Literary Event of the Week: The Comics & Medicine Conference comes to Seattle

Seattle is an international hub of the global and public health communities. Seattle also has one of the mightiest comics scenes in the country. In almost any other year, if you were to sketch out a Venn diagram of those two communities — medicine and comics — there would be very little overlap. But this year, Seattle is host to the eighth annual Comics & Medicine Conference, an international celebration of the communication of medical issues in cartoon narrative form.

The conference brings together academics, health care professionals, and artists into a thematic weekend of programming (this year’s theme is “Access Points”). I talked with Comics & Medicine co-founder MK Czerwiec about why she believes health care and comics go so well together.

“Comics have the power to convey important information in ways that people who are dealing with issues in health care and caregiving find appealing to absorb,” Czerwiec explains. Comics have been used in public health situations for decades to make information accessible in ways that can “transcend language barriers,” but they also provide patients with a “form of reflection and ... storytelling” that can help in the healing process, and they help others empathize with patients. For those reasons, she says, nursing and medical schools are beginning to use comics to teach students.

Czerwiec says that Seattle has existed on this intersection between comics and medicine for a very long time. Cartoonist Mita Mahato, who has helped to organize this year’s Comics & Medicine conference, has long been a booster. Ellen Forney’s memoir about life as an artist with bipolar disorder, Marbles, has fast become a classic in mental health circles. And “of course, Meredith Li-Vollmer at the King County Public Health Department has come to our conferences in the past and presented projects that she's done with David Lasky in the public health arena.” Li-Vollmer and Lasky worked on the comic No Ordinary Flu, which saw a print run of over half a million copies translated into a dozen languages distributed around the country.

Registration for the conference is packed full, but the weekend is studded with a number of free events that are open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Seattle-area autobiographical cartoonist Tatiana Gill will be launching a health-related comic called Wombgenda at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery in Georgetown on Friday night, and the downtown Seattle Public Library is hosting public events all weekend long. Topics in the open sessions include discussions of displaced communities; a talk by Seattle’s Erma Blood, the pseudonymous organizer behind the anti-sexual-assault comics site Grab Back Comics; and a series of quick talks on exploring disability through comics.

And of course, now that the Senate is deliberating on a health care bill that could gut Obamacare by forcing 24 million Americans off health insurance, this year’s theme of “Access Points” is particularly meaningful. Access is more important than ever, Czerwiec explains, and the question of who gets what care is a central issue of our time.

But she’s quick to point out that you don’t have to be a cartoonist or a PhD to attend Comics & Medicine’s free programming. ”I think anyone who has an interest in stories and health care” could find something of value, she says. Ultimately, the conference is devoted to consideration of “how we think about health care,“ with the hope of reimagining it and rebuilding it “in ways that are empowering to all of us as patients and caregivers and providers.” Comics are the great equalizer.

Stitch by stitch by broken stitch

Published June 13, 2017, at 12:01pm

Paul Constant reviews Sherman Alexie's You Don't Have to Say You Love Me.

When the world tries to kill Sherman Alexie, he just gets bigger and better.

Read this review now

Book News Roundup: Stacey Levine, William Shakespeare, and James Baldwin

I see novel-writing as an opportunity to ask dozens of questions. The question of self-“realization” is going to be among them, but I like to think a novel is a chance to throw dice that ask combinations of even broader questions. “What is the experience of being alone versus being ‘beside’ somebody else?” And smaller ones: “What is the best way to describe that one sensation?” And situational questions, too: “What would this character do if she were trapped in a well and mocked by local teenagers?”
The C.S.A. model is simple: consumers commit a certain amount of money to a farm up front in exchange for a portion of the future harvest. Farmers use the resources to support themselves during the slower months. Over the past few decades, C.S.A.s have grown in popularity across the United States. Many farms on the Blue Hill peninsula have adopted such programs, and Haskell watched a local brewery, Strong Brewing Company, get its operation off the ground with a community-supported beer program. “The idea of purchasing a season’s or a year’s worth of books seemed like an interesting way to structure thinking about a customer’s relationship to the store,” Haskell said recently. At Blue Hill Books, C.S.B. members can purchase a “share” for a thousand dollars—or partial shares for two hundred or five hundred dollars—and draw on that credit to buy books throughout the year. “It’s not a donation; it’s not an investment,” Sichterman explained. It’s more of a “gift certificate for yourself.”

Summer of Boys

In the beginning, it was innocent. Just play. Let’s mess with Mrs. Flowers’ mailbox! Fisher and Price asked me to spy on an old witch they believed lived alone in the woods. Is her husband dead? Or does she just hate men? I wondered. I wondered if she would ever come out of her shack. They tried everything to catch a glimpse of her. Sometimes they fisted worms and mud inside the black hole of it, then pushed the hard red flag up in high salute. Special delivery. Sometimes they didn’t erect it at all. Instead I took long walks with those two leading me through the woods in the heavy heat of curiosities. We built camps. We arranged rocks. We smoked cigarette butts. We lit twigs on fire. We lit trash on fire. We broke brown beer bottles against old trees. We pretended to be married. In a navy blue cotton shirt with a loose ruffle along the bottom edge, I was the bride, marching toward them. In the warm August air, my veil lifted off so easily.

