The Book City

Even if you’re not attending the current AWP conference, and even if you’re not a writer, hop on over to The Stranger’s article about the average Seattle resident’s penchant for reading…and hanging out in places where reading material is purchased.

From the article:

Part of the reason I moved to Seattle from the East Coast was for the rain and the clouds. There’s nothing more annoying than the pang of guilt that comes unbidden when you choose to stay inside with a good book on a beautiful spring day. With its relentless cloud cover, Seattle minimizes the opportunity for that kind of guilt. In fact, it rewards people for reading and writing, which is part of the reason our city always hovers near the top of those (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) “most literate city” polls that circulate around the internet every year or so.

Whether we’re literate because it’s raining or the rainy climate naturally attracts bookworms, it’s a fact: Seattle loves to read, and it always has.

Elliott_Bay_Books_(Capitol_Hill)_interior_pano_01

Ever since my dad read novels to me at bedtime (Goodnight Moon got old fast, so we moved on to Watership Down), I grew up with my nose buried in a book. I started with classics, including the Nancy Drew series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. My childhood guilty pleasures included Animorphs and Sweet Valley High.

In high school, between the engrossing Harry Potter books, I devoured science fiction, fantasy, period literature and more, still discovering my literary tastes. During the week, I sat in English class wondering why in hell The Odyssey got top billing over The Aeneid in my classroom and a million others, while on the weekends I happily made my way through the 850 pages of Bleak House.

Then, in college, I discovered the wonder of contemporary fiction and its endless possibilities. There was nothing better than studying, discussing and writing about the books I would have read at home anyway.

Today, I miss the discussions and the feedback. Sometimes I convince a friend to read a book with me so we can get into lively debates like we did in college. In the last year, among other things, I’ve marveled at the Dickensian parallels in A Fine Balance, I’ve dissed Eugenides’ self-indulgent latest effort, I’ve read Zadie Smith at her best and her worst, and I’ve made it halfway through Colum McCann‘s canon.

It’s heartwarming to be reminded that I’ve done all this in a city full of like-minded folk, that I bought these books at some of the best book-buying institutions in the country…and that there’s so much more to discover.

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Spring seduction

For the last five years, I haven’t been so pleased with the magazines, catalogs, radio commercials and billboards I start to see this time of year.

I feel like I’m suddenly inundated with images of sun and fun come March. In the local alt-weekly newspaper, a search for weekend activities turns up advertisements for boating festivals and oceanside cabin rentals. Every March issue of every women’s magazine urges readers to start getting fit for bikini season, to pull out the tanning lotion and to run, not walk, to the nearest Old Navy and buy the entire spring collection.

When I lived in a beach town whose four seasons are spring, slightly-colder spring, summer and spring, I didn’t mind so much. But I live in the Northwest now, and I’d rather not be reminded that though it is past March 21 and thus technically springtime, real warm weather likely won’t be upon us for months to come.

Over the weekend and earlier this week, skies in Seattle were almost suspiciously perfect. Not a cloud hovered over Seattle Saturday, and Sunday morning and afternoon were decently clear before the rain moved in.  On Wednesday, the high temperature surpassed 60.  It was the kind of weather one might see in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the middle of spring.

But now, I feel as if I dreamed the whole thing. This morning I woke up to the same gray skies and lazy rain I saw last Friday, and the sun only peeked through for a couple of hours before it disappeared again. Now, the forecast calls for the same old dreary clouds and rain.

This kind of meteorological bait-and-switch is one of the few reasons I don’t like living in the Northwest. Friends and family who still live in California often ask me, “Don’t you get sick of the rain?” I don’t, as long as it’s moderate and fairly constant. The only time rain bothers me is when it abruptly halts a multi-day run of beautiful spring weather–especially come May or June, when we expect beautiful weather after so many months of rainfall but keep getting inundated with storms.

I have countless stories of wacky spring weather in the Northwest, and I’ve only lived in the Northwest for five years.

