coast girl now.
And, of course, the King County Library System is known nationally as one of the best in the country.
I wanted to ask you what drew you to apply for the job at King County.
Well, first of all, King County has a national reputation of public support for libraries, and building beautiful libraries, and being really innovative. We were hearing about King County in California 20 years ago, when Bill Ptacek, the beloved leader of KCLS, had the insight to realize we were in the materials movement business. He knew we needed — this is back before digital — to be more efficient in how we move our materials around our system, and created that huge sorting machine in Preston. They've always been ahead of their time, and the community support for libraries is very desirable.
Plus, living here, this is a wonderful place. Or so I’ve heard. Because I've come at the worst of times, I'm told. It's dark when I go to work, it's dark when I leave. So I'm told this is a beautiful area, I just have to wait a couple of months.
Fortunately, I moved here from Brooklyn and not California. I think the change from California would have been too much for me, but I left in a blizzard from Brooklyn, so I’m used to variations in weather.
What are you reading right now?
Well, right now, I'm reading the classifieds to see where I can buy a condo here. I have to be honest with you, I have not been reading a lot since I moved here a week and a half ago. But, the last book I read was Manhattan Beach [by Jennifer Egan]. In Brooklyn, one of our libraries was in Manhattan Beach.I am very interested in reading regionally. I can't tell you what my favorite Seattle regional authors are, I'll be honest with you, but I'm looking forward to discovering them. The other nice thing about moving from Brooklyn to here is that New York City, in general, is a big reading community, and Seattle is too. So, it's great to go from one place to the other. People really like to read here.
Do you have people putting together a list of King County authors to check out, now that you're here?
Well, you know, I haven't asked them to do that. I've asked them to create a map of where all my libraries are. I'm starting there. But that's really a great idea.
I’ll be a patron and ask for a list of the 10 best books I should start reading to learn about Seattle.
Oh, man. If you'd like to come back and share that experience, I would love to talk to you about that, too. That sounds great. I know you haven't been to all of the libraries yet, are there any of the libraries that you think are especially nice in the King County region?
It's like asking who's my favorite child. Let me just say this: I'm very interested in the Skykomish library, the one that I can't get to in the winter.
I'm interested in that one because, first of all, it's in a beautiful area of the state, but, also, it really represents how important a rural library is to a community. It's got limited hours, but it's important that it's out there, that it's open for people. So, that's sort of my adventure library.
I'm starting to visit libraries this week. We're putting in a new maker space area in Bellevue, so that's going to be fun to go to in the next couple of weeks. We're basically creating a space where teens can create things. There'll be laser printers, and there'll be maker machines, and all sorts of stuff.
Oh, and I want to go to Vashon because I think it's so cool I have to take a ferry to get to one of my libraries.
So, yes, I'm looking forward to those, but those are kind of the cool adventure libraries. But, in general, I can't pick a favorite because the design of our libraries here is really amazing. Just the light — the recognition that it gets dark [in this part of the world] and just having all the light, even under the shelving, so that everything is so bright when you come in. It's very thoughtful. Our voters supported us to build new libraries and to renovate the existing ones, and I think we gave them a good bang for the buck here.
Do you have any priorities for your first few months at King County other than visiting the libraries?
Visiting, certainly. As I visit, I’ll be meeting with the staff. Also learning about the board, and working with the board.
And, of course, it's all about the budget — understanding the budget process, and really looking at the budget. How do we spend our money? What could we be doing differently? Just all the sort of basic stuff you do when you start a job.
I also said to the staff today, ‘when I'm visiting your libraries, I want the full King County experience. So where are the best coffee shops, the bakeries near where you are? Where would you go to lunch?’ I love to learn about the neighborhoods where our libraries are too, because they're all very different.
It just occurred to me that the Literary Lions fundraiser for the King County Library System Foundation is coming up in March. Are you going to be at that? Can people meet you there, if they attend the dinner?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I need to find a dress for that.
What have you learned in your meetings with the staff? You have some great librarians out there in the King County system — I know from experience. Is there anything that the staff has really impressed you with, or is there anything that you learned that surprised you?
Well, first of all, I think our librarians are wonderful, but I also think our support staff — the people behind them, the people that are on the floor, that aren't librarians, our circulation people — are great. I think what impresses me is their service philosophy. They really love working with the public and serving them in the way they need to, and in a changing way.
I had a meeting this morning with staff that is very interested in how we're serving our diverse communities. They're interested in social equity. They really keep abreast on what's current in the library field, and what makes the most sense here. They're passionate about what they do. They're very, very passionate about their love of the profession and serving the public.
I met Ursula Le Guin in Atlanta. I was 31. Ammonite, my first novel, had been accepted for publication as a cheap mass-market paperback and I was trying to figure out how to get it some attention. So I went to Ursula's reading and book signing at a local bookshop and afterwards joined the line that inched closer and closer to her table, clutching one of her books.