Modern life, guided by a set of tested principles

Sponsor Lori Tsugawa Whaley, a third-generation Japanese American, was raised in a primarily Caucasian community and felt disconnected from her Japanese heritage. While exploring this ancient culture, she discovered a source of truth — the code of ethics known as bushido. Bushido means “the way of the warrior”; it is the set of chivalrous principles that governed the behavior of the ancient Japanese warriors known as samurai.

Lori Tsugawa Whaley brings these concepts to everyday life, showing through examples the kind of ethical and moral choices you can make when guided by principles. As she says, "I believe you were born to live a life of courage, honor, and integrity." Read an excerpt on our sponsor's page.

Sponsors like Lori make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us as well? Get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. We only have four openings left in our current block! Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.

This morning, the folks at Seattle's own Gramma Press announced that they'll be releasing a new book from poet Anastacia-Reneé (who we published back when she was known as Anastacia Renée Tolbert) on July 1st. The collection, titled (v.), is described this way:

Using a reimagined alphabet, Anastacia-Reneé sets about taking on everything from love to cancer, monsters, growing up, growing into our bodies, and the ways in which even our bodies are not our own. Her words define and redefine, explore hidden truths and expose the lies we are raised with.

This is a big release for Seattle publishing, and we can't wait to see it. You can pre-order (v.) from Gramma directly, or you can pre-order it from your local independent bookstore.

"I didn't set out to do it, but what I had done was I made a comic": Talking with MK Czerwiec, cofounder of the Comics and Medicine Conference

This weekend, the eighth annual Comics & Medicine Conference will take place in Seattle. Registration is full, but the conference also hosts a number of programs at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library that are free and open to the public. The conference is bringing local and international cartoonists together to discuss the many ways that narrative comics about medicine can inform, entertain, and inspire the general public. Last week, I talked on the phone with MK Czerwiec, a co-founder of the conference, about how she came to comics as a medical professional, and why she believes that health care is everyone's business. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Why comics and medicine? What makes those two things a good fit?

There are a lot of wonderful answers to that question, which is why we love having annual conferences — because people come from all over the world to tell us their answer. In general, it seems that comics have the power to convey important information in ways that people who are dealing with issues in health care and caregiving find appealing to absorb.

One example of how comics are used in medicine and why comics and health care go together is that there's a long history of public health messaging through comics because they're accessible. They can potentially transcend language barriers — the visual appeal. They can take a lot of information and make it kind of quick and well-organized.

It’s also a great patient education tool, but what we found too is that it's an incredibly powerful tool for patients to use as a form of reflection and for storytelling about their experiences of illness. And then it's an incredibly powerful experience to bear witness to those experiences and kind of have that empathy connection.

And comics are being used to teach in medical schools and nursing schools and across many different areas of education — in and outside of health care.

And how did you come to health care storytelling through comics?

I came to it really out of necessity. I was working as a nurse at the height of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and I would come home and I just felt this huge chasm between my everyday life and my work life. I was having a lot of trouble making a bridge between those two things. And I also was really having a hard time processing all of these intense sufferings, experiences, and these lives that were kind of coming to an end before me.

I had tried [writing those experiences through] text alone and that worked a little bit — like keeping a journal. I sometimes had occasionally tried images alone — making memorial paintings and painting screens in memory of people who I cared about, just sort of the symbolic language to remind me of things that were important to me about them. And then, it got to a point where, after doing this for five or six years, each of those individual methods were failing.

It came down to one day when I had to figure out how to get all of that out of my head. When I showed up at work, my patients deserved for me to be present to them, not my own suffering. I sat down with a blank piece of paper and I drew just this picture of myself and wrote above it, "I feel miserable." And then I put a box around it, and then I put another box, and then I just found myself combining image and text in this sequential fashion.

And I didn't set out to do it, but what I had done was I made a comic. And the thing that was really surprising to me was that I found myself in a completely different place than when I started. Something about the process of making that comic was transformative for me. And I just kept using that as a tool, as a nurse, to cope with what I was bearing witness to, and I found that it was really helpful.

And when did your experiments become more formal?

I ended up going into the field of Medical Humanities and Bioethics, in part because I really wanted to study why it is that certain ways of telling stories can be so helpful to us when it comes to illness. And I wanted to inform my comics, because I continued to make comics, and I knew I wanted to continue to do that.

But I wanted them to be better, and I wanted to inform them with a lot of theory and thinking about story and illness and health care. When I was working as a nurse, I was doing comics as a way of being present to the now and being able to be there for my patients. When I went into the academic side and started looking at this with a critical eye, that was when I started thinking about all the possible applications.

And then, I came across a book while I was doing my Master's studies called Mom's Cancer, by Brian Fies. And it changed my way of thinking. I just thought, "Wow.”

I got in touch through the internet with a few people who were starting to think along the same lines. And that's where we are today.

That was around a time when comics were coming to be more accepted in academia generally. Did you get a lot of pushback when you were trying to put comics and medicine together?

