Last month, I wrote about why I'm not reading Go Set a Watchman. (Short version: "I’d just rather not have to write a negative review of a Harper Lee book.") If you want to read the book, that's your prerogative, of course. And if you want to slag the book without reading it, that's your right as an American, too. But I can't help but feel that this news falls less on the side of a natural response to Go Set a Watchman and more on the side of a publicity stunt:

In a move that other proprietors of independent bookstores might consider unthinkable, Peter Makin, the owner of Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Michigan, is offering refunds to customers disappointed with Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

I get it. People are unhappy with the book. They have opinions, loud ones, and they want their opinions to be heard. But a refund is a bit much, isn't it?

When you buy a book, or when you check a book out from the library, you're quietly agreeing to a social contract: you're offering your attention to a work of art. You may not like the work of art. That's okay. You may like the work of art so much that you feel compelled to respond to it with a work of art of your own. That's wonderful! But a refund just feels so...dirty and commercial.

As a reader of fiction, you take a chance every time you pick up a book. That's part of the adventure of reading; when bookstores choose to offer money-back guarantees, it's a refutation of the contract between writers and readers.

The Help Desk: Should female writers man up their mansucripts?

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,

I recently read an article proving that publishers are more interested in novels submitted under male names. My novel has been rejected by several agents for being too “weird and creepy,” and I can’t help but wonder if they’d have the same criticism if the same book had a male name on it. So my question: Should I use a male pseudonym? And, if so, which male pseudonym should I use?

Vivienne from Maple Leaf

Dear Vivienne,

I dearly love delivering lectures about the hurdles female writers face in the publishing industry (and beyond) but those speeches are best saved for house parties, baby showers, and other social engagements where people are “just trying to relax and have fun. Christ, Cienna.”

Yes, agents would probably be more receptive of your work (at least initially) if you wrote under a male pseudonym. I’ve found that if I go without plucking my chin hairs for a week or two, men and women alike treat me with the fearful deference once reserved for tiny dictators. It is a triumphant feeling to don the mantle of manhood and bask in the glow of unearned respect, even if only temporarily.

But you’d be doing all writers who were not born cisgender male a disservice by masquerading this way. Men’s success is expected. Ours is not. We are playing a game that’s been designed to see us struggle, if not fail. We need to change the rules instead of bending to them.

Which is why I suggest you be yourself. If that simply won’t do, try embracing a gender-neutral pseudonym when querying agents, something like “Scrotack Faginam.” That will get people reading your work just as surely as masquerading as a man and, bonus! you won’t be labeled a sex traitor by your peers.

In my lifetime, I hope to see female writers (and LGBTQ writers) simply treated as writers, people whose stories and opinions are just as widely read and respected as their male counterparts. But that will take pioneers like you and me writing weird, creepy shit and proudly shoving our sex in the face of many strangers — which is one reason why my business cards are now printed with a tasteful inkblot of my vaginal lips. When I hand them out at industry parties, people often ask me, “Why do you have the scowling face of my disappointed mother printed on your business cards?” And I reply, “You are mistaken, sir, those are my Nether Grins. You see, I am a female writer and now you will never forget it.”

Grrrrl Powrrrrrrr,


Brazenhead Books in Manhattan has closed. Most of us never went there — it was an illegal store. Access, and the address, were shared amongst insiders. “The secret was known to a small number of discreet patrons and shared strictly by word of mouth,” says Brian Patrick Eha, in a bittersweet New Yorker article about the store, and its owner Michael Seidenberg.

I love the romantic idea of these secret hidden places — so long as I’m on the inside, of course (sucks to not know). But then the romance gives away to head scratching. Did Brazenhead take credit cards, or cash only? Did Seidenberg pay his taxes? How off-the-books was he, really? Did he have a business license? What about the assistant, mentioned in the article — were they paid under the table (he paid a fourteen year-old Jonathan Lethem in books for his work in a retail store)? The article conveniently skips the questions its very reporting begs.

