We are now halfway through Doomsday Clock, the 12-issue Watchmen...sequel?...written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank, and I still have no idea what to think of it. Is it fan fiction? Is it an earnest attempt at a sequel? Is it supposed to be funny?
It would be easier to tell if Doomsday Clock had a consistent tone. This is a book that completely misunderstands Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's postmodern riffs on superheroes by reveling in their "coolness." The most recent issue features a Watchmen character massacring DC super villains in a scene that is clearly supposed to impress readers with its badassness. Previous issues featured a resurrection from the dead that is just as cheesy as a plot twist you'd find in one of the old cliffhanger serial films Ozymandias mocked at the end of Watchmen.
In the end, of course, it doesn't matter. Watchmen will still be there, long after Doomsday Clock is forgotten. And Watchmen isn't even as good as you remembered it, anyway. But the fact that it's taken six issues at $4.99 a pop to get exactly nowhere in the story is downright criminal.
"I believe in the power of these icons. I believe in the power of hope, and optimism," Johns told SyFy when Doomsday Clock was announced. That doesn't reflect anything I've seen in the first six issues of Doomsday Clock.
Surprisingly, another DC Comic is honoring exactly those values. When writer Brian Michael Bendis jumped ship to DC after umpteen years of exclusivity at Marvel Comics, readers expected Bendis would take on a street-level hero like Batman as his first project. Instead, he decided to write Superman. And, honestly, Bendis's Superman is exactly what the character should be: powerful, optimistic, friendly, and warm.
My one regret is that Bendis launched his time on Superman with a plot that involves yet another mysterious character from Krypton's past. As I've written before, the sci-fi trappings of Superman are the least interesting part of the character. Nobody has ever given a shit about Krypton.
People read Superman comics for the same reason they watch Mr. Rogers: they want to believe in a morally good universe, one in which right triumphs over wrong because it is right, not because it's strongest. If Bendis can maintain the essential decency of the character in months to come while telling stories that get to the heart of Superman's appeal, odds are good we'll be remembering Bendis's Superman run long after the mess that is Doomsday Clock has faded from our memory.
This is not strictly book-related, but if you belong to the local-news subReddit called r/SeattleWA, you should know that the moderators are horrendous racists and apparently not good people. Some former SeattleWA members have started a new subReddit called r/SeaWA.
The entire archive of The Believer is now online and available to read for free. For about four years there, from 2004 - 2008, The Believer was the best literary magazine in the world. The organization has changed hands in recent years, from McSweeney's to the Black Mountain Institute. Perhaps under new and reinvigorated leadership it will regain its crown. (And if you're looking for a local angle, you should know that former Hugo House operations director Kristen Radtke is the art director and deputy publisher of The Believer.)
Need a good book recommendation or twelve? You should dive into this Twitter thread of books from the last ten years that were grossly underrated:
I've been thinking about the inertia of literary buzz, the way it's so often a self-fulfilling prophecy, and about great under-exposed books. Can we start a signal-boosting thread of books from the past 10 yrs that deserved way more attention? I'll start...— Rebecca Makkai (@rebeccamakkai) July 29, 2018
Related: I've always been bummed that books, which are a relatively sturdy communication method, have such a short "shelf" life. That is to say that books, like movies, are launched into the world to some media buzz and then they succeed or fail, only to be forgotten when the next crop of new books arrives. It doesn't have to be this way. We should all try harder to dig into backlist, to uncover those books that didn't get the appreciation they deserved on publication.
A "spectacular" ancient library "that may have housed up to 20,000 scrolls" has been unearthed in Cologne.
By now, you have probably at the very least read something about Minnesota poet Anders Carlson-Wee's poem for The Nation. The poem was written in an objectively bad imitation of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), it contained some ableist slurs, and it was supposedly about the relationship between homeless people and passersby on city street. It wasn't very good, and a lot of people on Twitter dragged Carlson-Wee for writing such a bad and thoughtless poem. Eventually both he and The Nation's poetry editors apologized.
And now, of course, if you check Carlson-Wee's mentions on Twitter or read center-left blogs, you'll see plenty of examples of the outraged-by-outrage rants that have replaced actual cultural criticism in the mainstream since the election of Donald Trump. People (mostly older, mostly white) are whining that Carlson-Wee was "silenced," that the "PC mob," drunk on its "outrage culture" has fed on another innocent victim.
