EJ Koh is the author of A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize, and her memoir The Magical Language of Others forthcoming from Tin House. Her poems and translations have appeared in Boston Review, Columbia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, PEN America, World Literature Today, and of course, here on the Seattle Review of Books. She has accepted fellowships from The American Literary Translators Association, Kundiman, and The MacDowell Colony.
What are you reading now?
A collection of fiction by Korean women The Future of Silence translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. It’s one of very few collections of Korean writing in the English-speaking world. Stories like O Chong-hui’s “Wayfarer” and Park Wan-so’s “Identical Apartments” make noises in my heart, noises I've never heard. One of my favorites, So Young-un’s “Dear Distant Love,” with its repressed, reclaimed visuality and story is darkly moving.
What did you read last?
After Jhumpa Lahiri published her self-reflections in the Italian language, I picked up the English translation In Other Words. The possibility of a new language giving birth to a new voice is both familiar and startling. I ask myself these same questions: Could I write a story in the Korean language? Would I dare to write a poem in the Japanese language? How does this change my writing, the place from which I speak?
What are you reading next?
I will begin Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me. It’s a debut that tackles the birth of modern Korea, beginning at the refugee camps and through the aftermath of war. I’m looking forward to experiencing the characters, the intimate story, but especially the lessons.
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.
When I say these post-its are from my life “recently” I mean “about a month ago”. Giant wildfires ravaging the western half of this continent notwithstanding, a month ago looks like a gentler time, a less in-your-face-awful time than last week. Or perhaps last month’s worries have just receded in memory, obscured by the newest onslaught. In late August I was disregarding all the warnings, exercising in the lake each day despite air quality risks and my asthma. Normally healthy people were dropping like flies from the ash, getting sick, staying in, canceling plans. But it makes me so happy to swim outside, and bleak as it was out there, it also looked fascinating. If I have to be surrounded by grim foreboding environmental conditions, I suppose I might as well let myself revel in the weirdness of that bright orange greyness, whole days of what appears to be cold misty dawn but is also irrefutably 90-degree afternoon. As the fires settled down, a drab work meeting randomly rekindled my romance with Seattle Public Library. How had I lost track of how personally swoon-inducing the library is? For a month now I’ve literally felt it increase my happiness every single day. I’ve always liked any excuse for a walk, and honestly, just strolling down now and then to see what’s there or return something feels ridiculously pleasant. At 7:30pm, when I need a break from work — and they’re still open! And everything is free!! The world crushingly brutal and yet THE LIBRARY IS STILL THERE, AND IT JUST WANTS TO HELP. Still doing its job to help everybody out, no matter your finances — an established, expansive kindness wildly anachronistic in our current landscape. Two days later watching the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, I felt my world rearranged by solid evidence of Katharine Hepburn’s real life queerness. My deep early affinity, the enduring-yet-ever-denied sense of her being one of ours. Constantly crushed by the popular reality, her “devotion” to that male costar, the straight experience inevitably winning out over my more vulnerable one. Suddenly here it was — not just my hopeful imagination but credible accounts from real people — her queerness, and even his as well. The thoroughness washed over me with surprising force, opened something I’d learned to accept as closed without question. And yet the dominant narrative keeps ignoring, disbelieving, actively hiding such histories. Why is it still not ok for gay people to see ourselves? A couple days after that, reconnecting with an old friend, just for a day maybe, monumental and tiny. I don’t know why some things go so unsaid.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
You remind me of my Aunt Alice, who once told me that the only difference between men and women was obligation, sensibility, kindness, and everything else. (But then again, she hated women, had "will obey" in her vows, and lived a very orthodox life.)
There was this one thing, though: she was really, really, really into spiders. She used to make all my dresses, and on every label she made a little black spider on a thread. Every birthday card: spiders. She once knit me an afghan that had all radiating spider web patterns.
Given how much you write about spiders I thought maybe you could throw some light on Aunt Alice. Any insights?
Thanks. Based on your description, I strongly believe your aunt and I could've had a fine time alone together in a dim room, not speaking. I think we both identify with spiders' solitary, independent nature – they are unconcerned with being either overlooked or hated, as most are too busy with snacking and butt play.
And I suspect that your aunt would have a harder time hating women in today's climate. Even if you ignore for a moment judge Brett Kavanaugh's alleged sexual misconduct and under-oath lies, congressional Republicans' staunch support of getting this man's shithooks planted on the Supreme Court prove they have dropped the charade that women are human beings and should be listened to and respected as such. Why even call us women – why not "man's best friend"? They treat us alternately like bitches and dogs.
The silver lining is that more people are taking notice. It's not just self-ascribed feminists beating the drum about women's basic rights any more (like the right not to be groped and harassed, the right to be listened to and believed). Did you know that some spiders are social? And that their personality can change depending on what other spiders they're socializing with? If spiders can change, I have hope that more people can, too.
PS. I want that afghan.
P.P.S. This conversation reminds me of the life and writings of Pearl S. Buck, who was raised in China by missionaries but went against her church and spoke out against Christian missions later on in life. She was also an ardent advocate for women and minority rights. You should read The Good Earth – it won a Pulitzer (and she won a Nobel Prize in Literature) way back before "affirmative action" became a sly talking point to dismiss the accomplishments of women and minorities.
