Thursday Comics Hangover: Wherever you go, there you are

Short Run cofounder Eroyn Franklin's latest comic, Vantage #3, comes in a triangular envelope that is illustrated to look like a yurt. Inside the envelope, Franklin explains that this issue of Vantage is a record of her time at a monthlong residence at Caldera Arts in Oregon.

Franklin hiked a lot in her time at Caldera, and during those hikes she would stop and look straight ahead, and then at the ground beneath her. Vantage captures those two views in a beautiful little triangular minicomic that the reader can unfold and read in several different ways.

As a viewer, you have a choice. You can pull back the corners of each page to unveil a tableau that Franklin witnessed — a creek in a densely wooded area, or a waterfall, or a crater lake. Or you can leave the book in a kind of free-standing Christmas tree shape, which Franklin calls "comic sculpture."

No matter how you choose to read Vantage, Franklin's detailed black-and-white illustrations will move you. The conceit of combining a panoramic view with a close-up of the ground beneath her feet — the land ahead, the land below — is especially moving. Who hasn't been surprised by the beauty of nature, only to look down to make sure they're still connected to the earth?

With no words on the actual comic, Franklin manages to portray one of the most complex joys of nature. Even the loftiest tree still has a complex system of roots to keep it connected to the dirt below. Amateur hikers might value those vistas over the ground underfoot, but they're missing the point. There's just as much complexity — and beauty — under our feet as there is in front of our faces. It's all one piece.

Book News Roundup: Spokane alt-weekly to publish serialized novel

  • Spokane alt-weekly The Inlander (where, full disclosure, I worked as a freelancer for a few years) has announced an exciting new development. Starting tomorrow, they'll be publishing serialized installments of Miller Cane, a new novel by Sam Ligon. Congratulations to The Inlander for rethinking the idea of what an alt-weekly can and should do.

  • In sadder alt-weekly news, the owners of the Missoula Independent closed the paper down suddenly yesterday.

[Independent owner] Lee [Enterprises] Regional Human Relations Director Jim Gaasterland told Independent staff in a message Tuesday the company closed the newspaper that day and to schedule an appointment to retrieve any personal belongings.
  • Third Place Books has announced a whole new events staff, including a brand-new position called "children's books outreach manager," which will "coordinate programming and events for young readers, both in schools and in-store."

  • Hey, here's some Amazon news that isn't terrible for literature in general for a change: the online retailer has stopped selling nine self-published books by the atrocious "Men's Rights Activist" known as Roosh. The books are often characterized as "how-to manuals for sexual predators." Roosh does still have several books online. Before you whine about freedom of speech, please recall that Roosh is perfectly capable of selling his books by himself. Amazon didn't owe him a platform, and it's awful that they allowed him to sell his books for as long as they did.

Sierra Golden is finding her way in the world

Our September Poet in Residence, Sierra Golden, is at the very beginning of what looks to be a long and important career in poetry. Her debut collection, The Slow Art, was just published this month by Bear Star Press, but she writes with the confidence and the economy of a poet twice her age. This is not something you see in a young poet: Golden inherently understands that what you don't say in a poem is just as important as what you do say, if not more.

"I was always the student who was interested in poetry, from elementary school through high school," Golden tells me over coffee. But she didn't consider herself a poet until college, when she took a workshop with former Washington state poet laureate Tod Marshall. "I still think it's the best workshop I've ever had," she says.

The first piece Golden turned in for the workshop was a poem about fishing. "I spent eight summers working in a commercial fishing boat in southeast Alaska," she explains, "and that became the focal point of most of my writing for a really long time."

Golden is from a fishing family in rural Washington state — her dad has worked as a commercial fisherman for four decades — and when she worked salmon season one summer to pay for school, "I fell in love with it — just being outside, doing something that gives you really immediate feedback. Either you catch or you don't."

The "eternal optimism amongst fishermen" culturally spoke to Golden, but when she was out on the water, she also felt "an elemental connection to the natural world," and that connection gave her a sense that she had a place in that world. Poetry, then, is how she learned to communicate all these elemental emotions. She loves the form for its way of "condensing life into something small and measurable and meaningful and musical."

Her early influences include Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, and (on the more contemporary side) Matthew Dickman. Her reading inspired her to pursue an MFA in poetry at North Carolina State University. Golden wasn't sure at that time if she'd be a poet, but "I knew that [the MFA] would be formative and I knew that if I didn't do it then, I might not ever do it."

After moving to Seattle, Golden felt more and more comfortable thinking about herself as a writer. She took a job as a communications associate at an important local nonprofit. "Working at Casa Latina has probably been more affirming than anything else" in terms of helping Golden think of herself as a writer "because I do a lot of the external writing for them. The staff has been very supportive and flexible over the last four years so that I can work on personal projects."

Seattle has embraced her. Golden was selected for Hugo House's Made at Hugo program, which provides educational and resource support for a cohort of young writers. She finds inspiration and draws strength from many Seattle authors including Anastacia Renée, Daemond Arrindell, Elizabeth Austen, and David Wagoner, and she thinks "more people need to know" Bellingham author Nancy Pagh, a creative writing teacher at Western — particularly her book No Sweeter Fat.

Golden is still coming to terms with herself as a Seattle writer. As much as she loves the city, "I still crave a smaller, quieter, less fast" lifestyle like the one she had growing up in rural Washington. She's branching out into other forms, too. "I'm working on a novel," Golden says, "which I never thought I would do and was never interested in."

Still, Golden is getting "the itch" to return to poetry. Writing about fishing, she says, "made me feel like I was cheating or something because it's so visceral and it's really easy to write about it." While the poems in The Slow Art at times feel like journalism, her "next challenge," she says, "is going to be how to write about something less concrete that has the same meaning." Considering all that Golden has accomplished so far, it's obvious that she'll find her way. She always does.

