Last week writer Maria Semple was in town to speak about her novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which was selected for this year’s Spokane Is Reading program. If you missed her appearances like we did — we were launching a website, what can you do? — the video is fortunately online.
It was Semple’s first time in Spokane, and she had nice things to say about it — for now.
“Just walking from the hotel I’m almost thinking, hey, maybe I could move here,” she said. “But maybe you wouldn’t want that. I’d have to write a book about it.”
A lot of the most hilarious parts of Bernadette make fun of Seattle (and its “kindergarten moms with gray hair”), and Semple says she initially did readings from the more bland passages for fear of Seattleites’ reactions. Here in Spokane she read one of those very funny portions from the middle of the novel, and the Idaho jokes got plenty of laughs. She also answered audience questions, revealed how she knows so much about Microsoft, explained the term "spelt mom" and criticized another author’s book: “Spoiler alert: nothing happens!”
You can read the first chapter of The Handsome Guest on arts and writing site failbetter.com. Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt:
Finally the visitor arrived. Agnes raced to the door and then stood very still, her hands on the belly of her apron, taking a deep breath as though to calm herself. She swept the door open.
There stood her guest, “the most interesting man.”
Eli tried not to stare. He did not see a man at all. What he saw was an enormous, powerful ape crushed into a filthy pinstripe suit. He remembered a book from school about exotic beasts, the giant apes who lived in “the savage countries of the world,” and the guest resembled those creatures: deep hooded brow, small shining eyes, mouth like a long black gash. And the hair! The guest was so hairy that Eli was unsure of the color of his skin: beneath the thick brown fur, his flesh – tough and charred, like strips of dried deer meat – appeared to glow red in some places, purple in others.
Eli gaped. He was horrified and delighted.
Remembering his manners, he stepped to the side and said, politely, “Please, sir, come in.”
You’ll want to read the whole thing here. Shields will be appearing at this weekend’s Bedtime Stories gala for Humanities Washington, along with Jess Walter, Shawn Vestal and Washington Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken. Sheilds recently talked about her background in libraries, literary influences and attraction to the dark and the fantastical in an interview with Humanities Washington’s online magazine.
We wrote about Shields and a number of other Northwest writers before the Get Lit! festival last spring. Look for a story about Spokane writers in this week’s upcoming Fall Arts Preview (along with a whole list of literary events).
The my-life-as-an-addict memoir is an overworked genre, with books ranging from just bad to totally made up. But New York Times columnist David Carr gives the style a whole new meaning with The Night of the Gun. Carr revisits his years addicted to cocaine, years that overlapped with newspaper jobs and raising his two daughters, the way a reporter would tell someone else’s story — through taped interviews, mug shots and medical records. He explores the gulf between our memories and the truth, attempting to find out exactly who he was and what he did during those years, even when it’s awful to face. It’s gritty, even nauseating at points, but honest in a way most first-person accounts never are. You’ll wind your way from empathy to anger and back again before you find yourself wondering just how much truth is in the way you see your own life. Find an excerpt here.
— HEIDI GROOVER
Sweeping across generations and cultures, Big Woods by William Faulkner combines several of his best hunting short stories into an interwoven portrait of life in the Southern backcountry. Faulkner’s beloved "The Bear" folds into other related stories exploring manhood, tradition and the steady disappearance of true wilderness. At 198 pages, it makes for a quick read but still captures entire lifetimes, lost rituals and changing societies.
I also continue my decade-long effort to finish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I recently passed page 300. Don’t tell me, but at the end, I predict the motorcyclist has been a ghost the whole time.
— JACOB JONES
As a writer, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson is no Anthony Bourdain. But even without the bad-ass turn of a phrase, Samuelson’s memoir of rising from the humblest of origins to winning the revered James Beard Award, is still entirely compelling. Released last year, Yes, Chef, is at its core a story about food. Samuelsson, who was adopted from Ethiopia at 3 and raised by Swedish parents, begins his tome by explaining where his influential flavors came from — his Swedish grandmother’s cooking, Ethiopian spices and classic French technique. He cooks in kitchens throughout the world before being made head chef at Aquavit, a high-end Swedish-American joint, in New York City at age 24. His story is fascinating; his life is fully lived. And at the end of the book he opens a brand new restaurant in Harlem (he is now an American citizen), called Red Rooster. After reading the book, you’ll want to hop on a plane and go there to taste all of these flavors he’s spoken of converged in one place.
