Kissing Books: the coded dress

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.

This month I intended to write something frothy about clothing in romance. About the linen and muslin and silk of historicals, the wool suits and high heels of contemporaries, the uniforms of sports romances, the dragon-scarred leathers of fantasy romance, or the nano-regulated synthetic fabrics of the future in SFR (sci-fi romance, for those in the know). But every time I reached into the froth I found a chunk of solid substance underneath that brought me up short.

Consider the dress code.

Fashion, we tell our youth, is a frivolous matter. It marks you as shallow and materialistic (if you’re read as female) and potentially queer (if you’re read as male). It is classed as neither a science nor an art; at best it’s a hobby, harmless but ultimately unimportant.

And we will ban you from school if you do it wrong.

Even the definition of “wrong” depends on so many different factors: geography, audience, time of day, social group, gender, race, religion, body shape, ability. Anyone who has ever overdressed for a party knows how nebulous the rules are, and yet how painful it is when you fail to follow them. Fashion in fiction is even more fraught, because it’s never an accident: it’s chosen (by the author, if not always by the characters), so it can only add meaning. The billionaire’s meticulously tailored suit advertises his power and wealth. The debutante’s pristine gloves are there to be slowly undone, one pearl button at a time.

But this meaning is as slippery as the rules: take, for instance, a red dress. The shy heroine could wear it to show her newly found confidence, which the best friend-turned-lover hero has been helping her build up — or a brash no-nonsense heroine could wear it because she knows she looks awesome and she wants to show the enemy-but-not-for-long hero what he’s missing, the jerk. If the Other Woman is wearing a red dress, it could show she’s sexually aggressive — or it could be because it’s an expensive couture number that flaunts her social status and how faux-perfect she is for our wealthy hero (unlike our poor but authentic heroine). There’s even a famous historical romance where it’s the hero wearing the red dress (Anna Cowan’s Untamed). Clothing motifs, it turns out, are endlessly fluid and adaptable, even when they’re using the same general pattern. I could probably write a fifty-page dissertation just on gloves in historical romance, without ever having to look beyond the books in my personal library. And that’s not even going into the fact that my library is very Western-centric (I’m working on it!) and there’s heaps more possible interpretations when setting romances in non-Western cultural traditions.

Because clothing is never just about fabric, or even just about fabric and bodies. The overall look of a garment depends on the shape and color of the body wearing it, yes — but it also depends on the eye of the beholder, to a degree we don’t always acknowledge openly (unless we’re yelling rebuttals at Project Runway judges because seriously, are we even looking at the same pieces sometimes???). Fashion is a bit like a book, in that sense: one person puts it together, and another person looks at it, and the artistry happens in the space where the building and the looking connect. Fashion is more than just a medium: it’s a language, capable of everything from bawdy limericks to epic tragedies to ephemeral, mutable slang.

This month’s books have a seamstress in Belle Époque Paris, a fat fashionista in modern-day Manila, a runaway Regency bride whose escape ruins more than her gown, a nonbinary Regency heroine who gives up gowns entirely, and a midcentury model for a haute couture house. For some characters, clothing is a business; for others, a vital medium for self-expression and identity. It may be fun (Lady Crystallia’s lavish frocks, Martha’s chic officewear, Robin Selby’s piratical lace cuffs), but it’s never, ever frivolous.

Recent Romances:

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second Books: historical YA nonbinary/f graphic novel):

When my print copy of this lovely book arrived in the mail, it caught Mr. Waite’s eye. He picked it up, flipped to the back, gasped audibly, and slammed the book shut again. “You are going to love this,” he said fervently.

I told this story to a friend who’d given the book five stars. She said: “I know exactly what he was looking at. And yes, you’re going to love it.”

Reader, they were right. I knew the page as soon as I reached it. And heaven help me, but I clapped a hand over my mouth and sobbed aloud in such pure delight that I’m crying a bit right now even thinking about it.

When I reached the end, I went right back to the beginning and read it a second time straight through. It’s that good.

I am now ravenous for other people to read this book. Part of me wants to stand outside on the lawn a la Lloyd Dobbler, but instead of that boombox I’d be holding up a blown-up image of one early moment from page 50 to 51. Partly it’s because this story hits so many of my personal YES PLEASE buttons — seamstress heroine, arranged marriages, historical Paris, fashion as art, queer identity, characters in disguise — but also because it’s just such a beautiful, detailed, and kind piece of work that it feels like a gift Jen Wang has made for all of us. Keeping it to myself feels positively selfish.

