If they keep it up, Instagram seems like a good way to folllow the everyday happenings of Seattle City of Literature, the organization that's overseeing Seattle's status as a UNESCO-approved International City of Literature. The organization is still feeling out how to grow into the designation (every Creative City approaches its designation differently, and you need money to run those wonderful international creative exchange programs) and the Instagram account is a pleasant, informative way to keep tabs on those changes and respond to calls to action. If you're on Instagram, be sure to, uh, smash that follow button (and you're following the Seattle Review of Books on IG already, right?)
I loathe football and I loved Ben Fountain's Super Bowl-set novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. It was the rare debut novel that established novelists were excitedly emailing each other about: "have you read this yet? You have to read this!"
And I love reading about politics. In fact, I unfortunately devote way too much time these days to reading political takes from anyone: novices, conservatives, liberals, socialists, pundits.
So when I got a copy of Ben Fountain's new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, in the mail, I was excited to dig in. A non-fiction book about the rise of Donald Trump by the author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk? This wasn't a political book that I would drag myself through: here was a political book I was actually dying to read.
Unfortunately, I tried to read it.
What Fountain seems to be trying to do here is to produce a beautifully written and powerfully emotional narrative book about politics, something like what Hunter S. Thompson used to do in the late 60s and early 70s. I couldn't make it more than a few pages in.
Here, after an introduction or two, is the first paragraph of the first section of the book:
Is Hillary freaking? Has to be with all those '08 flashbacks frying the brainpan, that previous coronation spoiled by a grandiloquent rookie who nobody gave a chance, then he rolled her up like a Mafia hit in a cheap rug. Now it's a hectoring old geezer with scribby gray hair and suspiciously perfect teeth, the kind you slide in every morning and snap at the mirror, clack clack. Put a tan vest and a "Bernie" name tag on him and he could be one of those grizzled old guys down at the Home Depot, you ask him a perfectly reasonable question about sweat soldering, say, or flush valves, he just snorts and walks off. A career socialist no less. And Hillary wailed unto the Lord: Why me? Down fifty point in the polls a year ago, Sanders has clawed almost even just as the thing gets real.
What an exhausting, irresponsible piece of writing this is.
Look, I covered a presidential election in 2012 — sometimes very badly. I understand the desire to write beautiful prose and to add so much color commentary that it feels like politics is something else again — a fancy novel, say, with big heaving sentences and all sorts of emotional intrigue.
But the most important thing about political writing is that it's journalism. And the most important thing about journalism is that it should be truthful.
Look at Fountain's one-sentence recap of the 2008 Democratic primary, in which Obama "rolled [Clinton] up like a Mafia hit in a cheap rug." Uh, what? That's not how I remember the long, dragging winter and spring of 2008, when Clinton and Obama battled by inches across the country. A mafia hit as Fountain describes it is clinical and clean and efficient and you roll a body up in a rug so that nobody sees what you've done; 2008 was nothing of the kind.
You might think I'm splitting hairs here. "Give Fountain his artistic license," you might insist. I'm sorry, but not here. What he's describing is not true. It doesn't even come close to an honest account of the 2008 primary season. And landing as it does at the beginning of an account of another presidential primary, it immediately casts Fountain's credibility in doubt.
Additionally, there's the lazy sexism of Fountain repeatedly referring to Clinton casually as "Hillary," while he proffers Sanders the dignity of his last name in the final sentence. Fountain veers back and forth in the early part of Beautiful Country by referring to Sanders alternately as "Bernie" and "Sanders." But Clinton is almost always "Hillary."
Defenders would undoubtedly argue that Fountain also refers to Bill Clinton as "Bill" in the book, and that having two main characters named Clinton can cause confusion in readers. Okay, but hundreds of reporters dealt with this same problem in 2008 and 2016, and many of them handled the problem of clarity without diminishing the stature of the presidential candidate.
And that characterization of Clinton [wail[ing] unto the Lord" that Sanders would dare run against her isn't interesting or based on any evidence. In debates, Clinton was generous and respectful to Sanders, just as he was to her. Where is Fountain getting this wailing and gnashing of teeth? It reads, to me, like he's slapping his own preconceived notions on top of actual events. This is an understandable thing to do in a Facebook post, I suppose, but not in a book that the publisher bills in promotional copy as "a sweeping work of reportage."