Saturday, October 6:
The Slow Art Book Release Party
Join Seattle poet (and Seattle Review of Books’s September Poet in Residence) Sierra Golden for the release of her very first poetry collection, The Slow Art. Golden’s book is a poetic account of her time in the commercial fishing industry. To celebrate her book’s debut, Golden will be joined by local poets Maya Jewell Zeller and Sierra Nelson. And a country rock band called Lo-Liner will perform in between the readings.
Artspace Hiawatha Lofts, 843 Hiawatha Pl S, Seattle, 206-709-7611, http://www.artspacehiawatha.com, 5 pm, free.
Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
The difficulty with writing happy endings these days isn’t just that it takes more effort to imagine happiness. The challenge is that all of this feels so endless.
I write this at the height of the Kavanaugh nomination and its procedural chaos — but by the time you read it there will undoubtedly have been another crisis, another tipping point that has us shivering and shaking and shouting into our phones. Humans are a narrative species, and we use stories to make sense of what we see happening around us. Dr. Ford tearfully recalling the worst experience of her life — while dozens of white, old, thin-lipped men sat by unmoved — looked like the climactic setpiece from any courtroom procedural of the past thirty years, or the Dolores Umbridge/Ministry of Magic scenes from Harry Potter. Kavanaugh’s self-aggrieved tantrum was a high school thespian’s reenactment of Nicholson’s rage-induced breakdown in A Few Good Men. It is not that we reach for fiction because we are incapable of facing reality on its own terms: we look for these parallels because we desperately need to know what might happen next. So we can prepare for it.
But this administration gives us no respite and no resolution. Everything is nonsense; causes don’t recognize their effects. Kavanaugh was voted forward — or not? Pending an FBI investigation? — and it may have been something we helped make happen? Or not? Is Jeff Flake just three Ouija boards stacked in a trenchcoat, or has something meaningful been done to steer this travesty from its worst outcome? Meanwhile hundreds of immigrant children have yet to be returned to their anxious parents, Flint still doesn’t have clean water, gerrymandering and voter suppression are denying civil rights to millions, Puerto Rico still struggles to recover from last year’s hurricane, regulation rollbacks open parks to drilling and remove safety standards from the food chain, disability and medical bills bankrupt more people, police brutality against black Americans continues unchecked, the ACA is under open threat, the Mueller investigation is doing whatever it is the Mueller investigation is doing, the new federal budget slashes millions from Medicaid and Medicare, and so on and so on and so on. There are stories I’m forgetting or that I’ve missed. We can’t get a handle on everything because it’s too much, and we can’t disengage because so much of it is quite literally life or death stakes. It is a viral attack on the public consciousness, with intent to disarm and overwhelm.
The idea that a crisis could actually just be over feels like an old-fashioned luxury. They are using our capacity to care about one another as a weapon against us. It’s evil. I am so constantly furious about this it’s a wonder my hair has not turned into a tangle of hissing snakes.
Assailed by too many competing stories, we select narratives in self-defense. Women and survivors across my timelines are posting shots of Judith and Holofernes, Wonder Woman, Xena. We are going over the movies and media we watched in our youth — Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds have been name-checked time and again — to offer concrete, pre-understood examples of what we’ve experienced. We’re searching for better stories, for comfort: the number of posts I’ve seen asking for f/f romance recs has trebled, at least. I believe this is no small part of the momentum behind the new wave of romantic comedies we’re seeing across film and streaming services. People are looking for better answers at the same time as they’re looking for ways of feeling less hopeless, exhausted, and confused.
Romance novels bring moral clarity and resolution like it’s going out of style. Here are our heroes and heroines: they may not be the best people right now, but they’re going to get better. And then they’ll be rewarded. Their struggles will cease. We can and will argue all day about what kind of character can legitimately be set up as a hero or heroine (some authors just cannot resist a Nazi redemption arc, ugh) but we can’t argue about the skeleton underneath. At this point picking up a romance doesn’t feel escapist anymore — or else it’s escapist the way that it would be escapist to consume coleslaw or citrus on a long sea voyage to keep scurvy at bay. More than anything, romance novels make it safe and rewarding to care about the characters you meet. Emotional nutrition. Narrative sustenance. There is something we need to thrive, and the cultural environment is deliberately denying it: we have to look for it elsewhere. Even the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park found ways to get around the lysine contingency meant to keep them captive. (You can picture me as a Velociraptor sniffing at the door, tapping my talons thoughtfully as I stalk the shadowed aisles of an industrial kitchen.)
This month’s column brings you two queer romances, two feminist historical novellas, a Miami-set contemporary, and a creepy little masterpiece where a Victorian magician falls in love with a futuristic assassin of eldritch horrors. Pick your poison. Take your medicine. Rest a little, then get back up and show these fuckers how strong we really are.
A Treason of Truths by Ada Harper (Carina Press: science fiction f/f)
Sci-fi romance is one of the hardest genre blends to get right. It requires the emotional arc between the protagonists to be as fully fleshed-out as the speculative twists of the plot. But when it’s done well it feels more complete than either genre alone: richer than technofiction, and more transportive than real-world romance. I’ve seen it done well before, but I’ve rarely seen it done this well, and damn if I’m not a little awed. A Treason of Truths is the sequel to the complex and gripping A Conspiracy of Whispers, and unlike most romance series these should definitely be read in proper order. The first book sets up the players and politics of Harper’s futuristic post-Crisis world — while giving us a sizzling romance between an Imperial prince and a prickly assassin from the dystopia next door — and this second book comes along to revel in the consequences. The fun of high-tech espionage, shady moral politics, and one of the best takes I’ve seen on the Fated Mates trope make these books an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Empires live and die on the trading of secrets, and the family-bloodline-focused, gilt-plated Quillian Empire’s greatest spy is Lyre (aka the Liar, if you’re nasty). But Lyre has unsuspected secrets of her own: one, that she’s a rogue runaway from the floating Cloud Vault, a city-sized hoard of pre-Crisis knowledge and self-appointed technocrats who mostly steer clear of earthbound politics; two, that she’s helplessly, painfully, and irrevocably in love with the empress she serves.