Our heroine Frances is a gifted young seamstress working too hard for a thankless boss in Belle Époque Paris. One shocking dress for a prickly client gets her fired — but it also gets her noticed by Prince Sebastian of Brussels. Sebastian’s parents are seeking a princess to betroth him to, but Sebastian would much rather be putting on a red wig and a stunning gown and dazzling Paris as Lady Crystallia, everyone’s favorite fashion trendsetter. The two become partners in couture, best friends, and maybe something more — but political marriages, commercial opportunities, and the constricting nature of secret identities threaten the bond between them.

It may be the happiest happy ending I have read in some time. Plus a rich and sophisticated color palette, dazzling gowns, lovely organic inky brushstrokes, and a bonus feature at the end on the artist’s process that I found absolutely fascinating.

If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman (Midnight Books: contemporary m/f):

It’s a good thing I read this book in digital form, because if I’d been reading it in print there’d be drool stains on every page. Romance novels and food often go hand in hand (check out reviewer Elisabeth Lane’s marvelous Cooking Up Romance, for instance) but this book takes it to new heights.

And cheese hopia and tarragon tea aren’t the only things to yearn for in the pages of this Philippines-set romantic comedy. Our hero Max is a tall, shy, bookish veterinarian who’s so achingly in love with our narrator heroine from the beginning that at times I had to put the book down just to catch my breath. I love a good unrequited plotline, and this one is particularly stunning. Heroine Martha, meanwhile, is distracted from recognizing Max’s feelings (and her own, aaaaaa) by her demanding family and her self-consciousness about her size and her helpless crush on the gorgeous Enzo, her former theater friend — who just happens to be newly engaged to her perfect, petite cousin. And of course they want Martha to be the maid of honor! And do all the party planning!

This story really knows how to twist the drama knife without going over the line into excruciating, and if Martha is a little frustrating at times, well, so is Emma Woodhouse. This is also a book with a fat heroine that’s realistic about shame and microaggressions without making her weight into The Entire Issue of her life. Martha doesn’t have to learn to love herself — but she does have to learn to tell people that she loves her shape, and to imagine that other people might love it too. It’s the kind of book where everyone is perfectly imperfect, which I found delightful even though I wanted to shake every character at least once when they were being stubborn or scared or short-sighted.

Don’t read when hungry. You have been warned.

”Because I loved you,” I said to him. The words spilled out of my mouth before I could stop them, like the beads on a necklace that had snapped. They scattered everywhere, and it was impossible to catch them all now.

A Duke in Shining Armor by Loretta Chase (Avon: historical m/f):

The beginning of this book is a masterpiece in how to start at the latest possible point in a story and let the characters’ actions reveal who they are.

We begin at the wedding. The groom, the Duke of Ashmont, is drunk and growing belligerent. The bride, Lady Olympia Hightower, also drunk, was supposed to walk down the aisle half an hour ago. The groom sends his best friend, the Duke of Ripley, to investigate — he sees the bride slipping out the back window, and hies off in pursuit. But Ripley never did like to follow the rules, so before long instead of dragging the desperate woman back to the altar he’s aiding and abetting her escape. As the chase extends, that first question — just what is our bride running from? — becomes much less important than the second one: just what does our bride really want?

Like de Guzman’s book it’s all very High Comedy, a Regency It Happened One Night. There are falls into mud puddles, a rescued pup, accidentally seeing each other in the bath, sudden thunderstorms soaking people to the skin, and so on. This lightness masks a surprisingly powerful center, though: Ripley’s fall into love in particular is beautifully done, and the sex scenes verge on poetry (good poetry, I should clarify). Oh, and Ripley is a romance reader: he loves a good pulpy story full of feelings, whereas bespectacled, antiquarian Olympia devises her own library organization systems and cares more for original Gutenberg incunabulae than for novels. After a long stretch where I felt Chase’s books were phoning it in, this book shows up with all the chime and energy of a live brass band.

He was a man, and not a virtuous one.

And so, when he should have said, No, wait, and then added something sensible and correct...he didn’t.

Instead, he walked straight into trouble, the way he always did. He walked the few steps to Doing the Wrong Thing. Then she was in his arms, soft and willing and learning far too quickly how to make him delirious.

And now.

Yes, she said.

Yes, of course. What other choice was there?

Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian (Avon Books: historical m/nonbinary):

Three months ago I talked about cross-dressing heroines and Suzanne Enoch’s Lady Rogue. Kit Brantley had been raised as a boy but ends up living as a woman: in Cat Sebastian’s newest, heroine Robin Selby had adopted her late lover’s identity for practical reasons (to protect the man’s sister, who’d been left destitute by the will) but finds that dressing in breeches and waistcoats feels right in a way that gowns and chemises never have. What follows is a long exploration of the difference between what it means to do what’s proper and what it means to do what’s right. It’s a resounding step towards inclusivity for a much-loved but often-dicey romance trope.

