Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our first author is novelist Anca Szilágyi.
This spring, I cackled all the way through Elaine Dundy's novel The Dud Avocado, the story of Sally Jay Gorce, a 21-year-old American in 1950s Paris who is a delightful hot mess. It's my kind of "beach read" (if I went to beaches) and should be a welcome reprieve from the darkest months.
These events came in too late for me to add to our readings calendar, but you should definitely know about them: This coming Sunday, December 3rd, Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee is hosting two very different events.
The first event, Speak to Me! is billed as "an intergenerational monthly reading series showcasing emerging and seasoned poets," and the reading is "followed by a 30-minute optional writing workshop facilitated by Anastacia-Renee and visiting workshop facilitators." Readers/facilitators at this event include Seattle poets Robert Francis Flor, Jalayna Carter, and the fabulous Quenton Baker. It starts at 1 pm and runs to 3:30, and it's at the Black Zone, which is located at 2301 S. Jackson St. in suite 203.
Then, Anastacia-Renee will scramble across town to a 5 pm reading she's curating at Open Books in Wallingford. This reading will include Anastacia-Renee's precedessor in the Civic Poet program, Claudia Castro Luna. (Castro Luna will become the Washington State Poet Laureate next year.) They'll be joined by Lily Baumgart, who's serving as Seattle's Youth Poet Laureate, and local novelist Sonora Jha, who is currently Hugo House's Writer in Residence. And if that's not enough, other readers include the wonderful Jekeva Phillips and Open Books's very first Poet-in-Residence, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.
I have already marveled at the fact that Anastacia-Renee is a dynamo of poetry, but this Sunday is a herculean feat of poetic performance. Do you think you can keep up? She's daring you to try.
To make the banana naked, crack
its neck and peel its jacket. To make
the bed naked, throw back the sheet
and the cotton blanket and the down one, too,
along with whatever's been whispered to
them in the damp minutes around midnight.
To make the dog naked, let the mange
rake and ravage, the tiny mites like
humpbacked handmaids, plucking a hair,
dropping it overboard, scraping away the skin.
To make the moment naked, take a look
right at it: Under your gaze, the wrapping
of what might happen slides down
its shoulder and slumps to the hardwoods,
drowned in a pool of shadow. Nakedness
means now, the very is-ness of being. Time
is nippling toward us and we dare not
glance aside, dare not toss the subject
out the window, flip the page to stop
the topic of how to bear so much to bare.
Branches in January are naked.
The inside of eggshells is naked.
Wrong notes on the cheap guitar
when the child is tired and sad are naked.
The bike, bound to the stop sign
by a spiral of steel, shorn of its tires,
stricken by the nightglow: naked.
The man's face at the graveside
of his child, a nakedness sheer
enough to tear the fabric of everyone
nearby and leave them dangling there,
threadworn and bleeding out memory,
skinned by the minute that is now upon us,
shaved of everything but the we that are in it.
This week, the Seattle Review of Books is sponsored by Paul Mullin, playwright, poet, and creator/curator of the Loud Mouth Lit reading series. We're infinitely grateful to Paul for supporting the site and for sharing a chapter from his memoir, The Starting Gate, with our readers. The excerpt is a great standalone story: the down-and-dirty (or up-and-clean) on the dangers of washing windows on a New York highrise when you're a young writer with three jobs and no time to sleep. And it's an irresistible entry point for Mullin's no-holds-barred style.
Buy a copy of The Starting Gate here. Or come out for this month's edition of Loud Mouth Lit, at St. Andrew's Bar on Tuesday night, to hear Mullin read — Lindy West is also on the marquee, so it should be a brilliant night for anger done funny — and pick up a copy while you're there.
Sponsors like Paul Mullin make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? Slots for spring and summer 2018 are open now and going fast. If you have a book, event, or opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, reserve your dates now.
See our Event of the Week column for more details.
Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, $30.
The last full moon of the 2017 calendar year falls on Sunday, December 3rd. It is known as the ‘cold moon.’ We will honor this astral event with an evening of lunar readings. Location details to be announced. Reader list to be announced. The event will be free and open to the public, so please share widely.
Readers and "ritualists" include Abi Pollokoff, Elizabeth Cooperman, Eric Westerlind, Evan Peterson, Jason Kirk, Justine Chan, Lydia Swartz, Matt Trease, Paul Nelson, Rachel Nelson, and Thomas Walton.
Pritchard Island Beach, 8400 55th Ave S, 7 pm, free.
Andy Weir’s The Martian is a rare self-publishing success story. The Martian first began on a blog, in which Weir presented a series of problems relating to life on Mars followed with a cliffhanger, only to solve the cliffhanger in the next installment. And it must be said that The Martian is a ton of fun to read — basically, the dictionary definition of “page-turner.” Somehow, The Martian even defied the odds of adaptation, becoming a phenomenally watchable movie, too.
(Ask me to choose between the book and the film version of The Martian and I’d be hard-pressed to pick a side; while Weir’s original book contains a ton of nerdy detail that didn’t make it into the film, the film has Matt Damon at his most charismatic and a glowing ensemble cast. I love them both in different ways.)
And now Andy Weir is back with his sophomore novel, Artemis and, well…let’s just say the sophomore slump is more than just a boogeyman. It’s not that Artemis is a terrible book, but it does pale in comparison to The Martian. It’s the sci-fi story of a heist on the moon, and it never really finds a comfortable cruising altitude. Artemis doesn’t enjoy the wheels-fall-off speed of The Martian; in fact at times it positively drags.
That said, Artemis is simply uneven; it’s not bad enough to make you reconsider the appeal of Weir’s first book (Ernest Cline’s Armada single-handedly kicked off the Ready Player One backlash, for instance; that doesn’t happen here.) And so far as sophomore slumps go, Artemis fulfills its purpose: it clears the decks, identifies Weir as a mortal who makes mistakes, and sets the stage for him to do whatever he damn well pleases with his third book. Without The Martian’s looming presence hanging over Weir, he’s finally free to do what he wants.
