Portrait Gallery: Writers in the Schools

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

Sunday, December 2: Writers in the Schools Celebration

Writers in the Schools is a program from Seattle Arts and Lectures that encourages Seattle schoolchildren to enjoy writing as an artform. This is party to celebrate this year's students, as well as the crowning of the city's brand-new Youth Poet Laureate. If you've been feeling cynical about the literary world lately, you'll want to come to this reading to charge up your batteries. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 3 pm, free.

John Maher writes at Publishers Weekly:

Just two days after Mystery Writers of America announced that it would honor author Linda Fairstein as one of two of its Grand Masters for 2019, the organization withdrew the award following a public outcry over the bestselling crime novelist's role overseeing the prosecution of the Central Park Five, which ultimately led to wrongful conviction.

The board released a statement claiming they were "unaware of Ms. Fairstein's role in the controversy." (I'd argue that the Central Park Five case was a travesty and not a controversy, but whatever.) This marks the second literary controversy to reach a sensible conclusion in less than a week. I'm sure somewhere, someone is firing up their laptop to write an "actually, internet mobs are still bad" thinkpiece; I look forward to not reading that awful piece.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The heart of a poet

In her poem "Origin Story," Eve L Ewing writes "love is like a comic book. it’s fragile/and the best we can do is protect it." Ewing is a restless genius: depending on how you came to her work, you might know her first as a poet or a visual artist or an activist or an academic.

But if you've follow Ewing on Twitter for any amount of time, you likely know that she's an unabashed nerd. And her poem about comic books, it turns out, was a premonition of another title for her yard-long resume: Riri Williams: Ironheart, Ewing's first project as a comic writer, was published by Marvel Comics yesterday.

If you don't know anything about the character, Ewing catches you up in the first few pages of Ironheart. Riri Williams is a brilliant Chicago teen who, after tragedy strikes, reverse-engineers a suit of Iron Man's armor and decides to become a superhero.

Riri is a classic Marvel hero: impossibly smart, good-hearted, socially awkward, and a little bit of a self-defeatist. Ironheart #1 has pretty much everything you need in a superhero's first issue: character development, the introduction of a cast of characters, a villain with an ambitious plan, a big fight, and a soap-operatic last page twist.

The art by Kevin Libranda and Luciano Vecchio plays the range well — not every figure looks like a musclebound brute, the facial expressions are all clear and believable, and the action is imaginative. The coloring, by Matt Milla, is especially great. (You can see the light of Riri's phone on the underside of her nose when she gets a video call from a friend, and other nifty lighting tricks are handled subtly but intelligently.)

But for me, the real thrill of the issue is coming across Ewing's poetic flourishes in the dialogue. Riri takes a moment in a battle royale to appreciate her own accidental alliteration. The bad guy explains his plan, as is tradition, and then adds with a flourish, "You know, sometimes you just have to take a moment to revel in your own gifts." Indeed.

And Riri's personal motto — "those who move with courage make the path for those who live in fear" — isn't quite as catchy as Spider-Man's "with great power comes great responsibility," but it provides a complicated thesis for Ewing and company to explore over the rest of the series.

Ewing displays a natural talent for writing comics, and Riri is an interesting character who has enough provocative weaknesses to keep the story interesting for years to come. Ironheart is quite possibly the best first issue of a Marvel character since G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona's Ms. Marvel. This comic is anything but fragile.