Mail Call for September 11, 2018

The Seattle Review of Books is currently accepting pitches for reviews. We’d love to hear from you — maybe on one of the books shown here, or another book you’re passionate about. Wondering what and how? Here’s what we’re looking for and how to pitch us.

Yesterday, the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival announced that they're now splitting studio space with Paper Punch Press and Hocus Pocus Press in Georgetown:

We envision a welcoming, accessible, high-quality, experimental print and publishing collective that is open to all – let us help you make some unique books and prints! Find us at 5628 Airport Way S; Suite 175, Georgetown.

Short Run does host events all year long, but year-round studio space is a big deal. Additionally, the fact that Short Run is now so close to the Fantagraphics Store means that Georgetown could now be Seattle's official Comic Book District. We'll be talking more to Short Run's organizers in the weeks ahead to see what they have planned for the space.

American ugly

Published September 11, 2018, at 11:55am

Paul Constant reviews Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and Nick Drnaso's Sabrina.

What is the right way for authors to approach an especially horrifying time in American history? Is there a wrong way to write about recent tragedies?

Read this review now

Working Too Hard

For five nights a fat banana slug has come to visit me,
chugging up the window, stopping just at eye level.

In front of the chair where I sit to write most mornings,
he sleeps for the night. Or does whatever it is slugs do.

By sun up, he’s gone, leaving in his place a tiny pile of shit.
It’s hard to look past this. Drinking my tea and writing,

imagining this shiny, slimy creature I’ve come to call friend
exposed on a field of glass, making his morning constitutional.

With no real predators—not even the bears or skunks
will partake of him—he appears entirely unworried.

His simple body, tentacles, mantle, anus, upsets me.
How easily it does exactly what it’s supposed to!

Talking about the birds and bees in the #MeToo era

Bonnie J. Rough is an award-winning author, a sought-after speaker, a writer for the Seattle Review of Books, and as "an unabashed admirer of SRoB" (we're blushing), this week's sponsor. Her latest book, Beyond Birds & Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex, Love, and Equality, explores the question of how to talk to children about sex — when our own discourse has dramatically shifted with the advent of #MeToo. The book has already received attention from The Atlantic, The Cut, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.

We're delighted to have Rough on the site and excited to let you know about several chances to see her speak, coming up in September and October.

  • On September 11, Town Hall is hosting a conversation between Rough, parenting expert Amy Lang, and columnist Nicole Brodeur on how to raise children who handle consent, gender, and equity better than today's grown-ups.

  • On September 20, Rough is paired with author KJ Dell’Antonia at Phinney Books for a conversation that should be even more personal, direct, and revealing.

  • On October 29, she's speaking at the Redmond Library (King County Library System) solo, which should be the perfect chance for deeper conversation about her current and past work.

Get more information about both events on our sponsor feature page, then put them on your calendar.

Sponsors like Bonnie J. Rough make the Seattle Review of Books possible. We're almost sold out through 2018, so grab this chance to get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from September 10th - September 16th

Monday, September 10: The Mere Wife Reading

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.

Tuesday, September 11: Birds, Bees, and #MeToo

Seattle Review of Books contributor Bonnie J. Rough, who recently published a new book titled Beyond Birds & Bees: Bringing Home a New Message About Sex, Love, and Equality, will lead a discussion about raising children in a time of massive gender inequality and the #MeToo movement. She'll be joined by Amy Lang and Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur. Phinney Center Community Hall, 6532 Phinney Ave N, 783-2244, http://www.phinneycenter.org, 7:30 pm, $5.

Wednesday September 12: Fight Like a Girl Reading

Seattle's own Shout Your Abortion co-founder Amelia Bonow joins Australian writer Clementine Ford for a discussion about feminism in 2018. Fight Like a Girl is a book that expands on Ford's popular TED Talk about rape culture, among other topics. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.

Thursday, September 13: Not Even Bones Reading

The publisher describes Rebecca Schaeffer's young adult fantasy as "Dexter meets This Savage Song, which probably doesn't make the author feel nervous or annoyed at all. It's about a girl who sells body parts in a world where magic exists. Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Friday, September 14: Seattle Music Machine Salon

Ada's Technical Books has an array of nerdy events for its customers. Tonight, the Seattle Music Machine Salon meets at the shop. The SMMS meetings feature "a presentation and a guided discussion on some aspect of making music with computers and electronics." It's intended for all skill levels, including amateurs. Ada’s Technical Books, 425 15th Ave, 322-1058, http://seattletechnicalbooks.com, 7 pm, $5.

Saturday, September 15: Three poets

Quenton Baker, who is the current Open Books Poet in Residence, joins former Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Lily Baumgart and Washington State Poet Laureate, Claudia Castro Luna for a chill Saturday night reading. Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St, 633-0811, http://openpoetrybooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Sunday, September 16: The Lost Art of Reading Reading

Subtitled Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, David Ulin's book is a call to celebrate the act of reading in a world that seems dead set against the act of paying attention to anything for more than two seconds. Ulin, who was the editor of the Los Angeles Times's book review section, is just the person to answer this question. I'll be joining him onstage to talk about the book and literary criticism and possibly the impossibility of focusing on books in a time when Donald Trump is president.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 3 pm, free.

Literary Event of the Week: The Mere Wife reading at the Seattle Public Library

Maria Dahvana Headley has had something like twenty writing careers packed into a single life. Back when she lived in Seattle, she published a memoir titled My Year of Yes, about an experiment in which she said yes to every single offer for a year. (Before you roll your eyes at the premise, you should know that this was at the very beginning of the "my year of..." craze, before the market became oversaturated in stunt memoirs.)