Even though Artemis is a disappointment, you’ll want to come out to the launch party for the book on Thursday November 30th at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Weir will appear in conversation with Seattle’s own Neal Stephenson, and this is bound to be a conversation for the ages. Both writers are brainy, detail-oriented engineer types — Stephenson’s explosive novel Seveneves shares some DNA with The Martian — and they’re likely to blow your mind with the level of granular nerdy detail they’re willing to dig into. This conversation is absolutely the sci-fi nerd’s dream come true.
Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, $30.
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.
This is the must-read of the week, and not just because it’s Claire Dederer, which means it’s sharp and funny and expresses anger and feelings in the most satisfyingly vulnerable-but-also-take-no-prisoners way possible. I mean, that’s a perfectly good reason to read it. We could stop there.
But also read it because it turns out that our creator-heroes don’t just have feet of clay, they have been absolutely wading through shit, and it’s spattered all of us. Now we have to deal with what that means for everything important and beautiful they made — all the important and beautiful things that became part of us — and the making of important and beautiful things at all.
The thing is, I'm not saying I'm right or wrong. But I'm the audience. And I'm just acknowledging the realities of the situation: the film Manhattan is disrupted by our knowledge of Soon-Yi; but it’s also kinda gross in its own right; and it's also got a lot of things about it that are pretty great. All these things can be true at once. Simply being told by men that Allen's history shouldn’t matter doesn’t achieve the objective of making it not matter.
What do I do about the monster? Do I have a responsibility either way? To turn away, or to overcome my biographical distaste and watch, or read, or listen?
And why does the monster make us — make me — so mad in the first place?
Thanksgiving — especially in the American West, a scant year after the police attack on protesters at Standing Rock (and a scant week after the largest spill yet from the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota) — represents some of our nation’s very worst moments, all knotted up with family and tradition and community in a way we just can’t seem to tease apart. Elissa Washuta writes brilliantly about reclaiming a sense of belonging from the sticky tangle of America’s most problematic feast day.
It's been a decade since I spent a Thanksgiving with my parents. After I moved to the West Coast, the holiday wasn't important enough to me to justify the expense of a cross-country flight. For the last ten years, I've spent Thanksgiving with friends or relatives or alone. I've never liked Thanksgiving and for a while, I couldn't figure out why: I like and love my family and I like to eat. I decided it was the football, or the years of packing my body with stuffing while suffering from undiagnosed celiac disease, or the anxiety, later, of trying to avoid both gluten and the anxious shame of making others think about it. Really, though, I'm uncomfortable committing to a six-hour stretch spent with other people (even those I'm fond of), no activity planned but eating, no hiding place for me to retreat to, and no way to silence the mean critic in my head who begins analyzing my words at the two-hour mark. I dread any event that fits this description. Thanksgiving is only different because my Nativeness has let me get away with hating it.
You’ll find this correspondence between reporter John Branch and Walter Peat, father of an NHL “enforcer” with concussion-related health and behavioral issues, nestled between headlines celebrating the sport on the hockey page on the New York Times website. It’s a short read, but a unique perspective on how badly big-money sports organizations are failing their players — a raw appeal for help that had not, at the time of publication, yet appeared.
I am at a loss of what to do, and who to turn to for help. Many night, I lose countless hours of sleep, thinking of what will happen, and am I doing the right thing. There are so many people who prefer to put a paper bag over their head and ignore the fact that Stephen or so many players suffer from these injuries. But, the injuries just don’t stop there, as the emotional, financial, and in some cases, physical injuries suffered by family members. I am living the nightmare of the movie "Concussion."
Remember when the Seattle Police Department’s public affairs office tried using the streaming video game platform Twitch as a way to connect with the public about sensitive issues like the Charleena Lyles shooting? Here’s an insanely fascinating article by Taylor Clark about the people who make a living as Twitch personalities, sometimes playing 60 hours or more straight to build and keep an audience. That this exists at all feels crazy, much less that it’s getting professionalized in exactly the same way as any other digital marketing medium.
Perhaps the best embodiment of the effort to master Twitch is Ben Cassell, O.P.G.'s first client, who broadcasts, as CohhCarnage, from his farmhouse in North Carolina. After nearly quitting Twitch in 2013, when sixteen-hour streams weren't winning him an audience, Cassell instead dedicated himself to research. "This medium is brand new," he explained. "There's nowhere to go to see how to succeed on Twitch." So he built data-tracking software, and studied scheduling, game selection, and the market's niches: hard-core professional gamers, lighthearted jesters, "boobie streamers," histrionic yellers, baseball-cap-wearing frat bros. Based on his findings, Cassell reinvented his channel as upbeat and safe-for-work; to followers, he told me, "my channel is "Cheers.' " Every day — and he has logged more than fourteen hundred in a row, including the one on which his first child was born — he begins his stream at 8 a.m., right before Twitch's audience crests.
Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.
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The best thing about yarn bombing is that it's (usually) a surprise to the person experiencing it. Walking down the street, or coming around a corner, and seeing a trunk wrapped tight in colorful yarn is always fun. It's only when things get rainy and droopy that they get a bit messy and weird.
Using Google Trends as a baseline, it looks like the first mentions of "yarnbomb" or "yarn bomb" started in 2008 with a strong peak in 2013. That strikes true with my recollection — as fads go, it was a pretty great one, but you just don't see yarn bombs nearly as often as you used to.
That's why I was so pleased, the other day, after walking through the La Marzocco/KEXP place to see the intricate and lovely embroidery/yarn bomb on the trees in the courtyard there. What a great thing to see on my way out, hot coffee in hand, heading over towards the playground with my kid.
It made me wonder about the mysterious people who make these amazing treats of the city. So, instead of doing, you know, actual journalism, I decided to make some up.
The night guard Chester caught them, in the rail yards, doing something next to one of the trains. They bolted when they saw the guards coming, but Chester sent a couple round the other side to corral them, so they were penned in, no doubt. Four of them, in balaclavas. One guard came jogging up with a bag. "Found this." Chester looked inside expecting to find cans of spray paint, but, it turned out, all that was in it was colorful yarn. "What's the gag, here?"
He'd been working undercover nearly a year. Hanging out in yarn shops and craft places, going to knitting circles. Everybody was friendly, but nobody knew who was working those underground cells. Until he had his break, an acquaintance inviting him out to drinks one night after a lesson focusing on intarsia, and she asked him if he was willing to lend a hand on some large projects. "Something you might not be able to talk about," she said. He leaned in.