Book News Roundup: This is how you respond to an internet uproar

As proud, long-time Capitol Hill residents, the Hultons were passionate about keeping the exterior of the store looking the same as it has for years, choosing to build around and include existing elements of the house in the storefront. Before Ada’s, the space was Horizon Books, another bookstore and a longstanding staple of the 15th Ave community. To Danielle, Ada’s is a space for the newer tech community to gather, for café-goers to stumble upon, and for everyone to explore. “Someone might come in and be looking for a cup of coffee but then start playing with the puzzles on the shelf… and if that piques their interest, then that’s a win.” Danielle says.
  • Last week, people on the internet protested a newly announced children's book titled A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library written by Jack Gantos and drawn by Dave McKean for its offensive plot. The book is about "a young boy enter[ing] a library wearing an explosive vest hidden underneath his lovely new red jacket." An online petition protesting the book was almost immediately created, and on Saturday Abrams, the book's publisher, announced that the book would not be published. This quote from McKean is just about a textbook perfect response to the protest:
“A few factors changed from the initiation of the project until now, and I’m sure we all have our own thoughts to take away from all this. I already had my doubts that a story like this should come from outside the community involved, and the arguments on Twitter convinced me that it shouldn’t,” he said. “I’ve listened and learned a hard but valuable lesson.”
[Editor] Shena [Wolf] called me and was like, “Do you want to try out for ‘Nancy’?” And I was like, “Hahahaha, no way.” Not that I wouldn’t want it — it just seemed fake. And then I’m drawing the comics to submit for the test to be like, “Here’s a couple weeks.” And as I’m doing it, I’m like, “Hahahaha, no way, no way.” In a very Nancy move, it wasn’t like I was like, “No way they would pick me.” I was just like, “Obviously they would pick me, if they have any taste at all, because these jokes are so great.” But it didn’t really even feel real as I was signing the contract. I was like, “Hahaha, what a funny joke this is.”

Invented writing systems: Levert Banks and journaling the unfiltered mind

Sometimes the arrangement of coincidence changes a life. Imagine this scene: the flight is in the air, carrying hundreds of souls. In first class, Count Basie, his band is flying coach behind him. He rings the call bell to summon the flight attendant.

The attendant assigned to him, and who was sitting in the galley, was a young man named Levert Banks. He was writing in his journal when the light came on and he was called to work. Banks had been a daily journaler since being inspired to capture his feelings after the Dallas Cowboys trounced the Broncos in the 1977 season Super Bowl about a decade earlier. It was an epic rivalry, where Roger Staubach demolished former teammate and rival Cowboys' quarterback Craig Morton.

Since then? Banks told me: "I write every day. I don't write well every day, but I write every day. A day doesn't go by when something just erupts."

So he was writing in the back of the plane — on long transcontinental or international flights there was always some downtime to journal — and the buzzer went off. He tucked his book away on a shelf and got up to attend to Basie.

Job handled, Basie sated, Banks was walking back down the aisle when he sees Basie's composer. He had sheet music out and he was composing, right there on the plane, right there on his tray table.

This abstract calligraphy that, for one who knew the method, could make music from marks on paper. What a wonder! "Still, to this day, I've never seen anything as beautiful as someone writing music," Banks said.

Continuing his way through the plane, Banks stopped to chat with another passenger on this flight: Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X's eldest daughter. She was writing in Arabic, and Banks was taken with the elegance and beauty of the calligraphy. Just the form of the text was gorgeous, like the sheet music. But more than that, it had great meaning to her. "She told me that her father had spoken Arabic and this is the way that she feels connected to him."

"So there's a very personal thing that comes with being able to express what's in your musical head, or your heart of longing, and to do it in a way that a person passing by, like me, just sees it as beautiful and can't really know what it is but knows that it's special."

With those two encounters foremost in his head, Banks returns to the galley at the back of the plane to find his journal being read by his crew. They were reading his most personal thoughts, stories of encounters and people, feelings about his job and his life. It was like they suddenly gained the ability to look into his mind and read him.

"Privacy equals don't let anyone find it. You end up not really writing the way you genuinely feel when you've shielded yourself from incrimination, or whatever else.

"It always frustrated me that being able to write what I really felt, which is the whole point of journaling in my opinion, was restricted by this security issue. So I had spent a lot of effort not letting people find it. You do put it under lock and key, hiding under your mattress."

Diaries have locks for a good reason, after all. Parents, or spouses, read other's journals for good reason, after all, however deceptive the practice — there is no faster way to learn the complex interior of someone else then if they are honest with the page, and you can access it. You either find a way to hide or lock your words up — or, perhaps, you think of a more novel way to disguise your writing.