Never apologise for something you create. Stand by your words, you meant them when you said them so stand by them. Art is one mans appreciation of anothers perspective on the world. B/cos of what you've created we've been able to see the perspective of others. Your gift is ours.— Chris Kemp (@VinylPugilist) July 30, 2018
It’s absolutely horrible that a person can no longer express their perspective of a marginalized people without this kind of (mostly) false outrage. I cannot begin to understand that backwards direction we are now heading. We’re more segregated than we’ve ever been. It’s sad— Will O'Connor (@CharmCityProse) July 30, 2018
You did nothing wrong, and you certainly should not be apologising. The way you've been treated by your publisher is unethical and disgraceful. Some advice: it's always best not to grovel to a mob - there are plenty of people who will support you if you're strong and defiant.— Russell Blackford (@Metamagician) July 31, 2018
But here's the thing: I see a lot of these complaints about silencing and "Twitter mobs" and so on. But those complaints are built on hot air and nonsense. Who was actually silenced here? Carlson-Wee wrote a poem, people voiced their opinions, Carlson-Wee apologized, and so did The Nation. If he wanted to, he could run the poem elsewhere. Why is Carlson-Wee's freedom of speech worth inherently more than those people on Twitter who also exercised their freedom of speech? And for that matter, how was Carlson-Wee silenced? He still has a Twitter feed, he still has a book coming out next year, he's still been published in many magazines. The Nation still exists. Nobody lost their jobs.
So what, really, is the problem? Is it that people should be allowed to publish bad poetry without any repercussions? Or is it that white people should be allowed to write in a thoughtless and inconsistent version of AAVE without facing criticism from Black people? Is it that people aren't allowed to say when they find ableist language to be offensive? Was it that too many people responded to the poem? Would one thoughtful essay in response to Carlson-Wee's poem, say, published in the New York Times be acceptable? Or would that critical response, too, be too much for Carlson-Wee and The Nation to endure?
So far as I can see it, nobody's freedom of speech was violated here. Nobody suffered any physical harm. The people who are upset over the "PC mob" seem to be concerned that the status quo as they see it is being attacked by people who are unlike them. This makes sense. The status quo serves them, and has served them for as long as there has been a United States.
Now they're afraid that one day they're going to feel as irrelevant and marginalized as they've always made everyone else feel. They don't want to share the stage. They don't want to think about the consequences of their actions. They don't want to be aware of everyone else's feelings. The world is changing, and they're scared. I can't really find it in my heart to muster up even a moment's sympathy for any of them.
Last week at Elliott Bay Book Company, I interviewed Rachel Heng about her extraordinary debut novel, Suicide Club. Heng was a cheerful, generous interviewee — perhaps not what you'd expect from an author of a raw and intelligent sci-fi novel set in a dystopia that has conquered death. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a portion of our conversation.
When I saw that your novel was titled Suicide Club, I could imagine hearing the Henry Holt marketing department's butt cheeks collectively clench at the thought of marketing the book. Seems like the word "suicide" might be a hard sell. Did they try to convince you to change the title at any point during the publication process?
Well, interesting story: At one point, I wanted to change the title, to Lifers. And they told me that was a terrible title. Well, they were more like, "oh, you should keep your original title." So actually, they were pretty on board with it from the beginning — they felt that it really got across the point of the book. I had my doubts, and for a while I had this other title that apparently sucked.
The book isn't dour or depressing, but it dwells in death and suicide. Was it challenging to keep your head in that space for an extended period of time?
I think my head is always in this space. I think the reason why I wrote the book was because I've always been quite preoccupied with death and loss. Everyone's had the experience where, when you were six or seven years old, you realize for the first time your parents are going to die. You're lying in bed in the middle of the night and you can't go to sleep and you're seized by this existential realization: 'my parents are going to die. What does that mean? I'm going to die at some point. Everyone I know will be dead and millions of people have died before me.'
And this is kind of something that stayed with me my entire life. I've spent lots of time thinking about it in what some people would call morbid ways. For me, it helps me appreciate my life better, always thinking of the fact that it's going to end.
So I think I wrote this book partly out of that fear. I don't think it was a difficult space to inhabit because it's something that I'm always inhabiting. And in a way, writing the book helped me address that — confront it face-on.
This is a dystopian novel, but it's very different than the dystopian fiction I've been reading lately. It's a different kind of doom. I thought before I read this book that I was suffering from dystopian fatigue, but your book feels completely different to me.