Empress Sabine lost an eye in a failed coup attempt supported by a rival government — um, spoilers for book one — but it doesn’t take two eyes to see a trap when the Cloud Vault unusually offers to host peace negotiations. What follows is a stunning series of threats, rescues, escapes, betrayals, and revelations aboard a shining, tarnished and utterly creepy floating ship-city. Nanobots poison the bloodstream and turn people’s own bodies against them, mechanical moths scan every pipeline and passage for runaways, and eerie nightsbane-wolf crosses lurk in the shadows of the city’s forgotten underworld. All this plus a brutal, angst-filled, heart-twisting romance between two stubborn, wary, complicated women who can deceive everyone but one another.
If there is a book three someday I will shout my delight to the heavens.
A declaration — of need, of more than a need, of feeling — no, that was never supposed to be in the cards, but Lyre was a professional. She could cut her heart out for the game. She’d done it before. Working in intelligence meant carrying your own homeland inside you, soil to absorb it all until you could bleed in private. She’d thought she could control the reaction.
Counterpoint by Anna Zabo (Carina Press: contemporary m/pan m):
The real fantasy in romance is someone who sees you, and wants you, and loves you as you are. This fantasy has double the power in queer romance, which because of our culture has to traffic in a certain amount of invisibility. KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian’s m/m historicals make clear the risk a hero takes even in expressing interest in another man. Making queer desire visible can be fatal. Mx Zabo’s contemporaries deal in other kinds of erasure, within modern queer culture as well as around it: mental illness, kink and queer stereotypes, asexuality, public versus private personas. They have a glorious way of bringing to life the delicate give and take of a good seduction. Everything is carefully, thoughtfully, beautifully done — and all the hotter because of that. Of course, it helps that this series’ brand of kink is the cerebral, generous, ropes-and-leather command-and-obey kind (my favorite!) rather than the sadistic dungeon-full-of-spikes-and-whips kind. Give me a caring top who can dominate in a daytime hipster café with nothing but a piece of lemon meringue on a fork, and I’m one happy camper.
Domino Grinder is the guitarist for Twisted Wishes, a rock band on the upswing after an eventful whirlwind tour (shown in Mx Zabo’s excellent Syncopation). He curates the tattooed, spike-collared, bad-boy image carefully to protect his other self: shy, bookish, and submissive Dominic Bradley, who likes to put on bow ties and sweater-vests and cruise for handsome intellectual types. Such a man is pansexual programmer Adrian Doran, who knows lovely, expressive, wide-eyed, tie-me-up-please Dominic is just the kind of man he could fall for, and hard. But Dom is profoundly hesitant to reveal his other existence as Domino: not only because it’s a closely-guarded secret he fears will be leaked to the media, and not only because he thinks dommy Adrian would have no interest in brash, cocky, surly Domino (wrong! the reader wails internally). Mostly because Dom doesn’t know whether Dominic or Domino is the real one, his authentic self. For his part Adrian is dealing with being undermined and having his work essentially stolen by a newer, bro-ier programmer, and is in really no place to navigate a lover keeping a very big, very hurtful secret. This is the story of two complicated men who want and need each other desperately, and who are painfully careful and anxious about taking each step forward. Watching all the internal and external threads unspool, knots together, and ultimately release is an absolute pleasure.
“I’m in way over my head.”
Adrian’s brow furrowed.
“So am I.” Dom closed his eyes. Oh fucking hell. He was gonna fall in love with Adrian. After two damn dates. That wasn’t safe and it wasn’t fair at all.
Miss Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies by Theresa Romain and Shana Galen (self-published: two historical m/f novellas):
Second-chance romance is a tricksy thing at novella length. On the one hand it lets us skip all the problem parts of the relationship and get right to the reconciliation. On the other hand…it lets us skip all the problem parts of the relationship, which is often where a lot of the tension and drama and heart-twisting feelings are generated. This volume features a pair of novellas in the quintessential modern Regency style, where a strong woman has carved out a feminist space within an overtly patriarchal world. Both are connected to the worlds of each author’s existing series — but only one left me wanting to explore more.
Shana Galen’s “Counterfeit Scandal” is a spy story without any spying, whose plot shows us neither counterfeiting nor a scandal. Hero Caleb worked for the Foreign Office during the Napoleonic Wars, embedded in a high position with the French army. He wreaked so much havoc that there is still a price on his head, so he lives quietly in a boarding-house in London. Heroine Bridget learned she was pregnant (!), married someone else (!!), and ended up in debtor’s prison (!!!) after the Foreign Office told her Caleb had died abroad (!!!!). Now she teaches art and forgery at an exclusive and very unusual academy. The two reunite by happenstance as Bridget searches for their son, who is somewhere in one of London’s many orphanages. Unfortunately, it’s clear we are watching this couple most closely at the least eventful part of their lives. Both the earlier Napoleon-and-debtor’s-prison sections or the reunited family’s sailing voyage to Canada seem like they’d have been stronger story fodder. (Imagine being on a long sailing voyage with your ex who you thought was dead, and the young son who only barely remembers you. And you have to pretend to be a happy family!) It made me wonder if there were just things I’d missed as someone who hasn’t read the author’s other books: there was a ghostly sense of weights and meanings that I ought to have felt in certain scenes, like hearing an inside joke where you don’t understand the reference.