This isn't a review. A reviewer should read all of a book. Ultimately, I couldn't get very far into Beautiful Country Burn Again. I rolled my eyes again and again at Fountain's pretentiousness, his mischaracterization, and his conjecture. I finally abandoned the book when I realized the whole thing was going to be a bad Hunter Thompson impression.
Thompson was a necessary writer for his time — he brought color and life to a political world that was addressing an insane situation with sober politeness. We do not need a Hunter S. Thompson for our times. Our times are already too colorful, too eventful, too unbelievable. What we need now are serious and dedicated reporters to tell us what's true and what's not. Ben Fountain is not that kind of reporter. He's just another man with an opinion.
Chilled thigh under homespun,
the weaver’s aching back
and yellowed finger pads,
quotidian aches bow to the sovereignty
of metes and bounds.
The length of cotton
stretched between brass tacks
weaves its own
Proceed from the blazed line
twenty chains to the southwest.
Dull needle through burlap.
Chilled holler of the axe’s
through a scrimshaw of frost.
Under moss, an oak trunk is blazed
breast high and skin smooth
to mark the end place.
This week, the Seattle Public Library is back to sponsor the site and to make sure you're all in attendance at a very important event: the Bullitt Lecture in American History, coming up in early December.
If there's ever been a time when we needed the perspective of history — to understand what the heck is happening on the political stage, and to understand how to dig ourselves out of it — it's now. And this year's lecture is dead on target. The speaker is Erika Lee, one of the nation's leader experts on the history of immigration. Her theme is xenophobia, from the Japanese Amerian incarceration to the "Muslim Ban."
Tom Ikeda, co-founder and executive director of Densho.org, will join Lee in conversation after her lecture. Densho looks at the same history through testimonials and digital storytelling. It's an incredible site, and he's the perfect local complement to Lee. The free event is at 7 p.m. on December 1. Read more about the speaker on our sponsorship feature and put it on your calendar today.
Sponsors like the Seattle Public Library make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you can sponsor us, too? We're sold out through January 2019. And even though we haven't released the next block, there are just a few dates left in February. Want to reserve your dates before they go public? Just send us a note at email@example.com.
The Icelandic novelist Hallgrimur Helgason visits Seattle — like Iceland's capitol Reykjavik, an International City of Literature — to read from his new novel Woman at 1,000 Degrees, which was translated by Brian FitzGibbon. Seattle literature and Icelandic literature have more in common than you think. Come find out why!
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Here is a reading from a coffee-table book compiling the best photos from the “Seattle Now & Then” columns that have been in the Seattle Times for nearly four decades. The book also features "a special, four-foot-wide gatefold" showing off the city's growth from a unique perspective. Seattle Public Library, Fremont Branch, 731 N 35th St, 684-4084, http://spl.org, 2 pm, free.
I know I'm biased, because I come from a bookselling background, but I think a good independent bookstore is one of the most compelling reasons to live in a city. You can tell the quality of a city by its independent bookstore scene.
I don't need to tell you, a reader of the Seattle Review of Books, all this. But you might need a reminder that if you love a bookstore, the best way to demonstrate your love is by buying stuff there — especially during the holidays.
You could do worse in life than to be known as the person who always gives books for gifts. In fact, I'd argue that books are the perfect gift: they're personal and the receiver thinks of the giver the whole time they're reading the book.
Even better, bookstores have these humans called booksellers who work in them. These booksellers are happy to recommend books for you to give to friends and family. These are the kinds of people who love talking about books with people. They love it so much that they choose to do it for a living.
And you can feel free to ask your bookseller anything. There is — trust me — no question too dumb for a bookseller to handle thoughtfully. The dumbest question you can muster is not even likely to be in the bottom three hundred dumbest questions a bookseller of five years has heard.
When you give the gift of books you bought at an independent bookstore, you're really giving two gifts at once. You're giving the book, of course, but you're also investing in a local institution and improving the quality of life in the city you love. I don't know about you, but that's all I want for Christmas.
For more information about the bookstore nearest you: https://www.seattlebookstoreday.com/
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.
Fascinating and creepy reporting by Reeves Wiedeman about the Broaddus family, who bought the home of their dreams — 657 Boulevard, in Westfield, New Jersey — only to be ruthlessly terrorized by scare notes from someone calling themselves “The Watcher.” The family struggles to identify the stalker, their investment drains away, and eventually their neighbors turn on them, which is the most normal and believable thing that happens in this crazy story.