Because you have to choose: be transparent in the journal and risk being found, or hide yourself from yourself for fear of being found. Banks knew which he would choose:

"The point [of journaling] is that it opens a space in a person as a writer that is so personal. It informs my external world. I seek out relationships where I can have honesty, like can we really just talk here, you and I? I don't know that very many people get to experience that."

So Banks made the choice to start writing in a way that could obscure his words. If Shabazz could do it through Arabic, and Basie's composer could do it through music, maybe Banks could to it, as well. Maybe he could develop a system.

Starting that day, Banks began writing in code.

"It began as a one-to-one connection between random symbols and letters of the alphabet, and then, eventually, I saw vowel groupings, common consonant groupings, articles of speech, conjunctions, prefixes and so forth represented by single unified symbols.

"I wrote all the letters of the alphabet and I erased portions of it. I had to come back and make some refinements because of the physical structure of the way letters are written. I had to make some modifications and different treatments to make sure every character was unique.

"You're going to get tired of writing '-th', or '-ing', or 'the'. Pretty quickly it starts morphing, and a different kind of elegant form comes through. You're like 'okay, maybe I could improve that design a little bit.'

"Now you're back in second grade and it transitions to what is a 't'? What is an 'h'? What is an 'a'? I'm just putting it down because I have an idea. It happens really fast.

"And then when you get to the layer of obfuscation. I tested it with people who said, 'Okay, well, that was something, and this looks like a whatever and that looks like the word blank.

"I go back, machine it a little more and I'm like, “Thank you for that.” I never came back to that same person. I always went to the next person, and over time that's the obfuscation.

"Then, how did I treat double letters? How do I treat numbers? What am I gonna do about punctuation and contractions? Well, I've gotten rid of 99% of all punctuation, you'll never see a question mark."

"Then it said it's finished; like art work, there's a point where the canvas pushes back at the brush and says, 'I'm good.'"

Since that day in 1988, Banks has been writing in, and over the years developing, his created language. He calls it Colan (Koh-lahn), an abbreviation of "coded language". He's taught his grown sons to read it, so that they can have access to his life when he's gone. "Well, I mean, one of my favorite movies of all time is probably Bridges of Madison County," he says.

He's also been going through the thirty years of Colan journals, and the ten that came before that in plain English, and has been working on a memoir.

I asked if he's taught anybody besides his sons to write in his language, and he tells me, no, but he's taught two people how to create their own. I say that my problem with the codes and ciphers I played with as a kid was that I could never remember them.

"Yes, but if you created it, I think, it would have worked. If you have to learn Colan, it might be difficult because you have to learn my rationale or my justification for this or that. But if I taught you how to do it yourself...?"

Colan is a reflection of Levert himself, it has a style and panache that came from his own curious, seeking mind. And it freed him to write his clearest thoughts unfiltered, which allowed him to keep an unexpurgated story of his life. He may not have published, but Banks has written more than most professional published writers.

All because of a chance encounter with Count Basie, his composer, Attallah Shabazz, and some very nosy coworkers, all lined up and flying across the country that one day back in the 80s.

Lit Twitter and its slightly more polite subset, Canadian Lit Twitter, are both suffering from palpitations this morning over a new announcement from Margaret Atwood:

Many people are delighted at this news. I have my own opinions about sequels — I miss definitive endings — but I just can't side with the people who are outraged over this. Consider Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockinbird sequel, which just came out a few years ago and has already basically dissolved into nothingness. The original stories are still there and nobody's making you read the sequel. It will be okay, I promise.

I happened to stumble across the Consulate General of Denmark's interview with Katrine Øgaard Jensen about translating Danish into English. If you're interested in the different ways that language can convey ideas, this interview is for you.

This duality is possible in the original language because Danish grammar allows for multiple ideas — separated by many, many commas — to (e)merge within a single sentence. To accommodate this duality in translation, I replaced some commas with line breaks, to entertain the possibility of connections between certain words or lines. In other cases, when a line break would cause more confusion than clarification, I inserted a colon or a period instead.