No. Quite the opposite. I could tell that I was in a really supportive environment at Northwestern, where some of the people around me saw the potential even more than I do. They were very encouraging to pursue it and pursue it thoughtfully. I've actually been surprised how embraced we've been. The Journal of Internal Medicine now has a graphic medicine page, and that really blows my mind because that's such a traditional medical journal.

Seattle has a huge global health and public health community here — we have PATH and the Gates Foundation and all that. And we also have a strong comics community as well. Is that why you chose Seattle for this conference? Or was it just our time? Or did you throw a dart at a map?

No, all that was absolutely a part of it. We had been hearing from some great Seattle creators, Mita Mahato being one of them. She’s our on-the-ground organizer [for the Seattle conference] who's, of course, a PhD literature scholar who has used comics in her teaching and really got invested in graphic medicine. But then at the same time, she is just an astonishingly talented papercut artist and comics creator in working on her own narratives, and she's been really active in the community.

And of course Meredith Li-Vollmer at the Seattle King County Public Health Department has come to our conferences in the past and presented projects that she's done with David Lasky in the public health arena. And Ellen Forney has been a keynote for us. We had so many people we knew in Seattle. When a couple of them said, "we think that we could get the support here to do this," we were really excited.

The registration is sold out, but you have a lot of free and open components to the conference. Do you have any advice for somebody who is thinking about attending some of the free programming? Do you need to be a medical professional to get a lot out of this?

I think anyone who has an interest in stories and health care and the ways in which we could approach how we think about health care differently would get a lot out of this. I think they will be really excited about what's happening in the graphic medicine community.

The title of my graphic memoir that just came out recently is Taking Turns, and what that title refers to is this idea that we really all are people taking turns being sick, and the divide between provider and patient is an artificial one — a necessary one, but an artificial one — and I think that it's important to remember that we all have a stake in this. Not just providers, not just caregivers, but all of us. And so I absolutely think that the public is welcome, and I don't think there's any kind of information anyone would need to know about graphic medicine before they come.

All of our keynote addresses are open to the public, and a number of the sessions. I think people will be really excited about this just right off the street.

Do you find yourself focusing any more on the political side of health care because of the AHCA and Obamacare?

We absolutely focus on it. We chose the theme of “Access Points” [for this year's conference] partly to think about some of those things. Who gets care? Who gets what kind of care? And how is that changing in this current climate? The threat to that access is more acute than ever.

I like to think that graphic medicine draws on the deep traditions of comics as both coming from the underground and bearing witness to stigmatized truth, but also the political tradition. The long tradition of political comics is alive and well. And access to health care, and comics about access to health care, are a big part of that.

The Sunday Post for June 11, 2017

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow 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.


Meehan Crist was skating in the wrong direction and missed the moment her mother fell, slamming her head against the ice and sending shockwaves through her brain. Crist’s essay about the slow discovery of the depth of the injury — and the gradual disintegration of her mother’s personality — travels loss, neuroscience, and the history of our understanding of the mind, the heart, and the self. (H/t Ed Yong for this one; see also jumping spiders, below.)

I have been wondering when the silence began. Maybe it started when I was trying so hard to stay quiet so she could get better.

Or maybe it came later, when I had tired of getting “I don’t know” as an answer and stopped asking questions.

Then again, maybe I didn’t ask much in the first place. Perhaps I was too shy to intrude on the adult world of illness and recovery, or too wrapped up in my own world to notice the silence stealing around me and settling into place.

A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately

The inimitable David Sedaris on the ten stages of grieving Trump’s election. Spoiler: none of them are “acceptance.”

Back in the room, I turn on the radio and look at the electoral map online. I go to bed, reach for my iPad. Shut my eyes, reach for my iPad. When the election is called for Trump, I lie there, unable to sleep. In the middle of the night, I go to the fitness center and watch the little TV embedded in my elliptical machine. The news had been telling me for months that Clinton was a shoo-in. Now they want me to listen as they soul search and determine how they got it so wrong. “Fuck you,” I say to the little screen.
When I Worked in Advertising

If you describe your job as “a day job” (instead of just “my job”), you’ve probably spent at least one long dark night trying to figure out how to connect it with the real person you really are. Then, of course, you got up the next day, regained your sense of irony, and went to work. Here’s Rumaan Alam making sense of his day job in advertising and the virtue of bad ideas.

When I worked in advertising, one of my clients, one of this country’s largest retailers, used the language of storytelling, which further helped me take solace in my work (the money was quite good, too). They told stories and then sold things, and the story changed every so often, so that the months of the year were like the installments in a collection of short stories. You can guess how some of those stories went: the story was Christmas or the story was Summer or the story was cleaning and organizing or the story was Father’s Day or the story was Mother’s Day and the moral of the story was buy stuff.
Tiny Jumping Spiders Can See the Moon

It would be very responsible of you to read The Atlantic’s fascinating, in-depth profile of white supremacist Richard Spencer, written by his eighth-grade lab partner. (Is there any fate worse than to be famous enough to be profiled by someone who knew you in high school? Especially if that someone is Graeme Wood?)

But! This article has lasers, a colloquy of astronomers, and a rain of spiders with eyes like Galilean telescopes. No-brainer.