Let’s follow Robin’s example and be practical to start: I’ve seen the heroine’s gender described elsewhere as nonbinary, and doing that in a Regency setting definitely presents some challenges. For instance: pronouns. Robin uses she/her for her internal monologue but definitely identifies with gentlemanly things when it comes to manners and mode of dress. One content note: hero Alistair does more than once refer to Robin as a ‘deceiver’ for wearing waistcoats, and pitches a truly epic fit when he first learns of the name-swap. He does not, importantly, have to ‘get over’ the essential fact of Robin’s gender; he’s into both men and women and reasonably comfortable with that. But it was a scene I worried might hit some people more sharply than others, so I wanted to note it here.

Now the subjective stuff: this book is a pleasure that cuts deep. It’s a slow-motion stained-glass heartbreak, all sparkling color and velvet shadow and sharp edges slicing you without mercy. Cat Sebastian definitely draws her couples as strong contrasts, and here Robin is sunshine and springtime, while Alistair is all brooding stodginess and stern propriety. Up to a point, of course. Robin’s charm masks a yawning fear that she has no real identity — no family, no status, and most painfully no name — and this makes her prone to extreme self-sacrifice. It’s easy to give up everything when you feel like none of it really belongs to you. And Alistair’s tendency to go full supervillain to protect his loved ones clearly brings him more devious pleasure than it should: he flings money at problems, wields his privileges like weapons, and at one point actually threatens an antagonist while sitting in a library chair and stroking a cat. He’s been working all his life to be the opposite of his spendthrift, drink-sodden, orgy-loving, bastard-fathering father. Watching him learn to let his human heart show is satisfying; watching Robin learn to really feel as carefree as she pretends is painfully sweet. I devoured the whole thing in a single afternoon and was then good and useless for the next three days. If you need something to give you a book hangover like you’re Bertie Wooster after a bender, this is the book for you.

Alistair walked directly to the stables and was in his traveling chaise within a quarter of an hour. By the time he realized he was still holding the kitten it was too late to turn back.

This Month’s Vintage Harlequin Heroine

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell (Harlequin Romance: contemporary m/f):

A good category romance has all the effortless, exquisite clarity of a fine diamond: everything that doesn’t sparkle is ruthlessly polished away until only the light is left. This is the oldest romance I have reviewed so far, but even though it was first published in 1954 it fizzes like the cork was just popped. Heroine Anthea is freshly heartbroken and semi-destitute in mid-century Paris; she stumbles into a hair salon to avoid an awkward encounter and lands herself a job as a mannequin (read: model) for the best couture house in France. She steps onto the runway in a dazzling wedding gown — only to see her caddish ex-fiancé there in the front row, with his new bride-to-be! The stakes are personal but they feel infinitely meaningful; this is the kind of book where a spill of Merlot is as good as a murder. Like most categories of the old school, it’s told entirely from the heroine’s point of view, so that we are not even certain of who the real hero is until very nearly the end of the book. (We can be reasonably sure it’s not the caddish ex-fiancé.) It’s all a delightful confection, full of lustrous fabrics, seething jealousies, and shimmering tears.

Also, this book helped fight Nazis.

Okay technically not this book — but its author Ida Cook (writing as Mary Burchell) used the funds from her romance career in the 1930s to fund trips to Germany for herself and her sister. They went ostensibly to see some of the great opera performances of the age. In reality, they were smuggling valuables out of the country to help Jewish refugees, in direct defiance of Nazi law. Britain only allowed immigration for those who had either employment or sufficient funds to support themselves, but Jewish emigrants weren’t permitted to take possessions or funds out of Germany. It was a terrible bind. The Cook sisters would arrive at the border in plain clothing, and leave bedecked in jewels and furs, which they’d return to the owners once reunited in Britain. If any border guards asked why they were so kitted out, they played the eccentric spinsters and said they had untrustworthy relatives at home, so they always traveled with all their jewelry. This worked at least a dozen times, and after the war the sisters were named Righteous Gentiles.

“You are what you do,” Ida is quoted as saying. We should all have such clarity of purpose.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Flipping the bird at dystopian cynicism

I have written before about how much I detest Mark Millar's Old Man Logan story. It's the worst of modern superhero comics: cynical, try-hard, a crass rip-off of a significant pop cultural icon (Millar should have to pay royalty checks to Clint Eastwood for what he did to Unforgiven.) Somehow the series, which imagined Wolverine living in a dystopian future in which the Hulk breeds with his cousin to father a posse of inbred hulkbillies, managed to inspire Hugh Jackman's final Wolverine movie, Logan - a film with all the heart and thoughtfulness that the original series lacked. But that's the only good thing to ever come out of Old Man Logan

Until now. The 33rd issue of All-New Wolverine, which follows the adventures of Wolverine's younger female clone Laura, kicks off a new storyline called Old Woman Laura. Written by Tom Taylor and illustrated by Ramon Rosanas, this series seems to be a direct response to Old Man Logan - a critique and a call to better superheroic storytelling.