I didn't set out to write a sci-fi novel. And I think there's also this thing where, because of the Hunger Games, everyone assumes dystopian means [young adult fiction.] So when I started querying agents they were like, 'oh, this is YA,' and I'm like, 'do you see the title?'
I was kind of naive about the publishing industry. When you have a book coming out, you become hyperconscious of contemporary fiction and everything that's out there. But before that you're just kind of in your bowl and you have no idea what's coming out recently — you don't know about trends. I don't think I was super-aware of the whole dystopian trend until I was querying agents, and I read an interview with an agent who said 'dystopian fiction is so over,' and I was like, 'shit.'
I read a lot of dystopian fiction, but the older stuff. Brave New World was one of the most formative books that I read when I was a teenager. I'm from Singapore originally, and so I grew up in a very dystopian world. I didn't realize that until I was talking to a reporter for the national newspaper in Singapore and she said, 'I see a lot of stuff in the book that is reminiscent of how our government runs things. Did you do on purpose? Is this a satire?'
And I didn't intend for it to be, but I think it's just because I grew up in that world. And in many ways, I think it drew a lot from books like Brave New World and Margaret Atwood. And then as I was writing, someone told me to read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. People had drawn comparisons to that, but I hadn't read it previously. If anything, I think I under-read dystopian fiction.
Yes, and we're all excited about the fact that Bob Woodward has a book about Donald Trump coming out this fall. Fear is supposed to be a heavily sourced work of journalism — like a Fire and Fury done right.
But please remember that no book is going to coax Donald Trump out of office. There's no piece of evidence that's going to send the president to jail. Feel free to read Fear, but for God's sake try to dedicate at least as much time as you spent reading Fear to phone-banking for your preferred candidates or doing get-out-the-vote volunteering in the midterms this year. No hero is coming to save the day; you're the hero, and you've got important work to do this fall.
tilted pelvis toward a velvet sky
linted with stars
you offer your self
present your softest place to be shined
into you tell the night that
you have held secrets like black holes,
surely you can take constellations
and the generations that will come
after these stars have died
will find their way through life
by the stars of your pussy
On August 16, you can indulge your passion for books AND your passion for food cooked over a smoky grill at a single awesome venue (no, it's not your couch) — Queen Anne Book Company — thanks to Seattle7Writers and their community cookouts.
Seattle7Writers is a tireless and creative supporter of the literary arts in this community. Each year they host dozens of readings and book events, as well as the Write Here, Write Now writing intensive, which is one of our city’s best come-one-come-all opportunities to put pen to page. And they work constantly behind the scenes, channelling donations to nonprofits working to improve literacy and creating opportunities for writers and readers to connect in person.
So bringing a group of local authors to a favorite independent bookseller, to cook up hot dogs (carnivore and vegetarian) and talk to the readers and writers who stop by, is just up their alley. And 20% of all book sales during the free event go directly to Literacy Source. That's an evening out.
Check out a full list of authors attending and other fine print on our sponsor’s page — and put this event on your calendar.
Sponsors like Seattle7Writers not only keep our readers in the know about upcoming events of interest — they support the great writing about books that you see here every day. Got an event, a book, or a residency you'd like to promote? Our 2018 sponsorships are almost sold out, but never say never! Move fast, and you can reserve a slot before they’re gone.
Seattle's lively slam community has lots of qualities to recommend it. Poets like Elisa Chavez and Troy Osaki are finding great success in both the spoken and written poetry worlds, for instance. Our youth slam community has maybe never been better. And our slam poets win awards on a very regular basis.
But maybe my favorite part of Seattle's slam community is the sendoff party culture that we have. It works like this: whenever Seattle sends a team to represent us in some national competition, the community throws a big party to celebrate the Seattle team's accomplishments and to wish them luck in the fight against other cities. (It's also a fundraiser; it's expensive work sending poets cross-country.) The event is kind of like sports, only there are no concussions and nobody is going to boo you for kneeling for the national anthem.
Seattle traditionally places in the top third of national slam competitions, but this team might go even farther. The four poets representing us in Chicago are io Chanae, Ben Yisrael, Garfield Hillson, and the great Ebo Barton.
This Tuesday night, visit the Royal Room to see the team in action, to get them psyched up for their big poetry fight on the national stage, and to pay for their travel and lodging and beer expenses. It's time to celebrate our community, and to stand up for Seattle artists.