Small businesses are hard work. The regulations and hoops you have to jump through — especially in New York City — are tremendous, and probably unreasonable. Which turns my thoughts to the indie bookstores who do jump through them to keep their doors open. At least they get some nice illustrations from time-to-time.

Not so long ago, Ken Kalfus lamented on these same storied (web)pages: “Only a few of the city’s bookstores remain in business and they each need my patronage desperately.” I guess that goes for the secret illegal stores, as well as the ones anybody can walk into and browse to their hearts content.

Matthew Simmons, the local author and publisher of Instant Future, an e-novella imprint of Future Tense Press, has figured out a way to re-enact an American short story classic in Grand Theft Auto:

If those tweets put you in the mood to read "The Swimmer," it looks like Library of America has made it available to read as a PDF. I hope someone figures out how to adapt Updike's "A&P" in Batman: Arkham Knight next.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The Fantastic Four and the problem with adaptations

Usually, this column is about new comics I bought on Wednesday. But last night I went to a press screening for the Fantastic Four movie that opens tomorrow, and I want to talk about that for a bit instead. (If you're looking for a straight-up movie review, you can read my review at Prairie Dog.)

The first 102 issues of the Fantastic Four by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee are basically the template for every adventure comic book that came after: big sci-fi ideas, big discoveries, comic relief, and personal drama. Not every issue is a classic — Tomazooma the Living Totem wasn't the huge character find of 1968 — but the whole run is quite impressive.

So since there's already a blueprint out there clearly explaining what the Fantastic Four should be, why is it so incredibly hard to make a Fantastic Four movie? Why has every Fantastic Four adaptation been a bust? (Some people like to insist that The Incredibles is a good Fantastic Four movie, but that's not quite right. The Incredibles gets the family dynamic right, but they're superheroes. The Fantastic Four are sci-fi adventurers. It's an important distinction to make, because it's an entirely different motivation.)

What we're talking about here is a problem of adaptation. Everyone knows adaptation is tough; you can't just take a comic and duplicate it onto a movie screen (though Zack Snyder certainly tried during the making of Watchmen.) It's almost a cliche at this point to suggest that what doesn't go into an adaptation is just as important as what does. But it's true.

The new Fantastic Four movie is outright terrible; it replaces the optimistic post-Kennedy vibe of the comics with a dour fear of being different. So why can filmmakers create wonderful, fairly faithful adaptations of Captain America and Batman, but nobody is able to toss the Fantastic Four up on a screen? It's not because of the corny name.

Maybe the answer has to do with the fact that the Fantastic Four is a family, and modern blockbusters don't have the patience to depict families beyond the typical Spielbergian fathers-and-sons-are-magical dross. Weirdly, the only time I ever see families depicted with any complexity during blockbuster season is in Pixar movies like Inside Out and the aforementioned The Incredibles; maybe nuanced portrayals of human beings is kid's stuff?

Or maybe the Fantastic Four would be better-recieved if they were on television. Special effects on a TV budget might be tough, but if you want to watch male and female characters interacting in a non-sexual way, you're much better off on TV than you are in a movie theater.

Maybe there's something else that I'm missing. Maybe the gee-whiz scientific appeal of early Fantastic Four comics has worn off through the years. But frankly, I don't think so. It's true that the widespread adoption of smartphones has changed the idea of what science fiction means, but a good Fantastic Four story should happily embrace new technology and offer bizarre new ways to surpass the technology we've already grown to rely upon.

Or maybe part of the problem is that the Fantastic Four, when you look deep down in their souls, are happy people? Any idiot can tell a story about a miserable superhero, but it takes a special kind of talent to tell an interesting story about good-natured, positive people. As sad as it sounds, miserable sells itself but happy, in the wrong hands, bores us to tears.

Rather than supporting yet another bad adaptation, I'd encourage you to track down the first 102 issues of the Fantastic Four and read them. Those stories might not resemble the world around you right now, but they sure do look like the world you'd like to see outside your window.

Mail call for August 5, 2015

Lots of books arrived after our launch last week. See anything in this haul you'd like us to look at?