Headley's written young adult science fiction novels and alternate histories. She's won major awards for her short fiction. She's co-edited an anthology with Neil Gaiman. She's published and produced plays. Every few years, she reinvents herself, and every few years she seems even more comfortable in her own skin.

With her latest novel for adults, Headley proves that her ambition is as wide-ranging as her talent. The Mere Wife goes back to the roots of literature with an audacious twist: it's a retelling of Beowulf, set in suburban America. Headley is manipulating myths and legends with the confidence of a writer twice her age, and the reviews have been euphoric.

Tonight, Headley returns to Seattle for a conversation with another hometown literary hero — Nicola Griffith, author of Hild and So Lucky. The two writers have a lot in common: they tackle big ideas with zero apologies, and they both approach genre with a beautiful and ornate prose style. This should be a night to remember.

Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org, 7 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for September 2, 2018

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.

The Needles and the Damage Done

Aaron Timm’s essay on New York’s “supertalls” — skyscrapers that crest 1,000, even 1,500 feet, intended primarily for residential use — made me wonder about Seattle’s own trajectory. The Columbia Center is still our tallest, at just under 1,000, and nothing in the works will compete for the title. The proposed 4/C project would have taken us over the 1,000-foot mark, but the FAA relentlessly cut it down to size. Little has been heard from disheartened developer Crescent Heights since 2016.

But pure height isn’t the story. Residential height is, and the possibility that supertalls will host the superrich, an earthly Elysium. It’s an eerie JG Ballard-ish idea — that the tech elite might simply, literally, rise above the rest of us. We shape our spaces, and they shape us in return, for better and sometimes for worse.

Cities change, of course they do; but what matters is for whom they change, and at what cost. Demolition, displacement, accommodation, and compromise are the conditions of urban life. But the city of the supertalls is engineered to take its denizens beyond these conditions, to deliver them into frictionlessness. It’s a place of moonshot wealth, skinny buildings, no resistance, and no surprises; a city that’s not really a city at all, but its own comfortable superstate.
On Not Being Able to Read

When we think about how we read these days, it’s mostly to despair over our deteriorating attention spans and hurl curses at our internet overlords (no irony here for the Sunday Post). But maybe our reading brains are more resilient than we think, more tied to who we are and what we value, not so ready to release us.

Law school tried to teach Tajja Isen another way to read, but her reading brain fought back, and eventually led her away from the law. It’s a lovely idea, rendered without sentiment here, that the way we read (not just what we read) can be part of our resistance — to wrong choices, to wrong ideas, to ways of being that are inimicable to who we are.

A few nights a week, I’d make a feeble attempt at proving the world wrong, swimming up through my exhaustion to pick up a novel and push through its pages. Sentences were newly terrifying; tiny minefields of meaning where I might miss a principle I’d later be called upon to produce, freshly plucked. I labored for months over what had once taken me days. I told myself that this was pleasure; that these motions were sufficient proof that I hadn’t allowed myself to be drained of joy and filled with something else.
Why the President Must Be Impeached

If I ever have to walk through a swamp at night, stepping uncertainly for solid ground and listening for the quiet splash of a reptile in the water nearby (does anyone else find Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise infinitely more terrifying than the jovial Haunted Mansion?), may Rebecca Solnit be my guide. Here she oulines in crisp, certain paragraphs the case for impeaching Donald Trump, taking us step by step through the murk of corruption and distraction of the past few months. It’s hard to think of anyone other than Solnit who could use these giddy, run-on sentences to both recreate the desperate feel of the chaotic news cycle and map our way through it.

It was hard to remember, with the over-the-top corruption of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort frothing up like a badly poured beer, to keep track of the conspiratorial roles of Roger Stone and George Papadopoulos, long after everyone had forgotten all about Carter Page, who’d been reported as a foreign agent by US intelligence while he was toddling about Russia and maybe making some secret deals with the oil company Rosneft, or Michael Flynn, who’d been the first to be fired for corruption, and who’d been convicted for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, but whose sentence was being held up because he might have further use for the Special Counsel investigation.

Whatcha Reading, Maria Dahvana Headley?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Maria Dahvana Headley, is an author, editor, playwright, screenwriter, and monstermaker — to quote her website. She's a bestselling author of the YA space fantasy Magonia, and most recently, The Mere Wife which re-imagines Beowulf in the modern age. She once called Seattle home, but now writes from new York.

A night not to miss: this Monday, September 10th, Nicola Griffith will be interviewing Maria Dahvana Headley in the Microsoft Audtiorium at the central library, a joint production of the Seattle Public Library, and the Elliott Bay Bookstore. Starts at 7:00pm.

What are you reading now?