657 Boulevard is anxious for you to move in. It has been years and years since the young blood ruled the hallways of the house. Have you found all of the secrets it holds yet? Will the young blood play in the basement? Or are they too afraid to go down there alone. I would [be] very afraid if I were them. It is far away from the rest of the house. If you were upstairs you would never hear them scream.
Well, here’s a head-scratcher. While some dedicate November to drafting a novel, epigraph to epilogue, and others grow mustaches to promote better health (odd, but well-intentioned), the isolated young men of the internet are … giving up masturbation? To punish women? Oh, for a world where this would be simply ridiculous, instead of the tip of an iceberg of misogyny and viciousness.
The NoFap sub-Reddit began in 2011, when one Redditor discovered a study that argued men who abstained from masturbating saw huge spikes in their testosterone levels after a week. While initially built merely on this foundation, the NoFap community has become linked to wider sexism and misogyny, reducing women to sexual objects to be attained or abstained from and shaming sexually active women. And this is no niche philosophy. The NoFap sub-Reddit, at the time of writing, has 377,000 subscribers.
Kevin Alexander visited more than 30 cities to find the best burger in America. At the top of the list: Stanich’s, in Portland, Oregon. It looked like a huge win for the family-owned business, until a flood of food tourists crashed against the doors, overwhelming the staff and driving out regulars. Today, Stanich’s is closed, its future uncertain.
This isn’t the first time a small business has been overwhelmed by internet fame. Who’s the villain here? Stanich’s owner made good decisions about his business as he knew it; Alexander had the best intentions about drawing attention to an awesome little restaurant. Even the foodies who mobbed the place were just hoping to discover something great. Still, these feel like cautionary tales, not just bad luck. Don’t they?
If there was one main negative takeaway from the raging fires of food tourist culture and the lists fanning the flames, it was that the people crowding the restaurant were one time customers. They were there to check off a thing on a list, and put it on Instagram. They weren’t invested in the restaurant’s success, but instead in having a public facing opinion of a well known place. In other words, they had nothing to lose except money and the restaurant had nothing to gain except money, and that made the entire situation feel both precarious and a little gross.
Speaking of cautionary tales— I don’t usually promote internally, but I loved this essay by co-founder Paul Constant. There’s something Trumpian about how quickly we seem to forget the bad deeds of Seattle’s favorite big employer, distracted by the next shiny object Jeff Bezos puts in front of us. Paul has a long memory, though, and, of course, a sharp, sharp wit.
The truth is, Amazon has always been a bad neighbor. The Seattle Times in 2012 called Amazon “a virtual no-show in the civic life of Seattle,” and that still sounds about right today. Unless it’s looking for publicity for a new Echo gadget, the self-described “bashful company” is notoriously silent. In my 10 years of reporting on Amazon in Seattle, its PR department has never once returned one of my dozens of requests for comment on its business practices. It’s not just the media that’s being stonewalled — Amazon’s management also failed to establish any meaningful relationship with local elected officials. As New York saw with the HQ2 beauty pageant, Amazon prefers to keep everyone guessing what its next move will be.
You guys. Spoiler. We lost.
On November 9th, at the 6th Annual Book Sorting Contest against Seattle, New York City’s book sorting team gathered together to take back the title of champion sorters in the United States. The race took place on both coasts, beginning with New York’s course at the Library Service Center in Long Island City and then the King County Library System’s course, several hours later, outside Seattle. Each machine would run for exactly one hour, zealously sorting books, getting them out to the numerous libraries in the area and ultimately into the hands of the patrons.
Laura Da' is a Seattle-based poet and teacher. She is Eastern Shawnee. Da' has been both a Hugo House Fellow, and a Jack Straw Fellow, and is our Poet in Residence for November — you can find her poems linked from her bio page. The University of Arizona just released her second book of poems, Instruments of the True Measure.
What are you reading now?
Right now I am reading Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead and Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin. My best friend is a librarian who works the international circuit. She sends me books in translation from whatever country she is in and she just left Argentina last year and sent me Fever Dream. This book is tight, visceral, terrifyingly good, and also bluntly terrifying in its examination of environmental poison and alienation. I started Jonny Appleseed last night and it is so good I’m struggling to put it down. Whitehead is Peguis First Nation and Two-Spirit and from the first page, Jonny Appleseed is vibrant and pulsing with indigenous excellence.