Meanwhile, fellow astronomer Alex Parker had read Lomax’s tweets. “Have you tried lasers?” he replied. “Seriously though, some jumping spiders will chase laser pointers like cats do.”

There are, indeed, many Youtube videos of them doing exactly that. But Emily Levesque — Lomax’s colleague, with an office two doors down — wanted to see it for herself.

The Bounty Hunter of Wall Street

Speaking of antiheroes (someone must be, somewhere): Jesse Barron follows the story of Andrew Left, a short-seller who makes a ton of cash by exposing corporate fraud to manipulate stock prices. Left helped bring down Valeant Pharmaceutials, a company that made its own money by buying drug patents and yanking up the prices to impossible heights. You’d hire this guy to protect your town against the corrupt sheriff — then be glad to see him ride away again.

I met Left for the first time last May. After leaving my job as a fact-checker at a magazine — the pay was terrible, but the business cards said “Assistant Editor” — I was padding out my freelance income with some part-time work for finance types, editing letters and writing reports. The door creaked ajar into a totally different world. I started reading short-seller blogs at night, obsessed with the feeling that invisible forces controlling my life were flashing into visibility. That’s why my wife’s prescription cost $300 a month. That’s why the world was how it was. I wrote Left in April and asked if we could meet. In May, he sent a text: He had dirt on an online postage seller. Did I want to come to Los Angeles?

Seattle Writing Prompts: The Guild 45th Theater

Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.

Also, how are we doing? Are writing prompts useful to you? Could we be doing better? Reach out if you have ideas or feedback. We'd love to hear.

You saw it was gone, right? Closed admidst a confusing cloud of no information and some vague promises from its owner, Landmark. Not that it was a huge surprise; the interior of the Guild — rustic on a good day — had really gone to seed. Look at the coloring on the top right of the building, in the photo above. Apparently, Landmark didn't care to take care of their properties in Seattle. Ask yourself this: with property values what they are in Seattle, and with Landmark steadily ridding itself of its theaters up here (only the discount theater the Crest remains), are restored versions of their theaters likely?

One might think that Landmark nominating the theater to be considered for landmark (yeah, I know. Watch the case of that leading "L") status means they wanted to gussy it up old-school style. But as the Puget Sound Business Journal slyly put it: "It is more difficult to develop official landmarks, and it's why owners looking to sell or redevelop their properties sometimes nominate them. Getting a decision upfront helps them plan what to do with their real estate." In other words, developers don't want squicky NIMBYs getting up in their grill; getting turned down for landmark status makes a sale simpler.

They also closed the Seven Gables Theatre, on the corner of 50th and Roosevelt in the U District. I knew that particular theater well. Downstairs was once a cafe called the Roosevelt that I worked in for a number of years, starting as a dishwasher and working my way up to line cook. We had an overnight pastry chef who would come in as we were closing up the kitchen after the last patrons had left, blast Bauhaus and make the most exquisite cakes, desserts, and bonbons for the after-movie theater crowd. Upstairs, I saw a number of movies, including a brain-melting screening of Fargo, which left the friends I was with complaining about the violence, but left me with an inchoate sensation that the Coen brothers were trying to say something very deep about art (I now seriously doubt they were, but I still love the movie).

I also saw Pulp Fiction in a Landmark theater, and hundreds of other movies. They always had the best popcorn, the best indies (they were the closest thing to a studio-owned chain, given the amount of Mirimax footage that threaded through their projection booths), and the best jaded employees.

KIRO Radio film critic Tom Tangney put it nicely on the aforementioned My Northwest page:

“I’m just struck at how little is left of the Landmark Theatre chain that once dominated independent film exhibition in this town,” Tangney said. “Back when I was working with Landmark two decades ago it operated not only the Guild 45th and the Seven Gables, but also the Harvard Exit, the Egyptian, the Broadway Cinemas, the Neptune, the Varsity, Metro Cinemas, and the Crest. Now the Crest is the only Landmark Theater left, and that’s a discount house.”

The Guild 45th opened in 1921 — older than the Academy Awards! — and was originally called the Paramount. They changed the name when that big theater downtown stole it. The two screens were built at separate times: the west-most screen opened in 1983. It may be the only theater in the world that has a restaurant between its two theaters. Paul Dorpat has more on the theater on his site.

So, beers up to the Guild 45th and the Seven Gables, but not for the chain that let its classic movie houses go to rot, to extract every last cent out of the faithful movie nuts of a mostly overcast city. They could have invested and made them jewels, but instead they let them go until the best move was to close them. All we have left are the stories, and because of some local Seattle film workers who lost their gigs this week, let's make them all about working behind the scenes.

Today's prompts
  1. There's opening night, and then there's the first night you're open. The Paramount theater put its first title on the marquee that afternoon. Showing's starting at 4:00pm — the main show, A Sailor-Made Man, staring Harold Lloyd. The paper came, and wrote a little piece about the theater, and even the deputy mayor came to say hello and purchase a ticket. A new theater was opening in town, and people were curious. They did okay, that night. Maybe they'd get a decent run out of this place.