Sometime in recent months, I discovered that I had four books called The Changeling on my shelves, which tells you something about the kind of person I am. I'm definitely not a changeling — I actually come from a weirdo magic family, and was never trapped among Muggles — but the moment I learned the term, age 8 or so, I was like...OMFG LEMME BE A FAIRYLAND PROBLEM CHILD. I learned about changelings from the Zilpha Keatley Snyder novel (1970), which is actually about class, creativity and friendship between girls, but which deals in the story of an artistic, brilliant, and very poverty-stricken girl who believes she came from the fairies rather than from her own family. I loved Snyder's books because they were about people like me, wandering around rather below the working class, rather than about children who came from money, manses, and well, WWII-era England, however perilous. I was interested in the longform peril of poverty and daily life. Snyder's work was all rooted in imaginative games, and I'm currently also reading this badass academic paper by Cathlena Martin, about how Snyder's The Egypt Game as well as other children's lit preceded and plausibly influenced Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games (which are usually credited to influencers like Tolkien). So, back to Changelings, various versions: Last year, I read Victor LaValle's brilliant novel version in which a couple deals with a horrific and agonizing child-swap. And now, right now, I'm reading Joy Williams's The Changeling for the first time, though I've been a fan of Williams's work for years, beginning with The Quick & the Dead, another book about fiery, difficult, magical friendships between girls. Williams's Changeling is thoroughly my kind of book — the kind that can't be compared to anything, but hey, say, Malcolm Lowry mashed with the surrealist eerie (surreeriealist?) plots of Shirley Jackson. In it, a floatingly aimless mystic of a young woman falls into a strange as fuck clan mostly made of children, but run by an abusive man. Williams is killingly precise and poetic, and each sentence makes me suffer, because each paragraph made of these sentences is basically a novel unto itself. For example: "...after the first (child), Aaron truly believed himself to be a sinful man. He invented the Devil for them then. Emma didn't care. She had always been below good and evil. Her magic had never been anything trivial. No burying of teeth or hair. No communions of blood and excretions. If Aaron chose to believe in something as trivial as the Devil, Emma allowed him his foolishness." This is in a recounting of the child tribe's story of their origins. The particularity of it! The simplicity of it — below good and evil! — and a couple of pages later? "It was Emma that seemed to have an excellent relationship with God. They were like two bears in the same den. Dismissing faith, Aaron took up with superstition." Ahhhh, I'm dead. It's like a four paragraph dissertation on the labyrinthine ways of toxic masculinity. I have to read this book in short bursts. Right now, I'm halfway through, and panting. The last Changeling on my shelf is Thomas Middleton's play from the 1600's, but apparently I could also read some Ōe. I'll no doubt one day give in and write a changeling story of my own. If you let a story concept gestate for 33 years, you know you have to surrender and give it to the fairies. Fine, fine, I'll give birth to this story. Oh, uh-oh, what is this in the cradle?...Welp.

I mean, that's what this whole profession looks like from the inside.

What did you read last?

Last book I read was in Australia, because I was at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and during it, I slunk into several bookstores ostensibly to sign my own books, but really to paw at books I hadn't yet seen in the US. So, on the flight back to the US a few days ago, I read three in a row, and they had things in common, and I was excited! Beyond the Wreck, by Jane Rawson, is intensely researched historical fiction but also has a cephalopod shapeshifting alien, so. SO, it's remarkable. It's got many different POVs and a whole lot of weird, but the weird is firmly rooted in the difficulties of having a mortal body, and conversely in the difficulties of being a wandering lonely creature whose body doesn't work out well on our planet. It's dark and beautiful, and puzzling and unresolved, and I was way into it. Then, I read Flames by Robbie Arnott, which begins with a family of women resurrecting post-cremation and living on for a few days in human/botanical hybrid format, and takes us on a wander through a world in which tuna fishing is done only by fishers who've bonded with seals, fire is a father, and love of creatures and landscapes is a motivating force. Then I read A Superior Spectre, by Angela Meyer, which is a dual/linked timeline story about a near-future dying man from Australia who uses a device to connect his mind to the life and mind of a young woman in 1860's Scotland. He ends up haunting her, but this book is complicated and intriguing in a host of ways, not least because of the way it deals with sexuality, ethical responsibility, and again, toxic masculinity. All these books had in common the notion of melding one's consciousness with the consciousness of someone else, whether human, creature, or alien, and also the notion of time being a fluid concept. They were also all page-turners, however unlikely that sounds. And man, they all made me cry. Cool shit is afoot in Australian lit.

What are you reading next?

I don't have this book yet, because it's not out yet, but I'm coveting Elizabeth Hand's Curious Toys, which I've been coveting ever since I heard about it. It's a novel about Henry Darger, and Liz's work is always erudite, elegant, and scathing. I'm also coveting Jeff Ford's Ahab's Return, which is a Moby Dick riff in which Ahab washes up in a Manhattan full of deep story -—Jeff manages to work in language that often seems domesticated but lands in you like a thing with long claws. And ooh, also That Which Girls Conjure Will Help Them Survive, by Kristen Stone. My friend Sarah McCarry's chapbook series Guillotine is impeccable, always, and this novel is about several generations of building a family, and surviving the inheritance of trauma.

August's Post-it note art from Instagram

Over on our Instagram page, we’re posting a weekly installation from Clare Johnson’s Post-it Note Project, a long running daily project. Here’s her wrap-up and statement from August's posts.

August's theme: Family Vacation

Every summer, every year of my life, we go visit my mom’s family in Idaho. It is all of our time with them crammed into a few days, once a year. I feel frustrated trying to describe it in normal sentences. Lazy days reading or swimming, that calmness—memories of my grandparents, funny stories—relentlessly complex onslaught of family interactions—introvert me with migraines, trouble sleeping—goofing around with cousins, now their children too—epic cooking efforts, my dad baking, my mom’s sudden sewing projects—laughing with my sisters late at night upstairs. Somehow getting ready for bed together as grown-ups creates these last-minute moments that end up being the funniest of the day. Maybe the three of us trying to figure out who got whose boobs was a natural outcome of spending so much of the day in swimsuits, or talking about dead relatives. When I was a teenager, my cousin and I would stay up after everyone else had gone to bed, talking about music, girls, whatever. That year he couldn’t come, he’d just become a father, I missed hanging out, wary of the ways friendships change when people have kids. I’m not sure if we’d ever really talked on the phone until then. Last year another cousin’s daughter was sitting on the couch with me when I casually happened to impart MIND-BLOWING INFORMATION about how size does not indicate age in grown-ups the way it does in kids. Outside there’s always laundry on the line, always shifting, always the same, always makes me think of my grandma. You couldn’t walk past that laundry line without risking her roping you into some task; I think she felt being busy was some kind of protection. The last post-it has something to do with Shelley Duvall—my sister and I had been revisiting old Faerie Tale Theatre episodes from our childhood, I’m kind of obsessed with her singing Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” in the movie Popeye but that seemed to be a memory from my childhood alone, not shared—and something to do with how we always go skinny dipping on the last night. Dark lake, squealing sisters, shocking stars. I get overwhelmed with loving this place, and overwhelmed with the losses it shoves in my face, all the years of my grandma disappearing in front of us until we couldn’t remember her real self anymore, laundry didn’t mean a thing.