Every superhero has an origin story. Lupe's, as a girl: visiting her beloved grandmother in the hospital (she wasn't supposed to be there, she was sneaked in under her father's raincoat), and watching that strong, lovely, defiant, proud woman shiver in her bed, the drugs or the room or the gown or whatever. And then, that nurse who just came right in, needles in hand, casting off a woolen cap that she quickly finished with a thread and needle, then offered to Lupe's grandmother to pull over her head, over her thinning hair. And the look of relief on grandmother's face, that comfort, and suddenly Lupe knew that more than anything else she wanted to learn how to knit. And then her skin was punctured by a radioactive needle.
And so it was that the town was divided by two gangs. On one side, the Skein, and on the other Pink Angora. Their territory crossed in the university district, was tagged by yarn bombs in both of their colors. Hand knit clothes in those colors were banned from the yarn shops, because of fights breaking out. Metal detectors at the high schools scanned for metal needles. And it was in this environment that two young women, one from each gang, accidentally met each other, and without knowing the other's affiliation at first, totally fell for the other.
You never forget your first time. You work forever to make the pattern. You estimate the tree, maybe hit it with a tape to make sure you have the dimensions right. But it's not until you show up and stitch the thing on that you know if it's really going to fit or not. It's not until you're in the moment. It's not until you step back and see it hanging there that you know if you are happy, and if you're happy, you know it's gonna make someone else happy as well. Sometimes art is about big things. Sometimes art is about bringing small joys into other people's lives.
November'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 September's posts.
Looking through a decade of post-its, sometimes I notice weird patterns. For November, I started with the dates they would be published at the beginning and end of the month, and chose drawings from those same dates in two different years. This exposed a coincidence that made me smile and wince at the same time—both post-its from Nov. 3rd, five years apart, said “ouch”. In 2010 it was my injuries from a car accident, ones it turns out I never totally healed from. In 2015 I was watching a play in New York that felt like a stranger barraging me with every kind of crisis my family had survived the year before—being surrounded by a world of big broken hearts walking around everywhere. It feels like the “ouch” coincidence is even hurtling into the present: on Nov. 3rd this year my mom was telling us her cancer is back. And that play is now showing in Seattle; my parents are seeing it this week. The November 24th post-its exposed only a mistake—my Missy Elliott/Miranda Hart crush has the wrong date written in it. It’s nice to find a more lighthearted moment, because a lot of the drawings from late November get pretty heavy with the underlying heartbreak of Thanksgiving. I like the excuse to make stuffing, but the holiday makes me think of its history, displacement, a terrible disappearance. And personally, all the leaking hurt I could feel coming out of the grown-ups at the extended family gathering each year, my exposed-wound grandparents who would never, never talk about it that way. Then, looking at smiling family photos and knowing how things turned out for them. I don’t really want to talk about it either.
Seattle hip-hop geniuses Shabazz Palaces are branching out and becoming multimedia moguls. Tonight, they debut their first-ever comic book, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, with a signing and DJ set in Georgetown’s fabulous Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery. Expect some neat things to happen when comics and hip-hop combine. Along for the ride is Seattle-area music writer Gillian Gaar, who will be signing her new book Hendrix: The Illustrated Story.
Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, 925 E. Pike St., 658-0110, http://fantagraphics.com/flog/bookstore, 6 pm, free.
The Pacific Northwest is home to many unique eccentrics, but there was one character who, if you encountered him, you never forgot. He went by the name Symptomatic Nerve Gas, and no, this is not some kind of sub-par Vonnegut fiction. He was a real man, a Korean War vet, apparently, or Viet Nam, perhaps, or maybe not a vet at all, depending on who you believe — the narratives are mixed and told in different ways depending on when you met and talked to him.
I first encountered him on a city bus in Bellingham in the mid-80s. I was riding home, after putting my quarter in the fare box. This very solid looking middle-aged man came aboard, an army green duffel on his back, stuffed to the point of breaking. He dropped his bag to the ground and sat across from me on the sideways seats in the back of the bus. I'm sure I was reading, so paid him little mind.
Until the bus had left the station and I heard a little voice quietly say those three words, nasal, at the top of his baritone register:
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
I ignored him. Why would you look at anybody talking to themselves on a quiet bus? You would hope that it was a momentary glitch and they'd go back to being quiet.
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
Looking up, I saw his duffel had a manilla folder taped to it, and on the folder in black marker he had written those three words: "Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
I looked around, and other people on the bus caught my eye. Yes, we said to each other in a glance. Yes, this guy is really breaking a social contract in a minor way. We are all witness to it.
"Symptomatic Nerve Gas."
All the way home, every minute or so.
Apparently he travelled the Pacific Northwest, spreading his message. You can Google him and find reports from Bellingham to Eugene. Jack Cady wrote him as a character in his book Street, about a serial killer in Seattle. "People are first shocked into avoidance. Then, familiarity brings scorn, Symptomatic Nerve Gas has an important message, but no stage presence. He breaks no laws. People mistake him for a nut."
He must have liked something about Bellingham, because he spent quite a time there, over at least a few years.
Once, outside a punk show at this all-ages joint called the Vortex, where the bands would play 30 minute sets interspersed with 30 minutes of dance music, he held court.
He sat on a bench, and around him, punk teenage skaters sat on their boards while he explained what Symptomatic Nerve Gas was — a nerve agent made by the Vatican, spread in the candles they use in church. The Nazis also used it. A thick, messy, paranoid obsession ruled this man's mind, but he could talk about it in a disjointed dialog for hours on end. He was an evangelist, and his evangelism was based on trying to save the world from the evils of this horrid nightmare toxin.
I wonder if it was good for him, to have an audience like that, or if it fed his manic side? Was he a balloon that needed to let air out, or would talking about it ramp him up into unhealthy excitement?
Because I was not one to find mental illness ironic or funny — unlike some folks who encountered him in my group — I kept my distance. I found him unusual and therefore interesting, but also unnerving. I did write a song about him in my band at the time, which I'm glad there are no recordings of (that I know of). If I remember, it was just chanting the three words over and over again.