What did you read last?
I just finished reading Inside Me an Island by Lehua Taitano. Taitano is a poet and interdisciplinary artist and that background informs their poetry with a ranging sense of the page’s whitespace and text movement; they are native Chamoru from Yigo, Guam, and this book examines diaspora with such skill and empathy. I was particularly moved by Taitano’s delicate use of correspondence in this collection. I’ve been re-reading Combing Snakes from His Hair by James Thomas Stevens. Stevens is one of my favorite poets and his long poem, Tokinish was one of the first things I read as a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts that made me want to write.
What are you reading next?
I’m about to read Dissolve by Sherwin Bitsui, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, and Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang by Max Decharne. I’m a fool for any kind of popular non-fiction that breaks down language. I can’t wait to read Dissolve which is Bitsui’s third book and I expect that, like all of his work, it will be a new, unclassifiable, thrilling movement in poetry.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As you know, I got a dog last year. He's wonderful.
Naturally, I wanted to read some good non-fiction books about living with dogs, in order to better understand the new member of my household. But the problem is that I've started to read four dog training books and they're awful. They're not about the dog at all — they're just self-help books in doggy drag. One of them (the Dog Whisperer one) was all about how to raise a good dog, you need to be a better person. Another one I tried to read turned out to be a Christian recruitment pamphlet disguised as a dog training manual. Baaaaaarf. I'm not averse to changing my behavior to be a better dog owner, but I am averse to taking cloying life advice from cable TV show stars.
The only good dog book I've read so far is John Homans's What's a Dog For?, which looks into the history of human-dog relations. It was great because it focused directly on the behavior of dogs and the reasons for that behavior — a useful guide to what's likely going on in my dog's head. But it didn't have a whole lot of practical advice for dog-owners.
Cienna, are there any books out there that are good for dog owners to learn how to be better dog owners by learning more about their pets?
Paul, your editor
You are in luck. I have skimmed a ton of dog books, as spiders are basically dogs with stunted lifespans and a more elegant thirst for blood. You might like The Other End of the Leash, although that, too, examines pet behavior in relation to person behavior. Here are a few other great training books I've flipped through: The Culture Clash, Don't Shoot the Dog, and How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves.
But here is what even the best pet training book won't tell you: never accrue more than your body mass in one species. Even with animals as tame as the domesticated dog or common house spider, flirting with this critical tipping point is foolhardy. Both species operate as pack animals, and when the pack becomes too large, your position as alpha becomes tenuous. I would hate for you to awaken to the unique betrayal of your toes being delicately amputated by a pack of creatures you have lovingly named and baptized as family.
Thursday, November 15: The Food and Drink of Seattle Reading
Judith Dern’s new book digs into the history of Seattle’s food, from mushrooms to salmon. All the usual favorites, from geoducks to craft beers, are represented in the book.
Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave NE, 525-2347 http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 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
A mother who recently disappeared; a suddenly-missing wife; and “a new friend named Lizbeth”: these are the titular women of Jeff Abbott’s Three Beths (Grand Central), a psychological thriller primarily driven by Mariah Dunning’s search for her vanished mother, Beth. When the police try to coax her away from her private investigation, Mariah redoubles her efforts, aided in certain – and uncertain – ways by an ambitious true-crime blogger and wanna-be podcaster, as well as by several friends and relatives of Bethany, the missing wife. Like all best puzzles, this one grows richer the deeper Mariah delves. An ineluctably terrifying but highly-rewarding read.
In Lisa Unger’s Under My Skin (Park Row Books) photographer-turned-agency-director Poppy Lang is mired in a nightmare: her husband, Jack, was murdered while out on a run. In the ensuing year, Poppy has been a slave to sleep-deprivation and tauntingly-missing memories; she’s also been popping pills like there’s no tomorrow. As her friends and family try to cocoon her from pursuing too many unanswered questions, Poppy wades her way through daily life in a kind of waking dream, unwilling to abandon her questions. But the danger threatening what’s left of her world is all too close and present, an ugly reality just waiting to invade. In a novel steeped in the world of photography as well as both canny and uncanny observations, Susan Sontag’s On Photography is included in the author’s Acknowledgements, and, within the story, there’s a gentle nod to George Pitts, the prolific and inspiring photographer, photo director, editor, painter, writer, and teacher.