The Help Desk: Help me be a better man

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I'm so fed up and mad about this whole bullshit incel thing and so I've decided to read every great feminist book I can find. I know about Backlash, The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, and all the other biggies, so I'm looking for lesser-known works that will inspire me to understand more and give me language to fight back against my broken gender. Any suggestions?

Henry, Georgetown

Dear Henry,

Personal improvement is a noble goal – I have the organizational instincts of a hoarder but so far have lacked the space and discipline to cultivate them. Good for you for trying.

These reads may already be on your radar but they’re some of my favorites: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, bell hooks's Feminism is for Everybody, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (although I’d recommend just reading the title essay online here and skipping the rest – much of it is overly academic for a general audience. Unless you're ready to dig really deep, pick up Hope in the Dark instead).

And here are a few of my favorite books with strong female leads written by women: Salvage the Bones, Kindred, Americanah, Gilead, Middlemarch.

Because if you really want to better understand women, you don’t need to read the feminist canon, you just need to be a good ally. One way to do this is by choosing to read books written by women and with strong female protagonists – and then recommending those you enjoyed to your male friends. Children are often socialized to regard books with female leads and perspectives as “girl books” and books with male leads as books for everyone, and this sentiment unconsciously carries into adulthood.

Until that changes, or until someone launches angryhorny.com — a dating website exclusively for incels so that women can efficiently detect and avoid them en masse – we are stuck in an imperfect world, one in which I don’t own nearly enough cats to fill up even one garbage bag.

Kisses,

Cienna

Aaron Bagley's Dream Comics: Read this poetry

Portrait Gallery will return next week

Christine Larsen is off this week, but that only means it's a great time to go look through the amazing archive of her portraits. She'll be back next Thursday.

Kissing Books: judging the book by its...

Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.

A romance cover is not an image, it is a language.

Some years back, fellow author and friend Rose Lerner noticed that the Goodreads page for Cecilia Grant’s awkward-sex masterpiece A Lady Awakened had the wrong cover image attached — instead of teal satin and tumbling auburn locks, it showed a book on medieval history. In Polish. With an Extremely Serious Academic Cover. Delighted, Rose started building academic-style versions of her own book covers; a lot of other authors joined the fun, and the glorious results can be found on this Pinterest board."

The reason this was fun was that academic book covers are in many ways meant to communicate the exact opposite of what you want in a romance. They are meant to look serious, detached, and bear the weight of cultural authority. Romance, of course, is accorded none of those descriptors. It’s not news that women’s books in all genres are more likely to have feminine-coded covers no matter what the text inside says, and romance novels are the most feminized end of the cover-design spectrum. They are notoriously prone to excess: big hair, big muscles, orgasmic expressions, swooning bodies barely draped in clothing that appears to be doing a lot of swooning of its own. Unsubstantiated legend holds that the Technicolor bodice-ripper covers of the 1970s onward were designed to appeal to the men who bought titles for the big paperback distributor networks — which might explain the preponderance of mullets — but that readers came to associate the lurid covers with their romantic content and they bought so many that a marketing feedback loop was thus enshrined. In other words, they learned to read a romance cover.

But no marketing loop stays static forever, and there are now quite a few established genres of romance cover art: classic clinch covers, the headless heroine, the shirtless hero (whose pants often give a clue to his profession, like sports or soldiering), the ballgown that’s almost falling down, the long legs in stiletto heels, the hero holding babies, the tattooed leather-pants-wearing paranormal romance/urban fantasy heroine, and of course that brief wild time in the late 2000s when Fifty Shades-style covers tried to make any black-and-white image look dangerous and sexy and kinky. Tomorrow’s bestsellers will bring new trends, some of which will become fixtures and some of which will fade into history alongside colored page edges and stepbacks.

But aside from the scammers and coat tail-riders the tendency for romance covers to resemble one another is not about confusing readers, it’s about communicating with them. Cover similarities are a promise that the books will contain similar themes, or have a similar emotional impact. Harlequin made its name famous not just by publishing fast, frequent romances but by being absolutely ruthless about cover design — you can spot one from a mile away, and what’s more you know exactly what that design is offering you as a reader. Avon is subtler but no less clear: the first time I saw a Cat Sebastian m/m cover I got excited about two heroes being pictured together, then laughed because I thought some self-publisher or small digital press had borrowed Avon’s cover font (when in fact I hadn’t realized it was an Avon book, their first queer historical). Certain poses convey a great deal of information to a reader: a hero grasping the heroine’s arm from behind, for example, tells you there’s going to be a somewhat fiery, antagonistic dynamic, while two foreheads bumping gently together says the book will skew more sweet and tender in tone.