I haven't read a single issue of All-New Wolverine before this one, but I could still easily follow the action. Laura - a character that almost everyone knows, thanks to Dafne Keen's heartfelt portrayal in Logan - is a national leader in a utopian future. She's mentoring an even-younger clone of herself, Gabby, who has taken on the Wolverine name for herself. (This is not the ugly, grim Wolverine of the 1990s: Gabby makes her grand entrance in the comic by groaning at the bad guys, "Urgh, you're the worst.") Laura learns that her time on Earth might be numbered, so she decides to fix the two biggest mistakes from her past: give one person a second chance, and kill another person who escaped justice.

Where Old Man Logan was nasty and mean, Old Woman Laura is fun and compassionate. "We fought against greed and hate and fear. And we actually made the world a better place. The heroes won," Laura announces in the first few pages. It's accompanied by a cityscape drawn by Rosanas that shows glimmering towers and huge expanses of vegetation, all in lush shades of green. It's a beautiful world - one that laughs in the face of Old Man Logan's loathsome dustbowl.

Of course, things could go wrong between this first issue and the end of the Old Woman Laura storyline, but Laura's quote above seems to be the mission statement for the book, a refutation of the cynical worldview espoused by Millar in Old Man Logan. Millar argued that even if heroes did their best, they'd still lose because the natural order of things is to decay and turn sour. Taylor and Rosanas seem to take Millar's vision into account, talk amongst themselves, and then reply, "yeah, fuck that." I'm with them.

Shining lights on the dark corners of the internet

The word that set most of the Reading Through It Book Club on edge last night was "transgressive." That word shows up a lot in Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. She quotes Milo Yiannopolous and other alt-right figures who call themselves "transgressive," and she seems to buy into the word a fair amount.

But are the men who call themselves men's rights activists and gamergaters and white separatists online really "transgressive?" If you take them at their word, in fact, they're regressive: they want to return to what they imagine to be the glory days in America, when white men were at the top of the pyramid and everybody else was considered to be a second- or third-class citizen.

But really, it's hard to believe that most of these online trolls actually believe they can turn back the clock to the bad old days. And they don't care about the social norms that they're shattering. They're not transgressive. They're not regressive. The truth is, they just want to blow everything up, just to see if they can.

Kill All Normies is not a very well-constructed book. It's in dire need of some strong editorial thrashing. Nagle inserts her own glib opinions in awkward moments. Her description of the birth of Gamergate contains some serious inaccuracies. One whole misbegotten chapter is devoted to comparing Yiannopolous to Pat Buchanan. A member of the book club bought an edition of Kill All Normies that misspells Barack Obama's first name in the very first sentence of the book. The thing reeks of a rush to publication in an effort to seem relevant.

But here's the thing: one day, someone will write the essential history of men in online culture. The book will cover the birth of 4Chan and Reddit, it will uncover anonymous identities, it will examine the actual real-world percentage of men who take part in these subcultures, and it will chronicle their transition from harmless trolls to gamergaters to MAGA-heads. That book is undoubtedly being written right now, and it will take time to get it right.

For now, I'm happy that Nagle is elbowing her way into the conversation, even if her arguments are sloppy and her thesis is weak. The thing is, many people still don't fully understand or care what online cultures are doing to our men. Average Americans see the words "trolls" or "normies" and they think of harmless nerds sitting in their basements. Nagle's book is at least the beginning of a discussion of how that online hatred - hatred which starts as ironic joking and ends with very real rage - is activating an entire generation of young men, weaponizing their language, and pointing them at any target they can find.

We had a great discussion about Normies last night at Third Place Books Seward Park. We discussed the limits of free speech, the perils of anonymity, the heartbreak of the whole ugly situation. Normies is a hard book to love, but it stirs up some important conversations in the moment.

The Reading Through It Book Club meets next at Third Place Books Seward Park at 7 pm on Wednesday, May 2nd. We'll be discussing The Line Becomes a River, which Donna Miscolta beautifully reviewed on this site yesterday. The book is 20 percent off right now at Third Place. I hope you'll join us.

The mystery of the underlined sevens

Yes, the world is terrible, but every now and then you deserve a good thing. Follow this thread. I swear it's worth it.

Trying to make sense of the border

Published April 04, 2018, at 12:00pm

Donna Miscolta reviews Francisco Cantú's The Line Becomes a River.

At the border between Mexico and the United States, lines run much deeper than the surface of a map.