It was music that brought him to mind, after many years of not thinking after him. I was wondering about song loops, earworms, or snippets of music that get trapped in the head. What mechanism of the brain is there to reinforce this? Is it an evolutionary advantage, or a glitch in the operating system of humans that allows things to get stuck and amplified ad infinitum?
Likewise, go thoughts. One sign of being a progressive sort of person is not that you don't hear the horrible, racist, sexist intonation of default culture rattling around your memory pan, but that you know well enough not to squirt it out between the flaps of meat that make sound and language just because your brain thunk it. You know you are parroting the culture's response, and you know well enough that it is lies and you don't have to listen to that damaging bullshit.
But those little ghost whispers that want you to think something? Imagine if they were overwhelming. Imagine if you could never rid yourself of them. Imagine if they became your entire reality.
Last year, for our Thanksgiving essay, Paul Constant grappled with the election that pried free the last finger holding to sanity our world offered. 2016 relentlessly presented us with stark, impactful deaths, and one of those was of the death of being able to mostly ignore (if you are privileged enough) politics, unless you enjoyed not ignoring them. None have that luxury any more, and every day of this year has presented is a new battle, a new outrage. It's maddening, disheartening, and depressing.
And then, this rising moment overtook us. Like a wave bashing against the rocks as it gains purchase with the tide, women speaking out about their experiences with horrible men are starting to drown the old easy-to-toss-aside PR responses that led to no change. Men are being fired, quickly, and the apologies that once might have been directed towards the perpetrators for deigning to impute them are now rightfully turned towards towards women telling their stories.
This rising tide was buoyed by outrage that an admitted, gloating abuser, a confessed sexual predator and alleged rapist could take the highest office in the land, while the party that most espouses what they always called "values" has, at best, shrugged.
This is not a political essay at heart, but in thinking about Symptomatic Nerve Gas, I was reminded of the loops and ticks our president exhibits, his reoccurring nightmare cabinet of tinctures for soothing his confused, bloviating, leaking corpus of an id, his rancid corpulent ego, and his minuscule, weak, weepy, infantile superego.
He pulls out the same patterns over and again, throwing blame at people he beat, throwing credit to under-bed-monsters we thought had been swept out with the end-of-modernism trash at the close of the last century. His reactions to almost any event are starting to feel like a rubber reflex hammer on the kneecap, a hit and a jerk and he's talking the same lines he always does.
Trump has a bigger vocabulary than Symptomatic Nerve Gas did, but he's stuck in patterns just as pernicious. He's just surrounded by luxury and privilege, and protected by family.
I've been thankful lately for music. Music has played an important role in my life — it was the binder in nearly every one of my strongest friendships. To this day, knowing what music someone likes allows me to pull a quick Meyers-Briggs assessment — not to judge, mind you, but to understand them, to gain a quick bead on the type of soul that inhabits them.
As an adult I've come to realize that music has its limits; truly horrible people can like the same music as you, and I have to fight my default asshole inner hipster who wants to burn it all down when someone I don't respect declares love for music I do. That petty inner voice, that smaller, but still audible, cultural default, nearly ruined music for me.
I also go see almost no live music anymore — after working in guitar stores and playing live in small clubs for years, something broke inside me. Maybe it was an appreciation and attachment to what music meant. Maybe it was disappointment that my naive hopes about a career in music didn't pan out.
I elevated music too high, I thought it was everything — and for some of my friends it still is — but I realized that music is for me but a layer on top of my emotional life, a processing and distraction, but not a political force. It is magical, but it is also thin and not meaningful past the emotions it gives you access to.
In short, I thought too much of it, and in reckoning that music is less than I thought, I lost faith. Where faith was lost is found disappointment and resentment, of a type that it has taken me many years to best.
Is this really a strong year for music, or have I reconnected with music in a new way? Hard to know, but whatever the case, I pulled together a Thanksgiving playlist here of songs I'm in love with. I am grateful to them, to the artists who make them, and to people who care to share this experience with me.
They share something else in common, too, but more on that later.
I've embedded the songs below with Spotify because that service allows embedding, but here are the full lists:
The playlist starts with women.
Brooklyn's Shilpa Ray's "Morning Terrors Nights of Dread" echoes a thing we all feel, wishing our mental health were in a better place. "It's weighing down on me," she sings. "I lock my head between my knees, I can't breathe." Hello, 2017!
The mysterious masked Leikeli47 turns the title of her song "Miss me" on its head, when you realize it's not about feeling the lack of someone, but an instruction: "Miss me with the bullshit."
The Regrettes are teenagers from Hollywood whose fearless feminism is punky and smooth as a teenage girl group, and whose harmonies and soaring stair-step melodies always make me smile in such a huge way.
Miya Folick, as all of us, is having trouble adjusting.
Actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg returns with a rhythmic loping piece that imagines a marriage run dark.
Lilly Hiatt, who obviously learned great lessons from her dad John, takes us back to the beginning of 2016, when everything seemed to start dumping, with her song "The Night David Bowie Died". "I wanted to call you on the night David Bowie died, but I just sat in my room and cried."
Canadian singer Gabrielle Shonk tells of a man (with that voice! My god, that voice) who deserves being called out for his bullshit. "You cheat and lie causing pain with no sense of regret."
The Paranoid Style is a band with super-intelligent lyrics, like Costello or Game Theory, and took their name from a famous Richard Hofstadter essay, here they turn male gaze into a Dedicated Glare about the intricacies and boredom of adult life.
Sylvia Black goes feminist witch, and torchy nightclub singer, with her meandering relaxed bass style (she was a studio musician, so has chops for weeks) and haunting vocals.
Moderate Rebels want to liberate. "Who's using power? And who cares? The dead and the living."
Kevin Morby is the first man on the mix. He obviously listened to a lot of Television, and the creamiest guitar tone is in his song "City Music".
LCD Soundsystem take on our modern world "The old guys are frightened and frightening to behold".
Dams of the West finds Vampire Weekend's drummer Chris Tomson accounting for his life. "I don't want to be perfect. I just want to fix the fixable things."