KING 5's New Day NW interviewed local writers Anca Szilagyi and Erin Malone about the very worthy Jack Straw Writers Program. (I'd embed the video here, but in my experience KING 5's video viewer tends to make websites shiver, roll over, and die. You're better off just clicking through and viewing it on their own site.) The interview also discusses Hugo House, and it promotes a Jack Straw reading that happens tonight at Elliott Bay Book Company.

I'll admit to being happily flabbergasted; I can't recall the last time a local TV news show has focused on a writing program. Fine work, KING 5! More like this please.

Ross Reynolds interviewed me about this here website for his show The Record on KUOW and you can now find it online right here.

Help us make internet advertisements 100 percent less terrible

You may have noticed that we do things a little differently around here. We don't have ads like most websites. Instead of irrelevant, slow, bloated, and often weirdly offensive ads on the site, we have sponsorships. Instead of repeated images of that one product you looked at once that follows you around the internet like a ghost, or scammy computer fix-it ads that have nothing to do with books, we're offering you something that we know you love: reading.

Each week our sponsors present you with a new chapter from a book. That's it. We don't track you around the internet, or report back to some big ad conglomorate. It's just what we say: a chapter from a book.

We liken it to being in a bookstore, and just picking that random book that caught your eye to give it a go. You read the first few pages, maybe a chapter. If you like it? You take it home. If you don't? Well, you gave it a try and I don't think anybody has ever regretted that.

But we have a problem: we're all trained to ignore ads on the internet. Everybody does — the statistics show it. The rates at which people engage with ads is falling, and that is due to the horribleness of the ads themselves. Sometimes that horribleness is dangerous. Fed up companies are starting to fight back. These advertisers literally have trained us to ignore them in pursuit of pennies. They are training us to become hostile.

We hope our logo will be a beacon of a new standard. But to do that, we need your help. Give our sponsors a try. Give a click and read. You'll see a new one every week, so some may appeal more than others. Together let's get rid of broken, obtuse, annoying, and offensive advertising, and create something relevant and interesting.

This New York Times obituary for the Cold War historian makes him so easy to like. Conquest was a poet and a fan of science fiction, and he once responded to liberal criticism with a historical limerick:

There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

Many have argued with Conquest's worldview, but nobody can argue that a limerick is a fine way to debate your critics.

Meet Mercer Street Books, our first Bookstore of the Month

The east wall of Mercer Street Books

(Every four weeks, the Seattle Review of Books will feature one area bookseller as our Bookstore of the Month. We’ll run weekly features highlighting some of the qualities that make the store so unique — the staff, the stock, the events — as a celebration of bookselling culture. Our first Bookstore of the Month is especially near and dear to our hearts because they also agreed to serve as Seattle Review of Books’s mailing address, for which we are eternally grateful.)

“Having a bookstore is like throwing a party every day,” Mercer Street Books owner Debbie Sarow says. She quickly adds, “only I’m not in charge of the guest list.” Sarow has been running Mercer Street Books for six years this summer, and if the store feels as though it’s been there for decades, that’s because it has the weight of history behind it.

The store’s address, 7 Mercer Street, has been continuously home to a bookstore for decades now: Titlewave Books stood there for more than twenty years before closing in 2004. (It was reportedly playwright August Wilson’s local bookstore of choice.) Twice Sold Tales took over the spot for five years before Sarow made it her own. Owning a bookstore wasn’t in her life plan: “I did not suffer from the I-have-to-be-the-boss syndrome,” Sarow says. She looks around the shelves of her bookstore for a second. “But now I guess I do.”

Sarow has been selling books in Seattle for fifteen years; she worked at the Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill at John and Broadway before moving over to Pioneer Square antiquarian booksellers Wessel & Lieberman. The job at Twice Sold Tales is probably what taught her that bookselling was like throwing a party; when she started there in 2000, it was less of a bookstore and “more of a scene,” especially on Fridays when it stayed open for 24 hours. Mercer Street employee Red Reddick worked at Twice Sold Tales back in the freewheeling days, too, before moving over to Bailey/Coy Books for its last few years. Reddick alone has decades of bookstore experience; she’s probably forgotten more than entire Barnes & Noble staffs will ever know about bookselling.

