At a recent dinner party, a friend lamented that books don’t really hold a central place in American culture anymore. I disagreed. And the facts seem to back me up: though book sales in the US took a slight dip in 2023, in the previous year print books hit an all-time sales record of 826 million. Apparently, the industry is slowly diversifying and we’re not all buying the same bestsellers (in fact, sales of “backlist”—books that didn’t come out in the past year—have been rising dramatically). And though publishing has a long way to go in terms of foregrounding writers of color, it’s encouraging to see writers like Ibram X. Kendi, Celeste Ng, and Colson Whitehead on those bestseller lists.
It’s clear the predicted demise of publishing hasn’t quite materialized: there are still lines to purchase books at Elliott Bay Book Company and readings are still well-attended, whether it’s at Seattle Arts & Lectures or the upstart all-poetry bookshop Open Books. So in the interest of keeping Seattle biblio-nerdy, here’s a short list of books by local writers you should buy (and read!) this autumn.
Touching the Art
by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Out November 7 on Soft Skull Press
“When I was a child, Gladys told me creativity meant everything. I believed this myth, and it saved me.” This is how Seattle-based queer writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore begins to articulate her complicated relationship with her late grandmother, an abstract painter based in Baltimore who was both an independent-minded woman but also a person infected with the homophobia of her times.
In this hybrid book that blends memoir, social history, and art criticism, the author of The Freezer Door and Sketchstasy takes an unsparing look at her own trauma resulting from sexual abuse as a child, as well as the unique place her grandmother occupied in her creative life, both as an inspiration and a hindrance.
Sycamore has excavated some of this childhood trauma in her previous books, but in Touching the Art confronts it with point-blank honesty. In addition, the exploration of her grandmother’s life and work appears to be both nuanced and full of anger: “...as soon as I came into my own as a writer, as soon as my work became noticeably queer, sexually and politically saturated, she called it vulgar,” Sycamore writes. “Why are you wasting your talent, she would ask me, over and over, until it became a refrain.”
I think many of us are glad that Sycamore, who’s one hell of a writer, didn’t listen to Gladys.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore reads from Touching the Art at Seattle Art Museum, Brotman Forum on Saturday, October 15 at 3 pm. Copies of the book will be available for sale weeks ahead of its official release date.
by Shin Yu Pai
Out September 12 on Empty Bowl Press
Seattle Civic Poet Shin Yu Pai is a very busy person. In her latest collection of verse, No Neutral, she offers a mix of social activism, poignant family moments, and unblinking descriptions of racism experienced as an Asian American woman. When she’s not writing or speaking up for poetry or creating site-specific environmental art such as her installation HEIRLOOM, in which she used stickers and sunlike to print words on ripening apples in Piper’s Orchard in Carkeek Park, Pai also hosts KUOW’s Ten Thousand Things, a podcast about the Asian American experience.
Structured around simple couplets that land like one-two punches, the poems in No Neutral set out “to listen, name what is inhumane.” One moment Pai is quietly opening a packet of crackers at 6 am with her son, who tells her, “let’s be quiet/because we love dad.” The next moment she’s bearing witness to a racist 1909 Washington State law that allowed a company involved in the 2015 fatal Ride the Ducks collision to avoid paying damages to the family of a young Korean woman killed in the crash.
Pai, never one to slow down, is also publishing a collaboration with artist Justin Rueff called Less Desolate in November: a series of haikus and visual reflections on life during the pandemic in the Pacific Northwest.
Shi Yu Pai reads from No Neutral at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday, September 28, at 7 pm.
Again and Again
by Jonathan Evison
Out November 7 on Dutton
Prolific Bainbridge Island novelist Jonathan Evison has become something like our local version of Joyce Carol Oates (minus being horrible on Twitter) by hammering out a substantial new novel every couple of years.
Recently, the author of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu found himself in a book-banning controversy when a group of parents in Texas demanded that his 2018 novel Lawn Boy be removed from a school library after taking offense to the gay narrator’s description of a sexual incident in his childhood. Plenty of other uptight school districts followed suit, even though it’s a novel intended for grown-ups. Hopefully, Evison’s book sales are going through the roof as a result of the unwanted censorship attention.
Meanwhile, his latest is Again and Again, which centers on a charming, if slightly corny, premise: an elderly man in a nursing home claims to have lived various lives over the past thousand years and recounts stories of those previous incarnations to a skeptical nurse’s assistant. The narrator’s Scheherazade-style tales range from that of a young thief in medieval Spain to a US Marine who was at the battle of Guadalcanal, to Oscar Wilde’s cat.
Jonathan Evison reads from Again and Again at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, on Wednesday, November 8 at 7 pm.
Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben
by Josh Trujillo with illustrations by Levi Hastings
Out August 15 on Abrams Books
Raise your hand if you knew that one of the founders of the US military, a Prussian general who fought with George Washington at Valley Forge, was out and flamboyantly gay. I sure didn’t. And in a new graphic novel biography, Washington’s Gay General, LA-based writer Josh Trujillo and Seattle illustrator Levi Hastings (who’s had a bunch of artwork published in The Stranger) also express their surprise at discovering this long-ignored queer chapter in US history.
What did make it into previous history books was the fact that Von Steuben came from Europe to assist the rag-tag rebels of the American Revolution in becoming a more disciplined fighting force. What’s less known, and which Trujillo and Hastings tell with sexy but honest exuberance, is that von Steuben had multiple male lovers, hosted naked drinking parties, and was essentially “out” as homosexual before the term had literally been invented.
Trujillo and Hastings infuse the story of the man they call “America’s Founding Daddy” with reflections about their own gay awakening and thoughts on why von Steuben’s story has remained hidden in the back closets of libraries and archives until now.
Levi Hastings discusses Washington’s Gay General at Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, September 27 at 7 pm.
Heartbreak City: Seattle Sports and the Unmet Promise of Urban Progress
by Shaun Scott
Out in November on University of Washington Press
Political activist and avid sports fan Shaun Scott, who ran against Alex Pedersen for city council and lost, recovered from that defeat and went on to write what looks to be an extremely well-researched and lively history of sports in Seattle through the lens of marginalized communities and people of color.
As anyone who’s paid attention to sports in this city can tell you, it’s inextricable from politics and social movements, as much as owners hope to stay above it all. Scott daylights some fascinating stories, like that time the city’s Black baseball team beat the Seattle Police Department’s team in the 1920s and found later that fans who were parked outside the ballfield received tickets in retaliation. There’s the story of the city’s segregated golf courses, the NFL labor strike of 1987, and the short-lived optimism of a white-majority city rooting for the nearly all-Black 1979 championship Sonics team. And of course, Scott looks at the city’s sports franchise with the most championships, the WNBA’s Storm, and the relatively low salaries stars such as Sue Bird are paid in relation to players for men’s teams.
If the Mariners defy their moribund history and keep winning games, Scott might have to update a future edition with an epilogue. In the meantime, grab some garlic fries and read this book, and all the others, when the sportsball gets boring.
Shaun Scott reads from Heartbreak City: Seattle Sports and the Unmet Promise of Urban Progress, at Town Hall Wednesday, November 29.