Chicago’s VI Warshawski is on top form in Sara Paretsky’s Shell Game (William Morrow). A missing niece and deep trouble for a friend’s nephew mean that Victoria Iphigenia has two mysteries to juggle, and finds herself up against more life-threatening moments than she can count on one hand. While she’d rather be watching reruns of Kojak, Paretsky’s peerless PI comes up against some of the more toxic sides of humanity, including the arrogance of the elite, the inherent invisibility assigned to service workers, and the horrific brutality of America’s current policies: “We had become a nation of bullies.” But there’s hope here too, generated by the infallible love between a father and daughter, and through Warshawski’s own father’s words ringing cautiously, optimistically, in her ear: “Measure twice, cut once….It’s advice for life, Pepperpot.”
Armand Gamache, currently on suspension from the Sûreté du Québec, finds himself one of three executors of the will of a woman whose name is a mystery to him, until that particular mystery is resolved over a robust community-centered conversation in his bucolic village of Three Pines. But from small puzzles do large, ever-more excellent ones grow, especially in a Louise Penny novel: in Kingdom of the Blind (Minotaur), as Gamache does what he can to prevent a destructive amount of toxic opioid flooding the streets of Montreal, he and his colleagues chase up murder most foul, dark doings at high-class financial institutions, and an extended legal matter that puts Bleak House’s Jarndyce v Jarndyce to shame.
Set against the already-tense days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lou Berney’s November Road (William Morrow) takes you on a searing and soul-chilling road-trip during which two disparate lives collide in a landscape populated by dark-hearted hit men, mob heads, and an emerging-from-his-shell teenager. There are incisive inclusions of Bob Dylan lyrics, and inescapably funny moments: “She needed a kind face, an encouraging word. Instead she found a sour Baptist pickle behind the motel reception desk.” Depicting the depths of a dark chapter of American history, this beautiful novel nonetheless offers promising elements of light as a rogue fixer falls for companionship, and a stifled suburban housewife finds her power, her voice, and herself.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
Chilly, rainy weather always gets me going. Reading a great novel will often temporarily crush my spirit but then a few hours later I’ll be all jacked up to hit the laptop. Driving through my hometown of Oklahoma City, watching an amazing sunset split open the sky – that’s when good ideas often come to me.
Top five places to write?
A coffee shop in Oklahoma City called Cuppies & Joe (it’s in a great creaky old house); my kitchen table; my back deck while my dog futilely but enthusiastically chases squirrels; airplanes and hotel lobbies (lately, while on book tour).
Top five favorite authors?
Five? Are you sure I can’t give you five hundred? Since I have to narrow it down, I’ll stick to contemporary novelists and say that five OF my favorites are Kate Atkinson, Don Winslow, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Attica Locke, and Rachel Kushner.
Top five tunes to write to?
Rosanne Cash’s version of “Long Black Veil.” “Sweet Jane,” by the Velvet Underground. “Somebody Have Mercy,” by Sam Cooke. Anything by Jenny Lewis. If I’m in a really bad spot, I’ll crank Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain."
Top five hometown spots?
Chesapeake Arena during an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game. One of the great indie bookstores in Oklahoma City (Full Circle, Commonplace, Best of Books). Memorial Park by the old fountain that’s been there forever (and was in a Flaming Lips video). Any pho restaurant in the Asian district. The garden behind the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum where legendary rodeo bulls and bucking broncos are buried.
I'm still making my way through the mammoth stack of Short Run books I bought earlier this month. It's not a chore at all — I love reading minicomics — but it's rare when a book stands up and demands my attention.
One of the attention-grabbiest comics in this year's Short Run haul for me is Liz Prince's memoir Tomboy. This is a memoir about Prince's lifelong struggle with gender conformity, focusing mainly on her school years.
"I DON'T LIKE ANY DRESS," Prince yells as a toddler in the beginning of Tomboy. "I HATE THEM!" Those who believe that gender is a hard and fast rule would do well to read about Prince's instinctual revulsion against any item of clothing that could be considered girly. This is not a choice; it's how she was born.
And Tomboy isn't all about clothes. It's about how Prince learned to accept herself, and how she was not always accepted by her peers. Prince is a charming and accessible narrator, and her art is clean and accessible — kind of a perfect cross between John Porcellino and Julia Wertz.