Read this review now

"I think of them as propaganda for poets"

Tomorrow night at Core Gallery from 6 to 9 pm, Expedition Press founder Myrna Keliher will debut On Edge, a month-long show of her series of Broken Broadsides prints.

Over the phone, Keliher explains the project: you take the concept of a broadside (which she describes as "a poster of a poem") and focus it, centering the work on "a few lines broken out and then reframed in a different context." Keliher asks a poet for new work, and then she works in collaboration with the poet, selecting lines and emphasizing words through size and arrangement in "a graphic interpretation of my reading."

These Broken Broadsides aren't intended to be elite collectibles. Keliher wants them to be mass market, affordable, and accessible - "stick it on the fridge," she laughs. "It's all open edition. They're not meant to be very special." Why is that important to her? "I think of them as propaganda for poets," she says, "like breadcrumbs to hopefully get people down a trail of discovery and start reading."

The list of poets who'll be represented at On Edge is impressive: Cedar Sigo, Natalie Diaz, Jane Wong, Shin Yu Pai, Amber Flame, Erin Malone, Elaina Ellis, Leanne Dunic, Tom Gilroy, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, and Holly Wren Spaulding. Keliher's role in the Broken Broadsides process is an interesting one: she's at once an editor and a graphic designer.

Since she recontextualizes the work, emphasizing different words through graphic design, Keliher is at once supporting the writer and collaborating with them. She says she's still struggling to come to terms with the way the Broken Broadsides changes the poems through their interpretation. "I just got feedback from an author yesterday, saying, 'you just helped me see the poem in a totally different way - in a new way.'"

Keliher still thinks of the process as an active kind of reading. "The lines that I select are, really simply, just the lines that I can't forget - the lines I'd get stuck in my head." From the selection process, she has to then find a way to make those lines work on their own. "I think a lot about stripping away context and I think about surface area and access to lines and entry points in" to the work.

"When I started the project, it felt very radical," Keliher says. "In the literary world and as an editor, it's not something you ever are allowed to do, especially in poetry: you don't change the line break, or make words bigger, or omit lines in between." But even though the poets' response to the Broken Broadsides program has been overwhelmingly positive, "it's still very uncomfortable every time I send one [to a poet for the first time] because it's a major act of trust that they're giving me."

Keliher will be at the opening at Core tomorrow night from 6 to 9, and some of the poets will be in attendance, too. On April 25th at 7 pm at Core, many of the poets whose work was featured in the show will read the complete poems that Keliher excerpted from in an event that should make clear how much collaboration goes into each Broken Broadside.

Consider celebrating National Poetry Month by writing poems

April is National Poetry Month. While for many readers and lovers of poetry this means a bit more time than normal looking through the pages of your favorite chapbook, and lingering in the well-stocked poetry sections of Seattle's many indie bookstores (the best-stocked, of course, being the store that is made up entirely of poetry), if you're a poet (or would like to become a poet), April offers you a compelling challenge: it's also National Poetry Writing Month.

National Poetry Writing Month, or NaPoWriMo (after the better known National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo), has a simple idea: write one poem each day in April. Some participants choose to post their daily output on their blogs, but there's no requirement to share. Just write a poem each day, and you're participating. Even if you never tell anybody. Even if you keep it close to your chest.

Today being April 3rd may be a convenient excuse to not start, after all, you've already missed two days. But consider writing anyway: if you end the month with 28 poems, you're 28 poems ahead of where you were at the start of April. During the month, you may just find the inspiration to write two extra, in any case.

Kelli Russell Agodon, local poet, and cofounder/editor of Two Sylvias Press, had some sage advice for NaPoWriMo participants on her Twitter feed (make sure to click through and read the whole thread).

It's no secret that we here at the Seattle Review of Books are poetry lovers. We've been publishing poetry each week since our launch, first individual poems in a chain of poets recommending other poets, then starting in 2017 with a Poet in Residence project. If you're looking for inspiration, or good reading, look at our archives.

There are a million topics worth writing about in our bustling and growing city. Someday, maybe we'll get to read a poem that started during this April. We can't wait.

As soon as the man says to the little girl, “I want to touch you,”

            a saw stirs up its loud whine
            to separate the limbs of the tree
            from its trunk.