Let’s look at the cover for A Lady Awakened again, which is both utterly gorgeous and unique and a perfect example of my thesis. First, a description of what we're trying to package. The book is about a widowed country heroine who’s trying to get impregnated quickly so her terrible cousin doesn’t inherit the estate and terrorize the staff (primogeniture is a shit system). She bribes a hot rakish neighbor dude for the procreative sex, because this is a historical and sperm banks haven’t been invented yet. The early sex scenes are famously excruciating: the heroine doesn’t enjoy them in any way, and the hero’s illusions of his own prowess are somewhat painfully shattered. Eventually they fall in love and the sex turns great, but it’s a long, long haul before they get there. So this book cover has a careful line to walk: it has to suggest historical romance to appeal to the market, while warning the reader that it’s going to take a while before we get to the steamy stuff they’re looking for (because otherwise the reader will feel betrayed and this will be reflected in reviews).

We start with swathes of teal satin, hugely improbable in terms of the kind of sheets a country widow would use, but very effective in signaling “historical romance” to a modern reader. The use of teal here is brilliant, because it’s eye-catching but cool — the absence of anything resembling fuchsia is always a strong statement on a historical romance cover. The heroine is lovely, her auburn locks spread out, but notice how her arms are wrapped tightly around herself, and there is no sign of the hero? Notice as well how the colors of the cover shade into almost black, as the heroine keeps her eyes downcast and her expression wary, almost pained. She might as well have EMOTIONALLY CLOSED OFF stamped upon her forehead. This is a long and anxious journey, this cover says, and a keen-eyed reader is thus forewarned when they start the story.

You might think I’m reading into this, or reading this from the perspective of an author and a critic and not a plain reader — except that covers are always part of the conversation in romance. Cover contests and cover reveals are popular forms of promotion. Author Brenda Jackson had readers submit photos they felt would best embody one much-loved character, then tracked down the model depicted and hired him for the shoot. Most of us grew up in times and places when romance wasn’t something we could openly ask for (for safety or shame’s sake), so we learned to scrutinize cover images and cover copy closely for hints, like a hunter looking for deer tracks in the woods. (A word like “destiny” was usually a reliable sign that romance was afoot; “coming-of-age” was invariably a bad sign.) Metadata has made a lot of this easier, but it cannot sufficiently replace the visceral visual impact of a clinch or a clenching set of abs.

The saying that you should never judge a book by its cover hearkens back to George Eliot, and therefore to the days when a shelf of books were all specially bound to match one another so your aristocratic library looked nice and tidy. It's become a sort of rhetorical hammer, banging back the reality that a cover exsists as a way of speaking to the reader outside the bounds of the text. Many moralists don't want readers making choices based on personal inclination, and many authors don't want to think about their communication with the reader as something that's mediated. But when you buy a book you are often trusting it will fulfill the promises the cover has made. When you avoid a book because of the cover, it is often because you don't believe or don't want what the book cover is promising (see: every text-heavy thriller cover that hints at an unreliable narrator, shocking betrayal, and murder).

What readers do when they evaluate a book cover is not judging — it is gambling. So go on. Take the risk.

Recent Romances:

Grumpy Fake Boyfriend by Jackie Lau (self-published: contemporary m/f):

You gotta love titles that do just what they say on the tin. The greatest of these will always be Pregnesia — a book about a heroine who is pregnant and has amnesia — but Grumpy Fake Boyfriend is top-tier in the honesty department. The title makes a promise, and good Lord does the book deliver.

Grumpiness is not something I enjoy in real life, but in fiction some alchemy transmutes it into pure delight. Maybe it adds tension, as the character attempts to resist the joyful arc the book dragoons them into. Maybe it’s because grumpy characters are often blunt, and bluntness is so invigorating in narration. This book has a frank, punchy voice that had me gasping and giggling and screenshotting quotes to send to friends. Will Stafford, the titular grump, is just the right amount grouchy without tipping over into unlikeable asshole territory. He’s hermitish and reluctant and closed-off, though it’s apparent from the start that one reason he keeps those walls in place is because once someone’s on the inside of his heart he has a loyal, caring, generous streak a mile wide. His best friend Jeremy’s one of the ones on the inside, so Will can’t bring himself to say no when Jeremy asks him to attend a weekend lake house party as the fake boyfriend and buffer for his bubbly, bouncy, talkative younger sister Naomi. Whom Jeremy naturally forbids Will from sleeping with. Will doesn’t do relationships — his introversion doesn’t play well with others — so he doesn’t foresee this being a problem. Reader, I snickered, because Will is fucked.

Naomi Kwan is still reeling from a recent breakup and definitely not excited to spend a weekend in the woods with two other couples, including her ex and his brand-new girlfriend. A fake boyfriend is a ridiculous solution — unless the fake boyfriend is Will, who she’s had a crush on forever and who might be fun to take to bed. The arc here is just the right speed for a novella: light bickering leads to a little making out, which leads to a lot more than that, and bam before you know it everyone’s in their feelings. The side characters add just the right amount of drama and keep the world feeling populated. This book is a bubbly, sunny iced drink on a hot day, refreshing and tart and sweet all at once and I’m already halfway through the sequel.

I kiss her again. I softly brush my lips over hers and bring one hand up to cup her cheek, and then I’m kissing her more deeply. Showing her that yes, I do find her attractive. Very much so. She arches against me; she must be able to feel that I’m getting hard. I use tongue this time, too. More than before. “I’m practicing for our act,” I say.

She shoves my shoulder, a smile on her face. “You’re full of shit.”

Unfit to Print by KJ Charles (self-published: historical romantic suspense m/m):

They say that every generation believes it has invented sex. Certainly every generation believe it has invented new types of sex — new debaucheries, new kinks, new ways of getting off. But it just isn’t true. Humans have always been horny, ever since the days our ancestors were slapping handprints and genitalia on cave walls. So when I learned that the latest from author KJ Charles (with whom I now share an agent) was a historical suspense where one hero runs a pornographic bookshop in Victorian London, I was all in.