The man show

Published November 27, 2018, at 11:56am

Paul Constant reviews Amber Nelson's The Sexiest Man Alive.

Can a book of poems based on People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue offer any new thoughts into what it means to be a man?

Read this review now

Timber Scribe

Between the membrane of fur
and muscle, blades fevered by appetite

dimpled the prairie with denuded bison.
The pick’s sharp interruption

of the ground’s moss and prairie grass union
uncoupled Kansas soil.

A timber scribe,
small enough to hide

in the curve of the palm;
portable instrument

of the Great Reconnaissance,
subtle gouge for the lonely mind.

One more reason to miss Seattle7Writers

As Seattle7Writers draws closer to retiring their nonprofit status in July 2019, we’re celebrating the incredible work the organization has done to support literacy in Seattle.

Here’s just one example: in 2010, board member Kit Bakke was concerned about the growing numbers of homeless people in Seattle. After visiting shelters and housing facilities, she noticed something missing: books. A love of reading isn’t limited to those who have disposable income — but access to books often is.

“Since we Seattle7′ers knew exactly where to find people and organizations happy to donate books,” she says, “the plan was hatched.” For nearly a decade, Pocket Libraries has re-homed gently used books in shelters, food banks, and more. A lot of the books are advance reading copies donated by reviewers and bookstores. (As the recipients of an above-average number of ARCs, we can’t tell you how great we think that is.) This week, Seattle7Writers is back as a sponsor to thank the volunteers and donors who’ve made Pocket Libraries a success.

Want to help by donating books or time? Email info@pocketlibraries.org. And in the meantime, check out our sponsor feature page to learn more about the amazing folks who launched and ran this almost-decade-old program to bring great books to people who need ’em.

Sponsors like Seattle7Writers make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you can sponsor us, too? We're sold out through January 2019, and even though we haven't released the next block, there are just a few dates left in February and March. Want to reserve your favorite week before it's too late? Just send us a note at sponsor@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from Nov 26th - Dec 2nd

Monday, November 26: Revolution in the Air Reading

Three authors join forces to discuss the legacy of 1960s protest culture, from modern activism to Donald Trump. The readers are Max Elbaum, author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin Mao and Che; Cindy Domingo, co-editor of A Time to Rise: Collective Memoirs of the Union of Democratic Filipinos; and Michael Withey, author of Summary Execution: The Seattle Assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes. While my generation was practically crushed beneath the weight of 60s nostalgia, this evening sounds like a thoughtful and appropriate consideration of what was, what is, and what will be. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, November 27: Made at Hugo House Fellows Showcase

Former members of the Hugo House's writing program for young local authors come together to read new work. Made at Hugo gives writers resources, space, and a peer group in the hopes that they'll make new and exciting work. Here's where we see if all that work pays off. Readers include Steven Barker, Bill Carty, Sierra Golden, and Shankar Narayan. Also reading tonight will be the great Laura Da’, who is this month's Seattle Review of Books poet in residence.

Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, November 28: WordsWest

Three Bellingham writers head to West Seattle for the latest edition of WordsWest. The Bellinghamsters in question are poet Bruce Beasley, memoirist Suzanne Paola, and poet and fiction writer Carol Guess. Since we're now officially in the holidays and the holidays are for giving, this edition of WordsWest will also feature a bake sale to raise money for the West Seattle Food Bank. C&P Coffee Co., 5612 California Ave SW, http://wordswestliterary.weebly.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, November 29: The Feral Detective Reading

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Friday, November 30: Hey Marfa Reading

The poet Jeffrey Yang appears in conversation with Seattle author Don Mee Choi to celebrate the release of Hey Marfa, a collection set in what the New York TImes has characterized as the "improbable art mecca in the Texas badlands." Hey Marfa's publisher, the great Greywolf Press, calls the book "a desert diary scaled to music that aspires to emit particles of light." Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, December 1: Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple Launch Party

Malcolm Friend's debut poetry collection is a hip-hop inspired book with Latinx roots. Promotional materials describe Friend's voice as "a fearless weapon forged from South End Seattle, Puerto Rico, and Pittsburgh." He'll be joined by fellow poets Jasmine Schwartz, Luther Hughes, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, and Quenton Baker to celebrate the book's birth. Rainier Arts Center, 3515 S. Alaska St, 652-4255. http://townhallseattle.org, 6:30 pm, $5.