  2. It was a look over spilled popcorn that finally brought them together. She was sweeping the theater while he closed out the till and locked the cash box in the manager's office. Everybody else was long gone. It was all the popcorn on the floor — the Creature From the Black Lagoon had a few decent scares — that kept them late. So he came at the row from one end while she came from the other. He knew he had about ten minutes before her dad showed up to give her a ride home. And meeting in the middle of the theater, he looked up to see her looking at him. He smiled, and then she was the one who made the move, leaning in for the kiss. Maybe his eyes should have been closed, but then he wouldn't have seen the silhouette of someone in the glass of the projection booth.

  3. The projectionist always cut one wrong frame in. It was the Newsreels — he never could bring himself to destroy them, like he was supposed to. Sometimes, he'd project them after the theater was locked up, just watching ten-year old clips about Hitler, or the Pacific Front. It started with that Mankiewicz film 5 Fingers. It was about the war, and he wondered if anybody would notice a still just spliced in. Nobody ever said anything. It was there, in the first minute of the second reel, 1/24th of a second given to something else. Nobody said anything, that was, until the day a knock came on his door at home.

  4. He always winked and raised his finger to his mouth, as if to suggest she should be quiet and keep it secret that he was there. She never told anyone until her kids were watching one of his old Westerns one day. "You know, he used to come to the theater when I worked there," she told them. "Back in the early 70s. He always came in a bit late, and left a bit early, so as not to be recognized." Her kids didn't care, but it reminded her — he gave her an autographed photo, the last time he came in. Surely, it had to be somewhere in one of her boxes ...?

  5. The doors barely closed anymore. The bathrooms leaked. The seats were broken. The ceiling was water-stained. There was mold somewhere — everywhere, you could smell it. The equipment was out of date. Everything was pretty much wrong, but it was still a shock to everyone when the manager, face ashen, asked them to all gather, and then told them to just go home. It was time to shut the place down. It was time to find other jobs. It was time to turn the lights off for good.

Book News Roundup: Americans are crazy about audio books

  • Brendan Kiley at the Seattle Times writes about a new report from the city that offers "30 ideas — some already in play — to shelter artists and communities of color from rapid development and skyrocketing rents." You can read a PDF of the report right here. If you're an artist or a lover of the arts who is concerned about livability in Seattle — in other words, if you're reading this site right now — it is your civic duty to read this report.

  • Remember earlier this week, when I told you that media was ramping up for the release of Sherman Alexie's memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me? Well, here's a book trailer, featuring a poem from the book:

Melville House has announced it is giving away free ebooks of its edition of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture after reports that the Republican head of the Senate Intelligence Committee was trying to suppress the still-classified sections of the report that were in circulation amongst other Federal agencies.
Framing the library’s focus as “restarting civilization” may seem apocalyptic or predictive on its face, but that is not the intention. Rather, the hope is to create a curatorial principle that inspires valuable conversation that reframes how we think about where civilization has come so far, where it might go in the future, and what tools are necessary to get it there.
  • When he was in town recently, Neil Gaiman talked about an audio book editor who announced, in the early 2000s, that she was quitting the business. Gaiman asked why she was leaving when she was so good at her job, and she replied that CDs were going away, and without CD players in cars, there was no future in audio books. I've got bad news for that person: she was dead wrong. According to the Audio Publishers Association, Americans bought more than two billion dollars' worth of audio books last year, which is an increase of nearly 20 percent over the year before. Almost one in four Americans successfully listened to at least one audio book last year. I wrote about my recent conversion to audio books a couple months ago.

The Help Desk: I used to read terrible books. Are the books I read now just as terrible?

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

Dear Cienna,

Flipping through my high school yearbook, I was confronted with the uncomfortable reminder that my favorite book in senior year — the book I told everyone they had to read — was Fight Club.

My reading actually got worse after that. In college, I fell hard for Ayn Rand for a semester. And I’m still embarrassed about the way I got suckered into thinking House of Leaves was deep.

So how do I know that the books I like now are any better? Will I one day be as embarrassed by my love of Jonathan Lethem and Mary Gaitskill as I’m already embarrassed by my teenage admiration for Charles Bukowski? Why is everything I liked ten years ago so awful, and is there a way to shame-proof my next ten years of reading?

Dawson, Bitter Lake

Dear Dawson,

Thank you for bringing up many cringeful memories for me – I still have a few Bukowski poems memorized; I became a nihilist when I first learned the word "nihilist" and put a copy of Nietzsche's The Antichrist in my bathroom; it was eventually replaced with a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and then the Tom Robbins opus, Word Porridge Nostalgia. I should be embarrassed about at least half of those things but I'm not.

The only time I am genuinely embarrassed is when I'm wrong and no one has the right to tell either of us our taste in books is wrong, just as my medical school friends don't have the right to tell me a witch doctor is not a real doctor and the pompous OshKoshBGosh-wearing motherfuckers on the message boards at Farmers-Only-Dot-Com don't have the right to tell me a spider farm is not a real farm when SPIDER FARMS EAT ANT FARMS FOR BREAKFAST.

Just because YOU'VE never milked a spider doesn't mean it can't be done.

I've already devoted many words in this column to how much I love judging other people's taste in books. You can turn a timeline of someone's favorite books into a topographical map of how they've evolved as a person.

