The Help Desk: A cute boy only reads self-important books by self-important men — what do I do?

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

Dear Cienna,

There's this guy who rides the elevator with me at work pretty often. He always has a big, complex book in his hands — Bolaño, or DFW, or Knausgaard. He's pretty good looking, but I've held off smiling at him because I'm worried his choice of books means he's going to be pretty intellectually limited. Is there a safe way to test him in public before asking him out on a date?

Pat in the Columbia Tower

Dear Pat,

Here’s what I suggest: Start carrying around a copy of your favorite book in your bag. The next time you’re stuck in an elevator with this handsome stranger, break the ice by saying something like, “I notice you read a lot of very serious books written by unsmiling men, so I thought you might enjoy this change of pace. It’s my favorite.” The beauty is, it doesn’t really matter what your book is – it could be something truly great, like Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, it could be last week’s TV Guide, or it could something he might actually enjoy, like the latest bullshit pumped out by Jonathan Franzen (if you go the TV Guide route, it helps to tape an unused condom to the inside cover). The point is, you’re being both flattering and assertive. If he’s smart and interested, he’ll read your book or at least continue the conversation. If he’s an intellectually stunted dummy, say “fuck it” and ask to see his abs. They can’t be any less interesting to talk to (and if by some miracle they are, you can always start taking the stairs).



Big Stone Gap and the problem of authors who want to direct

Consider two different jobs: in the first one, you sit in a room all by yourself at a computer and make up people, places, and events for months — more likely years — at a time. You push those imaginary people around in your head and try to coax a narrative out of them. You work on the same sentences over and over until you decide they’re as close to perfect as you can make them, or until a deadline rolls over you and you have to give them up. Then you start all over again.

In the other job, you manage a small battalion of people, from electricians to painters to executives to accountants. You’re in charge of every aspect of a production. You need to make sure that everyone does their job to the best of their ability. And you have to tell people how to behave in a manner closest to the ideal image you have in your head. Even in a best-case scenario, they never achieve your dream, but you have to take the performances they do manage to deliver and wring them together into a coherent narrative that works on an aesthetic, storytelling, and emotional level.

This is just a long way around saying that authors do not always make good directors. This seems like it should be obvious, but it’s not. Stephen King only directed one film — Maximum Overdrive — and though it has a kind of ramshackle bad-movie thrill to it, it’s by no definition a good film. But some authors can make the transition to director, and when they do, they make it seem effortless. Stephen Chbosky somehow transformed his beautiful novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower into a beautiful, meaningful, well-acted movie that hit the same emotional notes as the book.

And now Adriana Trigiani has adapted her novel Big Stone Gap into a movie, which Trigiani herself has directed. Sadly, as a director she veers more to Stephen King than to Stephen Chbosky. Big Stone Gap is a big-hearted bestselling novel about a Southern town full of eccentrics. It also happens to contain one of my all-time favorite all persons fictitious disclaimers at the front of the book:

Big Stone Gap is a work of fiction. While Chapter 6 and a few other references in this novel were inspired in part by a real-life campaign stop by John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, in 1978, during which Elizabeth Taylor was hospitalized after choking on a bone, the visit described in this book is entirely imaginary and fictional. None of the events, actions, dialogue, costumes, or attitudes attributed to Elizabeth Taylor or John Warner actually occurred, and the scenes depicted here are in no way meant to denigrate the awesome career and stardom of Elizabeth Taylor or the democratic process of campaigning for elected office in the United States of America. All other characters, events, and dialogue are products of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to real people or events is entirely coincidental and does not change the purely fictitious nature of this work.

It’s also got one of the most welcoming first sentences a novel could possibly have: “This will be a good weekend for reading.”

Unfortunately, what comes across as earnest charm on the page reads as cheesy obnoxiousness on the screen. The main character, Ave Maria Mulligan, is simultaneously blunt and whimsical in the novel. But in the movie, as played by Ashley Judd, she seems more than a little simple-minded. Occasionally, Ave Maria is so shiny and vacant that she seems to be a female Forrest Gump. She runs all over town, bumping into various neighbors, and we’re supposed to enjoy seeing the world through her eyes. Instead, we can’t wait for her to stop talking.