Sunday, December 2: Writers in the Schools Celebration

Writers in the Schools is a program from Seattle Arts and Lectures that encourages Seattle schoolchildren to enjoy writing as an artform. This is party to celebrate this year's students, as well as the crowning of the city's brand-new Youth Poet Laureate. If you've been feeling cynical about the literary world lately, you'll want to come to this reading to charge up your batteries. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 3 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: The Feral Detective reading at Elliott Bay Book Company

There's a moment fairly early in Jonathan Lethem's new novel The Feral Detective when our narrator, Phoebe Siegler, leans in for a passionate kiss. She rubs the man's hair and runs her hands across his "strong-cabled neck." Then she leans in and, surprising herself, whispers, "Who did you vote for?"

He responds, "Sorry?"

She realizes she blew the moment: "Don't answer, never mind, forget I asked." It's a jarring distraction from a sensual moment, the insertion of politics to a moment where politics doesn't belong.

That's kind of what reading The Feral Detective is like. It's a crime novel — the kind of detective tropes that Lethem has been playing with his whole career, from Gun, with Occasional Music to *Motherless Brooklyn — but it's one that is still reeling from the election of Donald Trump.

Siegler herself is still trying to understand what it means to live in a country with Trump as president. As soon as she starts to feel normal, reality rears its head and her narration gets scrambled again. Her story starts when she blows up her job: "I'd done everything right," she explains, "like a certain first female nominee we'd all relied upon, even my male friends who hated her, as a cap on the barking madness of the world."

Soon after the election, Siegler's friend's daughter goes missing. She sets out to find Arabella and she enlists the help of a detective with the brilliant name Charles Heist. The trail leads them to a cult and things go very wrong. Meanwhile, the world around Siegler and Heist falls apart after the election of Trump.

Feral Detective feels like a direct descendent of Pynchon's first detective novel, The Crying of Lot 49. But it also works as a metaphor for how impossible it is to fall prey to suspension of disbelief in the age of Donald Trump. No fictional situation is too ludicrous anymore, now that the real world has tipped over into a bad novel.

It's not really fair to accuse Feral Detective of lacking focus, as that's kind of the point of the book. But it's still not as fun as it could be, nor as compulsively readable as it should be. At certain points in the narrative when Siegler seems to give up hope, some readers might want to follow suit and set the book down.

Feral Detective ultimately reads like minor-key Lethem; unlike, say, the all-consuming sprawl of his underrated Chronic City, Feral Detective feels myopic and small. But even a lesser Lethem book is still worth your time and attention, and at certain points the book erupts into an orgasmic display of imagination and writing bravura. There are enough of those moments to make you almost forget what a shitshow the rest of the world is right now. Almost.

This Thursday, Lethem reads from The Feral Detective at Elliott Bay Book Company. He will undoubtedly have some things to say about the president and fiction and what purpose fiction serves in a time when Trump is president.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for November 25, 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.

Stop Dismissing Inclusive Children's Books as "Too Political"

Librarian Erinn Salge responds to Joe Pinsker’s Atlantic essay about diversity in children’s and young adult books thoughtfully and decisively. Pinsker conflates the introduction of missing narratives with political propagandizing; Salge expertly deflates him.

For decades, many of these stories have been relegated to the “special interest” shelf, signaling to children that these narratives only need to be read by certain people — that they are not required reading, not worthy of the canon, too narrow to be universal. But if scholars and booksellers yield to the idea that representing all people makes books more leftist, or inherently political, they close the doors on these narratives and their importance. Proclaiming them to be of little use to “plenty” of families tells the children who see themselves represented that they, too, are of little use to most people.
Tossing a Bird That Does Not Fly Out of a Plane

Annie Lowry with a Thanksgiving story about one town’s very unpleasant holiday tradition. Fair warning: this isn’t a puff piece about small town America; it’s a consideration of how and when humans offer empathy to animals, with direct though not lurid descriptions of animal suffering. Of several kinds.