The Royal Room, 5000 Rainier Ave S, http://theroyalroomseattle.com, 8 pm, $10.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
This week’s Sunday Post is a recorded message. The Sunday Post is sitting by a river; in fact the Sunday Post has her feet in the river and a book in her hand. But she doesn’t have a cell connection or wifi.
So although this column is supposed to be the best of the past week’s internet reading, that’s not going to work. I’m in a spot where major events include “wow, I really thought that bee was dead!” and “did you see the weird shape of that rock?” — not “HOLY CATS IT’S THE END OF THE FREE WORLD … AGAIN.”
When I took on the Sunday Post, I didn’t read much that wasn’t printed on a page. I didn’t follow Twitter (now I have multiple lists); I didn’t have a newsreader (now it's Feedly, and it works okay, not great). Donald Trump had only just been elected, and the news cycle was only just feeling the first hit of that drug — starting to hear its heart pound in its ears. (Oh, news cycle, we are so, so sorry.) I did not at all understand the river I was putting my feet into.
There’s a lot of great writing on the Internet, and I let a lot of it flow through me every week to try to find a few things other people might want to read too. Sometimes it’s a delight, and then suddenly sometimes it’s not.
It's similar to staying in Elliott Bay or Powell’s for too long — that tipping point between “oh my god, all the words!” and “oh my god. all the words.” Words that investigate politics, the heart, the author’s childhood. Words that profile people and places and animals. Words that are angry — a lot of angry words, these past eighteen months, some restrained and analytic, some furious, some in mourning.
They’re all worthwhile but they’re all coming at us so fast, it could knock you off your feet. I don’t know about you, but I can’t put the internet down. I’m mainlining that son of a bitch.
This week’s articles have all appeared in the Sunday Post before, or should have. They’re the essays that I remember, without looking back at the archives, because reading them was an event, a thing that happened, like the sun startling a bee awake and into flight.
And the words in these essays make everything stop. They’re absorptive in the way that reading on the page is — they aren’t necessarily quiet, but they pull you into that quiet place. These are some of the hardest pieces to feature each week, because all I really have to say about them is: read this.
This week’s Sunday Post says, even more than usual, read this.
In the meantime, where I am today, all the words are back on the page, and their speed is set to the pace of slow, cold water. Hey — did you see the weird shape of that rock? Cool.
Kate Lebo on Kerouac and book tours and fear and freedom.
I want sympathy. I want to feel safe. I want to explain why I’m not home in my little Seattle fishing village, which isn’t little anymore, which my friends and I helped make not-little before a new cycle of wealth kicked us out and welcomed people who could afford the new cute neighborhood. What am I trying to say when I explain how, while living in that old Boeing cottage, I couldn’t walk into a grocery store without clucking over a baby plant? That I bought peat pots of lemon verbena instead of clothing or art or shaving cream because growing things made me feel good about living alone? That I loved living alone? That I was miserable. I want to explain how strange it is to walk through a garden without mothering. My home is my body, some poem probably goes. No shit. To feel that way makes the road possible.
Paisley Rekdal on poetry and violation and beauty.
Perhaps the greatest desire a victim of violence has is to look, in memory, at that violence dispassionately. But remembering, the heart pounds, the body floods with adrenaline, ready to tear off into flight. For some, there is no smoothing chaos back into memory. Poetry, with its suggestion that time can be ordered through language, strains to constrain suffering. It suggests, but rarely achieves, the redress we desire. Language does not heal terror, and if it brings us closer to imagining the sufferer’s experience, this too does not necessarily make us feel greater compassion, but a desire for further sensation. If we cannot articulate pain beyond inspiring in the listener a need for revenge, we only speak of and to the body.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on Seattle and San Francisco and — and — and I still hesitate to try to capture this one with anything but metaphors.
The second time I did porn it was with Zee, when we were boyfriends, and I’d just remembered I was sexually abused, so I was taking a break from sex, but then Zee called me to do the video because his costar showed up too tweaked out — I did it because I needed the money, but then Zee got upset when I couldn’t come, and I felt like a broken toy. Which is how I’d felt with my father. When I walked out into the sun after that first video shoot I just felt totally lost, like I didn’t even know where I was and why was it so hot out, maybe that’s why I felt so dazed.
Jessica Mooney on saying goodbye.