The cast of Big Stone Gap might give you hope: Patrick Wilson, Jane Krakowski, Anthony La Paglia. Sadly, they just raise your expectations to an unrealistic level, only to let you down with unchallenging performances. Everything is so cozy, so warm, so drowsy that you’ll wonder if you accidentally drank some cough syrup before sitting down to watch the film. (Whoopi Goldberg is in the movie, too. She gives about as good a performance as we’ve seen out of Whoopi Goldberg in the last decade, which is exactly as much of an insult as it sounds.) Everything about Big Stone Gap oozes community theater. It’s a romantic comedy without the romance, or the comedy. It’s a pastoral lark that’s had its feet dipped in cement. It’s about as un-fun a cinematic experience as a syrupy-sweet small-town movie can be.

Ultimately, the blame for Big Stone Gap’s failure has to lie at Trigiani’s feet. All these people — yes, even Ashley Judd; yes, even Whoopi Goldberg — can act. We know the novel can charm the pants off any reader who’s halfway willing to be charmed. But between the page and the screen, something important has disappeared. The life of the book, the weirdness of building an entire novel around Elizabeth Taylor choking on a chicken bone, is leached dry and replaced with an antiseptic feel-good glow. The author has lost her direction. The director lacks authorial confidence. It’s a crying shame.

Cartoonist J.R. Williams is reporting on Facebook that Northwestern autobiographical comics writer Dennis Eichhorn has passed away:

Aw, crap. Denny's gone. His wife Jane called to tell me that he passed away this morning. She suggested I put out the word. He was a great friend, and I'm sure gonna miss him.

Williams and Eichhorn were frequent collaborators, perhaps most notably on The Legend of Wild Man Fischer.

Eichhorn's Real Stuff comics are wonderful examples of autobiographical comics, true examples of how good the collaboration between writer and artist can be. His comics were often about sex and drugs and rock and roll, but Eichhorn never felt like he was trying to shock his audience, or mythologize his experiences. His comics always felt, simply, like Real Stuff.

This Saturday, I'll be moderating a panel at the Frye Art Museum with poet John Olson, Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, and novelist Matt Briggs. They'll each read and then we'll discuss "the boundaries and limits of genre" as part of the Frye's ongoing Literary Festival, which is part of the Genius / 21 Century / Seattle exhibit. It's at 2 pm, it's free, and the Frye would be thrilled if you pre-registered for the event on their site.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Refreshing and cool

I couldn't make it to the comic book store last night because I was too busy celebrating at the launch party for California Four O'Clock, the debut novel from Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan. It was a big new comics Wednesday to miss; a ton of Marvel Comics relaunched yesterday with all-new first issues and status quos, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange. Of those three, the only one that I'm at all interested in is Doctor Strange; writer Jason Aaron is often pretty good, and artist Chris Bachalo's noodly illustrations seem perfect for the baroqueness of the character as created by Steve Ditko. Spider-Man has been devalued in recent years by too many iterations of the same character — Marvel Comics will soon be publishing a ongoing comic book starring Spider-Men (and -Women) from across multiple dimensions, watering the brand down even further — and Iron Man is now written by Brian Michael Bendis, who has stretched himself way too thin in recent years.

And frankly, I'm finding it hard to believe that any of these relaunches are going to be as exciting as the Archie relaunch. I've already written about the first issue of Mark Waid and Fiona Staples's reimainging of Archie Andrews and his Riverdale gang. The third issue of the book is out, and it unbelievably keeps getting better as it goes along.