Mercer Street Books is quite obviously an extension of Sarow’s personality. It’s very tidy and fastidiously organized; first-time browsers often refuse to believe it’s a used bookstore. Sarow somehow recalls the placement of every single book on every single shelf in the store. And while she says she’s always admired “people who own speciality bookstores, because their knowledge of that subject is vast,” she thinks general interest is more her style.

“It suits my personality better to know three factoids about most subjects. Do I know a lot about film? No, but I can tell you three facts about it. You’re always learning different things in a general interest bookstore.” One of her favorite parts of owning a bookstore is getting to talk to customers about their interests. “If you ask people questions about what they like to do, they’ll tell you all about it. They’re happy to tell you.”

The thing that really sets Mercer Street Books apart from other bookstores is the quality and thoughtfulness of its stock; unlike other used bookstores that blind you with the sheer volume of titles, every single book on the shelves at Mercer Street feels hand-selected purposefully with a single buyer in mind. Sarow is selective when she buys customer’s books for the store but she pays well, and many neighbors of the store refuse to sell their books anywhere else. Mercer Street Books inspires a particular passion in visitors. Sarow says the store often receives “love letters from customers and from strangers in the mail.” These effusive declarations of love, packed with adjectives and dripping with ardor, are “way better than a Yelp review,” she says. “It’s such an old-fashioned thing to do, that somebody had to go find a letter and a piece of paper and a stamp and get to the post office. I don’t know why it is that I get letters like that from time to time.”

At that, part-time Mercer Street employee Aaron Bagley jumps in. “Debbie doesn’t see why the bookstore is magical, but it totally is,” he says. When he went to Paris and visited the world-famous bookshops there, Bagley says, a shock of recognition dawned on him. “Seattle has one of these bookshops,” he realized. In fact, “I’m part of one.” And he’s making the bookstore a multigenerational affair; on his Wednesday shifts, Bagley brings his infant son in to the store with him. Bookstore babies trump bookstore cats every time.

Sarow says it took a while to learn how to become the hostess of the party that is Mercer Street Books. When she opened the store, “all of a sudden, people were paying attention to me.” Her desk by the store’s large front windows place her practically in the middle of the sidewalk in one of Seattle’s most schizophrenic neighborhoods, where Space Needle-seeking tourists wander past Queen Anne residents and boozy Belltown kids out for a pub crawl, and being the center of attention did not come naturally for her. Maybe that’s why she likes buying customers’ used books so much, because it gives her the opportunity to immerse herself into another story: “I always feel like it’s a little bit of an honor to buy people’s books. You get a glimpse into someone else’s life, and that’s not something we often get under any circumstance.”

This e-mail from Artist Trust is great news:

Artist Trust is pleased to announce that Brian McGuigan has been hired as its Program Director. McGuigan has worked in programs and marketing for over a decade at Hugo House and ArtsWest. He is the co-founder and curator of the popular reading series, Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose; the director of Lit Crawl Seattle; and an ambassador for On the Boards. In 2010, The Stranger shortlisted him for their Genius Award in Literature, and in 2011, City Arts named him one of Seattle’s ‘Power 50 Culture Makers.’ When he's not working in the arts, Brian's a writer himself. His essays have appeared in Gawker, Salon, The Stranger, The Rumpus, ParentMap, and elsewhere, and he has received support from 4Culture, Artist Trust, and the Office of Arts & Culture.

Artist Trust helps all kinds of Seattle artists in every discipline with financial support and increased visibility. But speaking selfishly, SRoB is thrilled that such a dedicated book guy is taking over the programming. McGuigan knows every writer in town, and he's a passionate advocate for talent, both as a programmer and as a reader.