I don’t know how to say what I mean. As a kid, I mixed up the words for things. Cat, I’d say, pointing at an alarm clock. Taxonomy remains mysterious. Walking around my neighborhood, I don’t know the names of things. Sinister witch-fingered bramble. Orange thing I want to call persimmon. The part of the foot that keeps me upright. The sinewy blue veins under the tongue. How do I not know the basic recipe for standing and speaking?
I love you. I wonder if I hear the words in the same place I hold my missing father. My brain’s translation: goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Rebecca Solnit on the story Donald Trump is living inside.
He was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker. He acquired buildings and women and enterprises and treated them all alike, promoting and deserting them, running into bankruptcies and divorces, treading on lawsuits the way a lumberjack of old walked across the logs floating on their way to the mill, but as long as he moved in his underworld of dealmakers the rules were wobbly and the enforcement was wobblier and he could stay afloat. But his appetite was endless, and he wanted more, and he gambled to become the most powerful man in the world, and won, careless of what he wished for.
Anca Szilágyi on Goya and cruelty and art.
That giant, lit by the moon, looks over his shoulder somewhat upward, lonesome.
Hugo House's newest prose writer in residence, Kristen Millares Young, on the weapon of history.
I worried about going to jail on this island, where he would know everyone watching over me inside. Worried even about stepping into the building to make a report. And what would I have said? That we had a dangerous conversation. That he left bruises on my mind.
That I cursed him. That I cursed him, and he believed it. That I cursed his family, threatened to rain down destruction on their black bodies, invoked centuries of white oppression, and he believed me because he lived that truth.
That I would do it again, and again, and again, just as he hoped to do me.
Amy Liptrot on what survival requires for birds, and people.
I keep stopping at places where I heard a male calling last year but I hear nothing. In recent years, there has been a slow and steady upwards trend in numbers, and the RSPB’s Corncrake Initiative was a success story. But this year has been very disappointing: the number of verified male corncrakes calling in Orkney dropped from 32 to just 14. Back in the office, sleep-deprived, I fill in zeroes in my spreadsheets. I am depressed about corncrakes. Somehow it is as if my fate becomes intertwined with that of the bird. I’m trying to cling onto a normal life and stay sober. They are clinging on to existence.
Bryan Washington on finding yourself in the stories on screen.
The audacity required to ask if we need another gay movie, if we need any more gay movies, transcends thinking altogether. It is a thoughtless question. You only ask it if you’ve seen yourself so ingrained into the culture, into the fabric of the world, that your absence from those seams is unthinkable. You only ask that question if you’ve never been repulsed by yourself, or the idea that anyone like you, anywhere, could be happy. You only ask that question if you don’t know what it means to feel like the only person on the planet.
Austin Woerner is a Chinese-English literary translator. In addition to Su Wei's novel The Invisible Valley, just out from Small Beer Press, he has translated two volumes of poetry, Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe, and Ouyang Jianghe's book-length poem Phoenix. Formerly the English translation editor for the innovative Chinese literary journal Chutzpah!, he also co-edited the short fiction anthology Chutzpah!: New Voices from China. He holds a BA in East Asian Studies from Yale and an MFA in creative writing from the New School, and is currently a lecturer at Duke Kunshan University just outside of Shanghai. He's appearing tonight at Elliott Bay Books to talk about The Invisible Valley.
What are you reading now?
I've been rereading Waiting by Ha Jin. While I was translating The Invisible Valley I actually steered away from fiction set in China, because I wanted to develop my own ear for how to evoke a Chinese cultural setting in English. (I guess you could call it "reinventing the wheel.") But now that I actually live in China, I'm more and more fascinated by Chinese emigrant writers like Ha Jin and Yiyun Li, who write in English about experiences they had back in China in more or less the same time period as The Invisible Valley is set. (And in such beautiful English! As an EFL writing teacher I'm in awe of people who develop a fine literary style in a foreign language.)
What I like about Waiting is the way its main characters feel so real, their emotions so relatable, despite the fact that their culture and life circumstances are so vastly different from the novel's intended readers. At the same time, living in China has given me an appreciation for certain dimensions of their experience I wouldn't have understood well before. Back in the Maoist era people had such little latitude to make decisions about their own lives. So the story's drama takes place in the tiny range of motion available to them. Obviously things've changed a lot since then, but some things still resonate.
What did you read last?