Even then I knew that asking a writer on tour to read your book was a bad idea, but also knew that if you don't ask, you don't get. This was before email, before social media, before you could reach out via someone's website; it might be my only chance. There would be no time to articulate how I felt about her work, no opportunity to explain how important it was to me that she was here, that she might read something I had written, something that could not have existed without her and writers like Joanna Russ and Vonda McIntyre, Suzy Charnas and Octavia Butler, who were the latest in a long, long tradition of women levering out the bricks of the wall built to keep us out of the genre garden.
I got to the head of the line. I hesitated. Ursula crackled with impatience.
"I wrote a book," I blurted. "Will you give me a blurb?"
She studied me. "I only consider first novels by women."
"But that's me!" I beamed with reckless hope. "I have a contract from HarperCollins UK and Del Rey!"
She glanced over my shoulder at the line. "Fine. Send it through your editor," and signed the book.
So I persuaded my editor (brand new to the profession, like me — Ammonite was her first acquisition) to photocopy the manuscript on the sly and slip it into the company mail. And then I waited. Ursula sent back a lovely blurb — along with a lecture about the ridiculousness of unpronounceable Irish names. I wrote a thank you, and agreed about the names, which were intended as placeholders until, unhelpfully, the characters had grown into them. That this is who they were now, it was done.
In the last 25 years we've had dinner and lunch, drinks and conversations and a few disagreements. I've seen her cranky and delighted, tired and energetic, vulnerable and carved of adamant. I had always admired the writer, but I seriously like the woman.
I heard the news of Ursula's death on the anniversary of saying goodbye to my dying sister. I was already sad, but my response to Ursula's death shocked me with its strength. I wept helplessly. I wept until I couldn't breathe. And after a pause, I wept more. Ursula was not a close friend yet tears are running down my face as I write this. Why? Because I would not be who and where I am without her.
Ursula would not, in my opinion, have felt flattered to be the SF version of Virginia Woolf: the single woman who can not be erased from the school curriculum, the undergraduate survey course, or retrospective Masters anthology of SF or Modernism. To be seen as inherently different from other women, and for women to be strange unicorns in the wood of a male genre, would have meant that she had failed. She was not the first feminist SFF writer, nor the first to write about gendered worlds. She never claimed to be a trail-blazer or a path-breaker in this sense.
Ursula Le Guin's importance is as a deepener and clarifier of possibility. Her fiction combines cool prose with a burning sense of justice, and bends them in service of a powerful moral imagination to the examination of the human condition. In this examination, her fiction does not flinch. I can't speak to whether she was ever tempted to offer easy answers to difficult questions, but her fiction always refuses the easy choice. Rather, her stories excel at holding strong and opposing ideas in balance. Her fiction is ambiguous without being frustrating. That is her gift and talent.
In person, and in her nonfiction, Ursula was not ambiguous. She was clear, direct, and definite; she did not hesitate to let an interlocutor know when, in her not particularly humble opinion, their ideas were shallow, half-baked, or illogical. Unlike many other women she was not afraid to state her opinions. And unlike many other women, she was not punished for it.
Perhaps this was because her early fiction was dressed in a male persona and so did not hold the righteous rage of her era's other feminist SF; perhaps because she appeared safe — a white, straight-presenting, married upper middle-class mother — and she did not make the male gatekeepers of literary reputation defensive. But perhaps it was because she was so damn good at what she did. Her reputation now is as a colossus. She is a colossus made so partly by her talent, but also by her generosity. Since she gave me that first blurb, she has not only given me another but, more importantly, asked me for one. She didn't need a blurb from me or any other newer writer; it was her way of hauling us up onto the plinth beside her inside that walled garden. And now we are here and have a platform, we in turn are talking about Ursula, and her reputation grows. She deserves every bit of it.
Ursula did not lack a sense of self-esteem. She would have enjoyed many of the accolades being heaped upon her in these eulogies. But what might make her sad as she reads is that today three of those five writers I mention at the beginning do not yet have the reputation they deserve. For centuries the gatekeepers have been building that wall, designed with a single aperture to let through one woman writer at a time. I like to imagine Ursula would snort at this giant game of Highlander, in which There Can Be Only One, and call for us to tear that wall down. To paraphrase her speech at the National Book Awards in 2014: We live in patriarchy, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Resistance and change often begin in art, the art of words.
If you want to honor the memory of Ursula Le Guin, the next time you're asked what you're reading or whose work you love, talk about those the gatekeepers tend to turn away. And get writing.
Wind kicks a few cups down the alley.
Pocketful of stones, a greasy lot.
Morning chill in fleeting sunlight.
You’d rather stay under this blanket agreement.
Not any storm can house you off the cuff.