Perhaps the unreality if the second story wouldn’t have felt so jarring if the first story hadn’t been so inviting and grounded and vivid. Theresa Romain’s “The Way to a Gentleman’s Heart” features academy cook Marianne Redfern as a heroine, and we’re treated to a bevy of concrete, anchoring details about recipes, cooking prep, budgeting, grocery shopping, and staffing issues. The crisis of how to plan a banquet when you’re understaffed feels more urgent than any of the vague espionage of the second novella. Food is one of the most irresistible things in fiction; it always means something culturally or emotionally or politically, so this story feels full of hooks that snag the heart. At one point hero Jack Grahame scours London’s markets to bring Marianne fresh honeycomb, just like they used to share as country lovers in years past. I just about swooned myself into a puddle on the floor, and it’s a great example of using a shorter story to give new readers a view into an established world. I wanted to move in at once, and order dinner.
He’d always liked her eyes. In a face as calm as any cameo painting, her changeable eyes had betrayed her true feelings. If he read their green depths correctly now, he’d caught her by surprise, and she wanted to flay him alive.
Night and Day by Andie J Christopher (Lyrical Press: contemporary m/f):
After the uncommon stress of the past few weeks, who’d have thought I’d enjoy a romance so much when it steers hard into questions of workplace affairs, abusive parents, and domestic violence? But such is the magic of a talented author: I was entranced.
Letty Gonzalez is hurt, angry, and desperate for a job: her art-festival-running ex dumped her and fired her when it turned out he couldn’t use her to access the family fortune. He also told her she was too fat for him to love, which tied in horribly to her issues with her fat-shaming mom and supermodel sister. Max Delgado is a grumpy sculptor with a simmering temper always on the verge of boiling over. He’s closed himself off for fear of becoming too much like his abusive father, and he’s only really able to express himself by heating and bending metal into abstract shapes. He also has a meddlesome, delightfully frank matchmaking grandma who I loved to pieces: Grandma Lola has decided Letty and Max would suit perfectly, so she fakes an email from Max hiring Letty as an assistant.
Letty shows up on the day Max is expecting a model for a sitting, so first thing right off the bat he demands she remove her clothes. And we’re off!
So many things in this book are messy: anger, pain, lust, fear, dysfunctional families. Letty’s wary of getting involved with another one of her bosses. Max is wary of losing control and hurting a woman he cares about. But the chemistry is stupid hot — and very palpable in the text, so it feels like a real problem and not a plot excuse — so even when both characters are just balls of electric insecurities, you’re rooting for them to figure it out and get back into bed already. Letty deserves orgasms! Max is ready to provide! She desperately needs to take care of someone, and he very much needs caring for! And the sexy bits are some of the most glorious filth I’ve read in a while: juicy, bawdy, slippery good fun. At the same time, the book puts the consent-and-power-dynamics questions of workplace harassment front and center, which is to say: how do you trust this motherfucker not to turn into a motherfucker like the last one? Consent is negotiated, offered, and withdrawn; boundaries are crossed, rethought, and reestablished. At the end of the book, after so many huge feelings and fuck-ups, I felt cleansed, wrung out, and excited about where our couple ended up. This was my first Andie J Christopher, but I promise you it’s not going to be my last.
When she brought the cups into the living room, she caught the tail end of Lola saying something like, “I didn’t come all the way over to Coconut Grove to watch you fuck this up.”
No Proper Lady by Isabel Cooper (Sourcebooks: historical paranormal m/f):
This book was once pitched to me as Terminator meets My Fair Lady, and if you’re not already leaping for the buy button I don’t even know what we’re doing here.
Listen, there are just times when the most relatable heroine around is a gritty, wounded, half-starved, relentless assassin who has given up everything to come back in time and kill history’s greatest villain. Joan, daughter of Arthur and Leia, is humankind’s last hope. She has been sent back from the year 2188, a time when amorphous tentacular demons have taken over the earth and humanity’s remnants cower underground in the hope of surviving just one more muddy, miserable, sunless day. The man who started this all is Alex Reynell, a Victorian-era magician who possessed a book that let him open the doors to the demon world, destroying Earth and nearly everyone on it.
Joan of course has come to kill him. But first she has to find him.
She lands on the estate of magician Simon Grenville, who offers her shelter after she saves his life. Simon happens to be a former friend of Reynell, at least until Reynell started studying some of the really icky dark magics, so as Simon comes to believe Joan’s outlandish tale the two try to come up with ways to get Joan near Alex. Reynell moves in the highest circles of society — so naturally Joan has to learn to blend in with the aristocrats, which is where the My Fair Lady bit comes in. Meanwhile Joan is having a hard time adjusting to a world where gender roles are rigid but there is a shocking abundance of food and air and sunlight; she also painfully mourns the loss of her family, since it will be impossible for her to return to the future. Assuming it even exists once she’s done her job, that she doesn’t just wink out of existence as the last scrap of paradox. This book is darkly hopeful. This book is eerie. This book is one of the best fantasy romances I’ve ever read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough this Halloween season.