A car stereo begins playing
                        the entire soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam

      and she hears “hot and wet” “hot and wet” —
                                    “it’s nice if you’re with a lady”

                  and she feels the last, labored breath of Robin Williams
                        like a dull machete attempting to slice through the swamp grass
                                    as he suffocates himself
                                                outside his closet door

and all of the suicides inside of her
                                    lift their heads and eyes,
                        like turtles lined up alongside
a creek in which
                                    the bruised, naked torso
                                                of a woman floats by,
her breasts full of gravity, nipples staring off dully to either side
            as if she never in her entire life
                                                            saw anything that surprised her

            The man does not reach out to touch
                        the girl, though his intention
               is like the sheet pulled back
                           from the skin of that dead body —

there’s no stopping it now,
            not the unfeeling hands that lift the cover

            nor the grief that will live
                forever in the blood        of the mother
                        who stands over her daughter’s torso, the roots of her severed limbs

not even able to speak the words

            Yes, that’s her                                         that’s her

One week left to reserve a seat at Anne Lamott's April 8 event

Sponsor Northwest Associated Arts returns to remind us that Anne Lamott will be at Benaroya Hall next week. Don't miss this event; Lamott is beloved by readers and writers, and this city is packed with both — the room will be full of energy, from the stage and from the seats.

Whether you're a follower of Lamott's Bird by Bird writing guide or a fan of her thoughtful, direct, and funny novels and essays, you should take the chance to see her in person. She's a sharp, warm, and witty speaker and an iconic presence. Get more information on our sponsor’s page, or buy tickets here.

If you're interested in joining our community of sponsors and putting your book or event in front of our readers — check out the last dates available in the first half ot he year. We'd love to meet you.



Photo credit: Mark Richards.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from April 2nd - April 8th

Monday, April 2: Turn This Book Into a Beehive Reading

This is a reading for a book that explains bees to children. But that's burying the lede. This is "a book that turns into a working beehive to house a colony of friendly, efficient-and non-stinging!-mason bees." Holy fucking shit! Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, April 3: The Consciousness Instinct Reading

Michael S. Gazzaniga is a neuroscientist. His latest book examines the couple handfuls of goop inside our skulls that somehow manages to simultaneously sit there doing nothing and also deliver us the entire universe with very little effort. PATH Auditorium, 2201 Westlake Avenue, 7:30 pm.

Wednesday, April 4: Reading Through It Book Club

The post-Trump book club from the Seattle Review of Books and the Seattle Weekly meets every month to discuss a single aspect of our garbage current events. Sometimes we come away feeling a little more hopeful! Today's selection is Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, April 5: Rebecca Brown and Nico Vassilakis

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Gallery 1412, 1412 18th Ave, 7 pm, free.

Friday, April 6: Songs of Dismantling Reading

According to press materials, Fernando Pérez's debut collection of poems "employs lyric and nonce forms to interrogate identity politics and piece together a complex family history." Here's the thing: even if the book was bad — and it doesn't look like it will be — Pérez is debuting the book with three great local poets. Bojan Louis, Naa Akua, and Jane Wong will help see the book into the world. That alone is good reason to show up. Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org., 7 pm, free.

**Saturday, April 7: Democracy in Chains Reading**

Nancy MacLean, who teaches public policy at Duke University, comes to town with her in-depth exploration of extreme conservatism, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. Greenwood Senior Center, 525 N 85th St, 4 pm, $5.

*Sunday, April 8: Writers Read

Local authors read new work and answer your questions about the writing life, and then you get an opportunity to read your own work at an open mic.

Seattle Public Library, Columbia City Branch, 4721 Rainier Ave S, 386-1908, http://spl.org, 2 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: Rebecca Brown, Kreg Hasegawa, and Nico Vassilakis

Rebecca Brown, the smartest writer in Seattle, has been out of commission recovering from a broken ankle. But with spring poking its fuzzy little head out of the newly muddy earth, Brown seems eager to get off the couch and out into the world with at least two events this month. This Thursday at Gallery 1412, Brown will be reading new and old work to celebrate her long winter's hibernation and her new spring awakening.

Brown is helping to celebrate two other writers with local ties. Kreg Hasegawa, one of the tech-savviest employees at the Seattle Public Library, is somehow finding the time during the library's website relaunch to launch a new chapbook into the world. (Hasegawa, of course, is a member of the Margin Shift poetry collective, so he knows his poetry.)

Either of these authors alone would be reason to show up for a reading, but they're joining together to celebrate a very special occasion: the triumphant return of Seattle poet Nico Vassilakis. Vassilakis, one of the world's preeminent visual poetry experts, lived here for years before leaving town for New York City a while back. In the time since, he's been hard at work blurring the line between visual art and poetry - between language and symbols and design.

Vassilakis is visiting town to celebrate the release of his newest book, In The Breast Pocket of a Fine Overcast Day Unlike some of his more outrageous visual poetry work, Pocket is a collection of more conventional poems written between 2010 and 2015. These are poems about love and subways and beauty and death and all the subjects that move poets to write.

Vassilakis was for years a pillar of the poetry community, representing at poetry and comics events all around town, and supporting poets as they started out. This brief return - especially with a book of poems that were in part written here - is a special kind of homecoming.