Men loving men was illegal in Victorian England, you’ll recall, so it’s a perfect milieu for a pair of amateur detectives. One of the challenges in mystery writing is explaining why the police aren’t the ones solving the crime: sometimes it’s because the police are unavailable (every murder mystery that takes place on an isolated island or boat or country house), but other times it’s because the police are not as interested in real justice as the amateur sleuth is (Phryne Fisher is a great example of this). Here, because the crime takes place in the context of gay sex and sex work, contacting the police is riskier than trying to solve the case. Gilbert Lawless is our bookseller, a bastard son whose half-siblings cast him out of the family after their father’s death; Vikram Pandey is a well-heeled lawyer whose upright principles and fierce morality compel him to help other Indian nationals living in London, but also tie him in absolute knots trying to cope with his own desires for men. A disappeared boy and a connection with a murder start the mystery running, and the emotional revelations quickly pile up as the plot forces the two men back into proximity after decades apart. Gil, whose past includes a stint in sex work and who’s always been better at taking pleasure while there’s pleasure to be taken, can’t understand why Vik gets so intense about their past and their entangled present; Vik can’t understand why Gil acts like what they do with one another doesn’t mean anything, and why he shrugs off chances to help other people of their ethnic background. The two have a way of just opening each other up — they are so different, and yet so entwined, and they get to the heart of the conflict so directly. Plus a view into the working-class Victorian world we don’t see often enough in romance. It’s lonely and lovely and a very little bit foxed at the edges, just like a good vintage dirty book ought to be.

Bonus points for a few slang sex terms I haven’t encountered before, but which I’m now going to drop on Twitter at the very next opportunity.

“But one can’t simply say, ‘Fancy sucking’ — you know.”

“One bloody can, in the right company. And yes, since you ask, I do.” Gil gave him an evil grin. “If you can get the words out. I’m not ‘embarking on negotiations pertaining to fellatio’ or whatever, so don’t even try.”

“Proper terminology is important,” Vikram said. “I may have to work up to it.”

Free Fall by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner (self-published: historical m/f):

In my quest to be the World’s Greatest Expert on Astronaut Romance Novels I have developed a few working theories. For instance: astronaut romances have to emphasize the value of domestic earthbound life, to give the spacefaring hero or heroine something to come back to after the glory and risk of exploration and space travel. I don’t think this is limited to romances, either: Apollo 13, Interstellar, Gravity, and The Martian all hinge plots on whether or not an astronaut can be brought back to loved ones on earth. In earlier books of this excellent series we’ve seen a wary divorcée heroine, an astronaut’s hyper-organized wife, and an admiral’s proper daughter: in Free Fall heroine Vivian Muller is a sorority girl and the cosseted heiress of her defense contractor daddy. Vivy is a different flavor of domestic than we’ve seen before: loud, stubborn, deliberately tacky, funny, and unstoppable. A pistol, one might say, or a real piece of work if one wanted to disapprove. She had no intention of settling down — she only took astronaut Dean Garland to bed for a bit of rebellion and fun. But she ends up pregnant, her dad insists on the marriage to better his chances at landing contracts with the American Space Department (fictional NASA), and next thing you know we have the chattiest, sexpottiest, winged-eyeliner-iest heroine ever hitched to a silent, stoic, unfeeling-but-handsome-about-it astronaut who wants to go to space because it’s the farthest away you can get from another human being. They are incredibly different, drawn to each other because of it, and really, truly terrible at being in a relationship together. Watching them work it out — with strategic lingerie, home telescopes, burned dinner experiments, a puppy, and a heartrending letter at just the right moment — had me sobbing into my sleeve. This is my favorite historical series in romance right now, and we’re about to head into the back half of the series with the moon missions and the lunar lander so now is a great time to get started, if you’re new to the books. I cannot wait.

They’d gone from probably never seeing each other again to being married. The significance of the shift sat between them like a sunning walrus.

From Scratch by Katrina Jackson (self-published: contemporary pan m/bi m/f):

I am sorry I did not see this book when it was hot off the presses last December, but better late than never because this one is really something special. Inclusive ménage romance set in a small town, where all the drama comes from the careful navigation of personal relationships and intimacy? Smoking hot sex scenes, caring hearts, and baked goods? This is someone’s Absolute Catnip and I want them to have the chance to hear about it.

They say time is a river, and this book believes it: the voice is loose and conversational and flows backward and forward from one moment to an earlier then on to the next. We start with curvy heroine Mary, who’s just lost her hateful academic job and decided what the hell, starting over as a baker in a small town looking for a population boost might be a much better fit. She brings donuts to the Sea Port police chief — Miguel Santos, ex-Marine, principled, hot — while he’s having coffee with his best friend the fire chief — Billy Knox, ex-Marine Sergeant, abusive family, uses humor like a shield, also hot. The chemistry of these three was enough to fry an egg on my e-reader. Their attraction to Mary helps reveal the two men’s long-simmering, equally long-hidden attraction to one another, and when Mary confesses that for a solid week she’s been dreaming of having both of them, with her, together — well, it is, as the kiddos say, on. The sex is frank and filthy and sweet all at once, and the emotions are rich and layered and well worth watching. It is just such a damn comfort sometimes to have romance characters who act like adults, even when it’s difficult, even when feeling out a new relationship that the culture doesn’t really have a blueprint for. This book is incredibly light on the conflict — but in a way that feels like a kindness to the reader, which is something I have come to cherish in these trying times. There will always be room in my heart (and in this column!) for pure fluff, served piping hot.