If anyone views their own taste in books (or anything else) as perpetually on point, it's a good indication of their personal stagnation – they've crawled so far up their own ass that they've gotten lost in the small intestine's labyrinth of bullshit, pitched a tent and are listlessly calling for help with only a well-worn copy of On the Road for company – a book they still refer to as The Great American Novel.

So to answer your question: No, there is no way to shame-proof your reading list other than to stop feeling shame about the things you're interested in reading. So stop it.


Cienna (To like-minded farmers, RudeNag69)

Portrait Gallery: Neal Stephenson

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

Monday June 12th: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. Reading

Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson’s follow-up to the magisterial Seveneves is a co-authored novel with Nicole Galland. It’s about a language expert who gets wrapped up in a secret government agency over some documents which supposedly prove that magic has always existed. Set in the near-future, this one looks like it might appeal to fans of Stephenson’s lighter side.
Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Is this the ugliest comic in the world?

I just bought it last night, but I'm pretty sure that Atlas #1 is the ugliest comic book I own. Only the cover, a sensitive piece by Anders Nilson featuring the titular hero holding a charred corpse while floating in a smoggy yellow haze, is aesthetically pleasing.

But flip past the cover, and the rest of this book is ugly as sin: the coloring is garish and sloppy, the art style is childlike and aggressive, and the writing is opportunistic and so drenched in irony that it's impossible to tell if it's a joke, or a joke about a joke, or if it's supposed to be taken entirely straight. But the worst part of this ugly book is that it's published by a press that makes some of the world's most beautiful books — Seattle's own Fantagraphics Books.

Atlas is part of Fantagraphics' All Time Comics initiative, a nostalgia line intended to evoke the Marvel and DC Comics of the mid-1980s. All Time has even hired many of the creators from that time and put them back to work drawing books. Even the "ads" for Atari 2600-style video games on the back cover look like they were originally published in the 80s.

But the book is positively dripping with contempt. Is it contempt for the audience? For the mainstream comics that inspired the All Time line? For the superhero-infested popular culture around all of us at all times? Unclear. The contempt seems to fly in all directions. Nobody is clean.

There's no point trying to explain the plot of Atlas. A superhero strikes a congressman in public and is then sent to jail. Meanwhile Atlas's friends are being burned alive. Somebody has to pay. Atlas pretends to be the center chapter in a long, ongoing superhero story, with an imaginary continuity stretching back decades.

But the truth is, none of that matters. The only noteworthy thing about Atlas #1 is how ugly it is — how offensive it is to the eye. Everyone's anatomy is misshapen. Panels frame grimacing close-ups and the dialogue strains against itself on every page:

Tobey! No!! You stupid kid!! What have you done?! I can't protect you in this godforsaken place! I can't even help myself right now! Tobey could DIE here! ANYTHING could happen. He doesn't know WHAT kinds of MONSTERS we're locked up with!

It's all like that: clunky and hammy and willfully dumb. I can't imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing. Sometimes Fantagraphics' reach exceeds its grasp, but this is the first out-and-out failure I've seen from them in over a decade.

The autocrat and the dilettante

We had some identification problems at last night’s Reading Through It book club at Third Place Books Seward Park. Someone would be talking about “him” as a bully, or an ideological vacuum, or an agent of chaos. We’d discuss “his” failure to behave as a normal leader, and his inability to consider his own nation as a member of an international community.

And then someone else would interrupt with a question for the sake of clarification: this “him” you’re referring to — are you talking about Vladimir Putin, or are you talking about Donald Trump?

The discussion of Masha Gessen’s book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin felt mildly unfocused, largely in part because the book was published years before Donald Trump was elected president. So because Trump doesn’t appear in the book, readers try to see Trump everywhere in the book.

And to be clear: the two men do have many qualities in common. Putin and Trump both love ostentatious wealth and they’re openly greedy. They generate power out of chaos. They don’t seem to stand for anything. They could broadly both be defined as bullies.

But you can’t linger on the similarities for too long before the differences make themselves plain: Putin is a disciplined man who is well-versed in bureaucracy. Putin has almost certainly had his enemies killed, while Trump is more likely to send nasty faxes to his foes. Putin came up through the KGB. Trump came up through reality television. They may share methods and a moral baselessness, but the truth is that Putin is better equipped for an autocratic style of leadership than Trump ever will be. One plays at being a tough guy; the other is a tough guy. In her recent appearance on The Ezra Klein Show, Gessen plainly explained the distance between Putin and Trump. The podcast is definitely worth a listen:

Some in the book club disagreed with me, but I found some comfort in The Man Without a Face. The left is currently overrun with conspiracy theories depicting Trump as an unwitting pawn in a complex chess game, with Putin the grandmaster confounding the American people at every step of the way. Gessen’s portrait puts the lie to that story of Putin as an omnipotent and omniscient overlord. Instead, he makes as much chaos as possible, and then he profits from the aftermath.

Extrapolating from Gessen’s portrayal of Putin, it’s easy to imagine Russia as a major player in the 2016 presidential election. Putin is an expert at controlling and extinguishing the flow of information, and he likely wanted to maximize the frustration and divisiveness of an already-anxious electorate. His agents undoubtedly tried to foment as much unrest as they could.