Kendrick Lamar looks at literal and figurative DNA, exploring black culture and history, as well as his own place inside that larger whole.
60's garage rockers Flamin' Groovies show that rock doesn't have to age, but are wondering if maybe we've reached the "End of the World".
I'm contractually obligated, being in the Pacific Northwest, to put a Guided by Voices song on this list. Thankfully, it's really good about how we lionize old music.
Chicago's Twin Peaks sing a song about picking up a guy at a bar who is drinking his breakup away.
Low Cut Connie want to start a revolution, of sorts, but it may just be a boogie-woogie one.
And finally, Portland's Kyle Craft has an amazing voice, a kind of twenty-first century locally-sourced Jeff Buckley, and this cut, from his next-year's Sub-Pop release, is sure to get some attention.
I learned a trick with music that saved me. It's to accept the song in the moment you are experiencing it. Let it unfold, as it is, and when it's gone, move on to the next song without holding too tight. Don't ascribe any meaning past the pleasure of the moment.
Except, that is, when a song gets stuck. And this is my confession: all the songs above in that playlist are ones that have, at one time or another, gotten stuck in my head this year. They are ones that have become earworms, that have informed my year at various points. They have been hard to shake.
None of them have infected me to such a degree that they become singular, the only thing I might listen to. Some, however, have spent weeks rattling around, cooing, singing at me, trying to inform me, but when I turn to find meaning, all I find is a sly melody or simple line.
Some find meaning in simple lines: prayers repeated, mantras chanted, songs sung over and again. A repetitive line may become an expression of an acute mental illness. In a different brain they may become simple metaphors to explain an overwhelmingly frightening world, whether they originate in that brain or on a television program designed to booth soothe and terrify simultaneously. Morning terrors nights of dread.
I think about Symptomatic Nerve Gas sleeping on the street on a cold night. I think about our president watching cable news and tweeting at 3:30am. I think about a young woman sitting with a guitar, trying new melodies and scribbling down lyric snippets until it becomes coheres into a song.
I think about what gets stuck in our heads and how we can unstick it. I'm thankful we have the opportunity to even try.
Tomorrow, of course, is Thanksgiving. The day after that is Black Friday. Don't shop anywhere on Black Friday; it's a mess out there. But on Saturday, you should go shop at your favorite small business, because it's Small Business Saturday. Small businesses are essential to local economies; studies have shown that while only 14 cents of every dollar spent at a chain recirculate through the local economy, nearly 50 cents of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the local economy.
Your favorite small businesses are probably bookstores. And a lot of local bookstores are celebrating Small Business Saturday with special events and deals. Here are some of the treasures you'll find:
Bainbridge Island's Eagle Harbor Book Company is hosting authors, hot cider, and prize giveaways.
Edmonds Bookshop is offering cookies, autographed books, and "a gift of Jefferson flyer with purchase," with the caveat that "you'll have to come in to see what that is."
Magnolia's Bookshop is hosting author Molly Hashimoto, along with free treats and tote bags.
The Neverending Bookshop in Bothell is hosting trivia all day and a reading from local fantasy author James D. Macon.
Page 2 Books in Burien is hosting authors Elise Hooper, Kelly Jones, Sonja and Jeff Anderson, Ann Haywood Leal,and Michele Bacon.
Queen Anne Book Company is hosting authors, treats, and a ton of giveaways.
Ballard's Secret Garden Books is hosting children's book authors who will serve as guest booksellers all day.
At all the Third Place Books locations, if you spend $50 or more, you'll get a $10 gift card in return.
Reza Aslan's new book God: A Human History is a remarkable document. It lays out the entirety of human's relationship with the divine, using athropological and archaeological documentation. From pantheism to ancestor worship to monotheism, Aslan examines the way that a concept of a higher power has evolved right alongside human civilization — and also helped shape our modern world. Aslan was in Seattle last week with Seattle Arts and Lectures. We spoke on the phone shortly after his arrival in Portland for the next reading on his tour. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
I’m an atheist but I've always been very fascinated with belief and the way that you approach this book. I thought it was really informative for the purposes of talking with people about faith — and not just religious faith. At my day job, I work in messaging and political economy. And I’ve found that when we talk about raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, for example, people would respond, 'well, you can’t pay $15 per hour because the market says they’re not worth $15 per hour.' The market is a creation of people, and other nations have much higher minimum wages than we do here in America so there’s proof that it can work, but once people offload it to this inhuman, unknowable force —this market — there’s a barrier. You hit a wall in your conversation, and it seems insurmountable. Has your work with so many different religions taught you anything about talking across that wall?
If you think of a faith as a kind of worldview then it's understandable why occasionally it becomes difficult to actually have conversations. This wall that you're talking about — essentially, you're talking about two different perspectives, two different points of view. And often it's not that you are arguing over the merits of some kind of point, but what you're really doing is talking about two different ways of seeing the world. And so those kinds of conflicts sometimes come naturally.
Part of what I try to do, not just with this book but most of my works, is to try to reframe the conversation and to redefine certain terms. For instance, you call yourself an atheist, which I imagine means that you don't believe in God. But I do think that in order to actually have a conversation with you, we'd have to first talk about what you even mean by God, because it's very likely that your definition of God and my definition of God are vastly different from each other — and so having that understanding would mean that you and I perhaps are much closer in our points of view than we actually thought that we were.
And particularly when you're talking about faith issues, we have this weird perception that we all mean the same thing when we use this most complex of words, and so often the arguments that we find ourselves having dissipate once we start with this fundamental question of 'what do you mean? What is your perspective?' That's something that I try to bring to all the work that I do.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was the way you embrace the ambiguity of the anthropological record. I think about that hackneyed idea of what would happen if an alien anthropologist found our ruined civilization in the future and if they only had access to one site, it would change their understanding of our faith. If they found a church, they would imagine us as a monotheistic religious culture. If they found a multiplex, they might think that we were a pantheistic religion worshipping superheroes. And if they found Washington DC, they might think we were big into ancestor worship. Do you think about what you’re missing when you look back on the past?