The troposphere brushes your cold turned cheek.
Wake up. Get the child to school.
Now you are alone in this story
of cornflakes and Tuesday frost.
If you smell gas leak, all the more reason.
If you can walk back your talking point
happier still. Confusion in the hypodermis.
Poverty of whiteness
or hostile witness —
you’ll need a hole to crawl into
soon enough. Who lingers
finds the daylight wary. Who wavers
stands for nothing still. Hyper
nation state of being always out of
reach for the sky. Though you thought
your silence golden.
Though you felt like running
until your feet grew wings. This very morning
a crooked heartbeat stalked you out the door.
If you haven't picked up the winter/spring 2018 issue of Poetry Northwest, get to it: it's waiting in the magazine stand at your local independent bookstore. Every issue has a theme, and this time around it's visual poetry. Poetry Northwest always has a strong graphic element — the look of the publication gets more interesting with every issue — so we're excited to get our eyes on the pages of this one. As part of their sponsorship of the site, the journal's sharing a couple of gorgeous inside peeks with our readers: stop by our sponsorship page to check it out, then subscribe to make sure you don't miss the next issue.
Sponsors like Poetry Northwest make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? If you have a book, event, or opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, reserve your dates now. We've got dates left in June and July (but feel free to contact us behind the scenes if you're interested in later in the year).
Here we are at the end of January and 2018 is already shaping up to be a long year. Everything under the sun is either a disaster or a distraction from a disaster. We’re learning the horrible truth behind the legends that the media has printed for decades, and we’re realizing that nobody has any goddamn clue what’s going on.
It’s important, in the middle of all this chaos and drudgery and nightmare news notifications, to celebrate. Find a thing that you love, something that you’re proud of, and shout about it to anyone who’ll listen. Gather with friends and make a big scene. Enjoy what you have and make it matter.
This Wednesday, the last day of January, at 7 pm in the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library, outgoing Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall will celebrate the end of his triumphant two-year tenure. Marshall has been a great force for poetry in this state, advocating tirelessly for Washington poets, even publishing an anthology of local poets titled WA 129.
Tonight, Marshall passes the torch — it’s a metaphorical torch, don’t get too excited — to the state’s incoming Poet Laureate, Claudia Castro Luna. Luna was until recently Seattle’s Civic Poet, which is basically a poet laureate role for the city. Castro Luna and Marshall will be joined by Seattle’s current Civic Poet, Anastacia-Renee, making this evening a veritable who’s who of government-sponsored poetry. (Somewhere, Paul Ryan is undoubtedly clawing at his own eyes and shrieking into the night at the thought of government cash going to poets at all. Fuck that guy.)
Other Washington poets will be onhand, too, to read their own work and to celebrate Marshall’s tenure and to welcome Castro Luna to the new job. Readers include Duane Niatum, Georgia McDade, Phillip Red Eagle, Quenton Baker, Rachel Kessler, Dawn Pichon Barron, Bill Carty, and Shankar Narayan. Look: it’s dark and wet and cold outside. Why not go where it’s warm and people are smart and appreciative and kind? You know, for a change?
Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.
King County Council introduced an ordinance — Ordinance #2018-0086 — to give the Council more control over 4Culture, the county's cultural funding agency. The ordinance would allow the Council to fire the executive director of the organization, and to name a majority of 4Culture's board of directors. (You can read more about it on 4Culture's own site.)
This all seems rather silly to me. It's not as though 4Culture has done anything wrong — the organization oversees a ton of grants and artist residencies and artist visibility programs, with virtually no controversy and/or scandal along the way.
Look, I'm for big government: health care, regulations, taxes, you name it. But I don't understand why King County Council needs tighter reins over 4Culture. The one part of city life that I don't want the city to have more control over is arts and culture. Why not let the experts handle it? Why give elected officials more control over which artists get what funds and why?
If you agree with me, maybe reach out to the King County Council and ask why, in a county with one of the worst homelessness crises in the nation, this has become a priority. Tell them why you like 4Culture the way it is, and let them know that we don't want more direct Council oversight of our cultural resources.
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.
In this personal essay about the social stigma (and social anxiety) associated with using food stamps, Janelle Harris deftly de-others people who rely on public assistance to feed themselves and their families.
I built a career as a staff writer and editor that didn’t require me to work the same tiring hours in the same factory conditions that my mama did, and still does. I had all the tools I needed to live a life that — if it couldn’t be sleek and sexy like a Maserati — could at least be functional and dependable like a Jeep.
In 2012, when I was fired in an abrupt mass layoff from a job that was supposed to be reliable and steady, I decided to make a full-time pursuit of the freelance writing I’d been doing on the side for years. I knew I was taking a risk, and I was prepared for lean times. As a young single mom, I’d struggled financially through all of my adult years anyway. But I never considered that the trade-off for chasing a slow-materializing dream would be abject poverty.