As Prince ages over the course of the book, her challenges become more and more complex. The gender norms of high school begin to crush her spirit. She doubts her own resolve. But Prince's understanding of herself also deepens, and that understanding gives her the strength to be true to her own calling.
Tomboy is funny and sweet and deeply reflective. It's the kind of book that will sing directly into someone's ear. It will inspire a shock of recognition in some tomboys, and it will help more than a few readers come to the realization that not everyone feels comfortable dressing like a generic gendered figure sign on a bathroom door. It's such a personal document that everyone has something to learn from it.
I don't think I've ever read Cuban sci-fi before, so I don't have much of a comparison available for Yoss's novel Condomnauts. Is it odd for Cuban sci-fi? On par? Do most Cuban sci-fi writers go by one name, like Yoss? Is Cuban sci-fi generally this horny?
So I hope you'll forgive my provincialism if I compare Condomnauts to an American author. It reminds me of nothing so much as Kurt Vonnegut — or, more accurately, Kurt Vonnegut's sci-fi novelist character Kilgore Trout. Condomnauts imagines a far-flung future in which astronauts from Earth traverse the galaxy as part of an intergalactic community. Our main character, Josué Valdés, specializes in making First Contact with alien species he encounters, and in this future every First Contact is performed through a sex act.
There's obviously no rule against using nonbiological protective barriers; sometimes you have no choice but to turn tot hem, such as when your oxygen-based body has to get together with a fluorine-based life form. But aside form such extreme cases, anything as crude as a physical barrier or filter such as a condom is generally considered an unpleasant discourtesy, as well as evidence of the udnerdeveloped medical sciences in the culture whose representatives resort to such crude measures.
That's basically the whole plot of Condomnauts: Valdés, who is famous for fucking alien species in the name of free interstellar trade, is trying to fuck a new alien species before other condomnauts. It's basically a pornier Star Trek.
I enjoyed Condomnauts a great deal. (I'm sure that David Frye's translation is a big reason why the book flew past in a flash.) There's a bit too much exposition in the book's middle, but the main character is interesting enough and the premise is so wild that even while meandering it keeps a reader's attention.
Those expecting Condomnauts to read as propaganda for some scary isolated communist regime will be sorely disappointed. The book is fun and well-versed in sci-fi history, including a good Asimov joke partway through. I don't know if Condomnauts taught me anything about Cuba, but it entertained me as a classic sci-fi novel with a porny modern twist. Sometimes, that's all we need to ask of our literature.
Earlier this fall, I interviewed book critic and author David Ulin at Elliott Bay Book Compahy about his exceptional book The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. We talked about a wide range of subjects, including how we reacted as readers to the election of Donald Trump and whether anyone has written a truly good post-Trump novel. But this excerpt of the discussion, about the future of book reviewing, is particularly relevant to the interests of Seattle Review of Books readers.
Since you have a long and storied history in the field, what do you think is the state of a book reviewing in 2018? Does book reviewing have a future?
Has book reviewing ever had a future?
[Laughs.] Does book reviewing have a past?
I used to joke around when I was doing it for a full-time living that I had unerringly found the lowest-paying, lowest prestige corner of publishing. I had just gravitated right to that, and I was someone who actually — perversely — supported my family as a freelance book reviewer for a long time.
"Supported." I use that word very loosely. When I was freelancing I was reviewing ten or 12 reviews a month because that was my main bread-and-butter gig.
There's two aspects to it, right? With the art of book reviewing, you know that nothing has changed as an abstract. Certainly where it's available and how much it's available has changed. But the inquiry, the essayistic practice and engagement of the writer with a material? I think none of that has necessarily changed.
I think actually in some ways book reviewing or book culture is as robust as it's been in a long time because of the variety of, of web venues that have stepped up. It's impossible to make a living, which is a big problem — the web venues don't pay, or don't pay comparably to the print venues. And the print venues never paid that well to begin with. But I do think there's a lot of places for literary conversation to take place — maybe more places, and certainly more diverse places, than there were ten or 15 or 20 years ago.
I go back and forth on this: I don't miss the gatekeeper model particularly, although I do kind of like the authority of critics. But I think that that authority has to be earned by the critic — not by virtue of who the critic is writing for, but by virtue of what the critic is putting on the page. And so I think if anything has happened is there's more of an onus on the critics to establish their own authority, as opposed to relying on the authority of the institution that they work for.