It’s a fun game to play. The difference of course being that we are products of a written culture, and once you start writing things down, those things stay forever. When we're talking about religion, however, and particularly when we're talking about prehistoric religiosity, which is where my book begins, you are talking about a preliterate culture and so that makes it much more difficult to draw conclusions with any measure of certainty.
We do have an enormous amount of material evidence at our disposal when trying to talk about things like the origins of the religious experience. We have at our disposal temples and idols and the spectacularly painted caves that bear remarkable signs of ritualistic thinking. And so we can look at this material and we can give our best guess as to what it means and how it functions.
But before the advent of writing, we are essentially shooting in the dark. What we have going for us particularly in my field of religious studies is that we can combine the anthropological and archaeological data. We can use what we know about sociology in order to draw certain conclusions and we can make pretty good guesses. But in the end, they are guesses.
In the book, you refer to the advent of agriculture as a net negative for society, and I was wondering if I could ask you about that, and maybe your perspective on how that has shaped human history.
To begin with, this is now more or less the consensus view. The traditional view was that after tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, we began to plant our food and domesticate animals as a means of ensuring a greater food supply, and that doing so resulted in more stable food supplies and also in more calories, more food. And that allowed us to actually settle down and then create civilization, and then, of course, history as we know it.
Well, unfortunately, that traditional view just doesn't hold up any longer to the archaeological evidence. First and foremost we now know that we human beings had settled for thousands of years before the rise of agriculture. So that upends the notion that we settled down because we started planting — now, it turns out that we settled down for quite some time before we ever thought to start planting. So that in and of itself had to have to shift the way that we even think about why we started planting.
And then secondly we now have ample evidence to indicate that far from creating a surplus of food, the agricultural revolution actually diminished our food supply — and quite dramatically. It provided far fewer calories, far less protein, and if that weren't enough, it actually introduced a whole host of ailments and diseases that were completely new to the human condition. The great Israeli historian Yuval Hariri has this great line where he says homo sapien skeletons were simply not evolutionarily designed for farming. That's just not what our bodies were meant to do. He refers to the agricultural revolution as history's greatest fraud.
Now this idea that the agricultural revolution was not an advantage to human beings raises a more fundamental question which is: why, then, why did we start doing it? Why did we start farming, knowing that a bad crop would result in the deaths of everybody in the village? Why did we start domesticating and penning animals, knowing that a disease in one of those animals would wipe out the entire herd and kill everybody in the village? Why did we do all of these things, when it required far more effort and work than hunting and gathering did, for far fewer calories? Why did we do it? It makes no sense.
There have been a number of attempts to answer that question, from environmental changes to the thinning or extinction of herds — none of which have been borne out by the evidence to date. One of the more innovative answers to that question happened to do with the institution of religion. And what I mean is, the movement from the prehistoric animism that fueled our ancient ancestors to the establishment of temples and institutionalized worship — it was the institutionalization of religion that led to the settlements, to the idea that we actually settled down and stopped wandering.
And then once we settled down, that that caused the slow move towards experimenting with agriculture and with domestication. Again, this is one of those things where we're giving our best guess. We're looking at the evidence that's available to us, and we're trying to interpret it as much as possible.
But I think that the reason that there is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for that particular interpretation of 'why agriculture?' is because all the other answers don't work. So much of what this is about is simply ticking off things that don't make any sense or that don't fit with the available data and seeing what's left.
We do know, of course, that the earliest experimentations with plants and the domestication of animals took place in southeastern Turkey and in the Levant area. These are the earliest examples of settled communities, and we also know that [these regions hosted] the earliest expression of institutionalized religion, and that those things really affected each other. And so the theory is that it was in fact the advent of hierarchical institutionalized temple-based religion that resulted in the need for the transition to agriculture, despite the fact that it was not a good bet on the part of humanity — that it did not lead in those first couple of thousand years to more food or a more stable supply.
And by the way, part of the reason why I think people even people who don't study religions gravitate toward this theory is that the one thing that we all know about religion is it makes you do things that aren't necessarily helpful. The thing about religion is that you do sometimes irrational things in the name of religion and the you know the agricultural transition was by all accounts any rational thing.
So in a way, religion also established the inequity that we still see today?
You know, the standard sociological answer to this is when we went from wandering to settled, being settled allowed for the accumulation of wealth and the disparity in society in a way that wandering would not allow. The nomadic lifestyle doesn't really allow for the accumulation of wealth, or the stratification of society. Settlement does. And if you think that settlement was a direct result of certain religious changes that took place, then yes, once again religion becomes the culprit for the sudden disparity in society.
I love your example in the book of the talking tree — the theory that we can accept one or two divergences from what we know, but that if you keep adding unbelievable ideas, you reach a breaking point.
This is a fascinating theory — and it is a theory, but it's a pretty good one. It was first developed by a cognitive anthropologist by the name of Pacal Boyer. And what he was trying to figure out was a simple question: Why do some religious beliefs stick and some don't?
Obviously, he's a scientist so the answer that is often given, which is ‘the ones that are true stick, and the ones that are false don't’ just doesn't work for him. And so he began to do these very interesting studies about how our brains actually hold onto information, and particularly when that information is anomalous in some way. Why do we hold on to it? How do we hold on to it? When do we get rid of it?
And what he discovered was exactly what you say — this thing that has been now dubbed the minimally counterintuitive concept. The basic theory is that when the mind is confronted with something that is only slightly abnormal, something that that essentially violates the core function or characteristic of a saying only slightly, there is something about the brain that holds on to that idea, that anomalous information much more so than if a thing is too anomalous.
So the example that I gave in the book is a tree that talks. A tree that talks is only slightly anomalous. It's the kind of thing that the brain holds onto and is more likely to pass on. But a tree that talks and also has the ability to be invisible and also can move from place to place — now you're violating far too many categories of the idea of a tree, and the brain simply doesn't have the ability to hold onto that. [Boyer] uses this cognitive theory to explain why some religious beliefs stick around and others do not. It’s a really fascinating idea.
Of course the thesis of my book, the point that I'm trying to make, is that of all these minimally counterintuitive concepts that have ever existed in human history, the one that is most successful is the idea of the superhuman — the human who is altered in some slight way. And that where our conception of the divine arose, is this notion of a person who has shifted in a slight way, is given a certain kind of power. That is an explanation for how this natural impulse towards transcendence — towards that which lies beyond the material realm — is something that is part of our cognitive process. It's who we are, it’s how our brains work: that natural impulse often becomes actualized or concretized in the form of a divine human, or a human who is divine, because of this minimally counter-intuitive concept that arises in our brain.