That George had recovered from the turkey drop but not from the death of his friend. That he had physically recovered, but was emotionally devastated. That was the only thing I encountered while reporting this story that made me cry. I got in the car after meeting him and sobbed while cleaning muck off of my boots. Couldn’t that one bird just feel some peace?
Junot Díaz Is Back on the Pulitzer Board Because We Can’t Quit Powerful Men

I am all for due process in a legal setting, and I am all for the equivalent of due process in a civil setting. I can’t help but reflect, though, on how many spurious reasons there are for keeping women out of positions of power — too aggressive, too meek, wrong clothes, wrong age, has children, doesn’t have children, too ambitious, not ambitious enough, etc., etc., are you screaming yet? — and yet how very difficult it can be to unseat a man once he’s settled himself onto a professional throne. Carrie Mullins writes here on Junot Díaz’s return to the Pulitzer Board, what it signals for the post-#metoo moment, and what it means for the women whose work he’ll judge.

It comes down to a simple question that’s been hounding me ever since the news was announced: is it so much to ask that a public face and influential member of the Pulitzer Prize Board not be one who is unfriendly to women? American literature is exploding with great work; we’re not suffering from a lack of talent. Why not make the Chairman of the Board of one of our greatest literary honors a writer who hasn’t yelled “rape!” repeatedly in the face of their female dinner companion?

Whatcha Reading, Marilyn McClellan?

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.

Marilyn McClellan is a retired middle school counselor, writer, ex-library board member, mystery aficionado and collector, and, also, my mom. She's one of the most voracious readers I know, and taught me that a good reader reads broadly. What better way to end a week of thanks then asking someone I love what they've been enjoying lately? She tracks her reading on GoodReads, if you care to follow along.

What are you reading now?

In June I went to hear a panel of writers speaking at the Bothell library. One of those writers was new to me, a Seattle writer named Robert Dugoni, and the librarian that presented him highly praised his new book, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. It has taken a few months to get to it, but it is a most enjoyable read about an eye doctor who was born with red pupils and as a child was called “Devil Boy” by the other students. He muses on his life and choices and his relationship with two friends who were also outcasts.

What did you read last?

Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce. It was a charming little novel about a young woman who has a menial job at a newspaper for a formidable boss. Placed in London during the blitz, I was a bit surprised by the scenes of people attempting to function normally in the nightly presence of bombs and those who valiantly worked among ruins to put out fires and locate survivors. The author’s wartime portrayal of London was fascinating, but I especially enjoyed the heroine’s going against her boss to secretly answer the letters to readers who ask for advice during those difficult times.

What are you reading next?

Another book in my “to read” pile is Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. I long ago finished the first two books in his Ibis Trilogy, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. I read the second book while in Hong Kong visiting my daughter, which was particularly relevant because of the setting. The books deal with the trafficking of indentured servants and trade of opium in the 19th century and Ghosh has been short listed for several prizes for the trilogy.

The Help Desk: The reading cure

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. Cienna Madrid is spending Thanksgiving weekend with her spiders; this column originally ran in 2015.

Dear Cienna,

Have you ever tried to get somebody to change by offering a book that you think might affect them? I have a friend who is drinking himself to death. He listens to books, but not people. Books have changed me, maybe one would change him. Any ideas?

Seth in Georgetown

Dear Seth,

As a teenager I received at least seven copies of How to Make Friends and Influence People from a bouquet of well-intentioned dickheads. I read the damn thing at least twice. It did not make me better at making friends, or even better at making eye contact with strangers. It did nothing but make me resent the fact that I was too old to be cute and too young to drink.