But it’s highly unlikely that Putin expected Trump to win the presidency, and it’s very likely that now Trump is president, Putin is improvising and trying to make as much trouble as possible. In this scenario, Trump is still an unwitting pawn, but Putin is just as flabbergasted and confused as the rest of us as he tries to navigate this new world he unwittingly helped to create.

Gessen’s portrayal of Putin supports this thesis. The story she tells in Man Without a Face is a remarkable one, deftly laid out with a confidence that encourages readers to connect their own dots using available evidence. And the portrait of Putin is by no means flattering: he is a mean, greedy, monstrous man who has ordered assassinations and allowed innocent people to die. But he is, at the core, a man — as human as you or I, and just as prone to mistakes, and just as mortal. He has flaws and blind spots and weaknesses, and they will eventually lay him low. In the end, we’re all betrayed by our humanity.

The next Reading Through It meets at Third Place Books Seward Park on Wednesday, July 5th. We’ll be discussing Jane Meyer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. It's available at Third Place for 20 percent off for the rest of the month; I hope you’ll join us for our discussion. You can also join the Reading Through It Facebook group for more details and discussion.

Let's acknowledge the fact that James Comey is a very good writer

Yesterday, when I read former FBI director James Comey's prepared statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I was struck by one particular passage:

A few moments later, the President said, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty." I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.

This paragraph really stuck with me. I kept returning to it, reading it over and over again. Finally, it occured to me why: the thing that really resonated for me is that the passage reads like it could have been written by Haruki Murakami. There's food, a bland narrator trying to be passive in a bizarre situation, incredible social awkwardness, and a weird otherworldly character insinuating himself into reality. Throw in a cat and a missing woman and you've got yourself a paragraph that could've been plucked out of the middle of any of Murakami's latest novels.

But the other thing I immediately noticed about Comey's testimony is that it is very well-written. I hope that non-writers pay attention to the quality of the prose in Comey's report. It is clear, declarative, and descriptive without being florid. We should celebrate good writing wherever we find it, and this is good writing.

Everyone, from menu-writers to sportscasters to insurance adjusters, could learn from Comey's writing style: his economy, his utility, his clarity. It would be so easy for Comey to get melodramatic, or overly verbose. If he was a bad writer, this report would be confusing, or off-putting. If he left details out, it would be damaging to his value as a witness. Instead, he uses just the right word at just the right time, and then he moves on.

With this report, Comey demonstrates what good writing can do: when properly applied, in just the right situation, a piece of fine prose might even launch a chain of events that could — with a little bit of luck — eventually topple a president. Never let anyone tell you that writing doesn't matter.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from June 7th - June 13th

Wednesday June 7th: Reading Through It: The Man Without a Face

Every month, the Seattle Weekly and the Seattle Review of Books team up to bring you a current-events book club for our Trump-possessed times. This month’s selection, unfortunately, turned out to be especially timely in this era of light treason. Join us as we discuss Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave S, 474-2200, Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Thursday June 8th: The Hope of Another Spring Reading

A collection of experts celebrate the life and work of Takuichi Fujii, an artist who left Japan in 1906 to live in Seattle. His illustrated diary from the World War II internment camps have been praised as "the most remarkable document created by a Japanese American prisoner during the wartime incarceration." Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Friday June 9th: Mistreated Reading

Doctor Robert Pearl explains why, even though Americans believe they have the greatest health care in the world, our country has fallen to the lower half in terms of medical care in the industrialized world. Mistreated explains why and how physicians sell out to drug companies on a regular basis. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Saturday June 10th: To Love the Coming End Reading

See our Literary Event of the Week column for more details. Chin Music Press Showroom, Pike Place Market, 380-1947, . Free. All ages. 5 p.m.

Sunday June 11th: Lily and the Octopus Reading

It’s not every Sunday that a bestselling author comes to town, but this afternoon screenwriter Steven Rowley reads from his literary phenomenon, which is about a sad man named Ted Flask who finds meaning in an octopus attached to his dog’s eye. How did this book top bestseller lists nationwide? Maybe Rowley can explain. University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, Free. All ages. 3 p.m.

Monday June 12th: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. Reading

Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson’s follow-up to the magisterial Seveneves is a co-authored novel with Nicole Galland. It’s about a language expert who gets wrapped up in a secret government agency over some documents which supposedly prove that magic has always existed. Set in the near-future, this one looks like it might appeal to fans of Stephenson’s lighter side. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, Free. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday June 13th: Chain Letter

Capitol Hill’s newest reading series presents its third installment with zine advocate Joseph Raisanen, non-fiction writer Cassandra DeKanter, and publisher and Babel/Salvage co-founder Bryan Edenfield. At the end of this artful reading, everyone will be invited to read in an open mic. Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar, 1508 11th Ave., 709-9797, Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Let Lightning Snake reveal yourself to you

Published June 07, 2017, at 11:00am

Colleen Louise Barry reviews Jason T. Miles's Lightning Snake.

This Saturday, Fantagraphics hosts a launch party for Cold Cube’s newly released Lightning Snake collection. Colleen Louise Barry is our tour guide through its colorful and confounding pages.