— LAURA JOHNSON
I’m about a quarter into Under The Dome, the same hefty Stephen King book that inspired the TV series airing on CBS right now. I have no patience for those who automatically carp that “the book is better” — but television and books clearly have different strengths.
A great TV show can show nuance of actions — witness the way Walter White’s facial muscles twitch as he weaves his latest lie. But a book can show the depth of thought the way that film never can. This particular premise — a town is trapped under an invisible force field — has its share of people doing apparently really stupid things for seemingly no reason. Maybe they’re just kind of stupid.
But when King writes his books, he spends lengthy passages exploring the motivations behind the actions of his characters. You’ll understand what makes Big Jim Rennie and Dale Barbara tick in a way the TV series fails to explain.
And best of all, King still has a bit of pretentious Great American Novel writer left in him. He’ll occasionally dive into his fair share of poetic prose, wielding omens, allusions, and omniscient narration, reminding readers that he isn’t just a fiction writer, he’s a storyteller.
— DANIEL WALTERS
There’s no obvious reason to sympathize with the troubled nuclear family in Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple — they’re brilliant, super-rich and so snobby they consider Seattle provincial. (The reaction in Seattle has been compared to Portland’s reaction to Portlandia.) But the sharp and quick-paced writing brings you into their eccentricities and failures before you have time to object. The email-dossier style and modern urban characters draw easy parallels to Jennifer Egan’s Here Comes the Goon Squad, but the scope is narrower and the satire is funnier. It made sense when I realized Semple is a veteran comedy writer who’s been a writer for Arrested Development, among other shows, because there’s emotional complexity and resonance hiding beneath the absurdity. The novel earned praise when it was first published the end of last summer, but it only now meets my two requirements for a beach/cabin read: It’s out in paperback and widely available at the library.
— LISA WAANANEN
Speaking of books set close to home, Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife turns Seattle into a reconstructed New York City in the age of F—-ed Up Shit (FUS). But it’s not your typical post-apocalypse work of science fiction. Boudinot’s characters undergo a different kind of zombification — minds have merged with the Internet to make up the Bionet, a hackable collection of human nervous systems. In Boudinot’s dystopia, DJs hijack another’s consciousness, turning life into automated completion of scripted tasks; a colony of flamboyant clones caters to a psychotic celebrity; pharmers rent their bodies to the government as they grow tissue for harvest, and the same dead body keeps blinking into existence. You laugh and cringe as the patchwork of characters paint a surreal, sometimes unnerving landscape of the future.
Alexie: My mullet said to the literary world, “Hello, you privileged prep-school assholes, I’m here to steal your thunder, lightning, and book sales.”
Walter: To my shame now, I grew up embarrassed about being blue-collar, a first-generation college student, a nineteen-year-old father. We usually think of passing in terms of race, but people try to pass as another class, too. I did that.
The occasion is an anniversary, so the point is reminiscing. But the whole thing (it’s not too long) begs for a follow-up about what’s happened since: success, praise, how to attend New Yorker parties and become an esteemed denizen of the literary world without losing where you’re from.
Read the whole conversation (and see the mullet photo) here.
This year we focused on some of the excellent Northwest writers participating in the festival, with stories about Jim Lynch, Shawn Vestal, Nance Van Winckel and Jonathan Evison. We also have features on headliner Joyce Carol Oates and poet Major Jackson.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few events that caught our eye:
Pie & Whiskey Reading
9 pm • free • 21+ • Women’s Club • 1428 W. 9th Ave.
This was a big hit last year — how could it not be? — so it’s back for a second time. With writers Kim Barnes, Dan Butterworth, Jonathan Evison, Kate Lebo, Sam Ligon, Jim Lynch, Laura Read, Marianne Salina, Greg Spatz, Shawn Vestal, Jess Walter and Robert Wrigley.
Bedtime Stories Reprisal
9:30 am • free • SCC Hagan Foundation Center • 1810 N. Greene St.
Last fall, for the first time in 14 years of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories, the event was held in Spokane. The writers who created original works around a single event prompt — “red eye” — will read and chat once again. With Kim Barnes, Shann Ray, Nance Van Winckel and Jim Lynch.