Santos wasn’t an idiot. He knew she wasn’t just talking about Knox, but he needed to hear her say it, because none of this made sense. This was not what good, straight-laced cops and bakers did. Right?

This Month’s Hardcore Historical Who’s Having None Of Your Shit Colonialism:

Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran (Pocket Star: historical m/f):

Another thing this column always has room for: romances that stare unflinchingly into the void. Because hardened survivor souls need love as much as the tender, trembling ones.

Author Suleikha Snyder has said more than once that this book is one of the best historicals she’s seen set for depictions of British India, and on its ten-year anniversary its power remains intense. It is too vivid a mirror at this moment to read about an angry country at the boiling point, with a terrible event looming in the very near future. Heiress and artist Emmaline Martin survives the shipwreck that kills her family on the way to Delhi only to learn her colonel betrothed is already cheating on her with other officers’ wives. She takes refuge in the garden at a party and meets part-Indian, part-English Julian, Marquess of Holdermann and future duke. Both are frustrated, hurting, and angry, so their flirtation is born as much out of that as out of their undeniable attraction — and they barely have a moment to reflect on what they’re feeling before the Indian Mutiny hits and things go absolutely to eight kinds of hell. What follows is absolutely horrifying, a nightmare of near escapes, murder, sexual assault, mutilation, guilt, and betrayal. We resurface in London: Emma is broken and only barely holding onto her sanity, compulsively painting her worst memories of her escape. Julian thinks she’s dead, until he comes face to face with her at an art exhibition — and realizes her paintings hold a terrible secret. It takes them the rest of the book to work out what they’ve gone through, what they’ve done, and what they mean to one another. My soul bled for them the whole time — especially Emma, whose self-isolation by trauma is one of the most devastating things I’ve ever read in a romance. As for Julian, caught between two cultures violently opposed to one another, he has turned code-switching into a whimsical kind of bitterness that both unsettles and fascinates. Their banter is often uneasy and cutting, but it’s abundantly clear that nobody will ever understand them better than they understand one another. They’re never going to be light-hearted, but they’re so damn strong, and they value each other so deeply, that the HEA is totally, utterly convincing. This is one of those romances that leans into the darkness rather than shutting it out, and is all the better for it — much like the characters it brings to life.

The ocean waited too. It sulked sluggishly beneath the tropical sun; slipping into it would not be so hard. The heat felt like a warm hand pressing on her back, urging her down and away. No trace of the great ship remained; no one surveying these flat, empty waters would suspect what had passed here. No one was coming for her. But her hands would not let go.

Thursday Comics Hangover: By the time I get to Arizona

Monthly serialized comics are a relatively fast-moving medium. If a team on a book is really humming, they can create a title and get it on the stands in a matter of months. That seems to be the case with Border Town, a new Vertigo title whose first issue was just published yesterday. Written by Eric M. Esquivel and illustrated by Ramon Villalobos, Border Town feels as current as the day's headlines — for better and for worse.

Pretty much every page of Border Town references some aspect or another of the Trump Administration. The first page features a bunch of xenophobic white Arizonans firing machine guns into the air and shouting "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, MOTHERFUCKER!" But in Border Town, current events are pumped up and made into monsters and paraded through the streets. The town of Devil's Fork, Arizona is being haunted by modern American specters: a white woman is terrified by a figure that looks like a black teen, a man runs from a green-skinned ICE agent, someone else recoils from a giant "tiki-torch Nazi" with sharp teeth roaming the streets. It's the American nightmare in a Halloween mask — or maybe with the mask removed.

None of this relevancy would matter if the comic was ugly. But Villalobos makes reading Border Town a pleasure. He's from the Geoff Darrow school of comics art — the noodly, hyper-detailed work that rewards repeat viewing. (The first issue features cameos from Sandman and an especially beloved Superman story.) And colorist Tamra Bonvillain is doing some stunning work here — the color pallette of the book tracks a single day, from night to dawn to noon to dusk to night. The light in Arizona glows warmly, but all those oranges and reds and blues could just as easily represent a bruise.

It remains to be seen if the plot of Border Town will rise above some pretty standard "there is a pierced vale between this world and the next" supernatural potboiler drivel, but the quality of the art in the book, and the cleverness with which the creative team addresses contemporary topics, will keep me coming back regardless.

The magic kingdom

Published September 06, 2018, at 10:01am

Paul Constant reviews Kurt Andersen's Fantasyland.

Last night, the Reading Through It Book Club discussed America's weird relationship with fantasy, and the way Donald Trump has taken advantage of our national love of delusion.

Read this review now

Book News Roundup: Type Set is hiring, Richard Chiem's novel has a pretty cover

  • On her Facebook page, Mayor Durkan last night eulogized B. Bailey Books and Bailey/Coy Books cofounder Barbara Bailey. Durkan praised Bailey for creating "nationally beloved independent book stores" which served as "safe and welcoming spaces for the LGBTQ+ community." She continues:
In Barbara’s bookstores, there was no shame and nothing secret or hidden – “our” books were placed prominently next to all the New York Times best sellers. Barb warmly welcomed everyone to the store, often loudly with a laugh, a hearty greeting or an exclamation about the latest political outrage.
  • Type Set, the writer-centric coworking space in Columbia City, is looking for a community and social media manager to manage member relations, work at the front desk, engage with social media, and plan events. It's a part-time gig, starting at 15 hours a week or so.

  • The cover of Seattle writer Richard Chiem's debut novel, King of Joy, is goddamned beautiful:

  • These useful lessons for authors who are reading their own audiobooks could also apply just as easily for authors who are learning how to read their own work aloud in public.