The third issue of Archie reintroduces the relationships between these characters in new and interesting ways, twisting the love triangle inside out. Archie is following new-to-town rich girl Veronica Lodge around like a hungry puppy, Jughead is trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and Betty is upset about the mysterious event that led to her breakup with Archie. It's packed with interesting characterization. Jughead is portrayed as ridiculously wise, with a keen sense of focus that grants him almost mystical properties. Veronica demonstrates great vulnerability at just the moment when we expect her to become a super-villain. Betty is so profoundly decent that the reader can't help but land on her side. Only Archie lacks a distinctive personality here; he may be the front man of this particular band, but he's doomed to only react to things happening around him. He's such a straight man you could use him as a ruler in a pinch.

The biggest potential problem with this version of Archie is that Fiona Staples has not signed on as an artist for the long haul. This is a visually dynamic comic that rewards re-reading. The characters' body language is vivacious and evocative. The fashions are fun — clothing hangs on bodies realistically — and the big, moony eyes of our main characters seem full of aspiration and disappointment and, you know, life. In three short issues, Archie has transformed from a smart retooling of an ancient brand into the best high-school comic on the stands today. Marvel Comics should be taking notes: this is how you refresh an old idea.

Amazon to open bookstore in University Village?

For as long as I’ve been covering Amazon’s growth, rumors have circulated about the online retailer opening a brick-and-mortar store that serves as a kind of showroom. But I’ve never seen a report as well-researched and as compelling as this Shelf Awareness story suggesting that Amazon is in the process of opening a bookstore in University Village, where Blue C Sushi used to be. And this rumor suggests that it’s specifically a bookstore, and not just a place to buy Amazon’s tablets and hardware, as all the previous rumors have indicated. In fact, Shelf Awareness reports that Amazon has approached area booksellers with offers of starting pay that no local independent bookstore could likely match. You really should go read the whole report; it’s a terrific scoop, and well-reported.

If the report is true, this is a smart spot for Amazon to open a bookstore: University Village has been without a bookseller since Barnes & Noble closed in 2011. That Barnes & Noble reportedly closed over an argument relating to rent; rumor has it the store was very profitable.

There’s plenty of time to chew over this news and the story could change a million different ways before the store actually opens — if, indeed, it actually does open. But on its face, I have to say that Amazon getting into brick-and-mortar bookselling would be a fundamental shift for the online retailer.

The fact is that Seattle loves its bookstores. Most independent bookstores in Seattle have seen increased sales over the last five years. Third Place Books is opening a new branch in Seward Park early next year. This news could be an admission that e-books can only go so far. It could be a unique destination showroom for Amazon, a branding ploy to give the company a warm and approachable human face. (One can imagine the store’s booksellers becoming celebrities on Amazon’s online bookstore.) Or it could be something else entirely. We'll undoubtedly be hearing more about this story soon.

UPDATE 11:24 AM: GeekWire investigated the building site and they said there are already employees stocking books on shelves in the space. Looks like the truth will out sooner than later.

Letters to the Editor: On representation in Seattle: City of Literature

Dear Editor:

Donna Miscolta raises a valid point in her review/essay, "Reflections by and about white people." I'm not sure what the phrase "comprehensive snapshot" means, as used in a short review that appeared in Seattle Met, but its application to the anthology, Seattle: City of Literature set Donna off about the lack of ethnic diversity in the book.

Initially, I was willing to go along with her criticism. If you look at the table of contents, only six people of color contributed. Donna praises Elissa Washuta's opening piece on Vi Hilbert. Then I got to the sentence "But the rest of the book pretty much renders writers of color invisible." And with that, boom! She rendered the rest of us, and our subjects, invisible.

Worse, on Facebook one of the contributors seemed to apologize for her participation in the project. Why is one writer of color apologizing to another for her inclusion in an anthology?

I was not recruited for this anthology. I asked to participate. I also suggested that the editor, Ryan Boudinot, contact Donna Miscolta, Flor Fernandez, and Anna Bálint. I was sure people like Alan Lau, Peter Bacho, Keith Jourdan and Carletta Carrington Wilson would be asked to contribute, even if they chose not to. Apparently not.

Boudinot starts his intro by calling the contributors "a representative selection of the city's writers and book lovers" and later tries to cover all bases by saying "the table of contents... could just as easily have been comprised of an entirely different list of writers." But it wasn't.