“Women are people,” she said calmly and cheerfully. “People are bastards. And someone who’s caged — no matter how pretty the bars are — is going to get bored and restless and go for the only entertainment she can. Even if that’s catching men.”
The comics industry is twisting itself up into a knot over the fact that kids aren't reading superhero comics. Even though young people are attending superhero movies in sick-making numbers, they're not buying into the comics that serve as the basis for those movies.
But I find it hard to get too exercised over this "crisis." Kids are reading comics, probably in greater numbers than they have in decades. They're just reading about different kinds of heroes. These heroes look more like the kids of today — diverse, confident, proudly imperfect — and they don't carry any of the odd baggage that has accrued around superhero stories for the last six decades.
I recently read the first two books in the 5 Worlds series, The Sand Warrior and The Cobalt Prince, and they're the kind of comics I wish I had when I was younger. The hero of the series, Oona, is curious but big-hearted. She's not an angry nerd like Peter Parker, or a bitter rage-baby like Bruce Banner. She's curious and clumsy and she wants to help people.
Early in The Sand Warrior, Oona finds herself on a predestined mission to reignite ancient beacons spread across five war-torn planets. She teams up with a space athlete and a strange little outcast to save the galaxy.
Creator-wise, it's hard to tell exactly who did what in the 5 Worlds series. It's written by brothers Alexis and Mark Siegel, but three illustrators are credited for the art: Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Whoever actually drew the thing deserves a ton of praise: the art is cute without being cloying, and imaginative while still being thoroughly relatable.
But the real genius here is the coloring: using a palette of pastels and gentle earth tones, these books are dreamy and warm and unlike all the other fantasy books on the shelves. A giant sand creature near the end of the first book is framed against a dusky sunrise and a gloomy moon, adding to the reader's sense of wonder. Whoever is responsible for coloring this book is breaking new ground in adventure comics; the superhero publishers should be ripping them off as shamelessly as possible.
Occasionally, the 5 Worlds books grind to a halt to provide exposition that will move the story forward for the next 30 or 40 pages. These info dumps are a bit too thick for their own good. Ooona says to someone early in the first book, "But...but I thought the Sand Castle and the Flying Fortress hated each other!" He replies,
Plumb visited with Domani diplomats but he was secretly teaching me. I came to understand there is something rotten in the heart of the Fortress these days! Toki stands against lighting the beacons! I escaped to continue my training because I believe lighting them is the right thing to do.
That's a lot of telling. Showing this character's backstory probably would have added a lot of pages to the book — at about 250 pages each, these are not exactly slim — but they would have made the story feel a little more organic.
But kids love exposition as long as it leads somewhere good. Oona's quest is perfect for young readers: she travels from planet to planet, lighting the way for a kinder, more inclusive future. You can keep your superheroes; she's just the hero that we need right now.
Last week was, for me, the most disheartening, dismal week in American politics since the day Donald Trump won the election in 2016. For many of my friends, it was the single worst week in recent memory. We can quibble over the rankings, but one thing is clear: it was a terrible week for me to read The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen.
I resented reading Nordic over the last week; with its fuzzy description of politics and policy in the Nordic countries, Partanen's memoir/political encomium felt frivolous and beside the point. The president was mocking sexual assault survivors, for Christ's sake! Maybe in a Hillary Clinton presidency, I could see myself reading Nordic and pining for a better way of life. But with the United States teetering ever-closer to a cross between the Cold War and the Civil War, Nordic felt like exactly the wrong book at exactly the wrong time.
I think most attendees of the Reading Through It Book Club last night at Third Place Books Seward Park happily didn't share in my resentment of Nordic. Some seemed to find great comfort in Partanen's book.
And I can totally understand why! It's a well-written book, and Partanen, a Finnish reporter who married an American, is in a unique position to write it. Her description of the various types of health care programs that exist around the world — from single-payer to federalized care — is the clearest and simplest explanation I've encountered in my life.
But I wish we had the luxury to sit around and wonder if our education system or our social safety net should be more like Sweden's. Children are being detained in camps at our border. Apocalyptic environmental predictions are being used to deregulate pollution. Worrying about parental leave seems pretty small in comparison.
Our conversation at the book club last night veered toward the cynical. We had a big discussion over whether one person's actions — particularly in an overwhelmingly liberal city like Seattle — can make a difference in the country. Every time we talked about the possibility of choosing a better system, an ugly truth would rear its head.
Ultimately, though, it's important to understand these other ways of doing things, these more humane ways to live. It's been said tens of thousands of times since the 2016 elections: Democrats can't win on a party-of-no platform. We have to supply an alternate narrative, a new understanding of what it means to be an American. And that means we can't go back to the incrementalism of the past. We have to embrace new ways of governing ourselves, and that means looking to good examples and learning what we can. Maybe Partanen's book is exactly the book we should all be reading right now.
Book deliveries to prisons across Pennsylvania were terminated this month as part of a multi-pronged security overhaul meant to eliminate avenues for drug smuggling. That meant an abrupt end to direct donations from programs like Books Through Bars, as well as orders shipped from Amazon or publishers.