Over the past year I've been dipping in and out of Jonathan Spence's Return to Dragon Mountain. Spence recreates in novelistic detail the life and times of Zhang Dai, a Ming-dynasty aesthete and man of leisure known for his gem-like prose essays. Zhang's world is the that of the "scholar gentry" of the lower Yangtze delta, a privileged elite who passed their days in painting, poetry, tea connoisseurship, and other charmingly frivolous-seeming hobbies. Zhang famously said, "A man with no excesses is not worth befriending," and Spence conjures Zhang's character through his obsessions: finding the perfect springwater to brew the perfect cup of tea, directing amateur operas, inventing witty taxonomies to categorize the different kinds of people who go boating on West Lake in Hangzhou, and so forth.
Though it's easy to laugh off Zhang's pastimes as the dissipations of a silk-slippered aristocrat, it's not hard to see parallels to our contemporary era of abundance. When your basic needs are already amply met, what do you do with your time to give meaning to your life? (Later, when the Ming dynasty fell, his family would lose everything, and that foreknowledge lends his reminiscences the air of an elegy for a lost world.) The area where I now live and teach is more or less Zhang's home turf, and though the freeways and freight barges and endless factories of the modern-day Yangtze delta are a far cry from Zhang's pleasure boats and gardens, I feel like Zhang's spirit hovers over them still.
What are you reading next?
This summer, taking The Invisible Valley on tour in the U.S. has given me the opportunity to meet many new literary friends and reconnect with old ones, and their books are now weighing down my China-bound suitcases. A few I'm especially excited to read are The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson, and State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang. You should check 'em out too!
Today is the third birthday of the Seattle Review of Books. One of the originating tenets of the site was: new writing every day. Every day, over the past three years, this is what we've delivered. Every day, something new, for you to read. Read, and we hope, enjoy.
We've run 271 reviews in that time. We've paid 155 writers, journalists, poets, and illustrators to bring critique, news, poetry, and reports from all corners of the book world. Occasionally, we antagonize some local authority. Mostly, we just write about how much we love books, and the people who write them, make them, read them, and sell them.
Our regulars are a treat: the spiderific advice of Cienna Madrid, the amazing, sweet, and colorful paintings of Christine Marie Larsen, the obtuse and scintillating dreams of Aaron Bagley, the thoughtful and mesmerizing post-it-notes of Clare Johnson, and, of course, our three columnists: Daneet Steffens, who covers murder and mayhem in Criminal Fiction, Nisi Shawl, whose view of science fiction in the Future Alternative Past is the one we most want to live in, and Olivia Waite, who has brought romance to these pages, where shocking little was before (when she came, we swooned at first read) in Kissing Books.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the incredible contribution our Associate Editor Dawn McCarra Bass brings to the site daily. You may (and should) read her Sunday Post, but there is far more behind the scenes where her fingerprints are not visible to the reader.
Our sponsorship program is better than ever. We sell out our run each year. Those sponsors help pay for everything you see here, the talent and words of everyone who we are lucky enough to publish. The best part? The sponsorships are good. Do you yourself a favor and click through each week. You'll be impressed (maybe so much that you'd like to sponsor us yourself?), and may find your next event or read.
What does it mean to run a critical review website in 2018? When Paul and I first started the site, we talked a lot about reviews in the days of GoodReads, Amazon, and other capsule sites. There are quick takes and aggregated stars that tell you how much, on average, a book was enjoyed.
But what does an aggregate review mean, really? It can't tell you what you will enjoy, because you are not an average, you are a person with distinct taste and style. You probably love something that many people don't love. Our taste is personal, intrinsic, and wonderfully obtuse.
A star rating culled from one hundred individual ratings can only tell you, en masse, what a bunch of consumers think. It's a perfect capitalist way of thinking about books: little market forces that have a commodifiable enjoyment rating.
No one here denies that books are a business (and should be a business), but books are not widgets, sprockets, or dolls. They are one of the few products in the world that the form underplays the function. A flat of best-selling hardbacks at Costco looks soulless; the same book in your hand at night brings you a life other than your own. You cannot sum the joy of a well-turned sentence with three stars because the plotting was clunky. You cannot, in five stars, capture the sensation of your hands shaking when you close the last page of a book whose every moment was sublime.
A good review, on the other hand, can be read before one reads the book, and after. It is like re-reading a book through someone else's eyes. "Is good / Is bad" has nothing to do with it — what was the experience? How did it enthrall or disappoint the writer? How did it change them?
Over time, reading reviews from the same person or publication, you get to know their voice and their taste. You may not agree or feel that their flavor is your flavor, but you have a baseline and an understanding. You know when a reviewer you love reviews a book they love, that you should make the effort to seek it out.