I asked to contribute in part because my writing has been left out of similar anthologies, rendering me invisible to that particular audience. The work of writers like Bharti Kirchner, Shawn Wong, Sonora Jha and Charles Mudede is so important to me, I don't want to see them declared invisible just because Donna says so. Can all of us be dismissed because there are not enough of us?

The dearth of writing by and about people of color when I moved here in 1983 was pretty severe. In 1991, Phoebe Bosché, Phil Red Eagle and I started the Raven Chronicles to provide a more realistic profile of, and venue for, multicultural writers. Soon, we will publish a first anthology. The table of contents of the Raven Chronicles anthology could just as easily have been comprised of an entirely different list of writers.

This not-quite-so comprehensive snapshot is part of Seattle's bid to become an internationally recognized City of Literature. It amuses me to imagine what international readers might make of us based on these stories. Maybe they will ask the same questions as Donna.

It would be great if there was an ongoing series of anthologies once/if Seattle receives this designation. I’m kind of hoping that Donna gets a chance to edit a representative anthology for the City of Seattle someday. I've got a few things in the works. And I'm not apologizing for trying to remain visible.


Kathleen Alcalá

DONNA MISCOLTA REPLIES: My piece was not about the individual writers of color who were included in the anthology, each of whom has a well-deserved reputation for achievement. I was not saying that instead of those writers of color, these other writers of color should have been chosen. My piece was about the overall representation and the missed opportunities for a broader survey of the writers of color that have contributed to the literary life of Seattle. And rather than an apology from a contributor of color, I read an acknowledgement of the problem that pervades our culture – structural racism – and a commitment to uncovering it in even seemingly innocuous situations. Any discussion about race, equity,and inclusion will elicit strong emotions, which can only be for the good as we strive for the same goal. The more we talk about these things, the better we as a society will understand what’s at the root of a deep historical hurt and work together to ameliorate it.

Thanks for coming out last night!

Photo by Sara Flemming

Last night was not an official Seattle Review of Books party, it was the launch party for my book California Four O'Clock. But since Paul and I were both there, and we talked about the site, and since some of you were there too and came up to say hello and introduce yourselves, I just wanted to say thank you. We had a grand time.

If you'd never been before, you may realize now why we go on and on about Mercer Street Books. It's a great store, and I'm very appreciative to Debbie Sarrow for having us. We'll let you know next time we're having a party, and if you missed this one, we hope you can make the next.

The Nobel was granted to Alexievitch "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." Remarkably, she is the very first journalist to ever win the Nobel in Literature. The BBC explains,

Her best-known works in English translation include Voices From Chernobyl, an oral history of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe; and Boys In Zinc, a collection of first-hand accounts from the Soviet-Afghan war. The title refers to the zinc coffins in which the dead came home.

Now is the time for some bores to start with the why-not caterwauls. "Why not Philip Roth? Why not Joyce Carol Oates? Why not Haruki Murakami?" These are short-sighted complaints by people who can't be bothered with contemporary literature unless it's been codified into some sort of modern "canon." Nothing is more boring than canons, especially when the writer you're trying to canonize is Philip Roth.

If you look at recent history, the Nobel committee has taken to celebrating talent that is not internationally famous, or at least not commonly celebrated in America and Great Britain. That, to me, is infinitely more exciting than handing the Nobel over to authors who already enjoy international acclaim.

I don't know Alexievitch's work. I can't wait to read her.

1. Wonderful magazine Bitch announced the Bitch Media Fellowship for emerging writers. Every three months, a writer will receive a $1500 stipend to work on one of four subjects:

  • Reproductive rights & justice
  • Pop-culture criticism
  • Technology
  • Global feminism

Make sure that the young writer in your life hears about this opportunity; it could be just the break that she needs.

2. The Seattle International Film Festival just announced a new screenwriting contest. This sounds like a neat opportunity:

Each submitted screenplay will receive at least one page of written feedback from SIFF's team of trained screenplay readers. Finalist scripts will be read (and further adjudicated) by a panel of film industry members, with the semifinalist and grand prize-­winning scripts handed over to Catalyst alumni (filmmakers, actors, and producers), all of whom have screened feature films at SIFF in the past and maintain an active and engaged presence in the indie film community.