Gallery 1412, 1412 18th Ave, 7 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for April 1, 2018

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.

Ten Times Gravity

Reading this essay by Richard Chiem is like being run over by a very gentle freight train; there’s a vibration on the tracks, then suddenly you’re aflight — slightly stunned, wondering how something that looked far off got so close so fast. He’s talking about confidence, about childhood, about cruelty, about love, and in every paragraph he fixes himself and his reader to a point, then quietly flips it and leaves you both spinning. Hard to excerpt, especially because every paragraph’s so carefully crafted and so very much of its place; just click the link.

I ghost at parties because I’m a ghost inside. You will never know it, but I’m reanimating myself right in front of you, all beneath the surface, because I am too much in my own head. I am thinking what to say, how to say it. I am thinking how much it takes to be in a room. It takes so much to be in a room.

My mother, unfortunately, was a cruel person, and my childhood, unfortunately, was her masterpiece. I am made from mostly water and one hundred thousand beatings. I am made of hyperbole and perhaps one hundred dozen beatings.

Letters: Iris Murdoch

Sometimes you just wake up in an Iris Murdoch mood, you know? Maybe you have time for this conversation between biographer James Atlas and Murdoch, from 1990. Or if you’re nearing the bottom of your coffeecup, try this tiny collection of letters from a young Murdoch to Raymond Queneau, an older and then more successful writer, in which she wields her stunning mastery of language to express all the glorious awkwardness of a literary crush.

If the devil were bargaining with me for my soul, I think what could tempt me most would be the ability to write as well as you. Tho’ when I reflect, in my past encounters with that character he has not lacked other good bargaining points ...
The year in Trump novel pitches

Literary agent Erik Hane reads his slush pile like it’s tea leaves for the state of society.

. . . no matter the state of the world, the truly great manuscripts will always be a small fraction the slush. That’s publishing. But if you want a window into the collective state of our writing lives, it’s not the successes that do the revealing — it’s the far larger, unseen body of attempts, false starts, and misshapen Trump novels that reveals that something inside us has been knocked off its axis.
When the Heavens Stopped Being Perfect

Sometimes it’s better not to see the things we love too closely. Alan Lightman on how we lost the perfection of the stars.

Although the history of science has not awarded Messenger the same laurels as Newton’s Principia or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, I regard it as one of the most consequential volumes of science ever published. In this little book, Galileo reports what he saw after turning his new telescope toward the heavens: strong evidence that the heavenly bodies are made of ordinary material, like the winter ice at Lute Island. The result caused a revolution in thinking about the separation between heaven and earth, a mind-bending expansion of the territory of the material world, and a sharp challenge to the Absolutes. The materiality of the stars, combined with the law of the conservation of energy, decrees that the stars are doomed to extinction. The stars in the sky, the most striking icons of immortality and permanence, will one day expire and die.

Whatcha Reading, Jennifer Haupt?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Jennifer Haupt is a Seattle-based journalist, and now, novelist. Her first, In the Shadow of Ten Thousand Hills, comes out tomorrow, April 1st. Join her, in conversation with Jennie Shortridge, for her book release celebration, Friday, April 6th, at 7:00pm at The Elliott Bay Book Company.

What are you reading now?

I’m obsessed with interesting family relationships, the way we build families and the legacy of dysfunction and passion that is passed from generation to generation. Now I’m reading Jhumpa Lahari’s new collection of linked short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, which is fabulous because it takes readers to different locales, familiar (to me) and far-flung: Seattle, Cambridge, India and Thailand. The stories explore various family relationships and the emotional territory that comes along with that.

What did you read last?

The last novel I read was Before Everything, by Victoria Redel. This is a beautifully written, funny and touching, story about the power of female friendships. The story is wonderful and the structure is engaging. These women are frail and funny, and a kind of extended family.

What are you reading next?

Next up for me is The Other Alcott, by Elise Hooper. I’m a bit late on the uptake for this novel about the real sisters behind the characters in Little Women, which has received excellent reviews. I usually stick to contemporary novels, which is a little weird since much of my novel takes place during the civil rights era in Atlanta and the Rwanda genocide of 1994, but sometimes I do like to dip into other time periods. Now, I’m really wanting to escape into a time when life in our country was simpler.

March's Post-it note art from Instagram

Over on our Instagram page, we're posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson's Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here's her wrap-up and statement from March's posts.