In response to the backlash against “Grace,” the young woman who spent a more-than-uncomfortable evening with Aziz Ansari, and to Andrew Sullivan’s “testosterone defense,” Lili Loofbourow talks bluntly about bad sex. Can we not distinguish between sexual assault and sexual bullying and still reject both?
One side effect of teaching one gender to outsource its pleasure to a third party (and endure a lot of discomfort in the process) is that they're going to be poor analysts of their own discomfort, which they have been persistently taught to ignore.
In a world where women are co-equal partners in sexual pleasure, of course it makes sense to expect that a woman would leave the moment something was done to her that she didn't like.
That is not the world we live in.
Gentrification happens in waves of displacement; even the “virtuous” wave of artists and writers who make a neighborhood cool are pushing something else aside. Willy Staley has cautionary words for the affluent gentrifiers who push aside the artists — and who think their castles are built on rock.
New York’s skyline is erupting with buildings like these — stacks of cash-stuffed mattresses teetering in the wind. And The Times reported last year that the West Village’s Bleecker Street had fallen victim to “high-rent blight,” with commercial space becoming so expensive ($45,000 a month) that even Marc Jacobs couldn’t keep his stores open; shops that once catered to the wealthy now sit empty, waiting for a tenant who can foot the bill. When the heist is done and it’s time to split the loot, capital snuffs out culture.
Documenting his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Peter Savodnik writes about how the disease devastated his own memories.
Madness is the nub of it. In the beginning, everyone — the patient and the people who love the patient — goes a little crazy. It’s only later, after you begin to see things better — not through the prism of denial or hope, but through statistics — that you realise none of those pills are likely to accomplish anything; that garden therapy and watercolour therapy cannot, in fact, heal damaged tissue; that the numbers cannot be spun. You are in a darkened room without doors or windows.
What are you reading now?
I'm just finishing Langdon Cook's Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon from River to Table. It's an adventurous book — a wilderness of reportage, zigzagging all over the Pacific northwest, from Sacramento, CA to Cordova, AK, from the mouth of the Columbia to the source of the Snake, investigating in detail the history and current status of wild salmon populations. We get the big picture from this book: Native practices, the plundering greed and hydro-technical faith of Euro-settlers that caused salmon populations to plummet, the mixed blessing of the hatchery programs, the wild runs that remain. Cook connects it all to the way we live now: how salmon finds its way to supermarkets and restaurants and backyard grills. His prose is colorful, punchy, brisk — driven by a profound if understated sense for the tragedy of environmental degradation, though his real skill is hooking in the many fascinating, territorial characters who make a living around salmon, bringing their hopes and struggles for a sustainable future to the page.
What did you read last?
I recently finished reading Paisley Rekdal's Imaginary Vessels (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), alongside Jason Whitmarsh's The Histories (Carnegie Mellon Press, 2017) with a group of poetry students. I was interested in exploring what is sometimes called "documentary poetics" from two very distinct angles. Rekdal's book is a brilliant example of this kind of writing: it is many documentary angles in and of itself, including a suite of recombinant sonnets written in the voice of Mae West, and sequence of sonnets paired with photographs of anonymous skulls found buried in a Colorado state mental institution. The abiding pathos with which Rekdal restores these lost voices, the comical and the tragic, deepens our sense of what poetry, as vessel and vicissitude, can accomplish in a time when public memory is all slippery slope and sloppy lies. By comparison, Whitmarsh's table of contents (most begin with the title "History of...," such as "History of Therapy" and "History of Language") reads like the course curriculum of an eccentric liberal arts degree. Most are prose poems, short fables of modern life infused with wry, quiet humor. The prevailing voice is detachment — the dead-pan mode of Lydia Davis comes to mind — detailed like a scientific proof of some elusive emotional experience. As "documentary," these poems remind us that the facts of history may be hard to nail down, but we live inside our own fictions anyway, and we're better off learning how to navigate the absurd than pretending the world can ever be made right or whole or perfectly understood.
What are you reading next?
I have a number of books lined up for a new course I'm teaching in Young Adult Literature, starting with Kirstin Levine's The Lions of Little Rock. It's such a great, eye-opener of a story, depicted in smart detail from the perspective of a shy middle school girl struggling to find her voice. I plan to revisit The Outsiders, and move from there through some recent classics and hopeful bestsellers in the genre — Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, Erica Sanchez's I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Reynolds & Kiley's All American Boys, and others like it. Finding voice is a natural theme of adolescence, of course. So is parsing right from wrong, learning how to recognize truth, forming moral character and judgment. I'm interested in seeing how these themes play out in stories addressing social justice, group adhesion or exclusion, racial segregation, gender conformity, the works. I've got my hands full, no doubt. We'll see how it goes — I'm excited to discover what my students are thinking and seeing now.