So far as consolation prizes go, a page of feedback is incredible; it's arguably what fledgling screenwriters need most. The winner will have their screenplay read at SIFF.

Portrait Gallery: Anastacia Renee Tolbert

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

Anastacia reads tonight, but don't forget to check out her poem "Rattail" that we published about a month ago.

Meet the Short Run vendors: Casandra Lopez of As/Us

Our October Bookstore of the Month is a special one, because it’s a bookstore that will only exist in the world for one day. The Short Run Comix & Arts Festival will take place this year on October 31st at Fisher Pavilion in the Seattle Center, and for that one day, it will be the largest bookseller of independent literature, zines, and comics in the Seattle area. Every week this month, we’ll highlight a different Short Run exhibitor, to give you a better idea of the scope and breadth of the festival.

Casandra Lopez moved to Seattle two years ago to work at North Seattle College. To hear her describe it, the literary journal she founded with friends, As/Us, practically burst into the world, from conception to submissions to reality in a matter of months. The magazine is geared toward “more lyricism in the prose” than other literary magazines, she says, and on the website, they’re running more elaborate pieces — full-color art, say, or dance interpretations of poems — that expand on the print magazine experience.

The idea of As/Us keeps getting more expansive. “Originally, we created it to publish the works of women of color,” Lopez tells me. “We still do that, but we also collaborate and highlight other underrepresented writers” like incarcerated writers, a queer issue, and an issue spotlighting native youth writers. Lopez will be selling four recent issues of As/Us at her Short Run booth, alongside her chapbook Where Bullet Breaks. (You can read the title poem from that collection at Hobart.)

Lopez was introduced to Short Run last year by local writer Elissa Washuta, who As/Us will be sharing a table with this year. Lopez admits that she didn’t know anything about Short Run before exhibiting last year, but all it took was one show to make her a believer: “I just thought that everybody there was really supportive of independent presses,” she says. They were “supportive as in purchasing copies, but also wanting to know about our magazine and what we do. It was a really positive community.”

The support Lopez received last year at Short Run was so overwhelming that she barely managed to break away from the As/Us table to walk the floor. She managed one quick spin around the exhibitor tables, buying a few zines and a print by Sarah Rosenblatt. For her, that’s the one happy problem of Short Run: there’s so much there, it’s impossible for a hardworking vendor to experience the show. This year, “I’m hoping that before it gets a little hectic I’ll have a chance to go around to look at what’s available,” she says.

1. David Sedaris will be reading at Benaroya Hall on Sunday, November 15th, 2015. I'll be introducing him, as I've done at every one of his annual Benaroya Hall appearances for the better part of a decade. The best part of introducing David Sedaris is that when you're done introducing him, you get to watch David Sedaris read. He's simply one of the funniest, best readers in the world. Tickets for this performance are very nearly sold out. The man never seems to have a bad night. Hell, he wore culottes last year and he still won the crowd over. How did he do it? Three words: clever dick jokes.

2 One week before David Sedaris reads at Benaroya Hall, Gloria Steinem will be there in conversation with Cheryl Strayed. This event is put on by the wonderful women's writing community Hedgebrook, and it's not to be missed. Steinem, of course, is a feminist legend, and Strayed has become a literary voice of her generation. They'll be celebrating the launch of Steinem's new memoir My Life on the Road. Of course, Strayed knows quite a bit about memoirs, and about roads, and about literature. I expect these two to burn down the stage together.