In May 2008, a chilly rainstorm in Eugene, Ore. yielded to a weekend of suffocatingly hot weather. On Saturday, as my still-damp umbrella hung on a coat rack, I tried to walk to the corner market and nearly fainted in the heat. My roommates and I tried to sleep on the lawn in front of our house because the night air was slightly cooler than the temperatures in our stuffy bedrooms. On Monday, we walked to class amid a downpour, clad in rainboots and coats.

It rained every day for weeks leading up to my graduation ceremonies last June, forcing families and graduates to consider wearing plastic ponchos at my department’s outdoor commencement. The clouds parted for two full days of 80-degree sunny weather, and suddenly wide-brimmed hats were more appropriate. The very minute all our parents waved goodbye and drove off, the rain returned.

I grew up with such consistent temperatures and conditions that I groaned inwardly every time an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel asked me to report on the weather during my internship there. (How many ways can I say “morning fog and afternoon sun; highs in the mid-60s,” I wondered?) Spring in Seattle is a completely different experience. In fact, the season between March and June shouldn’t be called “spring” in the Northwest; in these months, there are only short flirtations with sun sandwiched in between long spells of clouds and rain. A Northwest spring is simply a three-month tug-of-war between winter and summer.

It might sound hellish, but here’s the good news: summer eventually wins.

The Seattle summer

A view of Puget Sound, and the globe-topped offices of the recently-folded Seattle Post-Intelligencer, from my rooftop.

According to locals, summer in Seattle doesn’t start until July 5. Everyone sits shivering on their apartment rooftops or in folding chairs at Gas Works Park on the night of Independence Day, hoping and praying the next two months won’t be as horrible as June was–and the next day, magically, the sun comes out, as if all that collective wishing willed it to do so.

So, locals–where’s the sun? I didn’t feel much in the way of warmth today, nor did I see much sunlight. Sure, I should be used to seeing gray skies–I’ve lived in Oregon for the past four years–but before now, I always escaped the clouds come June and flew south to Santa Cruz, where perfect, breezy, 75-degree sunny weather was invariably always waiting for me.

I can’t really complain about the weather, though; even on its mundane days, this city is far more exciting than Santa Cruz has ever been. It offers more nightlife, more local color (and that’s saying a lot, because Santa Cruz, like Berkeley, is known for such a thing), more job opportunities, even–dare I say it–more stunning vistas! But wouldn’t everything be all the more exciting with sun? I think so.

Despite the rainy daytime and the chilly evening, my Fourth of July couldn’t have been better. After weeks of waiting, I finally moved into my apartment. My roomie and I celebrated at Seattle International Beer Festival, which was not only tasty but also educational. By sampling beer from all over the world, I learned all about different countries’ unique brewing styles. When my fellow Times interns and I learned that anything with a beer label bearing the words “stout” or “imperial” was guaranteed to taste great and have a higher-than-average alcohol content, we raced for the booths displaying either word–we wanted to get our money’s worth!

After the festival, we raced to my apartment building and cooked up some pasta and macaroni and cheese. Later, several other friends filtered in; by the time we formed a line out the door to head up to the roof for the fireworks, there were close to 20 people there. (And they probably felt pretty unwelcome, as all we had in the way of seating was a sofa bed and a couple of bar stools!) The fireworks, both above Lake Union and across the sound at Bainbridge Island, were pretty elaborate. I hope I can stay here long enough to see them next year sans obstructive cloud.

Tomorrow will be the start of my third week at the Times. Oh how time flies…when you can’t see the sun.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Travel Week 1 Part 4: Dublin

Weather in Dublin is so much like Oregon’s, but ironically, I came unprepared. The moment I stepped off the bus that took me from the airport to O’Connell Street, one of the main drags downtown, light rain began to fall. I had no choice but to expose my Americanness to the world and throw on my Oregon sweatshirt; it was the only article of clothing I had that would protect my hair from getting soaked. I consulted my map to find the way to Wicklow Street, where my friend Tiffany worked and where I was to meet her, but the ink on the printed page began to run as the rain came down harder.