It seems to me to be an exaggeration of something that’s a standard part of the human experience. Your knowledge, your experiences, make you special — kind of a superhuman. That’s why we contacted your publicist for an interview and why we’re talking. Everyone does something special — you know, I make a pretty okay chili. So is this search for the supernatural a recognition of us as we are or is it a desire for more? Is it aspirational, or is it a reflection?
It’s a reflection, it's an innate compulsion. One thing that I make very clear in the book is that I'm not making an argument for the existence or nonexistence of God. That's not an argument I am interested in having — mainly because there is no proof either way.
What I am interested in is how we have expressed faith. It is deeply embedded in this cognitive impulse that you were referring to, this innate unconscious compulsion to humanize the divine — to essentially project one's own personality, one's own emotions one's own virtues and vices and strengths and weaknesses and biases and bigotries upon the divine.
What’s truly remarkable about this impulse, and why I think it's just a function of our brains, is that even atheists do this. When you say to someone who is a you know an atheist, who doesn't believe in God, studies show that when you ask that person to then describe what they mean by God, they do what believers do. They begin to describe a kind of divine version of themselves. They begin to talk about a divine personality who looks and feels and acts and thinks very much the way that they do. So it doesn't matter whether you're a believer or not, it doesn't matter whether you are aware of it or not. The fact of the matter is that most of us when we think of the idea of God, what we do is we think of a divine version of ourselves.
You have a few passages in the book where you write about soul, and I thought some of the passages seemed to be in conversation with Lesley Hazleton’s book on agnosticism, and I was curious if you had read it or if if that was something coincidental.
I have read Lesley's book — I think I actually even blurbed it — but no, that's not in in conversation with anyone. The issue is that we were born with this conception of substance dualism, this innate notion that there is a distinction between the body and mind. What that means, nobody knows — it doesn't prove God, it doesn't disprove God. It doesn't mean that we are believers and we have to learn to be unbelievers. We don't know what it means, but it is a fact, and studies have routinely pointed this out. So it must be part of again our cognitive impulses, must be just a thing that happens in our brains. What I'm interested in, is what that actually means and how and how to make sense of that.
Evolutionarily speaking, we don't have a good answer for the universal belief in what is come to be called the soul. You can call it what you want: you can call it the psyche if you want to, you can call it Brahma, you can call it whatever you want, but we all mean the same thing — this kind of spiritual essence, if you will. It's universal. It exists in all cultures, in all religions, and throughout all time. And we don't know why! There isn't a good reason to explain this innate sense. And so I go back to where I began the book, which is ultimately it's just a choice.
It’s a decision on the individual's part to give that fact some kind of meaning. And you could be someone who says ‘it's just an accident, just a meaningless cognitive blip.’ Or you could be someone who thinks that it's not just on purpose, but it's by design: it's who is how we are made it's who we are and we're supposed to have that that feeling, that sense of innate spiritual essence. We’re back where we started, right? It's up to you! There's no proof either way.
But I do think that at the very least coming to an understanding of these things is a good way to start a conversation between people, between believers and nonbelievers, and between believers of different religions.
Applications for the next Redmond Poet Laureate are due on December 15th. The selected poet will get $5,000 per year in artist fees and $5,000 per year in project materials.
These maps Kathy Acker drew of her own dreams are simply gorgeous.
The quest to create the ebook version of marginalia has yet to truly break new ground. Liza Daly has some thoughts on that.
Some reflections from Amazon staffers as the Kindle turns ten. The claim that Kindle “really was about the content" makes me shudder. Books are not content. Content is meaningless chaff you shove into the blank spaces of a website. Books are books. Please make a note of it.
Seattle author Juan Carlos Reyes’s novella A Summer’s Lynching begins with a city:
After all, there will always be places on Earth where elevated things happen, where few people call each other by name, where voices sprinkle across pavement and seep into cracks, where stories are codified in the song of humming air conditioning vents and whistling manhole covers, flooded gutters and opening soda cans, aging Camaros and nagging door bells, store-light gnats and encaged dogs, pigeons smothering pavement in shadowy monsters and ten year-old littering sidewalks, and near endless repair projects that, in cycles of upended sewers and streets, feign renovations that never improve a city.
The voice in Lynching is noirish — that gritty coating on everything, that list of ugliness — but it’s a noir at an angle, like a cheap detective novel swallowed up in existential dread. Like a detective novel, the plot centers around a dead body, and how it got that way. Also like a mystery, the narrative is focused on the systems surrounding the death (police, the courts, all the different operations that the city needs to function on a daily basis.)
But unlike a mystery, Lynching isn’t really interested in who killed Isidrio Rafael, the corpse in the boiler room. It’s more interested in what happens after a tenant in Rafael’s building finds his body hanging in a common area. The book’s second chapter is narrated, in part, by Rafael’s neighbors. “Too many of us crowded the boiler room archway entrance, pressing into each other to see the man’s face, his hands, his feet,” they explain.
The perspective keeps shifting from one place to another in the city, and the narrative drifts further and further away from Rafael’s death. It’s like Lynching is the story of a haunting, told from the ghost’s perspective. As the novella unfolds, its interest in the specificity of narrative fades. Our attention wanders around the city, floating just above people so we can observe them from the air, a slightly distant ghost.
Lynching visits seats of power and utilities — one chapter is set at the power company, another in a church, another in a nest of bureaucrats. They’re all affected by the murder in one way or another. The city that Reyes builds alternates between interested and disinterested in the murder. It’s kind of like this:
Silence inside a library always precipitates a clamor outside of it to where the sound of the whipping city banner frantic on its flagpole is as loud and screeching as the brakes on a passing bus.
The less a city’s system is involved with the murder — a high school, say — the higher-pitched our curiosity becomes.