March's Theme: Sarahs

Life has presented me with many Sarahs; I believe I am not unique in this experience. But I’ve only ever had two main Sarahs — that rare and special Sarah who stays untethered to any modifier (specifying last name, perhaps, or that I mean so-and-so’s Sarah). I’ve been thinking about them. I wrote about one last month — she was my Sarah in college, just for a few years before her death. I find it isn’t tidy, I don’t stop thinking of her just because her death month is over, or a piece of writing is finished. My first Sarah, the surviving one, has a birthday this month. We met in preschool, reconnected in 3rd grade, were mutually ready to commit as friends forever around 8th or 9th (it may have taken a little longer for us to say the words, but I like to think we both knew). She is as different from me emotionally as I could possibly imagine. She is also loyal, thoughtful — somehow knows when I need help, mysteriously can give it in small wordless actions like staying late to do dishes, or coming over to watch a movie, that turn out to mean a world to me in that moment. Every year, starting in high school, we attend the Dina Martina Christmas Show together. As teenagers I think we assumed it was a long-existing tradition for the adults there, but now I see that the show started the same year we first went. Sometime after my divorce, Sarah sent a text thanking me for a ride home after that year’s show. The fact that her spontaneous dating pep talk casually equates my ideal partner with a brilliantly unhinged drag persona (I can’t even describe her, you need to look her up if you don’t know) is perfectly, endlessly charming.

The Help Desk: I wish I hadn't agreed to edit my friend's memoir

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

There’s this couple I’ve been friends with for years. One of them is writing a memoir, which I agreed to edit.

When I got the manuscript, I realized it documents a bunch of stuff I wish I didn’t know — without getting too specific, there are stories in this thing that call their entire relationship into question.

What’s my obligation to both of my friends here? I don’t think I can spend months working through the text and keeping those deep dark secrets to myself. On the other hand, “do I tell the girlfriend” is such a sad, tired story. It’s not really my business, maybe she already knows, and I did say I’d help bring this baby book into the world.

Help!

Carol, International District

Dear Carol,

You sound like the type of well-meaning person who lets crafty Mormon missionaries in your house to use your bathroom, ignorant of the fact that the anus is the gateway to the soul and its sanctuary should be protected at all costs. Or who is annually tricked into donating to the Humane Society by those personalized address labels they send out, ignorant of the fact that the Humane Society is a subsidiary of the Lisa Frank empire and saving furry lives is a front to push tacky office items.

Sweet, trusting Carol. In most instances, memoir has become a pretentious word for "journal." No friend should be forced to read, let alone edit, another friend's journal. (An aside to memoir-writing folks: Do not ask friends to read your manuscript – it is only appropriate to ask friends to read your memoir if/when it is published. In the interim, find a writing group full of aspirational memoirists and you can all take turn making each other's eyes bleed through the editing process. It is only fair.)

But the deed is done and now the mundane horrors contained within are forever stamped on your brain. At this point, your obligation is to yourself and your sanity. Approach your journaling friend and say something like, "Hey, I wish you would've given me a head's up about some of this content, as it's pretty personal and puts me in an awkward position with your partner. Have they read it yet?"

If they have not, tell your friend that you don't feel comfortable editing their journal any further, and point out that if they were truly serious about getting it published, their partner will read it eventually and they should have that talk now. If their partner is aware, suck it up and tell the journaler they owe you a keg for your mental anguish. Then finish editing the damn thing and immediately hang a "No Soliciting" sign on your front door.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: umbrellas

Mail Call for March 29, 2018

The Seattle Review of Books is currently accepting pitches for reviews. We’d love to hear from you — maybe on one of the books shown here, or another book you’re passionate about. Wondering what and how? Here’s what we’re looking for and how to pitch us.

Portrait Gallery: Charles Johnson

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

Thursday, March 29th:
Word Works: Charles Johnson
Tonight Hugo House is welcoming Johnson to give a talk about the craft of writing as part of their Word Works series. He’ll be delivering a lecture based on his essay “Storytelling and the Alpha Narrative,” and then he’ll take audience questions on just about any writing-related topics they can imagine. It’s an opportunity to listen to one of our most consequential authors, and to drink in a tiny sip of his oceans of expertise.
Annex Theatre. 1100 E Pike St, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $15

Samantha Cole writes at Motherboard:

In the last few days, word has spread among independent erotica authors on social media that Amazon was quietly changing its policies for erotic novels. Five authors I spoke to, and several more on social media, have reported that their books were stripped of their best seller rankings—essentially hiding them from casual browsing on the site, and separating them from more mainstream, safe-for-work titles.

Coincidentally, serial-fiction app Radish has also just eliminated all erotica from its digital shelves. Nate Hoffelder at the Digital Reader writes:

According to Andrew Shaffer and a number of other people on Twitter, Radish has sent an email to writers who sell stories in the app that is changing its content policy. In order to comply with Apple's content policy for the iTunes app store, Radish is removing all erotica from its app.

You know who still has erotica available for you to buy? Your local independent bookstore.