But even though prisoners in Pennsylvania can't get books in the mail anymore, they can get access to "a library of 8,500 e-books that inmates, who make as little as 19 cents per hour, can purchase and read on $149 tablets provided by the vendor GTL." That's almost 800 hours of work to buy a tablet that gives them the ability to buy more books. This is totally immoral.
The new Kobo Forma sports an eight-inch display and weighs about 15 percent less than the Kobo Aura ONE. It might be a little lighter, but there are a lot of similarities between the Forma and Aura ONE. Like the Aura ONE, the Forma meets IPX8 standards — meaning it can be submerged for up to 60 minutes in up to six feet of water — uses the ComfortLight PRO system, which adjusts blue-light exposure throughout the day, and has a storage capacity of 8GB.
But really, you probably don't need an e-reader. I bought an e-reader from Sony years ago, and I barely used the thing after the initial thrill wore off. I've since read dozens of ebooks on my phone. People claim that phones are bad for e-reading because they have so many distractions on them, but in my experience, I've found that if the books are interesting enough they'll distract you from the distractions.
Speaking of distractions, some folks are crowdsourcing a laptop with an e-ink screen that doesn't have any other digital distractions. It's called The Traveler, and it's by the people who do the Freewrite digital typewriter.
Frankly, my favorite non-distraction digital reader is the Neo AlphaSmart 2, which is a battery-powered device that has absolutely no internet whatsoever. It's not being made anymore, so you have to buy it used.
At a time when festivals are getting slicker and more polished and market-tested to the point of homogeneity, the Airstream Poetry Festival is a delightfully catch-as-catch-can affair. Put together by Mother Foucault Books in Portland, the Airstream festival takes over the Sou’wester Lodge and Trailer Park in Seaview, Washington for a weekend of poetry readings, workshops, publishers, ocean walks, and karaoke.
The next Airstream Poetry Festival takes place the weekend of October 19th. Tickets are just $15, and they include a potluck dinner and omelette breakfast at the Airstream's outdoor kitchen. I talked on the phone with Heather Brown, the events organizer at Mother Foucault, about the four-year old festival. Brown says Airstream started as "a retreat for personnel and friends of the shop. It's been gradually becoming more official" in the intervening years, she says.
While originally the weekend just featured a single reading with poets like Matthew Dickman and Carl Adamshick and Ed Skoog, Airstream now blends readings with workshops, games, music, and film screenings (Northwest Film Forum will be in attendance this year with a collection of films curated by Seattle writer Chelsea Werner-Jatzke.)
Aside from the rural locale and laid-back vibe, the thing that makes Airstream especially interesting is the geography of it. The festival feels like a Portland-Seattle summit, since it's located roughly halfway between the two cities. "It's been really great to get interest on both sides toward meeting in the middle," Brown says. But Airstream casts an even wider net than that: Brown says Bay Area poets also take part in the festival, and that publishers Expedition Press and Copper Canyon are both heading down from Port Townsend.
While she's excited for all the events, Brown thinks Seattle Review of Books readers should especially take note of Alicia Jo Rabins, who'll be reading from her new book Fruit Geode. "She's also bringing music," Brown says, adding Rabins "composed a soundtrack for the book that she'll be pioneering at the festival." She's also interested in the typewriter-themed writing prompt that Expedition Press is overseeing.
Another fun thing about Airstream is that it intermingles workshops and readings in an interdisciplinary vibe. Smartly, it doesn't put up artificial walls between readers and writers of poetry and literature. "It's just a fun place to come," Brown says. "It's a great way to meet new people and also be encouraged in your craft, if you're a writer and to meet some writers up close if you're a reader and a fan."
"And also it's not totally writing-centric," Brown says. "It's very, multidisciplinary. We've got a lot of input from various creative streams." She adds, "and it's also just a great getaway."
Last week, while the country was reeling from the image of a credible, intelligent woman being forced to share the national attention with a pack of howling old white men, Alia Wong published a story in The Atlantic about gender and reading:
In two of the largest studies ever conducted into the reading habits of children in the United Kingdom, Keith Topping—a professor of educational and social research at Scotland’s University of Dundee—found that boys dedicate less time than girls to processing words, that they’re more prone to skipping passages or entire sections, and that they frequently choose books that are beneath their reading levels.
If we really want boys to have more empathy as they make their way in the world, we should encourage them to read more and to read better. That would be a good place to start.
Lately, exes have been sneaking into my dreams,
and other places of suspended thought. Like
when I’m swimming laps, my body blue
and liquid as the water holding me.
They wave. They smile. They flicker
along the blue-floor depths of the deep end.
One shows up to ask if I think he’ll look good
with dread locks. Another shows up with his dog
to ask if I still love her. And another
reminds me of the summer he made a movie
in which I played a young girl learning French,
my only lines words I already knew. And because
he was poor, or young, or in a hurry
there was only one take. And because
I was nervous, or lonely, or young
I remembered only two phrases,
which I purred,
again and again,
in my lowest,
the way I’d seen Jean Seburg whisper
to Jean-Paul Belmando in Breathless.
And even in the final scene, in which
I was supposed to have been hit by a car and killed,
I wouldn’t die,
but looked straight into the camera
propelled by my too-sudden death —
and kept humming:
à bientôt, pamplemousse, à bientôt.
Maybe attending a book award ceremony isn't the first thing you think of for an evening out. We're here to change your mind.