The Headliner: Joyce Carol Oates
7 pm • $15 • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague Ave.
During her prolific career, Oates has written dozens of books, essays, plays and other works. She was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and chastised by Stephen King for making her new “challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix” book so difficult to review. But most people thrilled to see her speak don’t need reviews and book clubs to tell them why she’s one of the nation’s most famous living authors.
Jess Walter and Shawn Vestal, with Sam Ligon
5 pm • free • Barrister Winery • 1213 West Railroad Ave.
These three guys are excellent Northwest writers, but they’re also friends. Ligon probably already knows all the best topics to raise since he helped shape Walter’s We Live in Water and Vestal’s Godforsaken Idaho, but the conversation will also include the audience, in case you want to ask Walter about his new movie deal.
In Conversation with Major Jackson and Robert Wrigley
7 pm • $15 • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague Ave.
“The meditative practice of both reading and writing poetry began long before I started writing, maybe even long before I started reading,” Jackson says in our feature. Both poets will read from their latest works.
Regional MFA Reading and Inland Northwest Faculty Reading 2 pm and 4 pm, respectively • free - Barrister Winery • 1213 West Railroad Ave.
Camp out at Barrister Winery with a bottle for two reading sessions. First, hear from graduate students from around the region. Then hear from the instructors.
In 2005, after spending nearly two decades in the U.S. Army without setting foot in a combat zone, David Abrams got sent to Baghdad for 11 months. Last night he spoke at Auntie’s Bookstore about the experience and the satirical novel that came out of it, Fobbit. The title refers to the derogatory nickname for the “stay back, stay safe kind of soldiers” who don’t leave the relative safety of the forward operating base, or FOB.
Like the main character in his novel, Abrams worked in a “cubicle jungle” writing up the awful events of war as patriotic news releases for the American public. “It looks just like an ordinary day at the office,” he said.
He recently wrote an essay for The New York Times reflecting on today’s 10-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, and also contributed to a new collection of soldiers’ essay, Fire and Forget. Recently, though, he’s been working on a very different next book — his “Hollywood novel” — rescued from the desk drawer and just sent off to the publisher.
His right arm was tucked in a sling Tuesday night, and he started out explaining why: He had been helping his wife hang something up a wall last week when the ladder slipped, and he ended up breaking his humerus bone. “Which sadly means I will not be writing any funny books after this,” he joked.
He credited Percocet for his appearance, read excerpts from his book and answered questions from the audience. Here is an edited version of those questions and answers:
Did you find that writing the piece was therapeutic, or was it challenging to re-enter that persona that you had [while in Iraq]?
I had to read back over my journals that I kept, and that was a really painful thing. If you’ve ever kept a journal when you were a kid, like 15 or 16, and you’ve read back over them and — “Oh my god, did I really say that and think that?” — that’s kind of how it was for me going back over those.
I did have to kind of go back and explore some of where I’d been when I was in Iraq and what I thought, and try to divorce myself from that as much as possible so I could come up with new events and new characters.
Do fobbits often see combat or are they so far removed that they never see the face of war?
Well, I can tell you war is all around you over there. It’s a 360-degree everywhere war. There is no front line, there is no rear line. But you also have to remember that there are different phyla of fobbits: There are those who were like me, who were fobbits because of their job. I just kind of worked myself into a desk job and that’s what I did the entire time that I was over there.
There are those, I’m assuming, who like to be fobbits and really do kind of cower and are afraid to go out beyond the concertina wire, afraid of what will be out there — certain that they’ll find a sniper bullet in their chest the minute they step outside the gates of the FOB.
And then you have your reluctant fobbits, who are usually like staff officers, who are assigned the desk jobs but what they really want to be is [Fobbit character] Colonel Duret out there kicking terrorism’s ass. Yet, there they are, stuck in the desk job, and then they usually try to find ways to get out of their desk duty and go out on ridealongs with other patrols.
But there is a very real danger. When I was over there, we did have several mortars land inside our FOB. I never came close, I wasn’t that close in danger, but there were definitely some soldiers who were killed, like I kind of described — they were sitting there in the courtyard eating their Whoppers, and death-from-the-sky sort of thing, sadly. It can happen anywhere, anytime.
Can you comment on any comparisons to Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five and how those might have, or not, influenced you?