That said, I’d caution you about gifting a book with the hope of changing someone. In my view, books are not topical salves prescribed to fix personal flaws, they are the simplest form of love letter – you give them to people you love because you believe their content will resonate with them on an emotional and intellectual level. Whatever personal change occurs because of that connection is secondary.

Fortunately for you, I have a ton of heavy drinkers in my life and I love at least half of them. Here are three books I’ve read about addiction: Drinking, A Love Story; The Night of the Gun; Dry. I gave the first two as gifts to friends (I didn’t love Dry, to be honest, but I know quite a few people who did). The books did not change my friends’ drinking habits at all. But it did create an avenue to talk about addiction and we’ve had a few good conversations about alcoholism since then. Usually while drinking.

So: I recommend you read those books and see if any of them remind you of your friend. If you have the time and interest, you should also read this fascinating article published in 2015 in The Atlantic that critically challenges the efficacy of AA.

More importantly, I’d like to point out that I have lots of friends now, even if most of them are only half sober.

Suck it, Dale Carnegie.



Who I'm thankful for

Cooperation is what makes us human. We are defined by the groups that we belong to: families, nations, workplaces, hobbies.

But groups are hard to maintain. Entropy is always pushing at the edges of our relationships. People leave behind physical manifestations, but an organization can easily disappear without a trace. An immense structure like Safeco Field can seem like an eternal structure, a monument to Safeco that will last forever, but then with the exchange of some significant amount of money it becomes T-Mobile Field.

The WaMu Tower on Second Ave almost immediately lost its name when Washington Mutual disappeared in the Great Recession. Now it's the Russell Investment Center. Different groups rise and fall as people come and go. The will behind organizations fade and dissipate with time.

I've been thinking a lot about arts organizations, lately. It's amazing that they exist at all, that people join forces and dedicate huge portions of their days to supporting and fostering the arts. I know dozens of Seattleites who could be making more money working for tech companies or insurance firms or marketing agencies, but they decide instead to dedicate their lives to the arts. It's a sacrifice, but often a very happy one.

To dedicate yourself to an arts organization is to establish a very tenacious set of roadblocks in your own path. There's that organizational entropy I was discussing earlier: no organization wants to dissipate into nothingness more eagerly than an arts organization. And there's the lack of resources. And there's also the lack of local media willing or able to give the time and attention that the cause so desperately deserves. But still some of us — those sainted few! — decide to stay, and fight, and hold everything together though the whole universe at times is trying to pull them apart.

This Thanksgiving, I wanted to publicly express my gratitude for three local arts leaders who have done exceptional work on behalf of Seattle-area literary organizations. I'm grateful that we have them here in the city, and I hope they're around for many more.

First, I'm thankful for Tree Swenson, who guided the Hugo House through what could easily have been an organization-ending disaster. In the face of Capitol Hill's exponential economic growth, Swenson moved the Hugo House to a temporary location and then moved it back to a beautiful new home where it can exist for decades to come. The next few years are the fun part of the process: the organization is going to fill in the space and actually exist in it. Hopefully Swenson will stay at her post for years to come, to help the House become a home.

Second, I'm thankful for Ruth Dickey, the executive director of Seattle Arts and Lectures. It's hard to remember now, but just a few years ago, SAL was suffering from an existential distress. Attendance was way down at SAL events, and a kind of east-coast stuffiness had set into the programming. Every SAL season seemed like the same parade of New York publisher-approved grand lions of literature, and Seattle was in danger of losing interest. Dickey moved SAL's main-stage events to Town Hall for a few years, and then — with the help of curator Rebecca Hoogs — she oversaw the reading series's triumphant return to Benaroya Hall with a slate of readings as diverse and as fascinating as the world we all live in today. In addition to the high-profile readings slate, SAL does great work with its Writers in the Schools and Youth Poet Laureate program, lighting the way for a new generation of writers in Seattle.

And lastly, I'm thankful for Kelly Froh, who co-founded the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival and then shepherded it through its first great institutional crisis — the departure of founding member Eroyn Franklin. In my interviews with Short Run's board last month, everyone agreed that Froh has stepped up to the challenge and prepared Short Run for a smoother future — one that can survive the loss of any one figure. She's turned it from a happening into a real institution, and prepared it for a long life.