What's more, he's a spectacular programmer; anyone who's attended the packed-to-the-gills Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer and Prose readings series at the Hugo House knows McGuigan's a great events curator, and he brought energy, spontaneity, and passion back to the Hugo House's stage after a few rough years of misdirection. He knows how to throw a party, is what we're trying to say, and we can't wait to see what he does with this new role.

You may have noticed that we published a wonderful poem by Kelli Russell Agodon this morning. It's the debut of a new SRoB feature: every Tuesday, we'll present a poem by a local poet.

Here's the way it works: we reach out to a poet and ask for a selection of poems to look over. We work with the poet to select the poem that's right for SRoB. We then publish the poem and pay the poet for their work. And we work with the poet to choose the next local poet who will appear on our site next Tuesday.

We present this poetry chain as a way to illustrate the many connections between Seattle's fantastic community of poets. We expect to discover new authors through this process, and we look forward to becoming reacquainted with some old friends, too. We hope you'll check in with us every Tuesday morning to meet our newest poet.

If you love the poem, be sure to click on the author name to learn more. (Did you know that Kelli Russell Agodon is also a publisher? You do now!)

And if you're excited to have a new venue in town that pays poets for their work, be sure to check out our weekly sponsorship page, which provides us with the revenue to pay our poets and our freelance reviewers. If you like the book, buy it. If not, wait until next week and check out our new sponsor. Either way, you're helping take part in a new revenue model that gives back to Seattle's writing community on a weekly basis.

Argument Waltz with Pessimistic Drowning

After I try to give you happiness
    what you unwrap is box
    of yellowjackets, stinging

nettles, and jellyjars filled with broken glass.
    This is not for the cottonhearted.
    This is for the man who holds fire

between his fingers and calls it love.
  We are burnt
  toast and prism jam.

We are rubbing ourselves
    with the underside of a fern
    trying to make the stinging stop.

There are remedies everywhere—
    from beekeeper’s honey to handmade
    soap—we are told what to hold

near our skin. We are the stained
    towels and the sainted
    bohemian monarch that can’t fly.

Or doesn’t want to.
    I place a constellation in my hand,
    then complain about the burning.

Life weighs me down when I am tired.
    Let’s not pretend we have rocks
    in our pockets. Though I always pretend

I am the novelist and you are the river.

Seattle writer and editor Jaimee Garbacik has put out a call for writers and artists to contribute to The Ghosts of Seattle Past, an "interactive art installation" about remembering the disappearing landmarks of Seattle:

Share your memories of our lost spaces, whether from last week or the last century. Send your photographs, drawings, and memorabilia. Write just a few lines or submit a long-form essay celebrating a place you held dear. Use the medium that tells your story best.

Submissions will close on August 31st. The exhibit will debut at the Short Run Small Press Festival, which happens this year on October 31 at Seattle Center. (Full disclosure: I'm contributing an essay to this project, but I'm not getting paid for it. I just think it's a neat idea and I like to support neat ideas.)

The Office of Arts & Culture's Arts Beat blog just announced the name of Seattle's new Civic Poet. What's a Civic Poet, you ask? OAC explains that the new role "serves as an ambassador for Seattle’s rich literary landscape and represents the city’s diverse cultural community," usually in the form of public appearances and workshops. It's a two-year appointment, and it pays $10,000. (Hooray for paying writers for their work!) Our newest Civic Poet is Claudia Castro Luna. OAC explains:

Luna was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. as a young teenager fleeing civil war. Since then she has completed a Master of Arts in Urban Planning, a teaching degree, and a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. Luna is a K-12 certified teacher with a passion for arts education and teaching immigrants. In 2012, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Mills College.

Read more at Arts Beat. Congratulations to Claudia Castro Luna! SRoB bashfully admits that we're not familiar with her work, but we're excited for that to change very soon.

UPDATE 4:49 PM: Ross Reynolds interviewed Claudia Castro Luna today on The Record. Listen all the way to the end of the interview, where she discusses setting up a "poetic grid" that stretches across Seattle. We like her already.