Yes, I’ve read both of those books and I’ve loved them. Interesting story — On January 2nd, 2005, I boarded the plane in Savannah, Georgia, going over to Kuwait, and then from there I went to Baghdad. As I boarded the plane on January 2nd, in one hand I have my M16 rifle and in the other hand I had a copy of Catch-22.
I’d never read Catch-22 before, and I figured, I’m going to war — why not do it now? Maybe it would get my head in the right head space for this war. As it turned out, it did. So it was a very interesting, surreal experience to read Catch-22 as you’re heading into a war that I think Joseph Heller would have really loved, to be honest. He would have had a lot to say about Iraq and Afghanistan and why we’re over there.
Are you surprised by the success of this book?
I really have no basis of comparison, because I’m a debut novelist and this is my first book. I’m just kind of going along with the flow. I wrote this book, I thought maybe somebody would be interested enough to publish it. That was a fairytale moment when Grove Atlantic came back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll publish it.’” And then I figured, OK, it will get published and there will be some noise in some bookstores for a few months and people will pay attention to it, and then I’ll sink back into semi-obscurity and a quiet life with my wife in Butte, Montana.
But, you know, the book has taken on a life of its own. As writers, we write these books and we set them out there — and it’s a cliché, but once you turn the book loose and it’s published, it’s not your book anymore. ... I’m just happy to see that people have been responding to it the way they have. I’ve been surprised, I actually have.
Just a reminder that this is what you have to look forward to tonight.
Just in time for the tail end of the U.S. Olympic women's boxing team trials comes a visit from boxer, trainer and boxing club owner Gail Grandchamp. She'll be at Auntie's Bookstore tomorrow, Sat, Feb. 19, to sign copies of her memoir Fighter With a Heart.
The ladies currently fighting for a spot on the U.S. team essentially owe their careers to Grandchamp. After all, it was she who spent 8 years tangled in a court case, fighting for the right for women to box as amateurs in her home state of Massachusetts. This ruling then led to the U.S. Amateur Boxing Federation making amateur female boxing legal nationwide.
By the time the court case was over, Grandchamp had surpassed the 36 year age limit set for amateur boxers. That didn't deter her dreams though; she went on to make a name for herself as a professional boxer, earning a 12-5 record before leaving the sport in 1997.
Though she no longer fights professionally, she is never far from the ring, training young athletes in her Grandchamp Boxing Club and Fitness Center in Massachusetts.
With all Grandchamp has accomplished, could she have a more appropriate last name?
Gail Grandchamp will sign copies of her memoir Figher With a Heart Sat, Feb. 19 from 11 am to 1 pm at Auntie's Bookstore, located at 402 W. Main Ave. For more information, visit www.auntiesbooks.com or call 838-0206.
The winning entries from our (mostly) annual Short Fiction Contest will hit Inlander racks tomorrow, but you can read all of them — including four we didn't have space to print — online now. Check 'em out.
Hanging on versus moving on
By Mari Hunt
The Debt Men
The closeness between designer jeans and hypodermic needles
By Shann Ray
A Good Investment
Debt versus investing, as regards fleas
By David Skies
The practical matter of resurrection
By J.P. Vallieres
Coffee and Toast
Rethinking charity cases
By Rick Boal
The Winter with Cowboy and the Mongrels of Purgatory
Art, friendship and face-eating dogs
By Mike Dragan
Searching for place, even in bad situations
By Jordan Hartt
Farhad Manjoo is lighting up the comment boards on Slate.com right now with a piece advocating the death of independent bookstores. Manjoo, Slate's technology writer, is responding to a Monday New York Times op-ed written by novelist Richard Russo, who decried Amazon.com's ruthless commercial practices and suggested they were killing the country's local literary sub-cultures.
Manjoo expresses disdain for the retail giant's more aggressive business tactics but argues that Amazon's cheaper prices, sophisticated recommendation engine and Kindle options are actually breathing new life into the book world, and that readers and writers alike should be happy about that.
"Sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers," he writes. "But what it does do —allow people to buy books anytime they want — is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it."
Question: Newspaper budgets have been slashed over the last decade because Craigslist found a better way to deliver classified ads. Travel agencies have shuttered because the Expedias and Travelocitys of the world put those services directly in consumers' hands. So are local bookstores just the next industry to be outsmarted, or do they offer a value that Amazon can't match? If so, will that value be enough to save them?
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