On October 13, this week's sponsor — the Washington Center for the Book — is hosting the ceremony and celebration for the 2018 Washington State Book Awards. This is Washington's iconic regional award; there are 36 finalists, criss-crossing county and genre lines: Claudia Castro Luna, Geraldine DeRuiter, Laurie Frankel, Nancy Pearl, and many many others.
The announcement of the winners is only a small part of the evening. The celebration is at Seattle's Central Library, and almost all of the finalists are scheduled to attend. After the formal ceremony, the third floor of the library opens up for an after-hours celebration: snacks, drinks, and a chance to talk with a group of people who are unlikely to be in the same room for any other occasion.
Come out and celebrate with them! Visit our sponsor feature page for more information and full list of finalists. We hope to see you there.
Sponsors like the Washington Center for the Book make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you can sponsor us, too? There are only two slots remaining in 2018, so grab this chance to get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.
The best sci-fi bookstore in town brings David Weber to Seattle. Weber's latest Honor Harrington adventure has been in the making for five years, and UBS customers get to read it one full day before everyone else. University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 7 pm, free.
You probably know Manguso from last year's 300 Arguments, an autobiographical inquiry into what it means to be human in this time. It was one of the most exciting books to be published over the last few years. Tonight, Manguso will give a craft talk about authority at the new Hugo House.
Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7 pm, $15.
Last week, I interviewed Lit Crawl's managing director, Jekeva Phillips, and Lit Crawl programmer Anastacia-Renée about why Lit Crawl is so fun and still somehow free. Phillips had this to say:
A big reason why it’s free is because of our fundraiser on October 4th. We have fun things we’re going to be auctioning off — items with different price ranges. We’ll have things on the cheaper side that are better for our writer and artist friends, but we’ll also have items like a voiceover class and different works of art.
We wanted to bring some fun stuff to the Lit Crawl fundraiser kickoff party this year, which is why we asked Briq House. She’s a body-positive burlesque performer, and she’ll be doing a literary/Halloween-themed burlesque dance. We love books, but we also love to party.
What more do you need to know? Get out to this event, get excited for next week's Lit Crawl, and help keep the celebration free.
Capitol Cider, 818 E. Pike St., 397-3564, 7 pm, $5, 21+.
For this 15th annual award celebrating the life and work of Denise Levertov, poet and activist Carolyn Forché will be celebrated for her work with poetry and religion and faith. There will be an award ceremony, a talk, and a reception with wine and food.
Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, http://hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, free.
See our Event of the Week column for more details.
Artspace Hiawatha Lofts, 843 Hiawatha Pl S, Seattle, 709-7611, http://www.artspacehiawatha.com, 5 pm, free.
Erickson Theater, 1524 Harvard Ave, https://gramma.press/, 7 pm, $12.
COAST | NoCOAST, an experimental literary magazine formerly known as Northside Review, has staff in Ohio and Seattle. Today, the Seattle office is celebrating a brand new issue with a group reading at the best damn poetry bookstore in the United States. Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 5 pm, free.
I'm not asking for your pity or anything, but sometimes picking one best literary event for every day of the week is difficult business. It requires me to make some really hard choices, and I have to leave a lot of great events out of the calendar.
I've created a sort of streamlined decision-making process that helps with some of the tough calls. For instance, if I have to choose between a great out-of-town author and a local author's book release party, for instance, I'll choose the local author. (This isn't the Touring Author Review of Books, after all.) And if I'm choosing between a recurring event and a unique, one-time-only deal, I'll often bite down hard and pick the single-serving event.
But holy crap, this Saturday is a hard choice.
On the one side, we've got a book release party for Seattle poet (and Seattle Review of Books's September Poet in Residence) Sierra Golden's very first poetry collection, The Slow Art. Golden's book is a poetic account of her time in the commercial fishing industry. (Read my interview with Golden here.) To celebrate her book's debut, Golden will be joined by local poets Maya Jewell Zeller and Sierra Nelson. And a country rock band called Lo-Liner will perform in between the readings.
But then we have the second installment of local publisher Gramma's reading series. The headliner is Pulitzer-winning poet Tyehimba Jess, which is a hell of a coup. Jess will be joined by celebrated Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar and Seattle's Civic Poet, Anastacia Renée. So that's a hell of a mix of local and out-of-town talent. And there's more: the evening will also include Moonshine, a diverse cabaret featuring movement and music and exuberant artistic expression.
So that's two events with local ties celebrating local talent with music and readings. How the hell do I pick one over the other? The answer is: I don't. I'm going to leave this choice up to you. See? How do you like it?
Release party for The Slow Art: Artspace Hiawatha Lofts, 843 Hiawatha Pl S, Seattle, 709-7611, http://www.artspacehiawatha.com, 5 pm, free.
Gramma Reading Series #2: Erickson Theater, 1524 Harvard Ave, https://gramma.press/, 7 pm, $12.
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.
Murmuration: The sound of many voices speaking, quietly alone but deafeningly together. The sight of multitudes in flight coming abruptly into sync. An emergence into visibility; a rising up. An uprising.
Lacy M. Johnson on speaking out about sexual assault. In addition to her own story — of finding her tongue, and the hostile backlash from male peers, the discomfort of other women — she reminds us of what boys-will-be-boys looks like to women who are violated privately, then publicly, by their assaulters.