Read this review now

Literary Event of the Week: Leanne Dunic at the Chin Music Press Showroom

Buried in the belly of Pike Place Market, Chin Music Press’s showroom might just be the best-kept secret of a bookstore in Seattle. It’s a dreamy little shop, carrying just a few dozen titles, almost entirely all published by the local press. You’ll know a Chin Music title when you see one: it’s usually the gorgeous hardcover in the front of the bookstore that you just can’t keep yourself from touching. Publisher Bruce Rutledge seems obsessive about making the design of every Chin Music title as stately as possible.

These are ideal books for a showroom space, and the Pike Place Market shop is a marvel of economy: the storefront also serves as Chin Music’s offices, thereby dragging the mysterious art of publication into the public eye while simultaneously putting the press’s most enthusiastic ambassadors — its publisher and employees — front and center in the bookselling experience. It’s a mystery why more publishers don’t follow their lead and open mini-shops in their offices.

This Saturday, the Chin Music showroom will display work of a different kind as the publisher hosts a reading party for their newest author, Leanne Dunic. The Vancouver writer will read from her lyric novel, To Love the Coming End. Like most of Chin Music’s catalog, Coming End is a book that is interested in the Pacific Rim: it travels around Japan and Singapore and British Columbia — a world of earthquakes and volcanoes and other volatilities of a more personal, less geographic sort.

Two other writers will join the celebration of Dunic’s latest book. Bernard Grant — formerly of Seattle, now attending school in Ohio — will read from his impressive selection of stories and essays. We as a city should carry a collective shame for allowing Grant to move away from here. Read his 2014 essay “Don’t Assume I Know What I’m Saying” at The Nervous Breakdown to see what I mean: this story about Grant’s complicated relationship with his father is so raw that it might strip the skin from your bones. When I first read that story, I found myself white-knuckling the sides of my laptop; if I were a stronger man, I might’ve folded the aluminum keyboard into an accordion shape as I read.

Dunic and Grant will be joined by hometown hero Anca Szilagyi, who press materials refer to as a “fable-mongerer.” Szilagyi is a writer of fiction and essays — her first novel, Daughters of the Air, will be published next year, and the whole city is aflutter with great expectations for it. The best of her work feels like a fairy tale—the sort of thing you’d find handwritten on a tiny scroll you found under a mushroom in the middle of a forest on the longest day of the year.

As most of literary Seattle prepares to downshift for the months of July and August, this reading represents a great opportunity to take stock of the talent this city has fostered, and the talent we’ve let slip away, and the talent living right next door. Where better to host them than a room specifically designed to launch beautiful books into the world?

Book News Roundup: Want 50,000 dollars to make a graphic novel?

  • HUGE congratulations are due to Seattle Review of Books contributor Nisi Shawl, whose amazing novel Everfair was just announced as a John W. Campbell Memorial Award finalist, alongside some incredible books by Colson Whitehead, Ben Winters, Don DeLillo, and Kij Johnson.

  • Are you an aspiring graphic novelist? Here's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: The Office of Arts and Culture is offering $50,000 to "commission one artist or artist team to research, write and illustrate a fictionalized historic graphic novel in relation to the history, story and significance of the Georgetown Steam Plant, a National Historic Landmark."

  • If you'd like to host a table at this year's Short Run at Seattle Center on November 4th, you should apply right here. We hear that this year's show will have an increased focus on independently published literature, so even if you're not a comics person you should check it out.

  • This time next week is the publication date for Seattle author Sherman Alexie's much-anticipated memoir about his complicated relationship with his mother, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. This means you'll be seeing a lot of Alexie over the next few weeks, which is always a happy thing. First of all, his short story "Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest" was published in the fiction issue of the New Yorker. It's a wonderful story about a hotel maid that leaves you wondering how Alexie researched the story:

Over the years, thirty or forty women had quit without saying a word. Many of them never bothered to return their maid uniforms or pick up their last paychecks. Marie feared that some of those women might have been disappeared by the men in their lives. But most of them just didn’t care about being responsible. Some of those women were as nocturnal and untrustworthy as rats. Marie had been slapped, punched, kicked, and bitten by former maids. Her purse had been stolen three times. And her car stolen once.
  • And at Literary Hub — which has been killing it lately — Alexie gave an interview about the memoir to the Dickensian-named Alden Mudge:
Returning to the subject of his mother, Alexie says, “I don’t know that I forgive my mother for her crimes against me. But I think I’ve come to a place where I understand them. I can’t forget what she did to me as an individual. But in terms of the lives of Native American women of her generation, I can completely understand why it happened the way it did. So if not forgiveness, I certainly have empathy. And for me to be empathetic toward my mother might be the bigger thing.”
Greg has given compelling literary performances in Seattle and elsewhere almost as soon as he landed and says he will continue to “explore and experiment.” He wrote a piece after “binge-listening to Sun Ra and Albert Ayler on I-5” and says from those Jazz artists he gets: “this greater cosmos level of… reality…” He likens the work to Dada performance art, to the time experiments of John Cage and the work of San Francisco poet Jack Spicer.