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland

Lucky for me, the Irish are nice to foreigners, and not just because they have an alterior motive. I suspected the worst when an old man in a plaid touring cap, corduroy trousers and an argyle sweater approached me and asked me if I was lost. His startlingly bright blue eyes pierced into mine as he asked me if he could help me find my way. I hestitantly asked him the way to Wicklow Street, all the while clinging for dear life onto my belongings. He hold me in an Irish lilt to make my way down the quay and follow the spires to Trinity College, then walked away. Apparently the old cliches are true: the Irish are hospitable and wear touring caps to boot.

By the time I got to Wicklow Street, my clothes were soaked in rain and my pathetic ballet flats were doing nothing to protect my feet, but there was nothing for it but to roll up my jeans and soldier on. Tiffany met me at the entrance to The Dubliner office, where she works as a reporter, and after we had lunch she furnished me with an umbrella and some tourist pamphlets and returned to work.

Trinity College campus, Dublin, Ireland

I had half a mind to find a nice warm pub and hole up there until I was dry and the rain had subsided, but I knew this was my only opportunity to see the city. And so my shoes squelched all over town, through Trinity College and St. Stephen’s Green (one of the best wandering parks I’ve ever seen, second only to Hyde Park in London), into the civic center and Christ Church Cathedral, and down Grafton Street before I met back up with Tiffany at the end of her workday.

It had begun to get dark, and by this time the rain was falling in torrents, so we caught a city bus to her apartment on the edge of the city. She lives on the ground floor of a brick apartment building on a calm, pleasant street, and though it’s tiny, it’s a good refuge from the noise of the city center. The first thing I did when we got there was wash my feet, which I couldn’t seem to get completely clean during the entire travel week due to the fact that my toes and heels were always covered in Band-Aids. And after I’d dried them and donned socks, all hope of leaving the apartment and going out was lost. My feet were now too warm to want to return to their soggy, cold state just for a visit to the pub.

Besides, we needed the extra sleep for the next day’s tour of the Irish countryside and the Cliffs of Moher.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

We got up at oh-dark-thirty to catch the train to Limerick, where we met up with our tour group and piled into a bus. The tour guide, though himself British, had lived in Ireland long enough to throw out the tiniest of details about castle ruins on command. The details didn’t amaze me so much as the sheer age of everything we stopped to see, all of which dated back at least 1,000 years.

Poulnabrone dolmen, The Burren, Ireland

Above is Poulnabrone dolmen, a portal tomb dating back to the Neolithic period. No, really! It’s the Stonehenge of Ireland, minus the mystery, since archaeologists have uncovered more than 20 remains of bodies. Apparently those who were buried here were leaders of clans, maybe nobility. The picture on the right has a similarly unpronounceable name: Leamanagh castle. Though it dates back to tens of centuries ago, they’ve managed to keep ownership in the family; the current owner is a direct descendant of the family who built it. Since he has set up electric fences around the castle to discourage tourists from coming near, Tiffany and I wondered what on earth else the owner planned to do with it. We joked that he must come for afternoon tea once a year in the summer, because there’s no cieling to protect him from the rain in any other season.

Leamaneh Castle, The Burren, Ireland

After the tomb and the castle, we stopped at various locations around the coast and Galway Bay (think: boys of the NYPD choir) before we came to our final destination, the Cliffs of Moher. We saw the most beautiful sweeping ocean views, and looking straight down from the edge of the cliff was like facing my death. Below me the water slapped up against the cliff face and sprayed water tens of feet up and out; it almost broiled. A stone tower overlooking one side of the cliffs might have been cool had it not been covered in scaffolding, but it didn’t matter. These were the most dramatic, mysterious cliffs I’d ever seen. I was intrigued.

Lookout tower at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

When we got back to Dublin it was dark and cold, so once again, we resolved not to go out. Turning in early proved to pay off when we woke up early the next morning and found a warm sun greeting us outside. We wandered around the city center and Tiffany took me to some of the things I missed: Temple Bar, some of her favorite hangouts where the locals tell the best stories, Dublin Castle, and a park with a waterfall and a hedge maze.

The park at Dublin Castle, Ireland

Then, in the late afternoon, Tiffany saw me off on the same airport bus that I had taken to O’Connell street, and I flew back to Venice just in time to catch the last train to Castelfranco Veneto. Little did I know there would be heaps of homework and a nasty cold awaiting me in the next few days…

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