One person, with a distinct voice, is an incredibly powerful thing. That's what we try to capture here. That's what our goal is. Are we reaching that goal? That's for you to decide. You can let us know.
One thing is certain: it is a privilege to be where we are sharing this with you. Thank you for reading — whether you've been here from day one reading the stellar interview with Nicola Griffith that launched us, or just joined us yesterday to read Paul's take on the latest issue of Wonder Woman. We are grateful for your attention — the one precious resource we each control exclusively — and we hope to earn it daily.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
The good news is, I landed a good-paying freelance writing gig. The bad news is, it’s writing book recaps for a “study guide.” So, basically, Cliff’s Notes.
I happily agreed to take the job, but I’m wondering now if I should take it. Am I just making money off the backs of kids who don’t want to read The Crucible for school assignments? Will I be encouraging students to not read the classics?
Charlotte, Crown Hill
As I told the woman who agreed to nurse my latest clutch of spiderlings: relax, you're doing a public service. There's no consensus on what makes a book "classic," just as there's no guarantee that any book will resonate its readers. And frankly, some books are begging for abridgement. I dare you to find one person who has read Moby Dick cover to cover – every other chapter is straight whaling advice. And no healthy, well-adjusted individual picks up The Picture of Dorian Gray for funsies.
While I believe that most books hold value, uncovering that value is a delicate dance that some people don't have the time or patience for, just as I don't have the time or patience to explain to Gloria why she shouldn't be paid per 'ling – that's insane, there are thousands of them – she should charge me for the dry weight in spiderlings equal to the weight of one human child. (What I'm asking for is not unreasonable; the human nipple has many openings, enabling her to feed more than one 'ling at a time.) Who's right? I am, mostly. But how do we ensure that we both leave this arrangement satisfied? THAT REMAINS TO BE SEEN, GLORIA.
Your situation is much more cut and dry. You're making good money and for your potential readers, cutting through the tedium to have books succinctly explained is a treasure. Who knows, perhaps your recaps will pique someone's interest and they'll pick the book up themselves, eventually.
And if the whole recapping thing doesn't work out and you have a pair of working breasts, I may have a job for you.
Saturday, July 28: Body Image, Identity, and Sisterhood
Local author Donna Miscolta, who is a frequent Seattle Review of Books contributor, will share excerpts from a draft of her upcoming novel, Ofelia and Norma and discuss identity and community.
White Center Library, 1409 SW 107th St, 243-0233 , https://kcls.org, 1:30 pm, free.
Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
Rob Hart has stated that Potter’s Field (Polis) will be the final adventure of his heftily emotionally-baggaged freelance investigator Ash McKenna, so reading it was a bittersweet sensation: I meant to take my time and savor it slowly; instead, riveted, I bulleted through the novel in one sitting. Back on his home turf of Staten Island, Ash has every intention of heading on the straight and narrow. His short-and-to-the-point to-do, for example, list includes finding a place to live and getting a job, ideally as an apprentice to a real PI so that he can build his career properly this time around. Unsurprisingly – this guy is a magnet for misadventure – he lands neck-deep in an all-out drug war, not to mention tangling with old high-school frenemies. The music of Bronx River Parkway, the Die Hard movies, Casablanca, and pizza, lots of delicious New York pizza, lend Potter’s Field its McKennaesque feel, as does peripatetic Ash’s take-home realization: “Doesn’t matter where you live. It only matters how.”
A teen friendship wrought over cross-country competitiveness and a love of science is both riven and cemented with a deep, dark secret in Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand (Little, Brown). Kit Owens and Diane Fleming bond over high-school bunsen burners and deep-seated ambitions, but it’s as equally ambitious adults that the initial seeds of their relationship find full fruition in the cut-throat setting of a research laboratory. Abbott’s trademark elements of darkness in her complex protagonists shine here, with both Kit and Diane the most compelling of characters in equal measure.
Megan Abbott will be at the Lake Forest Third Street Books on July 30.
When a missing woman turns up dead in a bathroom and another body is found nearby, Bruno, chief of police in the delightfully food-and-wine-infused village of St. Denis, finds himself juggling a murder mystery and a local relationship mystery in Martin Walker’s A Taste for Vengeance (Knopf). As the murder evolves into a compelling tale of international intrigue, Walker also regales us with several cooking lessons and a tasty glimpse into an area of the world that’s reassuringly full of life, truffles, eggs, cheese, fresh vegetables, and plenty of fermented grape juice.