In the end, the city that Reyes builds is a lot like our own: it’s too big to comprehend, but too small to truly lose oneself in. In a city, nobody is really a stranger to anyone else. We’re all interconnected in one way or another, even if we’re cloaked in anonymity. If you stay in a city long enough, the body in the boiler room will likely belong to you.
The cantaloupe sits
on the counter like
a little moon
off its course.
and modest navel,
inside, a wall
of pale orange fruit
and inside that
a child's night terror
of seeds and guts and string.
It is no matter:
The kitchen has
its own astronomy.
The instant the cutting edge
pierces the rind — flesh
yielding to steel —
the gig is up.
We simply eat.
Outside the rain
arrests itself. A false sun
flourishes for the afternoon.
Inside his bus
the busdriver sighs
ignoring if just
for an hour, the terrible
pair of pants
the empty seat.
How to hold it
all together: the violence
of the harvest, the embarrassment
of the blade. In his heart
of hearts, the buzzard
knows he is digestible.
He scans the plain:
Too much wild life.
He shakes the daylight
off his wings
and waits for the earth
to cough up the fruit,
for the night to bring
Last night at Benaroya Hall, I introduced David Sedaris for his annual reading. What follows is my prepared text.
Hello! My name is Paul Constant and I’m a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books. Before we begin, I want you to share a message with you from the very bottom of my heart. Here it is: Turn off your fucking cell phones.
I also want to let you know about an amazing opportunity. Last January, David Sedaris did a weeklong series of workshop performances at the Broadway Performance Hall. He was editing and refining pieces from his magnificent diary collection, Theft By Finding. I think that those performances were all that got me through the week surrounding Donald Trump’s inauguration; without them I would have stayed at home in my bathrobe and cultivated a thriving blackhead farm on my nose. The readings were funny and informal and they provided a fantastic window into his process.
And just as those sold-out shows meant a lot to Seattle, apparently Seattle meant a lot to David Sedaris, because he’s coming back this January for another weeklong stand at the Broadway Performance Hall. He’ll be workshopping his upcoming book of essays, Calypso, which means you’ll get to experience his book before everyone else. Every night of the week will include a reading and an intimate question and answer session, but no two nights will include the same pieces, which means you could attend more than once and never see the same show twice. I highly recommend that you attend.
Okay! Now it’s time to get tonight’s reading going.
Introductions are a funny thing. You already know why you’re here, so you don’t need me to tell you who David Sedaris is. If you’ve read his books before, you know that he’s knife-in-the-ribs funny and slyly compassionate. If you’ve seen him read before, you know that he’s literally a world-class reader of his own work, by which I mean there’s a very good chance that you are right now about to watch the best reading in the world tonight.
When called on to do introductions, a lot of people simply visit Wikipedia and copy down a list of accomplishments and titles. They then repeat those names back to the audience with all the life-affirming energy and unbridled enthusiasm of a hostage video. But I’ve done a lot of introductions in my time, and I’m here to tell you a secret: Wikipedia sucks as an introduction resource. In fact, you can learn more about a person by reading the edits to their Wikipedia page.
In case you have an active social life and didn’t know, allow me to explain: it’s possible to read every single edit that’s ever been made to any Wikipedia entry, and to see the conversations between the thousands of volunteer editors who oversee changes to the site. I spent hours poring over Sedaris’s page as research for this introduction.
The first noteworthy edit to David Sedaris’s Wikipedia page was in July of 2005, and it was written by a user named Chrisjamescox. Mr. Cox noted that he “Removed ‘satirist’ [from the entry and] replaced with ‘humorist’.” He went on to editorialize: “He is not a satirist! He doesn't comment with disparaging humor ('humour' in Brit. Eng.) on current events and trends. He writes about his family.”
Later that same year, a user named Moncrief asked, “How is [Sedaris] a Chicagoan?? He lives in France and is from North Carolina. If he's a ‘Chicagoan’ somehow, it should be explained in the article.” Someone else would later add, “he’s not jewish. he’s half greek/half protestant.” The next year saw a number of edits from a Wikipedia user named “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”
A bunch of notable additions came in 2007. One user wrote proudly that he “Added mention of [Sedaris’s] drug use.” May of 2007 saw additions of the words “expatriate” and “homosexual” to the page.
So additions are crucial, but you can also tell a lot from the deletions. “Removed the part about [Sedaris] speaking at the University of Arizona as it's not notable in any way,” one user wrote in 2011. (My apologies to any University of Arizona alums we may have here tonight.) User Jamend8 in 2012 writes that he “Removed France as Sedaris' ‘country of origin.’ He was born in the U.S.” An editor named Frosty protested a change by claiming that “I understand that this might seem strange, but the article claims [Sedaris] is known locally as Pig Pen.” MelonKelon responded, “That may be true. It's a nickname of sorts. But it is not a notable name, nor is it an alias he writes under.”
Word choice in Wikipedia articles is very important. Lee Bailey commented with disdain in 2007 that “a ‘humorous essayist’ is a humorist.” SergioGiorgiani writes that Sedaris’s speech impediment wasn’t “cured at all. He specifically mentions how his speech therapist left without having accomplished anything but making David avoid the letter S.” Someone else writes with palpable exasperation, “I changed Infoboxes: The guy was a writer and comedian, not a scientist.”
It goes on. And on. There are something like 1500 individual edits to the page since it was created in 2003. Things get nasty in the Great Edit War of 2009. “I don't know anything about David Sedaris, but it seems odd that [user] 184.108.40.206 would delete a well-cited reference. I suspect the user has an axe to grind with that source,” someone butts in. User 220.127.116.11 retorts, “There is no ‘axe to grind.’ This is more accurate. Leave it alone.” Another editor complains about being “wrongly blocked” from editing the page, and someone else concludes, “This is it's [sic] what accurate. Stop changing it to nonsense.”
What emerges from the edits is a kind of erasure portrait of Sedaris, a biography constructed from deletions and errors. It doesn’t capture the way he can condense a perfect agonizing moment down to its most honest core in just a few sentences. It doesn’t explain how he can whiplash readers between laughter and tears and make it look easy. But it does demonstrate the passion his fans feel for him, their willingness to fight for hours in a weird internet forum about every tiny detail of his life. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to introduce the man behind the Wikipedia page, David Sedaris.