Lisa Peet at Library Journal writes about some disappointing new Harris poll results:

In 2011, 18 percent of adults surveyed answered yes to the question “Do you think that there are any books which should be banned completely?” In the most current study, published July 8, 28 percent answered the same question in the affirmative—a ten point increase—with 24 percent of those surveyed unsure. This means nearly half of those surveyed are still convinced that no books should ever be banned, but the implications of the findings still deserve attention. “While it’s still a minority perception…I felt that from 18 to 28 percent in just four years was rather surprising growth,” said Larry Shannon-Missal, managing editor at the Harris Poll.

According to the poll, Americans are more comfortable with banning books than they are with banning video games, movies, or television shows. I guess one upside is that this shows Americans still (correctly) understand that books are more influential than other forms of media?

The last of the big game hunters

Published August 03, 2015, at 11:50am

Paul Constant review Peter Hathaway Capstick's Death in the Dark Continent, and John Tinney McCutcheon's In Africa.

Cecil wasn't the only lion to be killed by a rich white American with way too much time on his hands. The Great White Hunter narrative has a long (and until recently, a proud) tradition in literature.

Read this review now

Your week in readings: The best literary events for the week of August 3 - August 9, 2015

MONDAY August can be a challenging month for readings in Seattle. Now that we’re in August, Town Hall is shuttered for a month for its yearly schedule of renovations — you can’t keep a place that old looking that good without a whole lot of TLC — and other readings series choke back on their offerings. So maybe it’s time to check in on some old faithful institutions, like Works in Progress, the Hugo House’s twice-monthly reading series. A lot of the local poets you love got their start at open mic nights like this. Maybe you’ll find your next favorite here. The event listing explains the idea behind the series: “Applause for all. No judgment. Some content not suitable for children or small animals. Listeners welcome.”

TUESDAY The most promising reading of the week happens tonight at University Book Store, when local sci-fi authors Nisi Shawl, Eileen Gunn, and L. Timmel DuChamp present stories from Shawl’s new anthology, Stories for Chip. This is an anthology of stories honoring legendary sci-fi author Samuel R. “Chip” Delany. The New Yorker ran an appreciation of Delany just last week, so this reading is very timely.

WEDNESDAY Fremont cookbook shop The Book Larder hosts a class on how to make a steak dinner, with a menu including “Wedge salad with blue cheese and cherry tomatoes, Roasted green beans and corn with dill, Seared rib eye steak, Salsa verde, Anchovy butter, and Roasted peaches with soft cream.” Droooool. It’s 70 bucks, but that includes the class and dinner. Sign up at the Book Larder’s site in the link above.

THURSDAY Out at the Mill Creek branch of University Book Store, local author Sonya Lea reads from her new memoir Wondering Who You Are, a heartbreaking and inspiring story about a surgical accident that “left her husband of 23 years with no memory of their life together and barely any of the man she knew left inside of him.” How do you bounce back from something like that? Find out tonight.

FRIDAY The Seattle Public Library will be hosting a pop-up library at KEXP’s Concert at the Mural series. Go visit the library to a live soundtrack provided by local rock bands Other Lives, The Shivas, and Tangerine.

SATURDAY If you’re looking for a Saturday social event, you can’t do any better than Hot Off The Press: A Cool Summer Small Press Fest, happening at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery. Local comics publishers Intruder Comics and Yeti Press will have items for sale, and there will be readings from cartoonists Noah Van Sciver and Gina Siciliano and novelist Ryan Boudinot, who will be reading from his eye-poppingly gorgeous new short story collection The Octopus Rises.

SUNDAY Why don’t more book clubs happen on Sundays? This afternoon, Ada’s Technical Books presents the newest edition of its Human Thought and Sexuality Book Club, which this month discusses Brian Alexander’s book America Unzipped. Promotional copy for the book begins with this impressive sentence: “Welcome to the America we don’t usually talk about, a place where that nice couple down the street could be saddling up for ‘pony play,’ making and selling their own porn DVDs, or hosting other couples for a little flogging." I don't know about you, but I'm sold.