A cool and engaging spy thriller, Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman (Knopf), plays a long game, veering between recent-day America and 1979 Europe. Helen Abell, an operative in the CIA’s Berlin office is in charge of its local safe houses and takes her job very seriously. Studious, organized, and scrupulous in her check-ups, she’s startled one day by overhearing a meeting she had no involvement in planning. Then, when an unpleasant fellow spy makes extra trouble for the bureau, Helen has a conundrum on her hands. Years later, Helen’s daughter has her own adventure, uncovering the mystery of her mother’s secret life. Excellent page-turner, with incredible integrity at its heart.
Another set of happily-rogue spooks infiltrate every inch of Mick Herron’s London Rules, number five in his terrific Slough House series, which kicks off with a breathtaking authorial set-piece, and only picks up pace from there. Central London’s Slough House may be where re-assigned (read: sent to the doghouse) MI5 agents cool their heels but, in this nest-of-spies particular case, these individual geniuses are never inactive for long. As clever and beautifully-plotted as a masterful John le Carré, and shot through with smart, canny humor.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
Need, curiosity, excitement, guilt, habit.
Top five places to write?
Top five favorite authors?
Can’t do a top five. Could maybe do a top hundred, when time allows.
Top five tunes to write to?
Top five hometown spots?
You'll rarely encounter a truly conclusive conclusion in superhero fiction. Everything is endlessly serialized, presumably under the assumption that a too-pat ending will inspire readers to drop off a title. All this inconclusiveness gets tiring.
And in an age in which every superhero story is collected in a trade paperback, comics have gotten even more endless. Decades ago, when a creator was late with a title, editors would reach into their back catalogs and pull out a one-shot story — meaning one with a beginning, a middle, and an end — they could plug into the scheduling hole. Often, these stories served as training wheels for up-and-coming talent, and many of them were...well, not good.
But every once in a while, a good one-shot story gets to the heart of a superhero, explaining in a kind of mission statement why the character matters and providing a blueprint for creative teams for years to come. This week, DC Comics published one of those rare comics, in Wonder Woman issue 51.
The basic premise is not original: Wonder Woman sends a criminal to prison, and then Wonder Woman continues to visit the prisoner over the span of months and years. At first, the prisoner is aggressive. Over time, their relationship gets more complicated. Author Steve Orlando isn't reinventing the wheel, here.
But unpredictability is not the charm of the story. Orlando's script is warm and patient, and artist Laura Braga deftly straddles the line between superhero comics and the expressive character work. You know how it's going to end, but you can't wait to get there.
Way too often, Wonder Woman is presented as nothing more than the female version of Superman, or a generic powerful hero who happens to be a woman. Braga and Orlando in one issue manage to explain what it is that makes Wonder Woman a unique character, and to establish a precedent for creators in the future. She doesn't just vanquish crime; she rehabilitates criminals. Hopefully, Seattle author G. Willow Wilson, who recently was announced as the new writer on Wonder Woman, will expand on the themes of this story, to give a new purpose to the never-ending adventures of Wonder Woman.
And since we're already talking about how to cover toxic people, this is the only interview with Sean Spicer about his memoir that I ever want to see:
BBC interviewer to Sean Spicer: "You have corrupted discourse for the entire world by going along with these lies" pic.twitter.com/HsvNLajwQu— Robert Maguire (@RobertMaguire) <a href="https://twitter.com/RobertMaguire/status/1021878074407837698?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">July 24, 2018
Something to remember as more and more White House memoirs come out of this horrible administration: These people are complicit in something terrible. They do not deserve a softball interview. Call them to account for what they've done
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a backlash against diversity in comic books. pic.twitter.com/kTSOUV89U7— Jim Jefferies Show (@jefferiesshow) July 25, 2018
From Star Wars to comics, fandom has become toxic. White men are demanding that corporate entertainment maintain the white-men-centric focus that it's supported for all of history, and they're using the equivocating rhetorical language of the internet to leverage their minority opinion onto major platforms.
That said, I like this Jim Jefferies piece about the anti-diversity crowd: Jeffries exposes the losers for what they are, he throws their words back in their faces, and he shames them. I hope the media is paying attention. If you're going to write a story about these troglodytes, this is how you do it — not by engaging in weak-kneed both-sidesism.