Please stop harassing women

On her blog, cartoonist Julia Wertz describes her interactions with a male fan that are pretty much textbook harassment. He ordered a book of Wertz's cartoons and included the instruction "I’d be enchanted if you rubbed your vagina on it.” Wertz refunded his money and refused the order, which then made the fan mad. He insisted that he wasn't harassing her — after all, he says, he framed the instruction as something that he almost wrote in an e-mail to her, it wasn't a real instruction. Wertz says he was proud of his commments, explaining on Twitter that "the vagina remark was meant to ‘enlighten’ me, and was not sexual, and saying I should have been flattered by the praise that preceded it." I've read the dude's Twitter feed, and I can tell you that she's not mischaracterizing him. I'm not going to link to it here, because he doesn't need any more attention and he would likely misinterpret it anyway.

The title of this Note was originally "Please stop harassing women artists," but that would be stupid, of course. Men need to stop harassing women, full stop. Still, we need to acknowledge that the internet has left women artists vulnerable in new ways; artists are expected to respond to their fans directly, they often sell and ship their own work themselves, and they're telling personal stories that clueless harassers can interpret as welcoming signals. I don't have any solutions. I'm in awe of women for dealing with this type of bullshit day in and day out. I wish I could do more to help.

But let's generate some positivity out of all this: if you don't know Julia Wertz's work, you should definitely acquaint yourself. Maybe buy one of her books directly from her. I've read all of them, and I can tell you that every one of Wertz's books is funny and crude and surprisingly poignant without any of the sentimentality that weigh down many autobiographical comics. Go take a look.

And if you harass women, please stop. Okay?

Korean War

You are the North and I am the South.
My tanks aim for you. I shoot you a thousand times.

Your missiles launch into my oceans. You raise monuments to scorn me.
You eat clams cooked in gasoline.

I drink milk and cider. I raise skyscrapers of businessmen.
You build towers of empty rooms. You refuse me from where I am most loved.

I clean a wintermelon of its guts and seeds cling to my wet fingers.
Aren’t you the North, and I the South?

Phantom, disease, you’re trembling. There is no patience in my country.
There is no safest place in yours.

The heart stiffens at the sound of church bells. I wonder where you sleep now.
You are the North and I am the South.

I cannot see the sky beyond the ceiling.
I cannot forgive you for cutting me out.

I see all my ground, and you, walking over me—before you were
the North and I was the South.

A photographer captures a mass execution on film.
Men and women tied to posts, blindfolded—Korean spies.

The man nearest to the camera fiddles with his blindfold
until it rests comfortably over his eyes.

Dee Lockett at Vulture says:

Ten years after Edward Cullen and Bella Swan made vampires virtually inescapable, Stephenie Meyer is back to turn your tweens once again. In celebration of the first book's anniversary, Meyer has rewritten Twilight with the genders of the saga's star-crossed lovers reversed. Meet Beau and Edythe, main characters of the newly feminist reading of the series now dubbed Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, out today. In this version, Bella is Beau, a teen boy who moves to Forks, Washington, and finds himself enamored with the vampire Edythe, the female version of Edward. Meyer explained on Good Morning America that the idea behind the new 442-page book was to put to rest repeated criticism of the original series that it reduced Bella to a "damsel in distress" trope.


The Seattle Antiquarian Bookfair is this coming weekend, October 10th & 11th

The Seattle Antiquarian Bookfair is our sponsor again this week, and we're starting to get excited about the fair. It's this Saturday and Sunday, October 10th & 11th. Tickets are a huge bargain — only $5 for both days! — and you'll get to take in the best of what Seattle Center has to offer before or after you visit. Check out the video on our sponsor page to get a feel for what you'll see there, and be sure to tell them you heard about it on the Seattle Review of Books (and, keep your eyes peeled for us there. We'll be checking it out).

Our partners are what let us bring you all the content you've see. If you check us to find out what we've published every day, take a look and see what our sponsors have to offer. You may be pleasantly surprised. It's all part of our campaign to make online advertising something that benefits readers and publishers both.

This has already appeared on the Seattle Review of Books, but it's making the rounds again. If you haven't already, please read Vijith Assar's excellent column for McSweeney's about the way various grammatical tricks can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Whenever you see passive voice in the media, your first thought should always be, "who are they protecting, here?"

(Via Boing Boing, which is somehow, still, remarkably, a leading source of "via"s on the internet.)