These three leaders have quantifiably made Seattle a better, more vibrant place. They've made their mark on the city by building communities for the rest of us to enjoy and rely on. And they've done it from behind the scenes, with no consideration for rewards or attention. On this, a day of gratitude, I wanted to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving, tell them that their work does not go unnoticed, and extend my sincerest thanks.

On Very Famous Literary Trolls

Last week, Twitter couldn't stop talking about a Literary Hub listicle written by a Very Famous Literary Troll. The Very Famous Literary Troll is famous for more than being a Literary Troll, of course — he's a bestseller who's been lauded in just about every bookish publication — but whenever the Very Famous Literary Troll has a new book out, he comes forth and issues a Very Serious Proclamation, usually having to do with writing and the internet. And people get very angry about the Very Serious Proclamation.

It's all a little exhausting.

I don't have time for the Very Famous Literary Troll's books anymore. I think he's proven himself to be an inelastic thinker — one whose time has come and gone. His books have already aged poorly, and based on his writing, he seems to be aging poorly as well. And I think most of the uproar caused by the Very Famous Literary Troll serves as nothing but free promotion for his bad books. I decided a while ago that I would try my best to ignore all of his Very Serious Proclamations, and that turned out to be surprisingly easy. The uproar begins, people rage against him, he ignores the response, and then everyone forgets about the uproar and moves on to the next thing.

I'm not saying that people are bad or wrong for responding to the Very Famous Literary Troll's Very Serious Proclamations. I'm a straight white male and so the Very Famous Literary Troll doesn't threaten me at all; there are lots of people who don't have that kind of luxury. And "don't feed the trolls" was one of the dumbest and wrongest truisms to be born in the early days of the internet. I've read and learned from a bunch of thoughtful essays about privilege, race, class, and literature that have been written in response to a Very Serious Proclamation or two.

But before you immediately respond to the Very Famous Literary Troll the next time he has a book to promote, I hope you'll stop and consider a few questions.

  1. Am I just tossing a disposable zinger into the social media void? Because if so, aren't I just willingly volunteering to join the PR campaign for his latest book?
  2. If I'm a white or otherwise privileged author, could I use my time more effectively than responding to this? Perhaps I could amplify the voices of writers who don't enjoy the Very Famous Literary Troll's massive platform instead?
  3. Shouldn't I be writing, I dunno, anything else right now?

If you consider those questions and you still feel like you have to say the thing you want to say, feel free. I hope you add to the discourse and feel good about your contribution. I can't wait to read it.

But if you opt out of responding, I hope you'll make a note to yourself to think about your decision in a week's time. Set a calendar reminder to reflect on your choice in exactly one week. Odds are good that you won't even remember what outrageous statement the Very Serious Literary Troll made.

And here's something personal I wanted to add as an aside: I've proudly contributed to Literary Hub in the past. I think they're a very fine publication that has ably filled a huge void in literary coverage on the internet. But I was embarrassed for Literary Hub last week. The day after they published that piece by the Very Serious Literary Troll, they posted another article composed entirely of angry tweets responding to their previous article.

"Yesterday, we published a lot of great pieces that probably not that many people read because they were too busy talking about this one on Twitter," the Literary Hub article began in an unfortunately self-congratulatory tone. This is one of my least favorite forms of journalism: a media outlet causes an uproar with a controversial piece and then fluffs itself up by promoting the uproar that they themselves caused.

Please note that I'm not calling for a media boycott or arguing that Literary Hub shouldn't have published the Very Famous Literary Troll in the first place. I'm not arguing against anyone's free speech. But I am saying that the literary internet should aspire to something better than this level of masturbatory clickbait.

I've read plenty of quality pieces on Literary Hub and I'm sure I'll read more pieces of that high quality again. But in that post — the one celebrating the controversy that they courted by monetizing critical tweets without compensating the writers they angered — they failed to meet the high standards that their organization promotes.