I think we're clearly getting on about midnight, at this point, for the book review section. But I'm interested as a reader and as a writer in the proliferation of other non-book-review-section-type venues where the conversation can take place.
On the last day of the working week we stopped at the video rental store. It was right next to the Mar T Café; the second brightest storefront in my hometown. Movie titles bobbled inside their plastic sleeves. The pebbly brown clamshell cases imbued the store with a gently chemical tang. If you didn’t have a VCR, you had to ring a bell in the back and ask to rent one. I always carried it out to the car reverently, palms up and back straight.
In The Neverending Story, Atreyu’s horse Artax sinks. I watched that scene in tense, sweet agony on Friday nights. Atreyu cajoled his horse to fight the quicksand then turned panicky. The horse, an elegant dappled gray, peered winsomely up at Atreyu and then bellied into the mud. The movie’s pitchy black swamp was full of bleak, foliage-stripped trees; my childhood home was a decades-long construction site. Sitting on subfloor in front of the TV, the sludge of Cascadia mud licked at my nostrils from the unfinished windows. The soundtrack’s uncanny chorus of mire-murmur was so like my rural bedtime lullaby, I thought the narrative was swallowing me.
I had my first pony at three. By eight, I was breaking gentler mares and geldings to saddle. Atreyu was a warrior from the Grassy Plains. He was the figment of a German author’s infatuation with indigeneity. I went ahead and assumed he was Shawnee. For a very long time, I thought Atreyu was a girl. I thought she was Shawnee and maybe we were cousins somewhere down the line. I thought I could be them, so I imagined reaching up for that VHS tape every Friday was a ceremony.
Once I read that Shawnee scouts taught fur traders how to evade quicksand by staying utterly still. All that movement I assessed on the screen, Atreyu’s overt show of dismay, consigned that swift, slim horse to the mud. Hush, I remember whispering at the screen. Shut up and be still. Someone I loved best got drunk and babbled tell me about your favorite problematic movie. I would never do what you did. Look at your fingers, he said, they are actually blue. Unwrap your hands from all that before you are pulled under.
A huge thank-you to Rosemary Reeve, who is a returning sponsor this week! Reeve sponsored us earlier this year to share All Good Things, the first book in her Jack Hart series of legal thrillers. Now she's back with another blazingly readable installment. Jack Hart and Harmony Piper are young lawyers at a big Seattle firm. No Good Deed finds them fighting for a friend's freedom after he's charged in a police shooting.
"This book feels ripped from today's headlines," says Reeve, "but I wrote it more than 20 years ago. In No Good Deed, I was trying to create a scenario that would be everyone's worst nightmare. More than 20 years later, it still is."
Stop by our sponsor feature page for a sample.
I wish to hell I had made Mark stay over that night. I could tell how tired he was. His face looked taut and pale in the misty evening, like a grey mask. Even inside the house, his eyes seemed shadowed. More ...
Sponsors like Rosemary Reeve make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you can sponsor us, too? We're sold out through January 2019. And even though we haven't released the next block, there are just a few dates left in February. Want to reserve your dates before they go public? Just send us a note at email@example.com.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
Vera Project, 305 Harrison St, 956-8372, http://seattleanarchistbookfair.net, 10 am, free.
Multiple outlets are reporting that Stan Lee, the editor and writer who guided the Marvel Universe from a scrappy small comics publisher to one of the worlds' leading entertainment brands, has died. He was 95 years old.
You will see an uncountable number of tributes to Lee over the next few days, months, and years. It's true that Lee shaped the direction of American popular culture in a way that few others have — Walt Disney is the only other name that immediately comes to mind. But the truth is more interesting and more complicated than just a Horatio Alger story about a writer with a dream. Seattle's own Fantagraphics famously published an entire issue of their magazine in 1995 The Comics Journal devoted to Lee's complicated relationship with artists at Marvel.
But there will be plenty of time to tease out the tangled questions of ownership and creator rights that Lee leaves behind. For now, I prefer to reflect on the fact that Lee was once an aspiring novelist named Stanley Lieber who purposefully created the Lee persona so he could save his real name for a Great American Novel that he would never write. But now, looking back on his career, very few writers in the history of the world can claim the kind of successes that Lee enjoyed: he's changed the world in a very real, very palpable way, and his passing will be mourned by millions.