All across the country this situation is replicated with slight variations: a woman reports rape, is told that boys will be boys; a woman reports rape, is not believed. She is shamed. She is ostracized, traumatized, and retraumatized. At best, the woman’s life is forever and irrevocably changed. At worst, she self-destructs. Men, however, seem to thrive in a culture in which they can rape women with near impunity.
I know, I know. Not all men.
Jessica Shortall remembers the men in her life.
This week, a man sent me a private message on twitter. I told him I did not want to talk to him. He persisted. I told him to fuck off. He replied that he would “teach” me “what sexual assault means.”
Rebecca Solnit on having the power to choose not to know.
What has in the past been subtle is now obvious: this is a battle over whether this will be a country for all of us, a democracy in which everyone matters and all are equal, or a citadel of white male privilege. They are a minority — including babies and boys, white males make up a third of this country — but have majority party and are in a rageful panic about its ebb. This nomination is a power grab for the party committed to representing them at everyone else’s expense. That’s out in the open now; that clarity may mean that even if they win this battle, they’ve committed themselves to losing the war.
Rebecca Traister with more on power and how it's preserved, through fear and subjugation.
The lesson of the United States in this moment is that misogyny and racism aren’t disqualifiers. They are the qualities the right wing considers key to their larger project — perhaps, in fact, main selling points. (Especially for their president, who today was reported to have loved Kavanaugh’s blustering, aggressive attitude toward his questioners).
After all, the reason that Republicans want to jam through Kavanaugh’s nomination is that as a member of the Supreme Court he’ll be able to help create the mechanisms that determine which kinds of Americans have rights, protections, autonomy, and power.
Emily Jane Fox talks to Holton-Arms alums, women who attended the same private school as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, women whose experiences have an eerie familiarity. A blunt article, whose force grows directly from its straightforward, unemotional reporting.
Many witnessed moments like the one Ford described, or heard about them, or experienced them firsthand. “When I first read the story on Sunday, I said, ‘Of course this happened,’” a woman who graduated from Holton in the early 2000s told me. “This happened so much that there was nothing difficult to believe about what she’s saying. How could anyone doubt this? It felt personal to a lot of us, because her story is so similar to a lot of ours, and so the attacks on her felt personal.”
Finally, a flashback to 1993, to Joan Didion, to Lakewood, California, to the tactics so readily used by certain men to discredit and disarm women who have been brutally harmed.
One of the ugliest and most revelatory of the many ugly and revelatory moments that characterized the television appearances of Spur Posse members this spring occurred on “Jane Whitney,” when a nineteen-year-old Lakewood High graduate named Chris Albert (“Boasts He Has 44 ‘Points’ for Having Sex with Girls”) turned mean with a member of the audience, a young black woman who had tried to suggest that the Spurs on view were not exhibiting what she considered native intelligence.
“I don’t get—I don’t understand what she’s saying,” Chris Albert at first said, letting his jaw go slack, as these boys tended to do when confronted with an unwelcome, or in fact any, idea.
Another Spur interpreted: “We’re dumb. She’s saying we’re dumb.”
"What education does she have?" Chris Albert then snarled, and tensed against his chair, as if trying to shake himself alert. "Where do you work at? McDonald's? Burger King?" A third Spur tried to interrupt, but Chris Albert, once roused, could not be deflected: "$5.25? $5.50?" And then there it was, the piton, driven in this case into not granite but shale: "I go to college."
Murmuration. A rising up of many voices. An emergence into visibility.
Stesha Brandon is a wonder. Formerly of Town Hall Seattle and University Book Store, Stesha is currently the Literature & Humanities Program Manager at Seattle Public Library, and serves as board president at Seattle City of Literature. Other volunteer service includes the Bumbershoot Task Force, the Washington State Book Awards jury. When she's not reading, Stesha keeps chickens, knits, and bakes tasty treats. On that last point, a point of editorializing: if you've been the beneficiary of Stesha's baked goods, you understand just how much "tasty treats" is totally underselling her absolutely divine pastries.
What are you reading now?
I’m finishing up Diane Setterfield’s forthcoming book, Once Upon a River. It’s eerie and atmospheric and feels a little like a fairy tale. The story centers on a young girl who may have been drowned, and then comes back to life. It doesn’t come out until December, but it feels perfect for a fall/winter read.
I’m also reading local chef and author Becky Selengut’s newest book How to Taste, which is super interesting. It talks about how our taste functions and has experiments/recipes so the reader can experience firsthand what Becky is talking about.
What did you read last?
I just finished listening to Meet Me at the Museum, which is an epistolary novel of two letter writers, one in England and one in Denmark, and how their connection shapes their lives.
And anyone who knows me knows that I read cookbooks like novels. I just finished Molly on the Range, by Molly Yeh. It has a wide array of recipes that highlight that she’s a city transplant into Midwest farm life.
What are you reading next?
This list is always long and gets longer by the day! I’ve got a big stack of books waiting, but I’m excited to read We That Are Young by Preti Taneja. It’s a resetting of King Lear in contemporary India. I’m also looking forward to reading Nicola Griffith’s So Lucky. Nicola is one of the most interesting people writing these days, and I can’t wait to dive into her newest book. I’ve also just checked out Wait, Blink by Gunnhild Øyehaug — a Norwegian novel on the longlist for the National Book Award in Translation and Fledgling by Octavia Butler. I’ve read several of her books, but somehow never got to this one.